The Foundations of What went Wrong

Posted in Uncategorized on January 17, 2011 by iamgreatness

Having read the Phaedrus and the Gorgias before, I was relatively prepared for what I would find in the Protagoras and the Sophist–that being Socrates’ continuous tongue lashings of the sophists and rhetoric in general and the chanpioning of the methods of dialectic. From the Sophist’s sophist as the undefinable slippery eel to Soctrates’ lambasting of Protagoras (in hiw oh-so-very polite Socratic way), these dialogues indeed offered nothing of surprise. What stuck out to me, however, in my initial read of the Sophist and the Protagoras, and my re-reads of both the Phaedrus and the Gorgias is the emphasis on the necessity of knowing all about which you speak in order for rhetoric to be considered an art (or the rhetorician to be an artist) and the underemphasis (and I think we could say absolute disavowal of) the possibility of rhetoric as a techne, or simply the means with which the citizens of Athens could effectively address the polis. This is the most obvious I would say in Socrates’ discussion of the nature of the soul in the Phaedrus, where the Philosopher (and his method of dialectic) are able to see “truth” whereas the sophist/rhetorician is merely deluded:

For just this reason it is fair that only a philosopher’s mind grows wings, since its memory always keeps it as close as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine. A man who uses reminders of these things correctly is always at the highest, most perfect level of initiation, and he is the only one who is perfect as perfect can be. (37)

If the soul reaches close enough to divinity to see the ideal truth, it remembers these things and thus becomes the highest form of humanity (the philosopher) and the sophist is relegated to the eighth place, one above the tyrant. So in order for the rhetorician to truly claim to use rhetoric artfully, he must know the nature of all things of which he speaks as well as the nature of all souls to whom he speaks. Anything else is trickery, delusion, etc.–cookery as he claims in the Gorgias–lending to the slipperiness of the ability to define the Sophist in general.

As I phrased in the title of this post, these dialogues, although they certainly go to great lengths to develop the case for philosophy and dialectic, also do much damage to rhetoric and the reputations of the sophists themselves (though this is not necessarily news). What is remarkable about Socrates’/Plato’s treatment of rhetoric and sophistry is the ingenious use of persuasive techniques. The development of an argument against rhetoric as an art and against the Sophists in general through identifiable rhetorically persuasive moves (and a plethora of logical fallacies to boot) … I find it hard to believe that Socrates knew the entire ideal truth of rhetoric and sophistry, but that can all be excused because, hey, he proved it through dialectic, right?

At any rate, it seems that, sure if you try to prove rhetoric to be an art through a Platonic ideal, you will always fall short, but when looked at as a techne (or, perhaps mere cookery) the validity of rhetoric becomes apparent, as something that can be made of use as a tool for addressing the polis.

 

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Posted in Foucault, KL, Parrhesia, sophists, Stengers, truth, Zizek on April 15, 2008 by untimelymediations

“Because of its absolute immanence to the symbolic, the Real cannot be positively signified; it can only be shown, in a negative gesture, as the inherent failure of symbolization: ‘if what we are talking about are the limits of a signifying system, it is clear that those limits cannot themselves be signified, but have to show themselves as the interruption or breakdown of the process of signification. […] the real as impossible can be shown (rendered) only as the failure of the process which, precisely, aims at signifying it…” (217).

So, this is where we end up this semester—that the Real is actually not really real.  I guess we were bound to get here, and it seems like the perfect circle back to the Sophists. At a basic level, Sophists are tricksters—they can fool their paying audiences into believing that something that is neither Real nor real. Even though Zizek never makes the connection to Sophistry, (probably because he doesn’t have the balls to…) we do see him make the turn to ethics, rather than the truth.  (Question: is Real the same as truth?)  If Zizek says that the Real can only be shown negatively (within, for example, physical, representational after-effects of loss), then is the ethical the positive gesture (the immediate experience)?

Zizek is concerned with representational effects: what happens to me can be caused by something not actually there, but I can actually feel its a/effects here.  I would go to Zizek’s example of online pornography and orgasm, but since I talk about that in my paper, I’d like to talk about belief instead.  When he defines belief as “the shadowy domain between outright falsity and positive truth,” I immediately think of Stengers’ distinction between “cause and reason” (108, 45).  As a researcher, I find myself wanting to know cause and reason, as well as the truth and the false.  But according to Zizek, if truth and reason occur in a delayed realization, then is the opposite of the Foucaudian notion of parrhesiates in which the truth/Real lies in the immediacy of the telling.

Okay, so I realize that I am making interchanging the words truth and Real, and I’m not sure if that’s the right move to make.  Zizek distinguishes between “objective reality” and “subjective reality” in the following:

The true point of idealism is not the solipsistic one (‘there is not objective reality, merely our subjective representations of it’); idealism claims, on the contrary that the In-itself of ‘objective reality’ is definitely to be distinguished from mere subjective representations – its point is only that it is the synthetic act of the transcendental subject which transforms the multitude of representations into ‘objective reality.’ In short, idealism’s point is not there is no In-itself, but that the ‘objective’ In-itself, in its very opposition to subjective representations, is posited by the subject” (215).

