Intersubjectivity


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?

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In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari write,

…[P]hilosophers have very little time for discussion. Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’ Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? And when they are stated, it is no longer a matter of discussing but rather one of creating concepts for the undiscussible problem posed. Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous. Sometimes philosophy is turned into the idea of a perpetual discussion, as ‘communicative rationality,’ or as ‘universal democratic conversation.’ Nothing is less exact, and when philosophers criticize each other it is on the basis of problems and on a plane that is different from theirs and that melt down the old concepts in the way a cannon can be melted down to make new weapons. It never takes place on the same plane. To criticize is only to establish that a concept vanishes when it is thrust into a new milieu, losing some of its components, or acquiring others that transform it. But those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to give it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of philosophy. All of these debaters and communicators are inspired by ressentiment (Deleuze’s emphasis). They speak only of themselves when they set empty generalizations against one another. Philosophy has a horror of discussions. (28-29)

Deleuze and Guattari must have been thinking of exchanges like this one with the lawyer Daniel, when writing the passage above. It is too much to even refer to such events as exchanges because nothing is exchanged. Those who participate appear to be talking to one another and to be talking about the same things, but are in fact talking about entirely different things. If this is the case, then it is because meaning is not in words, but is always the result of the relations a word shares with those other signifiers that are not present.

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Over the last couple of weeks, David, of Indifaith, has written a series of posts responding to my characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to think immanence (here, here, and here). I have been impressed by the openness and interest with which David, a pastor, has approached this discussion, and am genuinely grateful for his probing questions that have helped me to further clarify my own positions. As I recall, Voltaire somewhere or other has a short little essay describing an encounter he had with a Quaker. As is well known, Voltaire, that sparkling giant of the Enlightenment, was certainly no friend of religion and often leveled his acerbic wit at various forms of religious dogmatism, hypocrisy, superstition, and brutality. Yet Voltaire went away from this encounter with nothing but praise for the virtuous nature of the Quaker and his quiet and unassuming inward religious belief. In this exchange, David has comported himself in a similar fashion.

The remark that set off this entire discussion occurred in a thread responding to a passage I had quoted by Guattari, where his sounded remarkably close to Badiou in his critique of postmodernism (the entire exchange can be found here). Responding to some questions by David, I there wrote:

In a number of respects, I draw my distinction between theology and philosophy from Jean-Luc Marion who rigorously tries to define the limit of philosophy. I differ from Marion in holding that theologies that posit transcendence ought to be left behind. I read the history of philosophy as the history of attempts to think immanence. These attempts can be deployed in a variety of ways, can be more or less successful, and the question of whether or not immanence has ever been fully thought is entirely open. By immanence I understand the thesis that we don’t need to refer to anything beyond, or to any intervention outside the world, to explain the world or to account for value. Consequently, when Thales says “all is water”, he is appealing to a principle of explanation that is strictly immanent to the world and is breaking with mythos or narrative explanations of the world such as those found in Greek mythology. To complicate matters more, we can have ontological forms of immanence and epistemological forms of immanence, and various combinations of the two. An account is epistemically immanent if it rejects any form of appeal in establishing a conclusion that cannot be arrived at through reason or some form of experience. That is, epistemological immanence rejects any appeals to privileged esoteric experiences, revelation, etc. Ontological immanence would be the principle that there are no causes outside of natural causes.

I don’t think I’m so much excluding poetry from this project (though philosophy and poetry are distinct), as questioning your characterization of poetry as the articulation of the sacred. Certainly a number of poets would themselves take issue with being characterized as Rilkean. The case of theology is complex. Professional theologians mean so many different things by theology, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. Descartes, for example, would fit the criteria of epistemological immanence in his proofs for the existence of God as his conception of God and proof for the existence of God is not premised on any revelation or esoteric experience, but proceeds through reason in a way that all can repeat. His position does not meet the criteria of ontological immanence, as he conceives God as being outside nature or transcendent to being. Spinoza, and Whitehead’s conception of God as I understand it, do meet the ontological forms of immanence. If these are theologies then they fall within the scope of philosophy. The moment a theology appeals to revelation, whether in the form of sacred texts, the authority of a prophet or man in the form of God, or esoteric, non-repeatable experiences, that theology is no longer in the domain of philosophy, though it can certainly remain of interest as a phenomenon to be studied by the psychoanalyst, sociologist, or the anthropologist.

