The psychotic is that person that treats words like things.

~Freud

In this the psychotic shouldn’t be treated as mistaken, but as revealing something important about the nature of concepts. In some respects, the psychotic is a better materialist and naturalist than most of us.

Returning to the theme of real connection from a previous post I’m led to ask the question of how ideas can change the world. Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not to represent the world, but to change the world. Philosophers, as Deleuze observes, work in the medium of concepts and are creators and critics of concepts.

Aside: If it is true that philosophy is the creation of concepts, then it follows that philosophy is not necessarily what takes place in philosophy departments. Just because a person studies philosophers and publishes in philosophical journals and with philosophical presses, it doesn’t follow that one is creating concepts. More importantly, if this definition of philosophy is true, then it follows that philosophy takes place wherever concepts are created. For example, Luhmann and Latour would be doing philosophy despite being called “sociologists” because they create concepts.

The question is “how can concepts change the world?” Now, as a materialist, I’m led to ask some pretty strange questions with respect to these issues. As a materialist, I’m committed to the thesis that 1) concepts are material entities, and that therefore 2) they are geographically located (and I mean this quite literally: concepts occur in/at a particular place, and that 3) concepts must be materially transmitted. In other words, it is not enough for a theorist to have revolutionary or transformative concepts. No, if concepts are to affect the world they must literally travel throughout the world. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it certainly makes a sound, but it doesn’t affect or change the actions of any sentient entities.

read on!

This leads to, I think, some pretty concrete questions about the circulation of concepts throughout the world.

1) What is the medium through which concepts circulate? Are the concepts transmitted through voice (Socrates), writing (Plato), telegraph wires, fiber optic cables, etc? Are the concepts carried from person to person by an individual speaker (Jesus), by a person on horseback carrying a letter, by transatlantic cables, satellites, smoke signals, mirrors, flags, etc? All of these mediums will impact the time of transmission, as well as the geography of the concept (how far it can spread and how “universal” it is in the Marxist sense of universality).

2) What is the signal to noise ratio of the manner in which the concept is expressed or its information content? It is a paradox of information theory that the more entropic a message is– i.e., the more it is subject to polysemy in being decoded by the receiver –the more information it contains. If we wish to change the world in a directed way, this is not a good thing. Why, because a highly entropic message is a message that will produce all sorts of aleatory outcomes in receivers, thereby rendering it probable that it produces results other than those anticipated. Marx’s Capital, for example, is great for readers (receivers) that have undergone the requisite formation or morphogenesis in academic institutions to become capable of receiving it– and it’s not clear that it is successful in being received by subjects that have undergone academic subjectivization or subject formation, given the nearly infinite interpretations of Marx –but at the level of shear information (not to be confused with “meaning” or “content”), it is not particularly effective with a mass audience that hasn’t been subjectivized in the tradition of scholastic Marxism. There’s simply too much entropy in this text on the side of receivers. The Manifesto is better, if our aim is to change the broader social world.

Aside 2a: Considerations such as these have led me to sometimes pessimistically feel that despite certain academics talking about political change as being the central telos of their scholarly work, the form of their presentation betrays the truth of their activity: that this activity is only directed at other academics not the world. I hope this doesn’t sound anti-intellectual. The point is not that ideas shouldn’t be complicated, but that I often get the feeling that our forms of expression are in performative contradiction with our aims. I don’t think that the ideas behind many obscure texts– I’m looking at you Science of Logic –necessarily need to be expressed in this way. Sometimes it seems as if we’re purposefully striving to obfuscate.

Aside 2b: However, it’s also important to recognize that high entropy, noise, or polysemy can itself be a strategy. The aim of “the writer”– square quotes because there’s really no such thing as an author –might be to produce a machine that produces a variety of different responses by receivers. Introducing noise into dominant discourses might be seen as a strategy for scrambling codes that dominate the social field. Sometimes I think this is what Reza Negerastani is, in part, up to. It was a technique that Lacan also used with his patients to dislodge symptoms and lead them to avow their own desire (univocal interpretation would alienate their desire in the meaning of the analyst). In these instances, high entropic expressions will be more effective than low entropy expressions. I don’t think, however, that this is what Adorno, Hegel, or Marx are up to in their textual strategies.

3) What is the ecology of the concept? Concepts don’t travel through the world without friction. Rather there is always an ecology of concepts and other sign-structures. And as is the case with any ecology, some environments will favor some entities over other entities. Using my sorting of dark, dim, bright, and rogue objects, some eco-spheres will be dominated by particular bright objects, while other objects will be very dim. What will determine whether or not a concept, in its material reality is dim or bright? Some things leap to mind for me:

a) The other concepts– the “bright” ones –dominating the social field. Every concept that would circulate throughout the social field has to compete with those that already dominate the social field. Those concepts that mesh with the existing ecology of concepts will be favored, while those that do not will have a hard go of it. The point here is not that we should form concepts that mesh well with “dominant ideology”, but that we need to devise strategies for imbuing certain concepts with an advantage over those that currently dominate the social field. Here I’m inclined to argue that conceptual fields have “autoimmune” systems. Look, for example, at contemporary conservative discourses. They have spent years engendering doubt about education (they claim that it’s a liberal plot), the social sciences (they say it’s a bunch of pinko commies that have no morals), and the sciences (the scientists are all bought and paid for). These are all autoimmune systems inhabiting a particular social system that function to immunize subjects that are subjectivized by this framework from information from schools and the sciences. They’ve been very effective. What strategies can be devised to neutralize these autoimmune systems?

b) The affective response to a concept. What affective response is a concept likely to produce in its receivers? Some of us think that arguments ought to be enough and that rational demonstration is all that is needed. We see pathos as an enemy. Yet as a huge body of research ranging from Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, and Freud, all the way up through the cognitive and neuroscientists suggest, affectivity plays a huge role in whether or not certain things will be able to proliferate. And often the affectivity presiding over the possibility of concepts being able to materially distribute themselves is less than nice: narcissism, selfishness, vanity, envy, etc., but also hope, love, joy, and adventure. What strategies can be devised to increase the likelihood of a concept proliferating because it generates joyful affective responses?

c) Does the conceptual network provide a workable path of enactment in the lifeworld? If a conceptual constellation provides little in the way that is actionable or feasible within the constraints of the lifeworld, it is unlikely to move from being a dim to a bright concept. In other words, it is not enough that a position be true or ethico-politically right, it also has to provide a path for enacting itself among labor relations, gender relations, economy, families, etc., etc., etc. I don’t think many of us academics attend to this at all (and I suspect the reason we ignore this has to do with blindness imbued by the class privilege we enjoy).

I am not suggesting that we should ignore the importance of having revolutionary concepts and of forming concepts that are true and just. What I am suggesting is that if we are serious about contributing to transforming the world, we need to do a better job of attending to these ecological and materialist issues pertaining to how concepts– as thingstravel throughout the world. And here I believe that part of this project lies in overcoming our own narcissism and blindness as academics. The former task lies in overcoming the desire for superiority over those we critique, so beautifully denounced by Ranciere. Rather than seeing our conceptual practice as a superior practice that holds the truth of all other practices (such that everyone else is duped), we need to see our practice as one practice among others. With regard to blindness, our blindness arises from the familiarity of our own eco-sphere– the classroom, colleagues, conferences, print articles, etc. –that generates the illusion that all receivers are such as ourselves and that our interlocutors are our colleagues. We need to discover alterity: the alterity of the worker, the househusband, the artist, the engineer, the dog trainer, etc. We need to open ourselves to other worlds so that we might begin to pose for ourselves the question of how concepts can communicate with these other worlds.