31 October 2006

News of the Weird

Apparently the Bush administration is spending millions of dollars to, get this, promote abstinence only eductation programs for singles up to the age of 29. Could things get any more strange? Read about it here and here.

Contagious Communication

In 1935 the cane toad was introduced into Australia to fight the pest of the cane beetle that was destroying agriculture. Where the initial population was 3000, the population now numbers over a million, is itself counted as a pest, and is increasing in population by 25% every year. In the absence of any natural preditors of its own, the cane toad has drastically changed the environment of certain regions of Australia, eating other natural preditors out of existence. It seems to me that the cane toad is a nice metaphor for how certain forms of communication proliferate and grow.

Every morning when I wake up, I have to remind myself that communication is not simply about something, but that communication also is something. It is very easy to lose the will to write, the will to think. I am unsure as to whether I have ever managed to say anything new or interesting. If I had my way, I would be a Hegel or a Deleuze or an Aristotle or Heidegger, a philosopher who makes the world rumble with my words, but it is unlikely that this is ever to happen. If I repeat when I write, if my writing is already what others have have already said-- and better, at that --what could the value of my writing possibly be? What is the value of a writing that only repeats? Yet this is to individuate a writing only in terms of what it is about, and not in terms of what writing is... A material trace of communication that proliferates throughout the world, offering further possibilities to be repeated by others, offering the possibility of communication that itself changes the very field of communications by creating networks that are now about something entirely different.

Increasingly I find myself filled with the will to repeat. If I come across an article that I find interesting or that says something important, I throw it up on my blog so that others might come across it and repeat it to yet others, contaminating established channels and furrows of communication and perhaps pushing them in new directions. If I come across a diary on another blog that I find important, I try to find ways to link to it in my own diaries or to frontpage it so that others might stumble upon these other paths and take it upon themselves to leave their own material traces of communication. I fantasize about sprawling and tangled networks weaving themselves across the world, producing entire communities of speakers leaving traces, pushing collective dialogues in directions different than current vectors. If someone makes a comment on my blog, I try to integrate it into subsequent diaries so that others might see it and so that it might form further networks and traces of communications, calling for responses, and producing furrows or speciations of their own. That is, I do my small bit to populate the world with material traces of communicative events that have taken place, recognizing that what has been said is just important than the inaugural saying. And perhaps, if enough murmuring takes place, there will eventually be a roar, new subjectivities will emerge, my own subjectivity will be transformed, and subjects capable of entirely new affects, speeds, and actions will rise up in the world. I thereby surrender myself to networks and treat myself as a radio tower, conveying traces of communication that have taken place elsewhere, in hope that I might have a hand in helping a new species of cane toads to emerge within our current political and social climate.

I recall Freud, Lacan, and Heidegger... These isolated figures who began with a small group of people with whom they communicated, perhaps on Sunday afternoons over coffee or a nice bottle of wine. These groups were outcasts, minorities, orientations that had no place and for whom, as Orla put it, there was no voice in dominant discourses. They did not fit the epistemes of their time and it is only retroactively that we can discern their necessity as they made their own necessity. Those communications exploded as each of those participants repeated, wrote, seduced others, and acted on the basis of what they heard. Some time ago I read a diary on Dailykos, written by a participant ashamed that he had voted for George Bush in 2000. This diary recounts how he came to completely change his political identifications, and how, in particular, a course he took entitled "Argumentation and Advocacy" significantly transformed his outlook, not by specifically advocating a particular set of political positions, but by teaching him about argumentative fallacies. On the basis of learning these argumentative fallacies, his perception of media phenomena was transformed as he increasingly saw them all over the place in the communications the administration engages in. This change would have never occured had not these fallacies been repeated to him by someone. The effects of what we repeat, of the distinctions we draw, of the concepts we forge, can never be anticipated save in one instance: when they are not repeated.

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Blog Sociology

Today the always witty and often challenging Acephalous makes an intriguing observation regarding the nature of blog participation:
As of 7:11 p.m. this evening—exactly 24 hours since my last post hit the 'Net—I've heard from 37 people on the blog and another 211 via email. I must say: I never realized how great the gulf separating commenter from lurker was until today. A fairly substantial community of people who don't even know they belong to a community encircles my evening blather.

Despite devoting today's spare brain cycles to spinning Lurk Theory, I'm no closer to understanding its appeal—not because I think less of lurkers, but because I'm constitutionally incapable of not speaking up when I feel so inclined. I know some people are better at biting their tongues than others, but I lack the requisite imagination to understand why.

Bits of my brain scream GENDER POLITICS! but I really don't think that's the case. If my (outrageously unscientific) survey is any indication, my readership is overwhelmingly female. Why are most of my readers female but most of my commenters male?
I can't speak to the gender of my visitors-- because I never hear from most of you! --but I do wonder why there isn't more participation. I get a fairly respectable amount of traffic-- between 200 and 300 page views a day, with an average of 100 repeat visitors daily --but there are really only four or five people who ever comment. All of this makes me wonder whether my blog isn't a source of amusement like watching a really bad film that's so terrible you just can't turn the channel, or like slowing down for a car accident. At any rate, what is it that promotes discussion on a blog and what is it that tends to promote lurkerdome? I'm not holding my breath expecting answers, though you're always free to email me if you're shy in public, you know.

Substance, Process, and Networks-- Dynamic Group Formation

Recently I mentioned that I have been reading Rabinow and Dreyfus' excellent Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, and that it had been filling me with a tremendous depression and despondancy. I think that there are forms of theory that can make one ill by divesting one of their power to act, and for me Foucault's thought-- especially during his middle archaeological period --is an example of such toxic theory (Althusser's account of ideology would be another example of toxic theory for me). My paralysis emerges in response to claims such as the following:
Far from accepting a descriptive theory [of epistemes or historical forms of knowledge], he [Foucault] seems to want a prescriptive one: "The analysis of statements and discursive formations... wishes to determine the principle according to which only the 'signifying' groups that were enunciated could appear. It sets out to establish a law of rarity" (Archaeology of Knowledge, 118). At times he seems to go so far as to demand not merely conditions of possibility but total determination: "One must show why [a specific statement] could not have been other than it was" ("Reponse au cercle d'epistemologie", 17). The archeologist should discover "the play of rules which determine the appearance and disappearance of statements in a culture" (CE, 19). Again and again, Foucault seems compelled to abandon the phenomenological, neutral post hoc description for some sort of explanatory a priori. (84)
What is crushing in Foucault during this period is the manner in which every statement that can be made seems to always already be determined by the anonymous historical a priori in which it occurs. While I am perhaps able to make statements that don't obey the "established laws of rarity", these established laws nonetheless determine what is and is not taken as a serious statement. In the worst case scenerio, I'm not even capable of making non-serious statements, but instead can only articulate what follows these laws of rarity as my very subjectivity is a product of this historical a priori.

Although Foucault marks a substantial advance in seeing these constellations as historical, there are certain respects in which he nonetheless seems to remain tied to a substance metaphysics. As Kant articulates it in the first analogy of The Critique of Pure Reason or "The Principle of Persistence of Substance", "All appearances contain that which persists (substance) as the object itself, and that which can change as its mere determination, i.e., a way in which the object exists" (A182, B224). What Kant is getting at can be illuminated by reference to Descartes' discussion of the wax in the Meditations. There raising the question of how it is possible for us to know the persistence of an object in time (an epistemological variation of the problem of individuation), Descartes writes:
Let us now consider the commonest things, which are commonly believed to be the most distinctly known and the easiest of all to know, namely, the bodies which we touch and see. I do not intend to speak of bodies in general, for general notions are usually somewhat more confused; let us rather consider one body in particular. Let us take, for example, this bit of wax which has just been taken from the hive. It has not yet completely lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains something of the odor of the flowers from which it was collected; its color, shape, and size are apparent; it is hard and cold; it can easily be touched; and, if you knock on it, it will give out some sound. Thus everything which can make a body distinctly known are found in this example. (Lafleur translation, 30)
This might be referred to as the "bundle theory" of individuation, where I arrive at a knowledge of what individuates an object through the qualities of which it is composed (the epistemological problem of individuation should not be confused with the ontological problem of individuation). However, as we quickly see, this account of how we know the individuality of an object quickly fails:
But now while I'm talking I bring it close to the fire. What remains of the taste evaporates; the odor vanishes; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid; it gorws hot; one can hardly touch it; and although it is knocked upon, it will give out no sound. Does the same wax remain after the change? We must admit that it does; no one denies it, no one judges otherwise. What is it then in this bit of wax that we recognize with so much distinctness? Certainly it cannot be anything that I observed by means of the senses, since everything in the field of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and since the same wax nevertheless remains. (30, my italics)
Descartes concludes that we cannot know the individuality of an object through the five senses because the qualities of which the object is composed are perpetually changing, while the object nonetheless remains that object there. Something about the object remains the same. Descartes therefore concludes that,
A person who attempts to improve his understanding beyond the ordinary ought to be ashamed to go out of his way to criticize the forms of speech used by ordinary men. I prefer to pass over this matter and to consider whether I understand what wax was more evidently and more perfectly when I first noticed it and when I thought I knew it by means of the external sense, or at the very least by common sense, as it is called, or the imaginative faculty; or whether I conceive it better at present, after having more carefully examined what it is and how it can be known. Certainly it would be ridiculous to doubt the superiority of the latter method of knowing. For what was there in that first perception which was distinct and evident? What was there which might not occur similarly to the senses of the lowest of the animals? But when I distinguished the real wax from its superficial appearances, and when, just as though I had removed its garments, I consider it all naked, it is certain that although there might still be some error in my judgment, I could not conceive it in this fashion without a human mind. (32)
When Kant references "determinations", he is referring to what Descartes calls "superficial appearances" or sense-qualities composing our perception of an object. An object, at any given point in time, comprises a number of different determinations. For instance, I have short brown hair and brown eyes, a goatee, am about 175 pounds and six feet tall, have skin that is a particular shade of olive, wear glasses, etc. These determinations comprise my qualitative appearance, yet could easily change. I could gain or lose weight. I could become pale or darker. My hair is slowly turning gray and I will get shorter as I age, and so on. Yet I am somehow the same. In order for me to be thinkable as enduring in time, I must be thought as a substance (hypokeimenon, a support the lies beneath) that remains the same throughout change.

