Okay, not really but close enough. Know my love for all things pertaining to dark science-fiction (none of that mystical and fascist good versus evil Star Wars crap for me!) and for all things post-apocalyptic, Mel has me reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I suspect this is her sly way of getting me to encounter something else she’d like me to see, but treating her reading suggestions as a sort of rebus is half the fun. At any rate, last night I came across the following passage which beautifully illustrates the Lacanian concept of the Imaginary:

“Use your neurons.” Said Crake. “Step one: calculate length of man’s arm, using single visible arm as arm standard. Assumption that both arms are approximately the same length. Step two: calculate angle of bend at elbow. Step three: calculate curvature of ass. Approximation of this may be necessary, in absence of verifiable numbers. Step four: calculate size of hand, using visible hand, as above.”

“I’m not a numbers person,” said Jimmy laughing, but Crake kept on: “All potential hand positions must now be considered. [They're discussing whether a man's hand is on their busty teacher's ass at the mall.] Waist, ruled out. Upper right cheek, ruled out. Lower right cheek or upper thigh would seem by deduction to be the most likely. Hand between both upper thighs a possibility, but this position would impede walking on the part of the subject, and no limping or stumbling is detectable.” He was doing a pretty good imitation of their Chemlab teacher– the use-your-neurons line, and that clipped, stiff delivery, sort of like a bark. More than pretty good, good.

Already Jimmy liked Crake better. They might have something in common after all, at least the guy had a sense of humour. But he was also a little threated. He himself was a good imitator, he could do just about all the teachers. What if Crake turned out to be better at it? He could feel it within himself to hate Crake as well as liking him. (74 – 75)

And there, my friends, in these final bolded lines is a gorgeous example of the dynamics of the Lacanian domain of the Imaginary. The only flaw in this brief little vignette is that Jimmy is so aware of his ambivalence towards Crake and the source of that ambivalence. Jimmy senses that his identity or being is threatened and captivated by the fact that Crake shares the same identity, and perhaps better, as Jimmy. In this respect, he risks fading or disappearing in his relation to Crake.

Dylan Evan’s outlines the Lacanian Imaginary nicely in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis:

The basis of the imaginary order continues to be the formation of the ego in the MIRROR STAGE. Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, IDENTIFICATION is an important aspect of the imaginary order. The ego and the counterpart form the prototypical dual relationship, and are interchangeable. This relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification with the little other means that the ego, and the imaginary order itself, are both sites of a radical ALIENATION: ‘alienation is constitutive of the imaginary order’ (S3, 146). The dual relationship between the ego and the counterpart is fundamentally narcissistic, and NARCISSISM is another characteristic of the imaginary order. Narcissism is always accompanied by a certain AGGRESSIVITY. The imaginary is the real of image and imagination, deception and lure. The principle illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the affects are such phenomena. (82)

If there is an intrinsic alienation at the heart of the imaginary or the order of identification, then this is because one cannot coincide with their image. Here it is necessary to construe image broadly as pertaining to both the order of specularity and our sense of self-image or who we are. The image is a visage presented to an-other; an image of how we would like to be seen or how we imagine ourselves as being seen by others. If this aspect of the image is characterized by alienation then this is because we can never see ourselves being seen as the other, in fact, sees us. As such, this dimension of the imaginary is characterized by a constant frustration and insecurity by virtue of the fact that our image cannot be mastered. By contrast, insofar as we arrive at our image through identification with an-other, the imaginary is a site of alienation insofar as our image is always elsewhere or outside of ourselves. We can never quite live up to the statuesque image with which we’ve identified.

It is this alienation that generates the ambivalent love-hate and aggressivity at the heart of the imaginary. On the one hand, we experience a perpetual struggle between our image and ourselves as we strive to embody it, unable to ever full assume it or live up to it. As a consequence, the ideal of wholeness and identity that the image inaugurates within ourselves has the paradoxical effect of leaving us feeling perpetually incomplete. This incompleteness or hole that lies at the center of the (w)hole, in its turn, generates a profound defensiveness and sense of struggle with the other that threatens that image. Moreover, insofar as we arrive at the image through our identification with the other, we constantly experience ourselves as being in danger of being usurped. As such, a struggle with the other ensues which is essentially a struggle over ownership of the image. The tragic paradox is 1) that if the agent is successful in either getting the other to see oneself as one would like to be seen, the value of the others gaze is destroyed and one is no longer seen as one would like to be seen, or 2) if one is successful in destroying the other that threatens to usurp the image as in the case of Crake, the gaze required to sustain one’s own self is destroyed.

