09 April 2012

From farce to tragedy

1a. In a remarkable letter written five years after his presidency, Madison praises the state of Kentucky for its commitment to the provision of public education, observing—in language that precedes Marx’s (and Engels’ independent text) more famous phrase by thirty years—that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both”. Madison’s enthusiasm is directed specifically at the fact that the state is constructing a plan for education

“embracing every class of citizens, and every grade and department of knowledge. No error is more certain than the one proceeding from a hasty and superficial view of the subject: [i.e.,] that the people at large* have no interest in the establishment of academies, colleges, and universities, where a few only, and those not of the poorer classes can obtain for their sons the advantages of superior education. It is thought to be unjust that all should be taxed for the benefit of a part, and that too the part least needing it.”

Here Madison has his vision fixed a century into the future since, prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, less than two percent of the population received schooling beyond high school (and these naturally being the sons of wealthy landowners). He continues:

“If provision were not made at the same time for every part [of society], the objection would be a natural one. … It is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expense for the education of his children, it is certain that every class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every country its trust and most durable celebrity. Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the most vociferous opponents of higher education today are also those in the process of retracting the promises of civil liberties for which our predecessors suffered through their very lives and bodies, whether through proposing the largest cuts to state funding for education in the history of this country or through explicit denunciations of “the academic left” (that follow an easily identifiable historical genealogy from the infamous McCarthy trials).

But in addition to the arguments advanced a century later by Dewey to the effect that the possibility of democracy is predicated on an educated citizenry, Madison also observes that such governments require not mere politicians but statesmen:

“[Schools] multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws; by the perspicuity, the consistency, and the stability, as well as by the just and equal spirit of which the great social purposes are to be answered.”

The democratic provision of the public good, however, requires not only the presently favorable desires of majority opinion. Representation is not of majority opinion; rather, majority opinions ends at representation and the task of the statesman is to deliberate about the possibilities of justice in the face of present needs. Here Madison agrees with Plato: the statesman requires a specific form—and not a specific content—of knowledge, which had broadly speaking been the task entrusted to liberal education not as the reception of information but the capacity to ask, frame, and understand important (viz., ethical and political) questions. (One of the primary complaints of contemporary educators is the inability of students to “think critically”, i.e., to frame appropriate questions, identify their stakes, and establish criteria for their resolution.) Instead of the “right to have an opinion”, education demands that the right be earned by the capacity to know how to ask the right questions.**

**This too was Dewey’s point in an address to a conference of scientists: “the trouble with much of what is called popularization of knowledge is that it is content with diffusion of information, in diluted form, merely as information [think the “intelligence” required to participate in Jeopardy!]. It needs to be organized and presented in its bearing upon action” (i.e., as system). That, Dewey insisted throughout the end of his career, is the “supreme intellectual obligation”: to mobilize knowledge as knowledge and not mere information for moral and social improvement. If there is anything pragmatism understood correctly—and what its critics have misunderstood—it is that knowledge is useful when it is true (it is not, as the more decadent pragmatists would say, true because it is useful).

This critical capacity, Madison argues, must be acquired broadly under pain of plutocracy:

“Without such institutions, the more costly of which can scarcely be provided by individual means, none but the few whose wealth enables them to support their sons abroad can give them the fullest education; and in proportion as this is done, the influence is monopolized which superior information everywhere possesses. … Whilst those who are without property, or with but little, must be peculiarly interested in a system which unites with the more learned institutions, a provision for diffusing through the entire society the education needed for the common purposes of life.”

Madison proceeds, again, to address a future he could not have foreseen, viz., one in which the US lags far behind several western European countries in terms of economic mobility with the one decisive factor being education (45% of people in the bottom 1/5 of the economy who do not graduate college remain in their present economic location whereas only 16% of those who graduate remain):

“Why should it be necessary in this case [of the provision of education] to distinguish the society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of academies, colleges, and universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry [an observation unfortunately disqualified by the succeeding history of the republic] … and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendents; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.”

Yet at no point does Madison aver to the propensity of education to improve the material lot of oneself or one’s family. At best, as Adler cogently argued, the material benefits of education are corollary or subsidiary: they are not its primary function. Madison again:

“Throughout the civilized world, nations are courting the praise of fostering science and the useful arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and blessings of representative government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free government [emphasis added, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge, that their political institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter … are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of man as they are conformable to his individual and social rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

If Madison is right about the mutual constitution of liberty and education, then the continuing and persistent degradation of liberty (ironically in the name of liberty itself, recognizable as such only to those who can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion) should come as no surprise. In an analysis of transcripts from presidential debates, where the 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas occurred at an eleventh to twelfth grade literacy level, the Gore-Bush debate of 2000 occurred at a sixth (Bush) to seventh (Gore) grade level. Political speech, in other words, is addressed to adults with the literate capacity of children.

1b. Madison ends his letter with the remark that, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, that provision should be made for the study of geometry and astronomy since “no information seems better calculated to expand the mind and gratify curiosity than what would thus be imparted. This is especially the case, with what relates to the globe we inhabit, the nations among which it is divided, and the characters and customs which distinguish them. An acquaintance with foreign countries in this mode, has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travelers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings”. Against the clichés of humanistic education that claim to provide insight into “discovering oneself”, Madison’s point here is that we must always understand ourselves as situated in the world and that ours is one among many ways of seeing, doing, acting, and living. Absent cognizance of the world and its other inhabitants, we are easily tempted by the narcissism of enjoyment. “Any reading not of a vicious species,” Madison concludes, “must be a good substitute for the amusements too apt to fill up the leisure of the laboring classes”. The vulgarity of such amusements (in large part what contemporary theory calls “spectacle”) is not intrinsic to any particular content but to their familiar effects: e.g., the silencing of discourse, the banalization of injustice, and the sublimation (in the chemical sense) of ethics into enjoyment (i.e., the reverse of Freudian sublimation).

The two activities of leisure in both ancient Greek and western bourgeois society were none other than politics and education. Both required a certain kind of autonomy from economic and material necessity. But instead of the reward of such freedom and the ability to “do nothing”, leisure imposed a grave duty, against which the ideology of “free time” has given seemingly inescapable means and opportunities of squandering for the sake of enjoyment.

2a. In the Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre analyzed the ways in which the everyday as the structural condition for life is at the same time the principal way in which the modern individual is alienated from her life. While Lefebvre was encumbered by the simultaneous mobilization of the everyday as both an ontological and sociological category, the Critique remains the standard account for the simultaneous collapse of leisure into the temporal repetitions of the everyday and the idealization of leisure as an escape from the everyday.

On the one hand, Lefebvre shows that the everyday is never simply given but constituted through the accretion of social and cultural signification.*** But he also shows (as Adorno and Horkheimer had also pointed out) that “the town and the factory complement one another by both conforming to the technical object [which Lefebvre in the middle of the twentieth century had already observed simply defined the everyday mode of existence]. An identical process makes work easy and passive, and life outside work fairly comfortable and boring. Thus everyday life at work and outside work become indistinguishable, governed as they are by systems of signals”. The word “signal” here is deliberate and appropriate: a signal, unlike a sign proper, has a meaning incapable of higher-order signification and functions structurally equivalently to Pavlovian response.

***I disagree with one of my own teacher’s remarks, however, that given this aspect of the everyday, as that which organizes experience and the world through certain spatio-temporal forms, it “becomes harder to endow it with an intrinsic political content. The everyday is robbed of much of its portentous symbolic meaning” (Felski). While on the one hand I accept her general corrective to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” endemic to cultural and critical theory, intrinsic to critical philosophy since Kant is conviction that the primary (and perhaps only) task of thought is not to take its conditions as necessary or as (enabling) limits.

Lefebvre finds examples of such a network of signals and conditioned responses in mass media (again, remembering that he is writing these particular words in the late 1950s):

“Day in and day out, news, signs and significations roll over [the individual] like a succession of waves, churned out and repeated and already indistinguishable by the simple fact that they are pure spectacle: they are overpowering, they are hypnotic. The ‘news’ submerges viewers in a monotonous sea of newness and topicality which blunts sensitivity and wears down the desire to know. Certainly, people are becoming more cultivated. Vulgar encyclopedism is all the rage. The [sociological] observer may well suspect that when communication becomes incorporated in private life to this degree it becomes non-communication.”

