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July 12, 2007


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"...[T]he determining property of a libidinal object resides in the gaze which perceives it, as opposed to within the object itself."

The qualifier "libidinal" is worth attending to here. Are there any non-libidinal objects? Is there any more to an object than its fixation within a libidinal circuit?

In particular, is experience wholly a tissue of fantasy - are the objects of experience entirely libidinal objects? In the case of alien abductees, one is inclined to think so; although the question remains of what real curvature of experience these experiences come to fill. (Whitley Strieber's Communion is perfectly willing to admit that memories of abduction may be false, "screen" memories etc. - but then argues that this only goes to show that something too traumatic to imagine directly must have occurred, so that the spiritual kernel of the abduction experience is attested to precisely by the improbable, unreliable, oneiric or fantasmatic quality of the experiences one remembers).

There is plenty of anecdotage about in blogland; diary fragments, observations, interrogations of bits of experience. Sometimes these support or flesh out an argument, sometimes they stand by themselves. I think that "argument from experience" is a very particular use of experience in argument; specifically, the use of experience in place of some other authority, a totemisation of experience which inevitably brings its libidinal content to the fore (and paradoxically strips it of the very referential integrity one was hoping to rely on). I also think that Daniel's being extremely churlish in characterising his opponent's argument in this way; but that's quite another matter...


More simply: an argument from experience is an argument from authority, in which experience is treated as authoritative. Not every argument is an argument from authority, however, and an argument that is not an argument from authority may reasonably present anecdotal evidence (ideally alongside other supporting matter). There are plenty of arguments worth having in which anecdotal evidence is the kind that lies closest to hand - I could tell you about an argument I was having the other day for example...

The psychoanalytic twist - experience in the place of authority undermines its own authoritativeness, because it becomes libidinally over-invested and exposes its fantasmatic contexture - isn't needed to diagnose the fallacy of argument from authority, but provides an interesting account of the particular misfortunes to which arguments from experience-as-authority are prone.


I wonder if the emphasis on "experience in itself" comes to prominence just as the very idea of 'experience' is slipping away? I mean, if the emphasis is always on the new (without any relation to the past-like a gambler) or rupture or 'the shock of the new', then is there really any such thing as experience when this depends on continuity, on an inheritance? And is 'authentic experience' a substitue for authority, Tradition?

Perhaps there is only the accumulation/collection of fragmented 'happenings'? Is this why (in Wings of Desire) Homer says there are no more storytellers? i.e is there *communicable* experience any more?

I like what Hannah Arendt says in Between Past and Future here. And for experience (or a collective, to take up your previous thread) don't we need a place, a common outlook (as St. Exupery would say), a shared world? Can the experience of a Western academic who talks about Lacan, say, be an expression of solidarity with workers struggling in a developing country? Just asking the question (in the same way that Raymond Williams talks about the tension between particularism and universalism)

Plenty Coups, in J. Lear's book, 'Radical Hope', says after entering the Reservations "nothing happened". One wonders if this is true *out* of the reservations as well! What strikes me as peculiar that in an age that sets great store in 'having' experiences there is so much boredom


I think it's worth considering whether we in fact don't need to share a world to have a relation of solidarity--Zizek (and I think he gets the point from Badiou) says that capitalism doesn't create or open up worlds; it is simply a blunt or brute force, a fact (he'll say the Real). I don't think solidarity requires that I know or experience others worlds. I'm reminded of an old feminist slogan, "If the supreme court justices were all women, abortion would be a sacrament." Among the reasons I disagree with this claim is the presumption that men have to experience pregnancy or the fear of pregnancy to understand the importance of a right to abortion. This assumes the meanings of pregnancy or fear of pregnancy constitute a commonality or shared experience among women that grounds the meaning of abortion.

Dominic--I understand Daniel's entire point to be about the role of an argument from experience in politics. Not experience with regard to restaurant guides or running or literature. And, the contexts to which I referred were also political contexts where the argument from experience was used to authorize a political position. So, I wonder, am I missing your point?


"I think DM's emphasis on the particularity of fantasies, however, is misplaced. Fantasies fill in and sustain gaps in the ideological edifice; they tell people how to desire..."

What is fantasy? And what is the difference between a collective fantasy, and a merely private one. This, certainly, is a complex and profound issue, and I am not sure if I am able to provide a rigorous treatment of it here. What I will say, though, is that Todd McGowan has written a truly brilliant book about David Lynch and Lacan, and his own theory in that book runs more or less as follows.

For McGowan, there is something like an ethics of fantasy, consistent with a total commitment, based on nothing, to a fantasmatic project that aims at the heart of the Big Other, and so risks total humiliation.

McGowan's own exemplar of this ethics is the character of Alvin Straight from the Straight Story, and his key criteria is that such a fantasy is not encumbered by any kind of envy of resentment.

As McGowan understands it, one can identify a fantasy that does not go to the end - and so, perhaps, according to the criteria being suggested here, remains merely private - either by the fact that it displays an envy of the other, or by the fact that it seeks to ground itself on some kind of an external term, such as experience.

In other words, a fantasy grounded on resentment, which needs to adduce an existent, enjoying Big Other in order to compose itself, and an experiential basis, in order to justify itself, might be considered a private fantasy, as opposed to a collective one.

