November 2007

I am heading to Newcastle University to hang with Spurious and Blah-Feme from December 6th to 9th, where I will be giving a talk at the 3rd Symposium in the Music,
Philosophy and Vernacular series. The folks there were kind enough to foot my ticket and lodgings, so hopefully I will have something of interest to say. I have to confess I’m a bit intimidated, as I am certainly not a musicologist and I have 90 minutes to speak (60 minutes for my talk and 30 minutes for discussion). Sadly this will be a whirlwind trip. I fly out Thursday afternoon, land early Friday morning, have fun with all the Newcastle folk on Saturday, and fly back to the States on Sunday. I wonder if I’ll be detained by customs? Why is it a fantasy that I’m “dangerous” enough to be stopped by customs?

The theme of the symposium this year is drawn from work Blah-Feme has been doing and is entitled “After Music”. As I understand it, Blah-feme has been toying with the idea that we live in a post-musical age precisely because music has become so ubiquitous. Of special interest in Blah-femes analysis is his discussions of “distributed subjectivity”, or the manner in which we have shifted from Cartesian models of subjectivity to models of subjectivity where individuals are nodes in a network, coordinated by various media, producing certain forms of life. Finding this idea interesting and provocative, my talk will thus attempt to put some meat on the bones of this concept of distributed subjectivity by drawing heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s account of territorialization in “Of the Refrain” found in A Thousand Plateaus, and various moments in Marx. I am especially interested in how territories of subjectivity are formed, how forms of life are molded, through various musical refrains, and how this might be thought in terms of Marx’s thesis that “production is immediately consumption and consumption is immediately production” (i.e., not only the question of how to reproduce the conditions of production, but also how to reproduce the conditions of consumption… A problem that becomes pressing in a capitalist milieu when basic needs are met). In part, I would like to show that distributed subjectivity is not something new, but is in fact the “truth” of subjectivity (in the sense that democracy is, according to Marx, the truth of all social formations). This, I think, resituates the question somewhat and helps to ameliorate some of the doom and gloom surrounding the disappearance of agency. Of course, I, no more than anyone else, do not have questions as to what is to be done. At any rate, the title of the paper is “Territories of Music: Deleuze, Guattari, and the Formation of Territories of Subjectivity”… Or something like that.

I am told that the Newcastle folk are somewhat hostile to Deleuze and Guattari, seeing them as apologists for contemporary consumer capitalism and being better friends with Lacan, Zizek, and Badiou. Needless to say, in my view Deleuze gives us the ontology required by historical materialism. Hopefully I can compelling make this case in some form or other and I am not the recipient of rotten tomatoes or eggs!

At any rate, if I’m less than responsive on the blog or email in the next few days, this is because I am busily working… Editing the proofs of a book, giving two conference papers, working on an article, serving on three committees, and teaching a 5/5 load are not conducive to finishing things in a timely fashion. Wish me luck, or not as the case may be.

Notebookeleven— whose blog, I’m embarrassed to say, I just recently discovered –has written an interesting response to my post Where’s Marx?

Larvalsubjects has an interesting post on Marx in the academy over here which has generated a lively discussion in which, perhaps unsurprisingly, the question of agency has risen to the fore again. This is still something I find disturbing, something I’m not really able to get a grip on fully, since I tend to understand the problem of agency as responding to something like a desire to answer the question ‘what difference can I make?’. “Where’s the agency”, someone might ask, “in these economic analyses of desire (D&G) or capital (Marx)? Isn’t it all just a huge machine in which I am nothing? And if it is a big machine, how did this machine produce it’s own auto-critique? Isn’t it really the break, the rupture (of the subject), that we need to theorise? Isn’t consciousness really the most important fact in reality since it is inexplicable by reality? Me, I’m important, surely – doesn’t my analysis do anything, offer anything – don’t I have the answers, or at least the right to produce answers or the possibility of finding them?” I’m inclined to dismiss these questions out of hand as the whining desire of a resentiment-filled petit-bourgeois who thinks they’re ‘in charge of their life’ in the first place but have to recognise that at least some of the charge invested in this response is disproportionate and perhaps related to the other peculiar investments I find myself bound to (revolution, majik, sex).

