Archive for the theory Category

fistful of zizek

Posted in Cost, Deleuze, Foucault, Galloway, MM, Nealon, resistance, theory, Zizek on April 13, 2008 by untimelymediations

I think Žižek presents the most compelling argument thus far for how resistance might be practiced under the regimes of protocol, the control society, and biopower. While Žižek doesn’t offer this theory in terms Galloway, Deleuze, or Foucault and Nealon employ, I think the relationship between Žižek’s work and that of the other theorists I’ve mentioned is fairly clear.

Žižek argues that subversion must take the form of the “empty gesture,” the gesture that is offered only in the expectation that it will be refused. For Žižek, subverting the fantasy of the false choice becomes a real act of subversion and resistance. As he writes, “the truly subversive thing is not to disregard the explicit letter of the Law on behalf of the underlying fantasies, but to stick to this letter against the fantasy which sustains it” (29). That is, to resist means not to avoid the (illusion) of choice in the empty gesture, but to take it at face value; not to deny choice (or argue that it is being denied) but to revel in choice, to exploit the opportunity (falsely) offered as a genuine moment of agency and autonomy. “In other words,” writes Žižek, “the act of taking the empty gesture (the offer to be rejected) literally—to treat the forced choice as a true choice—is, perhaps, one of the ways to put into practice what Lacan calls ‘traversing the fantasy’: in accomplishing this act, the subject suspends the phantasmic frame of unwritten rules which tell him how to choose freely—no wonder the consequences of this act are so catastrophic”. The fantasy of the empty gesture is not the fantasy of having one’s way—if only I could accept the offer!—but rather that of the offer qua offer: it is understood, expected that the offer will be rejected—because that is what one does. One does not say “yes” to the empty gesture without, as Žižek demonstrates, provoking catastrophe.

I think this is a promising mode of resistance. In some ways, it echoes the work done by groups like the Yes Men. The name here is intriguing: rather than resisting through negation (“No!”), the Yes Men have used satire and irony to show up the hypocrisy of governments and NGOs alike. However, their actions are not done through protesting as such, but through infiltrating these bodies and using their own logic against them. In the link above, for example, a Yes Men operative proposes to the WTO that private ownership of labor—i.e., slavery—would benefit African nations in the same way that private ownership and industrialization has already benefited them. Plainly, the plan is abhorrent, but what is abhorrent about it is not the implication of slavery qua slavery, but that the promotion of slavery is made according to the rules of free-market capitalism; the argument of an enslaved workforce is derived from the same logic that urges private investment in African industry and resources. In Žižek’s terms, the Yes Men are “sticking to the letter” of the Law, but the Law in this case is flawed; the forced choice here—privatization of all parts of production, including labor—is made under the empty gesture that no body or organization would accept this choice because it is (ostensibly) so plainly a violation of human/humane ethics and international standards.

What complicates this as a form of resistance, to my eyes, is that it requires an audience or observer who is capable of recognizing the logic of the satire and irony. That is, it demands an audience who is engaged enough with the issues at hand and the modes of resistance being deployed to see these acts as resistance and not simply just a “prank” or, worse yet, as a viable proposal for resolving economic crises in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not saying that people are dumb, though I have serious questions about whether such acts could work on a large enough scale to be politically productive when many people might not recognize them as being political acts of resistance. Rather, I am more concerned about the second consequence, that tactics like those of the Yes Men will be taken at face value and that, for example, privatized labor will be enacted by overeager capitalism. In this case, Žižek’s qualms about the ethics of such forms of resistance are of utmost importance. The question that needs to be asked, then, is not just one of how to resist power and capital, but rather how can we use the empty gesture effectively—without allowing for the empty gesture to be taken at face value in ways that would be counterproductive to progressive causes?

