The reality of the real

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

Irony or comedy?

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

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

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

The time of thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The return of the mythic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cioran: the burden of existence

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

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

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

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