History


4521_186068One of the things I like most about Badiou is his thesis that the goal of philosophy is to think the present, or to grasp the compossibility of those truths that are both eternal but are the essence of the present. Is it a mistake that philosophy seems to flourish most in periods of profound scientific, technological, artistic, and political transformation? In this spirit, here are a few things characteristic of our present that seem unique to our time:

* We live in a period during which developments in mathematics dwarf all prior cumulative developments, yet philosophers are still talking about how we know that 7 + 5 = 12, as if this understanding of mathematics were in any way relevant to topology, set theory, category theory, and lots of other forms of general abstract nonsense that I can scarcely even imagine.

* Evolutionary theory has overturned the idea of fixed and eternal species, instead producing a picture of the world characterized by endless variation and the production of classes through the accumulation of individual differences, yet philosophers still seem to think in terms of essences and individuals.

* We are unlocking the genome, fundamentally transforming the very nature of how life is conceived, yet again we still seem to think in terms of species and individuals despite now being in a position to play “Magister Ludi’s glass bead game” with life.

* We have a physics that has both revealed that space and time are interlinked and curved in terms of mass, and that has revealed a world of subatomic particles that behave in ways that no a priori reasoning would have ever expected, but we still think of causality in terms of regularities among impressions.

* We have new sciences such as systems theory, complexity theory, and chaos theory that also reveal significant shortcomings in how we conceive causality, yet we still think of causality in terms of necessary succession.

* We have a neurology and cognitive science that are transforming our understanding of the nature of cognition and mental functioning, yet we philosophers still seem to think that folk psychological concepts like “belief”, “love”, “desire”, “will”, “intention”, etc., are adequate to discussing the nature of mind.

* We have new forms of media and communications technology that are transforming the very nature of our cognition by virtue of being fields of individuation, yet we still privilege the book as a model of media.

* Our economic and technological processes have produced the first genuinely global form of social organization, yet we rely on political models unconsciously premised on social relations organized around rather small populations.

The list could be multiplied indefinitely. The issue is not one of abandoning the tradition or ignoring philosophy that has come before, but of doing philosophy in a way that is directed at the present. There is a vast difference between philosophy that is about another philosopher, and philosophy that is directed at its present and the problems and questions posed by that present, drawing on a tradition to think this, while also creating concepts adequate to this present and its own problems and cultural texture.

This book looks interesting.

The must-read exposé of America’s love/hate affair with French theory.

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, a disparate group of radical French thinkers achieved an improbable level of influence and fame in the United States. Compared by at least one journalist to the British rock ‘n’ roll invasion, the arrival of works by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari on American shores in the late 1970s and 1980s caused a sensation.

Outside the academy, “French theory” had a profound impact on the era’s emerging identity politics while also becoming, in the 1980s, the target of right-wing propagandists. At the same time in academic departments across the country, their poststructuralist form of radical suspicion transformed disciplines from literature to anthropology to architecture. By the 1990s, French theory was woven deeply into America’s cultural and intellectual fabric.

French Theory is the first comprehensive account of the American fortunes of these unlikely philosophical celebrities. François Cusset looks at why America proved to be such fertile ground for French theory, how such demanding writings could become so widely influential, and the peculiarly American readings of these works. Reveling in the gossipy history, Cusset also provides a lively exploration of the many provocative critical practices inspired by French theory. Ultimately, he dares to shine a bright light on the exultation of these thinkers to assess the relevance of critical theory to social and political activism today—showing, finally, how French theory has become inextricably bound with American life.

“In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference on both sides of the Atlantic.” —Jacques Derrida

“The Atlantic Ocean has two sides, and so does French Theory. Reinvented in America and betrayed in its own country, it has become the most radical intellectual movement in the West with global reach, rewriting Marx in light of late capitalism. Breathtakingly moving back and forth between the two cultures, François Cusset takes us through a dazzling intellectual adventure that illuminates the past thirty years, and many more decades to come.”—Sylvere Lotringer

Stanley Fish discusses it here.