On one hand, it is tempting to say that no organization, body, or company would be so daft as to accept such a proposal as privatized labor. But . . . it is not a contention I have much faith in. I think it is far more likely that without making plain the emptiness of such empty gestures such proposals as privatized labor could become a reality. What, then, is the cost of such an outcome? If it ultimately leads to greater outcry, resistance, and protest to such practices, can we accept a few thousand (or million) people being enslaved? Or is the cost in human dignity too great?

porn, property, punditry

Posted in Galloway, html, hypertext, MM, signification, Tech, theory on April 7, 2008 by untimelymediations

Does anyone else have a hard time reading protocological without misreading it as proctological?  I know some people think we academics have our heads up our asses, but that’s not quite the same thing.


Moving on.


I’d like to trouble some of Galloway’s claims about DNS.  Galloway argues that DNS is “the most heroic of human projects; it is the actual construction of a single, exhaustive index for all things.  It is the encyclopedia of mankind, a map that has a one-to-one relationship with its territory” (50).    DNS, Galloway claims, compels order in place of arbitrariness:  “DNS is like many other protocols in that, in its mad dash toward universality, it produces sameness or consistency where originally there existed arbitrariness”.


In fact, DNS does the opposite, I think: it encourages the proliferation of meaning and the destabilization of signification through its use of top-level domains (see p. 49).  A single signifier can be used across different top-level domains, thus severing the (already tenuous link) between the signifier and signified.  Consider, for example, the signifier “White House.”  As a domain name, it connects to at least three differing sites depending with which top-level domain it is associated:


  • infamously, this site was once a pornographic website, but it has since served both a forum for political discussion and as the online presence of a real estate developer’s firm.
  • this site parodies the current presidential administration and its policies.
  • this is the official website of the office of the United States presidency and the executive agencies it oversees.


Thus, where “White House” might be an otherwise moderately stable signifier, its incorporation into DNS destabilizes its meaning and proliferates signification across domains.  Indexicality is therefore not the measure of DNS but its antithesis; the “sign” represented by a domain name and its corresponding website is sundered into a bewildering multiplicity of signifieds tied to a single signifier.  This is complicated further still in the case of, whose content has changed over the years as different owners have possessed the domain.  The signified itself—i.e., the website content—becomes an unstable site of unpredictable and indeterminate value.  Will it be punditry, property, or porn today?  Who can say?

technic: all writing

Posted in MM, pedagogy, sophists, stiegler, Tech, theory on March 24, 2008 by untimelymediations

I’m troubled by a distinction that Steigler makes between technology and technoscience, and I can’t figure out why.  Steigler offers us the following definition of technology:

Technology is therefore the discourse describing and explaining the evolution of specialized procedures and techniques, arts and trades—either the discourse of certain types of procedures and techniques, or that of the totality of techniques inasmuch as they form a system: technology is in this case the discourse of the evolution of that system. (94)

On one hand, I find this definition compelling, as it broadens the definition of technology quite considerably—at the very least, beyond the lazy definition we often settle for, the one that’s come to mean something like “a thing with wires and cables and buttons and crap—maybe with a screen or display of some kind.”  What Steigler’s expanded understanding technology calls attention to is the way all techniques/technics are part of a historical evolution—I’m careful here not to say “progress,” with its implied teleologies—an evolution of which the current digital phase is but the most visible manifestation in our time.


Thinking technics in this way open up opportunities, then, to make “technology” (in Steigler’s sense) more rhetorically productive: what are the technics available to us, and how do different technics and technologies yield different rhetorical potentials?  As Rice is fond of pointing out, assumptions that books, print, pencils and chalkboards—among all other non-digital or non-electronic writing tools—are not technological are short-sighted  and ahistorical; Steigler offers a way around this by reincorporating past technics into the discourse of technological evolution.


However, on the other hand, Steigler also offers a technoscience “in which technics and science become inseparable, in which rationality is confined to usefulness”.  For Steigler, this represents a conflict of purposes, “an inversion, even a perversion, of the initial epistemological model of philosophy by which theory, the essence of science, is defined by its independence from useful finalities, that is, anthropocentric ones” (my emphasis); thus, in technoscience technics and science collide precisely where they might collude: in furthering human aims.  Rather, Steigler identifies this as an epistemic conflict between two differing ideologies of the purpose of knowledge: technics are about using knowledge, making it materially productive, while science (as Steigler explains) is posited on the notion of knowledge qua knowledge—not applied, concretized, or materialized.


