“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.

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The melancholy of resistance

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive. …

 

when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomes
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

 

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive. (Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”)

 

Today we learned that hundreds of lives were damaged and silenced in one of the few enclaves of acceptance and celebration for those whose movements are policed by laws targeting their bodies, whose speech and gazes are censored by the fear of judgment or violence, and those who until recently were often prohibited from building a home in their own houses. As a human being, I grieved for the fallen. As a minority, I trembled before the violence that looms over all of us. But as an academic I was stunned by the imperative not only to mourn but to think about what happened – not merely to explain the events (the psychological motivations of the shooter, the social, political, and legal conditions that made the shooting possible, etc.) nor simply to ruminate about the devastation of lives and families but to respond.

Of course, we must act. We must comfort the bereaved and offer our support, solidarity, and condolences. We must sign petitions and donate our blood. We must not merely pray; we must act. But we must also think. These moments remind us that it is not a matter of making thought political but recognizing that thinking is always already political not because of any particular commitments but because thinking “has a place” and occurs with others and in response to them.

We often find it easier to respond to injustice. We can name the mechanisms of injustice and trace its conditions. But when we are faced with hatred and terror we are paralyzed and shake our heads in resignation and frustration. It is not that we must find a way to reason with the unreasonable; nor is the appropriate response to violence a vacuous appeal to “peace” as a mere absence of violence without an understanding of the material and social conditions that make violence possible.

Something like this impulse to understand is expressed in the Buddhist response to hatred not with anger but compassion. Such compassion for an enemy is not to feel pity but to refuse the banal imputation of “evil” to a nature and seek to understand that such souls are themselves suffering and to ask what has caused such suffering to manifest as violence and hatred. Hatred is not so much “learned” as it is fomented by certain conditions.

These conditions are varied and must be resisted in different registers; they can be political (e.g., in the lobbies that contravene the majority will for gun regulation), rhetorical (e.g., “protect the babies”), religious, or ideological. As thinkers, we refuse the epithet of “senseless” violence as a form of resignation or excuse to respond in kind. The regulative ideal of thought in response to violence is that peace is possible only if the conditions for violence and hatred can be known.

Hatred is a form of life but, like all forms of life, therefore subject to construction and deconstruction. Compassion thus demands the courage to resist the expressions of hatred that normalize violence against the disempowered. We must invite the marginalized out of their solitude, speak against the casual slur, refuse the legitimacy of forms of discourse that incite violence (carrying people out on stretchers like “in the old days”), or simply have the vigilance to change our own language not to speak in the grammar of the oppressors. We must have the courage to face not the barbarians at our gates but the ones who are within and with whom we must share the life that remains.

What is a transcendental argument?

(The following is a brief note in response to this post.)

Rorty once suggested that the peculiar fate of transcendental argumentation is its independence from and even its opposition to transcendental philosophy. Since Davidson we have been rightfully suspicious of the distinction between content and schema that seems to be central to Kantian philosophy and which falls on its own terms. Instead, however, of the idealist separation of form and content, the minimal, irreducible difference on which transcendental argumentation turns is between what there is and what can be said about it (which holds for any recognizable transcendental argument from Kant to Wittgenstein, Strawson, and Putnam). But the price that transcendental argumentation must pay is truth as correspondence. In fact, any strictly transcendental argument must surrender the prima facie objective validity of any reference other than self-reference, where the latter functions as the essential logical form of transcendental argumentation (“you cannot reject X without presupposing X”) as well as the ultimate purchase of such arguments (which result in knowledge about but not knowledge of). Perhaps against himself – and against his absolute idealist critics – what Kant demonstrated was that we lack knowledge of our own subjectivity and, indeed, criticism consists in nothing other than the fact that subjectivity can always be called into question. But such questioning proceeds hypothetically (“if you say Y, then you must presuppose X”) and negatively, i.e., transcendental philosophy must reject any particular fact as epistemically basic since all such facts are subject to constitutive rules governing the possibility of their interpretation, viz., qua facts, but which themselves say nothing about the world. All transcendentalism is therefore a structuralism that insists on a tripartite distinction of language, thought, and world founded on the excess of each to the others.