The concept of “immanence” is relatively new in the history of philosophy (as I understand it, it appears in various scholastic philosophies, but really doesn’t come into prominence as a central theme until Deleuze and Badiou), however, the more I’ve thought about it since initially making this assertion, the more I’ve become convinced that a number of moves in the history of philosophy immediately gain clarity if situated in terms of the problem of immanence. Take, for example, Plato’s Meno and Phaedo. It will be recalled that Plato famously argues that learning is recollection. That is, to learn is not to acquire new information from the outside given to us by a teacher– elsewhere Socrates will refer to himself as a midwife of knowledge, i.e., he does not bestow or give knowledge but only asks questions that allow a person to recollect knowledge they already have –but rather to learn is to recollect an unconscious, innate knowledge. Every beginning philosophy student is baffled by Plato’s theory of learning. Indeed, it is likely that a number of Plato scholars are themselves baffled by Plato’s theory of recollection (as can be seen in the way that it is quickly swept under the rug as but a moment in Plato’s thought). However, as soon as we situate Plato’s theory in terms of the problem of immanence, its motivation suddenly becomes clear. Recall that for Plato, knowledge is not a knowledge of this or that particular thing, but a knowledge of forms, essences, or universals. The problem is that we nowhere encounter forms in sensible experience. This comes out clearly in the Phaedo, when Socrates is discussing the Identical. We never see anything identical in the world. All things differ in some respect or another. Consequently, the story goes, we could not have learned about the identical from experience. Yet we have knowledge of the identical. As Socrates reasons– almost as a proto-Kantian –we could never recognize two things as being the same if we did not first (a priori) know the form of the Identical. Knowledge of the form precedes knowledge of any particulars. So 1) we have the concept of the Identical, and 2) we did not learn this from experience. The grammar of philosophy stipulates that we cannot appeal to authority (“because I said so!”) or revelation as a ground for knowledge. Consequently, we must account for this knowledge in some other ways. The theory of recollection or innate ideas! What marvelous conceptual gymnastics to maintain immanence! What magnificent conceptual creations!

We can see the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to preserve or think immanence. Some of these attempts are more successful than others. Some are more interesting than others. If Deleuze and Guattari are led to describe Spinoza as the “Christ of philosophers”, then this isn’t because Spinoza was a prophet or divine, but because Spinoza went furthest in thinking ontological immanence, or a way of explaining the world that relied on no intervention from anything outside the world, history, or nature (certainly this claim can be disputed). The history of philosophy will therefore be a history of strategies for thinking immanence. Empiricism would be one strategy (whatever is immanent to sensation). Rationalism will be another (whatever is immanent to reason). Transcendental idealism will be yet another, and phenomenology yet another. Each of these strategies generates its own unique problems– like Plato’s problem of learning arising out of the immanence of the forms to thought and their absence to experience –and it would be possible to write a “cartography” of the history of philosophy that charted the problems that emerged as a result of particular drawings of immanence and the conceptual gymnastics and inventions that result as a function of these problems. Some day I would like to work through all of this in much the same way that Marion attempted to work through the problem of givenness in Reduction and Givenness, in hopes of arriving at a point where I could pose the problem of immanence. For immanence itself must be accounted for in terms of immanence, and cannot be treated as a transhistorical form floating about outside the world.

In this connection, David writes,

My only point drawing attention to equations and eggs is that they are assumed to function in a static therefore repeatable manner. I am not convinced this is the case in human relationships and therefore needs to be accounted for in any political theory. I am of course all for careful and reflective observations of human social behaviour.

No disagreements here. The significance I was aiming at with my examples from mathematics and boiling eggs wasn’t their universality, but rather that we have access to these things without having to rely on narratives or stories. We can know these things regardless of whether we are Greek, American, Chinese, Hindu, etc. For instance, arithmetic exists the world over in some form or another, in more or less advanced states, yet we would be tremendously surprised to discover that two groups of people with no communication whatsoever had created, say, baseball.

