Enlightenment


This morning I had an interesting discussion with one of my colleagues who is a rhetorician and who just presented a paper at a local conference on what rhetoric should be. Like many in the world of literature department, he is dissatisfied with the way in which rhetoric programs these days seem so focused on “high-brow theory”, and have abdicated their traditional focus on pedagogy. That is, when he reads rhetoric journals and attends rhetoric conferences, the papers are more about figures such as Bakhtin, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, or Burke than about the actual practice of rhetoric. As such, he has adopted an “anti-theory” stance and has begun to focus his research on actual rhetorical practices such as you might find among ministers, teachers, and public speakers. From his point of view, rhetoric programs need to return to their roots and focus once again on figures such as Quintillian, Seneca, and Cicero.
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If one adopts Deleuze’s account of individuation it is clear that the problems of philosophy are significantly transformed. For instance, epistemology can no longer be conceived as the question of how we arrive at a knowledge of “true reality”, precisely because the objects of knowledge are themselves the result of processes of individuation where both the subject and object of knowledge are simultaneously produced. As Deleuze will argue in chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition, “The Image of Thought”– the chapter, incidentally, that he suggests was the most important for all his subsequent work (DR, xvii) –truth itself must be seen as the result of a genesis. “We always have as much truth as we deserve in accordance with the sense of what we say. Sense is the genesis or the production of the true, and truth is only the empirical result of sense” (DR, 154). This genesis just is the process of individuation, or the movement from problems to solutions.

Sense is located in the problem itself. Sense is constituted in the complex theme, but the complex theme is that set of problems and questions in relation to which the propositions serve as elements of response and cases of solution. This definition, however, requires us to rid ourselves of an illusion which belongs to the dogmatic image of thought: problems and questions must no longer be traced from corresponding propositions which serve, or can serve, as responses. We know the agent of this illusion: it is interrogation which, within the framework of a community, dismembers problems and questions, and reconstitutes them in accordance with the propositions of the common empirical consciousness– in other words, according to the probable truths of simple doxa… The failure to see that sense or the problem is extra-propositional, that it differs in kind from every proposition, leads us to miss the essential: the genesis of the act of thought, the operation of the faculties. Dialectic is the art of problems and questions, the combinatory or calculus of problems as such.

“Problem”, for Deleuze, is synonymous with what he refers to as Ideas or Multiplicities. That is, a problem is a field of differential relations and their accompanying singularities or potentialities. Consequently, we are not to understand problems as negative entities or mental entities, but as properly ontological instances presiding over the process of individuation. Problems are. This is why Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition, will use the term “Ideas” to refer to these multiplicities, thereby referring back to the ontological status of Ideas in Plato, while also drawing on Kant’s theory of Ideas as problems that admit of no solution but which organize all thought in The Critique of Pure Reason. Deleuze, of course, develops his own theory of Problems-Ideas-Multiplicities that will escape the representational assumptions of Plato and Kant.
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For some reason, today, I found my mind continuously returning to the epigraph of Deleuze’s charming little book Spinoza: A Practical Philosophy. There Deleuze draws a passage from Malamud’s text, The Fixer.

“Let me ask you what brought you to Spinoza? Is it that he was a Jew?”

“No, your honor. I didn’t know who or what he was when I first came across the book– they don’t exactly love hi9m in the synagogue, if you’ve read the story of his life. I found it in a junkyard in a nearby town, paid a kopek and left cursing myself for wasting money hard to come by. Later I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn’t understand every word but when you’re dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch’es ride. After that I wasn’t the same man…”

“Would you mind explaining what you think Spinoza’s work means? IN other words if it’s a philosophy what does it state?”

“That’s not so easy to say… The book means different things according to the subject of the chapters, though it’s all united underneath. But what I think it means is that he was out to make a free man of himself– as much as one can according to his philosophy, if you understand my meaning –by thinking things through and connecting everything up, if you’ll go along with that, your honor.”

