kochOne of the things that absolutely fascinates me about discourse, and, in particular, Lacan’s theory of discourse is that it has a fractal nature that seems to iterate itself at all levels. Thus, to the same degree that you can have interpersonal or speaker to speaker relations that have the same formal structure outlined by Lacan with many different contents, you can have entire social structures that are organized around these formal relationships. And indeed, there’s a strange way in which the appearance of one discourse structure somehow generates the appearance of all the other discourse structures. For those interested in a brief introduction to Lacan’s theory of discourse you can consult my article on discourse theory here, beginning with page 40. Formally we can see why the other three discourses emerge “a priori” wherever there is the appearance of one discourse. If this is the case, then it is by virtue of the fact that discourses form what mathematicians call a group. That is, through a simple clockwise permutation, you are able to generate the other three discourses simply by rotating the symbols in each position one position forward. 180px-MadisThus, if you begin with the discourse of the master, you are able to generate the discourse of the hysteric, the analyst, and the university through a simple clockwise rotation of the terms in each of your initial positions:

Unidis For those unacquainted with Lacan’s discourse theory, look carefully at the succession of these four discourses, you will note that beginning with the discourse of the master and then shifting to the discourse of the hysteric, then moving to the discourse of the analyst, and finishing with the discourse of the university, the relations among the terms remains invariant. The terms change their position in each of the four positions they can occupy, but with respect to one another they always maintain a constant position. In this particular universe of discourse (again, see my article for the concept of a “universe of discourse”, which you won’t find in Lacan, but which is a logical extension of his own thought regarding discourse), for example, a can never appear, to put it metaphorically, before the term S2. Consequently, given one discourse, you already have the other three.

As Deleuze put it speaking in the context of Levi-Strauss, “In whatever manner language is acquired, the elements of language must have been given all together, all at once, since they do not exist independently of their possible differential relations” (Logic of Sense, Handsome Continuum Edition, 58). So too with Lacan’s discourse structures. Even if each discourse were to appear diachronically in the order of history in such a way that the others were absent or not present in the social order, nonetheless these other discourses would be virtually there or would exist virtually, simply “awaiting” their opportunity to manifest themselves. What is remarkable, however, is that the discourses don’t seem to arise sequentially with the establishment of a single discourse. Rather, the moment one discourse is instituted you get the sudden actualization of the other three discourses within that universe of discourse.

Take the discourse of the master. What is it that the discourse of the master does? Does it master, dominate, control? No, not really. If you refer back to the discourse of the master you note that on the upper portion of the discourse there is a relation between S1 and S2. S2 refers to the battery of signifiers. We might think of this as a disorganized, chaotic mass of signifiers that float about willy nilly, almost at random. What the discourse of the master does is provide a master-signifier, loosely something like what Derrida referred to as a “transcendental signifier”, that organizes this chaotic mass of signifiers into a unified structure. Thus, for example, when Kant formulated the position of “transcendental idealism” he was situated in the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he provided a signifier that unified philosophy in a particular way, generating a coherent structure or organization. Similarly, when an activist characterizes a series of conflicts as a revolution, he is occupying the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he is unifying a mass of disconnected acts and events under a single signifier that render them capable of generating a sense or an organization.

read on!


Laughing_buddha_statue_Buddha_gift_mRecently some charges of Orientalism have been floating about the blogosphere with regard to a particular thinker. I don’t care to get into the nuts and bolts of this discussion, but I do think it might be of value to raise some issues about some of the sociological, anthropological, and linguistic assumptions that might underlie this sort of charge. As the Wikipedia article on Orientalism succinctly puts it, “Orientalism implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples.” In response to this short definition, we might ask “what are the conditions for the possibility of Orientalism?” On the one hand, we are told that Orientalism is an essentializing interpretation of Eastern cultures and peoples; while, on the other hand, we are told that this interpretation is an outsider interpretation.

