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An Interview with Jane Bennett

by Gulshan Khan

Jane Bennett is Professor of Political Theory and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. In 1986 she received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts. In the following year her dissertation was published with New York University Press under the title Unthinking faith and enlightenment: nature and state in a post-Hegelian era. Her subsequent published books include Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (Sage Publications, 1994) and The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2001). Her new book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. In 1988 Bennett became an Assistant Professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she also became the Elizabeth Todd Professor in the year 2000 until 2004 when she moved to John Hopkins. She has been a visiting fellow at universities in Britain and in Australia. Bennett is on the editorial and advisory board of a number of prestigious journals and book series ranging from Political Theory to Critical Horizons.

Bennett co-edited The Politics of Moralizing (Routledge, 2002) with Michael J. Shapiro and co-edited In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics and the Environment (University of Minnesota Press, 1993) with William Chaloupka. She and William E. Connolly are in the beginning stages of co-writing a political theory textbook, Friends of the Earth: Minor Voices in the History of Political Thought. These encounters have contributed to Bennett’s distinctive notion of ‘vital materiality’. Her intellectual trajectory is also indebted to aspects of the work of Lucretius (1995), Spinoza (1949), Diderot (1996), Nietzsche (1994), Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Henry Thoreau (1968) and Bruno Latour (1993). Her notion of ‘vital materiality’ also builds upon Michel Foucault’s notion of bio-power and Judith Butler’s early notion of ‘bodies that matter’. Conversely, the notion of agency that stems from Bennett’s work makes an important and substantive contribution, away from the politics of performativity associated with Butler and towards a politics of nonhuman matter and agency. She invokes a new and different political imaginary outside the Hegelian and psychoanalytic framework of the subject and object/other. In this sense her work shares a ‘subject matter’ as well an intellectual affinity with Elizabeth Grosz’s (1994) Deleuzian inspired works. Following a long tradition of thinkers who have sought to de-centre ‘the human’ (for example, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault), Bennett’s emphasis on nonhuman matter challenges the ontological privileging of ‘the human’. However, her approach creatively affirms the necessity of human embodiment, understood as one site of agency within and across a multiplicity of other material bodies and formations. Her notion of agency also seeks to avoid reducing politics to morality, which has implications for the predominant analytical framework that is heavily underpinned by a Kantian conception of moral agency with its emphasis on intuitions, duties and obligations. Bennett’s contribution to political theory with its emphasis on nature, ethics, aesthetics, environmentalism and vitalism is inter-laced with a political interest in the literary writings of Kafka, Coetzee, Thoreau and Kundera, on whom she has published several articles and essays. Her work has clear implications for re-thinking our relations to and engagement with the vitality of nature. 

 GULSHAN KHAN: Jane, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I would like to begin by exploring some of the themes you are currently working on in your new book and issues raised by your paper presented at the ‘Stem Cell Identities, Governance and Ethics’ conference at Nottingham University in 2007.1  I will then move onto questions about your theory about the enchantment of modernity, nature and agency.

You are currently working on a book entitled Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (2010), and I find myself drawn to your version of post-structuralism, which does not reduce life or matter to the play of language. Instead, you outline a layered notion of reality and in particular you delineate a conception of matter as a lively force present in all things. You seem to want to challenge our received notions of the distinction between nature and culture. For example, in your article ‘The force of things’ (2004) you confront Theodor Adorno’s (1990) point that we cannot make any positive claims about the ‘non-identity’ between the concept and the thing. By way of contrast, you offer an affirmative account of this non-identity understood as the play of lively animate forces. Can I press you to explain your notion of ‘things’ or ‘vital materiality’ and how it differs from contending versions?

JANE BENNETT: I’m trying to take ‘things’ more seriously than political theorists had been taking them. By ‘things’ I mean the materialities usually figured as inanimate objects, passive utilities, occasional interruptions or background context – figured, that is, in ways that give all the active, creative power to humans. I focus on five exemplary ‘things’ in the book: stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal and trash. Our habit of parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant life (us) is what Jacques Rancière (in another context) called a ‘partition of the sensible’. In other words, it limits what we are able to sense; it places below the threshold of note the active powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we speak, generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane, or the way omega-3 fatty acids can transform brain chemistry and mood, or the way the differential rates of cooling organize the unpredictable patterns of granite.

My experiment is this: What would the world look and feel like were the life/matter binary to fall into disuse, were it to be translated into differences in degree rather than kind? And how, in particular, would our political analyses of events change were they to acknowledge an elemental, material agency distributed across bodies, human and nonhuman? Who or what would count as a ‘stakeholder’? How would a ‘public’ be constituted? Would politics become less centred around the punitive project of finding individual human agents responsible for the public problems of, say, an electricity blackout or an epidemic of obesity, and more concerned with identifying how the complex human–nonhuman assemblage that’s churning out the negative effect holds itself together – how it endures or feeds itself? Until we do that, political attempts to remedy the problem are likely to be ineffective.

An ‘assemblage’ is an ad hoc grouping of an ontologically diverse range of actants, of vital materialities of various sorts. It is a vibrant, throbbing collective with an uneven topography: some of the points at which its diverse affects and bodies cross paths are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not distributed equally across its surface. An assemblage has no sovereignty in the classical sense, for it is not governed by a central head: no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently its trajectory or impact. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen (a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the force of each materiality considered alone. An assemblage thus has both a distinctive history of formation and a finite life span.

To be clear: the agency of assemblages of which I speak is not the strong kind of agency traditionally attributed to humans or God. My contention, rather, is that if one looks closely enough, the productive impetus of change is always a congregation. As my friend Ben Corson helped me to see, not only is human agency always already distributed to ‘our’ tools, microbes, minerals and sounds. It only emerges as agentic via its distribution into the ‘foreign’ materialities we are all too eager to figure as mere objects.

It is, I think, the ‘responsibility’ of humans to pay attention to the effects of the assemblages in which we find ourselves participating, and then to work experimentally to alter the machine so as to minimize or compensate for the suffering it manufactures. Sometimes it may be necessary to try to extricate your body from that assemblage, to refuse to contribute more energy to it, and sometimes to work to tilt the existing assemblage in a different direction. In a world where agency is always distributed, a hesitant attitude towards assigning moral blame becomes a virtue. Outrage should not disappear completely, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good. A moralized politics of good and evil, of singular agents who must be made to pay for their sins – be they Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush – becomes immoral to the degree that it legitimates vengeance and elevates violence to the tool of first resort. A distributive understanding of agency, then, re-invokes the need to detach ethics from moralism… Read More

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Alain Badiou on Plato  Alain Badiou, on his recent translation of Plato’s Republic October 12th, 7:00pm  Room 102, 19 University Place, NY NY 100 03 New French Philosophy: http://cultureandcommunication.org/newfrenchphilosophy/ An event in the series “New French Philosophy” sponsored by the NYU Humanities Initiative and with the support of the NYU Department … Read More

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Baruch de Spinoza (1632 -1677)

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Richard Rorty's Last "Spinoza" It occurs to me that it would be good to post this last view of Spinoza offered by Richard Rorty, a revision of an earlier papers he had written. I have not compared the two versions so I can make no claim to changes that Rorty came to,  but Rorty offered me the piece possibly still in draft form to represent his thoughts on Spinoza in the last months of his life – I did not realize he was ill. To add some reflective thoughts on this version of Spinoza … Read More

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SPINOZA’S LEGACY, by Richard Rorty

[This is a shortened and revised version of the first of two Spinoza Lectures given at the University of Amsterdam in 1997. The longer version appeared under the title “Is it desirable to love truth?” in Richard Rorty, Truth, politics and ‘post-modernism’ (Assen: Ven Gorcum, 1997).]

