17 October 2006

Schismogenesis and Academic Discussion

I should be grading or in bed, but I decided to distract myself with something that bothers me deeply. Gregory Bateson coined the term "schismogenesis" to describe runaway feedback loops that produce an antagonistic difference or opposition and spin out of control. As Bateson puts it with respect to symmetrical differentiation,
If, for example, the patterns X,Y,Z including boasting, we shall see that there is a likelihood, if the boasting is the reply to boasting, that each group will drive the other into excessive emphasis of the pattern, a process which if not restrained can only lead to more and more extreme rivalry and ultimately to hostility and breakdown of the whole system. (Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind, 68)
Although I have reservations quoting from this source, I came across some beautiful examples from the Interlude Meditation Website after a quick google search for "schismogenesis":
An example would be escalating violence among parties in conflict. You step on my toe and I push you. You push back and I slap you. You punch me in the nose. On and on it goes with increasing violence. As long as behavior continues along the same lines, things just get worse until the process is interrupted by some condition that interferes with it. Someone is too hurt to continue or the police come, for instance.

Here is another example of schismogenesis. A person who is highly suspicious and mistrusting of other people will behave in such a way that other people may want to keep their distance. Observing people withdrawing and talking about him, he feels less secure and more suspicious that others are against him. His own behavior generates responses in people that reinforce his beliefs. Similarly, some people form the opinion that the world is a dangerous place filled with people who don’t really care about anybody but themselves. Having that opinion, they behave toward others with mistrust and anger and others naturally distance themselves. Finding people distant, the person’s worldview is reinforced and his world becomes colder and ever less friendly.
It will be observed that the concept of schismogenesis resonates in productive ways with both the Lacanian concept of the Imaginary (rivalrous conflict through identification with the rival), and the Lacanian concept of phantasy. In the second example, the "highly suspicious person" organizes their interpersonal relations around a phantasy (a <> -A-) of what they believe they are for the Other or of what the Other desires of them. In Seminar 11, Lacan suggests that the "punch" in the formula for phantasy should be read as indicating "greater than", "less than", "and", an "or" (<, >, &, ^), where phantasy can be read as the subject being dominated by the Other (as in the case of the suspicious person), dominating the Other (in unconscious sadistic phantasies), perhaps being con-joined with the Other, or in an exclusive "either/or" relation with the Other. The point of the above example is that the Others with which the subject interacts are not truly against the subject, but rather the subject behaves in such a way as to produce the very withdrawal of Others that he's trying to defend himself against. This is the logic of the mobius strip, where what appears to have two sides turns out to be a single, continuous surface with an edge.

Along these lines, I was interested to read the following exchange online, so typical of exchanges I often find myself embroiled in and so representative of how discussions often degenerate, producing difference and opposition, rather than a development of ideas. I will not name names, and wish to underline that I often end up in these schismogenetic speech situations as well, so I'm not out to attack the participants in this discussion. So the point here isn't to judge the interlocutors, but to determine what produced the schismogenetic event. The first speaker writes, in response to a remark that "religion" is a poor concept:
Why does its etymology matter? Religion is a very broad term, I agree, and religious practices and beliefs come in an enormous variety of forms; but they all share belief in God or gods, belief in ‘spirit’, which is to say belief a non-material component to human life and/or the cosmos; in a survival after death. It’s an umbrella term for a range of a type of beliefs.

‘“Religion" is set in opposition to “reason”.’ By whom? Not by me. Many religious people are highly rational. The anti-rational or mystical variety of religious belief has a lot of adherents, but isn’t the dominant strand I’d say.

‘I propose a moratorium on the use of the term “religion,” and we can use other categories to talk about the phenomena grouped under the term “religion.” (So, for instance, we could discuss Al Qaeda as a “political” movement, which it in fact is.)‘

Are you really suggesting that ‘politics’ can in any sense at all be separated out from ‘religion’? That they are somehow cleanly differentiated terms? But of course not. And besides, what makes ‘politics’ a term with an ‘agreed-upon definition’ in a way ‘religion’ isn’t?

I’m not trying to pick a fight here, by the way. I mean, I can see an argument that goes ‘Dawkins attacks religion. But religion isn’t a meaningful category, so we can disregard his attack.’ Which would be sloppy thinking. But I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re doing.

