Signifier


beyond-the-universe-into-the-void-no11

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.

lafa1

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.

Read on
(more…)

Advertisements

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.

Of late I’ve occasionally grumbled about education reform here in the United States. Given the sort of readership I have, I suspect that some look at me sidelong when I go on these rants wondering why I get so worked up. After all, there are much sexier issues to discuss like global capitalism and empire. Nonetheless, I think the No Child Left Behind act has been an unmitigated disaster and I am filled with cold chills whenever I think about it. I wish some talented Foucaultian would come along– you know the type, those that don’t simply talk about what Foucault himself wrote, but continue the project of rigorously studying forms and organizations of institutional power such as, perhaps, the way the DSM-IV functions and so on –and analyze the sorts of subjectivizations produced as a result of these agendas. These are the contemporary forms of micropower. Are they being studied and strategized?

What will the minds of Americans be like ten or fifteen years from now, after these children have grown up and entered the work world? Apparently this movement isn’t restricted to the secondary schools, but now there are entire groups of university administrators who believe this would be a good idea at the college level as well. In my cynicism I might not be surprised to hear of community or junior college administors pursuing such reform… But administrators at four year institutions with graduate programs? Now whenever I hear some well meaning person speak of “rubrics” and “performance outcomes” I shiver and dig my heels in, terrified that this is what is lurking right around the corner. I have a dirty confession to make: I passionately believe in traditional liberal arts education and the formation of critical thinkers that do not simply repeat but that are capable of posing problems and creatively generating solutions. The aim of pedagogy should be the formation of free men and women or self-directing agents. This is not accomplished by producing good test-takers. Indeed, listening to the horror stories of the pressures that are placed on students to perform well on these tests, it’s difficult to escape the impression that the very aim of this program is to thoroughly destroy any love of learning so that we might have a perfectly docile populace. The minute I hear words like “rubrics” and “performance outcomes” I suspect that the person using them has little or no understanding of what pedagogy is. At any rate, if you’re in the mood to be outraged, read this and this.

These are prime examples of what I have in mind when I speak of forms of action and policy arising out of stupidity, where the dimension of mediation has been ignored. In the development of this legislation teachers have systematically been cut out of the process as there’s been a working assumption that teachers are the problem and that the businessmen and lawyers that make up Congress know better what is required of education than those who teach. The first stupidity then lies in reducing education to a simple exchange of information, memorization, or “facts”. The second lies in the belief that the source of our education problems are the result of poor teachers. In both cases these are the results of “thingly thought” that pitches problems in terms of abstract immediacy, failing to appreciate the broader network of relations embodied in its object. I’m thoroughly baffled that parents and teachers everywhere aren’t filling the streets and marching with torches as a result of these disgusting policies. I get so angry thinking about this and what I’m seeing in my classroom from students freshly out of highschool that I can hardly even pull together words to say anything of value on the issue.

blog trackingJodi Dean has a very interesting post over at I Cite on what holds discursive communities– especially academic communities –together, and what is required to critique these communities. There she writes,

The same holds when one talks about political theory. In American political science, theorists are a separate subfield and generally treated as separate by the rest of the discipline. We are sometimes considered a field among ourselves, perhaps because we read Aristotle and Hobbes while the others think that politics can be a science and try to find formal models that do something besides stating the obvious. Yet, political theorists disagree among ourselves. A big division is between those who do a kind of analytic political theory–or who are still oriented toward Rawls–and those who do continental. Yet, among continental theorists there are also huge debates and disagreements. The Habermasians don’t read Deleuze or Zizek (not to mention Ranciere, Laclau, Agamben, or Badiou). And, while I’m on a journal with a bunch of Deleuzians, they are generally non-sympathetic to Zizek (they think he is not immanent enough and that the notion of the lack is both dangerous and wrong).

Can it mean anything, then, to reject or criticize political theory as a whole? If one is a formal modeler, yes. One is saying that only with formal methods can anything significant be said about politics. But, this is not a critique. It is simply a rejection. I don’t critique formal modeling in my work. I simply reject it. I find it uninteresting and irrelevant. (I’ll add that I do think there is an important role for a lot of empirical political science although I don’t do that sort of work myself.)

