For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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I am still experimenting with the diagram below, but as I was teaching the concept of translation in Harman’s Prince of Networks today, I found it to be a useful heuristic device for thematizing just what is new or interesting in Latour’s concept of translation. Scroll past the Scribd diagram for a bit of commentary.

Clearly I have adapted this diagram from Hjelmsleves model of the sign. All of us are familiar with the relation between the signifier and the signified in Saussurean linguistics (to the left). In naive theories of linguistic translation (NTTs), the idea is that the concept remains the same (content), while it is only the signifier (expression) that changes. There are any number of reasons that this concept of translation is mistaken. I outlined some of these shortcomings in a previous post, so I won’t repeat them here. Latour’s concept of translation is broader than that of translation as it applies to linguistics or the transposition of texts from one language to another. The key point to take home from his analysis– and he doesn’t spell these implications out himself –is not so much the fact that a translated text always differs from the text that it translates, but rather that the process of translation produces something new, regardless of whether the relation is between texts in different languages, conscious minds to world, or relations between objects. What Latour wishes to do, I think, is generalize the concept of translation, such that translation is no longer restricted to the domain of language, nor requiring the involvement of living beings of some sort, but rather involves any relations among actants, human or nonhuman, living or material.

Hjelmslev’s key innovation in the domain of linguistics and semiotics was to recognize that both the plane of expression (loosely the signifier) and the plane of content (loosely the signified) have a form and substance that can enter into different relations with one another. Here I am partially basing my analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of Hjelmslev’s model of expression and content as developed in “The Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateaus. This discussion would require a far more developed analysis than I’m capable of giving at the moment. For those who are interested, it would be worthwhile to refer to DeLanda’s early work on this essay (here and a number of Delanda’s articles, podcasts, and talks can be found here), as well as the first chapter of A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Brian Massumi. While I don’t entirely share the ontological commitments of either of these thinkers, their works nonetheless provide some pointers in the direction I’m thinking.

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David1-744682.gifPaul Ennis has a terrific post up on his experience reading psychoanalytic thought, the dis-ease it generates in him, and how he encounters something similar when reading the speculative realists:

Reading psychoanalysis generates a sense of uneasiness in me. To borrow Zizek’s voice for a moment ‘I mean it quite literally’. When I’m sitting there reading about gaps and Others and Fathers I feel anxious. What is Metaphysics style anxiety.

There seems to be a direct psychological impulse behind what speculative realism wants to do. If my more informed readers will allow me to make a crude analysis: speculative realism wants to ‘allow’ the real in. It wants to collapse some symbolic order that we are not supposed to collapse.

Read the rest of the post here. Paul hits on something fascinating with his observation about collapsing something in the symbolic order that is not supposed to be collapsed. In the subsequent discussion in the comments revolving around the “heimlich” or “being-at-home”, I think the point of the unheimlich is somewhat missed in the discussions that somehow it is constitutively impossible for us to not be at home.

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Just a quick note before I get down to grading. In response to my post on the game of life, Carl writes:

I’m not sure I’m on board with this:

[O]ne of the reasons I find the ideas so attractive is precisely that meme theory treats signs as objects. Rather than treating signs as mere representations of something else, meme theory treats signs themselves as objective reality. So unlike common views of language where you have one thing, the world of objects, and another things, the world of signs representing objects, in meme theory you have one flat plane where there are physical objects and signs as well.

Well, other than getting to call things ‘objects’ rather than calling things things, what’s the advantage here? I see that we clean out the mediating discourse of ‘representation’, but if the ’signifier’ kind of object doesn’t occur without the ’sign’ kind, and neither occurs without the ’signified’ kind, isn’t there an important and realistic claim about the nature of those objectivities embedded in the idea of representation that is simply obscured by flattening the ontology?

I’m still working out how far I’m willing to go with the whole treatment of signs as objects move as things get complicated very quickly. This was a move that Dan recently proposed in comments, and which I’ve been pushing for quite some time under the mantra that language is not simply about something, but also is something. This move could be called, in honor of Freud, the “psychotic move”, for as Freud observed in his essay “The Unconscious”, schizophrenics treat words as things. Under this model, signs would not be representations of things, but rather would enter into relations with or assemblages with things. This might nicely account for the fluidity of reference in a number of respects. Part of this move follows from a self-reflexive demand of my own philosophy. Insofar as I’m trying to break down the whole distinction between nature and mind that’s vexed philosophy since the 17th century, this leads to the conclusion that any philosophy (or other cultural artifacts) is itself an assemblage of objects. The question then becomes that of determining what sorts of peculiar objects signs are and how these function.