I’m not sure that the above passage explains this distinction, but maybe it helps to think about the divide between the two types of reality if we’re looking to define the Real and truth.  What I think Zizek is saying is that ‘objective reality’ is more (R?)real—its experience is in itself, and that’s where the truth lies.  (This could be where we could employ Foucault’s parrhesiates since the truth lies in the telling, In-itself.)  Comparatively, ‘subjectively reality’ might be the telling that happens after an event—one’s vain survival so that s/he can “tell” her/his story.  The subjective reality of this last situation R/real, but is instead a subjective truth (?).

Hmph.  The more I try to differentiate between truth and real, the more confused I become.  Maybe there isn’t much difference between them.  Or, maybe I’m missing it completely.  Anyway, I would like to talk about how, or if, the truth and R/real are different.

Commodification, Sex in the City, and Nealon

Posted in Uncategorized on April 14, 2008 by untimelymediations

After tonight’s feminist film theory class, I find it necessary to (re)approach Nealon by means of the hit television drama Sex and the City.  The issue that became of particular interest during the discussion of this show, was the numerous ways in which commodification operates in contemporary media forms. 

Initially, there was some disagreement concerning the relationship existing between commodification and the series as a whole.  Although professor Shaviro and many of my fellow classmates argued that there is an overarching narrative in Sex and the City, and suggested that this a means of reading the show as the dramatic evolution of earlier television dramas (namely, “I Love Lucie”), I feel that there is a much more disjunctive relationship existing between each individual episode.  Quite simply, I view each episode as an attempt to approach or address a specific issue that the intended audience will find particularly provocative.  For instance, the episodes that we viewed this evening were based explicitly on issues of sexuality and the ambiguity of gender difference in contemporary urban America.  The format of the episodes indicates, in part, the desire of the audience to approach certain very complicated social issues by means of a mediating force; through the relative safety of television interaction.  The popularity of this show, quite simply, can be attributed to its very ability to package an individual commodity.

As the conversaton continued, Shaviro began discussing niche groups as they relate to television shows and the larger issue of commodification.  His suggestion, which I agree with in its entirety, is that as more channels are made available and as viewing choices become more diverse, the advertiser attempts to approach as many groups as possible.  This argument, as I suggested in class, is reminiscent of the approach that Nealon takes to understanding biopower as it exists in more contemporary contexts.  The point, as Nealon argues in Foucault beyond Foucault, is to include as many people and groups as possible.  Control is no longer a matter of the operation of forces which seek to exclude minority groups or “undesirables.” 

Returning to Sex and the City, one is provided the opportunity to consider the way that commodification facilitates a certain approach.  Each individual episode, as it is encapsulated by some strange temporal and spatial boundary, allows the audience member to chose his/her pleasure.  If the issue of abortion is particularly appealing than one flips to the appropriate episode and, “takes a walk on the (not so) wild side.”  In this regard, the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I have really just become acquainted with, takes quite a similar approach.  In fact, it seems that most contemporary television shows work by a similar format.  As with Sex and the City, though more provocatively, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia allows the viewer to watch episodes that pertain to issues of underage drinking, gun rights, and abortion, seperately.  The viewer is enabled the opportunity to consider what it might be like to quite literally “jump the fence,” though through a strange form of commodification which appeals to the individual desire for differentiation.   

So, as I am attempting to address, two issues are brought to mind.  First, the product is commodified as it is hermetically sealed and isolated.  Second, there is an appeal to various niche markets which indicates an attempt to include various people and social groups.  How the two issues relate is not so easily discernible.  Could it be that commodification is the very individualizing force that operates in order to include?  Might it be a reasonable suggestion, then, to conclude that “individuality” is fundamentally an issue of safety?  is it safe to approach the product that will make me an individual?

Theory in Everyday Places

Posted in DR on April 13, 2008 by untimelymediations

From the creators of “Name that Critical Theorist,” and “Whose Line of Theory was That Anyway?” comes the new hit that Rolling Stone calls “Philosophy at its best,”Theory in Everyday Places:

Zizek in a boat

“The supreme example of symbolic virtuality, of course, is that of (the psychoanalytic notion of) castration: the feature which distinguishes symbolic castration from the ‘real’ kind is precisely its virtual character” (150).

Zizek in bed

“Poetry the specific poetic jouissance, emerges when the very symbolic articulation of this Loss gives rise to a pleasure of its own” (Zizek 48).

Zizek on the toilet

“This jouissance, of course, always emerges within a certain phantasmic field; the crucial precondition for breaking the chains of servitude is thus to ‘traverse the fantasy’ which structures our jouissance in a way which keeps us attached to the Master – makes us accept the framework of the social relationship of domination” (48). 

