Annotated Bookshelf: $urplus

Kordela, A. Kiarina. $urplus: Spinoza, Lacan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

For long stretches a difficult and demanding text—yet necessarily laborious, contributing to the broader ontological argument about what Kordela describes as “secular causality,” a form of non-foundationalist, non-teleological reasoning that finds its origin in Spinoza and culmination in Lacan, wherein the effect (the surplus, supernumerary element) retroactively is posited as its own cause: In reading this book, I have gained knowledge; therefore (so the logic goes) I was seeking and drawn to knowledge all along. Following Spinoza (or, more specifically, Marx’s Spinoza; or better again still: Lacan’s Marx’s Spinoza), Kordela grounds her articulation of an immanent causality of transference on the former’s central claim that “truth is the standard both of itself and of the false,” illustrating how Spinoza’s monism breaks with Platonic dualities, including that between the (active) beginning and the (passive) end. Modeling her claim not on linearity but topologically on the Möbius strip, Kordela utlimately contends that ‘‘[o]nly through the logic of immanent causality and transferential knowledge can we understand the mechanisms through which capital and its Other produce a subjectivity that sustains them—precondition also to undermine them’’ (87).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.



Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Notwithstanding Morton’s best efforts and wonderful writing, it is constitutively difficult to say what a hyperobject is: No, it’s not a polybutadiene rubber bouncing ball rocketing around the room wall to wall to floor to ceiling; rather, according to Morton, a hyperobject might take up all that same space, and unfold over all the same time it takes the ball to bounce, yet the sheer enormity and distribution of the hyperobject make it impossible to grasp. Think global warming (Morton’s running example) or the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia (my own)—these are things in the Heideggerian sense, well beyond a human scale of comprehension, involving innumerable intentions and actors and real events over many years in many places, which is precisely why they are not only so hard to envisage, but make it so hard to plan a vision for how we should respond in the future. In the first half of his book, Morton offers five fundamental characteristics to help identify hyperobjects, even if we can only see their shadows:

  • Viscosity: Hyperobjects surround us, stick to us, up close and personal even as they overwhelm our sense of personhood or agency, which makes them all the more uncanny and sublime, like the mountain in Wordsworth’s prelude (51).
  • Nonlocality: We should not be fooled by local manifestations of hyperobjects, like confusing a cold snap in the weather as evidence against global warming; attending to the individual raindrops rather than the overall climate is to be fooled by a “false immediacy” that overlooks the hyperobject as “massively distributed in time and space” (48).
  • Temporal Undulation: Even as hyperobjects “envelop us,” at the same time “they seem to taper off, like a long street stretched into the distance” (55); that is to say, they “are time-stretched to such a vast extent that they become almost impossible to hold in mind” (58). When did global warming begin? or scarier still, when will it end? certainly not in our lifetime, nor in our children’s children, should life remain sustainable that long—how can we comprehend such a massive event when the end (which already exists, in that it must) is so far beyond our imagination? “These gigantic timescales are truly humiliating in the sense that they force us to realize how close to Earth we are” (60), unseating humans from the head of the table, the other side of which remains past the horizon of our experience.
  • Phasing: Never appearing all at once, in no specific time and no specific place, hyperobjects are “transdimensional real things” (73), perhaps perceivable to some Tralfamadorian fourth dimensional stranger, just as the whole apple can appear to us while only slices are visible to the stick figures of Abbott’s Flatland.
  • Interobjectivity: Hyperobjects are made up by a “strange interconnectedness of things, an interconnectedness that does not all for perfect, lossless transmission of information, but is instead full of gaps and absences,” a mesh of entities that precedes and exceeds an individuals involvement with it (83).

