Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sorrow Centers

Sorrow centers. Noisy, musical, auto-deictic, onanistic, keeping itself secret, calling attention to itself, in the cave of the world, making a scene, holding itself in, holding onto itself, prolonging itself, pushing itself, as if tears could come from one’s crown, exhausting itself, finding itself, somewhere else, here. Sorrow centers the one who sorrows. But it centers to an opposite point from where, today, one is supposed to be or is praised for being “centered,” the still center of equipoise where one is already centered. Instead sorrow centers to a new center, to which it moves, not by moving towards it at all, but by pushing itself back into it, as if into a more primordial place, in refusal of what cannot be moved, what cannot go away, what should not be, what must be so one can sorrow. The sorrower centers herself in reverse, by repulsion into an unknown remembered place, pushing against the immovable. Like a metaphysical burrowing or birthing, not born into something, but born from, backwards, upsidedown, into who knows where, the way we were born.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Heart and Head at Kalamazoo, or, The Displacement of the Entirely Out of Place

“Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man. ‘Gravity, a mysterious carriage of the body to conceal the defects of the mind’—Laurence Sterne” (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, p.13).

Jeffrey Cohen's recent disembodiment, Karl Steel's counting of tears, Eileen Joy's profession of love, and Dan Remein's shimmering essay on being-together as theoretical practice and communistic labor recall to me the truth of these lines which, in a fit of shy humanistic terrorism, I once wrote on the chalkboard of an empty classroom about 20 years ago in the hopeful fantasy of their affecting unknown others in a manner that would create and confirm our invisible friendship. Now (not just now, but now including all the nows up to now), this note, which shared in the logic of Eileen's ethical "as if" and Anna Klosowska's insights about the posthumous futurism of non sequitur at the Place of the Present and Why Am I Me? panels at Kalamazoo, respectively, seems to be taking effect, or rather, is finding its way back to me, like Macarius's grapes, back to my future, or rather, is being revealed to be not my note at all, but ours, or rather everyone's and no one's, an index and instance of the possession of what can not be possessed, the proverbial treasure that increases when shared, or rather . . .

So, a couple comments:

First, about place. The framing of the question of the presentness of scholarship in terms of place is more than rhetorical or metaphorical. I.e. it does not mean role, much less topic in the weak sense, but has everything to do with the present as the topos of our work in the fullest sense, as the placeless, always present place where we and it take place. This was confirmed in the shared vocabulary of the presentations at the Place of the Present session (wandering, restless, affective, performative, presence, peripatetic, mendicant/monastic, communal, beside) which nearly took on the structure of a fugal composition on the theme of Sufistic Medieval Studies, with Nancy Partner's opening remarks serving as the generative countersubject, if I understand my music theory correctly (which I don't). For the place of the wandering scholar, in all the senses that this figure had meaning at the panel, is precisely the place of effective and affective embodiment, the ongoing present of our own taking place. To recognize this is not for one second to deny--clearly the obvious is what most needs repeating--the real specific material ends (public, political, pedagogical, philosophical, etc) for which scholarship can and should "most rigorous[ly]" work, as Steven Kruger's comment about good work made clear. Rather, to recognize the academic's performative, communal, brushed-up-against body as the placeless place of scholarly practice, is precisely the opposite, namely, the finding of the very space and means and opening for the actual realization of those ends. But this is not something that criticism or rather the critical subject, enthroned in the tomb of its Cartesian detachment, subsisting in the dungeon tower of 'if only' rather than wandering in the paradise deserts of 'as if,' is comfortable with. Such comfort belongs rather to the third area of the proto-discursive and the post-civilized:

"The localization of culture and play . . . is neither within nor outside of the individual, but in a 'third area,' distinct both 'from interior psychic reality and from the effective world in which the individual lives'[Winnicott]. The topology that is here expressed . . . has always been known to children, fetishists, 'savages,' and poets. It is in this 'third area' that a science of man truly freed of every eighteenth-century prejudice should focus its study. Things are not outside of us, in measurable external space, like neutral objects (ob-jecta) of use and exchange; rather, they open to us the original place solely from which the experience of measurable external space becomes possible. They are therefore held and comprehended from the outset in the topos outopos (placeless place, no-place place) in which our experience of being-in-the-world is situated. The question 'where is the thing?' is inseparable from the question 'where is the human?' Like the fetish, like the toy, things are not properly anywhere, because their place is found on this side of objects and beyond the human in a zone that is no longer objective or subjective, neither personal nor impersonal, neither material nor immaterial, but where we find ourselves suddenly facing [like Karl Steel before an animal, and the animal before you] these apparently so simple unknows: the human, the thing." (Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, p.59).

Second, about torture and philosophy. At the Place of the Present panel I unsuccessfully posed or perhaps poorly articulated a question about what I perceived to be the philosophical agon "behind" the presentations, namely, the contest between the Cartesian subject (o the misfortune of nominal adjectives) which by believing in its rational transcendence of the world only ends up reducing itself to another, 'mere' thing in the world (cf. Agamben's definition of evil in Coming Community) and the phenomenological subject which sees itself as an inexplicable presence whose inherent wonder attends to and inhabits every act of world-making and understanding, as the place of the never ending beginning of philosophy. That my question was answered by an intentional non sequitur to the issue of torture is, now that I think about it, the best possible and the most telling of answers. For just as torture intends to disclose, materialize, prove the tortured subject only to destroy it, so is concern for torture the perfect place for the critical subject to hide (not that it might not do good work while it is there, caveat, bla bla, etc.) most intimately and unconsciously from itself and others.

So, lastly, it was lovely to see (and feel and know and witness) the displacement of the entirely out of place by the taking-place of medieval studies. All told, it was like being in several places at once, being antipodally (Cf. Matthew Boyd Goldie's wonderful paper on the antipodes), with and without a globe between. Je est un autre. Which of course is the work of love, the philia that forever haunts philosophy from the inside.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Walking corpse hallucinating it is alive

Walking corpse hallucinating it is alive.
So silly what we think we are who are alive.

If, when an ego-driver doors you heedlessly
Shout rotting flesh! Be boisterous, surreal, alive.

Angela’s scream at Assisi is still being heard.
Her lungs decayed, but the life totally alive.

Moving the mind-dial reveals zombie multitudes.
You tune out all who know not they are not alive.

About to enter body, says a voice before
Waking. Everyday the dead walk and are alive.

It is hard to know what makes the revenant tick.
Gaze empty, mind numb, body sick, and still alive.

Entombed in habit, chained face-down in his own dust,
Nicola feels there is more to being alive.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Sorrow of Being in the Cloud of Unknowing

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”1

God or the good or the place does not take place, but is the taking-place of the entities, their innermost exteriority. . . . 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.”2

The forty-fourth chapter of The Cloud of Unknowing describes the final, deconstructive act of the work of contemplation, wherein self-awareness, the “nakid wetyng and felyng of thin owen beying,” is “destroyed” (44.1543-8).3 Having “treed alle doun ful fer under the cloude of forgetyng” (43.1520-1), that is, having “forgeten alle other creatures and alle theire werkes, ye, and therto alle thin owne werkes” (43.1538-9), this is all that remains “betwix thee and thi God” (43.1539), a singular remnant of consciousness, the simple something that is left, or one is left with, when everything is taken away. How is this irreducible remainder to be erased? Not without “a ful specyal grace ful frely goven of God” (43.1546), which requires “a ful acordyng abilnes to resseyve this grace” (43:1547), and “this abilnes is not elles bot a stronge and a deep goostly sorow” (43:1549).

