Lacan claims that the gods belong to the order of the real. This, I think, can only be understood in the context of Levi-Strauss’s theory of myth. Myth is that which fills in structural contradictions, impasses of formalization, antagonisms, and fissures in the symbolic. So long as we understand the Lacanian real as reality, we’re doomed to miss his meaning. We will think Lacan is saying the gods are real in the colloquial sense of “real” (in the sense that we say, in ordinary language- not “Lacanese” –that “the sun is real”). The Lacanian real just is these fissures in the symbolic (akin to Kant’s paralogisms and antinomies). The idea of the gods (like ideology) tries to cover over the real, to veil and clothe it. The question for a post-ontotheological ontology is whether the real can be endured as such without gods. Insofar as philosophy begins with the project of breaking with myth (and therefore, also, ideology which is the modern variant of myth), this question is not peripheral to philosophy, but at its heart.
August 18, 2014
July 31, 2014
The term “power” is highly ambiguous. In one signification, power can refer to the capacities of an entity; to what that entity can do. Water has the power or capacity to freeze, be liquid, or be gaseous. Plutonium has the power to release tremendous amounts of energy. A gymnast has the power to do a flip from a standing position and do extraordinary movements on bars. A bloodhound has the power to detect a tremendous number of scents and even correlate them with how recently they occurred. If we follow Spinoza (and Deleuze), the power of a thing is its affects. Affects come in two varieties: passive and active. The passive affects– what we normally refer to as senses and emotions –are capacities to be affects, as in the case of vision where we are affected by light within a certain spectrum. The active affects are the capacity to do, as in the case of a cat leaping on a counter-top. The analysis of an entity, the understanding of an entity, consists in the analysis of its affects or powers. To know something is to know how it can affect and be affected. We can refer to this form of power as ontological power.
In another signification, power refers to something an agent has. Regardless of what Latour and his followers might suggest, not all beings are agents. Rocks, for example, are not agents; and this for no other reason than the fact that rocks lack self-directedness or the capacity to act on their own. To be sure, rocks might contribute to the agency of an agent, as in the case of a soldier that has stones and a sling where, to use McLuhan’s expression, his hand is “extended”, but it is not here the rock that is the agent. When we speak of an agent having power– whether it be a dolphin, chimpanzee, human, or something else besides –we are speaking of the power to influence and control others. For example, the general has the power to give orders and, more often than naught, those orders are followed. She has power over those that are subordinate to her. We can refer to this form of power as sovereign power.
July 30, 2014
I suspected this was on the way. Neurologists are now using brain scanning techniques to develop more effective forms of advertising. Advertising (and, more importantly, political discourse), use potent signs to activate various regions of the brain presiding over pleasure, fear, sexual desire, hatred, and so on, to form cognitive relations to things entirely unrelated to these affects. For example, a cleaning product might make a commercial with all sorts of romantic imagery so as to forge an unconscious association between detergent and romance, even though there’s no relation between the two. Of course, historically these techniques have been crude as advertisers and politicians don’t know what signs will activate these affects and what won’t. It’s been hit or miss. Theories of what signs will produce affects (not that signs produce affects) haven’t admitted much in the way of verification, but have been based on the individual theories of semioticians and advertisers (the former, of course, being more sophisticated). However, now some neurologists are scanning brains to rectify this problem, contributing to the formation of a “brave new world”. Perhaps we are here witnessing a new diagram of power; one that suggests that the terrifying possibilities described by R.S. Bakker in his horror-detective novel Neuropath aren’t just science fiction.