In the face of such complicated and overwhelming hyperobjects, Morton suggests that we have entered into an “Age of Asymmetry” with our nonhuman neighbors wherein the “fragile aesthetic effect” we call world or nature, the ideal background we dream once ran harmoniously and cohesively, is simply at an end (99). “Three cheers for the so-called end of the world, then, since this moment is the beginning of history, the end of the human dream that reality is significant for them alone,” sing Morton (108), calling us to embrace our ontological weakness and lameness when confronted with hyperobjects, and to establish “more democratic mods of coexistence between humans and with nonhumans” (121).

 This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.



I, Phone: Subjects on the Line [A Conference Talk]

Recently, I was asked to deliver a paper at GRACLS 2016, the annual graduate student conference hosted by the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas-Austin. This year’s theme was the Extrahuman, and seeing as Avital Ronell was our keynote speaker, I chose to pick up where I believe she left off in The Telephone Book, updating her text for a texting age. Below is a copy of my presentation, which I hope to return when further along in my dissertation project:

I, Phone: Subjects on the Line

Yes, yes—doubly yes—I did undoubtedly, though teeming with much doubt, begin this paper on the phone on the phone, thumbing through an article or two and swiftly putting down those ideas a generous audience might put up with. (Put down or upload, they amount to the same here, for as I will come to, phones today are too all-encompassing to act as effective compasses, providing too many directions to offer sure direction, if they ever could.) Of course, in due course, I was intermittently and interminably interrupted by the hardly silent hum and thrum of my pixilated notepad, its high-pitched pings and dings and things of that nature calling my concentration away from my task. Just as hysteria had supposedly become legion during Europe’s late nineteenth century—the wandering womb being the original-if-forgotten “organ without body” favored by fledgling psychoanalysts—or as schizoid modalities had broken out following the breakdowns of interbellum modernism, our digital epoch has added on another clinical diagnosis: ADD, or APPLE-DISTRACTION-DISORDER. Notably missing from my roll call of 8-bit notifications, however, was the rollicking ring of the receiver, that familiar-cum-infrequent series of repeating oscillations now more often than not replaced by an echoless ding-sans-dong (and I pinky promise to return to that missing dong in the Q&A, should anyone so desire). The singular chime, which has come to signal the death knell of the telephonic bell, has become all the more typical, which is to say that users prefer by far today texting over talking, or sending a SnapChat to actual chitchat—much to the chagrin of Carly Rae.

Who calls today? we might ask, our question carrying overtones of Heidegger’s ontological interrogation alongside more prosaic concerns with the shifting uses ushered in by and with the development of first simply mobile and now so-called smartphones—the disputed term here being not whether my iPhone is “smart,” but to what extent it remains a phone when the phoné has been displaced; for if the voice no longer retains its nominal prominence, then do we have in our pockets and purses only phony phones? and have we ever spoken to anything other than a phony phoné on the phone? It is not difficult to imagine that in a few years time, that original telephonic capacity itself will go the way of the 3.5mm jack, gone as quickly as lightening, the everyday incursion of voices during the last century supplanted by a digitally enabled schizography (to hijack an early neologism of Jacques Lacan’s). All of this is admittedly rather hyperbolic, and my aim here is not in the least to nostalgically bemoan the e-clipse of some original telephone bequeathed us by grand Ma Bell, nor to lament the loss of a voice that in truth never entirely belonged to either end of the telephone line, and especially not to forewarn apocalyptically of some sort of cellular Skynet looming on the human horizon. Such technophobic philippics—as with their flipside, the transhumanist encomium—too easily suggest a straightforward and reliable distinction between human being and “our” media, offering up a timeline wherein emergent technologies cut clear breaks with past subjectivities. At the same time, in light of digital diffusion and in the light of our glowing LCD screens, who can still ignore the significance of modern technology on how we speak to and of one another, how we define our relationships and ourselves? While the writings of, say, a Walter Ong or an Eric Havelock on consecutive paradigms of orality and literacy might in the final analysis turn out too schematic and dramatic, while human being and technology are from the first ontologically indissoluble, the manifest difference between speech and writing, between calling and texting, the effect of the medium on (or in or as) the message entreats us to reevaluate the call of modern technology broadly and, more specifically, that of the telephone as we trace its transformation from a tool of vocal communication to one that is not (just) one.

