A discussion of holism and anti-holism in context of object-oriented ontology, process philosophy, and Eastern and Western Religion.
“Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity.” ― Ray Brassier
“Nothing Matters” – the motto of Ambrose Bierce
“I am a nihilist because I still believe in truth…” – Ray Brassier
“This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige. Nothing is either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, or anything else except that it is made so by laboratories inside us producing the emotions on which we live. And to live on our emotions is to live arbitrarily, inaccurately—imparting meaning to what has none of its own. Yet what other way is there to live? Without the ever-clanking machinery of emotion, everything would come to a standstill. There would be nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know. The alternatives are clear: to live falsely as pawns of affect, or to live factually as depressives, or as individuals who know what is known to the depressive. How advantageous that we are not coerced into choosing one or the other, neither choice being excellent. One look at human existence is proof enough that our species will not be released from the stranglehold of emotionalism that anchors it to hallucinations. That may be no way to live, but to opt for depression would be to opt out of existence as we consciously know it.” ― Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
For a while I have been battling what some would call Left meloncholia and others would call a mugging by reality, but perhaps I would prefer to see it as a tragic unveiling. Tragic in the sense that as a philosophical and ideological project that I would have called Marxism, I have felt a drift for a long while now. Too many reifications masking as spectres to haunt god knows what. But then again, what does God know.
I have been increasingly unable to move past simple moral answers lately as so much discussion seems to be on emotive reaction level. To get past this and try to see things clearly, some of trains of though have been increasingly nihilistic and eliminative to look at the structures and reasons that create the situation we are in but that gives little consolation in regards to morality. It’s not that there can ever be a reason devolve of emotive logic, as all reasoning is reasoning for something. The more problematic thing is to get one actually wants, one must look at the world as it is, not as one would like it. This involves increasingly cutting away from the emotional self-privileging, and even to a great extent, deliberating embracing objectivity not as a goal of pure reason, but as a way to to embrace want. Yet in doing so, in eliminating such ideological structures, one finds that one is eliminating the very scaffolding that supports the efface of value.
I have opposed modernity and the children of the Enlightenment–to use a rather grandiose phrase–to understand and embrace it’s disenchantment. Embracing the Enlightenment now would put one at adds with those humanists who see themselves as its children, and the increasingly contradictory forms of liberalism which they have produced. The philosopher Ray Brassier points out that to follow the implications of the Enlightenment to their conclusions, one would have to be more anti-humanist than even the flippancy of the post-modernists could muster against modernist humanism. In other words, if you eliminate religious thinking entirely you also eliminate most valuations that favor any notions of things like rights or human dignity. This larger inconsistency seems to be problematic for us now, and leaves many without the strength to offer of even an consistent, if arbitrary, criterion for judgment.
This lack of a willingness to commit to a consistent impulse even if it a purely emotional one is a way not to self-overcome, and if I am interested in a change in the current not being able to overcome the self does not leave much hope anything like a “revolutionary subject” to arise. My loyalties may still be anti-capitalist and my critique of wisdom may still be very deep, but one cannot deny that the demands placed on oneself to overcome the production of the attitude of class is far beyond if we cannot even overcome the inconsistencies in the ideologies which we claim to believe but under which we do not operate.
I don’t know that my current obsession with the both logic and conversely the absolute a-logical “calculus” of the weird tale and the anti-narrative poem is a sign that my prior worldview breaking itself down. That I have followed this creative destruction to an end in which I see a lot of anxiety. This is both a point of meta-philosophy and personal identity crisis for me. But identities are the Ur-form of ideology in the end, and when the ideology no longer helps, identity soon follows.
So that is in which the “weird,” the uncanny, that which reminds one of the cold illogic of logical world view–which emerges itself as a tragic or belittling experience enables one to see what the end road of it all really is. IF you want to change the world, you must not just be the change you want to see. You must be more than that, but in doing that, you must realize what you are valued without such a commitment.
These a-logical narratives remind us that our means of making sense of the world, however necessary they are, cannot make any demands on reality itself and that in larger scales most of what we are is dross and idle chatter. The creature comforts of modern production and the way value operates in the market place the way G-d once did in a temple gives us the emotive drive we need as it gives us the abstraction that makes itself concrete. The concrete absolute is far more frightening than other our numinous ideas of G-d or our mechanistic fetishes of currency forms.
Anthony Paul Smith is a scholar and blogger for An und für sich. He came to my attention by a web seminar I “attended” on the philosophy of Francois Laruelle and non-philosophy which I attended. I have since read his translations of Principles of Non-Philosophy (with Nicola Rubczak) and Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy both out with Continuum. While still trying to wrap by head around the implications of Laruelle, I also wondered why Laruelle has taken so long to catch on compared to many of his contemporaries like Badiou, Derrida, and Deleuze.
C.Derick Varn: Why do you think Laruelle has been slow to be introduced to the anglophone world?
Anthony Paul Smith: Regarding your first question, I taught at DePaul University as an adjunct for a year bouncing between the departments of Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, and Philosophy. During that year Alan D. Schrift came and presented a paper to the philosophy department. You may know that he’s editing a pretty comprehensive history of Continental philosophy and I jokingly asked him about why he hadn’t included Laruelle in his history. After explaining that he didn’t really know anyone who worked on him, it didn’t come to mind and whatever, he did tell me that he thought Laruelle was one of those figures who just fell through the cracks. If things had gone a little differently, he said, or someone had picked up a text to translate in the 70s or 80s, who knows if he would have been picked up. I didn’t get the impression he particularly liked Laruelle or anything, but he did bring out for me the contingency of these sorts of things. I mean, there are lots of brilliant thinkers in the world and some of them are exceedingly smart. But in the same way we pass homeless people and think that there is some perfectly good reason why that’s him and not me, I think as readers of philosophy we just assume that there is a really good reason we all keep talking about Derrida or Deleuze or Badiou or even Meillassoux now (just to stick with some sort of contemporary names). So that is clearly part of it, just an accident of history. At the same time his work and the language he uses to express it are difficult and I think this has put off a number of potential translators. I always wondered why Ray Brassier, for example, never translated one of his works, even one of the shorter ones, considering his own skills in that area. But he has tended to go with relatively more straight forward writers like Badiou and Meillassoux. But that’s the real issue — the lack of anything of his to read unless you’re willing to track down the French and work through it in a language unfamiliar to most Anglophone readers.
C.D.V.: Do you think Laruelle’s linkage to Ray Brassier’s work and also to Badiou has limited his reading in the US and Europe?
A.P.S.: As for Laruelle being linked to Brassier’s work, I don’t know if it has limited his reading. Brassier really was the first person to advocate for him in his Radical Philosophy article. At the same time, I think that Brassier’s own development (which is ongoing as far as I understand) did really color how many younger readers ended up reading him. There was a certain assumption, since many of them weren’t reading the primary sources I don’t think, that Laruelle shared Brassier’s antipathy for the human, for religion, for meaning, even for a vision of science that isn’t itself colored by a certain grimness and darkness. I think with Laruelle’s own texts starting to finally be available in English this is starting to fade away, which means many of those first-generation of readers have moved on from Laruelle finding his work concerned with issues they are not. But, I think we are seeing new readers, many coming from the arts, and I’m looking forward to conversations that do build off of Laruelle’s actual work rather than Brassier’s. I should say, I think Brassier was always quite clear that he had found something useful in Laruelle, that he wasn’t just explicating him. And I think we see some of the harshest criticism of Laruelle, if respectful, in the chapter of Nihil Unbound where Brassier deals with him.
