October 2006


In a previous post (Virtual Ideas– Problems and Multiplicities) I suggested that Deleuze’s account of problematic ideas or the virtual shares far more in common with Plato’s conception of the forms or Ideas (eidos) than the empiricist conception of ideas as mental entities. The point here was not to claim that for Deleuze Ideas are forms after the fashion of Plato, but to underline that Ideas must not be conceived as mental entities, but as an ontological category presiding over the actualization of entities. Although Deleuze will later give up his language of “Ideas”, this concept will nonetheless persist under the title of “multiplicity” until the end of his work. However, with that said, it becomes necessary to distinguish Deleuze’s account of Ideas from Ideas of the Platonic variety and explain what philosophical or ontological work they’re doing.

In book six of The Republic, Plato remarks,

Let me remind you of the distinction we drew earlier and have often drawn on other occasions, between the multiplicity of things that we call good or beautiful or whatever it may be and, on the other hand, Goodness itself or Beauty itself and so on. Corresponding to each of these sets of many things, we postulate a single Form or real essence, as we call it… Further, the many things, we say, can be seen, but are not objects of rational thought; whereas the Forms are objects of thought, but invisible. (507a-c)

Plato’s motivation for positing the existence of Forms or Ideas is clear enough: On the one hand, the world that we see about us consists of objects that are constantly changing. Things come to be and pass away. If the criteria for rationality and truth lies in identity, then this entails that physical objects cannot be the objects of truth as they are unable to meet this criteria. On the other hand, to know is not to know this particular object, but the pattern or structure that underlies that object. Suppose that there were a form for gravity. I do not know what gravity is when I know that this or that object falls, but rather have a knowledge of gravity when I know the law governing all instances of gravity. From the standpoint of ordinary perceptual experience, phenomena such as a falling feather, a shooting cannonball, the manner in which I stay tied to the ground, and the movement of the planets all might appear highly unrelated to one another. After all, what could the graceful descent of a feather or a leaf have to do with the movement of the planets, and doesn’t the flight of an airplane or bird violate the principle of gravity? It is only when I move beyond the appearances that I am able to discern the common essence shared by all of these phenomena. The first step in any science is a step back from appearances and perception. Plato is making a similar claim with regard to phenomena such as justice. To know justice is to know that pattern or form common to all instances of justice. Like gravity, there might be examples of justice that seem to share nothing in common with other instances of justice. It is only when I know the form, that I am able to discern these relationships.

Unfortunately, Plato is unable to explain what individual entities contribute to being, if, indeed, they contribute anything at all. For Plato the true beings and objects of knowledge are the forms, not objects or entities in the world. The aim of philosophy, argues Plato, is to turn away to the world of the forms altogether, to purify our souls, so that we might re-unite with the forms themselves, as appearances or physical objects are not the true objects of our desire, but lures for our desire. For instance, in The Symposium Plato will argue that what I desire in the beloved is not the beloved himself, but rather the form of beauty itself. The beloved awakens me to the form of beauty, but if I am wise I will recognize that what I desire is this form, not the person. For Plato there is thus a strong separation between forms and objects. Objects participate in forms, but forms exist independently of objects. Even if all human beings ceased to exist in the world of appearances, the form “Humanity itself” would continue to exist and what is most important would not have been lost (as the form of humanity was the true reality anyway).

In addition to this peculiar separation between form and reality, the doctrine of the forms seems to lead to paradox as well. Plato examines this paradox, which appears to be an early version of Russell’s paradox, in the Parmenides, and it’s been suggested that he later abandons the theory of the forms altogether (for instance, the forms do not appear in Plato’s late work The Laws). A form is basically defined as those features that is common to a set of entities of a particular type. In an argument popularly known as the “third man argument“, we can posit for the set of all entities characterized as “human”, there corresponds a form defined as the “Human itself”. Now, once we posit the existence of this form we can ask whether this form has the characteristic of being human or not. If we answer yes, then we must say that there is an additional form known as “Human-2” that would be the form corresponding to the set of all entities that are humans and the form of that set. But now we need to ask whether the form “Human-2” has the characteristic of being human. If we say yes, we must posit a third form entitled “Human-3”, and so on. That is, the doctrine of the forms seems to lead us into an infinite regress. By contrast, if we say that the form of “human” doesn’t have the characteristic of being human, then it is difficult to see how it relates to the set of entities characterized as human, and the explanatory power of the doctrine of the forms collapses.

There are thus three questions on the table: 1) How is it possible to overcome the transcendence of the forms, which renders the value of all objects null and void (this Platonic heritage will culminate in Kant who argues that “being is not a real predicate”), 2) what do individuals contribute to being, and 3) how is it possible to overcome the third man argument? Deleuze’s strategy is to treat objects as symptoms and Ideas not as essences or forms guaranteeing the identity of objects, but rather as generative matrices or problems presiding over the actualization of objects. Regarding the first point, Deleuze will say, in Nietzsche and Philosophy, that:

We will never find the sense of something (of a human, a biological or even a physical phenomenon) if we do not know the force which appropriates the thing, which exploits it, which takes possession of it or is expressed in it. A phenomenon is not an appearance or even an apparition but a sign, a symptom which finds its meaning in an existing force. The whole of philosophy is a symptomology, and a semeiology. (3)

All individuals that exist are, for Deleuze, symptoms. Symptoms of what? Of the forces that take possession of them. But what are these forces? These forces are what Deleuze will refer to in Difference and Repetition as “Ideas”, “Multiplicities”, “Problems”, or differentials. As Deleuze will write in Nietzsche and Philosophy,