“That isn’t a bad approach, through the man rather than the work. But…”

I’m feeling rather despondant today, a bit dim. Perhaps I’m suffering from post-traumatic interview syndrome, or maybe it’s everything going on with the book. Occasionally I feel as if I go through these periods where I become all but autistic; where I lose my will to speak with anyone or think at all. Yet nonetheless I found that I couldn’t shake this passage from my mind, even though it’s been so long since I read the book. Similarly, when I returned home from the office I found myself delving back into Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, a book that I’ve kept beside my bed for many years and that I read when I wake up in the middle of the night.
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Now that I’m home again I have been busily pulling together material for my article on Zizek and Badiou. In particular, I have been reading Adrian Johnston’s article “The Quick and the Dead: Alain Badiou and the Split Seeds of Transformation” and an earlier piece he was kind enough to share with me, entitled “From the Spectacular Act to the Vanishing Act: Badiou, Zizek, and the Politics of Lacanian Theory”, which is forthcoming in an anthology entitled Slavoj Zizek in a Post-Ideological Universe (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007). I have to confess that I feel a bit of envy, coupled with admiration, with respect to Johnston’s work. Both of us graduated about the same time and have similar research orientations. Last year he published his first book, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive, has a second book forthcoming with Northwestern entitled Zizek’s Ontology, and a third under review tentatively titled The Cadence of Change: Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations. All of this coupled with numerous and lengthy articles floating about various journals. Johnston’s work is characterized by an exceptional degree of clarity, coupled with a penetrating and deep understanding of Lacanian psychoanalysis and German idealism, and an astonishing mastery of Lacan’s seminar (published and unpublished), and Zizek’s and Badiou’s respective bodies of work. I suspect that we’ll be hearing Johnston’s name a good deal in the future.

What I find particularly interesting in Johnston’s latest article is the idea of forcing an event. As those of you familiar with his work know, Badiou’s idea is that truth proceeds from a sudden event that erupts within a situation only to disappear just as quickly. The event is that which is not counted by the structure or encyclopedia governing the situation, and stands on the edge of the void foundational to the situation. The idea is that the event is unmediated by the historical and semiotic space structuring a social situation and thus provides a point of leverage outside of power for producing a truth. A “truth-procedure” is thus that activity that consists in reconfiguring the elements of a situation in terms of the event. The key point is that the event is unconditioned by the situation in which it occurs. It cannot be explained on the basis of what came before, nor can it even be demonstrated to have taken place. It’s only through the nomination of those that discern the event and bear fidelity to its implications that the event is sustained. Thus, for instance, from the standpoint of dominant power something like the French Revolution simply looks like a chaotic eruption of disorder such that social relations need to be returned to ordinary order. From the standpoint of the revolutionaries, however, the revolution is a break with all prior history demonstrating concretely the contingency of reigning social relations and announcing the possibility of an egalitarian alternative. The revolutionaries can never demonstrate that the revolution was truly a revolution (and not just chaos erupting from such and such historical and semiotic conditions), but nonetheless sustain this event through their subsequent activism– The work of reconfiguring and reconceptualizing society according to the egalitarian promise of the revolution. The agents of this reconfiguration are what Badiou refers to as “subjects” (prior to your subjectivization by such an event you’re merely an individual, according to Badiou), and the activism of these subjects is what Badiou refers to as “truth-procedures”. The advantage of Badiou’s approach is, I think, obvious. In one fell swoop he has managed to side-step reigning claims of historicism, postmodern thought, and ordinary language philosophy, all of which, in one way or another, attempt to show how every phenomenon is mediated by a horizon of relations that overdetermine their being. All of this is done through a sort of performative notion of truth (in Austin’s sense) that shows how it is possible to subtract something from a situation that then becomes a sort of self-referential organization unfolding its own implications (Badiou demonstrates the possibility of such a subtraction with exceptional rigor in Being and Event and Logiques des mondes).

The standard criticism of Badiou’s work (coming from exemplary scholars of his work such as Peter Hallward) is that despite its attempt to redeem a universalist politics (genuine events are addressed to everyone, i.e., everyone can be taken up as a subject of a true event or an activist) there’s a way in which this conception of the political risks producing its opposite: a quietistic defeatism. If this is the case, then it is because we must await an event in order to engage in the process of a truth-procedure as a subject. In my view, this criticism is less worrisome than it immediately sounds as there are still events we can participate in today as subjects such as the Greek event of philosophy, the implications that continue to reverberate from the French and Russian revolutions, the Galileo event in science, etc. Nonetheless, Hallward and Johnston do have a point.

