Identification


Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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David1-744682.gifPaul Ennis has a terrific post up on his experience reading psychoanalytic thought, the dis-ease it generates in him, and how he encounters something similar when reading the speculative realists:

Reading psychoanalysis generates a sense of uneasiness in me. To borrow Zizek’s voice for a moment ‘I mean it quite literally’. When I’m sitting there reading about gaps and Others and Fathers I feel anxious. What is Metaphysics style anxiety.

There seems to be a direct psychological impulse behind what speculative realism wants to do. If my more informed readers will allow me to make a crude analysis: speculative realism wants to ‘allow’ the real in. It wants to collapse some symbolic order that we are not supposed to collapse.

Read the rest of the post here. Paul hits on something fascinating with his observation about collapsing something in the symbolic order that is not supposed to be collapsed. In the subsequent discussion in the comments revolving around the “heimlich” or “being-at-home”, I think the point of the unheimlich is somewhat missed in the discussions that somehow it is constitutively impossible for us to not be at home.

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Laughing_buddha_statue_Buddha_gift_mRecently some charges of Orientalism have been floating about the blogosphere with regard to a particular thinker. I don’t care to get into the nuts and bolts of this discussion, but I do think it might be of value to raise some issues about some of the sociological, anthropological, and linguistic assumptions that might underlie this sort of charge. As the Wikipedia article on Orientalism succinctly puts it, “Orientalism implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples.” In response to this short definition, we might ask “what are the conditions for the possibility of Orientalism?” On the one hand, we are told that Orientalism is an essentializing interpretation of Eastern cultures and peoples; while, on the other hand, we are told that this interpretation is an outsider interpretation.

picture_kafka_drawingBeginning with the second criteria or feature characterizing the “phenomenology” of Orientalism, I think we should ask “who is the outsider?” When it is claimed that someone or some mode of discourse is an “outsider” mode of discourse we are implicitly claiming that an inside exists. Put otherwise, what we are suggesting is that cultural identities, cultural “types”, cultures themselves, exist. But is this a warranted assumption? Are we not every bit as much strangers or outsiders within our own culture as we are with respect to other cultures? Do we not wonder how to be Americans, English, Egyptian, Chinese, etc? Or put otherwise, in Lacanian terms, do we not find ourselves perpetually fraught with the hysteric’s question of what we are for the Other? Quoting Zizek quoting Hegel, the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries for the Egyptians. The mistake of the sort of culturalism presupposed by the charge of Orientalism is that it implicitly advocates a sort of immediate and non-mediated relationship to cultural identity such that insiders and outsiders actually exist. But if the aphorism that the big Other does not exist means anything, it is that there is no internally consistent and totalized set of signs and signifiers capable of defining a cultural identity and fixing one’s identity as a member of a group. Our encounter with our own cultural system is every bit as fraught and mysterious as our relation to the so-called “other”.

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narcissusMuch to my surprise and delight, I have been exceedingly pleased by the discussion my post “The Monstrosity of Christ” has generated. For me, Jesus is an incredibly important political thinker who proposes a new vision of communal relations. What has been so great about this discussion, apart from a few bumps here and there, is the manner in which the religious and the atheist have been able to discuss these issues, without the question being one of debunking the other. Towards the end of the comments, Guavatree asks a couple of questions which, I believe, get right to the heart of the issue. First, Guavatree remarks that,

By explaining the difference between interpretations: traditional (Jesus and God above all things) and “radical and revolutionary” — I think you clarify what I think the blog dispute is about. Is Jesus “Resolving” the Imaginary or “Challenging” it?

More than whether Jesus is really asking you to hate your family or not, I’m interested in how you think the Imaginary can be challenged. Is this even possible? To what extent does challenging the bonds of the tribe/family/Imaginary involve the Real and the Symbolic?

Guavatree is responding to a comment I made earlier clarifying my position on Luke 14:26 where Jesus claims that in order to follow Jesus one must hate their mother, father, brother, sister, etc. I have read this, following the findings of ethnographers, as a devaluation of the role of familial or kinship relations as a foundation of social and political structure.

