Category Archives: Science
The number of self-help books being churned out by presses both small and big is skyrocketing. Some have speculated—reasonably enough—this can be seen as a manifestation of popular [res]sentiment coming to grips with socio-economic and geo-political realities that make it difficult to nurture, and preserve a coherent self-concept. The surge in the genre’s prolixity and chutzpah can seem impressive if one doesn’t know that several of the glossiest Bestsellers are often books that experts have on their “Not Recommended” lists. The wicked spawn of self-improvement books that adorn our bookstores and discount retail chain stores is as much a haphazard monument to our restless ambitions as it is a symptom of our merely nominal existence. If we were having the best sex of our lives we would perhaps have no need for How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale (2012) by Neil Strauss [and Jenna Jameson], and the legion that is other such titles.
On the one hand we have a fixation with the idea of youthful longevity through lifestyle change and the over-eager technological utopianism offered us make us giddy, and on the other hand we face the imminent danger of ecological catastrophe, an earth too fragile to bear our continued exploitations of its resources. Indeed, as Philip Auerswald puts it “As the fact of global climate change alone indicates, Malthusian spectres of demographic doom are regrettably still very much with us”. It is not that we do not wish to change the world but that the world changes without our help; slowly ever more globalised market mechanisms leave more and more of us behind on sinking ships earmarked for the unemployed, the unemployable, and the underemployed. Without the slightest irony, thrown between pleasure and near certain extinction we are obsessed with lists like Five self-help books that want to change [y]our life. This is no exaggeration…one could be more observant, more pessimistic…
The urban chic set that keeps abreast with the latest fashionable causes to vent its self-projections and insular anxieties seems to be staking a rather hazy claim to civic consciousness in India. A jejunating gerontocrat with an Oedipal grouse against corrupt politicos, and who wants to discipline drunkards by the lynch ‘em dry method, here gains prominence and lingers like a tepid stench long after his garrulity is spent achieving sweet fuck-all—with relative ease in our media saturated epoch. Adding vacuity and loquacious fanaticism to the masses’ burgeoning discontent are tabloids, blogs and television chatterati screaming shrilly their manifestos geared at [in]voluntary political quietism. When one’s attention is driven to his own pecuniary lack he is quickly driven to chagrin about black-money he hasn’t any means to extradite from subterranean governmental hands. This personal-frustration-driven politics is dangerous inasmuch as personal agendas are apt to end in rash manipulative gestures of political will. In a diverse country like India individualism would be the straw that broke the bullock’s back.
That the desire to improve one’s lot to the point where spending several hours a day on a treadmill is not only acceptable but profoundly desirable bespeaks a very peculiar attitude towards life, and what might be wrested from it. For one, it is a morbid obsession with a self-image, it is also a vain commitment to a self isolated from any substantiality beyond its commitment to its own image, reflected through a prism of phantasms and Aunt Dianaesque discourses. From the hives of our identitarian commitments we all clamour for audience and control, [we the Liberals/ Conservatives/ Nationalists!] , and in our unwieldy synchrony with the zeitgeist of these communities, we are stabbed cold by the rabid devotions of our mobs. The idea of improving the self sounds deceptively salutary, even ethical these days; no, but can’t we see this slick, new self contrasted prejudicially against gits who weren’t addressed by our self-style-guides’ target demographic cohort?
Opportunism, hedonism, and activism seamlessly blend into the mediated space of national and international discourses among informed consumers; there is conversation, but there is also lies, chaos and oligopolies of branded guff. Each nation becomes an individualist cohort driven towards an ever-becoming-Galt, striking the globally ghettoised masses—figuratively—unionised in their dire straits as plunderers.
The more we try to reclaim individuality the more we find ourselves fractured between odds and ends of the selves we had long taken for granted, shorn for convenience, or from shame. NRIs settled in cosy Silicon Valley apartments send their patriotism packed avowals in jingoistic emails tweeting their approval of desi tyrants; personal activisms quickly precipitate national travesties. Influence also enslaves us; as we wait on the beck and call of the new fad we might as well read about how we can outsmart that thickly accented son of the soil @ the call center job, with grooming tips and One-Month-Guarantee Speak English classes.
Originally posted Here : < https://sites.google.com/site/scene46/home/self-help-is-the-worst-help >.
Auerswald, Philip. (2012). The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the Global Economy. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.
Fresco, Jacques & Meadows, Roxanne. (2008). The Best That Money Can’t Buy: Beyond Politics, Poverty and War. Québec, Canada: Osmora Publishing.
Kennedy, Dan, S. (2008). No B.S. Marketing to the Affluent: No Holds Barred Kick Butt Take No Prisoners Guide to Getting Really Rich. USA: Entrepreneur Press
Lomborg, Bjørn. (2001). The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.
McGee, Micki. (2005). Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.
Norcross, John, C.; Campbell, Linda, F.; Grohol, John, M.; Santrock, John, W.; Selagea, Florin; Sommer, Robert. Eds. (2012). Self-Help That Works: Resources to Improve Emotional Health and Strengthen Relationships. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.
 See McGee, Micki. (2005). Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life. New York, USA: OxfordUniversity Press.
 See Norcross, John, C.; Campbell, Linda, F.; Grohol, John, M.; Santrock, John, W.; Selagea, Florin; Sommer, Robert. (2012). Self-Help That Works: Resources to Improve Emotional Health and Strengthen Relationships. New York, USA: OxfordUniversity Press.
 See < http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Love-Health-Self-Guide/dp/1591200261 >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://www.flipkart.com/sex-your-questions-answered-01/p/itmdyuzr88ayheya >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See Kennedy, Dan, S. (2008). No B.S. Marketing To the Affluent: No Holds Barred Kick Butt Take No Prisoners Guide to Getting Really Rich. USA: Entrepreneur Press. p. 23.
 See Fresco, Jacques & Meadows, Roxanne. (2008). The Best That Money Can’t Buy: Beyond Politics, Poverty and War. Québec, Canada: Osmora Publishing.
 Auerswald, Philip. (2012). The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the Global Economy. New York, USA: OxfordUniversity Press. p. 36.
 See < http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-03-05/ahmedabad/37469380_1_unemployed-youth-unemployment-figures-claims >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/11/23/young-jobless-and-indian/ >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_india-has-the-most-unemployable-population-report_1587604 >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://www.tradingeconomics.com/india/unemployment-rate >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jan/07/five-self-help-books-change-life >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 “Armed with diplomas and aspirations for upward mobility, a rapidly expanding consumer class is said to be driving political activism and, thanks to its media savviness, forcing the government to listen”. Fontanella-Khan, Amana. 24, January 2013. “India’s Next Revolution”. The New York Times. Accessed 22, March 2013. Available from < http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/opinion/indias-next-revolution.html?_r=0 >.
 “…[t]hey often pay hired help just Rs 4,000-5’000 per month, and complain if servants demand more. Middle class folk don’t want to calculate the per capita daily spending of their servant’s family. They resent servants constantly wanting more pay, even if this falls short of the very level they find outrageous when specified by the Planning Commission. This double standard is not restricted to paying servants. When middle class folk go to Dilli Haat to buy a sari, they will beat down the weavers to the lowest price possible. If told that the weaver earns only Rs 4,000 per month, will they change their attitude or agree that they have helped keep the weaver poor? No chance”. Aiyar, Swaminathan, A. “Middle class hypocrisy on the poverty line”. The Times of India. 02 October 2011. Accessed 22, March 2013. Available from < http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes .com/Swaminomics/entry/middle-class-hypocrisy-on-the-poverty-line >.
 See < http://www.ndtv.com/photos/news/top-20-surfer-comments-supporting-anna-hazare-10166 >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://www.indiatvnews.com/politics/national/anna-hazare-too-demands-death-penalty-for-rapists-7398.html >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-11-22/india/30428675_1_anna-hazare-ralegan-siddhi-alcoholics >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
 See < http://lokpaldissent.wordpress.com/tag/anna-hazare/ >. Accessed 22, March 2013.
The Fruit of the Earth: Of Personal and Impersonal Ecological Conservationism as Forms of an Instinct
“Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me into her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair?”
Chief of the Native American Wanapum Tribe, 19th Century (Sheldrake, R. 2007)
The adornment of nature with the lived experiences of man used as nominal and formal characteristics for its agentic description, or personification, is not peculiar to animists or primitivisms. Even the mechanist, the positivist and the determinist invoke figures of metaphor, metonymy and personification in the elaboration of their theories and findings. Bachelard’s pronouncement on metaphor as “…an invisible grain of hashish…”, though itself a metaphor, allows us equally well for its obliquity in relation with diurnal experience to enter the realm of oneiric, and then even sublime, imagination. The passage from the oneiric to the sublime, however, is one fraught with a perilous scope for [mis]translation of affects from the impersonal domain of unconscious object-libido cathexis [as in hallucinatory fantasy] to the possibility of sublimation by a conscious decision to take charge of the duty of “…being-for-the-outside”, and vice versa. The formation of images, both oneiric and sublime, is ultimately linguistic; in this capacity these images are representations of instincts in two important senses: the suerpegotic ordering of cultural meanings that prefigure images by the impersonal process of the emergence of languages in society and the egotic coming to grips, or being-for-the-outside, of colloquial and idiomatic language use and various coexisting individual styles of expression. By using the terms personal and impersonal we are still referring to the collective level where the various ecological conversation discourses operate: the use of impersonal, personal and suprapersonal, here, is the organisation of levels of ecological conservationist discourse as they correspond with the Freudian topography of id, ego and superego.