picture_kafka_drawingBeginning with the second criteria or feature characterizing the “phenomenology” of Orientalism, I think we should ask “who is the outsider?” When it is claimed that someone or some mode of discourse is an “outsider” mode of discourse we are implicitly claiming that an inside exists. Put otherwise, what we are suggesting is that cultural identities, cultural “types”, cultures themselves, exist. But is this a warranted assumption? Are we not every bit as much strangers or outsiders within our own culture as we are with respect to other cultures? Do we not wonder how to be Americans, English, Egyptian, Chinese, etc? Or put otherwise, in Lacanian terms, do we not find ourselves perpetually fraught with the hysteric’s question of what we are for the Other? Quoting Zizek quoting Hegel, the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries for the Egyptians. The mistake of the sort of culturalism presupposed by the charge of Orientalism is that it implicitly advocates a sort of immediate and non-mediated relationship to cultural identity such that insiders and outsiders actually exist. But if the aphorism that the big Other does not exist means anything, it is that there is no internally consistent and totalized set of signs and signifiers capable of defining a cultural identity and fixing one’s identity as a member of a group. Our encounter with our own cultural system is every bit as fraught and mysterious as our relation to the so-called “other”.

read on!

narcissusMuch to my surprise and delight, I have been exceedingly pleased by the discussion my post “The Monstrosity of Christ” has generated. For me, Jesus is an incredibly important political thinker who proposes a new vision of communal relations. What has been so great about this discussion, apart from a few bumps here and there, is the manner in which the religious and the atheist have been able to discuss these issues, without the question being one of debunking the other. Towards the end of the comments, Guavatree asks a couple of questions which, I believe, get right to the heart of the issue. First, Guavatree remarks that,

By explaining the difference between interpretations: traditional (Jesus and God above all things) and “radical and revolutionary” — I think you clarify what I think the blog dispute is about. Is Jesus “Resolving” the Imaginary or “Challenging” it?

More than whether Jesus is really asking you to hate your family or not, I’m interested in how you think the Imaginary can be challenged. Is this even possible? To what extent does challenging the bonds of the tribe/family/Imaginary involve the Real and the Symbolic?

Guavatree is responding to a comment I made earlier clarifying my position on Luke 14:26 where Jesus claims that in order to follow Jesus one must hate their mother, father, brother, sister, etc. I have read this, following the findings of ethnographers, as a devaluation of the role of familial or kinship relations as a foundation of social and political structure.

Thanks for the additional passages (here Guavatree provides numerous Gospel references to Jesus making injunctions similar to that found in Luke 14:26), Guavatree. Based on your remarks, I wonder if I haven’t missed the point of some of Kevin’s criticisms. You write:

So in terms of this argument on the blog, hating your family and loving Jesus and God hardly strikes me as a textual oddity.

The real question is whether Jesus’ “dissolution of “the law” into two vast identifications (God/neighbor)” as kvond puts it is a resolution of the imaginary OR a “challenging of this dimension of the imaginary” as larval subjects puts it.

If I’m following your gloss correctly Guavatree, then the dispute revolves around Jesus’ declaration to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and his charge to hate our parents, where it is being claimed that there is a contradiction between these two positions. With respect to the second command, it had never occurred to me to read the demand to hate our family literally. That would be a bizarre reading of the Gospels no matter how you cut it, so I’m surprised to discover that others might have read me as claiming such a thing. Rather, I am interpreting Jesus’ charge as the injunction to cease privileging familial relations or tribal identifications. As such, this separation from the primacy of kinship structures would be a precondition for love of the stranger or the neighbor. This is also why I’ve drawn attention to the story of the Good Samaritan because here we have an instance of a love extended to the other that falls outside the tribal community.

I reject, of course, the remainder of the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ injunction to “hate” one’s family, where it is argued that we are to place Jesus and God above all other things. First, I reject this reading because I think it covers over the whole socio-political issue that he’s getting at with respect to the role that kinship relations play in his historical setting. Second, however, I don’t think this reading is very well supported given how cagey he always is about identifying himself as the son of God (doesn’t he only directly say this in the book of John?). I think this traditional reading places too much emphasis on the person or figure of Jesus, turning him into a screen as described in the post above, thereby allowing us to ignore the truly radical and revolutionary form of social organization that he seems to be proposing.

read on!

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.


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?

In a couple of recent posts Spurious has playfully poked fun at some of my fantasmatic structures and used my persona (or lack thereof) as a foil against which to distinguish his own non-existent being (here and here). This, of course, is a pretty remarkable thing, for as Lucretius and others have argued, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish one void from another. As Lars writes in his usual beautiful fashion (unlike my “hammer-like” fashion, as Anthony Paul Smith so gorgeously described it in a recent post),

Where did they go, The Young Hegelian and No Cause For Concern? Many times I went back to wander through their corridors. But Invisible Adjunct is still there, one of the first blogs I read frequently. And will mine, too, disappear one day? No matter, when there are new blogs proliferating.

