29 December 2009

The return of the mythic II

Cassirer says that we are in a world founded on myth. Yet it seems that the foundational myth here is precisely that we are in a world. It is for this reason that, contrary to Gabriel’s claim, scientism is not opposed to myth insofar as the certainty of knowledge, as a disposition already contained in perceptual experience, is not a value added from an otherwise naïve reception of un-comprehended or un-interpreted qualia. Hegel had made this point clearly in the opening sentences of the Phenomenology and, as the first chapter shows, only in the silent preparation for the divine, tarrying with the experience of death, does consciousness encounter the disparity of the “said” and the “meant” in language. It is here that Gabriel is most certainly wrong in his contrast of Hegel and Schelling: “whereas Hegel tried to uncover the necessity of the content of mythology (of art, religion, history, etc.), Schelling insists on the necessity of the form of representation which cannot be sidestepped … There is no absolute content prior to the mythological form”. Hegel and Schelling are una voce at least on this point. We experience the meaning of language in our very being-in-the-world prior to the movement of thought which, however, is precisely the original experience that we can never recover or remember: “mythology as an attempt to overcome the amnesia of Being, as vanquishing the pure facticity of the world, relieves me of a situation in which I must acknowledge myself as an accidental divinity …” (Kolakowski).

But, if this is the case, then the strictly unthinkable unity of sense and being cannot itself have being, i.e., there is no unity of thought (or, mutatis mutandis, reflection) and being (this is the case for both Schelling and, despite Gabriel, Hegel as well)—if this were not the case, we could not explain the fact of mythology anthropologically nor philosophically—that there should be myth at all. Or, we might go even further: if language is ineliminably metaphorical, this is because the Word is the manifestation of mythology (Hegel, Barthes).

13 December 2009

Signatures and styles (Characters II)

1. Traces: In unfinished sentences. In the one sentence that refuses to leave, “like a handprint on your heart”. In the voices of indirect language, nothing is left unsaid yet, for all that, mutual understanding is eminently unsatisfying. I know that you know, but that is not sufficient. When it comes to another who remains an other—who remains distant, untouchable, and who possibly may not even hear what we have to say—we can find no satiety. In the midst of the most perfect understanding available to our language—for example, in an unspoken agreement, a slight nod, the upturned corner of a lip, or even in a sigh of content—we can find ourselves under the most violent, nauseating reduction, i.e., within the unbearable solipsism of absolute immanence. In such immanence there can be no exterior, “nothing else than this”. I am alone and present with myself (a divided being); I am bound to myself, unable to escape myself: this is the burden of identity, i.e., the impossibility of not being myself, even if I am nothing more than a solitary dreamer who is deceived into believing that there are others who see and understand me.

But even if all we have is the faint recollection of those we cannot even really be sure existed for us, they always leave traces—in words and lacerations, in images and memories, and in the spaces we refuse to visit because we are only able to walk the same paths as they, following the footprints that have been left behind. We follow, simply to see them fly ahead, even if every freedom leaves a trace that cannot be forgotten.

“Out of incidents comes a “Mark!” that would not otherwise be thus; or a “Mark!” that already is, that takes little incidents as traces and examples. They point out a “less” or “more” that will have to be thought in the retelling, retold in the thinking; that isn’t right in these stories, because things aren’t right with us, or with anything.” (Bloch)

2. “The Prose of the World”: Against itself, identity is compelled to fortify its integrity against dissolution into the impersonal “it” of the simple “there is …” [il y a], i.e., to be drawn into what is unthinkable (which, we say, always remains available to us as “the last option”). But so long as there remains even the smallest trace to catch our attention and to make us pause, there will always be room for one more story, even if it should be told to no one but ourselves.

In the immediate urgency and intensity of pathetic self-presence, we are tethered to a constant battle against a fundamental contradiction contained in the bidirectionality of appearance. The infinity of (self-)expression is restrained by the exigencies of a world that appears to us as finite. We ourselves are not the source of finitude, even if we are its servants. We find our possibilities scattered amidst a world of bare objects to be consumed, shaped, and resisted; we cannot find the right words; we are obligated to work, health, sex, and religion. This is why the story, for example, is often taken to be inferior to music: the former gives expression to our all-too-human destiny while the latter offers a glimpse to what is otherwise banished from our earthly life.

We find the “meaning” of our lives, our “own” lives, dispersed among the tenuous fragments of the world that come within our reach—in the friends and strangers who cross our paths, the books that find their way into our hands, or the motility that forms in our bodies. It is from these fragments that we assemble the secrets that we take care to measure carefully in the extent to which we trust that others at least know that they exist even if they do not know what they are. These private thoughts, however, are precisely the most visible about us because if they really are “who” we are, they give us the very form and figure by which we are seen at all. We are seen as ambiguous, which is to say we can be misunderstood and misrepresented. This does not mean, however, that we might be more “accurately” represented if only we could be seen for who we “really” are, but, on the contrary, that our very visibility precludes the transparency of our appearance. It is for this reason our silence, even if it is unintentional, reveals who we are by our refusal “to remove all doubt”. I appear in my silence, not with this or that meaning or as this or that kind of person, but as this or that, i.e., “I” become an effect of this “or”, for only when that “or” is decided do “I” appear.

This is why my possibilities are not my possibilities: we find our possibilities in lessons and auditions, in characters and role models, in greetings and surprises, and, of course, in language and in the names (by which) we are called. We must search for possibilities, of course, but so too they must offer themselves to us. This is also true of our language insofar as our prose admits only two terms in the relation (poetry require at least three)—nature and word—in which we are caught in a dizzying circulation that manifests as science, history, and literature. We are able to read the world (and to read the character of others), but so too our characters are capable of being read by being in the world. By the “cunning” of reason, in our very attempts to sketch our “own” characters, we become characters within the prose of the world.

It is for this reason that even the anonymity of a forgettable character is preferable to us than the oblivion of one who has never existed. There can still be ecstasy in the crowd, however, which is not, strictly speaking, impersonal but supra- or hyper-personal. To be “lost” in the crowd is still a mode of existence (this is why, for example, fascism is the shadow of democracy), but there is no existence for the one who is only a statistic (which is why we always struggle to give each statistic a story).

To be “lost” in the crowd is not only a negative mode of existence, however: insofar as the crowd offers a community of meaning, it functions positively as a mode of affirmation: “Yes, I agree” or “Yes, I know what you mean” or “Yes, we can”. We know, of course, that to separate ourselves from the crowd is only an initial gesture, since if the point is to be recognized as different, we are still affirmed as such by the ones who are the same.

This is why so many of the characters available to us are not only clichés but perversions (which, if they remain clichés, are perverions but not subversions). It is one thing for us to recognize the reduction of the human to the biological in the Third Reich; what does it mean for Littell’s Aue (a former SS officer) to say “So I came to think [at Auschwitz]: wasn’t the camp itself, with all the rigidity of its organization, its absurd violence, its meticulous hierarchy, just a metaphor, a reductio ad absurdum of everyday life?” This is the same character that opens his story with the words “My human brothers, let me tell you how it came to pass”. Who are these “human brothers” that, by virtue of their humanity, must have been absent for the story to need telling? Under what conditions of inhumanity (viz., of our inhumanity) does this character exist for us? What does it mean for a character such as this to exist at all? – But better to be a monstrous character than a well-functioning desiring machine.

