March 2013

photo-10I’ve written about this in the past, but a friend asked me to tell Dock the story in Toronto and I never got to it, so I’ll tell it again (because, well, I’m narcissistic that way).  Then again, this is every bit as much a tale about the erasure of narcissism as well.  If it’s worth repeating, then that’s because I think it gives a little insight into the nonsense that takes place in analysis.  I entered analysis in the second to last year of graduate school.  There were two reasons for going into analysis.  On the one hand, I had been reading a great deal of Zizek, Freud, Lacan, Fink, and assorted other psychoanalytic thinkers in the Lacanian tradition.  I ardently felt that there was no way I could understand this theory unless I went through analysis myself.  Therefore I found an analyst and spent an obscene amount of money over the course of six or seven years.  I think that might have been an alibi, however.  What could be more of the order of the ego, of secondary narcissism, than going into analysis for the altruistic aim of understanding the theory?  No, you see, I was also having trouble finishing my dissertation (and a lot of other things were going on as well that I’ll probably never talk about publicly).

This is a perfectly common state of affairs, a situation that many graduate students go through, so why bother going into analysis over it?  Well, you see, I had already written my dissertation.  My dissertation was Difference and Givenness:  Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence.  I wrote it as my master’s thesis.  After reading it, my master’s committee told me it was of dissertation quality, and that I should therefore put it on a shelf and go back and write a master’s thesis.  That’s right, I wrote my master’s thesis— “The Semiotic Structure of Objects:  Derrida, Husserl, Peirce and the Sign-Structure of Things” —after I wrote my dissertation.  It gets more comic.  Because I’d put my paperwork in for my dissertation defense with the university, while I was writing my master’s thesis Loyola sent me a master’s diploma, even though I hadn’t defended anything!  I was doing everything I could not to graduate because I believed I would never get a job, but the big Other had other ideas.

Anyway, I wrote my master’s thesis and defended it– despite having already been granted a degree by the big Other –yet I couldn’t bring myself to edit my dissertation.  It just sat there on a shelf, gathering dust, even though I just needed to copy-edit it and get it in the proper format.  In the meantime, I was experiencing a general paralysis where writing was concerned.  It wasn’t just my dissertation I couldn’t bring to completion, but I was having trouble writing anything, whether it be a conference paper or an article.  So I went into analysis.  I wanted to know something about this symptom.

What did I find in analysis?  One thing– and I found many other things as well –I discovered was that I’d been “erased in the symbolic order”.  You see, “Levi Bryant” isn’t my real or legal name.  My real name, after my father, is “Paul Reginald Bryant”.  I’m a “junior”.  Of course, I didn’t know this until I was about 8 or 9.  Before I was even born, my entire family– immediate and extended –called me “Levi”.  I grew up with the picture at the top above, to the right.  My parents hung it in the bathroom and I would look at it every morning.  It’s a picture of my mother pregnant with me and my father’s ear pressed against her belly.  How did I get the name “Levi”?  As my friend Noah once said when I told him the story, “my god, that’s like a photograph of the primal scene where you’re literally being born out of your father’s ear!”  He was horrified, but in a good way.  It’s true.  Is anyone surprised I rabble rouse so much and teach?  My uncle had gone to the family graveyard on the old farm in Virginia with my grandfather.  “Family graveyard” is not nearly as illustrious as it sounds.  The Bryant side of the family consisted of Irish dirt-farmers.  Most of the children died as a result of diseases like yellow fever and the war (I think there were 13 in all).  At any rate, one of my grandfather’s brother’s names was “Levi”.

