September 2006


It seems that I’ve been “quoting-out” quite a bit lately. Oh well. I don’t have much to say about the following passage, except, pass the antacids please! In Luhmann Explained, Hans-Georg Moeller writes,

The theory of autopoiesis and operational closure– and this is true for both its biological and sociological applications –breaks with the notion of a common reality that is somehow ‘represented’ within all systems or elements that take part in reality. According to systems theory, systems exist by way of operational closure and this means that they each construct themselves and their own realities. How a system is real depends on its own self-production. By constructing itself as a system, a system also constructs its understanding of the environment. And thus a systematic world cannot suppose any singular, common environment for all systems that can somehow be ‘represented’ within any system. Every system exists by differentiation and thus is different from other systems and has a different environment. Reality becomes a multitude of system-environment constructions that are in each case unique. (16)

Although Moeller doesn’t situate it in these terms, this is one of the finest articulations of the implications that follow from the death of God or the non-existence of the big Other that I’ve come across. If we consider the ontological and epistemological function of God throughout the history of philosophy, then it is clear that the God-function serves to establish the identity of the object, along with the identity of the subject, explaining how it is possible for multiple perspectives to converge on one and the same object and how error is not possible. My students like to ask how someone can be mistaken about the nature of justice if people have different beliefs about justice. That is, they collapse the distinction between justice as such and one’s judgments about justice, holding that it is the belief that makes something what it is (and in this they’re good postmoderns). Yet if one can be mistaken in adopting the geocentric hypothesis or the thesis that the world is flat, then this is because the world itself is not flat or because the planets themselves do not revolve around the sun. The same would hold true for things such as justice. This was the Platonic dream and one major motivation for introducing the theory of the forms. The forms introduce an object corresponding to what can’t be empirically seen, but which can be intellectually grasped (and are thus akin to mathematical entities). Under the classical view, it is the object that decides truth. Yet this presupposes a world where identity can be established, which, in turn, requires a God-function. Deleuze analyzes these structures with beautiful precision in his analysis of good and common sense in Difference and Repetition, and his analysis of the Other-structure.

Thus, for Descartes, God is what guarantees the truth of clear and distinct ideas. Similarly, in the case of Berkeley, Berkeley is able to escape the solipsism suggested by his thesis that esse est percipi or that being is perception, by arguing that God perceives beings when we’re not in their presence, thereby insuring that the perception of all creatures converges on one and the same self-identical object and that these objects continue to exist when we’re not in their presence. And yet again, Hegel saves being from being swallowed in the mad dance of difference that he had discovered, by conceiving all of these differences converging in a totality or whole that he called God, Spirit, or the notion. Where the God-function collapses, this primacy of identity can no longer be asserted. Rather, being becomes pure multiplicity.

It is this, I think, that defines the knot I was despairing over in my diary on philosophical despair. Where the world is shattered in this way– indeed, Lacan dramatically claims that “the world does not exist” in Seminar XX –concepts such as rationality, reason, truth, knowledge and so on decisively change. Moreover, the very idea of communication or rational discourse is radically transformed. All of these philosophical concepts rely on identity in some form or another, but where identity is absent they collapse. Rather, we only have various systems constructing their worlds, without even communicating with one another. Many have seen this as cause for celebration, singing hymns to pluralism and celebrating difference. However, it seems to me that this view itself presupposes a view from nowhere, or the ability to survey all the differences. Moreover, I wonder if people are really aware of what they’re saying when they say such things, and whether they live in the world in a way that accords with this thesis. Rather, I think Badiou has posed the truly burning question: Given that being is multiplicity, that being is difference without One, then how is the Same possible?

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I have a terrible habit of posting multiple, ponderous, lengthy diaries in a short span of time. On the one hand, I think this is because thoughts and connections occur in clusters, so that it’s necessary to get them down as they come, lest they be lost. Of course, the issue here isn’t that they are of any great value, but rather that if they’re not inscribed somehow in the Other, the other thoughts that might emerge from half-formed thoughts themselves never get formed. On the other hand, I suspect that there might be something of a nasty obsessional symptom at work in this practice. Lacan liked to joke about the “psychoanalytic” idea that analysis ends when the analysand has become capable of oblative love– a truly selfless and giving love –arguing that this was the obsessional symptom par excellence. The obsessional, filled with anxiety whenever encountering the desire of the Other, tries to transform this desire into a specific set of demands or requests that he can then satisfy so as to negate the Other. Zizek often seems to behave in this way in public discussions. If he can just keep talking, if he can make all the necessary points, then he can forestall any encounter with the Other. Similarly, I sometimes wonder whether the whole point of my ponderous and numorous posts is precisely to not be read (even though I generally feel forelorn and insignificant when I get no response at all– Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge –governed as I am by the logic of reciprocity, or the unconscious structure that every gift requires a counter-gift. Thus, so as to unburden myself of any obligation to the Other, I have a compulsion to respond to everything… A habit I’m trying to break myself of. I experience a sort of horror in the non-response, as if I’ve said something completely moronic, irrelevant, or am simply being negated out of existence… All of which is transferential, of course).