If one thinks of philosophy as the love of wisdom, of wisdom as the grasp of truth, and of truth as the accurate representation of an order that exists independently of human language and human history, then may well doubt whether philosophy is possible. Important twentieth-century intellectual movements have denied the existence of such an order. I shall use the term “pragmatism” to characterize this denial, because the alternative—“post-modernism”—has been damaged by profligate overuse.

The quarrel between the pragmatists and their predecessors that has emerged over the last hundred years is something new. It gradually took shape as a result of attempts to resolve an older quarrel—the one that Plato said was between the gods and the giants (that is, between philosophers like Plato himself and materialists like Democritus). That quarrel was about what the natural order is like, not about whether there is such a thing. In what follows, I shall argue that Spinoza’s attempt to overcome Cartesian dualism is the beginning of a train of thought that eventually leads to pragmatism, and thus to the replacement of the old quarrel by a new one.

Plato believed that grasping the natural order of things can bring about blessedness–a kind of happiness of which the animals are incapable, and which results from the realization that something central to human beings is also central to the universe. Blessedness, in this sense, consists in the realization that the intrinsic nature of the universe is on our side.

The materialists also believe that wisdom consists in the grasping of the natural order of things, but they think that no comfort can be derived from contemplating this order. We can derive practical, utilitarian profit from grasping the natural order, but we cannot find consolation in doing so. Mechanistic materialism’s picture of the universe gives us only the sort of cold intellectual satisfaction experienced by Euclid—the kind produced by having successfully brought order to a confusing variety of apparently unrelated items. It cannot produce a sense of harmony between human aspirations and non-human things.

This quarrel was renewed in early modern philosophy when mechanistic accounts of the natural order triumphed over Aristotelian hylomorphic and teleological accounts. In this period, it is exemplified by the opposition between Hobbes and Spinoza. Both men tried to come to terms with an account of the natural order which seems to leaves no place for the kind of happiness that Plato believed human beings might come to have.

Hobbes’s solution was that human beings must use artifice to do what nature cannot do: they must construct a second, political, order, in order to become less fearful and less miserable. Politics, rather than philosophical contemplation, is our only recourse. But Spinoza thought that the new, mechaniistic, account of the natural order could be reconciled with Plato’s ambition–the attainment of blessedness through increased knowledge.

Spinoza’s way of reconciling the new explanations of the way things worked with the hope of such blessedness was to say that there were two equally valid ways of describing the universe: a description in terms of matter and a description in terms of mind. God or Nature could be viewed with equal adequacy under the attribute of extension and under the attribute of thought.

Before Spinoza, it had seemed that one had to choose sides: the gods and the giants could not both be right. If reality was simply atoms and void, then the hope of blessedness was vain. Spinoza claimed that one did not have to choose between the body and the spirit, for the two were, properly understood, one. The natural order, he suggested, is expressed in many ways, only two of which—extension and thought–we are able to grasp. The order and connection of corpuscles is the same as the order and connection of ideas. The mind knows only insofar as the body prospers, and conversely.

Spinoza’s Ethics is filled with propositions that would have struck Plato as paradoxical, as when he tells us that “The more we understand particular things, the more we understand God” (V, Prop. 24). Throughout the Ethics, Spinoza insists that the ascetics are wrong: the more active the body is, the more penetrating the mind. Bodily activity, the interaction of the body with many different things, goes hand-in-hand with the ascent of the mind toward God. Spinoza is friendlier to the body than any previous admirer of Plato. He is also friendlier to Democritus. He urges us not to be discouraged, as Socrates was, by the absence of good teleological explanations of natural events. For the more you understand about the purely mechanical order and connection of those atoms, the more your mind comes to resemble that of God.

Spinoza’s reconciliation of body and mind, matter and spirit, relies on the notion of equally valid alternative descriptions of the same reality”. But that notion contains the seeds of its own destruction. For once we allow it into philosophy, the very idea of the natural order is in danger. So, therefore, is the idea of philosophy as the quest for knowledge of what is really real.

Before Spinoza it was taken for granted that any two competing descriptions of anything could be compared in point of adequacy. The less adequate description could then be deemed a description of appearance, and the more adequate a description of reality. But as soon as one deploys the idea of equally adequate alternative descriptions, one will wonder whether it matters whether one is talking about the same reality in two equally valid vocabularies, or about two different appearances of the same underlying reality. As soon as one begins to raise that question, one begins the slide from Spinoza’s utterly knowable universe to Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself. For if two irreconcilable descriptions can both somehow be valid, is there any reason to believe that either has anything to do with things as they are in themselves–things as undescribed?

Once one raises the latter question, one is on the brink of a slippery slope.. As soon as one stops saying, with Plato, that the body and the atoms are mere appearances of something else, and says instead that they are the universe described in one very useful way among other very useful ways, one may wonder if there is any better test of a descriptive vocabulary than its utility for human purposes. Perhaps Protagoras had a point: maybe man is the measure of all things. Why not think of descriptive vocabularies as tools rather than attempts at representational accuracy? Why not drop the question of how things are in themselves, and instead devote oneself to the question of which descriptive vocabularies get us what we want? The slide from Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself to Nietzsche’s and William James’ pragmatism thus becomes as precipitous as the slide from Spinoza to Kant.

Pragmatists suggest that to have an order is simply to be described in a language, and that no language is any more natural–any closer to the way things really are–than any other. Any descriptive vocabulary comprehensive enough to relate lots of the things we talk about to lots of other such things is a description of an ordered universe. But once one starts thinking in terms of equally valid descriptions, the idea that nature might have a preferred self-description begins to seem merely quaint. Nature under a description will always exhibit an order. But nature undescribed in any human language? That is simply the thing-in-itself–an utterly useless notion, a philosopher’s plaything, a toy rather than a tool.

In short, the more one thinks about alternative languages for talking about nature, the less need there is to think about the nature of nature. The possibility arises that one might become blessed by contriving a new language for human beings to speak, rather than by getting in touch with something non-human. The old idea that blessedness can be obtained by getting in touch with a natural order begins to be replaced by the new idea that blessedness might be obtained by finding a new way to talk. Hobbes’ suggestion that artifice is needed to do what nature cannot do begins to sound more plausible.

This suggestion was taken up by the Romantics, who attempt to achieve blessedness by self-creation—by becoming a lamp rather than a mirror. Once one begins to think of languages as artifacts, it seems natural to supplement Hobbes’ account of the genesis of political artifacts can be supplemented by Shelley’s account of the role of the poetic imagination in intellectual and moral progress.

The effect of thinking about language is to turn the attention of philosophers away from the natural sciences. By the time of Shelley and Hegel, mathematics and physics no longer dominate the philosophical scene. The willingness to talk Galilean mechanics as a paradigmatic intellectual achievement, which was common to Hobbes and Spinoza, begins to seem quaint. For Kant had already suggested that the language of natural science should be thought of as useful for some purposes and not for others: the vocabulary deployed by Verstand has little connection with that deployed by praktische Vernunft. The description of the world in terms of atoms and the void is obviously good for technology, but useless for morality and for poetry. But technological purposes have no natural priority others. One could claim they do only by reviving the appearance-reality distinction that Spinoza’s notion of equally adequate descriptions had undermined.