My uncle Richard liked the name so much that he began calling me that when I was still in the womb.  It stuck and my entire family on both sides called me that from the beginning.  I had no idea my name was “Paul” until kindergarten or first grade (so maybe I was six or seven, not nine), when a teacher called out “Paul Bryant, Paul Bryant” and I responded that she didn’t call my name, but I’m “Levi Bryant”.  She said “No, you’re Paul Bryant, that’s your real name!” (or perhaps my name in the real!).  I told my sister on the bus that day and she immediately broke out in tears and called me a liar (she’s two years younger than me).  “Nut uh!  That’s Dad’s Name!!!”  “Nope, that’s my name!”  From that moment forth I went by “Paul Reginald Bryant”, abandoning the name of “Levi”.  The thing is, the name of Levi– which is also anagramatic with “vile”, “live”, “evil”; and let’s not even start on phonetic resonances! –never left me.  Indeed, occasionally family members would call my house in college and my roommates would have no idea who they were asking for because they asked for “Levi”, while they knew me as “Paul”.  Incidentally, I was teased mercilessly for the name “Levi” in elementary school before I switched to “Paul”.

Somehow all of this came up in analysis and I decided that I had erased my name by taking on the name of “Paul” (there’s probably a reason Badiou resonates with me, I’m sad to say).  So I decided to do something insane.  I decided to go back to the public name of “Levi” rather than reserving it for my family.  I told all of my fellow grad students, people online that I regularly interacted with, my dissertation committee, that henceforth I am to be called “Levi”.  They all thought I was insane and some of them got really upset about this– I really learned about the social function of names in this experience –and many others were very gracious and said “yes, henceforth you will be known as ‘Levi'”.  When I returned to the name of “Levi” a funny thing happened.  Suddenly I began to actually laugh and make jokes (I hadn’t since childhood), I edited my dissertation, and I began to write like a maniac.  The last was the most striking.  I couldn’t stop writing.  Someone would send me a short two or three sentence email, I’d respond with twelve pages.  Article after article tumbled out.  I would post massive manifestos on the various lists I participated on.  And, of course, this blog happened a few years later.  I couldn’t stop writing.  Words tumbled out of me.  Maybe it was all placebo, but my theory is that I couldn’t write under the name of Paul because “Paul” is my father’s name and I would be ceding all my work to him.  There are a variety of unconscious reasons that was intolerable to me (though my dad’s a great guy).  If I wrote under “Levi”, my work would be mine.  I’d be “making a name for myself” (as Lacan puts it with Joyce) in the sense of weaving a place for myself where before I was absent.

I’ve found since, much to my amusement, that I still get erased in the symbolic order.  My name is pronounced “Leave-eye” (like the jeans), but folks want to pronounce it “Levy” like we pronounce “Levi-Strauss”.  I confess I like the “Levy” pronounciation and have begun to adopt it for myself.  I hope doing so doesn’t lead to more bizarre symptoms.  But then again, a symptom is always a solution.

borromeanoAnd while I’m airing my Lacanian dirty laundry, let’s talk about jouissance.  What, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about jouissance in Lacan?  Lacan distinguishes between jouissance and pleasure.  Despite the fact that jouissance translates as “enjoyment”, it appears that there’s very little about it that is pleasurable (this is one of my problems with Fink’s use of the term in his writings; he seems to assimilate it to pleasure, when it’s very different from pleasure).  Pleasure, says Lacan, is a reduction of tension in the psychic system.  For example, pleasure is the satisfaction I get when I eat a great meal when I’m very hungry.  Jouissance, by contrast, is when you compulsively eat and eat and eat, despite the fact that your continued consumption causes you a great deal of pain and discomfort.  You can’t stop yourself.  Pleasure is sneezing after a build-up of your nose itching.  Jouissance is cutting yourself with razor blades.  Pleasure is making love.  Jouissance is fucking fifteen or twenty times in a single day– or doing the masturbatory equivalent –even though it’s no longer pleasurable and has even become painful.  Evoking Lacan’s example from Seminar 7, jouissance is going through the door to be with the forbidden woman even though you know you’ll be punished for all eternity for doing so (i.e., you destroy yourself).