C.D.V.: What brought you to nonphilosophy as a methodological way of dealing with intellectual problems?
A.P.S.: I came to Laruelle pretty much by accident, as we usually do with these sorts of things. I had moved to the UK to study with Philip Goodchild at the University of Nottingham and during my MA year was focused on questions of immanence and transcendence in both philosophy and religion. While there I was part of a class with the traditionalist theologian John Milbank. Well, it wasn’t really a class, John isn’t known for really teaching material, but instead what he would do was pick a few books that were coming out that the wanted to read and we’d read them and discuss them. One of those books was John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophyand though Milbank basically encouraged his students to rip apart the book based on its advocacy of philosophies of immanence, I somehow managed to actually read the book! The way Mullarkey described Laruelle’s project suggested that Laruelle may have resources that would be helpful for me as I thought through these questions of immanence and transcendence.
Still, I didn’t finally read him until about a year later in June 2008, during the first year of my PhD studies, when after a particularly bad time at Nottingham (I had run afoul of the traditionalists there) I felt I had to escape for my own sanity for a bit. I had a friend who had an apartment in Paris so I bought a return bus ticket and went there for a week or so. I went to the Gilbert Jeune near Place St. Michel and bought Le Christ futur and Principes de la non-philosophie/ I read Le Christ futur on the bus ride back to England and it opened up a different way of doing philosophy of religion. I talk about this at more length in a chapter in the edited volume After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, but in short I saw a way for philosophy to happen using religious materials in a way that I thought was protected from theological capture, like you find in most contemporary French phenomenologists popular in Anglophone literature (Marion, Henry, Ricoeur, but others as well).
My PhD, though, was always going to be on the question of nature from a perspective that brought together the philosophical, theological, and ecological. Laruelle’s work was a model for me of how that could look. A kind of radical disrespect for the normal disciplinary boundaries, but wrapped in a very rigorous framework that helped me not to simply write “my philosophy” as if I was some kind of crank. Instead of looking at the question of nature, say, in ecology and wondering how these ideas are philosophically determined or how philosophy could shore up an ethics for ecology, I instead could begin with the idea that ecology thinks and it thinks in a way that is, yes, influenced by philosophy, but also outside of philosophy. I then worked to bring together what is traditionally thought about nature and what is found in contemporary scientific ecology into a single kind of philo-fiction of nature. An idea of nature that is philosophically rigorous, but also amenable (but not servile) to contemporary ecological projects. This isn’t a new kind of project, but I think that Laruelle’s non-philosophy gives us a far more robust and rigorous thinking through of the methodology underlying a project like that.
C.D.V.: What do you see as primary limitations to the development of Non-philosophy in the English speaking world?
A.P.S.: I think the primary limitation to the development of non-philosophy has been the lack of primary source material for English-language readers. I think that’s going to change now that so many of his works are being translated. But I’ve never thought that Laruelle was “the next big thing”. In part because his work is very abstract and difficult, but also because the sorts of institutions that support that kind of work are shrinking. It is difficult for me to see working non-philosophically landing someone an academic post, of Laruelle’s works fitting within the ways philosophy survives in the academia as the guardians of ethics subject to the whims of the business school or medical school.
C.D.V.: You recently taught an online seminar on Laruelle how do you think that has gone?
A.P.S.: As for the seminar, I think it started off going well, but I was surprised by how different the performative element of teaching this way is from classroom teaching. There is no “energy” to build off of, you can’t be interrupted with a clarifying question, etc. I also underestimated how busy I would be and how far along the technology is. The internet still doesn’t handle large videos very well and so when the seminar began I was traveling around the UK lecturing and finishing up the co-translation of Principles with Nicola Rubczak. And the speed was always too slow to get the videos up. I do think this is an area para-academics should consider developing though. It brought together people who were interested in Laruelle’s work in a way that a traditional academic environment never would be able to.
C.D.V.: Is there a particular book that you think will have a particularly dramatic reception in the Anglophone world?
A.P.S.: In terms of Laruelle’s own texts, his Principles is an incredibly rich but difficult text. I think it will reward reading for people looking for a way to think how to do thought in a way that brings together philosophy and science (or any other material outside of philosophy proper). But owing to the difficulty of that book, which may require a bit of a guide, I think two other texts are going to be really important for people’s engagement with Laruelle’s work in the Anglophone world: Anti-Badiou and Photo-Fiction, A Non-Standard Aesthetics. The first, translated by Robin Mackay, is a kind of fun polemic. Laruelle often performs his non-philosophical mutations of standard philosophy by taking on another philosopher’s style (I think, for instance, Principles is written very much in the style of Husserl and that makes sense given its mutation of phenomenology). In Anti-Badiou Laruelle takes on Badiou’s own polemical voice and uses it against him, which makes both for a fun read, but also a good way to understand Laruelle’s project in relation to one that is more familiar to readers of French philosophy today. Then Photo-Fiction, translated by Drew S. Burk and published in a bilingual edition by Univocal Publishing in Minneapolis, is a short but powerful recasting of his ideas related to art in the light of his most recent work on quantum theory and an ethics of insurrection (a rather anti-Badiouian notion!). I’m currently in Minneapolis where Laruelle is speaking to an arts organizations and at the University of Minnesota and I have been really happy to see how interested the artists have been and how they also seem to understand the shape of the project. But, both of these texts have a certain energy to them that I think people will pick up on and want to run with.
C.D.V.: What are do you think the internet will bring as far as prospects for more radical philosophy?
A.P.S.: In some ways I am a dinosaur when it comes to the internet. For me, it has always just been a way to fold space so that I could communicate with people I am very far from and do it must faster than sending letters. I think there are people who are more clued into the technology, its limitations as well as what it allows us to do, who may have a better idea of what new avenues of thought will be opened for us. My hope is that it continues to allow for a truly global network of communication between people from various backgrounds who are working on similar projects. Blogs, it seems, have mostly run their course in the philosophy world, and I mostly use my occasional writings at AUFS for book reviews and to let people know about events. What the new form of sharing theory will be is not yet clear to me, but there has been a certain lack of dynamic discussion online since everyone has closed down their comments or have begun to police them in ways that seem counter-productive and more about creating an in-crowd for this strand of thought or that. Whatever happens next needs to resist that.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
A.P.S.: In closing, I just want to say thank you. I hope people start to see what Laruelle’s work has to offer our projects. Not as a new master, but as someone whose framework can be redeployed in various ways to productive ends.
A discussion of holism and anti-holism in context of object-oriented ontology, process philosophy, and Eastern and Western Religion.
C. Derick Varn: Recently the prison chaplaincy and the criminal activity of members of the OTO have forced a lot of issues to the head. What do you see as the central contradiction in the developments in regard to the leadership of the OTO and Thelemic values in regards to this? Why would an exclusive organization being so lax in membership?
Do you see this as stemming from larger cultural contradictions?
Keith418: Thelema usually awakens anxieties that push people to extremes. This is one of the most important reasons why developing self-discipline – through the physical and mental work Crowley prescribes, as well as the note-taking and diary work – is so important. The scandals surrounding the OTO’s “prison ministry” are – I suspect – the result of people feeling an overwhelming need to prove that Thelema is “good” and a force for “goodness.” The problem is that this “goodness” is the “goodness” defined and determined by the liberal left and today’s liberal-left “managerial elites.” It’s not the “goodness” that Crowley taught, which is another kind of “goodness” entirely. People in the Order seem impelled to prove that Thelema isn’t “Satanic” – that it can heal the halt, the weak, and the dumb – and turn hardened sociopaths and murderers around. They have realized that they can’t do this and are reaping the karmic rewards of a very stupid self-protective kind of pseudo-naivete.
