From love of truth to the truth of love

As her brother André was working on developing new foundations for algebraic geometry – in prison, even – Simone Weil expressed to him her philosophical excitement for Eudoxus’ solution to the problem of incommensurables because in that problem Weil found that its “essential point” for thinking was “outside geometry”. Eudoxus took the first step up Cantor’s ladder; Weil recognized the move as dialectical: by finding a way to express relations between incommensurate quantities, the real numbers include both the naturals and the incommensurates, preserving the incommensurability while also transcending the impasse of incommensurability. This discovery was “beautiful” in a precise sense for Weil:

Beauty is the manifest appearance of reality. Reality represents essentially contradiction. For reality is the obstacle, and the obstacle for a thinking being is contradiction. The beauty in mathematics lies in contradiction. Incommensurability, logoi alogoi, was the first radiance of beauty manifested in mathematics.

Although Weil seems not to have been aware of Cantor’s discoveries, like Cantor’s ladder, Weil recognized that this solution to the problem of incommensurability could not guarantee a highest unity because no matter how high we may climb, “we are denied access to the level at which [the contraries] are linked together. … Once arrived there, we can climb no further; we have only to look up, wait and love. And God descends”.

Weil’s God is necessarily a Trinitarian God, whose mystery is the ultimate incommensurability. The (Pythagorean) harmony of unity and plurality, viewed simultaneously from opposite sides,* is expressed neither in thought nor being but in love or friendship. Here theology yields to religion in the literal sense: in love we are bound to the task of producing the good and the right.

*Weil specifically uses the analogy of triangulation to describe grasping the mystery of the Trinity.

Against the more familiar ontotheologies of which philosophy is still suspicious, the Catholic mystical tradition searches not only beyond being but what lies between thought and being (always seeking the mediation, as Weil says). The metaxu is given neither in logic nor ontology, however, but in love, which is prior to the true and the good. We find God in ourselves not as an idea stamped on our minds but in our love. “The soul is united to God through love’s affection”, says Catherine of Siena, because in love the “soul becomes another [Christ]”. This love is directed neither toward ourselves nor toward God but, rather, is born from the infinite sorrow for the salvation of souls. Universality is within us through the soul’s imperfection: if our imperfection is the cause of evil, then my contrition must be for the suffering that I have caused. Conscience, not consciousness, is the indubitable fact of the mind, which is the ultimate truth of the inward journey. “In this life guilt is not atoned for by any suffering simply as suffering, but rather by suffering borne with desire, love, and contrition of the heart. … You asked for suffering, and you asked me to punish you for the sins of others. What you were not aware of was that you were, in effect, asking for love and light and knowledge of the truth.” The mind cannot resist a true idea, Spinoza says, but the truth of the mind itself is its love.

This blood [of Christ] gives you knowledge of the truth when knowledge of yourself leads you to shed the cloud of selfish love. There is no other way to know the truth. In so knowing me the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turns brings continual pain. Indeed, because she has known my truth as well as her own sin and her neighbors’ ingratitude and blindness, the soul suffers intolerably.

True contrition, then, is not merely to atone for what is one’s own but the will to accept what is not. As Augustine reminds us, however, it is not by the strength of our will that we escape suffering but, as Catherine says, “by virtue of your infinite desire. For God, who is infinite, would have infinite love and infinite sorrow”.

Like the friendship between the persons of the trinity, love expresses the unity of the human and the divine in imitatio Christi. In the Itinerarium, Bonaventure describes the triplicity of being as corporeal, spiritual, and divine. The transport and unification of the mind with God is not only the understanding of the identity of being and the good in divine perfection but

this is a good of such a sort that it cannot be thought of unless it is thought of as three and one. For ‘the good is said to be self-diffusive’ [quoting Dionysius]. … In the supreme good there must be from eternity a production that is actual and consubstantial, and a hypostasis as noble as the producer, and this is the case in production by way of generation and spiration. This is understood to mean that what is of the eternal principle is of the eternal co-producer. In this way there can be both a beloved and a co-beloved, one generated and one spirated; that is, Father and Son, and Holy Spirit.

The mystery of the trinity is therefore not one of metaphysics but of love (charity) and thinking refuses ontotheology only to the extent to which it finds the identity of being and the good only in its suffering. Suffering cannot be controlled, as Heidegger warned, but perhaps it can be redeemed.

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The solitude of the inner citadel: the epoché of suffering

0. One cannot call oneself a philosopher today without blushing, not from indignation at Thracian laughter, but from shame. Philosophical logoi seek only the truth, Socrates said, but within institutions and practices that reproduce the contradictions between truth and reality. These contradictions simmer both within philosophy and at its discursive and disciplinary boundaries, whether in the willing masochism of its subservience to the mastery of the sciences – or, on the other hand, its resentful ordination of its own wisdom as superior – its timidity in the face of liberal and neoliberal ideologies of domination masquerading as “opportunity”, or in the simple falsity of an ideal of rationality whose Balkanization of the discipline seems to be irresistible.

Like all power, the work of philosophy in this regard is both conscious and unconscious. On the one hand, the institutions of philosophy speak with what Yancy (following Fred Evans) has called the “oracular voice” that not only itself maintains the boundaries of philosophy but is the voice from which all philosophy pretends to speak (at the lectern instead of the pulpit). “Philosophy, on this score, becomes a universal substantive, unaffected by context, history, language, custom, sentiment, prejudice, geography, and so on.” Even the tokenizing attempts at “inclusivity” become ways in which “the oracle voice can engage in discourses that celebrate forms of pluralism and diversity that further obfuscate its maintenance of power”.

Even when we recognize this shame, however, the difficulty of proper reflection is that the operation of power is to be both that to which we are subjected and that from which we are enabled as subjects, i.e., we are always subjects in both the passive and active senses simultaneously. Thus, often, our attempts at addressing the sources of our guilt remain blind to the way in which those attempts reproduce our errors.

