Friday, December 26, 2008

Building, dwelling, thinking...

A reading of "Bauen, Wohnen, Denken," which proceeds roughly along the path of the introduction and first part of the essay, with general comments meant to make Heidegger a bit more accessible interpolated. Thanks to my friend and colleague Emily for giving me the opportunity of writing this finally! I hope it is a little bit helpful:

Building (Bauen: constructing, structuring, to house something) and dwelling (Wohnen: residing, living, to stay with somebody) are the terms of the question. The question focuses upon building. It asks: If our inquiry "traces building back" into the place where we can see it working in the way that is most proper to it qua building, if we trace the way it looks like it works back into this "domain" (Bereich), then does this place, this domain, this original coherence of the phenomenon of building have anything to do with another sort of place that we call a dwelling? Looking into the way building is properly building, which means looking at the way it is building (that is, looking at it ontologically, in its be-ing building), does this resonate with how dwelling is properly dwelling? Does this building be-ing building resonate with dwelling being dwelling?
To understand this, we will ask 1) What is it to dwell, or how does dwelling be? and 2) How does building resonate with [gehört] or belong with dwelling?
To put it in more simple terms, Heidegger looks at a phenomenon: as Merleau-Ponty would describe it, the way that something coheres as it appears to us, its structured appearance to our lives (so like, a room appears to us as a usable space before it appears as a rectangle we inhabit, to the extent that the space of the room warps around the objects in it. Sartre said once a room taken phenomenologically is a lot more like how a blind person "sees" it: the room is a set of objects for him to use--the fact that it has corners is really irrelevant because they're hard to touch, nothing he needs is there, etc.). Thus what will follow is a phenomenology of building or construction. But his phenomenologies are phenomenological ontologies: they look at the coherence of something appearing precisely as how it exists, in its being (taken intransitively, as be-ing or is-ing: Levinas said helpfully once that Heidegger's contribution to philosophy is in restoring an intransitive character to being). So the being of building is a sort of coherence, its remaining proper to itself as a phenomenon--but doing so not in the aspect of how it looks or feels, say, but in how it exists, how it just remains there in its activity as an activity, how it "just works" as we like to say, implying some process but at the same time implying that it just does this process in being typically itself. So he's looking at the way building is properly being building. This is why he contrasts what he's doing to some aesthetic, architectural treatise on construction to giving rules or architectural ideas: this couldn't be further from looking at the being of building (for him--for me, this move in Heidegger is always suspect, because its dickish, as if his way of doing things is the only real way). He's also going to do this phenomenological ontology with dwelling, or, translated a little less pompously, "living in" something (his translators are also pompous sometimes). In fact, he's going to look at this first, to try and see if living in something is going to end up having any relation to constructing something. This makes sense because, of course, we live in the things we build. But the uniqueness of Heidegger is to pose this banality in ontological terms.
Part I:
At first it looks to us like we can only reach (gelangen, get to, as in: get to that place where there is)--it looks like we can only get to dwelling, or what dwelling is, through building, by means of building, or what building is. This is why we asked what dwelling is first--to try and work against the way things seem when we don't see them as structured appearances or as phenomena (and chiefly when we don't see them as appearances structured by their being, as ontological phenomena). In fact, we work against this because the mode of our presentation of building looks like it informs our way of considering it. That is, if we do look at things in this mistaken way, we'll think that dwelling is merely an end of building. This makes dwelling look like it is just having shelter in something, in being located inside a place that is reserved by building for this purpose. But this is not right: just because we fulfill the purpose of something doesn't mean that we are properly dwelling, that we are, in our being, in our remaining what we are, dwelling. In fact, I can dwell by precisely not fulfilling the purpose of something. To look at building as a means, and dwelling as an end--and thus to look at dwelling through building--is to avoid the question. We'll come to this below in how the question about housing problems is brought up.
For Heidegger, thinking about a dwelling in terms of its ability for us just to be located within it is, like thinking about the room as a rectangular box in space, to miss the phenomenon, is to miss how it is structured. It's no mistake that this is how science, in the use of physics in engineering and architecture, thinks about a dwelling (according to Heidegger). What's interesting is that for him this is reflected in how the problem of living-in something or dwelling in it is usually approached. His resistance to this approach will govern the structure of the rest of the essay: it especially governs what will happen next--his turning to language. When Heidegger does this, he supposes several things that are a bit farfetched and which I tried to bring out below: 1) that language itself can give us the phenomena if we hear it right, 2) the right language in which we hear this is German (here he is in serious danger of becoming a Black-forest patriot and/or Nazi) and that this is the case because, 3) like Hegel, he believes that German has a relationship to the way that the Greeks, the proper thinkers, thought (also a Nazi conception, but again, Hegel thought it too, so what this means is, on a certain level, tough to say). What he is trying to do, though, is significant: he's trying to think of construction or building not as a means, which means thinking of it not as something involving machines and technology. So he tries to pull that back out of the language. What he's claiming though is pretty profound: because we think of a dwelling through construction, this means of presenting it itself makes construction a means. In other words, the way of presenting the problem duplicates the way we consider the terms of the problem.
However, if we look at language, the German language, the language proper to thinking and in which nothing less than the spirit of the West, as it was handed down from the Greeks, is preserved as such, then to build, bauen, is already to dwell: that is, dwelling has a relationship to building that is not of a means-end nature. For building, in German, in this proper language, especially if we go back and look at its older meanings, in fact looks a lot like it simply means being, which is preserved in the German word for "am:" bin. When I say I am (ich bin), I mean "the way in which... I am." That is, I mean: I have cultivated myself, constructed myself, taken care of myself in this particular way. I have precisely not *made* myself or manufactured myself, as if I were a performance. "Here building, in contrast with cultivating, is a constructing." Cultivation is an art, but is not something technical: it is closer to the art of trimming vines and shaping a plant. In short, building itself is not properly something technical, precisely because--for reasons we state most clearly in "The Question Concerning Technology" but which we'll get to below--the technical is not technical: the technical is much closer to this cultivation, to this taking-care-of, to this sort of protection, which we'll come back to. Building is not properly manufacturing, it is cultivating.
We have not yet answered how this cultivating is dwelling, but we can see that this view of building as a sort of manufacturing is precisely what the means-end view of building and dwelling has done to our thought. It has turned us away from all that in building already could mean something else. (This means that, in truth, it has turned us away from Germany, from German language.) It has turned us away from how building and constructing can mean something like cultivating, and cultivating in a pure, proper, German sense: that is, without recourse to an idea of cultivation as performance, as fakery, as tricks, as technique and art that is a technology in the vulgar sense. To think of cultivating as something other than a manufacturing, to hear it even in our language itself: this is what being attentive to the phenomenon, rather than reducing it to a means-end relationship, had allowed us.
So perhaps we can look at our German language again, this time precisely at dwelling, and see whether it too could mean something like cultivation. Then there would be a relationship that would not be one of means-end. It would remain then for us to inquire into what the nature of this other relationship would be. But first let's get to dwelling now without building, without going through building: which we now know means, without seeing building as something that has an end.
We don't hear that wohnen, dwelling, means cultivating directly. That is, we have to take a detour in order to hear cultivation in dwelling. (It will take us to what we will call the fourfold.) For like building, it means remaining as something, but it means this more immediately, in terms of preserving and guarding, not cultivating. In fact, it means something closer to freeing-up. When I say I dwell, what I really mean is that I am free to do whatever. It does not mean, like cultivating, a sort of gathering together and holding together as protection, but a setting loose, a sort of freeing up. So we have gathering on the one hand and a setting free on the other—but we will come back to this opposition.
What we should note now is that if dwelling means being free, a dwelling would therefore be something like an object that is set free so that it can exist within this type of freedom. In fact, this freeing up of the thing is a lot like saving it from becoming a mere end, something that is just an object located within a techno-scientific or objectivized space. It is, as we will see, to really treat it as a thing, before it becomes an object, a point in space. This is not just a change in terminology that will oppose something good (a thing) to something bad (an object), although we will indeed exploit this opposition. What we are getting at is more fundamental: a dwelling is a freed object, or a thing that is more originary, more proper than an object because it is free. When something is left to its own, it is dwelling: “to dwell means… to remain at peace within the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its essence,” that is, to its being properly itself.
To clarify: what Heidegger is doing is distinguishing something that is objectivised and scientific from something that, he says, is more basic, more properly itself. To call the dwelling a thing here means the same as regarding the room not as a rectangle but as a livable space. This will come back more explicitly in the second part. But this distinction allows him to launch himself into a meditation on how the world looks when it is full of things, not objects, and how the dwelling fits into this world made up of these things.
Put differently, dwelling is when something’s thingness takes precedence before its objecthood because, as we said, dwelling is precisely this freeing. A dwelling is only a concatenation of dwelling itself, therefore, which is a setting free, a making free, an allowing of what surrounds me to come before me unburdened by how it logically is supposed to fit into my business. Dwelling is more free than the space in which I carry out my business. In fact, it fits into a whole world that is more properly itself than the space of my business, the space of technical and scientific objecthood. In this non-technical world, the dwelling is on top of the earth, before this earth is considered a set of resources, a set of minerals. It is also under the sky, before it is considered the space of physics. It is on top and below these, in this world, which also remains in front of gods and the holiness that pervades the phenomenality of things as such. And in this world are mortals, who is capable of being properly himself in his being-towards-death, in his dying qua dying, as we explained in Being and Time.
Each of these obscure terms—earth, sky, mortals, gods—all these are essentially what we see around us considered phenomenologically: that is, with concern for their being properly themselves, grounded or structured by their being. They are not just the things that we see but the larger “regions,” as Heidegger occasionally will call it, in which more specific things can appear. They are like the ur-phenomena, in which the things appear. Something coming out of the sky will appear to us as a sort of sky-phenomena: for Heidegger the phenomena of the sky include the length of the day and time, basically time-management. Something from the earth appears to us as an earth-phenomenon: it is that out of which we create things and make things. The gods or divinities are the realm in which we try and relate to both earth- and sky-phenomena as such: something from this region appears to us as our expectation about a thing. The sphere of mortals or men is where we live out our lives, where the phenomena like the continuity of one’s self-history appears. This continuity is ensured by death—but that is an issue I can’t get into here because it takes too much time: one has to summarize a lot of Being and Time, in which it is first fleshed out. Regardless, you see what is going on. What is being explained here by looking at the regions in which phenomena appear is that the coherence of the world, which is the world being properly itself as a world, and which he in a vatic manner describes as its oneness—this coherence is only possible if man dwells in it, in the sense of dwelling that this essay is pursuing. For dwelling will fit together these ur-phenomena or regions. That means that man takes up the earth, the sky, the holiness of the world as well as his own mortality, and makes them actively fit together, gain the structuredness that is proper to them as phenomena, through his own dwelling. The world could indeed take up space without man, but only man can give it the significance of a phenomenon: that is, an appearance that is structured and meaningful insofar as it is.
Each of these four aspects or regions of the world fits together, to borrow a metaphor we used in Basic Concepts. But this fitting together, this oneness of the four, can only take place if there is dwelling, and if man, the mortal, is the one who does this. How is this possible? Well, it is possible in that the fitting-together is precisely what is allowed by a sort of setting-free of the things within these regions. If you set something free, it is set free so that it can find its proper place, so that it can find where it can most be itself, so that it can fit together with its most proper situation. This, we know, is precisely what dwelling does: it sets a thing free.
So we now understand the ramifications of this setting-free of the thing. To set a thing free, to keep its freedom, is to allow it and other things to find their proper situation. This situation is one that occurs within one aspect of the fourfold. And insofar as it is free, it allows the fourfold to fit together, to become one or have a oneness—a oneness that simply is the world being properly the world. But we also understand how dwelling is cultivation, as building is. For to allow all these regions, all these fourfold, to fit together, is to care for the whole world through the setting free of the things. Indeed, dwelling might deal immediately with things, with the setting free of things—but this setting free is a way to ultimately cultivate the world as such, to preserve and save and nurture the world as its proper self. And insofar as this is so, we understand how Dwelling is building: “dwelling, insofar as it keeps or secures the fourfold in things”—that is, sees things as part of the fourfold, of the world itself—“insofar as it keeps or secures the fourfold in things, is, as this keeping, a building...”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Charlie Brown Christmas

