23 December 2006

The Crisis of Communication

Dr. X's Free Associations has an interesting post about debates over the war in Iraq and the common experience of being unable to persuade war supporters that resonates nicely with some of the issues I raised in my poorly written post Grounds and Sophists.
Trying to explain the exasperating phenomenon of people who continue to disagree with him on Iraq, despite his eloquent arguments and unassailable mastery of objective facts, Shrinkwrapped writes:
'Those of us who have not been infected with the thought disorder known as post-modernism and believe that there exists an actual reality that we can reasonably and objectively approach; if that is the case, what is it that prevents people from recognizing facts that are right in front of their eyes?'
It sounds to me like the erudite Shrinkwrapped experienced a little thought glitch during the writing of those sentences, but never mind that.
I've been thinking about writing about this issue for a while now, but my thoughts are still a bit scattered. Many of us have experienced this frustrating phenomenon since 2001. We have found ourselves embroiled in discussions where facts were on our side, yet strangely we have not been able to persuade the other person. I think Shrinkwrapped misidentifies the problem when he blames postmodernism, as I do not believe that my interlocutors are willfully refusing to recognize arguments.

Increasingly I've come to believe that what is at issue here is transference as described by Lacan. Lacan has an unusual concept of transference which he relates to the "subject supposed to know". When the analysand enters analysis, he supposes that the analyst has a certain knowledge of his symptom and suffering, when in fact that analyst does not have this knowledge. This projection functions as a motor for analysis as the analysand interprets each pronouncement of the analyst as coming from a place of knowledge and therefore interprets what the analyst says producing knowledge for the analyst. That is, it's the analysand doing most of the work. A standard, vulgar, and overly simplified Enlightenment conception of discourse begins from the premise that it's the syntactical and semantical structure of an argument that counts in persuading another person. So long as the argument is logically valid (synatx) and so long as the propositions that compose the argument are true (semantics), the interlocutor will assent to the argument on the premise that the interlocutor is not insane or mentally deficient. What this leaves out is the rhetorical and dialogical dimension of discourse, wherein who speaks is also a crucial factor in determining whether the other person will listen.

I confess that I have an extremely difficult time listening to anything George Bush says at this point in time, and therefore find it difficult to attend to his arguments. There are books I've tried to read in the past that I've found myself unable to follow simply because they don't come from the right theoretical orientation. Thus, for example, years ago when I was first extremely hip to Deleuze and Guattari, it was almost impossible for me to read Hegel's Science of Logic, as I had already branded Hegel an enemy on the basis of what Deleuze had argued in Nietzsche and Philosophy and Difference and Repetition. I would read Hegel's texts and my eyes would glaze over or I would be overly dismissive of his claims, not following the development of his thought on its own term. This culminated in me taking an incomplete in a graduate course I was taking on Hegel's system that I was unable to finish for two years. It wasn't that I was intellectually incapable of reading Hegel, but that my transference towards Deleuze and the negative transference it wrought with regard to Hegel made it impossible for me to "hear" his work. Similarly, I suspect that part of the recent blog war with Anthony Paul Smith and Adam Kotsko had to do with these sorts of transferential issues. On the basis of offhand remarks I'd made in the past, Kotsko and Smith had branded me as a "knee-jerk secularist" and "doctrinaire atheist", and perhaps I had similar prejudices towards them. Anthony Paul Smith, for instance, subsequently mentioned that his initial comments had been intended in a lighthearted way that presumed more friendliness between us than was there. Something other was intervening in our dialogue and preventing us from talking... Something that wasn't strictly in the propositions making up the dialogue themselves.

