Imaginary


Today NPR reported on fMRI research that indicates that when people think of issues pertaining to religion regions of the brain involved in interpersonal relations light up.

The human brain, it appears, responds to God as if he were just another person, according to a team at the National Institutes of Health.

A study of 40 people — some religious, some nonreligious — found that phrases such as “I believe God is with me throughout the day and watches over me” lit up the same areas of the brain we use to decipher the emotions and intentions of other people.

The researchers speculate that the development of this sort of cognition was crucial to the development of civilization:

Without religion, Bulbulia says, “large scale cooperation, which now spans the world, would be impossible. He adds that humans differ from other species in their ability to cooperate in very large groups.

Religion can help foster cooperation because it ensures that people share the same set of rules about behavior, and think they’ll be punished if they don’t follow them, Bulbulia says. Religion also unites people, especially in times of great uncertainty.

This theory, I think, would indicate that it’s rather inaccurate to suggest that the brain processes thoughts of God exactly as it processes thoughts of other persons. Rather, if the evolution of religious thought played a large role in the ability of humans to engage in large scale cooperation, then this is because the thought of God would be something like the “Person = x” similar Kant’s famous “object = x”, functioning as a general structure allowing for the possibility of empathy towards all people irregardless of their differences. Just as Kant’s “object = x” isn’t any particular object but a formal structure that allows objects to be thinkable, so too would the person = x be a formal structure enabling all interpersonal relations (cf. Deleuz’es “Tournier and a World Without Others” for a good gloss on this Other-structure). Where individual encounters with particular people tend to be governed by the same/different schema, allowing for empathy towards those whom we code as “like us”, the formal schema of the “Person = x” would allow these individual differences to be surmounted– to a greater or lesser degree, anyway –allowing for the different to be seen as a part of the same. In this way, differences between different tribes, cultures, languages, customs, etc., could be surmounted to allow for cooperative activity. Of course, at this meta or transcendental level of personhood– the person = x –the same/different schema would still be operative but in a way in which sameness was no longer defined by local and immediate social relations between individuals. In other words, what this neuro-research seems to have uncovered is something like belief in the existence of the Lacanian big Other, where the subject believes, through the screen of fantasy, that the Other is structured in a particular way and that it desires specific things (the transformation of desire into demand via fantasy that fills out the lack in the Other).

Of course, one wonders why neurologists are claiming that the functioning of these brain centers is an evolutionary development (presumably they’re referring to genes) rather than a cultural acquisition. All the fMRI research seems to establish is that certain brain regions light up when people think about religion. Nothing here establishes that the cause of these brain structures must be genetic or innate in character, rather than the result of developmental processes involving our relation to culture.

Anyway, read the article here.

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In what sense can Guattari’s thought be understood as a radicalization of Lacanian psychoanalysis? And what does it mean to say that Guattari’s thought is a radicalization of Lacanian psychoanalysis? First, to characterize Guattari’s relationship to Lacan as a radicalization of Lacanian thought is not to claim that Guattari was an orthodox Lacanian. Rather, Guattari’s schizoanalysis is a radicalization of psychoanalysis in the sense that Hegel is a radicalization of Kant or Spinoza is a radicalization of Descartes. Just as Hegel and Spinoza deeply transform the thought and projects of their most important predecessors, Guattari significantly transforms Lacanian thought. However, before such a question can even be posed it is first necessary to determine just where Deleuze and Guattari share common ground with Lacan.

While it is certainly true that Guattari transforms Lacan’s thought in radical ways, it is also true that this relationship between the two has been presented as being one that is deeply antagonistic and hostile. Nietzsche pointed out that we arrive at the perspective of substance ontology, that there are substantial things composed of predicates, due to a set of illusions produced through language where words create the belief that there are unchanging things corresponding to these words. In the secondary literature on Deleuze and Guattari, one gets the sense that something similar occurs with reference to psychoanalysis. Often psychoanalysis is treated as if it is a monolithic entity, as the arch-enemy, characterized by homogeneity, despite the fact that psychoanalysis is characterized by a heterogeneous diversity of different schools and orientations often at odds with one another.