Black cryptography: against “political” writing

            What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
            Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
            You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
            A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
            And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
            And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
            There is shadow under this red rock,
            (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
            And I will show you something different from either
            Your shadow at morning striding behind you
            Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
            I will show you fear in a handful of dust. (Eliot, The Waste Land 19-30)

1. Violence and art are the two desperate weapons of the dispossessed. If the domain of the political is structured by the right to appear and to be heard, the demand of contemporary politics in the name of equality is to reject the convertibility between the zoon politikon and the zoon logon echon. Given the choice between the acquisition of property and speaking the colonial language, the oppressed can only scream. Whence the political aporia of Occupy: it was both necessary and futile that the movement could not be appropriated by the political machinery because it could not state its demands.

The negotiation of interests and demands in the marketplace of ideas is only visible in the milieu of exaggerations, clichés, backgrounds, cues, and jingles that clothe our experience. The revolutionary tailors who fashion the emperor’s new clothes are betrayed by the innocence of a child. But, now, there are no innocents. Against the temptation to cover the nudity of real experience, the crowd must bear witness to its fragility.

“Ultimately, nobody gets more out of things – including books – than they already know. You will not have an ear for something until experience has given you some headway into it. Let us take the most extreme case, where a book talks only about events lying completely outside the possibility of common, or even uncommon, experience, — where it is the first language of a new range of experiences. In this case, absolutely nothing will be heard, with the associated acoustic illusion that if nothing is heard, nothing is there.” (Nietzsche)

But the converse is also true: the committed writer who insists on the problems to be solved, by virtue of her insistence, renders those problems invisible precisely because they have been expressed. Rousing the passions, laughter, and outrage of the youth elicits hope and resignation but never justice. The way to justice is opened not by inspiration but disappointment and dissatisfaction.

The desire to be understood “not only invokes the liberal fiction of the universal communicability of each and every thought and so inhibits their objectively appropriate expression, but is also wrong in itself as a principle of representation. For the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar” (Adorno). What the writer communicates is not an unknown fact or a new perspective but the falsity of our certainty and the anguish of resistance.

Malevich - Black Square

2. There is only one properly ascetic ideal: to deny the reality of beauty. Beauty, as Kant said, is only in the beholder, which is how it is possible for Malevich’s “Black Square” to express the pure transcendental object in the reduction of all possible content into pure substance, which contains the infinite variety of the universe. “Intuition is the kernel of infinity. Everything that is visible on our globe disperses itself in it. Forms originated from the intuitive energy which conquers the infinite. Hence arises variants of form as tools of movement” (Malevich). All harmonious relations dissolve in the black, which therefore contains neither beauty nor ugliness, neither form nor structure, neither unity nor diversity (or, for that matter, unity-in-diversity). Absent Newman’s zips, Malevich’s “Black Square” is resolutely a-theological and a-topological, presenting the object as pure potentiality. Instead of the decomposition of representation into pure sensation (Kandinsky), where no plan(e) and no design are nascent, the black square moves us from fear to necessity, grasped in the urgency of creation, even as all art must cease.

200,000 B.C: the creation of a world

            The world is dull penumbra and disorder
in the foreground where man is found.
But now the stars, concealing landscapes,
reveal the perfect schema of their [orbits].
            The current of time pools and gains order
in the numbered forms of century after century.
And conquered Death takes refuge trembling
in the tight circle of the present instant. (Lorca, Ode to Salvador Dali 45-52)

1a. Wittgenstein famously spoke of Lebensformen and Weltbilder as (quasi-transcendental) conditions of thought and practice. When he first introduces the term “world-picture”, his example is our certainty that the earth has existed prior to our own birth. The contrary idea need not be falsifiable but, rather, would require a radical conversion to another Weltbild (which may or may not have different truth conditions). Analogously to the way the arche-fossil sounds the empirical knell to transcendental philosophy, the critique of the (myth of the) given is simply the construction of a world at the chiastic intersection of the transcendental horizon of language and the material genesis of life.

