On a few occasions now, Anthony Paul Smith has poked fun at my celebration of the Enlightenment. For instance, in response to one of my posts today he writes,

Never have you whined about how “Christo-fascism” (and I can take that about as seriously as I take Islamo-fascism) is destroying your hope for a society perfectly ordered along purely rational lines, just like Iceland.

I take it that in this remark he is disparaging my occasional defense of rationalists and my assertion that Deleuze can be thought as a sort of hyper-rationalist. I think he comes by his misunderstandings in an honest way. Or, at least, I hope he does.

In friendship and gratitude for his patience in continuing to engage with me in dialogue which I do often find productive, I thus try to clarify my positions. In his preface to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes,

…we can now raise the question of the utilization of the history of philosophy. It seems to us that the history of philosophy should play a role roughly analogous to that of collage in painting. The history of philosophy is the reproduction of philosophy itself. In the history of philosophy, a commentary should act as a veritable double and bear the maximal modification appropriate to a double. (One imagines a philosophically bearded Hegel, a philosophically clean-shaven Marx, in the same way as a moustached Mona Lisa.) It should be possible to recount a real book of past philosophy as if it were an imaginary and feigned book. Borges, we know, excelled in recounting imaginary books. But he goes further when he considers a real book, such as Don Quixote, as though it were an imaginary book, itself reproduced by an imaginary author, Pierre Menard, who in turn he considers to be real. In this case, the most exact, the most strict repetition has as its correlate the maximum of difference (‘The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer…’). Commentaries in the history of philosophy should represent a kind of slow motion, a congelation or immobilisation of the text: not only of the text to which they relate, but also of the text in which they are inserted– so much so that they have a double existence and a corresponding ideal: the pure repetition of the former text and the present text in one another. (xxi-xxii)

Deleuze gives us little indication as to just why one would engage in this practice of reading and writing. Perhaps this is to maintain maximal openness, to avoid artificially limiting the reasons that one might engage in history. But perhaps the most interesting line in this passage comes at the end, when Deleuze alludes to the text in which these texts are inserted. This could be taken literally to refer to the commentary itself and the way the commentary comes to double the text it comments upon. But it also could be taken more broadly to refer to the field of discourses, of texts, we live in in the present as our ecospace. What does Rousseau, for instance, become when plugged into our time and space, our discourses?

Read on

It was Lacan, of course, who was the master of the sort of dada-esque reading Deleuze describes. What double could be more uncanny than Lacan’s return to Freud? We can imagine someone ridiculing the young Lacan for his interest in Freud, expressing incredulity at why anyone would be interested in reading such an absurd biological determinist. Yet in Lacan’s engagement with Freud, in his return to Freud, we get a double that produces a maximal difference. Freud is inserted into the texts defining Lacan’s contemporary field: He is painted with Saussure, Jacobson, Levi-Strauss, cybernetics, existential and Heideggerian phenomenology, Foucault, Deleuze, knot theory, set theory, topology and a host of other things. He is read in dialogue with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Wittgenstein, Russell, Quine, and numerous others. Most importantly, Lacan reads Freud in much the same way an analyst listens to an analysand: He takes some small, offhand remark, such as Freud’s inversion of ego-ideal and ideal-ego in “On Narcissism”, or Freud’s observation in The Interpretation of Dreams that the wish behind the butcher’s wife’s dream is that she did not have a wish, and turns it into the key of Freud’s thought. That is, he reads Freud first in terms of Freud’s practice (the case study and interpretive writings, which focus on language and symptoms), but also in terms of the gaps, omissions, idiosyncracies of Freud’s writings, discovering, therein, a logic… Just as the symptom contains a logic while appearing completely random and meaningless. In repeating Freud, in maintaining allegence to Freud, Lacan thus produces an entirely different Freud. Lacan’s reading of Freud meets all the requirements of Deleuze’s “monstrous offspring”.

A genuine repetition, then, is never a repetition of the same. To repeat Hume, for instance, is not to revert back to early positivism or a psychology of association. What such a repetition would be would be a repetition of a certain project of immanent critique. Hume’s model of critique is simple. Reflect on the nature of understanding and determine its nature. Hume begins by distinguishing impressions from ideas (memories, traces). He then examines the manner in which these ideas are connected: The three principles of association: resemblance, contiguity in time and space, and cause and effect. It then becomes a question of taking the concepts of metaphysics one by one and determining 1) whether a mind structured in this way can know the things that metaphysics claims to know (can it be traced back to impressions, and 2) determining what immanent processes of thought lead to these concepts (for instance, cause and effect is traced back to custom/habit, and thereby loses its claim to necessity).

To repeat Hume today is not simply to take up this psychology. What would it mean to repeat Hume today given our anthropology, sociology, cybernetics, ecology, systems theory, linguistics, neurology, and so on? What becomes of Hume after Freud? After Lacan? What is immanent critique when our text is factored into these discussions? In short, what is an appropriative reading of a text from the history of philosophy? What does it mean to make it our own? How does it resonate with our time? How does it remain timely? And how does it address us? The text changes our relation to our time but our time also changes our relation to it.

I hesitate in suggesting this example as it will irritate some unnecessarily, but do so out of friendship to Anthony, Bishop Spong of the Episcopal church, who married my parents, perhaps engages in such a creative repetition with regard to the Bible. Spong’s relationship to science and how he reads the Bible is especially clear in this regard, as he squarely accepts the science of today and its implication with regard to miracles and creation, while nonetheless still asking how Scripture addresses us today. I only offer this as an example, although when I read Spong’s twelve points I find I disagree with none of them, wondering how we differ from one another and what God is for him. I am sure that Anthony is likely to disagree that it is a good or desirable example and will propose that there are better ones. This is fine. He knows I’m not a “Spongian” because he’s heard other claims I’ve made about religion. The question here is one of time and repetition and what it means to be addressed by history in our time.