Images VI

What Schopenhauer had called the Will is not only the darkness and opacity of things and of the unconscious but the withdrawal and retreat that constitutes interiority or the secret essence of things. A fatal curiosity dissects and penetrates to capture these secrets; “while human beings can indeed dig deep down into rock, all they will ever find is rock”, Bachelard observes. So too truth is not found by plumbing the depths of the soul but by allowing the darkness to rise into the ephemerality of dreams.

And yet descent is painful to the philosopher who has been blinded by the light. Only those with dark eyes, Bachelard says, can gaze into the eye of the cave where it is always night. “Thus, for a dreamer of caves, the cave is more than a house; it is a being that responds to our being with a voice, a gaze, and with breathing. It is also a universe.” This world at the threshold of the earth is also the place where the earliest Cro-Magnons etched and painted the images of the world between nature and spirit.* The emotional language (in Cassirer’s terms) of these images, then, is not only a grasp on the world but the oneiric eruption of a truth hidden by the lucidity of reflection. Thus, as Bachelard says, “all knowledge of the interiority of things is immediately a poem”.

*The Piraha of the Amazon, Everett reports, make no distinction between the perceptions of dreams and those of waking life.

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The banality of the camp

On the first day of the year, Newsweek re-published a piece from the conservative Hoover Institution glorifying the war machine of the 1930s. The author bemoaned the fact that “the collective ethos of the World War II generation [what Brokaw dubbed the “greatest generation”] is fading”. On the recent 74th anniversary of D-Day, we were reminded that few living survivors of WWII still exist and that we should honor their memory and sacrifice.

The only way to do so, of course, is to ensure that what happened in the 1930s and 40s never happens again. The latter half of the twentieth century certainly witnessed further economic devastation and genocide. So we ought to ask what exactly it is to which we should say “never again”.

This phrase, which has recently been adopted from its original use by survivors of gun violence in schools, has fallen victim to two contradictory impulses in the collective western conscience. On the one hand, we are told we must never forget the Holocaust (or Columbine or Sandy Hook or Parkland or …) and yet, on the other hand, we repress these memories to the status of a mythology that has reduced the names “Holocaust” and “Hitler” from being rigid to free-floating signifiers: they have become metonymies for simply “evil” or “genocide”. The historical, cultural, material, and ideological conditions that resulted in Auschwitz have contracted to a dimensionless point called “the Holocaust” that happened at some vague place and time (“Germany during World War II”) whose only definiteness is that it is “in the past”.

What has been forgotten is that the Holocaust was not only an event that can be localized to particular sites (i.e., the camps). While Agamben has been criticized for his analysis of the camp that makes it ubiquitous — in his words, the camp is not merely “a historical fact and an anomaly that … [belongs] to the past, but rather in some sense [it is] the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we still live. … The camp … is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet” — the caricature that, according to this analysis, “everything is a camp” misses the point. The camp is not simply a place. The places that become Konzentrationslager are the physical and material localizations of an ethos or a way of (non-)thinking.

As Agamben reminds us, along with a recent book by the historian Aidan Forth, titled Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876-1903, the modern camp, which first appeared at the end of the nineteenth-century, is the prolongation of the juridical regime of prisons as well as the colonial-imperial regime of managing unwanted populations in the empire. The collaborationist Vichy* government in France, for example, managed their own camps for Jews but also for homosexuals, the Romanis, Spanish refugees, left-wing activists, and other unwanteds or undesirables.

*We today have our own Vichy government dedicated to “national regeneration” and “France alone” (“MAGA”, “America first”), the reversal of the progressive movement of the Third Republic (including hostility to labor unions), an anti-democratic and authoritarian return to “traditional culture”, the repression of dissent, the de-naturalization of foreigners, and of course collaboration with the Nazi genocide.

