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On Some Forms of Knowing

In this essay, I will discuss knowledge. We tend to speak of knowledge as a "body" that exists somewhere in the ether, but for the purposes of this essay, I'd like to restrict the subject of that knowledge to a single individual, who acts as the "knower"1. Knowledge is a broader topic than simple true or false statements, it "includes notions of 'know-how,' 'knowing how to live,' 'how to listen'"2. I intend to focus on symbolic knowledge, that we can create and access consciously through language, as to avoid the complications when discussing "unconscious knowledge".

The intent of this post is to distinguish between several forms of knowledge, based on their method of production and their context, highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, and uses. In particular, I'd like to comment on "scientific knowledge" and the role it plays in shaping our thought.

A Non-Exhaustive Taxonomy

When we think of knowledge as existing in a body, it begs the question of "what body is it, exactly, that contains this knowledge, and how is it transmitted?" All "bodies of knowledge" fundamentally exist as statements accepted as true within a group. An individual receives this knowledge through their position in a language game3, which regulates the mechanisms that depict this knowledge's form and content. Knowledge transmitted through a language game is received by a potential knower, "from without", who uses it as an interpretive lens "on top of" their experience. Thus, all bodies of knowledge, when received in this way, are "top-down": used to generate predictions about the world4, "above" the knower's immediate experience5.

In what follows, I would like to detail several forms of top-down knowledge, and their general role in our lives.

Top-Down Forms of Knowledge

(1) "Casual Intersubjective" knowledge is the most basic and flexible form of top-down knowledge. It relies on transmissions within casual and nebulous groups of individuals, lacking clear formal constraints or boundaries on admissible statements within its particular language game.

As an example, consider the "simple" form of a friend telling you "shorts are cool", and then you make a judgement about the context in which that statement's true. Perhaps that friend is a close friend, and you take it merely as their own expression of taste. But, more often, we associate our friends with specific social groups, in which case the statement can be interpreted as a metonymy: the friend speaking for the group, saying, "with us, shorts are cool". It may also be modified, if they say, "oh, THOSE shorts are SO cool ...", in which case you might interpret the sarcasm as a negation, gaining knowledge that "with us, or me, shorts are not cool".

Most take this form of knowledge seriously, but it's also of little use when discussing with a broader range of individuals. It relies on one's understanding of their particular group's situation, which isn't accessible to an outside observer. So, if one wants to make statements that anyone might consider true, one needs to rely on another, more restrictive, but also more accessible form of knowledge-production.

(2) Formal Institutional knowledge is an attempt to formalize, and thus provide broader accessibility to intersubjective knowledge. The "trick" is that institutional claims to knowledge have some strings attached. Each individual accepts the legitimacy of a particular set of institutions, and takes their utterences as true. For most institutions, this knowledge is contingent: we accept formal claims of government bureaucracies such as the FDA as true, but we also are well aware that the FDA makes its own rules, and that "the FDA does not consider this a food product" doesn't mean you can't eat it.

One particular institution, however, does claim to embody "the laws of nature" themselves. We call this institution Science. In the formal language game which constitutes science, any admissible "fact" needs to be both verifiable and falsifiable6. If we trust a scientific fact, this means accepting that it was subject to these criteria of verifiability and falsifiability, and thus can be "taken for granted" without one needing to reproduce it on their own. Of course, this has led to some problems7, but many still see scientific statements as the "most true" form of knowledge.

But certain truths that claim to be science are actually not scientific, in this strict sense of verifiable and falsifiable. Consider the field of "evolutionary" science: some of their claims rely on something "extra", a particular "story" about time beyond falsifiability8. I claim these represent an entirely separate form of knowledge, despite their claim to science. But what?

(3) Narrative knowledge is a form of knowledge that depends on the listener's relationship to a story9. The simplest form of narrative knowledge emerges from "folk tales", or "children's stories", which set forth a cultural path along which an individual can place themselves. Much cultural "how-to-live" knowledge depends on narratives. "Life imitates fiction"; we imitate the TV shows we watch, the novels we read, drawing knowledge from them about the "proper" ways to conduct ourselves and evaluate our achievements and goals.

"Scientific" narratives10 form a special cluster within narrative knowledge, as they snag science's implied claims to legitimacy, by pretending to exist within the language game of verifiability and falsifiability. In other words, every scientific narrative is really a story about nature, and not a formal utterence. This is an equivalent story-telling mode to "religious narratives" (which are "about nature," but grounded in "the supernatural" rather than in a fictitious claim of formal status), which is why we see accusations of "Scientism", the religion of science. Put differently, evolution is scientific if confined to a falsifiable scale, but religious if it attempts to explain something "human-sized"11, like "how evolution caused your depression."