Foucault, of course, is neither a Kantian or a Cartesian, yet when he describes the episteme governing what is seriously sayable in a particular historical moment, he seems to be referring to a sort of substance that supports variations in speech and discourse and persists throughout these variations. As I discussed yesterday with regard to Badiou's ontology of multiplicity and the count-as-one, however, it becomes possible, after Badiou and Deleuze, to think the identity of something as the result of a series of operations, rather than as a substance lying beneath consistent multiplicities. That is, we must think the individuation of consistent multiplicities as an ongoing process without an underlying substance that remains the same. Perhaps these social organizations are far less rigid, deterministic, and unified than Foucault supposes. As John Law puts it in a nice little article on Actor-Network-Theory or ANT (with which I'm now just playing, and have not yet committed to),

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organisations or systems which we had always taken for granted -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois -- are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay.

How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organisational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? These are some of the key questions of social science. And they are the questions that lie at the heart of "actor-network theory"-- the approach to sociology that is the topic of this note. This theory -- also known as the sociology of translation -- is concerned with the mechanics of power. It suggests, in effect, that we should analyse the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth.

The ANT theorist begins from the premise that social organizations are improbable in that they come into being and pass away, and that we must look for the sufficient reason for the existence of an enduring organization in the micro-processes and activities through which an organization perpetually reproduces itself in maintaining its networks of existence. Or, put differently, how does a group come to "count itself as one"? That is, rather than looking at a mysterious entity called "statements" that determines social organizations at a particular point in history, why not look at networks of relationships among actors, such as a group of professors that form together at a particular university, determining who gets hired, selected for graduate school, what gets published, what conferences are organized, and so on. Moreover, we might look at the effect of material conditions and technology that impact the ability of various social organizations to maintain themselves. Organizations are possible today that were not possible fifteen years ago due to the internet. Certain formations would become impossible were the internet to somehow collapse due to some natural event like a shift in the planet's gravitational fields. It is these activities that maintain the existence of a particular social configuration (for instance the primacy of analytic philosophy in the United States), and which are themselves liable to change. That is, the formation of a social system and organization-- and here I am questioning Luhmann's thesis that systems constitute their own elements, and instead hypothesizing a reciprocal determination where elements constitute systems and systems constitute element --is maintained and produced through the interactions of the elements of that system. This is something that can readily be discerned here in the blogosphere, where very diverse persons are brought together in an aleatory fashion and where networks and organizations emerge through the interactions of those participants.

For instance, I would have never thought to take the work of Philip Goodchild seriously-- my copy of Deleuze and Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire is heavily marked up with angry comments pointing out various places where he severely distorts Deleuze and Guattari --and wouldn't have even paid attention to his subsequent developments, had I not encountered Anthony Paul Smith for whom I have both a certain fondness and who irritates the hell out of me. Yet as a result of that encounter, I begin to take Goodchild seriously (while nonetheless disagreeing with him) as this is a precondition for for discussing Deleuze with Anthony (who is always going on about "liking how ecological Deleuze's thought is). Indeed, Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith appear to be engaged in a sort of missionary work, spreading the signifiers Goodchild and "ecology" wherever they go, trying to push the reading of Deleuze in a certain direction. What results from the formation of these sorts of networks and interactions, is the production of a particular "standard reading" of Deleuze for a community of individuals that discuss Deleuze. This doesn't entail that this reading is agreed with by all. What it does entail is that others have to take that reading seriously in order to engage in discussion. Yet the production of such communities-- communities that share a sort of das Man or "everyone knows" or doxa or set of background assumptions and protocols --is the result of aleatory encounters between individuals that take on a life of their own and which, through relations of feedback, come to become self-reinforcing. The crucial point is that other networks can be formed. This, for instance, is readily discernible in the history of the psychoanalytic movement, where new organizations and "laws of rarity" emerge around certain figures such as Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, Lacan, and so on.

A speciation takes place, that transforms the entire field. The logic here is not the logic of deterministic epistemes, but rather a logic of the slime mold, where indeterminate elements that existed independently of one another can come to form bonds and self-organize into collectives, that then constitute the valence of their own elements. As Latour points out early in Reassembling the Social, identity is far more conflict ridden and indeterminate than social theorists often suppose.

Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties. Is this not odd? If we simply follow the newspapers' cues, the central intuition of sociology should be that at any given moment actors are made to fit in a group-- often in more than one. And yet, when you read social theorists, it seems that the main, the crucial, the most urgent question should be which group is preferable to start a social enquiry. Should we take social aggregates to be made of 'individuals', 'of organizations', of 'classes', of 'roles', of 'life trajectories', of 'discursive fields', of 'selfish genes', of 'forms of life', of 'social networks'? They never seem to tire in designating one entity as real, solid, proven, or entrenched while others are criticized as being artificial, imaginary, transitional, illusory, abstract, impersonal, or meaningless...

While the most common experience we have of the social world is of being simultaneously seized by several possible and contradictory calls for regroupings, it seems the most important decision to make before becoming a social scientist is to decide first which ingredients are already there in society. While it is fairly obvious that we are enrolled in a group by a series of interventions that renders visible those who argue for the relevance of one grouping and the irrelevance of others, everything happens as if social scientists had to claim that there exists 'out there' one type that is real, whereas the other sets are really inauthentic, obsolete, irrelevant, or artificial. While we are well aware that the first feature of the social world is this constant tracing of boundaries by people over some other people, sociologists of the social consider that the main feature of the world is to recognize, independently of who is tracing them and with what sorts of tools, the unquestionable existence of boundaries. (28, my bold)

Groupings are always performatively enacted or the result of processes, whereby actors strive to form networks. They can be done and undone. They are the result of interactions among participants, and it is always possible for excluded participants to become missionaries after the fashion of Paul, seeking to produce a new furrow, that itself reorganizes the social. Yet none of these networks are ever formed without the activity of participants and acts of seduction.

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30 October 2006

Imperial Presidency

Time Magazine has an article discussing how the administration plans to respond should Democrats retake Congress. An excerpt:
If lame-duck Presidents are to achieve anything, they often have to look for ways to go around Congress, especially when it is in the hands of the other party. Clinton used Executive Orders and his bully pulpit to encourage school uniforms, impose ergonomic rules on employers and prevent mining, logging and development on 60 million acres of public land. White House press secretary Tony Snow says Bush may take the same bypass around Capitol Hill. "He told all of us, 'Put on your track shoes. We're going to run to the finish,'" Snow said. "He's going to be aggressive on a lot of fronts. He's been calling all his Cabinet secretaries and telling them, 'You tell me administratively everything you can do between now and the end of the presidency. I want to see your to-do list and how you expect to do it.' We're going to try to be as ambitious and bold as we can possibly be."

In fact, when it comes to deploying its Executive power, which is dear to Bush's understanding of the presidency, the President's team has been planning for what one strategist describes as "a cataclysmic fight to the death" over the balance between Congress and the White House if confronted with congressional subpoenas it deems inappropriate. The strategist says the Bush team is "going to assert that power, and they're going to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court on every issue, every time, no compromise, no discussion, no negotiation."
Not pretty.

