The politics of resentment II

The discourse on democratic sovereignty has been rendered unintelligible by a series of false ideologies in the name of which the dereliction of political agency continues to mourn its own downfall. This is particularly the case with the left: even as it rejects the war ideology according to which there is only democracy or tyranny (friend or enemy, us against them), it fails to understand that rather than being the degraded form of monarchy, tyranny is properly the obverse of democracy—tyranny is a democracy that, as Nietzsche said, has lost its will (this too is the lesson of the only passage in Tocqueville that anyone bothers to read).

Liberalism has seemed to function by way of a non-sublatable contradiction: immanent to the operation of politics is a critique of that politics. But this structure maintains itself only objectively, which is to say that what fails to fall under criticism is nothing other than the fact that liberalism is predicated on objective criticism. But the limit of such criticism is its own failure; in other words, what cannot in principle fall under objective criticism is the failure of criticism. This failure manifests, however, as an ideology that masquerades as discourse when, in actuality, we witness the failure of discourse. The anti-dialectical character of liberalism makes it profoundly insensitive to the fact that when democracy fails the answer cannot be “more democracy”. When we insist on playing by the rules, we cannot at the same time object to them as we run to the umpire to cry foul.

The reaction from the left, in the general spirit of the court’s dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (08-205), has been as incessantly exaggerated and “ominous” as the very language disparaged by the dissenting opinion. The decision spells the “end of democracy” by virtue of “silencing the average American citizen”. Quite apart from whether this might not be a blessing in disguise* or whether our fears have either already or will come to pass, it is not enough for those of us on the left to remain content with broad ideological protestations in the name of the phantasmagoric “average citizen” that, at best, serves as a sign for the real political subject.

*One is hard pressed to justify arguing for the notion that the flight attendant who forced an emergency landing of a plane because she thought a Jewish teenager’s prayer was a terrorist attack is competent to have a share in self-governance.

The decision turned on the question of free speech. Having rejected certain narrower grounds for the specific case of Citizens United, the court found that what was at stake was a constitutional question concerning the restriction of political speech. In essence, the majority opinion upheld two broad precedents: that the government 1) may not impose prior restraint on speech and 2) may not make a priori distinctions among speakers to serve its own interests (whatever they may be, whether we might agree with these interests or not) in the electoral process. On page twenty-four of the majority decision, they assert that “the Government may not … deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration” and that the very notion of speech presupposes that it is the voters who have the final say insofar as it is they who are addressed (see page forty-four). In other words, because what is at stake are limits to independent expenditures as opposed to direct contributions, the court declined to assert the government’s role in ruling the electoral field on the basis of the fact that the function of the latter is to constitute the former. The “undue influence” supposedly wielded by corporations is influence over the electorate.

Of course, the dissenting opinion noted that there are other forms of corruption besides quid pro quo arrangements, but as the majority opinion notes, “that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are [ipso facto] corrupt”. Aside from corruption, the argument from antidistortion relies on the dual thesis that 1) corporations exert disproportionate influence over natural persons and, therefore, 2) the government has an interest in leveling the field. Regarding (1), the majority opinion holds that this situation is non-unique to corporations and, if upheld, the government would be authorized to ban or regulate speech on grounds of association. This leads, of course, to consequences desirable by neither side: included in this prohibition are the media, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and so on (see pages twenty and twenty-one of the majority opinion). Neither, the majority continues, does the First Amendment depend on the speaker’s (financial) ability (or lack thereof) to speak.

In response, the dissent argues that corporations are categorically distinct from natural persons (for example, corporations do not vote) and that corporations speak by proxy (page seventy-seven of the dissenting opinion). Even if this distinction holds, we still need to face (2) above.

Which, the majority opinion asks, is the greater evil: the effect of corporate expenditures on the electoral process or the intrusion of the government on free speech? Both sides essentially concede that the question at hand involves the ability of the government to place restrictions on speech (keeping in mind that more is at stake than simply capping the dollar amount on independent expenditures and that regulatory injunctions are functionally a chilling of speech), which it may do only in specific cases of government interest. We return, then, to the question of whether the government can take an interest in the electoral process.

The majority opinion opted for the former option: “courts, too, are bound by the First Amendment” (page nine of the majority opinion) and must refrain from deciding over which means of communication are to be preferred over others and that the rapid changes in technology “counsel against upholding a law that restricts political speech in certain media or by certain speakers” (for example, it is now well-known that the Obama campaign’s mobilization of online resources (e.g., social networking) was important for its victory, and that this is not only a medium that falls outside the monopoly of corporate power but also completely under the same First Amendment protections to which the majority opinion appeals). In other words, it is precisely in the name of constitutional democracy that the government must decline interest in the electoral process, even if its intervention would be in the service of that process.

If, then, it is in the name of constitutional democracy that non-corporations should protest against the power of corporations, it cannot be under the name of constitutional democracy. The left is then faced with two options: the political option is to develop new strategies; the metapolitical option is to re-consider what we think of as a political subject and to cease believing that the political subject is either equivalent or reducible to the natural person. Just as the majority opinion argues that all speakers are economically determined, so too even the natural person is a political subject by virtue of associations and mediations—the objection to corporations is simply non-unique.