This is not to say, of course, that the material of fantasy, the stuff from which it is built, is not abroad in the world. Rather, the point being made here is to do with individuation, and the nursing of secret truths, which may well then be subsequently universalized, according to an essentially narcissistic operation.

khalid mir

Of course, someone sitting in an ivory tower (Bush, say) can understand (in principle) the right of people to a freedom from violence and chaos. The point is, I think, not whther he *can* but to what *extent* he can understand without that experience of ground reality.
(I think some Christians might say unless one has 'suffered' an idea it remains something in the mind)

In that sense capitalism or globalisation connects people but it connects at a superficial level-as in a spectacle.

I would suggest that this holds for the left as well to some extent: what is meant by solidarity for people whose lives and problems are rooted in very specific contexts, in a life that is very different from our own? (an abstract mathematical model of child labour by an economist, say, can only go so far in understanding the phenomenon).

Hasn't there always been a major problem in the western political tradition: liberty and equality..fine. But a strange silence when it comes to fraternity (or at least an understanding of the tension between it and liberty, between individuality and the community..can we still think of a community that is not a collection of individuals, of "we" not in terms of number?).

What solidarity, what obligations do we have to people who are not like 'us'? And are they derived, ultimately, from the rights of the 'bare forked animal'?

Dominic Fox

I think you are indeed missing my point. An argument about politics may perfectly reasonably take in questions of habitus and comportment, what it used to be fashionable to call "daily life", and in doing so will be drawn willy-nilly into the domain of experience.

It is dangerous to try to base an argument on a supposed authority drawn from this domain, because structurally it can't support it. But it also leads to absurdities of every kind if one tries to eliminate experience from the field of enquiry, to dismiss it as a theatre of libidinal shadows.

My argument is that experience suffers from a catastrophic breakdown in referential integrity under certain conditions, namely when it is "totemised", forced into the position of a source of argumentative authority. This happens because the structure of authority - issuing univocally from a single self-identical point - and the structure of experience - phenomenologically overdetermined, haunted by the real - are incompatible. What tends to be foregrounded in this case is the most traumatic, and hence the most fantastically warped, experiences. But not every experience is experienced as deeply traumatic, and not every way of referring to experience in argument entails this totemisation, this forcing into univocity.

If one can't even begin to give an account of how economic oppression plays out affectively, then one is left with an oppression that is never genuinely experienced by anyone, anywhere, as oppressive...



Thank you for taking the time to explain the point again. I find your claims that not every experience is traumatic and not every reference to experience a forcing into univocity persuasive. Perhaps, then, we can say it like this, experiences are not and cannot be authoritative in political argument, although they certainly might be interesting and provide some insight into matters at hand.

It does not seem to me, though, that you last sentence says what I just said above. And, I think this because I don't think the conclusion you provide follows--not giving an account of the affective dimensions of oppressive in no ways means that one is left with an oppression never genuinely experienced by anyone. Their experiences are surely separate from and independent of 'one's' account of them.

Dominic Fox

Sorry, pronunciation difficulties - the "qua theoretical object" is silent...

Jennifer Cascadia

On the other hand, the argument against experience traps the individual in a narrow space supposedly configured of his or her solipsism. She cried out, "Rape! Please help!" -- but not an answer came, for it was presupposed that her rapist was actually her own mind, wanting to experience some form of being dominated. Beyond that, it was also presupposed, lay nothing but an anti-material void.

gonzalo portocarrero


I found that -at the end- your problematization of experience implies a return to structuralism. The idea of history being a process without subject and the devaluation of what is personal as far as it is considered irrelevant, a mere consequence without effects. All what seems individual is social. These ideas have been explored to their end: objetive laws without contingency rule reality and, therefore, the consequence of this postulate is, the invisibilization of human agency.

Kenneth Rufo

"This is what happened to Heidegger..."

Sigh. I've fought with Daniel too often, so I'll just find it sufficient to say that this sort of interjection scars an otherwise interesting post.

Aside from that, I think the Derridean in me is curious as to how any argument isn't already an argument from fantasy, and thus subsequently also an argument from experience (fantasy constitutes experience as surely as experience constitutes the possibility of fantasy, even if the experience is, for all intents and purposes, telematic or futorial). This is not an objection to anything, mind you, though I am hoping to understand how it is possible to understand economic oppression affectively without it being shot through with fantasy for reasons analogical, if not consubstantial, with the arguments from (the authority of) experience. Ideologikritik seems just as whimsical to me.


"This is what happened to Heidegger..."

Alright, I'll withdraw that one.


[Though, did it definitely not happen?]

Kenneth Rufo

Definitely is pretty loaded, so I'll say, no, we can't say that it definitely did not happen.

But I think claims of racialization on Heidegger's part are problematic precisely because they are too reductive, and far too easy. But more pressing, I think it's somewhat misleading to treat Heidegger as if his project amounts to just a really protracted argument from experience that otherwise disavows its fantastic roots. His particular version of phenomenological inquiry, even in the early, pre-national socialist Heidegger, can hardly be reduced to this characterization. And the arguments that are most explicitly pro-fascist (in the Rectorship Address) are actually far more world-historical than they are experiential, even in a loose understanding of the term.