You don’t know how wrong you are about the “exclusive” part of the today’s Order. This is a group that has thrown away all of Crowley’s arguments on quantity vs. quality. They want as many people as they can get and they view the kind of “exclusive” point of view you are describing with nothing but utter abhorrence. We can see where this vehemence has landed them.
Is there a cultural contradiction here? The highest values devalue themselves. Egalitarianism – for some the highest value – opens the door to rapists. Democracy – for some the highest value – ushers in the tyrant. Compassion – for some the highest value – entails the embraces of the murderer. The Order’s fundamental contradiction is that it has rejected Crowley for mainstream values; but it will not admit this or come to terms with what this decision really means. Rather than seeking to make society conform to Thelema, it attempts to make Thelema conform to society.
C.D.V.: Is this not in some sense normal for an organization that does not self-purge regularly?
Keith418: I think you’re missing a basic problem. Quakers cannot be expected to run a government system designed for administrating a Roman Catholic diocese effectively. The managerial rules and tools won’t “work” for them because the hierarchy involved clashes with their values. Likewise OTO members who are, at best, ambivalent, and who, at worst, bitterly opposed to Crowley’s political ideals (and the metaphysics that determine those values) can’t run a managerial system he designed either. The basic conflict here is that people who are not fully committed to his model are seeking to run it. How could this possibly work?
The turnover in the Order is tremendous. It may not “purge” regularly, but people “purge” themselves regularly by quitting or drifting away. This also serves to provide the leaders with convenient scapegoats (“That person is no longer with us”) and it destroys any far-reaching institutional memory that might serve as a needed corrective.
C.D.V.: I see. What allowed for such a values drift in the leadership in the first place?
Keith 418: My working theory is that the slow diffusion of Crowley’s actual writings played a part in this and still does. Without a wide understanding of his work, many people believe they can make it all up themselves as they go along. By the time they realize they can’t… it’s too late. Either they get trapped in a state of denial or they quit. A number of former “big names” in the Order came to the conclusion that they really did not, and could not ever truly accept Thelema – so they left. The OTO doesn’t want to talk about this, no matter how prominent these people once were.
People in the OTO came from a ’60s-’70s counter culture background – or from a broader culture influenced by that culture and its shared values. If “do what thou wilt” equals “do your own thing” and “your thing” happens to be an unquestioning belief in egalitarianism and democracy, then doesn’t Thelema endorse your values just as they are? The tougher option – to recognize, interrogate, and trace the origins of your highest moral values – requires a lot more work.
We still see many versions of this. People feel free to talk about what Thelema means without even paying the slightest attention to what Crowley actually thought, wrote, or taught. The leadership is stuck, however, because not only do they know – at least on some level – that they are not in synch with his ideas, but that their own values and ideas aren’t enough to carry them forward. The irony is that the best leaders the OTO has, as a friend noted, are the ones with the courage to do what they think is right. The problems is that what they think is right is determined solely by left-liberal middle class morality and anxieties.
C.D.V.: Do you think the conflict of values there is similar to the sort of vulgar political contradictions you see in partisan organizations which have a incentive to make sure the leadership is in line but in doing so saps itself of the very subject formation that it needs to actually maintain itself without explicit contradiction?
Keith418: Back in the ’60s, the idea on the left was to “heighten the contradictions.” We don’t see people doing that now because everyone knows that there isn’t anyone running around contradicting themselves all the time. The left and the right no longer have the option of even pretending that such a plan, and such a demand, is one that they themselves can perform or that they even desire. Most human organizations have found that they are always riddled with increasingly bizarre contradictions and individuals seek to avoid acknowledging these contradictions… rather than observing them and “heightening” them. This cripples any analytic framework.
Cult is really is culture “writ small.” We see these issues play out more sharply in groups like the OTO, but it’s part of modern life right now. Consistency is seen as an unnecessary, or even as constituting an impossible burden. If you avoid critics, and court the echo chamber, you can pretend it isn’t a problem. The collapse of the grand narrative renders any consistent ideology impossible and as the crises start to mount, logic and consistency become luxuries no one can afford.
What’s the big picture? No one can take the time to ask because they are all too busy bailing water. When God died, did the logos, “the word” pass away with him? Did we then realize that reason wouldn’t do what it promised, or what we hoped it could accomplish? Is this what it means to no longer understand man as being “the rational animal”? Is that what the end of the “word” means?
I wonder if there are other “words” out there.
C.D.V.: Do you think this is part of Nietzsche’s quip about people still believing in god because they still believed in grammar?
Keith418: I think its part of the way we see the nature of the “logos” and reason, yes. After WWII, a fellow philosopher accused Heidegger of being “beyond” the word due to his support for the Nazis. This state, the place he accused Heidegger of being in, deserves some consideration. What happens when an entire society, or group of people, can no longer attain to any sort of consistency? What happens when rational thinking and behavior becomes too much of a burden for it? Rationality and logic, if we interpret the logos in this way (and it’s hardly the only way) make demands. What happens when large groups of people can no longer accept and meet those demands?
Capitalism and communism both insist on defining man as the “rational animal.” If we come to acknowledge that people aren’t really rational, if they never were, and if reason is only deployed as a justification after a decision has already been made, then don’t capitalist and communist models and proscriptions suffer as a result? I don’t see people coming to grips with this, in part, because I think they have lost the capacity for that kind of discussion. Cats can’t do advanced calculus, right?
C.D.V.: Do you see this draft from belief rationality to mere instrumental rationality? I believe Heidegger talked about this as well. In other words, in the case, a shift from strategic thinking in regards to Thelemic values to merely rationalizing certain immediate functions and trying to maintain those?
Keith418: Calculative thinking vs. Meditative thinking? I think Heidegger’s right about a lot of this, but I have to wonder, at this point, how good people truly are with this calculative thinking. Are all the apps really necessary? How many people does Twitter actually employ and pay? How many kids have stopped even considering whether they are doing a lot worse than their parents did and distract themselves by playing Angry Birds on their smart phones? Is that time wasting truly “calculative thinking”? At what point is pragmatism no longer pragmatic? Are we there yet?
I’d expect to see more widespread cultural criticism on the left – perhaps in the Frankfurt school model – ridiculing the techie culture and its consumer frenzies. It’s not there. Like the “Old New Left” I’m talking about, Crowley was a fierce critic of his times and his society. The Thelemic community has not only abandoned that kind of criticism, it bitterly resents anyone who seeks to revive it. Your friends on Facebook, I’ve noticed, seem to accept the current consumer culture as a given. They don’t attack it or look critically at the way it infantilizes everyone. Isn’t that peculiar?
C.D.V.: What do you make of the idea that calculative thinking without a meditative or even strategic focus tends to lose a sense of time preference because time preference requires a larger motivational goal to maintain itself? In other words, calculative thinking without a larger component undoes itself?
Keith418: Junger writes about the deep nature of figures buried in time and our desire to see aspects of our own experiences consecrated within time – or lifted out of mundane time. The collapse of a grand narrative leads to a kind of drifting time – which means few can make choices with the understanding that there are always “opportunity costs” involved. Hiroki Azuma insists that the grand narrative has been replaced by databases – which index and help people locate their desired unconnected thematic aspects in little bits and pieces. Those who can no longer grasp or relate to larger narratives go in search of the smaller parts and motifs that satisfy them. Will it stop there?
