March 2016

Plato's_Symposium_-_Anselm_Feuerbach_-_Google_Cultural_InstituteToday I found myself rereading Lacan’s 8th seminar (transference) after 15 years. I try to put myself in the shoes of his audience. He had such a remarkable talent for shedding entirely new light on texts, but also for transforming psychoanalysis itself. Take your average Anglo-American psychology (or social science) program today and imagine someone with the audacity to engage in a close reading of Plato’s Symposium to understand the nature of transference. Were talking about a period where positivism was regnant across the board and where there was a deep drive in psychology, psychoanalysis, and other social sciences to take on an air of ersatz scientificity.  Here we have a man that wore ridiculous wigs guiding us through the Symposium to understand the core of the psychoanalytic experience.


A Young Lacan

His readings are always remarkable in that you get the sense that you are discovering a secret text within the text:  a secret that somehow reveals the meaning of the text, its internal logic, that somehow has endlessly been missed.  Texts that we’ve read dozens of times take on an entirely new cast.  “How could I have missed that?  It was so obvious?” is often my experience.  His readings never carry the air of scholarly or academic pedantry, but rather show why these texts continue to speak to us across time:  Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Descartes, Russell, Quine, Wittgenstein, Kant, Sade, Shakespeare, etc.  All of it becomes something else in his hands, and somehow something quite different than what it’s been.

But it’s also psychoanalysis that becomes something different in his hands.  Let’s be honest, Freud and much of the psychoanalytic literature prior to Lacan is just plain crass.  We get something that appears like a reductive hydraulics of psych.  With Lacan entirely new terms are introduced that go to our existential, extimate core:  love, desire, jouissance, the Other, the Law, ethics, etc.  These are not really terms that Freud used; at least not in the sublime sense deployed by Lacan.  Somehow Lacan introduces something entirely new into Freud, while also finding something that was everywhere there.  Lacan is a model of what a reading can be, of a productive reading, of a reading that bears fidelity to the living being of texts rather than placing them in the museum of scholarship.  Lacan provides a model of reading that is thought rather than mastery.

140703100133-bangkok-fish-mall-restricted-story-topIs this how it ends?  Does it end with everyone knowing something is deeply wrong, with everyone seeing something is wrong– except bureaucrats and administrators –deeply wrong, yet being completely powerless to do something about it or change course?  Does it end with everyone doped up with reality television, the latest outrage of the moment, and a deep unease, yet no one speaking up about it?  Does it end with every speech act immediately getting neutralized, such that it produces little more than a ripple in the pond?  Does it end with all of us standing around pointing out that it’s all wrong, that it’s a mess, and congratulating each other while going with safe choices and pragmatic realism while the water heats up?

fissureI’ve been struggling to express this thought, but don’t yet have words to do so with any conceptual rigor or eloquence.  Maybe I shouldn’t write about this at all, then.  Or maybe I should just write blindly, hoping that something will shake loose and that a seed will form allowing me to formulate something more rigorously in the future.  That is, after all, the entire point of this blog…  To follow larval subjects through a blind writing that might develop into something more into the future.  Hegel disdainfully said of Schelling’s ever shifting systems, that he conducted his education in public.  I suppose I’m like Schelling in this respect.  I follow my errancy, letting thoughts form in fits and starts, seeing where they lead and watching many of them fall into ruin.  I prefer, however, to think that my method is more Leibnizian or occasional; that I’m a sort of letter writer that develops thought as the occasion demands it.

Perhaps I should start with the context of the thought:  the current primary election between Sanders and Clinton.  I hesitate to do so because I don’t want this to become a discussion about politics– especially democratic politics –but am trying to get at something of a trauma.  Again and again the polls indicate that the older generation, the boomers, are skewing towards Clinton, while the younger vote, the millennials, is skewing towards Sanders.  This is something I’ve encountered myself in discussion with my friends of various ages.  My older friends, in their late fifties and sixties, overwhelmingly gravitate towards Clinton, while my peers and students skew towards Sanders.   This is not something I’ve only experienced in the domain of politics, but also in philosophy.  I’ve witnessed, on a number of occasions, divides such as this between generations over schools of philosophical thought.  The first such experience was with the rise of Badiou contra phenomenology, hermeneutics, and deconstruction.  There was the palpable feel that an entirely new discourse had emerged, that there were new rules of the game; yet the prior generation proceeded according to the same methodologies as if nothing new had occurred.  Later I witnessed and participated in something similar with the new materialisms and speculative realisms.

read on!


