Shades of Plato’s Cave…

…or a carbon copy?

The Shamans of the Chaco are not merely doctors, but also soothsayers capable of seeing into the future. Sometimes, when they do not feel certain of their knowledge, they go consult the Sun, who is an omniscient being. But the Sun, preferring not to be bothered, has placed a series of very difficult obstacles along the route leading to his abode. That is why only the best shamans, the most cunning and courageous, manage to stand the tests; then the Sun agrees to extinguish its rays and inform those who come before him. Expeditions of this kind, precisely because of their difficulty, are always collective and are always enacted under the direction of the most experienced sorcerers.

–Pierre Clastres, Society Without the State, p. 147.

Platocave

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Oh, so you mean “Anti-SOCRATES”!

“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together.  Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.” The deservedly famous opening line of A Thousand Plateaus. The punch of the line comes from the at-first striking image of two people in a room constituting a crowd.

It turns out, though, that this idea is as old as the hills. In Book 4 of The Republic Socrates suggests that there are multiple elements that make up each person, that each of us is several. When Glaucon is unsure, Socrates spends several pages arguing the case. Take a thirsty person, he says, who decides not to drink. This person must have two different elements operating, since one element cannot do two opposite things at once (want drink and not-want drink) (439b). Socrates goes on to declare that there are three elements of the soul: rational, spirited, and desiring. And he badly wants to convince Glaucon of something more: that the rational element should rule the other elements. In the just (or good) person, Socrates implores us to accept, the desiring element will agree that the rational element is superior to the other elements and that the rational element should rule (442d).

And so Deleuze and Guattari’s opening line turns out to be less thrilling than it appears. We have known that each of us is several for thousands of years. What D&G have against Socrates is his passionate mission to bring the desiring element under the control of reason. The two of them wrote Anti-Oedipus together to do precisely what Glaucon and Adeimantus fail to do: raise a resounding cry against Socrates’ insistence that reason should rule desire.

Deleuze and Guattari: Enough of Socrates!

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From What is Philosophy? (p. 29)

Philosophy [as we understand it] has a horror of discussions.  It always has something else to do.  Debate is unbearable to it, but not because it is too sure of itself.  On the contrary, it is its uncertainties that take it down other, more solitary paths.  But in Socrates wasn’t philosophy a free discussion among friends?  Is it not, as the conversation of free men, the summit of Greek sociability?  In fact, Socrates constantly made all discussion impossible, both in the short form of the contest of questions and answers and in the long form of a rivalry between discourses.  He turned the friend into the friend of a single concept, and the concept into a pitiless monologue that eliminates the rivals one by one.

A very good Nietzschean reading.  Socrates claims to be engaged in a search for Truth.  He is rather engaged in ridding the earth of the Sophists.  And so back to Callicles, back to Thrasymachus!  Reanimate their spirit, make their speech possible again.  Discover what they were just about to say, what other concepts they were creating, when Plato had Socrates extinguish their light.  There is joy to be found in that project, I think.

Nietzsche’s Muse

The blond beast

We are reading Plato’s Gorgias in my ethics class, and I am reminded again how much of Nietzsche’s arguments about morality (in BGE and OGM) are lifted directly from Callicles, Socrates’ main antagonist in these dialogues.  Callicles says that conventional morality is a scheme invented by the weak to trick the strong into not using their power.  By this ruse, he says, “men tame lions,” an image that echoes Nietzsche’s “blond beast.”  Callicles goes on to hack at the foundation of Plato’s entire worldview–which is that people should use their reason to tame their desires–arguing instead that we should not repress our appetites but let them grow strong, and then we should use our natural powers to satisfy our appetites by any means necessary.  We should, in other words, live fully by discharging our strength into the world.  When Plato objects that this would amount to little more than perpetually scratching an itch, Callicles responds that Plato’s ideal life, in which we moderate and temper our desires through reason, “is the life of a stone.”

It is almost as though Nietzsche, a keen student of the Greeks, built his whole moral and political philosophy by scouring Plato’s dialogues, finding the characters whose arguments Plato was clearly most threatened by, and rearticulating them with a German accent.  Maybe!

On Method: We Are a Social Order of Many Souls

I am just checking the proofs of my forthcoming book, and I liked the section on my method for doing political theory, so I thought I’d post an excerpt:

My method in this chapter is to weave together an account of democracy from strands taken from a range of different political thinkers: Gramsci, Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Laclau and Mouffe, and Rancière. I argue that it is possible to discover in their work a shared and deep desire for democracy.