“The whole outward visible world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual world … Thus everything which is generated out of the internal has its signature; the superior form, which is chief in the spirit of the working in the power, does most especially sign the body, and the other forms hang to it …” (Böhme)

3. “The Most Improbable Signature”: Though we often mistake style for the signature, we always look, for example, for the signature of the painter or we hear the unmistakable signature of the composer. When a counterfeit deceives us, when it is so good to mimic the signature of the “real”, it is precisely there that the artist’s signature is most visible: the counterfeit doubles the original and repeats, in every instance, the gesture of the original signature, which becomes a transcendental (metaphysical and temporal) presence. This is why, for example, under the “hyper-reality” of free signifiers, the contemporary problem of “identity theft” becomes so problematic: divorced from the real our signatures are autonomous and effective without us. Yet the “I” of the signature is not only “peculiar and special” (Austin’s qualifications) in its use and function but in the very mode of its being (Derrida): “My brothers, here is the story I have to tell.” The “I” here does not precede its utterance but is the “I” that has and will always have said it. We can no longer say “I am not that person anymore” and, if we had never told our story, we would never have existed. By the very same act that we leave our mark, we are surpassed by those to whom it is addressed and, in this surpassing, they leave their traces on us.

“Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now it is done.” (Montaigne)

4. Under the imperative of self-knowledge, the reflective consciousness always looks elsewhere. Our understanding runs the risk of being the mask behind which hide ourselves. The paradox is not simply that, to understand ourselves, we must be understood by others (in language, in communication, in archetypes, etc), nor that self-understanding requires the non-coincidence of myself to myself. The question is not one of intelligibility (how I do or do not fit); rather we have an essentially ontological question: where there is a fragment of being, there is a style of being (Merleau-Ponty); or, according to the great Plotninian insight, being is an effect of expression and not its cause. In the distance between the determinate individual and the idea of that individual there lies the expression without which existence cannot pass. It is not only the “unity of a world” that I recognize as a style but without a style nothing appears at all (which is also why the appearance of nothing is itself a style). Appearance, however, does not require a “universal” style if every appearance is itself a style.

Being and phenomenon converge in style. As Jameson observes in his earliest encounter with Sartre, “consciousness is pure, impersonal; even the feeling of having a personality is external to it, a kind of mirage … Mathieu is a consciousness at odds with the problem of freedom: impersonal and absolute, what he perceives is an ultimate reality. There is no other truth of things behind his perception unless we make the leap into a second consciousness and its truth and world, the reality of his consciousness is limited only by that of others, and there is no privileged place where these worlds finally meet and correct each other and form a single objective real world. Mathieu is his situation, his reality is a constant present developing itself; but at the same time, above that present in places we find traces of older recurrent character problems that remind us of their existence before our attention to the present sweeps them away again …” But, as we have seen with someone like Littell’s Aue, it is not the case that “the reality of the novel does not exactly coincide … with the reality of the human beings which are its subject matter”. We say, for example, that the characters of a novel are always in their situations—in which they are the heroes, the victims, and the accomplices—but they lack the possibility of reflecting on their situations, which is the task of consciousness. Yet we know that our own reality never comes under the purview of consciousness, either (at best we retain such awareness as a possibility by analogy with the unity of God’s essence and existence).

In addition to a style of being, characters have a style of life. To resist the conflation of a style to a type or a category (which has especially befallen so-called “alternative” styles such as punk, the avant-garde, etc), style must be understood not only as the inflections of a language, but the creation of new languages. What matters is not the scene of thoughts—the fields and milieux in which they appear as concepts and systems—but their style. On the one hand, a style of life manifests in a certain power of doing and acting, of creation and generation, of drawing those famous “lines of flight” of which Deleuze spoke. We might, alternatively, call a style of life what Ravisson called “habit”, which is “the infinitesimal differential, or, the dynamic fluxion from Will to Nature. Nature is the limit of the regressive movement proper to habit. Consequently, habit can be considered as a method—as the only real method—for the estimation, by a convergent infinite series, of the relation, real in itself but incommensurable in the understanding, of Nature and Will”. We must, in other words, always “find our way about” even as we already know our way about. We are simply this self-transcending nature—that creates its own differences, variations, and fractals—but what we are only appears as an identity, i.e., in time as the point where being contracts into the singularity of a unique appearance.

“[S]tyle also uses its spur as a means of protection against the terrifying, blinding, mortal threat (of that) which presents itself, which obstinately thrusts itself into view. And style thereby protects the presence, the content, the thing itself, meaning, truth—on the condition at least that it should not already be that gaping chasm which has been deflowered in the unveiling of the difference. Already, such is the name for what has been effaced or subtracted beforehand, but which nevertheless left behind a mark, a signature which is retracted in that very thing from which it is withdrawn. Withdrawn from the here and now, the here and now which must be accounted for.” (Derrida)

5. If we have survived the destruction of experience at the hands of war, the viral proliferation of information, and the sublimations of enjoyment, in its continued destitution, what we require today is not only a style of life (such as some have called philosophy), which is manifest in our appearance, but new styles of thinking that are neither mine nor yours, subjective nor objective, mythic nor logical; not Greek but perhaps, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis says, Etruscan; whose matter and form are not only words but sounds and movements; whose task is not to think itself but "to sing its other" (Desmond); whose language is the regard in which we hold each other or the promise offered to a young child; whose vessel is the justice that continues to elude this world; that can construct a world from a single tear, a note, a sentence, a gust of wind or an afternoon storm, a one-way street, or a peal of laughter.

06 December 2009


1. “What are you hiding?” – If something were truly hidden, would we even know that it were? Or, perhaps the more interesting question is on the other side: to hide something, must we know that we are hiding it? Are we always so jealous of what we hide that we need to display it for all to see or, perhaps, only for those who know us better than we know ourselves? – “Only something precious, or something terrible, is worth hiding.” – But we cannot choose the circumstances that impress themselves on us. This is, however, precisely why we must press on: because hope is not who we are but who we might be. (But the price we pay for hope is one that is not always easy to bear.)

2. Under the ideology of authenticity, clichés are to us what natal charts are to the astrologer. Just as our character is written in the stars, so too we call ourselves by what we think we are. It is not our fate that is read from our resemblance to the stars but it is this resemblance that makes us worthy of having a fate which, by definition, we cannot know until we are forced to suffer it. And just as our fate is conditioned by our character, so too our characters are conditioned by the very descriptions we use, i.e., by the way we are seen as characters and always represented in a genre.

3. There are some characters that we say we would like to be, but the more interesting question is who the characters are that we refuse to be. These are usually the ones we would like not to give a second thought. Some of these have names (Willie Loman, for example) but there are those whose names are unknown to us—the clichéd, forgettable ones: the barfly, the groupie, or even the victim.

But then we are caught in a double-bind. We cannot exactly “aspire” to the average. It’s by being beholden to the role cast by “others” that we are already a part of the crowd and the value of a life will always be buried in the enjoyment parceled in paid time off, ounces, and dollars.

But, on the other hand, any attempt to write our own character will also be confronted with another economy: our characters only have meaning insofar as they are recognizable within a genre. In other words, there will always be a general name for our characters, since any non-Adamic language contains more than proper names (“the unique one” is itself a cliché).

4. What we require, then, is not a model of authenticity but a theory of communication that is not merely linguistic but narrative: an “inter-subjective” account of language still requires subjective models (without being constructed from the latter). All this means is that just as language is originally metaphorical, so too discourse occurs as an effect of the way in which we express our characters, replete with the deceptions and ambiguities that such expression entails.

04 December 2009

The many valences of thinking: Jameson (Notes on reading Valences of the Dialectic)

1. Philosophy has always been impressed by the strangeness of thought—that there should be such a thing in an otherwise thoughtless, irrational universe. Behind the usual invocation of the “strangeness of reality” in the usual self-characterizations of philosophy (especially in the banality “why is there something rather than nothing?” which is, more accurately, a theological and not a philosophical question), the real interest of philosophy in thought is in thought itself, whether idealist (what is thought thinking?) or materialist (how does thought think?), immanent or transcendent. In the case of the latter duality, the interest of philosophy has always been the abrogation of the unthinkable (for the transcendentalist, the unthinkable is thought “as” unthinkable). Insofar as the domain of thought is thought itself (despite the bifurcations of reflexivity), the only “strangeness of reality” to which thought is exposed occurs through the experience of alienation: that there is reality at all. For this reason, Jameson rightly charges that philosophy “is always haunted by … a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause. This mirage is of course the afterimage of philosophy as an institution in the world, as a profession complicit with everything else in the status quo, in the fallen ontic realm of ‘what is’”.*

*It is for this reason, Jameson says, that the dialectic belongs to Theory rather than to philosophy. In an unusual slippage of terms, what Jameson really means is not Theory but, rather, praxis. As he says much earlier than the passage cited, “these unities of theory [small “t”] and practice are … distinct from the implied autonomy of the philosophical concept and cannot in any sense be completed by philosophy but only by praxis”. And in this he is surely correct.