I suspect that anthropologists– and I feel very bad about my recent exchange with Jerry –are critical of memes for the same reason that I was critical of memes when I first encountered the theory about five years ago: Here we have these undereducated cowboys claiming to have discovered a whole new realm of investigation– memes –when we have had semiotics and linguistics for decades now. When you read Dawkins and Dennett on memes you get the sense that they are reinventing the wheel, and in a number of instances poorly. Dawkins baldly admits somewhere or other that he doesn’t know enough about the social sciences, linguistics, and cultural theory to know how well his theory resonates with their findings. In a number of respects, I think the meme theorist stands to learn far more from the semiotician (and cultural theorists like the anthropologist) than the semiotician has to learn from the meme theorist.

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nz317Responding to a rather lengthy and rambling post I wrote over at his blog, Bogost has a terrific post up on the relationship of his research and thought to object-oriented ontology. Ian writes:

As a former Lacanian psychoanalyst familiar with cultural studies, Levi makes the following primary observation in his comment:

My sense is that “cultural studies” has been far too dominated by what I generically refer to as “semiotic” approaches. That is, we get a lot of emphasis on interpretation and analysis of signs and cultural phenomena, and the rest falls by the wayside.

This seems generally right to me, given an important provision. There are humanists who consider the materiality of creativity, but when they do so they usually do it from an historical perspective (e.g., the history of the book, itself a rare and possibly ostracised practice in literary scholarship), or from a Marxist perspective (i.e., with respect to the human experience of the material production of artifacts and systems). In both of these cases, the primary—perhaps the only—reason to consider the material underpinnings of human creativity is to understand or explain the human phenomena of creation and interpretation. Clearly there has been a conflation of realism and materialism in cultural studies for decades now, such that it’s very easy to do the latter without the former.

In Unit Operations, I was focused on comparative criticism, particularly criticism that would be able to treat very different sorts of media, like literature and videogames, in tandem. As someone with experience both experiencing and creating computational work, it was always clear to me that the material underpinnings of such systems were both important for anyone who wants to understand them with any depth, and yet also frequently ignored. For example, one topic I discuss in Unit Operations is the relationship between the shared hardware of different videogames, and how such relations cannot be sufficiently explained through cultural theoretical notions like intertextuality or the anxiety of influence. This is an approach that would come back as a primary method in my work with Nick Montfort on platform studies, discussed below.

Read the rest of the post as it is really rich. Like the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally, yet without faking it, I cannot but say “yes! yes! yes!” in response to Bogost’s post.

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co-op-20th-eyes-february-112eyes1The epigraph to the second section of Lacan’s “Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” reads “Advice to a young psychoanalyst: Do crossword puzzles” (Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, 220). If this is good advice for the psychoanalyst, then it is because formations of the unconscious– dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes, bungled actions, symptoms, etc. –are often themselves encrypted like the hints of a crossword puzzle. The hints of a crossword puzzle– roughly equivalent to formations of the unconscious in this analogy –are organized around a lacuna or the missing signifier that is to be found. These hints are traces of that signifier. However, in successfully completing a crossword puzzle it is often necessary to practice a horizontal or lateral relationship to language, an associative relationship, where one draws on equivocations, homonyms, and other figures of rhetoric to discover the missing signifier. Freud gives a nice example of how the symptom is organized around a lacuna or a missing signifier when discussing the case of a young woman during the initial stages of schizophrenia in his article “The Unconscious”:

A patient of Tausk’s, a girl who was brought to the clinic after a quarrel with her lover, complained that her eyes were not right, they were twisted. This she herself explained by bringing forward a series of reproaches against her lover in coherent language. ‘She could not understand him at all, he looked different every time; he was a hypocrite, an eye-twister, he had twisted her eyes; now she had twisted eyes; they were not her eyes any more; now she saw the world with different eyes. (SE XIV, 197 – 198)

