January 2008


Shaher Ozeri of Perverse Egalitarianism has an interesting quasi-review of Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low Wage Nation. I was asked to review this book, but alas I don’t have the time right now. However, anyone interested in issues of labor in the university system and the problems facing candidates entering the market will be interested in this book.

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This afternoon, as I gave my second lecture, I found my thought process a bit sluggish. Here and there I would stumble over a word, mispronounce something, or formulate an awkward sentence. Associations weren’t coming to the tip of my tongue as quickly as they often do. I had not yet eaten lunch and had had a very small breakfast, so the sluggishness of my thought process was literally a function of having no gas to run my engines. Yet consciously, phenomenologically, this sluggishness, this lack of alertness, all seemed to me to be a failure of my own will. That is, they felt as if they were my own doing. I am not sure what is worse… Blaming such moments on oneself, or being haunted by the momentary phantasm that none of these things are one’s own doing, that ultimately we’re a sort of machine governed by very complex cause and effect relations over which we have no ultimate control. In such moments a sort of nausea flows over me and I’m horrified by the thought that perhaps my sense that I direct myself, that I will actions, that I am an agent is nothing but an epiphenomenal illusion and that every thought I have, every emotion I experience, every feeling of failure and moral guilt I suffer, everything I seem to will is nothing but the ticking away of a very complex machine where I am ultimately absent. Can anyone not experience horror at the vision of the cap of one’s skull cut open, revealing that fiberous network of neuronal connections where electro-chemical reactions flash and burst without any centralized co-ordination, all the while realizing that that is you? What cruel creator would create a machine that is conscious of itself as an illusion? What accident of nature could produce such an abomination? Fortunately I quickly forget such horrifying phantasms and return to the reassuring thought that I’m somehow directing myself and am not simply an epiphenomenal mist arising out of a network of essentially random connections and processes.

Sally Haslanger of MIT has written a hair raising article on the experience of women in philosophy departments in the United States. It is interesting to note the suggestions scattered throughout as to the social and political parallels to the abstraction of analytic philosophy. By abstraction here, I of course mean the tendency to divorce philosophical speculation in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, even social and political theory (Rawls’ veil of ignorance anyone?), philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, etc., from concrete social and political horizons within which they’re articulated. This article makes me want to say bugger all to academic philosophy. What the hell is wrong with this discipline?!? Well worth the read.

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Towards the beginning of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes that,

Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe there existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers. In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not-withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings. (9)

In a Kantian context, a condition is an a priori ground of both knowledge and the objects that is itself unchanging. That is, the conditions of experience are themselves outside of history and immune to the flux of change. The twelve categories of the understanding– unity, plurality, totality, reality, negation, limitation, inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community, possibility/impossibility, existence/non-existence, and necessity/contingency –along with the forms of intuition (space and time), and the transcendental unity of apperception, do not themselves change or become. As a result, the knower is subtracted from the field of becoming as an objectifying observer immune to the becoming of nature itself. In short, a certain premise of identity, of the identity of the knower, of its unconditioned existence, is operative in nearly all philosophical formations. Objects might become– indeed, the march of the sciences has almost universally been characterized by the erasure of substances in favor of relational and genetic accounts –but the knower does not itself become. All of this presupposes a certain theory of individuation. As Peter King writes in relation to the problem of individuation in Medieval philosophy,

…Socrates’ individuality should be explained in terms of features intrinsic to Socrates: his individuality is independent of other things and the relations in which he stands to them; were other things to come into existence or pass away, or change in their relationship to Socrates, it nevertheless seems implausible to think his individuality would be affected. If everything but Socrates were to be destroyed, he would remain individual. (Peter King, Theoria 66 (2000), 161)

King’s remark here sounds reminiscent of Husserl’s thesis that the transcendental ego would remain exactly as it was were the entire world to be annihilated. One wonders why it seems implausible to think that Socrates’ individuality changes when other things come into existence or their relationship to Socrates changes. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze argues that, “…impersonal and preindividual nomadic singularities constitute the real transcendental field. The way in which the individual is derived out of this field represents the first stage of the genesis. The individual is inseparable from a world…” (109). These singularities are nomadic not because they are sovereign individuals free of conditioning, but because like the nomads of the steppes, they have no fixed or hierarchical localization, but instead form a quasi-random constellation. A constellation of stars lacks any ratio of harmony or proportion as in the case of Plato’s Pythagoreanism, but are rather thrown across the sky in such a way that they can only be found or discovered, not deduced. Would Socrates have been Socrates without the Athens of his time and his shifting relations to the world about him? Echoing King, it seems implausible to suggest so.

