Historicism


Recently I have been rereading A Grammar of Motives by the rhetorician Kenneth Burke. For those who are not familiar with Burke, his work contains an entire arsenal of useful concepts and paradoxes, helpful in uncovering tensions within various philosophical systems. At the very beginning of the text, Burke asks,

What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it? An answer to the question is the subject of this book. The book is concerned with the basic forms of thought which, in accordance with the nature of the world as all men necessarily experience it, are exemplified in the attributing of motives. (xv)

Burke is thus not so much looking at what motivates people, but rather how we attribute motives to others. “Men have talked about things in many ways, but the pentad offers a synoptic way to talk about their talk-about” (56). By contrast, Burke refers to claims about what motivates people as “philosophies” or “cauistries”. “Speaking broadly we could designate as ‘philosophies’ any statements in which these grammatical resources are specifically utilized. Random or unsystematic statements about motives could be considered as fragments of a philosophy” (xvi). Thus, on the one hand, a philosophy for Burke is a system of motives or an account of what causes people to act in a particular way. For example, I recently heard a woman claim that she supports a Clinton nomination because women are by nature nurturing and collaborative. What we have here is a fragment of a philosophy positing certain drives, natures, or instincts as the motive force in human action. A mirror of such a casuistry would be the conservative who claims that communism could never work because humans are, by nature, greedy and competitive. Again action is being explained on the basis of something internal or intrinsic to agents. By contrast, when someone like Foucault or Butler comes along, it is argued that these properties do not belong to the nature of agents intrinsically, but rather agents are produced or constructed in this way either by language, or power, or discourse, or something else besides. In this case, the explanation of an agents motive is no longer referred to intrinsic property of the agent, but rather to the scene in which the agent is contained and formed. It is scenic elements– what Badiou will call a “situation” –that account for the motives of an agent and a particular act, not something intrinsic to the agent itself. Here, “being-nuturing” results from a particular socio-historical situation that forms agents in a particular way, not from some sort of innate biological disposition.

It is clear that these different ways of attributing motives will have profound consequences for how we talk about various issues. If competitiveness, aggressiveness, or nurture are intrinsic biological properties of agents as the apologist for capitalist, a version of Freud, and this woman contend respectively, then the idea of social critique is moot from the outset. Short of some medication that would change these characteristics, the particular forms that society take are not the result of dynamics of power that could be otherwise, but are rather the result of our biology. The person critical of capitalism and envisioning another form of society would here be a naive (and dangerous) utopian, because our biological nature entails that there must necessarily be conflict and aggressiveness, as well as a distribution of the sexes. By contrast, if these properties of the agent are the result of the socio-historical scene in which the agent develops and is individuated, it follows that other forms of social organization are possible, i.e., that change is possible.

Burke’s proposal is not to take a particular position with respect to these “cauistries”– though one senses that he tends in the constructivist direction –but rather to analyze the various structures of these cauistries. Along these lines he proposes what I would call a “meta-philosophy” as a way of discerning the manner in which various ways of talking about motives are structured. Where a philosophy attempts to give an account of the nature of being, knowledge, and ethics, a meta-philosophy examines the structure of a philosophy to determine how it comprehends motives. We might say that a meta-philosophy remains agnostic as to the truth or falsity of the philosophy.

Burke proposes five broad categories (his pentad) to discuss motives: Scene, act, agent, agency, purpose. Acts are done in a scene, by an agent, often with some particular tool or means (agency), for the sake of some end. By Scene Burke is thus referring to the background or setting of an action. Agents, of course, are those doing the action. Acts are the acts done. Agency is the means by which it is done (a tool, speech, one’s body, and so on). And purpose is that for the sake of which the action is done. It is necessary to emphasize that these terms are extremely broad. Scene, for example, could be language as when talked about Lacan in the context of how the subject is formed in the field of the Other. However, language can be an act or agency in other contexts. Similarly, when Lucretius claims that everything is composed of combinations of indivisible atoms falling in the void, he is talking about scene. When Marx talks about conditions of production he is talking about scene. When Freud talks about drives and the unconscious he is talking about scene. When a religious person talks about God’s plan he is talking about scene. All of these are competing visions of scene. When Walter Ong talks about how the technology of writing transforms the nature of thought, he is talking about how an agency transforms the agent that uses it. Yet in another context, when Foucault or Kuhn talks about the impersonal murmur of language in which we find ourselves thrown, writing, archival texts, are no longer agencies, but are scenes.

