Althusser


Expanding a bit on my last post, I recall that my initial impression of Harman’s Tool-Being was that it was a strange Badiouianism. This is certainly an odd claim to make as Badiou is nowhere a key reference in Graham’s work, nor does he deploy concepts like multiplicity, event, truth-procedure, or set in his ontology. So given such profound differences between these two thinkers, what could have led me to discern such a profound proximity between the two of them? Simply put, both Harman and Badiou are profound anti-relationists and subtractive thinkers. Badiou’s multiplicities are militantly anti-relational and, moreover, everything in his thought revolves around what can be subtracted from situations: events and truth-procedures. Likewise, while we find nothing like events or truth-procedures as Badiou understands them, Harman’s objects are nonetheless subtracted from all relation by virtue of the fact that they are radically withdrawn.

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In thinking through the strange mereology of object-oriented ontology I’ve been particularly fascinated by the example of couples. Subtractive variants of object-oriented ontology are all agreed, I believe, that objects are independent of the parts that make them up. When I refer to “subtractive object-oriented ontology”, I am referring to the positions of Harman, Bogost, and myself where it is held that objects are independent and autonomous from their relations. Subtractive OOO is thus to be contrasted with relationist object-oriented ontology, where objects are held to be real, yet nonetheless possess domestic or internal relations to all other objects in the world.

Insofar as all objects are necessarily aggregates of other objects, it follows that objects cannot exist without their parts. However, while subtractive variants of OOO concede that objects cannot exist without their parts and that, indeed, one way of destroying an object is through the destruction of its parts, nonetheless objects are independent of the parts that compose them. In other words, objects cannot be reduced to their parts. The parts of an object are themselves objects that have their own autonomy and life. The larger object composed out of these parts is another object that has its own autonomy and life. If this is the case, then it is because parts of an object can come and go, while the object remains. Thus, for example, we might argue that the parts of the United States are the citizens of the United States. However, citizens are born and die and sometimes renounce their citizenship, yet the United States remains. Moreover, it is possible for someone to be a citizen of the United States without knowing anything about the United States or that the United States exists. Indeed, we are often a part of objects without scarcely knowing we are part of these objects. This is why sociology renders a service in revealing the way in which we’re entangled in larger scale objects that effect our lives in a variety of ways without being aware that we’re part of these objects.

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Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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fn3ontoOne of the most attractive, problematic, and astonishing features of Badiou’s ontology is his strictly extensional understanding of sets or multiplicities. A set is not defined by its members sharing a common predicate or quality, nor by the relations among members of the set. Rather, a set is defined strictly by its extension or the members that belong to that set. From the standpoint of 20th Century French and German Continental philosophy, this thesis cannot but be a heresy, for the predominant trend in Continental thought has been a relational conception of entities. Whether we are speaking of language as a diacritical set of negative oppositions as defended by the structuralists and the post-structuralists, or Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where entities, the ready-to-hand, are defined by the relational networks to which they belong, the predominant trend has been to treat beings as bundles of relations such that the entity is nothing apart from its relations. In a spirit similar to Deleuze’s declaration that relations are always external to their terms, Badiou will have none of this. For Badiou entities are not defined by their relations and there are no intrinsic or internal relations that define the being of the entity. Rather, they are simply defined by their relations.

From the standpoint of both Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where each entity is thought as a “being-in” belonging to the worldhood of the world defined by an ensemble of relations defining meaning, or from the standpoint of structuralist and post-structuralist thought where the entity is an ensemble of internal relations from which it cannot be detached, or from the standpoint of Hegelianism where, as Hegel painstakingly shows in the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, where the entity simply is its relations or mediations, this move cannot but appear stunning. For what this extensionalist conception of sets authorizes is combinations of subsets in whatever order we might like. This, in short, is what the axiom of union tells us. What the axiom of union allows– if I understand it correctly (I’m sure Dominic will educate me if I don’t, thankfully) –is the construction of whatever sets we might like based on those elements belonging to our initial set. Thus, if I have a set composed of an umbrella, an apple, and the moon ({umbrella, apple, moon}), I certainly have a set composed of the apple and the moon ({apple, moon}), or a set composed simply of the apple ({apple}).

