October 2006

In 1935 the cane toad was introduced into Australia to fight the pest of the cane beetle that was destroying agriculture. Where the initial population was 3000, the population now numbers over a million, is itself counted as a pest, and is increasing in population by 25% every year. In the absence of any natural preditors of its own, the cane toad has drastically changed the environment of certain regions of Australia, eating other natural preditors out of existence. It seems to me that the cane toad is a nice metaphor for how certain forms of communication proliferate and grow.

Every morning when I wake up, I have to remind myself that communication is not simply about something, but that communication also is something. It is very easy to lose the will to write, the will to think. I am unsure as to whether I have ever managed to say anything new or interesting. If I had my way, I would be a Hegel or a Deleuze or an Aristotle or Heidegger, a philosopher who makes the world rumble with my words, but it is unlikely that this is ever to happen. If I repeat when I write, if my writing is already what others have have already said– and better, at that –what could the value of my writing possibly be? What is the value of a writing that only repeats? Yet this is to individuate a writing only in terms of what it is about, and not in terms of what writing is… A material trace of communication that proliferates throughout the world, offering further possibilities to be repeated by others, offering the possibility of communication that itself changes the very field of communications by creating networks that are now about something entirely different.

Increasingly I find myself filled with the will to repeat. If I come across an article that I find interesting or that says something important, I throw it up on my blog so that others might come across it and repeat it to yet others, contaminating established channels and furrows of communication and perhaps pushing them in new directions. If I come across a diary on another blog that I find important, I try to find ways to link to it in my own diaries or to frontpage it so that others might stumble upon these other paths and take it upon themselves to leave their own material traces of communication. I fantasize about sprawling and tangled networks weaving themselves across the world, producing entire communities of speakers leaving traces, pushing collective dialogues in directions different than current vectors. If someone makes a comment on my blog, I try to integrate it into subsequent diaries so that others might see it and so that it might form further networks and traces of communications, calling for responses, and producing furrows or speciations of their own. That is, I do my small bit to populate the world with material traces of communicative events that have taken place, recognizing that what has been said is just important than the inaugural saying. And perhaps, if enough murmuring takes place, there will eventually be a roar, new subjectivities will emerge, my own subjectivity will be transformed, and subjects capable of entirely new affects, speeds, and actions will rise up in the world. I thereby surrender myself to networks and treat myself as a radio tower, conveying traces of communication that have taken place elsewhere, in hope that I might have a hand in helping a new species of cane toads to emerge within our current political and social climate.

I recall Freud, Lacan, and Heidegger… These isolated figures who began with a small group of people with whom they communicated, perhaps on Sunday afternoons over coffee or a nice bottle of wine. These groups were outcasts, minorities, orientations that had no place and for whom, as Orla put it, there was no voice in dominant discourses. They did not fit the epistemes of their time and it is only retroactively that we can discern their necessity as they made their own necessity. Those communications exploded as each of those participants repeated, wrote, seduced others, and acted on the basis of what they heard. Some time ago I read a diary on Dailykos, written by a participant ashamed that he had voted for George Bush in 2000. This diary recounts how he came to completely change his political identifications, and how, in particular, a course he took entitled “Argumentation and Advocacy” significantly transformed his outlook, not by specifically advocating a particular set of political positions, but by teaching him about argumentative fallacies. On the basis of learning these argumentative fallacies, his perception of media phenomena was transformed as he increasingly saw them all over the place in the communications the administration engages in. This change would have never occured had not these fallacies been repeated to him by someone. The effects of what we repeat, of the distinctions we draw, of the concepts we forge, can never be anticipated save in one instance: when they are not repeated.

Today the always witty and often challenging Acephalous makes an intriguing observation regarding the nature of blog participation:

As of 7:11 p.m. this evening—exactly 24 hours since my last post hit the ‘Net—I’ve heard from 37 people on the blog and another 211 via email. I must say: I never realized how great the gulf separating commenter from lurker was until today. A fairly substantial community of people who don’t even know they belong to a community encircles my evening blather.

Despite devoting today’s spare brain cycles to spinning Lurk Theory, I’m no closer to understanding its appeal—not because I think less of lurkers, but because I’m constitutionally incapable of not speaking up when I feel so inclined. I know some people are better at biting their tongues than others, but I lack the requisite imagination to understand why.

Bits of my brain scream GENDER POLITICS! but I really don’t think that’s the case. If my (outrageously unscientific) survey is any indication, my readership is overwhelmingly female. Why are most of my readers female but most of my commenters male?

I can’t speak to the gender of my visitors– because I never hear from most of you! –but I do wonder why there isn’t more participation. I get a fairly respectable amount of traffic– between 200 and 300 page views a day, with an average of 100 repeat visitors daily –but there are really only four or five people who ever comment. All of this makes me wonder whether my blog isn’t a source of amusement like watching a really bad film that’s so terrible you just can’t turn the channel, or like slowing down for a car accident. At any rate, what is it that promotes discussion on a blog and what is it that tends to promote lurkerdome? I’m not holding my breath expecting answers, though you’re always free to email me if you’re shy in public, you know.