At any rate, in the previous post I suggested that Luhmann’s conception of social systems is a variant of Ranciere’s concept of the “police”, and leads politics to a view that there is only governance insofar as it refuses to acknowledge any constitutive exceptions (“reals”) haunting the social system in question. This is not to diminish Luhmann’s achievement or the strengths of his autopoietic account of communicative systems, only to indicate that it makes no room for the political. In this connection, I thought it worthwhile to say a word or two as to what Ranciere means by the “police”, as the connotations of the word might make it obscure as to how it’s related to something such as an autopoietic system. Ranciere writes,

I do not… identify the police with what is termed the ‘state apparatus’. The notion of a state apparatus is in fact bound up with the presupposition of an opposition between State and society in which the state is portrayed as a machine, a ‘cold monster’ imposing its rigid order on the life of society. This representation already presupposes a certain ‘political philosophy,’ that is, a certain confusion of politics and the police. The distribution of places and roles that defines a police regime stems as much from the assumed spontaneity of social relations as from the rigidity of state functions. The police is essentially, the law, generally implicit, that defines a party’s share or lack of it… The police is thus first an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees those bodies are assigned by the name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise. It is police law, for example, that traditionally turns the workplace into a private space not regulated by the ways of seeing and saying proper to what is called the public domain, where the worker’s having a part is strictly defined by the remuneration of his work. Policiing is not so much the ‘disciplining’ of bodies as a rule governing their appearing, a configuration of occupations and the properties of the spaces where these occupations are distributed. (Disagreement, 29, my italics)

Since no one appears to be particularly invested in Luhmann (save my dear friend Robert who’s currently not talking to me, as I behaved badly recently in email, defended Hallward’s reading of Deleuze, and criticized autopoietic theory), I take it that few will object if I assert that Ranciere’s claims here can easily be imported into the framework of Luhmannian social theory. When the police are referred to as the “law”, law here shouldn’t be equated simply with written laws and legal institutions, but all those unwritten laws that define social practices and customs. This is clear from Ranciere’s assertion of the “spontaneity” of social relations. Written law is a moment of self-reflexivity for a system where it attempts to steer its own development, where as the unwritten social practices are not.

It will be recalled that for Luhmann, a social system isn’t composed of individuals that ontologically pre-exist the social system, but rather a social system, like any system, constitutes its own elements. It is precisely this constitution by the system that Ranciere is referring to with regard to his concept of the police. Moreover, since, according to Luhmann, social systems are characterized by closure, they only relate to information in terms of their own code, processing information-events in terms of those distinctions or codes. Anything that doesn’t fit that model of the code is treated by the communication system as noise and summarily ignored. This is precisely what Ranciere is referring to when he speaks of the order of the police distinguishing between discourse and noise.

From the Luhmannian perspective, this leads to the conclusion that all politics unfolds according to the order of the police order or that there is nothing (for the system in question) outside the police order. For Ranciere, by contrast, the political is a relationship to that noise that can’t be counted by the system, not the order of the police or the system’s own system of distinctions between self-reference and other-reference. As Ranciere puts it, “Politics exists through the fact of a magnitude that escapes ordinary measurement, this part of those who have no part that is nothing and everything” (15). That is, it is possible for parts to appear in a system that evade all the determinations of the code governing the system, thereby indicating the excess of being over how the system strives to organize the world. What this appearance signifies (Badiou will go on to argue along these lines as well), is that “The foundation of politics is not in fact more a matter of convention than nature: it is the lack of foundation, the sheer contigency of any social order. Politics exists simply because no social order is based on nature, no divine law regulates human society [nor do ineluctable and inescapable systems govern the social order]” (16). That is, the appearance of this “part of no part” signifies the ultimate contingency of the code organizing a social system, its lack of foundation, or the ontological equivalence of all parts of the system, contrasted with the organization of the system that introduces distinctions among parts (thereby constituting elements) and which creates a heirarchy among these elements that then comes to appear “natural” or obvious (where a system or the police is understood as that mechanism where parts are transformed into elements for the system).

It is the possibility of such elements appearing that Luhmann (and I would add Negri and Hardt, Deleuze and Guattari) reject. However, here I do not think Luhmann is so far apart from Ranciere (and Badiou) as he might think. As I have argued, like Badiou, Luhmann argues that a system constitutes its elements (consistent multiplicities) out of what is, in effect, chaos. Luhmann simply doesn’t think through the explosive potential this noise has, focusing as he does on the functioning of various social systems themselves. Similarly, one can find something like the appearance of a “part of no part” in Deleuze in his account of the “encounter” in chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition, which is the appearance of a part that cannot be classified according to the system of habitus. The point, however, is that Luhmann does not develop these claims and is thus only able to see the functioning of the system or police. It is his conception of autopoietic closure that is problematic.

I came across this interview with Ian Lustick, author of Trapped in the War on Terror, which provides what looks like a worthwhile analysis of the United States’ global war on terror. What follows are a few first thoughts or random impressions that emerged in reading the interview. Increasingly I have come to believe that no politics is possible, certainly no Other politics, so long as the signifier “terrorism” continues to hegemonize the ideological field. So long as the ideological field is totalized by this signifier, all politics is effaced by what Ranciere referred to as the order of the Police, allowing no exception to state governance or outside to regimes of knowledge. Lustick advances some remarks in precisely this direction, which is what makes the interview of interest. Lustick emphasizes the disparity between the discourse propogated by various communications systems regarding terrorism and the reality of terrorism, thereby making a number of claims close to Luhmannian social systems theory. In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhman remarks that,

What is meant by ‘reality’ can therefore only be an internal correlate of the system’s operations– and not, say, a characteristic which attaches to objects of knowledge additionally to that which distinguishes them in terms of individuality or kind. Reality, then, is nothing more than an indicator of successful tests for consistency in the system. Reality is produced within the system by means of sense-making. It arises whenever inconsistencies might emerge from the part played by memory in the system’s operations are resolved– for example, by the construction of space and time as dimensions with various points at which different perceptions can be localized without conflicting with one another. (7)

That is, all systems are self-referential, referring only to their own operations and not representing a world that exists independently of them. This has certainly been the case with the communications that have emerged around the war on terror, which tend to render it impossible not to see all events in the world as somehow linked to the fight against terrorism. (Incidentally, I think Luhmann’s Reality of the Mass Media is the best introduction to his work. It’s short, very accessible–especially compared to his other work such as the daunting Social Systems –and extremely relevant).

