April 2008

Our Carl gives a nice analysis of the mechanisms of textual identification with respect to the issues I raised on style over at Dead Voles. There Carl writes:

At one level there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this dynamic of text identification except the fact that all these smart people seem to think it’s remarkable. Every text from Dr. Seuss on up, difficult or not, has the charismatic potential to generate reverent reading communities that might be described as ‘priesthoods’. My own experience is with Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist who wrote about complex things quite clearly, all in all. There are a lot of pages of Gramsci, most of them in prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit into a linear text, many of them on topics that very few people could care less about. This of course creates the opportunity for a mystery cult for those few who have virtuously read through all of it, sort of like the Kabbalah or the Hadith. Here are instances where the reading community in effect ADDS difficulty to the sacred text by digging out and canonizing every little detail, aside, and tangent. The characteristic assertion is that the plainish meanings of the core writings must be supplemented or even amended in light of these exclusive arcana. (Translation fetishists from the Qur’an to Weber and Foucault work the same way. Translations are not just workably second-best but unacceptable in comparison to the sacred revelation of the original.)

People choose these texts and these reading strategies for all the usual reasons they choose religions (and reject other religions). They may be born into them, or disposed toward them by cultural marking of the text. They may be seeking identity and collective effervescence in a community. The text may be culturally marked as normative or transgressive, enabling the effervescence of dominant or rebellious subculture identification. There may accordingly be a component of acceptance and/or rejection of authority, be it the father’s or the group’s. These are choices within structured fields of options and decision strategies. All of this falls under the sociology of what Weber called elective affinity and Bourdieu elaborated as the schemes of the habitus.

For some reason this makes me think of Virno’s discussion of fear in A Grammar of the Multitude. In the third chapter of A Grammar of the Multitude Virno argues that anguish/anxiety is one of the predominant affects of our time. I hope to write more on this later when I am not inundated with grading at the end of the semester and thoroughly exhausted. At any rate, as Marx and Deleuze and Guattari argued, one of the marks of capitalism is the manner in which it decodes all social relations and codes through processes of deterritorialization. By “decoding” Deleuze and Guattari do not mean the activity of finding the meaning behind some coded fragment of speech as intelligence officers and cryptographers do. Rather decoding is the process by which social codes are undone and destroyed.


No doubt I am behind the curve on this one, but if you want to read a book that will make your hair literally stand on end, take a look at David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey deftly traces the history of neoliberalism, showing how contemporary capital systematically deregulated business and dismantled collective labor movements, and how people were convinced that this was in their interests, giving us the marvelous world we have today (I say that sarcastically). Of course, as a function of this, we also witness the rise of identity politics (on both the left and right– nationalist and fundamentalist religious movements on the right, gender and ethnic politics on the left) and postmodern politics. In the meantime, questions of class antagonism become almost completely hidden or clothed (as evidenced by the recent flair up over Obama’s “Bitter” comment, where he hit the true third rail in American politics: class). Books like this make me wonder if theory is asking the right sorts of questions or questions that are even relevant to our contemporary moment. At any rate, I think I need to go drink now.

UPDATED: With his characteristic acerbic wit, Adam Kotsko coins the term “Academic Stockholm Syndrome” to describe what I was trying to get at. After 50 comments in response to this post– many of them lecturing me about the relationship between expression and content that anyone who studies Derrida, Lacan, Heidegger, Hegel, or Deleuze is familiar with… And many of these responses missing the irony that they’re able to explain clearly what they’re claiming can only be articulated through a particular style –this might be the one remark that actually paid attention to what I argued in the post.

Perverse Egalitarianism has an interesting post up on “difficult books”. A taste:

I have been thinking along the similar lines recently as I was revisiting the old issue of trying to use “difficult texts” in my Intro class: the rationale for me has always been that I will expose my students to a type of writing that in itself will allow me to teach them a skill. For example, even though Plato’s dialogues are quite “easy” to read, or at least I can say that most college students find the form of a conversation between several people to be quite easy to grasp, we spend a lot of time trying to explain why it is important to ask about the essences of things like “justice” or “piety” – the style of a dialogue itself is never really an issue, because the subject matter is what is most important. Is it possible, for example, to use a text by Deleuze or Derrida or Blanchot as a way of exposing a group of students to the style of philosophizing that, because it is impossible to clearly see the actual subject matter, would draw attention to itself?

