Archive for September, 2011

What is a phantasm? I will try and give an overview of the concept and its different uses as an analytic tool.

[Little did I know that posing this question and reflecting on it in written form, published on this blog, would draw this much attention. The previous approach (see further below on this blog) remains my most viewed post and is accessed on a daily basis. Since the original post only answers some specific issues that emerged in relation to my effort of making my own research accessible to an audience of reviewers of grant/fellowship proposals I was working on, I am trying provide a more elaborate discussion of this concept, which has been around , oh, since about Plato, and which has been picked up and reworked by Freud, Janet, Lacan, Boesch, Deleuze, Derrida,  Agamben, Sarasin, Zizek, among others.]

The concept of “phantasm” has become more frequently used in works on literature and metaphor, history of science and culture, and, of course, postmodern philosophy. On such occassions, it is, however, rarely explained, described or defined, nor do we often find its individual application methodologically legitimized. I myself have adopted it quite naturally from the works of Stefan Rieger, Philipp Sarasin (whose book on Anthrax even features phantasm in its original German title), Zizek (on Deleuze and Lacan). The ability to wield it is largely taken for granted: After all, it is prominently featured in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense (1990).

However, just by simply “googling” phantasma or phantasm, we may find that there is a genuine need for clarification and legitimization. You can find yourself scrolling through several pages until you even reach a dictionary that includes the concept, and there, it is revealed that phantasm means “ghostly apparition” and “illusory mental image”. In Platonic and, to some degree Aristotelian philosophy, the concept makes its entrance in referring roughly to a belief that rises through sensation but could be false. This concept, which has been around at the very least since about Plato and pops up on occassions such as Aquinas, it has been picked up very decisively by Marx in the notion of the “phantasmagoria” and then again by Freud, Janet, Lacan, Boesch, Deleuze, Derrida, Agamben, Sarasin, Zizek, among others.

Marx, ever the materialist, was not so much referring to a mere “ghostly image” but to an effective tool of stage-craft and showmanship. The phantasmagoria that was widely known in the 19th century, was an instrument much like the laterna magica designed in the 200 years prior by Chistiaan Huygens. Lewis Carrol, author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, that so captivated Deleuze, dedicated a poem to the phantasmagoria. Eventually, Benjamin’s use is closest to Marx, who defined it to denote the fetish-delusion of commodities, which Benjamin – with reference to the Parisian arcades and the commodities they feature – reiterates1, even though in Benjamin’s works, phantasmagoria are less defined by their nature as a specter but by a more immediate presence. To understand the body in terms of phantasm, therefore, requires us to leave the Marxian notion for that of Benjamin (which is also closer to Foucault’s terminology, who certainly knew Marx’s phantasmagoria and Freud’s and Lacan’s phantasm), in order to return the materiality of the body (whereby we can avoid resorting to essentialism or materialism as an ideology).

Originally, in the philosophy following Plato, phantasms denote the concepts of an objective reality as it is perceived and, thus, distorted by the senses. And in De Anima, Aristotle states: “‘never does the soul think without phantasm” (quoted in Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, page 24). From there it travels into European philosophy and reappears in Thomas Aquinas’s epistemological writings, above all in his commentaries on Aristotle. Due to the nature of 13th century scholastic style of writing in general, the chaotic situation of Aristotle editions (indeed, there were very different Aristotle’s until the emergence of the printing press and, with it, the emergence of the notion of the author2) it not quite easy for non-specialists to discern which is Aquinas’s thought, which is Scholastic dogma, and which is comment on or depiction of Aristotle. Nonetheless, the notion of phantasm in one conceptual form or another was continued through Aquinas’s works3, and it was an Aristotelian rather than Platonian notion.

