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.

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.

Appeals and incriminations

1. The primrose path. The split between philosophy and science has rendered philosophy vulnerable to two equivalent and damning accusations disguised as genuine questions: “what are the facts of the matter?” or “what is your ontology?” When, for example, cognitive and neuropsychology are busy re-creating the Kantian picture of cognition (including the opacity of the transcendental ego) or when sociology agrees with Aristotle’s insight into what we now call “crowdsourcing”, it seems that science has given philosophy empirical verification. Against the consequent threat of redundancy, philosophy (particularly in its idealist and crypto-idealist varieties) has generally responded with some doctrine of method: “philosophy provides an account of what a fact is in the first place”. Of course, we should be wary of any such tendency toward absolute idealism ever since witnessing the misfortunes of a system that attempts to deduce being from the idea. But an ethical idealism is equally problematic that insists on the role of philosophy in arbitrating between facts and values (which are, by definition, outside the domain of ontology): such a solution simply reduces philosophy to literature and makes it possible to speak of “my” and “your” philosophy since, after all, if values are not facts there is no other court of appeal than my “yes”.

1a. The discourse bubble. Values, of course, are discursive (as Nietzsche insisted against the metaphysicians). “We must reflect and discuss our values.” But to whom do we speak? Confronted with the towering black obelisk of technology, for example, philosophy quarantines itself in a mode of discourse that appeals to Aristotle and Heidegger instead of Lanier. The objection to such discursive naïveté (at best and bad faith at worst) is not that of simply lacking reference to a “real” world outside discourse but, rather, that a discourse that intends only itself is self-defeating.

2. Whither the moral world? Is it possible to be moral in an immoral world? We face here an inverted image of the doctrine of original sin. Bourgeois ideology refuses, for example, to decide between the “right” of a chemist to create a better non-smearing lipstick and the creation of HIV medication. The democratic paradox is that we must at once affirm the separation of ethical injunctions from political right while at the same time recognizing that it is this very distinction that creates the very immoral world from which we must impose on ourselves the choice to be moral.

2a. Discourse and praxis. Philosophy faces a similar paradox. Faced with the separation of philosophy and politics (which Marx famously wanted to overcome), philosophy both recognizes and refuses its task in the face of injustice. Philosophy has its responsibility and capacity to incite us to the recognition of injustice—including the fact that its current existence in academic institutions is predicated on unjust socioeconomic practices—but it will not be by researching what passages of Hobbes Leibniz was reading in what years (although, in fairness, such research is arguably not philosophy at all but its decadent imposter).

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”.

Characters

1. “What are you hiding?” – If something were truly hidden, would we even know that it were? Or, perhaps the more interesting question is on the other side: to hide something, must we know that we are hiding it? Are we always so jealous of what we hide that we need to display it for all to see or, perhaps, only for those who know us better than we know ourselves? – “Only something precious, or something terrible, is worth hiding.” – But we cannot choose the circumstances that impress themselves on us. This is, however, precisely why we must press on: because hope is not who we are but who we might be. (But the price we pay for hope is one that is not always easy to bear.)

2. Under the ideology of authenticity, clichés are to us what natal charts are to the astrologer. Just as our character is written in the stars, so too we call ourselves by what we think we are. It is not our fate that is read from our resemblance to the stars but it is this resemblance that makes us worthy of having a fate which, by definition, we cannot know until we are forced to suffer it. And just as our fate is conditioned by our character, so too our characters are conditioned by the very descriptions we use, i.e., by the way we are seen as characters and always represented in a genre.

3. There are some characters that we say we would like to be, but the more interesting question is who the characters are that we refuse to be. These are usually the ones we would like not to give a second thought. Some of these have names (Willie Loman, for example) but there are those whose names are unknown to us—the clichéd, forgettable ones: the barfly, the groupie, or even the victim.

But then we are caught in a double-bind. We cannot exactly “aspire” to the average. It’s by being beholden to the role cast by “others” that we are already a part of the crowd and the value of a life will always be buried in the enjoyment parceled in paid time off, ounces, and dollars.

But, on the other hand, any attempt to write our own character will also be confronted with another economy: our characters only have meaning insofar as they are recognizable within a genre. In other words, there will always be a general name for our characters, since any non-Adamic language contains more than proper names (“the unique one” is itself a cliché).

4. What we require, then, is not a model of authenticity but a theory of communication that is not merely linguistic but narrative: an “inter-subjective” account of language still requires subjective models (without being constructed from the latter). All this means is that just as language is originally metaphorical, so too discourse occurs as an effect of the way in which we express our characters, replete with the deceptions and ambiguities that such expression entails.