Ray Davies makes an interesting point in a thread over at faucets and pipes:

Words aren’t solid tokens which can be extracted from one game and used in a different game while meaning the same thing. Precise definitions are important when rationally arguing against a supposedly rational argument, but can be toxic to community formation, as I’ve personally seen in attempts to establish the boundaries of “science fiction” or “poetry”. A social term is, finally, defined socially, and, in healthily varied communities, allows for unpredictable outliers.

I agree. Terms are markers of discursive communities.

So, can one criticize an entire discursive community by invoking one of their terms? Yes, if one is rejecting the community per se. Here one would be making an institutional argument, that is, an argument about the group existing as a group. But one would not be addressing any of the discursive content through which the group is constituted. Why–because it is precisely the contestation over the content that designates membership in the group. (This is why I never take a stand on alien abduction or 9/11 truth; that would constitute me as a member of the group/discursive community I’m trying to understand.)

I don’t have a whole lot to add to her post; however, in addition to these discursive factors of how a master-signifier is attached to a specific set of signifiers (S2’s) for this or that variant of feminism or variant of Lacanians or group of political theorists, it seems to me that we should also include a discussion of jouissance, or the particular form of enjoyment that bounds a community together. This would include not just the way the community itself enjoys, but also the manner in which the community perceives other groups enjoying and seeks to defend against this enjoyment… That is, the shared fantasy of the group pertaining to how the Other illegitimately enjoys.
(more…)

The last few days I’ve been rather amiss in blogging. I’ve been heavily immersed in research and just haven’t had much time to write. Happily, however, I received a call for an on-campus interview today. Hopefully it won’t be the last such call.

In a rather pointed post, Kenneth Rufo responds to one of my queries as to how it is possible to be influenced. Kenneth quotes me from my Forcing the Event entry, where I write,

I think this really gets to the core of the issue. To put it in Kantian terms: “What are the conditions for the possibility of being influenced.” I’ve seen some work done among the systems theory that’s promising in that it analyzes the manner in which systems are selectively open to their environment, but the problem here, I think, is that there’s a tendency among systems theorists to place too much emphasis on the agency and autonomy of the system to the detriment of the environment. In many instances I did not explicitly choose my own influences, yet I wasn’t simply a passive formation of pre-existent influences either.

To this Kenneth responds,

You know, there is a field that actually spends a fair amount of time on this exact question: rhetoric. It’s got a long tradition, it precedes philosophy, and there’s a subfield that deals with social movements, though I can’t speak to the quality of that scholarship. For particular people you might enjoy, I suppose I’m obligated to suggest Kenneth Burke, though he’s hardly my cup of tea. I’d also recommend a few contemporary scholars: Celeste Condit (she’s done some ideographic studies of abortion, genetics, and a few other topics), Barb Biesecker (articles more than book, though her Addressing Postmodernity is pretty good), Michael Hyde (more of an ethical, Levinas/Heidegger influenced version of rhetoric), John Durham Peters (his Speaking Into the Air is masterful), and Christine Harold (who’s book OurSpace comes out in April). I can be more specific if you have a particular example of symbolic structuration you’re grappling with, or if you can clarify what such a structuration might be in practice. Not that rhetoricians have any particularly final answer, but it might be useful to look at the stuff. As for the dialectical arrangement you’re alluding to, I’d at least advocate some engagement with Bourdieu, since his theory of structuration is predicated on a conception of agency as a dialectic between habitus and agent.

I think, perhaps, Kenneth here misses the focus of my original question and elides two distinct concepts: The concept of influence and the concept of persuasion. While these two concepts are interrelated, they are nonetheless distinct and respond to different issues. It is impossible for me to be persuaded without being influenced, however, I can quite easily be influenced without it being a matter of persuasion. What is at issue here are questions about the selective openness of organizations to the world. That is, an organization, whether it be a biological organism, a subject, a social system, etc., is only selectively open to the world and thus can only be selectively influenced. For instance, I am unable to perceive ultra-violet light.

