16 October 2006

Visceral Reactions

This weekend I went to get my hair cut so as to avoid my massive pile of grading and the paper I had to write for an upcoming conference. The barber shop was extremely busy and I waited at least an hour before my turn came along. Before leaving I made the mistake of not eating lunch (or breakfast), and was thus in a generally foul mood. At a certain point, one of the stylists called out names, and miss-pronounced my name without me catching it, so that another person ended up going ahead of me, despite the fact that I had come before them. In this moment I'm ashamed to say that all sorts of horrible thoughts about citizens who don't speak English flashed through my mind. Ordinarly I do not have this sort of reaction to speakers of foreign languages. In Chicago I lived in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, populated by large Indian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European populations. It never bothered me when I went into stores and restaurants where English wasn't spoken. Moreover, I had a very diverse group of students in Chicago, and was cognizant of the difficulties for students studying philosophy when English was their second language, and I did everything I could to help them. For these reasons the sheer immediacy of my emotional response surprised me, and it took me a moment to remind myself that I was reacting in this way because I was hungry and had a tremendous amount of work to do, not because the woman had made a mistake which was, no doubt, not the result of her language (the other stylist had written my name down in a nearly illegible fashion) and which was honest enough.

This little occurance got me thinking about the nature of social relations more broadly. One of the central claims of Laclau and Mouffe (and Zizek, though for very different reasons), is that "society does not exist". By this Laclau, Mouffe, and Zizek do not mean that there are no social relations, but rather that society is riddled with irreducible antagonisms such that a society that forms a harmonious and smoothly funtioning organism is impossible. That is, the antagonism characterizing social existence isn't an accident of poor design or organization that could be rectified simply by organizing society in a better way, but is intrinsic to social relations themselves. Nor is it the result of another group that undermines "our traditional way of life". Were that other group eradicated or kicked out, a new form of antagonism would arise in its place (we find a consistent pattern of this way of thinking-- whether it be Plato holding the poets and sophists responsible for the ills of society, Augustine holding the infidel responsible, the Nazi's holding Jews responsible, or a nation holding foreigners responsible --there's always the nostalgic vision of a harmony that once was and the formulation of a contaminant and impediment to that position). The content of this antagonism can, of course, take many different forms, but the form itself remains the same and is ineradicable. In this respect, this real of antagonism works like a sliding puzzle game, where I can move the pieces about creating different patterns, configurations, and expressions, but the empty square always remains. The empty square itself cannot be eradicated, thus the antagonism merely displaces itself from expression to expression, forming something akin to a Freudian "dream-work" pertaining to antagonistic social relations. In reflecting on the antagonism I experienced towards the stylist and recognizing that it had nothing to do with her or her language, I don't eradicate antagonism as such, once and for all, but instead displace it elsewhere. For instance, that same day I got in a heated debate with an enthusiast of Lakoff, finding a new target for my unbearable jouissance (and one far more respectable academically).

Antagonistic social relations thus follow the Lacanian logic of the real in two principle respects: On the one hand, Lacan argues that the real is that which always returns to its place. While antagonism can take on a plurality of forms, it always returns in some form to upset social relations and undermine the attempt to form a harmonious unity or totality. In the clinical setting, for instance, a cognitive psychologist might successfully help a woman overcome her phobia of weasels, but insofar as this symptom gives body to the real of her drive, this real will displace itself elsewhere, forming another symptom that allows for the same drive satisfaction. So too at the social level. While I might eradicate my antagonism in one place, that antagonism returns in another place to mark the empty square or impossibility that haunts all social relations. On the other hand, Lacan argues that the real is the impossible. Here the impossible can be taken as the impossible to eradicate or resolve.

