• critical philosophy redux


Critical philosophy (in the sense that criticism is based on judgment, interpretation, historical perspective, politics) mostly gets started with the Frankfort School and then developments in France in the 60s. It is a step beyond or to the side of philosophy in the sense that it takes culture and politics into consideration. I can't give you "the big picture" but don't worry. The little picture is that "cultural studies" in the past 20 years has led to several dead-ends: feminism, which has fizzled out for lack of any real intellectual unity; Delueze-Guattari and Foucault style critique, which was good in the beginning but then had little but metaphors to offer ("rhizome" would be a good example); and subaltern studies of post-Colonial situations, none of them coming up to the standard of Edward Said, in my view.


This has produced a university of academics trying to be hip by being "radical" without having the philosophy background or street creds to know how to do this, turning their courses into polemical/ideological exercises. Critical philosophy is now, in my view, to be found only in any productive sense in the Lacan-Žižek-Dolar-Zupančič-Santner chain that puts Hegel (and Kant) at the root of their studies. They go back and "correct" Frankfort school figures for having missed Hegel's radical nature about dialectic and the absolute. They also have a grasp on sexuation issues and free the issue from "gender studies." Sexuation has become mired in the binary signifier issue: "just" male or female, i.e. just a matter of gender. But, , there are a few trans people out there who have good heads on their shoulders and are pointing out that most feminist programs ignore the trans issues. This is not just give LGBT-G people a voice, but take their humanity issues back to Freud, who is the first to legitimize a more polyvalent idea of sexuation and relate it to subjectivity itself.


This is not just about sex. It is about how we think of subjects, and sexuation is inseparable from discourse theory. Without thinking about discourse (Lacan's "Symbolic") we cannot see how the human subject is defined in relation to its relations to others, or how biology ultimately relates to our spiritual aspects, i.e. our desires, our jouissance. So, LGBT is not just a matter of political rights or personal freedom, it is at the center of philosophical considerations, and Zizek seems to be the only one at the moment writing about this. I am going to stress this when I come to talk in March. Architecture academics of course have fucked this up royally by talking about the "rights of women" and building careers on getting more women deans. Well, anyone who has had one of these "women deans" realizes they are more enamored with the phallic rule than were any of the men.


Critical studies used to focus on cultural issues that involved finding some poor subgroup (women, blacks, immigrants, any minority) and "fighting for their rights/recognition." As Žižek said, these academics love their "client group" as long as they remain poor, abused, in need of help, etc. This can amount to nothing more than flag-waving, without the permission of the client groups to have some academic state their case for them. Critical studies in my view go back further than Hegel and Kant, to Vico, who was the FIRST to say that philosophy had to be done in relation to cultural-ethnographical situations. He was the FIRST to act on this and realize that knowledge depends radically on merger of philosophy (thinking about truth in the abstract) and philology/ethnology (thinking about things people make, culturally).


You can use critical philosophy informally to refer to "interpretive studies" but in my view interpretation gets off the hook by becoming little more than literary or art criticism. When I attacked interpretation in the seminar, it was to attack the practice of avoiding primary sources (intellectually) while appropriating materials out of context and thinking that weak relations and suppositions are satisfactory. 


Everyone/anyone can do critical philosophy by acknowledging the matter of mastery, the old Hegelian problem of the master-servant. Here, opposition, one master facing off against other masters, comes to an impasse, and that creates the (sublimated/occulted) condition of the servant. The structure of this goes into discourse (Lacan shows how) and all the other discourses are based on it. The Symbolic as such is inconsistent (i.e. binary signifiers just pretend to work) and depend on metonymic "work-arounds" which can be demonstrated in cultural institutions and even pop-culture practices. This is "reality," while fake cultural studies (subalterns, feminism, etc.) use binary signifiers to establish ideology rather than intellectual study.