It's been said a lot that the adventures of Charlie Brown are existentialist in nature. No doubt that's right on, but I just want to reflect a little on some other aspects that make A Charlie Brown Christmas such a successful and appealing existentialist vision of Christmas. Apologies in advance for inconsistencies: I've had a bit of nog.
I look here at the Christmas special not only because it's Christmas Eve, but because ultimately I find it more interesting than the comic strips--as good as they are. And I do this because I think others feel the same way. Why, though? I think it is because the extended narrative allows Charlie Brown to come into focus more than he can in the strips. The plot revolves so intensely around what Charlie Brown is, what he is about, that it becomes much more intriguing and hilarious than if it remained as disconnected and jokey as the strips are. What I'm getting at is that this Christmas special, which has captivated people for so long, is so interesting because it has enough room to make its narrative identical to the life of a character. Or rather, since comic strips do this already, playing characters off of each other, the specials allow a character's life to become narrative.
But here is the crucial thing. The special does this not by making the Charlie someone in need of development, as is so common in larger narrative structures (think of Dickens' Scrooge), but by making him a void, a nothingness, that pulls through the story and fundamentally stages its having no basis. That is, the narrative reduplicates the problem that will be eventually attributed to Christmas but which is really one of the transfer from a comic strip to a more life-like (because more narrative, more flowing, more progression-based, more cinematographic) medium: why make the transition? Why, that is, not just remain disconnected? Why try to achieve coherence? Things have no intrinsic meaning, so why search for them out there? What is gained? There is no meaning to it, at bottom, and its progression, its life-likeness, is only one that can be based on this fact!
What I'm saying is that the narrative is ironic--it has some distance to itself, and this is caused by its inserting a void in the middle of it. Taking away its own basis for being, it is. The movie then dramatizes this ungrounding of its own unfolding: first and foremost by encountering psychoanalysis. The scene at the doctor's booth with Lucy is infamous, of course. But what is less remarked about is how actually helpful Lucy's advice is. I mean the first advice, before she suggests "involvement." This advice is labeling the problem: "if you have a problem, we can label it," she says. Now, one can hear this mockingly: all psychoanalysis or therapy in general does is give you a name for something--it pretends to give you something more than a name but it just leaves you empty-handed. But what this does not factor in is how a name can be precisely without content, and therefore allow you to deal with structuring your experience rather than engaging with it directly--exactly what Charlie Brown needs, since he approaches experience from this ironic distance. In other words, a name can serve to structure what you feel might, in the end, either have or not have an essence, a meaning behind it: it structures this indeterminacy itself by giving you something that you can approach it with, instead of having your indecision about it infect everything you are doing. Charlie refuses to compartmentalize in this way, of course. But I have not heard any better description of the theraputic value of structuralism than what Lucy says here.
Next is the play. What is interesting here is that one really does begin to identify with the other characters: Charlie brown does look like an annoying idiot in his reading out of the "director's signs" or whatever they are. One understands more acutely that the problem he has is not just one of depression, but one of ideals: there is nothing left to do properly, since it is all meaningless--and yet he denies that anything can be done about this indeterminacy except substituting other meanings. He doesn't see, that is, the structuralist way out of this problem. He doesn't have to take this route that we're forcing on him, of course--and indeed his denial keeps him tied more honestly to his sense of being a void. But here, at the play, you see suddenly and more viscerally than before the consequence of this: what you see is that this squanders the real excitement everyone has for Christmas, even if they do not understand its meaning or lack of meaning, even if they remain noncommittal or ambivalent to it when pressed hard. One sees that the search for meaning, even when carried out ironically, can overlook some things, which might indeed have more value than the plight of your tiny ego (no matter how big your round head is). In short, holding on so seriously to this search can make you a blockhead.
Then there is the selection from 2 Luke of Linus, at the point at which the play totally breaks down for Charlie:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This [hoc] will be a sign [signum] to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

