July 2006


Jodi Dean over at I Cite has recently posted on the growing threat of rightwing Christian Nationalism in the United States. Given phenomena such as this, it seems incumbant to me that we effect some sort of repetition of the Enlightenment. As Deleuze argues, repetition is never a repetition of the same, but is a repetition that transforms the very nature of the thing repeated in the act of repeating it. To repeat the Enlightenment is not to rotely repeat the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant, but to creatively apprehend that thought within the field of the present. Deleuze repeats Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hume, but there is little that resembles these thinkers in the work of Deleuze. Badiou repeats Plato and Lucretius, but there is little that resembles these thinkers in this repetition.

The repetition of Enlightenment in our time poses special problems that can be fleshed out by looking at Kant’s discussion of Enlightenment in his essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” There Kant writes that, “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [“dare to be wise”]. Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is the motto of enlightenment… It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me” (Kant, Practical Philosophy, 17).

The difficulty in relating to rightwing Christian nationalists is precisely the manner in which their relation to the world is minoritarian by being unquestioningly organized around a text. A book understands for them. One can accept the wisdom of this book or not, but you cannot reason with it. As a result, all discourse becomes citational and bound to authority. And how can one disagree with the authority of God?

However, this problem is not restricted to Christian nationalism. As Lacan puts it, “How is one to return, if not on the basis of a peculiar discourse, to a prediscursive reality? That is the dream– the dream behind every conception of knowledge. But it is also what must be considered mythical. There is no such thing as a prediscursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse” (Seminar 20, 32). Kant’s conception of Enlightenment requires that there be an autonomous subject– if only implicitly or potentially –capable of thought, and that that subject be capable of thinking independent of authority, whether that authority be dear leader, the priest, the police, one’s parents, or a text. But if there is no pre-discursive reality, then it would seem that all thought is necessarily citational, such that we are forever unable to detach ourselves from the authority of language as a determinant of thought. Moreover, if the subject itself is a discursive construction as is argued by Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler, and Althusser with his account of interpellation, then the subject itself is a citation which can only iterate discourse in much the same way that a fractal iterates a particular pattern. If the subject itself is conceived as an effect of discourse, how is enlightenment possible? Kant conceives our status as minorities self-incurred, which is to say a result of laziness. However, the thought of figures such as Lacan, Foucault, Luhmann, Butler, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan suggests otherwise in that we, as subjects, are conceived as effects of the signifier, power, etc., such that our very being is citational. Here, perhaps, Lacan would be at an advantage as the subject is not simply conceived as a product of discourse such that its discursive nature exhausts its being, but as an effect of discourse that isn’t identical to discourse itself. The Lacanian subject is a hole in being, a void whose effects can only be traced, and not discourse itself. From the standpoint of contemporary thought, the question of separation becomes especially important, as overcoming one’s self-incurred minoritarian status requires an act of separation from the field of the Other. Badiou, for instance, with his account of truth and the subject can be thought as addressing the question of how such a separation possible. How is it possible to subtract a truth from the encyclopaedic determinants of a situation (Wittgensteinian language games, Bourdieu’s habitus, Foucault’s epistemes and power-structures, Levi-Straussian structures of thought, etc)?

In part, the goal of enlightenment remains very much the same as that articulated by Lucretius prior to the Enlightenment and carried out by Spinoza in the Theological-Political Treatise. In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius writes, “Whilst humankind throughout all the lands lay miserably crushed before all eyes beneath superstition– who would show her head before along region skies, glowering on mortals with her hideous face –A greek it was who first opposing dared raise mortal eyes that terror withstand, whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning’s stroke nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest his dauntless heart to be the first to rend the crossbars at the gates of nature old. And thus his will and hardy wisdom won; and forward thus he fared afar, beyond the flaming ramparts of the world, until he wandered the unmeasurable All. Whence he is to us, a conqueror, reports what things can rise to being, what cannot, and by what law to each its scope prescribed, its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time. Wherefore superstition is now under foot, and us his victory now exalts to heaven” (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book 1, paragraph 2).

To overcome humanity’s fear produced by superstition through a secularization of infinity (Badiou, “wandering the unmeasurable All”) and reporting what can and cannot rise to being today remains one of the central goals. Worries about superstition might today sound remote, as few today are seized by terror when confronted with lunar eclipses or comets in the sky (though Pat Robertson’s declaration that Katrina was punishment by God for homosexuality and the “sinful lifestyle” of those in New Orleans ought to give us pause). Yet superstition remains no less today in the form of ideology, new age spiritualities, and religion, rendering the task of overcoming superstition no less urgent than it has ever been. How to break with remains the question. This requires choice and exclusion, a choice and exclusion that “endless play” and “boundless conceptual creation” cannot respond to. How to break with doxa when reality has come to be understood as an effect of the signifier is the problem.

