March 2007

It seems lately that I’ve mostly been preserving things, finding scraps of paper here in there, rather than engaging in the synthetic activity of thought. I’m feeling as if my thoughts emerge only to trail off in a series of ellipses. I suppose I’ll go with that and see where it leads. In a beautiful passage from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes,

If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. A Laplander has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.

This passage occurs early in the text when Hume is defending the thesis that all thoughts or ideas originate with impressions. What I find so fascinating about this passage is not so much Hume’s observations about those who suffer from a defect of one of their sense organs, but rather the astute observation about “a man of mild manners” and one who has a “selfish heart”.

Read on

It seems that I have not been thinking very clearly of late. For whatever reason I’ve been exceedingly exhausted, despite the fact that I’m getting plenty of sleep. I’m beginning to worry that I might be sick, in a serious kind of way, as this is not a fatigue I’ve ever before experienced. I hope that it is just stress. No doubt these worries are just neurotic, hypochondrial symptoms. At any rate, I hope that readers will forgive me for my lack of substantial postings of late.

In a previous post I mentioned the need to think in terms of populations, rather than abstract categories. In A New Philosophy of Society, Delanda provides an elegant formulation of just what such an ontology might entail. There he writes,

The ontological status of any assemblage, inorganic or social, is that of a unique, singular, historically contingent, individual. Although the term ‘individual’ has come to refer to individual persons, in its ontological sense it cannot be limited to that scale of reality. Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members, but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so larger social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual entities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organizations and governments; individual cities and nation-states. This ontological manoeuvre allows us to assert that all these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds (or of our conceptions of them) without any commitment to essences or reified generalities. On the other hand, for the manoeuvre to work, the part-to-whole relation that replaces essences must be carefully elucidated. The autonomy of wholes relative to their parts is guaranteed by the fact that they can causally affect those parts in both a limiting and an enabling way, and by the fact that they can interact with each other in a way not reducible to their parts, that is, in such a way that an explanation of the interaction that includes the details of the component parts would be redundant. Finally, the ontological status of assemblages is two-sided: as actual entities all the differently scaled social assemblages are individual singularities, but the possibilities open to them at any given time are constrained by a distribution of universal singularities, the diagram of the assemblage, which is not actual but virtual. (40)

I offer this quotation more as a placeholder for future thought than as an occasion for detailed commentary. DeLanda’s remarks are of interest in the manner in which he conceives of assemblages at different levels of scale, such that we no longer treat larger scales as abstract classes but a particular abstract population. Thus, for instance, we speak poorly when we treat “horse” as an abstract species defining the characteristics that all horses share in common. Rather, “horse” should be seen as a population and individual forming an assemblage within a particular geographical location composed of other assemblages. While this might seem to be a minor shift, conceiving the class as a population has profound implications for how it is understood and analyzed. For instance, the the theorist might be far less inclined to treat wild horses in China (if there are any, I really don’t know) and wild horses in the American planes as sharing anything in common.

Read on!

In his essay “Robespierre, Or, the ‘Divine Violence’ of Terror”, Zizek writes,

In today’s ‘post-deconstructionist’ thought…, the term ‘inhuman’ has gained new weight, especially in the work of Agamben and Badiou. The best way to apporach it is via Freud’s reluctance to endorse the injunction ‘Love thy neighbor!’– the temptation to be resisted here is the ethical domestication of the neighbor as the abyssal point from which the call of ethical responsibility emanates. What Levinas thereby obfuscates is the monstrosity of the neighbor, a monstrosity on account of which Lacan applies to the neighbour the term Thing [das Ding], used by Freud to designate the ultimate object of our desires in its unbearable intensity and impenetrability… In a properly dialectical paradox, what Levinas, with all his celebration of Otherness, fails to take into account is not some underlying Sameness of all humans but the radically ‘inhuman’ Otherness itself: the Otherness of a human being reduced to inhumanity, the Otherness exemplified by the terrifying figure of the Muselmann, the ‘living dead’ in the concentration campus. (xiii-xiv)

While I’m not great enthusiast of Levinas, passages such as this, scattered throughout his work, irritate the hell out of me. Am I alone in suspecting that he’s never read a single word of Levinas? Certainly the above remarks suggest that this is the case.

Joe Murray, who served as a staff attorney for the American Family Association, speaks out against intolerance of homosexuals among Christian fundamentalists.