What made the camps possible was not only the genocidal and sadistic Gestapo. In 1955, the journalist Milton Mayer published a book, titled They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, in which he interviewed ten ordinary German citizens over the course of a year. They referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people”. Among the ten, only one after the war still believed in Nazism as a “democratic” project. “The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we [non-Germans] knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it” (emphasis added). When one of the ten men, a baker, was asked why he supported the National Socialists, he said it was because they had promised to solve the unemployment problem “but I never imagined what it would lead to. Nobody did”. But what was it that Nazism led to? “‘War,’ he said. ‘Nobody ever imagined it would lead to war.’” But even after 1939, all then said that their lives

“were lightened and brightened by National Socialism … And they look back on it now — nine of them, certainly — as the best time of their lives; for what are men’s lives? There were jobs and job security, summer camps for the children … What does a mother want to know? She wants to know where her children are … There were horrors, too, but these were advertised nowhere, reached ‘nobody.’ … None of the horrors impinged upon the day-to-day lives of my ten friends or was ever called to their attention [emphasis added]. … The real lives that real people live in a real community have nothing to do with Hitler and Roosevelt or with what Hitler and Roosevelt are doing.”

In a widely-circulated but apparently apocryphal quotation, we are reminded that the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers. In the supposed origin of that quotation, R. v. Keegstra, which upheld the Canadian prohibition of hate propaganda, Chief Justice Dickson noted that it is true that Germany enacted and enforced similar anti-hate speech laws just prior to the rise of Hitler and that “no one is contending that hate propaganda laws can in themselves prevent the tragedy of a Holocaust … The experience of Germany represents an awful nadir in the history of racism, and demonstrates the extent to which flawed and brutal ideas can capture the acceptance of a significant number of people”.

We should also not forget, as James Whitman has recently documented in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, that key components of the Nuremberg Laws were inspired by American** race laws (particularly anti-miscegenation laws). It is not the conscious, cartoonish evil of the supervillain about which we must be vigilant but, rather, the common sense of Joe the Plumber and Mom and Pop down the street who either accept the existence of the camp or who simply don’t care all that much about it because they have work in the morning and children to put to bed.

**We should also not forget that the War Relocation Authority responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans existed for a full year after the surrender of Germany and the liberation of Auschwitz.

Arendt (and others) infamously said of Adolf Eichmann that, in all appearances, he was perfectly ordinary. The Holocaust occurs not because of the trials of Hitler but because of the banality of all the “little Eichmanns” among us.

The seductions of form and the resistance of spirit

1. Almost twenty years before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Smith founded a moral theory on our capacity to sympathize. And yet, at a crucial juncture of the work, he notes that “it is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty”. Ultimately, Smith continues, this disposition leads to the division of society into ranks and the corruption of our moral sentiments: “this disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition [,which is the basis of social rank, is] … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages”. It is only by confusing later utilitarian and game-theoretic psychologies into The Wealth of Nations that we have been perplexed at the avowed continuity of these two works (which, like Aristotle, Smith conceived as systematic).

The perfidiousness of (neo-)liberalism is its empty formalism of will that, like Williams’ critique of utilitarian psychology, reduces experience to calculation (the “sovereign masters” of nature being pleasure and pain, for example) and homo sapiens to homo economicus. The irony of our supposed materialism is that when the role of necessity overtakes virtue, we also surrender the (material) reality of our situations and circumstances to the ideologies of contract and discourse. The abolition of spirit only raises its spectre in the phantom of justice that stands over the courthouse or the harbor, while having abandoned our streets and our homes.

The material chases the form, Aristotle says, as its lover, for it cannot exist without this union. So too the essence of representative government is the agon between the sovereign functions in a sort of inversion of trinitarianism: instead of the union of love between the persons of the trinity (three-in-one), it is the jealousy between the sovereign powers that is supposed to prevent despotism (one-in-three).

While Montesquieu has been recently re-discovered in this context, his analysis of divided government is not his primary message against the threat of despotism. Despotism is neither merely the result of the tyrannic psychology of the despot (as it was, for example, for Plato) nor a degenerate form of government: like the Hobbesian state of war, which exists not only in times of conflict but when there is a perpetual will toward conflict, despotism exists to the extent to which there is a certain spirit, not of fear but of anxiety (as he says explicitly, “a free people is not the one that has this or that form of government, it is one that enjoys the form of government established by Law”). In his Thoughts, Montesquieu observes that “when prosperity is merely external, the evidence of well-being is quite equivocal”.* The fear that is famously the principle of despotic government in The Spirit of the Laws  is not, primarily, fear of the despot but, rather, what we might call a more general anxiety: “as fear is the principle of despotic government, its end is tranquility: but this tranquility cannot be called a peace; no, it is only the silence of those towns which the enemy is ready to invade”.

