November 29, 2008

Being and Capital

Filed under: NP, Philosophy — duncan @ 7:24 pm

So here’s a fun parlour game. (NP is best at it :-P). Spot the many different ways in which philosophers attribute to Being the properties of capitalism, or of capital. Here’s a good one, from Heidegger’s A Dialogue on Language:

We say ‘correlation’ also when talking about the supply and demand of commodities. If man is in a hermeneutical relation, however, that means that he is precisely not a commodity. But the word ‘relation’ does want to say that man, in his very being, is in demand, is needed, that he, as the being he is, belongs within a needfulness which claims him.

Doesn’t this demand for man “as the being he is” (and the attentiveness to this demand required for an authentic relation to the two-fold of presence and presence of beings) sound a lot like the capital-labour relation?

“J: Man stands ‘in relation’ then says the same as: Man is really as man when needed and used by…

I: … what calls on man to preserve the two-fold.” [Those aren't my ellipses - they indicate great minds finishing each others' sentences.]

“[M]an who by nature stands in relation to, that is, is being used by, the two-fold.”

It is only when man is made into a use-value, when man is used (or used up ) in the relation to Being – that is, when man is used by capital in the relation to and production of capital (or, if you prefer, in the preservation of the two-fold) – it is only in this scenario that man truly is. That which uses man can only be preserved if man maintains his relation to it – capital depends on the capital-labour relation for its reproduction. Therefore it is our ethical duty, above all else, to attend to capital/Being’s demand.

It’s probably not a coincidence that this dialogue between “a Japanese and an Inquirer” also thematises what Heidegger calls “the complete Europeanization of the earth and of man”; the “modern technicalization and industrialisation of every continent.” I ought to say more about this – the way in which Heidegger’s romantic anti-capitalism reinscribes the production of the capital-labour relation within its (manifestly troubling) discourse of authenticity – but I think the parlour-game fragment will do for the moment…

May 25, 2008

Matter, Sign

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 2:08 pm

Deconstruction, or Derrida’s work, begins in phenomenology. Derrida starts his dismantling or unravelling of the metaphysical tradition by unravelling Husserl. And Derrida’s work will be marked from first to last by this engagement. In a work as late as ‘Specters of Marx’ we find Derrida reading Marx through the prism of phenomenology. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s important – everything that’s wrong with Derrida’s take on use value, and the relation between use value and exchange value, comes from his determination to see Marx in terms derived from phenomenology. The book’s last chapter, containing Derrida’s discussion of commodity fetishism, is subtitled “The phenomenological ‘conjuring trick’.” And here’s a key passage, in which Derrida discusses the transformation of the table’s wood into a commodity:

“Whoever understands Greek and philosophy could say of this genealogy, which transfigures the ligneous into the non-ligneous, that it also gives a tableau of the becoming-immaterial of matter. As one knows, hule, matter, is first of all wood.” [What is the relation of this ‘first of all’ to the ‘first’ that Derrida finds and criticises in Marx?] “And since this becoming-immaterial of matter seems to take no time and to operate its transmutation in the magic of an instant, in a single glance, through the omnipotence of a thought, we might also be tempted to describe it as the projection of an animism or a spiritism.” (‘Specters’, p. 191)

These last references to animism and spiritism aren’t unimportant; but to an extent they’re decoys. The really important phrase here is “the omnipotence of a thought”. Derrida sees exchange value as performing a phenomenological reduction on use value. And this is the basis of Derrida’s critique of Marx. Derrida believes that there is a pre-critical and a post-critical thought – a short-of and a beyond of transcendental criticism. He believes that any ‘materialism’ – like Marx’s – that has failed to traverse a Kantian or Husserlian transcendental space, will collapse into a naïve ontologising metaphysics. And so – with considerable textual violence – Derrida wrestles Marx into this phenomenological space, in order then to move beyond this (supposedly) naïve materialism.

What violence is involved here? In the first place, an understanding of exchange value in terms of “the omnipotence of thought”. Marx isn’t really discussing thought in the fetishism passage –commodity fetishism is not a form of ideology. Fetishism, rather, arises from “the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them” – not ideas, beliefs, or intentions.

But the focus of this post isn’t Marx but Derrida: the relation of deconstruction to materialism. [NB: I noticed, once I’d written this, that The Accursed Share’s latest post also covers this ground.]


April 28, 2008

Metaphor of Equivalence

Filed under: Derrida, Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 3:44 pm

Borges’ story ‘The Zahir’ ends with his narrator’s thoughts entirely occupied by the image of a coin – and with the ambition to “wear it away”, through thought. This obsession is a metaphor, arguably, for our obsession with money. But a coin seems to give itself better than the other figures of the Zahir to the total domination of consciousness. “The thought struck me that there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly down throughout history and fable… any coin… is, in all truth, a panoply of possible futures.” The function of a coin derives from its power of symbolism, circulation, and equivalence – because, in the system of circulation and equivalence that is a capitalist economy, a coin can in principle be substituted for or symbolise anything that falls within that economy. Thus a coin seems uniquely well placed to usurp consciousness – provided we understand consciousness as the ability to represent the world.

The coin as infinitely applicable, infinitely substitutable, infinitely exchangeable symbol; the coin as the material instantiation of an abstract power of equivalence. The coin is a material object that functions like thought. And thus the coin can take the place of thought – or, rather, the coin can make thought subordinate to it. “It is not as though the Zahir were made of glass, since one side is not superimposed upon the other” – the coin is not a medium through which the objects of possible substitution are perceived – “rather, it is though the vision were itself spherical, with the Zahir rampant at the center.” Once a concrete instantiation of absolute substitutability has been established, this instantiation becomes the still centre to which all else must be referred. It is the transcendental, empirical, final referent – because it can in turn refer to anything at all.

