Well I’m not sure if there’s any further I can go in the rhizosphere. I have now been referenced by K-Punk in an excellent post on death drive and Melville. Check it out here. What can I say, I feel a bit like Pip from Great Expectations. Apparently my narcissism and delight at being reflected knows no bounds.
November 30, 2006
November 30, 2006
Over at Event Mechanics, Glen has recently written a post summing up [without realizing it] a great deal of what frustrates me about scholarship surrounding Deleuze. Hopefully he won’t mind if I quote most of his post. Glen writes:
There are abrupt moments where I will read Deleuze’s work and think, “Deleuze! What the fuck?” I read something that seems to contradict what I had previously thought. There have been at least two of these moments, and perhaps more that I have forgotten.
One was reading The Fold in the passage where Deleuze says something like the question of scale is a question of persepctive. WTF? Was Deleuze lapsing into some sort of postmodernist relativism? No. The answer to this WTF is provided in the text. Latour picks up on this too. It is not a question of the relativity of truth, but the truth of relativity.
The other moment came when reading The Logic of Sense where he says, “Structure is in fact a machine for the production of incorporeal sense (skindapsos).” Structure? WTF! Deleuze a structuralist? He wrote a brief essay on the subject, and Alliez addresses it in a paper published as an appendix to his Signature of the World:
That is how Deleuze could recognize himself in a certain structuralism (it is after all the principle behind his response to the question ‘How Do We Recognize Structuralism?’ [Deleuze’s essay]: by seeing structure as virtuality, as the multiplicity of virtual coexistences effectuating themselves at diverse rhythms in accordance with a multi-serial time of actualization …), before denouncing structuralism’s incapacity to account for a reality proper to becoming in a later text from A Thousand Plateaus: `Memories of a Bergsonian’.
For it was in the wake of his Bergsonian studies’ I that Deleuze could oppose to the sedentary character of numerical individuation the nomadic insistence of the virtual in the actual, the pure spatio-temporal dynamism designed to let us grasp the world in its ideal eventality and `real experience in all its particularities’ (heterogenesis). Whence a second proposition which sums up this experimental naturalism for which philosophy merges with ontology and ontology merges with the univocity of Being (according to the famous formulae of The Logic of Sense).
Structure as the machine for the production of incorporeal sense (ie events), this machine is the multiplicity of virtual coexistences effectuating themselves at diverse rhythms in accordance with a multi-serial time of actualization. How is structuralism proper possible then? The obvious answer is that it is a question of perspective (of the scale of events); for example, the truths of rationalities that Foucault extracted from the archive and which existed on epistemic scales.
First, I would like to humbly suggest that perhaps this sort of response to Deleuze results from a prejudice or set of expectations in how we read his works. That is, perhaps we confuse Deleuze himself with a popular shadow of his work and are therefore unable to read what is there in his work. I suppose that when it comes to work on a thinker I have rather stodgy attitudes towards what good scholarship is, and I think there’s a lot of shoddy scholarship surrounding the work of Deleuze and Guattari. There, I said it, may my cred as a Deleuze scholar go down in flames.
It is my view that a sound reading of a thinker should do its best to both carefully follow the actual arguments made by that philosopher, while also being cognizant of the manner in which that thinker is engaging with the history of philosophy and also working within– to adopt N. Pepperell’s word –a particular “historical moment”. This task is enormous with regard to Deleuze. Not only must one be familiar with the work of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Leibniz, Freud, Klein, Lacan, and the Stoics but one must also have a respectful and working knowledge of Deleuze’s enemies and how he creatively reworks their projects. That is, one must also have a sound working knowledge of Plato (especially The Republic, The Sophist, and The Statesman), Descartes, Hegel, and Kant… A working knowledge that is something more than a caricature. In addition to this one is required to have familiarity with obscure thinkers, such as the untranslated Solomon Maimon who’s influence on Deleuze is vast and largely undiscussed by anyone save Daniel Smith and, coincidentally, myself, Simondon, mathematicians such as Lautmann and Riemann, and a host of others. I’ve seen very little work approaching this degree of careful attention to references and arguments, save that Beistegui, Toscano, and Daniel W. Smith.
When confronted with an anomaly in one’s reading such as Deleuze’s praise of structuralism during the late 60′s or his numerous positive references to Lacan, one ought to ask oneself whether these anomalies are simply brief lapses or whether something is amiss in their expectations as to what Deleuze is arguing. Put otherwise, perhaps these are not anomalies at all, but one is instead distorting their apprehension of Deleuze’s text by a shadow that inhabits the reading, causing us to cognitively filter what doesn’t fit with that shadow. Just as we are often unable to hear what our lover is genuinely saying because of our idealized image of our lover, perhaps this occurs when we read privileged thinkers as well.