equalizer_category_theoryNow all of this sounds silly and unremarkable so long as we don’t contrast Badiou’s extensional notion of sets with the relational ontologies that have predominated during the 19th and the 20th century. If to be an entity is to be a bundle of internal relations, it follows that entities cannot be grouped in any way we might like. Rather, a model of the world based on internal relations dictates that each entity necessarily has a place within an Order and that the entity is nothing apart from this order. Thus the phoneme {c} is nothing apart from other phonemes such as {p}, {b}, {f}, etc., by virtue of the differentiality that allows it produce different senses at the level of the signifier: cat, pat, bat, fat. Insofar as these phonemes take on their value (in the linguistic sense of “value”) differentially in relation to one another, they are nothing independent of their relations to one another. This is what it means to say that each entity takes on a place within an Order. The Order is the totality of internal relations defining a system or structure, whereas the places are locations within that Order relative to the other terms. Because the relations are internal to the various beings in the Order, there is thus a Law that governs these beings and exhausts their being, legislating how they can and cannot act.

In proposing that sets are defined purely by their extension or their membership, Badiou undermines the thesis that to be is to be a bundle of internal relations. At the level of ontology, there is thus no intrinsic Order that defines entities. Rather, in their stark independence, the elements that make up a set not only can be decomposed into infinite subsets (through a recursive process of taking the power set of each power set), but the elements of each set can be related in a variety of different was or simply taken as singletons, thereby abolishing the notion of intrinsic or internal relations as in the case of Hegel’s logic of essence.

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Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory– especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools –woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned. The problem here is that these theories are often so abstract, in the Hegelian sense, that they end up with overly simplistic schema that then make any change seem like it is either an all or nothing proposition, or in the worst cases impossible and hopeless altogether. This point can be made clearly with reference to Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus“. In reading Althusser’s essay, we get the impression that the individual, the social subject, is completely formed by the ideological state apparatus to such a degree that his thoughts, beliefs, bodily attitudes, and so on are simply iterations of that social structure. As Althusser writes,

Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.

Although their theoretical positions are very different, similar observations could be made about Foucault’s conceptions of power and subjectivization, Bourdieu’s conceptions of power and habitus, and even Lacan’s conception of the agency of the signifier (during his middle period, at any rate). It is clear that if we accept this thesis, issues of social and political change become extremely problematic and we immediately find ourselves in a nearly impossible situation. On the one hand, if change takes place, it takes place through agents. On the other hand, agents themselves, according to Althusser, are simply products or iterations of social formations or the ISA’s. As a result, any change that a group of agents attempts to produce is itself already predelineated by the social structure such that it is no real change at all. The consequence of this conception of how agents are individuated and social formations is that we have to engage in all sorts of theoretical contortions to explain how change might be possible. No doubt it is for this reason that the Lacanian conception of the subject as a sort of void or lack in the symbolic chain has become so attractive, or that thinkers like Badiou have had to imagine an event, a rupture, to explain how any sort of change takes place.

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The Object of the Question and the Objection to the Object

A few days ago, Joseph Kugelmass of The Kugelmass Episode tagged me to write a post on why I teach literature. Admittedly I’ve been behind the curve on this one. The discussion has now proliferated throughout the intellectual blogosphere (for a set of links to how this discussion has proliferated and her own interesting response, see Rough Theory here and here), and I am only now catching up on the posts. As for my delay in responding, I have no good excuses. On the one hand, I’ve been extremely busy, trying to balance teaching with the completion of two articles and two conference papers (shoot me now). On the other hand, it has been very difficult for me to think clearly of late as someone very close to me is very sick and I’m facing the question of an absence in my life, a total void, with respect to someone who has been there my entire life. I think of Sartre’s description of the cafe where he walks in, looking for his friend Pierre, only to find that he is absent. This is a minor missed meeting between friends. But what of someone who is so much more than that? How do you grasp or get your mind around the irreversible absence of someone else, the fact that they will never be there again? How do you endure the reality, the facticity, of their absent laughter, that you’ll never hear their voice again, that you’ll never again hear their jokes or what they have to say or even their pointed anger?

