November 2008


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In a very nice response to my paper on assemblages and networks, Joe Clement remarks,

I liked the paper too. However, could you say a bit more about how post-structuralists like Deleuze understand networks as opposed to how structuralists understand, well, structures. At a certain point, it sounds like they are different names for the same pomme de terre. I can get behind networks and assemblages being “things” of change, while structures are usually talked about as quasi-eternal forms. However, what is to stop us from saying that a network is structured, not according to an identity with some sort of totality, but according to its symptomatic deadlocks/exclusions/slippages? I’m thinking of Zizek’s very rudimentary lesson in commodity fetishism in the first chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology

“rather, it [commodity fetishism] consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belonged to it outside its relation with other elements” (24).

You know Zizek then goes on to quote Marx on commodities A & B, and then tie that into an allusion to the mirror stage. All of this falls very neatly under the conventional structuralist rubric, but it’s the point about misrecognition that perks my interest. Zizek says misrecognition occurs as a structural effect, though this really does not pre-suppose a “structured network” (i.e. what I take to be the conventional structuralist line) anymore than it pre suppose that “this property also belonged to it outside of its relation with other elements.” That is to say, the misrecognition is about the “structured network” as much as the individual element, though that means we aren’t stuck having to unravel the “structured network” anymore than we are stuck having to stabilize the individual element. They are both “structural effects,” whose unified expression is the symptom. With my Buddhist hat on, subject and object are “structural effects” caused by ignorance (avijja), whose symptomatic expression is suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha).

There is some similarity between structure and networks, but also quite a difference. A network is something more than atomistic individuals and something less than a structure. A structure is a set of interdependent differential relations where the terms have no existence independent of one another. Thus, for example, in language the phonemes that make up a language are not /b/, /p/, etc., but differential relations between these units. Neither /b/ nor /p/ form a phoneme, but rather only b/p forms a phoneme within a specific language. As such, /b/ has no existence independent of /p/ and vice versa. The minimal condition for being a phoneme is that the substitution of a unit produces a difference in sense: /b/at, /p/at. Sense is thus not something that precedes these differential relations, but is an effect of these differential relations.

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In the spirit of Martin Luther King, I have a dream! I have a dream that my philosophy students and myself might live passionately according to the following eight ethical principles:

Proposition 1: The intellectually honest critical thinker (IHCT) focuses not on the claim a person makes, but the argument by which the claim is supported.

Proposition 2: If the IHCT cannot demonstrate that the argument is invalid or unsound (deductive arguments) or weak (inductive arguments), then the IHCT will endorse the conclusion of the argument even if it requires them to relinquish long-held and cherished beliefs.

Proposition 3: The IHCT never dismisses a claim as being an “opinion” or “subjective”, but politely asks for an argument in support of the claim.

Corollary 1: The IHCT banishes the word “opinion” and “subjective” from their lexicon, as she knows that these words tend to invite her to ignore arguments supporting claims.

Corollary 2: The IHCT understands that theories explain facts, that facts were never theories and theories will never become facts, and that there are stronger and weaker theories depending on the support for the theory.

Corollary 3: The IHCT understands that a claim cannot be rejected because it is “just a theory”, and that the reason a theory never becomes a fact is not because it is less than a fact, but because it always maintains a structural relationship to facts such that it is an explanation of facts.

Scholium: Facts never “speak for themselves”, but are stupid, inert, and brute. It is only theories that make facts speak. A fossil in the earth is just a dumb fact. The theory of geology, the dating of strata, chemical decay, and evolution make this fact speak by coordinating it with a set of relationships that bring forth the how and the why. Far from being less than a fact, the production of theory is among the highest of human achievements.

Corollary 4: The IHCT knows that there are demonstrations through reason (e.g., mathematics) and demonstrations through observation and that observational evidence is not the sole means of “proving” or “demonstrating” a claim.

Corollary 5: The IHCT understands inductive, probabilistic reasoning and therefore understands that anecdote (single counter-examples) do not diminish the strength of an inductive argument (nor strengthen a weak inductive argument).