Forces in relation reflect a simultaneous double genesis: the reciprocal genesis of their difference in quantity and the absolute genesis of their respective qualities. The will to power is thus added to force, but as the differential and genetic element, as the internal element of production. It is in no way anthropomorphic. More precisely, it is added to force as the internal principle of the determination of its quality in a relation (x + dx) and as the internal principle of the quantitative determination of this relation itself (dy/dx). (51)

Now, it’s worth pausing here for a moment and noting that the sign of difference– dy/dx –derives from differential calculus (a point that will be confirmed explicitly in Difference and Repetition). This is incredibly significant with regard to Plato. As I observed above, Plato argues that the world of physical objects is irrational and unthinkable because it is constantly changing and therefore fails to obey the law of identity required for something to be thinkable. However, with the emergence of calculus, everything changes, for what we have in differential calculus is the mathamatics of instantaneous rates of change of quantities with respect to other quantities. This, I think, is one of the most significant contributions of Deleuze’s account of the virtual. Where historically it has been impossible to think change, with the invention of calculus, change now becomes thinkable. On the basis of this move, it is no longer necessary to posit an identity transcendent to the ever changing object (a substance underlying changing predicates such as we find in Descartes’ famous wax example from the second meditation, or Kant’s first analogy in The Critique of Pure Reason), but rather the continuous differing of the object from itself becomes thinkable as a unity of difference. Elsewhere, in his book on Leibniz, Deleuze will refer to the object as “objectile”, which is a sort of portmanteau word combining “object” and “projectile”, inviting us to think the individual not as a substance that underlies change, but as an unfolding event tracing a trajectory through the world. The object is now thought as identical to its becoming. All objects become events or happenings.

Nor need we presuppose a prior identity to beings at all, but it now becomes possible to see them as emerging from difference itself and of being differentiated as a result of a process of integrating a solution to the differentials of which they are a symptom. This allows us to be done with the concept of models which objects are understood to more or less approximate, once and for all. For instance, in Aristotle all objects are measured against how closely they actualize their formal-final cause, such that he must formulate the category of “monster” to cover those entities that seem to approximate no formal-natural cause (such as deformed animals). In Deleuze, by contrast, these entities are a solution to a particular differential field. It is in this regard that Deleuze refers to objects as solutions to a problem.

However, as Deleuze is careful to point out in Difference and Repetition, problems are neither negative, nor do they disappear with their solutions. For every object that we encounter we are invited to ask “what problem is this object a symptom of? or what set of genetic conditions generate an object in this way?” In this regard, individuals are to be thought as inhabiting a differential field to which they share no resemblance, of which they are the integration and solution. In this way, Deleuze is able to claim that his ontology captures the singularity of existence itself, of this thing here, now, in this place. Existence is a real predicate and is always a unique creation within being. Deleuze provides a beautiful example of this in Difference and Repetition. Early in the text, Deleuze remarks that,

Learning takes place not in the relation between a representation and an action (reproduction of the Same) but in the relation between a sign and a response (encounter with the Other). Signs involve heterogeneity in at least three ways: first, in the object which bears or emits them, and is necessarily on a different level, as though there were two orders of size or disparate realities between which the sign flashes; secondly, in themselves, since a sign envelops another ‘object’ within the limits of the object which bears it, and incarnates a natural or spiritual power (an Idea); finally, in the response they elicit, since the movement of the response does not ‘resemble’ that of the sign. The movement of a swimmer does not resemble that of the wave, in particular, the movemens of the swuimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in the practice as signs. That is why it is so difficult to say how someone learns: there is an innate or acquired practical familiarity with signs, which means that there is something amorous– but also something fatal –about all education. (22-23)

By sign, Deleuze appears to be referring to the systems-theoretical concept of irritation, whereas by “signal” he appears to be referring to the concept of information whereby an irritation is transformed into information for a particular system. Expanding on this idea much later, Deleuze goes on to say,

In fact, the Idea is not the element of knowledge but that of an infinite ‘learning’, which is of a different nature of knowledge. For learning evolves entirely in the comprehension of problems as such, in the apprehension and condensation of singularities and in the composition of ideal events and bodies. Learning to swim or learning a foreign language means composing the singular points of one’s own body or one’s own language with those of another shape or element, which tears us apart but also propels us into a hitherto unknown and unheard-of world of problems. (192)

There is a profound theory of pedagogy or learning to be found throughout all of Deleuze’s work, that he sets in opposition to the tradition of epistemology or knowledge. I wish American legislators would take this theory of learning into account in designing curriculum in the United States, as it’s clear that they take learning to be “memorization of the same”. All knowledge, for Deleuze, is a solution to a particular problematic or differential field. The problem, multiplicity, Idea, or “differentiation”, in this example consists in the differential relations among singular points between the body and the waves. It is this that Deleuze refers to as the “virtual”. It will be observed that these are literally “no-thing”. Nor do the singular points of the waves or the
body resemble the actualized, differenCiated activity of swimming. Finally, there is nothing negative in this “problem” that disappears once the problem is “solved”, but rather the problem persists each time the person swims as the positive genetic condition of these movements. Solving is an ongoing and endless activity, such that the problem never disappears once and for all (Deleuze draws profound inspiration from Kant’s account of “regulative ideas” in formulating this positive conception of problems). My grandfather, for instance, has a very peculiar walk. If I did not adopt Deleuze’s theory of actualization or individualization, then I might seek to examine his body to see what is wrong with him physiologically after he’s dead, just as a neuropsychologist seeks to look at the brain or genetics of a person alone to understand something like depression, ignoring ecological considerations. However, being aware that my grandfather spent a good deal of his life at sea, I discover that his form of movement is a solution to the virtual differential field defined by the relation of the singular points pertaining to the body and the rocking of a ship from waves. His movement solves this problem and allows him to stand upright as he walks to and fro on the deck of his ships, while I am cast about left and right and sometimes fall down when I walk about on these ships. Similarly, in the case of swimming, one’s style of swimming (the actualized individual) will differ depending on the field or environment in which one learns how to swim. The individual style that integrates the relation of the body to the flows of the water in a swimming pool will be different from the individual style of a California surfer who has to deal with heavy ocean currents and crashing waves. Deleuze is thus able to show how Ideas are the genetic conditions of certain actualized individuals and how the actualized individual is the only possible actualization of this particular problematic field. In short, we dispense with all models saying how an individual should do things, and instead look at the problematic field to which an actualization responds. The individual is no longer secondary or something to be gotten beyond. Nor, finally, is Deleuze’s account of actualization restricted to cognition. Just as the particular movements I employ in swimming refer back to a problematic field or Idea to which they are a solution, the rock outside, the clouds, the trees, the earth, are all integrations of a set of differentials that “solve” a problem that persists. Insofar as each solution generates further differential relations, it follows that there are always new problems to be solved and integrated, and thus new actualizations. We must integrate even our own actualizations. All of this brings about significant transformations in how we study the world, pose ethical questions, pose political questions, and understand the relationship between aesthetics and ontology.