As I see it, one of the central assumptions of vulger historicist approaches is the idea that we are unilaterially conditioned by an environment. That is, the idea is that we’re born in an environment and somehow this environment makes us what we are. This view is common, for instance, to both Foucault and Bourdieu. What this account of individuation misses is the way in which subjects are only selectively open to an environment such that there’s a way in which we always choose our cultural and historical influences. Zizek expresses this point brilliantly in Tarrying With the Negative through the lense of Hegel’s “doctrine of essence” in the science of logic. There Zizek writes that,

Another way to exemplify this logic of ‘positing the presuppositions’ is the spontaneous ideological narrativization of our experience and activity: whatever we do, we always situate it in a larger symbolic context which is charged with conferring meaning upon our acts. A Serbian fighting Muslim Albanians and Bosnians in today’s ex-Yugoslavia conceives of his fight as the last act in the centuries-old defense of Christian Europe against Turkish penetration; the Bolsheviks conceived of the October Revolution as the continuation and successful conclusion of all previous radical popular uprisings, from Sparticus in ancient Rome to Jacobins in the French Revolution (this narrativization is tacitly assumed even by some critics of Bolshevism who, for example, speak of the ‘Stalinist Thermidor’); the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea or the Sendero Luminoso in Perud conceive of their movement as a return to the old glory of an ancient empire (Inca’s empire in Peru, the old Khmer kingdom in Cambodia); etc. The Hegelian point to be made is that such narratives are always retroactive reconstructions for which we are in a way responsible; they are never simple given facts: we can never refer to them as a found condition, context, or presupposition of our activity. Precisely as presuppositions, such narratives are always-already ‘posited’ by us. Tradition is tradition insofar as we constitute it as such. (126-7)

The point here is subtle but important: The subject is never simply a product of history or the result of conditioning, but rather posits those conditions through which it might be influenced and constitute itself. Or, where the writing of history is concerned, there is always an invisible subject– invisible insofar as there is no signifier for the subject –that posits x as history. Along these lines, my dear friend Melanie enjoys poking fun at me for my psychoanalytic narratives here on Larval Subjects, as she sees something false or contrived in the way I narrate myself. Here she is absolutely correct in that I often portray myself as a product of the events I narrate, as a sort of emergence, rather than as positing these events myself as a way of producing my presents. Indeed, my narratives are a sort of buffoonery. Sadly I haven’t yet developed the literary talent of Lars in his narrative conventions. Whatever the case may be, the Lacanian subject is a void, a lack, that animates the signifying chain. In short, the Lacano-Hegelian subject is– unlike the historicists –never simply a product of conditioning individuation such that it could be reduced to being a historically determined subject position. The question is one of how this lack, this nothingness, this absence of any successful identification, is handled and lived.

Zizek makes this point well apropos Hegel’s discussion of identity in the science of logic. Quoting Hegel, Zizek writes,

Father is the other of son, and son the other of father, and each only is as this other of the other; and at the same time, the one determination only is, in relation to the other… The father also has an existence of his own apart from the son-relationship; but then he is not father but simply man… Opposites, therefore, contain contradiction in so far as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another or sublate each other and are indifferent to one another. (SL 441)

The inattentive reader may easily miss the key accent of this passage, the feature which belies the standard notion of the ‘Hegelian Contradiction’: ‘contradition’ does not take place between ‘father’ and ‘son’ (here, we have a case of simple opposition between two codependent terms); it also does not turn on the fact that in one relation (to my son) I am ‘father’ and in another (to my own father) I am myself ‘son,’ i.e., I am ‘simultaneously father and son.’ If this were the Hegelian ‘contradiction,’ Hegel would effectively be guilty of logical confusion, since it is clear that I am not both in the same respect. The last phrase in the quoted passage from Hegel’s Logic locates the contradiction clearly inside ‘father’ himself: ‘contradiction’ designates the antagonistic relationship between what I am ‘for the others’– my symbolic determination –and what I am ‘in myself,’ abstractedly from my relations to others. It is the contradiction between the void of the subject’s pure ‘being-for-himself’ and the signifying feature which represents him for the others, in Lacanian terms: between $ and S1. More precisely, ‘contradiction’ means that it is my very ‘alienation’ in the symbolic mandate, in S1, which retoractively makes $– the void which eludes the hold of the mandate– out of my brute reality: I am not only ‘father,’ not only this particular determination, yet beyond these symbolic mandates I am nothing but the void which eludes them (and, as such their own retroactive product). (130-1)

