“It may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of existence” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 75). A little earlier they write, “There is not the slightest reason for thinking that modes of existence need transcendent values by which they could be compared, selected, judged relative to one another. On the contrary, there are only immanent criteria. A possibility of life is evaluated through itself in the movements it lays out and the intensities it creates on a plane of immanence: what is not laid out or created is rejected. A mode of existence is good or bad, noble or vulgar, complete or empty, independently of Good and Evil or any transcendent values: There are never any criteria other than the tenor of existence, the intensification of life” (74).
Yet it is hard, is it not? It is hard to find those tenors of life that are inherently affirmative, where we are not beset by a dark malaise. When I was young I was so blissfully ignorant. When Lacan talks about the imaginary, one of the things he has in mind is the way in which we treat others as being like us, as thinking in the same way, as having the same values, beliefs, and views. I really can’t say that I was aware of “otherness” when I was young. For me the first real shock of otherness came in 2000, with the election of George Bush; but even more strikingly it came following September 11th, when I watch my fellow countrymen rally around this president’s ideology, falling for just about every trick George Orwell had described in his novel 1984. Here, before my eyes, I saw everything Orwell had described materializing and I wondered how we could be so stupid, how we could forget so easily. All my assumptions about the world and people evaporated, and I no longer knew what thoughts lurked behind the twinkling eyes of those about me. It seemed that the worst nationalistic, repressively religious, fascist madness had been loosed upon the land… And if not the worst, at least seeds of madness that could easily become the worse.
It is difficult not to go a little mad if you’re paying attention. Everything in this world seems as if it is upside down, as if viewed through Caroll’s looking glass. In our media, the good and just are endlessly portrayed as the dangerous and wicked. Partial truths are transformed into the total truth, so that uncomfortable truths might be ignored. Perhaps the worst thing about rhetoric– of the sophistical sort –is that it works. In other affairs, whether education, health care, the so-called “war on terror”, economic issues, etc., it seems that we never miss the opportunity to make the stupid decision where policy is concerned, perpetually ignoring the complexity of situations for simplified, idiotic solutions that exacerbate our problems. Moronic administrators rule our institutions who perpetually have only the most dim understanding of what it is they’re administrating; and worse yet, these administrators all too often are filled with dark, fascist desires. But the despair produced by the stupidity of these “solutions” is not simply a result of the way in which they pose problems poorly or simplify the complex, but rather it is the way in which this stupidity is also the function of cruelty, mendacity, hatred, or ressentiment. These “solutions” are all too often a will to wound, rather than a will to produce flourishing. Lurking in the background is always the interests of money and privilege, and we seem to bow readily to these things, despite the fact that we vastly outnumber those in whom the wealth is concentrated. Most of us don’t even get angry about this, but see it as perfectly natural, assuming those who enjoy wealth, power, and privilege acquired these things through their own sweat and hard work, making them inherently superior, while the rest of the world is simply poor and morally inferior. And then, all around, we see ugliness, stupidity, and cruelty in the form of hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, ressintement, and all the myriad ways we find to torture one another. Meanwhile, in those endeavors that ought to be guided by a shared desire for justice, more equitable and finer living conditions, the joy of intellectual inquiry and discovery, and the production of beauty, ego, rivalry in the imaginary, gets in the way and petty feuds emerge between rival tribes, striving to stake out their own turf and ensure that they’re recognized (which, as Hegel pointed out, also entails the obliteration of the other). It is not enough that an idea be remarkable or interesting on its own, but it must be expressed in the framework of one’s own territory and no other: only phenomenology! only Anglo-American philosophy! Only deconstruction! Only Lacan! Only Deleuze and Guattari! Yes, it’s difficult not to go a little mad if you’re paying attention.
I suppose that if I am having these thoughts, then I have grown sick. Rather than discovering my own “immanent criteria” as Deleuze and Guattari describe (my cats don’t seem too troubled with the madness of the world and are thus masters of immanent evaluation), I measure the world against some transcendent standard of what I unconsciously believe it ought to be. I have transcendence folded into my thought, like a tain behind the mirror, infecting me with sickness and fatigue, filling me with despair. It seems that philosophy comes in too flavors: there are revolutionary practices of philosophy that seek to transform the world and eradicate this stupidity, superstition, cruelty, brutality, and injustice, and there are those philosophies that seek some peace of mind that might allow us to endure all of this ugliness. I wish I could somehow expel these “oughts” from my thought.