I had hoped to give a more precise account of differentiation and how it differs from differencitation, but hopefully this is a good start.

Caput Mortuum has a very nice post on Chantel Mouffe’s latest, On the Political. This post is of particular interest as it focuses on Mouffe’s critique of Negri and Hardt (which strikes me as hitting the heart of the matter, pardon the pun). The post ends with the ten million dollar question:

But I come away wondering how this democratic version can escape the capitalist model. There may well be other enlightenments, other histories beyond the rise of capitalism, other concepts of human rights that may or may not be in the service of specific geopolitical or economic interests, but am I reductive in wanting some more specific examples here? Mouffe says, “It is not in our power to eliminate conflicts and escape our human condition, but it is in our power to create the practices, discourses and institutions that would allow those conflicts to take an agonistic form.” But what are those practices? Why is this appeal to agonistic pluralism any less a utopian dream?

Returning to my earlier post, “I See Dead People“, is there a way of viewing these micro-struggles as obsessional activities designed to avoid confronting the real of our situation: capital?

Occasionally I’ve been questioned as to why I’m concerned about the emergence of Christian Nationalism in the United States. The most idiotic remark, in this vein, was the observation that fundamentalism is only growing in the United States and the Middle East, while religious belief everywhere else has been on decline, so I really shouldn’t worry about these things (this came from one of my European friends here on Larval Subjects). Well gee, thanks, this does me a lot of good if I live everywhere else, but I don’t see how it does me much good living here. Perhaps the person who made this comment would like to find me a nice teaching position in Europe so I wouldn’t have to worry about these things. Padraig from the brilliant subject-barred ($), who hails from Ireland I might add (apparently word of this small college has travelled far and wide), has been kind enough to track down a number of links on Patrick Henry College that are cause for concern.

No, what makes Patrick Henry unique is the increasingly close – critics say alarmingly close – links this recently established, right-wing Christian college has with the Bush administration and the Republican establishment as a whole. This spring, of the almost 100 interns working in the White House, seven are from Patrick Henry. Another intern works for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, while another works for President George Bush’s senior political adviser, Karl Rove. Yet another works for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Over the past four years, 22 conservative members of Congress have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns. Janet Ashcroft, the wife of Bush’s Bible-thumping Attorney General, is one of the college’s trustees.

These are astonishing, eye-popping numbers. Now I have no axe to grind with Christians. I earned my doctorate from a Jesuit institution. I would argue late into the evening with evangelical and Catholic friends about the finer points of scripture and the teachings of Jesus. My mother is a devout Catholic and my father a Southern Baptist. They decided to split the difference and raised me Episcopal. I even enjoy a good high Catholic service. I’ve always thought atheism consisted in the freedom to be done with religion, to no longer even talk about religion, not in the activity of sitting around trying to persuade others of the folly of their religious views. Yet when I do find myself talking about religion it’s usually defending religion, much to my dismay and confusion, not attacking it. My friend Jeff, in graduate school, who was home schooled and Baptist, would sometime tell me that I should be a minister due to how I talked about scripture. I suspect he did this to irritate me, but such is the nature of transference with regard to those whom we love. We become what we think they want us to be. Jeff also became a bit of an atheist.

But these groups are a different breed altogether, and it’s worthwhile to know what it is that they believe as they are currently being groomed for extremely powerful positions that will not only have a tremendous impact on domestic policy in the United States, but on U.S. foreign policy is well. Do we really want people leading the United States who believe the apocalypse is immanent (thereby undermining any need to change environmental policies that effect the rest of the world) and who believe these events will unfold in a conflict between the Middle East and the United States (thereby encouraging “statesmen” to promote conflict with foreign countries rather than avoiding it)? The articles can be found here and here and here and here and here. Thanks for the hard work Padraig!

At the broadest level, interactivism involves a commitment to a strict naturalism. By naturalism is meant (roughly) a regulative assumption that reality is integrated; that there is no isolatable and independent grounds of reality, such as would be the case of the world were made of Cartesian substances; that there is no ultimate barrier to further questioning and potential understanding, such as would be the case if the world were made of Empedoclean earth, air, fire, and water. In such a case, for example, (as well as for the Cartesian version of a substance metaphysics) it would not make sense to ask Where does earth come from? or Why is water stable? Such basic substances are the limits of understanding. The grounds for naturalism are at least two-fold: 1) the history of science seems to show that there are no such barriers to further understanding– we now have naturalic understandings of, for example, fire, heat, life, magnetism, and so on –and 2) the assumption of any such barriers at this point would itself be without warrant and a pointless obstruction to investigation.

