June 2007

The Architecture of Theories

At the beginning of his novel Gemini, Michel Tournier writes,

On the twenty-fifth of September 1937, a depression moving from Newfoundland to the Baltic sent masses of warm, moist oceanic air into the corridor of the English Channel. At 5:19 P.M. a gust of wind from the west-southest uncovered the petticoat of old Henriette Puysoux, who was picking up potatos in her field; slapped the sun blind of the Cafe des Amis in Plancoet; banged a shutter on the house belonging to Dr. Bottereau alongside the wood of La Hunaudaie; turned over eight pages of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, which Michel Tournier was reading on the beach at Saint-Jacut; raised a cloud of dust and bits of straw on the road to Plelan; blew wet spray in the face of Jean Chauve as he was putting his boat out in the Bay of Arguenon; set the Pallet family’s underclothes bellying and dancing on the line where they were drying; started the wind pump racing at the Ferme des Mottes; and snatched a handful of gilded leaves off the silver birches in the garden of La Cassine. (9)

What a beautiful way to begin a novel. The first thing to notice is the manner in which the events described here are dated. They occur at a particular time and in a particular place. Yet secondly, note the way in which this gust of wind pulls together a series of entities, linking them together despite their disparity.

Okay, so maybe not a master-science, but rather a master-metaphor or a guiding metaphor for thought. For some time I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated with the terms “structure” and “system” as key terms for thinking social-formations. For me, structure evokes connotations of architecture. I think of architectural structures. I can draw them on a piece of paper, capturing the blue-print of the edifice that I’m trying to think about. If I have some talent in the discipline of topology, I can then imagine these structures undergoing free variation. Yet the problem is that structure, even in topography, remains relatively static and rigid. When I describe the Sears Tower I don’t really need to talk about the outside world, but just the organization of the tower and how all of its parts fit together. Matters are not much different in the case of systems. For instance, the paradigm of a system might be a bureaucracy, where there are a set number of protocols for processing inputs for producing a particular output.

Both of these concepts strike me as too rigid, two subject to closure, for defining the historical present in which we exist. In his beautiful book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, the ethnographer Arjun Appadurai describes a set of social and cultural circumstances impacted by contemporary media technologies and mass migrations. How can we today speak of “architecture” or rigid structures in a contemporary setting where diverse codes are perpetually being brought into contact with one another through migration and communications technologies? Is it a mistake that the concepts of structure and system emerge right at that historical moment when migration brought on by the industrial revolution begins to erode these structures, calling them into question as a result of codes being scrambled everywhere? Does not structure appear at that precise moment when structure is disappearing? And might not the frantic search for structure and system everywhere be a symptom of the desire to make the Other exist, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

Assembly Required

Last night I had one of those thoughts that is probably best to never express out loud. “What,” I thought, “would the world look like if we imagined all entities that exist as variations of the weather?” This is really the sort of thought that can only occur to you when you’re in a sleepy, half drunken stupor, falling asleep on the couch while watching a show about the Galapagos Islands on National Geographic. I should say that meteorological metaphors have often appeared in my writing. In the past I’ve often made reference to phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes when trying to think about the nature of systems. On the one hand, hurricanes are of interest in that they have the status of quasi-things. Why is it that we’re inclined to think of a chair or rock as a thing or object, yet when it comes to a hurricane or a tornado we’re inclined to think of these things as events? It seems to me that what’s at issue here is a temporal prejudice or a prejudice pertaining to temporality. If a rock has the status of an object, then this is because it is a relatively slow moving and dense event. Rocks stick around for a long time. By contrast, even though a hurricane might stick around for days and weeks, they lack density and temporal longevity. Nonetheless, hurricanes do have qualities of organization and endurance, even if that organization or internal structure is relatively short-lived.

What interested me in particular about the documentary was their discussion of the ocean currents surrounding the Galapogos Islands. Every year the Islands receive cold currents of water that are particularly congenial for plankton and algae. A whole host of animals depend on these currents from marine iguanas to various sorts of fish to sea lions and a variety of sea birds that feed on these other creatures. Every few years the so-called El Nino effect will occur, preventing the cool waters from reaching the islands and bringing about unseasonable warmth and torrential downfalls. When this occurs the plankton do not arrive and the algae do not grow, and vast numbers of birds, marine iguanas, and sea lions die, leaving only a few to survive. These events then function as selective mechanisms, shifting the trajectory of subsequent development for the various species on the island. Just as vast numbers of sea iguanas die, the land iguanas flourish as a result of tender flowers and plant-life that pop up everywhere on the island as a result of the heavy rainfall. In short, these ocean currents assemble an entire organization among the plant and animal life that populate. What we have here are assemblage mechanisms that generate a particular organization (the ever shifting eco-systems), giving rise to a temporary pattern of relationships among the elements.

There are a variety of levels at which such systems can be investigated and no one level of analysis takes priority over the others. One might think that a discussion of the ocean currents is sufficient to explain the emergent system. That is, why might posit a hierarchical and unilateral form of causality. However, while the ocean currents serve as a condition for the possibility of the resulting assemblage, it must not be forgotten that the elements of the emergent assemblage themselves interact with one another and have dynamics of their own. The resulting assemblage has inter-assemblage relations with an outside (something entirely missing in structuralism and much of systems theory), but there are also intra-assemblage relations among the elements (the plankton, plant-life, sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, turtles, fish, etc).

