28 December 2008

Two notes on Taoism

1. A recent translation of the Lao Tzu relies on the old scheme of “correlative cosmology” and nicely illustrates the persistence of what is apparently a lack of rigor between distinguishing Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist (meta)axiologies and cosmologies. But even if, for example, we succeed in distinguishing, e.g., the Tao of the Lao Tzu from the Confucian Tao of the I Ching appendices, the ambiguities in the term “correlative cosmology” seem to indicate less a mere problem of equivocation than a deficiency in the very structure of the problem. “Correlation” is a distinctively modern European concept—the very problematic simply does not exist for the classical Taoists; so too the notions of identity/difference, sub/object. This is evident from the very first lines of the Lao Tzu: nowhere does the Taoist need to posit that “difference is simply what there is (such that the problem is unity)” or, conversely, that “the world is my representation and idea”. The scholarly literature is abysmally lacking in this respect (with one notable exception): either we begin with a general apologetic for the incommensurability of conceptual schemes or we wax exotic about the “striking similarities” between the unified thought of the Axial Age from Greece to China. Both constitute, as opposite sides of the same coin, the fundamental obstacle for anyone trained in our philosophical institution really to read the Taoist texts and to say anything more than superficial about anything in common between Derrida and Taoism (Graham, Clarke), the “intrinsic ontology” of the Chinese language and predicate logic (Graham again), or presocratic necessity (Needham). A great step forward was taken by I.A. Richards (surprisingly!), Ames, and Cheng whose hermeneutics are especially suited toward the injunction “to seek the way” in Taoism (see the “Great Appendix” to the I Ching). But what our philosophical institution will never be able to see is the Taoist thinker is not, strictly speaking, a thinker. The Taoist sage is not the one who has knowledge of the truth but also the one who experiences (and teaches) the good—and the only Greek equivalent here is Plato.

2. The real meaning of Cioran’s question—“of what use is Taoism and Buddhism to us?”—is not historical but, rather, political. The real contradiction is between politics—especially in its educative and moral manifestations—and Taoist solitude. This is not quite the romantic lament of a Rousseau with respect to the dualism of nature and culture but, rather, a structural contradiction between the silence of Taoist practice and the ideologies of discourse in any political practice. And what Cioran has said about history is also true for politics: for us, politics is compulsory—we cannot not be interpellated by the political demands precisely of those who are unable to make such demands because they have been reduced to silence and mark their existence in only a sob, a scream, or in banality.

04 December 2008

The law of the mother (notes on MacLeod's The House of Yes)

How is it possible for psychoanalysis to speak of a “law of the mother”? Could Lacan have been right? Is such a law not the law of a prohibition but the “just barely” … Real? This is at least a hypothesis.

The experiment begins with graffiti on a bathroom wall: “We are living in a house of yes”. The location of this utterance effectively erases its initial meaning—not so much the fact that it is written in a bathroom (even though the bathroom is exemplary site of the legal “no”) but that it is a public utterance. The interpellated “we” cannot be those who live in a “house of yes”.

But what is the “house of yes”? Two tropes are juxtaposed here. On the one hand the house is not an economic site if for no other reason than that to speak of a house necessarily requires the entry of a third. In politics the third takes the form of law (public/private); in literature the third usually takes the form of a narrator or some other character (in MacLeod’s work, to which we shall turn shortly, it is of course Lesly). There is no house (i.e., the institution of the family) without the entry of the third party.*

*A brief synopsis of relevant features of the play: Marty arrives home on Thanksgiving, eagerly awaited by his mother (Mrs. Pascal), twin sister (Jackie), and younger brother (Anthony). To the family's surprise, he brings his fiancee Lesly, who threatens the health of the family and, in particular, Jackie who has always wanted her brother for herself. Jackie had recently been released from a mental hospital and Anthony has dropped out of Princeton to be with the family. Mr. Pascal so no longer with the family, we are told, either because he left them on the day of the Kennedy assassination or because he was shot by Jackie (which is presumably the reason she was institutionalized). After the assassination, Jackie and Marty had made a game of re-enacting the Kennedy assassination (hence Jackie prefers to be called Jackie O) as a sort of foreplay to their relationship. To get rid of Lesly, Jackie convinces Anthony to seduce her, but the only way he is able to do so is to reveal the nature of Marty's past relationship with Jackie (which he himself had just discovered). Lesly sees the Kennedy re-enactment (confirming Anthony's accusations) and confronts Marty, who begs her to take him away from the family. Mrs. Pascal insists that Lesly leave, and Anthony tries to convince Lesly to take him away instead of Marty. Sending everyone out of the room, Marty confronts Jackie, but Jackie begins the re-enactment again, only with real bullets. Marty, knowing that the gun is loaded, agrees to do it "one more time".

But it is also the third party that redoubles the “yes” and, consequently, allows the “yes” to appear (“just barely”). As Anthony reveals, Lesly is the first guest ever to enter the house (Scene 2). But in this case it is Lesly who attempts to pronounce the prohibition. But why? Mrs. Pascal tells us:

“My husband. Precisely. I didn’t know he was my one great passion until he was gone. Until he was one my one great passion was the man I met that night at a party. My one great passion was any man I met that night at a party who could use a new adjective to describe me. I have no idea who my children belong to. All I know for sure is that Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb. The doctors swore to me. It’s in some medical journal somewhere.” (Scene 1)

But what is this “yes”? Although Mrs. Pascal tells Lesly that “Jackie can have everything her way. She always has” (Scene 10), she never names the forbidden relationship between the siblings, even when Lesly attempts to do so: “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. / Lesly: I’m sure you do. / Mrs. Pascal: Sure? One can never be sure” (Scene 9).

The relationship is doubly mediated by the repetition of the particular fantasy of the Kennedy assassination (it makes no difference if Mr. Pascal left the family on the day of the assassination as we are told or if he was shot by Jackie as is suggested). But the relationship remains impossible despite the repetition: Jackie (O) loads the gun and Marty allows her to pull the trigger—and in that moment what is impossible becomes possible and the Real bursts through … but just barely, not in pleasure but in blood.

This play admits no staging where the mother is permitted to weep at the final curtain. The mother imposes no authority—she does not succeed in banishing Lesly from her house, for example—nor does she strictly speaking sanction the incestuous relationship (insofar as she never names it). The mother can only stand witness (a witness, however, without testimony). It is only through this witness that the Real exists … but just barely, for the “yes” remains impossible, unspoken, except in the explosion of a gunshot.

29 October 2008

An example of an underdetermined contradiction (i.e., an absurdity)

In mid-September, the Nebraska state legislature passed a “safe haven” law. The law allows one to leave a child “in the custody of an employee on duty at a hospital licensed by the State of Nebraska”. To date, twenty-three children have been abandoned under the auspices of this law.

Apparently, the intention of the law was to provide protection for children who were either in danger of being harmed or otherwise threatened by their family environments; and was targeted more specifically to protect infants. Yet, of the twenty-three cases (including two today), eight of them have been teenagers fifteen or older (seventeen have been twelve or older). State legislatures are now rushing to amend the law to specify that it applies only to infants (the youngest child abandoned to date has been one year old; all the others were at least six).

It is astonishing that no one is talking about the absurdity of this situation. Purely aside from the ethical contradictions involved in a parent abandoning a teenager to the custody of the state, how is it the case that in the heart of one of the most conservative regions of the country people believe either that it is the province of the state to accommodate the abysmal failure of their attempts at “individual self-actualization” on the one hand or that the state is substitutable for the family? Or: keep the government out of the economy, education, and health care, but bring it into the family. (Perhaps, however, we should not be surprised, since it is also these very people who invite the government into their bodies and their marriages.)

28 October 2008

The time of thought (reprise)

A scientist once complained to me that “the purpose of teaching philosophy is only to reproduce the discipline”. Except perhaps this is precisely the point.

Assumed, of course, in that statement is the implication that philosophy does not “progress”—we still read Aristotle after a couple millennia, whereas a discipline such a science doesn’t bother with such charming antiquarianism. Instead of re-hashing all the old arguments about how to define “progress”, there is perhaps an easier answer: the task of contemporary philosophy—insofar as it is not a discipline—is the construction of meta-conceptual field.

This indicates a division in the practice of philosophy. As a discipline (or, better: as an institution), philosophy is constituted at the nexus of the various histories, material institutions, languages, and political conditions that have resulted in what is the equivalent of a literary canon or, roughly, what Foucault would call a “discourse” and Bourdieu would call a “field”. This is, essentially, the “ideological apparatus” of philosophy (I’d prefer to call it the “ideology” of philosophy except that one should not confuse these structures with any particular content of philosophy).

On the other hand, we used to say that philosophy is that discipline that is self-reflective. The trouble with this formulation—other than apparently drawing students with a predilection for “existential brooding” to philosophy departments—is that in being reflective, if it is successful, philosophy can no longer be a discipline. This practice must constitute an exception to the conceptual field.