“If Man becomes an animal again, his arts, his loves, and his play must also become purely ‘natural’ again. Hence it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts.”
Divorced from time, how will anyone understand history – either the larger history they participate in and experience or their own individual history? Liberated from time, are people free? Or left with nothing?
C.D.V.: How deep to you think this lack of orientation goes? For example, you and I are both pretty critical of liberalism as a political practice, but would you say that even though it was achieved dominance as a governing paradigm and as a orientation of markets, it has also lost its earlier narrative?
Keith418: When the old world slips away, and the new one has yet to fully come into being, only ghosts remain. The coherence we see now is the “willing suspension of disbelief we know from games – a virtual narrative, or series of virtual narratives – that people cling to in the absence of the real thing. These pseudo-narratives are betrayed by their patently unsubstantial qualities – mere gossamer threads that evaporate like cotton candy on the tongue. This start-up, that pop-up, this new device, that new app – “Sure, it will be the next big thing,” people insist. Will it? Will, really? We all know better, don’t we?
But we have to go right on pretending. How can there be any sincere investigation when we already know that the application of real focus, the recovery of something like a meaningful attention span, will only tell us what we don’t want to know? This, we have discovered is the only guarantee left. So the pace of the games picks up and the hopes and dreams are summoned and discarded at such a rapid pace that they become a mockery of any authenticity
C.D.V.: So do returning to Thelema its old world slipping too? Or, is the New Aeon still in still-birth?
Keith418: That this is an interregnum period is, for all of us, obvious. In this period, as Gramsci noted, monsters are born. Instead of letting go of the old things, people insist on pretending they are still relevant. It’s all play-acting. It’s a game. They will go on doing that, I suspect, until something arrives – perhaps a “convergence of catastrophes” (to borrow an expression from Guillaume Faye) – that forces a real change. Does anyone really grow up until they have to?
In my estimation, under these conditions, Thelema grows more relevant by the hour. Crowley observed the child-like mindset of his times in the 1930s. What would he say now if he saw adults playing games on their smart phones all day long?
C.D.V.: Not much positive I suspect, but its eerie how much of the criticism of liberal modernity from the 30s or even Europe in 1890 still rings true. I suppose I will end on a question that you have been asked before, but why do you think Thelema is a total ideology and not just a religion in the modern sense of the later term?
Keith418: I think the “religion” characterization is dangerous – just as Crowley himself put it. Guenon is correct in arguing that any religion has to be distinguished from real metaphysics, simply because religion’s concern is always with sentiment and consolations. The absolute, which is the real focus of metaphysics, doesn’t care about your individual emotional state. Confusing metaphysics and religion helps neither – and it usually means that people intent on finding religious consolation start ascribing sentiment to metaphysical objects. This always ends badly. Al-Farabi saw the limitations of religion quite clearly and I very much agree with all his assessments. Crowley apprehended the emotional core of religious worship and his instructions in Liber Astarte are the evidence of his grasp of this subject. This text is neglected by most people calling themselves Thelemites – and this is unfortunate since grappling with it would give them an ability to control and direct their emotions, rather than letting their emotions control and direct them.
I suspect calling Thelema an ideology is better, but the term, for most people, implies a solely political focus. Ignoring the political dimension of Thelema is just as stupid as assuming that only its political features are essential.
My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for, I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.
Badiou, Alain. “On Evil: An Interview with Alain Badiou.” in: Cabinet. Issue 5, Winter 2001/2002.
Philosophy is not the professional product of philosophers, nor an esoteric discipline of the ivory tower. It is a general human potential that is necessary for our fulfillment as persons. The importance of such a universalistic conception of philosophy was driven home to me as I listened to Bruno Bosteels level criticisms at Alain Badiou’s conception of the importance of philosophy to the rebirth of the idea of Communism in our world. (These comments are taken from a panel on Badiou at last year’s Left Forum.)
Quoting Bosteels: “the place of philosophy in Badiou’s own work causes greater problems for the implementation of the Communist hypothesis …. the task of the formulation of the Communist idea, he attributes that to philosophy …. it is the philosopher’s task to help this type of mediation by working out the very nature of the Communist Idea. And in the absence of this work of the philosopher, Badiou seems to claim even that the masses might once again be disoriented.”
Bosteels quoting Badiou: “In fact, what we are ascribed as a philosophical task – we could say even a duty – is to help a new modality of existence of the hypothesis to come into being, absent which, the people appear once again disoriented and confused. Lacking the idea, the popular masses’ confusion is inescapable.”
Bosteels finds this assertion problematic and tied up with what he takes to be a drift by Badiou into “speculative leftism” a philosophical abstraction that abandons the messy engagement with history considered crucial in left-wing politics ever since Marx declared the supremacy of praxis over theoria. And Bosteels suspects that when Badiou assigns a grand duty to philosophy for the renewing of the idea of Communism he is harkening back to a Platonic vision of the hegemony of the philosopher-kings. I believe that it is very likely that Bosteels has mistaken Badiou’s intent. I read Badiou as not calling for philosophers to undertake the revisioning of Communism, but for the Communists in movement to cease their engagement in forms of Communist politics that have become saturated and instead, turn to philosophy. In other words, turn to a democratic philosophical engagement that takes as its aim rebirthing the idea of Communism.
My interpretation of Badiou can be confirmed by reading Badiou’s own contribution to the Idea of Communism conference in 2009. This essay entitled simply, The Idea of Communism, nowhere contains the word “philosopher.” In fact, it only uses “philosophy” when it appears in citations of his books that contain the word philosophy in the title. If Badiou were proposing that philosophers understood as a distinct class of intellectual experts should dominate the restitution of the idea of Communism, why does this essay never use the term?
That Badiou is rather asserting the duty of philosophizing about Communism for all in the Communist movement is borne out in this passage, “What is at issue is the possibility for an individual, defined as a mere human animal, and clearly distinct from any Subject, to decide to become part of a political truth procedure. To become, in a nutshell, a militant of this truth.” Badiou’s proposal is that Communists become militant partisans of the truth procedure that recreates the idea of Communism for a new sequence of human emancipatory struggles using philosophical means.
Perhaps Bosteels might find even this democratic and lateral interpretation of Badiou’s program troubling. After all, didn’t Marx himself say that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it?” Of course, the simple response to this worry is to cite Adorno, who said that the moment for philosophy’s overcoming had passed, referring to the deformation of Communism in the Stalinist era. We must take up philosophy anew when the structures of praxis we rely upon have become futile repetitions of failure.
Jamieson Webster, PhD, is a psychoanalyst in New York City. She teaches at Eugene Lang College and New York University. Her work focuses on clinical and theoretical psychoanalysis with an interdisciplinary focus on feminine sexuality, philosophy, and aesthetics. Her recent book Life and Death of Psychoanalysis has been on my radar for a while, and I was particularly intrigued by her critique of Adorno and her use/critique/admiration for Badiou. We discussed Badiou and the state of psychoanalysis in the current.
C. Derick Varn: In reading your Life and Death of Psychoanalysis, I noticed you spend a lot of time on the way in which Badiou enabled you to think about Lacan in a broader sense and broaden a since of inquiry in psychoanalysis. Do you think Badiou has any implications for psychoanalytic practice that are unique to him?
