March 2008


I’m off to Philadelphia to visit family for the next few days. Cheers all!

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When we look at an object or at another person we necessarily apprehend them in space. There they stand before us, alongside other things, in three-dimensional space. This phenomenological presentation of persons and objects thus gives the impression that those things are in space together, that they are side by side in space, but also, under the order of temporality, that they are simultaneous. Before my apprehending gaze I encounter the entities there, together, as being “at the same time”. Perhaps this would be one of the basic premises of structural approaches to social formations, for the structuralist tells us to approach the social formation in its synchrony, as a set of interdependent relations that are simultaneous with one another.

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Perhaps the problem with this view is that social formations are accompanied by archives, whether in the form of texts or in stories, such that they do not follow a trajectory of simultaneity, but rather are punctuated, like staves of a musical score, at a variety of different temporal levels, interacting in highly complex ways. Here it is worthwhile to recall Freud’s famous description of the topology of the mind in Civilization and Its Discontents. There Freud writes,

…[L]et us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past– an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine and that the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beaitufl statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths, and so on. But more than this. In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand– without the Palazzo having to be removed –the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terra-cotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon we would find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view or the other.

Where in space one thing can only occupy one place at a single time, mind, claims Freud, is such that all these different periods or strata co-exist together exactly as they were, continuing their processes just as they did in the past. Thus, in the present, I can simultaneously be frustrated with my boss for perfectly legitimately work related and administrative reasons, while also reliving a childhood drama with my father for which he is an effigy, stand-in, or surrogate. It is not that one meaning of the strata is the true meaning of the other meaning (the past version being the truth or the real meaning of the first version), but rather that these two temporalities are tangled together, intertwined, unfolding together simultaneously in this present.

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The case would be the same with social formations. Rather than a space of simultaneously structure that overdetermines all social relations, perhaps instead we have different levels of temporality, different temporal rhythms, that form a temporalized structure playing itself out at different levels. This point can be illustrated with reference to the current democratic primary elections in the United States. As has often been noted, older and middle aged women have disproportionately broken for Clinton, while younger women seem to be breaking for Obama. It is not unusual to hear these older women complain, claiming that these younger women are betraying sisterhood and the feminist cause. Indeed, it is not at all unusual for younger women to abjure or reject the title “feminist” (much to my dismay) altogether.

Could it be that the explanation of this difference has to do with different rhythms of intertwined temporality governed by very different problematic spaces? On the one hand, the feminism of the older women seems to revolve around gender inequality, victimhood, and a pressing desire to break or undermine certain boundaries. Yet on the other hand, when we look at popular culture, we see a very different image of the feminine that speaks to an entirely different set of issues. Battlestar Gallactica depicts women as commanders and fighter pilots that bunk with the men, compete with them vigorously in sports, and who seem to recognize no marked difference between masculine and female characteristics. Quentin Tarantino’s recent films (Kill Bill and Death Proof, as well as Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) depict women as entirely capable of handling themselves, or depict women who shift from positions of dependence on men (Planet Terror) to leadership and confidence. We have had an entire slew of female super-heroes such as Electra and Lara Croft.

A recent series of Cadillac commercials depicts Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy) sardonically repeating a variation of Julie Andrew’s list of her favorite things from The Sound of Music. On the one hand, Julie Andrews’ character in The Sound of Music is an iconic image of woman as caregiver, while on the other hand, Walsh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy is an intelligent, attractive woman in command of her own career and who does not draw her identity primarily from caring for children or men. The slogan of the commercial asks “when you turn your car on, does it turn you on?” When she arrives at a stop light she looks over and sees a couple of men driving a sports car. A satisfied smile crosses her face, she hits the gas, and she leaves them in the dust. She competes directly with men, rather than being a victim of men or subordinate to men.

