February 2013


borromeanIn the next year, I have a lot coming out on what I’m calling “borromean critical theory” (BCT).  I introduce the concept in Onto-Cartography, discuss it a bit in “Speculative Realism and Politics”, coming out in Speculations, and discuss it in the next issue of theory@buffalo in an article entitled “The Body of the Sign” (it’s for their Flesh of the World issue).  The basic idea is more organizational than anything else (though hopefully it will become something more over time).  My thesis is first that what we call “critical theory” (broadly construed), has been largely correlationist in character and has dominantly taken one of two forms.  On the one hand, there’s been what might be called “phenomenological critical theory” (PCT) represented by figures like Sara Ahmed and Sandra Bartky, among many others.  Here the aim is to investigate the lived experience and embodiment of subaltern bodies.  On the other hand, there’s been what might be called “semiotic critical theory” (SCT), where the focus is on the semiotic and semiological structuration of the world.  This orientation would be exemplified by historical materialists such as Horkheimer and Adorno, Zizek, Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard, and so on.  I’m sure people will object to characterizing historical materialists or the heirs of pre-Habermasian critical theory and the Althusserian school as “semiotic”, but please note that the basic operation of these orientations of thought consists in showing how the reigning ideology of the time structures knowledge formations and politics (e.g., the claim that x reflects object-oriented program, which in its turn reflects capitalistic, neoliberal ideology).  Despite its claim that it focuses on practice, this critical procedure is thoroughly discursive and idealist in character.  Finally you get the outliers:  Marx himself (not so much his heirs), Latour, the new materialist feminists such as Braidotti, Alaimo, Bennett, Barad, Bianco, the speculative realists, the object-oriented ontologists, media theorists such as Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, Parikka, DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on that focus on materiality as materiality or the difference that physical beings make in social assemblages.  These figures are giants in fields such as science and technology studies and media studies, but get short shrift in literary theory and philosophy.  As an aside, just because you call yourself a materialist it doesn’t follow that you are a materialist.  The only legitimate materialism descends from the atomistic tradition of Democritus.  If you aren’t talking about physical stuff and the difference that physical stuff makes, you just aren’t a materialist.  That’s okay.  Just be honest.  Sorry Zizek, you’re not a materialist!

220px-Triquetra-circle-interlaced.svgBorromean critical theory (BCT) recognizes there’s something right in each of these orientations, but that the claims of each are exaggerated and inflated.  It is thus both synthetic (it wants all these orientations) and deflationary (it wants to deflate the imperialistic claims each makes).  If you want to have your Uexkull (PCT) and your Barthes (SCT) and your Latour too, you’re an advocate of BCT.  A BCTer thus both carries out a critique of the excesses of each orientations (deflation) and strives to integrate them.  This is where Lacan’s borromean knot becomes helpful as an organizational and critical tool.  In the first three phases of his teaching, one of his three orders dominated and structured the other three orders.  In the first phase, the Imaginary dominated and was understood to structure the Symbolic and Real.  In the second phase, the Symbolic dominated, and was understood to structure the Imaginary and Real.  In the third phase of his teaching, the Real dominated, and was understood to structure the Symbolic and Imaginary.  The fourth and final phase of Lacan’s teaching departs from all this.  Now we are supposed to think all three orders as equal and mutually interpenetrating, without one structuring the others.  In the third phase, we must simultaneously think how the three orders relate, what each order specifically contributes, and to do so without one overcoding the other two.

read on!

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manson1For years I’ve been hearing off and on that there’s a school of thought that argues that the rhetoric of texts should be enigmatic and elusive so as to interrupt the logic of exchange characteristic of communicative capitalism.  I can see the point of this.  Since their emergence during the last century, mass media technologies have favored easily transmitted messages that tend to standardize identities and entities within the world.  This sort of communicative structure has, in its turn, been put to all sorts of dark political purposes.   Recognizing this, one can reasonably conclude that one strategy of resistance would lie in the creation of noise that disrupts the codes governing semiotic structures of communication that favor the powerful.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that there’s not a little bit of bullshit in this line of argument.  Before getting to that, let me emphasize that I’m here talking about works of theory, not literature and art (and I know this distinction is fraught and problematic).  The problem is that this strategy seems to exchange one form of power and domination for another.  In the first instance, we’re in the thrall of dominant codes that typify our identities and reduce us to good consumers.  In the latter instance, however, we seem to become hypnotized by the text and thereby enslaved.  Like the cult follower that believes that the leader contains a mysterious amalga or objet a around which our desire comes to pulsate, the enigmatic and elusive text comes to capture our desire and enslave us.

