The last few days have left me feeling despondant and without a thought in the world, though I’m dreaming a good deal, which must, from an analytic point of view, mean that I’m doing some serious thinking. I feel as if my brain has fallen out of my ear. Last night’s dream involved an old friend Dan, who first introduced me to philosophy in highschool, holding a German luger pistol to my head and laughing as I squirmed. I wonder what that’s all about. In the dream it turns out that after all these years he still works at Long John Silver’s as a fry cook. My father has such a gun… Hmmm.

At any rate, in my quest to better understand the series of critical questions that N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has been posing vis a vis the conditions for the possibility of critique, I’ve returned to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, a text that always, for some reason, fills me with guilt… The guilt of a missed encounter. Just in traversing the first few pages, I can see why N.Pepperell has been intrigued by a good deal of the work I’ve been doing here, as much of Adorno resonates closely with Lacan and Zizek. The following remarks are more placeholders than anything else, designed to forge a sort of translation device or lexicon, rather than to propose an argument. Of course, any translation is already an interpretation, so perhaps I should bear that in mind.

In a striking remark that cannot fail to ring significantly to the Lacanian ear, Adorno claims that,

The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy… It indicates the untruth of identity, the fact that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived.

Yet the appearance of identity is inherent in thought itself, in its pure form. To think is to identify. Conceptual order is content to screen what thinking seeks to comprehend. The semblance and the truth of thought entwine. The semblance cannot be decreed away, as by avowal of a being-in-itself outside the totality of cogitative definitions… Aware that the conceptual totality is mere appearance, I have no way but to break immanently, in its own measure, through the appearance of total identity. Since that totality is structured to accord with logic, however, whose core is the principle of the excluded middle, whatever will not fit this principle, whatever differs in quality, comes to be designated as a contradiction. Contradiction is nonidentity under the aspect of identity; the dialectical primary of the principle of contradiction makes the thought of unity the measure of heterogeneity. (5)

This is perhaps the pithiest expression of the Lacanian borromean knot between the symbolic, the real, and the imaginary I have ever encountered. I have never been particularly fond of the term “imaginary” in Lacanian psychoanalysis, as it too readily lends itself to common usages suggesting what is false or imagined, whereas for Lacan the imaginary pertains to the dimension of the image, of our identification with our bodily image that always differs from the lived body of movement, that we can never fully assume or be identical with. Of course, this is part of the point in Lacan’s use of language: It is a pedagogy that teaches the difference between signifier and signified, of their radical discontinuity, and that enjoins us not to assume the signified as inherently attached to the signifier, but to look for it among those signifiers immanently attached to it in a text or the speech of an analysand. The imaginary is the domain of identification, and marks our yearning for completeness, wholeness, totality, and identity. Dylan Evans puts it nicely in his Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis,

The basis of the imaginary order continues to be the formation of the ego in the mirror stage. Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, identification is an important aspect of the imaginary order. The ego and the counterpart form the protypical dual relationship, and are interchangeable. This relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification with the little other [the mirror image or image of another person] means that the ego, and the imaginary order itself, are both sites of a radical alienation; ‘aleination is constitutive of the imaginary order’ (S3, 146) [we are alienated insofar as we are never identical to the image, hence the identification generates rivalry and aggressivity as can often be witnessed in the blogosphere when various bloggers go to war with one another in thinly veiled struggles for prestige and recognition]. The dual relationship between the ego and the counterpart is fundamentally narcissistic, and narcissism is another characteristic of the imaginary order. Narcissism is always accompanied by a certain aggressivity. The imaginary is the realm of image and imagination, deception and lure [deception insofar as I confuse myself with what I am not, my frozen image]. The principle illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality and above all, similarity [images appear whole, whereas language and movement are not]. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the affects are such phenomena. (82)

Returning then to Adorno, then, the concept can loosely be translated into the domain of the symbolic, while the totality or whole can be translated into the domain of the Lacanian imaginary. As Adorno will say a few pages later, “No object is wholly known; knowledge is not supposed to prepare the phantasm of the whole” (14). Those philosophical systems that present the whole such as, for instance, Whitehead, can be situated as the symbolic under the dominion of the imaginary. They fantasize an image without remainder, without blindspot or tain, without gaze before which they dance. And it is remarkable that variants of holism so often paradoxically generate aggressivity.

