nikki moore

Posts Tagged ‘Judith Butler’

maybe it’s about time

In difference on October 4, 2009 at 1:57 pm

this december, the Whitehead Research Project will host a conference on judith butler.  if butler and whitehead strike you as an odd mix, levi bryant’s latest post at Larval Subjects, working through shaviro on whitehead, helps make the link quite clear.  while shaviro, bryant and others have lately begun to think object as event, butler has long been at work at this very task.  in fact it might be fair to say that butler’s books all work through ways of understanding, thinking, bodying – performing – the object as event (if by object we are drawing a parallel to what latour calls actors).    take this excerpt from bryant’s post, for example:

This concept of objects as events is the most difficult thing of all to think. Our tendency is to think objects as substances in which predicates inhere. Take, for example, Aristotle’s categories. All of these categories are predicates that can be attributed to a substance. As I have argued elsewhere, in my article “The Ontic Principle” forthcoming in The Speculative Turn, the concept of substance responds to a real philosophical problem. This problem is the endurance of entities through or across time as this object. I denote this substantiality of the object with the expression “the adventure of the object” to capture the sense in which objects are ongoinghappenings or events. In other words, events are not something that simply happen to an object as in the case of someone being granted a degree while nonetheless remaining substan-tially the same. Rather, objects are events or ongoing processes.

writing about gender, butler deconstructed biological categorizations in order to think woman, man, girl and boy not as ‘substances in which predicates adhere’ but as ‘ongoing happenings or events’. ‘the adventure(s) of the object’ are the appearings of any object in question, be this for butler the appearings of man, woman, or otherwise (otherwise always being the case for, as bryant explains, objects as events can be thought as ‘objectiles’ – objects that are difference and insight differences if they are to be thought of as objects at all).

and while it seems counterintuitive to think men and women as objects, bruno latour’s work in Reassembling the Social points directly to this move, situating all factors in a given situtation, or actors in an assemblage as objects that not only receive but also respond and reconstitute the state of things as event.  butler’s work, while striving to give name to those without recognition, without speech, is different in nuance only if we maintain the split that latour’s work so elegantly elucidates and supercedes.  it is not a way of objectifying persons, but instead a mode of recognizing that personhood – defined by agency and response-ability as well as reception – is as a term, part of the grammar of a very problematic dichotomizing process, an anthropocentrism that generates not only an inaccurate read of the world, but also maintains and ensures that all the old bianaries maintain force (nature/culture, subject/object, etc…)

i am excited by the Whitehead Research Project’s recognition of the connections they are making in the upcoming conference and look forward to more discussion on this topic upon publication of the proceedings.

where: to begin…

In Love, what is philosophy? on August 22, 2009 at 8:29 pm

with ‘w’ it seems…

but the real story would take a full alphabet.

jet lagged but enthralled after a week working with Avital Ronell in the morning and Judith Butler in the afternoon, i will need some sleep and time reviewing my notes before i can get back to Ronell, Butler, Agamben and the rest of the lectures I heard in Saas Fee this year.

in the meantime, i’ll let  John Protevi sum it up as somehow finding him late is just the same as knowing him early (though i would protest that at least and today Butler and Ronell be part of what he is describing as Deleuze or Deleuzian, as surely one thinker cannot do all the work that is needed to be done…), so with that:

although the work of Jacques Derrida is a magnificent achievement and a lasting contribution to the tradition of post-phenomenological European philosophy, it is, while still necessary to any progressive philosophical and political practice, primarily of propaedeutic value in the reflection on and intervention into the convergent fields assuming the highest importance in the material structuring of the current global system of bodies politic: recombinant genetics, cognitive science, dynamical systems theory and others.  Derrida’s work, though destroying the self-evidence of the various identification machines at work today – the naturalized self-images of nations, racse, genders, subjects and so on – by inscribing the production of meaning in a world of ‘force and signification’, can only prepare the way for the radicality of Deleuzean historical-libidinal materialism: the principles guiding the empirical study of forceful bodies politic in their material production.

in other words, in moving the concept of the transcendental from that of the conditions of possibility of experience to that of the quasi-transcendental conditions of impossibility, the aporias of experience, Derrida performs the labour necessary to shake free of millennia of philosophical idealism, thus moving us from the pretensions of the cultural stratum to the point where a Deleuzean investigation of the material forces of all strata can begin.  thus a Derridean deconstructive reading will move us from the pretensions of metaphysics or phenomenology as the self-grounding of a rational, meaningful sign system – the book of nature – to the inscription of marks in a world of force and signification – the ‘general text’.  At that point the Deleuzean injunction takes hold: conduct a material analysis of forceful bodies politic.                           John Protevi, Political Physics, p. 2

moving from is/ought to is/want

In difference on July 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm

in a meeting of the curious yesterday morning, i ran up against an old… should we say… friend?

here is how we met, again:

in a lengthy and lovely discussion on gadamer, derrida, foucault and others, parsing and pausing to see where we all stood, i predictably took the the side of endless play.  of differance, of difference.  my two wise and generous interlocutors then whittled our discussion right down to that ever present stopgap, the relativity question.  you’ve heard it before, but once again: if there is no ground, no foundation… how can one act and essentially, from what point can we issue care?

it’s an old question.  or a newly old question, issuing from the enlightenment which ushered in the era of reason.  either way, the lines have been drawn so many times I won’t repeat them here.  what i would like to repeat is something like jean jacques rousseau’s question, tortured as he was in asking it…  yet before we get there

let’s slow things down a bit:

first, the relativity question is most usually a problem for ethicists, for political theorists, for those who are asking hard questions about what it is to be a we.  understandably the absence of ground often elicits anxiety in those who want to formulate an ethics.  many want things to be true in order to build out an ethics from that solid truth.  but is that the only option?  if derrida, foucault, deleuze and others propose what deleuze calls a groundless ground, is there no way to separate out what is (groundlessness) from what we’d like to have instead (modes of learning to live peacefully and healthily together)?  is there no way to move from the is/ought to the is/want?

or are we already about the business of this shift daily?

take 18th, 19th and 20th century democracy, marxism or socialism for example.  there was a time when the divine right of kings grounded present politics in an eternal truth claim.  enter the enlightenment, the french revolution, the american revolution, etc… somewhere down the line a group of (yes, mainly) men said we’re done with this.  we’d like to change the terms.  entering into a social contract, new lines were drawn, new truth claims laid down and voila… ground out of groundlessness, something from nothing.

of course i know the critiques to be made, the banners to be raised: what gave these men the right to lay things out as they did?  who is to say that what they found representative or socially responsible, or equitable is equitable for you, and representative of us…  essentially, who decides what is to be decided?