*He continues in this passage also to say that “for often a prince who has great qualities, but does not have them all, can do great things abroad for a State that he governs very badly”.

Just as Montesquieu warns against mistaking external prosperity for reality, so too he warns against filling a will empty of virtue with admiration of the power that keeps us safe, lest our souls be invaded by that very power.

In contrast to the principle of despotism, Montesquieu observes that in addition to power and law, a “popular state” also requires virtue: “when virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before is become indifferent … The people fall into [misfortune] when those in whom they confide [viz., in the trust of their power], desirous of concealing their own corruption, endeavor to corrupt them [as well]”.

We are corrupted not only in our will but also in our imagination, i.e., not only in our complacency but also in our appeals to our institutions and constitutions, in our procedures and processes, to deliver us from evil.

Elsewhere in the Thoughts, Montesquieu warns us of our present emergency: “it is only by dint of philosophy that a sensible man can support [despotic governments], and by dint of prejudice that a people can bear them. These sorts of governments are self-destructive. Each day brings them into decline, and with them, there is virtually no middle ground between childhood and old age.” For all our quarrels over identity politics (and the public intellectuals who have capitalized on these failures), it is not Nero who now fiddles but those who condemn him as if he were not the logical conclusion of the present “experiment” but an aberration.

2. In his twin critiques of idealism and logocentrism, Klages argues that

the idealist’s own principles render him incapable of distinguishing the world of perceptions from the world of representations. As a result, the idealist must perforce disavow the world of actuality; as a result, that world will always be found to play a miniscule role in the idealist’s system. In fact, the idealist treats the world of perception as if it were a product of spiritual activity [emphasis added], whereas this activity could not raise itself up as the antithetical counterpart to the word of perception unless it had based itself upon a pre-existent substratum of vital events. … As soon as one is convinced that the substance of experienced life is outside the reach of spirit, one is compelled to endorse the conviction that conceptualizing spirit … is a force that, in-itself and for-itself, does not belong to the cosmos. [This is the spirit that he then notes has been unmasked in the modern age as the utilitarian “will to annihilate nature”.]

But it is also the realist that shares this solipsism, only doing unconsciously what the idealist does in self-consciousness. Following Nietzsche, Klages denies that experiences contain actuality, even as they arise from actuality: “whoever regards the objects of thought as actuality, confuses the boundaries that divide the objects with that which has established those boundaries”. Both the idealist and the realist retain for themselves the capacity to judge without being able to admit that their judgments of truth qua judgments falsify the experiences to which they give expression. What is needed, then, is not more understanding but a transformation of the spirit that seeks not the truth of experience but to experience more truly. This is perhaps the postmodern condition: not only that we can no longer “cognitively map” our place in our world (Jameson) but that we do not even know how to experience it.

“We have never been postmodern”; or, Notes toward a new concept of the chiasm

1. Baudrillard, that paragon and scapegoat of postmodern ephemerality, once proposed that

a certain form of thought is bound to the real. It starts out from the hypothesis that ideas have referents and that there is a possible ideation of reality. … The other form of thought is eccentric to the real, a stranger to dialectics, a stranger even to critical thought. It is not even a disavowal of the concept of reality. It is illusion, power of illusion, or, in other words, a playing with reality, as seduction is a playing with desire … This radical thought does not stem from a philosophical doubt, a utopian transference, or an ideal transcendence. It is the material illusion, immanent in this so-called ‘real’ world.

The fractures between thought and the real in the spectacular age were nowhere more evident than in the simulacra of war, according to which Baudrillard could argue that the (first) Gulf War “did not take place”. We still, today, have not grasped the rhetorical strategy and intervention into the media terrain deployed by Baudrillard in this claim, which continues to be interpreted by friends and foes of postmodernism alike as the godfather of our contemporary “war on truth”.

