Fantasy


In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume, outlining the aim of his investigation, writes:

The only method of freeing learning, at once, from these abstruse questions [of philosophy], is to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and show, from an exact analysis of its powers and capacity, that it is by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects. We must submit to this fatigue, in order to live at ease ever after: And must cultivate true metaphysics with some care, in order to destroy the false and adulterate. Indolence, which, to some persons, affords a safeguard against this deceitful philosophy, is, with others, overbalanced by curiosity; and despair, which, at some moments, prevails, may give place afterwards to sanguine hopes and expectations. Accurate and just reasoning is the only catholic remedy, fitted for all persons and all dispositions; and is alone able to subvert that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which, being mixed up with popular superstition, renders it in a manner impenetrable to careless reasoners, and gives it the air of science and wisdom. (6)

I do not, of course, advocate Hume’s specific epistemology, though I do agree with the spirit of his remarks with regard to “abstruse philosophy” that dresses superstition up in fine sounding jargon. A pig with lipstick is still lipstick. The first step towards recovery consists in admitting you have a problem. I would like to confess that I am a recovering Heideggerian. Yes, I know this is scandalous and it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Upon my bookshelves I have dozens of his lectures and enough secondary sources to kill a man in an avalanch. I’ve spent hours pouring over his various works, taking intricate notes, and writing detailed commentaries. As an undergrad I wrote a hundred page thesis on his theory of truth as aletheia or the play of revealing and concealing, prior to any referential propositions. I worked through the nuances and maze of his analyses of Aristotle’s account of the proposition, the apophantic, and logos. I chose to go to Loyola University of Chicago for graduate school so that I might study under the good Tom Sheehen and took more seminars on Heidegger than I took on any other philosopher. Yes, I am a recovering Heideggerian. And like anyone who has once intensely loved something and then given it up, I confess that I can hardly stand to read a paragraph of Heidegger before I am filled with irritation.

After Sheehen left to become a bigwig at Berkeley, I took up courses with Adrian Peperzak, the Levinasian, and Patricia Huntington, a feminist, Heideggerian, Kierkegaardian. And one of the things I began to notice is that the very structure of Heidegger’s questions is theological in character… Or more precisely, his thought has the structure of negative theology. Who could miss this resonance in the distinction between Being and beings, where “being is always the being of a being but is not itself a being” and where being withdraws and hides itself while nonetheless “giving”.

According to the story, and I’m being horribly reductive here, Western metaphysics forgets Being, the giving through which the given is produced, the play of revealing and concealing that is prior to any actuality. Heidegger thus calls for a return to the Greeks, the pre-Socratics in particular, who were still in communion with this poetic revealing and concealing of Being and beings, prior to the onset of the fall into ontotheology and the primacy of presence. But what if Heidegger’s thought (note my Zizekian flourish here!) has nothing to do with a sort of philogical excavation of pre-Socratic thought, but is itself simply a consequence of the emergence of late industrial capitalism? What if it is precisely the objectifying tendencies of capitalism that render the play of revealing and concealing accessible to thought. In volume 1 of Capital, Marx writes:

It was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their character as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of labor, and the social relations between individual producers. (75-6, my bold).

Like Feuerbach’s polemical claim that God is just a fetishized version of man, could it not be said that Heidegger’s teutonic rumblings about Being, Sending, Giving, revealing, concealing etc., are just fetishized descriptions of processes undergone in the formation and exchange of commodities and that the play of revealing and concealing is not a Greek contribution, but rather something that becomes possible at a very specific historical moment under the conditions of capitalism? Indeed, when we pause to look at theoretical formations around this time, we find dialectics of revealing and concealing everywhere: Freud’s analysis of the formations of the unconscious and the dreamwork, anthropological discoveries of the symbolic underly various social practices, relational forms of thought that discover networks behind the atomistic actualities of the world. If this were the case, then all sorts of questions would be raised about the nolstagic narrative of the fall that underlies so much of Heidegger’s thought.

Mulling over the wizard L Magee’s systemization of N.Pepperell’s theoretical work over at Rough Theory, I’ve been particularly taking by a brief and enigmatic reference to counter-factuals. I should emphasize at the outset that I do not have an answer to this question, but I do think L Magee’s formulation is a striking articulation of a very basic common theoretical problem in its own right, that makes the question in and of itself valuable. As Deleuze argues in Difference and Repetition, questions and problems are always accompanied by solutions, such that the aim is not to find the solution, but to formulate the question in the right way so that the solution might emerge of its own accord.