13 October 2008

The triple task of aesthetics

1. The aesthetics of politics (Spinoza): All art is political. The task of politics is the constitution of a people "conscious of itself" as a people, which requires the imaginative act of identification by which individuals imagine themselves as actively constitutive and constituting elements of a political body--this is the task of (political) art.

2. The aesthetics of philosophy (Nietzsche): What is the proper form of the expression of thought--a thought that is not a "hermeneutics" of truth but the production of truth, i.e., a truth that is of the world--insofar as it is expressed historically--and one "out of this world" insofar as we are called to a new world? There is not only the re-presentation of truth but the presentation of truth in what has gone under various names: original ecstasy, intensity, fragmentation, suffering, non-coincidence, repetition, etc. Truth remains "beyond" representation--not as something ineffable, unsayable, or otherwise inadequately grasped by representation, but as that which remains as the irreducible remainder of representation, i.e., productively or creatively beyond representation by being nothing other than the movement of representation (a "mobile army of metaphors" or, simply, music).

3. The aesthetics of metaphysics (Leibniz): Harmony reveals intrinsic relationships between the elements of the harmonic series. But individual existence precludes the reality of relations. Resolving this contradiction will require philosophy to return to the original unity of metaphysics, cosmology, and axiology--hence not to Aristotle but to Anaximander.

07 October 2008

Things (merely) are

Klemm once suggested that the defining rhetoric of contemporary theological discourse is that of God as the “breaking-in of otherness”:

“This means that theological argumentation cannot be carried out in the form of the theistic argument for the existence of a supreme being. If what we mean by God is the ground and power of being itself, no object or being, not even a “supreme being,” can be God. Arguments can be made, however, that demonstrate how it is possible for individuals to say with certainty and not as a matter of probability that “God is.” Such arguments do not make an assertion about some being. Instead, they seek to show the possibility of an event of disclosure—namely, the breaking-in of otherness.”

This is almost exactly right, even if Klemm unfortunately does not ask the important question: what does such a rhetoric betoken?

What I have called the “closure of metaphysics”—which has often been performed by God—has always served the function of grounding intelligibility. To explain the persistence of theology by appealing to a naïve desire for intelligibility is entirely to miss the point. Yet it is also true that the rhetoric of theology tends to reify the ground of intelligibility into the ideology of a desire for a truth “from elsewhere”. In other words, the very notion of an “elsewhere” is not only a religious ideology but also a theological one.

Divinity enters to save possibility. We say that all being is contingent or, more precisely, that all beings are contingent. But as soon as we grant this seemingly innocuous thesis, even the most irreligious criticism becomes theological—for the problem of affirming the universal contingency of things (i.e., undergraduate versions of Nietzsche) is simply a re-statement of the classical theological position according to which the divine is necessary not only with respect to the contingency of things (the metaphysical aspect) but also to account for contingency—i.e., for the intelligibility of contingency.

Notice how deeply this religious presentiment has penetrated not only into philosophy and theology but into common sense. A truly irreligious criticism would not only affirm universal contingency or even acknowledge that I “should not be” (Silenus wisdom), but would instead proclaim that “I am necessary”. Of what madness or hubris would I be accuse to utter that phrase? What is the radicality necessary again to affirm Spinoza Benedictus?

Everything turns on which of the two propositions we affirm: (1) “things are”; or (2) “things merely are”. If we affirm the first (as what Desmond has recently formalized as the “idiocy of being”), we are led inevitably down the theological path and, thus, to the notion that intelligibility is the “breaking-in of otherness” that gets expressed as Ereignis, ethics, God-Beyond-Being, etc. The addition of a mere two syllables, however, in a stroke moves the entire domain of intelligibility into poetics.

This is a poetics that, instead of ethics (Lévinas), is able to bear the “evil” of the fact that “our only acquaintance with things is with their surface, not their depths. this is a being which is mere, sheer fact, the simple ‘there is’ of things” (Critchley). Yet we can go further (we do not have to be so Kantian): it is not that things “resist” us in their objectivity. We can say, more positively, that things appear and that the sense of this appearance is nothing other than the fact of their “il y a”. In other words, sense is not the result of appearance but is rather nothing other than appearance.

The task of a poetics, therefore, unlike the task of poetry, is not “to see fiction as fiction, to see the fictiveness or contingency of the world” (Crtichley again); poetics instead expresses necessity or, simply, the “that it is” without any attendant astonishment or surprise of the “fact” of existence because existence cannot be otherwise—an otherwise is always an elsewhere (possibility in the mind of God). The world really is there … but so too is otherness. This is the only way really to say that existence (more precisely, that which is) is: that the expression of the real is never itself real (Nietzsche will call this the "eternal return").

20 September 2008

The ideality of racism

(Apologies if these comments are obvious.)
If there is certainly anything that racism is not, it is the notion that racism is the identification of a subject with the body. Such identification would, if it could ever be universalized, guarantee that racism would no longer exist. A strict materialism of bodies does not reduce bodies to body (or any other variation of prime matter) but instead speaks of bodies only by their singularity. The racist who judges someone “by the color of his/her skin” is the one who precisely cannot see the body of the other, since the body of the other is not the other’s body but always the body of the Other—the exotic other, idealized other, the “not-we” (since “they all look like”); but so too the so-called liberal who condemns the racist who cannot see that “inside—beneath the skin—we’re all just people” (and, similarly, the exoticist, but those reasons have already been well-explored by Said). The liberal's mistake is to confuse the ideality of racism with the ideality of race, i.e., the notion that race is a construction.

30 July 2008

The reality of the real

How does psychoanalysis speak of the real? The ego is constituted as a phenomenon. Against an ontology that would consider relation a predicate that obtains between essences, one finds precisely the inverse: the real is not in the relata but in the relation. But there is never any access to the real precisely because relation is expressed in or as the ego and never “in-itself”. This is what phenomenology, for example, would call “presentation”. But there is no “in-itself” of the real if the real is nothing other than relation (an ontology of relation, in other words).This is not to say that the real is only a real “for-us”, which is simply another version of the essentiality of the ego or a hypostasis of both sub/object.. The ego, or what could otherwise be called (a) life, is nothing other than relation expressed as a phenomenon (expression here being a repetition); it would follow, then, that death is neither nothingness nor the “end” of an existence but, instead, the very reality of the real.

25 July 2008

Irony or comedy?

This is a banner on a university campus. What one cannot see in the picture is that the book being read by the girl is Machiavelli's The Prince.

On a related note, there is a radio ad for a professional college that begins with a young voice announcing that she is taking courses in Slavic languages, literature, and "philosophy of the animal kingdom". An announcer cuts her off to ask what kind of job she can expect to get after taking these courses. She begins to respond "well, philosopher say-" but is interrupted by the announcer who addresses the listener by saying that "the world doesn't run on theories" and that this college offers degrees in "practical" things like criminal justice and nursing.

This would not be so disturbing if this were not also precisely the ethos of our so-called liberal arts institutions as well.

The time of thought

1. The opening of Badiou’s perfunctory remarks on Meillassoux’s After Finitude cites Bergson’s often-abused remark that any philosopher only ever explicates or repeats one idea (or what Deleuze would call a “concept”). This invocation should strike us as surprising for at least two reasons: although lip-service continues to be paid to Bergson in France, Badiou’s persistent polemics against vitalism seem to put Bergson in the same camp as Lévinas, i.e., as simply the wrong direction to go, even if the end is the same. It is also Bergson, unlike his almost exact contemporary Husserl (born in the same year, Bergson outlived him by only three years), who is an obvious exception to Meillassoux’s indictment of modern philosophy as being “correlationist” (as I have always maintained, especially against mid-twentieth century interpretations, Bergson is anything but a “proto-phenomenologist”).

Yet Bergson’s place in Meillassoux’s history of modernity is neither here nor there, except perhaps to suggest that Meillassoux’s is not the only way of stating the problem. That Kant’s attempt to circumscribe the unthinkable as unthinkable within the limits of thinking led to an explicit form of fideism is well-known (cf. Pippin’s recent work), but one is left to wonder whether the choice between Kantian fideism and pre-critical dogmatism/realism is a false dichotomy. Nor is the alternative open to philosophy to poeticize on the “human condition” of existential anguish or simply to insist on the psychological uniqueness of the “man of flesh and bone” (Unamuno) over against the abstract universalism of science. Meillassoux is right to point out that the “meaning” of science is not simply its “value” to you or I and the use we make of it (so-called “applied” philosophy in the form of ethics).