I suspect that these antagonistic social relations often occur at a visceral and immediate level, such that we only retroactively find reasons for our hatred and anger. In the case of immigration debates in the United States, for instance, it is likely that hostility towards foreigners is first an immediate and visceral reaction to foreign languages, different modes of dress, different physical features, different customs, etc., and only secondarily based on reasons. Someone goes through a drive through at McDonalds and has trouble communicating with the cashier, and immediately experiences an overwhelming anger. They call the phone company and are given the option of choosing between Spanish or English, and immediately experiences anger that there are other language options. Someone immediately experiences hostility upon witnessing a homosexual couple in public. Or in my case, I experience an immediate irritation with Deleuze and Guattari's talk of schizophrenia in Anti-Oedipus, and sometimes even experience something like a blind rage when I see some of my younger college students wearing their baseball caps cocked to the side. It is only retroactively, following this visceral response, that we seek to find reasons as to why our reaction as justified. We do not first look at how immigration is negatively impacting the country and then respond in this way. We do not first look for ways in which homosexuals are undermining family, contrary to God, and pose a threat of pedophilia (which is statistically false), but only retroactively seek out these reasons. I do not first conclude that Deleuze and Guattari's rhetoric of schizophrenia is damaging to clear philosophical thought and then react negatively. In our recent exchange on the virtual, Yusef, for instance, waved a red flag in my face without knowing it in evoking this language, even though we share very similar aims and theoretical concerns and I immediately responded like a charging bullm marshelling all the reasons I could to undermine his use of language despite the fact that I was paradoxically undermining some of my own philosophical commitments-- not to mention my communicative ethics, based on behaving magnanimously, never attacking the person personally, and always holding out that dialogue is possible no matter how frustrating that discussion gets --in doing so. No doubt the further failure of this communicative exchange emerged from our own egos getting in the way, where conceding a point or "losing" would be experienced as a loss of masculinity or a public humiliation.

On the one hand, if it is true that there is an ineradicable real at the heart of social relations, if it is true that social relations will always be contaminated by antagonistic jouissance, then knowing this can certainly bring some peace of mind in public discussions. If I adopt the traditional liberal model of rational discourse, where the aim is to argue according to the principles of logic, finding factual support for my claims, I'm going to be led to play the part of the "beautiful soul", seeing the world as an irrational place where no one plays by the rules of "communicative reason" (Habermas), and where unreason perpetually gets in the way. This conception of social relations will render me more cognizant of the role that jouissance plays in social relations, and will therefore lead me to search for ways to displace certain contemporary antagonisms while also avoiding utopian fantasies of getting rid of antagonism once and for all. Moreover, if I recognize that my experience of antagonism tends to increase in proportion to the strength of my identification with particular group signifiers (Lacanian, American, Christian, Deleuzian, Lakoffian, systems theorist, French, etc.), I can strategize ways to minimize these identifications and the boundary logic they inevitably introduce, thereby diminishing my experience of antagonism. On the other hand, this view also leads, I think, to a certain pessimistic despair. For if all social relations are ultimately formed in the way of somehow managing antagonism, and if antagonism as such (the empty square) is itself ineradicable, what hope is there for political engagement at all? In short, what is the optimal form of social relation for contending with the non-existence or impossibility of society?

9 Comments:

Blogger caput mortuum said...

Just to contribute some visual aid to this line of argument, in his recent essay, “Populism and the Mirror of Democracy,” Laclau points out how populism marks the limit of a given political system even as it maintains the political status quo. Populism, far from being an expression of the voice of the people, actually retroactively constitutes that "heterogeneous" voice, and thus falls into the same traps of the rigid institutional strictures from which it ruptured.

The best example I can think of is the way Daily Kos ostensibly functions as the new space of heterogeneous and grassroots political critique—but what happens when Markos Moulitsas does things like, say, ad campaigns for Ned Lamont?

This remixed ad
is a small stroke of genius.

October 16, 2006 9:21 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I'm not sure what's at stake here--probably not much--but I find the Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek thesis just weird. Society can only be called such if it is pure cohesion and harmony? But isn't that the very point of a society, that it's not cohesive, that it's made up of divisions, tensions, heterogenous forces? It's hard to not read into this the desire for a homogenizing force to come in and smooth out the differences. That force, of course, is the state--and for me, that's where the problem lies, not with the differences themselves.

October 17, 2006 9:42 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Eric, I sympathize. "Who ever thought it was such a thing?" However, the thesis makes more sense if we consider the history of social movements that have aspired for some sort of organic unity and harmony. Moreover, it seems to me that such a desire perpetually manifests itself as an unconscious phantasy in how one relates to others and various social issues. I'll use myself as an example, since I'm a little narcissist. In a context different from the one Zizek is talking about, Lacan argues that "all communication is miscommunition." Consciously I'm thoroughly aware of this thesis. Everyday I have the opportunity to register surprise at how poorly people communicate with one another, or how I take someone in a tagent they didn't intend or someone takes me in a tangent I didn't intend. I read my student papers and sometimes say to myself "how did they get to that from class lecture?" I would defend this Lacanian principle tooth and nail.