I’ve been in the midsts of a bit of an intellectual nervous breakdown for the last couple of weeks (okay, I’m being melodramatic, kinda), wondering where, if anywhere, I stand with respect to any particular philosophical issue. This is why I’ve been writing little here. In a nutshell, I’ve been a little ball of anxiety, curled up in agony, void of thought, bemoaning my lack of commitments and the manner in which I experience myself as whatever I happen to be reading at the time, and feeling as if I’m a sham or a mere semblance (of course, this isn’t so bad from a psychoanalytic perspective). Okay, and this isn’t simply about philosophical commitments, but also has to do with reading Koyre’s From Closed World to Infinite Universe before bed and thinking entirely too much about what it means to be in an infinite universe without center, fixity, or orienation. At any rate, I’ve wanted nothing to do with the world or others, and have largely felt a darkening or complete depletion of desire altogether. This, of course, is bad form for a Lacanian as I’m essentially trying to see myself seeing myself, or find some rudiment of ontological consistency or substantiality, when, after all, the Lacanian subject is a “hole in being”. Old habits die hard, I suppose. On the one hand, I find myself deeply schizophrenic as to what I do. My work ranges across psychoanalysis, sociology, linguistics, semiotics, political theory, and so on. What is specifically philosophical in all of this? Are not these things abdications of philosophy? On the other hand, I find myself wondering what philosophy could possibly be today. Is philosophy possible today? Or is the age of philosophy over? Of course, of course. I’m aware that there are those who call themselves philosophers and that there are texts published under the title of philosophy. But with the possible exceptions of Deleuze and Badiou, there seems to be a qualitative difference between what is called philosophy today and the great systems of the past.

The real question, I think, is how it is possible to practice in philosophy, to engage in philosophy, in the wake of the linguistic turn? One might respond by saying “simple, we simply do philosophy of language or articulate the plurality of different language games.” Yet this is simply to abdicate everything to the “sophists”, or to engage in philosophy as yet another variant of sociology or linguistics. Lacan expresses the problem perfectly: “How is one to return, if not on the basis of a peculiar discourse, to a prediscursive reality? That is the dream– the dream behind every conception of knowledge. But it is also what must be considered mythical. There’s no such thing as a prediscursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse” (Seminar 20, 32). The dream of a prediscursive reality can be seen in Aristotle’s discussion of language in Peri Hermeneuia, Plato’s conception of reminiscence, Descartes’ cogito, Hume’s impressions and notion of experience, Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, and Deleuze’s intuition. The list could be multiplied. As Lacan had already argued in Seminar 17, philosophy is characterized as the discourse of the master:

S1…..S2
–……–
$……..a

That is, philosophical discourse represses the manner in which the subject is divided from itself by falling under the signifier. The Husserlian subject, for instance, is a subject that maintains a transparent relation to its intentions. Where language intervenes, however, thought can never be master of itself in this way. It is always subject to the play and absence implicated in the signifier, in such a way that thought is never able to found itself (hence the reason the Lacanian subject is a void or a “want-to-be”).

However, while Lacan (and many others) might have demolished the possibility of philosophy where philosophy is conceived as a relation to a prediscursive reality sans play of the signifier, we might wonder whether he hasn’t opened up another possibility. Lacan is not simply another discursive constructivist like Lyotard, Derrida, or Wittgenstein. Everything here spins on the Lacanian account of the real. As Lacan puts it, “…it is with… stupidities [i.e., nonsense] that we do analysis, and that we enter into the new subject– that of the unconscious. It is precisely to the extent that the guy is willing not to think anymore that we will perhaps learn a little bit more about it, that we will draw certain consequences from his words –words that cannot be taken back, for that is the rule of the game. From that emerges a speaking that does not always go so far as to be able to ‘ex-sist’ with respect to the words spoken. That is because of what gets included in those words as a consequence thereof. That is the the acid-test by which, in analyzing anyone, no matter how stupid, a certain real may be reached” (22). While arguing that there is no prediscursive reality, Lacan also argues that language is “not-all” or “not-whole” or that there is a way of inscribing an extimate real that is nonetheless outside of discourse. This, then, would provide one alternative to conceiving philosophy; an alternative that Badiou might be thought as exploring under the title of the “event” (and perhaps Zizek as well, if he’d just quit interpreting everything).

On the other hand, Lacan argues that mathematics is the writing of the real. Here, I think, there are real possibilities. In discussing the nature of science, Lacan emphasizes that science departs from the signified (and therefore endless interpretation and language games) altogether. Scientific discourse is unity in that, “…due to its very institution [it]… gives us the followwing, that the signifier is posited only insofar as it has no relation to the signified”. In writing the pure letter, for instance “a” or “S1”, mathematical discourse departs from the signified altogether and explores pure structure, relations, or topologies. Once again, Lacan anticipates Badiou’s gesture with regard to mathematics as being identical to ontology. Mathematics is able to write the real of being through the institution of the letter that is divorced from any signified (objects, experiences, etc). Here we might encounter a genuine possibility for escaping the mythology of philosophy predicated on the yearning for wholeness in the Imaginary… Or, perhaps, I might at least be able to escape some of my anxiety.

When I first heard about Peter Hallward’s new book on Deleuze I found myself dissapointed. The blurb on the back of the book gives some indication as to why: “Gilles Deleuze was one of the most original and influential French philosophers of the last century. This book aims to make sense of his fundamental project in the clearest possible terms, by engaging with the central idea that informs virtually all his work: his equation of being and creativity. It explores the various ways in which, in order to affirm an unlimited creative power, Deleuze proceeds to dissolve whatever might restrict or mediate its expression, including the organisms, objects, representations, identities, and relations that this power generates along the way. Rather than a theorist of material complexity or relational difference, Out of this World argues that Deleuze is better read as a spiritual or extra-worldly philosopher. His philosophy leaves little room for processes of social or historical transformation, and still less for political relations of conflict or solidarity. Michel Foucaul famously suggested that the twentieth century would be known as ‘Deleuzian’; this sympathetic but uncompromising new critique suggests that our Deleuzian century may soon be coming to a close.”

