Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Football Proves

that socialism doesn't actually hold down the best and the brightest. Despite a salary cap (which has the effect of leveling the starting point of most NFL teams), the truly talented workers within the system are able to demonstrate their competence (Belichik, Parcells), while the incompetents (Millen, Savage) still fail.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Tropological Presidents

Reagan was a properly synecdochal president while Bush II was a metonymic one. The evidence is in the electoral returns and the subsequent treatment. Following Diane Rubenstein, Reagan was a perfect master signifier because he was total nothingness that nevertheless was able to signify Americaness owing to his election. Ergo Reagan was beloved because he could properly demonstrate the hollowness of the presidency without revealing its hollowness.

I'm moving fast but: assume phallic function=master signifier. "For the phallus is a signifier, a signifier whose function, in the instrasubjective economy of analysis, may lift the veil from the function it served in the mysteries. For it is the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presence as a signifier"

Reading back to the essay on "Logical Time": The master signifier is the master signifier by its virtue of having been chosen, much as the move towards the door is predetermined by the prisoners in a moment which exists outside of time yet nevertheless gives rise to the logics that can have explained retroactively the why of what occurred.

thus the President is the President by virtue of his/her having been selected as such, and his/her status must have an explanation. Taking Chad's point advisedly, that the "Time" essay is really about the moment in which the Ego is thrust into the symbolic and how the Ego has an account of its occurrence despite the fact that it seems outside of spatial reasoning, we can apply this reasoning to the election of 2000. With Bush II as the president, an account is needed to account for why he is the President in order to explain the anti-democratic (and republican, hat tip to MKF) peculiarity that explains his rise.

If the Presidency designates meaning effects as a whole, then it will have to look as though the President was legitimately in that position in the first place- hence the strong electoral victory in 2004.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

What a complex film, lending itself to any number of readings. Today I present: lame, read it like the WOT and America's post 9/11 security strategy!!! (And of course, spoilers. But who hasn't seen this?)

The Joker is explicitly referred to as a terrorist throughout the film. I'm gonna go ahead and not pull a "mega depth hermeneutic", and agree with that one. We'll go ahead and slot Harvey Dent in as American idealism/Truth, Justice, and the American Way/all the good stuff the Founders stood for. Lt. Gordon, the mayor, associated judges and beauracrats all seem to be part of the state apparatus that stands as the material instantiation of the ideals Dent stands for: which is to say, a compromised version. You can't properly call Batman a state apparatus (although he works closely with the police) because he exists by virtue of his separation from the official enforcers of law and order.

When the film opens, the criminals are, by and large, on the run. Dent, Batman, and Gordon's cops are slowly but surely closing a net on the Gotham criminal's monetary fund. The civic spirit is so alive ordinary citizens feel empowered to dress up like Batman and go after criminals. Two blots remain- corruption within the police department that allows the mobster to be tipped off when the police are about to move, and the Joker, who early in the film seems more interested in terrorizing/robbing the mob.

The film makes the argument that without the Joker, criminals in Gotham would eventually be put "in the cooler" by the combined forces of Dent, Gordon, and "the Batman". Dent's refusal to cower in the face of threats of physical coercion (he stands up to the crook who pulls a gun on him), Gordon's good old American gumption, and Batman's combination of swift power and high technology all give rise to scenes of worried mobsters gathered to seek council. The Chinese businessman who temporarily saves their money from impoundment is still extradited via Bat-chute, and we are led to believe that he will squeal. Because Batman and Dent seem above corruption (both are avatars of justice), the film's running time would be very short if the Joker did not appear.

"Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stranger" and "Why so serious?" are the most haunting early verbal markers of the Joker's true nature. Throughout the Joker tells a series of different "origin stories" about his bizarre face. The effect is decidedly postmodern, making attempts to read a traditional set of character motivations onto him difficult. There are, I think, two clear explanations for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the attacks of September 11th which circulate popularly. You have the argument that wahhabism is the result of an ideological religion built on expansion that is committed to enforcing its big T truths by hook or by crook, and thus resentment against the West is the result of a disagreement and an ethical condemnation of a group of people refusing to live by the correct values, who must be appropriately converted or killed. The other explanation, popular among Ivan Eland and others, is that the form of violent Islamic fundamentalism seen among Osama bin Laden and others is the result of deep seated resentment generated by a combination of American military occupation of the Middle East, support for Israel, and the creeping effects of globalization in eroding culture.