Aside from current concerns about “attention saturation” from cognitive psychology, Lefebvre continues to describe the mechanisms of the alienation that results from the uncoupling of signification from significance:

“Radio and television do not penetrate the everyday solely in terms of the viewer. They go looking for it at its source: personalized (but superficial) anecdotes, trivial incidents, familiar little family events. They set out from an implicit principle: ‘Everything, in other words, anything at all, can become interesting and even enthralling, provided that it is presented ...’ The art of presenting the everyday by taking it from its context, emphasizing it, making it appear unusual or picturesque and overloading it with meaning, has become highly skillful [Lefebvre has, in fact, described reality TV forty years before it existed]. … At the extreme looms the shadow of what we will call ‘the great pleonasm’: the unmediated passing immediately into the unmediated and the everyday recorded just as it is in the everyday—the event grasped, pulverized and transmitted as rapidly as light and consciousness—the repetition of the identical in a wild whirling dance devoid of Dionysian rapture, since the ‘news’ never contains anything really new.”

Lefebvre thought that this “extreme point” of closure between communication and information was “still a long way away”. It turns out, however, that thirty or forty years is not so long. “At one and the same time the mass media have unified and broadcast the everyday; they have disintegrated it by integrating it with ‘world’ current events in a way which is both too real and utterly superficial. What is more or less certain is that they are dissociating an acquired, traditional culture, the culture of books, from written discourse and Logos. We cannot say what the outcome of this destructuring process will be.” But it seems that we can: the impossibility of philistinism because of the total absence of a culture about which to be literate (a parody is no longer a parody when it cannot be understood as such).

The obsession with difference after May ’68 in French thought can be interpreted as a refusal of this eternal repetition of the same on which mass culture insists as both the cause and the cure for existential boredom. It is for this reason that Lefebvre calls for the critique of the everyday because “to know the everyday is to want to transform it. Thought can only grasp it and define it by applying itself to a project or radical programme of radical transformation. To study everyday life and to use that study as the guideline for gaining knowledge of modernity is to search for whatever has the potential to be metamorphosed … it is to understand the real by seeing it in terms of what is possible, as an implication of what is possible”. Despite the disagreements between Lefebvre and Goldmann, so too the latter would insist that “the possible is the fundamental category for comprehending human history. The great difference between positivist and dialectical sociology consists precisely in the fact that whereas the former is content to develop the most exact and meticulous possible photography of the existing society, the latter tries to isolate the potential consciousness in the society is studies: the potential [virtuelles], developing tendencies oriented toward overcoming that society. In short, the first tries to give an account of the functioning of existing structuration, and the second centers on the possibilities of varying and transforming social consciousness and reality”. Of course, these two enterprises are not opposed; the second is the consequence of the first, which shows us the necessity of such an overcoming. As Foucault would say—a point that critics of postmodernism such as Furedi have never grasped—the moment power/knowledge is grasped as historically constituted it is recognized in its contingency and the possibility of political action and change (Foucault’s word is “destruction”) is realized.

2b. Kant contra Hegel (and Nietzsche). In a series of what are generally regarded as minor texts, Kant anticipates the stark differences that would separate him from the idealism he resisted in Fichte and what would become the absolutism of Hegel on the notion of history. Kant insists that history is not the continuous improvement of humanity or, in short, that we cannot say in fact that humanity is always improving. Rather, the perfectability of humanity is a sort of regulative ideal of practical action: that we must assume that the improvement of humanity is possible or else, if we were to believe that every triumph of virtue is simply negated by a corresponding tragedy, “it may perhaps be moving and instructive to watch such a drama for a while; but the curtain must eventually descend. For in the long run, it becomes a farce [emphasis added]. And even if the actors do not tire of it—for they are fools—the spectator does, for any single act will be enough for him if he can reasonably conclude from it that the never-ending play will go on in the same way for ever” (Kant rejects, in short, the doctrine of amor fati).

What Kant (nor Nietzsche for that matter) did not anticipate was the ways in which nihilism would be made not only tolerable but the primary object of desire for civilizations in which no other alternatives are presented as either possible or necessary. Against the popular maxim there are actually three inevitabilities: death, taxes, and inevitability itself parceled in distraction and enjoyment.

2c. In Kierkegaardian terms, Kant tries to establish within the structure of practical reason itself the priority of the ethical over the aesthetic. There is no existential decision to be made for Kant because the moral law is simply a fact of reason. On the one hand, Kierkegaard accepts Kant’s rejection of heteronomy: “the person who says that he wants to enjoy life always posits a condition that either lies outside the individual or is within the individual in such a way that it is not there by virtue of the individual himself”. But Kierkegaardian authenticity has nothing of the character of Kantian autonomy if for no other reason than for the singularity of the “infinitely concrete” self that does not exist prior to the absolute choice to be who one is. What leftist critics of Kierkegaard (and existentialism generally) resisted was the propensity for the certitude of authenticity to remain inner in the complicity of the ethical self for an aestheticized existence, even if such aestheticism is transformed into the spiritual immolation of guilt.

Ethical guilt leads in the opposite direction of political action, which is predicated not on the identity of the subject but, rather, in the dereliction of subjective pride in the suffering of others (even if one is oneself the subject of oppression) in what Lévinas and Derrida have nominated as “responsibility”. The standard political distinction between responsibility and obligation consists simply in the fact that responsibility is not chosen and that my responsibility extends beyond my power of knowledge or even of satisfaction, e.g., in the fact that I can be responsible for injustices I never intended to commit. In a certain sense, then, the autonomy of my ethical responsibility is conditioned by the absolute heteronomy of my identity as one implicated prior to my decisions since those decisions must be made within a situation I have inherited.

3. Just as we have inherited the world of our predecessors, the critical political task is to be conscious of the futures we both prohibit and create. In this light, the fundamental imperative of education, Adorno said, is that Auschwitz should never happen again. What he meant, of course, is that education must form minds that are not pliable to the forces that lead us to fascism. What his hyperbolic statement has unfortunately made possible, however, is complacency with any injustice not commensurate with the most radical evil in recorded history (Abu Ghraib, for example, just “wasn’t as bad”). In a sense, politics always happens too late and the mistake of utopianism is to posit the possibility of redemption as the end of political action.

What criticism must resist at all personal and material costs is the reduction of politics into farce and the tragedy of recognizing that the necessity of criticism comes too late, i.e., when “the unthinkable” remains unthinkable because it has already become our modus operandi and when injustice can be recognized only the in the cold****, ironic laughter of those who can be persuaded that “it’s all good”. The real meaning of freedom (or Kant’s “autonomy”) is nothing other than a separation from reality and the given: “truth has no place other than the will to resist the lie of opinion. Thought … proves itself in the liquidation of opinion: literally the dominant opinion. This opinion is not due simply to people’s inadequate knowledge but rather is imposed upon them by the overall structure of society and hence by relations of domination. How widespread these relations are provides an initial index of falsity: it shows how far the control of thought through domination extends. Its signature is banality. … The banal cannot be true” (Adorno).

****We should not forget that Adorno explicitly claimed that Auschwitz was made possible by those without the capacity for love.

À la Lefebvre, though, it is not simply the content of opinion that is false but the very structure of opinion that criticism must interrogate. The fundamental insight of critical philosophy is that the given (the everyday) is never merely given but always (socially) mediated (this was, incidentally, Fichte’s insight into the possibility of ethics, which preceded Hegel’s formulation of the state as the “ethical substance” of the subject): the habits and routines of everyday life are both sedimentations of cultural meanings but also, ipso facto, a necessary condition for (self-)identity. The relation between the everyday and the extraordinary, as Felski argues, cannot be reduced to the opposition between the material and the ideal if only because the everyday is the materialization of the ideal. There is, therefore, no single “everyday” experience apart from specific histories, which constitute such experiences as gendered, economic, etc. The everyday, consequently, cannot serve as the final court of appeal against the demands of the extraordinary but, like the state, precisely because it is a condition of life must also be subjected to unrelenting critique. As Felski points out, the everyday is necessarily caught in a fundamental ambivalence: disdained and even mistrusted for the ways in which the political, economic, and biopolitical forms of power have normalized the inequalities of reality while at the same time our subjection is also that which creates our possibilities as subjects.

The everyday thus presents us with the perennial choice between immanence and transcendence: Foucault and Deleuze represent the most radical attempts at an immanent critique of the given. Contemporary criticism, however, has learned that, properly speaking, our choice is not “between” immanence and transcendence since, as both Derrida and Badiou have shown, despite being otherwise irreconcilable, immanence only manifests through a presentation of the transcendental. The chiasm from the immanent to the transcendent passes through the unpresentable singularity of that which, from the side of the immanent, can never be given “all at once” and, from the side of the transcendental, exceeds the circulation of discourse (e.g., Derrida’s transcendental signifier or, equivalently, his notion of justice as the undeconstructible condition of deconstruction). The sympathy of criticism, politics, education, and art consists in the insufficiency and contingency of the present and what is presented as affirmative in character.

