January 2016


hieronymus_bosch_hal-hefner_gates_heavy-metal-1Perhaps it could be said that the mirror stage, as conceived by Lacan, introduces teleology into being.  The story is well known.  In the dimension of the Imaginary, of the image– in a sort of Peircian Firstness –the infant experiences its body as a chaotic mass.  This is a dismembered body such as that hinted at by Bosch.  Here there is not a body.  Rather, there is a sound here, an itch there, a scent floats by.  There is perhaps a foot, but it is not attached to an ankle or a leg.  Or perhaps it is.  Perhaps the thigh and calve is not experienced at all, but rather the foot is attached directly to the torso like one of those wind-up toys that waddles across the floor.  Nothing really works in this body.  My arm might as well be orbiting another star.  I gaze upon it.  It seems to be mine.  Yet I cannot will it to move and when I do I stab my thumb in this other strange organ of which I wasn’t even aware, my eye.  It is a chaotic field of intensities, of disoriented sensations and motions, without any center, unity, or “ownness”.  You can still sense this primordial body sometimes in moments of extreme fatigue, sleep paralysis, or delirium brought on by fever or in some other fashion.

6B244B53-FD1A-4112-AE4B-89F6E0C0B02FWhen the infant encounters its image in the mirror, when it beholds that that image is its own— its doppleganger –it experiences the great joy of a promise.  Here it should be noted that the identification with the image, the formation of the imago, is often accompanied by the presence of a second person.  Someone over the infant’s shoulder says, with delight, “that’s you!”.  In “On Narcissism” Freud speaks of a “primary narcissism” that precedes a love of ones image.  That primary narcissism is this spectral voice of delight that accompanies identification with the image.  It is a performative act that echoes subsequently in our unconscious:  “you are that!”  From that moment on the infant will aspire to become a mobius strip, to perform a sort of origami on herself, whereby the chaotic and dismembered body becomes a continuous or single surface with the image.  For the promise of the image is that of unity, wholeness, oneness, and, above all, mastery.  This is its teleology.  Henceforth, the lived body of intensity will try to map itself on to that sterile body of unity, wholeness, and mastery.  It will strive to become a surface for the gaze of the Other.

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spinozaIn response to a post I wrote a number of years ago, someone asks:

Dear Bryant, perhaps you have already heard/read Michael Pollan’s book ‘The botany of desire’. If not, please do read it… I have been trying to develop a new metaphysical perspective in which ‘entities’ do equally exist yet differ from each other in terms of their capacity to affect and be affected. I mostly aggree with you as regards OOO, yet I still need an answer: Do you think that 1. A discourse (say Feminist discourse) exists?, 2. It exists in the same sense with concepts of any kind? 3. the difference between the way a feminist discourse exist and any other things exist is not a matter of kind, but of a degree? All the best.

I have, indeed, read The Botany of Desire and enjoyed it quite a bit.  In fact, for a time I considered writing a book very much in the same vein entitled The Domestication of Humans, where I intended to explore the way in which various nonhuman beings, both technological and organic, have used humans as media to advance themselves.  Sadly that project never came to fruition.  Who knows, maybe I’ll take it up again.  At any rate, it’s likely that a search of the blog will reveal references to Pollan at various points.

The questions that this poster asks are very complex.  It could be said that the basic orientation of my thought is Spinozist.  When I describe a commitment to Spinoza as an orientation, I am not claiming that I follow his philosopher to the letter as a scholar or disciple might.  Rather, I am saying that I am inspired by a certain Spinozist intuition or vector of thought.  In particular, I am oriented by Spinoza’s naturalism (but what a strange naturalism it is!) and his monism or model of immanence.  While I don’t share Spinoza’s view that there is only one substance– though that depends on whether one takes him to be claiming that numerically there is only one substance or one takes him to be claiming that there is only one kind of substance as Lucretius claimed with his atomism –I do share his rejection of the existence of transcendent beings.  That is, I take Spinoza to be claiming that there is nothing “out of field” such as a transcendent God or a subject that is not of the order of nature or eternal being.

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Canine Full Body X-rayRecently I was asked what my methodology is.  This was the second time I’ve been asked this question and I confess that on both occasions it stopped me in my tracks.  On both occasions it was at speaking events devoted to disciplines outside of philosophy.  I suspect I was being asked a question about whether I deploy quantitative or qualitative research methodologies.  However, if this question startled me so much– and I’m still mulling over my reaction on both occasions –then this is because the question situates philosophy in a field of discourse quite foreign to philosophy.  The concept of methodology as it was asked for in this context– certainly philosophy has had methodologies such as dialectic, phenomenology, and deconstruction –seems to pertain to the investigation of an object that is empirically given.  I realize it’s dangerous to evoke the concept of the given in a philosophical context.  Here I don’t have anything particularly profound in mind when I refer to something being empirically given.  I just mean that the various empirical disciplines– whether they literary or media studies, anthropology, sociology, chemistry, or biology (note how broadly I’m using the term “empirical” here) –begin from the premise that they have a well defined object of investigation, something that is out there and given, and that the question of methodology is one of how to investigate that object so as to get at its nature, how it is structured, how it behaves, and so on.  In the social sciences a quantitative approach proceeds by way of gathering data upon which statistical methods can then be deployed, whereas a qualitative approach would consist in interpreting data within the framework of some sort of theoretical paradigm such as structuralism, actor-network theory, systems theory, and so on.