1b. It is, actually, the second gesture of critique, qua genealogy, to ask what forces bind us to the given, presented as the objective against which the waves of desire and fantasy break. Against such historicism, the inauguration of critique is non-identity, which is mutually exclusive of the principle of sufficient reason (Schelling). A world is, therefore, not a gathering into an All but the totality of the invisible negation of the All, marked by the visible itself (as traces of the invisible), as that which is “behind” the visible in the structures of sense and sensibility.

“Becoming is always double, and it is this double becoming that constitutes the people to come and the new earth. The philosopher must become nonphilosopher so that nonphilosophy becomes the earth and people of philosophy” (Deleuze).

2. There must be only one ontological proposition: against the impossible (self-)coincidence of the One-All (or the identity of being and the good), we must affirm that being is not.* This proposition resides at the heart of the chiasm between ontology and logic, i.e., in language. Between Herder and Heidegger, we have in language not the form of reason but of being, precisely in the distance between the concept and the unity of sensation. Language is transformative not of experience (say, in poetry) but of the world itself through the name. “In the beginning was the Word.” A world in which a being can be named is made possible only in the nomination. “What’s in a name?” Perhaps, a world.

*Correlatively, a-theism must, against onto-theology, acknowledge the existence of gaps and gluts.

Therefore our valuation of a world ranges from empty to maximal because there are no facts (for the same reason that Schelling insisted that we cannot know, reflectively, the relation of thought to being). The sweetness is in the “rose”.

3. In some remote hypothetical catastrophe of natural history, the exuberance of life was suspended by the cacophony of thought. The most direct refutation of idealism, à la Moore, is the existence of a being through which being is (an)nihilated. The moment when humanity began to trample the earth was simultaneously creative and ruinous. The earth groans and rages beneath the weight of innovation and industry and takes its revenge in the anonymous death of thousands.

“A people can only be created in abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art or philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common—their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present.” (Deleuze)

In “the time that remains” there is only one commandment: to love the world as oneself, which demands nothing less than the suspension of the ethical demands of purity of the will in the name of justice. The only possible repentance for the devastation of the earth is the creation of a world worthy of love.

From farce to tragedy

1a. In a remarkable letter written five years after his presidency, Madison praises the state of Kentucky for its commitment to the provision of public education, observing—in language that precedes Marx’s (and Engels’ independent text) more famous phrase by thirty years—that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both”. Madison’s enthusiasm is directed specifically at the fact that the state is constructing a plan for education

“embracing every class of citizens, and every grade and department of knowledge. No error is more certain than the one proceeding from a hasty and superficial view of the subject: [i.e.,] that the people at large* have no interest in the establishment of academies, colleges, and universities, where a few only, and those not of the poorer classes can obtain for their sons the advantages of superior education. It is thought to be unjust that all should be taxed for the benefit of a part, and that too the part least needing it.”

Here Madison has his vision fixed a century into the future since, prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, less than two percent of the population received schooling beyond high school (and these naturally being the sons of wealthy landowners). He continues:

“If provision were not made at the same time for every part [of society], the objection would be a natural one. … It is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expense for the education of his children, it is certain that every class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every country its trust and most durable celebrity. Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the most vociferous opponents of higher education today are also those in the process of retracting the promises of civil liberties for which our predecessors suffered through their very lives and bodies, whether through proposing the largest cuts to state funding for education in the history of this country or through explicit denunciations of “the academic left” (that follow an easily identifiable historical genealogy from the infamous McCarthy trials).

But in addition to the arguments advanced a century later by Dewey to the effect that the possibility of democracy is predicated on an educated citizenry, Madison also observes that such governments require not mere politicians but statesmen:

“[Schools] multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws; by the perspicuity, the consistency, and the stability, as well as by the just and equal spirit of which the great social purposes are to be answered.”