and of course, without a universal truth for ground, this questions evokes unanswerable torrents in its wake.  this very line of questioning can, and probably has been, applied to every divine right claim through the ages.  and yet, there is the constitution.  a document which might better serve us were it considered a living document, up for revision, as one jefferson proposed, but which stands, nonetheless, on ground no more firm than the water in your sink.  we’ve simply agreed and continue to agree that there is something like an unalienable right, amongst other agreements.  and while we would do well even to call rights into question, to say that because we are groundless means we cannot decide to pour a foundation seems not only false, but blind to life as we live it.

as quickly as i write this, with rousseau’s social contract shadowing my every key stroke, i am aware of the decisionism also looming in my above argument.  the echos of liberalism, the horrible lurkings of adam smith.  so let me be as clear as i can in saying that the proposed move from is/ought to is/want does not have to take the current shapes we know, love, hate or ignore. the actor networks in play during the formation of the united states of america did not have to produce american hegemony, capitalist globalization, etc… given a groundless ground things can and still could be otherwise.  this is where relativity and its persisting question is at its most productively freeing: perhaps ethics no longer needs a universal truth to build from and what ethicists choose to build are structures as free as the birds.  perhaps this is the beauty of this possibility.  while the is/ought is pre-stocked (the ramifications of a given ‘is’ (although ‘given’ is quite the oxymoron here) necessitate a set of particular oughts) the outcome of the is/want is wide open to the free play of hope.  echoing judith butler’s work on performativity, my (albeit tentatively) proposed is/want means that the new social contracts – be they between two, between ten or between ten million, are actors on an infinite stage of possibility.  or they could be.  this is of course, more in theory than in practice, but it is theory we are dealing with in the relativity question.  daily life sorts this out without flinching as we think and act toward how best to show love to those we care for, as we think and act toward both the upholding and the questioning of laws, of social justice.

moving from is/ought (from formulating ontologies) to is/want – (formulating modes of praxis)… sidelining the relativity question and enabling community formation.  it seems all to easy.

surely i am missing something…

deux amazones a Paris

In what is philosophy? on June 18, 2009 at 3:09 pm

an interview by the Nouvelle Observateur with Judith Butler and my phd advisor, Avital Ronell from bibliobs in Paris, June 11th, 2009.

Judith Butler et Avital Ronell, les deux plus grandes représentantes américaines de la «French Theory», cette pensée inspirée de Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, évoquent ici leur relation à la France, à l’amour, et le scandale que leur oeuvre n’a cessé de provoquer.  

Si l’on ne présente plus Judith Butler, grande théoricienne des genres sexuels, professeur à Berkeley, égérie gay mondialement connue, le public français commence à découvrirAvital Ronell. Lectrice raffinée de Derrida, Blanchot, Flaubert et de tant d’autres, la «Dark Lady» de la déconstruction, comme on la surnomme, élue par «Village Voice» comme un des trois meilleurs écrivains au monde, en impose par sa sophistication subtile, son humour et la prodigieuse intelligence de ses textes. Rencontre au café Le Rostand, à deux pas du jardin du Luxembourg.

Le Nouvel Observateur. – La France a mis quinze ans à vous publier, Judith Butler, et l’on commence à découvrir Avital Ronell. Toutes deux, vous êtes pourtant de prestigieuses hybridations de la pensée française… Comment expliquez-vous cette latence?

Judith Butler. – Ce n’est pas trop tard, c’est ainsi. Plus tôt, cela aurait sans doute été compris autrement. C’est aussi l’expérience que je vis en Espagne ou en Argentine, où les gens m’interrogent sur ce que j’écrivais il y a vingt ans comme si je venais à peine de l’élaborer. Ainsi mon travail revient-il me hanter comme une sorte de fantôme. Quand les Chinois se mettront auxgender studies [NDLR : théorie apparue dans les années 1970 aux Etats-Unis, posant que la différence des sexes est une construction sociale], ça risque d’être une expérience déroutante pour moi.

Avital Ronell. – C’est vrai qu’il y a pas mal de bruit en ce moment autour de nous, et que nos livres sont désormais disponibles. En même temps, il ne faut pas être dupe. Cela ne signifie pas nécessairement un vrai welcoming. Les institutions sont heureuses de montrer qu’elles savent accueillir la radicalité et sont capables de nous supporter pour quelque temps. 

N. O. – Ce décalage dans la réception de vos oeuvres n’est-il pas lié au long refoulement de ce qu’on a appelé «la pensée-68» durant une vingtaine d’années en France?


A. Ronell. – Sans doute, mais il y a toutes sortes de façons de refouler. Aux Etats-Unis, ça passe par une espèce d’hyper-exposition qui n’a rien à voir avec la véritable étude. Il y a un temps pour tout. La plupart de nos maîtres sont morts, à commencer par Derrida, dont la perte m’a tant affectée. Comme dans une course de relais olympique, le moment est peut-être venu de courir. Le temps de la pensée n’est pas celui de l’actualité. Il est rare qu’un penseur existe simultanément avec lui-même. Nous ne saurions pas vraiment qui est Hegel si Marx ne l’avait tardivement découvert.


N. O. – Aujourd’hui encore, les gender studies n’ont pas «pris» ici comme outre-Atlantique. Elles suscitent même souvent un vrai rejet. Faut-il y voir un effet de l’universalisme républicain à la française?


J. Butler. – Il y a dix-huit ans de ça, quand on avait proposé à Fayard mon livre «Gender Trouble» («Trouble dans le genre»), l’éditeur avait répondu que c’était «inassimilable». C’est un mot parfait, ça, hein? Trop étranger, trop étrange, non tolérable par les anticorps français. Le livre a alors connu une sorte de vie underground, les gens se repassaient des photocopies. Aujourd’hui, c’est l’inverse. J’entends dire çà et là que les gender studies sont devenues incritiquables, omniprésentes. Certains disent même qu’elles représentent une vraie menace pour la recherche française, qui sous leur emprise risquerait de perdre sa spécificité. Bref, je suis passée sans transition d’inassimilable à mainstream, normalisée. Heureusement que c’est de la mauvaise foi… ça m’ennuierait de contribuer à détruire une université française déjà en triste état ! [Rires].

N. O. – Vous avez un jour déclaré, Avital Ronell, que la pensée française avait été pour vous une sorte de «refuge pour femmes battues» à une époque où votre excentricité intellectuelle vous marginalisait aux Etats-Unis... 

A. Ronell. – La France, ou du moins le fantasme qu’on appelle France, a toujours été pour moi un refuge, un sanctuaire. Il y a ici une intelligence spéciale, un rapport responsable à la pensée. Il est vrai que mes débuts universitaires ont été rudes… Pas de poste, pas de job. Moi aussi, j’ai eu mon affaire «Gender Trouble». Mais ce qui choquait chez moi, c’est que je me mêlais de la grande tradition phallique, que je suis entrée sur le terrain de Hegel ou Goethe, que j’ai investi un territoire réservé aux vieux messieurs sérieux. C’était compliqué parce qu’en moi il y avait une bonne fille qui voulait que la longue chaîne des papas et des maîtres la reconnaisse. Au lieu de quoi j’entendais : c’est vraiment de la merde ce que tu fais ; qui t’a invitée dans la maison de l’Etre? montre-nous ton carton ! Mais en moi il y avait aussi une autre personnalité, plus dominante, qui disait : fuck that ! tant mieux si c’est inacceptable, tant mieux s’ils vomissent.

