Why does philosophy, dealing with such apparently abstract issues, generate so many controversies?  Because philosophy is essentially debating what counts as a publicly admissible reason as a ground for persuasion and governance.  It essentially discusses what is free game (or a personal preference beyond law) and what is binding or public. Philosophy is meta-politics, or the question of what can count as a reason, whether there are any reasons, who ought to be authorized to speak, whether everyone should be authorized, etc. It explores the boundary between reasons and violence (tyrannical imposition) and is politics before politics.

I won’t call it “negative theology” because that would be attributing too much to such a position, but it strikes me as closely related.  I’m sure my theology friends will correct me and I’m eager to learn.  So what do I mean by “theological mysterianism”?  When confronted by the critiques of rational/natural theology, I often hear people respond with mysterian answers.  What is a claim of rational theology?  Such a claim might be something like the following:

God is, by definition a perfect being.  If God is a perfect being, then God must also be morally perfect and must be omniscient, for when we ask ourselves what “perfection” would be, these properties are logically entailed.

If God is morally perfect, then the stories of Job, Adam and Eve, and Zeus committing adultery cannot be true, because they violate one or the other of these properties of moral perfection or omniscience.

How does the mysterian (usually an advocated of revealed theology) respond?  Generally they respond with the claims that humans can’t possibly understand or know God’s perfection because we’re just lowly humans and lack the cognitive capacity to understand these things (or the infinite).  In this way, the mysterian is able to preserve the truth of the stories they get from the authority of revealed theology (stories in sacred texts), by saying these things are beyond our comprehension.  The argument runs “Although God appears to act immorally in Job, it’s only an appearance produced as a result of our inability to comprehend divine perfection.”  Likewise, “Although the story of Adam and Eve appears nonsensical because there’s 1) no plausible reason why a divine being would need to experiment with whether beings such as us would eat the forbidden fruit, and 2) a being that did know how things would turn out but did such a thing anyway would be an immoral sadist, we just can’t understand God’s omniscience, rationality, or moral perfection.  He had his reasons and they were good.”  In this way, the advocate of mysterianism is able to defend the truth of these stories and stave off critique.

Such a strategy is fine so far as it goes, but it is not without consequences.  If we submit the mysterian argument to weak transcendental analysis, we see that it assumes that God is unknowable.  This has serious implications for discussions of God in public discourse.  The mysterian began by wanting to save the stories they derive from revealed theology by saying that God’s nature is essentially unknowable.  Not a bad strategy.  However, what they fail to notice is that they’re burning down the house when they say this.  If God we claim that God is essentially unknowable, that he’s a complete mystery, then we’ve sacrificed the right to say anything of God.  We’ve sacrificed the right to say that God is good, that God’s creation is good, that God commands certain things, that there’s a reason for things, or that there’s any way that we can distinguish God from a tyrant (a being that arbitrarily acts merely based on taste and is able to establish his acts as sanctioned because of his mere superior power alone; like Q in Star Trek:  The Next Generation).  In other words, in a desire to preserve his stories as true, the mysterian abdicates any right to use God as a reason or premise in any argument about our moral duties, how the polis should be organized, why creation is good, etc.  Why?  Because the mysterian has said we can rationally know nothing because he is so far “beyond” (as Plato would have it) any rational comprehension.  If you wish to make that argument, fine.  However, in doing so, you’ve sacrificed any right to use appeals to God’s goodness and commands in your argumentation on any other issue.  Notice, in making this argument I’ve done so in a completely immanent fashion.  I haven’t appealed to any external or outside criteria, but have merely taken the mysterian at his own word and drawn out the consequences of those words.  Somehow I suspect that no one is really a mysterian and that people who argue this way also argue that some knowledge of God is possible when they appeal to God.

Freud described psychoanalysis as being among the three impossible professions (teaching and governance being the other two).  To Lacanian ears, of course, this quip resonates a bit differently, for “impossible”, in Lacanese, signifies “real”.  The Lacanian real refers to a number of things, all of which can be retroactively detected in Freud’s famous statement about the impossibility of analysis.

