Meillassoux: Divine Inexistence

This is the reading for Saturday, May 27th.  You can get all the details at our meetup.com page.

Imagine rolling dice and coming up with six.  Some might say this outcome was determined, and others might insist it was pure chance, and still others might say it was a mix of the two.  What they would agree on is that the faces of the dice had the appropriate numbers which could have produced a six—and importantly, this means that chance requires a set of pre-existing possibilities to work on.  We can think of any situation this way, as the actualization of pre-existing possibilities, governed by laws, chance, or a mix of the two.

Quentin Meillassoux’s work is dedicated to working out a single core idea: that the absolute truth of all existence is contingency.  Every single thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently.  What this means for our dice is that the ratio of chance and determinism governing their tumbling can be sidestepped entirely: Meillassoux’s thesis is the the faces of the dice can change, and can change for no reason, and importantly, it means this process does not answer to any possible account of probability.  Entirely new sets of possibilities can appear in the world, possibilities that had absolutely no antecedent.  He quite literally believes anything is possible.

His term for the appearance of new possibilities, or new dice, is the advent ex nihilo of a new world because they emerge from nothing and for no reason.  He says there have been three new worlds: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought.  Life appeared in the context of matter, and thought appeared in the context of life.  Divine Inexistence is about the possibility of a fourth advent ex nihilo in the context of thought: the world of justice, a world of resurrected humans.  The goal is the final vanquishing of the division between being and value, otherwise known as the famous is/ought distinction.

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Slavoj Zizek, Seeds of the Imagination

A single thought can form a seed of imagination for an entire work of art. The seed itself is something very simple and might not even be recognizable in the end product. For most of Hitchcock’s films, for example, the seed is as simple as a gesture or a motif. Philosophers too have their seeds of imagination: Kant’s transcendentalism as a reaction against Swedenberg’s theosophy, or Hegel’s dialectics as a result of his look at English economy.

However, Zizek’s main argument is that today we are suffering from a failure of the imagination. The paranoid conservative fantasies about military exercises being a coup by the Obama administration, or debates about the ethical concerns of biotechnology (completely ignoring the upside) show that imagination has a lot of work to do to reach it’s emancipatory potential. Even as a zero marginal cost society is possibly over the horizon, imagination still hasn’t reached it’s potential to think of these.

One of the reasons for this is that as technology brings more possibilities, it also brings more impossibilities, such as the impossibility of thinking of any alternatives to the current socio-economic system.  “The reason is that we live in he postpolitical era of the naturalization of economy; political decisions are as a rule presented as matters of pure economic necessity, so that when austerity measures are imposed we are repeatedly told that this is simply what has to be done. In such postpolitical conditions, the exercise of power no longer primarily relies on censorship, but on unconstrained permissiveness…” (213-214).

To combat this permissiveness, one must instead, as in Kipling’s poem, “dream and not make dreams your master” This would involve breaking certain taboos which limit the imagination. And the power of Frederic Jameson’s work, An American Utopia, is precisely in breaking taboos. They need to be broken because:

These taboos arise from the fact that every historical situation contains its own unique utopian perspective, an immanent vision of what is wrong with it, an ideal representation of how, with some changes, the situation could be rendered much better. When the desire for a radical social change emerges, it is this logical that it first endeavors to actualize this immanent utopian vision, which is why it has to end in a catastrophe. (215)

Zizek identifies three broken taboos that become potential for the seed to sprout.

The first taboo Jameson breaks is his dismissal of the vision “of communism as association, multitude, councils, anti-representationist direct democracy based on citizens’ permanent engagement.” (215-216) Toni Negri’s vision in his works is grounded in this idea of the multitude, where the dual power between the people and the state organs tips the balance in favor of the self-organized mass of people that finally take over all the social functions of the state. “If is as if, in the recent Brazilian revolts and mass protests, Negri, a longtime sympathize of the Lula government, got his own message back in its true form- the government of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, spectacularly failed to contain and integrate the protesting multitude. Although life of the poor and the middle classes improved considerably, it was as if this improvement, this very attempt of the government to involve excluded minorities in a dialogue and empower them as autonomous political agents, backfired and strengthened acts of resistance.” (216)

The reason this multitude cannot reach a nonantagonistic conclusion is because the protesting of the protesters is based on desire. And Zizek invokes the Lacanian idea that desire’s actual desire is always to not be satisfied: “its ultimate aim is always to reproduce itself as desire, which is why its basic formula is always something like ‘I demand this from you, but if you give it to me, I will reject it because this is not really that (what I really want)’-i.e., desire s a gap, a void, in the heart of every demand.” (217)

This is where the critique against political representation reaches its limit. Three reasons: 1. Sometimes speaking for others is necessary, “it is cynical to say that victims of mass violence from Auschwitz to Rwanda (and the mentally ill, children, etc. not to mention suffering animals) should organize themselves and speak fro themselves.” (218) 2. Even when there is a mass of people protesting in public spaces, they are still a minority, with the silent majority being outside of those spaces. 3. Political engagement has a limited time span. The majority of those involved disengage after time lapses. The opposition of normal and the state of exception needs to be abandoned. It is not enough that the Event happens, what is important is how much normal life has changed after the Event is erased. V For Vendetta ends with a spectacle of an Event of people rising against the power- what would’ve happened in the sequel?

Jameson also deals with the topic of resentment, against te idea that in communism envy will disappear. “Dismissing this myth, Jameson emphasizes, that in communism, precisely insofar as it is a more just society, envy and resentment will explode. He refers here to Lacan, whose thesis is that human desire is always the desire of the Other in all senses of that term: desire for the Other, desire to be desired by the Other, and, especially. desire for what the Other desires.” (219)

This can be a critique of John Rawl’s theory of justice. “In Rawl’s model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated insofar as they also help those at the bottom of the social ladder, and insofar as they are not based on inherited hierarchies but on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits.” (220) Insofar as people desire for what the Other desires, a society following Rawl’s theory of justice will explode in resentment: if my failures are all my fault alone, and I cannot blame it on social injustices. “The catch of envy/resentment is that it not only endorses the zero-sum game principle, where my victory equals the other’s loss, it also implies a gap between the two, which is not the positive gap (we can all win with no losers at all), but a negative one. If I have to choose between my victory and my opponent’s loss, I prefer the opponent’s loss, even if it means also my own loss. It is as if my eventual gain from the opponent’s loss functions as a king of pathological element that stains the purity of my victory.” (221) Which is the insight Hayek had: it is much easier to accept inequalities if they can be attributed to an impersonal system, so the free market capitalist system operates as Fate did in the past.

The demand for justice is to curtail the excessive enjoyment of the Other and make the access to this enjoyment equal, which results in asceticism, because jouissance can’t be equally distributed, but prohibition can. However, today, this asceticism comes from the command to “Enjoy!” “We are all under the spell of this injunction. The outcome is that our enjoyment is more hindered than ever. Take the yuppie who combines narcissistic “self-fulfillment” with those utterly ascetic disciplines of jogging, eating health food, and so on. Perhaps this is what Nietzsche had in mind with his notion of the Last Man, though it is only today that we can really discern his contours in the guise of the hedonistic asceticism of yuppies.” (222) A new, emerging communist government would have to introduce an element of randomness in its system, such as elections by lottery.