But again, this is a side issue, and probably an incidental one at that. I am curious about this idea of experience being non-authoritative because of the fantasy that comprises it, though, if only because I wonder how an ethics of fantasy, to use the example you provide from McGowan isn't likewise "contaminated" by the siren of experience... Capitalism certainly seems, to me at least, a fantasy constructed from the mythos of experience, hence the difficulties posed by confronting or describing it in its affective dimension.


I agree with you that it would be ridiculous and stupid to dismiss Heidegger's entire project on an experiential basis.

My much more minor claim is that I think with his Nazi engagement he did proceed by ontologizing certain experiential things. "Being speaks German," he memorably claimed at one point, and I think this is the danger of ontologizing experiential relations.

In any case, I confess that originally, the line ran "This is what happened to John Locke" but I backed away from that for reasons I can't quite decipher. Let me say, I am not at all certain that I am correct about Heidegger on this point, and I renounce whatever certainty I that maintained in the past.

As for McGowan, I'll be returning to him later in the week.

Kenneth Rufo

I'll wait for it eagerly. With the "Being speaks German," strangely enough, it's precisely not the experience of speaking German that Heidegger is after - indeed, the experience is something that has too often hidden the ontological connection that links German to Greek, which is Heidegger's really privileged tongue (though of course only retrospectively, as the Greeks didn't know how good they had it).


Gonazlo--there's nothing in what I say that implies that objective laws without contingency rule. I accept the notion that subject names the hole/lack in the structure. But subject is not a name for agency. I think that human actions, efforts, words, accounts, arguments, have effects, effects that are often unanticipated.

Jennifer Cascadia

So given that fantasy and reality are not ours to separate apart, how do we get beyond their knotty embrace into a realm of clarity and justice? Surely clarity and justice will not reside with those arbiters of power (such as judges) who project their own fantasies of female masochism on to the experiences of women? For if fantasy and reality cannot be separated, then at no point can they be separated.


Jennifer--I'm not sure if you are addressing me, someone else, the general discussion, something else entirely. My own view is that 'reality' is held together via fantasy. Trying to 'traverse the fantasy' is a goal of Lacanian psychoanalysis. I am interested in what that might mean politically, collectively.

Jennifer Cascadia

HI Jodi

I see what you are trying to do, now. I still don't fully understand your position, or how it is possible to do what you are trying to do. For instance, I don't see how you can have contingency AND make it relevant in what is essentially an Idealist system. Can you explain?


Idealist? I'd say that my view is materialist. Perhaps there is an archive difference? Most of what I talk about here draws from Zizek. So, very, very roughly, there are material processes (let's call them production and reproduction) that include people and that include people's understanding of, reactions to, interventions in, uses and misuses of, the material processes. People are complicated, split by their situation in language, their drives and desires, the unfathomability of other people. People try to make sense of all this, but their efforts fail, are inconsistent, because the whole situation is inconsistent. People then try even harder, and fantasies help them do this (even as these same fantasies create new sets of problems).

Jennifer Cascadia

Ah, it could be 'materialist' but it is a top-down interpretation of material reality, therefore Idealist in my estimation. I think a true materialism would be built from the bottom up -- in other words from the material (largely consisting of the memories we have, relating to the experiential aspects of life) up to the Ideal -- in other words, inductively. But my inductive notions do not need to be completed by or made up of fantasy. I can detect patterns of similarity between experiences (mine and those of other people) quite empirically.


So, you think of memories as material but only when they relate to experiential aspects of life. But at the level of memory, how do we know what is what? How do I know that my memory of a man holding a puppy was mistaken and that he was really holding a package if the former is what I remember? (There are really interesting experiments on memory by a scientist whose name I forget but I think her first name is Elizabeth and she is based in California). Anyway, I think memory is unclear, foggy, volatile, and held together by fantasy. What we remember changes over time. The patterns we might detect change over time, in connection with our biases and fears.

Overall, I don't find it convincing to think of materialism in terms of memory rather than, say, physical stuff, the production of physical stuff, the relations of production of physical stuff, the changes in production to virtual stuff, the physical infrastructure of the virtual stuff....

Jennifer Cascadia

Well, I'm not sure why you are insisting on absolute objectivity at the level of memory, when you relinquish any possible claim to objectivity at all other levels (since fantasy and reality are mingled) -- except perhaps at the level of a claim to authority (Lacanian psychology) which can supposedly unravel truth from fiction.

To my mind, a person's memory is may or may not be faulty (although -- in terms of what that isn't?), but this is nonetheless a material representation of who they are at a particular point in time. So, in a profound sense, to devalue a person's memory (as representing who they are) is to devalue their personhood. Is this personhood right or wrong? Is it true or untrue? These are matters not for Lacan's theory to decide, but for a deity to decide (in other words, for something of someone way beyond the situation of having one's reality implicated in fantasy).

Memory may be volatile, but that is no excuse for going for a top-down mechanism of appeal to authority.