As I first read this book description for Out of This World, I found myself wondering why anyone would write such a reactionary book, especially someone who’s done such good work in the past. However, now that I am about halfway through the book, I have to confess that this is one of the most sensitive and brilliant readings of Deleuze I’ve yet encountered. This is one of the few texts where I feel that I’ve genuinely learned something about Deleuze’s thought, rather than being hit with a series of definitions (that I often find remote from what I actually find in Deleuze’s writings) and personal “monsterous becomings” that I frankly find tedious and repetitive. In the past I’ve tended to read Deleuze as a thinker of processes and complexity. What initially attracted me to Deleuze’s thought was his account of actualization, which promised to explain how we pass from systems and structures to individuated entities that appear separated from one another. For instance, given the distinction between speech and language in structural linguistics, how do we pass from the purely differential realm of language characterized by nonsense, to the world of speech? Or, in the physical world, how does this entity here, say a soap bubble, actualize itself in the field of relations in which it’s embedded? That is, for me, Deleuze offered the possibility of an ontology proper to structuralism, and an account of the conditions under which it might be possible to transform and change structures. Put otherwise, Deleuze struck me as theorizing a dynamic structuralism or systems theory that would be capable of bridging the nature/culture divide, and avoiding the atemporality common to structuralist thought.

Hallward compelling makes the case that Deleuze is not a thinker of complex systems, but of unlimited becoming anterior to the actualized entity. Put differently, all of Deleuze’s thought can be read as a theophany (such as we find in Eriugena), organized around the opposition between the creating (the virtual) and the created (the actual) such that the actual is understood as standing in the way of further creatings (for instance, the opposition between the organism as actualized and the body-without-organs as a field of potentialities). Deleuze staunchly chooses in favor of the virtual over the actual, seeing the actual as contributing nothing in and of itself (not even as a feedback mechanism). That is, the actualized entity is itself an inhibition of these creative becomings. In addition to being an incredibly informed and sensitive study of both Deleuze’s independent work and his work with Guattari, this book strikes me as “workmanly”, in the sense that Hallward is not simply presenting a scholarly study or an attack on Deleuze, but is clearing the way for his own future project which will somehow navigate between the work of Deleuze and the work of Badiou. Hints of this can be found at his website, http://www.mdx.ac.uk/www/crmep/staff/PeterHallward.htm, where he describes a long term project he’s been working on entitled Relational Reality. Given the outstanding work he’s done so far on Deleuze and Badiou, I eagerly anticipate this work.

It is interesting to note that there is scarcely a well developed concept of energy throughout the entire history of philosophy. To be sure, the concept of will and force as developed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche points in the direction of a philosophical conception of energy. Similarly, we find the rudiments of a concept of energy in Deleuze’s account of intensity, but the idea of energy has generally remained in the background of philosophical thought. This is tremendously curious given how important energy and energy-related concepts are throughout life and the world. For instance, could it be that philosophy has little to say about work (beyond Levinas and Marx), due to an absence of any well developed discourse on energy in philosophy? Moreover, what poorly posed problems emerge as a result of a failure to conceptualize energy? For instance, in criticizing the traditional opposition between pure form and brute matter, Simondon instead argues that “putting into form” or morphogenesis is the result of an operation common to form and matter in a system where the energetic condition is essential in animating the potentialities of a system to actualize itself in a particular way. Thus, for example, in the movement from clay to a brick, the molecules of the brick are made to relate to one another in a particular way as a result of the energetic conditions of heat and force. So long as we do not take these energetic factors immanent in matter into account, we see the actualization of the formed brick as the imposition of a pure form from the outside and not an immanent potentiality of the brick.

These issues might sound remote from the concerns of social theory, but do we not find individuated social forms being thought in a similar abstract way in the opposition between structure and the inhabitants of the structure? Here stucture is thought as a form the actualized inhabitants of the structure in the same way Plato thought form as preceding individuals; yet what if structure, as Bourdieu argues, is instead a product of a set of material properties?

Despite the fact that philosophy has made tremendous strides in overcoming the primacy of the representational subject in the last hundred years, it seems to me that a good deal of theory continues to think under this paradigm. In the opening lines of the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes that, “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.” There’s a sense in which a theorist is a disembodied eye. While I certainly agree with Aristotle’s thesis that vision brings to light many differences among things, the relevant question is whether it brings to light the right or relevant differences.

Aristotle was very clear about the importance of leisure for thought, but following Bourdieu, we might wonder whether leisure doesn’t bring its own set of distortions. In seeing I take everything in “at a glance”, encountering the thing in its actualized form. In vision I am disengaged and separate from the object that I view, passively contemplating it rather than working on it. As a result, I do not have the phenomenological experiences of exertion and fatigue that occur in engaging with the world (energetic concepts). Is there a fatigue (again an energetics) of vision? Vision tends to encounter entities in static and frozen poses (and prefers them this way), rather than as undergoing change, variation, and movement. How many conceptual distortions emerge as a result of the theorists stance of passivity and passive onlooker, rather than as engaged subject in the world? Is there a way in which the concept of energy is so absent in the history of philosophy precisely because philosophers have, by and large, tended to be disengaged from active participation in the world, and because energy is not the sort of thing that can be readily brought before a phenomenological gaze or made present to consciousness? I do not, for instance, see a change in temperature, but only the morphological results or products of that change (boiling water, steam, ice, etc). If I place my emphasis on that which can be brought before intuition, I am then left with a huge mystery as to why or how qualities emerge and new structural relations are engendered. At the level of social structures, I am left with the impression that it is impossible to change structures as all of the elements depend on one another in a system of reciprocal relations and imply one another, all the while ignoring the way social structures undergo radical systematic change when energetic conditions are transformed in times of war, famine, sudden prosperity and invention, etc. Such problems emerge as a result of discerning structures atemporally and abstractly from the outside, rather than as immanent processes continuously producing themselves and requiring certain energetic conditions to maintain themselves.