How could preachers preach such vehement messages towards gays when it was clear that the Bible was unclear at best, and silent at worse, on the issue? Why recklessly condemn a group of individuals? Why fixate on them when your congregation is knee deep in divorce (Jesus had some pretty clear words on that issue)? And as for gluttony, how could preachers lecture gays on restraint when churches host pot luck dinner after pot luck dinner and not be deemed hypocritical?

It was this hypocrisy that caused me to open my eyes. Those on the Christian right, for whatever reasons, have become fixated on homosexuality. They are obsessed by it and perverse form of vengeance appears to be fueling their inquisition. I may be wrong, but I think actions are speaking much louder than words here.

The whole gay issue is no longer about the quest for the Truth; it is about fear and loathing. It is about shame and sorrow. It is anything but Christian.

You can read the rest of the interview here. It is refreshing to see a public figure closely tied to fundamentalist movements in the United States reading the Gospels so closely and speaking out in this way and wondering whether hate really is a Christian value.

Yesterday we began reading Mill’s Utilitarianism in my Ethics course. Do not worry, I am not a utilitarian. Rather, the course is a survey of ethical thought throughout the history of philosophy where we read selections from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Epicurus, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. As many of you, I’m sure, know, Mill draws a distinction between the quality of pleasure and the quantity of pleausre involved in making ethical deliberations. In other words, we must not simply evaluate the quantity of pleasure an action is likely to produce for those involved in making a decision as to whether something is right or wrong, but must also evaluate the quality of that pleasure and whether it is befitting of a flourishing human life. As Mill famously says, “It is better to be Socrates dissatisified, than a pig satisfied.”

Mill thought about ethical questions in their social context, and recognized that human beings must undergo a process of cultivation or development so that they might become capable of enjoying those things (literature, philosophy, art, science, mathematics, etc) that are open to human beings. As such, he recognized that it was not enough to simply transform oneself, but that social institutions must be transformed as well. Mill was a passionate advocate for reform in education, labor structures, economic structures, gender relations, etc. What seems implicit in Mill’s thought is the idea that humans always individuate, actualize, or develop themselves in a social environment such that we must think about their capacity (and limits) of happiness within such contexts.

This discussion led to a discussion of education in the United States, and I found myself horrified by what my students told me about their highschool education. These students related how all of their education had been organized around taking standardized tests, referred to here in Texas as “TAKS” tests. The entire curriculum during the school year was devoted to teaching what would be covered on these texts and developing strategies for effectively taking these tests. I found myself particularly bothered by what they said about their English classes. On the one hand, students were trained to write short, one page, five paragraph essays that summarized whatever material they were being asked to “analyze” (no critical interpretation). On the other hand, their literature courses focused on plot summary and they were told that this is the one interpretation of say Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Even where there was disagreement over interpretation or possibilities of alternative readings, the students were told that this is what the test graders would be looking for so this is what the students need to be able to repeat or replicate. Somehow this filled me with a sense of dread, sensing this was what Benjamin worried over in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” taken to its extreme. Some of my colleagues complain that students are today lazy, that they don’t know how to read, that they cannot write, etc. However, I think these judgments fail to take into account the ways in which students have been trained by the public education system and the way that they’re developing in our contemporary technological environment. We need to find ways to work with these challenges, not to blame students and teachers.

When I took English courses in highschool we would sit in a large circle and read whatever work we were studying line by line. We would have lively discussions about the texts, analyzing themes, metaphors, symbolism, etc., and how the text might resonate with contemporary issues. In engaging in these activities we learned how to read and learned that reading is not simply the ability to read the words on the page, but consists of actively engaging with texts, animating them, extrapolating from them, and drawing them out of themselves. Reading here became an occasion for theory building, where the students built sociological, anthropological, psychological, metaphysical, and ethical theories regarding the world. When we read Orwell’s 1984 we built a theory of ideology and attachment to power. When we read Sophocles’ Antigone we developed theories pertaining to why humans explain the world in terms of the concept of “curse” and other similar themes. Literature was a way of knowing the world.