Why not entertain the possibility that perhaps Deleuze has been deeply misinterpreted on the basis of the early translation of Anti-Oedipus (translated 1983, whereas The Logic of Sense wasn’t translated until 1990 and Difference and Repetition wasn’t translated until 1994) and A Thousand Plateaus, and that perhaps his earlier works need to be approached with fresh [interpretative] eyes, bracketing all expectations as to what Deleuze is up to and what he is arguing? Deleuze’s essay “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” (1972), written around the time of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, and providing a highly condensed summary of The Logic of Sense and his account of different/ciation, was largely unknown to the English speaking world until its publication in Charles Stivale’s The Two-Fold Thought of Deleuze and Guattari in 1998 (I recall the great controversies and excitement surrounding the translation of this article when Stivale discussed it back in the heyday of the Spoon-Collective Deleuze and Guattari discussion list. It appears that many were constitutively unable to even entertain the thought that Deleuze had a very serious and enthusiastic engagement with the structuralists). More remarkably yet, this essay was published the same year as Anti-Oedipus, which itself calls for a rethinking of Deleuze’s relationship to structuralism in the context of “schizoanalysis”. Deleuze did not engage in idle scholarly exercises, but treated each article he wrote, whether on another thinker or an artist as an activity of philosophy itself. This article cannot be rejected as a mere “aberration”. Why has no one spoken to this strange conjunction of timing between the initiation of his work with Guattari and Deleuze’s structural period? Lacan, of course, teaches that the exception defines the rule; and here, above all, perhaps we should look for a structural truth in this exception-al article, so contrary to what our English speaking expectations as to what Deleuze and Guattari were up to. This article is a symptom, and as such calls for interpretation… An interpretation that would both diagnose a predominant trend in the secondary scholarship, and a structure at work in Deleuze’s own thought.
So one thesis would be that claims made much later in the collaborative work with Guattari are retroactively being read back into Deleuze’s own, independent, earlier works, preventing us from reading these works on their own terms. This would prevent reading Deleuze’s earlier works with fresh eyes and would have the detrimental effect of preventing a careful analysis of the evolution of his thought and the specific philosophical motivations that led him to later transform the notion of structure in favor of something more closely approaching systems in the systems theoretical and cybernetic sense. However, of greater concern is the possibility that the early translation of these works written with Guattari led to distorted interpretation of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus themselves. Lacan’s third seminar The Psychoses was not translated until 1993. Is it possible to responsibly read and understand Anti-Oedipus apart from a careful and thorough understanding of Lacan’s account of psychosis aka schizophrenia? Does not the signifier “schizophrenia”, divorced from the French omnipresent context of psychoanalytic practice, invite the English reader unacquainted with Lacan to encounter schizophrenia as a sort of mad chaos that evades all intelligibility, re-producing the worst prejudices and commonplaces about madness, and completely oblivious to the advances Lacan had made in the understanding of psychosis through structural approaches? This is not, of course, to suggest that Deleuze and Guattari endorse Lacan’s structural account of psychosis– Lacan himself would significantly modify his position in the 70′s in ways very congenial to Deleuze and Guattari in seminars such as RSI and The Sinthome –but only to point out that it is necessary to at least understand Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to schizophrenia on the horizon of these discussions.
One will rejoin that Deleuze and Guattari target Lacan as an enemy, but this is to again participate in poor reading, as their references to Lacan are almost always positive in Anti-Oedipus, and Guattari himself was both a trained and practicing Lacanian analyst (of an admittedly idiosyncratic sort, but then analysis has no rules) and remained a member of Lacan’s Ecole freudienne de Paris (EFP) for his entire life (Genosko, Felix Guattari: An Aberrant Introduction, 2). Why would Guattari remain a member of such an organization of he genuinely believed that Lacanian psychoanalysis was a sickness or fundamentally mistaken? This is not to suggest that Guattari was a Lacanian tout court, or that he didn’t have important reservations about Lacanianism. Moreover, a careful reading of Guattari’s recently published journals demonstrates just how highly he regarded Lacan, how Lacan was omnipresent in his thinking as a sort of subject supposed to know, and how much he struggled with these issues. Of particular interest, I think, is his use of methods of free association in developing his thought, obsessively revolving around themes pertaining to a certain aunt. Again, there are a whole host of unasked questions here, of unthought relations. Moreover, silence regarding these issues– or what amounts to the same, reactive and defensive dismissals –also indicates a marked tendency within Deleuzian scholarship to think in terms of abstract oppositions, which belong to the logic of representation that Deleuze and Guattari denounce. Is there not something symptomatic in the way psychoanalysis tends to be reduced to straw men and the most vulgar abstractions in the hands of so many Deleuzians?
Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense were both written during the heyday of structuralism and Deleuze generally shows a very high regard for structuralist thought during this period. References to Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, Levi-Strauss, and even Barthes abound in these works, and Deleuze generally is extremely positive towards the thought being unfolded by these thinkers, as he seems to see structuralist thought as a philosophy of the concrete capable of avoiding the sorts of abstractions that we find in essentialist thought and Kantian and Hegelian abstract categories. We can read this desire for a philosophy of the concrete and singular in the very first pages of Levi-Strauss’s Savage Mind, and Lacan’s first seminar. For instance, I cannot exchange one language for another language, but must look for the internal articulations (differential relations among signifiers) that are specific to each language. Of course we deny ourselves the pleasure of discovering these productive and illuminating influences when we assume, from the outset, that structuralism is an enemy only to be touched in the way one picks up waste from one’s dog. The careful reader of Deleuze who has taken off her blinders and suspended her expectations will discover that there are positive references to structuralism all over the place in the early, independent work. A good deal of chapter 4 of Difference and Repetition is taken up with a careful, informed, and nuanced discussion of structuralist principles. Does Deleuze give a highly unique interpretation of structuralism here? Absolutely. I would say that one of his central questions during this period could be posed as “what is the ontology proper to structure?” or “what are the conditions under which structures are possible?” or “how can we reconcile event and structure?” (would you like quotations? I can give them). No one has ever seen a structure, nor can you touch or hold a structure. Structures are not in individual minds, nor are they objects. So what, precisely, is the ontological status of structure?
Likewise, The Logic of Sense devotes an entire chapter to structuralism, and the other series deal heavily with structuralist concepts such as dual serialization, sense, nonsense, schizophrenia, singularities, the empty square or dark precursor, language, and a host of others too numerous to name. Additionally, the pages crackle with references to Saussure, Lacan, and Levi-Strauss. Deleuze was anything but dismissive of structuralism. If Deleuze and Guattari would later give a scathing critique of structural linguistics a la the likes of Jacobsen and Saussure, this would only be after an arduous journey where they had both preserved all that was good and worthwhile in structural thought while also having discovered its limitations. I’m afraid that a similar spirit has not been embraced in the secondary scholarship, partially encouraged by their own fiery and often inflated rhetoric.
None of this is to suggest that Deleuze’s position didn’t evolve and develop with time… But this development occured by working within the structuralist paradigm and discovering new paths for thought, new questions, and inadequacies at the heart of the structuralist paradigm that eventually led to the explosion of that paradigm. It did not occur by approaching structuralism abstractly as an enemy (something that occurs all to often in “Deleuzian” treatments of psychoanalysis and structuralism) and by dismissing straw men. While I believe this development is of great scholarly interest, I also think that it is of philosophical importance as well. My fear is that if Deleuzian scholarship continues along the path that predominantly characterizes it today– empty sloganeering that often wouldn’t know an argument or careful textual analysis if it hit it in the face –the work of Deleuze and Guattari will become increasingly irrelevant in the major philosophical debates as it will fail to be philosophically informed in such a way as to be capable of persuasively and powerfully participating in these debates. Avoiding this fate, above all, requires readings of Deleuze that focus on arguments for his position where arguments are to be found, readings which are intelligently informed by the history of philosophy, and careful conceptual analysis holding itself to the standard a gem cutter aspires to in cutting especially precious diamonds.
A great deal is made of the passage in Deleuze’s Negotiations where he speaks of his way of reading philosophers.
……I suppose the main way I coped with it [philosophy as history of philosophy] at the time was to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed. (6)
There can be little doubt that a conception of reading such as this was destined to appeal to continentalists in the English speaking world that are generally oppressed by a philosophic academic system that stymies independent intellectual work written in ones own name and instead demands commentary on French and German thinkers (thinkers in other languages having, a priori, nothing worthwhile to say, of course). This conception of reading– like Derridean deconstruction –provides a compromise between the demand to write commentary and the eminently philosophical desire to engage in original thought and conceptual discovery of ones own by speaking through another thinker while making that thinker say something other than the thinker perhaps says. Consequently, enthusiasts of Deleuze busily set about trying to get behind Deleuze’s own work, trying to create monsters of it. But perhaps Deleuze, being a bit of a monster himself (I say this with admiration), requires a different type of buggary or monstrousity. What would a truly monsterous reading of Deleuze be? Has anyone yet asked this question? I think it would be a reading of Deleuze that staunchly refuses all those shadows that haunt Deleuze’s texts in popular appropriations of his thought, and that instead takes his work seriously philosophically and systematically, demonstrating that Deleuze’s assertions are something more than simply the product of his idiosyncratic taste, but are, in fact, well argued and conceptually well formed. I believe that such a Deleuze would be far more powerful and productive than the reigning version we so often see today. Perhaps it is necessary to forget everything one thought they new about Deleuze, to vigorously refuse to read him selectively, and instead look for the system that inhabits his thought. Who knows, perhaps, just as Lacan announced a return to Freud so as to rescue Freud from Freudians and reawaken, once again, the subversive potential of the Freudian text, something like a return to Deleuze is today needed… A return that would read Deleuze for the very first time.
None of this, of course, is to chastise Glen. Glen does exactly what should be done when encountering those remarks that violate our expectations of what an author is claiming: rather than dismissing the claim, he steps back and revises his understanding of the thinker. Unfortunately this practice is all too often ignored.
Can you tell I’m cranky today?