24 March 2012

The sound of madness

1. There is something true in the banal observation that madness cannot name itself and, consequently, analytic discourse always requires a triadic structure (whence the problem of ethics that requires that there is no third). To put it simplistically, madness indicates a radical and often irreparable departure of the cogito from the ego. What Derrida observes of the “me” of analysis applies mutatis mutandis to madness: how is it possible to translate what is in principle unpresentable into a discourse that by its nature must make it present? How is it possible to say something outside of sense when speech itself is nothing other than the repetition of sense?* It is in the midst of this bind that Derrida explicitly invokes the notion of iterability in the now familiar deconstructive technique of showing that what resists signification is ultimately the “real” of sense such that every act of analysis becomes its own subversion (in his words, “in this sense, deconstruction is the interminable drama of analysis”).

*Contrary to popular psychology, madness is neither chaos nor “complete nonsense” but, rather, a particular relation to sense that prevents reflection.

As Foucault observed, what was at stake in their confrontation over the possibility of writing (of) madness is whether philosophical discourse can tolerate an exteriority to which it must be blind. When Derrida says that everything can be historicized except the hyperbolic project—which, in classic Derridean fashion, requires a madness more radical than that of psychological madness—Foucault sees confirmation of knowledge fortifying itself against its own unconscious (conditions). But the archaeological “we” who must analyze these conditions, Derrida says, can never be its own contemporary, i.e., can never be present to itself, which simply defines the analytic position. For both, however, because knowledge can never renounce itself, the double bind of Enlightenment (or, more specifically, Kantian) critique is that knowledge only crosses its limit precisely by seeking to know itself: thought can never intend anything outside of itself.

2. This double bind is “endured in a thousand different ways” (Derrida) in a sort of passio essendi. Madness brings us to the limit between life and death, i.e., to the point where the dissolution of the conditions for life nevertheless persists in a sort of second life. Death lingers on the far side of madness at the impossible moment when madness can name itself; madness expresses itself, however, perilously close to us ourselves in ecstasy (which includes not only the experiences of the mystics but also, as Derrida points out, the problematic of finitude in Heideggerean ek-stasis).

Such expression, however, can never be in the order of signification (thus analysis is only what Derrida calls the “reconstitution of the symbolic pact”). But what Munch did for anguish in “The Scream”, Ornstein has done for madness in the eighth of the Poems of 1917. Ornstein’s tone clusters, instead of tarrying at the limit of tonality and noise, express tonality without being tonal. Ornstein never rejects the language of tonality. All the architectural and melodic elements are there but it is the very persistence of the triplets that attempt to establish a tonal center that fails to sublate the minimal (semitonal) differences into a standard resolution. The “center” of the eighth Poem is nothing other than the minimal difference that defines unison as the interval that differs from itself only by returning to itself. But the only difference, then, between a single note (unison) and silence is its negation in melodic progression.

What Ornstein’s “melody without tonality” expresses, by the absence of a tonal center, is simply the trace of tonality by its persistence in our relation to it. Against the referentialists, Meyer has argued that “affect … is aroused when an expectation—a tendency to respond—activated by the musical stimulus situation, is temporarily inhibited or permanently blocked” (emphasis added). In a sense, this thesis is the key to all modernist music. Meyer’s contributions to music theory have been to show that musical meaning (which is preferable to “sense”) is fundamentally triadic, i.e., that it is neither in the work nor the conscious observer but between those two and the extra-musical referent of the work. In the case of the eighth Poem, the latter is simply madness itself or, to put it another way, the eighth Poem is not a mad statement like the man who declares that his head is made of earthenware but simply an** expression of madness itself as a flight from sense that can, in principle, never be “made sense of” but nevertheless remains as a resistance and temptation to the reflective consciousness.

*I mark the article to insist that, strictly speaking, there is not one but many madnesses.

15 March 2012

The book-fetish

The reactions to Encyclopedia Britannica’s cessation of a print edition has oscillated between nostalgia and a reverent fear for the future of literacy. “Won’t our children know what a book is anymore?” Behind that question, however, is not merely a luddite rejection of technology but a fetishism of the book that undermines the very concerns these sentiments express. It is appropriate, moreover, that they should re-appear on the occasion at the loss of this particular sort of book for, if the opponents of e-readers have forgotten that the book itself is a product of technology, we have also forgotten the origins of the very notion of an encyclopedia and, if we were to recall the ends of such a project, may not be so reluctant to mourn its transformation.

The idea of an encyclopedia is a stereotypically nineteenth-century invention that entailed not only a compilation of all the “available facts of human history, collected over the widest areas” (preface to the ninth edition) but also that they are “carefully coordinated and grouped together, in the hope of ultimately evolving the laws of progress, moral and material, which underlie them, and which will help to connect and interpret the whole movement of the race” (emphasis added). Whether in its British or German versions, intrinsic to the encyclopedic project is the possibility of unifying the results of human inquiry under a systematic orientation toward the idea of a final synthesis of knowledge that requires, among other things, at least the one thing that lessons of twentieth century colonialism has taught us at least that we ought to be suspicious if not simply reject: i.e., a single, substantive notion of “human rationality” across all history and cultures. The encyclopedic project is caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma: either the facts thus collected can be unified into a systematic whole—which presupposes precisely the conception of universal historical progress and singular rationality that has resulted in the subjugation of both women and “savages”—or we renounce the possibility of a systematic unity of the information gathered, in which case what we have is both unending and meaningless since it is not thereby knowledge (if it were, then the IBM computer that was able to defeat Jeopardy! contestants by having a lot of facts at its disposal would be the smartest thing in the world). An “encyclopedia” of facts without a principle of order and selection is trivial but any such principle renders certain things visible at the expense of others.

While the current dismay at the loss of the printed edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica seems directed not at the loss of the encyclopedia itself—which, despite everything, continues to be an unfortunately inexorable presence in the pursuit of knowledge—but at the printed version of it, the objection rests on the same confusion of the paths to knowledge. If, at minimum, the encyclopedic impulse results from the fetishism of facts, which leads us to mistake the collection of facts as knowledge, the fetishism of the book leads us to reduce the pursuit of knowledge to particular objects. While knowledge is inseparable from material conditions, it is not beholden to any particular material conditions and, for that matter, it is strictly speaking not “beholden” to material conditions because knowledge and its material conditions are co-constitutive.

No one would have taken seriously a similar outcry over the loss of the scroll on the advent of the book. By now the intellectual advances made possible by that particular technological transformation are banal. What should strike us as strange is the failure to recognize a similar transformation here. Marx once remarked that humanity only poses such problems to itself that it is capable of solving, because something isn’t even recognized as a problem to be solved unless somehow we are capable of the solution. In this instance, however, our technology has lagged far behind our needs. The sheer amount of information and data produced can no longer be recorded on paper because there simply isn’t enough paper to do so; we’re all aware of the temporal limitations of the publishing industry in cases like textbooks that, because they are published so long after they are actually written, are obsolete the moment they are purchased (which contributes to the exorbitant price of textbooks). The curious phenomenon here is that the resistance to the digital transformation of the book is a resistance to the fulfillment of the needs we have created and a regressive tendency toward those forms of technology that are no longer capable of meeting those needs.

But rejecting nostalgia for the book need not consist merely in an automatic allegiance to the development of technology (since we might still remain agnostic on whether or not the needs to which such technology is responding are actually beneficial). The fetishism of the book confuses the end of knowledge with the means (i.e., technology): that knowledge is (“in”) the book* (and, of course, it is but a short step toward thinking that, therefore, an encyclopedia can “collect” knowledge).

*This is the same confusion of thinking that the piece of music is “in” the score.

If there is anything that digital technology has shown, it is that knowledge is not “in” anything and book fetishism is perhaps the most exemplary form of fetishism (attributing human powers to objects).** Wikipedia has shown, for example, how the transmission of knowledge is not only collective but communicative such that the collective effort at writing and editing a Wikipedia entry allow for a sort of interaction with information that was not possible with a printed encyclopedia.

**This is the same error behind the cliché “at least people are reading a book instead of watching TV”, as if reading were intrinsically better than watching TV. One finds it difficult to see how reading trash like a romance novel is intellectually “better” than watching Mythbusters, for example. If the charge goes “TV rots your brain”, so does Twilight.

While digital technology has not yet given us the means to replace the book completely—for serious academic purposes, for example, e-readers still fall consistently short—there is no indication that eventually it will not do so nor that it is undesirable for it to do so.

05 March 2012

Weakness and possibility (variations on a theme)

1. In Bloch’s inversion of Hegel’s critique of Kant, he asserts that freedom is not only realized in the material community of individuals but in the positive idea of politics. The utopian “suprahistorical” idea of freedom is not real but ideal in the sense of the world-to-come in the action of political subjects. Freedom is thus not in history but, rather, the positive end of historical subjects’ conscious activity. It is against the background of such utopianism that Benjamin invokes the necessity of messianic redemption or, more precisely, the notion of history as the anticipation of the Messiah. Only the Messiah “completes” history, not through justification but by forgiveness, i.e., by disrupting history with a new order of time “beyond all remembering or forgetting”.

