Desire


Today NPR reported on fMRI research that indicates that when people think of issues pertaining to religion regions of the brain involved in interpersonal relations light up.

The human brain, it appears, responds to God as if he were just another person, according to a team at the National Institutes of Health.

A study of 40 people — some religious, some nonreligious — found that phrases such as “I believe God is with me throughout the day and watches over me” lit up the same areas of the brain we use to decipher the emotions and intentions of other people.

The researchers speculate that the development of this sort of cognition was crucial to the development of civilization:

Without religion, Bulbulia says, “large scale cooperation, which now spans the world, would be impossible. He adds that humans differ from other species in their ability to cooperate in very large groups.

Religion can help foster cooperation because it ensures that people share the same set of rules about behavior, and think they’ll be punished if they don’t follow them, Bulbulia says. Religion also unites people, especially in times of great uncertainty.

This theory, I think, would indicate that it’s rather inaccurate to suggest that the brain processes thoughts of God exactly as it processes thoughts of other persons. Rather, if the evolution of religious thought played a large role in the ability of humans to engage in large scale cooperation, then this is because the thought of God would be something like the “Person = x” similar Kant’s famous “object = x”, functioning as a general structure allowing for the possibility of empathy towards all people irregardless of their differences. Just as Kant’s “object = x” isn’t any particular object but a formal structure that allows objects to be thinkable, so too would the person = x be a formal structure enabling all interpersonal relations (cf. Deleuz’es “Tournier and a World Without Others” for a good gloss on this Other-structure). Where individual encounters with particular people tend to be governed by the same/different schema, allowing for empathy towards those whom we code as “like us”, the formal schema of the “Person = x” would allow these individual differences to be surmounted– to a greater or lesser degree, anyway –allowing for the different to be seen as a part of the same. In this way, differences between different tribes, cultures, languages, customs, etc., could be surmounted to allow for cooperative activity. Of course, at this meta or transcendental level of personhood– the person = x –the same/different schema would still be operative but in a way in which sameness was no longer defined by local and immediate social relations between individuals. In other words, what this neuro-research seems to have uncovered is something like belief in the existence of the Lacanian big Other, where the subject believes, through the screen of fantasy, that the Other is structured in a particular way and that it desires specific things (the transformation of desire into demand via fantasy that fills out the lack in the Other).

Of course, one wonders why neurologists are claiming that the functioning of these brain centers is an evolutionary development (presumably they’re referring to genes) rather than a cultural acquisition. All the fMRI research seems to establish is that certain brain regions light up when people think about religion. Nothing here establishes that the cause of these brain structures must be genetic or innate in character, rather than the result of developmental processes involving our relation to culture.

Anyway, read the article here.

In response to my post “Deleuze and Guattari avec Lacan“, Reid asks “What is the Borromean Clinic?” I confess that I am working through this myself, so I do not have a completely adequate answer. In many respects, this is the most and dense and difficult period of Lacan’s teaching, but it is also a period where he completely exceeds what he had developed in prior years, developing both an entirely new diagnostic system and new possibilities for the end of analysis.

In his Borromean period, Lacan shifts to a topology of the subject based on the borromean knot:

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The first thing to notice with this curious knot is that no two of the rings are directly tied together as in the case of a Hopf chain:

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Consequently, in the borromean knot, if any one of the rings are severed the other two rings fall away as well. In short, the consistence of the borromean knot arises only from the knotting of the three and the manner in which the strings pass over and under one another in the proper way. Lacan equated each of the three rings with one of his three orders– the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary (RSI) –corresponding to the order of ex-sistence (the real) or that which exists outside the symbolic, the order of the hole or lack introduced into being (the symbolic), and the order of consistency (the imaginary). However, it will be noted that each of the rings overlaps with the others forming points of intersection with the other rings like a Venn diagram:

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Consequently, we can think the different orders together getting various combinations between the elements. Thus, for example, there can be a hole in the real, just as there is an ex-sistence in the symbolic (the letter as opposed to the signifier). Likewise, there can be a consistence in the symbolic (meaning), just as there can be a hole in the imaginary. And so on. As I said, I am still working through this myself, so I have not yet worked out the implications of all this.