Thanks for the additional passages (here Guavatree provides numerous Gospel references to Jesus making injunctions similar to that found in Luke 14:26), Guavatree. Based on your remarks, I wonder if I haven’t missed the point of some of Kevin’s criticisms. You write:

So in terms of this argument on the blog, hating your family and loving Jesus and God hardly strikes me as a textual oddity.

The real question is whether Jesus’ “dissolution of “the law” into two vast identifications (God/neighbor)” as kvond puts it is a resolution of the imaginary OR a “challenging of this dimension of the imaginary” as larval subjects puts it.

If I’m following your gloss correctly Guavatree, then the dispute revolves around Jesus’ declaration to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and his charge to hate our parents, where it is being claimed that there is a contradiction between these two positions. With respect to the second command, it had never occurred to me to read the demand to hate our family literally. That would be a bizarre reading of the Gospels no matter how you cut it, so I’m surprised to discover that others might have read me as claiming such a thing. Rather, I am interpreting Jesus’ charge as the injunction to cease privileging familial relations or tribal identifications. As such, this separation from the primacy of kinship structures would be a precondition for love of the stranger or the neighbor. This is also why I’ve drawn attention to the story of the Good Samaritan because here we have an instance of a love extended to the other that falls outside the tribal community.

I reject, of course, the remainder of the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ injunction to “hate” one’s family, where it is argued that we are to place Jesus and God above all other things. First, I reject this reading because I think it covers over the whole socio-political issue that he’s getting at with respect to the role that kinship relations play in his historical setting. Second, however, I don’t think this reading is very well supported given how cagey he always is about identifying himself as the son of God (doesn’t he only directly say this in the book of John?). I think this traditional reading places too much emphasis on the person or figure of Jesus, turning him into a screen as described in the post above, thereby allowing us to ignore the truly radical and revolutionary form of social organization that he seems to be proposing.

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Our Carl gives a nice analysis of the mechanisms of textual identification with respect to the issues I raised on style over at Dead Voles. There Carl writes:

At one level there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this dynamic of text identification except the fact that all these smart people seem to think it’s remarkable. Every text from Dr. Seuss on up, difficult or not, has the charismatic potential to generate reverent reading communities that might be described as ‘priesthoods’. My own experience is with Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist who wrote about complex things quite clearly, all in all. There are a lot of pages of Gramsci, most of them in prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit into a linear text, many of them on topics that very few people could care less about. This of course creates the opportunity for a mystery cult for those few who have virtuously read through all of it, sort of like the Kabbalah or the Hadith. Here are instances where the reading community in effect ADDS difficulty to the sacred text by digging out and canonizing every little detail, aside, and tangent. The characteristic assertion is that the plainish meanings of the core writings must be supplemented or even amended in light of these exclusive arcana. (Translation fetishists from the Qur’an to Weber and Foucault work the same way. Translations are not just workably second-best but unacceptable in comparison to the sacred revelation of the original.)

People choose these texts and these reading strategies for all the usual reasons they choose religions (and reject other religions). They may be born into them, or disposed toward them by cultural marking of the text. They may be seeking identity and collective effervescence in a community. The text may be culturally marked as normative or transgressive, enabling the effervescence of dominant or rebellious subculture identification. There may accordingly be a component of acceptance and/or rejection of authority, be it the father’s or the group’s. These are choices within structured fields of options and decision strategies. All of this falls under the sociology of what Weber called elective affinity and Bourdieu elaborated as the schemes of the habitus.

For some reason this makes me think of Virno’s discussion of fear in A Grammar of the Multitude. In the third chapter of A Grammar of the Multitude Virno argues that anguish/anxiety is one of the predominant affects of our time. I hope to write more on this later when I am not inundated with grading at the end of the semester and thoroughly exhausted. At any rate, as Marx and Deleuze and Guattari argued, one of the marks of capitalism is the manner in which it decodes all social relations and codes through processes of deterritorialization. By “decoding” Deleuze and Guattari do not mean the activity of finding the meaning behind some coded fragment of speech as intelligence officers and cryptographers do. Rather decoding is the process by which social codes are undone and destroyed.