The Material Infrastructure of Political Change

Over at State Street, Lynn makes the following observation familiar to many of us on the "left":
An interesting discussion at I Cite has focused issues with the upcoming election for me.

The upcoming election is a conundrum for me. I am one of the people who would like to see the Democratic Party move leftward rather than remain Bush Cult Lite. I do not see that happening. I do not predict any change should the Democrats win Congress this time around.

Note: I am always tempted to substitute conservative for Bush Cult, but accuracy dictates otherwise. Old style conservatives are beginning to recognize that the Bush Cult has replaced their ideology with crony capitalism and crony Christianity. If you are not in the Bush Cult, then you are a leftist of some sort. Welcome to the club William F. Buckley.

Democratic politicians belong to an opportunist party. Whatever the current political climate dictates as prudent political message becomes the prevailing ideological message for them. All too often, they succumb to communicating Bush Cult Lite messages. Those messages have helped lead us to the Iraq debacle and other fine messes.

There are no alternative third party candidates for whom I can vote. Does compromising one’s vote completely compromise one’s ideals? I just do not know.
I've been obsessing over this a good deal lately and right now I just don't think there's any other option, but to hold our nose and vote Democrat. However, I do think the left needs to do more work with material infrastructure in years to come. In recent years democratic political theorists have come to see the issue as one of messaging or how messages are conveyed. Hence we get theorists such as Lakoff and others telling us that we need to frame our messages correctly to change the political temperament.

While there's something to this, I've increasingly come to feel that the issue is far more material than all of this. I confess, I admire the Christian right. This is not because I admire what they believe-- I think it's lunacy --but because I admire how they've managed to transform the country in the last 30 years, taking beliefs that were once seen as laughable and marginal and transforming them into mainstream beliefs. This is what I mean by "materiality". It wasn't that the Christian right produced a highly marketable message (though they became increasingly savvy with packaging over time), but because they waged a prolonged and concerted struggle to take over the channels of communication. They began with the churches. It didn't matter if everyone in evangelical congregations agreed with them. If they could convince five people out of a hundred, these five people would also convince friends and family members and they would eventually be able to build their own congregations. As they drew in money from these newly formed congregations, they were able to build bigger and more impressive churches, that would draw people in by offering non-political services such as classes on how to invest money, child care, yoga classes, dances, and so on, providing a sanctuary from the alienation of contemporary life under capital. Gradually they were able to raise enough money to organize mass mailings to targeted democraphics and to start walking campaigns going from door to door. Again, they weren't always successful, but if they could persuade five people out of a hundred they would also gain additional followers from family and friends who were also persuaded. Eventually they were able to amass enough money to start their own radio stations and make substantial contributions to politicians. This in turn placed leverage on newspapers and news-stations to report these points of view. Next thing you know, 30 years later, views that were once laughable are now acceptable and mainstream.

I think this sort of organized movement and slow conquest of the channels of communication is what is lacking on the left. Again and again I hear stories about people who volunteer with the DNC to make calls and cavas neighborhoods, only to never be called. Moreover, the left offers nothing comparable to the social services of the churches, giving people a sanctuary from the alienations of contemporary life under capital. If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, it doesn't matter much whether or not it makes a sound. If a political group has a platform and it is never communicated beyond the confines of the inside members of that political group, then it might as well not exist. The blogosphere has already gone a long way towards overcoming this problem with blogs such as Americablog, Dailykos, MyDD, and so on. They've been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars for political candidates, thus forcing politicians to take their interests seriously. Moreover, they've been able to organize massive letter writing campaigns to news organizations, forcing these organizations to report on stories that would not otherwise be reported, thereby disseminating this political platform further throughout the population. Even if these campaigns have not always been victories, the very act of getting certain stories and issues reported is itself a victory as it forces the opposition to take these stories and issues into account and respond to them.

However, these democratic blogs are largely "right-wing" political platforms, not because they endorse an ultra-conservative ideology such as one might find over at Freerepublic, but because genuine emancipatory politics revolving around issues such as labor and the environment are almost entirely absent from these blogs. That is, democrats in the United States are themselves conservatives... They just happen to be more palatable and less dangerous conservatives than those among the Republicans. If political change is to take place in this country, there needs to be some organized activity getting the message out to the public. This requires contending with the channels of communication and not simply attending to the frames within which messages are conveyed. If the Christian Right can take a fringe interpretation of Christianity and make it a mainstream point of view in the space of 30 years, there's no reason that the same cannot be done with a properly organized-- and dare I say missionary --progressive political platform.

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Worst Congress Ever

Yet another scathing article from Rolling Stone on how corrupt and incompotent the current bunch of nimrods are in the United States congress. No doubt the Republicans will somehow manage to turn it all around using demagoguery about how the local Walmart is saying "happy holidays" rather than "merry Christmas" and about homosexuals having equal rights under the law. Or maybe not. It's too bad we don't see articles like this from Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report. I post these things mostly for my European friends such as Orla, so that they might have a little context as to why I get so worked up-- especially regarding fundamentalism in the United States --about certain issues and how they've effected the United States domestically and with regard to our foreign involvement. Yes, yes, I know that it is domestic politics and perhaps uninteresting outside America, but it is difficult to escape the impression that current American policies are significantly and adversely effecting the rest of the world... At least with regard to security, economic, and environmental issues. Or is this just American arrogance on my part?

Of Operations: Badiou and Structured Situations

Regardless of what one thinks about the specific claims of Badiou's ontology, his use of set theory, his account of the event and the subject, his programmatic tone, and so on, it is my view that Badiou is nonetheless of tremendous value insofar as he clearly formulates the central ontological thesis that so much thought in our age is grappling with in an unconscious or non-explicit fashion. This thesis is formulated in non-set theoretical terms in the first meditation of Being and Event. There Badiou observes that,
Since its Parmenidean organization, ontology has built the portico of its ruined temple out of the following experience: what presents itself is essentially multiple; what presents itself is essentially one. The reciprocity of the one and being is certainly the inaugural axiom of philosophy-- Leibniz's formulation is excellent; 'What is not a being is not a being'-- yet it is also its impasse; an impasse in which the revoling doors of Plato's Paremenides introduce us to the singular joy of never seeing the moment of conclusion arrive. For if being is one, then one must posit that what is not one, the multiple, is not. But this is unacceptable for thought, because what is present is multiple and one cannot see how there could be an access to being outside all presentation. If presentation is not, does it still make sense to designate what presents (itself) as being? On the other hand, if presentation is, then the multiple necessarily is. It follows that being is no longer reciprocal with the one and thus it is no longer necessary to consider as one what presents itself, inasmuch as it is. This conclusion is equally unacceptable to thought because presentation is only this multiple inasmuch as what it presents can be counted as one; and so on. (23)
This deadlock can be discerned everywhere in the history of philosophy, if only one has eyes to see it. It appears first in Parmenides, where the world of entities or beings disappears insofar as being is and non-being is not, leading necessarily to the conclusion that other beings must not be as we would then have to say what this being is not, thereby reintroducing non-being back into being. Further, it is found in every dialectic of the whole and its parts, whether we're speaking of Plotinus, Spinoza and Whitehead, or the object as a whole composed of distinct qualitative parts, as discussed by Hegel in his account of perception and understanding in The Phenomenology of Spirit, or Husserl in his phenomenological analyses of how a being can both be composed of profiles and horizons and be one.

It would thus appear that treating being and the One as reciprocal and interdependent predicates necessarily leads to irresolvable aporia. Consequently, Badiou argues that we must make a decision to de-suture being from the One, thinking it instead as multiplicity qua multiplicity:
This decision can take no other form than the following: the one is not. It is not a question, however, of abandoning the principle Lacan assigned to the symbolic; that there is Oneness. Everything turns on mastering the gap between the presupposition (that must be rejected) of a being of the one and the thesis of its 'there is'. What could there be, which is not? (23)
The consequence that follows from this is that being is to be conceived as pure multiplicity and that the one is to be seen as a result or an effect. As Badiou puts it,
What has to be declared is that the one, which is not, solely exists as operation. In other words: there is no one, only the count-as-one. The one being an operation, is never a presentation. It should be taken quite seriously that the 'one' is a number... Does this mean that being is not multiple either? Strictly speaking, yes, because being is only multiple inasmuch as it occurs in presentation.

In sum: the multiple is the regime of presentation; the one, in respect to presentation, is an operational result; being is what presents (itself). On this basis, being is neither one (because only presentation itself is pretinant to the count-as-one), nor multiple (because the multiple is solely the regime of presentation).

