Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From

I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Unexpectedly, the book connected with a lot of my reading from a recent seminar called Queer Indigestion and the University. Thierry Bardini’s Junkware was the first text that I thought of when I read Johnson’s notion that good ideas are composed of spare parts: “Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients” (Johnson 42). He uses an example from Stephen Jay Gould, who praises the ingenuity of sandals made from old tires. Johnson refers to Gould later because of his concept of exaptation, a concept in evolutionary biology where a trait developed for a specific purpose is re-purposed for a different function. Gould himself “exapts” the ‘tire sandals,’ translating it to nature: “The tire-to-sandals principle [. . .] [makes] nature as inventive as the cleverest person who ever pondered the potential of a junkyard in Nairobi” (Gould qtd. in Johnson 29). Johnson will refer several times to the innovative power of recycling. Brent Constanz, for instance, in his project to grow coral reef that may eventually result in material for cities, discovered a new way to use excess CO2 from factories. We consider CO2 as “waste,” but through innovative thinking it becomes useful again. This may be one issue with Bardini’s narrow definition of junk, which he wants to distinguish from forms of garbage, waste and trash for (admirably) semantic reasons. He tries to describe junk as something that retains some of its affect (whereas trash, garbage, and waste, we just want out of sight, out of mind). This affect gives us “hope” in junk and possibly a “redemption,” language he draws from Phillip K. Dick’s SF Gnosticism. Toward the end of the text, he further generalizes: “junk is always the present potentiality of a renewed function” (Bardin 213).

 Either Johnson is not careful enough in his distinctions, or Bardini’s distinctions earlier in the text fall apart right here. Should we think junk as a renewed function in the sense that its initial function returns? I do not think Bardini means it in this sense, since he also wants to speak of “spare parts,” but in more ‘organic’ terms, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s Bodies without Organs. He uses the term Organs without bodies. Bardini cites the Tissue Culture and Art Project as claiming that their work is about “producing spare body parts” (204). Both of the texts seem to point toward innovation, but Johnson’s concept of “platforms” takes us out of the rhetoric of redemption/salvation. At the same time, we have to recognize that while Johnson’s work succeeds at discussing innovation, it rarely touches on the difficult subject of ethics of innovations and technology. Thus, Johnson avoids any discussion of the ethical consequences of “good ideas.” This is a limitation of Johnson’s book that should be acknowledged, but not harped on. Johnson hints at political and organizational concerns, but never directly addresses them, as it is not the thesis of his book. So, in a sense, perhaps it is disingenuous of me to compare Johnson and Bardini’s work.

Yet, we may want to look at one more moment in Johnson’s text that intersects with Bardini. Junkware begins with a historical narrative of Crick and Watson’s discovery of the Central Dogma. Bardini points out that a lot of the decisions made concerning the Dogma was made outside of the laboratory, in letters and informal meetings. In our course, we were a bit surprised by this and poked fun at the kind of arbitrary decisions made. Johnson offers a slightly alternative reading, where he shows how Watson and Crick’s tinkering and combining different disciplines led to their theories of DNA (Johnson 168-69). Bardini admits that Watson and Crick’s Central Dogma was useful at one time, but eventually grew into an actual dogma that limited possibilities of research (Bardini 211). Thus, the issue for Bardini is not the innovation/idea itself, but rather its rigidity and its ability to exclude work that, we have since learned, is less “counter-productive” than W&C initially had thought. How would we understand Watson and Crick’s work in Johnson’s terms of platforming?

Johnson modifies the basic Kuhnian paradigm structure, arguing that “modern scientific paradigms are rarely overthrown. Instead, they are built upon. They create a platform that supports new paradigms above them,” such as the molecular genetics revolution triggered by Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA (190). Although Johnson is clearly right here, he does not take into account that the way Watson and Crick defined what was “useful” and what was “garbage” within the DNA would marginalize certain research as invalid or, frankly, crazy. Perhaps Johnson would explain this phenomenon in terms of the concept of the adjacent possible? Bardini refers to one of the (now) famous Barbara McCintock, who was dismissed early in her career but eventually won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps Johnson would argue that McClintock’s ideas could not flourish in the early environment. But maybe it was because of Watson and Crick’s Dogma that they closed off the adjacent possible.

We may be able to see such definitions/dogmas of Watson and Crick as an elimination of “commons.” By calling most of DNA “junk” or “garbage,” actually get a very politically charged conception of human body where there are “productive” genes (‘coding’) and parasitic genes that have little function and just sort of ‘tag along’. I am struck by the similarity of this to the dominant trend in thinking that there are job “creators” and then there the people who depend on these job creators for their livelihoods. The 99% sucking off the 1% etc.

Perhaps the most relevant work on the problem of the “commons” is elucidated by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth. The “commons” is neither private nor public, but autonomous from both. Indeed, the commons goes beyond the idea of “property” and so even “public property” is still in some sense “private” compared to the openness of the commons (Hardt and Negri 282). “The common” and what Hardt and Negri, following Foucault, call biopolitical production create surplus value, but are not subject to the logic of scarcity:

Biopolitical production puts bios to work without consuming it. Furthermore, its product is not exclusive. When I share an idea or image with you, my capacity to think with it is not lessened; on the contrary, our exchange of ideas and images increases my capacities. (283-284)

This new “social sensorium” is what much labor (at least in the United States) now works towards. We need to start thinking the commons because the internet has allowed for increased and productive circulation of ideas and images. It is through the free circulation of ideas and tools that innovation comes about.

Indeed, since ideas and imagesdo not operate on the logic of scarcity, we have to construct artificial barriers that protects them from circulation. Stephen Johnson writes that, although efficiency tends to be the goal of every economy, and economy that “traffic[s] in ideas”  must build inefficient markets:

And so where innovation is concerned, we have deliberately built inefficient markets: environments that protect copyrights and patents and trade secrets and a thousand other barricades we’ve erected to keep promising ideas out of the minds of others. (232)

Of course, ideally, there is one place where ideas should circulate freely: the university. The modern research university, argues Johnson, participates in “fourth quadrant” research; that is, it is decentralized and nonmarket driven. Of course, as many writes have recently pointed out, markets have taken over funding for research and many people consider the Humanities type of research (what Christopher Newfield refers to as “cultural knowledge”) as useless. So, in one sense, the University may be in danger of becoming a market-driven institution. But, again, ideally, university research goes like this: “new ideas are published with the deliberate goal of allowing other participants to refine and build upon them, with no restrictions on their circulation beyond the proper acknowledgment of their origin” (Johnson 233).

Johnson and Hardt and Negri, I think, are actually remarkably close in what they seem to be arguing for, even though Johnson is less extreme. Johnson admits that there is no “ready-made political vocabulary for the fourth quadrant, particularly the noninstitutional forms of collaboration that have developed around the open-source community” (235). I would suggest that this type of thinking may correspond to what Hardt and Negri calls “the multitude.”

Both Hardt and Negri see the concept of the city and the metropolis as a key requirement for what Hardt and Negri call “biopolitical production” and what Johnson calls simply “good ideas.” The city, also, is the location of the political collective Hardt and Negri call the multitude: “The metropolis is the site of biopolitical production because it is the space of the common, of people living together, sharing resources, communicating, exchanging goods and ideas [. . .] The metropolis is a factory for the production of the common” (250). For Hardt and Negri, the city is important because it fosters “unpredictable encounters,” the task of which is to transform “conflictive encounters” into “joyful and productive ones” (252-255). This focus on encounter and collisions corresponds with Johnson’s idea of ‘collisions’: “Collisions [lead to creativity]—the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space” (Johnson 163).

But Johnson argues that the idea of the ‘commons’ is limited for two reasons. First, he notes that it is conventionally used in “opposition to the competitive struggle of the marketplace” and innovation environments are not necessarily hostile to market competition (244). I think Hardt and Negri would respond that biopolitical production is, rather than ‘hostile’, simply overflowing the market. That is, it creates surplus value that is difficult for capital to appropriate and hold onto: “Cognitive labor and affective labor generally produce cooperation autonomously from capitalist command” (140). The second limit Johnson points out is that the commons (which, admittedly, maybe this is different from the “common” without an ‘s’)

doesn’t suggest the patterns of recycling and exaptation and recombination that define so many innovation spaces. When you think of the commons, you think of a cleared field dominate by a single resource for grazing. You don’t think of an ecosystem. The commons is a monocrop grassland, not a tangled bank (244)

Indeed, Johnson argues for a metaphor ‘drawn from nature’ that more explicitly recalls an ecosystem. I think both Johnson and Hardt and Negri are trying to go beyond a state-controlled socialism or capitalism. Both are interested in a careful balance between order and chaos and both believe that creativity and innovation stem from decentralized, non-hierarchal aggregates that allows a free flow of ideas. It’s possible that Hardt and Negri have a larger task, as they are seeking to think of a new way of governance. Johnson, too, however, points to the possibility that the ideas he identifies toward innovation should be applied to government, but in a different way.

Hardt and Negri argue that revolutionary institutions must be

1.) Based in conflict

2.) create their own forms of habits and practices

3.) open-ended, susceptible to change give the singularities that make it up

They go on to say that this form of institution can be derived through the metaphor of network in cybernetics (357-358). 

However, I think Hardt and Negri, although attuned to the environment of the metropolis, lack discussion of how we are related to other beings besides other humans. Johnson's metaphor of the "coral reef," which emphasizes recycling and sustainability as well as innovation and 'common' spaces I think is a powerful addition to Hardt and Negri's book. Rarely is what we typically call "nature" introduced into Hardt and Negri's discourse. The only except is the Wasp and Orchid, uh, 'parable' if you allow the misnomer:

Wasps who love orchids, instead, point toward the conditions of the biopolitical economy. How could these wasps be a model for economic production, you might ask, when they don't produce anything? The bees and flowers produce honey and fruit, but the wasps and orchids are just hedonists and aesthetes, merely creating pleasure and beauty. It is true that the interaction of wasps and orchids does not result primarily in material goods, but one should not discount their immaterial production. In the encounter of singularies of their love, a new assemblage is created marked by the continual metamorphosis of each singularity in common. Wasp-orchid love, in other words, is a model fo the production of subjectivity that animates the biopolitical economy. (188)
Perhaps it would be prudent here to at least note the difference of Johnson's project and Hardt and Negri's. Hardt and Negri are trying to elucidate a theory of radical institutions and governance that would produce new subjectivities. Johnson, however, is simply trying to think about how innovation happens and what we can do to foster it. Both, again, are focusing on the creative potential of the overflow of ideas in a kind of "commons," but Hardt and Negri clearly lay out a political project.

