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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Welcome to the dessert of the Real!

Posted by John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 12:00 AM

I’m reading Conversations With Zizek (Polity, 2004) - edited transcripts of his responses to questions by Glyn Daly. The interviews took place in summer 2002.

GD: To clarify: your argument is that the contemporary functioning of intellectual property is leading to certain kinds of ‘excess’ that open up more radical possibilities?

The paradigmatic example here is probably Microsoft. Microsoft word has more or less established itself as the predominant computer language, but this has nothing to do with normal market logic. Why do the vast majority of people use Microsoft? Not because it’s the best. Almost every hacker will tell you that other languages are better. The answer is simply one of communication. We use Microsoft because we know that this is the only way we can communicate with everyone else. Otherwise, sending files and so on becomes a nightmare. The obvious solution for me would not be to engage in the anti-monopolistic games of splitting Microsoft into smaller units, but simply to acknowledge the meaninglessness of private property. Why should a private person own the computer language that we all use? Wouldn’t the obvious solution be to socialize its use? (p. 154)

Seriously: even if you give him a pass on the language/application distinction - questionable, because I don’t think anyone who was clear on the distinction would slip up so comprehensively (and then not at least edit the slip later) - you just can’t begin to talk about this without understanding that IP issues cannot be lightly equated to private property ownership generally. Lock-in issues are not a one-step argument for socialism. Also, owning a type - a thing that can, at low or no cost, be copied again and again - raises very different issues than owning a token - artifact, unique something that everyone can’t enjoy because there’s only one of it.

What especially bothers me is that Zizek’s confusion is the flip-side of the very bad idea I complained about in this post - Mark Halperin’s assumption that because ownership of physical property is perpetual, therefore copyright should be forever. Bloody hell. If Zizek had his way, people would think that the only alternative to corporate Feudalism - the Mouse will never be free! - is Leninist revolution. Zizek is making Larry Lessig cry.

I expect Adam Kotsko will object (as he has before) that even if Zizek gets a lot of stuff wrong in his compulsive haste, critics of Zizek ought to challenge him where he is strongest - i.e. on Lacan and Hegel. The problem with this, as I have come to see it (while rewriting this thing I’m working on), is that Zizek’s Hegelian-Lacanian synthesis is pretty unapologetically dogmatic. Or rather, the argument for it is, at best, indirect. So the argument against it must be as well. To explain: I have here a book by Rex Butler, Slavoj Zizek Live Theory, in which the author mocks ‘post-theory’ film scholar Ed O’Neill’s critique of Zizek as ‘naive’. O’Neill: “The truth of Lacan’s theories is urged by showing how other people’s theories support that truth without explaining why these theories have the same object.” What is naive about this, allegedly, is that O’Neill has mistaken a feature for a bug. “It is not some pre-existing orthodoxy or body of precepts that is being ‘applied’ to varous examples. Rather, Lacanian psychoanalysis is caught up from the beginning in other fields of knowledge, establishing a potentially endless series of analogies between them” (p. 15). That is, what convinces us that Lacan must be both deeply and widely insightful is that every analogy, no matter how far flung, seems always to confirm Lacan (and, to a lesser extent, Hegel). But really this is a trivial result, unless one insists stringently that the analogies should be tight, rather than loose; valid rather than dubious.

In the present case we are dealing with an ‘insight’ into IP law that seems to confirm the political relevance of a Lacanian notion of ‘excess’. But I am not inclined to grant that it is an ‘insight’ at all. And so it goes. My other Zizekian peeve of the moment is the way he seems to bowl through a line of analytic philosophers - Dennett, Chalmers - with ease; and again, the distinct impression is that it all redounds to the glory of Lacan. But, upon examination, Zizek is unaware of even some of the more basic features of the views he is critiquing. Example: he discusses Dennett’s use of John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ as an illustration of his ideas about ‘stances’ - the design stance, specifically. We can talk about ‘eaters’ and ‘puffer’ trains (enduring patterns within the game) and thereby achieve a high degree of predictive success, even though there is an element of ‘as if’ illusionism.

This is what Dennett has taken to calling his ‘weak realism’. (He wants to say these are ‘real’ patterns, even if there is a sense in which their existence requires the observe to take up a ‘stance’.) But never mind that. Here is Zizek’s critique, from The Parallax View:

The problem with Dennett’s dual [physical/design] ontology is: does it really reach “all the way down”? Is the level of totally deterministic behavior of elements really the zero-level? What about the lesson of quantum physics, according to which there is, beneath solid material reality, the level of quantum waves, where determinism breaks down? Is the ‘teleological’ causality of motivation (I did something be because I aimed to achieve some goal), then, just an epiphenomenon, a mental translation of a process which can (also) be fully described at a purely physical level of natural determinism, or does such a “teleological” causation in fact possess a power of its own, and fill the gap in direct physical reality. (p. 239)

Here again, Zizek is hustling to get on to somewhere Lacanian he wants to go - and, honestly, he likes a lot about Dennett, so I’m not just accusing him of bashing analytic philosophers. The problem is: Dennett obviously isn’t arguing, let alone assuming, that we are actually living in a giant Conway Game of Life. The game is just an analogy, to illustrate how a stance can be explanatorily efficacious even if, at the basement level, there is nothing ‘corresponding’ to it. (The nice thing about the Game, Dennett says, is that it has no backstage, so our suspicions that we might find something backstage corresponding to the predictable order exhibited by gliders, eaters, even whole Turing machines you might construct, are laid to rest.)

You could say that Zizek really means to say Dennett shouldn’t be so quick to ignore quantum. But I don’t actually think this is what he is saying. And it wouldn’t make any sense anyway. No one can possibly think the reason it is possible to explain ‘glider’ and ‘eater’ behavior, in the Life world, by taking up the design stance, is due to micro-level quantum indeterminacies manifesting themselves at the macro level, while the program is running. But really the problem is just that Zizek is blasting past all the intricacies of these questions, issues and positions - Dennett’s, Chalmer’s, other examples he uses. He isn’t seeing anything that doesn’t fit the Lacanian-Hegelian pattern he is determined to see. But this isn’t a glorious victory for Lacanian-Hegelianism, surely. It’s a ... symptom. Obviously the author is enjoying it. But, given that I don’t share it, why should I? Zizek (from the book of interviews again): “We philosophers are madmen: we have a certain insight that we affirm again and again.” He illustrates with the case of Ernest Laclau. He is a true “theoretician philosopher” because he has a ‘Grundeinsicht’ - fundamental insight - and so keeps repeating himself about antagonism, hegemony, empty signifier. “Doesn’t he basically tell the same story again and again? This is not a criticism. I think this is the proof that he is the real one, the real quality” (p. 41-2).

In short, there is a sense in which - as Zizek himself admits - he is only ‘working on himself’, as it were. This is Lacanian self-therapy: a radical externalization and identification with his own symptoms. These are things he is compelled to say. But the fact that he is compelled to do so does not give me any reason to believe them.

Indeed, I can cite Zizek’s conversations themselves as grounds. He talks about how he is not so impressed that activists managed to force McDonalds to respect Hindu culture by not using fat from beef in its products. “But wait a minute, what about a simple fact, which may sound horrible, that it is not true that cows are really sacred and that, to put it in very vulgar terms, this is simply a stupid religious belief? ... We should not accept this kind of respect for the Other’s ideological-religious fantasy as the ultimate horizon of ethics” (p. 122)

Why should I not regard Zizek’s philosophy as an ideological-religious fantasy? Why credit someone as ‘insightful’ - cognitive success term - merely because they are obsessional. Put the point finally, in Lacanian terms. Here is Zizek, again from these interviews, explaining that ever-elusive objet petit a:

One of the popular chocolate products on sale all around Central Europe is the so-called Kinder, an empty eggshell made of chocolate and wrapped up in lively coloured paper; having unwrapped the egg and cracked open the chocolate shell, one finds in it a small plastic toy (or small parts from which a toy can be put together). Is this toy not l’objet petit a at its purest - the small object filling in the central gap, the hidden treasure, agalma, in the centre? A child who buys this chocolate egg often nervously unwraps it and just breaks the chocolate, not bothering to eat it, worrying only about the toy in the centre - is such a chocolate-lover not a perfect case of Lacan’s motto ‘I love you, but, inexplicably, I love something in you more than yourself, and, therefore, I destroy you’? This material (’real’) void in the centre, of course, stands for the structural (’formal’) gap on account of which no product is ‘really that’, no product lives up to the expectation it arouses. (p. 85-6)

But Zizek himself, in discussing IP law, in discussing Dennett (and I could go on), is like a kid with his Kinder. He hastily breaks through - rather than focusing on - the chocolate of the policy issue, the philosophical position, to get at the Lacanian toy he is sure will be there.

Welcome to the dessert of the Real. I guess. (I think maybe this will be the punch line of this thing I’m writing. An essay about The Parallax View.)


John, I’m starting to get the impression you’re not especially fond of Zizek.

By Adam Roberts on 07/19/07 at 06:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, he’s alright. Just a bit bouncy.

By John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 06:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’Why credit someone as ‘insightful’ - cognitive success term - merely because they are obsessional.’


By Anthony Paul Smith on 07/19/07 at 08:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Microsoft word has more or less established itself as the predominant computer language

Did he really say MS Word is a ‘language’? I suppose Excel is a hard drive then. This Ubuntu user, who communicates just fine with microsoft users, is totally, totally confused.

Then again, I just read last night in The Parallax View that “Bill” in Kill Bill is Uma Thurmann’s father. This isn’t a metaphor. It’s just another damned mistake.

I realize it’s ‘boring’ (to use one of SZ’s favorite words) to knock him for his total sloppiness, but when he can’t be bothered to fix that sloppiness when given the chance (note the mistakes on Now Voyager even in the second edition of Enjoy Your Symptom), well, it’s hard to know what to do with him or why I should listen.

Back to the core of the discussion. Sorry.

By Karl Steel on 07/19/07 at 08:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony has learned irony! I declare cognitive success!

By John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 08:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl, I have to think it’s just some weird slip on his part. The ‘language’ thing. Still, why wasn’t it edited? Clearly the interview has been cleaned up a bit for print publication.

By John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 09:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why should I not regard Zizek’s philosophy as an ideological-religious fantasy?”

Because people have professional status invested in Zizek.

Really, I think that this is the core of Zizek’s achievement.  Referring to Microsoft Word as a “language”—writing college freshman bull session noodling about quantum physics—these are perhaps best seen as deliberate gestures in a con.  Someone who has read enough Zizek to understand that there is nothing there can never admit that he’s writing BS, because that would implicate their earlier, enthusiastic self, and the papers produced by that self.  Without these kinds of errors, it would be simple to admit that one once saw something in Zizek and now do not.  With them, one is driven to lifelong loyalty, because they make what is going on clear, and therefore never to be admitted.

