26 November 2011

The betrayal of thought

1. Theory and practice. We have no intelligent model of the relation of theory and practice insofar as our currently available models are designed to foreclose any such relation. The problem is always to justify theory against practice: we must go “beyond the classroom” or have “street smarts”, “that may be true in theory …” – Yet what this expression overlooks is the fact that anything that may be “true in theory” but that does not reflect the existing state of affairs is a false theory. We lack an intelligent model for theory because our operative presumption is that theory is prior to practice: we learn “principles” and then seek their “application”, for example. But what every enemy of theory fails to notice is that theory is the result of practice. The relationship of theory to practice is understanding or, more precisely, understanding is nothing other than the unity of theory and practice. Theory without practice is not understood and conversely for practice without theory. The musician does not begin with an abstract “theoretical” knowledge of harmony and then proceed to compose; but the musician who attempts to compose without theory will either have to reinvent the scale with every tune or will simply be banal and poor in her work. There is, quite simply, a dialectic of theory and practice: each implies the other and the failure of this dialectic results either in extreme academism or extreme stupidity.

2. Blaming the victim. Yet despite the usual demand for practice we have seen a curious double criticism of OWS in that the movement offers neither theory nor practice. Occupiers, so the charge goes, neither understand what they are protesting nor offer any “real solutions”. Of course, this criticism is either itself guilty of the same fault—e.g., in itself doing nothing productive in offering the desired “solution”—or fails to understand the significance of the protest. On the one hand, the message is right on the surface: those who are tasked with finding solutions are themselves part of the problem and have effectively debarred other possibilities from entering the discussion. But, more fundamentally, the refusal to articulate a “party platform” has inverted the disastrous model of theory and practice that has currently paralyzed our federal government. The right’s ideological commitments (theory) unilaterally trump the necessities of action in the face of competing interests. OWS has given us the opposite: practice without theory for the purpose of asking us to think. OWS’ silence has forced upon us, through its refusal to think for us, the recognition that we have all failed to think—and that this failure has permitted the continuing devastation of livelihoods and households under the name of a supposedly free economy. OWS has asked us to wonder how it is possible and necessary for these protests to exist. The exhortation, then, for them to re-enter the economic system that ejected them in the first place misses the point in a particularly pernicious way, i.e., by refusing to recognize the manifest injustice of the status quo that has produced the victims who are now being asked to shoulder the blame.

3. The body of the soul. “Only philosophy can be an antidote for all the evil into which philosophical curiosity has plunged us,” Herder said. This idle curiosity is the decadent form of the theological “wonder” of the Theaetetus. The philosopher, Socrates says, is like the goddess who passes between heaven and earth and that philosophical questions are those that the soul considers “alone and through itself” (185e). Aristotle respects this call to philosophy when he too says that the knowledge of the wise is “most universal” which is “farthest from the senses” (Metaphysics 982a25) that aspires toward the starry heavens above. Such knowledge, Aristotle says, would make us free, yet the human condition is necessarily one of bondage. Our freedom consists, then, in understanding the necessity of that which compels us to wonder, such as the incommensurability of the diagonal, “for there is nothing which would surprise a geometer so much as if the diagonal turned out to be commensurable”.

It is precisely this complicity that criticism refuses. Philosophy shall complete its task precisely when there is no further need for it. “Happy if philosophy showed him the path on which he teaches the people to act without thinking, to be virtuous without knowing it, to be citizens without pondering about the fundamental principles of the state …” (Herder) or, as Adorno would say to Horkheimer, “true thought is thought that has no wish to insist on being in the right”. Philosophy ends not in the satisfaction of wonder but the rejection of necessity and in the truth of the given, not in understanding but disbelief, and not in happiness but in the suffering of a body rebelling against the ascent of the soul.

02 August 2011

For Iphigenia

In a strange note from 1870/1, Nietzsche wrote that “I see enormous conglomerates taking the place of individual capitalists. I see the stock exchange falling victim to the curse under which the casinos have fallen”. What is strange is not Nietzsche’s prescience but, rather, that he says this fate is cause for pity for the “rich or talented egoist” and that somehow such pity is the “solution of the social question”. The entire (brief) note opens with the invocation of tragedy as the most fitting “teacher” of the human.

