January 2008

Students shuffling out of the classroom after a discussion of Platonic realism and the possibility of transcendent, objective values independent of culture, history, and individual determination.

STUDENT: “This class is impossible.”

ME (Alarmed): “Why?”

STUDENT: “We come in here thinking we understand the world and now we discover that everything we think might be mistaken.”


The Object of the Question and the Objection to the Object

A few days ago, Joseph Kugelmass of The Kugelmass Episode tagged me to write a post on why I teach literature. Admittedly I’ve been behind the curve on this one. The discussion has now proliferated throughout the intellectual blogosphere (for a set of links to how this discussion has proliferated and her own interesting response, see Rough Theory here and here), and I am only now catching up on the posts. As for my delay in responding, I have no good excuses. On the one hand, I’ve been extremely busy, trying to balance teaching with the completion of two articles and two conference papers (shoot me now). On the other hand, it has been very difficult for me to think clearly of late as someone very close to me is very sick and I’m facing the question of an absence in my life, a total void, with respect to someone who has been there my entire life. I think of Sartre’s description of the cafe where he walks in, looking for his friend Pierre, only to find that he is absent. This is a minor missed meeting between friends. But what of someone who is so much more than that? How do you grasp or get your mind around the irreversible absence of someone else, the fact that they will never be there again? How do you endure the reality, the facticity, of their absent laughter, that you’ll never hear their voice again, that you’ll never again hear their jokes or what they have to say or even their pointed anger?

Finally, I have, no doubt, been reluctant to respond to this challenge as, in many respects, the question of why I teach is a fundamental existential question, a question pertaining to my being-towards-death, a question that produces anxiety. In short, just as I do not have a clear answer as to why I practice philosophy, I do not have a clear answer as to why I teach. I do not, of course, teach literature, but philosophy. In asking “why do you teach philosophy?” I suppose the first question to ask is what, precisely, is this question asking? In his famous phenomenology of the question, Heidegger writes:

Every inquiry is a seeking [Suchen]. Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. This cognizant seeking can take the form of ‘investigating’ ["Untersuchen"], in which one lays bare that which the question is about and ascertains its character. Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something is somehow a asked about [Sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a question of something [Anfragen bei...]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions– that is, in questions which are specifically theoretical –what is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Furthermore, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erfragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry researches its goal. Inquiry itself is the behavior of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such it has its own character of Being. (Being and Time, 24)

I have quoted this passage to draw attention to the Befragtes or that which is asked about in Kugelmass’s question. When one asks, “why do you teach?” What is the Befragtes? What is it that is asked about? In evoking the indexical, the “you”, it would seem that the question is about one’s desire. The question here would be “what desire animates your teaching? Or rather, it would be a question of how teaching is one’s own symptom. Here reference would have to be made to the unconscious of the particular person answering the question, to their particular mode of jouissance, and how teaching is a way of satisfying the drive for a singular subject. In this case, my own choice of teaching and of philosophy in particular refers not to any particular aims I might have in the classroom, but to the way the signifier functions in my unconscious. I have spoken of this elsewhere in the past. The reason I chose philosophy rather than literature, and teaching rather than being a comedian (besides lacking a sense of humor), a journalist, a politician, etc., has to do with a particular trauma that structures my life.


I have only just begun reading it, but A. Kiarina Kordell’s $urplus: Spinoza, Lacan looks very promising. From the back cover:

Opposing both popular “neo-Spinozisms” (Deleuze, Negri, Hardt, Israel) and their Lacanian critiques (Zizek and Badiou), Surplus maintains that Lacanian psychoanalysis is the proper continuation of the Spinozian-Marxian line of thought. Author A. Kiarina Kordela argues that both sides ignore the inherent contradictions in Spinoza’s work, and that Lacan’s reading of Spinoza– as well as of Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Wittgenstein –offers a much subtler balance of knowing when to take philosophers at face value and when to read him against himself. Moving between abstract theory and tangible political, ethical, and literary examples, Kordela traces the emergence of “enjoyment” and “the gaze” out of Spinoza’s theories of God, truth, and causality, Kant’s critique of pure reason, and Marx’s pathbreaking application of set theory to economy. Kordela’s thought unfolds an epistemology and an ontology proper to secular capitalist modernity that call for a revision of the Spinoza-Marx-Lacan line as the sole alternative to the (anti-)Platonist tradition.

In fact, it looks like her reading of Deleuze is more nuanced than this blurb suggests, as she seems to indicate that Deleuze has been misappropriated by his followers.

