“We have never been postmodern”; or, Notes toward a new concept of the chiasm

1. Baudrillard, that paragon and scapegoat of postmodern ephemerality, once proposed that

a certain form of thought is bound to the real. It starts out from the hypothesis that ideas have referents and that there is a possible ideation of reality. … The other form of thought is eccentric to the real, a stranger to dialectics, a stranger even to critical thought. It is not even a disavowal of the concept of reality. It is illusion, power of illusion, or, in other words, a playing with reality, as seduction is a playing with desire … This radical thought does not stem from a philosophical doubt, a utopian transference, or an ideal transcendence. It is the material illusion, immanent in this so-called ‘real’ world.

The fractures between thought and the real in the spectacular age were nowhere more evident than in the simulacra of war, according to which Baudrillard could argue that the (first) Gulf War “did not take place”. We still, today, have not grasped the rhetorical strategy and intervention into the media terrain deployed by Baudrillard in this claim, which continues to be interpreted by friends and foes of postmodernism alike as the godfather of our contemporary “war on truth”.

Baudrillard continues:

at all events, there is incompatibility between thought and the real. There is no sort of necessary or natural transition from one to the other. … It has doubtless not always been so. One may dream of a happy conjunction of idea and reality, cradled by the Enlightenment and modernity, in the heroic age of critical thought. Yet critical thought, the butt of which was a certain illusion … is in substance ended. … It has broken down under pressure from a gigantic technical and mental simulation, to be replaced by an autonomy of the virtual, henceforth liberated from the real, and a simultaneous autonomy of the real which we see functioning on its own account in a demented — that is, infinitely self-referential — perspective. Having been expelled, so to speak, from its own principle, extraneized, the real has itself become an extreme phenomenon. In other words, one can no longer think it as real, but as exorbitated, as though seen from another world — in short, as illusion.

It is with the second Gulf War that we see Baudrillard’s thesis nakedly in the destruction of the twin towers (which, according to some, were not destroyed by planes): a pure event in its indiscernibility from a non-event.

towers

Mitchell described that event as “a new and more virulent form of iconoclasm” because the destruction of the towers was “a globally recognizable icon, and the aim was not merely to destroy it but to stage its destruction as a media spectacle. Iconoclasm in this instance was rendered as an icon in its own right, an image of horror that has imprinted itself in the memory of the entire world”. Thus every image of the twin towers is an image of an image: the event of 9/11, what “took place”, is inseparable from its mediatization* or what Mitchell calls the “biopicture”. “The terrorist is the figure of iconoclasm and the destruction of living images, literally in the form of human bodies, metaphorically in the destruction of monuments”. The collective American fantasy in response has produced, from within, the very unspeakable and unimaginable horrors of the terrorist through the expansion of its juris-diction (as Mitchell observes, “the law against the representation of something in words or images must, in effect, always break itself, because it must name, describe, define — that is, represent — the very thing that it prohibits”).

*Mitchell defines a “medium” as “the set of material practices that brings an image together with an object to produce a picture … understood as a complex assemblage of virtual, material, and symbolic elements”.

Baudrillard’s thesis is both epistemic and ontological: the claim is not that we can have no knowledge of the real but, rather, that we do not know (at least anymore) what the real is because the real (including the reality of consciousness) has become not the “product of discourse” but always duplicated, encoded, disseminated, imaged, simulated, and overdetermined.

There is some irony in the fact that the critics of postmodernism have themselves confused the hoax for the reality. There is no more important concept than truth, for example, in the late Foucault’s work on the parresiac utterance as “the introduction, the irruption of the true discourse [that] determines an open situation, or rather opens the situation and makes possible effects which are, precisely not known. Parresia does not produce a codified effect; it opens up an unspecified risk” (here one could also analyze the logic of the differend in which the codification of discourse silences the articulation of a wrong). If postmodernism is to blame for the present quagmire of relativism and “alternative facts”, it is perhaps not because we have read too much Foucault but because we have read too little.

2. “What does critique want?” (for M.K.) When Mitchell asked of pictures what they want, he was gesturing not only to an analogy between images and life, nor to the viral propagation of images but, rather, with the particular form and content of images within the present biopolitical regime of the reproduction of terrorism as the acephalic clone wherein the destruction of an image (e.g., the twin towers) is also the production of an image (e.g. Abu Ghraib).

This duality of iconoclasm and iconoclash mirrors our “double consciousness” with respect to images, as both a shadow thrice removed from reality and also autonomous from it. The question “what do pictures want?” arises in this chiasm of the lack and excess of the image: the lack of vitality in an image allows it to receive a hyper-reality through its communication, circulation, and dissemination until the real is transformed into what had “only” been an image.