Recently I mentioned that I have been reading Rabinow and Dreyfus’ excellent Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, and that it had been filling me with a tremendous depression and despondancy. I think that there are forms of theory that can make one ill by divesting one of their power to act, and for me Foucault’s thought– especially during his middle archaeological period –is an example of such toxic theory (Althusser’s account of ideology would be another example of toxic theory for me). My paralysis emerges in response to claims such as the following:

Far from accepting a descriptive theory [of epistemes or historical forms of knowledge], he [Foucault] seems to want a prescriptive one: “The analysis of statements and discursive formations… wishes to determine the principle according to which only the ‘signifying’ groups that were enunciated could appear. It sets out to establish a law of rarity” (Archaeology of Knowledge, 118). At times he seems to go so far as to demand not merely conditions of possibility but total determination: “One must show why [a specific statement] could not have been other than it was” (“Reponse au cercle d’epistemologie”, 17). The archeologist should discover “the play of rules which determine the appearance and disappearance of statements in a culture” (CE, 19). Again and again, Foucault seems compelled to abandon the phenomenological, neutral post hoc description for some sort of explanatory a priori. (84)

What is crushing in Foucault during this period is the manner in which every statement that can be made seems to always already be determined by the anonymous historical a priori in which it occurs. While I am perhaps able to make statements that don’t obey the “established laws of rarity”, these established laws nonetheless determine what is and is not taken as a serious statement. In the worst case scenerio, I’m not even capable of making non-serious statements, but instead can only articulate what follows these laws of rarity as my very subjectivity is a product of this historical a priori.

Although Foucault marks a substantial advance in seeing these constellations as historical, there are certain respects in which he nonetheless seems to remain tied to a substance metaphysics. As Kant articulates it in the first analogy of The Critique of Pure Reason or “The Principle of Persistence of Substance”, “All appearances contain that which persists (substance) as the object itself, and that which can change as its mere determination, i.e., a way in which the object exists” (A182, B224). What Kant is getting at can be illuminated by reference to Descartes’ discussion of the wax in the Meditations. There raising the question of how it is possible for us to know the persistence of an object in time (an epistemological variation of the problem of individuation), Descartes writes:

Let us now consider the commonest things, which are commonly believed to be the most distinctly known and the easiest of all to know, namely, the bodies which we touch and see. I do not intend to speak of bodies in general, for general notions are usually somewhat more confused; let us rather consider one body in particular. Let us take, for example, this bit of wax which has just been taken from the hive. It has not yet completely lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains something of the odor of the flowers from which it was collected; its color, shape, and size are apparent; it is hard and cold; it can easily be touched; and, if you knock on it, it will give out some sound. Thus everything which can make a body distinctly known are found in this example. (Lafleur translation, 30)

This might be referred to as the “bundle theory” of individuation, where I arrive at a knowledge of what individuates an object through the qualities of which it is composed (the epistemological problem of individuation should not be confused with the ontological problem of individuation). However, as we quickly see, this account of how we know the individuality of an object quickly fails:

But now while I’m talking I bring it close to the fire. What remains of the taste evaporates; the odor vanishes; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid; it gorws hot; one can hardly touch it; and although it is knocked upon, it will give out no sound. Does the same wax remain after the change? We must admit that it does; no one denies it, no one judges otherwise. What is it then in this bit of wax that we recognize with so much distinctness? Certainly it cannot be anything that I observed by means of the senses, since everything in the field of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and since the same wax nevertheless remains. (30, my italics)

Descartes concludes that we cannot know the individuality of an object through the five senses because the qualities of which the object is composed are perpetually changing, while the object nonetheless remains that object there. Something about the object remains the same. Descartes therefore concludes that,

A person who attempts to improve his understanding beyond the ordinary ought to be ashamed to go out of his way to criticize the forms of speech used by ordinary men. I prefer to pass over this matter and to consider whether I understand what wax was more evidently and more perfectly when I first noticed it and when I thought I knew it by means of the external sense, or at the very least by common sense, as it is called, or the imaginative faculty; or whether I conceive it better at present, after having more carefully examined what it is and how it can be known. Certainly it would be ridiculous to doubt the superiority of the latter method of knowing. For what was there in that first perception which was distinct and evident? What was there which might not occur similarly to the senses of the lowest of the animals? But when I distinguished the real wax from its superficial appearances, and when, just as though I had removed its garments, I consider it all naked, it is certain that although there might still be some error in my judgment, I could not conceive it in this fashion without a human mind. (32)

When Kant references “determinations”, he is referring to what Descartes calls “superficial appearances” or sense-qualities composing our perception of an object. An object, at any given point in time, comprises a number of different determinations. For instance, I have short brown hair and brown eyes, a goatee, am about 175 pounds and six feet tall, have skin that is a particular shade of olive, wear glasses, etc. These determinations comprise my qualitative appearance, yet could easily change. I could gain or lose weight. I could become pale or darker. My hair is slowly turning gray and I will get shorter as I age, and so on. Yet I am somehow the same. In order for me to be thinkable as enduring in time, I must be thought as a substance (hypokeimenon, a support the lies beneath) that remains the same throughout change.

