May 2007


One of the central claims of Whitehead’s thought is that “actual occasions” (his name for “entity”) are the ultimate reasons or grounds of all explanations. “…[A]ctual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities” (PR, 24). Alongside of Process and Reality I’ve been reading The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality by Elizabeth Kraus. I recommend this study highly for anyone interested in Whitehead. If others have references to other secondaries I’d be interested in hearing about them as well. I believe some of these remarks are relevant to a discussion of holism and reductivism unfolding over at the Weblog, and especially Dominic Fox’s comments, with which I disagree as they are stated. At one point she gives an outstanding gloss on Whitehead’s conception of philosophy and what it means to give an account, so I’ll just post it here in full, with a few comments at the end, as I have nothing to add to it. I apologize for the lack of commentary on the passages that follow. Occasionally I come across something I find striking and really can do little more than point and grunt like the apes dancing about the obelisk in 2001.

In Modes of Thought Whitehead describes the task of philosophy as ‘the understanding of the interfusion of modes of existence’ (MT, 97). But what does it mean to understand? If the world is taken in its classical sense, any grasp of what Whitehead purports to do in PR and of the way in which he views his speculative scheme as an interpretation of reality is vitiated at the outset. In its Aristotlean meaning, to understand anything is to know it in its causes: to grasp principally its form and purpose. Knowledge, thus interpreted, is a moving away from the thing in its concrete singularity, which qua individual is unintelligible, toward a grasp of the universals which it embodies. To know an object is to be able to place it in its appropriate category, having delimited its genus and differentia. When based on this notion of understanding, philosophy is viwed as purely abstract, a priori, apodictic, and deductive science, whose certainty and purity are a function of its remotion from the concrete.

Whitehead totally repudiates this conception of the philosophical enterprise and the notion of understanding from which it springs. he is a Platonist with respect to knowledge, realizing that it is not theoretical understanding but rather the ability to rule well. If it entails a departure from the concrete, that departure is justified only in virtue of a subsequent return. Even the departure itself takes a different form from that evidenced in the traditional notion of abstract, in which the individuating notes of an object are left aside in the endeavor to seize its universal essentiality. For Whitehead, the movement of abstraction is indeed toward higher generalities, but in the move the individuality of the starting point is not analyzed away. In his view, a fact is understood when it can be placed in a wider systematic context which gives an account of its interconnections with other facts (my bold). The tecnique of analysis presumes that facts are isolated, self-contained units whose character can be revealed by the systematic dissection, and it thereby loses itself in barren abstractions. The true activity of understanding consists in a voyage to abstraction which is in fact a voyage to the more fully concrete: to the system in which the fact is enmeshed. The system as conceptualized may be more abstract than the fact itself in that it is more general, but the real systematic context is more concrete, and its elaboration yields more about the existential relations of the fact.

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About a year ago I was contacted by a well known men’s magazine such as GQ asking to interview me about my views on addiction. This deeply perplexed me as I haven’t published on addiction, nor have I worked heavily with addicts in my clinical practice. As it turns out, the journalist had contacted me because of this and dozens of other webpages similar to this that have proliferated throughout the net over the years.

Criticism

Levi Bryant has criticized the term and concept of addiction as counterproductive in psychotherapy as it defines a patient’s identity and makes it harder to become a non-addict. “The signifier ‘addict’ doesn’t simply describe what I am, but initiates a way of relating to myself that informs how I relate to others.”

A stronger form or criticism comes from Thomas Szasz, who denies that addiction is a psychiatric problem. In many of his works, he argues that addiction is a choice, and that a drug addict is one who simply prefers a socially taboo substance rather than, say, a low risk lifestyle. In ‘Our Right to Drugs’, Szasz cites the biography of Malcolm X to corroborate his economic views towards addiction: Malcolm claimed that quitting cigarettes was harder than shaking his heroin addiction. Szasz postulates that humans always have a choice, and it is foolish to call someone an ‘addict’ just because they prefer a drug induced euphoria to a more popular and socially welcome lifestyle.

A similar conclusion to that of Thomas Szasz may also be reached through very different reasoning. This is the somewhat extreme, yet tenable, view that humans do not have free will. From this perspective, being ‘addicted’ to a substance is no different from being ‘addicted’ to a job that you work everyday. Without the assumption of free will, every human action is the result of the naturally occurring reactions of particle matter in the physical brain, and so there is no longer room for the concept of ‘addiction’, since, in this view, choice is an illusion of the human experience.