Vico-Hegel-Lacan-Žižek (VHLZ) is my own roadmap, but ethnographies that go back to shamanism and taoism are interesting, too, just less conclusive. These are like the back-bone of any study. You are going to involve these issues, so you cannot take a cut-and-paste attitude towards them. Most academics do, saying that they "can't understand philosophy" or some shit like that. I am so down on academics these days!!! But who is studying things that make the world interesting (sex, humor, the uncanny, disguise, folly) — as far as I can tell ONLY the "VHLZ" group — Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič etc. are naturally included — are at all interested. 

Just to save time …


The critique of the binary signifier (= ideology), the coupling of sexuation and discourse (via the quadration of discourse following Aristotle's square of opposition), the "interrogation of the gap" between the reversed predications of the binary signifier, AND the idiotic method are all linked. You are doing a lot of good deeds when you take up any aspect of this issue and work your way towards the other elements.



• the idiotic study method


When one begins a journey into unknown territory, one is perforce a fool but also a hero. As a fool, all knowledge is rendered null and void by the fact that, although some places to be visited will seem familiar, nothing has been encountered before. Certainly, the traveler has no official status. S/he is an invader, pure and simple. In the latter role, the hero, the ancient literal sense dominates: the traveler travels as if a s/he were dead, a shade in search of a shadow-soul that will permit a final resit — Lacan’s “between the two deaths.” In ancient Greek, the word "hero" originally meant, simply, "a dead man."


When an unfamiliar territory (Lacanian theory) is added to a slightly-less-unfamiliar one (Vico), there can be no question of authoritative readings or conclusions. Error is unavoidable, misreading will be the norm not the exception. The traveler is by definition an idiot, “a private person,” who will have no status among the official residents. But, for the traveler, what residents regard as ordinary the traveler will regard with wonder — most of this generated out of the simple fact that it has not been encountered until this point.


Moving against not just the findings of authorities but the weight and rule of authority, the traveler-as-idiot can hope only one thing: to make use of error to discover that which is invisible to authority, namely exception. The traveler to any foreign land, it is well known, has an uncanny ability to put the finger on something that has been customarily suppressed because of its inconsistency, its refusal to abide within the chains of signifiers that define a culture. This ability of the fool to trump the insider expert should not be a point of pride. It is the talent of the idiot, but the idiot is still an idiot. The only difference is one of purity. Because masters have the freedom to chose between mastery and folly, it must be assumed that their choice was intentional or, if accidental, at least recognized retroactively as a slip, a fault, a wrong turn. The idiot, in contrast, has no such choice. Error may be realized as such, but it cannot be avoided. It is a product of the essential element of naïveté that defines the traveler as such.


To elevate the idiot traveler into a principle of study is itself an idiotic action, but in cases where there is no other option necessity forms the rule. The situation is analogous to that of the fictional situation in Borges’ story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Lacking a native knowledge of Castilian Spanish and ignorant of key cultural-historical details of 16c. Spain, a Frenchman applies himself to the impossible task of reconstructing, word by word, Cervantes’ masterpiece. Borges is of course parodying the brand of literary criticism that held that the meaning of a text lay in the head of the author, whose intentions were conveyed to the reader through the instrumentality of the text. Miraculously, Menard succeeds in producing a text that is, word for word, “identical” to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but Borges points out that Menard’s Quixote is superior in every way. Because the Frenchman had to construct everything that Cervantes’ was able to accomplish out of his “knowledge of acquaintance,” his “chance to remain an idiot” was incomparably higher. The coincidence of Menard’s text with Cervantes’ then constituted a special kind of knowledge, a “knowledge of the idiot.”


The aspirations of this “method of idiocy” are much lower, but the principle is the same: if the idiot is able to come to conclusions that have been already determined through considerable intellectual care by those qualified to undertake the difficult task, despite the idiot’s numerous errors and misreadings, then then (1) the conclusion is “durable” in a higher sense because it is indifferent to the peculiarities of the authorities-as-all-too-human; but, more important, (2) the idiot has connected precisely with this durability, something that is by definition impossible for the master/authority.


The idiot is forbidden to take pride in this. The method of the idiot is a non-method, but — like the science of divination from which it is drawn — it grounds its “scientific” prediction in a “kenotic” reading of the past and, thus, is more science than science. The idiot does not think thoughts; rather, thoughts think themselves through the agency of the idiot. The idiot is the “dead man” (le mort), the puppet. If there is any pride in being dead, let me know about it.