Assuming that the students actually read, or try to read the difficult text, is it possible to coherently argue in favor of such an experience of confusion? Does it make sense to say:”Yes, I know some of you told me in private that you tried to read the text but you couldn’t understand anything, but that is precisely what I expected would happen. Now that we are in class we can read the same text together and see if we can figure it out, because that is the skill we are trying to acquire in addition to being introduced to a contemporary thinker.” In a sense, if students could read and understand an essay by Derrida, they wouldn’t need to be in an Intro class.

Hopefully I have enough “cred” to inveigh against “difficult books” (I am, after all, mired in the work of figures such as Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, etc., who are the worst of the worst), but I have increasingly found myself suspicious of the “difficult work”. On the one hand, I read texts in the sciences that express extremely complex ideas in very basic prose. Somehow I’m just unwilling to concede that what Hegel is trying to talk about is any more difficult or complex than what the biologist, complexity theory, economic social theorist, ecologist, or quantum physicist is attempting to articulate. This leads to my concern. I wonder if terribly dense styles such as we find in figures like Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, Derrida, etc., etc., etc., aren’t a form of intellectual terrorism. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not referring to the quality of their concepts or arguments. What I am referring to is a general writing strategy that demands so much work on the part of the reader in the art of interpretation, that by the time you’ve managed to make heads or tails of what Lacan is arguing or Hegel is seeking to articulate or Deleuze is seeking to theorize, you have so much invested that you simply cannot think critically about that figure.

Among the post-structuralists, at least, style was a way of subverting the metaphysics of presence and identity by drawing attention to the differential, the play of the signifier, our inability to pin down meaning due to the inherent polysemy of language. There’s an implicit politics here as well. The metaphysics of presence and identity is seen as being attached to centralized and totalizing social systems similar to the “Great Chain of Being”, where you have the sovereign giving decrees on high. However, isn’t there still an insidious power structure at work in these textual strategies as well?

On the one hand, post-structuralist texts (and other similarly obscure texts) take on the logic of the veil. When confronted by the veil our desire is evoked. We are led to wonder what is behind the veil. The veil suggests something hidden, something tantalizing, something just out of reach. “What is it that Derrida is saying?” “What is the secret of Hegel’s Logic?” “Is Guattari saying anything at all?” The veil in writing either produces a violent reaction of rejection or a sort of hypnotic attachment in the reader like a moth drawn to a flame. On the other hand, if the effect of hypnotic attachment is successfully produced, if we become convinced that the text hides a secret, we become locked in a power relationship with text and authorship where the author is now a master containing the truth of a secret, and the reader is perpetually inadequate, always close to the elusive truth of the secret of late Heidegger, late Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, etc., while also always falling short. Far from freeing the reader, far from liberating them, the reader instead is locked in identity as a disciple and apostle of the text, devoting, perhaps in the extreme case of the scholar, their entire life to the hermeneutics of the text that has now become sacred. In short, this textual practice stands in stark opposition to its often stated aim.

Does this mean I cease to read such figures or reject them out of hand? No. I do believe they hide secrets. However, if Badiou has contributed one thing to Continental thought, if one thing lasts in the case of Badiou, I hope it is the rejection of stylistic virtuousity. This is not an endorsement of Badiou’s ontology but of his ethics of writing. I confess that I harbor some resentment of the hours of my life penetrating a text, navigating the stylistic gymnastics of some thinker, to grasp a concept that is really rather simple and which could have been articulated far more directly. If someone can articulate string theory in a straightforward way I don’t see why they cannot do so with ereignis. I’ve spent my fair amount of time defensively defending the writing style of figures such as Lacan, Derrida, Heidegger, Deleuze, etc., etc., etc. What I realize is that what I was defending was not their style but the value of their concepts and arguments despite their style. As per Lyotard’s remarks at the beginning of Differend, I would like to gain some time. We live, we work, we must integrate superhuman bodies of information. Perhaps a little consideration is in order.

