November 30, 2008
Posted by larvalsubjects under Badiou
, Ontology 1 Comment
The brilliant new blog, Splintering Bone Ashes, has a very nice response to my brief post critizing Badiou (someday I hope to return to it and develop the other three criticisms!). Just a taste:
Continuing the recent debate surrounding Peter Hallward’s critique of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Larval Subjects points towards the principal issue at hand: the questionable legitimacy of ontological systems predicated on the primacy of the matheme and the supposed “purity” of mathematical discourse as the ‘royal road’ to an uncontaminated being. The real target here is of course Alain Badiou’s identification of the discourse of being (ie- ontology) with axiomatic set theory. However Badiou (unlike his pupil) is careful to maintain a distinction between ontology as discourse (that which can be said of being) and being itself. Set theory then enables a kind of purified discourse about being, without ever necessarily entailing access to being itself. This “purification” is the removal from ontological discourse of the ontic dimension, of all predicates and qualities that might be applied to something, to leave behind merely the most minimal descriptions of a being (that to say something “is” is the least that can be said in a process of reduction whilst still allowing it to “be”). As Badiou describes: “Strictly speaking mathematics presents nothing […] because not having anything to present, besides presentation itself – which is to say the multiple – and thereby never adopting the form of the ob-ject, such is a condition of all discourse on being qua being.” It is important to realise that this mathematised ontology does not mean that, for example, actual beings are ultimately composed of infinite multiplicities of number! As Badiou himself puts it: “The thesis that I support does not in any way declare that being is mathematical, which is to say composed of mathematical objectivities. It is not a thesis about the world but about discourse. It affirms that mathematics, throughout the entirety of its historical becoming, pronounces what is expressible of being qua being.” The reason for this is discernible in Badiou’s decision of the multiple over the one, since “what presents itself is essentially multiple; what presents itself is essentially one”- and hence to describe presentation outside of the “what” dimension (i.e.- the ontic) is a necessary step to holding the one at bay, a step achieved by handing over the business of ontology to set theory. As Larval Subjects correctly analyses, mathematics does not give us “all that can be said of being”, and it is not part of Badiou’s project (within Being and Event at least) to even attempt to do so… instead mathematics is positioned as the least which can be said of being, a modest minimalism…
I think SPA is right on the mark in emphasizing that Badiou is referring to the discourse of being qua being rather than being in itself (a point repeated by Nate in his own response to my post). I do think, however, that there is a common shift in Badiou from statements about being qua being in maths to statements about existence that remains problematic in terms of my distinction between being and existence or the “whatness” and the “thatness” of being. This is not unlike a move sometimes found among Lacanians regarding sexuation, where it is constantly emphasized that persons of either biological gender can fall on either side of the graph of sexuation, while constantly nonetheless assimilating biological women to the feminine side and biological men to the masculine side (cf. Žižek’s recent remarks about homosexuality).
November 29, 2008
Posted by larvalsubjects under Zizek  Comments
A searing critique of Zizek’s thought over at The New Republic. Rejoinders?
Via An Und Fur Sich
November 26, 2008
Posted by larvalsubjects under Antagonism
, Death Drive
, Symptom  Comments
Surplus-jouissance, Desire, and Fantasy
In Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan articulates fantasy as the frame of desire. The fundamental fantasy does not imagine a particular satisfaction, but is rather the frame through which our desire is structured. In this respect, fantasy answers the question of what the Other desires.
As I remarked in my previous post, the desire of the Other is enigmatic and opaque. Fantasy is what fills out this enigma, articulating it, giving it form, such that it embodies a determinate demand. Lacan persistently claimed that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This polysemous aphorism can be taken in four ways. First, at the most obvious level, it can be taken to signify that we desire the Other. Second, and more importantly, it can be taken to entail that we desire to be desired by the Other. Third, it can be taken to signify that we desire what the Other desires. For example, a petite bourgeois might desire a particular car not because of the intrinsic features of the car, but because it will generate envy in his neighbor. Likewise, someone might mow their lawn not because they see an intrinsic virtue in doing so, but because they fear that their neighbor will become angry if they don’t. Finally, fourth, insofar as the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, the thesis that desire is the desire of the Other indicates the manner in which desire is articulated through the network of signifiers that haunt our unconscious, producing all sorts of symptomatic formations based on the signifier.