However, literature also functioned as a way of shifting from immediacy, to tautological ground, to real ground. In immediacy objects, persons, and events are simply taken as they are, in their abstract immediacy without need of further explanation. The world is simply taken as it is. Tautological ground encounters objects, persons, and events as mediated or differing from themselves, requiring a ground of explanation. For instance, one says “objects fall because of gravity.” “Gravity” is a tautologous explanation in that it is identical to objects falling. It adds nothing more to our understanding of the object but merely repeats what it does. Or put more precisely, it changes nothing in our cognition of the content of the object. However, it does change the form of how we relate to the object in that we now recognize that the being must be grounded in something else, that it requires an explanation. Real ground then would add something to the content through giving an explanation. Literature took us through these stages of cognition, transforming the abstract immediacy of the world around us into something requiring explanation. The novel, the poem, the essay presented itself as an enigma to be explained and was thus a laboratory for “real world” thought.

Somehow the cynicism and cocerns of my students seem to resonate with a number of concerns haunting contemporary theory today. I am heartened that they could express cynicism towards this form of “education”, almost as if they instinctively sense that something is wrong here. Even though they have developed in such an environment, they still seem to recognize that alternatives are possible. The world of theory has taught us many dark truths in the last 100 years. Foucault has shown us how our relationship to ourselves and our relationship to others is pervaded by relations of power that give us form and identity. The structuralists have shown us how thought is governed by linguistic structures that organize how we think and relate to the world. Sociologists such as Bourdieu have shown us how or sense of self and interpersonal relations is organized by social habitus and power. Figures like Barthes, Baudrillard, and Lyotard have shown how signs and narratives organize our self understanding and world. Lacan and Freud have shown how the autonomous ego is a fiction in thrall of the unconscious.

In each case, the subject has become a sort of void or placeholder within a field of differential relations that contributes nothing of its own and which is buffeted like a small boat at sea by social forces beyond its control and comprehension. In this connection, I wonder what it could possibly be for a subject to be autonomous today. What can autonomy possibly be given what we know now about the nature of subject formation? How can we be self-directing humans when we are formed and actualized in this way? Perhaps the most astonishing moment in Kant’s ethical theory comes when he argues that we ourselves are the legislators of the moral law. For Kant the moral law does not come from God, nor from parents or authorities, but we both create the moral law and bind ourselves with this law. This is necessitated by the formulation of the moral law that says “always treat rational beings as ends in themselves and never as means to an end.” Were the moral law to come from elsewhere, we would become mere tools of the moral law. This suggests that there’s a perverse masochistic fantasy at work in the common religious belief that we’re a part of some unfolding divine plan, as we here see ourselves as tools or implements of Gods jouissance. Judge Schreber saw this clearly in his psychosis. That aside, given what we know about the nature of the subject today, is it possible any longer to think of ourselves as legislators or self-directing beings? Moreover, how can a pedagogy focused on rubrics and learning outcomes in this way possible promote the cultivation of autonomous, self-directing human beings? At the very least, a pedagogy that does not promote the division of the object from itself, its mediation and split nature, nor the division of the subject from herself– her lack of immediacy and identity with herself –fails to implement that void that would be necessary for acts of freedom and self-creation incalculable by social structure.

Over the last couple of days an interesting discussion surrounding religion, Enlightenment, reason, and a host of other issues has been unfolding over at I Cite between me, Adam Kotsko, Anthony Paul Smith, Discard, N.Pepperell and a few others. I’ve been approaching the discussion from the perspective of religion as a material social reality, bracketing questions of whether or not it’s true, and how that reality might come to disappear within the social field. But the discussion has touched on a number of interesting issues surrounding history and the nature of reason and grounding that are worth, perhaps, taking a look at. As always the discussion has been heated, at points less than noble, but I would say that it’s been more productive than other discussions we’ve had in the past.

I’ve found myself inspired by a number of the themes in this discussion, which led me to write the rather underdeveloped post on populations today. I have a difficult time articulating clearly what I’m trying to get at in these meditations. Perhaps it could be summed up with the word “infrastructure” or “assemblage”. Increasingly I’ve come to find myself dissatisfied with ideology critique and forms of political theory that search for the “right theory”. In this connection, I’ve begun to focus on the material dimension of how movements are formed and maintain themselves in time, and also how they pass away… That is, the material dimension of communication. Here I’m thinking about communications that circulate around the public sphere: Political pamplets, newpapers articles, public email exchanges, discussion lists, regular group meetings, blogs, certain repetitive phrases like “I’m an Oscar Myer weenie” that stick in ones head or “Gore said he invented the internet”, media stories, etc., etc. What has interested in me is not so much the content of these things, their truth value or accuracy, but the way they become formative of certain ways of conceiving the world and certain identities. I’ve tended to notice– with the help of N.Pepperell –that theorists coming out of the Frankfurt school and contemporary French political theory tend to suffer from a kind of sickness: Theoretical pessimism. Here I wonder whether this doesn’t arise from thinking about politics in abstraction and at the level of content, and ignoring the material dimension of how messages are produced and disseminated throughout the social sphere, how movements and groups are formed, and how institutions have successfully been short-circuited in the past, allowing for new institutions to be formed in their stead.

