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Ideology and experience (Therborn and Thompson again, some Williams)

Tying together a few threads, the results are knot promising. [awkward pause, licks lips, eye contact held for too long] I was in a conversation recently about Goran Therborn’s short ideology book, which I'd been wanting to do for a while. (My most recent post with thoughts on the book here: One of the things on my mind this time is a remark of Peter Burnham’s, the exact words escape me and looking it up would likely snap the thread of this thought, something to the effect that material or institutional practice can have ideological effects. For instance, I spent my early and mid 20s real broke and worried about money. That has effects on a person! Likewise, losing a unionization drive has effects on people. Those effects, when widespread anyway, are political and are a part of how the social machinery keeps going (how the social remains machine-like...!) I think Therborn’s account of fundamental modes or basic mechanisms, again I don’t recall the exact words and there’s no sense looking them up right now as I’m trying to unspool a thought that doesn’t need the exact phrase, such as senses of good/bad, possible/impossible, existent/inexistent, and the related set of whatchamacallits, acceptance, fear, deference, resignation, etc, those can all be products of experiences of institutional practices or material processes.

This was on my mind again because of reading some Raymond Williams, and I want to link it to something EP Thompson wrote, but before I do so, in the conversation I was in we talked about forms of collective action, organization, milieus, political cultures and traditions, repertoires of action, etc as products, practices, really forms of existence of collective intelligence, intellect not being reducible to individuals or to objects like books that the term ‘intellect’ tends to summon up. I think those forms of collective thought can work on ideology in two ways, giving it a specific lived form or expression, and also unpicking or unmaking those forms - often gradually, leaving people in, so to speak, incomplete and fragmentary forms of subjectivity, which can often feel uncomfortable. I think the Williams speaks to all this, I’m gonna put in the quotes in a sec, and I hope the Thompson does too, gonna get those quotes after the Williams. Oh also - forms of lower/vernacular/DIY/movement etc culture in the sense of cultural objects looked down upon, like leaflets, pamphlets, posters, etc, that stuff is part of these forms of collective intelligence as well, and forms that I suspect are closer to what Williams has in mind. (I assume he has more high art and culture in mind really but idk, I’ve just read a few excerpts - this is from Marxism and Literature btw.)

Williams talks about “dominant systems of belief and education” and “influential systems of explanation and argument” as having “effective presence. Many are formed and deliberate, and some are quite fixed. But when they have all been identified they are not a whole inventory even of sociaÌ consciousness in its simplest sense. For they become social consciousness only when they are lived, actively, in real relationships.”

He goes on, “because all consciousness is social, its processes occur not only between but within the relationship and the related. And this practical consciousness is always more than a handling of fixed forms and units. There is frequent tension between the received interpretation and practical experience. Where this tension can be made direct and explicit, or where some alternative ation is available, we are still within a dimension of relatively fixed forms. But the tension is as often an unease, a stress, a displacement, a latency: the moment of conscious comparison not yet come, often not even coming. And comparison is by no means the only process, though it is powerful and important. There are the experiences to which the fixed forms do not speak at all, which indeed they do not recognize.”

He continues, writing that “practical consciousness is what is actually being lived, and not only what it is thought is being lived” and this is often “embryonic,” not yet “fully formed and articulate.”

Okay, so Thompson. Thompson said that he was not talking “the limits of experience, but the manner of its arrival or production,” with the implication, I think, that some people talk about the former when really the phenomena before them (or, when the more appropriate object of analysis is the latter.) He writes: “Experience arises spontaneously within social being, but it does not arise without thought; it arises because men and women (and not only philosophers) are rational, and they think about what is happening to themselves and their world. If we are to employ the (difficult) notion that social being determines social consciousness, how are we to suppose that this is so? It will surely not be supposed that ‘being’ is here, as gross materiality from which all ideality has been abstracted, and that ‘consciousness’ (as abstract ideality) is there? For we cannot conceive of any form of social being independently of its organising concepts and expectations, nor could social being reproduce itself for a day without thought. What we mean is that changes take place within social being, which give rise to changed experience: and this experience is determining, in the sense that it exerts pressures upon existent social consciousness, proposes new questions, and affords much of the material which the more elaborated intellectual exercises are about. (...) Experience walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law. In the face of such general experiences old conceptual systems may crumble and new problematics insist upon their presence.” This is all a matter of “‘social being’ determining ‘social consciousness’, as experience impinges and presses upon thought.”

He elaborates: “experience is a necessary middle term between social being and social consciousness: it is experience (often class experience) which gives a coloration to culture, to values, and to thought: it is by means of experience that the mode of production exerts a determining pressure upon other activities.” This is resonant with his claim that “class formations (...) arise at the intersection of determination and self-activity.” Experience is the junction between what is done to people and what people do with that, it is a concept for getting at - for threading the needle of - how people in circumstances not of their own choosing make history in those circumstances.

