October 2007


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I apologize for my general lack of engagement recently on Larval Subjects. This is not from a lack of desire to respond and engage. Last week my office computer decided to blow up and I’ve only had computer access at home as a result. In the morning I’m generally rushing about to get to class, while in the evenings I’m generally too exhausted to do much of anything beyond drinking a glass of wine. Couple this with being in the midsts of putting together two presentations, four forthcoming articles, and getting the index for the book together, and you can bet that I’m ready to shoot myself. Time has been at such a premium that I found myself irritated, this morning, at having to waste an extra minute to find a pair of socks. Not rational, I know. Hopefully the situation will be rectified soon.

I recently came across the following passage in Book One of De Rerum Natura:

A property is that which not at all
Can be disjoined and severed from a thing
Without a fatal dissolution: such,
Weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow
To the wide waters, touch to corporal things,
Intangibility to the viewless void.
But state of slavery, pauperhood, and wealth,
Freedom, and war, and concord, and all else
Which come and go whilst Nature stands the same,
We’re wont, and rightly, to call by-products.
Even time exists not of itself; but sense
Reads out of things what happened long ago,
What presses now, and what shall follow after:
No man, we must admit, feels time itself,
Disjoined from motion and repose of things.

It is difficult to sense the full force of this passage. Or perhaps it is that we are today so accustomed to this thought that we do not tremble when confronted by these words. These truly are thoughts and words that make the world rumble, even if only expressed in a few verses. Lucretius distinguishes between properties and by-products. On the one hand, properties are qualities of a compound object (compound because it’s composed of atom and void) that cannot be disjoined from the object without that object being destroyed. Even though the weight of a compound object can be changed, it is not possible to separate weight from an object. One might object that wetness can be subtracted or disjoined from water when it turns into ice. However, the person that argues such a claim has failed to recognize that in transitioning from water to ice the atoms composing the compound have configured to form something new. Similarly, a new connected property here emerged: cold from ice.

Lucretius’ stunning observation– I’d be interested to see whether it was commonly made in antiquity, I cannot think of other examples off-hand –is that by-products are not connected to the object itself. Lucretius’ examples are clear enough: regardless of whether I have the property of wealth, poverty, slavery, freedom, or am in a state of war, or peace, I remain the same person. That is, were I to lose all my wealth, I am still this person who has lost all of his wealth. As such, these properties are not connected properties of my being. This might be more difficult to see in cases of war and peace until we recall Deleuze’s theory of sense, where senses like “battle” are not in the bodies in conflict, but hover above it as an incorporeal sense of the event. More concretely, we have learned this century that war is a speech act… And if we know this, especially in the United States, then this is because today we have many actions that are police actions, though qualitatively indiscernible from war at the level of how bodies are interacting.

Lucretius’ distinction between properties and by-products has implications that reach far beyond the examples he gives, and which are a central axiom of historical materialism. His examples of freedom and slavery are particularly telling. Freedom, slavery, are not natural features of physical bodies, but are rather a product of relations among bodies. That is, they are, according to this metaphysic, institutions. Many will recall that Aristotle had argued that non-Greeks and women are naturally inferior to Greek men, thereby treating this inferiority as a property of these bodies. Aristotle naturalizes social relations, thereby treating them as the natural order of things.

If Lucretius’ words cause the world to shake, then this is because this thesis belongs not only to the various social identities we might possess, treating them all as by-products rather than properties, but it also extends (without him saying so) to all social institutions as well. Being-a-king is not a property of the king, but is instead a by-product of being recognized as a king by his subjects. Gender relations between men and women are not the natural way of things, but the result of ongoing autopoiesis whereby both parties involved reproduce themselves in their gendered identities through their interactions with one another (without it being possible to say one group produces the identity of the other). Sexual identities are not natural properties, but are again by products of practices and institutions.