Its use in the history of philosophy is less consequential until the rise of psychoanalysis (and its critique, in particular by Lacan). Respectively, when rising its head in the works of philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze or Jacques Derrida4, it is often ascribed to be a remnant of the psychoanalytic discourse. However, it is difficult to distinguish the complexities of the process of concept formation that occurred in the minds Deleuze or Derrida who were both deeply embedded in contemporary discourses, such as the critique of psychology and psycho-analysis, but who were extremely well-trained in the classics and made little secret of being intertwined with the conceptual worlds of those (not to mention that the same “training in the classics” was still somewhat mandatory for the 19th century founders of psycho-analysis). In short, it is hard to derive a clear and present definition of “what a phantasm is”, that these different scholars would seem to share. There is little “essence” that they could all relate to, and that makes it decidedly difficult to place it, for example with Derrida in books such as Dissemination, Glas or Specters of Marx, where the concept  is used rather in supposition of self-evidence with little introduction or definition. Freud is considerably a popularizer of the notion of the phantasm, which has an illustrious career today: “A phantasm is a strong and very basic perceptual pattern, a sort of idee fixe that organizes our world view.”, says Philipp Sarasin in Anthrax (page 9),  whose cultural studies approach suggests that very provocation that, indeed, images and phantasies shape actual realities, which he illustrates on the Phantasm of “bioterror” and its fulfillment in the existence of anthrax.5 Once faced with such problem-complexes in the productive meaning of phantasm by authors such as and Sarasin, of course, neither the Platonic nor the ghostly meaning of phantasm apply to them: At a first glance, Zizek and Deleuze might seem “too contemplative” to reach such a level of application and pragmatism, but this is merely a superficial judgment. After all, for phantasms to be efficacious, dynamic, and procedural social actants,  it could be argued that they need to be more fundamentally materialistic (or, at least teleological in regard to practice6) than, say, metaphors, yet have the same kind of constructive force as have the “metaphors we live by” (Lakoff/Johnson). After all, the phantasms I deal with in my research (or rather the “how” of their emergence and their subsequent career) are the control phantasm and the regionalization phantasm, referring to to process that we can identify in the 19th century leading up until today that have grave structurational power over our individual and collective lives and institutions.  In the course of my research, I realized I needed to look elsewhere for a more applicable concept of phantasm, and, via the study of the influence of the works of Freud’s supposed rival (and predecessor in Charcot’s grace) Pierre Janet on William James, the history of psychology and Harvard’s Human Relations Movement, I rediscovered  Ernst E. Boesch, a student of Jean Piaget and Oskar Pfister. Boesch created a very robust and very useful understanding of phantasm: At the center of some of his work is the “myth of lurking chaos” that rules much of human civilization in general and the development of the individual child (sociogenesis and psychogenesis, phylogeny and ontogeny). A myth, he says, is a pre-strucutrual guiding pattern and, therefore, not even a theory or precise idea; it is an “unspecified ‘mould’ of receptivity and evaluation” [quoting from Boesch in: Keller, Heidi el, eds. Between Biology and Culture, Cambridge UP, 2002]. There are different ways of dealing with myths (the myth of lurking chaos being one of the most primal and most influential), and phantasms comprise one of them. Though Boesch sees phantasms emerge in the individual development of children through selection and amalgamation, his general description works rather nicely to describe the kind of patterns that phantasms are, whether emerging individually or proceeding collectively. We can paraphrase as such: What we call phantasms are the perceiving, transforming as well as anticipating images, bound up with the acting party (or actor).

Boesch also declares, and we do well to follow him in this regard, that “phantasms are, of course, ‘over-determined'”: They provide a way in which

“culture certainly influences the way we [ also us scientists and scholars; A.S.] think and evaluate,  shapes our action interaction. However, it acts no less below the surface, in those mythical dispositions, which we now hardly notice. Culture, then, makes us form phantasmatic orientiations of which we recognize the more ‘rational’ manifestations – our goals and fears, affections and antipathies – but which nonetheless act at a depth that we will hardly ever be able to reflect on.” (ibid.)