I will note that just because a form of knowledge is narrative, does not mean that it is inherently "false" or "fake". It generally depends on real events: even fairy tales. Despite their supernatural settings, the human characters tend to have quite real and relatable experiences. The supernatural elements are merely a means to contextualize the human truths. It is this sense of "relating to my own life" that leads into the last form of knowledge I want to discuss.

Bottom-Up Forms of Knowledge

Not all knowledge "comes from without". Some knowledge arises as a result of our own particular sensory experiences. This knowledge may still guide us in a "top-down" sense once crystallized as truth, but it's of a different origin. The main distinction is that "bottom-up" knowledge emerges from experiences inherently detached from the social world, until communicated to others. What might this look like?

(4) Phenomenological knowledge is the form of knowledge that depends on "one's own relationship to their experience". As a simple example, you're on a walk and you see a rock. Your immediate sensory experience is of immersion; you are seeing, but you have no knowledge of what you're seeing. A moment later, you realize "I am looking at a rock"12. You have created phenomenological knowledge, by introducing a piece of your experience into the world of symbols. The dependency on the social world is partly removed: sure, you need to know the term "rock", but even if you didn't, you could call that heavy, gray thing a "thorg", and you'd still be able to recognize it and use it as an object for thought.

The main place where phenomenological knowledge lives is in those experiences which only the knower has access to, such as emotions. Others can witness one's face and words and claim "you are feeling angry", and they might be right, but ultimately the knowledge of one's own anger must arise from a witnessing and symbolizing of some experience, and one's feelings of anger are only partly accessible to others, mediated by bodily positions13.

A more clear example is when one's feeling a particular way, but "puts on the role" anyway, such as going to work despite feeling sad. Nobody around might recognize the sadness (although hopefully they recognize that "something is off"). It's up to the "feeler" to create that knowledge for themselves.

And so entire domains of phenomenology exist, which cannot "tell you what to believe" as with institutional knowledge, but instead guide readers through the steps to eventually arrive at the "best carving" of their own experience. This is how Heidegger discusses boredom: he sets up successive experiences which might be described as "boredom", and slowly reveals the inessential elements by relating them to other experiences, leaving behind only the core of the emotion14. Readers aren't supposed to take his word for it, they can try it themselves. And similarly, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit attempts to evoke the sense of dialectic within the reader as they read, so they can observe themselves grappling with the ideas expressed by the text while reading the text, and understand what it is he's describing.

A counterpoint might arise, at this point: "but we do not need this form of knowledge, we have Psychology, which is a science, and can tell us about our experiences in an verifiable, falsifiable way." My counterargument is that some experiences aren't subject to these constraints, or, put differently, some true facts aren't admissible as science. Put into practice, the more philosophical "self-knowledge" domains realize this fundamental inequity between "raw" experiences and received knowledge. Their solution is to teach subjective tools, so that an individual can access their experiential landscape and develop self-understanding, which creates the possibility of change. In comparison, the practice of psychology often looks like some other with imperfect knowledge trying to "fix" an individual for that individual's own sake. This is why psychology as a medical practice is seen as "coercive", because psychology tries to "fix you for you", against your own will. But perhaps we would rather have someone else fix us, than address the defenses we've set up against fixing ourselves.

A Brief Note on the Word "Science"

Prior to the emergence of science as an institution, i.e. as a specific, stable language game, phenomenological knowledge was itself known as "science". But as the body of scientific knowledge grew larger, especially once specialized tools such as the telescope and microscope entered into science, the idea that a single unaided knower could verify scientific claims through their own experience became unreasonable. Thus began the split between scientific claims "taken on faith", but "phenomenological to someone" (as I use the term in this essay), vs. scientific claims which one can observe with their own eyes15. However, the heritage of popular phenomenological science lives on, mostly in the guise of erowid.org trip reports.

Some Applications

At a certain point a few years ago, I found myself involved in a particular set of communities, which avowed various beliefs about race, IQ, etc. The scientific results seemed sound, but something still felt "off" about what they were saying. I kept trying to figure out what it was that made me feel "off", and it wasn't until I began thinking in terms of "forms of knowledge" that I realized what it was.

Consider the notion of, say, "dopamine". I might have some experience, a tingle of pleasure at listening to a certain song. The first leap of knowledge is phenomenological, "I'm feeling a tingle of pleasure"! But what happens next is important: I find myself asking "why?". This question produces the next leap of knowledge, away from phenomenology and into institutional knowledge: "because my brain released some dopamine which caused me to feel pleasure." But, now I've made an extra leap of faith, and moved from depending on my own experience to depending on someone else's research. I've essentially imposed some new knowledge, originating "from without", "on top of" my direct experience, thus removing myself from the immediate world and placing myself "into a discourse".