More from the beginning of the book:

Spinoza is the first philosopher to grasp the structure of secular causality, as immanent or differential causality, as we know it since its popularization by linguistics. Here the cause is itself an effect of its own effects. What enabled Spinoza to see this structure was the fact that, as we shall see, he conceived of nature, insofar as it is inhabited by human beings, as a system of signifiers. Far from being autonomous physical things with inherent qualities, signifiers are differential values. And differential values, by structural necessity, constitute a system of disequilibrium, that is, a system that always produces a surplus.

Kant’s major discovery lies in the insight that no system can form itself as a totality unless it poses an exception to itself.

Marx’s one major innovation is the realization that the structure of capital, too, is a manifestation of the structure of secular causality on the level of economy. What enabled Marx to see this was the fact that he conceived of nature as a system of commodities, that is, again, differential values. His other major innovation lies in overtaking set theory and its paradoxes by understanding that the exception required for any system to totalize itself is simultaneously both its exception and one of its members.

Lacan added, or rather gave name to what the above theories tacitly entailed: enjoyment and the gaze. (pgs. 1-2)

This is a striking constellation for both the Lacanian and Deleuzian alike.


The book or article stands before me as an object. It is something there in the world like a chair, rock, or tree. As I regard the book, I intend it as something containing arguments, concepts, claims, and so on. That is, just as I attribute a certain mass to the rock, just as I treat this mass as a property of the rock, so too do I treat the book or article as possessing these arguments, claims, and concepts. Yet strangely, unlike the rock (though this is arguably true of the rock as well), the book cannot be encountered all at once. Where are these concepts, claims, and arguments? The book can only be read in time. It can only unfold in time. Even if I were to lay out all the pages side by side, I still could not encounter the book as a simultaneity. For the reader, the book can only be encountered as a process, as something that must unfold. And also, for the writer, the text must be produced. Neither the reader or writer can encounter the text all at once.

Perhaps there is a differential between the existence of the text and the process or erlebnis of the text. We might say that as an ex-istence, the text is a simultaneity that is all there at once, wrapped up within itself, complete. It is only in the lived time of presentation, the argument would run, in the lived time of reading, that the book would present itself under the aegis of being a fragment of the whole:

Husserl’s paradox: We intend the object as a unified whole but only ever encounter the object in partial profiles. From whence is the unity of the object constituted as a unified whole? How is it possible for the object to be “counted-as-one”, when it is nowhere presented as one?

As I read the book, I am perpetually conscious that there is a whole that lurks just over the horizon of the word, the sentence, the horizon. Each fragment somehow fits into that whole or is a part of that whole. Yet where is this whole? Between two covers? Perhaps. Yet even when I complete the book, the whole has evaded me and slips between my fingers even as I hold the book in my hands. I intend the book as being in the book, but I look in vain to find the book.


Like Carroll’s snark that never appears where you look for it, the book never seems to appear where it appears. Where is the book? Between the covers? In the authors mind? In the act of reading? There are occasions, upon returning to a beloved book, where I wonder whether the book hasn’t rewritten itself in the interval of my absence. How can this be? How does the book change so markedly?

Perhaps there is something about the sheer physicality of the book that generates the impression that the book is something. After all, we encounter the book as a thing or an object. It is there, right before us, between those two covers. And the book must therefore be in that physical object? What academic postures, attitudes, temperaments, might this paradox of the book produce? In the famous section on commodity fetishism in Capital, Marx writes:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relations of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensious things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social… In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relations between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. (vol. 1, Fowkes trans., 164-5)

Marx remarks that we must mobilizes all the subtlety of theology and metaphysics to uncover the mystery of the commodity. The commodity presents itself as a physical object, as a thing, such that it is the object that we relate to, not other human beings. But in fact the commodity is a masked or clothed set of social relations. Is it not the same with the book? The book is there, between its covers, and the meaning is in it. Or this is how the book or article is intended anyway. The meaning is treated as something floating about, out there in the world, contained in the text… Belonging to it. But where could it possibly be? The book only unfolds in time, even if the pages are simultaneous in space. The space between the covers contain only ink. The text must actualize itself in a reading. Text is event. Not simply the event of inscription, but the necessary event of decryption, of a reading, that makes the text be again.

