The sound of madness

1. There is something true in the banal observation that madness cannot name itself and, consequently, analytic discourse always requires a triadic structure (whence the problem of ethics that requires that there is no third). To put it simplistically, madness indicates a radical and often irreparable departure of the cogito from the ego. What Derrida observes of the “me” of analysis applies mutatis mutandis to madness: how is it possible to translate what is in principle unpresentable into a discourse that by its nature must make it present? How is it possible to say something outside of sense when speech itself is nothing other than the repetition of sense?* It is in the midst of this bind that Derrida explicitly invokes the notion of iterability in the now familiar deconstructive technique of showing that what resists signification is ultimately the “real” of sense such that every act of analysis becomes its own subversion (in his words, “in this sense, deconstruction is the interminable drama of analysis”).

*Contrary to popular psychology, madness is neither chaos nor “complete nonsense” but, rather, a particular relation to sense that prevents reflection.

As Foucault observed, what was at stake in their confrontation over the possibility of writing (of) madness is whether philosophical discourse can tolerate an exteriority to which it must be blind. When Derrida says that everything can be historicized except the hyperbolic project—which, in classic Derridean fashion, requires a madness more radical than that of psychological madness—Foucault sees confirmation of knowledge fortifying itself against its own unconscious (conditions). But the archaeological “we” who must analyze these conditions, Derrida says, can never be its own contemporary, i.e., can never be present to itself, which simply defines the analytic position. For both, however, because knowledge can never renounce itself, the double bind of Enlightenment (or, more specifically, Kantian) critique is that knowledge only crosses its limit precisely by seeking to know itself: thought can never intend anything outside of itself.

2. This double bind is “endured in a thousand different ways” (Derrida) in a sort of passio essendi. Madness brings us to the limit between life and death, i.e., to the point where the dissolution of the conditions for life nevertheless persists in a sort of second life. Death lingers on the far side of madness at the impossible moment when madness can name itself; madness expresses itself, however, perilously close to us ourselves in ecstasy (which includes not only the experiences of the mystics but also, as Derrida points out, the problematic of finitude in Heideggerean ek-stasis).

Such expression, however, can never be in the order of signification (thus analysis is only what Derrida calls the “reconstitution of the symbolic pact”). But what Munch did for anguish in “The Scream”, Ornstein has done for madness in the eighth of the Poems of 1917. Ornstein’s tone clusters, instead of tarrying at the limit of tonality and noise, express tonality without being tonal. Ornstein never rejects the language of tonality. All the architectural and melodic elements are there but it is the very persistence of the triplets that attempt to establish a tonal center that fails to sublate the minimal (semitonal) differences into a standard resolution. The “center” of the eighth Poem is nothing other than the minimal difference that defines unison as the interval that differs from itself only by returning to itself. But the only difference, then, between a single note (unison) and silence is its negation in melodic progression.

What Ornstein’s “melody without tonality” expresses, by the absence of a tonal center, is simply the trace of tonality by its persistence in our relation to it. Against the referentialists, Meyer has argued that “affect … is aroused when an expectation—a tendency to respond—activated by the musical stimulus situation, is temporarily inhibited or permanently blocked” (emphasis added). In a sense, this thesis is the key to all modernist music. Meyer’s contributions to music theory have been to show that musical meaning (which is preferable to “sense”) is fundamentally triadic, i.e., that it is neither in the work nor the conscious observer but between those two and the extra-musical referent of the work. In the case of the eighth Poem, the latter is simply madness itself or, to put it another way, the eighth Poem is not a mad statement like the man who declares that his head is made of earthenware but simply an** expression of madness itself as a flight from sense that can, in principle, never be “made sense of” but nevertheless remains as a resistance and temptation to the reflective consciousness.

*I mark the article to insist that, strictly speaking, there is not one but many madnesses.

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The book-fetish

The reactions to Encyclopedia Britannica’s cessation of a print edition has oscillated between nostalgia and a reverent fear for the future of literacy. “Won’t our children know what a book is anymore?” Behind that question, however, is not merely a luddite rejection of technology but a fetishism of the book that undermines the very concerns these sentiments express. It is appropriate, moreover, that they should re-appear on the occasion at the loss of this particular sort of book for, if the opponents of e-readers have forgotten that the book itself is a product of technology, we have also forgotten the origins of the very notion of an encyclopedia and, if we were to recall the ends of such a project, may not be so reluctant to mourn its transformation.

