Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bernard Stiegler: links and phusis

Here is a wonderful site with many interviews and other recordings of Bernard Stiegler. It includes even a portion of The Ister in which he plays a prominent part in the discussion of Heidegger.
I might also include here a remark concerning Stiegler's interpretation of Heidegger's discussion of technics in Stiegler's Technics and Time (volume 1). Stiegler explains Heidegger's theory of technics in a wonderfully simple way that is absolutely productive to think about. He inserts the discussion of phusis that we find in Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics right in the middle of a recounting of Heidegger's argument in "The Question Concerning Technology," and the result is to elaborate much better than Heidegger in that later essay how modern technology "challenges" nature. This is expressed vaguely there, and Stiegler wonderfully clarifies it:

Modern technics inflicts violence upon phusis [that most basic determination of being as growth or bringing-itself-forth]; technics is no longer a modality of disclosure in accordance with the growing of being as phusis. Technics becomes modern when metaphysics expresses and completes itself as the project of calculative reason with a view to mastery and possession of nature, itself no longer understood as phusis.
-Technics and Time, I, General Introduction, 10 (my italics)

It is this "in accordance with" that shows that technology is setting against nature or rather against beings as a whole, the totality of existents. Because technics have transformed in their essence to the point at which they disregard or are no longer open to the possibility of beings to grow or bring themselves forth, to upsurge, technics dominates their possibilities, absents them from their own ability to disclose, or, in short, discloses them for them. This taking over of the bringing forth of being, this vicarious or prosthetic control is what constitutes the challenge. I could comment more on this, and perhaps be clearer, but I think the important thing is to note Stiegler has a great explanation here, that reading the Introduction into the questions concerning technics that Heidegger pursues is crucial.

The thrust of The Gift of Death

The fundamental thesis of the Gift of Death is that the experience of the apprehension of death is inseparable from an experience of responsibility. This in itself is nothing new: among the people Derrida himself discusses in his book, Patočka, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger all explicitly say the same thing. Fundamentally, the finitude of existence conditions existence itself. However, Derrida shows, using all these thinkers, that this finitude also implies a certain structure of a relation to infinitude: that is, the apprehension of death is also inseparable from responsibility because infinitude intrudes in this apprehension and in this responsibility.
This too is not unique, though: Kierkegaard and Patočka also include this explicitly--not to mention the passages from the Bible that Derrida discusses. Where Derrida is perhaps unique is in his elaboration of this dual structure of responsibility and apprehension as a double bind: that is, as a dual structure that, extended to encompass both the implications of finitude and infinitude that split it, in fact rends it apart (i.e. makes the dual structure incompatible to itself) in its being constituted thus. In other words, Derrida rigorously thinks the space between the determining forces of finitude and infinitude qua between, qua difference. And, as he shows, in order for this difference to be rigorously sustained, it must be conceived as différance.
This différance is manifest in the trembling both before God (the infinite) and before death (the finite), in the experience of what Derrida calls a gift of death.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Derrida on Merleau-Ponty

The two characteristics I isolated in the last post regarding the writing of Merleau-Ponty--namely, 1) its synesthesic descriptions of phenomena and 2) its being full of phenomenal examples/examples that can't be said to be exemplary--end up in their combination as the basic topic of Derrida's discussion of Merleau-Ponty in his amazing On Touching--Jean Luc Nancy.
There, Derrida tries to show, essentially, that Merleau-Ponty is always on the verge of making a synesthesic experience without reserve--that is, without (proper) differentiation between the senses--the sensory experience (i.e. the exemplary sensory experience) in his concept of the flesh, and yet always recoils from it in order to think the unity of this flesh (or rather its "mine-ness," its distinction from otherness).

(Intentionality steps in to fill up the gap. example, the self-touching: mp makes self-touching have to be possible... we have a presentment of its possibility.... he priveliges possibility, because for him the body is a pressing into possibilities, not impossibilities. These are notes that elaborate the full extent of Derrida's discussion and critique: I'll clean them up and finish this later today.)

Metalanguage and Derrida

Lyotard's dictum (not reducible to his philosophy, which is much richer than this dictum) regarding postmodernism and its leading thinkers--namely, that for it and for them there is at least always incredulity towards metalanguages, if not the outright belief that metalanguages do not exist ("there is no metalanguage" as we often say in Lyotard's name)--does not exactly fit Derrida's thinking, despite the frequency with which this dictum is associated with Derrida. For Derrida, there is equally the possibility that all that exists is metalanguage: in other words, that there is a metalanguage (a language after another language) and "there is no language before it" ("Psyche: Inventions of the Other," 13). There is no metalanguage and there is only metalanguage: the equiprimordiality here is crucial for grasping anything Derrida says about language in particular and his thought more generally. As Derrida himself puts it: "There is no metalanguage... there is only that, says the echo, or Narcissus" (ibid, 13).

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The movements of Donner la mort

The Gift of Death (Donner la mort) perhaps can be interpreted as having four movements, each named roughly by the title of each section (chapter in the English edition).

1. Les secrets de la responsabilité européenne ("Secrets of European Responsibility"). Here Derrida insinuates that (a logic of) a secret is present in Jan Patočka's narration of the history of (European, Christian) responsibility, against his wishes to eradicate this secret through a passage of this history into Christianity.

2. Au-delà: donner à prendre, apprendre à donner -- la mort. This section's title gets rendered in English as: "Beyond: Giving for the Taking, Teaching and Learning to Give, Death." This understands the play going on here but perhaps brings to the fore the language of the classroom and instruction too much. For the subject of this movement is how this secret intrudes as or appears as the gift of death. The emphasis thus falls on the word that is being played upon, apprehénder: how is one going to anticipate (Heidegger) or intuit (Husserl) the phenomenon of this secret if it comes forth as (and in) the experience of death--i.e. if the secret of responsibility is in every case a way of grasping (almost in the German sense of begreifen) this dreadful experience? Furthermore, grasping it as it is given, in the Husserlian sense of what is there before us phenomenally, as a given?

3. A qui donner (savoir ne pas savoir). "Whom to Give To (Knowing Not to Know)" excellently captures the sense of this movement, except that "savoir ne pas savoir" can also be rendered to better accommodate the play on "ne pas," that we find throughout Derrida's work, so as to elucidate the thing known as opposed to the knowing involved (David Wills again emphasizes the "learning" perhaps too much, even though his translation is in most respects just unbelievably good, given Derrida's extremely fuzzy phrasing of things in this particular text). The remark in the parenthesis would then be closer to "knowing not-knowing." This is important because the name of this section gets at the experience of that apprehension featured the last section. Furthermore, upon traversing this section's content we see that this "not-knowing" is the precise experience of the responsible subject that Derrida finds in Kierkegaard. The movement here, then, seeks to show via the secret in the gift of death that Patočka's responsible Dasein can be interpreted (if he is reshaped a little) as a responsible knight of faith. However, we then find that this Knight, in order to accommodate the secret of responsibility Derrida has already wrested from Patočka, gets reshaped precisely to encompass the "formula" named in the title of the last movement:

4. Tout autre est tout autre ("Every other (one) is every (bit) other"). Responsibility can only be constituted if it comports itself towards the other (and this implies towards the gift of death) as an infinitely recursive or already-othered other, an other that is other than its alterity. This other then is finally interpreted and reintegrated within the history determined by secrecy that was elaborated in the first movement or chapter, to ask the question as to whether this history is still as determined by secrecy as Christian secrecy or not. The answer is that it remains between both determinations, being an evangelist as well as a heretical history. The history does not show us merely this, however, but brings out how we must think the giving in the gift of death in more than one way. The gift of death is an offering, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it (somewhere, I think in "The Sublime Offering"): it withdraws itself as it proffers itself in order to continue giving itself, that is, in order to never be reducible to what is given or to the act of giving itself. But two ways of this withdrawal are here constituted, which means that two ways of giving also simultaneously are implicated if the gift is an offering. First, the withdrawal of what is given, and, second, the withdrawal of the giving in favor of the what. One can formulate this in the following statement that reduces to one gift: giving is always to give all (one has) and to give (one's) all--the first instance withdrawing the giving, offering the what, the second withdrawing the what and offering the giving.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Patočka and Heidegger, or, towards Donner la mort

Jan Patočka's interpretation of some of the basic concepts within Being and Time in the fifth of his Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History explores and exploits a point (one point of many) on which the whole of that treatise turns: the relationship of everydayness (Alltäglichkeit) to authenticity (Eigentlichkeit). Recently in America, this point (again, it is one of many crucial points, however) is only explored explicitly with comparable depth by Bill Blattner in his work on Heidegger's notion of temporality (though Hubert Dreyfus' entire presentation of Heidegger could be said to stem from or be founded upon the implicit exploration of this distinction, specifically his conviction that the first division of Being and Time is actually wider in philosophical import than the second: such an assertion can only arise from a move similar to Patočka's and actually needs to be seen as this). The problem revolves around how there is no term that Heidegger opposes to everydayness that easily bridges the gap between everydayness and authenticity: the only mediator is inauthenticity (Uneigentlichkeit). So it is here that Patočka must begin (that is, it is here that any analysis of this problem in depth must begin: so while many people analyze the relationship between authenticity and everydayness, it is only with respect to clarifying the relationship of inauthenticity to everydayness in with a view to explicating authenticity that we can have an explicit, in depth analysis of the real unity or lack of unity of the treatise at this point--this is just to clarify the above).
Patočka first makes inauthenticity and authenticity a parallel movement to the movement of everydayness. He then introduces a distinction within everydayness that seeks to clarify the second division's movement towards authenticity in being-towards-death. Put simply, he introduces another distinction in opposition to everydayness, the exceptional or the holiday ("holiday" of course seems a little too playful at first, but it becomes interesting when one reads Heidegger within a more Marxist framework, focused as it is on leisure and the work in leisure capitalism creates--see Adorno especially for this). Saying that Patočka merely introduces another distinction is indeed putting it simply, however, because this fundamentally understands the care-structure with more clarity than Heidegger himself understood it in the text. Whether Heidegger would have subscribed to this interpretation is of course questionable, but that is what makes Patočka's reading as much of an expression of a unique philosophy of his own as it is a reading of Heidegger--thus we had to begin with the vague expression that this is an "interpretation of some of the basic concepts" within the Heidegger's book. The specific alteration of the care-structure accomplished here is a clarification of the component of "falling" (verfallen) and its relationship to everydayness, which remains hazy in the book (even though one can piece together what Heidegger might be getting at, it lacks the same phenomenality as mood and understanding, for example). But I'll leave this only as a suggestion for now: the important thing is to outline how Patočka's distinction then allows for two binaries (inauthenticity/authenticity, everydayness/exceptionality) to set themselves up in relation to each other.
Exceptionality allows for a transition between everydayness and the authentic/inauthentic distinction because it retreats from the everyday without yet placing itself within the authentic/inauthentic dichotomy. That is, it suspends, as it were, the relation of everydayness to authenticity and inauthenticity only to have it be the place where this relation becomes most pressing as to how one is disposed in it already. In Heidegger, this becomes the space of being-towards-death. But whereas Heidegger quickly articulates this moment so that it seems to fall within the sphere of everydayness, Patočka sees it as a sort of comportment all in itself distinct from the everyday and its temporal orientation. Patočka explains this in the following way:

The exceptional, the holiday also unburdens [like everydayness], though not by escaping from responsibility [Patočka often calls authenticity "responsibility"], but rather by revealing that dimension of life in which the point is not the burden of responsibility and the escape from it but where, rather, we are enraptured, where something more powerful than our free possibility, our responsibility, seems to break into our life and bestow on it meaning which it would not know otherwise.
-"Is Technological Civilization Decadent and Why?", Heretical Essays, 98-99.

Patočka here is actually showing that there can be two senses of authenticity if one accepts a link between everydayness and inauthenticity/authenticity that is more distinct. The transformed everydayness of the exceptional itself is a form of authenticity that escapes the thrust within the authenticity/inauthenticity dichotomy, which is an existential potentiality for one's possibilities, and moves towards a type of authenticity that focuses or places the accent upon the ek-static nature of this potentiality. While Heidegger brings them together (and perhaps rightly), Patočka tries to assert that authenticity and everydayness can be understood more coherently if we understand them to be linking up with each other within a specific, delimited situation whose style is slightly different than either. Authenticity still bears upon this sphere, and in fact bears upon it all the more because of its distinctness, but its constitution has less to do with this authenticity conceived of as potentiality, or ek-stasis conceived as a standing out of oneself towards possibilities (existential facticity/factical existentiality). This ek-stasis simply stands out of itself to stand out of itself, and while Heidegger would like this experience to precisely be that authenticity he speaks about, Patočka asserts that this overlooks something: namely, religion.
For it is the origin of religiosity traditionally conceived (the experience of the sacred and profane) that enters into this experience of impending responsibility/authenticity that is not an authenticity proper (which will be seen as an overcoming of this sacred and profane sphere and constituting actual religion proper). Patočka calls this pre-religious experience of impending responsibility/authenticity "the dimension of the demonic and of passion:"

In both, humans are placed at risk, however, they are not simply escaping from themselves into the "public realm," into the ordinary everyday...
-"Is Technological Civilization...", 99

It is the experience of being-towards-death ripped from out of its context in Heidegger as an experience of authenticity as potentiality towards possibilities (existential facticity/factical existentiality). It makes possible this authenticity only by refusing its hold which impends on it all the more, and this makes it all the more dangerous:

Face to face with this phenomenon, we tend to forget the entire dimension of the for ourselves [authenticity proper], forget responsibility and escape, letting ourselves be drawin into a new, open dimension as if only now true life stood before us, as if this "new life" had no need to care for the dimension of responsibility.
-"Is Technological Civilization...", 99

Here we get a strict active forgetting (a la Nietzsche) precisely towards that openness to the there in authenticity--a forgetting that brings us away from our potentiality, alethia--and which precisely constitutes our possibility to enter into this openness, this authenticity. It is the unheimlich pure and simple (Heidegger uses the phrase "face to face" famously, like Hegel, with regard to death), seen as resistant to that authenticity which in Heidegger it is swept up into. As the last clause states, this is care without care for the dimension of responsibility/authenticity (thus something like falling without falling, within the phenomenon of falling in care, as it is brought up out of falling). In other words, the demonic constitutes a retreat not from responsibility/authenticity itself, but a retreat from the demand of taking up a relationship to authenticity or inauthenticity. To be a little more clear at the expense of possible reiteration: the demonic is the space created outside of the everyday as it becomes exceptional which refuses, even as it relates to them already, to be authentic or inauthentic, or, in other words,

the demonic [is what] needs to be brought into a relation with responsibility [authenticity] as [i.e. because] originally it is not.
-"Is Technological Civilization...", 100

