December 2006

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?

Jodi Dean has posted a diary on Gingrich’s desire to institute “patriotic” teaching of American history from a religious perspective over at the marvellous I Cite. The diary has generated a lot of heated exchanges that are probably less than flattering to all involved. What I find most interesting in this whole discussion is not the question of which side is correct, but rather how certain forms of criticism seem to be entirely off limits no matter how carefully crafted or qualified. Where certain groups should be aligned with one another in fighting a common menace, there’s instead a series of mischaracterizations and sophistical insults. What is it about our identifications that lead us to such mental contortions, sophistries, and distortions of clear thought? And to take yet another low blow, why is it that the Christian seems constitutively unable to avoid viewing themselves as a victim beset upon the wicked forces of paganism and secularism, regardless of whether they have all the power? Perhaps this discourse of the victim is the first thing that needs to be overcome. Then again, after having been up for over 24 hours grading (the joys of having a 5/5 teaching load), I suspect I’m not thinking all too clearly either.

N.Pepperell has written an extraordinary post, developing some of the previously made claims in directions I think highly productive. Also, a special thanks to Joseph Kugelmass for further molding the discussion in response to one of my prior posts. N.Pepperell writes,

My own approach to thinking about our context has been to try to think very carefully (almost certainly not carefully enough, and I would benefit greatly from the kind of critical scrutiny these sorts of conversations can provide) about the historical distinctiveness of “modernity” – an investigation that has led me to focus on how we understand capitalism as an element of our global social context in the modern period. If anyone has read back through the older entries in this blog, they will have seen me make at least gestural rejections of common ways of understanding capitalism – I tend not to be very happy, for example, with attempts to define capitalism in terms of class domination, in terms of the market or in terms of core and periphery. While these are to some degree empirical matters, the reason I engage in these skirmishes is because I understand them to have philosophical stakes: capitalism is, I suspect, our closest candidate for an unconscious global social relation (unconscious in the sense that it has arisen and, in spite of a great deal of conjunctural planning carried out en route, is still largely sustained via social practices that are not consciously seeking to bring the overarching system into being). I further suspect that the unconscious – the alienated – nature of this social relation may be particularly important in understanding certain aspects of the forms of perception and thought associated with capitalist history, but this point is far too complex for me to cover even gesturally here…

There’s a lot here, so read the rest. Unfortunately I can’t comment more at present as I’m grounded and am not allowed to play until I finish all my grading due Monday.

N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has written a very sensitive post responding to my recent post on individuation. N.P. writes,

Sinthome’s thought on these questions is subtle and sophisticated, and I wish to be very clear that I am not trying to criticise any substantive points put forward in Sinthome’s posts. What I wish to ask, though, is whether the kind of reflection Sinthome carries out here might in its own practice remain bound to a subject-object divide: whether the practice of thinking through this issue, as carried out in these posts, is consistent with the express goal of the posts, which is to develop a system that transcends subject-object dualism.

And a little further on,

In drawing attention to these common means of explaining the rise of new concepts, I am obviously not seeking to criticise precise reasoning, or to argue against philosophical reflection on the natural world. I am, though, asking whether the form that philosophical argument takes, when it appeals to subjective error or objective empirical novelty, can be understood to be adequate when the content or purpose of philosophical reflection strives to overturn the subject-object dualism. Perhaps we need to be seeking a form of philosophical exposition that is more adequate to the content it seeks to express. I regard this as an epistemological task – where epistemology is understood as, to borrow a phrase from Sinthome, a “theory of learning”, rather than as itself a project grounded in the subject-object divide. And I think that Hegel – and, for that matter, Marx – by focussing their attention on self-reflexivity, have highlighted the need to find a philosophical path through this labyrinth.

Unfortunately I’m in the midsts of marking for the end of the semester so I’m unable to give a detailed response. First, I want to express gratitude to N.Pepperell for so thoughtfully and earnestly thinking with me in both a spirit of friendship and critical questioning, aimed, I think, at producing something or collaboratively developing something rather than simply opposing positions to one another. In a former post, N.Pepperell expressed worries that I took him/her to be criticizing or dismissing me (with regard to my claim that “the One is not”) which I did not, nor do I take these remarks to be presented in this spirit. The worries I expressed about the thesis that the One is not are my own worries (here and here and here), namely that I sometimes recoil from this thesis and its implications, finding myself concerned that it is absurd or incoherent. Rather, I take N.Pepperell’s comments as working notes revolving about a shared set of questions and concerns.

It seems to me that what N.Pepperell is groping for is the expression “performative contradiction”. That is, in suggesting that there is a conflict between the content of my post and the form of my post, the suggestion seems to be that at the level of content, the ontological claims being advanced say one thing, while the form in which these claims are advanced say quite another. It would be here that all the issues of self-reflexivity emerge, for if my claims about individuation hit the mark, then 1) an onto-epistemological theory of individuation must account for how it itself came to be individuated. To put this point a bit differently, my meditations on these issues perhaps suffer the old joke of a man alone in a room asked by a passing traveller whether anyone is there and responding “no”, thereby missing the obvious fact that he is there. I am “counting myself out” of the very thing I am talking about, and thus suggesting a transcendence that the content of my post forbids. 2) The nature of critique with regard to other epistemologies and ontologies is significantly transformed as one can no longer say that they are simply mistaken– which would simply be another variant of the subject/object divide, i.e., the thesis that the world has been erroneously represented –but must instead tell some sort of story as to how these onto-epistemologies came to be individuated.

