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Monday, May 28, 2007

In George Eliot's Middlemarch, Edward Casaubon spends his life in a futile attempt to find a comprehensive explanatory framework

larvalsubjects Says: May 27th, 2007 at 4:17 pm Problems are not in the head, but are, for me, virtual realities out there in the world. They are objective entities defined by constellations and are certainly not negative. The grown tree, for instance, is a solution to the problem of its soil, water, light, and air conditions as they specifically characterize that milieu. We don’t refer to the tree as being adequate or inadquate (unless we’re Aristotleans or Hegelians and believe in final causes and forms), but see it as a specific response to this particular field. So too with concepts. A concept is always a specific response or solution to the field in which it emerges.
It is in this regard that I feel that the critical stance is a sort of neurosis– specifically, an obsessional neurosis. The obsessional is the one who is constantly making preparations to pursue his desire without ever finally pursuing his desire. For instance, he endlessly plans a first date with a woman he ardently loves, wishing for it to be absolutely perfect. Fifty years later he dies or she dies and he’s never asked her out on the date. Indeed, she’s not even aware that he was interested in her. This occurs often with political theory as well. Endless preparations to get things just right without jumping into the fray.
This is the issue I have with epistemology: Kantianism, Husserl’s endless phenomenological reductions, Heidegger’s endless preparations to pose the question of the meaning of being (he argues that there has to be all sorts of preliminary work before the question itself can even be posed!), the epistemological debates of the 17th century, and yes, the endless refinements of critique among the critical theorists. Lacan liked to say that obsessional desire is the desire for an impossible desire. As a structure– i.e., something about a particular form of life, not an individual –obsessional desire sustains its desire by perpetually deferring the object of its desire, and it defers its object of desire by rendering that desire impossible. Critique, in my view, often functions in this way.
By contrast, I have a “Macguyver” approach to theory building. You’ll recall Mcguyver from the 80s. He was the guy that had the swiss army knife that would find his way out of any situation so long as he had some duct tape and a few odds and ends. You work with what you have, always midstream, and with what the situation affords and hopefully your produce something in the process. Once again, essentially, I think about these issues in biological terms. Evolving life doesn’t sit about asking which form would be best or most adequate to the ecosystem it lives in. No, it experiments and sometimes is successful and sometimes is not successful. Non-experimentalist critical stances just strike me as holdovers from representationalist philosophies that haven’t yet caught on to the fact that their questions of adequacy are questions that only make sense in the context of a world that is lost.
larvalsubjects Says: May 27th, 2007 at 6:37 pm You ask about our situation, when the ontological claim is that there are situations. Some of those situations happen to have agents in them, many do not. This is precisely the reason I chose the example an acorn (something that is not human or social) rather than an example drawn from political theory. The political examples are a subset of a more general ontological principle. However, to answer your question, because everything that comes-to-be or is actualized does so within a constellation, this would hold of theory just as it would hold of acorns or planets in a solar system. I guess I should really emphasize and underline that I’m developing an “anti-humanist” ontology here. By this I don’t mean something that is “against the human” but rather something that doesn’t treat humans, agents, knowers, etc., as the center but treats them as one case within the spectrum of being...
The problem I have with the other approaches you mention is that I perceive them as subordinating discussion of anything in the world to cultural categories, whether those categories be history, economics, linguistics, social formations, and so on. As a result, a regional ontology (the theory of a particular type of being such as sociology, linguistics, history, and so on) comes to precede general ontology. Usually these positions fall into a sort of skepticism. On the one hand, I see this as a way critical theorists and other cultural critics deal with anxieties and insecurities they have about their place vis a vis hard sciences. They try to trump these other disciplines by telling a story about how these things are culturally contingent. On the other hand, I believe these approaches encourage a way of thinking that leads to cursory analyses of various phenomena. Hence I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too. I want a general ontology that doesn’t perpetually bring issues back to linguistic, historical, and cultural concerns while also respecting and appreciating these modes of analysis...
Okay, but here again you’re shackling general ontological questions to humans and how humans perceive things. This is usually the move that sets me off. That acorn or the moon functions as it does regardless of whether critters such as ourselves theorize about it. We end up with an intrinsically subject centered ontology, a human centered ontology, whenever we make this move and are just repeating the Christological conception of creation with man at the center of things. I think you’re making a number of assumptions about what I’m up to that just aren’t there and this is what’s leading you to ask the sorts of questions you’re asking. I am bracketing these social and historical questions when doing general ontology as I think they’re dead ends, and only bring them into the fray again when I’m focused on specifically political and social questions.
larvalsubjects Says: May 27th, 2007 at 7:27 pm One of the things I’m strongly reacting to here is the way, in a certain field of continental philosophy, all questions seem to have become subordinated to political concerns and there’s no legitimacy to forms of inquiry that do not have “political relevance”...
larvalsubjects Says: May 27th, 2007 at 10:36 pm One of the reasons I’ve pulled away from Badiou and Zizek so much where social theory is concerned is that I feel they’re ignoring the way in which possibilities come to be envisioned in very specific historical circumstances where issues of technology, nature, economics, and intercultural relations are involved. I believe, for instance, that I’ve argued in the past that women’s suffrage followed the emergence of factory labor in the late 19th early 20th century. I only intend this example as a sort of thumbnail sketch, so hopefully you won’t beat me over it. Here we had women entering the factory, which placed them in very different roles from their traditional roles. Now certainly the intention of factory labor was not to liberate women or give them the right to vote. Yet these possibilities began to emerge for life and practice as a sort of unintended consequence of these shifts in technology, labor organization, and economics.
Drawing analogies to biological speciation, then, we get a sort of “genetic drift”. That is, just as two species of finches can evolve in very different ways when separated geographically from one another, we begin to get a “new species” of woman as a result of this different ecological space, the factory space. At some point, this new species becomes “for itself” (organized, self-aware, self-directing) such that there is an intensification of the process (initially the process still thought of itself in the older terms) and as this “new species” begins to formulate its own identity it feeds back into the social constellation, challenging a number of social institutions and social mores, intensifying the process by which the social field is itself changed.
I give this only as an example. I want to exercise caution when analyzing things in this way as I don’t want to give the impression that there is only one way in which change takes place. This is one of the purposes of the concept of constellations: to look at the specifics of situations and their own immanent organization. I think it’s important here to distinguish between potential and possibility...
I want to be as flexible and open as possible to avoid one-sided and single-answer theoretical approaches. Thus, for instance, I can also see merit in something like what Badiou is describing with his truth-procedures but believe he’s overstating his case and ignoring other important directions from which change comes that involves little in the way of agency or intentional directedness.
larvalsubjects Says: May 27th, 2007 at 8:07 pm I don’t have a method, am not interested in developing a method, and am not interested in giving an account of how alternative ideals emerge. What I think is important is that forms of life and existence come to posit alternative ideals. Or maybe my exasperation is that I feel like I give arguments that explain these things all the time, yet still these humanist methodological questions get asked yet again. Honestly it really makes me want to pull my hair out. Enough with the questions about how alternative ideals get formed!

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