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I have switched to French in the evenings, which is coming along much better than German ever did: perhaps I will unlearn the bad sentence-structure habits I learned from reading the Approved Cultural Heroes, though perhaps did not learn from konkret and Luhmann, whose points of reference within American English As It Is Properly Wrote are many.
However, I’m not quite there yet. Leibniz’ Nouveaux Essais proved to be a bit too much, so I’m reading a popular-audiences book by Tzvetan Todorov about the last half of the twentieth century, more specifically the Soviet bloc’s barbarism within it: Mémoire du mal, Tentation du bien (like much of the French tongue, self-explanatory until you try to pronounce it). Interesting how this book, published in 2000, seems so dated today: though not everybody has taken up the cudgels of Fashionable Leninism yet, the problems of the present seem unlikely to be healed by liberalism; furthermore, this liberalism has learned well not to heed the “humanitarian” voices Todorov worried would lead it down a garden path.
Accordingly, I would like to make a short “imaginative observation” — ungrounded by historical fact, though not lacking all plausibility — about the time of the purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union. Although I personally find the Soviet state’s ability to eventually self-critique these immense errors not a little impressive compared to, say, the Turkish silence even today about the Armenians, I accordingly hold Stalin in no particular esteem. And yet it seems incredible that this man, who would probably have been hard pressed to count to fifty, could be blamed for the death of countless millions in a “mechanized” fashion morally equivalent to the Judeocide of the Nazis. Speaking as the “sociological realist” I am, I would hazard a guess about the true history of that time in the Soviet Union: really, Stalin exercised too little control over the bureaucracy of incarceration and not, except in the martyring of the “old Bolsheviks”, too much.
Perhaps what really happened was that, released from the control of Church and Capital, the masses and their minders went more or less berserk: in a country without rule of law, evolving “negotiated orders” could easily land all sorts of relatively unassuming people on the outs. We accept such a story about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”; since the actual would be the possible, why not apply the same schema to the Soviet 30s-50s? One disturbing thought occasioned by this is that the problem is not that we know too much about the purges to go for this hypothesis, but that we ourselves do not see purgative tendencies in our own society today. “Social networking” adapts itself very well to ostracism, and sometimes Internet harassment goes further than that: celebrating the networked society as “cognitive communism” a la Antonio Negri may conceal a deeper and uglier truth than its cheery surface lets on.
In honor of this Easter Sunday being delightfully “opt-in” and to a cultural moment open to slightly different influences from the past, consider the video for Gang Starr’s “You Know My Steez” (a tribute to THX-1138 and a little more too):
Sometimes I wonder what a Ramsey sentence for “steez” would look like; the oft-proposed definition “style with ease” failed to gain favor with the heads. Perhaps it is just what a certain sort of person cannot fail to be familiar with concerning Guru and DJ Premier — a piece of American English in its best nihilistic tradition.
A surprising quote from “Phenomenalism” by Wilfrid Sellars (included in Science, Perception, and Reality, still in print at a fraction of the price of the new Brandom-edited anthology): “The third stage [of understanding that a ‘microtheory’ of sense-perception will eventually displace talk of ‘middle-sized dry goods’] begins with the reminder that when we abandon the framework of physical objects, our conception of a person cannot remain inviolate.” Sellars goes on to deny that the much-vaunted “space of reasons” will offer the best theory of what it is for the human brain to “picture” objects in perception.
Much like his students the Churchlands, Sellars seems to have in mind a definitively eliminativist picture of conceptual discourse about perception — of a piece with his insistence in many essays in the volume that the “intensionality” of sensation, the fact that sensations appear “under an aspect”, must not be taken to be intentionality properly considered. Surprising to those of us sold Sellars as a brilliant thinker of “normativity” underwriting bone-stupid construals of community practices as essentially voluntaristic, or not amenable to rational critique from outside; interesting to anyone who cares to really think through the influence of this eccentric (not only are Sellars’ old books available from a small publishing outfit, many of them were initially published in vanity-press format; and yet all manner of philosophers — not only the “Sellarsians” who drew a short straw in March Madness this year — show the imprint of his influence).