Yet why, despite the implausibility of such a thesis, do philosophers nonetheless implicitly and explicitly adopt such a position with regard to individuation? Whether we are speaking of Platonic forms that condition the objects of the world without themselves being conditioned by the world, or of the Cartesian subject, Kantian Transcendental Unity of Apperception, or Husserlian Transcendental Ego, or again of normative prescriptions like the categorical imperative or Mill’s greatest happiness principle, or conceptions of God as eternal and unchanging, itself immune to becoming (Whitehead and Schelling might be notable exceptions), again and again we find that a term is subtracted from the field of conditions such that it comes to condition everything else without itself being conditioned. More often than not, this conception of individuation is implicit, such that a theorist is happy to argue that all forms come into being, that they all have their cultural and natural history, and that they can pass away, all the while failing to explain the position of the theorist itself according to these principles. The theorist is here treated as a view from nowhere, like Laplace’s Demon, capable of surveying the whole without itself being conditioned by the constellation in which it finds itself. In this connection, Bourdieu argues that,

The construction of the field of production, substituting for a polemic where prejudice is disguised as analysis a polemic where scientific reason challenges itself, that is, challenges its own limits, implies a break with naive and self-indulgent objectification unaware of their own sources. It can only be an unjustifiable abstraction (which could fairly be called reductive) to seek the source of the understanding of cultural productions in these productions themselves, taken in isolation and divorced from the conditions of their production and utilization, as would be the wish of discourse analysis, which, situated on the border between sociology and linguistics, has nowadays relapsed into indefensible forms of internal analysis. Scientific analysis must work to relate to each other two sets of relations, the space of works or discourses taken as differential stances, and the space of the positions held by those who produce them. (Homo Academicus, xvi-xvii)

If Arendt is correct in her thesis that human existence is always conditioned– and having only limited familiarity with her work I am only developing my associations in relation to the passages cited at the beginning of this post –then any philosophical position that begins from the stance of an unconditioned individual whether in the form of a knower, Forms, normative universals, etc., finds itself in ruin for the simple reason that thought itself always finds itself within a historically specific (both naturally and culturally) field of conditions. As Bordieu points out, it is not enough to take up positions with regard to the cultural productions themselves (i.e., the arguments of a philosophical text or the results of scientific investigation), but rather the field of production in which these artifacts are themselves produced must be an object of critique as well (on the premise that Laplace’s Demon does not exist). Not only does thought always find itself within a field of conditions that condition the productions of thought, but the production of thought, technology, and society themselves enter this field becoming what Hegel called “Objective Spirit”, and, in turn, conditioning the productions of thought. Thought changes with the advent of writing, the printing press, the phone, satellite communications, the internet, new formations of the university, new distributions of power, and so on. While fabricated by humans, these objects nonetheless stand over and against humans in much the same way that the adaption of a species now itself becomes a feature of the environment to which other species must adapt and to which the species itself must respond. Yet thinkers tend to place these “extra-intellectual” factors of thought under erasure, leading to a situation “…where texts are transmitted without the context of their production and use,… [counting] on receiving a so-called ‘internal’ reading which universalizes and eternalizes them while derealizing them by constantly relating them to the sole context of their reception” (Bourdieu, xv).

