Affliction; or: fate and circumstance

1. The existence of fate depends on the extent to which we have ceased to believe in it. This will seem paradoxical only to the one for whom fate is nothing but circumstance—especially those circumstances in which we find ourselves burdened by the weight of exteriority (including the projected aspects of our character that we assign to the carelessness of nature)—“my father was an alcoholic”; “our family has always been susceptible to heart disease”; “what are the chances we would both cross this intersection right now?”; “I had the moral good fortune to be born into a democratic state”; “I just have an addictive personality”.

It is by crying against the injustice of fate that we are able to love everything about ourselves that we hate—for if this is our fate, then there is no one to blame. It cannot be the fault of God since to hold God accountable for our miserable fate would be to believe in him (and to believe in God we cannot hold him accountable for our suffering); neither can we blame a nature indifferent to my own sense of dessert (apart from the providence of God) in which I have merely the illusion of uniqueness due to the fact that I must experience the world from its exterior—I am only “in” the world by being able to separate myself from it in/by thought.

But, of course, fate is not always unkind. But we all know how difficult, how terrifying, and how breathtaking it is really to affirm fate and not simply to delight in the immediate enjoyment of our present circumstance. This is precisely why we can be afflicted only by fate and not by circumstance. Fate is neither the cause of circumstance nor its justification, for we would then be affirming fate by suffering it. We suffer fate when we consign ourselves to “the way things are”, even if we are merely accepting the consequences of our own decisions. The most terrible psychological task is not to affirm fate but to deny it, i.e., to be afflicted by it. To deny fate does not mean simply to rail against its injustice but, rather, to strive to be all one is not. But such a task is by definition impossible—we can only be that which we are. If it is a matter of will, then we might say that to be afflicted by fate is to will one’s inexistence (which should not be confused with the impulse to non-existence or, in other words, the will not to exist—we all know why suicide cannot be the will to non-existence, since it has meaning only from within the immanence of life), which often manifests, confusedly, as feeling trapped under one’s skin, as a rebellion against the state of the world or an incongruity between self and world. But at stake in such a will is not the preservation of what one is. But we can have no knowledge of what is not and, therefore, we cannot will what is not. To be afflicted by fate, then, is to have an objectless will or, in other words, a purely subjective will, an I willing nothing—not the will “to be nothing” nor the feeling of “being nothing”, but willing as the middle term between the phenomenon of the I and the mark of nothing.

2. There is a vulgar materialism that is simply another name for an inverted dualism and not, as it would have us believe, a pure monism according to which there are only bodies. The thesis that “I am my body” still accomplishes the feat of imprisoning the soul by reducing soul to body. The mistake here is to consider soul as “immaterial” (and therefore not-body) or to confuse materiality with body. The political consequences of such a materialism are banal at best and deadly at worst: in the reduction of personality to the shape of a contorted face (equivalently in pleasure or in anguish), we are left with the figure of a “bare humanity” (to adapt one of Agamben’s terms)—a humanity defined biologically, yet in such a way that separates humanity and nature even when, ostensibly, such a “materialism” should do the opposite—for the meaning of “right” ceases to have any meaning unless humans have a special kind of body. But, we should wonder, what exactly is so special about the human body? This is the ideology behind the banality “prick us, do we not bleed?”. To accomplish such normalization, do we not need precisely to prick? to test? to abstract? What is then left of such a humanity other than objects in place of bodies?


1. Deleuze wants the creation of concepts, like the ritornello. Perhaps (also/instead) what we need is the creation of images, like the prélude. Why the prelude? Like the rhapsody, the prelude was once a miscellaneous archetype that freed the composer from the autocratic laws of structure and architecture (the only difference between the prelude and the rhapsody is contextual). These laws determined, a priori, two sets of relations: the internal relations of sound within the piece and the experience of the listener. It is true that, as Boulez points out, the former relation is left intact in the prelude; reconfiguring this relation would require someone like a Cixous. But, consider: some of Chopin’s most evocative moments occur in his preludes when he either releases the linearity characteristic of most of his music or his lines converge into something more like a Rachmaninovian tableau. Unlike, say, a sonata, a prelude is not a narrative; the listener is thus always led to go on—the prelude always signifies beyond itself (pre-lude). Often a prelude leaves us asking “what next?” or “is that it?” (perhaps Bach presents a special problem here). Sometimes one gets a prelude to a larger narrative (say in Gershwin); other times the prelude is simply a prelude. But the question “to what?” must never be lost. The closest equivalent to a prelude is an aphorism that, as Dienstag has recently reminded us, is the form par excellence to communicate the discontinuity that is thought itself (Adorno, Derrida, Bergson). If there is a difference between an aphorism and a prelude, I would say it is this: the aphorism is a statement; the prelude is a question (another image!).

2. Adler in the 80s wrote a series of books such as “How to Speak/How to Listen” and “How to Read a Book”. These are, unfortunately, outdated and, paradoxically equally unfortunately, little read today. What perhaps is needed desperately today, in a climate of total technologism (particularly in education), in both philosophy and art, is the book “How to Listen/How to Read” (admittedly, I have yet to read Nancy’s book on listening). By “listen”, in addition to music, I intend things like “seeing” a painting or “experiencing” a space: if philosophy has been dominated by the “hegemony of vision”, perhaps it is time to assert the rights of hearing; in other words, if vision and touch are indicators of space, equally so hearing.

It is precisely the inability to read that frustrates both the teacher of philosophy and the Continental insofar as s/he fights the ideologies of discourse, persuasion, and philosophy itself (i.e., reading Quine, held as an exemplar of clear academic writing by the MLA, is but one technique of reading; reading Bataille is another). Analogously, aside from Barenboim’s recent precipitous remarks about the experience of sound, noise, and music in contemporary culture, it is the inability to listen that threatens not only the quality but the very existence of art. To take one example, Listisa and Kocsis (in their Rachmaninoff), and Hamelin (in Alkan) are often criticized for losing melodies for the sake of speed. And yet—all three have revealed sonorous aspects of various pieces hitherto unknown precisely because of the reconfiguration they effected by changing that one modality of sound. The error, in short, is an analytic conception of sound: that sound can be analyzed into its components of pitch, rhythm, volume, timbre, tempo, and so on; this is also the error that thinks music can be analyzed into melody and harmony (or, better, that thinks “melody” has any significant meaning at all; “melody” needs to be replaced by the “line”, one species of which is Schönberg’s “row”).