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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Gee, Officer Krupke: Disillusionment with Reflexivity

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 08/27/07 at 01:14 AM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Throughout this summer, there has been a wonderful, sprawling discussion between N. Pepperell and a host of other blogs about NP’s great theme, that of reflexivity (or, as NP calls it, self-reflexivity). A good road map for the discussion is here, at the Rough Theory site. From my point of view, reflexive critiques are not capable of doing what we want them to do; to understand what, exactly, it is we do want, we must turn to Stephen Sondheim and Slavoj Zizek.

The following two quotes go together so well that it’s surprising they haven’t been previously paired. They also get right to the heart of the trouble with reflexive analysis:

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
my parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
they won’t give me a puff!
They didn’t want to have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!
-West Side Story

This “excessive” and “groundless” violence involves its own mode of knowledge, that of impotent cynical reflection - back to our example of Id-Evil, of a skinhead beating up foreigners: when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, and if capable of minimal theoretical reflection, he will suddenly start to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood… in short, he will provide a more or less precise psycho-sociological account of his acts so dear to enlightened liberals eager to “understand” the violent youth as a tragic victim of their social and familial conditions. The standard enlightened formula of the efficiency of the “critique of ideology” from Plato onwards ("they are doing it, because they do not know what they are doing,” i.e. knowledge is in itself liberating, when the erring subject reflects upon what he is doing, he will no longer be doing it) is here turned around: the violent skinhead “knows very well what he is doing, but he is nonetheless doing it.” The symbolically efficient knowledge embedded in the subject’s effective social praxis disintegrates into, on the one hand, excessive “irrational” violence with no ideologico-political foundation and, on the other hand, impotent external reflection that leaves the subject’s acts intact. In the guise of this cynicallly-impotent reflecting skinhead who, with an ironic smile, explains to the perplexed journalist the roots of his senselessly violent behavior, the enlightened tolerant multiculturalist bent on “understanding” forms of excessive violence gets his own message in its inverted, true form.
--Slavoj Zizek, “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France and Related Matters” (link here)

In my view, Zizek’s ultimate conclusion, that skinheads cause violence for the sheer joy of it, is a reactionary claim that separates human beings according to the irrational (but either good or bad) sources of their pleasure.

That said, Zizek’s critique of this sort of reflexivity is dead-on, if not exactly original. (Most modern crime films take pains to mock the notion that a deviant with a tough childhood is innocent of his crimes. There’s always another character who had it just as tough, but chose the high road.) If you look at all of Sondheim’s wonderful song “Gee, Officer Krupke!,” you find that the members of the Jets can easily re-frame their own experiences to win the maximum of sympathy from each successive “handler”—meanwhile, the handlers are having none of it, and instead use the Jets as pawns in a debate amongst themselves about human nature.

The Jets aren’t simply making fun of the notion of delinquency. They are genuinely confused about their own actions, and suspect that somebody educated has the answer, but meanwhile there is a fundamental and unresolvable problem: the Jets like their gang, and the people in authority don’t, regardless of what etiological theory is in play.

The fact that the Jets like being troublemakers is not actually a disproof of any theory another person might entertain about their crimes; it’s merely a disproof of the idea that a conversation can ever be so self-aware as to lack an unconscious element -- here, a real and perpetually deferred dispute about desirable behavior—or that self-awareness is by itself sufficient to transform human beings or societies. In the case of psychoanalytic analyses, there is usually a hidden belief that consciousness is dissociative. In other words, if I come to understand what is causing my behavior, I will lose interest in repeating that behavior, and will assert my freedom and distance from the originating event. This is wrong twice over. First of all, if I become conscious of something, I am perfectly likely to claim it as my own, forever—as Jean Genet did when he said he would become what crime made of him, or as cigarette smokers do when they finally talk openly about being addicted to their smokes. Second, all of us make decisions based on past experiences. If we switch cell phone providers based on past experiences, and choose our leisure activities based on what we know we enjoy, why would we expect someone to change how they act on those same grounds?

Any glance around a social networking site (such as MySpace or Facebook or Friendster) will also confirm that people frequently speak and write about themselves in a seemingly confessional way in order to produce various rhetorical effects. For example, a college student on Facebook will “confess” to being a drunk in order to disarm acquaintances or in order to appear hedonistic. Others will confess to being “crazy” in order to appear spontaneous or unique. A famous example of this tactic is the person who, while interviewing for a job, confesses to being a perfectionist.