We are now used to thinking the necessary materiality of thought. Since Derrida – and Wittgenstein – we know that the ideality of thought always depends on the materiality of the signs and symbols that enable thought. Nonetheless – this materiality has more often than not been understood as the materiality of language – the materiality of words, of text; perhaps, for Wittgenstein, of social practices. But not the materiality of a coin, not “a common twenty-centavo coin into which a razor or letter opener has scratched the letters N T and the number 2…”

At crucial moments in Derrida’s work (I’m focussing on Derrida; we’ll get to Wittgenstein, perhaps, eventually, at which point everything, I hope, will change) the coin looms large; the coin (the infinite substitutions of capitalist economies) seems to dominate the language with which Derrida articulates his thought of infinite substitutability as language.

Near the start of ‘White Mythologies’, his essay on metaphor, Derrida quotes from Anatole France’s ‘The Garden of Epicurus’. “Polyphilos:… I was thinking how the Metaphysicians, when they make a language for themselves, are like… knife-grinders, who instead of knives and scissors, should put medals and coins to the grindstone to efface the exergue, the value and the head. When they have worked away till nothing is visible in their crown-pieces, neither King Edward, the Emperor William, nor the Republic, they say: ‘These pieces have nothing either English, German or French about them; we have freed them from all limits of time and space; they are not worth five shillings any more; they are of an inestimable value, and their exchange value is extended indefinitely.’ They are right in speaking thus. By this needy knife-grinder’s activity words are changed from a physical to a metaphysical acceptation. It is obvious what they lose in the process; what they gain by it is not so immediately apparent.” (quoted in ‘Margins of Philosophy’, p. 210)

Coin as metaphor for language. Coin as metaphor for metaphor. The sensuous meaning of language is rubbed away, to produce abstraction –abstraction conceals a hidden sensuousness.

But it seems strange of France’s Polyphilos to use this metaphor for metaphor. The coin is (of course) already an abstraction, a materially instantiated abstraction – a ‘sensuous non-sensuous’, to use the language of ‘Capital’ (or of Hegel; or, I’m told, of Goethe’s Mephistopheles). To rub away at the coin to make it abstract – to efface the head – is to remove its connection to the abstract (to the head). A coin without inscription loses its value as a coin. And so Polyphilos’s satire, that ridicules metaphysicians for effacing the real meaning of the words they use – a real meaning that is sensual, tangible, non-abstract, metaphoric; this ridicule is rerouted by the metaphor Polyphilos uses to describe metaphor – this metaphor makes metaphor already abstract, makes sensuousness already abstract. And it does so through the power of the coin.

Derrida of course critiques Polyphilos (or Anatole France) in ‘White Mythology’. But he does so while also deploying a metaphorics of the coin – of capital and surplus value.

“In signifying the metaphorical process, the paradigms of coin, of metal, silver and gold, have imposed themselves with remarkable insistence… Inscription on coinage is most often the intersection, the scene of the exchange between the linguistic and the economic. The two types of signifier supplement each other in the problematic of fetishism…” (p. 216). But this “supplement”, which imposes itself upon us, also disrupts the metaphorical strategy of Derrida’s work. For though Derrida is not a ‘linguistic philosopher’, his deconstructions of the philosophical canon focus on the treatment of the sign; and to extend the features of the sign to all aspects of the world is one of the basic manoeuvres by which Derrida aims to undermine philosophies of presence, or of ‘the proper’.

Yet this extension of the philosophy of the sign to the whole of life is also the question of the relation between philosophy and non-philosophy. And, as Derrida tells us in the passage I’ve just quoted, “the analogy within language finds itself represented by an analogy between language and something other than itself… [T]hat which seems to ‘represent’, to figure, is also that which opens the wider space of a discourse on figuration…” If it is “the paradigms of coin” that have “imposed themselves with remarkable insistence” when treating this analogy between language and non-language, might this not tell us something about the sources of Derrida’s own work – and about his strategy of extending or totalising the linguistic? For the metaphor of metaphor, the literary or philosophical space that precedes and makes possible any discourse on equivalence of non-equivalents, here seems to be the coin – or, more generally, the economic.

Derrida remains, in many ways, a transcendental philosopher, searching for the conditions of any discourse of empiricism. Yet if Derrida’s search for quasi-transcendentals leads him again and again into the realm of economic language (as I think it does), is it not legitimate to search in turn for the empirical conditions – the empirical sources – of the figures he deploys. How can coin, usury, capital be any kind of quasi-transcendental? Are these not in the first place material and social phenomena of our real world, our world of capitalist exchange and exploitation? To place Derrida’s discourse on the sign within a discourse on the economy; and then to place that in turn within the changes and self-understandings of capitalist society – this would be to historicise deconstruction to a degree that Derrida himself doesn’t seem to envisage.

And let me point you all again to Le Colonel Chabert, who seems to be doing that very thing as we speak…

More on Derrida and Marx

Filed under: Blogroll, Derrida, Economics, Marx, Philosophy, Politics — duncan @ 1:42 pm

I’m a little bit tired at the moment, so no proper post just yet. But for anyone interested in Derrida and Marx, let me put up a pointer to Le Colonel Chabert, who has recently started a Marx-oriented critique of Derrida.

From the conclusion of the outstanding first post:

“It is against the project (of explanation, critique and action) expressed and referred to here in the Grundrisse that Derrida’s intellectual product most consistently militated, undertaking a defence of liberalism’s doctrine of sacred property in the most mystical and mystifying possible manner, discovering private property, and indeed, eventually, capital specifically, to be not only the natural law of human relations but the the very primal matter-energy of which the phenomenal world is made, the force that is found spectrally filling the void from which being and presence have always already absconded (to be forever pursued, their imaginary loss forever mourned), the foundation of the universe itself, the creator and all creatures, eternal, indestructible.”

But read the post in full.

April 17, 2008

Oh For Fuck’s Sake (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Fooled By Randomness’)

Filed under: Philosophy, Sarcasm, Science, Self indulgence — duncan @ 9:44 pm

[A ranting post very much not worth your time, I’m afraid.]

