brain-stockThe expression “problems for materialism” should not be taken to denote the thesis that materialism faces an insurmountable problem that should lead us to abandon it as the fundamental ontological framework, but rather as indicating a project for materialist to inquiry to resolve or solve.  otherwise we would say “problems with materialism”. For example, the materialist does not say that meaning poses a fundamental and insurmountable challenge to materialism, but rather that we require a materialist theory of meaning.  Like the increasing acceleration of the universe that is not yet explained by astronomy but which astronomy is working on, meaning is a research project for materialism.  The difference between psychotherapeutic and neurological approaches to psychological difficulties helps to illustrate this issue.  Here I use the term “psychotherapy” very broadly to denote any clinical approach that focuses on meaning– whatever meaning might turn out to be –as the ground of the symptoms from which a patient suffers.  In this regard, existential psychoanalysis, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Jungian psychoanalysis, schizoanalysis, cybernetically informed family therapy, etc., would all be instances of psychotherapies.

While these various therapeutic approaches are opposed to one another on theoretical points, they share the common premise that the symptoms from which we suffer– say depression or chronic hand washing –are meaningful and therefore that addressing these symptoms requires us to work through issues of meaning.  Take the example of depression (and here it should be noted that psychotherapeutic approaches have repeatedly been shown to be as effective at treating depression as medication).  One common feature of depressive disorders is that they are characterized by a sort of cruelty to self, by an inner voice that continuously lacerates and castigates the self.  It’s not difficult to discern, in this cruel and critical voice, the voice of the punishing superego.  By why might the superego so cruelly and excessively punish the superego in cases of depression?  We can imagine how an existential psychoanalyst might approach depression.  Put very crudely, existential psychoanalysis argues that the core of our being is characterized by a fundamental life project– so well described by Heidegger in his account of being-towards-death and Sartre in his conception of projects –that defines all meaningfulness throughout our life.  Just as the utensils of a kitchen take on their function or meaning from the project of cooking– the wooden spoon takes on the meaning of stirring in the project of cooking rather than digging dirt –every aspect of a person’s life takes on meaning in terms of the overarching project that defines their life.

Depression, within the existential psychoanalytic framework (the theory would be different in a Lacanian or Freudian psychoanalytic framework) would arise when somehow the person flees from the project that defines their life and gives it meaning.  It would occur when the person has fallen into a state of bad faith or inauthenticity.  There could be any number of reasons a person betrays their life project.  Perhaps the project is too difficult.  Perhaps they have conflicting attachments, wishing to please a parent and follow in their steps and pursue their project of being a musician.  Perhaps it would bring about exile from their community if they belonged to a particular religious community.  There will be as many different reasons for flight as there are depressed people as life projects are singular (and often appear incomprehensible to those that don’t share them).  Regardless, in all cases some sort of abandonment or flight would have taken place, and the voice of conscience would return in the form of depressive states marking this flight.  Treatment would consist in the patient developing an awareness of this life project– often we’re unaware of these things as we are them and live them, we don’t reflect on them –and developing the resolve to live in accord with them.  Becoming one’s project would guarantee happiness as they can often be very difficult and require hard decisions, but we would at least escape the punishing superego that arises when we betray ourselves.  Therapy here would unfold entirely at the level of meaning or how we project ourselves into the future and make sense of our past and the decisions that we have made as well as the symptoms from which we suffer.  For example, alcoholism might be a symptom of such a self-betrayal relating to a past.

I’m rushed so I’ll have to proceed quickly.  Neurology approaches things in an entirely different way.  In the case of neurology we would understand depression to be a matter of neurotransmitters and hormones.  Depression would be that which occurs when our neurotransmitters go awry.  Accordingly, treatment of depression would consist in a regulation of neurotransmitters.

What we have here are two incommensurable descriptions of one and the same fact (the fact being the state of depression).  In the first, depression arises from a relation to meaning and a betrayal of meaning.  In the second, depression arises from neurotransmitters being awry.  We should resist the urge to adopt a “dual aspect” theory the symptom such as that proposed by Spinoza in Book II of the Ethics when he describes the relationship between mind and body, for it could in fact be the case that there are instances of depression that are, indeed, nothing but imbalances in neurotransmitters with no dimension of meaning.  Here there might be a certain asymmetry for the materialist.  While it would be the case that all instances of symptoms based in meaning have corresponding brain states, it would not be the case that all instances of depression have corresponding meaning states.  The issue is open and we can wonder whether all mental states are causatively related to meaning.  The question is that of how to reconcile or think together these two incommensurable approaches to mind. More anon.

emc2Just a throw away post.  Denunciations of materialism are generally premised on a highly tendentious concept of matter that is of the order of a straw man.  The moment you hear terms such as “mechanism” or “reductionism” thrown about, you know you’re before a 17th century corpuscular concept of matter (basically the theory of Democritus and Lucretius) understood as indivisible particles that enter into various combinations.  This ignores work done in the sciences over the last three hundred year; and, in particular, the fluid and energetic nature of matter.  The concept of matter is unique in philosophy insofar as we don’t begin, in advance, with a concept of matter.  It’s not an a priori concept.  To be sure, there’s a root intuition– matter is “stuff” or “physical” –but what that might be is an open question:  processes, relations between forces, energy?  The being or nature of matter is something to be discovered, it is a knowledge to come.  It is not something we have already.  It is a concept on the way.