I could imagine taking a different leap: at that crucial moment of "why?" I could proclaim ignorance: "who knows?" and ignore the question. But that would leave me with some doubt, the question would nag at me. So I could instead answer "because the song is beautiful, in some way." Now, rather than shifting my concern into the realm of science, where I might want to go read neuroscience papers and try to understand myself through the "universal mind of Man", my concern remains subjective, "what did I find beautiful about this song? Where else can I find beauty in the world?"

Institutional knowledge is often useful, and many domains of science have produced rich insights. But the flip side, especially when dealing with issues like "society" and "the world", is falling into "doomscrolling", consuming news claiming to represent Science and opening up new wells of concern, which often have very little to do with your day-to-day perceptions. It's as if the news media generates a world for you much larger than the one in which you live, and then screws it up, so you keep worrying and reading more news and feel consumed by a desire to Take Action somehow in that much larger world. And so now, our sense of "ethics" has become something like "donating money" or "supporting federal politics", which depends on a particular narrative, which competes with the narrative that the most "Good" can be done within our immediate world of perceptions and people.

This "narrative stance" of taking "a universal view" was present before the Internet, though, when it was known as the "Archimedean point", the imagined point from which one can view the entirety of the world in a single frame16. A major sort of ethical narrative that proceeds from the Archimedean framing is to pick a privileged idea as an "ultimate measure", such as "suffering" or "pleasure", and then use scientific knowledge to "optimize" this measure across the entirety of the world (often generalized to a plea for donations). What this stance misses is that, in assuming a hypothetical "gods-eye" view, the actor lacks any phenomenological knowledge about their experiences. All knowledge in this ethics is mediate, coming from someone or somewhere else; it lacks any direct knowledge that comes from seeing one's actions help someone before them. In other words, one must take the narrative on faith.

If one can sensitize themselves to the difference between immediate and mediate knowledge, the distinction between what one reads online and what one experiences immanently, without the veil of a Weltanschauung17 or ideology to problematize its banality, if one can do this, they might realize the absolute strangeness of these mediate forms of knowledge in terms of how they dictate our lives. And yet, the grass grows without knowing its family is "Poaceae", so too much of one's day-to-day life remains rather unaffected by whatever one hears on the news.

Critique

The entire supposition of a "phenomenological knowledge" rests on a set of assumptions about our relation to the world. One could argue that phenomenological knowledge itself is grounded in a form of narrative, and I would counter that nobody needs to introduce you into the "technique" of phenomenology, you've been doing it already, since you were a child. The narrative here is at a meta-level: making one conscious of the differences within their knowledge.

Surely these differences in knowledge can be rejected as arbitrary, as a consequence of a "false" dualism between mind and the world, mind and society, etc. But I argue that there's a particular psychological state which leads one to create this difference, that of "hysteria". According to Freud, a "hysterical" psychic state occurs when one is confronted by a split between two parts of their own psyche18, often exposing the question of "who am I really?" And it's at the behest of this question that one might realize there exist fundamental differences between forms of top-down knowledge, and that phenomenology may be a useful tool for determining what's "real" about oneself. But I can't prove it, you'll have to experience it yourself.

Freud himself understood it intuitively; he was a famous hypochondriac, who'd get stomachaches every Sunday when he had to visit his mother19. Hypochondria in particular can be seen a hysterical state, where one's psyche is split between one's "normal" psychic state, and a paranoid state induced through one's medical knowledge, focused on discovering an aetiology, or causal diagnosis. So, one falls into the mental realm of medicine and "discovers the cause" through Reason, often a very severe condition, when in fact the cause was a migraine headache and not brain damage. This phenomenon is so well-known among medical students that it's colloquially called "med student's disease".

My point in discussing hysteria is that one does not need to abandon a physicalist viewpoint and assume some sort of ontological dualism to see that phenomenological techniques have value. If one can observe their own moments of hysteria, their own "splits in the psyche", one can realize the extent to which "ideas from without" dictate how one judges their own lives and experiences. Ultimately the point of the phenomenological method is to produce a form of freedom, in which the "naive knower" becomes aware of all the different places from which they produce knowledge, and can select the appropriate form for the task at hand.

Although I focused my criticism on institutional knowledge, particularly within science, I only do this as a corrective to what I see as an excess of faith in received knowledge, to the detriment of the individual. Hopefully I made it clear that my intent in this essay was to lead the reader in this direction, through drawing distinctions between these forms of knowledge--casual intersubjective, formal institutional, narrative, and phenomenological--and revealing some lines of tension that they produce in practice.

