Further notes on the line

There are no lines in nature.

All thought occurs in lines.

There are many lines

But all lines tend toward a single line:

This tendency is the texture of thought.

A line has no structure: it is itself tendency (élan).

Structures are lines—

In the indiscernibility of matter and form.

There are many lines—

Of words, steel, melodies, fields, worlds, and flight.

A line is not the terminus of a surface

But a plane is the limit of a line:

As the transformation of the insistence of a line to the existence of a point

(There is thus a stratification of point, line, and plane).

Some thoughts on immanence

CN wrote:

“I’ve been wondering if it does not immediately sound crazy to you to recouch the distinction between the virtual and the actual in Difference and Repetition less as about two ontological realms (hence running the risk of something like Badiou’s criticisms of equivocity) and more as a noumenal/ontological and phenomenal/epistemic distinction in line with a kind of Leibnizian epistemology. In other words, why does Kant have to be either an epistemologist or an ontologist? Leibniz’s mistake according to Kant was, as far as I can tell, thinking he could rely on an ontological realm of monads that provided the sufficient reasons for the various perceptions expressed by monads in the activity of perception. On this account, however, we get the genesis of perceptible objects, which are also merely counted as one. What phenomenally/epistemically appears to us is conferred unity via the perceptual activity of the monad when in reality, that phenomenal unity (a real phenomenon) is built up out of an infinity of minute “petite” perceptions (it would, of course, be dogmatic to assume such silliness for Kant).

“If, as some want to do, we want to say that the virtual is the sufficient reason of the actual and all determination proceeds from it to actualization, why not make some similar move in Deleuze? I.e., at an ontological level, things are clamorous, yet at the representational/perceptual/actual level, things are synthesized/counted as one.”

The question here seems to concern the possibility of accepting the gambit of transcendental philosophy that forces a decision on how to mediate the unity of thought and being. The transcendental illusion is the failure to recognize that the domain of immanence is the use of concepts, which is what separates dogmatic metaphysics from critical philosophy. But what is the latter’s metaphysics?

Kant’s famous argument that “existence is not a predicate” is revisited in the KRV not simply as a modal principle: the “possibility that nothing exists” is self-contradictory insofar as such a possibility destroys the very notion of possibility. Hence, Kant says, “all concepts of negations are … derivative, and the realities are what contain the data and, so to speak, the matter or the transcendental content for the possibility and thoroughgoing determination of all things” (A575/B603) and says that this determination is a “transcendental substratum in our reason” which is “nothing other than the idea of a total reality (omnitudo realitatis)” (A576/B604).

But to arrive at metaphysics, we must go further. In the Opus Postumum, Kant says that God is “the most perfect in respect of every purely thought quality (ens summum, summa intelligentia, summum bonum). All these concepts are united in the distinctive judgment: God and the world—in the real division of the negative or contrarie oppositum, which the totality of being comprehends. Both are a maximum … the one as object of pure reason, the other as sense-object. Both are infinite: the first as magnitude of appearance in space and time; the second according to degree (virtualiter), as limitless activity with regard to forces (mathematical or dynamic magnitude of sense-objects)”. Kant does not retreat from the doctrine of God as a regulative ideal into the dogmatic, speculative path that begins with the unconditioned and proceeds, a priori, through the entire series of the world to arrive at the contingent individual. Rather, for both Kant and Leibniz the function God as a structural principle, more than the metaphysical principle of the ens realissimum, promises the unity of a world (of experience). Leibniz not only refuses the identity of God and substance—in the name of infinitely many substances—but preserves a single place for transcendence.

But do we really have absolute transcendence? God and world or God or world? What is Leibniz’s world? Monads are not in a world: the world does not exist outside or apart from the monads. Perception is not of a world but perception is the world obscurely and incompletely expressed by each monad (hence there is no distinction between metaphysics and epistemology for Leibniz). But exactly the same is true for God: hence the doctrine of compossibility arises from the identity of perception and understanding in God. Kant’s critical turn simply inverts the Leibnizian schema insofar as, for Leibniz, perception precedes and conditions understanding (hence the limits of our understanding is one of degree and not kind with respect to that of God’s—Monadology §60). In Kant’s terms, Leibniz’s dogmatism consists in the fact that there is nothing other than phenomena. In this (local) sense, there is only immanence.

