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January 3, 2017
December 2, 2016
The open of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit dramatizes our alienation in language and the perpetual inadequacy of the symbolic with respect to the real. In the chapter entitled “Sense-Certainty: Or the ‘This’ and ‘Meaning'”, Hegel begins by noting that “[t]he knowledge or knowing which is at the start or is immediately our object cannot be anything else but immediate knowledge itself, a knowledge of the immediate or of what simply is” (58). Hegel takes as the beginning point the apprehension of that which is given in sense-certainty: the rich world of beings that is right there before us. “Because of its concrete content”, Hegel continues, sense-certainty immediately appears as the richest kind of knowledge, indeed a knowledge of infinite wealth for which no bounds can be found, either when we reach out into space and time in which it is dispersed, or when we take a bit of this wealth, and by division enter into it” (ibid.).
However, Hegel is quick to add that this knowledge which seems richest, is actually poorest in truth. “All that it says about what it knows is just that it is; and its truth contains nothing but the sheer being of the thing” (ibid). What we encounter here is a drama of language or the symbolic; a frustrating impotence that haunts all speech. Hegel notes this in a couple of ways a moment later:
We write down this truth [that it is night]; a truth cannot lose anything by being written down [or can it? me], any more more than it can lose anything thorough our preserving it. If now, this noon, we look again at the written truth we shall have to say that it has become stale.
The Now that is Night is preserved, i.e., it is treated as what it professes to be, as something that is; but it proves itself to be, on the contrary, something that is not. The Now does indeed preserve itself, but as something that is not Night… (60)
The world becomes or changes, yet the language remains fixed like a statue. This is why, later, in his seminar, Lacan would associate language and death. Life is that which becomes and changes, yet when it’s captured in language it is alienated by the trace of the signifier that preserves itself as that which is not. This is a secret that every writer knows, for they find themselves trapped in the signifiers they have produced and from which they have since moved on. Writing is a sort of death in that the reader mortifies the author in the works that she has written, demanding that she live in the crypt of those words rather than write on.
Here, then, we encounter the first alienation of language; the first source of tragic despair embodied in the impotence of the word. The word is detached from its origin, from its moment of utterance, and travels throughout the world. Detached from its origin, it grows stale and is liable to take on any meaning whatsoever. John writes Revelation— perhaps –as a veiled political critique of Rome. Today it is read as a prophecy about the end of the world.
[i]t is as a universal too that we utter what the sensuous [content] is. What we say is: ‘This’, i.e., the universal This; or, ‘it is’, i.e. Being in general. Of course, we do not envisage the universal This or Being in general, but we utter the universal; in other words, we do not strictly say what in this sense-certainty we mean to say. But language, as we see, is the more truthful; in that, we ourselves directly refute what we mean to say, and since the universal is the true [content] of sense-certainty and language expresses this true [content] alone, it is just not possible for us ever to say, or express in words, a sensuous being that we mean. (60)
Between what we utter and what we envision we encounter the despair of language; a despair that becomes all the more poignant in this case of trauma… Though perhaps this gap between the utterance and the envisioned is the original trauma at the heart of our being. Couples, friends, and enemies spin about for hours, days, and years in rage and despair trying to utter the this of the affect, of the wrong, of the thing without being able to do so. As we say, words fail.
And why is this? Because between utterance and what we envision there is an infinite gulf. Existence– the this, the experience, the affect, the thing –is composed entirely of singular terms. Language is composed entirely of general or universal terms. The “this”, the signifier “this”, is a general or universal or general term. Through the signifier “this” I envision this. I hope to utter to you this thing, experience, event, or affect here and now. Yet “this”, the signifier this, is every other this. My words fail. No matter how lush and erotic my description of the orange is, I don’t produce the experience of the orange in you. The words fall flat and stale, lacking the pungent citrus flavor and scent of the orange. The spoken, written, or uttered orange is a dead orange. This orange that I had at this time and on this occasion cannot be compared to any other orange. It was an incomparable orange. Yet the moment I utter it, it becomes a generic orange. It’s singularity is erased and lost.