2a. In a pair of lectures from 2004 and 2010, Latour worries that the general structure of critique (viz., of naturalism, truth, etc.) has ironically given its weapons to the “instant revisionism” of conspiratorial dogmatism against which, as its counterfeit double, no form of rationalism can mount an adequate defense. Instead of asking, however, what demands critique, we might also ask what desires are produced by the critical impulse. On the one hand, critique must be both timely — in its response to particular material, historical, local, and contingent conditions — and untimely; thus the aporia of critique since Kant: critique always gestures behind, beneath, or beyond the given (as ideological, phenomenal, etc.) toward what cannot be known an sich. When philosophizing with a hammer that demolishes the appearances to reveal the chaotic monster of energy beneath, we languish in negativity (“how hetero!” “how bourgeois!”) and, thus, in nihilism.

On the other hand, as Nietzsche had reminded us, to speak of “illusion” requires us still to believe in truth. Latour accuses the critical gesture of disingenuity when it proclaims simultaneously that (1) any “fact” is merely the projected “white screen” of ideology, discourse, etc., while at the same time insisting that (2) all thought and behavior are determined by the brute facts of (in both senses of the genitive) objectivity. Latour thus suggests a new orientation (“composition”) that leads not away (e.g., from facts toward their conditions) but toward facts, i.e., that not only debunks but assembles, toward the thingliness of things in a “renewed empiricism” that asks “how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence”. The Thing is no longer opposed to objects but, given the collapse of the bifurcation of Nature, “they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart [ob-ject]. … What the etymology of the word thing [as object and as juridical apparatus] … had conserved for us mysteriously, as a sort of fabulous and mythical past has now become, for all to see, our most ordinary present”.

We should hear, however, not only the Heideggerean but Lacanian (and Levinasian, as Critchley has argued) resonances in this claim. The production of images and fantasies not only protects us from a direct exposure to the Thing but just is the sublimation of the death drive. Within our “most fundamental” metaphysical activity, however, the aesthetic contains a trace of the excess of the ethical, viz., in the fact that there is more to the life of an image (e.g., that of myself or others) than its reality as an image: that you and I are both an image (e.g., a digital image) and more than an image.

Just as Bergson had argued that possibility is not less than actuality but an addition to it, so too Latour asks whether we ought to add reality to matters of fact rather than subtract it (what is impossible, of course, is the isomorphic correspondence between the two). It is not merely that we must “fight for the facts” in the face of, e.g., climate change denial but we must ask what comes “after Nature” or, rather, after the postmodern collapse of the distinction between nature and politics. Latour’s own “politics of nature” attempts to address this need to re-compose both science and politics given the irreversibility of critique (i.e., in the fact that the “simply true” cannot even serve as a regulative idea), despite the apparent reversibility of “progress”.

Like the Bergsonian élan, the problem of subjectivity is not only one of lack but that of a figure of excess, in which we see the objective correlate in the basic ontology of modernity: production as over-production. As we know, scarcity is constructed as the abject remainder of excess and what we must confront today is the saturation of ontology by capital (as the primary objective cipher of excess). The dialectic of lack and excess is both intra- and inter-subjective. McGowan has recently argued that the point at which lack and excess become indistinguishable is the comic, in which we momentarily encounter this chiastic relationship:

our everyday life is distinctively humorless because it sustains itself by keeping excess and lack at a distance from each other. … The strict separation of lack and excess produces whatever stability our social existence has. The disturbance of excess remains confined to a separate domain where it doesn’t intrude on everyday existence. It might be funny if one showed up at work after drinking ten shots of tequila, but if everyone did it, the work would cease to function efficient. The social order punishes those who bring excessive acts into the everyday world by taking away their jobs, their friends, and ultimately even their liberty to act excessively.

What, then, does it mean to grasp the truth of the subject (e.g., in its “care”) when what appears to be its fundamental truth is contradicted at every turn by the real(ity principle), e.g., when the truth of desire is what must be disavowed (“I don’t really want to be drunk at work”)?

3. Toward a concept of the chiasm. We cannot approach this question without understanding the relationship between lack and excess. The postmodern sensibility presents us with (at least) two possibilities: dialectics or deconstruction.

On the one hand, after the end of history, we have now seen what escapes dialectics. Anthropogenic climate change, for example, is the dialectical catastrophe of history that has produced a real excess that escapes capture. But the central question for dialectics is whether that which escapes is immanent (thus totality) or whether there is an exteriority (or, better, an élan or tendency) that eludes dialectical construction (thus infinity).

The logical form of dialectics resolves contradictions at the point of self-reference by enclosing the transcendence of totality. Deconstruction excavates a second reflexivity internal to each contradiction: what appears as a binary is more like an Aristotelian contrary, in which the priority of the one term over the other can be reversed and, subsequently, the entire opposition displaced.