What is true of individuals is also true of societies: reflexive thinking is not necessarily emancipatory, and vice versa. Fundamentalists, traditionalists, and conservatives are quite aware of their obduracy, and are proud of it. When Karl Marx wrote that the contradictions within capitalism would eventually destroy it, he wasn’t writing a purely reflexive analysis. He was writing a historical analysis that used the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a model for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Lots of people who strongly oppose radical action are aware of the costs of oppressive economic practice, and can speak volubly about the spread of disease, global warming, shortened life spans, uncontrolled population growth, urban sprawl, collapsing infrastructure, and so on. It’s not that they are unintelligent or uninformed; rather, they make a series of usually unconscious assumptions about human beings—what motivates them, what capacity they have for change, and what wealthy human beings deserve—that hold up against and even assimilate the most damning indictments of the status quo.

If you want people or societies to change, then you have to prove that change is both possible and desirable, to a quorum if not to everyone. That may be a highly reflexive process, or it may not, depending on the situation. Thus the critical process of argumentation and change happens intersubjectively.

The production of knowledge without any specific expectation of change also happens intersubjectively. N. Pepperell takes a strong stand against theories that emphasize intersubjectivity. In a comment to this post, she writes:

I am specifically critical of attempts to centre critical theory on analyses of intersubjectivity - and of the tendency to equate “the social” with “the intersubjective”. Realising that this won’t mean much at this point, my position would be that central dimensions of contemporary society - dimensions that are important for understanding shapes of consciousness, patterns of social reproduction, and potentials for transformations - simply won’t be captured adequately by the attempt to transcend the limitations of theories of the “subject” via theories of the intersubjective constitution of meaning.

If I had to venture a guess, I would guess that NP’s problem with theories of intersubjectivity is that they don’t provide a consistent methodological framework, and don’t take into account the phenomenology (and relevant ideological structures) of our encounters with objects. I can’t be sure because I don’t know exactly what she means by the “central dimensions of contemporary society.”

In the sciences, the scientific method is certainly intersubjective, but also consistent: it is an agreed-upon method for producing uniform and objective results. It is true that scientists do not always peer closely into the motivating forces behind the scientific method, and it is also true that psychological and historical analyses of the scientific method have not altered it. If a scientist were to write not only a description of her method, but also a full account of the historical, cultural, and personal factors condensed in an experiment, the analytic question would still not disappear. It would merely become different: “Why these details? Why this confession?” Anthropologists who live amongst their subjects, rather than surveilling or interviewing them, are not necessarily more knowledgeable anthropologists. They are simply creating a different, and possibly less hostile, “clearing” (Martin Heidegger’s term, from the Greek aletheia) in the name of knowledge.

Objects and perceptions are not intersubjective, of course, but statements about objects are since they happen through language.

Similarly, essays written by Derrideans that attempt, mid-stream, to partially or wholly deconstruct themselves by noting slippages and so forth are not exactly wasting our time, but are nonetheless like the party animal on Facebook who ponies up with a glamorous confession. It only means that the invisible foundations of the text are elsewhere.

The most humble and honest that we can be, as speakers, is to speak as objectively as possible and to reach the intersubjective on the far shore of that attempt. If I explain exactly what I know, how I came to understand it, and why I wanted to know it in the first place, without once speaking the dead language of the impersonated Other (as the Jets do in their song), then I give my interlocutor the opportunity to be a true partner with me, making observations about the thing and about myself that I could not possibly have reached. Those observations do not escape the contingent field of intersubjectivity; if they did, the Other would have the authority of God. But they are something new: a spark of conversation, a beginning.

(Update: it occurs to me that Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh is one of the most poignant and devastating investigations into reflexive speech. The lucidity of self-reflection, which is contrasted with the haze of nights at the saloon, is actually so dispiriting and useless that it produces murder, suicide, and bleak depression.)


Comments

This is the central problem with cognitive therapy (and, in the end, most forms of therapy based on a talking model): knowing why one does what one does does not stop one from doing it.

Same with muckraking at the social level: showing how the world “actually” operates doesn’t stop it from operating that way.

In both cases—the personal and the social—the knowledge of what is really going on has to trigger something in our sense of ethics, our superego, our conscience, whatever.  One has to be shocked and saddened and angered that one does what one does for the reasons discovered upon reflection.  Likewise, we have to be outraged by how the world is run once we’re given that knowledge.

And then conscience must trigger something in the heart—not the emotional heart, but the heart that acts, that leaps without (fully) looking: we have to act not only upon knowledge (no one acts merely upon knowledge) but also upon our moral reflex.