Baudrillard continues:

at all events, there is incompatibility between thought and the real. There is no sort of necessary or natural transition from one to the other. … It has doubtless not always been so. One may dream of a happy conjunction of idea and reality, cradled by the Enlightenment and modernity, in the heroic age of critical thought. Yet critical thought, the butt of which was a certain illusion … is in substance ended. … It has broken down under pressure from a gigantic technical and mental simulation, to be replaced by an autonomy of the virtual, henceforth liberated from the real, and a simultaneous autonomy of the real which we see functioning on its own account in a demented — that is, infinitely self-referential — perspective. Having been expelled, so to speak, from its own principle, extraneized, the real has itself become an extreme phenomenon. In other words, one can no longer think it as real, but as exorbitated, as though seen from another world — in short, as illusion.

It is with the second Gulf War that we see Baudrillard’s thesis nakedly in the destruction of the twin towers (which, according to some, were not destroyed by planes): a pure event in its indiscernibility from a non-event.

towers

Mitchell described that event as “a new and more virulent form of iconoclasm” because the destruction of the towers was “a globally recognizable icon, and the aim was not merely to destroy it but to stage its destruction as a media spectacle. Iconoclasm in this instance was rendered as an icon in its own right, an image of horror that has imprinted itself in the memory of the entire world”. Thus every image of the twin towers is an image of an image: the event of 9/11, what “took place”, is inseparable from its mediatization* or what Mitchell calls the “biopicture”. “The terrorist is the figure of iconoclasm and the destruction of living images, literally in the form of human bodies, metaphorically in the destruction of monuments”. The collective American fantasy in response has produced, from within, the very unspeakable and unimaginable horrors of the terrorist through the expansion of its juris-diction (as Mitchell observes, “the law against the representation of something in words or images must, in effect, always break itself, because it must name, describe, define — that is, represent — the very thing that it prohibits”).

*Mitchell defines a “medium” as “the set of material practices that brings an image together with an object to produce a picture … understood as a complex assemblage of virtual, material, and symbolic elements”.

Baudrillard’s thesis is both epistemic and ontological: the claim is not that we can have no knowledge of the real but, rather, that we do not know (at least anymore) what the real is because the real (including the reality of consciousness) has become not the “product of discourse” but always duplicated, encoded, disseminated, imaged, simulated, and overdetermined.

There is some irony in the fact that the critics of postmodernism have themselves confused the hoax for the reality. There is no more important concept than truth, for example, in the late Foucault’s work on the parresiac utterance as “the introduction, the irruption of the true discourse [that] determines an open situation, or rather opens the situation and makes possible effects which are, precisely not known. Parresia does not produce a codified effect; it opens up an unspecified risk” (here one could also analyze the logic of the differend in which the codification of discourse silences the articulation of a wrong). If postmodernism is to blame for the present quagmire of relativism and “alternative facts”, it is perhaps not because we have read too much Foucault but because we have read too little.

2. “What does critique want?” (for M.K.) When Mitchell asked of pictures what they want, he was gesturing not only to an analogy between images and life, nor to the viral propagation of images but, rather, with the particular form and content of images within the present biopolitical regime of the reproduction of terrorism as the acephalic clone wherein the destruction of an image (e.g., the twin towers) is also the production of an image (e.g. Abu Ghraib).

This duality of iconoclasm and iconoclash mirrors our “double consciousness” with respect to images, as both a shadow thrice removed from reality and also autonomous from it. The question “what do pictures want?” arises in this chiasm of the lack and excess of the image: the lack of vitality in an image allows it to receive a hyper-reality through its communication, circulation, and dissemination until the real is transformed into what had “only” been an image.

2a. In a pair of lectures from 2004 and 2010, Latour worries that the general structure of critique (viz., of naturalism, truth, etc.) has ironically given its weapons to the “instant revisionism” of conspiratorial dogmatism against which, as its counterfeit double, no form of rationalism can mount an adequate defense. Instead of asking, however, what demands critique, we might also ask what desires are produced by the critical impulse. On the one hand, critique must be both timely — in its response to particular material, historical, local, and contingent conditions — and untimely; thus the aporia of critique since Kant: critique always gestures behind, beneath, or beyond the given (as ideological, phenomenal, etc.) toward what cannot be known an sich. When philosophizing with a hammer that demolishes the appearances to reveal the chaotic monster of energy beneath, we languish in negativity (“how hetero!” “how bourgeois!”) and, thus, in nihilism.