Was the Joker cut by his father with a blade? Was his wife really frowning too much? The reader of the film that debates which of these stories is true is probably missing the point. Any one of these explanations could be true. What matters less is which is, and more what the Joker is actually doing, in the moment. The history of the doer is irrelevant- it is the deed itself that matters. The entire opening bank robbery scene is dedicated to enforcing this point. "The Joker" is constantly referred to as the planner, mastermind, and puppeteer of the entire operation. Yet the importance of the act is not what is says about the Joker, but that someone has refused to give into the fear and coercion offered by the mob. As a figure the Joker stands outside the interpellation offered by both the police (legal force does not deter him) and the mob (threats of violence motivate and excite him).

The Joker's history is besides the point. Wondering about or trying to explain his origins seems useless, even counterproductive. His acts, however, mark the points at which systems of logic/rationality seem to have exhausted themselves. The opening bank robbery succeeds because of the way in which the Joker ruthlessly plots the elimination of each of his fellow robbers; if violence governs, then we will have no honor among thieves. His murder of the Batman imposter points to the curiosity of the tolerance the system of law and order has for "the Batman": the Joker's act can be read as nothing more than another act of vigilante justice against a law breaker, no more illegitimate as Batman's, one which takes seriously the proclamation of identity. Because these Batman imposters have been given strength through the visible campaign of Batman and the police to clean up Gotham, their murder at the hands of the Joker is in some sense their "just dessert" for embracing a figure who simultaneously advances law and order while working outside of it.

Throughout the film the Joker is always one step ahead with his plots, evidencing a powerful sense of sophistication and knowledge. He knows to lie about the positions of Dawes and Dent when they are kidnapped so Batman will save the wrong one. He plots to get himself captured, setting up escape mechanisms well in advance. He knows enough about police tactics that he sets up the trap with the hostages in the uncompleted Trump Tower. He knows that citizens will be able to escape from Gotham only by boat, so he rigs them up with his "rational choice paradigm" trap. The Joker, is , frankly, too powerful to be any "real" figure. Thus the image of terrorism authored by the film is one of an all powerful, nearly omnipotent, and always already everywhere disturbance. Terrorism is always one step ahead. And powerful enough to kill Dawes, corrupt Dent, and drive the Batman to violate his own codes against violence and rights violations.

Nowhere is all of this evidenced more clearly in the conversation in the hospital between the Joker and Dent (now Two-Face). The Joker is able to pervert Dent's sense of goodness and justice so that he becomes a figure of vengeance, motivated by delivering punishment outside the confines of the law. As mobsters and corrupt cops are killed, we see the flipside of truth, justice, and the American way: the overarching sense of good and right that underlies the spirit of justice can ultimately corrupt its enforcement. One reason why this troubles me is because the film does not do a good job of portraying the victims of this violence compassionately. Essentially, they are all bad people who get what they deserve, except for Officer Ramirez, who was pressured into corruption to pay her mother's hospital bills. She is spared. External circumstances may influence justice. That is why Dent does not kill her after his coin saves her, but he does still kill the mobster when the coin bails him out.

Thus the necessity for Batman and Gordon to cover up Dent's violent crimes. It is evidence that the ideal of justice is purely ideal, not material. Even Dent was corruptible. So he must exist as a martyr in the eyes of the public ("we should all strive to be as noble as Dent"), even as the material reality of his existence contravenes the possibility of the ideal existing ("even Dent was not above it"). The victory at the end of the film is not in redeeming justice- it is in preserving it as a fiction to be consumed by the people of Gotham so that they may go on living their lives with hope. Necessary, perhaps, but also enabled through a governmental cover up which fingers Batman as the killer, turning him into an enemy of the establishment. Essentially: "the real enemy is the ideal of justice and stability, which gave birth to the Joker as its necessary correspondent. But because we cannot face up to the fact that it is these ideals which are the problem, lets just blame this law breaking guy in a costume who just HAPPENS to follow the spirit of the law, if not the letter". We cannot have justice with a figure committing injustice to make the concept sensible. I would do a Foucault riff here, but I think the shorthand does the trick.