Here Benjamin explicitly follows Lotze’s suspicions of the grand style of world-historical thinking (or “universal history”) that leaves invisibility (including that of women) and stupidity in its wake. What good is a blessing in which we cannot participate, Lotze asks, when our toil is for the benefit of those who come after (always after)? Humanity does not, he says, “consists in a general type-character which is repeated in all individuals” and “the existence of a vast spiritual proletariat, which there seems no possibility of removing, is an objection which the idea of history as the education of mankind must find it hard [indeed impossible] to overcome” (Microcosmos 7.2,; Benjamin quotes several passages around this text repeatedly in the Passagenwerk). The logic of history, Lotze says, leaves it bereft of any moral exigency, for what can be imperative to those whose fate is outshone by the glory of the enlightened?

Precisely because they have been forgotten by history, Benjamin says, the moment of their recognizability has passed. The task of the critic is to expose the discontinuities and contradictions through which we might infer the “barely missed” opportunities from what history has forgotten, whether through its blindness or its mendacity. The past becomes visible not only objectively in the traces of time but also subjectively in the awareness of what is missing, viz., in the “secret agreement between past generations and the present one” that we shall be the gate through which the Messiah passes. On the one hand, we must wait; yet the work of anticipation is not mere complacency since the “weak messianic power” of redemption is only a possibility. Jewish messianism refuses to bind the individual into the corpus mysticum of universal history but at the same time also rails against the vanity of injustice. Anticipation begins in remembrance because it is through the dialectical image that we recognize the discontinuity between past and present, i.e., that there was a certain moment in the past when the present became possible and, since there can be no resurrection or redemption of the past, we must look for the traces of the future that will remain after our time has been shattered.

2a. Modernity begins the moment creation is recognized as infinite decomposition. “We are dying from the moment we are born”, so the cliché goes and only an essential fatigue could have precipitated the fall into time. Eternal happiness, it turns out, is unbearable if only because it is interminably boring.*

*Boredom, Heidegger says, is the Grundstimmung of modernity and the necessary condition for the metaphysics of Da-sein in which being is revealed as time itself. As Goodstein argues, however, in what is perhaps still the best treatment of boredom as a modern phenomenon, what gets presented existentially in Heidegger is irreducibly cultural and historical.

But our consciousness of this fall makes it impossible to desire eternal happiness (again) without thereby perversely desiring our present wretchedness. The truly religious desire is not for paradise but patience:

“When you have seen a corruption in every conviction and in every attachment a profanation, you no longer have the right to expect, on earth or elsewhere, a fate modified by hope. You must choose some ideal, absurdly solitary promontory, or a farcical star refractory to all constellations. Irresponsible out of melancholy, your life has flouted its moments; now, life is the piety of duration, the feeling of a dancing eternity, time transcending itself, and vies with the sun. . . .” (Cioran)

Consciousness is caught between the impossibility of a justified life as much as it is by a justified death (as Cioran reminds us, while the thought of suicide is fundamental to consciousness, for example, it is contradicted by the act). Happiness denies justification to every suffering as much as the converse. To make suffering the end of consciousness, however, is not an act of strength, since, lest we fall victim to the most vicious ressentiment, we must also realize that, ultimately, suffering offers neither vengeance nor remuneration.

2b. Is this not the lesson of Christian generosity, i.e., that weakness is the precondition for actual generosity (Lk 6:30)? Abundance and surplus preclude generosity, because it is neither generous to give what one does not need nor to be freed from the appearance of necessity (on the other hand, infirmity of character also excludes generosity since it is not “generous” merely to be taken advantage of). This is Marion’s point, for example, in his recent argument against the notion of sacrifice as destruction. The gift, he argues, “is accomplished in an unconditioned immanence, which not only owes nothing to exchange, but dissolves its conditions of possibility”. His point here is similar to Caputo’s notion of the “weak force” of creation, i.e., that an actual creation ex nihilo cannot be a gift since nothing is “given up”. But while Caputo resists the image of the causal—and ultimately pantheistic—God that imbues existence with goodness, equally we must resist the God from whom “significance and promise” follow; instead, in a slight turn of phrase, the event offers only a “promise of significance”. Weak theology names the transcendental, however, only by renouncing the claims of justice.

On the other hand, for Derrida, the true transcendental is nothing other than democracy and why messianism is structural and not religious (as he explicitly claims in Specters of Marx). Democratic anarchy must necessarily resist the ideology of hope or any passage from existence to goodness. “If I happen to have written that [democracy] “remains” to come, this remaining [restance] … pending [en souffrance], withdraws from its ontological dependence. It does not constitute the modification of an “is,” of an ontological copula marking the present of essence or existence, indeed of substantial or subjective substance” (Rogues, cf. “The Supplement of the Copula”). If we must wait, we seek not the good but the possibility of what, at present, has been made desperate and even unthinkable.

3. If the fundamental insight of contemporary (critical) hermeneutics is that being is nothing other than language and, consequently, that mediation is everywhere and the structure of the real is in itself dialogical (and thus historical), it follows that language, the beautiful, and the good are co-constitutive and that there is a convertibility between truth and rhetoric. Vattimo has argued this point most directly through the collapse of ontology into hermeneutics. If, then, it is not Da-sein but simply being itself that is disclosure,*** “the ‘objects’ toward which the verwindend and andenkend attitude of post-metaphysical thought turns itself are not exclusively the messages of the past. Metaphysics is not only transmitted to us in the contents of the Geisteswissenschaften, in the humanistic heritage of our culture; it is ‘realized’ in the Gestell, the scientific-technological organization of the modern world”. The task of thought, then, is to interpret the real as this organization and structure. Just as there is no seeing without seeing-as (Wittgenstein), all being is adverbial.

***Just as information theory posits that the fundamental nature of reality is the transfer of information, the hermeneutic-semiotic equivalent here is simply to say that to be is at least to be a sign.

Nihilism then has a positive destiny for Vattimo not only in the destruction of the highest values (Nietzsche) but in the narrative construction of communal existence. But this existence has neither ground nor justification in anything other than the possibility of its coming-to-be in persuasion (which, of course, need not be exclusively discursive). The destiny of humanity consists in nothing other than the re-definition of what it means to be human as the principal task of interpretation. Instead of deploying a voracious will-to-truth as scientific victory, hermeneutic thought posits the possibility of truth neither as given nor to be found either objectively or in the confidence of an inner certitude but, rather, in a world that we, together, might one day actually affirm in good conscience.

03 March 2012

One and nothing: free variations (continued)

4. The distinction between Greek mathematics and modern mathematical analysis allegedly turns on certain discoveries of properties of infinite series. What this characterization obscures, however, is that we need not think of the problem of number as one of enumeration or, more generally, that the problem of multiplicity be confused with that of a series. The work from Bolzano to Cantor recognized the latter fact with the well-known consequence that there are perfectly good ways to speak of actual infinities. But the mortgage that set theory had to pay—and here the original problem returns—is, broadly speaking, an account of the structure of multiplicity, toward which we cannot remain indifferent and which has both logical and ontological consequences (the former, for example, being an effect of the reflexive problem exposed by Löwenheim-Skolem and the latter simply a consequence of the trivial fact that there is no reflection arrow for the empty set).

The turn toward intuitionism in mathematics, viewed in a certain light, is a return to the problem of Platonism not only in the ontological (Brouwer) but also the epistemological sense, which is the explicit difference in the treatment of number between, for example, Plotinus and Proclus (but which remains a difference in aspect only). The question of number takes place not at the level of unity and multiplicity (one and many) in the order of being(s) but, rather, in the passage from being to non-being where the latter is understood not as the negation of being already counted as one under the category of quantity but as a transcendence of being (i.e., the non-being of the One, for example, is already a double negation: a negation of the first negation of being as nothing). The typical theological mistake has been to conflate Platonic cosmogony/ology with ontology.*

*Here Heidegger’s account of onto-theology has severely limited our capacity to understand the terms of anti-Aristotelian metaphysics.

Proclus’ ideal (eidetikos) number or Plotinus’ substantial (ousiodes) number are principles of the intellect understood as the ontological expression of what is prior to being and nothing other than the activity (energeia) of being. Proclus in a sense ‘domesticates’ Plotinus’ account of substantial number in the intelligible by locating it as a sort of category in the soul; but this account nevertheless is supposed to explain how mathematical number is possible within the Platonic account of number as substance against the Aristotelians. The significance of the monad in Platonic metaphysics is that it is the principle not only of the unity but also the limit in being: the monad is not itself (counted-as-)one, which explains how the dyad participates in the monad in different ways (i.e., how the dyad is both clearly discrete and continuous). The persistent mistake of Aristotelianism has been to insist that the difference between number and monad be quantitative and to fails to understand that substantial number does not count substance.

