A throw away post, but I have to get this off my chest as the shame is killing me. I love the moderns. I even love Descartes, but in particular, I love Spinoza, Leibniz, d’Holbache, and Hume. Gasp, I even love Kant! Especially the Kant of the Critique of Practical Reason who raises profound and fundamental questions such as how it is possible for a will to freely determine itself– thus effectively asking how transcendence beyond environment, upbringing, and historical thrownness are possible –but I’m not sure I would know how to think (if I ever manage to think at all) if it weren’t for Kant’s first critique.
If I declare this in the form of a confession, then that’s because I think us Continentalists spend a lot of time vilifying the moderns and the Enlightenment. We have Latour perpetually speaking as if modernity were the worst thing to ever happen to the planet. We have the Heideggerians speaking of modernity as the rise of enframing, the forgetting of being, the rise of ultra-nihilism, and the destruction of all that is good. We have many of the post-structuralists speaking of modernity as a grand meta-narrative responsible for all oppression and intolerance. We have the Adornians going so far as to blame modernity for the Holocaust. These days it’s a pretty bad thing to love the moderns. And believe me, throughout graduate school, I was in this camp as well. I went to Loyola to study Heidegger with Tom Sheehen and was all Heidegger all the time during those early years. Later, as I moved over into the French post-structuralists, I was all about undermining meta-narratives and deconstructing the dreaded subject. To hear us philosophers tell it, it is somehow philosophers, and in particular the philosophers of modernity, who are responsible for all the world’s evils: intolerance, the destruction of nature, the exploitation wrought by global capitalism, patriarchy, gender oppression, racism, etc. Boy us philosophers are a powerful bunch!
I’m not sure when it happened, nor how I became so fallen into sin, but one day I woke up and I was infected, contaminated, by a love of the moderns. What’s worse, I increasingly found myself revolted by much Continental thought, as if I was drowning or suffocating in styles that were pervaded with endless references without having the courtesy to spell them out, works that refused to make a straightforward argument or claim that could be pinned down, and worst of all writing styles that sounded a lot like the work of closet mystics (I’m look at you phenomenologists!). Don’t get me wrong. I will take all that I’ve learned from those vectors of thought to my grave, they pervade every corner of what little crude thinking I manage to do. I think much of this work– phenomenologists somewhat excluded insofar as I find them to be something of a counter-enlightenment –are a continuation of modernity or Enlightenment: Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, and many others besides. But I was fed up. I was tired. I was exhausted by struggling endlessly to figure out merely what was being claimed and why someone would claim it, without arriving at the point of ever being evaluating whether or not it was true. I was exhausted by rejoinders to honest criticisms and questions that took the form “you’ve misinterpreted x.”
So I’m not sure how it happened or when I began loving the moderns. In some respects, maybe this sin was already there. When I first started studying philosophy, my first loves were Sartre, Heidegger (Being and Time opened an entirely new world to be), Husserl, Whitehead (Process and Reality, like Heidegger’s understanding of worldhood, gave me a holistic and ecological vision of existence that I thought fundamentally right), and… Spinoza and Descartes. Oh Spinoza, how you arrived at just the right time; how you’ve infected me ever since. But when I moved on to college and then graduate school, I somehow forgot the moderns. It wasn’t until I’d been teaching for a few years that I found myself again reading the moderns and histories of the Enlightenment under my covers late at night, away from prying eyes, like people must have read the Tractatus Theologico-Politico in the 17th century. Maybe it was just because they made up a staple of my semesterly teaching.
We all, I suppose, have our intellectual fantasy spaces. For some it’s the Greece of Athens, for others the Germany of the 19th century, and for yet others Paris during the 60s (I confess I find that one attractive). For me I suppose it’s the Europe of the 17th and 18th century– intellectually, mind you –coupled with the Greece of Epicurus, Democritus, and Epictetus, along with the Rome of Lucretius. Why this love, I wonder? Certainly there’s the style: a style that forthrightly makes claims and arguments, a style that minimizes references, a style that is democratic or anarchistic (this is part of what renders Badiou, for example, so appealing). They didn’t bullshit or pussy foot around. But the style is the least of it (though I am heartened to see a return to this direct style in the work of Badiou and in Latour’s most recent which contains neither index nor bibliography).