This is extremely odd for two reasons: First, it is odd that followers of the champions of difference would require identity in their enemy. It is as if somehow the ontological claim of the ontological primacy of multiplicities gets entirely forgotten and the target gets reduced to a molar and simplified identity without heterogeneous vectors and tendencies of its own. Second, it is especially odd that American Deleuzians seem so intent on toppling psychoanalysis, as if it were the most pressing political struggle within the American situation. Psychoanalysis is hardly anywhere to be found in the United States at the level of practice or predominant theory. Indeed, what we instead get in the States is the complete exorcism of the subject from the clinical setting, treating diagnostic categories as if they were natural kinds and signs, the ignorance of anything like a symptom, and a therapy that tends to be premised on the normalization of its patients so that they might tolerate normal, married, heterosexual conjugal relations, go to work and produce, and be good little consumers. One would think that were Deleuzians looking for a worthy project along the lines of Anti-Oedipus, they would begin not with psychoanalysis– which at least provides the possibility of providing a space where all that resists the “normal” might at least be enunciated, where the treatment isn’t 8 meetings with a cognitive-behavioral psychologist with tried and trusted methods to get rid of the symptom, where the solution isn’t a chemical straight-jacket –but rather with a Foucault and Bourdieu style analysis of the evolution of the DSM-IV, the relationship between therapeutic practice and insurance companies, the relationship between therapeutic practice and the legal system and work, an analysis of the statistical methods through which certain diagnostic categories are produced and generalized, and an analysis of the discourses through which certain attitudes towards life, the body, and mental health are produced. This sort of critique would potentially reveal something about American life in general, something un-thought and at the level of the unconscious in the structural or systematic sense, and would have potential for generating more active struggles, transforming what appear to be individual problems into collective symptoms. But alas, apparently psychoanalysis is the arch-enemy.

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In response to my recent diary on the public, Shahar of Perverse Egalitarianism writes:

the “pedagogic” comments are all too irritating, but then again, the hazard of the public is of course, nothing less than the perverse egalitarianism of the internet.

Recently, in an argument or line of reasoning that makes me suspicious or somewhat uncomfortable, I’ve been thinking that democracy is the one “true” form of the political. This line of reasoning arises in response to Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro where it is asked “is piety pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?” Under the first option, we get the logic of sovereignity, where the sovereign is the first term (whether that sovereign be the gods, God, the emperor, the priest, or the leader) such that the sovereign makes the good what it is. That is, under this first option there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of the good, but rather it is the will of the sovereign that makes the good what it is. Thus, for example, it is impossible to claim that the actions of Caligula or Nero are wrong in themselves, for Caligula and Nero, as sovereigns, are those who decree and create the law. By contrast, under the second option– moral realism –there are transcendent standards by which sovereignity itself can be evaluated. If the actions of the Greek gods or the Christian God can be said to be wrong, if it is possible to claim that the caesar is a bad emperor, then this is because there is some standard that transcends the gods, God, and the caesar. All of this is bound up intimately with previous diaries I have written on Lacan’s graphs of sexuation and, in particular, the masculine side of the graph of sexuation.

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Periodically, or not so periodically, I go through a crisis, wondering what it is that I do and why it is that I do it. On the one hand, I perpetually feel as if my thought is haunted by chaos or an inability to think. Where to begin? What questions to ask? For what purpose or end? I feel as if my thought proceeds by sudden bursts of insights, perpetual new beginnings, but lacks in systematic elaboration, a guiding question, or even a sense of what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I am able to try on philosophies in much the same way that one might try on different outfits. The equivalent would consist in dressing now like a chef, now like a doctor, now like a police officer, now like a judge, now like a hippie, now like a punk, where each of these garbs implies a particular code and grammar pertaining to a social identity. On this day I am a phenomenologist, the next a rationalist, the next an empiricist, the next a pragmatist, the next a semiotician, the next a Hegelian, etc. The only constant is an abiding love of Lucretius, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, coupled with an abiding distrust of those philosophical approaches which make the subject, language, or various cultural formations the lens through which everything else is filtered.

On the other hand, I perpetually feel crushed by the impotence of philosophy. I confess that I should know better. I confess that I should know that reason and persuasion are impotent. Yet I can’t help but yearn for these things. I can’t help but entertain the dark Platonic desire that philosophy have the power to transform the world and society through the power of persuasion and discourse. I wonder why it is that discourse is so fraught, why it seems to be perpetually so hostile and contentious. I have answers or hypotheses to these questions. I think I know why based on what I understand about the human passions, desire as elaborated by psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari, and ideology. Yet I can’t quite accept my own answers. I still yearn for it not to be this way. I think of the earnest and beautiful Spinoza, that prince of philosophers who only lived for forty five years yet still managed to say so much and with such elegance and brevity. I think about the Theologico-Politico Treatise and what he was trying to accomplish with that magnificent text. I marvel at how he managed to be so naive in his ambitions with that text despite his account of the human emotions in Book III of the Ethics.

