Blindness: The Logic of Lack and Neglect

The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations— only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

Slavoj Zizek

We all live in illusory worlds of shared beliefs and fantasy. If we did not we would never have a world at all, at least a human world. It’s our blindness to reality that allows us to get on with our lives. Our mind filters out what we do not need to be humans in a human world of work and play, survival and propagation. Over thousands of years humans slowly abstracted or subtracted themselves from the natural order, and then through philosophical speculation they discovered that as a fact. The whole of philosophy from Plato to the present could be said to be the this coming to the impossibility of attaining knowledge at all.

Most of the time we misperceive rather than perceive things, misread rather than read, misprision rather than see things correctly — we color the world in our mind’s faulty neglect and call that understanding. Yet, as Fredric Jameson once surmised Understanding (Verstand) is a kind of spontaneous ideology of our daily lives, of our immediate experience of reality. We filter out most of what we don’t understand and live in this circle of blindness and call it our world. The only world we will ever feel safe and secure in. When the walls to this blind cage begin to crack and fall apart we go apocalyptic and fear that like chicken little the sky is falling and we are doomed. When in fact it’s in the very cracks and fissures in our safe world that the Real breaks through, the Outside flows in.

The Mind does this act of filtering out of the world for a simple reason: too much data blurs our vision and would make it impossible to see at all. So we as humans have evolved mechanisms to escape the sensory overload of the Real through subtraction and abstraction, of tearing out of the world’s sensory overload only that which will enable us to act in the world. Of course thousands of pages of the philosophers has been put to print to elaborate this into conceptual bric-a-brac of refined concepts over the past two thousand years. Yet, in the past couple hundred years this best kept secret was released upon the common everyday reader and journalist: the notion of this illusory world we have all shared for so long. When Zizek, after Lacan, uses the term big Other to describe the shared world of illusion and cultural/ideological systems that have bound us together in our mutual ignorance and belief that our world is grounded on truth, etc.; that the big Other is the one who is “supposed to know”, and that we accept blindly and without thought the basic value systems of our time laboring under the assumption that someone has the answer: we are just morons hoping against hope that someone – some grand strategist behind the scenes knows the truth. 

Nihilism came upon the scene in western civilization when the world of shared understanding had exhausted itself. The illusions that had supported the religious and political vision of two thousand years was put into abeyance, and for the first time during the Enlightenment age men began to retroactively posit an end to the social world that had kept European civilization bound in a nexus of shared systems of belief and practice.

Most of the past couple hundred years of this state of affairs refined itself down to an embittered debate between philosophy and the sciences. On the one side philosophy turned toward either language or consciousness (intuition), while the sciences by way of physics slowly broke the hold of objectivism – or, that there is an objective world independent of mind’s filters and blindness. Oh, there’s been many debates over if we will ever get out of this circle of mind-object correlationalism, etc., which for many has become passé. Even now certain philosophers have embarked on another fantasy of the inhuman or non-human turn – trying to overcome the limitations of this debate and either return to pre-critical forms of thought and nature beliefs, etc. or to certain forms of realism through a turn to metaphor and rhetoric rather than conceptuality (Harman). It’s like the cat chasing its tail, the circle cannot be escaped; but, then again, the circle is not the problem. The problem and solution are false to begin with. Such philosophers miss the point.

As my friend R. Scott Bakker in a recent not suggests: “Science is blind without theory, so absent any eliminativist account of intentional phenomena, it has no clear way to proceed with their investigation. So it hews to exceptional posits, trusting in their local efficacy, and assuming they will be demystified by discoveries to come.” ( see: Framing “On Alien Philosophy”). This blindness of philosophers and scientists is not a negative, but rather the as Zizek’s been harping on for quite a while now: this inability to describe consciousness or the world is not an inadequacy on our part, but rather a sign that the something is incomplete. The thing we would describe is not an object – neither objective or subjective – it is a process that always is in excess of our mind’s to grasp either with language or instrument. Our positings are always notional and heuristic – there is not Archimedean vantage point outside language, mind, or the world from which we could ground our knowledge. The world that we could describe escapes our tools and linguistic tricks, not because it isn’t there but because it isn’t some passive stable objective thing we could grasp or fold into our thought or practice. Like the fabled Proteus it is forever changing and formless. We alone impose our artificial and abstract thought upon this amorphous world, cut and subtract and tear from it figures of insight that we can shape in that age old give and take of understanding and reason.

