Of late, I confess, I’ve found myself exhausted with blogging or, more generally, communication. On the one hand, dialogue, especially academic dialogue, is constantly threatened by the perils of what Lacan referred to as the “imaginary”. When Lacan evokes the imaginary, of course, he is not speaking of what is imagined or fabrications of the mind, but rather the domain of identification with the specular image of our body. Of particular importance here are all the rivalrous struggles for recognition that Hegel depicted so well in the Phenomenology of Spirit. For some reason these struggles seem to occur with particular intensity and ferocity in academic dialogue. Indeed, where one might intuitively think that such fierce struggles are most intense between strongly polarized intellectual positions– for instance, the infamous split between Analytic and Continental thought –these struggles seem to occur with even greater intensity between intellectual positions that are fairly close to one another, thereby underlining Freud’s point about the narcissism of minor difference. To the outsider, for instance, it is very difficult to distinguish Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus from the work of late Lacan. Yet for partisans of these thinkers, deafening struggles ensue. Indeed, some of the most bitter struggles I’ve ever witnessed occur among the various Lacanian camps, such that smaller Lacanian groups must think long and hard over whether they would invite the wrath of Jacques-Alain Miller were they to invite Colette Soler to speak or submit a paper.
On the other hand, I’ve found myself haunted by this passage from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. A Laplander or Negro has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.
What I find particularly troubling in this passage is Hume’s reference to the man of mild manners and the man with a selfish heart. Hume’s thesis, of course, is that all ideas arise from experience. As a consequence of this thesis, the limits of our imagination are defined by the limits of our experience. Should the man with a selfish heart witness an act of genuine generosity or friendship, it would not, according to Hume, even register as such an act, for the associative web characterizing the thought of this man would immediately interpret the other man’s act according to his own universe where selfish motives are treated as axiomatic. As Lacan liked to say, “all communication is miscommunication”. Here we have Hume’s own version of this Lacanian thesis. Where thought is always situated or attached to a field of experience and where ideas are related by principles of association, it follows that no two people will exist in the same universe. Each event that occurs in the field of experience– hearing another’s words, for instance –will evoke different associations and relations, such that the relation between two people is a sort of babble or chaos rather than a communication. There are, of course, all sorts of problematic assumptions here about the nature of communication– namely the assumption that to communicate is to send a signal that is the same for both the sender and receiver –yet it is worthwhile to state the issue in the starkest terms possible.
While not endorsing Hume’s position, I do think that he is able to explain a good deal about about human formations of thought and interactions with one another with his sparse epistemology. Do we not daily see the results of this phenomenon in the way we judge others, detaching their words and actions from the context in which they occur, speaking of issues as if there were some abstract reason or common sense against which their actions could be measured, and transforming actions into acts based on abstract motives that we can then judge? This phenomenon is especially attenuated in the blogosphere, where the field in which we encounter the other person is restricted largely to words and images, sans their daily life, their work, their obligations, their passionate engagements, and so on. Divorced from all context– and no writer could ever be equal to writing context –words and phrases instead dangle for whomever might come along, actualizing all sorts of associations in readers without necessarily having anything to do with the context that first led the author to generate them as a series of 0’s and 1’s that appear on ones monitor.
The consequences that follow from Hume’s simple and straightforward observation are rather bleak. If he is right we are collectively doomed to a comedy of errors. Yet where the literary comedy of errors usually ends with the rise of the prince or love fulfilled, our comedy of errors seems to be one that ends only in cruelty, conflict, and war. This cruelty is all the worse in that it is seldom even aware of itself for the same reason that the mild mannered man cannot even recognize the intense passions of others. Like Derrida’s analysis of the gift in Given Time, where the condition for the possibility of the gift paradoxically consists in a complete unawareness of giving a gift coupled with no unconscious surplus-value drawn from the gift, this would be a situation in which we would be completely unaware of others by virtue of perpetually being trapped in our own networks of associations when relating to others. However, where Derrida shows how this is a condition of the gift– a sort of regulative ideal, as Kant would say –this would be a circumstance fulfilled each and every day in our relations to others. If we like, we can engage in a lot of hand-waving about the formation of shared horizons of meaning, the production of shared contexts, etc., but the situation would still be essentially the same. The question, then, is whether this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves, or whether there is no some minimal transcendence that allows us in certain circumstances– not all –to surmount the limits of our embeddedness in context to encounter some minimal otherness of the other. In encountering others, do we only ever see our own reflection in the mirror?