The ghosts of hypostatization… and the left (archive 2012)

There is yet another spectre that plagues left-wing thought and that is hypostatization.  Now in logic, we could call this reification, but given that this has a specific meaning in Marxist circles, I am going to avoid using that term.  Hypostatization is attributing substance–as in whole object substance–to an abstraction.  Now, I say spectre because hypostatization generally not total or explicit: total hypostatization would be to attribute material substance on a not material abstract.  No, most of us are not that foolish.

The recent for this is not just the standard reification problems as implied in Marxist’s theories about alienation from human social relations, although this is definitely the case for everyone. The issue is more direct:  the abstractions that the left thinkers must deal are processes and relationships of near infinite complexity, and so short hands emerge: ideology, culture, civilization, capitalism, etc.

For many of these things are vital: capitalism is a specific process–one which is not an ontological totality, but is a totality of perception and social relations.  The tendency to move it from this spatial-temporal system of human relations to something with ontological value is a problem of hypostatization.  Previously, I rejected a Hegelian conception of totality for this recent, but I no longer believe that is necessary.  I was rejecting instead the hypostatization of capitalism.

Similarly other left-thinkers have had similar problems in the ideological frameworks:  for example, Zerzan and Jensen’s attack on civilization.  This treats the relationships implied in technology as a ontological whole to be rejected as a whole. One must fight “civilization,” but the more I try to get a primitivist to give to a clear conception what civilization is, Zerzan is the only one that will give me a clear answer: all abstract thinking.   His vision of society would require the removal of frontal cortex.  Yet, most people define civilization as the social structures around agriculture or around Western industrial economies or more often than not: it is a sublime enemy that is empowered by its vagueness.   It is an abstract that is given substance in such a way that it no lower signifies anything.

Reading Ben’s blog I have to struggle with a similar problem when dealing with culture. Cultural essentialists generally have a culture as pattern of life somehow essential to a national character or a social relation.  Yet this cannot be further from truth historically as cultural patterns are often only noticed in their absence and hypostatized in reverse.   Ben asks the question:

Here is the core question: Are we merely victims of such over-arching cultural shifts or can we control them to a certain extent? If we are victims to these underlying cultural factors, then we are victims to all of society and any political action becomes mere blind fumbling. But how to convince people to take culture seriously? Everyone on some level probably knows culture matters and yet few people ever give it much thought. Unless this changes, we will continue to be victims.

To which I ask: how can culture be an agent as it is only a descriptor of the interactions of human relations? Culture does matter but it merely a description of the process interactions between social relations and ideas about social relationships in time.   It cannot be an agent of social and political change because it is not a thing.   Yet it is a descriptor of a valid set of processes so, yes, “culture does count.”   Class for example is a similar descriptor of a set of social relationships: class war is a war—literally and/or metaphorically–between collective groups in a way determined by economic and political relationships.  The antagonism between these groups and their interactions between differentiated sets is very much real, and thus the structure has an effect on people’s lives.  Yet if you lose sight of the fact class is a abstraction description of the effects of economic and political processes between human beings, then you have missed the point.

Ben doesn’t use this language, but his attempt to define the way culture is used actually does get at this problem.  However, he can’t find the language to go far enough:  “I’m speaking of cultural paradigms. What is the cultural paradigm that makes some particular social/political/economic system or lifestyle seem possible and desirable?”

The question is hard to warp your head around and one can see the struggle there, but one of the reasons is that reality tunnels (a term I think Ben gets from Robert Anton Wilson) don’t emerge from abstracts but from the physical realities the abstractions describe.  The social and political systems (life styles) are different ways of approaching human social interaction in the collective sense.   They don’t over-determine each other because they are description of human relations and the predicated subjectivities that emerge from those interactions.  Culture doesn’t determine that: it reflects it.

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4 thoughts on “The ghosts of hypostatization… and the left (archive 2012)

  1. I forgot about this response to that post I wrote on culture. This is a useful reminder, given our recent discussion about racial categories and your bringing up hypostatization.

    “The issue is more direct: the abstractions that the left thinkers must deal are processes and relationships of near infinite complexity, and so short hands emerge: ideology, culture, civilization, capitalism, etc.”