It is sometimes said that fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Hmmmm.

A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

read on!

The always intrepid Ian Bogost responds to yesterday’s Speculative Realism Roundup, remarking that,

Just for kicks, a possible objection to my own claim that the digital comfort of SR is an accident of timing more than a property of its positions:

As this very post illustrates, one of the demands of effective networked discourse is speed; online exchanges happen quickly or they disappear, lost in the noise of novelty. Another is tentativeness. One must be comfortable putting forward thoughts in gestation, in transition, knowing that they will shift and revise over time.

One might say that both speed and tentativeness are unappealing demands for both the analytic and continental traditions, the former thanks to its affinity for the precision of logic and mathematics, the latter thanks to its affinity for of discourse and language. Both efforts strive for a sort of perfect rendering of things, whether as friction-free Wittgensteinian proof or an exquisitely baroque Derridean lyric.

Is it possible that among SR advocates, whatever inner sense finds a rejection of correlationism appealing also makes no qualms about the rapid, experimental outpouring of possible notions given form in logic and language? Writing is still serious business for the speculative realist, to be sure, but so is the tea that steeps, the trousers that wrinkle, or — for that matter — the keyboard keys that depress while such writing takes place.

I really don’t have much to say in response to Ian’s thought here beyond free associations. One of the things I’ve noticed among many of my colleagues in recent years is a sort of outright hostility to the internet, text messaging, etc. The lament always has the form “these kids today…” and spirals into a diatribe about how they are unable to read, how they lack a knowledge of history, science, and are unable to write etc., etc., etc. I am always a bit shocked when I hear these diatribes, while nonetheless sympathizing with them on the writing end (grading these essays can be a miserable experience), because these diatribes are coming from the same folks that are intimately familiar with Plato’s Phaedrus. In other words, they sounds remarkably like Plato’s critique of the evils of writing. Thinkers like Walter Ong with his Orality and Literacy and Friedrich Kittler with his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, have, of course, introduced us to the thesis that communications technologies are not simply tools that leave the content of communication unaffected, but rather have a morphogenetic effect on the nature of that communication as well as cognitive structure. McLuhan makes similar observations in The Gutenburg Galaxy, and thinkers such as Simondon and more recently Stiegler in Time and Technics call into question the notion of τέχνη simply taking on form from human beings. Indeed, Marx had already observed the manner in which the factory had a morphogenetic effect on human bodies, generating a new type of subjectivity.

Simply put, the thesis would run that the person individuated within an oral culture thinks and experiences the world differently than a person individuated within a textual culture. Here there would be different structures of embodiment, cognition, affectivity, and so on. Likewise, it takes no great leap to conclude that perhaps similar differences emerge with respect to digital cultures. In this respect, it wouldn’t be that students are “stupid”, but rather that given this milieu of individuation, they have a different sort of cognitive, affective, and embodied relationship to the world. While this different structure makes reading Spinoza’s Ethics with them tough going as the Ethics requires a very different sort of cognitive temporality than the affective temporality prominent in our current visual and digital culture which is more rhizomatic and associative than deductive, it does not entail that these new forms of subjectivity are somehow less skilled or intelligent. Indeed, it is possible that the sort of affective-temporal structures of text-based structure are actually an impediment to thriving in visual-digital culture as they require a “keeping time” that simply is not available in the zipping technological space Ian alludes to. Rather than the mathematician or the scholar pouring over a text or problem for years or decades, the model of visual-digital culture is something closer to Jackie Chan who, like Charlie Chaplin, is able to make use of whatever environment he is thrown into at the time.