Foucault, of course, is neither a Kantian or a Cartesian, yet when he describes the episteme governing what is seriously sayable in a particular historical moment, he seems to be referring to a sort of substance that supports variations in speech and discourse and persists throughout these variations. As I discussed yesterday with regard to Badiou’s ontology of multiplicity and the count-as-one, however, it becomes possible, after Badiou and Deleuze, to think the identity of something as the result of a series of operations, rather than as a substance lying beneath consistent multiplicities. That is, we must think the individuation of consistent multiplicities as an ongoing process without an underlying substance that remains the same. Perhaps these social organizations are far less rigid, deterministic, and unified than Foucault supposes. As John Law puts it in a nice little article on Actor-Network-Theory or ANT (with which I’m now just playing, and have not yet committed to),

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organisations or systems which we had always taken for granted — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois — are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay.

How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organisational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? These are some of the key questions of social science. And they are the questions that lie at the heart of “actor-network theory”– the approach to sociology that is the topic of this note. This theory — also known as the sociology of translation — is concerned with the mechanics of power. It suggests, in effect, that we should analyse the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth.

The ANT theorist begins from the premise that social organizations are improbable in that they come into being and pass away, and that we must look for the sufficient reason for the existence of an enduring organization in the micro-processes and activities through which an organization perpetually reproduces itself in maintaining its networks of existence. Or, put differently, how does a group come to “count itself as one”? That is, rather than looking at a mysterious entity called “statements” that determines social organizations at a particular point in history, why not look at networks of relationships among actors, such as a group of professors that form together at a particular university, determining who gets hired, selected for graduate school, what gets published, what conferences are organized, and so on. Moreover, we might look at the effect of material conditions and technology that impact the ability of various social organizations to maintain themselves. Organizations are possible today that were not possible fifteen years ago due to the internet. Certain formations would become impossible were the internet to somehow collapse due to some natural event like a shift in the planet’s gravitational fields. It is these activities that maintain the existence of a particular social configuration (for instance the primacy of analytic philosophy in the United States), and which are themselves liable to change. That is, the formation of a social system and organization– and here I am questioning Luhmann’s thesis that systems constitute their own elements, and instead hypothesizing a reciprocal determination where elements constitute systems and systems constitute element –is maintained and produced through the interactions of the elements of that system. This is something that can readily be discerned here in the blogosphere, where very diverse persons are brought together in an aleatory fashion and where networks and organizations emerge through the interactions of those participants.

For instance, I would have never thought to take the work of Philip Goodchild seriously– my copy of Deleuze and Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire is heavily marked up with angry comments pointing out various places where he severely distorts Deleuze and Guattari –and wouldn’t have even paid attention to his subsequent developments, had I not encountered Anthony Paul Smith for whom I have both a certain fondness and who irritates the hell out of me. Yet as a result of that encounter, I begin to take Goodchild seriously (while nonetheless disagreeing with him) as this is a precondition for for discussing Deleuze with Anthony (who is always going on about “liking how ecological Deleuze’s thought is). Indeed, Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith appear to be engaged in a sort of missionary work, spreading the signifiers Goodchild and “ecology” wherever they go, trying to push the reading of Deleuze in a certain direction. What results from the formation of these sorts of networks and interactions, is the production of a particular “standard reading” of Deleuze for a community of individuals that discuss Deleuze. This doesn’t entail that this reading is agreed with by all. What it does entail is that others have to take that reading seriously in order to engage in discussion. Yet the production of such communities– communities that share a sort of das Man or “everyone knows” or doxa or set of background assumptions and protocols –is the result of aleatory encounters between individuals that take on a life of their own and which, through relations of feedback, come to become self-reinforcing. The crucial point is that other networks can be formed. This, for instance, is readily discernible in the history of the psychoanalytic movement, where new organizations and “laws of rarity” emerge around certain figures such as Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, Lacan, and so on.

A speciation takes place, that transforms the entire field. The logic here is not the logic of deterministic epistemes, but rather a logic of the slime mold, where indeterminate elements that existed independently of one another can come to form bonds and self-organize into collectives, that then constitute the valence of their own elements. As Latour points out early in Reassembling the Social, identity is far more conflict ridden and indeterminate than social theorists often suppose.

Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties. Is this not odd? If we simply follow the newspapers’ cues, the central intuition of sociology should be that at any given moment actors are made to fit in a group– often in more than one. And yet, when you read social theorists, it seems that the main, the crucial, the most urgent question should be which group is preferable to start a social enquiry. Should we take social aggregates to be made of ‘individuals’, ‘of organizations’, of ‘classes’, of ‘roles’, of ‘life trajectories’, of ‘discursive fields’, of ‘selfish genes’, of ‘forms of life’, of ‘social networks’? They never seem to tire in designating one entity as real, solid, proven, or entrenched while others are criticized as being artificial, imaginary, transitional, illusory, abstract, impersonal, or meaningless…

While the most common experience we have of the social world is of being simultaneously seized by several possible and contradictory calls for regroupings, it seems the most important decision to make before becoming a social scientist is to decide first which ingredients are already there in society. While it is fairly obvious that we are enrolled in a group by a series of interventions that renders visible those who argue for the relevance of one grouping and the irrelevance of others, everything happens as if social scientists had to claim that there exists ‘out there’ one type that is real, whereas the other sets are really inauthentic, obsolete, irrelevant, or artificial. While we are well aware that the first feature of the social world is this constant tracing of boundaries by people over some other people, sociologists of the social consider that the main feature of the world is to recognize, independently of who is tracing them and with what sorts of tools, the unquestionable existence of boundaries. (28, my bold)

Groupings are always performatively enacted or the result of processes, whereby actors strive to form networks. They can be done and undone. They are the result of interactions among participants, and it is always possible for excluded participants to become missionaries after the fashion of Paul, seeking to produce a new furrow, that itself reorganizes the social. Yet none of these networks are ever formed without the activity of participants and acts of seduction.