5. The ambiguity of the substantial and the mathematical one is, however, necessary insofar as it expresses the duality of thought and being; or that thought and being are expressions of substance considered under different attributes à la Spinoza; or that thought is the reverse of being and vice versa. Modern mathematics has simply given rigorous formulation to the perennial Pythagorean proposition: not only that being is number but that being is number as structure. The absence of structure has been nominated variously as One (Plotinus), as zero (Peirce), or as void (Badiou). Everything turns, however, on how we interpret the nature of this absence and that we should not be misled neither by the nomination of the transcendental,** the confusion of number with enumeration, nor the conflation of the One with the “all” (as universe, the whole, the set of all sets, etc).

**Badiou is exemplary here: “I say ‘void’ rather than ‘nothing’, because the ‘nothing’ is the name of the void correlative to the global effect of structure. … The name I have chosen, the void, indicates precisely that nothing is presented [emphasis added], no term, and also that the designation of that nothing occurs ‘emptily’, it does not locate it structurally”.

6. The symbol of the monad is the circle since it “preserves the specific identity of any number with which it is conjoined” (Iamblichus), just as the void can be added to (and/or subtracted from) any set. For the Pythagoreans, the monad was also the intellect insofar as it was seminally (“potentially”) all beings; the circle has therefore long been the geometric expression or symbol of infinity.***

***See, for example, Augustine’s famous image of God or, more interestingly, Spinoza’s curious remark that “number is not applicable to the nature of the space between two non-concentric circles. Therefore if anyone sought to express all those inequalities by a definite number, he would also have to being it about that a circle should not be a circle”.

While the monad is often characterized as stability (monad is derived from “menein”, “to be stable”), stability is distinguished from nothingness as nascence (or, as before, harmony is only possible by forgetting a fundamental disharmony):

“[T]his incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That central life is somewhat superior to creation … and contains all its circles. For ever it labors to create a life and thought as large and excellent as itself; but in vain; for that which is made instructs how to make a better.” (Emerson, emphasis added)

This is the real (ethical) meaning of transcendence or the “moral fact of the Universe”: that the given is never sufficient and that “every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series”. The very condition of possibility for thought is its inadequacy to being, which thus constitutes its fundamental imperative: to recognize this deficiency not in itself but in what is given to it. “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” The weakness of thought—its inadequacy—calls not for its mystical renunciation but a persistent refusal of that temptation toward cessation, whether in its annihilation or defeat by the overwhelming burden of totality or its pacification by the illusory satisfaction of identity—“I’m just me” or “I’m only human, after all”. The Pythagorean monad is the limit of being only as a self-limitation (which is the only way to account for the priority of the monad with respect to the dyad) and in a certain sense thought is nothing other than the (reflexive) expression of this “self”. This expression, however, betrays itself only through negation: just as the Pythagoreans called the One “Apollo” (from a-pollon, “not many”) and harmony requires the impossibility of complete unity, “the one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle” (emphasis added). Thought fulfills its destiny not only when it ventures into the unknown but takes the leap into what, in principle, it can never know.

[Cf. the previous post from March 2010 "Dialectics at a standstill".]

01 March 2012

One and nothing: free variations

1. Along the way toward expressing the thoughts of God before the creation of the world, Hegel’s logic consumes the possibility of mathematics at the highest moment in the doctrine of being. Just before his explicit treatment of quantity, however, he includes a note on Leibniz’ monadology and observes that “plurality remains as a fixed fundamental determination, so that the connection between [monads] falls only in the monad of monads, or in the philosopher who contemplates them”. What Hegel has grasped only vaguely here is that for Leibniz mathematics and metaphysics express the same thought, i.e., that mathematics understands the world in the same way as the divine intellect (which is the real meaning of his remark at the determination of a maximum is the work of the divine mathematician who determines the greatest number of compossibles in a given world). Leibniz’ “new mathematics”, he says, “makes man commensurate with God”.

The problem of plurality to which Hegel refers is Leibniz’ notion that the infinite (number of) monads are representations of a single universe (Monadology §78) without thereby understanding this universe as substance.* Leibniz struggles to provide an adequate topological model of such a universe** and instead speaks of the “accommodation” or harmony of all things.

*One is tempted to say “Spinozist” substance were Spinoza’s definition of substance as “one” not problematic from a mathematical point of view and which would require extensive work in disambiguation. Rather, we might safely say here “Aristotelian” substance up to and including Heidegger’s interpretation of ousia.

**Elsewhere I have claimed that such a model would be something like a Klein bottle.

2. Yet we should remember that the essence of harmony is a fundamental gap or discontinuity in what the sensibility desires as unity. The law of the series that guarantees the immanence of the world in the monad (what Badiou calls the “absolute interiority” of the monad) allows us to speak of the monad as one in a strictly different sense than that of the universe.

Here we might benefit from recalling that this is the Platonic problem par excellence. Against the Aristotelian dictum that being is always a being (i.e., that unity follows immediately from being)—and Aristotle’s well-known confusion of the Indefinite Dyad as two “counted-as-one”—Plotinus’ account of substantial number accounts both for the ontogenetic differentiation of being (see, e.g., Enneads VI.6.15) and for the fact that the One is not enumerable. What is at stake, philosophically if not mathematically, in Platonist mathematics is precisely the capacity to distinguish the one in the order of intelligibility from the unity of any individual. Being, for Plotinus, exists only because it inherits unified number from the One and, conversely, multiplicity is not the division of the One but the intellect’s contemplation of the One. We might say that substantial number is the “form” of the monad—as the immediate image of the One—combined with the “matter” of the Indefinite Dyad or, in perhaps more precise language, the Indefinite Dyad is nothing other than the limitation of unity as apostasis (and reciprocally, according to the Neopythagorean conception of monadic number, the monad is the limit of quantity: the monadic number is a progression to and a regression from mulitiplicity), the intellect is nothing other than substantial number, which is why being is not itself number but number is the principle of being.

3. What does it mean, then, to be a thinker of the One? Or, perhaps more modestly, what is at stake is the character of our ethics. For a thinker of the One, ethics is beyond being, in a sort of pagan transcendence of that which cannot be counted-as-one, as opposed to an ethics of the void, which must resist, perhaps violently, the capacity for being named and that must tear itself away from the very conditions of its survival. Our choice, however, is not that between excess and subtraction since the Plotinian One is nothing other than a series of negations: not to move away and not to progress “even a little” to the two. If there is not a symmetry between these two orientations, our choice seems to be in what direction this negation operates: whether the difference that counts is a negation of the given (multiplicity) or in the (im)possibility of negating what does not exist (a double negation!).

29 February 2012

The smiling Doppelgänger; or: the fall of the fourth estate

1. As a result of the debate between Lippmann and Dewey, what we know as journalism has been instrumental in the simultaneous marriage and autonomy of economics and politics. For what began as a means for communicating information that may affect prices and trade—which quickly turned out to be anything and everything—their debate was predicated on the idea that the very possibility of a people to govern themselves required a robust and rigorous media, free from distortion and misinformation (this was Lippmann’s point in Liberty and the News after WWI). In his philosophy of education, Dewey showed that we must be able to think well; Lippmann insisted that we must be able not only to think but that we must always think about something and that our capacity to think is limited not only by subjective but also objective possibilities.

Lippmann knew, of course, that journalistic practice does not consist of getting “just the facts”. The essential problem for both journalists and audiences, he said, is that between the individual and her environment is what he called a “pseudo-environment”, which consists of the habits and fictions that orient our behavior—put simply, our beliefs about the facts (or, as Nietzsche had said, there are never “mere facts” but facts interpreted as facts).

In 1919, the Washington Post ran a story that in the Adriatic a US Rear Admiral had apparently received orders from the British via the War Council. It seemed, the article concluded, that American naval forces could be commanded by foreign powers under the new League of Nations without the knowledge or consent of American commanders. Republican senators immediately expressed indignation at the possibility of American military operations being conducted without the consent of Congress, adding this news to support their opposition to the League of Nations. It turned out that no orders had come from the British and that the American forces had landed in Italy at the request of the Italians for protection, acting under established international practice that had nothing to do with the League of Nations.

Lippmann’s point in this example is not only that the Washington Post “got the facts wrong”, which is indeed true, but also that it illustrates the way in which we act, form opinions and convictions, and consequently act from information gathered not only by our environment but by our pseudo-environment. How is it possible for two people—or even two nations—to enter a conflict, both fully convinced that they are acting in self-defense, for example?

2. Without having to make any decisions on what constitutes the “facts” of an event, what distinguished journalism from other forms of popular media for Lippmann was not simply a dedication to the facts but, rather, its civic duty. His recommendations of now standard editorial practices and “journalistic ethics” were predicated on the principle that the journalist’s responsibility was quite literally to be the medium from citizen to world.

