04 February 2007

Schizophrenic Vacillations-- Larval Subjects IS Moving... For the Moment

Well at the risk of making myself look even more mad, at the recommendation of Kenneth Rufo, Glen, and N.Pepperell, I'm going to give wordpress a go and see how it works out. For the next week or so I'll be over here. In days to come I'll be adding links to the blogroll and whatnot. So far the platform looks very nice and easy to navigate, so we'll see. Let me know what you think of the new layout. Now if I can only figure out how to use my webtracking service. I'm using the free service so it doesn't give me much access to the template. Any help would be appreciated.


UPDATE: Larval Subjects is Not Moving at this Moment

Alright, I'm in full flake out mode. However, after playing with Typepad all afternoon, I've concluded that blogger is still the lesser or two evils. Although the layout is nice over at Typepad, you have a very low degree of freedom when it comes to formatting. It seems to me that they've purposefully designed things in such a way that you have to pay for more expensive accounts to get this freedom. Thus, for instance, if I wished to keep my blogroll up to date, I would either a) have to rewrite the whole damn thing anytime I wish to add someone new (as their $8.95 program doesn't let you directly insert new names but only order them according to the date they were written), or b) pay for the $14.95 account that allows you to muck about in templates and codes. Well clearly these little limitations are designed just to get you to up your account and pay more, which is a load of crap considering I have the ability to change these things directly here. So for the moment, despite difficulties that keep cropping up with comments, Larval Subjects will remain exactly where it is. Next time I'll be a bit more circumspect when playing around with another platform... Determining in advance whether I feel it does the job. In the meantime, my apologies to anyone who changed links on my account.

I'm going to go growl and gnash my teeth now.


Operational Closure and the Reception of Events

One of the central axioms of sociological systems theory is the thesis that systems process events according to their own internal organization. As Luhmann puts it in his magnificent work Social Systems,

The environment receives its unity through the system and only in relation to the system. It is delimited by open horizons, not by boundaries that can be crossed; thus it is not itself a system. It is different for every system, because every system excludes only itself from its environment. Accordingly, the environment has no self-reflection or capacity to act. Attribution to the environment (external attribution) is a strategy of systems. But this does not mean that the environment depends on the system or that the system can comman its environment as it pleases. Instead, the complexity of the system and of the environment-- to which we will later return --excludes any totalizing form of dependence in either directions. (17)

For Luhmann, the fundamental distinction in sociological systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. Systems constitute themselves by distinguishing themselves from an environment. However, the key point is that, to put it in Hegelian terms, the relationship between system and environment is not an "external positing" where the environment is one thing and the system is another thing, but rather the unity of the environment is itself constituted by the system, such that the relation between system and environment is a self-referential relation constituted by the system itself. Any occurance taking place that the system attributes as coming from the environment but which doesn't fit the frame of this distinction is simply coded as noise or chaos.

It is for this reason that systems are characterized by "operational closure", such that events are processed according to the organization of the system in such a way that what an event is is always-already predelineated by the organization of the system. As Luhmann writes a bit further on,

Information occurs whenever a selective event (of an external or internal kind) works selectively within the system, namely, can select the system's states. This presupposes a capacity for being oriented to (simultaneous or successive) differences that appear to be bound to a self-referential operational mode of the system. "A 'bit' of information," as Bateson says, "is definable as a difference which makes a difference." This means that the difference as such begins to work if and insofar as it can be treated as information in self-referential systems.

Therein lies an immense extension of possible causalities and a discplacement of the structural problematics under their control. the extension goes in two directions. On the one hand, given the capacity to process information, things that are not present can also have an effect; mistakes, null values, and disappointments acquire causality insofar as they can be grasped via the schema of a difference. On the other, not just events but facts, structures, and continuities stimulate causalities insofar as they can be experienced as differences. Remaining unchanged can thus become a cause of change. Structural causality makes self-determination possible. Systems can store up possibilities of affecting themselves and, with the help of schemata that employ differences, can retrieve these at need. It should be noted, however, that structure does not operate as such, on the basis of a force dwelling within it. It merely enters into the experience of difference, which makes information possible, without necessarily determination what will take place there. Thus a system creates its own past as its own causal basis, which enables it to gain distances from the causal pressure of the environment without already determining through internal causality what will occur in confrontations with external events...

As a result of all this, the operational mode of self-referential systems changes into forms of causality that to a large extent reliably prevent it from being steered from outside. All the effects that one wishes to acheive ab extra either in the system or with it assume that the system can perceive impulses from without as information-- which is to say, as the experience of difference --and can in this way bring about an effect. Such systems, which procure causality for themselves, can no longer be "causally explained" (except in the reductive schema of an observer), not because their complexity is impenetrable, but on logical grounds. (40-41)

In short, systems do not function according to linear relations of cause and effect such as the transfer of motion that takes place in one billiard ball hitting another, but rather function according to a system specific causality that governs how events "impinging" on the system are received. What counts as information for a system, will depend on codes and programs belonging to the system. Elsewhere, in his beautiful and very accessible work, The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann explains that these codes are binary distinctions that determine how events are to be sorted as information. Programs then define how information is to be put to use by the system in question. Thus, for instance, the legal system perhaps organizes all events into information according to the code of legal/illegal, whereas the news media system processes all events according to the code information/non-information, and so on.

One of the key implications of this understanding of operational closure is that information cannot be transferred from one system to another. As Luhman puts it in The Reality of the Mass Media,

If, in addition, one starts out from the theory of operationally closed systems of information processing, the generation of information processing, the generation of information and the processing of information must be going on within the same system boundaries, and both differences to which Bateson's definition is geared must be distinctions in the same system. Accordingly, there are no information transfers from system to system. Having said that, systems can generate items of information which circulate between their subsystems. So one must always name the system reference upon which any use of the concept of information is based. (19)

The reason for this is immediately clear: If there are no transfers of information from system to system, then this is because information is only information for a specific system by virtue of the distinctions employed by that system. Insofar as different systems employ different distinctions to sort information, it follows that the event sorted according to the operative distinctions produces different information in both cases. It is for this reason that systems are not susceptible to "steering" from the outside, as the manner in which the system receives these events will be governed by the distinctions employed by that system. In this regard, Luhmann has a number of very pessimistic things to say about Marxist ambitions to steer the social system through either the economic or social system.

