February 2013


teen-cell-phone-300x272Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a student regarding the new communications technologies.  Both of us have been around long enough to have lived through the communications revolution.  We’ve both seen a world prior to cheaply available personal computers, cell phones, internet, cable (or cheaply available cable), 24 hour reporting and all the rest.  As Harvey puts it in The Condition of Postmodernity, we’ve thus lived at the interstices between two worlds.  In my life, at least, the eruption of the internet was an instance of what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called “aion”.  There was the world before the internet and the world after the internet, and the two are entirely different worlds.  For me, the world before the internet, the world prior to 1994 (god, I have students now that were born that year), was a world where I could only find books at crappy mall bookstores like Walden Books and B Daltons.  I had heard of Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and many others, but only could get some books by Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Russell, Whitehead (strangely), Spinoza, and a few others.  I had to scour the country side, driving for hours to find whatever I happened to come across:  an obscure translation of Kant’s first Critique with uncut pages, Santayana, Josiah Royce,  Unamuno, Gassett, Proust, and a host of others.  This was all in the early 90s.  I read whatever fell into my hands.  And when my grandmother gave me a copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Husserl’s Ideas (actually I stole it from the community college library, don’t tell), and the then official translation of Kant’s first Critique, I felt as if I’d received something tremendously valuable, like illuminated texts.  My highschool friends weren’t impressed.  It was also a world pervaded by loneliness and where conversations were entirely random.  My discussions would be with the schizophrenics that happened to show up at the coffee shop (always interesting and knowledgeable folk, I found), the religious nut I happened to encounter, the person obsessed with theosophy, the local bitter Marxist, poets, angry college students, etc. It’s sad that we’ve seen the decline of the cafe.  They were great.  Two bucks, a bottomless cup of coffee, a place to smoke and stay warm, and conversations with vagrants, bag ladies, artists, farmers, the unemployed, religious fanatics, and schizophrenics.  I don’t think it can beat and worry that it will never be repeated.  I’ve met my fair share of Artaud’s, and while they could be infuriating, I learned a lot.  I also met a number of Luther’s.  I loved them too.  I guess I love all the cranks.  I’m one myself, after all.

After the internet, the world was entirely different.  I worked for a time at Walden books when I was in highschool– two years –and never got a paycheck.  During that time I would obsessively go through the microfiche, ordering all the books I couldn’t find.  They’d stack up in the back room and I’d have to pay them off with my paycheck.  You had to go through reams and rims of film– assuming the store had the records –to find anything.  After the internet, suddenly an entire universe of books opened up.  Nearly anything could be found.  I remember the shock I experienced when I found unpublished translations of Lacan’s seminars.  Somewhere or other Freud suggests that if all of our wishes were to suddenly be satisfied, we’d suddenly collapse into psychosis (the reality principle being founded on disappointment and delayed gratification).  Well that’s how I felt.  But it wasn’t just the availability of books, it was the availability of communities.  There were IRC chats devoted to philosophy, AOL chat rooms, there were email discussion lists devoted to Deleuze, Derrida, Bataille, Peirce, Spencer-Brown, anarchism, Lacan, Freud, cybernetics, and so on.  It was glorious.  It was the Greek Agora.  Suddenly all the freaks could talk to one another.  We annoyed the hell out of each other, but we learned a lot and had fun annoying one another.  We encountered references that we would have never otherwise encountered.  We organized things.  We grew up together and grew old together.  Some of us who were old grew young.  Some of us who were young grew old.  We were pretentious.  We were petty.  We were self-assured.  But we were exposed.  Like intellectual flashers, we not only exposed our over-inflated egos (and still do), but we made ourselves vulnerable before anonymous eyes, we allowed ourselves to be mocked, ribbed, and stabbed by strangers.  And we left a record of all of it!  It’s all still there on the Lacan-list, the Badiou-list, the Deleuze and Guattari Spoon Collective.  It’s all still there.  And it’s embarrassing and grand.

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When I read certain conservative blogs, I get the impression that their rejection of things is based on a peculiar notion of critical thinking. The axiom seems to be when confronted with anything widely accepted– climate change, the existence of wide economic, gender, and racial inequalities, evolution, fluoride being good for teeth, and so on –we should immediately doubt it as a mystification. Part of the allure of Rush Limbaugh, for example, seems to be the idea of hearing a “truth” that no one else knows and that everyone else rejects.