The push and pull between the personal and the impersonal is thus only the conflict of instinctual representatives, or ideas, defined by their fidelity to a suprapersonal, or theoretical and formal domain of discourse which makes ecological conservation a field of human knowledge and practice. Between the potentially oneiric or hallucinatory personal unconscious and its sublime realisation on one hand and the potentially hallucinatory cultural unconscious and its capacity for sublimation on the other there is a charged space of interaction: the transference of the analytic session can be invoked here by treating the interactions between personal and impersonal narratives of ecological activism that become coherent as artefacts of instincts in an archive of suprapersonal psychisms—geared towards a human desire that becomes more and more concrete through a dialectical movement between personal ecological activism and impersonal ecological activism.
The polarity between biocentric and anthropocentric ecology perfectly represents the impersonal being-for-the-outside of the psychism of ecological conservationism as such. This opposition is not simply one between irrevocably disjointed worldviews, rather it represents the gap between a superegotic demand for complete biocentricity, where man is made a limb on the body of the earth with no special privilege of place as in Deep Ecology, on the underlying occult anthropocentricism of all ecological conservation projects as such. Here, the seeming opposition between two ecological conservationist ideologies functionally comes to embody an oneiric imago of the conservationist psychism as such reaching outwards to the possibility of sublimation through its antecedent stages of identification with the Earth and idealisation of the Earth, through an arduous and partial process of reality-testing; from the traumatic situation of having to live through an industrialised and consumerist ego-consciousness, the psychism of conservationism arises to defend Mother Earth from phallic spoilage by contemplating a voluntary castration, a formal, or superegotic, limitation on the instinct of the suprapersonal signifier of ecological conservation, and from this a part of the activist shrinks back—no one likes being curtailed, unless by a ruse of desire turned inwards like in hallucination the curtailment itself becomes a possession of the object in the ego.
Now, the warring between Deep Ecologists and Bright Green Environmentalists, for instance, is not a fundamental mismatch between ideas that share a common goal, they are the adaptations of discourse to the upheavals imposed upon it by science, world affairs and individually conflicting ideologies, or representatives of instinct, that are influencing the manifest discourse of an instinctual drive towards ecological conservatism. Thus each position contains a baseline reactionary element: the biocentric position entails a capitulation to the status of humanity without a right to thrive on Earth, it is a surrender to the very idea which inspires the need to conserve ecological integrity, namely the risk that human and animal exploitation will irremediably tarnish it; the anthropocentric position claiming to conserve Earth for man’s benefit, though more apparently realistic, is still an adaptation of the superegotic biocentric absolutism which issues the first formalised statement of intent, or instinct to preserve ecological integrity […for gods’ sake!, even].
To Be Continued…
Bachelard, Gaston. Trans. Jolas, Maria. The Poetics of Space. New York, USA: Orion Press, 1964.
Chew, Matthew, K. & Laubichler, Manfred, D. 2003. “Perceptions of Science: Natural Enemies–Metaphor or Misconception?”. Science: Essays on Science and Society. 4 July 2003: Vol. 301 no. 5629 pp. 52-53. DOI: 10.1126/science.1085274. Web. <http://www.sciencemag.org/content/301/5629/52.full>.
Nordgren, Anders. Responsible Genetics: The Moral Responsibility of Geneticists for the Consequences of Genetic Research. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001.
Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Savage, Denis. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2008.
Scholarly Editions. Issues in Mechanical Engineering: 2011 Edition. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholarly Editions, 2012.
Sheldrake, Rupert. The Greening of Science and God: The Rebirth of Nature. Cochin, India: Editions India, 2007.
 The use of operational metaphors during the process of designing new technology has a tangible effect on the possible outcomes of mechanical engineering projects. The case of the move from Pocket PC OS to PDAs was facilitated and given it unique trajectory by the use of organising metaphors that allowed the creation of a truly compelling interface for the device (Scholarly Editions, 2012).
 “Evolutionary biologists customarily employ the metaphor “survival of the fittest,” which has a precise meaning in the context of mathematical population genetics, as a shorthand expression when describing evolutionary processes. Yet, outside of the shared interpretative context of evolutionary biology, the same metaphor has been employed to argue that evolutionary theory is fundamentally flawed. Natural Selection, the argument goes, leads to a survival of the fittest. The fittest are those that survive. Ergo, natural selection describes the survival of the survivors. Thus one of the core concepts of evolutionary theory is a tautology. While it is easy to see how such an argument represents a deliberate misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, it also alerts us to some problems inherent to the use of metaphors in science. Metaphors introduce a fundamental trade off between the generation of novel insights in science and the possibility of dangerous or even deadly misappropriation. The extension of genetics to eugenics owed much of its popularity in the United States and in Germany to its use of culturally resonant metaphors. Labeling people as a burden, a cancerous disease, or a foreign body (Fremdkörper) conveyed the “threat” to society in terms that people could relate to in their respective historical and cultural settings (5–8). Given this power of metaphorical language, it is understandable why several scientists have been concerned with the prevalence of metaphors in certain disciplines (9)” (Chew, Matthew, K. & Laubichler, Manfred, D. 2003).
 The surety with which genetic determinism has been championed as a breakthrough has aroused concern in the scientific and academic community about the potential social fatalism that might emerge in defence of entrenched positions of power and exploitation in society. The idea that genetic determinism necessitates that some people are better than others in a determined way can have unsavoury social consequences (Nordgren, A. 2001).
 Bachelard, Gaston (1964). p. 219
 Ricoeur, Paul. (2008) “Book II. Analytic. Ch. 2. From the Oneiric to the Sublime: The Clinical Approaches to Interpretation”. p. 180- 86.
 The id, ego and superego cannot be conceived of as entities or locations in themselves; they are the movement of instinctual desires and their representations in ideas that come to take on the characteristics of the id, the ego and the superego. The possible outcomes of instincts namely sublimation, identification and idealisation as modifications of desire in relation to ideas of reality and their opposites regression, introjection and illusion in relation to a rejection of reality by the instincts are only labels that become coherent when the conflict between the instincts and reality reconfigure the position of the analysand in the products of his free associations. Id is the constant motivator of instincts, the superego is a facilitator of the id and the ego is that which is driven by the instincts to test reality or abjure it. All readings of a particular psychism function inside this energetics and topography in reference to pleasure, unpleasure and reality. See, Ricoeur, Paul (2008) p. 217- 29.
 The biocentrist ecologists oppose the bland and impotent anthropocentrism of deep ecologists to be a ruse of man’s narcissism; the biocentrists believe this narcissism is what has put man in the danger of becoming an ecocide in the first place (Sheldrake, R. 2007).
Ricoeur’s reading of Freud is a rare and sympathetic attempt to grapple philosophically with the anti-philosophy of psychoanalysis. In successive movements between Freud’s explicitly developed triads of id, ego and superego; unconscious, preconscious and conscious; cathexis, anticathexis and hypercathexis; Eros, Thanatos and Logos Ricoeur locates an occult dualism of human desire which defines the project of psychoanalysis as a working through of desire, against a social field of desires of the other. The project of psychoanalysis is purely diagnostic: to arrive at the truth beyond the pleasure principle is the working through of life in the analytic session. These various triads Ricoeur demonstrates, with peerless clarity and rigour, to be the interplay of an energetics, an economics and a series of topographies of psychisms that constantly stand in for reality in the mind of the analysand, and which are held together as a calculable interpretation only by the work of analysis which fuses each triad with its corresponding function in the service of the pleasure-ego. Only under the shifting gaze of the analyst who is aided by the process of transference can the work of interpretation begin because the analysand has only a very distorted access to his resistances. The truth, for Freud, is a thankless thing which comes with the collapse of all illusion. But illusion itself is a necessary prelude to any conception of a truth.