By on 07/19/07 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Lacanian toy or whatever. Sure, John. But aren’t you being a bit shrill with the initial issue. Saying that there is something about the ubiquity of locked-up Microsoft products that suggests we nationalize or socialize the products isn’t exactly a call for “leninist revolution.”

Things, whether tokens or types, could be socialized without a “leninist revolution.” Airlines, health insurance companies, software companies, specific pieces of software itself, car companies. (Unfortunately, in the US, we’re more likely to see nationalizations in the service of corporate welfare than the common good. But still...)

But see, if you didn’t magnify SZ’s claim out to “leninist revolution,” your gripe wouldn’t have made as much sense. It may be a bit dreamy and utopian what he’s saying, but it’s not totally insane… But you had to make it sound insane in order to write your post.

By CR on 07/19/07 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you’ve misunderstood my IP concerns, CR - such as they are, and also maybe my objection to Z.

Re: IP. Before we socialize we have to conceptualize what the problem is and what we are aiming to achieve. It bothers me that Z. seems like a bull in the china shop of absolutely crucial analytic distinctions. You can say he’s just trying to shake things up. But he’s shaking it exactly the way the bad guys want it shaken: namely, so that all the distinctions end up melted into an extreme lump. And then they can say that any threat to copyright maximalism is a threat to private property. (Not that I think Z. is likely to end up a pawn in this game. It just annoys me to hear Z. asserting the false major premise in a common, very bad copyright maximalist argument.)

You can take out the Leninist bit if it bothers you. I only put it in because Z. is, officially, a Leninist.

Also, it seems to me that proposing socializing software as a way of dealing with lock-in - rather than considering, say, Open Source - seems just ludicrously premature.

By John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But I’m objecting to your bull in the china shop behavior in hyperbolizing the sense that Zizek is rendering into “leninist revolution.”

It just annoys me to hear Z. asserting the false major premise in a common, very bad copyright maximalist argument.

Yes, just as it annoys me to hear you implying that the socialization of a given product would be tantamount to leninist revolution, a very bad political maximalist argument.

By CR on 07/19/07 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But I gave you permission to lead the bull, such as it was, out of the shop in a peaceful manner. So its continued presence is at your discretion. Subtract ‘Lenin’. That’s not crucial. Also, when Z. talks about ‘the meaninglessness of private property’ - as opposed to, say, the socialization of a given product - he is definitely inviting a maximalist reading. That is a highly expansive phrase. I’m not putting that in his mouth. It is exactly what bothers me about copyright maximalist arguments. They treat any threat to perpetual copyright as a stab at the heart of the very meaning of private property.

I realize it’s just an interview, so maybe five minutes later he felt it was a bit too expansive. But it seems to me indicative of his style.

By John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Since Zizek does actually call for Leninist revolution, I don’t see how that’s a magnification in this case.  Sure, if some person about whom you knew nothing else wrote that Microsoft Word should be socialized, along with something about the meaninglessness of private property, one couldn’t jump to the idea of Leninist revolution as opposed to some generic form of strong socialism.  But the fact that the author is Zizek allows one to call the rest of his writings in as interpretive aids, does it not?

I actually don’t think that the passage is understandable without doing this.  When someone like Mike Halperin asserts that copyright should be forever, one is tempted to dig into the assumptions of his argument—the assertion that physical property is forever that it is based on, for example, ignores both property taxes and inheritance taxes, and therefore functions as an ideological rejection of the existence of these methods of making physical property under social control and therefore not forever personal property.  Without that ideological rejection, you couldn’t even understand why he was making the argument.

In Zizek’s case, of course, since he clearly has no intent of acting towards Leninist revolution, nor do his fans, it becomes part of the buy-in technique.  Anyone who once took him seriously, who is considering not doing so, now has to confront the fact that they somehow thought that Leninist revolution preached to humanities academics was not risible.

By on 07/19/07 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I think it technically is fair to say that, even if Z. is officially Leninist, he doesn’t automatically declare Leninist revolution just by hinting at socialism. But it is also fair to note that it is no more shrill to call Z. a Leninist when he calls for socialism than it is to call Mill a Millian when he calls for liberalism. Zizek won’t be insulted by association with his own official ideals. For that matter, I don’t think he’d mind the dessert of the Real joke. I think he would think it was funny, because Lacanian, ergo true. (I never said the guy couldn’t laugh at his own expense. That is actually his most endearing trait.)

By John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, his liking for jokes is sympathetic.  I think that his public persona is generally of a somewhat Falstaffian character; I like the idea of Zizek the person even though I think that his writings are nonsense.  After all, it’s not like there’s anything important at stake.

By on 07/19/07 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I sometimes wonder why you read Zizek if he annoys you so much, but then I realize that I just got through not only a post of yours about Zizek, but some of Rich’s Zizekian “set pieces” that he pulls out every time you post about Zizek—so I apparently share a similar compulsion.  Rather than trying to understand yours, I should try to unravel my own.

As Jesus would say, “Remove the objet petit a in your own eye, &c.”

By Adam Kotsko on 07/19/07 at 01:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am familiar with the process by which one’s self has considered opinions and other people have set pieces.  But you do your own argument an injustice here; in order to criticize Zizek once again, John has to read (at minimum) Zizek’s latest book, while you have to read only a blog post (or, in my case, a few paragraphs of comments).

By on 07/19/07 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, Rich—the reason I only have to read a blog post is that John is writing a blog post.  Similarly, I only have to read your “set pieces” because you only write variations on a few well-worn themes in these threads—Zizek is running a big con on academics, but because of academic power-relations, no one can afford to say that the emperor has no clothes…—and whatever one thinks of these ideas qua ideas, it does seem relatively clear that they are “set pieces” in the sense that you always mention them, often with direct reference to the fact that you always mention them ("As I’ve said before,” etc.).  I call them “set pieces” rather than arguments because you don’t ever provide any evidence—you have just speculated that people take Zizek seriously for reasons unrelated to the value of his thought, and you find that explanation appealling and like to share it with people.  Good for you!  It’s fun to have ideas we like.  It’s also fun how you often say that you admire Zizek’s ability to pull off this feat.  So does this work?  I’ve now provided an argument for why I regard your repetitive comments about Zizek as “set pieces.”

But you’re right: If you or John were writing a book, then I would have to read a book before being qualified to critique him.  The relevance of that (100% true) claim is unclear to me in this context.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/19/07 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Another objet petit a I continue to circulate around—getting Rich to admit that he’s wrong.  I need to go to analysis.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/19/07 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, the only reason that John has to read another Zizek book is that Zizek has written another book.  I see no difference between the cases, except that John has to read a lot more text in order to be annoyed than you do.  Clearly, this gives you an advantage, I think; you can get your annoyance with far less effort.

As for set pieces, I do develop an argument rather than a mere restatement.  For instance, in this case I take the “Microsoft word is a language” and quantum physics passages as evidence for my thesis; doesn’t Zizek himself argue that “mistakes” are meaningful, not merely dismissable as sloppiness?

And your own reaction, as I have to point out, also supports my thesis.  Your own otherwise mysterious drive to re-engage with what you describe as evidence-free set pieces is an example of defensive behavior—you just can’t ignore them.  In this way, the opinion generates its own evidence.  Isn’t that elegant?

By on 07/19/07 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

</i>Rich, But the other side is that I had to earn my annoyance by reading far more Zizek, in far greater detail, than John. 

As shown by his bizarre choice of perhaps the most benign Zizek quote ever to start off his angry tirade, John may read more Zizek if he wishes, but any given amount of Zizek (ranging from a relatively innocuous paragraph in an interview to an entire book) will equally prove his point that Zizek is not a serious thinker.  Thus I suggest that John should stop reading Zizek and, in good Zizekian fashion, simply keep repeating a handful of “damning passages” together with his denunciations thereof—cut and paste.  It will save everyone a lot of time. 

Or he could stop talking about Zizek altogether ("Oh no!  The fascist Adam Kotsko is trying to silence John Holbo!  This is because Kotsko is invested in keeping up Zizek’s facade and can’t allow the truth to get out!").

By Adam Kotsko on 07/19/07 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

</i></i></i>"In far greater detail”?  “the most benign Zizek quote ever”?  “his angry tirade”?  I think that there are some unquestioned assumptions there which do not bear out on close reading.

Amusement aside, the “socialization of Microsoft Word” paragraph really does include the exact cognate of Halperin’s error, and as such is interesting as new information, not merely on a comparative benignity scale.

And, amusement aside once again, I think that you’re not really well served by your impulse to see all of this as compulsive restatement.  As Zizekian, you require an anti-Zizekian, just as Scott eventually required you for one his academic blogging panels.  I think that holding out for an anti-Zizekian within the constricted Lacanian universe is unconvincing.

By on 07/19/07 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, alright then.

(Thanks for taking care of the stray tag.  I tried to, but it didn’t work for some reason.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/19/07 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First, let me lay down a rule for successful conversational continuation. Rich and Adam are not to talk to each other. Seriously: don’t. Rich, you’ve said your piece. Adam, if you really think the first paragraph I quoted is unobjectionable, then it shouldn’t be such trouble for you to explain where I go wrong. Why isn’t it the case that Zizek is equating IP with private property generally? Alternatively: why isn’t it the case that this is a bad thing?

I get a bit impatient with the whole ‘oh Holbo has done it again’ as an objection style. Is there anything wrong with what I wrote? Did I misunderstand or misrepresent Zizek? These seem like relevant considerations, but you don’t do more than darkly hint that there is some terrible problem here. It’s true that I mock Zizek - but then he’s a mocker himself so that is perfectly fine. I really don’t see that I am ruder to him than he is to everyone else, including himself. If I am polite to him, I give ground to him rhetorically that I don’t want to concede. If I don’t mock him, I’ll find myself all interpellated into his weird Lacanianism and, of course, I don’t want that. I also do him the courtesy of reading what he writes and addressing it, I think, in its own terms. It wouldn’t be such a human tragedy if you were to do the same for me, Adam. If I have not addressed Zizek in his own terms, then you could, of course, inform me of what you think those terms are. Such, such, is the great dance of education.

Frankly, I don’t understand why you get so pissed off about these posts of mine. Seriously.

In my post I make the claim that the core of Zizek’s position is a kind of Lacanian-Hegelian synthesis. Largely, I think, claiming that Hegel really supports Lacan is supposed to lend strength to Lacan. (I prefer Hegel, so I generally prefer it when Zizek is on about Hegel, but I think he sees Hegel as a means to the Lacanian end.) But Zizek is very emphatic that he isn’t arguing for Lacanianism - or for Hegelianism. His Lacanianism is explicitly dogmatic. There are no arguments for, so there can strictly be no arguments against. How, then, would you suggest that someone who does not believe Lacan - or Hegel - should address themselves to this work?