Perhaps, within this universe of symbols and meanings, something like the presidential race is no longer conceived as a gender issue or as a gender struggle. Yet nonetheless, these different problematic fields or spaces, these different temporalities, co-exist together in the present and weave themselves in a variety of ways, forming something like a temporalized structure or a structure composed of different time-space vectors (“space-time worms”). Paradoxically, they are both present and past, preventing us from arguing that they are strictly synchronous. An adequate social theory would have to think these complex forms of temporality, their structures of meaning production, and their tangled interrelations.

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N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has been kind enough to plug my recent post “Social Assemblages and Agency“. A while back I wrote a rather whimsical post entitled “Of Cooking, Mixtures, and Milieus“. While the post might have been whimsical in tone– drawing on anecdotes from cooking and examples from Seinfeld –the point I was trying to make was a serious one about the nature of causality in relation to social formation. That is, there seems to be a tendency to adopt top-down models of causality when thinking about social phenomena, such that we are led to think one cause hegemonically dominating the social space. Whether we posit signifiers as determining social relations, the sovereign as determining social relations (a recent turn I find particularly irritating as, following Spinoza and Hegel, there is no such thing as a sovereign that doesn’t draw his power from the consent of the multitudes), language, structure, or more recently the biological, we posit a unilateral causality where one term serves as the explanation for the rest. This, of course, is the essence of metaphysics: to treat a part of the whole as explaining the whole.

Casting about for metaphors to interrupt this pattern of thought, I seized on cooking and chemistry:

If cooking is instructive for the social theorist, then this is because cooking teaches us to think in terms of mixtures, processes, intensive transformations, intensities, and irreversible processes. Tomato, garlic, cumin, and olive oil are not the same after they are mixed and heated. Rather, a qualitative transformation takes placeā€¦ A transformation that is irreversible. Cooking is chemistry, rather than physics. Where, in classical physics we are enjoined to think atoms impacting one another in relations of force such that the atoms nonetheless retains its identity, changing only in velocity, chemistry leads us to think mixtures, temperatures, pressures, etc., that lead to qualitative transformations of the elements involved. The garlic is not the same after it is cooked and mixed. Nor can I return the garlic to its previous uncooked state. Rather, it has undergoing a qualitative transformation that now has different potentialities. For instance, if I roast garlic in tinfoil and olive oil in the oven, I can now spread it on a nice loaf of sour dough bread like butter, whereas before this would not have been possible. Under these conditions, the flavor becomes sweet, where before it was pungent.

Cooking, chemistry, requires us to think a milieu of individuation where a milieu of individuation is to be understood as the relation something entertains to other things in the world such that it would not be that thing without these other things. If you enjoy wine then you know that where the wine comes from and the year the wine was made make a tremendous difference as to what the wine is. Wine, wine grapes, always emerge in a milieu of individuation defined by the weather, the soil conditions, other plants, animals, and insects in the region and so on. Wine from one and the same vinyard can be radically different from one year to the next. The same is the case with cheese. Each individual entity is itself attached to a world, a local morphogenetic field, through which it produces itself as an ongoing process by interacting with that world.

In cooking or chemistry there is no one thing that causes the rest. Rather, we instead have to think relations of feedback and interaction where all the elements or ingredients interact. This entails that there will not be a “one size fits all” sort of explanation for social phenomena. Rather, following Freud, we might instead talk of “overdetermination”. Of course, this approach to thinking the social and political will cause some to recoil as the complexity of our object is vastly complicated. Social and political philosophers strike me as liking simple answers and schematizations of their objects (I think actual social scientists often fare much better and are much less reductive). On the other hand, an approach that emphasizes interaction at multiple levels, multiple levels of non-linear causation, and complexity might also undermine some of the pessimism (that sometimes seems almost celebratory in tone) that sometimes seems to haunt social and political philosophy (the all or nothing attitude that asks empty questions like “how do we overcome capitalism” and then finds itself impotent when it comes to doing anything at all). That is, such a view might allow us to diagnose false problems that result from overly schematic and simplified conceptions of the social. At any rate, N.Pepperell has recently written a couple of very nice posts on Diane Elson’s work, who appears to be thinking in a similar groove (here and here). Well worth the read!

