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Thinking the uncommon

In one of the most interesting post I have encountered recently in the blogosphere–Object-Oriented Psychoanalysis and Derridean Deconstruction–Cengiz Erdem argues that the common things of everyday existence are produced out of the depressive position or abnormalities. As the author comments, psychic development is complemented by the death drive. Whereas this relationship is typically represented as a binary opposition in mainstream discourse, it is here presented as a reciprocally determined double-bind. Erdem’s claim, following Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, is that “for a healthy creative process to take place giving birth to new thought” an antecedent disintegration or fragmentation of common sense is required. In other words, the breakdown of one’s consciousness and knowledge is the necessary condition for the possibility of reintegrating novel ideas and producing creative new thought.

In psychoanalytic terms, this entails the negation or considered dissent of the predominant symbolic order in which one explicates the problems inherent to the structure of society. In this questioning process–given that individuals are necessarily complicit in socio-symbolic acculturation–the subject loses him- or herself, splintering one’s formerly stable and consistent identity. That is to say, since subjects are constituted by symbolic structuring, to interrogate this is to persecute one’s very self. As the author says later on, “The subject of the death drive shakes the foundations upon which is built its own mode of being”. But following the confrontation of the “banalities of symbolic societies” the subject tends towards the reparation, reconciliation, and reconstructing of the symbolic order, albeit in a structure otherwise than before.

This becoming self-consciousness doubtless entails pain and subjective intensity. In the case of Heidegger’s being-towards-death, this process involves hopelessness, despair, and angst. Or in Kierkegaardian terms, it is the anxiety or dizziness of freedom. But rather than focus on escape as the solution, as the existentialists understood Platonic rationalism and Western culture as a whole doing, this interior angst should be valorized as the creative agency constitutive of the subject. As Nietzsche put it, pain, suffering, and horror are prerequisites for the novel becomings of existence because the creation of new thoughts and uncommon individuation requires the destruction of old forms to clear space for the new.

Erdem identifies a similar theme in critical theory: “The critical theorist breaks down the meaning of the text and out of the pieces recreates a new meaning, which is to say that creativity bears within itself destructivity and inversely. It may not be necessary to destroy something intentionally to create something new, but to have destroyed something is usually a consequence of having created something new”. In Derridean terms, the peripheral meaning of a text internally contradicts the dominant meaning, causing the text to split and collapse on its own accord. In this sense, the creative drive of a text that brings it into being and the destructive drive that causes its ultimate dissolution “are within and without one another at the same time”. In the final analysis, Erdem concludes that Derrida and his deconstruction project are ineffective when it comes to the generative strategy of re-creating objects or texts out of disintegrated ruins, claiming that he “perpetually postpones” effective or affirmative action, a judgment I will let stand as is and let the reader decide on.

Given my own interest in Deleuze, the psychoanalytic notion that creative thought emerges out of meaningless chaos strikes me as very close to Deleuze’s objects of encounter as considered in Difference and Repetition. What engenders thought or what forces us to think, as Deleuze tell us, is an object of encounter, something that is not immediately recognizable to the dogmatic image. That is to say, it is discordant from the vantage point of recognition and identity. It “perplexes” thought and “forces it to pose a problem” (p. 140). In this way the violent encounter of something unthinkable unhinges common sense from its streamline functioning, creating a discord in the faculties of recognition, and compels thought to grasp that which is not immediately intelligible. In a memorial passage Deleuze states the experience of an uncommon object in this way: “It is not a sensible being but the being of the sensible. It is not the given but that by which the given is given. It is therefore in a certain sense the imperceptible” (p. 140).

So while the object of an encounter indeed stumps thought, it can only be said of intensive objects that thought truly begins. In this sense, familiar thoughts and opinions are only ever the product of events in which thought is disturbingly faced with what it does not directly identify as something previously observed. Or to express it in a simple sentence, thought is engendered by introducing aberration into thought. All of this suggests that objects of encounter are the necessary condition for possible new and stable thoughts to emerge. This is, for Deleuze, what it means to think an original, novel or uncommon thought: neglect the common values and sensible concerns of how things stand in society at large. Knowledge is only conditioned by the unidentifiable condition of the uncanny, the imperceptible.

Subjective Agency and Social Determination

Is the social determined by individuals, or is it the other way around? This has long been an important question for philosophy. Predominately in the tradition of critical theory it is the latter that is espoused. To that end, individuals are thought to be subjugated and somewhat determined by whatever reigning ideology currently holds sway. The inevitable outcome of such thinking is that individuals have little, if any, freedom to determine their own lives. More crucially, they lack agency to transform the social.

