For Joe Hughes
Today one of my students was kind enough to send this photograph of my lecture notes on Descartes and the project of Modernity:
A Model of Mind: Under my interpretation, Descartes invents an entirely new form of epistemological inquiry that I refer to as self-reflexive analysis. Where premodern thought held that we can proceed directly to an investigation of the world, for Descartes this epistemological skips a step: the analysis of the subject or self that investigates the world. Prior to investigating the world, we must first, Descartes contends, investigate the observer that observes the world to 1) determine whether or not this observer is adequate to knowing the world, and 2) what the limits of this observer’s knowledge might be. Descartes thus uncovers an entirely knew domain of inquiry. With Descartes, the self now becomes an object of investigation and knowledge. As such, Descartes opens the way to a new science that we today know as psychology. On the other hand, this self or subject is also understood as the origin and foundation of knowledge. Having discovered that the teachings of authority and sacred texts are unreliable, the subject will now come to fill the void as the foundation of knowledge.
This relation between subject as object of knowledge and subject as origin of knowledge will be what Foucault much later calls the “transcendental-empirical couplet”. Here the task of philosophy will no longer be knowledge of external reality or the world, but rather knowledge of the subject that knows the world. In other words, the task of philosophy now becomes not observing the world, but rather observing the observer. It is for this reason that we get a transcendental-empirical couplet. The observer becomes both that entity that observes the observer (the transcendental) and the entity to be observed (the empirical). Here all sorts of questions arise regarding the very possibility of such a self-reflexive analysis. Indeed, given the notorious paradoxes that emerge surrounding self-reference, we can ask whether or not self-reflexive analysis is even possible. Is it possible for an observer to observe herself and her activity of observation? Or will observation of observation necessarily distort observation?
To answer this question it proves necessary to model the mind and the mind’s relation to the world in the process of observation. I depict this model in the diagram in the photo above. On the one hand we have the external world which I there depict with a tree. On the other hand, we have the screen of consciousness, awareness, or mind upon which our representations appear. In Descartes consciousness is conceived as a sort of theatre in which representations, concepts, images, and perceptions appear. This is depicted by the square upon which we see a representation of the tree from the external world. If the metaphor of a screen is preferable to that of a mirror, then this is because a screen is both a surface upon which images are project and something that veils other things. Here we might think of Freud’s analysis of fetishism. According to Freud the fetish is a screen memory designed to veil the horror of castration. The young infant male crawling about on the floor looks up and discovers that his mother does not have “it” and therefore concludes that he can also lose it. To escape this terrifying discovery his mind thus blocks out the vision of castration by allowing himself to only recollect the last thing he saw before seeing his mothers genitalia: her shoes, stockings, dress, panties, etc. Hence the fetish is born. Through displacement the entity represented in the screen memory rather than the genitalia are eroticized. A screen is thus that which both reveals and conceals.
However, as every owner of a cinema knows, a screen is nothing if there isn’t an audience that pays to watch what is projected on the screen. Consequently, the cogito, ego, or spectator is an essential structure of mind as Descartes conceives it. Cogito names that spectator that observes the representations that appear on the screen or that consumes those representations that appear in consciousness. However, while there must be a cogito to witness representations, this cogito doesn’t exhaust the structure of mind. The screen itself must posses the power of representation. In other words, there must be something about the surface of the screen that allows it to represent just as there must be something about the glass of a mirror that allows it to reflect. To understand the mirror is not to understand the images or contents that appear in the mirror, but rather to understand the nature of what lies behind this surface allowing the mirror to reflect at all. In other words, the mirror must have a tain that serves as the condition for the possibility of reflectivity. This tain is the invisible surface that does not itself appear but which nonetheless allows contents of mind to appear. These elements taken together constitute a crude and simple model of consciousness.
R1: Motivated Relations: From World to Representation: This model allows us to identify a series of relations that enable us to clarify the problem of knowledge. Along the arrow R1 we encounter a causal relation between world and screen productive of representation. In acting on the mind the external world causes certain species of representation to appear on the screen of the mind. This relation thus runs from the world to the screen. When folks like Adam Robbert of Knowledge Ecology argue that the sorts of relations between objects and objects and mind and objects differ only in degree not kind, they seem to be referring to this axis. Just as a flame causes a rock to undergo a qualitative transformation when heating it up, the world acting upon the screen of the mind causes the representation of a tree to appear on this screen. Here it is important to note, however, that perception is only one species of representation. Perceptions, we believe, are “motivated”, yet many other representations such as concepts, imaginings, dreams, etc., appear to be unmotivated in the sense that 1) they represent entities that do not exist at all or that are nowhere to be found in the physical world (such as my dream of being a rock or a universal), and 2) they are, as Kant would say, productions of the spontaneous power of mind rather than the mind being affected by the world.