Many thanks to my proofreaders for humoring me, @gundwyn, @suspendedreason, @erin_nerung, and @Childermass4.


  1. We could imagine a different "knower" than an individual, for example some sort of Hegelian "spirit" of a discourse, but this would cause confusion within the context of this piece, for little benefit. 

  2. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 18. 

  3. For a brief exposition, see ibid. pp. 9-11. 

  4. I draw the terms "top-down" and "bottom-up" from the contemporary work of neuropsychologist Karl Friston on "predictive processing," although the concepts themselves precede his work. For an overview and an interesting application of Friston's work to the serotonin system, see: Carhart-Harris, R. L. and Friston, K. J. "REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics" (2019). doi:10.1124/pr.118.017160

  5. Hence when Hegel calls the "realm of laws" that govern nature and constitute "Reason" the "supersensible world" (Phenomenology of Spirit §§ 144-165), we might imagine these laws as imposing interpretations on us, from "above", from the top-down. 

  6. This originally read "observable and reproducible", but I chose to instead use Lyotard's original definition of the scientific "research" game. Original definition as follows, from Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 24: "The first [rule]: the referent is that which is susceptible to proof and can be used as evidence in a debate. Not: I can prove something because reality is the way I say it is. But: as long as I can produce proof, it is permissible to think that reality is the way I say it is. The second rule is metaphysical; the same referent cannot supply a plurality of contradictory or inconsistent proofs. Or stated differently: 'God' is not deceptive. These two rules underlie what nineteenth-century science calls verification and twentieth-century science, falsification." 

  7. Think "replication crisis", but perhaps we should take a moment to consider whether the "replication crisis" is a mere methodology error, or a more fundamental issue with the entire affected domains. 

  8. Evolutionary knowledge is, however, verifiable, by Lyotard's definition as "that for which I can produce proof." In fact, the entire body of "evolutionary science" rests on its claim to verifiability, despite contextual problems with falsifiability. 

  9. In terms of language games, narrative knowledge is quite loose. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 20: "The narrative form, unlike the developed forms of the discourse of knowledge, lends itself to a great variety of language games. Denotative statements concerning, for example, the state of the sky and the flora and fauna easily slip in; so do deontic statements prescribing what should be done with respect to these same referents, or with respect to kinship, the difference between the sexes, children, neighbors, foreigners, etc. Interrogative statements are implied, for example, in episodes involving challenges (respond to a question, choose one from a number of things); evaluative statements also enter in, etc." 

  10. I would like to be clear that I'm referring to "naive" or "pop science" accounts of scientific positions. Scientific publications themselves tend to avoid grand narratives, but their conclusions are often taken and extended into unscientific shapes in communications with the mass public. 

  11. For a discussion of "evolutionary-size" vs. "human-size" events and their respective falsifiability or lack of, see: Williams, M. B. (1973). Falsifiable Predictions of Evolutionary Theory. Philosophy of Science, 40(4), 518-537. doi:10.1086/288562

  12. cf. Hegel's "dialectic of sense-certainty", Phenomenology of Spirit, §§ 90-110. 

  13. Some might argue that, no, there's no "internal experience" apart from bodily position, and I'm sympathetic, but it also misses the fact that each individual has an internal symbolic world, which means that there's always a missing link, between one's perception of another's anger and its cause. 

  14. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger leads from the form of boredom one experiences at a train station, to the boredom of going to a party and later realizing that one was bored the whole time, and finally to a profound, existential boredom as the "fundamental attunement of Man", which runs quite close to the Buddhist notion of "dukkha". 

  15. cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, pp. 257-275. 

  16. For a much richer discussion of the emergence and impact of the Archimedean point, see ibid. 

  17. cf. https://twitter.com/KBULTRA0/status/1288202553147232256 

  18. For details, see Freud & Breuer's theoretical discussions in Studies on Hysteria

  19. See https://www.pbs.org/youngdrfreud/pages/family_mother.htm: "[Freud] saw his mother weekly for Sunday lunch, but he had stomach aches every time. ... [he] was continually worried about his poor health, feared that he would die before his mother." 

"The Unconscious is Structured like a Language"

Thanks to @4Q248 for proof-reading this post and providing clarifying suggestions.

Lacan gives a formulation, "the unconscious structured like a language" (Seminar XX, p. 21), which has always felt mysterious to me. Known as the foundational text of "structuralism", Saussure's "Course on General Linguistics" has helped clarify this formulation by providing Lacan's working definition of a language.

