April 2007

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



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.

It seems to me that there are different types of works of philosophy that do very different types of things. Some works, like those of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, or Spinoza are almost like user manuals. They were written to produce a transformation in oneself, in ones values, how one feels, how one sees, and how one lives, as well as a transformation in one’s readers. Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, for instance, is a poem written to his friend Memmius. You pick up Epictetus or Spinoza to figure out how to weather this world and perhaps even prosper in life. When you come out the other side you have a different set of values. You might end up doing little more than tending to your garden and taking pleasure in the study of the stars or flowers or the creatures that swim about in tidal pools.

Other books are like weapons or bombs. They target the social space or a configuration of common thought, a sensus communis, and shatter a set of conceptions. These are books like Hume’s Enquiry, Voltaire’s Candide, de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Three Essays, Civilization and Its Discontents, Nietzsche’s Geneaology of Morals, Marx’s Das Kapital, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, etc. These books do something. They explode conceptions. They change configurations of human bodies, generating new collectives and groups. They reverberate.

Yet other books are like moves in a game of chess in long discussions that span thousands of years. These are the academic books, addressed to other scholars, like Brandom’s Making it Explicit, or Searle’s Construction of Social Reality, or Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I tend to feel these books are cancerous, even though I’ve written such a book and such books often contribute something. Nonetheless, I can’t help but have suspicions about the whole publishing industry attached to universities and what it produces.

This is not an exhaustive catalogue, just a stab. I often wonder what sort of book I would write were I not bound up with the academy and if I had no intention of ever publishing. Is there a book that I would like to rewrite, to repeat, today? What would such a book be for? What would it seek to do (to me, not to any readers)? What would it mean to write in a way that forgets all scholarly debates and options and simply attempts to distill the essence of something (which is very different from suggesting something outside history)? Is it possible to write such a book today? What would it be to write a book that wasn’t a move in the game of chess, that like Spinoza, refrained from any such engagement in the world of letters, and strove simply to transform oneself in and through the act of writing? What would it be like to spend ten, twenty, thirty years writing, without the intention of ever releasing such a work, of ever being recognized for such a work, and without worrying over such debates? What book would you repeat or rewrite?

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