Les Damnés

And the lightning stroke
that cuts men down before their prime, I curse,
but the lovely girl who finds a mate’s embrace,
the deep joy of wedded life – O grant that gift, that prize,
you gods of wedlock, grant it, goddesses of Fate!
Sisters born of the Night our mother,
spirits steering law,
sharing at all our hearths,
at all times bearing down
to make our lives more just,
all realms exalt you highest of the gods (Aeschylus, Eum. 968-978)

The price for justice is the promise of happiness, wherein lies the tragedy that Aeschylus foresaw in the day that we must renounce the Eumendies’ blessing. We may make no claim to happiness and tranquility when justice has collapsed under the terrible weight of corpses that lie unattended in the street and the heavy gasps of lives extinguished by a blind terror and loathing of that which reminds us of our original guilt. Injustice is mute; no pronouncement of law returns what has been stolen. The law preserves only two things: itself and the fortunes of fate. But for those betrayed by the demands of justice (Abraham was spared from the sacrifice of his child but Agamemnon was not), their hearths cannot be rebuilt with the master’s tools (Lorde). The Erinyes demand sacrifice: not of life but in poverty, madness, and sickness. Such pure violence is the “boundless destruction of boundaries” (Benjamin) where divine fury razes what civilization has built to expose the barbarism buried at its foundation. And from these ruins we must begin again.

Weakness and possibility (variations on a theme)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On perjury and consequences

1a. “Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” Adorno wrote at the start of one of the most remarkable texts of early critical theory. How is it possible, he asks, from* the false world of a “damaged life”, to speak truth? Similarly, Aristotle had asked a similar question with a similar answer: is it possible to be virtuous in a wicked society when the moral habits require both subjective and objective conditions of possibility.

*The English translation of the title is extremely infelicitous here. The reflections are, yes, on damaged life but they are at the same time from or out of it [aus dem beschädigten Leben].

But perhaps the most remarkable trope of our present state is the Christian notion of original sin. The interesting aspect of original sin is not its hereditary nature. As Calvin points out in the Institutes, for example, “… Augustine, though he frequently calls it the sin of another, the more clearly to indicate its transmission to us by propagation [against the Pelagians], yet, at the same time, also asserts it properly belongs to each individual” (emphasis added); not only, moreover, to each person but to every creature, groaning under the weight of a burden it neither chose nor incurred (Rom 8:20,4). The unchosen responsibility for a guilt that defines our very mode of existence—and our fate—is the task that we can no longer ignore under the auspices of Enlightenment naivety.

1b. What the Enlightenment finds so unpalatable about original sin is its apparent fatalism. Similarly, Adorno and Weber are often dismissed for their unremitting pessimism: is there not good in this world, after all? Should we not affirm, as a certain bumper sticker proclaims, “life is good” or that we should “look on the bright side”?**

**I was once asked by a student why critical theorists and modern (avant-garde) artists were so “depressing” and why they couldn’t just take a moment to see the beauty in the world.

The scandal of the modern world is that what appears as good necessarily makes the suffering at its root invisible. Benjamin had famously remarked that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism and, as common wisdom goes, that history is written by the victors. The present situation is worse, however, than even he had imagined: it is reality itself that is created by those with the power to do so. Should we not celebrate the fact that we now have access to exotic grains from around the world at Whole Foods when the very fact that we are importing quinoa from Bolivia is raising prices so natives who depend on the crop for food can themselves no longer afford it and are being driven into malnutrition while obesity continues to rise in America? How many factory workers have to die or be poisoned, underage teenagers exploited, or rare minerals mined in war-torn countries to produce our “unlimited” iPads and e-readers? By how much do we mortgage future generations so we can drive on average thirty miles a day? Or while everyone was worrying about emissions and thought they were being green by buying nice electric cars, no one noticed that the environmental damage in the production of those cars is (or has been) more harmful than that of conventional cars (or that the original electric car batteries were more toxic to dispose of than nuclear waste).

