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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Acdemic Restlessness and Bearing Frustration : Guest Article by Jonah Dempcy

Academic Restlessness and Bearing Frustration
Jonah Dempcy

Jonah Dempcy is an American jazz musician (creator of Revolution Void),a technologist,writer and philosopher. Below is an exclusive article written by him on knowledge,academics and the limit of our urge towards it,along with many more related factors.

I received my first scathing criticism on THE ABSOLUTE OF PURE DIFFERENCE (2013).   I don't have much to say in response other than "different strokes for different folks," "different scenes for different genes" and so on. I almost feel like getting into someone's thought requires a sort-of self-selection where if it is imposed on you, you will necessarily reject it. Like how Levi Bryant says his only problem with Lacan is when Lacan makes an ethical demand on him. Well, if you self-select to engross yourself in Lacan it isn't problematic, only if you feel that Lacan is being pushed on you, that you are being indoctrinated against your will ...

It's kind of like Timothy Leary's point about acid:  "Acid is not for every brain - only the healthy, happy, wholesome, handsome, hopeful, humorous, high-velocity should seek these experiences. This elitism is totally self-determined. Unless you are self-confident, self-directed, self-selected, please abstain." I feel the same way about Jung, and have unfortunately made the mistake of proselytizing -- pushing my views on others rather than allowing them to come to these views organically on their own (or not). 

John Mayer talks about musicians who only listen to another musician long enough to find something wrong. They scour for new music but only listen for 10 or 15 seconds -- long enough that they can rationalize, minimize, justify to themselves the music really isn't that good after all. According to Mayer, this is because the other musician may be intimidating, frighteningly good even -- so when one encounters a frighteningly good musician, it is a defense mechanism to listen only long enough to find a reason why one doesn't have to listen any more, a reason why "that musician is actually really bad" but nobody else realizes it. It's the belief that one has found something nobody else sees (almost like the myth of being misunderstood, that idea that others don't really "get" you and so on...).

Unfortunately, I think many academics do the same thing: scouring for new texts but only reading them long enough to find a problem, to detect "totalitarianism" or to find "metaphysics of presence." The problem is that when you encounter a new thinker who has obviously devoted a lot of time into it, especially if that thinker has views contrary to your own, it is much much easier to only get into that thinker long enough to get frustrated than to actually devote the time to bearing frustration and coming to be satisfied.

There are two kinds of frustration, then: the immediate frustration one feels with a thinker who has never been able to satisfy, and the deeper, ineluctable frustration that comes with time.
When I first encountered Derrida I immediately had a knee-jerk reaction of this first kind of frustration. Derrida did not satisfy me, he annoyed me. His work was entirely frustrating, and my criticisms of him were hollow because I had never allowed his work to satisfy me. Only by bearing the frustration long enough to overcome it and reveal a deeper level of frustration (this 2nd type, the hard-won frustration one gets with a thinker after first being satisfied by that thinker) could I actually come up with a decent critique of Derrida.

Deleuze says that critique must consist of three things: 1.) the view of reality being critiqued, 2.) a proposed "other way of seeing things" or alternative view of reality and 3.) an account of the genesis of the (erroneous) view being criticized. Many critiques get the first 2 of these right. They say: "This is wrong, I propose this other way instead." But to truly get at why the object of critique is wrong, one must explain its genesis: how it came to be seen that way in the first place. In the case of Derrida, when I first encountered him I could do the first and 2nd operations of critique, but only after spending long hours "grokking" Derrida could I come to the 3rd operation, that of understanding how his view arises in the first place.

A major problem with academic critique today is that so many academics suffer from restlessness, a desire to skim or extract meaning from things in such a way as to intellectually comprehend, compartmentalize and so on. Levi Bryant calls this the discourse of the University, following Lacan -- that way of encountering new material only to pigeonhole it into your preexisting framework, like how Freud would find the same thing time and again in his dream analyses. (He even complained to Jung that he kept finding the same thing! Of course, Jung pointed out that it is because Freud himself was reproducing the same interpretation, not because the dreams themselves were always Oedipal. This is why Jung said you cannot formulate interpretation, no two psyches are alike -- Jung was entirely anti-normative).