The method of the idiots bears most directly on the question of sexuation. This makes sense in terms of the genesis of this method, its origins in the sciences of divination. The Cadmus family tells the story of this thanks to the connections between Tiresius, famous for his talent as a seer-prophet, and Narcissus, famous for his self-ignorance. There is the theme of “trans-gender” in both cousins, literally for Tiresias who is transformed into a woman, and only slightly less literally for Narcissus, whose self love opens up a “gender within a gender” thanks to his misrecognition. As subjects we are all misrecognized, so this possibility of opening up a gender within a gender is present for all. It is a part of the “not-all” of the feminine, and every subject’s Psyche is feminine.


The Delphic oracle praised Socrates above all men for his realization of the supremacy of self-ignorance as the basis of all wisdom. Misrecognition, regarded primarily as a defect of the Symbolic, is in Socrates raised to the status of a supreme achievement, but the Oracle’s point was probably that Socrates transferred the problem of misrecognition from the Symbolic to the Real, by means of an alliance with Diotima, his “master in all things pertaining to Eros.” We must realize in Socrates’ construction of dialogs framing the failure of the Symbolic to come to terms with its own founding terms, a certain “trans” element. And, in this folding of the standard templates of sexuation, we should also note that Socrates’ failure to know him/herself is precisely the element the Narcissus myth identifies.


Narcissus, like Tiresias, “sees that which should have remained concealed.” Tiresias comes across snakes coupling — the famed emblem of Asclepius, pharmakon who could raise the dead with the blood of Medusa’s left side — while Narcissus sees him/herself as Other — he conceives of a union, or rather a non-union, a “non-relationship,” of masculine and feminine. This is no typical love story. Narcissus, in “stepping back” from sexuation by framing it through reflection, creates a double frame in whose inter-frame space he travels as a hero, a “dead man,” frozen to the image and paralyzed, like the victims of the Medusa, wandering “between the two deaths,” i.e. the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Narcissus is both creator of the frame (occulted) and the content of the frame (idiot).


This, I would claim, is what Žižek does (Less than Nothing, 794) when he places all of Lacan’s forms of discourse into the form of the discourse of the master, S1 as the discourse of the master (the master inside the master, so to speak), S2 as university discourse, a as the discourse of analysis, and $ as the hysteric. This is extimacy, the inside frame, the self-inscription of discourse within its own form. This is Narcissus, pure and simple. And, without the notion of “trans” added to the Lacanian theory of sexuation — often unfairly criticized for embodying the binary signifier of male and female — there is no sexuation to begin with. The binary is a product of the “trans” element, the occulted role of the maker, what Vico would call verum ipsum factum.


Vico teaches the would-be author how to disappear (aphanisis) — the goal articulated by Roland Barthes as “writing degree zero.” As Žižek says (citing Jameson, Absolute Recoil, 354) in relation to Hemingway’s terse style, it wasn’t the case that the American author did not adopt the style to fit a certain type of subjectivity; rather he invented narrative content in order to be able to write in a certain style. Form is the point, a point that Vico makes with his “ideal eternal history,” which applies equally to the agency that creates the frame as well as to the contents within the frame. Extremity, the not-all position of the feminine with relation to the frame (inside and out at the same time, but never fully inside or outside at any time) shows that disappearance is the art of traveling, the ghost and host of the stranger as dummy, as idiot.


Idiocy of another, incurable kind, belongs to those who have translated verum ipsum factum without taking into account metonymy and the occultation of the signifying subject. The same might be said of those who miss the metonymical nature of Vico’s imaginative universal, or the clear citation of the “two Dianas” that Vico claims to be the center of his New Science and in fact places in the center. Oh well. Idiocy does not wish to master; rather, it renounces mastery and gives itself over to the emptiness of the zairja, the stochastic random walk, the occulted signification of metonymy (the gaze, the acousmatic voice). 


As Groucho Marx (in the voice of the super-ego) famously said, “These are my values; if you don’t like them, I have others.”