I think what Johnson can add to the conversation is language focusing on environment, recycling, and sustainability that spurs on innovation and creativity. Bardini's definition of "junk" also helps this project. Maybe the important aspect is in realizing that institutions do not only have to exist to preserve the status quo, but that institutions can be creative in a similar way that technologies and "platforms" are created.

I am not sure if any of these connections matter, but, as Johnson recommends, I am simply trying to write it all down. It's just a slow hunch, albeit poorly defined.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A long drive with Zizek

Over thanksgiving break, I had to drive for 8 hours to and from Asheville, NC. During that time, rather than singing loudly to music, I decided to listen to various lectures and podcasts I had downloaded. Although I listened to many episodes of Entitled Opinions, a podcast from Robert Harrison at Stanford, the most enlightening thing I listened to was various recorded lectures from Slavoj Zizek.

A long time ago, I read a couple of Zizek's books and have been following recordings of his work online since college. Zizek is generally considered a legitimate "authority" in my current institution on literary theory, politics, and philosophy. His arguments and readings of texts are interesting and clear. But more importantly, he is simply a blast to listen to while driving.  When describing my activities in my car, I would say I was listening to "Father Zizek's sermons" because it is really like listening to a preacher. He has even described himself as "dogmatic." Of course, I am aware of the ironies in designating him "Father" Zizek. For one, as a Lacanian, "father" recalls the Name of the Father and the symbolic order. While Zizek is a brilliant reader of the symbolic order (the various texts, films, and more often than not, jokes), many consider him as the one that has done the most to elucidate Lacan's Real.

But I'm less interested in pondering the Real as traumatic event. As a nascent rhetoric and composition scholar and a graduate instructor, I began to focus on how Zizek makes his arguments. Interestingly enough, I found that Zizek uses the very basic device I was teaching my students (although in a very unique way): "Most people read this/think this as x, but I am going to argue that it is really y." Indeed, he tends to take a "common sense" way of thinking and turns it on its head. I am aware that this is not unique to Zizek, but it screamed out at me that this was the main thing he was doing.  Some examples are in order.

Instead of Dostoevesky's "If there is no God, everything is permitted" (although in an interesting digression he indicates when this famous quote was attributed to Dostoevesky), he argues that "If there is a God, then everything is permitted." He begins with this simple transformation and proceeds to draw implications from this. If I remember correctly, related to this statement, he argues that while most people see Christianity as a restrictive, moralistic, joyless religion and paganism as the religion of enjoyment, it is really the opposite.

Zizek points out that by taking into account that we all we meet with his death at the end, paganism is shot through with knowledge of death and decay. In contrast, Christianity allows us to enjoy life with the knowledge that there is eternity--you don't have to worry about death. If Christ has died on the cross for our sins, he has taken the "price" of death, decay, and sin upon himself, so that sin becomes possible. If you are a believer, you put all of the debt on Christ/God himself and then you are free to enjoy.

Zizek makes a very convincing case for this latter position. Surprisingly, Zizek admires certain aspects of Christianity. The essence of Christianity as the death of god "for himself," is the killing of God as the "big Other." According to Zizek's reading, it is God saying, "ok, now you are by yourselves." There is no big Other to judge us, but we must work out our own salvation, in fear and trembling.

My own personal realization comes from thinking about the nature of this big Other. For Lacan, the point is to realize that there is no big Other. The problem is thatwe think there is a big Other figured as maybe "society"  that wants something from us. In the psychoanalytic situation, the analyst plays this role of the fantasy big Other. We think that the analyst is looking for something--as if he was a torturer that wants to bring out the truth. We may go in and say "you probably want me to talk about my mother, but the problem really isn't my mother--you psychoanalysts are all the same." This is why Lacan thinks that the analyst needs to be silent. The analysand  thinks the analyst as this big Other that wants something from him or her.

This is why psychoanalysis aims at its own termination. The analysis is over when the analysand no longer needs the analyst. The analysis is over when the analysand understands that the analyst does not want anything from him.

So why am I going on about the big Other? Because I must confess that I feel like I certainly still believe in a big Other that somehow will judge my actions in reference to some truth or in reference to what that Other wants. Allow me to digress here to another article I was reading concerning art and politics. In the book Tactical Biopolitics,Claire Pentecost tells  how she is bothered by her students' declarations that they do not want their work to become "too political" or "too didactic." Political is like a dirty word for artists. Why?

According to Pentecost, to be political is to have a common opinion, an opinion that is not "one's own." Earlier in her article (or maybe it was another one in that book, I forgot), she talks about the current "rhetoric of the personal." We tend to think about opinions as my opinion. I have an opinion, I have a position. Art, however, tends to be more ambiguous, not necessarily taking a definite position or an opinion. If I remember correctly,  Deleuze and Guattari say in What is Philosophy, "art does not have an opinion." Artists want their work to be somehow unique.

I bring this up because this relates to "my" big Other (it is not really 'my' big other), a call of conscience that speaks from god knows where. Perhaps a "call of conscience" is not quite correct here. Perhaps a better way of saying it is a "devil's advocate" reaction. It is the knee jerk reaction to question whatever position is presented to me, be it liberal, Marxist, or conservative--I seek its flaws whenever presented. If a conservative speaks to me, I present the liberal argument and vice-versa.

An example: I would like to think that given my own generally liberal position (or at least a position that I'd like to believe I take), I would be unequivocally in support of Occupy Wall Street, which paints a certain part of the population (rich corporate executives) as the problem. Now, I tend to think that to claim that the occupiers are engaging in "class warfare" is a bit ridiculous, but I still have the conviction that it is a bit more complicated than the protesters make it. I still have this knee jerk reaction to defend the 1% as those who are probably decent people just trying to make a living and love their family.

Now we are getting to the crux of the problem: the distinction between interpersonal relations and how those people function in society given their roles of power and privilege. It's the idea that if we could only "understand" those people,  if we could "get their side of the story."we could excuse their acts  Zizek thinks this is problematic because the "stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" are always flawed and we are always going to put ourselves in a positive light. The point is that we can't understand everyone completely--that there remains some "radical other" within ourselves that we cannot know. In order to show that this is false, Zizek uses extreme cases: would we say that if only we understood Hitler he would not have done what he did or we could understand what he did? Most of us would say no.

So here we must speak of preserving the otherness of the other. Perhaps this is the only way we can avoid meaningless relativism and absurd justification.

At the same time, we cannot merely dismiss someone like Hitler as a "monster" or some sort of Force of Evil (nor can or should we do to the same to George Bush, President Obama, whoever the media wants to compare to Hitler these days). The terrifying part is that we are all possibly "monstrous" but not in a sublime, transcendent sense, but in the very way we allow ourselves to be part of a system of extermination. This is precisely the point of realizing our non-innocence in what we would call "monstrous" acts in the world. Pretending that we could ever "understand" this, as if it is merely a question of something we would say, only perpetuates a world where we seek to justify our acts rather than a world of responsibility.

And this is really what ethics comes down to: responsibility. The responsibility for our actions, for our words, and not only for "our own," but others as well.  In a world where our slightest action has an indirect but potent effect on others--in a globalized and networked world--we are responsible for more and more even if it is easier and easier to hide it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Derrida, Disaster, and Sovereignties in Question--For Celan

I can now, perhaps, address the significance of Blanchot’s dis-aster.

Disaster: “ill starred,” a calamity blamed on “an unfavorable aspect of a planet”

Constellation: “conjuncture,” “set with stars.” OED: “Originally, in astrology, of position of planets,  (“stars”), in regard to one another on a given day, usually one’s birthday, as a determination of one’s character

Sternbild (constellation): Stern, star. “bild” –image, picture, figure from bild (verb) – “build, shape, construct,” etc. “Star-image”

In Writing of the Disaster (I am still tempted, every time I write this title, to say Writing the Disaster, omitting the genitive possessive), Blanchot writes,

Levinas speaks of the subjectivity of the subject. If one wishes to use this word-why? But why not?—one ought perhaps to speak of a subjectivity without any subject, the wounded space, the hurt of the dying, the already dead body, which no one could ever own, or ever say of it, I, my body [this is my body, take this an eat it, do this in memory of me]. This is the body animated solely by mortal desire: the desire of dying—desire that dies and does not thereby subside. (30)

Could we substitute the notion of a “subject” with the name “identity”? To take one example of the “subjectivity without subject,” the Jew does not possess any determinate characteristics; rather, according to Derrida, “Anyone or no one may be a Jew. Jew, no one’s name, the only one. No one’s circumcision” (55). Or, more concretely, “what is proper to the Jew is to have no property or essence. Jewish is not Jewish” (35). “Jew” is not an identity, a knowledge, but a secret, a crypt, and perhaps most importantly a performance of the body. The performance is the “shibboleth” that requires a certain pronunciation. So to be a Jew (to be anything) is subjectivity without the subject, without the “sovereign” subject that says I. This is related to Heidegger’s notion that Dasein is both near and far, which we may associate with Celan’s line: “it is now possible to conceive a meeting of this ‘wholly Other’ and an ‘other’ which is not far removed, which is very near” (180).