The demonic thus is not reducible to inauthenticity or a strict experience of falling, and thus not able to be yoked together with the everyday as it is included in the experience of being-towards-death that Heidegger describes. The demonic is being-towards-death all by itself, without ethical or existential/factical relationship, because it is the exceeding of any relation of existentiality/facticity to mine-ness, which constitutes existentiality/facticity proper. This is a crucial point, but we can't elaborate on it now--all that can be be noted is that authenticity is the authenticity of a Dasein that is in each case my own because its possibilities stem from a finite potential. Thus, Dasein, and its being-towards-death, is for Heidegger non-relational, and it is this mine-ness that gets suspended in Patočka's demonic being-towards-death. Perhaps to put another, more interesting way, the demonic is a ek-stasis beyond ek-stasis (if we consider ek-stasis in a Heideggerian way as the ek-stasis directed towards possibilities).
In the end, the demonic and passionate get opposed to work, and constitute for Patočka the sacred, while work remains the profane. Thus he is able to read into Heidegger's Being and Time an experience of pre-religiosity (insofar as this pre-religious world is composed of the sacred and profane), which he then proceeds to show becomes religious when it overcomes itself and reconnects to responsibility and authenticity. Religion then is the re-establishing of this demonic to the authentic, the overcoming of the vertigo of a being-towards-death beyond itself, beyond its heedless non-relationship to authenticity and inauthenticity. We will not get into this theory of religion. However, we will let its contours be suggested by the beginning of Derrida's The Gift of Death (Donner la mort: the French is much more suggestive), which we should now in a sense be able to somewhat understand, as well as understand how it proceeds in its development (its explication and modification of Patočka) with high Heideggerian stakes:

...Jan Patočka relates secrecy, or more precisely the mystery of the sacred, to responsibility. He opposes one to the other; or rather underscores their heterogeneity. Somewhat in the manner of Levinas he warns against an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or fervor [or forgetting, mj] for fusion, cautioning in particular against against a form of demonic rapture that has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness [conscience] of responsibility. At the same time, Patočka wants to distinguish religion from the demonic form of sacralization.
-The Gift of Death, 1-2

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reading Merleau-Ponty

Revisiting Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work as I have been lately, I am revisiting again the infuriating experience of reading that his words create. At the same time, I am also revisiting some judgements this experience had originally created in me, and find myself still in deep agreement with them: if I could ever weigh in on which philosopher writes with the most brilliance, I would say that it would absolutely have to be Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
First, why infuriating? Because Merleau-Ponty is so very good at bringing forth images, scenes, examples, illustrative metaphors that you almost always are seduced into believing you understand what he says. But if you look again (and you always look again), and begin to press him hard, he becomes extremely tough if not impossible sometimes to understand, especially if you want to reduce what he says to something you can recount to yourself or others, in propositional sentences. Usually, you end up stumbling over your words, or just giving up and trying to reconstitute what he is talking about for yourself.
But why brilliance? Precisely because of this looking again we just had to put in parentheses. The double-take you make when seduced, to try and slip out of the hold his words have on you is actually what constitutes the achievement of his writing. This violence done to language, this clumsy, lazy babble, punctuated with spasms of unbelievably acute phrasing, this catastrophe of signifiers brings forth nothing less than the phenomenon nearly always in some way, so that you must nearly always go back to understand and not merely experience what the words seem to give you almost immediately. It is basically like reading Proust: it isn't a matter of grammar or of verbal wit as much as with the tempo of his sentences and how that inflects the content that rises up before you out of them. You are consistently surprised at the speed that you move with him through a thought, or rather with a phenomenon, that you have to then turn back, stop his exposition, and return to ask him what you just underwent actually meant. How can you be surprised and carried away at the same time? This question structures his mode of interrogation, forges the flow of every sentence. He throws experience at you in layers, one after the other, so that each concentrated illustration envelops you as you proceed through them. Or rather, never through them: it isn't as if you punctuate these sheets of meanings ever. You collect them, are obscured by them, covered and buried in them, and can only move on if you stop to take one or two off: the weight is too much.
Look at how he describes the intentionality within spoken language in his Phenomenology of Perception:

The intention to speak can reside only in an open experience. It makes its appearance like the boiling point of a liquid, when, in the density of being, volumes of empty space are built up and move outwards.
-Phenomenology of Perception, 228

This is almost too contracted, too tightly wound, and yet, precisely because of this "almost," because it only remains a threshold experience described through a simile, it is not aphoristic. This almost shorthand, which could equally be the most polished rhetoric: it remains situated on the fold that creates this dual possibility and its mirror-effect. It works by extending a metaphor almost sloppily to the point at which the phenomenon seems circumscribed by its play, if it is not at the same time exactly suggested by its condensation into an image. And yet it resists being pinned down to just this experience. This is the type of writing you make in a cafe after a little too much coffee--or a little too much to drink. It hits you hard as it carries you along, like a wave slapping you in the face as you get sucked out into the deep.
The following quote is probably more typical, because more extended in its effort to outflank what it's getting it: it is less compact, and yet, actually by virtue of this, it is just as oddly precise:

...The thing is at the end of my gaze and, in general, at the end of my exploration... I must acknowledge that the table before me sustains a singular relation with my eyes and my body: I see it only if it is within their radius of action: above it there is the dark mass of my forehead, beneath it the more indecisive contour of my cheeks--both of these visible at the limit and capable of hiding the table, as if my vision of the world itself were formed from a certain point of the world. What is more, my movements and the movements of my eyes make the world vibrate--as one rocks a dolmen with one's finger without disturbing its fundamental solidity. With each flutter of my eyelashes a curtain lowers and rises, though I do not think for an instant of imputing this eclipse to the things themselves; with each movement of my eyes that sweep the space before me the things suffer a brief torsion, which I also ascribe to myself; and when I walk in the street with eyes fixed on the horizon of the houses, the whole of the setting near at hand quivers with each footfall on the asphalt, then settled down in its place...
-The Visible and the Invisible, 7

Two things to note about this now:
1) the synesthesia here that no longer even appears as a mixing of metaphors within the sentence but as a grasping of the involved-ness of actual, everyday experience, which is a predominant feature of these extended descriptions (usually more so than here), and
2) this is not an example exactly, but rather a sketch that seems to be able to accommodate an example if one wanted to actually rigorously think the point being made here for oneself--one could never say of walking along the street however that it is the primary, most important case in which this happens.
This fascinating language assigns itself through Merleau-Ponty the task of bringing the world itself as it worlds itself (as Heidegger would put it) out into the open as far as possible (and only with this emphasis on degree). This task for him is philosophy. It proceeds by installing itself deep within the experiences of seeing, speaking and thinking as they arrange themselves prior to any ability of their being grasped or accounted for empirically or by a theorizing of a transcendental schema. These experiences, he says,

...have a name in all languages, but a name which in all of them also conveys significations in tufts, thickets of proper meanings and figurative meanings, so that, unlike those of science, not one of these names clarifies by attributing to what is named a circumscribed signification. Rather, they are the repeated index, the insistent reminder of a mystery as familiar as it is unexplained, of a light which, illuminating the rest, remains at its source in obscurity.
-The Visible and the Invisible, 131

The task is for Merleau-Ponty not (merely or only) to activate this indexicality, or retrace its originality through a sort of etymological or philological gesture as old as philosophy itself, but rather to simply jostle it into enacting the phenomenon before you in its inadequacy: perhaps all it is is just a heightening and refinement of this indexicality, a learning to respond to it. Thus when he says in The Prose of the World, that "men have been talking for a long time on earth, and three-quarters of what they say goes unnoticed," (3) the key thing about this phrase is precisely that this is a statement of a fact rather than a lament: that is, the important thing is not that, given this proposition, we get called to notice what gets lost and has for a long time gotten lost in talking, but that we notice the the fact of the "unnoticing," that we bring this to language, and see there what it can bring to us of the unnoticed.
Experiencing the ruination of an experience before you just as you seem to grasp it in the play of language, as you become more and more certain that you have had something similar happen and would have described it that way: this is my experience of reading Merleau-Ponty. This crude, dirty, even almost false language that cannot help but accurately render in the most striking and beautifully worded turns of phrase what the things themselves are, what the phenomenon is--I know it isn't either the most refined or the most scandalous writing, and it certainly doesn't provide for the most coherent and helpful experience of reading, but I think it is the most brilliant and the best.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Merleau-Ponty and physicalism?