Of course, if reflexivity is a rhetorical process, then all this assumed: rhetoric isn’t simply the transmission of knowledge but also the triggering of the audience’s moral and active reflexes.

By on 08/27/07 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"(Most modern crime films take pains to mock the notion that a deviant with a tough childhood is innocent of his crimes. There’s always another character who had it just as tough, but chose the high road.) “

I’ll have more comments later, probably—my consciousness of how I tend to go on is no barrier to my going on—but I wanted to bring up a Harry Potter example in order to tick off the Rowling-haters.  In Deathly Hallows, it’s revealed that the character the reader has come to know as a kindly though manipulative mentor, Dumbledore, was as a teen on his way to Dark Wizard-hood, complete with a braindead self-justifying political theory.  He only turned from that path because of a brawl with another wizard, in which he may or may not have accidentally killed his disabled sister.  When Harry’s friends hear about this, they try to excuse Dumbledore by saying that he was young and confused.  Harry twice points out that Dumbledore was exactly the same age that Harry and his friends are now, and that if they can figure out which side to be on, so should Dumbledore have been able to.  Given that Harry and his friends are very likely to die, and are at the time hiding in the woods very unheroically, this is an argument that doesn’t really get dismissed by Rowling’s de rigueur authorial attempts to depict Harry as an angry teen who is mad at Dumbledore for no good reason.

Dumbledore’s very position as kindly head of a school turns out to be an equivalent of the alcoholic’s inability to use self-knowledge about their alcoholism to give it up only partially.  It turns out that Dumbledore had never become political leader of the wizards because he couldn’t trust himself to.  And despite his many lectures to Harry about death being not a bad thing in itself, his own death is indirectly caused by his inability to resist the lure of a resurrection ring (which is, all right, a Tolkien ripoff), despite his consciousness of its problems.

This kind of pessimism about the adult ability to understand and handle problems is what saves the series from being as mawkish as its detractors claim.

By on 08/27/07 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . knowing why one does what one does does not stop one from doing it.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 129:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

By Bill Benzon on 08/27/07 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Joseph

I posted my comments to your blog, but might as well reproduce them here too:

Hi Joseph

I think I have to come to NP’s defence here by pointing you to an exchange between her and me that may help at least to fill in some opf the blanks surrounding her declared critical stance regarding theories that emphasise intersubjectivity. The exchange begins (albeit after it began) around about <a href=http://www.roughtheory.org/content/do-we-do-structuralism/#comment-15216>here</a> — though please note that the exchange takes place in the middle of another mostly unrelated debate about sociology and (post)structuralism.

If I understand NP right, then her critical stance (which I would share) should not be read as a rejection, i.e critical in the sense that theories of intersubjectivity are understood either as wrong or as misguided (if not downright dangerous, etc.). Rather, the point is simply that there is something else (other) going on here, something that theories of intersubjectivity either fail to capture or seem to want to ignore or marginalise.

Intersubjectivity is indeed a wonderful thing, one of the academy’s most prized accomplishments, and very much worth affirming and valuing — in certain contexts. The point of the critique of intersubjectivity (or the point at least of my openness to its questioning) is not to dismiss its worth, but to stress its status as an accomplishment and (therefore) as a value (Thus spake Zarathustra: “Evaluation is creation:hear it you creative men!"). As a matter of value, the affirmation of intersubjectivity is inevitably open to the plays of difference; and the appeal to intersubjectivity is always (potentially) a political move in the game of legitimation.

Now, it just so happens that I, too, prize “intersubjectivity”, or rather the particular techniques of communication, argument, analysis, etc., and the specific institutional forms (e.g. universities, academic genres) and practices (peer-reviewing, lecturing, self-government, etc.) that have produced a particular kind of subjectivity that is capable of aspiring to the goal of intersubjective agreement or communication. But it seems to me that appeals to intersubjectivity can’t help but function as an attempt to assert a ground without division (a presence prior to diferance) as the basis of thought, argument, knowledge, writing. And that, to me, is (potentially) problematic, even though communication as such is essentially impossible in the absence of any such appeal.

I’m aware, in other words, that my discourse has no sense whatsoever except insofar as it implicitly affirms (by presuming) its intersubjective intelligibility and insofar as it is conditioned by a whole range of existing (in the sense of “positive” or “historically produced”, as it were) techniques, practices and institutions that enable something like an intersubjective field or experience to arise in the first place. Even so, as Derrida might have said, “I do not believe that any neutrality is possible in this area”:

What is called ["intersubjectivity"], scientific for instance (in which I firmly believe, in a given situation), imposes itself only within a context which is extremely vast, old, powerfully established, stabilized or rooted in a network of conventions (for instance, those of language) and yet which still remains a context. And the emergence of the value of [intersubjectivity] (and hence of so many others) also belongs to a context. We can call “context” the entire “real-history-of-the-world,” if you like, in which this value of [intersubjectivity] and, even more broadly, that of truth (etc.) have taken on meaning and imposed themselves.