It's interesting: I always found this part of the movie a bit heavy handed, mostly just because of the fact it was from the Gospel in general--in a movie that's already a bit too Christian. But over the last year or so, when I've seen it, I've been much more intrigued about the choosing of this particular passage rather than any other. What's odd to me is that Linus doesn't quote anything more definite, since he seems quite content in his belief. But on a certain level, the passage makes sense: interpreted quickly, is precisely about non-meaning and belief, the being terrified in front of an event, and yet the continuance on in spite of the terror towards worship. It is precisely about terror in the face of what should be believed, precisely because it should be believed, and the grace that enduring this moment restores to you in the form of a sign. The angel gives a sign, and it gives one in return for merely standing in front of it, enduring its presence. Thus meaning comes out of non-meaning, in the end: this is the meaning of the appearance of the host, which then basically figures how everything becomes seen in terms of the sign, the sign that is now belief. (It's a real question to me how deep this belief goes: whether one needs yet another sign of something in a religion proliferating with signs--Christianity--seems questionable. Freud investigated this in Moses and Monotheism: signs in Christianity have the function of restoring the minor and animistic gods in pagan religions to monotheism. So they essentially remain superfluous, extra, when compared with the core of the religion, which has a few master-signs in which real representation is at issue: the cross, for example. One could derive the significance of the birth of Jesus from this master-sign--he will end up being the crucified Savior--but that derivation is precisely the proliferation of the sign that restores the pagan and weakens both the sign and the belief that the diluted sign calls into question. More on this later.)
Thus the phrase that sticks in Charlie Brown's head is not one of belief in dogma (although this, like much in Christianity and as I've just noted, becomes dogma thereby), but the bit about a sign--again, nothing intrinsic, nothing that is not arbitrary or ungrounded. For the sign itself has no real referent, I think. One can say that in "For this will be a sign to you," the "this" refers to Jesus, or, at one remove, the "great joy." But the this, the hoc, isn't really clarified enough to say this definitely. And this reduplicates what is going on in the passage: allowing this non-determinate non-meaning to appear, allowing it to appear despite one's disbelief in it, or terror in front of it, foregrounds the belief itself and then imbues everything with proper meaning. And indeed this is what happens to Charlie when he recalls the phrase, even though the word "sign" still doesn't refer to anything. The arbitrariness is made to function for belief precisely in its arbitrariness. (I'll clarify this more in a few days.)
But then this all collapses when the tree falls over. And indeed, it would be too neat if things were just in terms of this interpretation. What has to happen is that this personal narrative must become social: this is the real meaning of the end, in which they kids dismantle the decked-out house and then put it all on the fallen tree. For me, though, this doesn't really remain a positive call for social change, a sort of wide acceptance of what in essence is Christian, even in an existential way. What is more interesting to me is the failure of this individual adventure of Charlie Brown in terms of his feeling like he knows the arbitrariness of the "sign." That is, what I think we get at the end is not a call for everyone to find out their own relation to Christmas like Charlie Brown did--which is, I think, Schulz's intention--but a real refiguring of how even the form we think the sign will take can be mistaken. The form of the sign, for Charlie Brown, was not something individual: it was not something personal, as he said before he decorated the tree, now expecting it to give him meaning out of its non-meaning ("Linus was right, I'll show them it can be a beautiful tree" or something to that effect). The meaning will end up, unexpectedly, being a social one--that's the form (one unexpected form) the sign can take. So the upshot is not that we have to all undergo this existential journey, conquering the meaninglessness by seeing it itself as meaningful, but by figuring out how prolific, how expansive the other forms this meaningfulness can be--in short, how we can't expect them, and how primarily they can be in the form of the people looking out for one of its members.
Again, apologies for the nog-writing, but I'll clear this up in the next few days. These points have been made often, of course, but I just wanted to direct them in certain ways, in case this was interesting. Also perhaps in a little bit I'll put something up about Festivus! Regardless, Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Burn After Reading: a reading

I'm surprised that so many reviews I've seen of Burn After Reading mistake it for, in the normally quite discerning words of Manohla Dargis, "a shaggy sendup of ...the espionage flick." I find it to be a rigorous, and hilarious, examination of heterosexual men's sexuality. It isn't just that I've been reading a lot of Freud lately, right? George Clooney's character constructs a dildo machine for his wife, for Christ's sake! And yet the closest I've seen a critic come to this is in saying the film is a meditation on the loneliness of being single and growing old.
For me, though, this is a film about being paranoid about your penis and the masculine sexual demands that heteronormative culture says it implies. This demand is twofold and a cliche: 1) fulfill your partner, 2) don't let this fulfillment sap your potency. One could see it as almost as a rehashing of Freud's "On the Most Universal Form of Degradation in Erotic Life." But in a way the film deals with the fact that this demand is, precisely, getting a bit old. Ergo paranoia: what do you do when your only scheme for dealing with your masculinity, of making sense of it, is verging on rejecting reality?
And this cliche, this getting old of the thing, is caused of course simply by the existence of women--women who, from the men's perspective, "know" it, who are getting tired of it, who are playing off of it. Thus the men feel the demand not only of the demand, but the need to get over the demand to actually deal with the women, who know. In reality, the women perhaps simply have desires of their own. But this desire itself is figured by the men as knowledge of their crisis, a knowledge that makes them paranoid and unable to see that this desire could be satisfied quite simply--perhaps (!) in a way that is actually unrelated to their crisis. This is the genius of Frances McDormand's acting, which appears narcissistic only because it expresses the simplicity of the goal--to have a desire of their own, even if it is superficial and aimed towards being attractive to men--a simplicity that men, wrapped up with their dicks, can't recognize. In this respect, it's shocking that Dargis would be so blind to (or, rater, identified with) the male gaze of the film, and verge on misogyny in describing McDormand's character as "a cruelly unflattering character whose narcissism is matched only by her witlessness."
Perhaps this is due to the way we perceive--now--anything dealing with U.S. national security: pretty much asexually. We can see the difference if we look at the old (or even new) Bond flims, which we wouldn't describe as movies about "intelligence" (though the extremely boring seriousness of their sex--from the point of view of its heterosexual male gaze, since, lord knows, Daniel Craig provides other possibilities for many people--is also, I think, an indication that anything even coming close to national security is viewed less sexually). Intelligence in combat is for us lacking in libido: it still doesn't make sense for us--though perhaps it should, and perhaps it's beginning to be possible--to say that a terrorist attack is brought about because of a (sexual) desire. But here is where, I think, the film comes in most interestingly. The film sees the intelligence community itself as men's solution to this problem of woman's desire. That is, the bureaucracy acts not unlike Harry's (Clooney's character, which I think is just a Zizek-impression) dildo machine for his wife: a way of dealing with women, a way of getting them to finally just shut up about their desires. It isn't surprising that the film ends with McDormand's character taking money (for cosmetic surgery) from the bureaucracy, in return for a promise to "sit on it"--i.e. not disclose any of the intelligence communities' blunders that her desire has created. We have to hear this old phrase differently after seeing the machine. All in all one could say that the film is a blistering critique of people clinging to the last vestiges of heteronormativity--which I think includes many of these critics who want to pass it off as a spy-spoof! For it also isn't a mistake that the film ends with this precise non-knowledge about what it's own activity is about: the J.K. Simmons' character, a CIA superior, closes the file reflecting on "what we've learned." His answer is not surprising once we know who this "we" is: "nothing." The positive structure produced out of this paranoia over women's desires, the CIA itself, doesn't in the end know what Frances McDormand's character wants, except to, when offered the right money, "sit on" what she knows. Nothing, he says, therefore, but adds something else: "nothing, except not to do it [which for us now means, heteronormativity] again."
One final note on Brad Pitt's brilliant, hilarious, and infinitely charming performance: one reason we love him is that he is the only person to escape all these dynamics. Ironically--and therefore--he is one of the most confidently (not paranoid) male characters there (John Malkovich's character comes close to this at times, but I won't get into that). But--not to give away too much--there are prices to be paid for this: we can't really say he escapes anything, in the end. However, it is interesting to note that basically he retains the same disposition as McDormand's character, and yet we heap upon her--not him, who is probably equally guilty of them--the charges of narcissism and witlessness, and interpret what happens to him as the crucifixion or sacrifice of a hero instead of the justice appropriately meted out to a co-conspirator. To me, this seems the most concrete confirmation that this is a film about men's heterosexual desire, and more generally about sexuality, which can only be misrecognized if you see it as a spy-spoof.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Freud, philology, associations