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When we look at an object or at another person we necessarily apprehend them in space. There they stand before us, alongside other things, in three-dimensional space. This phenomenological presentation of persons and objects thus gives the impression that those things are in space together, that they are side by side in space, but also, under the order of temporality, that they are simultaneous. Before my apprehending gaze I encounter the entities there, together, as being “at the same time”. Perhaps this would be one of the basic premises of structural approaches to social formations, for the structuralist tells us to approach the social formation in its synchrony, as a set of interdependent relations that are simultaneous with one another.

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Perhaps the problem with this view is that social formations are accompanied by archives, whether in the form of texts or in stories, such that they do not follow a trajectory of simultaneity, but rather are punctuated, like staves of a musical score, at a variety of different temporal levels, interacting in highly complex ways. Here it is worthwhile to recall Freud’s famous description of the topology of the mind in Civilization and Its Discontents. There Freud writes,

…[L]et us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past– an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine and that the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beaitufl statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths, and so on. But more than this. In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand– without the Palazzo having to be removed –the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terra-cotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon we would find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view or the other.

Where in space one thing can only occupy one place at a single time, mind, claims Freud, is such that all these different periods or strata co-exist together exactly as they were, continuing their processes just as they did in the past. Thus, in the present, I can simultaneously be frustrated with my boss for perfectly legitimately work related and administrative reasons, while also reliving a childhood drama with my father for which he is an effigy, stand-in, or surrogate. It is not that one meaning of the strata is the true meaning of the other meaning (the past version being the truth or the real meaning of the first version), but rather that these two temporalities are tangled together, intertwined, unfolding together simultaneously in this present.

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The case would be the same with social formations. Rather than a space of simultaneously structure that overdetermines all social relations, perhaps instead we have different levels of temporality, different temporal rhythms, that form a temporalized structure playing itself out at different levels. This point can be illustrated with reference to the current democratic primary elections in the United States. As has often been noted, older and middle aged women have disproportionately broken for Clinton, while younger women seem to be breaking for Obama. It is not unusual to hear these older women complain, claiming that these younger women are betraying sisterhood and the feminist cause. Indeed, it is not at all unusual for younger women to abjure or reject the title “feminist” (much to my dismay) altogether.

Could it be that the explanation of this difference has to do with different rhythms of intertwined temporality governed by very different problematic spaces? On the one hand, the feminism of the older women seems to revolve around gender inequality, victimhood, and a pressing desire to break or undermine certain boundaries. Yet on the other hand, when we look at popular culture, we see a very different image of the feminine that speaks to an entirely different set of issues. Battlestar Gallactica depicts women as commanders and fighter pilots that bunk with the men, compete with them vigorously in sports, and who seem to recognize no marked difference between masculine and female characteristics. Quentin Tarantino’s recent films (Kill Bill and Death Proof, as well as Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) depict women as entirely capable of handling themselves, or depict women who shift from positions of dependence on men (Planet Terror) to leadership and confidence. We have had an entire slew of female super-heroes such as Electra and Lara Croft.

A recent series of Cadillac commercials depicts Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy) sardonically repeating a variation of Julie Andrew’s list of her favorite things from The Sound of Music. On the one hand, Julie Andrews’ character in The Sound of Music is an iconic image of woman as caregiver, while on the other hand, Walsh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy is an intelligent, attractive woman in command of her own career and who does not draw her identity primarily from caring for children or men. The slogan of the commercial asks “when you turn your car on, does it turn you on?” When she arrives at a stop light she looks over and sees a couple of men driving a sports car. A satisfied smile crosses her face, she hits the gas, and she leaves them in the dust. She competes directly with men, rather than being a victim of men or subordinate to men.

