I recently (by which I mean, just this week) discovered the magic of dictation and speech-to-text software for working out ideas and producing first drafts. I am one of those slow-starters, big-time procrastinators, who is never not stressed about all the things left yet unfinished. While I am viscerally resistant to the online culture surrounding “productivity hacks” and anything that pretends to make life easy through something that sounds like grifters’ tricks, I’m also eagerly welcoming to anything that actually eases my stress and makes me feel like I can get stuff done. Especially for those days when the short trip from the bed to the computer keyboard seems insurmountable. (Grad school is hard.)

So this week I finally tried dictating some notes and such into my phone. I worked from the comfort of my bed, during the pause of a TV show I was watching, and while I was driving to Pittsburgh. I tried reading out my handwritten notes in order to transcribe them into my digital notes files, to help during my comprehensive exams. I’ve got this long backlog of notes that need transcribing, which I chip away at periodically because I’m not the fastest typist in the world. Lo and behold, in a matter of two afternoons I had entirely transcribed all the notes in my backlog! So now I suffer from the zealotry of the new convert and plan to install dictation as a core part of my workflow.

Below—and, as always, for no good reason—I’m posting the results of a brainstorming session I did today, done entirely in dictation, and which took me about a half an hour. Maybe it’s a bit exhibitionist, but I’ve always liked that idea of working “with the garage door open,” so to speak. When I started reading for my comps exams, I searched all over the Internet for people who had written blog posts about reading for comps exams and taking notes, hoping that I can figure out this mysterious process by proxy. I’m also nothing if not a creature of guilt felt for false promises made, and last year I said that I created this site in order to blog my way through my comps readings. Well, here I am exactly a month out from my exams, and I’ve barely said anything. So here’s a little taste of what I’m thinking through, offered up if only for my self-absolution. This brainstorming process was actually really helpful for me. Oh, and all of it, including this preface, was dictated into my phone.


For the second list, the theme of abstraction has showed up quite a bit, and one minor additional theme that appeared is the theme of form or formalization as something opposed to both content and perhaps objectivity. Foucault remarks on the modern era’s introduction of a divide between objectivity and subjectivity, as evinced in Kant’s division between the subject of knowledge and objects of knowledge. (See also new materialist and a speculative realist discussions of correlation-ism.)

Insofar as the second list focuses on cultural criticism, critical theory as such, and various other practices of critique dealing with art, aesthetics, and culture, one way to engage this divide between subjectivity and objectivity could be by focusing on the divide between form and content. The Frankfurt school identifies form as the vehicle for the propagation of ideology, rather than content. It is in the forms of art and of culture that ideology becomes impressed on consumers and participants in mass culture. However, when Foucault talks about form and formalization as involved in this divide between objectivity and subjectivity, he is more talking about structures of language in his poststructuralist engagement with linguistic structuralism. To put it differently, Foucault is dealing with epistemology, and I might ask to what extent any engagement with ideology and cultural criticism must also be an engagement with epistemology. How do we know how culture works? In what ways do our minds engage with ideas that are communicated via cultural forms and aesthetic objects? To what extent is subjectivity a mode of knowing?

That last note on subjectivity as a mode of knowing clearly links us up to Hegel on subjectivity and consciousness, subjectivity as an encounter between a bearer of consciousness or a perceiver and the idea/notion. If then I am interested both in the development of the discourse of subjectivity and the development of materialism opposed to idealism, is there a crucial difference between engaging with subjectivity as an epistemological concept versus dealing with it as a concept bound up in or a consequence of material production? To what extent are poststructuralist engagements with linguistic structuralism and correlative theories of subjectivity materialist or anti-materialist? To what extent are they idealist?

But it may be worthwhile taking a more Hegelian approach, by not exactly tracing two distinct lines of influence, one coming from idealism and one coming from materialism or materialist critiques of idealism, but instead showing how the introduction of this distinction has produced a number of effects in discourses of cultural criticism and critical theory. (I think here again of that definition of critical theory that Roland introduced me to: critical theory is the American institutionalization of the French engagement with the German critique of German idealism.) Today perhaps it is not quite adequate to discuss a flat distinction between idealism and materialism, and this inadequacy could possibly be attributed as deriving from the Frankfurt school, because they brought materialist theory to bear on critiques of a number of cultural forms and abstractions or modes of abstraction. And then of course there is Marx who, as I noted elsewhere, begins from an account of abstraction. When Marx talks about the commodity form as the core abstraction of capitalism — begins with it as the basis of his critique of capitalism — he is not describing that abstraction so that we can simply do away with it as though it were a false consciousness we could shuffle off and so be liberated. Any good materialist theory of culture and society, when it describes ideas in a critical way, must attend to the material effects of those ideas in the way, moreover, that they become institutionalized — that is made into semi permanent structures of society and social production.

The transformation of ideas into semipermanent structures of society and social production: this is an interesting angle to take to the critique of the University. One might view the University as a kind of storehouse of ideas, a preserver of core cultural ideals and knowledges and, moreover, a disseminater of those ideals and knowledges. The early critiques of the University such as Daniel coit Gilman — well, not a critique but a celebration and exhortation — focus at least in part on the way a university education instills core cultural ideas, values, and missions in students such as according to Gilman “manliness.” But values like manliness are only one kind of idea to describe — among which we could also include civility, professionalism, empathy, curiosity, ambition. To take a materialist approach to the way universities institutionalize core cultural and social ideas and values, we should look at things that play a similar structural role to something like the commodity. So, for instance, this might include “cultural capital” as an element someone obtains from the University that enables them to participate in a certain way in the market, the labor market and the general market of capitalist exchange. We could even consider the diploma as itself an abstraction not dissimilar from the commodity: a diploma is a graphical representation of time spent studying and laboring as well as participating in other kinds of activities for the University, including financial activities, that then serves as a token of passage or amount of cultural capital that is legible and, to one degree or another, effective in the capitalist market.

Approaching the diploma as this kind of cultural capital, that is, an abstraction of everything that goes into a university program of study for an individual student (and it is important that diplomas are only granted to individual students and not collective student bodies), does then also raise the question of how diplomas differently represent different programs of study, whether that be differences between particular institutions of higher education (Ivy League, land-grant University, small liberal arts college) or differences between the disciplines (supply chain management, political science, law, medicine, the humanities, etc.). In Marx’s analysis of the commodity form, though exchange rates may vary between different commodities represented in the general abstract form, the market ultimately reduces everything down to an equivalence between different commodities. It is the abstract form that enables that equivalence. Does the same equivalence hold when treating the diploma as an abstraction of capitalism? If the commodity form is, at its core, the abstraction of labor time, then no – different diplomas have different values not based on the amount of labor time put into them. Something else changes the value of the work that students do at the University. The difference has to do with the institution in which that learning happens, and the way that kind of learning or content of learning or rather category of learning is situated within civil society’s broader ecology of social production.

So, to reduce this narrative down to a simple arc: culture/society produces ideas as a consequence of the material conditions in which ideas may be produced; ideas constitute the abstraction of those material conditions, the form of the content; the hierarchical or agglomerative distribution of powers, in power’s drive to reproduce itself and to be accumulated (power, i.e. capitalist power and the accumulation of capital), results in certain ideas rising to dominance; the dominant position of those ideas is secured by their being institutionalized or somehow made semi-permanent fixtures of society (this must be concrete, material — that is, not merely a voluntaristic leavening of society by devotees of the idea’s kingdom); one such institution for securing the dominance of effective ideas is the University; and, to add a crucial qualifier, the University can only succeed in that work by functioning in ecological concert with other institutions of social production, such as the military, the police, the banks, and the state legislative bodies.