I realize after reading a bit of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life that I've been a bit loose in my use of the word "association," when I am speaking in a Freudian context. That is, I thought I could admit a certain phenomenon without reserve into the category that Freud designates as "association." Actually one needs to narrow down this phenomenon heavily before doing so. That phenomenon is the play on words: word play is not, strictly speaking, associative for Freud, unless one has a specific understanding of what we mean here by each term used here. And, significantly I think, Freud is able to give us this understanding in Psychopathology by distinguishing psychoanalysis from philology.
In chapter five, Freud famously is looking at slips of the tongue. In doing so he makes reference to the work of Rudolf Meringer, a philologist. What Meringer does is look at slips of the tongue precisely in their word-play aspect. That is, he looks at them from the perspective of what is going on linguistically, and tries to show that the rules of the play are inherent to language. According to Meringer, then, in the sort of play going on when someone says "Vorschwein" instead of "Vorschein," or, to take a less famous but equally informative example, when someone says, instead of "Ich fordere Sie auf, auf das Wohl unseres Chefs antossen" (I ask you to toast our leader), "Ich fordere Sie auf, auf das Wohl unseres Chefs aufzustossen" (I ask you to belch to the health of our leader), what is determinative for the slip are the elements of language themselves. The tonal similarity between antossen and aufzutossen is more key for the mechanism of the slip than something like the fact that the person toasting might not like the leader. In other words, the slip--and to the extent that we're concerned with the mechanisms behind what we say, even the personal experience behind it, since it only serves to inform the slip--the slip can be reduced to the logic of language: language itself then becomes a the motor behind the slip. (Concomitantly, the aspects of language itself which slip are those which are similar--i.e. the particular material that this motor takes up is suited for this task because of its mimetic capabilities.)
Freud is wary of this, saying rightly that it's a conclusion "such as a linguistic scholar would hope to gain from studying the phenomenon" (Psychopathology of Everyday Life, New Penguin Edition, 55-6). In fact, he sounds a lot like Paul de Man: he is wary of reducing what happens in language to an expanded (because also including tones, etc. etc.) grammar. Unlike de Man, however, in Freud's case this is because this grammar would merely be a sort of logic.
Nevertheless, Freud is extremely aware that what he does--psychoanalysis--looks a lot like tracking down this logic within the workings of language:

It will be obvious that study of the "wandering" verbal but subliminal structures which were not meant to be uttered, together with a demand to know what the speaker was thinking about [i.e. looking at personal experience], approximate the conditions of my own analyses. I too am in search of unconscious material, and indeed I go about it in the same way... (57, tr. modified--Anthea Bell is closer than Strachey to the grammar but is weird and annoying sometimes).

So, Freud himself is saying that psychoanalysis looks sometimes a lot like philology. Not only in what it does, but in the value it attributes to the role of language in life and as something that can help interpret or unlock phenomena. But, he continues:

I too am in search of unconscious material, and indeed I go about it in the same way, except that, using a complex series of associations, I have to trace a longer route from the ideas of the person I am questioning to the discovery of the disruptive element (57).

A "longer route." A route that, according to Freud, goes "outside" the "context intended" for a word (56, tr. modified), as he explains later:

I do not, therefore, think that those instances of obvious or subtler speech disturbances which can ... be subsumed under "slips of the tongue" are mainly due to the influence of phonetic contacts; I believe that such slips derive from ideas outside what the speaker intends to say, which are sufficient to explain the slip (78).

He qualifies this, but in doing so makes it a bit clearer how we have to take this longer route into "more remote" regions:

I do not mean to imply any doubt of the phonetic laws causing sounds to modify each other, but they do not seem to me strong enough to impair correct speech by their own influence alone. In those cases that I have studied closely and of which I can claim some understanding, they merely represent an existing mechanism that can easily be used by a more remote psychic motive without its binding itself to the sphere of influence of those connections (78-9).

I emphasize the distance metaphor because it seems to show that Freud regarded language as a more familiar and invisible thing when compared to philology's view of it. Or at least that he thought the distance philology possessed with respect to its object was really only a form of proximity when compared with where he needed to go to explain that same object.
This is crucial because what is even clearer is that Freud seeks, in explaining these slips of the tongue, to get beyond just the context intended by a phrase--i.e. that which "should have been said in this situation." We shouldn't have to reference this in order to explain the slip up. Or, more rigorously put, the split between that which should have been said and that which was said can't be seen as internal to language: language does not generate this split. There can be a sphere where linguistic factors aid in the splitting, but a more remote psychic motive is where the splitting takes place, as it were. (We begin to see that mimesis, or the similarity of the words becomes less and less an aspect that can qualify language for the disturbance: if the disturbance comes from elsewhere, it does not matter as much whether it takes up what is similar or not. So two words don't get mixed up, for Freud, depending on whether they are similar or not--you can track this emphasis of his throughout the chapter.)

But the consequences of all this are even more radical: Freud doesn't just want to get beyond a sort of reference to an intention internal to language, he wants to get beyond intent itself in thinking about these mistakes: he wants to think about the substance of language itself as being free from intent. In other words, we shouldn't even have reference to language as something that intends to say something and then does not when, sometimes, it actually does not. In other words, it isn't just that the intent in language takes place in some extra-linguistic space. Pointing this out doesn't tell us enough. For you will never be able to find this place, if you consider it as a place. That is the point: the place in which there is the irruption of the extra-linguistic into the linguistic only takes place in the linguistic--but in such a way that it is never reducible to a linguistic essence.
Now, this is where we see that it is no accident a delay, a spacing, a detour or a distance is used to illustrate what he is talking about. Because what this figure of distance allows is a way to figure the mistakes within language as precisely the irruption of this region as a non-region occuring sometimes within language. The gaps and mistakes in language are just this region in effect.
For it is only thus that they could be motivated in the sense that Freud is getting at when he talks here about a "psychic motive" right alongside "intention" (and its derivative here, "influence"): these slips are motivated, precisely, without intention--that is, without reference to a linguistic context or logic, even as they occur in language and take the form of precisely mistakes in this logic. This is the only way they can be motivated because if the slips or splits in language occured completely outside of language, they could never come into language, and they could never disrupt the psyche such that it would mess up the significance, the meaning of what we are trying to say. That is, they could never remain in accord with the nature of that psychic element of which they are: the unconscious, which "is" just motivation pure and simple, here.
This is the full sense in which we must take what Freud says immediately following his remark on linguistic laws "merely represent[ing] an existing mechanism that can easily be used by a more remote psychic motive without its binding itself to the sphere of influence of those connections:"

In a great many substitutions, a slip of the tongue occurs quite regardless of such laws of phonetics (79).

That is, the "regardless" must be precisely heard as implying the sort of "distance" we were talking about: it is an injunction to go back and trace what is going on, because though it occurs as if by chance, the verbal slip is pure motivation. In other words, the description here of the slip uncannily like how Derrida describes the aporia, which "couldn't care less" about us:

...One is never through with aporias worthy of their name. They wouldn't be what they are--aporias--if one saw or touched their end, even if there were any hope of being done with them. It is thus necessary to treat them differently, and decide otherwise, where they couldn't care less about our decision, and to let go, leaving ourselves in their hands... (On Touching--Jean-Luc Nancy, 4).

