nikki moore

Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

one way from brooklyn to austin tomorrow

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm

hell is other people

In Friendship, Love, Subjection, what is philosophy? on May 23, 2009 at 10:24 pm

(This is, at present, the first chapter of my PhD dissertation for the European Graduate School, 2009)


Hell is other people.[1]   – Jean Paul Sartre

Before the island – and Capri will never be Patmos – there will have been a Promised Land.  How to improvise and allow oneself to be surprised in speaking of it?[2] Jacques Derrida

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”[3]Friedrich Nietzsche

You know the story – “God is Dead” and, tritely put: Without him, life is meaningless, absurd.  Everything is permissible, nothing is permitted.  In this wasteland, it’s just a short trip to the concept of hell, but I’d like to contend in what follows, that it’s a trip we rarely take.

Or it’s a trip we always take.  Or, more accurately, a trip we always takes.

If I could only back up and explain.  It’s a bit of a long story, but if you’ll ride with me (as you already are, as you already have, as we already do the moment we commit to read) perhaps we’ll find the ticket to, well… I’d like to say to hell and back but there aren’t any round trips to this sort of work.  We can’t even say its a one-way, because the very point is that one, One, has long since been dead.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’m getting ahead of us. 

So where were we…

Hell is other people.  – Jacques Derrida

I’m not sure if he ever said it, or wrote it, just like that.  But I would like to propose, that in many ways ‘hell is other people’ is much of what Derrida was ever writing.  I’m not talking about his style (and then I am) and I’m definitely not talking about the way he’s been read in much of analytic American annals, (if we can call that reading at all).  What I’m proposing is not even my own (as we’ll see through Kant and common sense, nothing ever is): but… what if Derrida took us all straight to hell and we still haven’t read the memo?  Or again, rather, we still hasn’t read the memo?  And now here, at this second profanation of [we] I’ll have to start explaining or you’re left to wonder whether I’m trying to make we into something more than it is.  Something more than it is.  It is.  I am.  You are.  Isn’t it interesting how being makes its way into any conversation? 

Which brings us to:

Hell is other people.  – Martin Heidegger

Well he didn’t actually say that either.  Not in that way.  Heidegger called it mit-sein.  Being-with.  We’ll get to Heidegger and his being-with in more detail in a later chapter.  For now it might be enough to say that Heidegger, Derrida’s advisor and mentor, was part of we’s undoing and far be it from me not to give Heidegger his due.  Do. Due. Debt is what we’re getting at.  Debt is what we are getting at precisely because this hell isn’t about repayment at all.  It isn’t punishment, torture or purification.  What it is, what we are, as Heidegger spells out in Being and Time, is an originary being-with, without moral judgment, though judgment itself (specifically Kant’s critique thereof) does, awkwardly, hold everything to the stake.

So once again, but never the same:

Hell is other people.  – Kevin Hart

From Heidegger’s being-with to Derrida’s being without.  In a lovely little article entitled ‘Without Derrida’ Hart, in ten short pages, takes us straight to hell in a hand basket[4].  No, not really a hand basket, and it would be a shame to call it straight, but by imposing, importing and imparting a few clever frames, Derrida takes Immanuel Kant, and all of us along with him, to hell in a hand basket.   At least that is the story I’m trying to tell. 

Onto and into that story.  It’s a story involving many characters, no author and no less than one critical slip in judgment.  It is my hope that together, we’ll find hell at the end.  For us, quite frankly, the point is that there is no other way.

So off we go:

We’ll begin at the end, with Kevin Hart & Derrida’s first visit to Yale.  Which of course brings others in its (his, their?) wake.  In other words, Derrida brings friends (more on friendship after more on mit-sein), with Kant being the first fellow in question to inaugurate the ‘we’, if you will.  And, I suppose, even if you won’t.

According to Hart: Derrida arrives at Yale in 1975 with a word: sans.  He brings it in a frame.  Or he brings it from a frame.  The truth is (to be found in painting) this frame comes in through Derrida’s recently published “Parergon” from late 1974[5].  For Hart, this frame is the frame of a portrait, the portrait of Immanuel Kant reflecting back into Derrida’s own peinture.  And of that portraiture…

Immanuel Kant.  A man of many talons and talents, we are here interested in him for the way that he and Derrida introduce an impossibly important and imported ‘we’. [6]  For Kant, the we slips in through a dis.cussion on dis.interest.  Kant calls it the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’…  “But it is readily apparent that this is merely a mistaken confusion of words…”[7]

Kant did his best to help clarify the confusion: beauty, pleasure, desire, interest, disinterest – who but Immanuel could keep them all straight?  And straight was quite the goal.  No overlapping, no confusion and no crossings of any kind.  With everything at stake, “…the solution of this problem is key to the critique of taste, and so is worthy of all attention.”[8]  ‘Worthy of all attention?’  Has taste ever had so much (dis)interest directed its way? 


