The Argument from Experience

So antigram has a posting attacking a previous posting by k-punk that was about class power and “class confidence” (the sense of entitlement which is instilled in members of the ruling, or upper, class, while members of the “lower” classes tend to experience, instead, “a sense of inferiority, a constant worry about whether one should occupy certain spaces, the quietly panicky conviction that ‘surely they can see that I don’t belong here’.”).

Antigram doesn’t so much dispute the content of k-punk’s post, as reject its basic premises. Indeed, I’m inclined to say that no human being with any observational powers whatsoever could possibly disagree with k-punk’s basic observations (unless he or she were utterly blinded by ideology, which is an entirely different discussion). Consider, for instance, when k-punk notes that “in my experience, so many members of the ruling class resemble Daleks: their smooth, hard exterior contains a slimy invertebrate, seething with inchoate, infantile emotions.” Despite the differences between American class sensibilities and the British ones that k-punk is describing, this is precisely what I encounter whenever I visit The Somerset Collection, or any similarly upscale suburban shopping mall. This is the case, even though — in contrast, probably, to Great Britain — in the US the people who fit this description, and whose household income is probably at least two or three times mine, are just as likely as I am, or for that matter as people whose combined household income is one half or one third of mine, to describe themselves, if asked, as “middle class.” For class cannot be circumscribed by old-fashioned notions of “class consciousness”; it is something deeply embodied, and powefully affective , even when (or all the more if) we are not directly conscious of it.

It’s because antigram cannot really dispute any of this, that he puts the argument on a different footing. The part of k-punk’s argument that he rejects is contained in the first three words of the quotation I cited in the paragraph above: “in my experience…” Antigram argues (as does Jodi in her own comment on this exchange) that one cannot validly argue “from experience” at all. This is because, in the first place, “every argument from experience is really an argument from fantasy, and more specifically from the fantasies that a particular subject has for some reason produced in order to comprehend a traumatic experience.” The very fact that an argument is grounded in experience would therefore mean that it is skewed, partial, non-objective, and self-delusional. And secondly, “because arguments from experience are really disavowed arguments from fantasies, their categories often tend to become substantial and racialized.” The argument from experience always ends up being (horror of horrors!) an essentialistic and reified one. Therefore, according to antigram’s argument, k-punk is guilty of transforming “the Marxist conception of class” from “an economic and political category” into “a therapeutic and affective one.”

Now, it is evident that in a certain sense antigram’s criticism is correct. We don’t need the Lacanian theory of fantasy to know that merely anecdotal evidence is rarely accurate and complete. Indeed, it’s easy enough to find examples of bigotry (against black people, or not-quite-white Muslims, or darker-skinned people more generally; or against Jews; or against women; or against gays and lesbians) which justify themselves precisely on the grounds of anecdotal experience (“they” behave this way; I’ve seen “them”). Indeed, the justified distrust of the merely anecdotal is one of the major reasons for what has come to be known, in the past several hundred years, as the scientific method. The most reductionist quantitative social scientists are as likely as rigorous Lacanians, and other enemies of positivism, to distrust “experience” in this anecdotal sense.

The trouble with antigram’s argument, however, is that, for all its limits and distortions, “experience” is something you cannot get away from. There is nothing besides, nothing outside of, experience. All arguments are ultimately “arguments from experience.” We can argue, of course, about different sorts of experience, different ways of invoking experiential evidence, and so on; but that is a very different sort of argument. Scientific evidence (using “science” in the sense of physical, experimental science) has rules about validating evidence, which things to accept, and which not, as evidence, and so forth; but it still remains entirely within the realm of what is given to us by experience. Antigram invokes Lacan against k-punk’s appeal to (his own) experience, by citing the Lacanian critique of fantasy. But doesn’t Lacan also say that there is no metalanguage, and that psychoanalysis is, quite emphatically, not a matter of the analyst knowing what the analysand does not? As far as I understand Lacan (which admittedly is not very far), there’s nothing in his thought that would authorize us to separate ourselves from experience in the way antigram thinks we can, and ought to.