2. What would be a thinking whose substance is the unthinkable? This question is not yet dialectical, for the unthought is in itself negative (the unthinkable is simply the unthought or the not-yet-thought) but does not, for all that, simply throw us back into thought (the thought that there is something unthought). But neither can we simply say that the unthought is the (transcendental) condition for thinking, for this returns us again to the absolutism of thought (i.e., the familiar lesson of negation as the figure of thought). The dialectic, therefore, is not another figure of thought; the dialectic is not a concept (it has no essence that can serve as the object of a definition); neither is it a method or a logic. The dialectic is in a sense a “pure signifier”.

Contradiction functions as the expression of the dialectic or, perhaps, we might say that the dialectic is expressed by the torsion of contradiction; whereas the task of conceptual purity is to deactivate contradiction and to protect the integrity of the subjective utterance against the shock of a real contradiction. Mediation, then, operates in both directions: although the result of mediations, in contradiction the subject finds itself in an essentially reactive position such that “self-knowledge is not really a knowledge of the self, but rather a consciousness of its situations, a way of gaining and keeping awareness of precisely that multiplicity of situations in which the self finds and invents itself”, i.e., amidst a complex of forms of appearance which are produced and re-produced as thought. The dialectic, then, accounts for the possibility that there is a form of thought that is not yet thought: “a speculative account of some thinking of the future which has not yet been realized … a way of grasping situations and events that does not yet exist as a collective habit because the concrete form of social life to which it corresponds has not yet come into being”.

Jameson’s name for such a thought is, as he had already said in Archaeologies, “Utopia”, for which he will give at least two equivalent formulations: temporally, Utopia designates the fact that the dialectic, if successful, will no longer exist but, for that reason, can never be successful (in a teleological sense); spatially, the name “Utopia” designates not a place or an ideal but “it expresses Utopian desire and invests it in a variety of unexpected and disguised, concealed, distorted ways” (hence in Archaeologies Jameson finds the figure of Utopia in science fiction, i.e., in allegories** of transformed worlds: “violent ruptures with what is breaks that destabilize our stereotypes of a future that is the same as our own present, interventions that interrupt the reproduction of the system in habit and in ideological consent and institute that fissure, however minimal and initially little more than a hairline fracture, through which another picture of the future and another system of temporality altogether might emerge”).

**This word should be understood as Benjamin would say it. Benjamin and Barthes are pervasive throughout Valences, but always by their traces.

3. Topoi: Insisting against a temporal thematization of subjectivity, Jameson argues for a spatial dialectic (the result of which must be some form of what he has called “cognitive mapping”) whose function is not to subsume the concept under the category (Aristotle, Kant), nor to preserve the consistency of relations in the absolute (Hegel), nor to reduce history to the battleground of an objective praxis (bad Marxism). The dialectic maintains the disjunction between the One and the Two through the excess of the One—not a becoming or abundance of the One but negatively as a void that maintains the gap between incommensurables: “this kind of dialectic is therefore not so much dualistic as it is revelatory of some ontological rift or gap in the world itself, or, in other words, of incommensurables in Being itself”. More than parallax (Zizek) or complementarity (Plotnitsky), what Jameson offers is the possibility of a new form of sensibility such that out of the many objective forms of appearance, new subjectivities become possible as appearances without ipso facto simply falling victim to false consciousness. For this reason, the question remains for Jameson what it had for Adorno: how is truth possible in a false world? Only if truth is that which cannot be thought. But the possibility of such an event is neither subjective—and, obviously, not a matter of will or intention—nor objective (since the real is precisely what is not true nor, strictly speaking, that which is inaccessible to thought—this is why, while the dialectic can be thought, in some sense, along the old lines of sub/object, it is best to consider “the dialectic” a pure signifier. Yet this too is not quite right, since the dialectic is not a logical principle, particularly in the legal sense that is necessarily beholden to the abstract universality of law (Jameson himself is explicit on this point). At bottom, the dialectic remains what it always has been for Jameson: an aesthetic principle—one that, if we follow his thought to its necessary conclusion, calls for the articulation of a new “transcendental aesthetic”, which, if philosophy is to have a future, must be one of its paramount tasks.

4. Why Althusser is worth fighting for: The dialectic, then, is not a principle of thought but calls for thinking: more precisely, it calls for what philosophy since Hegel (or, arguably, Plato) has always posited: the possibility of thinking something else. As Althusser famously said, “if … contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ …”. What we need to understand is the unfortunate word “accumulation”: not as a mere aggregation of contradictions but the topological relations of contradictions themselves (even as contradictions mark the limits of spaces), which results in the inexistence of the real—the fact that the real should appear to us as strange or perhaps even as erotically intolerable. In the face of the real, Badiou and Lacan have offered us a logic; phenomenology a method. In addition to these, what Jameson has indicated, even if he may not say this himself, is a correlative aesthetic; and for this, he remains, perhaps even more than Badiou, the greatest avatar of the dialectic today.

02 December 2009

Vox populi: philosophy and politics

1. Those who would wonder about the political relevance of philosophy—for example, by insisting that there is such a thing as “political philosophy” or by puzzling over Marx’s eleventh thesis—decline to recognize that philosophy, properly speaking, has always been political. This necessity was not forced on it from the outside (e.g., by sophism) nor simply from the existence of doxa (philosophy is not the antidote to either of these). Rather, politics as a form of life issues a demand that philosophy ignores at its own peril on pain of its obsolescence—that its time should come to an end (without ruin and recovery, for such a task is precisely the work of the philosopher).

We find ourselves, however, in a form of life that requires a new philosophy. However we might wish to designate our form of life, what is at stake is not the claim of “the part that has no part” in the systematic exclusion from what is properly political from politics. Under the ideology of a sham liberalism (a sham because it does not exist), whose proponents have never been more vociferous in their affirmation of deliberative democracy, what we witness in politics today is not only the inexistence of certain political subjects but the unintelligibility of their demands. This inexistence, which is more damning than simple non-existence, binds them to existence only in the mode of being declared, by fiat, not to exist. What is at stake in the fight for justice includes the sense of that justice, for justice is self-compelling to the ones who have ears to hear and, as such, cannot be the end of politics. The ellipsis preceding the phrase “and justice for all” defers justice indefinitely, which can indeed come too late for the ones who never see it.

When a politics operates under a systematic principle of exclusion under the principle of universality (e.g., protecting the “basic building blocks of society”), what is required for the construction of the political (subject) is a new thought. Philosophy is not politics nor does philosophy give a sense to politics—that is the work of the political subject. Philosophy consists in the creation of new thoughts or, more precisely, in new possibilities for thinking. This is, for example, what Gödel would endorse in Husserl: “[phenomenology] is … a procedure or technique that should produce in us a new state of consciousness in which we describe in detail the basic concepts we use in our thought, or grasp other basic concepts hitherto unknown to us”. But, as we know, reflexivity in the phenomenological method does not merely “leave thought as it is” but, Gödel says, moves us toward a “higher” state of consciousness (ein höherer Bewußtseinszustand), just as we witness the development of a child. This is, of course, what he said in his famous incompleteness theorem: that thought will always have an exterior to its own (reflective) determinations. Whatever name we might give to this procedure (phenomenology, dialectics, etc), only when thought can come to recognize its own inexistence* can we begin to think what for us now is impossible. Such is the political task of philosophy.