As Derrida remarked of this fact of (con)textuality, that does not in the slightest discredit the notion of intersubjectivity. But it does mean that “speak[ing] as objectively as possible [in order] to reach the intersubjective on the far shore of that attempt”, as you put it, isn’t always — i.e. necessarily and universally, across every imaginable context, e.g. including contexts “outside” the university, etc. — “the most humble and honest that we can” do (who is the “we” in that sentence, by the way? what gives you or any one of us the authority to speak on behalf of that we, let alone every that possible we that might be imagined?). It means, moreover, that we cannot necessarily trust our capacities for assessing the “sincerity”, “intersubjectivity”, etc. of a given discourse and use those assessments as the basis for judging whether such a discourse is worthy of response — a point with which anyone who remotely sympathises with Derrida’s work would surely agree, no?

Apologies for the lengthy (yet insufficiently elaborated and exemplified) comment. I hope it doesn’t come across as attacking, etc., which is certainly not my intention. Hopefully, though, it will help to justify the need to keep the question open, even in regards to what appear to be the very conditions of the work of questioning that we do.

Cheers
rob

PS I meant to say that I agree with much of what you’ve said above about “self-reflexivity”, particularly regarding the heightened distribution, nowadays, of the capacity to be “self-reflexive” and the use of that capacity to “justify” one’s actions (i.e. by displacing responsibility for those actions on to the conditions of one’s existence, etc.)

The thing is, just as I feel with regard to intersubjectivity, that fact that self-reflexivity can be recognised as having dubious value in certain contexts, that in itself seems to me no reason to doubt the value of self-reflexivity in any and every context. In the context of a kind of philosophy of the possibilities of critique, I think a certain form of self-reflexivity has great value, just as I think so for the value of intersubjectivity.

What’s at issue here is not the inherent value of intersubjectivity over that of self-reflexivity; it’s the question of what forms of each and in which contexts each might be worth affirming.

Cheers
rob

By on 08/27/07 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek: “in short, he will provide a more or less precise psycho-sociological account of his acts so dear to enlightened liberals eager to “understand” the violent youth as a tragic victim of their social and familial conditions.”

I was wondered who Zizek reminds me of here, and I finally realized: it’s Batman as written by Frank Miller.  Note that Zizek’s deepest rhetorical scorn is for liberals and for understanding itself.  The violent youth, on the other hand, is useful; the example serves as pretext and justification for countering violence.  I’m reminded of Miller’s porn shots of the Mutant Leader in The Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman looks him over ostensibly to see how well-muscled he is and is so impressed that he has to get out of his armored vehicle to fight him hand-to-hand.  Zizek does the same thing with his ironically smiling skinhead whose intelligence is no good to him and who is just violent; he’s a comic book villain.  Let the Leninist Batarang strike that smirk off his face!

I think that Joseph’s statement “If you want people or societies to change, then you have to prove that change is both possible and desirable, to a quorum if not to everyone” represents the central problem for the left at this time.  Nostalgia won’t do it.

I’m not sure about Luther’s comment, though—“the knowledge of what is really going on has to trigger something in our sense of ethics, our superego, our conscience, whatever.” I don’t think that’s how people really start to behave differently.  They start to behave differently when they perceive a different form of life that appeals to them, on some level, more than their previous way of life did.  It’s like the form of transition known as radicalization.  OK, you have a moderate who goes to a protest, sees the police beat up some innocent people, and becomes radicalized.  Was their ethics, superego, conscience etc triggered?  I don’t think so; I think it’s that they perceived that it was possible to base a new, more rewarding personal identity on this event.  (More rewarding in terms of a heightened sense of meaning, agency, honesty, and so on.)

By on 08/27/07 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’d say that our desire for a life full of meaning, agency, and honesty *is* nothing more than a desire for an ethical life.  I didn’t mean that we change only when outraged.  But outrage is often what changes our *bad* behaviors.  We don’t stop compulsively lying when we see an honest person.  Nor do we stop lying when we learn *why* we lie.  We try to stop lying when we feel shame and outrage at our behavior and its consequences.

