Sunday, May 04, 2008

The New: Poverty and Plenitude

“God or the good or the place does not take place, but is the taking-place of the entities, their innermost exteriority. The being-worm of the worm, the being-stone of the stone, is divine. That the world is, that something can appear and have a face, that there is exteriority and non-latency as the determination and the limit of every thing: this is the good. Thus, precisely its being irreparably in the world is what transcends and exposes every worldly entity. Evil, on the other hand, is the reduction of the taking-place of things to a fact like others, the forgetting of the transcendence inherent in the very taking-place of things" (Giorgio Agamben)

Where, when is the taking-place of things? Not where on the map, when of the clock. Rather where, when is occurrence, existence, coming-to-be? What is the place of place, the time of time? Or, less abstractly: Where is the cosmos? And why is it now (insert current date, time, whatever) now? These are not good questions, proper questions, though that of course is of the essence of questioning, to open spaces behind things, introduce improbability and senselessness, that is, questionability, within them. I ask them here, in the inexhaustible thrill of asking them, in order to move into what Agamben’s account of the good as actuality and evil as its heedless, amnesiac privation may tell us about the new, and more specifically, how it may help us understand and experience newness as an ontological threshold, as something that is always in time and space but of neither. We can think of this threshold both subjectively and objectively.

Subjectively, the threshold of newness has to do with the way that seeing the new is bound up with blindness to it. Here Augustine’s fairly well known account of wonder, which also turns around the face, comes to mind: “remember that there are qualities and powers in the natures of the commonest things that are nothing less than stupendous and would, in fact, be reckoned portents by anyone who examined them, except that men have accustomed themselves to have no wonder to spare save for things that are unusual [si solerent homines mirari mira nisi rara]. How, for example, can anyone who reflects fail to remark the marvelous fact that human faces are, at once, so like and unlike one another. . . . We say they are all alike, and we find them all different. The real marvel, however, is in the variety, for the sameness would seem to be required by the oneness of our nature. Yet the fact is that we are so used to wondering only at what is unusual that we are much more astonished to find two men looking so much alike that we are forever mistaking one for the other.” The empirical, experiential reality, like Heraclitus’s river, is that everything is always already new and the new, or rather the category of the new, is like a means of stabilizing ourselves in this river, a normalization of the unnormalizable. We have the new, seek the new, believe in the new precisely insofar as we do not allow it, cannot contain it, refuse the really new and instead appropriate newness in a bounded form, as a thing. Whence novelty as fetish, as a love (or hatred) which only symptomatically betrays a deeper commitment to the normal, the conventional. Adorno says, “The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself. This is the curse of everything new.” In these terms the new is an essentially and necessarily impoverished category, a poverty of itself, born paradoxically out of its overwhelming plenitude, like a lightbulb from the sun. Augustine grasps this process of inversion directly when he speaks of “God, who has endowed things with such a marvelous variety of marvelous qualities that their multitude no longer astonishes us.” And the same applies to event, to the unstoppable onrush of new happening which will not stop, never lets up. Seeing the new as an emergence against the background of the customary is an inversion. The new is the background, an ungraspable excess. And our equation of the new with the unusual is like a device to see this surfeit, see the sun, what blinds us and what we are blinded do. This is not itself a critique of newness, but a basis for critiquing it, above all with regard to whether the relationship between what we can/will see and what we can/will not is one of separation or participation. Shall we experience the new as an opening, as an individuated instance of a more radical and foundational reality, like Heidegger’s “unconcealment of being,” something which opens up the very ground beneath our feet, or do we take it up, like Agamben says, as “a fact like others”? Obviously my wish is for the former, not necessarily as an insistent or forced remembering of newness as a transcendent category or participation in the atemporal elsewhere of eternity (for this may serve only to replace the terms of blindness), but more practically and provisionally as a forgetting of the forgetting of being within the new, or more simply, as that forgetting of the new as such which gives or circulates it back to us in a new way, which is after all what the new is all about, namely: the real new, the only new, is a new new. Such a picture of seeing the new as circulation across an ontological threshold, a seeing that moves into and back from what is incommensurable with sight, is present in Agamben’s account in the sense that seeing the stone’s being-stone as divine is not seeing God in the stone or the stone in God, but seeing them bound together in such a way that the oppositional interdependence of the two is both destroyed and fulfilled, i.e. made perfect, in the emergence of the stone itself, such as it is, its actuality. We could call this seeing of the heart of the stone, following Augustine’s definition of the heart as the place of actuality, “where I am such as I am” [cor meum, ubi ego sum quicumque sum]. And in a comparable way, Agamben call such seeing love: “Seeing something simply in its being-thus—irreparable, but not for that reason necessary; thus, but not for that reason contingent—is love.”

This brings us towards the new as an ontological threshold in the objective sense, as a liminal property of things, something between what they are and their taking place, between, in Western philosophy’s classic terms, the what and the that. And here my comments hope to continue the conversation started by Michael Stone-Richards about the relation between the new and passivity as “that which precedes, which is separate from man’s activities and which in being so compels the re-thinking of agency.” For what stands out to me in this context is that all the terms through which people go about thinking and experiencing the that of things are essentially forms of passivity. Duns Scotus’s haecceitas or thisness, Heidegger’s geworfenheit or thrownness, Agamben’s quodlibet ens or whatever being, irreparability, givenness, birth, origin, lot, and identity (in the strict sense)—all of these are ways of accessing the originary passivity of being, its being caught by itself, acted upon by as the passive subject of its own non-originability. In the broadly medieval understanding of existence, these stand within the createdness of things, which is not simply an axiom of piety or belief but the recognition of an omnipresent relation between actuality and production, or work. Actuality, which takes the intellectual form of the fact that something is and the perceptual form of the presence of something (such that it can be indicated, deictically, as that), coincides with work in the sense that to work is to make something actual, both work’s material, which work engages with as it is, and work’s product, which working realizes or makes present through its material. Whence factum (something made) becomes the word for something recognized as true or real and the German word for actuality is Wirklichkeit. Actuality is the home of newness, not in the sense that what is made is new, but in the sense that making is itself an event of newness, something for which there is no agent, towards which all agents are passive. In other words, the actuality of something, the fact that it is and is as it is, is something that happens above and beyond all the things that go into making it happen. In scholastic philosophy, this dimension of actuality is worked out through the concept of concreation. As Heidegger explains, “The actualness of the created is not itself actual; it is not itself in need of a coming-to-be or a being-created. Therefore, it may not be said that actuality is something created. It is rather quid concreatum, concreated with the creation of a created thing.” Actuality is thus a level of being over which neither creator nor creature exercise any control, towards which both the divine and the abject are passive. And this is precisely the newness that understanding, empirical and theoretical, can never, will never get a hold of, the unaccountable fact that things actually are themselves. This is the event of oneself out of which philosophy is, as Merleau-Ponty says, “an ever-renewed experiment in making its own beginning.” So I will end by reading a poem I made:

Everything existing is existing right now,
The real impossibility of what might now.

Thinking this space, the place of everything itself,
Is making my heart and head feel very light now.

Look at this hand. Over “soul is in the body”
And “body is in the soul” who can fight now?

Haecceitas. Geworfenheit. Quodlibet Ens.
Happy the philosophers who see my plight now.

Know me like this, ever irreparable and new,
So we can start work in the play of delight now.

The next, this moment is nothing less than new worlds.
Pay close attention. Do you still think this trite now?

Next time Nicola worries over when and then
Remind him that all things really are in sight now.

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