In a recent series of essays on the problem of implicit bias, analytic philosophy has attempted to acknowledge the ontological, epistemological, and metaphilosophical problems of (cognitive) implicit bias and stereotype threat. The concluding chapter of the first volume of this series attempts to intervene in the present configuration of the philosophical institution by observing it. Participants in a series of studies were asked about their associations between maleness and philosophy. Yet the approach, borrowed from the social sciences, itself fails to interrogate beyond the fact that such an association may or may not exist. This failure is, ironically, reproduced implicitly by the authors’ explicit and repeated bewilderment over the fact that the longer women remain within philosophy (which often tends not to happen beyond an undergraduate major), the less they associate philosophy with maleness (which is the opposite tendency for men in the discipline).

By contrast, Marguerite La Caze has developed Le Doeuff’s method of excavating the philosophical imaginary that is both excluded from the work of philosophy and yet constitutive of its possibilities to define an “analytic imaginary”, i.e., both the images, analogies, and metaphors of philosophy themselves and the philosophical imagination at work in their construction in the service of the conceptual analysis that arguably remains the core of analytic philosophy. This imaginary is one that “instead of fostering an atmosphere of interdisciplinary excitement (the “open-ended” philosophy envisaged by Le Doeuff), the analytic imaginary reflects “closed-off” philosophy, a narrowing within the discipline of philosophy itself”, ultimately, one might add, to the point of cannibalism; or, as in the above example, the substitution of philosophical analysis with experiment. In general, however, the subordination of images to concepts is merely a symptom of the fundamental structure of a form of thinking that undercuts its own possibilities while, eo ipso, producing itself by means of this exclusion. If Hegel has taught us anything, surely it must be that a non-dialectical resolution of this contradiction can end only in self-destruction and terror.

Roughly contemporaneously with the more famous description of the philosophical image of thought – and whose relative unrecognizability confirms her argument – Le Doeuff’s method is not merely one that champions the necessity of images for philosophical thinking but also one that refuses the anonymity of the kind of thinking blind to its false universality. Just as Laclau and Mouffe (long before another, more recently famous account) proposed that the construction of any polity or discursive formation capable of articulating the demands of power by virtue of its construction will always generate the possibility of its de-construction by what it has excluded in its demands, the situation of philosophy today is one in which we can no longer pretend that we are innocent of reproducing the same violence that the philosopher has suffered at the hands of the sophist and the misologist. Since Kant, philosophy’s suspicion of the supersensible has nevertheless not stifled the desire to make that other world its home (to see the world with “the view from nowhere”). The present emergency of thought – not only for the sake of the philosophical institution’s continuation but the unavoidable guilt of its primitive accumulation (i.e., its archive) – demands the collapse of metaphilosophical questions into nothing other than the practice of philosophy itself. Here Deleuze follows Nietzsche in his insistence on the becoming-active of thought against the tendency of reactive thinking beholden to what is always considered to be exterior to it (a “pure” thinking in imitation of the unmoved mover). The forces that make thought active do violence to it (in what Nietzsche called cultural education) by breaking the identity of the true and the good (i.e., against the “natural” impulse to truth). Yet the loss of this identity is not mere relativism since the violence done to thought is directed at its purity: we are forced, perhaps against our will, to confront our guilt in the manner in which we exist in the world; as Yancy says, a critical pedagogy that teaches us how to think is one that shows us that “philosophizing is inextricably linked to those problems and conundrums that have been historically inherited and that the determination of the nature of a philosophical problem is not given a priori; rather, it is tied to and evolves out of a lived historical tradition”. In short, before we can arrive at the truth, we must pass through justice. Philosophical reflection, therefore, can only be directed inward by first being directed outward. Just as Sartre’s investigation into intentionality showed that every movement inward throws us back, inexorably, out toward the world, turning the philosophical gaze outward allows us to see our faces, which are unobservable from the inside.

1a. In his explanation of transcendental apperception in the B deduction of the first Critique, Kant dissolves the problem of solipsism: the awareness that I have of myself is only possible because I exist in a world of perceptions that cannot be subtracted from me, even by an act of thinking. Existential anguish, that simultaneously personalizes and anonymizes, is only possible because of a self-delusion and a forgetting of this insight, i.e., the illusion that solipsism is the truth of reflection or that it is possible for an act of thought to strip the universe bare of reality. The true subtraction is the one that was unthinkable for Descartes. If, ex hypothesi, contradictions are unthinkable, the I am was a tautology for Descartes: I could not conceive of myself without existence and it is impossible to think “I do not exist”. On the one hand, the ego rebels against the absurdity of this proposition; on the other, the ego always has one eye turned toward this absurdity in its secret desire to languish in the tumultuous ocean of existence and perhaps even to drown in it.

But as Hume observed, “I” do not exist. We cannot subtract existence from the world, nor can we remove ourselves from the world (even by an act of thought), but we can ask what it means to be a world. But here the language and grammar of modern subjectivity are beholden to an inappropriate image. To say that we are “situated” or “in” a world, retains the structure of the “inner” and the “outer”, such that reflection becomes an “inward turn” or “introspection” or even “bracketing”. If, instead, the topological structure of the subject and its world is conceived as a Klein bottle, then transcendental reflection is that which grasps the traversals of affects, forces, and perceptions of the knot of subjectivity, similarly to the way in which Maturana has described perception not as sensible contact with an “external reality” but the “specification” of reality according to the particular mode of interaction between the living system and its medium (where “boundaries” lose rigorous meaning in favor of structural relations). Maturana embraces the immediate consequence of this account: all living systems are cognitive systems, such that those living systems that contain nervous systems are capable of internal modification as well as the physical modification of its unity with respect to its equilibrium. (Admittedly, what remains underdeveloped in Maturana’s and Varela’s account of the biological basis of cognition, which is currently being explored by Thompson, is the distinction between cognition and what we might call “mind”.)

We can go further: the fundamental drive of thinking, as an expression of life, is not merely stasis but the refusal of limits (what Nietzsche called “will to power”). We may call this drive ambition, the desire for immortality (or simply to be God, in Sartre’s language), or the intuition of the totality. The paradox of philosophical reflection, however, is that this desire for the infinite has not yet liberated itself from the images of subjective finitude that seeks to go beyond the horizons of understanding that it discovers.