As such, terrorism comes to function as a master-signifier or quilting point to which all other things are attached, or which retroactively fixes the meaning of all other signifiers. As Zizek puts it,

To grasp this fully, we have only to remember the above-mentioned example of ideological ‘quilting’: in the ideological space float signifiers like ‘freedom’, ‘state’, ‘justice’, ‘peace’… and then their chain of supplemented with some master-signifier (‘Communism’) which retroactively determines their (Communist) meaning: ‘freedom’ is effective only through surmounting the bourgeois formal freedom, which is merely a form of slavery; the ‘state’ is the means by which the ruling class gurantees the conditions of its rule; market exchange cannot be ‘just and equitable’ because the very form of equivalent exchange between labour and capital implies exploitation; ‘war’ is inherent to class society as such; only the social revolution can bring about lasting ‘peace’, and so forth. (Liberal-democratic ‘quilting’ would, of course, produce a quite different articulation of meaning; conserative ‘quilting’ a meaning opposed to both previous fields, and so on). (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 102)

The signifier “terrorism” functions as a quilting point in this fashion (no doubt intertwined with other quilting points such as “democracy”, “America”, etc). Lustick, for instance, notes how, in order to get state and federal monies, even vetrinarians have to link their control of animal disease to terrorist threats.

However, if Luhmann’s conception of social systems is correct, then the situation is largely hopeless. For insofar as social systems are characterized by autopoietic closure, always “interpreting” data in terms of their own organization, the best we can hope for is “evolutionary drift” within the system itself, looking forward to that point where the communicative system perhaps reaches a bifurcation point that dislodges the centrality of “terrorism” as a master-signifier. That is, Luhmann, due to his conception of the social sphere as an autopoietic system, reduces the social system and the political to the Police in Ranciere’s sense of the term. For Luhmann there is nothing that is not already contained in the organization of the system, as can be clearly seen from the passage above. (I take it that this is what supporters of the political thought of Negri and Hardt, along with Deleuze and Guattari miss. Flows of whatever sort do not the political make. Rather, the political is what emerges as an exception to the organization of a system, as what is not counted by that organization. Of course, here I require some sort of argument as to why the political should be conceived in precisely these terms.) Here, I think, we do well to remember the Lacanian aphorism that “interpretation hits the real”.

One important way of engaging with such systems is to aim at the real of that system. As Fink puts it,

At every step, at least one number [or signifier] is excluded or pushed aside; we can thus say that the chain works around it, that is, that the chain forms by circumventing it, traching thereby its contour. Lacan calls these excluded numbers or symbols the caput mortuum of the process, likening them thereby to the remainder left at the bottom of a test tube or beaker as an alchemist attempted to create something worthy from something lowly.
The caput mortuum contains what the chain does not contain; it is in a sense the other of the chain. The chain is as unequivocally determined by what it excludes as by what it includes, by what is within it as by what is without. The chain never ceases to not write the numbers that constitute the caput mortuum in certain positions, being condemned to ceaselessly write something else or say something which keeps avoiding the point, as though this point were the truth of everything the chain produces as it beats around the bush. One could go so far as to say that what, of necessity, remains outside the chain causes what is inside; something must, structurally speaking, be pushed outside for there to be an inside. (The Lacanian Subject, 27)

A good psychoanalytic interpretation aims at this remainder that is pushed outside the chain, creating the possibility of some other sort of writing. For instance, an analysand might have renounced the search for the perfect man right at the point she renounced her father or brother as a legitimate sex-object, never noticing the link between these two claims, instead claiming to believe other women are idiots who deny themselves what little jouissance is possible with average men (the perfact man being a chimera of fantasy). All of her subsequent amorous relations might repeat this initial sacrifice, without her being aware of this repetition. Even though she’s aware of both events, she doesn’t see the connection between the two in her original betrayal of desire. Freud, for instance, talks about how the mechanism of repression in obsession is such that it either a) separates an affect from the signifier to which it’s attached, thereby displacing the affect elsewhere, or b) disconnects a link between two signifiers that nonetheless themselves remain perfectly conscious. This form of repression would be operative in such a woman. A psychoanalytic interpretation might draw this link, ceasing the endless writing of this excluded element (the betrayal of her original desire), and allowing a new writing to emerge. That is, a psychoanalytic interpretation hits the real around which the analysand’s discourse ceaselessly revolves without ever quite being able to say it. Lustick seems to approach such a caput mortuum when he observes that,

As a political scientist you don’t just look at public opinion, and you don’t just look at the answers that people give to opinion polls, because the answers that people give to opinion polls are very much driven by how the questions are framed. So, what social scientists do, what I like to do, is to look at the questions that are asked. If you look at the questions that are asked of elites, whether by the Pew Foundation or the American Foreign Policy Association [to see] what opinion leaders in the United States think, or if you look at the Harris polls and Gallup polls of mass opinion, what questions are asked and how are they asked? The type of question that’s always asked since 9/11 is, “Is the government prosecuting the War on Terror well, or not? Are we winning the War on Terror? Are we losing?” No one asks, “Should there be a War on Terror? Is there an enemy that could be fought effectively with a war?” No one asks that question publicly.