What Johnston proposes is the possibility of forcing an event itself. Under my reading we can ask does Badiou give an accurate account of how revolutionary change truly takes place? For Badiou truth-procedures follow an event. Thus we have the eruption of the French Revolution and the truth-procedure is the arduous work that follows this eruption in transforming society according to the ideals announced therein. But is this an accurate picture of what takes place with regard to something like the French Revolution? Badiou’s concern seems to be with the manner in which historicism tends to conceptualize everything in terms of continuity, thereby undermining the possibility of something genuinely new appearing in history (as every event is overdetermined by its past). Under this reading, every event would be one more formation of what Badiou calls “the state of a situation” or the transcendental regime governing what is counted as belonging to a situation (something akin to Foucaultian epistemes and power-structures– in an interview Badiou explicitly refers to Foucault as a philosopher of the encyclopedia).

However, it seems to me that this conception of history is deeply underdetermined and misses the polysemy characterizing our relationship to the historical. On the one hand, given that history is mediated by the signifier, I do not think it can be legitimately argued that history is unidirectional and monolithic in its conditioning. Just as in the case of psychoanalysis where the history of an analysand is “what will have been” through the narration that takes place in the analytic setting such that we cannot say that the past was already there determining the symptoms of the analysand, so too does social history produce itself as history through the narrativization of those agents in the social field. It was Hegel, of course, who argued that we’re never simply determined by grounds but always posit our own grounds or determinations. For instance, I am not simply influenced by this or that body of texts, but must, as it were, make the prior decision (even if not ever explicitly before consciousness) to be influenced by something. No doubt many of us are familiar with reading texts (perhaps as graduate students) that slid off our backs like water on a duck, not because we didn’t understand these texts but because we had no libidinal and transferential relation to these texts that would allow them to be influences in our intellectual development. Indeed, there’s something uncanny in that experience where one suddenly finds that a text that did not “address” us at all suddenly comes to address us, as if the grounds we posit for ourselves have changed entirely.

The relation of influence is thus not unidirectional such that we’re thrown into an environment and are simply formed in a passive fashion by that environment. Rather, there’s a way in which we always already have chosen the way in which we’re open to the world. And, I think, the case is not dissimilar at the level of the social. Social movements posit their own grounds in history, as can be seen in the way Christo-Nationalist Fundamentalists attempt to read United States history as unfolding on Christian grounds (“the United States was founded as a Christian nation”). Through this sort of auto-historicization the agents of a situation temporalize and produce their present and their being-towards-the-future. The point I’m rather clumsily trying to make, is that, on these grounds, it becomes possible to think a pluralism of historical universes unfolding simultaneously according to regular chronological time such that the agents of these historical universes cannot be said to inhabit one and the same historical universe yet still somehow interact with one another. I, for instance, tend to temporalize my present in terms of a particular historicization of the Enlightenment that is very different than the one I encounter often among my fellow citizins where time is historized in terms of a Christian legacy.

The point I want to make is thus two-fold: On the one hand, historism need not be understood as a way of conceiving everything as hegemonically governed by the “transcendental regime” or structure governing a situation. Rather, the production of a history can be understood as a way of producing a separation or subtraction from the dominant constraints of a situation. Thus, for instance, if we look at the history of the Enlightenment we discover that Enlightenment thinkers constructed a counter-history against the history dominated by Scripture and Aristotle, that made reference to thinkers such as Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius (a huge presence once a rotting copy of his De Rerum Natura was rescued from a heap of books at a Seminary that was used to rip scraps of paper from), Diogenes, Tacitus, and especially Cicero and Seneca. In producing this history, the Rennaissance thinkers and Enlightenment thinkers created libidinal and transferential relations, identifications, for themselves that gave them the capacity to re-imagine their social universe or universe of meaning. They simultaneously posited their own grounds and were produced in and out of these grounds. Here the production of a counter-history allowed them, as it were, to step out of the dominant historical currents of the situation in which they emerged.

