Fantasy


Hythlodaeus, over at the new blog Project Enlightenment, has revived the old debate about Zizek’s review of 300. Unfortunately I am unable to respond there as his blog does not accept anonymous comments and I do not have a Google account, so I’ll post a few words here. Hythlodaeus writes:

To my mind, the paroxysms of outrage that Zizek’s recent review of 300 provoked amongst certain members of the left academic blogosphere have only confirmed the basic truth of his argument that a truly progressive prioritization of values, in the current postmodern academic environment, is effectively impossible, because no one is willing to take responsibility for what a totally committed choice to pursue real social justice might actually entail–like, say, loss of job security. “If revolutionary action doesn’t include working full-time towards academic tenure–then no, thanks!”

I cannot speak for everyone regarding what motivated their concerns about Zizek’s valorization of sacrifice and discipline in this review, but for myself the issue was decidedly not one about the loss of job security. I take it as a given that any sort of revolutionary political change will involve significant transformations in how we consume and live. How could it not? Nor did it ever occur to me that somehow this issue has something to do with working full time or tenure. Rather, the issue had to do with convictions about the sorts of values we choose to valorize in revolutionary theory. All too often values of discipline and sacrifice, rhetoric of discipline and sacrifice, have been associated with fascist, dictatorial, and totalitarian regimes. Are these really the sorts of doors that we wish to open? Why not instead the valorization of values such as equality, justice, fraternity, freedom? What is at issue here are the sorts of master-signifiers that come to organize a movement and the manner in which these master-signifiers have a structuring effect on subsequent forms the movement takes. The issue is not one of concerns over giving up one’s hedonistic lifestyle, but about the way in which these master-signifiers function and resonate (see here and here) within a particular historical context. It is surprising that anyone informed by Lacan or Zizek would forget that language does not simply describe, but has a performative reality as well. The issue is not one of whether sacrifice and discipline ought or should or does take place in such movements– clearly it always does –but rather of how a particular movement comes to be structured and organized when signifiers such as this serve as the key, organizing, master-signifiers.

Hytholodaeus goes on to say:

LS writes:

I think this is a problem across the board in continentally influenced forms of theory, whether we’re talking about literary theory, political theory, philosophy, and so on. Often I find myself reading texts that are pervaded by some grand vision of revolutionary political transformation and I find myself thinking of my neighbors, my students, family members, existing infrastructure, etc., and I just wonder how such a grand vision can even be enacted concretely in practice. I then find myself suspecting that these political theories are more about ego and being superior, than about enacting any sort of real world change and are more about shoring up one’s academic standing and cred than the world.

Instead of continuing to parse Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault, et al, perhaps we should start devoting some of our attention to the abundant situated literature that’s being produced by the very real social movements we academics for some reason continue to strenuously deny exist. For instance, you might check out some of the websites for the activist groups listed under the “Contacts” section of Naomi Klein’s website nologo.org. You might also check out web resources like SolidarityEconomy and Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.

The oppressed aren’t stupid and they aren’t mute. They don’t need speaking for. They’re not a given “in-itself” waiting for us hyper-educated academic “for-ourselves” to properly theorize into a meaningful project. It smacks of obscene arrogance to think that the marginalized, the exploited, the oppressed of the world are incapably of reflecting on their situation in a sophisticated and nuanced way. Let’s stop treating them as inert objects, and start listening to them, start recognizing what they have to say. And, who knows, maybe even enter into dialogue with them. This is where I part ways with Zizek and his advocacy of the top-down Leninist intelligentsia qua vanguard model. I’m with Sartre and Habermas, Hardt and Negri instead: mutual recognition + intersubjective communication amongst groups-in-fusion= common value formation, i.e. the only horizon of a truly democratic, emancipatory, and transformative praxis.

From Hytholodaeus’ remarks, I cannot tell whether my position is here being criticized or endorsed. For the record, I am on exactly the same page as him regarding the need to focus on real social movements and the way they articulate themselves. I am deeply suspicious of hierarchicalized social movements where the “intellectuals” have the master-plan and set about designing society. On this blog, one of the things I’ve tried to focus on are the emergence of group formations, how they come to be, how they react on existing social structures, and how they come to transform social structures. In short, my view is that there needs to be less focus on critique, interpretation, and analysis, and more focus on those conditions under which groups emerge, nominate themselves, take on structuration, and begin to transform the social field. A political theorists work should be less about determining what is to be done, and more about what is being done, what these emergences are responding to, what potentialities they are introducing, and so on. It is for this reason that I have a certain fascination with fundamentalist religious movements in the United States, political blog collectives such as Moveon.org, Dailykos, Americablog, Atrios, etc, and so on. It is not that I share the politics of these particular groups. Clearly I do not. What interests me is how these groups emerged at all, what affects they mobilize, how they have managed to motivate people, what new sorts of subjectivities they produce, and how they have effectively challenged, and arguably transformed, various institutions whether at the governmental level or at the corporate level, and so on. This is what I find missing in so much of the political thought I read. “Okay okay okay, I agree with these positions and critiques, but… how do you mobilize people to enact these things?” What sort of media must be used to summon a people that don’t exist? What sorts of affects need to be crafted to summon a people that does not exist? What sorts of gatherings and institutions preside over the formation of these new subjectivities? What are the catalysts that lead people to form collectives, groups, movements? I see a lot of critique, I see a lot of analysis, but I don’t see a lot of concrete discussion concerning these very concrete details. Yet, as they say, it’s precisely with regard to these things that the rubber hits the road.