And Batman himself is only able to capture the Joker by generating a "state of exception". Early in the film, at a dinner scene between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, Dent argues for the old temporary suspension of civic rule, in which all powers are given to a sovereign to protect the people. Dawes points out that this was an epic fail (Caeser). Yet later in the film this very logic is perserved and endorsed. After building his massive NSA style surveillance operation, Wayne convinces Lucious Fox to use it just this once to track down the Joker. If they had not used the NSA apparatus, the Joker would have eventually killed the people on the boats (making irrelevant their humanity empowering decisions not to kill), and the SWAT teams would have killed the hostages dressed as crooks, creating a massive publicity crisis for the state apparatus embodied in the police. Instead the NSA device allows all of this to be averted. And the film encourages the viewer to support the fiction that such devices are "only used once". Conveniently, Batman's self-destructs. However, the security architecture enacted in the wake of 9/11 cannot simply be wished away or destroyed. In fact, its entire existence is premised on the idea that it only exists in one moment. Yet this one moment is constituted as a perpetual state of insecurity and unrest, meaning the state of exception is perpetuated. The film says "Don't sweat it, they really only use this stuff if they really have to", but the message of the rest of the film, owing to the Joker's omnipotence and Dent's corruptibility is "They always really have to!!".

Now one might say: but that tower and the hostages were only distraction from the real threat to Law and Order, the very public murders committed by Dent (including the possibility of his murder of Gordon's family). However the hostage crisis was a direct result of poor crisis management by the authorities, so the deaths of the hostages would have also been a devastating event.

Oddly, I think the film sort of makes a rather pragmatic conclusion about terrorism and security. These threats exist, but as a result of the systemic way in which systems of truth and rationality manufacture necessary disorders in their attempts to completely create order, and that the only way to handle them is through effective and canny use of a combination of repressive state apparati and mythology, in the form of Dent. Perhaps the film is just saying "this is how we must do this", but that in and of itself is still normative, and has the effect of closing off possibilities of thinking and doing otherwise.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Close Reading: Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty

On the advice of David Wittenberg, I read this essay, subtitled "A New Sophism".....

Lacan begins his story with a logical puzzle of sorts: three prisoners have had colored dots fastened to themselves, out of their direct line of sight, so they they may only infer what color their dot is from the dots of the other prisoners. In the example, the prison warden only uses white dots, not making any use of the black ones.

The perfect solution, Lacan outlines is one in which all three of the prisoners walk through the door at the same time:

"I am a white, and here is how I know it. Since my companions were whites, I thought that, had I been a black, each of them would have been able to infer the following: "If I too were a black, the other would have necessarily realized stragiht away that he was a white and he would have left immediately; therefore I am not a black. And both would have left together, convinced they were whites. As they did nothing of the kind, I must be a white like them."

Lacan offers this solution as a sort of sophistic provocation He defines sophism as "a significant example for the resolution of the forms of a logical function at the historical moment at which the problems these forms raise presents itself to philosophical examnation". I will attempt to break this down.

"For the resolution of the forms of a logical function". So the problem itself is viewed as a sort of object on which perform logical operations? It is a palette on which we can paint with dialectic. That doesn't really sound like exactly what I mean, because he seems to intimate that applying logic has a certain sort of constraining effect (his consistent swipes at Sartre standing), and painting seems less limited (but it also is, by the size of the palette, the available colors, the sorts of paints and brushes one has). Upshot: the problem is an object to perform a proof upon.

"at the historical moment at the problems these forms raise presents itself to philosophical examination". Well, thats a mouthful. Sophistry of course carries all sorts of negative connotations, recent attempts to save them (ie Poulakos) nonwithstanding. I feel most comfortable forwarding the following generic notion of what "sophistry" tends to be thought of- distracting from the proper with reference to verbal/rhetorical guile and cunning. This at least seems to be the most common pejorative lobbed at the sophists.

So the problem itself is a space for problems embedded within logic itself to come out, to demand their own interrogation. A sort of new form of Zeno's Paradox, perhaps. Zeno's trickery about space served to make the point that one could not actually get anywhere else if they moved in halves. Of course folks could still make it from point x to point y, but the upshot seems to be that sophistry deceives or alters reality, or at least its perception.

The sophism, we should remember, is the solution itself. We should question its "neat cuteness", as a sort of rom com of logic. We will determine its sophistry if its presents itself "as a logical error" (163).

Lacan wants to unseat the clever solution to the problem by acting as "the good logician, odious to the world". He wants to nuke and fracture this particular "meet cute" of problem and solution. His "discussion of the Sophism". He draws out a "hestitation problem", one that the sophistic solution finds difficult. The immediate movement of all three figures towards the door would probably cause them to hesitate, and second guess the motivations of their fellow prisoners.

Essentially the problem is as follows: how does a subject conclude anything when everything is learned/apprehended at the same moment? The answer seems to be something along the lines of: the moment of judging and the moment of acting are inseparable. I will try and clarify this insight.