November 25, 2008
Posted by larvalsubjects under Hegel  Comments
Pinkard’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is now available online. I haven’t read much of it yet, but it looks promising. How about a new translation of the Greater Logic?
Hat tip to Perverse Egalitarianism.
November 25, 2008
Between Drive and Signifier
The first post on sexuation and the logic of sexuation can be found here.
Between The Interpretation of Dreams and the Three Essays on Sexuality there was a great tension within Freud’s thought, almost as if there were two entirely different psychoanalytic theories. On the one hand, the Three Essays developed the theory of the drives (trieb) and the various forms that they could take over the course of development and beyond. Freud’s early drive theory was a thoroughly embodied theory pertaining to the baroque displacements the drives can undergo in order to satisfy themselves. By contrast, The Interpretation of Dreams unfolded almost entirely in the order of the signifier, the semiotic, and its vicissitudes, with little that directly pertained to the drives. In certain respects, Freud’s work here was prescient. In his final essay, Analysis Finite and Infinite, Freud would wonder whether it was possible for analysis to come to an end. Despite the fact that interpretation would go as far as it could go over the course of analysis, despite the fact that the transference would have been thoroughly worked through, Freud would find that something in the analysand’s psychic system continued to repeat. In other words, there was something other at work in the analysand’s psychic system that could not be resolved through interpretation alone. No doubt it was observations such as these that led Freud to theorize a death drive in contrast to the pleasure principle and instincts.
Lacan’s thought underwent a very similar trajectory. Up through Seminar 6, Lacan focused primarily on the order of the signifier, ignoring almost entirely the order of drive or jouissance. During this period, Lacan optimistically argued that the symptom could be entirely resolved through analytic interpretation, even defining the symptom as a metaphoric condensation of signifiers. This is the period where Lacan believes that the big Other exists. During this period, as can be observed in the graph of desire, Lacan assimilates drive to the signifier, to the symbolic, rather than seeing it as belonging to the order of the real. It is not until Seminar 10, L’angoisse, that Lacan will begin to develop a rich account of drive as that which both accounts for signifying formations in the unconscious (an animating principle), and as a real and jouissance entirely other than the order of the signifier.
November 24, 2008
The Real, Repetition, Incompleteness, and Inconsistency
As I remarked in a previous post, Lacan’s graphs of sexuation can be understood as two ways in which the totalization of language fails and the jouissance that emerges as a result of this failure of totalization.
According to Lacan, there is a masculine and feminine way in which this failure occurs. The masculine failure of totalization and the jouissance this failure produces can be found on the left side of the graph, while the feminine failure of totalization and the failure it produces can be found on the right side of the graph of sexuation. We can refer to the upper portion of the graph of sexuation where the equations are located as “the logic of the signifier”, while we can refer to the lower portion of the graph with the arrows as “the logic of jouissance. The left or masculine side of the graph of sexuation can be referred to as failure as incompleteness. That is, the masculine way of attempting to totalize the symbolic or the big Other leads to a constitutive incompleteness calling for a supplementary element or term. Likewise, the feminine way of attempting to totalize or complete the symbolic leads to a constitutive inconsistency.
It is important to note that biologically gendered subjects can occupy either side of the graph of sexuation or neither side of the graph of sexuation. Thus, for example, you can have a male body that is structured according to the feminine side of the graph of sexuation. Likewise, psychotic subjects occupy neither side of the graph of sexuation. In this respect, it comes as no surprise that postmodernity, where the name-of-the-father is largely foreclosed in the social field (the structural failure in the borromean knot that generates psychosis), is also accompanied by a plurality of sexes and sexual identities. This is exactly what we would expect in the absence of Oedipal structure. In this connection, I believe that the debates between Copjec and Žižek directed at Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Butler premised on the real of sexual difference are poorly formed because the two sides of the debate are dealing with very differently structured systems at the level of the logic of the signifier.