What we thus get are universes of reference that are a function of our identification. Because I suppose that Lacan has a certain knowledge I come to dwell in a particular universe of reference populated by entities such as objet a, transference, the symptom, the sinthome, the Other, the unconscious structured as a language, etc. When I speak of psychic phenomena, I am speaking of something different than say my neuropsychological colleague. Indeed, I do not take psychoanalysis to be a psychology or neurology at all, as I begin from the stance that the subject is constituted in the field of the Other or that subjectivity is intersubjectivity and cannot be thought independent of the Other. Part of understanding a universe of reference will thus involve taking into account the field of identifications structuring a person's subjectivity. The Iraq war supporter has different identifications than myself and thus relates to "actual reality" in a different way as he will only listen to certain people as authorities. Given the globalization of our culture, it is not surprising that identification would increasingly come to play such a key role in structuring our relation to the world as we must now all deal with absence, with what we cannot directly verify, as a part of our day to day life due to the omnipresence of media communications. Given that we all recognize that any media image or story is "framed" by the person writing and filming and that we cannot directly verify these things for ourselves we must have recourse to different standards of truth and these standards become the credibility of the speaker. This, I believe, is what Deleuze had in mind with his discussions of the role the "structure-Other" plays in grounding recognition and representation in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense (reference could also be made to Husserl's Cartesian Meditations and the role the Other plays in developing dimension and permanence for the cogito). I am not at all suggesting that this is a happy state of affairs or that the idea of multiple universes of reference is a marvellous thing, only that this seems to characterize our current "metaphysical" situation where talk of reality is concerned.

What does this have to do with Iraq? I've increasingly come to notice that intercommunicative settings seem to be organized around this phenomenon of the "subject supposed to know". It seems that today a person begins from the premise that there are some who speak from the standpoint of knowledge and others that do not. For instance, when I watch FOX news I do not attribute knowledge to the newscasters, and am therefore largely deaf to the claims and arguments they make even if they are true. I begin from the standpoint that they are trying to dupe me ideologically. It seems to me that this phenomenon is even more potent among many rightwing supporters of Bush and the war, such that they simply filter out any negative news or information about Iraq as a "liberal conspiracy". As the opening paragraphs of Plato's Republic indicate, you cannot persuade someone who refuses to listen. The issue here is not one of postmodernism, but rather one of who we trust as a credible speaker. The moment shrinkwrapped opens his/her mouth, shutters have already fallen over the ears of his/her interlocutor. As we know from our practices, it's impossible to do work with patients that attribute us no credibility or authority. For instance, it's always more difficult to work with patients that have been forced into analysis by family or courts. The question then is one of how to overcome this credibility gap or crisis of legitimacy.

In a way I think Shrinkwrapped is right when s/he evokes a postmodernization of discourse, but for the wrong reasons. Expressed as Shrinkwrapped has expressed it, the premise seems to be that those who disagree do so because they adopt postmodernism as a philosophical position. However, I think the issue goes far deeper than this-- It is not that someone has deviously adopted a philosophical position of postmodernism wherein there is no ultimate reality, but rather that we are living in a postmodern situation. When I argue with my friend that is a staunch supporter of the war, we literally live in different realities or "universes of reference" by virtue of how our subjectivities are structured transferentially. For this reason, we are unable to use "actual reality" to decide the truth or falsity of contested propositions. Rather, our universes of reference (hence the plural) have become self-referential by virtue of what we recognize as a credible authority. As Hegel puts it,
We may also remark at this point that to go no further than mere grounds, especially in the domain of law and ethics, is the general standpoint and principle of the Sophists. When people speak of 'sophistry' they frequently understand by it just a mode of consideration which aims to distort what is correct and true, and quite generally to present things in a false light. But this tendency is not what is immediately involved in sophistry, the standpoint of which is primarily nothing but that of abstract argumentation. The Sophists came on the scene among the Greeks at a time when they were no longer satisfied with mere authority and tradition in the domain of religion and ethics. They felt the need at that time to become conscious of what was to be valid for them as a content mediated by thought. This demand was met by the Sophists because they taught people how to seek out the various points of view from which things can be considered; and these points of view are, in the virst instance, simply nothing but grounds. As we remarked earlier, however, since a ground does not yet have a content that is determined in and for itself, and grounds can be found for what is unethical and contrary to law no less than for what is ethical and lawful, the decision as to what grounds are to count as valid falls to the subject. The ground of the subject's decision becomes a matter of his individual disposition and aims. (Geraets, Suchting, Harris, pgs. 188-191)
Grounds become matters of individual preferences and the savvy consumer shops around for those grounds that most suit his taste. I get my news from NPR and dismiss FOX, while you get your news from FOX and dismiss NPR. This is one of the meanings of Lacan's aphorism that the big Other does not exist. What seems different today is that where before this truth was largely unconscious and repressed such that we at least pretended that there was a consistent and shared Other, today we seem conscious of this. I am not at all sure what is to be done. I hardly find it to be something that should be celebrated or that is a happy thesis.