The essential modern question is, of course, the so-called foundation of science (or mathematics, although these are not isomorphic formulations): “the Galilean-Copernican revolution has no other meaning than that of the paradoxical unveiling of thought’s capacity to think what there is whether thought exists or not” (Meillassoux). But there are two ways of handling this question but, while both take their cue from the Kant, they cannot be conflated. The split between the analytics and the phenomenologists occurs in the paths taken by Bolzano and Frege on the one hand and Brentano on the other. As I have suggested before, the difference is that between sense and discourse/representation. It is not so clear, at least to me, that the analytics were engaged in an effort of “the decentering of thought relative to the world within the process of knowledge”, even if there are those among them who were guilty of divorcing thought from logic and proceeding to call the former “psychology”. Nevertheless, if the danger of a rationalistic foundation for science consists in the ultimate occlusion of the absolute under the name of unthinkability, then Meillassoux is right to point out that the limit of the thinkable is not aesthetic but paradoxical. (And yet—might not the very essence of the aesthetic be the expression of paradox or, perhaps more accurately, contradiction?) One wonders, however, under what auspices Meillassoux heralds the return to the absolute—whether in the name of the certitude of science (for which scientists have no need), its veracity (against the fundamentalists), or the surrender of truth to the discourse of science such that if we are to deny that truth is to be revealed in religion, so too the only task left to philosophy is the verification of truths to which it has no primary access because there exists neither the ground nor desire for philosophical thinking once philosophy ceases to be reflective.

This is not, of course, to say that an ethical or political naïveté is a refutation. Meillassoux’s insistence on contingency and chaos falls squarely in the best tradition of the philosophy of difference and, to echo the words of Latour, one can at the least admire the courage of his political commitments, even as one might shy from its theological naïveté (viz., not every theology is a theology of being, but perhaps this particular assessment should wait for L’inexistence divine) or its barbarism.

2. Even if Meillassoux is right about the absolute, there is no legitimate sense in which this absolute constitutes a “foundation” for thought if for no other reason that there is no “progress” in philosophy. While philosophy is in some ways discursive (although it is better to say that philosophy is “historical”), philosophy is not, in toto, a discourse. If science is possible without Aristotle or Ptolemy, this is because science occurs as a (progressive) discourse. This is not merely to say that science is practiced a-historically, although it is revealing that the history of science is not itself science. Philosophy occurs for the one who understands (“understanding” in a sort of hermeneutic sense). If any two scientists can pull Snell’s Law out of the cupboard and use it, the same cannot be said of the philosophical concept. Each philosophical concept, each idea, must be experienced by the philosopher, just as each musician must experience music. Music has not “progressed” beyond Bach, for example. This is not to say music today is no different from Bach’s, nor is this to make a value judgment (e.g., “Bach is superior to Salonen”)—rather, the entire notion of “progress” is simply inapplicable. The student of music will never escape the necessity of learning (or playing) Bach; the student of philosophy will never escape Plato; the student of science, qua scientist, does not, on the other hand, study Cartesian physics. Philosophy is perennial not because of the antecedence of some eternal “human condition” but, rather, because of its very mode or style of existence, i.e., as that which is understood.

23 July 2008

Coldness and cruelty, violence and politics; Or: masochism and democracy

[Note: The following post essentially consists of some notes toward an interpretation of Deleuze's text; one that I hope to develop further and, obviously, in more detail. I don't claim that it is an "analysis" or "summary" of that text and ask that it not be taken as such.]

The conjunction of masochism and democracy presupposes, of course, the extension of the sexual field into politics.* Deleuze’s structuralism—and Coldness and Cruelty is most certainly “structural” in several senses of the word, not only for its insistence on the formal analysis of psychic phenomena but also for its commitment to the logic of the sign—provides us with a precise point of intersection of these two fields without collapsing the field of politics into that of sexuality or vice versa; this analysis also avoids the naïveté of pop psychology that would look for our “psychological motivations” for political action. The link between masochism and democracy, therefore, is not one of the sort that would permit us to claim that “a democrat must be a masochist” or the converse, since these types of propositions reduce the two fields into the same level of discourse without preserving, as Deleuze does, the necessity of a reference to a third: what Deleuze calls “symptomatology” or what might otherwise simply be called “formal analysis”.

*One has the suspicion, however, that this speculation on Deleuze’s text is caught in the bind of being either obvious or illegitimate (at least, however, it cannot be both). Deleuze never mentions political philosophy in the text, and it would be an obvious instance of equivocation to equate his discussion of the law in psychoanalysis with the law in politics. Nor should the law in politics be taken as a special instance of the law in psychoanalysis (including the “law of the father” simply writ large).

The name of democracy is uniquely a modern phenomenon and the primary site of the theologico-political problem, which manifests in a dual aspect: 1) the originary, impossible moment of violence articulated by Hobbes in the one who must covenant to form the State. This is the radically free decision, ex nihilo, of the libertine who, “while engaged in reasoning, is caught in the hermetic circle of his own solitude and uniqueness—even if the argumentation is the same for all the libertines” (Deleuze). 2) This is the impulse (both Hobbes and Hume are in agreement here) that sets itself the task of submission to a force greater than itself. The alternatives for this task are set out several times in Deleuze’s text under the names of sadism and masochism:

“In Sade the imperative and descriptive function of language transcends itself toward a pure demonstrative, instituting function [fascism], and in Masoch toward a dialectical, mythical and persuasive function [democracy]. These two transcendent functions essentially characterize the two perversions, they are twin ways in which the monstrous exhibits itself in reflection [emphasis added].”

And again: “the specific impulse underlying the contract [masochism] is toward the creation of a law, even if in the end the law should take over and impose its authority upon the contract itself; whereas the corresponding impulse at work in the case of institution [fascism] is toward the degradation of all laws and the establishment of a superior power that sets itself above them”.*

*It is, incidentally, precisely this threat that is identified in a different way by Rancière when he claims that democracy occurs at the moment when a discontinuity between law and nature occurs and, à la Critchley, that democracy is nothing other than the maintenance of an “interstitial distance” (Critchley’s term) or “an-archic” moment (both Rancière and Critchley) of immanent critique.

But, the perversion leads us from contract to ritual: “the masochist is led back into the impersonal realm of fate, which finds expression in the myth [and ritual] … The situation that the masochist establishes by contract, at a specific moment and for a specific period, is already fully contained timelessly and ritually in the symbolic order of masochism”. But this is a transformed, monstrous, law (the “law of the mother”), a parody of law whose mode of expression is not discourse (the symbolic order of the father) but laughter (when Severin returns to Wanda to satisfy his contractual obligations, her response is simply to laugh—is this not almost precisely what Cixous means by the laugh of the medusa?).

What is remarkable is that the trajectory of masochism does not revert into fascism (myth, destiny) but rather into the Übermensch? In Deleuze’s words: “in the work of Masoch, imperatives and descriptions also achieve a transcendental function, but it is of a mythical and dialectical order. It rests on universal disavowal as a reactive process and on universal suspension as an Ideal of pure imagination … [emphasis added]”. Dialectics reverts into an aesthetics of truth—of the “supersensualist” who conceives the truth through his naked body.

This is a reactive process insofar as the masochist performs a simultaneous involution and doubling of the superego—as the one who signs the contract and as the one who submits to, in Severin’s favorite description of his mistress, a “beautiful tyrant” (recall that tyrants are appointed or elected, often reservedly so; cf. Deleuze: “Sade’s hatred of tyranny, his demonstration that the law enables the tyrant to exist, form the essence of his thinking”). This would be the ultimate catharsis if only there were anything tragic about masochism. Rather, the masochist is the one who performs the most ascetic, radical purgation as a propaedeutic to become a subject (in being subjected). One is never a masochistic subject—masochism is a continuous process of subjectification. When, then, “the rosy mist of supersensuality has lifted”, Severin claims that “no one will ever make me believe that the sacred wenches of Benares or Plato’s rooster are the images of God”.

Although Deleuze would never say this, whither the masochist except again to the theologico-political origins of democracy (and not, of course, to the corrupted democracy of procedural justice that masks itself under the slogan of the “rule of law”)? Without such a return, Nietzsche under the whip of Salomé is the only real alternative to the problem of modern democracy, which has been described with no more powerful language than in the Genealogy: the name of democracy rests on the continuous verification of an-archy; it is those sites where the real encroaches on the virtual that we witness the violence of politics.

15 July 2008

The return of the mythic

If only fascism were impossible today. There are, of course, those among us who would believe it so—for how could a generation grown weary of utopia find satiety in the promises of a universal kinship when there is nothing more treacherous than a Cain among us? Neither can we hear the voices of prophets when we have ceased to believe in theology. While we may instead turn to psychics for charts and divinations, we seek our fortunes through them only if we believe either that there is no future—for the future is only a prolongation of our present—or that the future is indeterminate (insofar as it is the product of our will). Caught, then, between destiny and freedom, the prodigal intellect shores up every defense it can muster against the nothingness that it is nevertheless forced to conceive—and calls the fruits of its labor “philosophy”.

