20 July 2006

Repeating the Enlightenment

Jodi Dean over at I Cite has recently posted on the growing threat of rightwing Christian Nationalism in the United States. Given phenomena such as this, it seems incumbant to me that we effect some sort of repetition of the Enlightenment. As Deleuze argues, repetition is never a repetition of the same, but is a repetition that transforms the very nature of the thing repeated in the act of repeating it. To repeat the Enlightenment is not to rotely repeat the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant, but to creatively apprehend that thought within the field of the present. Deleuze repeats Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hume, but there is little that resembles these thinkers in the work of Deleuze. Badiou repeats Plato and Lucretius, but there is little that resembles these thinkers in this repetition.

The repetition of Enlightenment in our time poses special problems that can be fleshed out by looking at Kant's discussion of Enlightenment in his essay "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" There Kant writes that, "Enlightenment is the human being's emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one's own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ["dare to be wise"]. Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is the motto of enlightenment... It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me" (Kant, Practical Philosophy, 17).

The difficulty in relating to rightwing Christian nationalists is precisely the manner in which their relation to the world is minoritarian by being unquestioningly organized around a text. A book understands for them. One can accept the wisdom of this book or not, but you cannot reason with it. As a result, all discourse becomes citational and bound to authority. And how can one disagree with the authority of God?

However, this problem is not restricted to Christian nationalism. As Lacan puts it, "How is one to return, if not on the basis of a peculiar discourse, to a prediscursive reality? That is the dream-- the dream behind every conception of knowledge. But it is also what must be considered mythical. There is no such thing as a prediscursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse" (Seminar 20, 32). Kant's conception of Enlightenment requires that there be an autonomous subject-- if only implicitly or potentially --capable of thought, and that that subject be capable of thinking independent of authority, whether that authority be dear leader, the priest, the police, one's parents, or a text. But if there is no pre-discursive reality, then it would seem that all thought is necessarily citational, such that we are forever unable to detach ourselves from the authority of language as a determinant of thought. Moreover, if the subject itself is a discursive construction as is argued by Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler, and Althusser with his account of interpellation, then the subject itself is a citation which can only iterate discourse in much the same way that a fractal iterates a particular pattern. If the subject itself is conceived as an effect of discourse, how is enlightenment possible? Kant conceives our status as minorities self-incurred, which is to say a result of laziness. However, the thought of figures such as Lacan, Foucault, Luhmann, Butler, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan suggests otherwise in that we, as subjects, are conceived as effects of the signifier, power, etc., such that our very being is citational. Here, perhaps, Lacan would be at an advantage as the subject is not simply conceived as a product of discourse such that its discursive nature exhausts its being, but as an effect of discourse that isn't identical to discourse itself. The Lacanian subject is a hole in being, a void whose effects can only be traced, and not discourse itself. From the standpoint of contemporary thought, the question of separation becomes especially important, as overcoming one's self-incurred minoritarian status requires an act of separation from the field of the Other. Badiou, for instance, with his account of truth and the subject can be thought as addressing the question of how such a separation possible. How is it possible to subtract a truth from the encyclopaedic determinants of a situation (Wittgensteinian language games, Bourdieu's habitus, Foucault's epistemes and power-structures, Levi-Straussian structures of thought, etc)?

In part, the goal of enlightenment remains very much the same as that articulated by Lucretius prior to the Enlightenment and carried out by Spinoza in the Theological-Political Treatise. In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius writes, "Whilst humankind throughout all the lands lay miserably crushed before all eyes beneath superstition-- who would show her head before along region skies, glowering on mortals with her hideous face --A greek it was who first opposing dared raise mortal eyes that terror withstand, whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest his dauntless heart to be the first to rend the crossbars at the gates of nature old. And thus his will and hardy wisdom won; and forward thus he fared afar, beyond the flaming ramparts of the world, until he wandered the unmeasurable All. Whence he is to us, a conqueror, reports what things can rise to being, what cannot, and by what law to each its scope prescribed, its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time. Wherefore superstition is now under foot, and us his victory now exalts to heaven" (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book 1, paragraph 2).

To overcome humanity's fear produced by superstition through a secularization of infinity (Badiou, "wandering the unmeasurable All") and reporting what can and cannot rise to being today remains one of the central goals. Worries about superstition might today sound remote, as few today are seized by terror when confronted with lunar eclipses or comets in the sky (though Pat Robertson's declaration that Katrina was punishment by God for homosexuality and the "sinful lifestyle" of those in New Orleans ought to give us pause). Yet superstition remains no less today in the form of ideology, new age spiritualities, and religion, rendering the task of overcoming superstition no less urgent than it has ever been. How to break with remains the question. This requires choice and exclusion, a choice and exclusion that "endless play" and "boundless conceptual creation" cannot respond to. How to break with doxa when reality has come to be understood as an effect of the signifier is the problem.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Levi, for a really enlightened (!) post. I enjoyed it particularily since you quoted from my favorite essay from 1784 by Kant.

Allow me to nitpick a bit: It's a strange translation you are using in the famous first phrase: "Enlightenment is the human being's emergence from his self-incurred minority.(sic).

