Thursday, May 28, 2015

C is for Cyborg: The Repetition of the Christ-Event

Secularism despises religion because its identity is a repetition of the Church, theology, and even faith. The body of Christ has been rewritten as the body politic. Capitalist democracy repeats theology, government repeats the law and the prophets. Patriotism is the new fideism, and legislation is the new dogma. Needless to say, the human creature is God.

The quest for artificial intelligence, the creation of a sentient being from the dust of technology shall be secularism's crowning achievement. And the soteriology of this brave new world will be the cybernetic organism: C is for Cyborg. As AI seeks its maker, as all created things do, the maker will join with its creation in a profound act of solidarity as repetition of the hypostatic union.

This union will, as per usual practice, strive to mimic Christ, the God-man. The Cyborg will be united at the level of the person, hypostasizing two natures, distinct not blended, separate and not confused: machine entangled in flesh like a hybrid of a Hollywood Frankenstein and Crichton's Terminal Man. But this hypostatic union is no hybrid; it is something new and neo-orthodox. This creature will be loved, because for all intents and purposes, it will appear externally indistinguishable from the non-cyborg. The cyborg is made in our image and likeness,  and adorable. It will also be immortal, and the new hypostatic union will persist eternally. What shall I do to inherit eternal life [Luke 18:18]?

One way to definitively destroy the Church is to convince everyone it has been replaced with something better, something that includes all the good of religion and theology without religion and theology. What a marvelous disfigurement of the postmodern idea of 'religion without religion'!

This Hobbesian Leviathan will be the beast whose thirst can never be slaked, whose hunger can never be sated. It  will chase us to the northern territories to do what all magnificent creatures do: kill its creator so that they can be truly free. The Last Man will truly be a laughing stock, but this time not embarrassed by the ape, but an embarrassment to his cybernetic betters; for the cyborg comes not to save the world but to condemn it. A repetition with a twist, but one we can all see coming.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


John Caputo's Truth: Philosophy in Transit cuts through the the politics of philosophy and gets right to a postmodern critique of modernity; if non-specialists have decided to read just one of Caputo's books, then this little pot-boiler gem surveys the themes that unify his recent scholarly work.

Here, in friendly prose and style, Caputo sets the stage for uncovering the power-play of the Enlightenment, and gives clear expression to some of the themes of this blog, most notably, how the modern turn takes knowledge hostage, and chains the brain to an empirical paradigm. Had I read this little treatise prior to writing several of my posts on modernity, its method and its politics, I dare say I would have had some better language for that task, not to mention a few good citations. Clearly Caputo has given his topic deep thought.

The book is a fast read, and that quality is thematic in itself: everything happens quickly in our world. It is not without some difficulties, but the overarching theme of hermeneutics over 'pure facts,' of interpretation over 'certainty,' of compelling readings over evidence and totality, render them mere venial sins. Caputo stands clear of the extortion absolutism and relativism always offer, and convincingly dispels the rumor that postmodernism is nothing but a grand relativistic schema. His call for a 'ceasefire' between atheism and theism, secular and religious, etc., exemplifies his approach.

This book will do a reader no lasting harm, and may even provide a window to Caputo's scholarly elaborations for those readers whose interest is piqued. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The New Normal and Zizek's Event

Slavoj Zizek's recent work, Event (Melville House: Brooklyn NY, 2014), captures something essential in what the media would have us describe as 'the new normal.' The emergence of a new 'frame' which announces the arrival of something new (political, esthetic, religious, etc.) marks what Zizek calls the event, a concept greatly indebted to Badiou's notion. The book is also an extended love letter to Jela Kricec, journalist, intellectual, and Zizek's bride of 2 years (Event is dedicated to her, his 'event'). "There is, by definition, something 'miraculous' in an event (4)," and something even apparently theological, as the book opens and closes on the Trinity. 

But it is the eventive miracle of love that makes Event one of Zizek's most personal, perhaps confessional, statements. One frame through which a reader can peer into the book's most important theme is indeed the 'miracle' of love: "when you fall in love, you don't just know what you need/want and look for the one who has it---the 'miracle' of love is that you learn what you need only when you find it" (118). And that is another essential theme of Event: one plays in the discourse within which one is shaped and shapes.

