For the love of the world

Kolakowski tried to claim that “truth as a value different from effective applicability is … a part of a myth which refers the conditional empirical realities to an unconditioned universe”. What Kolakowski calls the “myth of Reason” we might instead call a sort of eidetic intuition of a world (what Dante called God in the Paradiso and what Borges described as the Aleph where we see, chiastically, the Aleph in the earth and the earth in the Aleph). In these intuitions we “encounter” the One but of course we know that there is no such One. There is no “myth of Reason”* simply because the impossibility of providing consistent expression to this intuition is the condition of possibility for thought to occur; the impossibility of the coincidence of completeness and consistency constitutes the infinitude of thought, i.e., that there is thought at all. Thought does not ground itself because such a “pure” thought is always radically impure in its transcendence, embedded in ambiguities, contradictions, contexts, situations, and interests. The task of reflection is thus to do justice to the concrete infinitude of thought in and of a world.

*There is, however, a myth of the world.

The return of the mythic II

Cassirer says that we are in a world founded on myth. Yet it seems that the foundational myth here is precisely that we are in a world. It is for this reason that, contrary to Gabriel’s claim, scientism is not opposed to myth insofar as the certainty of knowledge, as a disposition already contained in perceptual experience, is not a value added from an otherwise naïve reception of un-comprehended or un-interpreted qualia. Hegel had made this point clearly in the opening sentences of the Phenomenology and, as the first chapter shows, only in the silent preparation for the divine, tarrying with the experience of death, does consciousness encounter the disparity of the “said” and the “meant” in language. It is here that Gabriel is most certainly wrong in his contrast of Hegel and Schelling: “whereas Hegel tried to uncover the necessity of the content of mythology (of art, religion, history, etc.), Schelling insists on the necessity of the form of representation which cannot be sidestepped … There is no absolute content prior to the mythological form”. Hegel and Schelling are una voce at least on this point. We experience the meaning of language in our very being-in-the-world prior to the movement of thought which, however, is precisely the original experience that we can never recover or remember: “mythology as an attempt to overcome the amnesia of Being, as vanquishing the pure facticity of the world, relieves me of a situation in which I must acknowledge myself as an accidental divinity …” (Kolakowski).

But, if this is the case, then the strictly unthinkable unity of sense and being cannot itself have being, i.e., there is no unity of thought (or, mutatis mutandis, reflection) and being (this is the case for both Schelling and, despite Gabriel, Hegel as well)—if this were not the case, we could not explain the fact of mythology anthropologically nor philosophically—that there should be myth at all. Or, we might go even further: if language is ineliminably metaphorical, this is because the Word is the manifestation of mythology (Hegel, Barthes).

The return of the mythic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myth of nature

1. In the foothills of Colorado on land barely touched by industry, I climbed to the top of a large red rock formation. This particular spot is visited not only by the locals (which include foxes and even, once, mountain goats), but also by other visitors such as myself. Usually the traces of these visitors consist of footprints in the unpaved road and paths, but occasionally there is the cigarette butt or beer can strewn by the side of the road. This particular day, when I reached the top of the formation, what awaited me was an empty bottle of chardonnay left by the nature-lover(s) who, presumably, thought it would be a pleasant experience to enjoy the “spectacular view” with a glass (or four) of wine.

The violation here was more than one of breeching the “leave no trace” protocol advocated by various environmental organizations and agencies; this protocol is at best agnostic on the tendency of so-called “nature-lovers” to fetishize nature. Even if my predecessors had taken their refuse with them, in what sense can they be said to be “lovers of nature” when their love makes nature into an object? The fact they in fact forgot their wine bottle is a direct consequence of this act (in other words, forgetting here is an active process).

In what sense are these the people to whom we can appeal when we want to “save the environment”? For what purpose are we so saving it? What is this “nature” we are saving? For either the devotees of our “earth mother” or the “cult of the outdoors” for whom nature is an object consumable by bike trails, ATVs, or “majestic views” (“121 feet of pure ahhhhhh!” as one billboard proclaims, advertising a waterfall), we are caught in the contradiction of human existence (an existence in culture, history, and industry) and animal existence (the brute facticity of objects): nature is always found elsewhere than the human—the concrete of sidewalks no longer qualifies as nature insofar as we proceed to identify nature only with the blades of grass in its cracks; and even then “real” nature is found by escaping the city, i.e., by “escaping ourselves” such that the proper form of prostration in the temple of Gaia is silent awe before the gigantic redwood or by listening to the cry of the eagle. The human, in other words, must subtract itself from nature and allow nature to “be present”. But the human can therefore never “be with” nature, for nature is then the “more-than-human world”. This dichotomy leaves us with one of two choices: either the supersession of nature by industry (God granted dominion over nature; work and technology is the essence of humanity; etc) or cultural suicide (i.e., the separation of animality from culture—a “return to nature” in the form of shamanic mysticism, aboriginal denials of technology, etc).

2. In his most recent work (although the majority of this work has not been published), Critchley has argued that the citizen requires a sort of “catechism” or, in other words, that politics requires a “supreme fiction” that functions as an authoritative ground or arche. The problem of modern politics, Critchley suggests, is that such authority can no longer come from God but must come from humanity itself; this is, of course, the problem of nihilism in the form of Jacobi’s formulation: either we are God or God is absolutely transcendent.

Perhaps something similar is true for thinking of nature. I had once, long ago, suggested that environmental advocates will never be successful in their efforts without a radical change in our cultural values and mores, for as long as the culture of capital continues to think in terms of accumulation, industry, and “rational self-interest”, we will never value the sacrifice of (personal) interest for the sake of “nature”. As a variation of this suggestion, perhaps what is needed is a new myth of nature. If the symbolic pagan religions were those whose myths precluded the development of industry—as so many of the bigoted ideologies of western Europe have argued—then what can we learn of the function of myth, if not the content of these myths that are now being fetishized by New Agers and so-called “nature-lovers”? MacIntyre has demonstrated convincingly that the ideology that has claimed to be done with tradition—i.e., liberalism—has itself become a tradition—yet one in bad faith insofar as it refuses to recognize its own status as such. It is this sort of contradiction that Critchley in his own way is indicating when he suggests that if modern politics is not to fall prey to nihilism (in the form of liberal democratic capitalism), then what we need is some kind of supreme fiction or what I am calling myth (obviously in reference to Barthes’ notion of “mythology”). Are there any myths available to us from within the ideologies of the western European tradition (I personally find Taoism more useful here than these)? What are the mechanisms by which these myths might function? Critchley suggests poetry. Perhaps, however, we might also not want to be so quick to dismiss the so-called “return to religion” as simply a tool of reactionary fundamentalism and not simply deliver the discourse of religion over to the right (if for no other reason than that we have seen how successfully the right has mobilized the resources of religion for the most fascist of purposes).