This brings me to my second point: Assuming that Badiou treats the French Revolution as an event, perhaps the true political work isn’t to be seen in the activities that followed this sudden eruption, but rather, in all the efforts that led up to the major revolutions. That is, on the basis of the history they were constructing for themselves (and by which they were also being constructed), the Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers busily set about re-interpreting the dominant elements of their situation in terms of what they were discovering in the Ancients (albeit in a way that didn’t simply repeat these ancients in a scholarly way… One need only read Hume as a repetition of Epicurus, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, and the Roman rhetors– of whom he had almost encyclopedic knowledge –to see how repetition produces a difference or isn’t just repetition of the same). This recoding of the social space led to a transformation of instutions, reigning doxa and assumptions, and produced entirely new communities of people (such as the Salons that Acephalous recently spoke of). Moreover, the case can be made that in many cases those Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers certainly didn’t see themselves as sowing the seeds of eventual revolution (especially in the case of the Rennaissance thinkers) nor even as contesting the primacy of theological conceptions of the world (in many cases such thinkers defended these conceptions). All that is required is not a commitment to producing a revolution, but rather the repetition of certain arguments, certain ways of thinking, certain themes, that have the effect of effectuating this change themselves through their repetition and subsequent elaboration. That is, the high church apologist that calls for compromise and who points out that some of the Enlightenment ideas should be embraced while still championing traditional Scriptural inerrancy has already lost the game without realizing it simply by repeating the arguments and endorsing them. He’s like the coyote that has run over the cliff and just hasn’t yet looked down. If there should be no worry over flat-earth intelligent design folk, then this is because their very decision to endorse scientific methodology (even if a cynical rhetorical deception) means that they’ve lost the game from the outset… Subsequent history will take care of them as their students, who unlike them take their rhetoric seriously and honestly, attempt to repeat their claims according to scientific methology and fail. The moment they adopted the rhetoric of science they had already lost at the level of form, even if at the level of content they nonetheless believe themselves to be significantly challenging established science. They have converted without realizing they’ve converted in much the same way that the believer who takes anti-depressents and buys life and disaster insurance reveals more truthfully their own beliefs even if not before self-aware consciousness.

Viewed in this light, the event of the revolutions themselves comes to be viewed not so much as the inaugural moment where a politics was instantiated and subjects of truth-procedures emerged, but rather as the “dotting of the i’s” marking the culmination of the real work that had already been done, where the social sphere suddenly became self-reflexively aware that everything had changed when it wasn’t looking, that the old order no longer existed. What we have here is something very much like a speciation through geographical isolation in biology, but where the operative dimension is speciation through historization of a particular type of temporalization.

Zizek gives a nice example of what I’m trying to get at apropos his reading of Hegel’s analysis of the beautiful soul in The Sublime Object of Ideology. There Zizek writes,

To exemplify this logic of ‘positing the presuppositions’, let us take one of the most famous ‘figures of consciousness’ from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: the ‘beautiful soul’. How does Hegel undermine the position of the ‘beautiful soul’, of this gentle, fragile, sensitive form of subjectivity which, from its safe position as innocent observer, deplores the wicked ways of the world? The false of the ‘beautiful soul’ lies not in its inactivity, in the fact that it only complains of a depravity without doing something to remedy it; it consists, on the contrary, in the very mode of activity implied by this position of inactivity– in the way the ‘beautiful soul’ structures the ‘objective’ social world in advance so that it is able to assume, to play in it the role of the fragile, innocent and passive victim. this, then, is Hegel’s fundamental lesson: when we are active, when we intervene in the world through a particular act, the real act is not this particular, empirical, factual intervention (or non-intervention); the real act is of a strictly symbolic nature, it consists in the very mode in which we structure the world, our perception of it, in advance, in order to make our intervention possible, in order to open in it the space for our activity (or inactivity). The real act thus precedes the (particular factual activity; it consists in the previous restructuring of our symbolic universe into which our (factual, particular) act will be inscribed.

To make this clear, let us take the care of the suffering mother as the ‘pillar of the family’: all other members of the family– her husband, her children –exploit her mercilessly; she does all the domestic work and she is of course continually growning, complaining of how her life is nothing but mute suffering, sacrifice without reward. The point, however, is that this ‘silent sacrifice’ is her imaginary identification: it gives consistency to her self-identity– if we take this incessant sacrificing from her, nothing remains; she literally ‘loses ground’. (215-6)

Viewed from this perspective, it is the “act before the act”, the symbolic act that first opens the world as a space for a particular type of action that political engagement should focus upon. Indeed, we can ask, contra Badiou, how those engaged in the revolution first became capable of perceiving a particular situation as a revolutionary situation without first having undergoing some fundamental transformation at the level of the symbolic structuration that rendered them open to such a perception and action. Or, at least, this is the direction in which my thoughts are currently moving… A praxis that targets symbolic structuration itself, thereby opening the space for an event yet to come.