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Periodically, or not so periodically, I go through a crisis, wondering what it is that I do and why it is that I do it. On the one hand, I perpetually feel as if my thought is haunted by chaos or an inability to think. Where to begin? What questions to ask? For what purpose or end? I feel as if my thought proceeds by sudden bursts of insights, perpetual new beginnings, but lacks in systematic elaboration, a guiding question, or even a sense of what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I am able to try on philosophies in much the same way that one might try on different outfits. The equivalent would consist in dressing now like a chef, now like a doctor, now like a police officer, now like a judge, now like a hippie, now like a punk, where each of these garbs implies a particular code and grammar pertaining to a social identity. On this day I am a phenomenologist, the next a rationalist, the next an empiricist, the next a pragmatist, the next a semiotician, the next a Hegelian, etc. The only constant is an abiding love of Lucretius, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, coupled with an abiding distrust of those philosophical approaches which make the subject, language, or various cultural formations the lens through which everything else is filtered.

On the other hand, I perpetually feel crushed by the impotence of philosophy. I confess that I should know better. I confess that I should know that reason and persuasion are impotent. Yet I can’t help but yearn for these things. I can’t help but entertain the dark Platonic desire that philosophy have the power to transform the world and society through the power of persuasion and discourse. I wonder why it is that discourse is so fraught, why it seems to be perpetually so hostile and contentious. I have answers or hypotheses to these questions. I think I know why based on what I understand about the human passions, desire as elaborated by psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari, and ideology. Yet I can’t quite accept my own answers. I still yearn for it not to be this way. I think of the earnest and beautiful Spinoza, that prince of philosophers who only lived for forty five years yet still managed to say so much and with such elegance and brevity. I think about the Theologico-Politico Treatise and what he was trying to accomplish with that magnificent text. I marvel at how he managed to be so naive in his ambitions with that text despite his account of the human emotions in Book III of the Ethics.

Whether in heated philosophical discussions or political discussions, the same principles can be observed everywhere. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (3p6). From this, it follows by implication that “The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body’s power of acting” (3p12). As a consequence, “When the mind imagines those things that diminish or restrain the body’s power of acting, it strives, as far as it can, to recollect things which exclude their existence” (3p13). Within these three propositions is really contained the entire comedy of “communicative reason” or its perpetual failure. Just as massive stellar objects bend and distort movement in their vicinity, intense love (Spinoza’s name for our attachment to those things we believe enhance our body’s power of acting) functions like a gravitational singularity that bends and twists thought with respect to everything in the vicinity of the beloved object. As Freud puts it, we overestimate the worth of the love object such that thought swerves in the vicinity of the beloved object, endeavoring to ignore or miss any negative features attached to that object. This would be the root principle of the criticism of those who support Obama, arguing that they are hypnotized or have fallen into a cult in their idealized love of him. Likewise, when confronted with one who does not share our love, thought endeavors to imagine those things that exclude the existence of the thing threatening the beloved object. “From the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have some likeness to an object which usually affects the mind with joy or sadness, we love it or hate it, even though that in which the thing is like the object is not the efficient cause of these affects” (3p16).

It would thus appear that thought is haunted by a two-fold unreason that perpetually undermines the possibility of dialogue from within. On the one hand, in its love it idealizes what it loves, seeking to exclude in thought those things that detract from the action enhancing qualities of the beloved object, such that it is unable to properly evaluate the beloved object. On the other hand, in its hate, thought is unable to attend to the claims of the hated, seeking instead to imagine what would exclude their existence. Often the situation is a bit like that depicted in The Sixth Sense. The boy can see the ghosts, but everyone else is blind to them. Likewise, in our love (and why would we pursue anything without loving it?) or in our hate, entire segments of the world become downright invisible, as if they don’t even exist, such that their effects is only discernible by the neutral observer, watching in perplexity at the odd behavior of those involved. One could write an entire theory of the various rhetorical techniques and informal fallacies, a physics of sorts, showing not how they are the products of the malicious and dishonest manipulator of language, but are rather effects, similar to gravitational effects on motion produced by mass, that arise from various distributions of love and hate in the Spinozist sense. It turns out that one cannot trust one’s own thought (as it is always love and hate that spur thought) nor the thought of the other, nor trust in the possibility of consensus, as thought is always plagued by its passionate (dis)attachments.

Yet if this is the case, if truth is an infinitely receding horizon by virtue of the swerves produced by the love and hate that haunt thought, what possibly can be the aim of philosophy? What is it that philosophy ought to do?

