Thoughts on Malkovichism, Radical Perspectivism, and Master Signifiers: Reply to Levi

There´s so many things I´d like to respond to on the blog lately, but there´s limited time. Tomorrow´s my last day in Madrid, so  I´m packing things in – today was the Thyssen Museum, tomorrow will be Reina Sofia, and then, I´m going incommunicado for a few days of planes and such. So my guess is my responses to some things will be slow over the next week or so.

I´d really like to respond to Graham´s last reply to me on objects, but that may have to wait till tomorrow, because I want to start with is Levi´s recent post on Malkovichism.

I like the start of his post, I think he´s totally on that OOO takes the alterity which Levinas develops in regard to people, and works to extend these to objects as well. I do think there´s crucial ethical differences in register here, but I think that as OOO eventually expands to deal terrain that approaches Levinasian style questions, it will deal with these differences.

But then Levi moves to Malkovichism, and particularly as a means to critique certain forms of perspectivism. Let me start by saying that I think Levi´s development of Malkovichism into a philosopheme is pretty cool. That said, I´d like to expand on how he formulates this concept.

Feeding Back John Malkovich

As far as I see it, Malkovichism is about a sort of feedback loop, and I mean feedback in the scientific sense here, such as re-entry in neurology, or electrical feedback (which we´ve all heard when a mic gets too close to an amplifier, that horrible high pitched sound). Basically, the very sound produced by the speakers gets picked up by the mic and re-amplified, it re-enters the cycle of amplification at a second power or level, and then this second level gets fed back, etc.

What´s interesting is that any sound can start off this sort of chain reaction, but the result is always the same, a feedback loop that produces that horrible screetch which is only removed by adding distance into the system. This distance is precisely what allows the microphone to in a sense focus on what´s in front of it (which mics are designed to do), rather than pic up the background amplification produced by the speakers.

Malkovichism I think is very similar. Its re-entry, it feedback. What´s interesting about framing Malkovichism as feedback and re-entry is that it shows that Malkovichism doesn´t need be a binary thing (one is or is not Malkovich-ing), rather, it comes in degrees, like a fuzzy system. For in fact, feedback is often utilized by natural and artifical systems to maintain various forms of balance, intercommunication, etc. According to Gerald Edelman, the brain is little more than a highly tuned feedback machine. The trick, of course, is to use feedback to the benefit rather than detriment of a system.

The brain uses feedback, for example, to read sentences – in order to put together the complex sort of meaning which develops retroactively over time as you go through a sentence, you need to hold in mind what happened at the start of a sentence, and reconstextualize it by what happens at the end, then bring it all together. The brain does this (so researchers think) by means of a time delay – neurons which process the words in front of your eyes have fed back to them the data of what was processed a short time ago, and the compound result is then sent to higher processing centers in the brain. I´m really oversimplifying here, but scientists have been able to simulate this sort of time delay (with much simpler processes than sentences, with the hopes that the process scales) by means of what are called Ellman networks, a type of artificial neural network.

Too much feedback in these sorts of systems would drown out the original signal, and too little would result in an ability to comprehend only what´s immediately in front of you, without the benefit of an accumulation of meaning over time, built in via the feedback loop. The trick is tuning it all so that you get the balance between signal and reentry just right.

. . . and the Lacanian Master Signifier

Moving from neurology to psychoanalysis, if we consider Malkovichism as a sort of reentry, we can also characterize it by means of Lacan´s famous notion of the master signifier, or S1. A master signifier is one which represents the border between sense and non-sense within a system, so, for example, within religious discourses, God often plays the role of master signifier, because everything which can´t be explained is attributed to the magical properties of god (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.), and this containment of the constitutive exclusions (don´t ask about certain things which god takes care of, or you´ll get circular or contradictory reasoning for an answer!) which found the discourse in question is precisely what allows the rest of the discourse (Lacan´s S2´s) to make sense. It is in this manner that the notion of god therefore serves as an anchor to the rest of the discourse, precisely BECAUSE of its Malkovichism.

Now, Lacan doesn´t think we can ever get beyond using S1´s, and this is where Lacan´s formulas of sexuation become important, as Levi has pointed out many times. Does one get duped by the master, and play on the man´s side, or rather, play the ´non-dupes-err´ (to use a Lacanian pun), and rather, masquerade as one who believes, and thereby use master signifiers without fully giving them credence? This use of S1´s in the mode of ´not-all´, which allows one to much more easily move between S1´s, mutate them, shatter and rework them (into a sinthome, perhaps!), is precisely the root of Lacanian definitions of freedom. From a Lacanian point of view, it would seem, some degree of Malkovichism is necessary for any freedom whatsoever!