I can also imagine a religious person objecting that describing them as ‘religious’ lumps them in with Scientologists, Creationists, New Age crystal nutters and schizophrenics, and they’d rather not be lumped in with those people. But a better way of not being confused with people who believe bizarre and improbable things, it seems to me, would be not to believe bizarre and improbable things.
This remark strikes me as a perfectly reasonable and non-hostile observation. While it is true that we might not be capable of giving an essential definition of religion as called for according to the standards of Platonic definition, nonetheless there seems to be a set of social practices that share, as Wittgenstein would say, a family resemblance, even if they don't always share essential identifying features in common. In this regard, religion would be similar to the concept of "game", where we can't provide a rigorous definition of games that would cover each and every instance of games, but can nonetheless provide a definition stable enough to allow us to reliably refer to instances of games in the world. In response to this post, the other interlocter responds:
X,

Dude, I think you need to do a bit more reading before you try this shit. It’s just bad. Like, really, really bad scholarship. God as artist is very much a part of traditional theology. I’ll point you toward Von Balthussar for the history and as an example. If you’re trying to explicate some kind of ‘traditional theology’ with your explication of God’s personhood, well, you really, really need to read more.

Now, that doesn’t mean his review wasn’t shit, I just can’t deal with your really bad scholarship. I don’t have any real dog in this fight. Dawkins has never much impressed me and neither has Terry Eagleton, so I’m not picking sides here.

Piety may be a better category from which to act, but I don’t think from prior conversations it would be worth my time to engage in that discussion with you. Just, please, stick to science fiction.
This exchange is fascinating because it reflects so much that is poisonous in contemporary public discourse in the United States, especially in discussions between classical "liberal humanist" (broadly and loosely construed) points of view and matters of religion, where those advocating Enlightenment models of discourse lay out their argument, define their terms and present their evidence, only to find themselves suddenly assaulted by the opposing side for reasons that appear thoroughly baffling on the surface. Apart from the professional imprudence of communicating in this way in the academic blogosphere, violating all rules of ordinary academic discourse, before other academics whom you might have to work with in some capacity someday or colleagues who might be watching from afar, one wonders why the original post produced such an impassioned and combattive response.

The respondant starts with the slang "dude", which rhetorically strikes me as attempting to strike a note of levity or friendly exasperation. However, as Freud notes, jokes are often a pretext for safely expressing impulses that our social situation prevents us from directly expressing. That is, we satisfy a particular drive in humor under the bar of repression. It's both present, but diffused. This comes out clearly, I think, in the subsequent remarks. The original poster is told that his scholarship is "really, really bad" and that "he needs to read some books before he tries this shit", but he isn't shown that his scholarship is bad, it's merely asserted. One might also wonder how it's possible to reconcile sophisticated theological accounts of religion with religion as a material practice or sittlichkeit, where presumably the average practioners of religion themselves lack this sophisticated understanding.

The first paragraph looks as if it is trying to negate the very being of the person it's responding to by attacking the person's scholarship (presumably we can assume that the original poster is a scholar of some sort), and by reducing his claims to "shit" or excrement to be quickly expelled (Lacan somewhere argues that all society faces the problem of how to get rid of "shit", that we know we're dealing with culture when we encounter traces of the problem of "shit"). The poster claims to have no "dog in this fight", yet the vehemence of his tone seems to suggest otherwise. The final negation of the other person's being, a negation that seems to aim at total annhilation by reducing the other poster to complete worthelessness, occurs when the respondant remarks that "...I don't think from prior conversations that it would be worth my time to engage in further conversations with you." One wonders why this point must be enunciated at all if it's true, unless it aimed at the very being of the person to whom he was responding. Why did this have to be said, rather than simply walking away? In this respect, it resembles my recent unfortunate and ill-tempered remark to Yusef where I claimed I don't have anything to gain philosophically from discussion with him. The negation is sealed when the original poster is told that he should stick to "science fiction", implying that his thought is a fantastic futuristic fiction with little or no merit.

This exchange is of interest as it is riddled with potent signifiers from beginning to end. What was it in the original poster's remarks that evoked the schismogenetic event, or this situation of differentiation, and that led to the drawing of lines? The original poster attempts to reassure the person to whom he's addressing himself that he's not trying to pick a fight, though in Freudian terms this negation could be seen as another example of "repression on the surface", where the negation allows the desire to be presented in speech in a "safe" or sanctioned way under the bar of repression. The key signifier appears to be the signifier "religion". It is with the evocation of this signifier and the suggestion that religion is a servicable signifier for referring to a body of material social practices, that the hostility emerges.