Interpreting this note turns on what we take Nietzsche to mean by “the social question”, about which we know nothing from his published work from this time (he was still working on The Birth of Tragedy). This is still the Nietzsche for whom, with Schopenhauer and Wagner, culture is only possible for the life of an organism “greater than the individual”; where the production of the (artistic) genius is the goal and purpose of nature itself such that, as Nietzsche would declare in an unpublished appendix to The Birth of Tragedy, “to supply the soil for a greater development of art, the vast majority, in the service of a minority, must be enslaved to the demands of life beyond their individual need”. Nietzsche criticizes both the liberals and the socialists and, in his praise of war, argues that the purpose of civil life is to sublimate the impulse to war into the production of art. With the socialists against the liberals, Nietzsche observes that the bourgeois state strives, as much as possible, toward the “perpetual peace” of a world in which “a condition for war is an impossibility … through the creation of large, evenly matched states and mutual guarantees between them” but, in doing so, “the truly international, homeless, money hermits … have learnt to misuse politics as an instrument of the stock exchange and both the state and society for their own enrichment”. The individual, Nietzsche says, is nothing other than the “representation of the primal One” or the appearance of the primal One to itself. But why should the One thus appear? This the great mystery, Nietzsche says: the appearance of a will to existence that Nietzsche describes in all but name as nothing other than signification (in the Lacanian sense): “what is meant by becoming conscious of a movement of the will? A symbolizing process that becomes clearer and clearer. Language, the word, nothing but symbols. Thinking, i.e., consciously imagining, is nothing but envisioning and linking linguistic symbols”, i.e., in the language of discourse as opposed to the mythic language of magic. Discourse signals the reaching of consciousness back toward an origin that thinking always is but can never be insofar as ‘I’ am nothing other than the continuous process of relating to my origin (else I would simply be causa sui). There is a sort of “pure past” that must exist as my origin (I am born into a family, a culture, a people) and thus I have a certain mediated access to this past through education yet I must also posit this origin as that which will have always been “my” past but which must always have been since this past must exist without the temporalizing passivity of my consciousness. The excesses born of this gap between the intelligibility of the “I” and the mystery of its origin—the suffering of non-coincidence—are masked by tragedy. The dual tendencies of the Apollonian and Dionysian express life as both reason (necessity) and the forgetting of reason—the momentary collapse of the ego in the recognition that life must consume the individual.

Thus Sloterdijk is quite right in this commentary on Nietzsche to observe that “the origins of justice lie in permission—that is, the acceptance of a great abundance—and not in prohibition, as a narrow-minded dialectics would have it, and also not in the proprietary appropriateness of a decisive establishment of values”. As Nietzsche would say in the third Untimely Meditation, “no one has a greater claim to our veneration than he who possesses the drive to and strength for justice [emphasis added]” and that such a person “desires truth, not as cold, ineffectual knowledge, but as a regulating and punishing judge”. The revelation of the “higher order”, the search for truth, and the virtues of goodness, love, and charity, Nietzsche writes in an earlier note, are “practical drives” to correct the world, “pure instincts” of those with the strength to live and to suffer without delusion and resentment (which, for the record, is exactly what Hobbes had said in his lament for the dearth of such noble characters). Nothing is easier, as we know from psychoanalysis, than withholding from ourselves the satisfaction of our desires. Hence the Greek conception of justice (dikaiosune) had nothing to do with the liberal ideal of regulation and redistribution and was intimately associated with what under a different lexicon would be considered the vast injustice of a world where weeds and flowers are indistinguishable. If there is such a thing as modern tragedy, it is not only that the impulse to justice must be fueled by rage (Achilles, Clytemnestra) but that it will consume the lives of those who pursue it.

22 July 2011

Some rescued texts

These are rough, old, and occasional fragments but something of them might still be rescued.

“Otherworld”. What if life were not a dream? Cypher’s fantasy in The Matrix of then returning to sleep would have to be recognized precisely for what it is and we would have to take responsibility for our frivolity. Cypher makes his deal with the Agents indulging in pleasures he “knows aren’t real”, which he cannot but help enjoy. Such is the nature of all enjoyment having tasted of reality. What if life were not a dream? We would be freed of the burden to will ourselves to exist … but at what cost?

The recession has taught us to mortgage our enjoyment with apologies and excuses; but this has been no new lesson to those for whom enjoyment comes at the cost of blending in with a crowd that simultaneously constricts the opportunities for expression even as it adopts those models as its own. […] It is always possible to purchase a moment of anonymity and steal into the dream where everything is ok.