This is the platform which Zizek uses to critique the fetishization of democracy. The fetish is that it is always invoked as a last resort when confronted with social antagonism. “Yes, but at least we have democracy.” The many Hollywood blockbusters where the ordinary man brings down the president by uncovering scandals is a manifestation of this fetish. “This is why the most inappropriate, stupid even, names for a new radical movement that one can imagine are those that combine “socialism” and “democracy.” It effectively combines the ultimate fetish of the existing world order with a term that blurs the key distinctions.” (223)

An exemplary case is the socialism of today’s China, where the unity of the Party hides the constant riots and internal conflicts of the workers, and the old Communist believers opposed to the capitalistic system of the new order. “No wonder the official propaganda obsessively insists on the motif of harmonious society: this very insistence bear witness to the opposite, to the threat and chaos of disorder. One should apply here the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since official media do not openly report on troubles, the most reliable way to detect them is to search fro the positive excess of the propaganda- the more harmony is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonisms there are likely to be.” (225) The attack on the universalism of Western values also reflects this unsatisfactory socialism:

However, if Western universal values are false, is it enough to oppose them with a particular way of life like the Confucian “China’s mainstream ideology”? Don’t we need a different universalism, a different project of universal emancipation? The ultimate irony here is that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” effectively means socialism with a market economy (with capitalist characteristics), i.e., socialism that fully integrates China into the global market. The universality of global capitalism if left intact, it is silently accepted as the only possible frame, and the project of Confucian harmony is mobilized only in order to keep under control the antagonisms that come from global capitalist dynamics. […] Such a socialism with nationalist colors- a national socialism- is a socialism whose patriotic horizon is the patriotic promotion of one’s own nation, and the immanent antagonisms generated by capitalist development are projected onto a foreign enemy that poses a threat to our social harmony. What the Chinese Part aims at in its patriotic propaganda, what it calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is yet another version of “alternate modernity”: capitalism without class struggle. (226-227)

Movements whose aim is to return to premodern, pre-capitalist conditions are also found to be lacking. Fundamentalist movements like Boko Haram claim to be fighting against modernity by forbidding women from a western education, which severs the traditional communal ties and helps them enter the chap labor market. Leaving aside the ethic and moral problems of their claim, the organization itself is anything but premodern. “Boko Haram is run like a modern centralized terrorist/revolutionary organization with leaders exerting total control, not as a tribal network where paternal chiefs meet to deliberate and decide on communal matters. It is thoroughly internationalist: It pursues a universal model, ignoring particular ways of life or particular ethnic identities. In short, Boko Haram is itself a form of perverted modernization. It obliterates traditional communal forms of life even more brutally than Western capitalist modernization does.” (227)

This means a rejection of attempts at an alternative modenity and also on using traditional local cultures as sites of resistance against global capitalism.

Jameson also rejects the notion that communism is a society where alienation is overcome, where the gap between production and pleasure is resolved. Instead, his utopia posits a radical, clean cut between the domain of the economy and cultural pleasures.  This separation of the two domains means a disappearance of the political, which leaves Jameson open to such basic critiques as who will run the army?

Jameson’s vision is not so much utopia as fantasy proper, “having a cake and eating it”: Its main premise is the clear division between the kingdom of necessity and the kingdom of freedom, between production and culture/pleasure. Production is militarized and everyone is allocated a job, while outside this kingdom of necessity total freedom reigns supreme, with the wildest diversity of freaks organizing their weird pleasures. (Do we not have today almost the obverse of this fantasy: liberalization of market economy, militarization of pleasures, in the guise of the duty to enjoy which demands discipline and training, conquest, and the battle of the sexes?) Can this be done? (229)

But another question: why does Jameson use the army as a model? His army is one where wars are gone and the celebration of heroics purely ceremonial, where only the structure, discipline and social benefits remain. But what is the extra meaning, surplus of meaning, added to Jameson’s system by calling it an army? “This surplus element is enigmatic and crucial: what if the militarized form is the very form in which the excluded politics and its obscene pleasures return int he pragmatic domain of production, of servicing the goods?” (230)

The rejection of politics is in line with Baidou’s “axiom of equality.” In a system where inequality is not generated by hierarchy or class distinctions, “egalitarian justice is unsatisfactory because it applies an equal standard to unequal cases.” Because equality is an impossible immanent to capitalism, Marx moved beyond the horizon of equality. “The great art of politics is to detect it [the point of the impossible] locally, ina  series of modest demands that are not simply impossible but appear as possible although they are de facto impossible.” (231-232) Demands such as equality, universal health care in the US, the cancellation of Greek debt in Europe, or even ironically enough a demand for a truly free market:

A couple of years ago, a CNN report on Mali described the reality of the international “free market.” The two pillars of Mali’s economy are cotton in the south and cattle in the north, and both are in trouble because of the way Western powers violate the very rules they try to impose brutally onto the impoverished Third World nations. Mali produces cotton of top quality, but the problem is that the US government spends more money on the financial support of its cotton farmers than the entire state budget of Mali; no wonder Malians cannot compete with US cotton. In the north, the European Union is the culprit: Malian beef cannot compete with the heavily subsidized European milk and beef- European Union subsidizes every cow with about 500 euros per year, more than the per capita gross national product in Mali. No wonder the minister of economy commented: We don’t need your help or advice or lectures on the beneficial effects of abolishing excessive state regulations, just, please, stick to your own rules about the free market and our troubles will be basically over. (233)

Going back to Jameson, it appears that only a form of militarization, not the grass roots democratic-multitude (the first two taboos), can be a competitive alternative to global capitalism, as militarization “is another name for suspending the power of self-regulating economy.” (235) It is not the dictatorship of the proletariat, a temporary scaffolding to reach higher stages, “stages between capitalism and communism, but also between imperialism and the passage to socialism- such a “fetishism of the formal number of stages” is always symptomatic of a disavowed deadlock.”  Rather, “in a properly Hegelian way, we effectively reach the higher stage not when we overcome the lower stage but when we realize that what we have to get rid of is the very idea that there is a higher stage to follow what we are doing now and that the prospect of this higher stage can legitimize what we are doing now, in our lower stage. In short, the ‘lower stage’ is all we have and all we will ever get.” (235)

While breaking all these taboos, Jameson seems to fall short of touching the taboo of the state, “his traditional Marxist idea of dismantling the state apparatus” (235) In China, the Party acts as the open secret behind the government. It has no legal status, and yet the government is basically there to pass the laws and policies that the Party has already decided beforehand:

This brings us to the crucial idea of Jameson’s utopia: the rehabilitation of the old Leninist idea of dual power. Is what we find in today’s China not also an unexpected kind of dual power? Does the same not also hold for Stalinism? […] The standard characterization of Stalinist regimes as “bureaucratic socialism” is totally misleading and (self-) mystifying: it is the way the Stalinist regime itself perceives its problem, the cause of its failures and troubles- if there are not enough products in the stores, if authorities do not respond to people’s demands, etc., what is easier than to blame the “bureaucratic” attitude of indifference and petty arrogance? […] what Stalinist regimes really lacked was precisely an efficient “bureaucracy”: a depoliticized and competent administrative apparatus. In other words, the problem of Stalinism was not that it was too “statist,” implying the full identification of party and state, but, on the contrary, that party and state were forever kept at a distance. The reason was that Stalinism (and, in general, all communist attempts until low) was not really able to transform the basic functioning of the state apparatus, so the only way to keep it under control was to supplement state power with “illegal” party power. The only way to break out of this deadlock…here a new “seed of imagination” is desperately needed.

