The death of criticism

Jameson had feared that, under the conditions of global capitalism, the possibility of “critical distance” from the zoological monstrosity (Nietzsche’s term) of capital has been abolished: “the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonizing those very precapitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity”. Like Lyotard and Deleuze, Jameson had offered criticism the gift of a single possibility: that thought should be possible in the space of a local representation within the unrepresentable totality of capital of the unrepresentability of that totality (there is no paradox here but, rather, a strict typology). For Lyotard, for example, this possibility arises in the form of a single question: Is it happening.

There is evidence, however, that criticism can no longer, in good faith, accept the hope that Jameson offered and perhaps it is here that Jameson’s utopianism parts ways with Deleuze: there is no exterior to capital (Deleuze’s acceptance and even affirmation of this proposition constitutes his essential Nietzscheanism). But rather than saying that capital creates its own exterior, it is more interesting—and horrifying—to see that its most important function is to create its own interior.

But what has escaped sufficient attention is that essence of capital consists not only in desiring-production but in its mute consumption of criticism (that results in something much like the cytopathic effects of viruses on healthy cells): even the unjust, the ugly, or the banal can become objects of consumption with the proper “will to enjoyment”.

Although not really in a position to speak on the matter (though interesting precisely for that fact), Miley Cyrus recently said, commenting on a recent infamous cultural episode, that “it should be harder to be an artist”. Whereas the previous generation of critical theory had feared the commodification of art—and the attendant reactionary tendencies of bourgeois art that provided critical art with its image in a counterfeit double—we now see the ontological collapse of art into capital. In these studios that provide, for a modest fee, petite-bourgeois philistines with the opportunity to display their cultural vulgarity under the guise of liberal-democratic aspiration,* we might think that capital has finally delivered a less-than-merciful coup de grace.

*Although, as a final insult, these studios declare their commitment to “music, not the pursuit of fame”.

But the real danger is not the death of art but the impossibility of criticism. We have known for a long time that capital is oblivious to intentions, yet the ironists persist in their failure to recognize their own self-contradictions. The latest product of these music factories has apparently earned its customer at least $20K not despite but precisely because of its ineptitude—and this is the ironists’ final victory. What we should mourn is not the death of art—which is now simply the outsourced product of mechanized labor just as the shoes we wear—but the helplessness of criticism in the face of it. And the proper vocabulary of such mourning is silence, to which criticism now seems to be reduced.

More thoughts on immanence

1. In a fairly late text (Tentamen Anagogicum, 1696), Leibniz declares that there are two “kingdoms” in nature that “interpenetrate without confusing or interfering with each other”: power and wisdom. The former denotes the “interior” relations of forces and efficient causes (i.e., physics) while the latter denotes the architectonic domain of final causes (the totality of formal determinations), i.e., metaphysics. The doctrine of pre-established harmony has the consequence that the reality of possibility is simply thought itself (Mercer reminds us that the doctrine of pre-established harmony is an extension of the sympathetic participation of each individual with the divine essence). Only a small but important difference separate Leibniz and Berkeley here: for Leibniz, ideas are not real beings but collapsing the distinction between ideas and spirits simply radicalizes Leibniz’s immanentism: individuals do not “have” or “contain” ideas but simply are ideas. An intentional idea is at the same time a reflexive idea just as the productive understanding of God is self-understanding.

But because Leibniz refuses the absolute immanence to which his doctrine is compelled, he must explain the difference between the confused and highly mediated understanding of the individual from that of God. And it is here that he introduces the notion of a “point of view”: the monad simply is a point of view. But instead of the optics so important for Descartes and Berkeley, Leibniz gives us topology (analysis situs). Berkeley’s optics raises space to the status of a third thing between perceiver/d; Leibniz’s conception of geometry provides us with the formal analysis of form as an account of perception in the monads (qua phenomenal) that, at the same time, explains their irreducible multiplicity (qua ontological): “the theory of similarities or of forms lies beyond mathematics and must be sought in metaphysics” (“On Analysis Situs”).