These concepts are perhaps familiar to us today– though I hear people making such claims on behalf of the natural all the time –so it is difficult to hear just how much they make the world rumble and shake. However, if there is one central function of the project of critique and historical materialism, this is to show the essential contingency of social institutions and identities… The way they are “by-products” or “accidents”, rather than properties. The activity of demonstrating the contingency of institutions is not an activity of “debunking” or falsifying. We might, for instance, show that rights are by-products or accidents of certain social organizations. This does not render rights false, just as it is no less the case that I am a professor because being-a-professor required a whole host of institutions from universities, places to teach, states, and my students acting towards me as a philosopher. Rather, if rights are by-products or accidents, then this is because they can fail to exist in certain bodies. This entails that perhaps we fight all the more vigorously for the existence of these by-products. Rather, in the activity of critique, in the activity of uncovering contingency, we render possibilities available, allowing us to counter-factually envision how other forms of life might come to be. The slave that comes to see the institution of slavery as a contingent by-product of his socio-historical setting rather than a natural property of his being also comes to envision the possibility of another life, another world. Perhaps we should begin with the premise that we’re all slaves. Perhaps this would paradoxically be the most affirmative position one could advocate. Sometimes the entire world is changed through a simple distinction, an incorporeal transformation, a concept, that then functions as a lens so potent it is able to concentrate light into fire.

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I came across this little gem of an exchange on a prominent conservative blog where United States Congressmen regularly post.

Whoah there, Gamecock, you just went from 0 to Howard Dean in about five seconds there. Back up a second. I didn’t say I agreed with all the comments Galeano made. It was an extremely one-sided piece that failed to credit Columbus for his legitimate accomplishments as a navigator and explorer. It also portrayed the Spanish conquests only from the perspective of the brutality of the Spaniards, without discussing the brutality of native civilizations. In the case of Mexico, Cortez defeated the Aztecs largely because he had thousands of Indian allies who joined him because they were fed up with abuses on the part of the Aztec overlords.

On the other hand, none of this has anything to do with the United States. Columbus neither discovered nor settled the area that became the continental United States. Nor is it true that without his discovery there would have been no United States (as you claim). The fact is that by 1492 improvements in European navigation made discovery and settlement of North and South America a dead certainty. Indeed, the Vikings (as we know now) had already discovered Greenland and Newfoundland sometime in the late 10th century. Moreover, Northern European fishermen from England, France, and Holland were already fishing the waters around present-day New England at about the same time the Spanish were conquering Mexico and Peru. So there is no reason to think that the colonization of those areas depended on Columbus’s exploits.

As far as Columbus day being an American holiday, who cares? The Knights of Columbus and the Italian-American community, that’s who. In 1892, as waves of Italian immigrants began pouring into this country, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation asking Americans to recognize Columbus’s achievement in some way. He didn’t specify how, nor did he make it an official holiday. But over the following decades the Knights of Columbus, an Italian-Catholic civic organization, became lobbying to have it recognized as a holiday throughout the country. Several states, including New York, obliged them, but it didn’t become an official U.S. holiday until 1971 (cough, Nixon had an election to win the following year, cough, cough). In all seriousness, it makes about as much sense for Americans to celebrate Columbus day as it does for us to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, Cinco de Mayo, Kwanzaa, or Valentine’s Day (or even, dare I say it, MLK day?). And we have those noxious holidays for the same two reasons that we have Columbus Day. First, there are certain vocal communities within our society that insist, loudly and angrily, that the rest of spend time recognizing their achievements and heritage. Second, American retailers make a whole boatload of cash from these holidays.

So in conclusion, you can celebrate Columbus Day if you want (although I doubt you actually do celebrate it in any meaningful way). If you’re Italian, I don’t begrudge you the chance to connect with your inner Tony Soprano. Heck, if you just need a day off, any excuse will do. But don’t try to pretend it’s a patriotic thing, because that’s a load of crap.

A precedent embalms a principle.
– Disraeli

Gamecock responds:

Your claim is not logical. Columbus represents our tie to western civilization and how its virtues, including the discovery and conquest of our land that led to our founding
and our becoming the Beacon of Liberty, all of which the author is trashing by a historical fiction that lables Columbus a savage and the natives gentle.