The idea of an encyclopedia is a stereotypically nineteenth-century invention that entailed not only a compilation of all the “available facts of human history, collected over the widest areas” (preface to the ninth edition) but also that they are “carefully coordinated and grouped together, in the hope of ultimately evolving the laws of progress, moral and material, which underlie them, and which will help to connect and interpret the whole movement of the race” (emphasis added). Whether in its British or German versions, intrinsic to the encyclopedic project is the possibility of unifying the results of human inquiry under a systematic orientation toward the idea of a final synthesis of knowledge that requires, among other things, at least the one thing that lessons of twentieth century colonialism has taught us at least that we ought to be suspicious if not simply reject: i.e., a single, substantive notion of “human rationality” across all history and cultures. The encyclopedic project is caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma: either the facts thus collected can be unified into a systematic whole—which presupposes precisely the conception of universal historical progress and singular rationality that has resulted in the subjugation of both women and “savages”—or we renounce the possibility of a systematic unity of the information gathered, in which case what we have is both unending and meaningless since it is not thereby knowledge (if it were, then the IBM computer that was able to defeat Jeopardy! contestants by having a lot of facts at its disposal would be the smartest thing in the world). An “encyclopedia” of facts without a principle of order and selection is trivial but any such principle renders certain things visible at the expense of others.

While the current dismay at the loss of the printed edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica seems directed not at the loss of the encyclopedia itself—which, despite everything, continues to be an unfortunately inexorable presence in the pursuit of knowledge—but at the printed version of it, the objection rests on the same confusion of the paths to knowledge. If, at minimum, the encyclopedic impulse results from the fetishism of facts, which leads us to mistake the collection of facts as knowledge, the fetishism of the book leads us to reduce the pursuit of knowledge to particular objects. While knowledge is inseparable from material conditions, it is not beholden to any particular material conditions and, for that matter, it is strictly speaking not “beholden” to material conditions because knowledge and its material conditions are co-constitutive.

No one would have taken seriously a similar outcry over the loss of the scroll on the advent of the book. By now the intellectual advances made possible by that particular technological transformation are banal. What should strike us as strange is the failure to recognize a similar transformation here. Marx once remarked that humanity only poses such problems to itself that it is capable of solving, because something isn’t even recognized as a problem to be solved unless somehow we are capable of the solution. In this instance, however, our technology has lagged far behind our needs. The sheer amount of information and data produced can no longer be recorded on paper because there simply isn’t enough paper to do so; we’re all aware of the temporal limitations of the publishing industry in cases like textbooks that, because they are published so long after they are actually written, are obsolete the moment they are purchased (which contributes to the exorbitant price of textbooks). The curious phenomenon here is that the resistance to the digital transformation of the book is a resistance to the fulfillment of the needs we have created and a regressive tendency toward those forms of technology that are no longer capable of meeting those needs.

But rejecting nostalgia for the book need not consist merely in an automatic allegiance to the development of technology (since we might still remain agnostic on whether or not the needs to which such technology is responding are actually beneficial). The fetishism of the book confuses the end of knowledge with the means (i.e., technology): that knowledge is (“in”) the book* (and, of course, it is but a short step toward thinking that, therefore, an encyclopedia can “collect” knowledge).

*This is the same confusion of thinking that the piece of music is “in” the score.

If there is anything that digital technology has shown, it is that knowledge is not “in” anything and book fetishism is perhaps the most exemplary form of fetishism (attributing human powers to objects).** Wikipedia has shown, for example, how the transmission of knowledge is not only collective but communicative such that the collective effort at writing and editing a Wikipedia entry allow for a sort of interaction with information that was not possible with a printed encyclopedia.

**This is the same error behind the cliché “at least people are reading a book instead of watching TV”, as if reading were intrinsically better than watching TV. One finds it difficult to see how reading trash like a romance novel is intellectually “better” than watching Mythbusters, for example. If the charge goes “TV rots your brain”, so does Twilight.

