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ImageLanguage delivers its judgment to whoever knows how to hear it…It is the realist’s imbecility, which does not pause to observe that nothing, however deep in the bowels of the earth a hand may seek to ensconce it, will ever be hidden there, since another hand can always retrieve it, and that what is hidden is never but what is missing from its place, as the call slip puts it when speaking of a volume lost in a library. And even if the book be on an adjacent shelf or in the next slot, it would be hidden there, however visibly it may appear. For it can literally be said that something is missing from its place only of what can change it: the symbolic. For the real, whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always in its place; it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from it…a letter always arrives at its destination.

Jacques Lacan, Seminar on The Purloined Letter,  ÉCRITS

Rereading, for a project, Lacan’s Seminar on The Purloined Letter, and a few of the many critical texts that it has generated, I could not help but think of the role of the algorithm in the ways in which “letters” circulate today.

I won’t go into the details of Lacan’s argument, and those of his critics, and his critics’ critics, but suffice it to say that some of the salient points concern the circulation of signifiers. In the Poe story, a letter written to a Queen, containing what is alluded to as compromising language were the King to see it, is stolen under the Queen’s gaze and the unseeing eyes of the King by a Minister who replaces her letter with his own. She then hides that letter by crumpling it up. A Police Prefect who is offered a reward to retrieve the letter then offers to pay an amateur Detective to steal the letter from the Minister, as the police have not been able to locate it in spite of having searched the Minister’s accommodations thoroughly. The Detective surmises that the Minister has “hidden” the letter by leaving it in plain sight, proves himself right on first visit, and arranging for a second visit, manages to distract the Minister and replace the stolen Queen’s letter with one of his own. At no time is the substance of the letter described in the story. It is the signifier which circulates in relation to power and powerlessness, to femininity, the circulation of disclosure and concealment as they draw the characters into the established symbolic order.

Here are diagrams found online, from what looks like a students’ college course site. What can I say? It’s a complex story line:

chart_2chart_1Lacan, and some of his critics, analyze the story in relation to concepts of floating signifiers, the notion of subjectivity assumed through mis-recognition (i.e. a “letter” arrives at its destination as soon as someone receives it and presumes to be its recipient, correct or not), and the debunking of teleological illusionism (i.e. events that seem to have been pre-ordained are understood as such through a retrospective logic by the one who has received a “letter,” intended for them or not). The concept of mis-recognition, as rarefied as it sounds, actually has a great deal to say about the very popular process of how subjects today do or don’t assume political subjectivity.  Zizek’s quote from my previous post is apt. Those who recognize themselves in the Tea Party, for example, do so not necessarily because they assume an informed and educated identification with those anti-government politics. In fact, polls (for whatever they’re worth) indicate that many who identify with categoric anti-government politics (and I don’t mean anti-this administration, but anti-government overall) mis-identify which programs are state-funded at the same time as they identify with the opposing rhetoric. Somewhere in there lies resistance to assuming informed subjectivity, ironic in a discourse about self-determination.

In oblique relation to these analyses, the algorithm today can be viewed as functioning like one of those letters that always arrives at its destination. As adults, today we no longer receive information (and I use the term information here indiscriminately) in a collective sense, other than through those media that cross our paths without our choice – magazines and newspaper headlines in a subway kiosk or doctor’s office, billboards, crawling type in outdoor urban spaces, logos on building surfaces, etc.

zen_1The rest of the time we seem to make “choices” by selecting our customized news, entertainment, information, data, material items for consumption, etc. We create our entertainment through subscription processes, particularly as they are now distributed through the internet, rather than cable. Even radio has become exponentially expanded, non-regional, and customized through subscription satellite. And there now exist 50 sites similar to Kickstarter – “crowd-funding” sites that allow one to fund one’s personal future entertainment, reading material, and events. Through the “choices” we make – and including those of material consumption of all kinds – the algorithms cull information from the many sites we use to construct the “letters” that are sent back to us on virtually every page we search online. Customized advertising. When we click on those links, we recognize ourselves as the recipients of those “letters.” Hundreds or thousands of people reading a blog at the same time will be addressed by completely different ads, at the same time as the reading of that blog may partially determine the next advertisement you see, as the algorithm “monetizes” the intricate puzzle pieces of the shared desires, or the desires it presumes to exist. Now, there may be spaces of disjunction in the puzzle games played by the algorithm. The algorithm is a machine we humans have created, and it has its own fallibilities and quirks, as well as its overdeterminations. But the dynamics involved in mis-recognition are not inconsequential.

blog magIt has become commonplace for pop and media culture critics to extol the virtues of the digital in relation to political resistance. And some of those claims are legitimate. But the lack of a shared information realm – irrespective even of the question of quality – has its sinister consequences. The dispersion involved in technologized globalization often ends up producing isolation, as it creates pools of coherence. Perhaps that creates a more crucial opening for cultural production, since we are sharing less and less in the political realm.