Part of the significance of the schizophrenic from a metapsychological perspective is that processes that are ordinarily unconscious are all there on the surface. Where the neurotic might have a deep phobia of having his eyes “twisted”, this woman experiences her eyes as being literally twisted, as being unable to see the world as she would normally be able to see it. Granting that there is nothing physiologically wrong with her, the mystery then becomes why she has come to experience the world in this way. Taken literally, her words are unintelligible and have the feel of nonsense. The symptom makes no sense. But when we adopt a floating, horizontal, or lateral relationship to her speech, the lacuna or hidden signifier organizing the symptom begins to come into view. The key signifier in her speech is “eye-twister”. In German, the young woman’s language, the word for “eye-twister” is ‘Augenverdreher‘, which figuratively means “deceiver”. Through the work of the unconscious, the woman had “literalized” her relationship to her lover in a series of symptoms effecting her eyesight. Her symptom was a trace of the “desire of the Other”, a materialization of the desire of the Other– in this case the desire of her boyfriend –insofar as it was a set of symptoms embodying her lover’s desire to deceive her.

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Surplus-jouissance, Desire, and Fantasy

In Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan articulates fantasy as the frame of desire. The fundamental fantasy does not imagine a particular satisfaction, but is rather the frame through which our desire is structured. In this respect, fantasy answers the question of what the Other desires.


As I remarked in my previous post, the desire of the Other is enigmatic and opaque. Fantasy is what fills out this enigma, articulating it, giving it form, such that it embodies a determinate demand. Lacan persistently claimed that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This polysemous aphorism can be taken in four ways. First, at the most obvious level, it can be taken to signify that we desire the Other. Second, and more importantly, it can be taken to entail that we desire to be desired by the Other. Third, it can be taken to signify that we desire what the Other desires. For example, a petite bourgeois might desire a particular car not because of the intrinsic features of the car, but because it will generate envy in his neighbor. Likewise, someone might mow their lawn not because they see an intrinsic virtue in doing so, but because they fear that their neighbor will become angry if they don’t. Finally, fourth, insofar as the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, the thesis that desire is the desire of the Other indicates the manner in which desire is articulated through the network of signifiers that haunt our unconscious, producing all sorts of symptomatic formations based on the signifier.

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The Real, Repetition, Incompleteness, and Inconsistency

As I remarked in a previous post, Lacan’s graphs of sexuation can be understood as two ways in which the totalization of language fails and the jouissance that emerges as a result of this failure of totalization.


According to Lacan, there is a masculine and feminine way in which this failure occurs. The masculine failure of totalization and the jouissance this failure produces can be found on the left side of the graph, while the feminine failure of totalization and the failure it produces can be found on the right side of the graph of sexuation. We can refer to the upper portion of the graph of sexuation where the equations are located as “the logic of the signifier”, while we can refer to the lower portion of the graph with the arrows as “the logic of jouissance. The left or masculine side of the graph of sexuation can be referred to as failure as incompleteness. That is, the masculine way of attempting to totalize the symbolic or the big Other leads to a constitutive incompleteness calling for a supplementary element or term. Likewise, the feminine way of attempting to totalize or complete the symbolic leads to a constitutive inconsistency.

It is important to note that biologically gendered subjects can occupy either side of the graph of sexuation or neither side of the graph of sexuation. Thus, for example, you can have a male body that is structured according to the feminine side of the graph of sexuation. Likewise, psychotic subjects occupy neither side of the graph of sexuation. In this respect, it comes as no surprise that postmodernity, where the name-of-the-father is largely foreclosed in the social field (the structural failure in the borromean knot that generates psychosis), is also accompanied by a plurality of sexes and sexual identities. This is exactly what we would expect in the absence of Oedipal structure. In this connection, I believe that the debates between Copjec and Žižek directed at Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Butler premised on the real of sexual difference are poorly formed because the two sides of the debate are dealing with very differently structured systems at the level of the logic of the signifier.

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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.