The concept of jouissance is slippery.  We’re told that jouissance is something that we lose when we enter the symbolic order and that we perpetually try to regain.  However, given the examples above, it sounds like jouissance is a pretty horrible thing.  Indeed, Lacan often talks about jouissance as something that’s traumatic, and speaks of desire as an attempt to defend against jouissance.  These strike me as incompatible concepts.  Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that pleasure is something that we lose when we enter the symbolic order and that jouissance is the repetitive trace of this traumatic loss that we can’t escape from in our lives (i.e., classical Epicureanism is impossible)?  Rather than claiming that jouissance is something we try to regain— how could that be true if desire defends against it –it would be more accurate to say that jouissance is the repetition of a trauma that perpetually subverts pleasure and happiness and from which we cannot escape.  Yet if we say this, then it seems as if we must substantially revise our understanding of fantasy– ($ <> a) –in Lacanian theory, as “a” is one of the symbols for jouissance and it would be strange to suggest that the subject wants to be unified with this traumatic excess.  That would be exactly what the subject doesn’t want.  Indeed, when the person enters the clinic their demand is often “How can I get rid of my jouissance?!?! Free me of my jouissance!”  In other words, jouissance is that which derails and subverts our aims, plans, and pleasures, not something that we “enjoy”.

Then we have the whole problem of how to understand the different forms of jouissance.  Lacan distinguishes between surplus-jouissance or the objet a, phallic jouissance or jφ, Other-jouissance or J(~A~), and “joui-sense”.  How do we clinically identify these different sorts of jouissance?

*  Surplus-jouissance or objet a, I think, is the easiest to understand.  The objet a is the trace of a remainder or loss that takes place when we enter the symbolic order or are alienated in the signifier.  Why does the signifier do this?  Because, as Lacan said in his Rome Discourse, “the word kills the thing”.  The world kills the thing because it introduces absence into the world.  With the word, it is now possible to refer to things that are absent and that don’t even exist.  Moreover, the word “freezes” the thing.  As Hegel argued in the open of the Phenomenology when analyzing sense-certainty, words are always general universal terms, whereas things are singularities.  As a consequence, there’s always a disadequation between word and thing.  We want the word, as it were, but no thing is ever adequate to the generality of the word.  As a consequence, every time we get the thing (not to be confused with what Lacan called The Thing), we’re disappointed.  It’s not it.  That experience of “it not being it” is what generates surplus-jouissance.  We repeat because that gap between word and thing perpetually reappears.  “One more time for the sake of it!”  The surplus of surplus-jouissance is not a pleasure, but the perpetual reappearance of a traumatic lack arising from the gap between words and things.  I hear a number of Lacanians say that objet a is the object of our desire, that it’s what we want.  I think this is profoundly sloppy and not at all true.  Objet a is what causes our desire, not the thing we say we want.  It’s why we’re not simply creatures of need (beings that could be satisfied and where the pleasure principle would reign), but are desiring creatures.  The objet a’s are never the objects we think we desire, but always function “behind our backs”, leading us to repeat.

*  Phallic jouissance is one form of jouissance that I find deeply mysterious.  This might be because I have trouble with the concept of the Phallus in Lacanian psychoanalysis in general (maybe this says something about my own subjective economy, who knows…  If there’s one concept I hate more than any other in Lacanian psychoanalysis, it’s that of the phallus).  I read “Signification of the Phallus” in Ecrits where Lacan teaches that the phallus is a signifier, the signifier of the Other’s desire, not the penis.  “Yay!” I say to myself, “we’re beyond Freud’s talk about the penis!  Wundabar!”  Why does this make me so happy?  Well because 1) I could never bring myself to believe that a contingent encounter such as a parent threatening to “cut it off” or an encounter with one’s sister who “doesn’t have it” could have such profound and widespread effects in producing the symptom, and because 2) I’ve never been able to figure out how this dialectic works in the case of girls, given the original point of identification for children of both sexes is the mother (and I just could never buy talk of “penis envy”).  Theorizing the phallus as the signifier of the Other’s desire gets rid of those absurdities.  For example, “novels” could be the signifier of the mOther’s desire insofar as she’s always reading– it could be the phallic signifier –and the subject’s psychic life could come to be organized around this signifier if they identify with it insofar as they grow up to write novels as a way of providing the Other with what it lacks.  Of course, here we still have the problem as to why a subject comes to fall on the masculine or feminine side of the graph of sexuation.  What developmental process takes place here?  Unfortunately, again and again I find Lacanians treating the phallus as the penis, talking about the problem of the hysteric as one of “accepting the penis” (ie., being willing to be penetrated), and so on.  Big sigh.  Is this really believed?  When we say all meaning is phallic, are we really saying that all meaning is ultimately grounded in the penis?  Seriously?  Really?  That’s your theory of meaning?