So Freud is not a philologist. But that only makes clear is that he has "to go about it in the same way." Only this way is "a longer route," one that treats of distances, delays, disruptions in language precisely by tracing them, or retracing them, reenacting them (insofar as this takes time), in the distance from language that they themselves, as motivation, remain:

I too am in search of unconscious material, and indeed I go about it in the same way, except that, using a complex series of associations, I have to trace a longer route from the ideas of the person I am questioning to the discovery of the disruptive element (57).

And we see here, precisely, association as this longer route: the route along which he goes, the route considered not from the perspective from philology but psychoanalysis is precisely that of "a complex series of associations." This makes associations irreducible to word play as a merely linguistic phenomenon, since essentially what we are saying here is that language, for Freud, is not a merely linguistic phenomenon. Instead, associations are words that, however much they play, are motivated, in the sense that we now understand all these words. They are--if we can speak of anything actually being anymore, which is a different post--simply language from the perspective of psychoanalysis along which we can search for unconscious material. Associations are language that spans itself across this distance, across this longer route. They are also what describe the relationship--or non-relationship--between psychoanalysis and philology.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Why phenomenology? (part 1)

I have been trying to think of my fond relationship with phenomenology. What, over the years, has brought me so close to it? Or, what uses--to put it a more practical way--have I been able to make out of it? And where do I stand with relationship to its particular problems? And which practitioner of phenomenology do I find most productive for me?
I first came to phenomenology through work on philosophy of mind--the mind body-problem specifically. What intrigued me most here, though, was more the misfires of the mind when it has input from the body than the more traditional (and difficult) problem of establishing the fact of this input. Perception occurred for me pretty unproblematically. Thus the qualia problem never really interested me (though you might expect that it would). I felt it was just a problem about how we talk about what is represented to us: it was still too connected with problems of establishing that perception occured. I still think that what interests people about qualia is not the qualia themselves, but what it does to a theory of mind. However, what intrigued me at the time was precisely this--what was perceived, the actual forms perceptions themselves took. So the way into this was looking at the stuff we could perceive that was not so cleanly perceived. Definite perceptions, definite input from the body to the mind, but not so definite in terms of its content--not because it remains irreducible to a theory of perception (in positive terms, completely full of qualitative content) but because the content itself is one of discrepancy between the perception and how perception usually works.
So you can see an interest in the anticipatory powers of the bodily schema coming into play--the eventual form that this interest would take. This I picked up in full force with the help of one of my professors, Arthur Melnick, who pursues his Kantian problems with the aid of phenomenology--especially Merleau-Ponty, whose conception of phenomenology remains closest to me, even now, and whose work (I should just note this) colors pretty much everything I will say on the subject here, even when (as I will) I go and look at Husserl. But what is important is that here, in the transit between this initial interest and the eventual fully-fledged phenomenological form of my study, was the first use of phenomenology that I really discerned: it is a sort of thing that can fill out what a language focused roughly on the general form of perception (whether this articulates itself in terms of mind-body input, or, as was the case for Melnick, in terms of Kantian intuition) with more specific concerns about what happens when this general schema can't account for something. To put it a better way, phenomenology picks up this moment in the failure of a general account of mental life not as a "problem," as the phil-mind people take it up, but as the starting point of its analysis. More simply put, failures in perception are precisely indicators as to the fullness of experience itself for phenomenology, because phenomenology is focused on the content of experiences not as just a general stuffing for form, but as distinct instances that have the power to make the usual working of perception take a singular detour. The most extreme way of putting this (and I do so by using all these terms less technically) would be to say that, to a degree, phenomenology allows for experiential content to make the form of its own perception. Or, in even more plain and less burdened language: phenomenology allows for something in experience to cohere such that it generates thereby the terms of its own coherence. (This is largely because what I am describing here is simply the reduction: to take up, theoretically, a "failure" is the beginning of a suspension of the natural attitude.)
However I explain this, what's clear is that this quality makes phenomenology fall into places where more formal theories of perception just don't have anything to say--or, quite frankly, don't want to say anything. Though its aims are much more lofty (and problematic, as its goal is nothing less than the complete reappropriation of this sphere to philosophy), this often makes it work a bit a posteriori, almost a bit empirically, without being beholden to the oppositions these two terms usually enter into. There is a story that someone came up to Sartre who was eating something like an ice cream, and told him with phenomenology he could describe the ice cream--this is what got him exited about it. For me it was very similar, though without the more militant desire to oppose this sort of everyday reality to the high philosophies. If one goes too far with this way of looking at it, one easily makes the mistake (and it is often made by those who don't know phenomenology but want to criticize it) of thinking that phenomenology is a going back to the self-evident, the common sense, the ordinary, when (see Husserl, Ideas I §32) what is at stake is the making-scientific or theoretical of the assumption of self-evidence, an estrangement that brings something like the eating of the ice cream into the theoretical. So, without this militant edge, for me, what is important is the more basic fact that phenomenology can begin to rigorously investigate as completely normal what other theories consider aberrant.
As I said, I took up interest in the body, and this was mostly because that is where a lot of these "aberrations" in perceived or experienced content took place: the double-touch, tricks of perspective due to one's bodily stance, afterimages and the structure of the eye etc. etc. But as you can see, the interest began to take the form of wondering what was special about the phenomenon that it could fall into this particular place all the time--as I said, what was special to me was the forming power of the phenomenological content, or its sort of self-generating coherence, even if it is an aberrant perception. I'll pick this up next time as it took the form of a meditation on finitude, helped by Heidegger (then on to non-phenomena, like writing). This will lead us to another use of phenomenology, one that will emerge from what I am talking about here, which is essentially what Husserl calls "immanence," and moving towards the being of the phenomenon itself--the fact that (and this is really what "immanence" is about for Husserl) its own limit is its condition for emergence.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Derrida on Heidegger and technics

In 1986 Derrida was at Yale and had various discussions about Heidegger that allowed him to consolidate his thinking. In 1987 these discussions were spun out a bit in his contribution to conference or joint-discussion entitled "Reading Heidegger." Derrida presented what he came up with the year before. This was published in Research in Phenomenology ("On Reading Heidegger," #17: p.177). David Krell outlines in the following what Derrida was saying at this conference, which hit at four points: as Derrida said, "four threads are to be drawn out here, emanating from four areas of hesitation and disquiet in my current reading of Heidegger..." I want here to focus on the second of these points, which Derrida specifies as "the privilege of essence in Heidegger's account of technique and the necessary contamination of essences."
I've tried in previous posts and papers to sketch certain aspects of the relationship between Derrida and Heidegger's notion of technics. My conviction is that Derrida has a lot to offer us thinkers of the philosophy of technics or technology, or philosophical thinkers the ramifications of technology, more than we expect. He also has a lot to offer Heideggerians, I think, for whom a Heideggerian formulation of technics remains perhaps the most crucial and lasting contribution of Heidegger's later thought. I think this is the case even though others see Derrida's contribution to technics being something more along the lines of providing a narrative of hominization, like Bernard Stiegler.
This does not interest me as much: I fundamentally don't think Derrida's thought hits its hardest there. For me, it is in the second point around C, in the outline below, which is the most crucial, because it extends a notion of technics to all of phenomenological thought: "withdrawal, reserve, reticence, holding-back, may well be a strategy of protection." He means a Heideggerian strategy of protection against contamination by technics (the non-essential technological aspect of technics). In other words, Heidegger performs what he says: withdrawal also, at the level of his discourse, his text, withdraws (from contamination).
But things don't stop with just this. For what this allows us to ask is the following: What could it mean to think withdrawal otherwise than as protection? This is what Derrida is getting at, this is what he thinks Heidegger falls a little short of doing. And it's understandable, for to think withdrawal otherwise than as protection against technology would be to think withdrawal as a function of technology, as permeated by the technical. This would in turn make the phenomenon itself--which is self-veiling or withdrawing--technical. A technical phenomenon: this is what it is impossible for Heidegger, and incumbent upon Derrida, to think. One then can think of a technical phenomenology, which would not look so much like the scientifically aided heterophenomenology of Daniel Dennett (as venerable and useful and amazing as that is), but more like grammatology, that science the impossibilities and possibilities (as impossibilities) Derrida looked at long ago.
Regardless, this is my case for looking at Derrida as different than Stiegler in his emphasis, which I think (as the two last volumes of Technics and Time recently made their English-language appearance) actually makes him more and more relevant for thinking technics in a unique way now. Here then, is the outline of what Derrida said then was his second point of hesitation about Heidegger:

II. The privilege of essence in Heidegger's account of technique and the necessary contamination of essences:
A. Heidegger avers that the essence of technique is nothing technological : his thinking of technique as such and as an essence tries in a classically philosophical manner to shelter the thought and language of essence from contamination.
B. Yet can anything in language and in thought be sheltered absolutely from technicity? In the very will to protect oneself against "x" one is more exposed to the danger of reproducing "x" than when one tries to think contamination.
C. Contamination, a contagion born of contact and a kind of touching, foils every strategy of protection; it puts at risk the central theme of Heidegger's thinking--that of the ontological difference.
1. Being's difference from beings is itself dissimulated in beings, and thus appears to be a kind of contamination. Yet Heidegger would insist that contamination is merely an "ontic" scheme, a mere "metaphor."
2. The Heideggerian figure of Being's self-veiling, its withdrawal, reserve, reticence, holding-back, may well be a strategy of protection.
3. Contamination requires the thinking of a kind of différance that is not yet or no longer ontological difference.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A few thoughts on "Circumfession"

In “Circumfession” Jacques Derrida seems to be coping with that thing that happens when we start writing or talking about ourselves, which is to start to explain ourselves as well. With surprising rapidity, relating something about oneself becomes something like self-justification, as if my actions could also have been mistakes. Explaining oneself, then, gets pulled closer and closer to confession: suddenly everything that I relate looks like it is something I am guilty of committing and for which I need forgiveness—especially if I then try to justify my right to a story that isn’t taken as justification, as Paul de Man captured well in the last chapter ("Excuses") of Allegories of Reading. In short, another way one can confess (besides walking into the confessional) is by guiltily relating a story about oneself; a story, that is, which makes one look and feel guilty.
But I don’t think Derrida is as interested with what all this does to the mental coherence of that self that is then related. The more crucial question for Derrida throughout “Circumfession” is what this guilty story does to others. For when we end up explaining ourselves, we also have the tendency to try and get ourselves off the hook by turning the people in our lives into determining causes of our faults. In our explanation, they aren’t themselves, but words, gestures, actions that will add to our self-justification—more like fictional characters. Another way to put this is in the terms used earlier in our seminar: this story that seeks its forgiveness because it feels guilty, confession, cannot produce testimony with respect to others. While I can produce testimony about a historical event that was caused by another—about something that was caused by her words, gestures, or actions—my confession will stop short of testifying to something about her herself, in her singularity. It will have to remain confession, a story of guilt about oneself, with respect to each of these others.
This is only a problem for Derrida, though, insofar as he is unable to be sure that his confession will not, despite everything, still actually testify for another. At least this is what I think he claims when he says the following after remembering something about his mother (who is hanging on to life in a hospital, and at any moment as he writes may already be dead):

I stop for a moment… over the admission I owe the reader, in truth that I owe my mother herself for the reader will have understood that I am writing for my mother, perhaps even for a dead woman and so many ancient or recent analogies will come to the reader’s mind even if no, they don’t hold, those analogies, none of them… (p. 25, #4).

The problem here is not just that a justificatory writing makes him distort his mother to make her fit his story. The problem is not just that, at the moment she appears in what he says, she can appear like almost any other mother we can read about (e.g. Augustine’s Monica) except herself. The problem is also that she herself could, despite this, actually remain just this “distortion.” Effectively under the pretense of distorting another for his own benefit, then, Derrida might still be saying something accurate. But this testimony then would appear for all the wrong reasons—which would make it just as irresponsible to the other as any distortion. This is what he claims when he says he writes for his mother: in one movement, he is speaking in the place of his mother, instead of her, as well as risking actually addressing her herself by speaking in the place of her. He condenses this into the following axiom: one always confesses the other.
To put this axiom a different way, the problem is how the fate of someone else can still depend on what it is impossible for one’s confession to produce, insofar as it is mine, insofar as I (or an I) have (or has) control over it: this impossibility being the chance that it produces testimony. And by saying this is a problem, I don’t mean that it is lamentable. It is, throughout “Circumfession,” precisely that which Derrida believes he must engage. To engage his confession here, in this problematic sphere beyond its being merely his confession, in a place not unlike that where he has to deal with a circumcision he himself had no control over or even knowledge of—to engage his confession in this sphere beyond his own guilty story is what he sees as the task and responsibility of confession.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Punctuated without a period: "Circonfession"

(Derrida's library)

"Circonfession"–one of Jacques Derrida's more unbelievably masterful texts–I just found out was read by the Derrida and recorded, and is available on 5 CDs or tapes. Hearing the recording, one is instantly made aware of the possibilities of the long, comma-studded sentences, which can modulate in their grammar and meaning depending on how the voice takes them up. That is, one sees how Derrida could describe his writing in this text in a later interview with the following words: he says he would stop his particular reflection only "after the breathing space of a rhythmic sentence, which did have punctuation, as if rippling with commas, but was uninterrupted, punctuated without a period, if you like..." ("The Word Processor." In Paper Machine, Stanford UP, 1995. p. 22). That is, the commas turn into periods, and the periods into commas, as the text turns around and consolidates, with and against the inertia of its desire to speak, the possibilities of its expressiveness. (And, I'll note, this is a mode I also believe wholeheartedly is at play or work in many other texts of Derrida's besides this one, and we should consider them as such–that is, read them more like we read "Circonfession.") Here, below, in French, is the first of these reflections–what are called in the title and in the text "periods and periphrases" (périodes et périphrases). You can hear the text read by Derrida (thanks to the great Derrida en castellano site) by clicking on this link here.