Adam Kotsko has written an interesting post over at An und fur sich on God, the big Other, and Calvinism. There is much that is commendable and of value in this post, however I disagree with Adam’s claim that the big Other cannot be treated as God. God is one way in which the symbolic manifests itself in the thought of human subjects. Yet, since he has banned me from the site I will instead outline my reasons here as this point is important from the standpoint of how psychoanalysis conceives structuration of the subject. Adam writes:

A common misconception in the early stages of learning Lacanian theory is to assume that “the big Other” is God. In point of fact, this is not the case. The big Other refers to the realm of officiality and quasi-officiality, and the use of the word “big” rather than, say, “grand” in translating this concept testifies to a fundamental silliness. We all know objectively that the social order is impersonal, but we act like there’s a person out there — not like all the other others, but a really big Other — whose recognition we need and who, in some cases, must be kept in the dark.

This is not quite accurate. Adam is right to argue that the symbolic refers to the realm of officiality and the impersonal world of the social. However, there are social and individual instances where God is experienced as serving this function as an element in a structure. God can be one instance of the big Other. The most compelling proof of this comes from the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation. This side of the graphs of sexuation represent symbolic castration or the manner in which subjects are subordinated to the symbolic. You’ll note that the lower portion of the graph reads “all subjects are subject to symbolic castration” whereas the upper portion reads “there is at least one subject that is not subject to the law of symbolic castration”.

It is this upper portion of the graph of sexuation that is here of interest. Lacan’s analysis of masculine sexuation closely follows the logic of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Many of you will recall that there myth tells the story of the primal father who had exclusive rights to the enjoyment of all women (i.e., he’s bound by no symbolic law and therefore there’s no limit to his enjoyment). Frustrated, the brothers band together and kill the primal father so that they might regain their enjoyment. However, out of a combination of guilt towards what they have done (they also admired the primal father) and practical necessity (they don’t want a repeat of this situation), they agree to institute a limitation to their jouissance, such that it is forbidden for each of the members to enjoy his own mother or sister.

Here then we have a myth of how the symbolic is born or how these prohibitions come to emerge. Lacan’s point is that the symbolic always has a supplement or a fantasmatic shadow that grounds the symbolic and prevents it from sliding all over the place. This limit point is the idea of a being– a fantasmatic idea –that is not castrated or limited or bound by the symbolic. The point, then, is that we have a structure here that can be filled out in many different ways. To understand the concept of structure, we have to think in terms of functionalist mathematics. In a mathematical function you have something of the form F(x), such that for any value of the variable x you get an output. The point is that the function remains the same regardless of whatever is put in the place of the variable. Identity is thus not detemined by the variable or entity in the x position, but rather by the function. The function remains the same across variations.

The Lacanian thesis is thus that any symbolic structure necessarily has an element that fills the place of the upper portion of the graph of sexuation. One example of this is the primal father. Another example of this– from Hegel –is the sovereign king that occupies by his position by nature, thereby functioning as an exception to all other law that is determined by convention. Yet another example of this is how students think of definitions. Some students, when writing papers, begin with something like “According to Webster’s” and then cite a definition. The underlying, unconscious thought process is that language is based on the authority of a grand dictionaire that knows the true meaning of all terms. The point here is that at the level of the lived experience of language we’re all a bit confused about meaning and uncertain of what words mean, and meaning is a product of our collective activities that is always in flux. Nonetheless, we project a figure that does know, a figure that is not “castrated” by this uncertainty, as a fiction of someone that knows the true meaning. This, for instance, is the underlying fantasy of the anti-gay marriage movement that perpetually brays “marriage, by definition is between a man and a woman”. When they claim this they are implicitly claiming that there is an eternal dictionary floating about in Platonic heaven somewhere that isn’t the product of how collectivities or assemblages define terms. Another example would be those social formations that make reference to God as what founds or establishes the law. Thus, for instance, you have Mosaic law as articulated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy on the one hand, and then the supplement that grounds this senseless set of stipulations. Descartes’ third meditation also follows this logic, where God serves the function of grounding the realm of natural law, thereby allowing us to posit an order behind the apparent chaos of our experience. In short, a masculine subject is a subject that believes in God, transcendence, or some functional equivalent.