How, you might ask, did I come to be ranked alongside the illustrious Thomas Szasz and to be credited with a cogent criticism of contemporary treatments of addiction? All of this came from this post on the Lacan list on yahoogroups back in 2003, coupled with my article The Absent Third and Social Sciences and Apres Coup. I referred the journalist to Rik Loose, who is a Lacanian analyst that’s actually worked with addicts and published on these matters. It’s a brave new world.

BOOK III, PROP. XXXV. If anyone conceives, that an object of his love joins itself to another with closer bonds of friendship than he himself has attained to, he will be affected with hatred towards the loved object and with envy towards his rival.

Note.–This hatred towards an object of love joined with envy is called Jealousy, which accordingly is nothing else but a wavering of the disposition arising from combined love and hatred, accompanied by the idea of some rival who is envied. Further, this hatred towards the object of love will be greater, in proportion to the pleasure which the jealous man had been wont to derive from the reciprocated love of the said object; and also in proportion to the feelings he had previously entertained towards his rival. If he had hated him, he will forthwith hate the object of his love, because he conceives it is pleasurably affected by one whom he himself hates: and also because he is compelled to associate the image of his loved one with the image of him whom he hates. This condition generally comes into play in the case of love for a woman: for he who thinks, that a woman whom he loves prostitutes herself to another, will feel pain, not only, because his own desire is restrained, but also because, being compelled to associate the image of her he loves with the parts of shame and the excreta of another, he therefore shrinks from her.

We must add, that a jealous man is not greeted by his beloved with the same joyful countenance as before, and this also gives him pain as a lover, as I will now show.

One of the marks of theory in the last forty years is a conception of the subject such that the subject is determined and structured through history, structure, language, social context, or some other sort of field in which it is embedded or thrown. Thus in Althusser, for example, the subject is simply a puppet of ideology or an iteration of the total system in which it emerges. In early Lacan the subject falls under the signifier, such that the signifier functions like a prophecy in its unconscious, determining its destiny and the structure of desire. For Foucault and Butler, the subject is a discursive construction and product of power. The merit of these views is the manner in which they overcome abstraction by virtue of thinking entity in relation to its context or the world in which it emerges, rather than treating entity as a simple substance that is self-sufficient. Of course, these positions tend to suffer from another sort of abstraction, for they often treat social and cultural formations as the only determinative elements of context, ignoring the biological body, experience, and the natural world. In terms of the history of philosophy, we could see these paradigms of thought as reactions to the subject-centered systems of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, where– in his earlier work, at least –there was little attentiveness to what Heidegger referred to as “the worldhood of the world”. To put the matter crudely, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Where prior to this there was a focus on the supremacy of the subject or agent, on its self-determining freedom, there followed a shift towards the supremacy of what Burke refers to as the “scene” in his pentad. Scene (whether in the form of language, economics, power, social structure, etc) becomes determinative of entity, where before it was the agent, the subject, that was seen as determinative. Not surprisingly, we today find the pendulum swinging yet again in the other direction. Exhausted by decades of theory dominated by the primacy of the scene such that all agency seems to merely reinforce structure and power without realizing it, we now find the pendulum swinging once again in the other direction, seeking to enact a return to the agent or agency in the rather poorly developed and abstract accounts of events and truth-procedures in Badiou and the Act in Zizek.

Not unpredictably, these rejoinders suffer from the same abstraction, albeit in inverted form, as the abstraction to be found in Frankfurt school Critical Theory, hermeneutic orientations of thought, and French (Post)Structuralism. Where the former places everything on the side of either history, power, language, social structure, etc., effectively causing the agent to disappear, the latter places everything on the side of the agent, the Act and the truth-procedure, leading any meaningful discussion of socio-historical context and concrete understanding of the situation to disappear. It is difficult, for instance, not to guffaw when Badiou announces that the French Revolution was an event (I fully agree), but then goes on to say that this event marked a complete break with history, as if centuries of subterranian work hadn’t been done during the Rennaissance and early Enlightenment period, slowly transforming the social space, introducing the requisite concepts for a radically egalitarian republic, undermining confidence in governance by the Christian Church and the metaphysics that accompanied that view, and so on. Both solutions are poor. What is needed is an account that is both sensitive to what Burke calls scene, has a rich place for the agent, and, above all is capable of thinking the dialectical relation between these two without falling into abstraction by privileging one pole or the other, turning agent into a mere puppet of scene or ignoring scene altogether in favor of the fantasy of a completely sovereign subject free of any determinations save those it posits for itself.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about both of these orientations of theory is that they are so obviously. One wonders whether some thinkers ever pull their noses out of their books to look at the world about them. Those theorists that assert the primacy of scene (e.g., Althusser, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Butler, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, perhaps Adorno, etc) seem to miss the obvious point that context, scene, language, power, history, the social, etc., never functions so efficaciously as to smoothly reproduce itself in its agents. As Adam Kotsko points out in a recent post without using these exact terms, subjectivization never quite works as intended. The agents produced in and through structure are never perfect fractal iterations of that context, but always surprise us. There is something novel about each agent that appears in the world that such theories, when taken to their extreme, should exclude a priori as being impossible on theoretical grounds. Yet there it is, subjects going against the total environment in which they were raised, subjects introducing new trajectories into their social system, subjects that share little resemblance to where they came from. On the other hand, those theoretical orientations that assert the supremacy of the sovereign agent seem to fare even worse. Such theories perpetually miss the commonalities we find among populations and in the agent itself, thereby missing the manner in which the agent emerges and is individuated within a scene that it integrates, selects from, and makes its own. Inevitably such theories of the agent (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Zizek, Badiou, certain moments of Lacan), where the agent is prime and supreme, end up trapped within magical thinking, as they’re almost always led to assert a creation ex nihilo. Well, there are no creations ex nihilo for good materialists, whatever Badiou might like to say as he desperately strives to convince his readers that he maintains tied to the Marxist tradition.

