August 2015


irp_7Perhaps we would do best to call it the material unconscious.  Freud famously said that there had been three blows to human narcissism:  Copernicus and his decentering of the Earth, Darwin and his theory of evolution, and psychoanalysis and its discovery of the unconscious.  With the first humanity learns that it is not at the center of the universe.  With the second, humanity learns it is not markedly different from animals.  With the third, humanity learns that it’s interiority is not in charge.  With thingly thought, the thought of the object, we perhaps encounter a fourth blow to our narcissism:  the way in which we are mediated by things.  We dwell within a milieu of things, objects, or what I have elsewhere called machines.  What we take to be our own agency, our own free choice, instead turns out in so many instances to be the agency of these things or machines acting upon us.  To be sure, I choose which hallway to walk through, but what I don’t choose– to paraphrase Zizek –is the form of choice dictated by hallways, or roads, or paths, themselves.  These things lie before me as so many choices already chosen within which I might make my choices.  I live in a world where my being is mediated– where it is afforded and constrained –in an endless variety of ways.

fish-jumping-out-of-water-bowl-fb-cover-620x310Like the fish that doesn’t recognize that it’s in water because water is all it knows, these things, objects, or machines are invisible to us because they so thoroughly make up the fabric of our existence.  Instead we focus on the discursive and normative because the machines quietly hum in the background like the water as it always does, allowing us to safely ignore them.  They withdraw, to use Harman’s expression.  For this reason, the empire of things deserves to be called a material unconscious.  Like the Lacanian unconscious that exercises its bad jokes and puns behind our back, structuring without us being aware our desires and decisions, the material unconscious plunges us into an eccentric orbit where our action, agency, cognition, ways of relating to one another, and desires are organized from without; all the while creating the misrecognition of these things as our own.  Like the psychoanalytic unconscious, the material unconscious is not a sack within us, another person inside us like homunculus calling the shots without us realizing it.  No.  Everything transpires on the surface, on a plane of immanence, in a field of exteriority that is an intimacy more intimate than any intimacy…  So much so that it is extimate.  To know the material unconscious one must think not like a Brandomian or a phenomenologist, but rather like a ecologist, designer, or architect.  Indeed, another name for architecture and design is ecology.  The designers and architects are the great cartographers of the material unconscious; they even produce much of it.

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the_walking_dead_67137Perhaps, for us, the question is how to continue thinking, philosophizing, creating art, creating literature, dancing, and, above all, doing politics, when we are the walking dead.  How can we carry on when we know we are already dead?  As in the film Melancholia or These Final Hours, we are dead yet, for a time, continue to walk.  Some of us walk as dead without realizing that we are already dead.  Others walk with the knowledge that we are dead.  That death approaches us in a variety of ways.  Perhaps it is the ineluctable destiny of climate change that will to be addressed because it won’t even be acknowledged.  Or perhaps it’s the simple inevitability of the death of our sun which, when combined with the infinite reaches of space– the closest earth-like planet is about 1400 light years away –makes this planet our tomb unless we become silicon; and if we become silicon what will we be, really?  Who knows.  Or perhaps it’s simply the death that we all face individually.

In immanence, that other word for nature, we are all the walking dead.  It’s always been true, really.  How can we continue to dance, design, create art, philosophize, and engage in politics when we acknowledge that we’re the walking dead?  This shouldn’t be a nihilistic or melancholy thought.  It is not a question like Camus’ thesis that the only true philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide.  It’s not that at all.  Rather it is a challenge immanent to thought, a rupture within thought, an awareness that matter that has become capable of thinking, must pose to itself the moment it recognizes that immanence is the truth of being such that there is neither teleology nor eschatology and that above all there is no redemption.  No, there’s only the flesh of existence, a flesh become the universe thinking itself, a fissure within being become aware of itself, that truly is flesh…  A flesh that rots, decays, and dies.  We are beings that not only think being, but that are beings among beings.  What are we to do with that fleshiness of being, of existence; a fleshiness that endures entropy, that decays, that dies?  How can we redeem that flesh when we’ve abandoned all transcendent realms, all reconciliations, all teleologies, all eschatologies?

