July 2014

Plutonium 238The term “power” is highly ambiguous.  In one signification, power can refer to the capacities of an entity; to what that entity can do.  Water has the power or capacity to freeze, be liquid, or be gaseous.  Plutonium has the power to release tremendous amounts of energy.  A gymnast has the power to do a flip from a standing position and do extraordinary movements on bars.  A bloodhound has the power to detect a tremendous number of scents and even correlate them with how recently they occurred.  If we follow Spinoza (and Deleuze), the power of a thing is its affects.  Affects come in two varieties:  passive and active.  The passive affects– what we normally refer to as senses and emotions –are capacities to be affects, as in the case of vision where we are affected by light within a certain spectrum.  The active affects are the capacity to do, as in the case of a cat leaping on a counter-top.  The analysis of an entity, the understanding of an entity, consists in the analysis of its affects or powers.  To know something is to know how it can affect and be affected.  We can refer to this form of power as ontological power.

In another signification, power refers to something an agent has.  Regardless of what Latour and his followers might suggest, not all beings are agents.  Rocks, for example, are not agents; and this for no other reason than the fact that rocks lack self-directedness or the capacity to act on their own.  To be sure, rocks might contribute to the agency of an agent, as in the case of a soldier that has stones and a sling where, to use McLuhan’s expression, his hand is “extended”, but it is not here the rock that is the agent.  When we speak of an agent having power– whether it be a dolphin, chimpanzee, human, or something else besides –we are speaking of the power to influence and control others.  For example, the general has the power to give orders and, more often than naught, those orders are followed.  She has power over those that are subordinate to her.  We can refer to this form of power as sovereign power.

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I suspected this was on the way.  Neurologists are now using brain scanning techniques to develop more effective forms of advertising.  Advertising (and, more importantly, political discourse), use potent signs to activate various regions of the brain presiding over pleasure, fear, sexual desire, hatred, and so on, to form cognitive relations to things entirely unrelated to these affects.  For example, a cleaning product might make a commercial with all sorts of romantic imagery  so as to forge an unconscious association between detergent and romance, even though there’s no relation between the two.  Of course, historically these techniques have been crude as advertisers and politicians don’t know what signs will activate these affects and what won’t.  It’s been hit or miss.  Theories of what signs will produce affects (not that signs produce affects) haven’t admitted much in the way of verification, but have been based on the individual theories of semioticians and advertisers (the former, of course, being more sophisticated). However, now some neurologists are scanning brains to rectify this problem, contributing to the formation of a “brave new world”.  Perhaps we are here witnessing a new diagram of power; one that suggests that the terrifying possibilities described by R.S. Bakker in his horror-detective novel Neuropath aren’t just science fiction.

I’ve been writing too much lately, but this is probably because it just feels so great to be writing again after not writing anything for nearly a year.  This will just be a quick one.  It is likely that Epicureanism is the ethical philosophy most consistent with naturalism.  Epicureanism teaches that by “good” we mean pleasure and “bad” we mean pain.  In other words, pleasure, for the epicurean is the ethical principle.  Now, of course not all pleasures are good for the epicurean.  Those that bring pain as a consequence such as drinking a 5th of tequila are perhaps pleasurable at the time but bring pain as a consequence.  Likewise, while a lavish lifestyle would be pleasurable, it causes too much pain to get it due to the jobs we would have to work to make the money to sustain such a life (not to mention losing our freedom as a result of having to answer to bosses).  Similarly, not all pains are bad for the epicurean.  For example, getting a root canal.  To be sure, we experience pain at the time, but ensures our health and freedom from pain later.  The epicurean life is, of course, a moving target.  The more we learn about health, the environment, psychology, and social dynamics the better we’ll be at achieving peace of mind and living a pleasurable life.  Interestingly, the picture of the epicurean life is closer to that of a Buddhist or Christian monk (moderation and simplicity) than Jim Morrison, because those lives are the healthiest and allow for the most mastery/freedom in ones existence.  If epicureanism is one of the strongest candidates for a naturalistic ethics, then this is because it doesn’t presuppose any transcendent laws or rules, but just goes with the immanence of life and existence on the planet among other people.

