go-3women-534x716Responding to my post on the Game of Life and Emergence, John Doyle, over at Ktismatics, speculates about the ontological status of the patterns that emerge in the game. Doyle first outlines five helpful criteria for emergence drawn from Jaegwon Kim:

1. Systems with a higher level of complexity emerge from the coming together of lower-level entities in new structural configurations.
2. Higher-level systems exhibit higher-level emergent properties arising from the lower-level properties and relations of its constituent parts.
3. Emergent properties are not predictable from information about lower-level conditions.
4. Emergent properties are not explainable or reducible to the lower-level conditions.
5. Emergent properties have novel causal powers of their own.

I am largely in agreement with these five criteria of emergent phenomena so long as number four isn’t taken to entail anything spooky or magical like a sudden magical leap, but rather is a thesis about scale dependent properties that couldn’t have strictly been predicted from the lower level rules. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment. For those interested in actually playing the Game of Life, Ian Bogost has been kind enough to provide a link here.

read on!


In his introduction to the work of Mao, Žižek writes,

The true victory (the true ‘negation of negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy. (Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao On Practice and Contradiction, 17)

In what sense is this to be understood as the true victory? After all, the simple fact that the enemy is using your “language” does not count as much of a victory if the structure of power remains the same. However, perhaps we can understand Žižek’s point in terms of making alternatives available, of creating possibilities within the social space that were not there before.

This thesis can be illustrated in terms of games. For the last thirty years it could be said that the reigning economic assumption behind American politics has been that of Friedmanian, unregulated, free trade economics. The net result is that all sides engaged in economic discussions surrounding the political assume this framework as the ground of their policy proposals. Here only one option is available and participants take stands within the framework of this set of rules. The situation is thus analogous to a game of chess. Within a game of chess, the rules themselves aren’t up for debate or discussion. Rather, the rules are themselves agreed upon and remain largely invisible for the players. If a debate does take place, this debate takes place not in terms of a dispute over the rules of the game, but over the tactics as to how best play the game within the framework of those rules. Such has been the case with non-academic political discourses in the United States.


A shift in the game thus does not occur at the level of a single game, but only when an entirely new game becomes available, challenging the discourse of the existing game. In this regard, Republicans made a strategic blunder when they chose to brand Obama as a socialist during the last election. In situating Obama as a socialist within the context of the current economic meltdown, they implicitly suggested that another game, another set of possibilities was possible. Rather than simply suggesting that Obama plays the game of chess (neoliberal economics) poorly, they instead suggested that Obama plays an entirely different game, perhaps go, composed of entirely different rules (socialism). In making this move, they undermined their own claim, built up painstakingly over the course of economics, that capitalism today reigns supreme and there are no other credible alternatives.


My suggestion here isn’t that Obama is a socialist or that he will depart from neoliberal economic policies (I’m skeptical). Rather, what I find interesting is that news shows, editorials, and various pundits are suddenly raising questions of whether unfettered capitalism is the best possible system. What we increasingly hear today is a popular space in which capitalism is being contested or questioned, and a halting groping towards other possibilities is unfolding. It is only when the game itself becomes an object of critique, when it comes to be seen as contingent or something that could be otherwise, that it becomes possible to overturn that game. Absent that we simply have competing tactics within one and the same game, assuming the same rules, goals, and aims.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The galleys of my book are to arrive today, so I will be busy reading over the final draft over the next couple of weeks. I deeply appreciate the many offers to help with the copy editing, though this wont be necessary as Northwestern sent the manuscript to a copy-editor. My apologies for not being clearer on the process. I’m learning as I go. I suppose now I get to dwell in the anxiousness of living with what I’ve written.


Dr. X over at Dr. X’s Free Associations has an interesting post up on recent research into why people enjoy horror films despite the fact that they cause unpleasant affects.

Last week, Laura Freberg offered an interesting discussion of why some people like to watch horror movies. She cited the research done by Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen who ask “How can the hedonistic assumption (i.e., people’s willingness to pursue pleasure and avoid pain) be reconciled with people choosing to expose themselves to experiences known to elicit negative feelings?” Although the authors are not clinicians, their research is germane to appreciating that clinical framework management is required if the patient is to go forward with a thorough exploration of highly disturbing unconscious perceptions and meanings of his or her internal experience.

