Other


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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Pierre-Simon_LaplaceIn my last post I localized a paradox at the heart of Lacan’s teaching. On the one hand, Lacan puts forward a “true formula of atheism” that states that God is unconscious. There the line of reasoning seems to run that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other and that the Other does not exist. This would be a clever, indirect way of saying “God does not exist”. On the other hand, Lacan says that the gods belong to the order of the Real. How is it possible to reconcile these two claims. With respect to God and religion, I think Lacan can be seen as proposing what I call an “A-Theology”. A-Theology is not atheism, though it is related to some standard claims of atheism. Most generally, atheism is the denial of any sort of supernatural causation in the world and the existence of anything supernatural. In debates with religious belief, it generally points to the lack of evidence for miracles, the supernatural, souls, etc., and therefore the absence of reasons to believe in such things.

Of course, in relation to the findings of contemporary ethnology, it has become possible to charge the atheist with missing the point with respect to myth. Here the argument would run that myth is a particular way of understanding the world that was never intended to be taken literally. As I heard Caputo once put it at a conference when defending religion, “Of course the figures and miraculous events we see depicted in sacred texts and myths did not take place. Rather, the myths and stories of religion are closer to comic book stories, representing struggles between good and evil, the nature of the world, the meaning of life, etc.” Caputo’s thesis, of course, begs the question of why, if this is all myths are, we don’t choose better literature such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, etc. But whether we go with a somewhat unsophisticated thesis like Caputo’s or a more well developed thesis like Levi-Strauss’ approach to myth, the point remains the same: When we criticize these stories on the grounds that they violate the natural order and that there is no evidence in support of their truth, we have made a category mistake. We have failed to understand that myth is relating to truth and meaning in a different way. While there is certainly a great deal of truth to this thesis, it’s obvious shortcoming is that many followers of particular religious beliefs do take these stories literally rather than figuratively. Nonetheless, were this way of relating to myth to become the dominant paradigm in actual religious practices, it would be a substantial advance allowing for a much different dialogue between atheists and believers.

A-Theology, by contrast, differs from atheism in that its aim is not to refute or debunk claims about the supernatural. Where atheism focuses obsessively on religion as an explanatory hypothesis about the nature of the world, A-Theology, by contrast, is directed at a particular structure of thought and a particular form of social organization that it refers to, for lack of a better word, as “theological”. In this connection, it is crucial to emphasize that from the standpoint of A-Theology the conditions under which a particular structure of thought or social organization contains elements of the supernatural matters not a whit. In other words, a structure of thought or a form of social organization could be entirely secular in character, it could be an ultra-materialism, and nonetheless remain theological from the standpoint of A-Theology. Likewise, a form of social organization or thought could be pervaded by appeals to all sorts of supernatural phenomena and nonetheless be characterized as “a-theological” from the standpoint of A-Theology. The arch-materialist and determinist Pierre-Simon Laplace is an excellent example of a materialistic account of the universe that is nonetheless thoroughly theological. This is not because Laplace attributed the workings of matter to God– when Napoleon asked him about the place of God in his system, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypoth├Ęse. –but rather because of the curious role that Laplace’s Demon plays in his understanding of nature. Similarly, perhaps Greece, prior to Platonic thought can be understood as A-Theological, despite being pervaded by all sorts of deities and supernatural phenomena. Given these two examples, it is clear that the distinguishing mark between the A-Theological and the Theological has nothing to do with the supernatural or the sorts of causality that function in the world.

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catboxinggif2.gif Well Thursday morning I head off to Ohio for my whirlwind on-campus interview, returning late Friday afternoon. Hopefully I will perform well. I’ll be presenting on Deleuze’s concept of individuation to the students. I’m feeling pretty confident, which makes me suspicious and a little leery. I suppose I just feel that I’m a good fit for this position. Moreover, if this position doesn’t work out, I feel pretty strongly that there will be other opportunities. Right now what I need is more time for writing and research, upper level students, and an environment supportive and respectful of scholarship. A 5/5 load coupled with analytic work isn’t exactly conducive to writing. At any rate, wish me luck or get out your voodoo dolls. Ouch! Anthony, was that your needle I just felt!?!