I’m proud to say that I’ve been writing a deconstructionist-inclined blog for almost a year now, and have never once engaging in a bitter assault on the popular detractors of continental theory. You’ll notice that no interminable post excoriating Sokal and Bricmont has yet appeared. I am a saint.

On the other hand, I’ve just started reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller ‘Fooled By Randomness’. (In a no doubt misguided attempt to dip my toe into the glibber end of popular accounts of probability theory; I guess I should buckle down and read some real books.) As soon as I figured out the tone, I guessed that an ignorant and philistine invocation of Derrida as charlatan wouldn’t be far away. And, sure enough, on page seven (so soon!) we get an approving reference to a Ph.D. thesis in philosophy. “But not the Derrida continental style of incomprehensible philosophy (that is, incomprehensible to anyone outside of their ranks, like myself).” I gritted my teeth and continued. (Still no ranting blog post! I have the patience of Job!) But then on pages 72-3 we get this – and I boot up my computer.

“Increasingly, a distinction is being made between the scientific intellectual and the literary intellectual – culminating with what is called the ‘science wars’, plotting factions of literate nonscientists against literate scientists. The distinction between the two approaches originated in Vienna in the 1930s, with a collection of physicists who decided that the large gains in science were becoming significant enough to make claims on the field known to belong to the humanities… The Vienna Circle was at the origin of the development of the ideas of Popper, Wittgenstein (in his later phase), Carnap, and flocks of others.”

This is like shooting fish in a barrel. I mean – don’t you think the distinction between the scientific intellectual and the literary intellectual might have had some force before 1930s Vienna? Can the Vienna Circle be entirely accurately described as “a collection of physicists”? Does the later phase of Wittgenstein really originate there (even as a reaction against it)? Be all that as it may; next we get this:

“I suggest reading the hilarious Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal [it’s just inevitable, this reference; the pages might as well be blank; we can fill them in ourselves]… (I was laughing so loudly and so frequently while reading it on a plane that other passengers kept whispering things about me) [Probably ‘what an arsehole’]… Science is method and rigour; it can be identified in the simplest of prose writing. For instance, what struck me while reading Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene is that, although the text does not exhibit a single equation, it seems as if it were translated from the language of mathematics.”

Superficial detractors of continental theory often invoke Dawkins as the exemplar of scientific rationality. Don’t get me started on him. (In a word, ‘The Selfish Gene’ is precisely not translated from the language of mathematics, because half the point of the thing is to develop a metaphor – a metaphor, of the ‘selfishness’ of the gene, which may or may not be helpful (and there’s a whole endless debate to be had about the validity of ascribing intentional states to apparently mindless objects, or to parts of/systems within organisms), but that only works as metaphor. Which isn’t to say that Dawkins doesn’t have strictly ‘scientific’ claims to make – but Dawkins himself is perfectly clear (in, for instance, the first chapter of ‘The Extended Phenotype‘) that ‘a change of aspect’, rather than a scientific hypothesis, is the main thing he hopes to advance in his popular science writing.) Anyway.

“[T]here is another, far more entertaining way to make the distinction between the babbler and the thinker. You can sometimes replicate something that can be mistaken for a literary discourse with a Monte Carlo generator but it is not possible randomly to construct a scientific one. Rhetoric can be constructed randomly, but not genuine scientific knowledge.”

If I understand him right, Taleb means, by “Monte Carlo generator”, a computer program that is capable of churning out vast numbers of imaginary events, according to a set of predetermined rules. I can’t pretend to understand [which is why I'm reading this stuff, after all] – with my knowledge of computers, it’s amazing this blog is still in one piece. But (in a fairly superficial way) what Taleb’s saying here is surely wrong. A ‘Monte Carlo generator’ can construct scientific knowledge – as Taleb has already told us.

“It is a fact that ‘true’ mathematicians do not like Monte Carlo methods. They believe that they rob us of the finesse and elegance of mathematics. They call it ‘brute force’. For we can replace a large portion of mathematical knowledge with a Monte Carlo simulator (and other computational tricks). For instance, someone with no formal knowledge of geometry can compute the mysterious, almost mystical, Pi.” (p. 47) If existing mathematical knowledge can be replicated in this way, I find it hard to believe that new mathematical – or scientific – knowledge can’t also be so produced. [Okay, I just did my googling. Wikipedia informs me that in mathematics "[t]he method is useful for obtaining numerical solutions to problems which are too complicated to solve analytically.” I need to learn about this sort of thing.] At any rate, the ability of ‘Monte Carlo generators’ to supply Taleb with knowledge and understanding seems to be the main reason he likes them so much.

Anyway. Next we get this:

“This is the application of Turing’s Test of artificial intelligence, except in reverse. What is the Turing test? [We get a description. Taleb continues:] The converse should be true. A human can be said to be unintelligent if we can replicate his speech by a computer, which we know is unintelligent, and fool a human into believing it was written by a human. Can one produce a piece of work that can be largely mistaken for Derrida entirely randomly?”

Well – let’s charitably put down to ‘humorous’ license Taleb’s ‘reversal’ of the Turing test. And lets ignore the fact that the so called ‘random’ production of any text is random only within incredibly limited bounds – most of the game’s effectiveness depends on the non-randomly selected phrases and rules for the combination of phrases that whatever program Taleb’s describing would consist in. (Just as Taleb’s method of ‘randomly’ computing the value of Pi isn’t random at all except in one of the program’s particular functions.) All that said – the answer to Taleb’s last question is: obviously yes. Of course you can ‘randomly’ produce a piece of text that can be mistaken for Derrida – by people who know fuck all about Derrida. In fact, I’d go further – if the program that produces phrases is sufficiently intelligently set up, I daresay I could be fooled by – or at least not confident in my judgement of the provenance of – some phrase or short sequence of phrases. At some point that would collapse – you’re not going to be able to generate an intelligible essay, or even a longish piece of text, using a ‘random’ method. (And if you can, maybe you should apply for that Turing Test prize money.) But I have no idea what Taleb thinks he’s demonstrating here.