That’s the sign of how deeply embedded the expectations are, and if those deeply embedded expectations are wrong, the country has a hard time correcting its course. Here’s why: our government is built on a Madisonian system. Every interest group and every ambitious politician is supposed to go out in the arena and fight for everything they can get based on what’s good for them. Even if they talk about what’s good for the national interest, the way you get ahead in American politics, whether you’re George Bush or anyone else, is to fight for your constituency and build coalitions and fight for those constituencies. The Madisonian system assumes that the whole country will go in a direction that is the outcome of everyone doing that, so it will never lurch too far in one direction, because everyone has an interest that’s slightly different than mine, and we tend to cancel one another out.

The problem is that if everyone thinks and supports something that’s radically untrue, but that untruth is an arousing untruth, then every single ambitious politician and every single interest group, in order to survive, has to say that what it is doing is in line with that belief, in this case, that it is what the War on Terror requires.

I did a search on the internet for professional associations, lobbying associations, industries, and the War on Terror, to show that everyone passes resolutions, from veterinarians to statisticians to political scientists to psychologists to insurance industry spokesmen declaring something like: “We are in the front lines in the War on Terror.” Veterinarians? “We need more money to do what we’ve always told you we need to do — train people to prevent diseases like hoof-in-mouth disease — which could be used by terrorists.” Every single association, or political party, or group has to do that. When they do it, they increase the expenditures for them[selves] but they also push other groups to amplify their commitment to the War on Terror, to change what they do to make it at least seem like they’re fighting the War on Terror. Even more insidiously, since everyone representing every interest group is saying how important it is to support the War on Terror, the question of whether there should be a War on Terror disappears and everyone becomes more and more convinced that the question is only who does it better, and where should we spend more money.

Lustick does not ask whether we are successfully fighting the war on terrorism, whether we are increasing terrorism, or whether there are better ways to fight the war. All of these questions would already play into the code or system of distinctions organizing the contemporary discourse around the global war on terror. Rather, Lustick targets the real of this communicative system altogether, attempting to reframe the entire discussion and dislodge the master-signifier “terrorism” altogether by transforming “terrorism” into an ordinary S2.

Periodically I go through a sort of crisis point in my thinking where everything I’ve been working on suddenly seems to fall apart, where I lose the thread of where I’m going, and suddenly I experience myself as detached from all that I’m doing. The activity of philosophy comes to seem ridiculous to me, like a kind of madness that I’ve been suffering from, and I come to wonder why I bother at all. Everything comes to seem futile and I find myself bewildered, not knowing how to get through this maze. Decisions I had made just weeks ago so confidently come to look like the wrong decisions, like the wrong paths, and I have to start all over again after a period of quasi-convelescence and detached depression, where nothing in the world excites me any longer or captures my attention. I suspect that there are probably psychoanalytic reasons for this, that this vascillation has little or nothing to do with philosophy, but are instead the result of some other guilt or crime, of some betrayal of my desire, or to some desire I haven’t faced movitating my own philosophical wanderings and which call for the abandonment of my work, lest I get too close to satisfying that desire.

But on a less psychoanalytic note, I wonder if these vascillations don’t also have to do with transformations in philosophy itself. There’s a curious split between my classroom teaching and the philosophical positions I endorse in writing. In the classroom I am a champion of the rationalist tradition, teaching Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant and so on. I can barely stand to teach Hume, Mill, or Nietzsche (or any empirically minded thinker for that matter), despite having a great love for both Hume and Nietzsche (while feeling antipathy towards Mill). I emphasize foundationalism, the search for a ground, reason, sound argumentation, overcoming appearances, the transcendence of standards such as the Platonic forms. I delight in the twists and turns of Socratic dialogue, carefully mapping out the moves Socrates makes in a dialogue like the Euthyphro, where he progressively detaches the question of piety from any sort of mythological grounding (his rejection of the stories about the God’s as adequate for telling us what piety is), any grounding in the brute will of the authority premised on the tautology that “the law is the law” (whether that authority be from priests or from the will of the Gods themselves; Socrates emphasizes that if piety is piety then it is piety independent of the will of the Gods, i.e., they love it because it’s pious, it’s not pious because they love it), thereby allowing us to raise questions of virtue, justice, and the Good independent of any talk of divine will or revelation. I teach the allegory of the cave as a critique of ideology, emphasizing the manner in which the prison-guards, the true sophists, are the ones carrying the cut-outs that cast the shadows on the wall. I teach them how to construct essential definitions, emphasizing how action is premised on knowledge, and how definitions that are too narrow can lead to disaster (such as the Nazis defining “human” as “Aryan”) and how definitions that are too broad can lead to absurdity (such as defining “human” as creatures that have opposable thumbs leads us to include racoons under the category of human, thereby leading us to prosecute racoons for trespassing and theft when stealing our garbage, and leading to the bitterly debated “Racoon-Marriage Issue”). I suppose Socrates is one of my heros, even if I’m terrible at “being Socratic”.

