Brown Feeling

Tarrying with the Brown

Location: Paris, France

I'm a Junior at the American University of Paris.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Pop, art, and and Zizek

A few weeks ago that Irrational Numbers published a quite entertaining exchange between two quite serious scholars on the topic of “pop philosophy”. With the star-power of Slavoj Zizek reaching even the mustiest corners of the university, the subject is certainly a pertinent one.

Zizek does not have a consistent theory of what pop culture actually is, he just knows what he likes. He stumbles dizzingly from one example to the next, each time performing the same operation of isolating the ideological knot which makes an image or genre so culturally overdetermined. But Zizek does not practice the heavy handed formalism which marked Deleuze and Guatarri’s famous Anti-Oedipus; while there is no particular logic at work guiding the course he charts through cultural production, he does not have any pretensions of making this “unlogic” itself an already operative political stratagem. There is theory and there is praxis for Zizek (praxis being apparently what takes place in both the analyst’s office and the revolutionary’s factory floor).

So what exactly is the point of what Zizek is trying to do? He himself doesn’t really seem to know. He often makes impassioned pleas along the lines of “a universal call for sublimation” as he says in some issue of Lacanian Ink, but what can he imagine will come of these rather grandiose rallying cries? He seems to shrug off the role of political leader with a little coy self-deprecation anytime the topic comes up in interviews.

No, it would seem his role would be to popularize the work of Jacques Lacan, a question of pedagogy and the politics of academia. This is indeed a valuable role, especially when it comes to determining what is de rigeur in the American University system, and I am certainly on his side in that fight. But it fails to provide a form of thought, a true discursive resistance which is “equal to capital”. This is of course no small task, but I think there is right now much more energy, hope, and daring on the side of artists and creators, at least in America.

What makes the relationship between academia and popular culture so important is that much of the art that’s going in America that really has a claim on being contemporary engages with popular culture either through the increasingly tired pastiche and irony of postmodern art, but also through the auto-productive culture of “scenes”, underground creative communities.

The point is, the technique of re-appropriation can be used in a way different from the cool and sterile distance of postmodern bracketing as it was done by Andy Warhol. An example is the now defunct art collective Forcefield, whose video and multi-media performances take the silliest and most benign of images from sci-fi and children’s television and turn them into faceless, utterly alien landscapes more disturbing and voyeuristic than snuff films. In many of their videos and performances, members of the collective dress up in head-to-toe knit jumpsuits. The material resembles something your grandmother might make as a Christmas gift, but with no face-hole the figures look inhuman; they are furniture-people, featureless scraps of fabric animated by the return of some horrible, repressed transgression which took place in some rumpus room in the 1970s.

Another example is Paperrad, a collective based out of Massachusetts. They use as their building blocks the embarrassing, half-made junk “art” which can only exist in media like home-made, personal web pages or obscure video games, media where the author is almost anonymous and there are no standards of craftsmanship. What Paperrad do as artists is merely link these fragments together either directly via their website or in their videos and performances, and to their credit they keep the critical distance and superiority inherent in their position almost imperceptible. As opposed to the academic and snobby decontextualization of Andy Warhol or others, there is frequently a genuine question when one experiences Paperrad creation as to whether this really was meant to seem the way it does. In other words, instead of throwing into question the concept of art-object by making visible the active role of the gallery and frame, they approach it completely from the other side, from the moment when complete cultural debasement begins to seem uncanny and we start picking up on the unintended and latent messages therein.