Leibniz derives the infinity of individual monads from this immanence in the doctrine of compossibility: the individual is composed of singularities and a world consists of the convergence of singularities. The question of “real possibility” is retained in Kant as a problematic (and hence dialectical) notion. But is not virtuality nothing other than a real possibility? The greatest mistake of immanentism has been to confuse virtuality with (abstract) possibility or Aristotelian potential. Deleuze is explicit on this point in Difference and Repetition: “the virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real … Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’ …” But the distinction between the virtual and the actual is not a numerical difference (such would violate the univocity of being). The concept here is Bergsonian: the virtual, memory, or the past is what is most fully real. There are two possible ways, then, to describe the actual: either as a subtraction from or contraction of the virtual (e.g., the famous cone of memory in Matter and Memory) or as the folding of the virtual, that is to say, a self-limitation of the virtual (that is experienced as tendency, futurity, or time).

It is precisely this immanence lurking in the KRV that Fichte and Maimon exploited: the reality of transcendental apperception that threatens to collapse the division Kant proposes between thought and being. Leibniz, Fichte, and Maimon converge in Deleuze, perhaps, as well on this point: that thought occurs in an “intensive space” and that, consequently, metaphysics provides a genetic account of being whereas physics is the account of the actual.

The paralysis of discourse

1. Bergson identifies laughter as the repetition of the past, i.e., as an interruption in the novelty of life. Moreover, as a social institution, comedy “lies midway between art and life. … By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment … And in this respect it turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature”. On the one hand, comic laughter inhibits the movement of vital forces by the sublimation of desire into the affirmation of the present as the presence of what is missing. Life itself, as pure difference (that which differs from itself), never appears. But, on the other hand, laughter condenses into a single, unstable moment two tendencies, which are by nature opposed—(simple) negation and the reflexivity of a subject present-to-itself—resulting in the confusion of life and enjoyment.

Yet, as a relaxation or pause in the impetus of life, laughter finds itself neither on the side of language nor action. There can be, of course, no real hiatus in life, yet this illusion of laughter, Bergson says, is akin to the illusion of dreams: “the behavior of the intellect in a dream [is this:] … the mind, enamored of itself, now seeks in the outer world nothing more than a pretext for realizing its imaginations”. It is for this reason that laughter is the expression of irony par excellence (see “Irony and Criticism”) and, further, why laughter can serve no critical function. Because laughter is neither language—we can laugh at false reasoning or bad logic, which serves as the staples of comedy—nor action, laughter is simply a refusal of criticism.

Comedy, therefore, like camp, is not only incapable of criticism but actively serves to neutralize criticism. If, as Ross claims, camp consists in the recovery of cultural productions whose sense is no longer dominated by the demands of capital, camp threatens quickly to collapse into parody or imitation and thereby acquires a sort of “zombie life”. For both camp and irony, the price paid for enjoyment is simply the loss of the objective world: anything can be enjoyed by the perfect solipsist for whom there is no ethical demand to recognize anything as genuinely demeaning, offensive, violent, or banal. There is only the subject-for-itself, baptized in enjoyment.

We see the same phenomenon in the parody of children’s play. The child who mimics adult telephone conversations engages in precisely the same parodic act as the laughter of those uninitiated into various forms of discourse (for example, mocking a foreign language or the derision of jargon) or in caricature (for example, the “seventh meditation”), both of which mark the death of criticism.

2. On the other hand, the failure of criticism has been the assumption that the mode appropriate to it is that of discourse or, alternatively, that the choice facing politics is that between theory and action. Those impatient for action who want to “cut through the bullshit” of theory refuse the entreaties of discourse to see the intolerance in tolerance or the reactionary in the revolutionary. The call for theory is therefore not simply to remind us of our history but, as Zizek has called it, a search for “lost causes” as neither a mode of historical inquiry nor one of hermeneutics (Ricoeur, for example, uses the text as a model for action whereas we might say Zizek proclaims the inverse). Ricoeur’s “critical hermeneutics” requires a dialectic between inclusion and distantiation, which brings into discourse what is initially simply given as structure. But Ricoeur never escapes the vicious circle of subject and world: if we are to know the world to which a text refers, we must rely upon “imaginative variations” of the subject that only occur in a world constituted by discourse.

