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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Cogito: the Void Called Subject

Posted by John Holbo on 01/04/08 at 09:56 AM

OK, Adam Kotsko objected that I should have known that, for Zizek, ‘Cartesian cogito’ “does not name the argument, but one aspect of subjectivity, which Zizek takes to be more originary and important: namely, the sheer abyss of self-relating negativity.” This doesn’t exactly fit with the discussion in Zizek’s paper. When Zizek says things like “the link between the emergency of cogito and the disintegration and loss of substantial communal identities is thus inherent, and this holds even more for Spinoza than for Descartes” and “Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito, he criticized it as a positive ontological entity,” it doesn’t make much sense to suppose that both Spinoza and Descartes were commentators on Zizek. But clearly Adam is right that Zizek is sort of mixing up the history with his own philosophy of mind, and so we ought to just get on with that. Adam cites Tarrying With the Negative [amazon - with search inside]. And, picking that one up, dusting it off - well yes, “Part I: Cogito - the Void Called Subject”. I hadn’t remembered.

On p. 61 we get the part that Adam seems to remember about ‘cogito’ naming not the argument but the extreme stage of doubt that is actually rejected, but Zizek actually seems to think this is a Derridean argument. ‘Cogito as fantasy-gaze’.

In his critique of Foucault’s reading of Descartes, Derrida conceives cogito as a hyperbolic, excessive moment of madness, the vortex of pure “I think ...” in its absolute seclusion which is not yet the inwardness, the self-presence, of a thinking substance. this cogito, prior to res cogitans, is the “feminine” cogito. The choice between feminine and masculine cogito is therefore more intricate than it may seem; it eludes the clear-cut alternative of “thought or being”:

- The “masculine” cogito chooses being, the “I am,” yet what it gets is being which is mere thought, not real being (cogito “ergo sum,” I think “therefore I am,” as Lacan writes it), i.e. it gets the fantasy-being, the being of a “person,” the being in “reality” whose frame is structured by fantasy.

- The “feminine” cogito chooses thought, the pure “I think,” yet what it gets is thought bereft of any further predicates, thought which coincides with pure being, or more precisely, the hyperbolic point which is neither thought nor being. [I’ve always thought of this one as the “somewhat overexcited undergraduate” cogito. And mostly guys come up with it. If I never grade another one of those it won’t be too soon.]

Then stuff about Lacan. Jouissance feminine is nonexistent. Stuff about Alien and Sigourney Weaver . The subject constitutes itself by rejecting the slimy substance of jouissance. E.A. Poe and “I am dead!”, the pure impossible thought. Then, how it was all said in condensed form in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Stuff about how the angel Clarence is Kripkean, what with all these possible worlds (proposition subject to doubt.)

Skipping back to the beginning of the book, we get a different cogito before the cogito - a Kantian one. Start on p. 10. Noir in the 80’s. Blade Runner, to understand which “one has to reach back farther, to the Cartesian-Kantian problematic of the subject qua pure, substanceless “I think"." Onwards!

Descartes was one of the first to introduce a crack in the ontologically consistent universe: contracting absolute certainty to the punctum of “I think” opens up, for a brief moment, the hypothesis of the Evil Genius (le malin genie) who, behind my back, dominates me and pulls the strings of what I experience as “reality” - the prototype of the Scientist-Maker who creates an artificial man, from Dr. Frankenstein to Tyrell in Blade Runner. However, by reducing his cogito to res cogitans, Descartes, as it were, patches up the wound he cuts into the texture of reality. Only Kant fully articulates the inherent paradoxes of self-consciousness. What Kant’s “transcendental turn” renders manifest is the impossibility of locating the subject in the “great chain of being,” into the Whole of the universe - all those notions of the universe as a harmonious Whole in which every element has its own place (today, they abound in ecological ideology). In contrast to it, subect is in the most radical sense “out of joint”; it constitutively lacks its own place, which is why Lacan designates it by the mathem S [with a line through], the “barred” S.