Yet perhaps the place Leibniz reserved for transcendence is merely a sign whose mode of signification is exactly how he would describe its referent: i.e., whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In a letter to Mason, Leibniz affirms the principle that “a living being cannot die unless the whole universe dies (or perishes) as well”. But the theodical doctrine should not be read merely as a moral principle: this world—as the “optimal” possible world—is thus necessary. Yet it is Leibniz and not Spinoza who is ridiculed for his commitment to the necessity of the world when both men are committed to the doctrine of universal determinism as the ultimate the condition of possibility for the intelligibility of the world. If there is transcendence in Leibniz, it must consist in the possibility of rigorously differentiating the monad he calls God from any other monad.

2. The idealist tradition after Kant recognized that his decisive maneuver in the critical turn was to provide an account of transcendence only on the basis and possibility of immanence, i.e., that the restrictions on the use of concepts are legislated by reason itself: the immanence of thought and the transcendence of world (which goes under the quasi-religious name of finitude). Every idealist—and, for that matter, materialist—after Kant has repeated and re-affirmed this observation: that transcendence (to be beyond being, for example) must be immanent to itself and that immanence, being “in-itself”, must transcend itself (else it is not “in-itself”). To escape this dialectical solution, Deleuze proposes to conceive of immanence not as being-in-itself but as difference. Yet at the same time he declares the univocity of being as a redress to the Kantian legacy: philosophy concerns not the thought of difference (Hegel, Heidegger), which in any case must lead to idealism. Philosophy itself is nothing other than the expression of difference; the “method” of philosophy is deterritorialization or virtualization. This is why the plane of immanence is “the image of thought, the image thought gives itself of what it means to think” (and why the domain of the concept is the virtual while, importantly, the “discursive power of the function” pertains to the actual). The plane of immanence—as the critical point between the virtual and the actual—names the volatile unity of thought and being. Philosophy—this movement toward the virtual—would not be possible if the virtual were merely thought as “potential” or, similarly, if becoming were thought as the movement from the virtual (to the actual). The attempt to identify being and the event destroys philosophy. The plane of immanence names the condition of possibility for philosophy by the non-reversability of the lines from the virtual to the actual and in the other direction—because we must pass through the event. This and nothing more is meant by “materialism”: the plane of immanence not as a substratum but as the duality of thought and nature, neither in-itself (being) nor for-itself (act, entelechy), but affection or life.

Some thoughts on immanence

CN wrote:

“I’ve been wondering if it does not immediately sound crazy to you to recouch the distinction between the virtual and the actual in Difference and Repetition less as about two ontological realms (hence running the risk of something like Badiou’s criticisms of equivocity) and more as a noumenal/ontological and phenomenal/epistemic distinction in line with a kind of Leibnizian epistemology. In other words, why does Kant have to be either an epistemologist or an ontologist? Leibniz’s mistake according to Kant was, as far as I can tell, thinking he could rely on an ontological realm of monads that provided the sufficient reasons for the various perceptions expressed by monads in the activity of perception. On this account, however, we get the genesis of perceptible objects, which are also merely counted as one. What phenomenally/epistemically appears to us is conferred unity via the perceptual activity of the monad when in reality, that phenomenal unity (a real phenomenon) is built up out of an infinity of minute “petite” perceptions (it would, of course, be dogmatic to assume such silliness for Kant).

“If, as some want to do, we want to say that the virtual is the sufficient reason of the actual and all determination proceeds from it to actualization, why not make some similar move in Deleuze? I.e., at an ontological level, things are clamorous, yet at the representational/perceptual/actual level, things are synthesized/counted as one.”

The question here seems to concern the possibility of accepting the gambit of transcendental philosophy that forces a decision on how to mediate the unity of thought and being. The transcendental illusion is the failure to recognize that the domain of immanence is the use of concepts, which is what separates dogmatic metaphysics from critical philosophy. But what is the latter’s metaphysics?