November 21, 2008
Posted by larvalsubjects under Badiou
, Ontology  Comments
In a recent post, I made the claim– apparently to the ire and astonishment of some –that Peter Hallward’s critique of Meillassoux’s After Finitude applies equally to Badiou’s ontology. In the course of further remarks I also suggested that, despite his self-descriptions of his own position, Badiou’s position leads to an a prioristic idealism. This wasn’t meant as an insult to Badiou, nor is it a wholesale rejection of his thought (which has influenced and inspired me deeply), but is premised on honest disagreements and perplexities I have about his ontology. The implication seems to be that one can only appreciate or endorse Badiou by dogmatically adopting his philosophy in toto, having no point of contention with it. Knowing a thing or two about Badiou the person, I suspect this is not something he would much admire or desire. Given the apparent surprise in response to this offhand observation, it is worthwhile to explain just why I think this is the case.
In his first charge against Meillassoux, Hallward contends that he equivocates between thinking and being. This charge, applies equally, I believe, and perhaps even moreso, to Badiou, and would also be one of the reasons I’ve been led to describe Badiou’s position as idealist rather than materialist. To claim that a thinker equivocates between thinking and being is to charge them with treating being as thinking and thinking as being. When Badiou equates ontology with maths, claiming that maths says all that can be said of being qua being, he essentially is committed to the thesis that thinking and being are identical. In doing so, his position necessarily collapses into an idealism regardless of whether he wishes to describe it as a materialism. [NOTE: Of course, it's worth noting that Badiou asserts his position is a materialism premised on the claim that all we can say about matter is mathematical. Here Badiou is referring to a long history of thought pertaining to form and matter, where form exhausts matter and we are unable to say anything about matter as such because whatever we say about matter already pertains to form. For example, we try to discuss the material qualities of silver independent of what form that silver takes (a chalice, a ring, a fork, etc), only to discover that we can only articulate the formal structure of silver, e.g., it's atomic structure.]
Now, there are good reasons pertaining to the history of philosophy that motivate him to equate being with maths. The epistemological debates of the 17th century premised on representation, culminating in Kant, had shown that there is always a dis-adequation between thought and reality (existence), such that we can never know whether or not our representations of the world match up with the world itself. Later Heidegger formalizes this conclusion, showing how as finite beings we only ever encounter being in terms of our access to being not being as it is in-itself. This opened the door to a variety of different constructivist orientations in philosophy positing a variety of different incommensurate worlds or language games, abolishing any sort of truth. In equating being with maths, Badiou’s strategy is to subtract ontology from questions of representation or knowledge (he distinguishes, as did Kant before him, between what is known and what is thinkable, such that God and the noumenal cannot be known but can be thought), instead placing being in the domain of the thinkable. Questions of representation or knowledge do not arise within mathematics because mathematical entities are not representations of things or objects. In other words, math does not refer to anything outside of itself in the way a proposition like “the cat is on the mat” refers to a state-of-affairs and a signified”. Thus we are able to know mathematical truths a priori (independent of experience through reason or thought alone), with certainty, and as a matter of deductive necessity, such that mathematical propositions are not subject to infinite dissemination, free play, or pragmatico-contextual variation as is the case with signifiers. In this respect, maths need not broach the questions of access, nor does it fall prey to the endless slippage of language that so fascinated both Anglo-American and French Continental philosophers during the twentieth century. Maths, as it were, is a language of the real in the sense of “that which always returns to its place” (Badiou, of course, would object to my reference to language here).