Proposition 4: The IHCT is prepared to provide arguments in support of claims she makes and not simply pull claims out of her ass and obstinately hold to them.

Proposition 5: The IHCT does not expect others to endorse or live by her claims when she lacks any supporting argument for these claims, and, lacking an argument, keeps such claims to herself, understanding that to make a claim public is to also enter the domain of what is public or what can be shared by others of completely different backgrounds and beliefs through reason and the capacity to observe the world (the only universally shared characteristics of humanity).

Proposition 6: The IHCT strives for humility, modesty, and a lack of ego, struggling to separate one’s sense of self-worth from the need to always be right.

Scholium: The IHCT understands that the failure to produce a good argument in support of a claim does not entail that she is stupid or worthless and that having a claim contrary to her own demonstrated, thereby overturning her own claim, actually improves her by bringing her closer to truth.

Proposition 7: The IHCT is charitable in her interpretation of the claims and arguments of others, striving to give them their most benign possible sense, avoiding the attribution of malicious motives, striving not to speculate about hidden motives, and providing missing premises where reasonable when they are not explicitly formulated.

Proposition 8: The IHCT loves truth, not what she would like to be true.

Alright, so such a dream is nearly impossible to live up to and would certainly put us at a deep disadvantage in a world such as ours, but one can still hope and strive.

Nathan Brown over at Speculative Heresy has an interesting response to Peter Hallward’s critique of Meillassoux’s After Finitude. I have not yet read Hallward’s critique of Meillassoux in Radical Philosophy, but Nathan summarizes the points as follows:

In his recent review… Hallward charges Meillassoux’s work with four major flaws:

1) An equivocation regarding the relation between thinking and being; or epistemology and ontology.

2) An equivocation between metaphysical and physical or natural necessity.

3) A confusion of pure and applied mathematics.

4) An inability to think concrete processes of social and political change.

To the fourth charge I would add an inability to think concrete processes of natural or physical change. Nathan attempts to show how these charges come up short against Meillassoux. It seems to me that these criticisms apply equally to Badiou and Meillossoux, bringing the two perilously close to idealism. Meillassoux, I think, fares a bit better but still runs into similar problems. I confess that I’m sympathetic to all of Hallward’s critiques here, as is evident from my posts on this blog years ago grappling with Badiou’s ontology.

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In a previous post I suggested that psychoanalysis became a pre-occupation for Marxist thought due to a certain impasse at the heart of Marxist theory. Here, in response to Nate’s excellent remark, my aim was not to suggest that psychoanalysis became a pre-occupation of a Marxist praxis, but rather to account for a certain strain of French Marxist theory characterized by figures like Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lyotard. What was at issue was a two-fold question: First, why did the Soviet situation lead to such dire results? Indeed, why did the French communist party take on such a repressive structure despite its explicit egalitarian ideals and ideals of liberty? And second, why, despite changing conditions at the level of production did certain social formations remain the same. The conclusion of these thinkers, while varied, was that accounts of political economy were not enough, but that a theory of desire, micro-power, etc., was necessary to account for our attachment to certain forms of power. As Deleuze and Guattari so beautifully put it in providing one possible answer to this question (Foucault gives a very different answer in terms of micropower),

The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to metaphors, any more than for libido to go by way of metamorphoses. Hitler got the fascists sexually aroused. Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused. A revolutionary is nothing if it does not acquire at least as much force as these coercive machines have for producing breaks and mobilizing flows. (Anti-Oedipus, pg. 293)

