June 2013

emptinessI mean this in a good way.  No, really, I’m serious.  If there’s a splendor, a greatness, to philosophy and theory, then it lies in its emptiness.  If there’s an emptiness to philosophy, this lies in its utter absence of a content that would be its own and abide throughout history.  Philosophy is like a Lacanian analyst, something devoid of abiding content, and all of you know how nifty I think Lacanian analysts are.

Oh sure, there are philosophy textbooks that claim philosophy has a content uniquely its own.  “What is the ultimate nature of reality?”  “What is knowledge?”  “Does knowledge exist?”  “What are we?”  “What ought we to do?”  “What is the ground by which we distinguish the difference between right and wrong?”  These textbooks like to say that there are perennial questions of philosophy that abide throughout history; questions that are unique to philosophy.  Maybe.  Yet my sense is that philosophers who talk in this way confuse grammar with history.  The fact that a question might grammatically have the same structure for both Plato and Brandom, does not entail that historically they are they same question.

perennial-garden-30985446Consider two roommates and two lovers.  In both questions we can have a question that has the same grammatical or formal structure, but which have an entirely different meaning.   For example, a person might ask his roommate “did you bring me chocolate?”, after she returns from the store.  Here the question is perfectly literal and is entirely about chocolate.  “I asked you to pick up some chocolate at the store, did you get it?”  Ah, but when a lover asks his beloved “did you bring me chocolate?” the question isn’t about chocolate at all.  Perhaps the have a secret and inside joke about chocolate and the significance of chocolate.  Perhaps the bringing of chocolate is a secret ritual whose meaning only they know.  Perhaps they refer to each other as “chocolate” as in “you are my chocolate, my sweets!”  The grammatical structure of the question is the same in both cases, but the meaning is entirely different.  So perhaps we can concede that there are perennial questions of philosophy– let us call them questions of the Real in the Lacanian sense –but only on the condition that we understand that like philosophy, we understand these questions to be empty.  If these questions are empty, then it would be because they have no abiding historical content.  In this respect, unlike the sciences, there would be no progress in philosophy.  It’s not as if McDowell or Kant make progress over Plato and Descartes.  I’ll get to why this is so in a moment.


This evening my friend Tim told me a wonderful anecdote about his six year old daughter that underlines the Lacanian concept of the subject.  In recent months she’s begun to express herself in the third person, saying things “Anna is hungry” or “Anna wants to draw”. As a Lacanian he was concerned.  “Is she a psychotic? Is she not a subject?” Finally he asked her why she was speaking this way.  “So you won’t make fun of me, daddy!”. “Make fun of you?” “I used say, ‘I’m hungry’ and you’d say, ‘You’re Hungry? Nice to meet you! I’m Tim!” In other words, Tim was subverting his daughter’s language through a grammatical pun that undermined her ability to articulate demands or requests.  To subvert this dissemination in grammar and the play of the signifier, she had adopted a third person discourse that would be immune to this sort of play.  It’s not that she was experiencing herself as a thing for the Other, but that she had devised a strategy to evade being erased in the play of language.

So what’s the point? If we took a subjectless approach to psychic phrnomena like we do when talking about physical illnesses like colds, we’d say symptom x means syndrome y.  In other words we’d be committed to the thesis that a signifier = a particular signified.  The mark of the subject is that there is a bar between signifier and signified (S/s), or that you can’t read the signified off the signifier.  This bar, and the play it generates, is what uneraseable.