Perhaps, within this universe of symbols and meanings, something like the presidential race is no longer conceived as a gender issue or as a gender struggle. Yet nonetheless, these different problematic fields or spaces, these different temporalities, co-exist together in the present and weave themselves in a variety of ways, forming something like a temporalized structure or a structure composed of different time-space vectors (“space-time worms”). Paradoxically, they are both present and past, preventing us from arguing that they are strictly synchronous. An adequate social theory would have to think these complex forms of temporality, their structures of meaning production, and their tangled interrelations.

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Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory– especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools –woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned. The problem here is that these theories are often so abstract, in the Hegelian sense, that they end up with overly simplistic schema that then make any change seem like it is either an all or nothing proposition, or in the worst cases impossible and hopeless altogether. This point can be made clearly with reference to Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus“. In reading Althusser’s essay, we get the impression that the individual, the social subject, is completely formed by the ideological state apparatus to such a degree that his thoughts, beliefs, bodily attitudes, and so on are simply iterations of that social structure. As Althusser writes,

Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.

Although their theoretical positions are very different, similar observations could be made about Foucault’s conceptions of power and subjectivization, Bourdieu’s conceptions of power and habitus, and even Lacan’s conception of the agency of the signifier (during his middle period, at any rate). It is clear that if we accept this thesis, issues of social and political change become extremely problematic and we immediately find ourselves in a nearly impossible situation. On the one hand, if change takes place, it takes place through agents. On the other hand, agents themselves, according to Althusser, are simply products or iterations of social formations or the ISA’s. As a result, any change that a group of agents attempts to produce is itself already predelineated by the social structure such that it is no real change at all. The consequence of this conception of how agents are individuated and social formations is that we have to engage in all sorts of theoretical contortions to explain how change might be possible. No doubt it is for this reason that the Lacanian conception of the subject as a sort of void or lack in the symbolic chain has become so attractive, or that thinkers like Badiou have had to imagine an event, a rupture, to explain how any sort of change takes place.

Read on!
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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.

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Towards the beginning of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes that,

Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe there existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers. In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not-withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings. (9)

In a Kantian context, a condition is an a priori ground of both knowledge and the objects that is itself unchanging. That is, the conditions of experience are themselves outside of history and immune to the flux of change. The twelve categories of the understanding– unity, plurality, totality, reality, negation, limitation, inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community, possibility/impossibility, existence/non-existence, and necessity/contingency –along with the forms of intuition (space and time), and the transcendental unity of apperception, do not themselves change or become. As a result, the knower is subtracted from the field of becoming as an objectifying observer immune to the becoming of nature itself. In short, a certain premise of identity, of the identity of the knower, of its unconditioned existence, is operative in nearly all philosophical formations. Objects might become– indeed, the march of the sciences has almost universally been characterized by the erasure of substances in favor of relational and genetic accounts –but the knower does not itself become. All of this presupposes a certain theory of individuation. As Peter King writes in relation to the problem of individuation in Medieval philosophy,

…Socrates’ individuality should be explained in terms of features intrinsic to Socrates: his individuality is independent of other things and the relations in which he stands to them; were other things to come into existence or pass away, or change in their relationship to Socrates, it nevertheless seems implausible to think his individuality would be affected. If everything but Socrates were to be destroyed, he would remain individual. (Peter King, Theoria 66 (2000), 161)

King’s remark here sounds reminiscent of Husserl’s thesis that the transcendental ego would remain exactly as it was were the entire world to be annihilated. One wonders why it seems implausible to think that Socrates’ individuality changes when other things come into existence or their relationship to Socrates changes. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze argues that, “…impersonal and preindividual nomadic singularities constitute the real transcendental field. The way in which the individual is derived out of this field represents the first stage of the genesis. The individual is inseparable from a world…” (109). These singularities are nomadic not because they are sovereign individuals free of conditioning, but because like the nomads of the steppes, they have no fixed or hierarchical localization, but instead form a quasi-random constellation. A constellation of stars lacks any ratio of harmony or proportion as in the case of Plato’s Pythagoreanism, but are rather thrown across the sky in such a way that they can only be found or discovered, not deduced. Would Socrates have been Socrates without the Athens of his time and his shifting relations to the world about him? Echoing King, it seems implausible to suggest so.