Chess_2564736bAs has often been noted, the structuralists often used the concept of games and, in particular, chess to describe the difference between speech and language.  Play on the board can be likened to speech.  In making a move one engages in an act of speech.  However, these moves are rendered possible by the structure of language that precedes any play or moves made on the board.  On the one hand, we have the rules governing the game.  These rules can roughly be equated with the syntagmatic dimension of language or rules presiding over how elements of language can be combined, what moves can be made, and so on.  The syntagmatic could be called the axis of combination.  In a game like chess you have the initial arrangement of all the pieces on the board, and then you have the rules of movement for each type of piece which also presides over the conditions under which they can move.  For example, you can’t move your bishop until a space opens up with your pawns.

On the other hand, there is the paradigmatic dimension of language.  This dimension might be called the axis of selection and refers to changes in connotation produced through substitution.  This dimension is harder to capture in a game like chess, but can be readily seen in language.  Take a simple seme such as “pat”.  Through selection or substitution of phonemes we can get the following:






Generally the syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions of language are deeply bound up with one another and can’t be disentangled, as in the case of my name “Levi”.  Through recombination we can get the following anagrams out of my name:





The structuralist thesis here is that language, structure, remains the same despite the infinite number of speech-acts it renders possible through substitution and combination.  Structuralism, of course, has always had a difficult time accounting for diachrony or linguistic change.  It approaches things through their synchronous structure, presenting a atemporal or eternal view of language.  The point, however, is that we can produce an infinite number of meaning-effects out of this synchronous structure of combination and selection, just as we can play an endless number of different games in chess despite the finite number of rules and pieces that compose the game.

I am not here endorsing structural linguistics, but using these basic concepts as posing the question of the event or rupture within the social field and politics.  Following Kuhn, we can distinguish between two types of politics:  normal and revolutionary politics.  What sort of games are we imagining in these two politics?  Normal politics would be that form of politics that proceeds by making moves within an existing structure.  The question here would be one of how to make the best, most strategic move within an existing structure.  In the United States, this would be the game played by new or third way democrats with their talk of pragmatism, realism, and incrementalism.  There thesis is that structure is fixed, that the game’s rules are defined and set, and that the best one can hope for is to make strategically effective moves within that structural field.  Here, of course, the rules of the game never change.  Minor victories can be achieved against ones opponent, but the identities and distribution of classes ultimately remain the same regardless of the moves that are made.  The deep grammar of the game never changes; there are only tactical moves that confer advantage over ones opponent.  Here it’s worth noting that the aim of this game is to best ones opponent.

Revolutionary politics, by contrast, envisions the possibility of making a move or series of moves that changes the syntagmatic and paradigmatic structure of the game itself.  In revolutionary politics one is not so much playing against an opponent– though that too –but aim to mutate the deep grammar of the game itself.  In revolutionary politics– the politics of rupture and event –victory consists not in triumph over ones enemy (here I’m thinking of Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction), but in transformation in the very nature of the game.  Revolutionary politics institutes an entirely new axis of combination and selection; an entirely different set of rules and identities.  Revolutionary politics is successful when we begin by playing one game, but do so in such a way as to create a new game through moves within that game.  It is for this reason that revolutionary politics necessarily targets its own side to the same degree that it targets its opposition.  Its own side also reinforces and defends the deep grammar of the game that the revolutionary seeks to transmute.  Within revolutionary games, then, the operative distinction is not the friend/enemy distinction, but rather the speech/language, sentence/deep-grammar distinction.  The revolutionary game dreams of a “speech” that mutates or transmutes the very grammar that renders it possible.