Closely related to this naturalism is a process metaphysics: the fundamental nature of the world is organizations of processes. Again, there are several grounds for this:

  1. the history of science involves a progressive replacement of substance models with process models– e.g., phlogiston with combustion, caloric with thermal heat, vital fluid with self maintaining and self reproducing organizations of processes, and so on–
  2. Our best science tells us that there are no particles, only processes of quantum fields,

Read them here.

Interactivism: A Manifest, Process and Emergence, and The Social Ontology of Persons look particularly interesting.

We shouldn’t think of the police order only as some institution. I don’t think that the police order is the same as the police with their batons. I think it’s too easy to say that the media is the police, that it is a big machine. The police order is not only a Big Brother, it is a kind of distribution of what is given to our experience, of what we can do. We don’t need a Big Brother like Fox News. I think the same kind of partition between what is possible and impossible for us can be made by more sophisticated channels. It is wrong to focus on a horrible example like Fox News. The sophisticated media are also part of the police order, as a kind of distribution of what you are and are not able to do. In France, we have some sophisticated newspapers, but they are members of the police order in the same way as Fox News.

Read the rest here.

Long ago when I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine used to joke that she could always tell who the graduate students were because their clothing was ten years out of style. That is, there’s a way in which the graduate student occupies a different time– perhaps due to poverty, perhaps due to living amidst musty books and endless writing that render one oblivious to much of the world –or walks about in time as if they were living in the past. Occasionally you will encounter a professor like this as well. Perhaps she is an older professor who is still obsessed with existentialism, and talks endlessly of the schism between Sartre and Camus, and complains that Unamuno doesn’t get enough attention. Or perhaps he is still embroiled in debates about logical positivism. Or maybe you encounter a Hegelian who still reads Hegel through the lense of Josiah Royce, McTaggert, and Bradley, seemingly oblivious to the decades of scholarship that have occured since. In such moments a feeling of the uncanny comes over me, accompanied by a chill of fear. Right there before me is a person, another human being, yet this person is like one of the ghosts from M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense: He is dead, but he doesn’t know that he is dead. He walks about seeing the entire world through the eyes of this long departed way of reading Sartre or Hegel, without realizing that things have changed. Such scholars are like echos in a cavern, marking the persistence of a voice after that voice itself has departed. And if I feel a shiver of fear, then this is because I wonder whether I am not looking at my future or destiny, that someday I am doomed to be outmoded, out of step, ridiculous, insofar as things have moved on since Deleuze, Badiou, Lacan, Zizek, and so on. Will I be the ranting old man that causes graduate students to chuckle for being so deaf to contemporary discussions? “Keep reading,” I whisper to myself. “Stay young,” I plead. “Do not fall out of time and become walking history.” It is perhaps not by accident that I find myself forgetting how old I am at the young age of 32.

However, I then think of the dynamics of academic discourse. In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann writes,

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the information/non-information code is its relationship to time. Information cannot be repeated; as soon as it becomes an event, it becomes non-information. A news item run twice might still have its meaning, but it loses its information value. If information is used as a code value, this means that the operations in the system are constantly and inevitably transforming information into non-information. The crossing of the boundary from value to opposing value occurs automatically with the very autopoiesis of the system. The system is constantly feeding its own output, that is, knowledge of certain facts, back into the system on the negative side of the code, as non-information; and in doing so it forces itself constantly to provide new information. In other words, the system makes itself obsolete. (19-20)

Politically this phenomenon is perhaps one of the single most vexing issues groups trying to organize change face. Take the example of Hurricane Katrina. Today we hear hardly anything about this event, despite the fact that those living in regions of the United States affected by Katrina are still living in the aftermath. They live in streets where 1/3 of the garbage remains, among abandoned houses, and with very little being done to rebuild. Katrina continues to be a reality for these people, but it is a dim memory for the vast majority of Americans as these stories carry no new information value. As a result those living in stricken lands fall from the attention of the public, and it becomes increasingly impossible for them to improve their condition as this requires pressure on all levels of government and collective effort. To bring this pressure to bear, it becomes necessary to create new information events. Otherwise they might as well not exist.

It seems to me that the academy is governed by a similar phenomenon. In order to be successful in graduate school and land a nice position, graduate students must create “new information” through their research. In the humanities this requires students to challenge the tradition within which they find themselves. New ways of reading Lacan, Zizek, Badiou, Hegel, Deleuze, Foucault, Heidegger, Hegel, Levinas, etc., must be found. Preferably these readings should be shocking and disconcerting to the dogma of established research trends, pitching the thinker in an entirely new light. It is necessary to argue that prior readings had gotten everything wrong (preferably by referring to some ordinarily ignored text or newly discovered text which now becomes the centerpiece of how a thinker is read). The really outstanding thinkers do not simply contest how prior “cannonical thinkers” have been read, but perhaps contest an entire theoretical orientation such as phenomenology, logical positivism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and so on. The same principles apply within the world of publication, where the aim is to produce the new so as to get published and secure one’s tenure and prestige. If I am to publish, then it is necessary that I buck old traditions, that I distinguish myself, that I produce something new that is worth being published.

The aim is thus not the true, but the new; and the result is that the ground is perpetually shifting under my feet as I scramble to keep up with all the changes taking place so as to secure my credibility and my position. Of course, the belief here is that this is “progress”, that we are not simply producing the new for the sake of the new, but that the new arrives as a more accurate, more true, vision of the world, reading of Hegel, understanding of Lacan, etc. And there is merit to this. Yet nonetheless, the rules of the academic game are such that one must produce the new and not tarry too long with any one thing without varying it and producing new information for the machine. As a result, it is proper to entertain skepticism as to just how true this new is.

