December 2008


universeThe new issue of the IJZS, Žižek and Lacan, is now available online. My article introduces a new Lacanian concept (universes of discourse), as well as four new discourses (the discourse of the capitalist, the discourse of biopower, the discourse of immaterial labor, and the discourse of critical theory), showing how Žižek’s mode of engagement is distinguished from psychoanalytic clinical engagement. In addition to that, the appendix develops the other possible 16 permutations of Lacan’s discourse theory. Here’s the abstract:

Žižek’s New Universe of Discourse: Politics and the Discourse of the Capitalist (warning pdf)
Levi R. Bryant

In what way is the thought of Slavoj Žižek to be distinguished from that of Jacques Lacan? This paper argues that the thought of Lacan and Žižek are to be distinguished at the level of the formal structure of discourse. Although Žižek often situates his own theoretical project in terms of the discourse of the analyst, his work occupies an uneasy place in this position insofar as the discourse of the analyst is directed at the singularity of the subject’s symptom, rather than shared political causes. Drawing on his “Milan Discourse” where Lacan presents the discourse of the capitalist, this paper argues that Žižek discourse inhabits the universe of capitalism, rather than the universe of mastery. Through the development of a modified version of Lacan’s discourse of the capitalist, it is shown that it is possible to derive three additional discourses– the discourse of biopower, the discourse of immaterial labor, and the discourse of critical theory –from the initial discourse of the capitalist. A psychoanalytic approach to these discourses using Lacanian discourse theory goes beyond standard accounts of biopolotical production and immaterial labor by revealing the function of the unconscious and real at work in these discourses, thereby opening new possibilities of engagement. Žižek’s theoretical project is shown to be an important cartography of this new universe of discourse, revealing both how the discourses inhabiting this universe contain certain constitutive deadlocks and devising strategies for engagement where the foe– due to the disappearance of the master and new forms of capitalism that can no longer be properly situated in terms of the discourse of the university –is no longer entirely clear.

Other Contributors:

Žižek: silence and the real desert
Rob Weatherill

Female Rivals: Feminism, Lacan & Žižek try to think of something new to say
Kareen Ror Malone

On Reading Žižek: Notes for Lacanian Clinicians (or what to do when a little bit of Žižek gets stuck in the throat)
Carol Owens

Embracing the Paradox: Zizek’s Illogical Logic
Sheila Kunkle

Lacan after Žižek: Self-Reflexivity in the Automodern Enjoyment of Psychoanalysis
Robert Samuels

Happy New Years!

Nick over at Speculative Heresy has posted links to some texts by Ray Brassier, Peter Hallward, and Graham Harman. So far I have only read Hallward’s review of Logics of Worlds, but all the works look exceptionally interesting. Hallward develops a substantial, cogent and penetrating critique of Badiou’s ontology and the insufficiency of his account of existence or the ontic and relation that I’ve been gropingly trying to articulate. Enjoy!

Open Humanities Press has announced a new book series devoted to the publication of original metaphysical systems. This is an exciting moment in Continental thought and a bit of a watershed for the future of Continental philosophy. The old stereotype runs that Anglo-American philosophy is focused on problems, while Continental thought tends to be focused on the history of philosophy and commentary. As a result, within Anglo-American philosophy we tend to get original work (though often very boring), while in Continental thought, at least within the English speaking world, we get commentary after commentary. This is not, of course, to diminish the value of commentary or its potential to function as a platform for the development of new philosophical trajectories. However, this focus on the history of philosophy places real institutional constraints on philosophers in the English speaking world working in the Continental tradition. Insofar as one must be concerned with either getting a position or gaining tenure, and insofar as Continental journals and presses are geared towards the history of philosophy, doing original work becomes a losing proposition as you’re unlikely to find a publishing venue for that work and thereby lose valuable time in doing this work. This new series goes part of that way towards ameliorating that problem, though it also opens the door to anxiety as to whether or not we really have anything to say in our own voice. At any rate, here’s the announcement:

New Metaphysics

Series editors: Graham Harman and Bruno Latour

The world is due for a resurgence of original speculative metaphysics. The New Metaphysics series aims to provide a safe house for such thinking amidst the demoralizing caution and prudence of professional academic philosophy. We do not aim to bridge the analytic-continental divide, since we are equally impatient with nail-filing analytic critique and the continental reverence for dusty textual monuments. We favor instead the spirit of the intellectual gambler, and wish to discover and promote authors who meet this description. Like an emergent recording company, what we seek are traces of a new metaphysical “sound” from any nation of the world. The editors are open to translations of neglected metaphysical classics, and will consider secondary works of especial force and daring. But our main interest is to stimulate the birth of disturbing masterpieces of twenty-first century philosophy. Please send project descriptions (not full manuscripts) to Graham Harman, graham@rinzai.com. Open Humanities Press is an international Open Access publishing collective. OHP was formed by scholars to overcome the current crisis in publishing that threatens intellectual freedom and academic rigor worldwide. All OHP publications are peer-reviewed, published under open access licenses, and freely and immediately available online through www.openhumanitiespress.org.

nietzscheIn Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche famously argued that metaphysics is a product of grammar.

With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks: but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” After all, one has even gone too far with this “it thinks”—even the “it” contains an interpretation of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here according to the grammatical habit “thinking is an activity; every activity requires an agent; consequently—.” It was pretty much according to the same schema that the older atomism sought, besides the operating “power,” that lump of matter in which it resides and out of which it operates, the atom; more rigorous minds, however, learned at last to get along without this “earth-residuum,” and perhaps some day we shall accustom ourselves, including the logicians, to get along without the little “it” (which is all that is left of the honest little old ego). (Part 1, §17)

graph13jThe world is parsed into nouns in the form of subjects and objects, adjectives or predicates, and verbs. Subjects and objects are then treated as substances or that which endures in times and lies beneath. Verbs or events are treated as that which happens to objects and subjects, such as the movement from one position to another in space as if on a sheet of graph paper. And finally predicates are what are said of substances. The ball, a substance, is red and spherical (predicates). The ball moves this side of the table to that side of the table.

As a consequence of this parsing of the world, all sorts of metaphysical and epistemological problems emerge. Insofar as subjects and objects are conceived as substances, the epistemological question arises of how it is possible for a subject to relate to an object. The object, as a substance, forever transcends the subject, necessarily being beyond the subject in all ways. We know the object through its predicates or properties, yet we encounter the entire problem of primary and secondary qualities or the indiscernibility of properties. That is, how do we determine whether the predicates we find in the object are a product of us or whether they belong to the object itself? Is color, for example, in the object or is it in me? On the metaphysical level, is the object simply a bundle of properties or is the substance something more, in addition to its properties, beyond these predicates? If the object is nothing but a bundle of properties, doesn’t it cease to be that objects when it gains or loses properties? If the object is a substance beyond its properties, what does it mean to speak of it as this object at all insofar as the substance which the object is is always in excess of any properties that it might have (the bare substratum problem).

Yet certainly “to be”, to exist, is something more than simply being a substance characterized by identity? Generally we restrict the verb “to act” to living beings. Animals act in bringing themselves to motion. Some claim that only humans are capable of acts. Action here is conceived as necessarily containing a component of will or self-willing. A rock, it is said, does not act insofar as it cannot will itself to act but can only be made to move through external forces. Etymologically the term act comes from the Latin actus, “a doing”, and actum, “a thing done”. These are derivatives of agere, “to do, set in motion, drive, urge, chase, stir up”. These Latin terms, in turn, derive from the Greek agein, “to lead, guide, drive, carry off,” and, interestingly, agon, referring to “assembly, contest in games,” as well as agogos or “leader”.

Read on
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Obama has chosen Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, to give the prayer at his inauguration. Apparently gay rights are second to other civil rights issues and it’s okay to have a speaker who compares homosexuals to rapists, child molesters, and child abusers. Express your displeasure here. There is zero reason to give this sort of hate a publicly legitimate platform. Certainly there are plenty of Christian leaders that would be more appropriate. There is no room for these voices in the public space.