Time Magazine has an article discussing how the administration plans to respond should Democrats retake Congress. An excerpt:

If lame-duck Presidents are to achieve anything, they often have to look for ways to go around Congress, especially when it is in the hands of the other party. Clinton used Executive Orders and his bully pulpit to encourage school uniforms, impose ergonomic rules on employers and prevent mining, logging and development on 60 million acres of public land. White House press secretary Tony Snow says Bush may take the same bypass around Capitol Hill. “He told all of us, ‘Put on your track shoes. We’re going to run to the finish,'” Snow said. “He’s going to be aggressive on a lot of fronts. He’s been calling all his Cabinet secretaries and telling them, ‘You tell me administratively everything you can do between now and the end of the presidency. I want to see your to-do list and how you expect to do it.’ We’re going to try to be as ambitious and bold as we can possibly be.”

In fact, when it comes to deploying its Executive power, which is dear to Bush’s understanding of the presidency, the President’s team has been planning for what one strategist describes as “a cataclysmic fight to the death” over the balance between Congress and the White House if confronted with congressional subpoenas it deems inappropriate. The strategist says the Bush team is “going to assert that power, and they’re going to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court on every issue, every time, no compromise, no discussion, no negotiation.

Not pretty.

Over at State Street, Lynn makes the following observation familiar to many of us on the “left”:

An interesting discussion at I Cite has focused issues with the upcoming election for me.

The upcoming election is a conundrum for me. I am one of the people who would like to see the Democratic Party move leftward rather than remain Bush Cult Lite. I do not see that happening. I do not predict any change should the Democrats win Congress this time around.

Note: I am always tempted to substitute conservative for Bush Cult, but accuracy dictates otherwise. Old style conservatives are beginning to recognize that the Bush Cult has replaced their ideology with crony capitalism and crony Christianity. If you are not in the Bush Cult, then you are a leftist of some sort. Welcome to the club William F. Buckley.

Democratic politicians belong to an opportunist party. Whatever the current political climate dictates as prudent political message becomes the prevailing ideological message for them. All too often, they succumb to communicating Bush Cult Lite messages. Those messages have helped lead us to the Iraq debacle and other fine messes.

There are no alternative third party candidates for whom I can vote. Does compromising one’s vote completely compromise one’s ideals? I just do not know.

I’ve been obsessing over this a good deal lately and right now I just don’t think there’s any other option, but to hold our nose and vote Democrat. However, I do think the left needs to do more work with material infrastructure in years to come. In recent years democratic political theorists have come to see the issue as one of messaging or how messages are conveyed. Hence we get theorists such as Lakoff and others telling us that we need to frame our messages correctly to change the political temperament.

While there’s something to this, I’ve increasingly come to feel that the issue is far more material than all of this. I confess, I admire the Christian right. This is not because I admire what they believe– I think it’s lunacy –but because I admire how they’ve managed to transform the country in the last 30 years, taking beliefs that were once seen as laughable and marginal and transforming them into mainstream beliefs. This is what I mean by “materiality”. It wasn’t that the Christian right produced a highly marketable message (though they became increasingly savvy with packaging over time), but because they waged a prolonged and concerted struggle to take over the channels of communication. They began with the churches. It didn’t matter if everyone in evangelical congregations agreed with them. If they could convince five people out of a hundred, these five people would also convince friends and family members and they would eventually be able to build their own congregations. As they drew in money from these newly formed congregations, they were able to build bigger and more impressive churches, that would draw people in by offering non-political services such as classes on how to invest money, child care, yoga classes, dances, and so on, providing a sanctuary from the alienation of contemporary life under capital. Gradually they were able to raise enough money to organize mass mailings to targeted democraphics and to start walking campaigns going from door to door. Again, they weren’t always successful, but if they could persuade five people out of a hundred they would also gain additional followers from family and friends who were also persuaded. Eventually they were able to amass enough money to start their own radio stations and make substantial contributions to politicians. This in turn placed leverage on newspapers and news-stations to report these points of view. Next thing you know, 30 years later, views that were once laughable are now acceptable and mainstream.

I think this sort of organized movement and slow conquest of the channels of communication is what is lacking on the left. Again and again I hear stories about people who volunteer with the DNC to make calls and cavas neighborhoods, only to never be called. Moreover, the left offers nothing comparable to the social services of the churches, giving people a sanctuary from the alienations of contemporary life under capital. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it doesn’t matter much whether or not it makes a sound. If a political group has a platform and it is never communicated beyond the confines of the inside members of that political group, then it might as well not exist. The blogosphere has already gone a long way towards overcoming this problem with blogs such as Americablog, Dailykos, MyDD, and so on. They’ve been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars for political candidates, thus forcing politicians to take their interests seriously. Moreover, they’ve been able to organize massive letter writing campaigns to news organizations, forcing these organizations to report on stories that would not otherwise be reported, thereby disseminating this political platform further throughout the population. Even if these campaigns have not always been victories, the very act of getting certain stories and issues reported is itself a victory as it forces the opposition to take these stories and issues into account and respond to them.