Could the disaster be understood as the ripping apart of constellations, constellations that determine and tie us to our fate as such and such a being or such and such a person? Celan offers the hypothesis: “But are we all not descended from such dates? And to which dates do we attribute ourselves?” (180). But if our dates disseminate into other dates, if our dates are not entirely “our own” this may be the disaster—the planetary drift. Astrology is useless because it pretends that these are our stars , that the stars determine our character, which is at once individuating us too much and at the same time not enough! It does not individuate beings or events enough and yet it is still singular.  That January 20th signifies no one event unequivocally since it calls out and sends itself toward a future (or past date) than the one “intended” by its author. January 20th, Derrida finds out, is also when Hitler and his collaborators finalized “the final solution” (113). What if Celan had included the year? Still, there might be strange, unheimlich, coincidences. Some one reader may read January 20th and notice it is his or her birthday! Imagine being part of the constellation that would link your birth and the final solution!

 Rather than constellation of singularities, if we take astrology as constituting our identities, we become a type of person, a type of being (according to astrology). But might this not foreclose the possibility of an encounter, if the encounter is a “random occurrence, as chance, as luck or coincidence” (9)?  This random occurrence might be something like the ‘disaster.’  The disaster that does not, according to Blanchot, “acquire meaning” but “a body” (41). The disaster might be something along the lines of what I discussed above—finding oneself entwined with other events, from other years, on the same date as one’s birth. Is this “meaningful” or does it acquire body? The disaster of dates that opens us up to other events and other persons.

In this sense, the ego, the self, is like a date, which brings together a constellation: “several heterogeneous singularities [] consigned in the starry configuration of a single dated mark” (35). The date, like any mark, also risks the meaning of other dates. The date “was already a sort of fiction, reciting singularity only in the fable of conventions and generalities, of what are, in any case, iterable marks” (47). In this sense, the date is an “image,” (the reason I translated constellation into German), one might say a metonymic and ‘poetic’ “image.”

But this meaning of “image” does not seem quite appropriate for this text, as Derrida will speak of the date as “a cut, or incision that the poem bears in its body like a memory” (18). And further on claims that “there is a holocaust for every date, and somewhere in the world at every hour” (46). The idea of the burning of the word, turning it to ashes, recalls Blanchot’s image of knowledge that burns thought: “When knowledge is no longer a knowledge of truth, it is then that knowledge starts, a knowledge that burns thought, like knowledge of infinite patience” (43). This image recalls to my mind a kind of burning of an experience into one’s retina or into one’s mind—and indelible experience. Derrida generalizes this branding: “As one might engrave a date in a tree, burning bark with ciphers of fire” (48). This, in turn, recalls a poem by Celan Derrida discusses in another essay, “onto a ram’s silicified forehead/I brand this image, between/the horns” (141).  The date is also a circumcision: “The circumcision of a word must thus be understood as an event of the body” (59). Again, the image of a cut, a burn, a brand on the body—even if it is on the body of “language.”

This incision, cut, opening, burn, on the body of language may be the tropes that Derrida uses for what he calls in the interviews an “idiom.” Derrida writes, “but it seems to me he touches the German language both by respecting the idiomatic spirit of that language and in the sense that he displaces it, in the sense that he leaves upon it a sort of scar, a mark, a wound” (100). So this is what we are able to do with language—touch it, leave a mark, a scar, maybe burn it into brains; However, one thing we can never do is appropriate it: “it is the essence of language that language does not let itself be appropriated. Language is precisely what does not let itself be possessed but, for this very reason, provokes all kinds of movements of appropriation” (101). Writing (and language—are these two synonymous?), as for Blanchot, always remains other.  Perhaps we cannot appropriate ‘dates’ either as dates are part of language, fictions that “constellate” events?

I want to shift gears here and ask a few questions about Celan’s poem “Meridian,” particularly concerning his reading of Buchner and Art. If art is that which “produces a distance from the I,” and Art is somehow “at home” with mechanism, marionette, and monkey, then art is something distinct from the human, and perhaps something distinct from “life.” I am trying to figure out how (and if) Celan is distinguishing his own conception of art from Buchner, which he calls “naturalism” (176). Celan quotes Lenz saying that there is “life in the thing that has been created” is the most important aspect of art (176). He contrasts this lifeless art (the marionette? Mechanism? Robot?) with “that which is natural. With all living creatures” (176). Buchner writes, “at times one might wish to be a Medusa’s head so as to be able to transform such a group into stone, and call out to the people” (176). So would this frozen tableau constitute art?

Celan then writes, “Here we have stepped beyond human nature, gone outward, and entered a mysterious realm, yet one turned toward that which is human, the same realm in which the monkey, the robots, and accordingly. . .alas, art seem to be at home” (177).

This is a really strange passage to me. Somehow we have stepped “beyond human nature” yet turned toward the human. But the human here is in the same realm as what we would generally consider not human: monkeys and robots. So is Celan deconstructing this idealized notion of Nature as opposed to wooden puppets? It does not seem like Celan is so much interested in naturalism or art as representation (image). He writes,

The poem attempts to pay careful attention to everything it encounters; it has a finer sense of detail, of outline, or structure, of color, and also of the ‘movements’ and the ‘suggestions.’ These are, I believe, not qualities gained by an eye competing (or cooperating) with mechanical devices, which are continually being brought to a higher degree of perfection. No, it is a concentration which remains aware of all our dates. (182, emphasis mine)

So, an art of “representation” would try and mimic life so as to try and capture all of its movements in mechanical detail. In contrast, Celan’s poems, “take form and gather around the I who is addressing and naming it” (182). It is a movement of gathering and concentration rather than representing in some “naturalistic” detail. It is an encounter with the other, which may be construed as the reader? “But the one who has been addressed and who, by virtue of having been named, has, as it were, become a thou also brings its otherness along into the present, into this present” (182). Who is the one who is addressed and who is the one who addresses? Does the poem address the reader or the reader the poem?

I suppose that this is not a gathering toward a unity, but rather a collection—and it is not only a collection of present things but sends itself into possible future dates. Furthermore, there is always an expropriating gesture in the encounter that may constellate and concentrate, a gesture that expropriates an I. As Derrida puts it in his essay on (for) Gadamer, “To carry now no longer  has the meaning of ‘to comprise, to include, to comprehend in the self, but rather to carry oneself for bear oneself toward the infinite inappropriability of the other [. . .] the infinitely other in me” (161).

Here, there is no reassuring cosmos: “the cosmic reassures us, for we can identify with the measureless vibration of a sovereign order even if in this identification we venture beyond ourselves entrusting ourselves to a holy and real unity” (Blanchot 88). Nor may there be Heidegger’s being-in-the-world (162). Heidegger conceives of poetry as a way of opening up possibilities of new worlds, but for Celan,  “The world is gone, I must carry you,” but the world is not necessarily “gone” but “far” (fort as opposed to da). Derrida asks about Fort-sein as something distinct from the stone, the animal, and the human and their respective relationships to world:

But what would happen if, in our poem, the departure, the Fort-sein of the world, in its proper instance, did not answer to any of these theses or categories? What if the Fort-sein exceeded them, from a wholly other place? (163)

Derrida claims that this is one thing he would want to ask Gadamer for help—I would want to ask Derrida for help. In a way, these few words at the end of an essay point beyond anything else we have read on Heidegger’s concept of “world.” What is the Fort-sein, the far-being? To ask this another way, what if Heidegger worked on the ontology of the fortsein—does that even make sense as a question? Could the Fort-sein be an ontological project? The being that is not there—the being that is far (from itself)? Perhaps this could be a useful way to understand Derrida’s project for is not the ghost, the specter, the revenant, all “living without being,” living far-being (110)? I cannot answer these questions, but the questions intrigue me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Maurice Blanchot--Writing the Disaster

Vigilance, insomnia, wakefulness in the night--one might imagine Blanchot (or whatever the 'subject' of Blanchot' reflections is) as a strung-out grad student at 4 am, thinking in a chair on the verge of madness.

Blanchot writes both in and 'about' the fragmentary. He writes, "fragments, destined in part to the blank that separates them, find in this gap not what ends them, but what prolongs them" (58). Fragmentation is only an interruption, but an interruption that also pushes forward to continue--it as if the fragments cannot stop--the gap that stops is also that which allows it (forces it?)  to continue. As Blanchot puts it, “the interruption’s somehow having the same meaning as that which does not cease” (21).  Furthermore, fragments are not simply isolated, but because of their juxtaposition (even though there might be “nothing in the text”) suggest meaning and connection at the same time that they deny meaning—or create absent meaning. Blanchot distinguishes the ‘fragmentary’ from the “isolated sentence,” which is “aphoristic” not fragmentary. Aphoristic, isolated sentences, “tend to reverberate like an oracular utterance having the self-sufficiency of a communication to which nothing can be added” (132). The aphoristic sentence “affirms definitively,” the allusive sentence “makes ambiguity a positive value,” whereas the fragmentary is exposure to these two kinds to risks: normativity and that which thinks it escapes the illusion of truth only to “succumb[] to the illusion itself as truth” (133). The fragmentary is related to citation (and incitation). Blanchot writes (fragmentally),

“If quotations, in their fragmenting force, destroy in advance the texts from which they are nto only severed but which they exalt till these texts become nothing but severance, then the fragment without a text, or any context, is radically unquotable” (37).

I am not sure what to do with that bloc quote given Derrida’s ideas about citation, quotation, and context.  I think we should think through the relations among these different types of utterances.


The last word of the book: disaster. We as readers are still left wondering what this "disaster," 'is'. References to the holocaust and the immemorial suggest that the disaster is that which cannot be justified (in ethical terms) or sublimated (aufhebung) in Hegel's terms. But most importantly, the disaster (besides its "proper" meaning relating to 'star'--although we will have to question the notion of the proper as well) is an experience which is not experienced. Thus, the disaster is not an event that arrives or comes. Like death (and is ‘death’ the disaster? Are these two terms synonyms?), it is “imminent” (1) and at the same time always-already past (the immemorial). It is that which we can neither forget nor remember, because in order to forget we would have to have been able to remember it as something that ‘happened,’ and that is experienced.