On the other hand, as Nietzsche had reminded us, to speak of “illusion” requires us still to believe in truth. Latour accuses the critical gesture of disingenuity when it proclaims simultaneously that (1) any “fact” is merely the projected “white screen” of ideology, discourse, etc., while at the same time insisting that (2) all thought and behavior are determined by the brute facts of (in both senses of the genitive) objectivity. Latour thus suggests a new orientation (“composition”) that leads not away (e.g., from facts toward their conditions) but toward facts, i.e., that not only debunks but assembles, toward the thingliness of things in a “renewed empiricism” that asks “how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence”. The Thing is no longer opposed to objects but, given the collapse of the bifurcation of Nature, “they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart [ob-ject]. … What the etymology of the word thing [as object and as juridical apparatus] … had conserved for us mysteriously, as a sort of fabulous and mythical past has now become, for all to see, our most ordinary present”.

We should hear, however, not only the Heideggerean but Lacanian (and Levinasian, as Critchley has argued) resonances in this claim. The production of images and fantasies not only protects us from a direct exposure to the Thing but just is the sublimation of the death drive. Within our “most fundamental” metaphysical activity, however, the aesthetic contains a trace of the excess of the ethical, viz., in the fact that there is more to the life of an image (e.g., that of myself or others) than its reality as an image: that you and I are both an image (e.g., a digital image) and more than an image.

Just as Bergson had argued that possibility is not less than actuality but an addition to it, so too Latour asks whether we ought to add reality to matters of fact rather than subtract it (what is impossible, of course, is the isomorphic correspondence between the two). It is not merely that we must “fight for the facts” in the face of, e.g., climate change denial but we must ask what comes “after Nature” or, rather, after the postmodern collapse of the distinction between nature and politics. Latour’s own “politics of nature” attempts to address this need to re-compose both science and politics given the irreversibility of critique (i.e., in the fact that the “simply true” cannot even serve as a regulative idea), despite the apparent reversibility of “progress”.

Like the Bergsonian élan, the problem of subjectivity is not only one of lack but that of a figure of excess, in which we see the objective correlate in the basic ontology of modernity: production as over-production. As we know, scarcity is constructed as the abject remainder of excess and what we must confront today is the saturation of ontology by capital (as the primary objective cipher of excess). The dialectic of lack and excess is both intra- and inter-subjective. McGowan has recently argued that the point at which lack and excess become indistinguishable is the comic, in which we momentarily encounter this chiastic relationship:

our everyday life is distinctively humorless because it sustains itself by keeping excess and lack at a distance from each other. … The strict separation of lack and excess produces whatever stability our social existence has. The disturbance of excess remains confined to a separate domain where it doesn’t intrude on everyday existence. It might be funny if one showed up at work after drinking ten shots of tequila, but if everyone did it, the work would cease to function efficient. The social order punishes those who bring excessive acts into the everyday world by taking away their jobs, their friends, and ultimately even their liberty to act excessively.

What, then, does it mean to grasp the truth of the subject (e.g., in its “care”) when what appears to be its fundamental truth is contradicted at every turn by the real(ity principle), e.g., when the truth of desire is what must be disavowed (“I don’t really want to be drunk at work”)?

3. Toward a concept of the chiasm. We cannot approach this question without understanding the relationship between lack and excess. The postmodern sensibility presents us with (at least) two possibilities: dialectics or deconstruction.

On the one hand, after the end of history, we have now seen what escapes dialectics. Anthropogenic climate change, for example, is the dialectical catastrophe of history that has produced a real excess that escapes capture. But the central question for dialectics is whether that which escapes is immanent (thus totality) or whether there is an exteriority (or, better, an élan or tendency) that eludes dialectical construction (thus infinity).

