Saturday, July 16, 2011

Wrecking Theory or Politics? Ackbar Abbas on Wrecked Objects and Poor Theory

Ackbar Abbas

Ackbar Abbas' wonderful talk, entitled "Wrecked Objects, the Ordinary, and Poor Theory," provided an opportunity to think more deeply about how it is that we can theorise the ordinary in light of its relationship with objects and situations of ruin. Drawing from examples ranging from Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, to Junichiro Tanazaki's In Praise of Shadows and Wong Kar Wei's film In the Mood for Love, Professor Abbas led the workshop through an examination of the nature of objects, the concept of dis-appointment, and the impact of these reconceptualisations on the act of theorising (what Abbas calls "poor theory") and the politics that emanates from this version of theory.

The discussions of Lord Jim and Anna Karenina provided the first building blocks of Abbas' argument. Both texts, Abbas argues, show us one of the key unreflected-upon elements of objects - namely, that "the more they remain the same, the more they change." In leaving us with their ruin, we can only take either a position of melancholic longing for a former state, or one of boredom. Even though Walter Benjamin argues that boredom is a state of mental relaxation that prepares us for seeing the world in a different way (the "profane illumination" he draws from the Surrealists), Abbas' reading of Anna Karenina gives two different angles on this - the failed quest for the ever-new or interesting, and the realisation that the repetitive, irritative aspects of the undifferentiated object or life is what must be worked through, or as Freud put it, turning neurosis into "ordinary unhappiness."

Abbas then turned to a discussion of how it is that we can work through this "ordinary unhappiness," or what he termed dis-appointment. Here, he takes dis-appointment as not the sadness that comes from having expectations not be met, but rather as "things not being in their appointed places"; or, to put it another way, the disjuncture between how we expect the world to be and the card hand we are dealt (hence the hyphenation to distinguish between the two senses). Moving through discussions of Tanazaki's aesthetics and Julien's praise of blandness, as well as the experiences of boredom and distraction, Abbas draws out the insights that ordinary objects offer us in their ordinariness an opportunity to speculate on alternative possible histories and futures, and do so by opening not onto some new exciting metaphysical reality, but rather onto the plenitude of this reality, in which we should abide.

This then led Abbas to the discuss some of the contours of what he terms "poor theory." Drawing from Henri Lefebvre's work on the critique of everyday life, Abbas offered the insight that the goal is not the critique of the ordinary, but rather seeing the ordinary as a form of critique. Reading Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" character as attempting, though humourously failing, to conform to the morés of contemporary society, Abbas offers the insight (in some ways paralleling Ann Stoler's earlier talk on "imperial debris") that theorising as a practice needs to begin from the ordinary, working with the ruins of the situation in which we theorise in order to develop the building blocks of a better society. But, Abbas argued, these blocks are incomplete; the objects and states of life from which they draw are in ruins, changed through their repetition and our changed frame of reference. Hence, we must work with what we have, "tinkering" with both theory and method in relation to our situatedness and the objects with which we work. Because we start from the ruins, the hope for some idealised state of affairs falls away as a possibility; we must necessarily move from a politics of hope to a politics of dis-appointment, recognising that objects, states of living, and even the unanticipated consequences of our actions are never quite where we think they should be, and may not end up necessarily fitting our vision of what the world should be or the time frame in which we think it should happen.

[It should be noted that, most likely for reasons of time, Abbas was unable to fully detail his conception of "poor theory." In the interests of figuring it out for myself, I found "Poor Theory: Notes Toward a Manifesto" online - http://www.humanities.uci.edu/critical/poortheory.pdf - and have incorporated elements of that manifesto into this discussion.]

