Shahar Ozeri of Perverse Egalitarianism has written a very interesting post responding to my diary Language and Passivity, and Paco’s diary Is Philosophy Irrelevant?

This question really, at least for me, cuts to the heart of the problem. For one, the traditional idea of liberal education is to foster a critical consciousness. Yet, if Paco is correct about the decline of the broader structure of the University–from a marketplace of ideas to a bottom line minded business–the university simply reflects the broader culture, which is largely anti-intellectual, disapproves of critique and as a whole tends to reward social status not talent. One thing is certain: many of our students simply refuse to think things through, or think, in the most Heidegarrian sense. I don’t know how to produce such a critical consciousness in my students either, other than trying over and over to point it out. This is interesting, one of the more odd things that my students could just not wrap their minds around was the emotive use of language, that it’s not necessarily mere emotion.

Anyway, all of this has gotten me thinking about two figures I haven’t thought about in quite some time: the (under-rated) Roland Barthes and (always interesting) Louis Althusser, who both point to this very phenomenon of the passivity of language I think.

Unfortunately, I am far too exhausted this evening to comment at length, but I did want to throw out a couple of thoughts for future development. I do not know whether this situation is unique to our age. Following Lacan, I am inclined to think that ignorance is one of the three passions… That we have a passion for ignorance. Thus, while I am sympathetic to the thesis that the decline of print culture and the rise of the spectacle has also had a developmental impact on the nature of our cognitive structures, I suspect that by and large things were not much better in the past. I’ll get to this in a moment.

Read on


Over the last couple of weeks, David, of Indifaith, has written a series of posts responding to my characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to think immanence (here, here, and here). I have been impressed by the openness and interest with which David, a pastor, has approached this discussion, and am genuinely grateful for his probing questions that have helped me to further clarify my own positions. As I recall, Voltaire somewhere or other has a short little essay describing an encounter he had with a Quaker. As is well known, Voltaire, that sparkling giant of the Enlightenment, was certainly no friend of religion and often leveled his acerbic wit at various forms of religious dogmatism, hypocrisy, superstition, and brutality. Yet Voltaire went away from this encounter with nothing but praise for the virtuous nature of the Quaker and his quiet and unassuming inward religious belief. In this exchange, David has comported himself in a similar fashion.

The remark that set off this entire discussion occurred in a thread responding to a passage I had quoted by Guattari, where his sounded remarkably close to Badiou in his critique of postmodernism (the entire exchange can be found here). Responding to some questions by David, I there wrote:

In a number of respects, I draw my distinction between theology and philosophy from Jean-Luc Marion who rigorously tries to define the limit of philosophy. I differ from Marion in holding that theologies that posit transcendence ought to be left behind. I read the history of philosophy as the history of attempts to think immanence. These attempts can be deployed in a variety of ways, can be more or less successful, and the question of whether or not immanence has ever been fully thought is entirely open. By immanence I understand the thesis that we don’t need to refer to anything beyond, or to any intervention outside the world, to explain the world or to account for value. Consequently, when Thales says “all is water”, he is appealing to a principle of explanation that is strictly immanent to the world and is breaking with mythos or narrative explanations of the world such as those found in Greek mythology. To complicate matters more, we can have ontological forms of immanence and epistemological forms of immanence, and various combinations of the two. An account is epistemically immanent if it rejects any form of appeal in establishing a conclusion that cannot be arrived at through reason or some form of experience. That is, epistemological immanence rejects any appeals to privileged esoteric experiences, revelation, etc. Ontological immanence would be the principle that there are no causes outside of natural causes.

I don’t think I’m so much excluding poetry from this project (though philosophy and poetry are distinct), as questioning your characterization of poetry as the articulation of the sacred. Certainly a number of poets would themselves take issue with being characterized as Rilkean. The case of theology is complex. Professional theologians mean so many different things by theology, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. Descartes, for example, would fit the criteria of epistemological immanence in his proofs for the existence of God as his conception of God and proof for the existence of God is not premised on any revelation or esoteric experience, but proceeds through reason in a way that all can repeat. His position does not meet the criteria of ontological immanence, as he conceives God as being outside nature or transcendent to being. Spinoza, and Whitehead’s conception of God as I understand it, do meet the ontological forms of immanence. If these are theologies then they fall within the scope of philosophy. The moment a theology appeals to revelation, whether in the form of sacred texts, the authority of a prophet or man in the form of God, or esoteric, non-repeatable experiences, that theology is no longer in the domain of philosophy, though it can certainly remain of interest as a phenomenon to be studied by the psychoanalyst, sociologist, or the anthropologist.

