In my development of the ontology of objects within the framework of onticology I have tried to argue that objects are not their local manifestations or actualizations, but rather a virtual endo-relational structure composed of relations among attractors, singularities, powers, or generative mechanisms. It is this virtual dimension of the object that, in my view, constitutes the proper being of an object. This virtual dimension of the object, I argue, constitutes its substantiality. Consequently, it follows that no object ever directly encounters another objects, but rather objects only ever encounter one another as local manifestations of their virtual proper being. The proper being of the object, its virtual structure, is always in excess of any of its local manifestations.

This model of objects is proposed, in part, to account for the identity of an object throughout its variations. Objects continuously vary or change as their conditions change, yet there is something of the object that remains the same. But what is this something? Certainly it can’t be the local manifestations or actualizations of the object because those local manifestations change with shifting conditions or changes in exo-relations to other objects. It is this insight that leads many, I think, to overmine objects by reducing them to their relations to other objects. Yet as Harman has compellingly argued, this line of thought fails to provide the conditions for the possibility under which these variations are possible. As a consequence, it follows that the identity of an object cannot be something in the appearance (to the world, not to humans), local manifestation, or actualization of an object, but must reside in another dimension of the object. And because the object can undergo variations while remaining that object, it follows that the proper being of the object, its substantiality, must be something that does not manifest itself. It is there everywhere in the object, without ever becoming present in the world. It is the “principle” of the object, its “essence”, its “style of being”, without being something that we could ever find in the local manifestations of the object.

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mapofitalyI sometimes get the sense that when I make remarks about flat ontology and collectives of human and nonhuman actors the points I’m making are so simple, so vulgar, so obvious that others are often confused as to what I might even be referring to. Ghost, for example, remarks,

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the time you’ve spent explaining this stuff. I’m beginning to get a handle on it, but as you describe the differences between a flat ontology analysis and something Zizek might do, for instance, I realise I need to see this ontology in action. A detailed flat ontology analysis might dissipate the feeling for me that the old nature/binary is still there, but now together in a new container.

No doubt I’ve exacerbated the problem because I’ve developed a somewhat abstract vocabulary with mysterious expressions like “there are no differences that do not make a difference”, “there is no transportation without translation”, and “nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else”, all situated in terms like “objectiles”, “actors”, “exo-relations”, “endo-relations”, “attractors”, “phase spaces”, “endo-consistency”, and so on. Faced with this infantry of terms and expressions, it’s difficult to determine what I might be getting at. A good deal of this has been my fault as I seldom give very elaborate examples to develop my claims. Hopefully I can rectify some of this today through the question “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”

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newssmokeThe word “object” derives from the Latin prefix ob, meaning “against”, and the word jacere, meaning “to throw”. Presumably there is a relationship between objects, on the one hand, and existence on the other hand. To be an object is also to exist. The term “existence” comes from the Latin term existere (ex and sistere) meaning “to stand forth”. It would thus seem that to be an object is “to be thrown against” or “to stand forth”. Here, then, would be a first reason for conceiving objects in relation to difference. If to be an object is to stand forth or to be thrown against, then it follows that to be an object is first and foremost to differ. On the one hand, we here see why objects must always be attached to a field. If objects stand forth or are thrown against, there must be something from which they stand forth or against which they are thrown. Minimally, then, it must be said that there are not just objects, but object-field relations. There is nothing for the object to stand-forth from if there is no field against which the object stands. This field could be anything and the question of what constitutes a field would be a central question of ontological speculation. Is the field in question the void, as in the case of Lucretius? Is it other objects? Is it a background-foreground relation as in the case of the Gestaltists? Is it the One substance of Spinoza? The question is open. All that can be said is that minimally objects are a differentiating. For this reason objects are necessarily attached to a world; or rather, there are no worldless objects.

125The second notable feature of the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” is that both contain verbs. “Object” contains the verb jacere, meaning to throw. “Existence” contains the verb sistere, meaning “to stand forth”. The term “object”, of course, is a noun. When we think of nouns we tend to think of something fixed and established. Something that presides. Yet the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” suggests a verb or action at the heart of objects and existence. If objects stand-forth or are thrown, then there is an activity at work in the object or the existent. In this respect, the Greek concept of φύσις or phusis as that which emerges, grows, or is born would be at the heart of objects. When the Ontic Principle claims that there is no difference that does not make a difference, we get one sense in which objects are. The difference of an object is a difference that is made and constantly remade, emerging from out of a field. Consequently, objects should be thought as events.

g002_pllck2_she_wolfIt is unfortunate that we so often use “difference” as a noun. The differences that constitute an object should not be understood as the properties by which an observer distinguishes two objects from one another, but should instead be understood as difference internal to the object, presiding over the process of how it stands forth from a field or throws itself. Difference should be understood in the sense of “to differ” or “differing“, as the activity by which the objects unfolds, blooms, or emerges against a field. Perhaps the term “differentiating” would be preferable to “difference”, so long as differentiating is understood as what objects do, not what minds do in distinguishing objects from one another. While we do indeed make distinctions, so long as difference is understood primarily as distinction, difference becomes a negative term describing relations between identicals. When we speak of difference as distinction, we here speak of difference in terms of what something is not, rather than affirmatively as the differentiating taking place in the heart or volcanic core of objects. “This cat is black, that cat is not.” Hence Deleuze will remarks that,

The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, 28)

As I argued in a previous post, the epistemic and the ontological are deeply intertwined due to the philosophical tradition, such that we must perpetually struggle to untangle the two if we are to get anywhere. Difference-between is a relation between three terms where, on the one hand, we have two objects that differ from one another (black and white cats) and a mind contemplating that difference or distinguishing these two terms. Such would be difference epistemically conceived. Implicitly this form of difference would involve an observer or mind distinguishing the two objects. However, difference as Deleuze here conceives it would be ontological and strictly an affair of the object itself, regardless of whether any minds were about to distinguish the object from other objects. Here we would have the object distinguishing itself through some sort of internal force or power– an internal difference –rather than objects being distinguished.

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art_whitney_marx-insideN.Pepperell has begun posting chapter drafts of her long awaited thesis on Marx over at Rough Theory. The work that she’s doing is well worth the read and promises to new light on a number of competing approaches to social and political theory. Might we not get an actor-network version of Marx… Including the hyphen and suitably responsive to Braudel? I look forward to watching the text unfold. I do, however, have one gripe. I cannot find a “thesis workshop” tab in her categories section, so it is difficult to follow the order of the text. NP, add a tag stat!


There seems to be a certain inertia to thought, to our dealings with the world, which leads us to a sort of ontological pre-comprehension of the world in which being is apprehended as stable, ordered, reliable, and law-like. Nor is this ontological pre-comprehension without warrant. You can discern this inertia with special clarity in the case of very young children interacting with those with whom they are familiar. The smallest change can transform an easy familiarity into suspicion. The young child reacts with averted eyes, refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the person they were before perfectly comfortable with. A quizzical, anxious look crosses their face. In response to these changes and shifts in what is otherwise stable and familiar, there seems to be a deep “ontological insecurity” against which we defend. And while perhaps there are laws of nature, invariant patterns of being, perhaps our search for such things is a defense against this ontological insecurity (a term I borrow with reservations from Adorno, I think), this need to find identity amidst and underneath change.

Last week I encountered something similar among my students in my Critical Thinking class. We were working through the basic language distinctions that will form all the subsequent work in the class, and I was trying to explain the difference between arguments and persuasion. According to Parker and Moore, an argument consists of a premise and a conclusion such that the premises are presented as support for the truth of the conclusion. Arguments attempt to demonstrate that a particular claim is true. By contrast, persuasion seeks to convince someone else of something, and may or may not use arguments. There are all sorts of things that convince us that have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a conclusion. We might or might not persuaded because we have a high regard for the person who is speaking to us, or because we are captivated by the beauty or force of their words, because of how they dress, or because the person appeals to our vanity or evokes values such as Nation, God, Morality, etc. In these cases, the language does not function as a reason in support of a claim and has little or nothing to do with whether or not the claim is true or false. Yet nonetheless the speech persuades.

