I’m thinking at a positively glacial pace at the moment, distracted by endless marking and other matters. In the strange half-life of thought that has resulted from this, I’m finding various fragments of recent discussions bouncing off of one another in my memory – largely random, but I think there’s an associative connection somewhere there. I won’t be able to tease out any useful connection here, but perhaps I can preserve a few of the associations for later, more productive, reflection.
A couple nights ago, L Magee poked and prodded me away from my marking to attend a very nice presentation on Habermasian theory, which was followed by a very productive discussion. Strangely, I’m finding that the issue that occupied my attention on the night – a debate over the role of anthropological universals in Habermas’ framework – is not what seems to keep to popping into my thoughts since then. Instead, what my thoughts keep returning to is a phrase used repeatedly by the speaker during both the formal presentation and the subsequent discussion – the claim that Habermas’ framework is designed to illuminate “how can we talk to one another, instead of using violence”. The speaker was suggesting that, by grounding the potential for consensus, Habermas’ approach has also grounded the potential to coordinate our collective lives without violence – positing that these two processes are one and the same, such that grounding one necessarily grounds the other.
The final question of the night was a passionate riposte from a Lacanian critic, challenging the opposition of communication and violence that had structured the talk, pointing to the risk of violence within acts of communication, and challenging the assumption that all dimensions of human interaction and experience could be rationally grasped without a remainder that would escape such a process. The speaker responded by noting the similarity of this position with Adorno’s, but argued that Habermas viewed the positing of such a remainder as a concept pointing tacitly to an an sich – and therefore still bound to a subject-object dualism Habermas rejects. In this reading, transparency evidently follows from the rejection of the subject-object dualism – and the potential for transparency is then posited as the key to the transcendence of violence. The evening concluded with these thoughts still ringing in the air.
For the moment, I’ll leave aside any kind of thorough analysis of this exchange, or of the event as a whole. I don’t personally believe that a move beyond subject-object dualism necessarily entails some sort of claim to universal transparency, or that attempts to speak about the non-identity within identity, as Adorno might have phrased the concept of a remainder, are necessarily gestures toward an an sich. I’ll leave these points aside, however, as I don’t believe this is why my thoughts keep returning to this final exchange. Instead, I think that something about this exchange is reminding me of discussion threads that have floated around this corner of the blogosphere recently, particularly in a series of comments relating to our capacity to desire difference. It may seem slightly perverse to group together a set of discussions about whether it is possible to desire difference, with the issue of whether it is desirable to achieve Habermasian consensus, but this seems to be where my, admittedly rather tired and disjoint, associations are leading at the moment… The common connection seems to be a certain underlying question, revolving around the issue of whether some new kind of personal or intersubjective connection is really what is at stake, when we contemplate what insights recent historical experiences might have allowed us to achieve.
The discussion of the capacity to desire difference originated with a powerful personal reflection by Sinthome at Larval Subjects:
Of course I can say abstractly that I desire difference, that I aim for difference, that I would like to promote difference. But the simple fact that I, for the most part, encounter each and every person that I talk to as being mad reveals, I think, the truth. I confuse the symptoms of others– or better yet, the sinthomes of others, their unique way of getting jouissance –with insanity. I am confusing difference with madness. What I am interpreting as madness– in my bones, in my gut, in the fibers of my being –is in fact difference. And, of course, if I think all of you are mad in your desires, your fixations, your obsessions, your persistant fears, themes, and anxieties, then this must mean that I believe myself to be sane. That’s right, I must believe myself to be normal and healthy. Yet in reflecting on my day to day life, with the way I obsess, the things that I fixate on, the dark fantasies that sometimes inhabit me, the way I don’t allow myself to sleep or enjoy, the varied forms of abuse I heap on my body, and so on, I can hardly say that I am a model of health. No, I don’t have a particularly nice sinthome. I don’t suppose that this is a sinthome that many would want or care to exchange with me. Of course, as Lacan says in Seminar 23: The Sinthome, we are only ever interested in our own symptoms… Which is another way of saying that we never hear the symptoms of others. The symptoms of others are always filtered through our own symptoms.
Perhaps this is “progress”. Perhaps the fact that it is dawning on me that what I so often consider a bit of madness in other persons is really difference or an encounter with otherness qua otherness, is in a way, a traversing of the fantasy, such that I’m recognizing that the frame through which I view the world is just that: a frame. Yet no matter how ashamed I am to admit it as it thoroughly undermines any “theory cred” I might posses (which is scant, to be sure), I wonder if I will ever be able to desire difference. It is one thing to recognize that what one takes as madness is an alternative organization of jouissance. It is quite another thing to find the other’s jouissance tolerable or desirable.
Joseph Kugelmass then picked up on these personal reflections, spinning them in a more political and social direction, and asking whether difference is something that needs to be desired – at least in its substantive manifestations – or whether the issue is more that difference needs to become instead something like an object of indifference:
I was reminded of a marvelous paraphrase of The Republic, from Jacques Derrida’s book on democratic states, Rogues:
[In a democracy one finds] all sorts of people, a greater variety than anywhere else. Whence the multicolored beauty of democracy. Plato insists as much on the beauty as on the medley of colors. Democracy seems—and this is its appearing, if not its appearance and its simulacrum—the most beautiful, the most seductive of constitutions. Its beauty resembles that of a multi- and brightly colored garment. The seduction matters here; it provokes; it is provocative in this “milieu” of sexual difference, where roués and voyous roam about. (26)
In his own roundabout fashion, Derrida follows Plato’s example, but inverts him: Derrida will desire the presence of rogues and vagabonds, will insist roguishly on seduction and shiftlessness, and will hint at debaucheries and even at insurrections. All of which confirms, for us, that democracy is, in LS’s apt phrase, a process of desiring the difference of the Other.
I wonder whether it is reasonable to establish a democracy on these grounds; or whether, in fact, democracy is a best understood as a matter of indifference….
Thus one discovers, at the heart of the democratic principle, not the spectacle of seductive differences, but rather the matter of indifference, as the phrase is used in everyday conversation. It does not mean insensibility, or a lack of interest in what other people volunteer. It is simply a limit placed on what concerns me. I cease expecting others to be fully transparent to me, and I cease to expect them to create environments in which my beliefs predominate. This is the essence of the right to privacy, of toleration, and of the fair exercise of authority.
Interestingly, with this final paragraph Joseph’s concerns react back on the Habermasian project as much as they might on Derrida. Joseph here suggests that perhaps the desire to achieve consensus and the desire to value specific forms of difference might equally involve too great a mutual implicatedness in one another’s lives, too strong a drive to establish an intersubjective connection. Instead, Joseph seems to suggest, what is needed is a greater sense of boundaries between ourselves and our desires, and the selves and desires of others. There’s a certain irony in this position, from a Habermasian perspective – a lovely suggestion that perhaps it’s the systems world after all, with its posited ability to coordinate the consequences of human actions without consensus, that might provide the model for an emancipatory politics – however alienated the form in which this model has become historically manifest…
I’ll apologise here to both Joe and Sinthome, as I’m not trying at all to suggest that either of them was trying to think such thoughts – I’m not even certain that I think such thoughts. For present purposes, I’m simply trying to tease out what’s been nagging me about these various conversational strands – why my tired thoughts seem to have grouped them, as though they might be striking at some common problem. I’m very conscious that these reflections may not have managed to achieve even this modest goal.