He is suggesting it would have been better if Columbus had not come. To beleive that one has to believe that the world would have been better off.

That is insane, ie leftist world view. The view that hates America.

The thread continues in this vein for approximately fifty posts, becoming increasingly heated, denying anything negative from the historical record. A number of the posters even go so far as to claim that it is because of the United States that any country in the world has freedom. The position seems to be that either everything about Western history is good, or everything about Western history is bad. This argument wasn’t simply between two people, but a number expressed Gamecock’s sentiments. Incidentally, Gamecock is apparently an editorialist for his local newspaper. The first poster, apparently a highschool history teacher, provides all sorts of historical references to back up his claims throughout this fifty post exchange, yet is simply rejected for being critical of Gamecock. My question is this: In what possible universe would it be possible to have productive dialogue with such people? What is it that is going on here? What generates these sorts of beliefs? It is incredibly difficult for me to understand such people, yet they’re also extremely common here in the States. Is this something unique to our historical moment?

I will not link to the original site where this discussion took place. Having witnessed how members of these groups sometimes go after people personally, it’s best not to engage them at all. Free Republic, for instance, today posted the home address of the mentally disabled 12 year old boy used in the SCHIP commercials. Nice folk. I’d be happy to send the link through email to anyone curious to read the entire bizarre thread. It’s an excellent example of a certain structure of ideology. I tend to think that such texts are often more valuable than the work of ideological critics such as Althusser or Zizek… Or rather, that the work of ideological critics does not amount to much if you’re not familiar with these sorts of non-academic discourses.

…People who seem to think that the only possible way you could disagree or have a different position is if you had misinterpreted their position or failed to understand what they’re talking about. “After all, any rational person who understood my position couldn’t possibly disagree!” Why is it that I often find this way of thinking among social scientists who like to talk about perspective, conceptual schemes, paradigms, etc? Is there some inner logic that inherently leads these positions into a performative contradiction in which the person advocating them is incapable of actually recognizing that their perspective is a perspective even as they make claims about how all is paradigms, perspectives, and conceptual scheme? It is odd how the most ardent perspectivists in the social sciences, political theory, and philosophy somehow become the most vehement absolutist imperialists, subtracting their own position from the very principle they claim to find in everything else.

First Order Cybernetics: Drawing a distinction to observe the world. For instance, once you’ve drawn a circle on a piece of paper, you can now indicate what is inside and what is outside the circle.

Second Order Cybernetics: Observing how the first order cybernetician draws distinctions to observe the world, or “observing the observer”. In first order cybernetics the fact that the distinction had to be operative prior to indicating what is inside or outside the circle tends to disappear. The second-order cybernetician observes how distinctions are drawn so as to construct the object that the first order observer experiences as real. For instance, looking how 19th century psychiatry drew the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality, that did not exist before, and which effectively constructed homosexuality and heterosexuality as objects of study or research.

What these social scientists seem to forget is… Drum beat please:

Third Order Cybernetics: Observing how the observer draws distinctions to observe the observer. That is, this would be the critical and reflexive analysis of the sociological observer who purports to observe observers from a “value-free” and “neutral” standpoint.

International Journal of Žižek Studies Issue 2.2

– ‘Zizek avec Lacan’ (Special Issue).

Calum Neill, Editor

Is not Žižek the Lacanian theorist par excellence? Or is it perhaps too simple to so describe him, too easy to collapse his thinking into the Lacanian sources from which it has, in part, sprung without considering how it has sprung and how far? That is to say, while obviously Žižek is very Lacanian, what is distinctive in Žižek can often get lost or ascribed to Lacan and, on the other hand, non-Lacanian ideas, foci and emphases which arise in Žižek’s work can be taken to be Lacanian. With more students and academics now coming to Lacan for the first time through Žižek, it seems likely that this tendency will increase. Issue 2.2 of the International Journal of Zizek Studies will be dedicated to exploring these questions, looking at points of distinction between Žižek and Lacan, points where Žižek’s interpretation is not (necessarily) what Lacan appears to be saying, where Žižek supplements Lacan, where he develops Lacan, but also where he perhaps ‘misreads’ Lacan or distorts Lacan (wittingly or otherwise). The Journal invites papers which explore in a focused manner how we can read Žižek as a significant Lacanian influenced thinker in his own right, how, that is, we can read Žižek with, rather than as an alternative to, Lacan.