Yet another example of this structure would be Freud’s analysis of church and military in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. There Freud examines group formations where the leader functions as a necessary principle. It is interesting that for Freud an ideal can serve a similar role, thereby underlining that what is being talked about is a structural function, not a concrete thing (Lacan will make much of this in his account of the unary trait and master-signifier, starting with Seminar 9: L’identification. It could be said that a good deal of psychoanalysis has consisted in the exploration of how alternative social formations without this structure might be possible. Thus, when Lacan denounces the Oedipus in Seminar 17, he is denouncing this structure. Similarly, Lacan’s various attempts to form a psychoanalytic school revolved around the question of how it’s possible to form a social organization that isn’t organized around a master or belief in the big Other, but which squarely recognizes the “hole” in the Other, it’s non-existence.

Finally, it’s important to note the close tie that both Lacan and Freud observe between obsessional neurosis and religious belief. For Lacan, obsessional neurosis is closely connectioned to masculine sexuation (subjects that are biologically male or biologically female can nonetheless be sexuated in a masculine way). This close tie has to do with how obsessionals relate to the symbolic and the fantasmatic supplement they project into the symbolic in the form of a “god-function”.

All of this casts light on Lacan’s claim that psychoanalysis is the only true atheistic discourse (I’m not sure I agree) and what he means when he claims that psychoanalysis is an “atheology”. Lacan defines the end of analysis as traversing the fantasy and overcoming belief in the big Other. No longer believing in the big Other does not mean giving up the symbolic, but relating to the symbolic in a new way. Lacan develops this theme beginning with Seminar 22: RSI, where he distinguishes between believing in the symptom and identifying with the symptom. A subject that believes in the symptom is one that believes there’s a final interpretant out there that would finally unlock the secret of the unconscious process. That is, it presupposes a God function or that the Other is complete. In this regard, many theologies are symptomatic. A subject that identifies with the symptom is a subject that identifies with the unconscious process– not unlike Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic as a process –and draws jouissance from the endless play of the symptom. More needs to be said about this, but I am here merely pointing to it. Rather than supplementing the big Other with the fiction of an uncastrated figure that floats behind it and guarantees order behind the apparent chaos of our social interactions, one no longer believes that there is a true order behind this chaos. In short, one moves to the feminine side of the graphs where encounters with others are evaluated on a subject by subject basis. Joyce, for Lacan, is an instance of a relation to the symbolic that is no longer premised on the belief in the big Other. This is why psychoanalysis is, for both Freud and Lacan, contrary to most monotheistic forms of religiosity… At least as commonly understood. In a nutshell, these formations are, for Lacan, fetishes (recall that a fetish is designed to hide or disavow castration). For Lacan fantasy is designed to cover over castration, and the first of these fantasies is the belief that the big Other exists… That somewhere, somehow, there is an Other that both enjoys and that knows its own desire. God can be one example of this fantasy (I allow that there might be sophisticated theologies that avoid this criticism). I suspect that this is the reason that Adam was compelled to argue that God is not an instance of the symbolic, as Adam’s religious commitments certainly disallow the claim that God is a fetish. Moreover, I find Adam’s rhetoric in the paragraph cited below very interesting. He refers to the “beginning student of Lacan” which has perjorative connotations and functions as an unsupported enthymeme, correcting the wayward and unexperienced student. The problem is that there are numerous places in the seminar where Lacan actually treats God in this way. It is fine that Adam rejects the thesis that God is a fetish or a symptom. There are arguments to be made. But one cannot simultaneously be a Lacanian and advocate a position where God is conceived as transcendent, unlimited, all knowing, outside the flux and bustle of the world, etc. Zizek goes some of the way towards developing a theology that wouldn’t be subject to these criticisms by staunchly treating Jesus as a man and by arguing that Christianity is premised on the impotence of God the father. I suspect that this understanding of Christianity where Christianity becomes a materialism and God is understood as impotent wouldn’t be endorsed by many Christians but would in fact be a heresy. I cannot, however, say this with certainty.

Adam might respond by pointing out that Lacan also says God(s) is the real. Yes he does, but the “also” is important here. On the one hand, Lacan formulates claims in a variety of ways throughout the seminar, so we can’t reduce his claims to just one. On the other hand, this statement entails that God(s) are the impossible or the constitutive deadlock and antagonism that inhabits the heart of any symbolic system. The point is that we place the Gods in the place of these antagonisms as a way of covering them over or hiding them, thereby giving the symbolic some minimal consistency. This aphorism thus returns us to the symbolic function of the God-fetish.

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