Unintelligibility, paradox, and emotion- Deleuze and conceptions of the unconscious in anthropology

This essay is going to be very haphazard and schizophrenic, cover multiple topics at once, because of the distance between what I am reading at the moment. However I will try to spin them all together into a whole, a partial whole. So- it is fashionable nowadays in anthropological literature to criticize the overuse of “Continental buzzwords” and loanwords like biopolitics and deterritorialization. Again- context! If a concept fits, use it! Sure sometimes it is overused at the expense of coming up with new theories or thinking for oneself. But I see a certain trends happening in anthropology- a trend toward totalizing, conceiving the world system as a whole, and the postmodern trend toward incommensurability, cultural relativism, and reflexivity. Zizek likes to critically oppose these two poles- one the one hand is the continuation of the Enlightenment project, of conceiving history and social movements in a dialectical way, and on the other is the Foucaultian-Deleuzian project of history as a discontinuous set of events, each contained in their own cultural world. The only thing that seems to give any sort of continuity to it all is ideology, the continual flux of ideologies and practices that come with it. I believe there are insights in both of these theories.

“Postmodern” anthropology, particularly anthropology that looks at such hot topics such as violence, continues to be a hodgepodge of various theories that are, in describing various topics, very insightful, but depending on the geographical/historical area of study, still widely variant. There are certain trendy topics- a renewed interest in the topic of the Body, and with it all the biopolitics. I am thinking of a current reader, called Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, edited by anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. The selections are not just anthropological canon, but contain excerpts from biographies, accounts of the Holocaust, Foucault and Sartre essays, an ethnography of Cambodia after the genocide, and Michael Taussig’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin. That is- anthropology and critical theory have made an interesting marriage, as applied critical theory. I find that as an anthropologist, even though my desire to contribute “new data” remains salient, there is a consistent lack of secondary or tertiary interpretation in anthropology. The closest we get is the theoretical “ontological turn”, which is another way of saying we have to think about philosophy and create philosophical anthropology. But the practice of philosophical anthropology, the interpretation and critical examination of ethnography, seems to be secondary still to the “holy canon”.

If anthropology is going to continue to make essays like “Why Do you Kill?: The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face and Honor” using anthropological “thick description” to gain insight on deep questions about violence, there needs to be deep theoretical engagement with prior theories. Take theories of violence for example. Inclusion of Stanley Milgram’s obedience study is not enough. We have to take obedience as a sociological phenomenon, and the dynamics of obedience or hierarchy, and essentially make a model. Renato Rosaldo does a good job of doing this in Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage. There was one previous model of ritual, which he contrasts with his own model. I say- go further. Make diagrams, draw maps. How are these models of ritual as microcosmic deep culture and ritual as a busy intersection contrasting? If Rosaldo already has an article on this, then I apologize in advance, but what I’m saying is- MORE THEORY! How do these models of ritual play out in terms of models of human nature- i.e the psyche itself?

Once again, we are back in the trenches of the paradoxical unconscious, all at once possibly the realm of archetypes, dreams, drives, cognitive structures, desiring machines, languages, you name it! If one thing Lacan said is right, it is that the unconscious the biggest discovery of the 20th century, it upends the idea of the enlightened self-conscious entity at the center of the universe, or even at the center of the self. Processes as large as history flow through the individual to the point where the individual is no longer “himself”. This is why, if we are to rehabilitate “psychological anthropology” in the sense of a refocusing on cultural subjectivity, with new ways of thinking about identity, belonging, etc. we must continue to reference those theories of the past about concepts of the Self, what I have been calling Cartographies of Subjectivity. Each culture has one- a map of the soul. It is this deep map of the soul in relation to the world that has the capacity to produce emotions, and they are as informed by experience and everyday events as they are by processes of enculturation. In fact, they often serve to reinforce each other. This in other words is the process by which Ideology reproduces itself. How does the practice of headhunting in the Phillipines reproduce itself? How about the practice of renouncing worldly life in Tibet? We need to begin to think about the unconscious again, it is more important than ever in an age of subliminal advertisement, digital marketing, when capitalism has become the very fabric and texture of reality. How are revolutionary subjects produced? The subject as hunter? As wife, or how about as religious member? I think that the most important concept to remember and continue to say over and over again is Becoming. In a ritual, in a rite of passage, there is fundamentally a transformation, a passion, a becoming, one that has a spiritual pull that is hard to resist, because it is fundamentally communal. This is how one can become ready to kill, ready to serve the nation.