Kant repeats the illusion that produces this paradox when he finds the infinite in the power of reason itself, whose infinity is greater than the objective infinity of the sublime. It was Hegel who dispels the illusion in the dialectical imbrication of the infinite within the finite, not only as a spatial but a temporal moment of totality. The same onto/logical gesture is repeated in what Butler describes as Hegel’s “temporalization” of the universal. Against propositional conceptions of abstract universality – such that the universal would be reducible to what is “common” or capable of universal predication – the concrete universal only exists speculatively, i.e., in the dialectical unity of thought and being, which is incapable of strict isomorphism because the identity of thought to its object is nothing other than their mutual transformation. Thought attains the universal only in its activity or its becoming-active.

1b. The temptation of finitude is the ultimate expression of the philosopher’s desire for solitude, which no one has ever found. Descartes is always haunted by the existence of an other – the skeptical reduction of existence to the primary sense of the I am presupposes the possibility that I am not the reason why existence is doubtful – and Stein has shown that empathy is sui generis. The other always resides in the silent heart of the epoché. In his metacritique of pure reason, Hamann locates the original capacity for thought not merely in the receptivity of sense-impressions but a sensibility of the passions (in what we might call a passio essendi) expressed in the angelic language of joy and praise, as opposed to the discursive language of human understanding.

So too the inner division of the subject, which is always discovered by what Sartre called impure reflection or any objectification of the subject, forecloses the possibility of solitude. Turning the gaze inward reproduces the psychological antagonisms within us, both empirical and transcendental, even in our quest for silence (or Buddhist emptiness). Where there is silence, as Cage discovered, we are always confronted by the persistence of our own heartbeat and the limit of its regularity such that we are always alone with ourselves.

2a. Like Kant, Freud insisted that reason is only possible as an embodied capacity, describing the ego as the “projection of a [perceptual] surface”. The duality of the activity of the ego, at the boundary of the conscious and unconscious, “falls into line with popular distinctions which we are all familiar with; at the same time, however, it is only to be regarded as holding good on the average or ‘ideally’”. We inhabit not only a perceptual world, however, but a world in which we are confronted by the living bodies of others. In his analysis of the psychic pain at the loss of a loved one, Nasio notes that the disruption of the ego occurs not only intrasubjectively but also intersubjectively: the attachment is not only in the unconscious fantasy of the other: “this part is not confined to the interior of our individuality, it extends into the space of the in-between (entre-deux) and attaches us intimately to his or her person”.

Nasio’s insight into the pain of mourning and melancholia is that the loss of the physical presence of the other brings us too close to the chaos of the drives, which is ordered by the fantasy of the loved one. Pain is the final resort of the ego to prevent its collapse into the id. The symbolic representations of the loved one function as the unconscious joining of the subject with the real desire provoked by the loved one. But, importantly, the other also has an imaginary presence in us. Nasio provides a striking image of this presence: “the body of the other is duplicated by an internalized image. … The imaginary other is thus simply an image, but an image that has the particularity of being itself a polished surface on which my own images are permanently reflected. I capture my own images reflected in the mirror of the internalized image of the loved one. This image has the ability to be simultaneously the image of the other and the mirror of my own image”. Like a Leibnizian monad that has been everted, the internalized image of the other reflects not the multiplicity of the world but the multiple perspectives of myself (Nasio notes that “the psychical mirror of the image of the loved one in my unconscious must not be conceived of as the smooth surface of a lens, but as a mirror broken up into small, mobile fragments of glass on which confused images of the other and of myself are reflected”).

In the loss of the real presence of the other, “we also lose the rhythm according to which the real force of desire vibrates. To lose the rhythm is to lose the symbolic other, the limit that gives the unconscious its consistency. … [W]e lose the cohesion and texture of a fantasy indispensable to our structure”. To compensate, the ego can overinvest into retaining the image of the other, almost to the point of identification with it. But what this pain reveals is that what appears in solitude at the loss of a loved one is not the absence of the other but the continued presence of the other in its violence. The other remains within us; but when we cannot see or feel the other as ourselves – i.e., in the protective fantasy of the loved one that structures my desire – we see not ourselves reflected in the image of the loved one (on “introspection”). What appears in this solitude is the withdrawal or abandonment of the other and the nothingness that I am without the other. As Rimbaud says in his famous letter, the poet suffers the torture of “all forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself” and ultimately finds that “Je est un autre”.

3a. Yet the suffering of solitude is, as Nasio reminds us, also protective. There is both the involuntary loss of a loved one but also the possibility of self-withdrawal. The temptations of solitude are especially alluring not when others are lost but when their presence is overpowering or oppressive. “Freedom is the possibility of isolation”, Pessoa says,

You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory, or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendors of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant, but you’re not free. … To be born free is the greatest splendor of man, making the humble hermit superior to kings and even to the gods, who are self-sufficient by their power but not by their contempt of it. … Tired, I close the shutters of my windows, I exclude the world, and I have a few moments of freedom. Tomorrow I’ll go back to being a slave, but right now – alone, needing no one, and worried only that some voice or presence might disturb me – I have my little freedom, my moment of excelsis. Leaning back in my chair, I forget that life oppresses me. Nothing pains me besides having felt pain.

Pessoa’s pessimism, like those other more famous pessimisms, consists in surrendering to the photo negative of Sartre’s famous formula: we are condemned to unfreedom. Under particular social, economic, ideological, and affective configurations, however, such unfreedom is either slavery or simply the restlessness (l’inquiétude or desassossego) of thought, i.e., either political or ontological (even as late capitalism attempts at every turn to collapse the distinction). On the one hand, our tranquility is always traversed by the forces of the earth:

After the last rains left the sky for earth, making the sky clear and the earth a damp mirror, the brilliant clarity of life that returned with the blue on high and that rejoined in the freshness of the water here below left its own sky in our souls, a freshness in our hears. Whether we like it or not we’re servants of the hour and its colors and shapes, we’re subjects of the sky and the earth. Even those who delve only in themselves, disdaining what surrounds them, delve by different paths when it rains and when it’s clear.