The transcendental dialectic

1. The One and the Two: The hermetics taught that the Kosmos is God’s image. But God himself cannot be presented in images: “He is hidden from our sight. … [But] thought alone can see that which is hidden, inasmuch as thought itself is hidden from sight …” The ban on graven images and the prohibition of idolatry maintains a rigorous separation between the world known through images and that toward which thought is drawn outside of itself. The totality of images is only possible by the exclusion of that which cannot be presented in an image. But, we should stop to wonder why that which cannot be presented should be forbidden from such presentation. To foreclose what is impossible to thought is the monist gesture par excellence. But this too is the fundamental dialectical question; in short, the choice between monism and dialectics is not essentially metaphysical but concerns what is available to thought: specifically, the dialectical gambit is that the impossible really is impossible, while the monist, by declaring the impossible as such, makes all things possible and thinks that all we need to do so is declare the limit.

2. Explanation and criticism: Both metaphysics and hermeneutics after Kant have thought that the task of philosophy is to explain the thought that explains the world (thus Kant imports logic into epistemology). Yet we all know how ineffective genealogy, etiology, and natural history are to the one who must form a life against the receding horizon of self-knowledge. No amount of theoretical understanding, for example, makes injustice tolerable and no explanation can provide a sufficient account of a betrayal. Instead, criticism’s material is not the unity of what is presented to thought but the cracks and ruins, the traces of the noumenal in phenomena. Such a speculative thought surrenders the desire for the absolute for the systematic destruction of experience.

The politics of resentment

Politics on the left in America has always been beset by a strange contradiction. On the one hand, as popular wisdom goes, our university professors tend to endorse a more liberal ideology (as the NY Times article above reiterates). Yet, on the other hand, despite the seeming monopoly on intellectual capital, the left has consistently been unable to mobilize its theoretical and intellectual powers in public discourse, which continues to be dominated by the right. It is revealing, for example, that the iconic figures of political rhetoric on the right are sophistic to be sure, but as Plato has shown the danger of sophism is that it is able to appear to us as philosophy. The counterpart for the left, however, is neither sophistic nor philosophical but rather a comic discourse. The right possesses masters of conviction such that even if any substance were lacking we would still be assured of the spectacle of righteousness; the left is content merely to roll its eyes.

The peculiarity of the contradiction lies precisely in the complicity of the left with sophism when ostensibly the university should be the one site where sophism is least tolerated. One might, disheartening as it is, be compelled to conclude not that philosophy is powerless against the sophism but rather that there is nothing other than sophism anywhere. Consider, for example, the explanation propounded by one group of sociologists to account for the accretion of liberal ideology in universities (reported in the above NY Times article): “when it comes to hiring, the majority of [institutions] will tend to support candidates like them in the matter of fundamental beliefs, values, and commitments” (i.e., liberals attract liberals). Yet, if this were true, what could be most anathematic to the philosophical purpose of a university than to insist that we should surround ourselves with people who think more or less as we do?

The last several months have demonstrated another strange contradiction between the left’s mandate and the failure of that mandate to be reflected in its own polity. Instead of thinking that the task of the left is to understand its opponents, the left has failed to understand itself. The left has, for all intents and purposes, quite simply ceased to exist, perhaps for more than forty years. Perhaps, one day, the left shall find a new voice, which we know will not be that of wisdom or of justice (in this, both sides agree that justice is not to be found on earth): when the objective conditions are such that the left no longer falls on deaf ears, it will be possible to speak only ironically.

The desire for the absolute

In some religions, practitioners are advised not to look upon the dead and when confronted with an image of death to avert their gaze. In some cases, such an aversion or refusal to look is shameful or ascetic. Yet not all sacred practices are normative; some might be considered, instead, aesthetic. What is at stake in the prohibition against the viewing of death is the formation of a certain kind of body, which is to say the condensation of some habits over others, the formation of potentialities along some orientations over others, and the creation of certain tendencies of moving, acting, and doing that reproduce the conditions for life. But in every case, this diamagnetism is specific to the living material. In some sense, we might say with Aristotle that there is no such thing as pure matter—not because matter must be wedded to form but because the material is always multiple and always presents itself in composites (which has been a tenet of every materialism since Leucippus). Life itself is the complex of relations that comprise these composites.

This is the intuition to which the French spiritualists (after Bergson) attempted to give expression against the dialectic of the absolute while, ironically, surrendering to that very dialectic by taking it too seriously. Lavelle, for example, insists on a “pure experience” of existence or an “experience of real presence” that is made concrete in determinate consciousness, which itself creates an interval between the cognition and presentation of its objects. It is on the basis of this sympathy for existence that vitalism has always thought that the thinking of death was merely naïve and, consequently, that life should tend toward the fulfillment of eternal life (which, equivalently for Hegel or Lavelle, means achieving the original unity of thought and being).