Perhaps it will crash down like a telegraph pole, carrying incoming links like cables down with it. But that, I think, is too violent an image. Now I see the links snapping like web filaments delicately breaking. Broken links wave like filaments in the air. Who notices they are broken? Who follows them? No one.

No one: and isn’t that beautiful? To disappear, drawing oneself from the corner: isn’t that what you want? In some way, I am the opposite of Sinthome, with what he tells us of his narcissism. I think by this blog I want to prepare a kind of sacrifice, but one no one will notice as it burns.

To be anyone at all: what kind of fantasy is that? No self-analysis here, however it might appear. A kind of drifting, just that. Don’t wake me up, that’s what I’m telling you. I don’t want to wake up, not here; I am too awake in the world. And isn’t that it: that one who has to speak too much, and with too much reason sets speech loose here instead?

Elsewhere Spurious goes on to say,

But Mars is not strong in my birthchart, and nor do I seek to make up for its lack; once again, unlike Sinthome, I have a marked dislike of discussion, being suspicious always of what I take to be its frame. Insinuation, quieter movement, and in the end, a writing that does not seek to deal blows or to parry them, but that lets continue the movement of others, though in another way, because it is itself only motion, like a river into which tributaries pour. Only I imagine this river running backward, and the distributaries that join it are like a river’s delta. How can a river leap back to its origin?

I have to confess that I was delighted when I read these passages and took them as a tremendous compliment. Of course, this is not because I believe that it would be horrible to be Lars. Quite the contrary. Then again, the talented psychoanalytic reader knows that it’s best to prick up one’s ears whenever an analysand suggests, in an unsolicited way, that he is not trying to do something. However, harrowing descriptions of Lars’ apartment aside, I was delighted and tickled because Lars had described me as his opposite, thereby placing me on a common plane with him as in the case of a dialectical identity or inverted image.

In a haunting and justly famous passage from his Prolegomena, Kant gives the example of enantiomorphic images to demonstrate the difference between conceptual differences and “aesthetic” differences that cannot be captured by the concept (Deleuze will not hesitate to pick up this example in developing his concept of difference in Difference and Repetition). There Kant writes,

If two things are quite equal in all respects as much as can be ascertained by all means possible, quantitatively and qualitatively, it must follow that the one can in all cases and under all circumstances replace the other, and this substitution would not occasion the least perceptible difference. This in fact is true of plane figures in geometry; but some spherical figures exhibit, notwithstanding a complete internal agreement, such a difference in their external relation that the one figure cannot possibly be put in the place of the other. For instance, two spherical triangles on opposite hemispheres, which have an arc of the equator as their common base, may be quite equal, both as regard sides and angles, so that nothing is to be found in either, if it be described for itself alone and completed, that would not equally be applicable to both; and yet the one cannot be put in the place of the other (that is, upon the opposite hemisphere). Here, then, is an internal difference between the two triangles, which difference our understanding cannot describe as internal and which only manifests itself by external relations in space. But I shall adduce examples, taken from common life, that are more obvious still.

What can be more similar in every respect and in every part more alike to my hand and to my ear than their images in a mirror? And yet I cannot put such a hand as is seen in the glass in place of the original; for if this is a right hand, that in the glass is a left one, and the image or reflection of the right ear is a left one, which never can take the place of the other. There are in this case no internal differences which our understanding could determine by thinking alone. Yet the differences are internal as the senses teach, for, notwithstanding their complete equality and similarity, the left hand cannot be enclosed in the same bounds as the right one (they are not congruent); the glove of one hand cannot be used for the other. (paragraph 13)

In certain respects, the logic of enantiomorphs follows the logic of the mobius strip. I know that the mobius strip has only one side, but in order to confirm this I must introduce the dimension of time, tracing a line on the surface of the strip to encounter them meeting. There is an identity here but also a difference. Similarly, when Hegel describes the relationship between the French Revolution and the terror, these things are on “one” side, but they can never quite appear together; just as the analysand discovers that the symptom is on the side of his desire, but perpetually encounters his symptom as the impediment to his desire.

