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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Philosophy Club Season Finale: Bringing it Home with the Body without Organs

It's amazing what you can find out there on the Internet these days. The attractive Deleuze and Guattari cosmetic bag pictured left can be had for $36.95 and is guaranteed, as the Zazzle folks responsible for its production point out, to "hold all your small items - rhizomatically!" This is a relief. Especially given this dynamic duo's suspicion of those more ordered, highly stratified, systems for arranging things. Just what D & G would make of staring out at the world from the surface of an item more in keeping with that other D & G is quite another matter. Capitalism and consumerism-gone-mad aside, these two heavyweight thinkers and frequent philosophical collaborators would no doubt get a posthumous kick out of the fact that the only decent online photograph to be had of them is on the side of a clutch. Did I mention that I've added it to my Santa list? Did I mention that all I really want for Christmas is a brand new, shiny red Body without Organs?

If only it was that easy: popping a Deleuze-Guattarian BwO into your online shopping cart and clicking on the checkout button. Trouble is, you can't do that. Fact is, a BwO is like one of those olde tyme Christmas gifts of yesteryear: you have to make it. And though, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, it's a question of life and death to get one, it was the actual mechanics behind fashioning ourselves a Body without Organs (BwO) that had us worried as the season finale got under way last Thursday.

In many ways, it was an activity that brought our Autumn 2013 Philosophy Club series to a fitting close. Not that endpoints (or for that matter, starting points) count for much in the realm of post-structuralist thinking. Not that always-in-the-middle positioning isn't as integral to Gilles Deleuze's (1925-1995) general project as it is to that of the other post-structuralist thinkers we've looked at in this series.  But going out with a creative 'big bang' did help to shed important light on some of the less, shall we say, grounded post-structuralist pathways we've traveled down these last couple of months: rendering tangible and palpable Julia Kristeva's positing of the revolutionary semiotic; injecting corporeal vigour and flow into Jacques Derrida's critique of Western Philosophy's privileging of the metaphysics of presence. Besides which, it was fun: catching a thrill-seeking 'line of flight' out of those structures, systems, institutions, organisms - call them what you will! - that attempt to organize and tame us; grappling with the everyday practicalities associated with embodying Deleuzian concepts like becoming-imperceptible, becoming-woman, becoming-animal.

With regard to the latter, we had Marianne's new golden retriever Johnny Rover on hand to give us some pointers on becoming-dog - becoming a BwO - not through imitating him or acting like him, but through engaging with the world as he does: taking the time to smell the roses not in a figurative sense but quite literally; the act of 'seeing' life by way of our nose, as Johnny does, opening the door to new ways of experiencing and perceiving that are ripe with possibility, a riff of desire. For indeed, the BwO is desire in the Spinozist way of understanding the term: desire as in our very striving; desire as in an active life force. And it is perhaps not surprising that the influence that 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (to whom our Spring 2013 Salon series was devoted) had upon Gilles Deleuze is at its most pronounced in the reading that we were bouncing off of as we made our bodies into 'desiring machines', into BwOs: "November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?"

Taken from Deleuze and Guattari's door-stopper of a meaty text, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia (1988), the date noted in the above-mentioned 'chapter' title (the authors prefer to call it a 'plateau,' suggesting a continuous and experiment-ridden 'region of intensity' rather than the usual rise, development, climax and fall of the bookish 'chapter,' but you get the drift...) pays tribute to French playwright and poet Antonin Artaud's declaration of war on the organs whilst recording his radio play, To be Done with the Judgement of God, on this date. As it happens, the play was banned prior to broadcast, and France's radio audience wouldn't hear Artaud's thoughts on organs - "When you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom" - until 30 years later. But Deleuze was an earlier convert to Artaud, and found much to his liking in Artaud's anti-organ crusade. More importantly, Deleuze derived from it a sense of where the true enemy lay: not in organs, as such, but in the organism into which those organs become organized, sedimented, stratified. No Flow, No Go, would seem to be Deleuze's rallying call. And in the spirit of 1960s-style radicalism, Let Your Organs Run Free!