Daily I sing hymns to mathematics (the only thing I’ve ever really believed in anyway), songs of the transcendence of mathematical objects and truths, to the fact that they aren’t merely human constructs or abstractions, and how mathematical truths are discovered not invented (though I’m not so sure I believe this). And I do all this because I have the belief that my students believe (my transference to my students) that everything is a matter of perception, subjectivity, personal opinion, or that there are no transcendent truths. In short, I act the part of the sophist, defending the thesis that there are rational truths, truths not discovered through sensation and experience, but discovered through reasons and that these truths are true independent of human minds, leading to the possibility that one might be mistaken by what they believe to be true. That is, premised on a reigning ideology of perspectivism, that all is interpretation, one perspective being as good as another, there is no reason to question one’s own perspective as there is no ultimate truth to be found. In this regard, the possibility that there is truth is far more traumatic than the possibility that all is interpretation, as it holds out the possibility that one might be in error. I therefore adopt the stance of the rationalist because I believe a teaching that follows the lines of a Hume (all is custom) or a Nietzsche (all is perspective/interpretation), already plays into their ideology and, in no way, serves to awake them from their dogmatic slumber. Of course, I do all this with a great deal of humor as well.

Yet in my written philosophical practice, I am an anti-foundationalist, believing that there is no ultimate ground, that there is no secure foundation for [representational] truth, and emphasizing the emergence of universes of reference (of course, I make exceptions for the Lacanian real, truth in Badiou’s sense, and mathematics). There is thus a great schizophrenia between my teaching and my writing. And indeed, it could be asked, whether my teaching isn’t really my truth or my genuine conviction. As Zizek argues, the symbolic isn’t premised on my personal belief in it, but rather, the efficacy of the symbolic is premised on my belief that others believe in it. I don’t mow my lawn because I believe it’s important to mow my lawn, but rather I mow my lawn because I believe my neighbors believe that it is important to mow the lawn. Thus, if I am a defender of reason, forms, foundations, grounds, and truths in the classroom, understanding my own practice as that of being a sophist in relation to my students so as to awaken them from their relativistic slumbers and critically think through these things, isn’t this conception of myself as a sophist cynically propogating the myth that there is rational truth itself just a fantasy that allows me to avoid confronting the traumatic truth about myself, that it is I who really believes these things or hold these convictions? Isn’t this the trauma that I experienced in the United States after 9-11 as I watched the nation so easily succumb to the most elementary ideological tricks described by George Orwell in 1984, believing that this was impossible after the WWII era, yet seeing it unfold right before my eyes, horrified to discover that persuasion and reason somehow do not really work, that we are not rational creatures? Yet my thought process here is muddled. The more accurate thematization of my transference with regard to my students would be that it is I who am the genuine nihilist and relativist, and that in a desparate attempt to deal with the directionlessness of my lack of conviction, I instead project this Nietzscheanism on to them so that I might persuade them, all the while persuading myself, that there is some truth independent of their will, perception, or subjectivity. The old-school Freudians, no doubt, would diagnose this as a megalomaniac fantasy, or the unconscious desire to create the world oneself by possessing sovereign power over the creation of truth. Nietzsche says something not dissimilar in his analysis of the will to power, behind the will to truth, where he points to the way in which the philosopher, in his ressentiment, elides the performative dimension of his discourse.

This will to power aside, I cannot cure myself of the allegory of the cave, or of the conviction that philosophy should mark a journey from deceptive appearances to true reality, and it is this that always plagues me. I continuously oscillate between my constructivism, my perspectivism, and the conviction that philosophy ceases to be philosophy the moment it claims all is simulacra, all is perspectives, all is appearances. I cannot escape my Enlightenment desire for a truth that can be discovered if we only break from appearances (including in terms of sensation), ideology, and superstition. But having learned the lessons of folk such as Derrida, Deleuze, and Horkheimer and Adorno well, I come back around to the position that the critique of ideology and superstition themselves are premised on ideology and superstition, and that there is no view from nowhere. Yet the moment I endorse that thesis, all truth is devalued and there’s no point in saying much of anything at all as one “truth” is just as good as another truth. It might appear promising to celebrate the infinite creations of desiring-machines or simply affirming this or that perspective without ground, but don’t these affirmations themselves reinstitute a sort of reflexive paradox by instituting a distinction between appearance and reality, where appearance has become the conviction that there is true-reality and reality has become the ascension out of the cave where one recognizes there are only anarchic desiring-machines or perspectives or language games or universes of reference or systems or whatever term one might wish to use? That is, isn’t one playing the same game in inverted form and claiming to adopt a perspective outside of perspective where the only forbidden perspective is the perspective that there’s a true perspective? And if such a position can be consistently affirmed, does not the discourse of philosophy become just one more flapping mouth, completely optional, with little or no critical force as there are no reliable grounds for persuasion? This, probably, is the heart of my sickness… The belief that persuasion is possible (doesn’t persuasion always required that the person to be persuaded already believe what they are being persuaded of, thereby repeating Meno’s Paradox, albeit in a different form, such that the reason I came to believe Lacan says something true isn’t because Lacan gave me good reasons leading to his conclusions– indeed, I could hardly make heads or tails of what he was saying –but because I already attributed truth to Lacan, and similarly with Badiou, Hegel, Deleuze, Luhmann, etc). Perhaps I would do better to believe in seduction, contamination, the viral, the secret agent.

