Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Benjamin vs. Heidegger: gambling and being-towards-death

I just ran across a fragment of Benjamin's in volume two (part one) of the English Selected Writings (in the German, it is located in Gesammelte Schriften VI, pages 188-190), entitled "Notes on a Theory of Gambling:" it represents Benjamin grounded extremely deep within his particular perspective on existence. I'd like to (quickly) suggest that perhaps the most important differences between Heidegger and Benjamin can be traced back to this fragment, for while it is characteristic Benjamin, one sees immediately that Heidegger could never, ever have written it.
Benjamin says the following, which at first just seems--like much in Benjamin--to be a mere description of what gambling is like:

What is decisive [in gambling] is the level of motor innervation, and the more emancipated it is from optical perception, the more decisive it is. From this stems a principal commandment for gamblers: they must use their hands sparingly, in order to respond to the slightest innervations.
-Selected Writings 2, part 1, 297.

But perhaps this fragment is nothing less than the exact refutation of what Heidegger means by Augenblick (the "moment of vision" in Being and Time. In other words, gambling here functions exactly like being-towards-death in Heidegger, except that it moves along completely different contours and has a completely different result. It is similar, however, in that it is the archetypal experience or experiential structure for both of these thinkers.
The Augenblick is, for Heidegger, a moment of presence without present--it is the present as determined by the futural essence of time. That is, because time flows from the future in its being-present, it is never present. It is present only as not-present: as a futural present--a present that springs from and withdraws back into the future. The present is only an experience of the "future-to-come." And yet, Heidegger maintains that this is precisely what gives one vision, i.e. what gives Dasein the ability to be (ek-sist) within its essence.
For Benjamin, we can see that the time of gambling, if one can put it this way, is a time that moves ever closer, not to vision, but precisely towards emancipation from optical perception--that is, towards their hands. In order to understand Benjamin's point of view here, one cannot understand the present as issuing from a from a future like with Heidegger: that is, one cannot understand the non-presence of the present as due to the withdrawal of a present back into the future. Rather, this non-present present in the time of gambling, the time without vision, stems from the fact that the experience of the present is always an experience of rupture without origin--that is, even a futural origin. The present stems only from the shock within any present, but this shock is not the future-within-the-present of Heidegger. Thinking the difference between the future and the shock, the Augenblick and the gambler's emancipation from optics.
I'll have to think about this much much more--but its here in case anyone can make anything out of it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Heidegger, Nazism, Zizek and Politics

One of you was awesome and pointed out that Slavoj Zizek had just written an intriguing article on Heidegger provocatively entitled "Why Heidegger Made the Right Step in 1933," and I thought I'd address it more here, since I was perhaps a little too initially dismissive of what it said. (To perhaps help with this address--for what is said here will either submit to or efface its evidentiary trace, though this will occur precisely through a reinterpretation of its evidentiary authority--I've attched a famous photo of Heidegger at a meeting with other Freiburg faculty and administrators. Heidegger is marked with an X.)
It's an amazing article, and very thoroughly goes through the positions people have taken and are taking towards Heidegger's engagement--regardless of where you fall on the issue, I think that looking over and subscribing to how Zizek outlines the current situation is profitable. I also think Zizek's account of the interrelationship between Heidegger's thinking and his political decisions not only during the Nazi period but especially afterwards is absolutely insightful--and merits everyone's attention who is interested in the issue.
But I still think the main point of the article is where Zizek gets into problems. Let me first say, though, that I have been and am nearly always sympathetic to Zizek--to the extent that I agree with him when he says that our political situation stands in need of a repetition of Leninism, where repetition means not a return to Leninism but precisely seizing on the open possibilities of Leninism today (although my understanding of repetition is still different, see my post on "Repetition, Negativity and das Geschehen des Daseins," below). I also agree with Zizek that along with this repetition there needs to be (and this is even more urgent) a fierce opposition to populism as a seductive but in the end extremely dangerous position for the Left to endorse (See Zizek's article "Against Populist Reason"--I think it was called--in Critical Inquiry). Fundamentally, though, Zizek remains and has always remained too the real potential of Derrida and deconstruction, which I know he sees--and I just this is afflicts his theorizations of an adequate postmodern subject-position (in at least one way I'll outline below). But to the article.
In the (extremely accurate) words of the person who pointed it out to me, the article essentially tries to outline how "today we are quick to renounce things like collective action, revolutionary engagement, and wagers on truth as containing an element of 'totalitarianism,' where the proper analysis would look beyond this broad-brush approach and find the redemptive elements within collective politics that don't yield totalitarian results." My awesome interlocutor continues: "All of this becomes relevant to Heidegger though, when considering the 'totalitarian' nature of his Nazi engagement. We are all too quick to dismiss his engagement as such as totalitarian. Zizek argues that this engagement is positive and fully necessary for politics - where Heidegger missed was his inability to think beyond the current political horizion and to grasp the emergence of an Event."
In response I said the following, prefacing this with how I don't take issue with the critique of the "broad-brush" approach to totalitarianism--that is, I agree wholeheartedly that we can't read Heidegger simply as a Nazi philosopher, as a philosopher of Nazism or even of totalitarianism generally. Instead, I say, "I'm taking issue with the way he goes about trying to change the way we are disposed to dismiss Heidegger, that is, the way he wants us to read Heidegger in light of a better conception of totalitarianism."
I pretty much stand by that, but I thought I'd elaborate why I think Zizek (and perhaps my interlocutor) would say I was wrong--since it's in the article (and indeed all of Zizek's work), because it brings up a huge question about the nature of the Lacanian political project and, indeed, the post-modern political project as a whole (if one can subsume it under this heading).
Now, Zizek would respond to me by saying that I am, like many people who side with Derrida, ignoring the consequences of my own critique of Heidegger. That is, if I am willing to condemn Heidegger and his Nazism, and at the same time willing to admit of a more complex situation regarding Nazism and totalitarianism now and in Heidegger's time (that is, I am not just naively looking at totalitarianism and Heidegger as "bad," as a philosopher of Nazism), but unwilling to take up a comportment towards these issues I critique, I am (to be frank) emptying out all the force of critique and of subjectivity more generally--I become merely a function of late capitalism, an postmodern unhappy consciousness, another hack who doesn't have any real conception of the consequences of words precisely when he asserts that words have consequences. In fact, according to Zizek, this is precisely what Heidegger resisted in his decision to become a Nazi--an empty form of perpetually unhappy academic criticism. And to that extent, Zizek continues, Heidegger was right in 1933--as the title of the essay says. That is, Heidegger resisted the typical leftist illusion of a comportment towards the political that precisely did not do anything political, did not risk anything in its ability to continue thinking, did not correctly apprehend the violence that is in the nature of the political act insofar as it actually does risk doing something. Heidegger, according to Zizek, precisely engaged in this risk--and insofar as he did so, he conceived of and engaged in the political subject-position or comportment correctly.
Now, I absolutely agree with all of this regarding someone who does not take up a definite subject position to this object of their critique--but don't think it applies here to what I'm saying, because I do not think that Heidegger's resistence to this indefinite Leftist position with respect to the political itself constituted a correct apprehension of the essence of the political subject-position--and I think this is really what Zizek is saying. In other words, I don't think this criticism applies, because fundamentally I don't think we can say Heidegger was right at all in 1933, even in the sense Zizek suggests.
Why? Not because I agree with any of the other readings of Heidegger's actions in 1933 (and before and after) with respect to Nazism, especially with those readings that assert it was just a mistake, but because fundamentally I think Heidegger did what Zizek does, which is confuse the violence inherent in thought with the risk that lies in the political event. To assert that this violence is part of the necessary risk inherent in the political subject position is then, really incorrect. The violence in thinking, or even active thinking (action, praxis), is not the same as the risk that this thinking takes in doing this violence.
Let me be clearer on what I mean by "violence," for Zizek is good about marking the occurence of this word in Heidegger's texts and this strain in his thinking--and approving of it. For Heidegger it has to do with the ability of thought to retreive essential or proper thought (thought of the truth of being) and to break down or destroy other thoughts in order to transform them into this essential thought. Like Derrida, and like Zizek, Heidegger fundamentally thinks thoughts are violent--they have effects, and they cannot escape having effects. The history of metaphysics is the history of a certain type of violence for Heidegger, which needs to be properly transformed--and this must also be done through a certain type of violence. This is what Heidegger is getting at in a preface to his book on Kant, to take only one instance of this discussion of violence:

Readers have taken constant offense at the violence of my intepretations. Their allegation of violence can indeed be supported by this text. Philosophicohistorical research is always correctly subject to this charge whenever it is directed against attempts to set in motion a thoughtful dialogue between thinkers.
-Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, 5th edition, xx (the remark is written in 1950).