Before I approach Saussure's definition, I want to set the boundaries of this post. I'm interested in interpreting Lacan's analogical claim that "the unconscious is structured like a language", and I want to bracket the question of "in what ways is the unconscious constituted by or through language?" Classic psychoanalysis only has access to the speech of the analysand, meaning that much interpretation within analysis goes on through the medium of language. But I do not want to attempt to define the essence of the unconscious as such; I will attempt to limit this discussion to the ways in which Saussure's definition of language functions as a metaphor or structural analogy for the unconscious.

Saussure believed that any single language has the following properties:

  1. A language is a cloud of "signs", which are pairings between sound-images (signifiers) and concepts (signifieds). Saussure believed the primary space of language was speaking, with writing as a secondary but highly significant effect that develops from speaking. Here is Saussure's diagram of the linguistic sign (i.e. the entire oval containing the signifier and signified): the linguistic sign

  2. A language is individualized within each person (we each have our vocabularies), but exists within a larger "community of speakers" which informally (or formally, in some cases) determines the proper "value" of each sign.

  3. A language must be analyzed along both "synchronic" and "diachronic" lines, each analysis to be performed separately.

  4. "Synchronic" linguistics interprets the "state" of a language in the present, in the sense of grammar, accepted word usage, relationships between signs, etc. It is concerned with language as it exists and is used within a body of individuals right now. This is the "horizontal" axis of interpretation.1

  5. "Diachronic" linguistics concerns the evolution of language states over time, e.g. etymology, as it evolves and morphs in a historical sense. This is the "vertical" axis of interpretation.

I will thus attempt to unwrap this metaphor, to draw parallels that shed light on Lacan's formulation of the unconscious:

  1. The unconscious is a cloud of "signs", pairings between signifiers and signifieds2.

  2. The unconscious is individualized within each person ("my" unconscious), but exists as a result of a larger communal unconscious (if viewed as a topology, its locus is the "big Other", the reification of a communal unconscious---contrast this with Marx). This move ties together the Freudian ideas of a "personal unconscious" with Jungian and later ideas of a "collective unconscious".

  3. The unconscious must be interpreted along both "synchronic" and "diachronic" lines, each analysis to be performed separately.

  4. A "synchronic" state of the unconscious refers to its existence in the present moment. A synchronic analysis must proceed by understanding the present contents of the unconscious, as they are presented to the analyst. This means listening and constructing an effective "mapping" of the grammar of the analysand's present set of affective value relations, as it flows linearly (transmitted via spoken sentences) and associatively (through "free" relationships between signs). The nature of analysis admits both of these forms simultaneously: the analysand cannot help but speak in a linear fashion, but the "free associative" nature of their discourse allows for the interpretation of linkages between related or associated ideas. The psychoanalytic idea of "transference" (interpreting how the analysand thinks and feels about the analyst and how the analyst responds and feels in relation to that) lives within this domain of synchronic analysis.

    Synchronic analysis may also concern itself with the present methods used by the analysand to satisfy their drives, which are tied to their personality and which are "coping" behaviors (in a non-judgmental sense), that can be substituted for other behaviors as a result of reflection. Lacan takes this deeper throughout his lectures, analyzing the relationship of Saussure's "spoken chain" with his notion of the "master signifier", and relating Saussure's idea of the "linguistic circuit"3, which binds together two speaking subjects, to the basic drives.

  5. A "diachronic" analysis of the unconscious concerns the development of the present state over time. Notions such as "trauma" concern themselves with diachronic events whose effects provide material for a historical, quasi-causal interpretation of the analysand's present state. The diachronic mode also permits analysis of the internalization process, through which the "collective unconscious" is "deposited" within, i.e. individualized by the speaker, who learns to navigate this "cloud" of ideas in order to satisfy their needs.4

Despite its usefulness, this metaphor shows some seams, as I mentioned earlier, where the metaphrand and the metaphier, unconscious and language itself, butt up against each other, tarnishing the purity of the analogy. This appears to be what Lacan addresses in Seminar XX (p. 15), starting with his idea of "linguistricks" (linguisterie, as opposed to linguistique or "linguistics") and moving forward from there. I plan to reread the seminar given this new backbone, and may write a follow-up post that dives deeper!


  1. Saussure distinguishes further two classes of synchronic relations, the "syntagmatic relation", i.e. the successive relationship in the spoken chain, and the "associative relation", the space of "similar" terms that each given term calls to mind. The following image is used to explain the latter relation: the associative relation 

  2. In language, signifiers are sound-images and signifieds are concepts. But the nature of the unconscious renders this direct comparison problematic: we need to ask, what in the unconscious is analagous to the sound-image and to the concept? Arguably, any conscious image will work as an unconscious signifier, and concepts can refer to any memory or affective charge. This is subject to debate among the different schools of psychoanalysis; the exact substance of the unconscious remains somewhat elusive. But so long as we assume that the unconscious consists of a set of relationships between some sort of image and some sort of effect, the metaphor remains consistent. 