However, as David here point out, inquiry must be tailored to its object. We already begin to approach this with the case of boiling eggs. The point at which water boils is not universal, but rather depends on other factors such as air pressure, altitude, etc. I have tried to develop the concept of constellations to talk about these sorts of things

Compare a mathematical equation with an armadillo. The value of x for 2x + 4 = 12 is going to be the same for all times and places, independent of context, history, psychological idiosyncrasies, etc. However, if we wish to understand living organisms, we can no longer make these kinds of generalizations. Rather, we have to look at the way the organism fits within a particular constellation such that this constellation is not a global or universal logos, but a local logos or structure with a history, and its own immanent organization that cannot be generalized to other cases. We shouldn’t speak of logos, or a universal law underlying all being, but rather of logoi, or divergent and differing patterns of organization. A good example underlining this point would be the last great meteor impact that wiped out most life on earth. The life that returned subsequent to this event was radically different than the sort of life that existed prior to this event. The lesson to take away from this story is that there aren’t “laws” of life similar to say the Newtonian laws of physics. Rather, we have highly local “logics” (where “logic” here refers to patterns or organizations) that look more like what we refer to as customs than necessities– Customs and styles of matter. Another example would be language. Languages each have their own immanent structure of sounds, their own pattern. We cannot know a priori what this structure of language will be for a particular language because the patterning of sound is differential (it is determined in terms of relations to others sounds that may or may not be present in another language).

Life and language are not universal or particular (where the particular is the instantiation of a species, form, or essence), but is rather singular. However, contrary to Hegel, the singularity of these things in now way precludes our ability to map and comprehend these things, nor does it require any special revelation. In this connection, I think biology is again an excellent example. An organism is always problematic in the sense that it is a solution to a problem within the world. Yet there are many ways of solving one and the same problem. Thus, fur and sweat are one way of solving the problems of heat and cold. There is a frog in Canada, the Eastern wood frog, that solves the problem of cold in another way. When freezing temperatures are reached, the frog itself freezes, effectively dying (there’s no brain or heart activity). When heat returns the frog de-thaws and comes back to life. . . The Christs of the animal world.

Here we have different solutions to one and the same problem. We can transfer this way of thinking to cultural formations. In certain regions of India people eat off a banana leaf with their fingers. Here, of course, we use silverware. The lack of universality involved in these customs doesn’t undermine their intelligibility, nor prevent us from collectively deliberating about these things. I think this is, perhaps, one of the key points about philosophy– It’s only requirement is that of open-ended deliberation with others.

Philosophy begins with the other, the stranger, or the person who does not come from the same cultural background as ourselves. It begins from the standpoint of difference and is an attempt to solve the problem of difference. Philosophy tends to appear in periods of cultural crises– philosophy, by no means, always exists –where traditions have broken down, and we’re no longer able to rely on shared narratives to coordinate human action and the understanding of the world. This is why philosophy is always an affair of the city, rather than the countryside (even when the philosopher lives in a rural region like Heidegger), because the city is a community of strangers, of people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. This difference in background, this otherness, suspends the possibility of assuming the existence of shared mythos or narratives, requiring the invention of other interpersonal technologies, other ways of grounding social relations.

I think this aspect of philosophy tends to get obscured because of the “book form”. Today we tend to encounter philosophies in the form of books and articles. The book is itself a problem of time, distance, and otherness. Books surmount space and distance, allowing encounters with an absent other that is not present. Leibniz writes his New Essays on Human Understanding, responding to Locke’s Essay point by point. He is in dialogue with Locke even though he’s never met him. We are led astray by Descartes’ Meditations. There it seems that Descartes is simply reflecting privately on what he can know, seeking to ground his knowledge. We forget that the Meditations begin with a letter to the Church, and that he’s perpetually looking for those things that can be repeated. He is constantly with the other. Everything is a Platonic dialogue, even Husserl’s wretched attempts to think the other in the Cartesian Meditations. Unlike Plato, we just forget to add the names of the interlocutors. The difference, then, is that where other stances begin with a certainty, a conviction, such a thing is, for philosophy, a perpetually receding horizon that is only ever approached asymptotically without ever being reached.