In other words, revolution at the level of production is not enough, there must also be a revolutionary desire as well, an analysis of desire, and all of these micro-attachments that bind us to a particular world. In a lovely aside about love, Deleuze and Guattari will say that we do not fall in love with persons, but with the worlds another person envelops. And likewise in our attachment to certain institutions, forms of social organizations, and all the rest. If Deleuze and Guattari treat Kafka as a privileged political theorist in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, then this is because Kafka was the cartographer of this universe of desiring-machines or the eroticism that lies beneath our attachment to certain social formations. Indeed, in one incarnation Joseph K even is a cartographer… And, of course, the books of law contain pornographic pictures in The Trial. However, my aim here is not to discuss how Deleuze and Guattari solve this problem– in the first part of this essay I begin with the remark “Take the example of Deleuze and Guattari” –but to show how Deleuze and Guattari’s solution to this problem leads to a certain impasse at the level of political theory. What I ultimately hope to argue is that Lacan’s account of the sinthome provides the means for responding to these difficulties without falling back into models of Oedipally structured social formations or sovereignity as the only possible way in which the social can be organized. In other words, the sinthome provides the means of knotting the three orders of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic in a way that 1) is cognizant that the big Other does not exist (in contrast to Oedipal totalization and obfuscation of the lack in the Other), and 2) that need not resort to the structuring function of the name-of-the-father as the only way of avoiding a fall into paralyzing psychosis that negates the social relation. In short, the work of the late Lacan with the borromean knots leads to a “psychotic solution”, where psychosis is no longer the absence of the social relation (psychoanalysts refer to this form of psychosis as “Ordinary Psychosis”), and where psychosis now becomes a generalized state (universal psychosis common to all subjects), such that neurosis and perversion are not other than psychosis but rather specific ways in which the knot of the three orders are tied together. I set this issue aside for the moment.

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Readers will find a copy of the paper I presented at the RMMLA Deleuze panel in Reno, Nevada here (warning pdf). In the paper I try to develop a critique of the premises underlying those orientations of political theory that call for the need of a void to respond to the question of how change is possible. In place of these theories, I draw on Marx, Latour, Deleuze and Guattari, and Botanski and Chiapello, calling for a network or assemblage based approach to questions of how change is possible… An approach that would both focus on the microstructures of assemblages, how they are disassembled and reassembled through interactions among agents (the social does not explain but must be explained), and how it might be possible to locate new immanent potentials within these assemblages. I think the arguments have a long way to go– how much can you develop in a conference paper, really? –but it’s a start.

In his introduction to the work of Mao, Žižek writes,

The true victory (the true ‘negation of negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy. (Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao On Practice and Contradiction, 17)

In what sense is this to be understood as the true victory? After all, the simple fact that the enemy is using your “language” does not count as much of a victory if the structure of power remains the same. However, perhaps we can understand Žižek’s point in terms of making alternatives available, of creating possibilities within the social space that were not there before.

This thesis can be illustrated in terms of games. For the last thirty years it could be said that the reigning economic assumption behind American politics has been that of Friedmanian, unregulated, free trade economics. The net result is that all sides engaged in economic discussions surrounding the political assume this framework as the ground of their policy proposals. Here only one option is available and participants take stands within the framework of this set of rules. The situation is thus analogous to a game of chess. Within a game of chess, the rules themselves aren’t up for debate or discussion. Rather, the rules are themselves agreed upon and remain largely invisible for the players. If a debate does take place, this debate takes place not in terms of a dispute over the rules of the game, but over the tactics as to how best play the game within the framework of those rules. Such has been the case with non-academic political discourses in the United States.

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A shift in the game thus does not occur at the level of a single game, but only when an entirely new game becomes available, challenging the discourse of the existing game. In this regard, Republicans made a strategic blunder when they chose to brand Obama as a socialist during the last election. In situating Obama as a socialist within the context of the current economic meltdown, they implicitly suggested that another game, another set of possibilities was possible. Rather than simply suggesting that Obama plays the game of chess (neoliberal economics) poorly, they instead suggested that Obama plays an entirely different game, perhaps go, composed of entirely different rules (socialism). In making this move, they undermined their own claim, built up painstakingly over the course of economics, that capitalism today reigns supreme and there are no other credible alternatives.

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My suggestion here isn’t that Obama is a socialist or that he will depart from neoliberal economic policies (I’m skeptical). Rather, what I find interesting is that news shows, editorials, and various pundits are suddenly raising questions of whether unfettered capitalism is the best possible system. What we increasingly hear today is a popular space in which capitalism is being contested or questioned, and a halting groping towards other possibilities is unfolding. It is only when the game itself becomes an object of critique, when it comes to be seen as contingent or something that could be otherwise, that it becomes possible to overturn that game. Absent that we simply have competing tactics within one and the same game, assuming the same rules, goals, and aims.