Kant’s famous argument that “existence is not a predicate” is revisited in the KRV not simply as a modal principle: the “possibility that nothing exists” is self-contradictory insofar as such a possibility destroys the very notion of possibility. Hence, Kant says, “all concepts of negations are … derivative, and the realities are what contain the data and, so to speak, the matter or the transcendental content for the possibility and thoroughgoing determination of all things” (A575/B603) and says that this determination is a “transcendental substratum in our reason” which is “nothing other than the idea of a total reality (omnitudo realitatis)” (A576/B604).

But to arrive at metaphysics, we must go further. In the Opus Postumum, Kant says that God is “the most perfect in respect of every purely thought quality (ens summum, summa intelligentia, summum bonum). All these concepts are united in the distinctive judgment: God and the world—in the real division of the negative or contrarie oppositum, which the totality of being comprehends. Both are a maximum … the one as object of pure reason, the other as sense-object. Both are infinite: the first as magnitude of appearance in space and time; the second according to degree (virtualiter), as limitless activity with regard to forces (mathematical or dynamic magnitude of sense-objects)”. Kant does not retreat from the doctrine of God as a regulative ideal into the dogmatic, speculative path that begins with the unconditioned and proceeds, a priori, through the entire series of the world to arrive at the contingent individual. Rather, for both Kant and Leibniz the function God as a structural principle, more than the metaphysical principle of the ens realissimum, promises the unity of a world (of experience). Leibniz not only refuses the identity of God and substance—in the name of infinitely many substances—but preserves a single place for transcendence.

But do we really have absolute transcendence? God and world or God or world? What is Leibniz’s world? Monads are not in a world: the world does not exist outside or apart from the monads. Perception is not of a world but perception is the world obscurely and incompletely expressed by each monad (hence there is no distinction between metaphysics and epistemology for Leibniz). But exactly the same is true for God: hence the doctrine of compossibility arises from the identity of perception and understanding in God. Kant’s critical turn simply inverts the Leibnizian schema insofar as, for Leibniz, perception precedes and conditions understanding (hence the limits of our understanding is one of degree and not kind with respect to that of God’s—Monadology §60). In Kant’s terms, Leibniz’s dogmatism consists in the fact that there is nothing other than phenomena. In this (local) sense, there is only immanence.

Leibniz derives the infinity of individual monads from this immanence in the doctrine of compossibility: the individual is composed of singularities and a world consists of the convergence of singularities. The question of “real possibility” is retained in Kant as a problematic (and hence dialectical) notion. But is not virtuality nothing other than a real possibility? The greatest mistake of immanentism has been to confuse virtuality with (abstract) possibility or Aristotelian potential. Deleuze is explicit on this point in Difference and Repetition: “the virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real … Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’ …” But the distinction between the virtual and the actual is not a numerical difference (such would violate the univocity of being). The concept here is Bergsonian: the virtual, memory, or the past is what is most fully real. There are two possible ways, then, to describe the actual: either as a subtraction from or contraction of the virtual (e.g., the famous cone of memory in Matter and Memory) or as the folding of the virtual, that is to say, a self-limitation of the virtual (that is experienced as tendency, futurity, or time).

It is precisely this immanence lurking in the KRV that Fichte and Maimon exploited: the reality of transcendental apperception that threatens to collapse the division Kant proposes between thought and being. Leibniz, Fichte, and Maimon converge in Deleuze, perhaps, as well on this point: that thought occurs in an “intensive space” and that, consequently, metaphysics provides a genetic account of being whereas physics is the account of the actual.

The paralysis of discourse

1. Bergson identifies laughter as the repetition of the past, i.e., as an interruption in the novelty of life. Moreover, as a social institution, comedy “lies midway between art and life. … By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment … And in this respect it turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature”. On the one hand, comic laughter inhibits the movement of vital forces by the sublimation of desire into the affirmation of the present as the presence of what is missing. Life itself, as pure difference (that which differs from itself), never appears. But, on the other hand, laughter condenses into a single, unstable moment two tendencies, which are by nature opposed—(simple) negation and the reflexivity of a subject present-to-itself—resulting in the confusion of life and enjoyment.