The Analytic Reading
The Energetics implicit in Freud’s word, often ignored by commentators, is much indebted to the naturalist ethos of his own time and draws heavily on a speculative quantity of neurons as contingent agents of repression and sublimation. This energetics is important to Freud inasmuch as he sought to differentiate his work from rival schools that held consciousness to be a parallelism of the neural system or a mere epiphenomenon by modifying the findings of biology to furnish an archaeology of instincts. Freud was interested in showing how quantitative tendencies of neurons effected qualitative changes in consciousness: “[d]esires and wishes enter [t]his mechanistic theory (pp. 383- 84) through the intermediary of the traces left behind by pleasure and unpleasure” (Ricoeur, P. 77) in the form of neuronal charges. But this quantity-to-quality conversion begs the question of how these quantities don’t get annulled by the minds relentless impetus towards pleasure and/ or unpleasure in an affective entropy. Freud’s answer radicalises this problem by positing the work of quantitative neuronal movements to be the regulation of affective states to preserve an inertia, a nirvana principle. Rather than running their course in surplus pleasure or unpleasure towards a total expenditure of affect/ neuronal charges they tended to a preservation of their initial state of libidinal investment. An affective homeostasis. But this answer eliminates the anatomical basis for the instinct’s quantitative transformation into indeterminate tendencies mainly because these neurons and their charges cannot be counted. They are of an uncertain number, and in the words of a commentator on Freud, possessed of a phlogistic character in psychoanalytic theory; in response to a constancy principle that is fundamentally at odds with the reality principle a homeostasis of affects demands a way to calculate neuronal charges if psychoanalysis is to be treated as the science Freud insisted it was. Reality is, Freud says, that which persists despite the Conscious system’s “peculiar cathexis”: it is classified in opposition to the Unconscious that is timeless and non-negative, and is “…classified with negation and contradiction, the tonic binding of energy, and reference to time” as an end of illusion and the maturity of man (Ricoeur, P. 268).
The periodicity and self-consistency of ideas in relation to a nirvana principle come to define the quantitative neuronal constitution of the triad unconsciousness, preconsciousness and consciousness; in this capacity they work as a spatial dimension where pleasure-seeking psychisms reacting with the conscious world of objects, and a strategy for working through of life in this world, can be understood by interpreting the representations of ego-instincts as they appear in comparison with a semiology of desire constructed from an archaeology of ego-instincts—arrived at by the detours of analytic session, the free association method and experience. The topography of psychoanalysis, then, is a spatial translation of the indeterminate and timeless qualities of the unconscious under a metaphorical mien; it allows for the analytic understanding of motor impulses pushed backwards into intentions, i.e. traces of unconscious neuronal impulsions in search of pleasure, as the cause for hallucination when the object of its desire is absent, or as conscious action when the object is present; “…motility and perception…” are its directional poles (Ricoeur, P. 107). Now, from the side of earlier ego-instincts an action can be read as a regression to hallucinatory union with a lost object, but from the side of the object to which the ego cathects by the detour of an ego-instinct an integration of impulses marked by a renunciation to necessity becomes discernible, and this process can now be read as sublimation—whatever repression and sublimation are defined as in qualitative terms. On the side of reality, in the Freudian topography, are Logos and Ananke the gods of the disillusioned and on the side of the neurotic ceremonials of desire are the archaisms of Eros and Thanatos marked by their tendency for a pleasure-seeking-unto-death; although it is Eros that impels men to action it is only the gaze of Thanatos that these actions come to bear their allegiance to Ananke, overcoming the ruses of infantile desire.
The triangulation between the lust for joyous survival, the stratagems of this lust for survival and the more, or less, realistic behaviour that emerges in response to this renewed understanding of reality become the definitional criteria which situate the disparate field of human desire under the purview of psychoanalysis. After enumerating the facts of discourse that constitute the sphere of personal desire under these three criteria we must analyse them by reading them against the bare facts of the analysand’s behaviour, the relation of this behaviour to a certain understanding of the world he occupies and the degree to which the analysand gives credence to his behaviour in light of the gap between bare facts and personal affects. This level of psychoanalytic discourse couched in the terminology of id, ego and superego comes to take on an economic aspect in that what the unconscious desires comes to be sought out by the conscious, i.e. in Freud’s words, “where the id was the ego shall be”. The gap between these occult movements of personal desires—impelled by the regulatory energetics of pleasure, and unpleasure—and the actual outcome of these desires pursued or repressed to their end becomes most coherent when it is read as an economic relation between the impersonal, personal and suprapersonal aspects of the psychism. The impersonal is the id because it desires without the knowledge of consciousness; the suprapersonal superego is a ruse of the id which convinces the conscious part of the mind by its rationalisations and order words, or the representatives of conscious thought in the ego, about a danger that must be averted by capitulating to its, or the id’s, dimly perceived demands; egoity or consciousness and rational behaviour is then in a triply precarious position right from its inception, buffeted by the impersonal and the suprapersonal, and insulted by the residual reality which resists the ego-instinct’s errands of pleasure.
The Dialectical Reading
It is evident that psychoanalysis only serves to guide the analytical reconstruction of the analysand’s psychisms or, an archaeology of human desire if you will, and a synthetic, or prescriptive, teleology is beyond the scope of psychoanalytic theory. This is simply because each successive reality can be read as an object-choice, or adequation of the ego formation to allow for pleasure, and is to be treated as a compromised choice of perceptual information and the way it relates to the demands of the id constellated in the interpreting authority of the superego with its ruses for maximising satisfaction. Here, Ricoeur offers a corrective to the solipsism of the psychoanalytic theory outside the session in proposing to pare down psychoanalysis with a phenomenology of reflective consciousness; this he achieves by a superimposed operation of the Hegelian dialectic over the Freudian epochȇ in reverse. “Where phenomenology begins with an act of ‘suspension’, with an epochȇ at the free disposition of the subject, psychoanalysis begins with the suspension of the control of consciousness, whereby the subject is made a slave equal to his bondage, to use Spinoza’s terms” (Ricoeur, P. 391). Thus the act of a conscious recapitulation of perception is not apt to survive the acid test of psychoanalysis; instincts that are discerned in affects of the conscious mind are reified as necessity and reason in the Hegelian grasping of man, he becomes the subject of his needs, which are only interpretable as representations [Freud's reprasentanz] of instincts: “…a realism of the knowable…a mythology…” (Ricoeur, P. 435). Thus, Ricoeur opposes the search for interpretation in the mythology of the instincts with the projection of a teleological destiny that Freud implicates while thematising the primal history of man and society.
In the first stage of the dialectic consciousness itself stands in place of a symptom that imposes representations of the instincts as a mythos, or hermeneutic approach, backward over the facts of perception. “Whereas Hegel links an explicit teleology of mind or spirit to an implicit archaeology of life and desire, Freud links a thematised archaeology of the unconscious to an unthematised teleology of the process of becoming conscious” (Ricoeur, P. 461). The reduplication of consciousness, the abortive or premature Cogito, in the movement of consciousness becoming conscious of itself in itself and in another is to be opposed to the exegetical movement of consciousness into representations of its own investment in the pleasure principle—this movement eludes the Freudian notion of narcissism involved in identification, or object-choice, since it is in itself a figure of necessity [Ananke] that deflates the abortive Cogito’s innate narcissism; brute necessity [Ananke] is inscribed in the external world of objects before its translation into psychisms which are merely ego-instincts that stand in for the world. This dialectic between archaeology and teleology is an “…opposition to the Freudian economics” of libidinal investment read into the metapsychology from without, as a procession of spirit that educates desire in transformation beyond regression towards the inertial vortex of an original “object-loss”, or primary repression, whose presence in absentia sets psychoanalytic re-interpretation in motion (Ricoeur 481). Since psychoanalysis does not make this synthetic move towards elucidating its normative field of desire beyond the pleasure principle, hinted at obliquely in the notion of sublimation which it fails to elucidate, it risks falling into the troubling inability to differentiate between progression and regression; movements of desire that psychoanalysis has so strongly opposed in the economic and topographic scheme of the analytic session as a measure of truth beyond illusions; the argument for the id’s prefiguration of the ego or the ego’s curtailment of the pleasure-ego’s, or abortive Cogito’s, formation respectively. Thus, the corrective of the dialectic of the phenomenology of spirit on the [psycho]analytic regression of the epochȇ in reverse comes to open up a field that is beyond the ruses of the pleasure principle and is simultaneously the condition of both regression and progression.
Ricoeur’s contribution to the elucidation of Freudianism as an epistemological enterprise opposed to the observational sciences and in opposition with the phenomenological school of philosophy opens the ground for a reflective philosophy which can proceed by the dialectics between an archaeology and a teleology of the psychisms of desire.
Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Savage, Denis. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2008. Print.
C. Derick Varn: You and I have both followed the careers and patterns of a few of the predominant members of the “Skeptical movement,” and in particular, the recent debates over Atheism Plus and New Atheism. What do you think the issues are in New Atheism?
David Poulter: I think the biggest issue in New Atheism is that they have attempted to create a “big tent” movement based entirely on a non-belief rather than on any sort of a belief. And I think that developments like Atheism Plus show how much of a failure this has been. Simple disbelief in a divine spaceman isn’t really a unifying concept, certainly not in the sense that desires for social justice, or class struggle or even racial/ethnic “identity” and “solidarity” can be and are.
In my view it’s almost like forming a social movement around being left handed. Perhaps if I grew up in a more religious-minded society I might see it differently and view a shared disbelief as something more significant than I do but that is not the case. At any rate I see myself as having far more in common with the likes of Baptist preacher Tommy Douglas and Archbishop Oscar Romero than I do with someone like Sam Harris or Penn Jillette despite a shared disbelief in the divine with the latter two.