I have done what I think is most effective: namely, noticing how Z.’s books function, rhetorically - via a cultivated sense that all roads lead to Lacan. It seems to me that the correct philosophical response is to deflate this sense, induce it to die the death of a thousand pot-holes. If there is a reason why this is an unacceptable philosophical response, I would be curious to hear what it is.

I’m interested in Zizek because he exemplifies certain tendencies in philosophy - they’ve been hanging around the place since the German romantics - that are, at once, necessary and disastrous. Zizek seems to me to exemplify, specifically, the ‘disastrous’ side of this equation. But since I do acknowledge that there is something necessary about this tendency, I keep coming back to it. (What’s your excuse?)

By John Holbo on 07/19/07 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Given that he’s misdefined Microsoft Word as a “language,” could he be confusing “socializing the computer language” with open source? How exactly would these be different? Eh, I guess open source is more anarchist than Leninist/socialist in its approach, huh.

Mmm, this post makes me want to eat chocolate. What kind of idiot puts useless toys in perfectly good chocolate? I’m all about the sensuous surface --- empty hollow, cheap tchotchke, who cares? The process of getting to the middle is way more fun than the actual having of the thing.

By Sisyphus on 07/19/07 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Occam’s instrument of cuts—if a man can’t tell the difference between a computer language and a program, nothing else he says needs to be taken that seriously.  Also, plenty of computer programmers would be happy to write novels in LaTeX using vim or original Solaris vi as their editing program, but this does not mean that I would want to do this.  Listening to computer programmer’s advice on the best method of preparing documents is fine for computer programmers, but Word (and other programs that can read Word doc files or generate them—well more than just MS product at this time) has some values that it’s hard to get from open source teams.  The second most commonly used program, Open Office, started as a commercial program that Sun Microsystems released to the open source community.

All this is more nuanced than Zizek appears to understand, complete with Sun’s motives for releasing the code to Star Office.

I was on the Gnome Beta mailing list at one point and heard all the arguments about word processing programs in the real world and in the imaginations of open source programmers.  Basically, getting a good working word processor is not much fun and people basically had to be paid to get concensus and running code.

If a social good can’t be produced by free collective effort, then some limited copyright seems to be utterly sensible.  Arging copyright in perpetuity based on an analogy to real estate and other forms of property is dumb.  Adverse possession brings together parcels of land that inheritance split asunder and abandoned other sorts of property falls under various salvage laws, or is considered collective property of the descendents of the tribes that produced it.

Feeling cranky, so probably being a bit narrow minded about this, but razors wouldn’t work if all their sides were broad.

By on 07/20/07 at 12:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Professor Holbo’s Rules of Successful Conversational Implicature.

1) I speak.

2) You spoke.

3) He spooks.

By on 07/20/07 at 03:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If this is what Zizek did with Kinder eggs, I can’t wait to see what he does with Mohrenköpfe.

By David Moles on 07/20/07 at 03:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Two (not actually) eerie resonances:

1) I ate my first Kinder Joy egg yesterday, courtesy the marvelous Polish GF, so I am now apparently qualified to say Zizek’s use of its cousin the Kinder Surprise to illustrate doofy bits of Lacan is, in turn and unsurprisingly, doofy. Proof-by-overreached-structural-’analogy’ should not be allowed to pass for argument among people who actually leave their houses on occasion. ‘Does this not illustrate...?’ is rear-guard gesturing, not analysis nor proof, and as pedagogy it’s sufficient only for the fanboys. Of which, we may as well point out, My Man Holbo certainly seems to be one. (The same way I hate hate HATE the show Lost but can’t help tuning in, looking for news ways to explain its badness to people I love, startled at my own disappointment.)

2) I saw When Harry Met Sally for the first time yesterday - not bad, irritating - and I finally understand Rich and Adam a bit better. This isn’t to say they’re playing out some kind of thinly-veiled romantic drama, only to say that when they talk to one another, everyone else in the room seems to come up short; everyone else falls away. It’s ten seconds to the New Year and each seems to have no one else to flame with - but they’ll always have each other. It warms the heart.

But yeah, the movie was a little too Neil-Simon-with-ovaries for me, does that make me uncultured, I don’t wanna be uncultured.

By waxbanks on 07/20/07 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This business of error intrigues me.  Part of it presumably has to do with haste; I’m a hasty writer myself, and carelessly prone to error.  Zizek is Stakhanovite in his productivity, and I can imagine that doesn’t leave him much time to revise, or check his facts.  So in Plague of Fantasies he talks about ‘the film Star Wars directed by Steven Spielberg.’ Makes me want to chuck heavy things at his head.  But then again, take Marx:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Let’s say the Hegel doesn’t say that anywhere. Let’s say this is an ur-Zizekian error.  It doesn’t make me want to chuck heavy things at Marx’s head.  Why not?  It’s the kind of thing Hegel might say, sure; but then again, Star Wars is the kind of film Steven Spielberg might direct.  Tapping the exact source of the Hegel quotation doesn’t effect the point Marx is making.  Zizek might say that attributing the film to the wrong director doesn’t effect the point he is making.

It may be that shoddy scholars, like myself, feel on some level that it ought to be possible to make a virtue out of our necessity: to heroize our sloppiness by contrasting it with tedious, pedantic dryasdyust scholars who are capable only of accuracy, never of insight.  Indeed, to coin a phrase “Nietzsche remarks somewhere that all great world-historic scholars despise the petty pedantic accuracy of the dryasdust scholars.”

Now I take it that John is making the distinction between surface error and ‘deep error’; it’s not just Zizek gets petty details wrong, he’s misunderstood basic concepts and premises.  But there’s surely some point in Zizek saying (as he might) ‘I don’t buy the distinction you’re making between surface and depth’.  And that’s where it does get interesting.  How does that distinction work, exactly?  Let’s say Nietzsche commits surface errors (misquotes Euripdies) and ‘deep’ errors (getting the whole Ancient Greek cultural idiom wrong); does that invalidate Birth of Tragedy?  Isn’t it true that the library shelves throng with critical and philosophical works that dot their lower-case ‘j’s immaculately and yet completely miss the larger points?  Is the surface/depth metaphor a useful or defensible one here?

A final example: read this.  In the last line there Keats says that Cortez was the first man to see the Pacific, and that’s not right.  He’s writing a poem about how much he loves Homer that is actually about how he’s never read Homer, since he has no Greek; it’s all error, from now until the end.  Is this ‘deep’ error?  Or ‘surface’?  What is the difference?

By Adam Roberts on 07/20/07 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts,

Just wanted to say I like what you said here. It’s interesting.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 07/20/07 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As Hegel writes somewhere: I have seen the World-Spirit, slipping on a banana peel.

By John Holbo on 07/20/07 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bananas, chocolate ... is it time for your supper or something John?

By Adam Roberts on 07/20/07 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I just think that food metaphors are particularly wholesome.

By John Holbo on 07/20/07 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, I was originally planning on making a fly-by type of “intervention,” because I honestly think that your post is wrong from start to finish—in virtually every respect.  I’m not just saying this for rhetorical effect.  I really think that you get every substantive point wrong.  And if you’re still getting things this wrong at this point in your Zizek studies, it’s an open question whether it’s a fixable problem.  You have your thing you want to do with Zizek, and that’s what you’re going to do.  BUT since I mucked up these comments with my dumb fight with Rich, I owe you a more serious response.

First, Zizek obviously means the Microsoft Word file format.  Calling it a “language” is an error, but not a huge one, in my opinion.  (The man’s first language is not English, and he doesn’t appear to be a computer geek.) He’s saying that it doesn’t make sense for something that is so universally used to be “owned,” in any sense, by any private individual—it should be in the public domain.  He does not appear to make any particular assumptions about the nature of intellectual property, so you’re just reading that into him in my opinion, in a way that just strikes me as really perverse.  What he actually says doesn’t seem very controversial—with things like file formats, internet protocols, etc., it makes more sense for these things to be in the public domain.  Nothing he says excludes open source as an option for solving the problem. 

So that’s the initial problem.  But that’s just a surface-level poor reading—of something that is admittedly poorly written.  The more fundamental error is that you misunderstand what he’s doing with Lacan.  It’s not that he just wants to say “Lacan is always right.” In the preface to Parallax View, for instance, he even rejects the “classic” Lacanian definition of the Real as “what always returns to its place”—and the language of “parallax gap” is (rhetorically) intended to claim what he has woven out of Lacan and German Idealism as “his own.”

His use of Lacan seems to me to be akin to Descartes’ method—if you’re lost in the woods, just keep walking straight, and you’ll at least get somewhere.  In his later works, he seems to hold Lacan more loosely.  I doubt objet a and all that are going anywhere, but still—he’s not just repeating Lacan endlessly. 

He wants something specific from Lacan—specifically, certain moves in Lacan’s thought seem to him to clarify what is going on in German Idealism (including figures you classify as “Romantics").  He is trying to use Lacan’s concepts to help him do “first philosophy” or metaphysics of a certain kind, and he thinks it helps us to get at the core of the insight of German Idealism, which for him is the pinaccle of all philosophy.  So I think it’s wrong to say that he’s instrumentalizing Hegel for the greater glory of Lacan—to lend Lacan greater seriousness or something.  Hegel’s dialectic, for instance, seems to be vastly more important to him than any specific thing from Lacan (other than the concept of the Real—which he understands in dialectical terms).  (And I do not want to repeat the conversation we had before about how he’s not really “dialectical”—he is using Hegel’s dialectic, not Socrates’.)

Part of the problem, it seems to me, has been your approach—from what I can tell, you are not reading Zizek in a systematic way.  If and when you get around to reading things in more or less chronological order, I think they will make a lot more sense.  And I think it’s really crucial, before you try to do more work with Zizek, that you read The Indivisible Remainder.  I’m not trying to set up a “canon” or anything, but in that book, he really “shows his cards” in an amazingly straightforward way.  I’ve come to think of that book as absolutely the central work in his project—a major turning point in his thought. 

Your reading (and you’re not alone in that) seems to take Zizek as being more or less static—drawing on a preexisting body of Lacanian dogma and applying it everywhere.  But I honestly, seriously think that is simply incorrect, factually incorrect.  Zizek has a trajectory, his project develops over time—Sublime Object and Parallax View are fundamentally different and even contradictory works.

But one roadblock I see is that you don’t seem to want to allow legitimacy to any kind of “first philosophy”—his project is something that you regard as more or less a priori wrong.  You seem to be saying that his dumb errors somehow “show” how this is the wrong path to go down—to caricature, it’s as though Romantic obscurantism leads to the death of all reason, facts no longer matter, etc.  If you take that approach, that’s the approach you take—but if you take that approach, there’s no way for you to get at Zizek in specific, there’s no reason why Zizek in specific should be bad.