“Taste is the faculty of judging an object or a mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest.  The object of such a delight is called beautiful.”[9]

 You know the drill.  For Kant, for a thing to be called beautiful it must be of no interest to the one calling it such.  The dis.interested party must not be in want, in desire, in need of the thing called beautiful in anyway.[10]

“This definition of the beautiful is derivable from the foregoing definition of it as an object of delight apart from any interest.  So where anyone is conscious that his delight in an object is with him independent of interest, it is inevitable that he should judge the object as one containing a ground of delight for all human beings.  For, since the delight is not based on any inclination of the subject (or on any other deliberate interest), but the judging subject feels himself completely free in respect of the liking which he accords to the object, he can find as reason for his delight no personal conditions to which his own subjective self might alone be party.  Hence he must regard it as resting on what he may also presuppose in every other person; and therefore he must believe that he has reason for expecting a similar delight from everyone.  Accordingly he will speak of the beautiful as if beauty were a feature of the object  and the judgement were logical (forming a cognition of the object by concepts of it); although it is only aesthetic, and contains merely a reference of representation of the object to the subject; – because it still bears this resemblance to the logical judgement, that it may be presupposed to be valid for everyone. “[11]

In this long paragraph we have the onset of the Derridian/Kantian ‘we’ sneaking in with the analytic of the beautiful.  In the first place, Kant again reiterates that taste is exhibited by those who can name the beautiful, without personal interest therein.  Yet this move, were it simply a subjective preference would equate beauty with pleasure as something individual, pleasing and clearing interested.  To distinguish beauty from pleasure Kant introduces the universally subjective – that which each individual recognizes as beautiful and in recognizing it as such assumes it to be beautiful for all subjects who are without interest in the thing in question. The turn here is that the subject will “…speak of the beautiful as if beauty were a feature of the object  and the judgement were logical (forming a cognition of the object by concepts of it); although it is only aesthetic, and contains merely a reference of representation of the object to the subject;..” What evolves in this mode of thinking is common sense – the community of tasteful subjects who agree to talk about the object as if beauty was a feature of that object.  “The judgement of taste expects agreement from everyone; and a person who describes something as beautiful insists that everyone ought to give the object in question his approval and follow suit in describing it as beautiful.”[12]

 Here, at ‘ought’ we are now ready to make the leap, to Derrida, to religion and morality, to the ‘we’ we’ve been tracking all along.

Much has been made of ‘ought’ and battles over is vs ought rage in countless domains.  Yet for us, for we, Kant’s ought is the source of a critical slip both for and from Kant, from a presumed disinterest to a very clear and mounting interest.  What I mean is, ought is an imperative.  It is the force of weight, of duty, even moral obligation, applied to a given thing or idea.  But in the universe Kant has been describing to us, one of disinterested taste proclamations, there is no object, no quality of an object which could induce a moral ‘ought’ of any kind.  The reason being that the beautiful, as we noted above is simply agreed to be such by a community of agreeable taste definers.  Essentially the ought arises from this agreeable ‘we’ precisely because it cannot and must not arise from the object called beautiful in order for it to be called such.

While the beginnings of Derrida’s introduction of this impossible ‘we’ first appear in the “Parergon” (1974), Derrida again introduces this we in “Faith and Knowledge” (2002).  Clearing up what we called above a ‘“… merely a mistaken confusion of words…”[13] Derrida takes the brunt of Kant’s aesthetic critique and applies it to the realm where it has always been best suited: that of morality and religion.  Derrida begins this shift from framing to the frame with a question:

Are we ready to measure without flinching the implications and consequences of the Kantian thesis?  The latter seems strong, simple and dizzying: the Christian religion would be the only truly ‘moral religion…[14]

In the 28-year lapse between the introduction of the Kantian we in the “Parergon” and its most forceful iteration in Acts of Religion, Derrida’s readers indeed answered his question of readiness in the negative.  “Are we ready to measure…”  Perhaps we didn’t hear.  Perhaps we still can’t hear: accustomed to listening for one clear Voice in the wilderness, perhaps voices, a chorus, the chora, split even amongst themselves are something for which our ears still need tuning.   So perhaps if we hear it again:  In the lengthy quote below, Derrida applies the form of Kant’s analytic of the Beautiful to the questions of morality.  No longer are we looking at a community who must, in common sense, uphold the beauty of what is beautiful in agreement, we are now looking at how community itself again must assume the non-identity of not only the beautiful, but the good as well. As Hart writes it:

If the Kantian principle of purposiveness without purpose denies the convertibility of the transcendentals, detaching beauty from truth and the good, the Kantian philosophy of religion fastens onto the good and, severing it from divine love, refigures it as duty.  Derrida adjusts this enlightenment model by a swift and simple move, one learned by combining lessons from Hyppolite and Blanchot: the absolutely singular is no longer God but the other person, leaving both ethics and religion to function in terms of faith alone, without a vision of the good.[15]

Derrida fleshes this out this ‘swift and simple’ move in the following quote, taken from Acts of Religion:

1. In the definition of “reflecting faith” and of what binds the idea of pure morality indissolubly to Christian revelation, Kant recurs to the logic of a simple principle, that which we cited a moment ago verbatim: in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as though God did not exist or no longer concerned himself with our salvation.  This shows who is moral and who is therefore Christian, assuming that a Christian owes it to himself to be moral: no longer turn towards God at the moment of acting in good faith; act as though God had abandoned us.  In enabling us to think (but also to suspend in theory) the existence of God, the freedom or the immortality of the soul, the union of virtue and of happiness, the concept of “postulate” of practical reason guarantees this radical dissociation and assumes ultimately rational and philosophical responsibility, the consequence here in this world, in experience, of this abandonment.  Is this not another way of saying that Christianity can only answer to its moral calling and morality, to its Christian calling if it endures in this world, in phenomenal history, the death of God, well beyond the figures of the Passion?  That Christianity is the death of God thus announced and recalled by Kant to the modernity of the Enlightenment?…

2. With regard to this logic, to its formal rigour and to its possibilities, does not Heidegger move in a different direction?…[16]

While we will deal with Heidegger in a bit, centuries past the enlightenment we are still not ready to hear about morality[17], we are still blocking the repercussions of ‘common sense.’[18] 

Yet it is this very common sense we are asked by Derrida’s Kant to hear as ‘we’.  A very different way of being together, being in common, as Hannah Arendt clearly states it:

Common sense for Kant did not mean a sense common to all of us, but strictly that sense which fits us into a community with others, makes us members of it and enables us to communicate things given by our five private senses… Common sense, by virtue of its imaginative capacity, can have present in itself all those who actually are absent.  It can think, as Kant says, in the place of everybody else, so that when somebody makes the judgment, this is beautiful, he does not mean merely to say this pleases me… but he claims assent from others because in judging he has already taken them into account and hence hopes that his judgments will carry a certain general, though perhaps not universal, validity.[19]

Hannah Arendt, positioned herself to both receive and question the repercussions of this common sense.  It is in her work that we can most clearly re-cycle to our beginning thread… And at the risk of overstating, to continue the iterations we’ve been making:

Hell is other people. – Hannah Arendt.

While Sartre depicted this condition, in “No Exit”, as group torture, I am trying to evoke something slightly more banal (though utterly outside or yes, ‘beyond good and evil’) in repeating his famous phrase.  Hell is other people: or, outside of and without God, a domain traditionally known as hell precisely for its Divine Lack, for Kant and Derrida, (as for Sartre, Heidegger and Arendt albeit differently) there is nothing more and nothing less than other people.  We.  Us.  A socially constructed group to be sure, we have invented our.selves in common sense.  As post-structuralism has amply and avidly pointed out, this constructed un.founding opens the possibility of resistance and freedom (think Judith Butler) but also reveals ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ when, as Arendt’s work points out we are all that is responsible for our own most heinous histories. 

“How strange and how frightening it suddenly appeared that the very terms we use to designate these things  “morality,” with its Latin origin, and “ethics,” with its Greek origin – should never have meant more than usages and habits.  And also that two thousand five hundred years of thought, in literature, philosophy and religion, should not have brought forth another word, notwithstanding all the highflown phrases, all assertions and preachings about the existence of a conscience which speaks with an identical voice to all men.  What had happened?  Did we finally awake from a dream?”[20]

Indeed, what has happened?  From the dream of heaven, of redemption and even now from common sense, are  ‘we’ yet awake to… simply, us?   Nothing more, nothing less?  The Kantian community of common sense, where both terms (common and sense) must be put to the question is again, as we will see in the chapters to follow, under needful redefinition on many fronts.  Yet what of this ‘we’ who might finally be ready to wake?  Are we ready yet, to hear? 

Are we?

Are we ready?

Are we yet?


[1] Sartre, Jean-Paul.  No Exit and three other plays.  Random House, New York.  1943.

[2] Derrida, Jacques.  “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion.  trans Gil Anidjar, Routledge: New York, 2002.  p 48.

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Penguin Press, New York.  1978.

[4] Hart, Kevin.  “Without Derrida”…

[5] The full text can now be found in:  Derrida, Jacques.  The Truth in Painting.  University of Chicago Press, 1987.