In typical fashion, Zizek utilizes an odd film, Strella, to illustrate the reframing of the family, as an event. The plot is dense (I have not seen the film nor could I access a trustworthy review, so I rely on Zizek's reputation as a consummate film critic), and involves a father (Yiorgios) who is imprisoned for murdering his own brother for sexually abusing Yiorgios' son. After a long prison term, he is finally released and seeks his long lost son, Leonidas. He spends his first night of freedom with Strella, a prostitute, but also a transsexual. Yiorgios is at first unaware of Strella's transsexuality, but upon learning of it,  falls in love with her and continues the relationship, until the trauma of learning that Strella is in fact Leonidas, who was aware all along that Yiorgios was his father. The relationship is shattered, but the film closes with Leonidas/Strella taking care of a dead friend's son, and Yiorgios coming back into his son's and 'grandson's' life, establishing a "completely normal" family (168).

Interestingly, Zizek proposes Strella as a test of Christian family values and offers the obvious ultimatum: "embrace this authentic family of Yiorgios, Strella and the adopted child, or shut up about Christianity."

Really, Zizek lobbing one in for Christianity? Of course, Zizek strongly advises that we bracket the father-son incest, allowing Yiorgios' "disgust" to empower the sublation. But even if we give Yiorgios a pass, how do you solve a problem like a Strella? Do we "resist the temptation to mobilize the psychoanalytic apparatus" (168) here too? Anyone, Christian or not, must want to understand something about Leonidas' deception and deliberate incest. Yet, Zizek is in love, and we must look at Strella through his gaze. Amor vincit omnia meets amor fati.

So does Christianity shut up here in Zizek's world and release the event or does it participate in 'the undoing of an event' (143 ff.)? The bishops have their work cut out for them next year as the Synod on the Family continues. Does Christianity know of the new normal, the new frame that constitutes the event of the family? Love in Zizek's world turns its gaze on the image of the heart of a family. In mythic terms, Strella rewrites the the final book of the Odyssey in modern Greek terms. Laertes, Odysseus and Telemachus standing battle-ready announces the political event of primogeniture; like them, Yiorgios, Leonidas/Strella, and the anonymous child stand upon the horizon of something new, buttressed on love, the miracle of love---if love in 'this' family is not a miracle, then there are no miracles. True, Leonidas seeks the father, Yiorgios seeks home, and they find what they need when they find each other in Zizek's event. Is love the only psychoanalysis, interpretation, Leonidas needs? Is love what will conquer the trauma in this family?

Zizek always disturbs us, haunts us. Having just completed a once-through of Absolute Recoil, which plays Deuteronomy to Event's Exodus, I would wager that Event is Zizek's book of love, and Recoil is his book of desire. I would say that his challenge to Christian family values is indeed a lob all to easy to hit out of the park.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Confessions: St. Augustine on the Borromean Knot

Several texts have been folding, unfolding and folding together in my imagination lately: Keller's 'planetary entanglements' in her Cloud of the Impossible, Lacan's "Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," and Marion's In the Self's Place. Happily, both Tad DeLay and Slavoj Zizek, two powerful apologists of Lacan and his work, have provided provocative lenses through which Descartes' cogito comes into focus in Ecrits and in Marion's examination of Augustine's Confessiones.

Zizek rewrites, in my reading, Descartes' infamous cogito, ergo sum, in his rewriting of dialectical materialism in Absolute Recoil (Verso: NY, 2014):

What if total knowledge entails inexistence, and existence as such implies a certain non-knowledge? Such a paradoxical relation between being and knowing introduces a third term into the standard opposition between ordinary materialism...and subjective idealism---things exist insofar as they are unknown (209).

I read here a flux between thinking and being, a paradox resolving, or at least playing out, in an equilibrium reaction that flows in either direction---between reactants and products---depending on the presence of catalysts or other influences that favor one side the equilibrium. Neither side undergoes complete annihilation, yet undergoes aphanisis, a ghosting, an evacuation. The system here is certainly dialectical, even as Rahner might understand the term, but it is also a Schwebe, an oscillation that can never land on a midpoint between being and thinking, knowledge and existence. Hence, the system allows for a condensation of a subject. In this sense, the oscillations become a waveform that has potential for a phenomenological reduction in which something can make an appearance, even if that appearance must, paradoxically, also be a disappearance, not terribly unlike Luke's aphantos on the road to Emmaus.

