Religion and Race

Not that I’m the first person to come to this realisation or anything, but I had a flash of insight the other day. I was reading Masuzawa on the invention of world religion. She makes the point that religion, in its modern sense, is invented first, as Christianity distinguishes itself from other ‘religions’. In other words, religion is a category invented in order for Christianity to assert its own supremacy.

About the same time I was listening to Anthony Paul Smith’s interview with George Yancy. Listening to Yancy’s description of the relationship between whiteness and race, it occurred to me that it was the exact same logic – discourse on race is invented in order to create a space in which whiteness can be asserted as supreme.

Again, no where near the first person to make this connection. Somehow it just hit me in a way that resonated at a deep and profound level.


Spoilers ahead.

Interstellar was more interesting than good. I enjoyed the use of music, which some people found annoying. It showed a bit of ambition in an otherwise standard film. I’m tired of seeing films in which music, lighting, etc. are used to shape our experience of dialogue rather than as significant modes of artistic expression themselves. Nolan has the capacity to be inventive (Following and Memento were both pretty good), but Interstellar relied a bit much on Nolan’s reputation and the draw of Matthew McCongaughey offering pseudo-profundities. His Cooper comes off as an inverted Rust Cohle. Both are protagonists whose heroism relies on a kind of willing self-destruction, differing only in whether this self-destruction comes from a place of optimism or pessimism (though of course we ultimately discover that Cohle’s nihilistic ranting is rooted in the hope that the light will push back against the darkness).

The most interesting point in the film comes near the end. Cooper sacrifices himself by flying into a black hole. He finds himself in a reality in which time has become a dimension, allowing him to drift through a series of moments in the past. He’s not able to speak to either his past self or his daughter, but he’s able to communicate by knocking objects off a shelf.

I wasn’t sure that this scene made sense, but the real trouble came in Nolan’s effort to explain what was happening. Cooper comes to understand his situation while talking to a robot that entered the black hole at about the same time. Cooper thinks that a future humanity has interceded, creating this reality so that he can provide his daughter with the information necessary to save humanity from the crumbling planet.

This was the part that annoyed me. Most people are familiar with the expression ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’. It’s a great irony that this expression, originally used to describe an impossible task, is now a command central to the American experience. Nolan is effectively undercutting this irony by showing that it is possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Or rather, when we’re struggling to pull ourselves up, future humanity will give us a hand.

The film’s humanist optimism contrasts with the final scenes of 2001. I know there are multiple readings of that film, but I’ve always been partial to an anti-humanist interpretation. I don’t know what the giant floating space baby represents, but there is something disturbing about the final scenes. The future is rich with possibility, but it isn’t the possibility of humanity saving itself. Kubrick’s uncanny conclusion says something more profound about humanity and the future than Nolan’s implicit trust that we’ll figure everything out in the end.

Adventures in philosophy of mind

Over the course of this semester I’ve been working on becoming more familiar with issues in philosophy of mind. In the past I’ve been hesitant to delve into the whole philosophy and neuroscience thing. My reluctance came largely from a suspicion that the average undergraduate finds neuroscience appealing for bad reasons – ‘Science’ is now the great subject supposed to know.

Rather than starting with introductions or classic texts, I decided to enter the conversation through the literature dealing with psychoanalysis and neuroscience. I’d already encountered some of this in the work of Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou, but I’d largely read those texts with an eye on their respective readings of Hegel and contemporary philosophy. Going back and working through the material on neuroscience has been intriguing, but has left me with a few question.

Ansermet and Magistretti’s Biology of Freedom is a prime example of a text that is informative, but failed to answer a key question. They spend a great deal of time summarising the Ansermet and Magistretti strangely reach the conclusion that

the work of psychoanalysis is to decode internal reality by including the processes peculiar to somatic states, that is, by referring in a fundamental way to the drive dimension, so as to allow for direct access to external reality and make possible an action free of fantasy constructions that so greatly interfered with it (178).

My first reaction was to assume that Ansermet and Magistretti might be working with a different understanding of psychoanalysis, but their text contains numerous references to Lacan. Of course, they could still refer to Lacan without adopting his psychoanalytic method tout court, but it’s odd that they refer consistently to Freud and Lacan without serious qualification. For Lacan, the goal of psychoanalysis is the traversal of fantasy, not accessing a world without it. To attempt to access reality ‘behind’ fantasy is to reinscribe and naturalise a particular fantasy. Freedom is not the absence of fantasy, but a particular relationship to fantasy in which we assume a degree of creative control – we learn to collaborate with desire.

The final chapter actually lays out at a similar understanding.