It is not enough to be a Marxist. After all, that’s outdated, crude, and out of fashion. No, I must be a “neo-Marxist”, keeping abreast of the latest developments from Deleuze and Guattari, Negri and Hardt, Badiou, Ranciere, Laclau, Zizek and all of their debates. I might suspect that I can get by with Althusser’s high falutin structuralist Marxism, but Althusser is so “1965”, as can be clearly discerned with his incessent and oh so gauch use of the term “science”. But alas, it’s not enough for me to be a neo-Marxist as I am a young academic that wants my piece of the pie, so I might tweek all these thinkers and perhaps contest them altogether, earning my own nitch in the university system and the world of publishing. And having accomplished this, some young, upstart grad student or beginning academic will someday challenge what I have sought to establish, pushing me off my place on the hill, and generating yet a new theoretical paradigm that makes everything else look interesting from the perspective of historical value, but which is now outmoded. If I read Althusser today, then this is not because I’m an Althusserian (though, as the Joker said of Batman, “what marvellous toys he has!”), but because I need to understand Althusser to understand Zizek, Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere, and Laclau. And so it goes.

One succinct way of defining the obsessional is as someone who does a lot so as to avoid doing anything; and in my more cynical moments, I suspect that this is what “radical political philosophy” in academia is all about (boy, I bet I get it for this one!). Think of the extraordinary efforts the Rat-Man went to so as to repay his “debt” (that he didn’t really owe), all the while always seeming to fail at paying his debt. Again and again the Rat-Man would try to catch up with the person he knew he didn’t owe money to, trying to pay him anyway, only to bungle his action at the last moment. And it seems to me that the theory-market works a bit like this. Again and again we draw up glorious programs like the obsessional forever producing notes, engaging in research, consulting publishers, etc., to write the great American novel, without ever getting started. That is, the situation is a bit like the novelist in Camus’ Plague, who perpetually writes the same sentence over and over again, struggling to get it perfect, changing it a bit each time and exerting all sorts of energy debating which variation is the right variation, without ever writing the rest of the novel. Or the academy behaves like the man, passionately in love with a woman, who nonetheless forever finds ways to avoid being with her, claiming that first he has to get this job, earn this much money, save this much money, etc., so that he might be worthy of her love. The academy is an obsessional system, a system designed to insure nothing happens. Does it come as a surprise that the philosopher immediately cloisters himself within the walls of the Academy after Socrates’ trial and execution? Isn’t the academy ultimately a place where society is protected from the annoyance of the philosopher, by creating a space in which philosophers (any knowledge laborors in my book) can chatter endlessly with one another without publically embarrassing respected politicians and priests such as Socrates embarrassed the evangelist Euthyphro, the poet Meletus, or the sophist Thrasymachus? “Yes, let them talk, but for Christs sake, keep them out of the market place and off of street corners!”

And in light of these cynical reflections, I’m led to think that perhaps the only viable solution is to will oneself to become old, to resolutely refuse the march of the information-producing machine that is incessantly and forever calling for the production of the new, giving the illusion that one can catch up with it, that one is doing something in responding to its superegoic demand, and stodgily allowing oneself to become non-informative, while also becoming a bit more true. Perhaps this is why the truth always comes from the margins, from outside the established channels of the great universities, such that a Privatdozent such as Hegel can kick of a philosophical revolution, or a figure at a minor university like Kant can turn the world of philosophy upside down, or where a man writing in a small cold apartment like Nietzsche can challenge 2000 years of assumptions. Perhaps these were figures who were willing to be a little bit old and to ignore the incessant call for the production of the new, thereby paradoxically enabling them to produce something new, rather than the endless monotony of the varied cliche. It is in this spirit that I draw great warmth from Badiou, when he remarks that,

During the first years of my political activity, there were two fundamental events. The first was the fight against the colonial war in Algeria at the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. I learned during this fight that political conviction is not a question of numbers, of majority. Because at the beginning of the Algerian war, we were really very few against the war. It was a lesson for me; you have to do something when you think it’s a necessity, when it’s right, without caring about the numbers.

The second event was May 68. During May 68, I learned that we have to organize direct relations between intellectuals and workers. We cannot do that only by the mediation of parties, associations, and so on. We have to directly experience the relation with the political. My interest in Maoism and the Cultural Revolution during the end of 60s and the beginning of the 70s, was this: a political conviction that organizes something like direct relations between intellectuals and workers.

I’ll recapitulate, if you like. There were two great lessons: It’s my conviction today that political action has to be a process which is a process of principles, convictions, and not of a majority. So there is a practical dimension. And secondly, there is the necessity of direct relations between intellectuals and workers.

To be old is to maintain a conviction, a bit of fidelity, to allow oneself to step a bit outside of time and ignore the superegoic logic of capital as it functions in the academic publishing system. Perhaps what is necessary is to be a bit dead. However, it will be recalled that for Lacan the unconscious question of the obsessional is “am I alive or am I dead”? So perhaps being a little dead to the superegoic call of academic capital is paradoxically being alive… Alive insofar as one has escaped the obsessional machine of the academy.