Yet why, despite the implausibility of such a thesis, do philosophers nonetheless implicitly and explicitly adopt such a position with regard to individuation? Whether we are speaking of Platonic forms that condition the objects of the world without themselves being conditioned by the world, or of the Cartesian subject, Kantian Transcendental Unity of Apperception, or Husserlian Transcendental Ego, or again of normative prescriptions like the categorical imperative or Mill’s greatest happiness principle, or conceptions of God as eternal and unchanging, itself immune to becoming (Whitehead and Schelling might be notable exceptions), again and again we find that a term is subtracted from the field of conditions such that it comes to condition everything else without itself being conditioned. More often than not, this conception of individuation is implicit, such that a theorist is happy to argue that all forms come into being, that they all have their cultural and natural history, and that they can pass away, all the while failing to explain the position of the theorist itself according to these principles. The theorist is here treated as a view from nowhere, like Laplace’s Demon, capable of surveying the whole without itself being conditioned by the constellation in which it finds itself. In this connection, Bourdieu argues that,

The construction of the field of production, substituting for a polemic where prejudice is disguised as analysis a polemic where scientific reason challenges itself, that is, challenges its own limits, implies a break with naive and self-indulgent objectification unaware of their own sources. It can only be an unjustifiable abstraction (which could fairly be called reductive) to seek the source of the understanding of cultural productions in these productions themselves, taken in isolation and divorced from the conditions of their production and utilization, as would be the wish of discourse analysis, which, situated on the border between sociology and linguistics, has nowadays relapsed into indefensible forms of internal analysis. Scientific analysis must work to relate to each other two sets of relations, the space of works or discourses taken as differential stances, and the space of the positions held by those who produce them. (Homo Academicus, xvi-xvii)

If Arendt is correct in her thesis that human existence is always conditioned– and having only limited familiarity with her work I am only developing my associations in relation to the passages cited at the beginning of this post –then any philosophical position that begins from the stance of an unconditioned individual whether in the form of a knower, Forms, normative universals, etc., finds itself in ruin for the simple reason that thought itself always finds itself within a historically specific (both naturally and culturally) field of conditions. As Bordieu points out, it is not enough to take up positions with regard to the cultural productions themselves (i.e., the arguments of a philosophical text or the results of scientific investigation), but rather the field of production in which these artifacts are themselves produced must be an object of critique as well (on the premise that Laplace’s Demon does not exist). Not only does thought always find itself within a field of conditions that condition the productions of thought, but the production of thought, technology, and society themselves enter this field becoming what Hegel called “Objective Spirit”, and, in turn, conditioning the productions of thought. Thought changes with the advent of writing, the printing press, the phone, satellite communications, the internet, new formations of the university, new distributions of power, and so on. While fabricated by humans, these objects nonetheless stand over and against humans in much the same way that the adaption of a species now itself becomes a feature of the environment to which other species must adapt and to which the species itself must respond. Yet thinkers tend to place these “extra-intellectual” factors of thought under erasure, leading to a situation “…where texts are transmitted without the context of their production and use,… [counting] on receiving a so-called ‘internal’ reading which universalizes and eternalizes them while derealizing them by constantly relating them to the sole context of their reception” (Bourdieu, xv).