At any rate, working on the premise that jouissance is not pleasurable, what would phallic jouissance be and how does it differ from surplus-jouissance?  In the clinic, what instances of jouissance could we identify that lead us to say “this is an instance of phallic jouissance, not surplus-jouissance?”  Why do we see surplus-jouissance appearing in the place where the three orders overlap, while we see phallic jouissance appear in the point of overlap between the symbolic and the real?  I’ll hazard a guess:  The Real, in Lacanese, is the impossible.  The symbolic is the domain of the “hole” (for the reasons I outlined above pertaining to the manner in which the signifier introduces absence into the world).  If it is true that all meaning is phallic, this would entail that meaning is the attempt to totalize the symbolic order riddled with contradictions and antagonisms (the real) in a single, coherent order.  Phallic jouissance would be the perpetual attempt to pin everything down in a coherent order (like I’ve been trying to do in the last two posts!).  Of course, the real always returns, so this project is never successful.  We never get a Hegelian absolute.  Yet Lacan also describes this sort of jouissance as “masturbatory”.  What is the relation between the painful experience of the symbolic not being coherent and the pursuit of totalized and coherent meaning, and masturbation?  Maybe we’re to interpret it as a sort of a riddle:  Masturbation is “doing it without an Other, the pursuit of total meaning is an attempt to eradicate or erase the Other insofar as the Other is the enigma of opaque desire.”  Think about having a conversation with Zizek.  Zizek’s speech seems to be pervaded with phallic jouissance insofar as when you talk to him his rapid and non-stop speech is experienced as erasing you, of mortifying you in a body of interpretations, so as to erase the enigma (for him) of your opaque desire.  He’s talking to you but really talking alone.  You’re not there.  The problem with this take on phallic jouissance is that the categories of totality and consistency belong not to the symbolic, but to the imaginary yet we don’t see phallic jouissance appear in a zone where the imaginary overlaps.  Perhaps this is to say that it’s very exteriority to consistency is what generates the endless push to totality?

I’ll set aside the other two forms of jouissance for the moment (maybe that’s telling), as I am avoiding marking papers for my students (can’t you tell?).  That too would be a form of jouissance.  If I don’t get these papers graded, my students, who have already been quite delayed in learning their grades, will pull out the torches and tar and feather me.  Perhaps my avoidance of marking has been a form of jouissance designed to get me beaten.  Moreover, since I promised my students they would get my papers tomorrow, from the standpoint of the dynamics of jouissance I’ll get beaten anyway as my procrastination has ensured that I will either be up very late or will have to get up at an obnoxiously early time, therefore ensuring that I suffer.  Such self-destructive patterns repeat fractally in a variety of forms throughout my entire life.  So at the beginning of this post you might have thought that my desire was to get clear on the concept of jouissance, but perhaps that desire or wish is just an alibi to get myself beaten!