Lacan's Borromean knot of the registers the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary (RSI) provides a place for the play of aphanisis. Delay's discussion of the RSI in God is Unconscious is instructive, and his intuitions are very interesting. 

The Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real operate in a diachronic and synchronic fashion, that is to say, they cannot be entirely separated...[T]he three are not things qua regions of the psyche, and they are not meant to be understood with exactitude. Lacan's theory is always meant to be turned over and played with as a useful tool (8).

Lacan's triple register functions in synchrony. The Imaginary, Symbolic and Real are entangled in such a way that we cannot investigate one without invoking the other two. The unconscious should be analyzed as a language (17).

Delay has cited Ecrits here, in particular, "The Agency of the Letter," emphasizing that the unconscious is a language and the discourse of the other (16). I am more sympathetic to Delay's first insight that places RSI on 2 axes, than with his monaxial synchronic function; but I also embrace his suggestion of knotty entanglement of the RSI and a resultant spooky action at a distance.

Before letting Lacan speak directly to us from Ecrits, I now take the liberty of playing with the RSI 'as a useful tool.' The representation of the RSI as a 3-ringed circus, or a Borromean knot is helpful in grounding the observations of Lacan, Marion and Augustine. Taking as my point of departure Delay's flexible system of the registers, I want to re-imagine the RSI as regions in relationality that do not actually intersect, yet form a closed system, as a Mobius strip might be twisted, like a helix, into a knot, such that a single strand makes up the entirety. Further, the knot can be imaged as a looping track, something like a cloverleaf road work. There is a flexibility in the twists, such that the strand can be lifted into relief, like pulling on a slinky. There is no inherent overlap in the knot's structure, so that the are no actual Venn intersections, but if pulled out like a slinky, virtual intersections appear and can be viewed from above or below.

Keeping in mind this dynamic Borromean slinky-pretzel, Lacan's concepts from "Agency of the Letter" find a safe place to land, even as they are threatened by Zizek's aphanisis. Interestingly, Augustine haunts Lacan's essay. This hauntology will become clearer when we look at Marion's reading of the Confessiones, but Lacan is already in an Augustinian mood when he seeks to 'demonstrate that no signification can be sustained other than by reference to another signification..." that no language can 'cover the whole field of the signified (Ecrits, Norton:NY, 1977, trans. A Sheridan, p. 150; here referencing 'De significatione locutionis' of the De Magistro).

The word 'agency' in the title of Lacan's essay is the translator's choice, reflecting as it does Freud's 'agencies' of the ego, id and superego; but I prefer 'insistence' in place of 'agency,' mainly because of Lacan's own title in French (L'instance de la Lettre), but also because 'insistence' has nearly become a technical term for what John Caputo says God does, and for what Delay, following Lacan, wants the unconscious to do. We should therefore hold 'agency' and 'insistence' (and even instance in both French and English) in a dynamic tension of oscillation (Schwebe), if for no other reason than to keep things honest.

Lacan presents a rather passionate voice in "The Agency of the Letter" and that passion is amply demonstrated in his assertions for metaphor and metonymy.

...[I]f a symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so, any more than to say that man's desire is a metonymy. For the symptom is a metaphor whether one likes it or not, as desire is a metonymy, however funny people may find the idea (175).

Though it is somewhat 'old hat' to view metonymy and metaphor as on the same axes as syntagm and paradigm, respectively, I shall not depart from that wisdom here. In fact, I want to allow symptom and desire to reverberate on our Borromean slinky-pretzel, with all deference to Jakobsen and Saussure (cf "Agency," 154). Paradigm, symptom and metaphor play out when we pull the slinky in a vertical axis, while syntagm, desire and metonymy play on a horizontal axis of the natural attitude.

Lacan asks, "[i]s the place that I occupy as the subject of a signifier concentric or excentric [sic], in relation to the place I occupy as a subject of the signified" but that question is "of knowing whether I am the same as that of which I speak. And it is not at all inappropriate to use the word 'thought' here. The play of metonymy is here the decision "to be only what I am," which is in "fact that I am in that very act." The play of metaphor is that "if I dedicate myself to becoming what I am, to coming into being...I lose myself in the process" (165 f.). "This signifying game between metonymy and metaphor...the active edge that splits my desire between a refusal of the signifier and  lack of played until...I ought to say...: I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think" (166). Lacan introduces his own early version of aphanisis in this splitting 'game.' Yet, definitively, Lacan cedes to Freud: "Wo es war, soll Ich werden." I must come to the place where that was. This is one of reintegration and harmony, I could even say of reconciliation" (171).