The new technologies thus pose all sorts of questions about the nature of contemporary discourse, thought, dialogue, affectivity, subjectivity, and interpersonal relations. Will we reach a point where we find reading a book every bit as difficult as reciting all of Homer’s Illiad? Yet here again, I think we find a case where correlationism comes up woefully short in providing us with the sorts of conceptual tools to explain the sort of world we live in. In its focus on the mind-world correlate, in its focus on how mind actively gives form to the world, it has a very difficult time theorizing how these sorts of milieus give form to various forms of embodiment, affectivity, temporality, subjectivity, and all the rest. Similarly, it is not clear that correlationist approaches have much of significance to say with respect to technology beyond reactionary, luddite platitudes about how it is corrupting us (perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s here). As Stiegler and Simondon argue, technology has taken on a sort of autonomy of its own, evolving and developing at its own pace and with respect to its own internal logic, in a way that can no longer be properly theorized in terms of human aims and intentions. In the absence of a clear understanding of that autonomy and its dynamics it’s very difficult to develop strategies for responding to this new world.

For the last few days I’ve been a bit remiss in responding to comments and email due to being swamped with other things. I apologize for this. Today, in response to my post on Orientalism, Jerry the Anthropologist writes:

Allow me to wonder how this post might look to someone reading it at Universitas Kebangsaan Malayu or at Gadjah Mada or at San Carlos. Its not that I don’t appreciate (or that they might not appreciate) the elegance of the argument.

Put another way, somewhat over 50 years ago, after having examined somewhat over 300 definitions of culture, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn wondered whether its not so important what culture is as what culture does.

Hopefully my friend Jerry will say a bit more about his distinction between “culture being” and “culture doing”. For my own part, I have become suspicious of concepts like “society”, “culture”, “economy”, “language”, etc., because I think all too often these concepts tend to hypostatize phenomena that are really complex networks of interactions. South Park recently had an uncharacteristically good episode on precisely this issue with respect to the economy that is well worth watching. We treat the economy as if it itself were doing something, as if it were an entity– the episode is all about how we have “angered” the economy and must repent –when, in fact, the economy is us. The thesis of this post is that we tend to hypostatize things like “culture” and “society”, turning them into entities when, in fact, they’re processes. In developing this line of thought, I am not denying phenomena like orientalism, but raising ontological questions about the conditions under which it is possible.

This, I think, is part of the importance of the concept of “assemblage” or “network”, as opposed to that of “system” or “structure”. By system or structure I understand a form of organization where the elements are inseparable from one another such that their being is purely a function of their relations within that organization. For example, in structural linguistics the phoneme p is nothing apart its differential relation to the phoneme b. Indeed, according to this account we already speak poorly by referring to “b” and “p” as phonemes as there is only b-p or the differential relation defining the two terms. This sort of concept then gets applied to social phenomena as well, such that no element in the social exists apart from the other elements, or rather, all of the elements are what they are by virtue of belonging to the organization. From a system theoretical perspective, the analogy is generally to biology where all the elements are understood to have a functional role and set of interdependencies within the social system. From the structural perspective the analogy is to structural linguistics where the elements are inseparable and only take on identity differentially.

read on!

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”.

read on!


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?


There seems to be a certain inertia to thought, to our dealings with the world, which leads us to a sort of ontological pre-comprehension of the world in which being is apprehended as stable, ordered, reliable, and law-like. Nor is this ontological pre-comprehension without warrant. You can discern this inertia with special clarity in the case of very young children interacting with those with whom they are familiar. The smallest change can transform an easy familiarity into suspicion. The young child reacts with averted eyes, refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the person they were before perfectly comfortable with. A quizzical, anxious look crosses their face. In response to these changes and shifts in what is otherwise stable and familiar, there seems to be a deep “ontological insecurity” against which we defend. And while perhaps there are laws of nature, invariant patterns of being, perhaps our search for such things is a defense against this ontological insecurity (a term I borrow with reservations from Adorno, I think), this need to find identity amidst and underneath change.

Last week I encountered something similar among my students in my Critical Thinking class. We were working through the basic language distinctions that will form all the subsequent work in the class, and I was trying to explain the difference between arguments and persuasion. According to Parker and Moore, an argument consists of a premise and a conclusion such that the premises are presented as support for the truth of the conclusion. Arguments attempt to demonstrate that a particular claim is true. By contrast, persuasion seeks to convince someone else of something, and may or may not use arguments. There are all sorts of things that convince us that have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a conclusion. We might or might not persuaded because we have a high regard for the person who is speaking to us, or because we are captivated by the beauty or force of their words, because of how they dress, or because the person appeals to our vanity or evokes values such as Nation, God, Morality, etc. In these cases, the language does not function as a reason in support of a claim and has little or nothing to do with whether or not the claim is true or false. Yet nonetheless the speech persuades.