  3. The following is Saussure's diagram of the spoken chain: the spoken chain

    And the following is Saussure's diagram of the linguistic circuit: the linguistic circuit

  4. Similar to the set of synchronic relations, Saussure breaks down three forms of diachronic shift (ways that terms change over time): agglutination, analogy, and phonetic change. Whether the metaphor holds in terms of the exact mechanism of unconscious shifts is something I haven't determined. 

Flight Journal Excerpt: Irony, Meaning, and Certainty

(Excerpted from a longer journal entry written on an overnight flight from NYC to Dusseldorf, August 15, 2019. No significant edits from original entry. Footnotes added later, to contextualize references.)

+2:22
Ate a sandwich and some peanut M&Ms, but I had to pay for them. Apparently in-flight meals are a luxury now. I was thinking about meaning issues, lack of ability to start or feel motivated. In college I felt a state of certainty, total unambiguity, that allowed me to single-mindedly pursue my work with pleasure. Truth-seeking as a behavior inherently produces ambiguity alongside its twin, ambivalence. Thinking representationally, seeking the full picture1, results in multiplied perspective, such that a certainly loved thing becomes both loved and hated. Hence knowledge produces hatred and ambivalence2. The more you learn, the less any of it seems meaningful besides the experience of insight itself.

It all snaps into focus: "I think therefore I doubt." If we want certainty (which Lacan described as Freud's primary question3), umambiguous meaning, we therefore must eliminate thought, or at least the form of thought that seeks to generate truth and therefore ambivalence. The stopper of thought is flow, ritual practice, etc. But there is the impasse: one feels ambivalent and cannot enter a flow state, but one's only freedom from ambivalence is through that flow state. Pascal's secret--the secret of faith--is to persist through the ritual despite one's contemptuous knowledge, and eventually the illusions that knowledge is predicated on will shatter and be replaced with certainty4. For it is only experience that allows for certainty. Without experience, "absolute truths" are mere words on a page.

But what force can compel someone to "fake it until they make it", how can one overcome the initial barrier of refusal? Since the contempt exists at the level of the ideal ego, a solution is to perform the ritual in a space separated from one's self-image, such that there's no threat to the individual's identity. This sort of space is produced by what we call a "game" (in fact, one could define "games" as whatever situation produces such an effect). Games have rules and masks and provide a "suspended" space where one can try something for which they have contempt5. Irony culture is a game in this sense, but the formal structure of the game is highly abstract, as it revolves around a claim to identity rather than an "activity". But perhaps identity games are social media's equivalent of sport. Each team's fans are certainly as vicious.

Irony culture is bolstered by an inherent perversity. Upon donning one's ironic Carhartt hat, one might thing "hah, I know that Carhartt is a brand for Republican farmers and doesn't represent my identity, but still I love it even more." That is the formal structure of perversion: the gain of additional pleasure through performing an action that one knows is wrong6 (in this case, the actor perceives it as wrong to wear clothing that reflects an identity opposed to their own). But as each ironic shift becomes normalized, the ironist's perception of the signifiers shift from "wrong" to "right", as more people adopt the ironic trend. The sense of perversion lessons along with the pleasure, and a new "wrong" signifier must be selected and consumed.


  1. Leif Weatherby, "Irony and Redundancy": I'm referencing "...what Hegel called “representational thinking,” in which the goal is to capture a picture of the world that is adequate to it." This is in opposition to "...conceptual thinking, which in Hegel’s terms is that thought that is embedded in, constituted by, and substantially active within the causal chain of substance, expression, and history." 

  2. Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners, pp. 69-71.: 

    Ambivalence is due to a conflict of aspirations of which one remains unconscious (or, at least, for the most part)... the popular opposition between belief and knowledge (‘We believe what we do not know’) must, at least in terms of belief, be reversed to its exact opposite: better knowledge forms a necessary prerequisite of each and every belief; we believe precisely what we know better. And this paradox now seems explicable: better knowledge nourishes contempt of the belief [in this case, whichever naive belief is undermined by truth-seeking] and keeps it alive – and does so apparently in spite of all better knowledge and all enlightenment. Therefore, superstitious believers must always be viewed as bearers of a ‘cynical awareness’ that elevates them above matters – and they must also view themselves in this way. There is an ‘I know’ here that must be able to accompany all illusions of this kind.

