December 2006

Well, I’m back and exhausted. The interviews went exceptionally well and I think I performed better than I ever have. Hopefully I’ll land some on campus interviews, but if this doesn’t come to pass I’m giving myself the narrative that the schools were simply looking for something very specific or that I have some tick that they couldn’t bear. I go away knowing that regardless of what happens I did my best.

This was one of those conferences where everything just seemed to fall into place. I hadn’t gotten assigned seating for the plane when buying the tickets and asked if there were any aisle seats towards the front of the plane, only to be given seat 1D. Front row joe. When I got to the hotel they apologized for having to change my room and told that they had to upgrade my room to a concierge suite free of charge. I was definitely infuriated by this… Not.

The conference was a truly enjoyable experience. The first night there I got to meet with my old dissertation director, Andrew Cutrofello, to prep for the interviews. It was great to see him and mostly we just chatted about the different things we’re working on. I was talking a mile a minute and fear that I might have broken his ear. It seems that everywhere I went I struck up random conversations with people. I went to lunch the first day with one of my colleagues at my current position and a group of his old graduate school friends. There I had the pleasure of meeting Farhang Erfani who created the fantastic blog Continental Philosophy. When I heard him mention his blog I said “I know you!” and told him that he had archived some of my own writing here. He exclaimed “you’re Larval Subjects!?!” And I said “Yes, I’m Sinthome in the flesh!” I felt as if I should have a special t-shirt with an “S” or “L” inscribed on it and a mask. We had a terrific conversation about Sartre and Lacan’s connections to Sartrean thought that I hope to continue in the future.

The next day I met a nice woman in the elevator who seemed to take a shine to me as I live in Texas where much of her family lives. As it turns out, her husband organized the entire conference and she asked me for my card so he could help me out with my job search in any way possible. I’m not quite sure why she made this gesture as I didn’t talk about any of my research, but it was nice nonetheless. Last night I had a terrific time talking to a Palestinian brother and sister from Texas in the bar (he was a political scientist presenting on Levinas and she’s an environmental attorney now living in D.C.). Around four this morning the fire alarm went off and we all had to evacuate the hotel (which turned out to be nice as I got to see Patricia Huntington who was on my dissertation committee and met a number of interesting philosophers). Somehow a couch had caught on fire and water was dripping through the ceiling of the lobby and down the elevator shafts. We didn’t get to return to our rooms until 6am (those on the 6th and 7th floor couldn’t return until 7 or 8), but it was one of those magical moments where all social inhibitions and heirarchies are lifted and everyone talks to everyone. Nonetheless, I feel sorry for those who had to interview today.

While there I finally got to meet Miguel de Beistegui, author of the brilliant Truth and Genesis: Philosophy as Differential Ontology. For those who are not yet familiar with this work, this is a brilliant piece of philosophy, spanning the deadlocks of what he calls “ousiology” or substance based metaphysics of presence from Parmenides to Husserl, and showing how Heidegger and Deleuze formulate a differential ontology that escapes these deadlocks (Deleuze here being the hero). In my view, this work sets a new benchmark for Deleuze scholarship and is one of a handful of genuinely philosophical studies of his work (which is thankfully free of that “tone” that characterizes so much work on Deleuze). I was pleased to see Dan Smith and Constantin Boundas, and both of them gave excellent critical talks over de Beistegui’s work that also expressed admiration and envy. Unfortunately I had to leave a bit early to meet a friend, so I didn’t get to hear all of de Beistegui’s replies, though it’s clear that we can expect great and original work from him in the future. Sadly I was unable to attend Richard Boothby’s talk, whose work I deeply admire as it’s one of the few engagements with Freud and Lacan that situates psychoanalysis in terms of its ontological and epistemic significance rather than simply its ethical and political significance as in the case of the critics of ideology. I was also pleased to pick up a copy of DeLanda’s new book on social ontology for half the price at the book exhibit, that looks very good (I’m about halfway through it and it’s all about the social in terms of networks and assemblages, resonating nicely with my obsession with slime molds a few months ago).

The trip cost an arm and a leg (apparently there’s no food in D.C. that is less than $23), but I come away feeling refreshed and invigorated… Though I missed all of you a good deal. Thank you so much for your support and kind words preceding the trip.

In recent days I’ve been rereading Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology in preparation for an article I’m gearing up to write, and have been struck by certain features of his analysis of anti-semitism and various structural aspects of my recent kerkuffle with Anthony Paul Smith and Adam Kotsko over at Weblog (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). That’s a lot of “heres”, and the discussion spread to other blogs such as Long Sunday and the Cynic Librarian as well. As frustrating as this discussion was, I feel that it was ultimately productive and I do feel that Anthony, Adam, and I finally did reach a place where something like a discussion might be possible sans all the transferential issues that were previously clouding the conversation. Indeed, I think Adam Kotsko’s most recent post on the issue, along with Jodi Dean’s post, came finally to ask the right sorts of questions, adopting a far more analytic stance with regard to the issue. If I can say that I found this discussion productive despite all the frustration, vitriol, and acrimony that accompanied much of it, then this is because it functioned as something of an encounter for me. And as Deleuze puts it in Difference and Repetition,

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. What is encountered may be Socrates, a temple or a demon. It may be grsped in a range of affective tones: wonder, love, hatred, suffering. In whichever tone, its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed. In this sense it is opposed to recognition. In recognition, the sensible is not at all that which can only be sensed, but that which bears directly upon the senses in an object which can be recalled, imagined or conceived. (139)

That is, an encounter is that which disrupts the logic of recognition, of the familiar, thereby performing a sort of naturalized “transcendental epoche“, and offering the possibility of a break from assumptions. For me one of the most valuable things about the rhizosphere or blogosphere is that it provides such fertile grounds for these types of encounters. I cannot speak for anyone else, but in my own case I find that there’s a sort of occupational hazard in the isolation that accompanies traditional scholarly research. There’s a way in which one becomes a sort of solipsist, believing that the entire world thinks as you do, such that any deviation from this way of thinking is seen as an idiosyncratic error, not as an opening onto an entirely different way of encountering the world. That is, I come to assume that others share my same frame. In the rhizosphere, by contrast, you discover how little this is true.

In reviewing the non-discussion that took place, one of the most striking things I find is the manner in which we directly engaged the claims of one another. Rather than taking a step back as an analyst might and wondering what desire might animate this or that claim and how it might function as a symptom responding to a particular deadlock, we instead directly tried to refute and contest one another. An alternative would have been to analyze the manner in which “Christian Fundamentalist” and “Secular Atheist” function as symptoms of two different discourses, referring to a fundamental antagonism at the heart of the social movements that employ these rhetorics. In his analysis of anti-semitism, Zizek writes,

…there are two complementary procedures [for] the ‘criticism of ideology’:

  • one is discursive, the ‘symptomal reading’ of the ideological text bringing about the ‘deconstruction’ of the spontaneous experience of its meaning– that is, demonstrating how a given ideological field is a result of a montage of heterogeneous ‘floating signifiers’, of their totalization through the intervention of certain ‘nodal points’ [I employed this form of analysis over at I Cite in response to Adam or Anthony’s claim that Hitler only used Christianity cynically, when I tried to argue that we can not refer evocations of a master-signifier to some hidden essence that would allow us to determine which form of social practice is the true or false one];
  • The other aims at extracting the kernel of enjoyment, at articulting the way in which– beyond the field of meaning but at the same time internal to it –an ideology implies, manipulates, produces a pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy.