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Anonymous Dr X said...

I very much appreciate your observations on this subject. Since my post on Shrinkwrapped was intended as sarcasm, I realized even as I posted that it could be difficult to understand much of what I was thinking based upon the post alone. Moreover, the intent and tone of my post might be missed altogether without knowing something about my views.

I see meaning as embedded in intersubjective frameworks and that, regardless of one’s position on whether or not there is some non[inter]subjective reality, the universe of meaning is intersubjective. I find heated discussions of politics to be particularly fraught with difficulty because of this. It is rare that I encounter anyone who appreciates the complexity of subjectivities implicit in their opinions. When intersubjectivity is acknowledged, acknowledgement is often about as far as it goes. So, I generally find such discussion relatively unenlightening. When I posted comments in Shrinkwrapped’s blog, it was not especially because I thought he would genuinely engage me in discussion, but because I wanted to speak with anyone who might be interested in hearing and, perhaps, engaging. If it turns out that Shrinkwrapped is up for that, fine. But I don’t really care if he is or is not up for it. I just don’t care about changing minds.

Here, I am aware of speaking directly with you because it doesn’t seem you’re interested in arguing. Rather, you seem interested in looking and showing. A sense of uncertainty allows for the animation of curiosity and the sense of an uncertain space (a play space) is inviting. I sensed none of this in Shrinkwrapped’s posts.

Returning to Shrinkwrapped’s comments, though, post-modernism seems serve as a useful bogey man for the college educated who identify themselves as the political right – a kind of more sophisticated-sounding cry of ‘they’re stealing Christmas from us.’ There is a lazy expedience in dismissing ‘the left’ on the grounds that “they are infected by the thought disorder called post-modernism.” Please…

Despite my own experience growing up in a very political Republican’ family, which was a different thing when and where I grew up from what being a Republican seems to mean now, I never identified myself with any particular political party and just find the framework of left and right burdensome on others and on me. I’ve always been aware that people just as easily assume I’m a “Liberal” or a “Conservative” and if I say I’m neither, than they might believe I’m a ‘Libertarian,’ which I am not. The best I can say is that politically, I’m agnostic, which doesn’t mean I am without beliefs and moral sensibilities in connection with politics. This is a gross oversimplification, but my views might be expressed as: “ if, then… if then… if not… then…”

It may seem to some that there couldn’t be any firm moral ground underneath my point of view, which would not be at all how I experience it myself. I am clear that I find ‘fundamentalism’ (roughly an approach emphasizing immediacy and certainty of meaning) to be a kind of blindness with moral implications and that I am most often aware of wanting to see more, to re-examine meaning, re-explore, look for the implicit and look for what lies beyond what I’ve seen. Most often, political discussion seem not about looking, but about convincing—about changing minds. If you read Shrinkwrapped’s two posts on ‘changing minds’ and the two comments I posted in response, you might see that it isn’t really the war itself I argue against, but Shrinkwrapped’s certainty that I question. You might also notice that in my second comment I touch on some ideas that (I believe) have some resonance with your observations here.

The first two links are to Shrinkwrapped’s two posts expressing puzzlement over stubborn disagreement with his views and his analysis of the bases for what he identifies as an intrinsic human resistance to changing the mind. He doesn’t say so specifically, but his notions of psychic conservatism, continuity and stasis are clearly influenced by current thinking among many self psychologists. I don’t, in the least, have a beef with that. I do see more to the story and I question Shrinkwrapped’s application of theory to explain why others aren’t changing their minds on the war, instead of asking himself about why he might be the one who is too dead certain about the ‘truth,’ whether it is in his opinions of ‘Liberals,’ the NY Times, George Bush or the war.