Seeking to illustrate this difference, I referenced modes of dress and job interviews. All of us have received advice about how to dress when going to job interviews, how we should speak, how it’s important to give a firm handshake and look the interviewers in the eye. If one is in academia or perhaps an IT field, this is particularly bizarre as it is unlikely that we dress as we do at a job interview when we are in the classroom or programming software. More fundamentally, the mode of dress has little or nothing to do with ones expertise in the classroom or these fields. In these cases, clothing is an act of seduction, a lure, that compensates for the insufficiency of being able to perceptibly display skill and knowledge.

Thinking this to be a very straightforward and obvious point, I was surprised when howls of protest issued from my students. “But clothing and grooming tell us whether or not a person is responsible!” “Clothing and good grooming tell whether or not a person is a good person!” What the students had missed– or wished to erase –was the manner in which clothing functions as a sign. In this connection, it is perhaps Umberto Eco who best articulates the essence of signs. As Eco writes in A Theory of Semiotics, “…semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (7). The students wished to treat these signs as immediate proof of the character and skill of a person, missing the manner in which the sign always differs from that for which it stands. In short, their protests spoke to a desire for a transparent social world where things are what they are and do not differ from themselves (would it be an exaggeration to suggest that politics is always divided between politics of identity and politics of difference, where the former aims after the identical and non-deceptive, whereas the latter allows beings to differ from themselves and their group?) Here one will recall the manner in which the young boy evades capture by his father at the end of The Shining. Recognizing the essential nature of signs, the boy covers his tracks in the snow, creating false tracks that lead in another direction. The boy recognizes that the sign and that for which the signs stand, share no essential connection with one another. In this way he is able to communicate a false trail.

Lefebvre drives this point home with beautiful clarity in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life:

And yet there is something in life which Pirandelloism [the form of theatre that presents everything as a relative point of view or interpretation of the world] cannot contain and which escapes it: the action, the event, the decision, the final outcome and the necessity for a final outcome; actions, and judgments about actions, in the sense in which they involve decisions… To play is to transform our point of view into a decision by confronting chance and determinism in the absence of adequate information about our opponent’s game…

We are never really sure where actions, decisions or events spring from. But, in all their stark reality, the results are there. What lies hidden within men and women is beyond our grasp; maybe these hidden depths are only an insubstantial mist, and not a profound substance (a Grund, a nature, an unconscious belonging to the individual or a group); it may only be a myth. Men and women are beyond us… We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they will never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. (18)

Perhaps, when he asserts that “the big Other does not exist”, Lacan means nothing more than this; that we act and live in a state of ambiguity where we are ultimately unable to calculate the hand of those in relation to whom we act. If the discovery that the big Other does not exist, that the Other is split or barred, proves far more traumatic than the discovery that we, as subjects, are split or barred, then this is because it confronts us with the semiotic nature of the world in Eco’s sense of the term. Not only do we not have adequate information about the others in relation to which we act, but those others do lack this knowledge of themselves as well (for they too are barred and are ignorant of their own desire).

As a result, there is no master-key or algorithm that would allow us to navigate the world. The pre-ontological comprehension of being as governed by invariant laws (whether in the natural world or the social world), would be a massive defense against this ontologically primitive contingency that marks existence. Nietzsche asks what will animates the philosopher’s will to truth. The answer would be found here. Yet as Deleuze claims in his powerful image of the dicethrow, “It is… a question of a throw of the dice, of the whole sky as open space and of throwing as the only rule. The singular points are on the die; the questions are the dice themselves; the imperative is to throw. Ideas are the problematic combinations which result from the throws” (Difference and Repetition, 198). In grasping Deleuze it would be a mistake to assume that we are the one’s formulating the questions or posing the questions. “The imperatives and questions with which we are infused do not emanate from the I: it is not even there to hear them. The imperatives are those of being, while every question is ontological and distributes ‘that which is’ among problems” (199). We are thrown into a space of being that questions and problematizes us, and it is this that we navigate in the individuate our being. We find ourselves thrown into a constellation, a set of aleatory singular points, that form the problematic field in which we are individuated. “the dice which fall are a constellation, their points form the number ‘born of the stars'” (Nietzsche & Philosophy, 32). Yet again and again philosophy striates this space of the constellation, erasing aleatory distributions of singularities, striving to transform being into static, eternal, lawful structures. The question is that of how it might be possible to think from constellations, from distributions of singularities, no longer erasing the non-existence of the Other.


My frustrations from earlier today have led me to think once again of Serres’ discussion of noise in his lyrical work of philosophy, Genesis. There Serres writes:

There, precisely, is the origin. Noise and nausea, noise and the nautical, noise and the navy belong to the same family. We musn’t be surprised. We never hear what we call background noise so well as we do at the seaside. That placid or vehement uproar seems established there for all eternity. In the strict horizontal of it all, stable, unstable cascades are endlessly trading. Space is assailed, as a whole, by the murmur; we are utterly taken over by this same murmuring. This restlessness is within hearing, just shy of definite signals, just shy of silence. The silence of the sea is mere appearance. Background noise may well be the ground of our being. It may be that our being is not at rest, it may be that it is not in motion, it may be that our being is disturbed. The background noise never ceases; it is limitless, continuous, unending, unchanging. It has itself no background, no contradictory. How much noise must be made to silence noise? And what terrible fury puts fury in order? Noise cannot be a phenomenon; every phenomenon is separated from it, a silhouette on a backdrop, like a beacon against the fog, as every message, every cry, every call, every signal must be separated from the hubbub that occupies silence, in order to be, to be perceived, to be known, to be exchanged. (13)

Noise cannot be a phenomenon. Rather, noise is inimical to all phenomenon, an anteriority out of which phenomenality itself emerges like a ghostly ship suddenly manifesting itself out of a dense fog on a dark night. Some of us will remember the haunting image of Carol-Anne before the television in Poltergeist, intoning “they’re here!” in response to voices that only she can hear. The white noise of the television that lulled so many of us to sleep in bygone ages prior to the onset of twenty-four hour television, produces an experience of the uncanny, causes the hair to raise on the back of our neck, by confronting us with the thought of an order impacting our life from within a flat chaos. Bateson will say that “information is the difference that makes a difference.” Noise is the great white indifference. Thus Deleuze will write,

Indifference has two aspects: the undifferenciated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved– but also the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which float unconnected determinations like scattered members: a head without a neck, an arm without a shoulder, eyes without a brows. The indeterminate is completely indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent to each other… Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it. It is as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be the ground… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, 28)


Some will recall the puerile film Contact, where hidden within the extraterrestrial radio transmission there is a secret code filled with thousands of pages of blueprints for the design of some device. The question is that of how a difference is made. Or rather, it is a question of how something ceases to be noise, chaos, and suddenly becomes salient. For those who remember the film, Contact is particularly nice in this regard; for when the sound signatures are projected onto a visual space, we get a multi-dimension picture where certain differences rise forth from the ground as distinct.