Whether in heated philosophical discussions or political discussions, the same principles can be observed everywhere. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (3p6). From this, it follows by implication that “The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body’s power of acting” (3p12). As a consequence, “When the mind imagines those things that diminish or restrain the body’s power of acting, it strives, as far as it can, to recollect things which exclude their existence” (3p13). Within these three propositions is really contained the entire comedy of “communicative reason” or its perpetual failure. Just as massive stellar objects bend and distort movement in their vicinity, intense love (Spinoza’s name for our attachment to those things we believe enhance our body’s power of acting) functions like a gravitational singularity that bends and twists thought with respect to everything in the vicinity of the beloved object. As Freud puts it, we overestimate the worth of the love object such that thought swerves in the vicinity of the beloved object, endeavoring to ignore or miss any negative features attached to that object. This would be the root principle of the criticism of those who support Obama, arguing that they are hypnotized or have fallen into a cult in their idealized love of him. Likewise, when confronted with one who does not share our love, thought endeavors to imagine those things that exclude the existence of the thing threatening the beloved object. “From the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have some likeness to an object which usually affects the mind with joy or sadness, we love it or hate it, even though that in which the thing is like the object is not the efficient cause of these affects” (3p16).

It would thus appear that thought is haunted by a two-fold unreason that perpetually undermines the possibility of dialogue from within. On the one hand, in its love it idealizes what it loves, seeking to exclude in thought those things that detract from the action enhancing qualities of the beloved object, such that it is unable to properly evaluate the beloved object. On the other hand, in its hate, thought is unable to attend to the claims of the hated, seeking instead to imagine what would exclude their existence. Often the situation is a bit like that depicted in The Sixth Sense. The boy can see the ghosts, but everyone else is blind to them. Likewise, in our love (and why would we pursue anything without loving it?) or in our hate, entire segments of the world become downright invisible, as if they don’t even exist, such that their effects is only discernible by the neutral observer, watching in perplexity at the odd behavior of those involved. One could write an entire theory of the various rhetorical techniques and informal fallacies, a physics of sorts, showing not how they are the products of the malicious and dishonest manipulator of language, but are rather effects, similar to gravitational effects on motion produced by mass, that arise from various distributions of love and hate in the Spinozist sense. It turns out that one cannot trust one’s own thought (as it is always love and hate that spur thought) nor the thought of the other, nor trust in the possibility of consensus, as thought is always plagued by its passionate (dis)attachments.

Yet if this is the case, if truth is an infinitely receding horizon by virtue of the swerves produced by the love and hate that haunt thought, what possibly can be the aim of philosophy? What is it that philosophy ought to do?

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Throughout its history, philosophy seems particularly prone to three interrelated errors– or perhaps they would be better referred to as “transcendental illusions”? –that it shares with doxa or common sense and that plague thought.

First, in approaching the explanation of phenomena in the world, philosophy perpetually has recourse to the primacy of the Concept, the Form, or Essence, to the detriment of the individual or actually existing entity. Perhaps the most famous example of this primacy is to found in the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology, entitled “Sense-Certainty”. There Hegel begins with the epistemological thesis that all knowledge originates in the immediacy of sense-certainty or the sensible given. Taking this thesis at its word, Hegel goes on to show how our attempt to say the sensible immediate or given always fails insofar as language is only composed of general terms that are unable to grasp the individual given presented within the sensible field. I say that the individual given is this given, here, at this time, yet these same terms can apply indifferently to any number of other objects, such that I am only apply to express the universal, never the individual. The outcome of this contradiction or deadlock within sense-certainty is that Spirit comes to recognize that the individual given was never the object of knowledge, that it is always-already mediated by the universal, and that these universals are the true object of knowledge.

