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law_of_identity_by_xxx515xxx-d4w6kc9Today, in my Philosophy of Religion course, we discussed a piece from the anthology we’re using entitled “God is a Projection of Man”.  Feuerbach opens with a preposterous statement:  humanity is distinguished from all other animals in that it is conscious.  This, of course, is the sort of statement that I love in my philosophy courses.  If a philosopher says something this obviously absurd, it’s rarely– I think –because they’re idiots, but more often than not because they mean something different than the connotations we find in these words.  If, by consciousness, Feuerbach meant awareness then he’s most certainly wrong.  Dogs, dolphins, maybe cats, certain birds, chimpanzees, etc, all have awareness.

What Feuerbach meant– and he says this explicitly –is that humanity is the only animal that thinks of itself as a species.  Since I was in a particularly Sartrean mood today, I rephrased this point as follows:  “human is that animal that wonders what it means to be human or for whom its species-being is a question.”  Now before the critical animal theorists and posthumanists jump all over me for anthropocentrism, I fully confess that I haven’t the faintest clue as to whether dolphins and dogs ask “what is dogness?” and “what is dolphiness?”  I have no special need, nor desire, to argue that this is a special province of humans (whatever they might be).  Perhaps a number of animals suffer from our special way of making ourselves miserable.  I certainly hope not.

What strikes me– and it matters little whether it is humans or dogs or chimpanzees or androids or dolphins or lichens or institutions –is being that sort of being for whom ones being is a question.  This, it seems, is the curse of being a subject.  To be subject is not to be an identity or an ego.  It is not to be a list of enumerable qualities like the list of properties we use to define a table, circle, or triangle.  All too often we hear subject described this way in discourses on subjectivization where we’re led to the notion of incommensurable worlds because, after all, everyone is supposed to be their essence or what subject-position defines them.  Yet subject seems to be something very different than this.  Subject is not an identity, an essence, a list of enumerable properties, but rather the failure  of properties to define ones being.  Subject is that being for whom its being is a question.  As Sartre so nicely put it, “consciousness is what it is not and is not what it is.”

Subject is, in this respect, an abyss.  I can list all sorts of things about my-self, all sorts of characteristics about me:  temperament, character, personality, past, ethnicity, gender, nationality, occupation, etc.  Yet somehow I am still curiously detached from these things.  Are they me?  I don’t know.  Somehow they are.  Yet they’re also not.  We are fascinated hearing others define us, say what we are– and perhaps even feel some sort of relief when we can be defined by an astrological sign or a Meyers-Briggs personality type or a disorder or an identity category –yet maybe we should take that satisfaction not as subject but as a symptom of subject:  that for subject, subject’s being is in question and subject is not sure what it is and finds that every list of predicates– S(x) (Ix —> p1, p2, p3…) –rolls off its back like water off a duck.  Subject is that for whom its being is open, a question, and for which predicates always fail.  And for this reason subject experiences a sort of anxiety or homelessness even where it is most at home.  “Am I being or doing it right?” subject wonders with respect to its gender or ethnicity or occupation or family or sex or nationality or class, because, as Hegel said, the mysteries of the Egyptians are mysteries to the Egyptians.  The ancient Egyptians were just as mysterious to themselves, to each Egyptian, as they were to everyone else.

This would be the truth of identity:  that we don’t have privileged access, a special secret knowledge, to even our own identity…  That it is mysterious even to us.  It is not the Levinasian Other that is an abyss– though she certainly is an abyss as well –but rather, above all, subject that is an abyss:  an abyss to itself.  Subject is not an identity, a subject-position, a subjectivization, an ego, nor an identification.  Subject is the a priori failure of all these things; an ineradicable failure that we cannot escape.  Indeed, perhaps we flee in to identity, subject-positions, subjectivizations, egos, and identifications to escape the yawning abyss that is subject and where all identities fail.  Do we not swoon and sigh in relief when we think we can say who we are?  And do we not yet experience a sort of minimal anxiety, disappointment, or failure in every attempt to say what we are, to categorize ourselves in a group, to say “I am x?”  Does the “I am x?” not create again the question of whether we’ve managed to properly be that?

