May 2009


inquisition-wheelIn listening to the daily flood of new documented insights about the former Bush Administration’s “Enhanced Interrogation Technique” practices, one of the most frustrating elements of the whole discussion is that it has been pitched in terms of the question “does torture work or not?” Although it strikes me as obvious that torture does not work– one need only read the first volume of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to get this –the truly frustrating thing about the whole debate is that it shouldn’t be a debate at all. Why don’t we see more people standing up and saying “It doesn’t fucking matter whether or not it works! It’s wrong!” Not only are there countless utilitarian reasons as to why this is bad policy, there is the, above all, the simple point of our own dignity and the dignity of other humans. However, perhaps part of the reason such a debate is so upsetting has to do with the very nature of topics and how they function in the social field. All of this brought me to reflect on a passage from Niklas Luhmann’s wonderful Reality of the Mass Media today. Luhmann writes:

Topics… serve the structural coupling of the mass media with other social domains; and in doing this they are so elastic, and so diversifiable that the mass media are able to use their topics to reach every part of society, whereas the systems in the inner social environment of the mass media, such as politics, the economy or law, often have difficulty presenting their topics to the mass media and having them taken up in an appropriate way. The success of the mass media throughout society is based on making sure that topics are accepted, regardless of whether there is a positive or a negative response to information, proposals for meaning-making or recognizable judgments. Interest in a topic is frequently based precisely on the fact that both positions are possible [my emphasis]. (12 – 13)

stem_cellIt’s a real pity that Luhmann’s sociological theory has not gotten more attention, though not a surprise given the difficulty of some of his work. In works like his monumental Social Systems, Luhmann following the work of Maturana and Varela in biology and cognitive science, sought to understand the social field as a dynamic, autopoietic system composed of nothing but events that both produce and reproduce the system in time. Luhmann’s heretical sociological thesis was that the social is composed of nothing but communications. In other words, in the parlance of autopoietic systems theory, individuals and persons do not belong to social systems, but rather belong to the environment of social systems. They are, as it were, entirely outside social systems. As a result, communications are not, according to Luhmann, the product of persons, but rather communications are the product of other communications. Persons can irritate social systems– Luhmann’s technical word for “stimulate” –but persons as such never provide information— difference that make a difference –for social systems. This is because what counts as information is always based on a code that is self-referential in character. If the codes determining whether or not something counts as information (an event) is self-referential in character, that is because information does not belong to the environment of the system– it is not in the “things themselves” –but is rather constituted by the system itself. Put otherwise, there must be an “ontogeny” of information that is system specific. In short, systems are “organizationally closed”. Just as the elements of a biological cell both are a product of and reproduce the cell itself, and just as the cell is only selectively open to an environment or other cells about it, social systems are characterized by an organizational closure that renders them only selectively open to the world about them.

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I have received a few outraged emails from folks I will not name as I don’t think this should be an issue about them, expressing ire over the fact that I have either not posted some of their comments or that I responded to them in a particular way that they believed to be over the top (apparently ignoring that this person and I have a long history that has not been happy). One of these emails was even vaguely threatening, digging up stuff on me on the internet as if to say “I know who you are!” This, of course, reminded me of tactics I’ve seen on rightwing blogs where people go after the personal lives of their opponents when they do not like what they’re saying and posting it on their blog inviting others to go after them at home or in their place of work. At any rate, I think a very basic point is being missed in these exchanges: civility, or, according to Merriam-Webster, a: civilized conduct, especially: COURTESY, POLITENESS, b: a polite act or expression.

I don’t know why this point is so difficult to grasp: Rudeness, mocking behavior, sarcasms, insults, etc., simply do not translate well in this medium and cause discussions to spiral out of control, becoming like a Cold War arms race, where each side begins to respond to the other side in a more heated manner, hurling uglier and uglier insults at one another. I admit it, I have a thin skin about these things. I don’t like them. I don’t feel I need them in my life. I don’t think a person’s intellectual contribution outweighs whether or not they contribute it in a way that they are civil. That is, given the choice of enduring a really obnoxious person that is brilliant and not enduring that person at all, I’ll choose the latter. I do not associate with mean and rude people in real life and have no desire to do so here. There’s plenty of other stimulating engagement to be had, so why bother with those who can’t be bothered to conduct themselves in a civil way?

