December 2007


I’m off to Baltimore early tomorrow morning for the annual American Philosophical Association conference. Hopefully this trip will bring good things; and if not those, at least a nice crab dinner (post-industrial capitalism now makes sure that crab is available year round in such places… Such nice and equitable exchanges for autonomy and the health of the planet). Really I can think of few things more horrible than the APA and the MLA every year: The haunted look of desperation in the eyes of the job candidates, knowing that they are likely to be consigned to more adjunct work or a one year position. The attempts by awkward academics to be friendly and outgoing or to “network” (Kassabian told me that a friend of hers who is a research psychologist specializing in autism and Aspergers found the highest rate of Aspergers of any population she’d studied among academics. I believe it.). The sheer volume of these conferences allowing little genuine dialogue to take place… All of this makes me shiver. I came across this blog chronicling the trials of a group of philosophy graduate students navigating the market. In a market where Philosophy candidates often have a 250:1 shot of getting a position and where many Lit candidates have a 400:1 shot, the looks of desperation are well understood. I count myself lucky to have a terrific job, even if my heavy course load cuts significantly into my ability to do research. At least you get to see old friends.

Of late, I confess, I’ve found myself exhausted with blogging or, more generally, communication. On the one hand, dialogue, especially academic dialogue, is constantly threatened by the perils of what Lacan referred to as the “imaginary”. When Lacan evokes the imaginary, of course, he is not speaking of what is imagined or fabrications of the mind, but rather the domain of identification with the specular image of our body. Of particular importance here are all the rivalrous struggles for recognition that Hegel depicted so well in the Phenomenology of Spirit. For some reason these struggles seem to occur with particular intensity and ferocity in academic dialogue. Indeed, where one might intuitively think that such fierce struggles are most intense between strongly polarized intellectual positions– for instance, the infamous split between Analytic and Continental thought –these struggles seem to occur with even greater intensity between intellectual positions that are fairly close to one another, thereby underlining Freud’s point about the narcissism of minor difference. To the outsider, for instance, it is very difficult to distinguish Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus from the work of late Lacan. Yet for partisans of these thinkers, deafening struggles ensue. Indeed, some of the most bitter struggles I’ve ever witnessed occur among the various Lacanian camps, such that smaller Lacanian groups must think long and hard over whether they would invite the wrath of Jacques-Alain Miller were they to invite Colette Soler to speak or submit a paper.

On the other hand, I’ve found myself haunted by this passage from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. A Laplander or Negro has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.

What I find particularly troubling in this passage is Hume’s reference to the man of mild manners and the man with a selfish heart. Hume’s thesis, of course, is that all ideas arise from experience. As a consequence of this thesis, the limits of our imagination are defined by the limits of our experience. Should the man with a selfish heart witness an act of genuine generosity or friendship, it would not, according to Hume, even register as such an act, for the associative web characterizing the thought of this man would immediately interpret the other man’s act according to his own universe where selfish motives are treated as axiomatic. As Lacan liked to say, “all communication is miscommunication”. Here we have Hume’s own version of this Lacanian thesis. Where thought is always situated or attached to a field of experience and where ideas are related by principles of association, it follows that no two people will exist in the same universe. Each event that occurs in the field of experience– hearing another’s words, for instance –will evoke different associations and relations, such that the relation between two people is a sort of babble or chaos rather than a communication. There are, of course, all sorts of problematic assumptions here about the nature of communication– namely the assumption that to communicate is to send a signal that is the same for both the sender and receiver –yet it is worthwhile to state the issue in the starkest terms possible.

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While not endorsing Hume’s position, I do think that he is able to explain a good deal about about human formations of thought and interactions with one another with his sparse epistemology. Do we not daily see the results of this phenomenon in the way we judge others, detaching their words and actions from the context in which they occur, speaking of issues as if there were some abstract reason or common sense against which their actions could be measured, and transforming actions into acts based on abstract motives that we can then judge? This phenomenon is especially attenuated in the blogosphere, where the field in which we encounter the other person is restricted largely to words and images, sans their daily life, their work, their obligations, their passionate engagements, and so on. Divorced from all context– and no writer could ever be equal to writing context –words and phrases instead dangle for whomever might come along, actualizing all sorts of associations in readers without necessarily having anything to do with the context that first led the author to generate them as a series of 0’s and 1’s that appear on ones monitor.