Let us fix the terminology: I term situation any presented multiplicity. Granted the effectiveness of the presentation, a situation is the place of taking-place, whatever the terms of the multiplicity in question. Every situation admits its own particular operator of the count-as-one. This is the most general definition of a structure; it is what prescribes, for a presented multiple, the regime of its count-as-one.


A structure allows number to occur within the presented multiple. Does this mean that the multiple, as a figure of presentation, is not 'yet' a number? One must not forget that every situation is structured. The multiple is retroactively legible therein as anterior to the one, insofar as the count-as-one is always a result. The fact that the one is an operation allows us to say that the domain of the operation is not one (for the one is not), and that therefore this domain is multiple; since, within presentation, what is not one is necessarily multiple. In other words, the count-as-one (the structure) installs the universal pertinence of the one/multiple couple for any situation. (24)
I quote this passage in full because it so nicely elaborates Badiou's basic argument and the basic structure of his metaphysics. When speaking of being qua being we are invited to think pure multiplicity without any other predicates. This holds regardless of whether we are speaking about objects treated as unities or ones, systems, the universe, and so on. That is, it holds for the predicates of unity, wholeness, and identity.
...[I]f an ontology is possible, that is, a presentation of presentation, then it is the situation of the pure multiple, of the multiple 'in-itself'. To be more exact; ontology can be solely the theory of inconsistent multiplicities as such. 'As such' means that what is presented in the ontological situation is the multiple without any other predicate than its multiplicity. Ontology, insofar as it exists, must necessarily be the science of the multiple qua multiple. (28)
If these multiplicities must be conceived as inconsistent multiplicities, then this is because being, prior to the operation of the count-as-one, is without structure or any ordering operations. It is only through the operations of the count-as-one that being takes on structure and comes to consist of consistent multiplicities. Yet this pure multiplicity can only be grasped retroactively, for experience presents us with nothing but structured presentations-- objects, things, happenings, persons, animals, and so on --that are "counted-as-one". That is, multiplicity is thinkable without being presentable, and inconsistent multiplicity is not a phenomenological datum or a truth of experience, but an axiom of thought from which we begin. Just as Parmenides begins from the axiom that being is one and proceeds from there (and is followed in this by much of the philosophical tradition), Badiou asks us to begin from the premise that being is inconsistent multiplicity.

I am happy to follow Badiou in this axiom as I believe it is the central axiom of that episteme characterizing contemporary thought. Whether we are speaking of Heideggerian ontological difference, Derridean differance and dissemination, Deleuzian different/ciation, dynamic systems theory, Foucaultian archaeology and genealogy, or Lyotardian discourse analysis and differends, and so on, the thought of our time begins with the premise that being is difference or multiplicity, or that the one (whether in the form of wholes, substances, or entities) is an effect or result. The advantage of Badiou's formulation is that it 1) clearly articulates the aporia that leads to this move in the most abstract and formal terms possible (we do not get caught up in the intricacies of careful deconstructive analysis of texts or in an analysis of lived experience; not that this is without merit), and 2) it indicates the problem posed to thought by this gesture: How is it possible to produce a consistent multiplicity out of inconsistent multiplicity? Or, put differently, "how does being one?"-- here "to one" must be treated as a verb; one might even speaking of "one-ing". Again, the advantage of Badiou is the sheer abstractness-- I would call it concreteness --with which he poses this question.

My aim is not to follow Badiou in answering this question. He seems to give very little in the way of a satisfactory answer to this particular question as he is more intent on showing how being can be thought as pure inconsistent multiplicity via the resources of set theory, and clearing a space where that which is not-being-qua-being, or the event, might be articulated. While it is certainly true that his most recent work, Logiques des mondes, is designed to account for being-there or appearing (the "one-ing" of being), Badiou's discussion of Dasein here strikes me as disappointing as it is primarily descriptive of consistent multiplicities, without giving us an account of how the operations that produce Dasein operate.

It is clear that the operations operating in the production of beings pertually withdraw from view, as we are always left with the result of these operations and are never before the operations themselves. It is in this sense that the world of situations presents us with a sort of transcendental illusion, in that we take the results or effects to be being itself, rather than discerning them as products of operations from pure multiplicity. As such, we continuously fall into various versions of substance metaphysics. But what are these curious operators that preside over the count-as-one? What is the operation by which one-ing takes place? Badiou appears to follow Lacan when he claims that one-ing is the work of the symbolic. This point seems confirmed in Logiques des mondes when Badiou declares that Il n'y a que des corps et des langages, there are only bodies and languages. Yet this solution strikes me as unacceptable as there are many consistent multiplicities that are not simply cultural or symbolic. Moreover, the operators of the count-as-one cannot be minds or subjects, as there are consistent multiplicities or beings that do not depend on minds. So what then are these mysterious operators? Can we conceive of operations without operators (as I think we should, lest we fall back into humanism)? And is the gulf between inconsistent multiplicity and consistent multiplicity too great to ever explain how it is possible for pure multiplicity to produce anything like an organized situation? Is it enough to restrict the predicates of being to pure multiplicity, or must we hypothesize additional predicates to account for one-ing? These are the questions I am asking. I am indebted to Badiou for having provided a clear framework for posing them. But I am not at all sure of the solutions that he proposes, which is precisely why I frolick so easily with Deleuze and others, without being very perturbed by their various disputes with Badiou.

29 October 2006

John Law's Actor Network Resource

The last week has seen me depressed, despondant, and generally exhausted. Perhaps I've just been drowning under too much grading lately, or perhaps this emerged from reading Dreyfus and Rabinow's Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Somehow I find Foucault's thesis that only certain things are sayable at any given point in history to be crushing, even if I find myself agreeing with many of the claims that he makes. What hope can there possibly be if we are dominated by social forces in this way? In this context, I was pleased to come across Bruno Latour's newest, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, which also references John Law's website on Actor-Network-Theory. What I find appealing in Latour's latest work is his emphasis on the continous formation and collapse of various groups, coupled with the contentious nature of group formations in general. Here I find a far more fluid and open notion of the "social"-- Latour contests the idea that the social is a substance or matter independent of those who enter into connections --that promises to resituate how certain questions are asked in social and political theory. In short, Latour presents a performative conception of the social, immanent to the activity of agents, that resonates nicely with Zizek's observation that the symbolic sustains itself only in and through our belief in the symbolic. Hopefully I'll have more to say about this later.

Cosmos and History

Courtesy of Infinite Thought.

A treasure trove of articles on Alain Badiou.

23 October 2006

An Ode to the Creation of Concepts

The universe is the flower of rhetoric.
~Jacques Lacan

The philosopher is expert in concepts and in the lack of them. He knows which of them are not viable, which are arbitrary or inconsistent, which ones do not hold up for an instant. On the other hand, he also knows which are well formed and attest to a creation, however disturbing or dangerous it may be.
~Deleuze and Guattari

...[T]he following definition of philosophy can be taken as being decisive: knowledge through pure concepts. But there is no reason to oppose knowledge through concepts and the construction of concepts within possible experience on the one hand and through intuition on the other. For, according to the Nietzschean verdict, you will know nothing through concepts unless you first created them-- that is, constructed them in an intuition specific to them: a field, a plane, and a ground that must not be confused with them but that shelters their seeds and the personae who cultivates them. Constructivism requires every creation to be a construction on a plane that gives it an autonomous existence.
~Deleuze and Guattari

Citing the old cliche, for me revolutions are first revolutions in thought, for it is in thought that what is and what is not is transformed. I am not sure what it is that brings one to philosophy or makes one a philosopher, or whether I am even a philosopher. I suspect that at some point in one's life the world has to fall apart and cease to signify "naturally" as it should in a state of habit. Maybe it makes me a mystic to say something like this, but I can't help but feeling that we have to have an encounter with chaos, a sort of pure experience of formlessness where everything that is obvious falls away and is lost, and we are no longer sure how things signify and where nothing quite makes sense. Perhaps this is why I admire Descartes and Husserl, while nonetheless disliking their conclusions. I had something like this experience growing up. I moved around a great deal throughout the country, and found myself thrown into one system of customs after another, having to rebuild myself again and again. My father enjoyed perpetually changing rules from moment to moment, such that there was very little that was stable or reliable. Our home sometimes seemed like Lewis Carroll's ideal game. And later on I would produce this experience phenomenologically in a concerted and intentional fashion, by following the line of thought traced by Sartre in the opening pages of The Transcendence of Ego, the first chapter of Bergson's Matter and Memory where everything is just fleeting images or impressions in movement, and late Husserl's concept of "hyletic flux", always "de-constructing" my body and impressions of the world to reach a sort of buzzing confusion behind the structured interpretations of the world about myself or a field of pure sensations that popped in and out of existence. You could say I would "de-relate" each impression I experienced, trying to experience my body not as a continous, organized surface, but as a series of disparate sensations unconnected to one another, and striving to do the same with my experience of objects in the world. It was a frightening time, leading to inane questions like "why do I believe the walls are white when they're covered by shimmering shadows that are constantly changing?", or "are objects really substantial, or are there just differentials of speed defining relations of hardness and and softness, substantiality and insubstantiality." I would stay awake for nights, challenging my sensory-perception and cognitive-processing systems, just so that I might see how the world looked in a state of complete fatigue. It would occur to me that my assumptions about causality, three-dimensionality, the interiority of the Other, significance, and so on and so on were not given, and that other orderings of the world are possible, like Foucault's mad taxonomy at the beginning of The Order of Things.