The new issue of Umbra(a) is now available.  It has contributions from me, Graham Harman, Alain Badiou, Bernard Stiegler, Joel Goldbach, Russell Grigg, Oxana Timofeeva & Lorenzo Chiesa, Marc de Kesel, and Samo Tomšič.  This is one of my favorite articles or, at any rate, one of the articles I’ve had the most fun writing.  Here are the first two paragraphs:

Posthuman Technologies

1.         Alien Intelligences

            It’s not clear when it first happened.  And indeed, perhaps it was always autonomous and had this self-organizing, self-developing, vampiric nature.  Perhaps this essence was virtually coiled within it from the start and we simply failed to see it in the beginning.  As Deleuze observes, we can never recognize what something is in its essence in the beginning (Deleuze 2006, 5), and what is important in all things only appears in the middle of their becoming (Deleuze and Parnet 1987, 39).  Just as we might confuse the embryo of a human with that of a frog because of its resemblance to a tadpole were we not to know its subsequent developmental trajectory, perhaps its essence or nature as an autonomous being was obscure in its beginnings.  It could be that it always contained this essence “in germ” and that we merely had to await the full-blown appearance of this essence; or it could be that, through a series of aleatory events and fateful decisions, it underwent a transition where it came to differ in kind, becoming something very different than what it was originally.  As a consequence we will take a modest position, holding only that at a certain point it became increasingly apparent that it was not what we thought it was, that something new had appeared.  And here it goes without saying that this transformation—if it is a transformation –might only be partially complete and could still be underway.  We had thought, and often continue to think, that it was an instrument, a tool that we put to a particular use for the sake of a particular purpose, only to increasingly suspect that the utility of technology is secondary to its being as an autonomous, self-organizing, self-developing, vampiric animal drawing on humans and the natural world to perpetuate itself.

            For decades SETI has sought nonhuman intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, yet perhaps nonhuman intelligent beings have lurked among us for years and we have only failed to recognize them because we confused them with ourselves.  Such seems to be the suggestion of Kafka’s beloved Joseph K in The Trial and The Castle.  In these novels, the juridical system and the castle are not formations of humans that serve human ends, but rather are autonomous entities in their own right.  Humans, like the bones and cells that compose our bodies are elements of these larger scale objects.  Indeed, the people that work for the juridical system and the castle are described as elements of these machines, as parts of these machines as in the case of the Stoker that Kafka depicts at the beginning of Amerika, and not as individual entities in their own right.  As one character somewhere remarks in The Castle with respect to him and his fellows, we are all the castle, we are all parts of the castle, and we all belong to the castle.  Here the Stoker is a part of a machine, a gear in its cogs, rather than the machine being an instrument that the Stoker uses for his own ends.  For Kafka, far from being institutions that serve human ends and purposes, the juridical system and the castle are entities that have their own ends, inscrutable to humans unfortunate enough to become entangled within them, and pervaded by aims quite different from what we might will or desire.  Entities such as Kafka’s juridical system and castle seem to have cognition, a sort of intelligence, yet it is one we can scarcely register or comprehend.  Perhaps sentient entities of this sort truly exist in the world.  Possible candidates for these nonhuman sentient intelligences would be entities such as corporations, institutions, social groups, and what I call “technospheres”.  In this regard, the United States Supreme Court would have been correct to recognize corporations as autonomous sentient intelligences, but wrong in classifying them as persons.  While these various entities would be more or less intelligent, their intelligence and nature would be quite different from our own.  Indeed, as Kafka’s novels graphically show, one of the central human difficulties pertaining to these nonhuman intelligences would be the question of how it is possible to even communicate with them.  Isn’t the central drama of The Trial and The Castle Joseph K’s futile struggle to communicate with the juridical system and the castle?  Do we not find an analogous problem with corporations where they affect our lives in all sorts of ways without us being able to communicate or reason with them?

I don’t read other blogs nearly as much as I used to (unless someone links to something I’ve written, I barely notice what’s going on).  I think I sort of reached a point of exhaustion with the blogosphere, back in the day when the theory blogs were a beehive of activity (and often acrimonious debates).  There are, however, a few I keep track of pretty religiously.  If you’re looking for some great reading, look no further!  Here’s a few of them in no particular order.