It seems to me that all of this is highly revelant in the context of Badiou's theory of the event. Very briefly, for Badiou an event is an occurance that fits none of the predicative categories governing what he calls a situation. In the lexicon or encyclopedia of the situation, there simply is no name for the event. Put in Luhmann-speak, an event is that which evades the binary codes governing how events are to be transformed into information. According to Badiou we can never demonstrate that an event has truly taken place precisely because there are no categories in the situation for counting the occurance. Consequently, the event is little more than chaos or noise. For Badiou, a subject is that agent that emerges in the wake of the event that resolves to count the event as belonging to the situation and to re-evaluate all elements of the situation in light of the implications this event has for the structure of the situation. There is thus a distinction, for Badiou, between subjects and individuals. Prior to nominating and becoming agents of an event, all of us are individuals. However, in being siezed by an event I become a subject by bearing active fidelity to the event, sustaining it through this fidelity, and seeking to transform the situation in light of the event.

In light of Luhmann, two serious concerns arise in relation to this theory of the event: First, if all systems process events in terms of system specific distinctions or codes, how is it possible for individuals to be open to events at all? Individuals are either their own systems or are iterations of the broader systems to which they belong through interpellation (Althusser's ISO's). It would seem that an individual must already be prepared to receive an event in order to be capable of discerning an event as an event rather than as mere noise or chaos. Consequently we can ask, "what are the conditions for the possibility of being receptive to an event in Badiou's sense of the word?" Second, is Badiou, perhaps, overly optimistic about the transformative possibilities of events? If subsystems of a system-- society --process events according to their own codes, there is a serious question as to how these subsystems could be open to the re-interpretations undertaken by the subject of an event. I don't have answers to these questions and am not offering these observations as a way of demolishing Badiou. Rather, these are questions posed for further work and thought.

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Larval Subjects Has Moved!

Recent complaints about difficulties posting, frustration with certain formatting issues and constant breakdowns of this blog have compelled me to relocate to Typepad. Hopefully this platform will prove superior to blogger, though I'm already encountering minor irritations. For instance, I can't figure out how to get directly into the template, and apparently there's no way to re-arrange links in my blogroll to assure that they're in alphabetical order without having to re-enter all the blog links. Hopefully I'll figure this out in time. I will, of course, leave this site up for their archives.

At any rate, here's my new home. I hope you find it hospitable.

02 February 2007

Put It to a Vote!

Unfortunately I'm just not very witty like many of you out there in the blogosphere, so I thought some of you might assist me with the title of my book. When I told my students the title they all exclaimed "wow, long title". So what do you think:

The Transcendental Empiricism: Between Aesthetics and Representation


Difference and Givenness: Deleuze's Transcendental Empiricism and Ontology of Immanence

I'm partial to the latter as I like "and" titles, but who knows. Additionally, I wonder if anyone would like to help me in proofing the manuscript once the galleys come in. The plan is for the book to go into production by April, so things are going to be extremely hectic during the next few months. Being the poor bloke that I am, I can't offer money, but I can offer acknowledgement.

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01 February 2007

At the Request of Noah-- Book Abstract and Table of Contents

The Transcendental Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze: Between Representation


In this book I seek to unfold the significance and implications of Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism. Where many interpretations of Deleuze’s metaphysics treat his transcendental empiricism as a variant of sense-data empiricism based on the primacy of the given, I instead argue that Deleuze’s position is a hyper-rationalism that seeks to determine the conditions under which the given is produced or the conditions of real experience. Consequently, Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism represents a substantial departure from classical empiricism in that it does not treat the given as epistemically primitive, but instead seeks to determine how it is produced. Thus, the empiricist dimension is to be situated in terms of how the given is produced and what conditions allow for the production of the given. It is for this reason that Deleuze philosophy remains a transcendental.

If Deleuze’s position is better conceived as a hyper-rationalism, then this is because he discovers intelligibility in the given itself. For Deleuze the sufficient reason of the given is to be found in the differentials of being that preside over the genesis of the given. Since these differentials are intelligible, rational structures governed by rule-like processes, Deleuze is able to collapse the oppositions between the sensible and the intelligible and passivity and activity that has governed the manner in which metaphysical problems have unfolded throughout the history of philosophy.

In this way Deleuze is also able to collapse the implicit distinction between finitude and infinitude, and show how the finite differs only in degree, not kind, from the infinite. If this distinction collapses, then this is because the ability to create objects (givens) through thinking them is no longer understood as belonging solely to divine, infinite beings such as God, but is a property shared in degree by finite creatures as well. As such, Deleuze’s thought marks a heroic attempt to depart from the reigning philosophical alternatives of phenomenology, logical analysis, pragmatism, post-modernism and post-structuralism, all of which evolved as responses to Kant, by undermining the central premises of finitude and the passive receptivity of intuition upon which they are based.






