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Thursday, May 24, 2007

In search of a hard-nosed non-humanist ontology

Posted by larvalsubjects under dialectic , Badiou , Historicism , Assemblages ,
One of the marks of theory in the last forty years is a conception of the subject such that the subject is determined and structured through history, structure, language, social context, or some other sort of field in which it is embedded or thrown.
  • Thus in Althusser, for example, the subject is simply a puppet of ideology or an iteration of the total system in which it emerges.
  • In early Lacan the subject falls under the signifier, such that the signifier functions like a prophecy in its unconscious, determining its destiny and the structure of desire.
  • For Foucault and Butler, the subject is a discursive construction and product of power.

The merit of these views is the manner in which they overcome abstraction by virtue of thinking entity in relation to its context or the world in which it emerges, rather than treating entity as a simple substance that is self-sufficient. Of course, these positions tend to suffer from another sort of abstraction, for they often treat social and cultural formations as the only determinative elements of context, ignoring the biological body, experience, and the natural world. In terms of the history of philosophy, we could see these paradigms of thought as reactions to the subject-centered systems of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, where– in his earlier work, at least –there was little attentiveness to what Heidegger referred to as “the worldhood of the world”.

To put the matter crudely, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Where prior to this there was a focus on the supremacy of the subject or agent, on its self-determining freedom, there followed a shift towards the supremacy of what Burke refers to as the “scene” in his pentad. Scene (whether in the form of language, economics, power, social structure, etc) becomes determinative of entity, where before it was the agent, the subject, that was seen as determinative.

Not surprisingly, we today find the pendulum swinging yet again in the other direction. Exhausted by decades of theory dominated by the primacy of the scene such that all agency seems to merely reinforce structure and power without realizing it, we now find the pendulum swinging once again in the other direction, seeking to enact a return to the agent or agency in the rather poorly developed and abstract accounts of events and truth-procedures in Badiou and the Act in Zizek.

