Possibilities


One of the things that has often frustrated me about Continental political theory is that I find in it a tendency to focus on the content of concepts, positions, and arguments to the detriment of the form through which these positions are articulated. Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not simply to represent the world, but to change the world. Part of the production of this change involves having good concepts, arguments, and the right positions. However, if these concepts do not circulate around the world, if they remain cloistered within our skulls or accessible to only a select group of elite individuals, then these concepts do little to change the world.

The form of a discourse, as well as its materiality, matters every bit as much as the content of that discourse. It is not enough to simply have the right ideas or the just position. If that position does not take place in some sort of material inscription, if it does not have the right sort of form, it is unable to in-form at all. That is, it remains incapable of producing any difference outside of the small and select group of elites capable of receiving the message. Where the form is lacking, one suspects that the theoretical engagement is akin to an obsessional exercise, where the obsessional is perpetually preparing to go after the object of desire but in such a way that all of his acts are designed to insure that everything remains exactly as it has always been. In other words, the obsessional form of activity is designed to insure that nothing changes regardless of what the obsessional claims at the level of the content of his discourse. It is here the form of obsessional activity that matters, that is crucial to understanding the obsessional, not the content.

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It seems to me that within contemporary academia, there is a good deal of anxiety among philosophers as to just what the vocation of philosophy is. Just as Kant famously observed that “time was when metaphysics was the queen of philosophy”, there seems to be an underlying anxiety, among continental philosophers especially, that “time was when philosophy was the queen of the sciences”. Any honest appraisal of philosophy today cannot fail to acknowledge that philosophy has been dethroned from its privileged position among the various disciplines. Where Kant could still teach geography, anthropology, physics, and philosophy, seeing all of these disciplines as, in effect, a part of philosophy, for us today philosophy has increasingly become pared down and marginalized in such a way that it often appears, to the outsider, as a sort of archaic curiosity. The various sciences, both as forms of serious research and in popular culture, have taken on the mantel of answering the questions of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Thus, when the layman searches for answers to the question of the fundamental nature of reality, he generally looks not to the tradition of philosophy, but to popular science texts such as the works of Brian Green, Frijtof Capra, Stephen J. Gould, and Richard Dawkins. Where philosophy pursues a game of one upsmanship, presenting ultra-radical, whizbang critique to end all critiques, these figures dogmatically present their various accounts of the nature of reality. When the layman looks for answers to the most fundamental and basic questions of ethics, to the classical questions of Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, the layman looks not to the ethicist, but to the psychologist and self-help books or to mystogogues selling their latest permissive snake-oil. When the layman looks for answers to questions of politics, they look not to political philosophy, but to popularized works of the social sciences. Everywhere it appears that philosophy has become eclipsed by other disciplines, such that in its own disciplinary practice it becomes addressed only to other professional philosophers addicted to something like Magister Ludi’s glass bead game.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has led to rather tiresome and reactionary attitudes among philosophers. It is not uncommon to find a sort of “Luddite” mentality among philosophers, where the world is implicitly described as fallen, where the Enlightenment is seen as the pivot point where this fall took place, and where thought prior to this period was a Golden Age. The vocation of philosophy thus becomes a “recollection” or “retrieval” of this forgotten truth, of this ground of all grounds, that has been lost through the fall into the natural attitude initiated by the Enlightenment. As a result, philosophy in the classroom, journals, and books becomes the history of philosophy and the retrieval of this truth from errancy. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that far from denouncing a decisive errancy of thought, this posture is instead based on a combination of envy at the triumph of one philosophical school over the others (a victory that is very carefully suppressed and denied), self-importance, insecurity, and a phobia towards all things mathematical and scientific.

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In his introduction to the work of Mao, Žižek writes,

The true victory (the true ‘negation of negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy. (Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao On Practice and Contradiction, 17)

In what sense is this to be understood as the true victory? After all, the simple fact that the enemy is using your “language” does not count as much of a victory if the structure of power remains the same. However, perhaps we can understand Žižek’s point in terms of making alternatives available, of creating possibilities within the social space that were not there before.

This thesis can be illustrated in terms of games. For the last thirty years it could be said that the reigning economic assumption behind American politics has been that of Friedmanian, unregulated, free trade economics. The net result is that all sides engaged in economic discussions surrounding the political assume this framework as the ground of their policy proposals. Here only one option is available and participants take stands within the framework of this set of rules. The situation is thus analogous to a game of chess. Within a game of chess, the rules themselves aren’t up for debate or discussion. Rather, the rules are themselves agreed upon and remain largely invisible for the players. If a debate does take place, this debate takes place not in terms of a dispute over the rules of the game, but over the tactics as to how best play the game within the framework of those rules. Such has been the case with non-academic political discourses in the United States.

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A shift in the game thus does not occur at the level of a single game, but only when an entirely new game becomes available, challenging the discourse of the existing game. In this regard, Republicans made a strategic blunder when they chose to brand Obama as a socialist during the last election. In situating Obama as a socialist within the context of the current economic meltdown, they implicitly suggested that another game, another set of possibilities was possible. Rather than simply suggesting that Obama plays the game of chess (neoliberal economics) poorly, they instead suggested that Obama plays an entirely different game, perhaps go, composed of entirely different rules (socialism). In making this move, they undermined their own claim, built up painstakingly over the course of economics, that capitalism today reigns supreme and there are no other credible alternatives.

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My suggestion here isn’t that Obama is a socialist or that he will depart from neoliberal economic policies (I’m skeptical). Rather, what I find interesting is that news shows, editorials, and various pundits are suddenly raising questions of whether unfettered capitalism is the best possible system. What we increasingly hear today is a popular space in which capitalism is being contested or questioned, and a halting groping towards other possibilities is unfolding. It is only when the game itself becomes an object of critique, when it comes to be seen as contingent or something that could be otherwise, that it becomes possible to overturn that game. Absent that we simply have competing tactics within one and the same game, assuming the same rules, goals, and aims.

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?