Those paths are simultaneously external and internal. Pessoa continues: “each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways”. The multiplicity of being extends all the way down into the depths of thinking wherever it goes. Thinking is always a disturbance because the multitudes in me cannot be contained; each one resonates to a different fundamental frequency, only sometimes in consonance.

3b. The conditions for restlessness, however, are both subjective as well as objective. If I cannot escape the burden of (my own) existence, the allure of solitude is not merely a flight from others – which too is impossible since I am nothing but the other’s presence in me – but the desire to make what is unconscious conscious, i.e., to construct a fantasy of the other independently of their real existence (as in the usual sense of the term “fantasy”) and, thus, to “find myself” without the response and responsibility (the “validation”) of the other. The retreat to the “inner citadel” (Berlin’s term) is the final attempt to evade the only choice we have: refuse or acquiesce to the terms and conditions of the world into which we have been born.

Yet madness awaits in every direction; the payment can be delayed but the bill will always become due. However, we can neither refuse to exist in our world nor welcome what is intolerable, particularly when the reality of injustice permeates and infiltrates us. We are de-sensitized by the banality of oppression. In a recent interview, Arundhati Roy asks:

what do you do when a people have lived under … the densest military occupation in the world for 25 years [referring to the Kashmiri]? What does it do to the air? … What does it do to people who don’t know when their children will come home? Now you see schoolgirls throwing stones at the army. … And, crucially, what does it do to the Indians, who are not protected from this war? They are fed these atrocities … with a soundtrack of applause, and we are supposed to swallow this absolute cruelty and keep it in our stomachs, much as you are expected to celebrate every time the U.S. government goes and destroys a country, you know, and you’re all supposed to stand up and applaud. But what does it do to us to hold that in our stomachs?

We today have already mourned the death of God but have not yet atoned for the fact that it is we who have, in our righteous fury, killed him. The repression of that guilt compels us to see the face of God in the other, with the consequence that we can only love our neighbor by restaging the Oedipal scene in every glance, judgment, and deed. Yet even as our capacity for cruelty is ubiquitous, our restlessness is the conscience and consciousness of oppression. Thought that insists on its purity, rising above the pettiness and triviality of the mundane, is not only to be mistrusted but guarded against as the instrument of banality.

4. We cannot demand honesty from others, however if we cannot first be honest with ourselves. While we cannot avoid illusions, the illusory quality of our representations need not be falsifications but, rather, fragmentations of reality. What must be resisted is the tendency to reconstruct the totality glimpsed only in its facets.

The moonlight seen through the tall branches
Is more, say all the poets,
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches.
But for me, oblivious to what I think,
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Besides its being
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches. (Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa, The Keeper of Sheep XXXV)

The world demands no justification. Only we, the thinkers, stand in need of it ourselves.

(Christian) theology as mathesis universalis

The Spinozist heresy is to have violated the hierarchy of the Aristotelian categories: God is not one being among many but Being itself. But there is more than one way to blur the ontological difference, i.e., as many ways as there are to count. There is, for example, the dialectic of the one and the nothing in Neoplatonic mathematics by which infinite progression telescopes to the one. It was the Christians, however, who taught us how to count directly from one to three: “we do not say that union is begotten from oneness or from equality of oneness, since union is not from oneness either through repetition or through multiplication. And although equality of oneness is begotten from oneness and although union proceeds from both [of these], nevertheless oneness, equality of oneness, and the union proceeding from both are one and the same thing …” (Cusanus).

The trinity is not only an ontological but a mathematical mystery: the simplicity and unicity of God is also the unicity of order. God is not only the infinite geometer, according to Plutarch, but infinitely arithmetizes; creation proceeds not from the word but from the number. “Number was the principal exemplar in the mind of the creator”, Boethius says (long before Leibniz’ “divine mathematician”), which is in itself a substance to which no other substance is joined (which is thus how number is then the measure of all things but not of itself). The echoes of Neoplatonic mathematics are clear: the unity of a being is at once its limit.

Cusanus gives us a clue to the passage from the ontological to the mathematical: “God is the being of things; for He is the Form of things and, hence, is also being”. For Plotinus, being consists of emanation from the one. Cusanus, however, following Thierry of Chartes (who was himself inspired by Boethius), introduces the concept of the fold into philosophy and mathematics:

a point is the enfolding of a line as oneness is the enfolding of a number. For anywhere in a line is found nothing but a point, even as in number there is nowhere found anything but oneness … Movement is the unfolding of rest, because in movement there is found nothing but rest. Similarly, the now is unfolded by way of time, because in time there is found nothing but the now.

All of these are images of the enfoldings of the Infinite Simplicity; in other words, Cusanus explains divine simplicity as nothing other than the enfolding of all things. Since, moreover, divine simplicity is the infinite mind, such that the thought of the divine mind is the creation of all things, our thought is an image of the eternal unfolding, hence guaranteeing the unity of thought and being.

The fold places multiplicity at the heart of being such that “God is so one that He is, actually, everything which is”. Cusanus is explicit in denying that oneness is number, “for number, which can be comparatively greater, cannot at all be either an unqualifiedly minimum or an unqualifiedly maximum. Rather, oneness is the beginning of all number, because it is the minimum; and it is the end of all number, because it is the maximum”. This proposition supports the paradoxes of De Docta Ignorantia: the coincidence of the absolute maximum and minimum and the assertion that “if there were an infinite line, it would be a straight line, a triangle, a circle, and a sphere” (so too Cusanus invokes an image of the divine trinity as a triangle whose angles are all right angles). More importantly, like Conway’s notion of the “intimate presence” of God to all creatures (“without any increase” in their being), the union of oneness and multiplicity folds all things in the divine without reducing being to the being of the divine (God is not-other). Against the Aristotelian convertibility of being and unity, then, Platonism in mathematics asserts not the being of number but the subordination of being to number. “The whole of nature is akin” (Meno 81d) only if the being of beings proceeds from the equality of one to one.