Jennifer--your remarks seem way out in left field. I'm not insisting on objectivity in memory at all--my point is the opposite. I think we may be using the words material differently--you say 'material representation' in a way which seems to mean important representation. Also, I wouldn't use a category like personhood or true personhood. I don't even see where you are getting an appeal to authority here. I referenced some of my archive to see if we had a conceptual overlap that would enable productive conversation. I am increasingly having my doubts in this regard.


hi Jodi,
I don't know how to say this without feeling disrespectful, but this strikes me as a reductio ad absurdum argument against the political use of psychoanalytic categories. Any meaningful political change I can think of historically involved people making arguments from their experiences as part of formulating proposals for action and organization. I can't imagine anything like those changes happening without arguments from experience. Of course, arguments from experience are always contestable etc, but that's another matter.
Also, doesn't psychoanalysis originate in Freud's experiences of clinical practice? Which is to say, how does "all experiences are fantasies" (or "all arguments from experience are arguments from fantasy") really differ from an argument from experience?

Also, if the claim is literally that all arguments from experience (rather than all political arguments from experience) then that too strikes me as absurd, or as evacuating the content from some important terms (a night in which all cows are grey, so to speak). If all arguments from experience are really arguments from fantasy and all fantasies are defined as "produced in order to comprehend a traumatic experience" then that means all argument from experience involves a constitutive trauma. That may be so if one buys into psychoanalysis as a worldview, but if we take a very banal example then this seems like it adds a lot of unnecessary material. For instance, last time I was in Chicago the bus fare had gone up. You say "bus fare in Chicago is $1.75." I say "no, it's $2." We then argue about our experiences. There's no trauma there.

Lastly, the history of US feminism you recount isn't actually evidence against experience-talk. It's evidence that experience talk in a given historical context was part of negative results. Italian feminism in the 70s involved experience talk and consciousness raising groups, but didn't have the same outcomes - it produced a body of thought about the economy and a host of collective actions and practices around economic power, sexual violence, public funding for various things, abortion law and abortion practice, etc. I believe the same is also true for Germany.

Bad arguments from experience (either logically bad or politically bad) are not an argument against the use of arguments from experience.

take care,


Nate you write:

You say "bus fare in Chicago is $1.75." I say "no, it's $2." We then argue about our experiences.

This is not an example of an argument from experience used to ground a political position--it's an example of people comparing prices. I am arguing against grounding political claims in experience--experience by itself doesn't tell us very much; it requires something external to it, a politicization or universalization.

Consider the following experiential claim: my partner wants to have sex every night. This testimony to experience has no political valence. Responses might be: lucky you!! or, who does she want to have sex with? or, bastard, doesn't he know how tired you are?

The Italian feminists do not rest their claims in or on experience. Experience is an element, but not a foundational one.

Anthony Paul Smith

It's certainly a very narrow understanding of experience if you want to say that universal "stuff" isn't experienced.

cynic librarian

It all depends on what you mean by experience doesn't it? Some experiences are pretty universal--suffering, for example. It's tapping into these universal experiences that can bring people to see their common humanity.

The point that Jodi makes is valid I think, up to a point. What differentiates is just as important as what's common, though. Those who've been bereft of their histories and personal identities demand that they be recognized for who they are. This is a valid and compelling request from a moral persepctive. If we try to deprive them of it, then why should we expect anyone to accept anything above and beyond the individual?

This notion of making the message personal while universalizing it is something that religion does exceptionally well, I think. It appeals to personal experience, validates it, but then calls on the individual to go beyond that personal experience to something larger and more comprehensive.

Simone Weil--as in many other things--understood the need that humans have for self-identity and some form of recognition of the ways that culture and tradition provide these. For her, the way to bring people together out of those traditions is to recognize the nothingness of individual existence, the universality of pain and suffering and the solidarity that all have, no matter their traditions.

Matustik has tried a form of rapprochment between Derrida, Habermas and Foucault on exactly these issues. Recognizing that Derrida might in fact be serious in calling for a new International, he appeals to this very humanity of suffering that Derrida speaks of. That affront to human justice appeals across all traditions and cultures.

Matustik has called for an emphasis on existential revolution. That is, there can be no true and lasting revolution until the individual has an assured place in any democratic framework. Appealing to Kierkegaard's exmpahsis on existential communication, he suggests that individual transformation is requisite for any just democracy.

What is crucial here is to see that until we come to know our own nothingness--perhaps to confront the Big Other, as I understand it--there can be no basis for the type of solidarity that people can see beyond the constraints of their traditions, from within those traditions.

The Apostle Paul talks about weakness being strength. I think that it's through recognizing our fallibilities and frailties that we come to see the neighbor as ourselves. And then, of course, there's always that Other that evangelicals love to forget when they talk about neighbor love--the Other we love to hate, the enemy.

Zizek apparently has talked about loving the neighbor MORE than ourselves, trying to do Christ one better, I bet. Does this loving also include loving the enemy more than you love yourself?


APS--What makes the universal universal is not experience (then it would be empirical and limited). Again, my point regards what grounds a political claim. And, I reject the idea that testimony to personal experience grounds or gives rise to a politics on its own. It requires supplement, politicization.

I'm surprised that there is so much opposition to this. Part of me wonders if the opposition is making a different point or arguing against something I'm not saying.

To my mind, to say that suffering is universal is empty. It doesn't say anything at all. It doesn't lead to any kind of politics--or even an ethics. Why should we respond to suffering? Or what sort of suffering? Those questions are not the ones that testimony answers.