Intra-Being:  Andre Ling’s blog is absolutely amazing.  Theoretically his a sort of mash-up of Latour, Stengers, object-oriented ontology, Deleuze and Guattari, and a host of others.  Aside from his consistent intelligence (and intellectual kindness!), Andre’s blog is particularly interesting because it’s directly related to his work with third world and impoverished farmers.  Ling is no remote academic just playing around with theory, but is someone who perpetually encounters the imperatives of the material world and cultural differences and who theorizes from this experience and practice.

Archive Fire:  I HATED this guy when I first met him and we had truly ugly and acrimonious debates.  As that has passed and over the years, he has become one of my most valued interlocutors and has had a tremendous influence on my thought.  It’s difficult to express just how much I’ve learned from him.  Coming from both a Merleu-Pontyian and Deleuzian background, Michael has developed a profound ecological thought, concepts such as “post-nihilism” and the “wilderness”, and has an interest in just about everything under the sun.  His critiques are generally incisive and his insights far reaching.  He’s another para-academic, outside the halls of the academy, and it shows in the high quality and spirit of freedom that characterizes his work.

Attempts at Living:  I’ve only come to know Arran James’s blog in the last year– and apparently we met when I was at Dundee earlier this year –but it is one of the best blogs I’ve encountered in years.  James works within the world of psychotherapy and this is reflected in his posts.  Thoroughly grounded in Freudo-Lacanian theory, as well as concrete patients, his writing is characterized by a passion for the problems of the clinic, a deep sense of ecology and politics, and a pervasive attentiveness to the relationship between theory and practice.

Noir Realism (formerly Dark Chemistry):  SE Hickmann, a computer engineer (or programmer?), hosts a blog that is obsessed with all things pertaining to the new realisms and materialisms.  He often presents careful readings of the material that he’s working through, coupled with generally generous critique.  While I don’t always agree with his readings– especially in the case of the accelerationists –this is a great place to learn about cutting edge theory and to think along with a first rate mind.

Footnotes2Plato:  Working within a very serious Whiteheadian framework, Matt Segall’s blog is devoted to process ontology, issues of spirituality, and questions of ecology.  While I disagree with nearly everything he writes– and sometimes get absolutely infuriated with him! –I’ve found my interactions with Matt to be incredibly valuable in helping my own thought to evolve (these days I’d count myself as a process philosopher, just not his type of process philosopher), and I just can’t help but having a deep affection for him because he’s such a nice and generous guy even in those moments of heated debate.  Apart from general quality of his thought and the value of his critiques, Matt fills me with hope because he shows that you can disagree and have heated debates without being an asshole or denigrating those you’re involved in dialogue with.  We need more of that.

Three Pound Brain:  This is the blog of novelist and neuro-ontologist (?), Scott Bakker.  Bakker’s novel Neuropath is probably one of the single most upsetting books I’ve read in years and has really forced me to confront of a lot of unpleasant and incredibly difficult questions.  In a lot of ways, Three Pound Brain is a sort of Anti-Footnotes2Plato.  Where, with the exception of a number of his regular participants, Footnotes2Plato is a blog environment characterized by a great deal of generosity and genuine delight in discussion, Three Pound Brain is often a very heated, “take no prisoners”, discussion space.  Think of a more sophisticated version of 4chan.  I don’t agree with a lot of what Bakker has to say about neurology, but if you want to learn a lot about neurology and contemporary philosophy of mind, and want to be faced with their challenges in the most forceful and challenging way possible, then this is the blog for you.  One of the finest virtues of Scott is that he has an incredibly thick skin, welcomes all criticism, and seriously and thoughtfully engages with it.

