On Pärt: the mirror of subjectivity

1. We lose the most important structural insights of intentionality when we approach the objects of experience only under the model of vision and the individuating effects of perspective and distance. In seeing, only the smallest, imperceptible lag—which is known to us only in phenomenological reflection*—separates the continuous synthesis of noemata from the unifying apperception of the one who perceives. The subjective illusion consists in the inversion of simultaneity and difference: the apparent simultaneity of the subject with its noetic activity compels us to affirm a difference between subject and object where in fact that (real) difference is in the subjective. What remains is to demolish the proscenium of the Cartesian theatre fully to understand that the location of consciousness is between subject and object.

*This illusory simultaneity that passes us unnoticed, like seeing our reflection in a mirror, also accounts for why, on the one hand, in the natural attitude we are all solipsists (I insist that the world appears to me and that, should the world be dissolved, I alone might remain) and also why, on the other, the mirror stage can only result in an imaginary act of identification.

Listening, on the other hand, affords the possibility of an experience of pure presence (without, like the sublime object, placing presence into question).

“To be listening is to be at the same time outside and inside, to be open from without and from within, hence from one to the other and from one in the other. Listening thus forms the perceptible singularity that bears in the most ostensive way the perceptible or sensitive (aisthetic) condition as such: the sharing of an inside/outside, division and participation, de-connection and contagion. ‘Here, time becomes space,’ is sung is Wagner’s Parsifal.” (Nancy)

Instead of the distance between the object there and the subject here there is only the pure presence of and as space itself (whereas distance is the measure of space). Listening abolishes not only the difference between subject and object but also the difference between presence and the thing (and therefore presence to …).**

**What Ingarden’s phenomenology ultimately refused to acknowledge—and thus the source of its fundamental tensions—is simply that there is no musical object. To use Benson’s terms, there is only a musical ergon within its energia.

2. What Pärt accomplishes in the tintinnabular technique of Spiegel im Spiegel is to cast in sound what Hegel had said of Romantic poetry where “spirit is pushed back into itself out of its reconciliation in the corporeal into a reconciliation of itself within itself … beauty becomes the spiritual beauty of the absolute inner life as inherently infinite spiritual subjectivity”. Pärt renders the inner life of subjectivity exposed to itself only in being reflected by an experience of bare harmony with little to no melodic interest. The triad is like a prism that divides the unity of the fundamental tone but it is the prism itself that “could be the spirit of the listener”. The subject only finds itself reflected infinitely between the notes of the triad and the accumulation of overtones in a sort of feedback loop where, as we know, even the most minimal differences create infinitely complex phenomena.

3. Spiegel im Spiegel stands in dialectical tension with the dissolution of subjectivity in Beethoven’s symphonies (see especially the third and fourth movements of the fifth and the second movement of the seventh). If Pärt exposes pure subjectivity, in Beethoven subjectivity and subjective intentions are subsumed by the perfection of form. In Pärt there is only the listener; in Beethoven the listener is merely accessory, like the gaudy ornaments for which an austere sensibility has no use. Beethoven’s symphonies are totalities to which the listener has no choice but to submit in unity. The great temptation of the symphonies is precisely this promise of redemption in the completed whole where nothing remains to be done. Between the tyrannical externality of form and its inversion into the infinite self-reflection of subjectivity, it is the world that must be called into question. Perhaps the resolution of this tension, then, lies somewhere between Mahler and Boulez.

A "fundamental" perplexity

A century before Hilbert, in his Beiträge, Bolzano proposed with astonishing prescience the autonomy of mathematics from transcendental philosophy. In a few brief, lucid paragraphs, Bolzano proposes a simple criticism of the Kantian project: not all objects that appear (to us) must have a form but only those that appear as external. Couple this observation with his definition of mathematics as the “science which deals with the general laws (forms) to which things must conform [sich richten nach] in their existence” and mathematics is effectively inoculated from the grounding mechanisms of transcendental philosophy from Kant to Heidegger.

In one sense, then, it should not be surprising that around 1961 the man who made Hilbert’s program so problematic should declare that there is something fundamentally correct about Kantian philosophy: i.e., that the construction of new mathematical theorems that cannot be derived from a finite number of axioms requires new intuitions. Yet Gödel avers here not to a Kantian notion of intuition—which he admits is unclear at best and, as Bolzano had already noted, simply false for a large part of mathematics outside geometry—but to Husserl and claims that in phenomenology philosophy for the first time meets the desiderata established by Kant. That is what should be surprising since the gulf between Kantian and Husserlian intuition seems too wide for the easy leap Gödel wishes to make.