Returning to the debate surrounding Zizek’s analysis of 300, it seems that this passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is highly relevant. Towards the end of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari write that,

The most general principle of schizoanalysis is that desire is always constitutive of a social field. In any case desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology: desire is in production as social production, just as production is in desire as desiring-production. But these forms can be understood in two ways, depending on whether desire is enslaved to a structured molar aggregate that it constitutes under a given form of power and gregariousness, or whether it subjugates the large aggregate to the function multiplicities that it itself forms on the molecular scale (it is no more a case of persons or individuals in this instance than in the other). If the preconscious revolutionary break appears at the first level, and is defined by the characteristics of a new aggregate, the unconscious or libidinal break belongs to the second level and is defined by the driving role of desiring-production and the position of its multiplicity. It is understandable, therefore, that a group can be revolutionary from the standpoint of class interest and its preconscious investments, but not be so –and even remain fascist and police-like –from the standpoint of its libidinal investments. Truly revolutionary preconscious interests do not necessarily imply unconscious investments of the same nature; an apparatus of interest never takes the place of a machine of desire.

A revolutionary group at the preconscious level remains a subjugated group, even in seizing power, as long as this power itself refers to a form of force that continues to enslave and crush desiring-production. The moment it is preconsciously revolutionary, such a group already presents all the unconscious characteristics of a subjugated group: the subordination to a socius as a fixed support that attributes to itself the productive forces, extracting and absorbing the surplus value therefrom; the effusion of antiproduction and death-carrying elements within the system, which feels and pretends to be all the more immortal; the phenomena of group ‘superegoization,’ narcissism, and heirarchy– the mechanisms for the repression of desire. A subject-group, on the contrary, is a group whose libidinal investments are themselves revolutionary; it causes desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinates the socius or the form of power to desiring-production; productive of desire and a desire that produces, the subject-group invents always mortal formations that exorcise the effusion in it of a death instinct; it opposes real coefficients of transversality to the symbolic determination of subjugation, coefficients without a heirarchy or a group super-ego. (348-349)

A bit earlier Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to social investments and preconscious investment of class or interest (343). The central problem that Anti-Oedipus sets out to tackle is that of why we will our own repression:

why do many of those who have or should have an objective revolutionary interest maintain a preconscious investment of a reactionary type? And more rarely, how do certain people whose interest is objectively reactionary come to effect a preconscious revolutionary investment? Must we invoke in the one case a thirst for justice, a just ideological position, as well as a correct and just view; and in the other case a blindness, the result of an ideological deception or mystification? Revolutionaries often forget, or do not like to recognize, that one wants and makes revolutions out of desire, not duty. Here as elsewhere, the concept of ideology is an execrable concept that hides the real problems, which are always of an organizational nature. (344)

One of the central theses of Deleuze and Guattari’s social thought is that the people are not duped, but at a certain level desire fascism and their own repression. What is at issue here is that we can have social movements that are revolutionary at the level of their preconscious class investments, yet nonetheless reactionary at the level of their unconscious libidinal investments. The situation is analogous to issues surrounding the death of God as described by Nietzsche; which is to say, the issue is structural. As Nietzsche somewhere puts it, it is not enough to kill God, but the place itself of God must be abolished. Nietzsche here distinguishes between a certain theological concept of God as a transcendent being presiding over being, and a God-function as a certain structural placeholder in thought, social organization, and practice that other things can come to fill without apparently having anything to do with the divine or supernatural. In short, there is a sort of structural theology of transcendence, a “theology before theology”, that is a form of thought, not an adherence to any particular popular religion. This structural theology, this structural transcendence, is what Lacan represents with the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation, where masculine desire is premised on the phantasm that there is at least one entity that is not subject to the phallic function or castration.

