Philosophy as performance

1. “Be no one’s disciple”—should we be surprised that Nietzsche, Marion, and Deleuze have all said this? But is this not an impossible imperative? Are we to respond to this imperative qua imperative? But, if so, do we not thereby violate it?

The impossibility of this statement, however, is not the reason we have failed to meet it, for then we would have had to understand what it would mean. If we had indeed understood it, we would not be faced as we are by the figure of the sycophant. The sycophant is to the disciple what the sophist has been to the philosopher: he is the one for whom the master has set the agenda. The task of the philosopher is to give the “Hegelian reading” of anyone or anything else, or to demonstrate that Althusser says it better than Foucault.

2. It has often been said that the discipline of philosophy is masturbatory—the ideology of philosophy according to which philosophy is itself the unconditioned (with which it competes with myth to seek) at best leaves the rest of the world alone and, at worst, banishes it from its domain (as body, as material, as phenomena, as science, etc). The philosopher needs no scientific knowledge to condemn science as techne, for example, since scientific knowledge qua science is “empirical”.

Yet this is not quite right. Philosophy is masturbatory insofar as it is narcissistic. Narcissus’ sexuality requires dislocation for him to be the object of his own desire. In philosophy this takes the form of the bibliography.

3. What, then, is the alternative? Are we faced with an impossible imperative? We do impossible things all the time, however: we love another, we move beyond the death of a parent, we make a promise, we overlook an offense to our pride. What does it take to do these things? It is precisely what is required to perform the image of thought.

Persistent mistakes

For those of us who are opposed to any of the “standard” or “traditional” readings of philosophy, the most important question to ask is not why these readings are deficient but whence they come and why they persist. They are reproduced, harmlessly we say, in every intro class where we speak of Plato, the Apology, and the Republic as one of two things: either as an encomium of the “life of the mind” or, alternately, as the politicization of philosophy. Both of these alternatives make the mistake of trying to demonstrate in a world of technology that philosophy is “relevant”.

We can make philosophy relevant to the world through “critical thinking”, through politics, by training scientists and doctors to be “ethical”, etc. Philosophy then becomes procedure, i.e., formal. Or, we make philosophy relevant to “the human” by reducing philosophy to content—to the “eternal questions”.

On the other hand, we can make philosophy irrelevant to the world—by confining the realm of philosophy to “thinking about thinking”—by attempting to make philosophy relevant to itself.

These are both the fundamental mistakes of the philosophical institution (by means of a mistaken reading of Plato), which results in the familiar inanity of philosophical writing and discourse.