November 29, 2006
Leave a Comment
In the post on “The Diacritical Production of Identity”, Sinthome tackles several elements of Lacan’s thought that are often cited as particularly controversial – the use of mathematical metaphors, the concept of the woman as the symptom of the man, etc. Sinthome traverses these elements of Lacan’s thought lightly, bracketing problematic readings, while teasing out a reading productive for critique. My question – and the reason I won’t write at length on this topic here – is whether these elements of Lacan’s thought, even read for their highest critical potential, ever move beyond being a very elaborate theoretical justification for what, at base, I suspect is a fairly noncontroversial ontological claim: that no form of domination (or, for that matter, freedom) ever fully succeeds in subsuming all aspects of consciousness or practice.
I’ve never found this claim controversial and – I confess this may be a fundamental conceptual failure on my part – I haven’t yet understood how any of the various theoretical elaborations of this claim contribute more to critical practice than the simple empirical experience of nonsubsumption ever could? I’m not so much critical of the theoretical framework, as I am uncertain whether this is really a battle that needs to be fought… Does theoretical reflection on this kind of abstract contingency give us any greater insight into the potentials for specific kinds of political action, in the particular contexts in which we must now act?
Unfortunately exingencies of time (things are a madhouse here right now) prevent me from responding at length right now, but I thought I’d cross post her diary here for anyone who might be interested. I think N.P. is right in suggesting that I need to develop these claims and their critical potential in more explicit detail. As a prelude, when advancing the thesis that no form of domination ever completely subsumes the dominated, I am specifically thinking of historicism and Foucaultian power structures. With regard to historicism, I am objecting to the common thesis that everything is determined by its historical context, such that nothing new can appear that isn’t already saturated by this context. With regard to Foucault (perhaps one could add Butler), I have in mind the thesis that all social relations are determined by structures of power. Foucault, of course, complicates this with his thesis that all structures of power produce their own resistence; yet these structures of resistance are nonetheless part and parcel of the field of power. Consequently I suppose I am asking whether an outside is possible. This question is relevant in a [Lacanian] psychoanalytic context as well. Middle Lacan– Lacan during his high symbolic period –often argued in such a way as to suggest that there is no outside to the language. However, as his work developed he increasingly discovered an outside in the form of either the real, drive, objet a, or an exemplary signifier subtracted from the network of signifiers such as the “sinthome”.
November 26, 2006
During the final phase of his work extending from roughly 1964 to the end of his life, Lacan came to focus increasingly on the role of the Real in the triad composing the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real. This entailed understanding the formations of the unconscious– roughly symptoms –as attempts to recreate a harmony with the Real. As Lacan puts it,
Whenever we speak of cause… there is always something anti-conceptual, something indefinite. The phases of the moon are the cause of tides– we know this from experience, we know that the word cause is correctly used here. Or again, miasmas are the cause of fever– that doesn’t mean anything either, there is a hole, and something that oscillates in the interval. In short, there is a cause only in something that doesn’t work. Well! It is at this point that I am trying to make you see by approximation that the Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong. The important thing is not that the unconscious determines neurosis– of that one Freud can quite happily, like Pontius Pilot, wash his hands… For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined” (Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 22).
The product of this attempt to re-create a harmony is of course the symptom. A symptom can be anything from the dramatic compulsion to repeatedly wash one’s hands to a simple slip of the tongue or dream. What is important is that the symptom is a response to a gap, lack, or absence which is characteristic of the Real.
Lacan gives two key formulations in characterizing the specific difference of the Real: On the one hand Lacan claims that the Real is that which always returns to its place. In the middle Lacan something qualifies as real if it has this quality of always returning to its place. Here, then, we might think of the movement of the planets. We can see how this characterization of the Real evolves over the course of his thought insofar as the symptom comes to increasingly be conceived as that which always returns to its place. In fact, we might even think of that final moment of analysis which involves identification with the symptom, as consisting in the eternal return of the symptom. While it is certainly true that the movement of the symptom produces an endless variety of symptomatic formations, the lack or absence around which these formations occur is always the same. Analysis thus consists in the mapping of this lack in its sheer nonsensical being (the movement from symptoms imbued with meaning and the sinthome as a pure process). This mapping of the real was what was at stake in Lacan’s discussions of zeros and ones in seminar II and the Seminar on the Purloined Letter. Part of traversing the fantasy consists in coming to stand before this fundamental void borne of castration covered over by fantasy.
On the other hand, Lacan characterizes the Real as what is impossible. It is with this formulation of the Real that we truly enter Lacan’s mature thought. Here the claim that the Real is the impossible should not be equated with idiotic common sense platitudes to the effect that man will never fly or pigs and donkeys cannot mate. As Lacan remarks in Seminar XX, impossibility is not to be understood as the opposite of possibility. Moreover, we ought not understand impossibility as being defined in terms of what people or a given culture believes is possible or impossible. Rather, the sort of impossibility Lacan has in mind are formal impossibilities like the sort that arise in logic or mathematics. Most often these formal impossibilities have to do with sets that do not include themselves like the set of all sets that do not include themselves. Such entities generate irresolvable paradoxes. Thus there is a special relationship between paradox and impossibility as it pertains to the Lacanian Real. The graphs of sexuation, along with the stances of hysteria (“am I a man or a woman”) and obsession (“am I alive or am I dead”) can be seen as variations of these set theoretical paradoxes.