But as the ancient injunction had warned us, it is impossible either to name or to think nothing. What remains is either a hypostasis or an Urgrund that is revealed to the rational spirit as the Absolute. Whence fascism: fascism is simply the attempt to give a name to the Absolute, whether ordained by pope or sovereign. (If we reserve the name “fascism” for the twentieth century and wish instead to speak of “absolutism” in the modern age, this is only because we understand that democracy is not the converse of absolutism but the obverse of it. The fascist is not simply the one who, bowing to a pagan demagoguery of earth and blood, would keep the barbarians outside the gates but, rather, the one who would keep them within.)

What would be easier, then, than simply to cease believing in God? If empirical psychology and phenomenalism have been able to teach us anything, it is that belief—including justified belief—is epistemologically agnostic. The kind of rationalist who would conflate belief and understanding must perform the most total and radical epoché—could such a person believe in the convertibility of mass and gravity or the consonance of the octave? Yet neither should we reduce belief to the caprice of desire: there is a logic of belief just as there is a logic of understanding; if the latter is the expression of the relation between thought and being, the former expresses the relation between thought and understanding. Or, in other words, it is not the soul tempted by addiction that is unable to witness the death of God but it is precisely the soul that is riveted to being that is closest to Him.

We need, then, to cease believing in God, not only to free ourselves from the illusions of grammar (Nietzsche), but from the reduction of the logic of understanding into the logic of belief. The post-Kantian Germans—from the idealists to the phenomenologists—turned the relation of thought and being into a problem not of logic (as the medievals had understood it) but one of discourse (this is explicit in Kant’s own notion of sense). Hence for hermeneutics and phenomenology the problem of understanding becomes one of “correlation”. Only then are we able to write a language where the names of being need not contain an implicit reference to God (arché, realissimum, etc). Such a language liberated the individual while subjecting him to a nauseating terror: “our century, more lucid than the last, … [has grown] alarmed: how, it asked, are we to rescue fear, restore its ancient status, recover its rights? Science itself took over: it became a threat, the source of terror” (Cioran). Yet Kant already knew this, and said as much explicitly. History, he said, was nothing other than the occlusion of this terror, ending in a philosophy that nevertheless left God a space at our table, only this time it is He who is our guest.

But it is not the closure of metaphysics that has ushered in an irrational and arrogant “return of the religious” for, if this were so, God had never left us. God was never external to thought, even if it had seemed that He was invoked ad hoc to establish harmony between matter and spirit, to give the universe its first push, and so on. It is thanks to science that “we can conceive of bothering about Him”. In this respect, the “new” mechanical science is not new at all, for Aristotle’s physics performed the same task—for God is not of nature, whether that nature is indifferent or voluptuous.

What modern language was able to reveal, however, is that the language of discourse, “emancipated from reality, from experience, … indulges in the final luxury of no longer expressing anything except the ambiguity of its own action. … Matter excommunicated, the event abolished, only a self still survives, recalling that it once existed, a self without a future, clutching at the Indefinite, turning it this way and that, converting it into a tension which achieves only itself …” This is the romantic-realist subject “curvatus in se”. “But I cannot [thus] comprehend our attachment to beings. I dream of the depths of the Ungrund, the reality anterior to the corruptions of time, and whose solitude, superior to God, will forever separate me from myself and my kind … Once time fades from our consciousness and nothing in us is left but a silence that rescues us from other beings, and from that extension of the inconceivable to the sphere of each instant by which we define existence”. But if for this reason there is no future of metaphysics—because there neither is nor can we think a future not reducible to a repetition of the same—is it not because of an infinite separation—the non-coincidence of self to self as well as the “great ephemeral skin” between us—that is also an asymptotic nearness to God? A theology truly of “our” time requires not only a God without being but the courage of the one who can think against oneself, that is, against the tendencies and habits that bind existence to the inertia of economy and the enjoyment of desire, in short, against all that one is.

If the rationalist dogma of the new science pretends to have invented a language with no name for God, this is not because pronouncing that name is forbidden by law but, rather, because it is an exceptional name—the name of an exceptional being, i.e., a necessary being whose necessity takes the form of a predicate or a category. Such a theology either conflates being and necessity into the same level of analysis or subordinates necessity to being when it should be the other way around: necessity is prior to being. It is not being that gives sense to necessity in the way an actual triangle is supposed to instantiate the formal reality of triangles. This is why Spinoza and Bergson are in agreement on this point, i.e., every being is necessary by the fact that every being simplyhas happened. Is not, then, the transcendental necessity of thinking—which resolves into the facticity of presence—simply agnostic on the necessity of being? More to the point, was it not the end of analytic philosophy after Kant to return thinking from discourse (the epistemic conditions of experience) to logic, which alone is able to express the (co)-relation of necessity and being (in the proper direction)?

Is this not, then, a mythic language insofar as the mythic is precisely that which does not attempt to pronounce the name of God? Myth knows no separation from God because in myth language is being. Hegel had already sublated myth into the speculative proposition; have we ever really understood this subterfuge?

05 July 2008

Cioran: the burden of existence

Is it the knowledge of good and evil or the expulsion from the garden that constitutes man’s original sin? Whatever the case, it is at least plausible that “we are still not thinking”. Modernity, then, is still an “unfinished project” inasmuch as we have yet to think. And yet the original moment of “disenchantment” that dispelled the old gods continues to go under the name of an “idolatrous” science. We fail to think and yet it is because we are so successful at being dialectical that we have returned to the need for the old mythologies of earth, spirit, and the Absolute. In other words, true to form, it is our failure to be dialectical (we have not yet, it seems, reached the end of history) that indicates our great success at being dialectical.

This is why, because our philosophy has called us from slumber, insomnia and boredom are the trademarks of modernity: of minds that have been awakened but can never again fall asleep. “What recourse to China or India will heal us”, Cioran asks, if as Hegel says, these are the “dream of the infinite Spirit”? Nothing is easier than resisting happiness, Cioran observes; yet even our suffering suffers the intensity of desire. The negativity of desire never attains the stillness or the non-presence of the Tao because even that negativity is the affirmation of a world [of sense]; there is no conceptual equivalent of the Taoist wu-wei in our language.

Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor is that of “stillness”. We, on the other hand, “breathe too fast to be able to grasp things in themselves or to expose their fragility. Our panting postulates and distorts them, creates and disfigures them, and binds us to them. I bestir myself, therefore I emit a world as suspect as my speculation which justifies it …” [Cioran] What is called the “burden of time/history” is, rather, the burden of materiality. No wonder, then, that even the great mythologist Joseph Campbell would call the religions of the east religions of death. But what even he failed to observe is that gnosticism is a peculiarly western notion. Cioran again: “as long as we lived amid elegant terrors, we accommodated ourselves quite well to God. When others—more sordid because more profound—took us in charge, we required another system of references, another boss. The Devil was the ideal figure. Everything in him agrees with the nature of the events of which he is the agent, the regulating principle: his attributes coincide with those of time”. We are thus caught in the double bind of an original sin: “to divine the timeless and to know nonetheless that we are time, that we produce time, to conceive of the notion of eternity … [is] an absurdity responsible for both our rebellions and the doubts we entertain about them”. Hence no western eschatology is able to provide a real escape, for all of them rivet the individual to his being. Thus “the fact still remains that our first ancestor left us, for our entire legacy, only the horror of paradise. … Meanwhile, down to our nerve cells, everything in us resists paradise. To suffer: sole modality of acquiring the sensation [better: sense] of existence; to exist: unique means of safeguarding our destruction”.

It is because we live in history that we cannot but exist. Even the most insignificant and unknown person whose death goes unnoticed has a sense in a world, i.e., the melancholic sense of being the one whose life was insignificant. This inner contradiction of individualism is the reason why no individual as such can be a Taoist. This is where Freud is in agreement: the individual is nothing other than this desire to be, which is also the desire not to be (neither Freud nor Cioran are obviously committed to making this an ontological claim but, rather, a claim of sense). Cioran: “loath to admit a universal identity, we posit individuation, heterogeneity as a primordial phenomenon. Now, to revolt is to postulate this heterogeneity, to conceive it as somehow anterior to the advent of beings and objects. If I oppose the sole truth of Unity by a necessarily deceptive Multiplicity … my rebellion is meaningless, since to exist it must start from the irreducibility of individuals, from their condition as monads, circumscribed essences. Every act institutes and rehabilitates plurality, and, conferring reality and autonomy upon the person, implicitly recognizes the degradation, the parceling-out of the absolute”. Yet “the very rhythm of our life is based on the good standing of rebellion”. Thus, Cioran says, “let us surrender to all rebellions: they will end by turning against themselves, against us …” In but one short, cogent paragraph, Cioran proceeds from this sentence to establish himself as our greatest philosopher of history, for only he more than Hegel or Nietzsche, has been able to explain our dialectical success\failure. Cioran understood that the burden of thought—that is otherwise cashed in the cliché of “Enlightenment rationalism”—is the burden of time, and that it is the lived time of finitude that constitutes the consciousness of history. For Hegel it is the other way around; for Heidegger, the case is more complicated, but in the end for Heidegger history reveals itself as a destiny whereas for Cioran it takes a people who live exiled from history to revel in the sense of a destiny. Here, then, is where Cioran is able to speak to the philosophers of the event: the fundamental question of rebellion is whether rebellion has sense in history. Rebellion can neither have such sense—a rebellion with historical sense is no longer a rebellion—nor naively turn its back on a historical consciousness that burdens it with more than the strength of a call but less than that of necessity. This is why rebellions end by “turning against us”: for after any rebellion, “we” will cease to be, not by any martyrdom or suicide, but, perhaps, by the courage to exist.