Here is where things become interesting, and as far as I can tell, unique within the medieval typology of sorrow. For the object of this perfect sorrow, in distinction from the Pauline tristitia secundum Deum (2 Cor 7:10) read throughout the Middle Ages as the sorrow of contrition, sorrow over sin, is nothing less (or more) than the fact of one’s own existence:

Alle men han mater of sorow, bot most specyaly he felith mater of sorow that wote and felith that he is. Alle other sorowes ben unto this in comparison bot as it were gamen to ernest. For he may make sorow ernestly that wote and felith not onli what he is, bot that he is. And whoso felid never this sorow, he may make sorow, for whi he felid yit never parfite sorow. This sorow, when it is had, clensith the soule, not only of synne, bot also of peyne that he hath deservid for synne. And therto it makith a soule abil to resseive that joye, the whiche revith fro a man alle wetyng and felyng of his beyng. (43: 1554-61, my italics)

The very to-be-destroyed self-consciousness separating the individual from God thus becomes, via the autodeictic magic of “that,” the means of its own destruction. The affective action which unmakes the experience (knowing and feeling) of one’s own being has no other cause or object than the facticity of that being. And yet what is the content of this facticity, this that one is, other than the experience of one’s own being? It is as if being’s experiential actualization, its having of itself as the object of that, that is, the experience of one’s unbelievably brute, acontextual facticity, what Heidegger calls thrownness (geworfenheit) and the Cloud calls the gift of being (43.1575), and which is capable of assuming in reflection the deepest and most monstrous forms of aporia and unanswerability via absolute modes of self-questioning (Who am I? Why am I me? etc), is not only the means of but is itself the self’s own erasure or emptying. Perfect sorrow, sorrow at the limit of sorrow, appears to be a kind of auto-catharsis whereby self-consciousness evaporates in the heat of its own gaze or literally exhausts itself in self-mourning. Here the wholly sorrowing being, having being itself, its own being, as the exclusive and pure object of sorrow, appears as nothing other than sorrow. But saying this seems ontologically out-of-bounds, irresponsible. For surely the sorrowing self remains as subject and witness to its own sorrowful self-experience, just as the ravished self, joyfully blind to its own being, still touches itself, if only by feeling what takes it beyond itself, remains as that most unique and privileged witness to its own self-blinding. So I think it would be wiser to say, following the pattern of Heidegger’s understanding of the unconcealment (aletheia) of being as truth’s event in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” that the sorrow that one is unveils or presences the being of the sorrower by concealing it.4 In this sense, the sorrow that one is is something one passes away into only to become more present.

The relevance of Heidegger’s unconcealment of being increases in the context of the Cloud’s consistent understanding of contemplation as work, the work which is the original and ultimate task of human being: “For this is the werk . . . in the whiche man schuld have contynowed yif he never had synned, and to the whiche worching man was maad, and alle thing for man, to help him and forther him therto, and by the whiche a man schal be reparailed agein” (4.340-3). The work of contemplation is not only a practice, but a making, a contemplative production, in the ancient sense of techne and poiesis as a bringing into presence.5 The work which refashions the human to its original divine likeness is the work of pro-ducing God, of causing the appearance of the divine. What passes away into this work, what withdraws into concealment in the presence it makes, is the individuated being of the worker, who is, so to speak, the material out of which God is produced. As a relation between creature and creator, a working for which the human is made, or which is the proper work of human being itself,6 the work of contemplation thus appears as the production (or presencing) of the unmade via the destruction (or concealment) of the made, as if the creature, subtracting from itself the fact of its own createdness, its that one is, is restored to an originary copresence with the creator. What makes this self-restoration possible is precisely an identity or intersection between being and work, between the being of the contemplative worker as divine work and the work of contemplation that works on that being. Here being works, does what it is worked to do, so that its working is itself its self-restoration, or even self-creation, in the sense of a making of itself as it is created, as it really or originally is. But being works this restoration or return exactly through a forgetting or concealment of its own createdness, the concealment which reveals being as such, that is, being without its ex nihilo, without the impossibility of its being created, or more radically, without the impossibility of being, the inexplicable fact that anything is happening at all. Being works, not to unbe, but to be without its being worked, to undo the being-with-itself that is its actuality.