Read on
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In what sense can Guattari’s thought be understood as a radicalization of Lacanian psychoanalysis? And what does it mean to say that Guattari’s thought is a radicalization of Lacanian psychoanalysis? First, to characterize Guattari’s relationship to Lacan as a radicalization of Lacanian thought is not to claim that Guattari was an orthodox Lacanian. Rather, Guattari’s schizoanalysis is a radicalization of psychoanalysis in the sense that Hegel is a radicalization of Kant or Spinoza is a radicalization of Descartes. Just as Hegel and Spinoza deeply transform the thought and projects of their most important predecessors, Guattari significantly transforms Lacanian thought. However, before such a question can even be posed it is first necessary to determine just where Deleuze and Guattari share common ground with Lacan.

While it is certainly true that Guattari transforms Lacan’s thought in radical ways, it is also true that this relationship between the two has been presented as being one that is deeply antagonistic and hostile. Nietzsche pointed out that we arrive at the perspective of substance ontology, that there are substantial things composed of predicates, due to a set of illusions produced through language where words create the belief that there are unchanging things corresponding to these words. In the secondary literature on Deleuze and Guattari, one gets the sense that something similar occurs with reference to psychoanalysis. Often psychoanalysis is treated as if it is a monolithic entity, as the arch-enemy, characterized by homogeneity, despite the fact that psychoanalysis is characterized by a heterogeneous diversity of different schools and orientations often at odds with one another.

This is extremely odd for two reasons: First, it is odd that followers of the champions of difference would require identity in their enemy. It is as if somehow the ontological claim of the ontological primacy of multiplicities gets entirely forgotten and the target gets reduced to a molar and simplified identity without heterogeneous vectors and tendencies of its own. Second, it is especially odd that American Deleuzians seem so intent on toppling psychoanalysis, as if it were the most pressing political struggle within the American situation. Psychoanalysis is hardly anywhere to be found in the United States at the level of practice or predominant theory. Indeed, what we instead get in the States is the complete exorcism of the subject from the clinical setting, treating diagnostic categories as if they were natural kinds and signs, the ignorance of anything like a symptom, and a therapy that tends to be premised on the normalization of its patients so that they might tolerate normal, married, heterosexual conjugal relations, go to work and produce, and be good little consumers. One would think that were Deleuzians looking for a worthy project along the lines of Anti-Oedipus, they would begin not with psychoanalysis– which at least provides the possibility of providing a space where all that resists the “normal” might at least be enunciated, where the treatment isn’t 8 meetings with a cognitive-behavioral psychologist with tried and trusted methods to get rid of the symptom, where the solution isn’t a chemical straight-jacket –but rather with a Foucault and Bourdieu style analysis of the evolution of the DSM-IV, the relationship between therapeutic practice and insurance companies, the relationship between therapeutic practice and the legal system and work, an analysis of the statistical methods through which certain diagnostic categories are produced and generalized, and an analysis of the discourses through which certain attitudes towards life, the body, and mental health are produced. This sort of critique would potentially reveal something about American life in general, something un-thought and at the level of the unconscious in the structural or systematic sense, and would have potential for generating more active struggles, transforming what appear to be individual problems into collective symptoms. But alas, apparently psychoanalysis is the arch-enemy.

Read on
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I sometimes feel as if I go through a sort of eternal return, where I repeat things I have said before yet experience myself as having just thought them for the very first time. Hopefully, despite these repetitive iterations, despite these re-loops of loops, each iteration is nonetheless somehow producing something new or allowing some other thought to emerge that, for whatever reason, could not before emerge. As Spinoza argues, ideas can only produce ideas. Yet why is it that ideas sometimes get fixed or repetitive like a skipping record? Why is it, I wonder, that we obsess over certain themes and ideas– almost as if our life is a musical variation –such that we perpetually return to these things without realizing that we’re doing so? The Bird and the Bee song: “Again and again and again and again… Do it again! Do it again!” In his preface to Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Badiou remarks that in a true work of philosophy,

