nikki moore

Posts Tagged ‘Louis Althusser’

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.

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.

neo or retro..?

In Law on October 30, 2008 at 4:50 pm

back to lecture 2, Alain Badiou at the New School, Tuesday October 28th: The possibility of change in the law.

Recapping his first lecture, Badiou recalled his three closing possibilities for lawful continuity looking to his previous 8 definitions for sites of continuity.  These could be:

1) law as juridical, i.e. law in relation to the social order, as something like the expression of the social order.  Or,

2) law as the formalization of natural rights, i.e. law in relationship to human nature wherein law cannot be defined on its own without first defining its relationship to human nature.  Or,

3) law as a universal in relationship to a particular, as in Plato, i.e. as law that relates to a transcendent principle.

What is difficult, or important, is not defining the law, but defining what law is in relation to.  This relationary status introduces a fundamental ambiguity into any definition of law.

Further probing these three possibilities for law, Badiou asked the following:

1) Is the law the formalization of something or an expression of something?

-if law is formalization, then it is on the side of science (think Kelson).

-if law is instead the expressive sublimation of something, then it is on the side of art, with aesthetic rules and an aesthetic notion of rights (like the rules/laws of classical tragedy, etc).

Perhaps, Badiou posed, law is something between both science and art.  But even then:

2) What of the commitment vs commandment distinction, i.e. who is the subjet of the law?  Is it a subject or is it on the side of objective existence?  Is it something precise – i.e. to the letter? or is it something like an internal voice – i.e. spirit?  

Badiou then stated that outside the law, (in the outlaw) there can be both spirit and letter, both objectivity and subjectivity… but in/of the law itself, is it something in relation to pure fact? is it normative?  Can we, Badiou asked, find something like the continental vs analytic distinction in law as in philosophy?  Sure given all of this, Badiou affirmed, we cannot have something like a simple definition and this is why not only law, but change in the law is so obscure.

Badiou then re-entered the topic of this lecture’s headlines: the possibility of change in law.  First, he recounted, we usually don’t move to change laws we consider good.  We move to change bad laws and this is the first thought in the process of change in the law. What then is a bad law?

Interestingly, for Badiou, a bad law is not really a law at all.  Looking back to his 8 definitions of law (to which he admitted there may be more, there may be less…) Badiou argued that if law is the expression of a community, then a bad law is not a law as it does not properly express or represent the conditions of the community.  Expressive law would fall under the 1st of his 8 definitions, i.e. law as the juridical form of the structural order.  (see ‘eyes or ears..?’ for all 8 definitions).  He then gave the example of gay marriage – for the conservative laws allowing gay marriage are not really laws as they do not express his natural order, but only bring chaos… Looking to definition 6, i.e. law as the relationship of different strengths (think Nietzsche), a bad law is a law that does not express those strengths properly and therefore, is not really a law by definition.  Interestingly, Badiou notes, Nietzsche is in a mess on this point as well as his understanding of law as the expression of different strengths is ultimately a law of weakness, as law (the priestly law & class) is ultimately a law of revenge of weakness against strength.  The problem obviously is that if law is the expression of strength then how can this weakness win?  Finally, looking to law as the singular expression of something objective, (definition 7), there can be no bad law.  Simply put, a need for change in law represents the change in particular relationships to universals in a given society, i.e. when a law needs to be changed it is because the world has changed ahead of it.

Badiou then goes on to ask: Yet what about bad laws in relation to a minority group?  If the law is an expression of a universal part of human being, what happens in the case of say, minority groups as they are in france today?  There is a claim on their behalf that ‘bad laws’ exist that discriminate against these groups, but in fact these ‘bad laws’ are not laws at all, as laws cannot be negative laws.  Negative laws are laws which:

1) forbid something

2) deny a right to part of the people that is extended to others.  

When a right is said to be for only a particular group of people, we can say, according to Badiou that this right is not, in fact, a right but a privilege.  Formally, such negative laws mirror the laws instituted during WWII against the Jews and cannot be real law.  But positive law, Badiou holds, is different, even positive law for a minority group.  For example, affirmative action.  Sometimes to create a concrete universality you must give something more to persecuted peoples for a period of time in order to bring them to a status of equality.  All of this, positive and negative law, illustrates how laws can come to be abolished, or could come to be abolished.  Though, as Badiou notes, governments rarely abolish laws as this abolishing would call their judgement and authority into question along with the law itself. 