The Cloud thus offers the prospect, at once simple and impossible, of a non-dualistic real experience in which the distinction between subject and object is undone, where something like the place of the original identity of I and me, the one who sorrows and the one who is sorrowed over, is found and found to be the place of God. In terms of the text’s sources, this moment corresponds to the description in Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology of the contemplative finding of that here, typified by Moses’s ascent of Sinai, where, “being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”7 And this moment can thus also be understood as an ultimate escape or breakout from the prison of individualized being, following Levinas, who writes:

escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même]. . . . It is being itself or the ‘one-self’ from which escape flees, and in no wise being’s limitation. In escape the I flees itself, not in opposition to the infinity of what it is not or of what it will not become, but rather due to the very fact that it is or that it becomes.8

So we are returned, like failed escapists, to the power of that as a deixis of being, something that points not to a thing but to a thing’s existence, its esse. What finger points to being? What eyes see it? How does being point to itself? And why does it cry?

In my medieval fantasy world, the answers to these questions take the homely form of a series of marginal drawings showing a weeping figure whose tears erase itself from the parchment. In the last stage, only the weeping eyes remain, until these too are erased by their ultimate tears which, dropping somewhere, form the reappearance of the original figure with a halo, which signifies, as Agamben says, “the individuation of a beatitude, the becoming singular of that which is perfect.”9 And in my medieval studies fantasy world, this paper produces a reading of the Cloud’s sorrow so brilliant and penetrating that its hearers are brought to the joy of beatitude without having to shed a tear that they are. But in this world, whose actuality makes it infinitely more beautiful and terrifying than either of these, my interpretation of the Cloud’s sorrow aims at something more hopeless. Here my hardly fulfillable wish is to interpret the sorrow of being in the Cloud of Unknowing not definitively, but exhaustively, to voice and breathe out its meaning so fully that there is nothing left, nothing left to do but sorrow. This is also a fantasy, but one founded on its own impossibility, namely, on both the inexhaustibleness of this sorrow’s meaning and its incommensurablity with interpretation. In other words, I take up the work of interpreting the sorrow that one is as a work or mourning, which is the only way it can be taken up, following Derrida, who explains:

When one works on work, on the work of mourning [travail du deuil], when one works at the work of mourning, one already is, yes, doing such work, enduring this work of mourning from the very start, letting it work within oneself, and thus authorizing oneself to do it, according it to oneself, according it within oneself, and giving oneself this liberty of finitude, the most worthy and the freest possible. One cannot hold a discourse on the “work of mourning” without taking part in it, without announcing or partaking in [se faire part de] death, and first of all in one’s own death.10

To work on the sorrow that one is on this model, to work on it in the sorrow that one is, as a work of self-sorrow, is neither to insist on the priority of experience over interpretation, nor to confound the distinction between the two, but rather to acknowledge that to interpret this sorrow is already an experience of sorrow, not because of a necessary identification of subject and object, but more deeply because of the inherently sorrowful, or more precisely melancholic, dimension of interpretation.

Melancholia [Agamben explains] offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object. . . . [It is] the imaginative capacity to make an unobtainable object appear as if lost. . . in melancholia the object is neither appropriated nor lost, but both possessed and lost at the same time.11

Melancholy is hermeneutic. It operates as a translation, and a preemptive intention to translate, the lacking into the lost. So the melancholic dimension of interpretation may be defined as the negativity of its belief in itself as an indispensable disclosure of what is already present, a translation whose very gesture reinforces the unavailability of significance except as translation, a grasping that holds at a distance. To pursue interpretation as a work of mourning is not to know a way around the hermeneutic impasse of melancholy but rather to seek a way through it, to hope, however desperately, in the possibility of an overcoming of melancholy from within, in the risk of flirting with it, as the Cloud’s sorrow does with despair, so dangerously as to conquer its seduction and so become more capable of recognizing and producing, inside and outside of interpretation, the presence of what is lacking. This means taking up interpretation as labor, as a work that never ends and yet a work which, by virtue of the very negativity of its being interminable and incomplete, apophatically enjoys, in what Derrida calls the “liberty of finitude,” an intimate relation to what is beyond it, to what is noninterpretable and perfect.

