Archives for posts with tag: Science

This post is a bit anachronistic, considering our recent focus on #OWS. It’s something I wrote as a reflection on a reading of Žižek’s Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, from our postmodern philosophy course, one of the last I took as a senior at Kalamazoo College. It’s been on my hard drive for quite a while and I’d like finally to put it up. So here goes. Warning: it’s fairly short, but dense. For a more exciting Žižek text related to this, scroll to the bottom; I link to an article there. . .

People use Hegel’s dialectical triad to describe numerous phenomena, perhaps most notably the history of modernity: modern thought progresses through (1) a premodern attachment to a supernatural or metaphysical essence, (2) a modern, hyper-rationalist attachment to scientific paradigms, and (3) a postmodern, qualified rationalism which understands its limitedness.

Žižek distinguishes these three stages based on their different qualifications of the concept of “form:” each ideological paradigm is characterized by its attachment to a particular relation between a stated form or prototype (e.g., a literary genre, scientific paradigm, or political ideology) and (2) that which is said to characterize the form. This ideological change, mapped onto the history of modernity, is the movement as follows: form / essence, form / matter, and form / content.

First, an entity posits a simple notion, a form “in itself,” one with no other source of verification; this is the couple form / essence, in which form is determined tautologically by an a priori essence, an eternal or Platonic ideal that precedes even the existence of the form — it “is,” because it should be.

Second, the notion sees itself reflected in an external material reality that challenges the assumptions of its original “essence;” this is the couple form / matter, according to which the notion seeks to determine its form based on an a posteriori empirical (usually scientific) investigation of the material truth of its premises, which it revises based on evidence.

The third and final movement is determinate reflection, in which the notion posits itself as a manipulation of matter, not a pure representation of it; this is the couple form / content: instead of using empirical evidence to provide a substantial ground for itself, the notion realizes that this material reality can never be captured “in itself,” can never be accounted for in its totality by form, is always subject to the limitations of the presuppositions of the formal operations used for studying material reality, and thus matter only serves as the manipulable substratum through which the form posits a particular content that is always an incomplete representation of the underlying matter.

Content is the “oppositional determination” of form; it is the misstep which indicates the incompleteness of the form: content and form are two sides of the same coin. It is because form is able to manipulate matter, the purely empty universal, existing beyond any formal appropriation of matter, that content exists at all. The “pathology” of any purportedly closed system of ideology — capitalism, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, etc. — is that the form itself never comes into question; we simply continue the search for a truest possible content that would revise the form to match a better picture of reality, rather than analyzing the form itself as a limitation beset with flawed presuppositions.

Modern ideologies tend to operate at this second stage, the level of form / matter: we can avoid capitalist financial catastrophes by discovering a safer way to invest in the market; we can avoid racism or ethnocentrism by showing the cultural-historical or genetic similarities of all human beings; we can avoid sexism by showing that males and females are equally smart and capable. All of these rely on the second type of formal relation; they make use of science to investigate material reality in order to develop a closer and closer formal approximation to that reality. The problem with this, as Zizek points out, is that these systems don’t challenge their own presuppositions. What if, after all, the market can’t function without wild speculation, or races and ethnicities really do have discreet genetic or cultural-historical markers, or the sexes really do differ in major ways?

There is no guarantee out their in the world that our ideologies or paradigms are sound. The fact that we seem to go on forever finding a better picture of things shows that we run up against a deadlock when it comes to understanding material reality: there is always something that, despite our best efforts, eludes our grasp. What is the best economic system? What is the best way to think of race and ethnicity, or national identity, or sex and gender? These things are inherently ungraspable. The Lacanian point is that any system of knowledge (the Symbolic order) will always run up against the Real, the deadlock of explanation.

This facet of human existence — uncertainty — is that which separates (and distinguishes) us from the rest of the universe. We are more than things, because we reflect on our situation (we can never grasp the world outside of thought; we don’t have the immediate sensation of “being” that an unthinking animal has); but we are not gods, because thought is always flawed (the Understanding simply can’t grasp all potential phenomena; we can’t conceive of the entirety of the universe like a deity could). Rather, we are stuck in the middle ground.

Ideology is false inasmuch as it denies this fact: it takes as knowable that which we can’t ever know. Think of these two examples: on the one hand, we have scientism or logical positivism, which tries to hold up human intelligence/rationality (pure thought) as the ultimate authority, as a god; on the other, we have deep ecology, spiritualism, or Zen, all of which try to hold up the un-thought (pure being/nature) as the ultimate authority. This is a false dichotomy. It is stuck at the level form/matter, instead of form/content. We need to get to the point where ideology becomes comical and ironic.

One of the quickest and most exciting reads on this is an article on Kierkegaard and belief in which Žižek discusses the paradoxes of human existence by giving two different readings of Antigone — one tragic, the other comic.

In homage to #OWS, let me say that I think the protestors are breaking out of the vicious cycle of the second type of relation, form / matter; the form itself is under interrogation.


In university classrooms across the United States, clinical psychology professors teach very little about Freudian or other types of psychoanalysis. These disciplines are claimed to be obsolete, since they are too imprecise or impossible to measure scientifically. What colleges do teach are the various types of treatment proven to show results (by HMO standards). Now, the question is, what kinds of results are these? The answer is to be found in the very name given to the broad category of mainstream treatments. That is, they are all called ‘therapies,’ whereas psychoanalysis is just that – analysis, not therapy.

