At one level there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this dynamic of text identification except the fact that all these smart people seem to think it’s remarkable. Every text from Dr. Seuss on up, difficult or not, has the charismatic potential to generate reverent reading communities that might be described as ‘priesthoods’. My own experience is with Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist who wrote about complex things quite clearly, all in all. There are a lot of pages of Gramsci, most of them in prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit into a linear text, many of them on topics that very few people could care less about. This of course creates the opportunity for a mystery cult for those few who have virtuously read through all of it, sort of like the Kabbalah or the Hadith. Here are instances where the reading community in effect ADDS difficulty to the sacred text by digging out and canonizing every little detail, aside, and tangent. The characteristic assertion is that the plainish meanings of the core writings must be supplemented or even amended in light of these exclusive arcana. (Translation fetishists from the Qur’an to Weber and Foucault work the same way. Translations are not just workably second-best but unacceptable in comparison to the sacred revelation of the original.)
People choose these texts and these reading strategies for all the usual reasons they choose religions (and reject other religions). They may be born into them, or disposed toward them by cultural marking of the text. They may be seeking identity and collective effervescence in a community. The text may be culturally marked as normative or transgressive, enabling the effervescence of dominant or rebellious subculture identification. There may accordingly be a component of acceptance and/or rejection of authority, be it the father’s or the group’s. These are choices within structured fields of options and decision strategies. All of this falls under the sociology of what Weber called elective affinity and Bourdieu elaborated as the schemes of the habitus.
For some reason this makes me think of Virno’s discussion of fear in A Grammar of the Multitude. In the third chapter of A Grammar of the Multitude Virno argues that anguish/anxiety is one of the predominant affects of our time. I hope to write more on this later when I am not inundated with grading at the end of the semester and thoroughly exhausted. At any rate, as Marx and Deleuze and Guattari argued, one of the marks of capitalism is the manner in which it decodes all social relations and codes through processes of deterritorialization. By “decoding” Deleuze and Guattari do not mean the activity of finding the meaning behind some coded fragment of speech as intelligence officers and cryptographers do. Rather decoding is the process by which social codes are undone and destroyed.
Money, of course, is one of the primary forms of deterritorialization under capitalism. Where barter is based on qualitative use-values and the contingent encounter between two people who have goods that both serve the use-value of the other, money allows for an abstract equivalence of all goods, allowing the dimension of use-values to fall into the background. As a consequence, the use of money as a means of exchange accelerates exchange processes, leading to an intensification of certain forms of exchange that would not be possible under a barter system. Under capitalism there are also the mass deterritorializations characterized by migrations that take place as people move from their traditional homes into the factory. In contemporary capitalism, images, snippets of speech, texts, etc., are perpetually deterritorialized through new media. The very fact that Carl and I are talking is an instance of this sort of deterritorialization. Similarly, writing on a blog is a deterritorialization insofar as one cannot presume or choose their audience, but is instead thrown into aleatory encounters with others that lead to transformations of ones thought. That is, I cannot presume that the person I’m engaging with shares the same theoretical background that I have and therefore my theoretical background undergoes drift as they interpret my claims in unexpected ways and I strive to communicate with the other person without being able to appeal to shared resources.
In one way or another, all of these deterritorializations have the effect of breaking down established codes within a community, mixing codes together that previously had no contact or relation, undoing other codes. As Bourdieu notes, habitus functions as a system of anticipations allowing us to navigate our world and social interactions. If I am anxious when I meet someone new, then this is because I do not yet know what to expect from this person. In Lacanian terms, I have no idea what this other is demanding of me. In late capitalism this phenomenon is generalized as I can no longer rely on established codes to define my place in the world, gender relations, what I can expect from others and what I am for them, and so on. Instead, these relations are perpetually experienced as precarious. As Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air”. This is part of what Lacanians mean when they talk about the “collapse of symbolic efficacy”.