This seems like critical thinking run amok. Conspiracy theory is another good example. The conspiracy theorist seems to assume that if something is widely accepted and uncontroversial– say Adam Lanza having shot all those children at Sandy Hook Elementary –it must be a cover up on behalf of the powerful. These things vaguely resemble “critical thinking” because they don’t take things at face value, but question them; but, in fact, they’re forms of uncritical dogmatism because they work from the rule that if something is widely accepted, it must be false.

I worry about this with the humanities classroom. Is there a chance that we might be creating “dogmatists of suspicion”? That is, are their pedagogical strategies that risk turning suspicion into an axiom, such that our students become critically immune to any facts or evidence?

466244_british_money_4It’s worth noting that talking of objects, spaces, grounds, paths, and institutions does not, in and of itself, make for a materialism.  In the case of objects, it depends on how you talk about objects.  If you’re approaching objects phenomenologically as correlates of intentionality, you’re not talking about objects qua objects, or objects in their independent being.  You’re talking about phenomenality or meaning for us.  There’s no reason to suppose that objects as they are given to us phenomenologically are like objects as they are in-themselves.  The intentional being of a chair as given to me in my lived experience is quite different than what a chair is as a material being.  Maybe this can be seen more clearly with currency.  Suppose all human beings were to suddenly become extinct in a catastrophe.  Would money remain?  It seems hard to say so.  Paper with ink on it would remain, but these entities would no longer have value.  The value of money is something that can only arise as a correlate of a phenomenological intention and a symbolic system.  It is not something that resides in the material being of the currency.  Phenomenological and semiotic analysis can get us at the being of money as money, but it cannot get us at its material being.

mirrorThis is also why the lived or experienced body described by phenomenology does not get us at the material body.  How I experience my body is quite different than what my material body is.  I cannot experience electro-chemical processes that take place in my brain, my body metabolizing energy and pumping blood, my cells producing cancer, and so on.  This point is quite clear in cases of phantom limbs and eating disorders.  The person with the eating disorder experiences their lived body as the image in the mirror.  By contrast, the emaciated and starved body is the material body.  It is quite possible for there to be a disconnect between the material and the phenomenological body.  Indeed, most of our material body is never given in phenomenological experience at all.

Spinoza makes the point nicely in the Ethics.  As he writes, “[t]he human mind does not know the human body itself, nor does it know that it exists, expcept through ideas of affections by which the body is affected” (II, 19).  In the appendix to Part I, he notes remarks that,

It will be sufficient here if I take as a foundation what everyone must acknowledge:  that all men are born ignorant of the causes of things, and that they all want to seek their own advantage, and are conscious of this appetite.  From these assumptions, it follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of those causes.”

Spinoza here is speaking of the difference between the phenomenological and material body.  We know nothing of the material body through lived experience, but only experience our phenomenological body.  Consider Heidegger’s analysis of anxiety.  At the level of lived experience, I encounter anxiety in terms of meaning– or more properly the flight of all meaning –and have an encounter with my “being-towards-death”.  This is my phenomenological experience.  However, it could be that my anxiety has nothing to do with something as grand as meaning and being-towards-death at all; but rather that I’m suffering from a vitamin B and D deficiency that produces this conscious affect.  Of course, I cannot experience vitamin B and D deficiencies, but only their effects.  This is why I can wonder whether my being-towards-death is what occasions my anxiety or whether it’s a chemical imbalance that I then mistakenly give meaning.  I’m willing to say that sometimes it’s the former and at other times it’s the latter.

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Apparently a discussion took place on Sara Ahmed’s facebook page where she took my discussion of borromean critical theory to be an attack on her because I characterized her work as an example of “phenomenological critical theory”. This was in no way my intention. I wouldn’t have linked to her fine book if I didn’t think this. As I thought I tried to make clear, I see Ahmed’s work as an example of good and valuable phenomenological analysis of subaltern bodies. It is analysis I would recommend. The whole point of thinking a borromean knot is to think how the three orders are on equal footing and how we ought not privilege one over the other. My sole point was that I think we’ve tended to erase materiality in the robust sense, that we need to make room for it, and that I think we need to think how the three orders are entangled with one another. I don’t think the material body can be assimilated to the lived body of experience. Indeed, I don’t think we can have an experience of our material bodies at all. Put differently, I think there’s a phenomenological body, a symbolic body, and a material body. What I want is a framework robust enough to think the entanglement of these three bodies with one another. In my view, work like Ahmed’s provides us with crucial insight into the phenomenological or experienced body. I just don’t think it gets at the material body. That’s not a rejection, but simply that there are other dimensions to what we are. I’m looking to synthesize, not exclude. What I want is neurology and biochemistry and phenomenology and critical semiotics. It’s not exclusive or’s I’m after. Hence the model of entangled orders.