From a popular perspective, we might say the wisdom of structuralism—the linguistic theory that describes language by the differences between signs—fits this deterministic scenario. In other words, it neglects the subjective dimension of reality by creating a universal order of language; a truth that holds true for every symbolic order. Thus, since the speaking subject depends upon a particular language to re-present reality, the speaking subject is always-already implicated in pre-established speech patterns. So how does a speaking subject break out of the constraint imposed by language? This question is not too different from asking how an agent breaks with the status quo and modifies the social order.

The best answer, in my opinion, that critical theory or post-structuralism has to offer—as rudimentary as it may well be—is that individuals always have some room for using the same, conservative language in innovative ways; primarily by combining disparate themes and making different connections. Possible variants are always an option. We might distinguish these two types of social considerations as follows: (1) the synchronic, on the one hand, which is “unchanging” (outside of time) and influences the individual and, on the other hand, (2) the diachronic which is a specific substantiation of language in a specific time and place. So while we are determined by the synchronic implication of language, we have freedom in the diachronic dimension. Kristeva, in her Powers of Horror, exemplifies this distinction between subjective agency and social determination using the very terms described above.

Consequently, when I speak of symbolic order, I shall imply the dependence and articulation of the speaking subject in the order of language, such as they appear diachronically in the advent of each speaking being, and as analytic listening discovers them synchronically in the speech of analysands. I shall consider as an established fact the analytic finding that different subjective structures are possible within that symbolic order, even if the different types presently recorded seem subject to discussion and refinement, if not reevaluation (p. 67)

Neoconservatism in an Age of Secularism

According to psychoanalysis, in the natural state of existence (genealogically/archeologically speaking), before there was Law and transgression, there existed an infinite amount of possibilities; no obstacles but freedom itself. The catch was that such an abyss of freedom was brutally dizzying and some constraints needed to be made to “free oneself” of freedom. In short, humanity was a helpless animal “deprived of immediate instinctual support” or innate instincts and the “too-muchness” of nature was overwhelming.

In order to counteract the dizziness of freedom a withdrawal took place in which symbolic norms and regulations were imposed and enacted for the purpose of setting a firm limit to absolute freedom. Thus, freedom was redrawn to constitute a freedom to violate the Law, which was much better than the previous state of things. So the story goes. The resultant situation, in retrospection, is a condition of arbitrarily imposed laws that were set up under the guise of “natural authority” in order to set limits for us all. In other words, the responsibility that should have been ours to “decide upon the undecidable” is already taken care of for us by an “external master.” This circumstance suites us fine, however, because it conceals from ourselves the burden of defining our own limitations. Ironically, we now experience this limitation – a firm limit imposed to liberate us from dizzying freedom – as suffocation.

It seems absurd then, from this point of view, to call for a recovery of traditional values, as if they were somehow supported by an ahistorical, vertical dimension. This is precisely what neoconservatives attempt to do in pushing forward (or is it pulling from behind?) old ideology. Žižek elaborates further on the following topic:

For Lacan, the Kantian overcoming of the “dialectic” of Law and desire—as well as the concomitant “obliteration of the space for inherent transgression”—is a point of no return in the history of ethics: there is no way of undoing this revolution, and returning to the good old times of prohibitions whose transgression sustained us. This is why today’s desperate neoconservative attempts to reassert “old values” are ultimately a failed perverse strategy of imposing prohibitions which can no longer be taken seriously….That is to say: with Kant, the reliance on any preestablished Prohibition against which we can assert our freedom is no longer viable, our freedom is asserted as autonomous, every limitation/constraint is completely self-posited (The Parallax View, pp. 93-4)

Overcoming Ontological Shit

The neat world which we have constructed through linguistic division, in our effort to decompress being, hides the reality which it seeks to cover up; but from underneath the blanket comes the indelible stench. And we can catch sight of this reality – the what is not, that lies beneath the what is (Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, p. 256)

Society makes distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate desires and, in doing so, hides the undifferentiated, indivisible reality beneath our random life meanings. However, despite our attempts to ignore and clean up the Real it remains always slipping through the fissures of existence through remainders and traces. It was the great masters of suspicion that denuded the façade of culture and pointed to the “pulsating reality that lay behind the accepted account”. This reality that lays beneath is the Lacanian Real, the “really real” (ontos onta): “pure reality, absolute shit, devoid of shape and distinction” (p. 257). Rather than being a relativism, the Real—ontological shit—is the epitome of idealism; a new objectivism. The objective horror and shit that flows in, with and under us is “the kernel of reality” that we seek to domesticate, or at least jettison. To a certain degree, there is a good deal of truth in nihilism. Every idealization, such as “friendship, family, employment, money and so on” distracts us from this kernel of reality and acts as an “insidious opiate”. “We are indeed sedated by the mindless chatter of gossip; call it politics, sport, economics, romance or whatever…” (p. 256). This domestication is nothing other than a colonization of the world by holding captive the desires and thoughts that do not conform to the established symbolic system. Meillassoux correctly categorizes this in anthropological terms, the symbolic is merely a projection of what humanity apprehends.