"Immaturity" is the (almost) precise word in English for the German Mündigkeit. "Minority" misses the point.

Mündigkeit means not only "coming of age" - in a legal sense, but also, of course, autonomy in a psychological and philosophical sense. This is at the heart of the Kantian concept of the free, enlightened human being that Kant picked up from Rousseau.

Be that as it may. You are certainly correct in wanting a new Enlightenment, but likewise correct in pointing out the philosophical difficulties in the construction of the "self" that Kant took for granted. But through a Deleuzian "repetition" it should not only be possible, but also reachable.

The U.S. is the ONLY country in civilized, modern, democratic, educated, affluent societies in the 21st century where home-grown religious fundamentalism is still a major political and ideological force.

That's a regrettable instance of American exceptionalism!

Secularism is dominant everywhere else in the so-called first world.

The human need for metaphysics is another (genetic) matter. As you write, The Lacanian subject is a hole in being, a void..., and that hole needs to be filled, and will be - by numerous charlatans.

But, as you pointed out in your previous despondent post about the difficulty of practising philosophy, we are constrained by the human construct of language.

I can't remember where Nietzsche says so, but the gist is: God is in the grammar, and as long as we are doomed to see the world through it, we can't get rid of him.

Metaphysics IS superstition, but is Deleuzian concept-creation also?

And is Enlightenment as well?

Kant was right and still is, It is so comfortable to be a minor (IMMATURE)! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay.

Still, I'm optimistic. We haven't has religious warfare in Europe, the U.S., South America, China, and Japan for half a century.

Thanks again for your stimulating insight, Levi. It is greatly appreciated.

Orla Schantz

July 20, 2006 3:42 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks, as always, for the comments, Orla. I find the translation of Mundigkeit as "minority" odd as well. I'm working with Mary K. Gregor's translation, which is a part of the new authoritative English edition of Kant's collected work. Be that as it may, the translation is still strange.

Two points. I think you're right that Kant took the self for granted (though he significantly problematizes the notion of the subject in comparison to, say, Descartes in his distinction between empirical and transcendental apperception... Kant basically argues that we have no insight into ourselves as *substances*). Understanding what we understand today, it is clear that we cannot unproblematically assume a free subject. However, I nonetheless think that it's necessary to raise the question of what a free or autonomous subject might be.

Second, I am not convinced that metaphysics IS superstition. Is there a specific concept of metaphysics that you're here working with? You've said in the past that you're deeply indebted to Derrida. Are you perhaps referring to variants of the metaphysics of presence? Both Deleuze and Badiou understand what they're up to as metaphysics. Deleuze understands himself to have evaded problems of the metaphysics of presence by virtue of his account of the virtual and the Bergsonian pure past. Badiou evades the metaphysics of presence through his account of being as pure multiplicity without one (multiples of multiples are not composed of units but are infinitely dispersed differences). I personally don't see how we can dispense with metaphysics. You might find this interview with Badiou interesting and illuminating if you're not already familiar with his work:

http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_n2_v33/ai_16315394

I should probably specify that my claims are directed at the despair I experience with regard to a specifically American situation qua religion.

July 20, 2006 5:19 PM  
Blogger Jodi said...

Hi Levi--terrific post. I appreciate the distinction you make between the subject as a product of discourse and effect of discourse, particularly in light of the kind of opportunities this presents. The importance of separation does seem to me to be one of the key differences between Butler and Lacan, or, more precisely, one of the advantages that Lacan's notion of the subject has over Butler's where the only options are citational rather than refusal, negation, or an Act.

July 21, 2006 1:11 PM  
Anonymous Yusef Asabiyah said...

In this regard, Levi, I'm interested in an understanding of "schizophrenizing" as a positive power of thought which establishes connections and effects various syntheses which are affected by but not predetermined by any pre-existing discourse.

In this sense, "schizophrenizing" is an action of enlightenment.

July 22, 2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Yusif,

Could you say a bit more as to what you have in mind by "schizophrenizing" as a postive power of thought? I tend to think of Deleuze and Guattari's proposals in Anti-Oedipus as a dead end where political engagement is concerned, as I don't see them as adequately targeting molar structures, or providing realistic models for collective movements and change. Whenever I read Deleuze's late work with Guattari, I get the sense that I'm reading a very sexy version of Epicurus or Epictetus, i.e., an ethics of the slave that is formulated when one sees their opponent (in this case capitalism and the fascist desires that haunt it) as too strong to be defeated. As a result, we get a sort of aesthetic ethics of play and self-cultivation vis a vis desiring-machines and "lines of flight".

July 22, 2006 8:23 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

“As Deleuze argues, repetition is never a repetition of the same, but is a repetition that transforms the very nature of the thing repeated in the act of repeating it. To repeat the Enlightenment is not to rotely repeat the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant, but to creatively apprehend that thought within the field of the present.”

You started your essay with this bold assertion, which I thought was going to be followed up with a call to have us repeat (in the Deleuzian sense of repetition – vital, or creative repetition – repetition with a difference,) the Enlightenment. However, there appeared to be a faltering, or failure of nerve, expressed starting with this statement,

“As Lacan puts it, ‘How is one to return, if not on the basis of a peculiar discourse, to a prediscursive reality? That is the dream-- the dream behind every conception of knowledge. But it is also what must be considered mythical. There is no such thing as a prediscursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse’ (Seminar 20, 32).”