The democratic provision of the public good, however, requires not only the presently favorable desires of majority opinion. Representation is not of majority opinion; rather, majority opinions ends at representation and the task of the statesman is to deliberate about the possibilities of justice in the face of present needs. Here Madison agrees with Plato: the statesman requires a specific form—and not a specific content—of knowledge, which had broadly speaking been the task entrusted to liberal education not as the reception of information but the capacity to ask, frame, and understand important (viz., ethical and political) questions. (One of the primary complaints of contemporary educators is the inability of students to “think critically”, i.e., to frame appropriate questions, identify their stakes, and establish criteria for their resolution.) Instead of the “right to have an opinion”, education demands that the right be earned by the capacity to know how to ask the right questions.**

**This too was Dewey’s point in an address to a conference of scientists: “the trouble with much of what is called popularization of knowledge is that it is content with diffusion of information, in diluted form, merely as information [think the “intelligence” required to participate in Jeopardy!]. It needs to be organized and presented in its bearing upon action” (i.e., as system). That, Dewey insisted throughout the end of his career, is the “supreme intellectual obligation”: to mobilize knowledge as knowledge and not mere information for moral and social improvement. If there is anything pragmatism understood correctly—and what its critics have misunderstood—it is that knowledge is useful when it is true (it is not, as the more decadent pragmatists would say, true because it is useful).

This critical capacity, Madison argues, must be acquired broadly under pain of plutocracy:

“Without such institutions, the more costly of which can scarcely be provided by individual means, none but the few whose wealth enables them to support their sons abroad can give them the fullest education; and in proportion as this is done, the influence is monopolized which superior information everywhere possesses. … Whilst those who are without property, or with but little, must be peculiarly interested in a system which unites with the more learned institutions, a provision for diffusing through the entire society the education needed for the common purposes of life.”

Madison proceeds, again, to address a future he could not have foreseen, viz., one in which the US lags far behind several western European countries in terms of economic mobility with the one decisive factor being education (45% of people in the bottom 1/5 of the economy who do not graduate college remain in their present economic location whereas only 16% of those who graduate remain):

“Why should it be necessary in this case [of the provision of education] to distinguish the society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of academies, colleges, and universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry [an observation unfortunately disqualified by the succeeding history of the republic] … and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendents; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.”

Yet at no point does Madison aver to the propensity of education to improve the material lot of oneself or one’s family. At best, as Adler cogently argued, the material benefits of education are corollary or subsidiary: they are not its primary function. Madison again:

“Throughout the civilized world, nations are courting the praise of fostering science and the useful arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and blessings of representative government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free government [emphasis added, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge, that their political institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter … are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of man as they are conformable to his individual and social rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

If Madison is right about the mutual constitution of liberty and education, then the continuing and persistent degradation of liberty (ironically in the name of liberty itself, recognizable as such only to those who can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion) should come as no surprise. In an analysis of transcripts from presidential debates, where the 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas occurred at an eleventh to twelfth grade literacy level, the Gore-Bush debate of 2000 occurred at a sixth (Bush) to seventh (Gore) grade level. Political speech, in other words, is addressed to adults with the literate capacity of children.

1b. Madison ends his letter with the remark that, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, that provision should be made for the study of geometry and astronomy since “no information seems better calculated to expand the mind and gratify curiosity than what would thus be imparted. This is especially the case, with what relates to the globe we inhabit, the nations among which it is divided, and the characters and customs which distinguish them. An acquaintance with foreign countries in this mode, has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travelers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings”. Against the clichés of humanistic education that claim to provide insight into “discovering oneself”, Madison’s point here is that we must always understand ourselves as situated in the world and that ours is one among many ways of seeing, doing, acting, and living. Absent cognizance of the world and its other inhabitants, we are easily tempted by the narcissism of enjoyment. “Any reading not of a vicious species,” Madison concludes, “must be a good substitute for the amusements too apt to fill up the leisure of the laboring classes”. The vulgarity of such amusements (in large part what contemporary theory calls “spectacle”) is not intrinsic to any particular content but to their familiar effects: e.g., the silencing of discourse, the banalization of injustice, and the sublimation (in the chemical sense) of ethics into enjoyment (i.e., the reverse of Freudian sublimation).