Now we shouldn’t reduce this to a sort of Durkheimian interpretation of ritual as a cultural glue, because its not like the ritual is a kind of “hoax” perpetrated by the elders to ensure order. This is what Nietzsche essentially thought- that religion was a way for hucksters and tricksters to profit off communal religious feeling. Certainly some of that goes on, but it happens much more deeply, at the level of understanding who one is in relation to other people. That is given to you very early. If one has grown up in the environment in which taking another’s life in ritual revenge is compensation for a loved one’s loss, that is simply one’s way of looking at the world- in other words, the spirit of the jaguar actually visits them, they feel it. This is the power of perception over the human mind. And this is what we as moderners have to be burdened with- the knowledge that these mystical experiences, which are quite normal for the “savage”, if experienced, are at best contrived. Castenada could get himself to believe that spirit of the Yaqui had actually visited him until he made a certain leap of faith.

If postmodern anthropology seems too “spacey” to neo-Marxists and neo-materialists, it is because they simply have never had a near-death experience, and don’t realize the way in which for much of the world what matters is not what is right here before us, but the beyond. This pull of the spiritual is a strong temptation, just as the pull of a Communist utopia is a strong spiritual ideal for many people. A transformed world- isn’t that what many people are looking for?

This line of thinking, of criticizing desire for revolution as millenarian, has some legitimate critiques by Marxist thinkers, but my point isn’t to discount the relevancy of material/historical analysis in anthropological thinking- its only to emphasize again that the convictions of an anthropologist, of any writer or philosopher, are fundamentally human or spiritual convictions. The desire to stop violence, to understand or prevent violence, systemic or otherwise, to people and our earth, is a sentiment current anthropology shares as a humanistic discipline. If anthropology is going to take its role seriously as an intellectual enterprise, not an enterprise in remaking the world, it should provide the applied anthropologists of the world with such a deep appreciation for culture as to evince a becoming in the subject. In my case, I desire in the reader a becoming-revolutionary, a becoming-minoritarian, as any good Deleuzian would have it.

At the end of the day, what I’m talking about is the intellectual’s choice of subject matter or area of study- there needs to be not just intellectual commitment, but human commitment. At the end of the day, real people become affected by anthropology, as the writings of Darrell Posey, Michael Taussig, or anyone would explain quite clearly. There is often a certain bond with the host community or family that is very deep. This is not necessary however. I think that the real goal of anthropologist should be to try to shift the culture at home. To hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask- is this all there really is?


Zizek on Deleuze- link to great blog



This blog articulates my exact problem with Zizek’s critiques of Deleuze in Organs Without Bodies, and my problem with Zizek in general (his unexamined reliance on Hegel as the ultimate horizon of how he interprets everything). I haven’t read all of Organs without Bodies, but it seems like just a recap of Badiou in his book on Deleuze, The Clamor of Being.

My individual thoughts on Zizek and Deleuze that aren’t addressed in this blog:

Zizek’s strength is he tends to rely on history more than Deleuze, while Deleuze is more adept at the anthropological literature. This is representative of the essential divide between them- German/Eastern European dialecticism, materialism, historicism, rootedness, or the common sense attitude (even though Zizek would fiercely deny this), and Deleuze’s typical French concerns with “high” artistic culture, literature (Zizek deals a lot more with ‘lowbrow’ and mundane). But even beyond this divide. I really do believe Zizek, who has clearly tried to read all of Deleuze’s literature, did not understand it. He thinks that Deleuze’s poetics of “flows” can be easily reappropriated to capitalist apologetics, but he doesn’t understand that Deleuze was precisely making a model of capitalism when he introduces the concept of flows in Anti-Oedipus. Fundamentally, Zizek’s disdain for Anti-Oedipus is so obviously misplaced, because there is no fundamental engagement or “encounter” with it. He simply goes straight for the conclusions, does not bother with the theory.

Now as for their politics, its true that Deleuze disdains orthodox Marxism, and all hierarchies, while Zizek sees them as necessary for the creation of a new movement to oppose capitalism. But there is more agreement than meets the eye here, and as always, I think that a real dialogue (despite Deleuze’s dislike for this term) could have occurred, simply if Deleuze had lived!! But now we are talking at cross-purposes, because we are attempting to have a dialogue with the dead. It reminds of a quote from an X-files episode, “we always bury the dead alive”. They cry out to us, but we can’t understand them, we can only hear mumbles and imagine what they would have said.

What do I think Deleuze would have said to Zizek? I think he would have said:

Yes, yes, we must reimagine the Left, and capitalism is the enemy, but you yourself know the value of thinking outside the confines of a particular ideology, there are always unseen microfascisms at play, at best we can only make immanent critique, that is the job of a philosopher, this is why you yourself avoid prescription. A philosopher’s job is to create concepts, not be a historian- you have not understood your job description. In your books I see a consistent becoming in you Zizek, a becoming revolutionary, so many becomings, and your books act act as all books should, as rhizomes, as connections to so many territories of thought and culture. These territories are impossible to fully map, the map is not the territory itself. What we can only do, as philosophers, is point the way to certain territories, whether real or imagined. You, Zizek, your job should be that of a cartographer of the imagined territory of post-capitalist life

This is what I believe he would have said to Zizek, he would quickly see that Zizek’s greatest unfinished task is, as he admits, his greatest challenge- imagining the world without capitalism, which as he says is now more difficult than imagining the end of the world.

