Epistemology or Ontology? Yes, Please!
WILLIAM J. URBAN
When I read the call for papers for this conference, which references Galileo's 1633 forced renunciation of his scientific findings, it put to my mind a massive philosophical book published last year by Žižek where the same incident is mentioned in its opening pages. Apparently the famous 'And yet it moves' supposedly uttered by Galileo is almost certainly a fiction. But a fiction, Žižek points out, which nonetheless has its own reality since it designates the truth of Galileo's subjective position. Evidently a truth can be told in the guise of a lie.
As well, with this conference in mind, I asked myself if Žižek's work in philosophy and psychoanalysis has contributed to the accumulated knowledge of mankind. This book is likely to raise the same question for its reader as it quite thematically and somewhat unexpectedly calls for moving beyond what has always been Žižek's unsurpassable – in his own words 'undeconstructible' – horizon, that of the interaction between Hegel and Lacan. Yet the question remains: has Žižek accomplished his intent to move us beyond Lacan's 'ultimate achievement and deadlock', namely the formulae of sexuation which embodies the psychoanalyst's notion of sexual difference?
Perhaps this is the wrong question. After all, Lacan himself claimed but one discovery – his objet petit a – and since this paradoxical object is more of a subtraction than an addition to the Freudian field, it simultaneously suggests how this field is in no way a homogeneous whole. If this is likewise the case with the Humanities, this would imply that we should not so much have before us today solely an epistemological question (which alone risks invoking a notion of progress) but rather contemplate the real ontological conditions of our discipline.
I believe you already see such concerns with Freud. A century ago he founded an entirely new discipline by producing psychoanalytic knowledge through discourse with the hysteric, this subject who we know to be somewhat of a modern alchemist, able to create entire worlds from nothing. But Freud quickly learned how this knowledge produced was utterly inaccessible to him when he assumed the analyst's chair. I myself witnessed such barred knowledge years ago with respect to a female hysteric who reported how one of her fingers would occasionally turn ghastly white, notably in the frozen food section of the supermarket where she was told as a little girl was the ideal place to meet single men. She further reported that the accompanying thought to these episodes was the following: "If the blood which has retreated from the finger does not return in time so as to cause permanent damage requiring amputation, I have 9 others so I really don't need it anymore." When I tell you that years previous she had suffered a painful divorce and that the affected finger was the ring finger of the left hand, you can readily gather what was at stake. The point here is that she knew all of this – she had full knowledge regarding these signifying mechanisms – yet her symptom still moved: in this case literally as it later stubbornly jumped to the opposing hand.
Is this not our predicament today in general? As Žižek notes, we all know that the woman in our dream is our mother; in fact we flaunt this knowledge after the analyst reveals it. Yet we remain unmoved since it doesn't seem to touch us in the real.
This prospect of a knowledge in the real is what is overlooked by Habermas for whom an adequate causal explanation should simultaneously dissolve the symptom. Habermas thus extends the Enlightenment project of such masterful figures as Chladenius who in the mid-18th century clarified for us inconsistent accounts of historical events, provided they were originally given through a reasonable discourse. Two hundred years later Foucault will round out the Enlightenment period for us, examining both its forgotten texts and the operation of their exclusion. But the universalist-rationalist conception of textual analysis first begins to be questioned at the hands of early 19th century Romantic thinkers like Ast and especially Schleiermacher who provide the first articulations of the hermeneutical circle, articulations which remain untroubled up through Dilthey. Now we all know of Dilthey's early 20th century efforts to secure a methodological foundation for understanding in the human sciences on par with that of explanation in the natural sciences; but lesser known is Heidegger's reaction and here is where things get really interesting. Dismissing Dilthey's efforts as a hopeless epistemological project, Heidegger instead champions Schleiermacher for redefining hermeneutics as the art of understanding, thus freeing it from its previous conception as an explanatory tool. For Heidegger, this transcendental turn to hermeneutical thinking allows one to conceive the hermeneutical circle as the objective conditions of understanding so what was once mere textual technique is now made into the Thing itself. It is now Dasein alone which has meaning, an ontological category standing prior to any epistemological concern, for the hermeneutical circle is said to articulate the fore-structures of understanding which relegate to all apophantic interpretive approaches to the being of a text a mere secondary status. Simply said, we are no longer to conceive the scholar in external relation to the text.
