Sunday, February 28, 2010

Themes and figures

On Touching--Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite books by Derrida. I haven't seen it commented upon as much as I would have expected. I think that once they registered Derrida's death (which happened just when On Touching came out in English), people in America turned quite quickly to The Animal That Therefore I Am (which came out soon after, even though the text dates to 1997). Perhaps this was because the latter book represented something like a newer theme for Derrida--or the making-explicit of a theme that goes back all the way to Grammatology at least, where one can find some comments upon animals if I remember right. Or it was because animality was becoming the fashionable issue it is today--though I don't like to be so cynical about this, since theory works via fashion and styling (you'd have thought people would have come to accept this by now, annoying as it sometimes is, and really revived its utopian potential). Regardless of the reason, I mean to imply that there might have been something old-fashioned about this work for some people. Its main issues are phenomenological, even though we get forays into issues in religion (and even though this--as Martin Hägglund is right to point out--has become an almost too-popular way into Derrida in recent years), and certainly into the body. We're concerned here with Husserl and his issues, at the end of the day--and of course with Aristotle, who is never quite too far from a phenomenologist's mind. More than anything, it's this extended consideration of these thinkers which Derrida really focused upon early in his work that makes the long, interesting look at Merleau-Ponty here seem belated--even though he already produced a reading of The Visible and the Invisible in 1993.

I don't mean to imply that the work is only a return to origins, after a long career (though I don't quite have the problem others do of imputing to Derrida an action like this that would completely contradict his "philosophy"). Indeed, besides the fact that Derrida engages phenomenology continually, or basically brings the tradition of phenomenology to bear upon every problem he encounters, these thinkers are here because it is Nancy who engages with them and has them in his mind--and the book is above all else a fascinating meditation on and tribute to the latter's work (which I don't myself like much, but whatever). Nevertheless, it's this feeling of a return to explicit phenomenological figures--if not themes (and I'll come to the distinction in a moment)--that makes me really like this book.

That, and its general sloppiness. The book is all over the place--it rounds off thoughts in weird places, repeats itself without much difference all the time, and suffers from that frankness, that real drive to just get it out there that comes from a less crafted effort. I don't mean to say it isn't unbelievably wrought, or baroque in the ways characteristic of Derrida's other texts. Indeed it plays with certain phrases to a higher degree than usual (though it comes nowhere near Rogues), since it takes up an extremely dense semantic area, as we'll see. But it just isn't as minimalist as his other work (and Derrida's work in general can be thought of as something like philosophic minimalism, as much as people are fond of talking about it as jazz). This is probably because he didn't have enough time--but I like Derrida when he is sloppy or rushed, mostly because it is here that he is the most creative, and the least literary. The Gift of Death is another great example of this: we have something like a Derrida that can't go back and revise, a Derrida that is up-front and open, even frank--and despite how enigmatic and deep the constructions of that text in particular can be.

One passage in particular I enjoyed rereading today, because it was quite frank about something which was essential to Derrida's popularity in literature departments. Derrida is talking about a particular question of touch that he claims is put to Nancy (and by turns him, considering Nancy), and its inseparability from a question about Christianity--in short, whether the question of touch is a specifically Christian issue (keep in mind the becoming-flesh or de/en-spiritualizing of Christ), and what it would then mean that the question of touch is still an open question. He then says:

I knew, I thought I had known for a long time that if there is a work of thinking today that measures up to this, to this question, and actually measures itself against it as the incommensurable, in acts of language and reflection, then it is Nancy's work, even when it doesn't acknowledge all the references that I have just evoked, beginning with Aristotle and the Gospels. I thought I had known this for a long time (266).

This is perhaps less hyperbolic than it comes off, since we have that uncertain, unsure pause over knowing and thinking one knows. But even if it is I don't quite care too much--it is a tribute by a friend after all (and to a friend who had just had surgery on his heart). Regardless, Derrida then seems to qualify this unsure thought (that still was so sure Nancy referred to the question, even if he didn't acknowledge certain references) with a very sure or certain thought regarding how reference itself works:

To be sure, a search (which may have been too hasty) through a number of Nancy's early works--roughly until the middle of the 1980's, and strangely including, therefore, The Experience of Freedom--had shown us that neither the theme nor the figure of touch lays siege to his discourse, invests in it, or above all else invades it, as will be the case--we can establish it today--in all his recent publications (266).