I previous posts I have expressed a sort of philosophical schizophrenia or malaise with regard to the question of where to begin in philosophy that perpetually has me batting about like a fly in a bottle. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes that, “[w]here to begin in philosophy has always– rightly –been regarded as a very delicate problem, for beginning means eliminating all presuppositions” (DR, 129). In advancing this assertion, Deleuze ties himself to a long philosophical tradition stretching all the way back to Plato. As Plato writes in Book VI of The Republic:

Understand then, said I, that by the other section of the intelligible I mean that which the reason itself lays hold of by the power of dialectic, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas [forms] moving on through ideas [forms] to ideas [forms] and ending with ideas [forms]. (511 b2-c1)

For Plato, philosophical discourse must break with all custom, authority, and mythological narratives to arrive at the assumptionless and demonstrable. An excellent example of this can be found in the early dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates is surprised to encounter Euthyphro at the Hall of Kings where legal matters are addressed. After a brief conversation, Euthyphro informs Socrates that he is there to prosecute his father for murder. Apparently one of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and murdered another servant. His father had bound the servant and thrown him in a ditch while dispatching another servant to determine what legal actions should be taken. While waiting for the authorities to arrive, the servant died from either the bonds or exposure to the elements.

Surprised that Euthyphro would prosecute his own father– here an anthropological knowledge of kinship relations would be important to the analysis of the dialogue –Socrates asks why Euthyphro would do such a thing. Euthyphro quickly responds that it is his pious or religious duty to do so. Socrates points out that only a man of very great wisdom (knowledge) would so confidently proceed in such a course of action and asks Euthyphro to explain piety to him so that he might better defend himself against the charges of impiety levelled against him by Meletus in his own court case. If Euthyphro can teach him the meaning of piety, then Socrates will be able to defend himself against Meletus’ charges as he will be able to show that he does, indeed, know what piety is (the presupposition here– common in the Ancient world –is that we only do wrong on the basis of ignorance, confusing what is good with its simulacrum). If, on the other hand, Euthyphro is mistaken, Socrates will be innocent as his soul will have been corrupted by a bad teacher.

The manner in which Euthyphro defends his first attempt at a definition of piety is of special interest with regard to the question of breaking with presuppositions. Having agreed to take Socrates as his pupil, Euthyphro remarks that,

…I say that the pious is what I am now doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits a murder or a sacrilegious roberry, or sins in any point like that, whether it be your father, or your mother, or whoever it may be. And not to prosecute would be impious. And, Socrates, observe what a decisive proof I will give you that such is the law. It is one I have already given others; I tell them that the right procedure must be not to tolerate the impious man, no matter who. Does not mankind believe that Zeus is the most excellent and just among the gods? And these same men admit that Zeus shackled his own father [Cronus] for swallowing his [other] sons unjustly, and that Cronus in turn had gelded [castrated] his father [Uranus] for like reasons. But now they are enraged at me when I proceed against my father for wrongdoing, and so they contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and what they say of me. (5d6 – 6a5)

In this first attempted definition of piety, it is clear that Euthyphro is an advanced ethical thinker deserving of praise. Euthyphro affirms the universality of moral principles irregardless of kinship, nationalistic, or tribal relations such as those one enjoys with respect to one’s mother and father. In this regard, Euthyphro sounds like Jesus, when he remarks “[i]f any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, his wife and children, his brothers, and sisters– yes, even his own life –he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The implication of this difficult saying seems to be that genuine moral uprightness requires a break from tribal and kinship relations– the Lacanian would add a break from identification with the master-signifier –so as to affirm the Jewish exhortation to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). So long as this break with what Badiou calls the logic of the encyclopedia is not accomplished, the dimension of the egalitarian universal cannot be encountered.