J. Butler. – Avital est depuis devenue quelqu’un d’indispensable pour la réflexion aux Etats-Unis. Ses livres, depuis«Telephone Book», ont inauguré une ère nouvelle. Tous ceux qui travaillent sur la technologie, Heidegger ou la communication, se réfèrent à la pensée ronellienne. Elle a une façon virtuose d’entremêler registre populaire et haute culture qui pour le coup est très peu française.

A. Ronell. – Je suis très touchée.[Rires] Ce qui est certain, c’est que les grands morts sont pour moi des amis, et que je prends pas mal de libertés avec eux. Cela s’est produit quand j’ai ressorti la correspondance longtemps occultée de Goethe avec sa mère. Celui-ci rompt avec elle à l’âge de 24 ans, mais à distance elle encourage son fils à devenir le grand pervers qu’il était par ailleurs. «Tu devrais tous les enculer», etc., elle lui écrit des choses incroyables. Ce faisant, je portais atteinte au grand Phallus de la nation allemande. Mais c’est moins les aspects sexuels qui ont choqué, je crois, que le regard contemporain que je portais sur tout ça. Goethe est le premier à avoir osé peindre le portrait d’un suicide sans alibi transcendantal.

N. O.– Autre exemple de déplacement subversif dans la relecture des «monuments», vous abordez dans «Test Drive» la question de la rupture amoureuse à travers la relation entre Nietzsche et Wagner…

A. Ronell. – Nietzsche a réellement été amoureux de Wagner. D’ailleurs, depuis mon ami et interlocuteur Socrate, transmission et amour sont liés. Socrate se laisse instruire par Diotime, mais pour philosopher il faut qu’il couche mentalement avec un garçon. C’est tout à fait récent d’oublier ça. L’amour ne renvoie pas toujours à la sexualité, sauf en France je crois !

N. O. – Vous aussi, Judith Butler, vous pensez que le pays des French lovers est en réalité particulièrement étriqué sur la question de l’amour?

J. Butler. – Nous vivons actuellement une revalorisation publique du couple, qui dépasse largement la France. Même le mouvement pro-mariage chez les homos participe de ça. Il y a pourtant d’autres formes de reconnaissance érotique, plus excitantes. Au fond, si je suis pour la possibilité du mariage gay c’est pour qu’on puisse commencer à attaquer le mariage en tant qu’institution. Ma girl-friend m’a dit qu’elle divorcerait immédiatement de moi si jamais je tentais de l’épouser. C’est très charmant, n’est-ce pas ! Mais au fond, même dans le mariage le plus conventionnel et bourgeois, on ne sait en réalité jamais ce que les gens vivent. On n’en connaît que ce qui transparaît dans le discours public. Le sociologue Eric Fassin a montré que 60% des Français vivaient dans une situation maritale non normative : séparations, recompositions, parentalité diffuse. Si la réalité est celle-ci, pourquoi sommes-nous si attachés à maintenir l’idée que c’est le couple qui est bon pour l’enfant et que les autres situations créent des psychotiques?

A. Ronell. – Oui, ce qu’on considère comme «inassimilable» est en réalité déjà un fait sociologique. Le couple est un mensonge, érigé sur sa propre défaite. Ce discours nous met des menottes et nous fait croire qu’il y a une réalité référentielle derrière ça. Et cependant, si on arrivait à détruire le couple, est-ce qu’il n’y aurait pas quelque chose d’encore pire à venir derrière? Quelque chose d’encore plus monstrueux et régressif? [Rires.]

J. Butler. – Le fait est que la sexualité humaine n’est pas aisément adaptable à quelque forme sociale que ce soit. C’est là un des grands acquis deLacan. Il n’y a aucune façon de résoudre ce problème qui soit en soi meilleure qu’une autre. A chacun de choisir son propre dysfonctionnement, et la part de sacrifice qu’il comporte. Rien ne serait pire que d’être un stalinien de la politique sexuelle et de décréter que le modèle du couple est à dépasser. Et cela même si certains doivent se droguer pour arriver à rester en couple…

A. Ronell. – Ou se mettre à boire ! [Rires.] En réalité, qu’est-ce qu’un couple? C’est difficile à dire. Il y a toujours un troisième terme là-dedans. Même au lit. Un fantôme. Qui me télécommande dans mes désirs? Qui approche l’autre en moi? Parfois on le fait pour quelqu’un d’autre. Un jour où il se sentait mal et fragile, Jean-Luc Nancy m’a dit à propos de quelqu’un : «Je l’aime bien, tu sais.» D’un seul coup je me suis mise à éprouver un grand désir pour cette personne. Deux mois après, très en colère, j’appelle Jean-Luc : «Mais enfin, pourquoi m’as-tu obligée à coucher avec cet incroyable connard !» Il était stupéfait. On ne sait pas d’où vient le désir. C’est parfois l’odeur de sa mère qu’on aime en quelqu’un. C’est comme ça qu’on choisissait les saints au Moyen Age… à l’odeur délicieuse qu’ils dégageaient. On ne sait jamais pourquoi on sanctifie l’autre.

N. O. – Lors d’une conférence récente à Beaubourg, vous vous disiez stupéfaite, Judith Butler, de voir que certains intellectuels avaient ramené les émeutes de 2005 dans les banlieues à une crise de l’autorité paternelle. Trop maternant, l’Etat manquerait de testostérone, en somme…

J. Butler. – Il y aurait beaucoup à dire à ce sujet. L’idée que l’ordre social entier repose sur la figure du père fort est un genre de croyance en réalité très localisée, singulière, provinciale, pourrait-on dire. Quand on sait le sort qui est fait aux immigrés dans votre pays, ramener la crise politique à une question de discipline familiale est hallucinant. Cela vaut autant pour Sarkozy que pour Ségolène Royal, d’ailleurs. Comme par hasard, c’est survenu au même moment que le combat contre l’homoparentalité. Il s’agit en réalité de purs fantasmes fabriqués pour conforter un certain type d’exercice du pouvoir.

A. Ronell. – Pourquoi le père est le centre de tout, à commencer par le Père éternel bien sûr? Je suis justement en train d’écrire un texte qui s’appellera «Losers Sons». Notre destin actuel est en effet très lié à des fils perdants comme Bush ou Ben Laden, lui aussi méprisé par son père. La destruction du monde a partie liée avec ces fils-là qui n’assument pas leur castration. Les travaux de Judith et de Hannah Arendt me sont très utiles en ce moment pour analyser l’emprise qu’ont sur nous ces représentations de l’autorité. Voyez, c’est ce genre de choses que j’explore. Des choses qui n’ont pas vraiment le statut d’honnêtes citoyens du concept.