Finally, I have, no doubt, been reluctant to respond to this challenge as, in many respects, the question of why I teach is a fundamental existential question, a question pertaining to my being-towards-death, a question that produces anxiety. In short, just as I do not have a clear answer as to why I practice philosophy, I do not have a clear answer as to why I teach. I do not, of course, teach literature, but philosophy. In asking “why do you teach philosophy?” I suppose the first question to ask is what, precisely, is this question asking? In his famous phenomenology of the question, Heidegger writes:

Every inquiry is a seeking [Suchen]. Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. This cognizant seeking can take the form of ‘investigating’ [“Untersuchen”], in which one lays bare that which the question is about and ascertains its character. Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something is somehow a asked about [Sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a question of something [Anfragen bei…]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions– that is, in questions which are specifically theoretical –what is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Furthermore, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erfragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry researches its goal. Inquiry itself is the behavior of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such it has its own character of Being. (Being and Time, 24)

I have quoted this passage to draw attention to the Befragtes or that which is asked about in Kugelmass’s question. When one asks, “why do you teach?” What is the Befragtes? What is it that is asked about? In evoking the indexical, the “you”, it would seem that the question is about one’s desire. The question here would be “what desire animates your teaching? Or rather, it would be a question of how teaching is one’s own symptom. Here reference would have to be made to the unconscious of the particular person answering the question, to their particular mode of jouissance, and how teaching is a way of satisfying the drive for a singular subject. In this case, my own choice of teaching and of philosophy in particular refers not to any particular aims I might have in the classroom, but to the way the signifier functions in my unconscious. I have spoken of this elsewhere in the past. The reason I chose philosophy rather than literature, and teaching rather than being a comedian (besides lacking a sense of humor), a journalist, a politician, etc., has to do with a particular trauma that structures my life.

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I’m too tired to say much of anything today (first day of class and stress or anxiety that’s apparently impeding my sleep), but I came across this quotation from Althusser in Jameson’s Political Unconscious which frames questions of immanence in a particular clear way:

The epistemological problem posed by Marx’s radical modification of Political Economy can be expressed as follows: by means of what concept is it possible to think the new type of determination which has just been identified as the determination of the phenomena of a given region by the structure of that region?… In other words, how is it possible to define the concept of structural causality?…

Very schematically, we can say that classical philosophy… had two and only two systems of concepts with which to think effectivity. The mechanistic system, Cartesian in origin, which reduced causality to a transitive and analytical effectivity, could not be made to think the effectivity of a whole on its elements, except at the cost of extraordinary distortions (such as those in Descartes’ ‘psychology’ and biology). But a second system was available, one conceived precisely in order to deal with the effectivity of a whole on its elements: the Leibnitzian concept of expression. This is the model that dominates Hegel’s thought. But it presupposes in principle that the whole in question be reducible to an inner essence, of which the elements of the whole are then no more than the phenomenal forms of expression, the inner principle of the essence being present at each point in the whole, such that at each moment it is possible to write the immediately adequate equation: such and such an element (economic, political, legal, literary, religious, etc., in Hegel) = the inner essence of the whole. Here was a model which made it possible to think the effectivity of the whole on each of its elements, but if this category– inner essence/outer phenomenon –was to be applicable everywhere and at every moment to each of the phenomena arising in the totality in question, it presupposed that the whole had a certain nature, precisely the nature of a ‘spiritual’ whole in which each element was expressive of the entire totality as a ‘pars totalis’. In other words, Leibnitz and Hegel did have a category for the effectivity of the whole on its elements or parts, but on the absolute condition that the whole was not a structure…