*We might be tempted to say that thought should be “woken” (Kant, Lévinas, etc) except that we might wonder why thought should not be allowed to dream (Bergson, Bachelard).

2. Philosophy, therefore, does not begin from but moves toward the everyday and consists in the construction and subsequent deconstruction of the everyday. We know, of course, that there are levels of sense (for example, there is “common sense” but there is also eidetic intuition), but the topography of thought is not hierarchical. The word “sedimentation” is misleading if for no other reason than that thought does not consist of strata but of fields and their relations (which are given by transcendental logic). To give an account of “the everyday” is to give an account of conditions, i.e., the conditions for thought itself. Conditions, however, are causes, which is why thought operates under the hypothesis of universal determinism (which implies logical monism**). There is no “everyday” until it is identified under a matrix of conditions, just as we cannot be ignorant until we are aware of our ignorance. “Common sense” has no sense until it is constituted, just as thought is not thought until it is thought (this must be what Kant meant when he spoke of freedom from our “self-imposed immaturity and servitude”). The dialectical faith is that in moving toward consistency, thought will always encounter its impossibility. It remains to be seen how we will handle this limit; so far, our responses to these situations have not been encouraging.

**The either/or should not be understood as a binary operation (which is obviously true in the syntax of disjunction in logic) but as a categorical one: a sort of synecdoche for the category (not “either/or” but, rather, either/or/or/or/or …).

01 December 2009

Life without being

Despite everything Bergson did for philosophy, he made an unfortunate mistake by nominating the logic of difference the “élan vital”, which was quickly misunderstood as another name for being. Rather, all the great vitalists (Spinoza and Leibniz come to mind) understood that logical monism (what Driesch calls the “monism of order”) was neither a metaphysical monism nor beholden to the usual problematic of necessity/contingency. If vitalism is to be a philosophy of freedom—of the “unforeseeable creation of novelty”—then it must be understood as a critical philosophy according to which what had been known as metaphysical questions are at bottom questions of sense (which, of course, is a question of time). Spirit, as Scheler says, “has its own nature and autonomy, but lacks an original energy of its own” as a series (Scheler says “group”) of pure intentions. It is only thus conceived that a philosophy of spirit can be deduced (dialectically?) from a philosophy of nature without succumbing to the identity of thought and being. If vitalism is to have a future, it must come to see that there are only specific relations (special metaphysics) and no relations “in” the absolute (general metaphysics):”organization in general is … nothing else but a diminished and as it were condensed picture of the universe” (Schelling), i.e, as a phenomenon.

13 November 2009

Irony and criticism

To the extent that romanticism has ever thought itself as capable of criticism, its figural gesture par excellence is that of irony. This is a gesture of negation purified of objective intention—a withdraw into the absolute will of the ego who is able to live amidst a hostile world only by denying it with a simple “no”. The ironist is the one who is able to live in the world without being of the world. But this is precisely an immediate negation that “is frightened of being polluted by contact with finitude” (Hegel) and easily devolves into the sentimentality of an adolescent defiance of mood at the expense of action. Even an absolutization of negation (e.g., Kierkegaard) cannot free itself from the exteriority of the world for the ironist whose only experience is his own: viz., the power (dunamis) of pure possibility—the possibility always to be otherwise than the objective presence of the world “taken ironically”. The monism of infinite subjectivity, however, precludes the possibility of action and, therefore, of criticism. A simple negation is always beholden to the given; so too “playing with nothing” is obviously undialectical and it is not clear that the ironist is even capable of self-criticism, which would require the mediation of an other. This is why, for example, at least one modernism would look to the sublimation of comic laughter as the transcendental moment of criticism (Nietzsche); another would find, in the late Beethoven, subjectivity as “an irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance as art. Of the works themselves, it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher …” (Adorno). A critical art leaves us, in either case, with the bare, naked object in the only form to which it is available to us as an object of criticism—in the subject pulled out of itself to be dashed against the contradictions and injustices from which it cannot escape since, for us, there can be no escape.

16 October 2009

Written in the stars

Invoking Benjamin, Agamben calls the constellation “the very place of signatures”. Yet it is not clear that Agamben’s semiotic commitments contribute to what is developed in Benjamin’s doctrine of mimesis. In an easily-overlooked sentence that is not obviously related to the usual locus classicus of Benjamin’s image of constellations, Benjamin says that the mimetic character of objects can be read, “for example, in the constellations of the stars” but that we today (i.e., we moderns) are no longer capable of recognizing these images.

All the elements of Agamben’s theory of signatures is contained in Benjamin’s theory of language, including the epistemic problems associated with the division of the sign. What Agamben lacks is Benjamin’s commitment to the objectivity of the idea according to which the only real signature is that of a proper name.

16 August 2009

Steps on the way to alterity

1. By long and common use, our sentences become unbreakable. This resilience is attested, for example, in the fact we can still misspell the most common words of our language—if, that is, it is the written word that expresses our thoughts. “But spelling is a mere convention and there is nothing essential to the spelling of a word. What matters is the thought expressed by it.” – Yet we know, of course, that language is always already inhabited by others. In a truly private language (which is not, NB, a solitary language) there is only one meaning, which is expressed in the perfect univocity of a baby’s cry.

2. Or consider the resistance of certain sentences that refuse to budge, even when we are prone to falter—e.g., the ones who hang on the wall as “affirmations”. What is this “I” indicated by these? Not the splitting of the ego or merely a projection (more or less the I/me of social interactionism) but the reflection (in language) of the ego: a glimpse of what cannot otherwise be experienced.

10 August 2009

An optimistic techno-politics

Between the fatalism of archic justice and the strategies of resistance both demanded and necessitated by retributive politics on the one hand and the an-archic metapolitics of subjectification whose function is both to de/construct the state, Gaillot has suggested an experimental techno-politics of touching—the touching of bodies, the touching of possibilities: “technics, itself a force of deterritorialization and métissage, in its contemporary form effects and provokes … mutation in our being-together, taking it from a belonging in fact (to a nation or a contract) to a polymorphous sociability that no longer recognizes itself in traditional forms of identity”. In the merging of technology and a music that, ostensibly, has no political program, “in the final analysis, the question is no longer one of representation or exposition, but of the genesis of an event to be experienced in common and thereby replayed within a new perspective. To outside observers techno will present only its ‘cortex,’ its outer skin, if they fail to see this demand for participation and communion of bodies in and through dance”.

Even if we could more clearly distinguish between Galliot’s conflation of electronica and techno—where we would still be faced with the difficulty of what is apparently a cultural economy of sound—two problems face what would otherwise be an appealing endeavor. First, not the music but the culture does have an overt politics (PLUR!) that, second, has apparently been lacking in efficacy: amidst the showers of amphetamines, rave candy, and pacifiers, the only results seem to have been anorexia and diminished cognitive capacities.

07 August 2009

Some notes on the limit

That it should be necessary for philosophy to think the notion of the limit which, as Théodorou correctly observes, is a “significant marker of our experience of the world, collective or intimate …”, comes as the result of a series of misnomers: the limit of reason, the limit of ambition, the limit of law. Philosophy and religion have erred in several familiar ways with respect to this notion: by positing it or dialecticizing it (and thereby abrogating it completely), by folding it into infinite interiority (e.g., existentialism), or quite simply by confusing limit with something like “boundary” or with some other negative definition.

To Théodorou’s comment we should add Legendre’s insight that the primordial form of the limit is time in the dual sense of subjective time and the time of civilization (or simply “history”), which is given dramatization—in a technical sense—in Aeneas’ fated departure from Troy toward the horizon of an unknown future. This dual aspect of time helps us distinguish limit and finitude in a way that existentialism could not. And, lest we fall into familiar errors, Jullien reminds us that, against the abstraction of “universal” time, the folds of time are persistently concrete in flesh and bone, in the qualitative differences of the seasons, that life is not what happens “between beginning and end”.