Not unpredictably, these rejoinders suffer from the same abstraction, albeit in inverted form, as the abstraction to be found in Frankfurt school Critical Theory, hermeneutic orientations of thought, and French (Post)Structuralism. Where the former places everything on the side of either history, power, language, social structure, etc., effectively causing the agent to disappear, the latter places everything on the side of the agent, the Act and the truth-procedure, leading any meaningful discussion of socio-historical context and concrete understanding of the situation to disappear.
It is difficult, for instance, not to guffaw when Badiou announces that the French Revolution was an event (I fully agree), but then goes on to say that this event marked a complete break with history, as if centuries of subterranian work hadn’t been done during the Rennaissance and early Enlightenment period, slowly transforming the social space, introducing the requisite concepts for a radically egalitarian republic, undermining confidence in governance by the Christian Church and the metaphysics that accompanied that view, and so on. Both solutions are poor.
What is needed is an account that is both sensitive to what Burke calls scene, has a rich place for the agent, and, above all is capable of thinking the dialectical relation between these two without falling into abstraction by privileging one pole or the other, turning agent into a mere puppet of scene or ignoring scene altogether in favor of the fantasy of a completely sovereign subject free of any determinations save those it posits for itself.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about both of these orientations of theory is that they are so obviously. One wonders whether some thinkers ever pull their noses out of their books to look at the world about them. Those theorists that assert the primacy of scene (e.g., Althusser, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Butler, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, perhaps Adorno, etc) seem to miss the obvious point that context, scene, language, power, history, the social, etc., never functions so efficaciously as to smoothly reproduce itself in its agents.
As Adam Kotsko points out in a recent post without using these exact terms, subjectivization never quite works as intended. The agents produced in and through structure are never perfect fractal iterations of that context, but always surprise us. There is something novel about each agent that appears in the world that such theories, when taken to their extreme, should exclude a priori as being impossible on theoretical grounds. Yet there it is, subjects going against the total environment in which they were raised, subjects introducing new trajectories into their social system, subjects that share little resemblance to where they came from.
On the other hand, those theoretical orientations that assert the supremacy of the sovereign agent seem to fare even worse. Such theories perpetually miss the commonalities we find among populations and in the agent itself, thereby missing the manner in which the agent emerges and is individuated within a scene that it integrates, selects from, and makes its own. Inevitably such theories of the agent (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Zizek, Badiou, certain moments of Lacan), where the agent is prime and supreme, end up trapped within magical thinking, as they’re almost always led to assert a creation ex nihilo. Well, there are no creations ex nihilo for good materialists, whatever Badiou might like to say as he desperately strives to convince his readers that he maintains tied to the Marxist tradition.
What is needed is something entirely different. If we are not to fall into abstraction, we need a theory that both shows how entity arises from a scene, a context, a field (whatever you wish to call it), but, in its process of development, becomes transcendent to that field. That is, we require a conception of the agent that isn’t detached from the field, that isn’t above it and undetermined by it, but also which isn’t strictly determined by the manner in which it prehends the world about it. Rather, there must be something creative and novel in how the world about the agent is prehended, that progressively (not all at once), allows the agent to stand forth from the field and define its own vector of engagement and development… A vector that is no longer simply a fractal iteration of the organization of the field. 12 Responses to “Some Larval Thoughts on the State of Theory Today”
Steven Says: May 23rd, 2007 at 7:30 pm Hey LS, I’m an undergrad student who has read your blog for quite some time, and this move back towards agency in theory is something that has interested me. The thing is, though, that from what I’ve read of Badiou there doesn’t really seem to be a return to the agent. Badiou seems to actually emphasize the ’scene’ to the point that breaking out of it requires this semi-mystical Event to occur that completely transforms everything, and only after this can the Subject emerge. So he appears to have taken it to both extremes - complete paralysis to complete freedom. This is a very early impression of his work for me, so if that is wrong, please do correct it.
At the same time, I haven’t quite seen why to abandon the trajectory that goes through Heidegger to Merleau-Ponty and then (to me) Foucault and others. As much as all these thinkers have emphasized cultural and structural conditioning, they do not (except maybe Foucault in his archaeological phase) attempt to wipe out the subject. And aren’t both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty exploring the way experience and the natural body conditions subjectivity? All that Foucault abandons is the revolutionary subject, and this is what Zizek is reacting to…I’m not sure I want a return to the revolutionary subject. Badiou doesn’t seem to be reacting to this tradition as much as following another thread that comes out of Althusser and Lacan at his most structuralist, a tradition Foucault and other “counter-revolutionaries” were fighting.
