(Photo from Jan Kopper). I always feel a bit silly when I write advice posts for young academics. In part, this is because I am myself a “young academic”. In part, this is because I just don’t think I have enough accomplishments under my belt to be in the position of giving advice. As a consequence, I can only really talk about the things I’ve struggled with and how, in part, I’ve overcome them.
As Graham noted in his post responding to me, the central themes of my Species Writing post revolved around iterability, copies, and repetitions. Setting aside all of his biology, if Darwin taught us anything, it was about the relationship between repetition and difference. Darwin taught us that repetition is differential and productive of difference. The Darwinian framework thinks a sort of Borromean Knot intertwining the copy, the repeated, and the iterated. What’s interesting in Darwin– at the metaphysical level –is that the copy is never a generic copy, the iterated never a generic iteration, and the repetition never a generic repetition. No, for Darwin, repetition, iteration, and copying always harbors difference. There is never a repetition that is exactly the same as that which repeats. There is never an iteration that is exactly the same as that which it iterates. There is never a copy that is exactly the same as that which it copies. At all levels there is variation and production of difference.
The paradox of Darwinian thought is thus that the new comes into existence through the repeated, iterated, and copied. Where our tendency is to think of repetition, iteration, and copying as the precise opposite of difference and novelty, Darwin’s thesis was that it is through repetition, iteration, and copying that the different is produced. For Darwin there’s no getting around this. You want a production of the new? Then you must repeat, copy, and iterate. Only through iteration, repetition, and copying do we ever produce the different.
Now many of us are well aware of this point theoretically. For thinkers such as Darwin, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Deleuze, Lacan, and Derrida, repetition is a key concept. I’m sure other thinkers could be named. Moreover, among these thinkers there’s broad agreement with the thesis that repetition produces difference. Yet while we know this theoretically, while we might defend this thesis tooth and nail, we often, I think, don’t know it practically. Our practice and our theory are often not in accord with one another.
As academics– and especially developing academics –we literally live in terror of repetition, iteration, and copying. When we sit down to write articles, conference papers, and dissertations our minds suddenly go blank. Hitherto we had found so many things fascinating and interesting. We had read books and articles with joy, taking breaks to watch lectures by our favored theorists on youtube, applying the theory we learned to various cultural artifacts like film and the politics of the day, and spending endless hours debating with friends over coffee, wine, or beer (and sometimes a lethal combination of all three!). In our day to day life we’re able to find countless things interesting. And sometimes we even manage to be interesting (though we’ll never really know until much later and someone else let’s us in on the secret of our own being).
Yet somehow, when we sit down to write, everything dries up. What happens? We’re terrified of repeating, iterating, and copying. We have a vague idea when we wish to write an article. “Boy, I found this aspect of Stiegler really neat!” Yet when we sit down to work it out we’re terrified that we’re repeating, iterating, or copying. “Oh, everyone else has already seen this or thought this!” We want our article to be sophisticated, so we make a trip to the archive to find related articles. Yet lo and behold, once we find related articles we say “Shit! Someone else has already done it!” Perhaps we end up abandoning the project altogether as a result. One thing is certain. Where we experience a great joy in the activity of research, in reading endless books and articles, in exploring all sorts of cultural artifacts, in playing with all of our friends in the Agora, engaging in endless late night conversations, the activity of writing becomes a misery when we finally sit down to write that article. Suddenly all the joyous affects that populated our intellectual engagement dry up and our stomachs become knotted with anxiety and frustration. Suddenly it’s no longer about something being neat. Suddenly it seems to be about something else altogether. Where repetition was joyous in the case of a conversation, where we were delighted to find a parallel before, now repetition becomes persecutory in the superegoic sense of the word.
Why is this? Writing, I think, has a special relationship to the gaze of the Other. In a previous post I argued that the gaze precedes our sense of self. We display ourselves to the world for the sake of a particular gaze, the gaze of the Other, that we’re trying to seduce or capture. Freud gives a marvelous example of this in his analysis of the Young Female Homosexual. This young woman had come from a well bread bourgeois family and had fallen in love with a local town prostitute. She would parade all about town with this woman, making quite a show of her attachment to her. Interestingly, in her amorous dealings with the prostitute (who, it appears, wasn’t particularly interested in her), she seemed to adopt the posture of the chivalrous gentleman, behaving like a courtly lover before the public.
