“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.


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.


The stars below

Kant observed that there is, in experience, an ineliminable subjective ground for the differentiation of space (e.g., it makes little sense for us to speak of the stars “beneath” us). But there is also, he says, “the right of reason’s need, as a subjective ground for presupposing and assuming something which reason may not presume to know through objective grounds; and consequently for orienting itself in thinking, solely through reason’s own need, in that immeasurable space of the supersensible, which for us is filled with dark night”. Kant prioritizes the practical needs of reason in this regard (not because we “want” to judge but because we “have to” judge). Yet is not the theoretical need exactly the same, i.e., that it’s not the incommensurability between reason and the understanding that is the source of our struggle against finitude but the right that reason claims over nature for the sake of its own consistency? Elsewhere, Kant explicitly notes that the fall into reason, leaving the “womb of nature” is “fraught with danger”. But as Nietzsche would later remind us, the danger is immanent to reason itself in the temptations of a double consistency. On the one hand, reason must regulate its own needs; on the other, reason must “make sense” of experience within the subjective unity of time.

And yet there is also the free play of the imagination, by which the aesthetic law within rebels against the practical (in the Kantian and the usual senses) demands of life. Bergson calls this oneiric impulse of thinking the “pure duration” of life in which the implosion of time into a creation ex nihilo collapses the distinction between past, present, and future. Memory, Bergson notes, does not merely preserve but, because of the vital movement of time, repeats experience infinitely in each moment through its diffraction in practical necessity. The artist’s daring, then, is to suspend necessity, perhaps even to tarry with death, so that we may touch the non-sense at the heart of sense (in Deleuze’s formulation), and to give us a vision of ourselves not beneath the sky above but as containing the stars below.

(Christian) theology as mathesis universalis

The Spinozist heresy is to have violated the hierarchy of the Aristotelian categories: God is not one being among many but Being itself. But there is more than one way to blur the ontological difference, i.e., as many ways as there are to count. There is, for example, the dialectic of the one and the nothing in Neoplatonic mathematics by which infinite progression telescopes to the one. It was the Christians, however, who taught us how to count directly from one to three: “we do not say that union is begotten from oneness or from equality of oneness, since union is not from oneness either through repetition or through multiplication. And although equality of oneness is begotten from oneness and although union proceeds from both [of these], nevertheless oneness, equality of oneness, and the union proceeding from both are one and the same thing …” (Cusanus).

The trinity is not only an ontological but a mathematical mystery: the simplicity and unicity of God is also the unicity of order. God is not only the infinite geometer, according to Plutarch, but infinitely arithmetizes; creation proceeds not from the word but from the number. “Number was the principal exemplar in the mind of the creator”, Boethius says (long before Leibniz’ “divine mathematician”), which is in itself a substance to which no other substance is joined (which is thus how number is then the measure of all things but not of itself). The echoes of Neoplatonic mathematics are clear: the unity of a being is at once its limit.

Cusanus gives us a clue to the passage from the ontological to the mathematical: “God is the being of things; for He is the Form of things and, hence, is also being”. For Plotinus, being consists of emanation from the one. Cusanus, however, following Thierry of Chartes (who was himself inspired by Boethius), introduces the concept of the fold into philosophy and mathematics:

a point is the enfolding of a line as oneness is the enfolding of a number. For anywhere in a line is found nothing but a point, even as in number there is nowhere found anything but oneness … Movement is the unfolding of rest, because in movement there is found nothing but rest. Similarly, the now is unfolded by way of time, because in time there is found nothing but the now.

All of these are images of the enfoldings of the Infinite Simplicity; in other words, Cusanus explains divine simplicity as nothing other than the enfolding of all things. Since, moreover, divine simplicity is the infinite mind, such that the thought of the divine mind is the creation of all things, our thought is an image of the eternal unfolding, hence guaranteeing the unity of thought and being.