Thus, for instance, the problem with the set of all sets that do not include themselves is that if the set of all sets that do not include themselves includes itself, then it is simultaneously a part of itself and its own whole. On the other hand, if the set of all sets does not include itself as a member of itself, then it would appear that it is not, in fact, the set of all sets that do not include themselves. The set of all sets us therefore a paradoxical notion. We encounter a very concrete example of this in the paradox of the Barber of Seville. If the Barber of Seville cuts everyone’s hair but those who cut there own hair, who cuts the Barber’s hair? According to this proposition the Barber cannot cut his own hair because he cuts everyone’s hair except those who cut their own hair. Yet someone else cannot cut the Barber’s hair because he cuts everyone’s hair except those who cut their own hair. The symbolic thus generates paradoxes, these paradoxes express formal impossibilities, and these formal impossibilities are what characterize the Real. Moreover, these impossibilities are intriguing in that they always return to their place. They always occur in the same place and thus mark a certain invariance in the symbolic which otherwise does not exist (cf. Seminar XX where Lacan remarks that language does not exist. We’ll see why in a moment). Lacan will define three fundamental fantasies revolving around these paradoxes: the non-existence of the sexual relation, the origin of our being as subjects, and the non-existence of Woman.
Although Lacan would not explicitly formulate this position until the sixties, he had already been moving in this direction with respect to his understanding of neurosis as early as the mid fifties. For Lacan a neurosis isn’t a pathological deviation from normality, but is rather a specific structure organizing a specific sort of symptom. In Seminar III, The Psychoses, Lacan articulates these structures in terms of specific questions. Thus, in the case of obsession, the structure is expressed by the question of whether I am alive or dead. Am I alive or am I dead? This question is only intelligible when thought in terms of how the obsessional relates to the master or the mythological primal father as articulated in the masculine side of the graph of sexuation. By contrast, hysteria is expressed in terms of the question of whether I am a man or a woman, which only becomes intelligible in terms of how feminine desire is organized in terms of identification with the desire of the Other. Now, what might not be evident at first glance is that both of these questions are expressions of specific impossibilities or the Real.
If we refer obsession to the masculine pole of the graphs of sexuation presented in Seminar XX, then we see that the paradox characterizing obsession has to do with the nature of castration and jouissance. According to Lacan, the claim that there is no being that is not submitted to the phallic function implies that there exists at least one being that is not subordinated to the phallic function. The male side of the graphs of sexuation can therefore be understood as involving the dialectic between the master and the slave. Recalling that obsession is closely related to the discourse of the master, when the obsessional asks whether he is alive or dead, we can translate this as a question as to whether all jouissance is ceded to the master (that mythological being that isn’t subordinated to the phallic function) or whether he, the slave, maintains some jouissance for himself. The question of whether I am alive or dead is thus a question about whether or not I must sacrifice all my jouissance, and is premised on the fantasy that I might eventually obtain total or complete jouissance by besting the master. What we have here is a formal impossibility characterizing the logic of the phallic function or castration. When I enter the symbolic order I am forced to sacrifice my jouissance (by observing the laws of kinship exchange), yet I still imagine (unconsciously) that somewhere there is some being that makes no such sacrifice. It is this that leads Lacan to characterize obsession as the desire for an impossible desire.
The case is similar with respect to hysteria, for in asking whether I am a man or a woman the formal impossibility encountered is the non-existence of The Woman. La Femme n’existe pas. I will not get into the details of Lacan’s claim that The Woman does not exist or that there is no unified category of Womanness capable of including all women. Most fundamentally Lacan’s claim is premised on the claim that there is no signifier for Woman or that the big Other is incomplete, thereby entailing that L’Autre n’existe pas. In this connection, Lacan, in seminar XX, equates Woman as such with the Other. In a moment we’ll see why the big Other cannot be said to exist. For the moment it’s important to note that this formal impossibility gives rise to the hysterical desire for an unsatisfied desire. For in his search to discover what Woman is, the hysteric’s desire is referred to the desire of he who desires Woman so as to discover what Woman is. In short, the unsatisfied desire desired by the hysteric isn’t simply her own unsatisfied desire, but the unsatisfied desire of an Other through which she might learn what Woman is and thereby become the semblance of Woman as such. It is in this regard that Lacan was led to claim that “The Woman is the symptom of man” (Seminar 22: RSI). For insofar as The Woman does not exist– meaning their is no consistent category of women capable of including all women –any woman (note the case) is but a semblance of Woman arrived at through identification with an-Other’s desire. The symptoms encountered in the treatment of hysterics and obsessionals are thus products of the specific form that these formal impossibilities take. Identifying with your symptom entails identifying with the specific formal impossibility or Real governing your subject position.