1.1 Two Critical Problems of Transcendental Empiricism 23

1.2 Difference, Diversity and Empiricism 32

1.3 External Difference and Transcendental Philosophy 37

1.4 Between Conditioning and Genesis 41

1.5 Between Chaos and Individuation: The Forced Vel of 48

Representational Philosophy

1.6 Variations of Difference: The Topological Essences of Intuition 58


2.1 Internal Difference 67

2.2 Bergsonian Intuition 70

2.3 Internal Difference and the Intensive Multiplicity of Duration 73

2.4 Intensive and Extensive Multiplicities 78

2.5 Conditions of Real Experience 81

2.6 Topological Essences and Singular Styles of Being 85



3.1 Deleuze Contra Bergson 97

3.2 The Image of Thought 105


4.1 Imperceptible Encounters 120

4.2 The Sentiendum, or That Which Can Only Be Sensed 123

4.3 Deleuzian Faculties and the Joints of Being 126

4.4 Signs of the Transcendental 128


5.1 The Ontological Structure of Problems and the Encounter 133

5.2 Ontological Memory: The Being of the Past 135

5.3 Memory and the Passage of the Present 140

5.4 The Virtual Causality of Structure 145

5.5 The First Paradox of Memory: Contemporaneity 147

5.6 The Second Paradox of Memory: Coexistence 151

5.7 The Third Paradox of Memory: The Pre-Existence of the Past 156

5.8 The Fourth Paradox of Memory: The Co-Existence of the Past 157

with Itself

5.9 Freedom and Destiny 162

5.9.1 The Force of Memory 170


6.1 The Explication of Problems 175

6.2 The Moral Image of Thought 181

6.3 The Being of Thought: Essence 186

6.4 Difference: The Transcendental Condition of the Diverse Given 190

6.5 Essence and the Metaphysical Structure of Point of View 196

6.6 Problems and the Dialectical Illusions of Being 203

6.7 Kant and the Being of Problems 206

6.8 The Insistence of Problems 212

6.9 Structural Essences 218



7.1 The Threat of Dogmatic Schwärmerei 227

7.2 The Kantian Split Subject 231

7.3 Towards a Third Copernican Revolution 235

7.4 Time Out of Joint 239

7.5 The Becoming-Identical of the Different: The Event of Time 245

and the Subject of Difference

7.6 Beyond the Subject: Deleuze’s Hyper-Critical Turn 251

7.7 The Limits of Recognition 254

7.8 The Genetic Conditions of Experience: The Three Moments of 256


7.9 Chance and Necessity: The Eternal Return 262

7.9.1 Beyond Individuation and Chaos: The Singular 267

7.9.2. The Transcendental Field and Deleuze’s Speculative Turn 270

7.9.3 Individuation and the Being of Singularity 277



8.1 Three Problems Pertaining to the Process of Actualization 286

8.2 Indi-Different/ciation and the Genesis of Extensities 286

8.3 The Principle of Sufficient Reason: Indi-Different/ciation 290

8.4 The Static Time of Actualization 298

8.5 The Time of Sufficient Reason 300

8.6 The Spatialization of Intensive Time 302

8.7 The Intensive Factors of Actualization 303

8.8 Implication and Explication 307

8.9 Depth and Extensity 312

8.9.1 Depth and the Image of Thought 314

8.9.2 The Genesis of Individuals and Persons 315

8.9.3 The Moral Ground of the Image of Thought 323



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30 January 2007

Celebration Time!

I've just received confirmation from Northwestern University Press that my study of Deleuze, The Transcendental Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze: Between Aesthetics and Representation has finally been fully confirmed and is due out in Fall of 2007.


29 January 2007

Apocalypse Now Redux-- Back From Las Vegas

Well folks, I'm back from Las Vegas and am overwhelmingly pleased to be home. This was my first trip to Vegas and I have to confess that it simply is not my sort of city-- Too many people, too much noise, and too many lights. Give me a nice secluded beach, a mountain path, or a desert vista any day! To make matters worse, I was deathly ill when I returned from some bug the details of which I'll spare you, and spent all of today hovering somewhere between a state of coma and a state of cold sweats. The upside of this is that I got to practice my moaning and fetal position. On the other hand, there's something brilliant about this city. One night I had dinner in "Paris" under the "Eiffel Tower" (which probably made me sick). What could be the premise of this if not the American idea that anything can be commodified, that place and geography make no difference and contain nothing singular? The architects behind Las Vegas had a brilliant idea: Get in cahoots with the airlines so cheap flights are always available, keep hotel prices down, prevent any restrictions on where you can smoke and drink, and have cheap buffets with halfway decent food... As a result you get a city filled with drunken midwesterners and Southerners walking back and forth down the strip having a delightful time.

The paper went well, though the turnout was small. I get the sense that this conference is a sort of pretext pop-culture people use to go enjoy the city. I've toyed with the idea of mythologizing the paper in the way Lacan mythologized his mirror stage essay. You might recall that Lacan first presented this article in Zurich at the same time Ernst Jones was speaking, such that no one attended the talk. Lacan later spoke of this article as nonetheless being an event. Of course, my paper is certainly not the mirror stage, but I do think it gets at something of the real defining our contemporary situation.

I've posted the unedited version below for those who are interested. I'm pleased to see that discussion of these themes is proliferating throughout the blogosphere. I'm always excited when I see this occur, as it's beautiful to see the way in which certain themes, fractalize and proliferate throughout this sphere, generating all sorts of interesting variations such that the topic takes on a life of its own. I believe this concept of "theme", as opposed to "concept", is important as themes can be widely displaced and developed heterogeneously among different authors, and we also know from music that themes can develop themselves immanently, almost as if they have a life of their own. The blogosphere is a world of themes in this sense.

Of special note are Joseph Kugelmass's recent posts (here and here) on both his own blog and over at Valve (here and here). Both links are worth reading for the posts themselves and the dialogue that's ensued. Adam Kotsko has recently written a tongue and cheek piece on how the blogosphere will eventually replace the academic manuscript and journal article. While I'm not sure I would go this far, I nonetheless think he's alluding to something important with regard to the generative power of this medium, and how all this playfulness is also extremely productive. There's still a lot of work to do on this particular paper-- which I hope to submit for publication in a pop-culture journal somewhere --especially with regard to the concept of the real that N.Pepperell and I have been exploring in our own specific vocabularies. In particular, I'm pleased to take from her, her reading of Hegel pertaining to the immanent positing of standards and the contradictions and antagonisms that emerge in the unfolding of these standards. But that's another discussion (see here in particular, but all the links on Hegel are excellent and well worth exploring). Some of this will be familiar, some will be new, and some will contain typos. Without further ado... Be kind!