These intra-assemblage relations contain their own dynamics and tensions that preside over the development as a whole. For instance, there are a number of land iguanas that live in the calderas of old volcanoes. Every year, during mating season, the female iguanas make a journey of sometimes tens of miles to the top of the caldera so that they might lay their eggs. Here timing is everything (again a feature that tends to be ignored in structural approaches). If an iguana comes from deep inside the caldera she will have a longer journey. If she doesn’t make it to the top of the caldera in time, all of the good nesting sites will be taken and she’ll be forced to re-enter the caldera, laying her eggs in the precarious walls of the volcano’s side. These walls are composed of very loosely packed rock and soil where avalanches not only often occur, but are inevitable. In a year where the El Nino effect is operative, there will be a higher number of land iguanas due to the great amount of available vegetation, thereby leading to more intra-assemblage competition among the various iguanas and other creatures, thereby shifting subsequent courses of development. A more striking example of these intra-assemblage relations would be the effect that the Cane Toad has had on the eco-system in Australia. The Cane Toad was introduced into the Australian ecosystem to fight pests. However, having no natural predator of its own, it reproduced rapidly and began devouring much of the plant-life and other desirable animal life. Here we have an example of intra-assemblage relations where one element comes to predominate and shift the organization of the assemblage itself without being catalyzed to do so from elements of an outside. Consequently, it is not enough to simply analyze the inter-assemblage relations between ocean and weather patterns and the organisms that form a system in response to these patterns, but it is also necessary to explore the intra-assemblage relations and the various patterns that emerge as a result of interactions among the elements of these assemblages. Various species and ecosystems here come to resemble weather patterns themselves, like a relatively persistent eddy of water behind the support of a bridge that has its duration and fluctuations as it endures throughout time.

Contingency in the Garden of Forking Paths

The Galapagos Islands have a number of active volcanoes. Among the creatures that inhabit the Galapagos are the famous Galapagos tortoises. Some of these tortoises live exclusively in the calderas of various volcanoes, and have very simple or homogeneous genetic codes compared to tortoises elsewhere on the island. Occasionally you will find these tortoises with rocks actually embedded in their shells from small volcanic explosions that continue to occur in the base of the calderas, where they have lodged themselves in the shell of the tortoise. Biologists hypothesize that the simplicity of the genetic code among these tortoises is to be explained through a volcanic explosion that destroyed most of the tortoise population, leaving only a few to mate with one another.

A volcanic eruption or meteor hitting the earth or group of terrorists destroying the World Trade Center can be thought of as a contingent bifurcation point. Emerging from neither the relatively stable assemblages of weather patterns, nor from within the system itself, these events explode onto the scene, challenging the intra-systematic organization of the assemblage as a whole and bringing it before a point where forking paths of development as a whole are possible. In the days following 9-11, the United States wobbled between alternative paths in moving towards its future. Organization fluctuated back and forth without settling initially on any one particular social configuration. Within a few days the valence of the event was retroactively codified and a vector was chosen, generating a particular organization. Other vectors were possible.

Kaleidoscopes and Textiles

No doubt I will regret having written this post later on this evening. I have gone on about ocean currents, turtles, and iguanas in a rather indulgent fashion. However, it seems to me that social and political theory often suffers from being myopic and reductive, choosing one level of analysis and excluding all others. For instance, in psychoanalysis we are told the signifier reigns supreme and that everything is filtered through the signifier, thus allowing us to ignore contributions from neurology or even historical studies. Theory should instead be thought as a kaleidoscope, where various levels of analysis are thought like a turn of the scope revealing a different pattern. The difference here, of course, would be that these various patterns not be thought as independent, but should instead be thought as inter-dependent networks at various levels, producing effects at other levels, without these levels being hierarchical over overdetermining the others (as in the case of language with Lacan or economics for some classical variants of Marxist thought). Along these lines, Appadurai has proposed that we think in terms of independent streams such as mediascapes, ethnoscapes, financescapes, technoscapes, and ideoscapes, where these various streams are woven together in various configurations, sometimes one dominating, sometimes others, where it is always a question of the relationship between the local and the global and of local configurations like a local weather pattern that is nonetheless dependent on global fluctuations. In this way we can investigate the manner in which certain forms of organization arise and maintain consistency for a time, while also discerning where their points of transformation might lie. To Appadurai’s five streams, I would also add ecoscapes or geoscapes, and perhaps bioscapes, to refer to the Other beyond the Other, the absolute outside of social systems, or those contingencies that shake the earth such as earthquakes, hurricanes, meteor strikes, etc., where ordinary social relations are momentarily suspended and the social system wobbles between possibilities.

In thinking these six or seven streams, we must learn how to think according to the ancient art of textiles in terms of weaving and fabrics, where we ask not which of these streams provides the interpretive key of all the others, but instead look at the patterned fabrics that emerge out of these various threads being woven together. Of course, the fabric here must not be thought as an extant thing like the fabrics we know in our day to day life, but as a specifically meteorological fabric that is an ongoing process of weaving on a shuttle and loom that never ceases to vary itself and which perpetually weaves new fabrics as new groupings or patterns emerge responding to contingencies both within the threads and from without. Weaving must be thought not in terms of its status as product, but process.

The advantage of treating meteorology as a key theoretical metaphor is that it underlines both internal organization and the dependency of every system on an outside, while also capturing the ephemeral nature of all emergent organization in the order of time. The hurricane can only emerge as a hurricane, as an organization, through the heat of the ocean water out of which it arises. Every social group formation, as it produces and reproduces itself in time, needs its heat as well. Some of this heat can be intra-systemic (for instance, the way in which communication technologies function as catalysts that heat up social relations and function as a condition of onto-genesis presiding over entirely new groupings independent of local conditions) or inter-systemic, pertaining to relations between social systems and environmental conditions in which the group exists (for instance, the role that a drought might play in defining struggles among various groups in Africa or placing group identities in onto-genesis as they redefine themselves in fights over resources). All these relations and their dynamics deserve investigation in their own right. These investigations will not unfold universal rules like Newtonian laws, but will be far closer to Levi-Strauss’s “science of the concrete”, investigating a set of emergent regularities that both came to be and that can pass away.