We see this desire for the absolute disguised in various ways in philosophy. For example, the greatest pretension of philosophy is that thought should have an effect on the world (whereas the gambit of religion is the opposite—i.e., that thought is impotent against the destiny of a contingent world). Under the guise of a persistently naïve empiricism (to which Carnap, despite the genius of his Aufbau, must have recourse since for him there is only one domain of objects), analytic philosophy has simply renounced the task that philosophy has arrogated to itself and, without an account of its conditions, will continue to fiddle while the world (and itself) perishes. On the other hand, continental philosophy has yet to realize that philosophy must be about something other than itself. In both cases, however, we are caught within the temptation both to affirm and to deny the unity of thought and being, i.e., that there is no such unity (else the philosophers would rule the world) or that it is only on the basis of that unity that philosophy exists at all.

Yet between philosophy and religion—i.e., between a material or a spiritualist thinking—perhaps what we need to affirm is not only that “the gift of thinking to itself is betrayed by a thinking that insists only on thinking itself” (Desmond) but also that the very attempt for thinking to think itself is impossible. What is impossible, however, is not simply a negation of the possible, for the possible is itself the negation of the necessary. That thinking should find it impossible to think itself is not the condition but task of thinking. Every philosophy that fails in this task is unjust.

The disappearance of appearance (après Baudrillard)

1. At the beginning of The Red Violin, an expectant mother sings a gentle motif to her unborn child. Each phrase resonates in the space around her, lingering in her voice as the next begins. In the next repetition of the motif, the theme is continued by a solo violin. As the last of her breath passes through her lips, the motif persists through the vibration of the strings, which are, of course, recorded mechanically for us to hear. We think of such a recording as discrete, that is indiscriminately duplicated and repeatable; that every playback is an instantiation of a master, which itself is a duplication of an original, human event. Instead, we might think of the recording as simply a prolongation of the original event—a time loop or a suspension of natural time—such that what was once beholden to the experience of the hic et nunc becomes exactly the ars aevi to which the medievals had attempted to give expression. In this way we deconstruct the original event from its repetition: the repetition is indistinguishable from the original; and the original is nothing other than its prolongation in the repetition.

But, what we fail to notice is that the recording is nothing other than the appearance of disappearance. The disappearance of the human voice is the appearance of its trace in the singing tone of the violin. And, of course, we know that the recording is a recording—we know that we are not in the presence of the voice that we hear and that that voice has disappeared. In the recording, we know that something has happened, but in its happening, the event disappears. The event never happens—we only know that it has happened. Disappearance always happens; disappearance is always an appearance—specifically, it is a double appearance: the appearance of that which appears and, reflexively, the appearance of a disappearance (in other words, there is no “disappearing object”, which is a contradiction in terms). Dis/appearance are not contraries but, rather, the archetype of disjunctive syntheses. Appearance is always already reflexively encoded in disappearance; it is disappearance that removes or distances the object and makes meaning possible.

2. This, however, raises a problem. Baudrillard—in one of his final and best texts—has already pointed to the hyper-reality of pure appearance, i.e., a purely objective appearance when appearance no longer requires being an appearance to anyone: “the modern world, foreseen by Marx, driven on by the work of the negative, by the engine of contradiction, became, by the very excess of its fulfillment, another world in which things no longer even need their opposites in order to exist … and the world no longer needs us” (we might also add to Marx Simmel’s analogous distinction between the quest for more-life, which results in twin excesses of hyper-ob/subjective more-than-life). The image is no longer a representation of anything but the image and the scene coincide. In the new movie Avatar, for example, life and CG become not only visually indistinguishable but coextensive. The image is no longer a copy but creates its own space of production in the very perceptions of those who undergo it (e.g., in the economy of drives, capital, and signification that make such an image possible). Dispersed among its objects, consciousness finds itself only “in the interstices of reality” where “in the visual flow in which we are currently submerged, there isn’t even the time to become an image” (Baudrillard).

3. If the logic of technical objects is inherently genetic, then nothing cannot not appear. Every identity, secret, process, torture, and google is subject to the sequencing of multiple retentions and subsequent dissemination. We might at first be tempted to think that appearance is the problem (in the midst of politics, capital, technology, fashion, etc). We might lament the “disappearance of the human” or our “posthuman condition” in the name of a vaguely romantic humanism that insists on the reduction of human life to biology, of consciousness to the brain, or of language to finitude. Under all these reductions, the human becomes caught in the contradiction of body and spirit: at once, “we are all just human”, limited in our perspective but “noble in reason, infinite in faculty”, prone to mistake and in need of a warm embrace; and we protect this contradiction by insisting on the schism of biology and technology. What happens when reproduction and replication no longer require the mediation of an eye, a feeling, or a decision?

Perhaps, however, we need to ask how a pure disappearance is possible (in Deleuze and Guatarri’s terms, this is the question of territorialization): the real disappearance of (all that has gone under the name of) the human. This is a question that we cannot even ask if we continue to think that this means the self-annihilation of human endeavor (e.g., nuclear war, global ecological destruction, genetic engineering, etc, which would be nothing other than the most conspicuous and permanent human signature). Before we can understand how disappearance is possible, first we must understand the ideologies and conditions of appearance. Before “something new” can appear, we must first disappear.