Instead of an extrinsic determination—e.g., in thinking that to be limited is to be limited by something—limit is the very principle of identity. But, as we know, identity is non-coincidence. What existentialism called “ambiguity” is something like this: the structure of the limit is a double movement of in/exclusion.

07 July 2009

Conditions II

1. Why philosophy? What are the (material) needs for which thinking finds expression in philosophy? These may be political (e.g., Plato), religious, scientific/physical, etc. What is at stake is not simply the articulation of the philosophy of “our time” (as if thinking required stimulation by the environment). Even if such an account were possible (e.g., in a so-called “sociology of philosophy"), we are not asking “what” philosophy is but why philosophy? What is the wisdom we need, if ever there is wisdom that we seek?

2. Against the ideology of “eternal wisdom”—which in the name of a vague humanist subjectivity ultimately reifies thought into the most sterile objectivity—philosophy today is not merely an inflated commiseration on the injustices of the human condition. Modern philosophy exists as an account of conditions. The first step for the philosopher is not to ask “what is it?” but to notice that this object (thing, situation, circumstance, affect) is and has come to be. In science we would speak of causality and in mathematics we would speak of entailments: i.e., a physics of place, time, mode, and manner. But any account of how anything is is also an account of how it is not (in this time, in that place). A physics is therefore always a science of complexes. The philosopher asks “why this complex? why this combination? (gyms and rock music, suburbs and chain stores, fate and circumstance, guilt and punishment, science and technology)”. This account of conditions constitutes the theoretical component of philosophy; the practical, of course, is nothing other than the material performance of philosophy in the formation of the body or the corpus (which is not, of course, merely to speak of the biological body); finally, the logical component of philosophy is the construction of the thinking subject (i.e., thinking the conditions for thought). Broadly speaking, philosophy has three allies for these respective tasks: politics, aesthetics, and psychoanalysis.

05 July 2009

The politics of music

“By voicing the fears of helpless people, [music] could signal help for the helpless, however feebly and distortedly. In doing so it would renew the promise contained in the age-old protest of music: the promise of a life without fear” (Adorno).

“… [music] is not a copy of the phenomenon, or, more accurately, the adequate objectivity of the will, but is the direct copy of the will itself, and therefore represents the metaphysical of everything physical in the world, and the thing-in-itself of every phenomenon … music gives the universalia ante rem and the real world the universalia in re” (Nietzsche).

A sort of constellation: Adorno and Nietzsche. But, instead of drawing a line through Wagner (as Bauer and Ramply have already suggested in their respective ways), perhaps we need instead to detour through Kant’s first Critique.

The temptation is to think that what we need is an undistorted image of suffering, such that there could be a direct correlation between representation and the will by means of the concept. But it is precisely because of the distortion of the image that an aesthetics of thought is possible—through a secondary mimesis that refers thought to nothing other than non-coincidence. But this space is unlivable, perhaps even unbearable—and we express or discharge this experience in our bodies: in a tremor, the closing of our eyes, in the next step, in the sense that something—I know not what—has happened.

Addenda: 1. “Music” cannot be the name for a genus. There is no essence of “music”. We can only relate singular performances to a unique line extending to each of its inter- and contexts on the one hand and to its future effects on the other. Consequently, there is no one criterion for music (and its redemptive power).

2. After hearing “Blue Cathedral”, one would be quite justified in the hope of a truly feminine music from Higdon. Unfortunately many of the other works, such as “City Scape” ultimately amidst the bombast try to do too much, i.e., attempt to communicate a concept or a representation instead of quite literally creating a new space (a new aesthetic) through the material of the sound image (which is the greatest virtue of the tone poem). Instead of an image proper, “City Scape” gives us the self-indulgence of infinite romantic subjectivity masquerading as a beautiful object.

04 July 2009

Discourse and democracy

À propos of our holiday today, I stumbled on this photo. I cannot think of a better rejoinder to anyone who still thinks "deliberative democracy" is an option or, for that matter, how anyone can still seriously defend the ideology of individualism--for only such an ideology would permit the conjunction of "Get a brain!" with "Morans" insofar as what counts is merely conviction and patriotism.

02 July 2009

Why write? (On the prelude, à la manière de Sartre)

The danger of writing is falling into the false dichotomy of production and consumption. In both cases, writing is therapeutic and, therefore, outside the economy of use: either we write to “express ourselves” (discharge of affect) or we take pleasure in words that express what we are not ourselves able to say. In both cases, the appropriate response is merely “Amen” and our words fall flat despite our enthusiasm precisely by being absorbed into the economy of exchange according to which the meaning of our words is exhausted by either our intention or by our understanding. There is writing, however, whose existence is not that of understanding. This is not, of course, to say that the purpose of such writing is to be misunderstood. This is a writing that enables us to go on, i.e., not to persist in being but, in a precise sense, to ex-ist. This is the sense of the corpus that we get, for example, in its most profound sense in Nietzsche (here Gasché is most certainly correct). What, Nietzsche asks, is a writing that sounds? What is the body the writer creates? What is the experience that writing makes possible?

01 July 2009

Mysticism and the mythopoetic imagination

Against the easy conflation of mysticism and “the ineffable”--and the ineffable and the unsayable--Wolfson continues to offer us the resources to think the passage from representation to knowledge in ways that are not beholden to the problematics of sense or reference. Framed as a hermeneutic/phenomenological investigation into kabbalah, in what is more than an account of the kabbalistic vision of the divine and a fairly damning accusation of androcentrism in medieval rabbinic culture, alongside the likes of Marion and Desmond, Wolfson provides an account of an imagining of the difference between idol and image, between remembrance and forgetting, particularly in terms of the mutual conversion of sexual difference into identity. i.e., the “suffering of eros as the indifferent identity (one-that-is-all) becoming identical difference (all-that-is-one), a process that is collectively conceived by kabbalists as amelioration of feminine judgment, her restoration to and elevation through the morphological prism of the divine, culminating in the reconstitituion of the male androgyne in Keter, the place that is no-place (atar law atar) …” In the space of a paragraph it would be impossible to approach the complex of speech and eros in the “process” (if we speak in philosophical terms) of the Sefirot. Consider, nevertheless, Wolfson’s treatment of the Song of Songs: “… the Song is directed to Binah, the “supernal world” or the “world-to-come,” which is also identified as Solomon (shelomo) … the “king” is Binah, who is called by this name on account of her demiurgical role in the birthing of the lower seven sefirot. The shift in symbolism underscores the fact that the theurgical purpose of the Song is to arouse the joy of Shekhinah, the “world of the moon,” in relation to Binah, the “upper world,” so that the two worlds may be aligned in one pattern”. Wolfson’s own analysis following this passage is remarkable in itself, but instead of inflecting this logic ontologically into a (para)logic of eros, what we have here is too a logic of affectivity whose resources call for immediate attention.