Of course, this approach to art eschews theoretical reflection in favor of the explosive and intoxicating effect produced by weakening the boundaries of the artistic experience. I frankly don't know if this jives with what I think about transgression and capital, and the disavowal of any figure of obscenely visible mastery which is demanded by the politics of consensus we are mired in. I do not condone the transgressive art which flourished in the 60s and 70s, and I do not think that these artists could be considered part of that movement. But I am less sure of the question of whether they are the latest incarnation of outsider art which always ends up mystifying and obscuring the aesthetic act, instead of affirming it as a declaration without reservation. Well, I don't much, but I know what I like.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Logical Time Again

I added the end of the logical time post after refreshing my memory with an article on Badiou, Lacan, and logical time by Dominiek Hoens and Ed Pluth. CHECK IT OUT!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Logical Time

I think it is valuable to look at the relation of Badiou and Kant through the lens of Lacan's concept of "logical time". A number of writers have pointed out affinities between Kant and Badiou but Badiou himself has situated his thought as actively antagonistic to Kant. One possible correspondance which I have not yet seen discussed is the relation of Kant's domains (scientific, ethical, aesthetic) to Badiou's generic procedures (art, science, politics, love). I think that by comparing them the kernel of difference between the two philosophers could be made more visible and it could also help clear up an ambiguity in the work of both.

As I understand it (and this understanding is based almost entirely on secondary sources, specifically Hallward), Badiou constructs the four generic procedures as the four ways individual can relate to collective in the articulation of a truth. So there is truth articulated in the radical isolation of a loving couple, the collective subject which emerges from the declaration of a new humanity, the subjective experience of art directed at a potentially uninversal public, and the singular experience of the epistemological break of the scientific discovery also direced at the universal public. There is an ambiguity here: under the sole dimension of individual/collective one cannot make a distinction between artistic truths which appear as the name of the void rupturing the materiality of language and the scientific truth of the epistemological break. I admit I am still a novice to Badiou's thought, so any clarification of this point is welcomed.

In Kant, as I touched on in my last post, there is a similar figure of disjunct spaces of truths. The domains of aesthetics, ethics, and science are not quite as clearly defined in Kant as Badiou's domains are, and Kant also does not presume to exhaust the modalities of truth through his domains (my knowledge here is again secondary, so bear with me). Still, it is clear that Kant would hold each of these domains as separate only through their mutual bracketing and thus that their respective fields of study would only come to exist as radically exclusive of each other. Kant differentiates his domains based on three criteria by which a spectator can validate an instance of judgement pronounced by a subject. Pleasure/displeasure in the domain of aesthetics, good/bad in the domain of morality, and true/false in the domain of science.

My question for both Badiou and Kant is how does one pass from one domain to the next? It is here that the idea of logical time deserves to be brought up as it offers a way of thinking about not only the event/actions which occur within each domain but a potential method of traversing domains which could provide an answer to the question of whether they are bounded/unbounded (though we know from Kant that unbounded does not mean infinite).

To briefly recount the logical anecdote described by Lacan in "Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty": there are three prisoners who are told that they each have a dot on their back colored either white or black and that there are five total dots, three white and two black. The first prisoner to correctly deduce what color is on their own back with a logical justification is granted freedom.

Here's how it goes down: the first prisoner sees two whites and knows that there are only three. He is unable to come to a conclusion immediately and so he is forced to imagine himself as one color or the other and extrapolate as to the effects that would produce on the decision making process of the other prisoners. He speculates that he is black. If he were black, then the second prisoner would see one black and one white and would also be forced speculate. Prisoner two could then say to himself, "If I were black, then prisoner three would leave immediately, prisoner three does not leave immediately so therefore I am white" and he would then be able to leave. He does not. Finally the circuit of logic is returned to the chosen First prisoner. What makes this diaphonous little puzzle important for both Lacan and Badiou is that the action which happens at this point is not simply a matter of course. Prisoner One must realize that his reasoning only makes sense if the fact that the other prisoners haven't moved is a fact of their hesitation, and not merely slow-thinking. In other words, Prisoner One must become Prisoner One in his act of stepping forward, the logic can only be applied retroactively.

The reason I recount this is to propose the following: What if this logical time, with its three necessary steps, was taken as a temporal architechtonic in place of Hegel's master-slave dialectic? With only two players, the dialectic necessarily produces a subject to a law forever split in two (to search forever in vain for the dead master of pure recognition) and whose revolution must always miss the Real. Hegel's abundant critics have pointed out how the mechanism of dialectic ends up priveleging a resignation to natural law, even if the law is shown to be an always riven and always elusive entity.