It is for this reason that revolutionary politics is indiscernible to normal politics.  Normal politics can only discern moves within an established game.  It is incapable of imagining a game other than the one it is playing and for this reason can only discern a system according to the friend/enemy distinction structured by a deep grammar that is seen as an essential and immutable structure of being itself.  “This is the way the world is!  Be a realist!  Nothing is to be done!”  The figure of the revolutionary is therefore encountered with deep perplexity.  On the one hand, the revolutionary seems to be on their side, fighting for their causes.  Yet on the other hand, the revolutionary seems to be a double agent because she targets her own side as much as she targets the other side.  Her motives are always interpreted with distrust because she doesn’t seem to be entirely committed to triumph over the enemy.  And indeed, she’s not entirely committed to triumph over the enemy because she’s angling for something much more profound:  a mutation of the structure of the game itself that defines the rules of the game, the identities at play in the game, and the hierarchies that distribute these identities within the game.  Revolutionary politics aims at a non-Euclidean transformation of the Euclidean sphere of play so as to institute a very different space of action, life, meaning, goals, and affect.  To normal politics this looks like chaos because normal politics is unable to imagine a different game.  We could say that normal politics is scholarly prose, whereas revolutionary politics is poetry at its best:  that poetry that transforms the fabric of language.

maxresdefaultWhen teaching the concept of ideology to my first year students, I love using Michael Bay’s Armageddon as a prime example.  From beginning to end, the film is one long wet kiss to Reagan conservatism.  The entire thesis of the film consists in staging the inability for government to solve any of the world’s problems.  No, only private business can save us.  The film opens with Bruce Willis hitting golf balls at a Greenpeace ship protesting his offshore oil rig.  They, of course, are to be vilified because any attempt to address climate will lead to more government regulation.  Willis’ character notes that they’re hypocrites because their boat is burning gasoline.  When the government arrives because they’ve been recommended as the best deep drillers on the planet, Willis finds out that the government has stolen the patents to his drill (government is dishonest and a thief), and the NASA scientists can’t even put the drill together correctly (government can’t do anything right; never mind the fact that they can land on a comet with a few months planning).  When Willis decides there’s no way highly trained astronauts can save the planet and agrees to take his crew to the comet to do the job for them (private oil companies to save the world!), they all request to never be taxed again because, well, taxes are theft.  Once on the comet they have to struggle with NASA in Houston to prevent the bomb from being detonated before the hole is drilled (federal government is too remote to deal with local issues).

ronald-reagan-portrait-5-corporate-art-task-forceThe entire film is staged to unfold the incompetence of government, the thesis that private business is always the best solution, and the opposition between federal and local government.  What I find fascinating, however– and I have no answer to this question, I’m just marking it –is the way in which the images that we’re conscious of, that are right there before us in movies, novels, comic books, and television shows somehow work on us, giving us frames for interpreting the world about us.  The unconscious is right there, on the surface, for anyone to see, yet is still somehow veiled.  I don’t know that the average viewer of this film registers that they’re being spoon fed an ideological frame through which to view the world, yet somehow these images still work us over and produce meaning.  How is it that we absorb these things, as if through a sort of osmosis, without even being aware that we’re doing so?  People often think that art– and I’m not suggesting that Armageddon is art –is a representation of reality; that it is somehow supposed to depict reality.  This gets things backwards.  Art, rather, is the frame through which we approach reality; through which we structure an opaque and enigmatic world, giving it sense and structure.  Art somehow seems to precede the real, not the reverse.

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)It’s difficult to understand why anyone would ever get excited about Kant’s question “how are synthetic a priori propositions possible?”  It’s an incredibly abstract question.  Everything must be placed in context.  That seems to lack any import beyond academic import.  We have analytic a priori concepts.  I think the concept “bachelor” and immediately think “unmarried male”.  There’s nothing in an analytic a priori judgments or concepts that, to use Kant’s language, “amplifies” my concept of “bachelor”.  “Unmarried male” is already contained in my concept of “bachelor”.  It’s a matter of definitions.  That’s why I can know it independent of experience.  The NSF won’t fund a study for research into whether bachelors are unmarried males as there’s nothing to learn.  We know it by definition.