To exemplify this necessity of supplementing the analysis of discourse with the logic of enjoyment we have only to look again at the special case of ideology, which is perhaps the purest incarnation of ideology as such: anti-semitism. To put it bluntly: ‘Society doesn’t exist‘, and the Jew is its symptom.

On the level of discoruse analysis, it is not difficult to articulate the network of symbolic overdetermination invested in the figure of the Jew. First, there is displacement: the basic trick of anti-semitism is to displace social antagonism into antagonism between the sound social texture, social body, and the Jew as the force corroding it, the force of corruption. Thus it is not society itself which is ‘impossible’, based on antagonism– the source of corruption is located in a particular entity, the Jew. This displacement is made possible by the association of Jews with financial dealings: the source of exploitation and of class antagonism is located not in the basic relation between the working and ruling classes but in the relation between the ‘productive’ forces (workers, organizers of production…) and the merchants who exploit the ‘productive’ classes, replacing organic co-operation with class struggle.

This displacement is, of course, supported by condensation: the figure of the Jew condenses opposing features, features associated with lower and upper classes: Jews are supposed to be dirty and intellectual, voluptuous and impotent, and so on. What gives energy, so to speak, to the displacement is therefore the way the figure of the Jew condenses a series of heterogeoues antagonisms: economic (Jew as profiteer), political (Jew as schemer, retainer of a secret power), moral-religious (Jew as corrupt anti-Christian), sexual (Jew as seduer of our innocent girls)… In short, it can easily be shown how the figure of the Jew is a symptom in the sense of a coded message, a cypher, a disfigured representation of social antagonisms; by undoing this work of displacement/condensation, we can determine its meaning.

But this metaphoric-metonymic displacement is not sufficient to explain how the figure of the Jew captures our desire; to penetrate its fascinating force, we must take into account the way ‘Jew’ enters the framework of fantasy structuring our enjoyment. Fantasy is basically a scenerio filling out the empty space of a fundamental impossibility, a screen masking a void…

It is now clear how we can use this notion of fantasy in the domain of ideology proper: here also ‘there is no class relationship’, society is always traversed by an antagonistic split which cannot be integrated into the symbolic order. And the stake of social-ideological fantasy is to construct a vision of society which does exist, a society which is not split by an antagonistic division, a society in which the relation between its parts is organic, complementary. The clearest case is, of course, the corporatist vision of Society as an organic Whole, a social Body in which the different classes are like extremities, members each contributing to the Whole according to its function– we may say that ‘Society as a corporate Body’ is the fundamental ideological fantasy. How then do we take account of the distance between this corporatist vision and the factual society split by antagonistic struggles? The answer is, of course, the Jew: an external element, a foreign body introducing corrption into the social fabric…

The notion of social fantasy is therefore a necessary counterpart to the concept of antagonism: fantasy is precisely the way the antagonistic fissure is masked. In other words, fantasy is a means for an ideology to take its own failure into account in advance. (124-6)

I quote this passage at length because it so nicely encapsulates a number of important concepts for social analysis and displays exactly how they might be put to work. Of crucial importance here is the thesis that society does not exist and that a symptom is required in order to render the unbearable antagonism that cleaves the social field bearable. The symptom embodies a number of the elements of the situation-specific conflict (it will differ from social organization to social organization), but in a clothed and encrypted fashion, producing the illusion that these problems could be eradicated if only we could get rid of this particular group. However, as Zizek says elsewhere in the same text, anti-semitism has nothing to do with Jews themselves, but only with taking into account these failures of the ideological fantasy in advance while still rendering the ideological fantasy attractive and persuasive. Zizek is careful to point out that even if there are Jews that actually fit the descriptions of the anti-Semite, it is nonetheless these fundamental antagonisms that are at stake in the anti-semites discourse, not Jews themselves. Hence, perhaps, a reason that racism is sometimes most intense in regions where the hated group are almost entirely absent. It’s as if the racist group intentionally choose a group that doesn’t truly impact their socio-economic existence as a way of insuring that they can continue to hate this group without ever directly facing the possibility of taking action against this group, eradicating them, thereby confronting the trauma that the antagonisms nonetheless persist.

It is in this connection that I would like to suggest that the figure of the Christian Fundamentalist functions as an ideological symptom in many leftwing discourses (as, often, too does the figure of the Jew), while the figure of the Secular Atheist functions as a symptom of a number of rightwing and religious discourses. The point here is not one of being fair and judicious by saying “the left has its symptoms and the right has its symptoms so let’s try to get along”, nor am I suggesting that Adam and Anthony are engaged in a rightwing discourse (though their troubling repetition of themes similar to those expressed by the likes of Horowitz is bothersome), but rather of piercing through a certain set of symptoms so that a more substantial discussion might occur that has little or nothing to do with secularism or religiousity. That is, the aim here is to avoid the fate of Don Quixote. Incidentally, this “Quixotism” functionally works (whatever the intentions of the actors involved) to keep the system in place as it is (as both Adam and Anthony tried to point out in a number of contexts). I believe that this sort of analysis also shows the limitations of identity politics and the discourse of the victim so common in contemporary politics. All of this, of course, raises the additional question: If it is true that society doesn’t exist, that it is irrevocably riddled with antagonisms, what sort of politics should we aim for? Does this not place us in the tragic and pessimistic position of discerning defeat and illusion in any possible political engagement? For Zizek, the answer is one of identifying with the symptom: “To ‘identify with a symptom’ means to recognize in the ‘excesses’, in the disruptions of the ‘normal’ way of things, the key offering us access to its true functioning” (128). The religious believer would here be enjoined to identify with the “secular atheist” qua symptom of a deadlock at the heart of their socio-political aspirations, just as the atheist would be enjoined to identify with the Christian fundamentalist qua symptom. But what, exactly, does this mean at the level of practice? The aim isn’t simply to understand the true functioning of the social system, but rather to change it.

Tomorrow I head to Washington D.C. for job interviews.

  • Courses I’m able to teach, along with course designs… Check
  • Teaching methodology and philosophy… Check
  • Specific questions about their universities… Check
  • Research program… Check
  • Nice suit and tie… Check

Am I forgetting anything? Let’s just hope I can get some sleep the night before so I don’t go into the interviews like a zombie. Although I would be delighted to land any of these positions as the programs are terrific, it would be great to have more time for research and writing, and I would be thrilled to teach more advanced courses in my areas of expertise, it’s nonetheless good to go into interviews knowing that I’m not going to starve to death if I don’t get one of the positions. Apart from administrative irritations (that exist anywhere), I’m already in a very good place and will be sad to leave my great colleagues, friends, and students should I get one of the positions. The bottom line is that I love teaching above all other things (well not the grading part), and so long as I’m doing that I will be happy. At the very worst, I’ll suffer some humiliation at having discussed things here. For whatever reason, my anxiety finally broke yesterday and I feel full of a fighting spirit today. With any luck that will last. At any rate, those of you who detest me, get out your voodoo dolls and needles. Those of you who have some passing fondness, wish me luck.