However, Socrates is quick to point out that there is both a problem with this definition of piety and more importantly with how it is defended. On the one hand, this definition fails insofar as it gives only an instance of piety (prosecuting someone for murder) and not the feature or rule that would allow us to identify all instances of piety. Interestingly, the Euthyphro ends in aporia without a definition, suggesting that perhaps piety is not a domain of knowledge and therefore not a domain of obligation with regard to the other (recall that the Oracle at Delphi is the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, the god of reason and truth). An important philosophical decision seems to be made later in the same dialogue when Socrates asks whether piety is pious because the gods love it or if the gods love it because it is pious. If the former, then we must await the revelation of the gods in order to know our ethical duty. If the latter, we can examine ethical questions without requiring recourse to the revelations of the gods. Socrates and Euthyphro both choose the latter option, and it is this decision that will mark all subsequent ethical theory to present and open the door for the Enlightenment critique of Church authority.

Of greater concern is the way in which Euthyphro defends his definition. Socrates quickly points out that Euthyphro appeals to myth, and remarks that he has a difficult time believing these stories to be true. In short, Euthyphro enjoins Socrates to accept as a duty something based on a myth that he cannot himself validate. This is an act of intellectual violence or disrespect to his interlocutor. So in this brief exchange the gauntlet of philosophy is thrown: break with myth so as to know through reason. Moreover, in the same dialogue Euthyphro has presented himself as an expert in all things pious, thereby defending his claims on the basis of his authority. In suggesting that he become Euthyphro’s pupil, Socrates effectively rejects the acceptance of authority on the basis of authority’s own claim to recognition, but instead calls for authority to legitimate itself.

Philosophy thus demands, in principle, a break from authority and myth. However, there is a genuine question as to whether this is possible. Insofar as the Lacanian subject is split, it is always decentered from itself. The manner in which the subject is decentered is structured in two ways: On the one hand, the Lacanian subject is not immanent to itself as a consciousness due to the manner in which the ego (not to be confused with the subject) is alienated in the imaginary, misrecognizing itself in its imago. The ego confuses itself with its image of itself rather than with its genuine being and is forever unable to coincide with this image. On the other hand, insofar as the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, it is alienated with regard to language such that it is not master of its own language. Because the signifier cannot signify itself, it follows that no origin or ground of language can ever be articulated that would meet Plato’s requirement for dialectic. For every signifier I articulate there will always be (n+1) or (n-1)… One more to say or one too few. The dream of a subject that would be immanent to itself and thus completely grounded such as we find in Descartes or Husserl is thoroughly undermined by the Lacanian subject. This goes straight to the heart of my concerns, for I recognize the validity of what I’ll loosely call “sociological thought”, undermining the dream of a subject immanent to itself (with the possible exception of Badiou), while also recognizing the philosophical ambition of breaking with doxa… If only as a critical regulative ideal.

What is required is some gesture that is able to rigorously establish the identity of the subject with what is most other or foreign to it (the symptom, social constitution, objective conditions, etc). The best candidate I’ve seen for a solution to this problem is Hegel’s “identity of identity and difference”. As Hegel expresses this identity of identity and difference,

The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general. This can be regarded as the defect of both, though it is their soul, or that which moves them. That is why some of the ancients conceived the void as the principle of motion, for they rightly saw the moving principle as the negative, though they did not as yet grasp that the negative is the self. Now, although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and Substance shows itself to be essentially Subject. When it has shown this completely, Spirit has made its exitence identical with its essence; it has itself for its object just as it is, and the abstract element of immediacy, and of the separation of knowing and truth, is overcome. Being is then absolutely mediated; it is a substantial content which is just as immediately the property of the ‘I’, it is self-like or the Notion. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 21)

When the analysand recognizes themselves in a slip of the tongue such as the statement “I cannot before myself”/”I cannot be-for myself”, subject is recognizing itself in substance. The analysand had intended to express the thought that he is unable to be prior to himself, but instead ended up saying, despite his intentions, that he cannot support himself. The work of the “negative” (relation) occurs when the analysand recognizes himself in this slip of the tongue, despite the fact that this slip was not what he intended. Similarly, when the sociologist demonstrates that the personal motives of individuals pursuing their own aims ends up producing economic inequalities such as the way in which American consummerism ends up reinforcing third world poverty and conflict despite the fact that the American consumer does not intend this result, a dialectical identity or an identity of identity and difference is being asserted between these large scale social organizations and these personal intensions. The truth expressed in the slip of the tongue (substance) differs radically from what the subject knows of himself (knowledge in the imaginary), just as the truth of one’s social actions (class inequalities) differs radically from what the consumer believes he knows of himself; yet there is nonetheless an identity between the two. Dialectic is able to demonstrate these relations. Even presuppositions themselves stand in a dialectical relation with the presuppositionless.