The concept of “immanence” is relatively new in the history of philosophy (as I understand it, it appears in various scholastic philosophies, but really doesn’t come into prominence as a central theme until Deleuze and Badiou), however, the more I’ve thought about it since initially making this assertion, the more I’ve become convinced that a number of moves in the history of philosophy immediately gain clarity if situated in terms of the problem of immanence. Take, for example, Plato’s Meno and Phaedo. It will be recalled that Plato famously argues that learning is recollection. That is, to learn is not to acquire new information from the outside given to us by a teacher– elsewhere Socrates will refer to himself as a midwife of knowledge, i.e., he does not bestow or give knowledge but only asks questions that allow a person to recollect knowledge they already have –but rather to learn is to recollect an unconscious, innate knowledge. Every beginning philosophy student is baffled by Plato’s theory of learning. Indeed, it is likely that a number of Plato scholars are themselves baffled by Plato’s theory of recollection (as can be seen in the way that it is quickly swept under the rug as but a moment in Plato’s thought). However, as soon as we situate Plato’s theory in terms of the problem of immanence, its motivation suddenly becomes clear. Recall that for Plato, knowledge is not a knowledge of this or that particular thing, but a knowledge of forms, essences, or universals. The problem is that we nowhere encounter forms in sensible experience. This comes out clearly in the Phaedo, when Socrates is discussing the Identical. We never see anything identical in the world. All things differ in some respect or another. Consequently, the story goes, we could not have learned about the identical from experience. Yet we have knowledge of the identical. As Socrates reasons– almost as a proto-Kantian –we could never recognize two things as being the same if we did not first (a priori) know the form of the Identical. Knowledge of the form precedes knowledge of any particulars. So 1) we have the concept of the Identical, and 2) we did not learn this from experience. The grammar of philosophy stipulates that we cannot appeal to authority (“because I said so!”) or revelation as a ground for knowledge. Consequently, we must account for this knowledge in some other ways. The theory of recollection or innate ideas! What marvelous conceptual gymnastics to maintain immanence! What magnificent conceptual creations!

We can see the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to preserve or think immanence. Some of these attempts are more successful than others. Some are more interesting than others. If Deleuze and Guattari are led to describe Spinoza as the “Christ of philosophers”, then this isn’t because Spinoza was a prophet or divine, but because Spinoza went furthest in thinking ontological immanence, or a way of explaining the world that relied on no intervention from anything outside the world, history, or nature (certainly this claim can be disputed). The history of philosophy will therefore be a history of strategies for thinking immanence. Empiricism would be one strategy (whatever is immanent to sensation). Rationalism will be another (whatever is immanent to reason). Transcendental idealism will be yet another, and phenomenology yet another. Each of these strategies generates its own unique problems– like Plato’s problem of learning arising out of the immanence of the forms to thought and their absence to experience –and it would be possible to write a “cartography” of the history of philosophy that charted the problems that emerged as a result of particular drawings of immanence and the conceptual gymnastics and inventions that result as a function of these problems. Some day I would like to work through all of this in much the same way that Marion attempted to work through the problem of givenness in Reduction and Givenness, in hopes of arriving at a point where I could pose the problem of immanence. For immanence itself must be accounted for in terms of immanence, and cannot be treated as a transhistorical form floating about outside the world.

In this connection, David writes,

My only point drawing attention to equations and eggs is that they are assumed to function in a static therefore repeatable manner. I am not convinced this is the case in human relationships and therefore needs to be accounted for in any political theory. I am of course all for careful and reflective observations of human social behaviour.

No disagreements here. The significance I was aiming at with my examples from mathematics and boiling eggs wasn’t their universality, but rather that we have access to these things without having to rely on narratives or stories. We can know these things regardless of whether we are Greek, American, Chinese, Hindu, etc. For instance, arithmetic exists the world over in some form or another, in more or less advanced states, yet we would be tremendously surprised to discover that two groups of people with no communication whatsoever had created, say, baseball.