In many respects, this is the core of education. Andrew Cutrofello expresses this point nicely when speaking of Bachelard’s theory of science in Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction:

Just as Bachelard is more amenable than Heidegger to the reconcilability of the claims of science and poetry, so he denies that there is as great a gap between intuition and intellect as Bergson supposed there to be. Intuitions have to be educated by the intellect, that is, by the very specific accomplicments whose philosophical significance Bergson thought had to be assessed from the perspective of a naive or ‘pure’ intuition. For Bachelard, the very capacity to inuit has a history, one that is dialectically informed by developments in science… (58)


Perception is not simply a given or a gestalt, but something that must be developed and cultivated. My friend Carl tells me of his visit to Egypt, and how people drive and walk in the city of Cairo. For him there seems to be no order. Cars zoom about willy-nilly. People walk into oncoming traffic. Yet strangely it all seems to work out well. There is an order amidst this noise of which he is unaware. I have had a similar experience in the Indian-Pakistani part of Chicago, on Devon Avenue. Everything there presents itself as a buzzing confusion for the agent that does not have a “know-how” of this place. In developing a knowledge of psychoanalysis, we do not simply gain new facts, but we cultivate perceptions. Certain items in a person’s speech become salient where before they were merely noise that we filtered out. So too in the case of the physicist, the chemist, the engineer. There is a process of phenomenalization, a breaching of a realm of being, where before there was only noise.

There is thus an anxiety that accompanies all education. In learning– rather than knowing –one confronts the undifferentiated void, where saliencies do not reside. In teaching we bring our students before this noise, confronting them with a field of phenomenality where, as of yet, there are no phenomena for them. Some of us recoil from the passions this anxiety releases, celebrating rote memorization as a way of relieving the anxiety. Here no new field of phenomenality appears. Everything remains at the level of the familiar, doxa. All of us, regardless, must handle this anxiety, administering it in doses, guiding our students through the indeterminate so that the phenomenon might appear, by grace, on the other side. It is a dance that can easily go astray, leading the student to recoil in horror in much the same way that Plato describes in the allegory of the cave, where the escaped prisoner is painfully blinded with each subsequent step he takes. Somehow it is necessary to manage that blinding so that it doesn’t lead to flight. Yet holographically, a phenomenon gradually comes to stand forth from this buzzing confusion… Something becomes distinct and a grammar begins to appear. It might be a grammar of wood (in carving), of sound (in music), of the unconscious, of chemical relations. Where before there was indifference, now there is difference. Yet how is it that something begins to stand out from the white noise on the television screen? Where does the difference that makes a difference come from? Is it possible to think that which precedes the given, that gives the given, and that is anterior to phenomenality? Or must that which is anterior to the phenomenality of the phenomenon– the es gibt –be doomed to be an unthinkable abyss? More to the point, what would a pedagogy that takes this abyss into account and which guides the student to the discovery of singularities within the undifferentiated look like?

~…Two descriptions are required for an actual entity: (a) one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other other actual entities, and (b) another which is analytical of the process which constitutes its own becoming.

How an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process.’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23)

arabesque.jpgShaviro’s recent posts on Whitehead and Deleuze (here, here, and here), coupled with a bit of time off from teaching, have convinced me to return to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. I have had an affection for Whitehead since highschool, yet I had forgotten just how strange, beautiful, and exciting his thought is. As I read I find myself unable to sit still with the text for more than a few paragraphs, before I have to get up and manically pace back and forth, mulling over some definition or concept, translating it into the language of assemblages, Deleuze’s ontology, and some of the concepts of populations and constellations I’ve gropingly been trying to develop. For me the value of a philosophy is not so much its truth, but rather the way in which it provides you with a vocabulary or set of concepts to express a problem through which you’ve been trying to think without quite being able to articulate it. Truth is always a function of concepts that one possesses, allowing one to formulate propositions about the world that fail or succeed within the constraints of the universe of reference defined by those concepts. As Whitehead will write, “A proposition can embody partial truth because it only demands a certain type of systematic environment, which is presupposed in its meaning” (11). This is a form of meaning holism that requires one to always infer the field of propositions in which a single proposition is intelligible.

I’m unsure of whether I’ve ever actually read a piece of philosophy, whether I’ve ever been able to ever encounter a text in its own textuality, or whether instead philosophical works function, for me, as a sort of mirror where I see what I’m capable of seeing or find what I already had. Certainly there must be relations of feedback between texts and readers, such that readers produce texts and texts deterritorialize readers from their accustomed territories, yet sometimes I wonder if I only ever hear myself speak even when listening. I’m sure there are some that have frequented this domain of zeros and ones that would attest to this in evaluating me.

It seems that some of what I’m reading is highly relevant to a set of problems N.Pepperell and I have been working through with regard to abstract categories and populations. In a recent post responding to my post on populations and constellations, Nicole wrote:

Tacitly, this formulation is not completely adequate to the framework Sinthome has outlined, which would require an analysis of the constellations or assemblages that give rise to such abstract thought – and, for that matter, to the alternative form of thought that would be oriented to really existent phenomena. Such analyses, however, are difficult to provide within the confines of a blog post and, in any event, the point of this post was to outline concepts, not to put these concepts into play against any particular concrete example to which they might be applied. My comments here are therefore simply placeholders noting where Sinthome’s concepts would point over time.

What I did want to suggest, though – and I must necessarily be very gestural here – is that it may be worth considering what peculiar characteristics an assemblage might need to possess, for it to generate particular kinds of abstract thought as one aspect of its distinctive forms of self-organisation. This is, as I mentioned in another discussion over at Larval Subjects, what I take Marx to have been attempting in Capital. What is interesting in Marx’s analysis is that he doesn’t interpret the abstract forms of thought he analyses as conceptual – as something that result from generalising or abstracting away from more concrete, really existent, phenomena. Instead, he interprets them as plausible expressions of forms of abstract social practice: Marx’s work, as I understand it, suggests the possibility that abstract forms of thought might express a dimension of social practice that enacts an on-the-ground indifference to the determinate specificity of concrete entities – a dimension of social practice that appears as it is, abstract.

In such a case, perversely, only abstract theoretical categories would be appropriate, as the really existing configuration possesses practically abstract dimensions – it generates what I generally call real abstractions. Of course, in this case, those abstract categories would only themselves be adequately grasped once they were no longer understood – as they tend phenomenologically to present themselves – as conceptual abstractions or generalisations obtained by stripping away the specificities of concrete experience. Instead, certain forms of abstraction would have to be recognised as the historical, material specificity of a particular dimension of concrete practice – a recognition that would entail a form of theoretical work like what Sinthome proposes, which would seek to uncover the way in which a particular form of abstraction was assembled through determinate forms of practice.

I think N.Pepperell is being exceedingly generous and charitable in her reading of me (as is her way), and that she is essentially correct in what she here says. Truth be told, I am guilty of the sort of issue she is alluding to here with regard to the distinction between concrete populations and abstractions. Or, perhaps to put it a bit more gently, I have been schizophrenic on this issue, sometimes asserting that these abstract forms are material realities in their own right and sometimes treating them as false illusions to be banished in favor of the dynamics of the population itself. When I’m being consistent in my ontological principles, I take the former route. When I’m grumpy I take the latter route.

For me one of the most exciting moments of theoretical engagement this year came down to two sentences in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It is notable that Zinn uses the indefinite article “A” in his title, underlining the manner in which any history is a history that makes a slice in chaos, a selection that could be told in many other ways. At any rate, there Zinn writes, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed)… (10).” I am not sure why I found this sentence so striking. I had already developed abstractly at the ontological level all the resources I needed to have this thought in a number of previous posts. Yet, nonetheless, the thought that nations are fictions, that group unities are fictions that conceal bubbling multiplicities populated by all sorts of other far less visible networks, tensions, and dynamics hit me like a ton of bricks. I found this thought tremendously liberating.