Another significant issue, so far as I see it, includes a definite propensity to take on many of the characteristics of dogmatic religious belief systems while at the same time trying to wave the banner of “open-minded free thought”. Take the whole “elevatorgate” incident involving Rebecca Watson. As soon as she received criticism from Richard Dawkins to many that made her some manner of heretic and her response provoked further outrage. The wise man had spoken, she should have shut up seemed to be the feeling of many.
It’s amusing and sad that the New Atheist movement has chosen to ape many of the features of the religions it claims to reject. It has it’s holy figures in the form of Dawkins and Hitchens notably. Look at the outpouring of grief around Hitchens’ death, some of it taking the form of nigh-iconic drawings of him. Like this one.
That is a lovely halo effect going on there.
You also have the veneration of “impartial” science over all else with a rabid refusal to even contemplate that perhaps power does inform knowledge and that the likes of Foucault or Irigaray may be right when they discuss how it is the dominant power structure which dictates the sort of scientific knowledge is important or valid and thus impartiality is, to some degree, a myth. Only instead of using terms like “blasphemy” or “heresy” to rebuke contrary views the New Atheist movement and it’s true believers will chastise you for your “moral relativism”. Now I know this assessment will be denied by many Atheists given that I haven’t presented an empirical study in a proper journal and it’s only based on real life experiences dealing with New Atheists in a variety of arenas. And we all know actual real-life experience is worthless as it is mere “anecdotal evidence”…
C.D.V.: Why do you think New Atheism takes two forms of liberalism (center-left liberalism a la British Labour Party, or American style libertarianism) as the dominant political modes? Often the binary is posited as if these positions are the only viable positions and all others are either religious outright or crypto-religious (such as Hitchen’s writings on his early Trotskyism).
D.P.: I honestly have no idea. I find the libertarian position especially confusing given that there is actual statistical evidence that shows that state involvement in the economy is beneficial in terms of unemployment and overall standard of living. I guess it ties into how many in the New Atheist movement have developed their own articles of faith that can never be questioned despite the claims of making judgements based on empirical evidence.
I would guess that some of it stems from an entrenched adoration of the Enlightenment period and it’s heavily atomistic view of the individual. Whenever there is any discussion of philosophy amongst the New Atheists/ Skeptics I know it always seems to stall out at Hume, Mill, Paine, Locke etc. which makes sense given the aforementioned veneration of Science and the Scientific Method as the “one true path to knowledge”. So it would make sense that their political models would be similarly entrenched in the concepts of the primacy of the individual. To get all anecdotal again I know one person who started reading Heidegger and there was some trepidation expressed by her fellow New Atheists. It was felt that his philosophy was adequately “scientific”, although the links to Nazism were not really important. She defended her interest in non-Empiricist philosophy by stating “I do believe an objective universe exists out there, but I also get really frustrated with people in the skeptical community who seem to really not want to acknowledge how subjective personal experience/thought/memory/language/etc is.” which I see as being a great response. Although it is puzzling that a defense had to be proffered at all.Another factor that I think might play a role in this libertarian streak is the background of many in the New Atheist/ Skeptic camp in “geek” culture notably fanstasy and science fiction. These genres do tend to focus on the deeds of the “Great Man” and how important they are, again advocating the primacy of the individual. So I can see how that might lead to a similar outlook in life. There was a discussion I got into on a D&D board about 10 years ago about the inherent right-wing bias in most RPGs where issues of the actions of the exceptional individual were touched upon as well as the issue of non-relative/absolute morality as expressed in the alignment system. Comics also play into this in my opinion, especially with the rise of the heavily individualistic “gritty anti-hero” figure in the 80s and 90s. I can see how someone who grew up with the message that “great” individuals can and should set their own rules and act as agents of true morality and justice might lead someone into developing a quasi-Nietzschean/ Randian philosophical underpinning.
I can only assume in the case of the center-left liberalism that it’s because it’s a pretty easy position to maintain and doesn’t really rock the boat at all or call for wholesale and massive systemic changes, while still running contrary to the conservative philosophy of most religious people and displaying some basic laudable humanistic concerns. Again pointing to how poor a motivating or unifying force simple disbelief is. Expecting libertarians to co-exist with soft left liberals in some sort of big tent group solely because of a shared disbelief is nonsensical as developments with the Atheist Plus movement show us. And this is a split more inevitable than the numerous splits amongst the far Left and based far more on very real differences of belief. Obviously I’m pretty comfortable with this sort of position amongst New Atheists as it’s fairly close to my own wishy-washy Democratic-Socialist beliefs although I would like it better if they were a little more opposed to capitalism as a whole and not just its more egregious offenses.
C.D.V.: Why was a particularly mild form of feminism the launching point for the split?
D.P.: Again for that I would point to the background of many New Atheists in “geek” culture which is not and has never been particularly enlightened or egalitarian when it comes to women’s issues and is somewhat deservedly noted for a fair amount of social awkwardness. Making it worse is the self-image of enlightened thought that many have so as soon as the slightest criticism comes down it provokes a shit-storm response because it is seen as an attack on the very most central element of their self-concept. It’s being pointed out that they are not the enlightened noble intellectual who is above the base masses so when it gets pointed out that they are little better than the stereotypical construction worker shouting “Hey baby!” and that goes over poorly. Add to this a certain amount of that libertarian value system that feels “personal freedom” is somehow imperiled by any sort of feminism that seems to run in the NA community to this generally poor track record in dealing with women and let simmer.
That’s a big part of why you see the same figures who were at one point lauded for their actions when they were proposing their “Boobquake” now being vilified for being “feminazis” because they expressed a desire to not be hit on in isolated places (like elevators at 3 in the morning) or because they would like to see the most rudimentary of harassment policies in place at conventions and the like. They’re heroines when it’s letting the boys see some skin but when it’s time to curb the neck-licking and crude come-ons suddenly they are evil incarnate. Again it ties into the lionizing of the individual, in this case it takes the form of “I want to act like a pig and those mean ol’ feminists are telling me not to so I’m a victim.” Let’s not forget this is a community where the fairly banal suggestion “don’t be a dick” was seen as an attack on the honest and free expression of thought and was actually controversial. Honestly I see more responsibility for actions taken by my 4 year old than I do from some New Atheists.
C.D.V.: This brings me to what I see as a failing of Atheism Plus, it does not actually articulate its ideology and instead tries to wrap left liberal politics in the guise of an identity: the atheist identity, which is posited as developing like that of religious minorities or homosexuals. Do you see any significant failings politically in this approach?
D.P.: Well I do think they will run into huge difficulties being taken seriously as an actual identity worthy of recognition. There’s obviously a world of difference between being gay or black and being an atheist. As for religious identities often there is a racial/ethnic component attached to them that is part and parcel of the identity and keep people in that identity regardless of their actual belief system. For example I was arguing with one Atheist (that is to say a part of the New Atheist community) about, well everything I’ve brought up so far. He was trying to argue that Islamophobia had no racist component to it at all if I recall correctly and claimed that one couldn’t experience anti-Semitism if one was not a practicing Jew. So I guess the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 never existed and no-one ever wound up in a death camp who was labeled as Jewish yet was not a practicing Jew. This same sort of religious identity existing outside of actual religious practice is also something I have also seen firsthand amongst the Catholic/ Protestant divides in the UK, well Northern Ireland anyways. Given that atheism lacks the sort of history that leads to these identities existing I cannot see the attempt to create an Atheist identity succeeding anymore than I can see an attempt to create a LaRouche Democrat identity that is viewed with any sort of validity. Not being seen as an atheist is a simple matter of saying “God? Yeah he’s cool”. Other groups don’t get that luxury even when their identity is supposedly a matter of belief.
C.D.V.: So what do you think the Atheism Plus movement is masking in response to divisions with the New Atheists? Furthermore, why do you think they are afraid of prior militant atheism even if they argue some of the same positions or even slightly more radical ones?
D.P.: If by “masking” you mean what are they trying to gloss over in order to set themselves apart from New Atheism the most notable factor would have to be the continued advocacy, or at least tolerance, of neo-conservative politics of hegemony and extant power structures found in Capitalism. As you pointed out Atheism Plus has by and large adopted the politics of the liberal left and can even be considered progressive in terms of their outlook in terms of social and domestic issues. When it comes to foreign policy politics or the political underpinnings of society as a whole though there is often no critique of neo-conservative policies or Capitalism as a system. Specific outrages, like Abu Ghraib or abuses by banks, might be condemned but the overall policies that lead to these situations go by and large ignored or accepted, if not endorsed. It’s not really that surprising mind you given that two of the idols of the liberal left are Clinton and Obama both of whom were and are staunch advocates of neo-con policies and certainly nothing close to being the “socialists” their foes have claimed them to be. Certainly with a quick perusal of the Atheism Plus forums you see scant attention paid to foreign policy or economic issues while social and lifestyle issues get considerably more mention. This in spite of the professed desire of the likes of PZ Meyers to apply “Skepticism and the scientific method… within even fields that are routinely disparaged by skeptics, like sociology and economics.”