The real then, of course, would be the remainder that resists conceptualization. This remainder seems to function in a two-fold way. When Adorno suggests that to think is to identify, he immediately seems to back up, expressing hesitation, treating this remainder as the motor that propels the imaginary yearning for identification. It is precisely because the object differs from itself, that thought strives to identify. A perfect identity would leave no space, no gap, calling for the thing to be thought. The thing would reside purely within itself, never producing the distance that calls for it to be thought. It is only insofar as identity already is minimally indifferent that we’re driven to try to identify. As Hegel puts it in an important passage in the Logic (and I think Adorno is pretty far off the mark in his interpretation of Hegel),

This proposition in its positive expression A = A is, in the first instance, nothing more than the expression of an empty tautology. It has therefore been rightly remarked that this law of thought has no content and leads no further. It is thus the empty identity that is rigidly adhered to by those who take it, as such, to be something true and are given to saying that identity is not difference, but that identity and difference are different. They do not see that in this very assertion they are themselves saying that identity is different; for they are saying that identity is different from difference; since this must at the same time be admitted to be the nature of identity, their assertion implies that identity, not externally, but in its own self, in its very nature, is this, to be different. (413)

Hegel goes on to argue that the contradiction embodied in the principle of identity is not simply that identity is different from difference– though this is true as well –but immanent to identity itself as a contradiction or difference between form and content. At the level of form, any proposition of the form “x is…” calls for a predicate that enriches the subject with some new content. For instance, I say a “pen is a utensil”. However, at the level of content, all we get is “A is A”, such that the predicate gives us no additional content, but merely repeats, tautologously, the initial subject. What we thus get is a marking of the difference betwen form and content. It is precisely because the content fails that we are able to become aware of the form of this species of propositions. Thus, even in the most formal presentation of identity already contains the elusive remainder within it or its own resistance to complete conceptualizations or symbolization.

We might begin from an epistemic stance, arguing that this remainder is a deficiency in thought, a deficiency in knowledge, that could perhaps be surmounted by gaining more information and understanding. Here the world, in-itself, would be free of such remainders and would be complete. It would simply be a matter of a disadequation between thought and being. However, in a vein very similar to Zizek’s, Adorno goes on to claim that in fact it is the world itself that is antagonistic, that doesn’t have the smooth functioning of the signifier (when conceived under the dominion of the imaginary):

However, varied, the anticipation of moving in contradictions throughout seems to teach a mental totality– the very identity thesis we have just rendered inoperative. The mind which ceaselessly reflects on contradiction in the thing itself, we hear, must be the thing itself it is to be organized in the form of contradiction; the truth which in idealistic dialectics drives beyond every particular, as onesided and wrong, is the truth of the whole, and if that were not preconcieved, the dialectical step would lack motivation and direction. We have to answer that the object of a mental experience is an antagnoistic system in itself– antagonistic in reality, not just in conveance to the knowing subject that rediscovers itself therein…

…Regarding the concrete utopian possibility, dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction. (10-11)

The obvious target here is Hegel, who Adorno portrays as the thinker of a complete and whole system where everything has its place. However, when Hegel speaks of absolute knowledge, it is precisely this antagonism, this remainder, reflected back into the thing itself (rather than the knowing subject) that he is speaking of. Put a bit differently, reality is already dialectical in itself, or just is this tension between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. The real is the undoing of any totality, but is also the motor that drives towards totality. Therefore it has an ambiguous status.

I realize here that I am only repeating points that I’ve already made to N.Pepperell: That the non-identity of identity is the necessary but not sufficient condition for critique, that it is what accounts for how critique is possible in the first place. However, it is a first step, I think, in unfolding the question of self-reflexivity, or accounting for the conditions for the possibility of a critical subject. What is needed in addition to this is a socio-historical account of the conceptual web such a subject swims in at a particular juncture… A conceptual web that must already be non-identical to itself to be recognized as such. Additionally, my interest in all of this, revolves around questions of how it is possible to philosophically appropriate psychoanalysis and various other forms of social theory drawing on some explicit or implicit notion of the unconscious. These forms of thought remain dogmatic so long as they are baldly or empirically asserted as is so often the case. Moreover, it is clear that philosophical stances based on the primacy of the classical subject such as those found in Descartes or Husserl, are inadequate in dealing with anything resembling the unconscious or social systems. Finally, embedded approaches such as Heidegger’s or Merleau-Ponty’s seem to inevitably lead to mystical obscurantism. What a dialectical approach provides is precisely the means of thinking the identity of identity and difference… And what is the unconscious but that “Other scene” that differs from identity but which I nonetheless am?

Apologies for the scattered and random remarks.