I came across this article by Eugene Holland when looking for examples of schizoanalysis in practice for the reading group I participate in. As always, Holland’s writing is exceptionally clear and illuminating. The article is of special interest for the productive and congenial relations it draws between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari’s work with Marx and historical modes of analysis. Well worth the read. It is also published in Paul Patton’s Deleuze: A Critical Reader. In my view there is often an unproductive opposition drawn between the work of Deleuze and Guattari and Lacan, where one is placed in the position of advocating one or the other. As can be observed from Zizek’s Organs Without Bodies, this is something that occurs among both Deleuzians and Lacanians. It seems to me that this opposition is mostly the result of the publication of Lacan’s seminar in the English speaking world. Anti-Oedipus was published in English in 1977. For many years we only had Lacan’s eleventh seminar (1977) and Ecrits: A Selection (1977). Work done in a “Lacanian” orientation tended to focus on the imaginary and the mirror-stage article, ignoring the real altogether, and espousing a high classical structuralism when discussing the symbolic. Very little was known about Lacan’s post-Seminar 11 work and how it undermined the claims of high structuralism with its claims that the big Other does not exist, that there is no Other of the Other, that there is no universe of discourse, and that the woman does not exist (indeed, Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion of “n-sexes” can be understood as falling squarely on the feminine side of the graphs of sexuation). The watershed moment that changed everything in “Lacanian studies” was the publication of Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject (followed by the equally brilliant Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the forthcoming Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach), Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology, and most importantly Lacan’s 20th seminar, Encore (1998). In addition to this, we now have seminar 17, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, which Guattari attended during the writing of Anti-Oedipus and references throughout. Prior to this the image of Lacan was that of a somewhat reactionary apologist of the phallic order who had one concept: the imaginary. It comes as little surprise that English-speaking readers, given the choice between the rich conceptual universe of Deleuze and Guattari that draws tools from Marx, Nietzsche, psychoanalysis, Freud, Lacan, Klein, Foucault, linguistic, the natural sciences, etc., etc., would have tended to look down their nose at what was then Lacanianism. As access to the unpublished seminars has become available– nearly all of them are translated at this point –and we’ve begun to learn more about Lacan’s work from the 60s on, it becomes possible to tell a very different story and perhaps undermine some of the reigning sterile oppositions haunting the world of theory.

N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has written a beautiful clarification of a number of her positions regarding capitalism, immanence, the self-reflexivity of theory, and social transformation as a salvo in an ongoing discussion with Joseph Kugelmass and Ryan/Aless that I would like to post in full here as both a way of preventing it from flying under the radar and drawing some connections to Marx and other trends in emancipatory political thought. While much of this post can stand on its own, readers will find it worthwhile to return to N.Pepperell’s original post to get the full context of the discussion. In a lengthy post, N.Pepperell writes:

Fantastic stuff, folks – my thoughts are running in all sorts of directions. Many thanks for this. Let’s see how much sense I can make here.

Joe -

Yes, the term “outside” could be reappropriated to be compatible with an immanent critique. I tend personally to reserve the term “outside” for “nonsymmetrical” theoretical approaches – for approaches that basically offer two different theories – one that explains what capitalism is, and another that explains the standpoint of critique. The issue is that many theories have no idea that they are asymmetrical – whether because they take so for granted a certain notion of human nature, or because they claim not to have a normative standpoint, or because they theorise a “margin” or a potential for “rupture” that is so completely unspecified on a qualitative level that it has no determinate qualitative relationship to capitalism. So, effectively, I tend to use the term “outside” for what, in a Hegelian framework, would be an “abstract negation” – for an approach that rejects something, without explicitly thematising its own determinate relationship to what has been rejected.

I then use terms like “transcendence” or “determinate negation” or similar for the concept you’re trying to capture with the Mobius strip metaphor. No one owns the words, of course – and my terminology isn’t in any way standard. The concepts are the important thing – and you’re correct in taking my point to be that an immanent dialectical theory thematises the way in which something can arise within capitalism, and even fill some determinate role in the replication of that system – and yet, as Benjamin argues, we can still “brush history against the grain”, and use these very things against the context that has given them birth.

Read on!


Towards the beginning of his book Deleuze, Marx, and Politics, Nicholas Thoburn gives a nice summary of Deleuze’s ontology.

At one level, an initial presentation of Deleuze’s politics is a relatively simple task. Deleuze and Guattari are self-proclaimed ‘political’ thinkers. Indeed, politics is central enough to their understanding of the formation of life that they can write that ‘politics precedes being’ (ATP: 203). Deleuze’s politics, like indeed all his and Guattari’s concepts and categories, is closely related to his Spinozist and Nietzschean materialism, with its conception of the world as an ever-changing and intricately related monstrous collection of forces and arrangements that is always constituting modes of existence at the same time as it destroys them. Such a materialism conceives the world as not only without finitude, but also without delineated subjects or objects; let us call them ‘things’.11 Of course, this is not a refutation of the existence of things, but it is a refusal to present them in any ontological or epistemological primacy. There are things, but only as they are constituted in particular, varied, and mutable relations of force.12

If the world is at base a primary flux of matter without form or constant, then things are always a temporary product of a channelling of this flux in what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘assemblages’ or ‘arrangements’ (cf. ATP: 503″” 5).13 Nietzsche calls this channelling a process of ‘interpretation’: the process whereby matter is cut and assembled by a particular series of forces that, as Foucault’s work has emphasized, respect no ‘ideal’/’material’ dichotomy. Any interpretation of a thing or an event does not come after the fact, but is part of its composition, as one of many forces immanent to it. As Deleuze (n.d.a: n.p.) puts it: ‘Nietzsche’s idea is that things and actions are already interpretations. So, to interpret is to interpret interpretations and, in this way, already to change things, “to change life”.’ The coherence of things is not, then, a function of their position in the centre of a series of concentric circles of channelling or interpretation. Things are far more unstable than this. Without a primary form before interpretation, the thing is situated at a meeting point of a perpetually changing series of interpretations/forces and is thus never ‘finished’.14 A thing thus embodies difference within itself as a ‘virtuality’ or ‘potential’ to be actualized in different interpretations and configurations.15

This ‘virtuality’ is not in opposition to the ‘real’; rather it is the reality of a creative matter as it exists in ever-new configurations as the base of the real (it is in opposition only to the fixed determination of relations) (cf. ATP: 99).

