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.

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Weakness and possibility (variations on a theme)

1. In Bloch’s inversion of Hegel’s critique of Kant, he asserts that freedom is not only realized in the material community of individuals but in the positive idea of politics. The utopian “suprahistorical” idea of freedom is not real but ideal in the sense of the world-to-come in the action of political subjects. Freedom is thus not in history but, rather, the positive end of historical subjects’ conscious activity. It is against the background of such utopianism that Benjamin invokes the necessity of messianic redemption or, more precisely, the notion of history as the anticipation of the Messiah. Only the Messiah “completes” history, not through justification but by forgiveness, i.e., by disrupting history with a new order of time “beyond all remembering or forgetting”.

Here Benjamin explicitly follows Lotze’s suspicions of the grand style of world-historical thinking (or “universal history”) that leaves invisibility (including that of women) and stupidity in its wake. What good is a blessing in which we cannot participate, Lotze asks, when our toil is for the benefit of those who come after (always after)? Humanity does not, he says, “consists in a general type-character which is repeated in all individuals” and “the existence of a vast spiritual proletariat, which there seems no possibility of removing, is an objection which the idea of history as the education of mankind must find it hard [indeed impossible] to overcome” (Microcosmos 7.2,; Benjamin quotes several passages around this text repeatedly in the Passagenwerk). The logic of history, Lotze says, leaves it bereft of any moral exigency, for what can be imperative to those whose fate is outshone by the glory of the enlightened?

Precisely because they have been forgotten by history, Benjamin says, the moment of their recognizability has passed. The task of the critic is to expose the discontinuities and contradictions through which we might infer the “barely missed” opportunities from what history has forgotten, whether through its blindness or its mendacity. The past becomes visible not only objectively in the traces of time but also subjectively in the awareness of what is missing, viz., in the “secret agreement between past generations and the present one” that we shall be the gate through which the Messiah passes. On the one hand, we must wait; yet the work of anticipation is not mere complacency since the “weak messianic power” of redemption is only a possibility. Jewish messianism refuses to bind the individual into the corpus mysticum of universal history but at the same time also rails against the vanity of injustice. Anticipation begins in remembrance because it is through the dialectical image that we recognize the discontinuity between past and present, i.e., that there was a certain moment in the past when the present became possible and, since there can be no resurrection or redemption of the past, we must look for the traces of the future that will remain after our time has been shattered.

2a. Modernity begins the moment creation is recognized as infinite decomposition. “We are dying from the moment we are born”, so the cliché goes and only an essential fatigue could have precipitated the fall into time. Eternal happiness, it turns out, is unbearable if only because it is interminably boring.*

*Boredom, Heidegger says, is the Grundstimmung of modernity and the necessary condition for the metaphysics of Da-sein in which being is revealed as time itself. As Goodstein argues, however, in what is perhaps still the best treatment of boredom as a modern phenomenon, what gets presented existentially in Heidegger is irreducibly cultural and historical.

But our consciousness of this fall makes it impossible to desire eternal happiness (again) without thereby perversely desiring our present wretchedness. The truly religious desire is not for paradise but patience:

“When you have seen a corruption in every conviction and in every attachment a profanation, you no longer have the right to expect, on earth or elsewhere, a fate modified by hope. You must choose some ideal, absurdly solitary promontory, or a farcical star refractory to all constellations. Irresponsible out of melancholy, your life has flouted its moments; now, life is the piety of duration, the feeling of a dancing eternity, time transcending itself, and vies with the sun. . . .” (Cioran)

Consciousness is caught between the impossibility of a justified life as much as it is by a justified death (as Cioran reminds us, while the thought of suicide is fundamental to consciousness, for example, it is contradicted by the act). Happiness denies justification to every suffering as much as the converse. To make suffering the end of consciousness, however, is not an act of strength, since, lest we fall victim to the most vicious ressentiment, we must also realize that, ultimately, suffering offers neither vengeance nor remuneration.

2b. Is this not the lesson of Christian generosity, i.e., that weakness is the precondition for actual generosity (Lk 6:30)? Abundance and surplus preclude generosity, because it is neither generous to give what one does not need nor to be freed from the appearance of necessity (on the other hand, infirmity of character also excludes generosity since it is not “generous” merely to be taken advantage of). This is Marion’s point, for example, in his recent argument against the notion of sacrifice as destruction. The gift, he argues, “is accomplished in an unconditioned immanence, which not only owes nothing to exchange, but dissolves its conditions of possibility”. His point here is similar to Caputo’s notion of the “weak force” of creation, i.e., that an actual creation ex nihilo cannot be a gift since nothing is “given up”. But while Caputo resists the image of the causal—and ultimately pantheistic—God that imbues existence with goodness, equally we must resist the God from whom “significance and promise” follow; instead, in a slight turn of phrase, the event offers only a “promise of significance”. Weak theology names the transcendental, however, only by renouncing the claims of justice.

