July 2007

“It may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of existence” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 75). A little earlier they write, “There is not the slightest reason for thinking that modes of existence need transcendent values by which they could be compared, selected, judged relative to one another. On the contrary, there are only immanent criteria. A possibility of life is evaluated through itself in the movements it lays out and the intensities it creates on a plane of immanence: what is not laid out or created is rejected. A mode of existence is good or bad, noble or vulgar, complete or empty, independently of Good and Evil or any transcendent values: There are never any criteria other than the tenor of existence, the intensification of life” (74).

Yet it is hard, is it not? It is hard to find those tenors of life that are inherently affirmative, where we are not beset by a dark malaise. When I was young I was so blissfully ignorant. When Lacan talks about the imaginary, one of the things he has in mind is the way in which we treat others as being like us, as thinking in the same way, as having the same values, beliefs, and views. I really can’t say that I was aware of “otherness” when I was young. For me the first real shock of otherness came in 2000, with the election of George Bush; but even more strikingly it came following September 11th, when I watch my fellow countrymen rally around this president’s ideology, falling for just about every trick George Orwell had described in his novel 1984. Here, before my eyes, I saw everything Orwell had described materializing and I wondered how we could be so stupid, how we could forget so easily. All my assumptions about the world and people evaporated, and I no longer knew what thoughts lurked behind the twinkling eyes of those about me. It seemed that the worst nationalistic, repressively religious, fascist madness had been loosed upon the land… And if not the worst, at least seeds of madness that could easily become the worse.

It is difficult not to go a little mad if you’re paying attention. Everything in this world seems as if it is upside down, as if viewed through Caroll’s looking glass. In our media, the good and just are endlessly portrayed as the dangerous and wicked. Partial truths are transformed into the total truth, so that uncomfortable truths might be ignored. Perhaps the worst thing about rhetoric– of the sophistical sort –is that it works. In other affairs, whether education, health care, the so-called “war on terror”, economic issues, etc., it seems that we never miss the opportunity to make the stupid decision where policy is concerned, perpetually ignoring the complexity of situations for simplified, idiotic solutions that exacerbate our problems. Moronic administrators rule our institutions who perpetually have only the most dim understanding of what it is they’re administrating; and worse yet, these administrators all too often are filled with dark, fascist desires. But the despair produced by the stupidity of these “solutions” is not simply a result of the way in which they pose problems poorly or simplify the complex, but rather it is the way in which this stupidity is also the function of cruelty, mendacity, hatred, or ressentiment. These “solutions” are all too often a will to wound, rather than a will to produce flourishing. Lurking in the background is always the interests of money and privilege, and we seem to bow readily to these things, despite the fact that we vastly outnumber those in whom the wealth is concentrated. Most of us don’t even get angry about this, but see it as perfectly natural, assuming those who enjoy wealth, power, and privilege acquired these things through their own sweat and hard work, making them inherently superior, while the rest of the world is simply poor and morally inferior. And then, all around, we see ugliness, stupidity, and cruelty in the form of hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, ressintement, and all the myriad ways we find to torture one another. Meanwhile, in those endeavors that ought to be guided by a shared desire for justice, more equitable and finer living conditions, the joy of intellectual inquiry and discovery, and the production of beauty, ego, rivalry in the imaginary, gets in the way and petty feuds emerge between rival tribes, striving to stake out their own turf and ensure that they’re recognized (which, as Hegel pointed out, also entails the obliteration of the other). It is not enough that an idea be remarkable or interesting on its own, but it must be expressed in the framework of one’s own territory and no other: only phenomenology! only Anglo-American philosophy! Only deconstruction! Only Lacan! Only Deleuze and Guattari! Yes, it’s difficult not to go a little mad if you’re paying attention.

I suppose that if I am having these thoughts, then I have grown sick. Rather than discovering my own “immanent criteria” as Deleuze and Guattari describe (my cats don’t seem too troubled with the madness of the world and are thus masters of immanent evaluation), I measure the world against some transcendent standard of what I unconsciously believe it ought to be. I have transcendence folded into my thought, like a tain behind the mirror, infecting me with sickness and fatigue, filling me with despair. It seems that philosophy comes in too flavors: there are revolutionary practices of philosophy that seek to transform the world and eradicate this stupidity, superstition, cruelty, brutality, and injustice, and there are those philosophies that seek some peace of mind that might allow us to endure all of this ugliness. I wish I could somehow expel these “oughts” from my thought.