By on 08/27/07 at 11:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Most people who enjoy Eugene O’Neill plays want to be in them. At any noticeable intensity, every warning is taken as a promise that we too can be as glamorous as Adam Sandler if we only make the effort.

Eurocivilization’s great leap forward since Shakespeare was to acknowledge—in practice, if not in theory—that ineffectual narrative diagnosis is the headiest pleasure capitalist culture has to proffer. What wealthy patients pay for is talking not cure. Down a social notch, the self-help industry depends on a nation singing new verses of “Gee, Officer Krupke” to themselves in the mirror every morning—“Hey, that’s me! And that’s me too!”—and they reliably do it.

I’m delighted—more than delighted, satisfied—to find an academic taking on the genre. I at least once very cogently pointed out to a writers’ group that self-help anecdotes—including faux-fundamentalist and BS MBA self-help— made up by far the most influential and successful print narratives of our lifetimes, and so if we intended to follow in Defoe’s and Fieldings’s footsteps we should be out there writing hoaxes.

The response was disappointing.

Well, I admit it’s tough to keep one’s breakfast down when dishing out this stuff, but imagine the rewards! We could’ve inspired the next Tom Cruise!

By Ray Davis on 08/27/07 at 11:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(For anyone who’s wondering what started me off on “self-help”, follow the link to the Kugelmass Episodes. I connected the parenthetical intro to the post about reflexive stasis so immediately and solidly that I didn’t notice the intro’s absence here.)

By Ray Davis on 08/27/07 at 11:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe - I’m in a terrible rush today, but wanted to mention that I’ve posted comments back home.  Many thanks for raising this - and sorry I haven’t had more time to respond more adequately.

By N Pepperell on 08/28/07 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the case of psychoanalytic analyses, there is usually a hidden belief that consciousness is dissociative. In other words, if I come to understand what is causing my behavior, I will lose interest in repeating that behavior, and will assert my freedom and distance from the originating event. This is wrong twice over.

That surely would be pretty simpleminded, if that’s what’s going on.  But I thought the point of bringing the unconscious to light wasn’t that thereby it would lose its force, but that thereby it would be, well, brought to light: it may still in fact be just as efficacious, but now it’s part of the conscious understanding of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and not merely an unconsciously effective, rationally displaced push.

I’m not so sure that it’s really wrong twice over as put, though.  Sometime last spring I was talking with Michael Bratman about some dissatisfaction I had with one of David Velleman’s exercises in defending some form of compatibilism and said that the solution to the knots one gets into when thinking about such things seems to be modeled along the “doctor, it hurts when I do this” joke, which got something like consent from Bratman.  If you discovered that your actual motivations, even those with which you think you identify and choose freely etc., can all be described in neurophysiological terms, I think that would tend to sap your lust for life—at least until you decided something like “fuck it, I’ll do X anyway”.  But holding both thoughts together at once is likely to prove tricky, I think.  Some sort of parallel claim could be made without utter implausibility for reductive psychological explanations.  (I think some such line of thought is pursued here.)

This is wrong twice over. First of all, if I become conscious of something, I am perfectly likely to claim it as my own, forever—as Jean Genet did when he said he would become what crime made of him, or as cigarette smokers do when they finally talk openly about being addicted to their smokes.

But that claiming as your own can only come from a position of a certain distance and freedom.  Even in the latter case, in which it seems clear what external force it is that explains (or causes, if you like), even if I don’t by finding out about it lose interest in it, if we’re going to talk about my acceptance of or reconciling myself to the state (or rejection of it even as it continues to compel behavior of such-and-such a sort), I had better have some sort of grasp on that state separate from it.  Otherwise in what sense am <q>I</q> <q>accepting</q> it?  (And it had better be something like acceptance, because merely “talking openly” is consistent with actual but ineffectual loss of interest.)

By ben wolfson on 08/29/07 at 01:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks everyone for your comments! Sorry for my delayed response. I’ve posted comments at Rough Theory and Larval Subjects also, and encourage everyone to have a look over there.

Ray,

I like the Lacanian concept of misrecognition as a way of describing that process of identification; like you, Lacan likes to capture people at the moment when they look (literally) in a mirror.

Did Adam Sandler act in a Eugene O’Neill play? I have to say, although I’m definitely a sucker for Barfly, O’Neill’s plays are so icy that I don’t feel much compulsion to glamorously live them out. The bar in The Iceman Cometh goes from a place of delirious hope to a graveyard, and neither mode permits much idealization.

