Monday, October 31, 2005

Descartes Reloaded

In my Social Theory class last year, we were required to write weekly response papers about our readings. Mine were notorious for being scattered, convoluted, full of movie references and often having nothing to do with that week's text. Periodically I post some of my papers here, just to share with everyone out there the mechanics of my madness.

Descartes, Locke Leibnitz

The knowing, knowable, transparent “I.” Ah yes, what circular fun. Because I know this one basic thing, and that fact that I do know it and can know it without contradiction provides basis for the existence of my creator who in creating this certainty, surely would not fool me otherwise.

The initial critique of this is of course the easiest, but what must come after this is the hard part. While Foucault comes up with a decent initial critique of the Cartesian subject and the humanism that developed and gained prominence because of it, Nancy Fraser and Jurgen Habermas seem to be correct in noting that on the matter of what must and can come next, Foucault was either silent, evasive or dead. In her article “Foucault a Young Conservative” Nancy Fraser outlines Foucault’s attacks on humanism on three different planes, describing them in the context of Habermas’ responses. (According to Fraser, the scorecard goes Habermas 2 Foucault 1, but like a cricket tourney, with neither side necessarily the winner) The x creating in his texts is constantly empty or unknowable, because much of his efforts never get past that easy initial critique. (For example, Foucault’s nightmare is that of a society fully panopticonized. Yet what is the basis for this critique if he rejects a humanist paradigm and cannot produce or identify a nonhumanist ethical one? Namely a different one?)

The initial easy critique of the knowing, knowable and absolute Cartesian subject can lead us to the same edge before the x void that our critiques require. My vacillation on this derives partially over my own initial meager readings of Zizek’s unclear defense of the Cartesian subject. I don’t know enough about this as my copy of The Cogito and the Unconscious hasn’t arrived yet, so all I know is from Zizek’s text The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. In it Zizek attempts to conserve the Cartesian subject, but not in the sense of the transparent “I,” but according to him in its “obverse, the excessive unacknowledged kernel of the cogito.” In this text it is unclear at least to me, what specifically Zizek’s defense is other than the requirement of Lacanian theory for a “kernel” to exist. (For example, the ethics of the other, at least in Zizek’s latest text dance around the proper relationship to this kernel of the other, interpersonally this means, what is the fundamental fantasy of the other. (The difference between the Oracle to Neo and the Architect to Neo in Matrix Reloaded)(Zizek is proud of noting that it is this orthodox acceptance of a kernel which separates Lacan from the discursive fictionalists people outside of France call poststructuralists.) Therefore I get the sense that Zizek seeks to find the kernel of the cogito which theorists since Descartes have either misread or missed completely. (I get hints of it here and there, such as “madness” which necessarily accompanies the cogito, but is often disavowed by certain philosophers. Descartes had said that we spend at least a third of our lives insane, because to him dreams and the type of mixed thinking and existing they represented were a form of insanity. I know this is important, but don’t know yet how.)

I brought up Foucault, because sidestepping this “I,” requires the same x. The same assumption of and articulation of a possible beyond this point. Foucault’s rejection of humanism of course relies heavily on humanism for its grounding (for example Foucault’s romanticization of an ancien regime (such as ancient Greece) and his romanticization of “autonomy” because of that.) Perhaps Zizek is right in seeking for something to salvage in Cartesianism, maybe because it does offer something in terms of combating the social destruction that is so often attributed to Cartesianism, but also just as something that cannot be rejected in its entirety. So while I am obviously doubtful of any attempt, even by my hero Zizek to recast or dissect in better terms the “I,” when I consider that all attempts to do away with it have merely reformulated it, the strategic rejectionist approach might not be as effective as some suppose. (I am doubtful for several reasons, but basic point is because of the casual violence which is at the core of Cartesianism. During the days of Descartes, the proponents of his theories would often beat animals to death at court, and would scoff and laugh at those who were horrified, scolding those people for not understanding the latest theories. The lack of “thought” that the animals represented made them the objects which could be acted upon with impunity.)