However, as David here point out, inquiry must be tailored to its object. We already begin to approach this with the case of boiling eggs. The point at which water boils is not universal, but rather depends on other factors such as air pressure, altitude, etc. I have tried to develop the concept of constellations to talk about these sorts of things

Compare a mathematical equation with an armadillo. The value of x for 2x + 4 = 12 is going to be the same for all times and places, independent of context, history, psychological idiosyncrasies, etc. However, if we wish to understand living organisms, we can no longer make these kinds of generalizations. Rather, we have to look at the way the organism fits within a particular constellation such that this constellation is not a global or universal logos, but a local logos or structure with a history, and its own immanent organization that cannot be generalized to other cases. We shouldn’t speak of logos, or a universal law underlying all being, but rather of logoi, or divergent and differing patterns of organization. A good example underlining this point would be the last great meteor impact that wiped out most life on earth. The life that returned subsequent to this event was radically different than the sort of life that existed prior to this event. The lesson to take away from this story is that there aren’t “laws” of life similar to say the Newtonian laws of physics. Rather, we have highly local “logics” (where “logic” here refers to patterns or organizations) that look more like what we refer to as customs than necessities– Customs and styles of matter. Another example would be language. Languages each have their own immanent structure of sounds, their own pattern. We cannot know a priori what this structure of language will be for a particular language because the patterning of sound is differential (it is determined in terms of relations to others sounds that may or may not be present in another language).

Life and language are not universal or particular (where the particular is the instantiation of a species, form, or essence), but is rather singular. However, contrary to Hegel, the singularity of these things in now way precludes our ability to map and comprehend these things, nor does it require any special revelation. In this connection, I think biology is again an excellent example. An organism is always problematic in the sense that it is a solution to a problem within the world. Yet there are many ways of solving one and the same problem. Thus, fur and sweat are one way of solving the problems of heat and cold. There is a frog in Canada, the Eastern wood frog, that solves the problem of cold in another way. When freezing temperatures are reached, the frog itself freezes, effectively dying (there’s no brain or heart activity). When heat returns the frog de-thaws and comes back to life. . . The Christs of the animal world.

Here we have different solutions to one and the same problem. We can transfer this way of thinking to cultural formations. In certain regions of India people eat off a banana leaf with their fingers. Here, of course, we use silverware. The lack of universality involved in these customs doesn’t undermine their intelligibility, nor prevent us from collectively deliberating about these things. I think this is, perhaps, one of the key points about philosophy– It’s only requirement is that of open-ended deliberation with others.

Philosophy begins with the other, the stranger, or the person who does not come from the same cultural background as ourselves. It begins from the standpoint of difference and is an attempt to solve the problem of difference. Philosophy tends to appear in periods of cultural crises– philosophy, by no means, always exists –where traditions have broken down, and we’re no longer able to rely on shared narratives to coordinate human action and the understanding of the world. This is why philosophy is always an affair of the city, rather than the countryside (even when the philosopher lives in a rural region like Heidegger), because the city is a community of strangers, of people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. This difference in background, this otherness, suspends the possibility of assuming the existence of shared mythos or narratives, requiring the invention of other interpersonal technologies, other ways of grounding social relations.

I think this aspect of philosophy tends to get obscured because of the “book form”. Today we tend to encounter philosophies in the form of books and articles. The book is itself a problem of time, distance, and otherness. Books surmount space and distance, allowing encounters with an absent other that is not present. Leibniz writes his New Essays on Human Understanding, responding to Locke’s Essay point by point. He is in dialogue with Locke even though he’s never met him. We are led astray by Descartes’ Meditations. There it seems that Descartes is simply reflecting privately on what he can know, seeking to ground his knowledge. We forget that the Meditations begin with a letter to the Church, and that he’s perpetually looking for those things that can be repeated. He is constantly with the other. Everything is a Platonic dialogue, even Husserl’s wretched attempts to think the other in the Cartesian Meditations. Unlike Plato, we just forget to add the names of the interlocutors. The difference, then, is that where other stances begin with a certainty, a conviction, such a thing is, for philosophy, a perpetually receding horizon that is only ever approached asymptotically without ever being reached.

Responding to my post on mediation and stupidity, N.Pepperell of Rough Theory writes,

I think the reason for my sort of lightening flash reaction to the text is that – again, solely in terms of the internal logic of this small collection of sentences – the problem of immediacy is here posed as a problem of how sense perception is inadequate or works to confuse us: the taste of the wheat gives us no clues; if we attend only to the evidence of our senses, then, it is plausible – if also criticisable – that we should not stumble across the various social mediations that have led to the production of this wheat, have carried it to our tables, have caused us to perceive it as something to be used for food rather than for some other purpose, etc. Tacitly, the properly critical perspective here lies in focussing our attention, not on the abstracted physical properties of the thing that we are consuming, but on the complex network of social relationships that has enabled this sense perception to take place. Marx is cited unproblematically as the inspiration for this insight.