It is here that we might find true universality.  We worry over the question of how incommensurable cultural universes can communicate with each other.  What if it is not that communication is rendered possible by a universal sameness— which critical theory reveals to always be a veiled particularity –but rather by a universal failure of sameness:  that first and most primordial failure, that failure being more originally than the origin, of being a failure to be identical with ourselves?  What if it is our being as a question, as something for which all predicates fail, that is the condition that allows us to communicate across difference and incommensurate universes of meaning and identity precisely because identity is never successful.  It is precisely because I don’t know what I am that I am able to communicate with another subject that doesn’t know what it is despite the fact that both of us come from such different universes.  It is the gap, the non-identity, that allows us to communicate rather than the identity.

french-revolution-pictures-22-622x415It saddens me to see so much shade thrown at Badiou and Zizek; especially by my Deleuzian friends.  Are their philosophies problematic?  To be sure.  However, I think what each enunciates is today absolutely necessary and completely timely.  Against what might unfairly be called a sort of anodyne Critchley pragmatism, it could be said that Zizek and Badiou call for us to will the impossible and to commit even where what we commit to appears doomed to defeat and failure.  Put a bit differently, Zizek and Badiou both refuse that game theoretical logic where we determine what we should do based on what we believe others will do.  “I will inform on my partner because I believe he will inform on me!  At least this way I’ll get a lighter sentence!”  “I will vote this way rather than the way I wish to vote because I believe others will vote this way and my vote will be wasted if I vote differently.”  Increasingly I can’t help but believe that there is a sort of evil that precedes evil; an evil that precedes the evil of the act.  It is the evil of cowardice– something I’ve often known in my life –that refuses to take that leap because it is believed the situation is hopeless and impossible.  This sort of compromise of ones desire or truth is an evil that precedes the act because this sort of reasoning ensures that evil or wrong triumphs.  Such is the outcome of game theoretical, political pragmatism (not to be confused with the philosophy of pragmatism defended by James, Dewey, and Peirce).  It is strange to find myself agreeing with Kant’s position in “On the Supposed Right to Lie”, but if Kant is right, then this is first because we never know what the other will ultimately do because they are themselves autonomous beings, and second because the only way to make the impossible possible is by choosing the impossible or by making the imprudent decision.

tumblr_nfolu6LbZ81rrajnno1_1280There is something unbearable about the Lacanian teaching; something that makes you want to turn away and flee, or at the very least forget.  It is not his opaque style, though that style performs the very thesis he wishes to articulate.  At its heart, the core Lacanian teaching is that there is no cure for existence, that the horror and dissatisfaction we experience in existence is a structural feature of being a speaking-being rather than an accident that befalls some.  Our introduction into language produces an ineluctable fissure within our being, generating a structural loss, forever fracturing jouissance, condemning us to be creatures of desire and drive.  Desire becomes a hole that can never be filled, that pervades every aspect of our existence, and that haunts the entirety of our world and social relations.  Everywhere we see cries raised to heaven, striving to treat desire, this fissure, as an accident that can be remedied whether through self-help, religion, love, or political struggle.  Everywhere we come up with theories striving to account for what caused this fissure in our lives, this fragmentation of jouissance.  All of politics can be read as so many theories of who stole the jouissance, of which group or institution is responsible for the shattering of jouissance.  Yet while desire and jouissance, while the trauma of never ceasing drive, might be effects of the symbolic on our bodies, desire, jouissance, and drive are of the real:  that which always returns to its place and which is impossible to eradicate.  The question is how to continue on in these political struggles knowing full well that there is truth to the story of the Fall and that no technology, revolution, or new form of life or social arrangement can remedy this fissure that torments us?

walking-towards-the-abyss-larry-butterworthIn Lacanian Affect, Collette Soler argues that in the capitalist age, the age where God has died, there is no longer a social relation or bond and that “semblance” has collapsed.  We are reduced to bodies relating to things satisfying needs, appetites, and desires.  By “semblance” she means grand values such as justice, beauty, emancipation, universality, truth, goodness, etc.  These values on behalf of which we would act depart from the world and we are left with a naked or bare world; a world where all of these things are seen as ways of being duped.  Instead everything comes to be seen as dynamics of power, appetite, and need.  I wonder about the degree to which the hermeneutics of suspicion has contributed to this collapse.  Everywhere, in suspicion, we show a dirty secret behind what is highest; a dark motive or desire; a form of oppression.  The irony is that we undertake this form of critique in the name of justice, truth, and emancipation, only to find that the very values that drove us are instead lures or masquerades.  We try desperately to continue believing in these things, but fall into a cynicism that sees a dark play for power behind each of them.  All of them are a sham, we think.  We end up howling into the void, unable to proceed.