At a certain point in this whole affair, she happens to see her father walking down the street from the other direction. Her father glanced at her with a look of utter disdain and contempt; a look that could be characterized as a look of withering disregard. Later that day the young woman tried to commit suicide by throwing herself on the train tracks. Now or initial impression of these events might be that the young woman had experienced overwhelming shame in her father’s glance, thereby seeking to terminate her life. Freud– at least under Lacan’s reading in Seminar 10 –seems to suggest something different. In that moment of her fathers gaze, the young woman had been utterly annihilated, because the gaze for whom all of her amorous acts were staged had completely disregarded her being. Freud theorizes that the woman’s actions had been staged for her father’s gaze who, apparently, was a poor lover with respect to the young woman’s mother. The young woman was literally trying to teach her father what it means or how to be a good lover. When her father looked at her with utter contempt and disdain her reason for being collapsed insofar as the message was not being received.
We can debate the merits of Freud’s particular analysis, yet it nonetheless provides a beautiful illustration of how our being can be staged for a gaze. It also gives us a perfect means for distinguishing between objet a as the object-cause of desire, and the object of desire. The prostitute was the object of the young woman’s desire, but not the object-cause of the young woman’s desire. Rather, the object-cause of the young woman’s desire was, if Freud is to be believed, her father’s gaze (perhaps it was another gaze, who knows?). What is important is that her actions were staged for some gaze.
When we sit down to write the sense of staging ourselves for the gaze often becomes acute and painful. Part of the problem, I think, is that we imagine this gaze of the Other as if it were omniscient. We imagine an all-knowing academic audience– the only audience that would be worthy of our esteem –that has encyclopedic knowledge of the archive and theory. Yet here the problem becomes evident. For if our audience is indeed all-knowing, if the Other that lurks behind our writing, the Other for whom all our writing is staged, is omniscient, then it becomes impossible to write. For how can we write for an Other that is omniscient? Everything we will write is already known by that Other and therefore it is impossible to present anything new to the Other. Where before we experienced joy in our repetition, now we experience terror.
Something strange happened to me during the first few months of my analysis, and I’m still not sure why or what it was. In the first place I became capable of laughter, laughing hysterically until my face would turn red and I would lose my breath at the smallest little things. Yet I also experienced a sort of incredible loquaciousness. Suddenly words were flying out of my mouth at a mile a minute where before I would struggle to find things to say. When I would write emails they would end up going on for page after page (much to the dismay of the recipients of those emails). When I would participate on the Lacan list or the Deleuze and Guattari list I suddenly started writing equally lengthy posts. Memory sharpened. Connections bloomed. An avalanche of signifiers spilled out of me.
I wonder if part of this wasn’t because one dimension of analysis consists in devouring (or destroying) the omniscient Other. The position of the analyst is, in many respects, the position of the fool. Somewhere or other Lacan remarks that the analyst is that person who is willing to engage in a sort of controlled suicide. This is because, in the transference, the analyst begins (when the transference is good) in an enviable position of having the analysand projecting all their fantasies of full and complete being onto their person. Yet where another person might take advantage of this enviable position, the analyst systematically deconstructs this fantasy, revealing, as in the case of Derrida’s joke, that there’s nothing behind the curtain. Somehow this discovery that there’s nothing behind the curtain creates a sort of breathing space– what Shaviro calls “elbow room” –or a non-knowledge in the Other that allows a place for the analysand to be. This is why Lacan will say that the traversing of the fantasy is accompanied by separation. Where the analysand is alienated in the field of the Other, the analysand that traverses the fantasy discovers something that is neither in the subject nor the Other and therefore a place where the subject can come to be… A place where the subject can contribute. As Lacan liked to point out, the reason that children ask so many questions is not that they have endless curiosity and wish to know so many things (though that too), but rather that they’re looking precisely for those spaces, those interstices, where the Other is unable to answer so that they might find a place where they can come to be. The problem with the academic Other is that it all too often presents itself as being without gap or fissure.
I’ve gotten a little off topic. My point is not that everyone should go and undergo analysis so as to increase their writing productivity. Analysis doesn’t work for everyone. If you don’t have a strong transference with your analyst their interventions will slide over your psyche like water off the back of a duck. If you think analysis is nonsense on stilts because you’re a Deleuzian or because you think psychoanalysis is phallocratic rubbish, it’s unlikely to do you any good. If you choose a mediocre analyst because you’re getting a bargain, an analyst you don’t respect, his or her interventions will do no good. The analyst you choose makes a difference. Not everyone’s words have efficacy for you.