While digital technology has not yet given us the means to replace the book completely—for serious academic purposes, for example, e-readers still fall consistently short—there is no indication that eventually it will not do so nor that it is undesirable for it to do so.

Weakness and possibility (variations on a theme)

1. In Bloch’s inversion of Hegel’s critique of Kant, he asserts that freedom is not only realized in the material community of individuals but in the positive idea of politics. The utopian “suprahistorical” idea of freedom is not real but ideal in the sense of the world-to-come in the action of political subjects. Freedom is thus not in history but, rather, the positive end of historical subjects’ conscious activity. It is against the background of such utopianism that Benjamin invokes the necessity of messianic redemption or, more precisely, the notion of history as the anticipation of the Messiah. Only the Messiah “completes” history, not through justification but by forgiveness, i.e., by disrupting history with a new order of time “beyond all remembering or forgetting”.

Here Benjamin explicitly follows Lotze’s suspicions of the grand style of world-historical thinking (or “universal history”) that leaves invisibility (including that of women) and stupidity in its wake. What good is a blessing in which we cannot participate, Lotze asks, when our toil is for the benefit of those who come after (always after)? Humanity does not, he says, “consists in a general type-character which is repeated in all individuals” and “the existence of a vast spiritual proletariat, which there seems no possibility of removing, is an objection which the idea of history as the education of mankind must find it hard [indeed impossible] to overcome” (Microcosmos 7.2,; Benjamin quotes several passages around this text repeatedly in the Passagenwerk). The logic of history, Lotze says, leaves it bereft of any moral exigency, for what can be imperative to those whose fate is outshone by the glory of the enlightened?

Precisely because they have been forgotten by history, Benjamin says, the moment of their recognizability has passed. The task of the critic is to expose the discontinuities and contradictions through which we might infer the “barely missed” opportunities from what history has forgotten, whether through its blindness or its mendacity. The past becomes visible not only objectively in the traces of time but also subjectively in the awareness of what is missing, viz., in the “secret agreement between past generations and the present one” that we shall be the gate through which the Messiah passes. On the one hand, we must wait; yet the work of anticipation is not mere complacency since the “weak messianic power” of redemption is only a possibility. Jewish messianism refuses to bind the individual into the corpus mysticum of universal history but at the same time also rails against the vanity of injustice. Anticipation begins in remembrance because it is through the dialectical image that we recognize the discontinuity between past and present, i.e., that there was a certain moment in the past when the present became possible and, since there can be no resurrection or redemption of the past, we must look for the traces of the future that will remain after our time has been shattered.

2a. Modernity begins the moment creation is recognized as infinite decomposition. “We are dying from the moment we are born”, so the cliché goes and only an essential fatigue could have precipitated the fall into time. Eternal happiness, it turns out, is unbearable if only because it is interminably boring.*

*Boredom, Heidegger says, is the Grundstimmung of modernity and the necessary condition for the metaphysics of Da-sein in which being is revealed as time itself. As Goodstein argues, however, in what is perhaps still the best treatment of boredom as a modern phenomenon, what gets presented existentially in Heidegger is irreducibly cultural and historical.

But our consciousness of this fall makes it impossible to desire eternal happiness (again) without thereby perversely desiring our present wretchedness. The truly religious desire is not for paradise but patience:

“When you have seen a corruption in every conviction and in every attachment a profanation, you no longer have the right to expect, on earth or elsewhere, a fate modified by hope. You must choose some ideal, absurdly solitary promontory, or a farcical star refractory to all constellations. Irresponsible out of melancholy, your life has flouted its moments; now, life is the piety of duration, the feeling of a dancing eternity, time transcending itself, and vies with the sun. . . .” (Cioran)

Consciousness is caught between the impossibility of a justified life as much as it is by a justified death (as Cioran reminds us, while the thought of suicide is fundamental to consciousness, for example, it is contradicted by the act). Happiness denies justification to every suffering as much as the converse. To make suffering the end of consciousness, however, is not an act of strength, since, lest we fall victim to the most vicious ressentiment, we must also realize that, ultimately, suffering offers neither vengeance nor remuneration.