What rhizomes will form? What new territories will emerge? What is in the process of becoming? Is it too terrible for us to imagine? Deleuze and Zizek’s biggest point of convergence- ecology. Here Zizek has a lot to learn from Guatarri. Ecology- that’s all there ever is, or was. Ecologies- ecologies of ideas, ecologies of people. If all history is class struggle, all history and prehistory is also a complex web of interactions, flows, some that lead to arrangements of rigidity, some that lead to arrangements of plasticity. It is definitely not that Deleuze is not sufficiently Marxian- Marx was not sufficiently Deleuzian, or Nietzschean, or Conradian, or Sitting Bullian, or Black Elkian. What Marx missed is that for all the benefits of abstraction, immanence and detail is primary. Context, context, context, context

We should always attempt to be as Walt Whitman did, and contain multitudes


Short reflection on current trends in popular ideology: Jordan Petersen v. Sam Harris

In terms of popular intellectuals, I see Sam Harris as the archetype of the view to be rejected, for a number of reasons. His background, coming from cognitive science, is essentially a positivist “scientism”, and his views on how beliefs are constructed flow from this paradigm. Harris essentially views the phenomenon of belief in terms of chemical reactions (a reductionist point of view)- when a person believes something, it sends out a positive response from the brain, a dopamine reaction, that creates a kind of feedback loop. In short, it feels good to believe something, even if it isn’t true, especially if that belief makes one feel like one has a life after death, etc. What is the problem with this belief? It is just a modern neuroscientific version of an atheist argument. The problem is Harris abstracts it as a model for all belief, which is where he goes wrong. Harris does not include more complex psychological processes that go with the creation of belief on levels more complex than the neurological- he does not include the familial, the cultural, or the metaphysical (I will explain what I mean by metaphysical or existential). Belief, say in what a human being is relative to the universe, is fundamentally patterned by social group, or culture. Harris knows this, but his model of how culture influences belief is limited/not fleshed out. In short, Harris believes he is writing from a privileged lens, the scientific lens, which is not hampered by superstition or any sort of belief system, even though he has an ideological agenda. That ideological agenda goes as follows- religion, any sort of belief in God or the afterlife, is a BAD belief, it is detrimental to humanity. This is despite the fact that many societies have been fundamentally organized by religious beliefs. Many of these deficits in Harris’ argument are now being pointed out by Dr. Jordan Petersen, a professor of psychology, who includes in his perspective anthropological perspectives, as well as Jungian theory on how humans are driven to find meaning in the world through myth. The inclusion of Jung is a big step in improving the popular conception of religion, which is being heavily influenced by the New Atheists like Dawkins, who idolize science and scientific belief as a new worldview that should overturn religion (an essentially 19th century way of thinking, rationalist in character).

Peterson starts by deconstructing the model of humans as being essentially irrational until the Enlightenment, and then through science became rational people. However, I find his approach to be lacking rhetorically. Peterson starts (in an interview) by referencing the fact that religion is not always the motivator of conflict. A good start. However, his evidence is that chimps also go to war. I find this to be a shoddy use of evidence, given that the close cousin of the chimp, the bonobo, is essentially docile. The book War, Peace, and Human Nature by Douglas Fry is an essential reference on this topic, however Petersen probably is unaware of this book, given that its in the modern anthropological canon. Petersen relies on writers such as Jung, who try to move away from the positivist doxa, but more prescient deconstructions of scientism exist now, in the works of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek, not to mention most of the anthropological canon (Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, etc.) Much more has been written on the structure of the human mind by these theorists. Petersen’s book is called Maps of Meaning– I would find an even more enlightening book (perhaps one I will eventually write) be Maps of the Mind (or Cartographies of Subjectivity, in academic speak). Petersen’s book explores how humans make sense of the world, through religion, etc. What I would explore is how each of these different ideologies (or great thinkers) conceives of the human itself- how does Jung think of the mind? Freud? Then go back to Christian conception of the subject (the soul), contrast it with the modern conception of the subject- in short, a complete version of what Foucault attempted to do (Foucault was limited in his archaeology of the subject to the Western world, but still got pretty far with his work the History of Sexuality). I would try to include more cross-cultural sources- an encyclopedia of how humans think of themselves.