Beginning in 1964-65, with Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, Lacan came to focus more seriously and intensively on the formal structure of these impossibilities characterizing the Real. Here what we have is a sort of Goedelian psychoanalysis, or a psychoanalysis founded on the formal impossibility of producing a closed system. Lacan expressed this impossibility with the aphorisms that “there is no universe of discourse” and “there is no metalanguage”. Although these two claims are closely related, they both express slightly different points. Thus when Lacan says “there is no universe of discourse” what he is essentially claiming is that discourse, language, can never form a closed totality, unity, or whole. This refers to Cantor’s paradox or the impossibility of forming a set of all sets insofar as the subsets of such a set would always be greater than the initial set by the power-set axiom. It can also be taken to refer to Russell’s paradox, insofar as the signifier has the feature of not belonging to itself and thus cannot form a totality.
Language is always constitutively incomplete. This isn’t simply a contingent accident such that we could finally rectify it by adding one more (encore!) signifier, but is an essential feature of any system or the mark of systematicity as such. From a psychoanalytic perspective this logic is seen most clearly in Totem and Taboo and Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego. The consistency of the social system is only made through the subtraction or addition of a particular element, such that this element has the paradoxical status of simultaneously being a part of the system and outside the system. By contrast, when Lacan claims that there is no metalanguage, he is essentially claiming that there is no point of view one can adopt on language that would allow one to survey the whole from the outside. We are always already inside of language such that we are dialecticized by language. Thus we have two formal impossibilities or Reals characterizing the being of the symbolic.
Why, then, is there no metalanguage or is it impossible to take a point of view on language that would survey the totality from outside of language. There is, of course, the mathematico-logico demonstration that there is no whole of any formal system whatsoever. Consequently, if there is no whole of any formal system whatsoever, there can be no whole to survey. However, if there is no metalanguage, this is also by virtue of the fact that language is diacritical such that every “element” of language takes on its identity by virtue of its difference to the other elements. Insofar as each element only takes on its identity with respect to the other elements, no element is every simply present, but is already dispersed or “contaminated” by the other elements.
In Seminar XIV, The Logic of Fantasy, Lacan expressed this point with the aphorism that “the signifier cannot signify itself” which is equivalent to the matheme S1 —> S2. Every signifier only produces effects of meaning through its relation to other signifiers. Insofar as every signifier only produces effects of meaning through its differential relation to other signifiers, it follows that any attempt to formulate a metalanguage, to give a description of language from the “outside”, is already differentially included in language and thus a part of the very thing it seeks to describe. Thus we encounter another formal impossibility or Real, characterizing the impossibility of ever arriving at simple identity with oneself. As many post-structuralist thinkers have observed, identity is always already contaminated by difference by virtue of the diacritical play of language. This is just another way of saying S1/$ in the discourse of the master.
Zizek gives a terrific example of this principle in his magnum opus, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. As Zizek remarks in the context of a discussion of Hegel’s distinction between boundary and limit,
National identification is an exemplary case of how an external border is reflected into an internal limit. Of course, the first step towards the identity of the nation is defined through differences from other nations, via an external border: if I identify myself as an Englishman, I distinguish myself from the French, Germans, Scots, Irish, and so on. However, in the next stage, the question is raised of who among the English are ‘the real English’, the paradigm of Englishness; who are the Englishmen who correspond in full to the notion of English…However, the final answer is of course that nobody is fully English, that every empirical Englishman contains something ‘non-English’– Englishness thus becomes an ‘internal limit’, an unattainable point which prevents empirical Englishmen from achieving full identity-with-themselves. (110)
Zizek’s point is that insofar as a nation is defined by a boundary, it’s identity can only be established in its difference to other nations. We can readily observe this phenomenon at work in personal identity as well; for as Lacan shows in the second cell of the graph of desire, my identity is only arrived at differentially in relation to others.
