Overdetermined election

Posted: 5 November 2012 in Uncategorized
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This morning, Nate Silver argued that Obama’s recent gain in the polls cannot be attributed to any single cause or event. Instead, it is “overdetermined.”

While Silver provides a link to the mathematical definition of overdetermination, his use of the term—”there are lot of variables that might have contributed to the one result”—actually has a more interesting lineage, as a challenge to cause-and-effect notions of causality.

The term first appears in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. There, Freud argued that, because of the processes of condensation and displacement, there is no one-to-one relationship between dream-thoughts and the dream-content. Instead, Freud argued,

The formation of the dream does not, therefore, take place in such fashion that a single one of the dream thoughts or a group of them furnishes the dream content with an abridgment as its representative therein, and that then another dream thought furnishes another abridgment as its representative—somewhat as popular representatives are elected from among the people—but the whole mass of the dream thoughts is subjected to a certain elaboration, in the course of which those elements that receive the greatest and completest support stand out in relief, analogous, perhaps, to election by scrutins des listes. Whatever dream I may subject to such dismemberment, I always find the same fundamental principle confirmed—that the dream elements are constructed from the entire mass of the dream thoughts and that every one of them appears in relation to the dream thoughts to have a multiple determination.

Needless to say, this made the work of free association important as a way of producing a particular interpretation of dreams, which however could never be constituted as the only possible interpretation.

This notion of overdetermination was, in turn, taken up Louis Althusser who, in such essays as “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” used it to criticize Hegelian notions of contradiction, in which everything can be reduced to a single or essential element. Instead, Althusser argued, a particularly Marxist notion is that of overdetermined contradictions. Thus, for example,

the Capital-Labour contradiction is never simple, but always specified by the historically concrete forms and circumstances in which it is exercised. It is specified by the forms of the superstructure (the State, the dominant ideology, religion, politically organised movements, and so on); specified by the internal and external historical situation which determines it on the one hand as a function of the national past (completed or ‘relapsed’ bourgeois revolution, feudal exploitation eliminated wholly, partially or not at all, local ‘customs’ specific national traditions, even the ‘etiquette’ of political struggles and behaviour, etc.), and on the other as functions of the existing world context (what dominates it – competition of capitalist nations, or ‘imperialist internationalism’, or competition within imperialism, etc.), many of these phenomena deriving from the ‘law of uneven development’ in the Leninist sense.

The concept of overdetermination is then taken up Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff who, in a series of works (such as Knowledge and Class), extend the idea to criticize the kinds of essentialist theories—in both epistemology and methodology—that have haunted the Marxian tradition as well as non-Marxian approaches to economic and social analysis. Their view is that Marxist theory is based on a notion of causality radically different from the logic of cause and effect. Instead, everything can be seen as both cause and effect at the same time. Essentialist approaches (such as rationalism and empiricism in epistemology, or economic determininism and theoretical humanism in methodology), on the other hand, are based on the idea that what we’re trying to explain (knowledges or social events) can be reduced to a single element.

In my view, Silver’s use of overdetermination makes more sense in that lineage than in terms of the mathematical definition of overdetermination. As such, it is an important corrective to those who, now and in the coming days, will attempt to reduce Obama’s victory in tomorrow’s presidential election to one or another event or cause.

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