I'm developmentalist in my temperament through and through. That is, I believe that our sense of the world, body, and others is a product of aleatory developmental processes, and not something that is hard-wired or within us by nature. This is why I am fascinated by questions of individuation and why I begin with the premise that the "multiverse" or being is multiplicity without one. That's why I like Pollack, even though I really dislike him. Oh sure, most of us develop in such a way that we live in a world populated by objects or things. But what is an object? What is a thing? We tend to think of a thing as something that is there, in itself. But don't bodies and objects emerge in a reciprocal relation within one another, don't they co-develop? Husserl argues that all objects have a horizon, an internal horizon and an external horizon. No one reads Husserl, he's a terrible stylist, but he's really worth reading. The internal horizon of an object is the relation what is present in the object to me, shares to what is absent in that object. For instance, the other side of my computer monitor that I do not now see. The external horizon is the relation that an object shares to the rest of the world, to its background, to other objects related to it.

In Principle Doctrines, Epicurus writes:
If our dread of the phenomena above us, our fear lest death concern us, and our inability to discern the limits of pains and desires were not vexations to us, we would have no need of the natural sciences. It is not possible for one to rid himself of his fears about the most important things if he does not understand the nature of the universe but dreads some of the things he has learned in the myths. Therefore, it is not possible to gain unmixed happiness without natural science. It is of no avail to prepare security against other men while things above us and beneath the earth and in the whole infinite universe in general are still dreaded. (XI-XIII)
Epicurus is here calling for a conceptual revolution, or a transformation in how we experience objects and events. That is, there is one person that sees natural events and is immediately led to the conclusion that they are dark omens from the gods. A solar eclipse occurs, an earthquake, a tsunami, a comet flies across the sky, and we are filled with dread as we contemplate these things as they are indicators that the apocalypse is about to occur, that there will be a plague, or that a city will be smitten. Sometimes I receive student papers that try to dismiss Epicurus by saying that he lived in ancient times and these things are no longer true of us today; yet when a solar eclipse occured just a few years ago, significant portions of the global population refused to leave their homes in belief that this was a dark omen. No doubt some of this has to do with the fact that Revelations prophecies that the sun will darken when the apocalypse is about to occur.

Now, there is nothing in the experience of a solar eclipse itself to suggest this conclusion, save perhaps that they are relatively infrequent. No, in order for this judgment to be made it is necessary that there already be an entire external horizon to events such as this that links these events to a field of meaning, leading us to conclude that they are dark omens from the gods. I must already "live" in a universe populated by gods, where certain unusual events are understood to be signs addressed to humans, signifying favor or disfavor. Nor is there anything in what is given itself to suggest that we should approach natural events such as eclipses in terms of cause and effect relationships. No, in order to encounter the world in this way, I must undergo a conceptual revolution. Or rather, I must, following Deleuze, transform my experience of how the given is given as given (DR, 222). That is, concepts propose relations between background and foreground, events and their horizons. Or again, as Deleuze and Guattari so sexily put it,
The plane of immanence is like a section of chaos and acts like a sieve. In fact, chaos is characterized less by the absence of determination than by the infinite speed with which they take shape and vanish... Chaos is not an inert or stationary state, nor is it a chance mixture. Chaos makes chaotic and undoes every consistency in the infinite. The problem of philosophy is to acquire a consistency without losing the infinite into which thought plunges (in this respect chaos has as much a mental as a physical existence). To give consistency without losing anything of the infinite is very different from the problem of science, which seeks to provide chaos with reference points, on condition of renouncing infinite movements and speeds and of carrying out a limitation of speed first of all... The concepts can then mark out the intensive ordinates of these infinite movements, as movements which are themselves finite which form, at infinite speed, variable contours inscribed on the plane. By making a section of chaos, the plane of immanence requires a creation of concepts. (WiP, 42)
Aristotle selects a section of chaos when he names four arche, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause. Would we have thought to examine the buzzing confusion of the world, the chaos of the world, without this section of chaos being brought into relief? And on the basis of this selection, Aristotle was able to discover something new: the monster, or that being that violates the relationship between formal and final causes for natural beings. Later Darwin would turn the monster into a way of overturning formal and final causes. Freud takes a selection from chaos when he affirms, following Leibniz, that everything has a reason, at applies this to the parapraxes or the slip of the tongue. By virtue of the concept of parapraxes, I am now able to discern a horizon of meaning and desire in the bungled action and symptom. And this concept itself will generate its own conditions of falsification and growth, later generating the concept of death drive to account for those symptoms that do not resolve themselves through interpretation. With thinkers like Ranciere, Mouffe, Laclau, Balibar, Badiou, and Zizek, we now have a concept of the political, of the political as that which cannot simply be equated with dynamics of power. Yet another cut in chaos, allowing us to discern what was not discerned before. And so it goes. With each slice of chaos a new object is produced, and with each new object produced a new receptivity or intuition occurs. Would I have been able to read Raymond Roussel, were it not for the invention of the concept of the signifier? Is it possible to discern the existence of a new people if we do not first invent the concept of that people? Were there any nomads before Deleuze and Guattari first said "nomad"? Were there any militants prior to Badiou naming militants? Perhaps they have not arrived yet, but the very naming of them makes them yet to come.

A concept always posits a world, bodies, subjects, and new objects, attaching each of these to a unique horizon that autopoietically generates its own knowledge on the basis of the distinctions drawn. And if I find myself so hostile to those who declare the end of theory today, then this is because I see those who make this declaration calling for concepts to be replaced by commonplaces, by a form of thought that doesn't allow itself to undergo the torsions and destitutions that occur through the production of concepts, but instead affirm the bits of "common sense" that float around in discourse like so many truisms. The objects that we discern in their specific sense, the experiences that we have, the actions of which we are capable, the depth of our love... All of these things shall be a function of the concepts that possess and animate us. And here we must speak of possession in the full Catholic sense of the term, in the sense of The Exorcist, for it is not we who forge concepts, but rather we who are forged by our concepts.

The Virtual and Problematic Ideas (cont.)

In a previous post (Virtual Ideas-- Problems and Multiplicities) I suggested that Deleuze's account of problematic ideas or the virtual shares far more in common with Plato's conception of the forms or Ideas (eidos) than the empiricist conception of ideas as mental entities. The point here was not to claim that for Deleuze Ideas are forms after the fashion of Plato, but to underline that Ideas must not be conceived as mental entities, but as an ontological category presiding over the actualization of entities. Although Deleuze will later give up his language of "Ideas", this concept will nonetheless persist under the title of "multiplicity" until the end of his work. However, with that said, it becomes necessary to distinguish Deleuze's account of Ideas from Ideas of the Platonic variety and explain what philosophical or ontological work they're doing.

In book six of The Republic, Plato remarks,
Let me remind you of the distinction we drew earlier and have often drawn on other occasions, between the multiplicity of things that we call good or beautiful or whatever it may be and, on the other hand, Goodness itself or Beauty itself and so on. Corresponding to each of these sets of many things, we postulate a single Form or real essence, as we call it... Further, the many things, we say, can be seen, but are not objects of rational thought; whereas the Forms are objects of thought, but invisible. (507a-c)
Plato's motivation for positing the existence of Forms or Ideas is clear enough: On the one hand, the world that we see about us consists of objects that are constantly changing. Things come to be and pass away. If the criteria for rationality and truth lies in identity, then this entails that physical objects cannot be the objects of truth as they are unable to meet this criteria. On the other hand, to know is not to know this particular object, but the pattern or structure that underlies that object. Suppose that there were a form for gravity. I do not know what gravity is when I know that this or that object falls, but rather have a knowledge of gravity when I know the law governing all instances of gravity. From the standpoint of ordinary perceptual experience, phenomena such as a falling feather, a shooting cannonball, the manner in which I stay tied to the ground, and the movement of the planets all might appear highly unrelated to one another. After all, what could the graceful descent of a feather or a leaf have to do with the movement of the planets, and doesn't the flight of an airplane or bird violate the principle of gravity? It is only when I move beyond the appearances that I am able to discern the common essence shared by all of these phenomena. The first step in any science is a step back from appearances and perception. Plato is making a similar claim with regard to phenomena such as justice. To know justice is to know that pattern or form common to all instances of justice. Like gravity, there might be examples of justice that seem to share nothing in common with other instances of justice. It is only when I know the form, that I am able to discern these relationships.