I’m not asking you to become Lacanian.  I never have.  That would be stupid.  There are plenty of serious critics of Zizek who don’t buy into Lacan.  I’m asking you to treat the kind of philosophy Zizek does as legitimate, and to make the effort of actually seeing what he’s doing rather than viewing it as a symptom of some preconceived theory you have about romanticism.  Unless and until you can do this, I simply cannot take you seriously as a critic of Zizek.  This post that you wrote here is worthless as a critique of Zizek.  Literally worthless.  And this is not because Zizek can never be wrong or because it’s impossible for him to be critiqued—far from it.  But this?  This is just not serious.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/20/07 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I don’t have time to respond at length, so here’s the brief version.

Adam, what makes you think I think Zizek’s views are static? I said he was dogmatic. That’s not the same at all. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to deny that his thought has changed over time (so, really, why do you think I think it hasn’t?) I will grant that Lacan and German idealism are mutually reinforcing for him - I tend to think he is reinforcing Lacan more with the Germans than vice versa. But I could see emphasizing the other side.

It seems to me you get the rest of the post sort of upside down and backwards. I’m not showing his is the wrong path - how could I show a thing like that? I’m suggesting we have no reason to accept it is the right path. That’s a huge difference in emphasis, very important.

I do treat the kind of philosophy Zizek does as legitimate. German idealism. (Plus I like jokes.) What I object to is Zizek’s philosophy. He interests me because this kind of philosophy can go well - I hope. Then again, not necessarily.

By John Holbo on 07/20/07 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I hope you understand that that kind of “nuh-uh” response is exactly why I’m always reluctant to put in the time and effort to give you a serious response.  (I don’t want to argue about whether it really is a “nuh-uh” response ad infinitum—let’s just take it as a given that you disagree with my characterization of your response.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/20/07 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is this “essay about the Parallax View” another version of that “Owl of Da-Noiv-Of” post, or something new? I seem to recall that post being part of an article that was rejected for being wildly Holbonic, or somesuch.

I’m not sure how “this has nothing to do with normal market logic”, “the meaninglessness of private property” and “socialize its use” are supposed to be ambiguous between open source-style Libertarian hobbyhorses and options that increase state intervention into the marketplace. But then, I only have one paragraph out of a series of interviews to guess at what the “radical possibilities” are which warez are supposed to be opening up. Does Zizek not go on to suggest that (private) property rights in general need to be taken less seriously because copyright law has gotten silly?

Is there supposed to be some problem with classifying the Romantics as part of German Idealism? I’ve never seen them treated except as a part of Idealism, so I’m not sure what Kotsko’s rhetorical point is supposed to be when he points out that some of Zizek’s Idealists are some of Holbo’s Romantics. Is “German Idealism” greeted more happily than “Romanticism” in some places? I wouldn’t have thought so, but I’m happy if this happens to be the case.

By on 07/20/07 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The center of John’s critique of “Theory” is that it’s a kind of bad hangover from “Romanticism.” (Zizek’s existence/badness is supposed to illustrate that this is the case.) I hold the word “Romanticism” at a certain distance in these conversations because John seems to me to be using it pejoratively, though I’m sure he’ll chime in and say that it’s actually really great.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/20/07 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that is a lot of heavy weather about a pretty casual answer to a pretty casual question. Zizek, as far as I know, is no expert on intellectual property. I don’t think this is much of a criteria to judge his philosophy on. The comment seems to be lefty boilerplate, but it seems to me that you’ve avoided the point of the remark, which is about monopoly and government regulation. The progressive position of 1890 that brought about the laws to ensure that competition is preserved in the marketplace, thus enshrining a previous classical liberal shibboleth about competition as a very good thing. Interestingly, there was a sort of slide, however, as the economists who proxied for moneyed interest began to backtrack - no, it wasn’t competition that was the good thing, it was efficiency. And since efficiency is now our reason not to interfere in the good old self regulating marketplace, a monopoly position might not be a flaw that the government should intervene and fix - but a sign of greater efficiency on the part of some producer or marketer. I think, then, Zizek is right to say that these economists want to produce a little intellectual miracle and say that efficiency, which is after all about cost to build and market and the return thereof, is also about the technological optimal outcome - they want, in other words, to get all the good stuff that comes along with competition and combine it with the good stuff that comes when you decide the government shouldn’t be intervening to create competition but instead should be not intervening in the name of efficiency.

This is why libertarians love to attack the qwerty example.

Now, who knows what Zizek means by socializing in your quoted sentence. Does this just mean that the government doesn’t intervene to protect monopoly? In effect, that creates an open source venue that can be considered socialism - or at least Bill Gates thinks so. 

I’m not a big reader of Zizek, so he may say something that is more inane in this context, but from the instance you present, I think you are applying a reading to him that makes more out of this rather brief and rather banal passage than should be made out of it.

By roger on 07/20/07 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Romanticism is actually really great.

I do think that Adam K. is confusing dogmatism with orthodoxy. That is, he is arguing from the fact that Z. is not an orthodox Lacanian to the conclusion that he can’t possibly be a dogmatic one. (If this isn’t your argument, Adam, then please clarify it. I am certainly not ‘nuh-uh’-ing anyone, so you can put that concern clean out of your head.)

I think the heavy weather about the MS-Word example is a function of these ensuing comments, rather than the post itself. I wasn’t making a big deal about it. I was just saying it’s indicative of Zizek’s style - big gestures that neglect picky details and conceptual precision. I don’t think there is really anyone who denies that, in his haste, Zizek gets a lot of basic things wrong. I’m just illustrating that familiar phenomenon by way of starting the post. (Also, I’m personally interested in the IP stuff, and concerned not to let bad confusions about it take root.)

Returning to the orthodoxy/dogmatism distinction. Zizek obviously disagrees with Lacan about, most notably, the notion of the Real. Zizek really wants to revise that. (One thing that is confusing here is that Zizek will want to frame the point as ‘Lacan is always right’, even when really he is being patently revisionistic. Zizek is thinking Lacan through to a yet more Lacanian position than even Lacan arrived at. Rhetorically, Zizek likes to put it this way.)

The question is: why? What grounds does he give? And the answer, I think, is: Zizek reinforces his point by conjuring an army of apparent, little confirming instances. It is supposed to seem as though, once you adopt his view of, say, the Real, all the pieces fall into place. My point is that when you look more closely what you find is that there are just lots of little problems - devil in the details-type problems. The speculative puzzle pieces aren’t all fitting, they are all being FORCED to fit. If you give Zizek a pass, piecemeal-wise, if you excuse him for getting all the little things a little bit wrong - or a lot wrong - you cumulatively give away the Big Picture. Because the game is to project, rhetorically, a sense that the Lacanian-Hegelian synthesis affords speculative insight - almost effortless mastery - of such a wide field.

Also: romanticism is actually great. (How not?)

By John Holbo on 07/20/07 at 11:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment


He wasn’t getting the IP thing “wrong.” He got the distinction between a computer “language” and a “file format” wrong.  He also does not seem to me to have misconstrued what Dennett is saying.  All of your telling examples here, except for something so small that we all agree it should’ve been caught by a copy-editor, are incorrect.  They don’t prove his sloppiness. 

He is sloppy sometimes, but the fact that you so quickly jump to that assessment leads me to think that you’re vastly overestimating the degree of sloppiness, meaning that you in fact are the one forcing him into your puzzle.  You are sloppily misreading your little hobby-horse about IP, which has nothing to do with what he’s saying, into a completely inoccuous statement of Zizek’s.

You continue to stay at the level of style, rather than the level of concepts.  To approach him on his own terms means to deal seriously with his concepts.  Not to agree with his concepts, but to acknowledge their existence rather than simply making them part of this big pose he’s putting on.  I’ve told you what he’s trying to do—first philosophy.  He is increasingly, in his work post-Indivisible Remainder, trying to put together an ontology that, from the bottom up, makes sense of human subjectivity and freedom.  That’s what he’s doing.  It’s not all just this game of saying, “See, Lacan works everywhere!” That would be fucking dumb.

One thing you do seem to have right is that “the proof is in the pudding”—he can’t provide an argument in favor of going in a Lacanian direction beforehand; it has to be proven by results.  This nit-picking thing about “orthodoxy” vs. “dogmatic” is a waste of time. 

You seem to want him to provide something that he structurally can’t provide (a prolegomena for “why Lacan"), before you will take seriously what he actually does provide—an endless loop, leading to an endless loop of these bitchy little posts that are way too eager to find errors.  This time, in what you’ve quoted, except for the copy-editing thing of “language” vs. “file format,” there are no errors.  I’m not going to concede in advance that there are, just to be a good sport.  You have to prove that there are, and you haven’t done that here.  In fact, your first “error” is so dumb that it undercuts the credibility of the whole post.  Leading me to say, AGAIN, that your post is worthless as a critique of Zizek.  You should feel embarrassed—instead you appear to feel smug.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 12:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"There are no errors.  I’m not going to concede in advance that there are, just to be a good sport.”

Adam, you are getting the timeline confused. I’ve already written the post - see above - so if you want to argue that there are no errors, you don’t need to do so ‘in advance’. (If I had asked you to concede these points before I wrote the post, or before you had a chance to read it, that would be a different case, I concede.  But we are safely in the post-post period.)

I wasn’t really getting hung up on the language vs. file format thing. (I had to remark on it, in passing, because it was odd.) I was more concerned with the IP/ private property distinction. If you want to rebut that point, feel free. But I’m not just going to grant in advance that I’m wrong. Also, if you have something to say about how quantum mechanics actually is relevant to Dennett’s point about the design stance and Conway’s Game of Life, fine. But what is it?

I don’t see that the orthodoxy vs. dogmatic thing is a nit-pick. It’s a huge issue. Suppose he says something about ontology and I understand it but don’t buy it. Where do we go from there? This is a very basic procedural question.

Again, it seems to me that the problem is that you have misunderstood the post. You don’t get the structure of what the problem is supposed to be, so you are attacking my argument, such as it is, as it if were a different sort of thing than it is.

Also, can I recommend that you adopt a less bluntly abusive tone? I realize that I am a ironic fellow, but I do try to make my contributions such that, if someone cares to engage me seriously, there is something serious to engage.

I am actually trying to ask what I take to be a worthwhile question: how can I assess Zizek’s philosophy without begging the question, one way or another, as to its worth? This seems to me a very fundamental puzzle about how a whole style of basically speculative philosophy can proceed.

I really don’t think it is appropriate to blow-up this way at my Zizek posts. What pisses you off so badly about it? I’m someone who writes philosophical criticism of Zizek. I’m trying to work on a big essay at the moment. We are friends. You like Zizek. I don’t. We know that. I write a post. In it a point out two relatively incidental errors and say I take them to be indicative of a larger problem, which I try to indicate. What the hell is there about this situation that so offends you, given that there is plenty of room for you to respond in a substantive manner, should you decide to do so? You could 1) rebut the small points; 2) explain why you think the larger point isn’t right.