    That is quite the problem, “near infinite complexity”. Reality is greater than our minds. Always will be. This isn’t just an issue of ideology, but of metaphysics related to epistemology, agnotology, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, sociology of scientific knowledge, enactivism, etc.

    That is why I speak of reality tunnels. We aren’t talking about something that can be easily isolated and analyzed. It’s rooted in our psyche. There is no standing outside of it.

    “To which I ask: how can culture be an agent as it is only a descriptor of the interactions of human relations? Culture does matter but it merely a description of the process interactions between social relations and ideas about social relationships in time. It cannot be an agent of social and political change because it is not a thing. Yet it is a descriptor of a valid set of processes so, yes, “culture does count.””

    How can anything be an agent? Everything is “only a descriptor”. You know my views on philosophical pessimism and determinism. What the heck does “agent” even mean? There are no agents. There are just relationships and interactions. That is the essence of what we are. With individuals, there is no there there. Culture is (or rather points toward something) more fundamentally real than the individual, so it seems to me.

    I’m not just being philosophical here. This is my experience of reality, for whatever that is worth.

    “Yet if you lose sight of the fact class is a abstraction description of the effects of economic and political processes between human beings, then you have missed the point.”

    My point would be to emphasize the process itself as a thing unto itself. A process of relationships (economic, political, etc) is what defines and gives form to our humanity. I don’t know any better way to get at the shifting sands of our being.

    “However, he can’t find the language to go far enough”

    There is no far enough, no matter how far we go. It is turtles all the way down. You aren’t going to escape hypostatization. We can refine our thought process and cultivate awareness, that is all.

    “The question is hard to warp your head around and one can see the struggle there, but one of the reasons is that reality tunnels (a term I think Ben gets from Robert Anton Wilson) don’t emerge from abstracts but from the physical realities the abstractions describe.”

    Not just physical reality, but all of reality, whatever that is. There is more to reality than what is constrained by our physical senses. It is our physical senses that are formed by reality. The struggle is that we are inside reality, a part of reality, an expression of reality.

    “The social and political systems (life styles) are different ways of approaching human social interaction in the collective sense. They don’t over-determine each other because they are description of human relations and the predicated subjectivities that emerge from those interactions. Culture doesn’t determine that: it reflects it.”

    To my mind, that is like saying the mind or consciousness doesn’t determine that: it reflects it. But I’m not entirely sure what you are getting at. I’m not even sure what I’m getting at. As far as I know, our language is severely deficient in dealing with all of this.

    When you complained recently about what you perceived as my hypostatization and transhistoricizing of ‘whiteness’, I just felt plain frustrated. We live in a racial order. We can’t step outside and be neutral observers. This crap seeps into every crevice of our souls.

    This isn’t just talking about abstractions. The bimodal distribution of genetics in the US population proves that. This is powerful stuff we are dealing with, not mere ideas. This reality tunnel is capable of shaping the tangible world of our sociopolitical and even biological realities. Fortunately, there are competing systems that have never allowed the racial order to completely dominate to the extent of all out eugenics, but it has come close to that at times.

    You can say ‘whiteness’ isn’t real. You make a good point that we should speak more carefully about what we really mean and hence become more aware of what we really mean. Maybe we should pick out the mind parasites that warp our very ways of thinking and communicating, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we are ever all that successful. Adding a qualification to a word like “white” may or may not do much good, if we don’t get at that deeper level of collective insanity.

  2. About whiteness, I must admit it is a tough nut to crack. Being as honest and self-aware as I am able, I have to admit that I don’t know how to not be “white”. I never made a conscious choice to be white. It simply was indoctrinated into me from childhood. All the world around me taught me and reinforced in me that I am white.

    It is hard for me to even imagine not being white, other than having once had a dream about being a young black slave girl, but I’m not sure a dream from a couple of decades ago counts. I can qualify my use of the word “white”. Even if I do that, I still wonder how I can qualify my personal experience of “whiteness”.

    What do you do when the hypostatization is internalized? When it burrows down so deep you don’t know how to root it out? The culture of whiteness, as such, is a tenacious little bugger. It literally is a mind parasite. I don’t know how to get rid of it without killing the host and I’ve become quite attached to the continued existence of the host.

    • I am trying to figure that out. Part of it is the structure of the society, but what makes up the structure of society? The habits and forces of law of individuals, the flow of money, the habitus of institutions.

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