And so I start all over again like a fly trapped in a bottle, trying to draw my hands drawing themselves. I start developing the resources of critique, of analyzing the mechanisms by which power and persuasion function, by theorizing what might be beyond superstition and ideology, and so on, only to find myself in the position so well described by Sloterdijk:

Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and unsuccessfully. It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered.

That is, I find myself in a position where I suspect that there must be a trick behind every claim or assertion, a hidden metaphysical presupposition, a hidden ideological assumption, a hidden class privilege or perspective, an unconscious desire quite unrelated to what I’m working on but nonetheless delivering me a certain jouissance in a subterranian and distorted form, and so on. The great masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, all showed how there’s a rational kernal behind the irrational in distorted form (well perhaps not Nietzsche, but certainly Freud and Marx), yet in doing so they also seemed to plunge us into a hall of mirrors facing one another, where there is no longer any firm ground upon which to set ourselves, undermining the idea of critique altogether in the long run. And so I fly about, hitting the walls of my bottle, never finding the way out. I tell myself that one must simply choose and proceed from there, yet I even find reasons to suspect such choices. I thus endlessly find myself plagued with the threefold question: What is philosophy? Where does one begin in philosophy? And what is the point of philosophy? I don’t have the answer to these questions and perhaps all of this is simply an obsessional symptom to ensure that the practice of philosophy, which never has a proper beginning, should forever be deferred. I should listen more carefully to Socrates, with his doctrine that philosophy always begins with a random encounter. I should listen more closely to Hegel, with his position that the aim of philosophy, along with the knowledge of what philosophy is, always comes at the end. But I find myself unable to shake the desire to know at the beginning. Anyone have an antacid?

s0metim3s dug up this interview with Sylvere Lotringer, one of the founders of Semiotexte, which resonates nicely with my rant about Deleuzian scholarship and Jodi Dean’s recent dicussion of the role of masters in theory over at Long Sunday. Quite a catch. It pretty much sums up the difference between engaged theory and theory as a commodity or church.

Lotringer: The name-of-the-author (of any gender) has replaced the name-of-the-father famously coined by Jacques Lacan.

For the past few days I’ve been working my way through Jodi Dean’s Zizek’s Politics. Hegel often speaks of the dialectical operation of positing ones presuppositions, where everything is already there and it’s simply a question of explicitly positing it so the next series of deadlocks might be thought. Thus, for instance, in the dialectical movement from being to becoming in the Science of Logic, becoming is already there in the relation between being and nothing, yet it has not yet been posited for itself. With the positing of becoming as the truth of the relation between being and nothing, it now becomes possible to posit Dasein (determinate being) as the truth of becoming, and so on. Something new is introduced as a result of this activity of positing that makes other things thinkable.

In many respects, this is how Dean’s study of Zizek reads. Dean does not simply gather together what Zizek has said on this or that particular issue or recap his theory of ideology. She doesn’t simply gather together a set of key signifiers that populate Zizek’s text, but rather articulates a problem at the heart of Zizek’s thought and puts this problem to work. The result is that a thread is lifted from Zizek’s numerous writings that can nowhere be directly found in these writings, but which is nonetheless present in all of these writings… This thread is the thread of revolution and the question of how change might be possible within the current economic and political universe within which we find ourselves. What are the seductive traps that need to be avoided and what opportunities do we find in our contemporary economic and ideological field?

The danger with Zizek is that one can easily come to be hypnotized by his endless ideological analyses of popular culture, coming to see such ideology analysis as an end in itself. Like the leftist intellectual that talks endlessly about wanting to be involved in a meaningful political movement if only there were such alternatives (thus revealing her desire for everything to remain the same), it is possible for the critique of ideology to become an end in itself, directed not towards producing change, but rather directed towards maintaining things exactly as they are, while affording the intellectual the enjoyment of feeling superior to all of those suckered by the various ideological mechanisms about him. Indeed, this jouissance borne out of one’s sense of superiority is itself a significant ideological mechanism, attaching us to contemporary forms of power. In this regard, Dean’s discussion of Zizek in terms of his politics, rather than theory of ideology, is welcome and refreshing. The picture of Zizek we get is one that is significant far beyond the sometimes arcane, though always amusing, world of cultural studies and pop cultural analysis, formulating a picture of a concrete praxis at work in Zizek’s thought. None of this is to suggest that Dean does not have a great deal to say about Zizek’s theory of ideology, only that she puts it in its proper place in relation to a broader political project.

Throughout the book Dean makes deft use of Lacan’s four discourses, showing how these discourses can help us to understand various political formations such as fascism, Stalinism, and democracy, and also showing how these discourses shed light on economic forms of organization such as capitalism. Dean’s analysis of capitalism in terms of the university discourse is especially disturbing in relation to my own work with Deleuze and complexity theory. There Dean writes,

Let’s recall the formula for the discourse of the university:

S2…a
–…–
S1…$

S2 (knowledge, the string of signifiers) is in the first position, that of the agent or speaker. This tells us that under capitalism, the facts speak. They are not grounded in a Master (S1), although they rely on a hidden or underlying supposition of power, of the authority that they command (S1 in the position of truth) [elsewhere Dean rightly points out how the university discourse disavows its own performative dimension]. Because this authority is hidden, the facts claim that they speak for themselves. What do they mean? Well, that is a matter of opinion– and each is entitled to his own opinion. The facts, or the knowledge that speaks in the discourse of the university, are not integrated into a comprehensive symbolic arrangement; instead they are the ever-conflicting guidelines and opinions of myriad experts. Thus, they can advise people to eat certain foods, use certain teeth-whiteners, wear certain clothes, and drive certain cars. The experts may evalute and judge all these commodities, finding some safer or more reliable and others better values for the money. Experts may make economic and financial suggestions, using date to back up their predictions.