The new blog Tabula Rasa develops some interesting and cogent criticisms of Zizek and Badiou:

The relationship between materialism and idealism was configured, unsurprisingly, partially through an interrogation of the theological register, especially Christianity. What for me needs to be immediately addressed are the implications of the elevation of Christianity as the only universalist religion and hence paradigmatic model for a militant atheism. At the conference two speakers, John Milbank and Creston Davies, presented the theological Christian view (and not a model) as the political solution to the failures of liberal democracy itself. These were very strange presentations – Milbank, especially with his disconcerting assertive mode, critiqued democracy from what could be rightly called Christian authoritarianism. The unapologetic, near fascism of this undemocratic position raised explicitly the potential problems of the logical construction of a militant politics inside the prescriptive contours of a reworked Marxism through Christianity. The narrow formulation of these still euro-centred Christian polemics also indicated clearly for me how the claim to universality in philosophy is still enunciated in a narrowly western register, where a straight linear line is drawn from ancient Greek philosophy, through Christianity, modernity and global word order with little reference to the constitutive role of ‘Afro-Asiatic’ history and thought in the very formation of Europe as the West.

Read the rest here.

Cultural Parody Center brings us the new science fiction adventure, The Slovenly Alien Part Five.

Ok readers, you must have already guessed that the Easter eggs that Le Colonel Chabert procured for Kino Fist were neither for free, not were they really Easter eggs; the eggs contained the Slovenly Alien’s parasyte, which attaches itself to the victim’s scrotum, causing the dekline of simbolik efikasy. Unable to operate with symbols, the victim is forced to hang on to the Slovenly Alien’s hard Phallus for symbolic reassurance. The mother company Zizekendo is thusly able to control Kino Fist and the rest of the Western Marxist galaxy, ensuring the continuation of global capitalism under the banner of Marxism.

(Comrade Infinite Thought had a peculiar reaction to the infection, developing an unfeasible libido; but more about that in the next episode, when Anthony Paul Smith is given the task of trying to restrain her.)

All members of Kino Fist were infected – except Dr. Sinthome, who was luckily in the testing room with Dr. Jodianne Fossey when Comrade Fox unwrapped the eggs. Since Dr. Fossey successfully passed the discipline & organization testing, Dr. Sinthome was given the task of retrieving her Primal Scene. This is the last phase of preparation before Dr. Fossey can face the Slovenly Alien again, repairing the doctor’s erectile disfunction so that the world can be rid of the dekline of simbolik efikasy and the resurrection of the Marxist Christ may commenceth.

Find out what happens next. Read the rest here.

Apologies for my lack of responses and postings lately. This last week has seen me doubled over in pain and getting little or no sleep as a result of intense stomach pains. I suspect I’ve developed an ulcer, but my hypochondrial, neurotic mind convinces me that it must be some form of cancer or a rare form of leprosy that only targets the stomach… Or perhaps I’ve contracted one of those aliens from Alien. I suspect this third possibility is the most likely given that I’ve been reading science fiction before bed lately.

At any rate, there have been some truly excellent posts floating about the blogosphere recently. N.Pepperell has written a short, but meaty, post on self-reflexivity, immanence, and theoretical pessimism as a teaser for a project she’ll be developing over the next year. Although she does not mention Badiou, it is interesting to contrast her self-reflexive conception of social transformation with Badiou’s theory of the event which comes from the outside. With his characteristic rigor and beauty, Lars has continued his meditation on the nature of language, unfolding the implications of language for ontology and agency in a heavy dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari among others (here and here). Little John and Ibitsu of Still Water Springs have taken some arrows from my quiver and sent them flying in different and interesting directions (here and here). In the post entitled “Reading”, in particular, he develops far better what I was trying to get at in my post Reading as a Material Event.

All of these interweaving dialogues have left me wondering what philosophy must be, what it must look like, when the mediated and contextual nature of agency is recognized. When one can no longer posit the subject as a ground of transparency and immediate presence, where does one begin without falling into a programmatic dogmatism? How does one begin to ground claims in such a universe? What does an epoche look like when it is no longer the delivery of a pure subject? I have no idea of how to formulate such questions and the alien that has decided to inhabit my stomach makes it difficult to even think about these questions. I certainly don’t wish to assert that philosophy is at an end, though I find myself concerned with what strikes me as dogmatism among a number of structurally influenced thinkers.