Problems emerge, however, when we begin to measure it against our ethical intuitions.  This is often how I approach reflection on ethical philosophies.  I shuttle back and forth between our day to day intuitions about what is right, good, and what would constitute the good life and what the ethical philosophy proposes.  The ethical philosophy can then function as a critique of our ethical intuitions– for example, epicureanism suggests that abstaining from shellfish probably isn’t an ethical duty so long as they’re preserved correctly and we’re not allergic –but also we can use our ethical intuitions to critique the ethical philosophy.  Many of us have the strong ethical intuition that it is commendable to run into a burning building to save a person, or that it is morally praiseworthy to fight and die on behalf of a cause like justice; whatever justice might turn out to be.  However, it’s difficult to see how such values can be grounded within a naturalistic or an epicurean framework.  For example, it’s difficult to see what epicurean or naturalistic rationale there could be for becoming a Badiouian subject engaged in a truth-procedure.  This is precisely because the work of a truth-procedure (e.g., struggling for egalitarian justice) draws us beyond the animal domain of pleasures and pains, often subjecting us to intense pains that won’t produce subsequent peace of mind and moderate pleasure like getting a root canal.  The question, then, is how such ideals, practices, and actions can be grounded within a naturalistic framework?  I’m not looking for answers per se, but just trying to pose the problem clearly.


kochprog440A quick post before I teach that isn’t developed to nearly the degree it deserves.  While it is true that there have been Christian anarchists and communists, anarchism and communism has historically been attached to atheism.  Why is this?  Is this some accidental relation, such that atheism can be safely severed from these political projects, or is there something about the very concept of anarchism and communism that entails atheism?  There is, of course, the historical reality.  When these movements were arising, the Church was one of the main ideological mechanisms of the State, defending both a certain form of capitalism and monarchial authoritarian power.  Indeed, leftist political struggle has had to contend with the church for a long time– going back to the French Revolution and before –because by and large the Church has sided with oppressive power, rather than emancipatory struggle.  This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been notable exceptions– people are always quick to cite Martin Luther King –but the point is that again and again we’ve seen religion, by and large (and that statistical qualification is important), side with the oppressors.

Given this history it’s not hard to see why anarchist thought (Tolstoy aside) and communist thought have been suspicious of religion.  However, is this only an accidental, “historical” relation, such that we could have a good religion that doesn’t function as a support for the State?  In other words, do anarchism and communism suffer from a prejudice?  Perhaps, and certainly I’m not hostile to all forms of religiosity, even if I would prefer a world where people are strictly centered in this world, in this material reality, and don’t posit any sort of afterlife, eschatology, or divinity.  I’m a realist about what is and is not likely the happen with regard to humanity and religiosity (especially given what an increasing body of neurological research is suggesting about brain and spirituality).

read on!


f_pg05silasPsychoanalysis substantially changes our conception of ethics and the problematic of ethics, for it raises the question of moral psychology and what is going on when we violate an ethical principle.  Within a psychoanalytic framework, it’s no longer enough to suppose that violation of an ethical principle is simply a failure of will arising from being overcome by our passions and appetites.  No, what the discovery of the unconscious suggests is that these violations might, in fact, arise from unconscious desires that condemn us to repeat despite what we might consciously wish.  As a consequence, we can no longer be strictly Epicurean, Stoic, Kantian, nor utilitarian.  No, we must also take into account the dynamics of the unconscious– not to mention the death drive –and what that is speaking within us.

However, here we must proceed with caution.  We might think that what psychoanalysis teaches, like Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, is that our ethical principles and aims really embody a dirty secret.  Freud taught us to discern sex, libido, in things that on the surface would appear remote from desire.  As Deleuze and Guattari put it– and in some respects they’re more Freudian than Lacan (but that’s a story for another day) –the bureaucrat is literally getting off with his filing systems, his procedures, his forms, and his regulations, despite the fact that no sexual organs are involved whatsoever.  There is a libidinal component here, even though there seems to be none.  In this regard, we might also think of the character of the Catholic albino priest in The Da Vinci Code who cruelly flagellates himself in his religious ritual.  At the surface level we see a ritual designed to emulate the Passion of Christ, to show his humility, and thereby show his devotion to God.  Freud, however, showed us that this too is a way of getting off, of achieving jouissance through indirect means.  Even the asexual has found a way of getting off.  The lesson is that sex and libido are not to be found in the organs.

From this we might conclude that the teaching of psychoanalysis is that all ethical principles are, in reality, techniques for satisfying violations of ethical principles in the name of a forbidden satisfaction; or that psychoanalysis teaches a sort of Hegelian speculative identity like the thesis that “the spirit is a bone”, whereby ethical action is, in fact, unethical action.  In short, we might conclude that all ethical action is, in reality, at the level of the unconscious, motivated by something other than the ethical, or a violation of the ethical.  For example, one might argue that acts of altruism are, in fact, passive aggressive actions premised on a sadistic desire to master those in unfortunate positions, such that they aren’t altruistic at all.

read on!


