The persistence of ethics

If life is thought, even if thought is conceived in more contemporary terms such as reflection (Sartre), a fold (Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze), or self-identity (Fichte and idealism), need one be naïve to hold that the task of philosophy is essentially an ethical one? One might say here that we are still dealing with Hegel (see Marcuse’s thesis under Heidegger on the role of life in the theory of historicity in the Phenomenology), which ultimately means the persistence of Kantianism, especially insofar as the center of the Kantian system was precisely in morality. Even if our allergy to speaking of morality is the result of crude readings of Nietzsche, we need not be trapped between a choice of a return to Kantianism or fundamentalism (even though morality is arguably intrinsically theological or “religious” in the strictest sense of the word). One way in which philosophy is moral is insofar as it is metaxiological. There has already been significant work at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics; what remains is the conjunction of metaphysics. The question is not “what is the meaning of life?” but, rather, what is a life?

Tentative theses on origin and history

There are at least three senses in which any possible relationship to philosophy—philosophy as a history—is “archaic”. (1) As in the non-technical use of this term, philosophy is always “catching up” to us (what has Kant say about terrorism? what has Aristotle to say about evolution?) while, at the same time, we are never adequate to it (this is more than a hermeneutical problem). There is, in other words, a disjoint between us (we philosophers) and philosophy; but it is precisely this separation that makes it possible for philosophy to be historical (while, NB, constituting histories) and for philosophy to “go on”. As someone (whom I cannot remember) once said, the history of philosophy is the history of the misreading of philosophy—e.g., Aristotle misreads Plato and Derrida misreads everybody—but virtuously so. But, then, there are times when this separation of the philosopher from philosophy is one of trauma and the problem becomes one of the recuperation of philosophy, while ultimately means a recuperation of an origin (that has been lost).

(2) This is what is at stake in Romanitas. One hesitates to call Romanitas a concept, for it is rather the field of production from which philosophical concepts emerged. It is, even more than this, the name for a cultural trauma from which, arguably, we have yet fully to recover. This trauma was a crisis (a “turning”) of identity or, one might say, of originality. This “originality” is not, however, the romantic notion of something “new” or “novel” that is “my own”—it is not the idea of finding a “unique” Roman identity in the world. The problem is not the allegedly derivative status of Roman philosophy as a poor imitation or amateurish extension of a greater and more elegant Greek philosophy. The problem of Roman originality is constructing the very name of Rome.

Arendt claims that authority did not exist in the world until the Romans took the Greeks as authoritative. But one wonders if it is really as simple as that. Virgil demonstrates just how traumatic and violent such an act of original authority can be. Although Aeneas is charged with the task of carrying the Trojan Penates to Italy, one wonders whether there is a paradoxical an-archy at the heart of the continuity of the established history. As the author of the poem, Virgil’s task is the thinking of this origin (of Rome), yet that thinking is shot through with the threat of an-archy within the very tradition commemorated by the act of the text. It is this threat that drives Aeneas into rage—he is unable peacefully, simply, to translate the Trojan gods to Italy. His act must be original.

(3) If the presocratics inititated Greek philosophy, then there is a straightforward sense in which philosophy has always been “archaic” through to the Hellenistics. Yet this is not a separate problem from that of the historical origin, for the Roman question has always been: how is it possible that we (here, now) are here at all? What is the world to which we have given birth and in which we are birthed? Augustine’s own understanding of his origin is in this way essentially Roman: I am not my own origin, yet I cannot, in thought, return to this origin in any straightforward way. This return to origin is the essential task of thinking, which simultaneously takes the form of metaphysics and history (or one might say politics)—hence Lucretius’ poetry presents the image of the primordial rain, Virgil’s poem establishes (in act) the origin that it simultaneously commemorates (a sort of “past that has never been present”), and Augustine (and Plotinus) finds the origin of Being beyond Being. But, if these are the paradoxes into which a thinking of the origin is thrown, then it would seem philosophy must always be inadequate to the task. Yet this is why philosophy constitutes a history, just as Augustine through his Confessions constitutes a life (in Deleuze’s sense) and why, in at least one aspect of our history, we have never escaped the Roman problem of originality (or what Arendt calls the crisis of authority). We have not “returned” to Rome in a new “Hellenistic Age”—of crises of cosmopolitanism, of the collapse of global empire, of neo-Stoicism, of law, etc—for we have never left it. Arendt is right in at least one respect: the problem of origin was never a problem for the Greeks, despite their cosmological speculations; the question of origin is, rather, quintessentially Roman (which is why, à la Nietzsche, the Romans, unlike the Greeks, cannot be tragic).


(The following is from an e-mail sent to a colleague that attempts to make sense of Agamben’s notion of “infancy” and, more generally, the earlier works.)