Seeking to illustrate this difference, I referenced modes of dress and job interviews. All of us have received advice about how to dress when going to job interviews, how we should speak, how it’s important to give a firm handshake and look the interviewers in the eye. If one is in academia or perhaps an IT field, this is particularly bizarre as it is unlikely that we dress as we do at a job interview when we are in the classroom or programming software. More fundamentally, the mode of dress has little or nothing to do with ones expertise in the classroom or these fields. In these cases, clothing is an act of seduction, a lure, that compensates for the insufficiency of being able to perceptibly display skill and knowledge.

Thinking this to be a very straightforward and obvious point, I was surprised when howls of protest issued from my students. “But clothing and grooming tell us whether or not a person is responsible!” “Clothing and good grooming tell whether or not a person is a good person!” What the students had missed– or wished to erase –was the manner in which clothing functions as a sign. In this connection, it is perhaps Umberto Eco who best articulates the essence of signs. As Eco writes in A Theory of Semiotics, “…semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (7). The students wished to treat these signs as immediate proof of the character and skill of a person, missing the manner in which the sign always differs from that for which it stands. In short, their protests spoke to a desire for a transparent social world where things are what they are and do not differ from themselves (would it be an exaggeration to suggest that politics is always divided between politics of identity and politics of difference, where the former aims after the identical and non-deceptive, whereas the latter allows beings to differ from themselves and their group?) Here one will recall the manner in which the young boy evades capture by his father at the end of The Shining. Recognizing the essential nature of signs, the boy covers his tracks in the snow, creating false tracks that lead in another direction. The boy recognizes that the sign and that for which the signs stand, share no essential connection with one another. In this way he is able to communicate a false trail.

Lefebvre drives this point home with beautiful clarity in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life:

And yet there is something in life which Pirandelloism [the form of theatre that presents everything as a relative point of view or interpretation of the world] cannot contain and which escapes it: the action, the event, the decision, the final outcome and the necessity for a final outcome; actions, and judgments about actions, in the sense in which they involve decisions… To play is to transform our point of view into a decision by confronting chance and determinism in the absence of adequate information about our opponent’s game…

We are never really sure where actions, decisions or events spring from. But, in all their stark reality, the results are there. What lies hidden within men and women is beyond our grasp; maybe these hidden depths are only an insubstantial mist, and not a profound substance (a Grund, a nature, an unconscious belonging to the individual or a group); it may only be a myth. Men and women are beyond us… We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they will never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. (18)

Perhaps, when he asserts that “the big Other does not exist”, Lacan means nothing more than this; that we act and live in a state of ambiguity where we are ultimately unable to calculate the hand of those in relation to whom we act. If the discovery that the big Other does not exist, that the Other is split or barred, proves far more traumatic than the discovery that we, as subjects, are split or barred, then this is because it confronts us with the semiotic nature of the world in Eco’s sense of the term. Not only do we not have adequate information about the others in relation to which we act, but those others do lack this knowledge of themselves as well (for they too are barred and are ignorant of their own desire).

As a result, there is no master-key or algorithm that would allow us to navigate the world. The pre-ontological comprehension of being as governed by invariant laws (whether in the natural world or the social world), would be a massive defense against this ontologically primitive contingency that marks existence. Nietzsche asks what will animates the philosopher’s will to truth. The answer would be found here. Yet as Deleuze claims in his powerful image of the dicethrow, “It is… a question of a throw of the dice, of the whole sky as open space and of throwing as the only rule. The singular points are on the die; the questions are the dice themselves; the imperative is to throw. Ideas are the problematic combinations which result from the throws” (Difference and Repetition, 198). In grasping Deleuze it would be a mistake to assume that we are the one’s formulating the questions or posing the questions. “The imperatives and questions with which we are infused do not emanate from the I: it is not even there to hear them. The imperatives are those of being, while every question is ontological and distributes ‘that which is’ among problems” (199). We are thrown into a space of being that questions and problematizes us, and it is this that we navigate in the individuate our being. We find ourselves thrown into a constellation, a set of aleatory singular points, that form the problematic field in which we are individuated. “the dice which fall are a constellation, their points form the number ‘born of the stars’” (Nietzsche & Philosophy, 32). Yet again and again philosophy striates this space of the constellation, erasing aleatory distributions of singularities, striving to transform being into static, eternal, lawful structures. The question is that of how it might be possible to think from constellations, from distributions of singularities, no longer erasing the non-existence of the Other.