Defecate on my shoes and I’ll pretend that I wanted you to: Zizek and the Phantasmic Field

Posted in DR, Foucault, Nietzshce, Zizek on April 13, 2008 by untimelymediations

As will soon become apparent to any reader, The Plague of Fantasies features a nearly endless repertoire of taboo references.  From pubic hair to soot-laden testicles, Zizek demonstrates an ultimately uncanny ability to draw Lacanian and psychoanalytic theory from the depths of banality, for, as can be seen, even the depth of a toilet bowl propels discourse.  And this, it seems, brings me to my next point.  Before I read this text, I considered the fantasy and phantasm as more of an illusory or physically insubstantial presence or entity.  In essence, what Zizek’s text propels, is a dramatic reconsideration of this approximation. 

In order to understand the fantasy as it is clearly substantiated in materiality, one need look no further than the second chapter.  As Mike alluded to in his post, jouissance as it emerges within a certain phantasmic field, seems to be the dominating force within the power relation.  In this chapter, Zizek provides, following in line with Lacan, that contemporary intellectuals can be divided into two sub-groups.  First, the “fool,” the deconstructivist cultural critic, intends to subvert the existing order, but actually serves as its “supplement.”  The fool experiences pleasure in snatching pieces of jouissance from the “master” (emphasis mine – 46).  The “knave,” quite divergently, is a title attributed to the right wing intellectual; the neoconservative advocate of the free market.  The rightwing knave rejects social solidarity as counterproductive sentimentalism, and is continually changing gender and racial specific concerns to issues of fate (46).  Note, even here, that the use of the term pieces is, I think, a deliberately materializing choice on Zizek’s behalf.  The phantasm and fantasy is something other than a spectral presence opposed to the very laws of physical behavior.  Instead, it is, as Zizek implies, a very material reality.  If, as Zizek argues, the phantasmic field, as it is associated with jouissance – loss that gives rise to pleasure – is an oppressing force, tan traversing one such field is an effort in subversion (48).  This, though, propels me to reconsider Foucault’s work on biopower.

Biopower, as Foucault suggests, creates suggestive channels of submission.  These channels guide one through the very physicality of existence without regard for material parameters.  Quite simply, the channel that Foucault describes is both physical and immaterial.  While it guides the physical body, it refuses any association with the physical confines of a particular control apparatus (i.e. school, prison).  Biopower is beyond the institution, the prison, or the control apparatus, more generally.  Interestingly, I feel as though Zizek is describing something very similar.  The choices that we make, as Zizek seems to be suggesting, are based on what he refers to as “fantasy’s transcendental schematism.”   We are taught both how to desire, and what to desire as it relates to intersubjectivity (the second issue that he addresses in the introduction).   Here, it seems that Zizek’s assessment of the controlling force is quite similar to that which Foucault describes in relationship to the channel.  In both descriptions there are immaterial matrices that guide physical action and physical desire.  This comparison is validated furthermore by considering of the issue of jouissance as it relates to the phantasmic field.

If jouissance, as discussed previously, emerges within a phantasmic field that must be traversed or resisted, than it must be considered more thoroughly.  As Zizek’s descriptions progress in the second chapter, it becomes clear that jouissance is that which cannot be integrated into one’s life.  Here another very complicating issue of materiality and immateriality arises.  Although Zizek initially describes jouissance as something very material (i.e. the desire for perverse sexual interaction), as the discourse continues it becomes more immaterial, or, more appropriately, jouissance becomes that which one is unable to materialize.  Jouissance is that which cannot be integrated into one’s life.  It is that which is always separated by a gulf; that which can be desired and not approached.  This, as Zizek explains, is an issue of decentrement (49).  Jouissance cannot be integrated.  Furthermore, it exists as what Zizek suggests is the “non-historical kernel” in the process of historicization.   So, if jouissance is that which refuses integration, it is also that which is immaterial to the individual that desires it, for one cannot approach it in the same way that one approaches other very physical objects (i.e. the toilet).   This though, brings up several complications.

If jouissance is both material and immaterial, both physical affecting and absent/distant, how might one traverse the phantasmic field?  Is this not the same issue that one faces with regard to the channel in Foucault’s work?  And, this brings me back to Mike’s discussion of the means of traversing the phantasmic field.  Here, Zizek’s suggestions seem reminiscent of some of Nietzsche’s work.  If the best means to resist the falsity of choice as a controlling force is to revel in that choice as truth, this presents striking parallels.  Though I haven’t had the opportunity to read much Nietzsche, I am reminded of previous discussions I’ve had with Pruchnic.  Perhaps, it would be appropriate to reference Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  If Zarathustra’s comment to the man outside of town is indicative of a mode of action, than if one is dissatisfied it might be best just to turn away.  I don’t know that this fits in exactly, but I can’t help considering it in relation to the arguments that Zizek presents.   Perhaps, a better reference would be the insistence that the best way to fight capitalism is to call for more capitalism.  If, in Zizek’s text, the best way to resist is to assume the false as true, is not this a similar step?

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?

Zizek on Ideology and the Ideological Toilet Apparatus (Notes Toward an Investigation)

Posted in Uncategorized on April 9, 2008 by untimelymediations