The logical form of dialectics resolves contradictions at the point of self-reference by enclosing the transcendence of totality. Deconstruction excavates a second reflexivity internal to each contradiction: what appears as a binary is more like an Aristotelian contrary, in which the priority of the one term over the other can be reversed and, subsequently, the entire opposition displaced.

In both cases, the dialectical and deconstructive gestures would show the participation of lack and excess within the totality (which, thus, can be named as such in the absolute idea) or that excess is itself a lack that must be overcome. The chiasm of lack and excess would locate the point at which it is indiscernible which appears, thus neither equating them (i.e., as exchangeable in explanation) nor to resolve the contradiction (e.g., by demonstrating their interdependence) but to tarry at the point of freedom where the indiscernibility of the two suggests an escape (a clinamen?). Thus the chiasm is a triple appearance: lack, excess, and the third. According to dialectics, the third is nothing but the difference between lack and excess (the difference between lack and excess is thus immanent to the contradiction); but in the chiasm of lack and excess, the third appears because of the difference (and thus is emergent from the contradiction). If dialectics begins with two, chiastics begins with three.**

**There is, perhaps, a deconstructive relation between dialectics and chiastics, given that chiastics presupposes dialectics and yet cannot itself be the result of dialectical criticism. If there were a chiastic relation between dialectics and chiastics, we will have conceded too much to dialectics. Chiastics, then, are a sort of supplement to dialectics by which there is the possibility of reference from one to the other but preserving an incommensurability between them.

The double genitive is exemplary of a chiastic structure: the duality that is both distinct but wherein each has a trace of the other (like the taiji of Daoism). Certain polysemies are also chiastic in this sense: to be “significant” (in the sense of “important” but also to “function as a sign”) rests on both the distinctness between the meanings of the word but only momentarily, as we can hear the trace of the one meaning in the other or, in other words, the indiscernibility of their identity and/or difference.

Thus the infamous problem of dialectics: whether we can speak of the identity of identity and difference or of the difference between identity and difference. The chiasm of identity and difference is not simply the possibility of their transposition but the fact that they become indiscernible at the point of reflexivity. It is precisely because it is possible to speak of the identity(n) of identity(n) and difference(n) — like the Gödel sentence as a chiasm of the mathematical and metamathematical — that there is an alternative to the dialectical resolution of the Third Man.***

***The tendency of Hegelian dialectics is from the either/or to the both/and (the same and the different are seen as the same from the point of view of semantic ascent, in an analogue to the problem of Forms). The tendency of Platonic dialectics, on the other hand, is toward pure multiplicity of an-archic principles beneath all hypotheses, including the idea of the good that is not the form of forms (the lack of which guarantees such multiplicity).

On the one hand, the identity of identity and difference is the dialectical totality of the absolute; on the other hand, the immanent production of a difference between identity and difference (e.g., the Badiousian event) can only be named after the fact (in “fidelity”). The chiasm of identity and difference is an indiscernibility that allows for the emergence of a concrete exterior within a determinate triadic relation that is neither wholly outside the relation (e.g., as a negation of the difference) nor a two-dimensional totality but, like the resolution of paradoxes, a three-dimensional relation (e.g., not the creation of but a triangulation of (an) identity).

There are, of course, different forms of indiscernibility: for example, there is that which is vanishingly small, that which is simply outside our capacities for perception and conception, or that which is too much for it (e.g., the sublime). Indiscernibility is itself a chiasm between lack and excess. We see this chiasm too in the indiscernibility of the dialectics of lack and excess both as logical and ontological: on the one hand, it is the concepts of lack and excess that are dialectically intertwined as well as the real itself as the dialectical relation between lack and excess (e.g., in the subject). This duality of the onto/logical is a chiasm, just as the dialectic of lack and excess is itself the chiasm of the qualitative and quantitative (i.e., lack and excess refer both to the quantitative and the qualitative, separately and yet simultaneously).