I think we must ask after the status of theory. First, so we can determine whether Blanchot’s notion of theory is related (or the same as) what we call in literature Theory (which is, as Greg Ulmer once put it to me, philosophy done in literature departments); second, in order to attempt to determine the relation (or nonrelation?) among theory, philosophy, and poetry, and what Blanchot understands as writing; third, to figure out why theories are “necessary and useless” (75).  Is theory what Blanchot understands by “System,” who is designated by the name Hegel? If this is true, then should we take Blanchot at his word when he writes,

“shouldn’t we have done with theory to the extent that ti does not ever get over and done, and also to the extent that all theories, however different they may be, constantly change places with one another, distinct each from the next only because of the writing which supports them and which thus escapes the very theories purporting to judge it?” (80).

Have we all not had the feeling that the theories of Levinas, Derrida, and Blanchot as theories of “the other” collapse into one another? Can we even call these thinkers “theorists?” Are they creating theory, writing, poetry—all of these?

Blanchot decides to investigate three thinkers that we in our department may refer to as “theorists” (alternately, philosophers—alternately, poets)—Levinas, Bataille, and Heidegger. Although Blanchot, like Derrida, seems indebted to Heidegger, he seems more indebted to Levinas. I think this is because that Blanchot agrees with Derrida that death is never one’s “ownmost possibility,” that death is not an authentic relation to being and to self. Both Blanchot and Levinas are thinkers of the “other.” For Heidegger, our relationship is with being and truth, something that language allows us to access (even as it reveals-conceals). Indeed, the “they” is the realm of inauthenticity and idle talk, just as ‘dying’ (or merely perishing) is not an “authentic” relation to death. For Heidegger, we do not know death from the other’s death, but rather because it is our ‘ownmost possibility’ as that which individualizes us.  In contrast, Blanchot writes that death is “never individual” and Derrida rejoins that Blanchot speaks of “death in general.”   Levinas and Blanchot (along with Derrida) think our relation to the other. More precisely, language is not the “house of being” but something radically other than being. Language is not “proper” to human beings. Rather, as Levinas puts it, “Language is in itself already skepticism” and as Blanchot continues, “to write is to be absolutely distrustful of writing, while entrusting oneself to it entirely” (110). 

For Heidegger, language gives, but for Bataille and Levinas, “the gift as the inexhaustible (the infinite) demand of the other and of others” (110). Blanchot sees Heidegger’s focus on language (perhaps, at the expense of writing) as a “dangerous leaning toward sanctification of language” (110).

On the topic of “language,” we should return to the question of etymology, something incredibly important for Heidegger. Before we get into Blanchot’s extensive discussion of etymology, we should remember that etymology is the study of words. We treat words like independent entities. This is why it is problematic to ask what the disaster “is” as if we can isolate a proper meaning of it. Blanchot suggests, following Valery, that we neglect “sentences”—one might add, fragments (96). The idea that words are the “seminal cell of language” is something etymology takes as its object. The issue with etymology is that it presupposes a “proper” and “original” meaning. Etymologists wish to trace back words to some ‘concrete’ or ‘first’ meaning.

Blanchot discusses two words of Heidegger’s that uses etymology for his philosophical analysis. The first I will discuss is aletheia, a word that is usually translated into English as “un-veiling.” Heidegger relates aletheia to lethe because his claim is that philosophy has “forgotten the meaning of being.” The river lethe, in mythology, is the river or forgetting. So, in a way, aletheia is a kind of “un-veiling” the meaning of being—that which appears, the phenomenon—that which shows itself. On Heidegger’s use of the word, Blanchot writes,

Was the Greeks’ understanding of aletheia based upon the meaning of lethe. This is doubtful. And that we should be able to substitute ourselves for them—saying that they were nonetheless determined by this unthought element in their understanding—is a philosophical move to which there would be no objection, if it were not that we make it by wielding a philological experitise, thus making philosophy dependent on a particular discipline. This contradicts the relations clearly affirmed by Heidegger between thought and determined bodies of knowledge. (104)

Blanchot’s analysis may remind one Derrida’s move on “cultural” and “anthropological” understandings of death. Heidegger would argue that this is not getting to the “existential structure” of death because they assume they know what death is (Derrida 25). In this sense, Heidegger’s analysis is much more than the cultural writings on death. But at the same time, Derrida points out “neither language nor the process of this analysis of death is possible without the Christian experience, indeed, the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic experience of death to which the analysis testifies” (Derrida 80). We could say with Blanchot that Heidegger’s analysis of “aletheia” would not be possible without the discipline of etymology.

Blanchot reveals the essentially metaphoric language of etymology. The “root” of the word is the “germinating principle” by which words receive “the power of development and creative enrichment” (107). Etymology presupposes filitation rather than “affinity” (93). Etymology by “affinity” may describe better Heidegger’s operation on lethe, aletheia. Etymology by affinity may be another way to elucidate what Greg Ulmer calls “conductive logic.” It uses the play of the material signifiers, the associations that it calls up for inventive purposes rather than to believe that one is getting at an “origin.” Blanchot uses this to investigate Heidegger’s term, Ereignis, which usually is translated into English as “event of propriation” (see pgs 97-98).

Rather than thinking etymology by filiation let us think by affinity. There is some sort of seduction and attraction to etymologies: “What attracts us to etymology is its unreasonable part more than what it explains: we are interested by the form of enigma that it preserves or doubles as it deciphers” (106). We are subject to “etymological clues which we take for proofs from which we draw philosophical conclusions that secretly influence us” (104). Is Blanchot here endorsing this kind of “unreasonable thinking.” Or is it the case that language is always seductive in this way—seductive and yet prone to skepticism, or rather, makes us skeptical.


Returning to an earlier question, it seems that the disaster is the dissolution of the possibility of etymology (that there can be a natural meaning to a word). Blanchot writes, “Naturally [haha], disaster can be understood according to its etymology [. . .] But the etymology of ‘disaster’ does not operate in these fragments as a preferred, or more original insight [. . .] On the contrary, the indeteriminateness of what is written when this word is written, exceeds etymology and draws it into disaster” (117).

One gets the sense that for Blanchot, we cannot take comfort in Being,  in the cosmos (in the fixity of the stars—no, there is dis-aster), or in language, but rather that we “keep watch over absent meaning.” Whereas for Heidegger, man is the preserver and keeper of truth, we (?) keep watch over absent meaning. True, Blanchot is much closer to  Heidegger than he is to the more “action” oriented existentialists, namely, Sartre, but he revels in the neutral rather Being. The neutral, it is important to understand is not the same as “giving neutrality to language as a characteristic,” as if to refute that language has weight, values, and history, but rather the neutral is that which cannot be grasped and held theoretically as “knowledge.”

The positive value we usually ascribe to knowledge, meaning, and totality is turned to a horror show in Blanchot’s text. The absolute meaning is the absolute justification—Hegel’s system, were it right, would justify the Holocaust. In the most harrowing anecdote of the work, Blanchot mentions a certain man who was “saved” from death only to be “obliged to hold the victim’s head so that the bullet could be more easily lodged in the neck” (82). When asked how he could bear this he said he “observed the comportment of men before death” ( 82). Blanchot comments that “when he was faced with an impossible question, he could find no other alibi than the search for knowledge, the so called dignity of knowledge: that ultimate propriety which we believe will be accorded us by knowledge” (82).  We may recall here Blanchot’s Demeure, where the protagonist is “saved” and yet not saved—there is no salvation. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Commonwealth--Hardt and Negri

Besides an extraordinary amount of repetition of their points (which, who knows, may have bee necessary to connect all of their analyses) Hardt and Negri offer an immensely powerful critique of capitalism in light of biopolitics and biopower. Their philosophical geneology traces from Augustine, to Spinoza, to Deleuze and they draw on a diverse range of political and economic theories along the way.

If I have complained before about the lack of clear cut distinctions in other texts, Hardt and Negri may be guilty of the opposite. Their characterizations of positions such as modernity, anti-modernity, and altermodernity (corresponding in part to what Haroway mentions as autremondalisation) are broad concepts, but they deploy them with such purpose and confidence that such distinctions are effective. If modernity is characterized by oppression and colonial forces, and anti-modernity is characterized by resistances to this modernity (an important, but, according to H&N insufficient because it is stuck in opposition), altermodernity "constitues a dispotif for the production of subjectivity" (115). 

Altermodernity, as concerned with producing subjectivities, differs from hypermodernity and postmodernity. Hypermodernity, aligned with theorists  such as Jurgen Habermas, contends that do not propose to break with but to reform and transform modernity's basic institutions. According to H&N, hypermoderniity, "simply continues the hierarchies that are central to modernity, putting its faith in reform, not resistance, and thus does not challenge capitalist rule" (113). Postmodernity, in contrast, is characterized by "negative thought," whose solutions are "weak" and "aesthetic," often drifting into theology (114). 

Alternmodernity is necessary in the age of the biopolitical, where much of what is produced cannot be controlled by capitalists even though they can draw wealth from it. Labor does not only produce products, but produces "forms of life" and various subjectivities, characterized by immaterial products: cognitive and affective. In a way, does this not correspond to the shift in advertisement from the 'product' itself to selling the lifestyle that one could have should one buy the product? But now, it is not even a matter of product. Rather, according to H&N such production happens in the realm of the common rather than privatized copyright and patents. Since biopolitical labor no longer corresponds to the law of scarcity, an idea, image, affect, etc. does not exhaust itself. Rather, "if you use that idea productively, I can use it too, at the very same time. In fact the more of us that work with an idea and communicate about it, the more productive it becomes" (381). This kind of labor and value is increasingly autonomous from capital: "an increasingly autonomous labor-power and, consequently, a capital that becomes increasingly pure command. Labor-power is thus no longer variable capital, integrated within the body of capital, but a separate and increasingly oppositional force" (292). 

