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BEYOND THE SUBSTANTIAL
Rahel Jaeggi & Judith Raum


Rahel Jaeggi is professor for practical philosophy focusing on social and legal philosophy at Humboldt University Berlin. Rahel Jaeggi’s recently published works reconstruct the history and concept of alienation or deal with a critique of life forms. In this talk from the summer of 2009 we look at concepts of successful modes of appropriation of material developed as counter-models to alienation in a traditional (Marxist) sense. The reflections on the nature of processes of appropriation in the social realm have relevance for the conditions of artistic production.


Judith Raum: I would like to start our conversation with an image. It is about a region in India where saris with traditionally very complex patterns used to be fabricated. As the story goes, women sat at the loom and someone sat next to them and sang. The structure of the melodies contained the instructions for the patterns, which the weavers implemented directly into the fabric. The patterns were thus produced without design in a visual form or linguistic instruction. Maybe you could paraphrase this communication via music by saying that the women are reacting to a constant suggestion or susurration. I use this image to distinguish modes of working or producing that vary in the way they include the intellectual faculty. The weavers’ way of working seems opposed to ways of an active dealing with “options of action” as you describe it in your book on alienation  when talking about processes of appropriation of material.

Rahel Jaeggi: At first glance I would not say that your example completely contradicts what I mean by appropriation. First, the notion of paraphrasing a melody into patterns is, for us, not an obvious one. And it seems relatively clear that to transfer such a melody in patterns requires a very active participation on the side of the women. Of course, one would have to know the context in which this weaving is situated, what the women’s social status is, how the melodies came into being and which standards of transcription exist from melody to patterns. But probably there is no notation that could be transferred directly. Therefore I believe that the notion of a ‘suggestion’ is not adequate. It is more a form of proposal, which is transferred.

As to the term appropriation, it was important to me – which is why it is called appropriation – that there is nothing wrong with reacting to given material, to something that is provided already, to react to social structures which have certain patterns, which leave a certain imprint on you. In all of its diverse dimensions, the term appropriation is about reworking something that already exists. The process of activity and of exercising power over your own actions does not need to be described in the sense that one does something from out of nowhere, in the sense of inventing everything, or acting absolutely originally. The term appropriation is interesting exactly because it enhances the notion that you can deal with what you are confronted with in very different ways, and that there is a productive and creative dimension in this.

JR: The problem of alienation as you describe it is a bit like this: I encounter things in the external world, and the question arises in how far I let myself be engaged by this. Alienation could be described as the moment where you lose control, where you cannot adopt a critical or reflective distance, where elements that you could set against new impressions seem to dissolve in the face of the alien material. How do you define the zone that you would call ‘self’, and the zone of the material that you come across?

RJ: This description alone to encounter something in the ‘external’ is wrong in so far as processes of alienation are also about encountering the alien in the ‘internal’. It is also about that which is usually called ‘oneself’, but which can nevertheless be perceived as an alien aspect of yourself, of your feelings or actions.

My whole idea when reconstructing the term of alienation was basically to introduce a much more dynamic understanding. It is not necessary to think in terms of a firm given substantial clearly-outlined self in order to claim that there are things and dimensions that in a way oppose the integrity of the self. Instead, I try to turn the perspective around and to no longer ask, “What am I and what is alien?” “Which of my wishes, needs, actions, etc. do belong to me and which don’t?”

Instead, I propose to look more at the process of appropriation. Appropriation of material that can very well be external material, alien, or impressions that result from circumstances that I have not genuinely made myself. The moment you start from the assumption of a self that is not internal, substantial and clearly outlined, but only comes into being through contesting what it finds itself confronted with and through what it does, you can introduce a dynamic reading of the self. The permanent production of one’s own identity of self is an activity. You should rather observe this activity than ask statically, “What am I and what am I not?” in what you do.

From this, the idea follows that there are certain criteria for when this activity or these acts of appropriation are relatively unhindered, and when they experience some kind of distortion or stagnation that makes you assume that something might be going wrong.