2b. Is this not the lesson of Christian generosity, i.e., that weakness is the precondition for actual generosity (Lk 6:30)? Abundance and surplus preclude generosity, because it is neither generous to give what one does not need nor to be freed from the appearance of necessity (on the other hand, infirmity of character also excludes generosity since it is not “generous” merely to be taken advantage of). This is Marion’s point, for example, in his recent argument against the notion of sacrifice as destruction. The gift, he argues, “is accomplished in an unconditioned immanence, which not only owes nothing to exchange, but dissolves its conditions of possibility”. His point here is similar to Caputo’s notion of the “weak force” of creation, i.e., that an actual creation ex nihilo cannot be a gift since nothing is “given up”. But while Caputo resists the image of the causal—and ultimately pantheistic—God that imbues existence with goodness, equally we must resist the God from whom “significance and promise” follow; instead, in a slight turn of phrase, the event offers only a “promise of significance”. Weak theology names the transcendental, however, only by renouncing the claims of justice.

On the other hand, for Derrida, the true transcendental is nothing other than democracy and why messianism is structural and not religious (as he explicitly claims in Specters of Marx). Democratic anarchy must necessarily resist the ideology of hope or any passage from existence to goodness. “If I happen to have written that [democracy] “remains” to come, this remaining [restance] … pending [en souffrance], withdraws from its ontological dependence. It does not constitute the modification of an “is,” of an ontological copula marking the present of essence or existence, indeed of substantial or subjective substance” (Rogues, cf. “The Supplement of the Copula”). If we must wait, we seek not the good but the possibility of what, at present, has been made desperate and even unthinkable.

3. If the fundamental insight of contemporary (critical) hermeneutics is that being is nothing other than language and, consequently, that mediation is everywhere and the structure of the real is in itself dialogical (and thus historical), it follows that language, the beautiful, and the good are co-constitutive and that there is a convertibility between truth and rhetoric. Vattimo has argued this point most directly through the collapse of ontology into hermeneutics. If, then, it is not Da-sein but simply being itself that is disclosure,*** “the ‘objects’ toward which the verwindend and andenkend attitude of post-metaphysical thought turns itself are not exclusively the messages of the past. Metaphysics is not only transmitted to us in the contents of the Geisteswissenschaften, in the humanistic heritage of our culture; it is ‘realized’ in the Gestell, the scientific-technological organization of the modern world”. The task of thought, then, is to interpret the real as this organization and structure. Just as there is no seeing without seeing-as (Wittgenstein), all being is adverbial.

***Just as information theory posits that the fundamental nature of reality is the transfer of information, the hermeneutic-semiotic equivalent here is simply to say that to be is at least to be a sign.

Nihilism then has a positive destiny for Vattimo not only in the destruction of the highest values (Nietzsche) but in the narrative construction of communal existence. But this existence has neither ground nor justification in anything other than the possibility of its coming-to-be in persuasion (which, of course, need not be exclusively discursive). The destiny of humanity consists in nothing other than the re-definition of what it means to be human as the principal task of interpretation. Instead of deploying a voracious will-to-truth as scientific victory, hermeneutic thought posits the possibility of truth neither as given nor to be found either objectively or in the confidence of an inner certitude but, rather, in a world that we, together, might one day actually affirm in good conscience.

One and nothing: free variations (continued)

4. The distinction between Greek mathematics and modern mathematical analysis allegedly turns on certain discoveries of properties of infinite series. What this characterization obscures, however, is that we need not think of the problem of number as one of enumeration or, more generally, that the problem of multiplicity be confused with that of a series. The work from Bolzano to Cantor recognized the latter fact with the well-known consequence that there are perfectly good ways to speak of actual infinities. But the mortgage that set theory had to pay—and here the original problem returns—is, broadly speaking, an account of the structure of multiplicity, toward which we cannot remain indifferent and which has both logical and ontological consequences (the former, for example, being an effect of the reflexive problem exposed by Löwenheim-Skolem and the latter simply a consequence of the trivial fact that there is no reflection arrow for the empty set).