For a long time I’ve thrown the term “universe of reference” about without clarifying just what I have in mind. I first came across this concept in Guattari’s Chaosmosis, though I have no idea whether I’m using the term correctly as Guattari’s language is very dense and he seldom takes the time to slow down and develop his concepts thoroughly. According to Husserl’s phenomenological method, the transcendental epoche consists in carrying out a reduction where one suspends all questions of whether or not the datums given to consciousness actually exist or what they are as they exist independently of consciousness (in themselves), and instead resolves to describe what is given simply in terms of how it appears or gives itself.

In certain respects, the concept of a universe of reference is a correlary of such a phenomenological reduction, but for a community of subjects. That is, a universe of reference is composed of the entities and relations posited by a certain community of persons, without raising questions as to whether this universe is an accurate representation of reality or not. Thus, for instance, one universe of reference might include God, demons, ghosts, signs from God, Satan, and so on; whereas another universe of reference includes none of these things. In one universe of reference there might be a category known as “terrorists”, such as in the film V for Vendetta where the government classifies any enemy of the State as a terrorist, where one and the same person classified as “terrorist” by the State might be classified by another group of people as a revolutionary or an activist. In the universe of reference inhabited by the neuropsychologist, repetitive handwashing is a sign of some neurological disorder and presents itself to the eyes of the observing clinician in these terms. Here a causal claim is made that implies a particular mode of treatment– Medication. In the case of a psychoanalyst, repetitive hand washing is a symptom of a betrayed desire, implying the concepts of the unconscious, desire, intersubjectivity, objet a, and so on. Jacques-Alain Miller has a very nice article on just how symptoms differ from signs. The point here, of course, is that although at the level of sense-experience the neurologist and the psychoanalyst are viewing one and the same phenomenon, they are nonetheless talking of ontologically distinct entities. For the neurologist (barring the neuropsychoanalyst) there is no category of the symptom as the psychoanalyst understands it, while the psychoanalyst can have both a category of the neurological (indeed, Freud’s original Project essay was articulated in neurological terms) and a category of the symptom.

The concept of a “universe of reference” is thus an ontologico-sociological category designed to capture the “folk ontologies” shared by different groups of people and that diverge from one another. The aim here, of course, is not to promote some sort of facile relativism. There might be one true and genuine ontology such that these folk ontologies are just various illusions or falsehoods. However, in developing rhetorical and discursive strategies with regard to various groups it is necessary to be familiar with the universe of reference they inhabit so as to formulate those speech acts capable of making a difference with regard to them. A speech act formulated on the horizon of post-Newtonian physics isn’t very effective when speaking to a community that inhabits an Aristotlean universe.

Dr. X’s Free Associations has an interesting post about debates over the war in Iraq and the common experience of being unable to persuade war supporters that resonates nicely with some of the issues I raised in my poorly written post Grounds and Sophists.

Trying to explain the exasperating phenomenon of people who continue to disagree with him on Iraq, despite his eloquent arguments and unassailable mastery of objective facts, Shrinkwrapped writes:

‘Those of us who have not been infected with the thought disorder known as post-modernism and believe that there exists an actual reality that we can reasonably and objectively approach; if that is the case, what is it that prevents people from recognizing facts that are right in front of their eyes?’

It sounds to me like the erudite Shrinkwrapped experienced a little thought glitch during the writing of those sentences, but never mind that.

I’ve been thinking about writing about this issue for a while now, but my thoughts are still a bit scattered. Many of us have experienced this frustrating phenomenon since 2001. We have found ourselves embroiled in discussions where facts were on our side, yet strangely we have not been able to persuade the other person. I think Shrinkwrapped misidentifies the problem when he blames postmodernism, as I do not believe that my interlocutors are willfully refusing to recognize arguments.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that what is at issue here is transference as described by Lacan. Lacan has an unusual concept of transference which he relates to the “subject supposed to know”. When the analysand enters analysis, he supposes that the analyst has a certain knowledge of his symptom and suffering, when in fact that analyst does not have this knowledge. This projection functions as a motor for analysis as the analysand interprets each pronouncement of the analyst as coming from a place of knowledge and therefore interprets what the analyst says producing knowledge for the analyst. That is, it’s the analysand doing most of the work. A standard, vulgar, and overly simplified Enlightenment conception of discourse begins from the premise that it’s the syntactical and semantical structure of an argument that counts in persuading another person. So long as the argument is logically valid (synatx) and so long as the propositions that compose the argument are true (semantics), the interlocutor will assent to the argument on the premise that the interlocutor is not insane or mentally deficient. What this leaves out is the rhetorical and dialogical dimension of discourse, wherein who speaks is also a crucial factor in determining whether the other person will listen.

I confess that I have an extremely difficult time listening to anything George Bush says at this point in time, and therefore find it difficult to attend to his arguments. There are books I’ve tried to read in the past that I’ve found myself unable to follow simply because they don’t come from the right theoretical orientation. Thus, for example, years ago when I was first extremely hip to Deleuze and Guattari, it was almost impossible for me to read Hegel’s Science of Logic, as I had already branded Hegel an enemy on the basis of what Deleuze had argued in Nietzsche and Philosophy and Difference and Repetition. I would read Hegel’s texts and my eyes would glaze over or I would be overly dismissive of his claims, not following the development of his thought on its own term. This culminated in me taking an incomplete in a graduate course I was taking on Hegel’s system that I was unable to finish for two years. It wasn’t that I was intellectually incapable of reading Hegel, but that my transference towards Deleuze and the negative transference it wrought with regard to Hegel made it impossible for me to “hear” his work. Similarly, I suspect that part of the recent blog war with Anthony Paul Smith and Adam Kotsko had to do with these sorts of transferential issues. On the basis of offhand remarks I’d made in the past, Kotsko and Smith had branded me as a “knee-jerk secularist” and “doctrinaire atheist”, and perhaps I had similar prejudices towards them. Anthony Paul Smith, for instance, subsequently mentioned that his initial comments had been intended in a lighthearted way that presumed more friendliness between us than was there. Something other was intervening in our dialogue and preventing us from talking… Something that wasn’t strictly in the propositions making up the dialogue themselves.

