November 2008


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).

A searing critique of Zizek’s thought over at The New Republic. Rejoinders?

Via An Und Fur Sich

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.

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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.

Read on
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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.

Between Drive and Signifier

The first post on sexuation and the logic of sexuation can be found here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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