Spivak and Chatterjee (The Subaltern, The Governed)

Spivak: Can the Subaltern Speak

Spivak works with many concepts in this essay, but for our purposes lets build off of one, the concept of the subaltern. The subaltern is pulled from Gramsci’s Notebooks and it refers to any person or group who is low ranking in the grand scheme of society. In other words, the subaltern is that person who is suffering under the dominant hegemonic class, such that their basic rights of participation are denied. They are denied political activity, in other words. In Gramsci’s work the subaltern are specifically the workers and peasants under the Mussolini regime who are oppressed and discriminated upon. These groups and the subaltern in general is not unified and cannot be unified unless it organizes as a counter hegemony. A fundamental difference between Gramscian and Marxist analysis in the raising of class-consciousness and the construction of a new hegemony was the fact that Gramsci included peasants, whereas Marx (in Northern Europe) was convinced of their dwindling significance and the rise of the workers. This, according to El Habib Louai, is the connection between Indian historians and cultural theorists of the 1980s and Gramsci.

At the forefront is Ranajit Guha, who defines the subaltern as a name for the general element of subordination in South Asia, expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, etc (Louai, 2011). In the Indian context, the subaltern are the general population in contrast to the elite (be that it may the colonial elite or the localized native elite). More to the point, from the perspective of the historian rather than the political activism of Gramsci, to study the subaltern for Indian scholars, was to assess the role of the elite and to critique the elitist interpretations of that role (Guha, 1982; in Louai, 2011). The significance of what Guha was doing here as far as historiography goes cannot be understated. He and many others (particularly anthropologists, who were undergoing a reflexive turn) during this period were re-considering how history was written. This was because of their growing concern based on the assumption that Indian national history was controlled by colonial elitism or was being produced by nationalist-bourgeois elitists (also produced by British colonialism). The question then became, how do we get at, or get to the subaltern? This is the same as asking what is the history that is not the “accepted” history? Is such a history possible? We reside here at the use and abuse of discourse broadly construed. This takes us into the epistemological. This is where Spivak’s text comes into the discussion.

Spivak is interested in the epistemological structures that denote the parameters of our discourse. Like Guha, she is interested in how history is written and the extent to which a vast majority of the individuals in that history are left out, written out, written over, unvoiced, or given a voice. What is written about? For what reason is it written certain ways? We can take this further of course. What is the extent that we can write about this something? Without the knowledge of something or an exposure to it and therefore without the language for it, can it be discussed? Interesting here is what is done when we are exposed to something we have no words for. The abject comes to mind here, but other examples abound, particularly in the form of artistic development (eg: Duchamp’s urinal), or socio-cultural “abnormalities” (homosexuality as an example, if we witness the level of sophistication of discussion here in Korea compared with the US).

With Spivak however we are not in this potentially emancipatory space. She takes us to a question before the “What is to be done”, before the “What do we talk about”. Who is the “we”? Who is talking? Who or what are they talking about? The work of colonial historians as we have mentioned More importantly, if they are talking about a “who”, why doesn’t the “who” speak for itself? Can the subaltern speak? Spivak says no. A great deal of her reasons why the subaltern cannot speak, we have already touched upon above through Guha and Gramsci. However this claim that the subaltern cannot speak was met with great criticism. Spivak seems to have been trying to refuse the possibility of a subaltern voice, though her argument was more towards a recognition of how well buried the voice of the subaltern is given the historical discourse.

Half way through her text, Spivak finds herself trying to fully understand what the subaltern is and thereby finds herself raising an example of what might be one instead, women. Here she reflects on the status of Indian women by analyzing the sati practices of women under British colonial rule and comparing it with the Hindu policy. Under the British discourse in the colonial there was a writing of the individual freedom of sati women, the overarching analysis being one where the woman were forced into the practice. But under Hindu policy sati was understood to be a voluntary ritual. The conflict between these two positions produced two different discourses, which simply could not reconcile with one another. The British one, in Spivak’s words being: “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” while the other discourse being, “the woman actually wanted to die” (Spivak, 92). In either of these contradictory discourses however, the woman is totally without voice. In some respect, the next Chatterjee piece tries to reconcile this voicelessness through a more contemporary historical and ethnographic analysis.

Chatterjee: The Politics of the Governed

Chatterjee’s set up, his brief conceptual history of the world in the second chapter, is as follows. The French Revolution came from coming together of enlightened modernity and the universal political aspirations of citizenship. What came out of this was a formula: the identity of the people with the nation and the identity of the nation with the state (Chatterjee, 28). His claim is that the legitimacy of a modern state from this point onwards was grounded in the concept of popular sovereignty and indeed this is the beginning of democratic politics of today where all regimes today claim to rule on behalf of the people (ibid). Through the concept of this modern state, “the people” and the entire discourse of rights have become generalized within the very idea of the nation state, but there exists a massive gap between the advanced democratic nations of the west (where these concepts came from) and the rest of the world (where these concepts were applied). Moreover, and this gets to the crux of Chatterjee’s discussion, there was a particular framework of rights of and for those people in the modern state, these included the ideas of freedom and equality. We know all too well and could easily open up a massive discussion on this, but these two core concepts at the heart of the nation state, are constantly pulling at one another in opposite direction.* Because of the opposition of these two core concepts of the modern state, to further concepts were required to ameliorate the inevitable conflict. The French philosopher, Etienne Balibar, has labeled them simply, property and community (30). “Property” was meant to resolve the contradictions between freedom and equality from the perspective of the individual in relation to all other individuals, whereas with “community” the resolution was implied in regards to the level of the entire “fraternity” (ibid). The correlations to larger dimensions of political discourse that Chatterjee briefly makes here could be written as: resolutions of property are liberal, while resolutions of community are communitarian. In the third chapter he describes “property” as “the conceptual name of the regulation by law of relations between individuals in civil society” (74). “Community” on the other hand, is “conferred legitimacy within the domain of the modern state only in the form of the nation” such that, “[o]ther solidarities that could potentially come into conflict with the political community of the nation are subject to a great deal of suspicion” (75). In order for a modern nation state to properly operate then, we could more simply correspond “property” with the necessity of the legal and paralegal and “community” with the necessity for moral solidarity (74/75). At the heart of Chatterjee’s discussion is that these ideals of a modern state and its correlative, modern citizenship, required a very specific form of homogeneity (30). Put into terms we have discussed in the Spivak piece, the tension of equality and freedom with their twin operatives of property and community as they were realized in modern state “defined the conceptual parameters of political discourse of capital, proclaiming liberty and equality, could flourish” (30). Chatterjee’s use of “capital” here has many implications, but he is referring to the latter incarnations of a modern state with the rise of industrialization and capitalist practices, which in fact heightened the ideals of equality and freedom. Additionally equality and freedom got rid of a great deal of restrictions against individual mobility which were traditionally confined by birth and status, however the legal-political theory which unraveled in trying to reach these ideals separated the domain of Right (universal equal rights) from the actual domain of life of civil society (ibid). Again, rights of citizens were unrestricted by race, religion or class, but this did not mean that these distinctions were abolished in society, that is, they remained heterogeneous. The promise of universal equal rights coupled with this heterogeneity of course propelled the vast majority of struggles over the past two centuries based on social differences of race, religion, caste, class, and gender (ibid). Given this universalism promised in the domain of Right and the heterogeneity of the actual civil society, a whole new range and ordering of power relations came into play; entirely new methods of governance set out to resolve threats to its order. This birth of new modes of governance is familiar to us by now, but it’s worth examining a few points.