Unfortunately, Plato is unable to explain what individual entities contribute to being, if, indeed, they contribute anything at all. For Plato the true beings and objects of knowledge are the forms, not objects or entities in the world. The aim of philosophy, argues Plato, is to turn away to the world of the forms altogether, to purify our souls, so that we might re-unite with the forms themselves, as appearances or physical objects are not the true objects of our desire, but lures for our desire. For instance, in The Symposium Plato will argue that what I desire in the beloved is not the beloved himself, but rather the form of beauty itself. The beloved awakens me to the form of beauty, but if I am wise I will recognize that what I desire is this form, not the person. For Plato there is thus a strong separation between forms and objects. Objects participate in forms, but forms exist independently of objects. Even if all human beings ceased to exist in the world of appearances, the form "Humanity itself" would continue to exist and what is most important would not have been lost (as the form of humanity was the true reality anyway).

In addition to this peculiar separation between form and reality, the doctrine of the forms seems to lead to paradox as well. Plato examines this paradox, which appears to be an early version of Russell's paradox, in the Parmenides, and it's been suggested that he later abandons the theory of the forms altogether (for instance, the forms do not appear in Plato's late work The Laws). A form is basically defined as those features that is common to a set of entities of a particular type. In an argument popularly known as the "third man argument", we can posit for the set of all entities characterized as "human", there corresponds a form defined as the "Human itself". Now, once we posit the existence of this form we can ask whether this form has the characteristic of being human or not. If we answer yes, then we must say that there is an additional form known as "Human-2" that would be the form corresponding to the set of all entities that are humans and the form of that set. But now we need to ask whether the form "Human-2" has the characteristic of being human. If we say yes, we must posit a third form entitled "Human-3", and so on. That is, the doctrine of the forms seems to lead us into an infinite regress. By contrast, if we say that the form of "human" doesn't have the characteristic of being human, then it is difficult to see how it relates to the set of entities characterized as human, and the explanatory power of the doctrine of the forms collapses.

There are thus three questions on the table: 1) How is it possible to overcome the transcendence of the forms, which renders the value of all objects null and void (this Platonic heritage will culminate in Kant who argues that "being is not a real predicate"), 2) what do individuals contribute to being, and 3) how is it possible to overcome the third man argument? Deleuze's strategy is to treat objects as symptoms and Ideas not as essences or forms guaranteeing the identity of objects, but rather as generative matrices or problems presiding over the actualization of objects. Regarding the first point, Deleuze will say, in Nietzsche and Philosophy, that:
We will never find the sense of something (of a human, a biological or even a physical phenomenon) if we do not know the force which appropriates the thing, which exploits it, which takes possession of it or is expressed in it. A phenomenon is not an appearance or even an apparition but a sign, a symptom which finds its meaning in an existing force. The whole of philosophy is a symptomology, and a semeiology. (3)
All individuals that exist are, for Deleuze, symptoms. Symptoms of what? Of the forces that take possession of them. But what are these forces? These forces are what Deleuze will refer to in Difference and Repetition as "Ideas", "Multiplicities", "Problems", or differentials. As Deleuze will write in Nietzsche and Philosophy,
Forces in relation reflect a simultaneous double genesis: the reciprocal genesis of their difference in quantity and the absolute genesis of their respective qualities. The will to power is thus added to force, but as the differential and genetic element, as the internal element of production. It is in no way anthropomorphic. More precisely, it is added to force as the internal principle of the determination of its quality in a relation (x + dx) and as the internal principle of the quantitative determination of this relation itself (dy/dx). (51)
Now, it's worth pausing here for a moment and noting that the sign of difference-- dy/dx --derives from differential calculus (a point that will be confirmed explicitly in Difference and Repetition). This is incredibly significant with regard to Plato. As I observed above, Plato argues that the world of physical objects is irrational and unthinkable because it is constantly changing and therefore fails to obey the law of identity required for something to be thinkable. However, with the emergence of calculus, everything changes, for what we have in differential calculus is the mathamatics of instantaneous rates of change of quantities with respect to other quantities. This, I think, is one of the most significant contributions of Deleuze's account of the virtual. Where historically it has been impossible to think change, with the invention of calculus, change now becomes thinkable. On the basis of this move, it is no longer necessary to posit an identity transcendent to the ever changing object (a substance underlying changing predicates such as we find in Descartes' famous wax example from the second meditation, or Kant's first analogy in The Critique of Pure Reason), but rather the continuous differing of the object from itself becomes thinkable as a unity of difference. Elsewhere, in his book on Leibniz, Deleuze will refer to the object as "objectile", which is a sort of portmanteau word combining "object" and "projectile", inviting us to think the individual not as a substance that underlies change, but as an unfolding event tracing a trajectory through the world. The object is now thought as identical to its becoming. All objects become events or happenings.

Nor need we presuppose a prior identity to beings at all, but it now becomes possible to see them as emerging from difference itself and of being differentiated as a result of a process of integrating a solution to the differentials of which they are a symptom. This allows us to be done with the concept of models which objects are understood to more or less approximate, once and for all. For instance, in Aristotle all objects are measured against how closely they actualize their formal-final cause, such that he must formulate the category of "monster" to cover those entities that seem to approximate no formal-natural cause (such as deformed animals). In Deleuze, by contrast, these entities are a solution to a particular differential field. It is in this regard that Deleuze refers to objects as solutions to a problem.

However, as Deleuze is careful to point out in Difference and Repetition, problems are neither negative, nor do they disappear with their solutions. For every object that we encounter we are invited to ask "what problem is this object a symptom of? or what set of genetic conditions generate an object in this way?" In this regard, individuals are to be thought as inhabiting a differential field to which they share no resemblance, of which they are the integration and solution. In this way, Deleuze is able to claim that his ontology captures the singularity of existence itself, of this thing here, now, in this place. Existence is a real predicate and is always a unique creation within being. Deleuze provides a beautiful example of this in Difference and Repetition. Early in the text, Deleuze remarks that,
Learning takes place not in the relation between a representation and an action (reproduction of the Same) but in the relation between a sign and a response (encounter with the Other). Signs involve heterogeneity in at least three ways: first, in the object which bears or emits them, and is necessarily on a different level, as though there were two orders of size or disparate realities between which the sign flashes; secondly, in themselves, since a sign envelops another 'object' within the limits of the object which bears it, and incarnates a natural or spiritual power (an Idea); finally, in the response they elicit, since the movement of the response does not 'resemble' that of the sign. The movement of a swimmer does not resemble that of the wave, in particular, the movemens of the swuimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in the practice as signs. That is why it is so difficult to say how someone learns: there is an innate or acquired practical familiarity with signs, which means that there is something amorous-- but also something fatal --about all education. (22-23)
By sign, Deleuze appears to be referring to the systems-theoretical concept of irritation, whereas by "signal" he appears to be referring to the concept of information whereby an irritation is transformed into information for a particular system. Expanding on this idea much later, Deleuze goes on to say,
In fact, the Idea is not the element of knowledge but that of an infinite 'learning', which is of a different nature of knowledge. For learning evolves entirely in the comprehension of problems as such, in the apprehension and condensation of singularities and in the composition of ideal events and bodies. Learning to swim or learning a foreign language means composing the singular points of one's own body or one's own language with those of another shape or element, which tears us apart but also propels us into a hitherto unknown and unheard-of world of problems. (192)
There is a profound theory of pedagogy or learning to be found throughout all of Deleuze's work, that he sets in opposition to the tradition of epistemology or knowledge. I wish American legislators would take this theory of learning into account in designing curriculum in the United States, as it's clear that they take learning to be "memorization of the same". All knowledge, for Deleuze, is a solution to a particular problematic or differential field. The problem, multiplicity, Idea, or "differentiation", in this example consists in the differential relations among singular points between the body and the waves. It is this that Deleuze refers to as the "virtual". It will be observed that these are literally "no-thing". Nor do the singular points of the waves or the
body resemble the actualized, differenCiated activity of swimming. Finally, there is nothing negative in this "problem" that disappears once the problem is "solved", but rather the problem persists each time the person swims as the positive genetic condition of these movements. Solving is an ongoing and endless activity, such that the problem never disappears once and for all (Deleuze draws profound inspiration from Kant's account of "regulative ideas" in formulating this positive conception of problems). My grandfather, for instance, has a very peculiar walk. If I did not adopt Deleuze's theory of actualization or individualization, then I might seek to examine his body to see what is wrong with him physiologically after he's dead, just as a neuropsychologist seeks to look at the brain or genetics of a person alone to understand something like depression, ignoring ecological considerations. However, being aware that my grandfather spent a good deal of his life at sea, I discover that his form of movement is a solution to the virtual differential field defined by the relation of the singular points pertaining to the body and the rocking of a ship from waves. His movement solves this problem and allows him to stand upright as he walks to and fro on the deck of his ships, while I am cast about left and right and sometimes fall down when I walk about on these ships. Similarly, in the case of swimming, one's style of swimming (the actualized individual) will differ depending on the field or environment in which one learns how to swim. The individual style that integrates the relation of the body to the flows of the water in a swimming pool will be different from the individual style of a California surfer who has to deal with heavy ocean currents and crashing waves. Deleuze is thus able to show how Ideas are the genetic conditions of certain actualized individuals and how the actualized individual is the only possible actualization of this particular problematic field. In short, we dispense with all models saying how an individual should do things, and instead look at the problematic field to which an actualization responds. The individual is no longer secondary or something to be gotten beyond. Nor, finally, is Deleuze's account of actualization restricted to cognition. Just as the particular movements I employ in swimming refer back to a problematic field or Idea to which they are a solution, the rock outside, the clouds, the trees, the earth, are all integrations of a set of differentials that "solve" a problem that persists. Insofar as each solution generates further differential relations, it follows that there are always new problems to be solved and integrated, and thus new actualizations. We must integrate even our own actualizations. All of this brings about significant transformations in how we study the world, pose ethical questions, pose political questions, and understand the relationship between aesthetics and ontology.