What we thus get are universes of reference that are a function of our identification. Because I suppose that Lacan has a certain knowledge I come to dwell in a particular universe of reference populated by entities such as objet a, transference, the symptom, the sinthome, the Other, the unconscious structured as a language, etc. When I speak of psychic phenomena, I am speaking of something different than say my neuropsychological colleague. Indeed, I do not take psychoanalysis to be a psychology or neurology at all, as I begin from the stance that the subject is constituted in the field of the Other or that subjectivity is intersubjectivity and cannot be thought independent of the Other. Part of understanding a universe of reference will thus involve taking into account the field of identifications structuring a person’s subjectivity. The Iraq war supporter has different identifications than myself and thus relates to “actual reality” in a different way as he will only listen to certain people as authorities. Given the globalization of our culture, it is not surprising that identification would increasingly come to play such a key role in structuring our relation to the world as we must now all deal with absence, with what we cannot directly verify, as a part of our day to day life due to the omnipresence of media communications. Given that we all recognize that any media image or story is “framed” by the person writing and filming and that we cannot directly verify these things for ourselves we must have recourse to different standards of truth and these standards become the credibility of the speaker. This, I believe, is what Deleuze had in mind with his discussions of the role the “structure-Other” plays in grounding recognition and representation in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense (reference could also be made to Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations and the role the Other plays in developing dimension and permanence for the cogito). I am not at all suggesting that this is a happy state of affairs or that the idea of multiple universes of reference is a marvellous thing, only that this seems to characterize our current “metaphysical” situation where talk of reality is concerned.

What does this have to do with Iraq? I’ve increasingly come to notice that intercommunicative settings seem to be organized around this phenomenon of the “subject supposed to know”. It seems that today a person begins from the premise that there are some who speak from the standpoint of knowledge and others that do not. For instance, when I watch FOX news I do not attribute knowledge to the newscasters, and am therefore largely deaf to the claims and arguments they make even if they are true. I begin from the standpoint that they are trying to dupe me ideologically. It seems to me that this phenomenon is even more potent among many rightwing supporters of Bush and the war, such that they simply filter out any negative news or information about Iraq as a “liberal conspiracy”. As the opening paragraphs of Plato’s Republic indicate, you cannot persuade someone who refuses to listen. The issue here is not one of postmodernism, but rather one of who we trust as a credible speaker. The moment shrinkwrapped opens his/her mouth, shutters have already fallen over the ears of his/her interlocutor. As we know from our practices, it’s impossible to do work with patients that attribute us no credibility or authority. For instance, it’s always more difficult to work with patients that have been forced into analysis by family or courts. The question then is one of how to overcome this credibility gap or crisis of legitimacy.

In a way I think Shrinkwrapped is right when s/he evokes a postmodernization of discourse, but for the wrong reasons. Expressed as Shrinkwrapped has expressed it, the premise seems to be that those who disagree do so because they adopt postmodernism as a philosophical position. However, I think the issue goes far deeper than this– It is not that someone has deviously adopted a philosophical position of postmodernism wherein there is no ultimate reality, but rather that we are living in a postmodern situation. When I argue with my friend that is a staunch supporter of the war, we literally live in different realities or “universes of reference” by virtue of how our subjectivities are structured transferentially. For this reason, we are unable to use “actual reality” to decide the truth or falsity of contested propositions. Rather, our universes of reference (hence the plural) have become self-referential by virtue of what we recognize as a credible authority. As Hegel puts it,

We may also remark at this point that to go no further than mere grounds, especially in the domain of law and ethics, is the general standpoint and principle of the Sophists. When people speak of ‘sophistry’ they frequently understand by it just a mode of consideration which aims to distort what is correct and true, and quite generally to present things in a false light. But this tendency is not what is immediately involved in sophistry, the standpoint of which is primarily nothing but that of abstract argumentation. The Sophists came on the scene among the Greeks at a time when they were no longer satisfied with mere authority and tradition in the domain of religion and ethics. They felt the need at that time to become conscious of what was to be valid for them as a content mediated by thought. This demand was met by the Sophists because they taught people how to seek out the various points of view from which things can be considered; and these points of view are, in the virst instance, simply nothing but grounds. As we remarked earlier, however, since a ground does not yet have a content that is determined in and for itself, and grounds can be found for what is unethical and contrary to law no less than for what is ethical and lawful, the decision as to what grounds are to count as valid falls to the subject. The ground of the subject’s decision becomes a matter of his individual disposition and aims. (Geraets, Suchting, Harris, pgs. 188-191)

Grounds become matters of individual preferences and the savvy consumer shops around for those grounds that most suit his taste. I get my news from NPR and dismiss FOX, while you get your news from FOX and dismiss NPR. This is one of the meanings of Lacan’s aphorism that the big Other does not exist. What seems different today is that where before this truth was largely unconscious and repressed such that we at least pretended that there was a consistent and shared Other, today we seem conscious of this. I am not at all sure what is to be done. I hardly find it to be something that should be celebrated or that is a happy thesis.

For any interested, J.A. Miller’s fundamental article “Suture” is now available online. J.A. Miller presented this during the 12th seminar and it arguably changed a good deal of Lacan’s own trajectory by formalizing his thought. As Lacan later said about the young 18 year old, “The Miller isn’t half bad.” Anyone interested in the Lacanian subject can find it here… Of course you’ll be disappointed to discover that you now have to read Frege and a number of other philosophers of mathematics.

There’s a nice article on transference and the recently published Seminar 16 over at the World Association of Psychoanalysis by the analyst Lieve Billiet that’s well worth the read. The final paragraphs on objet a, capitalism and shifts in the structure of subjectivity are brilliant.

In the Seminar XVI Lacan puts a step in the conceptualisation of the object, and thus in the approach of the libidinal dimension. In his course Illuminations profanes Jacques-Alain Miller elucidates Lacans step in Seminar XVI. The object appears no longer as the object taken from the body but as a logical function. That explains why Lacan speaks now about the other (with determined article – cfr. The title of the seminar). Considered as a part of the body (the breast, the faeces, the voice, the gaze), the object was multiple. Considered as a logical function, the object is one. It is the object conceptualised without reference to the phantasm, out of the realm of the phantasm. What does this mean? The phantasm is the way the subject makes the Other exist via the object. It installs via the object the semblant of a relation as a veil over the non existence of the sexual relation. So it questions jouissance, satisfaction, in relation to the Other. As the phantasm makes the Other exist, the phantasm is linked to the demand of love. In Seminar XVI the object is no longer conceptualised as the object, part of the body but as the object plus-de-jouir. This implies an approach of the question of jouissance beyond the relation to the Other, beyond the phantasm, beyond the question of love.

Enjoy! (and no, that’s not a command)

In a couple of recent posts Spurious has playfully poked fun at some of my fantasmatic structures and used my persona (or lack thereof) as a foil against which to distinguish his own non-existent being (here and here). This, of course, is a pretty remarkable thing, for as Lucretius and others have argued, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish one void from another. As Lars writes in his usual beautiful fashion (unlike my “hammer-like” fashion, as Anthony Paul Smith so gorgeously described it in a recent post),

Where did they go, The Young Hegelian and No Cause For Concern? Many times I went back to wander through their corridors. But Invisible Adjunct is still there, one of the first blogs I read frequently. And will mine, too, disappear one day? No matter, when there are new blogs proliferating.