However, while I might very well know that "communication does not exist", I nonetheless *behave* as if I believe it should exist. That is, I experience constant frustration with the misfirings of the signifier, and catch myself explaining things in extensive detail with the vain phantasy that if I just show every step, qualify every point, render explicit every term, and carefully plot all the references, I will successfully communicate with others. And then it happens all over again. In fact, the over-explanation itself comes to function as a message counter to my explicit message and sometimes produces hostility as the person I'm responding to might experience themselves as being lectured to or patronized. Damn it! I'm doing it right now!

So on the one hand I "know" communication produces miscommunication, yet I nonetheless strive to communicate. I think the thesis "society doesn't exist" functions in much the same way. We "know" society is riddled with antagonism and conflict, yet at the level of our action and direct engagements we often end up casting about for the sources of this antagonism in a particular figure or group, such that if that element were changed, then antagonism would be abolished. For instance, I often go on and on about Christian nationalism in the United States. Although I am genuinely disturbed by the political activities of these groups and the legislation and governmental changes they've produced, nonetheless I suspect that there's a phantasmatic dimension to this hostility where I see these groups as the source of antagonism and miscommunication, such that if these groups were marginalized, then the social might return to its harmonious form of gregarious polemic. Often, I think, the figure of the "Jew" functions in a similar way on the left as the catch-all explanation for conflicts throughout the world, or as the explanatory reason as to why [global] society doesn't exist.

If antagonism is irreducible and a priori, the first cash return on this thesis is that we cease identifying a particular group or figure as *the* source of antagonism. Or, put in Deleuzian terms, we cease posing the problem of the social poorly.

October 17, 2006 10:09 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

It could also be asked, with respect to your comments, whether the state doesn't function as your explanatory principle as to why society doesn't exist. Traditionally, of course, the state has been seen as alienating the social from itself, as a form of "excremental" (Badiou) excess that mediates and distorts social relations.

October 17, 2006 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Sinthome, thanks for your considered response. That nicely explains it for me. I hadn't realized that the thesis was more aimed at leftist/oppositional movements that aim to achieve unity, or bemoan the lack of unity as the problem.

Re. the state, I don't think I'd say that the state distorts social relations because the two are immanent to one another. How is it possible to talk about the state and social relations separately? Instead I would say--if you're going to make me--that society does exist and that its operations are dictated and controlled by the state, though of course never wholly successfully or exactly as the state desires.

October 17, 2006 2:48 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Eric, I don't think the thesis is aimed at leftist political responses any more than rightest political responses. Racist movements such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi's just as easily fall under this thesis, as do less extreme groups such as religious groups that see "Hollywood" and "secular humanism" as the source of society's antagonism. The logic of the symptom is such that the symptom comes to fill in the place of the impossible real in the symbolic. For the Nazi, for instance, the *symptom* is the Jew, while the real is irreducible antagonism. It will be recalled that for Lacan a symptom is a response to the real or an attempt to symbolize the traumatic real of the drive by bringing it into the pacifying network of the symbolic. As Lacan so nicely puts it, "...what the unconscious does is show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real-- a real that may well not be determined" (Seminar 11, 22). The various "enemies" that a group defines for itself function like symptoms and are attempts to "recreate a harmony" with the real.
I only chose leftist examples as I believe principles should be reflexively applied to oneself first (don't throw stones in glass houses and all that). In other words, the question here isn't one of guys with white hats and guys with black hats.

As for your claim that society does exist, it's important, whenever discussing Lacan, to remember that the term "existence" has a very specific meaning. Existence means something like "can be given a univocal and essential definition." For example, Lacan claims "The Woman does not exist". Clearly there are many women, so what does this mean? Is Lacan a madman and ignoring the obvious? Employing the principle of charity in interpretation, it's clear that he must mean something other than what the proposition seems to express. It means that there's no universal or essentially defining criteria or core feature that would define class membership for the set of entities referred to as women.

Recall that, beginning with Plato (or as far back as Parmenides), the criteria for rationality and existence is *identity* and invariance. If Plato is led to suggest that the world of physical objects is just appearances, then this is because physical objects are constantly changing and thereby losing their identity or becoming other than they are. Thus the world of physical objects is irrational as only that which possesses identity and abides can be rationally thought, according to Plato (Republic 507a - c). Only the forms, according to Plato, can be said to genuinely exist as the forms are eternal, unchanging, and identical to themselves. That is, I can give an *essential* definition of the identifying feature of, say, "justice". This criteria was also adopted by Kant (though not the theory of the forms) to determine what has the status of an Idea of reason versus what can function as a legitimate empirical concept. Kant, for instance, could happily say that "nature does not exist", because we can't form one consistent concept of nature; or he could claim that "the whole does not exist" because we cannot consistently think the whole.