All of these blogs, I think, show a genuine love and enthusiasm for thought, a willingness to question and critique master-thinkers in the name of a pursuit of truth and getting things right, and aren’t characterized by a stuffy academic scholasticism or academism.  Anyway, these are what I’ve been reading yet.  Do others know of outstanding blogs worth reading?

paxil-10mg-20mg-30mg-40mgSo if we get in an ugly debate, you can now officially say “Levi’s off his meds!”…  At least for a time.  Last week I decided to go off my modest dosage (20 mgs) of paxil.  There are a couple of reasons I decided to do this.  First, and above all, I just hadn’t been feeling much of anything in the last couple of years.  It’s not that I felt bad.  I just didn’t feel any highs or lows.  It was almost like being a Vulcan or a reptile.  Nothing really affect me.  I’d feel a small irritation here or a bit of joy there, but overall my affective life was just characterized by a feeling of “meh”.  Everything slid off me and I almost felt as if I was watching my affective states from the outside, like I an observer of myself.  I don’t want to continue feeling like that.  The second reason is that now is just the most convenient time.  I’m not teaching this summer.  Aside from the minor changes I need to make to Onto-Cartography, I have no major deadlines to meet.  And I’m not doing any academic travel this summer.  This is simply the greatest expanse of empty time I’ve had to do this in a while.Please understand that I’m not denigrating anti-depressants.  Paxil, despite the remoteness it produced in me, gave me the emotional distance and freedom to deal with a number of issues.  I think that was invaluable.

brain_zapsWithdrawal symptoms?  For the last week I’ve been getting the dreaded “brain zaps” and have had a bit of dizziness.  No one really knows what brain zaps are– some hypothesize that they’re mini seizures –but as for their phenomenology, they feel as if your head has momentarily received a mild electric shock, and your tongue kinda swells for a second like you’ve touched it to a 12v battery.  As some of you might have noticed, my compulsiveness is back at the level of writing.  It’s as if I just can’t write enough and feel compelled to say something every twenty minutes.  I suspect this will calm down as my brain chemistry adjusts itself.  I can say, however, that I like this.  I had forgotten what it was like to speak and write breathlessly like Zizek or Adrian Johnston.  My temper is back as well.  One of the reasons I went on anti-depressants in the first place was that I could easily fly off the handle at small things (without violence, mind you), flipping out and sometimes even destroying friendships.  I’m hoping that I can moderate this either through some form of “emotion journal” keeping, meditation, or exercise.  I really don’t want that to come back.

Cowboy TownFinally, I’ve been having really weird dreams/nightmares.  I find this fascinating.  As a Freudo-Lacano-Guattarian, I of course think of dreams as formations of desire.  Yet these dreams clearly seem to be evoked by changes in my neuro-chemistry.  Why is it that a change in my neuro-chemistry would lead me to having a nightmare about having a heated discussion with Judith Butler over whether or not we should get a dog in our apartment, when we already have cats?  Why would a change in my neuro-chemistry lead me to have a dream that climate change caused Dublin to become a desert wasteland where you can’t find good corned beef anymore and where Michael O’Rourke can’t wear his cool jackets anymore?  Why would such a change make me dream of my junior high girlfriend suddenly appearing in her adult incarnation in my apartment after driving here in a muscle car called a “cobra” and wanting to go for chicken wings?  All of this leads me to wonder about the relationship between chemistry and signification.  I’m pretty firmly convinced that dreams are veiled statements about our desires, but there’s something else going on here as well.  How to think about the relationship between these things?

sinthomeob1I’m not sure why I’m writing about all of this publicly.  Dejan would say I just like talking about myself because I’m the “narcissistic cat”.  That’s true enough.  I guess I also feel that talking about it publicly helps me to take responsibility for these changes and monitor them, and also perhaps helps others to fight any stigma or shame they might feel for being on psychotropics to treat conditions such as anxiety or depression.  A few years ago there were very ugly discussions about psychotropic drugs following in the wake of the publication of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (and Mark K-Punk wasn’t guilty of this), where it was basically said that those of us using psychotropics are somehow shills for neoliberal capitalism.  In other words, the manner in which these drugs have helped many of us and rendered our lives manageable was somehow portrayed as us being duped by the ravages of capitalism and contemporary labor and as ways of not addressing the real problem.  The idea seemed to be that if we wish to fight our debilitating depression and anxiety disorders, we must first topple capitalism.  Ever since then I’ve felt a sort of moral responsibility to speak up about my own relationship to these things– with full awareness of the often horrible side-effects some of these drugs can have –and to contribute to awareness about mental illness (though I hate that term).  I guess this puts me in the position of people being able to say “he’s gone off his meds”, but so be it.  I think we need more complicated, nuanced understandings of psychic space that think the interplay of the signifier, social forces, interpersonal relations, and brain chemistry, that aren’t so quick to reduce certain psychic structures to products of the signifier– I recently read a distinguished French psychoanalyst contend that cystic fibrosis is a form of ordinary psychosis!?!?! –but recognizing that not only is there an interplay between the sociological, the signifying, and the chemistry, but that there are also organic disorders that aren’t a matter of the signifier at all.