Madness and the Problem of Unmotivated Representations: The problem of “unmotivated” representations or representations that are spontaneous productions of the mind constitutes one of the unique and truly original epistemological problems of modernity. For the premoderns the central epistemological problem was that of distinguishing between essence and accident. It was a problem, as Deleuze reminds us, of “carving nature at the joints”. For the premoderns there was truth in all representations. Their epistemological problem arose from the question of how to distinguish essence from accident. I say that gold is a yellow shiny metal and am therefore led to treat copper, bronze, gold, and iron pyrite as instances of gold. With the exception of iron pyrite, I have said something true in classifying these instances as metals. My sin or error consists in classifying them as instances of gold. This error in classification arose from treating an accidental quality like yellowness as an essential quality. The central problem for the premodern epistemologist thus consists in developing a reliable method for distinguishing between essence and accident and the central error consists in treating accidental qualities as if they were essential properties. Nonetheless, there is still an element of truth in all representations for the premoderns and this is what allows Plato to see our perceptions as both reminding us the forms that we already know and these instances as potentially leading us to confuse essence and accident as a result of thinking in terms of resemblance rather than ideal structure.
For the modern epistemologist, by contrast, the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, the problem of how to distinguish essence and accident remains. On the other, we now get the problem of how to distinguish representations that indeed index the world from representations that are mere products of the imagination. As Foucault argues in The History of Madness, modernity is accompanied by the appearance of the figure of the madman. Prior to modernity there had been no madman, but only oracles of the gods and unfortunate men and women who were possessed by demons. Yet now, insofar as modernity recognizes the existence of representations that are unmotivated and that therefore index no external reality, we get the spectre of the mind that confuses pure fabrications of the mind with truly existing realities. The key question thus becomes that of how to distinguish fantasy, the dream, the hallucination, from representations that genuinely represent reality. Reason is haunted from within by the spectre of madness that is, in its turn, not something that is produced by the external world but that is a production of the mind itself.
R2: Cogito and Representation: Along the second axis of relation we encounter the relation between the cogito and representation. On this axis the cogito enjoys, contemplates, consumes, regards, or experiences its representations. The cogito is here an eye that experiences the representations that appear before it on the screen of its consciousness. It will be noticed that what the cogito here relates to is not the tree as such, the externally existing tree, but rather a representation of the tree. From beginning to end the cogito is a spectator of representations not of the world. Indeed, so thorough is this closure of representation that even the cogito’s experience of itself and its own body is the experience of a series of representations. As subsequent thinkers in the Cartesian tradition will discover, the relation between the cogito and the self and body is neither direct nor lived, but is thoroughly mediated by representation.
It is here that we encounter all the difficulties of self-representation so brilliantly explored by psychoanalysis. If it is possible for me to have such a distorted image of myself as in the case of various narcissistic “disorders”, if it is possible for the anorexic to have such a distorted image of her body, then this is because what we relate to in relating to ourselves and our body is not our self and body per se but representations of our body and self. And here, referring to the original problem of unmotivated representations unique to modernity, these representations are unmotivated products of the spontaneity of our imagination rather than representations causally motivated by our bodies and self themselves.
It is for this reason that we see the cogito and its relations appearing on the screen of consciousness in our model. Like the people being painted in Valazquez’s Las Meninas who also appear in the mirror depicted in the painting, the self that seeks to observe itself also appears on the screen of its own consciousness. Yet just as a mirror distorts what it depicts, inverting left and right, this appearance of the self that observes as an object being observed always risks being distorted by the operations of the tain of the mirror that allow the screen to reflect. It would be both this tain and these systematic distortions that psychoanalysis and schizoanalysis would later seek to uncover.
R1 and R2: The Correlationist Knot and the Problem it Poses: This model of mind allows us to very precisely identify the knot that generates the correlationist conclusion. If the correlationist is led to argue that we have no access to the absolute and that we can only ever speak of the relation between mind and world and never one of these terms taken alone, then this is because, according to this model, we only ever have access to our representations and never the world per se. The cogito relates not to world but rather to representations of the world. Presumably some of these representations are motivated or caused by the world, but the cogito would never know anything about this because there is, according to this model, no going behind representations to determine whether or not they are motivated. All we have are our representations and so thorough is this closure that even my experience of my self and body is a representation. We can call this relation of non-relationists “the correlationist knot”. The correlationist knot is what occurs when, to use Graham Harman’s vocabulary, the external world is withdrawn from us and we only have access to representations or “sensual objects”. Harman’s twist will consist in arguing that this knot is not unique to humans and human minds, but rather is a ubiquitous feature of all objects. Thus Harman’s move will consist in universalizing correlationism such that even rocks find themselves trapped within a knot in which they only have access to sensual objects or representations. One here wonders whether rocks can also produce unmotivated representations or sensual objects. Is not the distinction between the power of producing unmotivated representations and the absence of this power an important distinction for understanding the nature of different beings? Moreover, we are left wondering how Harman can know this is true of other objects besides himself given that he only has access to his own sensual objects or representations.