You can read the rest here. While I am not yet willing to draw a hard and fast distinction between academic theory and the field of practice, I do think these are questions worth raising. Rather than asking the question what is to be done?, perhaps the question should be where are things being done? That is, where are the tendencies of change and transformation in the world today. The virtue of this question is that it takes the onus of change off the shoulders of the theorist– a rather narcissistic and self-congratulatory perspective to begin with, that lends itself easily to hierarchical, top-down models –and directs attention to the social field and those tendencies or potentialities where social structurations are shifting and changing. This accords well with Marx’s own attentiveness to questions of where the real motor of history is to be found. Regardless of how problematic they are, this is one of the things I find appealing about Negri and Hardt. Negri and Hardt do not propose a program– as far as I know –nor give a set of prescriptions as to what is to be done. Rather, they look to those places in the social field where existing social structures are undergoing transformation and change as a result of the productions of various, heterogeneous, multitudes. That is, it is these divergent, heterogeneous, multitudes that are the motor of change, not the theorist remaking society in his imagination from his armchair. If anything, the theorist perhaps brings a little more clarity to these struggles and points of deterritorialization. In his defense, Badiou is very clear that it is not philosophers that create truths or engage in truth-procedures (qua philosophers). For Badiou it is always artists, scientists, those engaged in political struggles, and lovers that engage in truth-procedures. The philosopher names truths, articulates them as truths (one need not be aware that they are engaged in a truth-procedure to be engaged in a truth-procedure) and strives to think the compossibility of the four conditions of truth.

For those who haven’t heard, American conservatives have decided to put together their own version of Wikipedia, Conservapedia, to counter its leftwing bias. Here’s a list of the most frequently viewed pages and their number of hits:

1. Homosexuality‎ [2,011,173]
2. Main Page‎ [1,974,521]
3. Homosexuality and Hepatitis‎ [518,847]
4. Homosexuality and Parasites‎ [479,807]
5. Gay Bowel Syndrome‎ [445,848]
6. Homosexuality and Promiscuity‎ [423,159]
7. Homosexual Couples and Domestic Violence‎ [374,753]
8. Homosexuality and Gonorrhea‎ [332,659]
9. Homosexuality and Anal Cancer‎ [295,222]
10. Homosexuality and Mental Health‎ [294,872]

I kid you not, really, go to the site. I make it a policy not to link to such sites, but you will find this list under site “statistics” on the left of the screen. This seems like an appropriate time to quote a passage from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding on association:

IT is evident that there is a principle of connexion between the different thoughts or ideas of the mind, and that, in their appearance to the memory or imagination, they introduce each other with a certain degree of method and regularity. In our more serious thinking or discourse this is so observable that any particular thought, which breaks in upon the regular tract or chain of ideas, is immediately remarked and rejected. And even in our wildest and most wandering reveries, nay in our very dreams, we shall find, if we reflect, that the imagination ran not altogether at adventures, but that there was still a connexion upheld among the different ideas, which succeeded each other. Were the loosest and freest conversation to be transcribed, there would immediately be observed something which connected it in all its transitions. Or where this is wanting, the person who broke the thread of discourse might still inform you, that there had secretly revolved in his mind a succession of thought, which had gradually led him from the subject of conversation.

The key point for Hume (and Freud), of course, is that if one idea occurs to you in relation to another idea, it was your mind that drew that connection. I wonder if there’s any particular reason these conservatives are thinking of homosexuality so much, and in particular of these sex acts? On the one hand, there is the sad obsession with particular sex acts. On the other hand, there is the hair-raising association of these sexual orientations immediately with disease, insects, parasites, etc. Such metaphorics to describe another group turned out real well in Rwanda and Germany.

Guattari’s Molecular Revolution is now available online for free.

via Continental Philosophy.

At the risk of being humiliatingly dense, where’s Marx in contemporary discussions? In his Preface to the Contributions of a Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness… Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

We have Zizek who describes himself as a militant Marxist, but who only makes rather vague hand gestures to modes of production and material conditions, focusing instead on the Act and ideology (this, I think, should make us suspicious of his proposals as to what constitutes materialism in The Parallax View). We have Badiou, who also describes himself as a Marxist, yet who focuses on the event, truth-procedures, and decisions. Ranciere talks of counting that which is not counted and the aesthetic. Laclau talks about battles for the hegemonization of empty or void universals. Foucault, of course, power. With the exception of Foucault, aren’t these, to adopt the rhetoric, bourgeois inversions of how change takes place? Don’t these positions postulate that change proceeds via consciousness, rather than consciousness, thought, emerging from modes of production? Deleuze and Guattari seem alone in focusing on production and modes of production. Their talk of “deterritorialization”, so annoying to many, can be seen as a fancy way of talking about the leading edge of history or the history making element of history, i.e., the proletariat (though with lots of bells and whistles added). I’m sure I’m missing something here and someone will come along and give me the history of the problematic nature of the base-superstructure thesis and how it’s been complicated. Sure. But what’s interesting is that modes of production seemed to have disappeared almost entirely from the discussion. So what am I missing? Please go easy on me.