16 June 2009

An uneasy alliance: Nietzsche, Cioran, Heidegger

What Cioran offers us is the immanence of death against every image of life and givenness. Death is not, Cioran insists, an end, a goal, a limit, a gate, a horizon. Death as such cannot be the object of the will; and although he will often speak of the “thought of death”, more perspicuously we might instead say that it is the thinking of death that raises the intensity of an individual existence to the level of the impersonal “there is”. Suffering, of course, individuates (for in suffering I imagine that no one else has suffered before me: “I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only existence”), but only to expose the myth of the given: that although thinking is the activity of the (reflective, existential) ‘I’, this ‘I’ is the product of a tremendous and terrible work, i.e., the work of death under the illusion of life. Or, to put it in more Nietzschean terms, the ‘I’ is nothing other than the appearance of appearance, i.e., a pure phenomenon. ‘I’ can never be given to exist nor do I give myself to exist—for in neither case can we explain the simultaneous individuality of suffering and the anonymity of death. There can never be such a thing as “my” death (strictly speaking, this is also true of the treatment of death in Being and Time); the referent of this term is always not-I, an other. My death is always the death of an other and another’s death is always mine—but without any relation (coincidence, reduction, substitution) between the two. It is this non-relation that constructs the illusion, the excess of life: “the irrationality of life manifests itself in this overwhelming expansion of form and content, in this frenetic impulse to substitute new aspects for old ones, a substitution, however, without qualitative improvement. Happy is the man who could abandon himself to this becoming and could absorb all the possibilities offered each moment, ignoring the agonizingly problematic evaluation which discovers in every moment an insurmountable relativity”. The condition—the impossible condition—for such life, however, is sickness, which manifests not as effervescence but seriousness, thought. Thought, however, is only able to offer us the image of becoming.

15 June 2009

Affliction; or: fate and circumstance

1. The existence of fate depends on the extent to which we have ceased to believe in it. This will seem paradoxical only to the one for whom fate is nothing but circumstance—especially those circumstances in which we find ourselves burdened by the weight of exteriority (including the projected aspects of our character that we assign to the carelessness of nature)—“my father was an alcoholic”; “our family has always been susceptible to heart disease”; “what are the chances we would both cross this intersection right now?”; “I had the moral good fortune to be born into a democratic state”; “I just have an addictive personality”.

It is by crying against the injustice of fate that we are able to love everything about ourselves that we hate—for if this is our fate, then there is no one to blame. It cannot be the fault of God since to hold God accountable for our miserable fate would be to believe in him (and to believe in God we cannot hold him accountable for our suffering); neither can we blame a nature indifferent to my own sense of dessert (apart from the providence of God) in which I have merely the illusion of uniqueness due to the fact that I must experience the world from its exterior—I am only “in” the world by being able to separate myself from it in/by thought.

But, of course, fate is not always unkind. But we all know how difficult, how terrifying, and how breathtaking it is really to affirm fate and not simply to delight in the immediate enjoyment of our present circumstance. This is precisely why we can be afflicted only by fate and not by circumstance. Fate is neither the cause of circumstance nor its justification, for we would then be affirming fate by suffering it. We suffer fate when we consign ourselves to “the way things are”, even if we are merely accepting the consequences of our own decisions. The most terrible psychological task is not to affirm fate but to deny it, i.e., to be afflicted by it. To deny fate does not mean simply to rail against its injustice but, rather, to strive to be all one is not. But such a task is by definition impossible—we can only be that which we are. If it is a matter of will, then we might say that to be afflicted by fate is to will one’s inexistence (which should not be confused with the impulse to non-existence or, in other words, the will not to exist—we all know why suicide cannot be the will to non-existence, since it has meaning only from within the immanence of life), which often manifests, confusedly, as feeling trapped under one’s skin, as a rebellion against the state of the world or an incongruity between self and world. But at stake in such a will is not the preservation of what one is. But we can have no knowledge of what is not and, therefore, we cannot will what is not. To be afflicted by fate, then, is to have an objectless will or, in other words, a purely subjective will, an I willing nothing—not the will “to be nothing” nor the feeling of “being nothing”, but willing as the middle term between the phenomenon of the I and the mark of nothing.

2. There is a vulgar materialism that is simply another name for an inverted dualism and not, as it would have us believe, a pure monism according to which there are only bodies. The thesis that “I am my body” still accomplishes the feat of imprisoning the soul by reducing soul to body. The mistake here is to consider soul as “immaterial” (and therefore not-body) or to confuse materiality with body. The political consequences of such a materialism are banal at best and deadly at worst: in the reduction of personality to the shape of a contorted face (equivalently in pleasure or in anguish), we are left with the figure of a “bare humanity” (to adapt one of Agamben’s terms)—a humanity defined biologically, yet in such a way that separates humanity and nature even when, ostensibly, such a “materialism” should do the opposite—for the meaning of “right” ceases to have any meaning unless humans have a special kind of body. But, we should wonder, what exactly is so special about the human body? This is the ideology behind the banality “prick us, do we not bleed?”. To accomplish such normalization, do we not need precisely to prick? to test? to abstract? What is then left of such a humanity other than objects in place of bodies?

04 June 2009

A new criticism

The task of criticism is no longer “political” in its usual senses, as it has been since the construction of the public sphere. Under the ideology of discourse, criticism has trafficked in the material dissemination of ideas (in what goes by the name of “media”). But what criticism can no longer afford to neglect is a critique of the political economy of ideas. The obvious site for such a critique is the (academic) publication industry. What Stiegler has recently proposed (Pour une nouvelle critique de l’économie politique) applies here just as well—to borrow his words (approximately) for my own purposes: who are the financiers, industrialists, editors, professional/political actors who are engaged in the occultation of the economy of ideas under the ideology of a “free press” and, in the face of this, what explains the total silence and complicity of philosophy on these questions?

02 June 2009

Two figures of ideology

1. “Pseudomenos—The magnetic power exerted by patently threadbare ideologies is to be explained, beyond psychology, by the objectively determined decay of logical evidence as such. Things have come to pass where lying sounds like truth, truth like lying.” [Adorno, Minima Moralia §71]

Important here, however, is not the object of truth but the determination of truth and lie—of the conditions under which there is a truth that can be taken for lie and where lie can be taken as such. What defines a lie is not its falsehood—a pure falsity is unthinkable; a lie is a falsity taken to be true. But what feat is required of us to take a lie as a lie—for when we suffer a lie, it is not a lie. What Plato understood is that when we suffer a lie we are not merely to blame for an error in judgment but, rather, that we suffer from an inferior perception—it is our very experience that is defective. What, then, does it mean when we are able to take a lie as such?

In a recent series of advertisements by Hulu on TV, Alec Baldwin presents himself as an alien involved in an “evil plot” to conquer the world by consuming human brains once they have been turned into mush by watching TV (“just as our mothers said they would”), which is facilitated by streaming TV shows on the Internet.

The semiotics here are plain enough. But the interesting question is not how we are able to understand the advertisement; rather, how does it succeed in legitimizing itself? Not “there’s really no alien plot to gooify human brains” but “we can laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously” (which Alec Baldwin has been doing for years, hoping that we are laughing with him, although to do so we must also thereby be laughing at him). But what this advertisement has (brilliantly, brutally) accomplished is to short-circuit the potential sublimation of laughter into irony (or what in popular terms might be called “cynicism”). The ironist is the one who cuts the link between signifier and signified; but what distinguishes the ironist from the schizophrenic is that the ironist proceeds to close the loop by again dividing the signifying field (NB—this is not to say that there “are” autonomous signified objects) into a more or less consistent economy. This is what prevents the ironist, for example, of being sensitive to the political economy of the original signifying field (e.g., in thinking we can watch Hulu “harmlessly” quite apart from supporting the franchises, advertising partners, and industries invested in it). In this way, Hulu has managed effectively to remove itself from any form of discursive criticism.

2. “Vox populi.” The term “radio personality” is a wonderful contradiction in terms. Is there any better manifestation of what “everyone” would say and, hence, precisely what "no one" says? There is no better imitation of discourse.