[6] While others (Marx) might have marked the mass filled ‘we’ as political capital, subordinating community to class, and yet others (Hegel) visualized ‘we’ as the embodiment of history moving through space and time, subordinating relationality to idea, still others (Freud, Lacan) saw we as all that stands outside the individual and signifies its death/castration.  Both pre- and pro- ceding this lineage, poignantly, albeit problematically, the Derridian-Kantian ‘we’ is subordinate only to the already given death of god.  In other words, whereas ‘we’ is a hollow function or means for Marx, Hegel and psychoanalysis, we, us, relationality is the sole end of and for Derrida’s Kant. 

[7] Kant, Immanuel.  The Critique of Judgement, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.39. 

[8] Kant, Immanuel.  P.48

[9] Kant, Immanuel, p. 42

[10] Kant, Immanuel: “Only when people’s needs have been satisfied can we tell who among the crowd has taste or not.”  …p. 42

[11] Ibid, page

[12] Kant, p. 69

[13] Kant, Immanuel.  The Critique of Judgement, …p.39. 

[14] 1 Derrida, Jacques.  “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion.  trans Gil Anidjar, Routledge: New York, 2002.  p 50.

[15] Hart, Kevin.  “Without Derrida” The European Legacy.  Routledge.  Vol 12, no. 4, pp. 419-429.  2007.

[16] 2 Derrida, Jacques.  “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion.  trans Gil Anidjar, Routledge: New York, 2002. p 50-51 [brackets] mine.

[17] Think Zizek as ‘more Christian than the Christians”.  Lacanian Ink #33 talk, at Tilton Gallery, May 23rd.

[18] Think Deleuze on common sense and good sense (in “The Image of Thought” from Difference and Repetition) as stultifying blocks to the possibility of thinking. 

[19] Arendt, Hannah.  Responsibility and Judgement… p 139, 140.

[20] Arendt, Hannah.  Responsibility and Judgement,  Random House: New York, 2003.  p 50.

the capital subject is redundant

In Love, philosophy as biography, Subjection on May 10, 2009 at 12:15 pm

there was an argument of sorts yesterday.  yet i think we can agree, at least, that I was not there.

i will not be here either.  but perhaps we can say i will have been here?

honestly, now, i don’t remember the question.  i said something about a chicken.  jill stauffer says (to the chicken or the egg) …the chicken comes from the future.  in that case i was and may be again, that chicken.  we do agree, i think, that even so i’ll never know it.

repetition repetition

so today i propose to reinsert myself in and through repetition.  perhaps that was the fault?  perhaps as jean-luc marion and alain badiou contend i cannot show up if i only show up once.  maybe i(t) should be said twice: repetition. repetition.  (already preceeded by “once more, once more”..?) perhaps, however, as peter eisenmann realized when he began to sign his names and projects twice, it is an underwriting of what refuses to be underwritten… or as Derrida points out in the copyright has no insurer.

no in.surance.

so .i. re-

petition: trans. to make a request or supplication to; spec. to address a written petition to an authority in respect of a particular cause; to make a formal application to a court.  

(oxford english dictionary)

which court, which authority?  are we not already speaking of a certain sort of religion?

…however little may be known of religion in the singular, we do know that it is always a response and responsibility that it is always a response and responsibility that is prescribed, not chosen freely in an act of pure and abstractly autonomous will.  there is no doubt that it implies freedom, will and responsibility but let us try to think this; will and freedom without autonomy.  Whether it is a question of sacredness, sacrificiality or of faith, the other makes the law, the law is other: to give ourselves back, and up, to the other.  To every other and to the utterly other.

(Derrida, Jacques.  “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion.  p 71)

will and freedom without autonomy.  we know where this goes.  kant at least.  calvin most definitely.  can we escape this?  is it the ‘you’ that promises escape and what of promising?  

it hurts, but stay here with me.  i am(is) always a false promise.  i am always an outside.  a temporary convergence, you could say a binding, or even a gathering… 

Assuring oneself of a provenance of etymologies.  the best illustration would be given by the divergence concerning the two possible etymological sources of the word religio: (a) relegere, from leger (“harvest, gather”): Ciceronian tradition continued by W. Otto, J.-B Hofmann, Benveniste; (b) religare, from ligare (“to tie, bind”).  this tradition would go from lactantius and tertullian to kobbert, ernout-meillet, pauly wissowa.  in addition to the fact that etymology never provides a law and only provides material for thinking on the condition that it allows itself to be thought as well, we shall attempt later to define the implication or tendency <charge> common to the two sources of meaning thus distinguished.  beyond a case of simple synonyms, the two semantic sources perhaps overlap.  they would even repeat one another not far from what in truth would be the origin of repetition, which is to say, the division of the same.            