In any event, if the foregoing model of mind is accurate, it is clear that there is no question of untying this particular knot for where there is no relation between R1 and R2 that would provide a third term that would allow us to evaluate the veridicality of the representations that appear in R2, we are left only with representation itself to guide us. In other words, if we are to navigate the knot or aporia that mind presents us with, our only resources will be at the level of representation. We must find at the level of representation alone, at the level of the contents of mind alone, the resources that would provide us with Ariadne’s thread. For Descartes, the representation that would allow him to escape the correlationist circle was the representation we find upon the screen of our mind of god. But for us that solution will not work. We must look elsewhere in this model for some criteria that would allow us to distinguish veridical representations from mere fantasy and imagining. Where might we find this other avenue?
R3: The Cogito and the Tain: Although Descartes made progress and recognizing that we must analyze the observer prior to engaging in observations, his error consisted in analyzing the contents of mind, rather than attending to the representational power of mind as such. In other words, like Narcissus, was captivated by the images or representations that appeared in the mirror. It was here that he sought the key to escaping the correlationist circle in a Quixotic search for a representation that would contain within it a representation not only of truth but also a representation of truth; and it was this that led him to discern a unique status for the concept or idea of God that couldn’t possibly have been a production of the imagination and that therefore would be a guarantee of truth.
Yet as everyone knows, we do not understand a mirror by attending to what appears in the mirror. No, we understand a mirror by understanding that power that allows a mirror to reflect at all. In other words, if we are to make some headway in escaping the correlationist circle we must, like Alice, pass beyond, through, and behind the mirror. In a form of analysis that cannot fail to remind one of psychoanalysis, ideology critique, and Marxist political economy, we must resolve to reflect not on the images that appear in the mirror (symptoms, fetishes, and ideology), we must resolve the go beyond the images in the mirror so as to explore that very power and capacity of the mirror to reflect at all. Here the observer or cogito needs to reflect not on what is observed, not on those ever changing spectres that appear, but rather on the very power of reflection itself.
Put differently, does reflection have the power to reflect its own power of reflection? Or in attempting to do so, will the power of reflection be doomed to merely to produce one more distorted image upon the screen? That’s the central question and the question that continues to remain unresolved– notice the speculative metaphor –to this day. What the observer seeks to observe is not the observation, but rather the very power of observation. Such was the task posed by second-order cybernetics: an observation of the observer in the act of observing. Self-reflexive analysis would not be a reflection of the surface of the mirror, but a reflection on the tain that allows the mirror to reflect. Or rather, self-reflexive analysis would be a double writing that shuttles back and forth between those formations or constructions that appear on the surface of the mirror and the tain that allows these formations to be reflected at all.
Initially it would seem that we’ve made little progress in unfolding the correlationist circle to reach the absolute. However, if the cogito could reflect the tain of the mirror through which formations appear on the surface of the mirror, we could, perhaps, begin to decipher the mechanisms of that tain discovering that share that belongs to the imagination and that share that belongs to the world. In understanding the formations of withdrawal or the unconscious we could begin to unlock those representations that are our phantastic creations and those that index the real. Yet daunting questions remain. All sorts of paradoxes emerge in the instance of any self-reference. These paradoxes might be constitutive of being or perhaps they are something to be deciphered so as to be surmounted. Further, is self-reflexivity possible at all or is any reflection on self necessarily doomed to distort that which it reflects?
Can we really creep up behind ourselves to observe ourselves in the act of observing so as to distinguish that which arises from us and that which indexes the real? I do not know and this is why I’ve adopted a transcendental mode of argument in my onticology. This post is not so much a call for self-reflexive analysis– much less an endorsement! –as it is an analysis of the problems that emerge with respect to withdrawal, a groundwork of the problems that give rise to correlationism, a survey of the territory and an attempt to move on to different territories. I do not yet have the solutions, yet these are problems to be taken seriously and not simply be dismissed. Where I will ultimately rest I don’t know.