S2 addresses a, and, hidden underneath a is the subject, $. This tells us that knowledge, or the experts, address the subject as an object, an excess, or a kernal of enjoyment. The object addressed by the experts, then, might be the person as a body or set of needs, the person as a collection of quantifiable attributes, or the person as a member of a particular demographic, but the person is not addressed as what we might typically understand as the reasonable subject of liberal democratic politics. The person is addressed as an object and thus is less a rational chooser than an impulse buyer, a bundle of needs and insecurities, desires and drives, an object that can be propelled and compelled by multiple forces. As a version of the university discourse, capitalism does not provide the subject with a symbolic identity. The formula shows that $ does not identify with S1. The subject is merely the remainder of a process in which knowledge addresses enjoyment.

This reading of the discourse of the university expresses as a formula a number of ideas that we encountered in our initial discussion of enjoyment in the first chapter. Recall that Zizek argues that late capitalist societies are marked by (1) an injunction to enjoy and (2) the decline of symbolic efficiency. Late capitalist subjects are encouraged to find, develop, and express themselves. They are enjoined to have fulfilling sex lives and rewarding careers, to look their very best– no matter what the cost –and to cultivate their spirituality. That these injunctions conflict, that one cannot do them all at once, and that they are accompanied by ever-present warnings against potential side effects, reminds us that we are dealing with the superego (as Zizek writes, “the S1 of the S2 itself, the dimension of an unconditional injunction that is inherent knowledge)… [L]ate capitalism directly commands the subject to enjoy, so enjoyment does not simply accompany one’s duty. Enjoying is one’s duty.

The decline of symbolic efficiency (or collapse of the big Other) refers to the ultimate uncertainty in which late capitalist subjects find themselves. The formula for the discourse of the university expresses this idea in its lower half: S1-$. Late capitalism does not offer subjects a symbolic identity; it offers them imaginary identities– ways to imagine themselves enjoying. These identities shift and change, taking on different meanings and attributes in different contexts. (97-9)

I have quoted this passage at length as it so nicely encapsulates the organization of late capitalism and the challenges (and theoretical seductions) that attend it. On the one hand, the collapse of symbolic efficiency under late capitalism is accompanied by the collapse of symbolic identities, which entails that identity subsequently unfolds in the unstable domain of the imaginary, with its attendent dualities, paranoia, and aggressions. In this regard, it is not off the mark to suggest that we are living in an age characterized by a generalized psychosis, as psychosis results from the foreclosure of the name-of-the-father and is accompanied by the predominance of imaginary relations. The tendency towards paranoia and comprehending the world in terms of conspiracies could be seen as the return of what is foreclosed in the symbolic returning in the real. Indeed, could not paranoia about terrorists (who are generally conceived in terms of religion), be thought as the return of the foreclosed symbolic dimension of religion? The question, of course, would be whether the symbolic intrinsically requires a religious supplement, or whether we can be done with the religious once and for all. At any rate, it is clear that ethics such as those we find in Deleuze and Guattari where we are enjoined to develop ourselves as anarchic desiring machines and lines of flight are part and parcel of this ideological structure, and thus expressions of the superego of capital.

On the other hand, insofar as the university discourse of capital is organized around treating the addressee as an object (a) rather than a subject, it is clear that the emergence of biopower is tightly tied to the emergence of the capitalism. Nor, then, is it a surprise that biology comes to emerge as a science with the emergence of capital. For not only is the issue one of reducing the other to bare life, but it is also one of developing an ever more sophisticated system of knowledge pertaining to life so as to be able to exert ever more systematic control and exploitation of life. In this connection I recall the horror I once experienced when watching the Discovery Channel show “How Things Work”, where they explained the production of chicks. There they showed how thousands of chicks are incubated until such a point where they are ready to hatch. The eggs are then placed on a conveyor belt with rollers and spaces between the rollers, where the chicks break out of their shells and then are thrown down the appropriate shute by women who sort them according to sex. Apart from the disturbing sight of the chicks being thrown down shafts to conveyer belts below, what horrified me was that the rollers were designed as they were so as to capture the broken shells, which were then used to make calcium pills and other products. Nothing was wasted. Even the shells were recouped. The ideal, then, is that of a total enjoyment without remainder, not unlike the enjoyment of the robot-boy in Spielberg’s AI, that was so voracious that it was willing to erase all physical trace of his mother from being itself to spend one day with her. It seems to me that this dimension of capital, it’s drive to capture all remainders and put them to use in the production of capital, should give one pause and generate caution with regard to complexity theory, autopoietic theory, systems theory, etc. For do not these bodies of theory become new tools for expanding this process of exploitation and capturing/controlling the remainders?

In light of the discourse of the university and its relation to capitalism, it seems to me that one central question Dean’s book raises is that of how a subject is today possible. Is a subject possible that would be something other than these proliferating imaginary identities in their constant state of conflict, and which might function as a point of resistance against this system of capital, which otherwise seems insurmountable?