I was interested to discover this review of Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy, courtesy of our friends at Perverse Egalitarianism. Welchman, the reviewer, writes,

This book has two aims. First, it provides readings of four French philosophers more or less outside of the main phenomenological stream of French (‘continental’) thought exemplified by Derrida. The philosophers are Gilles Deleuze, Michel Henry, Alain Badiou and François Laruelle. Collectively they constitute the beginning of what Mullarkey takes to be the post-continental philosophy of his book’s title. Mullarkey considers these thinkers to be united by a commitment to the idea of immanence. But he argues that each of these philosophers tacitly betrays the immanence they are officially committed to. And this leads to the second aim of the book: an original philosophy of immanence that avoids the pitfalls identified in the rest of book. Here Mullarkey’s central term is ‘diagram’, a word that he intends literally (among other ways).

The term ‘immanent’ is a slippery one, as Mullarkey himself acknowledges (7). But its basic sense emerges quickly from his analysis of Deleuze, an analysis that plays a coordinating role in relation to Badiou and Henry. According to Mullarkey, Deleuze’s claim to be a philosopher of immanence is vitiated by his commitment to a ‘two-world ontology’ (25) spanning both the virtual and the actual. Although Deleuze himself is at pains to distinguish the virtual from the possible, this nicety does not concern Mullarkey because for him any ontological category going beyond what actually exists (the actual) is ipso facto transcendent and therefore no longer immanent.

Seeking to surmount this residual transcendence, Mullarkey instead proposes the following:

Mullarkey’s immanent materialization of self-relation in the diagram derives from Henry’s conception and shares with it a principled rejection of explanation. In a way this is odd because Mullarkey describes his position as actualist. This doctrine is usually understood as the denial that possibilities exist and its chief intellectual challenge is how to account for modal statements without such a two-stage ontology. One might expect Mullarkey’s immanent actualism to stimulate an analogous explanatory challenge: how to account for the apparently non-actual on the basis of the actual. But Mullarkey repeatedly blocks this challenge by arguing for example that even the appearance of transcendence is already transcendence. Thus even to admit that there is something to explain is already to have made it impossible to explain it on the basis of immanence. So Mullarkey’s solution to the explanatory co-dependency between Badiou and Henry is to eschew explanation itself. Mullarkey’s radical value-neutrality, descriptivism and his ultimately mute conception of the philosophical diagram all follow once explanation has been blocked. Deleuze’s materialization of self-relation by contrast rises to the challenge, and so perhaps it is not surprising that it should have been occluded in Mullarkey’s account.

I have not yet been able to read this book, but look forward to doing so. On the one hand, I find myself sympathetic to what might motivate Mullarkey to make this move. It seems to me that the target here is Platonism and Expressivism. On the one hand, I understand Platonic idealism to be any position that posits essences, forms, or substances, that condition beings without themselves being conditioned by these beings. The forms condition individuals without individuals conditioning forms. I will not here go into all the problems with this common thesis (a thesis so common that people often are not even aware they are advancing it), but simply earmark it for further discussion (much of Difference and Givenness targets precisely this idealism). On the other hand, by expressivism I understand a variant of this Platonic idealism where one asserts the primacy of an interpretative model that all phenomena then express as variations on that model. Thus, for example, Hegel is often read as an expressivist in that the meaning of any historical time period lies in a self-identical logos, such that all aspects of life are and society are expressions of this master-key. Similarly, Freud is an expressivist in the sense that all roads lead back to Oedipus. We always know what the answer will be, and all psychic phenomena are variations on this one motif. Finally, Levi-Strauss is an expressivist in that all mythology and social formations are treated as variations of the invariant structures of mind.

I think expressivism is a position well worth combating, especially given how common it can be in circles of those influenced by psychoanalytic theory (despite Lacan’s wide ranging critiques of such an understanding of the unconscious). However, I wonder if Mullarkey’s knife here doesn’t cut too deep. To explain is to trace a phenomenon back to something that serves as its ground. If this review fairly represents Mullarkey’s view, all grounds disappear and we’re left simply with scintillating impressions. Exit any ideological analysis, political analysis, textual interpretation, psychoanalysis, and so on. Rather, the problem does not strike me as being that of ground, but of how ground is conceived. In his Introduction to Sociology, Adorno makes a plea for preserving the notion of essence. If, says Adorno, capitalism is the essence of our time and of all cultural formations of our time, this isn’t because capitalism is an invariant form or logos that all phenomena express, but rather because capitalism is that system of relations and forces that allows us to comprehend why cultural formations take the form they take today. This in now way entails that these cultural formations do not themselves react back on to this system of relations… And that is the key point.