Tomorrow I head to Washington D.C. for job interviews.

  • Courses I’m able to teach, along with course designs… Check
  • Teaching methodology and philosophy… Check
  • Specific questions about their universities… Check
  • Research program… Check
  • Nice suit and tie… Check

Am I forgetting anything? Let’s just hope I can get some sleep the night before so I don’t go into the interviews like a zombie. Although I would be delighted to land any of these positions as the programs are terrific, it would be great to have more time for research and writing, and I would be thrilled to teach more advanced courses in my areas of expertise, it’s nonetheless good to go into interviews knowing that I’m not going to starve to death if I don’t get one of the positions. Apart from administrative irritations (that exist anywhere), I’m already in a very good place and will be sad to leave my great colleagues, friends, and students should I get one of the positions. The bottom line is that I love teaching above all other things (well not the grading part), and so long as I’m doing that I will be happy. At the very worst, I’ll suffer some humiliation at having discussed things here. For whatever reason, my anxiety finally broke yesterday and I feel full of a fighting spirit today. With any luck that will last. At any rate, those of you who detest me, get out your voodoo dolls and needles. Those of you who have some passing fondness, wish me luck.

Dr. X’s Free Associations has an interesting post about debates over the war in Iraq and the common experience of being unable to persuade war supporters that resonates nicely with some of the issues I raised in my poorly written post Grounds and Sophists.

Trying to explain the exasperating phenomenon of people who continue to disagree with him on Iraq, despite his eloquent arguments and unassailable mastery of objective facts, Shrinkwrapped writes:
‘Those of us who have not been infected with the thought disorder known as post-modernism and believe that there exists an actual reality that we can reasonably and objectively approach; if that is the case, what is it that prevents people from recognizing facts that are right in front of their eyes?’

It sounds to me like the erudite Shrinkwrapped experienced a little thought glitch during the writing of those sentences, but never mind that.

I’ve been thinking about writing about this issue for a while now, but my thoughts are still a bit scattered. Many of us have experienced this frustrating phenomenon since 2001. We have found ourselves embroiled in discussions where facts were on our side, yet strangely we have not been able to persuade the other person. I think Shrinkwrapped misidentifies the problem when he blames postmodernism, as I do not believe that my interlocutors are willfully refusing to recognize arguments.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that what is at issue here is transference as described by Lacan. Lacan has an unusual concept of transference which he relates to the “subject supposed to know”. When the analysand enters analysis, he supposes that the analyst has a certain knowledge of his symptom and suffering, when in fact that analyst does not have this knowledge. This projection functions as a motor for analysis as the analysand interprets each pronouncement of the analyst as coming from a place of knowledge and therefore interprets what the analyst says producing knowledge for the analyst. That is, it’s the analysand doing most of the work. A standard, vulgar, and overly simplified Enlightenment conception of discourse begins from the premise that it’s the syntactical and semantical structure of an argument that counts in persuading another person. So long as the argument is logically valid (synatx) and so long as the propositions that compose the argument are true (semantics), the interlocutor will assent to the argument on the premise that the interlocutor is not insane or mentally deficient. What this leaves out is the rhetorical and dialogical dimension of discourse, wherein who speaks is also a crucial factor in determining whether the other person will listen.

I confess that I have an extremely difficult time listening to anything George Bush says at this point in time, and therefore find it difficult to attend to his arguments. There are books I’ve tried to read in the past that I’ve found myself unable to follow simply because they don’t come from the right theoretical orientation. Thus, for example, years ago when I was first extremely hip to Deleuze and Guattari, it was almost impossible for me to read Hegel’s Science of Logic, as I had already branded Hegel an enemy on the basis of what Deleuze had argued in Nietzsche and Philosophy and Difference and Repetition. I would read Hegel’s texts and my eyes would glaze over or I would be overly dismissive of his claims, not following the development of his thought on its own term. This culminated in me taking an incomplete in a graduate course I was taking on Hegel’s system that I was unable to finish for two years. It wasn’t that I was intellectually incapable of reading Hegel, but that my transference towards Deleuze and the negative transference it wrought with regard to Hegel made it impossible for me to “hear” his work. Similarly, I suspect that part of the recent blog war with Anthony Paul Smith and Adam Kotsko had to do with these sorts of transferential issues. On the basis of offhand remarks I’d made in the past, Kotsko and Smith had branded me as a “knee-jerk secularist” and “doctrinaire atheist”, and perhaps I had similar prejudices towards them. Anthony Paul Smith, for instance, subsequently mentioned that his initial comments had been intended in a lighthearted way that presumed more friendliness between us than was there. Something other was intervening in our dialogue and preventing us from talking… Something that wasn’t strictly in the propositions making up the dialogue themselves.