But what if existence were not enough—to be in the same world as music, tattoos, soccer, and ATVs—because the world rebels against justice, just as enjoyment is blind to suffering. Laughter and passion are antithetical (not that we have any trouble living in contradictions): the former requires oblivion while the latter forgets nothing even as it turns its back on existence for the brilliance of the future. Yet for us—we who would succumb to the temptation to exist—a future world does not need to be dreamt but demanded.

“Uncommon” [for J]: 1. The old cliché claims that there is a fine line between madness and genius. In fact, there is no such line. In both cases we are confronted with the one who by definition cannot be recognized by those to whom s/he must speak. Who are the paradigmatic cases of such madness? The one who preaches heliocentrism, who complains of dropsy and buries himself in manure, who advertises the virtues of tar-water, who gets locked in the attic, who dresses only in white, who collapses at the sight of a flogged horse, the ones who suffer aphasia and synaesthesia. These are the ones who shape our world precisely by being excluded from it, just as the acceptable forms of behavior and psychic life are defined by what is not permitted outside the sanitoriums and hospitals (what is not written in the DSM).

We cannot aspire either to madness or genius. Some, however, between madness and genius, are fortunate (or cursed) to be faced with a choice: whether to be seen or whether to remain invisible. Whereas solitude is a necessary consequence of either madness or genius, it can also precede either as their condition.

We might try, however, to distinguish madness from genius by recognition, i.e., objectively, since both are marked by the "inner conviction" that s/he is absolutely alone in the world or that s/he is the first to have arrived (this is, in other words, the ostensive difference between "greatness" and "delusion"). But this difference is only apparent, on the one hand, for to whom must one appear as a genius other than precisely to those who, if they really understood what was being said, would be no different than the one who is to stand apart? The one who stands apart is precisely the one who is not understood, else s/he would simply be saying everyone already knows.

On the other hand, the real mark of inner conviction is not (self-)certainty but a constant disbelief—the refusal to believe that things really are as they are, that what is obvious remains invisible or unspoken, that injustice is acceptable. Sometimes this manifests as the opposite of certainty: as doubt or the feeling that nothing is quite right, that a word is out of place or a line is too oblique, that "I really am different".

By definition the mad cannot be the one who names himself and is able to exclude madness from the method of radical doubt. Ironically it is the madman who cannot be accused of solipsism. But who, then, is the one who names the madman or the genius? Who are the ones who must "take notice"? […] Who are the ones who did not have ears to hear?

2. […] Identify, be counted, be viewed—the spectacle and the charlatan.

Or: Do. Laugh. Adjoin. What are the forces that you can release? Instead of wondering "to whom can I be seen?" the real question is: what are the possibilities that I can see? In this harmony, in this image, in this phrase, this spiral, this vertigo, in you? What is the life we can construct from the fragments we have been given—the fragments of this body, this identity, this world?

13 July 2011

Appeals and incriminations

1. The primrose path. The split between philosophy and science has rendered philosophy vulnerable to two equivalent and damning accusations disguised as genuine questions: “what are the facts of the matter?” or “what is your ontology?” When, for example, cognitive and neuropsychology are busy re-creating the Kantian picture of cognition (including the opacity of the transcendental ego) or when sociology agrees with Aristotle’s insight into what we now call “crowdsourcing”, it seems that science has given philosophy empirical verification. Against the consequent threat of redundancy, philosophy (particularly in its idealist and crypto-idealist varieties) has generally responded with some doctrine of method: “philosophy provides an account of what a fact is in the first place”. Of course, we should be wary of any such tendency toward absolute idealism ever since witnessing the misfortunes of a system that attempts to deduce being from the idea. But an ethical idealism is equally problematic that insists on the role of philosophy in arbitrating between facts and values (which are, by definition, outside the domain of ontology): such a solution simply reduces philosophy to literature and makes it possible to speak of “my” and “your” philosophy since, after all, if values are not facts there is no other court of appeal than my “yes”.

1a. The discourse bubble. Values, of course, are discursive (as Nietzsche insisted against the metaphysicians). “We must reflect and discuss our values.” But to whom do we speak? Confronted with the towering black obelisk of technology, for example, philosophy quarantines itself in a mode of discourse that appeals to Aristotle and Heidegger instead of Lanier. The objection to such discursive naïveté (at best and bad faith at worst) is not that of simply lacking reference to a “real” world outside discourse but, rather, that a discourse that intends only itself is self-defeating.

2. Whither the moral world? Is it possible to be moral in an immoral world? We face here an inverted image of the doctrine of original sin. Bourgeois ideology refuses, for example, to decide between the “right” of a chemist to create a better non-smearing lipstick and the creation of HIV medication. The democratic paradox is that we must at once affirm the separation of ethical injunctions from political right while at the same time recognizing that it is this very distinction that creates the very immoral world from which we must impose on ourselves the choice to be moral.