"Religion" thus functions as a site of identification in this discussion, as a contested ground, that must be protected and defended. Perhaps the affect that emerges in the subsequent discussion revolves around an ethical desire to "protect" those human practices that share little or no resemblance to monotheistic religion from being assimilated to monotheistic religion. Plato, for instance, seems to imply that the forms or essences allow us to think some objects as being "more true" than other objects, by virtue of their proximity to the form itself. Thus, for instance, one flower might be "more true" in that it comes closer to the form or essence of beauty itself than another flower. This logic of definition and conceptuality suggests that concepts are sites of struggle and heirarchy in that treating the paradigmatic forms of religion as monotheistic religion will necessarily lead to a devaluation of those practices that share little or no resemblance to monotheistic religion. The flip side of this would be that the respondant is attempting to protect monotheistic religions from being assimilated to non-monotheistic social practices that would have the effect of contaminating monotheism. "Only the monotheistic religions are genuine religions!" What we seem to have here is a sort of passionate attachment to a particular signifier or set of signifiers that renders any trespass on these signifiers grounds for war, and which immediately evokes defensive actions in the form of speech and insults. Or perhaps there's something else going on here that I'm unable to discern from the text.

Once the conditions are met for schismogenesis, the unfolding of this discussion becomes relatively predictable. In order to save face and protect their territory, each side must make assaults on the other side, either seeking to silence the other side once and for all, or getting them to yield their territory and be assimilated to the "kingdom" of the other side. Were I engaged in a discussion such as this, I would find it nearly impossible to withdraw, even though I found the discussion deeply unpleasant, publically embarrassing (I don't think anyone really comes out looking good in these discussions, though the original poster does seem to keep his cool throughout and behaves in a magnanimous way trying to concede points, develop his position, and address questions), and largely unproductive. So this is the first thing I wonder:
Why is it so difficult to simply walk away from these sorts of situations of discourse? Recognizing that one's interlocutor is hostile, and perhaps having little interest in what one's interlocutor has to say, why does one nonetheless remain and "duke it out". I would really like to cure myself of these sorts of exchanges and be done with them. So what are the real stakes of these discussions? Here I think Lacan's account of the imaginary and his thesis of identification with the rival is relevant. Is it that there's some contested "meta-signifier", not immediately apparent in the discourse, that the rival parties are warring over? Is it that in attacking the rival one is attacking oneself and striving to destroy oneself or the solidifications produced through one's ego and identifications, therefore freeing up drive to pursue its satisfaction uninhibited by the constraints of the ego? Is it something else?
Second, and less personally:
How can we minimize the conflict produced by passionate attachments to privileged signifiers in our discourse? As Guattari liked to observe, signifiers (though he'd never use this term) produce territories and territories produced contested grounds. The signifier Lacan produces a territory that both Lacanians fight over and that Lacanians seek to defend against Deleuzians, cognitive scientists, behaviorists, etc. So too, ironically, with the signifier "Deleuze and Guattari". "Democrat", "Republican", "religion", "American", "Christian", "science", etc., all produce their territories that help to shore up the boundaries of the ego, interfere in dialogue, and which generate antagonism. For instance, despite the fact that I shared the same aims, and defended the importance of language in politics, my conversation with the enthusiast of Lakoff produced a very similar dialogical event, as I suggested that Lakoff is a variant of cultural studies and rhetoric, and that these things cannot claim to be grounded in science. A good deal of vitriol was heaped on me for this remark, despite the fact that I applauded a number of Lakoff's observations and proposals. My remark was motivated by a desire to defend the territory carved out by the signifier "rhetoric", while my discussion partner was, no doubt, defending the signifier "science" which he saw as granting his views a certain privileged status. From my perspective we agreed on a great deal, but despite that, all bets were off when I questioned the scientificity of this particular cultural model.
I'm cynical as to the possibility of minimizing the effects of these lethal signifiers, but perhaps the idea of a discourse without privileged signifiers, without sites of antagonistic attachment, can, at least, function as a regulative ideal, like Kant's idea of the world as a totality that can never be an object of knowledge, but which must be presupposed as in Idea of reason in any inquiry, leading us to unify our disparate empirical experiences into the ideal of a system, even if such a system can never be completed. Mostly I would just like to find the strength to walk away from these situations without feeling that I'm somehow losing something, or feeling like I have to annhilate my interlocutor.

