The disappearance of appearance (après Baudrillard)

1. At the beginning of The Red Violin, an expectant mother sings a gentle motif to her unborn child. Each phrase resonates in the space around her, lingering in her voice as the next begins. In the next repetition of the motif, the theme is continued by a solo violin. As the last of her breath passes through her lips, the motif persists through the vibration of the strings, which are, of course, recorded mechanically for us to hear. We think of such a recording as discrete, that is indiscriminately duplicated and repeatable; that every playback is an instantiation of a master, which itself is a duplication of an original, human event. Instead, we might think of the recording as simply a prolongation of the original event—a time loop or a suspension of natural time—such that what was once beholden to the experience of the hic et nunc becomes exactly the ars aevi to which the medievals had attempted to give expression. In this way we deconstruct the original event from its repetition: the repetition is indistinguishable from the original; and the original is nothing other than its prolongation in the repetition.

But, what we fail to notice is that the recording is nothing other than the appearance of disappearance. The disappearance of the human voice is the appearance of its trace in the singing tone of the violin. And, of course, we know that the recording is a recording—we know that we are not in the presence of the voice that we hear and that that voice has disappeared. In the recording, we know that something has happened, but in its happening, the event disappears. The event never happens—we only know that it has happened. Disappearance always happens; disappearance is always an appearance—specifically, it is a double appearance: the appearance of that which appears and, reflexively, the appearance of a disappearance (in other words, there is no “disappearing object”, which is a contradiction in terms). Dis/appearance are not contraries but, rather, the archetype of disjunctive syntheses. Appearance is always already reflexively encoded in disappearance; it is disappearance that removes or distances the object and makes meaning possible.

2. This, however, raises a problem. Baudrillard—in one of his final and best texts—has already pointed to the hyper-reality of pure appearance, i.e., a purely objective appearance when appearance no longer requires being an appearance to anyone: “the modern world, foreseen by Marx, driven on by the work of the negative, by the engine of contradiction, became, by the very excess of its fulfillment, another world in which things no longer even need their opposites in order to exist … and the world no longer needs us” (we might also add to Marx Simmel’s analogous distinction between the quest for more-life, which results in twin excesses of hyper-ob/subjective more-than-life). The image is no longer a representation of anything but the image and the scene coincide. In the new movie Avatar, for example, life and CG become not only visually indistinguishable but coextensive. The image is no longer a copy but creates its own space of production in the very perceptions of those who undergo it (e.g., in the economy of drives, capital, and signification that make such an image possible). Dispersed among its objects, consciousness finds itself only “in the interstices of reality” where “in the visual flow in which we are currently submerged, there isn’t even the time to become an image” (Baudrillard).

3. If the logic of technical objects is inherently genetic, then nothing cannot not appear. Every identity, secret, process, torture, and google is subject to the sequencing of multiple retentions and subsequent dissemination. We might at first be tempted to think that appearance is the problem (in the midst of politics, capital, technology, fashion, etc). We might lament the “disappearance of the human” or our “posthuman condition” in the name of a vaguely romantic humanism that insists on the reduction of human life to biology, of consciousness to the brain, or of language to finitude. Under all these reductions, the human becomes caught in the contradiction of body and spirit: at once, “we are all just human”, limited in our perspective but “noble in reason, infinite in faculty”, prone to mistake and in need of a warm embrace; and we protect this contradiction by insisting on the schism of biology and technology. What happens when reproduction and replication no longer require the mediation of an eye, a feeling, or a decision?

Perhaps, however, we need to ask how a pure disappearance is possible (in Deleuze and Guatarri’s terms, this is the question of territorialization): the real disappearance of (all that has gone under the name of) the human. This is a question that we cannot even ask if we continue to think that this means the self-annihilation of human endeavor (e.g., nuclear war, global ecological destruction, genetic engineering, etc, which would be nothing other than the most conspicuous and permanent human signature). Before we can understand how disappearance is possible, first we must understand the ideologies and conditions of appearance. Before “something new” can appear, we must first disappear.

Mysticism and the mythopoetic imagination

Against the easy conflation of mysticism and “the ineffable”–and the ineffable and the unsayable–Wolfson continues to offer us the resources to think the passage from representation to knowledge in ways that are not beholden to the problematics of sense or reference. Framed as a hermeneutic/phenomenological investigation into kabbalah, in what is more than an account of the kabbalistic vision of the divine and a fairly damning accusation of androcentrism in medieval rabbinic culture, alongside the likes of Marion and Desmond, Wolfson provides an account of an imagining of the difference between idol and image, between remembrance and forgetting, particularly in terms of the mutual conversion of sexual difference into identity. i.e., the “suffering of eros as the indifferent identity (one-that-is-all) becoming identical difference (all-that-is-one), a process that is collectively conceived by kabbalists as amelioration of feminine judgment, her restoration to and elevation through the morphological prism of the divine, culminating in the reconstitituion of the male androgyne in Keter, the place that is no-place (atar law atar) …” In the space of a paragraph it would be impossible to approach the complex of speech and eros in the “process” (if we speak in philosophical terms) of the Sefirot. Consider, nevertheless, Wolfson’s treatment of the Song of Songs: “… the Song is directed to Binah, the “supernal world” or the “world-to-come,” which is also identified as Solomon (shelomo) … the “king” is Binah, who is called by this name on account of her demiurgical role in the birthing of the lower seven sefirot. The shift in symbolism underscores the fact that the theurgical purpose of the Song is to arouse the joy of Shekhinah, the “world of the moon,” in relation to Binah, the “upper world,” so that the two worlds may be aligned in one pattern”. Wolfson’s own analysis following this passage is remarkable in itself, but instead of inflecting this logic ontologically into a (para)logic of eros, what we have here is too a logic of affectivity whose resources call for immediate attention.