The difference between the two terms is crucial. A therapy is a method of resolving a health problem. This means that a trained practitioner should aim to ‘heal’ the patient’s ‘wound.’ Analysis, however, is the breaking apart of a structure in order to understand it more thoroughly (from the Greek: ana = ‘total’ or ‘thorough’; lysis = ‘loosening’). Psychoanalysis is, as a favorite philosophy professor of mine has said, “a controlled deconstruction of the ego,” whereas the goal of psychotherapy is to (falsely) shore up a weak ego.

The therapist works with the patient to make life better, to make it more livable. So, the depressive, the neurotic, the hysteric, or what have you, look to the therapist for advice. More often than not, therapy sessions revolve around the patient’s disclosure of various aspects of his or her life; this is ‘talk therapy,’ in which the patient rattles off all of his or her problems, and the therapist has very little input, simply nodding as an indication of the therapist’s understanding, and every now and then asking a question, such as, “Why do you think you did that?,” or, “What do you think of that? How does that make you feel?”. When they do get more involved, as is the case in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), therapists try to show the patient why a particular way of thinking or behaving is flawed or illogical.

What it comes down to is this: talk therapies leave in place the psychic problems of the patient; they only aim to give the patient relief from a difficult state of being. This is the same kind of therapy that goes on at the psychiatrist’s office: the patient describes her symptoms, and the doctor gives her medicine to make it feel better. Standard procedure for psychotherapy in the United States rarely calls for anything beyond giving out periodic doses of medicine (whether a verbal affirmation or a pill). These therapies are often necessary. The problem is that therapy only goes on until the patient stops complaining of symptoms. It therefore stops short of the promise of psychoanalysis: to give the patient the freedom to understand his or her relation to the symptom, to desire, language, perception, society, etc.

The problem with the talk-therapy and cognitive-behavioral methods is that they fail to ask why the patient experiences her symptoms. There is no concern with the root cause, because this is presumed to be a simultaneous malfunction of neurotransmitter activity and/or thought processes. And since there are easy remedies for both of these problems – medication and CBT – the practitioner simply follows these two methods and asks nothing more of herself or of the patient. Today’s therapist focuses on the symptom, not the cause; consequently, therapy offers a treatment, not a cure.

Therapists typically ask either very general questions meant to evoke the patient’s own interpretation (functioning like a mirror or a soundboard), or, when using CBT, they give the patient a virtually unquestionable answer (this is just an assumption built into the clinical situation). Note that this isn’t always an ‘easy’ answer; the patient does have to work. However, the whole approach takes for granted at least three things: that (1) the patient can directly state her symptoms, rather than, alternatively, revealing the symptoms as an epiphenomenon of the series of contents and forms of her statements and actions; that, therefore, (2) the particular content of the patient’s speech is enough to go on – what the patient says has enough merit to deserve a direct response in the form of a predictable answer or rebuttal; and also (3) the therapist has the correct, or at least the better, answers; i.e., there is a one-to-one correspondence between the patient’s statement and the therapist’s proper response, as if the conversation could be read like a dialogue based on the contents of a diagnostic manual. The therapist simply interprets what the patient says, showing the patient how to correct the problems, as a teacher would a student.

Psychoanalysis is different. The analyst is not a teacher in the ordinary sense of the word. She doesn’t presume to know what the patient should do, and she doesn’t ‘interpret’ the patient’s problems. But neither does she allow the patient to continue any way he wants during the session. Analysts ask a range of questions which may or may not seem to relate to one another. As such, their questions don’t necessarily appear to follow a linear or predictable progression of thought. But they are strategic. Analysts take two major steps during a session: they (1) provoke conflicts and antagonisms within the patient’s own thoughts and feelings, disrupting the normally unimpeded operation of the patient’s self-interpretation, in order to (2) open up space for the patient’s own discoveries and interventions. The first part is analysis proper, the breaking apart of stale modes of being. The second is the end of analysis: the patient, now seeing details of the broader structure of the psyche, the functions of desire and language in his life (thanks to the analyst’s strategic questions), is forced to re-collect his thoughts, establish a new Master-Signifier, and therefore gain control of his life, at least temporarily.

The shame of the academy’s obsession with the neurosciences is that they offer us only one piece of the puzzle, yet many believe they show it all. The psyche is complicated. It is irretrievably entangled in social life. But even behavioral therapies miss the point: it’s not simply about my own behavior, but about the functions of society and societal institutions. Theoretical psychoanalysis is the only discipline that seeks to understand, and to develop a universal structure to describe, how the logic of society and the logic of the psyche intertwine. Anthropology studies the logic of particular societies and cultures; sociology studies particular segments of a population, or particular phenomena, such as poverty or status, as they operate at the individual and societal levels; the behavioral sciences, including today’s psychology,  seek to understand the biological and cognitive mechanisms behind behavior, and the way that these mechanisms both affect and are affected by society.

In other words, we are witnessing a time when the mainstream academy has restricted the scope of its inquiry into causes and effects to include only particular societies, particular phenomena, or particular mechanisms. Psychoanalysis, however, employs the broadest possible scope of cause and effect, developing and applying a structure with which to critique – in the clinic or in the academy – all spheres of life; and yet, despite all of this depth and breadth, it remains cogent and effective, providing us with real insights. This isn’t to say it’s immediately clear or easy to understand; but little important knowledge is. Incidentally, because theoretical psychoanalysis takes up the challenge of developing universal, abstract categories and logics, it works well as a philosophical theory; hence the appropriation of psychoanalysis in nineteenth- and twentieth-century continental philosophy.

*Disclaimer and disclosure: I’m not a therapist. I’m also not an authority on this stuff, just a fairly knowledgeable student. I have a B.A. in psychology (and philosophy), with a concentration in neuroscience, and I’ve done extensive lab work in cognitive science at a major research university. I also have extensive personal experience in clinical psychology settings, as a patient.