  3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 35.: 

    The major term, in fact, is not truth. It is Gewissheit, certainty. Freud's method is Cartesian—in the sense that he sets out from the basis of the subject of certainty. The question is—of what can one be certain? With this aim, the first thing to be done is to overcome that which connotes anything to do with the content of the unconscious —especially when it is a question of extracting it from the experience of the dream—to overcome that which floats everywhere, that which marks, stains, spots, the text of any dream communication—I am not sure, I doubt.

    Now—and it is here that Freud lays all his stress—doubt is the support of his certainty.

    He goes on to explain why—this is precisely the sign, he says, that there is something to preserve. Doubt, then, is a sign of resistance.

  4. Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture, p. 141.: 

    You want to find faith and do not know the way? You want to cure yourself of unbelief and you ask for the remedies? Learn from those who have been bound like you … Follow the way by which they began; by behaving just as if they believed, taking holy water, having masses said, etc. That will make you believe quite naturally, and will humiliate your understanding. (Pascal, Pensées, pp. 155–6.)

    Rather than suggesting a deepening of theological intensification, he suggests an exercise in superficiality. The candidate should simply act ‘as though’ he believes, and the problem – more precisely, his problem – will thereby be solved. A small, playful, theatrical performance of religious conviction will help to precipitate this conviction – whereas, on the contrary, convincing oneself by means of proof is seen as an impediment. Belief must be acted out for some undetermined other...

  5. Ibid., pp. 53-4.: 

    Huizinga describes the increased intensity of affect that play generates as ‘sacred seriousness’. This sacred seriousness – the fascination, the extreme involvement and celebratory affect that is initiated by play – is at work in all forms of culture, including religion, art and sport. Huizinga thus concludes that play presents the origin of all culture. Huizinga even sees religious cults as especially a consequence of the ‘sacred seriousness’ yielded from play. ‘Sacred seriousness’ communicates one of play’s fundamental operations in establishing spatial and temporal borders –between the playing field and its environment, between the length of the game and the time beyond it. This demarcation establishes the decidedly celebratory atmosphere, and the greater involvement of participants as well as spectators – which also applies among religious cults. The particular affective conditions of religions are also the result of such spatial and temporal demarcations. Huizinga therefore concludes: ‘The hallowed spot [is essentially] a playground.’ (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 20.)

  6. Ibid., p. 93.: 

    In contradiction with classical psychoanalytical theory, perversion can no longer be diagnosed based on ‘deviations’ with regard to the sexual object or goal. Rather than attempting such a material determination, I have carried out a formal, topical determination... If actors have contempt for their practices, and thereby for themselves, this means that their gain in pleasure is organized around avoiding a reference to an ideal ego. The ‘topicality’ of their pleasure gain is different than for those practices that allow their practitioners to triumph by corresponding to an ideal. At the same time, there is also a difference at the level of the economy of the libido and the dynamic level: when the gain in pleasure is achieved by means of self-contempt, then ambivalence exists. The joyful overload of affect is due to an unconscious conflict of opposing forces.

The Year of the Paypig

the year of the paypig

As pointed out by preeminent Neoreactionary pastor "Zero HP Lovecraft", 2019 is the year of the paypig. And yet, many still cannot fathom the nature of this position. They read, and wonder: what must be going on in the mind of the paypig, to subject themselves to such a thing? To understand this, I turn to Lacan's insights into the phenomenology of the pervert. Briefly, from nosubject, the Lacan wiki:

The pervert assumes the position of the object-instrument of the "will-to-enjoy" (volonté-de-jouissance), which is not his own will but that of the big Other.

The pervert does not pursue his activity for his own pleasure, but for the enjoyment of the big Other. He finds enjoyment precisely in this instrumentalization, in working for the enjoyment of the Other.

The paypig seems an archetypal example of this, with the pervert assuming a submissive stance in the practice of findom. But what does this mean? Let us dig a bit deeper.

The paypig first, as in all submissive perversions, elevates the dominatrix to the position of the big Other1. Which is to say, the dominatrix is not herself as a subject--a thinking human being--in relation to the paypig. To him, she represents the Other2: the paypig's internalized perception of the codes governing society. He elevates her not into a symbol of these codes but into the manifestation of the codes themselves. This is why Hassidic submissive relates BSDM to worship: God is not a symbol3, God simply is4.

His next step, then, is to reduce himself to the object-instrument of the Other, in relation to one of its drives. To do this, he must develop some idea of what the Other wants. We must recall that the Other is a phenomenological structure within the pervert; the Other is not "out there" but exists inside the pervert himself, constructed through his interactions with little others (other people). The Other's desire is likely something that the pervert is aware "society" desires on some level (he may even desire it himself: "man's desire is the Other's desire"). So, in the case of the paypig, we might guess that this desire is money.