Adam Says: May 23rd, 2007 at 11:00 pm How does Butler fail to achieve what you’re looking for? (I’ll leave aside Zizek for the moment.)
larvalsubjects Says: May 23rd, 2007 at 11:04 pm Steven, I think this is an excellent way of putting it. As a consequence, other processes of change are either ignored altogether or flatly denied, all in favor of the far more “sexy” truth-procedures. For Badiou the situation itself seems to be something barren of potentials.
At the same time, I haven’t quite seen why to abandon the trajectory that goes through Heidegger to Merleau-Ponty and then (to me) Foucault and others. As much as all these thinkers have emphasized cultural and structural conditioning, they do not (except maybe Foucault in his archaeological phase) attempt to wipe out the subject.
I’m probably being unfair to Foucault, although I still feel ambivalent about his later work and feel that cultural conditions are too dominant in his work. This would hold for Heidegger as well. Merleau-Ponty is interesting in that he seemed to find a genuine place for something like nature in his own work.
I confess that what I desire is a genuine metaphysics. It seems to me that the vast majority of work done by continental thinkers in the last 100 years fails in such an endeavor in that being is perpetually shackled to some other condition, whether it be history, language, the social etc. It is then asserted that everything else is filtered through these networks. Badiou and Deleuze are the only two thinkers in this tradition, in my view, who escape asserting the primacy of some sort of socio-historical cultural conditioning. As such, they’re the only two thinkers in Continental thought in the last 100 years to have escaped reducing philosophy to a branch of anthropology, sociology, linguistics, history and so on.
Certainly Merleau-Ponty explores this, but you’d have to spell it out for me with Heidegger. I haven’t found anything resembling a natural body in his work...I’m not sure I want a return to the revolutionary subject. Badiou doesn’t seem to be reacting to this tradition as much as following another thread that comes out of Althusser and Lacan at his most structuralist, a tradition Foucault and other “counter-revolutionaries” were fighting.
Although I wonder whether Zizek is being fair to Foucault here. While this is not a fair criticism on my part, I cannot help but feel that Zizek is a romantic rather than a serious political thinker. He’s more enamoured with a certain vision of a revolutionary subject than with actual subjects engaging in a variety of struggles throughout the world. In this regard, it seems to me like the work of Badiou and Zizek regarding this type of subjectivity are closer to a sort of edifying poetry that dramatizes a certain fiction of revolutionary subjectivity, than genuine hard-nosed theory examining concrete constellations and their potentials. Foucault, by contrast, showed an abiding interest in various subjects engaged in struggle and how they sought to transform various structures of power.
larvalsubjects Says: May 23rd, 2007 at 11:07 pm Adam, it might be that I’m just not familiar enough with Butler’s most recent work. My familiarity with her work is restricted to The Psychic Life of Power, Excitable Speech, and Gender Trouble. Generally her “discursivism” has rubbed me the wrong way. Are there any works of hers in particular you see as addressing these sorts of questions?
Adam Says: May 23rd, 2007 at 11:41 pm The only one I would add is Bodies that Matter, which is arguably her most philosophically impressive work — plus it might help to address the discursivism issue.
Steven Says: May 23rd, 2007 at 11:47 pm What of Levinas and Derrida? They both seem to me to be attempting to think a new form of transcendental thought, although one for me that is too trapped in the religious tradition that leads from Kierkegaard…maybe I just answered my own question. I think the problem with Foucault, especially from your perspective, is that he left a lot philosophically unanswered, only hinting at solutions to problems within his work. Since I’m mostly interested in political theory and critical theory, I can deal with that sort of practical deferment of core philosophical questions. I can see how it is frustrating from a more purely philosophical stance.
I should have said respectively there, only MP is on about the body, from my knowledge. I’m a complete Heidegger novice, but my impression is that in B&T he is attempting an analysis of how we live through experience. After that, with his huge narrative of Western decline that only his singularly brilliant readings of Parmenides etc. can stop, he certainly abandons philosophy for a sort of cultural determinedness.
I just watched the documentary Zizek! in a class yesterday, and at one point Zizek said something along the lines of that he found writing about politics a miserable chore and if he didn’t feel he had to he’d only write about Schelling, Hegel, and the like. That seems to be the characteristics of much of his political interventions: ruffle a few feathers, hint at how we can’t think outside capitalism and how cultural studies and the rest is implicated in that, and hint at the potential of a revolutionary subject. Figures like Foucault are polemical foils most of the time, not serious theoretical opponents. This is not to say that I often find his work with his theoretical heroes, Marx, Hegel, Lacan, Kant, pretty great a lot of the time. It’s just like many good pessimistic revolutionary thinkers (especially Nietzsche and Marx), I find their critique a lot more interesting than their attempts to find a way out.