If the subject may only take into account real behavior, and the subjects all act according to what they observe, then all subjects move at precisely the same moment, eliding the possible moment in time in which one subject could obtain from the actions of others information about their own status as white beaded or black beaded. (Again, Lacan's reference to Sophism is really interesting here- it made me think again of Xeno's paradox, and how the use of rhetorical trickeration in that case made it seem possible that a subject might never be able to reach a destination. Similarly, here we find that a number of destinations are foreclosed a priori by the spatialization of time).

So actions only occur concurrently, owing to the fact that the anticipation of a future anterior blackness/whiteness has encouraged the subjects to act/judge in a particular way in a moment. The moment of contemplation about all of this is present in the logical discussion but seems somewhat fictive- what is important is that in acting in the moment, each subject has made it so they believe themselves to be white beaded. The suspended motions necessary to make the logical outcome of whiteness so never actually occur. But it is the figuration of their possibility that makes the subjects behave in ways so that they believe themselves to be a particular color.

The moment of contemplation of actions and of observing the actions of the other prisoners does not exist temporally, only spatially. Logic, Lacan encourages us, is not to be thought spatially. Logic is capable of finding things within its own terms, quite capably (this is analagous to the first position found in Lacan's Seminar on Poe's Purloined Letter). Logic is able to find its answers, however, by neturalizing and denying its own status as another position in a realm of coordinates. The logical viewpoint is the one from which other subjects and actions and thoughts may be viewed. Thus a spatialized logic is no logic at all, in a sense.

Thinking spatially CANNOT explain why the suspended motions do not occur. It provides only a rather uninteresting answer to the asked question- are the prisoners white, or black? The intial objection (that the subjects will doubt owing to the behavior of others), only makes sense if we conceive of this problem in the essay spatially. The suspended motion would be thought to be information disclosing, that is, revealing something about a world of subjects out there and their views about the world.

It is, however, in this essay that Lacan does some work to point the way for the theory of the "as if" that has become increasingly important, discussing "times of possibility". As a rhetorician, I was immediately drawn to the kairotic possibilities here. The subjects, in behaving "as if" the logic outlined by Lacan was operative, have essentially made themselves into the color predestined by the future anterior which excludes "so there will not be" a subject left behind, without proper knowledge of their color. As Lacan draws explicit parallells in this essay to his essay on the Mirror Stage, I do not feel too far gone in noting that a subject who "does not know his color" so to speak, yet is situated collectively by a drive to "outdo" the other is the paradigmatic case of subjectivity (and Lacan says as much here).

After all, to have an "if...then" statement, the if must proceed the then. But if the if proceeds the then, there must be a moment of time in between the if and then. However Lacan seems to be raising a major problem with this mode of thinking: What if the "if...then" proposition makes itself operative by appearing to be confirmed by behaviors that fall in line within the proposition yet not interrogating the conditions for the possibility of "if...then" to be operative. More concretely, it is misleading to explain the way the prisoners come to their conclusions in the way when it seems to be the case that the prisoners came to this conclusion not through a process of logical testing, but rather making the situation through their judgment of their own status via the act of advancing toward the door. Right or wrong about their own status, they proceed, with the future anterior here posited as that of the situation of not properly knowing ones status- the idea being that gathering information is a sort of zero-sum game, and one is better off making a certainty than being subjected to anothers certainty. This possibility is allowed by lacan, when he argues that a subject who paused after the other two moved would have simply subjected themselves to the world made by the other two subjects.

Embedded within the decision to move towards the door is a conclusion and thus an act of judgment about ones status, much as the act of becoming a subject is itself a decision which guarantees the reaffirmation of the simultaneous fiction and possibility of being a whole subject measured against the Other. The possibility for truth lies in the existence of others, who may confirm or deny, giving rise to rightness and error, each of which is already predestined. Entering into the symbolic is an already chosen departure towards a door with a conclusion in hand about one's "color", and it occurs regardless of what one's "actual color" is.

I might write more on this essay but man, its rugged. Anyone with an angle on spatialization vs. temporalization in this thing, I am all ears.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Essay on the Mirror Stage- A Reading

A Disclaimer:

One thing I will do a lot on this blog is to do close readings of essays or book sections. I do not anticipate ANY of this readings will prove authoritative, or even good. One thing that I am continually reminded of is that this academic business is very, very hard work, and so a lot of what I post here I hope I a sort of first draft of a thought. A major reason I have decided to blog is because of the “iceberg theorem” that I think governs academic writing. As in the case of the iceberg, whose heft is generally hidden under the sea, so too do good essays have beneath them months and months of difficult, hard work found in close reading and developing ideas. These ideas may not explicitly show up in the essay and yet do so much work for the writer that they seem to me to be invaluable.

