Dr. X’s Free Associations has an interesting post about debates over the war in Iraq and the common experience of being unable to persuade war supporters that resonates nicely with some of the issues I raised in my poorly written post Grounds and Sophists.
Trying to explain the exasperating phenomenon of people who continue to disagree with him on Iraq, despite his eloquent arguments and unassailable mastery of objective facts, Shrinkwrapped writes:
‘Those of us who have not been infected with the thought disorder known as post-modernism and believe that there exists an actual reality that we can reasonably and objectively approach; if that is the case, what is it that prevents people from recognizing facts that are right in front of their eyes?’
It sounds to me like the erudite Shrinkwrapped experienced a little thought glitch during the writing of those sentences, but never mind that.
I’ve been thinking about writing about this issue for a while now, but my thoughts are still a bit scattered. Many of us have experienced this frustrating phenomenon since 2001. We have found ourselves embroiled in discussions where facts were on our side, yet strangely we have not been able to persuade the other person. I think Shrinkwrapped misidentifies the problem when he blames postmodernism, as I do not believe that my interlocutors are willfully refusing to recognize arguments.
Increasingly I’ve come to believe that what is at issue here is transference as described by Lacan. Lacan has an unusual concept of transference which he relates to the “subject supposed to know”. When the analysand enters analysis, he supposes that the analyst has a certain knowledge of his symptom and suffering, when in fact that analyst does not have this knowledge. This projection functions as a motor for analysis as the analysand interprets each pronouncement of the analyst as coming from a place of knowledge and therefore interprets what the analyst says producing knowledge for the analyst. That is, it’s the analysand doing most of the work. A standard, vulgar, and overly simplified Enlightenment conception of discourse begins from the premise that it’s the syntactical and semantical structure of an argument that counts in persuading another person. So long as the argument is logically valid (synatx) and so long as the propositions that compose the argument are true (semantics), the interlocutor will assent to the argument on the premise that the interlocutor is not insane or mentally deficient. What this leaves out is the rhetorical and dialogical dimension of discourse, wherein who speaks is also a crucial factor in determining whether the other person will listen.
I confess that I have an extremely difficult time listening to anything George Bush says at this point in time, and therefore find it difficult to attend to his arguments. There are books I’ve tried to read in the past that I’ve found myself unable to follow simply because they don’t come from the right theoretical orientation. Thus, for example, years ago when I was first extremely hip to Deleuze and Guattari, it was almost impossible for me to read Hegel’s Science of Logic, as I had already branded Hegel an enemy on the basis of what Deleuze had argued in Nietzsche and Philosophy and Difference and Repetition. I would read Hegel’s texts and my eyes would glaze over or I would be overly dismissive of his claims, not following the development of his thought on its own term. This culminated in me taking an incomplete in a graduate course I was taking on Hegel’s system that I was unable to finish for two years. It wasn’t that I was intellectually incapable of reading Hegel, but that my transference towards Deleuze and the negative transference it wrought with regard to Hegel made it impossible for me to “hear” his work. Similarly, I suspect that part of the recent blog war with Anthony Paul Smith and Adam Kotsko had to do with these sorts of transferential issues. On the basis of offhand remarks I’d made in the past, Kotsko and Smith had branded me as a “knee-jerk secularist” and “doctrinaire atheist”, and perhaps I had similar prejudices towards them. Anthony Paul Smith, for instance, subsequently mentioned that his initial comments had been intended in a lighthearted way that presumed more friendliness between us than was there. Something other was intervening in our dialogue and preventing us from talking… Something that wasn’t strictly in the propositions making up the dialogue themselves.