avital-ronell-2015-1Already a quarter of a century ago, when it cost little more than a quarter to place a call at a payphone, when there were such things as payphones outside Doctor Who—though at nearly a grand a pop, every smartphone is effectively a payphone (messaging rates may apply)—in her monograph on the machinery (mono because it spoke in only one ear at a time), Avital Ronell suggested that the telephone offered “the cleanest way to reach the regime of any number of metaphysical certitudes. It destabilizes the identity of self and other, subject and thing, it abolishes the originariness of site….it is itself unsure of its identity as object, thing, piece of equipment, perlocutionary intensity or artwork” (9), at once an “object of a sustained hysterical fantasy—yours and mine—or thing of inmixation, telecrypt, or, in all cases, partial object” (202). We get hung up when we attempt to pin down the telephone, situated as it is somewhere between the invocatory and the oral drives, split between the caller and the receiver, this unceremonious phantom medium that, when it rings, regardless from where or whom, quickens the subject into response-able being as in that moment “one drops what one is doing, what one has been, and becomes what one is: a priori and automatically indebted” (30). When it rings, it spurs; or, said otherwise, the telephone makes us as it makes us wise to the other—yet we cannot decisively say what it is precisely because the telephonic umbilical serves as a condition for the possibility of saying whatsoever, we cannot readily place the telephone (mobile or not) because it functions extimately, within a middle register, uncannily welcoming long-distance charges into the immediate familiarity of our homes. Despite its inconspicuous ordinariness and because of its constitutive commonality, the telephone discloses “a certain irreducible precedence of the Other with respect to the self” (82), a primordial nonpresence that always already splits the subject and renders human being as an answer to the call of the Other.

Such a wholly other, which persists as a hole of alterity within the divided self, resists capture politically, psychically, linguistically, and so cannot be totalized and reduced to a specific, knowable object; hence the telephone, as a part object or organ without body, is in conference with a long-distance party line of other others, like the feminine and the Frankensteinian, the addict and the idiot. Rather, for Ronell “the telephone is a synecdoche of technology,” both “lesser than itself but also the greater” (20), a part (itself perpetually partial, at no time total) standing in for a broader symbolic network of contemporary AT&T: Automatic Tropes and Technicity. The telephone assists us in naming the unnamable Other of technontology, it helps us to expose the underlying cables and technical bugs, the extrahuman elements that coil through the hollow core of human being—and yet: What becomes of the collect call of the telephone following the flowering of cellularity? do the philosophical and tropological functions of the telephone differ when the medium itself functions differently? what vibrations are felt in the wider web of our hyper-mediated world, our digital enframement, once the phone stops ringing and its umbilical wire has been cut? We must ask these questions concerning technologies—none of which are reductively the question, as if there were just one to ask, and just one to ask about—out of neither a reactionary nor provincial moralism, some backwater or blackforest neo-Luddism, but instead to trace the topological displacements and condensations of the mutating medium’s psychosocial effects as it mobilizes a technological unconscious, intensities all the more compelling when we reproduce the habitual ignorance that the phone has historically enjoined (by dint of its long-established unpretentiousness in kitchens and living rooms, its anonymity echoed now by our orthodox aphonia). Consider here the phenomena of phantom vibrations, when you become alarmed by the hallucinatory feeling that your phone just buzzed: More than an indicator of the telephone’s interruption of the line between subject and object, do we not sense these sudden intrusions into the schizobody as a psychopathological reminder-and-remainder of that which is tying us to the Real of foreign contingencies, the illusory perception serving as a symptom of the return of the repressed, all the more formidable for being forgotten?