The time of thought

1. The opening of Badiou’s perfunctory remarks on Meillassoux’s After Finitude cites Bergson’s often-abused remark that any philosopher only ever explicates or repeats one idea (or what Deleuze would call a “concept”). This invocation should strike us as surprising for at least two reasons: although lip-service continues to be paid to Bergson in France, Badiou’s persistent polemics against vitalism seem to put Bergson in the same camp as Lévinas, i.e., as simply the wrong direction to go, even if the end is the same. It is also Bergson, unlike his almost exact contemporary Husserl (born in the same year, Bergson outlived him by only three years), who is an obvious exception to Meillassoux’s indictment of modern philosophy as being “correlationist” (as I have always maintained, especially against mid-twentieth century interpretations, Bergson is anything but a “proto-phenomenologist”).

Yet Bergson’s place in Meillassoux’s history of modernity is neither here nor there, except perhaps to suggest that Meillassoux’s is not the only way of stating the problem. That Kant’s attempt to circumscribe the unthinkable as unthinkable within the limits of thinking led to an explicit form of fideism is well-known (cf. Pippin’s recent work), but one is left to wonder whether the choice between Kantian fideism and pre-critical dogmatism/realism is a false dichotomy. Nor is the alternative open to philosophy to poeticize on the “human condition” of existential anguish or simply to insist on the psychological uniqueness of the “man of flesh and bone” (Unamuno) over against the abstract universalism of science. Meillassoux is right to point out that the “meaning” of science is not simply its “value” to you or I and the use we make of it (so-called “applied” philosophy in the form of ethics).

The essential modern question is, of course, the so-called foundation of science (or mathematics, although these are not isomorphic formulations): “the Galilean-Copernican revolution has no other meaning than that of the paradoxical unveiling of thought’s capacity to think what there is whether thought exists or not” (Meillassoux). But there are two ways of handling this question but, while both take their cue from the Kant, they cannot be conflated. The split between the analytics and the phenomenologists occurs in the paths taken by Bolzano and Frege on the one hand and Brentano on the other. As I have suggested before, the difference is that between sense and discourse/representation. It is not so clear, at least to me, that the analytics were engaged in an effort of “the decentering of thought relative to the world within the process of knowledge”, even if there are those among them who were guilty of divorcing thought from logic and proceeding to call the former “psychology”. Nevertheless, if the danger of a rationalistic foundation for science consists in the ultimate occlusion of the absolute under the name of unthinkability, then Meillassoux is right to point out that the limit of the thinkable is not aesthetic but paradoxical. (And yet—might not the very essence of the aesthetic be the expression of paradox or, perhaps more accurately, contradiction?) One wonders, however, under what auspices Meillassoux heralds the return to the absolute—whether in the name of the certitude of science (for which scientists have no need), its veracity (against the fundamentalists), or the surrender of truth to the discourse of science such that if we are to deny that truth is to be revealed in religion, so too the only task left to philosophy is the verification of truths to which it has no primary access because there exists neither the ground nor desire for philosophical thinking once philosophy ceases to be reflective.

This is not, of course, to say that an ethical or political naïveté is a refutation. Meillassoux’s insistence on contingency and chaos falls squarely in the best tradition of the philosophy of difference and, to echo the words of Latour, one can at the least admire the courage of his political commitments, even as one might shy from its theological naïveté (viz., not every theology is a theology of being, but perhaps this particular assessment should wait for L’inexistence divine) or its barbarism.

2. Even if Meillassoux is right about the absolute, there is no legitimate sense in which this absolute constitutes a “foundation” for thought if for no other reason that there is no “progress” in philosophy. While philosophy is in some ways discursive (although it is better to say that philosophy is “historical”), philosophy is not, in toto, a discourse. If science is possible without Aristotle or Ptolemy, this is because science occurs as a (progressive) discourse. This is not merely to say that science is practiced a-historically, although it is revealing that the history of science is not itself science. Philosophy occurs for the one who understands (“understanding” in a sort of hermeneutic sense). If any two scientists can pull Snell’s Law out of the cupboard and use it, the same cannot be said of the philosophical concept. Each philosophical concept, each idea, must be experienced by the philosopher, just as each musician must experience music. Music has not “progressed” beyond Bach, for example. This is not to say music today is no different from Bach’s, nor is this to make a value judgment (e.g., “Bach is superior to Salonen”)—rather, the entire notion of “progress” is simply inapplicable. The student of music will never escape the necessity of learning (or playing) Bach; the student of philosophy will never escape Plato; the student of science, qua scientist, does not, on the other hand, study Cartesian physics. Philosophy is perennial not because of the antecedence of some eternal “human condition” but, rather, because of its very mode or style of existence, i.e., as that which is understood.