April 2007


I’ve picked up Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Dawkin’s The God Delusion, out of curiosity about the rhetoric of these texts. What interests me about these works isn’t the sophistication of their arguments, but rather the fact that they’re directed towards a popular audience and are designed to have an impact on popular debates here in the United States. That is, books like this strike me as trying to put an option on the table within the field of popular discourse that isn’t currently there and I’m interested in seeing how this rhetoric functions to do that. In this regard, I certainly don’t share the biologism or scientism of these thinkers, nor am I looking to these works for a scholarly discussion of religious metaphysics versus other ontologies.

The very first paragraph of Dennett’s book caught my eye as it is something that’s come up here at Larval Subjects in my discussions with Orla from time to time. There Dennett writes,

Let me begin with an obvious fact: I am an American author, and this book is addressed in the first place to American readers. I shared drafts of this book with many readers, and most of my non-American readers found this fact not just obvious but distracting– even objectionable in some cases. Couldn’t I make the book less provincial and outlook? Shouldn’t I strive, as a philosopher, for the most universal target audience I could muster? No. Not in this case, and my non-American readers should consider what they can learn about the situation in America from what they find in this book. More compelling to me than the reaction of my non-American readers was the fact that so few of my American readers had any inkling of this bias– or, if they did, they didn’t object. That is a pattern to ponder. It is commonly observed– both in America and abroad –that America is strikingly different from other First World nations in its attitudes to religion, and this book is, among other things, a sounding device intended to measure the depths of those difference. I decided I had to express the emphases found here if I was to have any hope of reaching my intended audience: the curious and conscientious citizens of my native land– as many as possible, not just the academics. (xiii)

It seems to me that if we accept something like Deleuze’s account of individuation and immanence, then we are necessarily led to think in terms of situations or constellations that are geographically local, and that think the constitution of a phenomenon in terms of the context in which it emerges. I don’t know that philosophy has ever thought “geographically” in this way or just how one might go about thinking geographically. Rather, space seems to be something that is perpetually subtracted from the generalizing and totalizing urges of philosophical speculation in ways that are perhaps even more profound than the way in which phenomena are detemporalized.

There have been stabs in the direction of “geophilosophy”. Foucault’s archaeologies and geneaologies are both very situated in how they analyze formations of thought and the bodies that accompany them in terms of their geographical site of emergence. There’s something tremendously irritating in the way Foucault’s analysis of the penal system or the discourse of madness is then generalized as if it can be taken to apply anywhere. For instance, shouldn’t someone write a geneaology of the DSM-IV and how it has functioned in the United States? A geophilosophy would thus be an ecophilosophy, rejecting any sort of generalization for a phenomenon but examining the manner in which it is a technology or way of life deeply wedded to a certain field of singularities or relations. Over at Rough Theory I’ve made a few stabs trying to articulate just what this would be in terms of assemblages and constellations, but I’m still far from being clear as to how to precisely articulate what I’m trying to get at.

BOOK III, PROP. IX. The mind, both in so far as it has clear and distinct ideas, and also in so far as it has confused ideas, endeavours to persist in its being for an indefinite period, and of this endeavour it is conscious.

Note.–This endeavour, when referred solely to the mind, is called will, when referred to the mind and body in conjunction it is called appetite; it is, in fact, nothing else but man’s essence, from the nature of which necessarily follow all those results which tend to its preservation; and which man has thus been determined to perform.

Further, between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that the term desire is generally applied to men, in so far as they are conscious of their appetite, and may accordingly be thus defined: Desire is appetite with consciousness thereof. It is thus plain from what has been said, that in no case do we strive for, wish for, long for, or desire anything, because we deem it to be good, but on the other hand we deem a thing to be good, because we strive for it, wish for it, long for it, or desire it.

BOOK III, PROP. VIII. The endeavour, whereby a thing endeavours to persist in its being, involves no finite time, but an indefinite time.

BOOK III, PROP. VII. The endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.

N.Pepperell, over at Rough Theory, has written a spectacular post on questions of immanence and self-reflexivity that has generated a nice discussion about different senses of immanence and critical inquiry. As she articulates the conceptual knot,

One of the questions that comes up often in the reading group discussion of my project is why I don’t simply treat core concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity as something like a prioris – as posited starting points, from which the other theoretical moves can then be derived. Everyone involved in the reading group discussion presumably understands the logical contradiction involved in doing this: immanence posits that there is no “outside” to context, and therefore logically rules out the existence of “objective” grounds from which other trusted propositions can then be derived; self-reflexivity follows from immanence, and posits that the theorist remains embedded within the context they are analysing.

Both of these positions carry implications for the form of a theoretical argument, as well as for its content: to be consistent with the principles of immanence and self-reflexivity, the theorist must find the analytical categories that apply to a context, within that context itself. This is sometimes phrased in the form “categories of subjectivity are also categories of objectivity”: the theoretical categories in terms of which the theorist apprehends a context, are generated by the determinate properties of the context itself. Treating concepts like immanence or self-reflexivity as a prioris is an intrinsically asymmetrical approach, which deploys theoretical concepts whose determinate relationship to the context they grasp has not been explained. This asymmetrical move is therefore a performative contradiction, undermining the very concepts whose importance it seeks to assert.