Propos recueillis par Aude Lancelin





repetition and difference

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Difference and Repetition[1]

I am reading this, these, books again and to aid memory, (short circuit thinking?) I am throwing a few notes out here, below.

“repetition is not generality”  Introduction, page 1, line 1

an interesting negative start.  an inverted heideggerian beginning?  rather than following a path only to say ‘ah, but we know better…’ deleuze gives it all away up front.  this is work of/on specificity.  Singularity. 

“to repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent.”  Introduction, page 1

whether this book is about the business of undoing umbrella terminology in its most insipid appearances or otherwise, whatever was at stake for deleuze, the text makes at least one thing clear: repetition is not generality.  what it is, what it might be is a behavior.  a certain behavior.  and not inconsequentially, repetition is a relation.  we can think this relation in human terms, mathematical terms or via language… this is only a start to suggestions, certainly not a sufficient list.  difference and repetition moves straight away to poetry:

“the repetition of a work of art is like a singularity without concept, and it is not by chance that a poem must be learned by heart.  the head is the organ of exchange, but the heart is the amorous organ of repetition” Introduction, pages 1-2

singularity without concept.   behavior with-out habit.  recognition without resemblance.  as jouissance for no one, each movement, each repetition is the appearing of something different.  point being: there is no big Other, no entitler of meaning here.  repetition is the appearing of the impossible in that no two things, outside of representation (or rather beneath it’s heavy burden) are ever truly repeated. 

how (or rather when) to say that we are treading shared and un-common turf?  clearly we are in the domain of derrida’s work on iterability, on differance, yet as difference makes clear we are never in a recurrence of the same.  Something shifts.  More on this to come…

for now, then, on to law.  if generality ‘belongs to the order of the law’ and “Law unites the change of the water with the permanence of the river”… law, meaning, signification are always blanket terms.  false in their generalizing blindness, but true in their adopted effects.  law, whatever definition you give to it, requires the illusion of constancy.  it requires times and places of equivalence wherein dictums can be applied and reapplied across circumstances, spectrums and specificities. 

“if repetition is possible it is due to miracle, not to law”  introduction, page 2

how to think the miracle and why to think miracle when thinking repetition?

if miracles are ever the question or the problem, they are so in their understood nomination as law breakers.  outlaws.  that or those that do not abide by the laws of the land.  is repetition then, on the side of the outlaws, as that which broaches and breaks the boundaries instilled by law?  yet the quote above does not draw an equivalence between repetition and miracle, it implies, instead something like debt:  “if repetition is possible it is due to miracle”.  what evolves in thinking repetition as indebted, (due to), miracle when thinking miracle as rigorously out-law? 

or rather, what devolves?  from lacan’s master signifier to althusser and judith butler on the interpellated subject (see past post), what the miracle undresses and will not underwrite is the subject derived by law – paternal, moral or natural.

“if repetition is possible, it is as much opposed to moral law as it is to natural law.” page 5

law as stabilizer, law as guarantor on the debt imbued subject, none of these make their appearance in the court(ing) of repetition.  because equality loses its terms, its definition, when no two things are equal.  when difference is and is all there is.  which is not to say that deleuze’s worlds are entirely groundless.  he is a structuralist, after (and in it) all.


[1] Given by Sagi Cohen, read with John Cochran: the title belongs to all and none.


In Love, Subjection on March 14, 2009 at 4:49 pm

‘what is called thinking?’ Martin Heidegger.

in a talk given by adam seligman, professor of religion at Boston University, during last week’s NSSR conference on the religious/secular divide, old ground was newly staked.  prior to seligman’s talk, the terms of conversation circled around religion defined by belief, and after everything echoed the absence of ritual, the practice that seligman pointed to as not only a ground for religion, but also for community in and accepting of ambiguity and fracture.

i’ve been reading too much heidegger, and now aristotle, and i realize my words are circling. so, if i try to get to the points:

 ritual is (rituals are) an age old mode of practice, noted by durkheim but long preceding him in community and religious formation.  much prior to our current age of post-modern sincerity, (which reeks of metaphysicality in the search for accordance, for meaning, for correspondence between signifier and the signified…) there was ritual.  the story of the protestant reformation is just one trace of this divide, where ‘true belief’ (amongst other things, clearly) set itself apart from repetition, even mindlessness, in religious worship.  for the sake of closer access, bibles were translated to the language of the people.  for the sake of closer access, priests and ritual prayers were dismissed as meddling middle men.  in a strain to bring man closer to god, meaning closer to the mean… this story is emblematic.  yet  there are countless others.

there is something of a pendulum swing in the rise of sincerity.  aligned with Kant’s idea that it is not the act but the heart, the intention of the actor that merits or fails, sincerity is an attempt to get at ‘what is really…’ true, what was purely good… as is well known, this leads to the notion that what is not truly meant shouldn’t be done.  negating duty that conflicts with desire, responsibility that registers community, this injunction to ‘mean it’ leaves charity, even love, to whim.

before this walks down a more conservative road than i want to follow, i’d like to parse out the implications of ritual from two perspectives, 1) through zizek’s discussion of community in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, and 2) in our relationship to thinking and acting post-post-structuralism.

in the first foray, ritual in both Seligman and Durkheim’s conceptions coincide with what Zizek and Lacan call the symbolic.

Although an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the imaginary and the real. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences. It is the realm of radical alterity: the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. It is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. The symbolic is both the “pleasure principle” that regulates the distance from das Ding, and the “death drive” which goes beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition: “the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order.” This register is determinant of subjectivity; for Lacan the symbolic is characterized by the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified.  (material from Slavoj Zizek, London: Routledge, 2003)