N.Pepperell is responding to this quote from Deleuze and Guattari:

Let us remember once again one of Marx’s caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and the relations of production. The product appears to be all the more specific, incredibly specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends. (AO, 24)

I don’t have a lot to say in response to this take on immediacy, but I wanted to clear up an apparent confusion. Sense-perception is certainly a form of immediacy, but a focus on sense-perception is not what I take away from this passage. Rather, I take it that immediacy is a way of relating to objects and concepts that 1) detaches them from their history of becoming, and 2) detaches them from the network of relations through which they derive their sense. The murderer reduced to a murderer would be an example of immediacy, though certainly I cannot perceive the quality of being a murderer through my five senses or sense-intuition. Being-a-murderer rather is a form of what Husserl referred to as categorical intuition. Nonetheless, there is a way of relating to murderer as abstract immediacy and another way of relating to a murder in terms of the mediations out of which he arises. Similarly, being-a-teacher is not something that can be perceived through the five senses, but we can relate to teachers in terms of immediacy. More strikingly yet, I cannot perceive a number, say 10, but I can relate to it in terms of immediacy or mediation.

Hegel’s Science of Logic gives ample evidence of this fluidity of the “immediate”. Each subsequent moment of the Logic begins by treating a particular category as “immediate”, even though each moment after the beginning– “being pure being” –is quite complex, containing a number of mediations. Being-a-teacher is internally an exceedingly complex form of objectivity, but can nonetheless be taken as an immediate when subtracted from its relations.

It had not occured to me to focus on the element of sense-perception in the wheat passage from Deleuze and Guattari; perhaps by virtue of being aware of the context in which they were citing it and by virtue of knowing just how sensitive Deleuze and Guattari are to the social and cultural dimension of experience. What I found striking in the passage was simply the dimension of background or production. As for the questions of what the conditions are for critical subjectivity, I have, as yet, no set and defined answers. I’m busily trying to construct any critical edifice at all and trying to theorize common phenomena that I encounter in the world around me– common platitudes I encounter in the writing of my students, poor administrative policies, and disasterous political decisions –so these questions strike me as roadblocks or obstructions to that sort of work. Decontextualization seems to be a common thread linking these forms of thought. How does the critic come to see this? Shrug. I don’t know. While I fully acknowledge that such a subjectivity too must result from a process of individuation and be riddled with mediations, the more pressing question strikes me as that of what we can do about it and how we can organize forms of thought and praxis that are more sensitive to the dimension of mediation, avoiding the catastrophes that objectifying thought seem to generate by virtue of subtracting phenomena from their networks of relations. Lacan spent his entire career thinking about the formation of analysts and wondered whether or not a single analyst has ever existed. I believe this is a healthy attitude towards critique as well: has a critic ever existed?

N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has written a very nice post on materialism and critical subjectivity responding to some of my recent scribblings. N.P. writes,

A critical theoretic approach would require that Marx ground his own critical standpoint – that he account for the forms of critical subjectivity manifest in his own critique – using the same categories and the same analytical strategies he directs at the society he criticises. We would presumably agree that Marx understood himself to be presenting a materialist theory – and that materialism functions as a normative ideal within his approach, as a standard against which Marx criticises the mystifications underlying other approaches. Yet what could be more “materialist” than this perception of wheat in terms of its immediate physical properties – this image of objects shorn of their embeddedness in social relationships and moral valences, open for examination by our senses, either directly or as amplified by technology? This issue becomes confused by the more recent flattening of the concept of “materialism” as though it pertains to something specifically economic – and therefore somehow should naturally direct our thoughts to social relations of production. In Marx, I would suggest, the concept still carries both a mixture of this later meaning, and its earlier sense of “secular” and “scientific” thinking – and would thus be somewhat aligned with the tendency to explore the “material” world, understood as a “demystified” and “rationalised” world, shorn of anthropomorphic projections.

Marx’s materialism suggests that things might not be as simple as Deleuze and Guattari imply. If Marx were to point to an object like wheat, and note that social relations cannot be deduced from it, perhaps there is a more complex sense in which such an observation might figure in Marx’s work: perhaps he might also be asking how he can justify the use of “materialist” concepts, within his own self-reflexive and immanent approach. Perhaps he might be seeking to meet the criteria of self-reflexivity (and of immanence or materialism itself) by posing the problem of how it came to pass that we exist in a society that can perceive and think in materialist terms, a society for which notions like sense perception might be appear to be the most basic, the most “natural”, way of perceiving the world – a society whose inhabitants can observe wheat and not immediately think things like: “Yes of course: I recognise this substance: it may only be lawfully consumed by persons of this caste, when prepared in this way, and at this time. It may only be produced by persons of that sort, using these traditional techniques, and with the proper ritual performances.”