Consequently, I would like to free associate a bit with regard to L Magee’s formulations and see where it might lead in subsequent discussions. In what follows I purposefully simplify the issue so as to present the question in the starkest and most obvious terms possible so that it might be seen at all. Again, I am not trying to provide a solution here, nor asking for a solution, but am only trying to clearly formulate the question. L Magee writes:

6.2. Critical theory (Adorno) posits that this critical capacity is suggestive of the existence of counter-factualism within the context that engenders it. Popper’s view of science is largely commensurable with critical theoretic formulations, which view critique as negation. However it fails to explain how negation is derived from the very context that allows itself to be criticised – it is therefore not articulated as determinate negation. (Popper himself cares little about whether his critical standards are commensurable within a historicising tradition like Marxist-engendered critical theory).

6.3. To explain critique as determinate negation, deductive reasoning – still the standard of critical reasoning for Popper – is insufficient. Dialectical reasoning is required. Nevertheless, for Adorno, even dialectics fails to quite account for the objectivity – within social contexts – of critical capacity. What is it about social contexts which determines the tension between the is – the factual existens – and the ought – the counter-factual that is equally determined by context? [I find this paragraph particularly hard or unclear; on the one hand, it sounds like a radicalisation of a perfectively normal, and long-observed feature of societies – that they produce conditions for their own change; on the other it suggests that dialectics is required but still insufficient. Surely this is simply aporetic – neither positivist nor dialectical reasoning is sufficient – so what then can be said of the grounds for Adorno’s own normative standpoint? It seems a grandiose incoherence, as expressed here… If so, it is not clear why you would care to use Adorno as a useful launching pad for theoretical speculation.]

I think these two pithy comments get at the heart of a debate that has been raging in diverse circles for a while now: How is change possible? Deleuze took this as his central philosophical question. For Badiou the central question is “what are the conditions for the possibility of the new?” Late Althusser took this as a central issue with his aleatory materialism. Zizek makes this question central with his thematization of the act. Examples could be multiplied from a wide variety of diverse and often unconnected theoretical positions.

What, then, does any of this have to do with counter-factuals? How might a discussion of counter-factuals give this question some clarity? A counterfactual is a conditional proposition that says what would be the case were another event to have happened. “If I would have gone to the coffee shop, I would have seen my friend.” A counterfactual conditional articulates something that would have happened, but which did not, in fact, happen. Or put a bit differently, counterfactuals deal with the logic of possibility.

It is in regard to the thematization of possibility that counterfactuals are relevant to the question of change. A critical theory is not simply a theory that reveals the mystifications at work within a particular social setting, but is rather a theory that liberates potentials for transforming that situation. The question is how do such possibilities become available? The critic is himself part of the situation he sets out to investigate. As such, the critic is subject to the same historical and social forces that characterize the situation he is investigating. The question is thus how do counterfactuals become available for a people that do not make up the current “furniture” of the situation within which those people dwell? By possibilities we should here be thinking of new ways of feeling, new forms of social arrangement, new types of investigations and objects of investigations, etc., etc., etc., that are unprecedented in the situation.

I will distinguish between two forms of counterfactuals to help clarify what is at issue: On the one hand, there are the perfectly ordinary sort of counterfactuals that are predelineated by the space of possibilities inhabiting the situation. Every situation can be understood as being undergirded by a sort of discourse that outlines what is, how things work, what is possible, how people live, and so on. In the past I have referred to this as the “encyclopedia”. This is what Foucault refers to as an episteme. Defining his concept of the episteme in Knowledge/Power, Foucault writes,

I would define the episteme retrospectively as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific. (197)

An episteme is the historical a priori of the sciences at a given point in time through which statements are evaluated as true or false. We can generalize this notion to social practices more broadly, arguing that all social practices have their historical a priori by which what is possible and what is not possible are evaluated. Perhaps we could call counterfactuals formulated within this space “state counterfactuals”. These are possibilities envisioned well within the mapping or the historical a priori of the current social order. For instance, for many of us it is unthinkable of us to imagine a form of social arrangement here like the Na, where kinship relations are matrilineal, where there is no marriage at all, where women do not have permanent relations with men, and where childrearing is a communal affair that is immediately and obviously thought of as the function of the entire tribe rather than the private family. We simply don’t see this as a real possibility in our own social setting so it isn’t even discussed as a possibility because it doesn’t even occur to one to think about it in discussions of childcare, male/female relations, etc. It is invisible or non-existence within the space of social cognition.