The mistake of identity politics in the US is to privilege testimony to personal experience, underplaying the necessity of politicizing this experience (presuming that testimony is political by itself) and hiding the claims to power and normativity on which it rests. Thus, the only experience that 'counts' in identity politics is the experience of oppression or suffering. Experiences of power and privilege make one immediately an oppressor (unless they become dialectically some kind of story of one's own delusion or victimization). So, there is a twist, only some experiences are worthy of inclusion, but considering the measure of worth, why it is the case and under what circumstances, is excluded in advance.

Anthony Paul Smith

My issue is how Kantian this is. If you want to cut out experience from politics (and if you mean 'how I feel', well, that's not experience as such) then you have no politics. You seem to be saying that universal politics is somehow "out there" and we assent to it by pure... what? You can't say reason, because reason is embodied and thus experienced. You can't say action for the same reason. So how do you get to the universal without experience? Obviously the universal is dependent on experience, regardless of how limited you think that then makes the universal. Theology shows us that, fine, you want a radically transcendent "thing" (so in this case universal politics), well you have to have a mediator.

On this point I kind of understand Laclau's jib that Zizek is waiting for Martians.

Anthony Paul Smith

"To my mind, to say that suffering is universal is empty. It doesn't say anything at all. It doesn't lead to any kind of politics--or even an ethics. Why should we respond to suffering? Or what sort of suffering? Those questions are not the ones that testimony answers."

Perhaps that's because all universals are by necessity empty in a political sense.


I'm not saying it's out there--I'm saying that politicization is making a particular appear as more than what it is, as standing for something else beyond it.

Your notion of experience seems strangely broad to me. Knowing a geometrical proof in your version is experience. Also, it seems as if there is no difference between how I grow up and my reading about how someone else grows up, both are my experience. If experience is this broad, then it actually can't be used to ground anything because there is nothing but experience, even my reflection on experience is experience.

I don't find such a broad notion useful. Nor do I find that it shed any light on identity politics, a critique of identity politics, or politicization. Perhaps it's helpful or interesting for people who want to talk about theology or immanence, but I think it's like trying to say something with a blob.

Anthony Paul Smith

I'm sensing you are a bit testy about this so maybe I should leave you? But then the rudeness kind of makes me not want to...

I will say that the original post was about arguments from experience and it seems pretty obvious that all arguments come from experience. Because experience is a broad concept. If you mean personal experience or existential testimony then let's be specific.

That your statement that a broad example of experience can't ground even experience is mainly predicated on lacking to see that there is a difference between my experience of my life and the experience of reading of another's life. In part the desire by Zizekians to critique identity politics to death seems a bit pathological. By all means go about it if you want, from what the Presidential candidates are saying it seems they're listening. But any attempt to explain 'making a particular appear as more than what it is, as standing for something else beyond it' without experience seems doomed to the realm of pure reason. It may be interesting for those who want to talk about political theory or Zizek, but I think it's like trying to say something with LSD.



Thanks for clarifying. Certainly experience has to be interpreted. For instance, "I was in Iraq therefore you should support/oppose the war" is clearly a bad argument. I think you're being more generous to the DM quote than I was, I didn't read it as a claim that claims to experience have little use in founding political claims, I read it as a claim about all claims to experience.

I'm not sure I know what you mean by an experience having a political valence. Let's say you present a nonexperiential argument to support the proposition "it is the historic mission of the working class to abolish capitalism and you should take part," and let's say your argument is wholly sound as an argument. The responses to that utterance might vary just as widely as the responses to utterance of your experience claim about the sexual appetite of your partner. People might say "indeed comrade, sign me up!" or "I guess so, but I'm not interested" or "nice presentation on the legacy of 19th century german radical ideas, now let's hear the paper on early modern French poetry." The response to the argument isn't the index to the argument's political valence. Or rather, the response/result to the argument in one context does not mean that the argument will have that response/result in all contexts (ie, in some case arguments from experience may well be bad, but your claim is that they're bad in all cases -- your post title is "against experience", not "against experience in our conjuncture" or "against experience sometimes").

I should note that I'm not actually clear what you and DM mean by "argument from experience." I also don't know what you mean by "foundational element" (such that experience is not a foundational element to political projects, this last particularly confuses me because as I understand those terms experiences - and the deliberate sharing of them via performative recounting ie "people telling their stories" - has been crucial to the formation to many collectivities which were political actors) but I do agree with you that focus on experience a la consciousness raising groups of a certain era _can_ have negative results. That seems clear from history. What I don't agree with and what I think you fail to establish is that this focus must have those results or that it's highly unlikely to have any other results.

As for your objection that "only some experiences are worthy of inclusion" to some who are for the political use of experiences, why is that a problem? And that's no objection to arguments from experience. One can say "I only accept arguments from experience that use certain kinds of experience" without undermining any and all use of argument from experience.