Still, these fictions cannot be so simply dismissed and they do have a material reality of their own. For this reason, it is a mistake to even refer to them as fictions. It is in this connection that Whitehead becomes potentially valuable. here my thoughts are scattered, so I’ll try to mark some placeholders for future thought and discussion. Writing of the purpose of philosophy, Whitehead remarks that,

The explanatory purpose of philosophy is often misunderstood. Its business is to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete things. It is a complete mistake to ask how concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals. The answer is, ‘In no way.’ The true philosophic question is, How can concrete fact exhibit entities abstract from itself and yet participated in by its own nature? (20)

The point here is not to dismiss the abstractions, but to show how they are generated out of more basic elements that he refers to as “actual occasions”. In short, for Whitehead these generalities are themselves real. Nor are they simply cognitions. They can themselves be things. These unities and abstractions generated out of actual occasions are themselves actual occasions. As Whitehead will write a couple pages later, “…in the becoming of an actual entity, the potential unity of many entities in a disjunctive diversity– actual and non-actual –[that] acquires the real unity of the one actual entity; so that the actual entity is the real concrescence of many potentials” (22). By “concresence”, Whitehead intends something like an assemblage or a drawing together of a plurality. “…[T]he ‘production of novel togetherness’ is the ultimate notion embodied in the term ‘concresence.’ These ultimate notions of ‘production of novelty’ and of ‘concrete togetherness’ [i.e., a constellation] are inexplicable either in terms of higher universals or in terms of the components participating in the concrescence” (21-22). By contrast, this reference to a “disjunctive diversity” might be taken to refer to the manner in which the elements of this concresence can enter into a variety of different assemblages which themselves “concress” in different and divergent ways. These elements are disjunctive in the sense that they are not bound in one single harmonious unity. For instance, one and the same person can be a part of a political movement and their place of employment, contributing to the two higher unities in very different ways; indeed, ways that can even come into conflict with one another.

In a way that resonates well with N.Pepperell’s remarks, a few pages earlier Whitehead observes that,

Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality… An actual individual, of such higher grade, has truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality; but it has attained its individual depth of being by a selective emphasis limited to its own purposes. The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection.

It is extremely important to note that Whitehead metaphorically uses the language of psychology, mind, and cognition to describe everything in the universe. I personally feel that this is a language that should be eradicated and replaced by a better vernacular. That aside, individuality, consciousness, selection, and purposiveness can, for Whitehead, just as easily refer to the ways in which a rock maintains itself as a rock in the order of time, as these terms can refer to an individual person or living creature. The point here is that entity separates itself out from totality, while still being dependent on those nexes of relations, to form itself as an enduring entity in time.

My friend Melanie makes a similar point elsewhere. Melanie begins by quoting from my post on constellations and populations and then goes on to provide her own gloss:

Rather than seeing the category as a topological space capable of undergoing infinite variation while maintaining its structural identity, one variation is raised above the rest, becomes transcendent to all the rest, and becomes the measure of all the others. As a result, there emerges a gap between the category and existence.

I’ve been thinking about your quote above from the constellations post. I keep thinking abstract category is like a pure mathematical arabesque that creates an idealized figure, so that the figure becomes more recognizable than the unfolding process of variation. See the image below (at the beginning of the post): the boundaries are created out of the various bits of the unfolding process (in this case, calligraphic writing), yet in order to become recognizable as an image, the boundaries must at some point also delimit the act of unfolding. Writing or math or other forms of becoming cannot continue as a process if we want to create a recognizable image. The gap between the immediacy of the image and the legibility of the written text in an arabesque is like the gap between category and existence.

Although I object to her cognitive language of “recognition”, Melanie makes a good point here. The arabesque is like a unity or a figure that emerges out of a heterogeneous background and maintains itself in time. This would be one way of thinking about N.Pepperell’s abstractions: Namely as unities that emerge in a complex field, that “select themselves out” as it were, and maintain some stable unity in time or against plurality, forming a particularly potent tendency within the field out of which they emerge. All of this is still very vague and the dynamics would differ from system to system and would have to be approached from a variety of different perspectives depending on whether we were talking about social systems, physical systems, psychic systems, etc, but perhaps it is some small start in simultaneously thinking these buzzing networks and the unities, along with the material reality of those unities, that emerge out of them. I end with an enigmatic remark by Whitehead that underlines my thesis that rhetorics aren’t simply about something, but are something: “…[A] proposition is the unity of certain actual entities in their potentiality for forming a nexus, with its potential relatedness…” (24). Note that he does not say a proposition represents the unity of certain actual objects, but that it is the unity of certain actual objects.

One of the central axioms of sociological systems theory is the thesis that systems process events according to their own internal organization. As Luhmann puts it in his magnificent work Social Systems,

The environment receives its unity through the system and only in relation to the system. It is delimited by open horizons, not by boundaries that can be crossed; thus it is not itself a system. It is different for every system, because every system excludes only itself from its environment. Accordingly, the environment has no self-reflection or capacity to act. Attribution to the environment (external attribution) is a strategy of systems. But this does not mean that the environment depends on the system or that the system can comman its environment as it pleases. Instead, the complexity of the system and of the environment– to which we will later return –excludes any totalizing form of dependence in either directions. (17)

For Luhmann, the fundamental distinction in sociological systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. Systems constitute themselves by distinguishing themselves from an environment. However, the key point is that, to put it in Hegelian terms, the relationship between system and environment is not an “external positing” where the environment is one thing and the system is another thing, but rather the unity of the environment is itself constituted by the system, such that the relation between system and environment is a self-referential relation constituted by the system itself. Any occurance taking place that the system attributes as coming from the environment but which doesn’t fit the frame of this distinction is simply coded as noise or chaos.

It is for this reason that systems are characterized by “operational closure”, such that events are processed according to the organization of the system in such a way that what an event is is always-already predelineated by the organization of the system. As Luhmann writes a bit further on,

Information occurs whenever a selective event (of an external or internal kind) works selectively within the system, namely, can select the system’s states. This presupposes a capacity for being oriented to (simultaneous or successive) differences that appear to be bound to a self-referential operational mode of the system. “A ‘bit’ of information,” as Bateson says, “is definable as a difference which makes a difference.” This means that the difference as such begins to work if and insofar as it can be treated as information in self-referential systems.

Therein lies an immense extension of possible causalities and a discplacement of the structural problematics under their control. the extension goes in two directions. On the one hand, given the capacity to process information, things that are not present can also have an effect; mistakes, null values, and disappointments acquire causality insofar as they can be grasped via the schema of a difference. On the other, not just events but facts, structures, and continuities stimulate causalities insofar as they can be experienced as differences. Remaining unchanged can thus become a cause of change. Structural causality makes self-determination possible. Systems can store up possibilities of affecting themselves and, with the help of schemata that employ differences, can retrieve these at need. It should be noted, however, that structure does not operate as such, on the basis of a force dwelling within it. It merely enters into the experience of difference, which makes information possible, without necessarily determination what will take place there. Thus a system creates its own past as its own causal basis, which enables it to gain distances from the causal pressure of the environment without already determining through internal causality what will occur in confrontations with external events…

As a result of all this, the operational mode of self-referential systems changes into forms of causality that to a large extent reliably prevent it from being steered from outside. All the effects that one wishes to acheive ab extra either in the system or with it assume that the system can perceive impulses from without as information– which is to say, as the experience of difference –and can in this way bring about an effect. Such systems, which procure causality for themselves, can no longer be “causally explained” (except in the reductive schema of an observer), not because their complexity is impenetrable, but on logical grounds. (40-41)

In short, systems do not function according to linear relations of cause and effect such as the transfer of motion that takes place in one billiard ball hitting another, but rather function according to a system specific causality that governs how events “impinging” on the system are received. What counts as information for a system, will depend on codes and programs belonging to the system. Elsewhere, in his beautiful and very accessible work, The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann explains that these codes are binary distinctions that determine how events are to be sorted as information. Programs then define how information is to be put to use by the system in question. Thus, for instance, the legal system perhaps organizes all events into information according to the code of legal/illegal, whereas the news media system processes all events according to the code information/non-information, and so on.