Jamieson Webster: I do think that Badiou has implications for psychoanalytic practice that are unique to him. I’m happy that you see that I wanted to convey what Badiou opens up through his work with Lacan and that he enables something in particular for the practicing analyst. I’m hard on Badiou in the last part of the book. One must always be hard on one’s masters. But I certainly feel guilty about it from time to time and wonder if people can see how I only take apart the one’s I love. Badiou showed me a side of Lacan that was important in ways that I hope we can talk about. And he has an unprecedented, inimitable, at times even uncanny ability to clarify whole trajectories of thought. It is unbelievable what he is able to do in such broad strokes. It is not only Lacan— but of course Lacan for me as a psychoanalyst is the most important— but Deleuze, Sartre, Beckett, Hegel, Marx, Plato, that he contextualizes in terms of the rigor of their philosophical, literary or political projects. Where they stand in relation to the question of truth. It is hard to pull back and get an overview— and I know this is something that I’ve faulted him for from one angle, too much distance— but he gives you this glimpse of the entire philosophical project at the same time that he treats these various constellations with respect and due diligence. He gets in trouble for this systematizing, and not only by me. The Deleuzians were out for blood I hear. But I’ve never been able to see Deleuze’s project so clearly before reading The Clamour of Being. What a great title?
But I’ve evaded your question. As far as clinical practice goes, there was something about Badiou’s notion of the event, the distinction between being and event, and the quality of the event as an event of absolute affirmation in its contingent, subjectivizing, historicity, that hit me like a flash of lightning. That this is what we, as psychoanalysts, listen for day after day. This is what we wait for, silence after silence. And it wasn’t merely as a characterization of what the unconscious event is that this made such an impact, it was also in terms of what I was missing in most of the other philosophies that I was reading at the time, perhaps notably in terms of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis, in critical theory. I can see lineaments of the event in the thought of Adorno or Benjamin now, but not before having read Badiou, because their work is wrapped in too much negativity and indebtedness to dialectical thinking. The event is a radical break from both, the result of being able to maintain the tension of negativity and dialectical movement, but something that crashes through what I characterize as a kind of melancholic pathos in post-world-war-II philosophy. The event cuts through aporia, dialectical impasse, and infinite regress. It is ephemeral, it doesn’t last, but it has this cutting edge. As a practicing analyst, this is certainly something we face everyday and the work of the analyst is supposed to have the same impact- a cut, punctuation, words stopping you in your tracks, facing up to a truth that surprises and even startles. Important as well, the event is not a moment of synthesis but rather the emergence of something new. While there are syncretic or synthetic aspects to the event, I think Badiou’s stress on newness and the unforeseeable is important for the practicing clinician. Badiou does not emphasize understanding or knowledge, he does not emphasize synthetic-adaptive solutions to conflict or opposing positions (what analysts sometimes call the third). He emphasizes what I think of as closer to the emergence of a signifier from the unconscious, which is closer to a point of non-meaning or the reduction of meaning. The ground is cleared enough for something new to break in and shift ways of understanding, habitual conflicts, and seeming oppositions. And he not only theorizes the event as I’ve just characterized it, he practices it to my mind in his countless books which indeed shake you up and clear the ground.
Also important for a psychoanalyst- Badiou understands something powerful about love, something that I think I wanted psychoanalysis to have something to say about, but often couldn’t find, and I was floundering around, looking for a way out of the impasse of desire and love that Freud characterized so well. Badiou understands what it means to speak from the place of what he calls the event of love, the affirmation of the impossibility of two, making love this force of desire in the face of the ephemeral nature of love, an act of radical faith. Certainly, as an analyst, I also immediately hear the implications of transference. Serge Leclaire— Lacan’s disciple— said the analyst is someone in the difficult place of welcoming, even inviting, words of love from their patients but who must find a way not to deny them but also not to gratify them, allowing them to be spoken, which painfully, even tragically, only makes the difficulty of saying or having said, even worse— its only ever words.
You can see this clearly in Badiou’s reading of Beckett. He always quotes two sets of passages. One from the beginning and end of, Ill Said, Ill Seen, and another from the end of Beckett’s short story, Enough. The first, he says, is one of the most beautiful texts in French and captures the beauty of a kind of feminine abjection and the easing of that misfortune in the momentary acceptance of the void,
“From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star’s revenge. At the other window. Rigid upright on her old chair. It emerges from out the last rays and sinking ever brighter is engulfed in its turn. On. She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. Heading on foot for a particular point often she freezes on the way. Unable till long after to move on not knowing whither or for what purpose. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Hand resting on hand on some convenient support. Such as the foot of her bed. And on them her head. There then she sits as though turned to stone face to the night. Save for the white of her hair and faintly bluish white of face and hands all is black. For an eye having no need of light to see. All this in the present as had she the misfortune to be still of this world.”
“Decision no sooner reached or rather long after than what is the wrong word? For the last time at last for to end yet again what the wrong word? Than revoked. No but slowly dispelled a little very little like the wisps of day when the curtain closes. Of itself by slow millimetres or drawn by a phantom hand. Farewell to farewell. Then in that perfect dark foreknell darling sound pip for end begun. First last moment. Grant only enough remain to devour all . Moment by glutton moment. Sky, earth, the whole kit and boodle. Not another crumb of carrion left. Lick chops and basta. No. One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.”
And from, Enough,
“This notion of calm comes from him. Without him I would not have had it. Now I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers. No more rain. No more mounds. Nothing but the two of us dragging through the flowers. Enough my old breasts feel his old hand.”
Badiou constanly turns back to these quotations, and if you know his voice, he reads them to you like a lullaby. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. On… One last. Grace to breathe that void… I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers… Enough. Love is not sentimental piety, it is not symbiotic sublime union, it is not utilitarian contractual relations, it is something closer to what Beckett is able to evoke… continuing on despite impossibility, an affirmation of absolute helplessness, dejection sometimes, and yet, miraculously, momentary affirmation, the arousal of a void that brings grace, truth, encounter, and love that drags and grows old, and only when everything has been wiped out, is it finally enough. Maybe I take things too far, but I think you can see in this the profound passage of the analysand in analysis.
C.D.V.: You have mentioned in both your book and interviews that you find Adorno to be too closed off and certain in a pessimistic vein. Do you think he is representative of Freudian Marxism prior to Lacan, or do you think that specific to a few Hegelian Marxist thinkers who have had influence on psychoanalytic theory?
J.W.: I recently read Dream Notes, which is Adorno’s dream journal that he kept between 1932 and 1969. The dreams are horrifying. There are a special few that exude charm and wit— a little humor— but mostly they are an unending series of impasses and executions and sexual humiliations and homoerotic rivalries and bodily disintegration. I could go on and on. Adorno wakes up terrified and nauseated on many occasions. It felt like the modernist post World-War-II cul-de-sac of critical theory condensed into a series of visual images. And I so wanted him to find a way out, and maybe this isn’t fair, but I don’t think he did. I think he could only turn round a certain set of problems regarding authority and desire. The object of desire is ultimately buried beneath the weight of an impossible anxiety in Adorno and if it tears him apart at night in his dream life, in his work-life I think it amounted to a kind of closed certainty— one that is, by the way, very appealing to anxious graduate students who probably also suffer from an unending series of nightmares. Adorno writes down that his wife asked him why he makes fun of himself in his dreams and he said, without thinking: ‘to fend off paranoia’. Lacan begins with paranoia through his work as a psychiatrist, and he develops the concept of the paranoiac structure of the ego, especially as a critique of knowledge. No one is more certain than a paranoiac, and also less funny. The psychoanalyst, Francois Roustang, has this great book called How To Make A Paranoid Laugh. Desire is the antidote for Lacan, something he learned not from his paranoid patients, but from the hysterics.