Perhaps the missing link may in fact be Bolzano. Objects of perceptual experience, Bolzano claims, must have a form but also—unlike, for example, mathematical objects—sensible matter (as he says, something which “occupies [erfüllt] this form). Instead of the usual word “matter”, however, Bolzano asserts that these are also a priori forms (as space and time are for Kant), “except that the range to which the former relate is narrower than that of the latter, just as the form of space has a narrower range than that of time”. We are here well on the way to Husserlian hylomorphism; yet the later genetic phenomenology abandons the constitution of sense hylomorphically. As Henry has shown, for example, and as Husserl himself declares in the lectures on active and passive syntheses, hyle is ejected from its status as the blind content of the real into the life of the monad within which “a unitary nature and a world in general is constituted genetically … according to a constant process of attestation” (Husserl). Is this not the pathos of truth and the impossible ethical problem explored by Sartre insofar as, in his language, the “essence” of the for-itself is nothing other than relatedness (relation to itself, to being, and to others as three aspects of the same transcendental structure)?

Some critical orientations

1. If there is at least one lesson to be learned and retained from phenomenology, it is the irreducibility of consciousness and of conscious experience. Consciousness is not primarily cognitive, however, but affective.

2. There is no such thing as a purely “literary” criticism. Criticism is not defined by its objects (just as science is not defined by the objects of its study); nor must criticism begin from the presupposed unity of a genre. The dependence works in the other direction: the definition of a genre requires a particular critical orientation. For this reason, despite himself, Leavis more than anyone has understood that the supposed rivalry between literature and philosophy concerns the right to pronounce on matters of value. Criticism is not a third term between these two (since criticism is not itself a genre) but, rather, is a method. The error of continental philosophy is to assume that philosophical criticism must resemble literary criticism in either substance or style (whence the perhaps irreparable damage to the good name of continental philosophy by the sycophants of deconstruction). The rigorous definition of criticism as method remains the unfinished task of continental philosophy.

3. Where the logic of critical philosophy was dialectical, that of philosophical criticism is chiastic.

Fragment of a note on experience

Identity collapses into ontology the moment a claim to universality displays its falsity by its failure: another universality makes opposing demands. In this moment of undecidability, it must be possible to think of identity neither under the mode of what one is (ontology) nor what one must choose (ideology) but as what one might be (temporality). The critique of ideology must then have a twofold character: 1) to show that futurity is collapsed into the present and 2) to show that the future is named as ideology itself—i.e., as that which “is not” in the very name of negation. The name of negation under the operation of ideology is time: i.e., what “is not” as negation taken either as immediate (perception) or mediate (experience). To say that experience occurs “in time” is, strictly speaking, redundant: experience simply is time, not insofar as time is (passively) constituted but, rather, given that there is experience at all in the (double) phenomena of consciousness and subjectivity. Time is existence. Thus, strictly speaking, things do not “exist” (neither do they simply “exist-for-consciousness”). Existence is simply not a term that applies to objects: only consciousness exists. The idealist question “would the world exist without perception?” is nonsensical in just the same way “what time is it on the sun?” is.

"Dialectics at a standstill"

1. The formal and the transcendental: The distinction between the formal and the transcendental is beholden to a naïve opposition of subject and object. Both idealism and materialism attempt to introduce a third term into this opposition: the idealists say that not everything is a thing because there is negativity (which takes a number of ultimately equivalent formulations: things disappear, there is time and death, there is language), i.e., there are subjects; the materialists say that not everything is an idea because there is (something called) truth and discourse, i.e., there are objects. Between ideas and things, the dialectician erects the structure of subjectivity.

The dialectician asserts that the ‘I’ of any subject is neither an idea nor a thing, so there are at least three irreducible ontological terms. But perhaps we should acknowledge at least four:* that which appears (usually nominated as “fact” or “world”), that to which appearances appear or the “place” of such appearance (the “subject” or “thinker”), the appearance of that which appears (“cognitions”, “representations”, or “ideas”), and that to which appearances refer (“forms”). For the sake of simplicity, we might name these, respectively, object, subject, idea, thought. A series of relations among these four obtain.

i. {subject, idea} In cognition, we feel and experience. That of which we do so are objects {object, idea}.

ii. {subject, thought} Just as objects are that to which cognition is referred, there are multiple subjects because in thinking subjects must refer to thoughts (in Frege’s sense of the word “thought”). Both thought and object exceed cognition.

iii. {subject, object} A world. Experience and thinking are always local.

iv. {idea, thought} Truth.

The naïve subject/object distinction, then, can be recast in two different orientations: either as {subject, idea} and {object, thought} or as world {subject, object} and truth {idea, thought}.

*”At least” four insofar as these do not, it seems, quite account for time.