With the loss of the voice today like a pandemic of technolaryngitis, our smartphones have at the same time compensated with an augmentation of our visual and tactile senses, often in combination, as with Pokémon Go, which requires players to train their bodies as much as their Bulbasaurs while its augmented reality synthesizes our subjective viewpoint with objective game data; this is a far cry from Peter Sloterdijk’s too cynical claim a decade ago that the age of the online world picture “only offers the continuation of the telephone by visual means” (“Cell Block” 103). While lines yet need be laid tracing the twenty-year period between the release of Ronell’s The Telephone Book during the twilight of dial tones and the first iPhone—which effectively rang the death knell for telephone books for the general public—the advent of smartphones transformed the frame of our emerging media ecology by organizing a newly dominant rhetorical order that has “rerouted, computerized, electrocuted, [and] satellited” our psychosocial discourses and desires (109). My claim here is not to suggest that the technologized subject in some way splits an independent line off from “the” history of human being, for the split subject is always already on the line, never off the hook, made response-able insofar as we are hooked on telephonics. Rather, as Ronell has so disruptively demonstrated, ever since primordial Prometheus the anthropos has been fundamentally prosthetic; accordingly, to track the topological curling of the telephone cord at our core, we might call the iPhone the modern promethean preorigin of our contemporary digital Dasein, supplying (and demanding of us) for this epochal mode of Being a different kind of Apple and another sort of byte.

tumblr_ndy80un0ct1qaqx8xo1_500Through elision of phoné, part-object-cause of desire, and tactile conditioning of the schizobody, like that other modern Prometheus, the iPhone with its miniscule “i” offers us a paradigm of being more machine than man (contrary to common usage, here I mean Victor-the-inventor, not his “unfortunate and deserted creature”: The death-drive-toward-knowledge of the former transforms the scientist into an answering machine for the alchemical algorithms of Cornelius Agrippa, an automaton of rationalism to contrast the romantic yearning of his Miltonian monster). Or, more to the point: Do not iPhones signal, weakly by design, the continued computer colonization of the subject, the substitution of digitally operated dial tones by a hyper-dexterous digitality, a shift in value from the communicative affordances of the phone to the nigh unaffordable smart, and the overall displacement of hauntology-at-a-distance (tele) by the egospheric cellular? In itself, to be clear, this is all well and good, a sign of little more than typical technological progress, as in Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “the content of any medium is always another medium,” technoprogeny a material accretion atop and a topological deformation of its ancestor—the monster is also named Frankenstein and thinks of little else than his “unfeeling, heartless creator.” Yet as the recent legal battle over the classification of the Internet as a telecom utility and its protection under telephone regulations clearly demonstrates, complications arise when we continue to treat legally and economically, rhetorically and psychologically, technologies that are effectively computers as devices only nominally still telephones; in doing so, we disavow our digital enmeshment and its unconscious psychosocial effect, as if nothing had changed, the cables of the Other buried beneath too much earth to cross any other way (and to an extent, do we not see such a lapse taking place already in The Telephone Book, the style and performance of which were made possible, and thereby reflect more, not the handset that connected authorial-Dasein-and-designer, but the layout and typographic freedom of the computer?).

Camera yet calendar, newspaper yet notepad, personal trainer yet personal assistant: If we are still to call the iPhone a synecdoche today, then it is so not because it continues to constitute a single part within a wider technological totality, but because it contains that totality within itself as digital possibility, including for the moment a final vanishing trace of the voice. As it exists now, however, within the realms of the political Symbolic and our everyday Imaginary, when (as McLuhan says) “official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old,” and so “[w]e approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses of the old,” the iPhone (and digital media broadly) aligns more closely to the paradigmatic logic of metaphor rather than metonymy, functioning as a signifier of nonpresence and substitution. Who needs a camera or a calendar, newspaper or notepad, personal trainer or personal assistant today when deep in you pocket they each stand by in app-sentia, waiting to be called up from (what Saussure labels) the “virtual mnemonic series” of the device’s programming? Having located our mobile phones along language’s metaphorical axis, with Roman Jacobson we might here speak of a cultural aphasia that fails to realize contiguities, with Lacan the dominance of drive over desire, or with Julia Kristeva a potential for transgressive poetic resistances, though such considerable considerations must be put on hold until a future project; for now, I have attempted merely to trace the call—or rather, the always already missed call—of the iPhone, placing a bug on the line that divides subject and prostheses, self and other, “I” and phone.