In both cases, the dialectical and deconstructive gestures would show the participation of lack and excess within the totality (which, thus, can be named as such in the absolute idea) or that excess is itself a lack that must be overcome. The chiasm of lack and excess would locate the point at which it is indiscernible which appears, thus neither equating them (i.e., as exchangeable in explanation) nor to resolve the contradiction (e.g., by demonstrating their interdependence) but to tarry at the point of freedom where the indiscernibility of the two suggests an escape (a clinamen?). Thus the chiasm is a triple appearance: lack, excess, and the third. According to dialectics, the third is nothing but the difference between lack and excess (the difference between lack and excess is thus immanent to the contradiction); but in the chiasm of lack and excess, the third appears because of the difference (and thus is emergent from the contradiction). If dialectics begins with two, chiastics begins with three.**

**There is, perhaps, a deconstructive relation between dialectics and chiastics, given that chiastics presupposes dialectics and yet cannot itself be the result of dialectical criticism. If there were a chiastic relation between dialectics and chiastics, we will have conceded too much to dialectics. Chiastics, then, are a sort of supplement to dialectics by which there is the possibility of reference from one to the other but preserving an incommensurability between them.

The double genitive is exemplary of a chiastic structure: the duality that is both distinct but wherein each has a trace of the other (like the taiji of Daoism). Certain polysemies are also chiastic in this sense: to be “significant” (in the sense of “important” but also to “function as a sign”) rests on both the distinctness between the meanings of the word but only momentarily, as we can hear the trace of the one meaning in the other or, in other words, the indiscernibility of their identity and/or difference.

Thus the infamous problem of dialectics: whether we can speak of the identity of identity and difference or of the difference between identity and difference. The chiasm of identity and difference is not simply the possibility of their transposition but the fact that they become indiscernible at the point of reflexivity. It is precisely because it is possible to speak of the identity(n) of identity(n) and difference(n) — like the Gödel sentence as a chiasm of the mathematical and metamathematical — that there is an alternative to the dialectical resolution of the Third Man.***

***The tendency of Hegelian dialectics is from the either/or to the both/and (the same and the different are seen as the same from the point of view of semantic ascent, in an analogue to the problem of Forms). The tendency of Platonic dialectics, on the other hand, is toward pure multiplicity of an-archic principles beneath all hypotheses, including the idea of the good that is not the form of forms (the lack of which guarantees such multiplicity).

On the one hand, the identity of identity and difference is the dialectical totality of the absolute; on the other hand, the immanent production of a difference between identity and difference (e.g., the Badiousian event) can only be named after the fact (in “fidelity”). The chiasm of identity and difference is an indiscernibility that allows for the emergence of a concrete exterior within a determinate triadic relation that is neither wholly outside the relation (e.g., as a negation of the difference) nor a two-dimensional totality but, like the resolution of paradoxes, a three-dimensional relation (e.g., not the creation of but a triangulation of (an) identity).

There are, of course, different forms of indiscernibility: for example, there is that which is vanishingly small, that which is simply outside our capacities for perception and conception, or that which is too much for it (e.g., the sublime). Indiscernibility is itself a chiasm between lack and excess. We see this chiasm too in the indiscernibility of the dialectics of lack and excess both as logical and ontological: on the one hand, it is the concepts of lack and excess that are dialectically intertwined as well as the real itself as the dialectical relation between lack and excess (e.g., in the subject). This duality of the onto/logical is a chiasm, just as the dialectic of lack and excess is itself the chiasm of the qualitative and quantitative (i.e., lack and excess refer both to the quantitative and the qualitative, separately and yet simultaneously).

The supplement of chiastics to dialectics is especially urgent for our post-modern sensibilities that has rejected the possibility of grand narratives and the subsequent rise of “post-truth” wherein truth and falsity are indistinguishable. There is today an ethical imperative to see both beauty and barbarity, as well as both truth and falsity (clumsily proclaimed in the cliche that we must “see all sides”). What must be resisted, however, is the convertibility of the two: we must see the barbarous in the beautiful (as Benjamin famously said, to see that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism) but not vice versa. Of course, through perversion, it is possible to equate beauty and barbarity by seeing the beauty in the barbarous. The chiasm forces upon us a choice that cannot be settled by the logical form of the problem: the third that arrives at the heart of the contradiction, in this case, is the face of ethics.

Ethics, as we have known since Kant, is the chiasm of freedom and responsibility, whose dialectical collapse in the Holocaust has resulted in the indiscernibility of active and passive nihilism in the present age (e.g., in the conflation of postmodernism with dogmatism and relativism). But while the indiscernible is not an escape from determination, our search for the determinations of that which exists must be Janus-faced, i.e., not only toward what has escaped our efforts at lucidity, transparency, and totality, but toward what has been forgotten — to what is but not present, that is to say, toward the future.

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The solitude of the inner citadel: the epoché of suffering

0. One cannot call oneself a philosopher today without blushing, not from indignation at Thracian laughter, but from shame. Philosophical logoi seek only the truth, Socrates said, but within institutions and practices that reproduce the contradictions between truth and reality. These contradictions simmer both within philosophy and at its discursive and disciplinary boundaries, whether in the willing masochism of its subservience to the mastery of the sciences – or, on the other hand, its resentful ordination of its own wisdom as superior – its timidity in the face of liberal and neoliberal ideologies of domination masquerading as “opportunity”, or in the simple falsity of an ideal of rationality whose Balkanization of the discipline seems to be irresistible.