The consequence of such a thesis regarding individuation– that beings are always conditioning and conditioned –would entail that thought must always begin between. That is, the subject of philosophy is not the sovereign and unconditioned knower or mind, but rather the constellation of conditions and conditioning out of which thought is produced. It is, of course, fashionable to declare that philosophy requires a radical critique, yet nonetheless it is the case that a meta-philosophical critique is absent in philosophy. Such a critique would be a prolegomena or propaedutic to philosophy, seeking to determine its very possibility or conditions. As such, it would not be, after the fashion of Kant’s critique, a critique that took positions vis a vis the stands and positions of philosophy itself. Rather, its questions would revolve around the field of production in which philosophy itself comes to be produced– The social field, the economic field, the field of power, etc., out of which philosophical concepts and positions are generated. Murmers of such a critique already populate the history of philosophy. Nietzsche, at least under Deleuze’s reading, argued that critique had not gone far enough as it had not subjected the values of critique (truth, the good, justice, etc) themselves to critique. For Nietzsche it was above all necessary to ask what wills in the philosophical will, and such an analysis necessarily required recourse to a genealogy. Marx saw fit to show how philosophers had inverted the world, treating ideas as more real than material conditions of production, and how epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and political thought are always conditioned by the field of cultural production. Freud and Lacan explored the underworld of desire in relation to knowledge. Foucault introduced the idea of a historical a priori exceeding that of the individual knower and conditioning his productions. Kuhn, in his own way, showed something similar. Latour and Stengers have explored the way in which scientific objects are produced. And Bourdieu has shown the functioning of power within the field of knowledge production and taste. Such a meta-critique would thus be reflexive, and would seek to determine both the way in which the figure of the philosopher is produced within a particular cultural constellation and how philosophy produces its own objects, eternalizing and universalizing them, while placing this production under erasure.

Nick, over at The Accursed Share, has an interesting review of Taylor’s recent book The Secular Age. Nick writes:

What Taylor proposes, however, is an alternative view – one that focuses neither on the secularization of public institutions nor on the secularization of private practices. Rather, he takes a Kantian approach and focuses on ‘the conditions of belief’ and how they have changed over history. While in the other approaches, there may still be remnants of the past that have not changed over time (e.g. swearing on a Bible before testimony, or the various religious traditions that have been retained in private), from the perspective of the conditions of belief, nothing is the same, even for the believer. The reason for this, simply put, is that even for the believer, his/her belief in the transcendent is no longer capable of being the “naïve” and certain view point it once was; instead, one’s belief is self-consciously only one viewpoint amongst many. (Of course, there were dissenters from the naïve certainty in transcendence in the past – Taylor mentions Epicureanism as a philosophy that denied the relevance of gods to human life – but it is only in our secular age that such an option has become not only widespread, but in many ways the default position.) Even among devout believers, there are times and spaces in life where they must eschew their belief and take on the perspective of the non-believer; or they must acknowledge that other perspectives are perfectly valid in themselves.

From my perspective, the really interesting point of this work, however, is that Taylor explicitly sets up the argument to examine and answer the question of “how did the alternatives become thinkable?” (25). In other words, how did the conditions of belief shift over time such that new possibilities that were previously impossible become thinkable? Moreover, Taylor notes that it is not a matter of simply removing some sort of religious blinder (as people like Dawkins would have us believe) which would then open our eyes to possibilities which were there all along. Rather, “secularity is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices” (22). It is the construction of these new practices and self-understandings and the construction of new conditions of belief that produce an assemblage in which new possibilities become thinkable and, indeed, naturalized. In this sense, secularization can even be seen as a revolution in thought, insofar as revolution involves making what was previously deemed impossible into the possible (and even the necessary). Finally, Taylor’s work holds interest to me insofar as he defines religion in terms of a belief in transcendence. The history of secularization, therefore, is the story of the emergence of immanence over time.

Although I’ve had mixed feelings about Taylor– though always enjoying his books –this sounds like exactly the right way of posing the question. If we take seriously the standpoint of immanence, we cannot treat such cultural shifts as the work of sovereign individuals (like Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin) who came up with ideas of genius, but must instead ask what were the conditions under which such thinkers could be individuated in the first place, or rather what had changed socially and culturally for such possibilities to become thinkable? As Deleuze and Guattari argue in “The Postulates of Linguistics” (A Thousand Plateaus) and Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, all enunciations are collective enunciations. To speak, in other words, is to inflect and iterate the social field within which one speaks. Or as they dramatically put it, to speak is to repeat. Consequently, we cannot see such transformations coming from sovereign individuals, but must look at broader, systematic shifts taking place in the social field. We’re still learning how to engage in this sort of analysis, though Marx and others have taught us a lot as to just what such forms of analysis look like. Along these lines, early Marx, especially, places religion at the forefront of his analysis, arguing that it is failed politics, while paying great respect to it nonetheless. The infamous Jewish Question is especially important reading in this regard for those interested in how Marx was thinking about religious alienation, whatever else its other drawbacks might be. My thanks to Nick for bringing this to my attention. I look forward to reading it after things slow down a bit.

