10 October 2006

The Problem With Historicism?

In response to my post entitled "Interventionist Rhetoric", a friend of mine wrote me remarking,
I keep mulling over the phrase “strategic interventions” here. I so often I feel my writing is hopeless and decadent, that the limit of what can be said at any given time has always-already been determined by the historical moment, and that my two-cents are derivative at best. But I love this post so much because you posit so beautifully the act of writing itself as an essential process of letting out the hemlines of doxa and expanding the field of what is possible. The act of writing in and of itself becomes the most important revolutionary work, creating singularities in the fabric of the social that pull other actors and events together. I love it. But I wonder about the phrase “strategic interventions.” What did you mean by that? Wouldn’t it be closer to the overall logic of what you are saying if you didn’t use a phrase that suggests such agency? But perhaps you aren’t talking about writing—“strategic interventions at all levels of the social sphere.” I’m just not sure what you are thinking about there, but I want to pick at it. I like the idea that your work as a contemporary philosopher is a daily process of writing simply to “irritate” the limits of knowledge, but once philosophical interventions become “strategic,” doesn’t that delimit the process, like saying ego dictates all my decisions?
I think a lot of us feel this sort of despair with regard to writing and thinking. In my case, I suffer from the fantasy of wishing to be "before myself" or to "have my ideas before I have them" and to know in advance that they are original. I await my ideas and concepts. However, I think the more accurate truth is that genuine ideas function according to the logic of apres coup. They are something that will have been and can only be produced through the process of making something explicit. If they take place, they do so retroactively, and perhaps as the result of an accident.

I find these remarks interesting as they contain a number of ontological presuppositions pertaining to how writers (and persons) are individuated. What seems to here be assumed is that the "historical moment" is something that is simply there, present-at-hand, and is there for all of us in one and the same way. Here the historical moment is conceived as conditioning and the writer and person are conceived as conditioned. In this relation there is a unilateral direction of development from the historical moment to the conditioned individual. That is, it is the historical moment that is doing all the work and the individual that is being passively formed by this milieu. The historical moment is thus conceived like a cookie cutter and the individual is conceived as the passive dough. The individual formed by this milieu is then thought as developmentally internalizing the historical milieu into which their thrown through biological reproduction, and is thus unable to think outside this milieu, but only according to its constraints and rules.

I think the most problematic aspect of this thesis is that it conceives the environment (in this case, environment as historical milieu) as a container that is just homogenously there, and not as multi-dimensional, divergent multiplicity. Here I find the metaphor of a hologram, or Holbein's painting The Ambassadors instructive. One of the lesson to be drawn from Holbein's painting and the Lacanian concept an anamorphic shift, is that the world appears differently to me depending on how my perspective is organized. A shift in perspectives renders some things visible and other things invisible, and thus functions like a hologram. To play with a Lacanian expression, just as one might say "the Other doesn't exist", it can equally be said that "history doesn't exist". My relation to the historical milieu is always going to depend on what element of that milieu I've foregrounded. For instance, Christian Nationalists foreground a particular religious struggle against secular humanism to the foreground of their relation to the historical milieu and thereby experience the world in these organizing terms. It is on these grounds, for instance, that they're able to encounter a cashier from Target saying "happy holidays" as an attack on their faith and an example of persecution. Another person wouldn't even notice that the cashier has said "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas", and would think nothing of it.

Similarly, many on the left encounter their historical milieu not in terms of the "culture wars" (this is seen as an ideological mystfication), but rather in terms of the phenomenon of globalization and the march of capital. Under this view, an economic treaty between two nations is not seen as simply an activity designed to benefit these two nations (as it might be seen by the Christian Nationalist), but rather as a symptom of globalization negatively impacting workers and further diminishing sites of resistance. My point is that the conditioning relations we enter into are going to be very different on what element we elevate to the status of the whole and this elevation of this element to the status of representing the whole (S1/S2) is a creative act, that cannot be anticipated by relations among the elements themselves, and which requires all sorts of subsequent creative elaborations so as to account for how the remaining parts relate to the exemplary part that relates to the whole.

