The last few days I’ve been rather amiss in blogging. I’ve been heavily immersed in research and just haven’t had much time to write. Happily, however, I received a call for an on-campus interview today. Hopefully it won’t be the last such call.

In a rather pointed post, Kenneth Rufo responds to one of my queries as to how it is possible to be influenced. Kenneth quotes me from my Forcing the Event entry, where I write,

I think this really gets to the core of the issue. To put it in Kantian terms: “What are the conditions for the possibility of being influenced.” I’ve seen some work done among the systems theory that’s promising in that it analyzes the manner in which systems are selectively open to their environment, but the problem here, I think, is that there’s a tendency among systems theorists to place too much emphasis on the agency and autonomy of the system to the detriment of the environment. In many instances I did not explicitly choose my own influences, yet I wasn’t simply a passive formation of pre-existent influences either.

To this Kenneth responds,

You know, there is a field that actually spends a fair amount of time on this exact question: rhetoric. It’s got a long tradition, it precedes philosophy, and there’s a subfield that deals with social movements, though I can’t speak to the quality of that scholarship. For particular people you might enjoy, I suppose I’m obligated to suggest Kenneth Burke, though he’s hardly my cup of tea. I’d also recommend a few contemporary scholars: Celeste Condit (she’s done some ideographic studies of abortion, genetics, and a few other topics), Barb Biesecker (articles more than book, though her Addressing Postmodernity is pretty good), Michael Hyde (more of an ethical, Levinas/Heidegger influenced version of rhetoric), John Durham Peters (his Speaking Into the Air is masterful), and Christine Harold (who’s book OurSpace comes out in April). I can be more specific if you have a particular example of symbolic structuration you’re grappling with, or if you can clarify what such a structuration might be in practice. Not that rhetoricians have any particularly final answer, but it might be useful to look at the stuff. As for the dialectical arrangement you’re alluding to, I’d at least advocate some engagement with Bourdieu, since his theory of structuration is predicated on a conception of agency as a dialectic between habitus and agent.

I think, perhaps, Kenneth here misses the focus of my original question and elides two distinct concepts: The concept of influence and the concept of persuasion. While these two concepts are interrelated, they are nonetheless distinct and respond to different issues. It is impossible for me to be persuaded without being influenced, however, I can quite easily be influenced without it being a matter of persuasion. What is at issue here are questions about the selective openness of organizations to the world. That is, an organization, whether it be a biological organism, a subject, a social system, etc., is only selectively open to the world and thus can only be selectively influenced. For instance, I am unable to perceive ultra-violet light.

As I see it, one of the central assumptions of vulger historicist approaches is the idea that we are unilaterially conditioned by an environment. That is, the idea is that we’re born in an environment and somehow this environment makes us what we are. This view is common, for instance, to both Foucault and Bourdieu. What this account of individuation misses is the way in which subjects are only selectively open to an environment such that there’s a way in which we always choose our cultural and historical influences. Zizek expresses this point brilliantly in Tarrying With the Negative through the lense of Hegel’s “doctrine of essence” in the science of logic. There Zizek writes that,

Another way to exemplify this logic of ‘positing the presuppositions’ is the spontaneous ideological narrativization of our experience and activity: whatever we do, we always situate it in a larger symbolic context which is charged with conferring meaning upon our acts. A Serbian fighting Muslim Albanians and Bosnians in today’s ex-Yugoslavia conceives of his fight as the last act in the centuries-old defense of Christian Europe against Turkish penetration; the Bolsheviks conceived of the October Revolution as the continuation and successful conclusion of all previous radical popular uprisings, from Sparticus in ancient Rome to Jacobins in the French Revolution (this narrativization is tacitly assumed even by some critics of Bolshevism who, for example, speak of the ‘Stalinist Thermidor’); the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea or the Sendero Luminoso in Perud conceive of their movement as a return to the old glory of an ancient empire (Inca’s empire in Peru, the old Khmer kingdom in Cambodia); etc. The Hegelian point to be made is that such narratives are always retroactive reconstructions for which we are in a way responsible; they are never simple given facts: we can never refer to them as a found condition, context, or presupposition of our activity. Precisely as presuppositions, such narratives are always-already ‘posited’ by us. Tradition is tradition insofar as we constitute it as such. (126-7)

The point here is subtle but important: The subject is never simply a product of history or the result of conditioning, but rather posits those conditions through which it might be influenced and constitute itself. Or, where the writing of history is concerned, there is always an invisible subject– invisible insofar as there is no signifier for the subject –that posits x as history. Along these lines, my dear friend Melanie enjoys poking fun at me for my psychoanalytic narratives here on Larval Subjects, as she sees something false or contrived in the way I narrate myself. Here she is absolutely correct in that I often portray myself as a product of the events I narrate, as a sort of emergence, rather than as positing these events myself as a way of producing my presents. Indeed, my narratives are a sort of buffoonery. Sadly I haven’t yet developed the literary talent of Lars in his narrative conventions. Whatever the case may be, the Lacanian subject is a void, a lack, that animates the signifying chain. In short, the Lacano-Hegelian subject is– unlike the historicists –never simply a product of conditioning individuation such that it could be reduced to being a historically determined subject position. The question is one of how this lack, this nothingness, this absence of any successful identification, is handled and lived.

