The last couple of years have felt like the gradual confession of a dirty and embarrassing secret. My intellectual background is resolutely Continental. The first philosophers I encountered in High School were the Sartre of Being and Nothingness, the Husserl of the Ideas, the Heidegger of Being and Time, Nietzsche, of course, and thinkers such as Whitehead, William James, Dewey, Saint Spinoza, and Kant. As an undergraduate at the Ohio State University, I discovered Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and Lacan. I chose to go to Loyola to study Heidegger with Thomas Sheehan and Levinas with Adriaan Peperzak. There I encountered Andrew Cutrofello and Patria Huntington, both of whom drove me deeper into the French post-structuralists, Kant, and Heidegger. There I went through a period where I was so intensely engaged with Husserlian and Merleau-Pontyian phenomenology that my friends would joke that my apartment was a permanent “transcendental epoche” zone. Later I became obsessed with the structuralist and post-structuralist linguistic turn as a result of my encounter with Lacanian theory and practice, Freud, and spent years studying the semiotics of Peirce and Eco, structuralist semiology, and structuralist anthropology and literary criticism. During this time it was “signs, signs, everywhere signs.”
Yet during this time I also had a deep naturalist streak. As a child I had dreamed of being a marine biologists and I had spent many happy hours wading about in creeks pursuing tadpoles, frogs, turtles, and fish, and running barefoot through the local woods learning all about different mosses, ferns, and salamanders. I could never accept the bracketing of the natural attitude proposed by the phenomenologists. It wasn’t that I rejected the importance of phenomenological description and analysis. Not at all. Rather, it was that I couldn’t discount biology, neurology, physics, chemistry, neurology, and all the rest. I couldn’t see the findings of these disciplines as instances of naivete. Likewise, I couldn’t fully accept the semiotic constructivism, the linguistic turn, of the structuralists and the post-structuralists. This was a point driven home all the moreso when I began suffering from depression and started taking medication to treat it. Heidegger and Sartre had implied that attunements such as depression had to do with the existential meaning of my life. Perhaps. Yet I found that when I took the right SSRI, I found that I genuinely felt better, despite the fact that nothing in my existential project or “being-in-the-world” had really changed. I reflected on the nicotine fits I would experience when I was quitting smoking. In these moments, I would experience the world as a threatening and aggressive place, with people attacking me and starting fights. Was my nicotine fit the result of my existential being-in-the-world? Or was it rather simply that neurotransmitters my brain had come to rely on to engage in operations were not being produced as a result of the absence of nicotine and I was therefore experiencing irritation because I couldn’t properly filter the world? If the latter, why couldn’t it be the same with depression? Why did depression have to be bound up with my fundamental life meaning, my existential being-in-the-world, and not just the dynamics of neurotransmitters? The case was the same with Lacanian psychoanalysis. At the level of the “hermeneutic horizon” of my existence, I benefited tremendously from analysis. However, I wouldn’t say that analysis was particularly effective in dealing with other maladies such as my depression. I wondered how the phenomenologists and proponents of the linguistic turn could explain things like intoxication, nicotine fits, the sublime experiences of mushrooms, and all the rest. I wondered how they could explain why white wine makes one person happy and gregarious, while tequila makes them mean and aggressive.
All this time I kept thinking about proposition 27 in part 2 of Spinoza’s Ethics: “The idea of any affection of the human body does not involve adequate knowledge of the human body.” Spinoza was saying that I know very well that I experiencing a particular affect, but I don’t have a clear knowledge of what causes that affection. Nicotine fits are a good example. I find myself irritated with my previous dean. I experience her as the cause of my ire. She is a micro-manager, I say. She has no conception of education and the arts. She is asking us to do unproductive and silly things that are insulting. That evening I have a session with my analyst. I free associate. All sorts of material arises pertaining to my values, my life project, how my ego is put together, my relationship with my parents. “She reminds you of your father?”, the analyst intones in an oracular voice. The next day I talk to my friend who is an existential psychotherapist. She talks about being-towards-death, life projects, and how my dean is resonating with that existential project. In both cases, the cause of the ire is seen as residing in the domain of meaning, of past memories, of experiences, of signifiers. I then pop some nicotine gum in my mouth. My irritation that saturated my relationship to everything in the world in much the way that Heidegger describes in his discussion of attunements suddenly lifts like a fog. Bam, it’s gone. I no longer experience ire towards my dean. I no longer feel like other people are driving recklessly and aggressively, that they’re crowding my driving space. I no longer feel like the waiter is taking too long to bring the bill.
Did my irritation, my affect, really have anything to do with the world of meaning and the signifier in this instance? Please readers, do not misunderstand me. I have no doubts about the importance of phenomenological and semiotic insights. I’ve also experienced first-hand– in my own analysis and in my work with my analysands back in the day when I was still practicing –the profound impact that interventions at the level of meaning and the signifier can have. It’s not a question of saying that the psychiatrist is right and that the anti-psychiatrist, the humanist psychotherapist as they call them at Dusquesne, is wrong. It’s a question of noticing the opacity of affect, the fact that the causes of affect aren’t given to consciousness– a point the structuralists and post-structuralists have repeated ad nauseum in their discussions of the agency of the signifier –and that in some instances, there are causes that aren’t governed by the domain of meaning and the signifier (Catherine Malabou makes this point nicely in The New Wounded).
What I want, I suppose, is a framework where I can have my phenomenology, semiotics, and naturalism too. Here I think back to graduate school. As I dwelled among the phenomenologists, semioticians, structuralists, and post-structuralists, I was also secretly reading the work of biologists, physicists, meteorologists, neurologists, and all the rest. I took joy in this, but also felt ashamed. The phenomenologist in me felt dirty and guilty for taking research conducted in the natural attitude seriously. The critical theorist, Foucaultian, and post-structuralist in me felt ashamed for taking these things seriously when they’re formations of bio-power, capitalism, neoliberalism, patriarchy, and everything else that is bad. The Continentalists in me heard a super-egoic voice crying “scientism!”, “positivism!”. I felt as if I had to read these things under the covers at night with a flashlight. Somehow I felt as if I was betraying Continental axioms by taking these things seriously in addition to phenomenology and the semiotic turn. Then I noticed that some of my critical theorist friends were refusing to get their children vaccinated on the grounds that these were but ploys of corporations to accumulate profit and that these things were forms of biopower. These friends had no knowledge of the statistics behind vaccinations, the incidence of sickness correlated with vaccination, and so on. No, they only had a particular theory of how the medical industry works in terms of capitalism and anecdotes about some kid, somewhere, that became autistic. They were like people during the 70s who dismissed research on the detrimental effects of smoking on the grounds that their great uncle smoked three packs a day and lived to be 90.
I then noticed that this sort of dismissal also resembled conservative denialism of climate change. At this point I concluded that while it’s necessary to be critical, while it’s necessary to marshal all the resources of science and technology studies, and semiotic critical theory, we cannot dismiss these things out of hand and need a framework robust enough to think material causality, semiotic causality, and the phenomenological. These days I say this at talks and I still have academics accuse me of scientism and say things like “why should we listen to science? it’s always changing its positions.” I sigh and marvel at how a Derridean scholar– the last person who said such a thing –who is allegedly supposed to be about deconstructing binary oppositions (i.e., thinking both/and logics, not either/or logics) could think in such black and white and dogmatic terms.