In contrast to state counterfactuals, there are, perhaps, revolutionary counterfactuals. These would be counterfactuals that envision unprecedented possibilities that are nowhere to be found in the pre-existent public discourse. Take the example of Thales from philosophy. Thales exists within a social field where the world is explained through myth. Want to know why it thunders? Tell a story about Zeus. Want to know why there are olive trees? Tell a story about Daphne. The social field is saturated by this form of explanation and this form of explanation is experienced as being obviously correct. So how does a man like Thales occur? What is it that led Thales to turn away from mythology and transcendence– however imperfectly –and suddenly have the idea that perhaps the world can be explained immanently? For, make no mistake, this is exactly what Thales sets out to do when he says “all is water”. Now suddenly there is no need to make reference to personal gods that regulate nature, but rather nature is auto-regulative, containing its own principles that we can investigate to understand the multiplicity of phenomena about us. It’s a poor beginning, but a beginning nonetheless. Here it would seem that an unprecedented possibility has appeared in Thales’ socio-historical setting. How did Thales develop the vision to even begin to see something such as this as a possibility? In Heideggarian terms, this constitutes a split in the being-in-the-world of Thales’ time. It will be recalled that for Heidegger the worldhood of the world is characterized as a system of relations defining a field of possibilities of the pragmatic sort. We draw from this field of possibilities as the background upon which all our practical engagements with the world unfold. How, then, does a new possibility such as this suddenly manifest itself in the world. How is it possible to see the world otherwise?

The deadlock or paradox is patent. On the one hand, a commitment to immanence entails that we’re all embedded in socio-material-historical contexts that prevent any appeal to transcendence in the form of a subject that is somehow able to step out of its embedded context whether through the sheer power of reason or some grasping of universal and eternal Platonic forms. On the other hand, these breaks do occur. Suddenly it becomes possible to conceive a possibility that was before entirely absent from the situation. It is this issue that theorists such as Deleuze, Lacan, Badiou, and Zizek, among others, have sought to theorize. For instance, the question for Lacan is the question of how a break with the organizing fantasy might become possible, how it might become possible to see otherwise than through the fractal-like interpretive grid of the fundamental fantasy that pulls everything into its orbit like a mathematical function monotonously producing the same structural output for a series of intergers (2x… 2, 4, 6, 8…). If, then, change is to be theorized– and we know ruptures take place, so it must be theorized –then this theorization must unfold from within immanence in such a way as to forbid any treatment of the critic as transcendent to the constraints of the situation (self-reflexivity).

Adam Kotsko has written an interesting post over at An und fur sich on God, the big Other, and Calvinism. There is much that is commendable and of value in this post, however I disagree with Adam’s claim that the big Other cannot be treated as God. God is one way in which the symbolic manifests itself in the thought of human subjects. Yet, since he has banned me from the site I will instead outline my reasons here as this point is important from the standpoint of how psychoanalysis conceives structuration of the subject. Adam writes:

A common misconception in the early stages of learning Lacanian theory is to assume that “the big Other” is God. In point of fact, this is not the case. The big Other refers to the realm of officiality and quasi-officiality, and the use of the word “big” rather than, say, “grand” in translating this concept testifies to a fundamental silliness. We all know objectively that the social order is impersonal, but we act like there’s a person out there — not like all the other others, but a really big Other — whose recognition we need and who, in some cases, must be kept in the dark.

This is not quite accurate. Adam is right to argue that the symbolic refers to the realm of officiality and the impersonal world of the social. However, there are social and individual instances where God is experienced as serving this function as an element in a structure. God can be one instance of the big Other. The most compelling proof of this comes from the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation. This side of the graphs of sexuation represent symbolic castration or the manner in which subjects are subordinated to the symbolic. You’ll note that the lower portion of the graph reads “all subjects are subject to symbolic castration” whereas the upper portion reads “there is at least one subject that is not subject to the law of symbolic castration”.

It is this upper portion of the graph of sexuation that is here of interest. Lacan’s analysis of masculine sexuation closely follows the logic of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Many of you will recall that there myth tells the story of the primal father who had exclusive rights to the enjoyment of all women (i.e., he’s bound by no symbolic law and therefore there’s no limit to his enjoyment). Frustrated, the brothers band together and kill the primal father so that they might regain their enjoyment. However, out of a combination of guilt towards what they have done (they also admired the primal father) and practical necessity (they don’t want a repeat of this situation), they agree to institute a limitation to their jouissance, such that it is forbidden for each of the members to enjoy his own mother or sister.