With synthetic a posterior judgments, my knowledge is amplified.  When I go to Morocco for the first time, my concept of Morocco is expanded.  I synthesize the subject “Morocco” with my new experiences, learning something that I didn’t know before.  This is the magicians theory of knowledge.  Every magician knows that you can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat without first putting it into the hat.  There’s nothing in the mind, according to the empiricists that wasn’t first put there.  That’s empiricism.  The rule of the magician.

But the synthetic a priori is real magic.  From thought alone you’re getting more out of the hat than you put there in the first place.  When Kant says that 7+5 = 12 is not an analytic a priori judgment, nor a synthetic a posteriori judgment, but a synthetic a priori judgment, he’s saying that when we go through these calculations we learn something we didn’t know at first, something that’s absolutely certain but that we didn’t know at the outset, and that this isn’t merely a matter of definitions nor is it a matter of experience (the five senses).  Through thought we get more than we started with.  It would appear that with thought we can violate the principle of the conservation of matter and energy:  we get more than we started with…  At least, if synthetic a priori propositions are possible.  This is real magic.  This is a real mystery.

We might not be impressed with coming to know something more through thought alone in arriving at the sum of 12, but the issue has much broader implications than Kant explicitly suggests in the first Critique.  Situate the issue in the absurd debate between nature and nurture.  Those on the nurture side are magicians.  They say there’s nothing in a person’s mind that wasn’t first put there by how they were nurtured by their caregivers and their social environment.  If you’re brought up in a hateful, bigoted, abusive environment you’ll be a hateful, bigoted, abuser because that’s all you were ever brought up with.  If you’re on the nature side, your hat is already full.  Some sort of genetic code makes you a hateful, bigoted, abuser.  Tough luck.  That’s what you are.

But if synthetic a priori propositions are possible…  Well that’s a game changer.  If synthetic a priori propositions are possible this means there’s a power of thought…  A power to go beyond teaching or environment and a power to go beyond your nature.  If synthetic a priori propositions are possible this means you have the power to introduce something new into both your own thought and the world through thought.  This means you’re beyond history, even while mired in history, and beyond your nature.  You can think beyond yourself and make yourself beyond yourself.  What is really at stake in the synthetic a priori is freedom; your capacity to be self-determining and self-creating and your capacity to be something other than a Nazi even though you’ve only ever been exposed to Nazis and have nazism in your biological nature. This is what Badiou is talking about when he talks about the Event, what Zizek is talking about when he talks about the Subject as the gap, and what Deleuze is talking about when he talks about the New…  A power of thought to invent through thought and not simply because something else entered into the hat through the five senses.  Kant’s real question is a question about what the power of thought is, about what it means to invent or think and create the new.  It’s the question of real freedom.  And that is why the question “how are synthetic a priori propositions possible?” is a question worth taking seriously and getting excited about.

RSIIt seems I’m in a mood for lists tonight; or maybe it’s just been a long day so I don’t have the energy to compose things more artfully.  The unconscious in all its variations calls for an appearance/reality distinction.  There is a phenomenon (appearance) that calls for an interpretation at the level of reality.  We think it’s one thing, but really it’s another.

The first form of the unconscious is Leibnizian and occurs in region 7 or the imaginary.  The ocean is composed of an infinity of infinitesimal drops of water.  Unconsciously we perceive each of these drops of water (the real).  But mind performs a synthesis and we instead hear the roar of the ocean (the appearance).  This unconscious calls for us to reach the infinitesimal of the ocean; that which is the ground of what we hear at the molar or macro level of our perception when we hear the comforting roar of the ocean.

