14 December 2006

Rough Theory-- The Surly Edition

N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has written a very sensitive post responding to my recent post on individuation. N.P. writes,
Sinthome’s thought on these questions is subtle and sophisticated, and I wish to be very clear that I am not trying to criticise any substantive points put forward in Sinthome’s posts. What I wish to ask, though, is whether the kind of reflection Sinthome carries out here might in its own practice remain bound to a subject-object divide: whether the practice of thinking through this issue, as carried out in these posts, is consistent with the express goal of the posts, which is to develop a system that transcends subject-object dualism.
And a little further on,
In drawing attention to these common means of explaining the rise of new concepts, I am obviously not seeking to criticise precise reasoning, or to argue against philosophical reflection on the natural world. I am, though, asking whether the form that philosophical argument takes, when it appeals to subjective error or objective empirical novelty, can be understood to be adequate when the content or purpose of philosophical reflection strives to overturn the subject-object dualism. Perhaps we need to be seeking a form of philosophical exposition that is more adequate to the content it seeks to express. I regard this as an epistemological task - where epistemology is understood as, to borrow a phrase from Sinthome, a “theory of learning”, rather than as itself a project grounded in the subject-object divide. And I think that Hegel - and, for that matter, Marx - by focussing their attention on self-reflexivity, have highlighted the need to find a philosophical path through this labyrinth.
Unfortunately I'm in the midsts of marking for the end of the semester so I'm unable to give a detailed response. First, I want to express gratitude to N.Pepperell for so thoughtfully and earnestly thinking with me in both a spirit of friendship and critical questioning, aimed, I think, at producing something or collaboratively developing something rather than simply opposing positions to one another. In a former post, N.Pepperell expressed worries that I took him/her to be criticizing or dismissing me (with regard to my claim that "the One is not") which I did not, nor do I take these remarks to be presented in this spirit. The worries I expressed about the thesis that the One is not are my own worries (here and here and here), namely that I sometimes recoil from this thesis and its implications, finding myself concerned that it is absurd or incoherent. Rather, I take N.Pepperell's comments as working notes revolving about a shared set of questions and concerns.

It seems to me that what N.Pepperell is groping for is the expression "performative contradiction". That is, in suggesting that there is a conflict between the content of my post and the form of my post, the suggestion seems to be that at the level of content, the ontological claims being advanced say one thing, while the form in which these claims are advanced say quite another. It would be here that all the issues of self-reflexivity emerge, for if my claims about individuation hit the mark, then 1) an onto-epistemological theory of individuation must account for how it itself came to be individuated. To put this point a bit differently, my meditations on these issues perhaps suffer the old joke of a man alone in a room asked by a passing traveller whether anyone is there and responding "no", thereby missing the obvious fact that he is there. I am "counting myself out" of the very thing I am talking about, and thus suggesting a transcendence that the content of my post forbids. 2) The nature of critique with regard to other epistemologies and ontologies is significantly transformed as one can no longer say that they are simply mistaken-- which would simply be another variant of the subject/object divide, i.e., the thesis that the world has been erroneously represented --but must instead tell some sort of story as to how these onto-epistemologies came to be individuated.

N.Pepperell remarks that,
I should note that I am being very sloppy with my language here - this is not how Sinthome would express this problematic - I’ll ask forebearance on this issue because my “target” in this analysis is not actually how we can best understand individuation, but instead something more abstract: I’m trying to illustrate something about the habits of thought into which most of us - including myself - tend to fall when we seek to resolve this kind of philosophical dichotomy.
If I am understanding N.P. correctly, then s/he is referring to the habit of thought that continues to evaluate things other than itself in terms of the subject/object divide, while nonetheless having purported to reject this representational conception of the world. Thus, for instance, Deleuze argues that we must shift from a theory of knowledge to a theory of learning throughout Difference and Repetition, and must examine things in terms of how they come to be individuated or produced rather than how they are to be truly represented, and then proceeds to denounce Hegel, Kant, Plato, and others as getting it wrong without applying these very principles to their thought.

It seems to me that there are a couple of thinkers that would be very fruitful in helping to address these sorts of questions. The German philosopher-sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, develops a good deal of his systems theoretical sociology around the theme of self-reflexivity and "observing the observer". These themes are developed very explicitly in texts such as Theories of Distinction and Essays on Self-Reference, but also in his magnificent and dense work Social Systems, where he argues, among other things, that a theory of society must also self-reflexively account for its own claims. Following the obscurantist mathematician Spencer-Brown, Luhmann argues that we can't observe anything prior to drawing a distinction. For instance, we might draw a circle on a piece of paper, thereby distinguishing an outside and an inside. Once a distinction has been drawn, it becomes possible to indicate things on the basis of the distinction (I can now say something is inside or outside). The key point is that the distinction is on the side of the observer, not the thing itself. From this Luhmann draws the conclusion that we can only have system-specific knowledge and can never know the world as such. I follow Luhmann part of the way, however, my criticism has been that the conclusion he draws from this line of reasoning repeats the representationalist tradition in epistemology, assuming that there's a world "out there" in itself that can never be known-- he often draws skeptical conclusions from his sociological work --and that Hegel's critique of the ding-an-sich or thing in itself shows why there is no thing in itself. Nonetheless, Luhmann provides a number of readily available tools for handling these issues of self-reference.