On the other hand, for Derrida, the true transcendental is nothing other than democracy and why messianism is structural and not religious (as he explicitly claims in Specters of Marx). Democratic anarchy must necessarily resist the ideology of hope or any passage from existence to goodness. “If I happen to have written that [democracy] “remains” to come, this remaining [restance] … pending [en souffrance], withdraws from its ontological dependence. It does not constitute the modification of an “is,” of an ontological copula marking the present of essence or existence, indeed of substantial or subjective substance” (Rogues, cf. “The Supplement of the Copula”). If we must wait, we seek not the good but the possibility of what, at present, has been made desperate and even unthinkable.

3. If the fundamental insight of contemporary (critical) hermeneutics is that being is nothing other than language and, consequently, that mediation is everywhere and the structure of the real is in itself dialogical (and thus historical), it follows that language, the beautiful, and the good are co-constitutive and that there is a convertibility between truth and rhetoric. Vattimo has argued this point most directly through the collapse of ontology into hermeneutics. If, then, it is not Da-sein but simply being itself that is disclosure,*** “the ‘objects’ toward which the verwindend and andenkend attitude of post-metaphysical thought turns itself are not exclusively the messages of the past. Metaphysics is not only transmitted to us in the contents of the Geisteswissenschaften, in the humanistic heritage of our culture; it is ‘realized’ in the Gestell, the scientific-technological organization of the modern world”. The task of thought, then, is to interpret the real as this organization and structure. Just as there is no seeing without seeing-as (Wittgenstein), all being is adverbial.

***Just as information theory posits that the fundamental nature of reality is the transfer of information, the hermeneutic-semiotic equivalent here is simply to say that to be is at least to be a sign.

Nihilism then has a positive destiny for Vattimo not only in the destruction of the highest values (Nietzsche) but in the narrative construction of communal existence. But this existence has neither ground nor justification in anything other than the possibility of its coming-to-be in persuasion (which, of course, need not be exclusively discursive). The destiny of humanity consists in nothing other than the re-definition of what it means to be human as the principal task of interpretation. Instead of deploying a voracious will-to-truth as scientific victory, hermeneutic thought posits the possibility of truth neither as given nor to be found either objectively or in the confidence of an inner certitude but, rather, in a world that we, together, might one day actually affirm in good conscience.

For Iphigenia

In a strange note from 1870/1, Nietzsche wrote that “I see enormous conglomerates taking the place of individual capitalists. I see the stock exchange falling victim to the curse under which the casinos have fallen”. What is strange is not Nietzsche’s prescience but, rather, that he says this fate is cause for pity for the “rich or talented egoist” and that somehow such pity is the “solution of the social question”. The entire (brief) note opens with the invocation of tragedy as the most fitting “teacher” of the human.

Interpreting this note turns on what we take Nietzsche to mean by “the social question”, about which we know nothing from his published work from this time (he was still working on The Birth of Tragedy). This is still the Nietzsche for whom, with Schopenhauer and Wagner, culture is only possible for the life of an organism “greater than the individual”; where the production of the (artistic) genius is the goal and purpose of nature itself such that, as Nietzsche would declare in an unpublished appendix to The Birth of Tragedy, “to supply the soil for a greater development of art, the vast majority, in the service of a minority, must be enslaved to the demands of life beyond their individual need”. Nietzsche criticizes both the liberals and the socialists and, in his praise of war, argues that the purpose of civil life is to sublimate the impulse to war into the production of art. With the socialists against the liberals, Nietzsche observes that the bourgeois state strives, as much as possible, toward the “perpetual peace” of a world in which “a condition for war is an impossibility … through the creation of large, evenly matched states and mutual guarantees between them” but, in doing so, “the truly international, homeless, money hermits … have learnt to misuse politics as an instrument of the stock exchange and both the state and society for their own enrichment”. The individual, Nietzsche says, is nothing other than the “representation of the primal One” or the appearance of the primal One to itself. But why should the One thus appear? This the great mystery, Nietzsche says: the appearance of a will to existence that Nietzsche describes in all but name as nothing other than signification (in the Lacanian sense): “what is meant by becoming conscious of a movement of the will? A symbolizing process that becomes clearer and clearer. Language, the word, nothing but symbols. Thinking, i.e., consciously imagining, is nothing but envisioning and linking linguistic symbols”, i.e., in the language of discourse as opposed to the mythic language of magic. Discourse signals the reaching of consciousness back toward an origin that thinking always is but can never be insofar as ‘I’ am nothing other than the continuous process of relating to my origin (else I would simply be causa sui). There is a sort of “pure past” that must exist as my origin (I am born into a family, a culture, a people) and thus I have a certain mediated access to this past through education yet I must also posit this origin as that which will have always been “my” past but which must always have been since this past must exist without the temporalizing passivity of my consciousness. The excesses born of this gap between the intelligibility of the “I” and the mystery of its origin—the suffering of non-coincidence—are masked by tragedy. The dual tendencies of the Apollonian and Dionysian express life as both reason (necessity) and the forgetting of reason—the momentary collapse of the ego in the recognition that life must consume the individual.