email-marketing2I’m terrible at it, I really am.  I experience a lot of guilt about it as well.  I find it exceedingly difficult to respond to it.  This is not for lack of caring or being interested.  I think, rather, it’s because I feel frozen, paralyzed, by the missives that are sent my way.  So often I feel unequal to the questions that are posed to me.  I don’t have the answers.  I’m not sure how to respond.  Words fall flat.  At other times the letters people send me sound so much more intelligent than anything I have to say.  I grope, I struggle to think things.  Sometimes I manage to think something, but much of the time I feel as if I’m caught in repetitive loops, working through the same thoughts over and over again for years on end, only occasionally encountering a bifurcation point where one sequence of repetition ceases and another begins.  How can I respond?  I don’t know.  You all sound so smart, like you have things figured out.  What do my words have to offer?  Ratification or support perhaps?  I’m sorry about the silence with which I sometimes respond.  I am trying to get better about it.  I hope it’s understood that it doesn’t arise out of indifference but rather out of a sort of horror of not knowing what to say or how to respond.

earth_crackedI haven’t been writing much here and hope to rectify that from here on out.  I suppose that I’ve found it difficult to write in this medium for a variety of reasons in the last couple of years.  Tonight I find myself reflecting on all of the controversies that new materialism, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology have generated in the last few years.  In recent years I’ve heard these vectors of thought criticized for supporting neoliberal capitalism to hating humans to asserting the dominance of things over humans.  I’ve always found such criticisms surprising, wondering where it is from which they might come.  What is it about these trajectories of thought that elicit so many passions.  Is there something new here?  I’m not so sure.  This evening I came across the following passage in Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge that speaks to something similar, albeit in a different context.

The cry goes up that one is murdering history whenever, in a  historical analysis– and especially if it is concerned with thought, ideas, or knowledge –one is seen to be using in too obvious a way the categories of discontinuity and difference, the notions of threshold, rupture and transformation, the description of series and limits.  One will be denounced for attacking the inalienable rights of history and the very foundations of any possible historicity.  But one must not be deceived:  what is being bewailed with such vehemence is not the disappearance of history, but the eclipse of that form of history that was secretly, but entirely related to the synthetic activity of the subject; what is being bewailed is the ‘development’ that was to provide the sovereignty of the consciousness with a safer, less exposed shelter than myths, kinship systems, languages, sexuality, or desire; what what is being bewailed is the possibility of reanimating through the project, the work of meaning, or the movement of totalization, the interplay of material determinations, rules of practice, unconscious systems, rigorous but unreflected relations, correlations that elude all lived experience; what is being bewailed, is that ideological use of history by which one tries to restore to man everything that has unceasingly eluded him for over a hundred years.  (14)

It seems to me that the most important moments in this passion lie in the reference to the “synthetic activity of the subject”– that temporalizing activity of the subject capable of forming a totality for itself in how it links historicity and futurity in the formation of a present –and that moment where Foucault refers to man restoring everything that has eluded to him; the possibility of totalization.  Here we have the very structure of both mythology and ideology (do the two differ from one another?).  Both myth and ideology can be thought as structured around the idea of a lost origin or ground that has been contaminated and to which we must return and the idea of a synthetic function of the subject that can both totalize the field of past and future in the production of the future and thereby regain that lost origin.

I would like to say that the mark of those most vital vectors of 20th century thought have been to contest these yearnings (yearnings that I’ve argued elsewhere are at the root of our drive to mastery (destruction) and autoimmune xenophobia that characterize our social structure at all levels), but the truth is that there has always been a minor tradition of philosophy, of theory, of practice, that has always contested the synthetic function of the subject, the existence of lost origins, the drive to totality.  If there’s something new today, it’s the question of how to do philosophy in politics in the face of the likelihood that we’re already dead (the truth of the anthropocene).  That aside, the contestation of origin and the synthetic function of the subject capable of overcoming alienation and reconciling itself with itself has been the theme of thought in Nietzsche, Freud, those indebted to Saussure, and a host of others.  We live in the age where myth and ideology have slipped, yet still everywhere exert their influence.  If there’s a horror to be found among the new materialisms, speculative realisms, and object-oriented ontologies (they must always be written in the plural as they know no identity), it is in the fact that they continue this undermining of the self-present mastery of the subject and effacement of the origin, drawing attention to the manner in which we live in the orbit– in the astronomical sense of the word –of things that exceed us.  Speaking to this is not a hatred of humanity– though I contest any univocity attributed to the term “humanity” –but, as Kant said in “What is Enlightenment?”, is a way in which humanity rises from it’s self-imposed infantile state.  Such an enlightenment entails abandoning the fantasy of sovereignty, the discourse of the master, the structure of masculinity, so as to encounter the manner in which we’re beings among beings.  Perhaps that is one meaning of overcoming correlationism.