Re: [OPE-L] Overdetermination

From: antonio callari (antonio.callari@FANDM.EDU)
Date: Sun Dec 25 2005 - 14:43:23 EST

Sorry it has taken me so long (lots of end-of-semester and other
stuff) to reply to Howard Engelskirchen's 12/21 good and fair
questions on overdetermination.

Howard writes:
>I have a couple of questions.  You say that overdetermination does not mean
>the following:  "there is no reality out there, only interpretations."
>Instead reality is complexly constituted and humans have a part in it.  Now
>it's pretty hard to find anyone anymore who says there's no reality out
>there, so let me ask this:  is there any aspect of reality for you which is,
>as realists say, 'mind independent'?  Is there any aspect of reality which
>is what it is independent of our philosophical, conventional or linguistic

I can't think, off the bat, of any social social aspects, processes,
mechanisms that are independent of of one or another of a broad set
of properties (cultural, theoretical, behavioral, etc.) under the
category of "mind."  If someone can think of any such
mind-independent aspects in social processes, I'd be happy to hear
what that is, and I'll certainly consider the implication. Of course,
there are social processes that are practically independent  of any
"one" 'interpretation/understanding/..',  since any social process
always involves multiple actors, but that is not to say that they are
independent of the realm of the mind period. There are no such
independent structures, for example, when it comes to the operation
of a market society, which is impossible without a vast framework of
legal, cultural, ideological, and even psychological conditions. This
seems to me (also) the implication of some of Marx's sayings: his
criticism of Smith's idea of exchange as a natural phenomenon, or his
saying that an idea, if it seizes the minds of the masses, becomes a
material force (I'm paraphrasing here).
When it comes to "natural" processes/events, my presumption is that
they can more practically be considered as independent of the
mind--although I don't think that it is possible to escape the idea
that any theoretical formulation about them can be so independent, or
that even a cataloging of experimental results could ever be produced
free of a network of "interpretation."  (I will also add that even if
there were to be some "aspect"  of reality that could be argued to be
mind-independent, the certification of that aspect would not suffice
to support a theoretical project to seek mind-independent
"structures." Structures, it seems to me, presuppose networks of
causal relations, and as soon as you go from "elements" to
"structures" such networks would need to be invoked).

Howard's second point/question is:
>Second, in the excerpt on the commodity that I posted from the New School
>journal, Resnick and Wolff refer to communist commodities and feudal
>commodities  and slave commodities and self-employed labor commodities as
>well as to capitalist commodities and emphasize the point that meanings can
>change because the determinants change.
>Okay.  But how do I know a communist commodity is actually a commodity at
>all?   We need some form of definition here or we are in the position of
>defending "anything goes."
>For example, I happen to think that there can be and have been such things
>as socialist commodities.  I think the idea of communist commodities is
>nonsense; like phlogiston it's a concept that can't refer.
>But this is because within the framework of a set of background theories I
>do define the commodity, and definition means some things characterize the
>commodity and some things don't.

I can't speak for Resnick and Wolff, but in my understanding, their
definition of a commodity is the minimalist one given by Engels (in a
footnote in Capital), that a commodity is something produced by
someone for exchange (again, I'm paraphrasing). You say that you have
no problem understanding the idea of a socialist commodity, and I bet
you also have no problem accepting the idea of a slave commodities. I
can't speak for you, either, but I think your discomfort with the
idea of a communist society might have something to do with your
identification of a "commodity" with market relations and your view
of communism and  market relations as incompatible (I think you'd
probably have a similar discomfort with the idea of a feudal
commodity). Now, given your definitions of "commodity" and of
"communism," the two don't jive for you. But, given Resnick and
Wolff's definitions of "commodity" and "capitalism," the two jive for
them. (I think they lay out their positions and definitions fairly
clearly in their Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism
in the USSR.) Their definition of communism does not require an
absence of market relations.
So, it seems to me that your difficulty here is not with the matter
of a consistent definition of a commodity. You have one and they have
another one.  You can of course argue with their definitions, but
that's far from saying that they don't have a definition, or don't
stick by one consistently (i.e., that "anything goes.")  The argument
here, to me, seems to be about a substantive issue (the definition of
"communist"), not a methodological one.

Howard, you also say:

>A last point, and I'll abbreviate.  My point about events.  The dream is an
>event.  Suppose I have an erotic energy which is manifested in a dream but
>the object of the energy is forbidden or in some other way unwanted by me.
>So the dream expresses the energy as displaced.  The interpretation realizes
>that the energy is directed to say a forbidden object.  Now there are all
>sorts of things that can happen.  I can try to come to terms with what I
>can't change, I can decide the prohibition is nonsense, etc.   But the point
>is that the observable event, my dream, and my interpretation of it allow me
>access to an underlying structure of mind.  It does not follow because the
>event is overdetermined that the structure is.
>A distinction between manifestation and effect is useful here.  A cause
>constitutes a dispositional power that gives rise to a manifestation.  It's
>manifestations may be multiple, and depend on circumstance.  But the cause
>has the dispositional power to generate the manifestations it does.  This is
>asymmetrical -- the cause generates the manifestation, not the other way
>An effect, on the other hand, which may be the result of multiple causes,
>may look very different from what the manifestation would be if the effect
>were not overdetermined.  Gravity, which I have no reason to think
>overdetermined, pulls heavy things to earth, but birds fly in air.
>None of this, of course, precludes effects from themselves becoming causes
>or causal structures from ensuring their own reproduction.
>My point can be put this way:  I think you can make a persuasive case,
>consistent with Althusser and Freud, that events are overdetermined.  It
>doesn't follow, and I don't think it's been shown, that the underlying
>structure that brings about the event is overdetermined, or that, if it is
>multiply determined, that it is overdetermined in the Resnick Wolff sense.
>Moreover whether or not overdetermination explains things other than events
>is something to be investigated.  It cannot be declared as a methodological
>a priori.