(Derrida, Jacques.  “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion, p. 71 bold: mine)

and of course the bold is never mine.  it isn’t derrida’s either.  and it is.  he shares it with another.  (and if i had a footnote in this format perhaps we could think jean-luc nancy’s sharing: at once a division amongst and a common between.  like sharing grapes.  but without a footnote..?  here in the body, is that possible?)

religare, relegere.  to bind and to gather.  

in the definition of “reflecting faith” and of what binds the idea of pure morality indissolubly to Christian revealation, Kant recurs to the logic of a simple principle, that which we cited a moment ago verbatim: in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as though God did not exist or no longer concerned himself with our salvation.  

(Derrida, Jacques.  “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion, p. 51)

here i have stumbled into something perhaps i should not have seen.  an intimacy between Derrida and Zizek so profound, an intimacy that moves from profundity to surface, all surface.  

My desperate problem is how to draw, how to extract the Christian notion of redemption from this financial transaction logic.  This is what I’m desperately looking for.    (Zizek, Slavoj.  On Divine Self-Limitation and Revolutionary Love, an Interview at Syracuse University)


When Marx holds the critique of religion to be the premise of all ideology-critique, when he holds religion to be the ideology par excellence, even for the matrix of all ideology and of the very movement of fetishization, does his position not fall, whether he  would have wanted it or not, within the parergonal framework of this kind of rational criticism?  Or rather, more plausible but also more difficult to demonstrate, does he not already deconstruct the fundamentally Christian axiomatics of Kant? This could be one of our questions, the most obscure one no doubt, because it is not at all certain that the very principles of the Marxist critique do not still appeal to a hererogeneity between faith and knowledge, between practical justice and cognition.  This heterogeneity, by the way, may ultimately not be irreducible to the inspiration or to the spirit of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.  All the more since these figures of evil discredit, as much as the accredit, the “credit” which is the act of faith.  The exclude as much as they explain, they demand perhpas more than ever this recourse to religion, to the principle of faith, even if it is only that of a radically fiduciary form of the “reflecting faith” already mentioned. 

Derrida, Jacques.  “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion, p. 53)

996 words into this essay, this repetition, I am racking up quite a debt. but the point is that “I” is only ever a racking up, a ratcheting up of a debt that cannot be paid.  faith, credit, fiduciary terms: we are talking about promise.  unfulfillable promise.  a promise to respond, to respond.ability. this is the bottom line to any subject.  these are the terms of any subjectivity.  and this is a bank filled with empty accounts.  blank ledgers, even if not blank slates.  

given such poverty – why talk in these terms?  why speak in terms of debt or guilt, … in any of these broke.n discourses?  

perhaps that is why i can rarely speak.  i work in words to, what… nudge? invade from the inside? (didn’t deleuze call it buggery?) perhaps. i am . viral.  parasitical?  penicillin? 

insertions, injections, implosions… subjectivity, like capitalism, promises the impossible and untenable (undesirable) universal. it/they promise and project, hedging bets on markets that fall through working hands like grains of sand.silicon.sand.  the ‘as if’, the creation of smooth space proposes a life that is. elsewhere.  ‘this can’t be all that there is’.  yet if we can let capitalism run its full course, could we not let the subject do (when it already is never and exactly) the same?

a quick *reflection

In Law, Subjection on May 8, 2009 at 12:11 pm

let me begin by saying (as will become evident) i am a fan of Jonah Lehrer’s blog, the Frontal Cortex. also, I am fresh out of a talk on ‘the liberal subject’ by Jay College’s Jill Stauffer at the New School for Social research, which is coloring my response.  from what I have read and heard of both Lehrer and Stauffer, at least for now, both seem to engage a classic liberal idea of the subject, (Lehrer from a neuro-scientific point of view and Stauffer from a legal and philosophical background) albeit in both cases to challenge as well as posit.  for Lehrer, Obama’s statements this week on his upcoming supreme court judicial nominations sparked a very needed discussion on empathy, where for Stauffer, the question of empathy is or could be contained in her probing of infinite responsibility via Levinas.  both of these conversations come to bear on the upcoming nomination as the reach of law, justice and empathy is part and parcel of a justices’ job description.  and while this is a lot to parse out in a blog post, nonetheless, i’d like to quickly *reflect on two of his Lehrer’s latest posts: Empathy and Watching Movies as something about the I and that liberal self emerge in this linkage. 

first, beginning with Lehrer’s discussion on Adam Smith:

According to Smith, the source of these moral emotions was the imagination, which we used to automatically mirror the minds of others. (The reflective mirror, which had recently become a popular household item, is an important metaphor in Smith’s writing on morality.) “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith wrote, “we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” This mirroring process leads to an instinctive sympathy for our fellow man⎯Smith called it “fellow-feeling”⎯which formed the basis for our moral, legal and ethical decisions.