Burke’s pentad is of interest in that it allows us to see, a bit more clearly, where the philosophy is placing its emphasis. For example, Sartre, Husserl, Kant, and so on, would be philosophies of the agent. The agent is placed front and center and other elements fall into the background. Most contemporary philosophies in French theory place emphasis on the scene, as in the case of Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and many variants of Marxist thought and critical theory. More recently we’ve begun to see philosophies of the act, as in the case of Badiou or Zizek. And so on. In and of itself, this isn’t particularly interesting beyond gaining clarity as to where particular problems might emerge within a philosophy. For example, it is not difficult to see that the work of Badiou and Zizek is a response to the primacy of the scene in much contemporary French thought. Take the following passage from A. Kiarina Kordela’s $urplus, discussing Negri and Hardt:

…there is the so-called “Neo-Spinozist” line, which having long completed its critique of psychoanalysis, celebrates molecular and rhizomatic forms of identity, organization, and action. Although they themselves do no more than replicate the very structures of global capitalism, these same forms are presumed to also be subversive or revolutionary, to open lines of flught, or, in the more recent parlance of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, to express the power of the multitude (i.e., all of us). Drawing on a certain twist of Spinozian monism, this line operates according to the logic that, since there is only one substance, or since there is no exteriority to substance, the same substance must be that which sustains the existing politico-economical system and that which undermines it. Thus this line (inadvertently?) finds itself replicating the logic of the classical Hegelian-Marxist determinism, which presumed that the capitalist system is, by structural necessity, destined to bring about its own collapse…

Thus, far from involving any opposition to any oppressive power or even a course of action remotely deviating from the practices fostered by capitalism, the empowerment of the multitude, Hardt and Negri tells us, simply requires the recognition of the power that the multitude has always already had without knowing it. (2-3)

This sort of criticism could be directed at any number of contemporary theoretical constellations, whether we’re talking about Foucault’s difficulties in explaining how counter-power arises from power, difficulties among the “linguistic idealists” in explaining how it is possible to think anything new if we are products of language, Frankfurt school theorists who endlessly ape the questions “how could this be thought at such and such a particular time?” or self-reflexive questions about “how the critic is able to adopt a critical stances when that critic is itself embedded within the system?” and so on. These are problems that emerge specifically when the scenic element takes over as the overdetermining instance of motives or when scene is the ultimate explanans for everything else. Thus we say that agents are formed within scenes or situations (whether scene be understood as language, power, economics, social fields, etc), and that as products of scenes acts can only arise from scenes and return to scenes. Put differently, under this view it is impossible for an act to exceed the way in which it is structured by situations, for the act is a descendant of the scene just as the son is a descendant of the father (and is said to thereby share the father’s characteristics).

What is prohibited, it would seem, is the introduction of something new into the situation… Something that would transform the configuration of the situation or scene itself. What is required, it would seem, is the thought of an act unconditioned by scenes. Burke proposes this as the prototype of the act:

We are reasoning as follows: We are saying that, to study the nature of the term, act, one must select a protype, a paradigm of action. This prototype we find in the conception of a perfect or total act, such as the act of ‘the Creation.’ Examining this concept we find that it is ‘magic,’ for it produces something out of nothing. This enables us to equate magic with novelty– and leads us to look for a modicum of magic in every act to the extent that the act possesses a modicum of novelty. (66)

The paradigmatic act would be an act that is ex nihilo, completely unconditioned, that comes from nothing, and that produces something new. The question that seems missing from the scenic philosophers, despite their various “bells and whistles”, is this dimension of the unconditioned and the novelty that it introduces into scenes or situations. Rather, for every act– whether contemplative or in engagement with the world –the strategy is always to trace the act back to the conditioning field in which the act emerged. Yet we might ask, is there not always a remainder that resists this assimilation to the organization of the situation? Like Lucretius’ clinamen or swerve, is there not always something in the act that can’t be accounted for on the basis of atomic motion? And here is where Burke becomes most interesting, for his task is not simply to examine the ratios between the various elements of the pentad (scene, act, agency, agent, purpose), but to show how certain structural antinomies and paradoxes emerge whenever one of the terms comes to predominate with respect to the rest. In this respect, we could argue that even the most purely scenic philosophies will be haunted by the agent and act as ghosts that cannot be eradicated, even if only as “negative magnitudes”. The question would be one of turning these ghosts into positive magnitudes or making them explicit.