The turn toward intuitionism in mathematics, viewed in a certain light, is a return to the problem of Platonism not only in the ontological (Brouwer) but also the epistemological sense, which is the explicit difference in the treatment of number between, for example, Plotinus and Proclus (but which remains a difference in aspect only). The question of number takes place not at the level of unity and multiplicity (one and many) in the order of being(s) but, rather, in the passage from being to non-being where the latter is understood not as the negation of being already counted as one under the category of quantity but as a transcendence of being (i.e., the non-being of the One, for example, is already a double negation: a negation of the first negation of being as nothing). The typical theological mistake has been to conflate Platonic cosmogony/ology with ontology.*

*Here Heidegger’s account of onto-theology has severely limited our capacity to understand the terms of anti-Aristotelian metaphysics.

Proclus’ ideal (eidetikos) number or Plotinus’ substantial (ousiodes) number are principles of the intellect understood as the ontological expression of what is prior to being and nothing other than the activity (energeia) of being. Proclus in a sense ‘domesticates’ Plotinus’ account of substantial number in the intelligible by locating it as a sort of category in the soul; but this account nevertheless is supposed to explain how mathematical number is possible within the Platonic account of number as substance against the Aristotelians. The significance of the monad in Platonic metaphysics is that it is the principle not only of the unity but also the limit in being: the monad is not itself (counted-as-)one, which explains how the dyad participates in the monad in different ways (i.e., how the dyad is both clearly discrete and continuous). The persistent mistake of Aristotelianism has been to insist that the difference between number and monad be quantitative and to fails to understand that substantial number does not count substance.

5. The ambiguity of the substantial and the mathematical one is, however, necessary insofar as it expresses the duality of thought and being; or that thought and being are expressions of substance considered under different attributes à la Spinoza; or that thought is the reverse of being and vice versa. Modern mathematics has simply given rigorous formulation to the perennial Pythagorean proposition: not only that being is number but that being is number as structure. The absence of structure has been nominated variously as One (Plotinus), as zero (Peirce), or as void (Badiou). Everything turns, however, on how we interpret the nature of this absence and that we should not be misled neither by the nomination of the transcendental,** the confusion of number with enumeration, nor the conflation of the One with the “all” (as universe, the whole, the set of all sets, etc).

**Badiou is exemplary here: “I say ‘void’ rather than ‘nothing’, because the ‘nothing’ is the name of the void correlative to the global effect of structure. … The name I have chosen, the void, indicates precisely that nothing is presented [emphasis added], no term, and also that the designation of that nothing occurs ‘emptily’, it does not locate it structurally”.

6. The symbol of the monad is the circle since it “preserves the specific identity of any number with which it is conjoined” (Iamblichus), just as the void can be added to (and/or subtracted from) any set. For the Pythagoreans, the monad was also the intellect insofar as it was seminally (“potentially”) all beings; the circle has therefore long been the geometric expression or symbol of infinity.***

***See, for example, Augustine’s famous image of God or, more interestingly, Spinoza’s curious remark that “number is not applicable to the nature of the space between two non-concentric circles. Therefore if anyone sought to express all those inequalities by a definite number, he would also have to being it about that a circle should not be a circle”.

While the monad is often characterized as stability (monad is derived from “menein”, “to be stable”), stability is distinguished from nothingness as nascence (or, as before, harmony is only possible by forgetting a fundamental disharmony):

“[T]his incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That central life is somewhat superior to creation … and contains all its circles. For ever it labors to create a life and thought as large and excellent as itself; but in vain; for that which is made instructs how to make a better.” (Emerson, emphasis added)

This is the real (ethical) meaning of transcendence or the “moral fact of the Universe”: that the given is never sufficient and that “every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series”. The very condition of possibility for thought is its inadequacy to being, which thus constitutes its fundamental imperative: to recognize this deficiency not in itself but in what is given to it. “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” The weakness of thought—its inadequacy—calls not for its mystical renunciation but a persistent refusal of that temptation toward cessation, whether in its annihilation or defeat by the overwhelming burden of totality or its pacification by the illusory satisfaction of identity—“I’m just me” or “I’m only human, after all”. The Pythagorean monad is the limit of being only as a self-limitation (which is the only way to account for the priority of the monad with respect to the dyad) and in a certain sense thought is nothing other than the (reflexive) expression of this “self”. This expression, however, betrays itself only through negation: just as the Pythagoreans called the One “Apollo” (from a-pollon, “not many”) and harmony requires the impossibility of complete unity, “the one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle” (emphasis added). Thought fulfills its destiny not only when it ventures into the unknown but takes the leap into what, in principle, it can never know.