The fact that the inscription of experience by the mechanisms of plasticity creates a distance from experience paradoxically offers a person freedom. It is what gives him [the text constantly uses masculine pronouns – I’m not sure if this a feature of the translation, but it’s weird to see a text published in 2007 that doesn’t use inclusive language] room to move around, an ability to transform himself, to change, to become the author and actor of a process of becoming different from what was programmed by his determinants. Neural plasticity is thus a condition of a possible plasticity of becoming. Plasticity, finally, is what makes it possible for a person in analysis to free himself from the constraints of a rigid fantasy scenario or to make different use of the way it function as a solution, to sue the fantasy instead of being used by it (239).

Here Ansermet and Magistretti offer an understanding of the end of analysis that is closer to the one I describe above, but don’t address how this definition squares with the earlier discussion.

This conclusion also touches on an issue that crops up throughout the book – the relation of plasticity and freedom. Neural plasticity provides an understanding of the malleability of our brains. This ability to change, even at a physiological level, does not equal the ability to intentionally bring about these changes in ourselves. I’m sympathetic to Ansermet and Magistretti’s overall framework for connecting psychoanalytic and scientific understandings of subjectivity, but the book might be more accurately entitled Biology of Change rather than Biology of Freedom. Put another way, the possibility of change is necessary for the possibility of freedom, but that doesn’t mean that the possibility of change equals freedom.

I don’t think understanding the biology of freedom entails rejecting Ansermet and Magistretti’s argument – it’s an issue of going back and supplying a more detailed understanding of plasticity as the ground of freedom. Over the break I’m going to take a crack at Damasio as well as Wexler’s Brain and Culture. Hopefully they’ll help me fill in some of these gaps.

Essay in new volume

I have an essay in a volume just out from Cascade (US, UK – available early 2015). My essay uses Lacan’s four discourses to discuss new approaches to liberation theology.

Here’s the introduction:

Lacan’s four discourses schematize the possible social functions of language. It is the closest he comes to charting the nature of ideology. His description of the imposition and cultivation of master signifiers, as well as the forms of resistance, operates by quarter turns. Moving through the master, university, hysteric, and analyst’s discourses, these turns show how the subject’s alienation from the master signifier generate forms of resistance which are nonetheless indebted to the master signifiers they oppose. This dependent resistance is the focus of this essay. Using Lacan to analyze the relationship between different discourses shows how the imposition of a symbolic regime in the master’s discourse can be simultaneously opposed and maintained by the hysteric’s. This insight is crucial in the consideration of ideology. It is recognising this dependence that leads to a genuine revolution, one which not only changes elements of a particular social or political situation, but changes the understanding of the situation itself.

And my favourite paragraph:

For example, Zizek’s cutting critiques of the master signifiers of our age – capital, liberalism, inclusion, and so on – has produced a great deal of knowledge. Yet, for all the exposing of the contingency of these master signifiers, his work never makes the turn beyond this interrogation. Pointing this out, just as with liberation theology, is not necessarily a criticism. Indeed liberation theology posits different levels of the task of liberation. While configuration may vary between different liberation theologians, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff’s model of popular, pastoral, and professional is typical. There are those engaged in direct action and community organisation, those who lead communities and offer counsel, and those who provide necessary theoretical reflection on those actions and leadership. Given this division, there is nothing to require that Zizek move beyond his interrogations. Nonetheless, until such a quarter turn occurs, we never move from the analysis of an inadequate situation to the production of something new. Moreover, we should not confuse the work of theory with the struggle of praxis. Politically oriented strands of current materialist philosophy are quick to denounce the corrupting influence of religion. While those denunciations bear elements of truth, liberation theology reminds us that if the choice is between philosophical precision and political action, the latter is usually to be preferred.

The volume has essays by a variety of people, including Zizek, Adrian Johnston and Tina Beattie. The essay was the last thing I wrote on Lacan before shifting my focus to Hegel, so it’s kind of bittersweet to see it published.

Continuation through transformation

I’ve been thinking more about this notion of the uncritiquable. Over the weekend I was reading Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ alongside Foucault’s essay of the same name. Foucault famously rejects the label ‘postmodern’ and many have been puzzled by his self-identification with Kant and the project of the Enlightenment. Amy Allen proposes that we understand Foucault’s relationship to Kant as ‘continuation-through-transformation’. Foucault is identifying with Kant’s description of critique as a transformation of the present. Foucault wants to continue this transformation, but in rejecting the global and universal, must pursue this transformation immanently. In short, he has to critique Kant in order to continue the Kantian tradition of transformation through critique.

This continuation-through-transformation seems a workable alternative to the operation Barber describes. While Zizek is guilty of pushing the ‘good’ Hegel, someone like Adrian Johnston finds in Hegel a project worth continuing, but in a way that transforms that project. These approaches don’t, however, devote much time to the questioning and naming of operations.

In contrast, Foucault’s critique (‘genealogical in its design and archeological in its method’) requires this naming of operations as part of the ‘historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond’. I for one find Foucault too dismissive of radical projects, but nonetheless agree with his conclusion:

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.