The fold places multiplicity at the heart of being such that “God is so one that He is, actually, everything which is”. Cusanus is explicit in denying that oneness is number, “for number, which can be comparatively greater, cannot at all be either an unqualifiedly minimum or an unqualifiedly maximum. Rather, oneness is the beginning of all number, because it is the minimum; and it is the end of all number, because it is the maximum”. This proposition supports the paradoxes of De Docta Ignorantia: the coincidence of the absolute maximum and minimum and the assertion that “if there were an infinite line, it would be a straight line, a triangle, a circle, and a sphere” (so too Cusanus invokes an image of the divine trinity as a triangle whose angles are all right angles). More importantly, like Conway’s notion of the “intimate presence” of God to all creatures (“without any increase” in their being), the union of oneness and multiplicity folds all things in the divine without reducing being to the being of the divine (God is not-other). Against the Aristotelian convertibility of being and unity, then, Platonism in mathematics asserts not the being of number but the subordination of being to number. “The whole of nature is akin” (Meno 81d) only if the being of beings proceeds from the equality of one to one.

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.

“You must change your life” (Characters III)

1. The hand moves with the slightest and even unconscious impetus but the will refuses to budge, even with our best intentions. To explain how the mind moves the body is one of the easy problems; how, instead, is it possible for the mind to move itself? We resolve and yet we return again; we realize our true intentions and yet we persist; we notice that we have failed to satisfy our commitments even as we thought we had. “Whence this [monstrosity]*”, Augustine asked, that “the mind commands the mind to will, the mind is itself, but it does not do it”. The riddle and the solution are presented in a simple reductio: to move itself, the mind must be divided against itself and yet also, to be itself, unified as one mind. The conclusion – the “binding problem” – is inescapable: either we are called to act from beyond our will (perhaps even and especially in its desolation) or we must accept that the mind is not itself.

*Monstrum, which means both “monstrous” but also “wonder” in the sense of oddity.

Perhaps outside Freud, no one struggled with the reality of the divided mind more than Schopenhauer, for whom the human tragedy – which is not to say miracle – is the fact that consciousness arose from nature at all. There is perhaps no greater cruelty than the fact that whether by nature or freedom – it makes no difference which – we are never what we (think we) are, which is no mere hypocrisy but a necessary condition of our consciousness. This realization occurs in those rare moments when the spell is broken and we learn that every comfort has its price in complacency. These disappointments are often, however, not akratic but inertial: hours and weeks have passed blindly. Yet shame is a poor motivator and transforms the impulse to negate into the compulsion to repeat: we find that we are looking into the same eyes, after all, that we have returned to the same place, or that we are making the same confession yet again because we are incomplete:

for if the will were so in its fullness [plena], it would not command itself to will, for it would already will. It is therefore no monstrousness, partly to will, partly not to will, but a sickness of the soul to be so weighted down by [habit]** that it cannot wholly rise even with the support of truth. (Augustine)

Even when our reserves and our excuses are depleted, habit binds us inexorably to the existence in which we wallow, sunken into the past by persistent, unconscious recollection in every distraction and enjoyment. We “repeat backward”, in Kierkegaard’s formulation, seeking redemption for the past in the past as if what is missing can be brought to light as long as we persist.

**Consuetudo, which also can mean sexual intercourse.

There are moments, however, when we must stop, not because the next step is perilous but because it is not. “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking”, Camus observed. The nihilist and the misologist agree that thought is an arrest of life but for the wrong reason. It is not the ground itself that we must fear but we invite peril when we turn our gaze upward toward the sun. Life already tends toward death, particularly when we walk timidly with our eyes lowered. Thought endangers life by rejecting it, yes, but Camus’ famous remark that suicide is the only “truly serious” philosophical problem has often been misunderstood: the real danger is not that of a future devoid of meaning but, rather, that we may not be worthy of a future at all.

“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” (Adorno)

2. But is not the secret of redemption that we are never ready for it? “No one knows the hour” because the future – a true future beyond the sempiternal event of Christ – explodes ex nihilo not from the present but which is immediately captured by memory. We anticipate this future by what Kierkegaard called repetition: “when one says that life is a repetition, one says: actuality, which has been, now comes into existence”. Repetition inverts the causal order by transforming what was actual in the past into what was only possible until now – now, as we become who we were. Despair is simply recollection without repetition; death is life without redemption.