This, then, is one of the meanings of Lacan’s discourse of the master:

S1—>S2

$

When Lacan remarks that “the signifier represents the subject for another signifier” it must be understood that the subject as such never appears in the signifier or that the subject is always effaced by the signifier. That is, when the subject falls under the signifier it suffers an aphanisis or disappearance, which is why Lacan will claim, in “Position of the Unconscious” that the subject is a temporal pulsation that disappears the moment that it appears and that can only be tracked through the traces it leaves (traces in symptoms, bungled actions, dreams, slips of the tongue, etc). These formations of the unconscious, in effect, are attempts to fill the void that is the subject, to produce a signifier that would be adequate to that void once and for all or that would be capable of naming it. However, this void is ineradicable (i.e., it’s a constitutive result of the individual’s subordination to the signifier). As Lacan will write, “For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with the real– a real that may well not be determined” (Seminar XI, 22). There is always one signifier too few and it is for this reason that there is no subject without a symptom (Seminar 22: RSI).

It is here that Lacan differs most radically from the postmoderns. Where the general trend of theory today is to reduce the subject to power, history, language, subject-positions, etc., Lacan demonstrates that between symbolic identity and the subject there is always a gap. The “cash-value” of this move is immense– On the one hand, Lacan is able to answer the question of why the subject is led to identify in the first place. As Freud had already argued well before Lacan, the ego dimension of the subject (which is always a misrecognition) is the precipitate of identifications. But what is it that motivates these identifications? Lacan’s answer is that my flight to the Other, to the signifiers of the Other, is the attempt to fill my “want-to-be” through identification. I look to the Other to tell me what I am. However, just as the central hole in a torus can never be filled, every identification is ultimately a failed identification (which is yet another reason that the formation of symptoms such as the symptom of the “Jew” for the German nationalist) as the hole insists and subverts the identification. As a result, there is always a kernal of resistance to any field of identification. The aim of the cultural critic should therefore be to lay bare these tensions, these antagonisms, so as effect a change in the symptom and how the symptom is organized. From the historicist standpoint this would be impossible as historicism is essentially Leibnizian: “Everything has a reason!” What it is unable to think is the kernal of contingency, of non-being, at the heart of any positive formation. The question here becomes one of devising technologies to shift the symbolic coordinates of narrative fields of identification so that antagonism as such might become thinkable.

None of this, of course, is to deny Kenneth’s observations about the importance of rhetoric. I work closely with rhetoric and with rhetoricians– at my school they’re my primary interlocutors. In my view, the central insight of the rhetoric tradition is that the subject is inherently intersubjective… Which is to say, the subject is constituted in the field of the Other. Even if poorly executed, this is part of Zizek’s own brilliance. On the one hand, Zizek has recognized the central importance of Lacan in giving us a truly rigorous intersubjective conception of the subject that thoroughly breaks with the tradition of seeing the questions of philosophy posed strictly in terms of subject-object relations. The minimal dyad is a triad: not subject-object, but rather subject-Other-object. No one has gone further than Lacan in thinking through the manner in which the subject’s desire, all its object relations, it’s very being in the world is thoroughly caught up in relations to the Other. This insight was glimpsed in philosophy beginning with the progressive shift towards language, history, and power in philosophy– all of which led to a philosophical crisis surrounding questions of presence –but it is with Lacan that this topology is thoroughly elaborated. On the other hand, Zizek has clearly seen that only something like Hegelian dialectic– beginning with the lord/bondsman dialectic in the genesis of self-consciousness –is successful in escaping the metaphysics of presence insofar as it conceives the subject’s relation to the world and the Other in terms of self-relating negativity capable of discerning itself in difference itself. This is a project that needs to be worked out far more thoroughly and rigorously. It is to the credit of the rhetoricians that they recognized from the beginning that questions of epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, ethics, etc., were questions of intersubjectivity and relations to the Other, such that any posing of these questions in restricted subject-object terms were bound to be truncated and mutilated.