While I have argued in other places (“What’s the Difference?” Thresholds, MIT Press, 2009) that Zizek’s symbolic and Derrida’s differance overlap at the point of aporia in both conceptions, the primary concepts I’d like to pay attention to in the above quote concern both the death drive as the mask of the symbolic and ‘the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified’.  First the death drive.  Whether in religious, psychoanalytic or Durkheimian vocabularies, the concept of the death drive precipitates an active subject, acting, ultimately meaninglessly, in the face of death.  In christian terms (although the degrees are contestable over denominations), this is the idea that all action is nullified by the power of sin or grace.  In other words, salvation is not earned but given as gift.  Psychoanalytically the death drive is repetition driving toward meaning which is ultimately futile in the face of death, i.e. from making the bed to child bearing, actions are taken, lives constructed and intentions intended regardless of the futility given that death does and will come.  For Seligman, or Durkheim, if we read them through Zizek as I will now undertake, rituals such as making the bed and childbearing are community constituting.  They form the symbolic, the aporetic shared space of meaning founded on nonsense.  Zizek makes this nonsense explicit in his oft repeated analysis of the eponymous tale of the emperor’s new clothes.  In the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, (assuming you know it, i’ll be brief) a self-proclaimed famous tailor catches the eye and the purse of the emperor of the land.  after months in the emperor’s service, measuring, sewing, slaving and adjusting a garment ‘only the wisest, most munificient can see’ the King agrees to wear these new garments in a public parade of celebration.  Of course everyone wants to see the clothes that only the wisest, most munificent can see, so no one steps up to inform the emperor that he is about to parade in his underwear.  No one, that is, except for a small child on the side of the road somewhere along the parade route.  When the little boy speaks, unmasking the tailor’s con, the traditional reading of the Andersen’s tale praises the child for his honesty and the tailor flees the country in fear of retribution.  In Zizek’s retelling, however, it is the child, not the tailor, who has breeched the limits of acceptability.  Among all the tales we tell ourselves, all of the repetitions and practices we undertake in building the symbolic to mask the death drive, surely the emperor’s new clothes were the least of our worries.  That was, until the child spoke.  At his ‘unmasking’ death redoubled: not only was the emperor seen as, in fact naked, his authority surely fell to question, coups could have insued, for all we know a bloody revolution began all because of a little boy who wanted to cling to ‘sincerity’ over communal concensus and cohesion.  

Against sincerity, this Zizekian reading of The Emperor’s New Clothes homes in on the role of the symbolic, or what we are thinking through as ritual in Seligman’s terms, in the constituting of community.  Yet, clearly, this reading also stakes out a highly problematic community which few of us would like to take part in – it is a community where, potentially and albeit speculatively, silences are self-enforced for the sake of security, where conformity and the status-quo take precedence over change and potentially productive rupture, where authority is upheld for the sake of national security in opposition to the community of the enlightened and self-governing.  (Before leaping to conclusions about Zizek, Andersen, or otherwise, it could be important to remember that we’re talking about fiction, of course, and a child’s morality tale at that…  here, in the difficulty between readings is the difficulty between ritual and belief at its most heightened.  I’d like to put forward that much of what is at stake in the discourse between sincerity and ritual is the status of fiction.)  

Yet putting this discussion of fiction aside for a moment (as if it could ever be anywhere but before us) I want to continue to track the sincerity and ritual divide.  Traditionally we see sincerity, as in the Andersen tale, as on the side of freedom, as enlightenment in the works, as the people in action.  Ritual is usually seen as ritual to, ritual for, and authority is never far afoot.  The stakes get messy when we interpret these positions in light of post-modernism.  Sincerity could then be read as the handmaid of capitalism, or as humanism at its apogee.  And where does that leave post-modern ritual?  For Seligman, as we started, it leaves it on the side of aporia.  Of action that acknowledges that it has no authority outside of its own constitution.  It is in fact the embrace of performativity, immanent performativity, to be precise.  In these terms, we might rewrite Andersen’s tale yet again, or at least the interpretation of it.  Would there still be an emperor?  Would the tailor approach the people instead?  and could he not, alternately, be held to altogether different standards?  Is that the point?  If sincerity is already under the guise of metaphysical correspondence… what is instead required of Andersen’s tale?  Or more poignantly, what is instead required of us?

The language of requirement, here, is no accident.  Between sincerity and ritual, regardless of how problematized and problematizing these categories continue to become, there are different projects opening of, to and with the other.  What happens when Kant’s injunction to ‘mean it’ is replaced by Seligman’s acknowledgement that meaning is what is in contest? In the NSSR talk aforementioned Seligman laughed as he said that, after 30 years of marriage, daily routines with children, in-laws and pets, he and his wife both recognize the ‘as if” over and above the ‘as is’… and while we laughed with him at least some of may have sighed for ‘true love lost’ to duty… while others may have recognized the love that is daily constituted in the ‘as if’ over the as is.  The question returns us to the status of fiction.  A status problematized by the death drive, a status which, in order to avoid the dictatorial possibilities of the Zizekian re-reading of Andersen, must be constantly under performative negotiation.

Why? Because of what is potentially at stake.  Our lives may be based on fiction, but when fiction is all, nothing is in fact fiction.  The point being, we are still all we have, or all we don’t have and we, ritualized and symbolically performative we, do and must daily decide what to do with the emperor’s parade.  Raising more questions than I have answered, this digression on ritual and sincerity has as its wrapping, a duel-ism, a duel-ality between number and consensus.  Between the social and the sincere crusading individual.  What I am trying to answer, even possibly to argue is that ritual, thought as Seligman, and even as Judith Butler offer it in performativity, is a call to, not a negation of, responsibility to and with the other.  But it is one that questions and undermines that status of that lone child in the crowd… crying out for something real, something true, something sadistically sincere and asks instead that we shift from the enlightenment ‘I’ of metaphysical determination and meaning, to a post-metaphysical ‘we’ whose is no less active and all the more potentially and actively response-ible.


with.out the hollow

In philosophy as biography, Subjection on February 9, 2009 at 3:49 pm

hannah arendt was criticized from 1963 until her death in 1975 for her report of the eichmann trials.  adolf eichmann coordinated the deportation and disappearance of, as he bragged, ‘5 million jews’ during hitler’s tenure, after loudly disappearing to argentina after the war he was later kidnapped by the state of israel and put on trial for his german ‘tours of duty’.  under arendt’s pen, eichmann appears as simply dumb.  a man after a career, yes, duty bound, and guided by quips and cliches of morality that somehow guided him right down the wrong side of the tracks.  yet what hannah was critiqued for was not the banality of eichmann, but the banality of evil.  she was not the first to propose that much of this deportation an disappearance would have been at least more difficult if jewish community organizers and leadership had not helped tally and account for their own members and populations.  and she is not the last to say that ‘who are we to judge’, in the face of atrocities unfathomable, is not only a self-righteous stance it contributes to and collaborates with the very ‘evils’ it is hoping not to judge.

early in the introduction to Eichmann in Jerusalem, arendt writes:

good can be radical: evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet – and this is the horror! – it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. evil comes from a failure to think.  it defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there.  that is the banality of evil.

her point is well taken, and though fungus may not be the best analogy (perhaps a shadow, something more clearly immaterial and insubstantial would have been more in keeping with her point) the pervasiveness, the sporadic and underground growth and the minute revulsion fungus induces hits home.  i can’t remember what analogies augustine uses, but he shares with arendt the view that evil is lack.  it is absence.  in augustin’s work evil is all that is without god, whereas for arendt it is all that is without thought.

without thought. 

with.out thought.