Sometimes I think wistfully and sadly to myself of what the United States would have become had we followed the Enlightenment tradition upon which we were based. Today the dominant narrative in the United States is that we were founded as a “Christian Nation.” As Lyotard argues, narratives serve the function of legitimation in the present. The stories we tell of the past legitimate how things are organized in the present. What if, instead of the Christian narrative, we instead had a founding narrative of the long struggle Enlightenment thinkers had overcoming superstition and despotic oppression such as that seen with respect to the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition? As Kant writes,

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the direction of another. This immaturity is self-incured when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the direction of another. Sapere aude! (dare to be wise!). Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is the motto of enlightenment. (Practical Philosophy, 17)

The immature one is the child that requires a parent to direct them. The child is unable to direct himself, and is a slave to his passions, thereby requiring the strong hand of parental authority to guide them through threats and punishments. The adult, by contrast, is that being capable of directing oneself, of becoming ones own legislator. The adult does not eat all the Halloween candy because he is threatened with going to bed early, but because he knows that it will make him sick. I do not refrain from murdering my fellow because I am threatened by the boogyman of eternal damnation, but because I recognize this destroys the social fabric and the vitality of my own life. Throughout history we have again and again heard these arguments whenever one group would exploit another. Prior to Women’s Suffrage, women were portrayed as immature children whose minds were filled with all sorts of fanciful ideas and passions, and who therefore required the strong hand of men to govern and control them. Mary Wollstonecraft had to stand up and demonstrate that women are capable of reason, that their behavior is a result of being denied education, and therefore they have the right to govern themselves. Slaves were portrayed as children driven by passions, superstition, and primitive ideas, thereby justifying the right to keep them enslaved as left to their own devices they would run amock. It would take a Frederick Douglas to stand up and demonstrate, once again, that this was the result of being prevented from developing themselves, that African-Americans were capable of reason and therefore self-legislation.

Jefferson had a different vision of the United States and of Christianity. For those not familiar with it, you can read about the concept behind the Jefferson Bible here and read the book itself here. What would the United States look like today had this Enlightenment path been followed? What unheard forms of legitimation would we possess? Instead we get this, from whence some 7% of the current interns to the current administration came from. Poke around a bit, it’s illuminating. Read the mission statement in the “about” section, and google their political activities.

If you have difficulty connecting to the second link, it can also be found here.

Courtesy of the sublime and wickedly funny Infinite Thought.

Badiou: During the first years of my political activity, there were two fundamental events. The first was the fight against the colonial war in Algeria at the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. I learned during this fight that political conviction is not a question of numbers, of majority. Because at the beginning of the Algerian war, we were really very few against the war. It was a lesson for me; you have to do something when you think it’s a necessity, when it’s right, without caring about the numbers.

Read the rest.

The bugbears of blogger seem to have deleted a portion of my last diary due to a Lacanian matheme the system interpreted as an open tag… Or perhaps I unwittingly placed it under erasure myself without being aware of doing so?

Why then, if we suffer our phantasy and desire do we have them at all? The phantasy sustains my desire. If I actively seek out situations in which I might be humiliated, denegrated, or ignored, then this is so I can continuously trod on through the snow like Joseph K., perpetually seeking to disprove the Other, to demonstrate to the Other that I am not nothing. As Lacan argues, desire desires to desire. The point is not to capture the object of desire, but to perpetually re-enact the scene of desire organized within the frame of phantasy. The Other must be found indifferent so that I might commence my journey to the Castle yet again.

In response to my diary Visceral Reactions, Eric from Recording Surface and I have been having a productive discussion as to just what Lacan, Zizek, Mouffe, and Laclau (one could add Badiou as well) have in mind when they claim that something does not exist. Expressing perplexity over Laclau and Mouffe’s claim that “society does not exist”, Eric writes:

I’m not sure what’s at stake here–probably not much–but I find the Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek thesis just weird. Society can only be called such if it is pure cohesion and harmony? But isn’t that the very point of a society, that it’s not cohesive, that it’s made up of divisions, tensions, heterogenous forces? It’s hard to not read into this the desire for a homogenizing force to come in and smooth out the differences. That force, of course, is the state–and for me, that’s where the problem lies, not with the differences themselves.

Although I do not share his reading, I think Eric here makes an excellent observation, an observation that places him very close to Lacan. What, exactly, are we to understand when Lacan remarks that “the Other does not exist”? Certainly Eric is Other to me and certainly Eric exists, if by “existence” we are speaking about the common-sense notion of something that is independent of the mind, material, and doesn’t depend on something other than itself to endure like a color depends on an object in which to inhere. Lacan spoke in particularly potent and striking aphorisms that require careful unpacking in order to be understood, and this practice has been taken over by a number of other thinkers such as Zizek, Badiou, and Laclau who have varied the “x does not exist” aphorism to their own ends.

In his discussion of aphorism in Nietzsche & Philosophy, Deleuze writes:

The poem and the aphorism are Nietzsche’s two most vivid means of expression but they have a determinate relation to philosophy. Understood formally, an aphorism is present as a fragment; it is the form of a pluralist thought; in its content it claims to articulate and formulate a sense. The sense of a being, an action, a thing– these are the objects of the aphorism… Only the aphorism is capable of articulating sense, the aphorism is interpretation and the art of interpreting. In the same way the poem is evaluation and the art of evaluating, it articulates values. But because values and sense are such complex notions, the poem itself must be evaluated, the aphorism interpreted. The poem and the aphorism are, themselves, objects of an interpretation, an evaluation. (31)

These same principles apply to Lacan’s aphorisms. Not only do they express the sense of a being, action, or thing, but they require interpretation and must be read at least twice. Indeed, I would go one step further and argue that Lacan’s aphorisms are not simply fragments of his thought, but are fractal instantiations of his thought in extremely condensed form, articulating the whole of some element of his topology from a particular vantage. Thus, for example, when Lacan says that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other”, are we to understand that the unconscious is what others are saying about us when we’re not around? Clearly this is not what Lacan is getting at. Similarly, when Lacan articulates the aphorism that “desire is the desire of the Other”, are we to understand that desire desires other people? Are we to understand that desire always desires something other than what it has? Are we to understand that my desire is what another person whom I am identified with desires, such that I desire as that other person desires? Or are we to understand that this aphorism articulates all these claims and yet others as well?