I had hoped to give a more precise account of differentiation and how it differs from differencitation, but hopefully this is a good start.

22 October 2006

Mouffe's Critique of Negri

Caput Mortuum has a very nice post on Chantel Mouffe's latest, On the Political. This post is of particular interest as it focuses on Mouffe's critique of Negri and Hardt (which strikes me as hitting the heart of the matter, pardon the pun). The post ends with the ten million dollar question:
But I come away wondering how this democratic version can escape the capitalist model. There may well be other enlightenments, other histories beyond the rise of capitalism, other concepts of human rights that may or may not be in the service of specific geopolitical or economic interests, but am I reductive in wanting some more specific examples here? Mouffe says, “It is not in our power to eliminate conflicts and escape our human condition, but it is in our power to create the practices, discourses and institutions that would allow those conflicts to take an agonistic form.” But what are those practices? Why is this appeal to agonistic pluralism any less a utopian dream?
Returning to my earlier post, "I See Dead People", is there a way of viewing these micro-struggles as obsessional activities designed to avoid confronting the real of our situation: capital?

Patrick Henry College

Occasionally I've been questioned as to why I'm concerned about the emergence of Christian Nationalism in the United States. The most idiotic remark, in this vein, was the observation that fundamentalism is only growing in the United States and the Middle East, while religious belief everywhere else has been on decline, so I really shouldn't worry about these things (this came from one of my European friends here on Larval Subjects). Well gee, thanks, this does me a lot of good if I live everywhere else, but I don't see how it does me much good living here. Perhaps the person who made this comment would like to find me a nice teaching position in Europe so I wouldn't have to worry about these things. Padraig from the brilliant subject-barred ($), who hails from Ireland I might add (apparently word of this small college has travelled far and wide), has been kind enough to track down a number of links on Patrick Henry College that are cause for concern.
No, what makes Patrick Henry unique is the increasingly close - critics say alarmingly close - links this recently established, right-wing Christian college has with the Bush administration and the Republican establishment as a whole. This spring, of the almost 100 interns working in the White House, seven are from Patrick Henry. Another intern works for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, while another works for President George Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove. Yet another works for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Over the past four years, 22 conservative members of Congress have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns. Janet Ashcroft, the wife of Bush's Bible-thumping Attorney General, is one of the college's trustees.
These are astonishing, eye-popping numbers. Now I have no axe to grind with Christians. I earned my doctorate from a Jesuit institution. I would argue late into the evening with evangelical and Catholic friends about the finer points of scripture and the teachings of Jesus. My mother is a devout Catholic and my father a Southern Baptist. They decided to split the difference and raised me Episcopal. I even enjoy a good high Catholic service. I've always thought atheism consisted in the freedom to be done with religion, to no longer even talk about religion, not in the activity of sitting around trying to persuade others of the folly of their religious views. Yet when I do find myself talking about religion it's usually defending religion, much to my dismay and confusion, not attacking it. My friend Jeff, in graduate school, who was home schooled and Baptist, would sometime tell me that I should be a minister due to how I talked about scripture. I suspect he did this to irritate me, but such is the nature of transference with regard to those whom we love. We become what we think they want us to be. Jeff also became a bit of an atheist.

But these groups are a different breed altogether, and it's worthwhile to know what it is that they believe as they are currently being groomed for extremely powerful positions that will not only have a tremendous impact on domestic policy in the United States, but on U.S. foreign policy is well. Do we really want people leading the United States who believe the apocalypse is immanent (thereby undermining any need to change environmental policies that effect the rest of the world) and who believe these events will unfold in a conflict between the Middle East and the United States (thereby encouraging "statesmen" to promote conflict with foreign countries rather than avoiding it)? The articles can be found here and here and here and here and here. Thanks for the hard work Padraig!

21 October 2006

Mark Bickhard Articles on Interactivism or Dynamic Systems Theory

At the broadest level, interactivism involves a commitment to a strict naturalism. By naturalism is meant (roughly) a regulative assumption that reality is integrated; that there is no isolatable and independent grounds of reality, such as would be the case of the world were made of Cartesian substances; that there is no ultimate barrier to further questioning and potential understanding, such as would be the case if the world were made of Empedoclean earth, air, fire, and water. In such a case, for example, (as well as for the Cartesian version of a substance metaphysics) it would not make sense to ask Where does earth come from? or Why is water stable? Such basic substances are the limits of understanding. The grounds for naturalism are at least two-fold: 1) the history of science seems to show that there are no such barriers to further understanding-- we now have naturalic understandings of, for example, fire, heat, life, magnetism, and so on --and 2) the assumption of any such barriers at this point would itself be without warrant and a pointless obstruction to investigation.

Closely related to this naturalism is a process metaphysics: the fundamental nature of the world is organizations of processes. Again, there are several grounds for this:
  1. the history of science involves a progressive replacement of substance models with process models-- e.g., phlogiston with combustion, caloric with thermal heat, vital fluid with self maintaining and self reproducing organizations of processes, and so on--
  2. Our best science tells us that there are no particles, only processes of quantum fields,
Read them here.

Interactivism: A Manifest, Process and Emergence, and The Social Ontology of Persons look particularly interesting.

Interview With Ranciere

We shouldn't think of the police order only as some institution. I don't think that the police order is the same as the police with their batons. I think it's too easy to say that the media is the police, that it is a big machine. The police order is not only a Big Brother, it is a kind of distribution of what is given to our experience, of what we can do. We don't need a Big Brother like Fox News. I think the same kind of partition between what is possible and impossible for us can be made by more sophisticated channels. It is wrong to focus on a horrible example like Fox News. The sophisticated media are also part of the police order, as a kind of distribution of what you are and are not able to do. In France, we have some sophisticated newspapers, but they are members of the police order in the same way as Fox News.

Read the rest here.

20 October 2006

I See Dead People: The Theory-Industry and Revolutionary Practice

Long ago when I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine used to joke that she could always tell who the graduate students were because their clothing was ten years out of style. That is, there's a way in which the graduate student occupies a different time-- perhaps due to poverty, perhaps due to living amidst musty books and endless writing that render one oblivious to much of the world --or walks about in time as if they were living in the past. Occasionally you will encounter a professor like this as well. Perhaps she is an older professor who is still obsessed with existentialism, and talks endlessly of the schism between Sartre and Camus, and complains that Unamuno doesn't get enough attention. Or perhaps he is still embroiled in debates about logical positivism. Or maybe you encounter a Hegelian who still reads Hegel through the lense of Josiah Royce, McTaggert, and Bradley, seemingly oblivious to the decades of scholarship that have occured since. In such moments a feeling of the uncanny comes over me, accompanied by a chill of fear. Right there before me is a person, another human being, yet this person is like one of the ghosts from M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense: He is dead, but he doesn't know that he is dead. He walks about seeing the entire world through the eyes of this long departed way of reading Sartre or Hegel, without realizing that things have changed. Such scholars are like echos in a cavern, marking the persistence of a voice after that voice itself has departed. And if I feel a shiver of fear, then this is because I wonder whether I am not looking at my future or destiny, that someday I am doomed to be outmoded, out of step, ridiculous, insofar as things have moved on since Deleuze, Badiou, Lacan, Zizek, and so on. Will I be the ranting old man that causes graduate students to chuckle for being so deaf to contemporary discussions? "Keep reading," I whisper to myself. "Stay young," I plead. "Do not fall out of time and become walking history." It is perhaps not by accident that I find myself forgetting how old I am at the young age of 32.

