Archive for August, 2008

On Political vs. Oriental Islamism

Posted in Political Focus with tags , , , , , , on August 29, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

A specter is haunting the majority of Indonesia: the specter of the political Islam. The worldwide claims that Islam is a peaceful religion that is now only perverted by minority followers intent on crashing planes to tall buildings could not have had a warmer welcome from inside the Muslim world themselves — “Blame it on the oppressive political authorities of Islam for all our governmental failure and stigmatization as the international enemy! We are not wrong, we are never wrong, it is only because our teachings have been perverted so much that we fail to create an ideal world!” If anything, the September 11th attacks does not destroy hope for Muslims to learn that they are peaceful religions — on the contrary, the tragedy precisely spurred the hopeful movement of finding “a deeper meaning” to the religion of Muhammad (much like how Stalinist catastrophe saved the Marxist communist utopia in the Žižekian reading).

Tension is ripe as days go by, as the (minority) militant strain of Islam are getting more and more harsh words in the form of both criticisms or outright verbal attacks to their modes and motives from the (majority) of peaceful Muslims. As movements are coming from around the world to reassert the identity of Islam as a “peaceful religion,” at the same time more and more warnings are coming from inside the Muslim world itself to not let its followers get “too political,” as religion is only a “personal means” of spirituality and that we should nevertheless focus more on “peaceful coexistence”. Islam gets deeply personalized, and shouts of “everything I do is a form of my worship towards Allah” can be heard almost anywhere we prick our ears in the Muslim world. Does this condition not precisely echo the current trend of Oriental wisdom in the West and elsewhere?

If the current trend teaches that Eastern mysticism (you should not want too much for yourself, etc.) is important in business (i.e. that you will get more by precisely denying that you want more), how does the personalization of Islam play out in the Muslim politics? Does the same logic not hold true, i.e. you should not get too political in Islam because the only way to win is to forge allies with the winning Western liberal-capitalist democracy? The current “liberal Islam” call for apparent non-politics is precisely its opposite: it is a call to fully support the current dominant political ideology as perfect passive consumers who make minor product corrections (“religion is only for daily moral corrections,” etc.) but should never think of conducting a revolution (“we should attempt for slow revolution,” etc.).

This is precisely how one should read the September 11th attacks (and the stigmatization of Islam that follow — “Islamophobia,” etc.) as an event that saves the Muslim world: it does so by producing a radical, blatant cut in the middle of Islam. One one side, we have the militant/political (I must point here that it is wrong to call them outright “terrorists”) Islam (Al-Qaeda, JI, HT, FPI, etc.) and on the other side the peaceful/non-political Islam (JIL, and many others, including the “false-but-at-least-not-political” Ahmadiyah, etc.) who are now free to point one another as a scapegoat of the tragic Muslim failures and melancholies in the past and today. Each side could not be happier — they can go on without having to feel guilty about anything!

One is tempted to ask here, what would have happened if this split were not produced? Perhaps it would be a disaster for Islam — it would be trapped in a limbo between the political legacies of Muhammad and the tension from global capitalism to adapt as passive consumers, a limbo of ideological guilt and dilemma… The split is thus an inevitable move, and inevitable impact of global capitalism on Islam, its internal war of political (“fundamentalist”,”militant”, etc.) versus Oriental (“liberal”,”spiritual”, etc.) Islam already a second-degree of the true tension between Islam and global capitalism.

The Uncanny Valley of Non-Feminine

Posted in Posthuman Perversion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Slavoj Žižek once mentioned that the true horror of confronting one’s doppelgänger (Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson, etc.) is the horror of knowing that one may actually exist out there [citation needed]. This can be understood in the Humean sense, he said, that what the subject knows of himself is that he does not exist but as suppositions of the Other, an empty hole in the topology of social reality, Žižek’s “empty cogito“. Does the same not hold true for society at large when confronted with a prospect of its clones in the form of humanoid artificial intelligence subjects? The true horror of humanoid robots, Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley, resides in the realm of realizing that we may actually exist fully objectively. It is the horror of the disappearance of lack, the horror of realizing that we may not have a lack after all.