As for your objection to Anthony, I think I have a sense of experience that you would also object to. I'll say I don't have a clear concept of 'experience' and so on. It'd help if you said more of what you mean by the term. As I use the term, yes, it is the case that
"how I grow up and my reading about how someone else grows up, both are my experience" just as "even my reflection on experience is experience." That doesn't at all mean that there is no difference between those. Saying "these are all experience" does not mean they're all the same. No more than saying my father and your father and APS's father are all fathers entails that there is no difference between our respective father or saying that apples and communists and blood are all red means that those things are all the same.

One can have different experiences and still call them all 'experience'. The type of argument that I think you're objecting to is not an argument from the category of experience, it's an argument from some specific experience(s) -- the name might better be "arguments from experience-of" then.

take care,


APS--I guess we are at a deadlock because I don't think all arguments come from experience (like a proof in geometry). Daniel's post was in response to K-Punk's account of a personal experience. Identity politics relies on testimonies to personal experience. Since that's what I've been talking about, I'm happy to qualify the term as "personal experience." Also, I'll add that my first book, written from a Habermasian standpoint, was a critique of identity politics. It has nothing to do with Zizek, who usually criticizes multiculturalism rather than identity politics per se.

Nate, as I said to Anthony, what I've been talking about is personal experience and the use of testimonies to experience (wherein testimony refers us to the fact that the speaker is speaking from her personal experience, perhaps as a victim, eye witness, participant) to ground political claims.

I don't get your point about fathers--there doesn't seem to be anything about experience in referring to a social role or symbolic identity.

My claim regarding differences in experience is that this poses a problem for advocates of identity politics who ground their politics in their experiences. They will necessarily have problems building solidarities with people whose experiences have been as oppressors as privileged. Conversely, it becomes difficult to account for ways that, for example, people's economic position or position in production (or race--Clarence Thomas--or sex--Ann Coulter--or sexual orientation--J. Edgar Hoover) may not correlate with their politics.

On political valence--my point is that an testimony to experience is by itself politically meaningless.


hi Jodi,
I still don't think I get it. My point about fathers wasn't about fathers. You had objected to Anthony, noting that his use of the word experience implied that your growing up, your reading a book about someone else growing up, and your reflection on experience all count as experiences. You said that this meant that Anthony's use of the word experience implied that these three things were all the same. I don't think that's the case. My example with fathers was intended to say that "X, Y, and Z are all experiences" does not mean that X, Y, and Z are identical, no more than "X, Y, and Z are all fathers" means that X, Y and Z are identical.

I take your point about identity politics and problems building solidarity with oppressors, though I'm not sure I follow you. I don't get why one would want to build solidarity with an oppressor (such that I don't get why this is a problem), but leaving that aside I'm not convinced that uses of experiences will find this problem insuperable. Perhaps the oppressor(s) and the other people have other, common experiences which are used to get around the opposition. (Like in appeals to class collaboration via nationalism, the white capitalist might claim a common experience of whiteness shared with the white worker, say.) Also, this same problem of solidarity building could recur with arguments which don't rely on experience, like arguments against class collaboration, say. So I don't see the problem here as experience vs non-experience based arguments.

I agree with you that testimony to experience by itself is politically meaningless. So, it is not the case that "I fought in the Iraq war" or "I was put in prison for 5 years and tortured by the junta" or any other testimony has a political meaning in every single context. Nor is it the case that the political meaning in any context is automatically given by the testimony. But this isn't unique to testimonies. Political slogans (like the old CP "black and white unite and fight!" or the bolshevik "all power to the soviets!") are also meaningless by themselves. And their meaning in use, their political meaning, isn't guaranteed by the slogan (the history of radical movements is littered with wreckage caused at least in part by leaders in those movements using the movements' vocabulary for ends ultimately detrimental to the success of those movements).

That is, political meaning is always contextual. I agree entirely that in some contexts arguments from experience, testimony, etc are problematic/reactionary/etc. The argument I took you to be making and DM to be making, though, was a stronger one. I took you and DM to be making a claim about these kinds of arguments in all possible contexts, that arguments from experience much always be some way and have some result. That's what I'm objecting to. In the context of post-dictatorship and neoliberal Argentina, for example, testimony by survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the dictatorship, and testimony by children and other relatives of the disappeared, was tremendously important politically. It didn't have the effects you dislike so much about identity politics in the US. It was a major leg in recomposing the left in the 90s. (At least according to what I've read about this.) One big part of all that was the group HIJOS. In the 90s they started the protest tactic called the escrache which was generalized in the uprisings in late 2001 and afterward. HIJOS is a group for people whose parents were disappeared, that identity is a big part of their group, and the group started from what I believe were explicity therapeuticly aimed gatherings, which turned into something more analogous to 'consciousness raising groups' from US feminism, then became more confrontational (but retained the experience etc stuff that you object to).

That strikes me as one context in which the thing I think you're talking about didn't have the effects you said it will always have.

take care,

cynic librarian

I understand the philosophical nicety you make about the particular and the universal. Logically it makes sense to say that we need to turn particulars from what they are in all their contingency into a symbol of something more. But they are understandable as they are, in all their context, no?

That drive to deprive them of their very particular circumstances is in the nature of language, perhaps, but it is that urge to turn the particular into a universal that turns, for example, a human being into collateral damage.