We can be sure that even an acknowledgment of certain themes or figures would not necessarily establish that reference. But this in turn can only proceed if we know something about the distinction between a theme and the figure:

Let me insist that this is an issue of the theme and the figure--and this is more than just one difficulty among others. Because if there is "the" sense of touch [Nancy himself says "there is no 'the' sense of touch"], which is to say this motif of which Nancy speaks and that he now thematizes increasingly, while saying "there is no 'the' sense of touch" there are also--before or beyond this object of thought of discourse, beyond what is called touch, which is is henceforth dealing with--all these figural and apparently nonthematic operators with which he is continually playing (as I am doing here), through which and thanks to which Nancy has long since put touching into words, and said it and touched it (266).

What Derrida is essentially saying is that the thematizing of touch that Nancy is doing in his more recent work can be--or actually has to be--related to those moments even in his non-touch-centered work by way of Nancy's recourse to various operators, various used-up metaphors and tropes--figures. Figures like what? Derrida turns to a recent work, where we can see this working precisely in spite of the increasing thematization itself: Corpus. Nancy is talking about sacrifice--but I won't try and reconstitute or paraphrase all that, it's not important for my point--and Derrida quotes him:

There then follow, in the next sentence, two instances of the word "touch." They deserve an infinite analysis, on the scale of that upon which they touch, namely, precisely, a process of infinitization, the very same one that was questioned in the previous chapter: "To touch upon this denial, or, to put it succinctly, this manipulation, is to touch upon this simultaneity; it is to be obliged to wonder whether dialectical negativity washed away the blood, or whether the blood must, on the contrary, inevitably hemorrhage from it. In order to prevent the dialectical process from remaining a comedy, Bataille wants the blood to flow" (my emphases--J.D.) (268).

All well and good. Then Derrida gets frank:

In this case, one may easily say that it is a question of a manner of speaking, of some kind of trope. Just try and find someone who has ever literally "touched" a denial [which is what Nancy says, above]. At times Nancy seems to be drawing on the fund of an old rhetoric that says "to touch" for "to concern," "to aim," "to think," "to refer to," "to speak of," "to take as its object," "to thematize," precisely, in a precisely pertinent fashion, and so forth. But because, in the same sentence, one sees first the hands of "manipulation" (another figure but more strictly determinate), next the "blood" rise up or take shape, the literality of "touch" thereby becomes more sensitive, nearer, less conventional. One begins to ask oneself: whence comes and what comes as the authorizing instance of this figure of "touch?"? Why does one say "to touch" for "to speak of," "to concern," "to aim," "to refer to" in general, and so forth? Is it because touch, as Aristotle said, is not a "unique sense?" More and more, Nancy plays this game--the most serious game there is--which consists in using, as if there were not the slightest problem, this common and ancestral figure of tactile language in order to draw our attention to "'the' sense of touch" itself--which there is not. He invests this very invasion that, little by little, prevents us from distinguishing between thematic sense and operating function... (268).

The point is one that is familiar to readers of Derrida (maybe one that is old, tired). But you can also see the emergence of and collapsing of that distinction between theme and figure, and feel how it is essential to the point.

But what is that distinction? It was--as I hinted above--one that literary critics not only knew but also, in the 60s and 70s, were ready to appreciate. Literary criticism was getting bogged down with what we still call "thematic" readings: readings that trace a particular set of features through a text and supply some sort of organizing logic that would tie them all together. We don't have to go back to some previous "school" of vague psychoanalytic readings based on the presence or absence of various phallic symbols to get some sense of what this was like (and even these are less thematic--even much more allegorical--than some will claim), because indeed most readings of texts even in our age will still tend to be thematic in nature. It's not that thematic reading is bad or unskilled: though some would argue this, I would just say it's one of our our semi-natural attitudes towards making the text mean as a whole, on a somewhat more formal level (I notice several instances of "death," or "death-related imagery," and try to make sense of its "recurrence"). Indeed, amateurism wasn't even able to be the case as far as the literary critics who appreciated Derrida were concerned, since it was not the unskilled but the tendencies of the professional literary critic (psychoanalytic or not) that they were engaged with. No, the problem is that in these readings, one can't quite specify in what the themes inhere: they are just there, able to be organized, sometimes backed up with reference to style.