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Of late, I confess, I’ve found myself exhausted with blogging or, more generally, communication. On the one hand, dialogue, especially academic dialogue, is constantly threatened by the perils of what Lacan referred to as the “imaginary”. When Lacan evokes the imaginary, of course, he is not speaking of what is imagined or fabrications of the mind, but rather the domain of identification with the specular image of our body. Of particular importance here are all the rivalrous struggles for recognition that Hegel depicted so well in the Phenomenology of Spirit. For some reason these struggles seem to occur with particular intensity and ferocity in academic dialogue. Indeed, where one might intuitively think that such fierce struggles are most intense between strongly polarized intellectual positions– for instance, the infamous split between Analytic and Continental thought –these struggles seem to occur with even greater intensity between intellectual positions that are fairly close to one another, thereby underlining Freud’s point about the narcissism of minor difference. To the outsider, for instance, it is very difficult to distinguish Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus from the work of late Lacan. Yet for partisans of these thinkers, deafening struggles ensue. Indeed, some of the most bitter struggles I’ve ever witnessed occur among the various Lacanian camps, such that smaller Lacanian groups must think long and hard over whether they would invite the wrath of Jacques-Alain Miller were they to invite Colette Soler to speak or submit a paper.

On the other hand, I’ve found myself haunted by this passage from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

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

What I find particularly troubling in this passage is Hume’s reference to the man of mild manners and the man with a selfish heart. Hume’s thesis, of course, is that all ideas arise from experience. As a consequence of this thesis, the limits of our imagination are defined by the limits of our experience. Should the man with a selfish heart witness an act of genuine generosity or friendship, it would not, according to Hume, even register as such an act, for the associative web characterizing the thought of this man would immediately interpret the other man’s act according to his own universe where selfish motives are treated as axiomatic. As Lacan liked to say, “all communication is miscommunication”. Here we have Hume’s own version of this Lacanian thesis. Where thought is always situated or attached to a field of experience and where ideas are related by principles of association, it follows that no two people will exist in the same universe. Each event that occurs in the field of experience– hearing another’s words, for instance –will evoke different associations and relations, such that the relation between two people is a sort of babble or chaos rather than a communication. There are, of course, all sorts of problematic assumptions here about the nature of communication– namely the assumption that to communicate is to send a signal that is the same for both the sender and receiver –yet it is worthwhile to state the issue in the starkest terms possible.

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While not endorsing Hume’s position, I do think that he is able to explain a good deal about about human formations of thought and interactions with one another with his sparse epistemology. Do we not daily see the results of this phenomenon in the way we judge others, detaching their words and actions from the context in which they occur, speaking of issues as if there were some abstract reason or common sense against which their actions could be measured, and transforming actions into acts based on abstract motives that we can then judge? This phenomenon is especially attenuated in the blogosphere, where the field in which we encounter the other person is restricted largely to words and images, sans their daily life, their work, their obligations, their passionate engagements, and so on. Divorced from all context– and no writer could ever be equal to writing context –words and phrases instead dangle for whomever might come along, actualizing all sorts of associations in readers without necessarily having anything to do with the context that first led the author to generate them as a series of 0’s and 1’s that appear on ones monitor.

The consequences that follow from Hume’s simple and straightforward observation are rather bleak. If he is right we are collectively doomed to a comedy of errors. Yet where the literary comedy of errors usually ends with the rise of the prince or love fulfilled, our comedy of errors seems to be one that ends only in cruelty, conflict, and war. This cruelty is all the worse in that it is seldom even aware of itself for the same reason that the mild mannered man cannot even recognize the intense passions of others. Like Derrida’s analysis of the gift in Given Time, where the condition for the possibility of the gift paradoxically consists in a complete unawareness of giving a gift coupled with no unconscious surplus-value drawn from the gift, this would be a situation in which we would be completely unaware of others by virtue of perpetually being trapped in our own networks of associations when relating to others. However, where Derrida shows how this is a condition of the gift– a sort of regulative ideal, as Kant would say –this would be a circumstance fulfilled each and every day in our relations to others. If we like, we can engage in a lot of hand-waving about the formation of shared horizons of meaning, the production of shared contexts, etc., but the situation would still be essentially the same. The question, then, is whether this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves, or whether there is no some minimal transcendence that allows us in certain circumstances– not all –to surmount the limits of our embeddedness in context to encounter some minimal otherness of the other. In encountering others, do we only ever see our own reflection in the mirror?

This evening, while grading piles of essay quizzes and logic exams– with many more yet to go –I happened to catch a documentary on spree killers. Spree killers, of course, are people that go on killing sprees, killing a large number of people. As the show attempted to explain this phenomenon, it made reference to a psychological study done at a university (sadly the name and researcher escapes me), on this very phenomenon. The thesis– not a particularly elaborate or well developed one –is that people who have suffered continuous and constant rejection are especially prone to spree killing. In order to test this hypothesis (without producing the same result!), the psychologists called for groups of students to participate in an experiment. As usual, the students were not told what the experiment was for or were given a different account of what the experiment was about. First they would tell the students that they were going to work in groups to do a particular task. They then spoke to each of the participants in private, telling them either 1) that everyone else in the group had requested to work with them, or 2) no one wanted to work with them.