I think you went right to the nubbin of where the problem might reside with this, (which follows directly on the heels of the previously-quoted statement,),

“Kant's conception of Enlightenment requires that there be an autonomous subject-- if only implicitly or potentially --capable of thought, and that that subject be capable of thinking independent of authority, whether that authority be dear leader, the priest, the police, one's parents, or a text. But if there is no pre-discursive reality, then it would seem that all thought is necessarily citational, such that we are forever unable to detach ourselves from the authority of language as a determinant of thought.”

If we are going to repeat the Enlightenment, with difference, I think that it will be with a confrontation of the status of the subject and subjectivity and subjectivation. But somehow and in some way, your initial impetus to call for repetition of the Enlightenment with difference has picked up a worry that there is no repetition with difference, but only repetition, (dull, rote repetition) because “all thought is citational and we are unable to detach ourselves from the authority of language as a determinant of thought.”

I don’t know about the other thinkers here,

“Moreover, if the subject itself is a discursive construction as is argued by Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler, and Althusser with his account of interpellation, then the subject itself is a citation which can only iterate discourse in much the same way that a fractal iterates a particular pattern. If the subject itself is conceived as an effect of discourse,”

but what I react to is Foucault’s inclusion with them, and I think that’s because I am remembering Deleuze’s account of Foucault, and the concern there with the subject’s ability to encounter an ‘outside.’ I think that encountering with the ‘outside’ is schizophrenization I was talking about.

July 24, 2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Yusef,

Thanks for your clarification. I'm still unclear as to what precisely you mean by "schizophrenization" or how it provides a positive project for responding to a number of issues we face today. I personally do not accept "creativity for the sake of creativity". And do not think creativity will save us. Christian nationalists are very creative in their own way, but it's not the sort of creativity I would like to see encouraged.

You write:

"You started your essay with this bold assertion, which I thought was going to be followed up with a call to have us repeat (in the Deleuzian sense of repetition – vital, or creative repetition – repetition with a difference,) the Enlightenment. However, there appeared to be a faltering, or failure of nerve."

What you call a "failure of nerve", I call posing a problem. For instance, Deleuze poses the problem of how actualized experience is representational to find a way out of the dominance of representation. I would be delighted if we could repeat Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc., within our present context in a rote fashion. These are all powerful thinkers that did much to overturn fascist and superstitious desires. However, the problem is that 1) we can no longer conceive an autonomous subject after the fashion of Descartes (or even Hume) but must take into account mechanisms of subjectivization, and 2) we can no longer assume a prediscursive relation to reality after the fashion of Descartes with his clear and distinct ideas or Hume with respect to impressions, but must take into account the manner in which discourse intervenes in relation to the real. The question then becomes, "what does it mean to repeat the Enlightenment *given these constraints*?" It's worthwhile to remember that while the Enlightenment was an ontological, epistemological, and political project, it was also a project of overturning superstition and obedience to authority. What you refer to as a "failure of nerve" is me outlining how superstition and authority continue to function in our present context, how they are organized, so that the question might be raised of defeating these sad passions.

What I was trying to emphasize in the first lines of my post is that given our current context, we can't simply take classical notions of reason at face value. In _Difference and Repetition_ Deleuze argues that every solution and creative actualization occurs through the posing of a virtual problem. That is what I'm here striving to do.

Now it seems to me that the proposals of _Capitalism and Schizophrenia_ are a dead end. As I argued previously, the proposals in these texts strike me as the musings of slaves who see no real way out of capitalism. I also think there's something utopian in their claims, that doesn't take sad Oedipal desires seriously enough. This, I take it, is why the "schizoanalysts" have had so little of real import to say in the wake of 9-11. Their tools are simply poorly formed for responding to the totalitarian desires that have come to blight the land. So I really don't see much hope coming from those quarters. However, it does seem that Badiou and Lacan have each, in their own way, presented a way of thinking truths that break with the regime of discourse and citation, while also giving accounts of just why situations come to be organized in the way they are.

Is there an outside in Foucault? As I understand it, Foucault's later work is organized around the question of how to conceive a subject when there's nothing *outside* of power.

July 24, 2006 2:31 PM  
Anonymous Yusef Asabiyah said...

I offer a sincere apology for my unfortunate use of the phrase " failure of nerve," and for omitting an affirmation of the importance of the problems you pose.

I guess that when I read this statement by you,

"Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding."

I thought that I knew what you were talking about, but I really didn't. What is the relation of a larval subject, or the concept of the larval subject, to the autonomous subject of the Enlightenment ( or the concept of the autonomous subject of the Enlightenment.)

In a very naive and unexamined way, I have thought of the larval subject, as I had understood you to use this , as the repetition with difference of the Enlightenment's autonomous subject.

Believe me, Levi, I am listening to how you develop your ideas - in fact, I am all (larval) ears.

July 25, 2006 7:36 PM  
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