One of the key implications of this understanding of operational closure is that information cannot be transferred from one system to another. As Luhman puts it in The Reality of the Mass Media,

If, in addition, one starts out from the theory of operationally closed systems of information processing, the generation of information processing, the generation of information and the processing of information must be going on within the same system boundaries, and both differences to which Bateson’s definition is geared must be distinctions in the same system. Accordingly, there are no information transfers from system to system. Having said that, systems can generate items of information which circulate between their subsystems. So one must always name the system reference upon which any use of the concept of information is based. (19)

The reason for this is immediately clear: If there are no transfers of information from system to system, then this is because information is only information for a specific system by virtue of the distinctions employed by that system. Insofar as different systems employ different distinctions to sort information, it follows that the event sorted according to the operative distinctions produces different information in both cases. It is for this reason that systems are not susceptible to “steering” from the outside, as the manner in which the system receives these events will be governed by the distinctions employed by that system. In this regard, Luhmann has a number of very pessimistic things to say about Marxist ambitions to steer the social system through either the economic or social system.

It seems to me that all of this is highly revelant in the context of Badiou’s theory of the event. Very briefly, for Badiou an event is an occurance that fits none of the predicative categories governing what he calls a situation. In the lexicon or encyclopedia of the situation, there simply is no name for the event. Put in Luhmann-speak, an event is that which evades the binary codes governing how events are to be transformed into information. According to Badiou we can never demonstrate that an event has truly taken place precisely because there are no categories in the situation for counting the occurance. Consequently, the event is little more than chaos or noise. For Badiou, a subject is that agent that emerges in the wake of the event that resolves to count the event as belonging to the situation and to re-evaluate all elements of the situation in light of the implications this event has for the structure of the situation. There is thus a distinction, for Badiou, between subjects and individuals. Prior to nominating and becoming agents of an event, all of us are individuals. However, in being siezed by an event I become a subject by bearing active fidelity to the event, sustaining it through this fidelity, and seeking to transform the situation in light of the event.

In light of Luhmann, two serious concerns arise in relation to this theory of the event: First, if all systems process events in terms of system specific distinctions or codes, how is it possible for individuals to be open to events at all? Individuals are either their own systems or are iterations of the broader systems to which they belong through interpellation (Althusser’s ISO’s). It would seem that an individual must already be prepared to receive an event in order to be capable of discerning an event as an event rather than as mere noise or chaos. Consequently we can ask, “what are the conditions for the possibility of being receptive to an event in Badiou’s sense of the word?” Second, is Badiou, perhaps, overly optimistic about the transformative possibilities of events? If subsystems of a system– society –process events according to their own codes, there is a serious question as to how these subsystems could be open to the re-interpretations undertaken by the subject of an event. I don’t have answers to these questions and am not offering these observations as a way of demolishing Badiou. Rather, these are questions posed for further work and thought.

In an important passage from The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan asks,

What is a praxis? I doubt whether this term may be regarded as inappropriate to psycho-analysis. It is the broadest term to designate a concerted human action, whatever it may be, which places man in a position to treat the real by the symbolic. The fact that in doing so he encounters the imaginary to a greater or lesser degree is only of secondary importance here. (6)

Perhaps we do not pause to consider this very often, but the remarkable thing about psychoanalytic practice is that speech alone somehow has an effect on the real of the symptom. Over the course of analysis symptoms change, jouissance is transformed, and somehow all through speech alone. Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory can thus be thought as a transcendental theory of the conditions under which this is possible. Just as Kant, confronted with the realization that mathematics is not analytic but synthetic, found himself faced with the question of how this is possible, of what mind must be like in order for this to be the case, Lacan finds himself confronted with the question of what must be the case in order for speech to have an impact on the real of jouissance. Why is it, for instance, that a well articulated and enigmatic intervention on the part of the analyst can suddenly cause a paralyzing jouissance, filled with envy, all sorts of dark thoughts and fantasies, and painful affects of anger and obsession, with respect to some other acquaintance like a boss or friend to suddenly dissipate like so much mist in the sun? It is not a question here of the analysand’s self-conscious knowledge or some sort of insight given by the analyst, as often the analysand doesn’t notice anything at all. Rather, the issue simply disappears from the analysand’s discourse without her noticing.

The case is similar with regard to the analysand’s field of possibilities at the beginning of analysis. Often the neurotic world is populated by a curious sort of closure, characterized by fixations on certain privileged objects of enjoyment, repetitive deadlocks such as undermining oneself at that precise point where things are going well, and an inability to imagine or conceptualize other possibilities. As Lacan will say in Encore, “Reality is approached with apparatuses of jouissance” (55). The analysand enters analysis with her “devices of jouissance” which Lacan claims are caused by the signifier: “The universe is the flower of rhetoric” (56), “The signifier is the cause of jouissance” (24). How is it that suddenly there’s a shift in the field of possibilities for the analysand? Why is it that an analysand suddenly begins to write where before writing was seen as a fundamental impossibility? How does it come about that suddenly new passions and desires emerge in the analysand’s discourse where before there was only a monotonous repetition of the same deadlock? Something has shifted in the real of the analysand’s jouissance, but what was it that precipitated this shift? How is it that the analysand has become open to discerning new possibilities, where before he saw none?

The analyst gives no medication. He does not employ any clever behavioral techniques such as special mental or physical exercises. She doesn’t give any helpful tips on how to be successful or how to change one’s behaviors. No, all she says is “talk a little, say whatever comes to mind no matter how embarrassing, apparently boring and unrelated, morally depraved, or untoward”. And yet through this, through this work of the symbolic, something is changed in the field of both the real and the possible. Psychoanalytic theory attempts to think the conditions under which these shifts in the real are possible through the symbolic. After all, I cannot treat a broken leg by talking about it, yet somehow analysis is able to have an impact on a major anxiety disorder or phobia. What must the subject be like for this to be possible? And moreover, why are the subject’s self-analyses and rational dismissals of their symptom impotent with regard to the symptom? Why is it necessary that this speech be addressed to another for some transformation in the real of the symptom to take place?

I think that it is in relation to this concept of practice, to this work of treating the real by the symbolic, that we should think the relation between Badiou and Zizek. The question that begs to be asked with respect to Badiou is what renders an individual susceptible to an event in the first place? That is, under what conditions is it possible for an individual to both recognize an event and nominate an event. Here it is necessary to use the term “individual”, for according to Badiou one does not become a subject until they claim fidelity to an event. As Badiou puts it in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil,

If there is no ethics ‘in general’, that is because there is no abstract Subject, who would adopt it as his shield. There is only a particular kind of animal, convoked by certain circumstances to become a subject– or rather, to enter into the composing of a subject. This is to say that at a given moment, everything he is– his body, his abilities –is called upon to enable the passing of a truth aolong its path. This is when the human animal is convoked to be the immortal that he was not yet.