This idea of a structural transcendence without a folk religious conception of God that nonetheless haunts atheism can be elucidated with reference to Laplace. Laplace was, of course, famous for pushing the Newtonian laws to their limit, arguing that we live in a perfectly deterministic universe, such that if we knew the position of all particles at any particular moment along with their velocities, we could perfectly predict all past states of the universe and all future states. When asked about the place of God in his system by Napoleon, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse: I have no need of that hypothesis. One of the revolutions effected by the early Enlightenment thinkers was the thesis of movement immanent to the universe, requiring no transcendent intervention in order for it to occur. Laplace here echoes that thesis, and thus endorses an atheistic position. However, we should not be so quick to come to this conclusion. In putting forward his deterministic thesis, Laplace makes an appeal to what is referred to as “Laplace’s Demon“, which is the idea of an entity capable of observing and calculating all the states of the universe. There is thus a theology that continues to haunt Laplace’s thought, a structure of thinking, which posits a transcendence capable of surmounting castration. Although Laplace’s being is not a creator, does not intervene in the world, does not judge or condemn, does not define a set of moral laws, it is nonetheless a transcendence that, in principle, surmounts our embeddedness in the world.

Deleuze and Guattari appear to be drawing a similar distinction between concrete actual social formations and movements and whether these are reactionary or revolutionary, the structure of social movements that remain reactionary even when undertaken through revolutionary pre-conscious investments. This concern emerges in response to the history of the Soviet Union, where we had a revolutionary movement at the level of preconscious class investments and interests, but nonetheless ended up with a social system organized around highly reactionary unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to power and the party. No doubt Deleuze and Guattari are thinking of the highly disappointing role that the French communist party played in the events of the student revolutions during Spring of 68. The question then becomes that of how it is possible to form a revolutionary movement that does not fall prey to these sorts of unconscious reactionary investments that simply reproduce oppressive systems. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That is, how do we avoid simply re-instituting one and the same structure with differing decorations?

This was a problem Lacan encountered as well in the formation of his school. As Lacan remarks at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, analysis aims at a beyond of identification with the master-signifier:

It is not enough that the analyst should support the function of Tiresias. He must also, as Apollinaire tells us, have breasts. I mean that the operation and manipulation of transference are to be regulated in a way that maintains a distances between the point at which the subject sees himself as lovable– and that other point where the subject sees himself caused as a lack by a, and where a fills the gap constituted by the inaugural division of the subject. (270)

That point from which the analysand sees himself as lovable is the master-signifier, or the place from which the analysand sees himself as being seen by the various authority figures with whom he identifies. In traversing the fantasy and discovering the Other does not exist, that the other is fissured, desiring, lacking, the analysand discovers a beyond of identification in drive. With regard to an organization like a psychoanalytic school or association, the obvious question is that of how it might be possible to form a collective or society premised on the non-existence of the Other. This is a difficult and paradoxical question to say the least. Clearly Lacan himself was a point of identification for the members of his school. He was treated as “the subject supposed to know”. Yet analysts of the school are supposed to have traversed the fantasy and thus worked through the transference, no longer positing a subject supposed to know or a master. This, incidentally, is why I’ve sometimes playfully suggested that Deleuze and Guattari are the real Lacanians: they do not slavishly repeat every word of the master, but work with the thought of Lacan and contribute to the development of a problem and set of concepts. At any rate, Lacan’s various declarations and letters in Television all revolve around this question of the production of a revolutionary collective. The history of Lacanianism since Lacan’s death suggests that the problem has never been completely resolved.

It would appear that we are still caught in this bottleneck. One of the difficulties with Deleuze and Guattari’s proposals– at least as they were taken up by the academy –is that they do not seem to generate any organized activist collectives, and therefore it’s worried that they provide no real tools for struggling with capitalism (I am not suggesting this is true). This would be the concern with a number of other post-structural theorists as well, where political theory is thick on critique and analysis, but provides very little in the way of workable praxis. Enter Badiou and Zizek. In a number of respects, I think Badiou, despite his fascination with figures such as Saint Paul, manages to skirt worries of re-instituting desires at the level of unconscious libidinal investments. Badiou is quite clear in his discussion of political events and in his thesis that a true politics is outside the “state” (Deleuze and Guattari’s preconscious class investments). However, with Zizek and his flirtations with figures such as Robespierre, Mao, and Stalin, the worry emerges that once again we’re moving down the path of a paradoxical “reactionary revolution”, where the new boss is the same as the old. The concerns that motivate Zizek are, I think, well founded: change requires organization, movement. Yet he seems to move in the opposite direction, turning questions of mobilization and organization in fascist directions. I have no answers to solution to these issues, but it does seem to be that one of the central questions is that of how revolutionary movements can avoid falling into reactionary traps.

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