Today finds me teaching once again, back in the classroom, in an endlessly surprising dialogue with students. It seems that I persistently find myself trapped in paradox, yearning for time off when I am teaching, yet despondant and depressed when I have time off. I suppose I should just accept that I need some sort of minimal conflict, some sort of obstacle to complete satisfaction, in order to maintain my desire.

In response to my post on attractors and vectors, a friend angrily said that she does not believe that change takes place at the level of the human and that I am utopian. I was quite taken aback by this criticism as I couldn’t see where I had suggested that change takes place at the level of the human (presuming this to mean the human individual) or how I was being utopian. If anything, I worry that there might be a pessimistic undercurrent to these thoughts. I think this issue is brought out with relative clarity in my reference to the friend and the alcoholic:

I am not simply a friend, but rather I am made a friend and make myself a friend through my interactions with the other. The organization and identity is emergent and ongoing. This is one of the reasons why social change is often so difficult or why social systems are often so resistant to change. An agent might have made an internal transformation, yet the other agents composing the social system continue to relate to the agent in the same way. Thus, an alcoholic might have made an internal resolution to no longer drink, yet the alcoholic’s relations continue to relate to him as an alcoholic, steering him back into this activity.

What is at issue here is that the attractors defining subject-positions are never simply a matter of the individual occupying these positions, but are rather the result of ongoing processes of individuals in relation to one another, such that a change in subject position is not simply a matter of the individual decision, but of the ongoing processes by which the subject is produced as a subject in relation to other subjects. What I am trying to think through in this connection is the issue of the ontological status of social structures or systems. It is all well and good to study social structures after the fashion of Saussure or Levi-Strauss as a structure, but what, ontologically, are these structures? A language, for instance, is not in any particular individual. Language, as it were, is not up to me. Yet language nonetheless could not exist without individuals. It only exists in and through the individuals that use the language. As such, language only exists through the ongoing operations of language in its use by speakers. Ontologically there is nothing but individuals, nothing but bodies, yet certain relations of feeback emerge among these individuals such that language takes on an emergent reality.

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When I mispronounce a word or use a word in the wrong way or construct a bizarre sentence such as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, those about me correct me, smirk, ridicule me, etc. A relation of feedback takes place with respect to my use of language that has the function of channeling subsequent language events in a particular direction. This, in fact, is one of the central tenants of Lacanian analysis with respect to the unconscious. When the analysand makes a slip of the tongue, saying something like “what choice do I have but to take the job, I must love“, it is not the intention of the speaker that defines the meaning of the statement. The statement signifies regardless of whether the speaker intended to say “I must live“, or “I must love.” It is this that Lacan has in mind when he claims that meaning is constituted in the field of the Other. The production of sense is always an intersubjective act, a co-constitution, and is never simply up to the individual. The effects of my speech always exceed me. It really matters little whether there is some desire inhabiting a place referred to as “the unconscious” that is like a sack deep in the mind, beneath manifest content. Lacan never tires of cautioning against the idea of the unconscious as a depth, as a secret beneath the formations of conscious life behind the scenes as if contained within a sack. All that is necessary is this splitting of speech between the subject of enunciation and the subject of enunciated where the unity of intention in the imaginary is called into question such that one’s speech becomes surprising to oneself. Even if psychoanalytic interpretation is fiction, nothing but fiction, this splitting of speech from within has a catalytic effect that opens the possibility of other symbolizations of desire and the real, allowing for a reconfiguration of the symptom. As Lacan will say, “truth has the structure of a fiction.” However, such a destitution can only occur by encountering truth in the field of the Other; in the dividing of the statement.

A less striking (and more clear) example of this interdependent structuration of subject positions can be found in the Seinfeld episode where George (or Jerry? I don’t recall) attempts to break off a relationship with a woman. Much to George’s surprise, the woman refuses to break up. George is speechless and has no idea how to respond. What does one do when someone refuses that incorporeal transformation of speech-act defining a relationship? This is a common theme in popular films. In Sweet Home Alabama the husband refuses to sign the divorce papers, such that the woman is in the strange position of being both finished with the relationship and still married. In Twister the woman refuses to sign the divorce papers, such that the husband is both finished with the relationship and yet still married. The social system independent of the individuals involved continues to treat the couple as married (there are legal obligations that persist), just as more intimate relations to the couple continue to treat them as a couple, if only in a deficient state. Indeed, even after the papers are signed, one doesn’t simply return back to a state prior to marraige: rather, the individuals are now coded as divorced, which is yet another subject-position.

Those of us who teach are, no doubt, familiar with the phenomenon of being-a-professor even when we’re not being particularly “professorly”. We go into class one day, overtired, unprepared, and free associate, yet the students nonetheless treat these speech acts as “professorly”. The students constitute the professor as a professor through how they act towards the professor and when the professor deviates they guide the professor back into the grooves of the symbolic identity. Others among us can attest to the strange phenomenon of seeing a teacher or professor outside the classroom, at a bar, coffee shop, or grocery store. There is always something indecent about an educator appearing in public, just as it is indecent to see a judge in a tennis outfit, as somehow the educator has stepped outside the frame of their professional identity. We’re never quite sure how to relate to these figures in these foreign contexts. Are they teachers or something else? The educator feels just as awkward. What am I to say to my student in this grocery store? Outside of the classroom, among my students, I’m not longer sure of what to be. They ask a few questions about class. Thank god! Now we’re back on track. Their action towards me has guided me back in the direction of my attractor: being-a-professor.