31 May 2009

Politics and democracy

Recently, La Fabrique éditions asked a series of fashionable authors to comment on the sense of the word “democracy” and whether the word should today be abandoned. The collection (Démocratie, dans quel état?) is prefaced by invoking, as a provocation, the spirit of La Révolution surréaliste.*

*Posing the question in this way is only possible in Europe where the notion of “democracy” was both early and late to arrive. For this reason, none of the authors make the mistake predominant among their Anglo-American counterparts in political theory of assuming that the word “democracy” designates a particular type of constitution or state-form, which is axiomatic (in a non-technical sense) for so-called “democratic theory”. The very (odd and ultimately disastrous) distinction between political theory and political philosophy is another symptom of the confusion of the Anglophone discourse on democracy, which is yet another problem entirely than the confusion addressed by the Fabrique volume and deserves separate polemical treatment. The internal discourse of political theory itself cannot refuse to address its nebulous status as neither political science nor political philosophy (the “neither” here in the pejorative sense of being “inadequate”). The particularly banal treatment of the “return of democracy” on Obama’s election should be proof enough of this. Under the auspices of a naïve empiricism, democratic theory has ceased to understand what is at stake (dare we say, “metaphysically”?) in the very notion of “representation” which is not merely an epistemological nor even a metaphysical question that can be separated from its meaning as a political term (for Negri and Foucault, “representation” is an ontological question; for Badiou it is logical; for Deleuze it is both; etc). At best, “representation” becomes a procedural term for democratic theory and, consequently, is beholden to a problematic positivist methodology. Or, to put it another way, what calls itself “democratic theory” proceeds by assuming that there are democratic subjects—who are/not represented, who behave as political agents in ways that can be charted (“rational actors”), etc—who are constituted by “the citizen” considered as a purely legalistic entity, which leads us into an ultimately futile debate in legalism that ends in the sham proceduralism of so-called “legal process” in America or hermeneutics by another name. It is also noteworthy along these lines that Habermas—who is praised by the advocates of legalism—is not among the authors collected in the Fabrique volume.

 The provocation of La Révolution surréaliste is not its overtly communistic program but rather in its professed allegiance to the “principle” of historical materialism, i.e., in Breton’s words, the “sovereignty of thought”. The question, in its most brutal form, is simply: what is the relation of thought to politics? Obviously, “thought” is not taken here in the abstract sense of so-called “rational choice theory” or even in the metaphysical sense of a res cogitans. But if thought is to be taken in its substantive or concrete sense, then the question is not how to relate thought to politics insofar as the conditions for thought are always already political. But to say this is still too abstract, since the liberal democrat would affirm the same thing: the end of politics is to establish the form but not the material of association (i.e., the “human being”).

Rather, the question at hand is a Nietzschean question: what are the conditions under which thought is possible? This is, essentially, what Badiou posits in his reading of the Republic (in the Fabrique volume) in what he identifies as two fundamental theses:

1. The democratic world is not really a world.

2. The democratic subject is not constituted with respect to its pleasure [jouissance]. [My translations; “pleasure” is preferable to “enjoyment” here insofar as Badiou is responding to the usual treatment of hedonism in Plato.]

The first of these is readily recognizable as an extension of Logiques des Mondes. The second is (and this is now my reading of Badiou’s reading of Plato) an intervention in the question of political education—that there are not political subjects but that we must become political subjects. The democrat tries to claim the transparency of the political subject (particularly to itself!) problematically both as the condition and the result of political education. But if there is anything we can learn from the democratic impulse it is just that the very site of politics is the disjunction between thought and its transparency.

This, it seems to me, is one step in avoiding two tendencies in continental political philosophy: 1) to reduce politics to democracy tout court (e.g., democracy is always deferred, impossible, etc);** 2) to reduce politics to the operations of the state or, conversely, 3) to reduce politics to the attempt to insert some distance between the subject and the state.  Rather, I submit, politics is nothing other than the continuous construction of the state. The simultaneous separation of subject and state is what, following Abensour, might be called metapolitics.

**One possible exception to this charge is Lefort.

28 May 2009

At Twilight

“Have you seen the stars?” she asked, “Have you ever seen the stars? But what is it you think you have seen? That one there—has ceased to exist since before you were born. And that one there shall never return your admiration. But they have not been flung away by the ambitions of your mortality or your science. Their distance is irreducible not only by the stretching of space (always outside of us) but because they can never be—or at least are no longer—the objects of sense, unlike even the naked existence of the rocks and pinecones beneath your feet, indifferent to the passage of time, to the conditions of your origin, to generation and destruction. They are those of which we cannot say there is—neither figments of your imagination nor simply seen. They are experienced only in inner space … as your companions.”

When we turned to ask how this could be so, she had ceased to speak and was no longer there.

26 May 2009


For better or for worse, Agamben has been known best to his Anglophone readers as an astute commentator and genealogist of modern politics. The cardinal merit of the first volume of Homo Sacer was to have seen that Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty was a logical or structural principle and that sovereignty was not simply the (ontological or psychological) “monopolization of force”. Then, like a spark shooting from the embers of a crackling fire, comes the latest installment of the Homo Sacer series (Il Regno e la Gloria), which provides us with a much fuller account of the topography of the theologico-political discourse of modernity. Presented at least in part as an intervention in the conceptual encounters between Schmitt and Peterson—of which American readers have generally only been privy to one side via the second volume of Schmitt’s Political Theology—Aristotle and Paul (the book is worth reading if only on the Pauline obsolescence of the Aristotelian oikos/polis distinction), Aristotle against the Latin Aristotelians, and the old problem of the two swords (nominated here as “ruling” and “governing”), Agamben shows us how—through what is more than simply what he calls a “parallelism” between the hierarchy of the angels and the administration of the state—“glory” is not simply the metaphysical or even epistemological principle it has been to the medievalists but an intrinsically political concept (the only other political theorist who comes to mind who has given us a similar genealogy is Voegelin): i.e., in slightly different terms, that the onto-theological determination of being and beings is precisely the politics of the administered state. The political question, which unites these volumes of Homo Sacer, that Agamben has attempted to answer only in his philosophical and poetic writings on potentiality and negativity is, simply: how is it possible to separate, rigorously, power not only from the state but from the process of subjectification? Of what would such a power consist?

25 May 2009

Poetry and poiesis

0. In a key text (Symp 205c), we learn that poiesis refers to any “creating from nothing”, although we tend to reserve the word for a certain kind of creating. It is not easy to know how to read this passage, especially given its context as an analogy with eros and the text that follows (are we really to consider romantic lovers the “proper” form of love?). But neither should we empty the word of all content into a general ontology of “poetic creation” such that poetry becomes simply identified with nature.

1. Paz: the poet of words. Another mistake is to identify the poet with the craftsman whose “material” is words, as if the poet simply found words ready-made and whose task was simply to juxtapose and combine them in experimental and unusual ways. Neither (as suggested above) should we consider the poet the demiurgic creator of forms (again, whose material is words), since this begs the question of how it is that the poet is able to communicate.

While I speak, / things imperceptibly / shake loose from themselves, / escaping toward other forms, / other names. / They leave me these words: / with them I talk to you. // Words are bridges. / And they are traps, jails, wells. / I talk to you: you do not hear me. / I don’t talk with you: I talk with a word. / That word is you …

These lines from A Tree Within—which contains, among other things, a masterful reading of the Symposium—contain what all modernists at least since Mallarmé have wanted to achieve, i.e., poetry that, while reflecting on itself, remains for all that still poetry.

The world a bundle of your images. [from Blanco]

We always already live in images; we are ourselves, of course, images. The poet does not merely need to create images but, more than simply “defamiliarizing” them, creates words themselves. This is not a claim about language “as such” (e.g., that language is “originally” poetic, metaphoric, etc); rather, we will never be able to think the relation between poetry and discourse as long as we continue to suffer the illusion that there is a Form of words. We do not make this mistake concerning the objects of our everyday experience—that the morphological identity of two bookshelves from Ikea means that there is really only one bookshelf from Ikea. That the words expressed by the poet resemble the words we use in speech and discourse should not lead us to assume that they are the same words.