It is customary to see contemporary philosophy in terms of a set of responses to Kant. On the one hand, Anglo-American thought is seen in the lineage of Kant’s first Critique; while, on the other hand, Continental thought might be seen as a set of responses to Kant’s third Critique. But what if the relevant split were not between two different readings and reactions to Kant, nor a response to a geographical division across an ocean? What if, instead, the real split were to be located in those orientations that find their heritage in Descartes, and those orientations that find their orientations in Spinoza? On the one hand, we have those philosophies of the subject that obsess over the relationship of the subject to the object, asserting the transcendence of the object to the subject and endlessly raising questions as to how it might be possible for a subject to relate to the object. Here we would find the prodigious domain of all those monotonous inquiries into knowledge, all those various forms of skepticism such as linguistic idealism on both sides of the ocean, as well as those political philosophies that argue for the necessity of a subject free of all overdetermination from a social field as in the case of Badiou or Zizek, but even Ranciere and Laclau. On the other hand, there would be the Spinozist orientation, emphasizing not the subject, but assemblages, holism, fields, relations, and tendencies unfolding within these fields. Here there would be questions about freedom, about how everything is not already overdetermined by the organization of the field, and how the project of critique might be possible within a universe where individuation always implies a pre-personal field. Today we even have our Leibniz in Graham Harman who has resurrected occasional causality without God under the title of “vicarious causation”, defending the rights of the object against any subjectifying gaze, thereby trying to strike a middle way. Would situating critical thought in these terms function to shift debate at all, taking it out of the endless rut of variations of Kantian correlationism and attempts to move beyond this form of correlationism? Yet were we to take this route, how would we have to transform the questions of epistemology? Already in the case of Spinoza, it is clear that epistemological questions bleed on to ontological questions, such that we must think of the formation of bodies as they “grock” with the world.

040830-grammarA while back someone tagged me– I can’t remember who, but seem to recall it was Mikhail over at Perverse Egalitarianism –with the question of what new practices I plan to implement in the classroom this year. At the time I didn’t respond because I was in the midst of my depression and could barely bring myself to read, much less write. Reflecting on this semester, however, a few things, while not entirely interesting, come to mind.

corrosion02Since I have begun teaching, one of my absolute passions has been eradicating the words “opinion”, “feeling”, and “belief” from the vocabulary of my students. Few thinks irk me more than reading these words in a student essay or hearing them enunciated in class. In and of themselves, of course, these words are perfectly serviceable. However, in a Wittgensteinian sense, there is a grammar behind these words that is on the one hand a defense against entertaining claims, and on the other hand corrosive to critical thought. The student will remark, “It is Plato’s opinion that…”, “Nietzsche felt…”, “Saint Thomas believed that…”, etc. Why are these locutions forms of defense against thought and corrosive to critical thinking? The common thread behind these forms of enunciation is that they detach claims from grounds by which these claims are arrived at. In other words, when a claim is treated in terms of the signifiers “belief”, “opinion”, or “feeling”, it becomes like the famous smile of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat detached from the body of the cat, floating about of its own accord.cheshire65 As a consequence, the person can then conveniently ignore any of the reasoning or grounds that lead to the claim, rendering themselves immune to any argument supporting the conclusion or claim.

In short, since “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, and since “everyone has their own beliefs”, the student can then set their own opinions in opposition to the philosopher claiming “while Leibniz believes x, I believe y, so I don’t agree with Leibniz.” Here their own views are protected behind an impenetrable fortress and need never be challenged or subjected to any sort of critical scrutiny. Given that one opinion is as good as another, the student can continue to cleave comfortably to their prior beliefs without entering into any sort of becoming. Everything remains the same. Not coincidentally, I find that those students who most vigorously use the language of “opinion”, “belief”, “feeling”, “perspective”, or “perception”, are also the ones who tend to do the worst in my class. The reason for this is that they inevitably end up summarizing the “opinions” of the philosopher– “Spinoza believed that God and the world are one and the same” –without analyzing the arguments by which the philosopher arrives at his position. Everything thus remains at the superficial level of an inventory of the philosopher’s “opinions”, without any examination of just what line of reasoning leads the philosopher to such a conclusion.

Read on
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