What are these ‘circumstances’? They are the circumstances of a truth. But what are we to understand by that? It is clear that what there is (multiples, infinite differences, ‘objective’ situations– for example, the ordinary state of relation to the other, before a loving encounter) cannot define such a circumstance. In this kind of objectivity, every animal gets by as best it can. We must suppose, then, that whatever convokes someone to the composition of a subject is something extra, something that happens in situations as something that they and the usual way of behaving in them cannot account for. Let us say that a subject, which goes beyond the animal (although the animal remains its sole foundation needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is’. Let us call this supplement an event, and let us distinguish multiple-being, where it is not a matter of truth (but only of opinions), from the event, which compels us to decide a new way of being…

From which ‘decision’, then, stems the process of a truth? From the decision to relate henceforth to the situation from the perspective of its evental supplement. Let us call this a fidelity. To be faithful to an event is to move within the situation that this even has supplemented, by thinking (although all thought is a practice, a putting to the test) the situation ‘according to’ the event. (40-1)

In Being and Event, Badiou refers to the event as what is “indiscernible” according to the encyclopaedia governing the situation. Thus, for Badiou, there is a sharp contrast between knowledge and truth. Knowledge refers to the encyclopaedia and the regime of knowledge governing a situation (most recently Badiou has referred to the encyclopaedia as the “transcendental regime” of a situation). As Badiou remarks:

I also posit that every situation is accompanied by a language, a capacity to name that situation’s elements, their relations, their qualities, their properties. And in every situation there is also what I call “the state of the situation”–the order of its subsets. The situation’s language aims at showing how an element belongs to such and such a subset. The situation is what presents the elements that constitute it; the state of the situation is what presents, not the situation’s elements, but its subsets. From this point of view the situation is a form of presentation, the state of the situation a form of representation. And knowledge, being the way we organize the situation’s elements linguistically, is always a certain relation between presentation and representation. Knowledge is most simply defined as the linguistic determination of the general system of connections between presentation and representation. The set of a situation’s various bodies of knowledge I call “the encyclopedia” of the situation. Insofar as it refers only to itself, however, the situation is organically without truth.

We can thus think of the encyclopedia of a situation as a regime of predication that defines all those elements that legitimately belong to the situation and their relations to one another. For instance, “democrat” and “republican” are predicates belonging to the field of knowledge, defining a particular place within the United States. An event, by contrast, is a taking place that evades all the predicates belonging to the encyclopaedia of a situation. There is no predicate for a true event and therefore it is “indiscernible” to the situation… We do not know how to count or include an event in a situation. Insofar as an event is effectively invisible to a situation, it only sustains itself by its nomination. It can never be proven to have taken place– as the situation contains no resources for recognizing the existence of the event –and thus can only sustain itself through the fidelity to subjects of the event.

One of Badiou’s favorite examples of an event is love. I will not get into all the details pertaining to Badiou’s conception of love and how it relates to an encounter with sexual difference or the Two as such. What is important here is that love cannot be demonstrated to another. The outsider viewing the couple is forever unable to determine whether the two are genuinely in love or whether they are witnessing a simple erotic infatuation. Indeed, it is often disturbing to witness two who have declared their love as their decision-making process seems curiously mutilated and irrational. Not only is this true of the outsider witnessing the two who have declared their love, but this is true for those who have declared their love as well. It is entirely possible to doubt whether or not one is truly in love, to cast about for some sort of proof or demonstration, to wonder whether or not one is simply confused or infatuated. When we cast about for predicates that would allow us to know whether or not we’re in love we can find none, and therefore love only sustains itself in and through its declaration, its nomination. If lovers appear mad to each other and to the outside, then it is because they have begun to evaluate their situation in terms of this event, no longer evaluating the situation on the basis of their egoistic aims, ambitions, and needs, but in terms of this event that has taken place that calls for a fundamental transformation of the situation come hell or highwater… At least, if they are ethical subjects and bear fidelity to this event. This is how a truth contrasts with knowledge: A truth evades all predicates of knowledge and only sustains itself in its praxis and declaration.

For Badiou the indiscernibility of an event with respect to knowledge is precisely what guarantees its universality. For what the event reveals is the essential contigency of the social order, of the pure multiplicity underlying the imaginary configuration of reality as an ontologically closed and complete system. Ranciere expresses a very similar conception of the political:

I… propose to reserve the term politics for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing [Ranciere’s name for the “encyclopaedia”, more here on “police”]: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration– that of the part of those who have no part. his break is manifest in a series of actions that reconfigure the space where parties, parts, or lack of parts have been defined. Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise. (Disagreement, 29-30)

The order of knowledge or the police presents itself as a natural order, as a world in which everything has its proper place, function, and identity. However, as Ranciere puts it, “The foundation of politics is not in fact more a matter of convention than of nature: it is the lack of foundation, the sheer contingency of any social order. Politics exists simply because no social order is based on nature, no divine law regulates human society” (16). It is for this reason that the event opens onto the domain of the universal. So long as we remain in the domain of the encyclopaedia or the police it’s clear that we never hit upon the universal, as the predicates composing the encyclopedia situate a field of differences that are incommensurate. What the event reveals is the contingency of these counting and ordering mechanisms. It reveals the excess beneath them. As an “animal” or an “individual”, I always count myself in a particular way according to the regime of the encyclopaedia governing the situation. But as a subject these differences and distinctions are exceeded by that which can’t be identified according to any of the predicates governing the situation.

The question, however, is how it is possible for an “animal” or “individual” to be receptive to an event in the first place. I’m more than happy to grant that all of these consequences follow from an event, but if the regime of the encyclopaedia is as total as Badiou and Ranciere suggest, if the encyclopaedia is organized precisely around disavowing the possibility of anything that isn’t counted, then what are the conditions for the possibility under which a subject might be produced at all? For Badiou (and perhaps Ranciere), politics is something that can only follow from the event and one’s fidelity to the implications of the event, yet it is difficult to see how the individuals populating a situation are capable of discerning events at all… Unless our situatedness in situations is never complete and always precarious. But if this is the case, it becomes possible to conceive another kind of political work that follows not from an event, but that instead seeks to locate those weak and symptomatic points within the symbolic edifice wherein it might be possible to force an event and precipitate subjects in Badiou’s sense of the word.

Zizek raises the possibility of something along these lines in the closing section of Tarrying With the Negative. Quoting a long passage from Ryszard Kapuscinski on the Iranian Revolution, Zizek asks what marks that sudden moment where we shift from believing in the big Other and ceasing to believe in the big Other? Why is it that at one moment I encounter the police officer as a figure of authority capable of compelling me to obey his orders, yet a moment later the officer becomes an ordinary man who is no longer capable of making me budge when ordered to leave the protest?

There is, however, one point at which this formidable description has to be set right or, rather, supplemented: Kapuscinksi’s all too naive, immediate use of the notion of fear. The ‘third figure’ which intervenes between us ordinary citizens and the policeman is not directly fear but the big Other: we fear the policeman insofar as he is not just himself, a person like us, since his acts are the acts of power, that is to say, insofar as he is experienced as the stand-in for the big Other, for the social order. (234)

The social order only supports itself on the basis of belief in the big Other. Consequently, if an event is to be recognized as an event, then there must be a weakening of the big Other. If this weakening is a rare and exceptional thing, then this is because, according to Zizek, we forestall any encounter with the impotence of the Other. “What I am running away from when I voluntarily take refuge in servitude is thus the traumatic confrontation with the big Other’s ultimate impotence and imposture” (235). That is, in a paradoxical fashion we already are aware that the big Other is lacking, incomplete, castrated, yet we also try to prop up the Other as complete and uncastrated. This might appear strange as the Other is often a despotic and persecuting; however, Verhaeghe makes the point beautifully in terms of development in his brilliant On Being Normal and Other Disorders:

…[T]he process of separation brings about a major shift that can scarcely be overrated: an internal unpleasurable rise in tension is associated with the external other. The infant quite probably experiences the original internal drive as something peripheral; in any case, it can only disappear through the presence of the Other. The Other’s absence will be regarded as the cause of the continuation of the inner tension. But even when this Other is present and responds with words and actions, this response will never be enough either. For the Other must continually interpret the child’s crying, and there is never a perfect fit between the interpretation and the tension. At this point, we come up against a central element of identity formation: lack, the impossibility of ever answering the tension of the drive in full. Freud observes what every parent knows: our children seem permanently unsatisfied. ‘It is as though our children had remained for ever unsated.” The damand through which the dhild expresses its needs leave a remainder in the sense that the Other’s interpretation of the demand will never coincide with the original need. It seems that the Other’s inadequacy will always be the first thing to be blamed for what goes wrong internally. (158)