I don’t know if the proponents of Atheism Plus really are afraid of the previous school of militant atheism so much as they have started to realize that they do have some major disagreements and differences with many in that group, notably seen in the fallout from both Plait’s “don’t be a dick” speech and from Watson’s “elevatorgate”. Such a split was, as I posited earlier, pretty much inevitable. I suppose it could be argued that they are merely a happy progressive face slapped on the same old Atheism. Certainly at times it seems like it is for the most part the assessment of simple identity/lifestyle politics from a liberal left position with an adding of non-belief and continue in the “objectivity and science shall set you free” mindset. But if Atheism Plus can lead people to focus more on issues beyond a non-belief in a god, get over their “empiricism or gtfo” attitude and possibly even start to apply their critical assessments to more than identity and lifestyle politics that would be great. Although I do love the arguments over whether the word “stupid” is “able-ist”. Riveting stuff that.
C.D.V.: Let’s shift out to a larger focus: The Skeptic’s Movement as a whole. Recently, I was listening to the Skeptoid podcast and the host listened Penn and Teller as the number one celebrity in science. This hit me given that I remembered Penn Juliette once saying at a skeptic’s conference: “No education is better than a government education.” But what hit me even more was the number of celebrities that claimed that “science” is the “only method of thinking that had any kind of check against bias” which is fundamentally false. What do you think is going with this rather a-scientific view of science itself?
D.P.: You mean why does there seem to always be a subtext to every discussion of science with Skeptics? A subtext that goes something like “Allow yourself to be engulfed by the Purifying Blue Flame of Science’s Great Bunsen Burner of Reason! For it shall burn away all your subjectivity and leave you Enlightened and seeing the Truth! Hallelujah!”? I know it’s a pretty flippant answer but I see Science as Skepticism’s holy of holies and any criticism or questioning of Science (as opposed to science) and it’s actual objectivity is essentially blasphemy. It’s ironic given the supposed value placed on critical thinking and assessment but Science and the belief in complete Scientific Objectivity is the religion of Skepticism and can never be assailed. It could be that it’s an over-reaction to writers like John Ralston Saul, Code, Foucault (again) and the like. Certainly books like Voltaire’s Bastards seems to get their metaphorical undies all bunched up as do the numerous post-modernist and feminist discussions on the role social forces play in shaping our perceptions and values about knowledge.
D.P.:The inability/unwillingness to define “reason” etc is pretty funny considering when pop criticisms of this “cult of reason” (like Voltaire’s Bastard, I’m Canadian and in my 40s, the book was a bit of a popular phenomenon here in the 90s) get criticized one of the common critiques takes forms like “one searches in vain — not only in the introductory chapter, but throughout the entire book — for an unambiguous explanation of the term defining his central thesis.” (as Pat Duffy Hutcheon said of Saul’s book). So if you are using “reason” in a positive sense you can be as vague as you want but if being critical you have to provide a painfully specific definition, otherwise you’re being obscurant. Funny, but not unexpected given the notable and documented human tendency to be more critical in their assessment of positions they already disagree with while not applying the same rigorous standards to positions they like.
As for where this hostility towards the humanities and philosophy come from I think it might have some of its origins in the all too common “hard vs soft” science divide found in academe but certainly it now seems very ideological. Going back to the friend who had her New Atheist/ Skeptic friends expressing surprise over her reading of Heidegger, at least one of them had an academic background in Philosophy. And a cursory look at the friends (and friends of friends) who are a part of this community shows the same sort of backgrounds. Many have no academic background in the “hard” sciences yet they readily join in this elevation of the concept of “objective science”, so obviously it has gone beyond simply the general academic rivalry and become an ideological tenet of this group that the sort of epistemology found in the “hard” sciences and mathematics is superior to that found in the “soft” sciences. And funnily enough it often seems like the ones who do have a definite “hard” science background are more willing to accept, or at least consider, criticisms of scientific objectivity beyond vulgar interpretations of Popper. Probably just a case of their being more notable though, I can think of a few who exemplify the “hard” science bias who do have a background in that area.
As an aside in some cases I do wonder how much of the humanities backgrounds, along the lines of Harris’ in Philosophy, are dilettantish endeavors undertaken in order to become the sort of “well-rounded” expert figure that Voltaire lionized. Certainly many seem to like to restrict their philosophical reading to Empiricists and Logical Postivists, seldom straying far from those who might question scientific objectivity. Nothing against dilettantes mind you, I generally consider myself to be one. It’s just when that confuses some basic knowledge with expertise you run the risk of developing the sort of “arrogance and ignorance” that Popper saw in some of the Atheist community.
There’s no question as to how much of the “I fucking love Science” mentality is down to dilettantish dabbling though. A lot of it.
C.D.V.: What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values. What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values.
D.P.I think that basically Socialists can’t view someone’s status as a “Skeptic” as at all relevant in determining what form any interaction takes. I think that’s an all too common error made by some in cases where they decide there must be some sort of kinship based on not believing in a god or a professed desire for critical analyses. To me there needs to be more than that. To me it’s more important where they stand politically and doing an inventory on areas of agreement vs areas of difference and evaluating whether those differences outweigh the areas of agreement.
Take Penn Jillette, are Socialists to see themselves in solidarity with someone who is an unabashed advocate for unbridled Capitalism who is just as home on the Glenn Beck show as anywhere else? Or in the case of Hitchens, while he may have claimed to still be a Socialist the fact is that he became an apologist for neo-Conservative politics and acted as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration’s policies in both the Middle East and domestically (when he proclaimed bin Laden to be a greater threat to freedom in America than then AG John Ashcroft). Or Harris with his supporting the concept of “preemptive retaliatory strikes” against Iran should that nation ever acquire nuclear weapons. It’s great that they don’t believe in a god and what have you but those differences are far too great in my opinion to overcome. It’s like expecting Socialists to work with the Far Right anti-Capitalists and not take into account the issue that many of them are, for want of a better way to phrase it, Nazis or at least pretty racist and/or Fascistic. Or expecting Anarchists from the Bakunin/ Kropotkin school to align themselves with “An-Caps” because both don’t like hierarchical power structures. I suppose the more Libertarian Skeptics could be worked with on an issue by issue basis but to expect them to ever be in any sort of real accord with Socialists because of a shared disbelief is unrealistic.
The same holds true for the more left-liberal Skeptics as well, although there are probably more issues there that I can see co-operation on. Even so they tend to get bogged down in issues of identity politics and semantics from a fairly mainstream liberal position, at the expense of considering issues of dismantling Capitalism, to ever really be in accord with Socialists. Particularly in terms of dealing with the more Marxist elements of Socialism. I think the adage of “morality has no place in politics” might strike them as being too close to the “Empiricism or gtfo” attitude (as one friend who leans towards the Atheism Plus school describes it) that they take issue with from their fellow Skeptics and that their focus on things like combating ableism would probably drive many Marxists bat-shit crazy.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
D.P.: Nothing much really, we’ve covered most of the bases as to how I feel about the New Atheist/ Skeptic community. In general I had and have high hopes for it and think it’s great if we can see the influence of religion and superstition lessened in the world. I just think that it tries to tie too many disparate points of view and outlooks to ever succeed as a movement in it’s own right. And I also find that in spite of the professed desire for critical analysis and constant questioning the NA/ Skeptic community tends to refuse to apply those same standards to itself as we saw with the veritable shit-storm that arose when the most mild of criticisms was made from within. In that regard it mirrors the worst quality of many movements, including ones on the Left, that being a tendency to cleave too strongly to a set core of beliefs with nigh-religious zeal and not allow any questioning of those beliefs. It’s just that with the professed advocacy of free thought in the NA/ Skeptic movement such dogmatic adherence to beliefs comes off as disappointingly hypocritical.
The quest to protect nature from wanton abuse, degradation and irreversible ecological crises bears in its integral moment an affinity with the structure of religion. Freud has shown us that man is capable of religion only inasmuch as he is capable of neurosis, and, now, it only remains to be seen how far the environmental escathon distinguishes itself from the daedal ceremonies and archaisms of neurosis to pronounce it a faithful servant to human necessity. The difference between neuroses and religion, for Freud, lies in a specific quality of the response that the subject enunciates in his experience of reality. For Freud, this reality can be extricated from its oedipal constitution only under the aegis of the god Logos, or science, “…not an altogether mighty…” god, who the man without illusions must still listen to, resigning himself to the service of necessity, or the goddess Ananke. In the standoff between environmentalism as neurosis and environmentalism as religion a certain definition of reality shorn of its illusionary potential is the threshold of coherence for the analyst.