I accept and integrate this idea into the tool-box I have created as a “microclimatology of truth”, the “analytical heuristic for the analysis of knowledge regimes and knowledge production”. It is a fundamental tool towards the study of the emergence of epistemic cultures and the creation of specific epistemic objects within these cultures by reference to concrete acts of decision-making.

With control and regionalization7 as two guiding phantasms that lead to a predigital process of virtualization, a dynamic process of restructuring information orders into forms of knowledge that inherently fail to represent concrete  cases that require decision-making. For example,  running rampant in biomedical science and, above all, biomedical science administration and governance over the twentieth century, this type of  virtualization has resulted in regimes of diagnostic and therapeutic knowledge that have created patient trajectories in bureaucratized systems that no longer correspond with individual patients’ needs nor are their concrete bodies represented in the data these systems produce and process. This is why I am interested in understanding the creation of the human body as an epistemic object, which is and has always been one of the key-themes of my scholarship. Perhaps this is my own, personal phantasm, so to speak.

1On Benjamin and the origins and application of phantasmagoria, see: Cohen, Margaret “Walter Benjamin’s Phantasmagoria” in: New German Critique Vol. 48, 1989: 87 – 107

2Giesecke, Christian. Der Buchdruck in der fruehen Neuzeit. Frankfurt aM: Suhrkamp, 1991

3With regard to Talcott Parsons, it should be mentioned that Parsons, who had studied philosophy with the psychologist Karl Jaspers (who wrote important works on delusions, a subject that includes concepts such as hallucinations, and phantasms), was quite literate in the history of philosophy, including Aquinas and Aristotle (proved by the detailed exegesis by and exchange with his student Charles Hartsthorne regarding draft versions of his 1937 The Structure of Social Action). Parsons was also familiar with Marx’s writings. More importantly, the concept phantasm with its conceptual historic context appears in the sociology of knowledge of Karl Mannheim, also a teacher of Parsons at Heidelberg University, and Max Scheler, an author that Parsons had read intensely and was trying to introduce to American audiences in the 1930s as a prodcutive catholic adoption of Marx, but failed to do so in the anti-catholic, anti-Marxist climate of the time.

See also for a curiosity: Royce, Josiah. “Report of the Committee on Phantasm and Presentiments.” Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research 1, 3 (December 1877); 1, 4 (March 1889).

4See, Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx.New York: Rotuledge, 1993. See excerpt at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/derrida2.htm . Last access on Sept. 15th, 2011

5An excellent rendition of phantasms in music, with an overview of the origins of phantasm and phantasy in Greek philosophy, has been created by Sara Eckerson, which can be accessed via http://esteticaanalitica.squarespace.com/saraeckerson/. In the 1997 (Volume 15)  issue on Idols and Icons of the journal public, Jack M. Greenstein delivered an interesting account of Aristotle, which is also openly accessible online. (http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/public/article/viewFile/30407/27932) Last Access for both: July 15th, 2011

6 The issue of the need for teleology in practical reason and practice pops up time and again. Most recent discussions, see: Sehon, Scott Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, Explanation. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2005; Portmore, Douglas W. “The Teleological Conception of Practical Reasons” in Mind Vol. 120, 2011

7 Interioralization as Verinnerlichung is a variant (jouissance) of Regionalization [One of my current projects is the reconstruction of the epistemic culture of New England’s biomedical scientists and their public that emerged between 1846 and 1898, and the creation of the human body as its epistemic object.] 


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[This is a ‘Sneak Preview from a draft of chapter one of ‘Anthropos’s Scaffoldings”. Citations are not included. Final version will be slightly different. Therefore, kindly do not quote from this one without prior consultation and permission.]