It did not take long, however, for the culture industry to corrode this sense of duty. On the left, for example, The Daily Show has explicitly erased the distinction between journalism and entertainment (with all the ironic consequences that have followed in its critical impotence); on the right, Fox News asks viewers to vote for which story they would like to see just as American Idol asks audiences to vote for which singer they would like to hear.

A Yahoo! News story reported that a recent story about a $1.33 tip from a banker on a $133 restaurant bill (with the sentence “get a real job” written by the word “tip”), which provoked outrage across the Internet, may have been digitally altered. The restaurant claimed to have found the merchant’s copy of the receipt, which shows a standard tip ($7) for a smaller bill ($33) without the accompanying insult.

Quite apart from the question of whether this event counts as significant news, the Yahoo! story ends with the reporter asking what has become an obligatory query addressed to the audience: “what do you think? Who’s telling the truth?” What is at stake in this story is the fact that the outrage over the original story is (likely) directed at a false source. If there is a story here, it is that our outrage over callous wealthy privilege is misfounded (at least in this case) and that the facts of the matter do not justify such a response. But the reporter’s final question makes the truth irrelevant: the truth of the matter seems not to be the point—the work of establishing it has not been done by the reporter—but only what I think about it.

What are the possible responses to that question? 1) “I think the original story is true and the restaurant is lying about the original receipt.” – Then the facts don’t matter. 2) “I think the receipt is a hoax.” – Then the story has not gone far enough in collecting the relevant evidence to allow us to come to a reasonable conclusion. 3) “I suspend judgment.” – Then what I think is irrelevant since I should precisely think nothing (notice that this is the only reasonable response to give).

Among the objective failures of journalism, this question “What do you think?” and the compulsion to “register” (to whom?) an opinion on anything and everything signifies the decadent subjective failure of civic duty. If Lippmann had entrusted to journalists the responsibility to the truth, Dewey had asked us to remember that democratic politics demands not opinion but thought, i.e., not only simply to insist on our “right to have an opinion” but that we have a responsibility to think about them.*

*Incidentally, recently I claimed that the intellectual dereliction of the left was one of the only two things about which Rand was right. This is the second: that the appropriate converse of a closed mind is not an open but an active mind.

25 February 2012

The unfinished system of knowledge

1a. When Schopenhauer declared that the in-itself of phenomena is Wille, the nihilist mistake is therefore to conclude that the appearance of good masks a fundamental blindness, forgetting that the third aspect of Schopenhauer’s account is dedicated to showing that the Platonic Idea is the “adequate objectification of the will”. For Schopenhauer music was the direct expression of Wille but if we take the Platonic moment seriously, what we should actually notice is that the idea of the good remains the real of thought. This is why, among the semantic and logical paradoxes, it is actually some version of Moore’s paradox that provides an interesting site for the convergence of metaphysics and ethics: the relevant propositions are not of the order “the world ought to be good” (nor even “the world is not good”) but, rather, in a sentence whose significantly paradoxical structure is masked by grammar: “the world is good but I believe it is not good”.

1b. Crossing the gap between the appearance and the real(ity) of the good is not simply a matter of “having more knowledge” (if we only knew which companies from which to buy, for example) or even being more “self-conscious” since fundamentally the problem is not that of making better choices if for no other reason than that, as we know, the kind of knowledge that would be required to do so is impossible.

2a. The positivist fetishism of facts has distorted our capacity to inquire into the conditions for how knowledge is possible.* If only we knew, for example, the facts behind Nike’s labor practices in Indonesia we could make “more informed choices” because our intentions are good.

*So too, for that matter, the insistence on the “sublimity” of the postmodern condition.

Yet having “good intentions” is more difficult than the subjectivists realize. Similarly, the phenomenological mistake is to mistake intentionality for an arrow when it is more like a field. To take seriously the material conditions for knowledge—which are not themselves objective but the convergence of the subjective and objective—what we require is not “pure reflection” (here Sartre has moved too quickly) but the possibility of what we might call a purifying intention.

2b. “The problem with philosophy is the passage from the knowledge of limited objects to the knowledge of the entirety of what is” (Bataille). This gap is the common source of philosophy, mathematics, and science, even if within each the beginning and destination are often reversed (in, e.g., romanticism, axiomatics, and unified theory).** We falter in the search for knowledge not by failing to bridge the gap but in misunderstanding the character of this putative totality. The insight of speculative philosophy consists not in the identity of thought and being but, more precisely, in the speculative unity of thought and being through the morphism from the system of objects to the system of knowledge.

**Equally interesting is that, contra Schopenhauer, Bataille’s observation is perhaps the one thing that can not be said of either art or religion.

Despite recent innovations in continental ontology, we should keep in mind that while every network is a system, not every system is a network. This is also a useful heuristic to distinguish information from knowledge: there are networks of information but it is the systematicity of knowledge that marks the difference between a database and consciousness. This is why, among the intellectual disciplines, philosophy (or logic for Husserl)—until the twentieth century—has been the science of science*** and why, despite the recent suspicion of totality inherited from Marx, Lévinas, and Derrida, we must learn that not only is it possible to think totality without violence but that it is imperative for us to do so. This is the tendency of recent work in Merrell's semiosis or, in different but perhaps more familiar terms, it is also the lesson of Rancière’s analysis of the homology between aesthetics and politics in le partage du sensible.

***This is also, incidentally, why the sciences require philosophy (although the converse is also true but for different reasons): the psychologist who can identify instances of fundamental attribution error does not thereby have knowledge of the problems of egoic identity or effective agency. To put it simply, empiricism always misses the transcendental (just as the transcendental always misses the empirical).

Rancière’s question here is for critical theory what Badiou’s project is for ontology: what are the structures of intelligibility that constitute the world of life that we must interrogate both because of but also despite them? What is the invisible truth of the real that demands expression (through what Badiou calls “torsion” or—I suspect equivalently—Henry calls the “Internal”)?

2c. The danger is that this truth may turn out to be nothing. But there are two kinds of nothing: there is the nothing of inconsequence—that nothing happens or that nothing will happen. But there is also the “pure zero” of which Peirce spoke: the “nothing of not having been born. There is [here] no individual thing, no compulsion, outward nor inward, no law. It is the germinal nothing, in which the whole universe is involved … As such, it is absolutely undefined and unlimited possibility—boundless possibility”. For Peirce, the mediation between this freedom to the determination of the individual is quality—the determination of this or that possibility. What is surprising here is that he further insists that “a quality is a consciousness. I do not say a waking consciousness—but still, something of the nature of consciousness [emphasis added]. … A possibility, then … is a particular tinge of consciousness”. Rather than a mystical pantheism, Peirce’s quale-consciousness denotes the material sympathy between mind and object as the ground for unity (“unity” in the sense of a category) but, more importantly, perhaps also how we might approach the possibility of a purifying intention—not as a mental act but precisely in the abstrusion of the mental (or the obstrusion of the cognitive in what Varela has called “enactive structures”). Intentions remain impure as long as we succumb to the fiction that the seat of cognition or identity is in the head, the individual, or the ego. But beyond the materialist fascination of the genesis of the individual from the pre-individual field (Deleuze, psychoanalysis) of metastable equilibria (Simondon, Stiegler)—which at the least does not seem to account for the dialectic between the activity and passivity of thought—the purification of intention consists, foremost, in laying thought bare against the conditions of its impossibility.

23 February 2012

On perjury and consequences

1a. “Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” Adorno wrote at the start of one of the most remarkable texts of early critical theory. How is it possible, he asks, from* the false world of a “damaged life”, to speak truth? Similarly, Aristotle had asked a similar question with a similar answer: is it possible to be virtuous in a wicked society when the moral habits require both subjective and objective conditions of possibility.

*The English translation of the title is extremely infelicitous here. The reflections are, yes, on damaged life but they are at the same time from or out of it [aus dem beschädigten Leben].

But perhaps the most remarkable trope of our present state is the Christian notion of original sin. The interesting aspect of original sin is not its hereditary nature. As Calvin points out in the Institutes, for example, “… Augustine, though he frequently calls it the sin of another, the more clearly to indicate its transmission to us by propagation [against the Pelagians], yet, at the same time, also asserts it properly belongs to each individual” (emphasis added); not only, moreover, to each person but to every creature, groaning under the weight of a burden it neither chose nor incurred (Rom 8:20,4). The unchosen responsibility for a guilt that defines our very mode of existence—and our fate—is the task that we can no longer ignore under the auspices of Enlightenment naivety.

1b. What the Enlightenment finds so unpalatable about original sin is its apparent fatalism. Similarly, Adorno and Weber are often dismissed for their unremitting pessimism: is there not good in this world, after all? Should we not affirm, as a certain bumper sticker proclaims, “life is good” or that we should “look on the bright side”?**

**I was once asked by a student why critical theorists and modern (avant-garde) artists were so “depressing” and why they couldn’t just take a moment to see the beauty in the world.