A heated discussion has begun to emerge surrounding the validity of arguments from experience. The entire tussle began with an interesting post by K-Punk on the relationship between class-relations and intersubjective attitudes. In the course of this post, K-punk made reference to his own experience, which prompted Daniel from Antigram to present a critique of arguments from experience based on the Lacanian theory of fantasy. In my view, K-Punk was not basing his position on his own personal experience, but rather illustrating his point through a representative example. In many respects, K-Punk’s thesis reminds me of Bourdieu’s discussions of taste, where Badiou, in Distinction, shows how the milieu of individuation in which an agent emerges within a particular social field gives form to the affects and percepts that populate the agent. That is, it seemed to me that K-Punk was raising questions of individuation. Unless we are to treat affects as innate or as fictions, it is necessary to raise questions such as those of why one agent is filled with rage when seeing an American flag burn, another joy, and yet another indifference. If this point is conceded, if this variability is acknowledged, then there must be some process of individuation agents undergo that produces a system of affects, a system of how the world is affectively encountered, that gives form to ones affective space. It seems to me that this is what K-Punk was getting at, what he was trying to draw attention to. Is one’s affective and perceptual space simply a private affair, an individual and impersonal idiosyncracy, or does it point towards a more collective affectivity produced as a result of processes of morphogenesis, speaking to all sorts of things ranging from economic structures, to class relations, to gender relations, etc? A similar point could be made in relation to Lacan’s theory of affect as presented in Seminar 10: L’angoisse, where Lacan outlines the manner in which affect is structured around the signifier. Nonetheless, Antigram makes an interesting point in drawing attention to the way in which experience is imbricated in fantasy. In Seminar 6: Desire and Its Interpretation, Lacan argues that fantasy is the frame of reality. Reality, for Lacan, is not on the other side of fantasy, but rather the two form a mobius loop, such that fantasy provides the window through which reality is encountered. As Lacan will say in Television, “reality is the grimace of the real.” Fantasy is that which renders the real tolerable, allowing the subject to encounter it. It seems that Antigram treats the term “fantasy” in pejorative terms in a way that is foreign to the psychoanalytic clinic.

In response to Antigram’s analysis, both Jodi Dean and Shaviro jump in, the former surprisingly drawing attention to the way in which fantasy and arguments from experience has played a disturbing role in certain forms of identity politics (this is surprising given the predominence of arguments from experience on I Cite… Recall the discussions about pedestrian traffic in London), the latter offering a critique of Antigram’s position. Of particular importance is Shaviro’s reminder that for Lacan “there is no metalanguage”. This is one of the key features of the Lacanian understanding of transference as it operates in the clinic and is of central importance in differentiating the Lacanian clinic from other psychotherapeutic clinics. Apart from the impossibility of imagining any psychoanalytic clinic that doesn’t focus on the analysand’s experiences, one of the central features of the Lacanian clinic is that the analyst abdicates the position of master or the master’s discourse. To say there is no metalanguage is to say that the analyst too is caught up in the relations of transference, that he or she is not immune from the effects of the unconscious. I suspect that appropriations of psychoanalysis outside the clinic often function not as instances of the discourse of the analyst, but rather as discourses of the master, where the theorist deploying psychoanalytic discourse occupies a position of mastery with regard to the cultural artifacts they analyze and comment on. In this connection, Shaviro’s comments strike me as valuable. It does not seem to me that Shaviro is so much rejecting Antigram’s point as problematizing it. The point seems to be that while experience may indeed be perpetually bound up with fantasy, we are nonetheless unable to escape experience. Consequently, it cannot be a question of escaping or rejecting experience altogether– as Shaviro makes clear in relation to his comments about Althusser’s theses about the inescapability of ideology and the nature of science –but of encountering the problematic status of experience (in the Kantian sense of a regulative ideal or a problem that persists in its solution). To this Antigram responds in a rather heated manner.