Matters are quite different in philosophy, for philosophy ideally begins in a state that is uncertain of both its concepts and its object.  Philosophy, it might be said, occurs in an uncertain fold between the concept and the object or the ontological and the ontic.  Heidegger’s translation of a passage from Plato’s Parmenides admirably describes the philosophical situation:

For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being”.  We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.  (Being and Time, 1)

In our day to day dealings, we take it that we understand what we mean when we refer to being or say that something is a being.  However, when we begin to reflect on what we signify by being, we suddenly find we are perplexed.  Where the meaning of being before seemed self-evident, the more we reflect upon it the more obscure it becomes.  Moreover, it is not only that the concept of being becomes obscure, but the objects we refer to as beings becomes uncertain as well.  Before I was certain that such and such a thing was a being, that I knew what an object is, and so on, but now I’m not so sure.  I find that this object that I didn’t before think was a being might, in fact, be a being, while this other being I was sure was a being might not be a being.  This is the horror that Euthyphro undergoes in Plato’s dialogue by the same name.  Where Euthyphro began with the certainty that he knew what piety or holiness was, the more he engages in dialogue with that monstrous being that is Socrates the more obscure the concept becomes.  He flees from the dialogue without a concept of piety nor any longer certain of what beings truly count as pious or holy.

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My way to Speculative Realism was through Harman’s was through Harman’s Prince of Networks:  Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.  It’s difficult, after all these years, to convey the sense of excitement I felt when reading this book.  I had felt it before, my first year of graduate school when reading Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology (I actually dreamed about that book).  There I felt as if an entire opaque world of theory opened up to me that both allowed me to understand the thought of figures such as Lacan but, more importantly, that allowed me to put that theory to work and comprehend the world around me.  Harman, of course, is a consummate stylist.  There is a certain charm and style to his writing that is difficult to put your finger on.  Often it occurs in the margins, when the reader comes across offhand asides that he makes such as his observation that “Callon and Latour aim this same arrow at the Marxist Left, though they bury their bold remark deep in a footnote, as so often happens with young researchers” (Bruno Latour:  Reassambling the Social, 28).  In such passages one senses that it’s as if there’s a sort of shadow philosophy (or theory of discourse?) that inhabits his explicit philosophy (object-oriented philosophy) about the dynamics of social relations.

06jb1380However, over and above his stylistic virtues, my experience reading Prince of Networks was one of having an entirely new world, barely glimpsed before, open up to me.  Whether one agrees with him or not– and I’ve disagreed with him quite a bit over the years –it’s hard not to hear a symphony when reading his work and thought process and to experience sparks fly in ones own thought.  In the case of Prince of Networks, and steeped as I was– and continue to be –in the traditions of critical theory, semiotics, semiotics, rhetorical analysis, social constructivism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, the unfolding of the role objects (or what Latour calls “actants”) play in our social assemblages was a revelation for me.  I had focused a great deal on the agency of the signifier and the power it exerts, but now suddenly the humble speed bump revealed itself as an agent of power, not by virtue of what it signifies, nor by virtue of the ideology it embodies, but by virtue of what it does.  To be sure, we can treat the speed bump as what Pierce would call the “sign-vehicle” of an interpretant or signified and interpret it as a text.  We can also analyze it as the embodiment, expression, or “coagulation” of an ideological formation.  But, to take a term from Maurizio Ferraris, there is something “unamendable” about the speed bump as a speed bump that is irreducible to ideology and signification that consists in a power of being.  Regardless of whether we’re able to read the text ideological or otherwise, the speed bump compels us to slow down by virtue of what it does or what it is.  Perhaps a trite and obvious observation, but herein lies an entirely different form of power that, while it might be intertwined with textualities of all sorts with respect to the sort of chiasmatic ontology I’ve been gropingly attempting to develop, is not a matter of semiotic or suspicious deciphering.