Marie-Louise von Franz called the great neurosis of our time restlessness, and this is especially true in academia, where a sort of flighty movement and noise is constantly reproduced in a way to stave off "deathly silence" or grounding, commitment, arduous labor with a thinker. It's much easier to stay in the clouds, to live the provisional life, to eternally begrudge those thinkers who demand serious labor. Or else to labor over a thinker only to use it as a source of pride, an accolade, an attestation to one's good intentions, a performance or demonstration of how well-meaning and hard-trying one is. Too many academics are like the musicians described by John Mayer, only reading another scholar's thought long enough to dismiss it, scanning and searching for any sign that something is unworthy of any more attention.

I take a more religious attitude (which is to say, a mystical attitude). If I encounter a new thinker, I think to myself, "There is a reason I discovered this person," even if that reason is ultimately to give me a new object of critique -- I don't just assume every thinker I encounter is someone I should endorse, but I do think that there is value in all my encounters, even if I don't know what that value is at the time. 

I try to remind myself not to only read another thinker long enough to find a problem with that thinker, or only get far enough into someone else's thought until I "detect the metaphysics of presence," or else phallogocentrism, or the kernel of totalitarianism, or .... you get my drift. I realize that these can be authentic critiques, but they can also be minimizations or justifications why one can safely ignore something. It is almost as if every encounter with a new thinker adds a cognitive burden, increases one's state of frustration, and nothing is more relieving than evacuating this frustration by rationalizing to oneself why that thinker isn't worth trying to understand anyway. It's this rushing to the sigh of relief, the "whew! glad I don't have to read that person!" which is so problematic -- the rush to find a reason why another thinker is worthless and inconsequential to your thought. I advocate a more religious attitude which is certainly not to say that you have to read every thinker you encounter in depth, but rather, an urging to see yourself in the call, to realize that you are being addressed by the meaningful coincidences you encounter, and to engage with the thinkers you are drawn to via self-selection, instead of from the position of being imposed on. If you approach a thinker as if that thinker is "put upon" you, as if demands are made from you, then you will always find a reason why that thinker is wrong and can be safely dismissed without further thought. It is only when you self-select to learn more, when you "hear the calling" that you can really gain insight from another thinker.

Another way of looking at it is from the perspective of Lacan's distinction between two types of knowledge, (mé)connaissance and savoir. The idea here is that the first kind of knowledge is merely narcissistic ego recognition, where one reproduces the discourse of the University, recognizing something and thus rendering it ineffective by placing it into one's pre-existing system. One does not learn something new but merely accumulates evidence which supports one's already-held ideological beliefs. Savoir, on the other hand, is the knowledge which arises from subjective desitutition (which is always at risk of being re-appropriated in recognition by the ego!) -- the knowledge of one's subjective history which is the burgeoning awareness of one's meaning as determined by others, the realization that one does not get to choose what one means. (Miller points out that it might seem the speaker in a conversation holds the power, but really the listener does: the listener gets to choose what the speaker means). 

The move from méconnaissance to savoir is seen when one stops believing the myth of being misunderstood, when one stops saying "You don't understand what I really mean!" and instead comes to the shocking truth: "I don't understand what I really mean." It's the retraction of projections and the reversal so that one is no longer guaranteed by one's authentic, immediate, sincere direct subjective experience, but is rather suspicious of one's own self-regard. One learns not to trust one's self-regard but to at least be honest about it. To paraphrase Badiou, we may not be able to tell the truth of our subjectivity but at least we can be honest about our inability to tell the truth. It is something like coming to rely on our own unreliability. 

Bringing this back to academic critique, so many academics encounter a new thinker only long enough to "recognize," to gain this first kind of knowledge, the narcissistic méconnaissance which recognizes totalitarianism or some other distasteful quality in the work which would relieve one of the burden of having to take it into consideration. But to be open to savoir, that is something -- it's a vulnerability which is not easy to muster. As Adam Phillips puts it, we must protect our wish to know from our will to know. If we do not defend -- nay, cultivate -- our wish to know, it will be crushed underfoot. Will is much stronger, so we have to go out of our way to protect the seedling of our wish to know, to cultivate it and bring it to fruition, lest it become crushed by our overwhelming will. If we fail in this endeavor then we lose interest, we no long want to know, we simply just "know" -- our will to know has overpowered our wish to the point that we are no longer curious to find out more, we are rather satisfied with our "knowing" (méconnaissance).


You can view his work 'The Absolute of Pure Differences' (A very interesting topic to begin with!) below inspired from Slavoj Zizek's 'The Pervert's Guide To Cinema'.

You can listen to Revolution Void here.
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  1. When we are no longer curious and prepared to learn more, we are no longer alive, no longer adapting to world around us.


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