As Katherine Hayles (1999:30) noted, although for Lacan language is not a code, for computers language is perfectly a code. Computer language recognizes symbols purely through computational models with one-to-one correspondence between the signifier and the signified. Here, lack does not have a place. Thus, the cogito of the cyborg is purely a cogito of existence, not an empty one. The uncanny valley is thus the condition in which we have to confront this horror of excessive non-humanity — a robot purely in the form of a human being, machines but existing only qua social human being.

If there exists subjects to which language is a code, we are in very deep trouble. One very certain trouble we directly run into is the Lacanian sexuation: a female AI — the gynoid — is not a barred Other, for we understand her mechanisms perfectly. If “the” woman does not exist, “the” gynoid exists qua computerized cognition. (Even, one may go as far to say that cloning and/or neurobiology will eventually make it possible to produce “the” woman.) In computer codes, we no longer have cognitive functions of x which “does not cease not to write itself”, nor the x which “ceases not to write itself” — all conditions must be preprogrammed in functions of if x then y. Coding is an act of masculine writing. The cyborg is both free of castration but not a feminine as such, for it is a phallic subject and and subject to mutation — a non-feminine. The paradox of mutation is of course the fact that although it has a function of castration, it in fact has a probability for the subject to spawn a greater phallus than the one he has just lost. The uncanny valley is the horrific gap of the experience of the non-feminine.

All this is not science fiction. There has recently been a research on the engendering of the Semantic Web — which is just one among the many gender research in new media. It is notions like these that further signify how new code languages (artificial intelligence, semantic web, etc), fundamentally different from human language and cognition, will undoubtedly trouble the sexuation of contemporary society. As Foucault was already well aware, sex is subject to historical change — only this time, the change may be so much more fundamentally so.

Database and the Absence of Quilting Points

Posted in Postmodern 2.0 with tags , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

It is interesting to note that the Lyotardian postmodern disappearance of grand narratives is celebrated during the rise of the computer age in the 1980s. As media historian Lev Manovich has pointed out (in his The Language of New Media, but also elsewhere), during that time, not only was grand narratives disappearing, but also narratives as a dominant form of media, as they are slowly but surely giving way for the more dominant form of media and culture at large — the database. In database culture, we no longer have the linearity of the cinematic narrative that guide us through. Instead, we have a series of virtually unlimited choices to structure our own experiment. Manovich himself was already very well aware of this, as he notes how the logic of the database mirrors the politically correct logic of democratic freedom and a universal equality of things.

The Lyotardian grand narratives, on the other hand, can in many ways be equated with the Master Signifier of Jacques Lacan, signifiers which open up worlds proper and fixes the other signifiers in place, acting as a means of point de capiton (“quilting points”). But these Master Signifiers work in the paternal logic of strict “yes” and “no”, without attempting to universalize (“Spinozize”, as Žižek would put it) the order. However, we today, in our noisy claims of being politically correct modern societies, reject strict “yes” and “no” answers. The fall of grand narratives is the disappearance of point de capiton.

Many contemporary psychoanalytic philosophers, most notably Alain Badiou, are very aware of this danger — the postmodern global capitalism opens up no world proper. Thus, how can you subvert an essentially worldless condition? Our history so far consists of dialectics between worlds, and we do not yet know how to oppose properly a worldless state of things. (Although, i argue, a dialectics is possible, but would involve radical idealism in which embodiment becomes the terrain of fight, a sort of posthuman-charged Hegelianism I briefly noted here.) This is precisely why capitalism is very tricky and troubling, and seem to only rejoice at its attempts of subversion, as many are already well aware.

I am not opposing capitalism because I am a romantic Left with nostalgic stories of the past and Leninist dreams of a communist future. I am only partly opposing capitalism because I am an intelligent person with a heart. I am opposing it most precisely because I personally think it won’t last long, while too many people have too much faith in it and if we do not change soon, the costs will be detrimental. Already we are in the midst of climate change, and global capitalism is thriving on its very idea.