“[T]here are Monte Carlo generators designed to structure such texts and write entire papers. Fed with ‘postmodernist’ texts, they can randomize phrases under a method called recursive grammar, and produce grammatically sound but entirely meaningless sentences that sound like Jacques Derrida, Camille Paglia, and such a crowd. Owing to the fuzziness of his thought, the literary intellectual can be fooled by randomness.”

What bullshit. What copper-plated, cast-iron, dug from a farmer’s prize bull’s ditch of prize bullshit bullshit. According to ‘Fortune’ magazine (I know, I shouldn’t expect much, why did I even buy the fucking thing?) ‘Fooled by Randomness’ is “One of the smartest books of all time.” Well, not so much. Not if it has stuff that even vaguely resembles this in it. Good lord. Why do people take this sort of thing seriously? What’s going on?

I was planning to write more, but I think I’ve reached a pitch of intemperance that requires a hasty close. Don’t buy ‘Fooled by Randomness’. I’ve got it here now, and I’m wondering whether to try to finish it or burn it. I guess I should toss a coin.

[Apologies for this nonsense post. Unusually, I have too much time on my hands today.]

If. Derrida.

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 3:42 pm

It’s pretty clear that you can’t get any kind of a grasp of economics without understanding probability – the theory & philosophy of probability. I don’t. This post is just a place marker; a note to self that’ll shame me if I don’t spend time on probability.

Initial thoughts: Derridean that I am, I’m interested in the function of signs. Derrida sees (IMO) the quest of philosophy as the quest to abolish the sign – or, rather, the quest to abolish the distance between a sign and its object. This is also, of course, the quest to abolish uncertainty – because uncertainty is the difference between our representations of the world and the world itself.

Epistemology, then, is the attempt to understand the connection between signs and their objects; and, it’s often thought, a successful epistemology is one that guarantees a certain form of connection. Derrida works at undermining such guarantees – or at undermining the guarantees’ unassailability. This is what leads to the view of Derrida as a sceptic – a philosopher who also undermines any connection between our view of the world and the world as it really is.

This view of Derrida is based, however, on a vision of epistemology that Derrida’s thought also works to undermine. For seeing epistemology as an attempt to understand the link between representations and things in themselves presupposes an unmediated, guaranteed relationship between the subject of knowledge and the subject’s representations. This is the familiar flaw of much epistemology – at least the kind I was taught when learning analytic philosophy. It produces such wacky ideas as ‘qualia’. And an infinite regress always opens up: aren’t representations themselves a certain kind of thing-in-itself? The project of much phenomenological empiricism seems to be to create a new, subjective object of knowledge, that isn’t separated from us by a dark glass; an object we can possess as absolutely our own.

But, of course, a ‘subjective’ object is vulnerable to the same sceptical arguments as an ‘objective’ object. What is the subject’s relation to qualia? And if this is a relation of any kind, can’t that relation in principle also be broken, just as the relation between qualia and the world they potentially represent can be broken?

Derrida’s sceptical arguments are not directed at the ‘objective’ world, but at the ‘subjective objective’ of phenomenology. He does not argue that the link between signs and objects is always already broken – he has no interest in this question. Derrida argues that the sign itself is always already broken; that no sign can be fully apprehended or possessed. It is only the belief in an unmediated relationship between subject and sign – which is contrasted to a relationship between subject and object mediated by the sign – that allows scepticism, in its normal philosophical sense, to get started. Derrida’s arguments about signs are therefore profoundly anti-sceptical, on my read; but they also have a great deal to say about traditional epistemology, and the themes of certainty and uncertainty it meditates upon.

All this is clearly connected to Time, in a way that I don’t have much of a handle on. The locus of a guaranteed relation between subject and sign is the present; it is only present experience that possesses this quality of absolute belonging. And thus the claim that there is no such thing as the present – as it has been traditionally understood by philosophy – is at the heart of Derrida’s work.

I think that all this is probably very relevant to probability theory. But I don’t know how: it’s just a hunch. What I want to do, then, is try to get to grips with probability. For instance – it’s interesting to me that Keynes’s first major work (which he spent something like ten years writing) is a treatise on probability. From what I’ve gathered (from, like, paragraph-length summaries) Keynes’s thesis is that relationships of probability are logical in the same way as relationships of necessity. It’s interesting to me that Keynes developed this thesis in an intellectual environment (early 20th century Cambridge) that was also giving birth to analytic philosophy. Keynes’s philosophical mentor was G.E. Moore – and Keynes has remarked that Moore was just as important, for his intellectual development, as his economic mentor Marshall. I’d be interested to try to understand the connections between Keynes’s treatise and modal logic, as it subsequently developed in analytic philosophy. (I’ve never studied modal logic). And I’m also interested in Quine’s attempt to demolish modal logic – an attempt that, as I understand it, relies heavily on Quine’s belief that the ‘opacity’ of signs must be eradicated from logical analysis. This Quinian argument, it seems to me, is staggeringly vulnerable to Derridean critique.

But all this, as I say, is just a quick jotting down of ambitions and connections. As if this blog wasn’t already ambitious enough.

March 24, 2008

In passing…

Filed under: Derrida, Marx, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:48 pm

I seriously need to get myself an internets connection – I can’t respond to comments properly today - sorry!  But anyone interested in ‘Specters of Marx’, which has been in the news here recently, needs to run, not walk, over to Rough Theory, where N. Pepperell has a fabulous post up about Derrida’s selective interpretation of ‘Capital’ – and Derrida’s own exorcism of Marx’s more threatening specters.  I’d been green with envy if I wasn’t so delighted.