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One of the marks of theory in the last forty years is a conception of the subject such that the subject is determined and structured through history, structure, language, social context, or some other sort of field in which it is embedded or thrown. Thus in Althusser, for example, the subject is simply a puppet of ideology or an iteration of the total system in which it emerges. In early Lacan the subject falls under the signifier, such that the signifier functions like a prophecy in its unconscious, determining its destiny and the structure of desire. For Foucault and Butler, the subject is a discursive construction and product of power. The merit of these views is the manner in which they overcome abstraction by virtue of thinking entity in relation to its context or the world in which it emerges, rather than treating entity as a simple substance that is self-sufficient. Of course, these positions tend to suffer from another sort of abstraction, for they often treat social and cultural formations as the only determinative elements of context, ignoring the biological body, experience, and the natural world. In terms of the history of philosophy, we could see these paradigms of thought as reactions to the subject-centered systems of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, where– in his earlier work, at least –there was little attentiveness to what Heidegger referred to as “the worldhood of the world”. To put the matter crudely, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Where prior to this there was a focus on the supremacy of the subject or agent, on its self-determining freedom, there followed a shift towards the supremacy of what Burke refers to as the “scene” in his pentad. Scene (whether in the form of language, economics, power, social structure, etc) becomes determinative of entity, where before it was the agent, the subject, that was seen as determinative. Not surprisingly, we today find the pendulum swinging yet again in the other direction. Exhausted by decades of theory dominated by the primacy of the scene such that all agency seems to merely reinforce structure and power without realizing it, we now find the pendulum swinging once again in the other direction, seeking to enact a return to the agent or agency in the rather poorly developed and abstract accounts of events and truth-procedures in Badiou and the Act in Zizek.

Not unpredictably, these rejoinders suffer from the same abstraction, albeit in inverted form, as the abstraction to be found in Frankfurt school Critical Theory, hermeneutic orientations of thought, and French (Post)Structuralism. Where the former places everything on the side of either history, power, language, social structure, etc., effectively causing the agent to disappear, the latter places everything on the side of the agent, the Act and the truth-procedure, leading any meaningful discussion of socio-historical context and concrete understanding of the situation to disappear. It is difficult, for instance, not to guffaw when Badiou announces that the French Revolution was an event (I fully agree), but then goes on to say that this event marked a complete break with history, as if centuries of subterranian work hadn’t been done during the Rennaissance and early Enlightenment period, slowly transforming the social space, introducing the requisite concepts for a radically egalitarian republic, undermining confidence in governance by the Christian Church and the metaphysics that accompanied that view, and so on. Both solutions are poor. What is needed is an account that is both sensitive to what Burke calls scene, has a rich place for the agent, and, above all is capable of thinking the dialectical relation between these two without falling into abstraction by privileging one pole or the other, turning agent into a mere puppet of scene or ignoring scene altogether in favor of the fantasy of a completely sovereign subject free of any determinations save those it posits for itself.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about both of these orientations of theory is that they are so obviously. One wonders whether some thinkers ever pull their noses out of their books to look at the world about them. Those theorists that assert the primacy of scene (e.g., Althusser, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Butler, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, perhaps Adorno, etc) seem to miss the obvious point that context, scene, language, power, history, the social, etc., never functions so efficaciously as to smoothly reproduce itself in its agents. As Adam Kotsko points out in a recent post without using these exact terms, subjectivization never quite works as intended. The agents produced in and through structure are never perfect fractal iterations of that context, but always surprise us. There is something novel about each agent that appears in the world that such theories, when taken to their extreme, should exclude a priori as being impossible on theoretical grounds. Yet there it is, subjects going against the total environment in which they were raised, subjects introducing new trajectories into their social system, subjects that share little resemblance to where they came from. On the other hand, those theoretical orientations that assert the supremacy of the sovereign agent seem to fare even worse. Such theories perpetually miss the commonalities we find among populations and in the agent itself, thereby missing the manner in which the agent emerges and is individuated within a scene that it integrates, selects from, and makes its own. Inevitably such theories of the agent (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Zizek, Badiou, certain moments of Lacan), where the agent is prime and supreme, end up trapped within magical thinking, as they’re almost always led to assert a creation ex nihilo. Well, there are no creations ex nihilo for good materialists, whatever Badiou might like to say as he desperately strives to convince his readers that he maintains tied to the Marxist tradition.