If Hegel taught us one thing, it is that social relations are, in part, based on mutual recognition and can only proceed on the basis of mutual recognition. Where that recognition is lacking or absent you only get endless struggle and conflict. Recognition and respect does not mean agreement, but it does entail relating to others with a modicum of politeness and respect. When I have occasionally pointed out incivility in another person’s comments or mode of address, I have either been told that I can’t take criticism and just want a bunch of people who agree with me milling about, or have been rewarded with the ever popular “but you do it to!” With regard to the former charge, I’m more than happy to entertain criticisms. What I can’t stand is obnoxious rudeness, not criticism or disagreement. Moreover, this way of responding is itself rude. When someone says to you “look, I really don’t like or enjoy how you’re addressing me!” you should say “sorry, my bad!”, not compound the problem by further attacking the person who feels they’ve been wrongly treated… At least, that’s the way a rational person who’s genuinely interested in discussion and the issues at hand, and who cares about others would respond. With regard to the latter charge, this is the whole problem with incivility: once it starts it spirals out of control and you get both sides hurling their shit at one another without being able to determine who hurled shit first or why. In the mean time, the discussion gets entirely side tracked as people air their hurt feelings about being wronged in this or that way. In light of recent events, I’ve concluded that my only recourse is to delete those comments that I find to be lacking in civility, or to be rude, obnoxious, or combative without contributing anything to the discussion. There’s no reason I should make my blog a place for the graffiti of those who seem only to desire pot stirring or generating conflict. My blood pressure doesn’t need it and it doesn’t look to me that those who conduct themselves in this way are really interested in discussion. A little civility goes a long way. A little respect in how one comports oneself goes a long way.

090504-swine-flu-picture_bigIt seems as if this cold is getting worse with every passing day. There are few things worse than scrambling to read final essays and complete grades while sniffling, sweating, and shivering. Hopefully I haven’t come down with the swine flu, though I hear that it is far less worse than first thought.

At any rate, this last week I had the pleasure of finally picking up John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy, David Couzens Hoy’s The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality (which the Notre Dame Philosophy Review has mysteriously and with strange synchronicity given what we’ve been discussing here in the blogosphere asked me to review… Maybe Gary Gutting is slyly trying to convert me to correlationism), along with Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism, all three of which strike me as central to the debates over realism and anti-realism currently playing out here in the blogosphere. Although all three of these books are devoted to the careful textual analysis of various philosophers, they refreshingly take philosophical positions, reading these works not as exercises in textual commentary, but in view of their arguments for realist and anti-realist positions.

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Why is it, right as the semester comes to an end and my mother comes to visit for a week, I fall ill with a terrible cold?

Pierre-Simon_LaplaceIn my last post I localized a paradox at the heart of Lacan’s teaching. On the one hand, Lacan puts forward a “true formula of atheism” that states that God is unconscious. There the line of reasoning seems to run that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other and that the Other does not exist. This would be a clever, indirect way of saying “God does not exist”. On the other hand, Lacan says that the gods belong to the order of the Real. How is it possible to reconcile these two claims. With respect to God and religion, I think Lacan can be seen as proposing what I call an “A-Theology”. A-Theology is not atheism, though it is related to some standard claims of atheism. Most generally, atheism is the denial of any sort of supernatural causation in the world and the existence of anything supernatural. In debates with religious belief, it generally points to the lack of evidence for miracles, the supernatural, souls, etc., and therefore the absence of reasons to believe in such things.

Of course, in relation to the findings of contemporary ethnology, it has become possible to charge the atheist with missing the point with respect to myth. Here the argument would run that myth is a particular way of understanding the world that was never intended to be taken literally. As I heard Caputo once put it at a conference when defending religion, “Of course the figures and miraculous events we see depicted in sacred texts and myths did not take place. Rather, the myths and stories of religion are closer to comic book stories, representing struggles between good and evil, the nature of the world, the meaning of life, etc.” Caputo’s thesis, of course, begs the question of why, if this is all myths are, we don’t choose better literature such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, etc. But whether we go with a somewhat unsophisticated thesis like Caputo’s or a more well developed thesis like Levi-Strauss’ approach to myth, the point remains the same: When we criticize these stories on the grounds that they violate the natural order and that there is no evidence in support of their truth, we have made a category mistake. We have failed to understand that myth is relating to truth and meaning in a different way. While there is certainly a great deal of truth to this thesis, it’s obvious shortcoming is that many followers of particular religious beliefs do take these stories literally rather than figuratively. Nonetheless, were this way of relating to myth to become the dominant paradigm in actual religious practices, it would be a substantial advance allowing for a much different dialogue between atheists and believers.

