A rush and a push and the land
we stand on is ours
As I said in my last post, the following prize-winningly "bad" sentence, written by Judith Butler, reports on the state of the art in a corner of the academy.
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
As in many fields, Butler's writing is self-consciously post-revolutionary. The norms that inform her research are the result of a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. This is a very common situation to be in; it is a very "normal" one, we might say, again in the Kuhnian sense. Today, most research is "post"-something and most research writing therefore at some point recalls the historic change of mind that "inaugurates" a new era of fruitful conversations. Academic writers have to say this sort of thing again and again.
I want to take some time to analyse the "moves" and "shifts" in this sentence. In essence, Butler is reporting on two related developments, which have both been part of the epochal constitution of her field. There is a move away from structuralism and a shift away from an Althusserian theory. Note that according to the grammar of the sentence, the move marks the shift.
I want to look very closely at how Butler describes the developments she is talking about. To this end, I have divided the sentence into five parts.
(1) The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation
(2) brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure,
(3) and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects
(4) to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure
(5) inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
First, she tells us what we moved away from, namely, "the structuralist account", and what we moved toward, namely, "a view of hegemony". Both the account and the view are further specified along the way in the first part of the sentence. Next, in the second and third part, she looks at what this move has accomplished. It has (2) introduced the notion of time to the concept of structure and (3) "marked" a shift in the theoretical foundation of the study of hegemony. She then goes on to describe this shift in the manner of the initial move, i.e, away from Althusserian theory (again further specified) and toward a theory that seems rooted essentially in the notion of contingency.
In an important sense, she is telling us what it means to be "post-Althusserian". It means, first of all, that you give up the appeal to structural totalities, i.e., you stop referring to them as though they are "objects" of your theory. But it does not mean that you give up theorizing. When Butler talks about
a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony,
the phrase "one in which" indicates that the concept of "theory" carries over into the new epoch. What is not carried over is the Althusserian "form" of the theory. (That is, if you've got a theory, it can be an Althusserian one or a post-Althusserian one.) Now this new "one", this new theory, is described by relating an event that is internal to its formation, i.e., the theory is that "in which" the inauguration takes place and this inauguration, of course, shapes the theory from there on. This is really the third event in the sentence. We have a move that marks a shift toward a theory in which a conception is inaugurated.
Now, this inauguration has both a beginning and an end. It begins with an insight and ends with a renewal. The insight is characterised by (4) "the contingent possibility of structure", while the renewal is more complex. It is the concept of hegemony that is renewed, of course. And keep in mind that this again says something about what is being carried over from before the paradigm shift. Before the revolution, there was certainly a concept of hegemony, i.e., an old one, which presumably went well with both a structuralist understanding of capital and an Althusserian understanding of totalities. Indeed, the pre-revolutionary concept of hegemony was no doubt nothing other than the totality of social relations structured by capital.
What is hegemony after the revolution?
Well, looking back at the beginning of the sentence we see that (1) we are no longer dealing with "homologous" structures of social relations but must instead take account of "power relations" (which should probably be taken to mean the same thing as "social relations" earlier) that are "subject to" (which is not quite the same thing as being "structured by") repetition, convergence and rearticulation. (These three forces, which subjugate power relations, are the fitting themes of several paragraphs to follow.) And it is at the end of the sentence that we discover where these forces are operative, namely, on sites and in strategies that "rearticulate power". The recurrence of the word "rearticulate" is perhaps unfortunate but it may simply be an abbreviated way of referring back to the triad of forces already mentioned, as the reference to "power" also emphasises.
In any case, what this sentence is telling us is that the post-revolutionary situation demands that we pay attention to the way power is rearticulated on sites and through strategies, which are essentially contingent (she uses the word twice). And these sites and strategies are what replace, in the post-revolutionary idiom, the pre-revolutionary (oldfashioned) idea of "structure" in our understanding of hegemony.
Thus endeth the lesson.
It is possible to defend the famous "difficulty" of the sort of style we are dealing with here by suggesting that it truly turns reading into an activity. Indeed, we have here seen what sort of activities lie in wait for the willing reader. Butler has, we might argue, encouraged us to think this sentence all the way through (we have tried to do that just now) instead of "sparing us the trouble of thinking for ourselves," as Wittgenstein put it. I don't propose to settle the debate, but I will suggest that she has also spared herself the trouble of editing the text. Indeed, by day, that's my job, and I do it happily, but I recommend that the aspiring researcher plan the reader's activities a bit more kindly.
But there is another argument for writing this way. I have said in a previous post that there are times when you want to make your points one at a time, by parataxis, and there are times when you want to make a single gesture of a series of points, employing hypotaxis. The extreme hypotaxis of Butler's sentence indicates the intention to make just such a gesture. Indeed, her sentence is a vast exercise in subordination. After all, a revolution is not accomplished by a series of small careful steps but by a rush
and a push.