On the other side of the spectrum, it seems to me that this discussion can be profitably situated by taking a page from the Marxo-Hegelian playbook. Marx argues that each age develops a specific epistemology and ontology on the basis of its economics. I am not sure that I'm ready to follow Marx all the way with his economic determinism, but what makes Marx of interest here is that he doesn't simply argue that an epistemology or ontology is wrong or mistaken, but shows how these philosophies are individuated as solutions to a problem (here and here) within a particular socio-historical field. For instance, when an analyst approaches the fantasy of an analysand, he does not do so by showing how it is a distorted representation of reality or falsehood. After all, for Lacan reality is framed by fantasy and thus functions like a Luhmannian distinction or a window through which the subject selects between what is relevant and mere noise where desire is concerned. Rather, analysis proceeds as the analysand comes to discover the manner in which the fantasy (which very well might never be discussed as a fantasy) resolves a certain deadlock with regard to the desire of the Other or solves a particular problem of desire for the analysand. In short, fantasy is not treated as an error. Similarly, the philosophical and theoretical formations of history could productively be approached not in terms of the error/non-error distinction, but as a series of individuations responding to particular sets of problems. Hopefully I have heard some of what is in N.Pepperell's marvellous posts.

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Anonymous Joseph Kugelmass said...

Sinthome, this and the linked post on individuation are remarkably interesting, and closely related to my own recent work on Hegel, Paul de Man -- as well as to an upcoming post on aesthetic judgement, where I will argue that the value judgements of taste should be replaced by individuative explanations (i.e., in what way does a love of Holderlin reveal an individual's fantasy structures?).

So, cheers. Linked next time I update.

First of all -- and I'll try to post something like this over at Rough Theory, too -- I can't, for the life of me, figure out where you and N. Pepperell disagree. You seem to be using different vocabularies for what are actually rather similar projects. You are saying that the total "being" of a given period in history is made up both of economic and libidinal systems (systems of fantasy) that complement each other. Presumably not without breaks, slippages, and tragedies, the system creates and solves its own problems, often through exchanges between the material and the libidinal.

NP, at least in the most recent RT post, seems to be saying that we need new ways of looking at capitalism that go beyond reductive economic methods, and that look at capitalism as a way of being rather than merely as a system of relations. (Hegel would probably not distinguish the two.) This seems to be precisely the move that makes space for psychoanalytic considerations like fantasy, which are the "beyond" of material relations, and which are part of a way of being.

The one thing that is causing me difficulty here is the potential for making fantasy appear totally sufficient. Let us accept that value is a product of fantasy; as Zizek is fond of repeating, if a man is jealous of his wife, his is a neurotic even if his wife is really cheating on him. He is still constructing that relationship in a particular way.

That said, perhaps a distinction does need finally to be drawn between valuation and compensation. The sorts of fantasies that insulate the first world from the realities of the third world (and even from the reality of first world poverty) are very real, and very "readable" for psychoanalysis. That does not make them necessary or legitimate. Similarly, very ill people are sometimes deluded by various kinds of physiological shock into believing that they are perfectly well.

Thus, in the case of the jealous husband, don't we finally have to distinguish between the desire for knowledge (what is she doing?) and the romantic demand (for the loving relationship), and the particular kind of desire which is neurotic jealousy? Otherwise, we leave him in agony, facing the inscrutable demand that he interpret contingency as the only possibility of his desire.

December 15, 2006 6:41 PM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

Joe - I thought you might like the material here on Hegel - it reminded me of some of your work, as well.

I did want to clarify briefly that I don't understand this discussion as an argument - in other words, I'm not seeking to disagree. The reason this discussion has been so extended is that I also perceive the projects to be somewhat extraordinarily closely related - which has been a bit of a (very welcome) shock, at least for me, as it makes it possible for me to discuss issues at a fairly high level, where I usually spend pretty much the entirety of my time trying to convince interlocutors that certain kinds of questions are actually worth asking... That kind of back to basics discussion is, of course, something I need to know how to do, but it's particularly productive for developing more complex concepts. This discussion provides the kind of "traction" needed for that purpose...

I view all of this, in other words, as a collaborative, not an argumentative, process.

I'll let Sinthome address your substantive points as, to be honest, I think I've exceeded my capacity for serious thought this week... ;-P

December 16, 2006 12:52 PM  
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