These thoughts have been on my mind for a long time… Since prior to the 2004 elections. But they also resonate with me personally having just witnessed such a transformation within my own neck of the woods. Here an utter transformation was made possible through public email exchanges, among other things, that galvanized a group of people and which had the effect of leveraging a tremendous amount of pressure on higher management, demanding a significant degree of change. Here the form of communication– email –had a massive impact on what was and was not possible. Had the very same complaints been levelled in private to management in this organization, no change would have occured as the complaints would have been seen as 1) personal, and 2) as easily swept under the rug and ignored. It was the rendering public that allowed for a collectivization of identity– there was a creation of identity that took place –that had to be recognized and responded to, lest the business explode. This was all made possible by mediums of communication, but also by forms of rhetoric that created a particular collective identity and that worked to transform concerns that might have been seen as personal into systemic problems requiring organizational change. As a result of this encounter, a new identity was formed that didn’t exist prior to this and that is now capable of things that it wasn’t before capable of.

When we treat any institution as a monolithic fact that cannot be changed, we are ignoring the manner in which this institution must perpetually reproduce itself through time through the agency of those that belong to the institution. We forget that the institution or form of social life is just as much produced by these agents as they are produced by it. We then resort to ideology critique and other forms of ingenious analysis, hoping to awaken these subjects from their attachment to the institution. What we don’t do is begin forming other institutions and subjectivities that get discourses on the table in a very public way– not academic, public, accessible –that force existing institutions to acknowledge them and into becoming through that very force. For a long time protests were able to do this but their messages are now too diluted by being filtered through media machines that frame what is heard and not heard, allowing political power to ignore their acts, while complacently reassuring those involved that they’re doing something. More recently blogs have been very effective in producing tangable and concrete results by getting information and certain themes out there to millions of people through linkages among blogs, raising money, organizing boycotts, and organizing letter writing campaigns that are very difficult for politicians and major media outlets to ignore. The impact of these media technologies on major media and politicians has been palpable and profound for anyone who has carefully followed how major stories have been broken and brought front and center in the last three or four years. This is transformation through viral infestation and contamination. I’m beginning to think there needs to be more concrete analysis, almost case studies like what Hallward is doing with his book on Haiti, or what Foucault did, or what Deleuze and Guattari allow us to theorize, and less abstract theorizing detached from context such as we find in Zizek, Ranciere, and Badiou. We need to look at those small skirmishes where profound change has been produced, and look at the mechanisms that allowed for the production of new identities, new institutions, and significant shifts in distributions of power.

The State can be conceived as a series of institutions, but also as a system of categories through which members are named and identified as belonging to particular social categories. In the latter case, the State functions to homogenize and minimize difference by transforming differences into mere noise that can be easily ignored. For instance, we come to talk of “Christians”, “The Enlightenment”, “Men”, “Women”, “Blacks”, “the United States”, etc., as if these groupings all had one monolithic and identical content. All we can think of here are instead tendencies that happen to be more or less dominant in a situation. The question then becomes that of a concrete praxis devoted to intensifying other tendences within a population.

Discussing the process of individuation or the movement from the virtual to the actual in the process of actualization, Deleuze writes,

A living being is not only defined genetically, by the dynamisms which determine its internal milieu, but also ecologically, by the external movements which provide over its distribution within an extensity. A kinetics of population adjoins, without resembling, the kinetics of the eg; a geographic process of isolation may be no less formative of species than internal genetic variations, and sometimes precedes the latter. Everything is even more complicated when we consider that the internal space is made up of multiple spaces which must be locally integrated and connected, and that this connection, which may be achieved in many ways, pushes the object or living being to its own limits, all in contact with the exterior; and that this relation with the exterior, and with other things and living beings, implies in turn connections and global integrations which differ in kind from the preceding. Everywhere a staging at several levels. (Difference and Repetition, 217)

Perhaps one of the central contributions of Darwinian evolution is the shift from thinking in terms of abstract species, to thinking in terms of individuals and populations, where individual difference precedes difference in the species, serving as its condition. Geography here becomes an individuating factor, where relations among different populations, environment, geographical isolation or accessibility, all figure into thinking about the emergence of molar aggregates. That is, the idea of a species functions as an abstraction that covers over all these dynamic relations, such that we must conceive species as only ever being dominant statistical aggregates that “leak around the edges” rather than as being unchanging and self-identical units.