If maths say all that can be said of being, then we attain, at last, the identity of thought and being sought first by Parmenides. Of course, Badiou’s major innovation here is to show not that being is one and self-identical, without difference, as Parminedes had argued, but that being is pure multiplicity without one or infinite dissemination. Badiou, in short, chose the “bad option” in Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, choosing pure heterogeneity over identity. The beauty of Badiou’s move is that by equating being with maths he is able to sidestep all the debates about knowledge and representation, that lead to the reign of the sophists in the twentieth century, by showing how questions of ontology are not questions of representation at all, but investigations into pure being qua being or what is thinkable of infinite dissemination alone. Moreover, Badiou “out-differences” the philosophers and sophists of difference showing that far from spelling the ruin of thought or ontology (Derrida, Lyotard), difference, pure multiplicity qua multiplicity without one is thinkable. In a certain respect, Badiou’s thought can thus be seen as that slight “twist” he describes so well in Manifesto for Philosophy, where he shows how the Platonic gesture consisted in fully embracing the arguments of the sophist with the caveat that they produce a truth.
The problem is that Badiou’s understanding of being leaves out the signification of being involved in existence. Certainly maths cannot exhaust all that can be said of being, for there is a fundamental difference between essence and existence. When I think, for example, the properties of a triangle I can deduce many properties of that triangle. For example, I can deduce that if the other two angles of the triangle are each 45 degree, the third angle of the triangle must necessarily be 90 degrees. This belongs to the essence or form of the triangle. I know it with certainty and I can know it through thought alone. However, what I cannot know through thought alone is whether or not this triangle exists in the world. In other words, mathematical truths do not yet tell me anything about existing things in the world. With the possible exception of God, we cannot deduce existence from essence. Mathematical truths, whether set-theoretical or otherwise, are truths of essence. Whether they apply to existence is another question (which is why we can have forms of mathematics that discuss 11 dimensional topologies without yet knowing whether or not anything exists in the world corresponding to these topologies).
My point here is very simple. Clearly when we say that something exists, we are saying that something is. In other words, we are not talking about the what of being (form/essence/structure), but the that or “es gibt” of being. But if I cannot deduce existence from essence or maths, then this entails that there is something other of being than maths. This entails that maths do not say all that there is to be said of being. Just as Lacan paradoxically says “there is something of the One”, there is “something of being that is not exhausted by essence, maths, or form” that is missing in Badiou’s ontology. Let us call this element that eludes formalization or that cannot be deduced, the real. Here the real is not to be understood in the signification of that which always returns to its place, but in the signification of tuche or the “missed encounter” outlined by Lacan in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Put otherwise, my position is that there is something of being that eludes the thinkable (the mathematically deducible). I would argue that any and all materialist positions are committed to this thesis: Namely, to the thesis that it is the world, existence, that calls the shot, not thought. Two points then: First, I argue that Badiou is led to an a prioristic idealism because he equates being and the thinkable, where the thinkable is the mathematically deductive. In contrast to this, I argue that there is always something of being that escapes deduction, that is missing from the deductable, namely existence. This does not entail that maths is unimportant or that it is wrong to claim that science is only science insofar as it mathematical (as Kant had already claimed), but only that math does not exhaust what belongs to being. Second, I worry that should we endorse Badiou’s ontology wholesale– and make no mistake, I believe he has made a profound contribution to ontology –we will be led to ignore that which eludes essence or maths (as so often happens with rationalist orienations of thought) because we believe that we already have all that we need in maths. Contrary to Badiou’s Platonist orientation of thought, I cannot help but adopt– at least at this point –an Aristotlean orientation of thought… That is, an orientation premised on things, objects, substances, rather than maths.
More to come.