Rich,

The Dumbledore example is impressively complex and relevant. I still don’t want to read any of the other Potter books (having read the first), but I’m glad for the re-telling. I’ll admit it: the problem is that I’d never stop thinking “Why, Gandalf, why’d you go and change your name?”

I agree that one of the most disturbing aspects of Zizek’s analysis is his obvious secondhand joy in the imaginary pleasure of the skinhead’s riot. It’s tailored to fit (under cover of moral denunciation) the dominant Lacanian ideal of jouissance.

A year or two ago, I read a couple of Miller’s Sin City books, and liked them in a juvenile way (I still have respect for the some of the drawings). Then I read The Dark Knight Returns, and felt so nauseous that I had to put Miller down for good. Your connection between Miller and Zizek, of course, draws strength from Zizek’s now infamous endorsement of 300.

Luther,

There is a great deal in what you say; otherwise, taking action would be impossible. Your terms reminded me of Cicero, who devoted his life to studying how the reflexes of an audience could be awakened and channeled by rhetoric.

Of course, the notion of reflexes does imply a lack of deliberation, and there are many cases (deeply ingrained racism and sexism come to mind) where we have to embark on the painful work of changing our reflexes, and even on changing the instinct of a whole society. That work begins consciously, rather than springing organically up from the blood.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/29/07 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob,

I want to draw attention here:

As Derrida remarked of this fact of (con)textuality, that does not in the slightest discredit the notion of intersubjectivity. But it does mean that “speak[ing] as objectively as possible [in order] to reach the intersubjective on the far shore of that attempt”, as you put it, isn’t always — i.e. necessarily and universally, across every imaginable context, e.g. including contexts “outside” the university, etc. — “the most humble and honest that we can” do (who is the “we” in that sentence, by the way? what gives you or any one of us the authority to speak on behalf of that we, let alone every that possible we that might be imagined?). It means, moreover, that we cannot necessarily trust our capacities for assessing the “sincerity”, “intersubjectivity”, etc. of a given discourse and use those assessments as the basis for judging whether such a discourse is worthy of response — a point with which anyone who remotely sympathises with Derrida’s work would surely agree, no?

To the extent that the “real-history-of-the-world” has imposed itself on a flux of possibilities, I agree with Derrida that it still should not be allowed to completely subsume those possibilities. Actually, as the hyphenated phrase suggests, Derrida is really getting this from the late Heidegger, in particular the problem of the “standing-reserve” in The Question Concerning Technology. From that standpoint, subjects maintain a certain distance and absence from whatever kinds of speech and writing are possible in a given intersubjective context.

If the question is “what kinds of speech and writing acts deserve responses,” then my answer would be grounded in performativity. Lots of my posts reflect my belief that communicative acts should be evaluated as they appear, rather than according to some theory about the author (for example, a determination about sincerity or good faith).

However, I seem to get from your comment that self-reflexivity is a sort of liberation from the social field, saturated as that field is by power and history. I tend to think that, for individuals at least, apparently reflexive thought is actually the most likely to be the product of domination, as with the person who pretends to like something “ironically” in order to deal with feelings of shame. Reflexivity is frequently defensive, as it seeks to anticipate and then preempt or manipulate the reaction of another.

So, at the end of the post, I argue that rather than trying to ventriloquize the other by talking about ourselves, we should talk about ourselves indirectly by talking about the world and leaving it to the other to judge (in their own limited fashion) the nature of our judgements. This “we” is myself; it is, for the time being, also my reader, to the best of my ability to imagine him or her. My authority here is based on a hypothesis about perception, apperception, and communication.

My perspective on the political (rather than personal) dimensions of this conversation may become clearer if you take a look at the Rough Theory comment. In brief, I think advocates of self-reflexivity for its own sake believe that immanence is a kind of justification: since the potential for change is already immanently here, change is justified. But, as I note over at Rough Theory, a conservative could use those same facts to advocate for vigilance and a greater commitment to order.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/29/07 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben,

You write:

But I thought the point of bringing the unconscious to light wasn’t that thereby it would lose its force, but that thereby it would be, well, brought to light: it may still in fact be just as efficacious, but now it’s part of the conscious understanding of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and not merely an unconsciously effective, rationally displaced push.

I don’t think that’s all Freud was hoping to accomplish; the sense I get whenever I return to his writings is that he thought the irrationality and unworkability of unconscious judgements was such that they could be contemptuously rejected at the moment they became conscious. For example, since it is natural to want cooperation from one’s patients and intimates, but unreasonable to demand it, Freud could let go of his frustration the moment he correctly interpreted his own dream about opening Irma’s mouth.