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I have been singling out one element in Spinoza’s thought–the idea of equally valid description in different languages—and suggesting how it can be seen a turning-point in the history of philosophy. It is the point at which one begins to stop looking backward to Plato and Democritus, and starts looking forward to Romanticism, Nietzsche, and pragmatism. But looking at Spinoza’s role in the history of philosophy in this way is, of course, to neglect Spinoza’s own deepest conviction: that every apparent diversity will be resolved when one takes a larger view: that the more things are related to one another, the less problematic they become.

Spinoza thought that there is always a hidden unity to be found behind every apparent variety. The success of mathematical physics at finding simple and elegant laws confirmed a view he also expressed in theological and political terms: he urged behind the many vocabularies in which men speak of God and of the socio-political order there is a single natural order to be discerned. Every way of worshiping God, like each way of ordering society, has the same end. To believe otherwise, Spinoza thought, is to let the imagination take the place of the intellect.

Although Spinoza was less ascetic, friendlier to the body, than had previously seemed compatible with the pursuit of blessedness, he was no friendlier to the imagination, or to poetry, or to artifice, than were Plato and Savanarola at their worst. Though the human body had been redeemed by Galileo’s discoveries of how matter worked, the imagination had not. The human body is redeemed only when seen under the aspect of eternity, as a feature on the face of the whole universe. But the divine mind—the counterpart, under the attribute of thought, of the face of the material universe– has no imagination. It is literal-minded. It has no occasion to speak in metaphors. So, Spinoza thought, the less we humans use metaphors, the greater our chances of blessedness.

Spinoza’s hostility to metaphor and artifice is clearest in the Theologico-Political Treatise. In that book, he helped prepare the way for the Enlightenment’s ecumenical conviction that all religions come down to the same thing. The differences between them are merely differences in the local situations of human beings, and of the consequent differences in their imaginations. Trying to break free of fundamentalist literalism, Spinoza tries to translate Scripture from the language of the imagination into something more like the language of the intellect. He says, for example, that when the Bible tells us that God opened the windows of the heavens, all it is really saying is that it rained very hard. (TPT, p. 44) For Spinoza, metaphor has no value. Like the imagination, metaphor is something to be overcome.

Just as truth is one though unfortunately expressed in diverse metaphors, so true religion is one, though prophecies are many. “The power of prophecy”, Spinoza says, “implies not a peculiarly perfect mind, but a peculiarly vivid imagination”. (TPT, 19) Religious ceremonies are many, but blessedness is one. “Ceremonies are no aid to blessedness, but only have reference to temporal prosperity” (TPT, 70). Christ was an improvement on Moses because “he taught only universal moral precepts, and [therefore] promises a spiritual instead of a temporal reward.” (TPT, Elwes translation, 70) “The nature of natural divine law,” he says, is “universal or common to all men, for we have deduced it from universal human nature” (61), and “it does not depend on the truth of any historical narrative whatsoever.” Adam could have as good a grasp of the divine law and of human nature as we ourselves, for history has added nothing to human knowledge, other than an increased ability to gain “temporal rewards”.

Metaphor, history and diversity are firmly relegated by Spinoza to the realm of what, following Descartes, he thinks of as confused ideas. New metaphors can only heap confusion on confusion. The eternal, the true, and the clear are names for the same thing: God or Nature rightly understood, understood as a whole rather than in part. Spinoza is an utterly convinced adherent of the doctrine Kierkegaard called “Socratism”: the historical moment does not matter, for the teacher is merely an occasion. What Christ said in parables can better be said more geometrico.

Hegel said that nobody can be a philosopher who is not first a Spinozist. He meant, among other things, that nobody can take philosophy–as opposed to poetry and prophecy–seriously who does not hope to see everything converge, come together, form a systematic unity. To be a philosopher in this sense, you have to yearn for a natural order. You need to take the reality-appearance distinction, and the literal-metaphorical distinction, very seriously indeed.

Paradoxically, enough, however, it was Hegel who, following up on Vico and Herder, suggested that philosophers take historical narratives seriously. He was the first to make plausible the idea that constructing such a narrative might yield better results than proceeding more geometrico. His own narratives suggest the possibility that we can let the distinction between earlier ideas and later ideas take the place of the Cartesian distinction between the confused ideas of the imagination and the clear ideas of the intellect. This proposal was taken up by Nietzsche and Heidegger. Nietzsche’s narrative about the West’s liberation from Platonism, and Heidegger’s counter-narrative, are at the heart of their respective philosophies. If Hegel brought historical narrative into philosophy, both by precept and example, Nietzsche and Heidegger brought metaphor into it. Those two helped us break down the barriers between philosophy and poetry, and overcome Plato’s conviction that philosophy and poetry are related as the higher to the lower.

As long as languages are viewed, as they were in the seventeenth century, as alternative ways of expressing the same limited range of ideas, it will be hard to take either history or metaphor seriously. It will be easy to think that philosophy’s task is to rise above diversity and to seek simplicity of utterance. But Hegel helped us get rid of the seventeenth century’s “way of ideas” by casting doubt on the Cartesian notion of “clarity and distinctness” and the Lockean notion of “simplicity”. He was, as Wilfrid Sellars remarked, the great foe of immediacy. Yet Hegel was unable to take the step that Nietzsche and Heidegger went on to take–the step away from quasi-scientific sysematicity. From the point of view of post-¦Nietzschean thought, Hegel looks like a man with one foot in each camp: historicist enough to have become a pragmatist, yet Platonist enough to have remained a metaphysician.

One can put this latter point in Habermasian terms by saying that Hegel’s historicism almost, but not quite, enabled him to abandon subject-centered reason for communicative reason. To abandon subject-centered reason is to abandon the idea that clarity can substitute for consensus–the idea that the philosopher can circumvent the language of his or her tribe by finding a short-cut to Truth. It is to abandon the conviction that we shall recognize truth when we see it–an idea which was basic to Spinoza’s thought and which he abbreviated as the doctrine that truth is self-certifying. Spinoza claimed that a perfect and adequate idea—sigillum sui et falsi–could be seen to be such, and therefore seen to be true, simply by possessing it. (Ethics, II, Def. 4 and Prop.13)

The idea that metaphor and imagination will never be eliminated, and that moral progress is made possible by the imagination producing ever new metaphors, chimes with the idea that rationality is a matter of finding agreement among human beings, rather than of discovering which ideas are adequate to reality. For now the political problem–the problem of creating social cooperation between human beings–becomes a problem of tolerating alternative fantasies rather than of eliminating fantasy in favor of truth. The question is not how to get human beings to live in accordance with nature but of how to get them to live in the same community with people those who have very different notions about what is most important in human life.

In this respect, Habermas and Dewey are the heirs of Hobbes–of the idea that political artifice replaces philosophical contemplation as the source of a higher, specifically human, form of happiness. The thesis that the hope for objectivity is nothing more nor less than a hope for intersubjective agreement goes hand in hand with the thesis that no language is more adequate to reality than any other language. But that means giving up the distinction between clear and confused ideas. There is no room for that distinction once one gives up the correspondence theory of truth.

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So far I have been suggesting a way of looking at the development of philosophical thought since Spinoza’s time. I shall conclude by turning to the question I broached at the outset: of whether a pragmatist–someone who has given up the goal of achieving an accurate representation of the natural order of things–can still love wisdom? What, if anything, can a pragmatist, mean by “loving truth”, or by “achieving wisdom”?