Before I get to these questions, it should be noted that the things I’ve been writing about under the title of “borromean critical theory” have little to no relationship to Lacanian work with the borromean knot.  There I use the borromean knot merely as an organizational and heuristic device to encourage myself and other like-minded critical theorists to think about the interplay and interrelation of semiotic and discursive phenomena (the symbolic), phenomenological phenomena (the imaginary), and material phenomena (the real).  My thesis is that we’ve done a good job with the first two, but that statistically dominant strains of critical theory have given the third short shrift, even while using the term “materiality”.

borromeanoIn this post, I would like to open a discussion of the borromean knot as it functions in Lacanian psychoanalysis (not the above), and, in particular, how this strange contraption is actually put to work in the clinic.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes people speak up when I write interrogative posts such as this, at other times they just roll down the page without comment.  I hope that doesn’t happen this time.  I would like to emphasize that I’m interested in seeing how this apparatus is linked concretely to the clinic.  In other words, I’m not interested in a series of abstractions about the subject ($) as such, the real, jouissance, and so on that isn’t related back to clinical or worldly examples.  In other words, let’s avoid “Lacanian mumblespeak” or “Planet Borromeo” in our discussions of this.  As an aside, I’m not particularly interested in what other strains of psychoanalysis might contribute to our understanding of the knot.  Before even broaching those questions, I feel we first have to get clear on how this apparatus works within a Lacanian framework.

I’ve been obsessed with the borromean topology for years now, but sadly I’ve yet to encounter anything in the secondary literature that’s really illuminating or that spells things out.  That’s what I want…  Things spelled out.  Before that, why am I even interested in the borromean clinic?  Is it just a re-articulation of Lacan’s earlier teachings prior to 1972-1973?  If so, we could safely dispense with this crazy contraption altogether.  I don’t, however, think this is the case.

read on!


220px-Epicurus_bust2In response to my provocation a couple weeks ago, folks raised some excellent points.  In particular they raised Lacanian questions about desire and the repetition of jouissance or the death drive.  This is precisely what I like about Epicureanism:  it is an empiricist ethical system.  What does that mean?  It means that we can’t start from timeless ethical axioms, but that we need to know things about biology, economics, sociology, psychology, and so on.  Where other ethical systems say “this is the goal and this is what we are”, Epicureanism is singular in saying “right now we think this is what we are, this is our hypothesis, but further inquiry might lead us to very different conclusions and historical and technological differences might lead to very different questions.”

To be Epicurean (or Lucretian) today is not to rotely follow a particular doctrine, but to adopt that spirit of empirical ethics.  In other words, if we discover that Freud and Lacan were correct, the question of happiness is substantially transformed.  We end up in a place such as Freud outlined in Civilization and its Discontents, where he talked about the goal of analysis as that of transforming misery into ordinary human unhappiness, or where Lacan suggested that the end of analysis consists in identification with the symptom rather than belief in the symptom.  Jonathan Lear has also been tireless in reworking questions of happiness and eudaimonia in terms of psychoanalytic theory (hopefully he’ll branch out into neurology and ecology at some point).  In other words, the question of happiness and justice must always be posed in terms of– I hate to use the term –our “existential condition” and what our “nature” is, and answers to these questions are “moving targets”.  The strength of Epicureanism is that it makes room for that.

img-thingThis is the power of the Lucretian-Epicurean orientation.  It doesn’t begin from the premise that we know what we are and therefore that we know what the telos of our ethics ought to be, but instead begins from the premise that we must learn and discover our nature, our ecological conditions, our social conditions, and pose our questions of happiness within this framework, fully recognizing the limits on that happiness by virtue of being finite, material, embodied, beings.  Being Epicurean or Lucretian today does not entail a Talmudic relation to their thought, but rather an orientation from their thought that squarely faces the problem of inquiry with respect to our psychological being, our ecology, and our social relations.  It is not a dead text that we perpetually return to as a source of authority and answers, but a sort of methodology or inspiration.  In this regard, the ethics of “not giving way on your desire” (in the Lacanian sense, not “American” sense) is thoroughly Epicurean insofar as the title of Lacan’s 19th seminar is Ou Pire, “or worse”.  To betray your desire through pursuit of the pleasure principle as opposed to the “one more” and “again!” of jouissance brings far more devastating consequences than living one’s desire.  That’s an Epicurean argument if ever one I’ve heard.