Perhaps it will crash down like a telegraph pole, carrying incoming links like cables down with it. But that, I think, is too violent an image. Now I see the links snapping like web filaments delicately breaking. Broken links wave like filaments in the air. Who notices they are broken? Who follows them? No one.

No one: and isn’t that beautiful? To disappear, drawing oneself from the corner: isn’t that what you want? In some way, I am the opposite of Sinthome, with what he tells us of his narcissism. I think by this blog I want to prepare a kind of sacrifice, but one no one will notice as it burns.

To be anyone at all: what kind of fantasy is that? No self-analysis here, however it might appear. A kind of drifting, just that. Don’t wake me up, that’s what I’m telling you. I don’t want to wake up, not here; I am too awake in the world. And isn’t that it: that one who has to speak too much, and with too much reason sets speech loose here instead?

Elsewhere Spurious goes on to say,

But Mars is not strong in my birthchart, and nor do I seek to make up for its lack; once again, unlike Sinthome, I have a marked dislike of discussion, being suspicious always of what I take to be its frame. Insinuation, quieter movement, and in the end, a writing that does not seek to deal blows or to parry them, but that lets continue the movement of others, though in another way, because it is itself only motion, like a river into which tributaries pour. Only I imagine this river running backward, and the distributaries that join it are like a river’s delta. How can a river leap back to its origin?

I have to confess that I was delighted when I read these passages and took them as a tremendous compliment. Of course, this is not because I believe that it would be horrible to be Lars. Quite the contrary. Then again, the talented psychoanalytic reader knows that it’s best to prick up one’s ears whenever an analysand suggests, in an unsolicited way, that he is not trying to do something. However, harrowing descriptions of Lars’ apartment aside, I was delighted and tickled because Lars had described me as his opposite, thereby placing me on a common plane with him as in the case of a dialectical identity or inverted image.

In a haunting and justly famous passage from his Prolegomena, Kant gives the example of enantiomorphic images to demonstrate the difference between conceptual differences and “aesthetic” differences that cannot be captured by the concept (Deleuze will not hesitate to pick up this example in developing his concept of difference in Difference and Repetition). There Kant writes,

If two things are quite equal in all respects as much as can be ascertained by all means possible, quantitatively and qualitatively, it must follow that the one can in all cases and under all circumstances replace the other, and this substitution would not occasion the least perceptible difference. This in fact is true of plane figures in geometry; but some spherical figures exhibit, notwithstanding a complete internal agreement, such a difference in their external relation that the one figure cannot possibly be put in the place of the other. For instance, two spherical triangles on opposite hemispheres, which have an arc of the equator as their common base, may be quite equal, both as regard sides and angles, so that nothing is to be found in either, if it be described for itself alone and completed, that would not equally be applicable to both; and yet the one cannot be put in the place of the other (that is, upon the opposite hemisphere). Here, then, is an internal difference between the two triangles, which difference our understanding cannot describe as internal and which only manifests itself by external relations in space. But I shall adduce examples, taken from common life, that are more obvious still.

What can be more similar in every respect and in every part more alike to my hand and to my ear than their images in a mirror? And yet I cannot put such a hand as is seen in the glass in place of the original; for if this is a right hand, that in the glass is a left one, and the image or reflection of the right ear is a left one, which never can take the place of the other. There are in this case no internal differences which our understanding could determine by thinking alone. Yet the differences are internal as the senses teach, for, notwithstanding their complete equality and similarity, the left hand cannot be enclosed in the same bounds as the right one (they are not congruent); the glove of one hand cannot be used for the other. (paragraph 13)

In certain respects, the logic of enantiomorphs follows the logic of the mobius strip. I know that the mobius strip has only one side, but in order to confirm this I must introduce the dimension of time, tracing a line on the surface of the strip to encounter them meeting. There is an identity here but also a difference. Similarly, when Hegel describes the relationship between the French Revolution and the terror, these things are on “one” side, but they can never quite appear together; just as the analysand discovers that the symptom is on the side of his desire, but perpetually encounters his symptom as the impediment to his desire.

When Lars kindly mocks my narcissism, asking “To be anyone at all: what kind of fantasy is that?”, I think he recognizes the principle behind my narcissism– That it is a technology designed to undermine my narcissism, to encounter myself differing from my own image, to progressively undo my own image. I do this in a variety of ways: By taking pleasure in humiliating forms of recognition, by putting together philosophers that don’t belong together so that I might not belong to any of them, by enthusiastically arguing against things I love and positions I’ve formerly endorsed so as to destroy them and then later on arguing for them, etc. It is in this regard that I can wistfully look upon Spurious’ blog, imagining myself to be on a mobius strip, a single surface, with his writing, and witnessing him enacting what I aim for. To be anyone at all is to be no one at all. Here the literary reference would be Klossoski’s Roberte novels, where one becomes other to herself in and through the relation to the other, ultimately becoming a void.

All of this, for some reason, makes me think of the film Kinsey. I don’t know if Kinsey’s life was anything like what is depicted in the film, and in certain respects that’s entirely appropriate for this post. However, it’s difficult for me not to think of the simulacrum depicted in that film as a saint. Now in suggesting that Kinsey was a saint, I am not suggesting this on the grounds of his compassion towards those who had suffered sexual oppression such as the homosexuals he interviewed, or his crusade to generate a knowledge of sex so that we might be free of superstition and crass moralism. Rather, what fascinates me about this simulacrum is the Kinsey who collected millions of gall wasps, tracing generation after generation, and discovering that all of them were different.

I think this is saintly. In a crucial scene early in the film, a party is being held for Kinsey, honoring him for his research and the publication of his most recent book on gall wasps. Kinsey is flattered, but points out that there are probably only six people in the world who have actually read his books and that he is well aware that his research will not change the world. Yet nonetheless, Kinsey found supreme value in this research and pursued it with passionate zeal. Later in the film we discover that Kinsey’s garden has the most complete collection of a particular type of flower; and, of course, Kinsey is driven to collect the most complete data set possible of human sexual activities. Kinsey, as depicted in the film, is a subject of drive, not of desire. He looks for no authorization from the Other for his pursuits and pursues these activities of collecting with a jouissance-filled zeal. He wears a whalers cap in the rain despite its lack of aesthetic appeal because it’s a sensible way of keeping oneself dry. When his future wife approaches him in the park and asks to sit with him, explaining that they are the only two unattached people of the opposite sex at the park and therefore it makes sense for them to sit together, he readily agrees with her reasoning. And whatever Kinsey does, he is collecting. It is the collecting that matters to Kinsey, not the possible world-shaking consequences that might follow from this research.

Lacan makes a similar point about collecting in Seminar 7, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There Lacan relates that,

During the great period of penitence that our country went through under Petain, in the time of ‘Work, Family, Homeland’ and of belt-tightening, I once went to visit my friend Jacques Prevert in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. And I saw there a collection of match boxes. Why the image has suddenly rusurfaced in my memory, I cannot tell.