The difference between the pragmatists and their opponents is that between treating the capitalized noun “Truth” as an unhappily hypostatized adjective and as the name of something that deserves to be loved. On the pragmatist view, the adjective “true” is a perfectly useful tool, but the use of the noun “Truth” as the name of an object of desire is a relic of an earlier time: the time in which we believed that there was a natural order to be grasped.

I have been arguing that Spinoza’s suggestion that two vocabularies which cannot be translated into one another may nevertheless be equally valid opened the door led to pragmatism, and thus to doubt about the idea of an object called “The Truth”. But if truth not a possible object of love, then it would seem that Socrates and Spinoza were simply deceived. . That is an insufferably condescending way to describe men for whom most of us feel an instinctive and deep attraction.

This was a perplexity Nietzsche experienced. He sometimes speaks of Socrates as the sardonic iconoclast who betrayed the tragic sense of human greatness, and thus diminished us. But elsewhere he praises him as a model of intellectual honesty. Analogously, Nietzsche sometimes pays Spinoza the highest compliment he can imagine by calling him his own precursor. (Letter to Overbeck, July 30, 1881) but sometimes describes him as “a sophisticated vengeance-seeker and poison-brewer” (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 25). In the latter mood, Nietzsche thinks of Spinoza as someone who presented his own heart’s desire as if it were the product of cold, impersonal, inquiry. (BGE 5).

Nietzsche wanted, but did not find, a way of praising the courageous daring of the lives lived by Socrates and Spinoza, while continuing to reject the rhetoric of truth-seeking both employed. The awkward position in which he was placed by his instinctive sympathy with these two figures was a symptom of his vacillation about truth. It is not easy to reconcile Nietzsche’s repeatedly proclaimed love of knowledge and truth with his perspectivism and his pragmatism. It is as easy to find passages in which Nietzsche says contradictory things about Truth as it is to find passages in which he says contradictory things about Socrates or Spinoza.

A pragmatist like myself who is also an admirer of Spinoza has to find some other reason to praise Spinoza than his God-intoxication, his overwhelming desire to emend his intellect in order to achieve union with the divine mind. The best solution to this problem, I think, is to construe the love of Truth as an attitude toward one’s fellow human beings rather than as an attitude toward something that transcends humanity and its history. Then one can praise Spinoza for his conversability rather than for his desire to transcend finitude.

When we praise a scientist or scholar for the love of Truth what we often have in mind is simply her open-mindedness: her curiosity about opinions different from their own, tolerance for the existence of such opinions, and willingness to modify their own views. When we say that someone loves truth more than self we sometimes mean simply that he or she respects his or her colleagues enough to prefer a view with which they can all, freely and peaceably, come to agree upon to the view he or she herself presently holds. Construed in this way, the love of Truth is simply conversability—a tolerant absence of fanaticism, a willingness to hear the other side.

The affection Spinoza generates in his readers is the sort we feel for someone who brings out the best in us by assuring us that there is something in what we say, that we are guilty of nothing more than premature enthusiasm. Spinoza, the critic of asceticism, does not chastise us, but instead advises us how we can more frequently experience hilaritas (an affect which, Spinoza said, cannot be in excess.). We cherish Spinoza for some or the same reasons we admire Hume, a philosopher with whose doctrines Spinoza’s have little in common. We think of them as typifying the Enlightment at its best—as enemies of fanaticism and friends of open-mindedness.

To praise Spinoza for the attitudes towards his fellow humans he shared with Hume obviously does not require that we accept a definition of truth as adequate representation of a natural order. It does not even require the Habermasian doctrine that argumentative inquiry is a quest for universal validity. The whole idea of a quasi-object which functions as the goal of a quest–either the Platonic idea of a natural order or the Habermasian idea of a set of universally valid beliefs–can be set aside if we construe the love of Truth conversability. The Platonist and Spinozist image of all things coming together in a single vision can be replaced by the image of a maximally free and rich form of human sociability. The unity of mankind, from this perspective, is not a product of human beings’ ability to share a common understanding of a natural order, but rather of their willingness to tolerate, and to try to see the best in, each others’ fantasies.

But there is still another way to construe the love of Truth. Rather than thinking of it either as the desire for the blessedness which would result from the grasp of a natural order, or as conversability, we can also construe it as a form of truthfulness–the quality of being true to oneself. Sometimes when we say that the love of Truth is a virtue we simply mean that honesty, sincerity and truth-telling are virtues. But sometimes we mean something more, as when we praise Blake or Kierkegaard for having had the courage to stick to their guns–to hold on to their central insight, the truth as they saw it, even when everybody thought they were crazy. Such courage is yet another of the virtues for which we praise Socrates, who stood by his central beliefs despite the fact that this made him almost unintelligible to his contemporaries.

Pragmatists, I would suggest, should think of the love of truth as an attempt to combine conversability with the courage to stick to one’s deepest convictions. Such a combination is not easy, but Socrates, Spinoza and Hume achieved something like it. They managed to synthesize the virtues of the virtues of the self-involved genius with those of a conversable companion and useful citizen. They thereby brought the metaphysical and strange together with the literal and familiar.

The idea that we all have a duty to love truth is, for a pragmatist, the idea that we should all aim at such a synthesis. The reason we are so inclined to hypostasize Truth, to turn the adjective “true” into a capitalized noun, is that we would like to overcome the tensions between idiosyncracy and conversability by finding a language that commensurates all languages, a master-tool which coordinates the uses of all lesser tools. We hypostatize the idea of such a language into the idea of a natural order, and we think of the adequate representation of that order as providing us with such a master-tool.

If Hegel is right that anyone must be a Spinozist if he or she is to be a philosopher, then nobody can take an interest in philosophy who has never been intrigued by the thought of such commensuration, of a master-language. One’s imagination will not be gripped either by the figure of Socrates or by that of Spinoza unless one is fascinated by the possibility of such commensuration. There are many people who are not fascinated by this possibilty, and whose imagination is not so gripped. Pragmatists think that that is not a matter for rebuke–that a lack of interest in philosophy is not a vice. In the sense in which one must be a Spinozist in order to philosophize, philosophy is not a universal human concern, nor should it be.

Not everyone has a duty to take an interest either in the quarrel between Plato and Democritus or in that between metaphysicians and pragmatists. any more than it is compulsory to care about the differences between Catholicism and Calvinism, or about those between Christians and noncChristians. As William James said, for some people Christianity is simply not a live or forced option–not something that they need think about. The same goes for philosophy.

As pragmatists see the matter, someone who has little or no interest in either religious or philosophical questions should not be told that he or she has a duty to seek answers to those questions, or a duty to justify his lack of interest to others. Before the Enlightenment we told that we also had duties to God. The Enlightenment told us that we also had duties to Reason. But pragmatists think that our only duties are to ourselves and to other human beings. Socrates, Spinoza and Hume are heroic figures because they performed both sets of duties exceptionally well.

Richard Rorty

April 25, 2006

1. The Immortal Subject Beyond The Life Drive

In our daily lives we create little worlds of our own and invest them with various meanings. These worlds have their own logics, orders repetitively staged every day; this gives us a sense of continuity in time and hence a sense of security. Objects and subjects surrounding us, everything fits in its proper place in this microcosmic self-consciousness of ours.