Taking us into the end of the colonial era and the beginning of the postcolonial period, in the West at least in the early 20th century, an entirely new distinction was made between citizens and populations. Here to be a “citizen” was/is to carry an ethical connotation of participation in the soverienty of the state, while “population” referred/refers to the domain of policy (34). Populations are wholly descriptive; there is no normativity involved. Populations are identifiable, classifiable and describable, and amendable through statistical technique, as Chatterjee explains. As we have learned from Foucault several decades ago, the implications just described in the use of the very concept of “population”, gives various institutions of the government or bodies of the government “a set of rationally manipulable instruments for reach large section of the inhabits of a country as the targets of their policies–economic, administrative, law or mobilization” (ibid). The shift then is away from a participatory politics of the citizen within the modern state, represented in the term “civil society”, toward a governmentalization of the state where state legitimacy is gained through a claim to provide for the well being of the population, a management of bodies, so to speak. The shift then is from politics to governance, from political representation to administration.

More substantially, in Asia and Africa, this chronological sequence was rather different, since under colonial regimes, these forms of governmentality actually predated the nation-state. Individuals in these countries were subjects, never exactly citizens since colonial rule never recognized a popular politics. Nevertheless these ideals, which we have already looked at, of the republican citizen and of citizenship guided the growing consciousness of colonized peoples and accompanied their historical movement and the very politics of their national liberation (37). In this well known story of a postcolonial state however Chatterjee adds an additional caveat: neither citizenship nor national liberation were every fully realized in postcolonial states because, without exception, “they were overtaken developmental state which promised to end poverty and backwardness by adopting appropriate polices of economic growth and social reform” and by deploying the latest governmental technologies which promoted the well-being of their populations” (ibid). In this governing of the population through technical strategies, all the old ethnographic concepts of classifying people and even in the using of the national languages (as we saw with Spivak) were used out of convenience and expediency.

Chatterjee’s long set up here returns us to Gramsci of last week and the loosely defined distinction between political society and civil society. It might be noted that the distinction is not only useful for India or other postcolonial states, but to all subalterns as we have defined them above. Civil society is connected with the nation-state, founded on popular sovereignty and granting equal rights to all citizens. This is politics, as we traditionally know it. Civil society is bourgeois society, inhabited by a small group of elites. Across the board even as colonial powers left or passed over their modes of governance to the people, a vast majority of those who held on to power were native individuals who had previously eased the governance by foreign powers (India and Korea are good examples of this). Point being, everyone is necessarily a member of civil society, but in practice, civil society and the benefits that come with access to it was and remains to be inhabited by only a small group. Chatterjee then refuses to give this term to everyone in society. In theory it should be an access point into political activity, but in practice it is not. What Chatterjee wants to call political society on the other hand, connects people to governmental agencies, which pursue modes of security and welfare to the population. More to the point, those subalterns who are being governed often have tenuous and ambiguous rights as citizens, yet they are not outside the state and therefore demand to be looked at by the state. In trying to discern the entanglement between clearly demarcated citizens and the subaltern Chatterjee is trying to bring out this space of political society. His question is, might this relationship between these subaltern and those who have a readily available access to civil society, require a different mode of politics?

His third chapter is a fuller discussion of how the politics of the dispossessed might be realized. Here Chatterjee returns us to that tension of freedom and equality and their correspondents, property and community. He builds towards his argument of how this kind of politics may look like first with an interesting discussion of a smallish religious group, but later in a discussion of the 100’s of thousands of squatters throughout the country. Going over the various success stories and the not so successful, his claim is that the subaltern (squatters here), must first find recognition as a population group, but more than that they must invest in a collective identity of moral content, they must, in other words, shoot for that (moral) community (57). Property on the other hand, as we have seen is the regulation of law of regulations between individuals and civil society. Pushing the subaltern further, refugees, landless people, day laborers, people below the poverty line, (and we can take this beyond Chatterjee’s context), aborigines, Native Americans, those registered as offenders, those registered with AIDS, women, etcetera etcetera—are all demographics categories of governmentality and it is on this ground of their governance, through these demographics, as opposed to through their rights as citizens, that they define their claims (59). These claims are always political and not limited to postcolonial states of course.* Returning us to Spivak’s question, “Can the subaltern speak?” Chatterjee ends this chapter on the quest for a mediator, someone who is capable of pursuing a persuasive politics of the governed, and someone who equally has certain access points to that civil society. The mediator must “succeed in mobilizing the population groups to produce a local political consensus that can effectively work against the distribution of power in society as a whole” (55). These individuals are meant to mediate between those who govern and those who are governed. Chatterjee briefly mention the significance of teachers in the Indian context here, but leaves us hanging toward the end of the chapter as he says they have lost a certain amount of “social capital” for this kind of mediation.

Suggested Readings

June 10 – Mill – On Liberty

The classic 19th century defence of free speech.

June 24 – Berlin – Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedoms: freedom from and freedom to.

July 8 – Strawson – Freedom and Resentment

An incredibly influential theory about compatibilism and moral responsibility.

August 12 – Arendt – What is Freedom?

Hannah Arendt argues that freedom is primarily about action in the public square.

August 26 – Rothbard – For a New Liberty

The right-libertarian manifesto.

Sept 2 – Friedman – Freedom and Capitalism

Milton Friedman argues that free markets and free political systems go hand in hand.

Sept 16 – Graeber – Possibilities (Maybe)

An anarchist anthropologist discusses capitalism, slavery, and democracy.

Sept 30 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Robert Pippin argues that Hegel’s idea of freedom is a historical compatibilism.

Oct 14 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Oct 28 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Nov 11 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

A left-libertarian account of material freedom.  This was influential for one of our previous readings, Inventing the Future.

Nov 25 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

Dec 9 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

Antonio Gramsci- Prison Notebooks

In a prison cell during fascist era Italy, Italian philosopher and Marxist Antonio Gramsci attempted to think through the current situation, re-think many concepts, and reflect on what exactly went wrong. His extensive writings cover a range of topics related to history, the politics of his age, as well as looking towards the future for potential new ways of praxis.

Gramsci challenges the conceptions and misconceptions of Marxist philosophers before him. One of these ideas Gramsci looks at is the relation of structure and superstructure, how they relate to one another. It is a mistake to think that every change and fluctuation in the superstructure is an immediate expression of the structure. From his reading of Marx on the subject, Gramsci adds three words of caution: 1. the difficulty in identifying at any given time, statically (like an instantaneous photographic image) the structure. 2. That errors of calculation can lead to historical crises, which mechanical historical materialism cannot account for, and 3. Not all political acts are necessarily from the structure. He gives the example of the Catholic Church, “if, for every ideological struggle within the Church one wanted to find an immediate primary explanation in the structure one would be caught napping: all sorts of politico-economic romances have been written for this reason.” (191)

Instead, Gramsci notes that the structure and superstructure form a ‘historical bloc,’ an idea he borrows to explain the relation of the two. It’s a relation that is complex, discordant, multi-faceted and reciprocal. To analyze using the historic bloc one has to look at structures and superstructures organized by cultural hegemony, that are movable and sometimes contradictory. “From this one can conclude: that only a totalitarian system of ideologies gives a rational reflection of the contradiction of the structure and represents the existence of the objective conditions for the revolutionizing of praxis. If a social group is formed which is one hundred per cent homogeneous on the level of ideology, this means that the premisses exist one hundred per cent for this revolutionizing: that is that the rational is actively and actually real. This reasoning is based on the necessary reciprocity between structures and superstructures, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical process.”