On the side of reality, in the Freudian topography, are Logos and Ananke the go[a]ds of the disillusioned and on the side of the neurosis are the archaisms of Eros and Thanatos marked by the tendency for a pleasure-seeking-unto-death; although it is Eros that impels men to action it is only under the gaze of Thanatos that these actions come to bear their allegiance to Ananke, overcoming the ruses of infantile desire. The triangulation between the desire for survival, the stratagems of this desire for survival and the more realistic optimism which emerges in response to the renewed understanding of reality become the definitional criteria which situate environmentalism in the field of human desire as understood by the psychoanalyst. After enumerating the facts of discourse that constitute the sphere of environmental activism under these three criteria we must analyse them by reading them against the state of scientific understanding, the relation of their strategies in response to this understanding and the degree of their optimism in light of their strategy. It is evident that this reading will only serve to guide the analytical reconstruction of the environmentalist’s psychisms or, an archaeology of the desire for conservation if you will, and a synthetic, or prescriptive, teleology is beyond the scope of a psychoanalytical reading.
Mauryan Environmentalism: Forest Conservation and Divine Edict
Man’s attitude towards nature has been through a long historical evolution, and different epochs can be seen to manifest peculiar psychisms in their artefacts and the historical records that they have left. The Mauryan Empire of ancient India, for instance, is marked for its geopolitical administrative policy of considering forest dwellers bestial opponents to be fought off their borders. This fact however gains more than a political temper when we consider that forests as such were necessary to the survival of the Mauryan economy: forest produce was vital to the livelihood of the Mauryans and they developed elaborate criteria of categorisation for types of forest in relation to what might be obtained from them. Accordingly, the need for a class of forest dwellers who would safeguard the interests of the Janapada, an administrative unit of the Mauryan Empire, becomes apparent: the difference between these dwellers and the natives was that the former were legitimised by the crown to dispossess the latter. The attitude of conserving the forests was equivalent with extrication of the bestial natives dwelling in it; economy and politics became entwined in a categorical response to the desire for exclusive rights over forest produce. In this way, in the 3rd Century pastoralists came to become a caste divorced from their beginning in a class that served the needs of empire. The installation of a legitimate caste however did not happen removed from a process of making outcastes of those who resisted the power of empire: violence remained political while also becoming eschatological, in the conflict between good and bad, caste and outcaste. The horror of the violence at Kalinga famously moved Emperor Aśoka to renounce warfare on the condition that his writ would hold even on those traditionally excluded from the caste of pastoralists.
“Even when he is wronged, the Beloved of the Gods believes one must exercise patience as far as it is possible to exercise. As far as the Forest (tribes) which are in his Empire are concerned, the Beloved of the God conciliates them too and preaches them. They are even told that they repent and do not kill anymore”.
-Emperor Aśoka’s Rock Edict XIII, (Kapur, Nandini, S. 2011).
Inasmuch as political power and economic necessity colluded in the creation of the Aśokan notion of those beloved of the Gods under his aegis his edict is both scientific in its objective scope for limiting the possibilities of life for his subjects and eschatological in alluding to a peace sustained by obedience to necessity. Aśoka, here, becomes the Oedipalising axis of the response to reality which the Mauryan Empire institutes backwards into the historical necessity written over their current predicament—the desire to maintain a peaceful mutuality with bestial natives. This compromise allows Aśokan sovereignty to become both a promise of mature genitality with respect to the power of those chosen by the Gods to be pastoralists, to enjoy their god given right over the forest, and a reassurance against the hostility of the forest dwellers who can also look for conciliation in surrender to his power and that of his higher caste subjects.
The father accepts the hostility of the children who rival their stronger, god-chosen, pastoralist brothers only so long as it is sublimated under the threat of his vengeance; the flow of power through the pastoralists’ militias is also the flow of benediction that attaches itself to restraint shown in consuming forest produce. The orality of the pastoralists’ caste derives from an introjection of Aśoka’s edict, a cannibalistic ingestion of power which runs down among the brotherhood of the sovereign’s subjects. Possessed of this power they in turn can subordinate the forest dwellers in a sweeping gesture of kindness, buttressed by the kindness of the sundering sword of Law. This situation of the sovereign’s subjects however necessitates the preservation of forests for two strategic purposes: maintaining peace with the tribals, but also maintaining a source of revenue for themselves and their Emperor. A double benediction of eschatologically inscribed peace and strategically sustained revenue become, here, the poles of Eros and Logos as they regulate the actions of subjects under the sign of death—in resistance to the sovereign, or Thanatos. The right to violence is maintained in the Emperor’s edict—this is the figure of Ananke.
Reality is the response of desire to necessity; environmentalism in the Aśokan Empire is a neurotic ceremonial sustained by the fear of violence, but for its neuroticism it is still a profitable identification with the legitimate figure of violence in that it allows the pastoralists and their militias to perpetrate violence top-down while upholding the conditions for peace which the edict has now enshrined as a guarantee against excess and arbitrary violence. They can plunder the forests so long as they are chosen of the gods to conciliate with the bestial tribes under the threat of divine retribution. Without this possibility for extending violence unto bestial populations destitute of the gods’ choice, the vestigial tribals, the preservation of forests becomes tied to a merely functional need for revenue. So, this was not necessarily an irreversible or self sufficient attitude towards conservation of forests and soon enough the expansion of agriculture had lessened the need for forests as a source of revenue. This would go on to show the libidinal compromise in conserving forests on part of the Mauryan Empire rested precariously on the need for regulated consumption against the risk of violent clashes with natives for which the Emperor had developed a distaste.
The squeamishness of the Emperor is the only thing that kept forests from being appropriated without the invocation of a higher sanction, an axis of alterity that legitimated the monopoly of violence retained in the Emperor, who now stood sobered by his own capacity for violence. Accordingly, he prohibited the burning of forests for a purpose other than strictly economic. The gap between the explicit policy of peace and the implicit need for violence to maintain the conditions of peace expose the restraint shown in the appropriation of forests to be a ritual of sublimation running in both directions. From the Emperor towards the pastoral caste under condition of not harassing the tribals without provocation and from the tribals towards the Emperor in not engendering the need for violence enshrined and adequately distanced from immediate reflection in the edict and its supernal invocation of the will of the gods. In this analysis the environmental attitude of the Mauryan Empire stands revealed as a neurotic ritual that allows necessity to be interpreted in accordance with desire [Eros]; this reinterpretation [Logos] however places demands on reality itself [Ananke], whereby the original intention of the Emperor is modified and tempered to suit the newly emergent reality of a sublimated, regressed demand for moderation in consumption.
To Be Continued…
 Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Savage, Denis. “Book II. Analytic. What is Reality?” Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd. 2008.
Print. P. 324- 38.
 Ibid. P. 326-7.
 Parasher-Sen, Aloka. Kapur, Nandini, S. Ed. “Of Tribes, Hunters and Barbarians”. Environmental History of Early India: A Reader. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print. P.
C. Derick Varn: Marxian notions of science are characterized in two incompatible ways: I have heard Marxists and Marx being accused of proto-postmodern relativism and absolute social constructivism, and conversely as positivistic and crudely deterministic. Do both of these characterizations misunderstand something fundamental about Marx and Marxist-influenced epistemology?
Ben Campbell: In discussing Marxism’s relation to science, it is important to note that there is no one “Marxism”. Rather, it must be understood that Marxism frayed into several strands, particularly after Marx and Engels’ death, and especially after the political failures of the early twentieth century. One of the many areas in which this great divergence of Marxisms can be seen is in their relation to science.
The coherence of Marxism rests upon an attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic. What exactly is meant by such a synthesis has been a subject of great debate. A particularly problematic character in this debate has been Lenin. Lenin’s philosophy, as expressed mainly in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks, is quite ambiguous and perhaps contradictory—he seems never quite able to resolve the synthesis between the Hegelian dialectic and materialism. At Lenin’s worst, his philosophy reduces to a “reflection theory”, and what Axelrod called “naive realism”. At his best, Lenin wrestles with the attempt to “apply dialectics to… the process and development of knowledge”, but the issue was never really resolved in his writings. Due to the eventual canonization of these problematic texts, these ambiguities would lead to great disputes in Soviet Marxism, and consequently in Marxism more generally, ranging widely from the metaphysical to the positivistic. Eventually, Soviet “dialectical materialism” would largely be reduced to mechanistic materialism, with the “dialectic” a mere superficial stylistic ornament, the ambiguity of which could be deployed for political purposes. Partially in response, much of the academic work of “Western Marxism” moved in the other direction, abdicating claims to the natural sciences, eventually leading to what you call “proto-postmodern relativism.”
So yes, various “Marxisms” can be accused of suffering from one or the other of these shortcomings, but these must be seen as symptoms of the degeneration of Marxism as a coherent whole. And from a Marxist perspective, this intellectual fragmentation is inseparable from the political failure of Marxism, and the continuation of capitalism with its extreme divisions of intellectual labor. Marxism, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels, was meant to be a coherent Weltanschauung capable of transcending this divide. While one could argue that there have been some Marxists who have demonstrated the potential of such an aspiration, I do not think that Marxism has ever reached this aspired level of coherence.