Annotated Bookshelf: The Postmodern Condition

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Regardless Lyotard’s own opinion of this short text, The Postmodern Condition presents his highly influential thesis that the postmodern epoch has been defined by “the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation” (xxiv), specifically those that justify knowledge either by making humanity the hero of history, or by making speculative science an end in itself (§9). Against such lines of thinking that legitimize knowledge through (Habermasian) consensus, Lyotard argues that “[t]he grand narrative has lots its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation” (37). Grand narratives of this ilk have been decimated on three fronts, argues Lyotard: Within themselves by their own “internal erosion of the legitimacy principle of knowledge” (39), as well as by capitalism on one end and technology at the other, a dialectic wherein there can be “no technology without wealth, but no wealth without technology” (45). This interdependency meant that the more efficient technology became, the more wealth could be extracted from it—a logic which reversed the relationship of science and technology (47), with value and legitimation only allocated to knowledge that optimally produces capital: A point evinced today by funding cuts across the humanities and the simultaneous rise of MOOCs. While not wanting to reinstall the prominence of metanarratives, Lyotard at the end of the text calls for a rise in “the little narrative [petit récit]” which “remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention” (60), favoring “a multiplicty of finite meta-arguments” and the development of paralogy rather than consensus (66).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Interface Fantasy

Nusselder, André. Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

The cyborg not just a fantasy in the everyday sense, for from a Lacanian perspective, fantasy is cyborgnetic (68): “the computer screen functions in cyberspace as a psychological space—as the screen of fantasy….the interface,” argues Nusselder, “has a similar status to that of fantasy” (5). In the sense that Lacan deploys the term, fantasy—formalized ($◊a), or the split-subject in relation to objet a—”is not solely the opposite of reality but also the (libidinal) motivation of our odyssey through reality” (12); that is to say, like a computer interface, fantasy is a frame of reality, defining it, installing it with meaning, de-signing (or da-seining) our being-in-the-world-wide-web. Ultimately, this means that “[i]n order to understand ‘real’ objects, we cannot simply address ‘things as they are, because we ourselves also constitute them, mentally and cybernetically (49); rather, we have consider the conditions of possibility that fantasy, our relationship to a lost object of enjoyment, enables. “Considering the fictitious structure of reality, cyberspace seems to be nothing else than a realm of technologically produced fictions,” little different from “reality as we know it” (53), and including the fiction and fantasy the constitutes subjectivity, “active windows upon the outer world” (76). Nusselder argues that “it is fantasy as a mediating screen that allows for a third conception of the self, beside the modernist unitary subject of representation and the postmodern subject of simulation. Fantasy is pivotal here, as it results not in a separation of virtual and physical spaces, as in representation, or a blending of them, as in simulation; instead, fantasy interfaces virtual and physical space” (64), with the implication that “interface subjectivity is about ‘subjective-objective’ space” (80): “The interfaces with cyberspace are new frames for connecting body and mind, which never were two separate entities but were combined by fantasy in the first place” (141). What this suggests is neither a violent neo-Cartesian dichotomy, nor a dissolution of Symbolic efficiency, but a pharmaceutical and rhetorical ambiguity wherein “[i]nformation technologies can screen us off further from this thing that we cannot or dare not confront, or conversely, can offer a medium in which it can manifest itself. In this sense they function exactly as the screen of fantasy: they may lead us into illusion by letting us take the reality on the screen for the real thing itself, or they may provide new appearances of the real” (102).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: What is Called Thinking?