30 June 2008

Notes on Chopin

Outside the conservatories (and sometimes even within) a pianist’s facility and prowess are often measured by virtuosic showpieces (who can play the fastest Islamey or the Cziffra “Flight” transcription). People who can play the “Hands Reunited” etude are a dime a dozen. When listening to a pianist’s “musicianship” (a horrible word), on the other hand, there is perhaps no better indication than the ability to play Chopin. The Barcarolle, for example, is among the most difficult pieces in his oeuvre, not because of its technical demands, but because of the aural sensitivity and intellectual rigor necessary to play it. The technical difficulties in playing Chopin are similar to those of Mozart: although he, like Mozart, was not a great formal innovator, he was, even more than Brahms, an absolute master of classical form.

It is this formalism that prohibits classifying Chopin as a “romantic” (there is perhaps no word more inappropriate). Only the most naïve historicism could call Chopin and Liszt “romantics” because they lived in the same time period. Chopin was heir not to Beethoven but, as he himself professed, to Bach, Mozart, and Weber (it is not mere accident that among the early variations, Chopin chose the Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni). Chopin himself, if we rely on Mikuli, played “classically”. Mikuli reports that the metronome was always on Chopin’s piano and that the left hand was always in strict time (it was the right that was permitted the temps dérobé). The pianist enters into the form of the piece. If in Bach the pianist disappears behind the formal perfection of the piece, Chopin’s pieces “give form” to the performer’s expression. Conversely, the first duty of the performer of Chopin is to enter the form of the piece and to explicate the expression (the “content”) from within. The piece itself speaks out of the perfection of its form; the performer does not speak by means of the piece. There is no sentimentality in Chopin and it is revealing of the pianist who plays him so.

If romanticism consists in the involution of form into content or the gnosticism of an infinite spirit that is nevertheless chained to the prison of materiality and nature, Chopin offers no escape. Rather, Chopin is the exact opposite—he is, rather, architecturally Baroque in the way Deleuze has described (in the first part of The Fold). This is nothing other than Chopin’s harmonic mastery—the ambiguity and generativity that emerges out of the most rigorous form. The closure of each piece is precisely that which refuses the piece’s self-identity (the so-called interpretive “richness” of Chopin’s music).

06 June 2008

Two questions

1. I was recently asked to define philosophy. With no small amount of embarrassment and prevarication, I fell back to the old definition of “thinking about thinking”. The more I thought about this definition, the more I wished I could recant, despite the initial appeal of this reflexive definition, if for no other reason than the history of this conception of philosophy according to which thought becomes nothing other than the material prison of facticity. Neither, however, do I want to reduce the love of wisdom into the desire for knowledge, which ultimately turns philosophy into French anti-philosophy. Instead, perhaps philosophy is the practice of thinking. If this is so, then what needs to be rescued is not “philosophy” but “practice” (or, more specifically, to rescue “practice” from “tradition”).

2. The mildly annoying refrain of a recent pop song proclaims: “say what you need to say”. Among my first serious intellectual interlocutors, who was more “scientifically-minded”, I was often told that the problem with the humanities (especially literature and philosophy) is that we do not simply “say what we need to say” (so too the usual undergraduate who is asked to read anything that cannot be summarized in Spark Notes or Wikipedia). There is an obvious conflict between the culture of information (which includes the ideology of discourse and consensus) and any discipline with an operative form-content dialectic. The real question is how to get this dialectic off the ground; once it does, whatever problems we might encounter are internally manageable. Plato was well-aware that this is a pedagogical problem, but if things were so simple, then we would merely be faced with ethical or political questions. Instead, it seems that the problem philosophers face vis-à-vis the technical disciplines is metapolitical, which is to say institutional, structural, or economic; yet it seems that the very existence of philosophy is institutional. Is it then naïve to have faith in the possibility of immanent critique?

30 May 2008

The academic and the philosopher

There is a book being advertised at Starbucks (The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein). In what is surely a bad joke, it is described as a “dog’s eye view of the human condition”. The book’s website begins by saying that “Enzo [the dog] knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly [emphasis added] human soul …” This image of the philosopher is not unlike the guru—the one who “thinks deeply” about the “big questions of life” or simply about “life”. (These two formulations are not quite equivalent. According to the one, life is presented either as a question or a series of questions; according to the other, life is a mystery that requires solving or decoding.) This is the sense in which “everyone is a philosopher” insofar as these “big questions” are intrinsic to the “human condition”.

Alternatively, the image of the philosopher is the socially useless (and often quirky) academician who spends his (and I do mean the gendered pronoun here) time in a room full of books using big, technical words that don’t mean anything except to the three people (which is apparently the national average) that will read the article he publishes in a journal that will never see the light of a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

This contradiction is operative in the usual reactions to the statement “I’m a student of philosophy”. Either one is then held to possess superior argumentative skills (in the manner of a lawyer or a sophist), profound wisdom (although a priest or guru is usually first consulted about personal or ethical dilemmas), or a penchant for brooding, existential melancholy (with only slightly more respect than emos and scenes). It is the paralyzing contradiction operative in the response I recently received: “Oh, ok, so I guess that means you, what, ‘philosophize’?” Philosophizing is an inner affair conducted either in an armchair or at the top of a mountain where one comes to an epiphany about the “meaning of life”.

This ambiguous image of the philosopher places him in a curious position with respect to this question. On the one hand, the philosopher is expected to have insight into the “meaning of life” insofar as he deals in abstractions and concepts instead of the inanities of toiling, child-raising, and fixing cars. On the other hand, the philosopher is collapsed into the spiritualist. In either case, the philosopher is caught between question and answer. If the “meaning of life” is something material, the philosopher is the one who can theorize about it in concepts but who does not himself make money, create art, etc; if the “meaning of life” is something spiritual, the philosopher is the one who remains at the level of logic and rational thinking instead of offering the super-rational, intuitive enlightenment of the mystic (i.e., instead of a dualism between the body and mind of the idealistic philosopher, the spiritualist wants a tripartite division of body, mind, and spirit).

It is then fortunate that Eagleton is not (or at least he does not consider himself to be) a philosopher.* Yet one wonders what basis he offers for his latest book (The Meaning of Life). In the preface he acknowledges that there is “something absurdly overreaching” about writing a book about “the meaning of life”, particularly for the one who does not have what he might call an “easy answer” to the question, i.e., God (although it is an injustice to the operation of faith to think there is anything “easy” about it, unless one conflates faith with fundamentalism, which is not immediately justified to my mind). As Eagleton poses the problem, then (although he is clearly not the first to do so), the question about the (question of the) “meaning of life” faces a methodological problem: if the answer is not God, then how might we even begin to seek an answer? How do we even pose the question? (Notice that this is also precisely Augustine’s problem in the Confessions even though for him the answer is, in fact, God—this is in part what I meant by saying that faith does not seem to be as “easy” as all that.)

*Eagleton is, rather, a “critic”, which is an archaic genre even in Britain, but one that is most appropriate for his work. The relation between criticism and philosophy is one that should be addressed in more detail at another time. It seems unfortunately to be the case, however, that much of Eagleton’s criticism has in the last few years (particularly since The English Novel) suffered the same fate as Rorty’s later work—i.e., that criticism becomes uninteresting when it is merely reactive and devolves into commentary. This is unfortunate, as much of Eagleton’s earlier work from the mid-1990s to about 2002 is penetrating, lucid, and genuinely entertaining.

What Eagleton brings to bear on the question of the “meaning of life” is the resources of philosophy: Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Freud, etc, with a little bit of literature thrown in (Chekhov, Beckett, Shakespeare, Douglas Adams, etc). Yet Eagleton is not speaking to philosophers: he is not telling philosophers anything about Wittgenstein that they do not already know (and, really, presenting Wittgenstein at a level that is even beneath the decent undergraduate philosophy major). To whom, then, is Eagleton writing? If not the specialist, then it would seem this book is addressed to the fiction of the “general (educated) public” to whom philosophy should be “relevant” to the “universal questions”.