2. Mediation without dialectics: There is no immediate unity of thought in being—neither in the divine intellect nor in the phenomenon of an ‘I’: this much is taken for granted. But not all mediation is dialectical. The disjunctions between expression and the expressed, for example, are often not the condition but the failure of meaning; something new emerges from the “infinite abyss of meaning” when the laws of sense dissolve or from the gaps and ruins of history. These have otherwise been called the minimal things (Gaché), the most subtle touch (what Derrida calls the “barely touching touch”), the objet petit a (Lacan), the void (Badiou), or perhaps even Bataille’s “expenditure”. What is at stake here is more than the naïve infinity of a reflection that, since Fichte, has failed in the task it sets for itself. What emerges not only from the failure of such reflection but even from the destitution of a world that refuses to be destroyed? How can the necessity of thought (including the sense of its imperative) be understood as more than a resistance against its dissolution (e.g., the persistence or conatus of life) but also as the construction of new objects (even from, but not requiring, the destruction of worlds)?

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.

Vox populi: philosophy and politics

1. Those who would wonder about the political relevance of philosophy—for example, by insisting that there is such a thing as “political philosophy” or by puzzling over Marx’s eleventh thesis—decline to recognize that philosophy, properly speaking, has always been political. This necessity was not forced on it from the outside (e.g., by sophism) nor simply from the existence of doxa (philosophy is not the antidote to either of these). Rather, politics as a form of life issues a demand that philosophy ignores at its own peril on pain of its obsolescence—that its time should come to an end (without ruin and recovery, for such a task is precisely the work of the philosopher).

We find ourselves, however, in a form of life that requires a new philosophy. However we might wish to designate our form of life, what is at stake is not the claim of “the part that has no part” in the systematic exclusion from what is properly political from politics. Under the ideology of a sham liberalism (a sham because it does not exist), whose proponents have never been more vociferous in their affirmation of deliberative democracy, what we witness in politics today is not only the inexistence of certain political subjects but the unintelligibility of their demands. This inexistence, which is more damning than simple non-existence, binds them to existence only in the mode of being declared, by fiat, not to exist. What is at stake in the fight for justice includes the sense of that justice, for justice is self-compelling to the ones who have ears to hear and, as such, cannot be the end of politics. The ellipsis preceding the phrase “and justice for all” defers justice indefinitely, which can indeed come too late for the ones who never see it.

When a politics operates under a systematic principle of exclusion under the principle of universality (e.g., protecting the “basic building blocks of society”), what is required for the construction of the political (subject) is a new thought. Philosophy is not politics nor does philosophy give a sense to politics—that is the work of the political subject. Philosophy consists in the creation of new thoughts or, more precisely, in new possibilities for thinking. This is, for example, what Gödel would endorse in Husserl: “[phenomenology] is … a procedure or technique that should produce in us a new state of consciousness in which we describe in detail the basic concepts we use in our thought, or grasp other basic concepts hitherto unknown to us”. But, as we know, reflexivity in the phenomenological method does not merely “leave thought as it is” but, Gödel says, moves us toward a “higher” state of consciousness (ein höherer Bewußtseinszustand), just as we witness the development of a child. This is, of course, what he said in his famous incompleteness theorem: that thought will always have an exterior to its own (reflective) determinations. Whatever name we might give to this procedure (phenomenology, dialectics, etc), only when thought can come to recognize its own inexistence* can we begin to think what for us now is impossible. Such is the political task of philosophy.

*We might be tempted to say that thought should be “woken” (Kant, Lévinas, etc) except that we might wonder why thought should not be allowed to dream (Bergson, Bachelard).

2. Philosophy, therefore, does not begin from but moves toward the everyday and consists in the construction and subsequent deconstruction of the everyday. We know, of course, that there are levels of sense (for example, there is “common sense” but there is also eidetic intuition), but the topography of thought is not hierarchical. The word “sedimentation” is misleading if for no other reason than that thought does not consist of strata but of fields and their relations (which are given by transcendental logic). To give an account of “the everyday” is to give an account of conditions, i.e., the conditions for thought itself. Conditions, however, are causes, which is why thought operates under the hypothesis of universal determinism (which implies logical monism**). There is no “everyday” until it is identified under a matrix of conditions, just as we cannot be ignorant until we are aware of our ignorance. “Common sense” has no sense until it is constituted, just as thought is not thought until it is thought (this must be what Kant meant when he spoke of freedom from our “self-imposed immaturity and servitude”). The dialectical faith is that in moving toward consistency, thought will always encounter its impossibility. It remains to be seen how we will handle this limit; so far, our responses to these situations have not been encouraging.

**The either/or should not be understood as a binary operation (which is obviously true in the syntax of disjunction in logic) but as a categorical one: a sort of synecdoche for the category (not “either/or” but, rather, either/or/or/or/or …).