In connection to Antigram’s response, I will only say that one of the crucial features of “taking responsibility for one’s subjective position” consists in the affirmation of one’s experience without searching for authorization from the big Other. An analysand who has traversed the fantasy is also an analysand that no longer looks to the Other– as embodied in the analyst but also in the social world as well –as a norm that would tell the analysand what he ought to be or whether or not he is living up to some set of standards. The post-analyzed subject no longer believes that there is a master that contains knowledge of “how to get ahead in the world”, “how to have a successful romantic or sexual life”, “how to make it in academia”, etc. This is because such an analysand has come to recognize that the Other does not exist, or that the Other itself is lacking, incomplete, riven by desire and does not itself know what it desires. It becomes clear that there is no one road to Rome, and that, in any event, perhaps Rome doesn’t even exist. This would include how that analysand understands the sense of their experiences, their meaning, their signification. More fundamental than the discovery of ones own status as a split subject, is the discovery of the Other as split, as not-existing. In this regard, an analysis does not so much divest an analysand of experience, so much as affirm the experience of that analysand. If the analyst respects and honors anything, it is the speech of the analysand for that speech is the site of truth. To be sure, the analyst is always listening for that “Other discourse” in the analysand’s speech– in slips of the tongue, double entendres, dreams, jokes, omissions, contradictions, etc –but the analyst certainly is not in the business of discounting the analysand’s experience or disregarding it. How could he? Not only would the analyst here set himself up as an authority, thereby inviting various conflictual relations, but he would also be adopting the position of the ego-therapist, presuming to be capable of arbitrating between truth and falsity.

Here it is important to recall that for Lacan, fantasy is not so much fantasy pertaining to the subject and the subject’s wants, as it is fantasy of what the Other desires, what the Other wants, with regard to the subject. In this connection, it could be said that the analysand’s entire life, prior to traversing the fantasy, has been structured as a lure for the Other, striving to satisfy or thwart what it believes the Other’s desire to be. The analysand has lived his entire life as the equivalent of fishing tackle, organizing his actions and desires as lures for the Other’s desire so that he might capture that desire. It is in this regard that the analysand is often led to betray his own desire, to renounce it, so as to be the object of the Other’s desire, thereby generating the symptom as the mute witness of that betrayed desire, as the trace that persists and continues to insist. This is precisely why traversing the fantasy can have an effect on the real of the symptom, as the symptom is always addressed to the Other as framed by the fantasy of the Other’s desire. Returning to K-Punk’s original post, it could be said that here traversing the fantasy would not so much entail the worker recognizing that his position is his own subjective responsibility (i.e., blaming the victim), so much as it would consist in the worker being able to posit himself as his own value, as his own condition, rather than measuring himself relative to those who enjoy a position of privilege. That is, it would be a surrender of differentially defined, oppositionally defined, identity. This, for instance, seems to be what Badiou is getting at with his subjects of a truth procedure. In a manner that sometimes echoes Nietzsche’s conception of master-morality, the subject of a truth procedure, as subtracted from the situation, no longer defines itself oppositionally in relation to a set of social and class identities, but is, rather, engaged in the project of producing its own values and truth.

UPDATE Infinite Thought weighs in on the discussion:

Anecdote and reflections upon one’s upbringing in the light of the revelation that not everybody had the same experience as me are frequently of great value: how else do we get to an understanding of class than by comparing the gap between how class is experienced (falsely or otherwise) and the economic and social structures that perpetuate this division? A Year Zero approach to class in which one should simultaneously possess a strict Marxist conception of class combined with an acceptance of responsibility for one’s own position as a subject seems unnecessarily punitive and not necessarily useful for attempting to change entrenched (but crucially not unshakeable) class divisions. (Incidentally, the odd ahistoricism of psychoanalytic categories frequently seems to me to be a major problem for any historical materialist analysis – as does the absence of any notion of a collective subject. But this is rather old-fashioned quibbling, perhaps.)