Nick has also posted a translation of the first half of Simondon’s dissertation. For those not in the know, this is vital reading for anyone interested in understanding Deleuze. Simondon is one of the central, if not the central, influences on Deleuze’s account of intensities and individuation. This is terrific. Now if someone would just translate all of L’individuation, so I don’t have to slog through reaching for the dictionary whenever confronted with the technical scientific language. It’s a real scandal that Simondon and Maimon have not yet been translated.

Lars has written a fantastic analysis of Deleuze’s analysis of Foucault. This sheds a good deal of light on Deleuze’s understanding of language and his engagement with Hjelmslev.

Deleuze is insistent in his book on Foucault: despite appearances, despite the fact his recently deceased friend placed emphasis on discourse, he was a thinker of what Deleuze calls visibilities (and we should not be too quick to look for a definition of this word).

The elegant, but complex argument of Deleuze’s Foucault shows us how saying and seeing, ‘discursive practices and forms of self’evidence’ are divided – how the articulable and the visible, the forms of expression and the forms of content never quite coincide even as they combine to make possible particular behaviours, mentalities or sets of ideas that belong to particular historical formations (strata).

And not only that. Deleuze wants, too, to show how Foucault thinks their interrelationship as it draws upon a ‘non-relating relation’ such as Blanchot formulated it (albeit in a different context), which will require a unique ontology made up of folds and foldings, of the single plane of the outside that lends itself to particular interiorisations, but periodically shakes them out like a tablecloth, only to allow new crumplings, mutations by way of which new behaviours, mentalities and sets of ideas are distributed.

You can read the rest here.

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Joseph Kugelmass has written an interesting post (and here) criticizing N.Pepperell’s focus on self-reflexivity over at Rough Theory. I would like to offer a few remarks as to how I understand these issues, without, hopefully mutilating N.Pepperell’s own views too much (i.e., my views are creative appropriations and translations into my own theoretical universe). Hopefully I’ll be forgiven the lack of grace with which I develop these themes as I’m really falling over from exhaustion today.

Joseph writes:

The production of knowledge without any specific expectation of change also happens intersubjectively. N. Pepperell takes a strong stand against theories that emphasize intersubjectivity. In a comment to this post, she writes:

I am specifically critical of attempts to centre critical theory on analyses of intersubjectivity – and of the tendency to equate “the social” with “the intersubjective”. Realising that this won’t mean much at this point, my position would be that central dimensions of contemporary society – dimensions that are important for understanding shapes of consciousness, patterns of social reproduction, and potentials for transformations – simply won’t be captured adequately by the attempt to transcend the limitations of theories of the “subject” via theories of the intersubjective constitution of meaning.

If I had to venture a guess, I would guess that NP’s problem with theories of intersubjectivity, that they don’t provide a consistent methodological framework, and don’t take into account the phenomenology (and relevant ideological structures) of our encounters with objects. I can’t be sure because I don’t know exactly what she means by the “central dimensions of contemporary society.”

In the sciences, the scientific method is certainly intersubjective, but also consistent: it is an agreed-upon method for producing uniform and objective results. It is true that scientists do not always peer closely into the motivating forces behind the scientific method, and it is also true that psychological and historical analyses of the scientific method have not altered it. If a scientist were to write not only a description of her method, but also a full account of the historical, cultural, and personal factors condensed in an experiment, the analytic question would still not disappear. It would merely become different: “Why these details? Why this confession?” Anthropologists who live amongst their subjects, rather than surveilling or interviewing them, are not necessarily more knowledgeable anthropologists. They are simply creating a different, and possibly less hostile, “clearing” (Martin Heidegger’s term, from the Greek aletheia) in the name of knowledge.