The thought of being a tiny spot in the middle of nowhere, however, or somewhere in the vast universe is too unbearable to be thought through for many people because it reminds us of death. If one thinks this thought for too long all meaning collapses and life falls apart, the established symbolic order of object relations become disorganized. This is when the journey of the subject towards nothingness begins. If the subject manages to maintain integrity throughout the passage from self-consciousness to an impersonal consciousness reconciliation of self with life and the world takes place. With the advance of this macrocosmic impersonal consciousness in time everything symbolic loses meaning and credibility only to lead to an opening up of a space for the emergence of a new meaning. The new is not independent from the old. But is that which had hitherto been unseen, unrealised, unthought as a new possibility of a progressive movement.

Authentic fidelity is the fidelity to the void itself—to the very act of loss, of abandoning or erasing the object. Why should the dead be the object of attachment in the first place? The name for this fidelity is death drive. In the terms of dealing with the dead, one should, perhaps, against the work of mourning as well as against the melancholic attachment to the dead who return as ghosts, assert the Christian motto “let the dead bury their dead.” The obvious reproach to this motto is, What are we to do when, precisely, the dead do not accept to stay dead, but continue to live in us, haunting us by their spectral presence? One is tempted here to claim that the most radical dimension of the Freudian death drive provides the key to how we are to read the Christian “let the dead bury their dead”: what death drive tries to obliterate is not the biological life but the very afterlife—it endeavours to kill the lost object the second time, not in the sense of mourning (accepting the loss through symbolization) but in a more radical sense of obliterating the very symbolic texture, the letter in which the spirit of the dead survives.[1]

So, neither the work of mourning nor melancholia are progressive. It is the work of death drive to kill death, to cause a loss of loss, to destroy the symbolic texture causing death to take place; death drive is the only weapon against death in life. Rather than symbolizing and then accepting death, the subject as death drive contemplates death as nothingness and fills the space of death within the symbolic with nothing.

            Zizek points out that there is a great difference between willing nothing and willing nothingness.   

What we are implicitly referring to here is, of course, Nietzsche’s classic opposition between ‘wanting nothing’ (in the sense of ‘I don’t want anything’) and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting Nothingness itself; following Nietzsche’s path, Lacan emphasized how in anorexia, the subject does not simply ‘eat nothing’ – rather, she or he actively wants to eat the Nothingness (the Void) that is itself the ultimate object-cause of desire. (The same goes for Ernst Kris’s famous patient who felt guilty of theft, although he did not actually steal anything: what he did steal, again, was the Nothingness itself.) So – along the same lines, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we drink the Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property that is in effect merely an envelope of a void.[2]    

The object that takes the place of the Real is what Lacan calls the objet petit a. The objet petit a is that which the master-signifier causes to be signified. There is nothing to signify the objet petit a, it is that signifier itself. The master-signifier signifies the objet petit a as its own signifier. Without the objet petit a the nothingness behind the master-signifier would become manifest. Master signifier generates signs that signify their own autonomous existence. That is, they hide the latent content of the master-signifier which is nothingness.  By manufacturing the illusion of its own non-being the master-signifier signifies itself as the transcendental signified. It does this through signifying the objet petit a as the transcendental sign, (signifier and signified at once). The sublime object which stands in for nothingness behind it is the object of desire of masses who fantasize that they are drinking something good, when in reality they are drinking the void and their own life/death.  

One simply cannot conceal from oneself what all the willing that has received its direction from the ascetic ideal actually expresses: this hatred of the human, still more of the animal, still more of the material, this abhorrence of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and of beauty, this longing away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wish, longing itself—all of this means—let us grasp this—a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!… And, to say again at the end what I said at the beginning: man would much rather will nothingness than not will… [3]

In The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Zizek gives the example of Diet-Coke as a symptom of will to nothingness inherent in contemporary society.

So, when, some years ago, the advertising slogan for Coke was ‘Coke is it!’, we should note its thorough ambiguity: ‘that’s it’ precisely in so far as that’s never actually it, precisely in so far as every satisfaction opens up a gap of ‘I want more!’. The paradox, therefore, is that Coke is not an ordinary commodity whereby its-use value is transubstantiated into an expression of (or supplemented with) the auratic dimension of pure (exchange) Value, but a commodity whose very peculiar use-value is itself already a direct embodiment of the suprasensible aura of the ineffable spiritual surplus, a commodity whose very material properties are already those of a commodity. This process is brought to its conclusion in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke – why? We drink Coke – or any drink – for two reasons: for its thirst-quenching or nutritional value, and for its taste. In the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, nutritional value is suspended and the caffeine, as the key ingredient of its taste, is also taken away – all that remains is a pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized. Is it not true that in this sense, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we almost literally ‘drink nothing in the guise of something’?[4]

By drinking Diet-Coke, the subject, rather than being really healthy, is being merely less ill, since Diet or not, Coke is itself unhealthy.  Coke as we know it is miles away from its medicinal uses for which it was invented in the first place. The measure of health is not Coke without caffeine and sugar. So the Diet-Coke cannot be a sign of healthy living. Worse than being unhealthy, it is death disguised as an object of desire, that object of desire being healthy living. So we can see the process through which the Real of the subject’s desire, which is the death-drive, is turned into desire for healthy living. As the subject thinks he/she is moving towards greater health, he/she is in reality moving towards death. We have to be clear about where exactly the life-drive and the death-drive become separated from themselves and hence their roles are reversed, turning them into their opposites. It is precisely at this point of separation- unification of the life-drive and the death-drive that the conflict-event takes the place of the place itself.

This place is a playground on which this conflict-event between the life-drive and the death-drive is played out as a confrontation between the therapeutic society and critical theory. If the aim of psychotherapy is to adapt the subject to the environment, then it is by definition a normalizing practice. But asks critical theory, what is the definition of health? On which grounds are we talking about health? What are the values that make health? All these questions may lead down to the big question of ontology: “What is the meaning of life?” There is no meaning of life. It is my actions and words that invest my life with a particular meaning. What determines the meaning of objects surrounding me is the use I put them into. In this context, progress in therapeutic procedure is signified by an increase in the subject’s ability to use the objects surrounding him/her.

But critical theory says: you are confusing use-value and exchange-value. You are forgetting the need to remember that in your world the exchange-value preceeds the use-value. You are always already born into the world of objects with their values attached to them, how can you say that you are healing these people by telling lies to them concerning the cause of their desire and the Real of the objects they choose to put to use. Isn’t their choice already determined by the pre-dominant symbolic order?[5]

Critical theory agrees with psychotherapy that it is the use value of the object that is important. But what critical theory wants to say is that what psychotherapy presents the subject with, as the use-value, is already the exchange-value, so psychotherapy is presenting the subject with death disguised as life. It is there that there has been a shift in the gears, where Nietzsche conceived of himself as the stage of confrontation between Christ and Dionysus, as the conflict-event that shifted the gears at a certain moment in history. At this precise moment in time negation and affirmation change roles for the very reason that negating the symbolic order becomes the same as affirming the Real. One creates a fantasy which negates the symbolic and affirms the Real as it is, that is, with all its inconsistencies, internal conflicts, imperfections, and incompleteness. Something in the symbolic order is caused to fail by these interventions of the affirmative subject. Here a question awaits us: Does that mean that for creation to take place destruction is necessary? The answer to this question is a yes and a no at the same time. Because destruction causes a split in the order and yet this split’s consequence depends on the future of the response to it. Destruction is not essential to creation but is an inescapable result of it. [6]  So there may or may not be cases where there is something in the process of being created without anything being destroyed. For when one thinks about it, creation is not a subtraction from nature, but quite the contrary, an addition to it. For subtraction to become creative it should be a subtraction from culture, that is, from knowledge, or from the already existing symbolic order. Badiou’s subtraction opens a void within the already existing symbolic order and through this void a new truth flows. It is only in so far as the mortal human animal chooses fidelity to this truth-event that it becomes a subject, that is, an immortal indifferent to death.