What is needed is something entirely different. If we are not to fall into abstraction, we need a theory that both shows how entity arises from a scene, a context, a field (whatever you wish to call it), but, in its process of development, becomes transcendent to that field. That is, we require a conception of the agent that isn’t detached from the field, that isn’t above it and undetermined by it, but also which isn’t strictly determined by the manner in which it prehends the world about it. Rather, there must be something creative and novel in how the world about the agent is prehended, that progressively (not all at once), allows the agent to stand forth from the field and define its own vector of engagement and development… A vector that is no longer simply a fractal iteration of the organization of the field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has written a very sensitive post responding to my recent post on individuation. N.P. writes,

Sinthome’s thought on these questions is subtle and sophisticated, and I wish to be very clear that I am not trying to criticise any substantive points put forward in Sinthome’s posts. What I wish to ask, though, is whether the kind of reflection Sinthome carries out here might in its own practice remain bound to a subject-object divide: whether the practice of thinking through this issue, as carried out in these posts, is consistent with the express goal of the posts, which is to develop a system that transcends subject-object dualism.

And a little further on,

In drawing attention to these common means of explaining the rise of new concepts, I am obviously not seeking to criticise precise reasoning, or to argue against philosophical reflection on the natural world. I am, though, asking whether the form that philosophical argument takes, when it appeals to subjective error or objective empirical novelty, can be understood to be adequate when the content or purpose of philosophical reflection strives to overturn the subject-object dualism. Perhaps we need to be seeking a form of philosophical exposition that is more adequate to the content it seeks to express. I regard this as an epistemological task – where epistemology is understood as, to borrow a phrase from Sinthome, a “theory of learning”, rather than as itself a project grounded in the subject-object divide. And I think that Hegel – and, for that matter, Marx – by focussing their attention on self-reflexivity, have highlighted the need to find a philosophical path through this labyrinth.

Unfortunately I’m in the midsts of marking for the end of the semester so I’m unable to give a detailed response. First, I want to express gratitude to N.Pepperell for so thoughtfully and earnestly thinking with me in both a spirit of friendship and critical questioning, aimed, I think, at producing something or collaboratively developing something rather than simply opposing positions to one another. In a former post, N.Pepperell expressed worries that I took him/her to be criticizing or dismissing me (with regard to my claim that “the One is not”) which I did not, nor do I take these remarks to be presented in this spirit. The worries I expressed about the thesis that the One is not are my own worries (here and here and here), namely that I sometimes recoil from this thesis and its implications, finding myself concerned that it is absurd or incoherent. Rather, I take N.Pepperell’s comments as working notes revolving about a shared set of questions and concerns.

It seems to me that what N.Pepperell is groping for is the expression “performative contradiction”. That is, in suggesting that there is a conflict between the content of my post and the form of my post, the suggestion seems to be that at the level of content, the ontological claims being advanced say one thing, while the form in which these claims are advanced say quite another. It would be here that all the issues of self-reflexivity emerge, for if my claims about individuation hit the mark, then 1) an onto-epistemological theory of individuation must account for how it itself came to be individuated. To put this point a bit differently, my meditations on these issues perhaps suffer the old joke of a man alone in a room asked by a passing traveller whether anyone is there and responding “no”, thereby missing the obvious fact that he is there. I am “counting myself out” of the very thing I am talking about, and thus suggesting a transcendence that the content of my post forbids. 2) The nature of critique with regard to other epistemologies and ontologies is significantly transformed as one can no longer say that they are simply mistaken– which would simply be another variant of the subject/object divide, i.e., the thesis that the world has been erroneously represented –but must instead tell some sort of story as to how these onto-epistemologies came to be individuated.

N.Pepperell remarks that,

I should note that I am being very sloppy with my language here – this is not how Sinthome would express this problematic – I’ll ask forebearance on this issue because my “target” in this analysis is not actually how we can best understand individuation, but instead something more abstract: I’m trying to illustrate something about the habits of thought into which most of us – including myself – tend to fall when we seek to resolve this kind of philosophical dichotomy.

If I am understanding N.P. correctly, then s/he is referring to the habit of thought that continues to evaluate things other than itself in terms of the subject/object divide, while nonetheless having purported to reject this representational conception of the world. Thus, for instance, Deleuze argues that we must shift from a theory of knowledge to a theory of learning throughout Difference and Repetition, and must examine things in terms of how they come to be individuated or produced rather than how they are to be truly represented, and then proceeds to denounce Hegel, Kant, Plato, and others as getting it wrong without applying these very principles to their thought.