is this the point:  with.out

avital ronell, in a seminar in saas fee touched on this out/with.  what is it to be with and out at once.  there is a communal call from the with. yet the out positions the potential bearer of this community clearly across communal borders.  it sounds like a having-out-of-sync, this with.out

in other books, other pages, by arendt, she probes this with.out in other terms: looking at morality in a way that puts her in conversation not only with judith butler but also with slavoj zizek, she questions assumed foundations.  from plato to kant, arendt is looking for something to ground morals, in a way clearly pressing and prescient after hitler, after the nazi’s, after eichmann.  the problem lies directly in social construction, an area so potentially liberating and damning all the same.  to break it down:  if morality is socially constructed, if it, like kant’s aesthetic judgements are the point of consensus and nothing more, than how can anyone be legally (and otherwise) judged against the law of their land, as eichmann was?  if morality is by consensus, and not just nazi germany but every conquered country (with the valiant exceptions of denmark, sweden and finland) agreed to the concentration and extermination of peoples by race (jew, gypsy and otherwise) what ground is left to judge from unless we appeal to a divine, or a platonic idea, or…

judith butler, probes similar questions.  as a thinker who so clearly delineates culture as a social construction, her work is a dedication to pulling at the borders, the edges, the lose strings to find where we unravel ourselves.  she looks at social construction as the ground of critique and of contest – if we have made it up, we can unmake it, though clearly not without difficulty.

arendt seems to want more than that.  she turns, in the epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem, to words and ideas like humanity and mankind.  but i’d like to suggest that this is not the humanism it seems to be, but something else…

None of the actual participants ever arrived at a clear understanding of the actual horror of Auschwitz, which is of a different nature from all the atrocities of the past, because it appeared to prosecution and judges alike as not much more than the most horrible pogrom in jewish history.  they therefore believed that a direct line existed from the early anti-semitism f the nazi party to the nuremburg laws and from there to the expulsion of the jews from the reich and finally, to the gas chambers.  politcally and legally, however, these were ‘crimes’ different not only in degree of seriousness but in essence.

why this move?  why was it not a pogrom? wouldn’t it be all the more heinous as part of a history of devastation against one nation of homeless peoples?  no.  arendt’s project is not to look for the most heinous: the nazi’s have done that work for her and no further proof should be needed (the deniers of the holocaust being quite another problem…).  arendt is looking not for the evil that slips through, that grows like fungus, but for the good.  where are the grounds for the good?  what, other than moral cliches, could people turn to when culture was not only turning the other way, but turning circles from where it had been?

this was her project.  this is the project. this is (for all its personal irony) ‘what is called thinking’.

it is the search for a that can be theorized, lived, and positively free.

reading un-adorned?

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2009 at 3:04 pm

“the mania for foundations”

politically, psychologically, it is not only compelling but isn’t it simply ‘good rigor’ to search for antecedents?  we live out this mania in every sphere, asking what lead up to the current gaza conflict?  what was behind my last slip of the tongue? etc, etc. etc…

is it to all of this back peddling that Derrida writes, ‘there is nothing outside the text?’

many modes of critical reading have taken this route: close reading, new criticism, they all boil down to the acknowledgement of nothing beyond the page.  no history, no biography.  just the words as you see them there, which of course has with nothing ‘just’ (as in mere) about it as the apparent restriction, the requirement to only see what is seen opens up everything for the reader.  metaphor, puns, word choices all take on a weight formerly lost in the baggage of history. Adorno knew this as well as anyone else.  In his lectures on Kant, beginning to clarify his own methodology, he writes:

“When Kant says that we are drive by our nature to g further and further in order to arrive at some sort of primary and absolute knowledge, it is legitimate for us to cast doubt on this supposed natural disposition.  Or, to put it less anthropologically, since that is not how Kant meant it to be understood, he believes that the compulsion lies in the matter itself.  I should like at least to invite you to consider whether it is not an illusion that if our knowledge is to be secure everything that is known has to be traced back to some ultimate truth or to some primary certitude.  That raises the question whether we are not faced here with what I have elsewhere called the ‘mania for foundations’ (Fundierungswahn).  This is the idea that no piece of knowledge can be understood simply within the framework in which it happens to be located.  I can only be satisfied with it once I have pursued it back to infinity, to the point where nothing further can happen, and nothing can deprive me of this piece of knowledge.  You should be quite clear in your minds that this principle – which is indeed a principle accepted in the entire tradition of Western philosophy – actually implies that there is a match between the knowing mind and the objects of possible knowledge that allows us to reduce every object of cognition to such an absolute.  Only if I start from this metaphysical premise of an ultimate, conclusive identity between the object of cognition and the cognitive faculty can I legitimately require everything I know to be able to demonstrate its credentials in terms of its own founding principles.”  (Adorno, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Stanford: 1995.  pp. 52-53)

While deconstructive readings, close readings, as Adorno is here offering and inviting his students/readers to, (though not using that coded terminology, have been criticized as anti-political, or agency leeching… Adorno opens up something almost ethical (though i cringe from the word and its implications, i can’t think of a better…) in asking us to read the text in front of us.  To weigh what is happening in the right here and now of a reading.  Slipping this method of reading into other contexts is both fruitful and dangerous: it would allow us to read a combat scene as the violence it is, without precursor, without justifications of vengeance, right of defense or otherwise.  It would evaluate each moment on its own terms, nothing outside the present tense, present text…

I don’t know if that is what Derrida was getting at.  But by this methodology, what he was getting at is outside of my readable space and I am left with the weight of my own response to his written words.

I’ve outlined the fruit. I imagine you can see the danger, and it is important to remember, to consider, that Adorno knew his audience.  Speaking to a group of well read students, surely he knew for them that history could never be erased even if it could be momentarily bracketed.  We could suggest that this close reading should, might, be coupled with what Judith Butler calls a ‘politics of mourning’ that allows for not only memory but critical commentary on (especially) topics under erasure in order to ensure that history’s most heinous mistakes are not repeated in ignorance.  While this may first sound like the reintroduction of all that lies outside the lines we are inscribing, Butler’s call is an even more rigorous call to read the present.  All of the present – both that which can be easily seen, read and counted, and all that which falls below the readable speakable lines of every present tense/text.

read this way, it isn’t only reading.  or perhaps it is, but reading more fully, more responsibly, responsively, than i had formerly understood it…

something old something new…

In Subjection on January 20, 2009 at 1:09 am

written fall, 2008.

There are rare times when a thinker can both explicate and perform the subject of her own critique in writing.  The Psychic Life of Power is one such work, wherein Judith Butler both explores and performs the iterability of the subject by explicitly working in and through concepts from Althusser, Hegel, Nietzsche, Foucault, Freud & Lacan and implicitly through Derrida.  Namely, Butler is working through the trope of the ‘turn’ as it is rooted in Louis Althusser’s exploration of the concept of interpellation, tracing and transforming it through the forenamed philosophers’ theories of subject formation into a bodied agent of political consequence[1].