November 20, 2008
Posted by larvalsubjects under Analysis
, Boring Stuff About Me
, Unconscious  Comments
I sometimes feel as if I go through a sort of eternal return, where I repeat things I have said before yet experience myself as having just thought them for the very first time. Hopefully, despite these repetitive iterations, despite these re-loops of loops, each iteration is nonetheless somehow producing something new or allowing some other thought to emerge that, for whatever reason, could not before emerge. As Spinoza argues, ideas can only produce ideas. Yet why is it that ideas sometimes get fixed or repetitive like a skipping record? Why is it, I wonder, that we obsess over certain themes and ideas– almost as if our life is a musical variation –such that we perpetually return to these things without realizing that we’re doing so? The Bird and the Bee song: “Again and again and again and again… Do it again! Do it again!” In his preface to Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Badiou remarks that in a true work of philosophy,
…it is possible to detect the sense of something new– texts which respond to the question: “What wound was I seeking to heal, what thorn was I seeking to draw from the flesh of existence when I became what is called ‘a philosopher’?” It may be that, as Bergson maintained, a philosopher only ever develops one idea. In any case, there is no doubt that the philosopher is born of a single question, the question which arises at the intersection of thought and life at a given moment in the philosopher’s youth; the question which one must at all costs find a way to answer. (After Finitude, vi)
This is a surprisingly Deleuzian thought for Badiou; one that almost stands in contradiction with his charges of a Deleuzian “aristocratism” in The Clamor of Being. I do not know that I follow Badiou in the thesis that the wound is unique to the philosopher, but, as I argued in Difference and Givenness, I would certainly agree that the wound– what I there called “the encounter” –is constitutive of thought. To think is to be wounded. That is to say, to think is to be out of step with the world, to not be at home in the world, to experience the world as unheimlich. We think because we are not at home and perhaps the degree of our homelessness marks the degree of our thought’s intensity… Unless we are consumed by a homelessness so profound that it ends in catatonia or mute autism. Thought then would be a way of attempting to sublate or overcome that wound, that crack that prevents any adaptation to the world.
It is this that is fundamentally missing from accounts of collective assemblages such as we find proposed in Spinoza. Conatus, the endeavor to persist in one’s being, lacks– at least on the surface –the dimension of death drive in speaking-being. While the Spinozist body is indeed excessive rather than homeostatic or adaptive in its active drive to promote its power to act, what seems to be missing is this dimension of repetition, of death drive, that is at odds with action premised on benefit or enlightened self-interest.
This can be sensed above all in Spinoza’s conception of love, where the madness of love, the willingness to destroy everything else for the sake of love, is entirely absent. Despite the fact that Spinoza asserts love can be excessive, one gets the sense that for him, the difference between a good meal (which he also characterizes in terms of love) and mad love is a difference in degree rather than kind. If, as speaking beings, we are constitutively wounded, divided by language, and therefore subjects of an irrepressible question that we cannot escape, how must we understand collective assemblages and the perils that haunt them? Clearly these assemblages will perpetually be perturbed by the repetition, the eternal return, that haunts the subjects that inhabit these assemblages. On the one hand, this will be one of the prime sources of those lethal identifications with demagogues, tyrants, and dictators where the body of these figures is encountered as an answer to the repetitive question of the wound, as that which can sublate the wound and produce the “heimlich” in the world.
On the other hand, the wound, the death drive, will be the source of our most profound creativity, political struggles, thought, love, invention, etc., as we choose the wound over adaptation. Is there a way to channel the wound, the death drive, in one way rather than another? Certainly this is one of the aims of psychoanalytic practice– to transform painful, paralyzing, and intolerable incarnations of the death drive manifested in the symptom, into productive, liveable, creative symptoms or forms of repetitive jouissance. Witness Joyce.
Or is it, as I asked months ago in another post, that the death drive, the symptom, repetition, jouissance is simply psychoanalysis’ own myth of original sin: a reactionary ideological mystification that argues that lethal and mal-adaptive repetition is natural and necessary, rather than contingent? Spinoza argues that our collective irrationality arises not from original sin, but from a set of cognitive processes that take place at the level of how our emotions function. Death drive is something quite different than the simple confusion of two things that resemble one another as in the case of an object confused with love object or object of hate that shares a quality with these objects without possessing any of the same causal properties, e.g., Hating one’s student named Tom, because one was the victim of a childhood bully named Tom, and failing to realize this completely contingent connection. Death drive is not a confusion, but a sort of ever repeating glitch in a system, that causes the perpetual return of an insistent question that places the subject out of step with the world. One might think of the people obsessed with a certain image in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the image, ultimately, of the mountain), to such a degree that they completely neglected their bodies, families, jobs, and all the rest (viz., they were completely disjointed from the world) trying to figure out why this image would not leave their mind and what it might represent. The difference here, of course, is that for the characters in Close Encounters, they do get an answer. There is no answer to the death drive, only the repeated failure of any and all such answers– Which can be a source of a positive jouissance. “Do it again!”