JR: Which would mean to look more closely at the character of relations of appropriation. You describe quite precise examples in your book. Regarding role behaviour, for example, if individuals are conscious of the role they are playing, or if they do not feel fixed in their roles. If you look at the quality of the experiences you make, do they enable a growth of experiences? These are examples of what you call a successful way of being in contact with oneself.

RJ: Well, back to the start of our discussion – predetermination and appropriation. I do not see anything problematic in the existence of certain social patterns of behaviour, roles, also role expectations. And I think it is illusionary to suppose a moment beyond all those patterns, expectations and impressions. If you imagined such a thing, you would have a notion of a pre-social self that is totally misleading. What is important is the question of what you actually do in these roles – of how large the scopes of behaviour are within such things, and the question of how within these roles things can be re-evaluated, rearranged. Up to the fact that moving in such circumstances, you can achieve a consciousness of a possible distance, of moments that enlarge the scope in which things can still be rearranged.

There are more or less stereotypical ways of fulfilling such things. There are cramped situations. Consider the fact that individuals usually move around in several roles, both with regards to their life history as well as parallel in time. Then you have to ask about the accumulation of both what you experience and represent at a given time and in your development and if it is possible to express these accumulated elements and to express yourself in them. It is a false notion to believe that you would be singular if only you were more independent of certain impressions or experiences. But considering the special blend of all these social expectations, impressions and reactions and the peculiar way each individual appropriates those things, it is right to insist on the ability to present and realize this blend in an specific way, which is different from saying “I myself am somewhere beyond all these roles that are expected of me.”

Once you make that switch, you look at the processes of such appropriations. To bring it down to the abstract philosophical formula: it is the switch from the what that always belongs to us to the how of it. How to appropriate it or, conversely, how to not be able to appropriate it; this relatively simple switch has quite severe consequences.

The classical critique of alienation, which Marx of course did not invent and which was virulent at the time, implies that alienation is something like the delimitation of wholeness, encumbering the individual’s full realisation of their personality. What this means is that you should be able to realise all your potential, or preferably different potentials and that a certain kind of change, as it becomes apparent in the industrial division of labour up to assembly-line work, is what causes human potential to wilt. Of course there is something correct in that.

On the other hand, this whole idea of wholeness is very suspect. As soon as you think in the framework of wholeness, you have to ask yourself, “How do you describe this wholeness and how do you determine what belongs to it and what does not?” There, too, I believe it helps to alter to this question of processes, of learning processes, and of accumulating experiences. This means freeing yourself from the belief that the wholly developed personality or the holistic personality is something that has to include everything – like a color wheel.

Instead you could ask the following: “The things I do, that interest me, which I identify myself with, where do they lead to?” Dewey coined the idea that it is the aim of learning processes to enable further learning processes, or to expand the breadth of further experiences. Can an experience, decision or action be connected with something else, or is it something that narrows you down and leads to certain dead ends, where no further steps or significantly less steps are imaginable?

Consequent to all this, I would say it is not that important to always realize the full range of possibilities; it is, rather, a question of how comprehensive what you do is. Even if it is something very specialized.

JR: To come back to my question about manual and intellectual involvement in work, about different ways of being in contact with things, you talk about the activity of “appropriating the world” and speak of the world as “material” and you use the phrase “to identify with oneself and the world” as the definition for a successful way of living one’s own life.
How would you transfer the differentiation between less and more successful ways of appropriation onto the contact with actual material, objects – also from the perspective of the artist? What does the notion of identification mean for the quality of relationships you take towards the things around you?

RJ: To start with the term appropriation: the way I use it is very broad. Everything can fit into it, even this material aspect. The fact that you make contact with something that is provided, to appropriate it, can be almost everything. As you say: intellectual processes just as well as everything else.

Considering that there is something like the resistance of the material, this is not so different from the fact that sometimes unexpected things happen and you have to deal with them. The fact that there are resistances in what you do – be it in the material, be it in what you do by way of action, and what develops from it – these are all dimensions that in the end function similarly in what they mean for the subject.

I think that this dimension of materiality regarding the appropriation of the world has to be thought about for a longer time. This is something that, in a purely philosophical way, is somewhat suppressed. This has to do with the agenda that was set by Habermas: the moment where you switch from work to interaction, from labor relations to the culture of the public sphere, and the far-reaching shift resulting from that, which I share on the whole, but of course it excludes exactly the aspect of materiality of work and material. It is the same with Hannah Arendt.