What we thus get are universes of reference that are a function of our identification. Because I suppose that Lacan has a certain knowledge I come to dwell in a particular universe of reference populated by entities such as objet a, transference, the symptom, the sinthome, the Other, the unconscious structured as a language, etc. When I speak of psychic phenomena, I am speaking of something different than say my neuropsychological colleague. Indeed, I do not take psychoanalysis to be a psychology or neurology at all, as I begin from the stance that the subject is constituted in the field of the Other or that subjectivity is intersubjectivity and cannot be thought independent of the Other. Part of understanding a universe of reference will thus involve taking into account the field of identifications structuring a person’s subjectivity. The Iraq war supporter has different identifications than myself and thus relates to “actual reality” in a different way as he will only listen to certain people as authorities. Given the globalization of our culture, it is not surprising that identification would increasingly come to play such a key role in structuring our relation to the world as we must now all deal with absence, with what we cannot directly verify, as a part of our day to day life due to the omnipresence of media communications. Given that we all recognize that any media image or story is “framed” by the person writing and filming and that we cannot directly verify these things for ourselves we must have recourse to different standards of truth and these standards become the credibility of the speaker. This, I believe, is what Deleuze had in mind with his discussions of the role the “structure-Other” plays in grounding recognition and representation in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense (reference could also be made to Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations and the role the Other plays in developing dimension and permanence for the cogito). I am not at all suggesting that this is a happy state of affairs or that the idea of multiple universes of reference is a marvellous thing, only that this seems to characterize our current “metaphysical” situation where talk of reality is concerned.
What does this have to do with Iraq? I’ve increasingly come to notice that intercommunicative settings seem to be organized around this phenomenon of the “subject supposed to know”. It seems that today a person begins from the premise that there are some who speak from the standpoint of knowledge and others that do not. For instance, when I watch FOX news I do not attribute knowledge to the newscasters, and am therefore largely deaf to the claims and arguments they make even if they are true. I begin from the standpoint that they are trying to dupe me ideologically. It seems to me that this phenomenon is even more potent among many rightwing supporters of Bush and the war, such that they simply filter out any negative news or information about Iraq as a “liberal conspiracy”. As the opening paragraphs of Plato’s Republic indicate, you cannot persuade someone who refuses to listen. The issue here is not one of postmodernism, but rather one of who we trust as a credible speaker. The moment shrinkwrapped opens his/her mouth, shutters have already fallen over the ears of his/her interlocutor. As we know from our practices, it’s impossible to do work with patients that attribute us no credibility or authority. For instance, it’s always more difficult to work with patients that have been forced into analysis by family or courts. The question then is one of how to overcome this credibility gap or crisis of legitimacy.
In a way I think Shrinkwrapped is right when s/he evokes a postmodernization of discourse, but for the wrong reasons. Expressed as Shrinkwrapped has expressed it, the premise seems to be that those who disagree do so because they adopt postmodernism as a philosophical position. However, I think the issue goes far deeper than this– It is not that someone has deviously adopted a philosophical position of postmodernism wherein there is no ultimate reality, but rather that we are living in a postmodern situation. When I argue with my friend that is a staunch supporter of the war, we literally live in different realities or “universes of reference” by virtue of how our subjectivities are structured transferentially. For this reason, we are unable to use “actual reality” to decide the truth or falsity of contested propositions. Rather, our universes of reference (hence the plural) have become self-referential by virtue of what we recognize as a credible authority. As Hegel puts it,
We may also remark at this point that to go no further than mere grounds, especially in the domain of law and ethics, is the general standpoint and principle of the Sophists. When people speak of ‘sophistry’ they frequently understand by it just a mode of consideration which aims to distort what is correct and true, and quite generally to present things in a false light. But this tendency is not what is immediately involved in sophistry, the standpoint of which is primarily nothing but that of abstract argumentation. The Sophists came on the scene among the Greeks at a time when they were no longer satisfied with mere authority and tradition in the domain of religion and ethics. They felt the need at that time to become conscious of what was to be valid for them as a content mediated by thought. This demand was met by the Sophists because they taught people how to seek out the various points of view from which things can be considered; and these points of view are, in the virst instance, simply nothing but grounds. As we remarked earlier, however, since a ground does not yet have a content that is determined in and for itself, and grounds can be found for what is unethical and contrary to law no less than for what is ethical and lawful, the decision as to what grounds are to count as valid falls to the subject. The ground of the subject’s decision becomes a matter of his individual disposition and aims. (Geraets, Suchting, Harris, pgs. 188-191)
Grounds become matters of individual preferences and the savvy consumer shops around for those grounds that most suit his taste. I get my news from NPR and dismiss FOX, while you get your news from FOX and dismiss NPR. This is one of the meanings of Lacan’s aphorism that the big Other does not exist. What seems different today is that where before this truth was largely unconscious and repressed such that we at least pretended that there was a consistent and shared Other, today we seem conscious of this. I am not at all sure what is to be done. I hardly find it to be something that should be celebrated or that is a happy thesis.