This, then, is part of what it means to be alienated in language or the symbolic. This alienation has a two-fold character: On the one hand, it is the inability to say what we mean. I envision the thing, event, experience, or affect, but in striving to utter these things, I find my words are impotent. I am unable to say or convey what I mean. This is particularly acute in the case of trauma, where I endlessly circle around the trauma striving to say it, only to experience it endlessly slipping away. On the other hand, our alienation in language lies in the universality of language in opposition to or negation of the singularity of existence. Language presents us with nothing but general categories, generic terms, whereas existence presents us with nothing but things that differ.
And perhaps this is the difficulty with all talk of identities, triggers, and traumas. All talk of identity is doomed to fail because the moment we talk about identities– gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, male, female, American, hispanic, etc. –we’re already talking in the domain of the universal, of general categories, that erase the singularity of people. Terms multiply endlessly as we strive to capture what exists in the net of language, only to find it fail again and again. “But that’s not me!” Within the ever proliferating system of categories we find forms of power where singularities find themselves enmeshed in a web of terms and categories presiding over their destiny, over how others relate to and treat them, without ever being able to truly utter them. Yet it cannot be otherwise. We cannot dispense with the alienation we encounter in language in the name of the singular for the singular cannot be uttered. And we cannot dispense with the singular as the auto-critique of the failure of all language. Instead we are condemned to forever shuttle back and forth between the universality of language and the abstraction of the utterance and the singularity of the existent treating each, endlessly, as the critique of the other.
November 28, 2016
Over at An und fur Sich, Marika Rose has an interesting post up on some of the difficulties with the left’s criticism of identity politics. She writes:
Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.
Expanding on the point of his final sentence about the difference between liberal politics and radical politics, perhaps it can be said that a central problem with liberal politics is that it unfolds almost entirely at the level of the symbolic and agents. Liberal politics overwhelmingly sees issues like racism at the level of problems of belief and affectivity. Belief falls into the category of the symbolic, whereas affectivity falls into the category of the phenomenological agent. The problem, says the liberal, is racists and the problem with racists is that they have mistaken representations of whatever group happens to be the object of their hatred. Based on these premises, the liberal proposal is a sort of pedagogy of belief that corrects these false representations and that enacts laws to mitigate the negative effects of these beliefs. The idea resembles something like cognitive behavioral therapy or a certain version of Stoicism. The idea is that emotions or affects are based on beliefs or the symbolic, so if we correct those beliefs we’ll bring about the erasure of these sad passions or affects.
It is, of course, true that a significant dimension of issues such as racism is symbolic and affective in character. There is no doubt here. The problem is that it is not simply agents or collectives that are racist (individual racism and white privilege), it’s that material environments are themselves racist. Infrastructure and the natural world are themselves racist. What I have in mind here is Judith Butler’s thesis of the differential exposure to precarity of marginalized groups in her recent work Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly or Stacey Alaimo’s concept of trans-corporeality in works like Bodily Natures. For the oppressed, it is material environments that are themselves toxic. Material environments directly target the body and afford and constrain the possibilities of life, action, and affect for people who live in these worlds. This can above all be seen in the case of Flint, Michigan where the polluted water directly assaults the body. The population of this town is disproportionately poor and composed of vulnerable minorities. Indeed, perhaps minority itself should be defined as a sort of hyper-vulnerability. No doubt it was racist policy and belief (again the symbolic) that contributed to the production of this material environment, but it is not enough to merely target the beliefs and policies. Addressing the material environment itself is also a front in the fight against something like racism.