So, what social form corresponds to altermodernity in the age of the biopolitical? The multitude. The multitude of the "poor" is where H&G suggest we start. However, the "poor" is not necessarily just those who we consider 'poor' today materially, but basically consists of those who are marginalized and who are for what H&N call "the common." The multitude is composed of singularities who set up encounters which in turn transforms their subjectivities. The multitude shifts from identity to singularity. In a particularly powerful chapter on identity politics, H&N argue that we must start with identity politics but cannot end with them. In fact, identity politics should "strive for their own abolition" (332). Not, mind you, to rid us of difference, but in order to prepare the way for further becoming. In order to become something other, something else, you have  to forget identity. Then, the way is open for differences to flourish. H&N rightly characterize this process as monstrous and violent: "the most terrifying violence confronting revolutionaries may be the monstrous self-transformation we find in the revolutionary streams of identity politics" (371). 

The imagery of the singularity, multitude, swarm, the monstrous, etc. stem from the alternative geneology of philosophy I mentioned earlier--headed mostly by Spinoza and Deleuze (and his reading of the former). Another theorist that seems to be working in a similar vein (although perhaps a bit more ambivalent than H&N) is Gerald Raunig, in his book A Thousand Machines. If nothing else, Raunig explores the importance of a new conception of cognitive labor. Labor is less about new products and more about creation and innovation: "the raw material and means of production of living labor is the capacity for thinking, learning, communicating, imagining, and inventing" (Raunig 115). Both H&N describe the multitude in musical terms as a composition with a composer or orchestra without a conductor. No one person or force seems to be "in charge" of this multitude. I think Raunig's conclusion is a great summary of both his book and H&N's: 

It is precisely in this that the quality of the machine beyond humanist, mechanistic, and cybernetic interpretations consists: in the insistence of a dissonant power, a monstrous potency and enjoyment, in the ambiguous re-invention of verker as a non-conforming concatenation of differences, singularities, and multitudes in an a-harmonious composition without a composer. (119)

However, H&N go much further in their book with more specifics on what they would like to see and their analysis of society. Raunig is working primarily with the concept of the machine--a concept of the machine as a social entity rather than how we generally understand machine: "the thesis of this book is that there is an AND, living and mechanical, that is nto all to be found only in the progressive merging of man and technical machine" (110). Both are working out of D&G, but H&N are more attentive to organized resistance and revolution than Raunig, who almost has an an-archic strain in his thought.

In contrast, H&N propose that the multitude needs to create institutions, but institutions based in conflict rather than institutions that solidify an already pre-formed identity: "the central difference, perhaps, has to do with the locus of agency: whereas according to the conventional sociological notion institutions form individuals and identities, in our conception, singularities form institutions, which are thus perpetually in flux" (358). Institutions that are not created based on what people are, but always moving toward becoming something other.
revolt becomes powerful and long-lasting only when it invents and institutionalizes a new set of collective habits and practices, that is, a new form of life [. . .] common practices and behaviors as well as their original set of gestures and affects. (356)
The way H&N propose this creates a different way of thinking revolutionary event. Indeed, H&N are critical of many thinkers of the Event, including Alain Badiou: "In Badiou an event [. . .] acquires value and meaning primarily after it takes place. He thus concentrates on the intervention that retrospectively gives meaning to the event and the fidelity and generic procedures that continually refer to it" (60). For H&N, Foucault's notion of the event requires a more "forward looking gaze," and has a bit more 'queerness' to it:
The biopolitical event, in fact, is always a queer event, a subversive process of subjectivization that, shattering ruling identities and norms, reveals the link between power and freedom, and thereby inaugurates and alternative production of subjectivity. (63)
Later in the book, queer is associated not with a particular identity but a "critique of identity" (335). We see this same move toward an acknowledgment of the multiplicity of differences in Donna Haraway's When Species Meet. How can we foster queer indigestion in the political and economic realms? Complementary to Donna Haraway's language, H&N suggest that we must "nourish indignation," which they think "love" may  help to foster (246).

The Common and Occupy Wall Street

Reading this text I could not stop thinking about how Occupy Wall Street may be a practical enactment of the multitude. They have created their own gestures and behaviors and guidelines for self-organization. A recent segment of Colbert Report explained the various gestures they use to signify consensus. While I have a difficult time not laughing at such ridiculous gestures and behaviors, I am at a loss to explain why! Its like a whole new system of parliamentry procedure! Furthermore, we see the movement formed of what Raunig deems the "precariat," a term that H&N almost use as well. The "precariat" are the people whose jobs are unstable and whose 'class' is hard to define (see Raunig 80-83). H&N write that what is also precarious is the division between work and leisure time: "precarity is a mechanism of control that determines the temporality of workers, destroying the division between work time and non-work time, requiring workers not to work all the time but to be constantly available for work" (146). When you are working in precarious situation "none of your time is your own" (147). But biopolitical production requires the "freedom of producers to organize their own time" (147). To me, this sounds an awful lot like academic labor.

But space is another important aspect of the common. In fact, H&N argue that "the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class" (250). In other words, it makes sense that people are occupying an entire city. In fact, the Occupy Wall Street logic has analogies to the piquetos in Bolivia who decide to 'picket the city' (see H&N 259) as well as events Raunig discusses in his book. Raunig writes, "the machinic practice of inventing and concatenating bodies and signs, the theatricality and the flight from representation generated different qualities and quantities of reappropriating the city and discuvsive space in the various local contexts" (88).

Practical Actions

Hardt and Negri suggest some really radical proposals toward the end of the book that would move us toward a more democratic and just society. This is, in my opinion, the most radical:
A reform that would grant freedom of time is the establishment of a minimum guaranteed income on a national or global scale paid to everyone regardless of work. Separating income from work would allow everyone more control over time. (309)
Wouldn't this be nice? Perhaps their diagnosis of biopolitical labor as labor that is immaterial, cognitive, and separated from capitalists is a justification for their position that everyone should have a guaranteed income. Is this not, basically, the ultimate welfare state? Who would pay for this? What kind of utopia do these guys live in where people will just "do work" even though they don't have to work to get an income for the basic necessities of life? What are these "basic necessities of life" or "bare life" --food? shelter? tvs? computers? How do we define "life" here?

In order for this to work at all, we would have to have a major culture shift--something I think H&N thinks can be done. But really, we have to be realistic when we realize that many people just don't give a shit.

On the other hand, could we say that I am actually living under this system? I have a "fixed income" every 2 weeks, which is for teaching classes, prep work, grading papers, etc, but I have relatively complete control over my time. Still, the process of organizing one's own time productively is a terribly difficult thing to do--even for an intelligent, educated man such as myself--with such meaningless distractions of the entertainment industry. What incentive do I really have to produce ideas? Mostly it is a feeling of "I need to work." However, I am convinced that not everyone believes that.

In other words, although I find H&N's critique and formation of the multitude productive--particularly with regard to institutions and their becomings, I find their concrete practices that they suggest a bit optimistic about human potential in general.

On another note, is it not the case that H&N's points have been made by others in less bulky (and less explicitly Marxist terms) by John Dewey in his Reconstruction in Philosophy?
Society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, value are transmitted that made common. (161)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Derrida's "Typewriter Ribbon Limited Ink (2)

Derrida’s text sends me, machine-like, metonymically (?), to re-read and re-think previous texts of his and of others. For example, Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, writes,

For the moment, however, it is enough to signal the operative presence in DeMan’s texts of older categories [my emphasis] like ‘fiction’ or ‘irony’, which the Derridean text does not seem particularly to respect or acknowledge. Derrida’s interest (to summarize it overhastily) bears not on the fictionality of the ‘experience’ of the past that Rousseau’s account seems to presuppose but on the internal contradictions of his formulations” (226).

Jameson reads DeMan’s text, as I have mentioned in previous blog posts, as a kind of aufhebung of the primacy of the aesthetic rather than its erasure: “it is certain that DeMan’s form of deconstruction can be seen as a last-minute rescue operation and a salvaging of the aesthetic” (251). For Jameson, this is DeMan’s insistence on reading, an action that Jameson sees as a way to erase larger social, historical, and political contexts. Jameson sees “reading” as that saving gesture of the aesthetic—a seemingly outdated process (which Jameson prefers to replace with “transcoding”) that he puts in quotation marks (we are getting closer to the Derridean text). Jameson argues that DeMan covers up his politics with this “reading.”

Perhaps Jameson has refused to “read” de Man’s (and Derrida’s) text. Jameson really does not “need” DeMan’s text as much as Derrida argues that he “needed Paul de Man [. . .] in order to show [. . .] that he had no need of Rousseau in order to show and to demonstrate, himself, what he thought he ought to confide in us” (358). As Derrida points out, Rousseau is used as an example to show what de Man believes is true of writing and texts in general.

Derrida characterizes this trait as a text’s “materiality without matter” (Derrida 352). Materiality is the mechanical aspect of a text that resists being appropriated. Perhaps we could understand this “materiality” as that which makes the text both possible and impossible to read (to be read completely, to have ‘the last word’). The materiality of the Derridean text is what allows me to think each and every time I encounter another, “he discusses this in this text and this text and this text” and which poses the question: did he say it “differently” in that text? Should I go back and re-read those texts? Do I have the time?

The materiality is also that which can be mutilated or destroyed. Derrida’s notion of the text is not ideal—it is always already threatened with mutilation or a break in its integrity. Derrida points to a few places that de Man’s text is subject to a mechanical materiality. For example, de Man decides not to include two words of part of Rousseau’s text: “Why does he cut the sentence, mutilating it or dismembering it in this way, and in such an apparently arbitrary fashion? Why does he amputate two of its little words before the period: ‘quite old,’ déjà vieux’” (Derrida 318). Are these omissions as significant as the larger omissions of paragraphs that de Man cuts so that he may say, in a footnote, that “nothing in the text suggests a concatenation that would allow one to substitute Marion for Mme de Vercellis in a scene of rejection” (de Man qtd. in Derrida 296). Derrida asks how is it that de Man can see this, if it not there? It is obviously not merely nothing. Derrida seems to use such instances as a way to read de Man like de Man is reading Rousseau; Just as de Man claims Rousseau excuses and confesses, Derrida claims de Man makes similar performative gestures. Just as de Man claims Rousseau did not include “precisely stories that narrate mutilations, or, in the metaphor of the text as body, suppressions,” which would threaten the integrity of the text, so Derrida shows that de Man’s own omissions, revealed in footnotes, asides, and mechanical and arbitrary omissions, threaten the integrity of de Man’s own argument—his own text! De Man argues—no, there is nothing in the text that can suggest this association—he closes off reading (something that de Man surely would never “want” to do—but then again, remember, this is mechanical, it is not “unconscious” and has nothing to do with desire—it is merely an event, something that happens, mechanically, arbitrarily). De Man’s insights apply to his own text and Derrida brilliantly brings this out. It is as if one were to say, “ho, wait there, there is nothing in Shelly’s Triumph of Life that could ever have anything to do with Blanchot’s Death Sentence.” But indeed, Derrida has shown that these texts can “love each other.”