I.  “Critical Thinking”

Within the field of theory and philosophy, the term “critique” is highly ambiguous, signifying a variety of different things.  No doubt this is the source of many disputes.  There is, of course, the facile term “critical thinking” that we hear bandied about by many mainstream educational institutions.  This, of course, is not what is being referred to when theorists talk about a “critical theory”.  Indeed, if Althusser was right in naming educational institutions (along with church, family, and media) as one of the main sites of ideology wherein a society reproduces the conditions for its production, then it’s unlikely that critical theory would be received warmly by those dignitaries of the State that preside over education policy and who call for “critical thinking” as a central part of the curriculum.  Critical thinking in their sense might very well serve at the behest of ideology in Althusser’s sense of the term.

II.  Kant and the Critique of Reason

Among philosophers, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the term “critique” is, of course, Kant.  It was Kant who first– to my knowledge –named the project of a critical philosophy; although I think seeds of that project almost to the letter can already be detected in Descartes and, above all, Hume.  The project of critical philosophy for Kant was the investigation of the conditions under which it is possible for us to have certain forms of knowledge.  For example, Kant famously asked “how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?”  Unlike analytic propositions where the predicate is already contained in the concept of the subject– e.g. “All bachelors are unmarried males” –and which therefore don’t amplify or increase our knowledge, a synthetic a priori proposition is one in which our thought goes beyond what is contained in the subject of the proposition independent of experience, thereby amplifying or increasing our knowledge.  How is this possible?  How is it possible for mind to increase knowledge through thinking as in the case of mathematics?  It’s easy to see how this is possible through experience.  I take a bite of arugula, taste its tartness, and now know that arugula is characterized by tartness.  My knowledge of arugula is thereby amplified.  I’ve discovered something new about arugula and my mind will forever associate arugula with that quality of tartness.

read on!


brain-stockThe expression “problems for materialism” should not be taken to denote the thesis that materialism faces an insurmountable problem that should lead us to abandon it as the fundamental ontological framework, but rather as indicating a project for materialist to inquiry to resolve or solve.  otherwise we would say “problems with materialism”. For example, the materialist does not say that meaning poses a fundamental and insurmountable challenge to materialism, but rather that we require a materialist theory of meaning.  Like the increasing acceleration of the universe that is not yet explained by astronomy but which astronomy is working on, meaning is a research project for materialism.  The difference between psychotherapeutic and neurological approaches to psychological difficulties helps to illustrate this issue.  Here I use the term “psychotherapy” very broadly to denote any clinical approach that focuses on meaning— whatever meaning might turn out to be –as the ground of the symptoms from which a patient suffers.  In this regard, existential psychoanalysis, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Jungian psychoanalysis, schizoanalysis, cybernetically informed family therapy, etc., would all be instances of psychotherapies.

While these various therapeutic approaches are opposed to one another on theoretical points, they share the common premise that the symptoms from which we suffer– say depression or chronic hand washing –are meaningful and therefore that addressing these symptoms requires us to work through issues of meaning.  Take the example of depression (and here it should be noted that psychotherapeutic approaches have repeatedly been shown to be as effective at treating depression as medication).  One common feature of depressive disorders is that they are characterized by a sort of cruelty to self, by an inner voice that continuously lacerates and castigates the self.  It’s not difficult to discern, in this cruel and critical voice, the voice of the punishing superego.  By why might the superego so cruelly and excessively punish the superego in cases of depression?  We can imagine how an existential psychoanalyst might approach depression.  Put very crudely, existential psychoanalysis argues that the core of our being is characterized by a fundamental life project– so well described by Heidegger in his account of being-towards-death and Sartre in his conception of projects –that defines all meaningfulness throughout our life.  Just as the utensils of a kitchen take on their function or meaning from the project of cooking– the wooden spoon takes on the meaning of stirring in the project of cooking rather than digging dirt –every aspect of a person’s life takes on meaning in terms of the overarching project that defines their life.