Second, in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze, following Bergson, argues that each actualization in the present is expressive of the entirety of the past, and that actualization takes place by selecting a level in the cone of the past to be actualized in the present. Nick, over at Accursed Share, has a picture of Bergson's "cone of memory". While I'm not sure I share Deleuze-Bergson's particular conception of time and memory, information systems (such as ourselves and social systems) have the curious feature of maintaining a relation to the past through the inscription of texts. This has the curious result of upsetting linear order of time. It seems to me that one of the presuppositions of the above conception of historicism is that time is conceived in terms of one moment following another moment. In this way, the prior time determines what is thinkable. While it is clearly true that I cannot experience Plato or Cicero or Descartes in the way that their contemporaries were able to experience them, nonetheless, my encounter with these thinkers can put me out of step with the time in which I live. Yes, I read these texts through the lense of my time (which is one reason why no repetition is precisely a repetition of the same), but also these texts contaminate my relation to the present, producing a minimal distance between the predominant doxa of my time. A person is able to repeat Plato in the present, and in doing so must reconfigure their relation to the present. I take it that this is one reason that the theme of repetition has been so important for thinkers such as Zizek and Deleuze, where the repetition in question is a repetition of the missed or unactualized potentials of a particular political event or text (Zizek has done this in an exemplary fashion with his readings of the German idealists and Descartes, which are certainly out of step with both predominant post-structuralist attitudes towards these thinkers and pre-dominant scholarship sympathetic to these thinkers).

Finally, third, the key thesis pertaining to the Lacanian subject is that, as split, the subject itself is never at home in his milieu. The assumption of ecologically oriented theories is that the various others know what it is truly like to be a member of their particular group. This or that tribe, for instance, understands their symbolic universe in a way that an outsider will never be able to understand. The Lacanian turns this on its head, arguing that the "mysteries of the pyramids were mysteries to the Egyptians themselves". That is, members of their own group maintain a fraught and antagonistic relation to the Other or symbolic universe to which they belong, wondering what the Other truly wants of them. Their relation is mediated as well. It is precisely due to this split that we're both led to passionately identify with the Other (identify as Christian, American, academic, etc), hoping to provide the correct answer to this question, and that all identifications are fraught and perilious, functoning as potential sites of contestation. Since that which I can be conditioned by is always going to result from my identifications, the way in which I'm conditioned is, in fact, a creative act on my part... I choose my influences and enact my conditioning. Under this threefold model, the act of writing becomes a creative act that introduces or "emerges" singularities into the social field capable of diverging from the dominant strains of that field. Perhaps the more interesting question is that of why one might desire to see it as impossible to say anything that isn't already said... How does this sustain ones desire with respect to the Other, and what danger might there be in speaking?


Blogger caput mortuum said...

Thanks for responding in detail to my email, Levi. I agree that I am representing "historical moment" rather unproblematically here, but I take it to include the myriad ways of seeing the limits of all potential discourse of that "moment," for lack of a better term. Even if I can shift my perspective to take in various aspects and multiplicities and potential discourses, I still feel that my range of possible rhetorical moves is inherently limited by what has been written. In the same way that Lyotard reads the postmodern as the futur anterieur of modernism--that is, that the postmodern was always-already embedded in the modern and does not stand alone as a discreet historical shift or break into some "new" perspective marking an end to modernism. Even if I take an unexpected position in my work, or read against the grain of a situation or text, I still have the sense that the limits of my own rhetorical moves are located externally, embedded within the texts currently in circulation. You read Plato as a way of "upsetting the linear order of time":

Yes, I read these texts through the lense of my time (which is one reason why no repetition is precisely a repetition of the same), but also these texts contaminate my relation to the present, producing a minimal distance between the predominant doxa of my time. A person is able to repeat Plato in the present, and in doing so must reconfigure their relation to the present.

But isn't Plato also another text in the repertoire of texts and discourses currently in circulation? As you say, we read Plato through the lens of our time. How can Plato distance us from "the predominant doxa of our time"? Doesn't this also presume that there is in fact an historical moment from which we can be distanced?

For example, you make your argument here by using a series of references that mark you as a specific sort of thinker: Lacan and anamorphic shift, Bergson on actualization, Zizek and Deleuze on repetition, Nick at Accursed Share, who is also circulating Bergson's "cone of memory." Your writing may reorganize these theorists and writers in a unique configuration, but you are still limited by a specific sort of discourse combinatorics here, no? You are right to point out the larger question of why I would put things in such pessimistic terms about the impossibility of change--I suspect general dissertation burn-out and malaise. Still, when I write I often feel the most I can hope for is a unique reorganization of ideas that already exist, like those children's books that are split into independently bound sections, allowing the reader to create new tripartite monsters out of pre-existing beasties.