  1. The Real sometimes signifies that which is impossible to represent.  Certainly the psychoanalytic setting is impossible to represent.  No matter how much Freud, Lacan, and psychoanalytic theory you read; no matter how many case studies you read; what takes place in the clinical setting will not be known to you.  The only way to understand the clinic (and probably the concepts of psychoanalysis) is to go through the clinic.  There’s simply no substitute for the experience of analysis itself and something slips away in every description of analysis.
  2. The Real sometimes signifies that which always returns to its place.  Here, of course, the Real would be the symptom that animates and organizes the subject’s being.  The symptom– at least in neurotics –is that which repeats in a variety of ways throughout their life.  It is the Real of their being.
  3. The real sometimes signifies “impossible”, or formal deadlocks and antagonisms that are at the heart of being and social systems.  Perhaps there is something impossible about psychoanalysis in this sense as well.

What is it that makes psychoanalysis such an impossible art?  Part of it has to do with the position the analyst strives to occupy.  Somewhere or other (the Rome Discourse?), Lacan remarks that the analyst plays dead in the analytic setting.  What could this possibly mean?  Certainly the analyst speaks (on occasion), scands and punctuates the anlaysand’s speech (by going “hmmm” and a variety of other things), opens and terminates sessions, breaths, and occasionally coughs and sneezes.  Her eyes are open and sometimes she even has expressions.

What, then, does it mean to play dead?  It seems to me that the death the good analyst seeks to embody is the death of any personal or individuating characteristics.  The analyst strives for something impossible:  to both be a face and to be completely faceless.  The analyst strives for perfect anonymity and pure faciality.  All signs of desire, inclination, taste, preference, politics, ethics, etc., ought to disappear from the analytic setting, so that the analyst might occupy the position of faciality as such.

This is a truly monstrous ideal.  Imagine would it would entail to be the perfect analyst or the perfect embodiment of this ideal.  First, the perfect analyst would have to be invisible.  The problem with visibility is that clothing, gesture, jewelry, make-up choices, hair choices, body art, etc., all indicate judgments of taste, ideologies, political beliefs, etc.  These features of the analyst’s being might, in their turn, function as lures for the imaginary, functioning as points of identification that foreclose the analysand’s ability to encounter the truth of her own desire and symptom.  “Of course my analyst wants me to be this, just look at how she dresses!”  Similarly, the perfect analysis would never speak in public, nor publish any articles– or certainly wouldn’t do so in ways expressing personal convictions –for these public pronouncements too would get in the way of the analysand encountering the truth of their desire.  On the level of relations to others, the perfect analyst would be someone without a trace; but not only is it impossible to relate to anyone if you’re without a trace, it’s impossible to live this way.  It is impossible to live without a trace of desire.  Everything about us, up to and including the practice of analysis, expresses desire in some form or other.

There are good reasons for this ideal.  At the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes,

The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire.  It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it.

In our day to day interpersonal relations we are poorly situated to determine the desire that animates our being.  It’s always unclear whether our desire is our own or whether it is anothers desire.  Is this my desire or is it theirs?  Is this my affect or is it theirs?  Are they angry at me or am I projecting my own anger onto them.  By fashioning herself into a nonperson or a dead person, the analyst creates a strange sort of mirror.  This mirror is strange for while it is indeed you that’s reflected in this mirror, you encounter yourself as alien and other in this mirror.  You also encounter an other other (repetition intended) in the form of the analyst that embodies the mirror.  Through the attempt to form such a strange mirror the analyst attempts to create a surface through which the absolute difference of the patient might be encountered and known.  The question, however, is how anyone can ever come to occupy this unheimlich space.

I’ll be teaching the following course at The New Centre for Research & Practice starting this October.  This will be followed by a course of the same name devoted to Onto-Cartography.  Please come join me!  Enrollment information can be found on the New Centre’s website.