To follow the strength of Butler’s argument, I would like to follow her performance of the iterable subject through the text (Psychic Life of Power) highlighting a few key concepts and moves therein.  But first, a few words on iterability.

While Butler is notably and professedly a Hegelian and Foucauldian, when interviewed at Berkeley in the 1990’s, Butler named Jacques Derrida as the greatest influence on her own body of work.  This influence, though unspoken in the Psychic Life of Power, is performed in Butler’s workings of what Derrida calls iterability.  Briefly and admittedly reductively, iterability can be thought as the ability of signs to be grafted into new and different contexts while both retaining a trace of their earlier meaning and taking on and forming new meanings in each new context, all the while displacing notions of origin or essence[2]. 

Moving back to the explicit terms of Psychic Life of Power, Butler deploys and employs the workings of Derridian iterability through multiple readings of a body/soul/subject trio, beginning with this trio’s appearance in Hegel’s work on the Unhappy Consciousness.  Here, in Hegel, Butler highlights the bodily subjection of the bondsman to the master where the body of the bondsman ‘performs’ as the extended body of the master in work and productivity.  As the bondsman realizes his own distinct presence in the work of his hands, i.e. in what he produces, he is confronted with the fleeting nature of both what is produced and himself as the producer. He is also faced with his own ongoing erasure as the Master takes credit for the work of his extended contractual body, i.e. the bondsman. In a move to repress this knowledge of death’s inevitability, as Butler writes it, the bondsman splits himself psychically into bondsman and master, performing a denial that echoes Freud’s death drive and Nietzsche’s aesthetic class whose subjectivity is formulated out of ressentiment.[3]

Moving from Hegel to Nietzsche, in chapter 2, via Freud, Butler draws on the violent foundations of morality in On the Genealogy of Morals and points to the inherent ressentiment in all artistic production. We all know the story here, how Nietzsche’s understanding of subject formation is rooted in the bad consciousness of the internalizing slaves, etc.  For Butler this story is important as it pinpoints the creativity implicit in the interiorization of the subject: “As a peculiar deformation of artistry (which is, of course, indistinguishable from its primary formation), self-consciousness is the form the will takes when it is prevented from simple expression as a deed.” [4]  While we might see Nietzsche’s Nobles as those able to express in deed rather than representation, Butler problematizes Nietzsche’s own work (and her own as well) as the results of aesthetic activity.[5]  Without resolving this suggestion that ressentiment is at the heart of all production, the body/soul/subject trio is reframed and recontextualizing in the shift from Hegel’s bondsman, to still a slave morality, but one which is founded in artistic performance and production.

Moving this iterable body/soul/subject trio through the work of Foucault, Butler locates a transmigration of the soul from interiority (as in Hegel & Nietzsche) to the subjectivated body of Foucault’s finding[6].  This necessary step, shifting the meaning of soul from an interior to an exterior formulation, gives Butler the now newly iterated context of performativity (specifically gender performance) that she will deploy in the final chapters of The Psychic Life of Power.  With one final recontextualization of the body/soul/subject trio through Althusser’s concept of interpellation, Butler has brilliantly managed to carve out space for a politically charged subject whose body performs both its own subjection and its most heightened possibility for freedom from that same subjection.  If you will follow Butler with me to p.99 in the text, she writes: “What is brought into being through the performative effect of the interpellating demand is much more than a ‘subject,’ for the ‘subject’ created is not for that reason fixed in place: it becomes the occasion for a further making.  Indeed, I would add, a subject only remains a subject through a reiteration or re-articulation of itself as a subject, and this dependency of the subject on repetition for coherence may constitute that subject’s incoherence, its incomplete character.  This repetition, or better, iterability thus becomes the non-place of subversion, the possibility of a re-embodying of the subjectivating norm that can redirect its normativity”[7]

Here, in Butler’s own words and rhetorical performance, iterable subjectivation finds its destination in the “incomplete redirecting of normativity”.  This redirecting was made possible by her own performative dislocations of the body/soul/subject trio as it is found in variation, through Hegel’s Unhappy Consciousness, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, Foucault’s theorization’s on the subjectivation of the body and Althusser’s working of the ‘turn’ or interpellation.  While the performative subject of Butler’s own critical iterabilities is not without flaws, equipped with the trope of the ‘turn’ and this iterable subject formation, Butler and others following her work, can and have formulated not only the politicized arm of Derridian deconstruction, but equally viable political subjectivities whose agency is both bound and formulated by the structures they are working to reconfigure.   What this does from, for, with and to Nietzschean ressentiment is now up for discussion.

[1] On the turn, Butler writes: “Considered grammatically, it will seem that there must first be a subject who turns back on itself, yet I will argue that there is no subject except as a consequences of this very reflexivity.” Butler, Judith.  The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press, 1997. P. 68

[2] For Jacques Derrida’s full working and unworking of iterability, see “Signature, Event, Context” in Limited Inc, which is a compilation of writings between Derrida and John Searle on and around the concepts of speech act theory, first outlined by J.L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words.

[3] What is at stake here for Butler is both self-renunciation and performativity.  “The renunciation of the self as the origin of its own actions must be performed repeatedly and can never finally be achieved, if only because the demonstration of renunciation, whereby the performance, as an action, contradicts the postulation of inaction, that it is meant to signify.  Paradoxically, performance becomes the occasion for a grand and endless action that effectively augments and individuates the self it seeks to deny.”  Butler, Judith.  The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press, 1997.  p.49

[4] Ibid, p.76

[5] Not that Nietzsche did not, indeed, recognize his own complicity in slave morality as well.  Numerous passages in the Genealogy of Morals find Nietzsche almost joyous over the results of artist production, including his own.  Butler not only recognizes this duplicity and complicity, she uses it to raise the stakes for the performative subject she seeks to iterate.

[6] For more on this transition from interiority to exteriority, see Butler, on the chapter “Between Freud and Foucault”.  The following quote, for the sake of brevity, may help illustrate the points she is working therein: 

       p.89 “In the final chapter of the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault calls for a “history of bodies” which would inquire into “the manner in which what is most material and vital in them has been invested.”  In this formulation, he suggests that power not only produces the boundaries of a subject but pervades the interiority of that subject.  In the last formulation, it appears that there is an “inside” to the body which exits before power’s invasion.  But given the radical exteriority of the soul, how are we to understand “interiority” in Foucault?  That interiority will not be a soul, and it will not be a psyche, but what will it be?  Is this a space of pure malleability, one which is as it were, ready to conform to the demands of socialization?  Or is this interiority to be called, simply, the body?  Has it come to the paradoxical point where Foucault wants to claim that the soul is the exterior form, and the body the interior space?” [Italics, mine].

[7] Ibid, p.99.

ears or eyes?