The dirty (big) secret of capital

1. In the Confessions, Rousseau famously describes his secret desire as a child of eight for the punishment given to him by a nursemaid, whose hand “determined my tastes, my desires, my passions, myself for the rest of my life” and that when he entered puberty, “tormented for a long time without knowing by what, I devoured beautiful women with an ardent eye; solely to make use of them in my fashion, and to make so many Mlle Lamberciers out of them”. After the first instance, Rousseau “required all the truth of that affection [for Mme. Lambercier] and all my natural goodness to keep me from seeking the repetition of the same treatment by deserving it: for I had found in the suffering, even in the shame, an admixture of sensuality which had left me with more desire than fear to experience it a second time from the same hand”. The spanking would only occur one other time, after which Rousseau and his brother, who had previously slept in her room, were sent to sleep in a separate room, the honor of which he “could very well have dispensed” but, nevertheless, was regretfully that of “being treated by her as a big boy”.

Rousseau’s infatuation with older women would continue into his teenage years when, at about the age of sixteen or seventeen, inflamed by desire and fantasies of women, and yet unwilling to act, he would instead skulk in “dark alleys [and] hidden nooks where I could expose myself from afar to persons of the opposite sex”. However, Rousseau immediately notes that he “would not dream” of flashing them the “obscene object”; rather, they saw “the ridiculous object”, which had been spanked as a child, and “the foolish pleasure I had in displaying it to their eyes cannot be described. There was only one step to take from that to feeling the desired treatment, and I do not doubt that some bold one would have given me this amusement while passing by, if I had had the audacity to wait” (one can only imagine Rousseau giggling and scurrying away).

Rousseau wants for no audacity in these confessions, admitting that the memory of pissing into the cooking pot of a neighbor while she was at church as a child “still makes me laugh”. Rousseau understands that, as Foucault argues, those who enjoin us to confess “what one is and what one does … what one is thinking and what one thinks he is not thinking—are [not] speaking to us of freedom”. Unlike the priestly confession, however, Rousseau’s confessions lack the sacramental seal of shame and humility and, thus, the “shimmering mirage” (Foucault) of the truth between the confessor’s words. There are only the words and a defiant smirk; Rousseau never becomes “the subject of the statement” to one who prescribes the ritual of confession and who is thus liberated by it (compare, for example, the objections to the misunderstandings of his work in the Reveries and Dialogues). Rousseau, of course, was fully aware of the dialectic of liberation and subjection (e.g., in the famous statement of bondage in The Social Contract) and affirms their identity-in-difference by his insistence that the truth of his confessions lies not in what is meant by his words but simply in what is said (“I have nothing to hide”).

2. In an essay made famous by Auerbach, Montaigne admits that “I very rarely repent, and that my conscience is satisfied with itself, not as the conscience of an angel, or that of a horse, but as the conscience of a man”. The angel’s will is immovable, Aquinas says, and so the virtues that satisfy us would be of disinterest to a higher nature. Sin, “which is lodged in us as in its own proper habitation” thus admits of no true repentance: “one may disown and retract the vices that surprise us, and to which we are hurried by passions; but those which be a long habit are rooted in a strong and vigorous will are not subject to contradiction [and thus no repentance]. Repentance is no other but a recanting of the will and an opposition to our fancies, which lead us which way they please” (emphasis added). Thus the true moral dictate is not that of repentance but sincerity, particularly in the face of the contingencies of our nature and our fate. We cannot reveal ourselves in our essential truth:

I cannot fix my object; ‘tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness … I do not paint its being, I paint its passage … I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune but also by intention. ‘Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations: so it is that I may peradventure contradict myself, but, as Demades said, I never contradict the truth. Could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve: but it is always learning and making trial [emphases added].

The self-representation that Montaigne offers – as a representation of the human condition or “my universal being” – therefore admits of no “inner” truth whose general form is inaccessible to others. That which is admired or reviled of our public semblance is of less consequence than the mundane habits of our private life (no one is a hero to the chambermaid, Montaigne observes). The truth of a life lies not in its honors, deeds, or ideals – and much less in its approbations and validations – in short, not in its truth but in its inanity. The most for which one can hope is not rightness nor redemption but the sincerity of speaking of one’s “ill-fashioned” nature that, “if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is but that’s past recalling”, i.e., not from the regret of what might have been but the tranquility of an ordinary life.

3. What Montaigne never saw, however, are the conditions of modern life that not only generate the compulsory demands of truth but the structures that render the most ordinary truths about ourselves unspeakable and simultaneously alienating while expressing perhaps the fundamental truth of capital.

Lazzarato has described the asignifying semiotics of the economy that “act on things. They connect an organ, a system of perception, an intellectual activity, and so on, directly to a machine, procedures, and signs, bypassing the representations of a subject … Stock market indicies, unemployment statistics, scientific diagrams and functions, and computer languages produce neither discourses nor narratives” and act directly on the material flows that comprise the fundamental ontology of capital, bypassing the classical subjects of knowledge or labor. Lazzarato’s analysis thus indicates that to grasp the truth of capital we must look neither to its meaning or its content (e.g., in alienation) but to its form:

what matters to capitalism is controlling the asignifying semiotic apparatuses (economic, scientific, technical, stock-market, etc.) through which it aims to depoliticize and depersonalize power relations. The strength of asignifying semiotics lies in the fact that, on the one hand, they are forces of ‘automatic’ evaluation and measurement and, on the other hand, they unite and make ‘formally’ equivalent heterogeneous spheres of asymmetrical force and power by integrating them into and rationalizing them for economic accumulation.

Individuals are thus de-subjectivized and dissolved by these apparatuses; “if our societies are no longer based on individuals, they are not based on language either” (as Nietzsche observed, we have rid ourselves of neither God nor our selves because we still believe in grammar).