In line with this bodily striving to free oneself from The Organism, from The Man, is the shedding of a firm point of view. Maintaining that standing firm detaches you from the vital flow of life, Deleuze insists that you get out there on the plane of consistency, in that energy field known as immanence, and CIRCULATE! The more encounters you make, the better. Vive experimentation and forgetting! Merde to interpretation and anamnesis! Freud is out - no more finding your 'Self'...Instead, get dismantled, man! Go forth and multiply, mutate and variegate, mate! - and so is Plato. All you need to know in life is no longer buried deep down inside you, waiting for some know-it-all Philosopher King to come along and help you birth it. Rather, it's just one big experimental swim out there and the more you dip your toe in - the more you don't know what you didn't already know - the more life has to offer. In other words, the object of the exercise is to get creative and connect, conjugate, continue; it's to bite off more than you can chew and, as American Idol's Randy Jackson might add, Make it Yours, Dawg!

Sound like a good time? Well, Philosophy Club members could see where the pitfalls might lie. And even Deleuze hastens to warn that, taking it to extremes - all line of flight, no plot to land - can be bad for your health. But on the whole, we were an interpellated lot: keen to clambour up there onto a launching pad and swing between the surfaces that stratify us and the plane that sets us free; keen to revisit our everyday practices and processes with an eye to being looser, somehow...Less invested in established meaning, more open to making anew and anew and anew. In a couple of weeks, wwp club members meet up North at the Nurtury to mark this challenging and exciting intellectual journey we have taken together with a potluck post-structuralist lunch. Let's just say that the proof of just how loose will be in the pudding.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Strangers to Ourselves: On Getting to Know Julia Kristeva

In the penultimate session of our current six-week Philosophy Club series devoted to all things post-structuralist, we turned last Thursday to the question of 'foreignness' as explored and theorized by philosopher, psychoanalyst and novelist, Julia Kristeva. Born in Bulgaria in 1941, Kristeva made her way to Paris as a post-graduate student in 1965. She arrived, in other words, at that crucial moment where, out of the intellectual groundwork laid by  linguistic and anthropological structuralism, the first errant sparks of a new kind of thinking were erupting. Peculiarly French and particularly cerebral, the next few years would be marked by a proliferation of writings that hammered out the terrain of this heady and headstrong challenge to conventional wisdom: writings by people such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Philippe Sollers and Roland Barthes. At the epicentre of this literary maelstrom was the movement's mouthpiece, Tel Quel; and amidst the voices most vocal in this radical left-wing journal that heralded the plurality of language and the instability of meaning was a voice that was not male, not French: that of Julia Kristeva. And though she has always run with the boys and, unlike her more feminist-identifying philosopher contemporaries Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, hastened to align herself theoretically and politically alongside the boys, her voice has continued to bring something to the post-structuralist table that is distinctly not of the boys. Nowhere in Kristeva's writing is this not-of-ness more apparent than in her painstaking investigation of what it means to be a foreigner, Strangers to Ourselves (1989).

When I say "painstaking," I mean it in a double sense: pains-taking in that Kristeva's monumental survey of how foreignness in the Western world has manifested itself and been dealt with both historically and literally is extraordinarily thorough; pain-staking in that her evocative descriptions of the foreigner's experience stab you right where it hurts, go straight to the heart of the matter. In the chapter of her book that we had read in preparation for this session, Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner, the pain that stakes was clearly in the driving seat - and this, one couldn't help but feel, because it drew on what Kristeva herself had lived firsthand. In light of Kristeva's assertion that it is only the foreigner who believes herself to have a biography - to have any life at all - this turn to the autobiographical for this particular exploration of the link between difference and identity (the meat and potatoes, as we have seen, of many a post-structuralist ponder) comes as no surprise. What did give us pause for thought, however, was Kristeva's main argument: that the foreigner in fact "lives within us," thereby troubling the line traditionally drawn between 'self' and 'other'; that only in resisting the urge to make of the foreigner's so-called 'otherness' a thing - something solid and permanent and nameable - can we escape the hatred, the burden, that so often accompanies our encounter with that 'other' (who is, at the end of the day, none other than our 'self').

So yes, pause for thought. And a demanding pause at that. Learning just how to treat otherness in a way that sidesteps the fall into damning and damaging 'thingness' was a challenge in itself: facilitated by listening to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor - that combination of scurrying virtuoso flight and polyphonic contrapuntal exposition exemplifying, for Kristeva, the push and pull of an "otherness barely touched upon and already, it moves away"; rendered palpable through a recording of the wonderful May Swenson (1913-1989) reading her poem, Question - the rhythmic cantor of her voice bringing into sharp focus those bodily, extra-linguistic aspects of words that Kristeva feels we all too often neglect and that, through their disruptive workings, take the sting out of 'thingness'.