Of course, the interesting question here is why materialism seems to evoke so much hostility within the humanities?  Materialism seems unique in raising ire among those of us who work in fields like philosophy and literary theory.  What is the source of this ire?  Does it arise from unconscious religious commitments about the nature of self or the soul?  Is it that there’s a strong tendency towards idealism within the humanities, towards the mind mastering and conditioning and even forming all that is, that gives rise to this hostility?  After all, matter is that which resists thought, that prevents concept from swallowing thing (as Adorno well recognized in his concept of a negative dialectics).  Given how successful materialism has been in accounting for various phenomena– though it still has a long way to go –hostility towards materialism doesn’t seem to arise simply from inadequacies in the ontology (inadequacies, incidentally, that have a history of being overcome in response to criticism).  This is an indication that materialism touches on the real, on that which is other than a correlation.

falling_down_a_wishing_well_by_aliceinsuicideland-d47pppxEver since Thales, Philosophy has had a reputation for being irrelevant and remote from the concerns of the world.  Thales, it will be recalled, was reputed– by Plato in the Theatetus –to have fallen down a well while staring up at the heavens.  The implication of this anecdote is clear.  Rather than attending to the earth, to this world, the philosopher is withdrawn and occupied with imponderables that are of no consequence to concrete existence.  Philosophers, it is said, traffic in abstractions and questions without answers.  This is often what people have in mind when they denounce metaphysics.  We can imagine a play by Molière depicting the life of a philosopher devoted to passionately defending the metaphysical thesis that every thirty seconds everything doubles in size.  The comedic value of such a play would be that if it were true that everything doubles in size every thirty seconds, such a truth would be of no consequence whatsoever; for rulers also would double in size and we’d therefore never be able to detect these differences.  Such a play would depict the standard picture of the philosopher as occupied with things that don’t matter.  Does it really matter whether Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, or Heidegger is right?  Does it make any difference?  Or is the thought of these thinkers merely an idle distraction from the concrete world that we live in?

socrates_paintThis hostility towards philosophy and reflection and thought in general is itself something worthy of thought.  Where does it come from?  What prompts it?  Were philosophy irrelevant we would expect indifference, but instead we often encounter outright hostility.  Not only are there the resistances– almost in the psychoanalytic sense –that the educator often encounters in the philosophy classroom, where the beginning student despairs at being asked to think rather than just memorize, but in the broader world outside of education people often seem to go out of their way to mock philosophy.  “Would you like fries with that?”  “That matters about as much as how many angels can fit on the head of the needle!”  And then, of course, there’s the fate of Socrates for his public interrogation of the leaders of Athens, cross-examining them to see whether they truly had the knowledge they claim to have.

There’s a disadequation here between what people commonly say of philosophy, and their attitudes towards philosophy; a disadequation that appears symptomatic.  Far from being a matter of indifference, from being something remote and in the clouds, people behave as if it matters a great deal; as if it is dangerous.  We can readily see how philosophy was dangerous in the case of Socrates, for Socrates wasn’t simply raising the question of whether or not the leaders or most respected citizens of Athens had knowledge, but was challenging the transferential conditions for the possibility of power and leadership.  Lacan argues that transference is organized around a subject supposed to know.  The “supposed” here is not of the order of a moral ought as when we say that a mechanic has a responsibility and a duty to have a knowledge of cars.  Rather, the “supposed” here is of the order of a supposition, a belief, where the person in a state of transference believes that another person has knowledge.  Transference is what Kafka depicts in his parable of the law, where the man believes there is a secret to the law that hides behind the door of the law.  We follow others, we treat others as leaders and authorities, because we suppose or believe them to have knowledge.  In revealing that the most respected citizens of Athens did not have the knowledge they claim to have, that they were ignorant, Socrates was dissolving the transference upon which their political power was based.  Seemingly remote questions like “what is piety?” in the Euthyphro were in fact instances of working through the transference.  Socrates was revealing the illegitimacy of this political power.  This is why they killed him.

However, reference to Plato’s Euthyphro draws attention to another way in which philosophy matters.  Euthyphro is about to prosecute his father for murder because he believes it is his pious duty to do so.  Those who have read the dialogue will recall that on of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and killed another servant.  His father bound the servant, threw him in a ditch, and sent a messenger to fetch the authorities to determine whether the servant was guilty and how he should be punished.  During this time the servant died of exposure to the elements and his bonds.

Euthyphro’s action, his persecution of his father, is based on two things:

  1. His concept of murder.  For Euthyphro the presence of a dead body entails murder (i.e., he makes no distinction between murder and manslaughter).
  2. His concept of piety and the duties and actions entailed by that concept.

In other words, what Euthyphro is about to do is based on what he believes.  As a consequence, the rightness or justness of his action is dependent upon the truth of his beliefs.  Euthyphro therefore has a moral responsibility to determine whether or not his beliefs are true.