Thus Sloterdijk is quite right in this commentary on Nietzsche to observe that “the origins of justice lie in permission—that is, the acceptance of a great abundance—and not in prohibition, as a narrow-minded dialectics would have it, and also not in the proprietary appropriateness of a decisive establishment of values”. As Nietzsche would say in the third Untimely Meditation, “no one has a greater claim to our veneration than he who possesses the drive to and strength for justice [emphasis added]” and that such a person “desires truth, not as cold, ineffectual knowledge, but as a regulating and punishing judge”. The revelation of the “higher order”, the search for truth, and the virtues of goodness, love, and charity, Nietzsche writes in an earlier note, are “practical drives” to correct the world, “pure instincts” of those with the strength to live and to suffer without delusion and resentment (which, for the record, is exactly what Hobbes had said in his lament for the dearth of such noble characters). Nothing is easier, as we know from psychoanalysis, than withholding from ourselves the satisfaction of our desires. Hence the Greek conception of justice (dikaiosune) had nothing to do with the liberal ideal of regulation and redistribution and was intimately associated with what under a different lexicon would be considered the vast injustice of a world where weeds and flowers are indistinguishable. If there is such a thing as modern tragedy, it is not only that the impulse to justice must be fueled by rage (Achilles, Clytemnestra) but that it will consume the lives of those who pursue it.

Words and reason

1. Perhaps the greatest embarrassment to Enlightenment philosophy is the persistence of the extremism of stupidity that we must suffer as one effect of the proliferation of social media. On the one hand, according to critical philosophy, the free individual is identical to the activity and substance of the World Spirit that has no other meaning except the existence of politics as historical existence (which distinguishes modern from the ancient state). On the other hand, Ronell has brilliantly demonstrated that stupidity remains equally embarrassing for empiricist philosophy: “as concerns its need to observe and experience the idiot, it crashed against the wall of the real” since any attempt to describe the non-discursive non-disclosivity of the idiot forces us to postulate the natural that, ostensibly, the idiot simply is. Free from the corrupting influences of culture, the serene idiot would never pass into civility and would remain forever dumb. Thus “nature, like idiocy, is an effect of the erasure of naturality, a figure of lost literality” (Ronell).

2. And as both Ronell and Nancy have shown, Kant duplicates this circularity of culture and idiocy within pure reason (both theoretical and practical). On the one hand, pure practical reason only appears, empirically, in the silent will of actually virtuous individuals who possess virtue “as a gift from the gods” (Plato, Meno), quite indifferent to any (philosophical) account of it. On the other hand, Kant’s own self-conscious failure as a writer leaves critical thought “scrambling, ever searching to write itself” as neither philosophy nor literature (Nancy); Kant could never arrogate to himself the name of the monstrous genius of the Third Critique that “gives the rule to nature” at the cost of being so intimately bound to it. Since Kant’s renunciation of literary finesse, “beautiful writing has been feminized and homosexualized, as so many attacks on theory reveal (or try to conceal). Kant, for his part, openly struggled with two heterogeneous entities: philosophy, on the one hand, style and elegance, on the other, feminine, one” (Ronell). Kant writes the limits of reason by a parody of the idiot. Hence Nietzsche: “I have some idea of my privileges as a writer; in a few cases I also know the extent to which familiarity with my writings ‘spoils’ your taste. You just cannot stand other books any more, philosophy books in particular” (Ecce Homo). What Nietzsche’s imitators failed to grasp is that style is not a disguise for thought but its very language. The idiot has no style; in response, the philosopher and the postmodernist make equivalent mistakes, i.e., either to renounce style or to substitute style for form. Style is, rather, the ability “to communicate a state, an inner tension of pathos, with signs, including the tempo of these signs” (Ecce Homo)—and is not this passion the origin of all philosophy? The inequality of thought and experience moves the philosopher from complicity to speech and any philosopher worthy of the name speaks to be heard for a single reason: that to remain silent would be an affront to those for whom experience has been neither just nor magnanimous.*

*This is also why, moreover, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a book “for all and for none”: how does one speak to the idiot? “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. At the end of the day, this has been my usual experience and, if you will, the originality of my experience” (Ecce Homo). But where sense passes into non-sense, Nietzsche no longer speaks as a philosopher but as an artist.