I encounter books as artifacts. They are things that populate the world, like tables and rocks. Do I therefore approach or intend books and articles in the way I intend tables and rocks? Do I encounter them as substances? When I look at the academic postures of those that traffic only in books and articles, who only communicate with other academics through the medium of the book, I sometimes get this sense. The text is treated as a thing, possessing a meaning. This can readily be seen at conferences. Someone in the audience asks a question. A look of disdain crosses the face of the author. Obviously this fellow must be a dolt. He missed the entire point of the paper. He missed the substance of the paper! Since sense or meaning is taken as being a property of the text, as being thing-like, a difference can only indicate a failure to understand or a misinterpretation on the part of the reader. For here the text is not a process or an event, but a substance that underlies the script.

In blogging a different relation to text seems to emerge. Following the arguments of Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler, the medium of the blogosphere is not simply an alternative space in which to convey ideas, but also has an impact on how thought unfolds and the nature of social relations. In the case of books and articles, the author is generally absent. The author is on the horizon, but as a shadowy, generally idealized, operator of the text. The text has a thing-like character and is treated as a substance. Yet in blog writing, the text is encountered far more as process, in its unfolding, in all its hesitations, false trails, divergences and so on. On those blogs where comments are open, readers post responses. The author very quickly discovers that the reader is not a dolt, but rather that, as Lacan said, all communication is miscommunication. There is a powerless or inability to master the word, such that the sentence is like a floating blog, pervaded by all sorts of relations, which is plugged into all sorts of assemblages quite different from that where it first exploded into the world. Here it becomes clear that meaning is not a substance beneath the graphe, but a perpetually displaced entering-into-relation, event, or encounter. At the conference, the academic individuated in an ecology of books and articles, encounters the rude and belligerent questioner as a jerk who is just being difficult and who has failed to behave reasonably. Yet in the blogosphere one discovers that the reasonable is a sort of transcendental illusion or fetish, borne of those who spend their time silently with the non-responsive book or article, seldom encountering the passions that haunt real and regular encounters with others. Does not this space of the encounter call for a rethinking of meaning, text, and above all reason? Does it not call for a new model of what it is to think?


Even in its best moments, philosophy perpetually abstracts the philosopher from the world the philosopher describes. The philosopher surveys the whole as a view from nowhere, as an impassive and independent look, without itself being implicated in that upon which it gazes. When discussing contradiction or antagonisms, for instance, these antagonisms are set side by side and investigated by the philosophical subject, as if the philosophical subject were a neutral onlooker that is itself outside or independent of these antagonisms. Yet if, as Deleuze argues in the 16th chapter of The Logic of Sense, “…the individual is inseparable from a world” (109), determined by a distribution of pre-individual singularities, how could such a gaze fail to be a point of view. However, here I must take care in how I express myself, for as Deleuze remarks in The Fold, “To the degree that it [a site or point of inflection] represents variation or inflection, it can be called point of view. Such is the basis of perspectivism, which does not mean a dependence in respect to a pregiven or defined subject; to the contrary, a subject will be what comes to the point of view or rather what remains in the point of view” (19). Just as Einstein observed with the constancy of light, it is not subjects that individuate points of view, but rather points of view that individuate subjects.

There are brief moments where philosophy approaches a form, a writing, that would be equal to this content. Perhaps Nietzsche’s use of the aphorism as a method expresses such a form. As Deleuze argues in Nietzsche & Philosophy,

Understood formally, an aphorism is present as a fragment; it is the form of a pluralist thought; in its content it claims to articulate and formulate a sense. The sense of a being, an action, a thing– these are the objects of the aphorism… Only the aphorism is capable of articulating sense, the aphorism is interpretation and the art of interpreting. In the way the poem is evaluation and the art of evaluating, it articulates values. But because values and sense are such complex notions, the poem itself must be evaluated, and the aphorism interpreted. (31)

We look in vain for a unifying philosophy behind the aphorisms; but if this is the case then it is because the aphorisms are mandibles that grasp, articulate, or render a fragment of a world. The aphorisms are heterogeneous universes of value or interpretations. Or better yet, they are ways of being in a world that no longer exists as an irreducible unity within which a plurality of agents exist. It is in this sense that the aphorisms form a properly pluralistic thought, where we no longer have a world as such, but rather fragments or competing points of view in which agents are individuated and where a clamor of voices, filled with antagonisms, fill our ears… Our ears which are also among and within these fragments. Perhaps we also find a similar writing in Blanchot’s Writing of Disaster, or Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Prisms. These are moments in the history of philosophy where form strives to be adequate to the content, and the form of the sovereign subject is itself shattered, such that it can only enter into the work as one voice among others.