Daytime reading: Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (in the old Barnes and Noble edition, purchased for $3). A real piece of work, in that there was clearly a fantastic amount of attention paid to verbal flourishes over and above the wording necessary to communicate the basic concepts — Austin made it look easy, this guy doesn’t. This much latticework is going to make for something intellectually interesting, but I wonder whether or not the classic philosophical behaviorism of the book belongs to a long-ago ‘paradigm’ of knowledge about the mental. That is to say, has the progress of the cognitive sciences from the Penfield homunculus on not consisted in (admittedly pretty material) ‘ghosts’ in the Machine, incarnated ‘representations’ of the sort Ryle denies have any purchase? If the answer is ‘yes’, gloating by cognitivists and their rowdier, raunchier counterparts in “cognitive neuroscience” should not be the item at the top of the agenda: rather, thinking through what the behavioristic denial of the internal tells us about the episteme of the early 20th century — a cultural study of our Rylean ancestors.
Bedtime reading these days: Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I’m going where thousands of Borders customers have gone before, but, as with my aforementioned cessation of Lacan-reading, I previously didn’t think my “febrile” mental illness would be improved by dipping into Marxist antipsychiatry. (An “identity-political” reclamation of the schizophrenic status is rendered impossible by the fact that the schizophrenic is not only not an expert on what it is to be a schizophrenic, in certain cases they are not considered to even be experts on what it is like to be one.) However, as I learned when I picked up Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze is not that Marxist and Guattari not that antipsychiatric; in fact, the works can profitably be read as adumbrating a loose-texture analysis of the form rationality took during the 1970s — this loose texture (only mildly critical of late capitalism and open to the idea that some people are just mad) being essential to avoiding the ‘hysteria of reason’ one might well attribute to over-enthusiastic taking-up of Althusserian or Habermasian ideals.
I’m only about a third of the way through A Thousand Plateaus, but I want to say something about Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the term “pragmatics”. “Pragmatics” came into use as a linguistic term in the early 20th century, the result of pragmatist semiotician Charles Morris’ tripartite distinction between syntax, the non-context-dependent features of meaning treated by semantics, and the context-dependent features not previously studied as an independent class: “pragmatics”. Early essays by logical positivists like Rudolf Carnap gave formal treatments of “indexical” or “token-reflexive” terms like “I” and “here”, and this strain of thought persists to this day in the work of Montagovian semanticists; there are also those who have attempted to provide overarching rules for pragmatics to some philosophical point (e.g., the “universal pragmatics” of Habermas and the “normative pragmatics” of Robert Brandom).
Pragmatics in the hands of Deleuze and Guattari, however, is fully identified with their program of “schizoanalysis”; taking “regimes of signs” and nonreductively tracing their “rhizomatic” lines of filiation and influence upon the subjectivity of the subject. In the hands of a Sokal this instantly could become laughable (without any desire to, say, read David Kaplan instead cropping up) but it seems to me there is a perfectly acceptable point D&G, who are not ignorant of the history of semantics, are trying to make. Their schizoanalysis is an insistence upon the material reality of language, not a Platonism akin to Frege’s third realm but (as with Agamben) a Stoic-influenced awareness of the two-sidededness of the scratches and sounds that incarnate language. Unlike Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari are not fighting to liberate the text from constructions, but to situate all utterances as part of the total social matrix; the “schizo’s stroll” or his ravings are not part of some Robinsonade of the neurologically unfortunate, but interact with the dominant regimes of signification and the social systems which they enable in material, real ways.
In this sense Deleuze and Guattari’s pure pragmatics is a socioanalysis as well: the eclipse took place even though Dean Swift said it would not, but his declaration was clearly not ominous Unsinn of the sort those who assimilate every linguistic failing — including the famous “failure to communicate” — to dementia or aphasia might desire it to be.