The intellectual move that led up to Soemmerring’s and Kant’s divergence can very much be painted in a brush-stroke from Descartes via Leibniz to Kant and Herder:

Descartes is most certainly the responsible party for introducing a „fourfold“-division1 of mind/matter, soul/body, res cogitans/res extensa, and, eventually, the difference between homme physique and homme moral that, first, Buffon and after him Durkheim will mold into the idea of the homo duplex. Michael Hagner illustrates effectively that the search for an „organ of the soul“ and a „seat of the soul“ in the 18th century, from Platner’s theories of two parts of the soul (animal and man) to Herder’s complementation of philosophy and the natural sciences of man into the „birth of anthropology“ , became gradually abandoned.

This development is made possible not only in the Cartesian splittings but also through Leibniz, who offered an explanation for the body-soul problem, rooted in his ideas of force and movement.

We have become used to referring to Leibniz’s Monadology from 1714, which was published in 1720 by Heinrich Koehler, as a primary source for Leibniz’s philosophy, but we should keep in mind that the history of this text and the history of its reception are largely divergent, and that it is not entirely clear how far this divergence was explicit to his early commentators such Kant . On the other hand, Leibniz enables ideas, such as the notion of a Wechselwirkung (“interaction”) of substances that goes way beyond Descartes, which he will not develop himself of but which will be made properly intelligible with Kant. Nonetheless, Mondadology picks up Descartes’ general problems and appraisals by Leibniz can be considered, at the very least, one prominent contemporary account2 of the body-soul problem: Descartes, we learn (§80), was of the opinion that the soul cannot provide (French: donner; German: mitteilen) the body with any force, pertaining to the fact that the sum of force has to be constant within all matter; that means that, of course, if the soul were able to assert force in any provisional way, this would mean to add where nothing can be added, and, thus this is impossible. Leibniz concludes, however, that Descartes believed that the soul can provide „directions“, because akin to the „natural law“ that force is constant in matter“, Descartes and his contemporaries were obviously oblivious to the natural law that the overall direction of matter must remain constant as well. On this basis, Leibniz concludes that (§81), given that bodies act ‘as if there was no soul, and souls as if there was no body, and both act as if interdependent’ this is satisfied by his notion of „pre-stabilized harmony“. Since this falls under the descriptive power of what Leibniz calls „dynamics“, he introduces a fourfold conceptualization of different forces into active and passive, and primitive and derivative. The key component for discourses far in the future is the notion that the realization of forces intomovement (derivative, in time and space) can also be inhibited and thereby reduced in to a „mere tendency“ which is called vis mortua, whereas the actual being (wirkliches Dasein) unfolded is the living or vital force (vis viva). In the late 20th century and early 21st century, this aspect is conceptually still present in neurophysiological research such as Adele Diamond’s and others work regarding inhibition and executive functions; whereas the notion of pre-stabilized harmony is retained in biomedical research of the 18th and 19th century in the theories preformation.

Of course, the most important consequence of Leibniz’s discourse is a) that he enables a twist in the discussion whether a theory of nature based on „physics“ rests on determinism or allows for freedom, and b), by making it possible for Herder and Soemmering to try drop the distinction between the faculties where it suits them.

Kant, in his first published work, will pick up the first question and derive from it later, seen in his refutation of Soemmering, a position that insists on a separation between philosophy and medicine (and, as a consequence, psychology) in regard to „how“ they make legitimate arguments3. Many accounts in philosophy and the history of philosophy and science of Kant and Kantianism over the past century, in the wake of the „parting of the ways“  in philosophy between (Marburg) neo-kantianism, phenomenology, and positivistic/analytic philosophies have rather dropped these issues and rendered Kant and Kantianism quite „un-biological“, and even chose not to comment on historical facts such as that Kant’s work on the vital forces is dedicated to a professor of medicine, that he had expressed that he wished to become a physician, and that his life-long interest and exploration of topics in medicine was one of a deeply psychosomatic nature resonating with his biography and the death of his mother, who died because she had, according to Kant, imagined that she had contracted a disease4.