However, these democratic blogs are largely “right-wing” political platforms, not because they endorse an ultra-conservative ideology such as one might find over at Freerepublic, but because genuine emancipatory politics revolving around issues such as labor and the environment are almost entirely absent from these blogs. That is, democrats in the United States are themselves conservatives… They just happen to be more palatable and less dangerous conservatives than those among the Republicans. If political change is to take place in this country, there needs to be some organized activity getting the message out to the public. This requires contending with the channels of communication and not simply attending to the frames within which messages are conveyed. If the Christian Right can take a fringe interpretation of Christianity and make it a mainstream point of view in the space of 30 years, there’s no reason that the same cannot be done with a properly organized– and dare I say missionary –progressive political platform.

Yet another scathing article from Rolling Stone on how corrupt and incompotent the current bunch of nimrods are in the United States congress. No doubt the Republicans will somehow manage to turn it all around using demagoguery about how the local Walmart is saying “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas” and about homosexuals having equal rights under the law. Or maybe not. It’s too bad we don’t see articles like this from Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report. I post these things mostly for my European friends such as Orla, so that they might have a little context as to why I get so worked up– especially regarding fundamentalism in the United States –about certain issues and how they’ve effected the United States domestically and with regard to our foreign involvement. Yes, yes, I know that it is domestic politics and perhaps uninteresting outside America, but it is difficult to escape the impression that current American policies are significantly and adversely effecting the rest of the world… At least with regard to security, economic, and environmental issues. Or is this just American arrogance on my part?

Regardless of what one thinks about the specific claims of Badiou’s ontology, his use of set theory, his account of the event and the subject, his programmatic tone, and so on, it is my view that Badiou is nonetheless of tremendous value insofar as he clearly formulates the central ontological thesis that so much thought in our age is grappling with in an unconscious or non-explicit fashion. This thesis is formulated in non-set theoretical terms in the first meditation of Being and Event. There Badiou observes that,

Since its Parmenidean organization, ontology has built the portico of its ruined temple out of the following experience: what presents itself is essentially multiple; what presents itself is essentially one. The reciprocity of the one and being is certainly the inaugural axiom of philosophy– Leibniz’s formulation is excellent; ‘What is not a being is not a being‘– yet it is also its impasse; an impasse in which the revoling doors of Plato’s Paremenides introduce us to the singular joy of never seeing the moment of conclusion arrive. For if being is one, then one must posit that what is not one, the multiple, is not. But this is unacceptable for thought, because what is present is multiple and one cannot see how there could be an access to being outside all presentation. If presentation is not, does it still make sense to designate what presents (itself) as being? On the other hand, if presentation is, then the multiple necessarily is. It follows that being is no longer reciprocal with the one and thus it is no longer necessary to consider as one what presents itself, inasmuch as it is. This conclusion is equally unacceptable to thought because presentation is only this multiple inasmuch as what it presents can be counted as one; and so on. (23)

This deadlock can be discerned everywhere in the history of philosophy, if only one has eyes to see it. It appears first in Parmenides, where the world of entities or beings disappears insofar as being is and non-being is not, leading necessarily to the conclusion that other beings must not be as we would then have to say what this being is not, thereby reintroducing non-being back into being. Further, it is found in every dialectic of the whole and its parts, whether we’re speaking of Plotinus, Spinoza and Whitehead, or the object as a whole composed of distinct qualitative parts, as discussed by Hegel in his account of perception and understanding in The Phenomenology of Spirit, or Husserl in his phenomenological analyses of how a being can both be composed of profiles and horizons and be one.

It would thus appear that treating being and the One as reciprocal and interdependent predicates necessarily leads to irresolvable aporia. Consequently, Badiou argues that we must make a decision to de-suture being from the One, thinking it instead as multiplicity qua multiplicity:

This decision can take no other form than the following: the one is not. It is not a question, however, of abandoning the principle Lacan assigned to the symbolic; that there is Oneness. Everything turns on mastering the gap between the presupposition (that must be rejected) of a being of the one and the thesis of its ‘there is’. What could there be, which is not? (23)

The consequence that follows from this is that being is to be conceived as pure multiplicity and that the one is to be seen as a result or an effect. As Badiou puts it,

What has to be declared is that the one, which is not, solely exists as operation. In other words: there is no one, only the count-as-one. The one being an operation, is never a presentation. It should be taken quite seriously that the ‘one’ is a number… Does this mean that being is not multiple either? Strictly speaking, yes, because being is only multiple inasmuch as it occurs in presentation.

In sum: the multiple is the regime of presentation; the one, in respect to presentation, is an operational result; being is what presents (itself). On this basis, being is neither one (because only presentation itself is pretinant to the count-as-one), nor multiple (because the multiple is solely the regime of presentation).