It was the kind of collection that was easy to afford at the time; it was perhaps the only kind of collection possible. Only the match boxes appeared as follows: they were all the same and were laid out in an extremely agreeable way that involved each one being so close to the one next to it that the little drawer was slightly displaced. As a result, they were all threaded together so as to form a continuous ribbon that ran along the mantlepiece, climbed the wall, extended to the molding, and climbed down again next to a door. I don’t say that it went on to infinity, but it was extremely satisfying from an ornamental point of view.

Yet I don’t think that that was the be all and end all of what was surprising in this ‘collectionism,’ nor the source of the satisfaction that the collector himself found there. I believe that the shock of novelty of the effect realized by this collection of empty match boxes– and this is the essential point –was to reveal something that we do not perhaps pay enough attention to, namely, that a box of matches is not simply an object, but that, in the form of an Erscheinung, as it appeared in its truly imposing multiplicity, it may be a Thing.

In other words, this arrangement demonstrated that a match box isn’t simply something that has a certain utility, that it isn’t even a type in the Platonic sense, an abstract match box, that the match box all by itself is a thing with all its coherence of being. The wholly gratuitous, proliferating, superfluous, and quasi absurd character of this collection pointed to its thingness as match box. Thus the collector found his motive in this form of apprehension that concerns less the match box than the Thing that subsists in a match box. (113-114)

It seems to me that Lars is describing this sort of saintliness with regard to writing… A writing that would no longer be utilitarian, that would no longer be a matter of prestige, but that would operate according to its own principle without need of authorization or recognition. Saint Lars.

Wanting to write a post on Hegel’s understanding of ground, I’ve been reviewing the Science of Logic and Encyclopaedia Logic. I came across the following marvellous zusatze discussing the relation of ground and the sophists and thought I’d post it here. Hegel writes:

When we say that ground is the unity of identity and distinction, this unity must not be understood as abstract identity, for then we would just have another name for a thought that is once more just that identity of the understanding which we have recognized as untrue. So in order to counter this misunderstanding, we can also say that ground is not only the unity but equally the distinction of identity and distinction, too. Ground, which we encountered first as the sublation of contradiction, therefore makes its appearance as a new contradiction. But, as such, it is not what abides peacefully within itself, but is rather the expulsion of itself from itself. Ground is ground only insofar as it grounds; but what has come forth from ground is the ground itself, and herein lies the formalism of ground. The ground and what is grounded are one and the same content; and the distinction between them is the mere distinction of form between simple relation to self and mediation or positedness.

If ground is the unity of identity and distinction, then this is because, as Deleuze argues in the first chapter of Difference and Repetition, something emerges from the ground as itself and distinguishes itself from that ground. Ground expells itself from itself insofar as it produces effects. For instance, electricity as ground produces a series of electrical effects. Ground is “formal” at the outset in the sense that the initial posited ground is identical to what is to be grounded. For instance, I say wine makes me sleepy by virtue of its dormative properties. No genuine cause is given. Hegel continues:

When we ask about the grounds of things, this is precisely the standpoint of reflection that we mentioned earlier (paragraph 112 Addition); we want to see the thing in question duplicated as it were: first in its immediacy and secondly in its ground, where it is no longer immediate. This is indeed the simple meaning of the so-called principle of sufficient reason or ground. This principle only asserts that things must essentially be regarded as mediated.

I think this passage shows just how distorted Deleuze’s critique of Hegelian mediation is. When Hegel here talks about mediation (he uses the term in other senses elsewhere) he is talking about causes or grounds. For Deleuze individuated beings would be thoroughly mediated in Hegel’s sense in that we must refer to a problematic context or horizon as the sufficient reason of the thing (cf. chapters 4 & 5 of DR). The virtual itself is a form of mediation. Continuing:

Moreover, in setting up this law of thought, formal logic gives the other sciences a bad example, since it asks them not to take their content as valid in its immediacy; while, for its own part, it sets up this law of thought without deducing it and exhibiting its process of mediation.

Here we get glimmerings of phenomenology or the return to the things themselves. The problem here seems to be akin to what we find in neuroscience. The neuroscientist looks for the way in which mental phenomena are mediated (caused) by brain events, without pausing to first elaborate the content of these conscious structures for themselves. As such, it begins from a series of unfounded assumptions as to the nature of the phenomena to be explained that may or may not be true. Hegel goes on to say:

With the same right that the logician asserts when he maintains that our faculty of thinking happens to be so constituted that we must always ask for a ground, the doctor could answer that people are so organised that they cannot live under water when he is asked why a person who falls into the water drowns; and in the same way a jurist who is asked why a criminal is punished could answer that civil society is so constituted that crime cannot be allowed to go unpunished.

Hegel makes a joke. The point here is that these are not real explanations at all, but only beg the question. However, as Hegel points out in the Science of Logic, these “tautological grounds” (as he calls them) are nonetheless a necessary moment in inquiry as they mark the site of something to be genuinely explained. In short, with this first moment of ground, tautalogical ground, the object or state of affairs is no longer taken in its immediacy, but as differing from itself and therefore in need of an account or explanation. Thus, while the explanation given is here vacuous, it is a step along the way towards genuine philosophical or scientific elaboration. Continuing,

But even if we prescind from the demand, addressed to logic, that it should furnish a grounding for the principle of sufficient reason or ground, still it must at least answer the question of what is to be understood by “ground”. The usual explanation, that a ground is what has a consequence, appears at first sight to be more illuniating and accessible than the determination of this concept that was given above. But if we go on to ask what a consequence is, and we get the answer that a consequence is what has a ground, then it is clear that accessibility of this explanation consists only in the fact that what in our case has been reached as the result of a preceding movement of thought is simply presupposed in that explanation. It is precisely the business of the Logic, however, to exhibit the thoughts that are merely represented, and which as such are not comprehended nor demonstrated, as stages of self-determining thinking, so that these thoughts come to be both comprehended and demonstrated.

Hegel gives a nice example of what he has in mind here in his discussion of Zeno in the first volume of his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. There he makes the surprising claim that philosophy first became genuinely philosophical not with Thales, nor with Parmenides, but with Zeno. This is because Zeno had properly discovered the concept in the sense that he saw that despite the evidence of all experience and the sense, motion nonetheless had to be demonstrated in its concept or for reason. The passage is well worth reviewing. Hegel goes on to say,

In ordinary life, and equally in the finite sciences, we very frequently employ this form of reflection with the aim of finding out, by its use, what the situation of the ob-jects under examination really is. And although there is nothing wrong with this way of looking at things, so long as it is only a matter of the immediate housekeeping needs of cognition, so to speak, still it should be noted at once that this method cannot provide definitive satisfaction, either in a theoretical or in a practical regard. his is because the ground still has not content that is determined in and for itself; and in consequence of that, when we consider something as grounded, we obtain only the mere distinction of form between immediacy and mediation. Thus, for instance, when we see an electrical phenomenon and ask for its ground, we receive the answer that the ground of this phenomenon is electricity; but this is simply the same content that we had before us immediately, translated into the form of something internal.