The consequences that follow from Hume’s simple and straightforward observation are rather bleak. If he is right we are collectively doomed to a comedy of errors. Yet where the literary comedy of errors usually ends with the rise of the prince or love fulfilled, our comedy of errors seems to be one that ends only in cruelty, conflict, and war. This cruelty is all the worse in that it is seldom even aware of itself for the same reason that the mild mannered man cannot even recognize the intense passions of others. Like Derrida’s analysis of the gift in Given Time, where the condition for the possibility of the gift paradoxically consists in a complete unawareness of giving a gift coupled with no unconscious surplus-value drawn from the gift, this would be a situation in which we would be completely unaware of others by virtue of perpetually being trapped in our own networks of associations when relating to others. However, where Derrida shows how this is a condition of the gift– a sort of regulative ideal, as Kant would say –this would be a circumstance fulfilled each and every day in our relations to others. If we like, we can engage in a lot of hand-waving about the formation of shared horizons of meaning, the production of shared contexts, etc., but the situation would still be essentially the same. The question, then, is whether this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves, or whether there is no some minimal transcendence that allows us in certain circumstances– not all –to surmount the limits of our embeddedness in context to encounter some minimal otherness of the other. In encountering others, do we only ever see our own reflection in the mirror?

I happened to come across Deleuze’s review of Simondon’s L’individuation online (another translation can also be found in Desert Islands and Other Texts). It is interesting to observe how many of the key themes that will make up his later work are already pre-figured here: his critique of the false alternative between formless chaos and supreme individuation, the distinction between singularities and individuals, the role of irreducible inequalities in the actualization of beings, the idea of the individual as a product or result, resonance between divergent series, and so on. This should not, of course, come as a surprise as these themes were already central to Nietzsche & Philosophy (especially the all important sections on quantity and quality in the second chapter), and this review was written in 1966 when Deleuze would have been composing Difference and Repetition (these themes figure heavily in chapter five, “The Assymetrical Synthesis of the Sensible”). At some point I hope we see a translation of Simondon’s L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information. I’ve been working through it for some time, but it’s very slow going as Simondon draws heavily on a variety of different sciences, working with their various vocabularies. Out of frustration I’ve even thought about paying someone to translate it, though it would cost a fortune. Being the crass American that I am, my French just isn’t that strong. I have little doubt that this book would have a tremendous impact on English speaking work on Deleuze as well as a variety of other disciplines. Fractal Ontology has been kind enough to translate portions of L’individuation for those who are interested. Be sure to check out their translations of Ruyer as well (Joseph and Taylor, you two really ought to be perfecting your translations and publishing them, not throwing them out into the blogosphere… Though we’re all grateful to you for your work). In addition to these sources, Shaviro of The Pinocchio Theory has a couple of excellent posts working through Simondon’s L’individuation (here, here, and here). The third of these posts is the most interesting for me in relation to my own work. It was these posts that first motivated me to start my own blog, as they were the first writings from the “theory blogosphere” I came across, showing me an entirely new medium of academic engagement and interaction. In addition to this, Nick, of The Accursed Share, has been kind enough to post the first half of Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects.

At Lars’s prompting I’m posting an unedited version of the Newcastle Keynote paper for any who might be interested. A teaser:

It is easy to think of society as a thing, substance, or entity. We often talk of what “society does”, what it thinks, and how it behaves. We talk about the properties or qualities of the social as if it were a substance possessing attributes. We treat the social as a substantial being, like the identity underlying all the qualitative transformations of Descartes’ famous wax in the Second Meditation. We might, after the fashion of some tendencies in Levi-Strauss, for instance, speak of self-identical structures of mind persisting throughout time. However, if we consider the newborn infant or the feral child, and if we consider the disappearance of societies, their dissolution in history, we see that the social is not something that can be thought as a substance, but is rather something that must be constituted, produced, engendered. And not only must the social be produced or engendered, it must be produced or engendered again and again in the order of time as a series of ongoing actions, operations, or events. The social, in short, is a process.