By John Holbo on 07/21/07 at 01:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I have told you several times that your larger point—i.e., what he’s doing with Lacan—is incorrect, and I believe I’ve told you why.  I understand that you are worried because he calls “intellectual property” “private property,” because that seems to you to echo a spurious claim critiqued on the Valve months ago, namely that intellectual property is “property” in the straightforward sense and should be perpetual.  What Zizek is saying has nothing to do with that kind of confusion.  He’s just saying that something as universally used as the Word file format should not be subject to arbitrary change by a private corporation that can then force everyone to upgrade their software.  There is no error here—maybe, underneath it all, Zizek really does misunderstand intellectual property law, but if so, this paragraph you’ve quoted gives us no reason to think so.

On the Dennett thing—Zizek, from what I understand, is saying that throughout his work, Dennett assumes that consciousness is a “design” level (gliders and so forth), but the “physical” level is mechanical determinism.  Zizek is saying—well, what if the “Newtonian” level is actually a design level itself.  And again, this doesn’t seem particularly controversial, since we’ve known about quantum physics for close to 100 years at this point.  The Game of Life is an illustration for Dennett, as it’s an illustration for Zizek, of the physical/design distinction, and Zizek is embracing that distinction and arguing that Dennett doesn’t push it as far as he should.  So for example, your objection that Dennett of course doesn’t think we’re living in “the Game of Life” is silly, because neither does Zizek.  No error.

So here, you are manifestly overdiagnosing error.

And again, you’re getting his stance toward Lacan wrong.  His point in choosing the “parallax Real” over the classical Lacanian Real is not to be more Lacanian than Lacan—otherwise he would say that in place rather than leaving you to hallucinate it—but rather to claim this structure of thought that he’s gotten out of his mixture of Lacan and Idealism as his own.

So you are overdiagnosing his Lacanian dogmatism.  And I would note that this leads you to make the puzzling claim that he’s imposing Lacan onto philosophy of mind stuff, when in reality he’s trying to demonstrate how they’re already practicing Hegelian dialectic without knowing it, and the way out of the impasses in the field—and philosophy of mind is still a work in progress, right?—can be addressed by applying Hegelian modes of thought.  He does do “death drive” stuff with Dennett’s evolutionary account.

Finally, I am not simply going to take your word for it that he gets philosophy of mind dreadfully wrong.  You are analytically trained, but philosophy of mind is not a specialty of yours from what I understand.  Odds are that Zizek has done more reading in the field than you.

Throughout that section, he is making an argument that what he is doing can help make sense of the findings of philosophy of mind, but since all you’re seeing is “the same damn thing,” you don’t take that argument at all seriously—probably because you assume going in that Lacan won’t be applicable in that field.  (Rhetorically, you cannot concede this, I understand.)

I am angry and blunt in tone for the same reason that I keep getting in these dumb arguments with Rich—I hate it when someone can’t admit he’s wrong.  For example, you.  Even though we’re friends.  Your “ironic” responses only increase this reaction, because that whole stance feels pretty passive aggressive—like you’re not even taking me seriously.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I would also add that one popular way to do speculative philosophy is to ground it in the tradition of German Idealism—which means ultimately grounding it in Kant’s critiques.  Zizek tries to show that Lacan is working in that tradition and that his concepts give us a way to continue moving it forward.  (And simply on a historical level, this makes sense—Lacan was big into Heidegger, Kojeve’s Hegel, Kantian ethics, etc.) Of course, it is difficult to take seriously Zizek’s arguments on this front—which are legion—if one is already totally sick of how he instrumentalizes absolutely everything for the sake of the greater glory of Lacan.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, in the interest of moving the discussion forward, what is the argument - you say Zizek has an argument - for Zizek’s conclusion that Dennett is wrong to ignore quantum mechanisms in discussing the application of the design stance to Conway’s Game of Life? To me it looks as though Zizek is ignoring the complexity of Dennett’s view of ‘real patterns’. Show me that I’m wrong.

And you are not allowed to take ‘Zizek knows more than Holbo about analytic philosophy of mind’ as a premise.

By John Holbo on 07/21/07 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, that leads nowhere.  The point isn’t the Game of Life—that’s an illustration Dennett is using and Zizek is echoing.  Zizek is neither arguing that we are “living in a big Game of Life” or that quantum mechanics explains the Game of Life better.  He’s introducing readers who might not know Dennett’s concept, by means of an illustration!  And what motivation could Zizek possibly have to downplay “real patterns”?  That’s specifically what he likes about Dennett’s account!

I’m going to take this as the premise: Until John Holbo gets an article published in a peer-reviewed journal demonstrating at length that Zizek is wrong in his reading of cognitive science, then I’m going to have to be agnostic.  It can’t simply be taken for granted that Zizek is wrong on cognitive science, especially since one of the major premises of your critique (such as it is) is that Zizek tends to mess things up.  You have to prove that, right?  Otherwise it’s just begging the question—hoping that readers already mistrust Zizek.  (And you’d have to prove that he is significantly misconstruing the texts he’s referring to, rather than “proving” that Hegel has nothing to do with cognitive science or something.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, this does not even begin to be good enough. You are, per comments above, on the record as declaring in no uncertain terms that my criticism of Zizek, for misunderstanding Dennett, is not merely wrong but SO wrong - so unredeemably ‘worthless’ - that I should be ashamed to have made it. What I said is so wrong it cannot be doubted that I am dishonest even to put such thoughts into words (have I got the the tenor of your earlier comments about right?)

And now we hear that the basis of this severe judgment of guilt is that you are ‘agnostic’ about the merits of my critique? Awaiting peer-reviewed judgment? This is shameful. I will accept your agnosticism, plus an apology. Absent the apology, I am afraid I feel entitled to an argument that my post is as bad as you have said it is.

I DID give an argument in my post: Zizek says Dennett fails to consider quantum physics. But, so it seems to me, all Dennett is doing is making a possibility proof of sorts. There is no obvious reason why he needs to take account of quantum physics, in his argument about stances. Show me I am wrong or apologize for your rudeness. I am never rude to you in this way. Why should I have to put up with it?

By John Holbo on 07/21/07 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I am “agnostic” about whether you know more about cognitive science than Zizek.  That was the specific point on which I am agnostic, as I said in my comment.  If I were in fact saying that I’m agnostic about the entire thing, then your objection would be well-founded—but I am not.  You make a fly-by kind of remark that Zizek is bowling through these cognitive scientists, making error after error—well, Zizek has written a 100-page section of a published book on this, and you’ve written a couple sentences.  Is it unfair for me to ask for more evidence for your specific claim about cognitive science?

On Dennett: Zizek is saying that what Dennett does over here with physical/design stuff should also be reflected in what he’s doing over there with consciousness/physical basis.  The Game of Life, as I understand it, starts off with a certain number of squares, and there are rules for when they go on or off—but then this other layer (gliders, etc.) emerges that is basically explainable in its own terms, without direct reference to the underlying rules.  Zizek says that in general, Dennett is presupposing that human consciousness is a “design level” thing that is explained by the “physical level” of natural selection (itself situated in a strictly deterministic materiality)—but doesn’t take into account that his “physical level” is a “design level” to something else (quantum physics).  It baffles me—and I’m being serious here, I do not understand—why you think that Zizek’s error is so completely obvious and damning here, because there does not seem to be an error at all.

You have not addressed the issue of my demolition of the larger frame (Ad maiorem gloriam Lacani!).  If I am right about that—as, in fact, I am—then the entire frame in which your assembly of these errors makes sense is in fact undermined.  And even within your frame, wouldn’t you have to show that there is something specifically “Lacanian” about his misreadings?  What does Lacan have to do with his supposed misunderstanding of intellectual property?  Or even if he is misreading Dennett (i.e., a really significant interlocutor in Zizek’s work for well over a decade), what is specifically “Lacanian” about his error?  Wouldn’t you have to demonstrate that there is some kind of pattern to these errors, some kind of “shape” they tend to follow?  Until you demonstrate that he is making specifically Lacanian errors, the simple solution is that he’s occasionally sloppy in what he says. 

The place to start, though, would be to track down some honest-to-goodness errors.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you haven’t demolished my larger frame. You have dissented from it. That is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, in principle, but structurally a different sort of activity.

You write: “On Dennett: Zizek is saying that what Dennett does over here with physical/design stuff should also be reflected in what he’s doing over there with consciousness/physical basis.  The Game of Life, as I understand it, starts off with a certain number of squares, and there are rules for when they go on or off—but then this other layer (gliders, etc.) emerges that is basically explainable in its own terms, without direct reference to the underlying rules.  Zizek says that in general, Dennett is presupposing that human consciousness is a “design level” thing that is explained by the “physical level” of natural selection (itself situated in a strictly deterministic materiality)—but doesn’t take into account that his “physical level” is a “design level” to something else (quantum physics).”

If this is an accurate statement of Zizek’s position, it strikes me that he is in considerably worse shape than I had previously supposed. It seems as though this says that quantum physics itself is taking up the design stance towards physics itself. Why should I regard that as plausible? Your rather emphatic denunciations of me would seem to put you on the hook for a bit of explaining here. (Don’t just say you will await the results of peer-review. If you know what I say is ‘worthless’, you know the answer already.)

By John Holbo on 07/21/07 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A design level relative to something else.  Just as the level of “gliders” is a design level that emerges from the physical level of the rules for lighting up squares in the Game of Life, SO ALSO Newtonian mechanics are a “design level” relative to the “physical level” of quantum mechanics. 

In our macro-level view ("design level” view), reality behaves according to Newtonian mechanics, which have amazing predictive power (i.e., getting us to the moon).  The “physical level” that we (necessarily) “bracket” in our day-to-day experience is quantum mechanics.  Dennett uses the “Newtonian” level as a “physical level” relative to other “design level” phenomena—why not also acknowledge that the Newtonian level is also a “design level” relative to quantum mechanics?

(You continue to misread my “peer review” comment.  Respond to the content of what I’m saying, not my tone.  My tone is responding to your tone; my content is responding to your content.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 02:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the interests of comity, let me say that I totally agree that his schtick with the Kinder Egg is stupid, and I wholeheartedly endorse the joke “welcome to the dessert of the Real.”

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I’m going to bed but before I do let me remark that your understanding of ‘design level’ is completely un-Dennettian. Presumably this is due to the fact that you haven’t studied Dennett. ‘Design level’ doesn’t mean ‘emergent level’ - or higher level that is explainable in terms of a lower level. Newtonian physics is not a ‘design’ level because it isn’t a level at which things are thought of as designed. Also, quantum physics is not the sort of thing that is capable of ‘taking up the design stance’ towards Newtonian physics. Quantum physics is not a person, so the relevant ‘relative to’ relation seems unestablishable. If you are right about what Zizek is saying, then in Dennettian terms what Zizek is saying is nonsense, and Zizek says nothing to explain why Dennett shouldn’t be thinking in Dennettian terms.

