February 2016

Nightmare-PrisonThis isn’t really here nor there, but over the years I’ve found the way certain words become the exclusive province of one philosopher incredibly irritating.  Here you have a perfectly good and useful word that you need to do certain philosophical work, but because it’s come to be seen as the exclusive province of one thinker it’s more or less taken out of play unless you’re talking about that thinker.  Take a word like “process”.  What a wonderful word!  To really talk about trees you need to talk about processes because trees are more like activities than brute clods that sit there.  Trees are perpetually “treeing”.  Likewise, Levi “levis” in continuously forming himself as a subject.  I’d say the same is true of rocks as well, but that’s harder to see.  So there you are talking about processes and someone violently objects:  “but that’s not what Whitehead said!  You’re getting him all wrong!”  Of course, nowhere did you mention or reference Whitehead.  Rather, it’s just that Whitehead has come to own the word “process”.  It’s immediately assumed that if you’re speaking of processes you’re speaking of Whitehead.  However, matters should really be quite different.  Whitehead should be seen as presenting an account of process, just as philosophy has presented many accounts of experience, substance, mind, etc.  One can take that up or not.

This is something I continuously encountered with the term “object-oriented ontology”.  While I explicitly coined the term “object-oriented ontology” to distinguish positions committed to the thesis that being is composed of substances while differing from Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOO =/= OOP), any reference to OOO was immediately equated with Harman’s OOP.  Wherever I went I got questions presupposing that I advocated Harman’s claims and had to patiently explain that they were addressing these questions to the wrong philosopher.  I’m not sure why people got confused.  Harman and I don’t look at all alike!  For this reason I’ve increasingly tried to avoid the term “OOO” and to take care not to refer to “objects”.  “OOO” is a term more like “rationalism” or “empiricism” or “idealism” or “materialism”, not the position of a single thinker.

These days I find myself ever increasingly trembling before language.  Lacan liked to say that we’re “cuckold by language”.  At least, that’s what he said in Seminar V, The Formations of the Unconscious.  We think we’re using language, but really we get swept in language in ways that exceed our intentions.  Language speaks us, rather than us speaking language.  I’ve always been rather fond of meme theory for this reason, despite the fact that it’s nearly universally loathed.  The core thesis of meme theory is that memes devise strategies to get themselves replicated or copied, that memes have rather furtive ends that are not necessarily the ends that we wish to put them to.  We get infected by them.  This is how it is with language.  Language takes on a life of its own and speaks beyond us even as we are speaking and writing.

Whitehead-224x300An unpleasant question I encounter everywhere I go is why I’m where I’m at.  Why am I at a two year school where I largely teach first and second year courses?  After all, I’ve written three books and published four, written numerous articles, had some small amount of influence both in academia and outside it, and have been fortunate to speak all over the world.  Everywhere I go I have to explain myself, or maybe I just feel I need to explain myself.  I feel as if I’m either asked to apologize or that I feel I need to apologize, that I need to explain who and what I am.  Such is one of the sad things about academia:  I either am dismissed for where I am or am attributed far more prestige and power than I have.

What can I say?  In the last couple of years I’ve been approached for a number of positions– I didn’t apply for them at the outset –and asked to interview.  Most recently I was approached for a full tenure professor position in a discipline that’s not my own in a rather prestigious department.  It was an honor.  I don’t think I interviewed well but, that aside, I also think they made the right decision.  I just wasn’t that sort of scholar.  It stung a bit, sure.  I also think I just don’t interview well.  I need to talk to people.  I close up in the face of impassive faces, of mirrors without reflections.  Still, and maybe I’m rationalizing, I’m just not sure this position would have been good or right for me.

I’m very proud of the institution where I am.  I think Collin is something special as far as two year schools go.  We have internationally recognized programs in a variety of fields.  We’re genuinely devoted to academics and scholarship.  This is a good place to be.  I’ll never forget when I first came here, when driving home every afternoon tears would streak my face as I crested a hill and saw the plains and the wide open sky with its blue clouds and sun setting.  I would crank up the music and hit the accelerator.  I was alive even as my voice felt dry and croaked from teaching all day long.  The road was before me.  I had survived academia and I was in a good place, a place that respected scholarship and thought.

If I’m speaking selfishly and in terms of my desire (Lacan says not to give way on your desire), I think this is where I belong.  I love the classroom.  I adore the classroom.  I thrive in the classroom.  I dance; I sing; I perform.