JR: In what way is materiality excluded, where does the focus shift to?

RJ: If the focus shifts to inter-subjective relationships, you shift the fact that work is a way of dealing with the material world to the area of instrumental acting. Instrumental acting is, of course, necessary, but does not interest us in certain aspects. This is where you could reconsider which dimensions need to be looked at more closely again.

With Hannah Arendt there is a term of work that originated in the interest to understand certain spheres of acting differently, and to steer clear of certain technical-instrumental dimensions – even though Arendt actually has a way of thinking about the question of materiality. But there she emphasizes the fact that something happens. Something happens between the material and those who handle it, something new and unforeseen.
So the focus lies on the fact that even in this case, instrumentality does not simply predominate. I follow a goal and I realize it, meaning you make things useful for what you have in mind. Instead, the relation of purpose and means is much more complicated, since the material that you deal with in your work does not simply become means for your purpose and can even oppose it. Obstacles can oppose simple execution.

JR: But doesn’t Arendt develop a rating or hierarchy between activities? And I wonder if it is in any way inherently normative in your theory that appropriation has to include a movement of thought, and resulting from that the ability to distance oneself? That is what Hannah Arendt says, that thinking is superior to manual activity. 

RJ: No, acting. Acting is superior to producing. Yes, but I think this hierarchy of activities to be a bit problematic. Something that comes to mind in regard to Hannah Arendt in this context is that even though she has this strong hierarchy, and you could read her notion of producing as part of a clear hierarchy from working to producing to acting, this does not hold true. To say that there was a complete depreciation of the other spheres is to misunderstand her, especially with regard to producing or the productive aspect of working.

On the one hand she wants to separate it for certain reasons from the other activities, but there is also this idea with Arendt of a material world that we need in order to enter the world. To be able to orient ourselves on the basis of “being born into the world”, she formulates a critique. This is a cultural critique of a world in which all objects are so short-lived and become mere commodities that do not last. They are hard to have an encounter with and present no antecedent nor form a fixed stock of the world.

JR: This is interesting in contrast to what I wanted to talk about last – the question of volatility. I see an antagonism between your idea of process or how you think of being as doing, as practice, and the fact that – to apply the notion of appropiation of material to artistic practice – we deal, in some practices, with firm objects. And I wonder about ways of inserting a notion of time or process in this firmness, about material outcomes that are closer to a notion of the provisionary or the proposal, on the very material level. Objects that walk a fine line between a renunciation of technical and formal control and an attentive, emotionally invested execution. They can seem to be almost more of a situation than an object.

In how far is appropriation connected with an idea of ownership – of wanting to own, with power-relations? Does the concept of appropriation automatically entail a notion of efficiency, of establishing self-control and empowering oneself to do things?

RJ: Appropriation is of course a term of empowerment. It is a term of ownership. It does originate from the background of proprietary rights (even if philosophically you use it in a broader way). To appropriate something, to acquire it, this means that I command it.

It denotes a form of stability in comparison to what you described. But what I think is interesting is that you can of course say that there are more fleeting and more stable modes of appropriation. There is the possibility to appropriate something only for the moment, which you leave behind again immediately. While in other cases you appropriate things that stay with you. They accumulate and add to each other.

It is ultimately an idea of a personality as something that takes place fluidly through these processes of appropriation, but always still in an accumulating mode. On the one hand, I do not think of the concept of identity in a substantial way. On the other hand, identity is indeed substantial when you understand it as an appropriation process. One in which it is presupposed that certain things transform as well as remain unchanged. But a relation in which everything only comes and goes is not really plausible.

Trying to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful forms of appropriation should be about this: what fits together, what functions, what can be integrated into your personality, your scheme of life, and so on. To speak of ‘effective’ ways of appropriation or of success as a criterion, I see this critically. This could be exactly the moment where what you are doing has actually taken control over you, where logics of practical constraints prevail.









(Thanks to Matthew Schum for the editing)