June 2008


Is there anything worse than a Summer cold? Well, yes. But Summer colds still stink. If I’m slow on the uptake in responding to posts, it’s because I’m in agony with a burning throat and am busy practicing my coughing and sniffling. I’ve been reading Francois Cusset’s French Theory before bed for the last few days and have found myself thoroughly depressed by his analysis of the American university system, academic professionalization, and the withdrawal of philosophy from public life. Perhaps this is why I’ve fallen ill. Who is it we’re talking to anyway?

For those of us looking to make some headway through the daunting Capital, via the intrepid, globe trotting N.Pepperell of Roughtheory.

Just stumbled across davidharvey.org, which is serialising 13, two-hour lectures from David Harvey, focussed on providing a close reading the first volume of Capital – up to chapter three so far, with chapters 4-6 due online in 6 days.

Now you too can woo, astonish, and intimidate all your theory friends with a precise and detailed grasp of Capital. Hurry fast, as offers are limited. The capacity of the internet to infinitely reproduce video files will soon be exhausted. The first fifty viewers will, in addition, receive a pervasive sense of despair from their new-found understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, amplified by a lack of this knowledge from friends, family, lovers, and elected politicians.

And as if that wasn’t neat enough, the new Firefox 3.0 browser really rocks, so go give it a try.

As I think more about Deleuze and Guattari’s account of desire in Anti-Oedipus, I find myself wondering if it doesn’t risk becoming another apologetics for reigning organizations of power. On the one hand, no contemporary political thought can afford to ignore the manner in which desire is manufactured, regulated, and organized given the manner in which we live in a media saturated environment.

On the other hand, the implications of Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of desire become disturbing when juxtaposed with the writings of the Stoic Epictetus. Those familiar with Epictetus’ Enchiridion will find it impossible to forget his opening paragraph. There Epictetus writes,

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Now, the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent, and take what belongs to others for you own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own, and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, towards the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.

Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing semblance, “You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.” And then examine it by those rules which you have; and first and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power, or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Do not Deleuze and Guattari, despite all their talk about the creative and productive nature of desire, share an uncanny resemblance to Epictetus? The liberal ideologue tells us that we must resign ourselves to all the ugliness of the world in advance because we exist in a world populated by scarce resources, such that we are necessarily plunged into competition and its attendant social hierarchies. However, wouldn’t it also be the case that Deleuze and Guattari, like Epictetus, tell us that if we suffer then this is because we have created the wrong desires and were we simply to modify our desires we would be capable of tolerating whatever circumstances we might find ourselves in? Like Deleuze and Guattari, Epictetus seems to suggest that desire is not something natural or inborn, but is a product of our creative freedom. Deleuze, of course, has a strong connection to the stoics through his relation to Spinoza and his development of a stoic ontology in The Logic of Sense. The risk here is that we find ourselves perilously close to claiming that true revolutions are not revolutions in how material conditions or social relations are organized, but rather are revolutions of desire that transform our relations to these conditions.
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One of the key claims of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is that the functioning of capitalism is premised on the expenditure of abundance rather than the allocation of resources under essential conditions of scarcity. This premise, of course, accompanies their more generalized critique of lack as a foundation of desire.

Anyone who pauses to reflect on the logic of non-academic discussions of political thought can discern just why this critique of scarcity is so important. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, if we falter on this point, “…all resignations are justified in advance” (AO, 74). Where the social comes to be understood as a response to scarcity, then politics becomes the means by which decisions are made as to how scarcity is distributed. While there might indeed be many different ways of distributing scarcity, what is ineradicable or impossible is inequity. In short, all inequity is justified in advance and a priori.
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A challenging book, and not by virtue of its difficulty.

Somewhere or other Lacan remarks that the love of truth is the love of castration. By this, of course, Lacan is remarking that truth is the real or the bar characterizing the existence of the Other. Yet it could also be taken more literally to refer to the divide between rhetoric and truth. The commitment to truth seems to undermine rhetorical efficacy and thereby undermines political power. Effective rhetoric seems slavish by nature as it seems to require attending to one’s audience in a way that pays homage to their illusions so as to persuade them and gain their endorsement. Could we imagine, for example, an American politician who spoke the truth of American history and the American political situation? All too often, I think, I’ve conflated philosophy with rhetoric. That is, I’ve conflated the necessity of speaking efficaciously with the question of truth. I was horrified, for example, to find that it was Kucinich who brought articles of impeachment against Bush not because his claims were false but because he couldn’t possibly be an effective rhetor due to who he is and the lack of credibility he possesses.