Of late, I confess, I’ve found myself exhausted with blogging or, more generally, communication. On the one hand, dialogue, especially academic dialogue, is constantly threatened by the perils of what Lacan referred to as the “imaginary”. When Lacan evokes the imaginary, of course, he is not speaking of what is imagined or fabrications of the mind, but rather the domain of identification with the specular image of our body. Of particular importance here are all the rivalrous struggles for recognition that Hegel depicted so well in the Phenomenology of Spirit. For some reason these struggles seem to occur with particular intensity and ferocity in academic dialogue. Indeed, where one might intuitively think that such fierce struggles are most intense between strongly polarized intellectual positions– for instance, the infamous split between Analytic and Continental thought –these struggles seem to occur with even greater intensity between intellectual positions that are fairly close to one another, thereby underlining Freud’s point about the narcissism of minor difference. To the outsider, for instance, it is very difficult to distinguish Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus from the work of late Lacan. Yet for partisans of these thinkers, deafening struggles ensue. Indeed, some of the most bitter struggles I’ve ever witnessed occur among the various Lacanian camps, such that smaller Lacanian groups must think long and hard over whether they would invite the wrath of Jacques-Alain Miller were they to invite Colette Soler to speak or submit a paper.

On the other hand, I’ve found myself haunted by this passage from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. A Laplander or Negro has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.

What I find particularly troubling in this passage is Hume’s reference to the man of mild manners and the man with a selfish heart. Hume’s thesis, of course, is that all ideas arise from experience. As a consequence of this thesis, the limits of our imagination are defined by the limits of our experience. Should the man with a selfish heart witness an act of genuine generosity or friendship, it would not, according to Hume, even register as such an act, for the associative web characterizing the thought of this man would immediately interpret the other man’s act according to his own universe where selfish motives are treated as axiomatic. As Lacan liked to say, “all communication is miscommunication”. Here we have Hume’s own version of this Lacanian thesis. Where thought is always situated or attached to a field of experience and where ideas are related by principles of association, it follows that no two people will exist in the same universe. Each event that occurs in the field of experience– hearing another’s words, for instance –will evoke different associations and relations, such that the relation between two people is a sort of babble or chaos rather than a communication. There are, of course, all sorts of problematic assumptions here about the nature of communication– namely the assumption that to communicate is to send a signal that is the same for both the sender and receiver –yet it is worthwhile to state the issue in the starkest terms possible.


While not endorsing Hume’s position, I do think that he is able to explain a good deal about about human formations of thought and interactions with one another with his sparse epistemology. Do we not daily see the results of this phenomenon in the way we judge others, detaching their words and actions from the context in which they occur, speaking of issues as if there were some abstract reason or common sense against which their actions could be measured, and transforming actions into acts based on abstract motives that we can then judge? This phenomenon is especially attenuated in the blogosphere, where the field in which we encounter the other person is restricted largely to words and images, sans their daily life, their work, their obligations, their passionate engagements, and so on. Divorced from all context– and no writer could ever be equal to writing context –words and phrases instead dangle for whomever might come along, actualizing all sorts of associations in readers without necessarily having anything to do with the context that first led the author to generate them as a series of 0′s and 1′s that appear on ones monitor.

The consequences that follow from Hume’s simple and straightforward observation are rather bleak. If he is right we are collectively doomed to a comedy of errors. Yet where the literary comedy of errors usually ends with the rise of the prince or love fulfilled, our comedy of errors seems to be one that ends only in cruelty, conflict, and war. This cruelty is all the worse in that it is seldom even aware of itself for the same reason that the mild mannered man cannot even recognize the intense passions of others. Like Derrida’s analysis of the gift in Given Time, where the condition for the possibility of the gift paradoxically consists in a complete unawareness of giving a gift coupled with no unconscious surplus-value drawn from the gift, this would be a situation in which we would be completely unaware of others by virtue of perpetually being trapped in our own networks of associations when relating to others. However, where Derrida shows how this is a condition of the gift– a sort of regulative ideal, as Kant would say –this would be a circumstance fulfilled each and every day in our relations to others. If we like, we can engage in a lot of hand-waving about the formation of shared horizons of meaning, the production of shared contexts, etc., but the situation would still be essentially the same. The question, then, is whether this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves, or whether there is no some minimal transcendence that allows us in certain circumstances– not all –to surmount the limits of our embeddedness in context to encounter some minimal otherness of the other. In encountering others, do we only ever see our own reflection in the mirror?