I confess that I strongly disagree with her take on Deleuze and Guattari, as I think the two develop a careful analysis of just why such illusions emerge and the conditions under which a critical subjectivity is possible. Indeed, this is one of the central themes of my study of Deleuze’s thought, Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence, where I 1) strive to show why Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is not a return to dogmatic metaphysics, 2) give an account of why the illusions of transcendence and representation emerge, and 3) provide an immanent account of the emergence of critical subjectivity. Despite these reservations– reservations she herself expresses –the post does an excellent job laying out questions revolving around critical subjectivity, immanence, and materialism.

I haven’t had much time to write lately as I’m inundated with grading and a host of other things. Basically I’ve been a nervous wreck waiting to find out about the job. I know, I know, it’s only been a week… After all, I just returned from Ohio on Friday 16th and the last candidate was interviewed on Monday the 19th, but nonetheless… The fun part of these things is that all my obsessional symptoms begin to come to the fore. In his case study on the Rat Man and elsewhere, Freud underlined the strong relationship between superstitious or magical thought and obsessional neurosis. For instance, the Rat Man would worry that thinking certain thoughts would lead to the death of his father, despite the fact that his father was already dead! I won’t trouble you with the sorts of connections playing about in my mind. They aren’t pretty.

At any rate, some of you might recall that one of my first posts here was about the relationship between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis. Indeed, it was the thoughts behind this post that motivated me to start this blog, on a whim one night, in the first place. My friend Melanie had been gushing about the whole blog phenomenon– in particular she had been lurking about on I Cite and Infinite Thought –so lest I lose my “hip factor” I decided, with bottle of wine in hand, to poke about one night while I was on vacation (it must have been Spring Break). I had participated for years on academic discussion lists– indeed I am even the moderator of a few such lists –but had never ventured forth into the daunting land of theory blogs. Was I hip enough to be a blogger, I wondered? Did I have what it takes to rant endlessly and in a self-absorbed fashion about the minor drama that is my life? Could I write freely and of my own accord, without having the instigation of other list members annoying the hell out of me with their particular thoughts and thus prompting me to respond? At any rate, as I poked about in my semi-drunken stupor, I came across a blog devoted to Deleuze and Guattari, and was enraged by the sort of standard claims you come across in these venues about psychoanalysis (this wasn’t, of course, on I Cite or Infinite Thought). When I tried to post my rejoinder, pointing out how heavily Deleuze and Guattari draw on Lacan and how Anti-Oedipus tends to except Lacan from the sorts of criticisms they level against folk like Melanie Klein and Freud, the computer froze and I lost the comment.

In that moment Larval Subjects was born. Basically I said screw it, quickly set up a blog with blogger, wrote a post on the death of god and then another on Deleuze, Guattari, and Lacan. Having gotten it out of my system, I didn’t give the blog another thought, yet to my great surprise someone posted: Orla. “Whoa, perhaps people actually read these things!” A few days later I got the courage to post on Jodi Dean’s I Cite with a link to something I’d written. She frontpaged me and then a few other blogs followed in kind, and voila! So I kept writing. It would be no exaggeration to say that Jodi Dean and Sujet-barre made me in more ways than one when they front paged me. The traffic that ensued and the comments that arose encouraged me to continue writing and to explore my ideas in ways that I never had before, pushing me to develop my own thoughts rather than simply engaging in commentary. While my style is still very citational, I nonetheless continue to develop thoughts of some sort, for good or ill. My interactions here have motivated me to submit far more papers and have made me more confident in my professional interactions. Blogging has been, for me, a life changing event. Such is the power of networks. At any rate, my rage about an offhand comment from an enthusiast of Deleuze and Guattari was the result of years of frustration borne out of my own interactions with Deleuzians on various online discussion lists and at conferences. As Deleuze and Guattari point out,

Let us remember once again one of Marx’s caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and the relations of production. The product appears to be all the more specific, incredibly specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends. (AO, 24)

Perhaps this is one of the quasi-transcendental sources of stupidity that I was lamenting in my recent post on learning: our tendency to think in terms of products and results, rather than processes of production. I always try to remind myself of this, that I do not know their field of individuation or from whence they have come, when I encounter someone who is responding to something in a particularly impassioned way, though I am seldom good at keeping this in mind. In a similar vein, if my irritation with the treatment of Lacan by American enthusiasts of Deleuze and Guattari is so impassioned, then this is due to years and years of hearing the same tired points trotted out again and again, when what is written there on the page in black and white says something completely different.

