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Theory and Practice

Lenin writing: theory or practice?

The Night Shift is all about fusing theory with practice. What I’d like to do in this post is to open up a discussion as to how we might go about defining those terms. Instinctively, ‘theory’ is something you do whilst reading books, thinking and writing – conceptualising various problems and analysing them philosophically. It is fundamentally passive. ‘Practice’, on the other hand, is doing something: acting, moving, physically changing one’s environment. It is fundamentally active

But does this distinction hold up? Firstly, ‘thinking’ as a concept implies the opposite of ‘passive contemplation’; it suggests mental agency (or what certain philosophers might call ‘negativity’): does this not count as practice? Reading, surely, is something we do physically by moving our eyes and turning the pages of a book: is this not practice? The same holds for writing, too.

Similarly, is moving or physically changing my environment really devoid of theory? Do I not begin an act with a certain end in mind towards which I guide my body? What would a practice look like that didn’t have some kind of theory bound up with it? Is a thoughtless act even possible?

So it would seem that the distinction between theory and practice is not as clear-cut as we first imagined. How else, then, might we go about defining the difference between the two? Perhaps in terms of the effects of our thoughts and our acts? Perhaps a practical act – now comprehending both theorising and physical activity – generates a certain type of effect. What might that be? Well, here, at The Night Shift, we would have to think about what defines a genuinely political act. It would be an act which forged a path towards universal emancipation; but how do we define universal emancipation?!

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but between us it seems to me that we must confront them if we want to claim a rigorous justification for what we’re even doing here.


About Daniel Hartley

Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leeds.

9 responses »

  1. For me, as I hope I pointed out in my blog on ‘consumables’, the overlap between theory and praxis is one that must be acted out in every minute aspect of our lives. In this sense, I follow Slavoj Zizek’s line – who, in the film ‘Zizek!’ (which is a good intro to him, in many ways), commented that whilst we may talk of being out of ideology and whilst we may say that we are free individuals in society, that despite this, everytime we visit the toilet we are ‘up to our shit in ideology’. This is to put it crudely…but the drive is to say that capitalism, like most ideologies, has convinced us that there is no ideology at play – that we have reached the pinnacle of social interaction on which we are all freely moving.

    What is frighteningabout Zizek’s point is, however, the realisation that capitalism has in effect incorporated ALL elements of social interaction, down to the very manner in which we use the toilet. Thus the phrase, also by Zizek, that ‘resistance is surrender’ – as truly the liberal democratic model is flexible enough to incorporate ‘all’ (though is it not our job to question and explore the possibilities of this ‘all’?) forms of resistance. A famous example is that, upon arriving to London to be greeted with a large anti-war protest, George W. Bush stated (to paraphrase): ‘this is why we are going to war, to install a democracy that allows for this’. I feel that other examples include:

    A) loss of the rebellious voice (punk is dead!) –

    B) the creation of nostalgia by capitalism – nostalgia for 1968, or for a time when punk wasn’t dead. We are being asked to invest in the past as if it contained a depth that, though it does not longer exist, is valuable as, say, a mug saying “1968, I was there.” This is something I feel needs to be questioned intensely.

    Thus, the choice to comply or rebel is already a moot choice, one mediated by our very implication in a capitalist system that thrives not DESPITE of our acts of rebellion, but BECAUSE of our acts of rebellion. It is the new father, the liberal parent who traps (be it unwittingly or not) the child in its dialectical games.

    AND HERE I arrive at my blog. For, if this is the case, I see our choice as to accept the society we are born into in one sense (to understand and consider our rebellions in light of the catch 22 situation) but yet never to give up, to hold utopia ever present, masked behind the painful realisation’s presented by, amongst others, Zizek’s statement ‘Resistance is Surrender.’

    F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “I must hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to “succeed” — and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.”

    I find the issue sprawls out into so many other avenues, this is inherent in my argument perhaps, but I apoligise if this detracts from the clarity of the comment

  2. This kind of post reminds me how much of a humanities student I am not. I’m willing to concede that you can’t strictly speaking seperate things into two neat boxes of things that are ‘theoretical’ and things that are ‘practical’. But I think that instinctively we’ll agree most of the time on whether something is practice or theory.

    E.g. If I built and a erect a wind turbine that would be practical. If I drew a nice schematic of a wind turbine on a blackboard and spoke about how it worked that would be theoretical. I think most people (once they’ve taken off their philosophy or pedantry hats) would agree with me.

    Obviously there’s no harm in discussing the blurring of these definitions, but frankly you can spend forever picking apart the definitions of anything.

    My hope for this blog is that things would become easier to understand, not more complicated.

  3. John, it is true that we are humanities students, and as so we feel that such theoretical issues are crucial to the breaking down of the problems themselves.

    What I mean, very specifically, is that whilst an action may remove a problem (an obvious example being Saddam Hussein) we have to be able to ensure that the reasons behind the initial problem do not reoccur. More specifically, we need to (attempt to) ensure that WE do not unwittingly recreate the power structures and implicit theoretical standpoints of the old system (in the Hussein example, this means the contination of a foreign policy that arms militant groups for our own purposes, invades other cultures both physically and culturally etc etc).