The poet does not “reveal” anything—we know that a poem does not reveal the poet’s “intentions”, but neither does a poem reveal a “worldview” or an “ideology” or, worse, a “philosophy”. Neither does the poet “communicate” to us; it is we, not the poet, who fall under a task, i.e., the construction of sense from the poet’s words. The great poet is the one who offers us words that we have never before heard and, strictly speaking, will never hear again, for the task of “understanding” a poem is not discursive but, dare we say, “poetic”. We are not merely shown the world “anew” but the great poem is the one that constructs a new world—this constitutes a task precisely insofar as we are to understand this world not as the interiority of a vague feeling or even a “moment of shock” but as the very materiality of the poem (which does not, of course, refer to ink, paper, or the health and biography of the poet). In short: how does the poem (re)distribute our affects? What effects does it have? (Perhaps, however, this is too reductive…)

2. Zagajewski: the poet of melancholy. For us, at the end of a negative century, what Zagajewski calls to mind is the awareness that we live under the sign of a massive temporal suspension such that we are unable either to anticipate the future:

Music heard with you / was more than music / and the blood that flowed through our arteries was more than blood / and the joy we felt / was genuine / and if there is anyone to thank, / I thank him now, / before it grows too late / and too quiet. [“Music Heard”]

nor our origin:

And what was your childhood like? a weary / reporter asks near the end. / There was no childhood, only black crows / and tramcars starved for electricity. [from “No Childhood”]

Both past and future are in danger of slipping away. The future, we fear, will be lost to the excesses of our own ambitions—to the persistent degradation of culture, to the destruction of the biosphere, and so on. But even if, as Baudelaire had said, modernity is an endless series of losses, it is not a “break” from the past or the name of an irrecoverable trauma (the “second Fall”, etc). What has been lost is not an innocence that “should have been” but what we—here, now—have never known. We begin already in the midst of what has been lost; we are not to blame yet we are, of course, the ones responsible:

I’ll never know them, / those outmoded figures / —the same as we are, / yet completely different. / My imagination works to unlock / the mystery of their being, / it can’t wait for the release / of memory’s secret archives. // … // And I think that when I too / do my teaching / they gaze in turn at me, // revising my mutterings, / correcting my mistakes // with the calm assurance of the dead. [from “Genealogy”]

It is not only the world but we ourselves who are thus constructed by melancholy. The question that remains, then, is quite simply: who shall we have been?

23 May 2009

Three (more) questions

1. Has any age ever known how to be timely? Have we ever been fit for our age or does our history always flee from its own consciousness? A “false historical consciousness” can take many forms; many of these result from either the confusion or conflation of natural and calendrical time—that the calendar is more or less a representation of natural time (the turning of the seasons, the revolution of the Earth, the phases of the moon, etc). Millennial thinking, as various historians have shown, is not the result of calendrical time but the reverse: the very notion of the calendar is grounded in millennialism.

Millennialism presupposes that we are never modern—we are never fit for our time because “the time is near”. But is not what has gone under the sign of modernity (which is often confused with post-modernity) in contemporary discourse, i.e., that claims that “our time has come” (the third age, the end of history, etc), not simply another (bad faith) iteration of this same schema? A secular redemption is still teleological. Or, alternatively, we are still not timely because there is no longer any time—we see this in the chronology of museum pieces, in the homogeneity of sense presupposed in scholarly citation and commentary, in the ideology of federal holidays, in globalization (where, incidentally, we can witness the extraordinary reduction of time to space), in the paroxysm of the avant-garde, in both the vulgar forms of relativism that masquerade as post-modernism as well as the post-modernism of pastiche (Jameson) and enjoyment (Zizek).

Nevertheless, to be timely does not mean a self-congratulatory imprisonment within certain “conceptual schemes” or necessarily any other variety of horizonal hermeneutics. To be timely, as Nietzsche understood better, perhaps, than any of his successors, means not to have a historical consciousness but a historical unconsciousness (Cioran demonstrates the malady of a historical consciousness unable to forget: the name he gives to his malady is “despair”). The task of a historical unconsciousness is not the constitution of sense but, rather, in the division of sense. In short, what Zupancic has called the figure of the Two in Nietzsche with respect to the psyche must be extended to history.

2. What is the task of criticism? At the risk of positing an “essence” of philosophy—which would give philosophy the unity of a discipline—at least since the time of Plato the task of philosophy has been critical.*

*This is not the best word, particularly since we cannot ignore its Kantian and Hegelian meaning; but neither can we say “political” since that word too is contaminated either by the Straussians (who claim that philosophy is inherently political) or by naïve conceptions of that in which “politics” consists.

We need not aver to the usual ethical readings of Platonic criticism to make the claim that philosophy is intrinsically critical (in Plato’s language, anything else is sophistry). Neither need we pay disingenuous homage to the usual banalities about Socratic irony or ignorance (Socrates is wisest on account of knowledge of his ignorance; the philosopher is the lover and not the possessor of wisdom, etc), which usually miss the point of the prefix phil- entirely (usually by confusing philia with eros and, additionally, confusing eros with lack). Neither, finally, need we appeal to the counter-ethical claim (for example, of Adorno or Mannheim) that the critical imperative is historical.

There are several ways we might express the critical imperative of (double genitive) philosophy. In metaphysics it is the non-identity of thought and being (what I have suggested might instead be called the ‘chiasm’ of thought and being); alternatively we might look to the material conditions of thought, the historical conditions of experience, or the topology of subjectification. (These are, incidentally, more perspicuous ways of talking about what in contemporary continental philosophy goes under the name of “difference”, which has the unfortunate tendency to succumb to questions about the “priority” of difference over identity and so on.) The task of philosophy is not to identify itself as criticism (under the name of “critical theory”, etc) but, rather, to perform this criticism. Critical philosophy cannot, without reneging its imperative, proclaim its intention to be critical (hence the question is no longer one of “praxis”) if for no other reason than that in doing so, i.e., in providing logoi of criticism, we presuppose the unity (correspondence, correlation) of thought and being.

Criticism is an imperative precisely because it cannot ground itself in an account of itself, i.e., a logos (which is not, however, to oppose language to a “feeling”). The critical imperative is not discursive nor, strictly speaking, practical (in the Kantian senses); the critical imperative is what might be called “affective”, which criticism has always been at the least. Even in common usage, what motivates the critic is a certain experience that by definition cannot merely be interior—judgment is always public (aesthetics has always recognized this since Baumgarten and Kant). For Hegel and Kierkegaard, criticism was thus not merely aesthetic but ethical. For the Marxists, criticism has, by extension, always been economic and/or political. These are, of course, external divisions of affectivity—i.e., the non-coincidence of self and other or of self to self, in short, the splitting of sense and non-sense. The fundamental question of criticism is how to handle this split—either to deny it tout court (first-order logic), to subordinate non-sense to sense, or to tarry at the limit of sense (what goes under the name of “experimentation”, the event, undecidability, etc).

3. What remains for phenomenology? From phenomenology to ontology: Phenomenology has never been what its Anglo- and psychological readers have thought it is—i.e., a first-person discourse. We should not be surprised, then, that the problem of appearances could not be settled without an account of the divisions within appearances not merely in their modes but in their logic (Husserl the mathematician was well aware of this problem from the 1920s on, quite independent of the encounter with Heidegger and well before the usual identification of the “turn” in the 1930s).

From ontology to …: To what? to history, to life, to science, to the unconscious, to givenness, and so on, whether through mathematics, structuralism, etc. In any case, the question remains: what is left for phenomenology as such, particularly insofar as it gets recalled amidst these other discourses as an appeal to “conscious experience” (has there been anything else that phenomenology has not been)? Of what value is phenomenology to us as a method if its concerns have thrown us outside of consciousness (and not just phenomenology but insofar as the technical world continues to encroach on the interiority of consciousness—even a discourse on consciousness can no longer rely on the reduction)? Without method, do we still have the right to use the name “phenomenology”? Is phenomenology the only available discourse on consciousness (even presupposing that such a discourse still carries purchase), or is phenomenology still guilty of wedding consciousness to a certain (viz., transcendental) conception of subjectivity?