Forged in the fires of theological thought, such a schematic still carries its religious overtones so it's not surprising that Heidegger's most consequential followers are such Protestant theologians as Bultman, Ebeling and Fuchs. But he equally influences secular thinkers – Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre immediately come to mind as men in their respective field who remind us at every turn how the ontological question precedes the epistemological subject-object split. However, it's Gadamer's 1960 publication of Truth and Method which makes Heidegger's crossing of hermeneutics with phenomenology widely accessible. I feel that anyone who shares my concern for foundational issues in the Humanities should consider this a landmark text whose hermeneutical phenomenology proved divisive to say the least, kicking off, in the ensuing 2 decades, a series of fundamental debates which drew in such diverse fields as modern philology, legal scholarship, American literary criticism, post-structuralism and even Marxist discourse.
For our purposes let me note how Ricoeur seems to have gotten the last word in these debates. Exactly 40 years ago he called for a return to epistemology so as to better address the proper status of the human sciences since that question, of central concern in the 19th century, was forgotten in the 20th in the wake of the ontological turn of Heidegger and Gadamer. Now if this conference is any indication, his call seems to have been answered. Yet I believe Ricoeur's assessment in 1973 is still descriptive of our current situation. Are we not still living in Heidegger's shadow? Are we not admonished each day in our classrooms to return to the ontological foundations prior to any subject-object split through various strategies? Whereas yesterday the buzzwords were 'presence' and 'authenticity,' in the same vein today the complaint of alienation from our textual object is met with the promise of greater insight, provided that we only broaden the appropriate horizons to include 'inter- or trans-disciplinary' components or consider various socio-cultural-ideological contexts or otherwise engage in what is termed 'border-crossings.'
In contrast to this strategy, I feel we should issue a counter-admonishment: if there are multiple disciplines each with a border to cross, we should not disavow but rather fully identify with this border, as a gap existing prior to whatever it supposedly separates. Not simply to consider it productive, what Ricoeur calls 'distanciation,' but move to radically ontologize this empty distance between the subject and its textual object; in other words to re-conceive the external limit as internal to the Thing at hand. So where Ricoeur sees the historical trajectory from epistemology to its later overshadowing by ontology and thus wishes to redeem for epistemology a more dignified status, we should move a step further and summon the courage to fully acknowledge Heidegger and Gadamer's thesis on the a priori status of the ontological question, yet nevertheless simultaneously re-double our efforts and stress the need for a paradoxical return to ontology. If every epistemological approach to being fails, this epistemological failure should be re-conceived as ontological success. Simply said, the gap between epistemology and ontology should itself be ontologized.
My own research falls within this general framework, aiming as it does to develop a non-hermeneutical phenomenological approach to textual analysis.
More specifically, it's my intent to think together Lacan's Theory of the Four Discourses with his Formulae of Sexuation so as to radically suspend that hermeneutical circle we always seem to find ourselves within whenever we engage with texts. The slide before you suggests how Lacan derived his Formulae of Sexuation from Aristotle's logical square, the understanding of which has been greatly eased for us by men like Le Gaufey and Fierens in the last decade, who, for all that, have not done all the work. For Lacan's frequent comment that his texts are not designed to be read (but rather worked through) is nowhere more fitting than those of his final decade where he turns to topology and increasingly utilizes the algebra he's been developing for decades. His conviction is that these quasi-mathematical formulae – called mathemes – are the proper medium for the transmission of psychoanalytic knowledge, so that on December 15, 1971 he can categorically state how (and I quote) 'the only teaching is mathematical, the rest is a joke.'