…it is possible to detect the sense of something new– texts which respond to the question: “What wound was I seeking to heal, what thorn was I seeking to draw from the flesh of existence when I became what is called ‘a philosopher’?” It may be that, as Bergson maintained, a philosopher only ever develops one idea. In any case, there is no doubt that the philosopher is born of a single question, the question which arises at the intersection of thought and life at a given moment in the philosopher’s youth; the question which one must at all costs find a way to answer. (After Finitude, vi)

This is a surprisingly Deleuzian thought for Badiou; one that almost stands in contradiction with his charges of a Deleuzian “aristocratism” in The Clamor of Being. I do not know that I follow Badiou in the thesis that the wound is unique to the philosopher, but, as I argued in Difference and Givenness, I would certainly agree that the wound– what I there called “the encounter” –is constitutive of thought. To think is to be wounded. That is to say, to think is to be out of step with the world, to not be at home in the world, to experience the world as unheimlich. We think because we are not at home and perhaps the degree of our homelessness marks the degree of our thought’s intensity… Unless we are consumed by a homelessness so profound that it ends in catatonia or mute autism. Thought then would be a way of attempting to sublate or overcome that wound, that crack that prevents any adaptation to the world.

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It is this that is fundamentally missing from accounts of collective assemblages such as we find proposed in Spinoza. Conatus, the endeavor to persist in one’s being, lacks– at least on the surface –the dimension of death drive in speaking-being. While the Spinozist body is indeed excessive rather than homeostatic or adaptive in its active drive to promote its power to act, what seems to be missing is this dimension of repetition, of death drive, that is at odds with action premised on benefit or enlightened self-interest.

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This can be sensed above all in Spinoza’s conception of love, where the madness of love, the willingness to destroy everything else for the sake of love, is entirely absent. Despite the fact that Spinoza asserts love can be excessive, one gets the sense that for him, the difference between a good meal (which he also characterizes in terms of love) and mad love is a difference in degree rather than kind. If, as speaking beings, we are constitutively wounded, divided by language, and therefore subjects of an irrepressible question that we cannot escape, how must we understand collective assemblages and the perils that haunt them? Clearly these assemblages will perpetually be perturbed by the repetition, the eternal return, that haunts the subjects that inhabit these assemblages. On the one hand, this will be one of the prime sources of those lethal identifications with demagogues, tyrants, and dictators where the body of these figures is encountered as an answer to the repetitive question of the wound, as that which can sublate the wound and produce the “heimlich” in the world.

On the other hand, the wound, the death drive, will be the source of our most profound creativity, political struggles, thought, love, invention, etc., as we choose the wound over adaptation. Is there a way to channel the wound, the death drive, in one way rather than another? Certainly this is one of the aims of psychoanalytic practice– to transform painful, paralyzing, and intolerable incarnations of the death drive manifested in the symptom, into productive, liveable, creative symptoms or forms of repetitive jouissance. Witness Joyce.

Or is it, as I asked months ago in another post, that the death drive, the symptom, repetition, jouissance is simply psychoanalysis’ own myth of original sin: a reactionary ideological mystification that argues that lethal and mal-adaptive repetition is natural and necessary, rather than contingent? Spinoza argues that our collective irrationality arises not from original sin, but from a set of cognitive processes that take place at the level of how our emotions function. Death drive is something quite different than the simple confusion of two things that resemble one another as in the case of an object confused with love object or object of hate that shares a quality with these objects without possessing any of the same causal properties, e.g., Hating one’s student named Tom, because one was the victim of a childhood bully named Tom, and failing to realize this completely contingent connection. Death drive is not a confusion, but a sort of ever repeating glitch in a system, that causes the perpetual return of an insistent question that places the subject out of step with the world. One might think of the people obsessed with a certain image in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the image, ultimately, of the mountain), to such a degree that they completely neglected their bodies, families, jobs, and all the rest (viz., they were completely disjointed from the world) trying to figure out why this image would not leave their mind and what it might represent. The difference here, of course, is that for the characters in Close Encounters, they do get an answer. There is no answer to the death drive, only the repeated failure of any and all such answers– Which can be a source of a positive jouissance. “Do it again!”