The complex of superstructures and ideologies Gramsci sees as the cultural hegemony of the ruling classes. He notes that ideologies are not psychological, but epistemological. Ideologies are not merely illusions the ruling class. This line of thinking leads to the following error: ideology is distinct from superstructure, ideology cannot change the structure but vice versa, so then a political solution deemed as ideological is considered insufficient to bring about change, therefore ideology is nothing but pure appearance.

One must therefore distinguish between historically organic ideologies, those, that is, which are necessary to a given structure, and ideologies that are arbitrary, rationalistic, ‘willed.’ To the extent that ideologies are historically necessary they have a validity which is ‘psychological’; they ‘organize’ human masses, they form the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc. To the extent that they are ‘arbitrary’ they only create individual ‘movements’ polemics and so on (199)

The word movement ties into a concept of history that Gramsci also develops. He starts off, again from Marx’s writings, two principles about historical societies: “1. That no society sets itself tasks for whose accomplishment the necessary and sufficient conditions do not either already exist or are not at least beginning to emerge and develop; 2. that no society breaks down and can be replaced until it has developed all the forms of life which are implicit in its internal relations.” His concept of history is dialectical, and adds more distinctions to the idea by making a separation of organic and conjunctural movements.

When a historical period reaches a moment of crisis that may last for several decades, it has reached a point where the structural contradictions are revealed. The attempts by those in power to conserve the structure leads to a new possibility:

These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’ and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organize. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence, imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks. (201)

Gramsci gives an example: the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 was an event that historically exhausted all the possibilities of 1789, where the “new bourgeois class struggling for power defeated not only the representatives of the old society unwilling to admit that it had been definitely superseded, but also the still newer groups who maintained that the new structure created by the 1789 revolution was itself already outdated: by this victory the bourgeoisie demonstrated its vitality vis-a-vis both the old and the very new.

“Furthermore, it was in 1870-1871 that the body of principles of political strategy and tactics engendered in practice in 1789, and developed ideologically around 1848, lost their efficacy.” (203)

An analysis of such historical movements is not an end, but an instrument towards detecting these possibilities for conjunctural movements, for those are the moments when action is best taken. “Therefore, the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact and self-aware.” (209)

When an organic crisis occurs it is a volatile situation. Although the forms are diffrent in different places, the crisis is one of authority, of hegemony, “either because the ruling class has failed some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petty-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from the state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution” (218)  In such situations it becomes dangerous for all parties in the short run, and can have the ‘static victory’ of the emergence of a charismatic leader.

 

Economism

Another type of philosophy that Gramsci’s own philosophy of praxis attacks is one that relies on a separation of structure and superstructure, civil and political society. He terms it economism. This economism, found in ideas such as theoretical syndicalism and liberalism, which are far from the philosophy of praxis. These two philosophies share the same belief in the free trade,

The approach of the free trade movement is based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify: namely the distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the state must not intervene and regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. it is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political programme, designed to change- in so far as it is victorious- a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic programme of the state itself- in other words the distribution of national income (210)

Theoretical syndicalism is different in that it has not fully materialized yet, and it tries to speak for the subaltern, but the development of the idea of free trade is the same. For economism in history Gramsci sees 3 characteristics: 1. No distinction between relatively permanent and passing fluctuation 2. economic development is reduced to technological changes 3. economic and historical development depend directly on a change in production.

Gramsci sees two fatal flaws in economism: the search for self-interest in everything leads to some ‘monstrous and comical errors of interpretation.’ Furthermore, the tendency in economism is to look at situations and ask ‘who profits directly from the initiative under consideration?’ and answers: those in power.

One can be certain of not going wrong, since necessarily, if the movement under consideration comes to power, sooner or later the progressive fraction of the ruling group will end up controlling the new government, and by making it its instrument for turning the state apparatus to its own benefit. (216)

Economism can then never be wrong, but this infallability makes it theoretically insignificant. “It has only minimal political implications of practical efficacy. In general, it produces nothing but moralistic sermons, and interminable questions of personality.” (216)

To combat economism the concept of hegemony needs to be developed. And before looking at questions of self interest other things need to be taken into consideration: 1.  the social content of the mass following 2. what function did the mass have in the balance of forces? 3. what is the political and social significance of those of the demands presented by the movement’s leaders which find general assent? 4. the closeness of the means to the proposed end. 5. the hypothesis considered that such a movement will necessarily be perverted and serve different ends from what the followers expect (217)

“An analysis of the balance of forces- at all levels- can only culminate in the sphere of hegemony and ethico-political relations.” (217)

 

 

Julia Kristeva: Powers of Horror, Black Sun

Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Chapter 1 “Approaching Abjection”)

In horror films especially, though often showing up in psychological thrillers, is a moment on the screen that disrupts the rolling of the film—a growing crack in the wall, the movement of an inanimate object, the ominous glance of a distant character which up until now we thought nothing of. We have come to expect these moments now as cinematic and formulaic clichés, about how these kinds of films are to be made, but they are, no matter how well prepared we think we are, no less jarring and disruptive to the flow of our expectations. The abject is the moment in the film, when you come to realize that the flow of logic unrolling before you, is about to be halted by something other, or, when you come to realize that you were tricked into that logic, but in fact were on a very different trajectory from the beginning. The abject is that “twisted braid of affects and thoughts” which we call by such a name, but it skirts our need to define it as a definable object right there, in front of us (Kristeva, 1). “It lies there quite close, but cannot be assimilated”, as Kristeva writes, but it shares one important characteristic of the object, that is, it stands there before us, facing us and opposing us, the “I”. Here, this (non)object, which stands opposed to me and I still attend to as an object, settles me into a desire for meaning, but being a (non)object, it draws me toward the place where meaning collapses. The abject then, is the reaction of the “I” to a threat in the breakdown of meaning, which has been caused by a loss of the distinction between the subject and object, the self and other.

I’d like to take us in two directions in regards to the abject. First, I’d like to further discuss examples of the abject. Second, I’d like to put the abject into a much larger scheme in order to open up this text for our discussion today, that is, I’d like to look at it from the perspective of our conscience and the experience of the abject. I want to think about the necessity of the abject in ethics.

Kristeva opens with two most evident forms of abjection, the first being “food loathing. Here, is the case of the child who has yet to distinguish itself from the father or mother. Freud calls this “primary identification”, the first form of emotional attachment to something or someone, which comes before any defined and conscious distinction between subject and object. Thus, a baby cannot distinguish itself from the world and experiences the world as a part of itself, “The breast is a part of me, I am the breast” (Freud). The experience of the abject forces us into this liminal experience of infancy once again. We could even take it a step further into the past, when the baby becomes a baby. Abjection preserves the “immemorial violence with which the body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (Kristeva, 10). Kristeva blends this primary identification of the baby in the process of eating and the becoming “I” or becoming subject/object in birth, with the experience of the abject (for the adult, we might say). The whole experience of watching a child eat from the multitude of perspectives (whether we are the parent, an onlooker, the child) brings the abject into focus. She writes,

 

“I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death, During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit. Mute protest of the symptom, shattering violence of a convulsion that, to be sure, is inscribed in a symbolic system, but in which, without either wanting or being able to become integrated in order to answer to it, it reacts, it abreacts. It abjects. (Kristeva, 3)