Lacan effectively says here that the type of knowledge which should concern us cannot be conveyed through the universality of the concept. So despite the similarity of Lacan's universal affirmative to Aristotle's – the only identical cells in the two tables – they are to be read quite differently. If I were to say it's true that there are some in this room who have taken enough economics courses to have earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in that discipline, I doubt anyone considers the possibility that it is true of All of us, as would be the case for Aristotle. From this rather simple insight, which treats the particular affirmative in a 'maximal sense' whereby the universal affirmative is excluded, Lacan delivers blow after blow to the notion that, for our purposes, there are universal readings of texts, a one-size-fits-all approach whereby texts can be sorted according to pre-established categories.
However, rejecting this notion is much more difficult than is commonly thought, for even when we deviate greatly from the established interpretive norm, we still often use it as our horizon and thus do not fully escape its grasp. I had an economics professor at the University of Toronto who found a place in the literature largely by inverting standard interpretations and then finding textual support. Hence for him Marx was a neo-classical – a vulgar thesis which no doubt accomplished its purpose of hystericizing that subject commonly known to us by the name of "student," precisely the subject produced through the university discourse. In retrospect, however, it would have been enough to reflect on how this professor's exceptional status in the literature in effect proved the rule regarding the normative interpretation of Marx. Moreover, since Lacan's logical square indicates how universals are founded precisely on the existence of their exceptions, we could even say that knowing Marx the way we do is only possible because he's been interpreted abnormally.
Yet all that I've just said takes us no further than the right side of Lacan's logical square. On the left side, which has logical priority, we read that inasmuch as there is no exception, what exists cannot be collectivized into any universal set, thus even more radically undermining the universality of the concept. The Lacanian not-all indexes his objet petit a, an 'existence without essence' which forever resists an interpretation solidifying the meaning of the text once and for all.
Lacan's logical square thus confirms what we've known all along, that the articulation of a universal is sheer epistemological pretention and ultimately inconsistent. Yet it is not enough to insist that being or life or some always eludes universal conceptualization. Rather, the trick is to understand the status of the exception without any particular object taking its place. Here lies Lacan's impossible ontology.
To conclude, Fierens suggests that Lacan theorizes a movement from one formula to the other in a way which traces out the paradoxical figure of the möbius strip. I submit to you that this represents the true circularity of interpretation, from which we could develop a sexuated textual approach. This circle begins with the provisional possibility of the universal concept and the necessity of its particular constitutive exception, continues through the recognition of the impossibility of any such exception, only to conclude with the final contingency of the interpretive act, the act which underscores each of these moments and forever ensures the indetermination of interpretation.
This returns us to my original question regarding the proper reading of Žižek. If his texts appear caught in a loop, giving voice to the master at one moment, then to the professor and the hysteric in the next, we mustn't overlook the truth of his position as psychoanalyst: like Freud he is aware of the gap that separates him from the knowledge of his discipline. If nothing else, his many publications bear witness to the maintenance of the gap which prevents the closure of the hermeneutical circle. Yet any one of these publications further attests to how Žižek transforms this gap into the curved space of the möbius strip in a way that makes this circle vicious. Recognizing this viciousness is a crucial first step toward confronting interpretive strategies that stand under the sign of tolerance and respect for the otherness of the text.
Now before I thank you for your time, I'd like to draw your attention to the 2 bags of möbius strips I've placed on the table next to the coffee maker. On each strip I've inscribed the 4 formulae of sexuation in Lacan's matheme notational shorthand. If you'd like to take one home – and I encourage you to do so – you'll be forced to choose between one of the two traditional gendered colors I made them in, namely, blue and pink.
But I caution you against thinking that you can easily avoid this choice by taking one of each, since the thought that one can have the best of both worlds is exclusively the fantasy of primary colors.
More on Aristotle and Lacan