July 28, 2014
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I’ve been writing too much lately, but this is probably because it just feels so great to be writing again after not writing anything for nearly a year. This will just be a quick one. It is likely that Epicureanism is the ethical philosophy most consistent with naturalism. Epicureanism teaches that by “good” we mean pleasure and “bad” we mean pain. In other words, pleasure, for the epicurean is the ethical principle. Now, of course not all pleasures are good for the epicurean. Those that bring pain as a consequence such as drinking a 5th of tequila are perhaps pleasurable at the time but bring pain as a consequence. Likewise, while a lavish lifestyle would be pleasurable, it causes too much pain to get it due to the jobs we would have to work to make the money to sustain such a life (not to mention losing our freedom as a result of having to answer to bosses). Similarly, not all pains are bad for the epicurean. For example, getting a root canal. To be sure, we experience pain at the time, but ensures our health and freedom from pain later. The epicurean life is, of course, a moving target. The more we learn about health, the environment, psychology, and social dynamics the better we’ll be at achieving peace of mind and living a pleasurable life. Interestingly, the picture of the epicurean life is closer to that of a Buddhist or Christian monk (moderation and simplicity) than Jim Morrison, because those lives are the healthiest and allow for the most mastery/freedom in ones existence. If epicureanism is one of the strongest candidates for a naturalistic ethics, then this is because it doesn’t presuppose any transcendent laws or rules, but just goes with the immanence of life and existence on the planet among other people.
Problems emerge, however, when we begin to measure it against our ethical intuitions. This is often how I approach reflection on ethical philosophies. I shuttle back and forth between our day to day intuitions about what is right, good, and what would constitute the good life and what the ethical philosophy proposes. The ethical philosophy can then function as a critique of our ethical intuitions– for example, epicureanism suggests that abstaining from shellfish probably isn’t an ethical duty so long as they’re preserved correctly and we’re not allergic –but also we can use our ethical intuitions to critique the ethical philosophy. Many of us have the strong ethical intuition that it is commendable to run into a burning building to save a person, or that it is morally praiseworthy to fight and die on behalf of a cause like justice; whatever justice might turn out to be. However, it’s difficult to see how such values can be grounded within a naturalistic or an epicurean framework. For example, it’s difficult to see what epicurean or naturalistic rationale there could be for becoming a Badiouian subject engaged in a truth-procedure. This is precisely because the work of a truth-procedure (e.g., struggling for egalitarian justice) draws us beyond the animal domain of pleasures and pains, often subjecting us to intense pains that won’t produce subsequent peace of mind and moderate pleasure like getting a root canal. The question, then, is how such ideals, practices, and actions can be grounded within a naturalistic framework? I’m not looking for answers per se, but just trying to pose the problem clearly.
July 28, 2014
A quick post before I teach that isn’t developed to nearly the degree it deserves. While it is true that there have been Christian anarchists and communists, anarchism and communism has historically been attached to atheism. Why is this? Is this some accidental relation, such that atheism can be safely severed from these political projects, or is there something about the very concept of anarchism and communism that entails atheism? There is, of course, the historical reality. When these movements were arising, the Church was one of the main ideological mechanisms of the State, defending both a certain form of capitalism and monarchial authoritarian power. Indeed, leftist political struggle has had to contend with the church for a long time– going back to the French Revolution and before –because by and large the Church has sided with oppressive power, rather than emancipatory struggle. This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been notable exceptions– people are always quick to cite Martin Luther King –but the point is that again and again we’ve seen religion, by and large (and that statistical qualification is important), side with the oppressors.
Given this history it’s not hard to see why anarchist thought (Tolstoy aside) and communist thought have been suspicious of religion. However, is this only an accidental, “historical” relation, such that we could have a good religion that doesn’t function as a support for the State? In other words, do anarchism and communism suffer from a prejudice? Perhaps, and certainly I’m not hostile to all forms of religiosity, even if I would prefer a world where people are strictly centered in this world, in this material reality, and don’t posit any sort of afterlife, eschatology, or divinity. I’m a realist about what is and is not likely the happen with regard to humanity and religiosity (especially given what an increasing body of neurological research is suggesting about brain and spirituality).