The final date for submissions is 11th January 2008. For more information, please contact the guest editor, Calum Neill (c.neill@napier.ac.uk).

I have been asked to submit an article and will be addressing the question of Lacan and Zizek’s different approaches to dealing with the problem of theoretical transference and the position of mastery in a paper entitled “The Perils of Mastery: Lacan, Zizek, and the Desire for a Master”

There are very few books on Lacan approached from a strictly philosophical perspective. By this I mean texts that unfold from the Cartesian-Kantian heritage, proceeding not through the dogmatic repetition of Lacan’s aphorisms, but through an immanent and careful development of Lacan’s claims. So far we have the work of Boothby, Zizek, and Johnston (and Nobus’ most recent book, approaching Lacan as what Badiou calls an “anti-philosopher”). For this reason, this book looks very promising:

Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan
Lorenzo Chiesa

Countering the call by some “pro-Lacanians” for an end to the exegesis of Lacan’s work–and the dismissal by “anti-Lacanians” of Lacan as impossibly impenetrable–Subjectivity and Otherness argues for Lacan as a “paradoxically systematic” thinker, and for the necessity of a close analysis of his texts. Lorenzo Chiesa examines, from a philosophical perspective, the evolution of the concept of subjectivity in Lacan’s work, carrying out a detailed reading of the Lacanian subject in its necessary relation to otherness according to Lacan’s orders of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real.

Chiesa emphasizes the continuity underlying apparently incompatible phases of Lacan’s examination of the subject, describing Lacan’s theory as a consistent philosophical system–but one that is constantly revised and therefore problematic. Chiesa analyzes each “old” theory of the subject within the framework of a “new” elaboration and reassesses its fundamental tenets from the perspective of a general psychoanalytic discourse that becomes increasingly complex. From the 1960s on, writes Chiesa, the Lacanian subject amounts to an irreducible lack that must be actively confronted and assumed; this “subjectivized lack,” Chiesa argues further, offers an escape from the contemporary impasse between the “death of the subject” alleged by postmodernism and a return to a traditional “substantialist” notion of the subject. An original treatment of psychoanalytic issues, Subjectivity and Otherness fills a significant gap in the existing literature on Lacan, taking seriously the need for a philosophical investigation of Lacanian concepts.

Advance Praise

Chiesa reintroduces us to Lacan in the same way Lacan reintroduces us to Freud: setting aside received ideas, false projections, and impressionistic readings, he uncovers what is most basic and original in Lacan’s thought while demonstrating conclusively why an engagement with it is indispensable for contemporary philosophy. Not a fly-over summary of the Lacanian corpus, the book manages rather to capture the eventful moments of hesitancy, insight, recasting, in short, the movement of Lacan’s thought as it grapples with the critical relation between subjectivity and otherness. This is a dynamic, matchless reading of Lacan that will ignite new interest in his work and rekindle the passions of initiates.”

–Joan Copjec, author of Imagine There’s No Woman

“Distilled from an enviable mastery of the whole of Lacan’s oeuvre, Lorenzo Chiesa’s book provides an exceptionally clear and well-integrated account of all the central concepts at work in Lacan’s notoriously elusive system of thought, organised in terms of its shift in orientation from ‘Imaginary’ through ‘Symbolic’ to ‘Real’. Rarely have the properly philosophical dimensions of Lacan’s anti-philosophy been presented with such assurance and poise; anyone interested in the ongoing re-evaluation of the place of the subject in contemporary continental philosophy will find Subjectivity and Otherness an invaluable and inspiring guide.”