N.Pepperell remarks that,

I should note that I am being very sloppy with my language here – this is not how Sinthome would express this problematic – I’ll ask forebearance on this issue because my “target” in this analysis is not actually how we can best understand individuation, but instead something more abstract: I’m trying to illustrate something about the habits of thought into which most of us – including myself – tend to fall when we seek to resolve this kind of philosophical dichotomy.

If I am understanding N.P. correctly, then s/he is referring to the habit of thought that continues to evaluate things other than itself in terms of the subject/object divide, while nonetheless having purported to reject this representational conception of the world. Thus, for instance, Deleuze argues that we must shift from a theory of knowledge to a theory of learning throughout Difference and Repetition, and must examine things in terms of how they come to be individuated or produced rather than how they are to be truly represented, and then proceeds to denounce Hegel, Kant, Plato, and others as getting it wrong without applying these very principles to their thought.

It seems to me that there are a couple of thinkers that would be very fruitful in helping to address these sorts of questions. The German philosopher-sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, develops a good deal of his systems theoretical sociology around the theme of self-reflexivity and “observing the observer”. These themes are developed very explicitly in texts such as Theories of Distinction and Essays on Self-Reference, but also in his magnificent and dense work Social Systems, where he argues, among other things, that a theory of society must also self-reflexively account for its own claims. Following the obscurantist mathematician Spencer-Brown, Luhmann argues that we can’t observe anything prior to drawing a distinction. For instance, we might draw a circle on a piece of paper, thereby distinguishing an outside and an inside. Once a distinction has been drawn, it becomes possible to indicate things on the basis of the distinction (I can now say something is inside or outside). The key point is that the distinction is on the side of the observer, not the thing itself. From this Luhmann draws the conclusion that we can only have system-specific knowledge and can never know the world as such. I follow Luhmann part of the way, however, my criticism has been that the conclusion he draws from this line of reasoning repeats the representationalist tradition in epistemology, assuming that there’s a world “out there” in itself that can never be known– he often draws skeptical conclusions from his sociological work –and that Hegel’s critique of the ding-an-sich or thing in itself shows why there is no thing in itself. Nonetheless, Luhmann provides a number of readily available tools for handling these issues of self-reference.

On the other side of the spectrum, it seems to me that this discussion can be profitably situated by taking a page from the Marxo-Hegelian playbook. Marx argues that each age develops a specific epistemology and ontology on the basis of its economics. I am not sure that I’m ready to follow Marx all the way with his economic determinism, but what makes Marx of interest here is that he doesn’t simply argue that an epistemology or ontology is wrong or mistaken, but shows how these philosophies are individuated as solutions to a problem (here and here) within a particular socio-historical field. For instance, when an analyst approaches the fantasy of an analysand, he does not do so by showing how it is a distorted representation of reality or falsehood. After all, for Lacan reality is framed by fantasy and thus functions like a Luhmannian distinction or a window through which the subject selects between what is relevant and mere noise where desire is concerned. Rather, analysis proceeds as the analysand comes to discover the manner in which the fantasy (which very well might never be discussed as a fantasy) resolves a certain deadlock with regard to the desire of the Other or solves a particular problem of desire for the analysand. In short, fantasy is not treated as an error. Similarly, the philosophical and theoretical formations of history could productively be approached not in terms of the error/non-error distinction, but as a series of individuations responding to particular sets of problems. Hopefully I have heard some of what is in N.Pepperell’s marvellous posts.

He was passionate about the Revolution and spoke of freedom, equality, egalitarianism; yet his reasons for believing were too subtle, to clever, too philosophical not to attract the suspicion of the party leaders. Unfortunately I could not see a happy ending for Dr. Zhivago.

~A passage about one of my imagos

K-Punk has written a nice post on blogging and pseudonyms that relates to some of the issues I’ve been discussing in the last few months regarding my name. K-Punk writes:

Perhaps writing – or more specifically, writing about oneself – only reveals the inherently split nature of the subject: the ‘the other one, the one called Borges … the one things happen to’ in ‘Borges and I’ is the subject of the statement, the Borges who observes that ‘I do not know which of us has written this page’ is the subject of the enunciation. Any use of the pronoun ‘I’ will always exposes this split, this spaltung.

It seems to me that this reminder of the split status of the subject is crucial for discussions of virtual engagements. The standard story has it that the net allows us to playfully create our own identity however we like, without the usual constraints that attend our day to day subjectivity. However, this sort of split is already constitutive of subjectivity as such: I am perpetually split between my imaginary imago that functions as an ideal ego for an ego ideal (a particular gaze from which we see ourselves as lovable) and my unconscious desire. Indeed, Lacan describes the imago structuring the ego as not only a semblable, but as a frozen statue constitutive of frustration itself, as I am never able to coincide with this ideal image of what I’d like to be. Between the lived body that farts and belches and moves in a less than graceful way and the body-image constitutive of the ego, there is always a disadequation or gap such that the imaginary is itself split or fissured, generating frustration and a perpetual remainder. Are not our net personae precisely such statues? Well worth the read.

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