Why education, then? Education seems to me to be a good way of analysing some of the more concrete elements of class division, the way in which class perpetuates itself ideologically. Here we have a structure (schooling), legally imposed, which creates different kinds of social groups. It is neither based on academic capacity (although it sometimes claims to be via the entrance exam), nor equality at the level of the teaching, curriculum or opportunities provided. It is based on economic differentiation, and the perpetuation of that difference by any means necessary – convincing otherwise not-very-bright children that they are the best thing since primitive accumulation is one of the products that Private schools sell, along with a system of social networks, increased cultural expectation that you will go to university, etc.

Read the rest here. It would be interesting to do a similar analysis of how different tiered universities function in the United States at the level of the sort of subjectivities they produce and the networks of opportunity they engender. Once again, in all of these discussions, Bourdieu– specifically Homo Academicus seems especially relevant. As IT points out, education is one of the ways in which ideological class divisions reproduce themselves. To put it differently, education is one of the conditions for the reproduction of the conditions of production. As I reflect on this discussion, I find myself wondering whether the tools of psychoanalysis are particularly relevant.

UPDATE II Antigram elaborates more.

Let me make myself clear: The social problem of class cannot be understood so long remains understood as a relation between identities. Between the Emperor and a beggar, one cannot see society. Class is nothing to do with individuals; rather, it is a problem contained in the relations persisting between structural forces. The task of critique, the task of argument in general, is to demonstrate the workings of those forces by pulverizing the integral experiences they conjure into their constituent aspects and parts. Arguments from experience are bad and reactionary because argument as such is pitted against experience.

I have to confess that I’m nervous about these claims about structure. A good deal of what I’ve been thinking about lately is the ontological status of structure. What, exactly, is a structure? It is not that I’m here opposing Daniel and siding with the individual. Rather, what I’m wondering if structure is something other than its enactment in and through individuals. Class has a good deal to do with individuals insofar as these structures couldn’t exist without individuals to enact them. Clearly the intuition underlying claims about structure is well founded in that everything is not up to the sovereign individual as the individual finds herself enmeshed in a web that exceeds her control, understanding, and intentions. However, wouldn’t it be more productive to think the relationship between individuals and structure as a feedback relation where structure is perpetually being (re)produced through the activities of individuals and where individuals are being individuated through the effects of structure? When we side with structure or the individual, we end up in a relation that could be described in Hegelian terms as abstract insofar as it fails to think the interdependence of relations in a system. The thesis of interdependence– or, more properly, inter-determination –allows for a much more fluid and dynamic conception of social relations, that might also open other spaces of structure-transforming political engagements. It also loosens, a bit, the iron grip of structure, it’s tendency to be treated as eternal and solid, by opening the possibility of collective relations introducing new forms of structuration in much the same way that Deleuze and Guattari describe the aberrant connections produced through the orchid and the wasp. My worry is that a number of difficulties emerge if structure is reified and treated as something existing in its own right. Perhaps a part of the meaning behind the thesis “the Other does not exist” is the thesis that structure does not exist, i.e., structure would here be an effect of the subject’s belief in Zizek’s sense of the term. Not only does such a thesis open alternatives of engagement, but it also explains the possibility of structural shifts and changes in a way that reified conceptions of structure seem to render impossible. As an added aside… Damn it Daniel, you messed up the link to my blog! :-)

UPDATE III Dominic weighs in:

This leads me to think that some additional mechanism is involved, that the moment of collapse is – again, reaching for the sniper rifle – triggered, and is caused less by the failure by schools to instill the proper level of self-belief and more by their success – or that of society at large – in installing something else. Here I must confront Daniel’s skepticism concerning the social production of affect, which he seems to regard as spontaneously and indifferently woven by the subject of fantasy out of whatever experiential material happens to come to hand. In the first instance, I wonder how it is that corporations ever get to see a return on the millions of dollars they put into advertising if it is literally absurd to suggest that the affective lives of individuals can be prompted, moulded, manipulated and operationalised by outside forces. (Clearly there is something a bit rum about fantasizing that my emotional life is constantly being manipulated by evil corporations, but that is because in the fantasy I am aware of the manipulation but can do nothing about it).