What we have here is thus the Real of identity or the way in which identity, properly speaking is impossible. Neither a nation nor a person is able to ever arrive at identity with itself insofar as it is differentially structured with respect to other nations and identities. Thus when Zizek claims that social antagonisms are always structured around an impossible Real, one way of understanding him would be to point to this formal impossibility of achieving identity. This impossible Real is not without consequences; for as a traumatic impossibility it turns the accomplishment of identity into an insistent demand. Despite the fact that identity is formally impossible insofar as it is always-already contaminated by difference, identity or respite from the play of diacritics is nonetheless demanded. Just as the Real of castration produces desire in the subject, the Real of impossible identity produces a sort of collective desire or fantasy. Identity must be accomplished even if impossible. In this respect, identity is not established through a totalization of the system in question, but is instead produced by having some contingent entity stand for the totality of entities. For instance, some particular type of Englishman– perhaps the working man –comes to stand for all Englishmen. This addition to the system is simultaneously a part of the system and outside it, and functions in such a way as to grant the system a semblance of identity with itself. It is notable that the unconscious functions in exactly this way. The function of the symptom is in fact that crazy addition that allows the otherwise untotalizable unconscious to hang together as a consistent whole. The symptom is always a +1 that stands in the place of the absence lying at the center of the unconscious structured like a language. It is therefore a S(-A-) or a signifier of the barred Other. Yet in functioning in this manner it simultaneously reveals and conceals the fact that the Other is barred. In this respect, the symptom recreates harmony with what would otherwise be infinite deferral. This is why the symptom can also be understood as a metaphor. By contrast, the operation of addition by which an untotalizeable system takes on the semblance of totality is itself subject to the diacritical movement which effaces identity and is therefore in danger of collapsing. For this reason the addition of one element is never enough. In addition to this +1 there must also be a subtraction (-1) which accounts for the failure of this totalization in advance. It is here that the logic of contamination emerges in connection to those fantasies of collective wholeness. For in every semblance of totality there is always a contamination or cries of a virus corrupting the identity of the system. This contamination is a strict corollary of the crazy identity established through the addition of that one extra signifier and functions to account for the failure of this signifier or the manner in which this signifier itself is effaced by the diacritical play of differences. The subtracted signifier or contaminant is always the immigrant, the ethnic other, women, liberals, etc. It is for this reason that those discourses most characterized by the call for identity (nationalistic discourses, individualistic discourses premised on the ego, etc.) are always most characterized by discussions of their Others or those supposed invaders contaminating the identity of the discourse. In fact, what the discourse encounters in these Others is its own disguised Real or the manner in which it always already differs from itself. In short, these Others are the objets a that the identity has had to sacrifice in order to constitute itself in the semblance of totality. For that which is repressed always returns.
November 26, 2006
For the last few days I’ve been reading The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, by Peter Gay. As I read the tale of these young upstarts, I find myself filled with enthusiasm, and fall to bed at night with names like Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Newton, Diderot, Jefferson, Franklin, and Spinoza on my lips. I think to myself that here are struggles that matter, struggles that transformed the face of the world. Although these thinkers certainly sought recognition and prestige, their intellectual work did not simply consist in getting another line on their CV, on making the most radical claim, on being aesthetic dandies like so many of our postmoderns, or in simply securing a position (we need only look at the lives of Diderot and Rousseau to see this). Rather, there was a profound desire to bring an entirely new form of social relations into being, an entirely new world. What is it that excites me so in the lives and thought of these thinkers? Is it their passion for freedom? Their desire to escape superstition once and for all (today we have a new category in addition to superstition: ideology). Is it their ill tempered militancy? Is it their celebration of reason? Or their joy in inquiry? It is not any particular set of claims that I agree with, but rather a sort of spirit or elan that animated these figures… A sense that intellectual work is not simply for the sake of promoting one’s academic capital, but transforming the world itself.
Perhaps what interests me most is the manner in which these thinkers were able to escape their historical moment, transforming history itself. Peter Gay writes,
…though distinguished members of that club [of the cultivated], the philosophes, intelligent and ruthless, were also unreliable: their encounter with the classics, often casual or insignificant, was also decisive for them as it was for few other men. It gave shape to their rebelliousness; it justified their radicalism. While a program of study is not normally a reliable intellectual pedigree, the philosophes’ classical education had special, lifelong meaning for them: it offered them an alternative to Christianity. There were critical moments in their lives, in adolescence and later, when they appealed to the ancients not merely for entertainment but for models, not merely for decoration but for substance, and not for bland substance– such as the staples of Horatian satire: complaints about crowded city life, laments on the brevity of existence, or the menace of bores and bluestockings –but for a philosophical option. (44)
The issue of whether the Enlightenment thinkers read the ancients in a hermeneutically accurate way is irrelevant. Their engagement with the ancients was one that had the character of a “history of the present”, a directedness towards the present, creating an opening within the field of possibilities populating the closure of the present. Phantasmatic or accurate, this encounter suggested that another way was possible, another world was possible, that other forms of social relations and ways of reasoning had existed and could exist again.
That is, their identification with the classics, with the Greek and Roman ancients, allowed them to gain a minimal distance from their own historical moment, and bring something else into being. This distance from the present was also accompanied by a collapse of self-identity, where the subject of Enlightenment discovered itself as a void or emptiness, no longer knowing who or what it was. Peter Gay describes the turmoil of this transformation well in relation to David Hume:
Even David Hume, whose good cheer was celebrated, had to brood and struggle his way into paganism. At eighteen, in the rebellion against the dour Scottish Presbyterianism of his childhood, and elated by his discovery that he had a vocation– philosophy –he stuffed himself, feverishly, with ‘Cicero, Seneca & Plutarch’, and was soon crippled by hysterical symptoms, loss of appetite, hypochondria, and melancholy. He was unable to study with concentration or pleasure.