Let us fix the terminology: I term situation any presented multiplicity. Granted the effectiveness of the presentation, a situation is the place of taking-place, whatever the terms of the multiplicity in question. Every situation admits its own particular operator of the count-as-one. This is the most general definition of a structure; it is what prescribes, for a presented multiple, the regime of its count-as-one.

A structure allows number to occur within the presented multiple. Does this mean that the multiple, as a figure of presentation, is not ‘yet’ a number? One must not forget that every situation is structured. The multiple is retroactively legible therein as anterior to the one, insofar as the count-as-one is always a result. The fact that the one is an operation allows us to say that the domain of the operation is not one (for the one is not), and that therefore this domain is multiple; since, within presentation, what is not one is necessarily multiple. In other words, the count-as-one (the structure) installs the universal pertinence of the one/multiple couple for any situation. (24)

I quote this passage in full because it so nicely elaborates Badiou’s basic argument and the basic structure of his metaphysics. When speaking of being qua being we are invited to think pure multiplicity without any other predicates. This holds regardless of whether we are speaking about objects treated as unities or ones, systems, the universe, and so on. That is, it holds for the predicates of unity, wholeness, and identity.

…[I]f an ontology is possible, that is, a presentation of presentation, then it is the situation of the pure multiple, of the multiple ‘in-itself’. To be more exact; ontology can be solely the theory of inconsistent multiplicities as such. ‘As such’ means that what is presented in the ontological situation is the multiple without any other predicate than its multiplicity. Ontology, insofar as it exists, must necessarily be the science of the multiple qua multiple. (28)

If these multiplicities must be conceived as inconsistent multiplicities, then this is because being, prior to the operation of the count-as-one, is without structure or any ordering operations. It is only through the operations of the count-as-one that being takes on structure and comes to consist of consistent multiplicities. Yet this pure multiplicity can only be grasped retroactively, for experience presents us with nothing but structured presentations– objects, things, happenings, persons, animals, and so on –that are “counted-as-one”. That is, multiplicity is thinkable without being presentable, and inconsistent multiplicity is not a phenomenological datum or a truth of experience, but an axiom of thought from which we begin. Just as Parmenides begins from the axiom that being is one and proceeds from there (and is followed in this by much of the philosophical tradition), Badiou asks us to begin from the premise that being is inconsistent multiplicity.

I am happy to follow Badiou in this axiom as I believe it is the central axiom of that episteme characterizing contemporary thought. Whether we are speaking of Heideggerian ontological difference, Derridean differance and dissemination, Deleuzian different/ciation, dynamic systems theory, Foucaultian archaeology and genealogy, or Lyotardian discourse analysis and differends, and so on, the thought of our time begins with the premise that being is difference or multiplicity, or that the one (whether in the form of wholes, substances, or entities) is an effect or result. The advantage of Badiou’s formulation is that it 1) clearly articulates the aporia that leads to this move in the most abstract and formal terms possible (we do not get caught up in the intricacies of careful deconstructive analysis of texts or in an analysis of lived experience; not that this is without merit), and 2) it indicates the problem posed to thought by this gesture: How is it possible to produce a consistent multiplicity out of inconsistent multiplicity? Or, put differently, “how does being one?”– here “to one” must be treated as a verb; one might even speaking of “one-ing”. Again, the advantage of Badiou is the sheer abstractness– I would call it concreteness –with which he poses this question.

My aim is not to follow Badiou in answering this question. He seems to give very little in the way of a satisfactory answer to this particular question as he is more intent on showing how being can be thought as pure inconsistent multiplicity via the resources of set theory, and clearing a space where that which is not-being-qua-being, or the event, might be articulated. While it is certainly true that his most recent work, Logiques des mondes, is designed to account for being-there or appearing (the “one-ing” of being), Badiou’s discussion of Dasein here strikes me as disappointing as it is primarily descriptive of consistent multiplicities, without giving us an account of how the operations that produce Dasein operate.

It is clear that the operations operating in the production of beings pertually withdraw from view, as we are always left with the result of these operations and are never before the operations themselves. It is in this sense that the world of situations presents us with a sort of transcendental illusion, in that we take the results or effects to be being itself, rather than discerning them as products of operations from pure multiplicity. As such, we continuously fall into various versions of substance metaphysics. But what are these curious operators that preside over the count-as-one? What is the operation by which one-ing takes place? Badiou appears to follow Lacan when he claims that one-ing is the work of the symbolic. This point seems confirmed in Logiques des mondes when Badiou declares that Il n’y a que des corps et des langages, there are only bodies and languages. Yet this solution strikes me as unacceptable as there are many consistent multiplicities that are not simply cultural or symbolic. Moreover, the operators of the count-as-one cannot be minds or subjects, as there are consistent multiplicities or beings that do not depend on minds. So what then are these mysterious operators? Can we conceive of operations without operators (as I think we should, lest we fall back into humanism)? And is the gulf between inconsistent multiplicity and consistent multiplicity too great to ever explain how it is possible for pure multiplicity to produce anything like an organized situation? Is it enough to restrict the predicates of being to pure multiplicity, or must we hypothesize additional predicates to account for one-ing? These are the questions I am asking. I am indebted to Badiou for having provided a clear framework for posing them. But I am not at all sure of the solutions that he proposes, which is precisely why I frolick so easily with Deleuze and others, without being very perturbed by their various disputes with Badiou.