I was not a good student in my younger years.  I even failed a year of high school.  I was always elsewhere, distracted.  I thought education was a conspiracy.  Then, around fourteen or fifteen, I discovered philosophy and the world changed.  To me teaching feels like a conspiracy between students and educators against that far darker conspiracy.  I like instilling my students with the idea that there might be some value to education beyond submission or assimilation.  I like filling them with a hole, with questions, with wonder and joy in exploring.  I like being the educator that I needed and yearned for– and I had some great ones –at certain very dark periods of my life.  I like the endless discussion that happens from semester to semester and how it always surprises me.  I grow depressed when I’m not in the classroom.

But, if in addition to the song of the classroom that Collin has made possible for me (what a gift and kindness), it has above all given me absolute academic freedom.  I don’t think that The Democracy of Objects or Onto-Cartography would have ever been possible, that I would have had the courage for them, had I not been here.  Here I am authorized to range over everything regardless of whether it’s in my discipline, whether it be biology, physics, sociology, ethnography, history, mathematics, or literature.  I am given the freedom to explore, well, freely.  That is an amazing and wonderful thing for which I am eternally grateful.  This place has given me the freedom for folly.  I’m not sure it gets better than that, and I’m not sure there’s a better life than this.

In Blade Runner the character of Roy says “I’ve seen things people wouldn’t believe.”  That’s been my life.  I’ve seen extraordinary students.  I’ve had, and do have, graduate students from the Americas to India.  I’ve fought passionate fights about theory and philosophy.  I’ve been privileged to travel the country and the world, learning from others and dialoguing with them.  I’ve seen new movements in theory and politics arise and played some small role in them.  This seems like a good life to me.  I hope to eventually reach the point where I can stop apologizing for my existence or feeling like I have to apologize or explain it.


sartreThere’s an anecdote about Sartre where, upon hearing about phenomenology and how it allowed you to philosophize about something as humble as a coffee cup, the blood drained from his face and he immediately left the party to seek out the work of Husserl.  It seems to me that this is the philosophical dream:  for anything, whether it be the ontology of critters, frittatas, the sonic powers of a concert hall, a chair, or a cup of coffee to become worthy of thought.  Absolute philosophy would be a state where every event that transpires, everything that happens your way and surprises, but also the most mundane and crass, becomes an opportunity for thought.  From the sublime to the crass, there would be something to think, to conceptualize.  Everything would thereby be imbued with an aura of significance, of the riddle.  You would become like Alice where the most ordinary things become the most perplexing.

In this regard, I recall the shock and fascination of Zizek in graduate school.  I had read Derrida, Blanchot, Deleuze, and Lacan.  They spoke of the sublime, of the great.  Mallarme.  Kafka.  Bacon.  Joyce.  Great things, beautiful things.  What made Zizek so astounding was that he spoke of crass things, philistine things, mundane things and filled them with philosophical significance.  Suddenly a bad film, or merely a pop-culture film became the key to unlocking the most subtle dialectical points in Hegel.  Angel Heart, a guilty pleasure perhaps, became the key to the secret of unlocking Lacan and Derrida.  I saw a saccharine, trite film like Pleasantville in the theater and cried because despite its insipidness, its use of images were expressive of Spinoza and Deleuze’s account of immanence as a vector of emancipation.  I could now watch an emotionally manipulative film like Saving Private Ryan and discern the ideology behind it.  AI and Eyes Wide Shut became repetitions of Aeschylus.  The ordinary guilty pleasure took on significance and became signs to be interpreted.  The entire world glowed with an aura.  Happy days.  I dreamt of Zizek’s work.

And then along came Badiou.  His message was different than that of Lacan’s, Zizek’s, or Deleuze’s.  In a world filled with pragmatism, with resignation, he said “keep going; be real, demand the impossible.”  He denied the wisdom of the pragmatic, of what is possible, in the name of committed struggle even where it seems impossible.  He said “create the possible for it has not yet arrived and must be imagined and fought for to be possible.”  And that too was another aura of thought that freed me of hermeneutics and semiotics, of tracing things back to a ground that rendered them possible, recognizing that occasionally the real happens in the form of the unprecedented.  The philosophize about an orange and to imbue the orange with significance beyond itself, to trace all of its threads and folds, that is my philosophical dream.

stiller_zoolander1Recently a friend of mine confessed that he is one corny, cheesy, sentimental son of a bitch.  Try as he might, he said, he cannot pull of that jaded, cynical, sardonic “too cool for school” thing that so many of his friends have down to a science.  It seems to me that the “too cool for school” (hereafter TCFS) phenomenon is pervasive throughout the field of radical politics and those branches of the humanities particularly oriented towards the project of critique.  Everywhere we encounter a sort of cynicism and haste to dismiss any affirmative claim, any proposal, and any claim that something is the case.  Those that are TCFS find a dirty secret behind everything.  Every enunciation is said to harbor something shameful and the winning gesture consists in showing that anywhere an affirmative claim is made, there is some sort of moral guilt or culpability.