It seems to me that there are a couple of thinkers that would be very fruitful in helping to address these sorts of questions. The German philosopher-sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, develops a good deal of his systems theoretical sociology around the theme of self-reflexivity and “observing the observer”. These themes are developed very explicitly in texts such as Theories of Distinction and Essays on Self-Reference, but also in his magnificent and dense work Social Systems, where he argues, among other things, that a theory of society must also self-reflexively account for its own claims. Following the obscurantist mathematician Spencer-Brown, Luhmann argues that we can’t observe anything prior to drawing a distinction. For instance, we might draw a circle on a piece of paper, thereby distinguishing an outside and an inside. Once a distinction has been drawn, it becomes possible to indicate things on the basis of the distinction (I can now say something is inside or outside). The key point is that the distinction is on the side of the observer, not the thing itself. From this Luhmann draws the conclusion that we can only have system-specific knowledge and can never know the world as such. I follow Luhmann part of the way, however, my criticism has been that the conclusion he draws from this line of reasoning repeats the representationalist tradition in epistemology, assuming that there’s a world “out there” in itself that can never be known– he often draws skeptical conclusions from his sociological work –and that Hegel’s critique of the ding-an-sich or thing in itself shows why there is no thing in itself. Nonetheless, Luhmann provides a number of readily available tools for handling these issues of self-reference.

On the other side of the spectrum, it seems to me that this discussion can be profitably situated by taking a page from the Marxo-Hegelian playbook. Marx argues that each age develops a specific epistemology and ontology on the basis of its economics. I am not sure that I’m ready to follow Marx all the way with his economic determinism, but what makes Marx of interest here is that he doesn’t simply argue that an epistemology or ontology is wrong or mistaken, but shows how these philosophies are individuated as solutions to a problem (here and here) within a particular socio-historical field. For instance, when an analyst approaches the fantasy of an analysand, he does not do so by showing how it is a distorted representation of reality or falsehood. After all, for Lacan reality is framed by fantasy and thus functions like a Luhmannian distinction or a window through which the subject selects between what is relevant and mere noise where desire is concerned. Rather, analysis proceeds as the analysand comes to discover the manner in which the fantasy (which very well might never be discussed as a fantasy) resolves a certain deadlock with regard to the desire of the Other or solves a particular problem of desire for the analysand. In short, fantasy is not treated as an error. Similarly, the philosophical and theoretical formations of history could productively be approached not in terms of the error/non-error distinction, but as a series of individuations responding to particular sets of problems. Hopefully I have heard some of what is in N.Pepperell’s marvellous posts.

N. Pepperell over at Rough Theory has written a terrific and challenging diary in response to my recent post on Enlightenment and diacritics (here and here). N.P. writes,

In the post on “The Diacritical Production of Identity”, Sinthome tackles several elements of Lacan’s thought that are often cited as particularly controversial – the use of mathematical metaphors, the concept of the woman as the symptom of the man, etc. Sinthome traverses these elements of Lacan’s thought lightly, bracketing problematic readings, while teasing out a reading productive for critique. My question – and the reason I won’t write at length on this topic here – is whether these elements of Lacan’s thought, even read for their highest critical potential, ever move beyond being a very elaborate theoretical justification for what, at base, I suspect is a fairly noncontroversial ontological claim: that no form of domination (or, for that matter, freedom) ever fully succeeds in subsuming all aspects of consciousness or practice.

I’ve never found this claim controversial and – I confess this may be a fundamental conceptual failure on my part – I haven’t yet understood how any of the various theoretical elaborations of this claim contribute more to critical practice than the simple empirical experience of nonsubsumption ever could? I’m not so much critical of the theoretical framework, as I am uncertain whether this is really a battle that needs to be fought… Does theoretical reflection on this kind of abstract contingency give us any greater insight into the potentials for specific kinds of political action, in the particular contexts in which we must now act?

Unfortunately exingencies of time (things are a madhouse here right now) prevent me from responding at length right now, but I thought I’d cross post her diary here for anyone who might be interested. I think N.P. is right in suggesting that I need to develop these claims and their critical potential in more explicit detail. As a prelude, when advancing the thesis that no form of domination ever completely subsumes the dominated, I am specifically thinking of historicism and Foucaultian power structures. With regard to historicism, I am objecting to the common thesis that everything is determined by its historical context, such that nothing new can appear that isn’t already saturated by this context. With regard to Foucault (perhaps one could add Butler), I have in mind the thesis that all social relations are determined by structures of power. Foucault, of course, complicates this with his thesis that all structures of power produce their own resistence; yet these structures of resistance are nonetheless part and parcel of the field of power. Consequently I suppose I am asking whether an outside is possible. This question is relevant in a [Lacanian] psychoanalytic context as well. Middle Lacan– Lacan during his high symbolic period –often argued in such a way as to suggest that there is no outside to the language. However, as his work developed he increasingly discovered an outside in the form of either the real, drive, objet a, or an exemplary signifier subtracted from the network of signifiers such as the “sinthome”.