Take the example of Deleuze and Guattari. Anti-Oedipus is not so much a critique of psychoanalysis– though it is that as well –as it is a critique of a particular social structure and the metaphysics that accompanies it. If an engagement with psychoanalysis proves to be the privileged site for an engagement with this structure, then this is not with the aim of reforming psychoanalysis– though that as well –but because psychoanalysis provides those weapons necessary for engaging this structure and developing a praxis that would allow for an escape from this structure. Politics, we might say, was at an impasse. The Russian Revolution was a failure. It had overturned those that controlled the means of production, yet the form of social organization remained the same. The content had changed, while the form remained in place. Just as I might replace a missing piece on a chess board with quarter, the material content had changed while essentially the same function or structure was in place. “Meet your new boss, same as the old boss.” The party elite now occupied the place of exploiter, producing a machine more harrowing than the factories in its capacity and reality of alienation, and while the owners of the means of production had changed, having been socialized or democratized, the form of production– Taylorism –remained the same. The French Communist Party was not much better. Here, once again, we had the same hierarchical structure, with a party elite calling the shots, making the decisions, organized around a centralized apparatus that radiated outwards, rather than the socialization or democratization that Marx had called for.

But this, in and of itself, was not the problem. Or rather, it was a problem, but the problem also lay elsewhere. All over the place economic changes were taking place. Conditions were changing. Yet revolution did not come. Why? The vulgar and simplistic model of Marxist thought, that superstructure is a function and distorted reflection of the base, had to be mistaken. At some level, as Deleuze and Guattari, following Reich, put it, people must desire their own oppression. It is not enough to say that these structures were simply imposed on agents from without. Rather, at some level agents must desire these formations… These formations which Deleuze and Guattari refer to as “fascist”. Consequently, a critique of political economy is not enough. In addition to a critique of political economy, a critique of desire, a Critique of Pure Desire, must be written. Psychoanalysis provided these tools. Just as Marx carried out a critique of Ricardo, among others, by showing how value was not an intrinsic feature of things in themselves, but produced through labor. Freud and Lacan carried out a critique of prior psychology by formulating a desire divested of objects, a desire as such, a desire that wasn’t a function of need and instinct… A desire without an object, but as a process. Marx produced a non-representational theory of value. Freud and Lacan produced a non-representational theory of desire. Yet this critique had not gone far enough. It was still tainted by the empirical.

This desire was still tainted by certain privileged objects. Just as Kant had carried out a critique of the so-called proofs for the existence of God in the second half of the Critique of Pure Reason, it was thus necessary to carry out a Critique of Oedipal Reason. The Oedipus had been subtracted from the social sphere, treated as a private affair of the family, dehistoricized, de-sociologized, de-culturalized. But rather, the Oedipus reflected an entire metaphysics, a metaphysics extending far beyond the private. Far from being a natural and essential state-of-affairs, it already was the expression of a political metaphysics. This can be thought in fractal terms. A fractal is a pattern that iterates or repeats itself at all levels of scale.

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Far from the family being the ground upon which all other social relations are based, what we have here is a fractal structure iterating itself at the level of the family, the level of social organizations (king or leader to subjects), and at the level of God in relation to his creature. If the death of God means anything, it means the destruction of this structure… Not simply at the level of content, but at the level of form as well. Freud, as Marx to Ricardo, had glimpsed this in his earlier work where libido no longer has an object. Lacan had explicitly formulated this in his claim that “the Oedipus is Freud’s myth“, and his attempt to think beyond the name-of-the-father as a central organizing principle in his later work. The problem arises as to how a politics might be possible in a post-Oedipal or post-onto-theological world.

More to come.

Hat tip to Joe.

This became most salient in the emergence of the counter Bradley-effect, when voters could and did explicitly own up to their own racism, but said they would vote for Obama anyway. Anecdotes from the field include claims like the following: “I know that Obama is a Muslim and a Terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway; he is probably better for the economy.” Such voters got to keep their racism and vote for Obama, sheltering their split beliefs without having to resolve them.