Ever since I was very young I’ve had a very difficult time with holidays and special occasions, as I’ve often felt as if I was required to feign a particular emotion or way of feeling on these occasions without genuinely feeling it. This would be a variant of the superegoic command to enjoy, though I suspect that Lacan’s analysis of the superego and enjoyment pertains more to prolonging infantile narcissism and the demand to satisfy aggressive drives, than enjoyment as it is sometimes characterized by Zizek or McGowen. That aside, the difficulty I’ve experienced with these sorts of occasions seems to revolve around the way in which they feel simulated or artificial, leading them to be haunted with the sense of the uncanny.

Recently I’ve noticed that this sense of the simulated has come to extend itself to my reactions to a number of other domains of experience such as films, television shows, politics, and so on. When I view the outrage of a politican or a political event (such as the concerts after 9-11) or watch a film, I increasingly find myself feeling as if I’m viewing a mock narrative, a play, an activity of going through the motions, rather than something genuine. To make matters worse, I experience these things as genuine and desparate attempts to produce a reality-effect— and consciously so –without being successful in doing so. Everything appears staged, repeated, simulated, but as a desparate attempt not to be staged. This extends to the domain of philosophy as well. When I read Badiou calling for an ethics of the event, I find myself wondering whether one can consciously maintain commitment to an event in this way would producing a simulated or artificial distance to that event. Doesn’t rendering such processes conscious and theorized already render the event null somehow? Did the Galileans think of themselves as subjects of the Galileo-event, or were they simply doing what Galileans do? Isn’t there something paradoxical in Zizek calling for an act, when an act is precisely that which cannot be called for? There seems to be a desire to find a way out of the endless labrynth of the determinants of the encyclopedia or the world of doxa, but somehow attempts to theorize this transform these lines of flight, subtractions, and acts into one more element of the encyclopedia.

Am I alone in feeling this strange sense where all reality comes to feel simulated, staged, and artificial? Already we find talk of this between Neo and Morpheus in the Matrix, when Morpheus first asks Neo whether he hasn’t always felt as if there wasn’t something slightly off about the world of the matrix, something unreal and simulated. Of course, the Matrix proposes, like Plato, a true reality behind the artificial reality of shadows and images. Today we’ve given up on the reality/appearance distinction. Nonetheless, it seems that a fundamental mutation has taken place at the level of the symbolic and how the symbolic is organized. On the one hand, the constant accusations of voting fraud (now occuring in Mexico and Germany as well) suggest that we are living in the midsts of a crises of legitimacy where the social tie itself is somehow collapsing. This isn’t to suggest that worries about voting fraud aren’t real, only that the social tie no longer seems to hold or has become destabilized. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that political news coverage today spends all its time talking about strategy and on the part of politicians and parties, rather than their platforms and proposals. That is, Nietzschean suspicion, Nietzschean critique, the hermeneutics of suspicion is now the reigning doxa or common sense, rather than the explosive force that it once was with regard to naive acceptance of ideology. It is suspicion itself, doubt, that sustains the current system, not ideological mystification hiding other motives. Nobody today is believed to say what they mean or mean what they say… Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud have won the day, but not in the way anyone might have expected.

For this reason, Zizek seems to be essentially correct when he argues that the truly radical gesture is to genuinely believe. When we talk about multicultural ethnic and religious tolerance, aren’t we really saying that no one should genuinely believe in what they profess to believe, that any system of believe is just an “arbitrary signifier” clothing a “signified” that is the same for all of us? That deep down we’re all really alike? Genuine belief, by constrast, if it exists, is premised on the exclusion of certain things on the basis of the affirmations that it makes. In Zizek!, there’s a scene where Zizek takes Judith Butler to task for chastising him for being a Lacanian. “Look,” he says, “there’s no secret here. I am a Lacanian!” It is precisely this, perhaps, that is traumatic… That he doesn’t simply dabble in Lacanian theory or treat it as a “toolbox” taking from it what he finds useful, but that he’s genuinely commited to Lacanianism. And similarly in the case of the fundamentalist that recognizes that his religious belief isn’t simply an optional set of practices that are “true of him”, but the very nature of his being and non-negotiable at the level of how he lives and how he engages with the world. The problem is that I can’t will to believe. The very desire to believe already separates me from belief and suspends what it is that I strive to believe, pushing me back into the world of simulation. My belief becomes a simulated belief, the phantom of a commitment.

Thinking about Simondon’s account of individuation also increases my initial unease with Badiou. Two of the questions that keep occuring to me are first, why do we need truth as Badiou describes it? And second, isn’t Badiou’s account of subtraction radically inadequate in addressing the role that the structure or organization of a situation plays in accounting for what emerges in that situation? When I first began reading Badiou I was tremendously excited by his notion of truth-procedures and the event. This excitment, I think, was the product of a great discontent with the endless qualifications of deconstruction, the infinite practice of interpretation with regard to hermeneutics, and semio-structural analysis after semio-structural analysis. Everywhere I looked it seemed that thinkers wanted to talk about the world without intervening in the world, and it seemed to me that there was a sort of delight in handwringing about the manner in which we’re all trapped within some sort of structure or hermeneutic horizon into which we’re thrown. On the other hand I was put off by the sort of complacent, optomistic democratic liberalist view put forward by neo-pragmatists. If Badiou was a breath of fresh air, then this was because he loudly proclaimed that we should commit ourselves to something and act on behalf of that commitment, re-evaluating the situation from this perspective rather than understanding the event from the perspective of the encyclopaedic determinants of the situation.