What we thus get are universes of reference that are a function of our identification. Because I suppose that Lacan has a certain knowledge I come to dwell in a particular universe of reference populated by entities such as objet a, transference, the symptom, the sinthome, the Other, the unconscious structured as a language, etc. When I speak of psychic phenomena, I am speaking of something different than say my neuropsychological colleague. Indeed, I do not take psychoanalysis to be a psychology or neurology at all, as I begin from the stance that the subject is constituted in the field of the Other or that subjectivity is intersubjectivity and cannot be thought independent of the Other. Part of understanding a universe of reference will thus involve taking into account the field of identifications structuring a person’s subjectivity. The Iraq war supporter has different identifications than myself and thus relates to “actual reality” in a different way as he will only listen to certain people as authorities. Given the globalization of our culture, it is not surprising that identification would increasingly come to play such a key role in structuring our relation to the world as we must now all deal with absence, with what we cannot directly verify, as a part of our day to day life due to the omnipresence of media communications. Given that we all recognize that any media image or story is “framed” by the person writing and filming and that we cannot directly verify these things for ourselves we must have recourse to different standards of truth and these standards become the credibility of the speaker. This, I believe, is what Deleuze had in mind with his discussions of the role the “structure-Other” plays in grounding recognition and representation in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense (reference could also be made to Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations and the role the Other plays in developing dimension and permanence for the cogito). I am not at all suggesting that this is a happy state of affairs or that the idea of multiple universes of reference is a marvellous thing, only that this seems to characterize our current “metaphysical” situation where talk of reality is concerned.

What does this have to do with Iraq? I’ve increasingly come to notice that intercommunicative settings seem to be organized around this phenomenon of the “subject supposed to know”. It seems that today a person begins from the premise that there are some who speak from the standpoint of knowledge and others that do not. For instance, when I watch FOX news I do not attribute knowledge to the newscasters, and am therefore largely deaf to the claims and arguments they make even if they are true. I begin from the standpoint that they are trying to dupe me ideologically. It seems to me that this phenomenon is even more potent among many rightwing supporters of Bush and the war, such that they simply filter out any negative news or information about Iraq as a “liberal conspiracy”. As the opening paragraphs of Plato’s Republic indicate, you cannot persuade someone who refuses to listen. The issue here is not one of postmodernism, but rather one of who we trust as a credible speaker. The moment shrinkwrapped opens his/her mouth, shutters have already fallen over the ears of his/her interlocutor. As we know from our practices, it’s impossible to do work with patients that attribute us no credibility or authority. For instance, it’s always more difficult to work with patients that have been forced into analysis by family or courts. The question then is one of how to overcome this credibility gap or crisis of legitimacy.

In a way I think Shrinkwrapped is right when s/he evokes a postmodernization of discourse, but for the wrong reasons. Expressed as Shrinkwrapped has expressed it, the premise seems to be that those who disagree do so because they adopt postmodernism as a philosophical position. However, I think the issue goes far deeper than this– It is not that someone has deviously adopted a philosophical position of postmodernism wherein there is no ultimate reality, but rather that we are living in a postmodern situation. When I argue with my friend that is a staunch supporter of the war, we literally live in different realities or “universes of reference” by virtue of how our subjectivities are structured transferentially. For this reason, we are unable to use “actual reality” to decide the truth or falsity of contested propositions. Rather, our universes of reference (hence the plural) have become self-referential by virtue of what we recognize as a credible authority. As Hegel puts it,

