Identifying with your captor

I have some reservations about the recent Larval Subjects post about “difficult” books, but I think that, in part, it points toward a real phenomenon — one that I call “academic Stockholm Syndrome.” We’ve all seen it before: an academic invests great energy and undergoes profound suffering in the attempt to grasp a particularly difficult thinker and, upon succeeding, spends the rest of his or her career thoroughly identified with that thinker.

The most prominent victim is undoubtedly Zizek, who was taken hostage by both Lacan and Hegel, but even Sinthome himself appears to have a very difficult case, with his combination of Deleuze and Lacan.

19 thoughts on “Identifying with your captor

  1. Of philosophers that hold scholars captive, it seems Heidegger is the most captivating philosopher of all: once one begins to study seriously the works of Heidegger, it seems the rest of one’s life must be spent working through his insanely prodigious corpus, and falling captive, as they say at Villanova, to the spell of the “es gibt”…

  2. “Most prominent victim”? You being a bit melodramatic here, aren’t you? If investing energy into a thinker X means undergoing suffering and being victimized then what is philosophy? [three question marks in a row] and trivializing “Stockholm syndrome” is just not cool, Adam.

  3. Is this not just simply what it means to read a certain kind of text by a certain kind of author? After identification comes the task of overcoming them – or being more like them than they could ever possibly be themselves.

  4. “and trivializing ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is just not cool, Adam”….you being a bit melodramatic here, aren’t you?

  5. “Academic stockholm syndrom” is the perfect word to express what I’m trying to get at, Adam. Mikhail, you seem to implicitly think that the goal or aim of philosophy should be the study of a philosophers work and commentary on that work. I am certainly not dismissing the role and importance of good commentary– after all I’ve written my fair share of commentaries –but just as there’s something amiss in a psychoanalysis that goes on for thirty years without the patient leaving analysis, I think there’s something amiss in philosophy programs where people predominantly do nothing but write on other figures and devote themselves to the study of other figures. If, thirty years from now, I’m still doing nothing but writing on Deleuze, it will have to be said that I did not do philosophy, though I did a lot of work on someone who did do philosophy. There has to be some sort of balance our institutions can strike here between good work on other philosophers, and cultivating an institutional environment that encourages independent work among graduate students and faculty.

  6. Mikhail, you seem to implicitly think that the goal or aim of philosophy should be the study of a philosophers work and commentary on that work.

    I don’t think that commentary is the goal of philosophy, but not because I think that philosophy is about active “doing of philosophy” – I think the distinction you are making between “writing about philosophy” and “writing philosophy” is something that I wish I could agree with because than life would be so easy: here I do philosophy, there I’m writing about it. This (and conversation over at your blog) reminds me of D&G’s discussion of philosophy in What Is Philosophy? – to identify only two options (doing it or writing about it) is to give “poor approximation of thought”

    On the other hand, commentary is the most common form of philosophical writing in the continental tradition and in some cases even in the analytical one as well (like the recent fashion to write about the history of the analytical philosophy), so we might as well get used to it and do it well – I’ll choose a good book about Hegel anytime over a poor attempt as creating new philosophical concepts (a la Len Lawlor, for example)…

  7. I thought that was D&G talking about thinking in terms of subject and object.

    they were(the opening sentence of “Geophilosophy, i think) but in the context of what they mean by “subject-object” model one might argue that the expression would apply to the distinction between “writing about philosophy” vs. “writing philosophy” – i really only mentioned it in terms of the expression “poor approximation of thought”…

  8. I think that clearly Deleuze and Guattari would draw a distinction between when philosophy is and when it is not. For D & G philosophy consists in the creation of concepts. If this is not occurring, then philosophy is not occurring. Now this can occur in a variety of ways. For example, Derrida’s Speech & Phenomena invents concepts through a reading of Husserl. In Nietzsche & Philosophy Deleuze creates concepts through an analysis of Nietzsche. For Deleuze we can thus have commentaries that are philosophical, commentaries that are not philosophical (in that they only discuss the conceptual creations of other philosophers without inventing concepts of their own), and texts that are not commentaries but which are philosophical (Heidegger’s Being and Time, for example). I think this is a false dilemma:

    On the other hand, commentary is the most common form of philosophical writing in the continental tradition and in some cases even in the analytical one as well (like the recent fashion to write about the history of the analytical philosophy), so we might as well get used to it and do it well – I’ll choose a good book about Hegel anytime over a poor attempt as creating new philosophical concepts (a la Len Lawlor, for example)…

    You seem to suggest that our alternative is between bad works like Lawlor’s (and I don’t know whether it’s bad, not having read it) or good commentaries like Gasche’s study of Derrida. Given these options, of course one is going to choose the latter. I simply do not think, however, that these are the only options. I think we can have good commentaries and good independent texts as well. Why does it have to be an either/or? What I object to is that we can scarcely imagine a graduate student in a Continental program writing a dissertation like Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Here I am not talking about the quality of Kripke’s work– of course brilliant works like Kripke’s are going to be comparatively rare, but then so will works like Speech & Phenomena –but rather that it was a work devoted to the articulation of a problem and the conceptual resolution of that problem, rather than giving commentary on a thinker.

    I find something defensive and almost reactionary in your responses to this issue. You are a college professor and as such, you have the opportunity to have an impact on our institutions. I am not, by any means, suggesting that the venerable tradition of commentary should be abandoned. What I am suggesting is that continental scholars should make the next dialectical move and open their scholarship up to independent work as well.

  9. fair enough, i don’t think my response was reactionary, it simply occurred to me that you were suggesting that there’s a clear hierarchy between “writing philosophy” and “writing about philosophy” – that’s what I mean when I wrote that I don’t think such a clear-cut distinction exists or should be enforced for that matter…

    Why does it have to be an either/or?

    it doesn’t, i said so, or i thought that i did – the dichotomy is false, but then again you consider a move from commentary to original philosophy a ‘next dialectical move’ – how so? and what is the difference between a genuine philosophical commentary and a non-philosophical commentary (presumably in a philosophical context) – this is the difference that i don’t really see. the original impetus for the conversation was “bad writing” vs. “good writing” in itself a rather suspicious distinction, i’m not sure how we got around to arguing about the nature of commentary and how it’s not really “doing philosophy”…

  10. Actually the initial impetus for the discussion was not a distinction between bad and good writing. The initial impetus for the discussion was a distinction between different sorts of styles and the subjectifying effects of those different styles.
    In the course of that discussion, bad writing was mentioned, but when speaking of Derrida or Lacan or any number of other thinkers, the point is not that they are bad writers, but has to do with certain textual strategies they employ and with whether these textual strategies produce what they aim at. I have very clearly made the point– though one can certainly disagree with my analysis –that these textual or rhetorical strategies produce a certain form of transference or attachment that tends to turn readers into disciples that spend their life writing on commentaries on their figure of choice, rather than doing philosophical work of their own. For instance, one spends their entire life writing book after book, commentary after commentary on Heidegger.

    In the case of a theorist like Lacan, I take this phenomenon to be in contradiction to the avowed aims of his teaching. That is, the whole point of Lacanian theory is to traverse the fantasy, to move beyond fetishistic adoration of a master or a father figure. Yet when we look at actual analytic communities, we witness a very dogmatic and fetishistic quasi-worship of Lacan and his heir J.A. Miller. A similar phenomenon can be witnessed among Deleuzians (they’re supposed to be anti-Oedipus, yet Deleuze becomes the Oedipal father figure!), among Heideggerians (ever attend a Heidegger conference?), Derrideans, and so on. What is it, I’m asking, about these forms of rhetoric that produce these forms of attachments… Attachments so at odds with the content of their positions? Derrida is a brilliant writer. Lacan is beautifully poetic, as is Deleuze (although I do think certain aspects of Deleuze’s writing are just plain bad). The writing skill is not the question here. Nor am I suggesting that this is the only sort of rhetorical strategy that produces these effects.