As for Butler, she is, at least in Gender Trouble, shockingly dismissive of the subject, to the point that she bends of backwards trying to explain how subversive performances could even be possible. If I remember correctly, she argues something like subversion occurs in the ‘gaps’ in reiterative performances. However, she doesn’t explain where those gaps come from. It strikes me that if there are so many subversive holes in gender, gender roles should not have a very strong hold on subjects…they should be very fragile, but they really aren’t. So I find her explanation of that curious. Also, I find her critique of Foucault on the body and her call for a completely de-essentialized genealogy of the body unsupportable. What discursive formation causes my lungs to fill with air?
Anyways, that aside, thinking briefly to how a materialist theory of transcendental critique could look, I’m quickly struck to how important theorizing the disorganization and chaos of any situation would be, and that makes me think of what I know about Deleuze. However, I’ve barely got into him, so I’m wondering what you’d recommend as a starting point to work from? Oh, also, what do you think of Habermas’s attempt to formulate a theory of transcendental critique and agency?
larvalsubjects Says: May 24th, 2007 at 1:17 am I share similar concerns with Derrida and Levinas. With Derrida in particular I’m bothered by how his thought remains so tied to the primacy of language and texts. For me this would be part of the problem with Heidegger...
It is still our experience that is at stake in Heidegger’s Being and Time, and thus we have a privileged position within being. Heidegger starts to make a move away from this in his lectures entitled Fundamental Problems of Metaphysics, where he examines world from the standpoint of inanimate objects, animals, and Dasein, yet the former two are still devalued or measured respective to Dasein. I am not deeply familiar with Heidegger’s very late work, where, allegedly, he attempts to move away from this residual anthrocentricism altogether.
I often speak of a number of issue pertinent to political and social theory, but my first and last interest is ontology. Specifically, I am looking for an ontology that does not subordinate beings to how they are apprehended by some variant of human subjectivity. That is, figures such as Lucretius or Spinoza are, I think, models of such a non-humanist ontology, where the social and the human are treated as one set of entities among others within being. This is not to suggest, of course, that I am Lucretian or Spinozist, only that I find a good deal of inspiration in their work.
This is an interesting way of putting it. One of my central questions is that of how patterned organizations/unities/identities arise from difference. There’s no easy place to begin with Deleuze. Generally his commentaries are more accessible than his independent works, so you might take a look at Bergsonism and Nietzsche & Philosophy.
I really don’t know Habermas very well, so it’s dangerous for me to speak of him. Generally my commitments to psychoanalysis and structuralist thought have led me to be suspicious of his normative conception of communication. What I have read bothers me in that he seems to have moved away from the Marxist roots of Frankfurt school theory and to have brushed aside issues of ideology.
larvalsubjects Says: May 24th, 2007 at 1:54 am Thanks Keith...I find this way of posing the theory far more appealing, though I wonder whether anything like this is to be found in Badiou. For Badiou, as I understand it, the event is something that appears in the situation which cannot be counted or comprehended in terms of any of the situations existing categories. There is a question, even, of whether the event actually took place. A subject declares that the event did in fact take place and then proceeds to reinterpret the elements of which the situation in terms of this event, determining whether they can be counted or not. The key point, I think, is that this procedure follows the event. As such, it seems to me that Badiou denies the possibility of engagement prior to the event, and has no place for something like the “silent weaving of spirit”. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Badiou, though.
I’m not sure it’s a question of what we understand and don’t understand. Rather, Badiou has posed the general question “how is something new possible?” I question whether he’s given the only plausible answer to this question.
Daniel Says: May 24th, 2007 at 2:42 am Are you familiar with Donald Davidson’s work at all? It sounds like you’re complaining about the dualism of scheme and content, and saying that only Deleuze (and Badiou, who I don’t know) really does a good job at avoiding it, among Continentals. Which seems right to me on both counts. But then maybe I’m cheating by trying to bring an analytic dude to the Continental “tradition.”
larvalsubjects Says: May 24th, 2007 at 2:48 am Daniel, I haven’t seriously read any of Davidson’s work since I was an undergraduate and at that time it was only his work on language and not the essays in Actions and Events. Is there anything in particular you would recommend? Could you, perhaps, flesh out Davidson’s theses on the dualism of scheme and content?
Personally I’m distrustful of the whole “analytic/contintental” divide where theory is concerned, so I wouldn’t worry about bringing Anglo-American theory into these discussions. Deleuze draws on Russell throughout The Logic of Sense, Derrida translated Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, and Lacan drew heavily on Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, and others from the Anglo-American tradition. More recently Anglo-American thinkers have begun taking “continental thinkers” more seriously. Thus figures such as Brandom have been drawing heavily on the likes of Heidegger and Hegel, for instance. I feel that the rhetoric of the analytic/continental divide has been highly destructive both in terms of how it has structured the job market and in terms of philosophy. I’m a magpie and take ideas whenever and wherever I find them.

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