In other words, nothing can be signifiantly thought without this violence.
Now, Zizek thinks the assertion about the violence in thought stems from something correct in Heidegger--the conception of the real risk in having a relationship to the political in one's thinking, the sense Heidegger had of the political act of thought and its very real consequences. That is, thought risks itself (its ability to continue existing), as well as the thought of others (their ability to continue existing), in being political. Furthermore, if it does not risk itself, it is not political. But there is no such thing as an apolitical thought--Zizek argues. There are only thoughts that risk nothing--these are postmodern unhappy thoughts just characterized. This political risk is the other side of thought itself--insofar as thought is to be itself, then, it must develop and account for (be responsible for) this risk. Heidegger was not responsible enough for this risk--in the sense that he did not develop the risk enough.
But already risk and violence are confused. Violence is about what thought does. It is concerned with its effects. Risk is about the survival of thought itself, it is about what allows thought to continue to be thought. Zizek wants us to recognize both the risk and the violence inherent in thought--i.e. that it is staked upon (risks) precisely its violence. But what this means is that any time a thinker acts in such a way so that they two exist together, he is conceiving of the political correctly. He is comporting himself towards the event. I would contend that it is precisely when one does not stake ones thought on the violence, when one risks an infinite respect towards the violence of thought, that there is politics. This doesn't mean there is a refraining from action--it just means that the political is shifted onto the act of respect rather than upon the mere coexistence of thought, risk, and violence. Thus acting responsibly is not being respectful to the ontology of the political event itself, but precisely by respecting what constitutes the event (which is alterity--see below).
So in Zizek's eyes Heidegger missed the real nature of the risk he was engaged in. Heidegger was not enough of a Nazi for Zizek: he was too much of a thinker of violence and not enough of a thinker that risked his thinking in the political.
But this I think is to confuse risk and violence--thought can risk something precisely by accounting for and respecting this violence. For me there is a difference between recognizing the imperative to be responsible for this violence in its action--this is nothing less than the ethical imperative that we can find in the work of Levinas and Derrida--and employing this violence blindly--which is what Heidegger does in my view. In other words, there is a difference between acting with a respect for (and some degree of control over) the the necessity of this violence, which includes the fact that it is necessarily a source of pleasure--i.e. that it is the site of unavoidable jouissance--and merely employing it and asserting that it is a necessary component of any risky action itself. The latter position may even try to account for this violence in some way similar to the first position, but I think the accent is on the this necessity as an excuse, rather than as something to be respected--and this makes all the difference. So in my view Heidegger was profoundly wrong because of the actual violence of his thought in its risking itself--indeed, Heidegger was not so naive as to think thought could engage in Nazism without violence, but he mistakenly took the mere coexistence of this violence and thought (that was engaged, risking itself), for a respect for this violence.
In fact, to a disturbing degree, he approves of this violence--he approves of its relation to jouissance, and he approves of the fact that thought is constituted by it. Just like Zizek. But doesn't this betray the fact that both Heidegger and Zizek are too wrapped up in the mere act of trying to show people thought is violent and risky and less with trying to conceive of a respect that can issue out of their coexistence? That is, their thought itself becomes indistinguishable from an excuse--though of course to take it as an excuse would be to miss their point. The point is that real thought and real politics are justified only through excuses--that the nature of the political act of thought just is violent and risky beyond excuse. But the disturbing thing about this is that it is also a refusal to think about how to be responsible to more than just the nature of this thought in political action.
This is the barbarism of Heidegger--what produces the inane Heimatkunst within his writings, as well as the Wagnerian strains in his descriptions of the necessary movements of thought.
Of course, I'm not saying that we should be looking for a way out of this violent and risky necessity of political thought--a solution will not present itself to us. This is the position of the unhappy postmodernist that Zizek hates (along with me). It means that we should focus less on fidelity to the event itself, and more on the conditions (or, rather, the condition, which is multiplicity itself in the form differing and deferring alterity/ies) that construct it, that make these things (violence and risk and the political thought) coexist. That means that we have to account for why we cannot ever sufficiently respect the conditions of this political event--which lies in how that these conditions would have to be present to us--and that the real respect is located in this accounting. This means thinking of the conditions of the event as not reducible (as they are in Badiou and Zizek) to the Big Other and the Real--i.e. the fact that the Big Other doesn't exist. That is, there might be an alterity that is more profound and more disruptive than the Other of Lacanian thought and the Real. Thinking how this is the case is really thinking about responsibility: at least this is the Derridian/Levinasian claim--a claim I think is just as politically effacacious as it is correct.
Regardless, just because Heidegger got the risk and violence inherent in the political event right doesn't at all make what he did right (as an act--for Zizek of course it was wrong in what it acted towards, i.e. Nazism)--even if this risk and violence is precisely the opening up of the political to nonpresence, to alterity. Let me be clear: the point is that Heidegger conceived of this alterity like Zizek--that is, as reducible to the Real in the Other--and thus made a political decision that only served to assert the reality of the violence of thought risking itself... he did not try at all to be responsible for this reality, because it thought that merely comporting oneself towards it was enough. What Heidegger did not do is try to integrate it into his thought in an effort to be responsible for it--to this extent his thought shares in what made him become a Nazi. This isn't failing to grasp the emergence of an Event, it is failing to integrate a responsibility to an alterity that cannot even fit within the structure of the Event (as outlined by Badiou)--an alterity that Heidegger was himself on the way to theorizing.
But one can return to Heidegger's thought and indeed transform it into responsibility: this I believe is precisely the project of Derrida and Levinas. More closed to this project than he should be, Zizek does not adequately conceive of the political subject-position.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Deconstruction and institutions

I just thought this was a good quote--especially when you keep in mind Derrida might have said it in a seminar:

Here I do no more than name... the necessity of a deconstruction. Following the consistency of its logic, it attacks not only the internal edifice, both semantic and formal, of philsophemes [in the French University], but also what one would be wrong to assign to it as its external housing, its extrinsic conditions of practice: the historical formsof its pedagogy, the social, economic or political structures of this pedagogical institution. [And here is the real heart of the quote:] It is because deconstruction interferes with solid structures, "material" institutions, and not only with discourses or signifying representations, that it is always distinct from an analysis or a "critique." [These amount to nothing other than protocols for reading that we need to revisit: who now reads Derrida's efforts to deconstruct really in this way? Did anyone do it then, in 1972?] And in order to be pertinent, deconstruction works as strictly as possible in that place where the supposedly "internal" order of the philosophical is articulated by (internal and external) necessity with the institutional conditions and forms of teaching. To the point where the concept of institution itself would be subjected to the same deconstructive treatment. [And the gesture of acquiescence to supplementarity:] But I am already leading into next years seminar.
-in "Parergon," from The Truth in Painting.

Hegel on Kant

All this is just crazy speculation--I'm trying to think through the links between Hegel and Kant--specifically how Hegel sees Kant's inadequacy in books like Faith and Knowledge:
Hegel is often seen as the person who recuperates negativity or negation from the realm of untruth and puts it in the service of truth. That is, he is seen as the person who makes the presence of negativity not the mere assertion that something is wrong or untrue, but that it is on the way to truth. Viewing events or things this way makes them not sites of pure positive identity in opposition to what they are not (to their negation), but permeates them with that precise not-ness, with their negation, such that what they are not is an integral element that makes them what they are. For instance, life is not just the opposition of something to death, but really is death insofar as it is life--it is death that is living, death that is not yet death, life that is still not yet what-it-already-is-not.
In doing so is seen mostly to react to Fichte and Schelling, for whom the transcendental unity of apperception, the "I" or self-consciousness that unified existence had to oppose itself to a not-I in order to be. That is, Hegel is saying that Fichte (primarily) and Schelling are wrong is merely opposing a self-consciousness to what it is not, but that self-consciousness must be conceived as already what it is not, in the way we just described--this is what Hegel means when he says substance must be considered as subject, i.e. must be considered as substance that is already not substance, is already changing (i.e. becoming what it is not, and therefore, as change, is subject).
But this reaction does not seem to most people to connect to Kant. That is, it is only seen as a reaction to those who react to Kant: Kant in a sense is seen as not able to be reacted to on this particular issue of negativity. Why?
I think the consensus is that Kant doesn't go as far as Fichte in asserting that the "I" of self-consciousness or apperception must be so very in opposition to the not-I, to the object. And to an extent this is true: Kant is only concerned with apperception's opposition to sensibility, as a pure act of understanding: the existence of the object does not mean anything to him in this case, but only how the object is represented (and thus this is why Fichte, to make Kant's idealism less indifferent to the object, must focus on the object).
But I think this is only part of the story--because it only takes account of Kant's words themselves, and does not really take into account what Hegel says about Kant. Rather, I'll suggest that Kant doesn't specifically come up while Hegel is discussing negativity because, for Hegel, as he writes in 1802 in Faith and Knowledge, Kant's whole philosophy is negative. That is, the consciousness Kant articulates in the Critique of Pure Reason and elsewhere is precisely a consciousness that is the negation of itself. How? It is the consciousness only of the inability of it to reach a priori knowledge--as Hegel puts it, "the Kantian philosophy remains entirely within the antihesis" of cognition or consciousness and its reality, and as such this consciousness is only a critique of the cognitive faculties" (Faith and Knowledge). In other words, the picture of cognition that we get from Kant in the Critique is merely in itself a critique of cognition.
This may be distorting a little what Hegel is saying, but I'm gambling that it might be right. At least its an interesting standpoint from which to see what Hegel is doing with Kant. Hegel's most extended criticisms of Kant himself tend to be regarding the "thing-in-itself" and its absurdity--never really touching specifically how the issue of how negation works in Kant with regard to apperception or self-consciousness (see the opening of the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit). One could indeed connect the necessity of the thing-in-itself with apperception and see how Hegel might think of it as negative. But if we consider Kant as he is seen by Hegel in this larger way--i.e. in such a way that we grasp the Kantian consciousness just as the pure function of negativity itself--we might see how for Hegel restoring the concept of negativity to the service of cognition is really a completion of the critique of Kant.
The question remains how precisely Hegel would see this consciousness as negative or as negation in Kant. If it in its structure is governed by the inability to penetrate into the content of the a priori or the real, transcendental apperception would be the purest form of this inability, and thus the purest form of this negativity-as-consciousness. But how? Well, Hegel says that apperception is the connection of two opposite faculties: the sensible and the understanding through the imagination. To say that this is the most negative act is to say that the conception of these faculties as opposed is the highest expression of the inability to comprehend the a priori. And in a sense this is true: it is the moment when the understanding is most governed by the a priori--not when it is most able to grasp it itself: this is still, and always, impossible for it.
The next step for Hegel, then, is to see that this connection of two faculties is the negative expression of the real case--which is the identity of the two faculties, out of which their difference follows (and not the other way around). Taking this view, then, Fichte and Schelling are two philosophers who are attempting to negate this negativity in the wrong way--not two people who originally bring philosophy to the point where it just inadequately thinks of self-conscousness. As Hegel says in the Phenomenology, with Kant philosophy is brought to its Concept--that is, it is brought to a level at which it can grasp consciousness in its act of self-consciousness. But it is not yet brought to that self-consciousness as self-consciousness: this is Hegel's task, and this is what Fichte and Schelling do wrong. Kant then actually succeeds in some way: he brings self-consciousness to philosophy successfully--i.e. really. He can only explicate this however as a negation, not in a negation that comprehends its full structure as negation (the negation of the negation).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Anti-theory and "formalism" (pensée[s en] arrière)