Depression, within the existential psychoanalytic framework (the theory would be different in a Lacanian or Freudian psychoanalytic framework) would arise when somehow the person flees from the project that defines their life and gives it meaning.  It would occur when the person has fallen into a state of bad faith or inauthenticity.  There could be any number of reasons a person betrays their life project.  Perhaps the project is too difficult.  Perhaps they have conflicting attachments, wishing to please a parent and follow in their steps and pursue their project of being a musician.  Perhaps it would bring about exile from their community if they belonged to a particular religious community.  There will be as many different reasons for flight as there are depressed people as life projects are singular (and often appear incomprehensible to those that don’t share them).  Regardless, in all cases some sort of abandonment or flight would have taken place, and the voice of conscience would return in the form of depressive states marking this flight.  Treatment would consist in the patient developing an awareness of this life project– often we’re unaware of these things as we are them and live them, we don’t reflect on them –and developing the resolve to live in accord with them.  Becoming one’s project would guarantee happiness as they can often be very difficult and require hard decisions, but we would at least escape the punishing superego that arises when we betray ourselves.  Therapy here would unfold entirely at the level of meaning or how we project ourselves into the future and make sense of our past and the decisions that we have made as well as the symptoms from which we suffer.  For example, alcoholism might be a symptom of such a self-betrayal relating to a past.

I’m rushed so I’ll have to proceed quickly.  Neurology approaches things in an entirely different way.  In the case of neurology we would understand depression to be a matter of neurotransmitters and hormones.  Depression would be that which occurs when our neurotransmitters go awry.  Accordingly, treatment of depression would consist in a regulation of neurotransmitters.

What we have here are two incommensurable descriptions of one and the same fact (the fact being the state of depression).  In the first, depression arises from a relation to meaning and a betrayal of meaning.  In the second, depression arises from neurotransmitters being awry.  We should resist the urge to adopt a “dual aspect” theory the symptom such as that proposed by Spinoza in Book II of the Ethics when he describes the relationship between mind and body, for it could in fact be the case that there are instances of depression that are, indeed, nothing but imbalances in neurotransmitters with no dimension of meaning.  Here there might be a certain asymmetry for the materialist.  While it would be the case that all instances of symptoms based in meaning have corresponding brain states, it would not be the case that all instances of depression have corresponding meaning states.  The issue is open and we can wonder whether all mental states are causatively related to meaning.  The question is that of how to reconcile or think together these two incommensurable approaches to mind. More anon.

emc2Just a throw away post.  Denunciations of materialism are generally premised on a highly tendentious concept of matter that is of the order of a straw man.  The moment you hear terms such as “mechanism” or “reductionism” thrown about, you know you’re before a 17th century corpuscular concept of matter (basically the theory of Democritus and Lucretius) understood as indivisible particles that enter into various combinations.  This ignores work done in the sciences over the last three hundred year; and, in particular, the fluid and energetic nature of matter.  The concept of matter is unique in philosophy insofar as we don’t begin, in advance, with a concept of matter.  It’s not an a priori concept.  To be sure, there’s a root intuition– matter is “stuff” or “physical” –but what that might be is an open question:  processes, relations between forces, energy?  The being or nature of matter is something to be discovered, it is a knowledge to come.  It is not something we have already.  It is a concept on the way.

Of course, the interesting question here is why materialism seems to evoke so much hostility within the humanities?  Materialism seems unique in raising ire among those of us who work in fields like philosophy and literary theory.  What is the source of this ire?  Does it arise from unconscious religious commitments about the nature of self or the soul?  Is it that there’s a strong tendency towards idealism within the humanities, towards the mind mastering and conditioning and even forming all that is, that gives rise to this hostility?  After all, matter is that which resists thought, that prevents concept from swallowing thing (as Adorno well recognized in his concept of a negative dialectics).  Given how successful materialism has been in accounting for various phenomena– though it still has a long way to go –hostility towards materialism doesn’t seem to arise simply from inadequacies in the ontology (inadequacies, incidentally, that have a history of being overcome in response to criticism).  This is an indication that materialism touches on the real, on that which is other than a correlation.