Nancy (1996: 110) puts this well: Deleuze’s ‘thought does not have “the real” for an “object” – it has no “object”. It is another effectuation of the real, admitting that the real “in itself” is chaos, a sort of effectivity without effectuation’.16 Thus, it is not only that ‘facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations’ derived from our historically formed values (Nietzsche 1968: §481), but that we are called to an active creation of new and different interpretations, or ‘lives’. If all is contested interpretation as the production of being, then politics is immanent to life, politics precedes being: ‘Practice does not come after the emplacement of the terms and their relations, but actively participates in the drawing of the lines’ (ATP: 203, 208). Interpretation, or politics, is both a process of intricate attention to what makes a thing cohere, what makes an assemblage work, and, as far as possible (it is not a product of a simple will to change, but is a complex and difficult engagement), an affirmation of new senses, new lives, or new possibilities.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s monist thought, then, ‘life’ has no primary forms or identities but is a perpetual process of configuration and variation, where politics is an art of composition, an art that affirms the variation and creation of life “” ‘molecular’ or ‘minor’ processes, against striation and identity “” ‘major’ or ‘molar’ processes (though, as I will show, there is no simple minor/ major dichotomy).17 The ramifications of this generalization of politics across the plane of life are great, and this manoeuvre plays a not insignificant part in the positive reception and use of Deleuze and Guattari’s works in recent years, where a frequent theme is an explication of this politicized life in a ‘politics of becoming’. However, at another level, this generalization of politics poses problems for an account, and indeed a development, of Deleuze’s politics. For, if politics is immanent to the creations of life such that politics is everywhere, one is left wondering what the specificity of politics might be. This question is explicitly taken up by Alain Badiou (1998: 16-17; 2001). Badiou argues that, in generalizing politics everywhere, Deleuze’s system lacks a specifically political register of thought. In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari isolate the fields of Art, Science, and Philosophy, paying intimate attention to the mode of creation specific to each, but they do not do the same for politics, leaving it as the essence or process of creation immanent to these spheres rather than anything specific in itself. For Badiou, the marker of a specifically political register is the engagement with capital; politics must be adequate to capital. Badiou of course knows that an engagement with specifically capitalist dynamics is a central feature of Deleuze’s work. He argues, however, that when it comes to a politics of capital, Deleuze drops the politics of creation and falls back on a rather politically empty model of ‘critique’.

Badiou’s point is important, and he is right to draw attention to the possible problems of generalizing politics across the terrain of life. His critique at this level is not, however, adequate to the depth and complexity of Deleuze’s politics. For, in Deleuze’s works, there is at once a rich conception of what a politics of life might be, as it is explored through a range of specific sites and problems, and considerable discussion of a political engagement with specifically capitalist configurations. Indeed, contrary to a distinction between creation and critique, I would argue that Deleuze’s project is precisely concerned to develop a politics of invention that is adequate to capital. And it is the very difficulty of, and commitment to, this project that necessitates that Deleuze does not delineate the specifically political register of thought that Badiou discerns as lacking. Politics for Deleuze is neither a specific field of human activity nor merely a generalized process of invention; there is an imperative to a grander project which bears striking similarity with that of Marx’s communism, a project which Deleuze and Guattari (AÅ’: 382) describe as the calling forth of a ‘new earth’. This project is not reducible to a political solution, but is rather a process of engagement with the social totality. It is for similar reasons that Engels (in Marx and Engels 1973: 12) describes Marx as a thinker of social, rather than ‘mere political’, revolution, why Negri (1999: 266) argues that the separation of the social and political is ‘unthinkable in Marx’, and why those related to left communist milieux often present their politics as ‘anti-political’ (cf. Bordiga n.d.; Dauve and Martin 1997). In this politics, the project of the new earth, as Ansell Pearson (1999: 211) aptly puts it, is a kind of ‘riddle’.18 That is, it is not something which can be laid out, mapped, and determined “” it can have no set structure or narrative, and is not available, to use Marx’s (1976: 99) words, like a recipe that can be drawn up for the cook-shops of the future. It is, rather, to be developed and drawn forth through a continual and inventive engagement with the forces of the world. Politics for Deleuze, then, is at once a process of the invention of life and an engagement with specifically capitalist relations. And in this it is the practice of a riddle, an undetermined and continually open, but no less practical, project.

I do not have a whole lot to say about this passage at the moment, beyond pointing out that such an ontological vision has profound implications for how we pose questions, think politics, and think critical analysis. If there is a debate or discussion to be had between a Zizekian-Badiouian orientation of politics and a Deleuzian orientation of politics, then it must be formulated at the level of their respective ontologies. Deleuze’s universe is a universe of interrelation and process, where entities are more variations than substances. It is for this reason that there cannot be a “politics of subtraction” for Deleuze, as beings cannot be subtracted from the field of forces in which they originate. Nor can there be a sudden leap out of the system or structure as there is in the case of Zizek’s Act, for precisely the same reason. Instead, there can be the intensification of potentials that inhabit the networks such that new distributions of forces are effected. Thoburn’s book on Deleuze and Guattari’s politics– first recommended to me by Nate(?) –is well worth the read. The text is characterized by a sobriety, seriousness, and critical attentiveness to actually existing situations that is often lacking in studies of Deleuze (i.e., it doesn’t prattle on about “creating monsters” and speak as if politics simply consists in creating works of art or inventing new perversions). However, more importantly, the text works very closely with the works of Marx, taking up the Marxist question of how one might draw on the potentials haunting actually existing capitalism so as to shift our contemporary socio-political organization. As such, it rises to poses a very serious challenge to a number of criticisms of Deleuze and Guattari such as those found in Zizek, Badiou, and Hallward. This is one of the more exciting books I’ve read on Deleuze in some time.

It can be found online here. Apparently chapter four is missing, but those who are interested can download it from Questia by doing free seven day trial with their service.

Spurious has written a nice response to my post on selection, situating it in terms of questions of taste and artistic interaction.

A selection has already taken place such that those oeuvres can come into appearance as what they are. The reader, the viewer, the listener makes what Sinthome calls, ‘a slice within chaos’, and adds ‘it must be chaos as it is bubbling with an infinite number of potential qualities’.