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From roughly June until a few weeks ago I was in the midst of a deep and black depression. The strange thing was that I did not feel sad, but simply disengaged from everything. I wasn’t, as it were, even aware that anything had changed. I had lost all desire for everything. I no longer read. I felt no inclination to respond to emails. No books, shows, movies, or ideas interested me. Whenever I got a new paper published or received some sort of praise for my book, it left me feeling cold. I had no desire to be around other people. I slept a lot and just walked through the world like a sort of zombie. There was no malice in any of this. If I didn’t respond to an email, it wasn’t because I harbored animosity towards the person. I didn’t respond to anyone unless it was a professional matter I couldn’t ignore. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care.

The worst part is that you blame yourself for this state and experience it as a moral failing. You tell yourself that perhaps your brain has hardened and you simply can’t think fluidly in the way you once did. You tell yourself that you’ve become lazy, ceased caring, etc. Somehow it is something that you’re doing that’s led to this malaise. But just as anger in the midst of a nicotine fit seems absolutely convincing and like a matter of your will, the depression is not experienced as depression, but as some set of choices you are making. Of course, from a psychoanalytic perspective this is because somehow, at some level, you have betrayed your desire and repudiated yourself as a subject. The question is how?

Perhaps now I am in a manic period– I’ve certainly been writing a lot –but something seemed to break a few weeks ago. And even if it is manic, it feels good. It feels good to care. It feels good to write. It feels good to draw connections, to find images to represent things, to read, to dance with others in thought. I began exercising and this seemed to produce significant changes. Who knew? But what was it that brought this on? Why did I fall into this pit? In her beautiful essay, Why Psychoanalysis?, Elizabeth Roudinesco argues that depression, melancholia, is the unique malady of our time, produced by our contemporary ideological conditions and conditions of production.

If neurosis– a loud, noisy, antagonistic symptom in protest of the reigning social order — is the symptom of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, argues Roudinesco, depression is the reigning symptom of an era where great causes have collapsed, where alternatives to the social organization of this world have disappeared, where there is nothing to protest as all norms have collapsed, and where all that is left is the pursuit of happiness, the improvement of one’s body and health, and the endless pursuit of ever new and novel forms of exotic enjoyment. The depressive age is an age where the Soviet Union has collapsed and China has become capitalistic, such that the only [once] credible alternatives to the world of liberal democratic capitalism and the promise of “happiness” and a life without risk, have disappeared. Likewise, with the death of God we get a world closed to transcendent possibilities, to ideals higher than those of appetite.

Insofar as all symptoms are a protest, of sorts, against the Other– a trace of the lack in the Other or the fact that the Other is a sham, a semblance, an impostor, that the Other does not provide the answer or jouissance promised –depression, the disappearance of desire, the fading of desire, is a protest against such a closure where all alternatives have disappeared. But, like so many symptoms, what a painful symptom! Perhaps depression is what occurs in the absence of being able to even articulate what is missing, what is absent. Depression would be a sort of silent speech, a mute speech, that speaks the absence of signifiers worthy of desire. Or better yet, depression would be a marker of that which falls outside of language or that for which there are no signifiers. As such, in the borromean clinic, depression would be located at the intersection between the circles of the imaginary and the real: A mute witness of the imaginary body in response to a certain real that haunts the symbolic.

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Is there a way in which depression can be made active? Is there a way in which this mute withdrawal of the subject from the empty world of “bodies and pleasures”, this existence as undead, as zombie, that capitulates to the closure of possibilities, the absence of alternative, can make this silent and passive resistance an active resistance? Such a resistance would no longer be one that assaults the body of the depressive, such as in the case of the depressive subject that blames himself, but would be a subject that might find a way to reject the idea that happiness, exotic enjoyments, and bodies and pleasures are the only alternatives, the only things, we can hope and live for… Or rather, that we can hope and be dead for.

As I think more about Deleuze and Guattari’s account of desire in Anti-Oedipus, I find myself wondering if it doesn’t risk becoming another apologetics for reigning organizations of power. On the one hand, no contemporary political thought can afford to ignore the manner in which desire is manufactured, regulated, and organized given the manner in which we live in a media saturated environment.