The scandal of the modern world is that what appears as good necessarily makes the suffering at its root invisible. Benjamin had famously remarked that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism and, as common wisdom goes, that history is written by the victors. The present situation is worse, however, than even he had imagined: it is reality itself that is created by those with the power to do so. Should we not celebrate the fact that we now have access to exotic grains from around the world at Whole Foods when the very fact that we are importing quinoa from Bolivia is raising prices so natives who depend on the crop for food can themselves no longer afford it and are being driven into malnutrition while obesity continues to rise in America? How many factory workers have to die or be poisoned, underage teenagers exploited, or rare minerals mined in war-torn countries to produce our “unlimited” iPads and e-readers? By how much do we mortgage future generations so we can drive on average thirty miles a day? Or while everyone was worrying about emissions and thought they were being green by buying nice electric cars, no one noticed that the environmental damage in the production of those cars is (or has been) more harmful than that of conventional cars (or that the original electric car batteries were more toxic to dispose of than nuclear waste).

Benjamin’s concern was that the conditions for the existence of evil would be forgotten and that the critic’s task was to rescue the missed and forgotten possibilities in the laughter of those who were now dead at the hands of a history that must march forward. As Arendt has shown, however, we are already too late: evil is now banal. Banality is the brother of irony: what the ironist accepts as unavoidable the other simply doesn’t notice because it is taken for granted: a radio announcer can just assume that women want to lose weight, for example, and proceed to offer special deals “for the ladies” or the culture industry can continue to feed off audiences’ demand for the ornaments of affirmative culture while works like the Thälmann Variations—written to offer hope for the future of the people—remain unpublished and unavailable.

The optimism of the 90s when this ideology of “the good life” found its final expression is no longer tenable. Neoliberals and conservatives alike continue to promise that the very conditions that not only caused the financial collapse and its continuing global repercussions remain the status quo but also that they continue to blind us to the lie behind the notion that “life is good”.

2a. Justice demands not only action but the tenacity to refuse the ideology of hope: that what was once an honest attempt has proven itself to be among the most catastrophic failures of recorded history. In one of the most reasonable things Zizek has said in recent years, “perhaps it is time to step back, think and say the right thing”; to do so, however, we must first render visible what the ideology of “the good life” denies existence. To borrow a Heideggerean sentence: what most calls for thinking is the fact that, despite everything, we are (still) not thinking. Justice must wield not only the sword but also the scales.

2b. And this is the present task of thought, which is imposed not only from the objective conditions of existence but from within thought itself. In short, this is the Kantian point of no return: there is no metaphilosophy. The material and social conditions for thought are either subject to philosophical method (which concern the possibility for thought as such) or there is something transcendent to philosophy. To put it perversely, il n’y a pas hors de l’histoire.

08 February 2012

A Danaan offering

To the surprise of liberals and conservatives alike, one of the most caustic opponents of the left came to the defense of Ellen DeGeneres against a small (but disproportionately vocal) conservative group that had called not only for a boycott of J.C. Penny but for the termination of the company’s partnership with her. But the left’s embrace of O’Reilly’s defense fails to notice that despite appearances O’Reilly remains no friend and that the grounds for his defense are contrary to many of the basic principles of liberal criticism. (I see this fact as symptomatic of the left’s tendency toward consensus and coalition as the only available options when the only political motivator available to it is the ethics of consequentialism.) Lest the left fall into the same incoherence in its ideology as the right—O’Reilly’s comments are actually, admirably, a directly rigorous consequence of this incoherence—we should pause to wonder how this unlikely alliance is forming (let’s not forget what happened at Yalta).

Notice that, like Paul, nowhere did O’Reilly say “it’s not a bad thing to be gay” or “it’s not ok for you to think being gay is a bad choice”. In fact, his exact words were, addressing the conservative group, “you don’t believe the message that they’re sending by hiring Ellen is a good message, more power to you. That is your decision and your right as an American”. It is on this point that the far right and the neoliberals are indistinguishable but also precisely where they must be obliged to differ the most: every viewpoint is equally legitimate and the right of a private citizen is to do whatever she wishes from her beliefs. As a private citizen, so the claim goes, my belief that being gay is synonymous with pedophilia is perfectly justified and I am free to be as bigoted as I want. It is in this respect that the left has confused tolerance with relativism: considered properly, there is simply no paradox to the problem of “not tolerating intolerance”. The left must have the courage to say that bigotry is simply not a right.

But O’Reilly’s point, of course, was not that individuals should have the right to think whatever they want. Nor is it clear that such a position is immune from a tacit acceptance of bigotry (when Paul was forced, for example, to acknowledge that the government cannot make a priori distinctions about domestic life and yet refuses to use the bathroom in a gay family’s house, one wonders just how enlightened he really is). His essential point was that J.C. Penny is not obliged to “fire a spokesperson who has done nothing legally wrong” (emphasis added). This is the curious point, for he continued to draw parallels to the McCarthy hearings. Here is the fundamental incoherence: like others on the right, O’Reilly is necessarily committed to a rigorous distinction between the ethical and the political. I might think being gay is sinful but I am legally obliged not to discriminate against you, provided that my state has legal protections against such discrimination. But the now standard objection to the McCarthy hearings is that the relevant priority is the good over state sanction (or, simply, just because something is legal does not make it good, which is just a variation of the Euthyphro problem). As I have argued elsewhere, the neoliberal and libertarian distinction between the ethical and the political, if held rigorously, is ultimately untenable. The left simply reduces to the right if its only argument for why J.C. Penny is not obliged to fire DeGeneres for being gay is not that there is nothing wrong with being gay but because it is not yet illegal to be gay.

07 February 2012

The case of Mahler; or: Why it is impossible to love Mahler

In what one imagines is a frustrated project manager’s last laugh at a misguided project, the cover of Deutsche Grammophon’s 2010 “People’s Edition” of Mahler’s symphony cycle displays a half-profiled, black-and-white Mahler with his hands resting on his hips against a red background. Apparently, for this collection, DG asked listeners to vote for their favorite recording of each of the Mahler symphonies (presumably from some pre-determined list).

The existence of such a collection provides contrary evidence to Adorno’s hope—who was not wrong about much when it comes to music—that “Mahler, to this very day [which at the time was 1930, though the sentiment persists in pieces Adorno wrote thirty years later], has remained the only exemplary composer who realistically stands outside the space of aesthetic autonomy, and—what is more—whose music could be used truthfully and by living human beings, not ideological Wandervögel [something like Boy Scouts]”. The DG collection effectively did to Mahler what Mountain Dew did in its Dewmand promotions: to reify music into an object of consumption.

The fate of Mahler in the artworld is analogous to that of Kafka in the university. Kafka understood the inevitable fate of discourse and asked his executors to destroy his manuscripts on his death and even himself expressed the wish that his completed works not be published and given to posterity but that they should rather simply disappear and cease to exist. Unlike others who feared of being perpetually misunderstood, Kafka’s writing is at once too intimate and too expressive.

Writing, Kafka said, is like a prayer. We pray, however, only for one reason: to wait for redemption. This is the single idea of all of Mahler’s symphonies: recall, for example, the creator God who never arrives in the Eighth or the unbearable experiences of the finales of the Sixth and Ninth. The latter exemplify the effect of Mahler’s compositional and structural techniques at their highest: through the fragments of an exhausted musical language (i.e., romanticism), Mahler presents the ruins of a world whose redemption has already been lost. What is more impossible than the idyllic simplicity of the folk dance* (see the strange anti-symmetry of the second and fourth movements of the Ninth), Mahler asks, in world where Auschwitz is possible (the untimeliness of Mahler’s symphonies is significant—note that Mahler died prior to World War I)? Mahler’s symphonies are totalities that nevertheless leave us with an awareness of what is missing.

*Scriabin attempts a similar type of expression in his opus 21 polonaise: instead of nostalgia for youthful dances, Scriabin writes a polonaise only to show its impossibility in the modern world.

Instead of inventing a new musical language, Mahler calls for the rescue of traces that linger from what has already been lost. If today Mahler is banal due to the bourgeois pacification of the dialectical content of Schönberg and Stravinsky by their appropriation into affirmative culture, it is because we insist on the past as given (postmodern pastiche is only possible given this conceit). Redemption can only occur once the world has been completed; but instead of an infinite becoming, Mahler’s symphonies are expressions of infinite ruination—of a non-absolute totality. Everything in Mahler’s symphonies has a place—each theme and motif is determined by its function within the whole—yet the whole fulfills no intention (this is what differentiates Mahler from Mozart). As Adorno observes, Mahler is missing from the symphonies, which simply express the world itself. But, on the other hand, to whom could the symphonies possibly be addressed without miring us in the mourning of those caught in infinite waiting for an event that never happens?