Thus it seems necessary to return to Marx and Engels themselves, and ask if there may have been something faulty in their project—perhaps the attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic is ultimately unstable? Did Marx and Engels themselves even have a clear sense of Marxism’s relation to natural science? Here, many authors have attempted to stress a fundamental distinction between Marx and Engels, for the implicit purpose of saving Marx from some of the ostensibly “positivist” or “metaphysical” elements introduced into “dialectical materialism” by Engels (note the opposite charges). While there are certainly differences between the two thinkers, their correspondence indicates that these are mainly differences in emphasis rather than fundamental differences in outlook.
So what was Marx and Engels’ orientation to natural science? Certainly it is not as explicitly identified or consistent as we might like. The question of what a materialist dialectic exactly means is one that strikes to heart of Marxism’s relation to science, and epistemology. And it is a question that has never really been answered, even in the writings of Marx and Engels. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, for as Engels would write in Anti-Duhring, dialectics “is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought”, and in Dialectics of Nature, “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”
Thus instead of looking to Marx and Engels to discover what they really meant by this synthesis, perhaps it is more useful to look to scientific developments for insight.
C.D.V.: What does a Marxian theory of science look like in specific terms?
B.C.: There are really two approaches to this question. The first is a meta-scientific response that addresses the question as one of the theory, practice, philosophy, and history of science. What does Marxism tell us about science and how it is practiced in capitalist society? In this sense, it is worth considering the Hegelian dialectic and its advancement through the resolution of contradictions. There is some similarity here to Karl Popper’s famous view of science proceeding by falsification, with the obvious irony that Popper was a strident anti-Hegelian. The difference is that a Hegelian conception of science anticipates the criticisms that would be leveled at Popper, such as “confirmation holism”, and historicizes this notion of scientific progress. Interestingly, Popper’s most famous epigone, Imre Lakatos was an ex-Marxist émigré from Stalinist Hungary, were he was schooled in Hegelian Marxism — at times directly from György Lukács. Based partially on this background, but more importantly on the themes of his philosophy of science, the author John Kadvany has referred to Lakatos as a “philosophical mole”, and a “covert Hegelian taking the Popperian castle by storm”. But regardless of Lakatos’ intentions (was he really trying to Hegelianize Popper?) we can see in Lakatos something resembling a Hegelian philosophy of science.
As for a Marxist philosophy of science, it would have to synthesize such Hegelian notions of scientific progress with the recognition that scientific consciousness, while ultimately empirically constrained, is shaped by social being—and in capitalist society that is by the reproduction of capital and the scientific labor process. Thus, if you were to synthesize a philosopher like Lakatos with “externalist” accounts characteristic of the best of sociology of science, then you’re starting to get at a Marxian philosophy of science.
Now, speaking of “philosophy of science”, there is a tendency in the West to separate philosophy from science, such that “philosophy of science” studies how science progresses as an institution, but it doesn’t have much to say about scientific theories or nature—that is, it is a study of form, rather than content. This view has been encouraged, by what are seen as the historic failures of Soviet science, which are often seen as a blanket condemnation of philosophical and political interference in science. This rather simplistic portrayal is unfortunate. As Engels once said:
“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves precisely to the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies… It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.”
Scientists always use philosophy to inform theory, whether they realize it or not. The very act of induction implies metaphysical speculations about the way the world is. Thus, the second response to this question, which is in my opinion more interesting, involves looking to contemporary science to inform philosophy, and vice versa.
If we return to Hegel, I should point out that he was deeply influenced by the Naturphilosophie of his day, and his thinking was really an attempt to develop an organic conception of the world. Indeed, as Frederick Beiser puts it, the purpose of The Science of Logic was to develop a “logic of life”. While some of Hegel’s scientific errors have been notorious, the central vision of the logic of life expressed by Hegel stands up remarkably well. That is, that life itself is a process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representation of it. That is, we can see in Hegel an attempt to answer the question later posed by Erwin Schrödinger: What is Life?
In answering this question from a biological perspective, there is a long tradition viewing life as a homeostatic process. Sometimes this perspective has been dominant, at other times less so. You can see it from early experimentalists like Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby. In this general view, life is envisioned as a process of regulating an internal environment against the ongoing threat of entropy. “Cybernetics”, coined by Wiener, comes from the Greek for “steersman”, emphasizing life as a perilous process of navigation. And as Ashby would note, the process of regulating a system requires the “modeling” of that system. Thus, life is seen as a process of organism modeling its environment. Or, as I said earlier, this is a view of life as a “process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representations of it”. Thus, there are long-standing conceptions of life that are ‘dialectical’, quite different than much of the popular molecular biological reductionism.
This conception of a materialist dialectic is perhaps most interesting in the cognitive sciences. In his own day Hegel critiqued Kant, who was himself responding to the threat posed by empiricism. To simplify greatly, this general progression can be seen from behaviorism, to the “cognitive revolution”, to today’s increasingly dialectical conception of the brain. That is, the cognitive science of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the study of “forms of thought” in response to the limits of naive empiricism. Hegel praised Kant for a similar maneuver, but went further, arguing that the forms of thought must critique themselves, and thus become dynamic. And likewise, the contemporary conception of the brain has moved from one of a more passive filter to an active conception usually termed “Bayesian”.
Thus, while few contemporary biologists would recognize it as such, contemporary biology is increasingly a vindication of Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the subject-object relation, and hence Marx’s materialist dialectic. Does that mean that today’s science is, in a way, Marxian? No. Marxism is more than just the materialist dialectic. A Marxist scientific practice would be one whose subjects were conscious of that dialectic, both in its natural and social forms. Today’s science, greatly atomized and lacking in coherence, is a long way from that.
C.D.V. Could you expand on this notion of the “increasingly dialectical conception of the brain”?
B.C.: Well, let’s start with a behaviorist conception of the brain as a model learning the statistical relation between sensory inputs and motor responses, a view taken to its logical extreme in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. What was known as the “cognitive revolution” was very much a reaction to the limits of such a conception, with Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book somewhat of an opening salvo. From then on you begin to see in the “cognitive sciences” an increasing focus on mental forms, cognitive schemata, internal representations, etc. A particularly crude way of thinking about this is that there are a priori mental forms, into which external input is stored, with these forms often (but not always) taken as innate structures of the mind or brain.
However, as I mentioned earlier, to parallel all this work, there has been a trend in cybernetics and computational neuroscience looking at the relation between content and form. Some of this work started by asking the question: how would the brain efficiently store all of this information? And of course the most efficient forms are dependent on content, giving rise to conceptions in which the “forms of thought” themselves vary dynamically, a view developed by early information theory and cybernetics, but also in experimental neuroscience. And so, for example, you would see theoretically-heavy work arguing that the forms in which the visual cortex stores information depend dynamically on the spatial statistics of visual input.
Now, the interesting development in neuroscience came throughout the 1990s when this relation between form and content was increasingly considered temporally. This view of the brain, leaning an internal model of the temporal statistics of its inputs, is one of prediction—that is, that the cerebral cortex, far from just passively receiving incoming input, is actively predicting that input. This has given rise to a contemporary conception of the brain (usually called “Bayesian”) that emphasizes the central importance of contradiction. That is, the brain is constantly predicting its input, and updating its internal model when these predictions are contradicted. And this contemporary view, as emphasized by theorists like Karl Friston, relates back to the earlier homeostatic views of cyberneticists.
Contemporary scientists wouldn’t go near the word “dialectics”, but I cannot think of a better word for this emerging conception of the brain, and indeed life. The characteristic features of a “dialectical” understanding—contradiction, internal relations, emphasis on “the totality”—all find their parallel within contemporary neuroscience. And so in this view, as I said earlier “life is a dialectical process driven by the resolution of contradiction between the environment and the subject’s representation of it.”
Importantly, however, this is not merely a passive question of ‘modeling’. In speaking of the importance of the brain the neurophysiologist Rudolfo Llinás often references the tunicate, or “sea squirt”. Sea squirts begin their life as tadpoles using a primitive nervous system to navigate along the ocean floor looking for a suitable place to live. When it finds such a location, the sea squirt implants itself, to live its adult life as a filter feeder. It then proceeds to digest its primitive brain. The lesson here is that the brain is an organ tied to movement; an animal that does not move has little use for a brain. Thus, in talking of a dialectical conception of the brain, it is necessarily an active interaction of subject and object—or to paraphrase the most famous of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach: the purpose of the brain is not to interpret the world, but to change it!
C.D.V.: What do you think are the key differences between Marx and Engels on science?
B.C.: I am not convinced that there are key differences. Certainly, Marx wrote much less on natural science than Engels, but it seems that this was merely the result of Marx’s deference to Engels on the topic, not a fundamental disagreement between the two. While I am not a Marxologist, I have not seen any evidence of such disagreement. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many Marxists from asserting a fundamental difference between the two, with the seeming misstep of the “dialectics of nature” pinned on Engels. As I stated earlier, these criticisms have come from two opposite directions! On one hand, Engels has been blamed for introducing metaphysical speculation reminiscent of Naturphilosophie into materialism, while on the other hand he is accused of reducing Marx’s humanism to a vulgar mechanical materialism. The fact that Engels can be attacked from two different directions indicates the fundamental tension that exists in Marxism’s attempted synthesis of Hegelian philosophy and materialism. As his problematic Dialectics of Nature demonstrates, Engels never seemed to quite resolve the problem—and thus neither did Marx. But both were interested in it, understood the general contours of it, and attempted to synthesize a Weltanschauung of “dialectical materialism” (although the term was coined by Dietzgen, and now seems inseparable from Stalinist orthodoxy).