The following is a reworking of part of my talk before the Toronto Lacan Society on Lacan’s Universes of Discourse and the New Symptom.

The virtue of the Lacanian mathemes is two-fold.  First, the mathemes allow us to recognize structural identities and similarities where we might not otherwise discern them.  Take the classical formulation of the Oedipal structure.  A father intervenes in the relationship between the mother and child, prohibiting her as an object of jouissance for the child.  Here the Oedipus is formulated in terms of biologically sexed bodies:  Fathers are male, mothers are female.  When confronted with an analysand in the clinic that grew up under two women, an analyst that thinks in terms of images might jump the gun and conclude early on that this analysand will be psychotic because we conclude that the father is foreclosed in this family structure (or a pervert because the father is disavowed in this family structure) because no father was present.

In the clinic, the mathemes help us to avoid this hasty judgment.  Rather than referring to fathers and mothers which invite thinking in terms of images, Lacan instead articulates the Oedipal structure in terms of a series of algebraic symbols, represented on the left-hand side of the diagram above under the heading “Homme”.  The upper line “∃x~Φx” can be read as “there exists a being that is not castrated or alienated in language”.  The second line “∀xΦx can be read as “all beings are castrated or alienated in language”.  Taken together, the upper line articulates the father-function as a being that hasn’t sacrificed jouissance and that lays down the law, while the lower proposition articulates the subject that is subjected to the law or that has had to sacrifice jouissance to enter the symbolic order.

read on!


220px-RichelieuRochelleThere’s a sort of “poor man’s” Horkheimer and Adorno that denounces– based on The Dialectic of Enlightenment —the spirit of the Enlightenment, claiming that it was responsible for the Holocaust, the horrors of the Soviet gulags, as well as the colonial genocides.   Indeed, discussions along these lines have often occurred here on the blog.  In particular, I’ve often heard this line of deployed by the religiously inclined as a way of calling for a spiritual or divine supplement to keep beastly humans from killing others.  I call this a “poor man’s” version of Horkheimer and Adorno because, being dialectical thinkers, I think they’re position is far more sophisticated than this and that they aren’t calling for abandoning the Enlightenment project– which just is the project of critique and emancipation –but a new type of Enlightenment project.  That aside, I was thus intrigued when I came across the following passages in Nicholas Tampio’s Kantian Courage this morning:

The human and material costs of the Thirty Years War were astonishing.  Though figures are difficult to calculate precisely, approximately five to eight million people died in the conflict, 20 – 32 percent of the Holy Roman Empire’s prewar population.  The raw numbers of Europeans killed during major conflicts between 1914 – 18 (27 million) and 1939 – 45 (33.8) were much higher, but the percentage of the population was much smaller (5.5 and 6 percent, respectively).  The causes of the death were manifold– soldiers killed in battle, civilians slaughtered in massacres, everyone decimated by the war’s spread of Bubonic plague, typhus, starvation, governmental breakdown, ecological devastation, and forced migration.  Losses around Prague reached at least 50 percent, and certain towns in the bishopric of Halberstadt lost between seven- and nine-tenths of their inhabitants.  Europe’s population levels in 1618 were not reached again for nearly a century.  Those who survived the war watched the old world disintegrate before their eyes.  Hyperinflation led people to abandon industry and agriculture, despondent about their futures and fearful that soldiers would steal whatever they produced.  Ancient structures of authority collapsed, as numerous lordsh9ips, abbeys and manors were appropriated and redistributed.  Once esteemed families became bankrupt and destroyed, and new men such as the Habsburg general Wallenstein climbed the social ranks.  The Catholic Church was left in a fundamentally altered state, as, for instance, the ratio of clergy to parishioners in Habsburg Sundgau in Alsace fell from 1:345 to 1:1,177.  (2 – 3)