There is thus a pedagogy of the aphorism. On the one hand, the aphorism is a mental gymnastics that calls us to deduce the fractal pattern that it both belongs to and alludes to, tracing the terrain of the topology of intersubjective relations. On the other hand, the aphorism is a training in psychoanalytic practice itself, teaching the difference between the signifier and the signified, undermining our tendency towards literalism (though training us in the lettre-alism or reading according to the letter), and acquainting us with the surface of discourse (homonyms, double entendres, etc., all of which enjoin us to hear not what is intended but what is said) that makes up the daily matter of the analytic setting.

In unfolding Lacan’s aphorism that “the Other does not exist”, let us return to a set of questions I posed yesterday in response to Spurious‘ love letter. There I wrote:

I suspect that I’m traumatized by my writing and that one of the reasons that I write as much as I do here is to unwrite what I’ve written by pushing it down the page or by assaulting my readers with so much mass that they lose interest and cease reading. What is it that might render the experience of writing traumatic? Why do I always suspect that I might have unwittingly written something that I shouldn’t have written, as if my words might rearrange themselves when I’m not looking? Transferentially, what is suggested in suspecting that one’s writing always harbors the seeds of disaster and one’s own destruction? What is the unconscious desire or intention behind such paranoid thoughts?

The point to note here, I think, is how this series of questions revolve around a certain relationship to the Other. On the one hand, in suggesting that I write as much as I do to exhaust the reader with the sheer mass of what I’ve written, I suggest that writing functions as a defense against the Other. Clearly this messsage is registered by some. In response to one of my overly lengthy posts, Jodi Dean recently responded by saying “I wonder if your ‘difficulty coming to terms with postmodernism’ accounts for the lecturing on Socrates/Plato.” Here reference to “lecturing” suggests that she took my posts as condescending or as negating her. Similarly, in an exchange with Blah-feme months ago, he responds to my post remarking, “Thanks for the tutorial on Lacan (which I don’t need), all of which is fine and makes sense on its own terms, but still does not address my core point here.” The term “tutorial” indicates that he experienced me as talking down to him or as “educating” him. My father likes to joke that my rhetorical strategy is to wear opponents down by obsessively talking them to death so they walk away, and I’ve heard similar sentiments from others. It seems that I am constitutively unable to express myself in a pithy way, and I suspect there’s a defensive dimension to this designed to put others off.

This point comes out clearly, I think, in the phantasies I mention above of unwittingly writing something that I shouldn’t have written, or in sowing the seeds of my own destruction through my writing. As Spurious points out in a post today, this isn’t half bad. Writing always is the writing of one’s destruction, as in writing one is writing what one “will have been”, and thereby grinding up and destroying what one is. In writing you’re grinding yourself up and making yourself something other than you are. Thus the activity of writing isn’t a production of something that’s already there in you, but is the actual constitution of a being retroactively; just as the symptom doesn’t pre-exist analysis, but is produced retroactively over the course of analysis. The reference of my writing– whether that reference be myself or something in the world –is performatively produced in the activity of writing or speaking it. Or as Lacan says in Encore, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” (56). Or as Deleuze and Guattari put it in What is Philosophy, concepts auto-posit their objects (11). I do not discover my true desire in analysis, but rather constitute my desire over the course of analysis. Or as Lacan will say in Seminar 6, Desire and its Interpretation, desire is its interpretation.

However, while this dark phantasy of destruction indicates something positive in desire, indicates a disavowed or repressed desire (what would become possible were I to destroy myself? How would destroying myself provide a means to other desires that I see as prohibited or forbidden?), it can also be taken in the much more mundane sense of indicating a belief that the Other wants something specific from me. That is, if I believe that there is something that I shouldn’t write, that I am forbidden to write and fear that I’m unconsciously writing it anyway, this implies also that I think there’s something I should write or that the Other wants me to write. This is the essence of transference. Transference is my beliefs about what the Other wants, believes, enjoys, or knows such that I situate my own action vis a vis the Other as either fulfilling that demand or thwarting it. For instance, I mow my lawn not because I desire to do so, but because I believe the Other (in this case my neighbors) desire me to do so. After all, I see them mowing their lawns. Of course, they, no doubt, do so because they believe I desire them to do so as they see me mowing my lawn.

Over the course of analysis, this has appeared very clearly in relation to Fink. Whenever issues of my ambitions come up, whenever I speak about my desire to write, whenever I express pride over something I’ve accomplished or some recognition from someone I respect I’ve earned, I suddenly find myself feeling silly and ashamed. Suddenly everything I’ve accomplished looks to me like a self-delusion. I grow silent and he has to prod me to speak. Thoughts race through my head that he thinks I’m ridiculous to even think about writing, that he thinks I have nothing to offer to the world of philosophy and theory, that I will never accomplish anything. I imagine that he is laughing at my delusional pride. And presumably these thoughts and affects proliferate in all other social relations in my life. For instance, I recently expressed shock when discovering how much traffic this blog is getting, indicating that I believe everything I write here is garbage, so much trash to be thrown out. I assume that everyone sees what I see in a particular text, so I don’t see much point in writing about it. This is transference and this indicates a certain relationship to the Other around which my desire is organized or structured.

Now Fink gives no indication as to what he thinks one way or the other about anything I say. For the most part sessions consist of him saying “hmmmm” and “huh” while I babble on about something. Generally his interventions are very sparse, and when they do occur they can be taken in a number of different ways. In short, there’s no evidence to support the thesis that he does think these things when I talk about my writing and ambition. Indeed, he’s even given me opportunities to participate in psychoanalytic organizations, conferences, and write papers relating to psychoanalysis, indicating that he sees something of value in my work. Consequently, if I experience him in this way, this indicates that I believe he has a specific desire and that I do not fit the space of that desire. That is, in relating to him in this way, I fit him into the space of my fantasy, by formulating an answer to the question of what I am for him or for the Other in general.