Here then we have a myth of how the symbolic is born or how these prohibitions come to emerge. Lacan’s point is that the symbolic always has a supplement or a fantasmatic shadow that grounds the symbolic and prevents it from sliding all over the place. This limit point is the idea of a being– a fantasmatic idea –that is not castrated or limited or bound by the symbolic. The point, then, is that we have a structure here that can be filled out in many different ways. To understand the concept of structure, we have to think in terms of functionalist mathematics. In a mathematical function you have something of the form F(x), such that for any value of the variable x you get an output. The point is that the function remains the same regardless of whatever is put in the place of the variable. Identity is thus not detemined by the variable or entity in the x position, but rather by the function. The function remains the same across variations.

The Lacanian thesis is thus that any symbolic structure necessarily has an element that fills the place of the upper portion of the graph of sexuation. One example of this is the primal father. Another example of this– from Hegel –is the sovereign king that occupies by his position by nature, thereby functioning as an exception to all other law that is determined by convention. Yet another example of this is how students think of definitions. Some students, when writing papers, begin with something like “According to Webster’s” and then cite a definition. The underlying, unconscious thought process is that language is based on the authority of a grand dictionaire that knows the true meaning of all terms. The point here is that at the level of the lived experience of language we’re all a bit confused about meaning and uncertain of what words mean, and meaning is a product of our collective activities that is always in flux. Nonetheless, we project a figure that does know, a figure that is not “castrated” by this uncertainty, as a fiction of someone that knows the true meaning. This, for instance, is the underlying fantasy of the anti-gay marriage movement that perpetually brays “marriage, by definition is between a man and a woman”. When they claim this they are implicitly claiming that there is an eternal dictionary floating about in Platonic heaven somewhere that isn’t the product of how collectivities or assemblages define terms. Another example would be those social formations that make reference to God as what founds or establishes the law. Thus, for instance, you have Mosaic law as articulated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy on the one hand, and then the supplement that grounds this senseless set of stipulations. Descartes’ third meditation also follows this logic, where God serves the function of grounding the realm of natural law, thereby allowing us to posit an order behind the apparent chaos of our experience. In short, a masculine subject is a subject that believes in God, transcendence, or some functional equivalent.

Yet another example of this structure would be Freud’s analysis of church and military in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. There Freud examines group formations where the leader functions as a necessary principle. It is interesting that for Freud an ideal can serve a similar role, thereby underlining that what is being talked about is a structural function, not a concrete thing (Lacan will make much of this in his account of the unary trait and master-signifier, starting with Seminar 9: L’identification. It could be said that a good deal of psychoanalysis has consisted in the exploration of how alternative social formations without this structure might be possible. Thus, when Lacan denounces the Oedipus in Seminar 17, he is denouncing this structure. Similarly, Lacan’s various attempts to form a psychoanalytic school revolved around the question of how it’s possible to form a social organization that isn’t organized around a master or belief in the big Other, but which squarely recognizes the “hole” in the Other, it’s non-existence.

Finally, it’s important to note the close tie that both Lacan and Freud observe between obsessional neurosis and religious belief. For Lacan, obsessional neurosis is closely connectioned to masculine sexuation (subjects that are biologically male or biologically female can nonetheless be sexuated in a masculine way). This close tie has to do with how obsessionals relate to the symbolic and the fantasmatic supplement they project into the symbolic in the form of a “god-function”.

