The ghost of liberal criticism

[This post is embarrassingly sketchy and so I reserve the right to retract anything I’ve said stupidly or otherwise in haste later.]

The essence of criticism—and, consequently, the site of its most common abuse—is the refusal of the given. Previously I have accused the right of succumbing to two simultaneous yet contradictory tendencies: either the attempt to deny the future by returning to the past (generally in the form of a nostalgia for a past that has never really existed—e.g., to the intentions and designs of the Founders—or for motives about which we should be extremely suspicious) or simply the indeterminate negation or destruction of the present (and since nature abhors a vacuum, this position often reduces to the first). These fail the task of criticism since, in both case, the given is never genuinely refused but simply reaffirmed (this is simply the definition of conservatism).

In this respect, the left—and here I always mean the North American left—has never understood how difficult its task is (and why there is no genuine oppositional politics in the US). Since the New Left,* liberals have foundered in their attempt to articulate a viable critical vocabulary in mainstream political discourse (if we are to believe the caricatures from the right, the only serious candidate here is academic postmodernism).

*This is, incidentally, one of only two points about Rand was correct: in her attacks on the New Left she accused the left of intellectual bankruptcy. One finds it hard to protest.

What should be even more astonishing given the present and unmistakable failures of the right’s ideology is the left’s inability to mobilize effective modes of critique against those failures such that they appear to all not as failures of principle but merely of practice. In this regard, I have previously argued that the left’s insistence on ironic criticism is worse than ineffective but actively detrimental to the capacity for critical resistance to real injustice. The other popular mode of leftist criticism for which we must find a better alternative—which we see exemplified, for example, in the left’s current analysis of libertarianism under Paul—is brute consequentialism that, at best, runs dangerously close to reducing to the problem of indeterminate negation adduced earlier or, at worst, indicates a lack of courage either to articulate or simply to have political principles.**

**I leave aside naïve relativism in all its forms from vulgar postmodernism to a debased form of “liberal toleration” as beneath the dignity of criticism.

In this sense, the left’s fear of fascism—i.e., the suspicion that the implementation of a political program must be inherently utopian—has deprived it of the resources to combat the actual fascism of its opponents. An actual democratic politics is not a competition between rival political programs or interests: it is the construction of the idea of the state itself (as I have argued elsewhere, the state is less an institution or a structure than the continuous process of structuration). In a way, such a notion of democracy deconstructs the lexicon of politics (left/right, etc) available to us. To use these familiar terms, however, if the tendency of the right is either to abolish the task of criticism or otherwise to render it superfluous, the foremost task of the left is to do what it has spent the last sixty years avoiding: to refuse to play by the rules.

A "fundamental" perplexity

A century before Hilbert, in his Beiträge, Bolzano proposed with astonishing prescience the autonomy of mathematics from transcendental philosophy. In a few brief, lucid paragraphs, Bolzano proposes a simple criticism of the Kantian project: not all objects that appear (to us) must have a form but only those that appear as external. Couple this observation with his definition of mathematics as the “science which deals with the general laws (forms) to which things must conform [sich richten nach] in their existence” and mathematics is effectively inoculated from the grounding mechanisms of transcendental philosophy from Kant to Heidegger.

In one sense, then, it should not be surprising that around 1961 the man who made Hilbert’s program so problematic should declare that there is something fundamentally correct about Kantian philosophy: i.e., that the construction of new mathematical theorems that cannot be derived from a finite number of axioms requires new intuitions. Yet Gödel avers here not to a Kantian notion of intuition—which he admits is unclear at best and, as Bolzano had already noted, simply false for a large part of mathematics outside geometry—but to Husserl and claims that in phenomenology philosophy for the first time meets the desiderata established by Kant. That is what should be surprising since the gulf between Kantian and Husserlian intuition seems too wide for the easy leap Gödel wishes to make.