[The third concept of effectivity, that of structural causality,] can be entirely summed up in the concept of ‘Darstellung’, the key epistemological concept of the whole Marxist theory of value, the concept whose object is precisely to designate the mode of presence of the structure in its effects, and therefore to designate structural causality itself…. The structure is not an essence outside the economic phenomena which comes and alters their aspect, forms and relations and which is effective on them as an absent cause, absent because it is outside them. The absence of the cause in the structure’s ‘metonymic causality’ on its effects is not the fault of the exteriority of the structure with respect to the economic phenomena; on the contrary, it is the very form of the interiority of the structure, as a structure, in its effects. This implies therefore that the effects are not outside the structure, are not a pre-existing object, element or space in which the structure arrives to imprint its mark: on the contrary, it implies that the structure is immanent in its effects, a cause immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects, in short, that the structure, which is merely a specific combination of its particular elements, is nothing outside its effects. (Jameson 23-25, Althusser, Reading Capital, 186-189)

When I set out to write Difference and Givenness I had three primary questions before me: 1) What is specific to the thought of Gilles Deleuze (as opposed to the thought of Deleuze and Guattari)? 2) What is transcendental empiricism (in contrast to empiricism, transcendental idealism, and absolute idealism)? and 3) In what way is Deleuze’s thought a critical philosophy (rather than a dogmatic metaphysics)? The first question might appear strange; however, in my experience the secondary literature tends to treat the thought of Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari as identical and interchangeable. Yet whenever Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari speak of multiplicities, they are quick to emphasize that the addition of dimensions leads the multiplicity to change in nature. Consequently, when Deleuze and Guattari encounter one another it is necessary that this new multiplicity differ in kind from their independent thought. Yet this change in kind or nature can only be determined by becoming clear as to what Deleuze is up to in his own independent work. This is not, of course, to suggest that Deleuze is somehow opposed to Deleuze and Guattari or the reverse. To suggest such a thing would be to misunderstand the logic of intensive multiplicities. Such an approach would provide a way of properly determining what is new and vital in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought, and of measuring the field of problems that motivated this prodigious body of conceptual creating (concepts never emerging ex nihilo out of the mind of a “genius creator-artist”, but always emerging as a function of a field of extra-personal problems belonging to the field of being and the social).

In the course of my work, one of the conclusions I came to was that the early Deleuze of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense was, in part, an attempt to develop the ontology proper to structuralism. This, of course, will sound like a strange claim for we are accustomed to thinking of Deleuze as a post-structuralist philosopher hostile to structuralism. Indeed, when Deleuze encounters Guattari, they will develop a significant critique of structuralist thought– as is immediately evident in their concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization and “becoming-animal” where a “theft of a fragment of a code takes place”, i.e., operations that can’t be contained or governed by a “structural totality” –yet in his earlier work Deleuze was very sympathetic to structuralist thought. This is evident in his essay “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” (cf. Desert Islands, pgs 170 – 192), written between Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense. There Deleuze discusses the theses common to structuralist giants such as Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser, and provides an account of structural genesis nearly identical to his account of actualization or individuation in chapters four and five of Difference and Repetition. To be sure, Deleuze’s structuralism is a dynamic or a genetic structuralism, but it is nonetheless an attempt to provide that ontology proper to structuralist thought. It might be assumed that Deleuze is here simply applying the principles of individuation he had developed in Difference and Repetition to the structuralists so as to “get these thinkers from behind and create a monsterous offspring”. However, this ignores the fact that Deleuze refers to Ideas or multiplicities as structures in Difference and Repetition, and refers to Saussure, Althusser, and Todorov as prime examples of virtual multiplicities (DR, 186, 203 – 206. Deleuze also makes constant positive references to Lacan throughout Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense). Structuralism and structuralist thinkers enjoy a similarly central role in The Logic of Sense as well.

The point here is not to defend Deleuze’s early structuralism. Deleuze and Guattari develop powerful critiques of structuralist thought in their work together; however, these critiques cannot simply be treated as “abstract negations” that simply reject structuralism tout court. A good deal is preserved in new form. Rather, the point is to think a form of relation causality, immanent causality, where causes are not outside their effects and effects are not outside their causes: a properly systemic or structural causality that would be neither mechanical causality, nor an expressivism where every actualization or individuation is simply a reflection or expression of an unchanging internal essence.

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