nikki moore

Posts Tagged ‘jean-paul sartre’

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.

to cry or to mop over spilled milk…

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Hegel’s man is the type who starts off by crying over split milk (the Unhappy Consciousness confronted by the objective world).  Then he beings to ‘philosophise’ about it, and dries his eye, because he has come to know the situation as it really is.  Marx’s man will immediately point out that this is all very well, but the milk is still on the floor.  He will reach for the mop and do something about it.  Hegel’s man, however, still retains one potent defence.  he will regard the antics of his friend with an amused contempt, and point out to him how silly it is to get one’s knew dirty trying to clean the floor, when all the situation demands is a little high-level reflection.

From Marx’s Paris Writings – John MaGuire

though the floor would get muddled, we could read this with Heidegger’s ‘Letter on Humanism’ introducing not only Martin, but Jean Paul Sartre as well.  And then with Sartre, Beauvoir and already with Heidegger, Arendt.  

Sartre and Marx would mop.  Heidegger and Hegel would stand by and smirk, though hidden cameras might show the mops’ earlier arrivals via Heidegger’s hand.  Oddly, Arendt might call Zizek in, as inevitably he’d be waiting outside, pacing and wondering what Hitchcock would do with all these scenes and actors.

I’m being silly.  and then again, I’m not.  

What can be said about philosophy, about action, about thinking… now.  In a recent talk in NYC, Zizek said he was reading Lacan in order to bring the German Idealists back, knowing full well and admitting that such an action is really far more provocative, risque and risky then any of the art movements who claim to be pushing boarders and buttons in their skin bare works.  But is it really risky?  John Maguire reading Marx might say that until Zizek picks up the mop, he is all thought and no action.  Yet Marx himself, a prolific writer and theorist troubled those milky waters long before Maguire began to write about him.  

I’d like to side with Heidegger in the way he nullified the mind/body thought/action distinction.  Yet isn’t this where Heidegger’s own political alliances (with National Socialism) call us all to question? 

And isn’t the question precisely that of the nature of the call?

In a brilliant analysis of Heidegger’s understanding of the call of conscience, Avital Ronell pulls no punches: her debut text, the Telephone Book  proposes a multiplicity of splits, not of mind and body, or thought and action, but of mind and mind, and mind again.  We know this splitting as schizophrenia and her point is that the one called is never one.  The caller is never singular and someone is always on the line, be it an operator on the switch or a censor on the prowl… the caller and the called are never alone, are never only two, are never less than multiple.

what does this do to Praxis?  are we left either to smirk or to mop?  to we smirk first, and mop later?  do we smirk and find someone else to mop?  

i am asking.  i am acting.  i am asking.

cavorting with johns

In Subjection on January 11, 2009 at 10:48 pm

i didn’t read him for years, mainly because, ostensibly and albeit contestedly, foucault couldn’t stand him.

you could say i am a devoted friends.  or… here, at the end of nausea, you  might instead call me a betrayer.  but i’m not the point.
“in the first place, starting from 1801, I understand nothing more about his conduct.  it is not the lack of documents: letters, fragments of memoirs, secret reports, police records.  on the contrary i have almost too many of them.  what is lacking in all this testimony is firmness and consistency.  they do not contradict each other, neither do they agree with each other; they do not seem to be about the same person.  and yet other historians work from the same sources of information.  how do they do it?  am i more scrupulous or less intelligent?  in any case, the question leaves me completely cold.  in truth, what am i looking for?  i don’t know…”

“…I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved.  these are honest hypotheses which take the facts into account: but i sense so definitely that they come from me, and that they are simply a way of unifying my own knowledge.  not a glimmer comes from Rollebon’s side.  slow, lazy, sulky, the facts adapt themselves to the rigour of the order i wish to give them; but it remains outside of them.  i have the feeling of doing a work of pure imagination.”          Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre.  p 13

*i think the idea is that there are no ideas.  there is stuff.  there can be emotions.  is that what Jean-Luc is saying (and what is with the hyphenated johns)…

“singular essences are mobile, volatile, and always different than themselves and defer their essential nature – however they never cease to promise sameness.  it is the latter property which is endowed with the spark of an idea: this stone, that fern and this woman.”     “Strange Foreign Bodies”, for Lacanian Ink #32, p 129

but this brings me back to foucault.  does it bring sartre as well? if the body is the cage/seat/site of the soul (foucault) and the body is strangeness, with the promise of sameness… it is just body but body not flesh and blood and guts but body as body, full body.

“my hands touch each other, and my body recognizes itself as coming toward itself from an outside that the body is itself.  the body takes in the outside world.  this chiasm of the flesh is very well described by the most perceptive phenomenologist of the body – and this chiasm which makes us sensitive to how we are women to the world… “inside” is to be und between outside and outside, and this in-between – the in-between of its hide-out, of its cave and its myths and ghosts – is in the end nothing but another out.”

“the body does not contain anything… the body exposes itself to the depths of its guts, between the fibers of its muscles and along its vessels.  it exposes the inside to the outside and always escapes further, deeper into the abyss that it is.  however this is the truth of the world: it comes out of nothing, it is created, which means that is is unproduced, unformed, and not constructed.  it is an alteration and a spasm of nihil.  the world is an explosion and an expansion of an exposure (which can be called ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’).  the chiasm of the body and of the world exposes exposure to itself – and with it, the impossibility to finally bring the world to the spirit, and bring meaning to significance.”

“the body is strangeness which is not preceded by familiarity.”     again, Nancy, “Strange Foreign Bodies” pp 125-126

and so there are just objects.  extremely complex, but then again that complexity belies connectivity, which insinuates meaning and means all the wrong thing…

there is more to think about. here.