October 10, 2006 12:45 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Part of the problem here is, I think, that the concept of "context" is going undefined. As a person I'm born into a time and place, governed by its own symbolic, customs, and norms. Now suppose that I become fascinated with Epicurus. Epicurus said "pleasure is good and pain is bad". I decide to follow Epicurus' philosophy. Suddenly I'm being detached from the context into which I was thrown by following these basic rules. I end up rejecting certain values I was brought up with as being harmful to my pursuit of pleasure or peace of mind (for Epicurus the simple life is best of all) and I create new values. So that's the first separation from one's community.

However, following Epicurus requires invention on my part because the context is different from his context and we know things about the body and mind that Epicurus didn't know. Epicurus, for instance, argued that we should withdraw from society with a group of like minded issues, for so long as an individual has no control over their environment (and our fellows are a part of our environment) we can never acheive piece of mind. He called this place he'd built "the Garden". Well, how is it possible to withdraw like this today? Now that we have Social Security cards and there is no unowned property (it belongs to either individuals or the State), how can we form the Garden today? Answering this question requires invention.

Similarly, we now know (at least Lacanians do) that there is the death drive. Epicurus believes that we could always choose the "mild pleasure" that's healthy and non-damaging, but what are we to do if we're to be Epicureans with the death drive and our compulsion to repeat? How can one be Epicurean when the psychic system is governed by jouissance? This, again, requires invention. As a result of this sort of engagement, Epicurus slowly becomes something very different than the text itself. Something new occurs that gradually drifts from its origin like the way in which new species are formed through geographical drift.

Go back and look at how Badiou appropriates Plato, or how Zizek appropriates Hegel, or how Lacan appropriated Freud, or how Deleuze appropriated Bergson. In all three instances, these repetitions allowed a detachment from the dominant trends of the historical space. Plato had been thoroughly rejected by the French postmoderns and was now treated as a master-signifier referring to all that is unholy in philosophy. So too in the case of Hegel, who has been the whipping boy of both Anglo-American and Continental philosophy for decades. Freud was largely loathed by the psychoanalytic community Lacan found himself in, and clinical theory and treatment had progressively moved towards psychiatric and biological models of treatment. Finally, Bergson was almost entirely off the radar in the French scene when Deleuze was developing his concepts (as was Hume). So the first feature of these identifications was that they allowed detachment from the immediate historical milieu of the community.

Second, in each of these cases the Plato, Hegel, Freud, and Bergson that we get is tremendously different than the original or standard reading. Badiou gives us a Plato according to Cantorian set theory (the exact opposite of Plato's fetish for identity) and the procedure of "forcing" defined by Cohen, that would be largely unrecognizable to a Plato scholar like Sallis. The dominant image of Hegel is one of totality, yet Zizek gives us a Lacanianized Hegel who is the theorist of the non-existence of the big Other. Lacan ties Freud to ethnography, cybernetics, interpersonal relations, and linguistics, tearing him from his standard biological interpretation. He introduces strange new words such as "desire" (nowhere to be found in Freud) and "the Other", among many others. Bergson gets linked to structuralism, the work of Simondon, Nietzsche, Kant, Solomon Maimon, Spinoza, and Leibniz, profoundly out of step with the dominant paradigms of culturalism and linguistics in the French scene during this time. Each of these fusions required further conceptual invention (in Lacan we get unheard of concepts such as "sinthome", "objet a", the "Other", "anamorphosis", etc). Once again, a speciation takes place, where Lacan, by the end of his career, speaks of the "teachings of Lacan" (in the third person), marking the point that through his *fidelity* to Freud he has ended up going beyond Freud and presenting a position that can no longer simply be called the "return to Freud".

Yet if ideas are never expressed, this activity of invention never takes place as the world is never seen through that lense and we're never challenged with situations where we have to manipulate and modify our concepts to grapple with the unexpected. This, I think, is the brilliance of Badiou's concept of a truth-procedure. A truth-procedure requires us to get down to the nitty gritty of actually inventing in relation to the terms of a historical situation. Galileo had an idea: All nature is mathematical. Perhaps this idea came from Archimedes and Archimedes alone. However, in the process of *unfolding* this idea, the thesis gradually became something quite different, until it had departed from its origins in Archimedes, Plato, and certain passages in the Bible. It undermined the entire universe of meaning from whence it came.