I've been observing a distaste for anything "theory"-related in literature departments lately--not so much among faculty as among students and soon-to-be faculty. People complain that theory lacks rigor and isn't really reading. They then say that, instead of theory, formalism or reading for form should be the task of the literary critic. Unfortunately, I see many of these people within studies of the texts of the English Early Modern period--this could be due to the fact that the canon (and I speak here only of the canon, of course) of English Early Modern literature has less formal disparity (no novels or much prose fiction in general--mostly epic, lyric, or dramatic poetry), and has been the main site of opposition to theory via historicism for the past few years.
Regardless of where it takes place, I find this claim very disturbing: not because formalism is bad, but because of the lack of understanding of formalism in it. Formalism is theory also--it is a mode of looking at a text based on certain presuppositions about the functioning of a text that can be articulated through philosophical/historical concerns. Just because it engages what Susan Wolfson wonderfully calls "the fragile facticity of form," (in the great article "Reading for Form" in MLQ 61.1, 2000) doesn't mean that it excludes these presuppositions and constitutes the meaning of the text on the basis of them. To think that it does would be a misunderstanding of facticity as fact: facticity is a mode of the being of the text that means it is given up for interpretation in a particular way, a way that can change and a way that can relate and must relate to larger concerns. In other words, the text exceeds the fact of its own existence in its facticity, in its being-factical. Thus formalism works with theory and is a part of it. Formalism is not anti-theory.
But even this interpretation of the claim is too generous. For what is really happening when "formalism" (one has to put it in quotes--because now we understand this "anti-theory" isn't actual formalism) gets invoked by these people is that the concerns of the marginalized get deliberately overlooked. This invocation takes place when a feminist remark comes up, or when a post-colonial comment is uttered: the "formalist" sees these as "theory" and thus irrelevant to the main issue--the text and its workings. "Formalism" (mis)understood by this person (along with "theory"--of course there can be a postcolonial reading without theory!) then becomes the aegis of his disgusting discrimination--and no doubt (this is why I use "his," here) many of those who I have seen invoke this "formalism" are white and male.
These people are doing a disservice to formalism and reading for form while also making "theory" all the more important, in my view: theory is the accounting for the expansion of a text through its formal logic and movement into and out of history via philosophy and cultural criticism. As such, formalism cannot in itself work against it--if one wanted to oppose theory, they would have to use formalism in a particular way. Rightly understood, though, formalism is a wonderful way of looking at texts. It is a shame that those that are just simply tired of concerning themselves and their reading with certain discouses, rather than getting excited and called into even deeper thought by the presence of these discourses--it is sad that these tired thinkers have taken over the term in this way, wanting only to think back to a thinking that is backwards, to a "formalism" that never existed.

Apperception and die Einheit, unity

While reading Kant's transcendental deduction in the Critique of Pure Reason, it is helpful to trace the use of the word die Einheit, "unity" to try and explain the origin of the necessity for the idea of apperception. That is, by tracing how the word "unity" works, we can see really what Kant means by "apperception."
Kant in Section II of the Transcendental Logic is summing up what he has proven about the necessity of synthesis. He explains this by saying that "we cannot represent anything as connected in the object without having previously connected it ourselves" (Critique of Pure Reason, Everyman edition, p. 98, [B129]). The things that are represented to us, would appear as completely unrelated and contingent if they were not, prior to their representation to us, connected. That is, like Hume, we would not be able to see any necessity between something like cause and effect: an event A would be represented to us, and an event B, but we would not see them related. Hume ascribes this relatedness to habit only. Kant objects: if something is to be related by habit, it must be possible for the things to be related or connected by thought. In other words, two things cannot be related or connected at all by habit if thought cannot relate or connect them.
This connecting, prior to representation, that gathers together or ties or binds together (verbinden) "the manifold of [individual or singular] representations" ("das Mannigfaltige der Vorstellungen"), is synthesis. This "previous connection" of representation, however, "cannot be given through objects." Why? Well, because objects produce only representations--this is what Kant means by "sensibility." Objects can in a sense effectuate connections between them, but these connections are not able to be represented purely through sensibility. We are concerned with the represented connections between objects only. An object's connection with something would only just be represented as another singular representation. We are concerned with connection between representations, which happen in the subject apart from the object. This connection, then, is "originated only by the subject itself, because it is an act of its purely spontaneous activity" (98, B129), that is, activity free from the influence of objects insofar as their representability as connected is concerned. Let's look at the word "spontaneous," however, a little closer.
Kant uses two words to describe this connecting act of the subject, but they both only get translated as "spontaneous," (one, indeed, gets translated as "pure spontaneous," but this is highly inadequate). As we just pointed out, it is obvious that Kant is using it to describe how the activity of connection or binding together of representations occurs in the subject--i.e. that it is impossible in the object. The first word is closer to "spontaneous," in the sense we are articulating here--that is, free of influence: Spontaneität. Kant says, "denn sie ist ein Actus der Spontaneität der Vorstellungskraft" (B130), "then it is an act of spontenaity of the faculty or power of representation," a moment when the power of representation has free play, is unencumbered by the existence of the world of objects. That is, the power of representation is indifferent to the existence of the object, since the representation of it is given only insofar as the play of the power of represenation can take it up--and if it has taken it up, it already must exist, so the concern of the power of representation with its existence has already taken place. It is now free to do what it wants with the object as represented.
But the second word Kant uses is stronger, and more revealing of where he will go in this passage. Kant says that the act of the power of represenation here is Selbstätigkeit: "weil sie ein Actus seiner Selbstätigkeit ist", "because it is an act of Selbstätigkeit." Literally, it means self-acting. To us, the word means something more like "free play," which we used above, but still with reference to not being encumbered by an object--free play in the sense of automatic, automaton, automatisch, unfolding of itself. That is, this "automatic" should be taken in the sense of "autonomous." Put better, Kant means here that the act of the connection of representations prior to representation, synthesis, is an act not just totally free of concern for the existence of the object of the representation, but is generative of the subject which will receive the connected representation as such. It is autonomous in the sense he uses this word in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. It is the act of the self, this self-acting unfolding of the free-play of this faculty of represenation: in other words, the self comes out of or results from this act of connection.
This is important to note because we suddenly see where Kant is going with this--it makes his next point seem less strange or foreign.
Kant suddenly says "But the concept of connection includes, besides the concept of the manifold and the synthesis of it, also that of the unity of the manifold. Connection is the representation of the synthetical unity of the manifold." (98, B130-1). What Kant really says here, in an extremely complicated way, is that the act of representation prior to represenation, the connecting of the representations in synthesis, is not just the mere connection of individual or singular representations prior to the representation of that connection. It is also, and actually primarily, the activation or bringing-into-actuality of the prior potential for unity inherent in the representations themselves. That is, Kant is laying the emphasis on the capability of unity that these representations must also already possess as a possibility in order for them to be eventually connected or bound together at all. Connection is the representation of synthetical unity of the manifold (of representations): the accent falls on this unity.
The question becomes, then, where does this unity come from? Because, as Kant remarks, it "therefore cannot arise out of connection" (98, B131). In other words, this unity, die Einheit simply means the possibility of connection at all, because it is what in the manifold of representations is not just a manifold of individual representations, but a manifold of individual represenations that can cohere or unify, can simplify (vereinfachen) into a representation. And insofar as it is this possibility, conceived in its purity it is not yet related to the eventual connection of representations into one representation itself (through synthesis). Rather, Kant quickly shows us that connection must originate from this unity, this possibility: "much rather does that representation by adding itself with the representation of the manifold, render the concept of connection possible" (98-99, B131). The possibility for a connecting synthesis, this "unity," is the real determining factor for anything that will be represented to the mind.
And we have to understand that, for Kant, this is really where the power of representation, the whole process of eventual synthesis and connection of representation, originates and is at work--but not yet as itself. In other words, connection as an act is really located here, in the unity: connection itself just issues forth from this act of unifying that is not yet action, not yet reducible to the power of representation as such.
This is why Kant calls by another name "apperception." We can also see this act within the unity prior to the connection of representation is really just the act of positing "I think." Because we saw how Kant uses the word Selbstätigkeit, we can see that it is this aspect of the power of representation that gets accented in this unifying act. In other words, we see that it is this aspect of the power of representation taken purely and alone, the self-action of the self-acting power of representation or synthesis. This is what we meant by saying that this self-action generates a self: the generation of a self in the "I think," is what occurs in this unifying. Why does it do this in this unity, however? Why does this generation of a self take place within the unity that makes possible the connection of representations?
Because, as Kant explains, and as we put it above, this unifying is the prior possibility within the multiplicity or manifold of representations to be eventually connected into a representation: it is the reduction of a manifold to a one. This one, for Kant, simply is the perspective of the subject. In other words, what is happening is that Kant says that the unity that makes possible the connection of representations lies in how there must be a way for the manifold of representations to cohere into one perspective. Thus this unity is the site or rather the pure action itself of the generation of the subject, of the self.
Anyway, I hope this was a little helpful in explaining some tough phrases within the Critique and how they work. One can figure this out simply by paying attention to the architecture of the mind as specified by the faculties, but it is more useful and ultimately more productive to investigate how and particularly why Kant needs them to work the way they do. Apperception is the question of whether and how the subject, as asubject, can exist at all, and it is only by seeing that this is the function of apperception--guaranteeing the existence of a subject--that one really understands what Kant is doing. This is why people stress this section in Kant, and, as we can now see, why it ultimately is considered a rereading (and an absolutely genius one) of Descartes. If objects do not end up representing themselves to a single subject, that is, if they do not become determined by an act of the mind asserting itself as singular, as one perspective, prior to their actual representation, there could be no representation at all, or at least any representation we would be familiar with and call a subject.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Benjamin on Nietzsche