However, I then think of the dynamics of academic discourse. In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann writes,
Perhaps the most important characteristic of the information/non-information code is its relationship to time. Information cannot be repeated; as soon as it becomes an event, it becomes non-information. A news item run twice might still have its meaning, but it loses its information value. If information is used as a code value, this means that the operations in the system are constantly and inevitably transforming information into non-information. The crossing of the boundary from value to opposing value occurs automatically with the very autopoiesis of the system. The system is constantly feeding its own output, that is, knowledge of certain facts, back into the system on the negative side of the code, as non-information; and in doing so it forces itself constantly to provide new information. In other words, the system makes itself obsolete. (19-20)
Politically this phenomenon is perhaps one of the single most vexing issues groups trying to organize change face. Take the example of Hurricane Katrina. Today we hear hardly anything about this event, despite the fact that those living in regions of the United States affected by Katrina are still living in the aftermath. They live in streets where 1/3 of the garbage remains, among abandoned houses, and with very little being done to rebuild. Katrina continues to be a reality for these people, but it is a dim memory for the vast majority of Americans as these stories carry no new information value. As a result those living in stricken lands fall from the attention of the public, and it becomes increasingly impossible for them to improve their condition as this requires pressure on all levels of government and collective effort. To bring this pressure to bear, it becomes necessary to create new information events. Otherwise they might as well not exist.

It seems to me that the academy is governed by a similar phenomenon. In order to be successful in graduate school and land a nice position, graduate students must create "new information" through their research. In the humanities this requires students to challenge the tradition within which they find themselves. New ways of reading Lacan, Zizek, Badiou, Hegel, Deleuze, Foucault, Heidegger, Hegel, Levinas, etc., must be found. Preferably these readings should be shocking and disconcerting to the dogma of established research trends, pitching the thinker in an entirely new light. It is necessary to argue that prior readings had gotten everything wrong (preferably by referring to some ordinarily ignored text or newly discovered text which now becomes the centerpiece of how a thinker is read). The really outstanding thinkers do not simply contest how prior "cannonical thinkers" have been read, but perhaps contest an entire theoretical orientation such as phenomenology, logical positivism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and so on. The same principles apply within the world of publication, where the aim is to produce the new so as to get published and secure one's tenure and prestige. If I am to publish, then it is necessary that I buck old traditions, that I distinguish myself, that I produce something new that is worth being published.

The aim is thus not the true, but the new; and the result is that the ground is perpetually shifting under my feet as I scramble to keep up with all the changes taking place so as to secure my credibility and my position. Of course, the belief here is that this is "progress", that we are not simply producing the new for the sake of the new, but that the new arrives as a more accurate, more true, vision of the world, reading of Hegel, understanding of Lacan, etc. And there is merit to this. Yet nonetheless, the rules of the academic game are such that one must produce the new and not tarry too long with any one thing without varying it and producing new information for the machine. As a result, it is proper to entertain skepticism as to just how true this new is.

It is not enough to be a Marxist. After all, that's outdated, crude, and out of fashion. No, I must be a "neo-Marxist", keeping abreast of the latest developments from Deleuze and Guattari, Negri and Hardt, Badiou, Ranciere, Laclau, Zizek and all of their debates. I might suspect that I can get by with Althusser's high falutin structuralist Marxism, but Althusser is so "1965", as can be clearly discerned with his incessent and oh so gauch use of the term "science". But alas, it's not enough for me to be a neo-Marxist as I am a young academic that wants my piece of the pie, so I might tweek all these thinkers and perhaps contest them altogether, earning my own nitch in the university system and the world of publishing. And having accomplished this, some young, upstart grad student or beginning academic will someday challenge what I have sought to establish, pushing me off my place on the hill, and generating yet a new theoretical paradigm that makes everything else look interesting from the perspective of historical value, but which is now outmoded. If I read Althusser today, then this is not because I'm an Althusserian (though, as the Joker said of Batman, "what marvellous toys he has!"), but because I need to understand Althusser to understand Zizek, Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere, and Laclau. And so it goes.

One succinct way of defining the obsessional is as someone who does a lot so as to avoid doing anything; and in my more cynical moments, I suspect that this is what "radical political philosophy" in academia is all about (boy, I bet I get it for this one!). Think of the extraordinary efforts the Rat-Man went to so as to repay his "debt" (that he didn't really owe), all the while always seeming to fail at paying his debt. Again and again the Rat-Man would try to catch up with the person he knew he didn't owe money to, trying to pay him anyway, only to bungle his action at the last moment. And it seems to me that the theory-market works a bit like this. Again and again we draw up glorious programs like the obsessional forever producing notes, engaging in research, consulting publishers, etc., to write the great American novel, without ever getting started. That is, the situation is a bit like the novelist in Camus' Plague, who perpetually writes the same sentence over and over again, struggling to get it perfect, changing it a bit each time and exerting all sorts of energy debating which variation is the right variation, without ever writing the rest of the novel. Or the academy behaves like the man, passionately in love with a woman, who nonetheless forever finds ways to avoid being with her, claiming that first he has to get this job, earn this much money, save this much money, etc., so that he might be worthy of her love. The academy is an obsessional system, a system designed to insure nothing happens. Does it come as a surprise that the philosopher immediately cloisters himself within the walls of the Academy after Socrates' trial and execution? Isn't the academy ultimately a place where society is protected from the annoyance of the philosopher, by creating a space in which philosophers (any knowledge laborors in my book) can chatter endlessly with one another without publically embarrassing respected politicians and priests such as Socrates embarrassed the evangelist Euthyphro, the poet Meletus, or the sophist Thrasymachus? "Yes, let them talk, but for Christs sake, keep them out of the market place and off of street corners!"

And in light of these cynical reflections, I'm led to think that perhaps the only viable solution is to will oneself to become old, to resolutely refuse the march of the information-producing machine that is incessantly and forever calling for the production of the new, giving the illusion that one can catch up with it, that one is doing something in responding to its superegoic demand, and stodgily allowing oneself to become non-informative, while also becoming a bit more true. Perhaps this is why the truth always comes from the margins, from outside the established channels of the great universities, such that a Privatdozent such as Hegel can kick of a philosophical revolution, or a figure at a minor university like Kant can turn the world of philosophy upside down, or where a man writing in a small cold apartment like Nietzsche can challenge 2000 years of assumptions. Perhaps these were figures who were willing to be a little bit old and to ignore the incessant call for the production of the new, thereby paradoxically enabling them to produce something new, rather than the endless monotony of the varied cliche. It is in this spirit that I draw great warmth from Badiou, when he remarks that,
During the first years of my political activity, there were two fundamental events. The first was the fight against the colonial war in Algeria at the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. I learned during this fight that political conviction is not a question of numbers, of majority. Because at the beginning of the Algerian war, we were really very few against the war. It was a lesson for me; you have to do something when you think it's a necessity, when it's right, without caring about the numbers.

The second event was May 68. During May 68, I learned that we have to organize direct relations between intellectuals and workers. We cannot do that only by the mediation of parties, associations, and so on. We have to directly experience the relation with the political. My interest in Maoism and the Cultural Revolution during the end of 60s and the beginning of the 70s, was this: a political conviction that organizes something like direct relations between intellectuals and workers.

I'll recapitulate, if you like. There were two great lessons: It's my conviction today that political action has to be a process which is a process of principles, convictions, and not of a majority. So there is a practical dimension. And secondly, there is the necessity of direct relations between intellectuals and workers.
To be old is to maintain a conviction, a bit of fidelity, to allow oneself to step a bit outside of time and ignore the superegoic logic of capital as it functions in the academic publishing system. Perhaps what is necessary is to be a bit dead. However, it will be recalled that for Lacan the unconscious question of the obsessional is "am I alive or am I dead"? So perhaps being a little dead to the superegoic call of academic capital is paradoxically being alive... Alive insofar as one has escaped the obsessional machine of the academy.