We may also remark at this point that to go no further than mere grounds, especially in the domain of law and ethics, is the general standpoint and principle of the Sophists. When people speak of ‘sophistry’ they frequently understand by it just a mode of consideration which aims to distort what is correct and true, and quite generally to present things in a false light. But this tendency is not what is immediately involved in sophistry, the standpoint of which is primarily nothing but that of abstract argumentation. The Sophists came on the scene among the Greeks at a time when they were no longer satisfied with mere authority and tradition in the domain of religion and ethics. They felt the need at that time to become conscious of what was to be valid for them as a content mediated by thought. This demand was met by the Sophists because they taught people how to seek out the various points of view from which things can be considered; and these points of view are, in the virst instance, simply nothing but grounds. As we remarked earlier, however, since a ground does not yet have a content that is determined in and for itself, and grounds can be found for what is unethical and contrary to law no less than for what is ethical and lawful, the decision as to what grounds are to count as valid falls to the subject. The ground of the subject’s decision becomes a matter of his individual disposition and aims. (Geraets, Suchting, Harris, pgs. 188-191)

Grounds become matters of individual preferences and the savvy consumer shops around for those grounds that most suit his taste. I get my news from NPR and dismiss FOX, while you get your news from FOX and dismiss NPR. This is one of the meanings of Lacan’s aphorism that the big Other does not exist. What seems different today is that where before this truth was largely unconscious and repressed such that we at least pretended that there was a consistent and shared Other, today we seem conscious of this. I am not at all sure what is to be done. I hardly find it to be something that should be celebrated or that is a happy thesis.

Well I’ve been fortunate enough to land at least one job interview at the American Philosophical Association conference in December. Hopefully there are more invitations to come. This isn’t half bad as my research focus is contemporary French philosophy, and U.S. philosophy departments tend to have a highly allergic reaction to anything French, instead allowing language, literature, and cultural studies departments to do scholarship in this area. At any rate, this is pretty good for having only sent out eleven application packets.

Although this is happy news, I’ve found myself in the midsts of a massive anxiety attack, following me about for days. I tossed and turned all night, filled with anxiety and feverish thoughts as to who I am. In short, I’m wallowing in the midsts of the question of fantasy Che vuoi? “You’re asking me this, but what do you really want?” That is, what is my research about? And when I ask myself this question, I am asking what it is about philosophically. In my fantasy life, things would be easy for me if I were pursuing positions in rhetoric, literary theory, cultural studies, or political theory– it’s always elswhere that things would work out for us –but explaining my work philosophically, that’s far more difficult. How am I to explain the relevance of Lacan to philosophy in a non-dogmatic fashion, free of difficult jargon, that isn’t simply about ideology critique a la Zizek? I feel as if I need some pithy statement of my philosophical project that resonates with more traditional philosophical questions in epistemology and ontology, but when I try to articulate such a project I suddenly feel paralyzed like a deer in the headlights. “My work is focused on differential and relational ontology.” “I’m interested in the manner in which the formation of reality emerges from the impossible-real of irreducible antagonism. By the impossible-real I mean…” “I’m focused on questions of how it’s possible to break with socio-historical mediation so as to articulate a truth.” “I’m interested in the consequences that follow from the death of God. By the death of God I mean… Here I’m thinking primarily of the function God serves in Descartes’ third meditation, and implicitly in the work of other philosophers that posit a whole…” “My work primarily revolves around the thought of Badiou, Deleuze, Freud, Lacan, Ranciere, and Zizek because…” “I’m interested in the relationship between the symbolic, imaginary, and real from the perspective of how our relationship to reality is organized, and am interested in the role desire and intersubjectivity play in questions of epistemology and our relation to being…” “I’m interested in questions of emergence and self-organization such that…”

Everything that falls from my lips ends up sounding vague, empty, or in need of too much clarification… Or I worry that I end up sounding like a posterboy for the typical postmodernist. What does the Other want from me? What am I for the Other. “What is the philosophical project that defines me as a human being?” I think I’ll go curl up in a ball now. Fortunately I don’t need a job, so at least I have that going for me. I have terrific colleagues, am in an intellectually stimulating environment, have lots of things going on such as conferences in the work, and am generally very content here. About the biggest irritation is bs administrative things, but you find that anywhere. It’s much nicer to interview when you’re not facing the prospect of hunger and debtors.

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