On the other hand, the implications of Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of desire become disturbing when juxtaposed with the writings of the Stoic Epictetus. Those familiar with Epictetus’ Enchiridion will find it impossible to forget his opening paragraph. There Epictetus writes,

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Now, the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent, and take what belongs to others for you own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own, and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, towards the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.

Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing semblance, “You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.” And then examine it by those rules which you have; and first and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power, or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Do not Deleuze and Guattari, despite all their talk about the creative and productive nature of desire, share an uncanny resemblance to Epictetus? The liberal ideologue tells us that we must resign ourselves to all the ugliness of the world in advance because we exist in a world populated by scarce resources, such that we are necessarily plunged into competition and its attendant social hierarchies. However, wouldn’t it also be the case that Deleuze and Guattari, like Epictetus, tell us that if we suffer then this is because we have created the wrong desires and were we simply to modify our desires we would be capable of tolerating whatever circumstances we might find ourselves in? Like Deleuze and Guattari, Epictetus seems to suggest that desire is not something natural or inborn, but is a product of our creative freedom. Deleuze, of course, has a strong connection to the stoics through his relation to Spinoza and his development of a stoic ontology in The Logic of Sense. The risk here is that we find ourselves perilously close to claiming that true revolutions are not revolutions in how material conditions or social relations are organized, but rather are revolutions of desire that transform our relations to these conditions.
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One of the key claims of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is that the functioning of capitalism is premised on the expenditure of abundance rather than the allocation of resources under essential conditions of scarcity. This premise, of course, accompanies their more generalized critique of lack as a foundation of desire.

Anyone who pauses to reflect on the logic of non-academic discussions of political thought can discern just why this critique of scarcity is so important. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, if we falter on this point, “…all resignations are justified in advance” (AO, 74). Where the social comes to be understood as a response to scarcity, then politics becomes the means by which decisions are made as to how scarcity is distributed. While there might indeed be many different ways of distributing scarcity, what is ineradicable or impossible is inequity. In short, all inequity is justified in advance and a priori.
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Update: The Madisonian, a legal blog, weighs in.

Update II: Andrew of The Transcontinental weighs in.

These days, one of the more frustrating and tedious aspects of working in an institutional setting such as a secondary school, a college, or a highschool has been the shift to constant mechanisms of “quality control” that are implemented from year to year, semester to semester. What I have in mind are the constant calls to codify things such as student learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and curriculum across the body of educators. These mechanisms, in turn, lead to endless meetings, professional development seminars, and piles of paperwork that often have little or no connection to teaching or what really takes place in the classroom. At the end of the semester, for example, your department might be required to gather assignment samples from students in each professor’s class. Tenured faculty then review these copious materials, evaluating whether or not they meet the learning outcome criteria, put together a report and then send this report on to division deans, where these reports are further distilled and sent to the administration. At the end of each year I thus find myself beset by a weighty pile of papers from our adjunct and full time faculty that I must evaluate in terms of our student learning outcomes that we spent a year or so devising to meet state accreditation requirements. There, across the room, the books I have had to set aside gaze longingly at me, giving me their coy seductive looks, inviting me to read them, but I am awash in student papers that must be evaluated.

The galling part of this whole process is that it really has no impact on what we and our professors actually do in our classroom. Perhaps I should not say this publicly. The issue is not one of of being opposed to high standards. We already do have high standards. We believe strongly in pedagogy and teaching excellence. The issue is that the assumptions and thought process behind this sort of modeling is fundamentally wrong-headed, diminishing, rather than enhancing education. What we have in United States educational philosophies today is a shift towards a sort of “pedagogical Taylorism”, where it is assumed that education can be codified, instrumentalized, and quantified, such that assignments necessarily take on a generic and simplified structure– for this is what can easily be replicated –and where gradually these reforms have a morphogenetic effect that feeds back on the classroom, giving form to what is taught, how it is taught, and how assignments are structured. In short, these reforms are molarizing machines, designed to create regularities in the Brownian motion of students and faculty, insuring that there is little change or deviation from a pre-delineated form. All the while it is assumed that every discipline can be taught in the manner of the various sciences and branches of mathematics, or that students compose a “smooth space” that can be manipulated and moulded freely, without any singularities.

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