I don’t know if I would characterize this as a pre-Lacanian psychoanalytic Marxism. There are so many kinds from Marcuse and Fromm, to Reich and Sartre. I don’t know if this kind elitist melancholia is particular to Marxist Freudianism, which can certainly be quite utopian. Marcuse, for example, is a great deal less pessimistic either about social change or psychoanalysis. I had forgotten how good Eros and Civilization is. What Marcuse does with repressive de-sublimation, the idea that society allows us to let-off a little steam in order to keep repressive forces functioning, against the transformation of Eros as sublimation that would, in his view, undermine the forces of repression, is certainly a theme I tried to pick up in Adorno with regard to the revolutionary potential of art. I linked this to Lacan’s concept of the ethics of psychoanalysis. Lacan and Adorno are of course great readers of Hegel and Marx. I certainly learned Hegel through Adorno and was able to follow Lacan’s way of mapping Hegel onto the psychoanalytic terrain thanks to him. And I was prejudiced against Heidegger because I felt close to Adorno’s arguments in The Jargon of Authenticity (another great title). But, the dialectical vision is one of opposites collapsing into the same thing and what was originally one being irrevocably divided, which if it doesn’t amount to the grand synthesis and self-revelation that Hegel had dreamed up, then what are you left with? In a comment appended to a dream in Adorno’s Dream Notes, he wrote, “our dreams are linked with each other not just because they are ‘ours’, but because they form a continuum, they belong to a unified world, just as, for example, all of Kafka’s stories inhabit the ‘same world’.” One might see here not just a theory of the Other but the possibility of a unified world that isn’t only simply a delusion or a nightmare. It is certainly a wish, but isn’t it interesting that wishes exist in a continuum that forms a unity in a being that is otherwise described after modernity as rent. That being said, Adorno did write down his dreams, intended for publication. We do not know what he wanted to say with them since they were only published after his death and without whatever introduction he may have written. But certainly the importance of uselessness in a radically utilitarian capitalistic world puts dreams and art on the same footing. Psychoanalysis takes what is useless, dream-life, and makes it utterly useful, if not subversive.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the Slavoj Zizek’s use of Lacan which seems quite different from your take and almost in a vein more similar to Adorno’s than Badiou’s thinking?
J.W.: Oh, the Slavoj question! I spoke with him at length in Spain a few years back and he asked me, ‘How can you stand listening to patients all day? It seems like it would be so boring.’ That kind of sums it up for me. Psychoanalysis is a kind of game for him and the fact that it is born out of a rigorous practice that us psychoanalysts do is of little interest to him. So it vaguely offends me when the Pervert’s Guide to Cinema lists him as a psychoanalyst. Lacan said he was speaking to psychoanalysts about psychoanalysis, from the standpoint of the unique experience of being in analysis, and what I think he learned from his patients. I think he was an extraordinary listener. As for Adorno and Badiou in relation to Zizek, he certainly has the same flair as Adorno for dragging everything into a magnificent dialectical impasse. And they have the same taste for finding consolation in classical music. People are rather poor substitutes for that pleasure. Politically I think Zizek has more of a taste or tolerance for authority than poor Adorno. I don’t think Adorno cared as much for Christian theology as Zizek and may on the whole be more pessimistic, especially with regard to the usefulness of popular culture that Zizek filters through his Lacanian sieve. Of course, you have to appreciate Zizek and what he is able to do with Lacan, how he has been able to disseminate his thinking to the next generation. But I hope one moves through the Zizekian world-view, not getting too stuck there. Maybe that means moving closer to Badiou for me who is certainly more affirmative and loving.
C.D.V.: In your essay, “Love and Shame,” published in the Cardozo Law Review, that “a symptom is a passion for ignorance” can be applied to the increasing isolation that psychoanalysts have from the academe, even the academe which is using psychoanalytic categories? How deep do you think this symptom goes in regards to way Lacan is seems, in America at least, primarily used for cultural criticism?
J.W.: I think the best way to answer this question is from two directions: from the academy and its relation to psychoanalysis and from psychoanalysis and its relation to the academy. Perhaps easiest would be to start with the academy where psychoanalysis is used in literature, philosophy, cultural studies, film studies, philosophy, whatnot. I find that there are those who respect the fact that psychoanalysis is a very particular discipline whose knowledge stems from its clinical practice. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with applied psychoanalysis, but I believe that we have to be careful. Some thinkers I know care very much about psychoanalysis as a clinical discipline, are interested in hearing from psychoanalysts about psychoanalysis, and in their use of analysis stay very close to the phenomenological base of psychoanalytic experience and know-how. Judith Butler is one of those thinkers who pays particularly close attention to psychoanalysis as a clinical act. In fact, it is the more formal aspects of the praxis of psychoanalysis that undergirds her notion of the performative dimension of speech and the subversive character of the repetition of a signifier. And hers is a brilliant critical reading of Freud and Lacan. Badiou, in the talk you mention from Cardozo, is also someone who I clearly feel stays close to the experience of psychoanalysis even if he doesn’t acknowledge psychoanalysis all that much. That’s fine with me— credit is overrated— as long as what is crucial is transmitted in thought. The passion for ignorance on the other hand is a kind of neglect of psychoanalysis in its most crucial dimensions that have bearing on its ‘cure’. And I think it is a kind of symptom in so far as what happens is the exact opposite— psychoanalysis becomes a kind of game, or a scientific enterprise, or a psychological parlor trick, even an interpretive method that reduces everything to a pre-fabricated grid. Psychoanalysis is not a Weltanschauung as Freud was so anxious to point out. From the other angle, and it is important because psychoanalysis itself is saturated with this symptomatic passion for ignorance, psychoanalysis has become more and more separated from the academy and seemingly more and more ignorant of its current developments. All of which is a disaster as far as I’m concerned. The psychoanalytic institution is a real horror for me as a seemingly infinite series of isolated little bubbles of analysts ignorant not only of one another but of the greater spheres of knowledge at play in the international scene. It has a lot to do with the professionalization of the field— being an analyst doesn’t mean being responsible as a public intellectual but someone who clocks in everyday at the office, pays dues to some local and perhaps national organization, and goes to a conference every once in awhile to network and to perhaps get credit for the upkeep of one’s license. It’s a sad state of affairs. They hardly ever talk to academics, which contribute to the academy’s lack of interest in the discipline as a clinical field; and if the analysts do speak with academics they are often so intellectually threatened, conversation is impossible. I am really quite pessimistic at the moment about the future of psychoanalysis as an organized body. I believe people are doing incredible work with patients but in my experience the best are exhausted with the institutional scene and they tend to marginalize themselves. It’s really very sad, but the history of psychoanalysis as an institution has been nothing short of tragic, if not comical, and Lacan, who was very critical of it, was nonetheless not successful in his experiments. I still don’t know what to make of that fact, something in him, some flavor for the authoritarian, lingered and was transmitted. The Lacanians ironically are some of the worst, living in provincial fiefdoms fifty strong in Paris each taking their turn to go impress the South Americans. And while this goes on, the real commerce of ideas among analysts and between psychoanalysis and the academy dwindles to nothing. I’m sorry to be so negative. In any case, Freud suspected there would be resistance to psychoanalysis, no matter what, and perhaps he didn’t know that it would come the most strongly form the inside.