Walter Benjamin has an interesting reading of Nietzsche that is much less favorable than Heidegger towards the conception of the eternal return. Its power probably merits a rereading of Nietzsche against Heidegger's reading of him--a task Derrida prescribes as necessary in Of Grammatology (that is, rereading Nietzsche against Heidegger, not using Benjamin to do so), probably because of a vague sense of what Benjamin concretely works out in his reading (that is, not necessarily because Derrida has his later Spurs in mind).
Benjamin essentially says that in order to comprehend the eternal return, or even to be able to think it, one must have had an intimate experience of modernity, where the experience of singular events changes into an experience of massenwiese, the mass-like, multiple singularity. In other words, in order to think the eternal return, Nietzsche had to have had an experience of various events as the same. This does not mean that they had to be the same event, but instead that Nietzsche had to experience the quality of the event as sameness, as the "ever-same" (see below)--an experience that is distinctly modern.
Here is one sample of what Benjamin says (it appears all over his work), initially with reference to Baudelaire:

Baudelaire's project takes on historical significance, however, when the experience of the ever-same, which provides the standard for assessing that project, is given its historical signature. this happens in Nietzsche and in Blanqui. Here the idea of the eternal return is the "new," which breaks the cycle of the eternal return by confirming it.
-"The Study Begins With Some Reflections on the Influence of Les Fleurs du mal," Selected Writings, Vol. 4 (1938-1940).

Eduardo Cadava looks at this in his amazing book, Words of Light: These on the Photography of History, and covers it quite thoroughly. But still I wonder what Heidegger would say about this reading, and what differences between Benjamin and Heidegger become apparent on the basis of it.
This should take the form of a contestation of Heidegger's idea of time, which Benjamin found "awful," (The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, 81) for an unarticulated, though obviously very definite, reason.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Even more basic introduction to Hegel

Here is an even more basic introduction to Hegel (and particularly Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, and "dialectic") than the one before. It should provide a good sort of primer for anyone reading Derrida's "The Pit and the Pyramid" in Margins of Philosophy, in that it gets you thinking in the general mode of Heidegger and Hyppolite about Hegel and language--this is the mode of thought that Derrida in that essay elaborates, investigates, and to which he reacts:

Here are some simple passages in the chapter on sense-certainty that have to do with language, and particularly the conflicts, the frustrations, the impossibilities—in short, the problems—of language:

In J.N. Findlay’s analysis of the Phenomenology: “In the use of demonstrative words, there is a conflict between what we really say and what we mean to say (our Meinung, was wir meinen [i.e. what we ‘intend.’])” (p. 508).

Also in Findlay’s analysis: “Language, being divine and rational, frustrates the attempt of sense-certainty to grasp… particulars” (p. 509-10).

And in the Phenomenology itself: “If they actually wanted to say ‘this’ bit of paper which they mean, if they wanted to say it, then this is impossible, because the sensuous This that is meant cannot be reached by language” (§110).

I’m taking these quotes (especially the last one) about language and its specific relation to sense-certainty as representing how language relates to the larger task of the Phenomenology. If I can tease out the significance of language in general, then, this should orient you so that you can understand specifically what is going on in the quotes—i.e. language’s relation to the “this” to the “now,” to “particulars,” to the “bit of paper” and the like.
What does this mean if I can do this? It means I’m elaborating a thesis of Heidegger’s (as well as Kojeve’s and Hyppolite’s) about the meaning of language in the way this task unfolds or accomplishes itself (cf. “Hegel and the Greeks” in Pathmarks).
To put it plainly, the task of the Phenomenology is to try and show thought, or have thought show itself. This thought is thought in action, thought beyond the distinction between thinking and doing—Hegel calls it Spirit. A culture is in a sense this type of thought; battles between nations or plays in the theatre are types of this thought in some way, in some aspect of their existence. This thought, then, shows itself in acting in various forms, forms like “Consciousness” “Self-consciousness” “Reason,” etc.—the general divisions of the Phenomenology—and also in more specific forms, like “sense-certainty,” “perception,” and “understanding”—the individual chapters of the work. It should be obvious that when there is no more showing of thought, when thought just simply is what it is and does not show itself as what it is, the task of the Phenomenology is completed. Hegel then goes to describe how this thought is, beyond its appearance, beyond its being a phenomenon. This is the task of the Science of Logic. But it is clear that if the task in the Phenomenology is to have thought show itself, when Hegel is writing about sense-certainty, he is trying to make thought in this particular form show itself as thought that takes this particular form. He is trying to show how sense-certainty—a way our consciousness is sure of the objects to which we relate—is thought showing itself in some way, and furthermore is thought in its action as showing and not simply just being itself.
Now we can understand that in claiming that language has some relationship to the task of the Phenomenology I’m claiming that language has a relationship to the way that this showing of thought has to unfold. In short, it means how this showing must be described by Hegel, how it must be put into language.
Now, taking a step back, we usually say that Phenomenology is an unfolding of something called “the dialectic.” Could it be that this putting into language is “dialectic?”
But don’t we normally think of dialectic as a threefold structure (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) of some sort that organizes or is the organization of what comes to light in the Phenomenology? Or, better, as the twofold interplay between something and its own contradiction?
Heidegger claims that both of these interpretations are right in a sense, but only if they get their meaning from this first meaning of dialectic—in the sense of the relationship of language to the unfolding of thought. I’ll note now that for Jean Hyppolite and Alexandre Kojeve, and thus for Derrida, this is the case too. The dialectic, for these philosophers, is a going-through-language. Heidegger specifically reads dialectic as “dialegesthai:” from dia, Greek for “going through,” and legein, “the gathering (and only gathering, not unifying) of disparity, of multiplicity, under a signifier or movement of signifiers, that is at the heart of logos, language.”
But we can think this more simply if we just think that dialectic will come on the scene when the showing of thought has a relationship to language. It is only in this sense that the dialectic is the threefold or twofold structure in the Phenomenology that we might normally think it is—before it is the “thesis, antithesis, synthesis,” or the interplay between “identity and contradiction,” it is this establishing of the relationship of thought to language.
So when thought indeed has a relationship to language, sense-certainty, as a way thinking shows itself, it will be dialectical in the way it unfolds, in the way it accomplishes this showing. But then why do all the quotes above talk about the failure of language to get at what sense-certainty wants it to get? Why, in general, is language a problem in the Phenomenology?
Because these represent moments in the Phenomenology when thought is trying to establish a relationship to language that is not dialectical, that is, when it is, in an effort not to show itself but to hide itself, trying to twist language into a mode that it does not want to inhabit. What is this mode of language? A mode where language disappears in front of what it communicates, where it undoes itself as language and does not, rather, make thought show itself in language, through the mediation of language. In short, a language that erases itself so that we get only the showing of thought, and no language with it.
This is impossible for Hegel: just this pure showing is precisely what “cannot be reached by language.” In the chapter on sense-certainty, we have portrayed a form of this showing of thinking that is nothing but this desire to have language erase itself, to have what is meant to be shown exceed the attempt to mean by putting it into language. It wants to have the showing of thought be just a “this,” a “here,” a “now.” But this is precisely what, in its frustration, Hegel says is “divine and rational.”
So we have a problem, don’t we? Thought when it does not show itself is precisely when it shows itself purely, without language, when language disappears in front of what it shows. Thought when it shows itself purely does not show itself, but hides itself.
I leave this for you to think about. Meanwhile, what has been proven, if we accept this, is that dialectic is the only way that thought can show itself—that is, as a way thought relates to language. If dialectic does not appear, there we have no showing, and in fact no thought as well. Dialectic, properly understood, is a relationship of thought to language without which thought is incomprehensible. The failure of language in these instances in the chapter in sense-certainty then only serves to prove how dialectic is necessary for the thought to appear, if we understand dialectic as the relationship between thought and language.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Basic Introduction to Hegel