The consequence of such a thesis regarding individuation– that beings are always conditioning and conditioned –would entail that thought must always begin between. That is, the subject of philosophy is not the sovereign and unconditioned knower or mind, but rather the constellation of conditions and conditioning out of which thought is produced. It is, of course, fashionable to declare that philosophy requires a radical critique, yet nonetheless it is the case that a meta-philosophical critique is absent in philosophy. Such a critique would be a prolegomena or propaedutic to philosophy, seeking to determine its very possibility or conditions. As such, it would not be, after the fashion of Kant’s critique, a critique that took positions vis a vis the stands and positions of philosophy itself. Rather, its questions would revolve around the field of production in which philosophy itself comes to be produced– The social field, the economic field, the field of power, etc., out of which philosophical concepts and positions are generated. Murmers of such a critique already populate the history of philosophy. Nietzsche, at least under Deleuze’s reading, argued that critique had not gone far enough as it had not subjected the values of critique (truth, the good, justice, etc) themselves to critique. For Nietzsche it was above all necessary to ask what wills in the philosophical will, and such an analysis necessarily required recourse to a genealogy. Marx saw fit to show how philosophers had inverted the world, treating ideas as more real than material conditions of production, and how epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and political thought are always conditioned by the field of cultural production. Freud and Lacan explored the underworld of desire in relation to knowledge. Foucault introduced the idea of a historical a priori exceeding that of the individual knower and conditioning his productions. Kuhn, in his own way, showed something similar. Latour and Stengers have explored the way in which scientific objects are produced. And Bourdieu has shown the functioning of power within the field of knowledge production and taste. Such a meta-critique would thus be reflexive, and would seek to determine both the way in which the figure of the philosopher is produced within a particular cultural constellation and how philosophy produces its own objects, eternalizing and universalizing them, while placing this production under erasure.

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These days I find myself filled with the impulse to burn this blog. Of course, you can’t burn a series of zeros and ones. Perhaps it is just the winter break. I never fare well when I have time on my hands. It’s as if I need some minimal resistance, some thing blocking my desire to think and write, in order to think and write. When I actually get the time I want, I no longer want what I want. All of this, of course, makes me wonder what it is that I want. Nonetheless, these days I find myself far too self-conscious, far too aware. I’ve had the tragic misfortune of coming to know my audience… An article here, a speaking gig there. Larval Subjects was conceived as just that: Larval Work. Dissatisfied with academia and the manner in which we’re forced to strategize what we will publish and work on so that we might get work, I imagined another space where I just wouldn’t care anymore. Somewhere, in his brilliant Capitalism and Religion, Goodchild speaks of this, wondering whether he wouldn’t have written better, posed questions differently, if he weren’t beset by the dynamics of capital and the necessity of intellectual labor so as to subsist. An anonymous blog would be an escape from that and the promise of a leap outside the academic machine and the manner in which it compels us to make all sorts of decisions so as to work, to get tenure, to gain time. Yet Larval Subjects is no longer so larval. I feel as if I’ve lost my compass, my desire. Recently I’ve been finding that books no longer engage me. I haven’t been worked up by certain questions or problems. I am no longer sure of what I am aiming at. Perhaps I am just exhausted by relaxation. It will be a relief when break is over and I am teaching again. It will be a relief to encounter, once again, the provocation of students. Maybe then I’ll remember my questions. Right now I’m in the habit of burning everything.

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In The Politics of Aesthetics Ranciere remarks,

I call the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts. This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution. Aristotle states that a citizen is someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed. However, another form of distribution precedes this act of partaking in government: the distribution that determines those who have a part in the community of citizens…. There is thus an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics that has nothing to do with Benjamin’s discussion of the ‘aesthetization of politics’ specific to the ‘age of the masses’…. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visibile and the invisible, speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the places and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time. (12-13)

A few pages earlier, Gabriel Rockhill clarifies what Ranciere is getting at:

The police, to begin with, is defined as an organizational system of coordinates that establishes a distribution of the sensible or a law that divides the community into groups, social positions, and functions. This law implicitly separates those who take part from those who are excluded, and it therefore presupposes a prior aesthetic division between the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable. The essence of politics consists in interrupting the distribution of the sensible by supplementing it with those who have no part in the perceptual coordinates of the community, thereby modifying the very aesthetico-political field of possibility… Moreover, politics in the strict sense never presupposes a reified subject or predefined group of individuals such as the proletariat, the poor, or minorities. On the contrary, the only possible subject of politics is the people or the demos, i.e., the supplementary part of every account of the population. Those who have no name, who remain invisible and inaudible, can only penetrate the police order via a mode of subjectivization that transforms the aesthetic coordinates of the community by implementing the universal presupposition of politics: we are all equal. Democracy itself is defined by these intermittent acts of political subjectivization that reconfigure the communal distribution of the sensible. However, just as equality is not a goal to be attained but a presupposition in need of constant verification, democracy is neither a form of government nor a style of social life. (3)