My answer here, Howard, is that I can't think of a "social
structure," as I said above, that is (in your words) "mind
independent. So, the concern is moot.

I hope I've answered your questions ok.


>From: "antonio callari" <antonio.callari@FANDM.EDU>
>Sent: Tuesday, December 20, 2005 6:03 AM
>Subject: [OPE-L] Overdetermination
>>  Hi all:
>>  Freud used the concept of overdetermination in his Interpretation of
>>  Dreams. As I read that text, the operational content of
>>  overdetermination is given by the processes of condensation and
>>  displacement--and it is in that context that, I believe, it makes
>>  sense to read Resnick and Wolff's usage of overdetermination (my
>>  claim, not theirs). Freud's text was devoted to the interpretation of
>>  dreams: there certainly is an ontology there, the biology of the
>>  brain, in which is included the idea that dreams (most of them)
>>  camouflage themselves. But, beyond that very general causal
>>  iddentification, the point of the book--at least as I remember it, is
>>  that it is IMPOSSIBLE to have a pre-given interpretation of a dream
>>  (a model), that one cannot know the meaning of a dream except through
>>  the process of reading it (free association), in which any
>>  images/memories, even if they seem insignificant, may hold a key to
>>  an interpretation. There is no one dream image that can be said, in a
>>  priori manner, to be more important than others. That is because, if
>>  anxiety about a relationship (X) attaches itself to a dream, the
>>  dream process is one in which: characteristics of X will be
>  > displaced unto some seemingly unrelated object; and  characteristics
>>  from X will be condensed, together with characteristics from other
>>  relationships (Y, Z ..) into yet other objects. There is no telling
>>  what the dream means for a patient without teasing it out of the
>>  process of open interpretation; there is no model for sorting out the
>>  meaning of a dream.  Nor, since there is no underlying ontology to
>>  the dream (only an underlying general process), can there be any
>>  expectation that the dream is reducible to a (one) meaning: different
>>  interpretations can end up producing different meanings.
>>  This has all sorts of analogies to the use of overdetermination in
>>  its appropriation in Marxist thought.
>>  It means that, while there is a specification of general social
>>  process (that there are various processes: cultural, political,
>>  economic, etc.) in the constitution of a social body, when we
>  > interpret that society, (if we are using the mode of
>>  overdetermination) it is not possible to fix the meaning of a social
>>  event/process in an a-priori way, according to any one fixed model of
>>  social relationships. The meaning emerges only out of a particular
>>  process of interpretation and pertains to that process of
>>  interpretation (there can be no ontological proof/status to it beyond
>>  the general social process). Of course, there can be different
>>  processes of interpretation, and this is where Resnick and Wolff's
>>  idea of an "Entry point" comes: for a Marxist interpretation of
>>  society, "Class" is the entry point into the process of
>>  interpretation.
>>  I'll leave it at this: I will add a few notes.
>>  1)  This approach is not reducible to "anything goes."  it is, if
>>  anything, understandable more as implying that "anything may turn out
>>  to be important." (a very important principle for the process of
>>  scientific discovery, not less important than the process of already
>>  known/seen regularities, even in the physical sciences).
>>  2. This approach is not reducible to "there is no reality out there,
>>  only interpretations." It is, if anything, understandable more as
>>  implying that "reality is complexily constituted and that the human
>>  part in it--interpreting, working, playing-- is part of that
>>  constitution" (something with scientific pedigree: the uncertainty
>>  principle; and Marxist pedigree as well: human beings make the world
>>  under conditions larger than themselves: the creation of class
>>  consciousness, the creation of a class in itself, the creation of
>>  socialism/communism).
>>  >Hi Howard,
>>  >
>>  >One small observation regarding overdetermination and Freud. Freud
>>  >made enormous strides in ontology. He began as a kind of
>>  >neuro-physicist, but rejected the idea that what we can see when we
>>  >open up brains exhausts the ontology of the mind. His creative
>>  >modelling efforts to identify an embryonic information processing
>>  >level of description (id, ego, super-ego, libidinal energy etc.) that
>>  >attempts to explain various clinical phenomena, such as repression,
>>  >are not only quite brilliant, but also primarily about conjecturing
>>  >the existence of underlying mechanisms to account for visible
>>  >behaviour, the stream of events. Freud's methodology and work is not
>>  >at all connected to the idea of "constituitive causality", if that
>>  >means there is no depth, no levels, no enduring dispositions and
>>  >essences. One of his great scientific achievements was precisely to
>>  >posit a hitherto hidden depth and verticality -- the unconscious, a
>>  >collection of hidden agencies responsible for various surface
>>  >phenomena.
>>  >
>>  >-Ian.
>>  --
>>  Antonio Callari
>>  Sigmund M. and Mary B. Hyman Professor of Economics
>>  F&M Local Economy Center
>>  P.O. Box 3003
>>  713 College Avenue
>>  Lancaster PA 17604-3003
>>  e-mail:
>>  phone: (717) 291-3947
>>  FAX:  (717) 291-4369

Antonio Callari
Sigmund M. and Mary B. Hyman Professor of Economics
F&M Local Economy Center
P.O. Box 3003
713 College Avenue
Lancaster PA 17604-3003
phone: (717) 291-3947
FAX:  (717) 291-4369

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