There was much in Professor Abbas' talk to spark response, and the workshop certainly availed itself of the invitation, especially taking the discussion in the direction of playing with the distinctions and tensions offered in the conceptions of the politics of hope and dis-appointment. I won't take it in that direction. Instead, I want to play with two elements of Abbas' presentation that either tie directly to the theme of this year's workshop - "Ordinary States | States of Ordinariness" or to my own reasons for being here. The first has to do with Abbas' conceptualisation of the "ordinary" as, to paraphrase Abbas, the undifferentiated, that which either resists representation or can only be represented negatively as boredom. There are a couple of concerns about this version of the ordinary. The first is how this squares with what I have seen developing across the workshop to date - namely, a conception of the ordinary that is analytically circumscribed by its scale, the frame with which we orient to it, its frequency, and a dialectics of proximity to the situation we seek to understand as ordinary or in its ordinariness. This circumscription of the ordinary would seem to be extensible; that is, we can take it to places other than those we might common-sensically or automatically call "ordinary," such as interactions with one's local pub owner or experiences of commuting on a packed highway. Bringing to bear these four elements, we can begin to understand such experiences as those of Black men seeking to enter Johannesburg for work in their monthly dealings with the influx control bureaucracy (as illustrated during the Workshop's visit to the Old Pass Office -- http://www.southafrica.info/about/social/usindiso-shelter.htm) or of people's experiences of surveillance under Soviet rule as "ordinary." We could even go so far as to use it to examine "ordinary violence," whether exerted by states or other people. But what happens to this extensibility of "the ordinary" if we also insist that the ordinary must be undifferentiated, unable to be represented, or just plain boring? Do we lose a certain degree of that "profane illumination" by virtue of adding this fifth criterion? Does it reinforce a bias about the ordinary that has until recent times left it unexamined? Does it return us to an "extraordinary | ordinary" binary that leaves these kinds of experiences only able to be thought through a perspective of these moments as deviant, out of the norm, unusual?

The second concern I have has to do with what I am sure was a "throwaway" comment, in which Professor Abbas said, "Thinking from the South is not the same as Southern thinking." My primary reason for attending this workshop was precisely to work on this problem and to gain a deeper insight into both sides of this inequation, both what it means to theorise "from the South" and to understand Southern theory. If we take the invitation to do "poor theory" offered by Abbas, we must necessarily start with the ruins of things. For the South, this has an entirely different set of meanings and enacts an entirely different set of constraints and contours on theorising than it does from the North - and it necessarily means that there is not one "theory from the South," but multiple versions of this precisely because there are multiple Souths, itself an effect of the ruins of the various colonial empires, neocolonial relations, and experiences of the global hegemony exerted by the US and the increasing investment, especially here in Africa, by the Chinese government. As the "Poor Theory Manifesto" itself points out, "Poor theory thinks historically, relationally, and theoretically around and against denials of co-evalness. Through new mixings of the practical and the theoretical, it destabilizes prior and continuing formations of the national, the colonial, the imperial, and the postcolonial as pure categories." If that is indeed the case, when we think broadly about the South(s) or "thinking from the South," then the undifferentiatedness of the ordinary must necessarily and logically fall away from "poor theorising." But what does that leave us with as the building blocks, or even the broken stones, through which we can theorise? On the one hand, it seems to suggest that there are significant variations between versions of "Southern thinking"; on the other, we are left with an inability to think about the varieties of thinking of "the South" precisely because they are differentiated and therefore violate the starting premises.

To my mind, there is no easy way to solve these dilemmas. My own inclination is to preserve the profane illumination Abbas suggests is key to the endeavour of "poor theorising," and to follow the call to destabilise the conceptions of the national, the colonial, the imperial, the postcolonial, and even the South offered in the "Poor Theory Manifesto." However, much like the concept of the ordinary, we as theorists have not yet really unpacked the implications of the idea of "poor theory" nor heeded its demands, and seem to find it easier to assume the lowest common denominator of these analytic frames. If that is indeed the case with our discussions or our efforts, then I fear that we will fail to really develop either an agentic thinking from the South or Southern thinking, and will instead wreck Southern theory, leaving it trapped in a collection of dusty relics like Stein's butterfly in Lord Jim. Abbas' idea of "poor theory" appears to give us the tools to do what I think we should be doing; the question remains as to whether or not our project is already ruined.

Scott Schaffer is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, where he is a member of the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism and the Africa Institute. His research is in the areas of contemporary and non-Western/Northern social theory, cosmopolitanism, ethics, sacrifice, and the traces of the Protestant ethic in social development policies and programs. He is the author of Resisting Ethics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), the PDF of which he is happy to send you upon request as long as you promise to read it in its entirety and to find the joke. Email: sschaff2 [at] uwo [dot] ca.