    As I said in the previous post, the distinction between commentary and philosophy is a permeable distinction that isn’t absolute. I do, however, believe that continental philosophy programs in the United States privilege commentary as the nearly exclusive mode of practicing philosophy. Graduate students are groomed from day one to write dissertations on Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, etc. The major journals are primarily devoted to the publication of commentaries or studies on different aspects of the so-called “cannonical figures”. The major professional conferences (SPEP) are populated by panels that present on some aspect of these cannonical figures whether they be Husserl, Derrida, Badiou, etc. There is thus a hierarchy in our system. On the one hand, there are the philosophers that are authorized to speak in their own name (figures like Heidegger, Badiou, Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, and so on), then there are the rest that either speak about the work of another philosopher or if they are seeking to make contributions of their own must do so through the work of someone else. We do, of course, get breakaway figures such as Ed Casey, Krell, John Sallas, and others, but by and large our departments are not set up to foster or encourage this kind of work. Indeed, it seems to me that the really interesting work in Continental philosophy in the States comes not from philosophy departments, but from lit departments, theology departments, rhetoric departments, language departments, and various cultural studies departments because these departments 1) they publish in a different set of journals to fulfill tenure requirements (the major continental journals tend to have a morphogenetic effect on the sort of research done as a function of having to gain tenure), and 2) such work tends to be focused on problems specific to their field rather than the study of major figures.

    When I speak of the next dialectical move, what I mean is that I would like to see continental philosophy move more in the direction of Anglo-American philosophy. Before everyone jumps all over me for saying this, I am not suggesting that continental philosophers start adopting the techniques, concepts, and problems of Anglo-American philosophers. What I am saying is that I would like to see a shift from a primary emphasis on figures, to an emphasis on problems and questions. Rather than an emphasis on Heidegger, for example, an emphasis on the question of being. It’s worth emphasizing that this issue is every bit an institutional issue, as it is an issue of content. By this I mean that it is every bit an issue of how our institutions are organized, the way we train our graduate students, the way our journals are organized, and the way conferences are organized and papers are selected, as it is an issue of the content of certain philosophical positions and traditions (i.e., we can’t ignore the sociological horizon in which certain ways of practicing philosophy and certain ways of organizing departments came to appear “obvious” and “natural”). The journal Collapse is a good example of what I have in mind by a journal that is problem oriented rather than figure oriented. Regardless of what one thinks about “speculative realism”, Collapse appears to be a journal that isn’t devoted to working on particular figures– though it does publish some papers along these lines as well –but of staging debates regarding some theme or problem. Judging by how often I hear continentalists respond to criticism of a philosopher’s position with remarks to the effect that “you do not understand philosopher x” (as if understanding a position would somehow abolish all disagreement with that position), the practice of taking positions, developing support for positions, and critically evaluating positions is not an art that is being emphasized or strongly taught in continental departments.

    The reason I described your position as “reactionary” is because you said,

    On the other hand, commentary is the most common form of philosophical writing in the continental tradition and in some cases even in the analytical one as well (like the recent fashion to write about the history of the analytical philosophy), so we might as well get used to it and do it well – I’ll choose a good book about Hegel anytime over a poor attempt as creating new philosophical concepts (a la Len Lawlor, for example)…

    What if I was to say “capitalism is the predominant mode of production in our society so we might as well accept it and learn how to live well within it”? The problem lies not in pointing out that it is the predominant mode of production, nor even in suggesting that we should find the best ways to live in such circumstances, but in the turn of phrase that seems to suggest that we should simply accept this and not struggle for something better or different. I said nothing different than you. That is, I also claimed that commentary is the predominant mode of production in continental departments. What I object to is the idea that this should just be accepted or that there aren’t different ways of doing it. Do I want to see an end to the practice of commentary? No. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from great commentators like Steinbock, Lawlor, Hallward, Bruce Fink, and a host of others. However, I do suspect that when it first occurred to many people to go to graduate school, there first thought wasn’t that they wanted to do so to write articles on Heidegger their entire life. Of course, such individuals could always choose to go into Anglo-American programs, but I suspect that many chose not to not because they wanted to devote themselves to hermeneutic analyses of various thinkers, but because they thought that the questions posed in these traditions of thought are uninteresting or remote from their ethical and political concerns. My desire is to see the formation of continental departments that offer more freedom in what sort of research students and faculty pursue… Where you can have someone like Lawlor who does brilliant work on Husserl, Derrida, and Bergson side by side with someone working on issues of embodiment directly, without the main focus of that research being commentary on Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, and Deleuze.

  11. i think i see your point now, i suppose you can call my response reactionary but again if you perceive the present status quo as deeply problematic which i don’t – but i suppose i don’t have any further response at this point, let me ponder this a bit…

  12. I’m just jumping in to say “Hurray for Adam.” I’ve been reading the old stuff again, and I’d like a “We’re committed to being appropriate” t-shirt.


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