Below are the two comments I made in response to the posts. In the first, my early history is provided only as counterpoint to Shrinkwrapped’s all too familiar conservative narrative of conversion to the ‘right’ way of thinking. They seem to love that ‘left behind’ narrative, even when they aren’t evangelicals or Christians. I think it leaves them feeling that they have no reason to listen to anyone else who holds an opinion different from their own opinion, you know --- ‘I was once lost like you, but now I’m found and you’re not, so you’re dismissible.’



December 24, 2006 6:44 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Wow, terrific response Dr. X! Apologies for not catching the sarcasm. I read your post and experienced a moment of delight as some scattered thoughts I've had on this same issue came together. I think your observations on certainty here are especially interesting as there seems to be a sort of inverted mirroring going on, where one encounters their own certainty displaced and in the other to whom one is addressing themselves.

The distinction you draw here between arguing and showing is also a productive one that I need to think about more. In the philosophical tradition, the "passional" dimension of belief has, I think, often been overlooked. Beliefs, I think, are not simply abstract claims made about the world that one adopts on the basis of what's most plausable at the time, but also shore up one's being (a person's self-worth is bound up with what they believe) and also link us to entire intersubjective and communal networks of interpersonal relations (my continued good graces in a community are dependent on believing with others). Thus, I think, we get a sort of iceberg phenomenon, were we see the tip of the iceberg (the propositional expression of a particular position) and forget that the vast majority of the iceberg is underwater and out of sight (communical attachments, intersubjective relations, self-worth, etc). The insufficiency, then, of arguing can be that it puts all of this on the defensive, paradoxically reinforcing these very relations. In the case of showing, by contrast, an opportunity is created for welcoming, where new intersubjective ties can be formed that render change on both sides less wrought with peril.

December 24, 2006 9:43 AM  
Anonymous pebird said...

Since I need to go brine a turkey - a quick thought - then I will go back and review all the links (and also try to catch up on the Phenomenological Reduction - thanks, Sinthome).

Since we are living during the collapse of symbolic efficiency, isn't is predictable that argument has little effect?

December 24, 2006 9:53 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Right, Pebird. As I wrote this a lot of Jodi's recent meditations on the collapse of symbolic efficacy were swimming about in the back of my mind. Blaming some bogeyman called "postmodernism" strikes me as missing what is essentially a broader social phenomenon that has very little to do with what academics are up to... As if academics ever had this much influence.

December 24, 2006 9:56 AM  
Anonymous tolga said...

The post clearly points one of the greatest problems of the Left. That is, one has to pretend as he is more than himself in order to affect or attract an "ordinary" person to his political ideas, which may really be tiresome for that one who does not believe in big Other at all. How can I pretend to be the one who is supposed to know, while I do not know anything at all? I guess, you Sinthome and many Lacanians have great experinces in overcoming this problem since it is perhaps an important step, especially for the beginning of analysis.
For the "postmodernity" question, I would imagine our position to the Truth. When one discovers himself in the "past" as a part of universality, then he may have the chance to see the events from the side of Truth. Simply, for instance an African-American in the US or a Kurd in Turkey can first recognize his position, his exceptional situation in totality which may help him deny the formal symbolic reality which might, later in a second step, help him deny his identity. That is, he might see the problems do not arise from because he is an exception but the total system has to be fed with an exception. Hence, without a traumatic encounter with the monstrous Real, it might not be possible to perceive things on the side of Truth. Hence, news on TV channels, informative posts in blogs are not adequate to change our position or to transform it, although they are so precious and enjoyable to read. Instead, for instance art can be a much more powerful weapon for that aim.
I cannot understand when some intellectual can be proud of being (whatever its stance is, right or left) non-activist. (Do not misunderstand, activisim does not only mean to march on the streets but it may also mean to be able to do 'nothing' as Badiou points out on one of his interviews. Pride of being nonactivist or partiotioning yourself into some categorical positions like "I am only doing my job as an academician ..." sounds as problematic.)
By forcing that assumption to himself, he basically misses the train to grasp what is going on, which will make impossible for him to be a proper theoretician. Since very simply, Lenin's words theory and practice should replaced in his famous remark: without revolutionary practice, there can be no revolutionary theory.
Sorry for the very possible English misuse.