_47245971_spiderweb_splThe second unconscious occurs in region 3 and takes two forms:  the ethnographic and psychoanalytic.  The ethnographic unconscious is the system of signifiers, of categories, thrown over ones body.  “You’re a member of the Mouse clan!  You’re a member of the Owl clan!”  This form of the unconscious is not in our minds.  Just as the value of a dollar bill is not up to us, we don’t get to decide how we’re categorized (though we can fight these categories).  These categories preside over our destiny in all sorts of ways.  There are things Mice can do that Owls can’t do and vice versa.  It’s not up to us, even though we can struggle against these webs.  We might be done with totemism, but totemism isn’t done with us.  That’s how it is with the ethnographic unconscious.

crossword-puzzle-and-penThe psychoanalytic unconscious internalizes the symbolic in mind.  It isn’t an external set of symbolic determinations or categories deciding our destiny, but rather the way in which we navigate these categories.  When I still practiced psychoanalysis, I had a patient that had the following dream:

There were two deer in my brother-in-law’s back yard frolicking playfully.  I woke up fully of joy and happiness.

She had spoken on many occasions about how she hated her brother-in-law.  It was a repeated theme in her sessions.  After she told me her dream I punctuated it:  “frolicked?”  In previous sessions she’d always used this term for “sex”; with her husband she would say “we had a frolic”.  That immediately came to her mind.  “Deer”, I asked?  Immediately she associated to the homonym “dear”.  “Your brother-in-law’s back yard?”  “Oh my god”, she exclaimed, “I have a thing for my brother-in-law.  That’s why he drives me so crazy!”  This was a pivotal point in her analysis where she began to explore the desire that was disrupting her marriage and where she began to explore her unconscious.  That’s how it is with the psychoanalytic unconscious and why it’s written like a language.  It’s like the New York Times cross-word puzzle where some completely unrelated signifier that’s an “equivoke” (as Lacan puts it in Seminar 22) or set of homonyms, or like a pictogram where you’re supposed to guess the meaning of a boat on top of a house (houseboat) to find what the unconscious is expressing through furtive means.  The signifiers always get us in the end.  The metaphors we use are saying something else.

Brain loss and losing memory and intelligence due to neurological trauma and head injury or alzheimers disease  caused by aging with gears and cogs in the shape of a human face showing cognitive loss and thinking function.

Then there’s the neurological unconscious.  There’s not much to say about this, though there’s much to learn.  You’re a smoker.  You’ve quit.  Everyone in the world seems to be attacking you, seems to be threatening.  But it’s not them, it’s your neuro-chemistry.  We experience the neurological unconscious when we’re having a nicotine fit or when we’re in the midst of euphoria caused by Molly where we’re in love with everything.  It’s a chemical bath that produces this.

Today we have a new form of the unconscious:  the datalogical unconscious.  The datatological unconscious resembles the ethnographic unconscious– and is symbolic –in that it consists of the data that we electronically generate through our credit reports, our social security numbers, our web searches and so on.  At the conference I was at last week, Neal Swisher discussed the way in which this unconscious works with fitness watches.  In the first instance, you use these watches to learn something about yourself that is both yourself and more than yourself.  You learn about your heart rates and so on as you’re running and resting.  There’s something that is in you that is also not you because it is so foreign.  You upload this data, through an app, to a website to find out its meaning.  You thereby externalize yourself to know yourself.  What is interesting here is that this information is often sold to various companies like health insurance companies.  Something about you is traveling about the world, circulating throughout the world, and perhaps leading to decisions about you that you’re scarcely aware of. That’s the datalogical unconscious…  An agency that you are, that you are completely unaware of that’s deciding things regarding your life.

This is how it is with Google.  You think you’re doing a search like anyone else, but Google decides what to show you based on your past searches and where you’re located in the world.  People in Frisco, Texas see something different than people in Macon, Georgia, and both of these people see something different based on what they’ve searched for in the past.  Like someone suffering from the psychological phenomenon of depersonalization that sees their image in the mirror but cannot recognize that it is their image in the mirror, everywhere in the datalogical unconscious we’re seeing ourselves without seeing ourselves and that unconscious is making all sorts of decisions about our destiny or future.

Next Page »