The Anarchy of Objects:  Objects and Regimes of Attraction

Instructor: Levi Bryant Module: 1 of 2 Date & Time: Sundays: October 19th & 26th; November 2nd & 9th 7:00 PM – 9:30 PM EST; 6:00 PM – 8:30 PM CST

DESCRIPTION: Since the revolutionary work of Immanuel Kant, Continental philosophy has been dominated by the idealist or correlationist turn wherein it is argued that mind structures and constitutes reality. In 20th century Continental philosophy, this correlationist turn has been manifested in the thesis that it is language, signs, discourses, or narratives that structure reality. This thesis has also harbored the emancipatory promise of liberating people from oppressive conditions through a critique and deconstruction of various discourses and symbolic systems that structure social relations.Through the disclosure that forms of subjectivity and identity are not intrinsic properties of persons but are social constructions, these identities and power-relations are revealed to be contingent, and it becomes possible to build new forms of subjectivity, identity, and social relations. Such is the political import of the work of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and those influenced by Lacan. The emancipatory achievements of the semiotic turn are not to be underestimated nor minimized; however, they have obscured another form of power, non-discursive power, that arises from materiality as such. Power issues not simply from signification and how we signify, but also how the world of objects about us is organized.

Through a reading of Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects, this seminar explores both the being of material objects and how they contribute to the organization of social relations through technologies, infrastructure, living beings, and features of geography. Over the course of the Fall seminar, students will be introduced to the ontology of objects, relations between objects, and how they influence the form that societies take. Special emphasis will be placed on interrelation between the agency of signs and the agency of material objects in structuring the social worlds in which we live. In exploring these themes, the seminar hopes to disclose new sites of political struggle as well as new opportunities for political emancipation.

REQUIREMENTS: Each seminar session will consist of lectures over the material assigned that week, as well as class discussion. Students are expected to participate in class with contributions of their own in the form of questions and observations. Students are required to attend all four sessions of the online seminar. Over the course of the week there will also be message board discussions over the material. Students taking the course for credit will write a 3000-3500 word essay applying the concepts drawn from the assigned readings in the analysis of how a region of the social world is structured.

2411132044041In Onto-Cartography I spill a lot of ink discussing how structurations of time and energy can function as forms of power (and analyzing similar things with respect to how space is structured).  An “ont0-cartography” just is a mapping of how temporal, spacial, semiotic, and material beings function in producing certain social relations.  The hope is that with better maps we can develop more efficacious political interventions.  When dealing with issues of temporal structure, I called this form of politics “chronopolitics”.

One of the things that often fills me with dread with respect to time is its binary nature.  Time forces me to choose and in choosing I am perpetually killing other possibilities.  I can’t have both of the possibilities.  In writing this blog post, for example, I am not write the exam for my students or talking to my friend I haven’t talked to in weeks.  In driving to work, I am not walking.  If I watch a television show, I am not talking to my daughter.  If I am reading Derrida’s Specters of Marx, I am not reading Badiou’s Logics of Worlds.  Each act necessarily excludes other possibilities because we exist in time.  We can always console ourselves by saying that time can be regained.  I can have the conversation with my daughter later, I can take the walk tomorrow, I can read Badiou another time.  However, time can’t be regained.  The time I exclude is lost forever.  The walk I take tomorrow will be different than the walk I would have had today.  Who knows what I missed?  That opportunity for conversation with my daughter is gone.  Badiou will read differently after I read Derrida than he would have had I read him first.

With each choice, I’m killing time, I’m aborting it, I’m exterminating other possible futures both as to what would have happened and who I would have been.  Yet it’s not just me that’s killing time with my choices.   It’s the social structure I live in that kills time as well.  As a community college professor, I’m relatively fortunate to have next to no publication requirements and to have fairly light service duties.  I have a large student load, but otherwise have a fair amount of free time.  From what I understand, things are quite different for my university colleagues.  It’s not unheard of for such people to work upwards of 80 hours a week between service, scholarship, supervision, and teaching.  The nature of the labor system academics inhabit– and often it’s not just administrations that are doing this, but we make unreasonable temporal claims on each other when it comes to uncompensated editorial, conference organizational, publishing, etc., work –that force us to kill time.  The binary structure of those 80 hours mean that during that time we are not attending to our children, loved ones, friends, home, health, etc.  We have aborted the stream of time that would have allowed that, and often our personal lives and health suffer significantly as a result of this.  To be sure, we chose this life, yet we also become trapped in it.