Nor are these decodings restricted to the deterritorialization of images, speech, and various migrations. They are now internal to the workplace in many instances as well. That is, codes underlying labor are breaking down in ways that make it difficult to know exactly what is expected of us. We are told that we must constantly innovate and invent. For example, In this years self-evaluation form for the renewal of my contract, I am asked, among other things, “what innovative teaching techniques do you use and how do you make use of cutting edge teaching techniques?” Here, it would appear, that solid learning outcomes are not enough. No, I must innovate in my classroom and apparently keep up with the latest trends in educational research in order to properly do my job. Why? I’m not quite sure. Rather, it seems as if innovation is itself valorized as an absolute good or positive thing. It is no longer enough to have found effective techniques in teaching this or that subject. Rather, we are not rising to the occasion as educators if we aren’t constantly finding new techniques. The point is that where perpetual innovation is called for, it is no longer possible to observe just what one’s job is. Where perhaps, in a different social configuration, I would be qualified as an educator after going through a certain amount of requisite education, now, as Deleuze observed in his “Postscript to the Societies of Control“, my education never ends and it is never clear that we are qualified as we are expected to be perpetually innovating. Here fear and anguish set in. “Will my response satisfy administration?” “Am I really innovating in the classroom?” “Am I suitably up to date on teaching techniques?” And, of course, the insidious result of this sort of pervasive self-doubt and anxiety is that we cling all the more tenaciously to our labor conditions, willingly accepting anything administration and our bosses might say because we live in a perpetual state of guilt wondering if we are doing our jobs correctly. For example, we allow representative organizations to be dismantled and for benefits to be cut back. All of this follows from a collapse of codes defining various labor positions. “Professional Development” has now become an integral component of contractual renewal in most professions, leading to a state where “expert” status is never reached or even available as one is never “done” with anything. It thus comes as no surprise that many commentators bemoan how the age of adulthood seems to be pushed back perpetually, such that we find 40 year olds living at home with their parents like children. Such would be a more general symptom or reflection of the decoding of labor roles in our society.
In describing these relations in terms of anguish/anxiety rather than fear, Virno is drawing on Heidegger. Where fear has a specific object (“I’m afraid of that tiger over there that looks hungry”) anxiety seems to be without a determinate object. I am pervaded by a sense of dis-ease, yet unable to locate the source or object of this dis-ease. Rather everything seems overwhelming. There is a tendency among Deleuzians to celebrate deterritorializations for their own sake, yet this is the converse, dark side of deterritorialization. Anxiety leads to reterritorializations of various sorts. On the one hand, we strive to transform anxiety into fear, localizing it in a determinate object that we could then manage. For instance, new spectres emerge in late capitalism, objects of fear that seem to inhabit all the shadows, such as the terrorist, the pedophile, the war on drugs, the looming environmental crisis, etc. All of these things can be more or less real, more or less threatening, but they also serve a sort of structural function by giving anxiety a determinate object or by naming that which cannot be named. As I argued long ago in my post on apocalyptic fantasies, these reterritorializations of anxiety onto determinate objects of fear are pervasive throughout our cinema and culture.
On the other hand, Carl seems to be suggesting another sort of reterritorialization, where we reterritorialitize on various figures and texts as a way of establishing and founding new codes. When I reterritorialitize on Heidegger, Derrida, Marx, Deleuze, Lacan, etc., I am not simply identifying with a set of claims and positions, but am also carving out a territorial code with a number of people, thereby forming a community where some measure of order exists. Everyone speaks “Lacanese” at an Affiliated Psychoanalytic Workshops conference. Everyone speaks Heideggerese at the annual Heidegger symposium. Similar attempts at recoding and territory formation can be discerned in activist political movements, emerging religious movements, organic food movements, etc. These communities are oases of stability where a community of people might collectively set about the production of shared codes. As Carl points out, the vector of these reterritorializations will be a function of identifications that precede these coded territories. For example, I was already predisposed to identify with Lacan or Zizek rather than Rawls or Habermas prior to knowing anything about them because of counter-cultural and political identifications I have going back to my teen years.
Nonetheless, while I think there is much worth taking up in Carl’s analysis, I wonder if he isn’t going too far in the direction of placing everything on the side of the reader, minimizing the rhetorical dimension of these texts. In Hegelian terms, we must avoid the trap of formulating these issues in terms of “abstract understanding” or one-sided opposition. We must be cognizant of how certain rhetorical styles function as apparati of capture for desire, while also discerning how readers bring with them a set of identifications and commitments that, as it were, actualize texts.