What is needed is something entirely different. If we are not to fall into abstraction, we need a theory that both shows how entity arises from a scene, a context, a field (whatever you wish to call it), but, in its process of development, becomes transcendent to that field. That is, we require a conception of the agent that isn’t detached from the field, that isn’t above it and undetermined by it, but also which isn’t strictly determined by the manner in which it prehends the world about it. Rather, there must be something creative and novel in how the world about the agent is prehended, that progressively (not all at once), allows the agent to stand forth from the field and define its own vector of engagement and development… A vector that is no longer simply a fractal iteration of the organization of the field.

N.Pepperell has written a beautiful tribute to Larval Subjects for its first year anniversary.

Jumping forward from this post to the present, we see Sinthome currently deeply engaged with unfolding a series of philosophical concepts intended to grasp how abstractions or identities might be generated – but seeking to understand such entities within a resolutely materialist framework that can grasp such identities precisely as products or effects – as things that have arisen, and that can fade away. In a recent post, Sinthome expresses this in the following way:

The arabesque is like a unity or a figure that emerges out of a heterogeneous background and maintains itself in time. This would be one way of thinking about N.Pepperell’s abstractions: Namely as unities that emerge in a complex field, that “select themselves out” as it were, and maintain some stable unity in time or against plurality, forming a particularly potent tendency within the field out of which they emerge. All of this is still very vague and the dynamics would differ from system to system and would have to be approached from a variety of different perspectives depending on whether we were talking about social systems, physical systems, psychic systems, etc, but perhaps it is some small start in simultaneously thinking these buzzing networks and the unities, along with the material reality of those unities, that emerge out of them. I end with an enigmatic remark by Whitehead that underlines my thesis that rhetorics aren’t simply about something, but are something: “…[A] proposition is the unity of certain actual entities in their potentiality for forming a nexus, with its potential relatedness…” (24). Note that he does not say a proposition represents the unity of certain actual objects, but that it is the unity of certain actual objects.

So we have here the unfolding of a set of philosophical concepts – however preliminary – based on capturing multiplicity, which are intended to support a notion of practice based on a conception of the materiality of communication: would it be fair to characterise this as a response to the sort of challenge with which the blog begins?

Sinthome describes the blog as a space in which philosophical larvae may safely unfold:

Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

It feels to me as though the recent posts show a growing determinacy in relation to some of the blog’s early questions – as though perhaps some of Sinthome’s larval subjects are gradually assuming a more definite shape, hinting to us the forms into which they will grow. It will be exciting to see how this and other trajectories of thought develop in the coming year – through which combinations of continuities, breaks, and – especially – novel creations.

It is overwhelming and deeply moving to be read in this way. Honestly it just makes me want to run away and hide. Thank you N.Pepperell.

You can read the rest of the post here.

BOOK III, PROP. XXXIV. The greater the emotion with which we conceive a loved object to be afected towards us, the greater will be our complacency.