article-new_ehow_images_a05_mk_6v_skin-crawling-disorders-800x800A throw-away thought:  Despite being profoundly influenced by a variety of vitalistic philosophers– Deleuze, Bergson, Nietzsche, Whitehead, and so on –I confess that my skin literally crawls whenever I hear thinkers defend vitalism.  What profound disappointment I experience when I hear a thinker I admire– Deleuze, Massumi, Braidotti, Bennett (?), Whitehead, Bergson, etc –defend either vitalism or something that is basically equivalent to vitalism.  I realize part of my reaction here is purely linguistic.  For example, when Braidotti defends vitalism, she’s not– I think/I hope –defending some “life force” that animates matter and differs fundamentally from matter.  No, Braidotti, inasmuch as I understand her, is referring to the capacity of matter to self-organize such as we find in the case of chemical clocks.

But if that’s true, why use a term as obnoxious as “vitalistism”.  We don’t need some special vitalistic forces to account for chemical clocks.  Chemistry alone will do the job.  I just can’t help but feel like something magical is being snuck in the back door here, that something warm and happy is being introduced into our philosophy of nature; and– Lucretian that I am –I just can’t help but feel that such moves are retrograde.  Oh how I want to puke when Stuart Kauffman, an otherwise great theorist, talks of things like “being home in the universe” and “reinventing the sacred”.  No Stuart!  No!  You’ve done so well analyzing the mechanics of self-organization, and now you recoil from what you’ve accomplished to some sort of mystical life-force?  Lucretius got it right when, in Book V of De Rerum Natura, he wrote,

Another fallacy comes creeping in whose errors you should be meticulous in trying to avoid– don’t think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with; don’t suppose our thigh-bones fitted our shin-bones, and our shins our ankles, so that we might take steps; don’t think that arms dangled from shoulders and branched out in hands with fingers at their ends, both right and left, for us to do whatever need required for our survival. All such argument, all such interpretation, is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use, nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use. There could be no such thing as sight before the eyes were formed, no speech before the tongue was made, but tongues began long before speech was uttered, and ears were fashioned long before a sound was heard, and all the organs, I feel sure, were there before their use developed; they could not evolve for the sake of use, be so designed.

heic0405aNo teleology, no purpose, no goal, no ultimate ontological meaning.  I guess, on these points, the Sartrean existentialism of my teen years and early 20s is just too deeply written in my bones, my DNA.  The universe of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is more my speed than The Life of Pi.  It’s an absurd universe, a contingent universe, a cruel universe.  Scratch that.  Cruelty would imply intentionality and malice.  No, it’s an indifferent universe.  It’s a universe where sometimes there are tremendously beautiful things, where amazing things take place, but where also horrible things take place on a daily basis, both among humans, in the animal world, and elsewhere in other galaxies.  Somewhere, right now, there’s a solar system with a planet with a rich culture and ecosystem that’s in the throws of being devoured by a star whose energy has become so depleted that it can no longer prevent its own fiery expansion.  There’s no malice to this.  There’s no meaning to it.  It’s just what happens.  And so it goes.

And maybe that’s it with vitalism.  Vitalism, even though it allegedly moves in a posthuman direction, still seems a little too close to human narcissism.  It still seems a little too close to the idea that all of this somehow has a meaning, that it can somehow be redeemed, that there’s still somehow a purpose behind things.  While I think we have many purposes, I just can’t accept the idea– here I have my Ivan Karamozov moment –that there’s a purpose to the cancer that fells a person, to the tsunamic that tears a family apart, and all the rest.  And honestly, at the end of the day, I just can’t help thinking of both all the psychological misery caused by the idea of divine plans as well as all the horrific violence that’s been committed in the name of eschatologies, weather religious or secular.  Melancholia depicts a cold, absurd, indifferent universe, but at least they embrace each other in those final moments, despite not liking one another.  Perhaps the more we come to understand just how indifferent the universe is, perhaps the more we come to understand just how contingent life is, perhaps the more we understand that we’re not at the center of creation, the more we will have regard for each other and this biosphere.