March 23, 2008

Nabokov’s Terror

Filed under: Literature, Nabokov, Philosophy, Self indulgence, Unreadable — duncan @ 2:57 pm

Nabokov famously hated both Freud and Sartre. In the screenplay to ‘Lolita’, if I remember right, Humbert is transplanted to L.A., where he has been hired to work on a film about existentialism. That’s meant to convey, I think, both Nabokov’s low regard for an intellectual movement so cheerfully adopted by the fashionable and the philistine – and an unease about his own writing. Nabokov doesn’t so much hate existentialism as feel that it isn’t being done properly; it’s a Hollywood philosophy, rather than a real (an authentic?) one. In the afterword to his collection ‘Tyrants Destroyed’, Nabokov writes of his story ‘Terror’: “It preceded Sartre’s La Nausee, with which it shares certain shades of thought, and none of that novel’s fatal defects, by at least a dozen years.” [And let me say right away that I, too, know almost nothing about Sartre – though I share Nabokov’s dislike of ‘Nausea’.]

Anyway, here’s a passage from ‘Terror’. The narrator, the usual chilly Nabokovian writer, is visiting a strange city when he experiences a feeling of ‘supreme terror’. He finds himself unable to express it using the normal resources of his art. “I wish the part of my story to which I am coming now could be set in italics; no, not even italics would do: I need some new, unique kind of type.” But then he says that he believes he has found the right words. “When I came out on the street, I suddenly saw the world such as it really is. You see, we find comfort in telling ourselves that the world could not exist without us, that it exists only inasmuch as we ourselves exist, inasmuch as we can represent it to ourselves… [It’s not exactly clear to me who the ‘we’ in this sentence is meant to encompass; a fairly select bunch of philosophical idealists and/or solipsists, it would seem. Be that as it may…] Well – on that terrible day when, devastated by a sleepless night, I stepped out into the center of an incidental city, and saw houses, trees, automobiles, people, my mind abruptly refused to accept them as ‘houses,’ ‘trees,’ and so forth… My line of communication with the world snapped”. Significantly, Nabokov’s narrator compares this with the sensation one experiences “after one has repeated sufficiently long the commonest word without heeding its meaning: house, howss, whowss. It was the same with trees, the same with people.” And then comes the passage I want to emphasise. Here we find bound together, extremely efficiently, a number of key Nabokovian themes. And it’s almost embarrassingly easy to read this passage psychoanalytically. (A quick aside – it’s not entirely clear to me how seriously we’re meant to take Nabokov’s contempt for Freud – for the most part it seems totally on the level (and hysterical); but on occasion Nabokov seems to be almost asking us to ignore his ‘manifest’ views. Take his lectures on ‘Anna Karenin’, where, if I remember right, he launches into his usual attack on the psychoanalytic view of literary symbolism, before discussing, in great detail, Anna’s red bag, and its metaphoric function in the novel. It’s almost as if he’s asking us to make the connection that a salaried professor of Russian literature couldn’t, in the fifties, express in polite company. But I suppose Nabokov’s ‘intentions’ (whatever sense we choose to make of that concept) aren’t necessarily the issue here: what matters, in the first place at least, is how his work functions… and a clearer example of a hysterical sexual nightmare you’d be hard-pushed to find than this passage from his story ‘Terror’.)

“I understood the horror of a human face. Anatomy, sexual distinctions, the notion of ‘legs,’ ‘arms,’ ‘clothes’ – all that was abolished, and there remained in front of me a mere something – not even a creature, for that too is a human concept, but merely something moving past. In vain did I try to master my terror by recalling how once in my childhood, on waking up, I raised my still sleepy eyes while pressing the back of my neck to my low pillow and saw, leaning toward me over the bed head, an incomprehensible face, noseless, with a hussar’s black mustache just below its octopus eyes, and with teeth set in its forehead. I sat up with a shriek and immediately the mustache became eyebrows and the entire face was transformed into that of my mother, which I had glimpsed at first in an unwonted upside-down aspect.” (‘Terror’, in Nabokov, ‘Collected Stories’, p. 177)

Several moves in the passages from ‘Terror’ I’ve quoted.

1) A vision of the world as it “is” rather than as it (usually) appears – a vision of the world unfiltered through the conceptual and experiential categories we use to understand existence. The world thus perceived is meaningless, because it is only our understanding of the world that gives it meaning. “I am convinced that nobody ever saw the world the way I saw it during those moments, in all its terrifying nakedness and terrifying absurdity.” A form of perception devoid of all conceptual scheme, and thus devoid of all sense.

2) But, of course, in describing the world as it really “is”, without the apparatus of our concepts or the categories of ordinary experience, Nabokov, or his narrator, has to use language, concepts, analogies, metaphor, all the resources of literary expression. In the passage I’m highlighting, he uses a comparison with an in-some-ways-similar experience of ‘absurdity’ from the narrator’s childhood. But, of necessity, the description of this experience cannot convey bare existence (here, the bare existence of the human face), but must rather convey a particular kind of experience, by comparing the face in question to something else, using the resources of metaphor: “an incomprehensible face, noseless, with a hussar’s black mustache just below its octopus eyes, and with teeth set in its forehead.”

3) I don’t think you need to be a complete Freud fanatic to see this as a primal scene of sexual nightmare – an expression of male revulsion at a certain fantasised vision of female sexuality (complete with castration anxiety and vagina dentata). What Nabokov, or his narrator, wants to present as horror at sheer existence, is rerouted, by the story’s metaphorics, towards horror at female sexuality. At this level of the story, existence itself is equated with female sexuality; and female sexuality is understood as specifically maternal.

A full reading of this story would place this analysis within the context of Nabokov’s art as a whole. But I don’t want to do that. I just want to use this story, and this quote, as an occasion to talk, in a massively underinformed way, about the general literary-philosophical-psychoanalytic situation we encounter here.