A-Theology, by contrast, differs from atheism in that its aim is not to refute or debunk claims about the supernatural. Where atheism focuses obsessively on religion as an explanatory hypothesis about the nature of the world, A-Theology, by contrast, is directed at a particular structure of thought and a particular form of social organization that it refers to, for lack of a better word, as “theological”. In this connection, it is crucial to emphasize that from the standpoint of A-Theology the conditions under which a particular structure of thought or social organization contains elements of the supernatural matters not a whit. In other words, a structure of thought or a form of social organization could be entirely secular in character, it could be an ultra-materialism, and nonetheless remain theological from the standpoint of A-Theology. Likewise, a form of social organization or thought could be pervaded by appeals to all sorts of supernatural phenomena and nonetheless be characterized as “a-theological” from the standpoint of A-Theology. The arch-materialist and determinist Pierre-Simon Laplace is an excellent example of a materialistic account of the universe that is nonetheless thoroughly theological. This is not because Laplace attributed the workings of matter to God– when Napoleon asked him about the place of God in his system, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse. –but rather because of the curious role that Laplace’s Demon plays in his understanding of nature. Similarly, perhaps Greece, prior to Platonic thought can be understood as A-Theological, despite being pervaded by all sorts of deities and supernatural phenomena. Given these two examples, it is clear that the distinguishing mark between the A-Theological and the Theological has nothing to do with the supernatural or the sorts of causality that function in the world.

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the_fallIn an interesting response to my post on A-Theology, Nikki over at Prosthetics writes:

levi, hello…
I am interested in what you wrote here:

In this connection, we are reminded of another gloss on the father where Lacan remarks that the only father is a dead father. Clearly fathers are not always dead, so we must understand Lacan as referring to the father not as a living body, but in his function as a signifier, as a symbolic function, in the Oedipus, naming the enigmatic desire of the mother and enacting the prohibition against incest. In this respect, to say that God is unconscious would be to say that God is the dead signifier that establishes prohibition.

First i would like to propose that, in light of what you and Lacan are working in this vicinity ‘dead signifier’ is a redundant phrase – but at the same time, perhaps redundancy is where living takes place, or more precisely, where living shows up on the radar? This is the case for Badiou, and also for Jean-Luc Marion… Yet as Derrida points out in limited. inc signification, signing, the desire to underwrite what cannot be insured, is always a hollow(ing) enterprise. I am thinking redundancy, repetition and ritual.

Nikki makes an interesting point about the nature of the signifier, death, and life that had not occurred to me in quite these terms. For the sake of those not very familiar with Lacan’s work, early Lacan– the Lacan of the first two seminars and of Function and Field of Speech –often emphasized that the signifier “kills the thing”. I read this in somewhat Derridean terms. With the advent of the signifier in our subjective economy absence is introduced into the world. It becomes possible to refer to the thing in its absence, but every relation between word and thing necessarily requires the institution of this sort of a priori absence. Moreover, where the thing is perpetually changing and becoming over the adventure of its existence, there is a way in which the signifier freezes the thing, turning it into a fixed statue.

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co-op-20th-eyes-february-112eyes1The epigraph to the second section of Lacan’s “Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” reads “Advice to a young psychoanalyst: Do crossword puzzles” (Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, 220). If this is good advice for the psychoanalyst, then it is because formations of the unconscious– dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes, bungled actions, symptoms, etc. –are often themselves encrypted like the hints of a crossword puzzle. The hints of a crossword puzzle– roughly equivalent to formations of the unconscious in this analogy –are organized around a lacuna or the missing signifier that is to be found. These hints are traces of that signifier. However, in successfully completing a crossword puzzle it is often necessary to practice a horizontal or lateral relationship to language, an associative relationship, where one draws on equivocations, homonyms, and other figures of rhetoric to discover the missing signifier. Freud gives a nice example of how the symptom is organized around a lacuna or a missing signifier when discussing the case of a young woman during the initial stages of schizophrenia in his article “The Unconscious”:

A patient of Tausk’s, a girl who was brought to the clinic after a quarrel with her lover, complained that her eyes were not right, they were twisted. This she herself explained by bringing forward a series of reproaches against her lover in coherent language. ‘She could not understand him at all, he looked different every time; he was a hypocrite, an eye-twister, he had twisted her eyes; now she had twisted eyes; they were not her eyes any more; now she saw the world with different eyes. (SE XIV, 197 – 198)

Part of the significance of the schizophrenic from a metapsychological perspective is that processes that are ordinarily unconscious are all there on the surface. Where the neurotic might have a deep phobia of having his eyes “twisted”, this woman experiences her eyes as being literally twisted, as being unable to see the world as she would normally be able to see it. Granting that there is nothing physiologically wrong with her, the mystery then becomes why she has come to experience the world in this way. Taken literally, her words are unintelligible and have the feel of nonsense. The symptom makes no sense. But when we adopt a floating, horizontal, or lateral relationship to her speech, the lacuna or hidden signifier organizing the symptom begins to come into view. The key signifier in her speech is “eye-twister”. In German, the young woman’s language, the word for “eye-twister” is ‘Augenverdreher‘, which figuratively means “deceiver”. Through the work of the unconscious, the woman had “literalized” her relationship to her lover in a series of symptoms effecting her eyesight. Her symptom was a trace of the “desire of the Other”, a materialization of the desire of the Other– in this case the desire of her boyfriend –insofar as it was a set of symptoms embodying her lover’s desire to deceive her.

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