Steigler continues from here to ask whether “technology, which for a long time has been synonymous with progress, is no longer necessarily perceived as such, or rather, if it is no longer obvious that progress is tantamount to benefit for the human race” (95).  If the answer is negative—that technology is no longer associated with human progress, a position Steigler gives some weight to—then “technics would be an end unto itself”.


I think Steigler leaves this as something of a troubled proposition, and it is one to which I don’t have a reply.  What I would like to do, however, is to point to a couple of questions that Steigler here raises for our work in this study:

  • While it hasn’t been a main focal point of our discussion thus far, I think Steigler points to an epistemic crisis in composition work.  On one hand, while we do conduct research—i.e., we generate knowledge—compositionists do so with an eye on “useful finality:” how to use our research to help improve student writing and our own pedagogy.  If we accept this characterization, however, we implicitly set up a contrast between theory (“the essence of science”) and composition work as technics/technoscience (“an inversion, even a perversion . . . of philosophy”).  So, my question here might be this: Is Steigler’s distinction here useful for describing what composition studies does and what its role is in the university?  What are the stakes—disciplinarily or otherwise—of accepting or rejecting either of these descriptions?  Can composition come to terms with itself as being fundamentally a study of technology in Steigler’s strong sense, and how can our pedagogical aims be developed to fit such a sense of the field?
  • On a less fraught note, and really just to highlight a minor detail, the opposition between means and ends here is one that we seem to have been skirting all semester, but that is now coming into sharper focus.  This distinction might even be key to explaining the anti-Sophistic positions from way back in January.  Socrates’s and Plato’s big complaint about sophistry might be precisely that it is all about ends—and not philosophy’s end of ethical and moral perfection; rather, sophistry taught how to make language and knowledge useful, to serve (again) Steigler’s “useful finalities” in whatever way possible.  On one hand, this does seem to maintain the distinction Steigler describes: sophistry serves materially useful, if anthropocentric, ends, while Platonic philosophy asserts that the value of knowledge is precisely immaterial—that matter, in fact, stands in the way of true knowledge—and that its only end is its own fulfillment.  But doesn’t knowledge always serve someone’s ends?  That is, even if philosophy is knowledge divested from the civic and material realms, it still serves the end of moral perfection—that is, it is still implicated in the technologic sphere.  To what extent can theories of social constructivism point to ways that philosophy is technological—and thus perhaps destabilize the opposition Steigler establishes between techne and science?

Hands full with Leroi-Gourhan

Posted in Exteriorization, Hands, KL, Leroi-Gourhan, Memory, Science, Tech, theory on March 17, 2008 by untimelymediations


After completing Andre Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture and Speech, I admit that I do not know where to begin with all fascinating archeological, technological, and sociolinguistic information he presented.  Therefore, I’ve decided to break this post up into small, bite-sized chunks to discuss what I find most applicable to my research that I have taken from this text.

Extending the body with the development of hands

What I immediately find most fascinating in Leroi-Gourhan’s work is his early argument that Homo sapiens’ hands developed as aides in speech, rather than as tools with which to eat.  By quoting the Treatise on the Creation of Man, Leroi-Gourhan argues that, “Yet it is above all for the sake of speech that nature has added hands to our body.  If man had been deprived of hands, his facial parts, like those of the quadrupeds, would have been fashioned to enable him to feed himself” (35).  After reading Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals a few years back, I would never have made this connection, as it is my understanding that Darwin instead argues that our faces and the expressions on them become the vessels of speech.  The similar, sometimes even identical, affective responses amongst all mammals indicate that our hands are not the sources for speech or expression, but rather our faces.  As a hardcore Darwinian, I have a difficult time straying away from his argument in Expression to believe Leroi-Gourhan’s argument in this week’s text.  However, after I continued reading Gesture and Speech I found myself more convinced with his argument that the development of hands is not limited to speech, but is indicative of technological advances to expand the body.   To speak and function by utilizing various extensions of our bodies is precisely his argument when discussing the development of the hands.