And, of course, there is my own sympathy towards psychoanalysis, having spent years in analysis myself, having struggled with Lacan’s own difficult and imposing theoretical edifice, and practicing as an analyst myself. Sometimes I cannot prevent myself from having dark and self-serving thoughts, smugly thinking of certain Deleuzians as academic dilettantes playing a game of letters, who have never sat before and been responsible to another genuinely suffering person and had to assume responsibility for the consequences of their own interventions. As Lacan remarks in his tenth seminar, L’angoisse, the analyst must learn, above all, how to use her own anxiety as a productive principle. And anxiety is certainly legion on the analyst’s end of things. It is my view that every thinker, every philosopher, should have a concrete practice so as to remind themselves of that little bit of the real, or so as to encounter a point of opacity and resistance within the otherwise “smooth” world of conceptual creation where we are all little gods. I know these are ugly thoughts and I try not to have them. Spinoza had his lenses to grind. Kant had his physics. Descartes had his mathematics. Leibniz all his inventions. And Lacan his patients. I do not like that I sometimes conceitedly think such things. Yet I get frustrated.

For some reason, today, I found my mind continuously returning to the epigraph of Deleuze’s charming little book Spinoza: A Practical Philosophy. There Deleuze draws a passage from Malamud’s text, The Fixer.

“Let me ask you what brought you to Spinoza? Is it that he was a Jew?”

“No, your honor. I didn’t know who or what he was when I first came across the book– they don’t exactly love hi9m in the synagogue, if you’ve read the story of his life. I found it in a junkyard in a nearby town, paid a kopek and left cursing myself for wasting money hard to come by. Later I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn’t understand every word but when you’re dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch’es ride. After that I wasn’t the same man…”

“Would you mind explaining what you think Spinoza’s work means? IN other words if it’s a philosophy what does it state?”

“That’s not so easy to say… The book means different things according to the subject of the chapters, though it’s all united underneath. But what I think it means is that he was out to make a free man of himself– as much as one can according to his philosophy, if you understand my meaning –by thinking things through and connecting everything up, if you’ll go along with that, your honor.”

“That isn’t a bad approach, through the man rather than the work. But…”

I’m feeling rather despondant today, a bit dim. Perhaps I’m suffering from post-traumatic interview syndrome, or maybe it’s everything going on with the book. Occasionally I feel as if I go through these periods where I become all but autistic; where I lose my will to speak with anyone or think at all. Yet nonetheless I found that I couldn’t shake this passage from my mind, even though it’s been so long since I read the book. Similarly, when I returned home from the office I found myself delving back into Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, a book that I’ve kept beside my bed for many years and that I read when I wake up in the middle of the night.

Every semester I begin my introductory courses with Plato’s Euthyphro. There are a number of reasons for this. On the one hand, the Euthyphro is exemplary as a model of philosophical analysis, argumentation, and critique. On the other hand, this dialogue stages the manner in which action and belief interpenetrate, such that actions are based on beliefs and false belief leads to false action. Additionally, there are geographical reasons as well. Teaching in the Dallas Texas area– home of the megachurch and the central hub of apocalyptic variants of Evangelical Christianity –teaching the Euthyphro exposes students to questions of religion and faith that perhaps they have never before encountered. Finally, the Euthyphro inaugurates some basic and fundamental distinctions as to how all subsequent ethical and political philosophy will be conducted. However, it is also possible to see the Euthyphro as a criticism of ideology and as a sort of therapy strategically designed to both reveal Euthyphro’s attachments and precipitate a separation from those attachments. Socrates aims at nothing less than producing a sort of void in Euthyphro… A void, perhaps, that would have the effect of producing the possibility of freedom.