Benjamin’s concern was that the conditions for the existence of evil would be forgotten and that the critic’s task was to rescue the missed and forgotten possibilities in the laughter of those who were now dead at the hands of a history that must march forward. As Arendt has shown, however, we are already too late: evil is now banal. Banality is the brother of irony: what the ironist accepts as unavoidable the other simply doesn’t notice because it is taken for granted: a radio announcer can just assume that women want to lose weight, for example, and proceed to offer special deals “for the ladies” or the culture industry can continue to feed off audiences’ demand for the ornaments of affirmative culture while works like the Thälmann Variations—written to offer hope for the future of the people—remain unpublished and unavailable.

The optimism of the 90s when this ideology of “the good life” found its final expression is no longer tenable. Neoliberals and conservatives alike continue to promise that the very conditions that not only caused the financial collapse and its continuing global repercussions remain the status quo but also that they continue to blind us to the lie behind the notion that “life is good”.

2a. Justice demands not only action but the tenacity to refuse the ideology of hope: that what was once an honest attempt has proven itself to be among the most catastrophic failures of recorded history. In one of the most reasonable things Zizek has said in recent years, “perhaps it is time to step back, think and say the right thing”; to do so, however, we must first render visible what the ideology of “the good life” denies existence. To borrow a Heideggerean sentence: what most calls for thinking is the fact that, despite everything, we are (still) not thinking. Justice must wield not only the sword but also the scales.

2b. And this is the present task of thought, which is imposed not only from the objective conditions of existence but from within thought itself. In short, this is the Kantian point of no return: there is no metaphilosophy. The material and social conditions for thought are either subject to philosophical method (which concern the possibility for thought as such) or there is something transcendent to philosophy. To put it perversely, il n’y a pas hors de l’histoire.

Written in the stars

Invoking Benjamin, Agamben calls the constellation “the very place of signatures”. Yet it is not clear that Agamben’s semiotic commitments contribute to what is developed in Benjamin’s doctrine of mimesis. In an easily-overlooked sentence that is not obviously related to the usual locus classicus of Benjamin’s image of constellations, Benjamin says that the mimetic character of objects can be read, “for example, in the constellations of the stars” but that we today (i.e., we moderns) are no longer capable of recognizing these images.

All the elements of Agamben’s theory of signatures is contained in Benjamin’s theory of language, including the epistemic problems associated with the division of the sign. What Agamben lacks is Benjamin’s commitment to the objectivity of the idea according to which the only real signature is that of a proper name.

Infancy

(The following is from an e-mail sent to a colleague that attempts to make sense of Agamben’s notion of “infancy” and, more generally, the earlier works.)

At the end of Language and Death, Agamben says that the point is to conceive “of the Voice as never having been, and it no longer thinks the Voice, the unspeakable tradition. Its place is the ethos, the infantile dwelling—that is to say, without will or Voice—of man in language. This dwelling, which has the figure of a history and of a universal language that have never been and are thus no longer destined to be handed down in a grammar, is that which remains here, to be thought”. Right after this passage, Agamben mentions the Eleusinian mysteries again with respect to Hegel’s Phenomenology and says that “every beginning is, in truth, an initiation, every conditum is an abs-conditum”.

It is precisely at the moment where the disparity between what is said and what is meant opens up that Hegel introduces the Eleusinian mysteries such that the impossibility of saying what is meant becomes the very condition of possibility for the power of language to (re)present reality in/as experience. This would be the “divine nature” of language as the experience of death (negativity) according to which death is both the limit of knowledge even as this horizon is surpassed by virtue of the mystery wherein the unsayable remains at the heart of language in its universality and, more importantly, also in the sense in which the divine/universal sublates death and negativity into the experience of presence in consciousness. (This is what makes the very idea of “beginning” problematic in the Phenomenology—the “initiation” into the mysteries is a “beginning before the beginning” where the condition for the conditioned is a condition precisely by withdrawing or subtracting itself as a condition.)

In Infancy and History, infancy is described as a being-silent about its knowledge, or “standing guard” over knowledge in silence (un silenzio da custodire). Here the cue is taken from Benjamin’s analysis of the poverty of experience and the problem of recuperation the very possibility of experience. The point is not a memorialization of experience/history, which would take the form of a speech or discourse (say, of the Holocaust) or a giving voice to the invisible or disenfranchised—to bring them into the totality of history, which is to say, within a conception of experience that is still transcendental or idealist, which Agamben wants to move out of by the “linguistic turn”. In this sense, I see the idea of infancy as a critique of the Hegelian-Marxist solution to the “destruction of experience” insofar as the latter’s conception of experience is basically that articulated in paragraph eighty-six of the Phenomenology. The idea of a fundamental passivity in modernity (of “undergoing” experience without the possibility of negation or critique in thought) isn’t to be resolved by recourse to dialectical or transcendental subjectivity but rather in attention to the subject of language.