We are left, however, in a precarious position. The search for “lost causes” threatens not to dissolve the sense of discourse (as, for example, in parody) but to substitute meaning for intention: it is sufficient for discourse to appear as such in its illocutionary force (as a “call to action”, for example). The intention of discourse, it turns out, is irrelevant: as long as discourse retains consistency—even the consistency that obtains across parody as a derivative sense—it remains meaningful. At this zero-point, discourse is both sufficient and unnecessary: as Sartre said, intentions vanish and it no longer matters that we all agree on why we are storming the Bastille just as long as we’re doing it. Zizek tarries at this point where the pleasure of discourse is seduced on the one hand by the laughter of enjoyment and by the force of sovereignty on the other.

Some recapitulations

1. Life without being (… or nature): Without further clarification, the term “critical vitalism” stands under the threat of implosion. Its integrity is predicated, moreover, on its differentiation not only from the two halves of its contradictory namesake but also from prior attempts at such synthesis, which have tended toward the disaster of culture that we now call “modernism” (e.g., romanticism). The current eco-political crisis demands a philosophy of life (in the objective sense of the genitive) that refuses the supposed relevance of philosophy to life (under the ideology of “lived experience”), the naïve materialism of life as either substance or matter (the object of biochemistry), or the vulgar systematicity of taking as its guiding principle the unity of the “living organism”. We still suffer these errors on account of the tendency to read concepts like the élan vital as a metaphysical principle of (evolutionary) biology with the consequence that life becomes either the movement of differenciation without difference (in Deleuze’s terms) or the abstraction to which we appeal when insisting on what we all have “in common” when we are actually at our most mechanical (when we say, for example, that we all have the same rights because we eat, sleep, and defecate). A critical vitalism requires, like Deleuze and, most recently, Jane Bennett have argued, a conception of difference that is sensitive to the violence of the negative and to a joy that has no need of it. Beneath the vulgar materialism of an illusory “dynamism of force” that struggles for more existence is precisely what Freud had described as the secret will to destruction. What vitalism must reject is both the anti-dialectical posture of a “cycle of life”(predator/prey, life/death) and the militaristic dialectic of production and consumption whose condition and limit is death.

2. Why write? (not for politics): Both French and English criticism have been encumbered by the dogmatic insistence that writing consists in giving material to ideas in language, with the consequence that the writer’s task is literary. The writer whose activity consists of putting words to a page betrays a complicity with at least a certain form of bourgeois idealism that safely ensconces language in words and sentences. Rationality thus consists of discourse and commentary and the critic believes himself effective by the possession of a quick wit, verbal acuity, and the appropriate amount of self-aggrandizing righteousness of character. The writer simply needs to be “committed” to a political task. No such criticism can escape the production of false discourse and the subsequent tendency toward quietism despite any protestations of radical or revolutionary commitment.

(Addendum) 2a. In 1929/30, Benjamin complained that “criticism has to secure its own power by developing a more effective attitude toward the relations of production in the book market. It is well known that far too many books are published. What is worse, a consequence of this is that too few good books appear. And those that have appeared have made too little impact. … The aim here, of course, is not to attack the commercial aspect of publishing … but to appeal to the misguided idealist whose patronage supports dangerous products”. In the eighty years since these lines were written, what Benjamin could not have foreseen was not only the absolute monopolization of textual production by capital but the entirely distinct onto/logical field of digitization and hyper-textualization of new media. As Benjamin points out, what is at stake here is more than simply a critique of the economy of textual production nor even of the dissemination of signifiers that were at one time meaningful within a shared field of intentions. Beyond the degradation of criticism as a mere refinement in taste (subjective judgment) or as political commentary, criticism must fight against the very ideology of discourse that, at one time, it had itself created.

This may seem paradoxical insofar as criticism seems to be precisely that which is excluded from public discourse. Habermas, for example, explicitly exempts “aesthetic criticism” from the modes of discourse available to the rational speaker in the ideal speech situation. Yet this is, of course, merely another symptom of the general collapse of criticism into its current ruins in blogs, syndicated newspaper columns, scholarly commentary, and user comments.

2b. In the comments to an online news article reporting the latest results from experiments performed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the majority of users aligned themselves with one of two positions: either the scientists involved in this project were guilty of an overwhelming “Anything But God” neurosis or of misplacing their priorities for the benefit of “merely theoretical” questions at the expense of pressing “practical” problems such as disease, hunger, and energy. What should be objectionable to the critic is not the defective logic or rationality of these comments but, rather, the philistinism that results from a posture of being “original” that masquerades as the supposed “right” to have and express an opinion (of course, what stands in need of finesse is not the right itself but its value). The very notion of “originality” has been irreversibly transformed into the anti-dialectical inversion of its authentic sense: we say that to be “original” is to be without precedent and to cast aside the bonds of tradition when being the one who has an origin means recognizing that we are not the first to arrive—that my opinion is our opinion. But this “we” is the abstract universality described by Hegel and Heidegger as the immature thought of thinking that does not yet know itself (or, more precisely, that does not yet know that it does not know, according to Socrates): this is the same adolescent reason (which is, incidentally, encouraged by certain sophistic practices of philosophy that promote so-called “general critical thinking skills”) that presumes to pronounce on any discourse with the “view from nowhere”.