We can will (toward) death, certainly, but we must be called to redemption. But what calls for redemption? Our vocation is neither to preserve nor to care but, rather, to change.

Rodin torso

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not gleam like a wild beast’s fur;
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
[Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, tr. Stephen Mitchell]

The stone commands us, Rilke says, when we no longer regard it as a thing but when the divine idea “bursts like a star” as the objectification of the beauty of which we are capable, imago dei. The gods speak to us by speaking through us; but against the desire for unification (from Hegel to Feuerbach), the blessing of divine inspiration compels this alienation of the divine as sacrifice.

Yet Hegel was surely right to see that this alienation is an impossible separation, for it at once demands perfection while denying its achievement (as all erotic demands do). But we are not called not toward perfection (which would be unity and harmony) and the desire to be God is narcissistic and solipsistic at best. The force of the command consists in the fact that we do not know for what we must change because, after all, if we knew that much we would already be what we are trying to become.

We must change because we are not living rightly. But what demands this change is often not an experience of beauty but one of suffering. In both cases it is not my own life that calls for change but the face of another or the silence of the dispossessed: it is not they but I who am not living rightly. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”, Adorno observed, because we have no claim to happiness at the cost of responsibility. Yes, I must change my life, not to be happy with it but to be worthy of it.

Some rescued texts

These are rough, old, and occasional fragments but something of them might still be rescued.

“Otherworld”. What if life were not a dream? Cypher’s fantasy in The Matrix of then returning to sleep would have to be recognized precisely for what it is and we would have to take responsibility for our frivolity. Cypher makes his deal with the Agents indulging in pleasures he “knows aren’t real”, which he cannot but help enjoy. Such is the nature of all enjoyment having tasted of reality. What if life were not a dream? We would be freed of the burden to will ourselves to exist … but at what cost?

The recession has taught us to mortgage our enjoyment with apologies and excuses; but this has been no new lesson to those for whom enjoyment comes at the cost of blending in with a crowd that simultaneously constricts the opportunities for expression even as it adopts those models as its own. […] It is always possible to purchase a moment of anonymity and steal into the dream where everything is ok.

But what if existence were not enough—to be in the same world as music, tattoos, soccer, and ATVs—because the world rebels against justice, just as enjoyment is blind to suffering. Laughter and passion are antithetical (not that we have any trouble living in contradictions): the former requires oblivion while the latter forgets nothing even as it turns its back on existence for the brilliance of the future. Yet for us—we who would succumb to the temptation to exist—a future world does not need to be dreamt but demanded.

“Uncommon” [for J]: 1. The old cliché claims that there is a fine line between madness and genius. In fact, there is no such line. In both cases we are confronted with the one who by definition cannot be recognized by those to whom s/he must speak. Who are the paradigmatic cases of such madness? The one who preaches heliocentrism, who complains of dropsy and buries himself in manure, who advertises the virtues of tar-water, who gets locked in the attic, who dresses only in white, who collapses at the sight of a flogged horse, the ones who suffer aphasia and synaesthesia. These are the ones who shape our world precisely by being excluded from it, just as the acceptable forms of behavior and psychic life are defined by what is not permitted outside the sanitoriums and hospitals (what is not written in the DSM).

We cannot aspire either to madness or genius. Some, however, between madness and genius, are fortunate (or cursed) to be faced with a choice: whether to be seen or whether to remain invisible. Whereas solitude is a necessary consequence of either madness or genius, it can also precede either as their condition.

We might try, however, to distinguish madness from genius by recognition, i.e., objectively, since both are marked by the “inner conviction” that s/he is absolutely alone in the world or that s/he is the first to have arrived (this is, in other words, the ostensive difference between “greatness” and “delusion”). But this difference is only apparent, on the one hand, for to whom must one appear as a genius other than precisely to those who, if they really understood what was being said, would be no different than the one who is to stand apart? The one who stands apart is precisely the one who is not understood, else s/he would simply be saying everyone already knows.