Describing the literature of Roger Vailland, Lefebvre writes,

In this book [325,000 francs], as in Vailland’s earlier novels, the author appears as such. He says: “I”. He intervenes as a witness, designating the characters and situating them, entering into dialogue with them, inviting the reader to decide what attitude to adopt towards them: what judgment to make. Here judgment is inseparable from event; it is rigorously included in the story. This authorial presence has various meanings, and not simply on the level of technique. It is Roger Vailland’s way– and a very simple way it is –of resolving a difficult literary problem, that of novelistic consciousness or of consciousness in the novel. Who is speaking? Who is seeing, who saw the actions in the story? Who bridges the gap between the lived in the true. How has the speaker seen or heard about the things he narrates? How has he been able to foretell or sense what will happen next? Who has detected the character’ motives (hidden even to themselves)? And as he is drawn on by the great movement called ‘reading’, with whom does the reader identify, in whose consciousness does he participate? (Critique of Everyday Life, Volume I, 26)

In Vailland’s literature the author is no longer a sovereign onlooker outside the events narrated, but is there amongst the events as a point of view. Nor are we confronted simply with a first person point of view or a stream of consciousness, but rather a heterogeneity of points of view. In this way, the reader is implicated or participates in the novel as yet another point of view in a manner similar to how Brecht strives to implicate the audience in the spectacle. Antagonisms are thereby able to reveal themselves as antagonisms, blind spots as blind spots as blind spots, points of hesitation and indecision as points of indecision. The author is no longer transcendent to the novel, but immanent to the novel, and the reader is no longer a voyeur… Or rather, perhaps the reader becomes aware precisely of his voyeurism by being implicated in the events.

Would it be possible to write philosophically in a way adequate to this form? Would it be possible to write philosophically in a way that no longer posits a meta-theory in this way? Plato sometimes seems to be a joker of this sort.


There seems to be a certain inertia to thought, to our dealings with the world, which leads us to a sort of ontological pre-comprehension of the world in which being is apprehended as stable, ordered, reliable, and law-like. Nor is this ontological pre-comprehension without warrant. You can discern this inertia with special clarity in the case of very young children interacting with those with whom they are familiar. The smallest change can transform an easy familiarity into suspicion. The young child reacts with averted eyes, refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the person they were before perfectly comfortable with. A quizzical, anxious look crosses their face. In response to these changes and shifts in what is otherwise stable and familiar, there seems to be a deep “ontological insecurity” against which we defend. And while perhaps there are laws of nature, invariant patterns of being, perhaps our search for such things is a defense against this ontological insecurity (a term I borrow with reservations from Adorno, I think), this need to find identity amidst and underneath change.

Last week I encountered something similar among my students in my Critical Thinking class. We were working through the basic language distinctions that will form all the subsequent work in the class, and I was trying to explain the difference between arguments and persuasion. According to Parker and Moore, an argument consists of a premise and a conclusion such that the premises are presented as support for the truth of the conclusion. Arguments attempt to demonstrate that a particular claim is true. By contrast, persuasion seeks to convince someone else of something, and may or may not use arguments. There are all sorts of things that convince us that have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a conclusion. We might or might not persuaded because we have a high regard for the person who is speaking to us, or because we are captivated by the beauty or force of their words, because of how they dress, or because the person appeals to our vanity or evokes values such as Nation, God, Morality, etc. In these cases, the language does not function as a reason in support of a claim and has little or nothing to do with whether or not the claim is true or false. Yet nonetheless the speech persuades.

Seeking to illustrate this difference, I referenced modes of dress and job interviews. All of us have received advice about how to dress when going to job interviews, how we should speak, how it’s important to give a firm handshake and look the interviewers in the eye. If one is in academia or perhaps an IT field, this is particularly bizarre as it is unlikely that we dress as we do at a job interview when we are in the classroom or programming software. More fundamentally, the mode of dress has little or nothing to do with ones expertise in the classroom or these fields. In these cases, clothing is an act of seduction, a lure, that compensates for the insufficiency of being able to perceptibly display skill and knowledge.