What would be my spontaneous reaction and ultimate methodology against capitalism? Philosophers like Žižek like to point out that we can only do it by reasserting these quilting points. Here I prefer to take things into a more specific level (and perhaps differ from him in some senses). If you are at all familiar with my writings, you should know I am always researching on the problems of embodiment and subjectivization. For me, the way is not to reassert quilting points as such (points of “yes” or “no” that define the narrative plots of our life), but how to redefine the points and worlds. To me, the answer lies in studying the database logic itself, to generate what Manovich would call “info-aesthetics” (although I prefer a more political idea). What we need now is a radical new philosophy of computer semiotics and cognitive science, not only in regarding AI problems, but also in the political sphere. Do we still need to debate, now, that we have become cyborgs?

Psychoanalysis, All too Human

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Family failing of philosophers: All philosophers have the common failing of starting out from man as he is now and thinking they can reach their goal through an analysis of him. They involuntarily think of ‘man’ as an aeterna veritas, as something that remains constant in the midst of all flux, as a sure measure of things. Everything the philosopher has declared about man is, however, at bottom no more than a testimony as to the man of a very limited period of time. Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All too Human

We all know that historical consciousness starts in the beginning of the 19th century with Hegel, before strongly re-emphasized by Marx and Nietzsche in the late 19th century. But Hegel never got around to reading On the Origin of Species, which was published 28 years after his death. The stupid straightforward question I would like to pose is thus embarrassingly simple: what would Hegel have thought if he had had a chance to read it? What if he had books of Dawkins beside his collection of Thucydides lying on his bookshelf? Would he perhaps extrapolate his Phenomenology of Spirit to a Phenomenology of Species?

When did the self begin? When did the unconscious begin? When did Freudian triad and Lacanian Borommean rings begin? Psychoanalysis is bound to be hit by these questions, as new researches show mirror recognition in animals and robots, various perverse acts of animals (homosexuality, oral sex, prostitution, even necrophilia), beside older findings of animal dreams and stress disorders. While I am old enough to not entertain the possibility of psychoanalytic therapy for a poop-eating dog or your future Roomba, psychoanalysis for me has so much more to do than individual therapy and, as such, is the basis of my philosophical ontology.

A xenolinguistic psychoanalysis is thus only prudent considering the fact that we are currently in the midst of news about all the achievements of bioengineering and cybernetics (the Haylesian posthuman, the Mitchellian age of biocybernetic reproduction). Lacan was certainly aware of a historical sense of man, as were his intellectual contemporaries — but he was not, I would claim, at the very least, entertaining the possibility of a serious interrogation on Love and Sex with Robots. A recurring subject in my researches is thus an evolutionary Lacanian psychoanalysis by way of a deeper linguistic and communicational research in new realms — new media, psychedelics, animal communication, artificial intelligence, virtual sex….

As with Hegel and Nietzsche, we cannot forget that man has become. If we are to make a comprehensive cognitive mapping, we should avoid falling into the trap of non-historicity, or, in this posthuman age, the trap of non-evolutionarity. Modifying Nietzsche, I would claim that lack of evolutionary sense is the family failing of all psychoanalysts.

Stupidity and Perversion

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Quite a while back I watched the documentary Stupidity, which got me thinking again about the issue. While I don’t disagree that we generally like to see stupid people to make ourselves feel smarter, I like to be more critical — many smart people that I know nevertheless love seeing stupid YouTube videos even if they do not need further evidence that they’re a smart person. Sheer stupidity is essentially funny by definition, which is why we love them. But if we are to recall the basic formula of comedies, even since the time of Aristophanes, the funny part consist mainly of ridiculous plots, exaggerations, and sexual references (including the humongous fake penises strapped to the actors — apparently dick jokes have been around since the very start of jokes). In fact, what constitute humor is essentially ridiculous proportions, not so much a stupid mind. To take on Freudian definitions, these ill-proportions, be it of acts or in images, is always a symptom, a return of the repressed.