Enjoy Your Apocalypse! Apocalyptic Fantasies, Jouissance, and Social Symptoms in Life Under Post-Industrial Capitalism

One of the things I began noticing a few years ago is that I was encountering patients whose sexual and amorous fantasy life was deeply bound up with visions of apocalypse or the destruction of civilization. For instance, I would encounter patients who had all sorts of fantasies about post-apocalyptic settings such as life after an eco-catastrophe, nuclear war, a massive plague, or a fundamental economic and technological collapse, where, at long last, they would be able to be with the true objects of their desire and their life would finally be meaningful (struggling to survive, to rebuild the world, etc). As I reflected on this phenomenon a bit, I began to notice that these sorts of fantasies populate the social space everywhere. In cinema there is an entire genre of apocalyptic films from both rightwing and leftwing perspectives such as Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Dante's Peak, Volcano, Deep Impact, the Terminator trilogy, the Matrix trilogy, I, Robot, War of the Worlds, and many more I cannot remember. In the world of "literature" the Left Behind novels have been a stunning success, selling millions of copies and leading to popular television shows and made for television movies. In news media, of course, we are perpetually inundated with apocalyptic threats from eco-catastrophe, to the bird flu, to the threat of massive meteors hitting the earth or supervolcanos exploding or even a star going supernova and evaporating our atmosphere, to terrorist attacks employing nuclear or bio-weaponry. The Discovery and Science Channel regularly devote shows to these themes.

In the world of Theory, analyses of apocalyptic politics have become very common as well. In Towards a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism, Sharon Crowley gives a marvelous and eye-opening analysis of our contemporary rhetorical situation in the United States-- a sort of “meta-kairos” or kairotic situation --where she treats the conflict between rhetorical practices emerging from fundamentalist apocalyptic discourses and classical Enlightenment discourses as the defining political conflict of our time. In the academic blogosphere, luminaries such as Jodi Dean of I Cite (author of Zizek’s Politics, Aliens in America, The Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism After Identity Politics, and other works), K-Punk, and Rough Theory, have had ongoing discussions surrounding the dangers of apocalyptic religious discourses within both American politics and world politics (for an excellent summary of this discussion, see High, Low, & In Between here, here, here, and here... Thank you, HLIB!).

However, while these discussions of religious apocalyptic narratives are of intrinsic interest, they tend to suffer from three major shortcomings. First, in focusing on religious apocalyptic narratives, other pervasive forms of apocalyptic narrative are ignored, leaving unasked the question of just why these fantasies are so pervasive. It is remarkable that there are a wide variety of secular apocalyptic narratives, which suggests, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that apocalyptic narratives are something of a social symptom. Second, in focusing on religious apocalyptic narratives as a threat against which liberal democracy must defend, we foreclose questions of how apocalyptic narratives might function as a fantasy and a symptom responding to some fundamental conflict or antagonism characterizing contemporary social existence. Finally, third, the focus on the political impact of apocalyptic narratives tends to cover over questions of why these narratives have become so pervasive at this particular juncture of history.

While I am certainly not dismissing the danger that a politics based on apocalyptic narrative can pose, the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenarios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions of the present rather than others. As Lacan somewhere quips, “just because your wife is cheating on you, it doesn’t mean that you’re not paranoid.” That is, some of these narratives could possibly be true in the non-analytic sense, but we must nonetheless account for how they have come to so pervasively occupy the contemporary mind. How is it that we are to account for the ubiquity of these scenarios in popular imagination-- An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room?

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we're to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that,

Another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative-- for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.

We need not consider dreams of the first of these classes, for they have no claim to be regarded as 'typical'. If we analyse them, we find that they have some meaning other than their apparent one, and that they are intended to conceal some other wish. Such was the dream of the aunt who saw her sister's only son lying in his coffin. (p. 152) It did not mean that she wished her little nephew dead; as we have seen, it merely concealed a wish to see a particular person of whom she was fond and whom she had not met for a long time-- a person whom she had once before met after a similarly long interval beside the coffin of another nephew. This wish, which was the true content of the dream, gave no occasion for grief, and no grief, therefore, was felt in the dream. (SE 4, 248)

No doubt this woman experienced some guilt for her desire for this man and therefore preferred to dream her nephew dead as an alibi of seeing him once again, rather than directly facing her desire. Indeed, in an earlier discussion of the same dream, Freud speaks of how the woman had a desire to suppress her wish to see this man, though he gives no indication as to why this is so. Could not a similar phenomenon be at work in apocalyptic scenarios? In short, Freud's point is that we should look at horrifying manifest content such as this as enabling the fulfillment of some wish. My thesis here would be that whenever confronted with some horrifying scenario or fantasy that troubles the analysand's minds or dreams, the analyst should treat it like a material conditional or "if/then" statement, seeking to determine what repressed wish or desire might become possible for the analysand were the scenario to occur (e.g., being fired would allow the analysand to pursue his true desire, the loss of a limb would allow the analysand to finally escape her father's desire for her to play violin, etc).

According to Lacan, the primary function of fantasy is a defense against castration. By castration, we should not understand anything having to do with the penis. Rather, the castration that Lacan has in mind is the constitutive incompleteness of the Other, the fact that the Other is lacking and does not have the answer to the analysand’s problems or the solution that would finally yield satisfaction to the subject. Each of the subject-positions-- neurosis, psychosis, and perversion --are different ways of negating this castration. Thus in the case of neurosis we have negation as repression of the Other’s castration or lack. The fundamental fantasy of the neurotic functions as a response to the traumatic enigma of the Other’s desire, giving him an answer to the question of what the Other wants of him. In the case of perversion, the castration of the Other is negated through disavowal, such that the pervert situates himself as having a knowledge of enjoyment and transforms himself into the object of the Other’s enjoyment. And finally, in the case of the psychotic, the castration of the Other is disavowed. This castration or constitutive incompleteness of the Other is what Lacan would later refer to as the “impossible-real”, and is the motor around which both symptom formation and fantasy are organized. As Lacan will say in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis with respect to neurosis, “…what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real-- a real that may well not be determined” (22). The symptom is what results from this gap and is an attempt on the part of the unconscious to recreate a harmony between the real and the symbolic through a symbolization of this real. The fantasy is the framework defining the manner in which the subject relates to the Other and the lack in the Other, modulating both his own jouissance and the jouissance of the Other.