Yet while Hegel’s logic of the negative, his logic of alterity, promises a way of surpassing the difficulties posed by a subject that is no longer immanent to itself, there are two further problems: On the one hand, the Lacanian, unlike Hegel, rejects any claim that truth and knowledge can be brought into harmony with one another. Truth always outstrips knowledge, or we always say more than we intend to say. On the other hand, and what amounts the same, the Lacanian account of the real precludes any totality, whole, or completeness. What, then, would a dialectic look like that didn’t fall prey to the manner in which Hegel’s thought remains mired in the imaginary. For Lacan, the imaginary does not refer to the fictional such as an imaginary friend, but to the dimension of meaning, completeness, and the desire for wholeness. How is this to be philosophically surmounted? Or is there a discourse of the philosopher that escapes that of the master and enters the discourse of the analyst?

Hunc igitur terrorem animi, tenebrasque necesse est
non radii solis, neque lucida tela diei
discutiant, set Naturae species, ratioque–

This dread and darkness of the mind therefore need not the rays of the sun, the bright darts of day; only knowledge of nature’s forms dispels them.

~~Lucretius, De rerum natura, Book I

For the last few days I’ve been reading The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, by Peter Gay. As I read the tale of these young upstarts, I find myself filled with enthusiasm, and fall to bed at night with names like Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Newton, Diderot, Jefferson, Franklin, and Spinoza on my lips. I think to myself that here are struggles that matter, struggles that transformed the face of the world. Although these thinkers certainly sought recognition and prestige, their intellectual work did not simply consist in getting another line on their CV, on making the most radical claim, on being aesthetic dandies like so many of our postmoderns, or in simply securing a position (we need only look at the lives of Diderot and Rousseau to see this). Rather, there was a profound desire to bring an entirely new form of social relations into being, an entirely new world. What is it that excites me so in the lives and thought of these thinkers? Is it their passion for freedom? Their desire to escape superstition once and for all (today we have a new category in addition to superstition: ideology). Is it their ill tempered militancy? Is it their celebration of reason? Or their joy in inquiry? It is not any particular set of claims that I agree with, but rather a sort of spirit or elan that animated these figures… A sense that intellectual work is not simply for the sake of promoting one’s academic capital, but transforming the world itself.

Perhaps what interests me most is the manner in which these thinkers were able to escape their historical moment, transforming history itself. Peter Gay writes,

…though distinguished members of that club [of the cultivated], the philosophes, intelligent and ruthless, were also unreliable: their encounter with the classics, often casual or insignificant, was also decisive for them as it was for few other men. It gave shape to their rebelliousness; it justified their radicalism. While a program of study is not normally a reliable intellectual pedigree, the philosophes’ classical education had special, lifelong meaning for them: it offered them an alternative to Christianity. There were critical moments in their lives, in adolescence and later, when they appealed to the ancients not merely for entertainment but for models, not merely for decoration but for substance, and not for bland substance– such as the staples of Horatian satire: complaints about crowded city life, laments on the brevity of existence, or the menace of bores and bluestockings –but for a philosophical option. (44)

The issue of whether the Enlightenment thinkers read the ancients in a hermeneutically accurate way is irrelevant. Their engagement with the ancients was one that had the character of a “history of the present”, a directedness towards the present, creating an opening within the field of possibilities populating the closure of the present. Phantasmatic or accurate, this encounter suggested that another way was possible, another world was possible, that other forms of social relations and ways of reasoning had existed and could exist again.

That is, their identification with the classics, with the Greek and Roman ancients, allowed them to gain a minimal distance from their own historical moment, and bring something else into being. This distance from the present was also accompanied by a collapse of self-identity, where the subject of Enlightenment discovered itself as a void or emptiness, no longer knowing who or what it was. Peter Gay describes the turmoil of this transformation well in relation to David Hume:

Even David Hume, whose good cheer was celebrated, had to brood and struggle his way into paganism. At eighteen, in the rebellion against the dour Scottish Presbyterianism of his childhood, and elated by his discovery that he had a vocation– philosophy –he stuffed himself, feverishly, with ‘Cicero, Seneca & Plutarch’, and was soon crippled by hysterical symptoms, loss of appetite, hypochondria, and melancholy. He was unable to study with concentration or pleasure.