December 24, 2006 10:06 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Tolga, I wasn't suggesting that someone needs to pretend to be something they're not. The "subject supposed to know" is an instance of what Hegel describes as a "judgment of reflection", where the properties of the thing only exist in relation to another thing (SL pgs. 643-649). Thus, for instance, the king is only a king because his subjects recognize him as a king, just as a teacher is only a teacher because his students recognize her as a teacher. In both of these examples, the ontological status of the teacher and the king is granted by the other, not established by the king or teacher itself. And finally, in analysis, the analysand must first suppose some knowledge in the analyst in order for the analyst's interventions to have some effect. I suspect this is one of the reasons that the IPA is so enamored with psychoanalysts having medical degrees-- The M.D., even if giving no practical skills with regard to actual clinical practice, provides fertile ground for establishing this transference so crucial for the process of analysis.

Here, I think, resides the whole problem in political discussion. Try as I might to persuade another, if that other does not situate me in the position of one who speaks from truth, I will be unable to make a dent in the other's beliefs no matter how sound my arguments are. I think Hegel has it right in the final couple of lines of the passage I quote in the original diary. As Hegel puts it, "The ground of the subject's decision becomes a matter of his individual disposition and aims." The point is that where everything becomes an argument over grounds and showing that multiple grounds can be given for any phenomenon, the decision as to which grounds are true ultimately become a matter of individual preference without any higher standard that might decide among grounds. It all becomes arbitrary. This is essentially what has happened with news consumption. The news consumer chooses that news (NPR, Rush Limbaugh, FOX, CNN, etc) that most appeals to their individual self-image, not truth. Implicitly this is because it's believed that *all* news is dishonest as it's all framed.

December 24, 2006 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Dr X said...

Wow back at you! This beautifully captures the futility of arguing versus showing, the latter being more engaging and potentially transformative:

"Thus, I think, we get a sort of iceberg phenomenon, were we see the tip of the iceberg (the propositional expression of a particular position) and forget that the vast majority of the iceberg is underwater and out of sight (communical attachments, intersubjective relations, self-worth, etc). The insufficiency, then, of arguing can be that it puts all of this on the defensive, paradoxically reinforcing these very relations. In the case of showing, by contrast, an opportunity is created for welcoming, where new intersubjective ties can be formed that render change on both sides less wrought with peril."

December 24, 2006 12:33 PM  
Anonymous pebird said...

I don't think you need to be in the position of authority/Other within the subject of which you are speaking in order to show (as opposed to argue)

dr x's point on arguing vs. showing is very telling. Lets think about that difference for a minute.

What does an "argument" mean? Int's a method to resolve a specific problem. I argue with the shopkeeper to obtain a deal or not.

Is this the right approach when "arguing" with others about political positions?

To get others to move political positions is not to get them to agree with you, but to think of the world differently. Argument is to "make a point" - a position around which (e.g., deal or not deal) to revolve.

So, what does showing do? It establishes one as a kind-of-authority, through connecting via a different route. When you show, you transfer value, you provide a (slightly) different context. And you grant a debt.

This is more subtle and requires a less blunt approach to engaging those with whom you disagree, but believe could be on your side. I like what this approach implies, need to think it through some more.

Just to sign off, arguing is kind of like the archtypical American in Europe asking for something - when the European signals that they don't speak the English - the American asks again, but LOUDER.

Merry Festivus, all.

December 24, 2006 4:09 PM  
Blogger psychoa said...

A very interesting discussion. I wonder if we might not also usefully think about the diffculty communicating across political difference and the rigidity with which we all tend to hold to our positions as a means by which we defend against the discomfort of ambivalence and uncertainty. Might we, in other words, consider the insistence on our own understanding/intelligence and the other side's stupidity or "failure to see the facts right before them" as a disavowal and projection of the mixed feeling and psychic confusion a situation like war necessarily creates within us all?

December 25, 2006 7:24 AM  
Anonymous tolga said...

PeBird writes:
"To get others to move political positions is not to get them to agree with you, but to think of the world differently. Argument is to "make a point" - a position around which (e.g., deal or not deal) to revolve."

Sure. But, "to get them think of world differently" also requires an agreement . And, in real life, it is unfortunately not that easy to capture that agreement with the people in the street. That's why, I believe the significance of performativity.

December 27, 2006 3:44 PM  

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