Lars Watch


I returned exhausted by in good spirits from Newcastle around 11 o’clock last night, after traveling for about twenty four hours. I had an absolutely fantastic time. These are the sorts of conferences worth going to: small, with a lot of discussion, where the papers are working on a shared problematic within a somewhat shared theoretical horizon. Despite the fact that all the talks were dealing with their own subject-matter and problematics, somehow they entered– in my view –into an assemblage with one another, resonating in interesting and provocative ways, without being reducible to a theoretical consensus or shared set of theses. In my view, such assemblages are the most productive spaces of thought.

My impression is that something very exciting is developing at Newcastle. The graduate students are sophisticated theoretically, and are interesting and engaged, taking the study of music in exciting directions that are highly relevant as a sort of critique of high capitalism. The faculty are developing a set of questions about the intersection of music, technology, late capitalism, and the relationship between the aesthetic, the social, and the political that have the potential to open up new ways of thinking the political significance of cultural production that depart from a number of the limitations to be found in, for example, Adorno. This space of a problem is an exciting mix of Badiou, Lacan, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari that doesn’t hesitate to liberally rethink their positions, and send their concepts shooting forth in new directions where new concepts are developed.

When I arrived at Newcastle University, Lars immediately whisked me off to the local pub where Wittgenstein is reputed to have drank, to meet graduate students. At this point I was a bit catatonic from the flight, so my speech was stumbling all over itself. We had a great time talking about Deleuze and Guattari and a variety of other things. I had an amazing time talking to Lars over the course of the entire trip, over far too many pints, about the intricacies of theory, all the problems with the academy, where things are moving and just the details of life. He now knows far too much about me. After that I got a couple hours of sleep, and then was off to dinner at Ian’s. It turns out that he is a fabulous cook, as well as an excellent host. Much to my surprise, Anahid Kassabian was there as well. This came as a surprise since the paper I presented was both critiquing and building on her work. As you can imagine, this made me very anxious; but we hit it off well, having lots of spirited discussion and sharing ideas. She gave a terrific paper on music and haptic listening, which opens exciting ways of thinking problems of individuation in the age of distributed listening.

From the questions and comments I received in response to my paper– “Territories of Music: Distributions, Productions, and Sonorous Individuations” –I think it was well received. I still feel a bit bad at torturing my audience with 28 pages of high theory. I came away with a couple of impressions that will inform my own subsequent work. On the one hand, I think there’s a lot of anxiety about the ontological status of relation, leading to what Hegel or Marx would call an “abstract opposition” between agency and relatedness. Blah-feme had already noted this in his post “When the Music Stops”, pointing out how agency is seen as the opposite of ubiquity. In the paper he gave at the symposium he developed a beautiful self-reflexive critique of the discipline of musicology itself, similar in scope to what Bourdieu did for sociology or Lacan for psychoanalysis, opening the possibility of a ubiquitous agency. This is a theme I would like to develop as well: how can we simultaneously think agency and ubiquity, or a form of the subject that is always related, always within a relational network that individuates it, without falling into the trap of a theoretical pessimism where the subject is enslaved like a member of the Borg collective? I think part of what drives current interest in Badiou (truth-procedures and subjects of the event) and Zizek (the Act) is anxiety about precisely this issue. However, Badiou and Zizek seem to search for the un-related, the non-related, as a way of responding to this issue. Is there a way of squarely accepting the ontological thesis that all things are only in problematic fields or networks, while developing a robust account of agency that isn’t simply enslaved by this field but can rebound upon it and transform it?

Second, some of the questions responding to my paper gave me the impression that there’s difficulty thinking the time of agency and the unfolding of a process wherein something new emerges. This is something I will have to develop more explicitly and in greater detail. How are we to think of transformations that occur not all at once and completely like the world being created in six days, but as a process of inmixing where new forms of embodiment, affectivity, and consciousness are produced in and through an engagement with a foreign milieu where new mixtures are produced? I find that I just don’t have the language to describe such processes of individuation very well, yet thinking in terms of the becoming of a tendency– much like the speciation of a species in evolutionary theory –is absolutely vital to, I think, asking the right sorts of questions and not getting lost in unproductive abstractions. How can we think the genesis, the production, of qualities and new types of bodies within the social field in a way that doesn’t lead us to grim, top-down determination through a social system that is seen as other to social agents? This question, I believe, is especially important as we tend to think social agents as simple copies of social distributions (the form of economy and media functioning as a model), giving rise to the grim view that there’s no escape.

All in all this was a truly wonderful experience. I’ve fallen in love with England and am resentfully envious of what the Newcastle folk have. Ian and Lars know how to throw a conference, and I emphatically recommend Ian’s cooking should you ever get the chance to enjoy his table. I will not post the paper right now as we’re talking about publishing the talks, but we’ll see in the future.

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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.

Lars has written an excellent post on Blanchot, Foucault and language. A teaser:

For the early Levinas, the relation to being is impersonal; it does not allow mineness to be hollowed out, but, when it is encountered directly, undoes the form of the ‘I’ that Heidegger’s being elects it to be. Dense formulations! A paragraph where there should be a book! But the ‘I’ for Levinas emerges out of a prior field – emerges, but can also fall back there, into the pell-mell that precedes the subject and that always threatens to return.

This is why, for Levinas, being is a threat, and is to be thought of in terms of possession, of impersonal participation; existence is not a leap into the future, a projection on the basis of the prior leap of transcendence, but the result of a struggle, ever active and ongoing, whose achievement is the sense of a future we as human beings hold before us precariously and, too often, in delusion.