Or put a bit differently, fantasy isn’t a fantasy of what I would like to have or do: that I would like to write a book of the order of Hegel’s Science of Logic, engage in this or that erotic encounter, have this or that ideal job, etc. Fantasy is a fantasy of what we are for the Other, how the Other desires us. In the fantasies I describe above, I am nothing for the Other, I hold the position of always being the wrong thing. Often I feel like Kevin Kline’s pathetic character in A Fish Called Wanda, who is driven into a fury whenever someone insinuates that he’s stupid: “Don’t call me stupid!” I place myself in situations where I might enact my fantasy, seeking out conflict and finding myself particularly fascinated with those who show me no respect. I find myself unable to walk away from these situations as I described in my post on schismogenesis. My strongest friendships have been with people who tend to be abusive, condescending, and mocking in their discussions with me. And in revealing all these ridiculous things about my fantasy life publically, I’m enacting that fantasy structure right here and now by humiliating myself for all the world to see. That is, the fantasy has a fractal structure that extends throughout all relations in my life pertaining to intersubjectivity. Or perhaps the shame I feel when speaking about writing and ambition indicates that these desires are organized around a fundamental hostility towards the Other, and that the desire to write is linked to some other desire that is less than pretty or nice.

Now the point is that we suffer our desires or that our desires bring us to suffer. I do not enjoy these fights and scuffles that I find myself in. I do not enjoy when I make myself look petty and small when responding as I did to Jodi. I don’t enjoy feeling shame when expressing my desires to Fink. This unpleasantness is one form of jouissance. It is in relation to this suffering of one’s desire that we should understand what Lacan has in mind by traversing the fantasy. In traversing the fantasy one comes to see how the coordinates of their action have all been organized in terms of their fundamental fantasy, and also come to see that the Other does not exist. In saying the “Other does not exist” it is not being said that other people do not exist, but rather that there is no one specific demand that the Other has. Put differently, it is discovered that the Other itself is desiring and doesn’t know what it wants. As Zizek so nicely puts it:

Today, it is a commonplace that the Lacanian subject is divided, crossed-out, identical to a lack in a signifying chain. However, the most radical dimension of Lacanian theory lies not in recognizing this fact but in realizing that the big Other, the symbolic order itself, is also barre, crossed-out, by a fundamental impossibility, structured around an impossible/traumatic kernel, around a central lack. WIthout this lack in the Other, the Other would be a closed structure and the only possibility open to the subject would be his radical alienation in the Other. So it is precisely this lack in the Other which enables the subject to acheive a kind of ‘de-alienation’ called by Lacan separation: not in the sense that the subject experiences that now he is separated for ever from the object by the barrier of language, but that the object is separated from the Other itself, that the Other itself ‘hasn’t got it’, hasn’t got the final answer– that is to say, is in itself blocked, desiring; that there is also a desire of the Other. This lack in the Other gives the subject– so to speak –breathing space, it enables him to avoid the total alienation in the signifier not by filling out his lack but by allowing him to identify himself, his own lack, with the lack in the Other. (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 122)

That is, God is dead. Now, this observation might appear obvious and trite. However, let us take up the example of Kafka. Kafka’s novels depict the phantasmatic unconscious world of how subjects experience bureacracy as all powerful, all knowing systems, to which subjects are idiotically and mercilessly subjected without rhyme, reason, or any prospect of escape save death. In The Trial Joseph K. entertains the vain fantasy that he might discover why he has been accused of a crime and what his crime is, and only escapes when being axed to death at the end. In The Castle, Joseph K. literally drives himself to exhaustion, finally collapsing in the snow and dying, pursuing the vain task of discovering what job he has been hired for. “What have I done and what should I do” are the two elusive questions of phantasy. Phantasy functions in this way with respect to the Other by supplying an answer to these questions. For instance, the bizarre story of John Mark Karr’s false confession to killing JonBeney Ramsey suggests someone who was desparately looking to give body to his experience of guilt. Phantasmatically it could be said that Karr was guilty, in the sense that Joseph K. is guilty, just not of the murder of Ramsey.

In discovering that the Other itself is barred, desiring, lacking, and without the answer, I both gain something and lose something. On the one hand, so long as I believed in the existence of the Other I could believe in a fullness and completeness that someone else possesses and that I myself might obtain. In traversing my phantasy, this belief collapses, and I lose the prospect of attaining completeness and total fulfillment. This collapse in the Other is also accompanied by a collapse of my very identity or sense of being, as my identity was constructed like a projective space as a response to the demand I attribute to the Other, of what I believed the Other was demanding of me. All of Joseph K’s actions are organized around discovering the truth of the Other’s desire. This is his being and his identity, and were he to discover that the Other does not itself know– as in the parable of the Law in The Trial –he would undergo subjective destitution. On the other hand, in discovering that the Other does not exist, there is also a profound relief that leads to a transformation in the symptom and a loosening of a number of other “sub-symptoms” related to the symptom. Insofar as I no longer work on the premise that the Other wants something specific, I am freed to more directly pursue my desire and to focus on what little islands of jouissance really are available, rather than pursuing a mythological complete jouissance that doesn’t exist. That is, the sort of shame and anxiety I described in relation to Fink disappears.

It is in this spirit that I would propose Laclau’s thesis that “society doesn’t exist” should be read. What this discovery promotes is not the pursuit of a complete and full society, where wholeness is finally possible, but rather the exact opposite: traversing the social fantasy that such a society is possible, that there is a social order that would be complete, and directly facing the intrinsic antagonisms that populate all social relations. Everywhere we look we see social movements that dream of harmony and completeness, and it is these fantasies that produce so much horror. Traversing the social fantasy means being done with these fantasies once and for all, so that genuine work might begin.

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