Two Cheers for Structural Analysis: On The Priority of Injustice

I have already admitted that I love the cover of The Priority of Injustice, but I should also say that I am delighted to have a book about democracy that is actually published in Athens, and not Athens in Greece, but Athens in Georgia – a place that resonates in different ways for me, as the home of the B52s and REM of course, but also where my sister’s dog Betty Boop was bionically reconstructed and where I spent the oddest Valentine’s Day of my life and where I once bought an original copy of the Warren Commission Report for $1.

The associations with particular places that this admittedly rather abstract book has for me brings us to another theme running through The Priority of Injustice which I need to remember and affirm, namely the degree to which the value of universality depends upon rather than being ruined by the acknowledgement of the situated qualities of life. Now, universality is one of the most denigrated terms of contemporary TheoryLand. One of the presumptions of my book is that academic fields which spatial theorists are often rather sniffy about – thought of as suffering from ‘anaemic’ spatial imaginations – might be sources of smarter styles of geographical analysis than is acknowledged. They might, for example, be much better at thinking carefully about the difference between universality and generality, or between particularity and specificity, than traditions of critical spatial theory, which tend too often to think that critiques of universalism in philosophy, for example, pertain primarily to the problem of whether certain concepts, ideas or principles can be applied everywhere.

I suggest in the book that discussions of universalism need to more carefully distinguish between a sense of universality as referring to an ambition to impartiality and a sense of universality as animating spirit of claims for inclusion (an argument drawn from, amongst others, Seyla Benhabib and Carol Gould). Part of the point of making the distinction is because it draws into view the variety of ‘genres of reasoning’ through which universality is articulated in passionate, partial registers. This argument is linked to an elaboration of the revised idea of ‘criteria’ to be found in Stanley Cavell’s work – where they are understood not as principles under which phenomena are placed and evaluated, but as means of ‘going on’ in new situations. The broader significance of this view of criteria is that it underscores how the proposition that ‘meaning is use’ is best understood as taking on its full force by reference to the idea that meanings change as they are applied to new situations. I discuss all of this in Chapter 2 of the book, Criteria for Democratic Inquiry, which covers, amongst other things, Hannah Arendt and Derrida on exemplary thinking and judgment as well as Cavell on criteria and Gallie on essentially contested concepts, all in order to outline what I take to be the notably geographical problem of how to understand democracy’s translability across different contexts (a problem that is actually neatly resolved by Charles Tilly in the best ever extended analogy between lakes and political life you will ever come across). Thinking of the meaning/use relation in terms of application – thinking that using concepts is precisely about using them in new situations – is also a way of underscoring the sense of the ordinariness of political concepts that I try to elaborate in the book, in so far as the theme of the ordinary in Cavell especially directs us to a sense in which newness is not a dramatic rupture from settled patterns, nor an extraordinary departure from established norms, but just a matter of ‘moves in new directions from what we have done before’ (to paraphrase Cora Diamond) in the course of ‘going on’ with action (to refer back to Cavell).

In the second half of the same chapter, via that analogy from Tilly, I link the philosophical account of the ordinariness of democracy as a concept to some more social scientific work that treats democracy in the same spirit – as ‘enacted’ in various forms and as ‘ethnographically emergent’, again stealing ideas from others (Mike Saward and Julia Paley respectively) – my book is as much a paean to my own favourite thinkers as anything else; it’s the work of a fan.

I use this line of argument to recommend a remarkably simple idea, culled from Albert Hirschman’s work on the lessons to learn from post-war modernization programmes (a precursor to his more famous account of the importance of analysing different combinations of exit/voice/loyalty to understand the dynamics of organizational fields). Hirschman suggested that one look into the “structural characteristics” of different projects, by which he meant the forms of leverage and the limits and path dependencies that determine the degree of what he calls “latitude” and “discipline” imposed by situations on the scope of discretion available to participants (this is all part of a more famous story about the “hiding hand” and why ‘development’ does not require preconditions already to be in place). The point of all this, in my book, is to suggest that political analysis should avoid presuming in advance that the causes behind observed conflicts are self-evident, by falling into the trap of  theoreticism, again, in which one always already knows in advance that expressions of discontent are indices of some ‘underlying’ structural cause (‘neoliberalism’, etc., etc., etc.). That sense of ‘structural’, the one that comes so easily to forms of critical analysis, might well underplay what Bernard Williams called “the significance of conflict”, which directs attention not only to an appreciation of causes and conditions but also to what conflicts mean to those involved, from the inside.