Plato's_Symposium_-_Anselm_Feuerbach_-_Google_Cultural_InstituteToday I found myself rereading Lacan’s 8th seminar (transference) after 15 years. I try to put myself in the shoes of his audience. He had such a remarkable talent for shedding entirely new light on texts, but also for transforming psychoanalysis itself. Take your average Anglo-American psychology (or social science) program today and imagine someone with the audacity to engage in a close reading of Plato’s Symposium to understand the nature of transference. Were talking about a period where positivism was regnant across the board and where there was a deep drive in psychology, psychoanalysis, and other social sciences to take on an air of ersatz scientificity.  Here we have a man that wore ridiculous wigs guiding us through the Symposium to understand the core of the psychoanalytic experience.

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A Young Lacan

His readings are always remarkable in that you get the sense that you are discovering a secret text within the text:  a secret that somehow reveals the meaning of the text, its internal logic, that somehow has endlessly been missed.  Texts that we’ve read dozens of times take on an entirely new cast.  “How could I have missed that?  It was so obvious?” is often my experience.  His readings never carry the air of scholarly or academic pedantry, but rather show why these texts continue to speak to us across time:  Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Descartes, Russell, Quine, Wittgenstein, Kant, Sade, Shakespeare, etc.  All of it becomes something else in his hands, and somehow something quite different than what it’s been.

But it’s also psychoanalysis that becomes something different in his hands.  Let’s be honest, Freud and much of the psychoanalytic literature prior to Lacan is just plain crass.  We get something that appears like a reductive hydraulics of psych.  With Lacan entirely new terms are introduced that go to our existential, extimate core:  love, desire, jouissance, the Other, the Law, ethics, etc.  These are not really terms that Freud used; at least not in the sublime sense deployed by Lacan.  Somehow Lacan introduces something entirely new into Freud, while also finding something that was everywhere there.  Lacan is a model of what a reading can be, of a productive reading, of a reading that bears fidelity to the living being of texts rather than placing them in the museum of scholarship.  Lacan provides a model of reading that is thought rather than mastery.

140703100133-bangkok-fish-mall-restricted-story-topIs this how it ends?  Does it end with everyone knowing something is deeply wrong, with everyone seeing something is wrong– except bureaucrats and administrators –deeply wrong, yet being completely powerless to do something about it or change course?  Does it end with everyone doped up with reality television, the latest outrage of the moment, and a deep unease, yet no one speaking up about it?  Does it end with every speech act immediately getting neutralized, such that it produces little more than a ripple in the pond?  Does it end with all of us standing around pointing out that it’s all wrong, that it’s a mess, and congratulating each other while going with safe choices and pragmatic realism while the water heats up?

fissureI’ve been struggling to express this thought, but don’t yet have words to do so with any conceptual rigor or eloquence.  Maybe I shouldn’t write about this at all, then.  Or maybe I should just write blindly, hoping that something will shake loose and that a seed will form allowing me to formulate something more rigorously in the future.  That is, after all, the entire point of this blog…  To follow larval subjects through a blind writing that might develop into something more into the future.  Hegel disdainfully said of Schelling’s ever shifting systems, that he conducted his education in public.  I suppose I’m like Schelling in this respect.  I follow my errancy, letting thoughts form in fits and starts, seeing where they lead and watching many of them fall into ruin.  I prefer, however, to think that my method is more Leibnizian or occasional; that I’m a sort of letter writer that develops thought as the occasion demands it.

Perhaps I should start with the context of the thought:  the current primary election between Sanders and Clinton.  I hesitate to do so because I don’t want this to become a discussion about politics– especially democratic politics –but am trying to get at something of a trauma.  Again and again the polls indicate that the older generation, the boomers, are skewing towards Clinton, while the younger vote, the millennials, is skewing towards Sanders.  This is something I’ve encountered myself in discussion with my friends of various ages.  My older friends, in their late fifties and sixties, overwhelmingly gravitate towards Clinton, while my peers and students skew towards Sanders.   This is not something I’ve only experienced in the domain of politics, but also in philosophy.  I’ve witnessed, on a number of occasions, divides such as this between generations over schools of philosophical thought.  The first such experience was with the rise of Badiou contra phenomenology, hermeneutics, and deconstruction.  There was the palpable feel that an entirely new discourse had emerged, that there were new rules of the game; yet the prior generation proceeded according to the same methodologies as if nothing new had occurred.  Later I witnessed and participated in something similar with the new materialisms and speculative realisms.

read on!

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