tumblr_lfxki6G0Vd1qe8ld6o1_400I began by looking for a point of resistance to the dominant codes structuring communicative capitalism.  I turned to this thinker or that to find technologies of resistance at the level of the semiotic.  Yet now I find that I’m trapped in the enigma or the elusiveness of that theorist’s writing.  My goal begins to change.  Where before it was strategies of resistance, now it’s understanding the theorist.  Hours and years are now spent deciphering Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Adorno, Hegel, and so on.  “They must,” I reason, “know what they’re saying, they must have a secret behind all of this, and I only fail because I haven’t read enough, haven’t done enough work tracking down their references, haven’t followed their lines of thought carefully enough!”

fig5Paradoxically, then, such texts tend to produce university discourses.  The product of identification with a hypnotic text is a divided subject ($) that has become caught within the thrall of the master-figure (S1), becoming their servant by endlessly doing commentary on their work.  The old goal disappears– though to be sure, it’s still given lip service –and the new goal becomes a life devoted to understanding Heidegger, Hegel, Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, and so on.  Of course, there’s no end to this project insofar as it belongs to the nature of objet a to slip away.

Oh don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that any of these thinkers should be rejected on the grounds of style.  I’ve certainly gained much by becoming hypnotized by all the thinkers I’ve listed here.  I do, however, think that style can be a form of power– sometimes hypnotizing us like the cult leader, at other times functioning as a shibboleth for privileged communities –and that it’s not clear that conceptual work, clearly expressed, can’t be a more effective strategy against communicative capitalism.  Indeed, another danger that arises out of the enigmatic text is that it becomes mere noise for the broader society, having little to no effect outside the halls of the academies.  I will suggest– perhaps imprudently –that such texts seem to suggest a somewhat poor regard to readers.  To publish a text is to invite others to read.  Those who read give their time.  In a world saturated by information as ours is today, it seems somehow wrong to entrap others in your text when they wish to learn from you and give portions of their life over to you.

13106496.0001.001Tim Morton’s Realist Magic is now available online in html.  Congrats to Morton and yet another fine book from OHP.  Also, another gorgeous cover from Tammy Lu.  Check it out here.

entropyIn the last couple years I’ve spilled a lot of ink arguing against holism or the thesis that everything is related to everything else.  This is not because I believe that relations are unimportant– indeed, the only thing that really interests me are relations –but rather because I think this position says too much.  From a holistic perspective, for example, I’m unable to make sense of ecology.  While many ecotheorists defend holistic ontologies, the actual practices of ecologists and environmental scientists reveals something different.  In their practices, they show supreme attentiveness to the fragility of relations, and focus on what happens when elements are subtracted from ecological networks (e.g., the extinction of a species) or added to a network (e.g., increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).  This wouldn’t be possible unless entities possessed some minimal autonomy from their relations.  So while I can agree with the holist when they argue that it is important to attend to interactions and interdependencies between entities, I don’t think holism can be coherently sustained as an ontological position.  We can call this the “argument from ecology”.

A second argument could be called the “argument from politics”.  Here the argument is similar, perhaps identical; which shouldn’t come as a surprise as societies are ecologies.  Here the argument runs that if social and political change is to be possible, then holism cannot be true.  If everything were related to everything else in holistic wholes, then social and political changes wouldn’t be possible because individual entities– whether they be classes, identity groups, or whatever –would be overmined (Harman’s nice term) insofar as they would have no being beyond their status as elements within a whole.  Insofar as they would have no being beyond their status as elements in a whole, there would be no way of departing from existing social regimes so as to form new sets of social relations.  Put differently, there would be possibility of emancipation, as the concept of emancipation is only possible where there is something to be emancipated and where there is something from which that thing can be emancipated.  This is only possible where relations are separable and don’t constitute the essence of a being.  Social changes are only possible where elements constitutive of a whole– if wholes even exist –are irreducible to those wholes.

read on!

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Fun class today. We discussed the conditions under which morality is moral.

Premise: If moral truths exist (and not just customs) they are universally binding for people at all times and places.

Thesis: The moral law can only be moral if all people are capable of knowing it and following it, because it is unjust or immoral to hold people responsible for a duty they couldn’t have known and couldn’t fulfill.

Conclusion 1: Morality cannot be moral if it can only be known through authority (eg, a revelation from god, a priest, a teacher, or sacred texts) because these encounters are contingent and therefore do not meet the requirements of the above. A god or gods that rendered this the only way to know morality would be unjust, immoral, and there unworthy of veneration.