Adam Smith, classic liberal thinker par excellence… (classic liberal meaning one who values individual liberty and equality.  awkwardly classic liberalism in the US is now most closely politically aligned with conservatives or republicans, i.e. we are not talking about ‘bleeding hearts’ when we talk about classical liberalism). in the mirror analogies as presented both by Lehrer and his own writings, Smith opens us up to a very problematic debate on the Other.  for Smith, empathy functions because we can imagine how the other feels, as that other is a mirror image of one’s self.  yet as this dialogue progresses it is crystal clear that the Other is no longer other, but a self projection.  many thinkers, economists, writers and political theorists have worked at this issue, so  i will simply point to it here: if we think the Other as the same, as simply a projection of self, we are never dealing with another, but just another me.  politically this is incredibly problematic as questions of empathy, which Lehrer has brilliantly raised,  rely on our ability to feel what the other feels.

in her presentation at the New School last night, Stauffer, via Levinas, brilliantly raised the problem of the razing of the  Other.  for Stauffer, something like empathy is a response to the infinite responsibility of a subject who never chooses the responsibilities that do befall them.  what emerged both in Jill’s talk and the discussion following was the role that law plays in 1) determining the liberal subject and 2) determining modes of response for trading (not ridding) the weight of infinite responsibility for institutional justice.  yet problems arise when we think of justice as legally derived, for it is only those who are already legally recognized who can seek justice, and precisely those without recognition who need it.   it is ‘clearly’ a problem of poor reflection.  of biased mirrors which see themselves in others and obliviate the Other that is not the same.

this is certainly a brazen run through of very intricate territory, but pushing on… perhaps there is an engagement with this mirroring in Lehrer’s approach in Movie Watching:

in his piece on Movie Watching, Lehrer deftly points out that the brain in a post-modern (if we want to call it that..?) film does not have the ability to shut off.  the fracture on screen will not let the brain settle into a comforting and ‘entertaining’ narrative.  and while Lehrer is simply pointing to this fact and explaining it, rather than making a value judgement, something in the collusion of Movie Watching, Empathy and Jill Stauffer’s work emerges through post-modern film theory.  part of what we could say, at least, is going on in movies like Syriana, (or say Synecdoche  which could be an archetypal film for fracture about fracture,) is that writers, directors, actors are working to portray something that more closely matches up with the fractal nature of lived experience: i.e., by this explanation, in life we don’t have a cohesive narrative until after the story ends, until death writes closure that can then be strung back through a completed life in narrative forms.  therefore, even the move to “…dole out comprehension in sudden spurts, when a crucial twist is suddenly revealed…” is cheating or disingenuous.  

of course we should recognize the flawed fluid narrative of fracture that undergirds fractal postmodern theory, yet this alone ‘gotcha’ is not enough to call for a simple return to narrative form and easy pleasure.  clearly lehrer was not, as his asterisk notes, calling for anything of the sort and what i’d like to suggest, at least for this 5 minutes, is that perhaps, as Stauffer went on to suggest last night, that fractured definitions can lead to a less reductionist understanding not only of the self, but also the Other we can never define as well as our responsibility to this other that is always so large a burden it is hard to move in, with or under.  perhaps a sort of fracturing that does not let the mind shut down – that recognizes, as one of Lehrer’s blog commenters brilliantly pointed out, [brackets mine],

The fundamental error, of course, [in the debate on whether or not empathy = activist judgement] is that the human brain is incapable of objectively reading anything – brains are not passive input reading devices, we are actively processing, recreating, and INTERPRETING every bit of information that enters our sensory organs … including our eyes when we are reading the Constitution. This is scientifically beyond dispute, every human brain is an “activist”.

‘every human brain is an “activist” and perhaps it does well to be: to be active in fracture rather than passive in unity, whether this fracture be that of film, self and Other or otherwise…

safely beyond the risk of repeating myself…

In ritual, Subjection on May 6, 2009 at 7:59 pm

between fish’s review of terry eagleton’s ‘Reason, Faith and Revolution’ , larval subject’s discussion thereof yesterday and today, not to mention The Politics of Love, (with Hardt, Zizek, Westphal, Hent De Vries and others speaking) which I recently attended in Syracuse you might say we’re taking part in an a.tent.ion revival of and to all things theological.  from lacan and zizek on the neighbor, the undead, the truly terrifying in aspects of Christianity to Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou’s interests in the revolution generating potential of faiths… we are, i suppose, all on our knees… looking for an answer, or 3.