My fretting and fantasizing about the limits and affects of interpretation in relation to the Cloud’s sorrow is not (I pray) gratuitous self-consciousness but a real and necessary response to a text that calls me to sorrow that I am and sorrow over my lacking this sorrow, that gives its significance as its reader’s missing of it, and that thus paradoxically presents itself, even its very textuality, as an object of mourning. On the one hand the sorrow that one is is perfectly obvious and accessible, an existential negativity so fundamental and universal that it only needs pointing to, requires only the distinction between what and that. On the other hand, the very availability of this sorrow, our being prepared (yet so unready) for it by just being, presents us with the spectacle of our own blindness to it, brings us to face precisely what can never be faced, the always-being-forgotten fact of our being which, even when it is remembered, is rarely perceived with that clarifying counter-volition which is, in Augustine’s definition, the essence of sorrow: “cum . . . dissentimus ab eo quod nolentibus accidit, talis voluntas tristitia est” [sorrow is the will’s disagreement with something that happened against our will].12

The meaning of the Cloud’s sorrow, as I am pursuing it, has everything to do with the irreducible tension between these two dimensions of it, between its inevitability and its impossibility. This tension is inherent not only to the nature of the sorrow being indicated, but to the nature of indication itself as the form of signification through which language to the utmost degree both means beyond itself and means itself: “Deixis, or indication . . . does not simply demonstrate an unnamed object, but above all the very instance of discourse, its taking place. . . . Indication is the category within which language refers to its own taking place.”13 The autodeixis or self-pointing through which one sorrows that one is is thus coincident with the self-pointing of the language of the sorrower. Sorrowing that one is is not only sorrowing over something that may be signified in language, but sorrowing at the intersection (think crossroads anchorite) of language’s and being’s taking place, in the that that constitutes language as the very means and content of being’s experiential having of itself, which is precisely what sorrow, as a taking of that to its ontological limit, here works to erase. Deixis is this intersection, in the sense of being an instance of language as wholly constituted by what is outside of it, in other words, language emptied of any intrinsic what and therefore signifying most fully and purely its own event, its being/coming-to-be. In these terms, sorrowing that one is is also sorrowing over the very faculty whereby one does sorrow that one is, or rather such sorrow is itself the intensification in consciousness of this faculty, the strong feeling of the foundational self-disagreement within individuated being that language in every instance enacts, the non-originable I am of the being who happens or is created without, and thus from one perspective against, its will. In a correlative fashion Agamben defines metaphysics as “that experience of language that . . . in all speech, experiences above all the ‘marvel’ that language exists.”14 So the mysticism of the Cloud here and elsewhere revolves around the wonderful/terrifying experience of being or encounter with actuality that language does not merely allow but in a fundamental way always is, above all within those elemental spaces of language, what the Cloud calls the “lityl schort preier of o litil silable” (37.1386), where words are endlessly, heartbreakingly close to being what they say.

Recognizing the sorrow that one is in these terms as a self-encounter that comes up against the linguistic nature of being helps to clarify the hermeneutic value which the Cloud places on sorrow through its representation of alternative readers, the one who is and the one who is not experienced in this sorrow. Where the sorrow of the former authenticates textual understanding, the full comprehension of “that he is,” the sorrow of the latter authenticates lack of textual understanding, the impoverished comprehension of “that he is.” Sorrow is thus positioned as both the precondition and the fruit of interpretation. And while these two sorrows, the sorrow of having and the sorrow of not having the text’s meaning, are different, they are fundamentally related. For the latter is already on the way to the former in the same way that, to use the classic Zen figure for deixis, sorrowing that one does not see the moon but only the hand pointing to it is already seeing the moon, in some measure. This measure is the measure of apophasis, the space of continuity between unknowing and knowing, and it is across this space that sorrow in the Cloud operates as an interpretation of being which reveals by negation. So this paper (still unwritten) accepts the text’s invitation of “whoso felid never this sorow” to sorrow, not as a crude advertisement for perfect sorrow, much less an unfriendly extra-discursive gesture of contemplative elitism, but as an opening or giving of its essential meaning as the ongoing, gerundive process of seeking it, of having by not-having it. To read the sorrow that one is not to choose which of these two readers one is, but to recognize that one is always already both.