Conclusion 2: Religion and morality are distinct, ie, the former is not a condition of the latter. Consequently moral truths are not dependent on divinities or authorities.

Conclusion 3: Morality can only be moral if it can be known through reason, because reason is the only capacity universally shared, even if it’s not universally used.

flat-earthThe other day a friend of mine who’s read the manuscript for Onto-Cartography and I were talking, and he expressed surprise about the claims I make about materialism there.  Paraphrasing, given my claims about materialism, it would follow that I don’t think that things such as fictions, souls, Gods, and so on are real.  Why?  Because I would hold that nothing outside the material and natural world exists.

Well, my friend is right.  I don’t think that anything outside the natural and material world exists.  This is what I mean when I say that “being is flat”.  I think this is what I’ve always said, though I might not have expressed it very clearly in the past.  For me, all there is is the natural and material world.  Gods might exist– Lucretius and Epicurus believe they do –but if they do they are material entities subject to all the same constraints and limitations pertaining to causality and the transfer of information that all other beings are.  Jesus can turn water into wine– just as anyone else can –but he has to go through the same time-consuming activity of crushing the grapes, adding yeast, and allowing them to ferment (unless he has a molecular assembler).  If a god exists, it might be able to see a lot, but not because it is omnipresent, but because it has a technologically superior means of discerning events around the universe, not unlike the satellite technologies used by meteorologists.

read on!

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discourse-of-the-capitalistIn late March I’ll be giving a talk before the Lacanian psychoanalysts in Toronto where I discuss what Lacan called “the discourse of the capitalist” and what analysts have been calling “the new symptom”.  As usual, I’m a nervous wreck about this because I think the analysts– real practicing analysts –know a thing or two and am always frightened of making a mess of things.  Nonetheless, I plod on.

The “new symptom” refers to symptoms such as addiction, anorexia, bulimia, cutting, depression, anxiety disorders, and so on.  We might even be able to add things such as hoarding and compulsive shopping.  While many of these symptoms existed in earlier eras, they are appearing in the clinic with greater and greater frequency.  My suggestion, is that these symptoms indicate a fundamental mutation in how the symbolic order is structured.  What is unique about these symptoms compared to those that dominated the clinic in Freud and Lacan’s time (hysteria, obsession, phobia) is that 1) these symptoms do not seem to signify, 2) that they are therefore not a veiled demand addressed to the Other, and 3) that they are a sort of immediate jouissance that doesn’t pass through the battery of signifiers (S2).  This comes out most clearly, I think, in the case of addiction.  Where the traditional neurotic symptom is one that is addressed to the Other and requires the support of the Other for the jouissance it attains, addiction seems to be a symptom in which the subject attempts to cut the Other as mediator of jouissance out of the picture.  The addict attempts to refuse passing through the Other as a detour to jouissance, instead relating to an object or activity (alcohol, internet porn) as a way of attaining jouissance.  Where the neurotic symptom signifies or is a sort of cypher, the new symptom is a direct jouissance without signification.  Indeed, there’s a sense in which it attempts to repress signification altogether.

read on!

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Athens-polisJust a random thought before making dinner.  I often find myself reflecting on Book IV of Plato’s Republic and how he cautions against the city becoming too large.  What is the problem, I wonder, with a large city?  In the context in which Plato was writing, I suspect the problem was one of the materiality of media.  To form a collective, the elements that make up your collective must be able to relate to one another.  In Plato’s context, these relations can be forged by sound-waves/speech or writing.  Sound-waves dissipate quickly in the air or medium through which they travel, and as we all know from the game of “telephone”, messages transmitted by speech quickly undergo random variation becoming something quite different than what they first were.  As a consequence, it becomes difficult to form a collective out of a large and geographically separated population based on speech alone.  Your collective can only grow to a certain size when it’s based on the medium of speech/sound-waves.

Things fare better with writing.  It is durable so the message is preserved allowing for collective identify formation (cf. Anderson).  The problem in this historical context is that only a small portion of the population is literate and writing is both expensive and a rare skill.  Following Derrida and ethnologists such as Vernant, I accept the thesis that writing– in its sheer materiality (not content) –fundamentally transformed social relations, making things like formal law, the idea of universal justice (i.e., the indelibility of temple inscriptions and marks), mathematics, philosophy, science, and so on possible; but the problem was that given the institutional infrastructure pertaining to matters like education, writing just couldn’t travel far.  It was restricted to an elite few that learned how to read and who could afford writings.  If, then, Plato is led to defend the thesis that cities (collectives) shouldn’t grow beyond a certain size, then this is based on a claim about the materiality of media that dominate in his historical context:  speech.  The material features of that medium prevent certain forms of social relation from emerging.

read on!