Practicing some wild analysis, one can almost hear the Presbyterian superego intervening in Hume’s symptoms– His inability to eat reflects a resistance to reading further, a command by the superego refusing the incorporation of anything else. The hypochondria seems to be a defense on the part of his older identifications, suggesting that his new thoughts have rendered him ill and he’s in need of treatment, while his melancholy suggests that he’s lost his status as a love object for his community. Gay continues,
His memory of past ‘errors and perplexities’ makes him diffident; the weakness and disorder of his faculties and the ‘impossibility of amending or correcting’ them reduces him to despair and induces wishes of self-destruction. ‘This sudden view of my danger’ on the boundless ocean of lonely search ‘strikes me with melancholy; and as ’tis usual for that passion, above all others, to indulge itself; I cannot forbear feeding my despair, with all those desponding reflections, which the present subject furnishes me with in such abundence.
…’I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy.’ To be sure, this isolation may be rationally explained, but the explanation has that strange and self-enclosed rationality characteristic of men in situations of extreme loneliness: ‘I have expos’d myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declar’d my dis-approbation of their systems; and can I be surpriz’d, if they shou’d express a hatred of mine and of my person?’ Detachment from society is mirrored by private emptiness: ‘When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I trun my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance.’ The world is hostile and, significantly, conspiratorial: ‘All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; tho’ such is my weakness that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning.’ In the end, Hume proclaims that he no longer knows who he is; his stable self-image has dissolved in a sea of doubt and despair: he fancies himself, much as Diderot did in a similar predicament, ‘some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in ‘society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandon’d and disconsolate.’ And he is driven to ask: ‘Where am I, or what? From what cases do I derive my existence, and to what Condition shall I return? Whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? And on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me?’ (64-6)
These are passages worthy of Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure, and I must confess that I find Hume’s breed of monster far more appealing than the sort of self-indulgent, aestheticized monster that often parades in the name of Deleuze and Guattari. Insofar as identity is diacritical, the product of differential relations among symbolic and imaginary subject-positions, it follows that a revolutionary subject must necessarily undergo a collapse of identity as there is no longer a place for this subject in this diacritical system. Hume asks “whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread”, indicating a relation to the Other or the symbolic. If this can become a question, then this can only be because the favor we court relies on a pre-existent symbolic system. If that system has collapsed for oneself, then we can no longer be certain whose desire we wish to capture and whose gaze we wish to avoid. We have become unmarked for the system, something that the system cannot count or recognize, and have thus, essentially, become void. Yet in this void something new can come to be.
In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,
Repetition is never a historical fact, but rather the historical condition under which something new is effectively produced. It is not the historian’s reflection which demonstrates a resemblance between Luther and Paul, between the Revolution of 1789 and the Roman Republic, etc. Rather, it is in the first place for themselves that the revolutionaries are determined to lead their lives as ‘resuscitated Romans’, before becoming capable of the act which they have begun by repeating in the mode of a proper past, therefore under conditions such that they necessarily identify with a figure from the historical past. Repetition is a condition of action before it is a concept of reflection. We produce something new only on condition that we repeat– once in the mode which constitutes the past, and once more in the present of metamorphosis. Moreover, what is produced, the absolutely new itself, is in turn nothing but repetition: the third repetition, this time by excess, the repetition of the future as eternal return. (DR, 90)
In constituting my history I constitute my influences or determine that through which I am influenced. I produce, as it were, my ground. Yet in identifying with the past, I also transform myself as an agent, and produce something new through the repetition of this identification in the present. To repeat in this instance is not to imitate or resemble the past. We would be hard put to find more than superficial resemblances between the ancients and the Enlightenment thinkers. Not only were their aims different, but in many cases their concepts were wildly different as well. Yet nonetheless the Enlightenment repeats the classical age. What, then, today would it mean to repeat the Enlightenment, in an age following Freud and Marx?
November 24, 2006
The latest issue of Reconstructions, put together by Thivai over at Dialogic and devoted to academic blogging and blog theory/practice, has now been released. There’s an especially good article by some flake who calls himself Sinthome, though there are many other excellent articles by beloved bloggers from around the blogosphere. It will be interesting to see how this blog phenomenon continues to develop and what changes it might bring in the world of theory. I tend to advocate the thesis that transformations in writing technologies also bring about transformations in thought. I have fantasies about Enlightenment thinkers furiously scribbling letters to one another (as, for example, in the case of Leibniz), leading to a powerful cross fertilization of ideas all over Europe. Is not something similar going on with the rhizosphere, where there’s a cross fertilization of ideas spanning the United States, Australia, Canada, England, and throughout Europe, all from very different disciplines and with very different sets of questions? What will become of all of this? What will it have been?
November 24, 2006
As some might have noticed, Larval Subjects has been undergoing some changes in its format as a result of my ill conceived experimentations with the new blogger beta. I like some of these changes, such as the ability to list labels in the sidebar and to list diaries by title for easier reference. Yet, for some reason I’m finding that the font spacing and characters change after I block quote. Is this appearing on other people’s monitors as well? I’m trying to figure out why this is the case, though I’m unable to find any additional code being introduced in the Html section of my diaries. I apologize for the eye strain.