Bearing the Lacanian theory of fantasy in mind, we can hypothesize that apocalyptic fantasies are a symptomatic response to the specific form of castration characterizing the social field-- Namely, the fact that “society does not exist.” When thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek and Ernesto Laclau claim that “society does not exist”, their point is that the social field is riddled with antagonisms and conflicts in such a way that a harmoniously functioning society cannot be represented. The fact that we have various and conflicting theories of the social is itself a symptom of the antagonistic nature of the social or the way in which the social is organized around what Lacan calls an “impossible-real”. In this regard, apocalyptic fantasies can be seen as theories of both why society is failed and fantasies as to how this failure, this antagonism, might be surmounted once and for all. Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse. That is, could not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? These visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenarios, even if reduced to fundamentally primitive living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement). As such, these fantasies serve the function of rendering our dissatisfaction tolerable (a dissatisfaction that mostly consists of boredom and a sense of being cheated), while fantasizing about an alternative that might someday come to save us, giving us opportunity to be heroic leaders and people struggling to survive rather than meaningless businessmen, civil servants, teachers, etc. Perhaps the real question with regard to this pessimism, then, is that of how the utopian yearnings underlying these representations and the antagonisms to which they respond might directly be put to work.

What is perhaps most interesting here is that these fantasies are organized precisely so as to preclude any engagement with directly transforming dissatisfying social conditions. Apocalypse always comes about through some sort of foreign, divine-like agency and instigates the collapse of the social field calling for people to rise up and heroically respond to these new social conditions and transform their social relations so as to produce a new people. The transformation of the social field is not to be undertaken by social subjects themselves. Perhaps here we encounter a bit of mourning with regard to the failure of previous revolutionary attempts that led to horror and unimaginable human suffering. Apocalypse could then be seen as the fantasy of revolution without revolution, of a foreign element that disrupts social life and creates ripe conditions for a reconfiguration of the social world, while allowing us to keep our hands clean of a violent revolutionary upheaval of society. At the level of logical syntax, apocalypse is experienced as the “if”, such that were it to occur, “then” society could be transformed and righted, freed of the antagonism that haunts it and perpetually upsets social relations. If apocalypse is simultaneously something that is both resisted and invited, then this is because on the one hand apocalypse promises the possibility of satisfaction, of a new society free of antagonism, while on the other hand it is threatening in that the actual occurrence of apocalypse might reveal castration in the sense that the old antagonisms would continue to persist. In describing the real, one of the aphorisms Lacan employs is that “the real is that which always returns to its place.” What must be defended against at the level of fantasy is the possibility that the real of social antagonism, the impossibility of a harmonious and satisfying fantasy, might return to its place in the post-apocalyptic order. The revolutionaries traversed their fantasy by bringing about the revolution, only to discover that post-revolutionary society continued to be pervaded by antagonism. By contrast, apocalyptic fantasy functions as an effective defense against this traumatic encounter with the real by perpetually holding open the possibility that apocalypse might occur, that it is right around the corner, while also rendering social transformation the result of an aleatory event sans intentional human engagement, that might never occur. It thus renders social life bearable by holding out the ever present possibility of another social organization, while perpetually deferring the disappointment that might come from fulfilling that desire.

When describing psychic fantasies, Freud argues that these fantasies are infantile theories concerning fundamental questions that admit of no ready answer for the infant. These questions are questions such as the question of origins (where did I come from?), the question of sexual difference, and the question of the sexual relation. Similarly, social fantasies and symptoms can be seen as implicit theories as to why the social has failed. Not surprisingly, there are both rightwing and leftwing variants of apocalyptic fantasy. This distinction is important as it gives insight into two competing theories as to just why the social has failed.

Rightwing variants of the social present the social world as a world that should be an organic and harmonious, but which is failed due to the invasion of some foreign force that disturbs this organic order. That is, as Carl Schmitt notes, it is the friend/enemy distinction that functions at the heart of the social relation and consolidates the community. The antagonisms the pervade society would be overcome were the enemy defeated. The film Armageddon, starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, presents an excellent example of this vision of social antagonism. Armageddon, of course, stages a scenario in which a planet-killing asteroid is hurdling towards earth. However, the real focus of the story should not be sought in the heroic acts of the crew saving the planet from the asteroid, but rather in the vision of the social world that it presents as the backdrop to the story. The film opens with Bruce Willis’ character hitting golf balls at a Greenpeace ship, protesting his ocean oil drilling operation (Joseph nicely brings this plot point to its point of explicit dialectical articulation, pointing out the irony of how it's oil men who save the world, thereby indicating that the film implicitly suggests that environmentalists are pursuing a red herring like Don Quixote. Interestingly, The Day After Tomorrow was filmed by the same director). Willis mocks these activists for their hypocrisy, pointing out that their ship uses a tremendous amount of polluting diesel each hour that it’s at sea. There is a conflict between Affleck and Willis over his romantic involvement with his daughter. Willis had vowed that a “roughneck” would never marry his daughter, thus there is a paternal conflict between Affleck and Willis (Willis is symbolically Affleck’s father), and a conflict in the sexual relation, upsetting Affleck’s and Liv Tyler’s possibilities of getting together, thereby echoing Lacan’s thesis that “there is no sexual relation.” Willis’ crew consists of men who all violate the law in some way, who all have been in and out of trouble throughout their lives, but who nonetheless are competent and work hard. When Willis is summoned to the Whitehouse for advice on how to drill on the asteroid, he discovers that the government has both stolen his patent for the drilling device, and that they could not put it together correctly.