2 Comments:

Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...

I say dude all the time. I swear all the time. I tend to be very informal, grew up white trash, and I see no reason to change for an academy that rarely serves my interests. Fuck that noise is what we used to say. But, his framework was shit, from the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of time studying 'religion'. My vehemence came, not from his attack on Eagleton or defence of Dawkins, but from, what I take, to be a flawed framework surrounding both. A framework he presented as 'common sensical', when it is anything but. I guess I just got annoyed. I've read Adam Roberts posts for quite some time and the man never backs down, rarely takes criticisms to heart. I have no idea why I can't help myself. Oh, and he writes science fiction and is quite good at it, so there was really nothing behind that except 'stick to what you know'. But, yeah, no one ever comes out looking good (I don't usually look good anyway) and I don't know why I get pulled into it. Certainly not because of my desire to clean up shit. And certainly not because I think it will advance me philosophically. It really is a huge waste of time and not good for the ego. Maybe I'd make a good terrorist, if only I had some training. Even this comment, not sure why I feel the desire to write it. It's not advancing towards any kind of interesting solution to what you pose at the end of your post. You may further analyize what I said above, further annoying me. I should just walk away, but I've already typed this much. Maybe I'm a packrat. You've never stared a fight in a bar with a yuppie just because? But, no, it is an affront to reason, though it all does kind of make sense.

October 17, 2006 2:09 AM  
Anonymous tolga said...

Sinthome,
All that you say underlines the general potential problems that we can encounter in a relationship with the other side. Whatever being talked or discussed with another person cannot be sustained with a reference to an Other, can be? Hence, in any blogsphere or a forum or any kind of dialogue, there is always an Other outside that we want to attract with our position. In many cases, I suppose this might decrease the intellectual quality of the conservation seriously; everything that is declared might have the potential “emptiness” if I pathetically and hysterically try to exhibit myself. Though, this exhibition may not be intentional or consciously prepared and the collapse of a dialogue will be inevitable since its fate has already been decided by the positions of the sides to that Other.
So, what is the healthiest way to share and develop the knowledge for only the sake of knowledge? How should I restore the position of my self to the Other?
It seems to me, pure academic stance may not be enough in order to construct such a fruitful ground; since it cannot avoid that seductive Other (academic journals, positions, etc.) . Although it sounds and probably is “perverted”; the Other should be replaced by the big Other, i.e., history, God or even may be a professor supposed to know. A common big Other between us will eradicate the personality of yours in my mind, when I am conversing with you. Hence, any “attack” arising from your style, words etc. will not be conceived as assaultive by me; on the contrary I will always keep in my mind that you are becoming aggressive only because you want to serve to that big Other that I am also loyal to. Hence, there will not be unnecessary fights but only necessary ones; which are so-called polemics.
I do not want to be misunderstood here. There is an important point that I lacked when I mentioned above the loyalty to the big Other. This loyalty should always be conceived in “real” not only as a symbolic “foolish” support that is bound to the dryness of the words as “Lacanian”, “Maoist”, “Deleuzian” and so on. This common belief to the big Other has to rely on the experience, feeling, impact that the main antagonism of that plane (let’s say society) produces; it should not be understood as a fetishistic possessiveness. Nonetheless, one may have to insist on a symbolic empty stance whenever that embodies the universal ethical demand; although it has the danger to be confused to the foolish fetishism. There is a very slight difference when only conceived as a formal entity, but its relation with the universal exception may be helpful to understand the existing great difference in the content. For instance, I remember once a poststructuralist anarchist (who is pretty famous in Turkey, I am not aware whether there are currents defining themselves “poststructuralist anarchists” in the States) described me Badiou as a stupid thinker, who is (collaborating with Zizek, though Zizek is the smarter one for him) trying to abuse the precious poststructuralist theory to construct a smooth ground for Stalinism or authoritarianism. It was a good example as the absolute fetishist empty and unnecessary position to discuss the ideas in general.

October 18, 2006 9:07 AM  

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