Far from being remote from the concrete world, our actions in the concrete world and the manner in which we inquire into the world is premised on our concepts.  And this is precisely why philosophy matters.  Somewhere or other Hegel observes that all of our language and action is riddled with concepts.  What we discern of being is based on prior concepts of being.  What we do is premised on prior concepts.  Concepts are everywhere operative in our action and inquiry.  However, these concepts are also unconscious.  They are so immediate, so close to us, we use them so readily, that we treat the world as being identical with the concept of the world and are unaware that we’re using these concepts at all.  Schizophrenia obviously appears to be a neurological disorder, rather than a visitation by gods or a product of a particular cultural organization in history.  Philosophy is that work of rendering the concepts governing our actions and our observation of the world conscious so that they might be subjected to critique to see how they hold up.  In doing so, philosophy hopes to produce better and more just action, as well as better inquiry into the world.  A concept is never just a representation.  It is a schema for action and comportment.

Because four sessions is not enough to do a close, sequential reading of Lacan’s 10th seminar, I’ve decided to organize “An Object That Is Not Oriented” thematically. Here’s my tentative schedule (I’ll be thinking on this more over the next week):

Session 1: The Lacanian Subject versus Ego– Two Types of Politics

Session 2: The Lacanian Object or the Cause of Desire and What Cannot Be Digested

Session 3: The Mathematics of Fantasy– Four Fantasmatic Operations and the Janus Faced Structure of the Fantasm (This will include reflections on Elliot Rodgers and the dual structure of fantasy; reading of his manifesto (warning .pdf) is not a bad idea, but is also harrowing).

Session 4: Anxiety and Capitalism. This last session is the most difficult. The question I’m trying to pose– and I don’t have an answer –is that of why anxiety disorders have exploded in the last five or six decades.

I’m wearing a lot of hats in this class, both trying to introduce Lacan to an introductory audience and discussing an extremely complicated (and in many places obscure) so we’ll have a lot to work through. Hopefully there will be a lot of participation as my experience, having co-led the Dallas Society for Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Philosophy and Theory (largely devoted to Lacan) with Tim Richardson for nearly the last decade, is that work on Lacan goes best when there’s lots of talk and people aren’t afraid to pose very elementary questions. I also strongly recommend those wanting a detailed commentary to read Duane Rousselle’s outstanding series on the seminars at the blog DingPolitik (oddly the link for his blog isn’t currently coming up, so I hope he didn’t delete it!).. He’s truly a bright and rising light within the field of Lacanian theory.

If at all possible, please have the entire seminar read before the class begins. Again, do not despair if you don’t understand it all. I certainly don’t and I also believe that part of his pedagogy consisted in attempting to make the void present and in enacting the non-existence of the big Other for his audience.

Further information for signing up for the course can be found here.

074566041XStarting at GCAS June 8 and running through June 29:  “An Object That is Not Oriented:  Lacan’s 10th Seminar”.    Seminar 10:  Anxiety is among his most thorough explorations of objet a, the object-cause of desire, and contains rich discussions of subject, desire, drive, language, embodiment, affect, anxiety, and the Other.    This course will explore issues of drive, desire, objet a, subjectivity, ego, and anxiety as one, among many, of the capitalist affects.  Beginning with Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th Century and throughout the 20th century, anxiety has become an increasingly important affect in philosophy.  Accompanying this rise of interest in philosophy, the 20th century has seen an explosion of anxiety disorders in the clinic.  Within philosophy, anxiety has generally been seen as a privileged affect signalling our relationship to death, our status as a subject, and so on.  In the clinic, theories of affect have ranged from organic causes pertaining to neuro-chemistry to an affect signalling repressed childhood traumas as in the case of phobias.  However, the historical timing in which anxiety arises as a particularly significant affect for both philosophy and psychotherapy is symptomatic.  Kierkegaard is writing on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.  Capitalism, tracing its unfolding trajectory from the 15th century to present, has come into full bloom.  As Nietzsche would later note in his lament about the death of God, the Enlightenment has progressively eroded all points of stability found in authority, kings, beings such as God, truth, and so on.  Might it be that there is something about capitalism that is particularly conducive to the production of anxiety as an affect?  Might it be that this affect pertains to a very special kind of object, the objet a, that both disorients and that is no object at all, and that is deeply wedded to or that becomes particularly prominent with respect to the meanderings and délire of capital?  Could it be that there’s a specifically capitalist subject that is perpetually accompanied by affects such as anxiety and depression?  These are some of the questions that will be explored in this course through a close reading of Lacan’s 10th seminar.  No prior familiarity with Lacan is required.   Requirements:  Reading Lacan’s 10th Seminar.  Information for registration is available on GCAS’s website.

A couple weeks ago I was interviewed by Radio Student in Ljubljana.  There’s a great deal here on both Onto-Cartogrpahy and politics.  Part one can be found here, while part two can be found here.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s an interview (.pdf) with me conducted by Graham Harman on Onto-Cartography.


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