Before I make that argument, it is important to say a word about how I conceive of an exercise like this, a close reading and analysis of a set of works of political theory. I approach it from a very particular assumption: each theorist is multiple. This is how Deleuze and Guattari think of it too. They open A Thousand Plateaus with the line, “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus [their first book] together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd” (1987, p. 3). This perhaps appears to be grandstanding, but it turns out to be an important core of their thought, that those entities we think of as singular, like individuals, are in fact multiple. They are not self-contained monads. They are better conceived of as assemblages that open out into the world. They are something more akin to a particularly concentrated knot of connections in a vast network of social relations. By this thinking, each seeming individual is in fact made up of a multitude of people, events, ideas, relations, places, and experiences, each of which is connected to multiple other such people, events, and so on. The primary source of Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking here is Nietzsche, who offers a compelling argument on the matter. In Beyond Good and Evil, he insists that we must

give the finishing stroke to that…calamitous atomism which Christianity has taught best and longest, the soul atomism…the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science! … The way is open for new versions and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “mortal soul,” and “soul as subjective multiplicity,” and “soul as social structure of the drives and affects,” want henceforth to have citizens’ rights in science (1989a, p. 20).

A bit later he argues that “our body is but a social structure composed of many souls” (Nietzsche 1989, p. 26). Deleuze and Guattari’s claim—“each of us was several”—is a direct heir to Nietzsche’s idea of the soul as social structure. Nietzsche is railing here against the Christian conception of the monadic soul, one he thinks has been the default conception for as long as anyone can remember. But the idea of a multiple soul actually has quite a tradition. It goes back all the way to Plato, who is, it is fair to say, obsessed by the problem. In The Republic he argues that the soul is tripartite, made up of reason, spirit, and desire. A central argument of the book is that in a good soul, reason must rule over spirit and desire. He returns to this question continually, articulating it in many different forms, perhaps the most evocative of which is when he represents reason as a human, spirit as a lion, and desire as a many-headed beast (Plato, 2008, p. 588c).[1] It is a matter of vital importance for Plato that reason is able to impose order on this soul composed of many souls. For his part, Aristotle accepted this multiple soul also, as well as the idea that reason should rule, although in the Ethics and Politics he usually presents the soul as having two parts rather than three (e.g. 1998a, pp. 1102a-1103a). While we should reject, with Nietzsche, the hierarchy of the soul that places reason at the top,[2] nevertheless Plato and Aristotle demonstrate that the idea of soul as a multiplicity turns out to be quite an old idea that was very much assumed as a starting point by the seminal political theorists.

Thinking about individuals this way allows us to see each theorist as multiple. Doing so leads us to also think of each piece of a theorist’s work as multiple as well. Each essay or book is driven by many desires, drives, and wills, some of which contradict others. And of course each thinker’s whole body of work isn’t a coherent body at all, but many different discrete pieces of work, written over decades. And yet—and perhaps this now seems strange—we tend to think of each essay or book and each theorist’s body of work as a coherent and internally consistent mass.[3] Or at least we seem to want each theorist’s work to have that kind of coherence. We argue over the underlying and most-important theoretical or political desire, the single soul of the work. This tendency leads us to ask unproductive questions like, “was Lefebvre a Marxist?” or “are Laclau and Mouffe post-Marxists?” If we follow Nietzsche and give the finishing stroke to the soul atomism, if we think of each theorist and their work not as integral monads but as teeming multitudes, then such attempts to attach a singular label become pointless. Lefebvre was very much a Marxist. He was also very much an anarchist. But he was not only one or the other, and the terms are not at all mutually exclusive. There is a powerful strain of explicit Marxism in much of Lefebvre’s work; there is also a strong element of what looks quite a lot more like Bakunin than Marx.

What I am doing here, following Deleuze and Guattari (esp. 1987, Chapters 6, 7, and 10), is taking my own default conception of each thinker as a coherent body and trying to pull it apart, to prise open the seeming unity of its structure, and think of each more as a loose cluster of multiple wills, each of which is in motion and continually connecting with other wills in other agglomerations.  I am trying, in short, to imagine each theorist as a figure in the Jackson Pollack painting (below), Summertime Number 9A, as a wild tangle of many wills, always moving, almost dancing, always sending out connecting tendrils into other tangles. I am imagining the Pollack figures rather than the figures in the photograph, each of whom appears to be a discrete body.

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But notice that the Pollack painting is not one of his abstracts. It is not a seemingly random tangle that extends fairly uniformly across the canvas (like for example One: Number 31).

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Rather in Summertime there are brush or knife strokes and blocks of paint that indicate discernible figures amid the wild tangles. These figures may be faint, you may have to squint a bit to see them, but they are there. We could walk up to the painting and point this one out, or that one, and our companion would likely agree with our assessment. But at the same time each figure is not clearly distinguishable; there could be some debate over which is a figure and which is not, or where one figure ends and another begins. Along these lines, I am not saying that each thinker I examine is entirely formless, utterly random, or a collection of every human thought or impulse in history. Even if the work of each is not a perfectly coherent body, even if it is stuffed with contradictory desires, nevertheless each thinker does have some sort of consistency, each is a particular cluster of wills or qualities that distinguishes him or her from other thinkers. And each also has boundaries to their thought, even if those are often fuzzy. Lefebvre was an anarchist, a Marxist, and probably a libertarian, but he wasn’t really a Maoist, and he definitely was not a liberal or (even less) a Stalinist. Even if each author is a teeming multitude, that multitude is not infinite, and it does take on a perceptible form, a discernible consistency, that gives his or her thought a character we can identify and communicate to others.