Recognizing that the government cannot do the job correctly, Willis and his crew agree to accompany the astronauts on their mission, but only on the condition that they never have to pay any taxes again, ever. Finally, when the crew successfully complete their mission, all nations of the world are united (behind America, of course), Affleck gets to be with Tyler, another crew member reunites with his wife and son, and yet another, a philanderer, marries a stripper, the woman of his dreams, and decides to have lots of children. Although apocalypse doesn’t occur in Armageddon (a very similar film where it does occur would be Independence Day or War of the Worlds), the threat of apocalypse and subsequent triumph over the alien invader renders the sexual relation possible, overcomes alienation with respect to the government, and unites all nations of the world. At the end of the film, for instance, there are moving scenes depicting people throughout the world cheering, children playing, the American flag, and so on as the asteroid explodes over the earth creating an awe-inspiring firework show, all depicting the newfound unity of all nations, and, certainly, the infinite debt of all other nations to the United States. Through the apocalyptic threat, the fundamental antagonisms of society are surmounted.

By contrast, leftwing apocalyptic fantasies inevitably represent the antagonism that disrupts society as being self-reflexive, which is to say, as a result of the actions of that society itself rather than a marauding outsider threatening the organic fabric from the outside. This would be the theme of films such as the Terminator and Matrix films, where we become victims of our own technology, or The Day After Tomorrow, where capitalism and industrialism conspire to destroy the planet. In the case of leftwing, apocalyptic narratives, it is not the outsider that upsets the organic, harmonious balance of society, but rather there is an internal excess at the heart of the social system itself, not unlike Lacan’s plus-de-jouier or surplus-jouissance, that perpetually drives the social to exceed its own limits as in the case of the drive of capital to perpetually produce new markets and profits, transforming even transgressions into forms of profit, or the drive of technology to perpetually develop itself. This surplus thus comes to be seen as a danger to the very continuance of the system itself as it threatens to explode it from within, destroying the identity of that social system.

This can be seen clearly in the case of The Day After Tomorrow, starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, where unbridled pursuit of capital and exploitation of nature reach a tipping point that plunges the globe into new ice age, destroying civilization as we now know it. Indeed, when towards the beginning of the film, Quaid’s character, a passionate and self-sacrificing climate scientist, presents his thesis at a United Nations climate conference arguing that the emission of greenhouse gasses could lead to a new ice age, the vice president of the United States responds by pointing out that the global economy is every bit as fragile as the climate and that Quaid would do well to avoid making sensationalist claims that might adversely affect that economy. What we have here is a conflict between, on the one hand, knowledge as wisdom- I say “wisdom” as environmental knowledge is pitched as generating harmonious living with the planet –and the unbridled, vociferous pursuit of profit. This theme is confirmed in the director’s cut of the film, for as it turns out, the original version of the film contained a sub-plot in which the wealthy businessman who bribes the bus driver to escape the New York, right before the massive tidal flow that kills thousands (who, incidentally, is presented as a stereotypical Jew), is engaged in insider trading with the Japanese businessman who is killed by the softball sized bits of hail. In the original cut of the film, the Japanese business man was not talking to his worried wife on his cell phone, but rather to the American businessman, and was expressing fears that stock market watchdogs were suspicious of their activities. Further confirmation of this point is found in the fact that Gyllenhaal’s character finds refuge in the New York City library, where one of the librarians seeks to “save civilization” by rescuing a copy of the Gutenberg Bible that represents the birth of the Age of Reason as it was the first book printed by the printing press. What the film thus stages is the conflict between the unbridled pursuit of wealth, destructive of the environment, and wise, self-limiting reason, capable of living with the environment. As Quaid quips in response the Vice President’s incredulousness at the thought of evacuating everyone south of the Mason Dixon line, this would not have been necessary had the administration been willing to listen to his knowledge and council prior to the onset of the tipping point.

However, once again, we should not look to the central plot of survival during a major climate change, but rather to the background plots as a means of determining what the film is about. On the one hand, throughout the film there are themes of class division or class antagonisms. One of the central characters in the film is an African American homeless man and his dog, who are excluded from society to such an extent that he is even prevented from standing in doorways to keep out of the rain and is forbidden from standing with the other refugees in the New York library. This man eventually plays in important role in allowing the students and library staff to survive by teaching them how to protect themselves in cold weather conditions and identifying dangerous forms of sickness. The theme of class antagonism is repeated in the romantic conflict between Gyllenhaal and Nichols’ character over the young woman played by Rossum. Nichols attends classes at an elite private school and is born into wealth. It is clear that early in the film he captures Rossum’s eye, as she is impressed with his school and wealth. Gyllenhaal’s character is a shy young man that comes from an ordinary middle class background. However, it is also clear that he is the better of the two men. Not only is Gyllenhaal’s character exceedingly intelligent- he’s able to solve differential equations in his head without doing the work on paper –but later he becomes the leader of the group, engaging in all sorts of heroic acts. The global storm gives Gyllenhaal’s character the opportunity to rise to the occasion, revealing his true essence as a confident and heroic man, thereby earning the love of Rossum’s character and surmounting the false value system of class and economics. Additionally, Gyllenhaal earns the respect and admiration of Nichols’ character, and the black homeless man becomes a part of the group. Finally, the divide between the third world and the first world is erased, as the third world countries house the displaced refugees of the world. In addition to these themes of class antagonism, Quaid’s character’s relationship to his wife is in shambles due to his passionate commitment to environmental science, that takes him far away from home for long stretches of time on research expeditions to save the world. It is not that he does not love his wife, but rather that he has a higher moral duty to saving the world. This estrangement is reflected elsewhere in the film by a strained relationship with his son as well. At one point in the film, his son tells Rossum’s character that his happiest vacation was a research trip where it rained the whole time, preventing his father from doing his work and allowing the two of them to spend time together. At another point in the film, his wife chastises him for believing it more important to save the world than be a father to his son. Indeed, he arrives late to take his son to the airport for his trip to New York, reflecting the manner in which his son comes second. However, when the storms come, Quaid is finally freed from his obsessive commitment to saving the world, and treks from Washington to New York, mostly on foot, in extremely poor weather conditions to save his son. This act has the effect of healing his relationship with both his wife and son. Apocalypse is thus seen in this instance as rendering the sexual relationship possible, healing the wound of kinship relations upset by Oedipal antagonisms, and abolishing class antagonism.

