Weakness and possibility (variations on a theme)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The desire for the absolute

In some religions, practitioners are advised not to look upon the dead and when confronted with an image of death to avert their gaze. In some cases, such an aversion or refusal to look is shameful or ascetic. Yet not all sacred practices are normative; some might be considered, instead, aesthetic. What is at stake in the prohibition against the viewing of death is the formation of a certain kind of body, which is to say the condensation of some habits over others, the formation of potentialities along some orientations over others, and the creation of certain tendencies of moving, acting, and doing that reproduce the conditions for life. But in every case, this diamagnetism is specific to the living material. In some sense, we might say with Aristotle that there is no such thing as pure matter—not because matter must be wedded to form but because the material is always multiple and always presents itself in composites (which has been a tenet of every materialism since Leucippus). Life itself is the complex of relations that comprise these composites.

This is the intuition to which the French spiritualists (after Bergson) attempted to give expression against the dialectic of the absolute while, ironically, surrendering to that very dialectic by taking it too seriously. Lavelle, for example, insists on a “pure experience” of existence or an “experience of real presence” that is made concrete in determinate consciousness, which itself creates an interval between the cognition and presentation of its objects. It is on the basis of this sympathy for existence that vitalism has always thought that the thinking of death was merely naïve and, consequently, that life should tend toward the fulfillment of eternal life (which, equivalently for Hegel or Lavelle, means achieving the original unity of thought and being).

We see this desire for the absolute disguised in various ways in philosophy. For example, the greatest pretension of philosophy is that thought should have an effect on the world (whereas the gambit of religion is the opposite—i.e., that thought is impotent against the destiny of a contingent world). Under the guise of a persistently naïve empiricism (to which Carnap, despite the genius of his Aufbau, must have recourse since for him there is only one domain of objects), analytic philosophy has simply renounced the task that philosophy has arrogated to itself and, without an account of its conditions, will continue to fiddle while the world (and itself) perishes. On the other hand, continental philosophy has yet to realize that philosophy must be about something other than itself. In both cases, however, we are caught within the temptation both to affirm and to deny the unity of thought and being, i.e., that there is no such unity (else the philosophers would rule the world) or that it is only on the basis of that unity that philosophy exists at all.

Yet between philosophy and religion—i.e., between a material or a spiritualist thinking—perhaps what we need to affirm is not only that “the gift of thinking to itself is betrayed by a thinking that insists only on thinking itself” (Desmond) but also that the very attempt for thinking to think itself is impossible. What is impossible, however, is not simply a negation of the possible, for the possible is itself the negation of the necessary. That thinking should find it impossible to think itself is not the condition but task of thinking. Every philosophy that fails in this task is unjust.

Mysticism and the mythopoetic imagination

Against the easy conflation of mysticism and “the ineffable”–and the ineffable and the unsayable–Wolfson continues to offer us the resources to think the passage from representation to knowledge in ways that are not beholden to the problematics of sense or reference. Framed as a hermeneutic/phenomenological investigation into kabbalah, in what is more than an account of the kabbalistic vision of the divine and a fairly damning accusation of androcentrism in medieval rabbinic culture, alongside the likes of Marion and Desmond, Wolfson provides an account of an imagining of the difference between idol and image, between remembrance and forgetting, particularly in terms of the mutual conversion of sexual difference into identity. i.e., the “suffering of eros as the indifferent identity (one-that-is-all) becoming identical difference (all-that-is-one), a process that is collectively conceived by kabbalists as amelioration of feminine judgment, her restoration to and elevation through the morphological prism of the divine, culminating in the reconstitituion of the male androgyne in Keter, the place that is no-place (atar law atar) …” In the space of a paragraph it would be impossible to approach the complex of speech and eros in the “process” (if we speak in philosophical terms) of the Sefirot. Consider, nevertheless, Wolfson’s treatment of the Song of Songs: “… the Song is directed to Binah, the “supernal world” or the “world-to-come,” which is also identified as Solomon (shelomo) … the “king” is Binah, who is called by this name on account of her demiurgical role in the birthing of the lower seven sefirot. The shift in symbolism underscores the fact that the theurgical purpose of the Song is to arouse the joy of Shekhinah, the “world of the moon,” in relation to Binah, the “upper world,” so that the two worlds may be aligned in one pattern”. Wolfson’s own analysis following this passage is remarkable in itself, but instead of inflecting this logic ontologically into a (para)logic of eros, what we have here is too a logic of affectivity whose resources call for immediate attention.