Having paved the way to an understanding of Kristeva's primary concerns through these exercises in aurality, we got down to some good old Kristevian brass tacks. Here was yet another post-structuralist take on the de Saussurian 'sign': in this case, its failure to account for the bodily drives and affects. Here was yet another post-structuralist reworking of a seminal structuralist construct: in this case, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's Symbolic Order.

With regards to that persistent 'sign,' Kristeva's main contribution has been to herald the arrival of a new player on the signified/signifier/sign scene: the realm of the semiotic, which is prior to 'the word' - in other words, a baby's sentient and tactile engagement with her mother (and other 'others') before she enters the language system - and yet, for all that it is prior, still integral to and constitutive of 'the word'.

As for Lacan, this latter assertion is what sets Kristeva apart from him. For whereas Lacan sees the child's entry into the language system (or Symbolic Order) as being accompanied by a violent break with those primal bodily impulses which, subsequently, can only manifest themselves within the new initiate (not to mention within language more generally) as a gap, an absolute loss, Kristeva is far less cut and dry: seeing in language's very materiality - its rhythms, its pulsations, its stops and starts and flows - plenty of evidence of those early semiotic stirrings; seeing in the Symbolic Order the presence of another kind of ordering mechanism that slips between the cracks of conventional meaning-making and signification.

Of course, it is easier to spot this particular aspect of language - language's material 'other', if you like - in certain forms of literary expression, such as poetry. But even when it goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, Kristeva insists, it is there: a fluid and motile genotext springing leaks in more meaning-focused phenotext; an unruly intruder into the smooth flow of information transmission that makes of language, of communication, an always split, an always impossible, unification. It's the relation that prohibits the totality. It's the other in the self. It is, as Kristeva would have it in the context of Strangers to Ourselves, the foreigner who lives within us. Which begs the question that Kristeva indeed asks:

"How to promote the togetherness that we all in fact are, rather than see foreigners as those that we welcome into our system so long as we can obliterate them?"

Pauline Marois, take note. Unless, of course, self-obliteration is the object of the exercise. A better option for Quebec? Embrace the heterogeneity of cosmopolitanism and, like the good toccata and fugue, keep repeating the differences of otherness rather than leveling, so as to forget, them. An interesting Kristevian twist, this, on "Je me souviens"...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Deconstructing Derrida: Philosophy Club Week 4

It's a strange thing, but only a day or so after this past Thursday's Philosophy Club session devoted to the ideas of the 'father' of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, did I realize that never, at any point over the course of the evening, had the subject of Derrida's life come up. For wine women and philosophy, I believe this is a first. Over the past 6 years of philosophizing together, there is always some biographical detail of whoever we happen to be discussing that seeps into the conversation. But with Derrida, nada. Not a word about his birth in 1930 into a Sephardic Jewish family in Algeria; not a mention of his teaching appointments at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and the University of California, Irvine; not a whisper of his death at the age of 74 from pancreatic cancer. 

And perhaps, in a way, this is fitting. For the man best known for his coining of the now famous phrase, "there is nothing outside the text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte), this omission of the biographical could be seen, perhaps, as the ultimate Derridean move. On the other hand, it could point to an understandable, if not entirely forgivable, oversight: a less than glaring absence wholly attributable to the relative blandness of Derrida's life story when compared to that of his more colourful Continental Philosopher confreres. Just seeing Derrida's life lined up alongside those that play a starring role in this latest Philosophy Club series on post-structuralism, for instance, supports this thesis: there is no murder of a wife and subsequent banishment to the insane asylum (Althusser); no death by laundry van after dining with President Mitterand (Barthes); no leather queen antics or controversial 'failure to disclose' stances following a diagnosis of AIDS (Foucault); no jumping from windows when handed - as Derrida was - a fairly dismal medical prognosis (Deleuze). No, it has to be said that Derrida's life doesn't exactly leap off the page (leap out of the text?!) when compared to that of his friends and colleagues. 

At the same time, it can't be said that this prolific and prodigious writer and thinker never caused a stir. For example, when in 1992 Derrida's name was put forward to receive an honorary degree from Cambridge University, more than a few donnish feathers were ruffled. In fact, what should have been, as the French say, "une simple formalite", turned into a bit of debacle, with certain senior members of the voting committee staunchly protesting his nomination on the grounds that what he was doing in the name of philosophy was not real philosophy, and even more worryingly, that his misguided contributions to the field threatened to dismantle the whole Western project known as philosophy. 