I previous posts I have expressed a sort of philosophical schizophrenia or malaise with regard to the question of where to begin in philosophy that perpetually has me batting about like a fly in a bottle. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes that, “[w]here to begin in philosophy has always– rightly –been regarded as a very delicate problem, for beginning means eliminating all presuppositions” (DR, 129). In advancing this assertion, Deleuze ties himself to a long philosophical tradition stretching all the way back to Plato. As Plato writes in Book VI of The Republic:

Understand then, said I, that by the other section of the intelligible I mean that which the reason itself lays hold of by the power of dialectic, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas [forms] moving on through ideas [forms] to ideas [forms] and ending with ideas [forms]. (511 b2-c1)

For Plato, philosophical discourse must break with all custom, authority, and mythological narratives to arrive at the assumptionless and demonstrable. An excellent example of this can be found in the early dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates is surprised to encounter Euthyphro at the Hall of Kings where legal matters are addressed. After a brief conversation, Euthyphro informs Socrates that he is there to prosecute his father for murder. Apparently one of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and murdered another servant. His father had bound the servant and thrown him in a ditch while dispatching another servant to determine what legal actions should be taken. While waiting for the authorities to arrive, the servant died from either the bonds or exposure to the elements.

Surprised that Euthyphro would prosecute his own father– here an anthropological knowledge of kinship relations would be important to the analysis of the dialogue –Socrates asks why Euthyphro would do such a thing. Euthyphro quickly responds that it is his pious or religious duty to do so. Socrates points out that only a man of very great wisdom (knowledge) would so confidently proceed in such a course of action and asks Euthyphro to explain piety to him so that he might better defend himself against the charges of impiety levelled against him by Meletus in his own court case. If Euthyphro can teach him the meaning of piety, then Socrates will be able to defend himself against Meletus’ charges as he will be able to show that he does, indeed, know what piety is (the presupposition here– common in the Ancient world –is that we only do wrong on the basis of ignorance, confusing what is good with its simulacrum). If, on the other hand, Euthyphro is mistaken, Socrates will be innocent as his soul will have been corrupted by a bad teacher.

The manner in which Euthyphro defends his first attempt at a definition of piety is of special interest with regard to the question of breaking with presuppositions. Having agreed to take Socrates as his pupil, Euthyphro remarks that,

…I say that the pious is what I am now doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits a murder or a sacrilegious roberry, or sins in any point like that, whether it be your father, or your mother, or whoever it may be. And not to prosecute would be impious. And, Socrates, observe what a decisive proof I will give you that such is the law. It is one I have already given others; I tell them that the right procedure must be not to tolerate the impious man, no matter who. Does not mankind believe that Zeus is the most excellent and just among the gods? And these same men admit that Zeus shackled his own father [Cronus] for swallowing his [other] sons unjustly, and that Cronus in turn had gelded [castrated] his father [Uranus] for like reasons. But now they are enraged at me when I proceed against my father for wrongdoing, and so they contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and what they say of me. (5d6 – 6a5)

In this first attempted definition of piety, it is clear that Euthyphro is an advanced ethical thinker deserving of praise. Euthyphro affirms the universality of moral principles irregardless of kinship, nationalistic, or tribal relations such as those one enjoys with respect to one’s mother and father. In this regard, Euthyphro sounds like Jesus, when he remarks “[i]f any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, his wife and children, his brothers, and sisters– yes, even his own life –he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The implication of this difficult saying seems to be that genuine moral uprightness requires a break from tribal and kinship relations– the Lacanian would add a break from identification with the master-signifier –so as to affirm the Jewish exhortation to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). So long as this break with what Badiou calls the logic of the encyclopedia is not accomplished, the dimension of the egalitarian universal cannot be encountered.

However, Socrates is quick to point out that there is both a problem with this definition of piety and more importantly with how it is defended. On the one hand, this definition fails insofar as it gives only an instance of piety (prosecuting someone for murder) and not the feature or rule that would allow us to identify all instances of piety. Interestingly, the Euthyphro ends in aporia without a definition, suggesting that perhaps piety is not a domain of knowledge and therefore not a domain of obligation with regard to the other (recall that the Oracle at Delphi is the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, the god of reason and truth). An important philosophical decision seems to be made later in the same dialogue when Socrates asks whether piety is pious because the gods love it or if the gods love it because it is pious. If the former, then we must await the revelation of the gods in order to know our ethical duty. If the latter, we can examine ethical questions without requiring recourse to the revelations of the gods. Socrates and Euthyphro both choose the latter option, and it is this decision that will mark all subsequent ethical theory to present and open the door for the Enlightenment critique of Church authority.