Like all power, the work of philosophy in this regard is both conscious and unconscious. On the one hand, the institutions of philosophy speak with what Yancy (following Fred Evans) has called the “oracular voice” that not only itself maintains the boundaries of philosophy but is the voice from which all philosophy pretends to speak (at the lectern instead of the pulpit). “Philosophy, on this score, becomes a universal substantive, unaffected by context, history, language, custom, sentiment, prejudice, geography, and so on.” Even the tokenizing attempts at “inclusivity” become ways in which “the oracle voice can engage in discourses that celebrate forms of pluralism and diversity that further obfuscate its maintenance of power”.

Even when we recognize this shame, however, the difficulty of proper reflection is that the operation of power is to be both that to which we are subjected and that from which we are enabled as subjects, i.e., we are always subjects in both the passive and active senses simultaneously. Thus, often, our attempts at addressing the sources of our guilt remain blind to the way in which those attempts reproduce our errors.

In a recent series of essays on the problem of implicit bias, analytic philosophy has attempted to acknowledge the ontological, epistemological, and metaphilosophical problems of (cognitive) implicit bias and stereotype threat. The concluding chapter of the first volume of this series attempts to intervene in the present configuration of the philosophical institution by observing it. Participants in a series of studies were asked about their associations between maleness and philosophy. Yet the approach, borrowed from the social sciences, itself fails to interrogate beyond the fact that such an association may or may not exist. This failure is, ironically, reproduced implicitly by the authors’ explicit and repeated bewilderment over the fact that the longer women remain within philosophy (which often tends not to happen beyond an undergraduate major), the less they associate philosophy with maleness (which is the opposite tendency for men in the discipline).

By contrast, Marguerite La Caze has developed Le Doeuff’s method of excavating the philosophical imaginary that is both excluded from the work of philosophy and yet constitutive of its possibilities to define an “analytic imaginary”, i.e., both the images, analogies, and metaphors of philosophy themselves and the philosophical imagination at work in their construction in the service of the conceptual analysis that arguably remains the core of analytic philosophy. This imaginary is one that “instead of fostering an atmosphere of interdisciplinary excitement (the “open-ended” philosophy envisaged by Le Doeuff), the analytic imaginary reflects “closed-off” philosophy, a narrowing within the discipline of philosophy itself”, ultimately, one might add, to the point of cannibalism; or, as in the above example, the substitution of philosophical analysis with experiment. In general, however, the subordination of images to concepts is merely a symptom of the fundamental structure of a form of thinking that undercuts its own possibilities while, eo ipso, producing itself by means of this exclusion. If Hegel has taught us anything, surely it must be that a non-dialectical resolution of this contradiction can end only in self-destruction and terror.

Roughly contemporaneously with the more famous description of the philosophical image of thought – and whose relative unrecognizability confirms her argument – Le Doeuff’s method is not merely one that champions the necessity of images for philosophical thinking but also one that refuses the anonymity of the kind of thinking blind to its false universality. Just as Laclau and Mouffe (long before another, more recently famous account) proposed that the construction of any polity or discursive formation capable of articulating the demands of power by virtue of its construction will always generate the possibility of its de-construction by what it has excluded in its demands, the situation of philosophy today is one in which we can no longer pretend that we are innocent of reproducing the same violence that the philosopher has suffered at the hands of the sophist and the misologist. Since Kant, philosophy’s suspicion of the supersensible has nevertheless not stifled the desire to make that other world its home (to see the world with “the view from nowhere”). The present emergency of thought – not only for the sake of the philosophical institution’s continuation but the unavoidable guilt of its primitive accumulation (i.e., its archive) – demands the collapse of metaphilosophical questions into nothing other than the practice of philosophy itself. Here Deleuze follows Nietzsche in his insistence on the becoming-active of thought against the tendency of reactive thinking beholden to what is always considered to be exterior to it (a “pure” thinking in imitation of the unmoved mover). The forces that make thought active do violence to it (in what Nietzsche called cultural education) by breaking the identity of the true and the good (i.e., against the “natural” impulse to truth). Yet the loss of this identity is not mere relativism since the violence done to thought is directed at its purity: we are forced, perhaps against our will, to confront our guilt in the manner in which we exist in the world; as Yancy says, a critical pedagogy that teaches us how to think is one that shows us that “philosophizing is inextricably linked to those problems and conundrums that have been historically inherited and that the determination of the nature of a philosophical problem is not given a priori; rather, it is tied to and evolves out of a lived historical tradition”. In short, before we can arrive at the truth, we must pass through justice. Philosophical reflection, therefore, can only be directed inward by first being directed outward. Just as Sartre’s investigation into intentionality showed that every movement inward throws us back, inexorably, out toward the world, turning the philosophical gaze outward allows us to see our faces, which are unobservable from the inside.