In the end, Derrida got his degree. But not before the debate over what, exactly, constituted Philosophy with a capital 'P' and who, exactly, got to call themselves a Philosopher (again, with a capital 'P') had shifted into the public forum and filled a good many inches of British newspaper. It was, in the eyes of some, a major showdown in a field not always seen as particularly newsworthy. It was, in Derrida's view, a perfect illustration of the kind of tyrannical hold that logocentric, origin-fixated, identity-based 'what is' thinking has always had on philosophy - a hold that his expose of the limitations inherent in seeing the world in terms of binary oppositions and his playful debunking of the age-old quest for a "transcendental signified" was actively challenging.

Er, right...So here we were again, caught up in that old de Saussurian love triangle: signified, signifier, sign. And not without the odd groan and grumble too. But the night was young. And hope lay in that dangling carrot of an adverb, 'playful'. Not that there had been much playfulness to speak of in our assigned reading for the week, Derrida's "Letter to a Japanese Friend" - none, at least, that was immediately apparent. Not that Derrida's attempts to clarify for Professor Izutsu the ins and outs of 'deconstruction' in order that the latter come up with a suitable Japanese translation of the word left us feeling any more in (the inner post-structuralist circle) than out. 

But as we struggled on in our quest to unpack deconstruction alongside other key Derridean terms -  differance, ecriture, supplement, pharmakon - Derrida's insistence that we embrace the play, hence proliferation, of meaning (rather than pin meanings down into single stable categories) and that we apply to structures, too, this same kind of thinking - seeing them as a 'play of relations' rather than as solid immovable entities attached to a central point of origin - brought with it a glimmer of insight into just what play could do. Furthermore, as he gently poked holes in de Saussure's limited understanding of difference - and this, in spite of the crucial role it occupies in de Saussure's conception of language as a system, as a structure, organized around the arbitrary relationship of signifier to signified - we began to see Derrida's deconstructive play at work. As Derrida pointed to the inconsistencies inherent in de Saussure's insistence that language was a system of differential relations whilst adhering, still, to the idea of an ordering and stable sign, the idea of play as a fraying and fracturing force - not a frolic with a game plan - became clearer still. 

This tendency towards inconsistency Derrida also saw in de Saussure's privileging of speech over writing, because it was - as de Saussure argued - that much closer to original thought. Challenging de Saussure's positing of writing as speech's poorer cousin - a watered-down derivative of, a step yet further removed from, active and fully in-the-now talk - Derrida not only counters this privileging of presence and origins by making writing his life's primary concern; he also shows how even difference-sensitive de Saussure falls into the Western philosophical trap of creating hierarchies through binary thinking (in this case, the privileging of presence over absence) and moreover, an identity-based binary opposition in which difference can find no identify, slips completely between the cracks. In privileging speech's inferior 'other', Derrida doesn't so much reverse the binary opposition as topple it: pushing difference into the equation and creating of it a writing, a textuality, that has a politics and is, in itself, a political intervention.

As for his famous statement that "there is nothing outside the text," Derrida always maintained that this idea - like so many of his ideas -  had been largely misunderstood. This, in part, because we are so used to comprehending things by way of those either/or, present/absent binary oppositions - that frustratingly reductive "you're either with us or against us thinking"; this, in part, because of our inability to see language as the structuring mechanism it is - as the only context through which we come to see and think our world. Replace the word 'context' with 'text,' Derrida seemed to be saying, and people wouldn't really have been so alarmed by it. 

And contrary to what people might have thought, Derrida was extremely concerned with what lay outside the text: things like the living and breathing and feeling affective body; things like those rare and odd human experiences that came to us unmediated by language and that worked away in us and on us prior to their taming by, and pinning down into, inadequate words. Suggesting that the only way to truly 'capture' those material aspects of life in writing would be to tap a syringe-like pen directly into a vein and let the body's life force pour straight out there onto the page, Derrida was somewhat pessimistic about ever getting to the real real of life through anything that stung of language. But in writing and rewriting and unwriting, he wrote difference into the picture. And he gave us an entirely fresh and revolutionary insight into making the meanings we think we have to live by anew - over and over and over and over again.