So much more to say, so many more tears. Even the praeteritio would take pages. So instead, a postscript:

In the final scene of After the Fox (1966), starring Peter Sellers, criminal mastermind Aldo Vanucci, a.k.a The Fox, escapes prison disguised as a doctor, also played by Peter Sellers, whom he leaves tied up in his cell. A crucial element of Vanucci’s disguise is a fake beard. After clearing the prison gates, he tries to remove it, but it will not come off. He, whoever he now is, exclaims, “My God, the wrong man has escaped!”


1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. C.K. Ogden (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998), 6.44.

2 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, tr. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 14.

3 This and subsequent citations are from The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997). References are to chapter and line numbers.

4 “In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting. . . . Thanks to this clearing, beings are unconcealed in certain changing degrees. And yet a being can be concealed, too, only within the sphere of what is lighted. Each being we encounter and which encounters us keeps to this curious opposition of presence in that it always withholds itself at the same time in a concealedness. The clearing in which beings stand is in itself at the same time concealment” (Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, tr. Albert Hofstadter [New York: Harper & Row, 1971], 53).

5 Agamben explains: “τέχνη meant for the Greeks ‘to cause to appear,’ and ποίησις meant ‘pro-duction into presence’; but this production was not understood in connection with agere, doing, but with γνϖσις, knowing. Conceived in a Greek fashion, pro-duc-tion (ποίησις, τέχνη) and praxis are not the same thing. . . . In other words, the way the Greeks thought of production and the work of art was the inverse of the way in which aesthetics has accustomed us to think of them: ποίησις is not an end in itself and does not contain its own limit, because it does not bring itself into presence in the work, as acting (πράξις) brings itself into presence in the act (πρακτόν); the work of art is not the result of a doing, not the actus of an agere, but something substantially other (έτερον) than the principle that has pro-duced it into presence” (The Man Without Content, tr. Georgia Albert [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], 73).

6 In the Book of Privy Counselling, the ability to experience the actuality of one’s being, that one is, is an excellence of rationality, but not an absolute distinction of the human vis-à-vis animals. Reason thus appears as a perfection of a more general, rather than a unique, kind of consciousness. And this goes to ensure the universal availability of this work: “For I holde him to lewyd and to boistous that kan not thenk and fele that himself is, not what himself is bot that hymself is. For this is pleynli proprid to the lewdist kow or to the moste unresonable beest (yif it might be seide, as it may not, that one were lewder or more unresonable then another) for to fele the owne propre beyng. Moche more than it is proprid to man, the whiche is singulerly endowid whith reson aboven alle other beestes, for to thenk and for to fele his owne propre beyng.” (English Mystics of the Middle Ages, ed. Barry Windeatt [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 80).

7 Mystical Theology, 1.3, my italics, cited from Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 137.

8 Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 55.

9 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, 54. Agamben is following Aquinas’s understanding of the halo as an unnecessary surplus to perfection, something that adds to it by adding nothing: “beatitudo includit in se omnia bona quae sunt necessaria ad perfectam hominis vitam, quae consistit in perfecta hominis operatione; sed quaedam possunt superaddi non quasi necessaria ad perfectam operationem, ut sine quibus esse non possit, sed quia his additis est beatitudo clarior” (Scriptum super Sententiis, 4.49.5).

10 Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning, tr. Pascale Anne-Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 42.

11 Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, tr. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 20-1.

12 De civitate Dei, 14.6, ed. Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb, 5th ed. (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1981).

13 Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, tr. Karen E. Pinkhaus with Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 25.

14 Language and Death, 25.


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.