Le vocable cru, lui disputer ainsi le cru, comme si d'abord j'aimais à le relancer, et le mot de "relance", le coup de poker n'appartient qu'a ma mère, comme si je tenais à lui pour lui chercher querelle quant à ce que parler cru veut dire, comme si jusqu'au sang je m'acharnais à lui rappeler, car il le sait, cur confitemur deo scienti, ce qui nous est par le cru demandé, le faisant ainsi dans ma langue, l'autre, celle qui depuis toujours me court après, tournant en rond autour de moi, une circonférence qui me lèche d'une flamme et que j'essaie à mon tour de circonvenir, n'ayant jamais aimé que l'impossible, le cru auquel je ne crois pas, et le mot cru laisse affluer en lui par le canal de l'oreille, une veine encore, la foi, la profession de foi ou la confession, la croyance, la crédulité, comme si je tenais à lui, pour lui chercher dispute, en opposant un écrit naïf, crédule, qui par quelque transfusion immédiate en appelle à la croyance du lecteur autant qu'a la mienne, depuis toujours d'une autre langue, d'une langue toute crue, d'une nom à demi fluide aussi, là, comme le chant, et j'entends ricaner, pauvre vieux, t'en prend pas le chemin, c'est pas demain la veille, tu sauras jamais, la surabondance d'une crue après le passage de laquelle une digue devient belle comme la ruine qu'elle aura toujours au fond d'elle-même emmurée, la cruauté surtout, encore le sang, cruor, confiteor, ce que le sang aura été pour moi, je me demande si Geoff le sait, comment saurait-il que ce matin-là, un 29 novembre 1988, telle phrase est venue, de plus loin que je ne saurai jamais dire, mais une seule phrase, à peine une phrase, le mot pluriel d'un désir vers lequel tous les autres depuis toujours semblaient, la confluence même, se presser, un ordre suspendu à trois mots, trouver la veine, ce qu'un infirmier pouvait murmurer, une seringue à la main, la pointe dressée vers le haut, avant la prise de sang, lorsque par exemple dans mon enfance, et je me rappelle ce laboratoire dans une rue d'Alger, le peur et la vague d'un glorieux apaisement s'emparaient à la fois de moi, me prenaient aveugle dans leurs bras à l'instant précis où par la pointe de la seringue s'assurait un passage invisible, toujours invisible, pour l'écoulement continu du sang, absolu, absous en ce sense que rien ne semblait s'interposer entre la source et l'embouchure, le dispositif assez compliqué de la seringue n'étant introduit à cette place que pour laisser le passage et disparaˆtre en tant qu'instrument, mais continu en cet autre sense que, sans l'intervention maintenant brutale de l'autre qui, décidant d'interrompre le flot une fois la seringue, toujours dressée, retirée du corps, repliait vivement mon bras vers le haut et pressait le coton à l'intérieur du coude, le sang eût pu inonder encore, non pas indéfiniment mais continûment jusqu'à m'épuiser, aspirant ainsi vers lui ce que j'appelai: le glorieux apaisement.
-"Circonfession." In Jacques Derrida, by Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington, Éditions du Seuil, 1991. #1, p. 7-12

For alma mater...

What lurks at the horizon... is the nightmarish prospect of a society regulated by a perverse pact between religious fundamentalists and the politically correct preachers of tolerance and respect for other's beliefs: a society immobilized by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is and in which individuals are engaged in regular rituals of "witnessing" their victimization. When I visited the University of Champaign in Illinois, I was taken to a restaurant where the menu offered Tuscany fries. When I asked friends about this they explained that the owner wanted to appear patriotic apropos the French opposition to the U.S. attack on Iraq, so he followed the U.S. Congress and renamed French fries "freedom fries." However, the progressive members of the faculty (the majority of his customers) threatened to boycott his place if freedom fries remained on the menu. The owner didn't want to lose his customers, but still wanted to appear patriotic, so he invented a new name, "Tuscany fries." This had the added advantage of sounding European, and also echoing the vogue of idyllic films about Tuscany.
-Slavoj Zizek, Violence, p. 130

Friday, December 5, 2008

A tribute to Slavoj Zizek

I have been a bit harsh to Slavoj Zizek on this blog here, but I want to sort of take a step back and note that my harshness only comes from a deep belief that I think he is one of the best people that we have thinking today. In the end, my quibbles with him are with the particular directions that I see him going, never ones regarding the core of what he is doing and what he stands for. I actually think he is perhaps one of the most responsible intellectuals we have around. I want to outline here why I think this is so, and also why I think it is important to defend him against the ridiculous, uninformed slander that appeared a couple days ago in The New Republic about him.
This utterly disgusting denunciation of Adam Kirsch's--a young, unqualified, almost uneducated, unbelievably arrogant hack who works as a quote book critic unquote for the eminent literary journal that is the New York Sun--tries to pose as a review of Zizek's two latest books, Violence and In Defense of Lost Causes, but basically uses tired, pathetic arguments to try and remain as deaf as possible to anything Zizek has written. First, it says Zizek's 2007 article on the prevalence in the US of quite indifferent (but not scientific) discussions of torture--an amazing article, I think--is a trick Zizek pulled just to look good. It presupposes that he is a celebrity academic and that people are willing to read him because he is fashionable. Zizek would then be just trying to sell more books by acting like the good guy who denounces torture (see the article). In short, he'll say anything. Second, it claims that he is a jet-setting professor who poses as a rebel. This presupposes that what he says is dishonest or ineffective because of his position as an academic--and that the academy is disconnected with and ultimately hostile to reality (as if this article, this periodical, and this author wasn't). Third (and perhaps the most vomit-inducing) it makes him out to be un-American. In short, it presupposes that his Slovenian worldview is too restricted and inherently prejudiced against the US and capitalism.
Now, I think it is important to resist this slander because--as you can see from these presuppositions--all these points are the most banal but most prevalent ways people can dismiss him rather than engage him rigorously. I like to think that we're past this view of him--the view of him as a celebrity, as a provocateur, as a foreigner. This stupid image of him, I think, has shown itself just to be uninformative when we actually pick up his writings. He writes in the most calm, perspicuous philosophical English and is willing to engage the most analytic of philosophers in serious debate. This should be enough to convince us that what troubles the little imp here and makes him want to put Zizek down is actual philosophical language, proffered to us in the spirit of discussion--the kind of language you aren't exposed to as a feted Harvard undergraduate (Kirsch's only qualifications) because complaining to your wealthy parents and your connections is usually enough to make the problem (language that makes your tiny brain actually work) go away. "You can talk about these things?! Gasp! I thought capitalism, morals, ethics couldn't be discussed!" For this imbecile, this snot, a discussion leads to thinking, to questioning. This can't be allowed: either you're with us or against us--that is, the unprofessional, unintellectual, staggeringly stupid, yet wealthy, connected white male aesthetes.
But if these presuppositions hang on a bit even in our circles--and like I said, I don't know how much they do, but I'd like to kill them off for good here--it might be because of that fundamental feeling we get from the subject matter of his writing: that is, its inflammatory content, produced by astonishing reversals. Now, Zizek is inflammatory--but, quite frankly, I think he just shows us how little we know how to regard the tradition that he works in: that of (primarily Lacanian) psychoanalysis. For is it really for shock value that he talks about these things? Or is he really just trying to make sense of aspects of our life that are, indeed, tied intimately to the unconscious?
I could go further: so what if he was indeed trying to shock sometimes? Don't we know by now that this is precisely the effect of using what psychoanalysts called constructions? Or, to put it in more modern terms, don't we know by now that this is precisely the effect of the process that Lacan called "traversing the fantasy?" We perhaps display, that is, a fundamental naivete with regard to this Freudian and Lacanian post-hermeneutical process, a naivete which is typical of our thinking in the United States. The fact that something the analyst says to us--and Zizek is most certainly that, a critical analyst or producer of a cultural symptomatology--shocks us does not have to issue from the fact that what is said is shocking. Rather, our shock is the release of affect that comes with hitting something that makes our fantasy--our stable vision of the world--look just as constructed as what the analyst says. In short, the shock is part of the function of the interpretation that Zizek gives us. This means that the interpretation is not a mere commentary, but something that is mobilized in order to do something other than what it says. If it is said just to shock, what this really means is that it is said to try and bring about some change in relation to the fantasy that our unconscious produces and sustains. The point is then to bring us into a healthier relation with respect to the possibility of culture to build fantasies--that is, to be able to begin to live with an unconscious.
In short, Zizek shows us, like Freud did, that we are prudes. Not prudes with respect to sexuality, depravity, and the like, perhaps, but prudish with respect to dirty or indirect arguments: we don't want them to function any different than by meaning. Once we understand that what Zizek says perhaps has a function besides meaning--namely, traversing the fantasy--then our relationship to its shocking content becomes more mature. Of course, this doesn't mean that loses its ability to shock--and we begin to understand that we wouldn't want it to. For what is crucial to note here is that this non-meaningful function of traversing the fantasy takes place precisely through meaning: that something means when it is said is the precise thing that Zizek takes up and fiddles with--he thereby uses the fantasy against itself to try and shift the way the unconscious constructs it. So what I'm claiming is not that we are prudes because we are shocked by what Zizek says: indeed, what he says is sometimes rough to take. What I'm saying is that we are prudish because we are not open to the fact that the meaning can take on something that our unconscious gives it, and that perhaps its functioning, if altered, can be different. (Of course we would not be open at first--this fact here is repressed--but, afterwards, we might have a more open and mature relation to what happened when the repressed returned in this way. This is what we lack. In other words, we can't be prepared for what Zizek is saying, but we can, after he says it, be more committed to understanding why and, more importantly here, how it was said. This would produce genuine discussion--with disagreements--with less dismissal in front of a particular topic... fisting, for example. This would also allow us to think more about how to understand how Zizek can be wrong, or mislead--something I'm still not sure how to talk about without my prudish dismissal.)
So when this idiot quotes Zizek and tries to get the better of him with arguments any imbecile can make, we understand that, beyond the bankruptcy of the anti-intellectualist and xenophobic remarks, there is also a fundamental misunderstanding, and prudishness, at work that makes him take what Zizek says at face value. Really, is irony--which here I'll define positively as the capability of a discourse (whether theoretical/analytic or not) to function other than by direct reference--still that tough to comprehend? Perhaps, yes, to know, since what we are dealing with is a process that works back towards the unconscious and actually uses the fact that what is said gets its irony precisely from meaning... but knowing is not the same as comprehension, or a basic grasp of the importance of openness, not unlike the openness of a patient to analysis that she or he exhibits in just showing up.
But enough of this disgusting essay: I want to outline what I think is so eminently valuable about Zizek in more of my own terms.
For me, first and foremost, and as I've remarked before, a notion of the unconscious as closer to the sublime of Kant, which ultimately bridges the tradition of psychoanalysis with the tradition of phenomenology and the tradition of German Idealism, all at one go. It makes the unconscious able to be looked at through many more lenses more quickly.
It should be immediately said after this that this is another unbelievably valuable trait: the willingness to find a set of concepts that can function as a meeting-point for several discourses at once and thereby allow a clearer explanation of what is going on. Zizek is unparalleled in this respect, I think, both on this side of the Atlantic and on the Continent. He is, hands down, the best explainer we have. Like Anglo-American philosophers, he is still so willing to use examples, which I appreciate immensely. But he also thinks of concepts as things like examples--as structures that can, in their working, be ranged alongside each other and chosen for use based on whether they will allow more or less phenomena to be explained by them clearly. Thus the functioning of the sublime, above. If one really reads Zizek's summary of the concept of the sublime, one will be disappointed and find all sorts of inaccuracies. But--again this discourse functions as well as means--if one realizes that the concept is doing more work than just what it did in Kant, that it is something like a priveliged concept that can join together both experience and other discourses, well, Zizek becomes much clearer, and you will be able to disagree with him on more substantial issues.
This brings me to the next virtue of his work, which is what I disagree with him least about: his strident opposition to populism. For me, some of his best articles are those that resist Ernesto Laclau's recent work. This is not because they promote a sort of anti-democratic and anti-identity politics (after all, populism is arguably, as a response to trends in existing democracies, both of these). Rather, it is because he wants to see democracy differently but not take the easy way out of the problem that populism is. In short, he wants more government, not more people--and this is not anti-democratic. At the very least once could say that he wants to find ways that having a more substantial governmental role is amenable to the principles and the freedoms that democracy cherishes. This, for me, is precisely a response against what is most nihilistic, most pragmatic about populism: the idea that freedom will just sort of consolidate itself with more voices involved. Zizek thinks the tough political thought--but it is also one that has deep roots in Freudianism--that the people perhaps do not know what is best for them. In doing this, he takes up the most basic of political problems and affirms it against something that would dissolve this. While perhaps he takes this thought too far, I think that he is perpetuating something important and allowing us to see what it opposes, which is crucial for us.
Finally, there is the affirmation of the absurd and the disgusting as an important part of psychic life--as something that makes up a substantive part of psychic life that we do not want to throw away. At the end of a recent lecture, he said something about what he wants out of a loving relationship--it was something close to being able to be humiliated but almost indifferently... I think it was being shit on, as some sort of fetishistic gesture. While indifference can always be pursued too far--and Zizek always goes as far as possible, perhaps too far--I think indifference is something we have to understand that we inhabit, particularly after the atrocities of the 20th century and its machines of mass death. Part of this understanding is thinking about the fact that in the space of the indifferent, in the absurd, we can still have meaningful and valuable relationships. While we may not want to risk entering into them, broaching that area for thought is, right now, crucial I think for adjusting ourselves to a more techno-scientific, hyper-rational society, in which humiliation for another is sometimes just the effect of one's existence. To think about our own indifference and its more happy possibilities might allow us to undo aspects of it that we have imposed upon others.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Sociality with the Absolute..." and a bit about "self-deconstruction"