From roughly June until a few weeks ago I was in the midst of a deep and black depression. The strange thing was that I did not feel sad, but simply disengaged from everything. I wasn’t, as it were, even aware that anything had changed. I had lost all desire for everything. I no longer read. I felt no inclination to respond to emails. No books, shows, movies, or ideas interested me. Whenever I got a new paper published or received some sort of praise for my book, it left me feeling cold. I had no desire to be around other people. I slept a lot and just walked through the world like a sort of zombie. There was no malice in any of this. If I didn’t respond to an email, it wasn’t because I harbored animosity towards the person. I didn’t respond to anyone unless it was a professional matter I couldn’t ignore. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care.
The worst part is that you blame yourself for this state and experience it as a moral failing. You tell yourself that perhaps your brain has hardened and you simply can’t think fluidly in the way you once did. You tell yourself that you’ve become lazy, ceased caring, etc. Somehow it is something that you’re doing that’s led to this malaise. But just as anger in the midst of a nicotine fit seems absolutely convincing and like a matter of your will, the depression is not experienced as depression, but as some set of choices you are making. Of course, from a psychoanalytic perspective this is because somehow, at some level, you have betrayed your desire and repudiated yourself as a subject. The question is how?
Perhaps now I am in a manic period– I’ve certainly been writing a lot –but something seemed to break a few weeks ago. And even if it is manic, it feels good. It feels good to care. It feels good to write. It feels good to draw connections, to find images to represent things, to read, to dance with others in thought. I began exercising and this seemed to produce significant changes. Who knew? But what was it that brought this on? Why did I fall into this pit? In her beautiful essay, Why Psychoanalysis?, Elizabeth Roudinesco argues that depression, melancholia, is the unique malady of our time, produced by our contemporary ideological conditions and conditions of production.
If neurosis– a loud, noisy, antagonistic symptom in protest of the reigning social order — is the symptom of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, argues Roudinesco, depression is the reigning symptom of an era where great causes have collapsed, where alternatives to the social organization of this world have disappeared, where there is nothing to protest as all norms have collapsed, and where all that is left is the pursuit of happiness, the improvement of one’s body and health, and the endless pursuit of ever new and novel forms of exotic enjoyment. The depressive age is an age where the Soviet Union has collapsed and China has become capitalistic, such that the only [once] credible alternatives to the world of liberal democratic capitalism and the promise of “happiness” and a life without risk, have disappeared. Likewise, with the death of God we get a world closed to transcendent possibilities, to ideals higher than those of appetite.
Insofar as all symptoms are a protest, of sorts, against the Other– a trace of the lack in the Other or the fact that the Other is a sham, a semblance, an impostor, that the Other does not provide the answer or jouissance promised –depression, the disappearance of desire, the fading of desire, is a protest against such a closure where all alternatives have disappeared. But, like so many symptoms, what a painful symptom! Perhaps depression is what occurs in the absence of being able to even articulate what is missing, what is absent. Depression would be a sort of silent speech, a mute speech, that speaks the absence of signifiers worthy of desire. Or better yet, depression would be a marker of that which falls outside of language or that for which there are no signifiers. As such, in the borromean clinic, depression would be located at the intersection between the circles of the imaginary and the real: A mute witness of the imaginary body in response to a certain real that haunts the symbolic.