This drive to universalize things. For what, to make them understandabile? No, for they are that in their contingency. Isn't this very drive to abstraction the questionable activity that Wittgenstein talks about when he suggests that we want to make all things fit a certain picture of the world? Isn't it this urge that Derrida and others find suspicious and open to manipulation by other desires than philosophical or religious motives? I think there's a question of will here and nothing that is logically necessary.

If it is this need to universalize that is required by "politicization," I question that assumption.


Cl--I don't think that particulars in their contingency are understandable. We've been talking about testimony to personal experience. So, understandable to whom? If it is to the one testifying, their is an assumption of full knowingness or transparency; if to the other, there is an assumption of some kind of complete communication. My point does not involve turning the particular into a universal but letting the universal appear within the particular, seeing the particular as itself split and rutpured, as more than itself. It still is particular, but there is a supplement. So, to my mind, the notion of a drive to abstraction isn't applicable here. In fact, I'm reminded of Nietzche's essay "On Truth and a Lie in an Extramoral Sense" which suggests that common nouns are somehow instances of violence. I don't think it's sensible to let common nouns incite a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Nate--oh, I get your point re fathers, thanks for explaining it. It doesn't refute my argument, though, that experience by itself can't justify anything but requires a supplement. Nor does it refute the point that broadening everything to fit under the concept of experience is analytically and politically crude and unhelpful. So, historians don't generally write from experience--they assemble texts, some which might be testimonies, some which are other sorts of documents or material traces. And, they bring these together in an analysis, perhaps a narrative. To say that they are writing from experience over extends the category of experience and doesn't tell us about what historians do.

On oppressors: I have in mind something like black and white women trying to work together in the women's movement or gays and straights working together for the rights of sexual minorities. If our politics were based strictly in our experience, this kind of alliance becomes increasingly impossible. Are there other political problems? Sure--but this is the one I've been talking about. For better or worse, there are volumes and volumes of debates on this point and issue in feminist and race politics/political theory. It comes out of a specific feminist appropriation of Marxism: standpoint theory. And, it leads to a theoretical mess: if to speak as a woman means to speak from one's position as a mother, as someone who can be raped, etc, then people who identify as women are excluded. Their experiences don't fit into the category/standpoint; so, more and more particular categories/standpoint become necessary. But, then, we are left with a politics devoted to including standpoints without actually doing anything with them.

I mention in my original post that experiences can be powerfully invoked as tactics in political struggle. That seems to cover your example, particularly given the politicization and aggregation of the testimonies. I would add that in instances of Truth commissions, there is a setting and a formula, a structure, for testimonies that plays a powerful supplementary role.


hi Jodi,
I think maybe we're talking past each other, or I'm just misunderstanding you, or maybe conflating what you say with what I think DM is saying. I agree completely that experience alone doesn't move anything. But I'd say the very term "argument from experience" implies a case of experience+something else (an argument). So if we were to base something on an argument from experience we'd be basing that something not on experience alone but on argument+supplement, as you call for. (Like I said, though, I'm not sure I get what you mean by 'argument from experience' and I can't check DM's post because his site seems to be down.)

I also agree with you that the category 'experience' is so broad as to do little work - certainly little political work anyway. I'd say exactly the same thing of the category of being, which is part of why I find Deleuzian/Negrian/whomever talk of ontology in relation to politics uncompelling. But an argument from experience (or some invocation of experience) isn't an argument from the concept or category of experience. It's an argument from (invocation of) some particular experience. Just like many arguments involving an existential quantifier in logical notation, or many arguments involving conjugations of the verb 'to be' are not arguments from or about the category of being, but rather are arguments about specific beings.

I think it's arguable that one doesn't have experiences of experience, that is, one doesn't have an experience of experience with no qualities other than it being experience. One only has experiences of things which are not experience - like an experience of a fistfight or a love affair or an artwork or whatever. Put differently, one doesn't have Experience, one has experiences. (Just as one doesn't encounter being sans all qualities except for the qualities of being qua being, one only encounter beings).

We might say then that in this regard experience is always experience-of. An 'argument from experience' which was not an argument from experience-of would not be something about which one could say 'in my experience...'. That's another way to say this, it seems like the arguments you're talking about are always qualified by a possessive - my experience, your experience, our experience, her experience, etc.

Sorry, I'm meandering. What I mean to say here is that the expansive definition of 'experience' that you point to in APS (which I agree him about) doesn't seem to me to be grounds for an objection in terms of politics. Anything which is 'an experience' is contained in the larger category 'experience'. Arguments from experience draw on cases of the former, not on the latter. I feel like this is very unclear, but I can't do better right now. Sorry.

Right after I made my comment I thought you probably meant something about race and/in feminism. My first impulses are kind of economic reductionist so I didn't think of that at first. I'm sympathetic to you here.

take care,


Well, Nate, I'm glad your sympathetic to my point here. I appreciate your effort to explain, and to move the discussion along. I had a hard time getting at what you were saying, though.

An argument from experience is one wherein a person justifies her claim or position on the basis of a particular experience that she has had. Sometimes, this testiomny is offered as a truth claim--we see a great deal of feminist discussion on this point in the context of rape: because women have not been believed when they claim to have been raped, some feminists (Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon come to mind) claim "if it happened to a woman it happened." The idea is that a woman's words should always be believed; they provide direct access to truth. This truth, then, can ground a politics, a struggle against rapists. But, among the various other things that are missing here--structure of language, structure of testimony, structure of meaning, conditions of all of these, and more--is the political claim as to why there should be struggle against rapists. So, an argument from experience is one that takes a specific experience as a ground for politics.