However, where Kenneth’s remarks seem to suggest an opposition between rhetoric and philosophy, I would prefer to see something like a Lacanian real or parallax. As Zizek describes it,

The key problem here is that the basic ‘law’ of dialectical materialism, the struggle of opposites, was colonized/obfuscated by the New Age notion of the polarity of opposites (ying-yang, and so on). The first critical move is to replace this topic of the polarity of opposites with the concept of the inherent ‘tension,’ gap, noncoincidence, of the One with itself. This… is based on a strategic politico-philosophical decision to designate this gap which separates the One from itself with the term parallax. [already extensively thematized in the brilliant For They Know Not What They Do…, that no one bothers to read]. There is an entire series of the modes of parallax in different domains of modern theory: quantum physics (the wave-particle duality); the parallax of neurobiology (the realization that, when we look behind the face into the skull, we find nothing: ‘there’s no one at home’ there, just piles of gray matter– it is difficult to tarry with this gap between meaning and the pure Real); the parallax of ontological difference, of the discord between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological (we cannot reduce the ontological horizon to its ontic ‘roots,’ but neither can we deduce the ontic domain from the ontological horizon; that is to say, transcendental constitution is not creation); the parallax of the Real (the Lacanian real has no positive-substantial consistency, it is just the gap between the multitude of perspectives on it)… (7)

And so on. And to this I add the parallax of language between rhetoric and philosophy, or language in its address to an-Other where I can use the truth to tell a lie– WIFE: “Were you out with that redhead at the bar lastnight?” HUSBAND: [Sarcastically] “Of course darling, and after we rented a hotel room and had sex that’s illegal in 42 states all night long.” WIFE: “Sorry, I just thought I smelled perfume on you and my imagination got away with me.” –and language in its demonstrative and referential function to the world. The key point, of course, is that we are not to choose one or the other horns of the parallax but are rather to think them in their very gap, in their very heterogenoues irreducibility to one another. My rhetorician colleagues always express a sort of bitterness and hostility towards philosophy (no doubt they’re still angry over Plato banishing them from the Republic), and philosophers, of course, express a disdain for rhetoric, as can be witnessed in the solipsistic rigor of texts such as Descartes’ Meditations, Hegel’s Logic, or Husserl’s Ideas, where a palpable negation of the Other (as reader) seems to take place in the deductive meditations. Likewise, the rhetor often seems to reject questions of Truth. Indeed, today it increasingly seems that the most audacious and unforgivable thing one can do is proclaim a Truth. There is a veritable prohibition against Truth. Yet if the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, if the subject is an effect of the signifier in the real of the biological body, then there can be no question of choosing between rhetoric or philosophy. Rather, there can be no worldly statement that doesn’t already make reference to both the Other and the other, no demonstrative statement that is a solipsistic intellectual reverie. Rather, it’s high time that the parallax gap, the central antagonism motivating this inaugural division of disciplines and practices, be thought in its own right.

I previous posts I have expressed a sort of philosophical schizophrenia or malaise with regard to the question of where to begin in philosophy that perpetually has me batting about like a fly in a bottle. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes that, “[w]here to begin in philosophy has always– rightly –been regarded as a very delicate problem, for beginning means eliminating all presuppositions” (DR, 129). In advancing this assertion, Deleuze ties himself to a long philosophical tradition stretching all the way back to Plato. As Plato writes in Book VI of The Republic:

Understand then, said I, that by the other section of the intelligible I mean that which the reason itself lays hold of by the power of dialectic, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas [forms] moving on through ideas [forms] to ideas [forms] and ending with ideas [forms]. (511 b2-c1)

For Plato, philosophical discourse must break with all custom, authority, and mythological narratives to arrive at the assumptionless and demonstrable. An excellent example of this can be found in the early dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates is surprised to encounter Euthyphro at the Hall of Kings where legal matters are addressed. After a brief conversation, Euthyphro informs Socrates that he is there to prosecute his father for murder. Apparently one of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and murdered another servant. His father had bound the servant and thrown him in a ditch while dispatching another servant to determine what legal actions should be taken. While waiting for the authorities to arrive, the servant died from either the bonds or exposure to the elements.