All too often I find myself thinking of language, of my reading of a text, as, in itself, a “nothing”. One says that he can adopt a position for or against a text they read, as if the text can simply be thrown to the side and forgotten after being read. Or one says that he can adopt a position of liking or disliking, appreciating or not appreciating, valuing or not valuing, what has been read. In all these cases, the text is treated as an immaterial thing… As a thing without effects, as a thing that is just a “wisp”– A quasi-thing.

But I wonder, how does a physicalist think about the act of reading? What might a neurologist say about reading? If the mind is, as the neurologist contends, the brain then acts of reading and writing are not simply acts of a disembodied spirit that judges, selects, rejects, dismisses, but rather they are irreversible, physical events that transform ones neurology. To read is to create a physical trace that will irreversibly be there. Discourse with another is here no longer an innocent way of passing the time like Socrates beneath the tree with the young, charming and handsome Phaedrus, but is to transform, if only in a small way, both of those involved in a way that is irresolvable and that even has its own chemistry. Somewhere in the film Boogie Nights, Mark Wahlberg’s character speaks of wanting to pull his brain from his head so that he might scrub it clean of the things he’s seen. Isn’t that what it’s like? After we’ve read Marquis de Sade’s Justine or Levinas or Marx or Levi Strauss or Lacan or Plato or Kino Fist or Spurious an irreversible event has taken place, a material transformation has occurred. I choose such a disparate collection intentionally. I am not the same after these things, but rather the trace now clouds those information events taking place in the present, filling the present with echoes of these traces, crowding the present with these echoes, rendering the present always an absence.

In the end it is amazing that we take the act of reading and discoursing so lightly. I would like to think the texts I read are something external to me, something I can cast aside when I grow bored or horrified, thereby being done, but really if I’m a physical system this cannot be done. I am inter-penetrated by the texts I allow to enter me and I cannot be done with them even when I think that I’ve forgotten or finished with them. Perhaps this lends credence to Deleuze’s eternal return in a way that is not simply arrogance or pretension: I shall have been all the names of history in the precise sense that I shall have been the discourses that flow through me, as trace, as an anonymous murmur, where I am naught but the eccentric subject striving to grasp myself in this field of endless traces.

What can one do but sigh?

Imagine our surprise Wednesday to read in the Israeli paper Haaretz (online), that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abu Mazen, meeting recently with militants to enlist their support for a truce with Israel, said that, when they met in Aqaba, President Bush had told him this: ” God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam [ Hussein], which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them.”

Read the rest here and here.

Hythlodaeus, over at the new blog Project Enlightenment, has revived the old debate about Zizek’s review of 300. Unfortunately I am unable to respond there as his blog does not accept anonymous comments and I do not have a Google account, so I’ll post a few words here. Hythlodaeus writes:

To my mind, the paroxysms of outrage that Zizek’s recent review of 300 provoked amongst certain members of the left academic blogosphere have only confirmed the basic truth of his argument that a truly progressive prioritization of values, in the current postmodern academic environment, is effectively impossible, because no one is willing to take responsibility for what a totally committed choice to pursue real social justice might actually entail–like, say, loss of job security. “If revolutionary action doesn’t include working full-time towards academic tenure–then no, thanks!”

I cannot speak for everyone regarding what motivated their concerns about Zizek’s valorization of sacrifice and discipline in this review, but for myself the issue was decidedly not one about the loss of job security. I take it as a given that any sort of revolutionary political change will involve significant transformations in how we consume and live. How could it not? Nor did it ever occur to me that somehow this issue has something to do with working full time or tenure. Rather, the issue had to do with convictions about the sorts of values we choose to valorize in revolutionary theory. All too often values of discipline and sacrifice, rhetoric of discipline and sacrifice, have been associated with fascist, dictatorial, and totalitarian regimes. Are these really the sorts of doors that we wish to open? Why not instead the valorization of values such as equality, justice, fraternity, freedom? What is at issue here are the sorts of master-signifiers that come to organize a movement and the manner in which these master-signifiers have a structuring effect on subsequent forms the movement takes. The issue is not one of concerns over giving up one’s hedonistic lifestyle, but about the way in which these master-signifiers function and resonate (see here and here) within a particular historical context. It is surprising that anyone informed by Lacan or Zizek would forget that language does not simply describe, but has a performative reality as well. The issue is not one of whether sacrifice and discipline ought or should or does take place in such movements– clearly it always does –but rather of how a particular movement comes to be structured and organized when signifiers such as this serve as the key, organizing, master-signifiers.