Naturally, Eagleton does not claim to possess the “answer” to the question, but proposes a way of thinking about it.** Instead of endnotes, the book includes after its final chapter a list of “further reading” from just those philosophers discussed in the book. Despite the fact this suggestion seems to fall prey to the same book-club ideology that believes that anyone can just walk into a library and start reading The World as Will and Representation, at best the suggestion would increase sales at Barnes and Noble without necessarily bringing anyone into dialogue with philosophy; at the very least, philosophy becomes something consumable—wisdom on the shelf that can be brought to bear on my personal existential crisis (I fail to see how this does not end up perpetuating the same ideology of a “private” answer to the “meaning of life” that Eagleton himself suggests is an obstacle to a reasonable approach to the question). There is, moreover, a profound tension (if not a contradiction) between the idea that philosophy is “for everyone” and the impossibility of reading Spinoza’s Ethics without philosophical training.***

**What Eagleton proposes consists in the final chapter in an exposition of Aristotle’s ethics. Despite the fact this is a bit of a surprise given his prior work, one cannot help but wonder why he does not merely point his readers to Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody, which accomplishes much the same thing with approximately the same level of success and expectation from its readers.

***Ultimately, the ideology that “everyone is a philosopher” empties out the name of “philosophy” under an essentializing conception of the human being as a “thinking” or “rational” being. Because we are essentially, intrinsically “rational”, specialized, technical training in learning how to think is superfluous—we just need to recognize that anyone can “think for himself”. The philosopher has no more right or authority to talk about Aristotle’s Ethics that any rational human being who decides to think about ethics. This is, of course, a vulgar form of essentialism, for it is not to be found, say, in Aristotle’s conception of ethics according to which one can be more or less successful at “being human” and for whom so being human required not just the fortitude of an individual will or the integrity of one’s spirit but the involvement of public and political life.

Yet who is the academic even to make the suggestion that philosophy (or at least books of philosophy if not the discipline) is relevant to “everyone” or, more specifically (since the term “everyone” is ultimately an empty signifier), to the non-philosopher? Or, even: who is the academic to suggest that he has something worthwhile to say about the “meaning of life”? To whom does he have grounds to speak?

If Eagleton is not saying anything meaningful to philosophers, but is appealing to the audience of non-philosophers, is he then accusing philosophers of not being able to say anything meaningful to non-philosophers? Towards the end of the book, he evokes a remark from Wittgenstein’s TLP (6.52, 6.521) and comments:

“What Wittgenstein probably means [in the cited quotation] is not that the meaning of life is a pseudo-question, but that it is a pseudo-question as far as philosophy is concerned [emphasis added]. And Wittgenstein had no great respect for philosophy, which he hoped his [TLP] would bring to an end. All the vital questions, he thought, lay outside the subject’s stringent limits. The meaning of life was not something that could be said, in the form of a factual proposition; and for the early Wittgenstein, only this kind of proposition made sense.”

Aside from the familiar technical problems of the showing/saying distinction relied upon here, there is a deep equivocation over the word “philosophy”—what is the “philosophy” to which Wittgenstein was responding in the TLP (notice answering this question is impossible for the book-club enthusiast), and what is the “philosophy” to which Eagleton is referring when he speaks of the modern condition? If it is not academic pretension to presume that a book about the “meaning of life” that discusses some of the canonical texts of philosophy is “accessible” or “relevant” to the non-philosopher, then must it be the case that it is such a case of academic pretension to believe that the fight against dogma requires more than thinking that “getting Wittgenstein” means being able to encapsulate the TLP in the space of a couple pages or by reading “very short introductions”? If, in other words, the academic convinces the non-philosopher to read Schopenhauer, and the latter comes out of the engagement being able to say “it is self-evident to Schopenhauer that only an idiot could imagine that life was worth living”, have we gained any ground in the fight against dogma? Has not the belief that this reader has now “read and interpreted Schopenhauer” or “made Schopenhauer relevant” itself become a new dogma?

For philosophy really to avoid the Scylla of dogma and the Charybdis of sophistry, it must refuse identification with content (which manifests in various instances: in AOSs and tenure review procedures, comprehensive exams for graduate students, professional affiliations (e.g., as members of SPEP or the Sartre Circle), the curriculum and the canon, and so on), for this is the shortest route to dogma. Neither, however, can philosophy merely be identified with a certain “attitude” (usually described as “critical” insofar as philosophy teaches its students how to be “critical thinkers” about “anything”) or, in other words, be simply formal insofar as this is the route either to skepticism or sophistry. (The answer, of course, is a form-content dialectic.)

Neither is philosophy simply a “way of life”. Tempting though this formulation is, it does not go far enough in the reductive accounts of “life” either as organism or totality. Eagleton is right to point out the ambiguities contained in the word “life” when we ask for its meaning—e.g., not only that life as a meaning but also that there is a (single) thing called “life” that has a meaning. To adapt a formulation by Deleuze, we might say that “philosophy is a life”. This way of speaking is not equivalent to “the life of a philosopher is one way of life” insofar as it refers primarily not to a (particular) philosopher but to “philosophy”—the term “philosophy” contains not only the “philosopher” but always and necessarily a reference to philosophers (in the plural). It is the reverse procedure of the latter statement: we do not need to build a community of philosophy from the individual philosopher and his relation to other philosophers, but we are able to derive the individual philosopher from the life of philosophy.

Life is not philosophy and philosophy is not life; philosophy is a life. Yet this is neither simply radical contingency nor an insipid popular expression of diversity and relativism (e.g., life is one thing viewed from the perspective of philosophy and another viewed from the perspective of biology). There are many lives, not simply many “perspectives” on life. The plurality of lives is not simply one of “struggle” or bellum omnium if for no other reason than that contradiction is only one species of difference. To adapt a concept from a friend and colleague, if philosophy is a life, then the question of how philosophy might speak to the “meaning of life” is fundamentally one of reflection. Reflection here does not signify the sense of inner withdrawal (as when one “reflects” on one’s life to find meaning somewhere in it) but the operation of the fold, which can be expressed either as a “folding back” (re-pliée) or as a point of indiscernibility between levels of analysis (which I find more helpful to describe not only in terms of logical self-reference but also after the fashion of physical discontinuities of quanta) wherein what is expressed is not merely a repetition of the same but a point of (ir?)real transcendence (i.e., difference). This is, in short, the very definition of creativity. (To be brutal and glib, the point here is that philosophers need to read more Bergson and Deleuze.)

29 May 2008

The myth of nature

1. In the foothills of Colorado on land barely touched by industry, I climbed to the top of a large red rock formation. This particular spot is visited not only by the locals (which include foxes and even, once, mountain goats), but also by other visitors such as myself. Usually the traces of these visitors consist of footprints in the unpaved road and paths, but occasionally there is the cigarette butt or beer can strewn by the side of the road. This particular day, when I reached the top of the formation, what awaited me was an empty bottle of chardonnay left by the nature-lover(s) who, presumably, thought it would be a pleasant experience to enjoy the “spectacular view” with a glass (or four) of wine.

The violation here was more than one of breeching the “leave no trace” protocol advocated by various environmental organizations and agencies; this protocol is at best agnostic on the tendency of so-called “nature-lovers” to fetishize nature. Even if my predecessors had taken their refuse with them, in what sense can they be said to be “lovers of nature” when their love makes nature into an object? The fact they in fact forgot their wine bottle is a direct consequence of this act (in other words, forgetting here is an active process).

In what sense are these the people to whom we can appeal when we want to “save the environment”? For what purpose are we so saving it? What is this “nature” we are saving? For either the devotees of our “earth mother” or the “cult of the outdoors” for whom nature is an object consumable by bike trails, ATVs, or “majestic views” (“121 feet of pure ahhhhhh!” as one billboard proclaims, advertising a waterfall), we are caught in the contradiction of human existence (an existence in culture, history, and industry) and animal existence (the brute facticity of objects): nature is always found elsewhere than the human—the concrete of sidewalks no longer qualifies as nature insofar as we proceed to identify nature only with the blades of grass in its cracks; and even then “real” nature is found by escaping the city, i.e., by “escaping ourselves” such that the proper form of prostration in the temple of Gaia is silent awe before the gigantic redwood or by listening to the cry of the eagle. The human, in other words, must subtract itself from nature and allow nature to “be present”. But the human can therefore never “be with” nature, for nature is then the “more-than-human world”. This dichotomy leaves us with one of two choices: either the supersession of nature by industry (God granted dominion over nature; work and technology is the essence of humanity; etc) or cultural suicide (i.e., the separation of animality from culture—a “return to nature” in the form of shamanic mysticism, aboriginal denials of technology, etc).