Smokewriting has written an excellent post offering some of his thoughts in relation to my recent post on Hegel:

The ‘Logic of Essence’ in the Science of Logic attempts to carry this forward by mounting a full-on critique of the separation between essence and ‘mere’ reflection, essence and appearance, ground and grounded, and substance and accidents. Through this movement, the concept of relation – Kant’s third causal category of reciprocity – receives a full articulation as the primary means of thinking identity dynamically. As Sinthome writes, there is no inner core to things that provides their effectivity, their capacity to produce an effect autonomously. There are only the relationships between things that govern the ongoing expression of their potential: Hegel writes (I don’t have the exact reference to hand) of the idea of existence, not as the achievement of a finished, settled accretion of individual being, but as a process of coming-to-be through which the interrelated conditions of a thing’s existence complete or augment [ergänzt] themselves in another thing. This is to foreshadow the conceptual universe of complexity theory, in which co-constitutive, dynamic, non-linear relations are shown to subvert putatively unidirectional causal series. Sinthome notes that the predilection for a fixed relationship between a veiled to-be-known and a pure knower are reflected, in slightly differing configurations, across a ‘wide variety of skepticisms common to thought today’. The habit of mind that refers causality and determination to the equivalent of the efficient cause – just one out of Aristotle’s four modes of aition – is one to which we return just as often.

Well worth the read.

I once heard a person express wonder and delight at “sharing a world with such creatures” in relation to something that had resonated with her at the level of thought. There is a profound precision and rightness in this expression, such that I hardly know how to capture it at the level of the Notion. The indefinite article hints at a pluralism of worlds and a possibility of other worlds and other fields of individuation, expressing an awareness of the contingency of this shared world and the hope of other worlds yet to come. But the concept of the “creature”, applied to what are ordinarily referred to as persons or humans, suggests singularity, animality, mad and untamed becomings that can no longer quite be classified in terms of subjectivized positions. The creaturely evokes the irreplaceable, and functions in much the same way that Levi-Strauss’ word mana, as an empty signifier that names that which fails to be embodied in language or the contemporary system of signifiers. But above all, to inhabit a world with creatures, would this not mean that there are still things worthy of wonder, astonishment, and admiration?… That there are forces that counter-act our cynicism, holding out the hope for something more? These are powerful and traumatic words to hear… Words that bring one to tremble and fill one with envy. Perhaps the creaturely, as an empty place holder of what cannot be named is nonetheless an end that should be aimed at. This would be the affirmation of a very different Gregor Samsa.

For the past few days I’ve been completely inundated with marking, along with ongoing contentious “political engagements” that have been eating up a good deal of my time. Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if my schedule is going to let up until mid-April, so I’m not in the best of moods at present. To make matters worse, it’s been four weeks since the job interview and I’ve still heard nothing. At this point I have no idea what to think and am thoroughly perplexed. This week is Spring Break for the University, so I suspect I won’t hear anything for at least another week. I’m trying to tell myself that I just didn’t get the job so I don’t think about it.

During this time I’ve been vaguely thinking about Hegel’s critique of Kant’s thing-in-itself and his discussion of grounds, conditions, and existence in the doctrine of essence. I am not quite sure why I find this particular moment of the Science of Logic and Phenomenology so significant, though I do believe that it resonates with a good deal I’ve written about individuation with regard to Deleuze and interactive constructivism in biology. More intriguing yet, Hegel’s account of essence rejects all transcendence in favor of appearances. For Hegel there isn’t one thing, essence, and another thing, appearance. Rather it is appearance all the way down and there is no further fact “beyond” the appearances that is hidden and that must be discovered or uncovered. Hegel will say, “Essence must appear” (EL, paragraph 131). The real surprise is that the mediation of essence is a reference to another appearance, not a distinct ontological entity to be contrasted with existence. As Hyppolite recounts, “The great joke, Hegel wrote in a personal note, is that things are what they are. There is no reason to go beyond them” (Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, 122).

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