De Man in particular was ready to launch an attack on thematic readings as a whole by grounding this search for the logic of the text in the level of the figure. Figures (schemes and tropes) are actually parts of the text, though organizing them is somewhat more difficult. Regardless, they offer a viable alternative and moreover something like an even more traditional one. De Man would make much of this, grounding the professionalism of the literary critic in his ability to notice and handle such figures (which, again, I don't think is wholly legitimate), and distinguishing literary language itself from all other language (while claiming it to be superior) in terms of its essential figurality (which I think is even more suspect). Nevertheless, the original anti-thematic impetus is important (and being clear about it is really the best thing de Man did--and we should preserve that), and it is this that one can find, indeed, in Derrida. In fact, Derrida's use of the figure hit upon something even more crucial--which allowed all those power-grabs by de Man but which isn't necessarily bound up with them--which was that privileging the figural over the thematic actually requires that we reconceive our object of study itself. De Man interpreted this by asserting that as long as a thematic approach remains dominant, even references to figures will remain thematic in nature: it is the logic of the theme that will serve to make these figures significant. So what is needed is some sort of grounding of a reading in figures that is in turn unthematizable--and indeed this is what Derrida precisely offered.

But you'll notice in the above that Derrida doesn't make this distinction to preserve it: he collapses it as well. This is why the distinction is a textual one for Derrida (occurring somewhere between thinking and the work) and a linguistic or rhetorical one for de Man: Derrida reads texts, de Man reads rhetoric. And I'll just end things here by noticing what Derrida says about rhetoric itself, as he expands upon his remark above on why we need to insist upon the figure/theme distinction:

Let me just insist that this is an issue of the theme and the figure. [...] But insisting is not nothing. Even if it did nothing but bring to the light of day what was sleeping in the shadow, even if it exhibited literally and as such (thus painfully baring its body) what had until then been a used-up metaphor, a familar trope we use without paying much attention to it--well, this intensification of insistence is no longer a simple rhetorical movement. It comes down to thinking and to the thinking body of thought (266).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Butler on Whitehead, Stengers, Latour

Judith Butler gave a really great lecture on Whitehead at a recent conference at Claremont (care of the Whitehead Research Project--who knew?). In "On this Occasion..." she also has a few remarks about Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour and a couple others (there is a knockdown discussion of Freud and melancholia in the Q and A section--condensing her arguments elsewhere and putting them in a different frame, as she does in general here with her previous work via Whitehead). The link here will open up iTunes, where the lecture is available in podcast form--I'll put up a more direct link if I find one.


Peter Gratton has a nice remark about Derrida on materialism. I think he's right that "transcendental signified" sometimes describes what idealism is up to better than any sort of talk about "subjective projection" (in fact, this might be one of his most important contributions to philosophy and to non-philosophy). We hardened the concepts that Derrida invents pretty quickly (with his help, since he wields them in a heavy-handed Heideggerian manner--but then again he too was only trying to insist upon how flexible the Heideggerian way of doing things actually was at the time he was writing), and sometimes the best operation we can do is to soften them up and restore to them something of their functionality, the sense that they describe philosophical operations which work back upon the conception of reality that they themselves constitute. This is why the language of textuality and reading that he uses might be even more relevant than ever (and indeed Latour uses it extensively).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Actually existing liberalism

One of the best Zizek lectures I've ever heard, from a little while ago (November of last year). I myself would get behind a lot of what is said--including the comment on Latour. The look at the contradictions in the notion of individual choice is precise. But also featured are levelheaded remarks on the artificial (biological life), the posthuman and augmented reality, Freud (materialist) and Jung, thought and modernity, and really or actually existing liberalism.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


It has been a little busy here lately with writing and teaching--but just wanted to say two things quick:

1) We're slowly starting up again at the Latour blog, moving now into the work of Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, John Law, Alain Badiou, and others.

2) Check out this CFP from the Cornell Theory Reading Group--certainly I've always thought a lot about form... maybe I'll write something.