Thinking this to be a very straightforward and obvious point, I was surprised when howls of protest issued from my students. “But clothing and grooming tell us whether or not a person is responsible!” “Clothing and good grooming tell whether or not a person is a good person!” What the students had missed– or wished to erase –was the manner in which clothing functions as a sign. In this connection, it is perhaps Umberto Eco who best articulates the essence of signs. As Eco writes in A Theory of Semiotics, “…semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (7). The students wished to treat these signs as immediate proof of the character and skill of a person, missing the manner in which the sign always differs from that for which it stands. In short, their protests spoke to a desire for a transparent social world where things are what they are and do not differ from themselves (would it be an exaggeration to suggest that politics is always divided between politics of identity and politics of difference, where the former aims after the identical and non-deceptive, whereas the latter allows beings to differ from themselves and their group?) Here one will recall the manner in which the young boy evades capture by his father at the end of The Shining. Recognizing the essential nature of signs, the boy covers his tracks in the snow, creating false tracks that lead in another direction. The boy recognizes that the sign and that for which the signs stand, share no essential connection with one another. In this way he is able to communicate a false trail.

Lefebvre drives this point home with beautiful clarity in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life:

And yet there is something in life which Pirandelloism [the form of theatre that presents everything as a relative point of view or interpretation of the world] cannot contain and which escapes it: the action, the event, the decision, the final outcome and the necessity for a final outcome; actions, and judgments about actions, in the sense in which they involve decisions… To play is to transform our point of view into a decision by confronting chance and determinism in the absence of adequate information about our opponent’s game…

We are never really sure where actions, decisions or events spring from. But, in all their stark reality, the results are there. What lies hidden within men and women is beyond our grasp; maybe these hidden depths are only an insubstantial mist, and not a profound substance (a Grund, a nature, an unconscious belonging to the individual or a group); it may only be a myth. Men and women are beyond us… We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they will never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. (18)

Perhaps, when he asserts that “the big Other does not exist”, Lacan means nothing more than this; that we act and live in a state of ambiguity where we are ultimately unable to calculate the hand of those in relation to whom we act. If the discovery that the big Other does not exist, that the Other is split or barred, proves far more traumatic than the discovery that we, as subjects, are split or barred, then this is because it confronts us with the semiotic nature of the world in Eco’s sense of the term. Not only do we not have adequate information about the others in relation to which we act, but those others do lack this knowledge of themselves as well (for they too are barred and are ignorant of their own desire).

As a result, there is no master-key or algorithm that would allow us to navigate the world. The pre-ontological comprehension of being as governed by invariant laws (whether in the natural world or the social world), would be a massive defense against this ontologically primitive contingency that marks existence. Nietzsche asks what will animates the philosopher’s will to truth. The answer would be found here. Yet as Deleuze claims in his powerful image of the dicethrow, “It is… a question of a throw of the dice, of the whole sky as open space and of throwing as the only rule. The singular points are on the die; the questions are the dice themselves; the imperative is to throw. Ideas are the problematic combinations which result from the throws” (Difference and Repetition, 198). In grasping Deleuze it would be a mistake to assume that we are the one’s formulating the questions or posing the questions. “The imperatives and questions with which we are infused do not emanate from the I: it is not even there to hear them. The imperatives are those of being, while every question is ontological and distributes ‘that which is’ among problems” (199). We are thrown into a space of being that questions and problematizes us, and it is this that we navigate in the individuate our being. We find ourselves thrown into a constellation, a set of aleatory singular points, that form the problematic field in which we are individuated. “the dice which fall are a constellation, their points form the number ‘born of the stars'” (Nietzsche & Philosophy, 32). Yet again and again philosophy striates this space of the constellation, erasing aleatory distributions of singularities, striving to transform being into static, eternal, lawful structures. The question is that of how it might be possible to think from constellations, from distributions of singularities, no longer erasing the non-existence of the Other.


Throughout its history, philosophy seems particularly prone to three interrelated errors– or perhaps they would be better referred to as “transcendental illusions”? –that it shares with doxa or common sense and that plague thought.

First, in approaching the explanation of phenomena in the world, philosophy perpetually has recourse to the primacy of the Concept, the Form, or Essence, to the detriment of the individual or actually existing entity. Perhaps the most famous example of this primacy is to found in the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology, entitled “Sense-Certainty”. There Hegel begins with the epistemological thesis that all knowledge originates in the immediacy of sense-certainty or the sensible given. Taking this thesis at its word, Hegel goes on to show how our attempt to say the sensible immediate or given always fails insofar as language is only composed of general terms that are unable to grasp the individual given presented within the sensible field. I say that the individual given is this given, here, at this time, yet these same terms can apply indifferently to any number of other objects, such that I am only apply to express the universal, never the individual. The outcome of this contradiction or deadlock within sense-certainty is that Spirit comes to recognize that the individual given was never the object of knowledge, that it is always-already mediated by the universal, and that these universals are the true object of knowledge.


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