An uneasy alliance: Nietzsche, Cioran, Heidegger

What Cioran offers us is the immanence of death against every image of life and givenness. Death is not, Cioran insists, an end, a goal, a limit, a gate, a horizon. Death as such cannot be the object of the will; and although he will often speak of the “thought of death”, more perspicuously we might instead say that it is the thinking of death that raises the intensity of an individual existence to the level of the impersonal “there is”. Suffering, of course, individuates (for in suffering I imagine that no one else has suffered before me: “I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only existence”), but only to expose the myth of the given: that although thinking is the activity of the (reflective, existential) ‘I’, this ‘I’ is the product of a tremendous and terrible work, i.e., the work of death under the illusion of life. Or, to put it in more Nietzschean terms, the ‘I’ is nothing other than the appearance of appearance, i.e., a pure phenomenon. ‘I’ can never be given to exist nor do I give myself to exist—for in neither case can we explain the simultaneous individuality of suffering and the anonymity of death. There can never be such a thing as “my” death (strictly speaking, this is also true of the treatment of death in Being and Time); the referent of this term is always not-I, an other. My death is always the death of an other and another’s death is always mine—but without any relation (coincidence, reduction, substitution) between the two. It is this non-relation that constructs the illusion, the excess of life: “the irrationality of life manifests itself in this overwhelming expansion of form and content, in this frenetic impulse to substitute new aspects for old ones, a substitution, however, without qualitative improvement. Happy is the man who could abandon himself to this becoming and could absorb all the possibilities offered each moment, ignoring the agonizingly problematic evaluation which discovers in every moment an insurmountable relativity”. The condition—the impossible condition—for such life, however, is sickness, which manifests not as effervescence but seriousness, thought. Thought, however, is only able to offer us the image of becoming.

Affliction; or: fate and circumstance

1. The existence of fate depends on the extent to which we have ceased to believe in it. This will seem paradoxical only to the one for whom fate is nothing but circumstance—especially those circumstances in which we find ourselves burdened by the weight of exteriority (including the projected aspects of our character that we assign to the carelessness of nature)—“my father was an alcoholic”; “our family has always been susceptible to heart disease”; “what are the chances we would both cross this intersection right now?”; “I had the moral good fortune to be born into a democratic state”; “I just have an addictive personality”.

It is by crying against the injustice of fate that we are able to love everything about ourselves that we hate—for if this is our fate, then there is no one to blame. It cannot be the fault of God since to hold God accountable for our miserable fate would be to believe in him (and to believe in God we cannot hold him accountable for our suffering); neither can we blame a nature indifferent to my own sense of dessert (apart from the providence of God) in which I have merely the illusion of uniqueness due to the fact that I must experience the world from its exterior—I am only “in” the world by being able to separate myself from it in/by thought.

But, of course, fate is not always unkind. But we all know how difficult, how terrifying, and how breathtaking it is really to affirm fate and not simply to delight in the immediate enjoyment of our present circumstance. This is precisely why we can be afflicted only by fate and not by circumstance. Fate is neither the cause of circumstance nor its justification, for we would then be affirming fate by suffering it. We suffer fate when we consign ourselves to “the way things are”, even if we are merely accepting the consequences of our own decisions. The most terrible psychological task is not to affirm fate but to deny it, i.e., to be afflicted by it. To deny fate does not mean simply to rail against its injustice but, rather, to strive to be all one is not. But such a task is by definition impossible—we can only be that which we are. If it is a matter of will, then we might say that to be afflicted by fate is to will one’s inexistence (which should not be confused with the impulse to non-existence or, in other words, the will not to exist—we all know why suicide cannot be the will to non-existence, since it has meaning only from within the immanence of life), which often manifests, confusedly, as feeling trapped under one’s skin, as a rebellion against the state of the world or an incongruity between self and world. But at stake in such a will is not the preservation of what one is. But we can have no knowledge of what is not and, therefore, we cannot will what is not. To be afflicted by fate, then, is to have an objectless will or, in other words, a purely subjective will, an I willing nothing—not the will “to be nothing” nor the feeling of “being nothing”, but willing as the middle term between the phenomenon of the I and the mark of nothing.