on my knees (or on my back?) as it is and as it were, i’m still working through ritual.  searching, undecided – you could call me a sunshine soldier of sorts… for today, i’m pushing on and look forward to your comments on Seligman et al’s book Ritual and its Consequences: An essay on the limits of sincerity.  

chapter 2: ‘ambiguity, ambivalence and boundaries’

first boundaries – it could be said and has been said that western civilization is fundamentally built on an ongoing extermination of its others (see: exterminate all the brutes, by sven lindqvist).  if anything, or rather, among many things, what lindqvists’ work points out is that for any communities we might hope to foster or construct or…, an awareness not only of the other but an at least more permeable and less genocidal boundary between ‘us and them’ would be the first order of business.   Seligman, et al enter this debate as follows:

…in this chapter we address those capacities of the human mind that allow the ‘as if’ world of ritual to come into being and to persist.  the ‘as if’ quality in turn allows ritual to deal with the ambiguities and ambivalence in interactions with unseen and influential beings, especially deities.  In dealing with ambiguities, ritual engages boundaries: boundaries are crossed, violated, blurred, and then, in an oscillating way, reaffirmed, reestablished, and strengthened. Among the paradoxes that attend the performance of ritual is the paradox that ritual plays out a completion, a closure that solves the problem at hand.  Yet, at the same time the very nature of the repetitiveness of ritual implicitly shows that the problem is not solved once and for all, that all is not complete and perfect.  (Ritual and It’s Consequences, p. 43)

there is much to attend to in this quote, but let’s begin with the deities, quasi-mysterious unseen and yet influential.  from here we could go in still many more directions, but to keep this within an immanent framework, i am proposing a link between these deities and Zizek’s concept of the neighbor, and/or Lacan’s Big Other, even potentially to Levinas’ ‘third’.  this is a gloss on something i’ll develop more deeply later, but when we think radical otherness, surely ‘god’ is at the top of that list.  modes of relating to that radical other that have instituted in religious contexts may (though certainly they do not necessarily) provide options for relating to the Other next door.  more needs to be done here, clearly…

too quickly, then, our next move through the above Seligman et al quote is to see the way that ritual engages boundaries.  and not simply known boundaries.  through blurring and oscillating known boundaries, incompletion arises as given and repetition echos and enhances this incompletion and openness.  weeks (months from now?) when this dissertation moves on to Derrida and iterability, this may become more (ironically) clear.

taking ritual out of its traditional background in religious practice, Seligman et al look to clinical psychoanalysis and the social sciences for examples of ritualized boundary play:  jokes, riddles, storytelling, lying, mythmaking and art are just such play-grounds at work.  recalling bed-time story time between a father and child helps layout both what is operative and what exceeds ritual in the process of boundary setting, testing and ongoing dissolution:

The little boy sits on his father’s lap, holding his favorite stuffed animal, while the father reads a story to him, the child having gone through the ritual of which book to read (it always turns out to be only one or two out of a large number of possibilities).  The father reads “Jack and the Beanstalk” and must read it the same way each time, but either father or child can make some variation if the other consents to it, usually done in a slightly teasing or playful manner.   The little boy and/or father might accentuate in  voice or gesture one or another of the characters… but it has to be in a particular way, with a particular verbal and nonverbal formula.  a videotape would show also the repertory of bodily gestures, the alternating enfoldings and then separations of the bodies of father and son, the fidgeting and touching of different body parts at different points int he story, the variations in how closely the stuffed lion is held…   (Ritual and its consequences, p. 48)

yes, it is a sweet, common enough story… but the authors’ suggestions are these:

if one were to observe and study this bedtime ritual over time, it would become clear how much is being enacted between father and son: issues of giants and little boys, tiny things that can grow big and straight and strong, little boys who can act like the father, mothers who encourage their little boy’s efforts at “manhood,” and the virtues of cleverness as a weapon of the weak…  (Ritual and its Consequences, p. 48)

ok, i can hardly stand much more of this beanstalk variety/virility… but even with the ‘point’ being…, emphasis falls here: over time the little boy learns to play his role in the story and his father’s, new rituals arise from set frames and these new rituals challenge what was ‘the only way’ before.  ambiguity and ambivalence are worked through, allowing the child to imagine himself as self and other.  

other make-believes make the scene as well.  but not all ritualizing social examples are childhood sweetness and light.  ritual and repetition often have overtones of trauma built into their mention for good reason.  freud’s fort-da begins here, but post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sexual abuse are potentially ritualizing traumas as well.  in these cases, loss and/or abuse are re-cycled through repetition compulsions, fetishizations, and both verbal and non-verbal ritualized interchange.  

as we enter these critical domains of split and fracture, i am going to pause, post and re-group.  i look forward to your feedback.


the importance of please and thank you.