2a. Discourse and praxis. Philosophy faces a similar paradox. Faced with the separation of philosophy and politics (which Marx famously wanted to overcome), philosophy both recognizes and refuses its task in the face of injustice. Philosophy has its responsibility and capacity to incite us to the recognition of injustice—including the fact that its current existence in academic institutions is predicated on unjust socioeconomic practices—but it will not be by researching what passages of Hobbes Leibniz was reading in what years (although, in fairness, such research is arguably not philosophy at all but its decadent imposter).

29 June 2011

The fundamental decision of metaphysics

Ancient philosophy enforced a decision between speech and silence. When modern philosophy accused its predecessor of therefore confusing being and nothingness (since to say what “is not” cannot be said does not preclude the identity of the being of what is not), we were asked to choose between the unity or the difference of being and thought. Hence, for example, Badiou’s characterization of the constructivist position in metaphysics declares that what is unnameable simply “is not”, such that metaphysics finds itself in a position of absolute immanence that “maintains the entire dialectic of the event and intervention outside thought”. Such a position, of course, simply begs the question as this is precisely the point for someone like Deleuze (see the plane of immanence as the image of thought). Rather, between the constructivist (Deleuzian) and generic (Badiousian) orientations of thought, beyond the difference between excess and subtraction, lies perhaps this fundamental choice: whether to address the genesis of thought through an account of the names of being or whether to name the indiscernible point at the chiasmus of thought and being (what Badiou nominates as the “void”) but which therefore cannot be either. If Badiou right to insist that, for the constructivist, the event is prohibited from thought, we must decide if the vocation of philosophy is to culminate in the science of thinking (logic and metaphysics) or in the affections and passions of movement (physics).

10 April 2011

Words and reason

1. Perhaps the greatest embarrassment to Enlightenment philosophy is the persistence of the extremism of stupidity that we must suffer as one effect of the proliferation of social media. On the one hand, according to critical philosophy, the free individual is identical to the activity and substance of the World Spirit that has no other meaning except the existence of politics as historical existence (which distinguishes modern from the ancient state). On the other hand, Ronell has brilliantly demonstrated that stupidity remains equally embarrassing for empiricist philosophy: “as concerns its need to observe and experience the idiot, it crashed against the wall of the real” since any attempt to describe the non-discursive non-disclosivity of the idiot forces us to postulate the natural that, ostensibly, the idiot simply is. Free from the corrupting influences of culture, the serene idiot would never pass into civility and would remain forever dumb. Thus “nature, like idiocy, is an effect of the erasure of naturality, a figure of lost literality” (Ronell).

2. And as both Ronell and Nancy have shown, Kant duplicates this circularity of culture and idiocy within pure reason (both theoretical and practical). On the one hand, pure practical reason only appears, empirically, in the silent will of actually virtuous individuals who possess virtue “as a gift from the gods” (Plato, Meno), quite indifferent to any (philosophical) account of it. On the other hand, Kant’s own self-conscious failure as a writer leaves critical thought “scrambling, ever searching to write itself” as neither philosophy nor literature (Nancy); Kant could never arrogate to himself the name of the monstrous genius of the Third Critique that “gives the rule to nature” at the cost of being so intimately bound to it. Since Kant’s renunciation of literary finesse, “beautiful writing has been feminized and homosexualized, as so many attacks on theory reveal (or try to conceal). Kant, for his part, openly struggled with two heterogeneous entities: philosophy, on the one hand, style and elegance, on the other, feminine, one” (Ronell). Kant writes the limits of reason by a parody of the idiot. Hence Nietzsche: “I have some idea of my privileges as a writer; in a few cases I also know the extent to which familiarity with my writings ‘spoils’ your taste. You just cannot stand other books any more, philosophy books in particular” (Ecce Homo). What Nietzsche’s imitators failed to grasp is that style is not a disguise for thought but its very language. The idiot has no style; in response, the philosopher and the postmodernist make equivalent mistakes, i.e., either to renounce style or to substitute style for form. Style is, rather, the ability “to communicate a state, an inner tension of pathos, with signs, including the tempo of these signs” (Ecce Homo)—and is not this passion the origin of all philosophy? The inequality of thought and experience moves the philosopher from complicity to speech and any philosopher worthy of the name speaks to be heard for a single reason: that to remain silent would be an affront to those for whom experience has been neither just nor magnanimous.*

*This is also why, moreover, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a book “for all and for none”: how does one speak to the idiot? “Let us take the most extreme case, where a book talks only about events lying completely outside the possibility of common, or even uncommon, experience, — where it is the first language of a new range of experiences. In this case, absolutely nothing will be heard, with the associated acoustic illusion that if nothing is heard, nothing is there. At the end of the day, this has been my usual experience and, if you will, the originality of my experience” (Ecce Homo). But where sense passes into non-sense, Nietzsche no longer speaks as a philosopher but as an artist.