In very simplified terms, the abject sits outside our symbolic order. The symbolic order determines the subject, it is the Other, in Lacanian parlance. This Other for Lacan is language in the broadest sense, it is the community we live in, of shared ideas and accepted ways of being that existed long we as subjects came into the world. By sitting outside that, the abject is territory-less, it wades in the unthinkable corners, not Other, not “I”. The abject then disturbs identity and order, it has no respect for borders or rules (Kristeva, 4). This brings us to the second example Kristeva writes about. The abject par excellence is the corpse, or more attractively, the cadaver*. Like the wound, or pus, the corpse does not signify death for if it did, we would understand it, react to it or accept it (ibid). Instead we are there again at the limit of our condition as living beings. Death infects life, it brings us to the border, and it is that very border that encroaches upon everything (Kristeva, 3). Always returning to a bodily understanding of these experiences of the abject, Kristeva later gives an example of the choking sensation, that is, how the feeling of being choked does not separate inside from outside so easily and the one is drawn into the other indefinitely (Kristeva, 25). The person in which the experience of the abject exists therefore is a deject who does not ask “Who am I”, but “Where am I” (Kristeva, 8). Artaud could then write, “[t]he dead little girl says, I am the one who guffaws in horror inside the lungs of the live one. Get me out of there at once” (Kristeva, 25). It is not so much that we are horrified of what the corpse signifies (death), but of what the corpse may make of us if we bring it inside, or meet it at its horizon. The corpse takes us to the border of the “I” as we have come to understand this “I” in the symbolic order. The Prince Gautama’s story as he left his palace, or Neo waking in the pods, or Cronenberg’s body horror, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis and so on are examples of this destabilization by the abject. We can think of many more. By contrast, Sade’s orgies, cartoon logic, as well as fantasy and adventure stories all miss the mark. They are “methodical, rhetorical and…regular”, they make everything nameable, and their scenes integrate, in other words, they “allow for no other, no unthinkable, nothing heterogeneous” (Kristeva, 21).

In developing the abject as I have here, I want to ask much more broadly if the abject is necessary. Kristeva’s abject is fuzzy to be certain yet we might consider what is there that can take us away from her mythologizing and aestheticizing to the more emancipatory (a question Spivak* poses). Is the abject necessary? Must we be destabilized by it, and if so, what do we do when we are, how do we retread back from this destabilization or how do we proceed from that destabilization? This distinction of course is one of the fundamental differences in politics—the difference between conservatives and progressives. But more fundamentally the distinction pushes us further inwards toward questions of ethics that I’d like to try to uncover in this first chapter. Kristeva hints at a number of ways in which the abject might be necessary.

The “jettisoned object”, the abject that draws me toward the place where meaning collapses is banished yet, it never ceases to challenge its master* (Kristeva, 2). The abject, which is without a sign, is to the superego what the object is to the ego. The ego is where our perceptions, and cognitive functions remain and from where we act, our conscious state in the world. The superego is the overrider, our conscience, it is where we maintain our sense of morality and from where we decide not to*. For the superego, our conscience then, our object is the abject. Kristeva puts it in the following way:

 

“[I}ts a brutish suffering that “I” puts up with, sublime and devastated, for “I” deposits it to the father’s account [verse au pere pere-uersion]: I endure it, for I imagine that such is the desire of the other. A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture. (Kristeva, 2)

 

Taking from this quote alone, it is clear that in the work of the conscience, the abject, or better the experience of the abject*, is key. It is the “primer”, the “safeguard”. Of what? Cadere. The fall. The abject in its most socialized appearance is the corrupter, yet so as far as we do not fall into it fully, religion, morality and law have always been there to thrust it aside. More recently is the work of contemporary literature, always fascinated with the abject, yet not necessarily taking the place of religion, morality or law. In fact, according to Kristeva, it realizes the absurdity and impossibility of this trifecta. Literature dabbles in the abject, the writing and reading of it is a crossing over into the abject, a perversion to be certain. But the activities of contemporary literature are more. Pushing it further, Kristeva tells us that there are various means to purifying the abject, religion being one of them, but art, including literature, is by far the best example. What we are left with then is perversion and sublimation. Again, we are at the liminal, with Kristeva. Speaking towards the value of literature, she writes:

“In a world in which the Other has collapsed, the aesthetic task—is a descent into the foundations of the symbolic construct—amounts to retracing the fragile limits of the speaking being, closest to its dawn, to the bottomless ‘primacy’ constituted by primal repression” (Kristeva, 18). This experience itself is of course still managed by the Other, yet here the subject and object push each other away, confront each other, collapse and start again in that boundary of what is thinkable: the abject (ibid).

Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (Chapter 1 “Psychoanalysis—A Counter Depressant”)

We start right at the heart of Kristeva’s second text, a veiled critique of psychoanalysis, or, perhaps a soft push into a different direction. This direction was perhaps embedded in her text on the abject and the bond that both psychoanalysis and the literary or artistic share in their sensitivity to it. In the chapter we read at least, psychoanalysis and the literary/artistic are not so much as opposed, but measured up to one another. Starting at the crux of the two texts when they are read side by side its hard not to see similarities between the abject and depression/melancholia. Both take us to a space of breakdown, a schism. Through depression or melancholia, we witness the collapse of the symbolic, the Other, culture in an all encompassing sense, with all its meanings and representations, the order of things as we have come to know it and as we can know it, the limits of which are our own. The line of questioning Kristeva wants to pursue here is that literary creations and religious discourse are very good at creating a semiological representation of the subject as it battles with this collapse of the symbolic (Kristeva, 24). But such representations are not “elaborations”, they are not a “becoming aware” of what causes inter and intra-psychic moral suffering. This is the function of psychoanalysis, which aims at dissolving the symptom. But, the work of such literary representations and their religious counterparts do have a real and imaginary effectiveness, which borders more toward the cathartic than the elaborative (ibid). All societies however have used these therapeutic techniques for ages. Psychoanalysis, according to Kristeva, always imagines itself as being more efficacious mainly because it directly attends to the strengthening of the subject’s cognitive abilities (ibid). But Kristeva continues, psychoanalysis would do itself good if it paid greater attention to the sublimatory solutions of literary representations and in doing so it could provide “lucid counterdepressants rather than neutralizing antidepressants” (Kristeva, 25). This turn of phrase here is somewhat typical of Kristeva, for it implies confrontation, or the necessity of confrontation rather than annihilation. “Counter” as “against”, “in opposition to”, towards reciprocation, towards a dialectic. “Anti”, similarly implies that “against”, that “opposition”, but more commonly there is the implication of a movement toward the “not”, “no more”, we might say, the erased and wanting to be forgotten.

We have skipped over what exactly melancholia/depression* is. It is “an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief” that infects us, long-term such that we “lose all interest in words, actions and even life itself (Kristeva, 3). For psychoanalysis of course, the questions always turns to the origin, “where does this black sun come from” (ibid)? Is it triggered by sorrow, loss, love life, unhappiness in our professional life? Does it matter, especially if the events that create our depression are out of proportion to the feeling that overwhelms us? Let us go further. At the existential level, what is happening? Might melancholia have in it a redeeming value? Kristeva writes, “I owe a supreme metaphysical lucidity to my depression…[h]ere on the frontiers of life and death, I have the arrogant feeling of being witness to the meaninglessness of Being, of revealing the absurdity of bonds and beings (Kristeva, 4). The depressed is the ultimate atheist, not only my being is lost, but being itself.

