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.

An uneasy alliance: Nietzsche, Cioran, Heidegger

What Cioran offers us is the immanence of death against every image of life and givenness. Death is not, Cioran insists, an end, a goal, a limit, a gate, a horizon. Death as such cannot be the object of the will; and although he will often speak of the “thought of death”, more perspicuously we might instead say that it is the thinking of death that raises the intensity of an individual existence to the level of the impersonal “there is”. Suffering, of course, individuates (for in suffering I imagine that no one else has suffered before me: “I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only existence”), but only to expose the myth of the given: that although thinking is the activity of the (reflective, existential) ‘I’, this ‘I’ is the product of a tremendous and terrible work, i.e., the work of death under the illusion of life. Or, to put it in more Nietzschean terms, the ‘I’ is nothing other than the appearance of appearance, i.e., a pure phenomenon. ‘I’ can never be given to exist nor do I give myself to exist—for in neither case can we explain the simultaneous individuality of suffering and the anonymity of death. There can never be such a thing as “my” death (strictly speaking, this is also true of the treatment of death in Being and Time); the referent of this term is always not-I, an other. My death is always the death of an other and another’s death is always mine—but without any relation (coincidence, reduction, substitution) between the two. It is this non-relation that constructs the illusion, the excess of life: “the irrationality of life manifests itself in this overwhelming expansion of form and content, in this frenetic impulse to substitute new aspects for old ones, a substitution, however, without qualitative improvement. Happy is the man who could abandon himself to this becoming and could absorb all the possibilities offered each moment, ignoring the agonizingly problematic evaluation which discovers in every moment an insurmountable relativity”. The condition—the impossible condition—for such life, however, is sickness, which manifests not as effervescence but seriousness, thought. Thought, however, is only able to offer us the image of becoming.

The return of the mythic

If only fascism were impossible today. There are, of course, those among us who would believe it so—for how could a generation grown weary of utopia find satiety in the promises of a universal kinship when there is nothing more treacherous than a Cain among us? Neither can we hear the voices of prophets when we have ceased to believe in theology. While we may instead turn to psychics for charts and divinations, we seek our fortunes through them only if we believe either that there is no future—for the future is only a prolongation of our present—or that the future is indeterminate (insofar as it is the product of our will). Caught, then, between destiny and freedom, the prodigal intellect shores up every defense it can muster against the nothingness that it is nevertheless forced to conceive—and calls the fruits of its labor “philosophy”.

But as the ancient injunction had warned us, it is impossible either to name or to think nothing. What remains is either a hypostasis or an Urgrund that is revealed to the rational spirit as the Absolute. Whence fascism: fascism is simply the attempt to give a name to the Absolute, whether ordained by pope or sovereign. (If we reserve the name “fascism” for the twentieth century and wish instead to speak of “absolutism” in the modern age, this is only because we understand that democracy is not the converse of absolutism but the obverse of it. The fascist is not simply the one who, bowing to a pagan demagoguery of earth and blood, would keep the barbarians outside the gates but, rather, the one who would keep them within.)

What would be easier, then, than simply to cease believing in God? If empirical psychology and phenomenalism have been able to teach us anything, it is that belief—including justified belief—is epistemologically agnostic. The kind of rationalist who would conflate belief and understanding must perform the most total and radical epoché—could such a person believe in the convertibility of mass and gravity or the consonance of the octave? Yet neither should we reduce belief to the caprice of desire: there is a logic of belief just as there is a logic of understanding; if the latter is the expression of the relation between thought and being, the former expresses the relation between thought and understanding. Or, in other words, it is not the soul tempted by addiction that is unable to witness the death of God but it is precisely the soul that is riveted to being that is closest to Him.

