One should never read a single book at a time. In the act of reading multiple texts, aleatory encounters between texts are produced like sparks arcing across two separated wires. There is no method here. Where and when such a spark will leap is not subject to calculation or prediction. Rather, such sparks are purely a product of chance. And, of course, it is necessary to add the caveat that it is impossible to read a single book at a time. As Freud famously observed in his allegory of the Roman city, and Bergson in his cone of memory, the past co-exists with the present, such that any act of reading is necessarily saturated with all the previous texts one has encountered. Yet even here the points at which texts touch one another, the point at which virtual texts and actual text touch in singularities, is entirely aleatory and without calculation. It is always an event. Perhaps there must be an Idea, Problem, or Multiplicity at work– in Deleuze’s sense of the word: a problematic field –that presides over the genesis of such relations. The principles of auto-synthesis are murky.
Of late my bedtime reading has consisted of Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. This is a dreary, vaguely reactionary, depressing book that chronicles the way in which American appropriations of French thought ended up in a sort of identity politics, where questions of how to form a unified politics (in many respect Badiou’s question) fell apart. and political action came to be conceived in terms of cultural decoding (cultural criticism), all the while ignoring material and economic infrastructures underlying these semiotic formations. Here, for example, the act of revealing the ideological subtext of a film or the act of dressing like a punk becomes a subversive act in and of itself, despite the fact that economic structures nonetheless remain the same.
And indeed, if we look at cultural theory today, we seem to witness one of two alternatives: Either we have those forms of engagement devoted to the art of subversive cultural decoding (some moments of Adorno, early Zizek, Laclau, Butler, Foucault, Althusser, etc), or, more recently, we have discourses devoted to questions of how it might be possible to produce a unifying master-signifier that would allow for concerted and targeted political engagement without falling back into the horror and totalitarian aporias of earlier master discourse (as exemplified by the work of later Zizek, Badiou). Both of these approaches share the common emphasis on the cultural, the semiotic, the symbolic. Badiou, for example, somewhere remarks that economic Marxism is dead, focusing instead on that signifier that would name the event and function as a universal. Zizek argues that there is a parallax between the economic and the political, such that we can only ever see one or the other but never both at the same time. While thankfully both Badiou and Zizek argues for a Real outside the symbolic (and Foucault articulates a disjunction between the visible and the legible), nonetheless it seems that any outside to the symbolic disappears. As Zizek likes to put it, “the real is a function of the symbolic, a twist in the symbolic”. In my view, these positions arise from encountering language under the conditions of a paradoxically “open closure”, where there can be no outside to the manner in which one signifier refers to another signifier, such that we are led to seek out a void or empty place within social structure.
This evening, in Ian Buchanan’s highly original, sometimes idiosyncratic, yet often illuminating Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, I read that,
The fact is, Deleuze and Guattari do not reject psychoanalysis. This is a common misperception they themselves are largely responsible for. Contrary to popular myth, they explicitly state that they ‘refuse to play “take it or leave it” games with psychoanalysis and accept the edict that ‘one cannot challenge the process of the “cure” except by starting from elements drawn from this cure.’ (AO, 128/140). In practice they actually retain a number of psychoanalytic concepts (such as primary and secondary repression, the ego, the drives, as well as the concept of the unconscious itself as a distinct system within a system that also includes a preconscious and a conscious) and use them with only minimal retooling. Their stated aim is to engender what they term an ‘internal reversal’ in psychoanalysis and transform its ‘analytic machine into an indispensable part of the revolutionary machinery’ (AO, 90/97). The surprisingly Maoist implication of this aim is that social change can only be achieved via a ‘cultural revolution’, that is to say a revolution in the way people think rather than a revolution in arms. (Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, 65)
I fully agree with Buchanan’s appraisal of the relationship between Deleuze and Guattari and psychoanalysis. A sensitive reading of Anti-Oedipus reveals that Deleuze and Guattari have a great deal of sympathy for Lacan, while also rejecting certain elements of his project. Moreover, familiarity with Lacan’s teaching from seminar 9 onwards reveals that Lacan is immune to a number of the critiques schizoanalysis levels against psychoanalysis. Indeed, in light of Lacan’s critique of the ego, his rejection of the Oedipus (he disdainfully refers to it as “Freud’s myth” in Seminar XVII and it is never a touchstone throughout his teaching), his rejection of a unified body, his account of partial objects (which Deleuze and Guattari themselves compare favorably to desiring-machines), and in his critique of all totalities (“there is no Other of the Other”, “there is no metalanguage”, “the Other does not exist”, “the Woman does not exist”), there’s already a way in which Lacan’s teaching can be described as “schizoanalytic.” This is a connection that enthusiasts of Deleuze and Guattari have yet to adequately exploit in rejoinders to Zizek, Badiou, Hallward, and the rest. This judgment is only intensified if one factors in Lacan’s use of ethnography in the early Family Complexes.