On the other hand, the real mark of inner conviction is not (self-)certainty but a constant disbelief—the refusal to believe that things really are as they are, that what is obvious remains invisible or unspoken, that injustice is acceptable. Sometimes this manifests as the opposite of certainty: as doubt or the feeling that nothing is quite right, that a word is out of place or a line is too oblique, that “I really am different”.

By definition the mad cannot be the one who names himself and is able to exclude madness from the method of radical doubt. Ironically it is the madman who cannot be accused of solipsism. But who, then, is the one who names the madman or the genius? Who are the ones who must “take notice”? […] Who are the ones who did not have ears to hear?

2. […] Identify, be counted, be viewed—the spectacle and the charlatan.

Or: Do. Laugh. Adjoin. What are the forces that you can release? Instead of wondering “to whom can I be seen?” the real question is: what are the possibilities that I can see? In this harmony, in this image, in this phrase, this spiral, this vertigo, in you? What is the life we can construct from the fragments we have been given—the fragments of this body, this identity, this world?

Signatures and styles (Characters II)

1. Traces: In unfinished sentences. In the one sentence that refuses to leave, “like a handprint on your heart”. In the voices of indirect language, nothing is left unsaid yet, for all that, mutual understanding is eminently unsatisfying. I know that you know, but that is not sufficient. When it comes to another who remains an other—who remains distant, untouchable, and who possibly may not even hear what we have to say—we can find no satiety. In the midst of the most perfect understanding available to our language—for example, in an unspoken agreement, a slight nod, the upturned corner of a lip, or even in a sigh of content—we can find ourselves under the most violent, nauseating reduction, i.e., within the unbearable solipsism of absolute immanence. In such immanence there can be no exterior, “nothing else than this”. I am alone and present with myself (a divided being); I am bound to myself, unable to escape myself: this is the burden of identity, i.e., the impossibility of not being myself, even if I am nothing more than a solitary dreamer who is deceived into believing that there are others who see and understand me.

But even if all we have is the faint recollection of those we cannot even really be sure existed for us, they always leave traces—in words and lacerations, in images and memories, and in the spaces we refuse to visit because we are only able to walk the same paths as they, following the footprints that have been left behind. We follow, simply to see them fly ahead, even if every freedom leaves a trace that cannot be forgotten.

“Out of incidents comes a “Mark!” that would not otherwise be thus; or a “Mark!” that already is, that takes little incidents as traces and examples. They point out a “less” or “more” that will have to be thought in the retelling, retold in the thinking; that isn’t right in these stories, because things aren’t right with us, or with anything.” (Bloch)

2. “The Prose of the World”: Against itself, identity is compelled to fortify its integrity against dissolution into the impersonal “it” of the simple “there is …” [il y a], i.e., to be drawn into what is unthinkable (which, we say, always remains available to us as “the last option”). But so long as there remains even the smallest trace to catch our attention and to make us pause, there will always be room for one more story, even if it should be told to no one but ourselves.

In the immediate urgency and intensity of pathetic self-presence, we are tethered to a constant battle against a fundamental contradiction contained in the bidirectionality of appearance. The infinity of (self-)expression is restrained by the exigencies of a world that appears to us as finite. We ourselves are not the source of finitude, even if we are its servants. We find our possibilities scattered amidst a world of bare objects to be consumed, shaped, and resisted; we cannot find the right words; we are obligated to work, health, sex, and religion. This is why the story, for example, is often taken to be inferior to music: the former gives expression to our all-too-human destiny while the latter offers a glimpse to what is otherwise banished from our earthly life.

We find the “meaning” of our lives, our “own” lives, dispersed among the tenuous fragments of the world that come within our reach—in the friends and strangers who cross our paths, the books that find their way into our hands, or the motility that forms in our bodies. It is from these fragments that we assemble the secrets that we take care to measure carefully in the extent to which we trust that others at least know that they exist even if they do not know what they are. These private thoughts, however, are precisely the most visible about us because if they really are “who” we are, they give us the very form and figure by which we are seen at all. We are seen as ambiguous, which is to say we can be misunderstood and misrepresented. This does not mean, however, that we might be more “accurately” represented if only we could be seen for who we “really” are, but, on the contrary, that our very visibility precludes the transparency of our appearance. It is for this reason our silence, even if it is unintentional, reveals who we are by our refusal “to remove all doubt”. I appear in my silence, not with this or that meaning or as this or that kind of person, but as this or that, i.e., “I” become an effect of this “or”, for only when that “or” is decided do “I” appear.