–Peter Hallward, Professor of Philosophy, Middlesex University, London, UK

“Lorenzo Chiesa has written a philosophical account of Lacan’s teaching that is both a superb introduction and a penetrating study of his major contributions, from the initial discovery that the unconscious is structured like a language to a detailed analysis of the subject of jouissance. Newcomers will find a clear, step-by-step exposition of the major themes, while those already familiar with Lacan’s contribution to psychoanalysis will find intense stimulation in Chiesa’s philosophical engagement with Lacanian thought.”

–Russell Grigg, Director, Psychoanalytic Studies and Associate Professor, Philosophy, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

“With this volume, Lorenzo Chiesa establishes himself as the leader of a new generation of ‘young Lacanians’, for whom Lacan is primarily a text that needs to be read. Avoiding the need to pledge his doctrinal allegiance to a master, and refusing the endless regurgitation of mantras, Chiesa ploughs through the Lacanian territory with a razor-sharp intellect, constantly unearthing original themes and motifs, and weaving patterns of thought into an intellectual system that proves to be everything but systematic and, for that matter, all the more convincing. Chiesa reads Lacan philosophically, not just insofar as he short-circuits psychoanalysis and philosophy, but also insofar as he approaches the dense text with extreme care and conscientiousness. I don’t think Lacan has ever been read with so much patience and exactitude, and had this book been produced during Lacan’s lifetime, there is no doubt that he would have recommended it to his audience as a brilliant example of critical reading.”

–Dany Nobus, Professor of Psychology and Psychoanalysis, Brunel University, UK

Scholars who study the role of religion in politics now say it is possible that the Bush years were an anomaly and that evangelicals, of whom religious conservatives are only a subset, could find themselves back where they were before — divided among themselves and just one of many interest groups vying for attention.

“It’s not so much that evangelicals are more divided than they were before, it’s that Bush himself was a unique candidate,” said Corwin E. Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, an evangelical school in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It’s partly going back to previous patterns.”

And that stings. Religious conservatives were alarmed last month when none of the Republican front-runners showed up for the Values Voter Debate Straw Poll in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. More than 40 groups, some of them major organizations known for their capacity to mobilize voters, had put together the event. Questions were directed even at the no-show candidates, and many of those questions were angry.

“Beyond their cowardice, there’s an arrogance on the part of these candidates,” said Janet L. Folger, the president of Faith2Action, who helped organize the debate. “The arrogance is this: ‘We are just taking your votes for granted. You have nowhere else to go.’ “

Nobody likes to be used. Read the rest here.

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In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari write,

…[P]hilosophers have very little time for discussion. Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’ Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? And when they are stated, it is no longer a matter of discussing but rather one of creating concepts for the undiscussible problem posed. Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous. Sometimes philosophy is turned into the idea of a perpetual discussion, as ‘communicative rationality,’ or as ‘universal democratic conversation.’ Nothing is less exact, and when philosophers criticize each other it is on the basis of problems and on a plane that is different from theirs and that melt down the old concepts in the way a cannon can be melted down to make new weapons. It never takes place on the same plane. To criticize is only to establish that a concept vanishes when it is thrust into a new milieu, losing some of its components, or acquiring others that transform it. But those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to give it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of philosophy. All of these debaters and communicators are inspired by ressentiment (Deleuze’s emphasis). They speak only of themselves when they set empty generalizations against one another. Philosophy has a horror of discussions. (28-29)

Deleuze and Guattari must have been thinking of exchanges like this one with the lawyer Daniel, when writing the passage above. It is too much to even refer to such events as exchanges because nothing is exchanged. Those who participate appear to be talking to one another and to be talking about the same things, but are in fact talking about entirely different things. If this is the case, then it is because meaning is not in words, but is always the result of the relations a word shares with those other signifiers that are not present.

Read on
(more…)

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