Jodi Dean over at I Cite has recently posted on the growing threat of rightwing Christian Nationalism in the United States. Given phenomena such as this, it seems incumbant to me that we effect some sort of repetition of the Enlightenment. As Deleuze argues, repetition is never a repetition of the same, but is a repetition that transforms the very nature of the thing repeated in the act of repeating it. To repeat the Enlightenment is not to rotely repeat the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant, but to creatively apprehend that thought within the field of the present. Deleuze repeats Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hume, but there is little that resembles these thinkers in the work of Deleuze. Badiou repeats Plato and Lucretius, but there is little that resembles these thinkers in this repetition.

The repetition of Enlightenment in our time poses special problems that can be fleshed out by looking at Kant’s discussion of Enlightenment in his essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” There Kant writes that, “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [“dare to be wise”]. Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is the motto of enlightenment… It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me” (Kant, Practical Philosophy, 17).

The difficulty in relating to rightwing Christian nationalists is precisely the manner in which their relation to the world is minoritarian by being unquestioningly organized around a text. A book understands for them. One can accept the wisdom of this book or not, but you cannot reason with it. As a result, all discourse becomes citational and bound to authority. And how can one disagree with the authority of God?

However, this problem is not restricted to Christian nationalism. As Lacan puts it, “How is one to return, if not on the basis of a peculiar discourse, to a prediscursive reality? That is the dream– the dream behind every conception of knowledge. But it is also what must be considered mythical. There is no such thing as a prediscursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse” (Seminar 20, 32). Kant’s conception of Enlightenment requires that there be an autonomous subject– if only implicitly or potentially –capable of thought, and that that subject be capable of thinking independent of authority, whether that authority be dear leader, the priest, the police, one’s parents, or a text. But if there is no pre-discursive reality, then it would seem that all thought is necessarily citational, such that we are forever unable to detach ourselves from the authority of language as a determinant of thought. Moreover, if the subject itself is a discursive construction as is argued by Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler, and Althusser with his account of interpellation, then the subject itself is a citation which can only iterate discourse in much the same way that a fractal iterates a particular pattern. If the subject itself is conceived as an effect of discourse, how is enlightenment possible? Kant conceives our status as minorities self-incurred, which is to say a result of laziness. However, the thought of figures such as Lacan, Foucault, Luhmann, Butler, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan suggests otherwise in that we, as subjects, are conceived as effects of the signifier, power, etc., such that our very being is citational. Here, perhaps, Lacan would be at an advantage as the subject is not simply conceived as a product of discourse such that its discursive nature exhausts its being, but as an effect of discourse that isn’t identical to discourse itself. The Lacanian subject is a hole in being, a void whose effects can only be traced, and not discourse itself. From the standpoint of contemporary thought, the question of separation becomes especially important, as overcoming one’s self-incurred minoritarian status requires an act of separation from the field of the Other. Badiou, for instance, with his account of truth and the subject can be thought as addressing the question of how such a separation possible. How is it possible to subtract a truth from the encyclopaedic determinants of a situation (Wittgensteinian language games, Bourdieu’s habitus, Foucault’s epistemes and power-structures, Levi-Straussian structures of thought, etc)?

In part, the goal of enlightenment remains very much the same as that articulated by Lucretius prior to the Enlightenment and carried out by Spinoza in the Theological-Political Treatise. In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius writes, “Whilst humankind throughout all the lands lay miserably crushed before all eyes beneath superstition– who would show her head before along region skies, glowering on mortals with her hideous face –A greek it was who first opposing dared raise mortal eyes that terror withstand, whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning’s stroke nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest his dauntless heart to be the first to rend the crossbars at the gates of nature old. And thus his will and hardy wisdom won; and forward thus he fared afar, beyond the flaming ramparts of the world, until he wandered the unmeasurable All. Whence he is to us, a conqueror, reports what things can rise to being, what cannot, and by what law to each its scope prescribed, its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time. Wherefore superstition is now under foot, and us his victory now exalts to heaven” (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book 1, paragraph 2).

To overcome humanity’s fear produced by superstition through a secularization of infinity (Badiou, “wandering the unmeasurable All”) and reporting what can and cannot rise to being today remains one of the central goals. Worries about superstition might today sound remote, as few today are seized by terror when confronted with lunar eclipses or comets in the sky (though Pat Robertson’s declaration that Katrina was punishment by God for homosexuality and the “sinful lifestyle” of those in New Orleans ought to give us pause). Yet superstition remains no less today in the form of ideology, new age spiritualities, and religion, rendering the task of overcoming superstition no less urgent than it has ever been. How to break with remains the question. This requires choice and exclusion, a choice and exclusion that “endless play” and “boundless conceptual creation” cannot respond to. How to break with doxa when reality has come to be understood as an effect of the signifier is the problem.