Things (merely) are

Klemm once suggested that the defining rhetoric of contemporary theological discourse is that of God as the “breaking-in of otherness”:

“This means that theological argumentation cannot be carried out in the form of the theistic argument for the existence of a supreme being. If what we mean by God is the ground and power of being itself, no object or being, not even a “supreme being,” can be God. Arguments can be made, however, that demonstrate how it is possible for individuals to say with certainty and not as a matter of probability that “God is.” Such arguments do not make an assertion about some being. Instead, they seek to show the possibility of an event of disclosure—namely, the breaking-in of otherness.”

This is almost exactly right, even if Klemm unfortunately does not ask the important question: what does such a rhetoric betoken?

What I have called the “closure of metaphysics”—which has often been performed by God—has always served the function of grounding intelligibility. To explain the persistence of theology by appealing to a naïve desire for intelligibility is entirely to miss the point. Yet it is also true that the rhetoric of theology tends to reify the ground of intelligibility into the ideology of a desire for a truth “from elsewhere”. In other words, the very notion of an “elsewhere” is not only a religious ideology but also a theological one.

Divinity enters to save possibility. We say that all being is contingent or, more precisely, that all beings are contingent. But as soon as we grant this seemingly innocuous thesis, even the most irreligious criticism becomes theological—for the problem of affirming the universal contingency of things (i.e., undergraduate versions of Nietzsche) is simply a re-statement of the classical theological position according to which the divine is necessary not only with respect to the contingency of things (the metaphysical aspect) but also to account for contingency—i.e., for the intelligibility of contingency.

Notice how deeply this religious presentiment has penetrated not only into philosophy and theology but into common sense. A truly irreligious criticism would not only affirm universal contingency or even acknowledge that I “should not be” (Silenus wisdom), but would instead proclaim that “I am necessary”. Of what madness or hubris would I be accuse to utter that phrase? What is the radicality necessary again to affirm Spinoza Benedictus?

Everything turns on which of the two propositions we affirm: (1) “things are”; or (2) “things merely are”. If we affirm the first (as what Desmond has recently formalized as the “idiocy of being”), we are led inevitably down the theological path and, thus, to the notion that intelligibility is the “breaking-in of otherness” that gets expressed as Ereignis, ethics, God-Beyond-Being, etc. The addition of a mere two syllables, however, in a stroke moves the entire domain of intelligibility into poetics.

This is a poetics that, instead of ethics (Lévinas), is able to bear the “evil” of the fact that “our only acquaintance with things is with their surface, not their depths. this is a being which is mere, sheer fact, the simple ‘there is’ of things” (Critchley). Yet we can go further (we do not have to be so Kantian): it is not that things “resist” us in their objectivity. We can say, more positively, that things appear and that the sense of this appearance is nothing other than the fact of their “il y a”. In other words, sense is not the result of appearance but is rather nothing other than appearance.

The task of a poetics, therefore, unlike the task of poetry, is not “to see fiction as fiction, to see the fictiveness or contingency of the world” (Crtichley again); poetics instead expresses necessity or, simply, the “that it is” without any attendant astonishment or surprise of the “fact” of existence because existence cannot be otherwise—an otherwise is always an elsewhere (possibility in the mind of God). The world really is there … but so too is otherness. This is the only way really to say that existence (more precisely, that which is) is: that the expression of the real is never itself real (Nietzsche will call this the “eternal return”).

Images III

In the middle of an astonishing text (and no less remarkable because it is particularly damaging to my recent defense of Deleuze), a friend wrote the following:

“… The evental function here separates us from the sterile transcendental illusion, and from the need to desire destruction.

If meaning or the possibility of experience require contrast, then with what would we contrast the real except the impossible? God or the impossible par excellence serves the most vital function not just for elucidating existence (philosophically) but for experiencing existence. This is not something that “belongs” to philosophy as a therapeutic interval, and gets discarded in a return to life. This is philosophy’s belonging to life, as its meaning. The meaning of existence is still meaning, though the meaning of meaning is existence.”

(Full text posted on 18 October at the link to the right.)

