Re: [OPE-L] Derrida's ghosts

From: Stephen Cullenberg (stephen.cullenberg@UCR.EDU)
Date: Fri Nov 04 2005 - 18:20:58 EST

"Complex structures" in political economy have to be contextualized
temporally and spatially.  Within that more concrete context (of, for
example, an individual social formation during a specific time period),
it is often not possible to layer all of the causal variables "all the
way up" and in the same direction.  That is, variables which might be
of minor importance at a more abstract level may have great explanatory
power within a particular, more concrete context.  Similarly, variables
which are important in a more abstract context may have little
explanatory power for understanding a particular concrete phenomena.

It's too bad our postmodern Marxists aren't taking part in this
conversation now.  This thread might be seen as an opportunity --
a  "postmodern moment", a "learning moment."



Sorry for not replying sooner, but life gets very busy at times, as it does for us all.  Let me just raise a couple of issues that I see from your comment above, which perhaps will reply to Howard in part as well.  I see your point in your example above, but I am bit cautious of your use of "minor importance" and "great explanatory power".  If you work with the idea of overdetermination or constitutive causality (as I do and I recognize most others don't), then the ranking, layering, or creating a hierarchy of causes, whether deterministic or stochastic, is problematic.  Causality is a matter of qualitative difference, and to say something is more or less causally important is a category mistake, from the POV I am working with. 

If I might, I have excerpted some paragraphs that go to this issue in an article I published in the Journal of Economic Issues in December 1989.  I was looking at certain similarities between some stands of Marxian theory and some types of institutionalism. 


Overdetermination is a theory of existence that states that nothing exists in and of itself, prior to and independent from everything else, and therefore all aspects of a society exist only as the result of the constitution (mutual determination) of all of society's other aspects. Overdetermination implies, then, a theory of causality, one where everything constitutively determines everything else. This theory of causality is clearly not the dominant notion of causality today, which instead is one where a billiard ball metaphor of mechanistic causality applies, where some things come first and others follow. It is not a theory where you can single out a prime mover(s) and argue that "X" is the cause of "Y," or even that "X" explains, say 46 percent of Y. Obviously, there is an implicit critique here of classical statistical inference. The emphasis is on qualitative analysis, by which I mean non-reductive differences and a refusal to characterize events by formally comparable metrics, whether that implies scalar or vector dominance.
Another way of thinking about this is that overdetermination is a critique of "depth models" of social explanation-a critique of essentialism if you want-where one level of analysis is explained by a different level and is somehow thought to be prior to and independent from the first. Classic Hegelian causality of essence and appearance is an example; neoclassical utility analysis grounded in uncaused preferences is another. In this sense, then, overdetermination implies a sort of relativism--a relativism of existence. As nothing exists except as the result of everything else, or nothing is assumed to "underlie" anything else, then there is no meaningful way to argue that something is more important than something else, which would require a metric that is unavailable in this analysis. Of course, one could choose a metric like weight, labor-time, money, height, etc., and argue that along that dimension something is greater than something else (but you run into an immediate problem when you do not have vector dominance). Simply put, overdetermination is an appeal to qualitative analysis similar to the institutionalist insistence on the unique context of each analysis.

Let me give a couple of examples, very briefly, that might elucidate further the idea of overdetermination as causal method. These examples emphasize the institutionalist notion of emergence.

1. Consider the simple example of baking a cake. The ingredients would likely consist of sugar, flour, milk, eggs, water, and chocolate. In the combining, or overdetermination, of the ingredients of the cake, the cake emerges. But it would be folly to argue that the cake is primarily the result of such and such an individual ingredient, or that 40 percent of the cake is due to its flour content, and 20 percent is due to its sugar content, etc. You might want to say that 40 percent of the weight of the ingredients is due to the flour, but that is a different question that presumes one metric (weight) among the many. The point is that the cake emerges as the result of all of its conditions of existence (ingredients) and is qualitatively different from its constituent parts, and it would be a category mistake to reduce the cake's existence to any one, or a percentage of any, ingredient.

2. The same kind of insight can be applied to the long-debated nature/nurture distinction. Are we who we are because we are 34 percent nature and 76 percent nurture, for example? If that question could be answered that way, then it would certainly be an answer inconsistent with overdetermination. However, as Stephen Jay Gould, among others, has argued persuasively, we are both nature and nurture, and their effects cannot be legitimately separated out in strict statistical percentages.

3. There are policy implications as well to the idea of overdetermination. Consider the problem of drunk driving and someone who gets into an accident by running into a tree. What is the cause of the injury? Well, we might claim, as is conventional, that it is due to excessive drinking, or it may be the lack of wearing a seat belt, or it might be an unsafe car. Or we might try to get deeper behind the problem and say it is due to the poor education or social problems of the driver or to the lack of safety concerns by automobile manufacturers. All of those reasons and possible causes cry out for policy solutions, many of which have been tried. Of course, however, we could take a radical approach and simply cut down the trees! This sounds ludicrous, but my point is that the event of the accident did not happen (in this case) without the tree, so we could, if we wanted, make the country look like a southern Californian desert and avoid traffic accidents of this type. The reason we do not is not because we reall y know what finally caused the accident (because all these factors overdetermined the accident), but because of what we think is politically feasible or desirable. Cutting down all the trees is an option not ruled out by the constitutive causality of overdetermination, but rather by the failure of it being an acceptable policy option.

4. Then there are political consequences of a greater scope. Consider an example from Richard Lewontin. He argues that tuberculosis is caused only in certain environmental contexts, and that it makes as much sense to say that "industrial capitalism in nineteenth century Britain" is the "cause" of tuberculosis, as is the more standard epidemiological claim that tuberculosis is caused by the tubercle bacteria. How and why we focus on certain causes have telling social consequences, which of course is Lewontin's point in this case. We could have ended tuberculosis by doing away with industrial capitalism, but society chose the more acceptable epidemiological solution. The idea of overdetermination in this context carries enormous methodological implications for how we consider solutions to environmental problems, disease, and poverty.

That brings me to the last point I want to make. Overdetermination is a form of relativism to be sure, but that does not imply a quietude, whether scholarly or politically (if you want to separate them out). It does imply, I think, an attention to case study and the specificity of each analysis as done by institutionalist economists and not the strategy of empirical work as is classically done with econometrics, which tries to separate out distinct explanatory factors and weight or sign them. And, it does not mean you cannot take a position politically and argue for it. Marxist institutionalists, for example, generally focus on class analysis not because it necessarily explains or underlies other important oppressions or indignities in society (it certainly has its effects, to be sure, to be discovered by analysis), but primarily because, in the Marxian view, changing the class structure is an end in itself that is desired and desirable.


Stephen Cullenberg             
Professor of Economics       
University of California          
Riverside, CA 92521            

Office:  951-827-1573
Fax:      951-787-5685

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