In one of the comments on antigram’s post, kenoma says that antigram’s argument brings back to mind “the dreary Theory-fetish shared by many British Althusserians such as Catherine Belsey in the early eighties.” I think that Althusser is somewhat to the point here (though I know almost nothing of Belsey or of 80s British Althusserianism). Althusser famously insists on the difference between “ideology” and “science.” He scandalized humanist Marxists with his valorization of science, but also scandalized hard-core Leninists, Stalinists, etc., with his insistence that even a communist society would still be in the grips of ideology, which was humanly uneliminable. But the whole argument has usually been misunderstood. “Ideology,” for Althusser, means any sort of subjective position, any sort of reliance on “experience,” altogether. “Science” means something that is radically asubjective, and that therefore cannot be called a “position” or a “perspective” at all. By science, Althusser basically meant Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge, or knowledge sub specie aeternitatis. Part of Althusser’s point is that this sort of knowledge, although it exists and is articulated in certain texts, or in certain portions of certain texts, is strictly speaking impossible, in that it absolutely cannot be assumed or adopted subjectively, by a subject; it cannot be a matter of experience. This is why Althusser said that ideology would never be surpassed or eliminated, even in a communist society.

Now, the very idea of “science” led Althusser, as is well known, into all sorts of difficulties. These days, even Althusser’s admirers (if there are any left) probably don’t accept it. My own sense of the matter is that Althusserian science, like the Spinozian knowledge to which it is equivalent, is best regarded as an Ideal in the Kantian sense: an imperative that thought can neither fulfill nor disavow, and that has a regulative or “problematic” use, even as it is constitutively impossible. Althusser himself never accepted this as a resolution; though I’d like to think that his late work on “aleatory materialism” is not incompatible with it (this is more of a hunch on my part than something I can articulate in a convincing manner). In any case, I think that an understanding of “experience” in this crypto-Kantian-Althusserian way, as something that is never entirely adequate, but also that we can never presume to rid ourselves of, shows why antigram’s critique of k-punk is unacceptable. Antigram says that k-punk grounds his discussion in “an argument from a specifically childhood experience.” But k-punk is not offering this experience as the proof of his argument; he is rather using it in order to foreground his own subjective stake in the argument, which is an entirely different matter. It is antigram who is being disingenuous by writing as if he didn’t also have such a stake: as if his own argument could be scientific rather than ideological, or as if the position of the analyst could somehow be free of counter-transference.

(I don’t mean by this to demand that antigram reveal his own stake. Such a demand is never justified.There are all sorts of good reasons for privacy and disengagement; and writing and arguing often function, quite rightly, as ways of escaping from one’s personality or subjectivity rather than affirming it. I certainly regard my own writing, on this blog and elsewhere, as such an endeavor towards escape. But no argument, and no writing, has the sort of transcendence of all stakes and subjectivities, the freedom from any “argument from experience,” that antigram implicitly claims for his criticism of k-punk).

Another way to put this is to note what is problematic about antigram’s charge that k-punk transmutes class from “an economic and political category” into “a therapeutic and affective one.” Now, I’m a great advocate of retaining Marx’s understanding of the logic of capital as the basis for understanding class and many other things. Most essentially, class is a function of one’s relation to the processes of extracting, expropriating, and distributing surplus value. But I don’t think that k-punk is ignoring this, even though he is not focusing on it. And to say that class is ultimately determined (“in the last instance”, as Althusser liked to say) by one’s position vis-a-vis the expropriation of surplus value, is not to say that class is devoid of other sorts of components. And particularly of affective components. As far as I am concerned, the most important thing Deleuze and/or Guattari ever said is that there is a crucially affective dimension of all social and psychological processes; that affectivity is intrinsic to, or immanent to, among other things, the very logic of Capital. K-punk is trying to describe, in his post, one aspect (an important one) of the affectivity of class, i.e. the affectivity of the very movement of capital as it works in the world today. Antigram is wrong to exclude the affective, or to oppose the affective to the “economic and political.” For there is no economcs, and no politics, that is not at the same time affective.

Indeed, one major reason for the theoretical deadlock in which the Left finds itself today is precisely its failure to adequately consider the affective dimension of economics and politics. Neoliberalism is able to work as a form of class warfare (of the rich, or the capitalist class, against everyone else), and as a form of redistribution (away from everyone else and to the already ultra-rich and their corporations), only because it has been so effective, so triumphant, on the affective level. (This is something that Deleuze and Guattari, and the post-operaismo Italians, among others, touch on in various ways, but our understanding of it remains seriously underdeveloped).