For Kant, the Cartesian distinctions are something that we bring to bear on the beings that we understand to be human beings, including the notions of body and mind, and they are necessary for the practices that we establish. But that is about as far as he would go, and the differences in the faculties represent the differences in the practices. Respectively, he built largely on the distinction of regulative and constitutive ideal and the use of the concept of purpossiveness through reflective judgment, which he conceives of in going first beyond Leibniz, by including a teleo-mechanic (or vital materialist) notion in the question of the relation between body5 and force  and second in adapting to the embryological program of Caspar Friedrich Wolff (a student of Christian Wolff). With Kant, leaning on his two Wolffs, a generational notion enters into the concept of dynamics, which not only changes the post-Kantian account of Leibniz but enables the Kantian thought-scape to be formulated and thought of as a teleo-mechanic program via the concept of epigenesis and regardless of Kant’s actual intentions as a writer6.

But in sum, and in removing the over-emphasis of the notion of „naturalization“, I would underwrite Phillipe Huneman’s statement, that

[t]hus framed this naturalized teleology provided some answers to the Kantian problem of order and teleoology after the end of classical (Leibnizian) metaphysics“.

Two other points in the history of science and philosophy, that pertain to this development and which are also in general discourse generally left uncommented, are the impact that Christian Wolff’s 1721 speech on Chinese philosophy may have had on Kant and Kantianism, and, of course, the rise of a more dynamic mechanics during the 18th century culminating in Lagrange’s solution to the three-body problem in the 1770s and 1780s. Along with the shift from the search for the localization and the organ of the soul towards the study of the brain, this represents part of the context of Soemmering’s attempted synthesis between the search for the organ of the soul and the effort to reconcile thisanachronistic heritage with Herder’s anthem for the brain’ (orig.: „Loblied auf das Gehirn“, Hagner)7.

At the same time, Soemmering whisked away the Cartesian caveat that an immaterial entity such as a soul could not have a „place“, a sentiment for which he had somewhat of an ally in the Kant of the treatise on vital forces, who assumed that the soul „has a place“; however, that is certainly – to use Kant’s critical vocabulary – a statement about a phenomenal not a noumenal concept of the soul, because it pertains to the Wechselwirkungen or „interaction of substances“ (Wirkungen der Substanzen in einander), the ideal-types of which are, of course, attraction and repulsion. It is abundantly clear that Kant goes beyond both Descartes and Leibniz. Soemmering, however, does not seem to go all the way; and this is a pattern with him. Hagner illustrates this rather nicely, showing that Soemmering picked up certain problems and then failed to unfold them, such as the question whether mental pathologies could be localized in the brain (which would be discovered in the 19th century and investigated as ‘lesions’ of the brain). Had he gone through with a more programmatic approach, the history of neurophysiology might be very different.

His general argumentative strategy, inferring physiological function from detailed anatomical description may be the reason for his shortcomings, since it seems, at least in our modern depictions of his „Ueber das Organ der Seele“ (1796), that whenever he failed to integrate his inferences with physiological results from his contemporaries (Hagner cites the example of the physiology of the origin of life, aka embryology), he seemed tempted to draw on the authority of Kantian transcendental philosophy.

Since he asked Kant to write the afterword for his 1796 piece, it is clear that he hoped to find an ally who could back him up in his argumentative strategy. Kant, of course, even though writing the afterword, would have little to none of it and, in the eyes of his contemporaries, as much as tore a gaping hole into Soemmering’s basic conceptual grounds, which would end in a clear demarcation of boundaries for medicine and philosophy. Of course, Kant did not say that medicine and philosophy could not communicate with one another, nor did he want to exclude the idea that they could learn from one another. But he made it clear that they both operated quite differently and had different objects to deal with. He found that Soemmering confused these matters accordingly, illustrated in the conflation of the location of the soul and of the soul-organ. In other words, for Kant, there can be philosophy in medicine but there cannot be a philosophic medicine (philosophische Medizin) and Soemmering incorrectly tried to make medicine inherently philosophic. In many ways, Kant appears decidedly modern in his inclusion of chemistry in his arguments, pushing for a dynamic chemistry instead of classic mechanics to account for „movements“ between anatomical and physiological elements, identified and classififed by Soemmering. In terms of a discourse in the history of science, we must accept that Kant’s ability to even make such an argument sheds a light on how the concept of dynamics itself had begun to change and, with it, how Leibniz can be re-understood. Post-Kantian interpretations of Leibniz have to take into account that Leibniz’s writings were suddenly de-territorialized and displaced into a wholly new topology, making possible a different adoption of both Leibniz and modern biology by Deleuze, some 150 years after Kant, and, in Deleuze’s wake, in the writings of Delanda (2002), 200 years after Kant. What remains of Soemmering as a major contribution (Hagner) is his emphasis on the brain as an object of scientific study.