I won’t kick against the pricks of an offer of comity - I’m truly sick of these fights - but it makes me mad when I make a post, containing arguments that could be profitably engaged, and instead I just get insulted. I get that a lot and I find it tedious.

I’m glad you admit that the joke title was a good one.

By John Holbo on 07/21/07 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I’m not saying that quantum physics (as some kind of subject) is taking up a stance with regard to Newtonian physics.  Since you apparently are understanding me to be saying this, it makes it difficult for me to assess the degree to which I am actually getting Dennett wrong.

Please note that I am also responding at great length to your arguments.  To the extent that I’m insulting you—and saying that you should be “embarrassed” was over the line, so I apologize for that— it is in the context of responding to your arguments.  Saying “your post is worthless as a critique of Zizek,” however, is not a personal insult.  Saying that the repetitious nature of your arguments shows that you are getting more deeply engrained in certain erroneous ways of understanding Zizek perhaps borders on a personal insult, but if I honestly thought you constitutionally incapable of understanding, why would I even be talking to you?

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A further thought on the Newtonian thing (all within the context of admitting that I may well be wrong): people talk about the Newtonian level as “designed” all the time.  There is of course the “divine watchmaker” thing that is now limited to Intelligent Design hacks, but used to be very respectable.  But even the very use of the term “law” in “laws of physics” shows that it is (tacitly) viewed as “designed”—as though God (or whoever) laid down these laws that matter automatically knows how to obey.  Of course it’s an unjustifiable leap to say that there really is a God who laid out these laws—but isn’t that the whole point of the design-level concept?

And so: If the standard for “design level” is that it looks as though it was designed, even though it’s “only” emergent, then Newtonian physics seems like the kind of thing that could be regarded as a “design level,” even if Dennett himself does not draw that conclusion.  (Quantum mechanics, by contrast, cannot be “schematized” in this way.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/07 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Does Dennett actually speak of design-level phenomena as “emergent” from the physical? I recall him saying in a few places that “emergence” was a hand-wavey type of claim ("Zen Holism” he calls it at one point), and I can’t remember him ever saying nice things about it. (A cursory search through the index of “Brainchildren” leads to nothing positive said under the entry for Emergence, with one claim of hand-waving and two of Zen Holism.) I thought the notion of “stances” was supposed to allow for sense to be made of design-type talk (and mental-type talk—intentional talk) without there being any need for hand-wavey things like “emergence” or teleological-physical/psycho-physical laws. The patterns seen when the design stance (or the intentional stance) are taken up are useful for prediction, but there’s no reason to think that, because the physical stance is even more useful for prediction (assuming you have enough time to take all the measurements and crunch all the figures) there must be some way to “connect” descriptions of patterns seen when the design stance (or the intentional stance) is taken up to descriptions of patterns which can be seen from the physical stance.

By on 07/21/07 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, how can quantum physics ‘be designed’, in a Dennettian, i.e. ‘stance’ sense, ‘relative to quantum physics’, without quantum physics being a sort of agent, taking up the design stance? Also, the fact that it is possible to take the design stance with regard to a Newtonian system does not make it a ‘design level’. Also, if you do take a sort of Great-Watchmaker design view, that is still not ‘relative to quantum mechanics’. The proof is that Newton took that stance but didn’t know about quantum physics.

Yes, Daniel, the fact that Adam thinks that the ‘design’ level is emergent, whereas Dennett would strenuously insist that the point of stance talk is to get beyond that hand-waviness, is a big part of what I object to about this whole situation. Zizek is, in effect saying that Dennett has missed this brilliant possibility, but from where Dennett is sitting that possibility is old and worn out and the whole point is to try to steer around it.

By John Holbo on 07/21/07 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, I am seriously not positing “quantum physics” as an entity that can somehow take up a “design stance” with regard to Newtonian mechanics.  I am thinking in terms of, “We know that a bird is ‘really’ made up of chemicals, etc., but we don’t interpret its behavior on that level.” I am NOT saying that quantum physics is schematized as “designed.” In fact, I explicitly said that quantum physics in unschematizable as designed.  Throughout, I’m assuming that we’re talking about a human subject as observer—obviously “quantum mechanics” cannot “observe.”

If it still turns out to be the case that I’m wrong about Dennett even though I’m not positing quantum physics as a subject-like entity observing Newtonian physics, then fine, I’m wrong about Dennett (and presumably Zizek is as well).  I’m still right about the intellectual property thing and about Zizek’s entire project.  And I’m still not entirely satisfied that I’m wrong about Dennett, because you still seem to think that I’m somehow saying that quantum physics is “observing” Newtonian mechanics, when I’m saying no such thing.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/22/07 at 12:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"If it still turns out to be the case that I’m wrong about Dennett even though I’m not positing quantum physics as a subject-like entity observing Newtonian physics ...”

And: “you still seem to think that I’m somehow saying that quantum physics is “observing” Newtonian mechanics, when I’m saying no such thing.”

Look, Adam, I’m not putting words in your mouth. I am squaring your claims to Dennett’s. You can say anything you want about quantum physics but you cannot say anything you want and have it automatically be an accurate presentation of a Dennettian view, for critique purposes.

You cannot critique Dennett by substituting some un-Dennettian - not to mention naive - use of ‘design stance’ (a stance that does not require a stance-taker) and then treat the inadequacies of that utterly un-Dennettian piece of naivete as some sort of reproach to Dennett. Do you see why this sort of procedure is problematic? (In general, your erroneous use of terms like ‘design level’ suggests you don’t know what Dennett’s position IS. That’s not such a terrible thing. But given that you don’t know what he thinks, how could you suppose you were in a position to say what is WRONG with it?)

And if you really want to argue the intellectual property thing, well then you are wrong about that as well. You reconstruct Zizek as meaning something different than he says - which, given that its an interview, I could be open to considering. But it fits the overall context and the specific passage much better to read him as not just making the narrow suggestion that we should socialize software. He is saying that ‘lock-in’, regarding MS-Word, shows us that property is ‘meaningless’, i.e. he is suggesting that software issues are the thin edge of the conceptual wedge, whose thick edge is abolishing private property. Once we see that software should be socialized, we will see that socialism generally is the best solution. But this is, I think, a naive and confused view of the relation between IP and private property. Zizek is advancing the ‘insight’ that these things cannot be coherently conceptualized as working in very different ways.

(You are, of course, free to read the passage differently. But it hardly makes sense to abuse me for reading it in a way that fits the man’s words better than your reading does.)

Conveniently, there is a page where the anti-Zizek view is argued (because Zizek’s view is functionally equivalent to the bad, copyright maximalism major premise that you must treat IP as equivalent to private property generally, on pain of incoherence.)

If you really want to take the line that my critique of Zizek is worthless, all you need to do is explain to me how the arguments in the following section of the following page are worthless (and you need to show your work):


To sum up: your point defense of Zizek so far consists of a pair of flagrant bait-and-switches. First, you substitute a non-Dennettian naive view for the real, more sophisticated view. Second, you substite a non-Zizekian view of the relation between IP and private property for the real, more naive view.

By John Holbo on 07/22/07 at 02:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, The core of my defense of Zizek is that you have his project wrong.  You claim that I’ve merely “dissented” from your view of his project, yet what you’re saying about Zizek’s project (that all he wants to do is shoehorn everything into Lacan) is incorrect.  One can see that from, for instance, reading the preface to Parallax View, a book that you have apparently given quite a bit of attention to.  This is the entire basis of your critique that I’m (potentially at least) undercutting—and you still haven’t addressed it except to dismiss it.

I still do not concede that your hobby-horse about the difference between intellectual property and physical property is relevant to what Zizek’s saying (it’s not a hobby-horse that there’s a difference, and I had indeed read Lessig’s page before—it’s a hobby-horse that that difference has anything significant to do with Zizek’s position).  He is not saying “abolish all property” here.  Read what he says:

“The obvious solution for me would not be to engage in the anti-monopolistic games of splitting Microsoft into smaller units, but simply to acknowledge the meaninglessness of private property. Why should a private person own the computer language that we all use? Wouldn’t the obvious solution be to socialize its use?”

If he were saying that private property tout court were meaningless, then why does he go directly back to the software thing?  He’s saying “the meaninglessness of private property” in the case of a universally-used file format.

The fact that you so eagerly jump to the abolition of private property is that, again, you misunderstand what he’s doing.  The fact of the matter is that he does not currently have a positive, overarching political program.  He does not seem to think that overthrowing capitalism is possible right now.  He is not, pace Rich, calling for Leninist revolution.  He rejected liberalism pretty violently in the wake of the wars in the Balkans, but he does not yet have anything to put in its place—and he’s certainly not turning to anything ready-made like Soviet communism.

What he’s advocating here in terms of socializing software is more in line with something like having universal healthcare instead of entrusting our health to profit-driven insurance companies, or nationalizing a country’s oil or water supply.

And I’m still not willing to concede that I’m setting up quantum physics as an “observer.” Throughout I was presupposing a human observer because the concept itself presupposes a human observer—why the hell else would I refer to how people talk about Newtonian mechanics? So, again, it’s hard for me to tell, from what you’re saying, that I’ve fundamentally misunderstood the concept.  I may be wrong!  But there is a lot of static in your transmission.  (Daniel’s response is much more helpful to me, since it doesn’t make the absolutely ridiculous claim that I’m saying quantum physics is an observer.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/22/07 at 09:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K, I think you are now misunderstanding the Zizek lines you quote.  His actual statement on private property would read something like: “The obvious solution to me would be simply to acknowledge the meaninglessness of private property.” That part of the syllogism comes *before* its deductive application to this particular instance: “Why should a private person own the computer language that we all use?”

The “meaninglessness of private property” is a universal assertion here.  For Zizek, private property is even *more* meaningless when what’s owned is something widely used.

Just because he has no Marxist practice doesn’t mean that he doesn’t approach the world with a fairly typical Marxist perspective glass.  So yeah, he might not want to abolish all private property right now, but he certainly thinks there’s no good theoretical reason not to do so.  The only reasons he might give would be diplomatic, practical, etc.

By on 07/22/07 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t much care about the intellectual property point. It caught my eye and I kicked off with it. I didn’t mean to bog down over it in hideous trench warfare. You are arguing that he must mean something very different than what he is saying. Fine. (Re Zizek’s politics. I only know what I read in his papers.)

Re: the Newtonian/quantum thing, my original point was, you may recall, that Zizek misunderstands Dennett. You were proposing to offer what was, I assumed, a Dennetesque view, improved with a Zizekian twist. This was supposed to show that Zizek had his Dennett tolerably well in hand. (Right?)

I pointed out, in respnse, that if you were using ‘design level’ in a Dennettesque way, you would be implying that quantum mechanics was itself apparently a person - an entity capable of ‘taking up a stance’. I was trying to show you had somehow lost track of the Dennettesque frame within which we were, by hypothesis, working. (Since, presumably, quantum mechanics isn’t some sort of person.)