And herein lies the problem with liberalism. Liberalism too often remains at the level of the symbolic alone, at the level of beliefs and policies, ignoring the material dimension in which people dwell. We could say that it suffers from abstraction. And here we need not look far for the reason behind this abstraction. Liberalism entertains the fantasy of a harmony between capitalism and cultural politics, which compels it to discern all struggles of the oppressed and unequal purely at the level of abstract rights and equality, ignoring the way in which inequality and oppression are built into the very fabric of the material world itself at the level of infrastructures, technologies, labor, and destruction of the natural environment in capitalism’s unquenchable pursuit of capital. It’s fantasy is that cultural inequality can be addressed purely at the level of the symbolic without hindering capitalism’s pursuit of capital in any way. By contrast, the radical politics that Rose alludes to sees all of these struggles as symptoms of the overarching horizon of life under capitalism in the anthropocene. Absolute emancipation cannot simply be symbolic, it can’t merely be a matter of recognizing and tolerating others, it can’t merely be a matter of possessing abstract rights. Absolute emancipation must also be material emancipation and the opportunity to live in an embodied world that is not toxic.
November 21, 2016
Currently I find myself reading Zizek’s latest, Disparities, and what he has written about my second book, The Democracy of Objects. I am not at all sure of where to begin, and whether I will respond in print at all. I do know that if I decide to respond, I would prefer something like a dialogue than pointing out the places where he’s just plain wrong in his portrayal of my thought (though some of that will be unavoidable), because I’ve been deeply influenced by his thought and have learned a great deal from him. I do confess a certain horror at being read by Zizek. There’s something about his thought that is like a great devouring machine that sucks everything out and spits it out. It’s a strange experience to have. Initially three things stand out to me.
First, Zizek effectively erases Graham Harman from OOO. The first sentence of “[t]he core of object-oriented ontology (OOO) developed by Levi Bryant can be summed up by the formula: from subject back to substance” (55). Nowhere does Harman appear in Disparities, yet we know this can’t be simple ignorance on his part as Harman appears in Less Than Nothing and the two of them did keynotes alongside one another this last year. Perhaps this was simple grammatical imprecision on his part. Perhaps he meant to say “the core of object-oriented ontology in the form developed by Levi Bryant…”, however, the remainder of the chapter doesn’t read this way. From psychoanalysis, of course, we know that forgetting is among the parapraxes. What are we to make of this forgetting in Zizek’s book and what might it indicate?
Second, and in an even more curious vein, he conflates my thought with Jane Bennett’s. Zizek goes on to write that, “…insofar as subject is correlative with modernity (recall Lacan’s thesis about the Cartesian subject as the subject of modern science), we can also say that ooo follows the premise rendered by the title of Bruno Latour’s famous book We Were Never Modern (sic.): it endeavors to bring back the premodern enchantment with the world… The main target of ooo is thus not transcendental philosophy with its subject/object dualism but modern science with its vision of ‘grey’ reality reduced to mathematical formalization: ooo tries to supplement modern science with a premodern ontology which describes the ‘inner life’ of things” (55).
This is a very curious claim, for 1) I’ve never defended the re-enchantment of nature (quite the contrary, as my article “Black Ecology” in Prismatic Ecologies makes quite clear), 2) the project of onticology has never been to save being from modern science (if anything I’ve defended the rather unpopular position in the humanities and social sciences of needing more and better science and philosophy that responds to the ontological challenge that contemporary science presents to us), and 3) I’ve been a longtime defender of both the Enlightenment and modernity (though I would say I defend not Enlightenment as such, but what is “in enlightenment more than itself” or “the enlightenment such as it could have been, not as it was”).
In this regard, I’m not in disagreement with Zizek about the status of the (Cartesian) subject. Among the greatest accomplishments of the Enlightenment was an evacuation of all substantial content (identity) so as to encounter it as a void or emptiness (in my Lacano-Sartrean jargon, anyway). Enlightenment cleared the way to creating a maximal distance between the subject and the ego (identity) paving the way, in my view, for emancipatory politics. When, in so much contemporary theory, we encounter endless critiques of “the subject”, what we’re truly encountering is not a critique of the subject, but rather of the ego or the thesis that identity is a substantial property of the subject. This critique wouldn’t be possible were subject not, above all, void.