The two activities of leisure in both ancient Greek and western bourgeois society were none other than politics and education. Both required a certain kind of autonomy from economic and material necessity. But instead of the reward of such freedom and the ability to “do nothing”, leisure imposed a grave duty, against which the ideology of “free time” has given seemingly inescapable means and opportunities of squandering for the sake of enjoyment.

2a. In the Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre analyzed the ways in which the everyday as the structural condition for life is at the same time the principal way in which the modern individual is alienated from her life. While Lefebvre was encumbered by the simultaneous mobilization of the everyday as both an ontological and sociological category, the Critique remains the standard account for the simultaneous collapse of leisure into the temporal repetitions of the everyday and the idealization of leisure as an escape from the everyday.

On the one hand, Lefebvre shows that the everyday is never simply given but constituted through the accretion of social and cultural signification.*** But he also shows (as Adorno and Horkheimer had also pointed out) that “the town and the factory complement one another by both conforming to the technical object [which Lefebvre in the middle of the twentieth century had already observed simply defined the everyday mode of existence]. An identical process makes work easy and passive, and life outside work fairly comfortable and boring. Thus everyday life at work and outside work become indistinguishable, governed as they are by systems of signals”. The word “signal” here is deliberate and appropriate: a signal, unlike a sign proper, has a meaning incapable of higher-order signification and functions structurally equivalently to Pavlovian response.

***I disagree with one of my own teacher’s remarks, however, that given this aspect of the everyday, as that which organizes experience and the world through certain spatio-temporal forms, it “becomes harder to endow it with an intrinsic political content. The everyday is robbed of much of its portentous symbolic meaning” (Felski). While on the one hand I accept her general corrective to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” endemic to cultural and critical theory, intrinsic to critical philosophy since Kant is conviction that the primary (and perhaps only) task of thought is not to take its conditions as necessary or as (enabling) limits.

Lefebvre finds examples of such a network of signals and conditioned responses in mass media (again, remembering that he is writing these particular words in the late 1950s):

“Day in and day out, news, signs and significations roll over [the individual] like a succession of waves, churned out and repeated and already indistinguishable by the simple fact that they are pure spectacle: they are overpowering, they are hypnotic. The ‘news’ submerges viewers in a monotonous sea of newness and topicality which blunts sensitivity and wears down the desire to know. Certainly, people are becoming more cultivated. Vulgar encyclopedism is all the rage. The [sociological] observer may well suspect that when communication becomes incorporated in private life to this degree it becomes non-communication.”

Aside from current concerns about “attention saturation” from cognitive psychology, Lefebvre continues to describe the mechanisms of the alienation that results from the uncoupling of signification from significance:

“Radio and television do not penetrate the everyday solely in terms of the viewer. They go looking for it at its source: personalized (but superficial) anecdotes, trivial incidents, familiar little family events. They set out from an implicit principle: ‘Everything, in other words, anything at all, can become interesting and even enthralling, provided that it is presented …’ The art of presenting the everyday by taking it from its context, emphasizing it, making it appear unusual or picturesque and overloading it with meaning, has become highly skillful [Lefebvre has, in fact, described reality TV forty years before it existed]. … At the extreme looms the shadow of what we will call ‘the great pleonasm’: the unmediated passing immediately into the unmediated and the everyday recorded just as it is in the everyday—the event grasped, pulverized and transmitted as rapidly as light and consciousness—the repetition of the identical in a wild whirling dance devoid of Dionysian rapture, since the ‘news’ never contains anything really new.”