1a. In his explanation of transcendental apperception in the B deduction of the first Critique, Kant dissolves the problem of solipsism: the awareness that I have of myself is only possible because I exist in a world of perceptions that cannot be subtracted from me, even by an act of thinking. Existential anguish, that simultaneously personalizes and anonymizes, is only possible because of a self-delusion and a forgetting of this insight, i.e., the illusion that solipsism is the truth of reflection or that it is possible for an act of thought to strip the universe bare of reality. The true subtraction is the one that was unthinkable for Descartes. If, ex hypothesi, contradictions are unthinkable, the I am was a tautology for Descartes: I could not conceive of myself without existence and it is impossible to think “I do not exist”. On the one hand, the ego rebels against the absurdity of this proposition; on the other, the ego always has one eye turned toward this absurdity in its secret desire to languish in the tumultuous ocean of existence and perhaps even to drown in it.

But as Hume observed, “I” do not exist. We cannot subtract existence from the world, nor can we remove ourselves from the world (even by an act of thought), but we can ask what it means to be a world. But here the language and grammar of modern subjectivity are beholden to an inappropriate image. To say that we are “situated” or “in” a world, retains the structure of the “inner” and the “outer”, such that reflection becomes an “inward turn” or “introspection” or even “bracketing”. If, instead, the topological structure of the subject and its world is conceived as a Klein bottle, then transcendental reflection is that which grasps the traversals of affects, forces, and perceptions of the knot of subjectivity, similarly to the way in which Maturana has described perception not as sensible contact with an “external reality” but the “specification” of reality according to the particular mode of interaction between the living system and its medium (where “boundaries” lose rigorous meaning in favor of structural relations). Maturana embraces the immediate consequence of this account: all living systems are cognitive systems, such that those living systems that contain nervous systems are capable of internal modification as well as the physical modification of its unity with respect to its equilibrium. (Admittedly, what remains underdeveloped in Maturana’s and Varela’s account of the biological basis of cognition, which is currently being explored by Thompson, is the distinction between cognition and what we might call “mind”.)

We can go further: the fundamental drive of thinking, as an expression of life, is not merely stasis but the refusal of limits (what Nietzsche called “will to power”). We may call this drive ambition, the desire for immortality (or simply to be God, in Sartre’s language), or the intuition of the totality. The paradox of philosophical reflection, however, is that this desire for the infinite has not yet liberated itself from the images of subjective finitude that seeks to go beyond the horizons of understanding that it discovers.

Kant repeats the illusion that produces this paradox when he finds the infinite in the power of reason itself, whose infinity is greater than the objective infinity of the sublime. It was Hegel who dispels the illusion in the dialectical imbrication of the infinite within the finite, not only as a spatial but a temporal moment of totality. The same onto/logical gesture is repeated in what Butler describes as Hegel’s “temporalization” of the universal. Against propositional conceptions of abstract universality – such that the universal would be reducible to what is “common” or capable of universal predication – the concrete universal only exists speculatively, i.e., in the dialectical unity of thought and being, which is incapable of strict isomorphism because the identity of thought to its object is nothing other than their mutual transformation. Thought attains the universal only in its activity or its becoming-active.

1b. The temptation of finitude is the ultimate expression of the philosopher’s desire for solitude, which no one has ever found. Descartes is always haunted by the existence of an other – the skeptical reduction of existence to the primary sense of the I am presupposes the possibility that I am not the reason why existence is doubtful – and Stein has shown that empathy is sui generis. The other always resides in the silent heart of the epoché. In his metacritique of pure reason, Hamann locates the original capacity for thought not merely in the receptivity of sense-impressions but a sensibility of the passions (in what we might call a passio essendi) expressed in the angelic language of joy and praise, as opposed to the discursive language of human understanding.

So too the inner division of the subject, which is always discovered by what Sartre called impure reflection or any objectification of the subject, forecloses the possibility of solitude. Turning the gaze inward reproduces the psychological antagonisms within us, both empirical and transcendental, even in our quest for silence (or Buddhist emptiness). Where there is silence, as Cage discovered, we are always confronted by the persistence of our own heartbeat and the limit of its regularity such that we are always alone with ourselves.

2a. Like Kant, Freud insisted that reason is only possible as an embodied capacity, describing the ego as the “projection of a [perceptual] surface”. The duality of the activity of the ego, at the boundary of the conscious and unconscious, “falls into line with popular distinctions which we are all familiar with; at the same time, however, it is only to be regarded as holding good on the average or ‘ideally’”. We inhabit not only a perceptual world, however, but a world in which we are confronted by the living bodies of others. In his analysis of the psychic pain at the loss of a loved one, Nasio notes that the disruption of the ego occurs not only intrasubjectively but also intersubjectively: the attachment is not only in the unconscious fantasy of the other: “this part is not confined to the interior of our individuality, it extends into the space of the in-between (entre-deux) and attaches us intimately to his or her person”.