It seems to me that Ranciere’s understanding of the “distribution of the sensible” here goes far beyond his preoccupation of politics, converging in a number of interesting ways with Deleuze’s project of formulating a “transcendental empiricism”. Indeed, in addition to its political and ethical interest, the idea of a distribution of the sensible goes to the heart of a number of issues in metaphysics and epistemology. Throughout the history of philosophy there has been a prejudicial tendency to oppose the realm of sensibility to that of reason or understanding. As Deleuze puts it with respect to Kant,

This first beyond already constitutes a kind of Transcendental Aesthetic. If this aesthetic appears more profound to us than that of Kant, it is for the following reasons: Kant defines the passive self in terms of simple receptivity, thereby assuming sensations already formed, then merely relating these to the a priori forms of their representation which are determined as space and time. In this manner, not only does he unify the passive self by ruling out the possibility of composing space step by step, not only does he deprive this passive self of all power of synthesis (synthesis being reserved for activity), but moreover he cuts the Aesthetic into two parts: the objective element of sensation guaranteed by space and the subjective element which is incarnate in pleasure and pain. The aim of the preceding analyses, on the contrary, has been to show that receptivity must be defined in terms of the formation of local selves or egos, in terms of the passive syntheses of contemplation or contraction, thereby accounting simultaneously for the possibility of experiencing sensations, the power of reproducing them and the value that pleasure assumes as a principle. (Difference and Repetition, 98)

There is a tendency in discussions of Deleuze to assimilate his transcendental empiricism to classical Humean empiricism, where sensations are given as already pre-formed and it is simply a question of relating sensations to one another according to Hume’s principles of association. For example, in his book Multiplicity and Becoming: The Pluralist Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze, Patrick Hayden writes that, “This is perhaps Deleuze’s most significant proposition regarding transcendental empiricism: nonconceptual empirical difference is the necessary condition immanent within actual experience” (16). This reading of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism can be traced back to Bruce Baugh’s two influential essays “Deleuze and Empiricism” and “Transcendental Empiricism: Deleuze’s Response to Hegel”. The problem with this reading is that 1) it is unable to respond to Hegel’s critique of sense-certainty in The Phenomenology of Perception, thereby opening transcendental empiricism to all the ruses of the dialectic, and 2) it presupposes that sensations or impressions are given ready-made, thereby ignoring Deleuze’s own ambition of accounting for the genesis of sensations themselves. As Deleuze puts it,

The sensed quality is indistinguishable from the contraction of elementary excitations, but the object perceived implies a contraction of cases such that one quality may be read in the other, and a structure in which the form of the object allies itself with the quality at least as an intentional part. However, in the order of constituent passivity, perceptual syntheses refer back to organic syntheses which are like the sensibility of the senses; they refer back to a primary sensibility that we are. We are made of contracted water, earth, light and air– not merely prior to the recognition or representation of these, but prior to their being sensed. Every organism, in its receptive and perceptual elements, but also in its viscera, is a sum of contractions, of retentions and expectations. At the level of this primary vital sensibility, the lived present constitutes a past and a future in time. Need is the manner in which this future appears, as the organic form of expectation. The retained past appears in the form of cellular heredity. Furthermore, by combining with the perceptual syntheses built upon them, these organic syntheses are redeployed in the active synthesis of a psycho-organic memory and intelligence (instinct and learning)… All of this forms a rich domain of signs which always envelop heterogeneous elements and animate behaviour. Each contraction, each passive synthesis, constitutes a sign which is interpreted or deployed in active synthesis. The signs by which an animal “senses” water do not resemble the thirsty organism lacks. (73)