In Descartes, this out of joint state is still concealed. The Cartesian universe stays within the confines of what Foucault, in his The Order of Things, called “classical episteme”, that epistemological field regulated by the problematic of representations - their causal enchainment, their clarity and evidence, the connection between representation and represented content, etc.

Skip some stuff about how the “Cartesian cogito is a representation”, and its status as such.

What, then, marks the break between Descartes’ cogito and Kant’s “I” of transcendental apperception? The key to it is offered by Kant’s Wittgensteinian remark, aimed at Descartes, that it is not legitimate to use “I think” as a complete phrase, since it calls for a continuation - “I think that ... (it will rain, you are right, we will win ...).” According to Kant, Descartes falls prey to the “subreption of the hypostasized consciousness”: he wrongly concludes that, in the empty “I think” which accompanies every representation of an object, we get hold of a positive phenomenal entity, res cogitans (a “small piece of the world,” as Husserl puts it), which thinks and is transparent to itself in its capacity to thinks. In other worlds, self-consciousness renders self-present and self-transparent the “thing” in me which thinks. What is lost thereby is the topological discord between the form “I think” and the substance which thinks, i.e. the distinction between the analytical proposition on the identity of the logical subject of thought, contained in “I think,” and the synthetical proposition on the identity of a person qua thinking-substance. By articulating this distinction, Kant logically precedes Descartes: he brings to light a kind of “vanishing mediatiotor,” a moment which has to disappear if the Cartesian res cogitans is to emerge (CPR, A354-56).

Now Lacanian stuff about how the subject of enunciation and the subject of the enunciated; how Lacan’s formula of fantasy is necessary to make clear the refinement of Kant’s reasoning (a proposition subject to severe doubt.)

Next, “one has to add that this lack of intuited content [no phenomenal experience of the thing itself] is constitutive of the I; the inaccessibility to the I of its own “kernel of being” makes it an I.” Kant is not supposed to get this.

Kant remarks that, “in the synthetic original unity of apperception, I am conscious of myself, not as I appear to myself, nor as I am in myself, but only that I am” (CPR, B 157), the first thing one has to notice here is the fundamental paradox of this formulation: I encounter being devoid of all determinations-of-thought at the very moment when, by way of the utmost abstraction, I confine myself to the empty form of thought. Thus, the empty form of thought coincides with being, which lacks any formal determination-of-thought. Here, however, where Kant seems at his closest to Descartes, the distances that separates them is infinite.

I have to say: first, it is clear this is indeed the stuff that is supposed to be in the background of the “Tolerance” paper, although I think it is still not true that Zizek uses ‘cogito’ as a technical name for his own view of mind. He sort of slops between using it as a rough index for a cluster of thoughts, an argument and the thing the argument is about. I see now that I should have paid more attention to another phrase that irked me: “Cartesian subject, especially in its Kantian version”. But - thought I - Kant doesn’t believe in Cartesian subjects.

I don’t approve of all this, you are unsurprised to hear, but I must admit a certain amount of good sense about Kant is being made; and he makes some of the same jokes about SF films that I make in my philosophy and film class. So that’s to the good. One thing that is sort of incidentally interesting is that you would think Descartes would be more cognizant of the Agent Smith dramatic possibilities of this Evil Demon. But he doesn’t really do a thing with it. Descartes has no future as a screenwriter. Zizek should have discussed this.

Problems: “First to introduce a crack in the ontologically consistent universe” That doesn’t seem to me a very meaningful thing to say. But clearly the point is that he is laying the ground for Kant to introduce a crack, as it were. I dunno. This is philosophy. There are always ontological cracks.