Andrade and Cohen argued that a growing body of evidence indicates that people can experience both positive and negative feelings simultaneously. To lay persons, this might seem like an assumption that should have never been in doubt, but many psychologists, biologists and economists have assumed that positive and negative feelings cannot coexist simultaneously. Moreover, it was long assumed by many that we always seek pleasurable experiences while avoiding painful ones.

To explain behaviors that appear to contradict the hedonistic hypothesis, its defenders often argued that when we accept painful experiences, we do so in a rational manner, deferring present reward for some greater future reward. For example, people might attend a horror movie because they so enjoy the relief subsequent to the fear. With a few exceptions outside of psychoanalysis, the idea that pain and pleasure, fear and exhilaration could simultaneously coexist as part of a more complex inner experience was not widely accepted by experts who assumed we operate as relatively rational hedonists.

In a series of studies involving viewers of horror movies, Andrade and Cohen found strong evidence that negative and positive feelings can be co-activated. They also note that some individuals are attracted to watching horror movies while others consistently avoid them. They argued that the latter group avoids horror movies because they are unable to co-activate positive and negative feelings within the context of viewing these movies.

This is a fascinating post and a topic dear to my own heart as I both enjoy horror films myself and often wonder about the role that monsters and horror play in the social space as cultural artifacts that potential speak to antagonisms haunting the social field. As Unemployed Negativity has recently so beautifully put it in a post on the sudden profusion of zombie films, “each period in history gets the monsters it deserves.” I’m heartened to see empirical research done on this topic. However, I wonder if the researchers aren’t unduly limiting the question by looking at feelings or affects alone. Those of us coming from clinical psychoanalytic background are intimately familiar with the phenomenon of nightmares that simultaneously punish a person for a particular desire while also allowing that person to gratify a particular desire. That is, the nightmare scenario can function as an alibi allowing the person to gratify a forbidden desire. By focusing on the affects that accompany watching a horror film– it’s “material cause” –it seems to me that we risk ignoring the signifying structure of horror films– it’s “formal cause” –and therefore risk missing all sorts of questions pertaining to the mixed variety of identifications at work in the film (the viewer can simultaneously identify with the villains and the protagonists) as well as the desires and antagonisms the film might be striving to navigate. As Lacan puts it in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, “…what the uconscious does is… show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined” (22). This is true of symptoms and the various other formations of the unconscious such as jokes, slips of the tongue, dreams, and bungled actions. In all cases these formations can be thought as the work of the symbolic striving to symbolize the real.

Read on

Apologies for my lack of responses and postings lately. This last week has seen me doubled over in pain and getting little or no sleep as a result of intense stomach pains. I suspect I’ve developed an ulcer, but my hypochondrial, neurotic mind convinces me that it must be some form of cancer or a rare form of leprosy that only targets the stomach… Or perhaps I’ve contracted one of those aliens from Alien. I suspect this third possibility is the most likely given that I’ve been reading science fiction before bed lately.

At any rate, there have been some truly excellent posts floating about the blogosphere recently. N.Pepperell has written a short, but meaty, post on self-reflexivity, immanence, and theoretical pessimism as a teaser for a project she’ll be developing over the next year. Although she does not mention Badiou, it is interesting to contrast her self-reflexive conception of social transformation with Badiou’s theory of the event which comes from the outside. With his characteristic rigor and beauty, Lars has continued his meditation on the nature of language, unfolding the implications of language for ontology and agency in a heavy dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari among others (here and here). Little John and Ibitsu of Still Water Springs have taken some arrows from my quiver and sent them flying in different and interesting directions (here and here). In the post entitled “Reading”, in particular, he develops far better what I was trying to get at in my post Reading as a Material Event.

All of these interweaving dialogues have left me wondering what philosophy must be, what it must look like, when the mediated and contextual nature of agency is recognized. When one can no longer posit the subject as a ground of transparency and immediate presence, where does one begin without falling into a programmatic dogmatism? How does one begin to ground claims in such a universe? What does an epoche look like when it is no longer the delivery of a pure subject? I have no idea of how to formulate such questions and the alien that has decided to inhabit my stomach makes it difficult to even think about these questions. I certainly don’t wish to assert that philosophy is at an end, though I find myself concerned with what strikes me as dogmatism among a number of structurally influenced thinkers.

Readers might be interested to know that the personae of Sinthome has now been featured as the hero of an online comic book. I suspect that this particular deterritorialization requires a good deal of reflection.

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