What I’m trying to get at, in a matter of speaking, is that trying to form a way of thinking, a model, about how we think, from a purely scientific perspective, is essentially reductive and limited- it leads back to one source- the baseline of atomic reactions- while a more holistic way of thinking is unending in scope. Its also much more interesting. Sam Harris never fails to be reductive in this way, whenever he tackles some phenomenon related to belief or religion- take Islam and fundamentalism for example- he always reaches the wrong conclusion for this essential reason. He can never include any other reason for why people believe the way they do in his frame of reference. We must always remember the essential wisdom of Buddhist metaphysics- the web of causes and conditions is so complex and multifaceted, it can only truly be comprehended by an omniscient being. Sam Harris always follows the reductionist pattern when talking about Islam because of this- “they hate us because they hate us”.

All human beings have these kind of cosmologies or “maps of meaning”, even if they aren’t religious. We have to because we are, in Heideggerian terms, Dasein or “beings thrown into the world”. Everyone knows the story- we search for the reason why we are here, look up into the stars and wonder why things are the way they are. This fundamental existential level is only conceived through language, which is taught at an early age, and thus all belief is conditioned by culture. It is good to see a real intellectual (Peterson) introduce these concepts to a wider audience and receive a level of respect, and try to drown out the chorus of New Atheist science-worshippers.


More socialist ramblings


The ad hominems continue…

If you follow that link, you will find another half-assed attempt to discredit Zizek and a bogus argument for why he is wrong about Trump and accelerationism. Here is just some of the genius:

“Trump is a loaded, unknown package for the ruling class which is precisely what has made Markets and most sections of the US ruling elite fear him. ”

So that’s why the Stock Market went up in value and continues to climb. Sure Trump represents a degree of instability in the market, but there is no elaboration, no citing of evidence in the critique. The predicted market crash has not come, even though the dollar is expected to lose value. And why? Well the market is based on speculation, like all predictions about Trump. Their guess is not a unified guess. Trump definitely represents a gain for Big Oil, symbolized by his unabashed support for the Keystone XL and DAPL pipelines and his appointment of Rex Tillerson. Considering that Big Oil represents some of the top 10 biggest companies in the world, including Exxon, I expect “most sections of the ruling elite” aren’t as anti-Trump as they think. The situation is perfect, the capitalist personified is power. Those who have the ability to see it have already seen it. The Koch Brothers represent an exception that may give the opposing argument a chance.

Misrepresenting Zizek’s position as “endorsing the far-right” notwithstanding, what does this kind of Leftist position mean, this idea of unified opposition to Trump? Is it the authentic moment we have been looking for? It certainly *feels* like that to some, but then again, politics has always been the realm of dashed hopes and dreams. The audacity of hope should always be questioned.

So the question is, is Zizek too optimistic? Will Trump lead to a resurgence of a radical Left in 2020 and beyond? It should be recognized that Trump is considered a deviation from the normal, and Americans do want change, but a kind of pseudo-change. A certain section of liberal voting class is quite comfortable without shaking things up. The only chance of success seems to be a sort of revenge motive, to get back at Hillary’s wing for letting Trump win, thereby letting the progressives win. These sort of psychodynamics drive American politics, ressentiment and resentment. If this feeling of genuine outrage can be channeled, a left-wing populism can emerge, one that is genuinely frustrated with the DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN parties for not delivering. Even Trump voters will switch over, if caught up in Bernie mania.

Of course, this isn’t enough, but its a start. A start to the end- a foreseeable end to adventurism. The glimmer of hope I see on the horizon- if Americans can protest in airports all across the nation in defense of foreigners who can’t enter the country, they can protest against our interventionism and endless war. They just need to be reminded of what has been there all along- and guilt, I find, is a good psychological tool for awakening this kind of consciousness.

What needs to happen subjectively in the minds of the populace? A kind of psychological shift from rage to compassion? A shared sense of struggle? Perhaps rage and compassion need to come together. Perhaps a politics based on fear and anger is what gives Zizek an ill feeling about the anti-Trumpers, with the accompanying feeling of paranoia. “Will he drop the nukes?” we all wonder. Maybe we need to question why we have nukes at all. We need to move from a political moment to a critique of the broader SYSTEM. Therefore, by definition, the anti-Trump movement as such cannot represent an authentic political revolution. It is only an attempt to return to the status quo as it is- and what we need to wake up to is the pressing reality that what allowed Trump to happen in the first place NEEDS TO BE ERASED

A diversity of struggles need to be integrated. The fight against the military-industrial complex, Big Pharma, Big Oil, Wall St.- in short, capitalism itself. In other words, the government is not the primary enemy. It is the pullers of the puppet strings- and we need to remember that