And as societies grow, societal symptoms change: in recent times there have been twists to humor and stupidity — it has taken on the realm of challenge, with youth exposing their tongue to electricity in MTV reality shows, and the realm of child gore, as the Happy Tree Friends (another MTV production) and Suicidal Squirrels webisodes prove. On the other hand fetishes are abound, as we are increasingly told to do wilder sex, with all those unfortunate anal beads and safe gag balls. As anyone who has ever tried out a weird sex stunt for the first time knows, let’s admit it, there is always a kind of stupid feeling inside. Then there are shock sites such as the infamous 2girls1cup, or the more recent idiotic stunt of cake farts, that people tend to watch just for the sake of the thrill. While all these need more analysis, suffice it to say for now that stupid humor is always connected with the death drive.

As I have mentioned before, the predominant way of handling the drive in the contemporary era, the predominant structure of society, is perversion. By this, we are disavowing the fact that we live in a “postmodern” world of total contingency, but secretly fearing that what we actually still secretly believe may really be true (“afraid to believe,” as Žižek put it).

The desire to watch stupidity is fundamentally a perverse one precisely because in doing so one turns oneself into an instrument of the other’s desire: stupidity only realizes itself fully under our gaze, a collective (televisional) gaze which is also ours — trip on a bucket alone in the house, and it won’t be funny, but do it in a mall, it would be hilarious. And there are also stupid acts that are only stupid when it is seen — try picking your nose and have a crowd accidentally spot you. As such, stupidity as a spectacle realizes the full element of its transgression: by watching the other’s stupid acts, we help the other to sin (and as we know, the sin is closely related to jouissance). Thus, do we, as reifications of our gaze, not take on the primary function of the pervert, by acting as an instrument of the other’s jouissance?

Fractal Signifiers: Lacan and Psychedelics?

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Image credit: http://www.fractal-recursions.com (c) Jock Cooper

I recently got back in touch via Facebook with an old acquaintance, Diana Slattery (of Glide and The Maze Game). Her xenolinguistics research on “language in the psychedelic sphere” has inspired me to ponder about basically the same thing, or a more Lacanian version thereof: what happens to the Borromean rings in a state of “high”? A more practical question would be: Of what is the image above a signifier? For when one experiences actual psychedelic experience, reality as such dissolves — one enters a completely different realm of the Symbolic.

Reducing psychedelic experience to mere neurochemical reactions are but a premature response. Seeing all the theories around altered states of consciousness as the source of creativity and even language (Terence McKenna’s famous “stoned ape” hypothesis), I would argue that a psychoanalytic venture into the realm of psychedelics may prove to be a very productive research. I am not a naive idiot and believe right away those hypotheses without reading further, of course, but does the mere fact that people make those hypotheses in first place not speak volumes about the nature of psychedelic experiences? And when one takes into account Lacan’s theory of art and literature being a symptom as the fourth ring (synthome) that binds the three other Borromean rings together even in the case of Symbolic foreclusion (recall his reading of James Joyce in the later seminars), how should we read the dissolution of “common sense” reality under the effect of hallucinogens apropos the rings of Lacan? Furthermore, if we are to talk about the actual “entheogenic” — literally “God inside” — experience, does this not coincide with Lacan’s notion of the non-phallic sexuality of mystics?

I am not a new age fan or a pseudo-quantum-physicist celebrating altered states of consciousness with trippy fractal visions as the ultimate harbinger of nature’s true reality. I do suspect, however, that this xenolinguistic venture of psychoanalysis could help understand better how desire evolves. As the unconscious reveals so much of our desires, who knows what the altered states of consciousness may reveal? Perhaps it is here that we are to make meaning of Timothy Leary’s 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness in a psychoanalytic sense — digging up into the possibilities of transcendent mystical experiences instead of down into the vaults of primal instincts.