Extending the brain with the development of exteriorization

Today, we are dramatically externalized, so much so that our physical memories are under worked and reliant upon outside sources.  However, Leroi-Grourhan views externalization as a “logical stage of evolution,” as noted in the following:

“These machines […] reflect a logical stage in human evolution.  As with hand
tools the process whereby all implements came gradually to be concentrated outside the human body is again perfectly clear: Actions of the teeth shift to the hand, which handles the portable tool; then the tool shifts still further away, and a part of the gesture is transferred from the arm to the hand-operated machine” (245).

By looking at Leroi-Gourhan’s argument for extending our bodies, it appears that technologies have always encouraged the expanding of the brain in one fashion or another (his hand stand – ark ark ark – clearly illustrates the desire to expand the body).  Currently, we are experiencing the ability to “store” our brains: “evolution has entered a new stage, that of the exteriorization of the brain, and from a strictly technological point of view the mutation has already been achieved” (252).  Compared to the reformation of the skull to hold our physical brains, this mutation of which he speaks occurred rather immediately.  Consequently, we are externalizing the self with more frequency and relying upon a stored, technologized memory.  It should be noted that while Leroi-Gourhan refers to encyclopedias and punch-card indexes, he was indeed able to see where externalization is heading.

One might argue that with the prevalence of externalized memory, a collective memory is replacing our individual memory.  However, I believe that it is the reverse that is occurring: because a collective memory is no longer necessary, our memory is strictly individualized. Real memory of specific, collective, survival behaviors that were passed on through a group are no longer necessary for the species to endure.  We simply store the information that we need and seek out only what we deem important.  Perhaps, then, the next step in externalized evolution is maintaining a certain technical savvy-ness—if one does not have the means (economic, knowledge or otherwise) to externalize, you will not evolve.

Socrates’ Doubt

Posted in Gorgias, Jaeger, MM, Phaedrus, Protagoras, sophists, theory on January 21, 2008 by untimelymediations

Apologies in advance if this doesn’t seem up to normal standards of eloquence; I had already typed out a beautifully written and immaculately reasoned response to this week’s readings, but my connection to teh interweb went bats and I lost that draft. So, for your reading displeasure, a hastily reconstructed version of the earlier piece. I now know how Coleridge felt, by the way.

To begin:

Do I understand you, I said, and is your meaning that you teach the art of politics, and that you promise to make men good citizens?

That, Socrates, is exactly the profession which I make. [This is Protagoras speaking.]

Then, I said, you do indeed possess a noble art, if there is no mistake about this; for I will freely confess to you, Protagoras, that I have a doubt whether this art is capable of being taught, and yet I know not how to disbelieve your assertion.

Until our last meeting, I thought I might be unique in my fixation on the beef between Socrates and the sophists. As we learned last week (or as KL and I learned and JP instructed), attempts to deal with the sophists and with sophistry are hardly new; what might be the most recent revival of the sophistry is their recuperation as proto-champions of the postmodern in the work of Vitanza, Jarratt, and others. JP’s criticism of this move notwithstanding, I’d like to raise questions in response to both the beef and the recuperation, with an eye on trying to forecast some of the directions our reading this semester might take.

So: wherein lies the beef? I think the passage from the Protagoras cited above is an interesting place to start in addressing this question. Elsewhere, Socrates has been notably critical of rhetoric and of the sophists in particular. In the Gorgias, Socrates is suspicious of rhetoric’s presumably tenuous relationship with capital-T truth; the Phaedrus raises this concern again and adds to it a critique of sophistic pedagogy, aesthetic, and theology. It is in the Protagoras, though, that Socrates most explicitly critiques the promises of sophistic practice; namely, the twofold promise that sophists like Protagoras teach their students both the “art of politics” and how to be “good citizens,” that is, to be virtuous.

What Socrates’ doubt about Protagoras claims reveals is that, in essence, Socrates (and Platonists generally) and the sophists are essentially arguing at cross-purposes. Socrates’ question above betrays a (willful) misrepresentation of the sophistic promise; for his critique of the sophists to make sense, Socrates must ask the question as if politics and virtue are separate goals of the sophistic pedagogy. What is he asking Protagoras may be paraphrased as so:

Do I understand you, I said, and is your meaning that you (1) teach the art of politics, and that you (2) promise to make men good citizens?