Also, just want to apologize--it's been hard for me to link back to all the sites that link to this one... I'm trying to add as many as I can (and employing all sorts of tools to find this stuff out) but it's been going slow. So if you don't find yourself here, it's not out of spite or anything!

Friday, February 5, 2010

How to get off Facebook

So, I just got off Facebook. Why? Basically privacy concerns, but also because I fundamentally felt that the technology was much more promising when it first came out. There were limitations: Facebook couldn't do everything and anything. It felt like an extension of text-messaging. Twitter now is more like what Facebook was then, although that could change too. But now the clunky thing just feels like a database, a slightly more entertaining version of email--which, by the way, also just acts as a huge data mining operation:

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos [...], you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook [...]. This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it. [And] When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).

That's the "privacy" statement you agreed to a little while ago. It was worse a couple months ago, when they made a huge grab just to own everything outright and in perpetuity. They were a little bit more explicit then about what this all involved:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

Justifiable outrage by users has kept this all in the air as of today, but the arguments are mounting by the people who wrote that last statement that ownership of your information is completely natural--it's what people should expect. This, of course, is only one instance where intellectual property "rights" have been extended to basically steal any private information of yours and use it to make money. Meanwhile, whatever isn't just outright obscene about the whole operation is covered up by styling it as you helping the company "create" by "generating" "content." Moreover, if you demand that you own anything you write there, any of your photos--that's actually getting in the way of their ability to further "innovate." It's an immense ratcheting-up of the consumerist arguments of old: your individual, private preferences, "expressed" clearly and in the open enough (that is, if you think using money is the same thing as genuine personal expression, like our Supreme Court), can magically bring you better products and services (especially services). But it's also a coordination and hyperextension (if I can say that) of a lot of other rhetoric about "innovation" and "creativity" in business that have an really long history and basically pops up whenever business practices as a whole are looking as shady as they do now. Meanwhile, we can't even find information about who precisely caused the financial disaster--not to mention how exactly they used our bailout money--and every attempt at introducing transparency is met by the argument that it will somehow cause even more market "instability."

But I'll return from all these indicators that a discursive struggle over the meanings of all these words in quotes is occurring and has real consequences (and that it works the other way around too) to my point that Facebook has also become, generally, an unwieldy behemoth. This is what people, who I've talked to about this, don't quite seem to understand--or indeed admit but don't do anything about: all this data you're giving them hasn't produced a better service at all! There are many, many more creative ways to communicate with people--especially now with Twitter, Skype, and all sorts of other microblogging and friend-finding technologies which can only further proliferate with time! In using something other than Facebook (not to mention email), you're not giving up much that is substantive about your connection with people--you're giving up the chance to occasionally get drunk and creepily poke one you forgot existed.

Now, I realize that for a lot of people Facebook too is more than this (even though the almost enforced-fun had in the recent "doppleganger week" suggests otherwise), and I don't want to knock anything that is indeed rewarding and meaningful. After a couple years, when the technology spread to older people (but also to other younger people), these people used it as a way to find old friends who might have had email--and this also prompted Facebook to fundamentally change it's texting-like structure (not to mention the structure of the friend-networks themselves, which were primarily college-based) to something broader. The whole thing itself became an alternative to email in some way (and set the stage for Google Wave, which, I think, fundamentally seeks to do away with that altogether and pave the way for users to slip in and out of constant streams of updates, never exiting the network) and offered something like what it was to talk to them back in school or whenever they were in close proximity (whereas for the college kids at the beginning, it was merely an alternative to day to day interaction, providing a forum where all sorts of additional creepy/cute awkwardnesses could be created). This is substantial--and it is combined with the comfort of only having to talk to someone in little bursts, when most internet-based technology provides, fundamentally, too-instantaneous of a connection. It's as if these people are trying to work out a new form of technologized familiarity, one that works on the level of weeks rather than seconds, and lets you live side-by-side across huge distances--like future astronauts on the way to a distant planet calling home, only not minding at all that delay in transmission of a few minutes... since the delay in connection has become not a feature of the technology but of our lives themselves, which are pauses in the flow.