So. This story, and particularly this passage in the story, is a perfect example of that much maligned neologism ‘phallogocentrism’: the connection, at some deep conceptual/emotional level, between ‘logocentrism’ – the understanding of Being as dominated by or derived from Logos (form, word, reason) – and ‘phallocentrism’: the social, sexual, and conceptual prioritising of the male over the female, with all the ambiguities and misogynies that this implies.

Obviously my take here is Derridean – though it’s also hugely influenced by the Derridean literary critic and philosopher Henry Staten, and the psychoanalytic literary critic Janet Adelman. The (‘Statenian’) argument would run something like this. Western philosophy, since forever, has understood both existence and thought as grounded in the ‘Logos’. This assimilation can be understood in terms of the philosophical privileging of form over matter. Thought and existence can be linked together – the connection between our thoughts and their apparently non-conceptual content can be guaranteed – because thought and existence share something: form. My thoughts may be made of different stuff from the world they represent – but the form of my thoughts is identical with the form of their content, and this explains how thought can have content.

This form of philosophical explanation is fundamentally incoherent – because it has an overriding tendency not just to privilege form over matter, but to utterly abolish matter in favour of understanding everything, including Being itself, in terms of form. For if form is the principle of intelligibility, then that which is not form – i.e. matter – is, strictly speaking, unthinkable, and unknowable. When we say ‘matter’ we cannot mean matter, on this theory – we must mean the form of matter. Thus – there is no matter; or, at least, matter drops altogether out of any coherent logocentric thought, becoming the pure noumenon, about which nothing can be said.

And yet, of course, we still do talk about matter; and indeed matter remains as the dark shadow to any philosophical theory of being as form. This dark shadow is the space within which Nabokov situates his story of ‘terror’. And it has two aspects – the failure of a representation to fully correspond to its object (as in the repetition of a word until it appears to lose its meaning); and a material existence that cannot be encompassed by form. There are thus two threats to ‘logocentrism’: materiality on the one hand, and the failure of language to fully convey meaning, on the other. This latter threat, to be simple about it, is the threat of poetry – because poetry, or literature, depends upon a use of language that emphasises language’s ‘material’ properties, rather than its transparency to the objects of reference. And this is the threat that Derrida presses in his emphasis on ‘the materiality of the signifier’. But this threat is in fact a special case of the more general threat of materiality – or (rather) the threat of the utterly incoherent concept of materiality that is both invented and suppressed by logocentric thought.

As I say, this entire network of philosophical concepts is incoherent; it is not sustained by its own logic or necessity, but by other forces. And – this is the claim of those who emphasise the importance of ‘phallogocentrism’ – one of the most significant of these forces is a phallocentric sexual politics. The ‘Freudian’ level of Nabokov’s story ‘Terror’ is more important than its ‘existentialist’ level. Logocentrism creates an entirely incoherent concept of matter – which is then forcibly suppressed from the surface of philosophical systematicity. But this concept of matter has already been equated with a fantasised idea of female sexuality – and it is this equation that drives philosophy’s suppression.

Nabokov is, in a way, being very candid in this passage (whether deliberately or not…). His metaphysics, or the metaphysics his authorial persona advocates, is fundamentally idealist: Nabokov apparently believes in the persistence of the soul after death, and in the constitution of the empirical world by those persisting souls. He believes, like Pnin, not in an autocratic god, but in “a democracy of ghosts”. [All these remarks are hopefully going to tie in eventually to hauntology and ‘Specters of Marx’. I’m baffled that no one I’ve come across has written on ‘Nabokov’s Hauntology’.] But in this short story (as elsewhere) Nabokov reveals this philosophical inclination as driven by a fantasised fear of female sexuality, and of maternity – which are nonetheless implicitly equated with being in general. No doubt this equation is part of a still more general heterosexism. But I want to emphasise how important this equation/suppression is to Nabokov’s work (and, in passing, how symptomatic it is of more pervasive literary/ideological trends. Eventually, with a bit of luck, we’ll work our way round to ‘Hamlet’). To take only the most obvious example: in ‘Lolita’, Lolita’s escape from Humbert is represented and embodied by her pregnancy. But the entire story of her capture/escape occurs in the space between the death of two mothers, both mentioned almost in passing. Humbert’s mother: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three”; and Lolita herself: “Mrs. ‘Richard F. Schiller’ died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day, 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest.” These are among the most chilling sentences in the book – not just because of the brutal indifference of the narrators. This description of Lolita’s death recuperates her escape from Humbert’s supernatural fantasies (of nymphet love), (and, incidentally, from the name ‘Lolita’), while simulataneously evoking Nabokov’s own fantasies of grace and (Christian?) immortality. Lolita and her child are dead before the book begins – and it is as if Nabokov can only bear to write about (or to imagine) her if she has no children. In this respect, Nabokov fails the test that Humbert, for all his monstrousness, passes in chapter 29. Humbert doesn’t kill Lolita. (But then perhaps he knows, in some corner of his soul, that his creator will.)

I’ll try to carry on along these lines in a while. Destination: Hamlet.

March 18, 2008

Existence and Property

Every time I try to think about things using philosophy, I’m reminded just how little philosophy I’ve read. I need a great many years absorbing the canon before I can say anything worthwhile – and I don’t have them.

So, talking crap, let me talk about the opposition between existence and properties. On the one hand, you have the philosophical vision that underpins a certain form of empiricism: a substratum, the existent, which has certain sensible properties. The properties may come and go, but the substratum remains, for it is adamantine.

There are all sorts of problems here. For one, this substratum tends to, as it were, ‘drop out’. Since (at least in this empiricist vision) it seems to be the properties, and not the thing in itself, which we perceive, it becomes easy to deny the existence of the thing in itself. Then we’re left with an alternative philosophical vision, in which there are nothing but properties – with no fundamental being to which they are attached. At this point, the concept of existence itself becomes a product of properties, and we find ourselves with a kind of idealism.