Is there a way in which depression can be made active? Is there a way in which this mute withdrawal of the subject from the empty world of “bodies and pleasures”, this existence as undead, as zombie, that capitulates to the closure of possibilities, the absence of alternative, can make this silent and passive resistance an active resistance? Such a resistance would no longer be one that assaults the body of the depressive, such as in the case of the depressive subject that blames himself, but would be a subject that might find a way to reject the idea that happiness, exotic enjoyments, and bodies and pleasures are the only alternatives, the only things, we can hope and live for… Or rather, that we can hope and be dead for.
November 19, 2008
Dejan of Cultural Parody Center asks how I respond to the worry that collective assemblages lead to disasters such as some of those that characterized aspects of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. In subsequent discussion he qualifies his question, indicating that he wasn’t suggesting that collective assemblages necessarily lead to this outcome, but was rather asking what proposals or thoughts I might have as to how this might be avoided. However, I do think Dejan hits on a fundamental argument that is extremely common in, at least, the United States when arguing against any form of collective action. My position is that this line of argument is always based on spurious reason. Consequently, since this spurious reasoning is so common I thought I’d take a moment to show just where it goes wrong through a formalization of its reasoning. Roughly the argument runs as follows:
Premise 1: The Soviet Union (or whatever poison you might like to choose) was a social system premised on collective assemblages.
Premise 2: Social Formation X calls for collective assemblages.
Conclusion: Therefore, Social Formation X leads to outcomes identical to those in the Soviet Union.
In the United States, at least (Thatcher gave similar arguments, I believe, in Great Britain, and arguments such as this were used throughout South and Central America to justify deregulation and privatization), we have been beaten over the head by arguments like this so often that we don’t even pay attention to them anymore. Indeed, I so commonly hear claims like this from my students (in completely unrelated contexts), that I almost wonder whether they haven’t become lodged in our DNA, manifesting themselves as “innate truths”. However, when we formalize the argument using a venn diagram we see that the conclusion clearly cannot follow from these premises:
For those unfamiliar with venn diagrams, they work by spatially representing relations among categories represented in propositions. For universal propositions (“all A’s are B’s) you use shading. For particular propositions (Some A’s are B’s) you use x’s. When you cannot determine the region to which the x belongs in the three circles, you place it on the line separating the regions to indicate that it could be in either of the regions. To determine whether or not a syllogism is valid, you diagram the premises of the syllogism and if the conclusion follows from the premises, then it will appear after you diagram the premises of its own accord.
The argument above deals only with propositions that are particular in quantity, and therefore uses nothing but “x’s”. For the first premise, the x is to be placed in the intersection of the Soviet Union circle and the Collective Assemblage circle as the first premise asserts a relation between these two classes. We are thus indicating that at least one entity shares the property of being both the Soviet Union and a Collective Assemblage. However, we notice that there are two regions where we can place the x: region 2 or region 4. For this reason, we place the x on the line between these two regions, indicating that we do not know whether it is in region 2 or 4. For the second premise, we now look at the relationship between the circle for some unspecified Social Formation X and the circle for Collective Assemblages. Premise two again asserts an intersection between these two classes of entities. However, once again we notice that there are two regions where our x could appear: region 4 and region 6. Since we do not know whether the social formation in question is in region 4 or region 6, we place it on the line between these two regions to indicate our uncertainty.
If our argument is valid, then we should see an x appear in region 4 at the point of overlap between the circle for Social Formation X and the Soviet Union. What, in fact, do we see? We see that based on our premises it is possible for an x to be in region 2 or region 6; which is to say that there is not a relation of necessity between collective assemblages, social formations, and the Soviet Union, such that the presence of one of these properties or classes deductively entails the presence of the others. The ideological trick thus consists in implying that there is a relation of deductive necessity between collective assemblages and totalitarianism, where there is only a relation of contingency, i.e., a relation that can and often is otherwise.