So to contextualize this reading a little bit: I have turned to this essay of Lacan’s in the process of developing further an essay I wrote on Vladimir Putin in the spring semester last year. I need to understand better the functions of the Ideal/Ego and Ego/Ideal so I can more competently reflect on the relationship between Time magazine’s Person of the Year feature and the national consciousness.

Lacan begins by examining the ego, and states outright that “this experience sets us at odds with any philosophy directly stemming from the cogito.” So, “I think, therefore I am” is to be problematized. Mimesis is here privileged as the primary mover in the development of subjectivity. Lacan’s exemplary child recognizes his own image owing to the ability to manipulate it in the mirror, where he “playfully experiences the relationship between the movements made in the image and the reflected environment” (75).

Lacan is after insights about an “ontological structure” of the human world. This is a question of Being, not a question of knowledge. The mirror stage kickstarts an imaginary identification. The dependent infant, seeing a specular image is “manifest in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordrial form, prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as a subject” (76). This is the Ideal-Ego, which remains fictional and “will only asymptotically approach the subject’s becoming”. I understand this image to be the ideal to which the subject will always move itself to become a fully formed subject. It is purely an ideal—a necessary fiction. We might think of this image as an always receding horizon—the subject seeks constantly to reach this horizon, to fill out this empty profile, yet is prohibited from doing so.

More fascinating still are the passages on 78, where Lacan speaks of the internal pressure of the mirror stage and how the subject is pushed from insufficiency to anticipation. If all the subject experienced was insufficiency, subjectivity’s drive towards completion might stop out of despair. If all the subject experienced was a pleasurable anticipation, movement would also stop—the subject would wish to sustain in that very moment. Lacan calls the resulting development “orthopedic”. Doing some etymological work, the result is “the straight rearing of children” as the definition of the two roots that play into orthopedics. Here we can read the “straight” part to mean properly or orderly—the fragmented body of the child is made whole/orderly by the fictive projection of a complete image. Thus the fictive whole is adopted as a goal towards which a subject is always moving and straining, and believing in the achievement of this totality enables subjectivity.

All this business about the fragmented body I find fascinating, in light of all I have read lately about partial objects, fractured drives, and the multiple different ways of centering pleasure around various body parts. And of course here Lacan seems clearly to be making the “not-all of being” argument that Joan Copjec so aggressively makes in Imagine There’s No Woman.

So when does “the specular I turn into the social I? It is when the mirror stages ends, and the previously imagined image of I becomes “linked to socially elaborated situations” (79). Lacan says this is the point where “the whole of human knowledge mediated by the others desire”. The self image of “I” becomes threatened. The self defines the self against the other to ensure that the self remains independent—throughout the essay Lacan speaks of “armor” and “defenses”, indicating that the projection of the ego into the social is an identity risking enterprise, one that helps to ensure that the sense of the self is strengthened, even as the desire for the desire of the Other is strengthened.

The ego is about misrecoginition. The ego cannot be about recognition, because if this is the case, Lacan argues, the result of the consciousness of the Other is “Hegelian murder”—the inevitable conquest involved in the Master-Slave dialectic. Self-realization obtained only in suicide—the annihilation of the self is taken as the only evidence that the self could ever have existed in the first place. For Lacan, the fictive existence of the self as a whole in the first place better explains what is going on, and provides a safer theory of subjectivity. For the existentialist self is one given to inevitable conflict owing to the inevitable failing of identification. But the psychoanalytic self possesses narcissism as a limit to the faith in the self existing. All subjectivity is misrecognition, not non-recognition.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"What the #$%! is the internet?" - Jay

Well, I've fought the tides for as long as I can. But I am sick and tired of ideas simply sliding into the ether. While I do an alright job of jotting down notions I get during job talks, exciting lunch chats with Michael Lawrence, and provocations lobbed by J, I need to make sure that all these ideas and thoughts I have get recorded somehow, and that they also get tested in the marketplace of ideas.

A blog seems an inevitability at this point. What will I try to do with it? I will post thoughts I have for papers and discussions. I might occasionally post a close reading a an academic text I have been working on. I will probably ask for professional/academic advice, on the hope that intelligent colleagues will read this blog. I might occasionally link to something really funny or entertaining (like this).

So, enough with the boring stuff. Hopefully my time at home will allow me to post something shortly.