When Deleuze refers to a “sensibility of the senses”, he is not referring to sensations, but rather to the real conditions for the possibility of sensation. That is, what are the conditions or processes by which this domain of sensibility is generated. I do not encounter the world through sonar, nor can I hear the world like a cat, nor do I smell the world like a dog. All of these fields of sensibility are the result of specific individuations that create their own unique universes of retention and expectation. When Deleuze refers to a passive synthesis as opposed to an active synthesis, he seeks to underline that these syntheses are not actively carried out by the mind or will. “Although it is constitutive it is not, for all that, active. It is not carried out by the mind, but occurs in the mind…” (71). Sensation or sensibility is not supplemented from above by categories (as in Kant) that would hold for all possible universes, but instead have their own immanent logos or structure of relations pertaining to the field of engagement characterizing the being in question. If we are led to miss this domain of the transcendental aesthetic, then this is because in our engagement with the world, this domain of the transcendental is surpassed in favor of the signs constituted by the pre-individual field out of which sensibility becomes capable of sensing.

Deleuze is not, of course, reducing all sensibility to the domain of “vital sensibility” or the biological. As he puts it, “We must therefore distinguish not only the forms of repetition in relation to passive synthesis but also the levels of passive synthesis and the combinations of these levels with one another” (73). These levels would include the biological (as understood by contemporary evolutionary theory), the life of the individual in its ongoing individuation or unfurling, and in relation to the social, political, and historical milieu in which the individual is individuated or comes to be. For instance, in Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari take great pains to show how the Oedipal structure is always open to a much broader social, political, and historical milieu wherein parents function as conduits or “transistors” in relation to the developing child. There is nothing, for example, that is specifically familial about language.

The question of aesthetics thus turns out to be far broader than that of art. Aesthetics has tended to be treated as a marginal or “ghetto” discipline within philosophy, remote from the “big questions” of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. Yet, prior to any inquiry into these fields, the objects of these fields must first be given. Traditionally aesthetics has been understood to refer to the theory of the beautiful and, more recently, questions of what constitutes art. In the Kant of the first Critique, aesthetics is treated rigorously in terms of its etymology as aisthesis, and refers to the domain of sensibility. For Kant there is thus a “transcendental aesthetic”, or the pure, a priori, forms of sensibility or space and time, and an empirical aesthetic referring to the various sensations that populate sensibility such as the various feels, sounds, tastes, and smells we encounter in space and time. Deleuze proposes to unite these two senses of the aesthetic so as to account for the very production of sensibility in a “distribution of the sensible”:

No wonder… that aesthetics should be divided into two irreducible domains: that of the theory of the sensible which captures only the real’s conformity with possible experience; and that of the theory of the beautiful, which deals with the reality of the real in so far as it is thought. Everything changes once we determine the conditions of real experience, which are not larger than the conditioned and which differ in kind from the categories: the two senses of the aesthetic become one, to the point where the being of the sensible reveals itself in the work of art, while at the same time the work of art appears as experimentation. (68)

Sensibility itself becomes a field of artistic creation and experimentation. Following Ranciere, such a thesis invites us to examine the distribution of the sensible in the social field, investigating what is visible and invisible in terms of public discourse, various social identities, and so on. These are all questions of social and political individuation. The question becomes one of how new individuations that depart from the police order might be strategized and produced. In the domain of epistemology and metaphysics, the question is no longer that of the ultimate nature of reality, but rather of the distribution of the sensible within which we find ourselves immersed. In their attention to how scientific objects are produced or generated, the work of Stengers, Latour, Foucault, and Kuhn come to mind. Why is it, for example, that such and such a field of objectivity becomes visible at such and such a time? Here also the work of Kittler and Ong are especially relevant by virtue of their attentiveness to how new writing and communications technologies impact social individuation, allowing new possibilities of thought without determining what is thought. In all of these cases the question is one of the genesis of sensibility with its own immanent logos, not one of mere receptivity. Of special importance here are questions of the space and time of these fields of sensibility, and the forms of embodiment they produce along with their accompanying fields of objectivity.

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