We need, then, to cease believing in God, not only to free ourselves from the illusions of grammar (Nietzsche), but from the reduction of the logic of understanding into the logic of belief. The post-Kantian Germans—from the idealists to the phenomenologists—turned the relation of thought and being into a problem not of logic (as the medievals had understood it) but one of discourse (this is explicit in Kant’s own notion of sense). Hence for hermeneutics and phenomenology the problem of understanding becomes one of “correlation”. Only then are we able to write a language where the names of being need not contain an implicit reference to God (arché, realissimum, etc). Such a language liberated the individual while subjecting him to a nauseating terror: “our century, more lucid than the last, … [has grown] alarmed: how, it asked, are we to rescue fear, restore its ancient status, recover its rights? Science itself took over: it became a threat, the source of terror” (Cioran). Yet Kant already knew this, and said as much explicitly. History, he said, was nothing other than the occlusion of this terror, ending in a philosophy that nevertheless left God a space at our table, only this time it is He who is our guest.

But it is not the closure of metaphysics that has ushered in an irrational and arrogant “return of the religious” for, if this were so, God had never left us. God was never external to thought, even if it had seemed that He was invoked ad hoc to establish harmony between matter and spirit, to give the universe its first push, and so on. It is thanks to science that “we can conceive of bothering about Him”. In this respect, the “new” mechanical science is not new at all, for Aristotle’s physics performed the same task—for God is not of nature, whether that nature is indifferent or voluptuous.

What modern language was able to reveal, however, is that the language of discourse, “emancipated from reality, from experience, … indulges in the final luxury of no longer expressing anything except the ambiguity of its own action. … Matter excommunicated, the event abolished, only a self still survives, recalling that it once existed, a self without a future, clutching at the Indefinite, turning it this way and that, converting it into a tension which achieves only itself …” This is the romantic-realist subject “curvatus in se”. “But I cannot [thus] comprehend our attachment to beings. I dream of the depths of the Ungrund, the reality anterior to the corruptions of time, and whose solitude, superior to God, will forever separate me from myself and my kind … Once time fades from our consciousness and nothing in us is left but a silence that rescues us from other beings, and from that extension of the inconceivable to the sphere of each instant by which we define existence”. But if for this reason there is no future of metaphysics—because there neither is nor can we think a future not reducible to a repetition of the same—is it not because of an infinite separation—the non-coincidence of self to self as well as the “great ephemeral skin” between us—that is also an asymptotic nearness to God? A theology truly of “our” time requires not only a God without being but the courage of the one who can think against oneself, that is, against the tendencies and habits that bind existence to the inertia of economy and the enjoyment of desire, in short, against all that one is.

If the rationalist dogma of the new science pretends to have invented a language with no name for God, this is not because pronouncing that name is forbidden by law but, rather, because it is an exceptional name—the name of an exceptional being, i.e., a necessary being whose necessity takes the form of a predicate or a category. Such a theology either conflates being and necessity into the same level of analysis or subordinates necessity to being when it should be the other way around: necessity is prior to being. It is not being that gives sense to necessity in the way an actual triangle is supposed to instantiate the formal reality of triangles. This is why Spinoza and Bergson are in agreement on this point, i.e., every being is necessary by the fact that every being simplyhas happened. Is not, then, the transcendental necessity of thinking—which resolves into the facticity of presence—simply agnostic on the necessity of being? More to the point, was it not the end of analytic philosophy after Kant to return thinking from discourse (the epistemic conditions of experience) to logic, which alone is able to express the (co)-relation of necessity and being (in the proper direction)?

Is this not, then, a mythic language insofar as the mythic is precisely that which does not attempt to pronounce the name of God? Myth knows no separation from God because in myth language is being. Hegel had already sublated myth into the speculative proposition; have we ever really understood this subterfuge?

Cioran: the burden of existence

Is it the knowledge of good and evil or the expulsion from the garden that constitutes man’s original sin? Whatever the case, it is at least plausible that “we are still not thinking”. Modernity, then, is still an “unfinished project” inasmuch as we have yet to think. And yet the original moment of “disenchantment” that dispelled the old gods continues to go under the name of an “idolatrous” science. We fail to think and yet it is because we are so successful at being dialectical that we have returned to the need for the old mythologies of earth, spirit, and the Absolute. In other words, true to form, it is our failure to be dialectical (we have not yet, it seems, reached the end of history) that indicates our great success at being dialectical.