I am always startled when semiotic codes surrounding style stand in stark contrast to the ideology a person espouses. For example, recently we have seen how certain movements in the Christian right have embraced counter-cultural forms of style found among skaters, punks, goth, and hard rock for very conservative ends. Where many of these movements are implicitly forms of critique of cultural hypocrisy and capitalist consummerism, these semiotic codes instead get redirected to the most normalizing, conformist, reactionary ends. Along these lines I was today depressed to read one of my goth students argue that Michael Savage and Glenn Beck are Socratic figures, speaking truth to power, and undermining the injustices of the powerful elite. How can it not be immediately evident that such figures are apologists for social and economic injustices, distorting the true nature of things through their rhetoric and constant appeal to arguments from outrage? I suppose this is one meaning of Lacan’s aphorism that the big Other does not exist. We would like there to be stable codes, for the signifier to be intrinsically attached to a particular signified, but the signifier can come to be attached to any signifier (functioning as a signified), such that we can never infer from the manifestation of a signifier what signified it is attached to. Nonetheless, I find the way in which codes are reterritorialized, the way in which deterritorializations are snatched up by various forms of capture that redirect them towards exploitation and normalization, to be deeply depressing. Or perhaps, in a more optimistic vein, it could be said that insofar as the signifier enjoys a life of its own– isn’t this the meaning of the agency of the letter? –that perhaps these mismatched codes are traces of an unconscious desire to draw a line of flight and escape such sad passions. In that case I wish such a desire could coincide with a conscious will, rather than being contrasted with the dark forces of ressentiment.

This book looks interesting.

The must-read exposé of America’s love/hate affair with French theory.

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, a disparate group of radical French thinkers achieved an improbable level of influence and fame in the United States. Compared by at least one journalist to the British rock ‘n’ roll invasion, the arrival of works by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari on American shores in the late 1970s and 1980s caused a sensation.

Outside the academy, “French theory” had a profound impact on the era’s emerging identity politics while also becoming, in the 1980s, the target of right-wing propagandists. At the same time in academic departments across the country, their poststructuralist form of radical suspicion transformed disciplines from literature to anthropology to architecture. By the 1990s, French theory was woven deeply into America’s cultural and intellectual fabric.

French Theory is the first comprehensive account of the American fortunes of these unlikely philosophical celebrities. François Cusset looks at why America proved to be such fertile ground for French theory, how such demanding writings could become so widely influential, and the peculiarly American readings of these works. Reveling in the gossipy history, Cusset also provides a lively exploration of the many provocative critical practices inspired by French theory. Ultimately, he dares to shine a bright light on the exultation of these thinkers to assess the relevance of critical theory to social and political activism today—showing, finally, how French theory has become inextricably bound with American life.

“In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference on both sides of the Atlantic.” —Jacques Derrida

“The Atlantic Ocean has two sides, and so does French Theory. Reinvented in America and betrayed in its own country, it has become the most radical intellectual movement in the West with global reach, rewriting Marx in light of late capitalism. Breathtakingly moving back and forth between the two cultures, François Cusset takes us through a dazzling intellectual adventure that illuminates the past thirty years, and many more decades to come.”—Sylvere Lotringer

Stanley Fish discusses it here.

A recent series of public awareness commercials depicts a young boy screaming family secrets at the top of his lungs to people in a public park to illustrate the manner in which all things said on the internet are completely public. Well, it would appear that I’m now that boy. At 1:48pm this afternoon Andrew Sullivan linked to my blog post on “academic Taylorism“. Within twenty minutes I received over two thousand hits.

Update: The Madisonian, a legal blog, weighs in.

Update II: Andrew of The Transcontinental weighs in.