In Subjection on May 4, 2009 at 1:46 pm

springing from larval subjects’ post this morning on/by Terry Eagleton’s ‘come to jesus’ (and, of course, my dissertation) i’m undertaking a close reading (translate: close writing) of Ritual and It’s Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed.

for me, this quote just begs the question: what is ultimately needed?  and doesn’t this ‘ultimately’ already cede far too much?

guessing that ‘delivering what is ultimately needed’ means something like, for Badiou, creating the conditions for evental sites, or, for Zizek, overthrowing the money changer’s tables, i.e. making spaces for alternatives to capitalism… then Eagleton is jumping on a very large and already quite loud bandwagon.  i don’t blame him.  but i am increasingly convinced that formal, aestheticized and even radicalized Christianities such as those put forth by the abovementioned philosophers are simply a first step, when we are already on to the next riser.

enter Ritual and its Consequences, by Seligman, Weller, Puett and Simon.

Ritual: clearly a very old concept, predating monotheism, or, if you prefer, potentially pre-conscious.  As the social sciences formulate it, ritual is community building in at least one of two ways: 1) ritual order is ‘an artifice of humanity’ – think: the Confucians – designed to create social cohesion or, 2) ritual is ‘a divine construct, sent to allow humans to live properly in and even help support a divinely created order’ – think: rabbinic literature.  Concurring that both of these formulations short circuit the real strengths of ritual, Seligman, et al propose:

…ritual as a subjunctive – the creation of an order as if it were truly the case.  Or, putting it in different words, the subjunctive creates an order that is self-consciously distinct from other possible social worlds.  (Seligman, et al, p. 20)

Going back to Eagleton and the need for ‘what is ultimately needed’, Ritual and its Consequences sees Eagleton’s bet in Reason, Faith and Revolution and raises it one, proposing that it is not the nature of religion that revolutionaries (or post-marxists, if you prefer…) are seeking but a subjunctive universe, an ‘as if’, which can and does take place outside of religious frameworks.  Take the ritual courtesies of “please” and “thank you” – as Ritual writes it, with these seeming formalities,

…we are inviting our interlocutor to join us in  imagining a particular symbolic universe within which to construe our actions.  When I frame my requests with please and thank you, I am not giving a command (to pass the salt), but I am very much recognizing your agency (your ability to decline my request).  Hence, saying please and thank you communicates in a formal and invariant manner – to both of us – that we understand our interaction as the voluntary actions of free and equal individuals.  “Please” creates the illusion of equality by recognizing the other’s power to decline.  (Seligman, et al, p. 21)

Of course the ‘illusion of equality’ at first rings hollow.  Surely ‘what is ultimately needed’ is not the illusion of equality but real equality itself.  At this crux, we are faced with what will become questions of illusion which will be answered and further problematized in my dissertation on performativity, answered and further problematized in that same work on iterability, yet for now, staying close to Seligman, et al, the illusion of equality brings us near an anecdote I couldn’t have ordered if I’d tried.  This week on the F train, I overheard the following:

no, really, i can’t remember where i read it.  i think it was the new york times, or maybe, no, it was the times, i think: the point is that some people are just more comfortable lying.  they are good liars.  and you know what else – they are also really good competitive swimmers.  really, this was part of it.  they did a study and people who were good liars were also really good swimmers.  they said the correlation is that winning in swimming is, like, impossible. but the people who could lie to themselves and think they’d win actually did better and won more often.  i know, you want to see the survey sample, but still, i read it like, last week.

Between swimmers and liars, though we should very surely make a distinction between lying and illusion-ing, we are back again to the subjunctive, to the world ‘as if’ rather than the daunting unwinnable world ‘as is’.  Competitive swimmers who are good liars are able to illusion and imagine themselves into what was formerly and impossible truth.  They are able to please and thank you into a world where please and thank you is actualized: in short, the commonality between competitive swimmers and illusion is potentiality.  Or as Ritual writes it:

We argue that what constitutes society – what makes the social a sui generis entity, irreducible to any other – is precisely a shared “could be,” a mutual illusion of the sort that all rituals create.  To a great extent, this is what symbols do more than anything else: they represent a “could be”.

Echoing here is the impossible possibility of Derrida, and Zizek and Badiou’s shared injunction that only the impossible is worth doing.  Clearly Seligman, et als formulation is not free and clear, but what this work does expose is a slippage that Eagleton, Zizek, Badiou, Critchley and others may be reifying by merging the subjunctive with the religious.  We’ll keep going here, with this reading of ritual and, in this work in progress, I look forward to your feedback.