I now realize you don’t know anything about Dennett’s philosophy and so were in no position to take the hint. Fine. But can you see why - given that you were specifically insisting that my point about about Dennett had to be wrong - I wrongly assumed you had some familiarity with Dennett on the design stance, etc.?

(Obviously I suspected you hadn’t read any Dennett. Fine. You’ve caught me out, trying to catch you out. But can you see why it was annoying to be accused in such bitter, personal terms, when pretty clearly you should have just said something like ‘well, I don’t know any Dennett, so I can’t really say whether you are right about Zizek being confused, but ...’)

By John Holbo on 07/22/07 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Luther’s reading is right.

By John Holbo on 07/22/07 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, so now I’m a hack.  And I feel stupid for even continuing to argue on your terms, since my main point is that your terms themselves are incorrect.  You are saying that Zizek wants to show how great Lacan is by finding him everywhere.  You suspect that this directly makes him sloppy, because he’s too quick to see Lacan everywhere.  So if you can show that he makes a ton of mistakes, it indirectly proves that his approach was wrong to begin with.

I am saying that your premise about what he’s doing is incorrect.  So let’s say that we concede both of your errors are really errors.  That still doesn’t validate your overall method, because it is based on a false reading of his project.  I keep coming back to that, over and over and over, and you keep not addressing it.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/22/07 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And no, I have not read Dennett (aside from the lengthy article you linked a few months ago), but I have read a ton of Zizek on Dennett.  Procedurally, I perhaps should have deferred to your knowledge, but in these contexts, I don’t trust you not to jump overquickly to the idea that Zizek is in error—and, as in the intellectual property example, you often diagnose errors in ways that are really bizarre in my mind.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/22/07 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To change the emphasis a little, I’ve just seen this (look under ‘social policy’).  So now it’s official.

By Adam Roberts on 07/22/07 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Before you know it, Adam, Holbo will be accused of trying to take a (negative) ride on Zizek’s coat-tails.

By Bill Benzon on 07/22/07 at 05:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I must say, as someone whose read both a bit of Zizek and a bit of Dennett, and who finds them both likely wrong, but still worse,- horror or horrors,- uninteresting, that I’ve found this grudge cage-match between the post-modernist and the Analytic highy entertaining! O.K., maybe not so much. But might I suggest that you both pick on someone your own size? Why don’t you both pick on and beat up Levinas! It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

By on 07/22/07 at 09:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

halasz, it is entertaining! I’ve seen many treadmill-like arguments, but in this one may be the most explicit. It’s hard to see how anything’s changed since the first post/comments by the two parties. Well, until Adam admitted, in the last bit, that maybe Zizek had made some errors. That was a breakthrough.

I would, however, be interested in learning why Zizek thinks Dennett is interesting, or his work important/potentially important.

By Chris on 07/22/07 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John (Halasz), Adam and John are already friends (maybe not beautiful though).

John (Holbo), how could you possibly have thought Adam wasn’t simply misusing the term “design” – that is, using it in a way other than Dennett does, rather than using it that same way but in order to say something crazy?  As soon as he says that the physical (Newtonian) level is or may be the “design” level relative to the quantum level it seems pretty clear that he just means that it’s a different level (maybe “emergent,” maybe not, depending on what this means, but one that makes Newtonian explanations no longer bedrock – not that that matters, but that was surely the point).  That whole detour into the idea of quantum physics being an agent, or whatever, was totally unnecessary.

And no one ever said what Dennett actually means.  Surely there is no risk of this discussion coming back to life, so I am free to pontificate here about this without fear of contradiction.  After all, it seems that the important issue – whether Adam should apologize to John or vice versa – has been hashed out sufficiently.  Here’s what I remember about it (forgive any infeliciities, as it has been a while).  The question is how to explain why something happened.  For some events there are different levels of explanation.  Let’s take one of those events, which I will describe this way: someone’s arm goes up.

Physical explanation: The arm is made up of physical stuff, so we can explain its movement with F = ma plus some (posited) previous state.  Not much help here, even if we could possibly have measured these previous conditions.  (See below for QM.) Most of the time, this kind of “explanation,” even if true, simply doesn’t tell us what we want to know.

Design explanation: here we treat the human arm as if it were a designed machine.  Our explanation lingers lovingly on the miraculously efficient cooperation of the various nerves and muscles.  It’s not a physical explanation because “arm” is not a physical term ("a" stands for “acceleration,” not “arm").  But it’s not an intentional explanation either.  The arm would have done the same thing had its nerve endings simply been exposed to the proper stimulation.  (As the example suggests, Dennett claims Wittgensteinian inspiration here; note the anti-Cartesian implications of the pointed Wittgensteinian question “what is left over when we subtract the fact that my arm goes up from my raising my arm?” (or however it’s worded)).  Of course, this does not mean that the arm “really was” designed, or that it wasn’t.

Intentional explanation: here we allow ourselves to speak of agency.  The man’s arm went up because he raised it.  Of course in this example we know people are agents.  Dennett famously suggests that we can use this type of explanation even when the question of whether there are “really” any agents present is still to be decided: when computers “play chess,” the relevant explanation of why the rook ended up at K1 (excuse me, e1) may, indeed must, include talk about Black’s mate threats rather than computer code.  Again, this means neither that computers “really are” agents (nor that they are not), nor that the move cannot in any way, at least in principle, be “explained” at the design level (or the physical level, if you’re a masochist).

Further levels of explanation involve groups of agents (maybe our man is voting or something).  For Davidsonians this level is inseparable from the previous one, but let’s not get into that unless you provoke me.  (You been warned.) Dennett confuses things a bit with his talk of “stances,” which does indeed sound like instrumentalism, but in general the point about the interest-relativity of explanation is congenial.  So I do grant, if it matters, that we may ourselves be able to explain by talking about “stances” what we disagreers-with-Dennett don’t like about him.

So, what about QM?  I know nothing at all about either Zizek or Lacan, so maybe this is no help (either).  But it seems to me that QM is part of physics.  If you don’t like the Newtonian explanation for something (let’s say it’s solar wind or something, not raising my arm), you can explain why you have to take quantum effects into account.  It’s a modification of a previous physical explanation now held insufficient.  In the context of the relation of intentional to design stances (the original context), we saw that the physical level was too far “below” our explanandum to help us.  It is thus irrelevant that you can, if you like, go further still in that direction.  I certainly hope Zizek isn’t trotting out the old canard about QM meaning that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe (lest the wave function never collapse, or something).  I thought we were over that.  (But even this isn’t as crazy as what you, John, were willing to attribute to Adam.)

The only thing I can think of here, which may be what at least Adam (if not SZ) is after, is that naturalists often take the “physical” level as somehow foundational (so that, say, they can reduce other phenomena to it).  In this context it may help to point to the fact that even “physical” explanations are, shall we say, volatile.  But Dennett is trying to sidestep that whole ontological issue.  I think he would agree with the point I just made.  However, it’s not clear that his naturalist commitments can survive his (possible) instrumentalism.  He claims, after all (in response to Rorty, I think), to subscribe, as naturalists pretty much have to do, to a “fairly standard” epistemology and metaphysics – to which I would respond with my souped-up quasi-Davidsonianism, and nobody wants to see that.

Ooh, I found it!  Dennett and his Critics, p. 205.  “Like most cognitive scientists, I’m prepared to take my chances with conservative, standard scientific ontology and epistemology.” I might as well continue: “My project, then, is to demonstrate how a standard, normal respect for science – Time Magazine [sic] standard, nothing more doctrinaire – leads inexorably to my views about consciousness, intentionality, free will, and so forth.  I view science not as an unquestionable foundation, but simply as a natural ally of my philosophical claims that most philosophers and scientists would be reluctant to oppose.  My ‘scientism’ comes in the form of a package deal: you think you can have your everyday science and reject my ‘behaviorism’ as too radical?  Think again.” Hmmm.  (I’m thinking.) Of course my own objection(s) could just as well be that he isn’t “radical” enough (which is what Rorty was saying, which provoked this response – not like I agree with Rorty either though).

By Dave Maier on 07/22/07 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave M. writes: “John (Holbo), how could you possibly have thought Adam wasn’t simply misusing the term “design” – that is, using it in a way other than Dennett does, rather than using it that same way but in order to say something crazy?  As soon as he says that the physical (Newtonian) level is or may be the “design” level relative to the quantum level it seems pretty clear that he just means that it’s a different level (maybe “emergent,” maybe not, depending on what this means, but one that makes Newtonian explanations no longer bedrock – not that that matters, but that was surely the point).  That whole detour into the idea of quantum physics being an agent, or whatever, was totally unnecessary.”

I probably should have been straight about it and just said: look, Adam, your unDennettian use of ‘design level’ shows you aren’t talking Dennett, so pipe down about how I’m wrong. But instead I did a little socratic thingy. The larger point is that Dennett is a great deal more interesting than Z. or Adam were giving him credit for.

I’ll get back to you about the rest later.

By John Holbo on 07/22/07 at 11:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The straightforward approach would have been a whole lot less frustrating, for the record.  If that was Socratic, I can sympathize with the Athenians.

Now I’m actually interested in the whole Dennett thing, regardless of whether Zizek is right or wrong about it.  I see a potential contradiction between two explanations.  Daniel (far above) seems to me to be saying that Dennett is somehow agnostic about whether (what some people call) “emergent” properties can be directly mapped out onto the lower level.  The design stance works, in that it mostly produces useful predictions, and he just sets aside the problem of the “emergence” of those patterns out of their physical basis.

However, David is more directly saying that you can explain everything at the physical level if you have the patience, processing power, etc.—for most macro-scale events, this would be incredibly cumbersome, but it’s theoretically possible.  Is David also saying that you can explain the larger patterns detected by the design stance, from the perspective of the physical stance?  Is Dennett saying that this is theoretically possible, but that we just don’t have time—and so the stances are justified by their utility, with no direct reference to a supposed next “level” of phenomena?

By Adam Kotsko on 07/22/07 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave: “But it seems to me that QM is part of physics.  If you don’t like the Newtonian explanation for something (let’s say it’s solar wind or something, not raising my arm), you can explain why you have to take quantum effects into account.  It’s a modification of a previous physical explanation now held insufficient.  In the context of the relation of intentional to design stances (the original context), we saw that the physical level was too far “below” our explanandum to help us.  It is thus irrelevant that you can, if you like, go further still in that direction.”

I’ve been not commenting on this thread, as requested, but there’s a whole lot of confusion about quantum mechanics that’s been going on.  Mostly it seems to come back to Zizek’s statement about “the level of quantum waves, where determinism breaks down”.  It really doesn’t.  You still have causal determinism if the equations in question include probability functions: you can have probabilistic determinism without having mechanical determinism.