All of this casts light on Lacan’s claim that psychoanalysis is the only true atheistic discourse (I’m not sure I agree) and what he means when he claims that psychoanalysis is an “atheology”. Lacan defines the end of analysis as traversing the fantasy and overcoming belief in the big Other. No longer believing in the big Other does not mean giving up the symbolic, but relating to the symbolic in a new way. Lacan develops this theme beginning with Seminar 22: RSI, where he distinguishes between believing in the symptom and identifying with the symptom. A subject that believes in the symptom is one that believes there’s a final interpretant out there that would finally unlock the secret of the unconscious process. That is, it presupposes a God function or that the Other is complete. In this regard, many theologies are symptomatic. A subject that identifies with the symptom is a subject that identifies with the unconscious process– not unlike Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic as a process –and draws jouissance from the endless play of the symptom. More needs to be said about this, but I am here merely pointing to it. Rather than supplementing the big Other with the fiction of an uncastrated figure that floats behind it and guarantees order behind the apparent chaos of our social interactions, one no longer believes that there is a true order behind this chaos. In short, one moves to the feminine side of the graphs where encounters with others are evaluated on a subject by subject basis. Joyce, for Lacan, is an instance of a relation to the symbolic that is no longer premised on the belief in the big Other. This is why psychoanalysis is, for both Freud and Lacan, contrary to most monotheistic forms of religiosity… At least as commonly understood. In a nutshell, these formations are, for Lacan, fetishes (recall that a fetish is designed to hide or disavow castration). For Lacan fantasy is designed to cover over castration, and the first of these fantasies is the belief that the big Other exists… That somewhere, somehow, there is an Other that both enjoys and that knows its own desire. God can be one example of this fantasy (I allow that there might be sophisticated theologies that avoid this criticism). I suspect that this is the reason that Adam was compelled to argue that God is not an instance of the symbolic, as Adam’s religious commitments certainly disallow the claim that God is a fetish. Moreover, I find Adam’s rhetoric in the paragraph cited below very interesting. He refers to the “beginning student of Lacan” which has perjorative connotations and functions as an unsupported enthymeme, correcting the wayward and unexperienced student. The problem is that there are numerous places in the seminar where Lacan actually treats God in this way. It is fine that Adam rejects the thesis that God is a fetish or a symptom. There are arguments to be made. But one cannot simultaneously be a Lacanian and advocate a position where God is conceived as transcendent, unlimited, all knowing, outside the flux and bustle of the world, etc. Zizek goes some of the way towards developing a theology that wouldn’t be subject to these criticisms by staunchly treating Jesus as a man and by arguing that Christianity is premised on the impotence of God the father. I suspect that this understanding of Christianity where Christianity becomes a materialism and God is understood as impotent wouldn’t be endorsed by many Christians but would in fact be a heresy. I cannot, however, say this with certainty.

Adam might respond by pointing out that Lacan also says God(s) is the real. Yes he does, but the “also” is important here. On the one hand, Lacan formulates claims in a variety of ways throughout the seminar, so we can’t reduce his claims to just one. On the other hand, this statement entails that God(s) are the impossible or the constitutive deadlock and antagonism that inhabits the heart of any symbolic system. The point is that we place the Gods in the place of these antagonisms as a way of covering them over or hiding them, thereby giving the symbolic some minimal consistency. This aphorism thus returns us to the symbolic function of the God-fetish.

In The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, Antonio Negri writes:

Existence is not a problem. The immediacy of being reveals itself in non-problematic terms to the pure intellect. Existence, as such, does not demand definition. It is the spontaneity of being. Philosophy affirms, is a system of affirmations, inasmuch as it expresses directly and immediately the interlaced networks of existence. But existence is always qualified, and every existence is essential; every existence exists, that is, as essence. The relationship between existence and essence is the primary ontological form: the relation and tension between names that cannot be otherwise predicated, which take form in the determination of the nexus that unites them. The thing and the substance are the foundation. This given complex of being is the element in which we live, the fabric from which all is woven. (45)

It is it still possible to speak of existence with this sort of innocence, this sort of directness, today? In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel shows how, with the very first moment of thought, sense-certainty, it is impossible to say the thing itself. In his own way, though for the sake of very different ends, Kierkegaard repeats this thesis, enacting a style that performs the impossibility of speaking the singular, while nonetheless pointing to the singular. Later Sartre will talk about the inexpressible singularity of the oak tree in Nauseau, and Wittgenstein will try to encircle the limits of what can be expressed. Lacan will demonstrate a constitutive alienation in the signifier that subsequently separates us from being or any immediacy. Henceforth, with the introduction into language, all presence, all flesh, all existence, will be haunted by the absence that only the signifier can bring.

Last weekend I presented a paper on Deleuze’s account of individuation. John Caputo was kind enough to ask some questions and expressed reservations about the relationship of Deleuze to science. My paper certainly didn’t appeal to scientific examples after the fashion of DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, but simply outlined the contours of Deleuze’s account of individuation. Coming from the author of Radical Hermeneutics, I couldn’t help but feel that what Caputo was really objecting to was any sort of direct reference to the world, to existence. Later I had the pleasure of attending Charles Bambach’s paper, which turned out to be a close reading of Holderlin’s poem, The Ister. Similarly, Caputo gave a talk on Jean-Luc Marion’s Being Given, comparing it to Plato’s analogy of the divided line.