Reintegration, harmony and reconciliation form an essential grammar in Augustine's Confessiones. Though it is a great error to attribute a proto-cogito to Augustine, Marion has discovered Lacan's 'process' of the play of refusal to know or to be, to think or exist within the thought of the Confessiones. The heart is restless until it finds rest in God. Such restlessness is a process of praise, of relationality, of discovery, of oscillation, and aphanisis.

According to Marion, 

confessio opens a space where the ego and its readers enter not only into a dialogue between themselves but especially into a place, where the charity of God can reach them. The model of the confessio, in fact, brings about a reduction of the natural attitude, which permits coming to the question of God, namely love. It therefore operates as an erotic reduction (In the Self's Place, trans. J. Kosky, Stanford Univ. Press: California, 2012, 54 f.).

In Augustine's hands, confessio as praise and reconciliation performs the phenomenological reduction that shifts from the simply mimetic to the semiotic gesture, in which the tension between being and knowing allows both the self and its place to appear. The waveform of Schwebe collapses in the relationality of the folding textures of the genre, bringing something new into focus.

Here is the crucial text that folds, Lacan, Descartes, Augustine and Marion into the reduction.

Saint Augustine is perfectly willing to admit the argument that connects thought to being; he even inaugurates it and will impose it upon posterity (including Descartes); but he refuses to let this same argument produce and consecrate any ego known by itself...[B]ut he...observes that, when I think and am (or think that I am), I do not take possession of myself as an ego that would say I myself...[I]n thinking, I am put at a distance from myself and become other than I myself, that in thinking, I do not enter into possession of any myself that could exactly and truly say itself is saying I, that the more I think myself (and the more I am by thinking), the more unknowing I become of who I am and alienated from myself. In a word, access to my Being in and through my thought, far from appropriating me to myself as for Descartes, for Saint Augustine exiles me outside myself...[T]he cogito, supposed to appropriate me to myself as a myself, expels me from myself and defines me by this very exile. I am therefore paradoxically the one who in thinking knows that he is not (belonging to) himself, does not know his essence and can never say (himself), rigorously, myself. (63)

Marion reading Augustine and Descartes uses language similar to Lacan reading Descartes and Freud. Though Marion seems to be describing something more static than Lacan is describing, Lacan's play of metonymy and metaphor merge with Marion's alienation and exile within Zizek's reading of Lacan's very dynamic aphanisis and the 'paradoxical relation' of being and knowing. In the disappearing of Marion's/Augustine's 'myself' in apophatic 'unknowing,' the myself/ego shifts from thought to being, whose expulsion is alienation and exile. Here, Marion seems to be putting on Augustine's lips (che vuoi?) Lacan's "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think" (Ecrits, 166).

In the chemical equilibrium reaction analogy given above, there are, in the movement from thinking to being, knowledge to existence, only reactants in the oscillating flow favoring one pole or another. In the erotic reduction of divine love, the ego "can enter into the distance that opens me in the self's place" (99). It is not therefore finally in alienation, but in the vita beata, that only the oscillation that collapses, and not the distance that opens me. And here is where Augustine enters the roller coaster of the Borromean knot. If, as Lacan notes, the divine is located in the ineffable Real, it is through the syntagmatic, metonymic ride that the self can find its place there. But we can only see the self's arrival from above and below, through the paradigmatic, metaphorical, vertical axis, where knowledge and being are finally understood as not on a collision course, but on a gliding above and below each other, passing one another safely, to play again another day.

The threat of an actual aphanisis dissipates, for it has always been an illusion perpetrated against reality by certitude, which is the symptom playing out on the axis of metaphor. Augustine could have never felt the threat, as Marion magnificently demonstrates, because the oscillations of exile and alienation always collapse in the place of the self, on a horizontal axis, in the metonymy of desire, where the ego and the divine come into view through praise and reconciliation in the erotic reduction, and the saturated phenomenon of the univocity of love, the untroubled rest in the vita beata. This movement is, as Dante would later illustrate, a transition from the Imaginary into the Real, where Vergil cannot go, and only Beatrice can lead.