Some critical orientations

1. If there is at least one lesson to be learned and retained from phenomenology, it is the irreducibility of consciousness and of conscious experience. Consciousness is not primarily cognitive, however, but affective.

2. There is no such thing as a purely “literary” criticism. Criticism is not defined by its objects (just as science is not defined by the objects of its study); nor must criticism begin from the presupposed unity of a genre. The dependence works in the other direction: the definition of a genre requires a particular critical orientation. For this reason, despite himself, Leavis more than anyone has understood that the supposed rivalry between literature and philosophy concerns the right to pronounce on matters of value. Criticism is not a third term between these two (since criticism is not itself a genre) but, rather, is a method. The error of continental philosophy is to assume that philosophical criticism must resemble literary criticism in either substance or style (whence the perhaps irreparable damage to the good name of continental philosophy by the sycophants of deconstruction). The rigorous definition of criticism as method remains the unfinished task of continental philosophy.

3. Where the logic of critical philosophy was dialectical, that of philosophical criticism is chiastic.

30 March 2011

The death of criticism

Jameson had feared that, under the conditions of global capitalism, the possibility of “critical distance” from the zoological monstrosity (Nietzsche’s term) of capital has been abolished: “the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonizing those very precapitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity”. Like Lyotard and Deleuze, Jameson had offered criticism the gift of a single possibility: that thought should be possible in the space of a local representation within the unrepresentable totality of capital of the unrepresentability of that totality (there is no paradox here but, rather, a strict typology). For Lyotard, for example, this possibility arises in the form of a single question: Is it happening.

There is evidence, however, that criticism can no longer, in good faith, accept the hope that Jameson offered and perhaps it is here that Jameson’s utopianism parts ways with Deleuze: there is no exterior to capital (Deleuze’s acceptance and even affirmation of this proposition constitutes his essential Nietzscheanism). But rather than saying that capital creates its own exterior, it is more interesting—and horrifying—to see that its most important function is to create its own interior.

But what has escaped sufficient attention is that essence of capital consists not only in desiring-production but in its mute consumption of criticism (that results in something much like the cytopathic effects of viruses on healthy cells): even the unjust, the ugly, or the banal can become objects of consumption with the proper “will to enjoyment”.

Although not really in a position to speak on the matter (though interesting precisely for that fact), Miley Cyrus recently said, commenting on a recent infamous cultural episode, that “it should be harder to be an artist”. Whereas the previous generation of critical theory had feared the commodification of art—and the attendant reactionary tendencies of bourgeois art that provided critical art with its image in a counterfeit double—we now see the ontological collapse of art into capital. In these studios that provide, for a modest fee, petite-bourgeois philistines with the opportunity to display their cultural vulgarity under the guise of liberal-democratic aspiration,* we might think that capital has finally delivered a less-than-merciful coup de grace.

*Although, as a final insult, these studios declare their commitment to “music, not the pursuit of fame”.

But the real danger is not the death of art but the impossibility of criticism. We have known for a long time that capital is oblivious to intentions, yet the ironists persist in their failure to recognize their own self-contradictions. The latest product of these music factories has apparently earned its customer at least $20K not despite but precisely because of its ineptitude—and this is the ironists’ final victory. What we should mourn is not the death of art—which is now simply the outsourced product of mechanized labor just as the shoes we wear—but the helplessness of criticism in the face of it. And the proper vocabulary of such mourning is silence, to which criticism now seems to be reduced.