Now, having said that, I cannot help but wonder if Marx would have avoided some of the unfortunate formulations and speculations contained in Engels’ scientific writings. In particular, Lukács in History and Class Consciousness is correct to claim that the “the interaction of subject and object” is lost in many of Engels’ metaphysical speculations. It seems incorrect, however, for Lukács to claim that these “crucial determinants of dialectics” are “absent from our knowledge of nature”. They are abundantly present in biology, which is unsurprising, since Hegel was so influenced by an organic view of nature.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent turn of a lot of technocratically center liberals towards both neurology and evolutionary psychology to underpin their political instincts?
B.C.: Well, science has a reputation as a neutral arbiter of truth, and as such it is unsurprising that “scientific” claims are frequently enlisted as ideology in support of those with power, which exists today as capital in its manifestation as neoliberalism. One could go back many decades, of course, to see science used as ideology in previous phases of capital accumulation, such as various racist theories in the heyday of imperialism, and even the advocation of eugenics against the working class in the august pages of Nature. Of course, liberals now look back at this “science” in horror, as though it marks mere scientific misconduct or bad practice, while from a Marxist perspective it is entirely expected. Marxism is unique in its understanding of science, ascribing neither to a naive scientific empiricism, nor a postmodern relativism. It questions the ideological assumptions of science, particularly with respect to the requirements of capital, without denying the possibility of scientific truth.
The turn to neoliberalism has been accompanied by the ideology of the “free market” increasingly read into science, as a part of human nature. Evolutionary psychology is the most well-known example, itself somewhat of a rehash of the earlier sociobiology of the 1970s. In their most vulgar forms, these schools of thought attempt to explain nearly all features of human behavior as natural byproducts of human evolution. In this way, through Darwinian selection, people have been selected to maximize “fitness”. While fitness can be precisely defined in terms of reproduction, such controlled experiments are impossible in most cases. Thus, in the hands of an evolutionary psychologist fitness can be treated somewhat similarly to the neoclassical economic category of “value”—that is, in an entirely circular manner. Why do people do things? Because they increase fitness. What increases fitness? Why, whatever people do! By this type of armchair reasoning, evolutionary psychologists can deduce “just-so” stories to explain nearly all human behavior. Some are plausible explanations, for example that the common fear of snakes was adaptive for our primate ancestors. Others are less plausible. In a famous example, the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran wrote an evolutionary psychological response to the question “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” (“to enable them to detect the early signs of parasitic infestation and aging”). It was satirical, but some didn’t recognize it as such, giving some indication of the level of scholarship in this field. At any rate, seldom are evolutionary psychological explanations in any way testable.
While it is easy to laugh at the more absurd examples of evolutionary psychology, from a Marxist perspective it is far from humorous, as it serves as both a Panglossian justification for the status quo (one can always find an evolutionary explanation), and more specifically as “scientific” support for the ideology of neoliberalism, with its view of human nature as maximizing some utility function.
As I have mentioned, these debates are nothing new. Marxist-influenced biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould had ongoing disputes with sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson beginning in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this type of highly ideological science is today increasingly unchallenged. While there was a scientific element to both the Old Left and the New Left, today’s scientific Left is virtually nonexistent (or more optimistically, has yet to be born). One obstacle is the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the American Right, which for many scientists appears to have reinforced the identification of scientific values with liberalism, and at least postponed any critical scientific challenge to liberalism itself.
As a neuroscientist and a Marxist, some of the more troubling developments in recent years have been in the area of “neuroeconomics”. While much of the work carried out on human decision-making is quite valuable in challenging the assumptions of neoclassical economics, much of the work being conducted by “neuroeconomists” is heavily ideological, driven by a desire to synthesize neoclassical microeconomics and neuroscientific theory. And so the human brain is increasingly viewed through the lens of neoclassical theory, with the ventral tegmental area correlating with utility—dopamine as value drug. And so today, an increasing number of neuroscientists (well-intentioned people, indeed my colleagues and my former self) speak of the human brain as maximizing value, endeavor to measure value and reward with functional MRI experiments (often played for money), and elucidate our contemporary notion of “human nature” through this framework.
Now, from a Marxist perspective it is important to note that this heavily ideological science is not entirely wrong. Marx did not just dismiss his predecessors in political economy because their theories were ideological. Rather, he recognized fundamental insight in their work and went on to develop a critique from that work. Similarly must a Marxist approach both the later developments in economics, and the type of science derived from its assumptions.
I do not dispute that the functioning of the brain can be read in a manner broadly consistent with the notion of maximizing utility. But just as there are different coordinate systems for the same geometry, so are there different interpretations of the same brain activity. Why is brain and behavior so commonly interpreted as “maximizing utility”, when it could be equally interpreted as “minimizing disutility”? Note how the trivial shift in wording leads to a significant shift in our view of “human nature”. The first interpretation points to the neoclassical homo economicus. The second leads back to the homeostatic—and dialectical—view mentioned earlier.
C.D.V.: Do you see this blurring of the lines between a highly philosophical (ideological) discipline like economics with neurology to be related to way most scientific endeavors are funded? Or do you think something else is going on? I noticed a lot of co-option of evolutionary language in economics since the 1970s and Hayek’s use of socio-biology underpinning of the market as a form of evolution, but it seems to have gone far deeper now and the reason for it eludes me.
B.C.: Well, the question of how capital influences the scientific “superstructure” is predictably difficult, especially science the large majority of scientific funding occurs via the state, and then through universities. So you’d need to get into some serious institutional analysis. It is for the most part not a question of vulgar causality, where corporate interests are directly funding science, such as in the age of tobacco research (although there are exceptions). Indeed, when one thinks of such conflicts today one thinks of climate scientists, whose conclusions, far from supporting capital, have been directly opposed by it (hence reinforcing the liberal notion of neutral science). So it is clearly not a situation of either extreme—of a neutral science “speaking truth to power”, nor of science as merely the ideology of capital. Unfortunately, the Marxist study of the history and practice of science is significantly underdeveloped, with the field of “Science and Technology Studies” really lacking a strong Marxist critique.
So, to speak only of the example given, neuroeconomics, I think there are two factors at work. The first is that economics, in order to address increasing criticism, has been forced into the field of psychology, in the form of behavioral economics. The second factor is that neuroscience, and biology in general, is a theory-poor field. This is largely the result of the intellectual fragmentation caused by the specialization of intellectual labor—a fragmentation that has increased substantially over the last few decades. This has led to a general decrease of coherence, with science increasingly reducing to a pastiche of theoretical forms—the science of late capitalism, in Fredric Jameson’s sense. And so just as economics is looking for support from psychology, neuroscience is largely looking for theory.
This trend is probably true more generally. With the decrease of coherent narrative, biology has been increasingly vulnerable to ideological interpretation—and it is certainly related to the decline and fragmentation of the Left.
C.D.V.: What do you think a concerned response to these trends might be by Marxian thinkers? Do you find Gould to be a particularly good example?
B.C.: There haven’t been many explicitly Marxist scientists in the West, at least not since the late 1930s and the disasters of Stalinist science (e.g. the purges of geneticists). There have been scientists that are Marxist-influenced, like Stephen Jay Gould, however this largely attests to the relative strength of Marxism academically in the post-War era. Back then simply receiving a broad pluralistic education would expose one to Marxist critiques and perhaps leave one sympathetic to them, but this is rather different than explicitly looking for connections between Marxism and science, as scientists and Marxists of previous generations had. In the case of Gould, it certainly made him much more skeptical of simplistic causal claims, particularly when they supported capitalist ideology, as well as emphasizing the role of contingency and historicism in nature.
While we could certainly use more scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (these days one can receive a broad pluralistic education without really learning about Marxism), I don’t think that this is sufficient. Scientists, and especially those who study science (e.g. sociology, history, and philosophy of science), really need to develop more of a structural critique of scientific institutions, ideology, and their relation to capital accumulation. And given the hitherto failure of the institutionalized study of science to do enough of this (e.g. Science and Technology Studies) it is likely that this will increasingly have to be done outside of the academy in collaboration with activists and journalists who are willing to engage with science dialectically—succumbing to neither the facile anti-scientific stances that have characterized some on the “left”, nor the uncritical championing of scientific empiricism. And this will be aided enormously with the participation of scientists engaged in an immanent critique of their own practices. The question of how to radicalize a new generation of scientists is interesting. I do not think it will happen to a great extent without a broader rebirth of the left and leftist critiques more generally. In my case it was the broader upsurge of leftish politicization of 2011, epitomized in the Occupy movement, that sparked my interest in the relation of science and capital. And I think that only rarely would scientists even consider these questions without them being raised by a broader left.