When Lars kindly mocks my narcissism, asking “To be anyone at all: what kind of fantasy is that?”, I think he recognizes the principle behind my narcissism– That it is a technology designed to undermine my narcissism, to encounter myself differing from my own image, to progressively undo my own image. I do this in a variety of ways: By taking pleasure in humiliating forms of recognition, by putting together philosophers that don’t belong together so that I might not belong to any of them, by enthusiastically arguing against things I love and positions I’ve formerly endorsed so as to destroy them and then later on arguing for them, etc. It is in this regard that I can wistfully look upon Spurious’ blog, imagining myself to be on a mobius strip, a single surface, with his writing, and witnessing him enacting what I aim for. To be anyone at all is to be no one at all. Here the literary reference would be Klossoski’s Roberte novels, where one becomes other to herself in and through the relation to the other, ultimately becoming a void.

All of this, for some reason, makes me think of the film Kinsey. I don’t know if Kinsey’s life was anything like what is depicted in the film, and in certain respects that’s entirely appropriate for this post. However, it’s difficult for me not to think of the simulacrum depicted in that film as a saint. Now in suggesting that Kinsey was a saint, I am not suggesting this on the grounds of his compassion towards those who had suffered sexual oppression such as the homosexuals he interviewed, or his crusade to generate a knowledge of sex so that we might be free of superstition and crass moralism. Rather, what fascinates me about this simulacrum is the Kinsey who collected millions of gall wasps, tracing generation after generation, and discovering that all of them were different.

I think this is saintly. In a crucial scene early in the film, a party is being held for Kinsey, honoring him for his research and the publication of his most recent book on gall wasps. Kinsey is flattered, but points out that there are probably only six people in the world who have actually read his books and that he is well aware that his research will not change the world. Yet nonetheless, Kinsey found supreme value in this research and pursued it with passionate zeal. Later in the film we discover that Kinsey’s garden has the most complete collection of a particular type of flower; and, of course, Kinsey is driven to collect the most complete data set possible of human sexual activities. Kinsey, as depicted in the film, is a subject of drive, not of desire. He looks for no authorization from the Other for his pursuits and pursues these activities of collecting with a jouissance-filled zeal. He wears a whalers cap in the rain despite its lack of aesthetic appeal because it’s a sensible way of keeping oneself dry. When his future wife approaches him in the park and asks to sit with him, explaining that they are the only two unattached people of the opposite sex at the park and therefore it makes sense for them to sit together, he readily agrees with her reasoning. And whatever Kinsey does, he is collecting. It is the collecting that matters to Kinsey, not the possible world-shaking consequences that might follow from this research.

Lacan makes a similar point about collecting in Seminar 7, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There Lacan relates that,

During the great period of penitence that our country went through under Petain, in the time of ‘Work, Family, Homeland’ and of belt-tightening, I once went to visit my friend Jacques Prevert in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. And I saw there a collection of match boxes. Why the image has suddenly rusurfaced in my memory, I cannot tell.

It was the kind of collection that was easy to afford at the time; it was perhaps the only kind of collection possible. Only the match boxes appeared as follows: they were all the same and were laid out in an extremely agreeable way that involved each one being so close to the one next to it that the little drawer was slightly displaced. As a result, they were all threaded together so as to form a continuous ribbon that ran along the mantlepiece, climbed the wall, extended to the molding, and climbed down again next to a door. I don’t say that it went on to infinity, but it was extremely satisfying from an ornamental point of view.

Yet I don’t think that that was the be all and end all of what was surprising in this ‘collectionism,’ nor the source of the satisfaction that the collector himself found there. I believe that the shock of novelty of the effect realized by this collection of empty match boxes– and this is the essential point –was to reveal something that we do not perhaps pay enough attention to, namely, that a box of matches is not simply an object, but that, in the form of an Erscheinung, as it appeared in its truly imposing multiplicity, it may be a Thing.

In other words, this arrangement demonstrated that a match box isn’t simply something that has a certain utility, that it isn’t even a type in the Platonic sense, an abstract match box, that the match box all by itself is a thing with all its coherence of being. The wholly gratuitous, proliferating, superfluous, and quasi absurd character of this collection pointed to its thingness as match box. Thus the collector found his motive in this form of apprehension that concerns less the match box than the Thing that subsists in a match box. (113-114)

It seems to me that Lars is describing this sort of saintliness with regard to writing… A writing that would no longer be utilitarian, that would no longer be a matter of prestige, but that would operate according to its own principle without need of authorization or recognition. Saint Lars.