Surprised that Euthyphro would prosecute his own father– here an anthropological knowledge of kinship relations would be important to the analysis of the dialogue –Socrates asks why Euthyphro would do such a thing. Euthyphro quickly responds that it is his pious or religious duty to do so. Socrates points out that only a man of very great wisdom (knowledge) would so confidently proceed in such a course of action and asks Euthyphro to explain piety to him so that he might better defend himself against the charges of impiety levelled against him by Meletus in his own court case. If Euthyphro can teach him the meaning of piety, then Socrates will be able to defend himself against Meletus’ charges as he will be able to show that he does, indeed, know what piety is (the presupposition here– common in the Ancient world –is that we only do wrong on the basis of ignorance, confusing what is good with its simulacrum). If, on the other hand, Euthyphro is mistaken, Socrates will be innocent as his soul will have been corrupted by a bad teacher.

The manner in which Euthyphro defends his first attempt at a definition of piety is of special interest with regard to the question of breaking with presuppositions. Having agreed to take Socrates as his pupil, Euthyphro remarks that,

…I say that the pious is what I am now doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits a murder or a sacrilegious roberry, or sins in any point like that, whether it be your father, or your mother, or whoever it may be. And not to prosecute would be impious. And, Socrates, observe what a decisive proof I will give you that such is the law. It is one I have already given others; I tell them that the right procedure must be not to tolerate the impious man, no matter who. Does not mankind believe that Zeus is the most excellent and just among the gods? And these same men admit that Zeus shackled his own father [Cronus] for swallowing his [other] sons unjustly, and that Cronus in turn had gelded [castrated] his father [Uranus] for like reasons. But now they are enraged at me when I proceed against my father for wrongdoing, and so they contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and what they say of me. (5d6 – 6a5)

In this first attempted definition of piety, it is clear that Euthyphro is an advanced ethical thinker deserving of praise. Euthyphro affirms the universality of moral principles irregardless of kinship, nationalistic, or tribal relations such as those one enjoys with respect to one’s mother and father. In this regard, Euthyphro sounds like Jesus, when he remarks “[i]f any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, his wife and children, his brothers, and sisters– yes, even his own life –he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The implication of this difficult saying seems to be that genuine moral uprightness requires a break from tribal and kinship relations– the Lacanian would add a break from identification with the master-signifier –so as to affirm the Jewish exhortation to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). So long as this break with what Badiou calls the logic of the encyclopedia is not accomplished, the dimension of the egalitarian universal cannot be encountered.

However, Socrates is quick to point out that there is both a problem with this definition of piety and more importantly with how it is defended. On the one hand, this definition fails insofar as it gives only an instance of piety (prosecuting someone for murder) and not the feature or rule that would allow us to identify all instances of piety. Interestingly, the Euthyphro ends in aporia without a definition, suggesting that perhaps piety is not a domain of knowledge and therefore not a domain of obligation with regard to the other (recall that the Oracle at Delphi is the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, the god of reason and truth). An important philosophical decision seems to be made later in the same dialogue when Socrates asks whether piety is pious because the gods love it or if the gods love it because it is pious. If the former, then we must await the revelation of the gods in order to know our ethical duty. If the latter, we can examine ethical questions without requiring recourse to the revelations of the gods. Socrates and Euthyphro both choose the latter option, and it is this decision that will mark all subsequent ethical theory to present and open the door for the Enlightenment critique of Church authority.

Of greater concern is the way in which Euthyphro defends his definition. Socrates quickly points out that Euthyphro appeals to myth, and remarks that he has a difficult time believing these stories to be true. In short, Euthyphro enjoins Socrates to accept as a duty something based on a myth that he cannot himself validate. This is an act of intellectual violence or disrespect to his interlocutor. So in this brief exchange the gauntlet of philosophy is thrown: break with myth so as to know through reason. Moreover, in the same dialogue Euthyphro has presented himself as an expert in all things pious, thereby defending his claims on the basis of his authority. In suggesting that he become Euthyphro’s pupil, Socrates effectively rejects the acceptance of authority on the basis of authority’s own claim to recognition, but instead calls for authority to legitimate itself.