In order to determine the effects of this rejection, they had the students do word games on a computer, filling in the missing letters of words that would appear on screen. Thus, for example, a word such as “m r” or “s b” would appear on the screen and the student would be asked to fill in the first letters that came to mind. Not surprisingly, those students who had been rejected were more likely to turn the words into violent words like “murder” or “stab”, rather than say “slab”. As an additional level of this experiment, groups of two students would then do sound testing together, where they had the ability to raise the volume of their partner’s earphones to painful levels. Again, not surprisingly, those students who had been told they were rejected by everyone often raised the volume to the highest possible levels. The conclusion of the experiment, of course, is the rather obvious point that rejection generates violent and murderous thoughts that actively seek to negate the supposed “rejecters”.

What I find interesting in this experiment is not the light it sheds on spree killers, but on certain rhetorical encounters. Those familiar with Lacan will readily recognize the conflictual nature of the dimension of the Imaginary at work in this experiment, where two people enter into a struggle for recognition that can spiral out of control. Of course, Lacan’s imaginary is more sophisticated than what the experiment assumes, as the Lacanian would point out that in order for rejection to produce this sort of effect there must be a prior identification with the rejecter. That is, I must already recognize myself as either being like the person rejecting me or as desiring the recognition of the person rejecting me for these results to ensue. I do not, for instance, find myself upset if I’m rejected by members of the Ku Klux Klan or members of the Hal Bop cult. It is only those I already identify with who instill these violent impulses in me. Perhaps this is what Freud had in mind when referring to the “narcissism of minor differences” in Civilization and its Discontents, where the two groups are very much alike (Simpsons fans will think of the rivalry between Shelbyville and Springfield), yet find some minor difference to fight over that seems blown out of all proportions.

When I am rejected by those with whom I consciously or unconsciously identify at some level, my ego or specular identity is itself cut to the core, as like an onion I have constructed this identity or ego from out of my identification, thereby rendering it dependent on those who reflect me, such that my very being is endangered when it is rejected. I seek to strike back to destroy the gaze from which I see myself as myself, thereby hoping to re-establish or re-ground my identity. However, as Lacan points out, this dialectic is doomed to failure for if I am successful in destroying the other through whom I reflect myself I am not longer reflected and thereby cease to exist as well. It is a catch-22. In being rejected I cease to exist. In destroying my rejector, I cease to exist. Yet, I am dependent on my other in order to exist. (Here I am making a highly condensed allusion to Lacan’s dialectic of the forced choice between being and thinking in his account of alienation and separation. This, of course, would only refer to the alienation portion of that dialectic).

It seems that we encounter these rhetorical situations primarily in discussions about politics, academic debates about theoretical positions, interpretations, ownership of master-theoreticians, etc., and religion. In these cases, both groups involved seem to experience themselves as being marginalized and rejected, and then strike out to destroy their opponents. It is at this point that we get the cascade of rhetorical effects, where the opponent’s being is severely simplified and they are reduced to a malignant, evil other without any other possible merit, where ad hominems come into play, and where we strike out to completely obliterate the person we’re engaged in debate with. For the most part, I do not think the abusive rhetorical fallacies result from a conscious desire to willfully deceive, but rather they are almost like computer programs that are activated when certain conditions in the imaginary are ripe. Just as a strong gravitational field around a massive celestial object like the sun will produce an aberration in [Newtonian] bodies for closely orbiting planets (the famous shift in the planet Mercury), so too will these distortions of thought ineluctably emerge under certain ripe conditions in the imaginary. Similarly, a number of the other psychological fallacies will emerge when dealing with issues around which our libido, our desire, is tightly bound, leading us to either ignore certain things, turn other things into strawmen, be overly optimistic, etc.

I do not know what, if anything, can be done about this. It seems to me that there is a bit of an antinomy at work here at the place of sites of contestation. Politics, religion, and theory are all sites of struggle and conflict. They require taking positions and rejecting other positions. Yet by the same token, they are sites of dialogue. For me, the question is how these two things can be thought together in such a way as to minimize the antagonism that so commonly emerges around them. I suppose there’s a parallax here. I do not at all have the answers, though I continuously find this phenomenon frustrating, mystifying, and exceedingly painful.

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