Vampire-StudyLong ago Mark K-Punk referred to such people as “grey vampire”.  Vampires, of course, suck blood, the force of life.  Grey vampires are particularly fearsome because they are like smoke.  Mark Fisher referred to it as “the sneer from nowhere”.  The grey vampire masters everywhere because he never commits himself to anything.  He sneers from nowhere so he’s like smoke.  The ultimate Bro.  Whenever you attempt to get hold of them they slip away, all the while sucking your blood.  The grey vampire’s great advantage lies in being nowhere, all the better to be everywhere.  Occupying no position of their own, they can all the better function as the superego.  Everywhere they strive to demoralize, to instill guilt, to fill others with inexpiable debt.  Their sharp teeth strive to inflict one of two wounds, and often both together.

read on!


the_stranger_by_muffinbob-d520ml9I won’t lie.  It’s very likely that philosophy makes us worse.  Morrison said that people are strange when you’re a stranger.  Philosophy does something far worse.  It makes you a stranger to everything and, above all, a stranger to that which is most obvious.  It makes everything strange, mysterious.  Philosophy problematizes.  We come to it seeking answers, but instead perplexities multiply like tribbles.  Everything becomes quicksand.   “Where before we thought we knew what we meant when we spoke of being, we now find that we are perplexed.”  That is the philosophical experience par excellence.  The philosopher is the universal stranger.  This is why there are so many stories of philosophers falling into wells.  However, perhaps becoming-worse is a sort of superior or great health; a health where one even wonders what health is…  A health where one wonders if they’re even human anymore.

gradiva_gm_334938ex1Assuming the college grants me leave, I’ll be giving a talk at the Colorado Springs LACK conference on Friday, April 22 entitled “The Repression of Things:  Fantasy, Meaning, and the Return of the Real”.  Drawing on Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology and Lacan’s theory of fantasy and subjectivation, my aim will be to uncover why thought historically seems to so ineluctably tend towards idealism, repressing things and materiality (an ambitious project for such a short talk).  This is part of a broader project seeking to uncover the persistent repression of materiality in world religions and philosophies.  If you’re in the area come check it out.  More information about the conference can be found here.

mt_head_formation_foldI will be giving the keynote address at the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee at 3:30 on Friday, February 19th.  The theme of the conference is “In Process”.  The title of my talk is “The Interior of Things”, but really this is somewhat misleading.  Rather, if I can pull it off I will be presenting the ontology of the fold where I argue that the minimal unit of being is not the thing or object, but rather thing and field.  Things are conceptualized as dynamic folds of the field of being.  In this way I hope to develop a framework that does justice to both discreteness (thing) and continuity (field) without falling into the difficulties of occasionalism and while also avoiding the undermining and overmining of beings.  As a process, beings are mobile folds like waves that are both individuals and continuous with the fields out of which they arise.  It seems that there is no better venue in which to introduce the ontology of the fold, for what is interdisciplinarity if not the folding of one discipline into another, generating unheard of forms of origami in which disciplines relate to one another through resonance?  I’m told that the talk is open to the public, so if you’re in the area and are interested, please drop by.  More information about the conference can be found here.

Cu-corralWith his declaration of the identity of being and thinking Parmenides inaugurates one of the central themes and aspirations of Western philosophy:  absolute knowledge.  It is this that Heidegger and Derrida are referring to when they speak of the “philosophy of presence”.  Being that is identical to thinking will be maximally present.  It will present itself without remainder, with nothing withdrawn, with nothing outside.  There will be hundreds of variations on this theme.  Parmenides, of course, will give his patient demonstration, arguing that if non-being is not and that if difference always involves reference to what something is not, then thought cannot be other than being.  There will be Plato’s theory of recollection, where being is already written in our souls and we merely need to recollect it.  There will be Descartes’ identity of existing and thinking, along with the doctrine of innate ideas.  There will be Spinoza’s magnificent metaphysics where the thinking of substance is the same as substance and where the order and connection of ideas is the same as that of things.  With Hume we will get things dissolved into bundles of impressions or ideas.  With Kant we will get mind forming reality and will be told that the conditions for the possibility of things are the same as the conditions for the possibility of experience.  Hegel, who perhaps goes furthest in the Parmendian vector, will declare the identity of substance and subject.  And today we have Badiou declaring the identity of math and being.  What is math if not the power of thought, its freedom, taken to the limit.  Maths pose the greatest mystery for philosophy for in the spontaneity– to use Kant’s terminology –of mathematical reasoning we anticipate the structure of existence via thought alone rather than the detour of experience.