Life without being

Despite everything Bergson did for philosophy, he made an unfortunate mistake by nominating the logic of difference the “élan vital”, which was quickly misunderstood as another name for being. Rather, all the great vitalists (Spinoza and Leibniz come to mind) understood that logical monism (what Driesch calls the “monism of order”) was neither a metaphysical monism nor beholden to the usual problematic of necessity/contingency. If vitalism is to be a philosophy of freedom—of the “unforeseeable creation of novelty”—then it must be understood as a critical philosophy according to which what had been known as metaphysical questions are at bottom questions of sense (which, of course, is a question of time). Spirit, as Scheler says, “has its own nature and autonomy, but lacks an original energy of its own” as a series (Scheler says “group”) of pure intentions. It is only thus conceived that a philosophy of spirit can be deduced (dialectically?) from a philosophy of nature without succumbing to the identity of thought and being. If vitalism is to have a future, it must come to see that there are only specific relations (special metaphysics) and no relations “in” the absolute (general metaphysics):”organization in general is … nothing else but a diminished and as it were condensed picture of the universe” (Schelling), i.e, as a phenomenon.

Another ideology of philosophy

In the early 1980s, Nozick presented a speculative talk at Trinity College on why intellectuals tend to oppose capitalism. Without making any sociological claims, Nozick proposed that it was specifically the character of formal schooling (particularly that phenomenon according to which we say that graduates go “into the real world” insofar as their academic existence is precisely not “real”) that fosters an “anti-capitalist animus” in intellectuals who find that the rate of exchange for their currency is lamentably poor in the “real world”.

We can extend and refine this particular insight to philosophy not in its opposition to capitalism—which, of course, is also prevalent among many philosophers (Continental, at least)—but to certain features of its practice as an institution.*

*By “institution” I mean what Max Fisch meant in his 1956 presidential address to the western division of the APA. This text deserves much more attention than it has ever received, particularly insofar as he proposes a conception of philosophy as the critic of institutions. Approximately, an “institution” for Fisch is any structure that conditions some determinate (or conscious) activity.

I’ve met not a few psychologists who began study in their discipline not only to help others but also to help themselves. The same is true for philosophy. Can we not question whether philosophy begins in “wonder”? True, Plato and Aristotle both said this, but Plato also wondered whether there might not be a more original trauma at the heart of philosophy. Heidegger says you don’t theorize about the hammer until it breaks. When this happens you are forced to stop, and this interruption is a sort of wonder—what is happening? So too there is an aporia that compels Socrates to philosophize and there is a trauma that gives birth to philosophy in Plato (i.e., the execution of Socrates). In all these cases, the moment of wonder, of perplexity, is a moment of violent disbelief, perhaps even anger (I was, after all, trying to hammer something when the hammer breaks). I am forced to stop before I can go on.

Two more examples: (1) Marx had said that philosophy up to Hegel had made knowledge about the world actual. But this knowledge was insufficient insofar as the world it revealed was intolerable. Thus, the real task of philosophy was to change the world. (2) In the “sublime” world of global capital, what other experience is possible for the individual aside from the question “is it happening” (both Simmel and Gauguin would agree and the latter, like Lyotard, will not use a question mark).

For whatever reason, if it is the case that philosophy has a traumatic origin, then there would seem to be two possible responses. The first is extraordinarily pervasive: philosophy is therapy. Hadot, Nehamas, and Nussbaum are among the most vocal proponents of this view, which unfortunately requires more space than time currently permits. So too I want to assert that this conception is directly related, sometimes even causally so, to the current state of affairs in which, for all that, philosophers are certainly an unhappy lot (Nozick and Rorty are among some notable exceptions; so too, perhaps, even Nehamas), which is not aided (rather, probably exacerbated) by the operation of institutions according to which it is the philosopher’s job (quite literally in many cases) to be “against” something, to show why so-and-so has a stupid reading of so-and-so, to write something disagreeing with everyone else so to have somebody care about one’s work (whether the powers that be that grant tenure or the very colleagues that one at the same time demonstrates to be unequal to the task of so caring).