In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari write,

…[P]hilosophers have very little time for discussion. Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’ Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? And when they are stated, it is no longer a matter of discussing but rather one of creating concepts for the undiscussible problem posed. Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous. Sometimes philosophy is turned into the idea of a perpetual discussion, as ‘communicative rationality,’ or as ‘universal democratic conversation.’ Nothing is less exact, and when philosophers criticize each other it is on the basis of problems and on a plane that is different from theirs and that melt down the old concepts in the way a cannon can be melted down to make new weapons. It never takes place on the same plane. To criticize is only to establish that a concept vanishes when it is thrust into a new milieu, losing some of its components, or acquiring others that transform it. But those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to give it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of philosophy. All of these debaters and communicators are inspired by ressentiment (Deleuze’s emphasis). They speak only of themselves when they set empty generalizations against one another. Philosophy has a horror of discussions. (28-29)

Deleuze and Guattari must have been thinking of exchanges like this one with the lawyer Daniel, when writing the passage above. It is too much to even refer to such events as exchanges because nothing is exchanged. Those who participate appear to be talking to one another and to be talking about the same things, but are in fact talking about entirely different things. If this is the case, then it is because meaning is not in words, but is always the result of the relations a word shares with those other signifiers that are not present.

Read on


Over the last couple of weeks, David, of Indifaith, has written a series of posts responding to my characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to think immanence (here, here, and here). I have been impressed by the openness and interest with which David, a pastor, has approached this discussion, and am genuinely grateful for his probing questions that have helped me to further clarify my own positions. As I recall, Voltaire somewhere or other has a short little essay describing an encounter he had with a Quaker. As is well known, Voltaire, that sparkling giant of the Enlightenment, was certainly no friend of religion and often leveled his acerbic wit at various forms of religious dogmatism, hypocrisy, superstition, and brutality. Yet Voltaire went away from this encounter with nothing but praise for the virtuous nature of the Quaker and his quiet and unassuming inward religious belief. In this exchange, David has comported himself in a similar fashion.

The remark that set off this entire discussion occurred in a thread responding to a passage I had quoted by Guattari, where his sounded remarkably close to Badiou in his critique of postmodernism (the entire exchange can be found here). Responding to some questions by David, I there wrote:

In a number of respects, I draw my distinction between theology and philosophy from Jean-Luc Marion who rigorously tries to define the limit of philosophy. I differ from Marion in holding that theologies that posit transcendence ought to be left behind. I read the history of philosophy as the history of attempts to think immanence. These attempts can be deployed in a variety of ways, can be more or less successful, and the question of whether or not immanence has ever been fully thought is entirely open. By immanence I understand the thesis that we don’t need to refer to anything beyond, or to any intervention outside the world, to explain the world or to account for value. Consequently, when Thales says “all is water”, he is appealing to a principle of explanation that is strictly immanent to the world and is breaking with mythos or narrative explanations of the world such as those found in Greek mythology. To complicate matters more, we can have ontological forms of immanence and epistemological forms of immanence, and various combinations of the two. An account is epistemically immanent if it rejects any form of appeal in establishing a conclusion that cannot be arrived at through reason or some form of experience. That is, epistemological immanence rejects any appeals to privileged esoteric experiences, revelation, etc. Ontological immanence would be the principle that there are no causes outside of natural causes.

I don’t think I’m so much excluding poetry from this project (though philosophy and poetry are distinct), as questioning your characterization of poetry as the articulation of the sacred. Certainly a number of poets would themselves take issue with being characterized as Rilkean. The case of theology is complex. Professional theologians mean so many different things by theology, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. Descartes, for example, would fit the criteria of epistemological immanence in his proofs for the existence of God as his conception of God and proof for the existence of God is not premised on any revelation or esoteric experience, but proceeds through reason in a way that all can repeat. His position does not meet the criteria of ontological immanence, as he conceives God as being outside nature or transcendent to being. Spinoza, and Whitehead’s conception of God as I understand it, do meet the ontological forms of immanence. If these are theologies then they fall within the scope of philosophy. The moment a theology appeals to revelation, whether in the form of sacred texts, the authority of a prophet or man in the form of God, or esoteric, non-repeatable experiences, that theology is no longer in the domain of philosophy, though it can certainly remain of interest as a phenomenon to be studied by the psychoanalyst, sociologist, or the anthropologist.