C.D.V.: Do you see this as a kind of over-privileging of the diagnostic functions of psychoanalysis over the curative ones in addition from a alienation from the clinical context?
J.W.: That’s certainly part of it. The whole crisis around the DSM has certainly taken its toll. Psychoanalysts don’t know whether or not to pander to the demands of the DSM, the insurance companies, psychopharmacology, all of which exists in a delirium of diagnosis. So psychoanalysis hasn’t represented itself well in these debates, coming across as defensive and threatened, while wavering on its own ethical principles when it kowtows to the industry. There are these amazing internal criteria for diagnoses in Freud that is in part theoretical and in part ethical. It is marvelously simple. Theoretically he divides the field in terms of the neuroses and narcissistic neuroses based on an idea of desire that is either able to reach outwards into the world and objects in it, essentially creating that world, against the withdrawal and stagnation of desire inward. So you have hysteria, phobia, and obsessionality on the one hand (with varying degrees of anxiety), and you have mania, depression, and psychosis on the other. There is a partial withdrawal of libido from the world in neurosis— namely into fantasy— but it is never as radical of an inward turn as it is in the more ‘narcissistic’ neuroses. Is the symptom in the body, displaced into thought, contained in anxiety, is the ego megalomanic, depressive, fragmented, or paranoid? From this one can then envision the direction of the cure without predicting how that cure will take shape or progress. But there is a direction. Ethically, Freud shows that each of these diagnostic categories is universal; it is based on functions and structures that are present in each and every one of us. For example in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud shows that while there are people whose sexual disposition could be seen as primarily perverse— pedophilia, bestiality, extreme fetishism— perversion is a universal part of sexuality and reveals something important about the transformation of the drives in each and every one of us. So what you can see in this is that no diagnosis is a discreet category, nothing will be chocked up to a simple matter of genetics, and the program of psychoanalysis is not an investigation of the aberrant or degenerate. I think this is why psychoanalysis at its best always seeks to work to cure the most severe mental illnesses from autism to schizophrenia. It is becoming more and more rare, but there is a long history of this kind of work. The problem is that no one cares about cure right now, especially the psychopharmacology industry that dominates everything. Maybe that will change? There has been some backlash recently and people seem to be getting wise to the problems with medication. If the psychoanalysts could be more creative they might be able to show that with this kind of long-term in-depth treatment neurotic patients will be healthier, and for the more severely ill their repetitive lives in-and-out of the hospital and in various partial hospitalization systems will prove more stable over time with this kind of cure. I believe that it is possible to make this case.
C.D.V.: Do you you think that the turning of psychoanalysis into critical theory is a means of avoiding the focus on neurology that is common in the larger culture?
J.W.: The question of neuroscience is difficult because I think you have to separate the science, which most of the neuroscientists admit is in its infancy, from the ideology of the brain that saturates popular culture. Neuroscience is often the first of the ‘harder’ sciences to admit that Freud is indispensable to them. However, the fetish for the brain and MRI machine images is something else entirely. As Badiou put it in his Second Manifesto for Philosophy, the problem for philosophy was originally its disappearance. Now, twenty years after his first manifesto, it is its dialectical opposite, namely an excess of philosophy in the form of crass positivism, counterfeit moralities, and vacuous spiritualities. The task of philosophy is to find a way to challenge these ‘sophistries’ and de-moralize philosophy. Popular neuroscience fits all three of these criteria for a 21st century sophistry— it is always touted as objective, hard, evidence thereby satisfying a craze for concreteness and justification, it participates in new mind/body dualisms you may have once thought philosophy had worked so hard to get past, it is saturated with westernized morality (the brain proves the intrinsic nature of democracy, free will, and the special empathy of human beings), and is sutured to all kinds of spiritualities from the Dalai Lama getting an MRI to the value of meditation as proved by brain imaging. As well, it is perfectly in line with market capitalism to the extent that it justifies all kinds of uses of psychopharmacology. So I do think that if psychoanalysis could become more critical it might find a way to comment on this contemporary phenomenon. However, once again, it panders to contemporary ideology believing that it will rescue psychoanalysis from the dust-bin they allowed themselves to fall into. It could have stood on its own two feet with respect to the findings of neuroscience. What is neuroscience about besides the embodied mind, the unconscious, the organization of the drive. Interestingly— and I don’t know how true this is, I should really find out from some friends, but in any case its a thought— I heard that MRI machines can only map the brain as you are thinking, not when you are speaking out loud. Even though thinking and speaking have a lot in common, psychoanalysis is predicated on the difference between the two. In any case, what amazes me is that people want to be told who they are through a science of the brain— the synaptic self, everything you wanted to know about Proust but were afraid to ask neuroscience. It is so fundamentally objectifying. In Lacan’s article ‘The Neurotic’s Individual Myth’ he says that what he loves about psychoanalysis is that it harkens back to the old liberal arts which wasn’t so distinct from science once upon a time. He says,
Psychoanalysis, I must recall by way of preface, is a discipline which, among the sciences, appears to us in a truly singular position. It is often said that psychoanalysis is not, strictly speaking, a science, which seems to imply by contrast that it is quite simply an art. That is erroneous if one takes it to mean that psychoanalysis is only a technique, an operational method, an aggregate of formulas. But it is not erroneous if you use this word art in the sense in which it was used in the Middle Ages to speak of the liberal arts—that series going from astronomy to dialectic by way of arithmetic, geometry, music, and grammar.
It is most assuredly difficult for us to comprehend today the function and implications of these so-called liberal arts in the lives and thought of the medieval masters. Nevertheless, it is certain that what characterizes these arts and distinguishes them from the sciences that are supposed to have emerged from them is the fact that they maintain in the foreground what might be called a fundamental relation to human proportion. At the present time, psychoanalysis is perhaps the only discipline comparable to those liberal arts, inasmuch as it preserves something of this proportional relation of man to himself—an internal relation, closed on itself, inexhaustible, cyclical, and implied pre-eminently in the use of speech.
It is in this respect that analytic experience is not definitively objectifiable. It always implies within itself the emergence of a truth that cannot be said, since what constitutes truth is speech, and then you would have in some way to say speech itself which is exactly what cannot be said in its function as speech.
This idea of retaining the difficult proportion of the human being in relation to itself, that the emergence of truth is a process, that truth is a function of speech and mythic imagination, goes completely against the trend of neuroscience that reduces the human being to a brain and has this brain tell us what thinking is and what to think about thinking. Could anything be more delirious.
C.D.V.: What do you make in the antagonism implied in Badiou’s naming of Lacan as an antiphilosopher to whom philosophy must answer?