July 28, 2014
Psychoanalysis substantially changes our conception of ethics and the problematic of ethics, for it raises the question of moral psychology and what is going on when we violate an ethical principle. Within a psychoanalytic framework, it’s no longer enough to suppose that violation of an ethical principle is simply a failure of will arising from being overcome by our passions and appetites. No, what the discovery of the unconscious suggests is that these violations might, in fact, arise from unconscious desires that condemn us to repeat despite what we might consciously wish. As a consequence, we can no longer be strictly Epicurean, Stoic, Kantian, nor utilitarian. No, we must also take into account the dynamics of the unconscious– not to mention the death drive –and what that is speaking within us.
However, here we must proceed with caution. We might think that what psychoanalysis teaches, like Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, is that our ethical principles and aims really embody a dirty secret. Freud taught us to discern sex, libido, in things that on the surface would appear remote from desire. As Deleuze and Guattari put it– and in some respects they’re more Freudian than Lacan (but that’s a story for another day) –the bureaucrat is literally getting off with his filing systems, his procedures, his forms, and his regulations, despite the fact that no sexual organs are involved whatsoever. There is a libidinal component here, even though there seems to be none. In this regard, we might also think of the character of the Catholic albino priest in The Da Vinci Code who cruelly flagellates himself in his religious ritual. At the surface level we see a ritual designed to emulate the Passion of Christ, to show his humility, and thereby show his devotion to God. Freud, however, showed us that this too is a way of getting off, of achieving jouissance through indirect means. Even the asexual has found a way of getting off. The lesson is that sex and libido are not to be found in the organs.
From this we might conclude that the teaching of psychoanalysis is that all ethical principles are, in reality, techniques for satisfying violations of ethical principles in the name of a forbidden satisfaction; or that psychoanalysis teaches a sort of Hegelian speculative identity like the thesis that “the spirit is a bone”, whereby ethical action is, in fact, unethical action. In short, we might conclude that all ethical action is, in reality, at the level of the unconscious, motivated by something other than the ethical, or a violation of the ethical. For example, one might argue that acts of altruism are, in fact, passive aggressive actions premised on a sadistic desire to master those in unfortunate positions, such that they aren’t altruistic at all.
July 27, 2014
I. “Critical Thinking”
Within the field of theory and philosophy, the term “critique” is highly ambiguous, signifying a variety of different things. No doubt this is the source of many disputes. There is, of course, the facile term “critical thinking” that we hear bandied about by many mainstream educational institutions. This, of course, is not what is being referred to when theorists talk about a “critical theory”. Indeed, if Althusser was right in naming educational institutions (along with church, family, and media) as one of the main sites of ideology wherein a society reproduces the conditions for its production, then it’s unlikely that critical theory would be received warmly by those dignitaries of the State that preside over education policy and who call for “critical thinking” as a central part of the curriculum. Critical thinking in their sense might very well serve at the behest of ideology in Althusser’s sense of the term.
II. Kant and the Critique of Reason
Among philosophers, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the term “critique” is, of course, Kant. It was Kant who first– to my knowledge –named the project of a critical philosophy; although I think seeds of that project almost to the letter can already be detected in Descartes and, above all, Hume. The project of critical philosophy for Kant was the investigation of the conditions under which it is possible for us to have certain forms of knowledge. For example, Kant famously asked “how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?” Unlike analytic propositions where the predicate is already contained in the concept of the subject– e.g. “All bachelors are unmarried males” –and which therefore don’t amplify or increase our knowledge, a synthetic a priori proposition is one in which our thought goes beyond what is contained in the subject of the proposition independent of experience, thereby amplifying or increasing our knowledge. How is this possible? How is it possible for mind to increase knowledge through thinking as in the case of mathematics? It’s easy to see how this is possible through experience. I take a bite of arugula, taste its tartness, and now know that arugula is characterized by tartness. My knowledge of arugula is thereby amplified. I’ve discovered something new about arugula and my mind will forever associate arugula with that quality of tartness.