Indulge me an oblique approach: Every image, Nancy says, is sacred. But this can equally be said of the concept insofar as religion is the attempt—in good or bad faith—to form a bond with what is separated, absolutely other, unnameable, unpronounceable. Hence, I propose two exemplary religious images: (1) the Tetragrammaton. So inviolable was this word (Word) to the ancient Hebrews that it was soon lost and now exists only in the memory of a few Qaballic mystics. And (2) the Om. Man does not speak the Word; either one articulates the sound of a Brahman mantra or utters, simply, “Mu”. The Word is not the ordering vessel of the world (logos spermatikos). The Word does not “divide being” (Cratylus). Neither does the Word divide us “from” being (or even bring us “to” being). In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, for example, we read: “There are two [!] Absolutes, Sound and Silence … Inundated by the Absolute-that-is-Sound, one arrives in the Absolute-that-is-Silence”.

The danger of these images, as we know, is that on their basis religion becomes the surest path to the death drive, one species of which is the frenetic and ascetic quest for mystic intuition of “ineffable experiences” into immortality. Neither, however, can we oppose (rational) philosophy to religion if for no other reason that, as the same friend who said the above has observed, it is a mistake to confuse the death of God with the end of history. Philosophy, rather, since the time of the presocratics has always been (i.e., is originally) religious.

This origin of philosophy is not, as those such as Freud and Jaspers have suggested, a primitive feeling of the divine within us nor its mistaken call. The origin, deconstruction tells us, is always double. The identity, the in-itself, of the origin immanently implies a reference to itself (qua origin and not to another division of itself) from which productivity and expression emerge as world, as logic, and as subject. Religion is thus immanent to philosophy itself insofar as this origin is unnameable (or “dark”, as Desmond would say) from the point of view of its world. Religious thought occurs neither in the space of mediations nor immersed in the darkness of the origin but, rather, in the space between these.

The conceptions of thought as edifying or therapeutic are extraordinarily varied and might even include some whom we might initially not want to cast in these terms (in addition to the assorted conservatisms around like Nussbaum, Hadot, Strauss, et al). One is Marx insofar as the function of philosophy is demystification of ideology (seeing through ‘distorted communication’, etc) for the sake of the material construction of free humanity. Another is Kierkegaard insofar as the function of thought is to negate totalization and edify the soul against skepticism by the construction of ideal structures for linguistic and cognitive reduction for the sake of an abstract existence (that thus requires the supplement of Christian faith to prevent a lapse into full-fledged nihilism).

In both cases—and their possible source of redemption—one sees a curious intermingling of the aesthetic and the religious that fails to live up to its promise. The one implants us by the feet and the hands into the earth and tells us that no height, no ecstasy is forbidden. The aesthetic here is what Nietzsche and Deleuze would call the affirmation and the immanence of life: not an affirmation of being because being is purely this power, this conatus essendi. Nietzsche’s/Zarathustra’s naïveté, however, consists in the doubling of this affirmation: the child’s affirmation of the affirmation. And yet this is not quite an excess. The master of excess reminds us that one only finds a real excess—that is, the explosion of an essence that pierces the sky, the limit of existence—in naked eroticism, in death.

Death is sunken into the earth, into the rhythms of nature and, thus, into life itself, just as the light of the sun pierces the earth’s skin. One often forgets the subterranean forces of decomposition and generation. But this immanentism of death forbids any commerce with any beyond of being, since all being refers either only to itself or to its conatus essendi, its will to power.

But power cannot be its own justification: the affirmation must be affirmed. This used to be the work of God (Aquinas, Leibniz, etc), particularly insofar as Being and the Good were identified (and evil consisted of a simple privation of being—Derrida, among others, has demonstrated the political consequences of such an error); and then by the autarkic moral consciousness (Kant et al). This remains the problem of religion today between fact and meaning. We cannot be done with religion (partial response to Gauchet) because the sacred, the unnameable, the impossible is the real, as Lacan as said. The real is that which is in-existent, that which is excluded from thought by thought itself, the invisible of the visible. God is unnameable precisely because he is everywhere and nowhere. (This is, of course, more than the impossibility of contradiction (NB: contradiction is one species of impossibility) and less than either a Hegelian dialectic or a leap to an other logic [logos].) The real is on neither side of the double origin; the duality of the origin (of the Absolute) is impossible—the two sides must be rigorously separated, which means that the double function of the origin cannot be limited.

What experience (taken in all of its philosophical senses) requires, thus, is not religious faith but religious thought in its perennial task: the thinking of the infinite.