Scott argues that “On Alien Philosophy” challenges both scientist and philosopher

Thus the challenge posed by Alien Philosophy. By giving real, abductive teeth to (5), my account overturns the argumentative terrain between eliminativism and intentionalism by transforming the explanatory stakes. It shows us how stupidity, understood ecologically, provides everything we need to understand our otherwise baffling intuitions regarding intentional phenomena. “On Alien Philosophy” challenges the Intentionalist to explain more with less (the very thing, of course, he or she cannot do).

But we have always been stupid in this regard, we have always  explained “more with less” because as he’s pointed out ad infinitum we lean by neglect. We can do no other, the mind in the very process of producing conscious agents subtracted out of this world of infinite data a hole. The point is not to explain consciousness — there is nothing to explain because there is nothing there, nothing at all. Consciousness isn’t a thing, object, substance — it’s not something you can trap by language – metaphor or concept; rather, this very pursuit is false, seeking to answer a problem that was a red herring to begin with. If consciousness is empty, a cut – a process of abstracting, tearing, and breaking the symmetry in an otherwise universe of blind process then wouldn’t the better question be to ask: What was the need in a universe of blind forces and processual interactions for consciousness to begin with? How did consciousness arise? And in just this form?

If we cannot get out of this box of ignorance and stupidity, this realm of neglect by which the brain interacts and filters out more than reveals  through the body membrane in its sensual forays against the stubborn resistance of the Real, then maybe we should turn from explaining consciousness to explaining this gap / lack that produced it to begin with. Spinoza took thought down this path but left it there in a realm of pure material process without outlet. Kant looking into the terror of this blind horror revolted and sought in his inward turn the still waters of the transcendent Subject to anchor and ground the world. Between Spinoza and Kant the latter day philosophers have warred to imbecility.

Yet, I wonder if my friend Scott isn’t falling into the same trap when he says:

Now I think I’ve solved the problem, that I have a way to genuinely naturalize meaning and cognition. The science will sort my pretensions in due course, but in the meantime, the heuristic neglect account of intentionality, given its combination of mediocrity and explanatory power, has to be regarded as a serious contender.

This notion of naturalizing meaning and cognition is itself to reduce the problem into a mere exercise in the Spinozian optimism as if naturalizing and reducing this problem to a set of axioms could deliver the goods. Scott’s notion of heuristic neglect:

The aim of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) is to rough out the ‘logic of neglect’ that underwrites ‘error consciousness,’ the consciousness we think we have. It proceeds on the noncontroversial presumption that consciousness is the product of some subsystem of the brain, and that, as such, it operates within a variety of informatic constraints. It advances the hypothesis that the various perplexities that bedevil our attempts to explain consciousness are largely artifacts of these informatic constraints. From the standpoint of BBT, what we call the Hard Problem conflates two quite distinct difficulties: 1) the ‘generation problem,’ the question of how a certain conspiracy of meat can conjure whatever consciousness is; and 2) the ‘explanandum problem,’ the question of what any answer to the first problem needs to explain to count as an adequate explanation. Its primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience. It argues that philosophy of mind needs to keep its dire informatic straits clear: once you understand that we make similar informatic frame-of-reference (IFR) errors regarding consciousness as we are prone to make in the world, you acknowledge that we might be radically mistaken about what consciousness is. (see: Logic of Neglect)

What’s brilliant in the above is the acknowledgement of the “role lack [my italics] plays in structuring conscious experience”. What Scott does not go on to do which would radicalize his insight further is in positing this lack not just in the structuring of consciousness, but in the physical realms as well. Both epistemologically and ontologically the world of both consciousness and a reality is structured by the logic of lack. The logic of neglect is not just in the Mind but in the world, the incompleteness of consciousness and the universe acknowledged in the concept of lack (gap, crack, hole, etc.) provides us with the key to consciousness. We’ve known for a while that we fill in the blanks, the holes in knowledge with guesses, fictions, leaps of intuitive insight, etc. What if the world does too? The notion of heuristic neglect – of working in the dark, mapping a terrain unknowable even resistant to our thought provides us the basis of a materialist explanation. The place to look is in the very break points – fissures, holes, gaps of consciousness and world; seeking in these resistances to our thought and instruments the very kernel and key to the dilemma. Because we have our eye on consciousness or the universe, we are blind to other problems which would be better served in exploring. Rather than trying to explain consciousness or reduce it or the universe to an adequate explanation or naturalized meaning one begins to refocus on the logic of lack itself.