This is why my possibilities are not my possibilities: we find our possibilities in lessons and auditions, in characters and role models, in greetings and surprises, and, of course, in language and in the names (by which) we are called. We must search for possibilities, of course, but so too they must offer themselves to us. This is also true of our language insofar as our prose admits only two terms in the relation (poetry require at least three)—nature and word—in which we are caught in a dizzying circulation that manifests as science, history, and literature. We are able to read the world (and to read the character of others), but so too our characters are capable of being read by being in the world. By the “cunning” of reason, in our very attempts to sketch our “own” characters, we become characters within the prose of the world.

It is for this reason that even the anonymity of a forgettable character is preferable to us than the oblivion of one who has never existed. There can still be ecstasy in the crowd, however, which is not, strictly speaking, impersonal but supra- or hyper-personal. To be “lost” in the crowd is still a mode of existence (this is why, for example, fascism is the shadow of democracy), but there is no existence for the one who is only a statistic (which is why we always struggle to give each statistic a story).

To be “lost” in the crowd is not only a negative mode of existence, however: insofar as the crowd offers a community of meaning, it functions positively as a mode of affirmation: “Yes, I agree” or “Yes, I know what you mean” or “Yes, we can”. We know, of course, that to separate ourselves from the crowd is only an initial gesture, since if the point is to be recognized as different, we are still affirmed as such by the ones who are the same.

This is why so many of the characters available to us are not only clichés but perversions (which, if they remain clichés, are perverions but not subversions). It is one thing for us to recognize the reduction of the human to the biological in the Third Reich; what does it mean for Littell’s Aue (a former SS officer) to say “So I came to think [at Auschwitz]: wasn’t the camp itself, with all the rigidity of its organization, its absurd violence, its meticulous hierarchy, just a metaphor, a reductio ad absurdum of everyday life?” This is the same character that opens his story with the words “My human brothers, let me tell you how it came to pass”. Who are these “human brothers” that, by virtue of their humanity, must have been absent for the story to need telling? Under what conditions of inhumanity (viz., of our inhumanity) does this character exist for us? What does it mean for a character such as this to exist at all? – But better to be a monstrous character than a well-functioning desiring machine.

“The whole outward visible world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual world … Thus everything which is generated out of the internal has its signature; the superior form, which is chief in the spirit of the working in the power, does most especially sign the body, and the other forms hang to it …” (Böhme)

3. “The Most Improbable Signature”: Though we often mistake style for the signature, we always look, for example, for the signature of the painter or we hear the unmistakable signature of the composer. When a counterfeit deceives us, when it is so good to mimic the signature of the “real”, it is precisely there that the artist’s signature is most visible: the counterfeit doubles the original and repeats, in every instance, the gesture of the original signature, which becomes a transcendental (metaphysical and temporal) presence. This is why, for example, under the “hyper-reality” of free signifiers, the contemporary problem of “identity theft” becomes so problematic: divorced from the real our signatures are autonomous and effective without us. Yet the “I” of the signature is not only “peculiar and special” (Austin’s qualifications) in its use and function but in the very mode of its being (Derrida): “My brothers, here is the story I have to tell.” The “I” here does not precede its utterance but is the “I” that has and will always have said it. We can no longer say “I am not that person anymore” and, if we had never told our story, we would never have existed. By the very same act that we leave our mark, we are surpassed by those to whom it is addressed and, in this surpassing, they leave their traces on us.

“Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now it is done.” (Montaigne)

4. Under the imperative of self-knowledge, the reflective consciousness always looks elsewhere. Our understanding runs the risk of being the mask behind which hide ourselves. The paradox is not simply that, to understand ourselves, we must be understood by others (in language, in communication, in archetypes, etc), nor that self-understanding requires the non-coincidence of myself to myself. The question is not one of intelligibility (how I do or do not fit); rather we have an essentially ontological question: where there is a fragment of being, there is a style of being (Merleau-Ponty); or, according to the great Plotninian insight, being is an effect of expression and not its cause. In the distance between the determinate individual and the idea of that individual there lies the expression without which existence cannot pass. It is not only the “unity of a world” that I recognize as a style but without a style nothing appears at all (which is also why the appearance of nothing is itself a style). Appearance, however, does not require a “universal” style if every appearance is itself a style.

Being and phenomenon converge in style. As Jameson observes in his earliest encounter with Sartre, “consciousness is pure, impersonal; even the feeling of having a personality is external to it, a kind of mirage … Mathieu is a consciousness at odds with the problem of freedom: impersonal and absolute, what he perceives is an ultimate reality. There is no other truth of things behind his perception unless we make the leap into a second consciousness and its truth and world, the reality of his consciousness is limited only by that of others, and there is no privileged place where these worlds finally meet and correct each other and form a single objective real world. Mathieu is his situation, his reality is a constant present developing itself; but at the same time, above that present in places we find traces of older recurrent character problems that remind us of their existence before our attention to the present sweeps them away again …” But, as we have seen with someone like Littell’s Aue, it is not the case that “the reality of the novel does not exactly coincide … with the reality of the human beings which are its subject matter”. We say, for example, that the characters of a novel are always in their situations—in which they are the heroes, the victims, and the accomplices—but they lack the possibility of reflecting on their situations, which is the task of consciousness. Yet we know that our own reality never comes under the purview of consciousness, either (at best we retain such awareness as a possibility by analogy with the unity of God’s essence and existence).

In addition to a style of being, characters have a style of life. To resist the conflation of a style to a type or a category (which has especially befallen so-called “alternative” styles such as punk, the avant-garde, etc), style must be understood not only as the inflections of a language, but the creation of new languages. What matters is not the scene of thoughts—the fields and milieux in which they appear as concepts and systems—but their style. On the one hand, a style of life manifests in a certain power of doing and acting, of creation and generation, of drawing those famous “lines of flight” of which Deleuze spoke. We might, alternatively, call a style of life what Ravisson called “habit”, which is “the infinitesimal differential, or, the dynamic fluxion from Will to Nature. Nature is the limit of the regressive movement proper to habit. Consequently, habit can be considered as a method—as the only real method—for the estimation, by a convergent infinite series, of the relation, real in itself but incommensurable in the understanding, of Nature and Will”. We must, in other words, always “find our way about” even as we already know our way about. We are simply this self-transcending nature—that creates its own differences, variations, and fractals—but what we are only appears as an identity, i.e., in time as the point where being contracts into the singularity of a unique appearance.

“[S]tyle also uses its spur as a means of protection against the terrifying, blinding, mortal threat (of that) which presents itself, which obstinately thrusts itself into view. And style thereby protects the presence, the content, the thing itself, meaning, truth—on the condition at least that it should not already be that gaping chasm which has been deflowered in the unveiling of the difference. Already, such is the name for what has been effaced or subtracted beforehand, but which nevertheless left behind a mark, a signature which is retracted in that very thing from which it is withdrawn. Withdrawn from the here and now, the here and now which must be accounted for.” (Derrida)

5. If we have survived the destruction of experience at the hands of war, the viral proliferation of information, and the sublimations of enjoyment, in its continued destitution, what we require today is not only a style of life (such as some have called philosophy), which is manifest in our appearance, but new styles of thinking that are neither mine nor yours, subjective nor objective, mythic nor logical; not Greek but perhaps, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis says, Etruscan; whose matter and form are not only words but sounds and movements; whose task is not to think itself but “to sing its other” (Desmond); whose language is the regard in which we hold each other or the promise offered to a young child; whose vessel is the justice that continues to elude this world; that can construct a world from a single tear, a note, a sentence, a gust of wind or an afternoon storm, a one-way street, or a peal of laughter.