The difference of theology is that it does not interpret the void as an ugly excremental horror but the excess which life is. “Hamann would surely have disagreed with Žižek’s pejorative interpretation of the Real, because for Hamann all that is made is clean, in so far as what God makes is clean, so we must not call it profane” (p. 258). To put it in other words, the idealism of radical finitude discerns the Real inappropriately and lacks a charity of hermeneutics. According to Merleau-Ponty, the world carries an “inexhaustible richness” and this excess or plenitude can never be domesticated in the way vain metaphysics would like. In this way anthropomorphism is avoided because every object is phenomenologically resistant to totalization. We merely get a glimpse of the gift of creation through our perception.

There is certainly some similarity between theology and nihilism and this similarity lies in their mutual agnosticism towards perception. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a victory march of self-certainty. In contrast to the implicit agnosticism of theism and atheism, liberalism naively believes it can adequately describe objects and deal with them by a reductive logic. But language is always ecstatic which means that objects exceed language. As such, there is always a trace of an object’s excess in language, and while it may violate an object to some degree in its representation, it “carries the evidence of the crime with it” (p. 262). Cunningham however is clear in maintaining that the correlation between object and subject is indeterminate, but not “the indeterminate”. In other words, we are bereft of comprehension because our categories are exhausted by plenitude, not because of an infinite indetermination. Although Cunningham is not directly addressing Meillassoux here, his comments could apply towards surpassing the imbalanced relativistic/fideistic double-bind:

Theology cannot have a pure reason or a pure faith, because following de Lubac, it can be understood that there is no pure nature; conversely there is no pure unmediated supernatural. This means that there can be neither a natural theology nor a fideism. It is easier to see why when we realize that each contains an element of the other. Natural theology must have faith in its reason. That is, it must supplement rationality with a mode of faith (as an analogy, Gode’s ‘Incompleteness’ theorem comes to mind here). Furthermore, faith in retreating into its own ghetto does so for its own reasons (p. 274)

Frail Identity, Part II

As we have looked at before, the bifurcating logic of proper-clean and improper-dirty are simultaneously constituted in a given symbolic system. This is no less true for the religious, especially for peoples of the Book. Only on this account it is logicizing between abomination and the sacred. In the tradition of what I’m calling the “peoples of the Book” impurity is always what departs from the symbolic order, or divine precepts in this case. Of course the anthropologist or psychoanalyst would way that there is nothing impure in itself; “the loathsome is [only] that which disobeys classification rules peculiar to the given symbolic system” (Powers of Horror, p. 92).

For the religious, impurity generally becomes a metaphor for idolatry and immorality. Therefore, whatever has no immediate relation to the sacred is excluded from the given symbolic order. Holiness then is the struggle individuals face in attempting to become subjects to the Law. By logically conforming with the established taxonomy of pure/impure distinctions the subject is protected from falling outside the bounds of religious orthodoxy.

The great threat to identity is intermixture. If we might think of purity as a symbolic oneness then defilement is that which unsettles boundaries between the pure and impure. Therefore idols in particular are those objects that erase the differences between strict identities and introduce confusion and disorder to the prevailing symbolic establishment.

However, the prophets of the Hebraic tradition revealed the inescapable and inseparable abjection of our selves. “The impure is neither banished nor cut off, it is thrust away but within—right there, working, constitutive” (p. 106). To put it otherwise, the abject is interiorized. This logical complicity with abjection in fact permeates the entire Bible and is found in such notions as “leaven” in the Old Testament and “tears” in the New. What happens in Christianity is precisely a new arrangement of differences; the impure/pure topological demarcation remains but is reversed from being an external logic to an internal one. As Kristeva puts it, “Christian religion is a compromise between paganism and Judaic monotheism. Biblical logic remains nevertheless, even though it is inverted (the inside is to blame, no longer the outside): one uncovers it in the persistence of processes of division, separation, and differentiation (116-7). In other words, “the threat comes no longer from outside but from within” (p. 114). The internal danger, which was previously an external threat, is a heterogeneous and a potentially condemnable self. The self no longer is characterized by unity but is internally, contradictorily split. He is tormented from within rather than from without. Jesus’ pronouncement, following those of the prophets, is that man is defiled by what comes from within, rather than by what surrounds or enters him. This means for Christians that they are always divided, incomplete and lapsing in respect to the ideal Christ sets forth. In this internalizing move the boundaries between pure and impure become much more porous and an unsurpassable heterogeneity arises.