Perhaps one of Zizek’s central contributions to the theory of ideology is his account of belief. Previous critiques of ideology had targeted the intentional states of subjects, what they say, or how they explain their own positions. The thesis was that if one can just debunk these propositional attitudes then the subject in question will disidentify with the ideology. For Zizek, matters are quite different. As he puts it quite early in The Sublime Object of Ideology,

In feudalism, as we have seen, relations between people are mystified, mediated through a web of ideological beliefs and superstitions. They are the relations between the master and his servant, whereby the master exerts his charismatic power of fascination, and so forth. Although in capitalism the subjects are emancipated, perceiving themselves as free from medieval religious superstitions, when they deal with one another they do so as rational utilitarians, guided by their selfish interests. The point of Marx’s analysis, however, is that the things (commodities) themselves believe in their place, instead of the subjects: it is as if all their beliefs, superstitions and metaphysical mystifications, supposedly surmounted by the rational, utilitarian personality, are embodied in the ‘social relations between things’. They no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for them.

This seems also to be a basic Lacanian proposition, contrary to the usual thesis that a belief is something interior and knowledge something exterior (in the sense that it can be verified through an external procedure). Rather, it is belief which is radically exterior, embodied in the practical, effective procedure of people. It is similar to the Tibetan prayer wheels: you write a prayer on a paper, put the rolled paper into a wheel, and turn it automatically, without thinking (or, if you want to proceed according to the Hegelian ‘cunning of reason’, you attach it to a windmill, so that it is moved around by the wind). In this way, the wheel itself is praying for me, instead of me– or, more precisely, I myself am praying through the medium of the wheel. The beauty of it all is that in my psychological interiority I can think about whatever I want, I can yield to the most dirty and obscene fantasies, and it does not matter– to use a good old Stalinist expression –whatever I am thinking, objectively I am praying.

This is how we should grasp the fundamental Lacanian proposition that psychoanalysis is not a psychology: the most intimate beliefs, even the most intimate emotions such as compassion, crying, sorrow, laughter, can be transferred, delegated to others without losing their sincerity. (34)

For Zizek, belief is not to be located in our interiority, in our thoughts or theorizations of the world, but rather in what we do. As Zizek puts it a few pages earlier,

…ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’– ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence— that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological’ is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’. (21)

Thus, to give a few examples, if you truly wish to know what a person believes concerning patriarchy and the equality of men and women, or about homosexuality, you look not at what they say about these things, but what they do. It is in this sense that belief is objective, “out there”, rather than something to be located in ones head or conscious thoughts. Chances are a number of people will have very elaborate things to say about the necessity of overcoming gender inequality. Rather, to know what such a person believes, you look at what they do. How is such and such a person’s domestic life organized? How does such and such a person relate to the homosexuals he works with? It is there, in the doing, that the genuine beliefs are disclosed. Imagine, incidentally, this principle consistently applied to political theorists. Perhaps this is the reason I find myself so impatient with theological discussions. All too often the person presents a beautiful, intricate, intellectually sophisticated, philosophically stimulating account of their religious beliefs that has little or nothing to do with a sacred text like the Bible, Koran, or The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Yet strangely, this same person still appears in the pulpit on Sunday, engaging in all the rituals, engaging in confessional, etc, despite the fact that nothing in the traditions and sacred texts resembles anything in their theology. Even more disturbingly, one and the same person ends up participating in an institution and a set of collective practices that are diametrically opposed to their own expressed (interior) beliefs. Where, then, does this person’s belief genuinely lie? In what they say, in their propositional attitudes, or in what they do? Rather than asking whether or not people agree with the doctrines of their church or find them all plausible, one should instead investigate how they vote, what sort of social relations they form in their friendships and professional relationships, what their domestic life is like, where their money goes, etc. It makes little difference, for instance, whether someone believes in the apocalyptic narratives propounded by the leaders of their church if they consistently give money that then goes to political campaigns, placing people in office sympathetic to these views. Does not the expressed belief in these circumstances function as a lure that keeps the subject attached to a set of basically idiotic and often very oppressive social practices? Have we yet had a study of theology based on what people do? I believe we have: it’s call ethnography and sociology. Of course, some will say that these things shouldn’t be worried about, that they are not genuine concerns, and that they constitute mis-spent energy that could be directed to other more pressing political issues. First, this is based on the absurd assumption that political struggles aren’t fought on multiple fronts at once. Second, it is a variant of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, as it fails to take into account that the very struggle against these movements is what has so far kept them in check. Finally, this is a bit like telling GLBT folk, women, and parents concerned about whether genuine science is taught at school that they should just sit back and wait until a later day for their struggles and concerns to be engaged with. “If only those uppity negros would quit causing such a ruckus, always complaining and making people angry at them. If they weren’t constantly speaking up about how bad things are, the natural course of progress would eventually bring about equality many years hence.” This has forever been the call of the crypto-reactionary: it’s not time, people aren’t ready for you to be free yet, just sit put and remain patient. One wonders what could possibly motivate an otherwise intelligent person to advocate such an absurd position.

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