Nasio’s insight into the pain of mourning and melancholia is that the loss of the physical presence of the other brings us too close to the chaos of the drives, which is ordered by the fantasy of the loved one. Pain is the final resort of the ego to prevent its collapse into the id. The symbolic representations of the loved one function as the unconscious joining of the subject with the real desire provoked by the loved one. But, importantly, the other also has an imaginary presence in us. Nasio provides a striking image of this presence: “the body of the other is duplicated by an internalized image. … The imaginary other is thus simply an image, but an image that has the particularity of being itself a polished surface on which my own images are permanently reflected. I capture my own images reflected in the mirror of the internalized image of the loved one. This image has the ability to be simultaneously the image of the other and the mirror of my own image”. Like a Leibnizian monad that has been everted, the internalized image of the other reflects not the multiplicity of the world but the multiple perspectives of myself (Nasio notes that “the psychical mirror of the image of the loved one in my unconscious must not be conceived of as the smooth surface of a lens, but as a mirror broken up into small, mobile fragments of glass on which confused images of the other and of myself are reflected”).

In the loss of the real presence of the other, “we also lose the rhythm according to which the real force of desire vibrates. To lose the rhythm is to lose the symbolic other, the limit that gives the unconscious its consistency. … [W]e lose the cohesion and texture of a fantasy indispensable to our structure”. To compensate, the ego can overinvest into retaining the image of the other, almost to the point of identification with it. But what this pain reveals is that what appears in solitude at the loss of a loved one is not the absence of the other but the continued presence of the other in its violence. The other remains within us; but when we cannot see or feel the other as ourselves – i.e., in the protective fantasy of the loved one that structures my desire – we see not ourselves reflected in the image of the loved one (on “introspection”). What appears in this solitude is the withdrawal or abandonment of the other and the nothingness that I am without the other. As Rimbaud says in his famous letter, the poet suffers the torture of “all forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself” and ultimately finds that “Je est un autre”.

3a. Yet the suffering of solitude is, as Nasio reminds us, also protective. There is both the involuntary loss of a loved one but also the possibility of self-withdrawal. The temptations of solitude are especially alluring not when others are lost but when their presence is overpowering or oppressive. “Freedom is the possibility of isolation”, Pessoa says,

You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory, or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendors of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant, but you’re not free. … To be born free is the greatest splendor of man, making the humble hermit superior to kings and even to the gods, who are self-sufficient by their power but not by their contempt of it. … Tired, I close the shutters of my windows, I exclude the world, and I have a few moments of freedom. Tomorrow I’ll go back to being a slave, but right now – alone, needing no one, and worried only that some voice or presence might disturb me – I have my little freedom, my moment of excelsis. Leaning back in my chair, I forget that life oppresses me. Nothing pains me besides having felt pain.

Pessoa’s pessimism, like those other more famous pessimisms, consists in surrendering to the photo negative of Sartre’s famous formula: we are condemned to unfreedom. Under particular social, economic, ideological, and affective configurations, however, such unfreedom is either slavery or simply the restlessness (l’inquiétude or desassossego) of thought, i.e., either political or ontological (even as late capitalism attempts at every turn to collapse the distinction). On the one hand, our tranquility is always traversed by the forces of the earth:

After the last rains left the sky for earth, making the sky clear and the earth a damp mirror, the brilliant clarity of life that returned with the blue on high and that rejoined in the freshness of the water here below left its own sky in our souls, a freshness in our hears. Whether we like it or not we’re servants of the hour and its colors and shapes, we’re subjects of the sky and the earth. Even those who delve only in themselves, disdaining what surrounds them, delve by different paths when it rains and when it’s clear.

Those paths are simultaneously external and internal. Pessoa continues: “each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways”. The multiplicity of being extends all the way down into the depths of thinking wherever it goes. Thinking is always a disturbance because the multitudes in me cannot be contained; each one resonates to a different fundamental frequency, only sometimes in consonance.

3b. The conditions for restlessness, however, are both subjective as well as objective. If I cannot escape the burden of (my own) existence, the allure of solitude is not merely a flight from others – which too is impossible since I am nothing but the other’s presence in me – but the desire to make what is unconscious conscious, i.e., to construct a fantasy of the other independently of their real existence (as in the usual sense of the term “fantasy”) and, thus, to “find myself” without the response and responsibility (the “validation”) of the other. The retreat to the “inner citadel” (Berlin’s term) is the final attempt to evade the only choice we have: refuse or acquiesce to the terms and conditions of the world into which we have been born.

Yet madness awaits in every direction; the payment can be delayed but the bill will always become due. However, we can neither refuse to exist in our world nor welcome what is intolerable, particularly when the reality of injustice permeates and infiltrates us. We are de-sensitized by the banality of oppression. In a recent interview, Arundhati Roy asks:

what do you do when a people have lived under … the densest military occupation in the world for 25 years [referring to the Kashmiri]? What does it do to the air? … What does it do to people who don’t know when their children will come home? Now you see schoolgirls throwing stones at the army. … And, crucially, what does it do to the Indians, who are not protected from this war? They are fed these atrocities … with a soundtrack of applause, and we are supposed to swallow this absolute cruelty and keep it in our stomachs, much as you are expected to celebrate every time the U.S. government goes and destroys a country, you know, and you’re all supposed to stand up and applaud. But what does it do to us to hold that in our stomachs?