But this is not a “failure” of the text—this omission, mutilation, precariousness, perhaps, dare I say, materiality of de Man’s and Derrida’s texts are what make of them textual events. Or, to use de Man’s language, textual events are like  [following Derrida’s emphasis] l’ouevre—works—works in the sense of material work and work as performance, work as act. And here we need to re-read a passage cited above (never, never can I get to the last word). Derrida writes that he “needed de Man” to show that de Man did not “need” Rousseau. But this must be tongue and cheek on Derrida’s part, right? Such would be a pure performative and not an event, not a work. But then again, perhaps we should note that there was nothing essential about Rousseau’s text. Derrida is saying that, like Rousseau with Marion, used the first object presented to him.

Apropos of the previous reflections, is there a meaningful difference between the claims about the ‘work’ in “Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink” and those claimed for Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit in Aporias? Or what about the claim about work in “University without Condition.” Derrida writes in Aporias:

In order to welcome into thought and into history such a ‘work’, the event has to be thought otherwise. Being and Time would belong neither to science, nor to philosophy, nor to poetics. Such is perhaps the case for every work worthy of its name; there, what puts thinking into operation exceeds its own borders or what thinking itself intends to present of these borders. The work exceeds itself. (32)

Does the work of de Man “exceed” its own borders? Is this characteristic of texts “in general?”

If this is the case, how can we say, along with Jameson, that the Derridean text excludes such “old categories,” like an “old ribbon,” too old, worn out, dried up and out of ink bound to an outmoded typewriter, textual machine?

Furthermore, if the “materiality” of the de Manian (and, can we extend this to the Derridean?) text is not “matter” than what does that say about the relationship between the bugs in amber and de Man’s text in relation to the arche-fossil? What is the relationship between “realism” (QM) and “materiality” if there is any at all? 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude

Quentin Meilassoux (from here on out, referred to as QM), in his After Finitude, wants to rid philosophy of superstition, belief, mystery, and enigma. Following in Badiou's footsteps, he wants mathematics and Cartesian substance (without its metaphysics) to lead philosophy out of what he calls the "correlationist circle." On one hand, it is a relief to read an incredibly rigorous critique of correlationism (Kantianism, phenomenology, etc.), but on the other, it leaves little room for mystery. QM writes, "We must free ourselves of the question--but this requires not just that we resolve it, but that we formulate an answer which is necessarily disappointing, so that this disappointment becomes its instructive aspect" (73).

Gone is the poetry and the ambiguity of Heidegger or Derrida. We are not on the level of 'language' but the level of logic and mathematics. This is not to say that this is bad or wrong, but my question is how useful it is for literary/textual studies? Heideggerian hermeneutics and Derridian deconstruction kept up the use of the Text, but there is no 'text' here to be interpreted. QM defines his terms and then proceeds to derive propositions from them.

The big-picture argument comes from the last chapter, where he argues that philosophy never acknowledge the true "revolution" of Copernicus and instead, reacted against its insight in a "counter-revolution" of Ptolmey. Philosophy claims for itself a privileged position to 'explain' science at the same time as it praises science: "Ever since Kant, to think science as a philosopher has been to claim that science harbors a meaning other than the one delivered by science itself" (119). In a way, QM seems to try and say: wait a minute--philosophy is not a privileged discourse that gets at the 'originary' meaning of science or mathematics, as in the case of Heidegger: "philosophical time has sought to demote the time of science to the level of a 'vulgar', derivative, or standardized form of originary correlational temportality, being-in-the-world, or the relation to a supposedly primordial historicality" (123).

Now, Derrida critiques this "originary" temporalizing movement as well,  but through a critique of the "as such," but the as-such. In contrast,  what must be 'absolute' is what QM searches for. QM thinks correlationism's 'critique of meptahysics' actually adheres to an idea that a "reason" exists--it does not think what QM calls "the principle of unreason" far enough. Thus, it is stuck in a fideism, where truth becomes 'mere opinion' or belief: "From the perspective of the strong model [of correlationism] religious belief has every right to maintain that the world was created out of nothingness from an act of love [. . .] These discourses continue to be meaningful--in a mythological or mysical register--even though they are scientifically and logically meaningless" (QM 41). It was by denying reason access to the absolute that we have "returned to the religious."

Because of this tranformation, "the condemnation of fanaticism is carried out solely in the name of its practical (ethico-political) consequence never in the name of the ultimate falsity of its contents" (47). This could be pinned on Levinas--Ethics as first philosophy. For QM, Mathematics is first philosophy. The ethical question of the 'wholly other' is displaced by speculative thinking.

The "falsity of its contents" would be assured by a re-affirmation of the principle of non-contradiction. According to QM, Chaos actually reaffirms the principle of non-contradiction because if a contradictory entity existed, it would be necessary (see pg 67).  He does this by an interesting thinking of becoming: "such an entity could never become other than it is because there would be no alterity for it in which to become" (69). He goes on to say, "accordingly, real contradiction can in no way be identified with the thesis of universal becoming, for in becoming, things must be this, then other than this; they are, then they are not" (70).

Does this not mean that there is no room for the specter, the ghost, the hauntology of Derrida? A present-absent entity would be contradictory, would it not? For QM, this is a 'metaphysical' statement--and its a statement that cannot be true. If he is right, all of these quasi-entities, the present-absent is gone. Is the present-absent that which exists "in itself"? Is it mere poetic fancy? Surely such a being-non-being cannot be "mathematizable." Such an entity is not "contingent" because it is contradictory? I am not sure.

QM also seems to eliminate the thinking of the "witness": "the question of the witness has become irrelevant to knowledge of the event" (116). We will have to interrogate this claim. The question of the 'witness' assumes a a givenness of being. QM speaks of the "ancestral event" because it is prior to any sort of 'given-ness of being: "the ancestral does not designate an absence in the given, and for givenness, but rather an absence  givenness as such" (21). Science conceives of a time in which "the given as such passes from non-being to being" (21).

The idea of givenness, the 'gift' of being (Heidegger), of death, of life, etc. is a theme throughout Derrida's works. But this "wonder" at why there is something rather than nothing is exactly what QM wants to eliminate: "Ultimately, the fideist is someone who marvels at the fact that there is something rather than nothing because he believes there is no reason for it, and that being is a pure gift, which might never have occurred" (72).

Another interesting way in to QM's work from our perspective in the course is to look at the question of the "human" in QM's work. The book suggests that science/mathematics leads us to a concept of time, space, and substance that is  "indifferent to humans": "From its inception, the mathematization of the world bore within it the possibility of uncovering knowledge of a world more indifferent than ever to human existence [. . .] a world that is essentially unaffected by whether or not anyone thinks it" (116). In other words, that there is an "in itself," something "out there" indifferent to what our own minds conceive it as.

But interestingly enough, his argument is based on human observations of mortality. I will now cite a couple passages that I think we need to go over carefully and find what is at stake (in terms of QM's argument) if these claims cannot hold:

"The very idea of the difference between the in-itself and the for-us would never have arisen within you, had you not experience what is perhaps the possiblity of its own non-being, and thus to know itself to be mortal" (59).

"For I think myself as mortal only if I think that my death has no need to my thought of death in order to be actual. If my ceasing to be depended upon my continuing to be so that I could keep thinking myself as not being, then I would continue to agonize indefinitely, without ever actually passing away. In other words, in order to refute subjective idealism, I must grant that my possible annihilation is thinkable as something that is not just the correlate of my thought of this annihilation" (57).

Ultimately, I am having a difficult time dismissing QM's critique of correlationsim and I suppose that I would have to merely add that I'm not sure how speculative realism/materialism, the question of the possible "as such" has much to do with my own work. It is the insistence that "what is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible" that is perplexing me. Perhaps I am too ignorant of mathematics and the "possible," but I fail to see how this changes those of us who think more "poetically." QM writes that what Badiou has shown is "the idea that the most powerful conception of the incalculable and unpredicatable event provided by a thinking that continues to be mathematical---rather than one which is artistic, poetic, or religious. It is by way of mathematics that we will finally succeed in thinking that which, through its power and beauty, vanquishes quantities and sounds the end of play" (108).

The end of play? The end of play and the inauguration of the serious? What a terrifying prospect (to me--perhaps not to others). Is this not a way to say that the event will be calculable? No room of the impossible to-come?

For me, the question of whether this speculative philosophy will be useful will be what Badiou argues QM's work clears the ground for: "[QM] then goes on to draw some of the consequences of his resumption of the fundamental problem ('what can I know') toward two other problems: 'what must I do' and 'what must I hope'? It is there that what lies beyond finitude is deployed from contemporary thinkers" (VII).

My guess is that this "doing" and "hoping" might be the subject of his more complete work, where he takes on the ethical and political consequences of his work.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reverie on Space, Sound, and Noise

I sit in my chair, intensely concentrating on theory; I am near unaware of my body as I float in an abstract space of thought, even though the book I am reading may concern the flesh. Is it silent, here? No, not quite. If I try, I can hear the faint hum of my computer, halfway between a sound an a gust of wind. The fan ruffles the blinds and they click together as they sway back and forth. Still, I can ignore this and focus on my infinite abstract space of my thoughts and the comforting rhythm of my tapping fingers on the keys or the faint sound of my pen's impression under an important phrase or term.

But then, a dog barks. . .