Something similar holds for Blanchot, but the tone is different – being, existence without existents, is encountered not only in horror, but in a kind of melting delight – there is joy (as Bataille might say) in the little deaths that deliver each of us over to possession, to dispossession. Which is, perhaps, only to say that Blanchot revives the ancient sense of inspiration as it implies another, stronger force with which the artist must be in contact: an alien power, masked by figures of gods or Muses, that asks of the would be-creator that he or she must first undergo a loss of self, an exposure.

It is only by returning from this initial detour that creation can begin; the stamp of the artist upon the work depends first of all on that contact – possessing, dispossessing – with what Blanchot also calls (confusingly, provocatively) the work, meaning by this (paradoxically) being as it draws the creator from existence, as it interrupts that projection, that plan, according to which the finished artwork is to be made.

It would be worthwhile to relate all of this to Deleuze’s various discussions of the impersonal, the prepersonal, and the pre-individual in his account of individuation. There are a number of instances where Deleuze makes reference to Blanchot, especially in Foucault. Read the rest here.

Spurious has written an excellent series of posts on Bruce Fink’s Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis (here, here, and here). I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially for those who have come to Lacan through Zizek without any clinical grounding, and who thus have all sorts of fanciful ideas as to what takes place in an analysis or about the status of the subject, language, act, affect, symptom, real, and structure. Of course, I’m a bit partial to Fink for reasons independent of his scholarship, so I might not be the most objective of judges. Fink also released another book earlier this year, entitled Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners, that sheds a lot of insight on clinical practice, and which is also filled with examples from actual cases.

More here.

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

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

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

It seems to me that, heated as it was, the discussion between Antigram and K-Punk regarding education and arguments from experience has prompted a lot of productive discussion, which is a testament to the value of the blogosphere. Although I am interested in the discussions surrounding the relationship between specific educational institutions, class structure, and habitus around which these discussions have centered, I find myself focusing on more abstract questions surrounding the ontological status of structure. In a response to my post, Daniel writes:

I want to respond to this point about individuals and structures.

My position is that individuals have nothing to do with class, because individuals do not exist. I think the idea of the individual is an ideological illusion. I want to radically excise the individual from philosophy; I believe that the individual has no ontological status whatsoever.

I precisely reject the conjecture that we could talk about structure as lying between individuals, in the sense “the individual finds herself enmeshed in a web that exceeds her control, understanding, and intentions.” No – I think (the mirage of) the individual is itself a product of that web, and there is no feedback relation between the individual and that web.

I think if we want to talk about feedback vis-a-vis structure, we need to talk about agents, objects, subjects, not individuals. To my mind, the concept of the individual is utterly compromised, and, since Freud, redundant.

When someone argues in this way, claiming that “the individual is itself a product a product of that web, and there is no feedback relation between the individual and that web [structure, system]”, what is the ontology presupposed by such a claim? That is, what ontological status are we granting to structure? What kind of think is structure? How does structure produce individuals as effects? In what way does structure exist? Given that we never directly encounter structures, what set of considerations lead us to posit the existence of structures?

I suspect that there is a misunderstanding here between Antigram and I, and that he takes me to be saying something very specific when I evoke the category of “individuals”. However, for anyone who has spent time on this site, I hope that it is clear that I am somewhat sympathetic to the claims Antigram is here enunciating. It seems to me that these are precisely the sorts of questions Deleuze is addressing with his account of individuation, where he describes the movement from the virtual to the actual as the movement from multiplicities or structures to actualized individuals. That is, Deleuze, in his early work, is striving to account for the precise way in which the individual is a “product of structure”. For me the question is one of how structures comes to be, how they pass away, and how they maintain themselves over time. Suppose we treat language, following Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Jakobson, as an example of structure. The first question is necessitated because we know that there are different languages and that these languages therefore came to be. Similarly, the fact that we no longer speak Sanskrit tells us that languages pass away. Finally, the fact that languages persist from generation to generation indicates that there must be a way in which structure maintains and transmits itself.

What, then, is it that we’re talking about when we talk about structure? Antigram’s comments suggest that there is one thing, structure, and another thing, individuals, such that structures produce individuals. Or rather, Antigram’s statements suggest that there is only one thing: structure. Yet where do we ever find these structures and what leads us to conclude that they exist? Is structure something that exists in its own right, as Antigram seems to suggest? Is there one thing, Language, and another thing Speech (individuals, individual events), such that Speech is only an instantiation of transcendent structure? Or rather, is structure shorthand for a heuristic device that linguists, anthropologists, political theorists, etc. create to describe pattens common to a group of agents within a particular geographical and historical context, such that there is no such thing as Language independent of Speech, but only speech perpetually reproducing language? When we say that individuals do not exist, are we not also saying that structures would exist regardless of whether or not there were bodies to embody them? Or are structrures only in bodies, yet are emergent patterns that cannot be reduced to any one individual body? That is, what is the explanatory work that the concept of structure is doing? Do structures function like iron and inescapable laws– Saussure suggests as much when he argues that it is impossible for any individual to invent a word –or are structures more like fuzzy aggregates that exemplify patterned activity that the theorist idealizes or purifies and then reifies as a set of iron laws governing social interactions? Do structures have an agency of their own, like Hegelian Geist, or is there something else at work here?

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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