falling_down_a_wishing_well_by_aliceinsuicideland-d47pppxEver since Thales, Philosophy has had a reputation for being irrelevant and remote from the concerns of the world.  Thales, it will be recalled, was reputed– by Plato in the Theatetus –to have fallen down a well while staring up at the heavens.  The implication of this anecdote is clear.  Rather than attending to the earth, to this world, the philosopher is withdrawn and occupied with imponderables that are of no consequence to concrete existence.  Philosophers, it is said, traffic in abstractions and questions without answers.  This is often what people have in mind when they denounce metaphysics.  We can imagine a play by Molière depicting the life of a philosopher devoted to passionately defending the metaphysical thesis that every thirty seconds everything doubles in size.  The comedic value of such a play would be that if it were true that everything doubles in size every thirty seconds, such a truth would be of no consequence whatsoever; for rulers also would double in size and we’d therefore never be able to detect these differences.  Such a play would depict the standard picture of the philosopher as occupied with things that don’t matter.  Does it really matter whether Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, or Heidegger is right?  Does it make any difference?  Or is the thought of these thinkers merely an idle distraction from the concrete world that we live in?

socrates_paintThis hostility towards philosophy and reflection and thought in general is itself something worthy of thought.  Where does it come from?  What prompts it?  Were philosophy irrelevant we would expect indifference, but instead we often encounter outright hostility.  Not only are there the resistances– almost in the psychoanalytic sense –that the educator often encounters in the philosophy classroom, where the beginning student despairs at being asked to think rather than just memorize, but in the broader world outside of education people often seem to go out of their way to mock philosophy.  “Would you like fries with that?”  “That matters about as much as how many angels can fit on the head of the needle!”  And then, of course, there’s the fate of Socrates for his public interrogation of the leaders of Athens, cross-examining them to see whether they truly had the knowledge they claim to have.

There’s a disadequation here between what people commonly say of philosophy, and their attitudes towards philosophy; a disadequation that appears symptomatic.  Far from being a matter of indifference, from being something remote and in the clouds, people behave as if it matters a great deal; as if it is dangerous.  We can readily see how philosophy was dangerous in the case of Socrates, for Socrates wasn’t simply raising the question of whether or not the leaders or most respected citizens of Athens had knowledge, but was challenging the transferential conditions for the possibility of power and leadership.  Lacan argues that transference is organized around a subject supposed to know.  The “supposed” here is not of the order of a moral ought as when we say that a mechanic has a responsibility and a duty to have a knowledge of cars.  Rather, the “supposed” here is of the order of a supposition, a belief, where the person in a state of transference believes that another person has knowledge.  Transference is what Kafka depicts in his parable of the law, where the man believes there is a secret to the law that hides behind the door of the law.  We follow others, we treat others as leaders and authorities, because we suppose or believe them to have knowledge.  In revealing that the most respected citizens of Athens did not have the knowledge they claim to have, that they were ignorant, Socrates was dissolving the transference upon which their political power was based.  Seemingly remote questions like “what is piety?” in the Euthyphro were in fact instances of working through the transference.  Socrates was revealing the illegitimacy of this political power.  This is why they killed him.

However, reference to Plato’s Euthyphro draws attention to another way in which philosophy matters.  Euthyphro is about to prosecute his father for murder because he believes it is his pious duty to do so.  Those who have read the dialogue will recall that on of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and killed another servant.  His father bound the servant, threw him in a ditch, and sent a messenger to fetch the authorities to determine whether the servant was guilty and how he should be punished.  During this time the servant died of exposure to the elements and his bonds.

Euthyphro’s action, his persecution of his father, is based on two things:

  1. His concept of murder.  For Euthyphro the presence of a dead body entails murder (i.e., he makes no distinction between murder and manslaughter).
  2. His concept of piety and the duties and actions entailed by that concept.

In other words, what Euthyphro is about to do is based on what he believes.  As a consequence, the rightness or justness of his action is dependent upon the truth of his beliefs.  Euthyphro therefore has a moral responsibility to determine whether or not his beliefs are true.

Far from being remote from the concrete world, our actions in the concrete world and the manner in which we inquire into the world is premised on our concepts.  And this is precisely why philosophy matters.  Somewhere or other Hegel observes that all of our language and action is riddled with concepts.  What we discern of being is based on prior concepts of being.  What we do is premised on prior concepts.  Concepts are everywhere operative in our action and inquiry.  However, these concepts are also unconscious.  They are so immediate, so close to us, we use them so readily, that we treat the world as being identical with the concept of the world and are unaware that we’re using these concepts at all.  Schizophrenia obviously appears to be a neurological disorder, rather than a visitation by gods or a product of a particular cultural organization in history.  Philosophy is that work of rendering the concepts governing our actions and our observation of the world conscious so that they might be subjected to critique to see how they hold up.  In doing so, philosophy hopes to produce better and more just action, as well as better inquiry into the world.  A concept is never just a representation.  It is a schema for action and comportment.