Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

A Larval Festschrift

Sinthome’s Larval Subjects posted its first entry on 21 May 2006. Today therefore marks (Australian time, at least), the close of the first year of this extraordinary blog. This anniversary sees me thinking back to my own discovery of the site. I can remember spending a month or so lurking and gathering courage before testing the waters with a trivial comment. I followed this with a belated post here on one of Sinthome’s reflections on the symptomatic forward-directedness of academic work, and then hazarded a comment on Sinthome’s reflections on the US elections. I eventually got around to asking several naive questions about Lacan, not suspecting that this would lead to an extended collaborative conversation that continues to this day.

I’m not sure what gift is appropriate for a blog’s first birthday. I hope perhaps a brief look back at the earliest post might not be misplaced. Sinthome has occasionally expressed uncertainty about the continuity of the materials posted to the blog. Blogs, of all forms of writing, owe readers no such thing, and yet I do tend to see a strong consistency in the central themes and concerns of this particular blog – and my reading of the inaugural post is compatible with this impression.

The first post at Larval Subjects wrestles with the complementarity between Lacanian theory and critical philosophy, and introduces the blog’s recurrent concern with how philosophy can reconceptualise itself in a form adequate to two historical insights that both point toward the need to reject transcendent standpoints: the shift toward materialist explanations, and the collapse of belief in the identity of the subject.

The post begins with an excerpt from Nietzsche on the death of God, which Sinthome immediately relates back to the Lacanian notion of the non-existence of the big Other:

In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes,

“The Madman. Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why? is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated? – the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event – and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!” Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. “I come too early,” e then said. “I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling – it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star – and yet they have done it themselves!” It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: ‘What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?’” (paragraph 125).

I will not here enter into a long discussion of Nietzsche’s narrative as to how we came to kill God. This is not a joyous proclamation– though it may have joyous consequences –but a lament. As Lacan argues, traversing the phantasy lies not so much in coming to see how we are castrated, fissured, or non-identical, but rather coming to see how the big Other through which we organized our desire does not itself exist. That is, the very co-ordinates of our world, desire, and identity collapse when we come to discern the non-existence of the big Other. This comes out most clearly in Descartes’ third meditation, where we are shown how God is not simply the guarantor of the truth of clear and distinct ideas, but of our very being or existence. In this precise Lacanian sense, then, both atheist and theist can still think prior to the death of God.

Sinthome argues that the problem posed by this story is not simply that of a rejection of theism, but rather the more fundamental issue of how we coordinate ourselves in a world without some sort of transcendent standpoint with reference to which meaning and identity could be fixed:

The central “onto-theological” assumption is not so much that of God– God, as Descartes argues, is only a guarantor of that which cannot be guaranteed by our senses or appearances –but rather the assumption of the One. Whether the One be substance remaining identical throughout change such as Descartes’ wax, or the one of a transcendent form immune to the distortions of images, appearances, and sophists, or whether it be the one of personal identity or a subject that is the same despite all its ever changing thoughts, or the one of a holistic universe where everything is interconnected and harmonious, or the one of a state, the one is always the avatar of theological thought. As such, the death of God signifies first and most fundamentally the end of the primacy of the One in whatever form it might take. To announce the death of God is, as both Deleuze and Badiou have declared, to simultaneously declare that the One, the identical, the same, is only a product, a result, a term-become rather than a foundation or first. As such, metaphysics in the wake of God is a metaphysics that seeks to think difference first and to see identity as a result or product. That is, we must be vigilant in tracking down and eradicating all remainders of theology within such a thought.

Characteristically, Sinthome draws this point back to the ethical question of what happens when philosophies of identity come to be translated into practice – or, more tacitly, to the inability of philosophies of identity to provide critical purchase when we are confronted with movements or institutions that aim at the (inevitably coercive) establishment of identity:

Philosophically those ontologies premised on identity or the One as their first principle issue in irresolvable problems. Ethically and politically such philosophies are premised on the predominance of the Imaginary, the yearning for totality, completeness, and wholeness, as can be seen in Augustine’s example of the army and the city. The problem is that such organizations are inherently conflictual. As Plotinus, another thinker of the One will write when describing beauty and purity, “If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him: his ugly condition is due to the alien matter that has encrusted him, and if he is to win back his grace it must be his business to scour and purify himself and make himself what he was” (Ennead I, sixth tractate, paragraph 5). This little parable ought to serve as the skeleton key for all philosophies of the One. Every desire for the One– whether in the form of identity, collective unity, the holism of the universe, etc. –is always accompanied by this “foul stuff that besmearches” it or the alien matter that must be eradicated. As such, we must ask whether it’s possible to formulate a politics beyond the One, beyond identification, beyond identity, and an ethics beyond the same. Lacan expresses this entire dialectic well in his discourse of the master.

Sinthome concludes the post with a challenge – asking how we can reformulate a conception and a practice of philosophy that would be adequate to these historical insights and ethical concerns:

Thus another way of formulating the question of the death of God is to ask what a philosophy that was not premised on the discourse of the master would look like.

Jumping forward from this post to the present, we see Sinthome currently deeply engaged with unfolding a series of philosophical concepts intended to grasp how abstractions or identities might be generated – but seeking to understand such entities within a resolutely materialist framework that can grasp such identities precisely as products or effects – as things that have arisen, and that can fade away. In a recent post, Sinthome expresses this in the following way:

The arabesque is like a unity or a figure that emerges out of a heterogeneous background and maintains itself in time. This would be one way of thinking about N.Pepperell’s abstractions: Namely as unities that emerge in a complex field, that “select themselves out” as it were, and maintain some stable unity in time or against plurality, forming a particularly potent tendency within the field out of which they emerge. All of this is still very vague and the dynamics would differ from system to system and would have to be approached from a variety of different perspectives depending on whether we were talking about social systems, physical systems, psychic systems, etc, but perhaps it is some small start in simultaneously thinking these buzzing networks and the unities, along with the material reality of those unities, that emerge out of them. I end with an enigmatic remark by Whitehead that underlines my thesis that rhetorics aren’t simply about something, but are something: “…[A] proposition is the unity of certain actual entities in their potentiality for forming a nexus, with its potential relatedness…” (24). Note that he does not say a proposition represents the unity of certain actual objects, but that it is the unity of certain actual objects.

So we have here the unfolding of a set of philosophical concepts – however preliminary – based on capturing multiplicity, which are intended to support a notion of practice based on a conception of the materiality of communication: would it be fair to characterise this as a response to the sort of challenge with which the blog begins?

Sinthome describes the blog as a space in which philosophical larvae may safely unfold:

Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

It feels to me as though the recent posts show a growing determinacy in relation to some of the blog’s early questions – as though perhaps some of Sinthome’s larval subjects are gradually assuming a more definite shape, hinting to us the forms into which they will grow. It will be exciting to see how this and other trajectories of thought develop in the coming year – through which combinations of continuities, breaks, and – especially – novel creations.

One response to “A Larval Festschrift

  1. Pingback: Rough Theory-- The Awww Shucks Edition « Larval Subjects .

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