Thus in the first step towards unfolding grounds, a shift in form takes place– a shift from the form of immediacy which treats the object as self-same and identical to itself, to conceiving the object as mediated or having a ground or cause outside of itself. The problem is that the content remains the same in both instances, and we do not yet have the object genuinely differing from itself.

Now, of course, the ground is also not just what is simply identical with itself; it is also distinct, and for that reason various grounds can be offered for one and the same content. So, in accordance with the concept of distinction, that diversity of grounds no leads to opposition in the form of grounds for and against the same content.– Suppose, for example, that we consider an action, let us say, for arguments sake, a theft. This si a content in which a number of aspects can be distinguished. Property has been violated by the theft; while the thief, who was in need, has obtained the means for the satisfaction of his wants. It may be the case, too, that the person from whom the theft was made did not make good use of his property. Well, it is certainly correct that the violation of property which has taken place is the decisive point of view before which the others must give way; but this decision is not entailed by the principle of thought according to which everything must have a ground.

Skipping ahead,

We may also remark at this point that to go no further than mere grounds, especially in the domain of law and ethics, is the general standpoint and principle of the Sophists. When people speak of ‘sophistry’ they frequently understand by it just a mode of consideration which aims to distort what is correct and true, and quite generally to present things in a false light. But this tendency is not what is immediately involved in sophistry, the standpoint of which is primarily nothing but that of abstract argumentation. The Sophists came on the scene among the Greeks at a time when they were no longer satisfied with mere authority and tradition in the domain of religion and ethics. They felt the need at that time to become conscious of what was to be valid for them as a content mediated by thought. This demand was met by the Sophists because they taught people how to seek out the various points of view from which things can be considered; and these points of view are, in the virst instance, simply nothing but grounds. As we remarked earlier, however, since a ground does not yet have a content that is determined in and for itself, and grounds can be found for what is unethical and contrary to law no less than for what is ethical and lawful, the decision as to what grounds are to count as valid falls to the subject. The ground of the subject’s decision becomes a matter of his individual disposition and aims. (Geraets, Suchting, Harris, pgs. 188-191)

In the transition from tautological ground to what Hegel calls real ground, we find not only a transition from a mere difference in form, but also a difference in content. For instance, when I explain why wine makes me sleepy due to alchohol and how alchohol reacts with my body, I am no longer tautologously repeating the content to be explained (“dormative qualities”), but have now encountered the content of ground differing from what it grounds. However, with the emergence of real ground we encounter the figure of the Sophist, for the Sophist is the one who shows both that all real grounds can be contested and that more than one real ground can be posited for anything to be grounded.

It seems to me that this perfectly describes the situation of postmodern relativism and its uncanny twin, neoconservative cynicism. The postmodern relativist shows how it’s impossible to establish any ultimate ground, all the while implicitly contradicting herself in arguing that “culture” is the tautological ground common to all different disputes about grounds. Is this not exactly what is being said when Wittgenstein tells us that all engagement with the world is mediated by different “language games” or when Foucault shows us how epistemes the sort of knowledge we produce. Of course, the evidence amassed by ethnography and linguistics is, at this point, indisputable such that there can be no question of dismissing it or treating it as false. We are subjects individuated in cultural fields that relate to the world in and through cultural fields. The question is rather one of how, given this, a potent truth is possible.

The neoconservative cynic, by contrast, proceeds by casting doubt on any proposed grounds, such as the way in which the Administration uses minor statistical deviance to cast doubt on global warming, or the way in which tobacco companies use statistic to cast doubt on the claim that smoking causes cancer. This form of sophistry, I think, has been far more corrosive to the public sphere, for as Hegel points out above, any choice among grounds becomes a matter of individual preference. The neoconservative practice of casting doubt on all grounds has turned information and news into something consumed on the basis of personal preference and decisions of what is likable or unlikable, undermining the very possibility of civil discourse as there’s no longer a shared world for persons to discourse about. For instance, the news consumed by participants on the blog Free R-publ-c (I really don’t want their traffic) is almost entirely different than the news consumed over at Dailykos, making it almost impossible for there to be any discussion between the two groups of participants. All one can do today is assert and stand by ones assertions, without possessing a common world that might decide between different assertions. What we have then, today, is a massive struggle over grounds and what counts as a ground and whether there are any grounds at all. The question then becomes one of how to escape this endless to and fro of proposing grounds, critiquing grounds, and contesting grounds that is ineffective and functions to promote the very thing it disputes.

In a very nice response to another poster, N.Pepperell writes:

I just wanted to pick up on these points from anonymous (since I seem to be determined to intervene in this as an epistemological, rather than as a political, debate… ;-P): Two questions that follow, from this, for me (this is not a bait, i’m just seeking to clarify for myself your position):

1. if one is committed to the immanence thesis, does that commit one to being a secularist? 2. Certainly immanence requires rejection of a transcendent being, etc., but does it require rejection of a category of religion?

I would suggest that these questions can become very awkward if someone tries to start with the ontological assertion of immanence – if they assert immanence as their ontological stance. (This kind of assertion is also what can put one on the conceptual terrain where one can get accused of asserting immanence as a kind of theological position…) Once you begin with a strong and, in a sense, a priori ontological stance, this might suggest that questions about secularism, god, etc., are predetermined from the outset.

If, however, we approach the question from a different direction, some of these issues can be approached more agnostically. If immanence is, however, a conclusion we draw when we reflect on certain dimensions of our experience, then we’re more in the position, as expressed in Sinthome’s post back on 29 May:

As Laplace responded to Napoleon when asked about the role of God in the new physics, “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse”. “I have no need of this hypothesis.”

In other words, we may find that we aren’t in need of the hypothesis that there would be a god, in order to explain the phenomena we are seeking to explain. This doesn’t specifically compel us into any position one way or another about whether a god could exist (although it may have implications for claims we could accept about how a god intervenes in this world – it may displace, as has already occurred in theological shifts expressed in a number of traditions, the “involvement” of the divine in everyday life into questions about meaning, rather than questions about, e.g., interventionary causation…). It therefore doesn’t necessarily compel us into secularism, in the sense of requiring a secularist belief system from anyone who accepts a thesis of immanence as an explanatory framework for how humans and their contexts are mutually embedded…

The observation of immanence does, I think, provide a basis for making judgments about certain kinds of religious claims – as it does for making judgments about certain kinds of ethical or theoretical claims. This could be useful, however, if we’d like some conceptual tools for making moral distinctions among religious movements…

I should note that I’m trying to think through logical implications here – I happen personally to be a secularist, just one who has never personally been terribly troubled by other people’s claims to have experiences of a relationship with the divine. As Sinthome has expressed in other contexts, my reaction to these sorts of claims is, essentially, on what basis could I judge them? On any given day, I have any number of experiences and engage in any number of relationships whose existence I couldn’t “prove” to anyone else, but that are nevertheless quintessentially meaningful to me…