Lefebvre thought that this “extreme point” of closure between communication and information was “still a long way away”. It turns out, however, that thirty or forty years is not so long. “At one and the same time the mass media have unified and broadcast the everyday; they have disintegrated it by integrating it with ‘world’ current events in a way which is both too real and utterly superficial. What is more or less certain is that they are dissociating an acquired, traditional culture, the culture of books, from written discourse and Logos. We cannot say what the outcome of this destructuring process will be.” But it seems that we can: the impossibility of philistinism because of the total absence of a culture about which to be literate (a parody is no longer a parody when it cannot be understood as such).

The obsession with difference after May ’68 in French thought can be interpreted as a refusal of this eternal repetition of the same on which mass culture insists as both the cause and the cure for existential boredom. It is for this reason that Lefebvre calls for the critique of the everyday because “to know the everyday is to want to transform it. Thought can only grasp it and define it by applying itself to a project or radical programme of radical transformation. To study everyday life and to use that study as the guideline for gaining knowledge of modernity is to search for whatever has the potential to be metamorphosed … it is to understand the real by seeing it in terms of what is possible, as an implication of what is possible”. Despite the disagreements between Lefebvre and Goldmann, so too the latter would insist that “the possible is the fundamental category for comprehending human history. The great difference between positivist and dialectical sociology consists precisely in the fact that whereas the former is content to develop the most exact and meticulous possible photography of the existing society, the latter tries to isolate the potential consciousness in the society is studies: the potential [virtuelles], developing tendencies oriented toward overcoming that society. In short, the first tries to give an account of the functioning of existing structuration, and the second centers on the possibilities of varying and transforming social consciousness and reality”. Of course, these two enterprises are not opposed; the second is the consequence of the first, which shows us the necessity of such an overcoming. As Foucault would say—a point that critics of postmodernism such as Furedi have never grasped—the moment power/knowledge is grasped as historically constituted it is recognized in its contingency and the possibility of political action and change (Foucault’s word is “destruction”) is realized.

2b. Kant contra Hegel (and Nietzsche). In a series of what are generally regarded as minor texts, Kant anticipates the stark differences that would separate him from the idealism he resisted in Fichte and what would become the absolutism of Hegel on the notion of history. Kant insists that history is not the continuous improvement of humanity or, in short, that we cannot say in fact that humanity is always improving. Rather, the perfectability of humanity is a sort of regulative ideal of practical action: that we must assume that the improvement of humanity is possible or else, if we were to believe that every triumph of virtue is simply negated by a corresponding tragedy, “it may perhaps be moving and instructive to watch such a drama for a while; but the curtain must eventually descend. For in the long run, it becomes a farce [emphasis added]. And even if the actors do not tire of it—for they are fools—the spectator does, for any single act will be enough for him if he can reasonably conclude from it that the never-ending play will go on in the same way for ever” (Kant rejects, in short, the doctrine of amor fati).

What Kant (nor Nietzsche for that matter) did not anticipate was the ways in which nihilism would be made not only tolerable but the primary object of desire for civilizations in which no other alternatives are presented as either possible or necessary. Against the popular maxim there are actually three inevitabilities: death, taxes, and inevitability itself parceled in distraction and enjoyment.

2c. In Kierkegaardian terms, Kant tries to establish within the structure of practical reason itself the priority of the ethical over the aesthetic. There is no existential decision to be made for Kant because the moral law is simply a fact of reason. On the one hand, Kierkegaard accepts Kant’s rejection of heteronomy: “the person who says that he wants to enjoy life always posits a condition that either lies outside the individual or is within the individual in such a way that it is not there by virtue of the individual himself”. But Kierkegaardian authenticity has nothing of the character of Kantian autonomy if for no other reason than for the singularity of the “infinitely concrete” self that does not exist prior to the absolute choice to be who one is. What leftist critics of Kierkegaard (and existentialism generally) resisted was the propensity for the certitude of authenticity to remain inner in the complicity of the ethical self for an aestheticized existence, even if such aestheticism is transformed into the spiritual immolation of guilt.