Let us consider the nature of insult. I insult you; you take offense. If I have insulted you effectively, you will take offense in spite of your determination to rise above my petty jibes: the insult is effective to the extent that it causes its target to feel offended in spite of himself. Later you will curse yourself for responding so hastily and angrily to what were, after all, only words. You will, if you are exceptionally disciplined, own that your response was unworthy, that you should not have allowed yourself to become besides yourself with fury. I will then insult you again, making artful use of the humiliation I have already inflicted, and if my aim is true you will again fly into a rage. I enjoy a power over you that you do not wish to grant me, and would withhold from me if you could.

Read the rest here.

Today finds me teaching once again, back in the classroom, in an endlessly surprising dialogue with students. It seems that I persistently find myself trapped in paradox, yearning for time off when I am teaching, yet despondant and depressed when I have time off. I suppose I should just accept that I need some sort of minimal conflict, some sort of obstacle to complete satisfaction, in order to maintain my desire.

In response to my post on attractors and vectors, a friend angrily said that she does not believe that change takes place at the level of the human and that I am utopian. I was quite taken aback by this criticism as I couldn’t see where I had suggested that change takes place at the level of the human (presuming this to mean the human individual) or how I was being utopian. If anything, I worry that there might be a pessimistic undercurrent to these thoughts. I think this issue is brought out with relative clarity in my reference to the friend and the alcoholic:

I am not simply a friend, but rather I am made a friend and make myself a friend through my interactions with the other. The organization and identity is emergent and ongoing. This is one of the reasons why social change is often so difficult or why social systems are often so resistant to change. An agent might have made an internal transformation, yet the other agents composing the social system continue to relate to the agent in the same way. Thus, an alcoholic might have made an internal resolution to no longer drink, yet the alcoholic’s relations continue to relate to him as an alcoholic, steering him back into this activity.

What is at issue here is that the attractors defining subject-positions are never simply a matter of the individual occupying these positions, but are rather the result of ongoing processes of individuals in relation to one another, such that a change in subject position is not simply a matter of the individual decision, but of the ongoing processes by which the subject is produced as a subject in relation to other subjects. What I am trying to think through in this connection is the issue of the ontological status of social structures or systems. It is all well and good to study social structures after the fashion of Saussure or Levi-Strauss as a structure, but what, ontologically, are these structures? A language, for instance, is not in any particular individual. Language, as it were, is not up to me. Yet language nonetheless could not exist without individuals. It only exists in and through the individuals that use the language. As such, language only exists through the ongoing operations of language in its use by speakers. Ontologically there is nothing but individuals, nothing but bodies, yet certain relations of feeback emerge among these individuals such that language takes on an emergent reality.

Read on
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It seems lately that I’ve mostly been preserving things, finding scraps of paper here in there, rather than engaging in the synthetic activity of thought. I’m feeling as if my thoughts emerge only to trail off in a series of ellipses. I suppose I’ll go with that and see where it leads. In a beautiful passage from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes,

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 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.

This passage occurs early in the text when Hume is defending the thesis that all thoughts or ideas originate with impressions. What I find so fascinating about this passage is not so much Hume’s observations about those who suffer from a defect of one of their sense organs, but rather the astute observation about “a man of mild manners” and one who has a “selfish heart”.

Read on
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Every semester I begin my introductory courses with Plato’s Euthyphro. There are a number of reasons for this. On the one hand, the Euthyphro is exemplary as a model of philosophical analysis, argumentation, and critique. On the other hand, this dialogue stages the manner in which action and belief interpenetrate, such that actions are based on beliefs and false belief leads to false action. Additionally, there are geographical reasons as well. Teaching in the Dallas Texas area– home of the megachurch and the central hub of apocalyptic variants of Evangelical Christianity –teaching the Euthyphro exposes students to questions of religion and faith that perhaps they have never before encountered. Finally, the Euthyphro inaugurates some basic and fundamental distinctions as to how all subsequent ethical and political philosophy will be conducted. However, it is also possible to see the Euthyphro as a criticism of ideology and as a sort of therapy strategically designed to both reveal Euthyphro’s attachments and precipitate a separation from those attachments. Socrates aims at nothing less than producing a sort of void in Euthyphro… A void, perhaps, that would have the effect of producing the possibility of freedom.
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