You can find the rest of it here: territories_of_music1.pdf . The key concept in everything I’m working on is that of individuation and how individuation requires us to recast a number of philosophical questions. As such, this paper might productively be read in relation to this old blog post.

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So far we have only abstract oppositions for thinking the space of the political. By “abstract opposition” I have in mind an opposition where the terms are conceived as existing independent of one another, apart from one another. As Blah-feme points out, we suppose that there are two options: agency which is free and ubiquitous subjectivity which is enslaved. On the one side, a free and autonomous subject, unmediated by any social, linguistic, technological, or economic relation. On the other side, an ego completely formed and produced by the social system as an instance of a Borg collective. That is, an ego’s being that is so distributed that its very thoughts are simply iterations of the collective, global network where we immediately move to action in response to the proper stimulus. All the women at Heathrow were wearing tall leather boots. I return and all the women here are wearing precisely the same boots. No doubt they all believe they made an absolutely unique decision based on their own unique, singular, and absolutely individual aesthetic taste.

The image of a fly caught in a web comes to mind… But not just a fly caught in a web. Rather a fly that has itself been produced by the web. There is a whole genre of theory premised on such an idea: Bourdieu, Foucault, perhaps Althusser and Butler. The anxiety is that the fly never existed independently of the web to begin with; not in any meaningful sense, anyway.

If the fly never existed existed independently of the web, then there can be no question of overcoming alienation as there never was an origin, a substance, an essence, that was then subsequently alienated. There can be no talk here of recuperating a “species-being” that we are at our core but in alienated form. There can be no return if there is no destination to which to return. The fly was never outside the web or prior to the web.

But if the fly is nothing but folds or weavings of the web, a product or creation of the web in the robust sense that an origami bird is not other than the paper out of which it is made but is itself continuous with that paper as a topological variation of its substance, then how can creations of the fly be anything but creations, foldings, weavings of the web of social relations? That is, how can they be anything but ways of strengthening the web. The content might change through the fly’s foldings and weavings of the threads of the web, yet the form remains the same: the material out of which the content is woven remains that of a spider’s web. Quicksand. The more the fly struggles the deeper it is pulled, the more it is entangled. We thus get another genre of theory: Sartre, Badiou, Ranciere, Zizek, various appropriations of Lacan. Here it is always a matter of conceiving a void place that is unmediated by the social system, that is not touched by the web, that would function as a point of leverage– Archimedes said that the entire world could be moved with one fixed point and a lever –that would allow a space of autonomy and freedom from which to challenge the web.

Yet ontologically a subtraction or non-mediated point is untenable or a bit of wishful thinking. The real question ought to be drawn from judo: how can web be used against itself?

In the spirit of lame American election ads I present the Kant attack ad: Immanuel Kant. Wrong on metataphysics. Wrong on ethics. Wrong on aesthetics. Wrong for America.

I’d embed the video but I’m just not that tech savvy.

Click the link here.

I returned exhausted by in good spirits from Newcastle around 11 o’clock last night, after traveling for about twenty four hours. I had an absolutely fantastic time. These are the sorts of conferences worth going to: small, with a lot of discussion, where the papers are working on a shared problematic within a somewhat shared theoretical horizon. Despite the fact that all the talks were dealing with their own subject-matter and problematics, somehow they entered– in my view –into an assemblage with one another, resonating in interesting and provocative ways, without being reducible to a theoretical consensus or shared set of theses. In my view, such assemblages are the most productive spaces of thought.