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RSIAn aside on games. Within the chiasmatic ontology (thank you Christopher Breu!) I’m trying to think, the point of overlap between the real and the symbolic in 3 can be illustrated with respect to games.  Games are one way in which we encounter the materiality of the world, for there we encounter the interplay between chance and law. The rules of the game, along with the identity of the pieces or agents, are the symbolic dimension of the game. These rules produce a mesh covering a field in which the real can appear. Suppose we take the game of Quirkle.

qwirkle-grid2Quirkle is a game similar to chess played with blocks that have shapes in different colors painted upon them (circles, squares, diamonds, stars, etc). Each player gets six blocks selected randomly from a bag at the beginning of the game. The objective is to accrue the most points by placing the blocks next to each other according to color or shape. You get points by either creating a row of up to six blocks of the same color or the same shape. For example, if you play two orange blocks during your turn, you get two points. If you place six blocks of the same color (a “quirkle”) you get 12 points. The caveat is that if you group blocks according to color your row cannot contain two blocks of the same shape (e.g., two yellow circles), and if you place blocks according to shape you can’t place blocks of the same color (two orange squares). The symbolic system therefore creates constraints– and is therefore a system of norms –even though the rules themselves have no causal power or efficacy. The symbolic is a grid in which the material (the blocks) is captured.

Each time a player places blocks out of the six from which they began, their store is replenished by being replaced by blocks taken at random or blindly from the sack (the game ends when all the blocks have been played). It is paradoxically here, through the operation of a rule, that we encounter the material or real within the game.

SRorientedWhile it is the rule that issues the imperative (order-word) for the player the player to draw blocks from the bag, the rule does not tell us what blocks will be drawn (what color and shape they will be). The real here enters the game in the form of chance. It is not merely that each player encounters chance in playing against the opacity of the other player– her thoughts –and the non-knowledge of the pieces that she has in her queue, but also that ones own queue is replenished in an aleatory fashion or fashion that cannot be anticipated. The rules do not tell me what specific blocks will appear. In this regard we can return to Hegel on sense-certainty and his reflections on certainty. The real is that which the symbolic, the rules, cannot anticipate.

As a consequence, the players must reckon with chance. In one of his definitions, Lacan says that the real is a missed encounter. By this he means that the real is that which was not and could not have been anticipated. It is that for which the system of anticipations and retentions was not prepared. The player must respond to these eruptions of the real within the framework delineated by the rules. It is a question, in part, of how to respond to the real. We can thus imagine a converse game that wouldn’t be a game at all– a game that would be a pure symbolic game –in which there is no element of the real or the material. In such a game all of the pieces would be known and all the pieces would be given. We could call this “Laplace’s game”, for it is his vision of materialism where the position, velocity, and vector of every piece is known. Far from being a materialism, this would be a pure symbolic idealism, for the real appears at precisely that site where the symbolic encounters its “negative space”, its obverse, that which is not of the order of the signifier and its grammar.

In the first instance, the real is that which falls away from or escape the order of the symbolic. In terms of Lacanian discourse theory we can say that it is the product of the discourse of the master, the a.

fig6S1 and S2 are the symbolic, the rules of the game and the system of categories; whereas a is that which erupt within the game in an expected or unanticipated fashion. It matters little whether we say that a is that which is lacking from the symbolic chain (S1 → S2) or whether it is in excess of the symbolic chain; whether it is the too little or the too much. What matters is that is that which is the obverse of the symbolic, its negative space, its anterior or tain. In this regard, it is not wrong to say with Graham Harman that the real is withdrawn. It is that which is not of the order of a conceptual scheme, and for this reason it requires an epistemology of the gesture or indication precisely because it is that which cannot be said. There are never enough words, nor are words ever enough. Moreover, the eruption of the real issues an imperative. We must respond to the real within the constraints of the symbolic or the rules of the game.

We can say that Quirkle is a well-controlled game. Within a game like Quirkle, the real is mastered or controlled. It indeed appears or erupts through the drawing of new pieces, but the symbolic grid (S1 → S2) is itself never touched. The rules of the game, its symbolic structure, remain the same and unscathed. For every eruption of the real there is a rule that delineates the move that may subsequently be made; except in those instances where the placement of the blocks in the field– the past or history –admits of no move in relation to the new pieces that have appeared. One must pass or trade in pieces. Perhaps this is part of the pleasure of games. They stage a controlled encounter with the real, with the aleatory, within a space where the reassuring orderliness of the symbolic remains intact. To be sure, one can lose but at least order remains. What I seek is that moment within the chiasm or knotting of the three orders where the eruption of the real leads to the reconfiguration of the symbolic order or the system of categories. In some respects, this is the converse of Kant’s problem of the schematism. Where Kant’s schematism seeks to account for how the synthesis of the symbolic (categories) and the real in aisthesis is accomplished, I am looking for that site where either aisthesis or the real disrupts the system of categories, preventing the collapse of the lived and real into our categorical schemes.