Appeals and incriminations

1. The primrose path. The split between philosophy and science has rendered philosophy vulnerable to two equivalent and damning accusations disguised as genuine questions: “what are the facts of the matter?” or “what is your ontology?” When, for example, cognitive and neuropsychology are busy re-creating the Kantian picture of cognition (including the opacity of the transcendental ego) or when sociology agrees with Aristotle’s insight into what we now call “crowdsourcing”, it seems that science has given philosophy empirical verification. Against the consequent threat of redundancy, philosophy (particularly in its idealist and crypto-idealist varieties) has generally responded with some doctrine of method: “philosophy provides an account of what a fact is in the first place”. Of course, we should be wary of any such tendency toward absolute idealism ever since witnessing the misfortunes of a system that attempts to deduce being from the idea. But an ethical idealism is equally problematic that insists on the role of philosophy in arbitrating between facts and values (which are, by definition, outside the domain of ontology): such a solution simply reduces philosophy to literature and makes it possible to speak of “my” and “your” philosophy since, after all, if values are not facts there is no other court of appeal than my “yes”.

1a. The discourse bubble. Values, of course, are discursive (as Nietzsche insisted against the metaphysicians). “We must reflect and discuss our values.” But to whom do we speak? Confronted with the towering black obelisk of technology, for example, philosophy quarantines itself in a mode of discourse that appeals to Aristotle and Heidegger instead of Lanier. The objection to such discursive naïveté (at best and bad faith at worst) is not that of simply lacking reference to a “real” world outside discourse but, rather, that a discourse that intends only itself is self-defeating.

2. Whither the moral world? Is it possible to be moral in an immoral world? We face here an inverted image of the doctrine of original sin. Bourgeois ideology refuses, for example, to decide between the “right” of a chemist to create a better non-smearing lipstick and the creation of HIV medication. The democratic paradox is that we must at once affirm the separation of ethical injunctions from political right while at the same time recognizing that it is this very distinction that creates the very immoral world from which we must impose on ourselves the choice to be moral.

2a. Discourse and praxis. Philosophy faces a similar paradox. Faced with the separation of philosophy and politics (which Marx famously wanted to overcome), philosophy both recognizes and refuses its task in the face of injustice. Philosophy has its responsibility and capacity to incite us to the recognition of injustice—including the fact that its current existence in academic institutions is predicated on unjust socioeconomic practices—but it will not be by researching what passages of Hobbes Leibniz was reading in what years (although, in fairness, such research is arguably not philosophy at all but its decadent imposter).


The paralysis of discourse

1. Bergson identifies laughter as the repetition of the past, i.e., as an interruption in the novelty of life. Moreover, as a social institution, comedy “lies midway between art and life. … By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment … And in this respect it turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature”. On the one hand, comic laughter inhibits the movement of vital forces by the sublimation of desire into the affirmation of the present as the presence of what is missing. Life itself, as pure difference (that which differs from itself), never appears. But, on the other hand, laughter condenses into a single, unstable moment two tendencies, which are by nature opposed—(simple) negation and the reflexivity of a subject present-to-itself—resulting in the confusion of life and enjoyment.

Yet, as a relaxation or pause in the impetus of life, laughter finds itself neither on the side of language nor action. There can be, of course, no real hiatus in life, yet this illusion of laughter, Bergson says, is akin to the illusion of dreams: “the behavior of the intellect in a dream [is this:] … the mind, enamored of itself, now seeks in the outer world nothing more than a pretext for realizing its imaginations”. It is for this reason that laughter is the expression of irony par excellence (see “Irony and Criticism”) and, further, why laughter can serve no critical function. Because laughter is neither language—we can laugh at false reasoning or bad logic, which serves as the staples of comedy—nor action, laughter is simply a refusal of criticism.

Comedy, therefore, like camp, is not only incapable of criticism but actively serves to neutralize criticism. If, as Ross claims, camp consists in the recovery of cultural productions whose sense is no longer dominated by the demands of capital, camp threatens quickly to collapse into parody or imitation and thereby acquires a sort of “zombie life”. For both camp and irony, the price paid for enjoyment is simply the loss of the objective world: anything can be enjoyed by the perfect solipsist for whom there is no ethical demand to recognize anything as genuinely demeaning, offensive, violent, or banal. There is only the subject-for-itself, baptized in enjoyment.