But is the only other alternative to imagine the time of Truth as always singular and instantaneous (as Badiou does)? Of there being no iterable logic of time which could formally connect different modalities of truth (i.e. artistic, mathematical, ethical, familial, pedagogical)? Logical time, in its preservation of the irreducibly unjustifiable Real moment of the act could provide such a principle. This could provide somewhat demystify the process by which a Truth comes into being, the path it must travel from one register to the next.

This all highly speculative, I really don't know if I agree with what I've said, but at least it is now said.

Friday, December 09, 2005


A number of people have already written about this book, and I doubt I'm saying anything new but here goes:

Transcritique is a reading of Kant and Marx, elucidating a common critical structure between the two which he calls "transcritique". Transcritique is the idea that every system of thought, or at least those systems which entail a judgement about the human subject and its relation to an object, contain an immanent placeholder or "transcendental apperception X" which stands in for the limit of that system or the point where it must tarry with the other. Most importantly, he does not propose that this other is absolutely Other or transcendent, but immanently other and transcendental.

The most basic way to demonstrate this philosophical stance is the emergence of Kant's thought in the antinomy of introspection as reflection. The method of interrogating one's one thoughts has long been used by philosophers, and criticized by philsophers at least since Hume. Its most celebrated practicioner is Descartes who arrived at a substantial ego through radical doubt of all empirical, external phenomena. Kant does not outright reject the idea of a unified cogito or singular point of cognition à la Hume, but instead brackets the concept and examines the "conditions of possiblity" which would allow a thinking subject to encounter itself. Karatani shows (via Kant's affinity with Husserl's eidetic reduction) how Kant shows that a person is always in three parts: the always situated empirical ego(s), the ego who begins the process of doubt which problematizes those given beings, and the transcendental ego of reflection who is implied (though never encountered) as a result.

Karatani then shows how Kant takes this same structure of antinomy to judgements which are made in the domains of science, art, and ethics. Of course each of these domains only comes into being through a bracketing of the conditions of knowledge and judgement which are necessary for the others; for example, the object of science is that which remains after feelings of aesthetic pleasure/displeasure and moral good and bad are bracketed.

Throughout all domains there is the temporal/logical knot of what Kant terms the synthetic judgement which requires them to make speculations about the infinite while acknowledging that their concept of the infinite is always a stand-in. There is always a gesture of transgression and return from the limit of every singular knowledge. Thus a work of art must assert itself as establishing a rule of beauty which is absolutely universal yet at the same time a work of genius is that which breaks with all conventions to establish a wholly new norm, every system of mathematics must axiomatically propose an infinity of situation to which it can apply without being able to finally account for that infinity, and for there to be ethical responsibility one must take responsibility for the result of one's actions, which is to say, they must act as if there was an entirely spontaneous willing where the in fact is none.

The temporality of this logic is described by the future anterior (as Zizek has rightly pointed out). That is, one must act as if one will have been free after one's action has taken place (the activity of which is not thinkable beforehand). It is here that Karatani is able to make a link with the logic of capital as described by Marx.

In commodity exchange, the value of inert goods must be decided in advance as if it had already been sold and entered into the circulation of capital. Marx showed that the two prevailing ways of thinking about economy in his day (and which persist to the present day) tried to ground value without recourse to the mediation of money: on one hand the labor theory of value which held the labor time which went into the production of a commodity as its real value and profit as theft, and on the other the theory which takes need as extra-economic and accounts for value differentially through supply and demand. Marx thus showed that the value form of money was necessary since capital relied on an excess at its core, a going-beyond.