Those qualities – to adapt and extend his argument – are themselves constituted by the reader, the listener as she has emerged, to the extent that artworks, oeuvres are never there, present to hand and available, all at once. Her taste has already been formed; artworks and oeuvres have already been organised; a selection has occurred within the chaos.

Does this imply a simple relativism, taste reflecting merely an individual propensity? But the individual is co-formed with what she constitutes; she becomes with what draws her to some qualities and not others. She is constituted as listener, viewer or reader along with those works and oeuvres to which she is drawn; what she listens to, views or reads also determines what she can listen to, view, or read. (Insert here accounts of the cultures and subcultures to which she might belong, of distinction (Bourdieu) and cultural literacy.)

Then taste emerges out of her becoming, the way she is drawn through art, through music, through literature, and draws them together in her passage. And this, in turn, will depend upon those around her – her friends, teachers and those she teaches, that milieu in which influence is bound up with a sense of what is worthwhile, what should be listened to, read, etc.

Refracting on Spurious’ brief remark about “co-formation”, I would like to send the trajectory of this thought along yet another vector. It seems to me that what Lars is essentially pointing to is “the between”. To speak of “the between” is already to speak poorly, for the definite article substantializes what is instead a process and an emergence, like the serpent devouring its own tail that graces N.Pepperell’s Rough Theory: Neither agent nor world, but the dynamic interaction of the two. When I hear the word “co-formation” coupled with my previous post on salience and selectivity, I am immediately led to think of information. There is no information-in-itself, laying in wait so that it might be discovered. Rather, information emerges from chaos, as the result of a selection. Information is something produced. As such, information must be thought as in-form-ation, where the hyphenation of the term simultaneously plays on the register of the product (information, signaling), form, and the verb denoting the process. Information is always in-form-ation; or more simply, it is in formation. It is something perpetually coming-to-be.

As such, the in-form-ation of information marks the site wherein a receptivity of receptivity is primordially constituted in an ongoing process that evades any distinction between the active and the passive as it might appear in the Kantian distinction between the spontaneity of the understanding and the passive receptivity of the aesthetic of intuition. This, then, would account for the strange refraction of how Lars received my original remarks on selectivity in the register of aesthetics and art; for the field of intuition, of sensibility– as Kant and the empiricists would call it –is already aesthetic in both the Greek and contemporary sense of the term: It is both an aesthesis or “sensing”, a receiving and an aesthetic production or invention by dint of being in formation or undergoing the genesis of form (like the artist giving form to the medium and the medium giving form to the artist). Deleuze referred to this as a new aesthetic that unites the two senses of the aesthetic (as what can be sensed and the theory of art). It is for this reason that Deleuze’s empiricism is not simply a classical empiricism vis a vis Hume and Locke, but a transcendental empiricism. Where the classical empiricist assumes receptivity and the givens it renders possible, transcendental empiricism seeks the very genesis of receptivity and the given itself… A thesis intolerable to the classical empiricist, who treats the sensible as a domain of sensible atoms that are irreducible or based on no prior syntheses.

However, we must take great care not to think of the receptive one as she who molds receptivity. She is both given form to the same degree that she gives form, such that we cannot think this relation as one of a sovereign and active agent molding the world as she sees fit. Rather, world and agent are both precipitated out of this process like by-products, introducing a bit of order into the infinitely complex bramble of chaos, or effecting a slice within chaos that marks the space of an engagement. This, perhaps, is the most significant feature of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of desiring-machines. Deleuze and Guattari write,

[The schizophrenic] does not live nature as nature, but as a process of production. There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring-machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all of species life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer having any meaning whatsoever. (Anti-Oedipus, 2)

Desiring-machines are always binary machines, which is to say they are machines that function by effecting a cut, break, or interruption in a material flow. In this regard, bodies are always attached to the world in such a way that we cannot think of self-enclosed minds or cultural spaces that do not already open on to the whole of nature. One need only think of the opening pages of Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure to see this point:

As he swam, he pursued a sort of revery in which he confused himself with the sea. The intoxication of leaving himself, of slipping into the void, of dispersing himself in the thought of water, made him forget every discomfort. And even when this ideal sea which he was becoming ever more intimately had in turn become the real sea, in which he was virtually drowned, he was not moved as he should have been: of course there was something intolerable about swimming this way, aimlessly, with a body which was of no use to him beyond thinking that he was swimming, but he also experienced a sense of relief, as if he had finally discovered the key to the situation, and, as far as he was concerned, it all came down to continuing his endless journey, with an absence of organism in an absence of sea. (The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, 56)

Or one might think of the early pages of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room:

The rock was one of those tremendously solid brown, or rather black, rocks which emerge from the sand like something primitive. Rough with crinclied limpet shells and sparsely strewn with locks of dry seaweek, a small boy has to stretch his legs far apart, and indeed to feel rather heroic, before he gets to the top.

But there, on the very top, is a hollow full of water, with a sandy bottom; with a blob of jelly stuck to the side, and some mussels. A fish darts across. The fring of yellow-brown seaweed flutters, and out pushes an opal-shelled crab–

‘Oh, a huge crab,’ Jacob murmers–

and begins his journey on weakly legs on the sady bottom. Now! Jacob plunged his hand. The crab was cool and very light. But the water was thick with sand, and so, scrambling down, Jacob was about to jump, holding his bucket in front of him, when he saw, stretched entirely rigid, side by side, their faces very red, an enormous man and woman. (9)

Thomas undergoes a progressive experience of depersonalization or impersonalization as he and the sea become the same. The sea within which he swims shifts from being the “ideal sea” to the “real-sea”. He fades as a distinct subject, carried along as he is by the tide. Jacob, on the other hand, emerges from a prepersonal field, alongside it, as if precipitated by all sorts of prior events: the primordial rock emerging out of the ground, the jelly-fish stuck to the side of the rock, the darting fish, and then the crab that evokes him out of his anonymity, effecting a separation between the field and his status as a subject. The regarding subject– “Oh, a huge crab!” –is an agent come second, that does not initially inhabit the field.