At any rate, I’m happy to bid my mistress paxil adieu, and am thankful for the time we spent together.  I’m trepidatious about our future apart, but also confident that things will go well so long as I take care of myself and do not betray the truth of my desire or self.

Bergan_oil_field_fireOver at Re-Petitions, Dean has a nice post up ruminating on on my “Axioms for a Dark Ontology” (here and here).  In retrospect, I think my use of the term “axiom” was misleading.  That text would have better been called “Theses for a Dark Ontology” or “Manifesto for a Dark Ontology”.  What I took myself to e doing was outlining the basic framework within which I think philosophical questions– at least for me –ought to be posed.  In my view, science since Galileo has ineluctably led to the conclusion that there are just certain ways in which it’s no longer feasible to pose questions.  It also presents us with significant questions pertaining to how we ought to think about the being of being.  Neurology, for example, significantly calls into question the nature of the self, has undermined or significantly problematized introspective and descriptive/phenomenological accounts of mind, body, and subjectivity, raised all sorts of questions about free will, and so on.  These are things, I think, that have to be faced head on and that can’t just be waved away.  Similarly, biology and evolutionary theory has undermined the idea of species or abstract types that eternally exist throughout time, provoking the question of whether or not we ought to abandon belief in all natural kinds, essences, or universals in other domains (with DeLanda, I lean in the direction of saying “yes”, though I have– as always –significant reservations about the possibility of doing this in the case of mathematics; if there’s one domain that might incline me to a realist ontology of universals it would be mathematics).

Some have objected that my theses for a dark ontology are just a resurrection of 18th century materialism and that we all already know this.  I don’t think this is entirely the case– for example, I don’t advocate the humanism of the Enlightenment thinkers, have their faith in inevitable progress, nor draw the hard distinction between nature and culture they do (for me culture is a formation of nature) –but if that’s the case, I think I’m in good company.  As Nietzsche argues, I simply don’t think we’ve caught up with the implications of the “death of God” or the shift from a theological to a post-theological universe, and believe you can see this all over the case in presuppositions at work in various domains of the world of theory in the humanities.  Despite being the only philosophical framework that’s ever delivered throughout history, people tend to fall into flat out denial when it comes to naturalism and materialism.  There’s something deeply wounding, deeply despair inducing, in the materialist framework.  It’s a framework the strips us of transcendental assurances of meaning and purpose and comfort, that challenges our belief in our own importance in the cosmic scheme of thing (though certainly we’re important to ourselves), and that undermines claims about the superiority of humans with respect to the rest of existence.  I think there’s a reason that post-theological thinkers such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, Marx, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, etc., have perpetually generated such violent responses among readers; and I think that reason has everything to do with human narcissism and anthropocentrism, not some some reductive or scientistic shortcoming of their work.  (As an aside, I think that epithets such as “reductionism” and “scientism” are forms of rhetoric marking the absence of an argument, and that they are not arguments in and of themselves.  That is, I see these charges as ways of ignoring evidence and uncomfortable findings, as shibboleths that authorize one not to think of these things or take them seriously, i.e., they are ostrich strategies not unlike those used by people who shrug off climate change on the grounds that we’ll always be able to go to other planets or technology will somehow save us in a way that allows us to continue living as we have for the last one hundred years).

read on!


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