The conditions that make it impossible for us to hear Mahler today are many and largely coincide with the obstacles to the constitution of a people, not the least of which is the failure to distinguish between the ochlos (the so-called “wisdom of crowds”) and the demos. To hear Mahler could not be an act of affirmation—for Mahler himself prohibits any such act—but only an acknowledgment that what could be affirmed is still to come, just as the people only exist as the ideal of the democracy-to-come.

23 January 2012

The ghost of liberal criticism

[This post is embarrassingly sketchy and so I reserve the right to retract anything I've said stupidly or otherwise in haste later.]

The essence of criticism—and, consequently, the site of its most common abuse—is the refusal of the given. Previously I have accused the right of succumbing to two simultaneous yet contradictory tendencies: either the attempt to deny the future by returning to the past (generally in the form of a nostalgia for a past that has never really existed—e.g., to the intentions and designs of the Founders—or for motives about which we should be extremely suspicious) or simply the indeterminate negation or destruction of the present (and since nature abhors a vacuum, this position often reduces to the first). These fail the task of criticism since, in both case, the given is never genuinely refused but simply reaffirmed (this is simply the definition of conservatism).

In this respect, the left—and here I always mean the North American left—has never understood how difficult its task is (and why there is no genuine oppositional politics in the US). Since the New Left,* liberals have foundered in their attempt to articulate a viable critical vocabulary in mainstream political discourse (if we are to believe the caricatures from the right, the only serious candidate here is academic postmodernism).

*This is, incidentally, one of only two points about Rand was correct: in her attacks on the New Left she accused the left of intellectual bankruptcy. One finds it hard to protest.

What should be even more astonishing given the present and unmistakable failures of the right’s ideology is the left’s inability to mobilize effective modes of critique against those failures such that they appear to all not as failures of principle but merely of practice. In this regard, I have previously argued that the left’s insistence on ironic criticism is worse than ineffective but actively detrimental to the capacity for critical resistance to real injustice. The other popular mode of leftist criticism for which we must find a better alternative—which we see exemplified, for example, in the left’s current analysis of libertarianism under Paul—is brute consequentialism that, at best, runs dangerously close to reducing to the problem of indeterminate negation adduced earlier or, at worst, indicates a lack of courage either to articulate or simply to have political principles.**

**I leave aside naïve relativism in all its forms from vulgar postmodernism to a debased form of “liberal toleration” as beneath the dignity of criticism.

In this sense, the left’s fear of fascism—i.e., the suspicion that the implementation of a political program must be inherently utopian—has deprived it of the resources to combat the actual fascism of its opponents. An actual democratic politics is not a competition between rival political programs or interests: it is the construction of the idea of the state itself (as I have argued elsewhere, the state is less an institution or a structure than the continuous process of structuration). In a way, such a notion of democracy deconstructs the lexicon of politics (left/right, etc) available to us. To use these familiar terms, however, if the tendency of the right is either to abolish the task of criticism or otherwise to render it superfluous, the foremost task of the left is to do what it has spent the last sixty years avoiding: to refuse to play by the rules.

21 January 2012

A "fundamental" perplexity

A century before Hilbert, in his Beiträge, Bolzano proposed with astonishing prescience the autonomy of mathematics from transcendental philosophy. In a few brief, lucid paragraphs, Bolzano proposes a simple criticism of the Kantian project: not all objects that appear (to us) must have a form but only those that appear as external. Couple this observation with his definition of mathematics as the “science which deals with the general laws (forms) to which things must conform [sich richten nach] in their existence” and mathematics is effectively inoculated from the grounding mechanisms of transcendental philosophy from Kant to Heidegger.

In one sense, then, it should not be surprising that around 1961 the man who made Hilbert’s program so problematic should declare that there is something fundamentally correct about Kantian philosophy: i.e., that the construction of new mathematical theorems that cannot be derived from a finite number of axioms requires new intuitions. Yet Gödel avers here not to a Kantian notion of intuition—which he admits is unclear at best and, as Bolzano had already noted, simply false for a large part of mathematics outside geometry—but to Husserl and claims that in phenomenology philosophy for the first time meets the desiderata established by Kant. That is what should be surprising since the gulf between Kantian and Husserlian intuition seems too wide for the easy leap Gödel wishes to make.

Perhaps the missing link may in fact be Bolzano. Objects of perceptual experience, Bolzano claims, must have a form but also—unlike, for example, mathematical objects—sensible matter (as he says, something which “occupies [erfüllt] this form). Instead of the usual word “matter”, however, Bolzano asserts that these are also a priori forms (as space and time are for Kant), “except that the range to which the former relate is narrower than that of the latter, just as the form of space has a narrower range than that of time”. We are here well on the way to Husserlian hylomorphism; yet the later genetic phenomenology abandons the constitution of sense hylomorphically. As Henry has shown, for example, and as Husserl himself declares in the lectures on active and passive syntheses, hyle is ejected from its status as the blind content of the real into the life of the monad within which “a unitary nature and a world in general is constituted genetically … according to a constant process of attestation” (Husserl). Is this not the pathos of truth and the impossible ethical problem explored by Sartre insofar as, in his language, the “essence” of the for-itself is nothing other than relatedness (relation to itself, to being, and to others as three aspects of the same transcendental structure)?

20 January 2012

The body of the soul (continued)

1. The popular masterworks of American composition in the last ten years have shared at least one distinctive trait: the manipulation of sonic architecture. Architectural theory in the last half of the twentieth century has shown how spatial organization and orientation not only affects our understanding of time and place but are at least partially constitutive of understanding and subjectivity itself. The task of contemporary architecture has been to raise the art from the bottom of Hegel’s hierarchy to the top: i.e., to construct experience as such. If the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consisted of the inversion of the baroque, i.e., as an attempt to control the flight of the soul by mechanisms of discipline (the panopticon* is the obvious example here), however, current “neo-Baroque” chic should come as no surprise (and notice that what should be most irrelevant in any depictions of futuristic architecture is a body whose motility is no longer limited by continuous locomotion).

*As Bentham said, the doors of the panopticon, as the building’s name suggests, must, “like the doors of all public establishments ought to be, thrown wide open to the body of the curious at large—the great open committee of the tribunal of the world”—the consequences of which Foucault understood immediately.

Yet that future is already here, for example, in works such as Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body”. What Theofanidis attempts is not a representation (in the way, for example, that Tchaikovsky gives us a life in the sixth symphony or Hayden’s famous oratorio narrates the creation of the world) but, through the materiality of sound, the creation of new bodies. The term “rainbow body” he explicitly borrows from the mystical notion of the body’s transformation into light, which should not be confused with a separation of body and soul but, rather, the soul’s final and complete unification with the body.

Although Theofanidis draws the principal motif of “Rainbow Body” from Hildegard of Bingen, such unification has been the singular mystical vision not only of the Tibetan and Indian traditions but of the Latin west easily since the thirteenth century. In a strange sort of anti-Platonism, as Bynum has shown, the mystical act consisted not of the escape of the soul from the body but their transformation. The eucharist is not only the transubstantiation of the body of Christ but, in consumption, an ecstatic encounter “with that humanitas Christi which was such a prominent theme of women’s spirituality. For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’ s humanity was Christ’s body and blood”. Lest, however, the body be confused with the source of base and carnal desire, Catherine of Siena reminds us that in the search for the eternal truth “the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turn brings continual pain. … Still, this is not a pain that troubles or shrivels up the soul. On the contrary, it makes her grow fat [emphasis added]. For she suffers because she loves me, nor would she suffer if she did not love me”.** Just as the body suffers to give birth to life, so does the soul suffer to give birth to beauty—to become beautiful—by its communion (koinonia [Plotinus!]) with the divine.

**Later in the dialogue we read that “often … the body is lifted up from the ground because of the perfect union of the soul with [God], as if the heavy body had become light. It is not because its heaviness has been taken away, but because the union of the soul with me is more perfect than the union between the soul and the body”.

2. But, as Catherine says, such beauty consists in a life of virtue and charity. For us, however, who are unable to hear the convertibility of conscience and consciousness (on which little work has been done, unlike the Anglo-Saxon misspellings of “God” and the “good”)—we have been forced to adopt the morality as the child of a poor will with the resources of technically advanced intellect. In this respect, Kant is thoroughly medieval: the moral will is necessarily beholden to an intellect that can never satisfy the task necessary to motivate virtue; on the other hand, if Schopenhauer were right, (reflective) consciousness would be impossible. Perhaps we might in the end be able to rescue something of the moral sense: neither understanding nor will but as a capacity (dunamis) for suffering. Moral suffering, however, is not my suffering but suffering for suffering, embraced for the love of the good.