In both of these cases we are presented with a theory as to why society fails and how this failure might be surmounted, providing us, at last, with our lost jouissance. Both rightwing and leftwing apocalyptic scenarios, religious or secular, present us with a theory as to why jouissance is absent from the social field. However, what if this absence of jouissance, this antagonism at the heart of the society, is not a contingent feature of the social resulting from the alien that disrupts the polis or the excesses of the members of the polis who fail to heed the wisdom of those who know? What if this antagonism is constitutive of the social itself? In the Science of Logic discussion of the category of “something” in the Doctrine of Being, Hegel argues that something can only distinguish and define its identity against the other. In order for there to be a valley, there must be hills. According to Hegel, every identity relies on the logic of the boundary or limit, grenze, that is neither inside the something, nor outside the something. As such, from the Hegelian perspective, the outside is a constitutive feature of the inside and the inside is a constitutive feature of the outside as the limit or boundary is a necessary condition for both the identity of the outside and the inside. Put in the language of semiotics, identity is diacritical in the sense that it can only define itself as identical in terms of what it is not (for more on this, see here and here). The consequence of this diacritics of identity is that identity is inherently unstable and precarious, riddled by antagonism, as a result of the manner in which it must perpetually refer to an other to define itself. Insofar as a social system strives to define itself as an identity, it is thus necessarily subject to this dialectic, which would be one of the meanings of the real of the social or the aphorism “society does not exist”. If society does not exist then this is because it is subject to the logic of the boundary or limit, thereby perpetually encountering its own undoing and inner antagonism. Rightwing and leftwing apocalyptic fantasies are two ways of trying to heal this constitutive wound, or antagonism at the heart of the identical: The first by striving to destroy the other that would destroy itself (as the boundary would thus be erased), the second by seeing a fundamental disequilibrium inside the heart of the social itself and trying to surmount this antagonism which would, again, lead to its demise by leaving it without an identity to distinguish itself. Yet, as Hegel shows in demonstrating how this dialectic culminates in “bad infinity” or the endless repetition of an operation without reaching completion, this antagonism never resolves itself.

When discussing the shift from desire to drive that takes place when traversing the fantasy at the end of analysis, Lacan suggests that the subject of desire is embroiled in fantasy in the sense that he or she believes that a final end state will be reached where satisfaction will be achieved. The subject of desire believes that jouissance exists. Along these lines, Zizek relates the vulgar joke of a man learning how to have sex for the very first time. First the woman tells him to put it in, then she tells him to pull it out, then she tells him to put it in, and so on. At a certain point the man explodes in exasperation, demanding that the woman make up her mind. This is the subject of desire who believes that one or the other option is the true one. By contrast, the subject of drive is that subject that finds jouissance in the failed repetition of the act itself. Apocalyptic fantasies in both their secular and religious, leftwing and rightwing forms, indicate, in a profound way, that the space of the present has withdrawn where social action is concerned, such that the space of the living present is no longer seen as a space where action and change are possible. This is not such a surprise for today, more than ever, we seem subject to forces beyond our control such as global market forces that generate layoffs from corporate positions every few years and a sense that workers are entirely powerless in the face of the market. Is it any surprise that religious apocalyptic thought and Stoic peace of mind today seem to be the only feasible options? Change is here seen as something that resides only in the future, and as something that can only result from some alien force such as the invader or the unintended consequences of our own actions. In this regard, the subject of apocalyptic fantasies is the subject of desire. The question suggested by apocalyptic fantasies is that of how we might shift from being subjects of desire to subjects of drive, giving up on fantasies of total social transformation where antagonism might be eradicated once and for all, such that an actionable space of the present (to use a word drawn from the Administration) might be redeemed.

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25 January 2007

American Fascism?

A colleague of mine alerted me to this interview with Chris Hedges, author of American Fascism, which discusses the danger of far right extremist fundamentalist movements. Of particular interest, I think, is his focus on the relationship between economic woes and growing economic anxiety, and the emergence of these apocalyptic movements, which I find to be both an interesting and important observation:
In the beginning of the book, you write briefly about covering wars in Latin America, the Middle East and the Balkans. How did that shape the way you understand these social forces in America? What similarities do you see?

When I covered the war in the Balkans, there was always the canard that this was a war about ancient ethnic hatreds that was taken from Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts." That was not a war about ancient ethnic hatreds. It was a war that was fueled primarily by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia. Milosevic and Tudman, and to a lesser extent Izetbegovic, would not have been possible in a stable Yugoslavia.

When I first covered Hamas in 1988, it was a very marginal organization with very little power or reach. I watched Hamas grow. Although I came later to the Balkans, I had a good understanding of how Milosevic built his Serbian nationalist movement. These radical movements share a lot of ideological traits with the Christian right, including that cult of masculinity, that cult of power, rampant nationalism fused with religious chauvinism. I find a lot of parallels.

People have a very hard time believing the status quo of their existence, or the world around them, can ever change. There's a kind of psychological inability to accept how fragile open societies are. When I was in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, at the start of the war, I would meet with incredibly well-educated, multilingual Kosovar Albanian friends in the cafes. I would tell them that in the countryside there were armed groups of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who I'd met, and they would insist that the Kosovo Liberation Army didn't exist, that it was just a creation of the Serb police to justify repression.