The concept of “immanence” is relatively new in the history of philosophy (as I understand it, it appears in various scholastic philosophies, but really doesn’t come into prominence as a central theme until Deleuze and Badiou), however, the more I’ve thought about it since initially making this assertion, the more I’ve become convinced that a number of moves in the history of philosophy immediately gain clarity if situated in terms of the problem of immanence. Take, for example, Plato’s Meno and Phaedo. It will be recalled that Plato famously argues that learning is recollection. That is, to learn is not to acquire new information from the outside given to us by a teacher– elsewhere Socrates will refer to himself as a midwife of knowledge, i.e., he does not bestow or give knowledge but only asks questions that allow a person to recollect knowledge they already have –but rather to learn is to recollect an unconscious, innate knowledge. Every beginning philosophy student is baffled by Plato’s theory of learning. Indeed, it is likely that a number of Plato scholars are themselves baffled by Plato’s theory of recollection (as can be seen in the way that it is quickly swept under the rug as but a moment in Plato’s thought). However, as soon as we situate Plato’s theory in terms of the problem of immanence, its motivation suddenly becomes clear. Recall that for Plato, knowledge is not a knowledge of this or that particular thing, but a knowledge of forms, essences, or universals. The problem is that we nowhere encounter forms in sensible experience. This comes out clearly in the Phaedo, when Socrates is discussing the Identical. We never see anything identical in the world. All things differ in some respect or another. Consequently, the story goes, we could not have learned about the identical from experience. Yet we have knowledge of the identical. As Socrates reasons– almost as a proto-Kantian –we could never recognize two things as being the same if we did not first (a priori) know the form of the Identical. Knowledge of the form precedes knowledge of any particulars. So 1) we have the concept of the Identical, and 2) we did not learn this from experience. The grammar of philosophy stipulates that we cannot appeal to authority (“because I said so!”) or revelation as a ground for knowledge. Consequently, we must account for this knowledge in some other ways. The theory of recollection or innate ideas! What marvelous conceptual gymnastics to maintain immanence! What magnificent conceptual creations!

We can see the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to preserve or think immanence. Some of these attempts are more successful than others. Some are more interesting than others. If Deleuze and Guattari are led to describe Spinoza as the “Christ of philosophers”, then this isn’t because Spinoza was a prophet or divine, but because Spinoza went furthest in thinking ontological immanence, or a way of explaining the world that relied on no intervention from anything outside the world, history, or nature (certainly this claim can be disputed). The history of philosophy will therefore be a history of strategies for thinking immanence. Empiricism would be one strategy (whatever is immanent to sensation). Rationalism will be another (whatever is immanent to reason). Transcendental idealism will be yet another, and phenomenology yet another. Each of these strategies generates its own unique problems– like Plato’s problem of learning arising out of the immanence of the forms to thought and their absence to experience –and it would be possible to write a “cartography” of the history of philosophy that charted the problems that emerged as a result of particular drawings of immanence and the conceptual gymnastics and inventions that result as a function of these problems. Some day I would like to work through all of this in much the same way that Marion attempted to work through the problem of givenness in Reduction and Givenness, in hopes of arriving at a point where I could pose the problem of immanence. For immanence itself must be accounted for in terms of immanence, and cannot be treated as a transhistorical form floating about outside the world.

In this connection, David writes,

My only point drawing attention to equations and eggs is that they are assumed to function in a static therefore repeatable manner. I am not convinced this is the case in human relationships and therefore needs to be accounted for in any political theory. I am of course all for careful and reflective observations of human social behaviour.

No disagreements here. The significance I was aiming at with my examples from mathematics and boiling eggs wasn’t their universality, but rather that we have access to these things without having to rely on narratives or stories. We can know these things regardless of whether we are Greek, American, Chinese, Hindu, etc. For instance, arithmetic exists the world over in some form or another, in more or less advanced states, yet we would be tremendously surprised to discover that two groups of people with no communication whatsoever had created, say, baseball.

