3 MORE TRAITS (14, 15, 16) OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY: Alterity, Pluralist Dialectics, and Transformations of the Subject

I have been using the Chomsky/Zizek divide as a catalyst for a more general discussion.

Chomsky and Zizek are involved in a battle over the criterion of truth (and thus over the criterion of ideology). Chomsky’s ideal is monist: differences of opinion are possible, but research must converge towards the one true point of view, the synthesis of all the cumulative contributions to the truth. This is why common sense (as expressed by the figure of the twelve year old child, cannot be radically revised, but only augmented and improved on here and there, piecemeal. Zizek is ready to embrace much more alterity than this, not just in the content of thought, but in its very conduct. Chomsky’s 12-year-old is an Alice who never went to Wonderland, and who would have freaked out if she did: too much alterity to handle. Douglas Lain’s daughter Emma has been to Wonderland and goes with the alterity.

The dispute over the criterion of ideology concerns whether ideology is what is explicitly avowed (or articulable) or is embedded in practices that are largely unrelated to processes of avowal or disavowal (non-avowed, non-articulated). In relation to Bernard Stiegler’s problematic of disindividuation, we can see it as in part based on disavowal (« amnesia »), and individuation would involve a process of creatively re-visiting the disavowed but articulable and also the non-avowed but transformable. Deleuze has some useful things to say on the split between propositional belief and practical belief in the FOUCAULT book, when he talks about the (non-)relation between visible and articulable. They seem to be about the same things, but are the product of different conditionings and apprenticeships. In the case of ideology critique Chomsky is more concerned with the articulable and so provides contrary reasons, Zizek identifies ideology more with the « visible » (ie practices) and emphasises the need for contrary causes (on the concept of « contrary causes », cf previous post).

Zizek’s theory of stupidity seems to be a little more differentiated than Bernard Stiegler’s. The first type of stupidity is the « idiot savant » who applies logic in abstraction from context (this would cover Chomsky, and also Russell); The second type of stupidity is the moron, who is fused with the Big Other, this is Stiegler’s disindividuation and Chomsky’s 12-year-old, then the third type of stupidity is the imbecile immersed in the Big Other but no longer identified with it, distrusting it, and aware of its inconsistencies and that « things move ». My feeling is that Hegel is ambiguous here between a totalitarian trust in the big Other and a pluralist diachronic truth that things are multiple and they move.

I don’t like Zizek’s term of « disavowal » to describe the discrepancy between what I « know » and what I do in practice, because it mixes up two notions. On the discursive level it seems to suggest too much commensurability: I disavow, but I could be led to avow by good evidence and argument (this is Chomsky’s hope). On the practical level, it does not give enough incommensurability: I am a multiply divided subject, formed by a plurality of assemblages, and I would have to go on some sort of anamnesic voyage (or process of individuation) to change my percepts, affects, and concepts, for my avowal to have any convergence with my mode of existence. If coming to know involves transforming the situation, the subject wanting to know must be transformed too.

« Disavowal » is a surface phenomenon, a psychoanalytic retranscription of more fundamental rifts. We are constituted on multiple lines of conditioning and training that produce not just a simple duality like the ones that Zizek describes, but multiple points of view and conduct in the same individual. One could say that the most radical disavowal is the disavowal of that multiplicity, and thus of the lines of disindividuation that make us up, and that do not just shape us from without. There are multiple selves, multiple voices, multiple « spirits, and the binary implied by « disavowal » is too simplistic to engage with that, even if it is a useful instrument of thought to show up some of our inconsistencies. It is not the case that we just « know » what is going on and what has to be done, we have to learn by trial and error, including by experimenting on ourselves, by changing this and that in our lives. Anamnesis is not just uncovering and accepting pre-constituted knowledge, it involves creative interpretation and experimentation ie trying out all sorts of things (books, ideas, contacts, diet, green technologies etc). The Big Other is not out there ready to solve things if only we give it the means, nor is it inside each of us « knowing » what to do. It’s not primarily a matter of « knowing. » As John Law remarks in AFTER METHOD, « knowing » is sometimes the wrong metaphor.

Contrary to what Zizek claims (and even bernard Stiegler seems to agree with him on this point) I do not think that Deleuze and Guattari have a « naïve » critique of ideology. Rather, ANTI-OEDIPUS contains one application of a very sophisticated theory of ideology and its critique that is elaborated in its generality in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS. They do not usually use the word « ideology » because of its dualist implications (the science/ideology distinction), and also because once you accept that ideology is embedded in practices and not a phenomenon limited to « ideas »(as Althusser and Zizek argue) one may wish to discard the word as misleading. This is what Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault and Lyotard do. There is a continuity and an intensification of their pre-68 work, and of what comes after.

In sum:

14) Alterity: Continental has a place for and embraces an Other that is not on the same model as me, whose basic principles and (cognitive, affective, perceptive) postures are different

15) Pluralist dialectics: Continental philosophy takes from Hegel’s dialectics the plurality of figures of consciousness and modes of being, and also the treatment of concepts as ambiguous, fluid, and in movement. Some prefer to drop the name « dialectics », arguing, like Deleuze, that « Movement is stronger than the dialectic ». Others are content to redefine the word « dialectics » in a way that subtracts the dogmatic notions of inevitable progression and cumulative synthesis.

16) Transformations of the subject: CP does not think in terms of an already constituted subject, but of a subject that is constructed and can (and must) be transformed. A good explanation of this can be found in Simon O’Sullivan’s talk, where he shows that this transforming subject does not fall under the grid of Meillassoux’s critique of a supposed « correlationism » that seems to exist only in his own imagination:

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