Because what is the alternative? Lacan famously calls this ´ou pire´ – or worse, namely, psychosis, dissolution of the link to discourse. Without some Malkovichism, there is nothing to anchor discourse at all, and the result is psychosis, individual or social.

The question, then, would seem to not be whether or not one Malkoviches, but HOW one Malkovichs, to what extent, in what patterns, etc. And since the trick is to partially Malkovich (Lacan´s ´not-all´), just like with living systems that use feedback, or neural systems and reentry, the question is one of a careful balance. Too much Malkovich, and the system disintegrates from sameness, and you get that terrible screetch. But not enough Malkovich, and you end up like so many artificial intelligence machines before Ellman networks, able only to focus on the immediate, but never able to link anything at all.

This is because, in terms of discourse, Malkovichism is the glue, that which makes systems cohere. Too much glue, and you get stasis, too little, you get dissolution. Another way to think about this is in terms of gravity. Too much gravity, and a solar system implodes, too little and the planets fly out of orbit, but just the right amount, and they circle around, like S2´s around an S1. S1´s, or Malkovichism, is like gravity, it warps the spacetime of discourse around it.

And to Perspectivism

All of which is to say that I think there´s more to Malkovichism than the perspectivism run-amok as described by Levi, the concept hits me as much, much richer than that. On the one hand, certainly too much Malkovichism is one´s own perspective run amok – when all you see are reflections of yourself, you are in a feedback loop, and the PA system is making that horrible sound, you need to put some distance into your system.

But Lacan also described feedback loops where everything wasn´t always a return of the exact same, but the same with a difference (and if we are to jump thinkers for a moment, we could even say there´s a similarity between the shift between clothed and open reptition in Deleuze here!). For example, if the structure of the subject for Lacan takes the shape of non-orientable surfaces in math – the Moebius strip, cross-cap, the Klein bottle, this is because the subject, in its opening onto freedom, feedsback onto itself not as sameness, but precisely as difference.

One is always looping one´s Malkoviching in sameness with one´s Malkoviching in difference, one flows into the other while reversing as well, just like the two strips of a Moebius band. The question is – clothed or unclothed, in earnest or ´not-all´, and in what what patterns of intertwining of the circuits thereof? Because S1´s anchor networks of circuits of signifiers in discourse, intertwined amongst each other to their very core. The question then becomes one of balance.

Returning to the issue of perspectivism for a moment, I don´t think it is possible to reduce my approach to perspective to a simplistic sound-bite like ´everything is perspective.´Heck, I may have even said something like that for rhetorical purposes in some circumstances, but I hope its evident in what I´ve posted on this blog repeatedly that I think things are a weeeee bit more complicated than that.

But let´s run with this for a second. As Levi points out, a statement like ´everything is perspective´is based itself on a contradiction, because if everything is perspective, this excludes the very notion that everything is perspective. We run into another version of Russell´s famous paradox (which in fact, happens, to one degree or another, any time you hit an S1).

But rather than refuting perspectivism, this contradiction at the heart of simplistic perspectivism is in fact the STARTING POINT of what I´ve often referred to as radical perspectivism (I think Whitehead serves as a great example of someone whose position on at least the physical world approximates this). For radical perspectivism, of course there´s a contradiction at the root of simple perspectivism. That is, this too is a perspective. Radical perspectivism is one which works to take this into account, not by means of opting for the male side of the graph of sexuation, but rather, the ´not-all´side.

And this is, I believe, the Nietzchian side – ´yes, everything is perspective, but some perspectives are better than others.´ As Oscar Wilde said, those who tell the truth will eventually be found out. If you follow the logic of Wilde´s statement, you end up not with true and lies, but varying degrees of falsity, which is precisely what Lacan was advocating. Namely, that some falsities are better than others, making them more true, so to speak. And this is why some perspectives are less biased than others, but not the ones which claim to have no bias, or to control for their bias, but precisely the ones which are biased about bias. Of course, if you pursue either course, all lies or all truth, you hit incoherence. The question is all in the how, to what extent, etc.

And so, moving from simplistic to radical perspectivism, the question isn´t whether or not perspectivism contradicts itself, but how, to what extent, and in what way it contradicts itself. Because this makes ALL the difference in the world, the difference between dissolution and horrifying sameness, between male forms of sexuation and the liberating not-all. With radical perspectivism, the question shifts from, is there a contradiction here, to what sort of contradiction, and how is it used? To what is it linked, and what are the economics of the circuits of flows of signifiers within which it is enchained?

There´s more to be said here, for example, how this all relates to the issue of the phallus (according to Lacan, the S1 of S1´s in our sex crazed society), and the object a (the flip side of every s1), but there´s enough here for now, and I´m starting to get tired.


~ by chris on August 8, 2010.

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