2. There is a vulgar materialism that is simply another name for an inverted dualism and not, as it would have us believe, a pure monism according to which there are only bodies. The thesis that “I am my body” still accomplishes the feat of imprisoning the soul by reducing soul to body. The mistake here is to consider soul as “immaterial” (and therefore not-body) or to confuse materiality with body. The political consequences of such a materialism are banal at best and deadly at worst: in the reduction of personality to the shape of a contorted face (equivalently in pleasure or in anguish), we are left with the figure of a “bare humanity” (to adapt one of Agamben’s terms)—a humanity defined biologically, yet in such a way that separates humanity and nature even when, ostensibly, such a “materialism” should do the opposite—for the meaning of “right” ceases to have any meaning unless humans have a special kind of body. But, we should wonder, what exactly is so special about the human body? This is the ideology behind the banality “prick us, do we not bleed?”. To accomplish such normalization, do we not need precisely to prick? to test? to abstract? What is then left of such a humanity other than objects in place of bodies?

A new criticism

The task of criticism is no longer “political” in its usual senses, as it has been since the construction of the public sphere. Under the ideology of discourse, criticism has trafficked in the material dissemination of ideas (in what goes by the name of “media”). But what criticism can no longer afford to neglect is a critique of the political economy of ideas. The obvious site for such a critique is the (academic) publication industry. What Stiegler has recently proposed (Pour une nouvelle critique de l’économie politique) applies here just as well—to borrow his words (approximately) for my own purposes: who are the financiers, industrialists, editors, professional/political actors who are engaged in the occultation of the economy of ideas under the ideology of a “free press” and, in the face of this, what explains the total silence and complicity of philosophy on these questions?

Two figures of ideology

1. “Pseudomenos—The magnetic power exerted by patently threadbare ideologies is to be explained, beyond psychology, by the objectively determined decay of logical evidence as such. Things have come to pass where lying sounds like truth, truth like lying.” [Adorno, Minima Moralia §71]

Important here, however, is not the object of truth but the determination of truth and lie—of the conditions under which there is a truth that can be taken for lie and where lie can be taken as such. What defines a lie is not its falsehood—a pure falsity is unthinkable; a lie is a falsity taken to be true. But what feat is required of us to take a lie as a lie—for when we suffer a lie, it is not a lie. What Plato understood is that when we suffer a lie we are not merely to blame for an error in judgment but, rather, that we suffer from an inferior perception—it is our very experience that is defective. What, then, does it mean when we are able to take a lie as such?

In a recent series of advertisements by Hulu on TV, Alec Baldwin presents himself as an alien involved in an “evil plot” to conquer the world by consuming human brains once they have been turned into mush by watching TV (“just as our mothers said they would”), which is facilitated by streaming TV shows on the Internet.

The semiotics here are plain enough. But the interesting question is not how we are able to understand the advertisement; rather, how does it succeed in legitimizing itself? Not “there’s really no alien plot to gooify human brains” but “we can laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously” (which Alec Baldwin has been doing for years, hoping that we are laughing with him, although to do so we must also thereby be laughing at him). But what this advertisement has (brilliantly, brutally) accomplished is to short-circuit the potential sublimation of laughter into irony (or what in popular terms might be called “cynicism”). The ironist is the one who cuts the link between signifier and signified; but what distinguishes the ironist from the schizophrenic is that the ironist proceeds to close the loop by again dividing the signifying field (NB—this is not to say that there “are” autonomous signified objects) into a more or less consistent economy. This is what prevents the ironist, for example, of being sensitive to the political economy of the original signifying field (e.g., in thinking we can watch Hulu “harmlessly” quite apart from supporting the franchises, advertising partners, and industries invested in it). In this way, Hulu has managed effectively to remove itself from any form of discursive criticism.

2. “Vox populi.” The term “radio personality” is a wonderful contradiction in terms. Is there any better manifestation of what “everyone” would say and, hence, precisely what “no one” says? There is no better imitation of discourse.