How should one read Merleau-Ponty if one is a physicalist? That is, how can one make his vigorously anti-empirical (and yet anti-idealist) theories of the embodied mind in the Phenomenology of Perception (and elsewhere) amenable to physicalism--perhaps even against the ramifications of these theories? To put it perhaps in the best way, how can Merleau-Ponty be introduced to a physicalist, without the physicalist having to totally transform her or his conceptions?  I don't have time now to consider this, but I'll name what I see as the big hurdle: What in the physicalist would be most challenged by Merleau-Ponty would be a simple notion of causality, the mainstay of both type and token physicalism, as well as the supervenience theory. Causality for Merleau-Ponty is interpreted through the concept of intentionality (interpreted as external to will or decision, suffusing the "objective" space of nature), which makes any physical state (of the brain, for example) a readiness to be-influenced by a cause: one would have to think the effect as a response that so closely resembles an anticipation of the cause that one could not distinguish between effect and merely an actualization of what was latent in the influenced object. Can one still use the vocabulary of physicalism to address even just the non-mental (the physical) that operated according to these terms? Physicalism to an extent already encounters these problems in the reflex. But could it address the physical if this reflex-like action were all that constituted the physical? I'll elaborate on this perhaps later.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Trauma, trace, and the bodily in Freud

Cathy Caruth's important book, Unclaimed Experience, at bottom just proceeds on the wrong path to understanding how trauma marks experience in Freud. I'll elaborate on this more, but the problem can actually be stated quite simply. Caruth, like Lacan (to a certain extent), starts out from Beyond the Pleasure Principle to understand trauma, and then proceeds to read its structure back into the rest of Freud's corpus. What this overlooks is the persistence of the concept of the memory-trace from Freud's earliest writings on. Thus a confusion occurs in Caruth as to the relationship between trauma and the memory trace. Trauma marks the subject like the memory-trace. The only difference is one of degree: traumatic experience is the excessive force of an experience entering the psyche and puncturing the whole mystic structure of the memory apparatus. Thus the memory-trace is only a potential trauma: trauma is latent in any experience. This faulty reasoning, which seeks to merely use a language of marking without looking into its logic, becomes most evident in her hackneyed attempt to outline an "ethics" of trauma (she says trauma must be remembered, which makes no sense), though again this is present already in her first sketches of her reading of Freud. In the end it empties out the concept of trauma of much of its meaning.
However, another option remained open to her: the reverse path, which starts with the primacy of the memory-trace in Freud's thought (especially in his early sketch for a scientific psychology), and then only proceeds to Beyond the Pleasure Principle and its analysis of trauma as a breakdown in this theory of memory. Derrida, the person who made available to Caruth the language of marking, takes this path. On this reading, trauma isn't a non-experience because what has been traumatic has imprinted itself indelibly on the subject, but rather because it constitutes a break in an apparatus that constantly is laying down memory-traces which are traces, that is, lay themselves down in order to defer themselves through experience. This means that the non-experience is that of a non-memory qua trace. Thus experience is led back to the memory-trace in order to trace it. This is traumatic repetition, the return to lay down as if for the first time an experience that one supposedly already had. Caruth explains repetition as the inability to get over an experience that formed itself into a gap because it was over-full: that is, it is a memory, which for Freud is absolutely not the case.
This is a bit sketchy (and of course I'm over-simplifying Caruth... though actually not much I think), but I will revise this and outline it more.
The thing that is probably the clearest proof that Caruth is mistaken in her view, and Derrida more correct, is that for Freud the psyche is bodily. Freud (famously) says in The Ego and the Id, "the ego is first and foremost a body-ego. It is not merely a surface entity, but is in itself a projection of a surface." He also (and also famously) writes in a brilliant late note: "the psyche is extended, knows nothing about it" (in Schriften aus dem Nachlass, the last volume of the Standard Edition). And--and here is the key thing I'd like to personally suggest--also all his continual references to grounding psychoanalytic findings in biology and neuroscience, far from being just empty speculation or falsities, can be seen as meditations on this embodied state of the psyche: they indeed presuppose this to be the case in order to be speculations at all. All this noted, we can see that for Caruth, trauma remains a penetration of the bodily into the mental, the outside into the inside, while for Freud the bodily nature of the psyche actually already constitutes any "inside" or "outside." In fact, the embodied nature of the mind is precisely what allows trauma to happen to it: trauma does therefore not stem from the instant the mind is disturbed and made too aware of its bodily nature. So in Caruth we have the paradox that a theory of trauma as marking, imprinting, etc. would end up being radically unable to account for the body within trauma, i.e. would remain more idealist or subjectivist than ever.

The gift, the position, and inclusion

In On Touching--Jean Luc Nancy (and not only here), Derrida says he tries to shore up the following arguments concerning the gift in Given Time, but I think by connecting them to Nancy's conception of freedom and his own meditations on the fraternal in The Politics of Friendship, in the somewhat more confessional form of On Touching--all perhaps unable to be written without Given Time having been completed--they are in fact better articulated here:

Briefly, what embarrasses me in the word "generosity" as in the word "fraternity" finally amounts to the same thing. In both cases, one acknowledges an d nods to some genealogy some filiation, a principle having to do with "birth," whether or not it is "natural," as it is often thought to be. Above all, the word privileges some "virility." Even if he is an orphan, a brother is a son and therefore a man. In order to include the sister or woman or daughter, one has to change words--generously--and then change the word "generosity" itself while one is at it. Indeed, if one gives or offers because one is naturally, genially, congenitally, or ontologically generous, at birth; if it's because one has to give or has something to give or has something to give, because one can give, thanks to a power, a force, or a capacity related to giving, to having what it takes to give, with sovereign power; once giving is possible, or there is a generosity of being; then does one offer, does one still give? Here the gift, like spacing, freedom, or decision perhaps presupposes the interruption of generosity as well as fraternity. To give, out of generosity or because one can give (what one has) is no longer to give.
--On Touching--Jean Luc Nancy, 23

This also is clearer to me at least given my reflections in the last post, particularly on the issue of the sovereignty or solidarity within taking up a "position." Notice how Derrida says "if one is going to include" the other of generosity, woman, "one has to change words." This means that one cannot include the other merely by accumulating force in a position, and then bestowing this force upon the other generously. As Derrida says in The Politics of Friendship, this cannot escape a fundamental disrespect of the other as (every bit, tout) other: it would incorporate the other into the body of the position and repress any remainder, anything escaping this incorporation--specifically, the other's iterability, its othering of itself as other (to put it a different way, the incorporation or inclusion could only proceed to partition a bit of the inside of the included up to make a space outside the inside supposedly still "within" the inside, still included). This is because, as Derrida says here, the gift of empowerment here cannot be a gift. Without a transformation, a deconstruction of what these words mean--the force behind their names--and above all of generosity, neither inclusion nor the taking up of a position cannot take place. If this transformation or deconstruction does not take place, then  "including can also come to mean neutralizing" (The Politics of Friendship, viii): woman, here, would merely remain the homogenous, neuter, non-iterable (or, non-performative) other of man.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Force of Law" and Benjamin