My impression is that something very exciting is developing at Newcastle. The graduate students are sophisticated theoretically, and are interesting and engaged, taking the study of music in exciting directions that are highly relevant as a sort of critique of high capitalism. The faculty are developing a set of questions about the intersection of music, technology, late capitalism, and the relationship between the aesthetic, the social, and the political that have the potential to open up new ways of thinking the political significance of cultural production that depart from a number of the limitations to be found in, for example, Adorno. This space of a problem is an exciting mix of Badiou, Lacan, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari that doesn’t hesitate to liberally rethink their positions, and send their concepts shooting forth in new directions where new concepts are developed.

When I arrived at Newcastle University, Lars immediately whisked me off to the local pub where Wittgenstein is reputed to have drank, to meet graduate students. At this point I was a bit catatonic from the flight, so my speech was stumbling all over itself. We had a great time talking about Deleuze and Guattari and a variety of other things. I had an amazing time talking to Lars over the course of the entire trip, over far too many pints, about the intricacies of theory, all the problems with the academy, where things are moving and just the details of life. He now knows far too much about me. After that I got a couple hours of sleep, and then was off to dinner at Ian’s. It turns out that he is a fabulous cook, as well as an excellent host. Much to my surprise, Anahid Kassabian was there as well. This came as a surprise since the paper I presented was both critiquing and building on her work. As you can imagine, this made me very anxious; but we hit it off well, having lots of spirited discussion and sharing ideas. She gave a terrific paper on music and haptic listening, which opens exciting ways of thinking problems of individuation in the age of distributed listening.

From the questions and comments I received in response to my paper– “Territories of Music: Distributions, Productions, and Sonorous Individuations” –I think it was well received. I still feel a bit bad at torturing my audience with 28 pages of high theory. I came away with a couple of impressions that will inform my own subsequent work. On the one hand, I think there’s a lot of anxiety about the ontological status of relation, leading to what Hegel or Marx would call an “abstract opposition” between agency and relatedness. Blah-feme had already noted this in his post “When the Music Stops”, pointing out how agency is seen as the opposite of ubiquity. In the paper he gave at the symposium he developed a beautiful self-reflexive critique of the discipline of musicology itself, similar in scope to what Bourdieu did for sociology or Lacan for psychoanalysis, opening the possibility of a ubiquitous agency. This is a theme I would like to develop as well: how can we simultaneously think agency and ubiquity, or a form of the subject that is always related, always within a relational network that individuates it, without falling into the trap of a theoretical pessimism where the subject is enslaved like a member of the Borg collective? I think part of what drives current interest in Badiou (truth-procedures and subjects of the event) and Zizek (the Act) is anxiety about precisely this issue. However, Badiou and Zizek seem to search for the un-related, the non-related, as a way of responding to this issue. Is there a way of squarely accepting the ontological thesis that all things are only in problematic fields or networks, while developing a robust account of agency that isn’t simply enslaved by this field but can rebound upon it and transform it?

Second, some of the questions responding to my paper gave me the impression that there’s difficulty thinking the time of agency and the unfolding of a process wherein something new emerges. This is something I will have to develop more explicitly and in greater detail. How are we to think of transformations that occur not all at once and completely like the world being created in six days, but as a process of inmixing where new forms of embodiment, affectivity, and consciousness are produced in and through an engagement with a foreign milieu where new mixtures are produced? I find that I just don’t have the language to describe such processes of individuation very well, yet thinking in terms of the becoming of a tendency– much like the speciation of a species in evolutionary theory –is absolutely vital to, I think, asking the right sorts of questions and not getting lost in unproductive abstractions. How can we think the genesis, the production, of qualities and new types of bodies within the social field in a way that doesn’t lead us to grim, top-down determination through a social system that is seen as other to social agents? This question, I believe, is especially important as we tend to think social agents as simple copies of social distributions (the form of economy and media functioning as a model), giving rise to the grim view that there’s no escape.

All in all this was a truly wonderful experience. I’ve fallen in love with England and am resentfully envious of what the Newcastle folk have. Ian and Lars know how to throw a conference, and I emphatically recommend Ian’s cooking should you ever get the chance to enjoy his table. I will not post the paper right now as we’re talking about publishing the talks, but we’ll see in the future.

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