My daughter was sweet enough to share her flu with me, so I’m not sure I should be writing as I’m not very together cognitively at the moment. However, these days I feel as if I have to get things down as they come; so here goes. Recently my friend Orpheus and I have been having a discussion about reason and politics that has filled me with thought. If I were to say that there is one inspiration that animates his thought, it would be Spinoza and his idea of adequate ideas. Spinoza is one of my deepest and oldest philosophical attachments (I began reading him and never stopped after when I was 16; the Ethics and Tractatus were incredibly comforting and important to me in the socio-political context where I grew up), and I am deeply sympathetic to him. In some ways, for me, the sun rises and sets with Spinoza.
I see him as something of the culmination of the radical Greek philosophical idea that not only can the world be known through reason, not only is it possible to conceive being without transcendence, but that also that the good, the ethical good, is the reason of itself and that we don’t need external sanctions for the good. Thinking very much in the Hellenistic vein of the Epicureans and Stoics– not to mention Socrates (as opposed to Plato) and even Aristotle –the good is that which would deliver us flourishing or eudaimonia; the life that we all desire. What is it that Socrates argues in the Apology? He says that he couldn’t intentionally desire to corrupt the youth because all people by nature desire the good. Why? Because it’s good! The problem is that we’re ignorant of the good. The radical Greek idea which Spinoza repeats and deepens is that reason can direct us to the good and that knowledge of the good is not the result of authority or commandments, but of inquiry. Not only does ethics become a branch of therapeutics and medicine, but we could say that just as there are advances in medical science (Foucault and Canguilhem raise all sorts of questions for me here), there are also advances in ethics… In knowledge of how to live well. Perhaps, most importantly, as Nussbaum argues, thought, reason, for these thinkers, has the capacity to free us of the destructive desires that animate us. All genuine clinical practice in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis really has this as its ultimate axiom: the symbolic has the capacity to act on the real of the jouissance of the symptom.
While you can’t treat a broken leg through reason, thought, and speech, you can treat something like racism through the symbolic. The paralyzing, destructive, and painful jouissance that the racist suffers can be addressed through the symbolic. Here the person through goes through some form of therapeutics does not merely repress or control the feelings they have, the affects they suffer are eradicated through the agency of the symbolic. It’s not by mistake that Aristotle’s most thorough treatment of the emotions and affects is to be found in the Rhetoric, for our emotions, our jouissance, are not brute instinctual responses to the world that are, as it were, “hard wired”. They are discursive. My affects are a function of what I believe and how I judge. There is so much hope here; though it’s not as if any of this comes easily. The Buddhists, who had a similar thought, recognized that daily meditation is necessary. In a sense, this is what a psychoanalysis is all about; for while our jouissance might have discursive elements, these elements are often deeply rooted and unconscious, requiring much to work through. We are often unaware of the discursive dimension that prompt our affects and when we discover them they often seem like bad jokes or puns. Then there are the “glitches” that we suffer from: the traumas, the missed encounters, the errors in our symbolic algorithms that repeat again and again like a skipping record (does anyone remember records?) as the symbolic attempts to “digest” or “gentrify” the real that can’t be swallowed. Without realizing it we circle about our wounds endlessly… They become attractors generative of creativity as symbols/symptoms proliferate attempting to integrate them.
And then there’s love. My disquiet with the Hellenistic-Spinozist model, based in its optimism of reason, is that I’m not sure it always does such a good job recognizing the unconscious, drive, trauma and… Attachment and love. I suppose I wish for a superior form of reason that takes this dark side of reason into account and faces its full reality. Over the years the irritating splinter, the shard of glass that’s slowly filled me with despair or driven me insane, is the inability of reason to persuade and change belief. I suppose that means I’m animated by a sort of will to power that’s probably not so nice. But why is it that the stronger argument, repeatedly, doesn’t prevail? I’m not suggesting that I have the stronger arguments, for I readily recognize that they don’t often prevail over me. But why is it that argument so often fails?
It occurs to me this evening that a big part of this puzzle is not ideology or power, but rather love. It is because we love. Love, attachment, follows a very different logic that thwarts logic everywhere. Libido, desire, has its own laws. Psychoanalysis recognized this early in the phenomenon of transference and learned to use transference to its advantage. Alcibiades stumbles into the party drunk in the Symposium and declares his love for Socrates. He says that Socrates contains a precious agalma, a je ne sais quoi, that animates his desire for him. There’s something “in” Socrates that is somehow more than Socrates. Many of us have experienced this with our various amorous attachments in friendships and loves. We’re not sure why we’re so attached to this person. We just can’t help ourselves. Our friends and loved ones might rightfully tell us that this person is terrible for us, they might adduce all sorts of legitimate reasons demonstrating this, but it’s all to no avail. Again, we can’t help ourselves.
Perhaps this is because love follows a fundamentally different “logic” than reason. Where action based on reason culminates from, well, reasons, in love reasons follow from love or the agalma. In reason I change my diet because the doctor tells me all of the problems that will arise from this if I don’t. In love, the agalma is the reason and it accretes reasons for itself ex post facto. Indeed, the reasons don’t much matter. I find reasons for the attachment I already have and if they are ill founded, contradictory, or false I’ll find other. Reasons slide off the agalma like water off the back of a duck. And this is why love is so intractable to reasons, why persuasion is so impotent where love is concerned.
This thesis, if true, is disturbing when we extrapolate it to loves involved at the broader social level pertaining to race, nations, charismatic political figures, parties, religions, institutions, theoretical orientations, philosophical figures, and all the rest. It means that at the core of our involvement of these things there’s a kernel, the agalma, that presides over this attachment where reasons come second as a result of the attachment. This entails that these attachments are largely libidinal, the result of desire, the result of agalma, and, as a result, deeply resistant to any sort of reason. The ruin of the radical Hellenistic idea. “I tried Seneca, I really did, but I loved him. I couldn’t help myself, I couldn’t change my desire!” Perhaps in this context the questions to ask are “why do we love?” and “what do we love when we love?” In asking these questions we might discover a superior reason with more tractable rhetorical strategies than those we find at the surface level of reason where it seems to be believed that disabusing someone of the false notion is enough to dispel the dark political attachment like so much morning fog.