My point is elsewhere. My point is that the best favor we can do for ourselves is to overcome our fear of repetition. Psychologically, in the domain of desire, it’s “healthier” to think of an article as more akin to a coffee house-barroom conversation or blog entry, than as an “offering” to an omniscient Other. The big Other, the omniscient Other doesn’t exist. And, moreover, there is an ethics of repetition. Over the years, when it comes to writing and speech, I’ve become increasingly “Berkeleyian” in my outlook. Berkeley says esse est percipi or that to be is to be perceived. Now as a realist I clearly don’t believe this. Trees fall just fine in the forest with no one there to see them. Yet in the order of language, if you don’t say it, it didn’t take place. What I’m saying is that I’ve come increasingly to believe in the materiality of language. Language has to be iterated to exist. It has to be said to take place. And if you don’t say it, it doesn’t take place.
All of us have the experience of coming across that book or article that says what we wish to say. I was furious when DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy was released before Difference and Givenness. I even wrote a scathing review. It was the book that I wanted to write; in part anyway. I was similarly furious when James Williams’ Difference and Repetition: A Critical Introduction was released. I first encountered the latter at the last Toronto conference hosted by Boundas and spent much of my time there hiding in my room reading the book. He was there at that conference– the first time I met him –and I could hardly stand to talk to him despite the fact that I ate breakfast every morning with his group. I harbored paranoid and painful fantasies that somehow these thinkers had stolen from me, that they had usurped my rightful place. It was years before I could talk to Williams. Madness, I know.
All of these reactions– and they were reactions –were based on the belief that repetition is always the repetition of the same. The idea that repetition is productive of difference had not yet sunk in. Now I think of us academics a little bit like radio towers and iterative variations. When a message is transmitted by radio it is often transmitted from tower to tower so it can reach further distances. If you manage to overcome your belief in an omniscient Other, then this is a bit what academic writing is like. You might have read this article, and fifteen other people might have read this article, but hundreds and thousands of other people have not read that article. When you repeat you are functioning as a relay among radio towers that brings these things to other people that have not yet encountered these things. That is valuable. Someone reads or hears your paper says “wow, I should track down that article, that sounds really interesting!” You bring things to others of which they weren’t aware. In Latourian terms, while I don’t accept his criteria for existence, I think there is nonetheless something to his thesis that things become more real when they mobilize and associate more actants or entities. Or in Badiouian terms, when you repeat you are intensifying something that might only exist dimly in the world up to that point. Repeat what you wish to be strong.
Yet it is not simply that you’re functioning as a node in a network by repeating. Within the Darwinian framework there is no repetition without a difference, even if that difference is small. Just ask Pierre Menard. You never quite mobilize the work of others in exactly the same way. To repeat is to introduce variation. Your article itself is a variation that, in terms of the production of species, introduces cumulative differences in a general trend of difference. Moreover, you are never able to know what differences you might be producing in your audience. But finally, whenever you deploy the work of those that come before you, you are situating it in new contexts of becoming such that others say “I had never quite thought of deploying Sartre in quite that way!” You bring work into a new context and this, of itself, is productive.
But in the end, perhaps writing should be less about producing the new than about infecting others with your own infections. The new is always what will have been. You can’t anticipate it. It’s only something that you will ever know as having been new retroactively. It’s always produced by mistake. So give up on trying to produce the new. It’s enough that your ontology allow for the new. The new is always something that you can’t aim at, such that the more you aim at it the more you miss it. Instead, it is perhaps better to think of writing in terms of sharing what you’ve found to be “neat”. This is why I italicized the world above. Often I find myself writing about certain things because I want to create interlocutors who can talk about things I’ve found valuable and neat with me. I want to seduce them to chase down references and read certain things for themselves. I want to see if they see the same things I’m seeing and to see if they see different things in the things I see than what I see. In my view, you are far more likely to satisfy that superegoic omniscient big Other by adopting this strategy than by directly striving to satisfy the (illusory) demand of that big Other. Remember the joy of those conversations at the bar.
But above all, you must write. If you don’t no one will read it or hear it. You might be a genius in your own mind, but if what you think doesn’t materially inscribe itself in the world it doesn’t exist. Honestly I’m shocked that more of you don’t post and blog. You’re nuts. Yes, I know we’re all assholes and that there are frustrating discussions. Yet through inscription you’re making yourself real in hundreds of brains. Those traces will prove invaluable to you later on so long as you aren’t particularly assholish. You might think that something like blogging is secondary to your academic development, but you’re wrong. It is one of the primary venues through which you make yourself real in this cutthroat world. Don’t be afraid to show others the things you’ve found to be neat.