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social-construction-of-realityI’ve been away from this blog for a while because basically I’m sick of all of you, a bit disgusted with humanity and academics at the moment, and have been busy as hell (more the third thing than the other two).  Anyway, I’m pleased to have completed the first draft of Onto-Cartography and to have sent it off to the editors (I like this book, always a bad sign as no one else ever seems to like the things I write that I like) and just finished an article for a special issue of Speculations devoted to “Speculative Realism” entitled “Speculative Realism and Politics”.  I suspect– hope –a lot of people will be surprised by this article, and also hope that it will be a productive contribution to the controversies and debates that SR, the new feminist materialism, ANT, and so on have generated in recent years.

All of this makes me reflect on the power of naming.  Those who have read this blog for some time now are familiar with how fraught my relationship is with my name.  I didn’t know my birth or legal name until I was about 8 or 9 years old and was told by a teacher.  Apparently my legal name is “Paul R. Bryant”– which is also my father’s name –whereas my family had called me “Levi” throughout my entire life.  The discovery of my real name was both traumatic and, I believe, had all sorts of bizarre effects at the level of my unconscious and with respect to how my desire is structured.  That discovery effectively erased me– from the perspective of that acephalous subject that is my unconscious –from the symbolic order and, I think, generated all sorts of nasty desires.  Don’t ask.  At any rate, I took my name back– “Levi” –towards the end of graduate school, when I was having trouble finishing my dissertation (Difference and Givenness), despite the fact that I’d had it sitting on top of a bookshelf for two years gathering dust and only needed to edit it.  Folks thought I was nuts for wanting to change my name from “Paul” to “Levi”– some actually got irate –but I found that when I returned to the name I’d grown up with I suddenly began writing like a maniac, laughed a lot more, and no longer had trouble editing my dissertation.  I guess my unconscious figured that completing my dissertation under the name of “Paul”, I’d be giving my father all the credit and that it just couldn’t have that.  Yeah, my unconscious is anarchistic or anti-patriarchal.  And I know this all sounds nuts, but sometimes– despite what we might consciously think –that’s how it is.  Read Fink’s Lacanian Subject and attend to the mathematics.

139-HeadlessHorsemanSo naming, I think, is a powerful thing.  The Lacanians have two expressions.  First, Lacan in the Rome Discourse said “the word kills the thing”.  By this he meant that an abstract kind denoted by the signifier can never capture the singularity of a thing.  As Hegel joked in a way that only psychoanalysts and philosophers can appreciate, “you can’t eat ‘fruit'”.  You’ll never get the object of your desire because the object of your desire is an abstract type delineated by the signifier, not a singular thing.  That’s the tragedy of desire (there are other tragedies of desire as well; not least of which is that it’s never about what you want).  But the psychoanalysts also like to say that “to name it is to own it.”  I won’t get into all of the Freudian “thermodynamics” on this thesis, but the idea is that by narrating these things we dissipate their power and begin to take some control over them.  We negate the power of the thing in the name of the signifier.  This is why Lacan, in one of his early seminars, handed out elephant (memory) figurines at the end of one of the years.

All of this relates somehow.  I guess I’m pleased by this article where I feel I do some naming.  I don’t think I really say anything new here, but I do think I name some things.  I coin the terms “semiopolitics”, “geopolitics”, “infrapolitics”, “thermopolitics”, and “chronopolitics”.  In naming these different politics I don’t think I name anything that hasn’t been explored in various orientations of cultural studies and the humanities.  I do think, however, that the naming of these different forms of politics– yeah I’m plugging the article –makes a difference.  I think it makes the difference of simultaneously preserving the strengths of what I call “semiopolitics”, while also revealing its shortcomings, and that naming these other four forms of politics opens other domains for strategic intervention and the theorization of power.  That’s the power of a name.  It allows us to discern our blind spots, consolidate trends of thought and practice that haven’t been named, and to intensify those other possibilities.  I see this as the promise of speculative realism.  Who cares about rarified issues like the critique of correlationism and the reality of things?  I don’t.  If there’s a promise to SR it’s in helping us to recognize unrecognized ways in which power functions, devising new political strategies, and in discerning sites of the political that we might have before thought were apolitical.

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