The in-form-ation of information is not simply a curiosity pertaining to the nature of perception and cognition. Rather, one of the predominant strains in contemporary social thought has been the implicit assumption that the agent is simply a passive clay or material to which social structures and systems give form like a cookie cutter shapes dough. The exemplar of this sort of theorizing would be Louis Althusser, who saw persons as nothing more than supports of the ideological state apparatus, but this thesis is more or less shared by Lacan, Zizek, Badiou, and Ranciere. It is for this reason that they must seek out some empty place or void within social structure or the signifying chain– not unlike Levi-Strauss’ “mana-signifier” –to account for how some minimal agency contrary to structure might be possible. After all, even the neo-structuralists must acknowledge that change does take place and subjects never quite seem to fit structure. Yet what this entire line of thought assumes– without ever explicitly stating it –is that agents are receptive to social structure without remainder. How else could we account for Zizek’s claims about the ideology of toilets? Analysis of the in-form-ation of information might yield a very different line of thought and open a very different set of possibilities where agency is concerned.

Those interested in Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari will find John Protrevi’s website extremely useful. Petrovi has posted outlines of Difference and Repetition, Anti-Oedipus, and A Thousand Plateaus. The chapter by chapter outlines of Difference and Repetition are especially useful if one is already familiar with the work. If you navigate back to the coursework section you will also find material on Foucault, Derrida and Husserl, and Kant’s third critique. Enjoy!

A long while back I recounted the story of how Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura came to be discovered during the 17th century. De Rerum Natura had lain fallow among a pile of books in a monestary, where they were literally (pardon the pun) covered with mold and various plants. As Peter Gay recounts the story, the monks had torn bits of parchment from the various books for other uses, showing little regard for the texts themselves. During this period, enterprising thinkers would scour the monestaries throughout Europe, searching for texts from Greek and Roman antiquity by unknown philosophers, statesmen, and rhetoricians. Now presumably there would occasionally be enterprising “scholar-monks” that would go through the piles of books, looking for items of interest. So the question that emerges with regard to Lucretius’ magnificent De Rerum Natura is that of how it was able to suddenly go from obscurity to centrality within the socio-intellectual climate within which it was “found”. Why is it that the person who found this text was able to even notice that it was of interest, and why did this text play such a profound role in the socio-intellectual climate of Europe at this time when it was discovered? Why did Lucretius cause eyes to glaze over and ears to close up one hundred years before– nay, even decades before –and now suddenly was seen as a vibrant and crucial text? Just as the real question about identity politics ought not be whether one is for or against it, but rather why politics today has suddenly come to manifest itself so pervasively in terms of questions of identity, we should also ask not whether or not Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is a good or bad work of philosophy, but rather why it came to resonate in the way that it did during the 17th century.

It seems to me that this little anecdote about the “discovery” of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura opens on to broader ontological questions pertaining to the phenomenon of relevancy or saliency. Suppose we begin with a couple of widely different contemporary intellectual trends: evolutionary biology and Althusserian social structuralism. In a very vulgar version of the former theory we are told that organisms come to be in their particular species-form through adaptation to an environment. In Althusserian thought we are told that persons are merely props of structure and that structure is itself the true subject (we’re no longer supposed to talk about the qualities of agents). In the vulgar version of evolutionary biology, the environment is understood as a container that is there present-at-hand, existing in its own terms and by virtue of its own nature, and that the organism is either well adapted to this fitness-space or poorly adapted. In the case of Althusser, we are told that the agent integrates social-structure without remainder, or is open to a homogenous and self-contained social structure without remainder.

Yet matters are far more complex than this. In the case of evolutionary biology we have the question of why a creature becomes open to this or that tendency within the environment. Why did a bat discover sonar rather than vision or scent? What unheard affects are inhabited by other creatures of which we can scarcely imagine? The point here is that the environment cannot simply be understood as something that is there, present-at-hand, but rather there is a selection that takes place in the process by which a species emerges. The emergent organism makes a slice within chaos– it must be chaos as it is bubbling with an infinite number of potential qualities –and in doing so doesn’t simply receive something that is already there, but 1) constitutes new qualities (the qualia, for instance, by which the bat registers sound-waves), 2) constitutes a new form of receptivity, and perhaps most importantly 3) constitutes its own environment and field of objects. The paradox is that the environment to which the species adapts is itself constituted by the species. There is a literal worlding that takes place. Certain features within chaos become salient or singular, and there is a selection that occurs such that noise– the static on the television or radio –is transformed into information. Something comes to resonate where before it did not.

The artificiality of the Althusserian move can be discerned in these observations. In order for an agent to be interpellated, the person must be open to the various elements of social structure. But how is this receptivity constituted? From whence does this receptivity, this openness to structure, come? Appeals to the empirical are often dangerous, yet when we observe that there are a tremendous variety of “social species”, from the mad to the different ideological orientations to those who seem to be living in entirely different worlds altogether, we begin to suspect that Althusser has vastly simplified matters and has not attended carefully enough to questions of receptivity or how selection takes place in the social field and various aspects of the world come to be constituted as salient. Here, once again, we can’t talk about a pre-existing social world. Rather, a world only emerges on the basis of anterior selections that constitute information, relevancy, and salience. How, for instance, does identity suddenly come to function as a salience within the political world where prior to the late 20th century it was largely in the background?

I simply wish to throw these questions out there without now taking a stab at answering them (I have to start cooking dinner!). What needs to be avoided in posing these questions, I think, is any appeal to either teleology or “nature”. Goals and purposes must be seen as resulting from selection and salience, not as preceding the activity of selection and salience. Similarly, appeals to something like human nature are, all too often, mythological and essentialist. If physical science and social theory have taught us anything, order is something that emerges, rather than something that holds for all times and places. Consequently, what is required is an emergent account of selection, not one that presupposes, after the fashion of a vulgar version of Plato, always-already operative selections. Finally, such a theory of selectivity shouldn’t be restricted to the social world, but should be seen as a general feature of the universe and being through which phenomena come to order themselves. We are told that the laws of physics would be different had the universe cooled differently, that there might be other universes with very different physical principles, and biological science has compellingly demonstrated that species emerge from matter and are not eternal forms. The distinction between the historical and the natural is a distinction that should be abolished in favor of a creative, emergentist, differential ontology. How, then, can selection be theorized without presupposing an agent that selects?