Very few of us are immune to the exhilaration of this time. My friends on the left write to me that they feel something akin to “redemption” or that “the country has been returned to us” or that “we finally have one of us in the White House.” Of course, like them, I discover myself feeling overwhelmed with disbelief and excitement throughout the day, since the thought of having the regime of George W. Bush over and gone is an enormous relief. And the thought of Obama, a thoughtful and progressive black candidate, shifts the historical ground, and we feel that cataclysm as it produces a new terrain. But let us try to think carefully about the shifted terrain, although we cannot fully know its contours at this time. The election of Barack Obama is historically significant in ways that are yet to be gauged, but it is not, and cannot be, a redemption, and if we subscribe to the heightened modes of identification that he proposes (“we are all united”) or that we propose (“he is one of us”), we risk believing that this political moment can overcome the antagonisms that are constitutive of political life, especially political life in these times. There have always been good reasons not to embrace “national unity” as an ideal, and to nurse suspicions toward absolute and seamless identification with any political leader. After all, fascism relied in part on that seamless identification with the leader, and Republicans engage this same effort to organize political affect when, for instance, Elizabeth Dole looks out on her audience and says, “I love each and every one of you.”

Read the rest here.

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As some have noticed I have been almost entirely absent for the last few months. In part this has been due to having taken on far too much work. Since June I have written and published four articles, as well as a conference paper for the RMMLA in Nevada last month. In particular, I have a paper coming out with the IJZS on Lacan’s discourse of the capitalist and the three discourses that follow from this discourse as it relates to contemporary Continental political theory that I’m particularly proud of and which I hope goes some of the way towards shifting certain features of political debates surrounding Lacanian inspired political thought. Currently I am putting together an edited collection with Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman that draws together works that are inspired by realist orientations in contemporary philosophy and that will feature contributions from Alain Badiou, Jane Bennett, Ray Brassier, Manuel DeLanda, Ian Hamilton Grant, Peter Hallward, Graham Harman, Adrian Johnston, Bruno Latour, Catherine Malabou, Quentin Meillassoux, Nicole Pepperell, John Protevi, Isabelle Stengers, Alberto Toscano, Slavoj Žižek and perhaps Martin Hagglund. Our desire is to draw together work that offers an alternative to Continental approaches dominated by correlationism or philosophies of access and various forms of social constructivism. Between teaching and working on these projects, I have been exceedingly busy.

However, despite being exceedingly busy, I’ve also felt strangely aphasic these days, as if thoughts are floating around without coalescing into anything. There’s an odd way in which I feel as if all of my old assumptions are falling away one by one and being replaced by something else; yet I do not know what this new thing is. Thoughts flash through my mind in fits and starts, yet hardly anything makes it to paper. In the interim I’ve being going over old and beloved ground, rereading Lucretius, Leibniz, and Spinoza, while also reading a good deal of history, Marx, and Marxist works. I find myself filled with horror at Leibniz’s universe, comforted only by Voltaire’s great work of ideology critique, Candide, while being filled with joy and a sense of empowerment by Lucretius and blessed Spinoza.

I am still in shock following Tuesday’s election results. Not only did Obama win the election, but he won by a near electoral vote landslide and by a popular vote margin that hasn’t been seen in years. In addition to this, he won states such as North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Nebraska, Indiana, Iowa, Virginia (my state of birth), New Mexico, Colorado, and Minnesota. After the last eight years– and arguably since Reagan –this victory is simply unbelievable. Of course, now the question will be where Obama’s administration goes. Already the talking heads are pushing the mantra that this is a center-right nation and that Obama needs to tack to the right, despite the fact that nearly all the polls indicate otherwise. As this New York Times map of voter patterns indicates, the conservative regions of the country form a very small band across the South and are almost entirely absent throughout the rest of the country:

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On the one hand, it is entirely likely that these segments of the population will continue to diminish over time as it seems largely restricted to older voters who are having a hard time convincing younger generations to follow their ideology. On the other hand, as migrations continue throughout the state and communications technologies increasingly penetrate more rural settings, it’s likely that the sort of xenophobia that characterizes these segments of the population will continue to diminish. This process will be intensified if Obama and the Democratic Congress perform well, though that’s a big “if” given all of the problems that are coming their way.