This evening, while grading piles of essay quizzes and logic exams– with many more yet to go –I happened to catch a documentary on spree killers. Spree killers, of course, are people that go on killing sprees, killing a large number of people. As the show attempted to explain this phenomenon, it made reference to a psychological study done at a university (sadly the name and researcher escapes me), on this very phenomenon. The thesis– not a particularly elaborate or well developed one –is that people who have suffered continuous and constant rejection are especially prone to spree killing. In order to test this hypothesis (without producing the same result!), the psychologists called for groups of students to participate in an experiment. As usual, the students were not told what the experiment was for or were given a different account of what the experiment was about. First they would tell the students that they were going to work in groups to do a particular task. They then spoke to each of the participants in private, telling them either 1) that everyone else in the group had requested to work with them, or 2) no one wanted to work with them.

In order to determine the effects of this rejection, they had the students do word games on a computer, filling in the missing letters of words that would appear on screen. Thus, for example, a word such as “m r” or “s b” would appear on the screen and the student would be asked to fill in the first letters that came to mind. Not surprisingly, those students who had been rejected were more likely to turn the words into violent words like “murder” or “stab”, rather than say “slab”. As an additional level of this experiment, groups of two students would then do sound testing together, where they had the ability to raise the volume of their partner’s earphones to painful levels. Again, not surprisingly, those students who had been told they were rejected by everyone often raised the volume to the highest possible levels. The conclusion of the experiment, of course, is the rather obvious point that rejection generates violent and murderous thoughts that actively seek to negate the supposed “rejecters”.

What I find interesting in this experiment is not the light it sheds on spree killers, but on certain rhetorical encounters. Those familiar with Lacan will readily recognize the conflictual nature of the dimension of the Imaginary at work in this experiment, where two people enter into a struggle for recognition that can spiral out of control. Of course, Lacan’s imaginary is more sophisticated than what the experiment assumes, as the Lacanian would point out that in order for rejection to produce this sort of effect there must be a prior identification with the rejecter. That is, I must already recognize myself as either being like the person rejecting me or as desiring the recognition of the person rejecting me for these results to ensue. I do not, for instance, find myself upset if I’m rejected by members of the Ku Klux Klan or members of the Hal Bop cult. It is only those I already identify with who instill these violent impulses in me. Perhaps this is what Freud had in mind when referring to the “narcissism of minor differences” in Civilization and its Discontents, where the two groups are very much alike (Simpsons fans will think of the rivalry between Shelbyville and Springfield), yet find some minor difference to fight over that seems blown out of all proportions.

When I am rejected by those with whom I consciously or unconsciously identify at some level, my ego or specular identity is itself cut to the core, as like an onion I have constructed this identity or ego from out of my identification, thereby rendering it dependent on those who reflect me, such that my very being is endangered when it is rejected. I seek to strike back to destroy the gaze from which I see myself as myself, thereby hoping to re-establish or re-ground my identity. However, as Lacan points out, this dialectic is doomed to failure for if I am successful in destroying the other through whom I reflect myself I am not longer reflected and thereby cease to exist as well. It is a catch-22. In being rejected I cease to exist. In destroying my rejector, I cease to exist. Yet, I am dependent on my other in order to exist. (Here I am making a highly condensed allusion to Lacan’s dialectic of the forced choice between being and thinking in his account of alienation and separation. This, of course, would only refer to the alienation portion of that dialectic).

It seems that we encounter these rhetorical situations primarily in discussions about politics, academic debates about theoretical positions, interpretations, ownership of master-theoreticians, etc., and religion. In these cases, both groups involved seem to experience themselves as being marginalized and rejected, and then strike out to destroy their opponents. It is at this point that we get the cascade of rhetorical effects, where the opponent’s being is severely simplified and they are reduced to a malignant, evil other without any other possible merit, where ad hominems come into play, and where we strike out to completely obliterate the person we’re engaged in debate with. For the most part, I do not think the abusive rhetorical fallacies result from a conscious desire to willfully deceive, but rather they are almost like computer programs that are activated when certain conditions in the imaginary are ripe. Just as a strong gravitational field around a massive celestial object like the sun will produce an aberration in [Newtonian] bodies for closely orbiting planets (the famous shift in the planet Mercury), so too will these distortions of thought ineluctably emerge under certain ripe conditions in the imaginary. Similarly, a number of the other psychological fallacies will emerge when dealing with issues around which our libido, our desire, is tightly bound, leading us to either ignore certain things, turn other things into strawmen, be overly optimistic, etc.

I do not know what, if anything, can be done about this. It seems to me that there is a bit of an antinomy at work here at the place of sites of contestation. Politics, religion, and theory are all sites of struggle and conflict. They require taking positions and rejecting other positions. Yet by the same token, they are sites of dialogue. For me, the question is how these two things can be thought together in such a way as to minimize the antagonism that so commonly emerges around them. I suppose there’s a parallax here. I do not at all have the answers, though I continuously find this phenomenon frustrating, mystifying, and exceedingly painful.

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