If you want to, you can see this in terms of the vocabulary of analytic philosophy. For vision (1), take Russell’s theory of descriptions, in which there is an entirely empty ‘there is an object such that…’ and then a description of the object – a list of its properties. For vision (2), take the theory that (if I remember right…) Quine gestures towards, in which the concept of the class is genuinely basic, and the property of belonging to this or that class precedes our understanding of existence.

Does existence precede essence, or does essence precede existence? – is I guess the point. Or, rather, you obviously can’t understand existence and essence separately.

I hate writing like this. I need to do some reading. But I don’t have time.

Anyway – I want to make a highly shonky move from property in this philosophical sense to property in the economic sense. I don’t think this move is necessarily as shonky as it might appear; but it’s clearly a bit dodge. The point is this: the free market is based on the exchange of property. And the owners of property are, by and large, people. (Corporations too, of course; everything’s very complicated. But let’s try to keep it simple for the minute.) People exchange commodities: that’s the free market.

But I’ve been reading Marx and Polanyi. And what they both emphasise is that capitalism is born at the moment when labour becomes commodified (or, rather, in which certain kinds of human activity become commodified as labour). The basic institution of capitalism is a market for wage-labour. And labour is, in some ways, a very different commodity from any other. Because, to be simple about it, we are labour: labour is us.

I need to qualify that immediately: so of course labour isn’t a natural category; of course all our lives aren’t all labour; of course the very idea of labour, and the way in which it’s understood, is a product of institutions, social structures, mechanisms of discipline and control; it’s the creation of the concept of labour that we want to examine here.

But having said all that. In some sense we are labour; labour is us. A human being owns property. The question is: when a human being also becomes property, what becomes of her relation to herself? Is this relation a relation of ownership? Do I own myself; am I my own most basic property? Or does property not enter into a relationship that is, fundamentally, no relationship at all, but simple existence? Or is the question entirely ill-posed in these terms? And all these questions also need to be asked in relation to slavery – one of the most massive facts of early capitalism, which is by no means dead today.

Believe it or not, these remarks were prompted by trying to re-read some of Keynes’s General Theory, and being struck by the fundamental distinction he draws (p. 23), between the income of entrepreneurs, and the income of factors of production (by and large – labour.) What’s the basic distinction between entrepreneurs and others, which is operative in so much economic thought? Why are entrepreneurs seen as the demi-gods of capitalist culture? Isn’t it because only the entrepreneur fully owns herself? And therefore only the entrepreneur fully exists? According to this logic of existence and property.

And in trying to attack this logic, don’t we have to go deep into the concept of ownership – of property (‘the proper’, as Derrida calls it) – and its relation to (human) existence?

Oh fuck it; this blog’s becoming a nightmare.

March 16, 2008

Derrida’s Two Alterities

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy — duncan @ 5:24 pm

For some reason I’ve not felt like posting anything these last ten days. I’ve been happily – albeit slowly – reading away. (Perhaps I’ve got enough of the obvious objections to simplistic economic orthodoxy out of my system; I can read without feeling the need to complain. And reading, rather than whinging, perhaps seems a more productive use of limited time.) But I thought I’d put up a few thoughts on my favourite subject: Derrida. This stuff is way simplistic, to the point of being totally wrong. But hey ho, never mind.


Derrida is obviously a big fan of Levinas. One of the main goals of his work is to open up philosophy’s totalising ambitions to ‘alterity’ or ‘the other’. Derrida is certainly sceptical, in some ways, about Levinas’s ethics of alterity. For Levinas philosophy is egology; it is, in some sense, narcissistic. But Derrida insists (following a certain strand of Freud) that there is no such thing as non-narcissism – there are only more or less open or hospitable narcissisms. So Derrida is sceptical about the valorisation of alterity that seems prominent in Levinas’s, and in a lot of post-Levinasian, thought. But Derrida is still on side with the project. He still values some intellectual endeavours more than others because of their openness to ‘the other’ – whatever ‘the other’ might mean.

That’s what I want to focus on in this quick post: what Derrida means by ‘the other’, by ‘alterity’. I want to suggest that there are two concepts or directions of alterity at work in Derrida’s thought. I want to call them, simplistically, the materialist and the messianic concepts of alterity. I think that w/r/t the former Derrida can be seen as taking his bearings from Bataille, w/r/t the latter, from Benjamin. And I think that the changing emphases of Derrida’s work can be connected, to a large extent, to the changing weight he places on these two concepts of alterity.

Let’s say that we take Derrida’s project (again far too simplistically) as oriented towards a critique of the classical philosophical concept of being as form, where form is what guarantees being’s self-identity, and thus intelligibility. The materialist concept of alterity would then open an implicitly idealist concept of being to the non-idealist ‘formlessness’ of matter. It would take its bearings from a passage like this one. (Bataille, ‘Formless’, in ‘Visions of Excess’, p. 31).

“A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”

I think this is the direction we see Derrida pursuing most consistently in his great middle-period works, particularly ‘Glas’ and the remarkable essay ‘Economimesis’. Derrida’s project here, I think, is to reroute the manoeuvres of transcendental philosophy – manoeuvres motivated, at base, by the need to see supposedly formless matter as always subject to the form-giving powers of a consciousness that transcends and remains untouched by formlessness… Derrida wants to reroute these manoeuvres into a thoroughly non-transcendental philosophy, by claiming that the ‘formless’ corporeal is always a (quasi-) transcendental condition of transcendental thought. This leads him to place great weight on what one could call a Bataillean ‘virulent materialism’; it leads him to use Genet’s profane blasphemy as a counterweight to Hegel’s idealist totalisations; and it leads him to write about how vomit, and how that which makes us vomit, is the (quasi- or, better, non-) transcendental condition of Kant’s entire philosophical project.

But Derrida finds himself unable to pursue this direction, for reasons I’ll hopefully get to in a minute. And in the later work we see a decisive shift away from materialism – virulent or otherwise – in favour of a Benjaminian emphasis on the other as messiah (albeit without messianicity). Here Derrida takes his bearings from passages like this one. (Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in ‘Illuminations’, p. 255).