Of greater concern is the way in which Euthyphro defends his definition. Socrates quickly points out that Euthyphro appeals to myth, and remarks that he has a difficult time believing these stories to be true. In short, Euthyphro enjoins Socrates to accept as a duty something based on a myth that he cannot himself validate. This is an act of intellectual violence or disrespect to his interlocutor. So in this brief exchange the gauntlet of philosophy is thrown: break with myth so as to know through reason. Moreover, in the same dialogue Euthyphro has presented himself as an expert in all things pious, thereby defending his claims on the basis of his authority. In suggesting that he become Euthyphro’s pupil, Socrates effectively rejects the acceptance of authority on the basis of authority’s own claim to recognition, but instead calls for authority to legitimate itself.

Philosophy thus demands, in principle, a break from authority and myth. However, there is a genuine question as to whether this is possible. Insofar as the Lacanian subject is split, it is always decentered from itself. The manner in which the subject is decentered is structured in two ways: On the one hand, the Lacanian subject is not immanent to itself as a consciousness due to the manner in which the ego (not to be confused with the subject) is alienated in the imaginary, misrecognizing itself in its imago. The ego confuses itself with its image of itself rather than with its genuine being and is forever unable to coincide with this image. On the other hand, insofar as the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, it is alienated with regard to language such that it is not master of its own language. Because the signifier cannot signify itself, it follows that no origin or ground of language can ever be articulated that would meet Plato’s requirement for dialectic. For every signifier I articulate there will always be (n+1) or (n-1)… One more to say or one too few. The dream of a subject that would be immanent to itself and thus completely grounded such as we find in Descartes or Husserl is thoroughly undermined by the Lacanian subject. This goes straight to the heart of my concerns, for I recognize the validity of what I’ll loosely call “sociological thought”, undermining the dream of a subject immanent to itself (with the possible exception of Badiou), while also recognizing the philosophical ambition of breaking with doxa… If only as a critical regulative ideal.

What is required is some gesture that is able to rigorously establish the identity of the subject with what is most other or foreign to it (the symptom, social constitution, objective conditions, etc). The best candidate I’ve seen for a solution to this problem is Hegel’s “identity of identity and difference”. As Hegel expresses this identity of identity and difference,

The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general. This can be regarded as the defect of both, though it is their soul, or that which moves them. That is why some of the ancients conceived the void as the principle of motion, for they rightly saw the moving principle as the negative, though they did not as yet grasp that the negative is the self. Now, although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and Substance shows itself to be essentially Subject. When it has shown this completely, Spirit has made its exitence identical with its essence; it has itself for its object just as it is, and the abstract element of immediacy, and of the separation of knowing and truth, is overcome. Being is then absolutely mediated; it is a substantial content which is just as immediately the property of the ‘I’, it is self-like or the Notion. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 21)

When the analysand recognizes themselves in a slip of the tongue such as the statement “I cannot before myself”/”I cannot be-for myself”, subject is recognizing itself in substance. The analysand had intended to express the thought that he is unable to be prior to himself, but instead ended up saying, despite his intentions, that he cannot support himself. The work of the “negative” (relation) occurs when the analysand recognizes himself in this slip of the tongue, despite the fact that this slip was not what he intended. Similarly, when the sociologist demonstrates that the personal motives of individuals pursuing their own aims ends up producing economic inequalities such as the way in which American consummerism ends up reinforcing third world poverty and conflict despite the fact that the American consumer does not intend this result, a dialectical identity or an identity of identity and difference is being asserted between these large scale social organizations and these personal intensions. The truth expressed in the slip of the tongue (substance) differs radically from what the subject knows of himself (knowledge in the imaginary), just as the truth of one’s social actions (class inequalities) differs radically from what the consumer believes he knows of himself; yet there is nonetheless an identity between the two. Dialectic is able to demonstrate these relations. Even presuppositions themselves stand in a dialectical relation with the presuppositionless.

Yet while Hegel’s logic of the negative, his logic of alterity, promises a way of surpassing the difficulties posed by a subject that is no longer immanent to itself, there are two further problems: On the one hand, the Lacanian, unlike Hegel, rejects any claim that truth and knowledge can be brought into harmony with one another. Truth always outstrips knowledge, or we always say more than we intend to say. On the other hand, and what amounts the same, the Lacanian account of the real precludes any totality, whole, or completeness. What, then, would a dialectic look like that didn’t fall prey to the manner in which Hegel’s thought remains mired in the imaginary. For Lacan, the imaginary does not refer to the fictional such as an imaginary friend, but to the dimension of meaning, completeness, and the desire for wholeness. How is this to be philosophically surmounted? Or is there a discourse of the philosopher that escapes that of the master and enters the discourse of the analyst?

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