I am jostled out of my thoughtful infinity into embodied existence. My apartment now feels small and oppressive, as I realize that I am not in a free space, alone, in a weightless ether of words. The bark interrupts the sentences in a rhythmic cadence. The word and the sound cannot correspond as the word loses to the harsh timbre of that dog. . .

The dog is my neighbor's. I can tell not only from the timbre, volume, intensity, but the direction of the sound. It is piercing through my window as it reverberates off the other apartment's walls. The call of the dog is echoed by another dog, fainter, probably the balcony on the other side of the courtyard. This dog is less annoying, but the counterpoint is irresistible to my musical brain. I cannot focus. The sentences move past, but all I hear are bursts of sound. 

Now my space is a small, cramped room. I begin to think about moving to the bedroom, but no, I cannot escape the sound. 

Silence again. no. BARK. BARK. BARK. I cannot take it.

I block it out with Elbow's newest album and my space opens up again. My head has become a concert hall as the dialogue of the dogs yields to the atmospheric polyphony of piano, guitar, drums, and voices. I am transported again, but I cannot focus on the words. 

This music does not interrupt, it engulfs and saturates my environment. A new mood, a new state-of-mind, but still--not an adequate space for reading--maybe for writing. 

I leave the concert hall, return to the apartment, and the incessant barking. BARK. BARK. "Shut up you stupid bitch," I say to no one in particular--perhaps the walls. My words merely return to me, mute and useless. The more I curse, the more I create sound, I only increase the cacophony of arbitrary sounds.

I am not as alone as I thought. This is not MY space, but a rented space, a space shared with others; not only fellow residents, but also the buzz of scooters and roar of cars on 23rd drive. But I am the lucky one. In one of my friend's apartments, located on the ground floor, a truck's passing on Old Archer makes his room buzz on its own frequency--the whole room becomes an unfortunate tuning fork for traffic. 

My apartment is located on the second floor, with a generously sized balcony perfect for reading on a bright, summer day. A tree protects me from the harsh sunlight, but nothing can protect me from the sounds. Sometimes, its a bird and sometimes a squirrel; other times, its that damn dog or my neighbor's music or chatter. The tree and I have a symbiotic relationship, but as a habitat, it conflicts with my own necessary environment. Our soundscapes clash. 

I am not a silent tenant. One can only read for so long. I often worry that I take up too much sound-space, when I decide to pick my guitar and sing on my balcony--or when I pump music through my speakers placed strategically near the screen door. My sound occupies the whole courtyard and people walking their dogs look up at the man who has intruded upon their space--some with interest, others with annoyance. When I am not reading, I have the urge to expand and fill my space with sound as I pour another beer and sing another song. 

I believe I have heard my neighbor pounding on my ceiling or through my walls as a polite (but inarticulate) sign to quiet down.

I am a loud singer. 

But it could have also been the maintenance men working on another apartment. Their saws and leaf-blowers sometimes wake me up and I realize that their sound is necessary for my space to exist in its best possible state. I try to think that their soundscape is a necessary evil. 

"We" are now occupying the streets (not me, of course--why?) Perhaps I should say 'they', the 99% (?). They occupy space with their bodies and their noise, their yells more articulate than the dog's but in a similar, punctuated,  rhythm, "this is what democracy looks like."

Meanwhile,  the majority of us take comfort in the warm space of a bar--a more 'intimate' public space than the plaza. We make noise--probably more noise, but the space is sanctioned for noise--a particular noise. What if I brought in my guitar when it wasn't Open Mic Night and, forgoing the need for a mic, decided to pick a little on a barstool, crooning bluegrass music over the house's 90's alt rock? Would not people stare?

"Excuse me, we are trying to talk."
"Excuse me, we are trying to play pool."
"Excuse me. . .what are you doing?"
"Excuse me. . .you are not supposed to be here"

Who has the right to occupy a bar with sound?

A "DJ's" occupation is the occupation of space with sound.

As a renter, I am an "occupant" as well as a "tenant." This is not my 'space', although, it becomes 'my space' when I fill it with sound, with atmosphere, with mood.


As I write, my statements disconnect. I am creating a space between--a space for sound?

Genetic Code and General Equivalents

In Technics and Time 3, Bernard Stiegler argues that we (and for him, this means the university/educational structure) need to take control of our tertiary retentions, a term he adds to Husserl's primary and secondary retentions. Stiegler spends most of his book moving carefully through Husserl, Heidegger, Kant, and Simondon, but toward the end of the book he looks at a shift in the paradigm of science--from Kantian science to Techno-science; From the "real" to the "possible." His paradigmatic example is biotechnology that makes human beings themselves into a "state of possibles at a given moment of evolution" (Stiegler 202).

Stiegler worries about this externalization because of our inability to control these tertiary retentions. Biotechnology is controlled by industry and market standards rather than thinking through the "best" possiblities of becoming human. Stiegler argues that as our genes become tertiary retentions, that is "manipulable," we create a kind of "human industry" (212). In a way, Stiegler seems to worry about the possibility of a transformation of the human, in a way that post-humanist (or unhumanist) texts like Donna Haraway and Thierry Bardini's Junkware do not. 

In fact, it seems that Bardini is "ahead" of Stiegler on his assessment of the current state of technology. Both Stiegler and Bardini affirm that there is something "new" about our state of affairs, but they disagree what this newness is. 

In order to see where they may differ, we can look at both of their understandings of the "general equivalent." For Stiegler, "digital technology is in fact mutlifunctional in the sense that binary code is the new 'general equivalent' [. . .] This general equivalent produces unprecedented integrations: systematic, subject to the same rules of calculation and control ,the same economic, cultural, and social activities" (216). In other words, for Stiegler, the issue is who controls these tertiary retentions and who selects them? Stiegler is horrified at the idea that these tertiary retentions could organize, control, and reproduce on their own and it is a question of gaining control over these tertiary retentions rather than transforming the logic by which we approach them. He writes, 
systematic control of modes of reproduction and inheritance means that thsi logi can potentially be applied to every area of human life and will constitute many of the new markets of techno-industrial development--the 'new economy'--whose basis will obviously increasing knowledges containing reproductive rights. (Stiegler 223)
Again, Stiegler calls for criteria and control. Bardini explicitly argues that "IT IS NOT ABOUT CONTROL; today's Nexus is beyond control" (205). He claims that his analysis goes beyond, but follows the line of flight of D&G's societies of control to what he calls "genetic capitalism" (25). Genetic capitalism acknowledges taht "genes, cells, and organs are becoming the new commodities, but rather than seek a way to control these tertiary retentions, it may be the "junk" of our genes and cells where we might find "redemption." Junk is "the organizing principle of that which cannot be organized," which may challenge Stiegler's own words of "organized inorganic matter."

Bardini uses the phrase "Junk is. . ." a frustrating amount of times, each time attempting to expand the significance of junk, which he says is the "master trope" of our culture. Junk is neither trash (which is stuff we throw away that is completely useless) nor waste or garbage which "refers to an organic and complementary figure of shit; earth, soil" (Bardini 63). The 'saving power' of junkfor Bardini, is that there is "some affect" in junk and that junk may be something we can 'put to use'. By emphasizing the distinctions among junk, waste, garbage, and trash, Bardini distances himself from Heidegger's concept of "standing reserve." Standing-reserve is a challenging forth from Nature, calling man to organize it into a useful store of energy. Junk is something that has already been "organized" and then discarded--with the idea that it no longer has any use, but might have use someday again. Junkware is the kipple of our culture, to use Philip K. Dick's terms, rather than the organization of nature that creates culture/meaning for man.

Junk will be the origin of Bardini's new ubermensch, which, like Nietzsche's, must be understood as a figure rather than as something that has arrived already. He is careful to say that we are the "ante-posthumans, the not yet radically transformed beings" (154). He claims that we are, "to Homo Nexus what Neanderthal was to us: a bad, fleeting, memory, an afterthought. Our e-toys are his transitional objects" (156).

Indeed, in his cultural diagnosis of current culture, he draws from Stiegler ideas about our dis-affection. Following a quotation from Stiegler, he states "the capacity for reaction is exactly what this particular human being is cruelly lacking" (158). But while Bardini argues the need for feeling--a feeling/affect that junk may be able to provide--Stiegler still wants to argue for criteria and selection. More than Stiegler, at least in TT3, Bardini draws on an economy of desire: "one is afraid to lack the support that absence provides, renew desire, make presence more enjoyable" (164). He argues that we do not fear the posthuman because it might fail or become terrible, but rather than "we fear success [. . .] his coming will be our obsolescence" (164). In this sense, perhaps we can see Stiegler's fears as a symptom of what we might become and that our old way(s) of beings may be replaced with a new prosthetic.

If we follow Bardini, we might say that Stiegler is afraid of the posthuman because of a castration anxiety: "In return of course, one might then feel that the human person, at least symbolically, has been severed of this organ; or, in other words, today's disaffection alludes tot he castration anxiety that we feel with respect to Homo nexus" (165). Are not the prostheses of tertiary retentions, our detachable phalluses that we no longer have control of our own history, our own sense of the human?

Bardini is not unaware of the technoscientific/industrial complex that may 'control' our genetics, but it seems as though he thinks that thinking junkware, rather than rejecting it, is the only way to move forward into what he calls Homo Nexus. He offers a thought experiment: if our culture is 'junk', if our DNA is junk in the sense that "junk is always present potentiality of a renewed function," then these are the consequences and this is the world we have to live in--a world beyond control and calculation (213). And certainly beyond individuals: "no individuals, only individuations" (138).