At the end of Language and Death, Agamben says that the point is to conceive “of the Voice as never having been, and it no longer thinks the Voice, the unspeakable tradition. Its place is the ethos, the infantile dwelling—that is to say, without will or Voice—of man in language. This dwelling, which has the figure of a history and of a universal language that have never been and are thus no longer destined to be handed down in a grammar, is that which remains here, to be thought”. Right after this passage, Agamben mentions the Eleusinian mysteries again with respect to Hegel’s Phenomenology and says that “every beginning is, in truth, an initiation, every conditum is an abs-conditum”.

It is precisely at the moment where the disparity between what is said and what is meant opens up that Hegel introduces the Eleusinian mysteries such that the impossibility of saying what is meant becomes the very condition of possibility for the power of language to (re)present reality in/as experience. This would be the “divine nature” of language as the experience of death (negativity) according to which death is both the limit of knowledge even as this horizon is surpassed by virtue of the mystery wherein the unsayable remains at the heart of language in its universality and, more importantly, also in the sense in which the divine/universal sublates death and negativity into the experience of presence in consciousness. (This is what makes the very idea of “beginning” problematic in the Phenomenology—the “initiation” into the mysteries is a “beginning before the beginning” where the condition for the conditioned is a condition precisely by withdrawing or subtracting itself as a condition.)

In Infancy and History, infancy is described as a being-silent about its knowledge, or “standing guard” over knowledge in silence (un silenzio da custodire). Here the cue is taken from Benjamin’s analysis of the poverty of experience and the problem of recuperation the very possibility of experience. The point is not a memorialization of experience/history, which would take the form of a speech or discourse (say, of the Holocaust) or a giving voice to the invisible or disenfranchised—to bring them into the totality of history, which is to say, within a conception of experience that is still transcendental or idealist, which Agamben wants to move out of by the “linguistic turn”. In this sense, I see the idea of infancy as a critique of the Hegelian-Marxist solution to the “destruction of experience” insofar as the latter’s conception of experience is basically that articulated in paragraph eighty-six of the Phenomenology. The idea of a fundamental passivity in modernity (of “undergoing” experience without the possibility of negation or critique in thought) isn’t to be resolved by recourse to dialectical or transcendental subjectivity but rather in attention to the subject of language.

But this sub-ject “of” language is one that is displaced in the abs-conditum of language, which cannot be “handed down” in (memorializing) speech because it is that which cannot be spoken and, moreover, is forbidden to be spoken of (the initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries were forbidden to speak during the nighttime ceremonies and also of what occurred during them). As long as language continues to be thought on this basis (Voice, system/structure), then we will never experience history in a way that does not result in things like the World Wars (nihilism, violence, etc). Here infancy is the silence, the non-speaking, the without-Voice that can make experience possible.

Hence this is a non-memorialization, a being-outside of history (what “has never been”), which is related to the “whatever-being” of The Coming Community: “the antimony of the individual and universal has its origin in language. … Linguistic being is a class that both belongs and does not belong to itself … The example is characterized by the fact that it holds for all cases of the same type, and, at the same time, it is included among these. It is one singularity among others, which, however, stands for each of them and serves for all”. But the example is also this particular (singular) thing at the same time. “Exemplary is what is not defined by any property, except by being-called”, i.e., in the name. “Hence the impotent omnivalence of whatever being. … These pure singularities communicate only in the empty space of the example, without being tied by any common property, by any identity. … They are exemplars of the coming community”. This might, like Nietzsche, simply be nominalism grandly stated, but I take the point to be that experience requires the possibility of a new naming (in the “infancy” analogy, it’s the fact that it’s prior to naming that the infant is an infant, i.e., one who cannot (yet) speak). But this isn’t a naming in the sense of a singular demonstrative reference (e.g., Hegel’s “diese”), since that obviously puts us back into the problem of the Voice. But this is where I don’t know what Agamben’s positive program would look like. The idea seems to be that we will always fall back into this problem of the Voice, but the point is to look for the possibility of new articulations, of new voices or radically other voices, such that we continuously face the problem of infancy, perhaps as a new mode of critique.

The only thing I can think of that might provide a clue about this “new voice” is the quasi-mysticism in Agamben’s work on poetry. In his poetics, Agamben says that the model of knowledge he’s developing is one that “has provided the frame both for an examination of human objects transfigured by the commodity [the Benjaminian point], and for the attempt to discover, through analysis of emblematic form and the tale of the Sphinx, a model of signifying that might escape the primordial situation of signifier and signified that dominates Western reflection on the sign [recalling that infancy is also cashed in terms of structure as well as history, which ultimately seem to be equivalent]”. Yet Agamben’s analysis of poetry, as far as I can tell, seems to be something like an erotic mysticism that produces something like divine ecstasy: a “topology of joy, of the stanza through which the human spirit responds to the impossible task of appropriating what must in every case remain unappropriable”, which is nothing other than the vision of God in medieval writing such as Dante (whom Agamben analyzes).

Or, on the other hand, I don’t yet see that infancy isn’t just Nietzsche’s historia abscondita (GS 34) or the child of the third metamorphosis.