Perhaps the missing link may in fact be Bolzano. Objects of perceptual experience, Bolzano claims, must have a form but also—unlike, for example, mathematical objects—sensible matter (as he says, something which “occupies [erfüllt] this form). Instead of the usual word “matter”, however, Bolzano asserts that these are also a priori forms (as space and time are for Kant), “except that the range to which the former relate is narrower than that of the latter, just as the form of space has a narrower range than that of time”. We are here well on the way to Husserlian hylomorphism; yet the later genetic phenomenology abandons the constitution of sense hylomorphically. As Henry has shown, for example, and as Husserl himself declares in the lectures on active and passive syntheses, hyle is ejected from its status as the blind content of the real into the life of the monad within which “a unitary nature and a world in general is constituted genetically … according to a constant process of attestation” (Husserl). Is this not the pathos of truth and the impossible ethical problem explored by Sartre insofar as, in his language, the “essence” of the for-itself is nothing other than relatedness (relation to itself, to being, and to others as three aspects of the same transcendental structure)?

The body of the soul (continued)

1. The popular masterworks of American composition in the last ten years have shared at least one distinctive trait: the manipulation of sonic architecture. Architectural theory in the last half of the twentieth century has shown how spatial organization and orientation not only affects our understanding of time and place but are at least partially constitutive of understanding and subjectivity itself. The task of contemporary architecture has been to raise the art from the bottom of Hegel’s hierarchy to the top: i.e., to construct experience as such. If the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consisted of the inversion of the baroque, i.e., as an attempt to control the flight of the soul by mechanisms of discipline (the panopticon* is the obvious example here), however, current “neo-Baroque” chic should come as no surprise (and notice that what should be most irrelevant in any depictions of futuristic architecture is a body whose motility is no longer limited by continuous locomotion).

*As Bentham said, the doors of the panopticon, as the building’s name suggests, must, “like the doors of all public establishments ought to be, thrown wide open to the body of the curious at large—the great open committee of the tribunal of the world”—the consequences of which Foucault understood immediately.

Yet that future is already here, for example, in works such as Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body”. What Theofanidis attempts is not a representation (in the way, for example, that Tchaikovsky gives us a life in the sixth symphony or Hayden’s famous oratorio narrates the creation of the world) but, through the materiality of sound, the creation of new bodies. The term “rainbow body” he explicitly borrows from the mystical notion of the body’s transformation into light, which should not be confused with a separation of body and soul but, rather, the soul’s final and complete unification with the body.

Although Theofanidis draws the principal motif of “Rainbow Body” from Hildegard of Bingen, such unification has been the singular mystical vision not only of the Tibetan and Indian traditions but of the Latin west easily since the thirteenth century. In a strange sort of anti-Platonism, as Bynum has shown, the mystical act consisted not of the escape of the soul from the body but their transformation. The eucharist is not only the transubstantiation of the body of Christ but, in consumption, an ecstatic encounter “with that humanitas Christi which was such a prominent theme of women’s spirituality. For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’ s humanity was Christ’s body and blood”. Lest, however, the body be confused with the source of base and carnal desire, Catherine of Siena reminds us that in the search for the eternal truth “the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turn brings continual pain. … Still, this is not a pain that troubles or shrivels up the soul. On the contrary, it makes her grow fat [emphasis added]. For she suffers because she loves me, nor would she suffer if she did not love me”.** Just as the body suffers to give birth to life, so does the soul suffer to give birth to beauty—to become beautiful—by its communion (koinonia [Plotinus!]) with the divine.

**Later in the dialogue we read that “often … the body is lifted up from the ground because of the perfect union of the soul with [God], as if the heavy body had become light. It is not because its heaviness has been taken away, but because the union of the soul with me is more perfect than the union between the soul and the body”.

2. But, as Catherine says, such beauty consists in a life of virtue and charity. For us, however, who are unable to hear the convertibility of conscience and consciousness (on which little work has been done, unlike the Anglo-Saxon misspellings of “God” and the “good”)—we have been forced to adopt the morality as the child of a poor will with the resources of technically advanced intellect. In this respect, Kant is thoroughly medieval: the moral will is necessarily beholden to an intellect that can never satisfy the task necessary to motivate virtue; on the other hand, if Schopenhauer were right, (reflective) consciousness would be impossible. Perhaps we might in the end be able to rescue something of the moral sense: neither understanding nor will but as a capacity (dunamis) for suffering. Moral suffering, however, is not my suffering but suffering for suffering, embraced for the love of the good.