However, the more I think about Badiou’s theory of the event and truths following from the event, the more I wonder if there isn’t something angelic in the strict separation he draws between the knowledge structuring a situation and the procedures of truth. Isn’t there a way in which Badiou is giving a sort of bandaid solution to the desparation many on the left feel, faced with the prospect that the current system of global capital is impossible to change? Yet why must a truth be so radically subtracted from the structure of a situation? Why can we not instead think system change according to something closer to Deleuzian divergence, in a manner akin to how speciation takes place? And why isn’t the formation of communities, the formulation of problems, and the engagement with a particular set of ideas and practices not itself a sort of commitment to the formation of new subjectivities and ways of life? Peter Hallward’s latest book Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation informs me that Deleuze is an “otherworldly philosopher” who’s ontology fails to formulate any program of political change and which is hostile to issues pertaining to solidarity and conflict, but given Deleuze’s careful analyses of populations and the trajectories inhabiting populations as individuals, is this at all accurate or fair? Does not Deleuze’s emphasis on the manner in which actualization always occurs within a field, a multiplicity, respond to these issues of conflict, solidarity, and the actualization of new solutions to problems facing us politically?

I have not yet had the opportunity to read Badiou’s Logiques des mondes, but perhaps there he’ll respond to some of my concerns pertaining to questions of how situations are organized. His thoughts on category theory and ordered transformations are already promising, but I still find his account of relation underdetermined.

Now that my summer session classes are over, I’ve finally been able to sit down and begin reading Gilbert Simondon’s L’individuation: à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, which is a combined reprint of his earlier works L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique and L’individuation psychique et collective. Readers familiar with Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition will be familiar with Simondon as playing a crucial role in Deleuze’s discussion of intensity and individuation in the the difficult chapter entitled “Asymmetrical Synthesis of Difference”, where Deleuze enlists Simondon’s account of individuation to articulate the process of actualization in the movement from the virtual to the actual. It is astonishing to me that this work has not yet been translated, and that the most we currently have available in English by Simondon is the selection entitled “The Genesis of the Individual” in Zone’s Incorporations.

The philosophical problem of individuation is rather obscure and one might wonder why it is worth being concerned about at all. For a long time I scratched my head reading Deleuze, wondering why he devoted so much energy to this question in Bergsonism, Difference and Repetition, The Logic of Sense, and The Fold. Why would Deleuze be so capitivated by the medieval problem of what makes an individual and individual or how an individual is distinguished from other individuals? It is not difficult to see that Deleuze’s aim of producing a concept of difference that would no longer be shackled to the primacy of identity or representation, also calls for a new conception of just what we understand by an individual. If Deleuze is commited to the thesis that representation is an effect, that identity is a product, then it necessarily follows that individual difference precedes difference inscribed in the concept. This comes out, above all, in Deleuze’s discussions of biology and evolutionary theory in chapter 5 of Difference and Repetition, where he paradoxically argues (correctly) that for post-Darwinist biology the individual precedes the species and that species are to be thought as populations (rather than classes possesing an intrinsic essence) undergoing various rates of change and divergence. However, what is required here is a dynamic conception of individuation, or a concept of individuation as a continuous process, rather than as an intrinsic feature possessed by an individual like a predicate. It is precisely this that Simondon delivers.

Simondon begins by critiquing substantialist, hylomorphic, and atomistic conceptions of individuation, for all sharing the common prejudice of emphasizing the constituted individual. Substantialism looks for the principle of individuation as intrinsic to the individual, whereas hylomorphism sees individuation as resulting from the combination of form and matter. Both focus on the individual as already constituted, and ignore the process by which the individual comes to be. In contrast to this, Simondon proposes that we view the individual ontogenetically, as an ongoing process of individuating itself, as an individual constantly individualizing itself, yet this requires us to reject any account of individuation that focuses on the individual alone, in isolation (we could call this a variant of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness), but rather we must view the individual as individuating or becoming within a mileux. That is, an individual must be thought as both emerging from a mileux and acting in a mileux. For instance, we might think about the relationship between a California grape and the weather conditions, soil conditions, etc., out of which it emerges. In this regard, Simondon’s thought somewhat resembles the interactionist philosophies of figures such as Bergson or Dewey, where the primary datum isn’t thought passively representing the world, but a body engaged with an interacting the world, leading world to disclose itself in and through actions and movements.

What is interesting here is that individuation, for Simondon, isn’t a result, but an ongoing process whereby the individual perpetually constitutes itself as an individual out of a pre-individual field of singularities or potentialities. That is, an individual for Simondon is a process. What, then, is the process through which these potentialities come to be actualized? I have not yet gotten very far in the text, but Simondon seems to argue that this process takes place through a resolution of tensions, incompatabilities, and inequalities seeking equalibrium pertaining to the system of potentialities inhabiting the system. It will be recalled that Deleuze, in his analysis of intensities in Difference and Repetition makes precisely this claim when he argues that the given or world comes to appear through inequalities that cancel or cover themselves over in extensities. Of course, the intensive factors in question and the processes of equalization must be surveyed in each system we examine. Thus, for example, the relevant intensities characterizing a social system would differ from those of a biological system, a psychic system, a weather system, a physical system, a musical system, etc.