Antigram’s separation of the affective from the economic and political is thus where the real problem lies. As for the “therapeutic,” well, it seems curious for somebody using Lacanian arguments to disavow therapy. (But perhaps that is a low blow; Lacan certainly had acute, accurate criticisms of American-style therapeutic “cures”). In any case, I take the point (expressed more by Jodi than by antigram) about the problem with appeals to one’s own “experience” of “victimization” in American identity politics. But again, the way to get around this is not to stop considering affect, or experience, but to understand affect and experience in less “propertarian” terms. Affect and experience are necessarily “subjective”; but they can still, for all that, be collective and transpersonal rather than the “property” of an aggrieved individual. They do not “belong” to a specially privileged subject; they are rather that which transforms, shapes, and misshapes any such subject. Which I think was what k-punk was pointing to. The aggressive personal claims to the validity of one’s own experience that Jodi disparages are another thing altogether. (In fairness, Jodi — unlike antigram — never asserts that this is the case with k-punk’s post itself).

Antigram ends his post by asserting “the basic Lacanian maxim that, not Daleks, and not the class system, but rather oneself ‘is always responsible for one’s position as subject’.” I do not know whether or not Lacan really says this. But I find this maxim to be utterly appalling, “bad and reactionary.” It is a classic example of “blaming the victim.” It is the basic neoliberal mantra that the poor are “responsible” for their own poverty, that the failure of the so-called “underclass” to thrive is a consequence of its own deficiency in “values” or “entrepreneurial drive.” To hold this maxim is to endorse a Hobbesian and Malthusian view of the social world, to accept cutthroat capitalism as an ultimate ontological horizon, to smugly view whatever happens as the justified “survival of the fittest.”

The only politically and ethically acceptable maxim, to the contrary, is to say that nobody is ever responsible for his/her own position as subject.

13 thoughts on “The Argument from Experience”

  1. I pretty much concur with your defence of k-punk here, but there is a distinctly jarring note, seemingly quite incidental to your argument, and it is here:

    Indeed, it’s easy enough to find examples of bigotry (against black people, or not-quite-white Muslims, or darker-skinned people more generally; or against Jews; or against women; or against gays and lesbians) which justify themselves precisely on the grounds of anecdotal experience…

    I wonder about the specificity of your examples here — or rather about the implicitly excluded bigotries (against white people, or against “Westerners”, or against men, or against heterosexual people). If you hadn’t specified examples in such a way, the argument would lose no force. Since you have specified these examples, I am left wondering if perhaps my list of complementary bigotries are not considered significant, or perhaps not to be considered “bigotry” at all?

    I assume this is not your intention.

  2. You’ve clearly failed to understand a word of what I’ve said.

    I don’t recognize any of my own arguments in your transcriptions of them.

    I resent the fact that you would implicitly question my intellectual honesty by saying of the quote that I take from Lacan: “I do not know whether or not Lacan really says this.” If you don’t know that he doesn’t, then you have no business speculating, and you are in any doubt, simply type it into google, and you’ll get a return within seconds.

    It is also very clear to me that you have no understanding of Lacan’s concept of the subject. If I were you, I would familarize myself with it, before plunging into a series of invidious equations with Matlhus and Hobbes, as ridiculous as they are false.

    I won’t be back to debate with you, so you can save yourself the trouble of replying to this.

  3. Apparently one must be versed in the total oeuvre of Lacan to debate philosophically about experience. As if it weren’t a fundamental category of, I don’t know, much of modern philosophy beginning with Kant. If one is to debate a Lacanian, once must only use Lacanian terms and concepts or, lord forbid, be called a fool. DM, your response only makes sense here if I can “experience” your lack of recognition of your arguments in this post. As I am unable to do that, I suppose I should disregard the rest of your comment. I don’t really see logical argumentation here, Antigram, I see a lot of affective hot air. What did Socrates call that? Sophistry, I believe…

    What really annoys me about this “debate” is the sense of certainty of some of the participants. One would think that there hasn’t been conversation and debate within Marxism about the polysemy of the concept of class. Hell, Marx himself was never consistent about these issues. These are all complicated issues: ones that would be better addressed through reasoned discourse instead of polemics.

  4. althusser’s conception of ‘Theory’ — ie For Marx, defined by its capacity to demonstrate the ideological nature of the previous theory — would certainly be congruent with his aleatory materialism and the crucial notion of ‘taking’ or ‘taking hold’ (like a condensation/formation/actualisation of singularities). If Theory is this planned obsolescence for ideology, then it captures a movement from the contingency of (whatever, experience, pure passage of nature, etc) to its ‘taking hold’ as a point of engagement. This event exists on various scales and of course is regulatively problematic. ‘Subjective’ seems to be an appropriate coordinate within the assemblage of ‘Theory’ after it has taken hold.

    The properly ideological problem is in the passage of the ‘take’ from contingency to Theory. That is, selecting the singularities of the problem from the contingency will define the ideological nature of whatever solutions/responses. There is a contingency — chaosmos as infinite manifold of contingency — but the selection of ‘contingency’ as ‘accomplished fact’ overcodes and actualises the problematic of the contingency. Where is the ‘contingency’? There.