kurtz_2We are accustomed today of discerning a will to power at the heart of this philosophical telos.  Heidegger, Derrida, and Horkheimer and Adorno taught us to read mastery at the heart of that formula of thought that would treat being and thinking as identical.  For what is thought if not the domain of freedom?  As Kant taught, thought is spontaneity:  the power of rendering present without requiring the detour of the presence of the thing.  Such is the secret of the famous synthetic a priori propositions:  they expand knowledge without the presence of the thing.  We broach, for example, new domains of mathematics through the power of thought alone.  No doubt this is why we only find prodigies in maths, music, and certain mathematical games like chess.  Experience is not required, just the patient unfolding of the thought.  If thought and being were identical then we would have complete mastery over being.

Perhaps this is why there has always been such a loathing of materialism throughout the history of philosophy (and, as an aside, I don’t think this is unique to Western thought).  If materialism means anything, it signifies the impotence of thought.  Materialism means that we die without remainder, that we age, that we must go through the detour of things to satisfy ourselves, that we experience fatigue and many other sad things besides.  The denigration of the body is not a special province of the West.  It takes many forms.  The body is a wonderful garden of delights, but it is also gravity, aging, fatigue, sickness, the wound, unrequited desire, time lost, and many other sad things besides.  There is infinity within us, infinite desire.  We find this in Plato, the Hindus and Buddhists, Descartes, Lacan.  How is it that a finite system finds infinity within it, has infinity within it.  Yet there it is; a pure torment like the sound of rain on a tin roof, calling to us to discover its depth.  That’s what Lacan means when he says that psychoanalysis is tragic.  There’s no solution to it.

Torus-mit-Serie-von-AnsprüchenAnd so we are material beings that harbor infinity within us and the horrifying, voracious desire that it evokes.  We are tori that don’t know ourselves as tori; that tragically pulsate about our surface, aiming at a hole that we can never fill.  We dream, therefore, of a being that would be identical to thinking, that would enjoy the spontaneity of thought and that would not involve the detour of absence beings such as ourselves must pass through to satisfy ourselves.  With this comes all of our nastiness:  a prophecy given to Adam– but that is also found in some form in every world religion –of dominion over the world and nature; a will to mastery and control that is exercised on all things, including ourselves.  Of course, as Adorno taught, there’s always a remainder, a surd of being that escapes the sovereignty of thought, that we don’t anticipate.  We make a mess of it all, both nature and society.

It’s easy to denounce this dream of an identity of being and thought, but it also goes to the heart of politics and our lives.  The dream of the identity of being and thought was also a dream of emancipation.  The most favored theory of truth, of course, has always been that truth is a correspondence between thought and thing.  We merge with the thing in presence.  There is no shadow but the two mirror one another.  The thing has been made present.  It’s not easy to see how this might involve questions of politics and particularly questions of emancipation, but really it is a question of authority and our attachment to authority.  My thought doesn’t mirror things, but rather mirrors those authorities that I trust:  thought — expert — thing.  The doctor knows.  I do not.  I must subordinate myself because I am ignorant.  But how do I know whether the doctor knows?  Perhaps he’s an idiot.  I don’t have the knowledge to say and if I did I wouldn’t need my doctor.  How do I know whether or not he’s manipulating me?  Is he really a shepherd of my health or is he fleecing me?  Do I really need these tests or is he padding his resume.  Is my priest a shepherd of my soul or does he want me to fight his war and install him in a position of power?

The dream of an identity of being and thinking is also a dream of emancipation; for where presence reigns there is also no need for an alienation in the sovereign.  The sovereign rules because we believe him to have knowledge, wisdom, to lead us to flourishing.  Where we have this knowledge we no longer need him.  Today that dream lies in ruins.  No one can master it all; no one is an expert.  It’s turtles or authorities all the way down.  None of the scientists at CERN really understand what the others are doing, but must trust what the others are doing, that they know, to do what they’re doing.  The presence called for by the tradition of epistemology is no longer sustainable.  Everywhere we just encounter citation.  And at that point, I wonder, what becomes of the dream of philosophy?  How must we conceive of knowledge, and knowledge as it relates to emancipation, today?

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