“We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogenous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”

Here Derrida is pushing not at the philosophical connection between being and form, but at the philosophical connection between being and time – and the inclination to see time as a totalising medium of intelligibility. This fundamental connection between form and time – the fact that both are used to produce an ontology of being as self-identity – is, I think, what Derrida means by the metaphysics of presence. In his later work Derrida wants to open homogenous time to the other in the shape of a messiah, or a messianism, that can divide every second of time against itself. And this opening of time is of a piece with the parallel opening of form. Derrida pursues this messianic project most forcefully in his later writings on religion – and in ‘Spectres of Marx’, where it is linked to the concept of ‘hauntology’.

Derrida is completely consistent in opposing what he sees as ontology in general: the understand of being as form as self-identity as presence. But the non-ontology which Derrida aspires to create by emphasising the non-self-identity of being has a very different character at different locations in Derrida’s work. A profane materialism on the one hand; a quasi-religious messianism on the other. And, to get to the point concerning me personally – I am considerably more in sympathy with the former than with the latter. When I deploy Derridean arguments in this blog, it’s the ‘materialist’ Derrida I want to emphasise. I want to push this Derrida’s arguments as far as I can, and counter the arguments of the second, messianic Derrida where possible. Specifically (and to bring things back to economics; which is, after all, the ostensible subject of the blog): I think a ‘Derridean’ reading of Marx would be possible that is radically different from the reading Derrida actually proposes in ‘Spectres’ – because in ‘Spectres’ Derrida is at his most ‘messianic’; whereas a discussion of Marx is precisely where, in my opinion, Derrida should be at his most ‘materialist’.

Now, any deconstructionist worth their salt is going to be deeply suspicious, not to say laughing out loud, at my attempt to isolate two distinct and self-contained ‘Derridas’. Have we learned nothing?! Doesn’t it seem more than likely that the ‘materialist’ and the ‘messianic’ already contain and constitute each other? (And that they and philosophy in general are also open to countless other forms of ‘alterity’ – to countless other others?) Didn’t Bataille describe himself as one of the mystics of the ages? And isn’t Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ precisely an attempt to articulate a form of ‘historical materialism’? Well sure. But I’m going to run with this for a while, I think.

If we want to give some space to this reading of Derrida, we need an account of the relation between the two ‘Derridas’; and we need to explain what logic governs the shifting emphases of materialism and messianism in his (or their) work. And that means going considerably deeper into Derrida’s thought than I think I can – because I haven’t read any Husserl, and I’ve not read nearly enough Heidegger. Husserl and Heidegger are, of course, the two most important objects of and influences on Derrida’s whole method. And without a decent knowledge of the two H’s (which, believe you me, I’m not going to acquire any time soon) I don’t see how I can adequately comment on, or understand, the fundamentals of Derrida’s project.

All the same, I’m going to end with the beginnings of a critique. The following quote is, in my opinion, the most important in Derrida’s corpus. It occurs at least twice: once in a footnote in ‘Speech and Phenomena’; then again, as a self-citation (with all the Derridean ambiguities this implies) in ‘Glas’. And when the sentence is repeated (but, the voice of deconstruction tells us, its repetition or iteration was already part of its original inscription), it describes a project that Derrida still sees as essential, but still feels unable to attempt: a project continually deferred – which is perhaps connected to deconstruction’s constant emphasis on constant deferral. The sentence (or sentence-fragment, really): “the very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed.” (Speech and Phenomena, p. 85 I don’t have ‘Glas’ to hand.)

My overly simplistic claim (perhaps an obvious one) is this: the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed, because deconstruction presupposes and utterly depends upon the concept of constitution. No doubt this is true of all the metaphysical concepts that Derrida mobilises and transforms, shifting their meanings as he takes his bearings away from the metaphysical projects from which he partially extracts these concepts yet within which his work partly remains. But in my opinion the concept of constitution is different, for deconstruction, from all the other metaphysical concepts Derrida deploys and displaces. Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy – and Derrida’s critique of philosophy is based on a prior assimilation of all philosophy to transcendental philosophy… Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy always depends on a use of the concept of constitution – a search for conditions of possibility, whether they be ‘transcendental’ conditions in the full sense or not… and so Derrida cannot allow this concept of constitution to be subject to the vicissitudes of meaning-contamination under the pressure of which all the other terms of the metaphysical tradition are made to tremble. The concept of constitution is, in my opinion, the stable centre around which Derrida’s critique of the philosophical search for a stable centre revolves.

Which is far too simplistic. At certain moments in his text – specifically, the ‘materialist’ moments I value – Derrida seems to push his idea of ‘quasi-transcendentals’ to a point at which the whole post-Kantian apparatus of conditions of possibility threatens to collapse. It’s this Derrida – the Derrida who imagines a wholly material transcendental, which can therefore no longer function in any way as transcendental, or as a means of constitution – that I value (and it’s this Derrida, I think, who’s close to Wittgenstein). Yet Derrida repeatedly pulls back from the consequences of his assault on the Kantian problematic; and substitutes for the material ‘transcendental’ a logic of spectrality which is explicitly opposed to ‘ontologising’ materialism. We could see this as a characteristic deconstructionist double-movement, ceaselessly alert to the lures of onto-theology (which can ally itself as powerfully with materialism as with religion). But we can also see it as a flaw in Derrida’s work: a refusal to reject the terms of the Kantian, critical tradition, because this would also mean a rejection of the discursive strategies that Derrida has developed in response to it.

The very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed. But the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed. Which means, in my opinion, that it simply needs to be rejected. This is, I’m sure, no surprise to anyone. But as I’ve said before, I’m behind the curve, trying to catch up.

Anyway, economics-related service will be resumed in about a year and a half, when I’ve read some books.

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