I'm not quite sure, in the end, what Bardini is calling for, but I find it an interesting counterpoint to the more reserved program of Bernard Stiegler.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jacques Derrida on Heidegger on the Animal and Being "as such"

“I have just a few notes and I’ll propose simply an outline of what I would have tried to do if I had time and if we had the time together” –Jacques Derrida (pg 141)

            I feel like the text of The Animal that Therefore I Am is really all over the place. Most of the text seems to be a close critique of Descartes, Kant, Levinas and Lacan on the question of the animal. Characteristically, Derrida does a good job at finding the point in the text where an unfounded bias toward human beings (as ontologically distinct from animals) as a privileged species. In sum, one of the most important arguments is the claim that though animals can make tracks or follow tracks, they cannot erase their tracks, which ties into the arguments about deception, “pretending to pretend,” etc. Derrida argues that it is within the structure of the trace that it can be erased. However, “the fact that a trace can always be erased, and forever, in no way means—and this is the critical difference—that someone, man or animal, I am emphasizing here, can of his own accord erase his traces” (33). One suspects that this is the reason for Derrida’s extensive recounting (as we also saw him do in Aporias) of his own “traces,” his own previous works.

Derrida, more than any other thinker I know, is an expert at actually “reading” his own works—taking into account the history of his own traces and taking responsibility for them. In order to “authorize” his investigation into the animal, he recounts the several places throughout his whole career that critters have popped up here and there, which forces us to see his texts in a different light (see pages 36-41). As we have pointed out before, I cannot relegate this self-reference to mere narcissism, as Derrida is showing that he takes responsibility for his previous texts. Furthermore, he is performing the fact that he, as an individual man, cannot erase his past traces. By writing and signing a text in one’s name, he or she has committed to answer for these remarks. Derrida, therefore, is showing the consistency of his thought, recognizing that he is not saying anything “radically new” or different here. He is showing that he, as well as we, are merely “reading” his own works differently, with a different valence, in different language—taking the Animal (in the singular) as the subject.

Despite the richness of this entire text and his close readings of the entire philosophical tradition, it is the last, ex-tempore lecture on Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that deserves the most attention. We can see in this seminar Heidegger really struggling with his own thought (which is something I have always admired about Heidegger’s work). He claims something and then will say “but wait!” However, this is not the ‘but no!” of Levinas, which Derrida calls a “disavowal,” but rather a suspension of decision—a “modesty,” if you will, toward a definitive conclusion. Indeed, Heidegger, like the description of the animal he holds, struggles with his own encirclement: “life is nothing but the animal’s encircling itself and struggling with its encircling ring” (257).

Derrida’s critique of Heidegger is more subtle than Descartes, Levinas, Kant, and Lacan, because Heidegger still struggles with the question of the animal. He will not content himself to condemn the animal to the mere “imaginary” (as Lacan does) or affirm (unequivocally at least), that it is “the first person that is lacking from animal life, radically depriving it of any autobiographical relation to self” (Derrida 93). Heidegger, ironically, is less subject to Adorno’s critique of idealism: “Animals would be the Jews of idealist, who would thus be nothing but virtual fascists” (Derrida 103). This is because, for Kant, the animal is not only the animal as a being, but also the animal in the self—the animal in ourselves that is “taboo” and cannot participate in a Kantian morality of universalizable maxims. This is where Levinas gets tripped up: “Reckoning only by the measure of who we glimpses in a certain unconscious of pure practical reason, namely the cruel and merciless war that a virtual ‘fascist’ Kantian idealism decleares on animal life, calling Bobby a Kantian is no compliment” (Derrida 115, my italics).

And why does not Heidegger get the same treatment from Derrida? Because Heidegger is not trying to base his distinction between animal and human on clear distinctions between rational/non-rational, language/no language, response/reaction (at least not at first). Rather, Heidegger re-interrogates the concept of “world.” As Derrida points out, this comparative analysis that he takes, contrasting man as world-forming, animal as “poor in world,” and stone as worldless is rare for Heidegger. The concept of “world” here gets shaken, solicited, and deconstructed by Heidegger’s own text so that we cannot arrive at an easy definition.

Heidegger here is clear that the animal “has” world, but the animal “has a world” in a different way than man has world. Heidegger has a hell of a time trying to figure out how the animal “has a world.” He comes up with the phrase “poor in world” not as a sense of poverty as “less” than man. Heidegger does not want to make an evaluative hierarchal judgment, placing Dasein as superior to animal. So, Heidegger uses the language he uses to describe man to describe the animal: “Rather being poor means being deprived [. . .] the way in which it is in a mood—poverty in a mood” (Heidegger). Both man and animal, then, have in common that they are always in a “mood.” Our mood, as Heidegger writes in Being in Time and reiterates in the early parts of Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics is “Being-attuned” (B&T 172). And again, “A mood makes manifest ‘how one is, and how one is faring’. In this ‘how one is’, having a mood brings Being to its ‘there’” (173). So interesting enough, the animal does not lack mood, its mood, however, is one of poverty. Is man ever in a mood of poverty? In a way, is it not because we are in a mood that we are ‘limited’ in perhaps, the same way as the animal?

The way Heidegger writes about the animal’s world seems so similar to the way in which he understands the world of man: “Thus the intrinsic self-encirclement of the animal is not a kind of encapsulation. On the contrary, the encirclement is precisely drawn about the animal in such a way that it opens up a sphere” (Heidegger). Is the difference between man and animal, as he says at times, a difference of degree?

This does not seem to be the case at other moments in the text. I would argue that if the animal is “like” us in the sense that it has a mood, then there may be two ways to distinguish man from animal. The first is that the animal is always in a mood of poverty, whereas man finds himself in different moods—moods like anxiety (of course, this returns us to the question of death, the structure of care as fear-for-one’s-own-being). Alternately, can we say that Dasein  is its possibility in a way that the animal is not? That is, the animal is not “free” in some sense. That is, taking Heidegger’s phrase in all of its active connotations the animal is not world-forming à as in, it does not make its world? Heidegger may imply this when he writes,

Every animal surround itself with such an encircling ring, but it does not do so subsequently, as if the animal initially lived or ever could live without this encircling ring altogether, as if this encircling ring somehow grew up around the animal only at a later stage. (Heidegger 257)

Could it not be that Dasein, fundamentally, has the possibility of expanding his ‘encircling’ ring? Could it not be that ‘subsequently’ we can expand the ring to which we see something ‘as’ something? Is this not the power of language, the power of language as metaphor to see something “as” something else, to see something in a new way?

The other distinction we could focus on is that between ‘affect” and “gripped.” Heidegger says early in Fundamental Concepts, “the fundamental concern of philosophizing pertains to such being gripped, to awakening and planting it. All such being gripped, however, comes from and remains in an attunement” (Heidegger 7). In contrast, the animal can merely be affected: “Yet it is certainly true that the animal does announce itself as something that relates to other things and does so in a way that it is somehow affected by these other things” (Heidegger). So, perhaps man’s attunement is in “being gripped,” which allows us to form “Begriffen” –concepts, so that we are the “philosophical animal.” Indeed, Heidegger characterizes Dasein in Being and Time as “This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being” (B&T 27). Can the animal inquire into its own being, into its “meaning of being”?

On one level, Heidegger traps himself by saying that the animal is “self-absorbed” which is so close to the structure of care that Heidegger maintains is an essential existential condition of Dasein: “In this rejecting things from itself we see the animal’s self absorption” (Heidegger). So how is man’s ‘care’ or how is the ‘as’ of the as-structure different for man? Rather than focusing on Dasein as possibility, Heidegger ends up re-affirming the metaphysical priority of the present-at-hand! Heidegger, the thinker who made me think outside being as being-present-at-hand returns to this privileging in metaphysics. Heidegger, the thinker of the everyday, the ready-to-hand—the thinker of the meaning of being, the thinker who realized that the theoretical attitude (mood) of looking at a thing as a ‘thing’ is only one possibility of Dasein returns to the present-at-hand. A few passages to show this conclusion:

“If it is the case that the animal does not comport itself toward beings as such, then behavior involves no letting-be of beings as such—none at all and in no way whatsoever, not even any not letting-be” 

“But nor does this relational aspect belonging to behavior represent an attentiveness to what is present at hand within the environment

“It does not let anything present-at-hand stand as it is”

“However, this also implies that animals do not comport themselves indifferently with respect to beings either. For such indifference would also represent a relation to beings as such”

“The behavior of the animal, contrary to how it might appear, does not and can never relate to present-at-hand things singly or collectively”

And so we see that in order to relate to beings “as such” we must understand the primary importance of being present-at-hand, which, to me, refutes the whole power of Heidegger’s analysis of the everyday existence of Dasein. If I have to give this up in order to distinguish between man and animal, I would prefer for it to remain an open question.

For then Heidegger seems to want to think assertion and the proposition as the primary mode of understanding: “We formally traced the as-structure back to the propositional statement” (Heidegger). The proposition is then somehow, in this text, more originary. Compare this passage from Being and Time: “In its function of appropriating what is understood, the ‘as’ no longer reaches out into a totality of involvements [. . .] This leveling of the primordial ‘as’ of circumspective interpretation to the ‘as’ with which presence-at-hand is given a definite character is the specialty of assertion” (Heidegger 201).

This is the problem of Heidegger moving back to Aristotle in Fundamental Concepts: “Aristotle tells us: Discourse is what it is i.e. forms a sphere of understandability, whenever  there is a ____ of a ___,  whenever a being held together occurs in which there also lies agreement” (Heidegger). This is how Heidegger describes words: “this fundamental relation of letting something come into agreement and holding it together are words” (Heidegger).

But this denies the material and specificity of writing as something that leaves traces and that can never be fixed to a particular reference. Here, Heidegger denies the history of a word, of language, and, its untranslatability. The impossibility of a true “agreement” in terms of language. This is the problem with the “as-such.” The “as-such” is somehow the propositional, the “objective,” but it is Heidegger more than any other thinker—for me at least—who put the very possibility of the ‘objective’ in question! Even Dasein can never “let beings be in their being” in a kind of indifference (an ‘objective’ indifference), for this is merely the “theoretical attitude.”

I will end by following Derrida’s conclusion—or I suppose—he is following my conclusions—who follows who?

Can one free the relation of Dasein (not to say ‘man’) to beings from every living, utilitarian, perspective-making project, from every vital design, such that man himself could ‘let the being be’? For that is the relation to the being as such, that is to say, the relation to what is inasmuch as one lets it be what it is, that is to say, that one doesn’t approach it or apprehend it from our own perspective from our own design. (160)