I've been wrestling with Derrida's massive, somewhat disturbing essay "Force of Law" for a week or so, not only reading the essay but turning over its questions and its analysis in my head--I must have started and stopped about five or six posts on it (a rare instance where what is on my mind won't directly make it to this blog). The essay attempts two tasks, really, or situates itself between them, in the space and time in which they both overlap and exclude each other: first, an analysis of the relation of deconstruction(s) to law and justice, second, an analysis of Walter Benjamin's "Zur Kritik der Gewalt" ("Critique of Violence") that interprets his work on violence in the light of what it could or could not say about the Holocaust.
Like I said, these tasks intertwine, so that the analysis of Benjamin proceeds mainly through issues of law and justice. But I don't think that one can dissociate the analysis of Benjamin from the focus on the Holocaust, and this is not only because Derrida says his analysis of Benjamin could not have proceeded other than with the Holocaust in view. Nor is this the case (in fact, it is absolutely not the case) because the critique of Benjamin that Derrida engages in is due only to an inability of the positions of Benjamin to comport themselves towards something like the Holocaust, as an insane remark that I read somewhere said (Derrida does not critique Benjamin because "Benjamin's position could not account for the Holocaust"). No, the issue remains one of how we read today. That is, the issue remains precisely how we today take up the writings of Benjamin and "use" them: critics, theorists, philosophers, activists use them, simply put, to critique the fascism that culminated in that unbelievable atrocity. In other words, one of the main things the essay tries to do is understand how we still are acting towards the Holocaust, and with the use of Benjamin. To this end, it takes up what we already do (use Benjamin, follow Benjamin, and attempt to comport ourselves to the atrocity that haunts us) in its deepest coherence, and shows what we must do if we are really to respect our own intentions. And what we must do is be willing to critique Benjamin, especially in the interest of the law and justice (as much as we are willing to critique Marx--see my post on Marx and Derrida below). In still other words, Derrida is trying to have us respect the fact that one simply does not read Benjamin without reading what happened after his death into his writings. This is a symptom of the fact that, more fundamentally, one does not read anything before atrocity without reading atrocity into it, remembering it--that is, looking at what is being read and its possible (direct or indirect) complicity in this atrocity.
This perhaps makes Derrida's condemnation of Benjamin's conclusions sting all the more. For this is the main experience of reading the article: a certain bitterness, not unlike that bitterness experienced reading Specters of Marx (or, perhaps, the Politics of Friendship with respect to Carl Schmitt or even Of Spirit with respect to a Heidegger that could be construed as Marxist), at the fact that we are losing a figure that we thought could fight fascism and the horrors of modernity. We cry out when we read Derrida: "Oh no! Can't the thinkers against fascism, against destruction band together for once or compromise?" If I focus more on this right now instead of returning directly to the question of deconstruction(s), law, and justice as I intended, it is because I think this digression contains what is necessary to understand Derrida's comments on law and justice (legal scholars/theorists focus upon the first part of the article--and it should be noted, political theorists and philosophers like Agamben on the second--and I think this is missing something). The experience of reading Benjamin is one of the possibility of a critique so powerful or forceful in the compactness and brilliance of its ideas that they seem like bullets. But what Derrida shows us is that we must reread over and over when confronted with such ideas, such "audacity," as he says in the essay. This is not due to the "style" of them, though this is crucial of course, but because they make a demand upon the reader to take up a position. We will develop this more in a second. But, regardless, the willingness to submit to the personality of Benjamin, to stop reading and simply (or not so simply) become a member of the "cult of Benjamin," as it is often called, is huge (though not as huge as the willingness to submit to the call of Marx). The temptation to reject Derrida's conclusions about "Critique of Violence" as contained to this early period in Benjamin, or to the influence of chance encounters with "inadequate" thinkers like Sorel, or more simply to accuse him of misreading Benjamin (without rereading Benjamin against him), is massive.
But ultimately unproductive, I think, even if one disagrees with Derrida's conclusions. In Derrida's willingness to critique Benjamin (and extend by suggestion this critique to some central concepts within Benjamin's oeuvre), he reminds us that this is reading (or not-reading) against Benjamin's own theses on the identification with a personality-figure at the head of fascist states. But in a deeper manner, he reminds us that the real desire to identify with the cause of someone like Benjamin really lies in a desire for solidarity in a politico-juridico-ethical position against forces that destroy life without legitimacy or even with legitimacy. Foremost in this desire for solidarity that brings forth the personality of Benjamin instead of his texts is a desire, then, for a position. And specifically a position as a guarantee, a guarantee that "I am just," (237) or even (and perhaps especially) "we, and not they, are just." Here is the link back to the law and to justice I suggested that this digression would somewhat elucidate, and the reason why ultimately Benjamin needs to be not just followed but always reread. The guarantee against the risk of a destruction of life of even immense proportions: this is what is sought in a "position" that would refuse to think the somewhat aberrant nature of Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" with the rest of his texts (if not with the larger concerns like fascism that we use his critiques to critique), that would preserve the figure of Benjamin above and beyond all concern for whether what Benjamin says could be said more coherently, that would pit the guarantee in the name of Benjamin against the real possibility that in covering up the sight of the risk one could become complicit with it. This risk, Derrida reminds us, is essential in any position that could deserve the status of a "position:" to dilute its reality through a guarantee would indeed mean that a position could become perhaps more stable and opposed to the destruction of life, but it does not mean that it can interrogate it more responsibly and in fact remember, mourn, and prevent it. The position, for Derrida, must deconstruct itself: it cannot be a position at all, but must be a continual insistence on rereading, a love of rereading. This does not mean that any position is problematic, but only that a position that could do what it professes to do would be impossible. (Thus compromising within the politico-juridical-ethical domain Derrida does not oppose: when it takes the form of a compromise to "take up a position," however, he sees it as dangerous, because it comes with the clause that we do away with rereading, with the singular risk.)
Situating himself within this impossibility as much as he can, Derrida reads Benjamin against Benjamin, shows how the discourse of Benjamin itself refuses to engage this impossibility, this risk, and thus becomes complicit with the type of destruction that a position as clearly articulated as Benjamin's is supposed to prevent: the destruction of someone thinking "I am just" or "we are just." It is for this very specific reason that he reads Benjamin within the context of the Holocaust.
I apologize if I moved too quickly, especially with regard to how Derrida thinks of "complicity:" obviously Derrida is not saying that we need to submit thinkers to a test, the criterion of which would be atrocity. He is trying to show that complicity means a shutting down of reinterpretation, of deconstruction, through the setting up of a position that would supposedly be fixed and stable and just. The link then between a figure like Benjamin and an event like the Holocaust would hinge on the proscriptive "positioning" of several of Benjamin's articulations, how his discourse is actually inconceivable without a fixing of a position on a particular issue. That is, Benjamin's concepts must foreclose at a certain point a their own coherency in order to use them to give a position: Benjamin's articulation itself is inseparable from this foreclosure. This is what Derrida means when he says, in a postscript to the essay, that Benjamin mobilizes a discourse of authenticity too much for him. It is not that the authentic is itself bad, but that there is too much of it: enough that it ends up sacrificing coherence for the setting up of a politico-juridical-ethical position. Here the this preliminary sketch would expand, but perhaps another time--let's move on. All this noted, this does not mean that Derrida is saying that fluidity must be preserved for its own sake. He is arguing in favor of an accountability for a risk which is the condition of justice and also of injustice, the individual event in its undecidability. I also apologize for moving too quickly with such sensitive issues, and for not getting to the law an justice as much as I should. I'll take these up later, perhaps. I hope though that I've somewhat shown the interconnectedness of both concerns of the essay in some way. This is all not yet to agree with Derrida and what he says, but to prepare a better reading.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Derrida, ruins, and love