In Law, Subjection on October 28, 2008 at 3:15 pm

maybe the point is both.  precisely.

I am reading ‘the ends of man’ by Derrida, and Alain Badiou lectured for my class with Simon Critchley at Cardozo Law School yesterday afternoon, as he will continue to do for the next 2+ days.

Somehow i can’t quit thinking about sequence – that “the ends of man” was written before Badiou announced his candidacy for the Ubermensch, that, as Zizek contends phrases like the ‘end of man’ or ‘the death of man’ beg to be toppled like the twin towers.  Perhaps then, Badiou’s thought is less an event than an inevitable.

if there hadn’t been napoleon, etc…

oh how uncomfortable.

from (or to) ‘the ends of man’

…Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl and the understanding that man was to be slowly removed from his cartesian post at once misunderstood by those, like sartre, or sartre precisely, who could not let go of the existential humanist position.

I flagged a section that reads as follows:

“It remains that Being, which is nothing, is not a being, cannot be said, cannot say itself, except in the ontic metaphor.  And the choice of one or another group of metaphors is necessarily significant.  It is within a metaphorical insistence, then, that the interpretation of the meaning of Being is produced.  And if Heidegger has radically deconstructed the domination of metaphysics by the present, he has done so in order to lead us to think the presence of the present.  But the thinking of this presence can only metaphorize, by means of a profound necessity from which one cannot simply decide to escape, the language that it deconstructs.” (Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 131)

Werner Hammacher presented a beautiful paper this summer on metaphor and Being and Heidegger, though Wolfgang didn’t let him finish.

But back to Badiou… and sequence.  A student of Althusser, Badiou is surely aware of his mentor’s concept of interpellation and the infamous metaphor he, Judith Butler and others have repeated to illustrate the point which looks like this:

An individual is walking down a street when a policeman yells, “Hey You!”  The individual turns and in that turn, toward the policeman, toward the law, toward the call, becomes the subject of the call.  It is subjection and subjectivity in one full/foul turn.  Zizek explains this succinctly, ‘the subject becomes the call it answers’.  

For Butler and Althusser, subjection takes place in relation to the call of the law.  For Badiou, as stated in his presentation yesterday, the evental inauguration of the subject takes place when law is suspended, altered and phased into reformation.  Even broken, in the figure of the out-law.

Is it reading too graciously to allow, to enable (to force?) the feminine to enter here?  And did I just write that as if it were an essence, a something other than what was already present in that room yesterday?  Why did the law of the father feel more oppressive at 55 5th Avenue than it has before?

Were we, as Avital Ronell writes, taking it through the ear?  

Or is the problematic somewhere right between the eyes

and ears


There is something utopian that Badiou is blatantly endorsing.  Something reasonable, rational and something eerily like Ayn Rand… not in content as much as in form.  Perhaps there isn’t enough body in what he proposed?

What did he propose?

First, a 3 day seminar in 3 parts.  

1) the Dialectics of the law – finding a clear definition of the law.

2) the change of the law – is there a possibility for the signification of change?

3) the law as the disappearance of law.


So first things, first:

If we are to think law’s definition, we can begin this thinking by thinking law’s opposite.  Perhaps disorder? We can also think through the verbage around both law and disorder.  The Outlaw came to mind as a topological framing.  There is juridical law, a topologically ordered space, a closed space.  And then the laws of nature, laws of pure contingency.  Bibilical law, where the spirit is opposed to the letter as its opposite.  Here we enter into questions of commandments vs. commitments.  Then there is the Kantian law of duty, a purely subjective and purely immanent construction.  The law of natural rights, which would pitch universality against culture.  

After laying out these options, Badiou went to his source: Plato.  For Plato law (nomos) is opposed to nature as a purely intellectual creation.  Looking at the debate on law between plato and the sophists we find that:

for the sophists – law is the political result of the agent of strength, or of might.  There is no default to universality, as law is the projection of the nature of the strongest for a particularity. It is the formal result of natural particularity.

for plato – law is the concrete realization of the transcendency of the good.  Universality is on the side of law, and more accurately on the side of the idea of the law, which is the transcendent norm.  It is the particular result of a universal principle.  In fact, however, law is something of the form of weakness: if all were in its place, no law would be needed as it would be innate.

Badiou then gives the interesting distinction between young Plato who still believes in direct access to the good and the un-necessity of law, as opposed to the aged Plato who wrote 9 books of law in the Republic.  This is important for Badiou in that communism as theory, as hope, is on the side of the young Plato, while communism as practice is always, in its coercion, on the side of the older Plato.  For Marx, neither the ‘good state’ nor the ‘good law’ exists.

And then there is Rousseau, for whom law is not simply conceptual but active.  As proffered in the Social Contract, the general will is the active creation of a collectivity… yet… there is the supplement.  The ‘special man’, the legislator who is from the outside, a stranger who mediates between the universal principle and the singularities.

And finally, Badiou’s 8 definitions of the law and their dialectics (as, for Badiou, law is always between two entitities).

1) Law as juridical structural order.  The dialectics here are between the multiple and the one as unity of the multiple.  It is the imposition of the form of one to ensure multiplicity, i.e. it is the expressive unity of law, of community, of difference. (Could this be lacanian?)

2) Law as the form of necessity.  The dialectics here emerge between necessity and contingency.  This type of law centers on knowledge, not justice, as law is the valuation of all that might stand outside itself.  It is the explanation of the outside.

3) Law as the extended letter of duty or obligation.  Read: Pauline.  The dialectics are between the letter and the spirit.  The law is always written and this is a law of transmission, between tradition and interpretation of duty.

4) Law as an internal subjective commitment.  Read: Kant’s moral law with dialectics between the subjective universal and subjective desire. This law creates a problematics of selfishness.

5) Law as the foundation of natural rights.  This law is relative to/by culture yet searches out something universal in human being.

6) Law as strength.  The dialectics are between formalization and strength, and nothing like the ‘law as such’ can exist in this conception.  (Nietzsche?)

7) Law as the particular inspiration of a universal.  Read: Plato.  Dialectics are here between hierarchies of concepts.  Law here mediates between such concepts.

8) Law as the active relationship between people. Read: Rousseau. The dialectics in this formation are between something like the technology of history and nature.  Law by this demarcation is a non-natural concept.

Under the weight of these laws, “I” am sinking.  But wasn’t that the point: the ends of man, the ends of woman, the ends of ‘we’?  

Or.  What happens if the conversation around in and through Being is only ever metaphor?  When Badiou breaks with the law of the father, the law of the Master Signifier, even the law of the sets, will he find more rationality?  Is there any room outside these 8 points and these 3 points and, and, and… Where is Kristeva?  Where is the irrational?  The unconscious?  What happens when the law breaks and revolution doesn’t go where you had hoped?


– thanks to Julia Honkasalo & Krista Johansson for their conversation on these ideas.