November 14, 2016
Descartes’ greatest achievement occurs in a very brief moment in Meditatin 1 when, when exploring whether we can be certain of the self and body he wonders whether he might be mad or dreaming. At that moment the subject ($) is distinguished from the self (I(a)). He discovers that the subject is void, emptiness, freedom, the possibility of self-creation. The subject is not the self and, indeed, the self is, as Descartes suggested, a perpetual question to us. Subject is an excess over every identity and the failure of every identity. Subject is the slipperiness of any identity or ego. This is where so much post-structuralist thought gets it wrong with Descartes: it confuses subject with the ego (I(a)) or the self, missing that subject is essentially the failure of any self or ego to be what it takes itself to be. Subject names the possibility of writing the self otherwise; the failure of every essence. It is that which contests all essences of gender, ethnicity, nationality, embodiment, and all the rest. It is the perpetual possibility of being otherwise and the abyss of being anything. It is for that reason that it is right to call the subject void or emptiness. It is here that the possibility of the anarchy lies, as well as our freedom and autonomy.
November 14, 2016
For anyone who’s interested, here’s the video of the Secret Life of Buildings roundtable at University of Texas, Austin.
November 14, 2016
I’m still reeling from last Tuesday’s election results and am trying to think of the questions that it raises going forward. I don’t know that I have much that’s original to add, but here goes:
First, and foremost, so much comes down to the role that corporate money plays in the democratic party. 6 million fewer democrats voted in this election than in 2012. I think this lack of turnout has to be put in context. To be sure, democrats had a candidate that had appalling favorability likings. These are things that have to be taken seriously in the age of the politics of affect. Democrats simply can’t run candidates on the basis of impressive resumes, but who fail to excite and hope to win. This is the third time they’ve done this in recent history (Gore and Kerry before).
However, more importantly, this was an election that followed the ’08 financial collapse and the Occupy Wall Street protests. While the stock market has recovered and jobs have slowly returned, people feel extreme economic precariousness, that they will never be able to retire, and that it is impossible to get ahead or send their children to college. They are drowning in debt and are struggling to make ends meet every month. The decision to run Clinton– and don’t kid yourselves, it was a foregone conclusion on the part of the party from the beginning –was nothing short of bizarre as she lacked credibility on all of these key issues. Her husband had played a key role in deregulating business in the ways that led to the financial collapse, he played a key role in the trade agreements that destroyed jobs and livelihoods, she made hundreds of thousands of dollars giving speeches to Wall Street, pushed TPP, and had larger corporate campaign contributions than any other presidential candidate in history. She could talk until she was blue in the face about the economy and many still would not trust her because of these things.
The democratic party finds itself in a very difficult position. In order to run general elections these days, massive amounts of money are needed (though Trump put the lie to this axiom). This means that they’re convinced they need these corporate campaign contributions. However, if they take those contributions they can’t address the issues that bring voters to the polls because doing so in a meaningful way threatens the interests of the banks and corporations. Take a close look at Clinton’s platform. I defy you to find a single proposal that in any way significantly threatens the interests of big moneyed interests. During the primaries and the general election I watched democratic partisans and true believers insist that big money doesn’t corrupt the political process. Yet is it a mistake that there’s no aspect of her platform that significantly challenges the interests of banks, insurance companies, energy companies, private prisons, pharmaceutical companies, the growing educational industry (charter schools and testing companies), etc., etc., etc? While clearly racism, Comey, and sexism all played key roles in Clinton’s loss, I think that the democratic party’s ability to meaningfully represent people in terms of their economic interests is what, more than anything, lost the election.
In a recent interview, Zizek draws on Chomsky’s concept of “manufacturing consent” with an interesting twist, to make the point that in our current age consent has disappeared. By “manufactured consent” Zizek has in mind the shared reality that belongs to society. In this respect, he shifts the Chomskyian meaning of the concept from propaganda to the construction of shared social reality. In every community there’s a base of “facts” that go without question that form the horizon or ground for interactions among people. One feature of a society or community is that there is something like a shared set of “facts” as to what is real; regardless of whether or these things really are facts or not. People might disagree as to what is to be done about these things or what might be the best way to address them, but they don’t disagree, at least, that these things are real. In other words, it is not just communication or shared symbols that define a society, but a shared world.
read on! (more…)