Archive for August 2007
I just want to get this idea out there before it fizzles. That is to say, this isn’t a completely researched thought, just an observation with some meat on it.
Yesterday I read an Alter Net article, written by Tad Daley, about Why Progressives Should Care about Human Destiny in Space. If you don’t know, Alter Net is a self-identified liberal news-outlet, and attracts probably a largely self-identified liberal readership. In light of that I was surprised, though not entirely, by the comments in response to this reasonable plea for renewing interest in and funding for space travel. Most of them were negative, and either flat-out called space travel a pipe-dream or, while not objecting to space travel in the abstract, argued that we should “focus on making life better on Earth first.”
This kind of response, though particularly the latter, stinks of the ideological rationale Zizek attributes to the regression of Left Wing politics. It’s what Zizek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology borrowing from Peter Sloterdijk, argues as “Cynicism as a Form of Ideology.” In America at least, we know very good and well that the space program is underfunded by all standards. However, the most common critique against the space program, the most popular among even liberals, is that it costs too much. No one is for one minute going to say that defense spending or consumer goods cost less than the space program, and yet no one is going to suggest that these areas should be gutted before something like the space program is. In other words, they know perfectly well that the space program doesn’t cost nearly as much money as most other areas of spending, private or public, though they act as if it did.
Daley notes that Carl Sagan made with some prescience the observation that space travel is subversive. That comes from a passage in Sagan’s most famous book, Contact, which couchs the subversive quality of space travel in a context of nationalism. It’s subversiveness goes beyond the vulgar politics of nationalism though. It is obvious that seriously turning our collective activity towards space travel means turning it away, not from the poor, the sick, or the environment, but from Capitalism. It means turning the frenetic activity of Capitalist production and the kind of activism it allows into useful and directed endevours—not just space travel, but all the ills of this planet and its inhabitants.
To most liberal-progressives seriously turning towards space travel appears as impossible, if not utterly invisible. To the extent that it doesn’t, to the extent that science gives us glimpses of its feisability, it appears to them as repugnant. This is why they will reproach the space program in terms of helping the poor, the sick, or the environment. It is this impossibility or grotesque closeness of revolutionary change that Zizek critiques in Repeating Lenin. What is maintained in the cynics’ reproach is not the possibility of better alternatives to how we organize society or treat the Earth, but the positive impossibility of any alternatives.
The point is obviously not that we can create utopia if we establish a colony on the moon or whatever. Rather, it is an ardent rejection of the “until this…” rationale that we apply to serious endevours like feeding the world, going to the stars, taking better care of the environment, or all of those at the same time, which feigns practical caution when all it is reactionary, false pragmatism. It is not that utopia flows from the rocket exhaust as we barrel towards Mars, but that opening up the possibility to as species collectively enact those kinds of projects embodies freedom.
Chiming into a fascinating arc concerning pedagogy and psychoanalysis, starting first over at Spurious and continuing at Larval Subjects, I was caught by a superb comment made by Dr. Sinthome. It doesn’t have a singular effect, but a number of thought-provoking moments, which I’d like to respond to here.
The way in which the analyst comports himself towards the analysand resembles the way in which Socrates comported himself towards his interlocutors. Socrates’ interlocutors always manifest the quality of hubris in that they take themselves to be masters of what they’re saying, and to have knowledge of something in particular. Because these subjects take themselves to be complete they are unable to think or learn, for why would someone think or learn if they did not experience themselves as lacking? Just as we do not eat when we’re full, we do not think when we experience ourselves as being complete. Socrates’ strategy is to alienate these subjects from themselves, revealing that they do not know what they think they know. In this, perhaps, they will begin to pursue what they lack. Socrates is thus a sort of Lacanian analyst.
This reminded me of a short Buddhist parable. A farmer had traveled far to meet the Buddha, and explained to him that he had problems that he was promised could be availed by the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha remained silent. After a moment, the farmer just went into listing his problems– lousy crops, disrespectful children, nagging wife, etc– while the Buddha said not a word. The man hesitated, but then asked the Buddha how to get rid of these problems. The Buddha remained silent. The man began to get angry, and said he was told the Buddha expounded great teachings that would solve everything. The Buddha then spoke, saying that everybody has problems—83 different kinds to be exact, only one or two of which with great concentration may in a lifetime be overcome—and that his teachings would not solve this man’s problems. The farmer, now furious, interrupted him and angrily lamented his even coming; that the Buddha’s teachings were supposed to be great, and apparently are no good to him. The Buddha, while not interrupting, quickly responded that his teachings would be good for the 84th problem this man suffers. The man calmed down again– what’s the 84th problem? The Buddha said with tone of missed-obviousness: you want to have no more problems.
What I struck me the most in this parable, which I heard elsewhere before, but recently saw in Steve Hagen’s “Buddhism: Plain and Simple,” is the uninterested and yet serious position the Buddha takes. What is important is not addressing the farmer’s problems per se, but bringing him back to see that he glossed over his real problem. While not attacking hubris in the same way as Socrates, what is criticized is the assumed clarity to our own self-consciousness. What’s more is that the Buddha’s invitation to consider the 84th problem is analogous to the analyst taking up the position of the unconscious formation of this man’s Real problem.
As for the issue of abdicating the position of the master, that is far more difficult. A number of professors I know take strong positions in the classroom. I think this is a mistake, as it situates you in the position of the master. Instead, I strive to make my position as indeterminate as possible, arguing now this case, now that case, without ever revealing which case I advocate. When I teach Nietzsche I’m passionately Nietzschean. When I teach Augustine, I’m passionately Augustinean. When I teach Kierkegaard, I strive to completely advocate for the knight of faith, only to turn around the following week and advocate for Sartre’s heroic atheism. In short, I refuse to endorse any position or reject any position, returning the question to my students whenever they ask me which position is right.
This little gem stuck out magically, but what follows in the comment that follows is typical: “I also like your ’schizophrenic’ teacher/master, who adopts/simulates all roles to create a post-identity form of teaching in the favour of becoming multiple.” This is a mistake, and I’d like to consider why.
The multiplicity explicit in how Sinthome describes his technique is not the point to why he does it. That little bit I have in bold crumbles this, because in refusing to accept or reject any position, he is not making a gesture towards multiplicity, which still pre-supposes (imaginary) identities. In the last paragraph (p. 276) of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis Lacan, speaking of the analyst’s desire, says
It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with a primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it.
In this sense, what Sinthome suggests he is doing in the classroom is intervening in any imaginary identification with any of the apparent positions he may take. They are not the point though. The primary reason they even come close to that is because a class is always about some subject, and it is inevitable that a position is taken. The trick is in taking a position that at the same time, in the same gesture evinces what (that there is) is lacking in it.