There are several things I must fix about my summary of Memoirs of the Blind, below: first of all, I move too quickly to the scene of the self-portrait and overlook the more basic thrust of the two theses posed in the beginning and played with (that is, interwoven) throughout the text. These are that 1) drawing (the process, the act of tracing) is blind and 2) drawing (the trace itself) is of the blind (double genitive: what is drawn is some blind thing/person, what is drawn is for the blind). This sticks closer to the text but also stays closer to the trace and farther from the subject position implicated in the text--I was hunting for the latter while reading. Hopefully that makes it clearer: the entire book is an amazing meditation on the trace and, more significantly, on tracing, what it means to lay down a trace or compose a text (in the Derridian sense of this word, which includes drawing but also aspects of living more generally).
The reason I am correcting this is because this all led me to say "the self-portrait can only appear as a ruin, a prompting to recall what was never truly there," and only after--that is, only as something like an afterthought--sketch vaguely how this led to the gesture of the hands in prayer and the face in tears at this spectacle of ruin, at this "prompting to recall." While this is right, it seems a little too "negative," as Derrida will put it in "Force of Law,"a text he was writing near the same time as Memoirs of the Blind, from which I'll quote in a bit. That is, my inattention made the ethical possibility of this subject position in front of the self portrait (and who is involved in tracing more generally) seem to be a cryptic afterthought, when it is implicated in the "prompting" and in the ruin itself.
The amazing thing about the tears is that they turn the face of the observer into the ruin of which the self-portrait is a portrayal--and yet they escape the visual: one does not cry in order to see, but in reaction to something one is touched by. Sight has little to do with the tear: or rather, and more accurately, the possibility of sight is shot through with the possibility of being touched and thus having tears--they are coextensive possibilities that undermine each other. Even if someone cries at what they see, the tears fall because they were touched by what they saw--that is, were affected non-visually. Philosophy has always privileged sight at the expense of the tear (and touching): to assert that the position of the subject is that position always in front of a ruin, and that the "blindness" (to the fact that the ruin is oneself--one does not see that one is that ruin and thus is blind--and to the fact that what one stands in front of is a ruin--blind again) that constitutes this subject position "does not prohibit tears" (127), means precisely that philosophy can be shot through/deconstructed by another ethical possibility. This possibility would be to conceive of the visual as the non-visual, in the eye's being "destined not to see but to weep" (126-7): the visual standing in for whatever, throughout the history of philosophy, it has been a metaphor for: reason, justice, revelation, knowledge, presence etc. etc. What cannot be seen by this philosophy co-determines its possibility--it gets ensnared in a logic of the deferral and displacement of its own possibility by an ethics which exceeds it. 
I hope this clarifies what I was saying in that last post, and shows that the logic of drawing/tracing that Derrida is reflecting upon has this ethical possibility more tightly imbricated with it--if this is choppy and sketchy, I apologize, I had to take the dog out and make dinner! But we have to return to the important figure: the ruin. If the ruin is what the tear turns someone into, and if this ruin is what one is already, because the blindness of the visual is shot through with the possibility of tears, what is exactly that ethical act that involves crying in front of it? That is, what is that act that explicitly comports oneself to the ruin such that light is shot through with touch and with tears, that turns oneself into a ruin? Put differently, what is that act that ruins the destining of the eyes to make it weeping and not seeing, ruins them into eyes that feel and touch?
This act is love, according to Derrida, the love of the ruin. It is a ruining of oneself in front of a ruin, collapsing in front of it such that one respects its infinite inability to become anything other than a ruin, or restore oneself to a ruin. That is, it is an act that collapses again and again, infinitely, in front of its collapsing or ruining again and again. In other words, it is a respect for the ruin's self-deconstructing of itself by one's self-deconstructing of oneself, the iteration of one's traces in front of the other tracing itself into the infinitely other. This is not a mutual relation, and it is an impossible relation, but it remains what happens in an ethical call to respect the ruination that occurs already in a text or drawing (or a person) composed and composing itself in traces.
I don't think I've articulated this well, but hopefully the above will set up the more elucidating (and just amazing) passage from "Force of Law" that explains what happens in this love thoroughly. Note that this is not the ethical relation itself, but merely the "experience" (or rather non-experience) of it:

Ruin is not a negative thing. First, it is obviously not a thing. One could write... a short treatise on the love of ruins. What else is there to love, anyway? One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such except in an experience itself precarious in its fragility: it has not always been there, it will not always be there, it is finite. And for this very reason one loves it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through one's own birth and death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, one's own ruin [sa ruine]--which it already is, therefore, or already prefigures. How can one love otherwise than in this finitude?
--"Force of Law," in Acts of Religion, 278

Sorry again for the hastiness and sketchiness of all this--but if you can kinda see what all these fragments sort of revolve around (a reading of "ruin" as "tracing" or "deconstructing" that works against the "visual" tendencies of philosophy via that relation to the other and the self within the self-portrait), they might make this quote work for you.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Derrida and the crypt

Here is a short elaboration of several passages in "Fors," a foreword to The Wolf Man's Magic Word, an amazing study of Freud's study of the Wolf Man. At stake is nothing less than Derrida's conception of the self, which is synonymous with the crypt:

A crypt is never natural through and through, and if, as is well known, physis has a tendency to encrypt (itself), that is because it [physis, nature] overflows its own bounds and encloses, naturally, its other, all others.

What this means is that physis, nature, mourns and eats itself as the crypt and in the crypt. The space of the crypt, its gap in nature, is nature mourning itself and consuming itself (stepping outside of itself to eat itself [the entombed] so it can return to itself). Thus,

The crypt is thus not a natural place, but the striking history of an artifice, an architecture, an artifact: a place comprehended within another but rigorously separate from it.

Derrida continues, saying that this space or place is constructed so as to...

...purloin the thing from its rest.

This is a reference to Heidegger's conception of the thing, though perhaps also to Lacan's thing--the play on the two I think is mobilized here. Derrida rejects both interpretations of the thing by saying that the movement of nature out of itself into the space of the crypt steals away its own movement inside the crypt itself, erases its own trace, and thus never lets what is put to rest in the crypt (the thing) remain itself or get some rest from self-effacement.
Derrida calls this a space that is external to the forum, outside of the reach of humanity (the human) and exchange. But then he shows it is a space that is not just simply what is external--i.e. the internal, the underground--since it is also secret. What is underground is known to be under the ground, i.e. not above the ground in the forum and within the reach of exchange. The secret is exiled from exchange above ground but not simply to the underground, because it is exiled from there too:

...a secret interior within the public square, but, by the same token, outside it, external to the interior.

Derrida then moves to a logic of the secret, which will reappear crucially in The Gift of Death:

The crypt can constitute its secret only by means of its division, its fracture. "I" can save [also in the sense of "make an exception of"] an inner safe [a crypt, le for intérieur] only by putting it inside "myself," beside(s) myself, outside.