The Other is primordially experienced simultaneously as the one who is both responsible for our lack and suffering (the drive pressures that we cannot escape) and as the source of satisfaction of these drives. If an encounter with the impotence of the Other is terrifying, if it is forestalled at nearly any price, then this is because the Other is encountered or experienced as the one that has the solution, that has the response to drive. The collapse of that Other is thus the collapse of the solution. Verhaeghe goes on to show how contemporary affects such as the pervasive sense of guilt and anxiety relate to the growing sense of the Other’s impotence, the Other’s non-existence. On the one hand, then, there is the issue of how to produce symbolic strategies that weaken the binding force of the Other, creating the possibility of an event and a genuine politics. Zizek, for instance, speaks highly of Freud’s discussion of Moses and treatment of Moses as an Egyptian, not because of its truth or veracity, but as a discursive strategy that sacrifices the agalma the Jews and the fantasy support of the anti-semite:

What Freud did was therefore the exact opposite of Arnold Shoenberg, for example, who scornfully dismissed Nazi racism as a pale imitation of the self-comprehension of the Jews as the elected people: by way of an almost masochistic inversion, Freud targeted Jews themselves and endeavored to prove that their founding father, Moses, was Egyptian. Notwithstanding the historic (in)accuracy of this thesis, what really matters is its discursive strategy: to demonstrate that Jews are already in themselves ‘decentered,’ that their ‘originality’ is a bricolage. The difficulty does not reside in Jews but in the transference of the anti-Semite who thinks that Jews ‘really possess it,’ agalma, the secret of their power: the anti-Semite is the one who ‘believes in the Jew,’ so the only way effectively to undermine anti-Semitism is to contend that Jews do not possess “it.” (220-1)

The process here is similar to that which takes place in analysis, where the analysand progressively discovers that the analyst, as stand in for the analysand’s fiction of the Other and objet a, doesn’t “have it”, objet a, such that the analysand separates from the Other, discovering it doesn’t exist, reconfiguring the co-ordinates of his or her jouissance. Zizek’s various interpretations, from his interpretations of “taboo” philosophers (for the postmoderns) such as Kant, Hegel, Descartes, etc., to his various analyses of contemporary events, can be understood as similar interventions that target the deadlock in the real, resituating the very terms of the debate and the sterile oppositions designed to ensure that the mechanism of counting or the structuration of the situation stay in place. This is an activity of recoding the symbolic so that new possibilities might emerge. However, the flip side of all of this is Freud’s bit of wisdom from Totem and Taboo— When the primal father is murdered, he returns even stronger in the form of guilt and submission to his law. How can a similar fate be avoided with regard to the death of God and the death of the Other?

Now that I’m home again I have been busily pulling together material for my article on Zizek and Badiou. In particular, I have been reading Adrian Johnston’s article “The Quick and the Dead: Alain Badiou and the Split Seeds of Transformation” and an earlier piece he was kind enough to share with me, entitled “From the Spectacular Act to the Vanishing Act: Badiou, Zizek, and the Politics of Lacanian Theory”, which is forthcoming in an anthology entitled Slavoj Zizek in a Post-Ideological Universe (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007). I have to confess that I feel a bit of envy, coupled with admiration, with respect to Johnston’s work. Both of us graduated about the same time and have similar research orientations. Last year he published his first book, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive, has a second book forthcoming with Northwestern entitled Zizek’s Ontology, and a third under review tentatively titled The Cadence of Change: Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations. All of this coupled with numerous and lengthy articles floating about various journals. Johnston’s work is characterized by an exceptional degree of clarity, coupled with a penetrating and deep understanding of Lacanian psychoanalysis and German idealism, and an astonishing mastery of Lacan’s seminar (published and unpublished), and Zizek’s and Badiou’s respective bodies of work. I suspect that we’ll be hearing Johnston’s name a good deal in the future.

What I find particularly interesting in Johnston’s latest article is the idea of forcing an event. As those of you familiar with his work know, Badiou’s idea is that truth proceeds from a sudden event that erupts within a situation only to disappear just as quickly. The event is that which is not counted by the structure or encyclopedia governing the situation, and stands on the edge of the void foundational to the situation. The idea is that the event is unmediated by the historical and semiotic space structuring a social situation and thus provides a point of leverage outside of power for producing a truth. A “truth-procedure” is thus that activity that consists in reconfiguring the elements of a situation in terms of the event. The key point is that the event is unconditioned by the situation in which it occurs. It cannot be explained on the basis of what came before, nor can it even be demonstrated to have taken place. It’s only through the nomination of those that discern the event and bear fidelity to its implications that the event is sustained. Thus, for instance, from the standpoint of dominant power something like the French Revolution simply looks like a chaotic eruption of disorder such that social relations need to be returned to ordinary order. From the standpoint of the revolutionaries, however, the revolution is a break with all prior history demonstrating concretely the contingency of reigning social relations and announcing the possibility of an egalitarian alternative. The revolutionaries can never demonstrate that the revolution was truly a revolution (and not just chaos erupting from such and such historical and semiotic conditions), but nonetheless sustain this event through their subsequent activism– The work of reconfiguring and reconceptualizing society according to the egalitarian promise of the revolution. The agents of this reconfiguration are what Badiou refers to as “subjects” (prior to your subjectivization by such an event you’re merely an individual, according to Badiou), and the activism of these subjects is what Badiou refers to as “truth-procedures”. The advantage of Badiou’s approach is, I think, obvious. In one fell swoop he has managed to side-step reigning claims of historicism, postmodern thought, and ordinary language philosophy, all of which, in one way or another, attempt to show how every phenomenon is mediated by a horizon of relations that overdetermine their being. All of this is done through a sort of performative notion of truth (in Austin’s sense) that shows how it is possible to subtract something from a situation that then becomes a sort of self-referential organization unfolding its own implications (Badiou demonstrates the possibility of such a subtraction with exceptional rigor in Being and Event and Logiques des mondes).

The standard criticism of Badiou’s work (coming from exemplary scholars of his work such as Peter Hallward) is that despite its attempt to redeem a universalist politics (genuine events are addressed to everyone, i.e., everyone can be taken up as a subject of a true event or an activist) there’s a way in which this conception of the political risks producing its opposite: a quietistic defeatism. If this is the case, then it is because we must await an event in order to engage in the process of a truth-procedure as a subject. In my view, this criticism is less worrisome than it immediately sounds as there are still events we can participate in today as subjects such as the Greek event of philosophy, the implications that continue to reverberate from the French and Russian revolutions, the Galileo event in science, etc. Nonetheless, Hallward and Johnston do have a point.

What Johnston proposes is the possibility of forcing an event itself. Under my reading we can ask does Badiou give an accurate account of how revolutionary change truly takes place? For Badiou truth-procedures follow an event. Thus we have the eruption of the French Revolution and the truth-procedure is the arduous work that follows this eruption in transforming society according to the ideals announced therein. But is this an accurate picture of what takes place with regard to something like the French Revolution? Badiou’s concern seems to be with the manner in which historicism tends to conceptualize everything in terms of continuity, thereby undermining the possibility of something genuinely new appearing in history (as every event is overdetermined by its past). Under this reading, every event would be one more formation of what Badiou calls “the state of a situation” or the transcendental regime governing what is counted as belonging to a situation (something akin to Foucaultian epistemes and power-structures– in an interview Badiou explicitly refers to Foucault as a philosopher of the encyclopedia).