Alternative response: the point is not refutation. The point is to listen to a philosopher—“you must allow the philosopher to speak to you”, Deleuze once told his students. Better: the philosopher speaks in preludes and refrains. The philosopher engages in what Deleuze has called the creation of concepts or what I have suggested is the creation of images. Although Bachelard has done much to indicate the possibility of such a poetics, insofar as I am committed to the creativity of thought I remain a faithful Bergsonian.

Images II

1. What is the scandal of thinking? If only our scientists would read Kant; if only our metaphysicians would read Gödel (Badiou); if only we could think the fact that we are not thinking (Heidegger); if only it were possible, through education, to open the American mind (Bloom, Adler); if only philosophy could move us to compassion (Rorty). Is there not a moral obligation to be intelligent (Erskine, Trilling)?

Or is not the task of thought to be done with thought—to flirt with the nothingness of thought in the heart of man, i.e., death, in the silence of nonknowledge (Bataille: “language, stubborn in refusal, is poetry, turns back on itself (against itself): this is the analogue of a suicide … Silence is the unlimited violation of the prohibition that human reason opposes to violence: it is divinity without stops, which thought alone disengaged from the contingency of myths”).

This would seem, to some, to be a retreat to the inner citadel—an evasion and, paradoxically, even a repression of existence that even the most ardent pessimist would revile. In this regard, Nietzsche’s most important teaching, if nothing else, is the lesson of courage—that all is not vanity (even if it is absurd).

2. If philosophy, then, is to transform the world, to critique the institution, to bring us to the leap, to think the possibility of freedom and revolt—what is the imperative for thought today when reflection hides its face under the mask of fascism (Bush’s Amerika), runs behind the gated walls of covenant communities, or parades its wares in the “marketplace of ideas”?

3. Metaphysics, Bergson says, is the language that dispenses with symbols. Bergson proposes an image of thought (i.e., intuition) that goes right to the heart of things. Here, Bergson finds, right down to the language of “dreaming”, an unlikely ally in Bachelard, who opposes the model of poetics (the image) to the concept (science, phenomenology, psychology).

“The cogito of thought can wander, wait, choose—the cogito of reverie is immediately attached to its objects, to its image. The shortest distance of all is the one between the imagining subject and the imagined image. … A kind of multiple cogito takes on new life in the closed world of a poem. Of course, other powers of consciousness are required to take possession of the poem’s totality. But the flash of an image already provides us with an illumination.”

[But—and here is my fundamental question—is the name of such an experience philosophy or art?]

“Suddenly an image occupies the heart of our imagining being. It seizes us, holds us. It infuses us with being … [The poet’s] being is simultaneously the being of the image and his commitment to the astonishing image. The image brings us an illustration of our wonderment. … In reverie on a simple object we experience a polyvalence of our dreaming being. A flower, a fruit, a simple familiar object suddenly insists that we think of it, that we dream in its company, that we help it to rise to the level of man’s companion [i.e., that we inhabit a world].”

And here there is yet another unlikely alliance: the law of Bachelard’s elements finds another expression in the Chinese wuxing—the phases or processes by which being is articulated (“even more than clear thought and conscious images, dreams are governed by the four fundamental elements”). We can go further: poetics is nothing else than the thinking of these images according to their immanent laws; the task of poetics is thus to break the representation of the word. Is this not also what we have in the Taoist wuwei (movement/non-movement)? Not merely the “disclosure” of a hidden Being but the very bringing into being of a becoming—is this not anything other than a thought?

“The poetic object, duly energized by a name rich in resonances, is a good conductor of the imagining psyche. For such conduction, we must call the poetic object by its name, its old name, giving it a just sonority, surrounding it with the resonances it will being to life, with the adjectives that will prolong its cadence and its temporal life … Each contemplated object, each creative name we murmur is the point of departure of a dream and of a line [a line of flight!], a creative linguistic movement.”

4. Gauchet has shown that the very possibility of reflection consists, first, in the separation of God from life and, consequently, the death of God. But to this we must add three (equivalent) corollaries: thought is singular; the essence of thought is not discourse; philosophy is not politics. And yet neither is philosophy ethics: even if one were to say that philosophy concerns the one who philosophizes, one must still ask who this “one” is (certainly not the thinker!).

5. The question or the image? Perhaps: philosophy is the opening of the question; music is the creation of the image.