A wonderful formulation of Levinas', using some formulations he finds in the 12th century philosopher/mystic Judah or Yehuda Halevi (יהודה הלוי). Namely, that the relationship with the order of god is conceived in "social" terms like "association" and "proximity", though not in such a way that this connotes a deficiency in proper philosophical knowledge about this order:

It is, in fact, my opinion that the relation to God called faith does not primordially mean adhesion to certain statements that constitute a knowledge for which there is no demonstration--a knowledge that would from time to time be troubled by the anxiety of a certainty lacking proof. To me, religion means transcendence, which, as proximity of the absolutely other (i.e., of the one of its kind), is not a failed coinciding and would not have ended in some sublime projected goal, nor in the incomprehension of what should have been grasped and understood as an object, as "my thing." Religion is the excellence proper to sociality with the Absolute, or, if you will, in the positive sense of the expression, Peace with the other.
-"On Jewish Philosophy" (interview with Françoise Armengaud) in In the Time of the Nations, 170.

Frankly, I find this much more useful and interesting as a meditation on how to approach the relation to God than the rather old-fashioned reflections of Jean-Luc Nancy in his recent Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity: that is, one should be able to characterize this relation differently, using people like Yehuda Halevi, rather than take this relation itself as the object--which means taking it somewhat for granted--and looking at that. In other words, to me, Nancy gets tangled up in what I think are these Levinasian problems, but poses them as if they were Derridian in nature: namely, as problems dealing with the dis-enclosure (déclosion) of a field in which the self-deconstruction of the Christian relation to God can change its orientation. This seems misguided, because for Derrida it was not the relation that was the issue but the conception of God himself (which produced the relation). Regardless, the whole notion of Christianity as "self-deconstructing," which Derrida I think warned Nancy too much about, and which Nancy is too obsessed with in turn, is just odd to me. For what is not self-deconstructing? The phrase seems like an oxymoron intended to try and get Nancy to reflect on his rather philosophically-oriented notion of deconstruction--one which Derrida I think rightly opposed, perhaps most in his amazing, late work on his friendship with Nancy, On Touching. But Nancy seems not to take it seriously--or too seriously.
This makes him end up spinning all sorts of tales about a relation to the absolute being self-deconstructing, when what he might just be saying is what Levinas is saying here: that the relationship to God is going to be social, or whatever, in some way. Somehow Levinas can say more directly what Nancy just can't--that's all I'm getting at--when they are actually talking about something similar, in the end. For both, in turn, can be deconstructed by Derrida--that is my point. But one has a healthier way of formulating the problems involved than the other. And I don't like to think that this has something to do with the essential nature of Judaism versus Christianity: this is what I think Nancy would like us to think, but I don't buy it. I do think there are essential differences: I just don't buy that Christianity is different because it poses the same problems that Levinas brings up here (and this is what I'm saying happens in Nancy) just in a more complex fashion.
I know this is all a bit confusing--I apologize, it's confusing for me now, too--but maybe after more reading of Nancy I can more perspicuously articulate my reservations. For now, I'll just remain vague and schematic.
Regardless, I just wanted to draw attention to wonderful quote that set these things going in my mind--one that occurs in a bit of a different language than usual for Levinas (care of Halevi, and it is this willingness to assimilate that I'm really saying Nancy lacks), though with the ever-present talent of his for rich condensation and brilliant clarity: "Religion is the excellence proper to sociality with the Absolute..." Amazing!