But for the sophists and, as Jaeger argues, Greek culture generally, that distinction is not one that is readily made. As Jaeger explains,

… the Greeks in the classical era … thought that political morality and personal morality were practically identical: since the state was the sole source of all moral standards, and it was difficult to see what moral code could exist apart from the code of the state, the law of the community in which the individual lived and had his being. A purely private moral code, without reference to the state, was inconceivable to the Greeks. We must forget our idea that each individual’s acts are ruled by his conscience. (Paideia I 326)

Against the Platonist assertion that virtue was achieved through solitary pursuit of a transcendent Truth through the rigors of dialectic, the sophists taught that virtue was achieved through communal interaction using rhetoric–the divine gift necessary for the establishment and continued functioning of the polis. For Socrates and Platonism generally, rhetoric was thus, at best, a distraction from the quest for divine revelation; at worst, it mired its practitioners in the debased world of men and matter. The sophists, conversely, might have understood Platonic dialectic to be unproductive, an exercise in futility that produced no tangible results in the world of daily experience; rhetoric, on the other hand, was of immediate use, and could be deployed for the moral edification of both the individual and his community.

What this means about the sophists and sophistic rhetoric is that rhetoric is fundamentally a tool for getting along, for making one’s way through a world filled (gosh darn it!) with other people, who have plans, goals, and agendas that are not one’s own.  Rhetoric is what mandates appropriate function and action in such a world.  In short, every rhetoric is an ethics.

Now: what does this have to do with theory? I want to suggest, however tentatively, that what sophistry and theory have in common is just this interest in what makes the social work, what is necessary for a society to conduct the work of being social.  For the sophists, as we have seen, the answer is rhetoric; for Hegel, the dialectical movement of history; for Marx, the class struggle.  Of course, these examples also suggest ways that the system can be used, changed, manipulated–that is, like sophistic rhetoric, theory (or maybe Theory) outlines a way to make the social work for one’s own ends.  So, to the extent that we’re willing to accept my postulate here, we might say that theory and rhetoric are both equally about praxis as much as they are about critique.  And further, if I’m right about the connection between rhetoric and ethics, then we can also suggest some of the following implications and raise some of the following questions:

  • If rhetoric and theory are both about praxis, and if rhetoric is fundamentally an ethics, then an ethics is fundamentally a praxis as well.  I’m not sure where that gets us, but it sounds neat.  Perhaps what it suggests is that an ethical theory is sort of limited; an ethics is only valuable to the extent it can be utilized toward some productive end in the lived conditions of a given society.  Ethics, then, is kairotic.
  • Perhaps the difference between critical theory and philosophy, then, is that one asks about what makes the social work and the other asks what makes the subject work?  If (as our study this semester seeks to ask) the sophists are the forebears of critical theory, then we might rightfully expect to see a similar interest in how society works, so the connection btw the sophists and Hegel, Marx, and their heirs; what the Platonists seek to find, though, is the subject’s relationship to Truth rather than to the social–so the legacy of Plato rests with Kant and his heirs.
  • This might also explain something about why the sophists were reclaimed so quickly in the era of pomo’s golden age: to the extent that pomo and poststruct and decon and all that jazz argued for a subject built from the discursive tropes of the social, the sophists’ emphasis on the individual’s use of/by the social makes a certain amount of sense.  The question, though, is how to use the sophists without insisting that they were protopostmodern when they weren’t even pre-modern?  The sense of self or subject that comes out of reading Aristotle, the sophists, Isocrates, and Jaeger and Detienne is not necessarily the same as we understand it to be now–even if I’m not sure I could explain what it is.
  • Which raises a methodological and historiographic question: how do we recuperate the sophists or any other “lost” rhetoric or theory without necessarily, however implicitly, forcing it into our assumptions about the subject and the social?

Okay–enough for now.  McGinnis out.