So if we imagine each thinker as a figure in Summertime Number 9A, as a discernible cluster of wills linked in complex ways to a multitude of others, it becomes possible for us to makes choices, to engage with some wills and not with others. We can latch on to some of a thinker’s wills and desires, we can worry them out of the tangle of other wills and desires, and we can connect them up with other wills and desires from other authors, other strands from other traditions. And as we do so, we should not imagine each will as a fixed point that we connect to other fixed points in a static net or mesh. Rather each will is like one of the wild loops in the painting: a moving vector, an energy following a line. We should think of each will as a flow that we can stream together with other flows, increasing their overall speed, stoking their revolutionary force. In this approach we seek out desires and wills in an author’s work that resonate with our own, wills we think can augment the flow of our own ongoing project to the point where we have enough energy and speed to achieve a breakthrough.

So that is my project here, to draw out strands from various theorists of whom I have made a close study, to stream together the desire for democracy in each. My aim is to produce a strong flow, an overstuffed concept of democracy that can serve as a virtual object with which we can cut a path out of the present context and toward the possible. I will not claim that democracy is the predominant or defining desire in any one of these theorists, that they are not really Marxists or anarchists or liberals but rather democrats. I will only insist that the work of each exhibits a strong will to democracy, and it is that will I try to draw out. My approach here accords with Deleuze and Guattari, who argue that

reading the text is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of the signifier. Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine, a montage of desiring machines, the schizoid exercise that extracts from the text its revolutionary force (1977, p. 106).

Of course I take seriously the responsibility of developing a rigorous understanding of each text, but my analysis of each text is not intended to be a thorough exposition of the true meaning of the work-as-a-whole. Rather it is intended as an act of extrapolation, of exegesis that can draw force from the text, force I can stream into my concept of democracy.

Let me offer just one last word about my selection process. At various points throughout the book I examine the work of Lefebvre, Laclau and Mouffe, Rancière, Gramsci, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Aristotle, Plato, Italo Calvino, and David Foster Wallace (I know, that last one pops out—see Chapter 4). That is already quite an extensive list, perhaps overly so. Nevertheless, each reader no doubt will have in mind one or more theorists that I leave out but who are nevertheless critical to the argument. Those readers will very likely be right. People like Marcuse, Habermas, Benjamin, Arendt, Jameson, Butler, Badiou, Nancy, Derrida, Lefort, Tronti, Agamben, Debord, Vaneigem, Virilio, Castoriadis, Fraser, Wolin, and Young receive only passing mention or do not appear at all. I could certainly have drawn on their work to augment the force of my conception of democracy. I do not exclude these thinkers because I think they are less relevant, or of lesser quality. Rather it is because a serious study of work like this requires considerable time and effort, and I have not yet spent sufficient time with these thinkers to properly mine their work in the depth it deserves.


[1] Nietzsche of course picks up the image of the lion, which Plato uses often, and runs with it. It becomes his “blonde beast” (1989b, First Essay, Section 11) and serves as the standard for his mission to rediscover and champion, almost verbatim, the argument of the sophist Callicles in Gorgias (Plato, 1998).

[2] For more on which see the section on Deleuze and Guattari in this chapter.

[3] The case of Marx, in which there is extensive scholarly debate about the possibility that there are different Marxes, is perhaps an exception.

Durkheim: Pragmatism is a Radical Threat

Latour, in Reassembling the Social, reports this opening statement from a 1914 lecture* of Durkheim’s on the challenge posed by the arguments of pragmatism, which were then a relatively new presence in the academic landscape:

We are currently witnessing an attack on reason which is truly militant and determined…

While Durkheim acknowledges “the need for a reform of traditional rationalism,” he says pragmatism is a “form of irrationalism” that goes much too far.  He says that the task of resisting pragmatism is

of philosophical importance…the entire philosophical tradition, right from the very beginnings of philosophical speculation, is inspired by rationalism.  If pragmatism were valid, we should have to embark on a complete reversal of this whole tradition.

It is revealing to see just how existential the establishment thought pragmatism’s challenge to the philosophical order was.  I have a tendency to think of people like Rorty or Deleuze and Guattari as engaging in a project of radicalizing the ‘traditional’ pragmatists, taking them in dangerous new directions.  Moments like this remind me again not to underestimate the radical challenge people like Dewey and William James were offering.

Durkheim’s words are also timely because my students just read Books IV and V of The Republic, where Socrates lays down those “very beginnings” of rationalism Durkeim is talking about.

*Latour cites: Durkheim, E. (1955) Pragmatisme et sociologie. Paris: Vrin.