Zizek makes this point well apropos Hegel’s discussion of identity in the science of logic. Quoting Hegel, Zizek writes,

Father is the other of son, and son the other of father, and each only is as this other of the other; and at the same time, the one determination only is, in relation to the other… The father also has an existence of his own apart from the son-relationship; but then he is not father but simply man… Opposites, therefore, contain contradiction in so far as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another or sublate each other and are indifferent to one another. (SL 441)

The inattentive reader may easily miss the key accent of this passage, the feature which belies the standard notion of the ‘Hegelian Contradiction’: ‘contradition’ does not take place between ‘father’ and ‘son’ (here, we have a case of simple opposition between two codependent terms); it also does not turn on the fact that in one relation (to my son) I am ‘father’ and in another (to my own father) I am myself ‘son,’ i.e., I am ‘simultaneously father and son.’ If this were the Hegelian ‘contradiction,’ Hegel would effectively be guilty of logical confusion, since it is clear that I am not both in the same respect. The last phrase in the quoted passage from Hegel’s Logic locates the contradiction clearly inside ‘father’ himself: ‘contradiction’ designates the antagonistic relationship between what I am ‘for the others’– my symbolic determination –and what I am ‘in myself,’ abstractedly from my relations to others. It is the contradiction between the void of the subject’s pure ‘being-for-himself’ and the signifying feature which represents him for the others, in Lacanian terms: between $ and S1. More precisely, ‘contradiction’ means that it is my very ‘alienation’ in the symbolic mandate, in S1, which retoractively makes $– the void which eludes the hold of the mandate– out of my brute reality: I am not only ‘father,’ not only this particular determination, yet beyond these symbolic mandates I am nothing but the void which eludes them (and, as such their own retroactive product). (130-1)

This, then, is one of the meanings of Lacan’s discourse of the master:



When Lacan remarks that “the signifier represents the subject for another signifier” it must be understood that the subject as such never appears in the signifier or that the subject is always effaced by the signifier. That is, when the subject falls under the signifier it suffers an aphanisis or disappearance, which is why Lacan will claim, in “Position of the Unconscious” that the subject is a temporal pulsation that disappears the moment that it appears and that can only be tracked through the traces it leaves (traces in symptoms, bungled actions, dreams, slips of the tongue, etc). These formations of the unconscious, in effect, are attempts to fill the void that is the subject, to produce a signifier that would be adequate to that void once and for all or that would be capable of naming it. However, this void is ineradicable (i.e., it’s a constitutive result of the individual’s subordination to the signifier). As Lacan will write, “For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with the real– a real that may well not be determined” (Seminar XI, 22). There is always one signifier too few and it is for this reason that there is no subject without a symptom (Seminar 22: RSI).

It is here that Lacan differs most radically from the postmoderns. Where the general trend of theory today is to reduce the subject to power, history, language, subject-positions, etc., Lacan demonstrates that between symbolic identity and the subject there is always a gap. The “cash-value” of this move is immense– On the one hand, Lacan is able to answer the question of why the subject is led to identify in the first place. As Freud had already argued well before Lacan, the ego dimension of the subject (which is always a misrecognition) is the precipitate of identifications. But what is it that motivates these identifications? Lacan’s answer is that my flight to the Other, to the signifiers of the Other, is the attempt to fill my “want-to-be” through identification. I look to the Other to tell me what I am. However, just as the central hole in a torus can never be filled, every identification is ultimately a failed identification (which is yet another reason that the formation of symptoms such as the symptom of the “Jew” for the German nationalist) as the hole insists and subverts the identification. As a result, there is always a kernal of resistance to any field of identification. The aim of the cultural critic should therefore be to lay bare these tensions, these antagonisms, so as effect a change in the symptom and how the symptom is organized. From the historicist standpoint this would be impossible as historicism is essentially Leibnizian: “Everything has a reason!” What it is unable to think is the kernal of contingency, of non-being, at the heart of any positive formation. The question here becomes one of devising technologies to shift the symbolic coordinates of narrative fields of identification so that antagonism as such might become thinkable.