Heidegger, Martin. What is Called Thinking? Translated by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

“If we receive the answer we were expecting,” asked Lacan in his second seminar, “is it really an answer?”—the unspoken conclusion here being that we fail to ask a question when we already (presume to) know the answer. Similarly, in these surprisingly sober lectures, delivered in a Freiburg seminar series between 1951 and 1952 during a brief return to professorship, Heidegger poses his titular question not “to snatch at a quick answer in the form of a formula,” but to “stay with the question” (48), for the “movement, step by step, is what is essential here. Thinking clears its way only by its own questioning advance” (170), which does not seek “a once-for-all decision and choice of way” across an impassable crossroads of interpretative multiplicity—”[f]or all true thought remains open to more than one interpretation” (71)—rather such a “crossroads accompanies us on the way, every moment” (175), through “a way of questioning, on which the problematic alone is accepted as the unique habitat and locus of thinking” (185). Thus in asking was heißt Denken?, Heidegger inquires after not only the definition of thinking, whether historically—and the two seminars contained here spend their latter halves with intensive readings of Nietzsche’s “last man” and Parmenides’ sixth fragment, respectively—or contemporaneously in a “thought-provoking time [when] what is most thought-provoking shows itself in the fact that we are still not thinking” (28); but also “[w]hat calls on us to think, demands for itself that it be tended, cared for, husbanded in its own essential nature, by thought” (121). In this call to thinking—which, etymologically, is also a thanking, a thanc (139)humankind is “offer[ed] an abode” in which to dwell (124), in which to question, in which to keep and gather “all that concerns us, all that we care for, all that touches us” in an “incessant concentration on contiguity” so that “we ourselves are that gathering” (144f.). As any dismissive grad student might expect from Heidegger, though which we have hardly begun to question and even less to think, the call to “thinking is determined by what there is to be thought about: the presence of what is present, the Being of beings. Thinking is thinking only when it recalls in thought the ἐόν, That which this word indicates properly and truly, that is, unspoken, tacitly. And that is the duality of beings and Being” (244), ontological difference.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Plato’s Pharmacy

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” In Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981: 61–171.

Are we not yet sick of Socrates? of the Platonic virus that has replicated itself throughout the history of Western philosophy in so many forms, from Plotinus to Putnam, until today when we are once more “on the eve of Platonism[, w]hich can also, naturally, be thought of as the morning after Hegelianism” (107f.)? and what might be the antidote? Except to presume an antidote is, at the same time, to accept the poison, and it is precisely this binary—toxin/medicine, and in other contexts: forgetfulness/memory, body/soul, writing/speech—that Derrida aims to think beyond in attending ever more closely to the Platonic text, the play of a chain of significations around Plato’s varied usage of the signifier pharmakon and its related terms (95). Although translators, whether English or French, by necessity must reduce the polysemy of the Platonic lexicon, Derrida’s lengthy essay begins with the banal observation that a pharmakon “acts as both remedy and poison” and “can be—alternately or simultaneously—beneficent or maleficent” (70). Such ambiguity, such fluidity, is not secondary to the meaning of the word, but rather, “[i]f the pharmakon is ‘ambivalent,’ it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed, the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other…The pharmakon is the movement, the locus, and the play: (the production of) difference” (127)—which is to say, the pharmakon is another overtone of differance, part of “the graphics of supplementarity” (168), and has resonances with the Lacanian sinthome, especially insofar as it “partakes of both good and ill, of the agreeable and the disagreeable” (99). Within the Platonic text, the most potent pharmakon—the most dangerous to the Ancient Greeks, the most potentially efficacious today—is writing, which “belongs to the order and exteriority of the symptom” (110); throughout the dialogues, “writing will be described as errancy as such, mute vulnerability to all aggression. In nothing does writing reside” (124), devoid of essence, of presence, of truth, of life—writing is thus “the miserable son” (145), “indicated, designated, and denounced as a desire for orphanhood and patricidal subversion” that murders the no-longer-needed speaking subject (77): Oedipus Rx.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.