Practicing some wild analysis, one can almost hear the Presbyterian superego intervening in Hume’s symptoms– His inability to eat reflects a resistance to reading further, a command by the superego refusing the incorporation of anything else. The hypochondria seems to be a defense on the part of his older identifications, suggesting that his new thoughts have rendered him ill and he’s in need of treatment, while his melancholy suggests that he’s lost his status as a love object for his community. Gay continues,

His memory of past ‘errors and perplexities’ makes him diffident; the weakness and disorder of his faculties and the ‘impossibility of amending or correcting’ them reduces him to despair and induces wishes of self-destruction. ‘This sudden view of my danger’ on the boundless ocean of lonely search ‘strikes me with melancholy; and as ’tis usual for that passion, above all others, to indulge itself; I cannot forbear feeding my despair, with all those desponding reflections, which the present subject furnishes me with in such abundence.

…’I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy.’ To be sure, this isolation may be rationally explained, but the explanation has that strange and self-enclosed rationality characteristic of men in situations of extreme loneliness: ‘I have expos’d myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declar’d my dis-approbation of their systems; and can I be surpriz’d, if they shou’d express a hatred of mine and of my person?’ Detachment from society is mirrored by private emptiness: ‘When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I trun my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance.’ The world is hostile and, significantly, conspiratorial: ‘All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; tho’ such is my weakness that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning.’ In the end, Hume proclaims that he no longer knows who he is; his stable self-image has dissolved in a sea of doubt and despair: he fancies himself, much as Diderot did in a similar predicament, ‘some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in ‘society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandon’d and disconsolate.’ And he is driven to ask: ‘Where am I, or what? From what cases do I derive my existence, and to what Condition shall I return? Whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? And on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me?’ (64-6)

These are passages worthy of Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure, and I must confess that I find Hume’s breed of monster far more appealing than the sort of self-indulgent, aestheticized monster that often parades in the name of Deleuze and Guattari. Insofar as identity is diacritical, the product of differential relations among symbolic and imaginary subject-positions, it follows that a revolutionary subject must necessarily undergo a collapse of identity as there is no longer a place for this subject in this diacritical system. Hume asks “whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread”, indicating a relation to the Other or the symbolic. If this can become a question, then this can only be because the favor we court relies on a pre-existent symbolic system. If that system has collapsed for oneself, then we can no longer be certain whose desire we wish to capture and whose gaze we wish to avoid. We have become unmarked for the system, something that the system cannot count or recognize, and have thus, essentially, become void. Yet in this void something new can come to be.

In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,

Repetition is never a historical fact, but rather the historical condition under which something new is effectively produced. It is not the historian’s reflection which demonstrates a resemblance between Luther and Paul, between the Revolution of 1789 and the Roman Republic, etc. Rather, it is in the first place for themselves that the revolutionaries are determined to lead their lives as ‘resuscitated Romans’, before becoming capable of the act which they have begun by repeating in the mode of a proper past, therefore under conditions such that they necessarily identify with a figure from the historical past. Repetition is a condition of action before it is a concept of reflection. We produce something new only on condition that we repeat– once in the mode which constitutes the past, and once more in the present of metamorphosis. Moreover, what is produced, the absolutely new itself, is in turn nothing but repetition: the third repetition, this time by excess, the repetition of the future as eternal return. (DR, 90)

In constituting my history I constitute my influences or determine that through which I am influenced. I produce, as it were, my ground. Yet in identifying with the past, I also transform myself as an agent, and produce something new through the repetition of this identification in the present. To repeat in this instance is not to imitate or resemble the past. We would be hard put to find more than superficial resemblances between the ancients and the Enlightenment thinkers. Not only were their aims different, but in many cases their concepts were wildly different as well. Yet nonetheless the Enlightenment repeats the classical age. What, then, today would it mean to repeat the Enlightenment, in an age following Freud and Marx?

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