The concern with ‘structural characteristics’ in Hirschman is, then, a matter of demonstrating a certain sort of contextual sensitivity to the qualities, one might say (in order not to say ‘materialities’), of situations without lapsing into particularism.

And all of this, in Chapter 2, is then a precursor to the argument presented in a later chapter, Chapter 5 (The Significance of Conflict), when Hirschman returns, alongside Jon Elster and Helmut Dubiel, to help me outline a much more ordinary way of thinking about the much vaunted ‘irreducibility’ of contestation and antagonism in political life (who, after all, doesn’t recognize that?). My argument there is that rather than wallow in the odd worlds of ontological layerings and becomings, it might be more productive to follow a path of analysis focussed on making sense of ‘rationalities of action’, suggesting here that a series of conceptual distinctions found in various strands of thought – between distribution and recognition (Honneth, Fraser, Tully, etc.), or communicative and strategic action (Habermas), class and status (Fraser, again), arguing and bargaining (Elster, and Hirschmann, and Dubiel), perhaps convincing and persuading too (Habermas, and Rorty, and Diamond, etc.) – are best understood as aspects of any and all forms of action which can be combined in different ways (again, this is meant as a kind of heuristic redemption of ideas often taken in too categorical a way even when they are not explicitly ontologized). And all of this – this whole way of working out a sense of why looking at the ‘structural characteristics’ of situations might be important – is meant to culminate in the recommendation that one dimension (one of three) of a geographical analysis of political life would involve the diagnostic investigation of “the types of influence to which particular patterns of the exercise of power are susceptible”.

The distinction between thinking of ‘structural’ in terms of a contrast between the contingently observed and real causality, or, by contrast, in terms of a sensitivity to the latitudes and disciplines characteristic of situations, is crucial to differentiating between two models of ‘critique’ (another running theme of this book). In one, being critical is all about revealing that ‘power’ always lies behind observable phenomena, in a kind of debunking manoeuvre (this is far and away the most taken-for-granted understanding of the critical vocation in self-consciously ‘critical’ social and cultural analysis). In the other, being critical is simply a matter of clarifying the pressures and limits that orient possibilities of action in particular situations (which means that people who write drama might be better guides to the art of criticism than theorists trained in the skills of deducing the effects of cultural works).

From this second perspective, an operative concept of structure is a basic requirement of any form of social science analysis, however reluctant people might be to use the idea of structure itself (here is Roberto Unger explaining why). This relates back to an issue I touched upon last time, concerning the degree to which debates about the meaning of the distinction between politics and the political turn on the interpretation of the relationship between observed actions and their conditions.

Iris Marion Young, one of the stars of The Priority of Injustice, once made the point straightforwardly enough, pointing out that a ‘structural’ form of analysis is concerned with identifying the factors that position people in relationships that in turn help to shape their understandings, their capacities, their desires (on this reading, structure is a concept of possibility, not of necessity – that’s Unger’s point too). Young’s point is that ‘structural’ analysis is a characteristic of a certain sort of genre, a particular type of story. And this view of structure goes back to E.P. Thompson’s polemical revision of the notion of determination as ‘the setting of limits’ and ‘the exerting of pressures’ on action, an idea that is now finding a new life, mediated via the recovery of Raymond Williams’ allusive notion of “structures of feeling”, in non-representational theories of affect and atmosphere. Which just goes to show how that basic intuition about the structuring of action is not abandoned in avowedly post-structuralist theories – it’s just sublimated into ontological narratives of being and becoming, or suturing, or undecidability, or magmas of signification, and so on (that is, sublimated into the search for THE source of negativity or excess that allows one to posit the certainty of the possibility of change), as well as into the general fascination with functionalist accounts of how ‘subjects’ are made and re-made in all sorts of ways by forces that lie beyond them. More on that topic next time.

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Bite Size Theory: What Should the Left Propose?

“The history of modern social ideas has misled us into associating piecemeal change with disbelief in institutional reconstruction, and a commitment to such reconstruction with faith in sudden and systematic change.”

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, 2005, What Should the Left Propose?,Verso.