Lazzarato’s insight can be generalized: the autonomy of capital from the individual is at once ontological, semiotic, and logical. This truth of capital is one that can be neither represented nor spoken in the language of capitalism except through the cultural (hence “unofficial”) prohibitions on revealing the most ordinary and ubiquitous facts about ourselves. We are enjoined, for example, never to ask what someone else makes nor to volunteer that information; we are compelled to hide the truth. Of course, this practice serves familiar bourgeois interests of management and preserves the importance of pecuniary conspicuousness described by Veblen. But, more than that, this fact about ourselves can only be expressed as both a confession but also as a penitence, given that no matter what our answer, we must face the shame that it is insufficient or the guilt that it is too much. We can never give a right answer since, of course, the truth that we are obliged to reveal is not a truth about us at all; it is a truth about the indifference of capital to the value of a human life, which cannot be expressed by capitalism and yet that must be constructed as the only truth about the individual that matters (“what do you do?”), since it is the only truth that can be encoded into the signifying apparatuses of its machines. As Foucault observed, rather than being a rebellion against the repressive demand to stay silent, our confession produces the structures of power that render the truth unspeakable in the first place. The intolerable presumption of capital is that it foists its secret upon us while demanding at every turn that we wear it on our sleeves; unlike Rousseau, however, we do not have the luxury of insolence.

Democratic politics at the limit of liberalism

1. Following the Kantian formulation of the idea of moral freedom, after A Theory of Justice, in Rawls’ considerations of the properly political (i.e., non-metaphysical) conception of justice, we are faced with what we might call the fact of pluralism: “the diversity of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical condition that may soon pass away … it is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy”. This diversity is both the presupposition and the end of liberal politics. The diversity consists not of antagonisms to be overcome or sublated but as the irreducible multiplicity of forms of human life. This plurality is a fact in a twofold Kantian sense: (1) it is not deduced but given and (2) it is forced upon us as the condition and manifestation of freedom (freedom both demands this plurality and is made possible by it). The domain of the political, according to Rawls, is therefore “distinct from the associational [emphasis added], which is voluntary in ways that the political is not …” given that, in his preferred formulation, we enter the domain of the political at birth and only leave it at death.

Rawls is consistent with the contract tradition (with the possible exception of Locke), even as he takes it to its limit by reducing the ideal of contract into its basic form not as reciprocity but as blind equality. The ideal construction of political equality is, however, only the first half of the twin problems of legitimacy and stability. The latter requires the overlapping consensus of a specifically political conception of justice as an overriding value in cases of conflict. It is precisely because “a political conception of justice [is] regarded not as a consequence of a comprehensive doctrine but as in itself sufficient to express values that normally outweigh whatever other values oppose them …” that the present crises of liberalism have exposed its inability to manage the contradictions of separating the ethical from the political. We only acquire an allegiance to liberal institutions when, over time, the civic institutions of justice “normally counterbalance whatever [other] values may oppose them” because they make possible the background conditions of private life. Liberalism fails, then, in one of two cases: either the collapse of fairness in those institutions or when the virtues of social cooperation – perhaps as a result of the former – are no longer taken to be ultimate.

The normative autonomy of the political, in Rawls’ conception, is abrogated by the inherent ambiguity of the fact of pluralism. On the one hand, “history tells of a plurality of not unreasonable comprehensive doctrines. That these comprehensive doctrines are divergent makes an overlapping consensus necessary”; yet the existence of such diversity is insufficient to account for their reasonableness. Plurality is in the relevant sense not an empirical fact but a fact of reason. An overlapping consensus is not only necessary because of the diversity of comprehensive doctrines but it is only possible because of their divergence. The limitation of Rawls’ analysis is to have taken the divergence of comprehensive doctrines to be one of content but not of form. If the diversity of comprehensive doctrines were merely empirical, then the paradoxes of toleration become inescapable and the libertarian conflict of interpretations erodes both the content and the force of the overlapping consensus necessary to maintain the separation of the political from the ethical; the skeptical epoché is fatal to the possibility of politics. The fundamental fact of reason is not that there are many truths but that the truth of truth is the plurality of its expression.

(Similarly, the limitation of liberalism in general is to have mistaken that to which we owe our allegiance (e.g., civic institutions) with that from which we declare our allegiances; only a bureaucrat can assert with a straight face that we can owe allegiance to an institution.)

The virtue of Rawls’ analysis, on the other hand, is to have recognized that the construction of the political requires not only a commitment to freedom in its negative sense but the existence of a community of shared values (in short, to have recognized the abstractions to which a Lockean account is suspect). The question, however, is in what sense those shared values are taken to be political. Rawls’ insight that politics is non-voluntary is a recognition of the fact that, fundamentally, our existence is not solitary but shared (we neither die alone nor are born alone); in other words, the materiality of our existence implicates us within the flesh and fabric of a world that touches and shelters us. Politics is an expression of this shared (singular-plural, in Nancy’s terms) existence; thus, the processes and expressions of individuation are intrinsically non-political and the reductio of politics to the maintenance of a modus vivendi is the only possible consequence of the ideology of liberal individualism (whose dissolution immediately invites fascism). The fundamental predicament of politics is not that we must merely live with (viz., tolerate) others who have different – and equally reasonable – conceptions of the good; it is that, in Deleuzian terms, nomadic subjects are sundered by divergences and yet belong to the same world: the inconsistencies that must be managed are not between conflicting conceptions of the good but internal to any subjective capacities from which we might find our bearings.

2. Rawlsian constructivism is the site of the familiar tensions of liberalism, which can break in either direction, as the point of the dialectical inversion of the universal and the particular, circumventing the theologico-political problem but at the cost of founding the possibility of democratic politics on the public use of reason. The problem with reason, of course, is not that whatever might pass for it is too narrow but that it is easily susceptible to counterfeit.

In her own criticism of the models of deliberative democracy proposed by Rawls and Habermas, Mouffe observes that

what is really at stake in the allegiance to democratic institutions is the constitution of an ensemble of practices that make the constitution of democratic citizens possible. This is not a matter of rational justification but of availability of democratic forms of individuality and subjectivity. … The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject, which sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects [whether communicative, public, etc.]. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible.

