An example of an underdetermined contradiction (i.e., an absurdity)

In mid-September, the Nebraska state legislature passed a “safe haven” law. The law allows one to leave a child “in the custody of an employee on duty at a hospital licensed by the State of Nebraska”. To date, twenty-three children have been abandoned under the auspices of this law.

Apparently, the intention of the law was to provide protection for children who were either in danger of being harmed or otherwise threatened by their family environments; and was targeted more specifically to protect infants. Yet, of the twenty-three cases (including two today), eight of them have been teenagers fifteen or older (seventeen have been twelve or older). State legislatures are now rushing to amend the law to specify that it applies only to infants (the youngest child abandoned to date has been one year old; all the others were at least six).

It is astonishing that no one is talking about the absurdity of this situation. Purely aside from the ethical contradictions involved in a parent abandoning a teenager to the custody of the state, how is it the case that in the heart of one of the most conservative regions of the country people believe either that it is the province of the state to accommodate the abysmal failure of their attempts at “individual self-actualization” on the one hand or that the state is substitutable for the family? Or: keep the government out of the economy, education, and health care, but bring it into the family. (Perhaps, however, we should not be surprised, since it is also these very people who invite the government into their bodies and their marriages.)

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The time of thought (reprise)

A scientist once complained to me that “the purpose of teaching philosophy is only to reproduce the discipline”. Except perhaps this is precisely the point.

Assumed, of course, in that statement is the implication that philosophy does not “progress”—we still read Aristotle after a couple millennia, whereas a discipline such a science doesn’t bother with such charming antiquarianism. Instead of re-hashing all the old arguments about how to define “progress”, there is perhaps an easier answer: the task of contemporary philosophy—insofar as it is not a discipline—is the construction of meta-conceptual field.

This indicates a division in the practice of philosophy. As a discipline (or, better: as an institution), philosophy is constituted at the nexus of the various histories, material institutions, languages, and political conditions that have resulted in what is the equivalent of a literary canon or, roughly, what Foucault would call a “discourse” and Bourdieu would call a “field”. This is, essentially, the “ideological apparatus” of philosophy (I’d prefer to call it the “ideology” of philosophy except that one should not confuse these structures with any particular content of philosophy).

On the other hand, we used to say that philosophy is that discipline that is self-reflective. The trouble with this formulation—other than apparently drawing students with a predilection for “existential brooding” to philosophy departments—is that in being reflective, if it is successful, philosophy can no longer be a discipline. This practice must constitute an exception to the conceptual field.

The triple task of aesthetics

1. The aesthetics of politics (Spinoza): All art is political. The task of politics is the constitution of a people “conscious of itself” as a people, which requires the imaginative act of identification by which individuals imagine themselves as actively constitutive and constituting elements of a political body–this is the task of (political) art.

2. The aesthetics of philosophy (Nietzsche): What is the proper form of the expression of thought–a thought that is not a “hermeneutics” of truth but the production of truth, i.e., a truth that is of the world–insofar as it is expressed historically–and one “out of this world” insofar as we are called to a new world? There is not only the re-presentation of truth but the presentation of truth in what has gone under various names: original ecstasy, intensity, fragmentation, suffering, non-coincidence, repetition, etc. Truth remains “beyond” representation–not as something ineffable, unsayable, or otherwise inadequately grasped by representation, but as that which remains as the irreducible remainder of representation, i.e., productively or creatively beyond representation by being nothing other than the movement of representation (a “mobile army of metaphors” or, simply, music).

3. The aesthetics of metaphysics (Leibniz): Harmony reveals intrinsic relationships between the elements of the harmonic series. But individual existence precludes the reality of relations. Resolving this contradiction will require philosophy to return to the original unity of metaphysics, cosmology, and axiology–hence not to Aristotle but to Anaximander.

Things (merely) are

Klemm once suggested that the defining rhetoric of contemporary theological discourse is that of God as the “breaking-in of otherness”:

“This means that theological argumentation cannot be carried out in the form of the theistic argument for the existence of a supreme being. If what we mean by God is the ground and power of being itself, no object or being, not even a “supreme being,” can be God. Arguments can be made, however, that demonstrate how it is possible for individuals to say with certainty and not as a matter of probability that “God is.” Such arguments do not make an assertion about some being. Instead, they seek to show the possibility of an event of disclosure—namely, the breaking-in of otherness.”

This is almost exactly right, even if Klemm unfortunately does not ask the important question: what does such a rhetoric betoken?

What I have called the “closure of metaphysics”—which has often been performed by God—has always served the function of grounding intelligibility. To explain the persistence of theology by appealing to a naïve desire for intelligibility is entirely to miss the point. Yet it is also true that the rhetoric of theology tends to reify the ground of intelligibility into the ideology of a desire for a truth “from elsewhere”. In other words, the very notion of an “elsewhere” is not only a religious ideology but also a theological one.

Divinity enters to save possibility. We say that all being is contingent or, more precisely, that all beings are contingent. But as soon as we grant this seemingly innocuous thesis, even the most irreligious criticism becomes theological—for the problem of affirming the universal contingency of things (i.e., undergraduate versions of Nietzsche) is simply a re-statement of the classical theological position according to which the divine is necessary not only with respect to the contingency of things (the metaphysical aspect) but also to account for contingency—i.e., for the intelligibility of contingency.

Notice how deeply this religious presentiment has penetrated not only into philosophy and theology but into common sense. A truly irreligious criticism would not only affirm universal contingency or even acknowledge that I “should not be” (Silenus wisdom), but would instead proclaim that “I am necessary”. Of what madness or hubris would I be accuse to utter that phrase? What is the radicality necessary again to affirm Spinoza Benedictus?

Everything turns on which of the two propositions we affirm: (1) “things are”; or (2) “things merely are”. If we affirm the first (as what Desmond has recently formalized as the “idiocy of being”), we are led inevitably down the theological path and, thus, to the notion that intelligibility is the “breaking-in of otherness” that gets expressed as Ereignis, ethics, God-Beyond-Being, etc. The addition of a mere two syllables, however, in a stroke moves the entire domain of intelligibility into poetics.

This is a poetics that, instead of ethics (Lévinas), is able to bear the “evil” of the fact that “our only acquaintance with things is with their surface, not their depths. this is a being which is mere, sheer fact, the simple ‘there is’ of things” (Critchley). Yet we can go further (we do not have to be so Kantian): it is not that things “resist” us in their objectivity. We can say, more positively, that things appear and that the sense of this appearance is nothing other than the fact of their “il y a”. In other words, sense is not the result of appearance but is rather nothing other than appearance.

The task of a poetics, therefore, unlike the task of poetry, is not “to see fiction as fiction, to see the fictiveness or contingency of the world” (Crtichley again); poetics instead expresses necessity or, simply, the “that it is” without any attendant astonishment or surprise of the “fact” of existence because existence cannot be otherwise—an otherwise is always an elsewhere (possibility in the mind of God). The world really is there … but so too is otherness. This is the only way really to say that existence (more precisely, that which is) is: that the expression of the real is never itself real (Nietzsche will call this the “eternal return”).