BOOK III, PROP. XLI. If anyone conceives that he is loved by another, and believes that he has given no cause for such love, he will love that other in return. (Cf. III. xv. Coroll., and III. xvi.)

Note.–If he believes that he has given just cause for the love, he will take pride therein (III. xxx. and note); this is what most often happens (III. xxv.), and we said that its contrary took place whenever a man conceives himself to be hated by another. (See note to preceding proposition.) This reciprocal love, and consequently the desire of benefiting him who loves us (III. xxxix.), and who endeavours to benefit us, is called gratitude or thankfulness. It thus appears that men are much more prone to take vengeance than to return benefits.

Corollary.–He who imagines, that he is loved by one whom he hates, will be a prey to conflicting hatred and love. This is proved in the same way as the first corollary of the preceding proposition.

Note.–If hatred be the prevailing emotion, he will endeavour to injure him who loves him; this emotion is called cruelty, especially if the victim be believed to have given no ordinary cause for hatred.

I don’t do vacations well. For the last few weeks I’ve had a brief respite from the duties of teaching. During the academic year I dream of the summer when I’ll finally have the time to read what I wish to read and write what I wish to write, yet strangely, when vacation finally comes along, I find myself strangely disengaged, unable to think, concentrate, or do much writing. In a number of respects I think this relates to my “Symptom”. Here the Symptom should not be thought as a tick such as repeatedly washing ones hands, the inability to say a particular word (like Charlie’s inability to say anything pertaining to parents or fathers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or a moment of hysterical blindness. These too are symptoms, yet there are symptoms and then there’s the Symptom. Where symptoms are these various ticks and idiosyncracies that inexplicably trouble the life of a subject, the Symptom should instead be thought as the complex theme animating a subject’s life. In Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes that,

…analysis progresses by means of a return to the meaning of an action. That alone justifies the fact that we are interested in the moral dimension. Freud’s hypothesis relative to the unconscious presupposes that, whether it be healthy or sick, normal or morbid, human action has a hidden meaning that one can have access to. In such a context the notion of a catharsis that is a purification, a decantation or isolation of levels is immediately conceivable. (312)

This hidden meaning of ones action is desire. We find ourselves repeatedly doing something– repetitively washing our hands, unable to enjoy vacation –and analysis is that process by which this meaning is finally delivered to us, where we are finally able to understand the meaning of what it is that we’ve been doing all this time. As Lacan will put it a few pages later, this activity is a complex theme pervading our lives that has the status of being a sort of destiny.

Doing things in the name of the good, and even more in the name of the good of the other, is something that is far from protecting us not only from guilt but also from all kinds of inner catastrophes. To be precise, it doesn’t protect us from neurosis and its consequences. If analysis has a meaning, desire is nothing other than that which supports an unconscious theme, the very articulation of that which roots us in a particular destiny, and that destiny demands insistently that the debt be paid, and desire keeps coming back, keeps returning, and situates us once again in a given track, the track of something is specifically our business. (319)

Lacan contends that the only thing we can ever be guilty of is having given way on our desire. If I experience guilt, then in some way, somehow, I have given ground relative to my desire or betrayed my desire. Guilt thus does not arise as a consequence of betraying some moral rule or principle– for instance, stealing something or having impure thoughts –but rather results from a betrayal of one’s desire. This simultaneously explains both why those who are truly wretched morally so often have such clean consciences and why those who are so upstanding morally have such ferocious and persecutory guilt. All of us are familiar with jokes about Catholic and Jewish guilt. If the phenomenon of ferocious guilt so often accompanies devoutly religious lifestyles that are free from moral infraction, then this is because these lives so often entail a betrayal of ones desire by virtue of their very structure. Moral consciousness, in its obedience to the moral law– what Lacan refers to as the “order of Creon” or the “service of goods” –leads to a renunciation of desire. “The morality of power, of the service of goods, is as follows: ‘As far as desires are concerned, come back later. Make them wait’” (315). Yet desire insists regardless of whether one wishes to renounce desire or not. And it returns one way or another in the form of either guilt or symptoms, which are themselves way of maintaining ones desire.

It would thus seem to be an easy matter to avoid the return of desire in the form of the symptom and guilt: Forget morality and pursue what one wants. The analysand reading Lacanian psychoanalytic literature concurrent to his analysis thus reasons that,

If the ‘service of goods’, established morality, modesty, and the system of consumption lead me to betray my desire and thereby produces symptoms and guilt, then I should simply pursue what I want, and live a deliciously hedonistic life, full of the most profound debaucheries and transgressions.

It would be nice were such a simple solution available, however no sooner does the analysand pursue such a course of action than does he find himself consumed by guilt and populated by symptoms far worse than those he knew before. “Why,” he wonders, “does he now feel more miserable than I did before? Why have these boils (I kid you not) break out all over my body, am I now impotent, and do I suddenly find myself beset by all sorts of unfortunate accidents such as the loss of my wallet, minor car accidents, leaving my computer open to porn at work, etc?” It sounds fantastic, but it happens in analysis.