The rest of the post is well worth reading for both the richness of its questions and concepts, but also the clarity with which the problematic is developed. It has been very exciting to watch N.Pepperell develop this line of thought in recent months, even if I don’t agree with all of it.

Read on

(more…)

It is a strange irony that the very day Kugelmass announces that he will be shutting down the Kugelmass episode and going underground like Gregor Samsa, I arrive at crucially important proposition six of book three of the Ethics:

BOOK III, PROP. VI. Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavours to persist in its own being.

If you appreciate Joseph’s blog and comments, please drop by The Kugelmass Episode and share this with him, so that he might find a little energy to help his important and distinctive voice persist in its being, thereby helping our little organism, the theory blogosphere, persist in its being. Do it for the sake of conatus! Desires sometimes flag and stutter. There is an entire ethics surrounding sustaining and preserving desire.

BOOK III, PROP. V. Things are naturally contrary, that is, cannot exist in the same object, in so far as one is capable of destroying the other.

Have a look at Hoyden About Town’s Anti-Feminist Bingo. Men, wonder why you’re not coming across well to your feminist friends? Well here’s your answer. I confess I’m guilty of the “patriarchy is detrimental to men” thought as well. I suppose this comes from my attachments to variants of structuralist and post-structural anthropology and being convinced by Deleuze and Guattari’s arguments about the Oedipus and the Oedipal character of oppositional thought. Perhaps some of my readers, if there are any, can inform me why this particular observation fits with the others.

In The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, Antonio Negri writes:

Existence is not a problem. The immediacy of being reveals itself in non-problematic terms to the pure intellect. Existence, as such, does not demand definition. It is the spontaneity of being. Philosophy affirms, is a system of affirmations, inasmuch as it expresses directly and immediately the interlaced networks of existence. But existence is always qualified, and every existence is essential; every existence exists, that is, as essence. The relationship between existence and essence is the primary ontological form: the relation and tension between names that cannot be otherwise predicated, which take form in the determination of the nexus that unites them. The thing and the substance are the foundation. This given complex of being is the element in which we live, the fabric from which all is woven. (45)

It is it still possible to speak of existence with this sort of innocence, this sort of directness, today? In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel shows how, with the very first moment of thought, sense-certainty, it is impossible to say the thing itself. In his own way, though for the sake of very different ends, Kierkegaard repeats this thesis, enacting a style that performs the impossibility of speaking the singular, while nonetheless pointing to the singular. Later Sartre will talk about the inexpressible singularity of the oak tree in Nauseau, and Wittgenstein will try to encircle the limits of what can be expressed. Lacan will demonstrate a constitutive alienation in the signifier that subsequently separates us from being or any immediacy. Henceforth, with the introduction into language, all presence, all flesh, all existence, will be haunted by the absence that only the signifier can bring.

Last weekend I presented a paper on Deleuze’s account of individuation. John Caputo was kind enough to ask some questions and expressed reservations about the relationship of Deleuze to science. My paper certainly didn’t appeal to scientific examples after the fashion of DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, but simply outlined the contours of Deleuze’s account of individuation. Coming from the author of Radical Hermeneutics, I couldn’t help but feel that what Caputo was really objecting to was any sort of direct reference to the world, to existence. Later I had the pleasure of attending Charles Bambach’s paper, which turned out to be a close reading of Holderlin’s poem, The Ister. Similarly, Caputo gave a talk on Jean-Luc Marion’s Being Given, comparing it to Plato’s analogy of the divided line.

Everywhere I look I see philosophy being practiced as a textual affair, where it’s as if there is a prohibition against directly speaking about the world and persons. There are exceptions to this, Deleuze and Badiou, but for the most part continental philosophy has become commentary on other texts. With Foucault we have the endless analysis of the great archive. With Zizek we have the analysis of pop-culture texts and the texts of other philosophers. With Derrida, well Derrida. Everywhere we have texts about texts, as if we would be violating something to speak directly about the world in non-textual worlds. I am, of course, cognizant of the arguments that all of our experience is historically and textually mediated. I accept those arguments and am not calling for some unmediated relationship to the world. Yet what I find interesting is the way anything independent of text seems to have disappeared. I cannot help but feel that this is the result of the great critiques between the 17th and 20th century. Ultimately these critiques demonstrated the impossibility of any grounding of knowledge, whether through reason or sensation. In addition to this, there are socio-historical questions to be asked. What conditions have led to the virtualization of the world? What, for instance, suddenly made it plausible for Peirce to develop a metaphysics of signs in and through his semiotics, such that all being came to be seen as concatations of various types of signs? As Derrida points out, this was not unheard of as the world has often been described as a book. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Peirce is unprecidented in conceiving things themselves as signs. These are not the questions I’m focused on or interested in pursuing in this context, though they’re worth asking. At any rate, in the current academic climate, if we wish to speak of world today we cannot do so directly, but must pass through the interval of another text, through a close reading of another philosopher, rather than to make claims directly about the world. We speak indirectly of the world through another naive philosopher or thinker that believes that he or she can speak directly of the world by writing a commentary on their text. Is there a way that it is possible today to renew discourse about the world, or are we irrevocably doomed to commentaries on texts?

BOOK III, PROP. IV. Nothing can be destroyed, except by a cause external to itself.

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