Philosophy thus demands, in principle, a break from authority and myth. However, there is a genuine question as to whether this is possible. Insofar as the Lacanian subject is split, it is always decentered from itself. The manner in which the subject is decentered is structured in two ways: On the one hand, the Lacanian subject is not immanent to itself as a consciousness due to the manner in which the ego (not to be confused with the subject) is alienated in the imaginary, misrecognizing itself in its imago. The ego confuses itself with its image of itself rather than with its genuine being and is forever unable to coincide with this image. On the other hand, insofar as the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, it is alienated with regard to language such that it is not master of its own language. Because the signifier cannot signify itself, it follows that no origin or ground of language can ever be articulated that would meet Plato’s requirement for dialectic. For every signifier I articulate there will always be (n+1) or (n-1)… One more to say or one too few. The dream of a subject that would be immanent to itself and thus completely grounded such as we find in Descartes or Husserl is thoroughly undermined by the Lacanian subject. This goes straight to the heart of my concerns, for I recognize the validity of what I’ll loosely call “sociological thought”, undermining the dream of a subject immanent to itself (with the possible exception of Badiou), while also recognizing the philosophical ambition of breaking with doxa… If only as a critical regulative ideal.

What is required is some gesture that is able to rigorously establish the identity of the subject with what is most other or foreign to it (the symptom, social constitution, objective conditions, etc). The best candidate I’ve seen for a solution to this problem is Hegel’s “identity of identity and difference”. As Hegel expresses this identity of identity and difference,

The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general. This can be regarded as the defect of both, though it is their soul, or that which moves them. That is why some of the ancients conceived the void as the principle of motion, for they rightly saw the moving principle as the negative, though they did not as yet grasp that the negative is the self. Now, although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and Substance shows itself to be essentially Subject. When it has shown this completely, Spirit has made its exitence identical with its essence; it has itself for its object just as it is, and the abstract element of immediacy, and of the separation of knowing and truth, is overcome. Being is then absolutely mediated; it is a substantial content which is just as immediately the property of the ‘I’, it is self-like or the Notion. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 21)

When the analysand recognizes themselves in a slip of the tongue such as the statement “I cannot before myself”/”I cannot be-for myself”, subject is recognizing itself in substance. The analysand had intended to express the thought that he is unable to be prior to himself, but instead ended up saying, despite his intentions, that he cannot support himself. The work of the “negative” (relation) occurs when the analysand recognizes himself in this slip of the tongue, despite the fact that this slip was not what he intended. Similarly, when the sociologist demonstrates that the personal motives of individuals pursuing their own aims ends up producing economic inequalities such as the way in which American consummerism ends up reinforcing third world poverty and conflict despite the fact that the American consumer does not intend this result, a dialectical identity or an identity of identity and difference is being asserted between these large scale social organizations and these personal intensions. The truth expressed in the slip of the tongue (substance) differs radically from what the subject knows of himself (knowledge in the imaginary), just as the truth of one’s social actions (class inequalities) differs radically from what the consumer believes he knows of himself; yet there is nonetheless an identity between the two. Dialectic is able to demonstrate these relations. Even presuppositions themselves stand in a dialectical relation with the presuppositionless.

Yet while Hegel’s logic of the negative, his logic of alterity, promises a way of surpassing the difficulties posed by a subject that is no longer immanent to itself, there are two further problems: On the one hand, the Lacanian, unlike Hegel, rejects any claim that truth and knowledge can be brought into harmony with one another. Truth always outstrips knowledge, or we always say more than we intend to say. On the other hand, and what amounts the same, the Lacanian account of the real precludes any totality, whole, or completeness. What, then, would a dialectic look like that didn’t fall prey to the manner in which Hegel’s thought remains mired in the imaginary. For Lacan, the imaginary does not refer to the fictional such as an imaginary friend, but to the dimension of meaning, completeness, and the desire for wholeness. How is this to be philosophically surmounted? Or is there a discourse of the philosopher that escapes that of the master and enters the discourse of the analyst?

« Previous PageNext Page »