However, this is not what I wish to draw attention to. Here I can only throw up a sort of place holder for future thought and discussion as I’m very tired at the moment, but I wonder if, in fact, it is the case that social revolution is only attained through cultural revolution as Buchanan suggests. Here is the productive spark between Cusset’s dark and pessimistic account of the American appropriation of French theory and Buchanan’s assertion. On the one hand, there is the uninteresting observation that Buchanan is mistaken on textual grounds with respect to Deleuze and Guattari. While we might readily agree that for Deleuze and Guattari, social revolution can only take place through a revolution in desire, it’s also important to note that for Deleuze and Guattari the various syntheses of desire aren’t restricted to the domain of the cultural. Rather, in Anti-Oedipus desire is a sort of metaphysical principle that extends well beyond social bodies to include rocks, biological processes, stars, etc., etc. Wherever there is a connective synthesis, desire is at work. Desire is a synthesis of production. As such, desiring-production would include material economic processes, and not simply cultural formations.
Yet this textual criticism is not, in and of itself, of great interest but is the work of the pedant. The real question is whether cultural transformation is sufficient for social transformation. I suppose here we would have to determine what is meant by social transformation. Here my thoughts are underdeveloped, however the question I wish to mark is that of why we seem to witness cultural transformation after cultural transformation without accompanying social transformation. There are no shortage of radical critics out there, yet there seems to be very little in the way of a broad-scale, extra-academic audience for these critics. Often these critics speak in very impatient terms, suggesting that we need simply engage in the Act or affirm the Event to produce change, yet somehow these declarations ring hollow and fail to produce the effect they promise. Despite his affirmative stance, there’s a way of reading Badiou’s renewal of the concept of fidelity or faith in the political sphere, for example, is an exceedingly depressing symptom of our contemporary malaise; for, to put on my Nietzschean hat for a moment, this affirmation has the stench of the politically exhausted who feel the need of resorting to a messianic discourse to sustain the will to remain engaged where the hope of change looks all but impossible. Where work is possible, where work is immediate, there is no need of fidelity. Here I am not suggesting that the cultural is unimportant. Clearly there is a multi-directional process at work in these phenomena, such that the mythical base-superstructure model is mistaken. Material transformations beget cultural transformations and cultural transformations beget material transformations. The relation is not univocal in character.
However, it seems to me that in much of this political thought, questions of receptivity are missing. In a vulgar simplification of information theory, we are told that information requires a sender, a message, a channel across which the message is sent, and a receiver. Theory, in a variety of ways, has examined messages and either sought to formulate new messages (later Zizek, Badiou with Acts and truth-procedures), or to “deconstruct” various message frameworks (ideology: early Zizek, some moments of Adorno, Butler with her critique of gender, Spivak with her ever diligent analysis of blindspots in various academic discourses, Laclau and the splitting of hegemonic signifiers, Foucault and his analyses of power and its naturalizing tendencies, etc); yet has theory devoted enduring attention to the question of the conditions under which messages can be received?
At what point do certain statements, certain declarations, certain assertions, take on the capacity to resonate and produce effects in a receiver? What are the conditions for the possibility of being heard? Posing the question on the scale of readers, why is it that for me my eyes used to glaze over when reading Marx, yet now I find Marx of the greatest importance and interest? Some sort of change must have taken place. A new receptivity, a new aesthetic, must have installed itself. I became capable of receiving a message where before I was not. But how and under what conditions? Likewise, under what conditions do certain political positions and declarations begin to resonate within the social field? This question is at the very heart of social change and is not secondary or ancillary to questions of critique. For without adequately answering these questions, adequate strategies of producing change cannot be formulated. However, a glance at the history of political transformations also seems to indicate that while these shifts are cultural in character, they also seem to involve material transformations that problematize the cultural sphere, calling for new institutions, new group formations, new ways of feeling, new subjectivities, and new ways of living.