None of this, of course, is to deny Kenneth’s observations about the importance of rhetoric. I work closely with rhetoric and with rhetoricians– at my school they’re my primary interlocutors. In my view, the central insight of the rhetoric tradition is that the subject is inherently intersubjective… Which is to say, the subject is constituted in the field of the Other. Even if poorly executed, this is part of Zizek’s own brilliance. On the one hand, Zizek has recognized the central importance of Lacan in giving us a truly rigorous intersubjective conception of the subject that thoroughly breaks with the tradition of seeing the questions of philosophy posed strictly in terms of subject-object relations. The minimal dyad is a triad: not subject-object, but rather subject-Other-object. No one has gone further than Lacan in thinking through the manner in which the subject’s desire, all its object relations, it’s very being in the world is thoroughly caught up in relations to the Other. This insight was glimpsed in philosophy beginning with the progressive shift towards language, history, and power in philosophy– all of which led to a philosophical crisis surrounding questions of presence –but it is with Lacan that this topology is thoroughly elaborated. On the other hand, Zizek has clearly seen that only something like Hegelian dialectic– beginning with the lord/bondsman dialectic in the genesis of self-consciousness –is successful in escaping the metaphysics of presence insofar as it conceives the subject’s relation to the world and the Other in terms of self-relating negativity capable of discerning itself in difference itself. This is a project that needs to be worked out far more thoroughly and rigorously. It is to the credit of the rhetoricians that they recognized from the beginning that questions of epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, ethics, etc., were questions of intersubjectivity and relations to the Other, such that any posing of these questions in restricted subject-object terms were bound to be truncated and mutilated.

However, where Kenneth’s remarks seem to suggest an opposition between rhetoric and philosophy, I would prefer to see something like a Lacanian real or parallax. As Zizek describes it,

The key problem here is that the basic ‘law’ of dialectical materialism, the struggle of opposites, was colonized/obfuscated by the New Age notion of the polarity of opposites (ying-yang, and so on). The first critical move is to replace this topic of the polarity of opposites with the concept of the inherent ‘tension,’ gap, noncoincidence, of the One with itself. This… is based on a strategic politico-philosophical decision to designate this gap which separates the One from itself with the term parallax. [already extensively thematized in the brilliant For They Know Not What They Do…, that no one bothers to read]. There is an entire series of the modes of parallax in different domains of modern theory: quantum physics (the wave-particle duality); the parallax of neurobiology (the realization that, when we look behind the face into the skull, we find nothing: ‘there’s no one at home’ there, just piles of gray matter– it is difficult to tarry with this gap between meaning and the pure Real); the parallax of ontological difference, of the discord between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological (we cannot reduce the ontological horizon to its ontic ‘roots,’ but neither can we deduce the ontic domain from the ontological horizon; that is to say, transcendental constitution is not creation); the parallax of the Real (the Lacanian real has no positive-substantial consistency, it is just the gap between the multitude of perspectives on it)… (7)

And so on. And to this I add the parallax of language between rhetoric and philosophy, or language in its address to an-Other where I can use the truth to tell a lie– WIFE: “Were you out with that redhead at the bar lastnight?” HUSBAND: [Sarcastically] “Of course darling, and after we rented a hotel room and had sex that’s illegal in 42 states all night long.” WIFE: “Sorry, I just thought I smelled perfume on you and my imagination got away with me.” –and language in its demonstrative and referential function to the world. The key point, of course, is that we are not to choose one or the other horns of the parallax but are rather to think them in their very gap, in their very heterogenoues irreducibility to one another. My rhetorician colleagues always express a sort of bitterness and hostility towards philosophy (no doubt they’re still angry over Plato banishing them from the Republic), and philosophers, of course, express a disdain for rhetoric, as can be witnessed in the solipsistic rigor of texts such as Descartes’ Meditations, Hegel’s Logic, or Husserl’s Ideas, where a palpable negation of the Other (as reader) seems to take place in the deductive meditations. Likewise, the rhetor often seems to reject questions of Truth. Indeed, today it increasingly seems that the most audacious and unforgivable thing one can do is proclaim a Truth. There is a veritable prohibition against Truth. Yet if the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, if the subject is an effect of the signifier in the real of the biological body, then there can be no question of choosing between rhetoric or philosophy. Rather, there can be no worldly statement that doesn’t already make reference to both the Other and the other, no demonstrative statement that is a solipsistic intellectual reverie. Rather, it’s high time that the parallax gap, the central antagonism motivating this inaugural division of disciplines and practices, be thought in its own right.