Ethical guilt leads in the opposite direction of political action, which is predicated not on the identity of the subject but, rather, in the dereliction of subjective pride in the suffering of others (even if one is oneself the subject of oppression) in what Lévinas and Derrida have nominated as “responsibility”. The standard political distinction between responsibility and obligation consists simply in the fact that responsibility is not chosen and that my responsibility extends beyond my power of knowledge or even of satisfaction, e.g., in the fact that I can be responsible for injustices I never intended to commit. In a certain sense, then, the autonomy of my ethical responsibility is conditioned by the absolute heteronomy of my identity as one implicated prior to my decisions since those decisions must be made within a situation I have inherited.

3. Just as we have inherited the world of our predecessors, the critical political task is to be conscious of the futures we both prohibit and create. In this light, the fundamental imperative of education, Adorno said, is that Auschwitz should never happen again. What he meant, of course, is that education must form minds that are not pliable to the forces that lead us to fascism. What his hyperbolic statement has unfortunately made possible, however, is complacency with any injustice not commensurate with the most radical evil in recorded history (Abu Ghraib, for example, just “wasn’t as bad”). In a sense, politics always happens too late and the mistake of utopianism is to posit the possibility of redemption as the end of political action.

What criticism must resist at all personal and material costs is the reduction of politics into farce and the tragedy of recognizing that the necessity of criticism comes too late, i.e., when “the unthinkable” remains unthinkable because it has already become our modus operandi and when injustice can be recognized only the in the cold****, ironic laughter of those who can be persuaded that “it’s all good”. The real meaning of freedom (or Kant’s “autonomy”) is nothing other than a separation from reality and the given: “truth has no place other than the will to resist the lie of opinion. Thought … proves itself in the liquidation of opinion: literally the dominant opinion. This opinion is not due simply to people’s inadequate knowledge but rather is imposed upon them by the overall structure of society and hence by relations of domination. How widespread these relations are provides an initial index of falsity: it shows how far the control of thought through domination extends. Its signature is banality. … The banal cannot be true” (Adorno).

****We should not forget that Adorno explicitly claimed that Auschwitz was made possible by those without the capacity for love.

À la Lefebvre, though, it is not simply the content of opinion that is false but the very structure of opinion that criticism must interrogate. The fundamental insight of critical philosophy is that the given (the everyday) is never merely given but always (socially) mediated (this was, incidentally, Fichte’s insight into the possibility of ethics, which preceded Hegel’s formulation of the state as the “ethical substance” of the subject): the habits and routines of everyday life are both sedimentations of cultural meanings but also, ipso facto, a necessary condition for (self-)identity. The relation between the everyday and the extraordinary, as Felski argues, cannot be reduced to the opposition between the material and the ideal if only because the everyday is the materialization of the ideal. There is, therefore, no single “everyday” experience apart from specific histories, which constitute such experiences as gendered, economic, etc. The everyday, consequently, cannot serve as the final court of appeal against the demands of the extraordinary but, like the state, precisely because it is a condition of life must also be subjected to unrelenting critique. As Felski points out, the everyday is necessarily caught in a fundamental ambivalence: disdained and even mistrusted for the ways in which the political, economic, and biopolitical forms of power have normalized the inequalities of reality while at the same time our subjection is also that which creates our possibilities as subjects.

The everyday thus presents us with the perennial choice between immanence and transcendence: Foucault and Deleuze represent the most radical attempts at an immanent critique of the given. Contemporary criticism, however, has learned that, properly speaking, our choice is not “between” immanence and transcendence since, as both Derrida and Badiou have shown, despite being otherwise irreconcilable, immanence only manifests through a presentation of the transcendental. The chiasm from the immanent to the transcendent passes through the unpresentable singularity of that which, from the side of the immanent, can never be given “all at once” and, from the side of the transcendental, exceeds the circulation of discourse (e.g., Derrida’s transcendental signifier or, equivalently, his notion of justice as the undeconstructible condition of deconstruction). The sympathy of criticism, politics, education, and art consists in the insufficiency and contingency of the present and what is presented as affirmative in character.

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.