What I say here is not, of course, unique to academics.  It’s the nature of all labor.  We have to work in the current system to live.  As Zizek likes to say, we are free to choose any labor we like and can get.  What we can’t choose is to opt out.  In one form or another, then, all labor forces us to kill time.  I think back to a friend who did mortgages at a certain bank.  That bank was so greedy in its demand for time that the loan officers weren’t even permitted to take lunch or take off early on occasion to take a child to a doctor.  Such decisions would come with significant sanctions from the management.  “She chose to work there”, someone will say.  True.  But what was she to do?  As a single mother whose ex-husband was a dead-beat dad, she had to support her child.  She had to pay rent.  Eat.  Pay for daycare (because she had to work).  And all the rest that comes with being alive.  She was stuck in time and beholden to a disjunction of choice that was not of her own making but that of her employer’s who got to make the decisions about how time was used.  While she had some freedom to make her own decisions as to how to kill time, many of the decisions belonged to her employer because if she wanted to take care of her child and pay her student loans she needed that job.  She was caught in a sticky web of economic power.

I think American neoliberal capitalism is particularly egregious in how it forces us to kill time (especially with the student loan and broader debt system).  However, it’s also true that every social system has its own way of killing time, of requiring us to kill time.  The question is two-fold:  At the level of our own lives as individuals and our own decisions, how ought we to kill time to live a flourishing life?  Answering that question would require figuring out just what a flourishing life is.  At the societal level, however, the question is one of justice.  Are these ways in which social systems force us to kill time just and reasonable?  Is it right, is it just, for an employer to literally take the life of its employees because they have a gun to their head that basically says “work this time or don’t support your kid?”  This is a question of how to make time and the demands made on time a site of political struggle rather than a mere obvious given that’s just “how things are”.

orpheus5125For Orpheus.

Last night a good friend of mine asked me about the value of philosophy.  It’s a good question and one I struggle with as well.  Why do I do what I do?  What is it all for?  Does it have any value?  Do my students benefit from the texts that we read, or are they the equivalent of books on tarot, such that these works are archaic forms of thought without any truth-value.  Certainly it seems that philosophy often makes us more confused, more uncertain, than we were before we started.  Where, to take an example at random, I might have begun by taking it for granted that it’s wrong to put your elbows on the table while eating, reflection on etiquette raises all sorts of disturbing questions.  Why does this norm exist?  Can I give an argument showing why we should follow this norm?  “That’s the way mannered or gentile people do things?”  That’s not the greatest argument because it’s an appeal to tradition which is an informal fallacy.  “It’s a way of showing respect to others.”  That’s a much better argument, as now etiquette is about proper care and regard for others.  It is good to show and have regard for others.

Yet all sorts of questions emerge at this point, and this is where the path of philosophical reflection begins to disturb.  Is etiquette a moral norm (and therefore a universal responsibility or obligation), or is it a custom?  What is meant by “custom”?  Custom, I suppose, are sets of norms and practices practiced by members of a particular community.  Other communities have different sets of customs.  Communities can be nationalities perhaps, ethnic and religious groups, classes, neighborhoods, etc.  How, then, do I decide which customs to follow in order to show respect and proper regard for others?  I should, I suppose, follow the customs, the etiquette, of whatever community I’m currently in.  But that’s not what I began by saying prior to my reflections.  I began by saying “I should not place my elbows on the table while eating.”  Should is a strong word that implies a universal quantifier.  Maybe “should”, in this context, is really an elliptical or abbreviated phrase, a sort of short-hand, that’s really saying “when in the community that has these customs, you should follow that norm so as to have proper regard for others.”  Much better.

But that’s really not how we talk about table manners.  We seem to hold that they’re stronger, more universal, than this.  For if this is really all we meant (“when in this community…”), then we would acknowledge that the elbow/table-norm is specific to a particular community (one I suspect is closely related to economic class) and that another community– say, Boston South Side working class communities –might have another system of etiquette that involves hunching over your plate with your elbows on the table.  Isn’t this how the ethnographer or anthropologist teaches us to think about these things?  If that’s the case, when I follow the elbow/table-norm in the Boston community, I’m being rude.  Yet again, people don’t talk about etiquette in that way.  They don’t say that those are the norms of the Boston community, their way of showing respect for others.  They tend to say that the people of that community lack manners.

read on!


So much of therapy– and I use that term precisely –is about making other people comfortable and society feel safe.  Analysis differs in that it suspects that accommodation is the problem the analysand suffers from.


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