However, as David here point out, inquiry must be tailored to its object. We already begin to approach this with the case of boiling eggs. The point at which water boils is not universal, but rather depends on other factors such as air pressure, altitude, etc. I have tried to develop the concept of constellations to talk about these sorts of things

Compare a mathematical equation with an armadillo. The value of x for 2x + 4 = 12 is going to be the same for all times and places, independent of context, history, psychological idiosyncrasies, etc. However, if we wish to understand living organisms, we can no longer make these kinds of generalizations. Rather, we have to look at the way the organism fits within a particular constellation such that this constellation is not a global or universal logos, but a local logos or structure with a history, and its own immanent organization that cannot be generalized to other cases. We shouldn’t speak of logos, or a universal law underlying all being, but rather of logoi, or divergent and differing patterns of organization. A good example underlining this point would be the last great meteor impact that wiped out most life on earth. The life that returned subsequent to this event was radically different than the sort of life that existed prior to this event. The lesson to take away from this story is that there aren’t “laws” of life similar to say the Newtonian laws of physics. Rather, we have highly local “logics” (where “logic” here refers to patterns or organizations) that look more like what we refer to as customs than necessities– Customs and styles of matter. Another example would be language. Languages each have their own immanent structure of sounds, their own pattern. We cannot know a priori what this structure of language will be for a particular language because the patterning of sound is differential (it is determined in terms of relations to others sounds that may or may not be present in another language).

Life and language are not universal or particular (where the particular is the instantiation of a species, form, or essence), but is rather singular. However, contrary to Hegel, the singularity of these things in now way precludes our ability to map and comprehend these things, nor does it require any special revelation. In this connection, I think biology is again an excellent example. An organism is always problematic in the sense that it is a solution to a problem within the world. Yet there are many ways of solving one and the same problem. Thus, fur and sweat are one way of solving the problems of heat and cold. There is a frog in Canada, the Eastern wood frog, that solves the problem of cold in another way. When freezing temperatures are reached, the frog itself freezes, effectively dying (there’s no brain or heart activity). When heat returns the frog de-thaws and comes back to life. . . The Christs of the animal world.

Here we have different solutions to one and the same problem. We can transfer this way of thinking to cultural formations. In certain regions of India people eat off a banana leaf with their fingers. Here, of course, we use silverware. The lack of universality involved in these customs doesn’t undermine their intelligibility, nor prevent us from collectively deliberating about these things. I think this is, perhaps, one of the key points about philosophy– It’s only requirement is that of open-ended deliberation with others.

Philosophy begins with the other, the stranger, or the person who does not come from the same cultural background as ourselves. It begins from the standpoint of difference and is an attempt to solve the problem of difference. Philosophy tends to appear in periods of cultural crises– philosophy, by no means, always exists –where traditions have broken down, and we’re no longer able to rely on shared narratives to coordinate human action and the understanding of the world. This is why philosophy is always an affair of the city, rather than the countryside (even when the philosopher lives in a rural region like Heidegger), because the city is a community of strangers, of people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. This difference in background, this otherness, suspends the possibility of assuming the existence of shared mythos or narratives, requiring the invention of other interpersonal technologies, other ways of grounding social relations.

I think this aspect of philosophy tends to get obscured because of the “book form”. Today we tend to encounter philosophies in the form of books and articles. The book is itself a problem of time, distance, and otherness. Books surmount space and distance, allowing encounters with an absent other that is not present. Leibniz writes his New Essays on Human Understanding, responding to Locke’s Essay point by point. He is in dialogue with Locke even though he’s never met him. We are led astray by Descartes’ Meditations. There it seems that Descartes is simply reflecting privately on what he can know, seeking to ground his knowledge. We forget that the Meditations begin with a letter to the Church, and that he’s perpetually looking for those things that can be repeated. He is constantly with the other. Everything is a Platonic dialogue, even Husserl’s wretched attempts to think the other in the Cartesian Meditations. Unlike Plato, we just forget to add the names of the interlocutors. The difference, then, is that where other stances begin with a certainty, a conviction, such a thing is, for philosophy, a perpetually receding horizon that is only ever approached asymptotically without ever being reached.

Next Page »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 997 other followers