This becomes problematic only when I try to appeal to these kinds of personal experiences in order to compel behaviours from those who don’t share the same experiential base – who would have no rational reason to agree… To me, the observation of immanence relates to the attempt to tease out the sorts of experiences that we have – quite inadvertantly, in my opinion – caused to be distributed quite widely across the world. Without meaning to, we have created the conditions of possibility to be united in some specific respects – while being quite diverse and divergent in others… But I’m probably being too loose with my concepts, tossing these ideas out in this form…

I think the key point made here is that of how unprovable experiences are appealed to in relating to others. For me philosophy is essentially dialogical and questions of epistemology are essentially questions of intersubjectivity. This is a lesson I draw from Plato’s dialogues– The dialogue style makes a substantial philosophical point; namely, that questions about knowledge and being are questions of intersubjectivity. It is for this reason that Socrates always has an interlocutor and often that interlocutor has claimed to have a certain knowledge based on authority or special revelation (Euthyphro). While it is indeed true that I might be interested in epistemology so as to avoid error and reliably produce knowledge, the more pressing question is that of what can be reliably persuasive or shared by another person. That is, there is an element of both respect and freedom here. At the level of respect, I strive only to make appeals to another that that other can discover for themselves. At the level of freedom, the philosophical position seems to be that the only valid form of compulsion should be that of reason, where the person can discover the rightness of the conclusion for themselves (rather than being compelled by authority, myth, fear, or emotion). Descartes’ meditations might be conducted in the privacy of his room within which he’s trapped, but the key point is that he is arguing that they are repeatable by anyone, just as anyone can go through the steps of 2x + 4 = 12 to discover that x = 4. Whether or not Descartes is successful in this, of course, is another question.

Whether or not philosophy has ever been fully successful in this task is another issue. My position would be that philosophy has worked at this task in one way or another for nearly 3000 years, and has perpetually re-evaluated its conclusions, subjecting them to critique, and taking into account hidden assumptions that it had formerly overlooked. Philosophy has been the ongoing dialectic between the philosopher and the sophist, where the sophist demonstrates the manner in which the confident philosopher nonetheless falls prey to undemonstrated claims and assumptions, and the philosopher responds to the sophist, taking these assumptions into account and showing how truth is possible within their scope. For instance, today we find ourselves embroiled in how a pure beginning is possible, given that thought, knowledge, and subjectivity is thoroughly pervaded by culture which cannot itself be grounded. That’s the sophists position, advanced by thinkers such as Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Quine, Davidson, Rorty, sometimes Heidegger, and others. The philosopher that would respond to this has not yet arisen, though there are promising glimmers in Deleuze and Badiou.

N.Pepperell’s point about appeals to God is well taken, for these appeals often do more to inhibit this process than promote it. When I appeal to God, I often foreclose questioning of the world about me and attempts to explain that world on immanent grounds. Explanation comes too quickly, too easily. We’re given an explanation for everything. Again, not all believers are of this sort, but it is certainly a phenomenon that often accompanies religious thought.

If we were to ask why the great traditions of philosophy emerged historically, my tentative hypothesis would be that these moments in philosophy have always arisen against a background of cultural conflict or violence. In the case of the great Greek thinkers, Greece was an environment of trade with a variety of different cultures. The question that naturally emerges is that of how it is possible to deliberate with someone who shares very different mythologies than I? How does the Greek communicate with the Egyptian regarding matters of ethics, governance, justice, and the nature of the world given that their mythological visions of how the world works and what the gods demand are so different. Philosophy was the technology that emerged to solve this problem, and sought grounds of belief that could be shared by diverse peoples. An appeal to the authority of Homer has no persuasive power for the Egyptian, but perhaps an appeal to experience or rational concepts such as those allegedly embodied in the forms does. Is it not significant that Socrates’ interlocutor in the Parmenides is the Eleatic Stranger? Isn’t philosophy first and foremost an encounter with the stranger?

The situation doesn’t strike me as being much different with the great epistemologies of the 18th century. What was it that made men like Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant so passionate about epistemological issues? Why were they all worked up? I’ll never forget witnessing professor Paul Moser– a well-recognized Anglo-American epistemologist and philosopher of mind at Loyola of Chicago –undergo his crisis with respect to the field of epistemology. Overnight, it seemed, he suddenly came to believe that all of his previous work was idle and vain, serving no purpose and functioning just as an academic game. Large piles of books appeared outside his office door. Many of us, including myself, were sympathetic with how he felt. The discipline of epistemology had always looked a little silly (as it’s a discipline that produces no knowledge of its own) and had always seemed a little reactionary (as it can be perceived as wanting to police claims). Moser shifted his research from epistemology to philosophy of religion, and astonishingly (for an Anglo-American epistemologist) became an enthusiast of Kierkegaard. Of course, this delighted the rest of us as it meant one less Anglo-American dismissing our “fuzzy Continental orientations” and gave us another faculty member to discuss Kierkegaard with.

In the years since I witnessed this amazing chain of events, I’ve often reflected on my distaste for epistemology that I had projected on to Moser and the way it has sometimes colored my relationship to the great 18th century philosophers. I just couldn’t understand why they were so worked up by these questions. I disliked the notion of policing knowledge. However, as I’ve come to think more about the history of these centuries, the questions of epistemology have come to appear more and more vital to me. These thinkers lived in the midsts of violent religious and political disputes. One need only read the sublime Voltaire’s Candide to get a glimpse at the brutality of the situation.

In one way or another all of these issues came back to questions of knowledge. A certain knowledge was claimed of divine will and the nature of the world, and people acted accordingly. Unfortunately, given that texts are polysemous, very different arguments could be made on the basis of one and the same text. The passion of the 18th century thinkers was thus to reign in knowledge, to determine the limits of what we can know, and to determine reliable grounds that can be shared intersubjectively. They were highly successful in this endeavor and changed the world as a result of their critiques.

If, as Adam Kotsko has contended, I have a hostility to religion over and above my hostility to the actions of the religious right, it traces back to these concerns. I don’t much care what Adam or anyone else believes as to the metaphysical workings of the universe. I do, however, care when these sorts of grounds, grounds that others cannot share but which require an act of faith, are foisted on others as grounds of policy and ethical deliberation. When these things are used as the ground of deliberation it seems that conflict is the only possible outcome, as there’s no longer a shared ground of deliberation that all can participate in. So yes, I am suspicious of the intertwining of religion and politics, and I am suspicious of this intertwining because it smacks to me of a return to arguments based on authority and the assertion of groundless grounds that allow the mind to run wild with all sorts of phantoms as in the case of the believer that scrutinizes the news so as to find evidence that the end of times is upon us (and no, I am not suggesting Kotsko does this). None of this is to suggest that one shouldn’t have their beliefs, only that one’s grounds be grounds that the other too can discover for themselves. This might even include rational arguments for the existence of God, sans appeals to the authority of scripture, such as we find in Descartes or Saint Thomas or Maimonides. Are abortion clinics bombed in Europe?

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