The supplement of chiastics to dialectics is especially urgent for our post-modern sensibilities that has rejected the possibility of grand narratives and the subsequent rise of “post-truth” wherein truth and falsity are indistinguishable. There is today an ethical imperative to see both beauty and barbarity, as well as both truth and falsity (clumsily proclaimed in the cliche that we must “see all sides”). What must be resisted, however, is the convertibility of the two: we must see the barbarous in the beautiful (as Benjamin famously said, to see that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism) but not vice versa. Of course, through perversion, it is possible to equate beauty and barbarity by seeing the beauty in the barbarous. The chiasm forces upon us a choice that cannot be settled by the logical form of the problem: the third that arrives at the heart of the contradiction, in this case, is the face of ethics.

Ethics, as we have known since Kant, is the chiasm of freedom and responsibility, whose dialectical collapse in the Holocaust has resulted in the indiscernibility of active and passive nihilism in the present age (e.g., in the conflation of postmodernism with dogmatism and relativism). But while the indiscernible is not an escape from determination, our search for the determinations of that which exists must be Janus-faced, i.e., not only toward what has escaped our efforts at lucidity, transparency, and totality, but toward what has been forgotten — to what is but not present, that is to say, toward the future.

The stars below

Kant observed that there is, in experience, an ineliminable subjective ground for the differentiation of space (e.g., it makes little sense for us to speak of the stars “beneath” us). But there is also, he says, “the right of reason’s need, as a subjective ground for presupposing and assuming something which reason may not presume to know through objective grounds; and consequently for orienting itself in thinking, solely through reason’s own need, in that immeasurable space of the supersensible, which for us is filled with dark night”. Kant prioritizes the practical needs of reason in this regard (not because we “want” to judge but because we “have to” judge). Yet is not the theoretical need exactly the same, i.e., that it’s not the incommensurability between reason and the understanding that is the source of our struggle against finitude but the right that reason claims over nature for the sake of its own consistency? Elsewhere, Kant explicitly notes that the fall into reason, leaving the “womb of nature” is “fraught with danger”. But as Nietzsche would later remind us, the danger is immanent to reason itself in the temptations of a double consistency. On the one hand, reason must regulate its own needs; on the other, reason must “make sense” of experience within the subjective unity of time.

And yet there is also the free play of the imagination, by which the aesthetic law within rebels against the practical (in the Kantian and the usual senses) demands of life. Bergson calls this oneiric impulse of thinking the “pure duration” of life in which the implosion of time into a creation ex nihilo collapses the distinction between past, present, and future. Memory, Bergson notes, does not merely preserve but, because of the vital movement of time, repeats experience infinitely in each moment through its diffraction in practical necessity. The artist’s daring, then, is to suspend necessity, perhaps even to tarry with death, so that we may touch the non-sense at the heart of sense (in Deleuze’s formulation), and to give us a vision of ourselves not beneath the sky above but as containing the stars below.

Hope, negativity, and the temporality of revolutionary consciousnes

1. Deleuze’s innovation was to locate the empirical not in the given but between the psychological and the transcendental. From Bergson, Deleuze rejects the category of possibility, as being not the negation but the shadow of actuality, i.e., the “retrograde movement of the true” that constitutes the true itself, neither in the phenomena (given) nor in the in-itself, but in the actual as the determinate negation of the possible (thus according to classical ontology, the contrary to the real is the impossible). After Time and Free Will, the method of intuition becomes not only reflection on the time of our own lives but the opening of thought to other durations, above and below, across and perhaps even around.

But it is with another empiricism that Deleuze first arrives at the site of genesis:

having situated ourselves in a purely immanent point of view, which makes possible a description whose rule is found in determinable hypotheses and whose model is founded in physics, we ask: how is the subject constituted in the given? The construction of the given makes room for the constitution of the subject. The given is no longer given to a subject; rather, the subject constitutes itself in the given.

Against mathematical constructivism, Humean empiricism takes as the only possible beginning the hypo-thetical contingency of the sensible in the passions (as Deleuze says, “if it is true that association is necessary in order to make all relations in general possible, each particular relation is not in the least explained by association. Circumstance gives the relation its sufficient reason”). Humean empiricism is thus a skepticism, of course, but not one that motivates us to doubt the powers of the mind and to abandon reason to unreason. Hume’s famous dissolution of the substantial self opens thought to the affects that form our capacities and tendencies, whether toward truth or (eo ipso) to destruction.