But this sub-ject “of” language is one that is displaced in the abs-conditum of language, which cannot be “handed down” in (memorializing) speech because it is that which cannot be spoken and, moreover, is forbidden to be spoken of (the initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries were forbidden to speak during the nighttime ceremonies and also of what occurred during them). As long as language continues to be thought on this basis (Voice, system/structure), then we will never experience history in a way that does not result in things like the World Wars (nihilism, violence, etc). Here infancy is the silence, the non-speaking, the without-Voice that can make experience possible.

Hence this is a non-memorialization, a being-outside of history (what “has never been”), which is related to the “whatever-being” of The Coming Community: “the antimony of the individual and universal has its origin in language. … Linguistic being is a class that both belongs and does not belong to itself … The example is characterized by the fact that it holds for all cases of the same type, and, at the same time, it is included among these. It is one singularity among others, which, however, stands for each of them and serves for all”. But the example is also this particular (singular) thing at the same time. “Exemplary is what is not defined by any property, except by being-called”, i.e., in the name. “Hence the impotent omnivalence of whatever being. … These pure singularities communicate only in the empty space of the example, without being tied by any common property, by any identity. … They are exemplars of the coming community”. This might, like Nietzsche, simply be nominalism grandly stated, but I take the point to be that experience requires the possibility of a new naming (in the “infancy” analogy, it’s the fact that it’s prior to naming that the infant is an infant, i.e., one who cannot (yet) speak). But this isn’t a naming in the sense of a singular demonstrative reference (e.g., Hegel’s “diese”), since that obviously puts us back into the problem of the Voice. But this is where I don’t know what Agamben’s positive program would look like. The idea seems to be that we will always fall back into this problem of the Voice, but the point is to look for the possibility of new articulations, of new voices or radically other voices, such that we continuously face the problem of infancy, perhaps as a new mode of critique.

The only thing I can think of that might provide a clue about this “new voice” is the quasi-mysticism in Agamben’s work on poetry. In his poetics, Agamben says that the model of knowledge he’s developing is one that “has provided the frame both for an examination of human objects transfigured by the commodity [the Benjaminian point], and for the attempt to discover, through analysis of emblematic form and the tale of the Sphinx, a model of signifying that might escape the primordial situation of signifier and signified that dominates Western reflection on the sign [recalling that infancy is also cashed in terms of structure as well as history, which ultimately seem to be equivalent]”. Yet Agamben’s analysis of poetry, as far as I can tell, seems to be something like an erotic mysticism that produces something like divine ecstasy: a “topology of joy, of the stanza through which the human spirit responds to the impossible task of appropriating what must in every case remain unappropriable”, which is nothing other than the vision of God in medieval writing such as Dante (whom Agamben analyzes).

Or, on the other hand, I don’t yet see that infancy isn’t just Nietzsche’s historia abscondita (GS 34) or the child of the third metamorphosis.

Tori, the Storyteller (a la maniere de Benjamin)

When, under the systematic destruction of experience in the name of prosperity and democracy (the very definition of fascism), the storyteller raises her voice to speak to those for whom experience cannot be represented—because it cannot be recollected, because “history” no longer has a meaning—she must speak of those experiences that neither she nor her listeners “have ever had and possibly never will” (“Tori”). If we are living under a regime of distorted communication, then what we need are not true stories, nor even impossible stories, but stories that are fictional, i.e., that give a voice not to those who “need” a voice because they are oppressed, bound, or invisible (this assumes a presence prior to the voice) but that sing from elsewhere (“Isabel”). If wisdom is no longer the gift of the storyteller, then the voice of the storyteller must disappear behind the story. Who, then, speaks to us? “What is it that is really haunting us?” Not the shades of forgotten children, but personae that bring themselves into existence by nothing other than their call for us to listen and hear what they have to say. This is the difference between the storyteller and the “beekeeper”: the storyteller becomes yet another fiction (“Tori”), effacing her own voice under the “secret spell” of her song.