You saw the same thing in the cafe society in Sarajevo on the eve of the war in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic or even Milosevic were buffoonish figures to most Yugoslavs, and were therefore, especially among the educated elite, never taken seriously. There was a kind of blindness caused by their intellectual snobbery, their inability to understand what was happening. I think we have the same experience here. Those of us in New York, Boston, San Francisco or some of these urban pockets don't understand how radically changed our country is, don't understand the appeal of these buffoonish figures to tens of millions of Americans.
As I argue in the conclusion to my recent paper on apocalypticism, the central feature of apocalyptic narratives seems to be that they present the time of action as deferred, as if we are powerless in the present, unable to do anything now to transform our social conditions as the forces of capital are too strong to be resisted and fought against. The time of the now, of the present, has disappeared. Or, put otherwise, the present no longer appears as an actable space. The middle class worker working for the corporation encounters lay-offs every few years as a result of stockholder decisions, shifts in global economy that require downsizing, and changes in technology, making them much like the Stoic slave Epictetus who can only endure his fate and turn inward, rather than change life under empire. So too with lower class workers who increasingly find themselves in competition with outsourcing and technologies that render their jobs obselete. This echoes, Poetix's, K-Punk's, and Jodi Dean's thesis that today it is impossible to imagine a beyond or alternative to life under contemporary global capitalism. Fundamentalist apocalyptic narratives become powerfully attractive under such conditions, as they promise the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world where these antagonisms are resolved and the disruption at the heart of the social is finally pacified. The problem, of course, is that in being seduced by these narratives, the followers are led to endorse a number of other downright frightening things at the level of policy... Policies that are often directly against their own self-interests.

It seems to me that an element commonly missing from these discussions is the role played by the contemporary hegemony of the "discourse of the victim". One of the uncanny points of identity between both left and right is the primacy of victim discourses as the only authentic position from which to formulate an ethics and politics. Thus we have victimhood as minority status on the left, and the perceived persecution of Christians and white heterosexual males as the dominant trope on the right. One question worth asking is why politics must today take the form of a discourse of the victim. I haven't come up with any answers to this question, yet it does seem that "being-a-victim" confers one a minimal ontologically substantiality or identity in a world where identity has progressively been virtualized and rendered precarious by the collapse of the big Other. The dangers of rightwing discourses of the victim are, I think, readily apparent in terms of the sorts of action they thereby authorize.

The entire interview can be read for free if you watch and advertisement.

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24 January 2007

Fight! Fight!

A scathing critique of religion from Sam Harris in response to Andrew Sullivan. Worth the read.

Via Dr. X's Free Associations


Pre-Conference Rush-- Apocalyptic Meditations

This weekend I'll be in Las Vegas for the 19th annual Far West Popular and American Cultural Association Conference, where I'm presenting a paper entitled:

Enjoy Your Apocalypse! Apocalyptic Fantasies, Jouissance, and
Social Symtpoms in Life Under Post-Industrial Capitalism

Basically I'll be engaging in a lame analysis of how apocalyptic narratives are ciphers for the subject's relationship to the impossible-real of society, to the fact that society doesn't exist, envisioning the possibility of surmounting this real through a collapse of the current social configuration. Through an analysis of Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow, I hope to show the structure at work in rightwing and leftwing versions of this fantasy, where in the former apocalypse results from the alien outsider or invader (the meteor hurtling towards earth) such that defeating this invader allows society to reallign itself in terms of an organic community no longer beset upon by intrusive government or misguided liberals (the film begins with Bruce Willis hitting golfballs at a Greenpeace boat protesting his oil drilling); whereas in the latter apocalypse results from the self-reflexivity of the social where our own acts lead to our destruction (thus films such as Terminator, the Matrix, and I, Robot belong to this genre as well), and the apocalypse functions to overcome nationalistic and ethnic tensions (the famous celebration scene in the third Matrix film, Mexico hosting U.S. citizens in The Day After Tomorrow), and re-establish familial and sexual bonds. K-Punk has argued that the films I describe as apocalyptic are, in fact, survivalist. However, I would argue that all apocalyptic narratives are survivalist, in that they all envision a form of post-apocalyptic subjectivity that now lives in peace, prosperity, and harmony. For instance, in many Christian apocalyptic narratives, a thousand years of peace are said to follow the final battle between good and evil or Christ and Satan.

Ultimately I would like to end with a brief discussion of Zizek's parallax, arguing that what these films represent is the impossibility of the social itself, or, rather, that the social is not one or the other (communitarian organic bonds versus collections of autonomous and self-determining individuals), but rather the very tension between these two conceptions of the social. Somewhere in there I plan to plug our discussions here in the academic blogosphere, but I really won't have the time or space to develop them as they should be developed.

Generally, I don't like to present at these sorts of conferences as I always feel a bit silly in my pop-cultural analyses, always finding them a bit facile (K-Punk, Jodi Dean, and Foucaultisdead are far better at this sort of thing), and feeling more at home in the arid world of theory. But a friend asked me to be on his panel and it's a chance to see Las Vegas, which I've never before visited. At any rate, I probably won't have much time to write over the next couple of days as I'm busily pulling all this together at the last minute. If any of you happen to be at this conference, drop by and have a gander. Our panel is entitled "Religious Appeal(s)" and is at 1:45 on Saturday... My paper was originally entitled "Secular Theologies" and I was going to argue that certain forms of religion are a structure of thought (it's necessary for me to defer to Anthony Paul Smith's claim that religion is not a univocal concept or that religion does not exist), not a set of ontological commitments to the divine, but rudely changed the topic at the last minute.

In the meantime, N.Pepperell has written a beautiful and challenging summation of where we're at in our ongoing dialogue over at Rough Theory, that is well worth the read. Hopefully I'll have more to say about this when I return. Siren's song indeed. I'd much rather be thinking of those issues than working on this paper.

* Picture shamelessly filched from K-Punks blog. My friend Melanie tells me that people like visual aids. The Platonist in me recoils.

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