That this view has been pervasive in identity politics is clear when we recall the ways that political arguments devolve into claims that one's experience hasn't been included, that one's experience isn't represented in a platform or practice, when we recall the way that someone can derail a discussion by saying, 'well, that's not my experience,' and then turn everything into some kind of discussion about that.

This is not the same as gathering testimony to be used tactically in an engaged struggle. But, I think it is a risk that accompanies such a tactic.

I agree with you on the ontology front--the only instance where I start to feel like there is a point there is when I think about the distinction between human and animal. But, then I wonder whether the politically important part actually comes after a distinction or is erasure rather than following from or being implicated within it.


hi Jodi,

I think I get it now. I think I'm more on board now, but I'm not totally sure. I wonder if part of the issue is that in some situations there's a presumed argument in the background which isn't asserted. Like in Dworkin/MacKinnon circles (and many others), it's presumed that there should be a political struggle against rapists, just as it's presumed in certain marxist circles that exploitation is objectionable (such that the claim X is exploitive is analogus to the claim Y is a rapist). In that case, an experience utterance isn't just experience but draws upon the unstated local norms/agreed on views.

I think I'd say (though I'm not sure how I'd go about actually defending the claim) that experiences are very likely always shaped by a host of factors including political views, moral views and intuitions, unconscious things like internalized racism etc, etc, such that the experience could be said to contain things which in one light don't appear to be experiential - that those experiences sort of contain the supplement or some of the supplement you call for, so to speak.

There are two other places where I'm having a disconnect with you here, or two other motivations behind my hesitation. One is the work of and inspired by E.P. Thompson, which could be described among other things as an attempt to preserve the experiences of workers which are often overlooked and left out of historical record, and which provide potential resources to us. The second is that I'm fond of an image of people saying something like "I hate my job, and because of my experience of this stupid job I've decided that in the short term I'm going to get together with my co-workers to make things better, and jobs themselves are unjust and should be abolished so in the long term I'm going to get together with the rest of my class to abolish those who make us have jobs." This second relates to what I was trying to say above about implicit arguments in the background. This second is _not_ something which would convince someone - someone with an MBA, say - who was like "you stupid workers ought to be exploited by your social betters", but it may be something around which likeminded others could gather in order to make plans to strip the someones with MBAs of their power.

take care,

cynic librarian

JD, Sorry for the slow response.

I am still wondering whether there's not an assumption in your argument (and perhaps my comments have not been clear on this point either) that somehow assumes that experience is raw, as in some brute facticity that precedes language. I'd argue that all experience is "linguistified" as some analytic philosophers are prone to say.

On the other hand, I do like what you say about the universal reising somehow in the particular. That's a very Kierkegaardian notion, as Sartre picked up on in his essay on Kierkegaard. For S, that notion is the preliminary to any future radical political agenda.

How that fits in to your comments seems correlative. Yet, as your other comments display, the issue of how to relate individual testimonies to a broader horizon seems to result from something like envy. That is, people begin arguing over whose story gets told and whose is more important than others. I ran into this in a seminar once, where people were outraged when they read in some Liberation Theology readings that God might have a preferential option for the poor. The outrage was obviously a bourgeois sentiment geared around some notion of fairness and equal rights or something.

from what I understand, Zizek talks about this in terms of jealousy for the other's ability to enjoy something that you don't have. While I have questions about why he doesn't just call it envy and resentment, I can understand the basic concept involved. Is this what, perhaps, you are getting at in some of your remarks?

cynic librarian


Now to the task at hand. You say that you do not htink that "particulars in their contingency are understandable." You back that up by asking who personal testimonies are understandble to. You then say that for the one who testifies, there's "an assumption of full knowingness or transparency; if to the other, there is an assumption of some kind of complete communication."

I think there are several points to be made about these assertions. First, you assume that people have a trasnparent relationship to themselves. I question that assumption; there are numerous examples from psychology.

From a different angle, though, there is indeed a difference between what analytical philosophers call first- and third-person propositions. This invovles the notion that one does not "relate" (whatever that means) to oneself in an objectual way when one asserts something about themselves. I don't refer to myself in the same way that someone does who observes me does.

On the other hand, because we are all humans and we participate in common life-forms, we can understand someone does make a first-person statement. We can understand it because we ourselves know how to make such statements and apply them in various contexts. There is no private language, however, that somehow blocks off someone else from understanding what I am saying when I tell them something about how am or feel or what I believe.

Given this distinction between first- and thrid-person statements, the criterion for determining their truth value differ. Statements of fact (of states of affair) are statements about the world, and therefore are made true or false by whether things in the world are as I say they are.

With first-person statements, however, there is no way to "verify" whether the statements are as I say they are about myself. Instead, we talk about the turthfulness of such statements, not their truth value.

This is probably a bit much now. I'll take up other elements of your response in another comment.


You misunderstand--of course I don't presume transparency; my criticism is of that presumption in arguments from experience.

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