    Saddam Hussein is a more clear example, but it becomes difficult when the issues become more subtle: women’s lib. (is fair pay actually fair? or simply forcing women to compete withing a masculine system), energy (the questions posed by Joe, basically). Practical issues come to depend on theory.

    More theory for you John, but I’m with you all the way on it needing praxis. What did you think of my comment before yours?

  4. (I’ll reply to Terry’s later)

    John, I appreciate the sentiment and I can understand your frustration. It’s true that one could put on one’s ‘pedant’s’ hat all day long, but this is a fairly central issue for the movement, and if the answer is so obvious then the definition of what counts as practical should be more convincing than yours.

    ‘instinctively we’ll agree’ – goes without saying that this doesn’t really stand up to rational rigour. We’ll instinctively agree on a lot of things that we shouldn’t agree on – critical reason is meant precisely to counter such dubious instincts.

    The example you give is one originating in the sciences. I would more or less agree that in the context of science or engineering, theory and practice are more clear-cut. But when you translate that to the political realm, it doesn’t work.

    What is a genuinely political act? In a capitalist system so awe-inspiringly capacious, and with the power to absorb almost any – perhaps every – form of resistance, what counts as ‘practice’ here? The system is totalising and deep-rooted, it structures every element of reality unbelievably deeply, it can transform what seem to be absolutely radical acts into commodities overnight: what are you proposing as ‘practice’ as opposed to theory in such a context?

    It’s not a question of being a pedant or a philosopher – it’s a question of asking oneself some fundamental questions before acting in a way which may well unwittingly reproduce the very regime against which those acts were directed. Theory here would be thinking through the very possibility of political practice – rethinking what political practice would look like NOW, given the very specific historical conditions we face.

    You can call that mere trifling all you like, but it seems to me that if we are to DO anything worthwhile, then some reflection on this issue might be useful. Unless, of course, you’d prefer to go on ‘practicing’ in a way that means you can pat yourself on the back for being a conscientious protestor whilst fundamentally changing nothing.

  5. Dan, fair play you make some good points. Rational rigour does trump instinct. I am sometimes a little too zealous in trying to simplify things.

    The reason I’m interested in this blog is because I’ve kinda lost my political va va voom, and I want to discuss new ideas about how we can change things.

    But I have a fear of being one of those people whose lasts words, when the world is going down in flames, will be “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?” (or whichever opening line to a philosophical debate you care to insert). Thats why I get twitchy when some of these discussions start up and I wonder how they can possibly have any sort of conclusion.

  6. fair dos

  7. Dan, I’ll be honest – that last post annoyed me quite a bit.

    If I’m reading this correctly then John is here for very similar reasons to me: We’ve both become disillusioned with the left due to the total lack of any actual action being taken. To be left wing these days is to sit in coffee shop and talk theory with others whilst fiddling with the latest apple product. To my mind it is as far away from the idea I have of the left (unions, workers and struggle) as it is possible to be without actually putting the entirety of the left onto a rocket, blasting them into space, jumping on a bike and peddling hard the other way (apologies to Charlie Brooker).

    There’s been a bit of talk recently about facebook, xfactor or whatever being the opiate of the masses. I’m starting to think of theory as being the opiate of the intellectuals. We can read all the books we like, and talk until the cows come down from the mountains, but whilst it stays as just reading and talk we are as threatening to the system as a person who sits in front of xfactor every night. If we become any more active we’ll be at this kind of level:

    This is not an article on fusing theory and practice, it reads more like the theory of practice. Now, I’m sure there is value to be gained from debating exactly how we define these terms, but it’s clearly not the case that we need to have argued all this out before we can talk about things that each of us can do that would have a positive effect on the world.

    If I saw a person bleeding to death in the street, should I stand back for a bit whilst I weigh up taking action (is it right to save this person? maybe he/she is a serial killer? Do my actions really have a consequence?) or do I try to staunch the bleeding as best I can with little thought given? The left is dead today precisely because it suffocated after disappearing up its own arsehole.

    This site, for me, is here in recognition of the fact that it isn’t always necessary to fully understand an act before you make it, to know that is a good act to make. To know what those acts are and understand a bit more about them is why I (and I think John as well) am here, so it doesn’t feel great to be slapped down again when we question whether all this talk is really necessary. I realise that is probably the last thing you intended, but it’s how it came across to me. I think we really need to change our traditional ways of thinking to make this work and re-establish the links between workers and intellectuals.

    PS – Thanks to Terry for posting an article that I really feel captures the spirit of the night shift… I’ll be making that bread later this week and I’ll see if I can get my bagel recipe on there as well!

  8. Joe that is it exactly. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  9. Joe, nicely put. I’m certain that is through such dispute (alone) that we will find the way. I am for both arguments here, especially considering I hate the idea that someone like Zizek can then go to McDonalds for his son’s food. I have quite aggresively exclaimed ‘Well Zizek can go fuck himself on this front’ (hammam will testify to this) and I’m totally repulsed by the ‘lefties’ who blog about socialism from iPhones and show at H&M etc etc. But this is where theory (the theory I want to develop, have challenged etc, in my consumables section) becomes praxis.

    Joe’s comment about lefties and ipods IS theory, but a theory that implies a practical response – don’t by an iphone if you think capitalism needs to be challenged. Fair play. More bread anyone?

    have to go, twin peaks is starting


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