Some of this gets worked out in my comment to Larval Subjects, which (as befits that blog) emphasizes psychoanalysis in Freud and Lacan. In Lacan, you have an analyst who not only tries to provide therapy without introducing any desires of her own, but who ultimately tries to live at absolute zero, the sole enlightened and destitute subject in a madhouse of fevers and blisses the size of the world. This completely untenable position led post-Lacanian psychoanalysts to finally embrace the credo “Enjoy Your Symptom!”, which is what you’re talking about, but which also goes against Freud’s humanistic belief in reason.

If you discovered that your actual motivations, even those with which you think you identify and choose freely etc., can all be described in neurophysiological terms, I think that would tend to sap your lust for life.

Actual motivation doesn’t necessarily imply neurophysiological motivation; but, that said, knowing that food is essential to the metabolic process doesn’t really diminish my interest in food. In fact, I think I’ll have a sandwich right now.

>>eat sandwich
>>continue responding to Wolfson

Sometime last spring I was talking with Michael Bratman about some dissatisfaction I had with one of David Velleman’s exercises in defending some form of compatibilism and said that the solution to the knots one gets into when thinking about such things seems to be modeled along the “doctor, it hurts when I do this” joke, which got something like consent from Bratman.

Explain this? I looked up the joke, but I think I need more background.

But that claiming-as-your-own can only come from a position of a certain distance and freedom. (hyphenation mine)

Something has to put this distance and freedom to the test; otherwise, it is a too-hasty appropriation of possibility in the name of servitude. Freedom is the possibility of action, not its meaning. In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence says “He will help us because it is his pleasure,” and the chieftain says “I will do it, because it is my pleasure to do it,” but this is a triumph of Lawrence’s rhetoric, not a triumph of sovereignty.

Sartre has a great discussion of this in his chapter (from Being and Nothingness) on bad faith; the gambler can announce at the start of each day that he is really free from gambling, and that he will never return to the tables, and in a sense he’s right. He really is “free” from gambling, because he is condemned to freedom. Even if he gambled every night and called himself “The Gambler,” that would still not be who he was. On the other hand, the words “I will never gamble again” do not have the magic power to make him incapable of changing his mind. We can neither identify nor disindentify our habits with our identities. We can only act: Genet’s statement (I chose to become what crime made of me) is meaningful because it provoked him to greater crimes, further acts.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/29/07 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “I agree that one of the most disturbing aspects of Zizek’s analysis is his obvious secondhand joy in the imaginary pleasure of the skinhead’s riot.”

It wasn’t just that that I was referring to, it was also that for Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, the worst villains are the liberal psychologists.  The various violent people are clear about what they want; they want to enjoy violence, and Batman can react with uncomplicated opposing violence.  And the punks are redeemeable—some of them become vigilantes just like Batman when they grow up.  But it’s the liberals with their “understanding” that spoil everything.  They are always wrong, always naive, they keep society going on the wrong path, yet Batman can’t simply punch them.

By on 08/29/07 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t really speak to what Freud might actually have wanted; much of what I think about this comes with a distinctly Learian interpretation presupplied (and even that’s quite rusty).  I’m technically vacating but I’ll follow the traces of the discussion thus far when I get a chance.

Knowing that food is necessary to the metabolic process in fact makes me quite thankful that I actually like eating.  Getting on would be rather a chore in the alternative.  But that’s not an explanation of my interest.  It might be an evolutionary sort of explanation of the fact that anyone has an interest in eating at all, but, after all, not all genealogies are debunking.  ButI continue to think that an explanation in specific causal terms of my specific desire to eat a chocolate chip cookie, for example, would bring me up short a little and tend to at least make it a question for me what I really want—where without that explanation the question would never have arisen.  Some such explanations more than others, I suppose, so I’ll take a more moderate stance and just say that there isn’t just one answer to the question of whether reflection or causal understanding or what-have-you disunifies or removes motivation or what-have-you.

By ben wolfson on 08/29/07 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for your response Joseph

I seem to get from your comment that self-reflexivity is a sort of liberation from the social field, saturated as that field is by power and history.

I don’t mean for anyone to get that sense of self-reflexivity from what I wrote. I completely and utterly agree with your point: self-reflexivity, as a form of what liberal-humanism (among many other philosophies) would think of as “autonomy”, is an artifact, a product, at least in part, of power. And, on a quick read, I agree with what you wrote at rough theory.