I cannot speak for N.Pepperell, but if I had to hazard a guess as to what she’s getting at in her concerns about intersubjectivity, it is not their lack of objectivity (she’s worked diligently to critique the role such ahistorical notions play in a good deal of sociology and the social science), nor that these accounts fail to give us a consistent methodology, but rather I would say that talk of intersubjectivity is still talk of a subject to subject relation, and as such fails to get properly at the domain of the social embodied in social structures, forces, history, etc., which can’t properly be uncovered in the phenomenological experience of the subjects involved. It was a similar line of reasoning that led Lacan to systematically abjure any and all talk of “intersubjectivity” following Seminar V. In Seminar V and prior to this, Lacan had often used the term “intersubjectivity” to describe what he was up to with his graphs and so-on. Lacan very quickly found that his students took this to be referring to an ego-to-ego relation or a relation between dual subjects constituting meaning with one another (i.e., a primacy of phenomenological subjects of lived experience and their reciprocal impressions). As a result of this assimilation of intersubjectivity to a relation between two phenomenological subjects, the domain of the social or the symbolic and its autonomous functioning was effectively lost (something like Levi-Strauss’s autonomous functioning of structures). Thus, when Lacan writes the summary of Seminars 4 – 6 in the Ecrits article, “Subversion of the Subject”, all references to “intersubjectivity” disappear so as to emphasize that the Other is not another subject, but the functioning of the signifying chain according to its own immanent principles. This should have been clear already in Seminar V. As Lacan there says at one point, “the subject is cuckold by language”. This should be taken to mean that the subject is enmeshed in a logic of language that exceeds his phenomenological intentions, his direct social experience of other persons, and that functions as a determinant of his relation to self, world, and others. As Lacan will say in Seminar 20, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”. Certainly this is not something one grasps or discerns in their phenomenological experience.

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In response to my post on resonance and my other post on assemblages and emergent organizations, ktismatics writes,

For Prigogine emergent order is still deterministic, isn’t it? Though structures emerge that are qualitatively different from their precursors, the process by which the transformation occurs is repeatable and can be described mathematically.

As ktismatics points out, for Prigogine chaos is really shorthand for “deterministic chaos”. The idea is that apparently random behavior nonetheless is governed by a principle of some sort. However, Prigogine also seems to suggest that emergent orders are genuinely creative or that they bring something new into being. The organization has a structure or a lawfulness to it, but it is a local organization. This is one of the more interesting aspects of Stengers and Prigogine’s work. As they put it,

The dialogue between man and nature was accurately perceived by the founders of modern science as a basic step towards the intelligibility of nature. But their ambitions went even farther. Galileo, and those who came after him, conceived of science as being capable of discovering global truths about nature. Nature not only could be written in a mathematical language that can be deciphered by experimentation, but there would actually exist only one such language [my emphasis]. Following this basic conviction, the world is seen as homogenous, and local experimentation can reveal global truth. The simplest phenomena studied by science can thus be interpreted as the key to understanding nature as a whole; the complexity of the latter is only apparent, and its diversity can be explained in terms of the universal truth embodied, in Galileo’s case, in the mathematical laws of nature. (Order Out of Chaos, 44)

This would be one understanding of the philosophical conception of logos. The thesis here would be that every local manifestation is an instantiation of a global logos, such that one and the same logos applies to the apparent or manifest diversity of appearances. As such, the investigation of the case (the local) discloses the global logos, such that all diverse appearances are homeomorphic to one another or are variations of the same. Thus, for example, one and the same set of principles applies to the falling apple and the movement of planets and galaxies. I have tried to argue against this position in a variety of contexts, arguing that a whole or a global logos does not exist (here, here, here, here, and here).

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