In this reaction, I was willing to sacrifice truth for the sake of effective rhetoric. Someone like Kucinich couldn’t be an effective rhetor because he lacks credibility and would therefore make it more difficult to propagate the truth in the public sphere (his lack of credibility would infect, in viral fashion, the nature of his claims, imbuing these claims themselves with a lack of credibility). What was needed was another rhetor who had the credibility to speak the same claims. In short, my problem wasn’t with what Kucinich was charging, but with who was making these charges. If, as I reasoned, the speaker hadn’t achieved the status of a “Statesman” whose words therefore had power, the speaker couldn’t but undermine the credibility of the charges themselves. Kucinich, in my view, has done much to undermine his credibility as a speaker through his actions and therefore could only do a disservice to the credibility of these charges. Having Kucinich speak these charges couldn’t but be a strategic blunder, regardless of whether he thereby “got them on the record” (a rationalization and convenient consolation no matter how you cut it). I could not see how this particular speaker could use words in a way that was powerful enough to create congressional consensus or public consensus to accomplish anything through the truth of his speech, and felt that his speech could even work to the detriment of the truth of that speech (Incidentally, I think this is a common failing of the left: it trusts in truth and ignores the necessity of creating consensus. This tendency to ignore the rhetorical dimension except in its capacity as critique is logically entailed by the love of truth insofar as the rhetorical dimension often involves a great deal of untruth, irrationalism, and injustice). Those who defended Kucinich ignored how the claims were spoken and who spoke, treating these things as irrelevant and secondary, instead focusing entirely on what was spoken. This denigration of the “how” and the “who” seems to be a constant misstep in leftist politics, as if it believes that these dimensions have no material efficacy. But if truth if what is loved, the speaker and the manner of speech should be irrelevant to the claim. I’m ashamed of this gut reaction on my part.

It seems that it’s no mistake that the Greeks simultaneously discovered political theory, rhetorical theory, and philosophy. The divide between rhetoric and philosophy seems to speak to an originary split at the heart of language between language as reference and language as persuasion or addressed to the other. The rhetor recognizes that dimension of language that must speak to local customs, the credibility of the speaker, the poetic power of language, etc., in order to produce persuasion. The effective rhetor cannot ignore these dimensions of language if they are to be successful in their rhetorical act. The philosopher, by contrast, attends only to relations of entailment, inference, and reference within language, without regard for an addressee. Clearly the two dimensions can never be separated as speech always presupposes an addressee, yet also contains internal relations of entailment independent of any relation to an addressee. Perhaps philosophy is this very tension or gap between the two dimensions. Forever more the two dimensions of language find themselves in tension and at odds with one another. Perhaps the question would be whether there is a form of rhetorical practice that is not slavish, that does not betray the truth, but that simultaneously respects the other while striving to speak the truth.

In response to my recent diary on the public, Shahar of Perverse Egalitarianism writes:

the “pedagogic” comments are all too irritating, but then again, the hazard of the public is of course, nothing less than the perverse egalitarianism of the internet.

Recently, in an argument or line of reasoning that makes me suspicious or somewhat uncomfortable, I’ve been thinking that democracy is the one “true” form of the political. This line of reasoning arises in response to Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro where it is asked “is piety pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?” Under the first option, we get the logic of sovereignity, where the sovereign is the first term (whether that sovereign be the gods, God, the emperor, the priest, or the leader) such that the sovereign makes the good what it is. That is, under this first option there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of the good, but rather it is the will of the sovereign that makes the good what it is. Thus, for example, it is impossible to claim that the actions of Caligula or Nero are wrong in themselves, for Caligula and Nero, as sovereigns, are those who decree and create the law. By contrast, under the second option– moral realism –there are transcendent standards by which sovereignity itself can be evaluated. If the actions of the Greek gods or the Christian God can be said to be wrong, if it is possible to claim that the caesar is a bad emperor, then this is because there is some standard that transcends the gods, God, and the caesar. All of this is bound up intimately with previous diaries I have written on Lacan’s graphs of sexuation and, in particular, the masculine side of the graph of sexuation.

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