You seem to suggest that because the sculptor is influenced by the grain of the wood (here wood being the historical material), the sculptor adds nothing to that wood.

October 10, 2006 2:25 PM  
Blogger caput mortuum said...

Isn't there something rather romantic, though, in this idea of using historical theory to somehow detach from the immediate moment? Lacan may well have invoked Freud at a time when Freud's ideas were considered dated and particularly marginalized, but as you yourself point out, Lacan was also working through contemporary developments in cybernetics, linguistics, and higher maths (even if only to use advances in topology in rather suspect ways to force the problem of his position as master). Isn't the main point here that Lacan used Freudian ideas to focus contemporary concerns, not to detach himself from the conversation or go off to sit in Epicurus' garden/suburban gated community in a huff?

I'm not suggesting new permutations of thought aren't possible. I am simply lamenting the limitations that the current moment always places on thought. To return to the beastie metaphor, a chimera may have the body of a goat and the head of a lion, but why am I limited to the goat/lion dichotomy? Why can't I skip a thousand years ahead or go lateral and imagine something else? But of course nothing else I imagine will do because it is equally bound within the limits of my feeble brain, set by the limits of the texts and theories of my moment in time. No medieval serfs were pondering quantum mechanics.

I know this is an absurd thing to despair over, but I come up against it again and again in my own writing: why am I recirculating a particular reading of this text or theory right now? How suspect is my approach? Have I taken into account theorists x, y and z thoroughly enough here? It gets so I can barely make a positive statement because I expend more energy trying to figure out and articulate the inherent limits of my own subject position.

October 11, 2006 12:44 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Burke has an interesting chapter on the act in _The Grammar of Motives_. I'm not sure why Burke is on my mind these days as I haven't read him in quite sometimes, but he seems to keep popping up. Anyway, there he, in a way similar to Lacan, argues that the concept of act must be thought in terms of God, as a pure creation ex nihilo. It sounds to me that a good deal of what you're talking about is such an act, something that is completely unconditioned, something that is restrained in no way.

I don't think there's anything romantic at all in the idea of detaching from the immediate moment. Such a detachment is never immediate, but occurs in waves and is a process. I think we see this take place most obviously with artificial groups (not fake groups, but groups that aren't simply the result of customs) such as associations, the various Lacanian schools, religious groups, political groups, etc. By rendering their aims and principles explicit, they progressively reform their identity through their praxis. What seems lacking in your comments-- correct me if I'm wrong --is this ongoing praxis as a process that produces difference over time like speciation occuring through geographical isolation of one part of a species that originally shared the same characteristics. Lacan detached himself by forming a school, or a social subsystem, that progressively came to define its own concepts and goals in much the same way that the epicureans detached themselves from broader greek life.

As for limitations of the current moment, I tend to ascribe to the position that it is *constraint* that is the condition of creativity, not absolutely unlimited openness. Perhaps here I'm guilty of thinking according to the logic of Buriden's Ass, where it's impossible for an ass to choose between the water to his left and the hay to his right if his hunger and thirst are exactly balanced. It's precisely because I find my options limited that I'm able to make a selection from what's available.

In future weeks I hope to write about this more in terms of Deleuze's account of individuation. Deleuze describes the domain of the virtual as a domain of problems. Every entity is an actualized creative solution to a specific problem. Problem, as Deleuze understands them, could just as be described as "constraints". For instance, the tree outside my window was a response to the "problem" of local soil conditions, water availability (we're in the midsts of a drought), light conditions, air conditions, wind conditions. For instance, the wind in my area is exceedingly strong at certain times during the year and this is reflected in how the trees grow, as many of the trees bend slightly (and not so slightly) in one direction. It's as if the tree were petrified wind, containing the trace of the wind even once the wind is gone. Wind here, of course, would be an example of an intensity presiding over actualization. The actualized tree would be a cancellation of that difference, its equalization. The tree creatively solved that problem in a way that couldn't simply have been anticipated by these conditions. I see no reason why the same principles don't apply to writing.

October 11, 2006 6:42 PM  

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