1Of course, „fourfold“ is not to be taken entirely literary here. In most contexts, the original sentiment of materialism and immaterialism leaves these dimensions largely interchangeable. However, that is not generally the case and the existence of respective theoretical intricacies should be pointed out.

2Given that the text was supposed to be a clarification of philosophical matters for one of his benefactors, this judgment seems adequate.

3I have to be glossing over many details regarding the philosophies of Descartes, Leibniz and Kant that would deserve to be mentioned and explicated. Since they are of little importance to this essay, which is not one of exegesis but of history, I must ask readers who are familiar with the respective debates to forgive this and the potentials for confusion that any glossing of this kind may give rise to. My main purpose in this section is, above all, to remonstrate with those who continue to claim (a sentiment that I have encountered frequently among scholars in the humanities) that there is little influence that Kant and Kantianism asserted or has, consequently, any right to assert over the development of medicine and biology, often based on the claim that there are no „intellectual“ foundations in biology or medicine in the intellectual history of Kant. And that sentiment seems to continue to exist despite a growing literature that proves the contrary to be true.

4Again, my point is not to say that an account of Kant’s intellectual development as a single brushstroke of a philosophy of „psychosomatics“ is the one and only possible account; what I am trying to point out is that the mere possibility such an account has been largely and conveniently ignored and left unexplored, despite the interesting and fertile avenues it would open, not to mention that it would, indeed, account for problems in other accounts, both of Kant and the history of science. But this kind of blind spot is very typical: Despite overwhelming evidence a majority of social scientists buys into the reduction of the history of sociology to a birth from economics and political economy and neglect the depth of sociology’s founding fathers and early sociologists competence in the discourses of biomedicine and mental health.

5The concept of the body in both Leibniz and Kant referred to physical entities and not just organisms, but could inlcude those.

6This is the distinction between a weak and a strong account of Lenoir’s thesis. A strong account would indicate that Kant wanted to produce a teleomechanistic program and that he conceptualized his regulative concept of epigenesis accordingly, and those physiologists and embryologists, like Blumenbach, who followed him did understand him literally correct; whereas a weak account, that accepts the gist of criticisms of authors like Richards and Zammito, would have to argue that there is a certain vagueness to Kant’s stance that allowed for creative misunderstandings and equivocations between Kant, Reil, Blumenbach and others. In other words, there was indeed a teleo-mechanic program but it existed rather as a series of misunderstandings; however, I would claim that this is exactly true for any progress in science and scholarship.

7I will not enter into the topic of Soemmering’s „racist agenda“, which superseded the racism and ethnocentrism of his interlocutors Kant and Blumenbach in intensity in vigor. Even if he sought, as Hagner asserts, not to be perceived as someone who justified slavery, his research program clearly could be made to serve that purpose, because he did seem to believe in a kind of natural hierarchy of human races. Kant, and most importantly Blumenbach, seemed to believe that differences between „human races“ where not the product of nature but one of development. In other words, Soemmering was a racist in nature and Blumenbach a racist in nurture, pre-empting the nature-nurture debate under a most unethical umbrella.



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