Monday, March 12, 2007

Stupidity perpetually haunts thought and practice

In a previous post I attempted to work through Deleuze’s thesis that stupidity is a transcendental structure of thought, an illusion internal to thought, similar to Kant’s transcendental illusions produced in and through reason. In intervening days I’ve continued thinking about this, trying to think more specifically about what challenges thought, making it so difficult to think. It seems to me that this question is not only vital to the more remote concerns of philosophy such as those belonging to metaphysics and epistemology, but also to concrete issues in politics and ethics.
Once again it is necessary to emphasize that stupidity, if it is a sort of transcendental illusion, would not be a cognitive failing resulting from poor development or inadequate neurology. Neurologically, one could be quite intelligent and still be embroiled in stupidity. On the other hand, I don’t particularly like the word “stupidity”, though I confess that I gravitate towards this word as I see so much of it in the world about me. I suppose that says something about the structure of my desire. Hopefully no one will cleverly lay me bare in terms of Hegel’s logic of the beautiful soul. In his magnificent Commentary to Hegel’s Science of Logic, David Gray Carlson writes...
It will be recalled that for Deleuze stupidity was to be thought as an inability to conceive and pose problems, or draw distinctions. Stupidity is a certain way of tarrying with identity. As always it is worthwhile to remember that Deleuze uses the term “problem” in an idiosyncratic way. For Deleuze a problem-multiplicity-Idea is not a negativity or absence of solution, but instead the ontological ground of individuation or the field out of which an entity is individuated. Although Deleuze would strongly object to this language, problems mediate solutions (entities) and give them their sense. Darwin, for instance, discovered this during his journey on the Beagle with regard to finches and other species. When Hegel speaks of immediacy, abstraction, and self-identity, he seems to refer to something similar with regard to the understanding. Take the following passage from Hegel’s famous article “Who Thinks Abstractly?“. There Hegel writes...
For Hegel, the criminal is here treated in terms of immediacy, and consequently as self-identical. The criminal is reduced to his status as a criminal and this property is treated as an intrinsic property of what he is. For instance, we can imagine a neuropsychologist studying the brain or DNA of the executed criminal, searching for that elusive property that determines his identity. Indeed, millions of dollars are spent every year for precisely such research projects. Additionally, this relation to the criminal is “abstract” in the sense that it reduces the being of the criminal to a single property– “criminality” –relating to him as if her were devoid of other properties. This, according to Hegel, is the work of the understanding.
In constrast to the work of the understanding, dialectical and speculative reason unfolds the mediations that are involved in the notion. In the case of the criminal, these “mediations” refer to a history, a genesis, involving family, education, the social order, and so on. Indeed, this is the secret of Hegel’s various dialectics: Each time one begins with something taken as immediate and self-sufficient, and then it is unfolded to that point where the mediations and otherness are found necessarily dwelling within it. All of these ideas are familiar to anyone who has worked with the various social sciences, so I am almost embarrassed to repeat them. However, what is interesting here is the way in which Hegel emphasizes how these mediations conceal and erase themselves in the determinate being. Moreover, it is striking that as various forms of dialectical thought have risen into prominence in the last two centuries– often forms of dialectical thought much at odds with Hegel such as Deleuze’s ontology –the push-back has been to erase mediation altogether. The political and ethical stakes of mediacy are obvious. They certainly don’t favor a particular orientation. At any rate, Deleuze and Guattari put the illusion of the immediate nicely in Anti-Oedipus...
The task of dialectical thought, then, is to reveal how these mediations are at work in immediacy or how immediacy is mediated, or yet again how the immediate contains the other within it. As Carlson so nicely puts it, “Dialectical Reason merely expresses what was previously hidden” (29). I purposely leave the details of this task vague and open as it will differ from field to field, so we will have to develop, as it were, tools on the ground and must see the very process of producing these tools as a result of the way in which our own immediacy is mediated. That is, it must not be forgotten that the actor and observer is herself a part of this process.
There is a sort of transcendental illusion at the heart of experience itself that invites relating to the world in a particular way at the level of praxis which is borne of the detachment of “immediacy” from its mediations. This can be seen at the level of therapy where a psychological disorder is seen as a part of the self-identity of the suffering patient, such that the social and family context are ignored. It can be seen in the way certain questions are posed in the field of genetics, where the interactive relation of organisms to the environment are ignored. It can be seen in a series of presuppositions revolving around the war on terror, where it is assumed that terrorists are simple things that can be simply eradicated, thereby ignoring the social field out of which terrorists emerge or are individuated. It can be seen in United States education reform policies, where it is assumed that teachers are broken and the problem can simply be solved through more extensive training and testing, thereby ignoring shifts in the social world. Examples could be multiplied. In all these instances immediacy and self-identity are privileged, subtracting mediation from the thought of the thing.
Stupidity would thus be something that perpetually haunts thought and practice as we are perpetually presented with the world as a series of immediacies. In a luminous passage from Matter and Memory, Bergson writes...
I’ve always had a certain fondness for Bergson’s theory of the perception-image. For Bergson, perception is possible action. Put more forcefully, I perceive that which is within my power to act upon. Bergson refers to it as “virtual action”. Consequently, Bergson speaks of increasing and decreasing powers of my body. My perception is a coordination between the action of the body and the world that gives itself to that body, as if in a reflected mirror. Here, of course, Bergson discovers in his own way the thesis of the identity of subject and object developed by Hegel in the Phenomenology.
In this connection it could be said that the question of the relation between the immediate and the mediate takes on a special urgency. For the question of what is given as immediate is a question of that upon which one can act or that which one can affect and be affected by. As such, the question of overcoming stupidity is also, not surprisingly, a question of acting well… Which has little or nothing to do with being well behaved. ~ by larvalsubjects on March 9, 2007

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