Once he has established the desire of the Other, the paypig's final step is to position himself as an instrument, an object through which the Other can satisfy this desire. His enjoyment comes from acting on the Other's account. So, the paypig enjoys giving away his money. Right?

This is not the complete story. We must ask, in response to exactly what does the paypig enjoy himself? It is not simply the transfer of money, or else the paypig could give a donation to some cause and be done. No, the pleasure involves some action on account of the dominatrix, through which the Other's fundamental drive manifests, and which permits the paypig to transform into its instrument5. If we pay attention, we can see that the paypig feels they are satisfying the Other's invocatory drive: the desire to hear and be heard. It is not to the transaction, nor to the dominatrix as a physical object that the paypig responds, but to her voice, her command, her invocation: "you are nothing to me, send Venmo". And so we might classify findom as BDSM, the practice of invocatory perversions. BDSM stands in contrast to exhibitionism-voyeurism, a set of perversions in which the pervert acts as an instrument of the Other's scopic drive, the desire to see and be seen6.

Why might 2019 be the year of the paypig? Perhaps as authorities become more abstract, less human7, fewer have access to direct invocation. And yet there is still a part of us who wants to act in response to a command. Who will we obey? The dominatrix fills this gap, with the distinction that her fee is tightly coupled with the paypig's act of submission. Compared with other forms of BDSM, findom has lower transaction costs, meaning reduced waste, and increased surplus value. It is a highly efficient and incentive-aligned activity, a brilliant market-based solution to a fundamental human need. Isn't that what neoliberalism is all about?


  1. Lacan's big Other is one of his most foundational yet challenging concepts. From nosubject

    The big Other designates radical alterity, an otherness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates the big Other with language and the law, and hence the big Other is inscribed in the symbolic order. Indeed, the big Other is the symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. Thus, the Other is both another subject in its radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness and also the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that subject.

    Note the duality of the Other: it is "both another subject... and also the symbolic order." This refers to our relationship with the Other: it appears as a mass of known-or-felt laws that sometimes has a mind or will of its own.

  2. It is easier for an attractive woman to embody the position of the Other, as she is already seen as commanding social power. To quote Žižek: "[an] exceptional particular then immediately gives body to the universal." 

  3. Although, in Judaic thought, the name of God expressed as a word is a signifier, one with exceptional power. Consider the set of Judaic practices involving the use of His name

  4. For a fascinating discussion of God's relationship with Lacan's big Other, check out this post over at Larval Subjects, one of my favorite Lacanian resources. 

  5. Perceptive readers will note that there is still a link missing here between will-to-jouissance and drives. Lacan's notion of jouissance is also challenging. Wikipedia describes it as follows: 

    "there is a jouissance beyond the pleasure principle" linked to the partial drive; a jouissance which compels the subject to constantly attempt to transgress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment, to go beyond the pleasure principle.

    The brief version is that pleasure releases tension, while jouissance involves "enjoyable" behavior done on account of a drive. Pleasure is the result of satisfying needs, jouissance is the result of satisfying wants. Jouissance does not necessarily relieve tension; it might instead create it. An example: eating a meal while hungry gives pleasure, because it releases the tension of hunger. Eating and eating simply for the taste begets jouissance, because it is behavior you find somehow "enjoyable". Thus, satisfying the Other's "will-to-jouissance" involves providing it with something that, for it, creates this experience of jouissance.

  6. Two other "partial" drives exist beyond invocatory and scopic: the oral drive, and the anal drive (see: nosubject). The associated perversions are left as an exercise to the reader. 

  7. For an excellent, if dated, Marxist-Freudian discussion on the topic of authority, consider Christopher Lasch's Haven in a Heartless World (1977) (pp: 184-189): 

    Since authority no longer commands respect, the authorities have to impose their will through psychological manipulation... Authorities no longer appeal to objective standards of right and wrong, which might serve to clothe power in a higher morality but might also justify resistance to it... The new mode of social control avoids conflicts and direct confrontations between authorities and the people on whom they seek to impose their will... Society itself has taken over socialization or subjected family socialization to increasingly effective control. Having thereby weakened the capacity for self-direction and self-control, it has undermined one of the principal sources of social cohesion, only to create new ones more constricting than the old, and ultimately more devastating in their impact on personal and political freedom.

    Perhaps, if the desire for findom emerges from the same place as the desire for a more expansive state apparatus, a 70% tax rate truly is findom after all?