This complicated sentence means that I can save or make an exception of what is a crypt (an inside/outside outside of the outside [or inside] and outside of the inside) the secret within the space of the crypt, only by putting it inside what is already outside, a performance of myself--and this without regard to this self or any self or even in spite of it. I can only have a secret by showing it, as Derrida will say in The Gift of Death: this does not mean that the only secrets are open ones (i.e. non-secrets), but rather that keeping a secret will make it take its place somewhere in the open. In other words, secrets, if they are secrets, only constitute an interiority elsewhere. If an other learns a secret, then, this only exposes an exterior or something outside the subject to that other. The secret is encrypted to others and--this is the crucial point--for others. It becomes indecipherable for the subject whose secret it is, and always able to be decoded in such a way that the other will misread its contents.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Notes on Memoirs of the Blind

...or on Memoirs/Memories of a Blind, as it perhaps should have been translated (Derrida too can be seen as blind in the book, as he himself shows).
At the beginning Derrida advances a double hypothesis, which he traces through the spectacular movements of the book. Here they are:

1. The draftsman always figures the blind, always draws the blind.

2. The draftsman himself is this blind one: thus all drawing is a self-portrait.

The second hypothesis intertwines and reconfigures the first however to produce two amazing conclusions:

a. If the draftsman is drawing the blind which is himself, he himself is drawing blindly, is blind to his drawing ("one draws only on the condition of not seeing," 49). Derrida shows that this is the case in the most banal incident in drawing: putting the pencil on the paper covers the point at which the actual trace would be visible ("the inscription of the inscribable is not seen," 45).

b. In still another twist, what becomes of the self-portrait then is not a self-portrait, since it is impossible to be drawn while blind (how could one ever see what is to be drawn if one is blind?): the self-portrait can only appear as a ruin, a prompting to recall what was never truly there (the work remains a constant "failure to recapture" a presence "outside of the abyss into which it is sinking," 68)

These all culminate an an exquisitely haunting phrase which Derrida asserts is synonymous with this double hypothesis: "Blindness does not prohibit tears" (127). For what Derrida sketches is that the self-portrait is a drawing that enacts a subject position between the call of the Other and yet also to the Other as the self: one stands in front of the self-portrait as the painter painting from the same position as the other for whom the painting is destined. But this other is already oneself--because one must inhabit its position in order to paint for this other, for their point of view or perspective--and at the same time what is being painted for this other (now as this other and oneself as both spectator and painter) is the painter. Thus, in front of the self-portrait (like in front of Jan Provost's allegory, pictured here), Derrida says,

the desire for self-presentation [of the author, of the blind] is never met, it never meets up with itself, and that is why the simulacrum [the ruin of the picture] takes place. Never does the eye of the Other recall this desire more sovereignly to the outside and to difference, to the law of disproportion, dissymetry and expropriation. And this is memory [what supplements the ruin] itself (121).

In other words, the viewer cannot ask the other to present himself in the picture, nor see the picture as a fully constituted reproduction of the absent other, its traces and ruins as the presence of an absence and thus present themselves. Thus the spectator/author, blind, cannot continue seeing, but in agony and in supplication has tears well up in her or his eyes. Thus, "deep down, deep down inside, the eye would be destined not to see but to weep" (126-7). This is what our blindness in seeing a self-portrait, which constitutes vision (if only because it should be the easiest for sight to see), can teach us. Not that weeping is proper to the eye, what we should continue to forever do with it, but that the subject position revealed in weeping before a self-portrait is that position from which we start viewing, from which anything is visible as such. In order to see at all, the tears must be wiped away from one's eyes.

Perhaps to be meditated on in a meditation on chance...

...and other meditations:

The failure to recapture the presence of the gaze outside of the abyss into which it is sinking is not an accident or weakness; it illustrates or rather figures the very chance of the work, the specter of the invisible that the work lets be seen without ever presenting.
-Jacques Derrida, Mémoires d'aveugle (my italics), 68.

Theory and citation

θεωρία means to see, to have vision (like in French, savoir has at its root to see, voir). The danger in theory is therefore always that the visual will overpower what touches us in our vision, what resides outside the overflowing of light.
To cite: this is the operation of the person who theorizes. The best theory, however, the theory that touches us, provokes us, changes us in our letting see, in our vision, will be that which so integrates citation into a text that it does not need a citational apparatus external to a text--a footnote, for example ("see Derrida's engagement with the concept of work in Specters of Marx, where..."), or an aside in a conversation ("this seems related to Lacan's idea about the tuché...").
Why? Because the best theorists understand (or maybe do not understand) that text is this citational apparatus itself and already. To cite in theory does not mean to link what you say to so many proper names--which is all too often the case when you listen to someone "do theory"--but to elaborate what the matter is for thinking in the voice of another, beyond what this other has ever said, but entirely within the range of what this other does not have to be beyond her or himself to say.
When Walter Benjamin, for example, suddenly quotes Ernst Jünger in saying "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," he does not credit Jünger with this insight. Even less does he just refer to Jünger by saying "the idea of barbarism being tied in with civilization that Jünger talks about in..." Neither does he "make this quote his own" or some such nonsense, by totally making it other than anything Jünger himself would have said. Benjamin speaks, but speaks as another in the voice of another of this other, which may or not be himself. Or rather, he uses another's vision to see what remains invisible to this vision, what touches us.
Why are ghosts, the citations of those who have lived, usually depicted as transparent? Because they show us this type of vision. Those theorists who try to prove they know by citation, can for these reasons dealing with the other (besides their demeanor) be shown as egomaniacs (they are afraid of the other) and, furthermore, as afraid of ghosts (they are afraid of others in the other, like oneself). Does this mean theory should be humble? Of course not. All it means is that an understanding of citation and the spectral is necessary and not to be feared. What if you were to let that reference to Irigaray go for once, and try to simply let her (you) speak? What if you were to risk a remembrance that exceeded the very limited structure (sight, self) of a footnote?

Marx, economics and law, continued

A good example of what Marx is getting at by saying rights are "rights to inequality" can be found recently in Chief Justice Roberts' opinion (and especially in the oral arguments) in Parents Involved v. Seattle School District (which I wrote about previously here). As I said, Marx shows that the discrepancy between the form of rights granted by the law and the actual content of those rights as determined by the conditions surrounding a subject is the space in which the notion of rights moves and inhabits and tries to correct, but never is the space which it tries to do away with completely. This means that the language of rights can be used to take away rights, because rights are a notion that apply equally across all sectors of the economy and conditions surrounding a subject. This is because the subject of rights is a bourgeoisie subject, according to Marx.
Now, I don't know if this is all correct, but you do see one merit of the class-based view of history when you see it makes a demand upon thinkers to inflect a notion like rights through a disparate set of circumstances of subjects, rather than just apply them anywhere and everywhere. The proceedings in Parents Involved v. Seattle read like an interrogation as to why minorities weren't bourgeoisie enough. Roberts' questions especially seemed not just ignorant of economic and something like class reality but also willing to manipulate this distinction under the notion of rights. When he says "the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race"--!!!--he presupposes that race is at the same time bound up in conditions that can make it resist efforts to stop discriminating and that these conditions actually don't apply if we look at the subject right--that is, if we consider someone who is not a bourgeoisie subject a bourgeoisie subject. This duplicity is more than ignorance, it is willful ignorance, and it is the type of action that Marx knew could happen with the language of rights.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Marx, economics and law

In the "Critique of the Gotha Programme" (written 1875) Marx poses an amazing question with respect to justice.
Marx is critiquing Lasalle's loose idea, concretized in the program of the German Workers Party, that in a socialist society all that which the labor of all members of society effects (the products of their labor) should be returned or distributed back to them (in some form--Marx is quick to mark the vagueness here) in equal shares, so that everyone roughly gets what they work for. A similar spirit is seen today in arguments on the left for socialized services but without any handouts--the ethic of work must be preserved! What Marx shows is that those who make people work do not work themselves (they own), and thus to say that everyone should get repaid for their work is just saying that the exploitation of the worker should continue unmitigated. But the question itself we are interested in comes on the scene when Marx begins to ask what distribution entails with respect to rights--that is, how this restitution of the products of labor should be, as the Gotha Programme says, "justly distributed." Marx asks the following:

What is a "just" distribution?
Don't the bourgeoisie claim that the present distribution is "just?" And on the basis of the present mode of production, isn't it in fact the only "just" distribution? Are economic relations regulated by legal concepts, or on the contrary, don't legal relations arise from economic ones? (211)

An idea of justice (the concept which law is supposed to enact, and thus a "legal concept" as Marx says--though he is far from clear about the relationship of law, justice and rights) then gets founded upon this idea of return and this ethic of work, and so we are led into a quagmire that current legal theorists and legal economists are today still tackling. We should note that though Marx is talking about a specific socialist program, he opens up this question into the relation of law and economics generally, so indeed what he says can pertain (if we read him correctly) to what goes on now.
Marx offers several interesting theses that outline his view of the problem:

1. "Rights can never be higher than the economic form of society and the cultural development which is conditioned by it" (214). This looks like a case for economics, but it is this only if we admit a complex and nuanced notion of economics. All Marx is saying is that rights (legal rights conferred upon the subject with an idea of justice issuing forth from them) cannot and should not promise more than the current economic reality provides--i.e. they should not be ideal, but should reflect the material conditions of society. This means that rights must reflect class distinctions, or, put in wider terms, economic distinctions such that they change with respect to the economic constitution of subjects. The "economy" is not a homogenous thing, as it is for legal economists who wish to tie it to law, to make it determine right, but differs in its distributions of wealth. If this is the case, justice would reflect the economy, but would remain independent of it, because it must able to be something that can differentiate across various sectors of the economy, thus always being more than just the mere economy itself. To say that rights must be the same amongst subjects and extend over all this economy equally means to say essentially that all rights are bourgeoisie rights--for only the bourgeoisie could conceive of a right that could apply to all of society (for they in their wealth and ownership can indeed choose to descend if they want to. In short, what Marx says is not "an ideology of rights-and-so-forth," that is, a film on the eyes of the poor that makes them act like they have the rights of the bourgeoisie when they do not--and when they are punished for acting in this way. 

2. "Criminal justice is freely available everywhere; civil justice is almost exclusively concerned with property disputes, therefore almost exclusively it is the possessing classes that are affected" (224). Marx is mocking the language of a legality that idealistically is said to be available to everyone, to apply everywhere, and thus letting the upper classes get away with things because their trespassing is more mediated through material possessions. The irony is that it makes the upper classes seem like the lower classes because they have to put up with civil justice instead of criminal justice. But if we look at what this says positively, another thesis of Marx comes up: criminal justice applies unequally to the poor--that is, the poor get prosecuted as criminals, while the rich get prosecuted in terms of property disputes, whose penalties are much less or at least whose status gets retained (they are not seen, conceptually, as offending against the law as much as the criminal). However, this thesis exposes many of the problems of a class based notion of the conflicts within the conditions in society in history: civil justice also and in fact primarily can be used by the poor. But this is only if we turn what would be criminal justice into civil justice: that is, if we make the person something that can be owned--in other words, if we turn the subject into the subject of civil rights based on something like the 14th Amendment. Perhaps Marx is foreseeing this problem. Regardless, we can see here that the economic situation also does not straightforwardly engender justice and, as our elaboration of Marx's foresight shows, can actually just further entrench justice in a bourgeoisie conception of selfhood which does not reflect economic reality. This is most thoroughly addressed (and perhaps becomes an alternative to civil rights as property) in the next point.

3. "This equal right [to have "justly" distributed an equivalent to the labor of a person to that person, the right of the laborer for restitution of the value of labor, to have justice be the justice of economic distribution] is an unequal right for unequal labor. It acknowledges no distinctions of class, because everyone is a worker just like everyone else, but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual talent and hence productivity in labor as natural privileges. Therefore in content this is a right to inequality, like all rights. By its nature a right can only consist in the application of a common standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are only commensurable in terms of a common standard... e.g. [if they were] considered in a given case only as workers., and nothing else about them is taken into acount, all else being disregarded... To avoid all these faults, rights would have to be unequal, instead of equal" (214). Here the situation in our first point produces some drastic consequences, and some proscriptive remarks made with respect to the law in general. The call for "equal rights" is a call for the right to be equally submitted to the brutality of an inadequate justice of wealth distribution, because only those who already have the rights that you (the person calling for "equal rights") seek are the ones with the money. So long as justice does not confront this leveling-effect of the call for equal rights, it can only lead to a subjugation of the worker in the face of the system that entailed this person's demand for rights in the first place. Why? Not because equal rights would be a bad thing, but because "in content this is a right to inequality, like all rights." In other words, this means that because the form of rights--which is not perhaps in itself unequal--remains tied to a justice that must benefit those who have wealth and power,  the content must always be the same right to inequality. Marx isn't making a case against the form of rights explicitly here, saying that rights must necessarily be rights to inequality and that we should do away with law and justice altogether. Instead, he is saying that if you think you are going to immediately see equality spring up when the form of your rights changes through changes in the law, you will be mistaken. For the discrepancy between the form of rights granted by the law and the actual content of those rights as determined by the conditions surrounding a subject is the space in which rights moves and inhabits and tries to correct, rather than the space which it tries to do away with completely. Demanding rights then is always going to also be demanding inequality in another form--this is just another way of reading the same sentence.
This is because the language of rights, as we noted above, is for Marx the language that veils the conditions of the subject, which are economic. One should note, then, that this does not refute the law and economics crowd. In fact, it is an argument for their use of economics to determine justice--justice will coincide with an effort to accommodate the inequality in the distribution of wealth, not to ensure its equal distribution. The distinction is key: the latter tries to keep law within the sphere of economics through turning economics into the science that protects the wealthy subject--the subject who conceives of himself as having abstract freedom to do what he wants, because materially with his wealth (or, more expansively, his abilities to get wealth) he can. The justice which addresses economic inequality must naturally question whether a current economic system is creating more problems than it could ever reduce to an an abstract equality among its subjects guaranteed in the language of rights. In fact, the law that enacts this justice must account for this irreducibility, and do it economically--because the problems that always escape the language of rights are for Marx economic problems.
This is what Marx means when he says that "rights would have to be unequal, rather than equal." Rights must not try and restore the subject to an abstract free (bourgeois) subjecthood, but must be granted with respect to how they themselves create unequal subjects. In fact, for Marx, they must create unequal subjects to be law. Whether this can still be called "rights" isn't as important as the emphasis Marx is making on what rights should accomplish. Insofar as rights become a call for equality, getting them, for Marx, will only displace the inequality. Insofar as rights become a call for inequality, for respect of the law for the situation of those without rights, then we have justice. I don't think this is exactly right, but this is what Marx is saying. It comes down to this for Marx: when we ask for "equal rights" we are actually really asking for "unequal rights." When an underpriviliged group is calling for rights to be equal, they really don't mean (for Marx) that rights should grant them the rights of everyone, but that rights should come to respect the condition of uniqueness that causes inequality to fall on their heads. Thus it is a demand for laws that bring about unequal rights. Unless the law can actually address this condition, can actually vary itself across the economic strata to respect the conditions of the people, it will further entrench an economic situation that thinks it applies equally to all strata--capitalism.