We see the same phenomenon in the parody of children’s play. The child who mimics adult telephone conversations engages in precisely the same parodic act as the laughter of those uninitiated into various forms of discourse (for example, mocking a foreign language or the derision of jargon) or in caricature (for example, the “seventh meditation”), both of which mark the death of criticism.

2. On the other hand, the failure of criticism has been the assumption that the mode appropriate to it is that of discourse or, alternatively, that the choice facing politics is that between theory and action. Those impatient for action who want to “cut through the bullshit” of theory refuse the entreaties of discourse to see the intolerance in tolerance or the reactionary in the revolutionary. The call for theory is therefore not simply to remind us of our history but, as Zizek has called it, a search for “lost causes” as neither a mode of historical inquiry nor one of hermeneutics (Ricoeur, for example, uses the text as a model for action whereas we might say Zizek proclaims the inverse). Ricoeur’s “critical hermeneutics” requires a dialectic between inclusion and distantiation, which brings into discourse what is initially simply given as structure. But Ricoeur never escapes the vicious circle of subject and world: if we are to know the world to which a text refers, we must rely upon “imaginative variations” of the subject that only occur in a world constituted by discourse.

We are left, however, in a precarious position. The search for “lost causes” threatens not to dissolve the sense of discourse (as, for example, in parody) but to substitute meaning for intention: it is sufficient for discourse to appear as such in its illocutionary force (as a “call to action”, for example). The intention of discourse, it turns out, is irrelevant: as long as discourse retains consistency—even the consistency that obtains across parody as a derivative sense—it remains meaningful. At this zero-point, discourse is both sufficient and unnecessary: as Sartre said, intentions vanish and it no longer matters that we all agree on why we are storming the Bastille just as long as we’re doing it. Zizek tarries at this point where the pleasure of discourse is seduced on the one hand by the laughter of enjoyment and by the force of sovereignty on the other.

Fragment of a note on experience

Identity collapses into ontology the moment a claim to universality displays its falsity by its failure: another universality makes opposing demands. In this moment of undecidability, it must be possible to think of identity neither under the mode of what one is (ontology) nor what one must choose (ideology) but as what one might be (temporality). The critique of ideology must then have a twofold character: 1) to show that futurity is collapsed into the present and 2) to show that the future is named as ideology itself—i.e., as that which “is not” in the very name of negation. The name of negation under the operation of ideology is time: i.e., what “is not” as negation taken either as immediate (perception) or mediate (experience). To say that experience occurs “in time” is, strictly speaking, redundant: experience simply is time, not insofar as time is (passively) constituted but, rather, given that there is experience at all in the (double) phenomena of consciousness and subjectivity. Time is existence. Thus, strictly speaking, things do not “exist” (neither do they simply “exist-for-consciousness”). Existence is simply not a term that applies to objects: only consciousness exists. The idealist question “would the world exist without perception?” is nonsensical in just the same way “what time is it on the sun?” is.


1. “What are you hiding?” – If something were truly hidden, would we even know that it were? Or, perhaps the more interesting question is on the other side: to hide something, must we know that we are hiding it? Are we always so jealous of what we hide that we need to display it for all to see or, perhaps, only for those who know us better than we know ourselves? – “Only something precious, or something terrible, is worth hiding.” – But we cannot choose the circumstances that impress themselves on us. This is, however, precisely why we must press on: because hope is not who we are but who we might be. (But the price we pay for hope is one that is not always easy to bear.)

2. Under the ideology of authenticity, clichés are to us what natal charts are to the astrologer. Just as our character is written in the stars, so too we call ourselves by what we think we are. It is not our fate that is read from our resemblance to the stars but it is this resemblance that makes us worthy of having a fate which, by definition, we cannot know until we are forced to suffer it. And just as our fate is conditioned by our character, so too our characters are conditioned by the very descriptions we use, i.e., by the way we are seen as characters and always represented in a genre.

3. There are some characters that we say we would like to be, but the more interesting question is who the characters are that we refuse to be. These are usually the ones we would like not to give a second thought. Some of these have names (Willie Loman, for example) but there are those whose names are unknown to us—the clichéd, forgettable ones: the barfly, the groupie, or even the victim.

But then we are caught in a double-bind. We cannot exactly “aspire” to the average. It’s by being beholden to the role cast by “others” that we are already a part of the crowd and the value of a life will always be buried in the enjoyment parceled in paid time off, ounces, and dollars.