It seems crucial to see the function of the algorithm as a floating signifier, in addition to its function as an applied instrument of capitalism today. We miss the symptomatic, and symbolic, aspects of the algorithm at our peril.

occupy brainsPopulism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.                                                                                            Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

There are many things I’m afraid of in this world, but wrestling with a theoretical text that is beyond my intellectual capacity is not one. Over the years, I’ve experienced a lot of displaced aggression from students who felt overwhelmed by theoretical texts. But the problem seems to be a top-down one. The attitude of a culture toward theory (or toward intellectuality in general) is felt at every level, including at the level of curating-by-poll, or in the sweeping under the rug of museum education departments some of the thornier issues confronting art. Anti-intellectualism occupies brains; it values the skimming of surfaces and it reduces complexity to slick slogans; it compromises democracy, particularly at a moment of extreme political and ideological complexity. It isn’t surprising that in the 1970s Derrida was intensely involved in opposing a move toward “rationalizing” education in France by arguing for the value of philosophy, and was also successfully involved with others in pushing for philosophy to be taught at the high school level in France [Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?].

The U.S. academic world, as well as the so-called art world, has had a love/hate relationship with theory. Theory – that writing which concerns itself with a structural understanding of history, language, phenomena, events, and subjectivity – seems to be under intermittent attack in the US. The right posits it as elitist, and the left and liberal-left often posit it as useless in relation to politics. The spoken and unspoken assumptions of the anti-theoretical are that theory consists of jargonistic language written and spoken by charlatans. For the anti-theoretical left in particular, theory shirks its political and historical responsibilities. Noam Chomsky’s recent attack on Slavoj Zizek is classic in this regard. He complains that Zizek’s type of theory is frivolous because it’s not “scientific” or “serious.” There’s no question in my mind that Zizek “won” that debate. Frankly, Zizek won even before he responded to Chomsky’s attack, because it’s apparent from his comments that Chomsky has never read Zizek’s books. It seems to be the case that many disparage Zizek’s writings without reading him (i.e. “I did read a book of his, about fifteen years ago…). It’s clear that Chomsky hasn’t read Zizek because if he had he would know that Zizek’s writings incorporate history, and apply theory to contemporary political events, and that his writing is quite clear, albeit requiring some understanding of terminology which I would think Chomsky could manage to master if he were interested in any writing that was not positivist. The same disregard for reading seems to apply to disparagers of Derrida (who Chomsky also threw into the mix when he sent out the first volley in the exchange).

Left and liberal pragmatists and positivists who are allergic to theory evade examining the complexities of political subjectivity, and thus have to resort to platitudes when questions are raised as to how new political subjects might arise in the midst of the seemingly totalizing political and economic crises we now face. The only way positivists can explain why those who suffer often don’t rebel is to overemphasize the raw power of the oppressor, an explanation that leads to closure.

And then there’s the most anti-intellectually derided category of theory, “pure” theory, that writing – usually of the philosophical type – that does not incorporate history and does not apply itself except very obliquely to contemporary phenomena, and may – what a horror – actually involve the learning of a vocabulary, or an acclimation to a writer’s particular use of language. That kind of writing is hard for the uninitiated and undereducated to penetrate, but it’s in that kind of writing that I often find glimmers of insight into painfully contorted ideological knots. I was sent such a text recently, for advice on where it might be published. I understood only about a quarter of the text, with effort, and I can’t personally think of where it could be published here, but it reminded me of the relationship of such texts to concepts of democracy. Because although I value and benefit from the kinds of philosophical writings and other kinds of theory that are applied and co-mingled with history, such texts are largely directive. “Pure” theory creates a different space; it asks you to move toward your own applications and references. It produces just the sort of subjectivity that governments such as ours are at pains to foreclose with their technocratic and plutocratic education “reforms.”