As a sort of offhand, off the cuff observation, I was interested to note Gore’s discussion of the evaporation of a major lake in the Darfur region due to climate change in An Inconvenient Truth. Here we have a relationship between the individual and its mileux (the warring tribes of the Sudan/Darfur region and the mileux in which they live) being equalized in a particular way that shares no resemblance to the mileux itself. Thus, the paucity of water resources gets taken up by the social and semiotic systems not as a problem about resources, but as an ideological and religious struggle. What we have here is a confirmation of Luhmann’s claim that systems always relate to their environment according to the distinctions that they themselves draw (operational closure).

One of the shortcomings I often find present in Lacan’s theorizations of the unconscious and symptoms is the lack of any clear account as to why some particular unconscious formation is actualized at a particular point rather than another. Lacan’s discussions of metaphor and metonymy provide the resources for analyzing these formations, yet they have very little to say about the processes by which these formations come to be, nor the subject as an ongoing process. From the perspective of the clinic this, of course, makes sense as there we’re dealing with the structure of the analysand, and not giving an account of how this or that symptom comes to be ontogenetically. Indeed, raising these questions among more militant Lacanians is often rewarded with rather hostile responses about how genetic and developmental questions are irrelevant to psychoanalysis. No doubt this hostility towards developmental accounts emerged in response to vulgar appropriations of Freud’s stages (oral, anal, phallic) that presents these stages as inevitable and converging on a unity, but does it follow that we should ignore developmental questions altogether? Clearly there is a vast difference between a child raised among other humans and a child like Genie raised in extreme confinement, and this difference has something to do with how the two respective children are individuated or the process of individuation they undergo (http://www.feralchildren.com/en/showchild.php?ch=genie). Would not being cognizant of these sorts of issues also raise possibilities of how fruitful change might be possible, and also indicate new possibilities for effective analytic interventions?

Why would the Lacanian wish to ignore these sorts of considerations, and is it even clear that Lacan, despite his focus on structure, mathemes, topology, knots, etc., thought it necessary to avoid these considerations? A glance at his early thesis Family Complexes and the Formation of the Individual, seems to suggest otherwise, as there Lacan focuses on the relationship between the individual and its mileux, implicitly describing the ontogenesis of the individual out of its social field. In many regards, Simondon’s account of individuation is closer to Freud’s discussion of the primary process, where formations of the unconscious are understood to be products of disequalibriums in the psychic system (which Freud had already elaborated beautifully in his unpublished Project essay). On the other hand, we should wonder whether Simondon’s focus on equalization is consistent with the Freudo-Lacanian account of the death drive, which is an ineradicable tension within the psychic system governing the subject’s relationship to the world and Others. I confess that I find myself powerfully attracted to Simondon’s account of individuation, and wonder what Lacan would look like if his accounts of structure, topology, and the mathemes were seen from a systems perspective as models of a system modeled and of processes, rather than has hard and fast structures.

Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about the implications that psychoanalysis has for how we practice philosophy and political theory. In many respects, it is difficult to determine just how philosophy can be thought from a psychoanalytic perspective. If we think philosophy as organized around the discourse of the master:

S1—->S2
–……….–
$…//…..a

Then we immediately see that philosophy is premised on the repression of the unconscious. This comes out most clearly in foundationalist projects such as those of Descartes or Husserl, where we’re asked to give a demonstration for each and every proposition we introduce into our system, based on some primordial presence characterized by immediacy. The Cartesian cogito or Husserlian transcendental ego is precisely an immediacy of presence to oneself without mediation or intervening opacity. Nor is the case any different with respect to a philosopher such as Hume. For while all knowledge might be based on impressions in Hume– rather than the immediacy of consciousness to itself –these ultimate impressions are nonetheless characterized as immediate givens.

If philosophy requires a break with doxa and unsupported claims, then it is extremely difficult to see how psychoanalytic claims are admissable within philosophical thought. The reason for this can be very clearly seen in Freud’s description of the nature of the unconscious. In his late essay An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, Freud writes that, “Every science is based on observations and experiences arrived at through the medium of our psychical apparatus. But since our science has as its subject that apparatus itself, the analogy ends here. We make our observations through the medium of the same perceptual apparatus, precisely with the help of the breaks in the sequence of ‘psychical’ events: we fill in what is omitted by making plausible inferences and translating it into conscious material. In this way we construct, as it were, a sequence of conscious events complementary to the unconscious psychical processes” (SE 23, 159). That is, psychoanalytic work consists in inferring those thought processes that would explain behavior and thoughts that the analysand finds inexplicable in their day to day experience, despite the fact that these thought processes are not present in consciousness.

Drawing on an example from early in my own analysis, when I first began teaching I was perpetually breaking chalk at the chalkboard. I would literally go through five or six pieces of chalk during any given class. Increasingly I found myself distressed by these occurances, as the students were beginning to laugh at me and I thought that it was undermining their respect in me (there’s a phantasy at work here in this evaluation of what my students were thinking). Indeed, so noticable had my chalk breaking become, that at the end of the semester my students wrote a petition in calligraphy on behalf of the “citizens of Chalkville” imploring me to cease killing their innocent citizens, and offered me a suit of armor (a chalk guard) to protect their poor people. Now clearly this action on behalf of my students was indicative of a certain affection (they took a good deal of time writing up the petition and drawing a piece of chalk dressed in armor with a sword), yet I was extremely embarrassed by the whole affair and took it negatively. One day in analysis I was going on and on about the difficulties I was experiencing teaching and the problems I was having with the chalk (no, my analysis didn’t always consist of such mundane things, but it is free association, after all). I simply couldn’t understand why I was having such problems with the chalk. As I rambled on I said something like “I don’t know what my problem is, I just can’t keep myself from putting too much pressure on the chalk. No matter how hard I try I just put too much pressure on the chalk.” Fink responded in a very simple way, rephrasing my words slightly and in such a way that I didn’t even notice: “Pressure at the board” was all he said. I didn’t occur to me that he had significantly rephrased what I said. Nor did I reflect on it after the session. Nor did I cognitively modify my behavior. Indeed, I forgot about the session entirely after it was over.