The last week has seen me depressed, despondant, and generally exhausted. Perhaps I’ve just been drowning under too much grading lately, or perhaps this emerged from reading Dreyfus and Rabinow’s Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Somehow I find Foucault’s thesis that only certain things are sayable at any given point in history to be crushing, even if I find myself agreeing with many of the claims that he makes. What hope can there possibly be if we are dominated by social forces in this way? In this context, I was pleased to come across Bruno Latour’s newest, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, which also references John Law’s website on Actor-Network-Theory. What I find appealing in Latour’s latest work is his emphasis on the continous formation and collapse of various groups, coupled with the contentious nature of group formations in general. Here I find a far more fluid and open notion of the “social”– Latour contests the idea that the social is a substance or matter independent of those who enter into connections –that promises to resituate how certain questions are asked in social and political theory. In short, Latour presents a performative conception of the social, immanent to the activity of agents, that resonates nicely with Zizek’s observation that the symbolic sustains itself only in and through our belief in the symbolic. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about this later.

Courtesy of Infinite Thought.

A treasure trove of articles on Alain Badiou.

The universe is the flower of rhetoric.
~Jacques Lacan

The philosopher is expert in concepts and in the lack of them. He knows which of them are not viable, which are arbitrary or inconsistent, which ones do not hold up for an instant. On the other hand, he also knows which are well formed and attest to a creation, however disturbing or dangerous it may be.
~Deleuze and Guattari

[T]he following definition of philosophy can be taken as being decisive: knowledge through pure concepts. But there is no reason to oppose knowledge through concepts and the construction of concepts within possible experience on the one hand and through intuition on the other. For, according to the Nietzschean verdict, you will know nothing through concepts unless you first created them– that is, constructed them in an intuition specific to them: a field, a plane, and a ground that must not be confused with them but that shelters their seeds and the personae who cultivates them. Constructivism requires every creation to be a construction on a plane that gives it an autonomous existence.
~Deleuze and Guattari

Citing the old cliche, for me revolutions are first revolutions in thought, for it is in thought that what is and what is not is transformed. I am not sure what it is that brings one to philosophy or makes one a philosopher, or whether I am even a philosopher. I suspect that at some point in one’s life the world has to fall apart and cease to signify “naturally” as it should in a state of habit. Maybe it makes me a mystic to say something like this, but I can’t help but feeling that we have to have an encounter with chaos, a sort of pure experience of formlessness where everything that is obvious falls away and is lost, and we are no longer sure how things signify and where nothing quite makes sense. Perhaps this is why I admire Descartes and Husserl, while nonetheless disliking their conclusions. I had something like this experience growing up. I moved around a great deal throughout the country, and found myself thrown into one system of customs after another, having to rebuild myself again and again. My father enjoyed perpetually changing rules from moment to moment, such that there was very little that was stable or reliable. Our home sometimes seemed like Lewis Carroll’s ideal game. And later on I would produce this experience phenomenologically in a concerted and intentional fashion, by following the line of thought traced by Sartre in the opening pages of The Transcendence of Ego, the first chapter of Bergson’s Matter and Memory where everything is just fleeting images or impressions in movement, and late Husserl’s concept of “hyletic flux”, always “de-constructing” my body and impressions of the world to reach a sort of buzzing confusion behind the structured interpretations of the world about myself or a field of pure sensations that popped in and out of existence. You could say I would “de-relate” each impression I experienced, trying to experience my body not as a continous, organized surface, but as a series of disparate sensations unconnected to one another, and striving to do the same with my experience of objects in the world. It was a frightening time, leading to inane questions like “why do I believe the walls are white when they’re covered by shimmering shadows that are constantly changing?”, or “are objects really substantial, or are there just differentials of speed defining relations of hardness and and softness, substantiality and insubstantiality.” I would stay awake for nights, challenging my sensory-perception and cognitive-processing systems, just so that I might see how the world looked in a state of complete fatigue. It would occur to me that my assumptions about causality, three-dimensionality, the interiority of the Other, significance, and so on and so on were not given, and that other orderings of the world are possible, like Foucault’s mad taxonomy at the beginning of The Order of Things.

I’m developmentalist in my temperament through and through. That is, I believe that our sense of the world, body, and others is a product of aleatory developmental processes, and not something that is hard-wired or within us by nature. This is why I am fascinated by questions of individuation and why I begin with the premise that the “multiverse” or being is multiplicity without one. That’s why I like Pollack, even though I really dislike him. Oh sure, most of us develop in such a way that we live in a world populated by objects or things. But what is an object? What is a thing? We tend to think of a thing as something that is there, in itself. But don’t bodies and objects emerge in a reciprocal relation within one another, don’t they co-develop? Husserl argues that all objects have a horizon, an internal horizon and an external horizon. No one reads Husserl, he’s a terrible stylist, but he’s really worth reading. The internal horizon of an object is the relation what is present in the object to me, shares to what is absent in that object. For instance, the other side of my computer monitor that I do not now see. The external horizon is the relation that an object shares to the rest of the world, to its background, to other objects related to it.