One of the central problems with American politics for the last thirty years is the almost complete absence of economically informed discussions. While there have, of course, been discussions of taxes, wages, and how to grow the economy, there has been very little in the way of discussions about class and class disparity. Both the Republican and Democratic parties, working under the hegemony of Friedmannian or neo-liberal economic assumptions– assumptions so basic and fundamental that they don’t even bother to articulate them –have implemented policy premised on the deregulation of markets and the rejection of any oversight. While this has made tremendous amounts of money for investors, it has been a blight on the rest of the population both in America and throughout the world, causing massive amounts of human suffering. Due to the absence of any serious discussion about basic economic philosophies, American politics turned to identity politics and values issues (really two sides of the same coin), pitting one identity against another in a war of all against all. Economics– which could provide a common ground among competing identities –receded into the background, and we instead got struggles between blacks and whites, the religious against the secular, women against men, the educated elite against rural voters… Basically all of the things that characterize the so-called “culture wars”. These battles worked nicely for the capitalist class as they directed all attention to “values issues” and group identities, placing economy off limits. If fundamentalist religion has intensified throughout the United States, then this is because people in the lower and middle classes have lost any sense of empowerment and have been completely abandoned to the brutal forces of the economy without any means for improving their lot. It is not difficult to discern racist undertones in these movements, implicitly organized around blaming minorities and immigrants for their dire conditions. As Kevin Phillips argues, these religious divisions can be seen as holdovers from the Civil War that left the South economically devastated in its aftermath and where fundamentalist evangelical Christianity picked up the baton, promising an eschatological redemption for the White South. One need only look at the faces in McCain’s and Palin’s rallies to see this. The tragedy of this is that the ruling class cynically manipulates these movements for their own ends, leading these groups to struggle on behalf of their own oppression. Such is the fate of “Joe the Plumber” who wants to buy his boss’s $250,000 business, when he only makes $40,000 a year and has a lean on his house. Between his concrete circumstances and his idealized vision of himself, he ends up supporting the very party that makes it even more difficult to attain this dream.

Given what is currently going on with the global economy and the election of Obama, perhaps now it is possible to begin changing this. In the last five minutes of Friday’s Bill Moyer’s Journal, Eric Foner remarks that one thing Obama can do to diminish racial and religious tensions is to work to strengthen unions. Where conflict unfolds at the level of identity, at the level of racial and religious differences, it is irresolvable as one group can only be pitted against another. By contrast, labor struggles surmount these sorts of divisions as 1) the participants have a shared problem with which they are engaged despite their differences, 2) labor struggles bring very diverse groups together, coming from different genders, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc., creating an opportunity for exposure to difference that diminishes us/them logic that characterizes forms of politics premised on identity, and 3) union struggle creates a sense of empowerment that surmounts the sense of being abandoned to the winds of economic fate. Living in a “Right To Work” state like Texas, this issue is particularly sensitive to me, as the “Right to Work” laws are Orwellian-speak for the ceding of all power to employers while completely castrating labor and providing it with no means to organize or negotiate better conditions for itself. In the second or third debate, Obama stated that he could not support CAFTA, because he could not promote agreements with other nations that brutally suppressed and killed union organizers. John McCain rolled his eyes. This hints at a marked divergence from the free trade assumptions of previous administrations, including the Clinton administration, that have consistently treated human rights abuses as some nebulous phenomenon that come out of nowhere, detaching them from their economic circumstances; and detaching these economic circumstances, in turn, from free market ideology that has consistently led to the emergence of brutal dictatorships and brutal ethnic conflicts due to massive job losses, inflation, the privatization of services, and all the rest.

Political theory and politics are always two different things. Change comes from the ground itself and those that organize and force power to capitulate. Theory creates weapons that can both help us to understand these strange new movements– these rumbling and unheard voices so unlike the platitudes that populate the ruling ideology that clogs the airwaves and newspapers –and can help to formalize these movements, intensify them, and create weapons for them. Today one of the most vital tasks is to once again put economics on the table as a site of politics, shifting away from the endless politics of identity.

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