Jason Read provides a critique of Hallward’s reading and a defense of Deleuze and Guattari in response to the thesis that Deleuze is an otherworldly and spiritual philosopher. Echoing a defense I’ve heard quite often lately, Read contends that Deleuze’s thought undergoes substantial transformations in his encounter with Guattari. The strategy is thus to throw out the Bergsonain Deleuze of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, and to preserve the Deleuze of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. What this strategy fails to take into account is that the two cinema books are both published after A Thousand Plateaus (1980 for ATP, and 1983 and 1985 for the cinema books) along with Deleuze’s final published essay “Immanence: A Life…” (1995), all of which affirm the Bergsonian ontology. While I am sympthetic to the ontological claims that Read makes, I simply do not think they reflect the letter of Deleuze’s text. As such, it seems to me that Deleuze’s ontology requires some “philosophical therapy” so as to sever it from its Bergsonism.

In this regard I agree with Toscano’s proposal when he writes,

“…if we are concerned with looking beyond the constituted individualities which are the province of represention to the productive tendencies that they express, we cannot rest content with a turn towards an abstract impersonal ground. Instead we need to focus on individuations and preindividual singularities, on the speeds and affects that dramatize the virtual ideas and produce actual entities and their correlative space-times. Univocity should accordingly be recast in terms of a concept of ontogenesis that refuses any transcendence, emancipated from its excessive dependence on the abstract postulate of a virtual totality that both enfolds and neutralizes the production of actualities. It is THIS concept of THE Virtual (and not of ideas as virtual multiplicities) that results in the derealization or indetermination of the actual identified by Badiou” (194).

Here Toscano proposes de-suturing Deleuze’s account of the pre-individual and individual from the Bergsonian account of memory that leads Deleuze to make mysticist claims such as when he says things like, “the philosopher and the pig, the criminal and the saint all contribute to one and the same indivisible song. Each one chooses his pitch or his tone, perhaps his words, but the tune is certainly the same, and under all the words, in every possible tone, and in every pitch, the same tra-la-la” (DR, 83-4), which could have come straight out of Plotinus or Eckhart.

Sometimes I find myself infuriated with Deleuzian secondary literature, as there is often a sort of worship of the master and prohibition against criticizing various of his claims. I think this is a problem endemic to continental philosophy and theory as practiced in the United States. All too often “churches” develop around the names of various European theorists, and research becomes a matter of endlessly writing sancrosant studies of particular thinkers or “applying” these thinkers, rather than working on problems. In the discipline of philosophy, at any rate, it is largely impossible to get papers accepted at the major continental conferences (such as SPEP) unless they are on another thinker. Thus, for instance, if you are a phenomenologist you cannot get a paper accepted that practices phenomenology, but can only get a paper accepted that deals with phenomenologists such as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Luc Marion, etc. In order to practice phenomenology, you’re required to show how a figure like Husserl had already engaged in this or that particular sort of phenomenological inquiry, thereby hiding behind the coat-tails of the master in question. Compare this, by contrast, with Kripke presenting his lectures later entitled Naming and Necessity while still a graduate student in the 1970’s (he was born in 1958), or the comparable example of how Wittgenstein’s Tractatus came to be published. Of course, these are exceptional individuals, but the point here is that they were encouraged to work on problems, not figures by the organization of Anglo-American leaning philosophy departments. In that context, figures are only of interest in helping one to work with problems and it is the problems and solutions that are treated as the object of inquiry not texts, which is vastly different than the temperament of American continental philosophy departments (and no I am not suggesting that all continentalists start practicing Anglo-American philosophy).

The case is seldom any different with regard to Deleuzian scholarship. And in the case of criticism directed at Deleuze, the predominant response is almost always that one has misread Deleuze (that they haven’t been good disciples of the master), rather than acknowledging that there could possibly be substantial and philosophical disagreement on a particular issue (again, such disagreements need to be filtered through a master such as Badiou or Zizek, rather than directly enunciated). It is surprising that those influenced by the writers of a book entitled Anti-Oedipus nonetheless so often display such an Oedipal structure of thought (here understanding the discourse of the master and the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation as being structural formulations of the Oedipus). Put in Hegelian terms, it could be said that the form of scholarship surrounding Deleuze stands in contradiction with the content of this scholarship. At the level of scholarship we are enjoined to proliferate differences and cast off Oedipal authority, but at the level of form this is only accepted so long as Deleuze is recognized as the master and creative production doesn’t deviate from Deleuze or question Deleuze and Guattari revealing that they’re castrated subjects ($) that are incomplete. The paradoxical result is that we get an endless monotony of the same in this scholarship, until figures such as Hallward or Badiou appear. The paradox is that to be truly Deleuzian one must not be Deleuzian. The point here isn’t one of arguing that we shouldn’t be influenced by thinkers, but of criticizing a particular academic organization in philosophy departments in the United States in which commentary and applied theory drawn from masters is seen as the only legitimate modus operandi. I’m exaggerating, of course, but not much. Of course, this could all be a fantasy bound up with my sense that my name was stolen from me and making any alienation in another’s name unbearable to me. Yet as Lacan points out in the case of psychosis, a subject is not defined as psychotic by whether their delusion is true or false, but by the manner in which they relate to the Other. At any rate, Toscano’s proposal allows one to preserve what is truly worthwhile and exciting in Deleuze, while avoiding his mystical moments.

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