Furthermore, anything which has the power to somewhat seamlessly unite otherwise incompatible camps should be treated with some suspicion, as the fight against Cartesian subjectivity can unite environmentalists, postmodernists, Habermasians, cognitive scientists and so on. Like the attempted recuperation of an ethical continental European identity (proposed by Habermas and Derrida) when something smacks of such obvious rightness and of courseness in its unifying aspects, it probably when one should step back the quickest and think. (I just thought of Latour, and how in his text, We Were Never Modern, he uses the hole in the ozone layer as something which exemplifies the epistemological walls which tentatively create modernity. But unifying fronts against Cartesian subjectivity seem to defy Latour’s ideas of necessary purification for readability, as the intersection of language, science and society is a must for the critique to be both made and understood.)

Moving on to Locke, we begin to see the political implications of Descartes theories and the ways in which the particular and the universal relate to each other. This treatise is said to contain Locke’s own ideas on the “state of nature” which are supposed to be a more warm and cuddly response to Hobbes’ ideas about the war of the “all against all.” But it is far more important to note how they are similar instead of different. Both of them, despite creating the state of nature as part of a self-serving genealogy, create it as something which must be escaped and preserved, however in a more rational form. In the signing of social contracts or the creation of the Leviathan, the state of nature doesn’t disappear, but is instead transferred and translated into the body of the sovereign or the right of the legislature. Thus the exceptionalism which in nature is said to be found in all and none at the same time, is both localized in the ruler of a society and universalized within a specific property/rationality owning class, or within a fraternal patriarchal class.

The fact that this was written while England was erupting in civil war is important. Locke is ultimately attempting to suture his particular position to a universal principle. Building off of the subject Descartes inaugurated, Locke takes the particular subject of his writing, which looks suspiciously like himself (possesses rationality, possesses property (an important point of Locke’s argument which leaks into our discourse of today is that the possessions must be worth defending, further limiting who has access to this modern subjectivity) and proposes himself as a universal in an attempt to both protect and conserve his position, as well as multiply it. Thus Locke nonetheless recuperates in a different way the thing which he was supposedly writing against, the unchecked or chaotic sovereignty of the monarch and the natural man. But of course, kismat is in his favor as that authority now rests with him and those whom he trusts, those who don’t cheat and abuse words and those who own enough property to keep them from becoming the rabble in the streets.

Turning at last to Leibnitz, after reading Monadology I cannot help but think of Voltaire’s Candide. After all Dr. Panglos from the text is modeled after Leibnitz. The cruelty, the terrible destruction and hardships of the world are all accompanied by a commentary by the good doctor which emphasizes nearly always that despite the terrible things that have taken place, the world is nonetheless the best of all possible worlds. (Voltaire, even in his satirization of Leibnitz’s position seems to accept it, or at least accept the same helplessness and limitations, however with a different emotional bent, from “this is the best of all possible worlds! :) ” to “this is the best of all possible worlds……:( ”)

Aside from his further articulation of the soul and its moral implications, this statement of what is being, “the best of all possible” continues to echo up til today. It is the liberal mantra and the theme song to the liberal (political) deadlock. I’m thinking here about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, this is the stupid song which flits around the background of the landscape as well as out of the mouths of its denizens. It provides at one point a possible site of resistance, a key, a tolerable sliver of the Real (Jonathan Pryce singing the song as he passes into psychosis) (which holds potential for a radical act, an outside). Yet at the same time it is also the mantra through which the Real remains the Real (Jonathan Pryce listening to the song in his “borrowed” transport, Robert De Niro singing the song as he works, the tune working as a containing device).

I am thinking specifically of the harsh, yet touchy feely deadlock that exists as a integral part of today’s liberal democracies. The form of government that exists, the social structures are all thought to be the best possible, the fruits of important modern teleological journeys. This is summed up well by Winston Churchill’s worn-out statement that “democracy is worst of all systems, the only problem being that there is none better.” This point is only further enhanced with Zizek’s point that the basic principle of today’s democracies has nothing to do with people power, but instead with the compact amongst parties above and below that whatever results take place, they will be accepted. (The Hindi film Company thus making a welcome point in showing how the underworld in Mumbai operates a lot like today’s democracies.) (Furthermore this of course illustrates why outcry over possible election manipulation was regarded as being “anti-democratic” and Kerry’s choice to stay out of it, proving he is worthy of the “democrat” mantle.) What this idea of the best possible of all worlds makes impossible (in Zizek’s use of Hegel’s negation of a negation) are Acts which might break, even if just for a moment, this deadlock.

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