So from all of this, after all of this, Badiou cited two possibilities for forms of change of the law:

1) there can be a new law that is an improvement of an old law, a law that neither radically breaks with nor reinstates the exact terms of the old law.  This form of law is called modification.

2) there can be a new law that is an explicit destruction of the old law.  This form of law is the form of the event.

The difference between modifying law and evental law can be compared to artistic creation, wherein we think about modification as a variation of form and material, with new forms emerging from the same material.  As a work of art is always already at the boundary of what is and what is not recognizable, on the secure side of modification one would develop a recognizable form from recognizable material.  Yet on the evental side, one would be on the boundary of recognition, and if the artist accepts the risk, she is now in the terrain of developing completely new forms, and even further, she is developing the possibility of new forms of forms.  

Moving back to the law, Badiou proposes that a political event could be something that is the possibility of law in the second artistic sense.  It is law that opens the means for new laws and new possibilities of new laws.  Badiou concedes that negation, displaying the boundary between old and new, must come before.  The old world must be destroyed but the movement in all of this destruction must only be toward universality – the law must be for everybody, opening a new space for universality, introducing new possible fields of equalities.  In this vein, the change of law cannot be about liberty or freedom, as one can have freedom without equality (property laws, for example) and liberty without equality, but not the reverse. Real change, for Badiou, is always a new space for equality, in new forms of law.

Moving toward summation, Badiou finally asked: Is there a limit in to the possible successions of new spaces for equality? And answered: We have in the idea of art the end of art itself.  This idea is that form and life fuse into identicality and we find the idea of the ‘end of art’ at the limit where life is an artistic creation.  In the evental creation of change in art forms, art itself is the restriction which must be destroyed in order for art to equal life.  In politics, Badiou cites the same idea, present in Plato and Marx: the good law is the non-law, the good state is always the non-state.  Law, as the mediator, as the separation between life and socialization can only be a good law when that separation no longer exists.

To conclude, Badiou recounted his main points as to the passage from bad law to good:

1) modification of the law is an infinite process of adjustment – it is the transformation of law without destruction.

2) the transformation of law as event comes with the question of the limit point, wherein the law disappears through itself.

Law then, for Badiou, persists for as long as we have not solved the problems of inequality.  Yet the obvious problem here is exactly who sets the terms for equality, universality, etc. This is the easy hit at Badiou’s work and, while interesting, yes, I am after a different question today.  Between Louis Althusser’s conception of subjection via the law and Badiou’s formulation of the evental law that is in fact outlaw, and creates subjects from the break, the cut, and it’s resulting truth procedures, there is a stark difference.  In Althusser’s formulation, the “Hey You!” of the law creates the respondent, forms the subject, in their turn to answer the call.  Yet for Badiou, subjects are formed in the wake of an event. Fidelity, subject formation, is rooted in an absence of law, an artistic creation of hitherto unknown forms and the possibilities of new types of forms – or, the creation of hitherto unknown subjects and the possibilities of new types of subjects.  In the Paris Commune the disintegration of law into the commune’s daily life, via the disillusion of the state, created a new type of subject, and new processes for subjectivation not in relation to law at all. Or, are they directly in relation as outlaws?  Are we back at the necessity of mediation, or forward in fact, outlined by Badiou in his 3rd Cardozo lecture?  And if this mediation, this distance, this necessary law is in fact essential not for defining as such, but as spacing, are we not once again at the argument for Free Will? Suspending that for another moment, is it fair to say that Badiou’s subjects, in their relationship to law, are a radical break from subjection in Nietzsche, Lacan and Marx as read by Althusser?  Certainly they are dramatically different from Foucauldian (and Butler’s) subjectivations.

I can’t help but think something else is at play.  Something else is being built, protected, enabled that makes this subjection a subsidiary, an accomplice to something more important for Badiou.  Whether that object of import is a throw back or a radical step toward the outlaw is still, for me, unclear.

– My thanks again to Professor Alain Badiou for his talk at The New School, as part of the Cardozo sessions, October 28th.  And to Dr. Simon Critchley for the course couching and prepping us for this guest discourse.