These days, one of the more frustrating and tedious aspects of working in an institutional setting such as a secondary school, a college, or a highschool has been the shift to constant mechanisms of “quality control” that are implemented from year to year, semester to semester. What I have in mind are the constant calls to codify things such as student learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and curriculum across the body of educators. These mechanisms, in turn, lead to endless meetings, professional development seminars, and piles of paperwork that often have little or no connection to teaching or what really takes place in the classroom. At the end of the semester, for example, your department might be required to gather assignment samples from students in each professor’s class. Tenured faculty then review these copious materials, evaluating whether or not they meet the learning outcome criteria, put together a report and then send this report on to division deans, where these reports are further distilled and sent to the administration. At the end of each year I thus find myself beset by a weighty pile of papers from our adjunct and full time faculty that I must evaluate in terms of our student learning outcomes that we spent a year or so devising to meet state accreditation requirements. There, across the room, the books I have had to set aside gaze longingly at me, giving me their coy seductive looks, inviting me to read them, but I am awash in student papers that must be evaluated.

The galling part of this whole process is that it really has no impact on what we and our professors actually do in our classroom. Perhaps I should not say this publicly. The issue is not one of of being opposed to high standards. We already do have high standards. We believe strongly in pedagogy and teaching excellence. The issue is that the assumptions and thought process behind this sort of modeling is fundamentally wrong-headed, diminishing, rather than enhancing education. What we have in United States educational philosophies today is a shift towards a sort of “pedagogical Taylorism”, where it is assumed that education can be codified, instrumentalized, and quantified, such that assignments necessarily take on a generic and simplified structure– for this is what can easily be replicated –and where gradually these reforms have a morphogenetic effect that feeds back on the classroom, giving form to what is taught, how it is taught, and how assignments are structured. In short, these reforms are molarizing machines, designed to create regularities in the Brownian motion of students and faculty, insuring that there is little change or deviation from a pre-delineated form. All the while it is assumed that every discipline can be taught in the manner of the various sciences and branches of mathematics, or that students compose a “smooth space” that can be manipulated and moulded freely, without any singularities.


(Via Continental Philosophy) A number of texts on Deleuze and by Deleuze/Deleuze-Guattari are now available online through Fark Yaralari’s blog. Of special interest to me is Christian Kerslake’s Deleuze and the Unconscious. There are so few books delving deeply and in an informed way into Deleuze’s relationship to psychoanalysis that it is nice to see someone doing such work. I am, however, perplexed to see that Kerslakefocuses so much on Jung. On the one hand, this move seems retrograde as Jung, with his collective unconscious and focus on expressivist “interpretive keys” is something of the Plato of psychoanalysis. From one end of his work to the other, Deleuze devoted his thought to overcoming the overdetermination and subordination of matter to form. This is precisely the aim of his intricate analysis of processes of individuation in the last two chapters of Difference and Repetition. Whether we’re speaking of Platonic Ideas, Kantian categories, Hegelian notions, or Jungian archetypes, the force of this critique of form remains the same. However, perhaps this is just a mistaken understanding of Jung and my view will change after reading Kerslake’s book.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Freud and Lacan, under a highly original reading, occupy a far more central place in Deleuze’s philosophical project. Indeed, Deleuze’s critique of Freud’s Oedipus in Anti-Oedipus can actually be read as a way of bearing fidelity to Freud and what he had discovered in his early work about the mechanisms of the early work. As Deleuze and Guattari repeatedly remark in Anti-Oedipus, Freud is the Martin Luther and Adam Smith of psychiatry. Luther deterritorialized religion from the church, but reterritorialized it on scripture. Smith deterritorialized value from pre-existent needs, showing how it is humans that produce value, but reterritorialized it on private property. Freud deterritorializes desire from pre-existent needs and lack, showing how it produces its object, only to reterritorialize it on the Oedipus. Would not Jung reterritorialize the unconscious on culturally invariant archetypes? Or is this a completely spurious reading of Jung?