26 March 2011

More thoughts on immanence

1. In a fairly late text (Tentamen Anagogicum, 1696), Leibniz declares that there are two “kingdoms” in nature that “interpenetrate without confusing or interfering with each other”: power and wisdom. The former denotes the “interior” relations of forces and efficient causes (i.e., physics) while the latter denotes the architectonic domain of final causes (the totality of formal determinations), i.e., metaphysics. The doctrine of pre-established harmony has the consequence that the reality of possibility is simply thought itself (Mercer reminds us that the doctrine of pre-established harmony is an extension of the sympathetic participation of each individual with the divine essence). Only a small but important difference separate Leibniz and Berkeley here: for Leibniz, ideas are not real beings but collapsing the distinction between ideas and spirits simply radicalizes Leibniz’s immanentism: individuals do not “have” or “contain” ideas but simply are ideas. An intentional idea is at the same time a reflexive idea just as the productive understanding of God is self-understanding.

But because Leibniz refuses the absolute immanence to which his doctrine is compelled, he must explain the difference between the confused and highly mediated understanding of the individual from that of God. And it is here that he introduces the notion of a “point of view”: the monad simply is a point of view. But instead of the optics so important for Descartes and Berkeley, Leibniz gives us topology (analysis situs). Berkeley’s optics raises space to the status of a third thing between perceiver/d; Leibniz’s conception of geometry provides us with the formal analysis of form as an account of perception in the monads (qua phenomenal) that, at the same time, explains their irreducible multiplicity (qua ontological): "the theory of similarities or of forms lies beyond mathematics and must be sought in metaphysics" ("On Analysis Situs").

Yet perhaps the place Leibniz reserved for transcendence is merely a sign whose mode of signification is exactly how he would describe its referent: i.e., whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In a letter to Mason, Leibniz affirms the principle that “a living being cannot die unless the whole universe dies (or perishes) as well”. But the theodical doctrine should not be read merely as a moral principle: this world—as the “optimal” possible world—is thus necessary. Yet it is Leibniz and not Spinoza who is ridiculed for his commitment to the necessity of the world when both men are committed to the doctrine of universal determinism as the ultimate the condition of possibility for the intelligibility of the world. If there is transcendence in Leibniz, it must consist in the possibility of rigorously differentiating the monad he calls God from any other monad.

2. The idealist tradition after Kant recognized that his decisive maneuver in the critical turn was to provide an account of transcendence only on the basis and possibility of immanence, i.e., that the restrictions on the use of concepts are legislated by reason itself: the immanence of thought and the transcendence of world (which goes under the quasi-religious name of finitude). Every idealist—and, for that matter, materialist—after Kant has repeated and re-affirmed this observation: that transcendence (to be beyond being, for example) must be immanent to itself and that immanence, being “in-itself”, must transcend itself (else it is not “in-itself”). To escape this dialectical solution, Deleuze proposes to conceive of immanence not as being-in-itself but as difference. Yet at the same time he declares the univocity of being as a redress to the Kantian legacy: philosophy concerns not the thought of difference (Hegel, Heidegger), which in any case must lead to idealism. Philosophy itself is nothing other than the expression of difference; the “method” of philosophy is deterritorialization or virtualization. This is why the plane of immanence is “the image of thought, the image thought gives itself of what it means to think” (and why the domain of the concept is the virtual while, importantly, the “discursive power of the function” pertains to the actual). The plane of immanence—as the critical point between the virtual and the actual—names the volatile unity of thought and being. Philosophy—this movement toward the virtual—would not be possible if the virtual were merely thought as “potential” or, similarly, if becoming were thought as the movement from the virtual (to the actual). The attempt to identify being and the event destroys philosophy. The plane of immanence names the condition of possibility for philosophy by the non-reversability of the lines from the virtual to the actual and in the other direction—because we must pass through the event. This and nothing more is meant by “materialism”: the plane of immanence not as a substratum but as the duality of thought and nature, neither in-itself (being) nor for-itself (act, entelechy), but affection or life.

25 March 2011

Some thoughts on immanence

CN wrote:

“I’ve been wondering if it does not immediately sound crazy to you to recouch the distinction between the virtual and the actual in Difference and Repetition less as about two ontological realms (hence running the risk of something like Badiou's criticisms of equivocity) and more as a noumenal/ontological and phenomenal/epistemic distinction in line with a kind of Leibnizian epistemology. In other words, why does Kant have to be either an epistemologist or an ontologist? Leibniz's mistake according to Kant was, as far as I can tell, thinking he could rely on an ontological realm of monads that provided the sufficient reasons for the various perceptions expressed by monads in the activity of perception. On this account, however, we get the genesis of perceptible objects, which are also merely counted as one. What phenomenally/epistemically appears to us is conferred unity via the perceptual activity of the monad when in reality, that phenomenal unity (a real phenomenon) is built up out of an infinity of minute "petite" perceptions (it would, of course, be dogmatic to assume such silliness for Kant).