We today have already mourned the death of God but have not yet atoned for the fact that it is we who have, in our righteous fury, killed him. The repression of that guilt compels us to see the face of God in the other, with the consequence that we can only love our neighbor by restaging the Oedipal scene in every glance, judgment, and deed. Yet even as our capacity for cruelty is ubiquitous, our restlessness is the conscience and consciousness of oppression. Thought that insists on its purity, rising above the pettiness and triviality of the mundane, is not only to be mistrusted but guarded against as the instrument of banality.

4. We cannot demand honesty from others, however if we cannot first be honest with ourselves. While we cannot avoid illusions, the illusory quality of our representations need not be falsifications but, rather, fragmentations of reality. What must be resisted is the tendency to reconstruct the totality glimpsed only in its facets.

The moonlight seen through the tall branches
Is more, say all the poets,
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches.
But for me, oblivious to what I think,
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Besides its being
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches. (Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa, The Keeper of Sheep XXXV)

The world demands no justification. Only we, the thinkers, stand in need of it ourselves.

Notes toward a manifesto for philosophy in the 21st century

1. Philosophy today is divided between two contrary – and both false – commitments: (1) to the insistence that there are “enduring questions” of human life and (2) that there should be “progress” in philosophical discovery (the paradigm for such progress, of course, being the natural sciences). On the one hand, the formulation of any such “enduring questions” is necessarily either (onto)theological or nihilistic; on the other, we have only confused (mostly linear) models of progress. The illusion of “enduring questions” consists in the fact that philosophical questions repeat and we mistake repetition for sameness. The demand for progress is often confused with the demand for “answers” to these “enduring questions” of humanity.

2. Art, Langer claims, is not merely the expression of feeling but of the idea of feeling. “The illusion, which constitutes the work of art, is not a mere arrangement of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern; it is what results from the arrangement, and is literally something the artist makes, not something he finds. It comes with his work and passes away in its destruction. To produce and sustain the essential illusion, set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality, and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living, is the artist’s task.” A few pages later, when discussing the visual space of a painting, she observes that “pictorial space is not only organized by means of color … it is created; without the organizing [Kantian] shapes it is simply not there. Like the space ‘behind’ the surface of a mirror, it is what the physicists call ‘virtual space’ – an intangible image. … Being only visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which we live …”. The autonomy of painting consists, then, not in the fact that the painting is not a tool and thus excluded from the motive space of action; rather, the painting exists as independent (virtual) reality that is not merely derivative or reducible to the material or the sensuous.

2a. Similarly, philosophy is the expression of the idea of an idea or, more precisely, the formal constellation of ideas. Both Spinoza and Husserl, in their own ways, insisted on the emergence of ideas from affectivity. Thought is a sort of bending or folding of affect, which forms both its ground and its effect. Philosophy responds to the emergency of thought in a double sense. (1) Thinking emerges from transcendental, formal, and political conditions for which philosophy must not only account but create (Fichte contra Kant) and atone (Benjamin). (2) We must ask not only what “calls for” thinking but what demands cannot be ignored or unheard.

3. Previous centuries have had their own figures of philosophy: the peripatetic, the cynic, the statesman, the monk, the courtier, the German professor, the writer. The figure of the philosopher in the twenty-first century is the dissident.

3a. Philosophy must refuse the temptations of “relevance” for, if successful in the endeavor, would merely affirm the status quo. The primary task of contemporary philosophy is not to be “relevant” to our lives but, rather, to give expression to the distortions and abjections that make these lives possible, impossible, plastic, beautiful, and diminished. To that end, the paradigmatic objects of the philosophical gaze must no longer be tables and lamps but states and dollars.

4. In a surprising remark at the end of his reflections of the status of political philosophy in the analytic tradition, Williams asserts that “in its insistence, at its best, on the values of unambiguous statement and recognizable argument … its patience … its willingness to meet with the formal and natural sciences … in all this, and despite its many and often catalogued limitations, it remains the only real philosophy there is”. Among his observations of analytic philosophy’s fraught relationship with value theory and often its explicit Balkanization, Williams redeems the impurity of political philosophy in the sense that even within the terms that settled the collapse of the fact/value distinction, any analysis of meaning (à la Davidson, for example) must be determined by empirical constraints at the risk of being “indeterminate and pointless” (Williams specifically accuses Wittgensteinian philosophy for its rejection of the latter requirement). But in this sense, philosophy is not only impure but normative (perhaps even in the ancient sense) because it is itself an expression of a shared life. In this sense, then, philosophy is innately political, not because speech forms the common basis for both, but because sympathy is among its fundamental affective conditions.