2. The Immortal Subject Beyond The Death Drive

The creature called human can cease being a passive non-being and become an active being only insofar as it produces love against the negative power of the already existing capitalist law. As we all know, the laws’ negative impositions give birth to the vicious cycle of the life and death drives, which is in turn exploited in the way of more money.

With the domination of nihilist global capitalism all over the world social life has become a masquerade. The silence diminishes and noise pollutes the lives of all. This noise is what Nietzsche calls “the noise of the marketplace.” The subject neither questions its being in itself nor its being for itself. The system provides the subject with innumerable facilities to keep boredom at bay so as to sustain the conditions for the possibility of the non-being of thought to take place. The subject simply does not feel the need to think and in time the subject loses the ability not only to think but also to act consciously. It all becomes an empty and meaningless spectacle to live. Every subject takes on a role, or an identity in accordance with the demands of the show business and hides behind this role turning into a solipsistic monad acting itself out in the way of satisfying the big Other. Just like Judge Schreber who had to endure inordinate measures of suffering to satisfy the demands of those cruel gods he populated himself with… And Schreber, satisfied as he was with the mere pleasure of sharing the high profile mission of satisfying cruel and invisible gods, becomes a madman when in fact he was a woman enduring privation.[7]

In the banality of ordinary social reality the subject forgets to think of its death as its own. Absence of the thought of death brings with it the presence of the thought of being, which means that the subject has lost his/her sense of self/other distinction, and is governed by his/her unconscious drives. This leads to the subject’s ignorance of an external world, or perhaps an unintentional neglect of an external reality other than the one it imagines, for it has itself become exterior to itself.

            When death is thought about, this thought never takes place in terms of the death of the self. It is always through the death of the other that the subject thinks of death. It is always a “they” who die. Death is conceived as a symbolic incident. The reason of that reductive attitude towards death is the will to preserve the banality of ordinary reality and sustain the conditions for the possibility of an illusory sense of oneness with the world. All this, of course, is done to keep the Real of the external world at bay.

Global capitalism produces subjects who cannot stand the thought of the outside; they cannot conceive the absence of an external world within them. The fear of death is so strong that with the force of its negativity it totally negates death in life, erases the slash in life/death, and vainly erects statues to attain immortality.

It is a strange subject, however, with no fixed identity, wandering about over the body without organs, but always remaining peripheral to the desiring-machines, being defined by the share of the product it takes for itself, garnering here, there, and everywhere a reward in the form of a becoming an avatar, being born of the states that it consumes and being reborn with each new state. “It’s me, and so it’s mine…” Even suffering, as Marx says, is a form of self-enjoyment.[8]

Today the purpose of life has become keeping the subject busy for the sake of the business of not thinking death. The subject is bombarded by objects of introjection to such extent that it has no time for feeling anxious about its own death. The objects form a transparent sheet between the subject and its death. As inorganic substances the objects fill the space of death within life. What we witness in this time is life turned into a project aiming at erasing the silence necessary for thought; and not only erasing but also replacing it with an unceasing noise causing nausea.    

The infinite, then, is within finitude, so in order to think the infinite we have to think the finite, that is, the thought of death. Although the thought of death has a high price which the subject pays by a loss of mental and physical health, it is nevertheless useful in opening up the way to limit experiences. The death drive devastates the predominant conceptualisations of the “good” of civilized progress and the “bad” of barbaric regress. The subject of the death drive situates itself as the traitor on the opposite pole of belief and faith in immortality. In the place of statues representing immortality, it erects nothing. That way it confronts the promised land of total security and harmony with a world governed by the anxiety of the feeling of being surrounded by nothingness. In this world there remains no ground beneath the symbolic order. Death is in the midst of life; it is life that surrounds death.           

How would our lives change if we were to become capable of imagining ourselves as immortal beings? If we keep in mind that we are always already locked within the vicious cycle of the life and death drives governed by the law of capital, it becomes easier to understand why we need to break this vicious cycle of Capitalism and its governor, liberal-democracy, based on unjust representations, in order to create, produce or present the realm of love beyond the rotary motion of drives. But it must also be kept in mind that when we say beyond, we are talking about a beyond which is always already within the pre-dominant symbolic order and yet not within the reach of mortal beings. It is a beyond only from the perspective of the present state. In our scenario, immortality is not something to be attained, rather, it is a virtual potential or an actual capacity within every mortal being, awaiting to be realised. The realisation of the immortality within us, or the realisation of the infinite potential that life contains, depends on our proper use of our powers of imagination. Let us imagine ourselves as immortal beings then, which we already are, but cannot enact because of the finitude imposed upon us by the already existing symbolic order. Would we need to get out of this order to become immortal? Yes and no. Yes, because the within which we said infinity resides is a within which is exterior only from the point of view of the already existing order. No, because only from within the already existing order can we present an outside of this order, “an outside” in Deleuze’s words apropos of Foucault and Blanchot, “which is closer than any interiority and further away than any exteriority.”

 In his Theoretical Writings Alain Badiou attempts to separate himself from the Romantic understanding of infinity, and the pursuit of immortality. According to Badiou, contemporary mathematics broke with the Romantic idea of infinity by dissolving the Romantic concept of finitude. For Badiou, as it is for mathematics, the infinite is nothing but indifferent multiplicity, whereas for the Romantics it was nothing more than a “historical envelopment of finitude.” Behind all this, of course, is Badiou’s strong opposition to historicism and temporalization of the concept. It is in this context that Badiou can say, “Romantic philosophy localizes the infinite in the temporalization of the concept as a historical envelopment of finitude.”[9]

Mathematics now treats the finite as a special case whose concept is derived from that of the infinite. The infinite is no longer that sacred exception co-ordinating an excess over the finite, or a negation, a sublation of finitude. For contemporary mathematics, it is the infinite that admits of a simple, positive definition, since it represents the ordinary form of multiplicities, while it is the finite that is deduced from the infinite by means of negation or limitation. If one places philosophy under the condition such a mathematics, it becomes impossible to maintain the discourse of the pathos of finitude. ‘We’ are infinite, like every multiple-situation, and the finite is a lacunal abstraction. Death itself merely inscribes us within the natural form of infinite being-multiple, that of the limit ordinal, which punctuates the recapitulation of our infinity in a pure, external ‘dying.’[10]

The political implications of the move from Romantic infinity to mathematical infinity can be observed in Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. In this little book Badiou criticizes the hypocrisy of human rights for reducing being-human to being a mortal animal. Of course Badiou admits that what is called human is indeed a mortal animal, but what he objects to is the exploitation of this state of being. Against this deprecative attitude, Badiou pits the immortal subject, or rather, the subject who is capable of realising his/her immortality.[11]  

Badiou says that “being is inconsistent multiplicity.” As an advocate of immanence, unlike Heidegger, he doesn’t think that there is an ontological difference between Being and beings. As a matter of fact, he altogether refuses that there is such a thing as Being transcending the multiple beings, or beings as inconsistent multiplicities. To understand where Badiou is coming from we only need to look at his critique of Heidegger’s equation of being in the world and being towards death. For Badiou there is no such thing as being in the world, because for him there is not one world but multiple worlds and consequently being in the world as being towards death is a rather impoverished idea doomed to result in the mistaken assumption that consciousness of human finitude is self-consciousness. And I agree with Badiou that consciousness of human finitude merely serves to justify a life driven by death.

