Friday, May 4, 2007

For too long theory has conceptualized the subject as a puppet

Following up on my remarks about counter-factuals late last night, I’m led again to think about how theory relates to practice. Lately I have been critical of forms of theory that strike me as only being addressed to other academics within the walls of the academy. This shouldn’t be taken as a call for everyone to become a public intellectual like Dawkins, nor should it be taken as a call for everyone to write in plain and ordinary everyday language that everyone can easily comprehend. Rather, my consternation here is that so much of the theory I read strikes me as being conjured up out of thin air and have little or no connection (at the level of analysis) to the concrete situations within which we live. Marx’s Capital is, of course, incredibly dense and is not accessible to everyone. At least under the first reading. However, I would call this work concrete in the way that it grapples directly with the moment and the contours of that situation. It is a work that works from the situation, unfolding a set of potentialities within the situation and perpetually keeping one eye on the concrete situation without weaving fine sounding theological webs. It is serious theory.
I think the question of counter-factuals, of how possibilities become available to us that are not already predelineated in the situation, is important if for no other reason that the very theorizing of possibilities creates possibilities. I cannot speak for everyone, but the intellectual climate in which I was trained was one where theory allowed little or nothing in the way of possibilities or ruptures. I believe this has repurcussions at the level of both thought and action. As Spinoza argues, all thoughts are embodied and there is no distinction between understanding and will. How we think thus has a profound impact on how we will and how we act. After all, if I act on the basis of the possibilities I discern in a situation and if I only admit what last night I called “state counterfactuals”, then I will only reproduce the state.
The intellectual environment in which I was trained was populated by names like Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, etc. Heidegger told me that I was thrown into the world, and that my Dasein is characterized by a fundamental historicity that functions as a determinant of my thought and praxis. Foucault told me that all my thought and interactions are pervaded by the epistemes and structures of power that function as determinants of my action. Althusser told me that there is no subject, but that we’re all puppets of ideology. Levi-Strauss argued that our thought process is an iteration of transpersonal structures that have little or nothing to do with my own intentionality. Wittgenstein told me that I am simply a participant in an unconscious set of language games. And Derrida showed me how an unground before the ground, or text, pervaded all thought and action.
In all cases these theorists and a host of others argued that there is no otherwise beyond the state (conceptualizing the state in a variety of different ways). Theories are not simply about something, but they do something. A theoretical orientation that begins from the premise of overdetermination and contextual saturation is a theory that will produce forms of thought that confirm this thesis. Possibility will not even be on the table as it will be a theoretical axiom a priori that history, power, and language determine thought and praxis without remainder. As a result, one ends up with a tragic vision of the world where there is no place for action or where all action is co-opted in advance. It is for this reason that the very theorization of possibility creates possibilities and opening. Rather than sad and passive subjects, it opens a horizon for free subjects where thinking otherwise within immanence might become possible.
A theory is not simply a representation or map, but it is also a psychology, a way of feeling, an existential attitude towards the world. For too long theory has conceptualized the subject as a puppet not unlike poor Schreber that experienced himself in the thrall of God without a line of flight or a point of escape. Libidinally, perhaps, this is a very satisfying position. One occupies the sexually satisfying position of the perverse masochist where jouissance is drawn from being the implement of the Other’s jouissance. While I certainly know the charge of these games, I don’t wish to be a masochist anymore. It seems to me that if philosophy and theory have one duty, then this is to invent possibilities or open spaces of possibility, perpetually resisting the closure of the social field. In doing so, philosophy invites unheard of peoples that begin producing themselves by projecting these possibilities and transforming them from virtualities to actualities. While I might grumble over the details of thinkers such as Badiou, Deleuze, Lacan, etc., I am nonetheless grateful that they have at least put the possibility of possibility on the table as a rejoinder to the state thinkers.
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume, outlining the aim of his investigation, writes:
The only method of freeing learning, at once, from these abstruse questions [of philosophy], is to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and show, from an exact analysis of its powers and capacity, that it is by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects. We must submit to this fatigue, in order to live at ease ever after: And must cultivate true metaphysics with some care, in order to destroy the false and adulterate. Indolence, which, to some persons, affords a safeguard against this deceitful philosophy, is, with others, overbalanced by curiosity; and despair, which, at some moments, prevails, may give place afterwards to sanguine hopes and expectations. Accurate and just reasoning is the only catholic remedy, fitted for all persons and all dispositions; and is alone able to subvert that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which, being mixed up with popular superstition, renders it in a manner impenetrable to careless reasoners, and gives it the air of science and wisdom. (6)
The first step towards recovery consists in admitting you have a problem. I would like to confess that I am a recovering Heideggerian. Yes, I know this is scandalous and it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Upon my bookshelves I have dozens of his lectures and enough secondary sources to kill a man in an avalanch. I’ve spent hours pouring over his various works, taking intricate notes, and writing detailed commentaries. As an undergrad I wrote a hundred page thesis on his theory of truth as aletheia or the play of revealing and concealing, prior to any referential propositions. I worked through the nuances and maze of his analyses of Aristotle’s account of the proposition, the apophantic, and logos. I chose to go to Loyola University of Chicago for graduate school so that I might study under the good Tom Sheehen and took more seminars on Heidegger than I took on any other philosopher. Yes, I am a recovering Heideggerian. And like anyone who has once intensely loved something and then given it up, I confess that I can hardly stand to read a paragraph of Heidegger before I am filled with irritation.
After Sheehen left to become a bigwig at Berkeley, I took up courses with Adrian Peperzak, the Levinasian, and Patricia Huntington, a feminist, Heideggerian, Kierkegaardian. And one of the things I began to notice is that the very structure of Heidegger’s questions is theological in character… Or more precisely, his thought has the structure of negative theology. Who could miss this resonance in the distinction between Being and beings, where “being is always the being of a being but is not itself a being” and where being withdraws and hides itself while nonetheless “giving”.
According to the story, and I’m being horribly reductive here, Western metaphysics forgets Being, the giving through which the given is produced, the play of revealing and concealing that is prior to any actuality. Heidegger thus calls for a return to the Greeks, the pre-Socratics in particular, who were still in communion with this poetic revealing and concealing of Being and beings, prior to the onset of the fall into ontotheology and the primacy of presence. But what if Heidegger’s thought (note my Zizekian flourish here!) has nothing to do with a sort of philogical excavation of pre-Socratic thought, but is itself simply a consequence of the emergence of late industrial capitalism? What if it is precisely the objectifying tendencies of capitalism that render the play of revealing and concealing accessible to thought. In volume 1 of Capital, Marx writes:
It was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their character as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of labor, and the social relations between individual producers. (75-6).
Like Feurbach’s polemical claim that God is just a fetishized version of man, could it not be said that Heidegger’s teutonic rumblings about Being, Sending, Giving, revealing, concealing etc., are just fetishized descriptions of processes undergone in the formation and exchange of commodities and that the play of revealing and concealing is not a Greek contribution, but rather something that becomes possible at a very specific historical moment under the conditions of capitalism? Indeed, when we pause to look at theoretical formations around this time, we find dialectics of revealing and concealing everywhere: Freud’s analysis of the formations of the unconscious and the dreamwork, anthropological discoveries of the symbolic underly various social practices, relational forms of thought that discover networks behind the atomistic actualities of the world. If this were the case, then all sorts of questions would be raised about the nolstagic narrative of the fall that underlies so much of Heidegger’s thought. Difference and Givenness Levi Bryant

No comments:

Post a Comment