[Cf. the previous post from March 2010 “Dialectics at a standstill”.]

One and nothing: free variations

1. Along the way toward expressing the thoughts of God before the creation of the world, Hegel’s logic consumes the possibility of mathematics at the highest moment in the doctrine of being. Just before his explicit treatment of quantity, however, he includes a note on Leibniz’ monadology and observes that “plurality remains as a fixed fundamental determination, so that the connection between [monads] falls only in the monad of monads, or in the philosopher who contemplates them”. What Hegel has grasped only vaguely here is that for Leibniz mathematics and metaphysics express the same thought, i.e., that mathematics understands the world in the same way as the divine intellect (which is the real meaning of his remark at the determination of a maximum is the work of the divine mathematician who determines the greatest number of compossibles in a given world). Leibniz’ “new mathematics”, he says, “makes man commensurate with God”.

The problem of plurality to which Hegel refers is Leibniz’ notion that the infinite (number of) monads are representations of a single universe (Monadology §78) without thereby understanding this universe as substance.* Leibniz struggles to provide an adequate topological model of such a universe** and instead speaks of the “accommodation” or harmony of all things.

*One is tempted to say “Spinozist” substance were Spinoza’s definition of substance as “one” not problematic from a mathematical point of view and which would require extensive work in disambiguation. Rather, we might safely say here “Aristotelian” substance up to and including Heidegger’s interpretation of ousia.

**Elsewhere I have claimed that such a model would be something like a Klein bottle.

2. Yet we should remember that the essence of harmony is a fundamental gap or discontinuity in what the sensibility desires as unity. The law of the series that guarantees the immanence of the world in the monad (what Badiou calls the “absolute interiority” of the monad) allows us to speak of the monad as one in a strictly different sense than that of the universe.

Here we might benefit from recalling that this is the Platonic problem par excellence. Against the Aristotelian dictum that being is always a being (i.e., that unity follows immediately from being)—and Aristotle’s well-known confusion of the Indefinite Dyad as two “counted-as-one”—Plotinus’ account of substantial number accounts both for the ontogenetic differentiation of being (see, e.g., Enneads VI.6.15) and for the fact that the One is not enumerable. What is at stake, philosophically if not mathematically, in Platonist mathematics is precisely the capacity to distinguish the one in the order of intelligibility from the unity of any individual. Being, for Plotinus, exists only because it inherits unified number from the One and, conversely, multiplicity is not the division of the One but the intellect’s contemplation of the One. We might say that substantial number is the “form” of the monad—as the immediate image of the One—combined with the “matter” of the Indefinite Dyad or, in perhaps more precise language, the Indefinite Dyad is nothing other than the limitation of unity as apostasis (and reciprocally, according to the Neopythagorean conception of monadic number, the monad is the limit of quantity: the monadic number is a progression to and a regression from mulitiplicity), the intellect is nothing other than substantial number, which is why being is not itself number but number is the principle of being.

3. What does it mean, then, to be a thinker of the One? Or, perhaps more modestly, what is at stake is the character of our ethics. For a thinker of the One, ethics is beyond being, in a sort of pagan transcendence of that which cannot be counted-as-one, as opposed to an ethics of the void, which must resist, perhaps violently, the capacity for being named and that must tear itself away from the very conditions of its survival. Our choice, however, is not that between excess and subtraction since the Plotinian One is nothing other than a series of negations: not to move away and not to progress “even a little” to the two. If there is not a symmetry between these two orientations, our choice seems to be in what direction this negation operates: whether the difference that counts is a negation of the given (multiplicity) or in the (im)possibility of negating what does not exist (a double negation!).