Next: “by reducing his cogito to res cogitans“.  That is again confusing, although it’s clear roughly where it’s going. Here’s the picky point: ‘cogito’ names a proposition or argument, and Descartes doesn’t reduce that to a thing that thinks. The cogito is about the mind, isn’t identical to it. Then again, perhaps they way it works is by being, in some sense, identical to the mind: the proposition is self-verifying because the act of thinking the proposition is identical with being a mind. But that isn’t really right either. Because ‘cogito’ is a modification of thought. It isn’t even an essential property of the mind that it thinks ‘I think’. Reducing ‘I think’ to the mind is sort of like reducing green to an apple. It’s not clear that ‘reduce’ is the word you want, in such a context. This is the source of what cheezed me off about “Tolerance”. It’s ok to use cogito, equivocatally, to refer to the argument about the thing and the thing itself, but not if you are enumerating unusual properties of the cogito. Then you have to be clear which level you are referring to and stick with it, otherwise you generate a false sense of wonder at the strangeness of it all. Because obviously arguments and minds and thoughts are all different things and have different properties.

This feeds uncertainly, and slipperily, it seems to me, into Zizek’s Kantian points. The slippage comes to seem virtuous, a prefiguring of Kantian divisions in the subject. Well, maybe ... One thing that bugs me is this statement: “one has to add that this lack of intuited content [no phenomenal experience of the thing itself] is constitutive of the I; the inaccessibility to the I of its own “kernel of being” makes it an I.” Now this seems very important to Zizek. It’s a kind of miracle bootstrap operation whereby a lack - a void, gap - conjures something into being. But the source of the miracle seems to be just that Zizek picked a somewhat inappropriate word. By ‘constitute’ he seems to mean just ‘necessary’. That is (as Hume had argued already) it is impossible to imagine meeting ‘I’ in experience. Because nothing that I could meet like that would have the right sorts of properties. But consider a parallel argument: it is logically impossible for a human being to be the number 3. Because anything that was the number 3 would have the right sort of properties of all. Therefore, not being the number 3 is constitutive of being human. I don’t think that last step really belongs in there.

And whenever he says that to make something clear he needs to bring in Lacan, everything gets waaaay less clear.

Well, that’ll do. Clearly this is the stuff Zizek meant to get bringing in, with his sentences that vexed me so. The trouble, per comments, would seem to be that nothing about ‘communality’ seems to follow from this sort of Cartesian-Kantian metaphysic. He talks about the public-private distinction, and how it can be turned this way and that. But it doesn’t map onto the split in the subject, except by loose, biographical analogy - Spinoza and Descartes sort of alienated types. And that failure to map is now overlaid onto the failure to keep steady regarding the (possibly harmless, but possibly not) equivocation between using ‘cogito’ as a name for an argument, proposition, thought, philosophy of mind, or maybe the mind itself.

At any rate, I have now atoned for heaping several varieties of erroneous contumely on Zizek’s head. Clearly I didn’t make a connection he meant to be made.


I am honestly at a loss as to why you’re still confused about the link to the social. 

Perhaps it stems partly from your habit of skipping over the Lacan stuff.  He views Lacan as part of the whole development that goes from Descartes, to Kant, to Hegel, etc.  For Zizek, they’re all working on the same problem, and Lacan made some advances.  An a priori skepticism about Lacan seems to block you from actually dealing with the Lacan stuff in any way—you assert the privilege of skipping over it as dispensible nonsense.

I know I got annoyed at you for claiming that Zizek’s whole goal in life is to assert a dogmatism of Lacan—but if Zizek takes the Lacan stuff to be central to his argument, it doesn’t seem fair to skip over it.  If you want to argue that the Lacan stuff is dispensible, you’d first need to give an account of what the Lacan stuff is saying.

At the very least, this post does represent some progress, though your silly hang-up about the use of the word “cogito” betokens a certain stubbornness.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve put an explanation of the social connection thing in the other thread, at SEK’s request.  Hopefully it will be clearer.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 07:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t skip over the Lacan stuff. I just don’t think it makes any sense. It’s very, painfully a posteriori, my sense that it doesn’t make sense.

By John Holbo on 01/04/08 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Something about Zizek on BBC tonight: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/nightwaves/pip/dqr2g/ Usually you can listen to the broadcast afterwards too, for a week or so.

By on 01/09/08 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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