 I therefore propose a consciousness of infinitude rather than of finitude for a sustenance of the conditions of possibility for an ethical life and for an ethical death. For when you think about it, if we were immortal, that is, if our lives were eternal, we wouldn’t be so destructive of the environment, not so harsh on nature and one another, because no one would want to live in such a hell eternally. Since it is obvious that as humans we have been turning the world into a hell in the name of progress for a while now, and since death has been the end from which we have come to think we have been striving to escape in this progressive process, it is obvious that a forgetting of death, or rather, a remembering to forget our mortality would make us fear an eternal life in hell, rather than a finite life in an illusory heaven.

If we keep in mind that the global capitalist system, as we have tried to explicate, takes its governing force from its exploitation of life and death drives, that it is based on our fear of death and consciousness of finitude, it becomes clearer why a subtraction of death from life not only shakes, but also annihilates the foundations of capitalism.

3. Expulsion of the Negative and Affirmation of Life are Mutually Exclusive

To valorize negative sentiments or sad passions—that is the mystification on which nihilism bases its power. (Lucretius, then Spinoza, already wrote decisive passages on this subject. Before Nietzsche, they conceived philosophy as the power to affirm, as the practical struggle against mystifications, as the expulsion of the negative.)[12]

Purgatory, purification, extraction of the positive, expulsion of the negative, projection, introjection… Throughout his discursive life Deleuze conceived of purification of the self as the goal of literature. He believed that through an exposition of the evil within one was healing the society. But this theory can only produce otherness as negativity and that is almost exactly the opposite of what affirmative critique ought to be. Nietzsche’s project of “the expulsion of the negative” is a recurrent theme in Deleuze’s writings. Like Nietzsche he thought that it is only through regression that one could be purified and get outside the confines of the Cartesian cogito. Deleuze’s attempts at escaping from the Cartesian dualism, however, can only cause an interruption of the splitting process and slides towards overcoming the split to attain oneness. Giving a voice to the other creates the conditions of impossibility for the other’s finding his/her own voice.

It is at this mobile and precise point, where all events gather together in one that transmutation happens: this is the point at which death turns against death; where dying is the negation of death, and the impersonality of dying no longer indicates only the moment when I disappear outside of myself, but rather the moment when death loses itself in itself, and also the figure which the most singular life takes on in order to substitute itself for me.[13]

With Deleuze it is always one dies rather than I die, or as the Cynic saying goes, “when there is death I am not, when I am there is no death.” Instead of accepting the state of being wounded as a perpetually renewed actuality, instead of affirming death within life, the other within the self, Deleuze climbs over the walls of his wound, and looking down on the others, he loses the ground beneath his feet, and eventually falls into the split he was trying to get rid of.

A wound is incarnated or actualised in a state of things or of life: but it is itself pure virtuality on the plane of immanence that leads us into a life. My wound existed before me: not a transcendence of the wound in a higher actuality, but its immanence as a virtuality always within a milieu (plane or field).[14] 

Affirming the mutual inclusiveness of introversion and intersubjectivity means preferring an a-sociality, what Blanchot calls “being in a non-relation,” to the symbolic order. Blanchot’s attitude is exactly the opposite of the symbolic market society that dissolves the most fundamental questions of being human in a pot of common sense. The subject of the market society is continually in pursuit of increased strength and self-confidence. And for that reason governed by what Nietzsche called the herd instinct, the will to nothingness, this subject becomes a reactive and adaptive subject. The symbolic order loses the ground beneath itself when and if the majority starts to see living with the thought of death not only as a natural necessity, but also as something to be affirmed.

Death has an extreme and definite relation to me and my body and is grounded in me, but it also has no relation to me at all—it is incorporeal and infinitive, impersonal, grounded only in itself. On one side, there is the part of the event which is realized and accomplished; on the other, there is that “part of the event which cannot realize its accomplishment.”[15]

4. Cont(r)action is not the same as imposing one order of meaning upon another which is considered to be lacking in something essential to healthy living.

So I eventually arrive where I could possibly have arrived; the end of this voyage, which is at the same time the beginning of another one. And here I find out that the more affirmative one’s attitude towards life gets the more fragile the contact with the other becomes. But as the contact becomes more fragile and affirmation more difficult, maintaining the conditions for the possibility of a perpetually recreated affirmative cont(r)act becomes more essential to the continuation of healthy life of self in touch not only with its own death but also with the death of the other.

Sometimes the only way to keep affirming is to affirm the fragility of the affirmative cont(r)act itself. It is only by affirming a broken and irregularly beating heart in its broken irregularity that one can relate to it. But to affirm this heart one must detach oneself from it, not identify with it, not become broken and irregularly beating itself, so that one can find in oneself the strength to undertake repairing the broken heart. Affirmation of life as it is, I think, is only the beginning of a fragile and yet beautiful friendship.

5. Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.[16] 

We continually have to work on turning everything that happens to us in this life into “for the good.” For everything good or bad to become for the good we have to affirm that which has happened to us. But how are we going to affirm something so terrible that nails us to a painful existence indefinitely? First of all, we have to accept that, that which has happened is not changeable, it has already taken place and we cannot go back there to unlive it.  But at the same time the meaning, value, and significance of what has happened is never fully established. Only death accomplishes the event’s significance, only through death is established the truth of what has happened to us.

For the Stoics one has to have a perfect understanding of the workings of cosmos and nature to be able to live in harmony with the world surrounding one. It is such that everything is a cause and an effect at the same time and everything is linked to one another. Everything that happens causes other things to happen. To a certain extent what happens to us is not in our control but at the same time if we know what the consequence of a certain action would be we could choose what to do, and so what happens to us, to a certain extent, becomes our own doing. We have to figure out how to act, which words to use in the way of affecting the external world so as to maintain ourselves as an active agent in any circumstance.[17]

Let us imagine an example. If we have done something so terribly wrong that it is causing us great distress, before drowning in our sadness we have to find a way of reading it in such a way as to turn it into something that was necessary for our present and future happiness. If we let ourselves go after a disappointing incident, if we let things happen to us and not do something to change the course of events we might as well find ourselves in an irresolvable situation at the end, which would lead to madness and death.

At every moment throughout our lives we are confronted with obstacles that keep us from accomplishing certain desired ends. And yet there is also always a certain potential of accomplishing something even better because of the very obstacle that caused the desired end to become unattainable. The Stoic solution to this problem is simple and yet sophisticated.

So detach your aversion from everything not up to us, and transfer it to what is against nature among the things that are up to us. And for the time being eliminate desire completely, since if you desire something that is not up to us, you are bound to be unfortunate, and at the same time none of the things that are up to us, which it would be good to desire, will be available to you.[18] 

What we have here is not a total negation of desire but a rejection of certain objects of desire that one must know from past experience are bad for us to desire. If we want something to happen to us, something that would satisfy a certain desire, and if the desired event cannot be accomplished through our actions then there is no point in striving for the attainment of an unattainable object of desire. Instead one should make the best of what is at hand and accomplish other events that render possible the attainment of objects of desire that are within reach. If we don’t know what and how to work for, we get nothing out of life, find ourselves locked in a room on the door of which death continually knocks.