4a. Just as Langer famously proposed to think of a philosophy in a “new key”, the genres of philosophy are related like musical modes. What in the same essay Williams called the “systematic demands” of philosophy is not merely the need to “apply” fundamental philosophical concepts to politics but to hear the political in the ontological, the ethical in the logical, and the beautiful in the transcendental.

4b. Philosophy need not choose to be political; the choice to be apolitical is not only a performative contradiction but a surrender to sophistry. But the normativity of philosophical thought is not the same as a “plan of action” (in the same way that a painting is not merely a duplication of the real, a philosophical idea, e.g., of justice, remains virtual). Philosophy constructs the possibility of a life worthy of love, for which we must fight.

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.

What is a transcendental argument?

(The following is a brief note in response to this post.)

Rorty once suggested that the peculiar fate of transcendental argumentation is its independence from and even its opposition to transcendental philosophy. Since Davidson we have been rightfully suspicious of the distinction between content and schema that seems to be central to Kantian philosophy and which falls on its own terms. Instead, however, of the idealist separation of form and content, the minimal, irreducible difference on which transcendental argumentation turns is between what there is and what can be said about it (which holds for any recognizable transcendental argument from Kant to Wittgenstein, Strawson, and Putnam). But the price that transcendental argumentation must pay is truth as correspondence. In fact, any strictly transcendental argument must surrender the prima facie objective validity of any reference other than self-reference, where the latter functions as the essential logical form of transcendental argumentation (“you cannot reject X without presupposing X”) as well as the ultimate purchase of such arguments (which result in knowledge about but not knowledge of). Perhaps against himself – and against his absolute idealist critics – what Kant demonstrated was that we lack knowledge of our own subjectivity and, indeed, criticism consists in nothing other than the fact that subjectivity can always be called into question. But such questioning proceeds hypothetically (“if you say Y, then you must presuppose X”) and negatively, i.e., transcendental philosophy must reject any particular fact as epistemically basic since all such facts are subject to constitutive rules governing the possibility of their interpretation, viz., qua facts, but which themselves say nothing about the world. All transcendentalism is therefore a structuralism that insists on a tripartite distinction of language, thought, and world founded on the excess of each to the others.

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.

A philosophical education

1. Paraphrasing Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (where Cicero is himself paraphrasing Plato), Montaigne gives us the famous remark that to philosophize is to learn how to die. We prepare not only by banishing the fear of death through understanding, however, but because in contemplation per se we are most acquainted with death. While initially Montaigne calls contemplation a withdrawal from our bodies, contemplation is a sort of resemblance or mimesis of death by which we are ultimately liberated to our bodies (not from them) in the pleasure of life.

We prepare for death not by thinking about death but by a desire for the good. This is why, for example, Spinoza insists that one who is free “thinks of nothing less than death” (E4p67). The paradox is that thought is like death but it can never be of death.* The liberation of thought from death consists in being (of) death without letting death appear before us, which is why for the Epicureans the thought (of) death manifests as ataraxia instead of Angst, i.e., an affect of life as a dialectical negation of death (to think (of) death is only possible by not thinking of death).

*Significantly, in his allusions to the third way of knowing, Spinoza never satisfies his promise in the Ethics to discuss that part of the mind that remains after the body perishes.

2. If we learn how to die (which, instead of a “preparation” for death is actually learning a desire for the good) by thinking, it is necessary that we learn how to think. It is not surprising, then, that the same duality in thinking (of) death is that which we find in those who teach us most purely how to think. There is always and necessarily a sort of trickery involved in that lesson: we are led to believe that we are learning “about” something (else) when, in the end, we realize that the (real) object of our thought is simply “how” to think. It is true that philosophy per se enjoins us to think—by convincing us that we must think when and because we usually are not—but there are those who grasp that we cannot say that what we’re thinking about is how to think on pain of reflexive failure. Yet such reflection is precisely what essentially philosophical thought accomplishes, i.e., to show that ultimately what is thought “about” is (thought) itself but only by making it not “about” itself. In short, thought thinks thought (Metaphysics 1074b35) not by thinking itself.

Consequently, the problem of philosophical expression is intrinsic to the attempt to think. There are many ways—not all of which may be successful but a significant step is taken by the recognition of the problem—of thematizing the possibility of philosophical expression (e.g., (eidetic) intuition, the speculative proposition, more geometrico). The tendency toward mysticism results from a fundamental confusion either between (1) the limits of thought and what is actually constructive of it or (2) the relation between thought and being. The proposition that “the True is the Whole” or the ontotheological thesis of the One-All mistakes a reference to or representation of totality as if it were something other than (discursive) thought because of the timorous conviction that that which cannot be thought must be other to thought (which is correct) and whose otherness must fall on the side of being (in other words, the mistake is to posit that that which must be thought for thought to think “itself” is not itself, yes, but neither is it on the order of being). What all the pure thinkers (of) thought have grasped is that there are no forms of thought but there are only performances and repetitions.