The error that such an analysand has fallen into is the confusion of want with desire. The analysand believes that he knows the meaning of his action and thus knows the true nature of his desire. But analysis shows that the reason for our repetitions, the desire animating our action, is hidden from us. Our desire is embodied in our repetitions and symptoms, yet the whole problem is that we do not know why it is that we repeat. For this reason, the way out of the deadlock of guilt and symptoms cannot be a simple determinate negation of the service of goods or the established system of morality. Rather, we must come to that point where we are in a position to make a decision with regard to our desire. We must come to know our desire. In describing desire as a theme we should think of something like a complex theme in music or Jazz that repeats itself while varying itself. What we have here is the identity of difference, a pattern that plays again and again throughout a person’s life, functioning as the secret cipher, the meaning, the sense, the Sein-zu-Tode, animating a person’s life and imbuing it with meaning. Here I cannot agree with Zizek’s politicization of the ethics of psychoanalysis, for this politicization strikes me as one of the surest ways to give way on ones desire. There might indeed be unconsciousnesses that are political in the way Zizek describes, but we can just as easily imagine a woman named “Rose” who has betrayed her desire by becoming deeply involved in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas– as would have been (dis)approved of by her parents and colleagues –when she should have been cultivating roses. Desire is often banal such that the outsider is unable to fathom why one pursues a particular activity with such zeal– think of how thoroughly Kinsey was obsessed with his research on dung-wasps… Do you understanding it or share this intense fascination? –but it is nonetheless singular and specific to that subject. As Lacan will later say in Seminar XXIII, The Sinthome, “we are never interested in another’s symptom.” It is in this connection that Lacan’s distinction between writing and sense is to be situated: Writing opens on to the real, to the senseless, and refers to a set of traces in the unconscious that take on a libidinal charge irregardless of any sense they might have.

In Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan draws an example from Serge Leclaire to illustrate this point:

One must interpret at the level of the s [signifier, not the signified], which is not open to all meanings, which cannot be just anything, which is a signification, though no doubt only an approximate one. What is there is rich and complex, when it is a question of the unconscious of the subject, and inteded to bring out irreducible, non-sensical– composed of non-meanings –signifying elements. In the same article, Leclaire’s work illustrates particularly well the crossing of significant interpretation towards signifying non-sense, when he proposes, on the subject of his obsessional neurotic patient, the so-called Poordjeli formula, which links the two syllables of the word licorne (unicorn), thus enabling him to introduce into his sequence a whole chain in which his desire is animated. (250)

The case Lacan is referring to can be found in Serge Leclaire’s Psychoanalyzing: On the Order of the Unconscious and the Practice of the Letter, and is well worth the read. If Lacan’s remarks here seem incomprehensible, then this is due to the fact that he is working at the level of writing, writing in the unconscious, rather than at the level of sense. To fully understand the claim made here with regard to Leclaire’s obsessional patient, we would have to follow the case notes and trace how a writing (note the indefinite article) unfolds in this analysand’s formations of the unconscious. Similarly, Rose should not be cultivating roses because this is what “rose” means, rather this is one possibility through which the desire animating the writing “r-o-s-e” might unfold itself in the life of a particular analysand. It is the homonym that matters here, not the sense. Moreover, the sense follows upon the senseless writing– as Deleuze argues in The Logic of Sense, sense arises from nonsense –not the reverse. Another trajectory might have had Rose obsessively researching the Knights of the Rose, or Gillian Rose, never noticing the proximity to her name, going on and on about the underappreciated socio-historical-political significance of the Knights of the Rose without drawing any connection between the unconscious desire, the unconscious writing, that animates her and this particular academic pursuit.

It is in this connection that Lacan’s reference to “destiny” ought to be situated. To speak of destiny in this context is not to speak of astrology or the gods defining one’s future. Rather, destiny here refers to the agency of the signifier in the unconscious. Among his many aphorisms describing the unconscious, is that where Lacan defines the unconscious as “the discourse of the Other”. Before being born, prior to being a subject, the infant is already surrounded by a discourse not of his own making. For Lacan, like Whitehead, the subject is a superject– A product rather than an underlying substance defining a trajectory. A writing weaves itself around the body of the young infant, laying the groundwork of nonsense that will function as the ground from which sense might be produced. As Whitehead will say, “No actual entity can rise beyond what the actual world as a datum from its standpoint– its actual world –allows it to be” (Process and Reality, 83). This too will hold for the writing woven around the infant, functioning as a constraint on the becoming of that subject. However, this should not be taken as a deterministic or grim statement, for the play of language embodied in puns, double entendres, homonyms, equivocations, etc., allows for indefinite variability emerging from this writing. Without constraint and limitation, without selection, there can be no creation. Consequently, the writing populating the unconscious, this discourse of the Other, should not be understood to be akin to a computer program that simply sets on its course once initiated. Nonetheless, this writing insists throughout all subsequent action in much the same way that Oedipus finds himself unable to escape Loxias’ prophecy despite every effort to escape it. Desire returns in the form of the symptom and one can either make a decision to follow ones desire– which requires coming to know ones desire– ultimately one enters analysis because they do not know what they want –or to strive to evade ones desire.

After causing all manner of turmoil with my reading group last week by shifting our meeting from Saturday to Tuesday, I noticed that I am often at the center of maelstorms such as this. Whether it be the various religion and theory wars here, the madness of the last academic year with administration, personal email disputes that emerge from time to time with those whom I love, and so on, I repeatedly find myself in the midsts of some sort of conflict. Indeed, I seek it out. The first thing I open to in the newspaper is the editorial page. I gravitate towards religious and political debates. I often continue engagement with persons I actively dislike or believe to have little that is genuinely interesting to say, despite the unpleasantness of conflictual discussion with such persons. And perhaps, above all, I chose to pursue philosophy, an agon seconded only by the political arena. There is a repetition here that has woven itself all throughout my life, and in suddenly discerning this repetition my desire to write or engage with anyone suddenly disappeared (hence my silence this last week). Strangely however, I felt no guilt in not engendering conflict for a week, indicating that this action, in being articulated, had found a different trajectory through which to unfold itself. In discerning this repetition, I do not thereby discern my desire. Indeed, the relationship between agon and desire might be quite oblique– like the relationship between the manifest- and laten-content of a dream in the dreamwork –and difficult to understand without extensive analysis. Falling into conflict is an action, yet the meaning of the action, the desire that animates it, is opaque to me. What obscure desire animates such an action? This is a question that cannot be answered generically such that someone on this list– a Jungian, no doubt –could say “oh, that means x”. Rather, like Leclaire’s analysis of his obsessional, it is something that can only be revealed in tracing the furrow of a signifier in symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, or a life.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 990 other followers