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At present, in my critical thinking class, we’ve been discussing rhetoric and what the book refers to as psychological fallacies. After discussing a number of the informal fallacies a student queried “so, are these fallacies simply automatic psychological distortions that are somehow caused by the brain, or are people intentionally trying to deceive their audience when these fallacies are committed?” Given that I generally find that my students are solipsists, or at least atomistic individualists, I was pleased by this question as it indicated the student was thinking about audience or others. I responded that there is no black and white answer to this question, and, as I have argued here, often these distortions are more the result of our passionate attachments than the result of a malicious desire to achieve. I did, however, try to come up with some examples, pointing to the outrage machines on the news (Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Al Franken, Kieth Olbermann) who perhaps intentionally employ certain fallacies to the advantage of their ideology (particularly the ever favorite argument from outrage, where the outrage has little or nothing to do with the claim). Casting about for another example I also brought up the “Creation Evidence Museum” here in Texas (google it, I won’t link to it), where there is a dinosaur footprint with a human footprint inside of it. “Certainly this”, I mused, “was an example of an intentional deception on the part of the proprietors of the museum. And what would motivate such people to fabricate evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time? Perhaps the belief that their creation story must be literally true regardless.” Immediately two students piped up: “But the Bible mentions ‘behemoths’!!!” (Google “are dinosaurs in the Bible” and hit the second link, it has some marvelous cartoon drawings). I asked how they knew that “behemoth” refers to dinosaurs rather than elephants, whales, or giant squid. They seemed nonplussed. Such, I suppose, is the power of some ignorant, yet “well meaning”, priests who would foster a sense of misology among their lay and strive to keep them in a state of ignorant denial. The worst part is that I actually feel guilty, as if there is something wrong in actively advocating evolutionary theory in biology… As if there is actually a legitimate controversy here. It is the same sort of guilt I sometimes feel when anthropomorphic global warming issues come up… As if you’re supposed to give credence to those who treat it merely as a natural cycle.

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Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory– especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools –woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned. The problem here is that these theories are often so abstract, in the Hegelian sense, that they end up with overly simplistic schema that then make any change seem like it is either an all or nothing proposition, or in the worst cases impossible and hopeless altogether. This point can be made clearly with reference to Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus“. In reading Althusser’s essay, we get the impression that the individual, the social subject, is completely formed by the ideological state apparatus to such a degree that his thoughts, beliefs, bodily attitudes, and so on are simply iterations of that social structure. As Althusser writes,

Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.

Although their theoretical positions are very different, similar observations could be made about Foucault’s conceptions of power and subjectivization, Bourdieu’s conceptions of power and habitus, and even Lacan’s conception of the agency of the signifier (during his middle period, at any rate). It is clear that if we accept this thesis, issues of social and political change become extremely problematic and we immediately find ourselves in a nearly impossible situation. On the one hand, if change takes place, it takes place through agents. On the other hand, agents themselves, according to Althusser, are simply products or iterations of social formations or the ISA’s. As a result, any change that a group of agents attempts to produce is itself already predelineated by the social structure such that it is no real change at all. The consequence of this conception of how agents are individuated and social formations is that we have to engage in all sorts of theoretical contortions to explain how change might be possible. No doubt it is for this reason that the Lacanian conception of the subject as a sort of void or lack in the symbolic chain has become so attractive, or that thinkers like Badiou have had to imagine an event, a rupture, to explain how any sort of change takes place.

Read on!
(more…)

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Periodically, or not so periodically, I go through a crisis, wondering what it is that I do and why it is that I do it. On the one hand, I perpetually feel as if my thought is haunted by chaos or an inability to think. Where to begin? What questions to ask? For what purpose or end? I feel as if my thought proceeds by sudden bursts of insights, perpetual new beginnings, but lacks in systematic elaboration, a guiding question, or even a sense of what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I am able to try on philosophies in much the same way that one might try on different outfits. The equivalent would consist in dressing now like a chef, now like a doctor, now like a police officer, now like a judge, now like a hippie, now like a punk, where each of these garbs implies a particular code and grammar pertaining to a social identity. On this day I am a phenomenologist, the next a rationalist, the next an empiricist, the next a pragmatist, the next a semiotician, the next a Hegelian, etc. The only constant is an abiding love of Lucretius, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, coupled with an abiding distrust of those philosophical approaches which make the subject, language, or various cultural formations the lens through which everything else is filtered.