As I fumbled about trying to explain my position to my friend, I made the mistake of evoking the example of the factory and how the nature of woman changed during the industrial revolution. Immediately she pounced all over me with the charges of being utopian. “Nothing changed! Women continue to be treated as subordinate! They continue to be raped and killed! They went back to their homes!” I was left blinking. Certainly I wasn’t suggesting that everything became hunky dory when women entered the factory, that gender relations were fundamentally transformed, that there was no longer oppression. Rather, I was trying to express the thesis that through a change in milieu, through a deterritorialization (from the home), it became possible to envision a new set of potentialities. The question here would be “why did men and women understand a certain social relationship, a certain distribution of roles, a certain conception of what was permissible and not permissible obvious and natural (so much so that it wasn’t even noticed or questioned) up to a certain point in history, and then suddenly come to see certain relations as unjust and in need of transformation?”

We could even pose the question in Kantian terms so long as we understand that we’re here talking about a historical a priori: “What are the conditions for the possibility of Mary Wollstonecraft?” A Mary Wollstonecraft does not simply appear out of the blue. I’m willing to make the bold claim that there are points in history where Mary Wollstonecraft could not have existed at all. Mary Wollstonecraft could not have existed, for instance, during the Middle Ages because 1) she would not have existed in a milieu that individuated her in such a way as to see the relative position of herself and other women as unnatural (contingent) and unjust, and 2) even if she had managed to conceive herself in this way, her speech-acts, her acts of writing, could not have been received by those about her even if they were actually read. Her situation would have been analogous to George Castanza trying to break up with his girlfriend: “No!”

What is worthy of question is 1) how such a person was able to arise, how a new potentiality was able to enter the world, and 2) how this potentiality was able to resonate within the social milieu in which she existed. The fact that others have continued to struggle furiously against women’s emancipation does not change matters here, for the fact that they have to struggle against the position at all indicates that the position has become a real force within a particular social field, that it has taken on a reality that it didn’t have before, that it requires a response. How does this happen?

All of this comes back to cooking. Among all activities, cooking is, for me, perhaps the only activity that rivals that of philosophy. I track down recipes on the internet like other men pursue that elusive perfect pornographic pictures. I can browse the market for hours in much the same way that I can lose myself in the Seminar Co-Op in Chicago. One of the difficulties with much social theory is the abstraction at which it is developed. We think of groups in conflict with one another as abstract identities, where properties are intrinsic to the subject-position in question. The question then becomes one of how to liberate a particular fixed identity with respect to a particular oppressive system. All too often we assume that the subject will be the same when this shift in the distribution takes place.

If cooking is instructive for the social theorist, then this is because cooking teaches us to think in terms of mixtures, processes, intensive transformations, intensities, and irreversible processes. Tomato, garlic, cumin, and olive oil are not the same after they are mixed and heated. Rather, a qualitative transformation takes place… A transformation that is irreversible. Cooking is chemistry, rather than physics. Where, in classical physics we are enjoined to think atoms impacting one another in relations of force such that the atoms nonetheless retains its identity, changing only in velocity, chemistry leads us to think mixtures, temperatures, pressures, etc., that lead to qualitative transformations of the elements involved. The garlic is not the same after it is cooked and mixed. Nor can I return the garlic to its previous uncooked state. Rather, it has undergoing a qualitative transformation that now has different potentialities. For instance, if I roast garlic in tinfoil and olive oil in the oven, I can now spread it on a nice loaf of sour dough bread like butter, whereas before this would not have been possible. Under these conditions, the flavor becomes sweet, where before it was pungent.

Cooking, chemistry, requires us to think a milieu of individuation where a milieu of individuation is to be understood as the relation something entertains to other things in the world such that it would not be that thing without these other things. If you enjoy wine then you know that where the wine comes from and the year the wine was made make a tremendous difference as to what the wine is. Wine, wine grapes, always emerge in a milieu of individuation defined by the weather, the soil conditions, other plants, animals, and insects in the region and so on. Wine from one and the same vinyard can be radically different from one year to the next. The same is the case with cheese. Each individual entity is itself attached to a world, a local morphogenetic field, through which it produces itself as an ongoing process by interacting with that world.

The same, then, would be true of social organization. Always it is necessary to look at the morphogenetic field, the milieu of individuation, the mixture, the feedback loops, the processes, the vectors, into which particular human bodies exist. Women, men, families, etc., are not the same when individuated on a feudal manor as they are when individuated in Manchester at the height of the industrial revolution. What are the respective problems leading to invention within these respective fields? Why did the steam engine come to power trains and factories during the industrial revolution and not in the Roman empire (the Romans used steam engines to power children’s toys)? What new potentialities are released as a result of a change in milieu? For instance, how does thought, communication, identities, political organization, and social groupings change as a result of the internet… If at all? These are questions that can only be thought by thinking chemistry and mixtures: mixtures born of technology, of histories weaving themselves together, of diverse cultures encountering one another, of personal histories, of different languages, of economies, of conditions that differ from year to year perpetually forming different assemblages and new individuations as a result of aleatory encounters…. Not utopia, just new and different problems and potentials.