Yet oddly, a couple weeks later, I noticed that I hadn’t broken any chalk for the last couple of weeks. In this simple rephrasing, Fink had spoken what my little symptom was saying. It wasn’t a lack of bodily control or some inability to control my muscles that was going on at the board. Rather, my chalk breaking was 1) expressing the pressure I was experiencing at the board in physical form, and 2) expressing a desire to undermine my own authority so as to no longer have to teach (this wish to destroy myself or undermine myself was expressed in a variety of ways over the course of my analysis, that were often quite frightful, and which had to do with issues pertaining to my name that I won’t go into here… Although the very act of writing this is an iteration of that very process). In speaking the symptom, in putting it into words, the symptom disappeared, but not because I had become conscious of it and was thereby able to modify my behavior, but because the linguistic structuration of my unconscious had been affected in these three simple words.

What we have here is an acephalous or headless knowledge in the unconscious (S2) that knows all by itself without the intervention of an “I” or a cogito or any sort of centralized agency. This is a knowledge that works behind our backs of which we’re scarcely aware; hence the matheme S1/$ indicating the manner in which a knowledge functions in the master of which he’s not aware and which thwarts his conscious sense of self or agency. Yet such a view is anathema to philosophy and to any foundationalist pretentions. How, after all, is one to verify that such a simple act of perpetually breaking chalk is “structured like a language” and indicative of a thought of which the agent is unaware? How are we to verify the truth of the intervention “pressure at the board”? Does not such an intervention become the worst manifestation of baseless doxa, perpetually unable to ground or demonstrate itself? That is, what becomes of philosophy once we give up our foundationalist pretentions?

I have not yet figured out a way to navigate the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis. The anecdote I relate above was the moment where my analysis began in earnest and where I began to take seriously the notion of the unconscious (this incident occured early in my analysis), but I’ve never gotten the sense that I was directly before the unconscious. Rather, any relationship to my unconscious that I might have obtained over the course of analysis proceeded by inference, construction, and a willingness to see myself as other than myself, and unconscious thought still remains uncanny and disturbing to me. Philosophically it’s very difficult to argue for such claims.

The problem is that it’s extremely difficult to properly formulate a number of central philosophical questions without taking the claims of psychoanalysis into account. Jonathan Lear expresses this point nicely in his book Freud. There Lear writes that, “If I am sincere when I ask ‘How shall I live?,’ then my words mean exactly what the words mean, and I am using the words to ask a genuine question. What, then, is the nature of the failure? In neurosis, my psyche is structured in such a way that when I say ‘I’ I systematically fail to take my whole self into account. In saying ‘I,’ I speak with the voice of my ego… or I speak with the voice of my ego ideal… or I speak with the voice of a punishing superego… or I speak with the voice of a powerful wish with which I have [unconsciously] identified. I have different voices each of which uses the first person pronoun. The one thing I cannot do with ‘I’ is speak for myself” (Lear 2005, 220). This, it seems to me, would be no less true of “Deleuzian desiring-machines” than Kantian subjects formulating the categorical imperative. How, for instance, is the Deleuzian desiring-machine to be sure that he is truly formulating his desire and not simply engaged in a narcissistic obfuscation that fails to encounter the subject-destitution embodied in unconscious thought?

Even today many ethicists proceed as if we can unproblematically raise ethical questions pertaining to how we should live, but if the mind is not characterized by transparency, how are we to unproblematically know which “voice” is responding to this question? As Lacan attempts to demonstrate in his essay “Kant avec Sade”, the unconscious truth of the Kantian categorical imperative is Sade. How do I determine whether the answer I give to the question of how I should live is a result of my punishing superego (which often functions silently and can only be inferred from its effects in my bungled actions, staged public humiliations, depression, etc)? How can I determine whether my choices of what is ethically right pertain to some genuine criteria of what is right, or whether they are expressions of some unconscious wish? Thus, for example, I recall a person I once knew had who was intensely (and devoutly) Christian. I was intrigued to discover that prior to his conversion he often got in fights with others, and took a delight in violence. No doubt this person thinks of his conversion as a turn away from this violent life, but is it possible that his particular fundamentalist brand of Christianity satisfied his aggressive impulses in a new way? That is, is it possible that his turn had nothing to do with the “good” or being redeemed, but rather that he had discovered a way to exercise these aggressive impulses and call himself good?