2. In his most recent work (although the majority of this work has not been published), Critchley has argued that the citizen requires a sort of “catechism” or, in other words, that politics requires a “supreme fiction” that functions as an authoritative ground or arche. The problem of modern politics, Critchley suggests, is that such authority can no longer come from God but must come from humanity itself; this is, of course, the problem of nihilism in the form of Jacobi’s formulation: either we are God or God is absolutely transcendent.

Perhaps something similar is true for thinking of nature. I had once, long ago, suggested that environmental advocates will never be successful in their efforts without a radical change in our cultural values and mores, for as long as the culture of capital continues to think in terms of accumulation, industry, and “rational self-interest”, we will never value the sacrifice of (personal) interest for the sake of “nature”. As a variation of this suggestion, perhaps what is needed is a new myth of nature. If the symbolic pagan religions were those whose myths precluded the development of industry—as so many of the bigoted ideologies of western Europe have argued—then what can we learn of the function of myth, if not the content of these myths that are now being fetishized by New Agers and so-called “nature-lovers”? MacIntyre has demonstrated convincingly that the ideology that has claimed to be done with tradition—i.e., liberalism—has itself become a tradition—yet one in bad faith insofar as it refuses to recognize its own status as such. It is this sort of contradiction that Critchley in his own way is indicating when he suggests that if modern politics is not to fall prey to nihilism (in the form of liberal democratic capitalism), then what we need is some kind of supreme fiction or what I am calling myth (obviously in reference to Barthes’ notion of “mythology”). Are there any myths available to us from within the ideologies of the western European tradition (I personally find Taoism more useful here than these)? What are the mechanisms by which these myths might function? Critchley suggests poetry. Perhaps, however, we might also not want to be so quick to dismiss the so-called “return to religion” as simply a tool of reactionary fundamentalism and not simply deliver the discourse of religion over to the right (if for no other reason than that we have seen how successfully the right has mobilized the resources of religion for the most fascist of purposes).

25 May 2008

Two dogmas of dogma (in the form of an antimony)

1. The “right” to belief is sufficient to have one. The patriot who believes that Marxism is the philosophical foundation of the “Axis of Evil”, the sentimentalist who believes that “music is the language of the soul”, or the dieter who believes that Arizona brand green tea is “good for you” meet all the conditions to have a belief that such things are the case. (The issue here is not that of justified belief and criteria for justification—which has been of perennial interest to analytic philosophy—but the fact of belief, to which analytic philosophy is by and large insensitive.)

Conversely, to have a belief is sufficient to have a “right” to one; and, as a corollary, democratic practice requires the mobilization of beliefs in the public sphere. It is, of course, precisely for this reason that the American Founders instituted various republican controls on such practice.

2. The purpose of education is to fight against dogma. The one who is educated believes not merely as “one” believes but has grounds for belief.

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23 May 2008

The kindness of strangers

There’s a bumper sticker that says “yes, this is my truck; no, I won’t help you move”. Inadvertently, this little quip contains a little wisdom.

Among the criteria of friendship according to popular opinion, a friend is someone who is “there for you when you need them” or, conversely, that “I’m there for you if you’re there for me”. If I help a friend move, a “real” friend will return the favor; otherwise that person is not my friend and my good nature has been taken advantage of. I then have the right to be offended or to feel betrayed in my trust.

Any number of situations can be substituted here (such as the mooch, the hangout buddy who is emotionally unavailable, and so on—“I do a lot for you and get nothing in return! What kind of friend are you?”). But it is just this ideology of reciprocity that precludes the existence of real friendship insofar as it reduces friendship into reciprocity and, therefore, into economy or a relation of mutual exploitation.

Reciprocity is something that can be measured and, consequently, institutionalized. We do it in exchange by assigning value; we do it in justice through contracts, obligations, and law; we do it ethically in norms (for example, if I extend you a ‘common courtesy’, then I can expect you do return it). If, however, friendships work in this way, friendships are reduced to the same level of business partners and working clients. To borrow an example from Sartre, if a lover stays with me because s/he promised to stay with me (say in a marriage vow), but doesn’t love me anymore, would I still call that person a lover? Obligation is insufficient to constitute a loving relationship (including friendship). A lover (or a friend) gives to his/her beloved not because of an obligation or an expectation of reciprocity. A “real” friend helps me move regardless of any obligation to do so and doesn’t do a favor with the expectation of being able to “call it in” later. (While I was once helping my friend M… move, on the street we were approached by a pair of Mormon missionaries who offered to help us. Although we declined their offer, in the kindness of these strangers, they were better friends to us than I would have been had I, two months later, asked M… to return the favor.)

The mark of “real” friendship is, rather, generosity. It is true that reciprocity and generosity are not mutually exclusive. I can freely love my spouse and also, on the basis of that love, commit to a vow that obligates me to stay with her. But only to the extent that the proximate cause of any of my actions is my love and not my vow am I a lover. This is why real love (and friendship) is so difficult: it requires a certain amount of strength and courage to love without reciprocity. This is also why so many social relations are those of mutual exploitation and, as long as friendship is conceived in these terms, they will always result in injustice, dissymmetry, disappointment, failures, and betrayals for the same reason that economic or legal relations always result in inequalities that require adjudication (by courts, market regulations, etc).

Two consequences: (1) Another way of stating the point is to say that a friendship cannot be a relation of co-dependence (in the quasi-technical sense of the term) insofar as these relations devolve into non-productive, reactive cycles of mutually reinforcing ressentiment. It can become necessary to break the cycle of mutual co-dependence, e.g., by not calling a friend in a moment of distress, because (2) what is at stake is neither my need (which would turn the other into a resource) nor “our” friendship insofar as “we’re in things together”. As in love, so too in friendship the relation is not that of a fusion of two into one but, to adapt some terms from Badiou, the “continuous operation of the double function”, i.e., of the Two. The relation, properly speaking is not between one and one, but between each to a world. It is this operation of the Two that structurally debars love/friendship from becoming merely a cycle of ressentiment (whether or not this solution requires a Leibnizian harmony is an open question, however).

Addendum (27 May): It is worth repeating that reciprocity and generosity are not mutually exclusive. What is at issue is whether reciprocity happens, as a matter of fact, or whether it is the motivation. This is why the condition of generosity is "strength" and not "trust". A generous person cannot be betrayed because s/he does not expect that his/her actions will be returned. This is why generosity requires the strength to acknowledge this fact. A generous lover is the one who loves and continues to love while acknowledging the possibility that the love might end--that might no longer be for some reason (that feelings can change, the other person might die, etc). It is the attempt to love only on the condition of being loved that leads to exploitation, abuse, manipulation, and so on. A real relationship of love (whether amorous or friendly) is only possible between two generous people. A relationship where A is generous and B is not is obviously exploitative. A relationship where both are generous is one wherein "reciprocity" happens as a matter of fact and not as a matter of motivation (viz., under the name of 'trust').

On the other hand, a relationship between two non-generous but reciprocal people is mutually exploitative and precisely defines the political situation. This can be approached in various ways. Despite everything else, no one has described the problem better than Hobbes--in a situation of radical equality, trust and covenant between people is impossible without the institution of law, i.e., the mediation of a third party between two people. This is why reciprocity is the foundation of law and why it defines legal and economic relations. The attempt to found friendship on reciprocity sutures friendship to these same structural determinations of measure.

What makes relations exploitative (mutually or not) is the persistence of the question "what do I get out of it?" This is more obvious in the case of the exploitation of one by another (e.g., Scott has a car and can give me rides places). In the case of mutual exploitation, the persistence of the "I" goes under the ideology of "trust". A betrayal of trust indicates the absence of generosity. If I give because I (generously) care for someone, then I forfeit the right to be offended if I get nothing out of it (not even acknowledgment of my gift). If I am so offended by not getting anything out of it, then my action was not motivated by (generous) care for the other person, for if it were the case, I would have nothing to lose. It is the persistence of the interest of the "I" in trust that makes reciprocity a relation of mutual exploitation: e.g., I'm there for you because I want you to be there for me. If I'm truly there for you because I want to be there for you, then I cannot expect that you will be there for me, i.e., I cannot “trust” that you will return my gift (in reciprocity).

30 April 2008

A new orientation

7. Is there love in productivity? Is the notion of productivity—trauma, irruption, etc—necessarily masculinist and/or erotic? Is eros necessarily a discourse of lack (and thus falling within masculinity)? Eros is, after all, between poverty and resource. Can there be a discourse of creativity that is not intrinsically masculinist without also falling prey to the naïveté of “giving birth” (since this is obviously not what it means to be “feminine”)?