Philosophers have had an ongoing relationship with melancholia. Like a good continental philosopher, Kristeva returns us to the beginning, or the kind of beginning. She uncovers an attractive version of melancholia in Aristotle and from him she wants to build, perhaps toward the “counter” as opposed to the “anti”. Aristotle’s version of melancholia is alien to us today since it assumes a “properly balance diversity”, that is to say, he removed it from the pathological and located it nature, as a part of it and moreover as inherent in the nature of the philosopher—his ethos (Kristeva, 6). Melancholia ensued from heat as the regulator of the organism; it was the place of mestotes, the mechanism controlling the fluctuation between too much and too little. After the middle ages this perception of melancholia changed from this extreme state revealing the true nature of Being. Here melancholia was bound to Saturn, the planet of spirit and thought. Christian theology considered sadness a sin, though monks did see it as a paradoxical method to truth and [it] constituted the major touchstone of faith” (Kristeva, 8). Eventually, melancholia asserted itself into religious doubt. Kristeva cuts us off here in her conceptual history of melancholia where she wavers between depression-sadness-melancholia. She returns to a new definition worth taking a look at, she writes:

“I shall call melancholia the institutional symptomatology of inhibition and asymbolia* that becomes established now and then or chronically in a person, alternating more often than not with the so-called manic phase of exaltation.”

If this is meant to be the definition of melancholia, we are left trying to grasp a few things. “Asymbolia” is the loss of the ability to comprehend by touch the form and nature of an object. In Kristeva’s constant context such a definition is simple enough to understand but there is another, notably what exactly is meant by “institutional symptomatology”. “Symptomatology” can mean a symptom complex or a group of symptoms occurring together that characterize a disease. But it can also mean the branch of medicine concerned with symptoms of diseases. “Institutional” here is more problematic. What are we meant to assume the “institutional” is? Without extrapolating on the details of her definition, Kristeva complicates the matter further obfuscating the distinction between melancholia and depression. But, interested in examining matters from a Freudian point of view, it would seem not to matter much, since from this perspective, there is the common experience of object loss and the modification of signifying bonds. In melancholia, with an object loss, these bonds, notably language are “unable to insure the autostimulation that is required in order to initiate given responses” (Kristeva, 10). Language here, in the melancholic, instead slows down thinking and marks the individual as next to mute. This is why the melancholic struggles to name or voice the loss, and the object itself is often unclear. The aggregate of melancholia/depression is based off of the mechanism of identification. The other object, both love and hated is imbedded into me and becomes my “necessary, tyrannical judge”, which I want to rid myself of (Kristeva, 11). Melancholia then is cannibalistic. We hold within us the intolerable other, which we want so badly to destroy so that we can possess it alive. Kristeva writes, “Better fragmented, torn, cut up, swallowed digested…than lost” (Kristeva, 12). Kristeva returns us to the boundary of the subject and object in the abject, a threshold more than anything else, where the subject and object, pull at each other and collapse into one another, only to reestablish themselves again, independent wholes touching on each other’s beginnings and ends once again. With Black Sun, Kristeva develops this “object” further; the loss of the object for the melancholic is not an Object, but the Thing (Kristeva, 14). In her notes, she writes that the “Object” is the “space-time constant that is verified by a statement uttered by a subject in control of that statement” (Kristeva, 262). The “Thing” on the other hand is the “something” which is seen by the already constituted subject looking back and it appears as unseperated and elusive (ibid). The Thing is the sun in your dreams, the distant light, never seen but producing effects. The melancholic person therefore has the impression that something is lost, but no word could signify it. With the Thing, “the depressed person wanders in pursuit of continuously disappointing adventures and loves; or else retreats, disconsolate and aphasic, alone with the unnamed Thing (Kristeva, 13).

Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives

This summary is for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club. Come join us on meetup.com and check out our facebook group

In The Human Condition, Arendt defines the vita activa and who a human is. Who, not what, because for Arendt the uniqueness of the human being has been ignored, replaced by theories of what a person is.  The unique, unrepeatable of a human lies in action. Action reveals the answer to the question “who are you?”

It is an answer to a question, because Arendt argues that uniqueness cannot work alone. The succession of actions that can be narrated into a a life-story is what creates the unique self. But for narration to happen, people are needed, observers and narrators. And it is when a person appears and is exposed to others, that the chance for narrative begins.

Or as Cavarero puts it:

In the general exhibitionist spectacle which Arendt gives us, appearing is indeed not the superficial phenomena of a more intimate and true essence. Appearing is the whole of being, understood as a plural finitude of existing. This goes above all for human beings, who have the privilege of appearing to one another, distinguishing themselves in their in-born [in-nata] uniqueness, such that, in this reciprocal exhibition, a who is shown to appear, entirely as it is. As Jean-Luc Nancy also emphasizes, ‘for the one who exists, what matters is existence, not essence’; that is, at stake is a uniqueness of personal identity, which, far from being substance, is of a totally expositive and relational character. From this, everyone, as unique existence, shows who he or she is to others. (20)

Cavarero elaborates on and challenges Arendt’s theory of narrative in her work, Relating Narratives, teasing out the implications of this theory for ontology, ethics, politics, and literary criticism.

Cavarero first relates a story from The Odyssey. Ulysses, travelling incognito, sits as a guest at the court of the Phaecians. At the banquet, a blind rhapsod relates the tale of the Trojan War. One of these tales happens to be the deeds of Ulysses. Hearing his story, Ulysses weeps. Ulysses “meets up with himself through the tale of his story” (18). But this is not peculiar to the hero. The who is always revealed through the narration of others.

Cavarero contrasts Ulysses to Achilles. Heroes perform great deeds, but action disappears as soon as it occurs without a narrator to keep the story alive. Even if heroes perform memorable acts, there is no guarantee that they will be remembered. It is out of their hands. In Achilles’ case, however, he made a pact that he would die early but be remembered for generations after. His one deed, which leads to his death, becomes his own planned memorability. “The daimon of Achilles, frozen in the Homeric tale of the life-story, becomes eudaimonia.” (27)

This is reason behind the old Greek idea that no one is eudaimon (normally [mis]translated as ‘happy’) until after they die. And Cavarero sees in Arendt a tendency towards death. “However valuable the Arendtian idea of narration may be, its heroes, like Achilles, continue to astonish us- if not trouble us- by their love for death.” (29)

However, here is Ulysses, hearing his own tale, and he reacts to it. He has not died and yet the unity and meaning of his deeds are revealed to him. Cavarero wants to reverse the formula, not a story that is unto death but one that is seeking its birth..

Moreover, there is a second part to the story: after Ulysses weeps, the king of the Phaecians asks him the important question “who are you?” To which Ulysses relates his life story. Arendt sees autobiography as meaningless. One cannot be both the protagonist and author of the life-story. But there is an impulse towards both hearing ones story and relating it; biography and autobiography share a common desire.

The impulse towards one’s story Cavarero calls the narratable self. Narratable, not narrated, because the narration is always in potential and always incomplete. This narratable self is an autobiographical impulse. This impulse is towards unity, making a coherent whole of fragmented situations. Not just in active remembering, but the structure of memory itself searches for this unity It is also extended to others: there is a feeling that the people we encounter have a life-story, even without knowing it.