Perhaps more fundamental than these sorts of ethical questions, are questions pertaining to dialogue and communication. In a very real sense, it could be said that philosophy begins with a certain conception of dialogue and an ideal of persuasion. We see this evinced above all in the life of Socrates and the writings of Plato. Yet what becomes of dialogue if we take seriously the concept of transference? Over the years, this question has increasingly led me to despair, leading me to amost give up on philosophy altogether. Philosophy is premised on the notion that persuasion is possible, that it is possible to change a person’s mind through dialogue. However, the experience of transference significantly calls this ideal into question. In the anecdote above, it is clear that I had a certain transferential relation to my students. I expected them to respond in a particular way, interpreting their actions as condemning and indicative of their lack of belief in my legitimacy to teach. Throughout all of my activities this has been a repetitive theme, such that I tend to discount very positive student evaluations, praise for my intellectual work, etc., etc. That is, I discount anything positive I hear from others. This is a transferential structure that organizes self/other relations, by imposing a frame on what the Other thinks and believes, and which leads me to hear others in a very specific way, even if it is contrary to what they are saying. In the analytic setting, it is often striking to see how a patient won’t hear certain things at all, or will hear things in ways quite contrary to the way they were said, as if some invisible force intervenes between the enunciation and reception. The analyst learns very quickly that he must take into account the place from which the analysand hears him speaking and must strategically enunciate his interventions with this place in mind. Yet such a frame is invisible and seems like an obvious fact about the world to the person dwelling within it.

Elsewhere, in his book Therapeutic Action, Lear gives a beautiful example of such a transferential world when he writes that, “A patient of mine inhabited a disappointing world. Although she was quite successful at work, had friends, and so on, there was no success in the social world that would not be interpreted by her under an aura of disappointment. If she got a raise at work, it was because the boss was shamed into it– he really wanted to give someone else in the office a raise, but he felt he had to give her one to appear fair. If she was invited out for a date, the person had already tried to go out with others and had failed. If someone congratulated her on some accomplishment, they were just being polite. And so on. From a distance it is clear to us, as it was not clear to her, how active she was in understanding her world in ways that were bound to disappoint. And, of course, much of the analysis was spent working through these repetitive attempts at disappointment” (Lear 2003, 48-49, italics mine).

This analysand experiences disappointment as a fact about the world, not something that is of her own making. What we have here is an excellent example of how a phantasy can structure a person’s entire relationship to others and the world. As Lacan articulates it, phantasy is the frame of reality, and this is above all the case with regard to transference. I always encounter others through a particular frame that transforms the manner in which I encounter their desire into a specific demand. And no doubt, the course of analysis for this woman was accompanied by a good deal of resistance with respect to the idea that perhaps this was all a frame, perhaps the world was not a disappointing world after all, as the collapse of this frame would be accompanied by a tremendous influx of anxiety as she would lose her coordinates or basic understanding of the world. As Freud remarks in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, “The further our work proceeds and the more deeply our insight penetrates into the mental life of neurotics, the more clearly two new factors force themselves on our notice, which demand the closest attention as sources of resistance. Both of them are completely unknown to the patient, neither of them could be taken into account when our pact was made; nor do they arise from the patient’s ego. They may both be embraced under the single name of ‘need to be ill or to suffer‘, but they have different origins though in other respects they are of a kindred nature. The first of these two factors is the sense of guilt or consciousness of guilt, as it is called, though the patient does not feel it and is not aware of it. It is evidently the portion of the resistance contributed by a super-ego that has become particularly severe and cruel. The patient must not become well but must remain ill, for he deserves no better” (SE 23, 179-180). It is remarkable to witness this very phenomenon, as ridiculous as it may initially sound, unfolding in analysis at precisely that point where an analysand seems to be making the most progress. It is as if suddenly the invisible frame re-asserts itself with the utmost tenacity right when it is about to undo itself.

Now I would like to suggest that all our relations to others are organized by some such interpretative, transferential frame (though not all of this superegoic sort). Now presumably, as philosophers and political theorists, our desire isn’t simply, as Marx says, to represent the world, but to change the world. We are searching for that difference that makes a difference, or that speech act that transforms the very field of communication. Unless we are simply preaching to the choir, how do we produce a speech act that is able to intervene in the transferential field governing social relations between different groups? What sort of speech acts must we produce to produce real change in the field of forces governing social relations? What sort of speech act, for instance, can produce a real effect in the transferential field governing Ed Norton’s character towards african-americans and jews in American History X? Simply pointing out his mistaken judgments doesn’t work, as he already assumes that such a speaker has an agenda. Here it is necessary to be attentive to questions about who is speaking (the position from which I speak already evokes a particular transferential relation, such that if I go onto a conservative blog with a screenname referring to academia, I’ve already elicited certain expectations that delegitimate me due to a particular conception of the university possessed by many conservatives), as well as the particular signifiers and metaphors employed in the act of speaking. That is, the issue of the transferential social field calls us to attend not so much to what is said, but how it is said. It may very well be that our speech acts– and when we write and speak we’re always engaged in acts, not mere representations –are only addressed to those who are already of a like mind. However, can we envision a speech act like an analytic interpretation, that hits the impossible real of the social situation in which we find ourselves, and which transforms the very configuration of that situation? From the perspective of our social prestige and position as theorists, would not such a position require us to function like analysts: That is, wouldn’t we have to become, like analysts in the clinical setting, beings without identity, without personal titles, without position, capable of occupying whatever transferential phantasies our audience might project upon us and speaking strategically from such positions in that way that might most effectively produce a difference? If, for instance, Cindy Sheehan was, at one point, a potent voice then it was precisely because as a military mother she occupied a position that evaded expectations about war protestors. Given that “professor” and the names of theorists are already highly charged from the perspective of social transference, wouldn’t this require us to adopt pseudonyms, to efface our identities, to renounce our desire for recognition, to practice heteronyms, so as to produce those differences that make a difference? What would a philosophy organized around the heteronym look like? Is this not an alternative to Badiou’s ethics of the event, which is premised on militant transference to a particular cause? Is not here the aim that of targeting the very organization of the structuration of a situation, rather than tracing the consequences of an event? I am not at all clear as to how to respond to these questions.

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