I’m just going to tease out what Hegel says in the Phenomenology of Spirit in three phrases. Each is representative of a separate concern that consistently takes place throughout the Phenomenology as a whole, and also in the unbelievably rich history of the interpretation of Hegel. But I’m not going to be so concerned with what is asserted and where and why it is said so much—i.e. the particular arguments within each of them—so much as with the general way of thinking about things or general point of view that could allow something like these phrases to be written:

1. “It is clear that the dialectic of sense-certainty is nothing else but the simple history of its movement or of its experience, and sense-certainty itself is nothing else but just this history” (§109). Here we are concerned generally with history and experience and its relation to the dialectic (of sense-certainty, but also the dialectic qua dialectic).
2. “The Here pointed out, to which I hold fast, is similarly a this Here which, in fact, is not this Here, but a Before and Behind, a Right and Left… The Here, which was supposed to have been pointed out, vanishes in other Heres, but these likewise vanish. What is pointed out, held fast, and abides, is a negative This, which is negative only when the Heres are taken as they should be” (§108). Here we are generally concerned with the negative and negativity being what something is when it is taken as it “should” be.
3. “If they actually wanted to say ‘this’ bit of paper which they mean, if they wanted to say it, then this is impossible, because the sensuous This that is meant cannot be reached by language, which belongs to consciousness” (§110). Here we are concerned about language and how it cannot reach the “This” of sense-certainty, which Hegel says early on is the immediate.

If we can say something about each of these and how they enunciate the larger themes of the work and of Hegel’s thought in general, we might be able to connect them together.
Let’s first orient ourselves. You’ve probably heard “the dialectic” described as thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This interpretation has some foundation in Hegel, but it’s much more helpful, and much more complex (richer and more deeply problematic when indeed it proves problematic), actually, if we look at the dialectic as a movement between two terms Hegel uses a lot, terms you can easily trace in the movements of the Phenomenology: the immediate and the mediated (Unmittlebare, Mittelbar)—defined loosely, what has not gone through a process of some sort, and what has gone through that process. Sometimes it is good to think of the immediate as the undetermined or indeterminate, and the mediated as the determined. If we restrict our view to the movement of these two terms (and not yet considering exactly what “process” the mediated goes through and the immediate refrains from undergoing), the dialectic can be roughly characterized as the movement whereby what is immediate shows itself to be only properly immediate, only properly itself, when it is mediated, when it undergoes mediation (or becomes determined). To put it a better way, dialectic can be said to appear when anything taken immediately shows that if it is to be taken as what it is, it has to be taken as mediated (as determined).
Here in the chapter on sense-certainty, Hegel is dealing with something that is immediate—namely, sense-certainty itself (sense certainty is “immediate knowledge itself,” §90). We can presume, then, that if the Phenomenology structures itself around something called “dialectic,” as we usually think is the case with Hegel’s works, sense-certainty will show itself to be properly immediate only when it is mediated. Let’s take a step back and orient ourselves further to understand what all this means.
What is Hegel doing in the Phenomenology as a whole? Hegel has a lot to say on this, but his exact meaning is very confusing, and any way you reduce the confusion gives you a radically different interpretation of Hegel. I’ll just note this so you can get a different story than the one here if you want—go to some of the people on the handout. Put simply, however, Hegel is trying to think about what he calls Spirit (Geist). Spirit in its structure is something like the freedom (the determined indeterminacy) of thought or knowing in action—considered on a world-historical scale but never reducible to what we would call history or even freedom in its historical manifestation (Introduction to the Philosophy of History, III, “freedom is the only truth of Spirit”). It is a governing, proscriptive, disciplinary force in thought that also, like ideology or like a government, arises and is constituted by the actions of people. In short, Spirit is something like “the spirit of the times.” Hegel is trying to think about this Spirit, but, in the Phenomenology, not this Spirit itself, in its internal, determinate structure, in its being determined as freedom—this is only an indirect effect of Hegel’s primary concern.
This primary concern is in the Phenomenology is, rather, Spirit in its difference from itself, in its not being determined yet as itself, in its becoming-itself—in short, Spirit when it is not itself. When Spirit is itself and it returns to itself from out of the state of not-being determined as itself, the Phenomenology is over. Hegel can only then describe the logic of that Spirit, its internal structure in its completeness—this is why his next book after the Phenomenology is the Science of Logic. So, the Phenomenology describes or outlines or thinks about what Spirit is in its process of becoming-determined-as-Spirit, in a state in which it cannot be accurately described as a determinate structure, but in how it seems when it is not yet itself, when it is indeterminate. In short, the phenomenology describes the appearance and not the structure of Spirit: we can see now why and, more important, in what sense it is called a phenomenology—the phenomenon is what Spirit does and is when it remains in its difference from itself… it appears, and is appearance, the appearance of the structure (logic) of Spirit (which is freedom). (It should be clear that it is nothing Husserl would describe with his “phenomenology.”)
The form of the resistance of Spirit to becoming-itself, the phenomenon, Hegel understands as consciousness. This makes sense: if the freedom of thought or knowing in action is what we defined Spirit as, then there would have to be a mode of thinking in action that is not yet as free. Consciousness is that type of knowing: it is not as free for Hegel primarily because it takes everything from the subject-object point of view. Thinking things beyond the subject-object point of view is another way of saying that Spirit has returned to itself, that a mode of knowing or thinking exists that is free in its action. As we have been saying, this is the thought of the logic of Spirit, that takes place in the Science of Logic, but we should also note that from the perspective of the Phenomenology it is what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowledge,” a knowing that is fully Spiritual or free knowing/thought, a thought beyond consciousness or consciousness in its “absolute” form.
Now we know generally what sense-certainty is: it is a type of consciousness, a type of knowing that is the appearance of that free knowing or thought that is Spirit in its not-being itself, in its becoming-itself, in its resistance to Absolute Knowledge. If Hegel wants to describe what this consciousness is, because he wants to get at Spirit in the state of not-being itself, he will then only be able to describe it insofar as it remains this resistance to becoming Spirit.
But in doing this, in suspending the becoming-itself of Spirit, describing sense-certainty will have to end up effectuating by itself the intrusion of Spirit into this consciousness, the lifting up of sense-certainty into the process of the becoming-itself of Spirit, simply because sense-certainty will not be anything that seems to be something, but will be something, will be seen as described. It cannot remain a phenomenon, it cannot seem. In other words, if this form of Spirit is to be taken as what it is, as not-Spirit, it has to become Spiritual. Put differently, it has to become a part of the movement not of the difference of Spirit from itself but of the structure of Spirit as it is described.
Now we have fully oriented ourselves: we see the connection between this wider view we took that explains what Spirit must be, and the more narrow characterization of the dialectic that we set out with. In other words, we see how Spirit is immediate and how it is mediated: it is immediate in its not-being Spirit, in its becoming-Spirit, in forms of consciousness like sense-certainty, and it is mediated when it is as itself, as the freedom of thought in action. But according to the schema of the dialectic that we laid out earlier, immediacy is itself when it is mediated. This means that Spirit is immediate, is fully the becoming-Spirit of Spirit, when it has indeed become Spirit, when it has become itself. On a more local level, sense-certainty will be itself when it is described, when it is seen to be not itself, to already be beyond itself, to already be another form of consciousness (namely, what Hegel calls perception).
Let’s be a little clearer, and think about why this is so. Given what we said about Spirit as a phenomenon when it is not itself, we can see what Spirit itself, beyond the Phenomenology proper (or at the end of it, in the chapter on “Absolute Knowledge”), would have to be described as, from the point of view of a study that only traces what Spirit is not (the Phenomenology). Spirit would have to appear as, and be described as, the fully mediated itself, as what has gone through a process. This also means that becoming Spirit is that “process” which the mediated qua mediated goes through and the immediate holds off. But if beyond the Phenomenology (or in the consideration of “Absolute Knowledge”) this is the case, this means that the immediate is what makes up that Phenomenology. But at each stage of this Phenomenology, if what is to be described is the immediacy as it is itself, it must be mediated, it must show itself as immediate in its being mediated or undergoing mediation.
Thus we have oriented ourselves fully, because we see how Spirit is the result of the dialectic. With this, we can look at the first quote, and see how it is possible for Hegel to say this simply because he is saying just something like this: “the dialectic of sense-certainty is nothing else but the simple history of its movement or of its experience”—this means simply the movements of sense-certainty in how we try to describe how it knows exactly correspond to the dialectical way of considering it, because, essentially (remember we’re not considering the real content of these phrases, just how they are able to assert something like what they are saying), describing will have to show the Spirit in it, and this means describing its immediacy as itself in mediatedness.
But this gets proven when we consider what sense-certainty is again. It is, as we said, the immediate. But we also said it was consciousness. It is, then, the most immediate sphere of the development of immediacy into mediation, but also what it contains is immediate: it is just that type of immediacy that has a relation to itself (to itself as subject-object) as immediate. In other words immediacy is in sense-certainty, and (on a more general level) as sense-certainty. Thus throughout the section Hegel shows what is immediate about sense-certainty in particular and in doing so shows what is immediate about consciousness in general by mediating them. We’re taking the quote above as referring to consciousness in general, but this is also true of sense-certainty in particular, like the third quote, to which this leads us.
This third quote is essentially about the impossibility of grasping immediacy at all outside of a dialectical structure: the sensuous “This” is the immediate in sense-certainty, not sense-certainty as immediate, but of course this applies too: “the sensuous “This” that is meant cannot be reached by language.” In general, the immediate as immediate cannot be reached in description if we want it to be different than what is being described—in the case of consciousness, as what is part of a mediating movement of Spirit. In short, the immediate can’t be seen to be something totally apart from the mediated: it is what is is only as mediated, as determined—there is no total indeterminacy.
The second quote is the most crucial, but also the most vague considering what we have done. “What is pointed out, held fast, and abides, is a negative This, which is negative only when the Heres are taken as they should be…” We know that if something is taken as it should be, it should be mediated. What this indicates is that there is an affinity between negation and mediation, that allows one to be what one is, that allows Spirit to return to itself. We can indicate one way in which we have already seen this. Immediacy, we said, was immediate only when it was mediated. Another way we can describe this is that immediacy can only be itself when it is its negative, when it is its negation, when it holds fast within its negation as itself. In this sense, mediation comes about through the death of the immediate: it is the holding fast within death of the immediate itself. Now we see that the mediated and the immediate are not different, but both are just two sides of the phenomenon of negation: when negation surfaces, we don’t see them as different—they are mediation.
This connects the three quotes together roughly, and hopefully it has helped to make Hegel’s general approach in this confusing book clear.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The difficulties of reading Walter Benjamin