In response to my last post, some good discussion has emerged as to just what materialism is and when we can identify a genuine materialism.  The tradition of materialism I claim arises out of Democritus, the Greek Epicureans, Lucretius, and thinkers such as Diderot.  Where the version of materialism we get in Contemporary continental theory seems to equate materialism with a focus on practices and institutions, this materialism focuses on the existence of physical beings independent of humans (minerals, plants, nervous systems, fiber optic cables, particles, animals, features of geography, and so on).  I think it’s hard to deny that what’s generally called “materialism” today is really a form of discursivism.  The debate surrounding idealism and materialism as it arose between Hegel and Marx was a debate between conceptuality and practices.  It was the question “do ideas/concepts structure social reality (Hegel) or do practices structure social reality?”  In Marx’s own work, we can still glimpse something like robust materialism.  In his work, it makes sense to call a focus on practices “materialist” because in practice, after all, we’re talking about biological bodies working on non-human material stuffs, and Marx has exquisite analyses of calories required for work, the physical properties of technologies, the features of natural geography, and so on.  The problem is that much of this largely gets erased as this theoretical trajectory develops in the Althusserian and Frankfurt school versions of Marxism.  Ideology and discursivity begin to take center stage, and we increasingly seem to lose the materiality of matter.  Matter becomes largely conceived as a vehicle for human meanings and significations.  In other words, we’re back to Hegel and Marx gets turned upside down.  Given that the Marxist heritage is largely preserved in the humanities, this isn’t a surprise as those working in the humanities largely work with texts and meanings.  As a consequence, just as the cobbler is likely to see all other things in the world in terms of footwear, those working in the humanities have a tendency to comprehend everything in the world in terms of meaning and text.

borromeanWhat I’m trying to do with borromean critical theory is open a space for thinking materiality as materiality that doesn’t physical beings to being mere carriers of signification, while also preserving what we’ve discovered through phenomenology and semiotics.  The imaginary now corresponds to the domain of descriptive phenomenological analysis, the symbolic the domain of semiotic analysis, while the real corresponds to materiality in the sense of physicality.  The real, taken for itself, therefore doesn’t correspond to “practices”, but rather biological processes, physiology, mountain ranges, weather patterns, the behavior of particles, the properties of minerals and metals, animals, the chemical features of foods and air, and so on.

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A couple years ago, I’m told that Jane Bennett caused quite a stir with her remarks about omega-3 fatty acids.  As Jairus recounts it, her discussion of the link between omega-3 fatty acids (cf. Vibrant Matter, 40 – 43), generated all sorts of outrage.  I experienced something quite similar at my talk at Brown last December.  Referencing recent research on the relationship between maternal diet and the sex of children, the critical theorists in the audience heard me as reducing gender to diet, ignoring the work of thinkers such as Foucault and Butler (despite the fact that I was quite explicit in my talk in endorsing a qualified version of Butler’s performative account of gender formation).  In other words, the claim was that sex can be reduced to diet, but that diet plays a role in the form our bodies take over the course of development.  I’ll also add that I emphasized that further research needs to be done and it’s entirely possible that this research is mistaken.

As an aside, I think it’s remarkable that there’s been so little cultural theory on diet.  This might only be my ignorance– I haven’t bothered to look into the research deeply –but the only significant work I can think of offhand is Levi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked.  This is amazing!  If anything has a rich semiotic system for human beings, it must be food, no?  We find elaborate dietary codes in all the worlds major religions.  Indeed, earlier religions seemed far more concerned with what we eat, rather than, say, sexual identities.  We also find elaborate meditations on food and diet in the Epicureans and the Stoics.  In contemporary culture, debates rage about diet, what we should eat, the impact of different foods, and so on.  It’s surprising that research on diet hasn’t been more widespread in critical theory as it seems like such rich ground for various forms of semiotic analysis.  The cynic or hermeneut of suspicion in me wonders if the manner in which diet research has been relegated to the margins isn’t telling.  Could part of the reason that we haven’t seen more front and center research on “diet studies” be that discussions of food short-circuit our traditional semiotic categories?  Diet pertains not only to semiotic categories such as dietary codes, popular diets (Atkins, South Beach, etc), but also chemistry and biology.  Diet is a site where the signifying encounters the biological and the chemical and where the chemical and biological encounters the signifying, in ways where we can’t assert the primacy of the diacritical play of signs or the primacy of biology.  If the Adornian critical theorist who was so scandalized by my remarks about the relationship between maternal diet and sex had been clever, he could have pointed out the semiotic— social and cultural –nature of contemporary diets and what effect they were having on the organic.  That’s certainly where I wanted to go.  “What’s the impact of a signifying system like the Atkins diet?”

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