This argument is, of course, stupid and any school child should be able to immediately see that it is invalid, yet nonetheless people seem to find it extremely compelling or convincing. As Dejan points out, that, in and of itself, should raise all sorts of important questions about human psychology. There is thus, on the one hand, the question of why certain collective assemblages lead to social formations that are totalitarian or fascist in character. And also, on the other hand, the question of how it might be possible to produce collective assemblages that do not lead to these results. Of course, the whole point of such an exercise lies in showing how that which appears natural and necessary is, in fact, contingent such that other forms of life are possible. Reactionary politics and ethics perpetually treats the contingent and historical as necessary and eternal. For example, it is said here in the States that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman and that God would have made same sex couples capable of reproduction had he intended them to marry.” All of this despite massive ethnographic evidence to the contrary. One of the first conditions for change lies in discerning the essential fragility and contingency of social formations. It is only in this way that the social order loses the appearance of being akin to Newtonian laws, trapping us in the iron grip of their necessity.
I apologize to readers for the silliness of this post, but it was fun, at least, to pitch an ideological claim in terms of syllogisms and venn diagrams. Hopefully I’ll be excused for finding lame ways to avoid grading.
November 19, 2008
This semester I have been teaching Spinoza’s Ethics to close out the course. Although I have had bad experiences teaching the Ethics and Leibniz in the past, this year, for some reason, it has been a pure pleasure. Once you are finally able to penetrate the propositions and their supporting arguments, a beautiful structure begins to emerge, where each proposition builds on the previous proposition, gradually building to greater and greater complexity and taking the reader from truths that are almost self-evident and hardly in need of proof (e.g., “Substance is by nature prior to its affections or qualities”), to surprising and disturbing conclusions (that nature and God are identical; that God is not a sovereign ruling over nature and preferring one set of beings over another, but that instead God creates everything that God can create by necessity; that values and morals are not intrinsic to things, but products of how our bodies relate to other bodies in terms of benefit; that there are no purposes or ends to nature, only efficient causes; that God cannot be compelled or persuaded to act, but only acts according to the necessity of his own being; etc). One by one, Spinoza challenges the root claims of traditional theology and organized religion, showing how these claims are in contradiction with God’s essence. In developing these arguments he institutes a thorough-going immanent naturalism sans any dimension of transcendence or vertical being.
Spinoza is crafty and devious. What makes his arguments so ingenious and devious is that unlike the materialistic atheist that simply denies the existence of God on materialistic grounds, Spinoza works within the theological tradition, drawing on definitions inherited directly from Aristotle and Medieval Jewish and Christian theology, painstakingly demonstrating that when these definitions and axioms are followed through logically, they entail these conclusions and no others (granting, of course, that his arguments are sound). In other words, Spinoza shows that it is theology itself that leads to these conclusions. As a result, there is something of the uncanny in Spinoza. Just as Freud’s unheimlich is a sort of effect of the heimlich, the homely, the familiar, such that what is familiar suddenly presents itself in a completely unfamiliar way– for example, your image in a mirror begins speaking to you and moving about when you are not –Spinoza takes the familiar concepts of theology, retains them, and completely inverts them in a way that renders them thoroughly unfamiliar, unheimlich, and even a bit terrifying.
Not surprisingly, a number of my students immediately gravitate towards questions of morality in relation to Spinoza’s thought. If, as Spinoza argues, God does not reward nor punish a person for living a moral life, and if, as Spinoza argues, values are a matter of the relation of our body to other bodies in terms of whether these other bodies increase or diminish our power of acting, and if, as Spinoza argues, God has no preference for what is or is not, for how we live our lives, then how can Spinoza have any place for ethics or morality? For example, God creates Jeffrey Dahmer and Dahmer’s existence follows from God’s nature as one of the modes that can exist following from the attributes of extension and thought. Insofar as Dahmer can exist, he therefore must exist by virtue of God’s absolute infinity and the fact that God’s activity is limited in no way. God has no preference for Jesus, Mother Theresa, or Dahmer, but creates all of these modes as they are possible variations of particular attributes (the essence of substance). Any preference for one mode over another arises not from God’s will or desire, but from relations among modes themselves. In other words, one calls Dahmer bad because he diminishes your power of acting by drilling holds in your head and eating your flesh. In short, Dahmer diminishes your power of acting.
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