    What populations are individuated by the singualrities of such a problematic? For example, do ‘we’ (the left) belong with the reactionary right individuated by the latest political stupidity extracted in opportunist fashion from the latest conitgency? No, but we belong to the contingency shared with the ractionary right and are in part defined by the power to translate the contingency from the manifold of the chaomos into opportunity. Isn’t this what the ‘italians’ have been talking about, immaterial labour and political entrepreneurs, etc.?

    DM’s (antigram’s) problem seems to be to be that s/he is trying to find ‘the’ class-based stratification/solution (“it is teh economic, stupid”), when it is clearly an on-going process whereby particular populations (not classes) are continually individuated around reproduced class/identity lines. I agree that the synergistic federation of processes of collective individuation across practices and institutions occurs largely on an affective level. I have certainly found this in my research looking at car enthusiasts.

  5. We can easily turn Daniel’s argument upside down and claim that – if and only if it is true that Lacan felt the subject should take responsibility for himself, because I only ever heard him saying the subject should take responsibility for his symptom – k-punk took on psychoanalytic responsibility par excellance for himself when he acknowledged (made conscious) the psychological motivation of his resentment against the ruling classes.

  6. Affect and experience are not the same things. Claims rooted in affect and experience are not the same thing. We could say something like, “a mood of anticipation traversed the audience” without saying that a particular person experienced that mood or without using the fact that a particular person experienced that mood to ground something further. In my view, discussions of affect become all the more persuasive the less coupled they are to experience as a ground for a political position.

  7. The subject of your post (and your reiteration of the origin of the topic) has preoccupied me for some time on the visceral level. I won’t make a claim only from experience but from the collective memory of my family’s. “Outclassed.” “No money? Too bad man. Let me tell you what I went through.” I see no need to get any more personal than that. There’s no need to be poetic about it.

    The only politically and ethically acceptable maxim is to say that everybody is always responsible for the others’ position as object.

  8. Exhibit One: After the evidence: all one can do is argue from experience. If they think they’re not, they are deluding themselves. It seems to me (all I can say) that antigram is a member “of the ruling class [which] resemble Daleks: their smooth, hard exterior contains a slimy invertebrate, seething with inchoate, infantile emotions.”

    You guys are so deluded with Hegelian speak that you can’t even see the world for what it is: hard exteriors, everywhere.

    Exhibit Two: The fact that one should call one’s experience therapeutic rather than descriptive is a self-defeating argument if the accuser is reacting from experience.

    Exhibit Three: This is not really an exhibit. So why I am I calling it one? The terminology you employ to get your points across is so utterly wrapped in history, which renders it opaque that if you try to employ it now you sound as though your obfuscating what you truly want to say. I’m talking about the Hegelian speak minced with the body of Lacan.

    Exhibit Four (the truth; my argument from experience): The truth is seen from above and below. What you see below (akin to realizing Nietzsche’s slave morality and the need to recognize a deeper moral law within – not a contradiction, though you may think so) is frivolous waste… from above, I can only say, from experience, a few colonies of ants.

  9. […] When all is said and done, and suitably abashed contrition is shown, it seems to me that Steve Shaviro is completely correct. There is nothing besides, nothing outside of experience, and this means as well that there is nothing like “my own experience” from which I could argue, or even produce by way of illustrations for arguments. […]

  10. “People who talk about class without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.”

  11. We could say something like, “a mood of anticipation traversed the audience” …

    Who would say something like that?

  12. I can’t open the link to the post on antigram. I’m confused as to what the term ‘experience’ is supposed to mean in this discussion. It seems to me that one gets arguments via reading them or hearing them, via the experience of (that is, via sense data containing or reassembled in such a fashion that it contains) them. In that sense, experience could be called primary to argument. Of course, “it’s true, I read it/heard it/etc” isn’t generally convincing. I guess I also don’t understand the implied distinction between evidence and experience. Clearly some experience is not evidence and clearly some evidence is not experience, but that argument here seems to entail that no experience is evidence, or that no experience can ever be sufficient evidence. That strikes me as odd, to say the least. It also strikes me as obfuscating the subject(s) of different phrases. Like in Jodi’s remark on affect, “a mood of anticipation traversed the audience.” According to whom? Assessed by what criteria? Affect minus experience sounds to me like universalizing experience without copping to it, rather than actually getting beyond/outside/independent of experience.
    take care,

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