A question about method (Reflections while reading The Modernist Papers)

1. Either: form. The oldest (western) tradition in speaking of form holds that it is either the principle or product of determination. “Indeterminate form” or “formlessness” (i.e., matter) already contains a (teleological) reference to form. The genius (genie, demiruge, creator, poet) is the one who imposes form (Plato, gnosticism, Genesis, etc). In the romantic version of this thesis (up to and including Hegel), this means the sensuous unity of form and content in the aesthetic consciousness (whether this unity is prior to the work or not is irrelevant). Alternatively, the baroque and classical ideals of form were constitutive of art, and art is nothing other than a thus “purely intentional object”. None of this prevents us from speaking of a “natural history” or “social production” of form, for these kinds of notions are predicated on an idea of form either as morphe or eidos, which ultimately manifests in a geometric conception of lines (whether in painting, music, dance, and so on) and their morphology (the line is thus conceived as a limit—viz., it is not included in the content that it makes possible). Boulez helpfully reminds us that, conceived thus, it is more proper to speak of form as the structuring of local structures (i.e., content). One sees this in nature in, e.g., biological rhythms, equilibria in dissipative structures, fractal geometry, etc.

2. Or: per-form. It is a convenient accident of our language that we cannot use “perform” as a noun (instead we must say “performance”). All form is per-form; all form is performed (mutual implication of work and nature, work and subject, subject and nature). This may be equivalent to what Deleuze calls “consistency”.

3. Method. The creation of new forms (e.g., serialism), then, is co-extensive and simultaneous with the variations in their matter to which these new forms give rise (something like a “hermeneutic circle” of form or the “circle of the origin”). Modernism is not, for example, the attempt to give expression to “new ways of being-in-the-world hitherto inconceivable in human experience”. The “crisis of representation” in modernity (Simmel, Adorno, Jameson) is more than either an abstract formalism (according to which all content is flattened or reduced into the bidimensionality of the plane) or a Hegelian materialism (according to which the crisis in form results from the disaffection and dislocation of the subject in the world such that either artistic form becomes the enslavement of the subject to instrumental totality or the highest expression of an individuality stripped to its barest contingency—the nothingness at the heart of its being that is the essence of human freedom [Sartre]). The crisis of representation is the reflective moment in art where form folds back onto itself toward the form of the form (the limit case in Plato, for example), even if the form of the form is itself the product of reflection.

Yet it was not only Lyotard who thus wondered how we can say that there is anything called “post-modernism” if constitutive of modernism itself is the “rewriting” of modernity. This is not, primarily, a historical question but a methodological one: how is it that the content of the form is “dialectically presupposed” in the form of the content (ideology)? Jameson gives the name of “Utopia” to precisely this dialectical movement according to which form and content refuse to be identified with each other into either a purely abstract formalism or the totality of self-referential content (both of which are equivalent to communism in political terms). But it seems that the persistence of the Absolute in this case consists in its consistent absence, deferral, or subtraction (which is not to say a negation). Does this not point the way to the futurity of per-form(ance) instead of the presence of form? The question is: what is the temporality of form? Is the choice always that between dialectics and history on the one hand and anarchy and ana-chrony on the other?

Some more notes on the line

1. For pianists there is no more vexing question than how to play Chopin; this question is all the more problematic given the current vogue of postmodernism according to which such questions are no longer appropriate (or, at least, the problems are different when wondering how to play Stockhausen’s Klavierstücken). Chopin is perhaps the last among his era (with the exception of Medtner who was reactionary in precisely this regard) for whom this question is relevant precisely because of his use of the classical line (whose textures are transformed in romanticism proper–as Idil Biret has said, there are, without qualification, no two sound worlds farther apart than Chopin and Liszt, who are both classified as so-called “romantics”).

Perhaps the greatest injustice done to Chopin is the propensity to listen to him as a “romantic”, in either the technical or popular sense of that word. There is nothing in Chopin that permits of anything that even suggests sentimentality. Rachmaninoff has been criticized for not “wearing his heart on his sleeve” when playing Chopin (specifically in reference to his playing of the Bbm sonata), as if he were a sterile, anaesthetic Brendel. Rachmaninoff and Hofmann were perhaps the last of those rare minds with both the technical facility and intellect to manifest the subtleties of Chopin’s lines (too often playing Chopin becomes an obligation to be tossed off by those whose technical prowess are better whetted by transcriptions and Alkan).

2. Brahms reportedly fell asleep while listening to Liszt perform the latter’s own Bm sonata. One wonders by what right he did so. Tchaikovsky had said of Brahms’ music that it was merely “cold academism”; even aside from torturing the fingers on the keyboard, there is no better epithet to describe Brahms’ lines than Tchaikovsky’s. Merely look at the “great” Fm sonata or any of the piano trios.

3. One to watch: Vadim Chaimovich.