“If, as some want to do, we want to say that the virtual is the sufficient reason of the actual and all determination proceeds from it to actualization, why not make some similar move in Deleuze? I.e., at an ontological level, things are clamorous, yet at the representational/perceptual/actual level, things are synthesized/counted as one.”

The question here seems to concern the possibility of accepting the gambit of transcendental philosophy that forces a decision on how to mediate the unity of thought and being. The transcendental illusion is the failure to recognize that the domain of immanence is the use of concepts, which is what separates dogmatic metaphysics from critical philosophy. But what is the latter’s metaphysics?

Kant’s famous argument that “existence is not a predicate” is revisited in the KRV not simply as a modal principle: the “possibility that nothing exists” is self-contradictory insofar as such a possibility destroys the very notion of possibility. Hence, Kant says, “all concepts of negations are … derivative, and the realities are what contain the data and, so to speak, the matter or the transcendental content for the possibility and thoroughgoing determination of all things” (A575/B603) and says that this determination is a “transcendental substratum in our reason” which is “nothing other than the idea of a total reality (omnitudo realitatis)” (A576/B604).

But to arrive at metaphysics, we must go further. In the Opus Postumum, Kant says that God is “the most perfect in respect of every purely thought quality (ens summum, summa intelligentia, summum bonum). All these concepts are united in the distinctive judgment: God and the world—in the real division of the negative or contrarie oppositum, which the totality of being comprehends. Both are a maximum … the one as object of pure reason, the other as sense-object. Both are infinite: the first as magnitude of appearance in space and time; the second according to degree (virtualiter), as limitless activity with regard to forces (mathematical or dynamic magnitude of sense-objects)”. Kant does not retreat from the doctrine of God as a regulative ideal into the dogmatic, speculative path that begins with the unconditioned and proceeds, a priori, through the entire series of the world to arrive at the contingent individual. Rather, for both Kant and Leibniz the function God as a structural principle, more than the metaphysical principle of the ens realissimum, promises the unity of a world (of experience). Leibniz not only refuses the identity of God and substance—in the name of infinitely many substances—but preserves a single place for transcendence.

But do we really have absolute transcendence? God and world or God or world? What is Leibniz’s world? Monads are not in a world: the world does not exist outside or apart from the monads. Perception is not of a world but perception is the world obscurely and incompletely expressed by each monad (hence there is no distinction between metaphysics and epistemology for Leibniz). But exactly the same is true for God: hence the doctrine of compossibility arises from the identity of perception and understanding in God. Kant’s critical turn simply inverts the Leibnizian schema insofar as, for Leibniz, perception precedes and conditions understanding (hence the limits of our understanding is one of degree and not kind with respect to that of God’s—Monadology §60). In Kant’s terms, Leibniz’s dogmatism consists in the fact that there is nothing other than phenomena. In this (local) sense, there is only immanence.

Leibniz derives the infinity of individual monads from this immanence in the doctrine of compossibility: the individual is composed of singularities and a world consists of the convergence of singularities. The question of “real possibility” is retained in Kant as a problematic (and hence dialectical) notion. But is not virtuality nothing other than a real possibility? The greatest mistake of immanentism has been to confuse virtuality with (abstract) possibility or Aristotelian potential. Deleuze is explicit on this point in Difference and Repetition: “the virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real … Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’ …” But the distinction between the virtual and the actual is not a numerical difference (such would violate the univocity of being). The concept here is Bergsonian: the virtual, memory, or the past is what is most fully real. There are two possible ways, then, to describe the actual: either as a subtraction from or contraction of the virtual (e.g., the famous cone of memory in Matter and Memory) or as the folding of the virtual, that is to say, a self-limitation of the virtual (that is experienced as tendency, futurity, or time).

It is precisely this immanence lurking in the KRV that Fichte and Maimon exploited: the reality of transcendental apperception that threatens to collapse the division Kant proposes between thought and being. Leibniz, Fichte, and Maimon converge in Deleuze, perhaps, as well on this point: that thought occurs in an “intensive space” and that, consequently, metaphysics provides a genetic account of being whereas physics is the account of the actual.

