Monday, April 14, 2008

The Well-Wrought Metaphor

As you know, I love a good metaphor, particularly in teaching. A really strong metaphor (or analogy, if you must) concretizes abstract concepts in a way that clearly reveals their function. My specialty, Bizarre Metaphors, involves shocking students into seeing something in a totally new way that makes them completely rethink something they just don't ever think about. A defamiliarization process, as it were.

So I'm reading tons of stuff right now (stuff that is actually a procrastination from other stuff I need to work on, but I'm so overloaded right now that it's all one big gob of necessary work and unnecessary work all at once) and I came across a metaphor so fun, so great, so vivid, that I had to pass it along:
For Marx, "the structural relationships of any society, or at least those in which progressive development is possible, are inherently self-contradictory. Like the shell of a fertilized chicken egg, socioeconomic relationships make possible the growth of forces that will, in time, shatter them."
Isn't that cool? Suddenly I understand how the dialectic cycles of history are supposed to work. It also highlights the organic, or perhaps completely determined, nature of Marx's view of the history of the class struggle: because it's a chicken egg, we know a chicken will have to come out of it. If it's botched or a deformity, it won't ever hatch out. Inside Marx's theory, at least, the progression of capitalism to communism and the eventual withering of the state is inevitable. You can critique or question it, but not from inside his theoretical structures.

Now if someone could justify why one should use dialectical models for looking at history, I'd love to hear it. Neither this author nor Marx nor Hegel give me much of an explanation, and nothing that they do give has really persuaded me.

Dialectics, then ---- what's so great about them?


Susan said...

Well, assuming the proletariat is the egg, it breaks open and kills the bourgeoisie (the shell).

Of course the problem with Marx is that his analysis of 19th c society is better than his prediction of the future. But I think you can sometimes use the notion of dialectic to show how clashing ideas/groups lead to some new thing that is neither of them.

Unknown said...

Dialectics, like a lot of Marx (and I write this as a card carrying -- it's in my wallet somewhere -- neo-Marxist), represents a useful tool for gaining new insight, but is a pretty blunt instrument for anything beyond the macro. If there had been no Marx, we might be stuck with another less useful meta-narrative, like progressive uplift.

I actually think that Marx is less deterministic, less Hegelian, than you or this metaphor constructor seem to think. I think he went through different periods where he was more or less sanguine about the creation of socialism (early in his career he thought that it was the job of writers and thinkers to inspire it and later, after the 1848 revolutions, he thought that workers might get there on their own). Rather than thinking that we knew what kind of egg we had, he felt that there was no way that that shell was staying intact. The problem with the egg metaphor is that dialectics actually means that there is no chicken, only a succession of different eggs, until we get to a stage where the egg has no shell. Or doesn’t need a shell. Or something.

St. Eph said...

With the proviso that this is so not my field and that I have nothing like JPool or Susan's well-thought-out response:

I think of the dialectic approach to history as the "Don't think of an elephant" problem. Any emerging response to a previous social/economic/authoritative system can't not think of what's come before and react to it. In that reaction, no matter how opposite or far afield of the prompt, must include a recognition of the basic content of the prompt. So, in not thinking of the elephant, and elephant-shaped shadow (or void, maybe) is always lurking.

And... yeah, that's all I got. But it's a kind of metaphor! And it seems to work ok for shoving some Marx and Hegel at the M/H-adverse.

Feminist Avatar said...

I like to think of the dialectic as a bit like pomo thought. So that you have a discourse and people can only conceive and express their experience through their access to said discourse, but at the same time that experience alters the meaning of the discourse so that discourse is always in flux. Eventually, people's experience can no longer be contained by the present discourse and they create a new one (the dialectic if you will). The new discourse is inherently linked to the old one (having grown from it), but is new nonetheless.

I am not sure if this is an argument for pomo-ism or Marxism or my ability to randomly combine theories but this is how this historian likes to deal with dialectics.

gwoertendyke said...

my first thought is, how you can you think of history as anything but dialectical? how would you conceptualize history?

my second thought, influenced by the work i'm doing now, is to draw from genre theory: genres travel and change--synchronically, diachronically--they carry traces of past and anticipations of future forms, much like dialectical historicism.

but seriously (and i agree with jpool, marx was far less reductive than "critical theory" suggests), what theory of history are you thinking of that makes more sense?

Sisyphus said...

Well, AW, I don't see _why_ the structure of one thing _has_ to carry the seeds of another immanently within it --- why does one thing have to lead to its opposite at all? To grab a couple structures off the top of my head, I could think of history as being a linear progression, completely random, so complexly and multiply determined it seems like chaos theory ---- what I haven't seen is a good explanation for why dialectics work --- are they something we can find independently in events or something that scholars pick and choose events to fit the preconceived theory?

What I like about this metaphor is that it really helps me see the concept of _immanence,_ which I've been fuzzy on. But then, I'm fuzzy on a lot of Marx's terms. I still don't get when labor is and is not alienated, for example.

Jpool, one of the things I hate in reading this book is how every page I turn I discover five or six more books I need or want to read; I have a feeling you're about to put me through that again. But please do --- what alternate sections of Marx are you going to point me towards? I'm dubious about the idea that authors have a consistent _oeuvre_ anyway. And I did think this guy did picking and choosing on other theorists, so it could be he's painting a very partial picture of Marx as well.

Feminist Avatar said...

I don't think dialectics really leads to 'opposites' per se. It is about the creation of something new, and because western thought likes to think in binaries we often consider the new to be the 'opposite' of the old- but that is a bit contrived. Is nature really the opposite of nurture/ culture? Is man really the opposite of woman?

I think you could argue that experience is entirely or partly random (like an earthquake or a tsunami) but how we deal with those experiences are informed by our past. We cannot make judgements in a vacuum because the human brain can only make sense of the new through what it has known- even if that is to reject the new as not conforming to past experience- our interaction with it is always informed by our past experience. Thus the old is always part of the new- it is not a function of the 'experience' but of human perception- which effectively becomes experience for most purposes.

gwoertendyke said...

i don't think it leads to opposites at all, it does lead to something new. the structure of one thing doesn't have to carry its seeds to another, it just does, though i'm not sure it is necessarily the "seeds" that are always carried. i think both random chaos theory and linear progression don't account for the relations between social, economic, political structure and time.

as far as theorists making sense of events, isn't that what we all do? is there some other way to make meaning? do you mean, there is some truth, correct, real way to understand historical time and we do an injustice by attempting to interpret? this seems a strange way to attack marxism--all theories fall short under this lens.