My comments are motivated, rather, by the idea that self-reflexivity precisely is not reducible to “a sort of liberation from the social field, saturated as that field is by power and history” (in the same way that “democracy”, say, isn’t reducible to liberal-pluralism, or even to the entire range of existing systems or philosophies of democracy). Put simply, I think that when you and NP talk about self-reflexivity, you’re talking about (almost) entirely different things. I think, you’re not actually having a debate here, because while you’re using the same phrases, your respective referents are different. Certainly, the terms “self-reflexivity” and “immanence”, inter alia, as NP uses them are quite idiosyncratic, and I’m not convinced that NP’s relation or commitment to those terms (or “ideals") is entirely unambivalent.

The same goes a fortiori for the apparent difference between our “stances” (as it were) — the difference between you and me, from where I stand, is not at all as marked as I suspect you to think. My citation of Derrida on objectivity (paraphrased to address the question of intersubjectivity) and my extrapolation from his argument to consider its implications for the task of assessing, in the first instance, the sincerity or otherwise of a discourse — none of that was presented as devastating critique of your stance. Rather, it was intended to show that my argument is actually not all that different from what you (would otherwise) already know. I am quite confident, in other words, that you believe and act on your belief that “communicative acts should be evaluated as they appear”, without reference to “a determination about sincerity or good faith”.

My point was simply that your defense of the value of intersubjectivity seemed to come very close to implying (however unintentionally) that intersubjectivity constitutes the (epistemological and moral) ideal — the regulating ideal, in Kant’s terminology — of communication, or at least of critical, analytical, discursive, etc., communication. What’s more, I think this (unintentional?) claim to the regulatory power of intersubjectivity goes against your belief that “communicative acts should be evaluated as they appear”. In other words, I suspect (at the risk of adopting the potentially authoritarian position of the Analyst) that you don’t think that intersubjectivity does in fact constitute such an ideal. Or if you think it, you don’t actually practice it, precisely because you do (performatively) evaluate communicative acts as they appear (to the extent that such evaluation is possible; “appearance”, after all, is already organised in ways that aren’t explicable purely in terms of the self-identity of the communicative act).

So, basically, I affirm and sympathise with everything you have said in this “debate” — especially regarding your/our interest in and commitment to the transformation of current social practice — bar these two points: (1) that we actually disagree strongly about anything much; and (2) that your characterisation of the value of intersubjectivity actually accords with your/our performative (and laudable!) beliefs about the forms, practices, goals, etc. of communication, esp. “scholarly” communication.

Cheers
rob

By on 08/29/07 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe - I’ve done a big comment (but still very incomplete...) in response to your reply over at Rough Theory.  But I did just want to pick up briefly on your comment here:

However, I seem to get from your comment that self-reflexivity is a sort of liberation from the social field, saturated as that field is by power and history. I tend to think that, for individuals at least, apparently reflexive thought is actually the most likely to be the product of domination, as with the person who pretends to like something “ironically” in order to deal with feelings of shame. Reflexivity is frequently defensive, as it seeks to anticipate and then preempt or manipulate the reaction of another.

I don’t want to speak for rob, but my impulse from earlier rounds of conversation with him, is to suspect that he’s probably not aiming for any notion of “liberation from the social field, saturated as that field is by power and history”.  Certainly, I know I’m not aiming for that.  Possibly the most common critique I level at other theoretical approaches is that they “exceptionalise” themselves by speaking as though they are outside the social field whose power relations they are then criticising.  The notion of an immanent theory is that there is no such position outside the context in which the critique is unfolding - but that this submersion in context does not preclude critical judgement or transformative practice.  The concept of reflexive theory is not at all intended to bootstrap the theorist to some position of objectivity from which they can then survey everyone else’s entrapment in power relations.  What it is intended to do, I’ve just written about at length over at Rough Theory… ;-P

To be clear, though:  I don’t want to claim to be speaking for rob, so please don’t hold him accountable for any problematic implications of my idiosyncratic theoretical approach.

By N Pepperell on 08/29/07 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoo! NP hacked the blog!

By on 08/30/07 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

rob - lol - yeah, I’ve emailed admin about it:  I thought I was hitting “preview”, and hit “post” instead - and was of course missing a closing quotation mark in a link… This will make things look particularly weird once the post goes through, since I was responding to the same passage in Joe’s post that *you* responded to above - but I hadn’t yet seen your response (which would have made mine redundant...).  Or maybe I was just trying to create a self-reflexive post, illustrating the exact flaws Joe sees in the concept…

By N Pepperell on 08/30/07 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

NP, sorry about the trouble. I’ve just fixed the issue.

By Valve Administrator on 08/30/07 at 08:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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