Instead, the answer must be in the limit (or, convertibly, in the “between”). The limit is neither masculine nor feminine (even, perhaps, the “feminine” that deconstructs discourse, logic, symbol). The limit is the point of indiscernibility—[either/or]/[both/and]. It is out of the limit that creativity is possible. The limit is virtual. The limit, therefore, allows us to refigure the transcendence/immanence problem. The novel is immanent (since there is no “no-where”), but also transcendent (it comes “from nowhere” insofar as it is indeterminate, invisible, etc, and insofar as the limit is itself not a place).

The “immanent” aspect of the limit ultimately is the question of origin—is there an “origin” to the world? The origin must be double—infinitely productive. The duality of origin is defined by the limit.

09 April 2008


A german friend of mine linked me this article, from Die Zeit. The question is "what does a philosopher do all day?" They ask Doktoranten, and not undergrads, but then only seem to talk about what they do all day (namely, they don't get too much into "what they actually do think about").

Apparently, though, fewer Germans are studying philosophy, and certainly the "greats" of German philosophy don't seem to get much attention from these "kopfzerbrecher." Birte Schelling doesn't know if she's related to Friedrich Schelling, the guy who promoviert at Humboldt in Berlin (apparently occupying an office near where the masters of german idealism worked) scoffs at Marx's quote and says it wasn't the "philosophers" who only interpreted to world, but rather more properly just Hegel (its unclear to me if he likes Kant or not, though... he's working on "problems of Urteilskraft), and the guy who "likes to stroll in the woods like heidegger" thinks that the age of philosophical systems is over and now philosophy is just the disciplinary watchdog that tells other people if their theories make any sense (though I guess he likes Gadamer... he has pictures of him as a slideshow on his computer [if i understood correctly].

If the nytimes article sutures philosophy to abstract "critical thinking" instrumentally useful for one's career, this article seems to deny that. The only problem is that it may go too far in the other direction -- even if the philosophers have some idea of what philosophy does, no one else may expect to (except realizing that discussing that very question is philosophical). The article seems to present the sentiment that "philosophy is for those weird people who like to think about things that make their heads hurt." Thankfully doesn't ask for philosophy to justify itself (perhaps one thing germans will always take for granted), but by doing so, it may suggest that philosophy has no relevance to anyone but "philosophers."

Or maybe my German isn't as good as I think it is.

07 April 2008

The betrayal of Socrates


According to this article, in ten years the number of colleges offering undergraduate philosophy programs rose by fifty-two; in some schools the number of majors in existing programs has doubled in that same time period. Is this really a good thing?

From queen to maidservant: The university administrators and APA representatives interviewed were unanimous in extolling the “relevance” of philosophy: people can (and often do) double-major in philosophy (and some other more useful and, let’s face it, financially stable area of study) and “go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders”. This is because philosophy “emphasizes verbal and logical skills” and “gives [majors] strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking”. Philosophy is justified because it is instrumental: “philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy” (more on this in a moment). And that is not all. The article closes with yet another use for philosophy: one female major is quoted as saying “she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive. ‘That whole deep existential torment,’ she said. ‘It’s good for getting girlfriends.’” One wonders (1) where the so-called “life examined” is (from the title of the article); or, even if the examined life really is the value of philosophy, why philosophy’s value is limited to the illumination or edification of an individual life insofar as this life is considered irreducible. This is the double bind: if the value of philosophy is the examined life, we lose the legitimacy of a concrete practice (institution, history, etc) of philosophy (this is the ideology that tells us that “we are all philosophers”); on the other hand, if the value of philosophy is its (instrumental) ability to service the field of cultural and economic production, then we have surrendered the proper name of philosophy (particularly insofar as philosophy operates at the (reflective) limit of thinking).

From philosophy to sophistry: Having thus abstracted the value of philosophy into “critical thinking”, quite independent of any concrete practice of philosophy (could a Marxist really go on and become an investment banker?), the article tells the story of one student who, having switched to philosophy from pre-med, won over her mother’s concerns about a philosophy degree, having “persuaded her with [her] argumentative skills”.

Quite aside from the other problems associated with the popularization of philosophy (see, e.g., 13 and 18 November 2007 posts), such an operation is intrinsically opposed to any real concrete practice. The attempt to make philosophy interesting and relevant to everyone and everything necessarily empties it. Once philosophy is “sutured” to its objects (as Badiou would say), then philosophy loses the critical capacity that is supposedly its greatest value. Philosophy, in other words, devolves into logic; and if there is anything the continentals were right to oppose, it was precisely this temptation and ideology according to which philosophy has no need of its history (or, more precisely, its histories) and its textuality. Literary theory learned this lesson long ago: the lack of a theory is still a theory—it’s just a naïve one. Similarly, the lack of a hermeneutic is still a hermeneutic, except under the pernicious ideology of an abstract universalism that otherwise goes by the name of “humanism” while at the same time endorsing (or at least complicit with) the most vulgar forms of positivism and technology that have apparently penetrated even into that institution whose very existence had until now been precisely to resist the doxastic tendencies of techne. If philosophy is the remembrance of Socrates, it seems that he has now been forgotten.

The result is philosophy majors who think they are being original and creative by discussing the “metaphysics behind the movie “The Matrix” or think that it is in any way appropriate to call Plato an “idiot” for thinking that language is iconic (presuming that majors even read Plato at all since, after all, the point of philosophy is not to know the classic texts but to “think intelligently” about anything at all). Or perhaps the result here is philosophy majors who think that they are not being dogmatic in turning a deaf ear to metaphysics tout court (as “nonsense” dispelled by proper linguistic analysis) or who think it is possible to talk about epistemology and any of its subfields without reading the first Critique (or, alternatively, that epistemology is all philosophy should care about)—and, moreover, that it is fruitful to do so. This is the same ideology and hermeneutic that produces the normally stupid “standard readings” of any particular philosopher under the name of a “progress” that thinks we build on the work of our predecessors either by proving them wrong or by otherwise moving “beyond” them (in good continental—or, let’s face it, Hegelian—terms, this is a logic that refuses repetition).

If it is possible to fight for the name of philosophy, it cannot be done under the name of its “popularization”. The future of philosophy does not depend on having “more majors”. It does not, of course, follow that the future of philosophy requires having fewer majors. The point, rather, is to change the question: from thinking the future of philosophy means more philosophers to thinking that the future of philosophy means a better practice. This is, simply, the question of what it means for philosophy to be an institution. Bourdieu has already opened important and challenging lines here. But the point must be more than the wedding of philosophy to the capacity for critique if—a big if—the essence of philosophy is, as Aristotle said, thinking on thinking (or, more precisely the erotic imitation of thinking on thinking).

03 April 2008


Among the various writers who have challenged the ideologies of “objective history” (e.g., Heidegger, MacIntyre, Ricoeur, White, and, most recently, Megill’s Historical Knowledge, Historical Error), it was Deleuze who has most insistently pressed the issue despite rarely explicitly thematizing the problem as being “historical”. We cannot, Deleuze says, speak of “the” history of philosophy but, rather, only of histories of philosophy. (Is this not also a direct consequence of the famous relevant sections of Being and Time?)

When Deleuze’s monographs explicate a history of philosophy, each author is presented as a complex or a composite: it is well-known that Deleuze’s Bergson, Spinoza, and Nietzsche are inseparable, for example; Deleuze is explicit about the “monstrous children” of philosophy in this regard.

We can escalate this procedure in the case of Bergson and Merleau-Ponty by literally intertwining two texts on philosophy and history:

the relation of philosophy to earlier and contemporary philosophies is not … what a certain conception of the history of systems would lead us to assume. [Bergson] Between an “objective history of philosophy” … and a meditation disguised as a dialogue … there must be a middle-ground on which the philosopher we are speaking about and the philosopher who is speaking are present together, although it is not possible even in principle to decide at any given moment just what belongs to each. [Merleau-Ponty] The philosopher does not take pre-existing ideas in order to recast them … The truth is that above the word and above the sentence there is something much more simple … [i.e.,] the meaning [sens], which is less a thing thought than a movement of thought, less a movement than a direction. [Bergson]

In a letter, Bergson would say that an “ism” is not merely the name of the set of principles held by a particular doctrine but rather a “tendency, a direction of thought followed by a philosopher”. Is this not precisely what Deleuze means by presenting a “Bergsonism” under the guise of a “return to Bergson”? This is obviously not a reactionary move; Bergson performatively made the same point when he instructed his executors and wife to destroy many of his writings on his death.

The “history of philosophy”, above all, must resist the temptation to become a museum or a marketplace. The task of history is to attest (this word is important) to the “life” of ideas. History is not this life; nor can history—lest it devolve into the ideologies of “objective history”—orient itself toward the ideas themselves (nor to concepts—Deleuze, again). The only proper history of philosophy is neither philosophical nor historical but, rather, metaphilosophical and, perhaps, metaxiological.