Everywhere I look I see philosophy being practiced as a textual affair, where it’s as if there is a prohibition against directly speaking about the world and persons. There are exceptions to this, Deleuze and Badiou, but for the most part continental philosophy has become commentary on other texts. With Foucault we have the endless analysis of the great archive. With Zizek we have the analysis of pop-culture texts and the texts of other philosophers. With Derrida, well Derrida. Everywhere we have texts about texts, as if we would be violating something to speak directly about the world in non-textual worlds. I am, of course, cognizant of the arguments that all of our experience is historically and textually mediated. I accept those arguments and am not calling for some unmediated relationship to the world. Yet what I find interesting is the way anything independent of text seems to have disappeared. I cannot help but feel that this is the result of the great critiques between the 17th and 20th century. Ultimately these critiques demonstrated the impossibility of any grounding of knowledge, whether through reason or sensation. In addition to this, there are socio-historical questions to be asked. What conditions have led to the virtualization of the world? What, for instance, suddenly made it plausible for Peirce to develop a metaphysics of signs in and through his semiotics, such that all being came to be seen as concatations of various types of signs? As Derrida points out, this was not unheard of as the world has often been described as a book. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Peirce is unprecidented in conceiving things themselves as signs. These are not the questions I’m focused on or interested in pursuing in this context, though they’re worth asking. At any rate, in the current academic climate, if we wish to speak of world today we cannot do so directly, but must pass through the interval of another text, through a close reading of another philosopher, rather than to make claims directly about the world. We speak indirectly of the world through another naive philosopher or thinker that believes that he or she can speak directly of the world by writing a commentary on their text. Is there a way that it is possible today to renew discourse about the world, or are we irrevocably doomed to commentaries on texts?

Jodi Dean, over at I Cite, raises the question of what political movements are liable to produce change in their subject’s lives. After a brief discussion of identity politics and its attachment to procedural democratic politics, she concludes with the following:

These days, the only source for transformation seems to be religion. The right gets its energy from its fundamentalist base and religious overtones, but avoids going the extra mile to fascism. The left can’t escape from its envelopment in communicative capitalism–cultural politics is a lot more fun!–and thus abjures any program of political transformation. Besides, cultural revolution seems a bit too scary, the dark underside of left utopian projects–better to accept the liberal framework and advocate half-measures and resistances.

Is it possible to conceptualize, to advocate, a non-democratic program of political transformation with emancipatory and utopian energies today? What would look like? Could it make any promises, hold out any aspirations? Zizek’s emphasis on subjective destitution seems like an important step in this direction–it breaks the binds of identity politics and consumerism in one move. But, how might this sort of destitution figure in a larger kind of solidarity? how might it become a component of a new kind of social link? And what is the next step in conceiving this?

Repeating a comment made over there, I have increasingly found myself skeptical of Zizek and Badiou as accurately theorizing how significant political change takes place. Simply put, I am coming to feel that their understanding of political change is too abstract. Zizek seems to believe that ideology critique will produce a significant transformation of subjectivity such that social subjects become political subjects that can then set about producing significant change in how the social is organized. Badiou seems to wait about for a rupture, an event that cannot be counted within situations, as an impetus for producing “non-interpellated” subjects.

Read on
(more…)

It seems lately that I’ve mostly been preserving things, finding scraps of paper here in there, rather than engaging in the synthetic activity of thought. I’m feeling as if my thoughts emerge only to trail off in a series of ellipses. I suppose I’ll go with that and see where it leads. In a beautiful passage from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes,

If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. A Laplander has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.

This passage occurs early in the text when Hume is defending the thesis that all thoughts or ideas originate with impressions. What I find so fascinating about this passage is not so much Hume’s observations about those who suffer from a defect of one of their sense organs, but rather the astute observation about “a man of mild manners” and one who has a “selfish heart”.

Read on
(more…)

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.

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.
(more…)

NOTE: HTML and Lacanian mathemes don’t mix very well. In what follows I’ve used “*” to represent the “losange”, “punch”, or diamond in Lacan’s formulas for fantasy.

Filled with exhaustion from the excitement of last night and the lack of sleep it engendered, I don’t really have much to say today, but I simply wanted to post this passage from Zizek’s Plague of Fantasies as it so nicely encapsulates the Lacanian theory of fantasy, first developed in Seminar 6, Le desir et son interpretation, and culminating in Seminar 14, La logique du fantasme.
(more…)

« Previous PageNext Page »