Therefore, Mouffe claims, all rationalist machinations must break against the ontological limit of pluralism as the very condition of possibility for deliberation but at the same time that which undermines the possibility of the necessary consensus to bind the allegiance of democratic subjects to institutions that must simultaneously enable and subordinate them.

Mouffe’s solution embraces the antagonisms constitutive of pluralism through the recognition of adversaries as a “legitimate” enemy, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality”. The agon of politics takes place not discursively but through the formation of power relations that are constitutive of democratic subjects themselves; therefore, “our shared language of politics is entangled with power and needs to be apprehended in terms of hegemonic relations”, i.e., the “point of convergence – or rather mutual collapse – between objectivity and power”. Power striates but it can also be recursive; we can be overpowered but also empowered (freedom from is the uncanny photo negative of freedom to). Antagonism does not erase equality but, rather, presupposes it. Antagonism, however, also only produces equality on the condition that in conflict we aspire to the universal. It is this tension between agonistic desires and the claim to universality that produces the aporetic condition of politics that Balibar has dubbed “equaliberty”. On the one hand, through an Aristotelian elenchos, Balibar argues that the structural coupling of equality and liberty can be demonstrated by mutual subtraction: “if freedom is not equality, then either it is superiority—mastery—or it is subjection and dependence on some power, which is absurd. Thus, correlatively, equality must be thought as the general form of the radical negation of all subjection and mastery, that is, as the liberation of freedom itself from an external or internal power that takes it over and transforms it into its opposite”. On the other hand, the demands for equality and liberty “cannot be enunciated in the same language, in terms of the same discourse”. In particular, Balibar proposes a tetradic structure of mediation between equality and liberty by property and community (fratnerity), where the one easily degrades into liberal individualism and the other into reactionary nationalism. For this reason, “there will be permanent tension between the conditions that historically determine the construction of institutions that conform to the proposition of equaliberty and the excessive, hyperbolic universality of the statement”.

The perennial aporia of democratic politics, then, is not only that the people do not know what they want. As Zizek observes, “the people is still here, but no longer as the mythical sovereign Subject whose will is to be enacted. Hegel was right in his critique of the democratic power of the people: ‘the people’ should be re-conceived as the passive background of the political process—the majority is always and by definition passive, there is no guarantee that it is right, and the most it can do is acknowledge and recognize itself in a project imposed by political agents. As such, the role of the people is ultimately a negative one: ‘free elections’ (or a referendum) serve as a check on the party movements, as an impediment designed to prevent what Badiou calls the brutal and destructive ‘forçage’ (enforcement) of the Truth onto the positive order of Being regulated by opinions”. As Deleuze and Guattari have also observed, one of the primary forms of repressive forces is doxa, of which the (democratic) state is one important expression. As Hobbes so keenly foresaw, a democracy suited to the negotiations of interests is merely a return to the state of nature.

The more fundamental aporia of agonistic politics consists not in the failure of negotiations but in the fact that the indeterminacy of the statement of equaliberty – in its negative universality – is incommensurate with its enunciation or its plural reference indexed to the subjects capable of asserting it. The people both do not but also cannot know what they want. The material consequences of the statement of equaliberty “depend entirely on relations of forces and their evolution within the conjecture, within which it will always be necessary to practically construct individual and collective referents for equaliberty, with more or less prudence and precision, but also audacity and insolence against the established powers”.

The problem with tolerance; or, Liberal Stockholm Syndrome

1. The word “refugee” was introduced into English around 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes – signed by Henry IV in 1598 – and thousands of Protestant Huguenots fled Catholic persecution. Under the doctrine of compelle intrare (Luke 14:23) and the authority of Romans 13:4, the Christian magistrate banished or burned the nonconformists or the heretic at the stake.

Just after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Locke wrote his famous Letter Concerning Toleration that, despite its title, is narrower in scope than anything that, as Goldie observes, western Europe would see for another 175 years. Nevertheless, to his credit, Locke argues that toleration ought to be extended to non-Christians, including pagans, Muslims, Jews, and Native Americans (while, however, denying tolerance for atheists and Catholics (qua antinomians), unlike Bayle, whose position was more expansive). Locke’s position was inconsistent after the Letter but the first argument he advances there would be the foundation for (classical) liberalism since: i.e., the separation of church and state.

Locke, however, remained an evangelist, merely arguing that the state was not the appropriate instrument for that mission (and, moreover, that coerced conversion was ineffective). Locke did not concede any epistemic ambivalence about a “true faith” but, rather, advanced a more or less pragmatic argument that peaceful evangelism was preferable to torture and coercion.

1a. Modern liberalism, particularly of those varieties predicated on the admission of epistemic humility, on the other hand, is not only wider than Locke’s but suffers from two unresolved inner contradictions. First, given the conflation of toleration with (the fact of) plurality, we must resolve the paradox of intolerance, i.e., to answer the accusation that intolerance of intolerance is contradictory. Yet that is not the real contradiction, since the paradox is only apparent. Locke’s solution to the paradox is the reason he did not extend his argument to Catholics (and also the reason Hobbes writes the last two books of the Leviathan): if one believes that there is a higher authority than the state – such that religious moral authority trumps that of the state, whose function is to preserve the peace – then the very grounds for community are eroded by those who refuse to accept the norms of reciprocal equality. Those who reject the détente of civil society can have no place in it. For Locke, then, the principle of liberal toleration is not that “all creeds are equally valid” but, rather, “we must co-exist”. Thus there is no paradox of intolerance (or, in other words, no contradiction in the failure to tolerate the intolerance of tolerance). To those who wish the destruction of civil society – particularly through a denial of its fundamental egalitarianism – we owe no quarter.

Modern liberalism, however, has decoupled truth from pluralism. Locke’s evangelism did not require that we disavow the truth of our position but, rather, that we seek conversion by peaceful means rather than violent. Rational discourse, for example, is not merely a game of Show and Tell but a shared endeavor toward truth. The contradiction of modern liberalism is the simultaneous commitment to the denial of truth – since “no one has it” – and an insistence on toleration for the expression of any opinion for no purpose other than its expression (thus leading to the paradox of intolerance).