At Twilight

“Have you seen the stars?” she asked, “Have you ever seen the stars? But what is it you think you have seen? That one there—has ceased to exist since before you were born. And that one there shall never return your admiration. But they have not been flung away by the ambitions of your mortality or your science. Their distance is irreducible not only by the stretching of space (always outside of us) but because they can never be—or at least are no longer—the objects of sense, unlike even the naked existence of the rocks and pinecones beneath your feet, indifferent to the passage of time, to the conditions of your origin, to generation and destruction. They are those of which we cannot say there is—neither figments of your imagination nor simply seen. They are experienced only in inner space … as your companions.”

When we turned to ask how this could be so, she had ceased to speak and was no longer there.

Philosophy as performance

1. “Be no one’s disciple”—should we be surprised that Nietzsche, Marion, and Deleuze have all said this? But is this not an impossible imperative? Are we to respond to this imperative qua imperative? But, if so, do we not thereby violate it?

The impossibility of this statement, however, is not the reason we have failed to meet it, for then we would have had to understand what it would mean. If we had indeed understood it, we would not be faced as we are by the figure of the sycophant. The sycophant is to the disciple what the sophist has been to the philosopher: he is the one for whom the master has set the agenda. The task of the philosopher is to give the “Hegelian reading” of anyone or anything else, or to demonstrate that Althusser says it better than Foucault.

2. It has often been said that the discipline of philosophy is masturbatory—the ideology of philosophy according to which philosophy is itself the unconditioned (with which it competes with myth to seek) at best leaves the rest of the world alone and, at worst, banishes it from its domain (as body, as material, as phenomena, as science, etc). The philosopher needs no scientific knowledge to condemn science as techne, for example, since scientific knowledge qua science is “empirical”.

Yet this is not quite right. Philosophy is masturbatory insofar as it is narcissistic. Narcissus’ sexuality requires dislocation for him to be the object of his own desire. In philosophy this takes the form of the bibliography.

3. What, then, is the alternative? Are we faced with an impossible imperative? We do impossible things all the time, however: we love another, we move beyond the death of a parent, we make a promise, we overlook an offense to our pride. What does it take to do these things? It is precisely what is required to perform the image of thought.

Some notes on the line

Can anything be retained from Formalism? Art is not thinking in “images”, Shklovsky says (“image”, of course, in the usual sense of “picture” or “representation”). The rhythms of a work of art form not a special but a general economy of sensation according to which the sedimented history of significations (including that which comprises the movements of our very bodies in the viscera) that inform our experience are exploded. “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”, Shklovsky proclaims. But this is not simply ‘die Sache selbst’, for it is not the stone that is stony. Neither, however, is this simply the taking of an “aesthetic attitude”. The general economy of the artwork cares neither for the art object nor for our emotions. The rhythms bi-, di-, and intersected in a work of art open onto a new time that is neither constituted by the subject nor contained in the formalism of the text itself. The success of a work of art here is not the coherence of the “image” it presents (its narrative, its portrait or representation, its theme, etc). The work (of a work) of art is, in a word, a genesis (a unique affect, perhaps an “evental” affect).

One need not travel too late in the twentieth century to see these moments at work in music. Among the masters of the line in this later period are the later Corigliano and Dutilleux. But one can also hear similar moments—although rarely—in Rachmaninoff (in some of the preludes and a few measures in the sonatas), in Godowsky (particularly the left-hand study on Chopin’s 10/6 (No. 13) and, in the same spirit, Hamelin’s “triple etude”, although these moments occur precisely because of the co-presence of their companion pieces), and in Medtner at his best. In this last case, see, e.g., the ingenious closing three bars of the Gm sonata where we have come full circle, yet the origin had been displaced from the very beginning. We enter on the fifth, yet it is precisely that interval that is displaced not only by the immediate statement of the main theme but also in the line in which it is developed, ending in those final three chords wherein there is inversion without variation. Repetition: but infinitely productive within the interval that, ostensibly, is the most perfect. Yet as Medtner reminds us in these final bars, the system of temperament only disguises the Pythagorean Comma: the productivity of a system is nothing but the exploitation of this opening.

Images V

Philosophy and art have this homology: they do not exist “for” anything. The creation of philosophy (insofar as in philosophy we inhabit a new image of thought) and art are creations of new existences, new futures. There is no teleology of philosophy: the image is what Arendt called a “miracle” or what others are calling “events”. What art makes possible, what it inspires, and what it causes are all irrelevant to the artist or the philosopher: this is the “intentional fallacy”.

Really to renounce teleology, however, requires a rigorous conception of “creation” (Bergson, Deleuze, Badiou).

Another ideology of philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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