Working notes on an article on examples I’m working on:

I would like to know what it means to think from the example.  In the university discourse, the example is always a particular of a universal.  It exemplifies the universal and is only of interest insofar as it exemplifies the universal.  A particular is an individual that exemplifies or embodies the features of the universal.  It is in this sense that the example becomes an ornament.  Since the universal already contains all of the essential content, pointing at a triangle does nothing more than allow the student to discern, in the flesh, a specific case of the universal.  “See here, it has three sides.”  In the university discourse, the example, as a particular, serves a dual function.  On the one hand, the particular allows the student to discern the essential features that define the essence of the universal (a triangle is a three-sided figure).  However, on the other hand, the particular only functions to illustrate the universal by way of also indicating the accidental or the non-essential.  “This triangle is made of wood.  That triangle is made of steel.  This triangle is graphite on a piece of paper.  This triangle is equilateral, while that triangle is scalene.  Despite these differences, they’re all triangles.”  The particularity of the individual lies in it embodying what is invariant in the universal despite its individuality.  The university discourse is essentially classificatory.  It aims by making sure that everything is placed in its proper box or category.  Let us never forget that there’s a place for the university discourse.

Aside:  Let us call theory done in this way imperial theory.  An imperial theory is a theory that only acknowledges cases or examples insofar as they exemplify the universal comprehension of the theory.  This was Deleuze’s criticism of Hegel and his “insipid monocentering” (the same could be said of Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegel).  Hegel endlessly finds the same thing again and again, revealing that he is incapable of thinking the singularity of the singular.  This attitude towards the singular is already foreshadowed in his critique of sense-certainty in the open of the Phenomenology.  We wish to say that everything begins with the individual, with the “this-here”, with this specific triangle, only to discover that we can only ever speak the universal (cf. Hyppolite).  However, lest we make Hegel out to be the bad guy, we must also remember Badiou’s critique of Deleuze and the sheer monotony of his work.  Here we must raise the question of whether this critique is valid.  As Deleuze argues in DR, it might be that the singular always erases itself in its actualization or movement into extensity.  This would also be why a philosophy that begins from existence or the singular must always proceed based on an encounter.  (In this connection, it bears recalling Derrida on how the “origins” are always effaced and erased).  Another instance of imperial theory would be Luhmann, who always and everywhere finds the same thing in the phenomena he investigates.  The individual, the singular, is always erased in the name of the theory.

read on!

To resume:  Theory done in the register of the university discourse or imperial theory can be described as Ptolemaic.  Let us recall Ptolemy.  Based on good observational evidence, Ptolemy concluded that the sun and planets orbit the earth in epicycles.  When confronted with discrepancies in the orbits of the planet (singularities), what do the Ptolemains do?  They add more and more epicycles.  The examples, the cases, the individuals, the singularities must be made to fit the theory.  Epicycles are added to epicycles because the case is not an individual, but a particular exemplifying the theory.  As Serres notes in Thumbelina, eventually so many epicycles pile up that something else is called for.  They can no longer be managed anymore.  In Ptolemaic theory, the case is subordinated to the theory.

Ptolemaic theorizing—perhaps what Kuhn called “normal science” –has difficulty seeing the deviant.  It aims always and everywhere to “save the theory”; and with good reason because the theory has so often been successful.  Why throw out Newton because his theory can’t get the orbit of Mercury right?  He’s successfully predicted so much.  There must be a moon that we haven’t yet observed, or perhaps there’s another planet; a missing mass (an epicycle).  In imperial theory the aberrant must be made to fit with the theory (the epicycle must be found), it is not an occasion for theory.  (Let us be empiricists, not in the sense that everything must be verified by observation, but in the sense that we must undergo the force of an encounter to truly think at all).

In imperial theory there are three responses to the aberrant.  First, more often than not, the aberrant is just not seen at all.  We describe this as being in “the grips of a theory”.  One lives entirely in a sort of discursive or conceptual reality that doesn’t encounter the world, lived experience, at all.  The “universal”, the discursive reality of the theory is all that one knows.  Nothing that filters through that sieve can be encountered.  This is a sort of night of the world.  This is perhaps the most common response—a strange non-response response –to the aberrant; especially in the humanities such as philosophy and the social sciences, where one can labor solely at the level of the theory—endlessly repeating the masters –without ever having to encounter anything.  Second, where one does recognize the aberrant and anomalous, they strive to “save the theory”, to show how what appears to be aberrant is, in fact, consistent with the theory by adding new epicycles.

However, in the third instance, imperial theory generates monsters.  The monster is not a terrifying being—though often it is –but rather something that is truly individual…  That is an individual that is not a particular of a universal.  A two-headed chicken is a monster, a monstrosity, because chickens have an essence that each individual chicken as a particular is supposed to exemplify.  The two-headed chicken fundamentally violates that essence and therefore is the contrary of nature.  It is notable that after Darwin there are no longer monsters, because Darwin turns everything upside down.  The individual precedes the universal (species), there are random variations in each individual, and the species (universal) is nothing but a statistical generalization of individuals that are more or less similar.  Species are, for the Darwinian, fictions.  There are only singularities, individuals, that may be successful.  The monster is a Christian, all too Christian (though also Greek), concept.  It is that which doesn’t fit with the order of imperial theory.

And perhaps this is the point to be understood with respect to imperial theory or the university discourse (the “universal” discourse):  Imperial theory can only understand the individual, the singular, or what is aberrant and different in terms of what it is not.  Plato can only understand writing as something that is not speech, and that therefore does not involve memory in the same way is speech (oral cultures could recite all of Homer) and that doesn’t have the face-to-face context of speech.  He cannot understand the features of writing as writing that enable something like, for example (!), complex mathematics to be possible.  Writing is only a negative, a corrupting influence, that destroys our memory and the richness of face-to-face communicative encounters.  Plato is like the Luddite that can only see how the internet and smart phones corrupt us, without seeing their positive and transformative powers.  Writing is a monster, says Plato.  The smart phone is a corruption of lazy individuals, says the Luddite.  Aberrant theory, by contrast, would think from the monstrosity, seeing it not only as the negative or negation of what we already understand, but as the encounter that provokes and demands thought.  Aberrant theory strives to think what the monstrous—that which does not fit the “universal” –is, rather than simply what it is not