“I look on bad conscience as a serious illness to which man was forced to succumb by the pressure of the most fundamental of all changes which he has experienced, – that change whereby he finally found himself imprisoned within the confines of society and peace” (Nietzsche).

2. The bad conscience of modern liberalism has produced this second inner contradiction: that it entertains and invites not only their enemies but also their sympathizers to the table from the guilt of “understanding”. But even the noble Socrates observes that, as the “midwife” that assists others to gain knowledge,

I, with God’s help, [deliver] them of this offspring [i.e., wisdom]. And a proof of this may be seen in the many cases where people who did not realize this fact took all the credit to themselves and thought that I was no good. They have then proceeded to leave me sooner than they should, either of their own accord or through the influence of others. And after they have gone away from me they have resorted to harmful company, with the result that what remained with them has miscarried; while they have neglected the children I helped them to bring forth, and lost them, because they set more value upon lies and phantoms than upon the truth; finally they have been set down for ignorant fools, both by themselves and by everybody else. … Sometimes they come back, wanting my company again, and ready to move heaven and earth to get it. When that happens, in some cases the divine sign that visits me forbids me to associate with them …” (Theaetetus 150e – 151a; emphasis added)

But it is not only the fascists and the agents of civil destruction that ought not to be legitimated by discourse and “understanding” but those who are unable to recognize them because they have been corrupted by a self-fulfilling illusion of rational conviction masquerading as an open mind that can nevertheless admit of no truth that has not already been decided. Stupidity and error are corrigible but self-hating misology is not. If virtue only exists “as a gift from the gods” (Meno 100b), we can only pray that it is not too late for more of us to learn.

3. Resistance, however, is always too late. The need for resistance indicates that the tools which would have made it unnecessary will ipso facto be useless for it. Resistance requires not rationality but strength, as well as the courage to recognize the misplaced guilt of toleration for the guilt of responsibility. We are all guilty, Dostoevsky says, and “understand that you yourself are guilty, for you might have been a light to evil-doers … and were not a light. If you had been a light, by your light you would have illumined the path for others, too, and the person who did evil might not have done so in the presence of your light” (BK 14:291-2). Light, however, does not show the darkness but banishes it.

The crowd and the count

The suicide of Allende on 11 September 1973 during the U.S.-backed coup marked the end not only of democracy in Chile for almost two decades but the defeat of a people who did not realize until it was too late that they had never really been united. A people united will never be defeated, Ortega proclaims. Yet the perversity of the democratic state is that it does everything in its power to fight the unity of a people, despite the contradictions, which can no longer be disguised, between its form and the expression of a popular will. The fundamental problem of democracy is not that the state should fail to serve the popular will but, rather, that in its absence the state becomes its surrogate in representation.

Sartre once called elections a “trap for fools”. Contrary to the ideology of liberalism, voting is a fundamentally anti-democratic act precisely to the extent that the extant electoral procedures and mechanisms preserve the contradiction between the equality of every vote (“one person, one vote”) and the fact that not every vote is counted. The only solution to the antinomy between democracy – according to which, in principle, every vote is counted-as-one – and capitalism – according to which a vote is a measure of one’s power – is to reject both options as strict contraries: every democratic institution is, as Rancière argues, predicated on an ineradicable wrong (tort) that cannot be corrected by the proper procedures (e.g., we just need re-districting or better controls) because it is the act of voting itself that produces the “miscount” and, thus, the illusion of a popular will that could be expressed by a numerical tally “for” or “against”. The problem, in short, is not how to count the votes “fairly” but the operation of the count itself.

“[E]verything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. Ostensibly, the elected Assembly is the one which reflects public opinion most faithfully. But there is only one sort of public opinion, and it is serial. The imbecility of the mass media, the government pronouncements, the biased or incomplete reporting in the newspapers – all this comes to seek us out in our serial solitude and load us down with wooden ideas, formed out of what we think others will think. … So when we are called to vote, I, the Other, have my head stuffed with petrified ideas which the press or television has piled up there. They are serial ideas which are expressed through my vote, but they are not my ideas. The institutions of bourgeois democracy have split me apart: there is me and there are all the Others they tell me I am (a Frenchman, a soldier, a worker, a taxpayer, a citizen, and so on).” (Sartre)

In the face of the present plutocracy, we are no longer deluded by the ideology of liberalism, which has resulted in the present legitimation crisis: “… serial thinking is born in me, thinking which is not my own thinking but that of the Other which I am and also that of all the Others. It must be called the thinking of powerlessness, because I produce it to the degree that I am Other, an enemy of myself and of the Others, and to the degree that I carry the Other everywhere with me” (Sartre). The complaint that the state no longer “represents me” has not taken the necessary step: we are promised a supposed solution (in the form of “adequate representation”) that is exactly the problem that needs to be overcome. Democracy requires not the representation but the expression of a popular will, i.e., the will of a people.

The reduction of the political subject to the economic (or, in Sartre’s terms, the practico-inert) seems now to be total. There is neither a people nor even the hope for one.

Dean has recently argued that the necessary intermediary for a people-to-come is the party, which “operates as the support for the subject of communism [or we might simply say, of politics] by holding open the gap between the people and their setting in capitalism. The more the gap appears, the more the need for and perhaps even sense of a party impresses itself. This gap isn’t a void. It’s a knot of processes that organize the persistence of the unrealized in a set of structural effects: ideal ego, ego ideal, superego, subject supposed to know and believe – the party as the Other space. … [It is] a rupture within the people dividing them from the givenness of their setting, a rupture that is an effect of their collectivity, the way their belonging works back upon them”. The party manages the affective antagonisms – between us as well as between us and the objective conditions in which we live – that are otherwise either serialized and abstracted into the liberal citizen or mobilized by identity politics to maintain the necessity of the former. The party is the site where politics happens as the embodied, material body of the collective (what Hobbes had thought the sovereign could be) that can pass through the state without constituting it. Thus the only democratic politics that can resist the temptations of fascism is disruptive of the state and its power by the voice of a people united, without which there is only the crowd and its frenzy.