Hytholodaeus goes on to say:

LS writes:

I think this is a problem across the board in continentally influenced forms of theory, whether we’re talking about literary theory, political theory, philosophy, and so on. Often I find myself reading texts that are pervaded by some grand vision of revolutionary political transformation and I find myself thinking of my neighbors, my students, family members, existing infrastructure, etc., and I just wonder how such a grand vision can even be enacted concretely in practice. I then find myself suspecting that these political theories are more about ego and being superior, than about enacting any sort of real world change and are more about shoring up one’s academic standing and cred than the world.

Instead of continuing to parse Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault, et al, perhaps we should start devoting some of our attention to the abundant situated literature that’s being produced by the very real social movements we academics for some reason continue to strenuously deny exist. For instance, you might check out some of the websites for the activist groups listed under the “Contacts” section of Naomi Klein’s website nologo.org. You might also check out web resources like SolidarityEconomy and Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.

The oppressed aren’t stupid and they aren’t mute. They don’t need speaking for. They’re not a given “in-itself” waiting for us hyper-educated academic “for-ourselves” to properly theorize into a meaningful project. It smacks of obscene arrogance to think that the marginalized, the exploited, the oppressed of the world are incapably of reflecting on their situation in a sophisticated and nuanced way. Let’s stop treating them as inert objects, and start listening to them, start recognizing what they have to say. And, who knows, maybe even enter into dialogue with them. This is where I part ways with Zizek and his advocacy of the top-down Leninist intelligentsia qua vanguard model. I’m with Sartre and Habermas, Hardt and Negri instead: mutual recognition + intersubjective communication amongst groups-in-fusion= common value formation, i.e. the only horizon of a truly democratic, emancipatory, and transformative praxis.

From Hytholodaeus’ remarks, I cannot tell whether my position is here being criticized or endorsed. For the record, I am on exactly the same page as him regarding the need to focus on real social movements and the way they articulate themselves. I am deeply suspicious of hierarchicalized social movements where the “intellectuals” have the master-plan and set about designing society. On this blog, one of the things I’ve tried to focus on are the emergence of group formations, how they come to be, how they react on existing social structures, and how they come to transform social structures. In short, my view is that there needs to be less focus on critique, interpretation, and analysis, and more focus on those conditions under which groups emerge, nominate themselves, take on structuration, and begin to transform the social field. A political theorists work should be less about determining what is to be done, and more about what is being done, what these emergences are responding to, what potentialities they are introducing, and so on. It is for this reason that I have a certain fascination with fundamentalist religious movements in the United States, political blog collectives such as Moveon.org, Dailykos, Americablog, Atrios, etc, and so on. It is not that I share the politics of these particular groups. Clearly I do not. What interests me is how these groups emerged at all, what affects they mobilize, how they have managed to motivate people, what new sorts of subjectivities they produce, and how they have effectively challenged, and arguably transformed, various institutions whether at the governmental level or at the corporate level, and so on. This is what I find missing in so much of the political thought I read. “Okay okay okay, I agree with these positions and critiques, but… how do you mobilize people to enact these things?” What sort of media must be used to summon a people that don’t exist? What sorts of affects need to be crafted to summon a people that does not exist? What sorts of gatherings and institutions preside over the formation of these new subjectivities? What are the catalysts that lead people to form collectives, groups, movements? I see a lot of critique, I see a lot of analysis, but I don’t see a lot of concrete discussion concerning these very concrete details. Yet, as they say, it’s precisely with regard to these things that the rubber hits the road.

Zizek and Badiou have spent a good deal of time criticizing that variant of Marxist thought that talked endlessly about when the conditions for revolution are ripe. Zizek has characterized this form of thought as the position of the obsessional who is always preparing for the proper moment to make his advances on the woman without ever passing to the act, thereby revealing that his endless preparations are themselves a defense against the act. In this connection, Zizek has valorized the act as the proper corrective to this attitude, arguing that the act must initially fail to inscribe itself in the social field so as to become a signifier (the signifier always requires two, a repetition), thereby opening the field of radical transformation. The time will never be right, and certainly the elements populating the situation will never suggest that the time is ripe for revolution. Badiou has argued something similar with his conception of a completely ungrounded choice that decides membership of the event in the situation. I believe both of these views are positive correctives to a perspective that is always looking to the situation to find those ripe conditions. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the truth-procedure is precisely that hard work of transforming the elements of the situation or engaging in those acts that recode, that evoke, that call for a people that do not yet exist.

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