But, on the other hand, any attempt to write our own character will also be confronted with another economy: our characters only have meaning insofar as they are recognizable within a genre. In other words, there will always be a general name for our characters, since any non-Adamic language contains more than proper names (“the unique one” is itself a cliché).

4. What we require, then, is not a model of authenticity but a theory of communication that is not merely linguistic but narrative: an “inter-subjective” account of language still requires subjective models (without being constructed from the latter). All this means is that just as language is originally metaphorical, so too discourse occurs as an effect of the way in which we express our characters, replete with the deceptions and ambiguities that such expression entails.

Discourse and democracy

À propos of our holiday today, I stumbled on this photo. I cannot think of a better rejoinder to anyone who still thinks “deliberative democracy” is an option or, for that matter, how anyone can still seriously defend the ideology of individualism–for only such an ideology would permit the conjunction of “Get a brain!” with “Morans” insofar as what counts is merely conviction and patriotism.

Two figures of ideology

1. “Pseudomenos—The magnetic power exerted by patently threadbare ideologies is to be explained, beyond psychology, by the objectively determined decay of logical evidence as such. Things have come to pass where lying sounds like truth, truth like lying.” [Adorno, Minima Moralia §71]

Important here, however, is not the object of truth but the determination of truth and lie—of the conditions under which there is a truth that can be taken for lie and where lie can be taken as such. What defines a lie is not its falsehood—a pure falsity is unthinkable; a lie is a falsity taken to be true. But what feat is required of us to take a lie as a lie—for when we suffer a lie, it is not a lie. What Plato understood is that when we suffer a lie we are not merely to blame for an error in judgment but, rather, that we suffer from an inferior perception—it is our very experience that is defective. What, then, does it mean when we are able to take a lie as such?

In a recent series of advertisements by Hulu on TV, Alec Baldwin presents himself as an alien involved in an “evil plot” to conquer the world by consuming human brains once they have been turned into mush by watching TV (“just as our mothers said they would”), which is facilitated by streaming TV shows on the Internet.

The semiotics here are plain enough. But the interesting question is not how we are able to understand the advertisement; rather, how does it succeed in legitimizing itself? Not “there’s really no alien plot to gooify human brains” but “we can laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously” (which Alec Baldwin has been doing for years, hoping that we are laughing with him, although to do so we must also thereby be laughing at him). But what this advertisement has (brilliantly, brutally) accomplished is to short-circuit the potential sublimation of laughter into irony (or what in popular terms might be called “cynicism”). The ironist is the one who cuts the link between signifier and signified; but what distinguishes the ironist from the schizophrenic is that the ironist proceeds to close the loop by again dividing the signifying field (NB—this is not to say that there “are” autonomous signified objects) into a more or less consistent economy. This is what prevents the ironist, for example, of being sensitive to the political economy of the original signifying field (e.g., in thinking we can watch Hulu “harmlessly” quite apart from supporting the franchises, advertising partners, and industries invested in it). In this way, Hulu has managed effectively to remove itself from any form of discursive criticism.

2. “Vox populi.” The term “radio personality” is a wonderful contradiction in terms. Is there any better manifestation of what “everyone” would say and, hence, precisely what “no one” says? There is no better imitation of discourse.

The time of thought (reprise)

A scientist once complained to me that “the purpose of teaching philosophy is only to reproduce the discipline”. Except perhaps this is precisely the point.

Assumed, of course, in that statement is the implication that philosophy does not “progress”—we still read Aristotle after a couple millennia, whereas a discipline such a science doesn’t bother with such charming antiquarianism. Instead of re-hashing all the old arguments about how to define “progress”, there is perhaps an easier answer: the task of contemporary philosophy—insofar as it is not a discipline—is the construction of meta-conceptual field.

This indicates a division in the practice of philosophy. As a discipline (or, better: as an institution), philosophy is constituted at the nexus of the various histories, material institutions, languages, and political conditions that have resulted in what is the equivalent of a literary canon or, roughly, what Foucault would call a “discourse” and Bourdieu would call a “field”. This is, essentially, the “ideological apparatus” of philosophy (I’d prefer to call it the “ideology” of philosophy except that one should not confuse these structures with any particular content of philosophy).

On the other hand, we used to say that philosophy is that discipline that is self-reflective. The trouble with this formulation—other than apparently drawing students with a predilection for “existential brooding” to philosophy departments—is that in being reflective, if it is successful, philosophy can no longer be a discipline. This practice must constitute an exception to the conceptual field.