However, it seems to me that this conception of history is deeply underdetermined and misses the polysemy characterizing our relationship to the historical. On the one hand, given that history is mediated by the signifier, I do not think it can be legitimately argued that history is unidirectional and monolithic in its conditioning. Just as in the case of psychoanalysis where the history of an analysand is “what will have been” through the narration that takes place in the analytic setting such that we cannot say that the past was already there determining the symptoms of the analysand, so too does social history produce itself as history through the narrativization of those agents in the social field. It was Hegel, of course, who argued that we’re never simply determined by grounds but always posit our own grounds or determinations. For instance, I am not simply influenced by this or that body of texts, but must, as it were, make the prior decision (even if not ever explicitly before consciousness) to be influenced by something. No doubt many of us are familiar with reading texts (perhaps as graduate students) that slid off our backs like water on a duck, not because we didn’t understand these texts but because we had no libidinal and transferential relation to these texts that would allow them to be influences in our intellectual development. Indeed, there’s something uncanny in that experience where one suddenly finds that a text that did not “address” us at all suddenly comes to address us, as if the grounds we posit for ourselves have changed entirely.

The relation of influence is thus not unidirectional such that we’re thrown into an environment and are simply formed in a passive fashion by that environment. Rather, there’s a way in which we always already have chosen the way in which we’re open to the world. And, I think, the case is not dissimilar at the level of the social. Social movements posit their own grounds in history, as can be seen in the way Christo-Nationalist Fundamentalists attempt to read United States history as unfolding on Christian grounds (“the United States was founded as a Christian nation”). Through this sort of auto-historicization the agents of a situation temporalize and produce their present and their being-towards-the-future. The point I’m rather clumsily trying to make, is that, on these grounds, it becomes possible to think a pluralism of historical universes unfolding simultaneously according to regular chronological time such that the agents of these historical universes cannot be said to inhabit one and the same historical universe yet still somehow interact with one another. I, for instance, tend to temporalize my present in terms of a particular historicization of the Enlightenment that is very different than the one I encounter often among my fellow citizins where time is historized in terms of a Christian legacy.

The point I want to make is thus two-fold: On the one hand, historism need not be understood as a way of conceiving everything as hegemonically governed by the “transcendental regime” or structure governing a situation. Rather, the production of a history can be understood as a way of producing a separation or subtraction from the dominant constraints of a situation. Thus, for instance, if we look at the history of the Enlightenment we discover that Enlightenment thinkers constructed a counter-history against the history dominated by Scripture and Aristotle, that made reference to thinkers such as Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius (a huge presence once a rotting copy of his De Rerum Natura was rescued from a heap of books at a Seminary that was used to rip scraps of paper from), Diogenes, Tacitus, and especially Cicero and Seneca. In producing this history, the Rennaissance thinkers and Enlightenment thinkers created libidinal and transferential relations, identifications, for themselves that gave them the capacity to re-imagine their social universe or universe of meaning. They simultaneously posited their own grounds and were produced in and out of these grounds. Here the production of a counter-history allowed them, as it were, to step out of the dominant historical currents of the situation in which they emerged.

This brings me to my second point: Assuming that Badiou treats the French Revolution as an event, perhaps the true political work isn’t to be seen in the activities that followed this sudden eruption, but rather, in all the efforts that led up to the major revolutions. That is, on the basis of the history they were constructing for themselves (and by which they were also being constructed), the Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers busily set about re-interpreting the dominant elements of their situation in terms of what they were discovering in the Ancients (albeit in a way that didn’t simply repeat these ancients in a scholarly way… One need only read Hume as a repetition of Epicurus, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, and the Roman rhetors– of whom he had almost encyclopedic knowledge –to see how repetition produces a difference or isn’t just repetition of the same). This recoding of the social space led to a transformation of instutions, reigning doxa and assumptions, and produced entirely new communities of people (such as the Salons that Acephalous recently spoke of). Moreover, the case can be made that in many cases those Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers certainly didn’t see themselves as sowing the seeds of eventual revolution (especially in the case of the Rennaissance thinkers) nor even as contesting the primacy of theological conceptions of the world (in many cases such thinkers defended these conceptions). All that is required is not a commitment to producing a revolution, but rather the repetition of certain arguments, certain ways of thinking, certain themes, that have the effect of effectuating this change themselves through their repetition and subsequent elaboration. That is, the high church apologist that calls for compromise and who points out that some of the Enlightenment ideas should be embraced while still championing traditional Scriptural inerrancy has already lost the game without realizing it simply by repeating the arguments and endorsing them. He’s like the coyote that has run over the cliff and just hasn’t yet looked down. If there should be no worry over flat-earth intelligent design folk, then this is because their very decision to endorse scientific methodology (even if a cynical rhetorical deception) means that they’ve lost the game from the outset… Subsequent history will take care of them as their students, who unlike them take their rhetoric seriously and honestly, attempt to repeat their claims according to scientific methology and fail. The moment they adopted the rhetoric of science they had already lost at the level of form, even if at the level of content they nonetheless believe themselves to be significantly challenging established science. They have converted without realizing they’ve converted in much the same way that the believer who takes anti-depressents and buys life and disaster insurance reveals more truthfully their own beliefs even if not before self-aware consciousness.

Viewed in this light, the event of the revolutions themselves comes to be viewed not so much as the inaugural moment where a politics was instantiated and subjects of truth-procedures emerged, but rather as the “dotting of the i’s” marking the culmination of the real work that had already been done, where the social sphere suddenly became self-reflexively aware that everything had changed when it wasn’t looking, that the old order no longer existed. What we have here is something very much like a speciation through geographical isolation in biology, but where the operative dimension is speciation through historization of a particular type of temporalization.

Zizek gives a nice example of what I’m trying to get at apropos his reading of Hegel’s analysis of the beautiful soul in The Sublime Object of Ideology. There Zizek writes,

To exemplify this logic of ‘positing the presuppositions’, let us take one of the most famous ‘figures of consciousness’ from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: the ‘beautiful soul’. How does Hegel undermine the position of the ‘beautiful soul’, of this gentle, fragile, sensitive form of subjectivity which, from its safe position as innocent observer, deplores the wicked ways of the world? The false of the ‘beautiful soul’ lies not in its inactivity, in the fact that it only complains of a depravity without doing something to remedy it; it consists, on the contrary, in the very mode of activity implied by this position of inactivity– in the way the ‘beautiful soul’ structures the ‘objective’ social world in advance so that it is able to assume, to play in it the role of the fragile, innocent and passive victim. this, then, is Hegel’s fundamental lesson: when we are active, when we intervene in the world through a particular act, the real act is not this particular, empirical, factual intervention (or non-intervention); the real act is of a strictly symbolic nature, it consists in the very mode in which we structure the world, our perception of it, in advance, in order to make our intervention possible, in order to open in it the space for our activity (or inactivity). The real act thus precedes the (particular factual activity; it consists in the previous restructuring of our symbolic universe into which our (factual, particular) act will be inscribed.

To make this clear, let us take the care of the suffering mother as the ‘pillar of the family’: all other members of the family– her husband, her children –exploit her mercilessly; she does all the domestic work and she is of course continually growning, complaining of how her life is nothing but mute suffering, sacrifice without reward. The point, however, is that this ‘silent sacrifice’ is her imaginary identification: it gives consistency to her self-identity– if we take this incessant sacrificing from her, nothing remains; she literally ‘loses ground’. (215-6)

Viewed from this perspective, it is the “act before the act”, the symbolic act that first opens the world as a space for a particular type of action that political engagement should focus upon. Indeed, we can ask, contra Badiou, how those engaged in the revolution first became capable of perceiving a particular situation as a revolutionary situation without first having undergoing some fundamental transformation at the level of the symbolic structuration that rendered them open to such a perception and action. Or, at least, this is the direction in which my thoughts are currently moving… A praxis that targets symbolic structuration itself, thereby opening the space for an event yet to come.

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