This the portion that I think is most resonant with Williams - and, Williams is in my view resonant with Therborn: “people do not only experience their own experience as ideas, within thought and its procedures, or (as some theoretical practitioners suppose) as proletarian instinct, etc. They also experience their own experience as feeling, and they handle their feelings within their culture, as norms, familial and kinship obligations and reciprocities, as values or (through more elaborated forms) within art or religious beliefs. This half of culture (and it is a full one-half) may be described as affective and moral consciousness.”

The Thompson quotes here are all from the body of EPT’s Poverty of Theory, a superb book of which Thompson sadly - lazily! selfishly! - wrote only a shitty first draft. (Online here and my notes here Later, in a text for a meeting to debate the long essay composing most of that book, and published later as a postscript to the book (, Thompson wrote that, “experience is exactly what makes the junction between culture and not-culture, lying half within social being, half within social consciousness. We might perhaps call these experiences I - lived experience - and II - perceived experience. Many contemporary epistemologists and sociologists, when they hear the word ‘experience’, immediately reach for experience II. That is, they move directly to what Marx called social consciousness. They then go on to show that experience II is a very imperfect and falsifying medium, corrupted by ideological intrusions, and so on. They even read us little epistemological lessons, to show that different persons experience the same thing differently, that experience is organised according to presuppositions and within ideologically-formed categories, etc.” Thompson concedes all of that. In an aside, he adds that in his essay he didn’t adequately indicate any of this in his essay.

He then goes on, to say that there “are repeated events within ‘social being’ - such events being indeed often consequent upon material causes which go on behind the back of consciousness or intention - which inevitably do and must give rise to lived experience, experience I, which do not instantly break through as ‘reflections’ into experience II, but whose pressure upon the whole field of consciousness cannot be indefinitely diverted, postponed, falsified or suppressed by ideology.” These form a “kind of collective experience, within social being,” which is what he meant when he said - he quotes himself -

“Experience walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law,” and “changes take place within social being, which give rise to changed experience: and this experience is determining, in the sense that it exerts pressures upon existent social consciousness, proposes new questions, and affords much of the material which the more elaborated intellectual exercises are about.”

He continues: “Experience I is in eternal friction with imposed consciousness.” Thompson seems to think ideology is only a matter of imposed consciousness, rather than something that can arise spontaneously in keeping with, and serving to conserve, the forms of social life characteristic of capitalism. I’m inclined to say that the frictions of “experience I” are not so much in friction with *imposed* consciousness as it’s in friction with at least some *existing* forms of consciousness, which may or may not be imposed, and that friction made lead to openings in and transformations of those forms of consciousness, but some of the time the transition is from one system-conserving subject position to another, such as deference to resignation in Therborn’s terms. (I’d argue that Thompson’s own examples, I forget if this is in the moral economy essay or the revisiting thereof in Customs in Common, of some people starving to death without ever breaking out into revolt supports this.)

Thompson wrote about the concepts of experience and culture as junctions between social structures and subjects, social being and social consciousness, as he put it. It seems to me that Therborn offers similar such junctions. I suspect Thompson would say that Therborn focused too much on what was done to people and not enough on what people did - both in terms of clearly identifiable collective action and in terms of the active mental, emotional, cultural processing (people “handle their feelings within their culture”) of one kind of experience - experience that barges in without knocking and announce deaths, experiences which I think people live out at least at first, in Williams’s terms, as “unease, a stress, a displacement, a latency: the moment of conscious comparison not yet come” - a kind of speechlessness or sense of inadequacy of speech to the experience, ‘words fail me,’ I’ve often found myself saying, then issuing a flood of words, many of them profanity, in the effort to process. Something similar happens, I think, collectively, again in straightforwardly identifiable forms of collective action and also via collective action in the more expansive sense of shared political cultures, milieus, traditions, and works of art and other cultural objects - an outpouring of those helps process that which is experienced as unease, stress, etc. Thompson would I think want to call all of that activity. Therborn could, I think, simply reply, ‘yes, and at least some of those activities, at least some of the linkages between social being and social consciousness, are ideological.’ I also think Therborn’s fundamental axes or conceptual building blocks - (not) good, (not) possible, (not) existent, and the categories like resignation, acceptance, etc - could be used to taxonomize the kinds of processing etc that people do as per Thompson and Williams.

One last thought: I think the condition itself of being mid-process or having an unprocessed experience can perhaps put someone outside Therborn’s categories of deference etc - being stunned is not fear or deference or whatever other condition, it’s a state prior to arriving in that condition, and I think Williams’s remarks about embryonic, not yet fully articulate experiences support this. I also suspect that in a different sense most of the living out of the categories Therborn taxonomizes is latent or not yet articulate: the deferential person defers, the resigned person is resigned, often before they realize they do so. That process of realization, the processing of felt experience via culture as per Thompson and the processing of the not yet articulate as per Williams, is one way that the hold of ideology on someone (or, the subjectivity-posture someone is in) can be reinforced, and it’s also a way that hold can be loosened or broken. There’s at least some open-endedness there, though I’d say we shouldn’t rely on that being a spontaneously self-enacting open-endedness so much as pushing openings and shaping their meaning, character, importance, etc is something radicals should prioritize.

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