The difficulties that Walter Benjamin presents for anyone who reads him now could be put as follows (in a typically Benjaminian way--which means that of course these difficulties will exceed what I am now going to specify): first, it is difficult to discern at any moment whether Benjamin is engaged in a negative critique or an encomium, whether he sees a work under analysis as leading to the decline of civilization or contributing to its rejuvination, and, second, it is difficult to discern whether the resulting analysis Benjamin gives us prescribes anything to combat the forces of Fascism or not. As far as the latter point, it is clearest in the essay on the work of art and its technological reproducibility that Benjamin does indeed seek to give us something. This is why most people might be drawn to it as the clearest statement of Benjamin on how art relates to politics, along with the Theses. But it is doubtful whether anyone can specify whether any other writing of Benjamin prescribes anything clearly for a fight against Fascism. Furthermore, it isn't even clear that Benjamin seeks to prescribe anything in the "Work of Art" essay, either! Let's look at the (almost incomprehensibly dense, if one reads it right, while being at the same time almost blindingly clear) passage I'm indicating:

However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands [for a prognostic analysis of society culturally as well as materially capitalist] than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production [put simply, it makes no sense for a critical Marxist to talk about art after the revolution]. Their [the deveopmental tendencies of art] dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It woud therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts--such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery--concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.
-"The Work of Art in the Age of [Its] Technological Reproducibility," Illuminations, 218.

Benjamin here is not saying that a proper analysis of art can combat Fascism. He doesn't even say (as many think and act like he says in the academy) that the battleground against Fascism takes place within the sphere of the analysis of art. And yet some read him this way--in a way that imputes to him (what is really these people's) absolutely astounding naivete. Benjamin knows all too well what bullets do: something that works of art do not. Does the work of art need to be able to literally kill for us to be able to praise a critic for his willingness to fight Fascism? Is this the slavishness that we have reduced ourselves to as critics, as scholars? Yet some talk of Benjamin as if he does impute to the artwork this ability. Rather, we need to see how a work of art can effect something worse than death--communal enjoyment, the unleashing of banal affectivity. These are what Benjamin opposes.
But back to the passage: it is not even a positive statement about the analysis that will follow: all they will do will render themselves "completely useless" for Fascism. At the same time, they do not lend themselves directly to any revolution, either: these concepts the essay will intriduce are "useful for the fomulation of revolutionary demands", i.e. not in the revolution itself--and not even that, for they are demands "in the politics of art".
And, yet, there is a relay between art and politics being articulated here. Let's just indicate that for Benjamin, if we read him rightly, the relay between art and politics occurs in the spaces (or, what is perhaps better, times) in which politics is irreducibly artistic. (Less interesting to him, and yet what we constantly focus on as critics, is the complementary phenomenon: when art is irreducibly political. If we are reading Benjamin correcly, we should see why this phenomenon is extremely boring to him, why he chooses the first possibility.) But we can see this relay clearer if we turn from the second difficulty to the first one.
Is Benjamin in favor of Proust or not? Or Bergson? Or Breton? Or any of the other amazing figures he writes about? The key to reading Benjamin, I find, is to see that criticism in his eyes is never truly criticism if it can supply an answer to a question like this. In other words, this first difficulty arises because we cannot conceive for some reason the task Benjamin is engaged in. Or, put differently, Benjamin gives us answer that cannot be an answer to this question. In fact, in "The Image of Proust," he stages this question himself, only to avoid answering it:

What was it that Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain?
-"The Image of Proust," Illuminations, 203.

The question looks like the last one: is Proust of the weak and the sentimental? Or of the strong. But in fact, "weak" and its unsaid opposite already are called into question. Benjamin nowhere says that the strong is good and the weak is bad. So in fact all we get is what looks like description of Proust, an evasion of the question with a characterization. But in a sense this is Benjamin's point. Benjamin doesn't even really ask it in the same form as us--already he is within his own critical project and in a sense can't reach us in the midst of our banal conception of art. That is, Benjamin stages a question similar to ours by asking whether something can be said of Proust or not, not by asking whether Proust does something good or bad for civilization. In other words, Proust is not a result or a cause: he and his work already can only stand up to the test of whether something can be described with reference to him (and his work) justly or not. If we respect this way of testing the work, we transform how we look at Benjamin's aesthetic judgements. The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility is not bad for Benjamin any more than it is good: it just isn't that simple. But this breakdown of our way of staging the question by testing it with reference to Benjamin's way shows us precisely what criticism is supposed to do for Benjamin--i.e. we see enacted before us precisely that which is criticism for Benjamin. In other words, criticism does not judge whether something is good or bad, but fixes an image of the work that, precisely in its fixity, explodes everything within it and without it, causes everything about it and its world to become, to transform. More: it is in its fixity precisely this exploding--the two processes cannot be separated. To be a bit clearer: in looking at Proust Benjamin is not trying to show him as a symptom of culture in some way, nor even paint a portrait that would in its justice to the original, to its "real, authentic" meaning, demonstrate that meaning for us, make it clear. Rather, Benjamin tries to capture an aspect of a work, reduce it to an image, and in this reduction precisely cause an expansion of its meaning and significance, an explosion into fluidity of that which he captures. To be clearer still: Benjamin wants to fix what about the work is unfixable. He wants to show its internal difference from itself, that difference that provokes everything around it to change, to be unstable. In this, he is absolutely on the same page as Derrida, and it is not wrong to read Benjamin as if he is deconstructing a work, precisely because this process of deconstruction is not an isolation of a contradiction, but a isolation of the textuality of the work that forces it and other things around it, to expand beyond the limits of a work or any work, to be different from itself (to resist absolutely any isolation, any specification of its "essence"), to historize itself. Also, if one reads their Heidegger right (that is, if one sees ontology as the specification not of an "essence" of an existence, but of what in existence stands-outside-of-itself, i.e. ek-sists, has potentiality in its facticity, has no center), it would be similar to phenomenological ontology (regarding the being of an artwork, not a thing or a Dasein). This is what Benjamin is getting at when he specifies the reason for his essay on Proust: evoking an image gives us what about Proust makes us characteristic in our existence, conceived of as existence that stands outside itself, is constantly in becoming; what makes us stand outside of ourselves characeristically; what makes it possible for us to stand outside of ourselves--what is the inner possibility of our ek-sistence?:

The outstanding literary achievement of our time is assigned a place in the heart of the impossible, at the center--and also at the point of indifference--of all dangers, and it marks this great realization of a "lifework" at the last for a long time. The image of Proust is the highest physiognomic expression which the irresistibly growing discrepancy between literature and life was able to assume. This is the lesson which justifies the attempt to evoke this image.
-"The Image of Proust," 201-2.