On the other hand, I perpetually feel crushed by the impotence of philosophy. I confess that I should know better. I confess that I should know that reason and persuasion are impotent. Yet I can’t help but yearn for these things. I can’t help but entertain the dark Platonic desire that philosophy have the power to transform the world and society through the power of persuasion and discourse. I wonder why it is that discourse is so fraught, why it seems to be perpetually so hostile and contentious. I have answers or hypotheses to these questions. I think I know why based on what I understand about the human passions, desire as elaborated by psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari, and ideology. Yet I can’t quite accept my own answers. I still yearn for it not to be this way. I think of the earnest and beautiful Spinoza, that prince of philosophers who only lived for forty five years yet still managed to say so much and with such elegance and brevity. I think about the Theologico-Politico Treatise and what he was trying to accomplish with that magnificent text. I marvel at how he managed to be so naive in his ambitions with that text despite his account of the human emotions in Book III of the Ethics.

Whether in heated philosophical discussions or political discussions, the same principles can be observed everywhere. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (3p6). From this, it follows by implication that “The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body’s power of acting” (3p12). As a consequence, “When the mind imagines those things that diminish or restrain the body’s power of acting, it strives, as far as it can, to recollect things which exclude their existence” (3p13). Within these three propositions is really contained the entire comedy of “communicative reason” or its perpetual failure. Just as massive stellar objects bend and distort movement in their vicinity, intense love (Spinoza’s name for our attachment to those things we believe enhance our body’s power of acting) functions like a gravitational singularity that bends and twists thought with respect to everything in the vicinity of the beloved object. As Freud puts it, we overestimate the worth of the love object such that thought swerves in the vicinity of the beloved object, endeavoring to ignore or miss any negative features attached to that object. This would be the root principle of the criticism of those who support Obama, arguing that they are hypnotized or have fallen into a cult in their idealized love of him. Likewise, when confronted with one who does not share our love, thought endeavors to imagine those things that exclude the existence of the thing threatening the beloved object. “From the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have some likeness to an object which usually affects the mind with joy or sadness, we love it or hate it, even though that in which the thing is like the object is not the efficient cause of these affects” (3p16).

It would thus appear that thought is haunted by a two-fold unreason that perpetually undermines the possibility of dialogue from within. On the one hand, in its love it idealizes what it loves, seeking to exclude in thought those things that detract from the action enhancing qualities of the beloved object, such that it is unable to properly evaluate the beloved object. On the other hand, in its hate, thought is unable to attend to the claims of the hated, seeking instead to imagine what would exclude their existence. Often the situation is a bit like that depicted in The Sixth Sense. The boy can see the ghosts, but everyone else is blind to them. Likewise, in our love (and why would we pursue anything without loving it?) or in our hate, entire segments of the world become downright invisible, as if they don’t even exist, such that their effects is only discernible by the neutral observer, watching in perplexity at the odd behavior of those involved. One could write an entire theory of the various rhetorical techniques and informal fallacies, a physics of sorts, showing not how they are the products of the malicious and dishonest manipulator of language, but are rather effects, similar to gravitational effects on motion produced by mass, that arise from various distributions of love and hate in the Spinozist sense. It turns out that one cannot trust one’s own thought (as it is always love and hate that spur thought) nor the thought of the other, nor trust in the possibility of consensus, as thought is always plagued by its passionate (dis)attachments.

Yet if this is the case, if truth is an infinitely receding horizon by virtue of the swerves produced by the love and hate that haunt thought, what possibly can be the aim of philosophy? What is it that philosophy ought to do?

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