Irony and criticism

To the extent that romanticism has ever thought itself as capable of criticism, its figural gesture par excellence is that of irony. This is a gesture of negation purified of objective intention—a withdraw into the absolute will of the ego who is able to live amidst a hostile world only by denying it with a simple “no”. The ironist is the one who is able to live in the world without being of the world. But this is precisely an immediate negation that “is frightened of being polluted by contact with finitude” (Hegel) and easily devolves into the sentimentality of an adolescent defiance of mood at the expense of action. Even an absolutization of negation (e.g., Kierkegaard) cannot free itself from the exteriority of the world for the ironist whose only experience is his own: viz., the power (dunamis) of pure possibility—the possibility always to be otherwise than the objective presence of the world “taken ironically”. The monism of infinite subjectivity, however, precludes the possibility of action and, therefore, of criticism. A simple negation is always beholden to the given; so too “playing with nothing” is obviously undialectical and it is not clear that the ironist is even capable of self-criticism, which would require the mediation of an other. This is why, for example, at least one modernism would look to the sublimation of comic laughter as the transcendental moment of criticism (Nietzsche); another would find, in the late Beethoven, subjectivity as “an irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance as art. Of the works themselves, it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher …” (Adorno). A critical art leaves us, in either case, with the bare, naked object in the only form to which it is available to us as an object of criticism—in the subject pulled out of itself to be dashed against the contradictions and injustices from which it cannot escape since, for us, there can be no escape.

The politics of music

“By voicing the fears of helpless people, [music] could signal help for the helpless, however feebly and distortedly. In doing so it would renew the promise contained in the age-old protest of music: the promise of a life without fear” (Adorno).

“… [music] is not a copy of the phenomenon, or, more accurately, the adequate objectivity of the will, but is the direct copy of the will itself, and therefore represents the metaphysical of everything physical in the world, and the thing-in-itself of every phenomenon … music gives the universalia ante rem and the real world the universalia in re” (Nietzsche).

A sort of constellation: Adorno and Nietzsche. But, instead of drawing a line through Wagner (as Bauer and Ramply have already suggested in their respective ways), perhaps we need instead to detour through Kant’s first Critique.

The temptation is to think that what we need is an undistorted image of suffering, such that there could be a direct correlation between representation and the will by means of the concept. But it is precisely because of the distortion of the image that an aesthetics of thought is possible—through a secondary mimesis that refers thought to nothing other than non-coincidence. But this space is unlivable, perhaps even unbearable—and we express or discharge this experience in our bodies: in a tremor, the closing of our eyes, in the next step, in the sense that something—I know not what—has happened.

Addenda: 1. “Music” cannot be the name for a genus. There is no essence of “music”. We can only relate singular performances to a unique line extending to each of its inter- and contexts on the one hand and to its future effects on the other. Consequently, there is no one criterion for music (and its redemptive power).

2. After hearing “Blue Cathedral”, one would be quite justified in the hope of a truly feminine music from Higdon. Unfortunately many of the other works, such as “City Scape” ultimately amidst the bombast try to do too much, i.e., attempt to communicate a concept or a representation instead of quite literally creating a new space (a new aesthetic) through the material of the sound image (which is the greatest virtue of the tone poem). Instead of an image proper, “City Scape” gives us the self-indulgence of infinite romantic subjectivity masquerading as a beautiful object.

Why write? (On the prelude, à la manière de Sartre)

The danger of writing is falling into the false dichotomy of production and consumption. In both cases, writing is therapeutic and, therefore, outside the economy of use: either we write to “express ourselves” (discharge of affect) or we take pleasure in words that express what we are not ourselves able to say. In both cases, the appropriate response is merely “Amen” and our words fall flat despite our enthusiasm precisely by being absorbed into the economy of exchange according to which the meaning of our words is exhausted by either our intention or by our understanding. There is writing, however, whose existence is not that of understanding. This is not, of course, to say that the purpose of such writing is to be misunderstood. This is a writing that enables us to go on, i.e., not to persist in being but, in a precise sense, to ex-ist. This is the sense of the corpus that we get, for example, in its most profound sense in Nietzsche (here Gasché is most certainly correct). What, Nietzsche asks, is a writing that sounds? What is the body the writer creates? What is the experience that writing makes possible?