More importantly, there’s the adventurousness of their thought. For all that they’ve taught us about the structured of lived experience, there’s something offensive in the phenomenological project of tracing us back to the field of intuition and everydayness or in shackling all thought to that framework (what Deleuze rightly called “ur-doxa”; not any particular doxa, but the structure or form of doxa/prejudice as such). Thought seems to enjoy far more sublime adventures in infinities conceived by Leibniz and Spinoza, the multiplicities without one explored by Badiou, the intensive quantities and chaotic systems of Deleuze, exceeding all limits of lived and intuited experience yet somehow seeming to grasp a bit of the real. The Kantian in me wants to say this sort of speculation is bullshit that exceeds the limits of experience– really Leibniz and Spinoza, infinite worlds and universes? –yet doesn’t our contemporary mathematics and physics lend some meat to their speculations? And in addition to this, how can one fail to love the naturalism of these thinkers, a naturalism reflected in both the Royal Society of London, in the artwork of the period that while perhaps thematically uninteresting looked at the world and people or attempted to, and that went all the way to a natural theology that didn’t base itself on the revelations of Scripture, but instead measured god and creation by the requirements of reason?
There is also the discovery of culture– of the contingency and specificity of ways of living in the world and their plurality –broached by thinkers such as Hume and Rousseau (the latter being an awful miscreant), that far from seeking ethnocentric eurocentric domination of others seems, in some respects, to have laid the groundwork for thinking multi-culturalism and that advanced tolerance as a political ideal (we are talking about people, after all, that witnessed the ravages of the Thirty Year War, later the English Civil War, the assault on Judaism, and so on). And yes, I even love the concept of subject, so reviled by contemporary thought. As Lacan and Zizek have argued– and I think they’re right –subject names not a substantiality, not an identity, but a lack of identity and substantiality. Subject means that all predicates that might define “I-ness” and “Own-ness” fail and slide off ones back. Far from rootedness in a tradition and geography, subject means that one is always a bit out of sync with these things, that they always fail. Subject is Sartre’s horrifying freedom and Derrida’s differance. It is the recognition that one is always a bit uncanny even to oneself and that one is never quite rooted.
And while this thesis might initially seem grim and anxiety provoking– isn’t one of the reasons we flee into identity and historical rootedness precisely out of the anxiety of the queerness provoked by the failure of all identity? –it is incredibly hopeful as well. Subject means the possibility of intercultural and intersubjective communication and relation precisely because no one is their culture or merely a product of their culture. As Hegel will later say, “the mysteries of the Egyptians are mysteries to the Egyptians”. If something like queer and multi-culturalism are to be possible, it’s precisely on the condition of subject as the failure of all culture. Subject is the name for transcendence. It’s the reason that a German can protest the rise of the National Socialist Party, a Southerner can be an abolitionist, a 19th century man can advocate for women’s suffrage and a 19th century woman can imagine something other than domesticity, or that an abused child can grow up to be a good parent. Subject means that there’s something in excess of every ambiance. And for this reason, subject means above all that we can engage in self-fashioning or self-creation; that something new can enter the world. In the context of Europe, Enlightenment and subject meant that Europeans could become otherwise: that they weren’t condemned to superstition, cruelty, exploitation, and defined social positions in the great chain of being.
Heidegger taught us that we think from the history into which we’re thrown. Zizek and Hegel taught us that we actually posit that history as a condition for our thought; that we paradoxically choose that history in such a way that the future is oddly creating the past. I would like to see a form of historicity and positing that is more that of the moderns, the profoundly ecological and posthumanist thought of the Greek and Roman Materialists, and of the Enlightenment thinkers than one that thinks from black forest peasants (a mirror of romantic narratives of the “wonderfulness of the 1950s in the States?) and pre-socratics. But that’s me. Apologies for sharing my jouissance.