24 March 2011

The paralysis of discourse

1. Bergson identifies laughter as the repetition of the past, i.e., as an interruption in the novelty of life. Moreover, as a social institution, comedy “lies midway between art and life. … By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment … And in this respect it turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature”. On the one hand, comic laughter inhibits the movement of vital forces by the sublimation of desire into the affirmation of the present as the presence of what is missing. Life itself, as pure difference (that which differs from itself), never appears. But, on the other hand, laughter condenses into a single, unstable moment two tendencies, which are by nature opposed—(simple) negation and the reflexivity of a subject present-to-itself—resulting in the confusion of life and enjoyment.

Yet, as a relaxation or pause in the impetus of life, laughter finds itself neither on the side of language nor action. There can be, of course, no real hiatus in life, yet this illusion of laughter, Bergson says, is akin to the illusion of dreams: “the behavior of the intellect in a dream [is this:] … the mind, enamored of itself, now seeks in the outer world nothing more than a pretext for realizing its imaginations”. It is for this reason that laughter is the expression of irony par excellence (see “Irony and Criticism”) and, further, why laughter can serve no critical function. Because laughter is neither language—we can laugh at false reasoning or bad logic, which serves as the staples of comedy—nor action, laughter is simply a refusal of criticism.

Comedy, therefore, like camp, is not only incapable of criticism but actively serves to neutralize criticism. If, as Ross claims, camp consists in the recovery of cultural productions whose sense is no longer dominated by the demands of capital, camp threatens quickly to collapse into parody or imitation and thereby acquires a sort of “zombie life”. For both camp and irony, the price paid for enjoyment is simply the loss of the objective world: anything can be enjoyed by the perfect solipsist for whom there is no ethical demand to recognize anything as genuinely demeaning, offensive, violent, or banal. There is only the subject-for-itself, baptized in enjoyment.

We see the same phenomenon in the parody of children’s play. The child who mimics adult telephone conversations engages in precisely the same parodic act as the laughter of those uninitiated into various forms of discourse (for example, mocking a foreign language or the derision of jargon) or in caricature (for example, the “seventh meditation”), both of which mark the death of criticism.

2. On the other hand, the failure of criticism has been the assumption that the mode appropriate to it is that of discourse or, alternatively, that the choice facing politics is that between theory and action. Those impatient for action who want to “cut through the bullshit” of theory refuse the entreaties of discourse to see the intolerance in tolerance or the reactionary in the revolutionary. The call for theory is therefore not simply to remind us of our history but, as Zizek has called it, a search for “lost causes” as neither a mode of historical inquiry nor one of hermeneutics (Ricoeur, for example, uses the text as a model for action whereas we might say Zizek proclaims the inverse). Ricoeur’s “critical hermeneutics” requires a dialectic between inclusion and distantiation, which brings into discourse what is initially simply given as structure. But Ricoeur never escapes the vicious circle of subject and world: if we are to know the world to which a text refers, we must rely upon “imaginative variations” of the subject that only occur in a world constituted by discourse.

We are left, however, in a precarious position. The search for “lost causes” threatens not to dissolve the sense of discourse (as, for example, in parody) but to substitute meaning for intention: it is sufficient for discourse to appear as such in its illocutionary force (as a "call to action", for example). The intention of discourse, it turns out, is irrelevant: as long as discourse retains consistency—even the consistency that obtains across parody as a derivative sense—it remains meaningful. At this zero-point, discourse is both sufficient and unnecessary: as Sartre said, intentions vanish and it no longer matters that we all agree on why we are storming the Bastille just as long as we’re doing it. Zizek tarries at this point where the pleasure of discourse is seduced on the one hand by the laughter of enjoyment and by the force of sovereignty on the other.

22 March 2011

Fragment of a note on experience

Identity collapses into ontology the moment a claim to universality displays its falsity by its failure: another universality makes opposing demands. In this moment of undecidability, it must be possible to think of identity neither under the mode of what one is (ontology) nor what one must choose (ideology) but as what one might be (temporality). The critique of ideology must then have a twofold character: 1) to show that futurity is collapsed into the present and 2) to show that the future is named as ideology itself—i.e., as that which “is not” in the very name of negation. The name of negation under the operation of ideology is time: i.e., what “is not” as negation taken either as immediate (perception) or mediate (experience). To say that experience occurs “in time” is, strictly speaking, redundant: experience simply is time, not insofar as time is (passively) constituted but, rather, given that there is experience at all in the (double) phenomena of consciousness and subjectivity. Time is existence. Thus, strictly speaking, things do not “exist” (neither do they simply “exist-for-consciousness”). Existence is simply not a term that applies to objects: only consciousness exists. The idealist question “would the world exist without perception?” is nonsensical in just the same way “what time is it on the sun?” is.