Zizek and Badiou have spent a good deal of time criticizing that variant of Marxist thought that talked endlessly about when the conditions for revolution are ripe. Zizek has characterized this form of thought as the position of the obsessional who is always preparing for the proper moment to make his advances on the woman without ever passing to the act, thereby revealing that his endless preparations are themselves a defense against the act. In this connection, Zizek has valorized the act as the proper corrective to this attitude, arguing that the act must initially fail to inscribe itself in the social field so as to become a signifier (the signifier always requires two, a repetition), thereby opening the field of radical transformation. The time will never be right, and certainly the elements populating the situation will never suggest that the time is ripe for revolution. Badiou has argued something similar with his conception of a completely ungrounded choice that decides membership of the event in the situation. I believe both of these views are positive correctives to a perspective that is always looking to the situation to find those ripe conditions. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the truth-procedure is precisely that hard work of transforming the elements of the situation or engaging in those acts that recode, that evoke, that call for a people that do not yet exist.

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N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has written a beautiful clarification of a number of her positions regarding capitalism, immanence, the self-reflexivity of theory, and social transformation as a salvo in an ongoing discussion with Joseph Kugelmass and Ryan/Aless that I would like to post in full here as both a way of preventing it from flying under the radar and drawing some connections to Marx and other trends in emancipatory political thought. While much of this post can stand on its own, readers will find it worthwhile to return to N.Pepperell’s original post to get the full context of the discussion. In a lengthy post, N.Pepperell writes:

Fantastic stuff, folks – my thoughts are running in all sorts of directions. Many thanks for this. Let’s see how much sense I can make here.

Joe –

Yes, the term “outside” could be reappropriated to be compatible with an immanent critique. I tend personally to reserve the term “outside” for “nonsymmetrical” theoretical approaches – for approaches that basically offer two different theories – one that explains what capitalism is, and another that explains the standpoint of critique. The issue is that many theories have no idea that they are asymmetrical – whether because they take so for granted a certain notion of human nature, or because they claim not to have a normative standpoint, or because they theorise a “margin” or a potential for “rupture” that is so completely unspecified on a qualitative level that it has no determinate qualitative relationship to capitalism. So, effectively, I tend to use the term “outside” for what, in a Hegelian framework, would be an “abstract negation” – for an approach that rejects something, without explicitly thematising its own determinate relationship to what has been rejected.

I then use terms like “transcendence” or “determinate negation” or similar for the concept you’re trying to capture with the Mobius strip metaphor. No one owns the words, of course – and my terminology isn’t in any way standard. The concepts are the important thing – and you’re correct in taking my point to be that an immanent dialectical theory thematises the way in which something can arise within capitalism, and even fill some determinate role in the replication of that system – and yet, as Benjamin argues, we can still “brush history against the grain”, and use these very things against the context that has given them birth.

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One of the central claims of Whitehead’s thought is that “actual occasions” (his name for “entity”) are the ultimate reasons or grounds of all explanations. “…[A]ctual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities” (PR, 24). Alongside of Process and Reality I’ve been reading The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality by Elizabeth Kraus. I recommend this study highly for anyone interested in Whitehead. If others have references to other secondaries I’d be interested in hearing about them as well. I believe some of these remarks are relevant to a discussion of holism and reductivism unfolding over at the Weblog, and especially Dominic Fox’s comments, with which I disagree as they are stated. At one point she gives an outstanding gloss on Whitehead’s conception of philosophy and what it means to give an account, so I’ll just post it here in full, with a few comments at the end, as I have nothing to add to it. I apologize for the lack of commentary on the passages that follow. Occasionally I come across something I find striking and really can do little more than point and grunt like the apes dancing about the obelisk in 2001.

In Modes of Thought Whitehead describes the task of philosophy as ‘the understanding of the interfusion of modes of existence’ (MT, 97). But what does it mean to understand? If the world is taken in its classical sense, any grasp of what Whitehead purports to do in PR and of the way in which he views his speculative scheme as an interpretation of reality is vitiated at the outset. In its Aristotlean meaning, to understand anything is to know it in its causes: to grasp principally its form and purpose. Knowledge, thus interpreted, is a moving away from the thing in its concrete singularity, which qua individual is unintelligible, toward a grasp of the universals which it embodies. To know an object is to be able to place it in its appropriate category, having delimited its genus and differentia. When based on this notion of understanding, philosophy is viwed as purely abstract, a priori, apodictic, and deductive science, whose certainty and purity are a function of its remotion from the concrete.

Whitehead totally repudiates this conception of the philosophical enterprise and the notion of understanding from which it springs. he is a Platonist with respect to knowledge, realizing that it is not theoretical understanding but rather the ability to rule well. If it entails a departure from the concrete, that departure is justified only in virtue of a subsequent return. Even the departure itself takes a different form from that evidenced in the traditional notion of abstract, in which the individuating notes of an object are left aside in the endeavor to seize its universal essentiality. For Whitehead, the movement of abstraction is indeed toward higher generalities, but in the move the individuality of the starting point is not analyzed away. In his view, a fact is understood when it can be placed in a wider systematic context which gives an account of its interconnections with other facts (my bold). The tecnique of analysis presumes that facts are isolated, self-contained units whose character can be revealed by the systematic dissection, and it thereby loses itself in barren abstractions. The true activity of understanding consists in a voyage to abstraction which is in fact a voyage to the more fully concrete: to the system in which the fact is enmeshed. The system as conceptualized may be more abstract than the fact itself in that it is more general, but the real systematic context is more concrete, and its elaboration yields more about the existential relations of the fact.

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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?

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