And so we get a sense of the right way to approach second difficulty through the right way to approach the first. As to the first (let us simply restate it): criticism is a locating and dislocating of the difference within a work from itself, what gives us not the present, but what is to come and what shall be on the basis of that which comes. To be a bit clearer: criticism is a locating and setting free (through evoking, since it is what is already free) of the difference within a work that mobilizes it and mobilizes civilization. Thus it is not concerned with anything actually within the work anything present. It is concerned with what is, in the work presenting itself, textual in the work, to use a Derridian/Barthian distinction between text and work, or rather what is imagistic about a work, what is fixed precisely in its absolute fludity, what about the work in its being present goes beyond the work. In this sense, it is about what is not present in the work but what makes the work possible, conceived of as what is coming-to-be within the work as it is present.
As to the second: the relay between art and politics takes place within the ability to evoke that difference. If that image is or is not able to be specified, there politics takes place. In this sense only is politics able to be accessed by criticism: politics is the question as to whether criticism, as the locating and dislocating of a work's difference from itself, is able to carry out its task. Criticism, then, and the fixing/unfixing of images, becomes one of the conditions able to be prescribed, able to be taken up by a revolution--to mirror the phrasing of the "work of art" essay. It constitutes itself as a criterion for independence, or alternately as a symptom of oppression, based on whether it is or will be able to exist in the form already specified (the form of the only true criticism, for Benjamin). It is not as simple as whether it does exist or not: i.e one is not able to say a regime is bad based on the fact that all its critics are in jail. Rather it is whether the potential for the type of criticism that brings out the future, the non-present, into the present can exist and be robust. In this way, it is a question as to whether the future will be able to exist or not: insofar as criticism looks to that future, to the non-present in the present, it is the guardian of that possibility, bound up with it. Where the question of art becomes political for Benjamin, is when in politics this issue of a possible future is being contested. Here criticism cannot directly assert itself, but can constitute itself with enough rigor that its influence as the preserver of the future, of the non-present, might be able to effect the contours of that contestation. How? Not by going out of itself into politics, but by bringing politics to it, or at least an appreciation of its object. For the object of criticism, art, wells up in the breakdown of the political--when the political must concern itself with its own future. The question of the future is the question art asks most intensely, for Benjamin, and insofar as the political at a certain juncture asks the question of its own future, it is asking the question as to the possibility of the object of art, which is what is set free and fixed in criticism. Now, as soon as art surrenders this aesthetic object (the future) to politics, it politics becomes art: this is Fascism. Thus when criticism does its job, it introduces concepts "completely useless for the purposes of Fascism": that is, concepts that (inherently, because they are concerned with art, and in art, the ek-static, the textual, the non-present) resist the politicization of art and (more significantly, again) the process whereby art becomes politics.
[In fact--this is a note that I am making after revisiting this post--the process whereby art becomes politics is able to be opposed by the politicization of art. This is what he says at the end of his essay on the work of art. My resistance to this notion about the politicization of art just as much as my resistance like Benjamin to the rendering of politics artistic, was due to a lack of a distinction common criticism now refuses to make, between art that politicizes itself, and criticism that politicizes itself. While an artistic politics is fascist, I was wary that a criticism that politicizes itself would be just as fascist. Thus I opposed both, and saw Benjamin doing the same. This is right, but it overlooks how Benjamin thought that art politicizing itself is a response to fascism, a way it could oppose it and render the fascist processing of data ineffectual or useless. This is absolutely right. But it entails a redefinition of criticism: proper criticism for Benjamin is art. It would politicize itself in the carrying out of its task. Thus criticism can also politicize itself--this was my fear. But it can't just talk about the political in order to do this--this is what Benjamin opposes, and what is all too common in academia. It has to turn itself into art first, into a politicization of itself that takes the form of art--and one should note that Benjamin's essays indeed effectuate this transformation. Only then can criticism proper oppose fascism.]
(Quick note: this last section regarding politics is extremely unclear to me--that should be evident. I work it out here to the best of my ability. Also, underneath the metaphor of fixing/exploding-unfixing or (dis)locating is, of course, the phenomenon of the photograph. In short, Benjamin sees criticism as the production of an image from a camera. However, not all photos are images. If one minds this distinction, one sees the positive potential for photography for Benjamin within his "work of art" essay and especially in his "Little History of Photography," and one gets a clue as to how to interpret Benjamin as more than just the intellect diagnosing what is wrong with modernity. But this also shows the core phenomenon that causes the difficulties in reading him: one has a tough time reading, and learning to read, an image.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Davos "Arbeitsgemeinschaft" and some helpful quotes on Being and Time

I just finished reading the amazing Davos disputation (called, euphemistically as it can only appear now, an "Arbeitsgemeinschaft" or "workgroup" while the event was being held--I should just mention now that anyone interested in it should consult Peter Eli Gordon's fascinating account of the conflict in Modern Intellectual History, 1, 2 [2004], pp. 219–248) between Heidegger and Cassirer that took place in the little Alpine city in early March 1929 (pictured, as it probably looked in March). Heidegger in his rebellious ski-clothes (I've tried to evoke how strange Heidegger looked at the time by including this picture from 1921 of him, on the right, with Gadamer chopping wood) walked in, pissed off at what he thought were Cassirer's misreadings of Being and Time, which still was extremely new on the philosophical scene (has anyone yet digested Badiou's sequel to Being and Event, Logiques des mondes? This philosophical atmosphere probably has the same relationship to 1929's and its familiarity, especially with Kantians like Cassirer, with Being and Time--in fact I think we can appreciate how penetrating Cassirer's reading is, especially with regard to truth, given this atmosphere), and proceeded to bulldoze him with a series of amazingly penetrating responses. By "bulldozed," I mean mostly that in general Heidegger just rudely talked over him: I don't think Heidegger made himself look any better by doing this, except to the hoarde of his spiritual followers in the audience. Nor is it clear that he presented a better case about Kant than Cassirer, in the end. But something (and you can see from the vehemence that this something is very much tied into his Nazism) impelled him to be impolite and indirect to one of the most amazing minds of the early twentieth century. If we can rationalize it, I think he was angry that people were not able to see and appreciate what he had been developing through his teaching and writing at Freiburg for more than a decade--the ideas that made up and were condensed into Being and Time. But obviously there is more to it than that, and this "more" precisely what becomes and what always was ugly, barbaric, romantic, naively Wagnerian and in the end unbelievably stupid in Heidegger. Regardless, any scholar of Heidegger gets some very direct statements out of this "bulldozing," this disturbing performance there in front of Cassirer, regarding what Being and Time was frankly trying to get at, not to mention some more direct statements on Heidegger's interpretation of Kant. From Cassirer, we also get an elucidation of the importance he accords to the symbol and its relationship to freedom, which Heidegger to a certain extent sees (inanely) as unimportant in pushing Cassirer into a definition of what freedom is and how it relates to time. In the end, what I'm saying is that Heidegger brings it to this debate. That said, the quotes we see below should really help anyone reading Being and Time:

On Time:
Every page in this book was written solely with a view to the fact that since antiquity the problem of being was interpreted on the basis of time in a wholly incomprehensible sense and that time always announced the subject (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Fifth Edition, Appendix IV, 198). Notice "every page:" this means Division I, too (Heidegger somewhere says this of Division I explicitly in the discussion, but I can't find it).

What, then, does the eternal actually mean here? From where, then, do we know of this eternity? Is this eternity not just permanence in the sense of the aei [the "always," the "forever," the "everlasting"] of time? Is this eternality not just that which is possible on the grounds of an inner transcendence [my emphasis, mj] of time? ...that [is,] time is not just what makes transcendence possible, but that time itself has in itself a horizonal character; that in a futural process of having been as a comportment [my interpretation of what the transcribers of the debate probably misconstrued, mj] I always have at the same time a horizon with respect to the present, futurity, and having-been [or what the transcribers misconstrue as "pastness", mj] in general; that a transcendental, ontological determination of time is found here, within which something like the permanence of the substance [the phenomenon of the aei] is constituted for the first time (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Fifth Edition, Appendix IV, 198).