The sort of ambiguity is further confounded in another insight of Christianity, the origin of sin. The fall of man [sic] usually belongs to the feminine temptation to eat the fruit of a particular tree in the Garden of Eden which promised an epiphany of knowledge. It was Eve’s enticement of Adam that implanted the power of sin within the flesh.

And yet, the tale of Adam’s fall opens up two additional channels of interpretation throwing light on the ambivalence of sin….Man would thus accede to divine perfection only by sinning, that is, by carrying out the forbidden act of knowledge….It takes only one further step to suppose that the invitation to perfection is also an invitation to sin….In that instance, the fall is the work of God; founding knowledge and the quest for consciousness, it opens the way to spirituality (pp. 126-7)

These two currents on the ambiguity of the flesh engender a hermeneutical plurality on the constitution of sin. Furthermore, it also seems as though defiling sin is the proper condition for remission. Sin appears with law which appears with grace.

By the same token, abjection will not be designated as such, that is, as other, as something to be ejected, or separated, but as the most propitious place for communication—as the point where the scales are tipped towards pure spirituality….abjection becomes the requisite for a reconciliation… (p. 127)

As a final example, blood carries a particular ambiguity when it comes to pure/impure demarcating strategies. Menstruation was clearly a defiling element that targeted women in Hebraic societies. But while it indicated the impure, blood also signified a vital element to life. Not only did blood represent death, but it also referred to the assurance of life and fecundation. “It thus becomes a fascinating semantic crossroads, the propitious place for abjection where death and femininity, murder and procreation, cessation of life and vitality all come together” (p. 96).

Frail Identity

In lieu of my previous post on the ambivalence between demarcating the categories of saint and sinner I thought a psychoanalytic example would further clarify the blurring of complimentary opposites. In psychoanalysis, as in anthropology, it is generally taken for granted that the sacred and the profane are inextricably linked with the establishment of a symbolic system. Necessarily, the logic of prohibition founds the abject and constitutes the social order in a binary logic of proper-clean and improper-dirty. Although this demarcating imperative varies between cultures, the pattern is universal. Once the social has been classified and organized in this way defilement is taken as a threat to one’s own clean self. In other words, “the danger of filth represents for the subject the risk to which the very symbolic order is permanently exposed, to the extent that it is a device of discriminations, of differences” (Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, 69). Without this differentiation of inner and outer borders the subject is at risk of falling outside the symbolic order. To safeguard from such defiling elements primitive societies would hold rites of purification which would excluded and jettison the danger of filth to the margins of society. Furthermore, this hierarchical establishment was vigorously defended against the threat of “outsiders”.

This social mapping, however, becomes highly problematic when the outside/inside boundary is internal. Just like the Saint/Sinner paradox, the outcome is a frail identity. No longer is the abject foreign or external to the individual but internal to his ego. In sum,

…the non-constitution of the (out-side) object as such renders unstable the ego’s identity, which could not be precisely established without having been differentiated from an other, from its object. The ego of primary narcissism is thus uncertain, fragile, threatened, subjected just as much as its non-object to spatial ambivalence (inside/outside uncertainty) and to ambiguity of perception (pleasure/pain) (Powers of Horror, 62)

Dealing with the abject

For most, the abject–the despicable, impure, loathsome, defiled–is that which crushes and gags us. The abject is what we balk at, but it is also what we jettison, expel and separate from ourselves . Vomit, feces, blood, the Other. It includes all that infects life with filth and interferes with our routine narcissism. For the pyschoanalytic, it is that which we repress. But what is philosophy’s role in insuring purity? For Julia Kristeva, passing on the lesson of Aristotle, it is a transvaluation by rhythm and song (see the Poetics).

What is involved is a purification of body and soul by means of a heterogeneous and complex circuit, going from “bile” to “fire,” from “manly warmth” to the “enthusiasm” of the “mind.” Rhythm and song hence arouse the impure, the other of mind, the passionate-corporeal-sexual-virile, but they harmonize it, arrange it differently than the wise man’s knowledge does. They thus soothe frenzied outbursts… (Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 28)

Kristeva is not the most easily read I will be the first to admit, but the content of the work makes up for the obscurity. Kristeva’s “poetic purification“, so to speak, is not an act of ridding the impure of the self–an impossible task that nonetheless makes up culture–but rather of rearranging it in repetition and harmonizing the abject through refrain. In other words, difference does not constitute lack but can be unified in a greater whole from its “original impurity.” It is re-evaluated a second time. Her analogy of music is especially poignant in that individual notes in a melody, while aberrant stand-alone, form a “heterogeneous and complex circuit” that smooths the frenzied. The cathartic process of Kristeva is certainly more harmonious wisdom than the run-of-the-mill abject phobic.