And people always seem confused about Newtonianism because physicists still like it, even though it’s wrong.  It’s an approximation, a useful one, not really an explanation no longer held to be sufficient.  People get confused about it because they are used to looking at physics as history.

By on 07/23/07 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually don’t think you can explain everything at the physical level.  I simply left open the possibility that you might; or, better, that the reason such “explanations” fail is not that we lack the capability even to try (in that, say, we can’t make the appropriate measurements).  As I said first, the problem is really that even if they’re true, such “explanations” don’t tell us what we want to know.  So the terminological issue is: is a true but irrelevant (and thus essentially non-explanatory) explanation really an explanation?  So I think I agree with Daniel.  Problems about “emergence” are indeed set aside.

This is why the Life analogy is good.  You really can do there what reductionists think we always need to do (so the issue of theoretical possibility drops out, in this sense).  Yet even there we do better to speak of glider guns and whatnot (i.e. than bitmaps and rules), and there’s no reason to think, even given the transparency of the Life rules, that the larger reductionist project is at all plausible, as the fully accessible lower level is only a prerequisite.  (BTW in “Real Patterns” Dennett says that the level at which gliders occur is “analogous to” the design level he discusses in the intentional stance context – so there’s that terminological issue addressed.)

“Is David [also] saying that you can explain the larger patterns detected by the design stance, from the perspective of the physical stance?” Well, this depends on how much latitude you are willing to allow w/r/t the characterization of the explanandum.  Strictly speaking, you can’t even see the “larger” patterns from the physical (or bitmap) stance, so in that sense, no.  But once you have a grasp (gained from the higher-level stances) of what it is that you are looking for at the physical level, you may very well have something to say there (as you clearly do in the Life case).  It just may not be of any use to you.  And again, then you will have to decide whether it counts as an “explanation” at all (or of the proper explanandum).  But then again it might.  It will depend on what you’re really interested in – which it may take a lower-level account of the matter to make clear to you.  Or not.

By Dave Maier on 07/23/07 at 01:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, John, the permalink to this post still bears the traces of a previous stratum w/r/t its title.  I think we can all agree you have improved it.

By Dave Maier on 07/23/07 at 01:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The passage Dave Maier half-remembered is Philosophical Investigations 621. “Let us not forget this: when ‘I raise my arm’, my arm goes up. And the problem arises: what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?”

Also: I want to see the souped-up quasi-Davidsonianism.

(I wish that “Real Patterns” was still online, so I could link to it here. Zizek’s take on analytic dudes vs. Holbo’s take on those analytic dudes leads to fun comment threads; if I recall correctly, the one about Chalmers ran to something like 300 comments and multiple follow-up posts, including one titled “Hey, Kids! Hegel’s Logic!” Can’t argue with results like those.)

By Daniel on 07/23/07 at 03:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know Zizek, don’t know Dennett, but I like to follow these philosophical wrestling matches (think WWF: Hulk Holbo vs. Bonekrusher Kotsko) for their entertainment value. On this stances business, I did a little Googling and came away with the impression that, as David Maier suggests, “... Dennett is trying to sidestep that whole ontological issue.” That is, these different stances charter different kinds of explanation without, however, implying any reductionist or non-reductionist committment about what’s Really and Deeply Going On In The World. They’re just ways of talking about things.

Let me add to the confusion by tossing in another example: the weather. As far as I know, no scientist invokes design-type explanations for the weather nor do they invoke quantum mechanics. Good old Newtonian mechanics is all that’s invoked. But the only way we have of predicting the weather is to load a simulation into the computer and let it run. These simulations take the weather as a bunch of cells in 3D space where the state of a cell at T+1 depends on the state of that cell and its immediate neighbors at T. (Conway’s Life is a bunch of cells in 2D space where the state of a cell at T+1 depends on the state of that cell and its immediate neighbors at T.) The whole panoply of weather phenomenon – clouds, thunder heads, high and low pressure areas, tornadoes, etc. – is analogous to the gliders and glider guns etc. of Conway’s Life. People who talk of emergence often use the weather as an example. (For what its worth, Conway’s Life is a type of cellular automaton. CAs where invented by John von Neuman, who was also an early advocate of using computers to simulate weather patterns.)

I think the scientific question here is something like: Is this the best we’re ever going to do? That is, are we forever stuck with simulation as our only way of predicting the weather or will we, someday, arrive at solutions to those equations so that we can predict the weather in the same way we predict the motions of the planets?

Now, just how this bears on the Zizek/Dennett match-up or the dust-up between their WWF proxies, that’s a mystery. But, hey, what’s coherence and sense got to do with anything?

By Bill Benzon on 07/23/07 at 05:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the Zizek quote, I think that what he’s saying is that quantum physics does not seem to be straightforwardly continuous with “normal” physics.  If the types of phenomena that the different stances pick up can be (provisionally) called “levels” (as Dennett himself reportedly does in the discussion of the Game of Life), then it seems to Zizek that there is another “level” (presumably requiring another “stance"), namely quantum physics as opposed to Newtonian physics.

For everyone’s information/amusement, he does in fact connect quantum physics and consciousness.  (See part three of The Indivisible Remainder for details.)

But insofar as he is in error in leaping to “levels” from “stances,” it likely stems from his Hegelianism.  Dennett, with his talk of stances, probably seems “Kantian” to him, and the “Hegelian” move would be to say that the epistemological obstacles are inherent to the object itself.  In this case, the reason that we can’t explain phenomena detected by the design or intentional stance strictly from the perspective of the physical stance is that the physical (Newtonian) “level” itself is “not-all” (in the Lacanian sense).

(On a complete tangent, it seems to me that it might be interesting to compare the quantum level itself to the Game of Life—the random weirdness at the very bottom level would correspond to the random initial state of the Game of Life, and then the patterns of probability that we observe are the gliders, etc.  But this has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.)

By Adam Kotsko on 07/23/07 at 01:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One thing is, when Zizek asks,

“Is the level of totally deterministic behavior of elements really the zero-level? What about the lesson of quantum physics, according to which there is, beneath solid material reality, the level of quantum waves, where determinism breaks down?”

he seems strangely unaware that Dennett has made it crystal-clear that nothing in his distinction between physical/design/intentional stances turns on whether or not the “zero-level” behavior of the world is deterministic.  There are pages and pages about this in Freedom Evolves, where Dennett argues that quantum indeterminism just doesn’t open up any space for the sort of inherently efficacious free will that Zizek seems to mean when he refers to “‘teleological’ causality of motivation (I did something be because I aimed to achieve some goal).” Whether the underlying physics is deterministic or indeterministic (random), there’s no room for teleology until you adopt the design/intentional stance—and once you do that, then you can legitimately talk about “free will,” purpose, etc., whether or not the underlying physics is deterministic.

By on 07/24/07 at 03:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Christopher Monsour is quite correct.

I’m now busy with stuff but will attempt to return, in a postive way, to the Dennett stuff. Maybe in a day or so.

By John Holbo on 07/24/07 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dennett addresses the quantum indeterminism issue not only in Freedom Evolves, which is relatively recent, but also in the earlier Elbow Room, as well as the even earlier article “Mechanism and Responsibility.”

By Dave Maier on 07/24/07 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, my plan is to skip the discussion of Dennett and the World According to the Hoyle of the Real, for the very good reason that I still haven’t read enough Dennett and certainly still leave string theory to the experts.

Let’s nestle down with chocolates and operating systems.

As far as Zizek’s critique of Microsoft goes, it’s true that he hasn’t done a whole lot of research; what he says reads like the thoughts of a man who knows that he reads and writes “.doc” files on a “Windows” machine, and that’s about it.

It’s also true that Zizek’s point is fairly similar to arguments for public ownership and regulation (even with private use) of radio waves, power lines, mass transit, bodies of water, television channels, phones, and so on—universally necessary public resources. Public ownership (or at least public regulation) of these resources has been a way of life in the United States for a long time, and the more recent, Republican-led drives for privatization have frequently produced nightmares. (For example, the manipulation of California’s power grid by Enron.)

I’m not too pleased with Zizek’s obvious conflations—my guess is that his reference to hacker-preferred “better languages” is really a reference to Linux and/or Mozilla. That said, it’s possible for me to understand his position in terms of the real frustrations of my life. Open-source applications and operating systems like Mozilla and Linux really do work, and in many ways they work better than their copyrighted counterparts. In response, Microsoft and Appletry to steal what they can from the open-source technologies while simultaneously pretending that, for example, Safari is the greatest browser on Earth, and there has never been something called Mozilla Firefox. (Which brings us, via Orwell, to chocolate: chocolate rations have been raised to one-fourth of a bar! Hooray!)

My students frequently submit assignments by email nowadays, and every batch contains one or more Word files that have been saved as “.docx,” meaning that I can’t open them on my MacBook. To use Zizek’s beloved form, the rhetorical question, is this not precisely so that I will suffer for having an Apple machine that will always have to suffer delays before the document format is readable in the non-Microsoft operating system?

The incredible success of open-source technology has done nothing to change the dogma of competitive motivation, for the simple reason that it is a dogma. I can sigh and set to work putting Zizek’s ducks in a row, but I can’t dismiss his calls for public ownership when they do in fact have both sense and historical backup.


As for the chocolate, that strikes me as a simple case of “I would prefer not to analyze this,” which (incidentally) is a prominently featured theme in Derrida’s Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Studying why children bite off the top of the chocolate, frantically searching for a small and useless toy (that compares badly to almost any toy sold on its own) may not seem, to a given reader, sufficiently serious or relevant, but that’s not the same as its being intellectually dishonest or void.

After all, what is the right approach to the free toy inside? Methodically eating the chocolate until the toy falls in one’s hand, licked clean? And is this not precisely (I’m sorry, but it’s just too much fun) a kind of insane, obsessive deferral of pleasure, in which the child pretends to be the self-disciplining adult?

Which brings us to Shrek 3 and the scene where…

By Joseph Kugelmass on 07/29/07 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, but the Microsoft paragraph is an example of how anything sounds reasonable if you evaluate it using the same standards as you’d use for a child.  Yes, if you apply sufficient interpretative charity to what Zizek said, he could be making an obvious point about public ownership of public resources.  But software has complications that make it different than radio waves, power lines, or mass transit, and Zizek doesn’t come up to even the base level of discussion about it.  Worse, his point actually subverts open source, because it implies that a software package is property like any other property.

The problem with Zizek is not just that he’s careless in interviews.  It’s that on every issue, whenever someone who actually knows something about what he’s talking about looks at, he’s making some elementary mistake.  It’s certainly true for all of his bogus physics references.

So Zizek is dumbing down everything.  If my six year old said something about how everyone should be able to use the computer, I’d smile and congratulate him, but I don’t expect to have to do that with public intellectuals.

By on 07/29/07 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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