2. Almost a century after the Great Depression, amidst the decimation of modernity, Geiselberger et al have proposed that we face the Great Regression from the twin threats of globalization and neoliberalism, which have awakened the repressed debt incurred by Enlightenment ideologies that are currently howling in open ressentiment, scapegoating, and sadism (both naked and ironic). Confusion, despair, and desperation drive us either to repeat the same gestures among ourselves or to seek compromise, common ground, and a return to normalcy by swallowing the blue pill. Yet neither should we be seduced by the solipsistic fantasy of the truth that demands nothing more, since there is always something more than the true, just as there is the good beyond being. The politics of resignation, however, remain in the shadows, comforted by the righteousness of common sense (“I’m just being a realist/pragmatist/…” or “in theory, yes, but in practice …”).

The politics of hope, on the other hand, goes beyond (what is given to thinking as) the true. In The Principle of Hope, Bloch distinguished between the expectant emotions, such as hope, and the filled emotions (such as envy and greed). The former open entirely onto a real future. The latter, on the other hand, refer only to an unreal future “in which objectively nothing new happens, [whereas] the expectant emotions essentially imply a real future; in fact that of the Not-Yet, of what has objectively not been there” (emphasis added). Hope is thus antithetical to restoration; hope is revolutionary when it recognizes that the given is not merely broken but also not worth repairing. Hope, Bloch says, is the “expectant counter-emotion against anxiety and fear, [and] is therefore the most human of all mental feelings … it also refers to the furthest and brightest horizon. It suits that appetite in the mind which the subject not only has, but of which, as unfulfilled subject, it essentially consists”. Yet unfulfillment, which intrinsic to each of us (and that constitutes our temporality, as Garrido argues), is also distributed unequally according to our situation. Thus, immediately after the above pronouncement, Bloch says that “out of economically enlightened hunger comes today the decision to abolish all conditions in which man is an oppressed and long-lost being”.

But as we know, those conditions are total, both within and across types: capital is inescapable yet we also cannot abolish class without also race and gender, for example. Thus the consciousness of those conditions must also be radically changed both in its content and its form, or at the level both of the true and its proof. What revolutionary consciousness requires is not only a theory of utopia but also of its temporality. The urgency of suffering makes its greatest demands on the immediate and the conceivable. It is this desperation that underlies Pieper’s criticism of Bloch’s notion of hope as one that, following Marcel, “is nothing if it does not deliver us from death”. If utopia cannot be expected in history, then we must seek its guarantee in another life (Kant, Nietzsche).

3. It is Negri who presented this problem with the greatest clarity:

The individual life of the social worker, his individual search for collectivity, is a tangle of contradictions, of negative conditions, of reified and reifying elements that should be submitted to criticism; and the liberation from which demands the recognition of the collective antagonism, the forming of the antagonism into constitutive instrument, knowing how to reach higher forms of collective corporeality (beyond individuality, beyond the family, towards ever more complex and ever more versatile communities). If individual revolt is the condition of liberation, if the continual crisis of individuality and of inter-individual relations, of sexual, racial, national relations, is the condition of anticipation and project – the negative labor that takes root in a manner that emancipates individuality … nonetheless it is true that that beyond that individualities want here, that new corporeality in which negative labour wants to realize itself, is not yet given.

The fundamental aporia is therefore not between the individual and the collective but, rather, in the distinction itself that presents the mereological contradictions and paradoxes of individuality as such, as one of the effects of the bourgeois construction of temporality in the current discourses of biology, medicine, and science. Thus, as Negri indicates, the site of thought’s struggle is between capitalist/statist and proletarian temporality (Negri explicitly identifies the body of the community as a “temporal territory”). The former defines the domain of the possible, whereas the latter lays bare the reality of suffering. Here thought rises not to the eternal but to the universal in the practical imperatives presented to it by its sympathy to the other – as Negri says, this freedom is one that “knows how to love” – in the rejection of all forms of life that reproduce antagonism, whether in life or in thinking. We shall perhaps not see a better world but only if one can be imagined can it be lived.

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.