Now, I am not suggesting that Lacan is a Platonist or a Kantian-- though his suggestion that mathematics is the writing of the real might point in the direction of a sort of Neo-Platonism --but I am suggesting that whenever Lacan claims that something doesn't exist (Woman, the sexual relationship, the Other, and so on) he is playing on this tradition that asserts the thinkable is the rational or what can fall under a clearly defined class (as opposed to a set: the difference between class and set logic here being tremendously important, where a class is defined in terms of some identifying criteria like the class of people with bround hair composed of those entities that possess the predicate of having hair, browness, and being persons, versus a set that is simply defined in terms of membership without reference to any identifying criteria). A similar claim is being made about society by Laclau, Mouffe, and Zizek. Just as womEn exist but WomAn (the universal) does not exist, similarly there are plenty of social relations and instances of the social without Society existing.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in Levi-Strauss's essay "Do Dual Organizations Exist?" in _Structural Anthropology_, where he discusses how the members of the Winnebago tribe draw their village in an entirely different way depending on which part of the village they inhabit. The point is not that "it's all relative" but that these two depictions of the social are both real *and* irreducible to one another. In our social system the picture of society as a *collection* of independent individuals entering into contracts with one another and the picture of society as an organic totality where each person serves a particular function or role (conservative communalism), are an example of such an irreducible dual organization and antagonism. We don't get the "genuine and true concept" of society by combining these "points of view", but rather this difference itself is an irreducible antagonism or real such that if I inhabit one perspective the other disappears and if I inhabit the other the former disappears. The left and the right can thus be understood as two irreducible ways of dealing with this antagonism or real inhabiting the social sphere.

With regard to the State we can ask whether or not there are stateless societies. I'm open on the issue depending on what is meant by the term "state".

October 17, 2006 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Sinthome, thanks again for the thoughtful response. I don't know if I'm just in an accusatory mood, but I wonder why Lacan, Zizek, et al. deem certain things as "not existing." Which is to say, why is it that woman, society, etc. don't exist. Do they ever say that man does not exist? Obviously man is divided --black man, Latino man, Jewish man. The point is, I guess, should I read anything in to their selective examples of what doesn't exist? Why do exceptions need to be spelled out? Are there things that do exist?

For me, this is all tied up with ideas of the whole and identity that are not entirely clear. As I said before, I can't help but read into this denying of existence a desire for there to be existence, a pure whole that among other things erases messy contradictions. This is why I like Deleuze--his thought doesn't need to resort to denying of existences because it bypasses (short-circuits?) univocity and essences altogether.

October 18, 2006 8:23 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

"As I said before, I can't help but read into this denying of existence a desire for there to be existence, a pure whole that among other things erases messy contradictions."

Are you attributing this desire to Lacan, Zizek, Mouffe, and Laclau? Their claim *is* an anti-essentialist claim, and the trajectory of desire consists in overcoming the desire for a pure whole such as the one you describe. That is, they're point is exactly what you're saying: That we live in a world populated by messy contradictions, that that's the nature of reality. Moreover, I don't see Deleuze in contradiction to these thinkers on this point. Deleuze's early work, of course, is deeply influenced by Lacan (as can be seen most clearly in _The Logic of Sense_). The later work with Guattari almost always speaks positively of Lacan, while being critical of *Lacanians* who tended to re-introduce the primacy of Oedipus, where Lacan was critical of Oedipus his entire career.

"Which is to say, why is it that woman, society, etc. don't exist."

Please go back and carefully read what I said. I said that there is no *essence* called Woman, but didn't disagree at all that there are women. I said that there is no *essence* called Society, but there are plenty of societies.

Yes, Lacan does say that there are things that exist. For instance, "Man" exists. From a Lacanian point of view, you're a man if you're subject to the phallic function (regardless of whether you're a man or a woman). Consequently, there can be womEn that are sexuated as men and men that are sexuated as women. The catch is that Man itself is a semblance for Lacan.

"This is why I like Deleuze--his thought doesn't need to resort to denying of existences because it bypasses (short-circuits?) univocity and essences altogether."

This is not an accurate reading of Deleuze. For Deleuze being is univocal and he develops an elaborate theory of essence in his book on Proust. At any rate, I think you're setting up an artificial distinction between Deleuze and Lacan that isn't really there. I think one thing missing from D&G's account is how we come to desire this wholeness and completeness in the first place. This is what Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek, and Lacan do offer. This is crucially important as it goes straight to the heart of ideological manifestations.

October 18, 2006 10:16 AM  
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