Epictetus’ philosophy is a very practical one. In it we find ways of coping with the difficulties of life. And it is adaptable to the present state of the human condition in which we find ourselves face to face with the exploitation of the life drive and the death drive through a manipulation of the mutual dependence of these two based on the ambiguous, because a-symetrical, conflict inherent in the relationship between them.

If we know not how to choose what to desire, if we allow the objects of our desire to be shaped by the capable hands of the big Other represented by the global capitalists, we also let the ways in which we desire be determined by a source other than ourselves, hence become puppets trying to satisfy an external force rather than ourselves and our lovers. We have to know what to desire and how to make it happen, otherwise nothing happens and where there is nothing happening there can be neither creativity nor communication; for what is one to create or communicate if there is nothing to create and communicate.

            Once it is realized that there is nothing other than nothing to be struggled against, it becomes clearer how it would be possible to detach oneself from external circumstances and act in the way of maintaining an impersonal vision of what happens around us. One dissociates not the events themselves, but dissociates oneself from the events surrounding one. The Stoic indifference requires a subject in the form of an impersonal consciousness who maintains its dissociating function at all times. For this dissociation to take place, however, the subject has to know how to associate events that have led to the present, that is, one has to immerse oneself in the plurality of the past events, and extract from this multiplicity a combination of events so as to enable oneself to constitute oneself as an autonomous, free agent. This attitude emphasizes the importance of each instant. At every instant we have to act in such a way as to make the future better than the past. And this brings us to Nietzsche’s eternal return. According to Nietzsche, we have to act at every present moment in such a way that we will regret nothing in the future. Every present is an eternal moment in-itself and it is at times in our control to turn the present into for-itself, and at times it is not.  

As you aim such great goals, remember that you must not undertake them by acting moderately, but must let some things go completely and postpone others for the time being.[19]

So, at every present we have to consider the possibilities from different angles and decide which way to go and which way not to go as if we were immortal. What Epictetus seems to be suggesting is that once a choice is made the only way to make it work for us is to push it to its limit where it either turns against us or against itself and creates another possibility of choice. Epictetus is not in favour of an individuality that would be constituted through moderation, but in a subject that would be indifferent to lack or excess. In Epictetus’ world there is no lack or excess; what there is lacks nothing and nothing in what there is is excessive. If one is satisfied by what there is with its lacks and excesses one needs no moderation of one’s actions, for there is nothing lacking or excessive to be moderated in one’s actions. Lack or excess can only be determined by a whole external to the already existing. But there is only that which is, which never lacks anything in relation to something outside itself. The concepts of lack and excess belong to the world of metaphysics which exists only in imagination.

6. To What End Last Words? To What End Suffering…

Throughout this thesis I have tried to develop a mode of critique in and through which nothing is excluded and/or determined. This reflective mode of critique itself enabled me to situate myself in the middle of the reflective and the determinative modes of judgment. The critical mode employed in this thesis is still context-bound to a certain extent, and yet it tries to restrictively dissociate itself from the predetermined context, rather than freely associate within it. A new field is opened, the conditions are created for the possibility of a decision beyond the Law of Militarist Capitalism and the Welfare State driven by and driving the exploitation of mortality on a massive scale. There is this transcendental field that requires a non-mortal mode of being in the world, neither for nor against it, but indifferent to it in such a way as to turn its own alienation from mortality into its driving force in its attempt to demolish the faculty of finite judgment and create the conditions of possibility out of the conditions of impossibility for an infinite judgment to take place beyond the subject/object of a Law that is mortal, all too mortal.

A truth comes into being through those subjects who maintain a resilient fidelity to the consequences of an event that took place in a situation but not of it. Fidelity, the commitment to truth, amounts to something like a disinterested enthusiasm, absorption in a compelling task or cause, a sense of elation, of being caught up in something that transcends all petty, private or material concerns.[20]

The immortal subject within and without the pre-dominant symbolic order is not only the cause, but also the effect of its own alienation from mortal life. This regulatory idea of immortality, which is also a constitutive illusion, is inspired by the post-structuralist theme of becoming non-identical as we see in Deleuze and Derrida. If one could become non-identical, why would one not also become non-mortal? If one could become alienated from one’s identity, why would one not also become alienated from one’s mortality?  Why not become immortal so as to become capable of criticizing the exploitations of this mortal, all too mortal life? But what motivated me to take immortality as a virtual mode of being was Badiou’s theory of infinity which aimed at secularizing the concept of truth. Badiou’s technique of secularizing the truth is inspired by the 19th century mathematician Georg Cantor’s technique of secularizing the infinite. As Badiou claims, the secularization of infinity started with Cantor who stated that there was not one, but many infinities varying in size and intensity. From then onwards it became possible to link Deleuze’s concepts of impersonal consciousness and transcendental empiricism with Badiou’s theory of infinity and Kant’s assertion that for reflective judgement to take place and turn the object into a subject a transcendental ground is necessary.  Now I can say that for me a transcendental ground is necessary only to the extent that it enables the subject to shake the foundation of its own mode of being and opens a field for immanent critique to take place. In other words, the untimely indifference of immortality is required in order to actively engage in an exposition of the exploitation of mortality in this time.

I don’t know if it is worth mentioning that in this time we are all slaves and yet some slaves dominate the others. Where time goes no one knows. There are necessary illusions in this life, some for life, some not. Both the extreme belief in civilized progress and barbaric regress are good for nothing. These two are now in the process of being left behind. A third possibility of developmental process is emerging in the form of a becoming-reconciled which is based on the recognition of the otherness of the other as it is, that is, prior to the additions and the subtractions imposed upon the self and the other, nature and culture, life and death. For a non-normative and progressive work it is necessary for the participants to become capable of making distinctions between their natures and cultures, their cliniques and critiques. It is a matter of realizing that theory and practice are always already reconciled and yet the only way to actualise this reconciliation passes through carrying it out and across by introducing a split between the subject of statement (the enunciated) and the subject of enunciation.

It is indeed true that sometimes it takes a long journey to get there, where one eventually got to, and realise that one is other than one thinks itself to be. Apparently the numbers indeed start with zero and continue with two, but it takes time to realise this actuality and become capable of actualising this reality. Perhaps we should indeed know that absolute reconciliation is impossible and yet still strive to reconcile ourselves as much as we can to all the living and the dead.  


[1] Slavoj Zizek, Organs Without Bodies (London: Routledge, 2004), 13

[2] Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute (London: Verso, 2000), 23

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morality, transl. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 118

[4] Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, 22

[5] Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964)

[6] Alain Badiou, InfiniteThought, trans. and ed. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2005), 132

[7] Sigmund Freud, Psycho-analytic Notes On An Autobiogrophical Account Of A Case Of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoids), trans. Strachey J. (London: Hogarth Press, 1986) 

[8] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia I, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: The Viking Press, 1977), 16

[9] Alain Badiou, Theoretical Writings, trans. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano, (London: Continuum, 2006), 38

[10] Badiou, 38

[11] Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London: Verso, 2001), 41

[12] Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: A Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 84

[13] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (London: Athlone, 1990), 153

[14] Deleuze,  Pure Immanence: A Life, 31-2

[15] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 151-152

[16] Epictetus, The Encheiridion, trans. Nicholas P. White (Hackett: Cambridge, 1983), 13

[17] Epictetus, 11-3

[18] Epictetus, 12

[19] Epictetus, 11

[20] Peter Hallward, “Introduction” in Alain Badiou, Ethics (London: Verso, 2002), x

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