Karatani takes an uncompromisingly materialist stance on capitalism and this ends up being both his strength and shortcoming. He deals a lethal blow to any psychologizing approach to capitalism which posits consumerism or ideology as superstructure by showing how the minimum "architechtonic" of the capitalist intersubjective relation of seller to buyer necessitates a speculative fantasy; speculation is immanent to the material of capital.

Further, he is able to proceed from the speculative fantasy of capital to the necessary ideology of the state and the nation (in much the same way that Kant proceeds through thing-in-itself, transcendental illusion, and transcendental ego as isolable only by a temporary act of bracketing). He shows how multiple other systems (the state, the nation) are autonomous but not merely superstructural, they are again indissoluble illusions which guarantee not only the stability, but the very existence of Capital as such.

It is worth going into Karatani's description of this knot. To start with, one must see that the primacy of surplus value means that capitalism has always been global capitalism from the start. This is because surplus value is created from the discrepancy between systems of value. In the case of merchant capital it is the difference of price for the same commodity in different places and in industrial capital it is the difference produced by technological innovation. In either case it is not a simple matter of price difference and profit, it involves an exchange with a future or other system of value which can only be presumed to exist and which is accesible only to the value form (money, gold, or whatever holds its place). However, for capital as value form to exist, this difference cannot merely be oppurtunistic theft through mechanical or geographical advantage, but a result of a total system of differences. This is a point which Karatani repeats many times in the Marx section: for capitalism to function and thus for Capital to exist as such, the workers must buy back the commodities they create in totality , or else there would be economic crisis. Thus, a government which functions as a regulative instrument which forcibly takes money and redistributes it to the whole is necessary for the internal inscription of difference into the capitalist system.

Nation proceeds from State in an entirely analogous way. If the state in capitalism functions as a representative of totality, as that which is not directly represented by short-sighted capital but which is nonetheless its fundamental condition of possibility, then nationalism is the form of power necessitated by the inability of state to represent the masses. That is to say, the form of power proper to capitalism is representative democracy as the image of the bourgeoise class in their capacity of possesors of value-form, but that this mechanism of representation cannot but fail to account for the proletariat as those who exist without having any share of value-form, who form a class only in that they do not share in the generality of money, a class-which-is-not-one. They are, however, people and thus must be represented in universal sufferage though they cannot represent themselves. What must act as their representative is that which is transcendent to the system, the bonds of nation and fraternity which have as their representative a sovereign who is himslef above the law while remaining a part of the beauracratic capitalist-state (it is not, as Karatani stresses, a regression to a feudalism but the persistence or return of the repressed feudalism within the thouroughly modern network of capital/nation/state).

The problem with Karatani's book is his refusal to take his project far enough, his timidity at universalizing his method. He does not bring Kant transcendental subject back to bear on the contemporary capitalist subject. Instead of being a function of subjectivity as such, surplus value is seen as wholly persecutory and thus extra-human in origin. This is why he is able, in the end, to revert back to a relationship of "association" as exchange without surplus as the eventual overcoming of capitalism. If he stays true to his original approach he must arrive at a theory of subjectivity which places the object-embodiment of lack/surplus at the very core of the subject. By doing so, however the possibility of real revolution would again have to replace the nonviolent, passive resistance of boycotts and assoctionism.

This place would be the pure action of doubling by which a Subject declares himself as identical subject and thereby allows object-of-difference (surplus/lack) to fall away. For Karatani, plus-de-jouir is Capital and Capital is plus-de-jouir. Thus, the only way to escape capitalism is the elimination of excess as surplus value which he believes is achievable through the Local Exchange Trading System. There is no room in his theory for a creative use of the reemergence of surplus value which takes place in revolution.

The reemergence of object is possible through the declaration of outright revolution as spontaneous break with all current systems of representaion and the subsequent deliberation which utilises the difference announced to create previously unthinkable forms of exchange and government. Instead he relies on a form of exchange which is only ostensibly new (association, even exchange) but which is actually the fantasy of a capital without production or exploitation which is so rigorously decried by Karatani throughout the rest of the book.