So I'm wary of condemning this sort of effort, which provides new possibilities the more and more people consciously take hold of and further refine its specificity (that is, it is a site of struggle to define the shape of our everyday practices). But there is still the danger that someday, you're still just good old friends with certain people when it is convenient to be. And Facebook itself, since it always needs more data, seems to encourage this by constantly pushing you to extend your connections to less and less relevant people in your life (like famous people). This, of course, is countered by the creation of fan pages (strenuously encouraged by Facebook instead of and making false or fictional identities--as you can wonderfully do in Twitter and as I have done with I.A. Richards), which then provide another basis for everyone to reconnect substantially within the system (that is, Facebook can never become a fantasy space). But the tendency--despite this uneven and counter-balancing virtual topography--is to disperse by connection. And given that, why not take all these new forms of interaction that we are building, and make something even better than Facebook that caters to them (and meanwhile allows its content to be governed by a Creative Commons license, for example, like Flickr).

This, however, is just my way of responding to the biggest argument against getting off Facebook which was proffered to me ceaselessly during this whole process: that I'll lose all my friends. Not only did many people say this to me--but only mildly, as if people who said it also knew it was bullshit--but also Facebook itself shows you pictures of your friends (not just of the friends, but of the significant photos in which you and your friends are there, having a good time--they actually have algorithms that use your their data to tell them this) while you try and wrest yourself from the whole network and "deactivate" (you can't delete--all your information still stays there with them) your account! My response is simply that it would be extremely depressing if friendship was the same thing as being networked together with someone on Facebook! We have to draw this fundamental distinction between the social activity in "social" media or "social" networking and actual, genuine social life if we want to have any rich conception of the latter--or, more importantly (since it shouldn't ever remain a merely moral issue), if we ever want to push our technologies further towards actually integrating that social life. On that last point, you can see from this and all the above that I'm no Luddite--which was another, more popular way I was characterized throughout this process. With the proliferation of those alternative ways to communicate that I mentioned above, I don't see any reason why the connectivity with anyone has to drop off. So it's really a matter of asking whether we really want to accept the form of friendship being "given" to us (with the caveat that it takes everything private about you and puts a price tag on it).

So, now that it's clear why I indeed got off of Facebook, I'll finally just take you through how you can do it:

1) Go through and find all the emails and other contact information (AIM, twitter, blog) of your friends, and create a little database for them. You'll be surprised at how many people's emails you don't know how reliant you are on Facebook to connect you to them when you can just take some initiative and talking to them yourself. This isn't hard--it takes about 20 minutes max.

2) Go through and copy all the pictures you want to keep--if you don't have copies of them on your computer already (and you might not). This'll take 5 minutes max.

3) Delete your information. I'd say delete as much as you feel comfortable deleting--though I'd stress getting rid of a lot of your profile info. I think it's okay to leave some pictures up there and some of your other stuff... they're Facebook's anyway now. Moreover, your friends will be taking pictures of you and putting you up there, so it's not like you have to cover up all of your tracks. It'll take 5 minutes.

4) Take your contact info and send out a notification to your friends about the change. I'd try and do this in email, because then it makes people more comfortable replying to you and getting the ball rolling back in that form of connectivity. You can do it through Facebook, though--but remember that this doesn't encourage any alternative effort to contact you on their part. Moreover, Facebook doesn't let you actually send an email to all of your friends at once without creating a group (and you have to be suspicious about this, which, while trying to keep out spam, still says something about the indirect sort of communication that Facebook in reality is). This will probably take 10 minutes.

5) Do a final check and go to Accounts. At the bottom of the page will be an option to deactivate your account. Click it, ignore the bullshit about how your friends will miss you, and get the hell out of there and into newer, more truly creative forms of communicating with all those people. Also, remember that Facebook will save all your password information so that if you ever revisit the site, they'll be there waiting for you to come back--don't rejoin by mistake. But if you forgot to get rid of anything, indeed rejoin and you'll be able to get rid of it and deactivate--as they repeatedly assure you, all your stuff will be there just as it was before (since they own it). This'll take 5 seconds.

You can also commit seppukoo, if you want to do all this in a more flashy way. And if you decide to reform the thing from within (which I hope you do--I'm not out to convince anyone why they should do this, just to relate why I myself did it and how you can if you want), make sure check your privacy settings.