Confronted with numbers such as this, my conclusions aren’t what my readers might expect.  To be sure, I do think that these numbers show that we can’t lay the Holocaust and the Gulag at the feet of the Enlightenment, for here we see precisely the same sort of devastation unfolding within a religious framework.  It would seem to follow from this that religion can’t save us.  If that’s true, then both the religious critique of the Enlightenment and the call for a religious supplement to prevent things like the Holocaust both fail.

thirty8353However, I think matters are more complex than this.  In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius lays human violence, cruelty, and unethical behavior at the feet of religion.  One could easily point at the Thirty Years War and say “See!  Lucretius was right!  Religion is the source of human barbarism!”  However, with the advocates of the poor man’s version of Adorno and Horkheimer, it has to be conceded that we haven’t seen a decline in political violence with the secularization of culture.  Rather, we have witnessed heated political violence just as we did before.

This suggests that we can’t look to the content of belief-systems to explain this sort of violence.  Formally or structurally, don’t Stalin’s purges and trials look a lot like the Spanish Inquisition?  As I’ve argued elsewhere– in an article I wrote years ago entitled “The Other Face of God” (.pdf) –this suggests that it is not so much the content of a particular politics that generates this sort of violence, as a particular structure that generates or invites this sort of politics.  While I’ve called that structure “theological”, it can be secular or religious, involve the supernatural or be purely materialist, and still invite these sorts of effects.  If this is true, then it would follow that the real question becomes one of what sort of politics might be adopted that targets structure itself, rather than particular contents.  I argued this in the first article I ever published, “The Politics of the Virtual” around 2003.  While I don’t have a link to the .pdf of that article, an earlier version of the argument can be found here.

mimagesIn his classic and infamous paper “What Mary Didn’t Know”, Frank Jackson proposes the following thought experiment:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

Jackson’s thought experiment is designed to refute physicalism or the thesis that mind is a material thing.  The idea is that Mary, the brilliant neuroscientist, knows everything there is to know about the mechanics of vision and neurology.  However, she has arrived at this knowledge in a black and white television monitor, in a black and white room, and presumably only sees her own body somehow in black and white.  Based on the thought experiment, Jackson invites us to ponder whether Mary learns anything new when she leaves the room and sees color for the first time.  Since Mary knows everything there is to know about vision and neurology, it would seem to follow that she also knows what it is like for something to be red.  Right?  However, we can’t help but think that when Mary leaves the room she learns something new or that her discursive understanding of color vision doesn’t generate the experience of redness.  If this is true, Jackson contends, then there is something that falls outside our scientific and physicalist understanding of consciousness.

AtomJackson’s thought experiment has generated a tremendous amount of controversy (and a huge literature), and it seems to me, at least, that it is deeply problematic and almost sophistical.  Whenever I reflect on the thought experiment, I feel as if a trick has been played on me, that there is some sort of fundamental confusion at work here.  I’ll set all that aside, however.  We can adapt the form of the thought experiment– not its content pertaining to issues of consciousness –and instead use a variation of the thought experiment to think about the mysteriousness of matter.  The paradox of matter is that no matter how much we know about it, we still seem unable to say or think what it is.  In other words, there’s a way in which everything we say about matter fails to get at what it is.

All of us are acquainted with matter.  In a lot of ways it is the most familiar thing in the world.  We experience the resistance of walls, the pain of a rock or bowling ball falling on our foot, the failure of hallucinations to satiate our hunger, the swoon of drunkenness from alcohol and other drugs and so on, the fatigue of our bodies when we run out of energy, the pull of gravity on our bodies, and so on.  We experience the materiality of matter all the time and in every aspect of our lives.  Saying just what this materiality or physicality is proves more difficult.

read on!


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