In Principle Doctrines, Epicurus writes:

If our dread of the phenomena above us, our fear lest death concern us, and our inability to discern the limits of pains and desires were not vexations to us, we would have no need of the natural sciences. It is not possible for one to rid himself of his fears about the most important things if he does not understand the nature of the universe but dreads some of the things he has learned in the myths. Therefore, it is not possible to gain unmixed happiness without natural science. It is of no avail to prepare security against other men while things above us and beneath the earth and in the whole infinite universe in general are still dreaded. (XI-XIII)

Epicurus is here calling for a conceptual revolution, or a transformation in how we experience objects and events. That is, there is one person that sees natural events and is immediately led to the conclusion that they are dark omens from the gods. A solar eclipse occurs, an earthquake, a tsunami, a comet flies across the sky, and we are filled with dread as we contemplate these things as they are indicators that the apocalypse is about to occur, that there will be a plague, or that a city will be smitten. Sometimes I receive student papers that try to dismiss Epicurus by saying that he lived in ancient times and these things are no longer true of us today; yet when a solar eclipse occured just a few years ago, significant portions of the global population refused to leave their homes in belief that this was a dark omen. No doubt some of this has to do with the fact that Revelations prophecies that the sun will darken when the apocalypse is about to occur.

Now, there is nothing in the experience of a solar eclipse itself to suggest this conclusion, save perhaps that they are relatively infrequent. No, in order for this judgment to be made it is necessary that there already be an entire external horizon to events such as this that links these events to a field of meaning, leading us to conclude that they are dark omens from the gods. I must already “live” in a universe populated by gods, where certain unusual events are understood to be signs addressed to humans, signifying favor or disfavor. Nor is there anything in what is given itself to suggest that we should approach natural events such as eclipses in terms of cause and effect relationships. No, in order to encounter the world in this way, I must undergo a conceptual revolution. Or rather, I must, following Deleuze, transform my experience of how the given is given as given (DR, 222). That is, concepts propose relations between background and foreground, events and their horizons. Or again, as Deleuze and Guattari so sexily put it,

The plane of immanence is like a section of chaos and acts like a sieve. In fact, chaos is characterized less by the absence of determination than by the infinite speed with which they take shape and vanish… Chaos is not an inert or stationary state, nor is it a chance mixture. Chaos makes chaotic and undoes every consistency in the infinite. The problem of philosophy is to acquire a consistency without losing the infinite into which thought plunges (in this respect chaos has as much a mental as a physical existence). To give consistency without losing anything of the infinite is very different from the problem of science, which seeks to provide chaos with reference points, on condition of renouncing infinite movements and speeds and of carrying out a limitation of speed first of all… The concepts can then mark out the intensive ordinates of these infinite movements, as movements which are themselves finite which form, at infinite speed, variable contours inscribed on the plane. By making a section of chaos, the plane of immanence requires a creation of concepts. (WiP, 42)

Aristotle selects a section of chaos when he names four arche, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause. Would we have thought to examine the buzzing confusion of the world, the chaos of the world, without this section of chaos being brought into relief? And on the basis of this selection, Aristotle was able to discover something new: the monster, or that being that violates the relationship between formal and final causes for natural beings. Later Darwin would turn the monster into a way of overturning formal and final causes. Freud takes a selection from chaos when he affirms, following Leibniz, that everything has a reason, at applies this to the parapraxes or the slip of the tongue. By virtue of the concept of parapraxes, I am now able to discern a horizon of meaning and desire in the bungled action and symptom. And this concept itself will generate its own conditions of falsification and growth, later generating the concept of death drive to account for those symptoms that do not resolve themselves through interpretation. With thinkers like Ranciere, Mouffe, Laclau, Balibar, Badiou, and Zizek, we now have a concept of the political, of the political as that which cannot simply be equated with dynamics of power. Yet another cut in chaos, allowing us to discern what was not discerned before. And so it goes. With each slice of chaos a new object is produced, and with each new object produced a new receptivity or intuition occurs. Would I have been able to read Raymond Roussel, were it not for the invention of the concept of the signifier? Is it possible to discern the existence of a new people if we do not first invent the concept of that people? Were there any nomads before Deleuze and Guattari first said “nomad”? Were there any militants prior to Badiou naming militants? Perhaps they have not arrived yet, but the very naming of them makes them yet to come.

A concept always posits a world, bodies, subjects, and new objects, attaching each of these to a unique horizon that autopoietically generates its own knowledge on the basis of the distinctions drawn. And if I find myself so hostile to those who declare the end of theory today, then this is because I see those who make this declaration calling for concepts to be replaced by commonplaces, by a form of thought that doesn’t allow itself to undergo the torsions and destitutions that occur through the production of concepts, but instead affirm the bits of “common sense” that float around in discourse like so many truisms. The objects that we discern in their specific sense, the experiences that we have, the actions of which we are capable, the depth of our love… All of these things shall be a function of the concepts that possess and animate us. And here we must speak of possession in the full Catholic sense of the term, in the sense of The Exorcist, for it is not we who forge concepts, but rather we who are forged by our concepts.

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