On "Anxiety:"
This whole problematic in Being and Time, which treats Dasein in man, is no philosophical anthropology... the task is: to bring out the temporality of Dasein with reference to the possibility of the understanding of Being... The analysis of death has the function of bringing out the radical futurity of Dasein, but not of producing an altogether final and metaphysical thesis concering the essence of death (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Fifth Edition, Appendix IV, 199). This quote (and the next) seems absolutely indispensible for anyone who is reading Heidegger on anxiety and death, or indeed any one of the "ontical possibilities of Dasein" that Heidegger looks at throughout the work, because it shows a bit clearer than in Being and Time what the role of this ontical possibility is playing in the work. It also shows you that Dasein in general is not a being or entity which man always is, but rather is "in man." In other words, it is a kind or way of manifestation of being, like Vorhanden or Zuhanden. If one thinks the relationship of man to Dasein in this way, you reading Being and Time becomes a lot easier (even though, as Derrida constantly reminds us, this relationship is confused and constantly re-thought in Heidegger, and, in fact, never sufficiently resolved). In the end, what I'm getting at is that you can see the genius of the simplicity in the way Hubert Dreyfus presents his account of what Dasein is (that it is just one of these kinds of being that man can, in a sense, enter into and step out of--even though man never can properly or "own-mostly" be something other than Dasein), and that it gets its justification in the most forthright passages of Heidegger like these.

On the grounds of which metaphysical sense of Dasein itself is it possible that the human being in general can have been placed before something like the Nothing? In answer to this question, the analysis of anxiety was provided so that the possibility of theNothing is thought of only as an idea which has also been grounded in this determination of the disposition of anxiety. It is only possible for me to understand Being if I understand the Nothing or anxiety. Being is incomprehensible if the Nothing is incomprehensible (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Fifth Edition, Appendix IV, 199).

I would misunderstand myself if I said that I gave a philosophy free of points of view. And here a problem is expressed: that of the relationship between philosophy and world-view. Philosophy does not have the task of giving world-view, although, again, world-view is the presupposition of philosophizing. And the world-view which the philosopher gives is not a direct one in the sense of a doctrine or in the sense of an influencing. Rather, the world-view which the philosopher gives rests in the fact that in the philosophizing, it succeeds in making the inner possibility of this finite creature comport itself with respect to beings as a whole (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Fifth Edition, Appendix IV, 200). Here Heidegger resignifies the role of "world-view" in his work in opposition to Cassirer (or really any humanist philosopher--Cassirer really has just become a straw-man for Heidegger at this point): world-view is a "setting free of the Dasein in man," not an opening out of philosophy into "cultural philsophy," which Heidegger, rashly, characterizes Cassirer's work as.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hegel and the sway of truth

Why do we have so many objections to Hegel's philosophy as too "idealistic," that is (ignoring any historical determinations of this word but rather getting at the experience of Hegel's philosophy it tries to signify), as making the world conform to a movement of thought rather than to its own movements? This is the underlying phenomenon that the critiques of Hegel by Feuerbach, Marx, Engels, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kojeve, Sartre, Benjamin, Bataille, Blanchot, Lukacs, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and others react to and from which they claim their justification. In other words, in Feuerbach, Marx, Engels, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kojeve, Sartre, Benjamin, Bataille, Blanchot, Lukacs, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida... in all these philosophers reacting to Hegel, they all levy a critique on Hegel's being too idealistic, or, to use a word of Bataille's used to characterize this experience (that Derrida takes over), too restricted--in the sense of restricting the movements of the world to its own movements, to its own "economy." Now, I would include Heidegger too, except he in a sense understands why this is so, and so can't be said to be merely "reacting" to the idealism of Hegel--even though he himself is probably the most critical of this catalogue of critics, the person that Hegel disgusted most. For it is through his determination of the essence of truth that he shows us there have been other essences or swayings of truth (Wesen for Heidegger means more like a movement of ecstatical perdurance or swaying than "nature," which it is often horribly rendered as), and particularly the sway of truth of which Hegel's "idealism" or "restrictedness" is merely the effect.
Heidegger allows us to see that for metaphysics, and I quote,"truth is the agreement of thought with the object." The history of metaphysics determines the true in this way, and thus cannot be broken with or altered without altering how truth is supposed to be the truth of agreement.
Now, the problem with this characterization of metaphysical truth is that it is not only Heidegger's. The quote just cited is not Heidegger, but Hegel in his Science of Logic (44). Hegel writes that it is "inept" to think that

truth is the agreement of thought with the object, and [that] in order to bring about this agreement--for it does not exist on its own account--thinking is supposed to adapt and accomodate itself to the object.
-Science of Logic, "Introduction," 44.

In other words, Hegel both characterizes metaphysical truth with regard to its essence and seeks to break with it, just like Heidegger. Truth shall not be the truth of agreement for Hegel. It shall be more. But before we define what it is, we must ask: is it this "more" that will make his philosophy look "restricted," or "idealistic?" Or could it merely be the fact that he is rebelling against a tradition of truth as agreement, as adequation between the thought and the object?
While this last thought is obviously--if anyone who utters it knows their Hegel and particularly the definition of truth that Hegel gives us--unfounded, wild, and stupid: for Hegel, truth is in fact even more the truth of adequation or agreement than the metaphysical tradition he here criticizes as "inept." But I'd like to suggest that maybe this last thought isn't as unfounded or wild or stupid as we'd like to think it is.
In other words, Hegel really does attempt to break with the metaphysical tradition that we now, only with the help of Nietzsche, Wittegenstein and Heidegger, have come to recognize and to an extent overcome. And this attempt in its critical gestures comes dangerously close to carrying it out. The boldness of the criticism, and the attempt to overcome it by a systematic shift in the way philosophy is done, in fact seem to make it almost impenetrable to the charge of idealism--that is, if they didn't fail. But it is this dangerous closeness, I'd like to say, that makes Hegel in his failure, appear all the more restricted--in a way he comes so close to doing what we attempt to do today that it is inevitable that a failure would seem idealistic. But who genuinely can criticize someone as idealistic who rightly is able to diagnose and to an extent displace the condition of metaphysical truth since even before Plato? Wouldn't someone who is able to do this precisely be the most realistic, most generally (i.e. not restricted) in touch with the actual as opposed to someone who sacraficed reality to his own ideas? That is what I mean.
Truth is not agreement for Hegel. As Heidegger makes clear, anyone who diverges from the tradition that affirms the opposite of this statement is destined to remain either in deep obscurity or will be cast off by the tide of reaction in favor of truth as what agrees. And yet Hegel says, "One must discard the prejudice that truth must be something tangible" (50), that is, able to be ascertained as what in an object agrees with a thought about that object.
What is truth then for Hegel? It is speculative truth: in other words, it is not only the agreement of the thought and the thing, but the identity of the thought and the thing in each other. True truth also includes certainty, the reassertion of the thought or the object as itself in its opposite, or (put differently) in its difference from itself.
Now, isn't this just more agreement? Yes. But also no. Indeed, Hegel takes his insight into the problem with truth in metaphysics and buries it in more metaphysical thinking rather than breaking with that tradition. But if one thinks speculative truth respectfully, it has the opportunity of being thought as not relying on agreement perhaps as much as a philosophy where truth is solely agreement between thing and thought. I'll leave it for others to do this.
But the fact remains, even if Hegel does even more rigorously entrench himself in a metaphysics where truth is agreement, truth is not merely agreement for Hegel. And this is perhaps the least restricted potential of the science he lays out. How can we think the possibilities of this particular unrestricted moment in Hegel, precisely when it is also the most restricted?
Truth for Hegel isn't, when thought rightly, the mere agreement of a thought and a thing. In this sense, then, truth isn't idealistic. Truth is a movement of mutual identity in otherness, truth combined with certainty, that does not require an object in the sense of an object for adequation. So it does not restrict the world to its terms. Rather, what is true belongs to truth itself in its own unfolding: truth's terms explode and generalize into a world. Insofar as one attributes a goal for this truth to come out and face the world, i.e. to agree with it, it will necessarily be misinterpreting Hegel because it will only be able to see idealistic agreement as the truth. But while truth keeps to itself, this truth will not be idealistic.
It will, of course, also be doubly a truth of agreement. But it is possible to use this aspect of non-agreement, of non-idealism as a clue to interpretation of Hegel that does not constantly submit itself to a metaphysical definition of truth for ridicule. In that vein, Heidegger and, to an great extent, Hippolyte's interpretations of Hegel do this. Kojeve, however, seeks to make Hegel work with metaphysical truth: this is why he must erase much of Hegel in the Phenomenology through his anthropological/Marxist interpretation.
Emphasizing and teasing out the self-movement of truth allows for a different version of truth than metaphysical truth to start to cultivate itself, even though it is merely this version of truth reasserted. In a sense, it is what happens when one tries to think truth as the development of what Hegel calls Geist not, in its English translation, as "Mind," i.e. as the truth of a personal, anthropological, Transcendental-consciousness/subject (for whom objects appear and must agree), but as "Spirit," as a less easily definable movement of discourse within itself. For those who know these two translations of Geist, all I'm trying to do is suggest what constitutes the difference between them, and how thinking the latter is ultimately more productive, more true to Hegel (in his conception of truth at least), and ultimately less idealistic than the former way.