This is why, because our philosophy has called us from slumber, insomnia and boredom are the trademarks of modernity: of minds that have been awakened but can never again fall asleep. “What recourse to China or India will heal us”, Cioran asks, if as Hegel says, these are the “dream of the infinite Spirit”? Nothing is easier than resisting happiness, Cioran observes; yet even our suffering suffers the intensity of desire. The negativity of desire never attains the stillness or the non-presence of the Tao because even that negativity is the affirmation of a world [of sense]; there is no conceptual equivalent of the Taoist wu-wei in our language.

Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor is that of “stillness”. We, on the other hand, “breathe too fast to be able to grasp things in themselves or to expose their fragility. Our panting postulates and distorts them, creates and disfigures them, and binds us to them. I bestir myself, therefore I emit a world as suspect as my speculation which justifies it …” [Cioran] What is called the “burden of time/history” is, rather, the burden of materiality. No wonder, then, that even the great mythologist Joseph Campbell would call the religions of the east religions of death. But what even he failed to observe is that gnosticism is a peculiarly western notion. Cioran again: “as long as we lived amid elegant terrors, we accommodated ourselves quite well to God. When others—more sordid because more profound—took us in charge, we required another system of references, another boss. The Devil was the ideal figure. Everything in him agrees with the nature of the events of which he is the agent, the regulating principle: his attributes coincide with those of time”. We are thus caught in the double bind of an original sin: “to divine the timeless and to know nonetheless that we are time, that we produce time, to conceive of the notion of eternity … [is] an absurdity responsible for both our rebellions and the doubts we entertain about them”. Hence no western eschatology is able to provide a real escape, for all of them rivet the individual to his being. Thus “the fact still remains that our first ancestor left us, for our entire legacy, only the horror of paradise. … Meanwhile, down to our nerve cells, everything in us resists paradise. To suffer: sole modality of acquiring the sensation [better: sense] of existence; to exist: unique means of safeguarding our destruction”.

It is because we live in history that we cannot but exist. Even the most insignificant and unknown person whose death goes unnoticed has a sense in a world, i.e., the melancholic sense of being the one whose life was insignificant. This inner contradiction of individualism is the reason why no individual as such can be a Taoist. This is where Freud is in agreement: the individual is nothing other than this desire to be, which is also the desire not to be (neither Freud nor Cioran are obviously committed to making this an ontological claim but, rather, a claim of sense). Cioran: “loath to admit a universal identity, we posit individuation, heterogeneity as a primordial phenomenon. Now, to revolt is to postulate this heterogeneity, to conceive it as somehow anterior to the advent of beings and objects. If I oppose the sole truth of Unity by a necessarily deceptive Multiplicity … my rebellion is meaningless, since to exist it must start from the irreducibility of individuals, from their condition as monads, circumscribed essences. Every act institutes and rehabilitates plurality, and, conferring reality and autonomy upon the person, implicitly recognizes the degradation, the parceling-out of the absolute”. Yet “the very rhythm of our life is based on the good standing of rebellion”. Thus, Cioran says, “let us surrender to all rebellions: they will end by turning against themselves, against us …” In but one short, cogent paragraph, Cioran proceeds from this sentence to establish himself as our greatest philosopher of history, for only he more than Hegel or Nietzsche, has been able to explain our dialectical success\failure. Cioran understood that the burden of thought—that is otherwise cashed in the cliché of “Enlightenment rationalism”—is the burden of time, and that it is the lived time of finitude that constitutes the consciousness of history. For Hegel it is the other way around; for Heidegger, the case is more complicated, but in the end for Heidegger history reveals itself as a destiny whereas for Cioran it takes a people who live exiled from history to revel in the sense of a destiny. Here, then, is where Cioran is able to speak to the philosophers of the event: the fundamental question of rebellion is whether rebellion has sense in history. Rebellion can neither have such sense—a rebellion with historical sense is no longer a rebellion—nor naively turn its back on a historical consciousness that burdens it with more than the strength of a call but less than that of necessity. This is why rebellions end by “turning against us”: for after any rebellion, “we” will cease to be, not by any martyrdom or suicide, but, perhaps, by the courage to exist.