Yet, as a relaxation or pause in the impetus of life, laughter finds itself neither on the side of language nor action. There can be, of course, no real hiatus in life, yet this illusion of laughter, Bergson says, is akin to the illusion of dreams: “the behavior of the intellect in a dream [is this:] … the mind, enamored of itself, now seeks in the outer world nothing more than a pretext for realizing its imaginations”. It is for this reason that laughter is the expression of irony par excellence (see “Irony and Criticism”) and, further, why laughter can serve no critical function. Because laughter is neither language—we can laugh at false reasoning or bad logic, which serves as the staples of comedy—nor action, laughter is simply a refusal of criticism.

Comedy, therefore, like camp, is not only incapable of criticism but actively serves to neutralize criticism. If, as Ross claims, camp consists in the recovery of cultural productions whose sense is no longer dominated by the demands of capital, camp threatens quickly to collapse into parody or imitation and thereby acquires a sort of “zombie life”. For both camp and irony, the price paid for enjoyment is simply the loss of the objective world: anything can be enjoyed by the perfect solipsist for whom there is no ethical demand to recognize anything as genuinely demeaning, offensive, violent, or banal. There is only the subject-for-itself, baptized in enjoyment.

We see the same phenomenon in the parody of children’s play. The child who mimics adult telephone conversations engages in precisely the same parodic act as the laughter of those uninitiated into various forms of discourse (for example, mocking a foreign language or the derision of jargon) or in caricature (for example, the “seventh meditation”), both of which mark the death of criticism.

2. On the other hand, the failure of criticism has been the assumption that the mode appropriate to it is that of discourse or, alternatively, that the choice facing politics is that between theory and action. Those impatient for action who want to “cut through the bullshit” of theory refuse the entreaties of discourse to see the intolerance in tolerance or the reactionary in the revolutionary. The call for theory is therefore not simply to remind us of our history but, as Zizek has called it, a search for “lost causes” as neither a mode of historical inquiry nor one of hermeneutics (Ricoeur, for example, uses the text as a model for action whereas we might say Zizek proclaims the inverse). Ricoeur’s “critical hermeneutics” requires a dialectic between inclusion and distantiation, which brings into discourse what is initially simply given as structure. But Ricoeur never escapes the vicious circle of subject and world: if we are to know the world to which a text refers, we must rely upon “imaginative variations” of the subject that only occur in a world constituted by discourse.

We are left, however, in a precarious position. The search for “lost causes” threatens not to dissolve the sense of discourse (as, for example, in parody) but to substitute meaning for intention: it is sufficient for discourse to appear as such in its illocutionary force (as a “call to action”, for example). The intention of discourse, it turns out, is irrelevant: as long as discourse retains consistency—even the consistency that obtains across parody as a derivative sense—it remains meaningful. At this zero-point, discourse is both sufficient and unnecessary: as Sartre said, intentions vanish and it no longer matters that we all agree on why we are storming the Bastille just as long as we’re doing it. Zizek tarries at this point where the pleasure of discourse is seduced on the one hand by the laughter of enjoyment and by the force of sovereignty on the other.

Fragment of a note on experience

Identity collapses into ontology the moment a claim to universality displays its falsity by its failure: another universality makes opposing demands. In this moment of undecidability, it must be possible to think of identity neither under the mode of what one is (ontology) nor what one must choose (ideology) but as what one might be (temporality). The critique of ideology must then have a twofold character: 1) to show that futurity is collapsed into the present and 2) to show that the future is named as ideology itself—i.e., as that which “is not” in the very name of negation. The name of negation under the operation of ideology is time: i.e., what “is not” as negation taken either as immediate (perception) or mediate (experience). To say that experience occurs “in time” is, strictly speaking, redundant: experience simply is time, not insofar as time is (passively) constituted but, rather, given that there is experience at all in the (double) phenomena of consciousness and subjectivity. Time is existence. Thus, strictly speaking, things do not “exist” (neither do they simply “exist-for-consciousness”). Existence is simply not a term that applies to objects: only consciousness exists. The idealist question “would the world exist without perception?” is nonsensical in just the same way “what time is it on the sun?” is.