J.W.: In a way, I’ve made peace with Badiou’s categorization of Lacan as an anti-philosopher, along with Wittgenstein and Nietzsche and others. Why not? As with all categorizations, it is both true and not true. It is true that Lacan takes philosophy to task for dreaming of systematizing everything, filling in the gaps, being in the position of the subject supposed to know, banishing the body, and so on and so forth. In this he follows Freud for whom the philosophers are at best obsessional, and at worst psychotic. But of course once you say something like this, you have to remember that Freud said that where the paranoiac fails, he succeeds, and went on to ruthlessly plagiarize Nietzsche. And Lacan as well said he wished he was more psychotic and of course what other psychoanalyst is as steeped in philosophy as Lacan. One could get into all kinds of arguments about Lacan as a figure in line with the pre-Socratics (Heraclitus, as Badiou claims) or the Socratics (given his infamous Seminar), Lacan as a philosopher of science, existentialist, linguist, phenomenologist, structuralist, post-structuralist, conservative reactionary, Marxist, what have you. I think these questions- and the great many books on them- have their place, and the scholarly effort to find Lacan’s position on a great many philosophical figures is very important. But when this research turns into claims, and those claims are a claiming of Lacan, I often start to feel very desperate, lost in the labyrinth of academia. It is why the book I wrote was less of a series of claims and more of a process of investigating the fluxuation of desire in the process of reading, in particular the pull for identification, the desire for rejection, the wish for a master, disappointment with masters, and always of course the confrontation with the impossibility of desire pure and simple. In a way, I guess I wanted to make obvious the kind of question I would ask of these authors, which is contained in the question you are asking me about Badiou. Why does he want to put his self-proclaimed master into the category of anti-philosophy with which he does not identify but to which he says philosophy should answer? What is Badiou’s desire? Of course one could speculate about this, one could even go ask the master himself, which I did and which is never very satisfying. But, it is not Badiou’s responsibility to speak about his desire. It is up to him to do so if he pleases. And of course also if one is Lacanian one is only asking questions that already have some kind of answer, so I wrote the book that answers the question about desire that in essence cannot be asked and that I can only answer to myself. Is this anti-philosophy (if I allow myself to speak for psychoanalysis)? Yes, maybe perhaps it is and that is the right thing to call it.
C.D.V.: This brings me to a question about the form of your book, “The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis,” which is largely rooted in dreams and moves away from both the standard clinical literature and the formalization of philosophy. Do you think an honest book rooted in the questions you were raising about dreams and the development of psychoanalysis almost necessitates such a “anti-philosophical” form?
J.W.: The questions that I was asking certainly necessitated a new form for me; in general, I don’t know. I’m hard pressed to say yes because what is an exigency for me- so I’ve found out- isn’t always or even usually one for someone else. However, there is something of an anti-philosophical form in psychoanalysis going back to Freud. What a strange book The Interpretation of Dreams is! I speak in the beginning of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis about how this book collapses in on itself in the most marvelous way: the book about dreams by Freud who dreams about writing the book about dreams. So if one sees this book not just as a formalization of the meaning of dreams (certainly there is that), or the beginning of a model of mind to be used to understand psychopathology (there is that also), but rather this wild, radical, experiment, a discovery by Freud in relation to his desire to find the meaning of dreams that felt to him (and you can see this in the letters with Fliess) to be transgressive, dangerous, and subversive. He felt he was risking all the authority he had gained as a medical doctor and researcher and yet, he too, felt this kind of exigency, one that sprung up in relation to his self-analysis and exploration of his own unconscious life. For me, this exists in Lacan as well. You feel some kind of necessity behind his work, especially in his rhetoric, which is absolutely wild. I was just reading the end of Aggression in Psychoanalysis. It’s stunning. It takes a real force of desire to keep teaching for 28 years in the way that he did; all of which (his writing and his seminar), for me, amounts to a new form. And Lacan, in constructing the procedure of the pass for analysts, recognized the necessity of speaking about what one has learned from one’s analysis and how that forms the desire to be an analyst. My book, in its content and in its form, is also situated there. I wanted to show that being an analyst isn’t some mystical ordination by an authorizing body but something very intimate and extraordinary, but that also has the unusual consequence of re-inventing the field and ground of psychoanalysis again and again through the particularities of each person, whether they become analysts or not. It is for this reason that one is, for Lacan, only an analyst after this accounting rather than when an institute says, or after so many hours of seeing a training case. And I just wished that the literature in the field was more alive, more immediate, and less staid and professional. Philosophy, which I was reading a lot of at the time I wrote the book, exploded in the 60s and I was in awe of their formal experiments. The same of course is true of literature but going much further back, to the very beginning. The Greek tragedies are delightfully weird if you look at them closely. And I am someone who turns constantly to Melville, Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Gaddis, Celan, for whom the questions that inform their work determine the form of their novel, especially the way in which they break with tradition. When you’ve lost that as a project, to my mind, you’ve given up in some way. Even Badiou’s formalized system is an anti-philosophical experiment in form, by the way. One can think of his crazy systematizing of everything— including art, literature, film, politics, math, philosophy continental and analytic— as a break with a tradition that would never cast such a wide net… Deleuze and set theory and modern dance?! In any case, for me the most risky move in The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis was speaking about my dreams and using them as a way of ciphering a certain kind of loving erotic transference to philosophy, to Adorno and Badiou in particular. There is so much that is horrifically personal in the book that it is still hard for me to speak about. I more or less pretend that it doesn’t exist on most days.
C.D.V.: What advice to you give to non-analysts and non-analysants to avoiding the “any fantasy of closure” in regards to their own psychological narrative?
J.W.: It’s funny that you ask me this question after I told you that I more or less use serious denial with regard to what is painfully open in my book and feels slightly shameful! What is my advice!? Do you really think a psychoanalyst gives advice!? Go into analysis… Psychoanalysis is fun, I mean it’s a total hell, but life is hell, so why not go head first into the surreal hell of your own making in an analysis in order to find the sliver of ground that allows you to get out. And despite this, or with and because of it, it is actually really a unique joy. That being said, I don’t think that psychoanalysis is the only way to get out of a ‘closed fantasy’ and even in itself there is no guarantee. So you just have to stretch yourself and your idea of yourself as much as possible, and to be aware of inevitable closure so that you can work against it. You have to find the way to take risks, real risks, one’s that aren’t life threatening, but feel so. It has to be a matter of life and death, or in the space between two deaths, as Lacan put it in his Ethics Seminar. I’m worried, for example, about where I’m going to go next. I’m worried about being complacent. I’m worried that it was so hard the first time around with The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis that I can’t even bring myself to approach a place that feels that precarious. For what came out of it that was difficult, but also for what was good. The good, in so far as it is about approaching the object of desire, can be even harder to tolerate than what is bad. Even if I appreciate formalization, I don’t want to turn what I’ve done into a formula, which is the danger of trying to repeat a certain kind of satisfaction that was achieved. If something works then you are really left in the lurch! What now? Again? So, I’ve written a book with Simon Critchley on Hamlet that takes off from the short chapter on Hamlet in The Life and Death as a second project. It was great to take the pressure off that exists from being entirely alone in one’s work through collaboration, to sort of ease my super-ego through having the responsibility distributed between two people. But, I don’t want that ease to be a cop out. I try to remember that the project was very pure to the extent that we had no sense of audience, no sense of what publisher or editor would want it, no genre that we were trying to fit into, and it was a kind of work of love, in particular between philosophy and psychoanalysis— which are more pitted against one another in The Life and Death. We joked the entire time that we could beg the local art publisher to produce it as a conceptual piece. Now that’s its finished and going into production, I’m thinking of writing by myself again and what feels hard about it. I really want to take that on. I don’t know that I feel completely ready… which is the right feeling to have since it means that I’m approaching something new and that always feels dangerous. You’ll never be prepared for it, you’ll never feel ready. So my advice is to go towards what you feel the least prepared for but which you know that you’ve spent your lifetime trying to impossibly prepare yourself for. On.
C.D.V.: So to avoid closure here, how would you like to complicate anything you’ve said about Badiou in our conversation?
J.W.: I think, after some thought about your question, that I will opt for silence. Analysis, rather than complicating anything as a way of avoiding closure, tries to cut away this torsion of meaning to a point of sometimes terrifying silence. Hopefully, finally, it is a place of respite, enough having been said.