A person with amnesia might forget their life story, but not the sense that they have one. “She is a wretch precisely because she is a narratable self who, by losing her story, has lost her identity. No one can therefore return it to her by retelling to her the text through which identity is reified. The text is in fact inessential only for those who continue to listen to the tale of memory.” (37)

On the other hand, the desire for unity is frustrated in autobiography by the fact that memory can only go so far. For unity there needs to be a beginning. Oedipus only learns who he was when he heard the story of his birth. Although his fate is dramatic, this aspect of Oedipus’ story is not unique: no one can tell the story of their own birth. “Autobiographical memory always recounts a story that is incomplete from the beginning. It is necessary to go back to the narration told by others, in order for the story to begin from where it really began; and it is this first chapter of the story that the narratable self stubbornly seeks with all that desire.” (39)

How does the relation between autobiography and biography work?

Milan, the 1970s. Two old friends, Amilia and Emilia, attend a 150-hour adult class. The group exercises consisted in both writing and sharing their stories. Emilia dies at the age of 53, and Amilia recounts an episode of their life together.

Emilia was never a great storyteller. She would tell the same anecdotes and was a bore. Amilia was a much better storyteller. One day they exchanged their writing exercises and Emilia was struck by this expressive power of her friend. Amilia decided to do her friend a favor: she wrote Emilia’s life story (she had told the same stories so many times Amilia had memorized it).

Aside from the fact of Amilia’s writing skills, that she was able to narrate Emilia’s story better than Emilia could tell her own should come as no surprise. The aim of the 150-hour class is to find that the I exists, which Emilia does not doubt. What she needs is for her life to be narrated in order to go beyond empirical reality. “She thus passes, from the failed autobiographical attempts, to the biography that her friend gives her as a gift. This biography is highly tangible, all the more so in so far as it is written. By always carrying it around in her purse and rereading it continuously, Emilia can touch with her hand and devour with her eyes her personal identity in a tangible form. She can, like Ulysses, be moved by it.” (57)

Emilia has a Ulyssean reaction to the narration.  However, there are two differences. The first is a feminist reading: as a Greek hero and a male, Ulysses had his sphere of action. Troy was the model for politics, a public sphere where people could prove themselves. Women were of course denied this sphere: Emilia’s life-story doesn’t happen in the public space of politics, but in the domestic sphere. Actually, Cavarero and Arendt argue, this isn’t an issue for women only.  “Western history is a history of depoliticization. Replaced by the rule of the few over the many; or rather replaced by the various models of domination, throughout this two-thousand year history- the political as shared space of action disappears, or rather reappears only intermittently in revolutionary experiences.” (57) Nevertheless, men and women experience this lack-of-politics differently. A man presents himself as abstract universal Man, which women were denied. One advantage is that women didn’t have to exchange their uniqueness for the abstract. Emilia testifies to this in her desire for narrative, which is still in the private sphere but is the characteristic of female friendships. “For female friends, the questions ‘who are you?’ and ‘who am I?’ in the absence of a plural scene of interaction where the who can exhibit itself in broad daylight, immediately find their answer in the classic rule of storytelling.” (58)

The consciousness raising groups that were popular with feminists in the 70s is an attempt to bring this narration back into the public scene. But Cavarero warns that there is a danger of too much empathy, that is to say an attempt to identify with the other’s story, as women, at the expense of uniqueness.  The danger to this would be that a woman will become Woman, just like man exchanged his uniqueness for Man.  The consciousness raising group and Arendt’s theories together show the importance of the intersection of narrative and politics. There is a reciprocity in narrating story to others, in hopes that the story is narrated back.

Which leads to the other major difference: Emilia’s narrator is a friend; Ulysses’ a stranger. Homer or the rhapsod are strangers, ‘blind’ to actor and staying true to the story. For Cavarero, there is an intimacy between narrator and actor, found in friendship and love.

What is then the relationship of the narrator and protagonist?

In Paris, an odd book called The Autobiography of Alice b. Tolkas is published. Odd, because this autobiography was written by someone other than Alice: the famous writer, and Alice’s lover, Gertrude Stein. Even odder, because Alice was copying down the words which Stein dictated. The book, moreover,  is about the Stein’s encounters in Paris through the eyes of Alice.

With the previous ideas that narration of self happens through others, this experiment in autobiography does not seem so bizarre. But the question is raised: isn’t using another person to write about yourself, using them as a reflection of a lake for you to look into, the ultimate act of narcissism?

In fact, can the people we have encountered, with their desire for their story to be told, all be charged with narcissism?

The Arendtian hero, who has accompanied us from the start, has in effect often been accused of exhitionist narcissism; indeed, the Arendtian sense of politics has been judged to be constitutively narcissistic. Reserving some doubt with regard to Gertrude Stein, we realize, nonetheless, right away, how difficult it is to make the same judgement regarding Emilia. Not only because narcissism is a question between self and self, where the other (if there is one) functions only as a spectator to be dazzled- but also since the uniqueness that exposes itself, in Arendt’s sense, brings to the scene a fragile and unmasterable self. Both the exhibitionist self of action and the narratable self are completely given over to others. In this total giving-over there is therefore no identity that reserves for itself protected spaces or private rooms of impenetrable refuge for self-contemplation. (84)

One cannot control their story, and the narratable self always requires another. “Fragile and exposed, the existent belongs to a whole-scene where interaction with other existents is unforseeable and potentially infinite. As in The Arabian Nights, the stories intersect with each other. Never isolated in the chimerical, total completetion of its scene, one cannot be there without the other.” (87) It is an ethics which sees the uniqueness of the relational self. “The ontological status of the who– as exposed, relational, altruistic- is totally external […] Appearing to each other [Comparendo], they reciprocally appear as an other.”

The uniqueness of the relational self is something that modern ethics and politics cannot account for. Universal ethics is based on what man is, and individualist ethics consider the individual as a unit that is repeatable and equivalent, certainly not unique. An individualist ethics only focuses on the I, multiple I’s whose only relationship to one another is negotiation and compromise. Other ethics either focus on an impersonal ‘you’ to which duty is required, or a collectivist They to subordinate under. But the unique existent is “the you [tu] that comes before the we [noi], before the plural you [voi] and before the they [loro].” (90)

So is the desire to exhibit oneself an act of narcissism? On the contrary, Cavarero says, it is an act of altruism. Not in the sense of sacrifice or dedication, but in recognizing the necessity of the other. “What we have called an altruistic ethics of relation does not support empathy, identification, or confusions. Rather this ethics desires a you that is truly an other, in her uniqueness and distinction. No matter how much you are similar and constant, says this ethic, your story is never my story. No matter how much the larger traits of our life-stories are similar, I still do not recognize myself in you and even less, in the collective we. […] This recognition, therefore, has no form that could be defined dialectically; that is, it does not overcome or save finitiude through the circular movement of a higher synthesis. […] Put simply, the necessary other corresponds first of all with the you whose language is spoken by the shared narrative scene.” (92)

“Within the horizon of the narratable self, the pronoun of biography is in fact not he [egli] but you [tu].” (92)

What about the narrator who tells the tales of others?

Scheherazade has taken upon herself a dangerous task. The Sultan, angered by his wife’s betrayal, has decided to take revenge on all women. Every night, he marries a new woman and, after spending the night together, kills them in the morning. Scheherazade agrees to become his wife; she has a plan. On the first night, her sister comes in and asks for a story. The doomed queen tells a story and then suspends it- incomplete, the Sultan wants to know more. And the stories multiply until the Sultan’s desire for revenge is quelled.

Scheherazade, as an oral storyteller rather than an author, knows the art of suspension, of not finishing the narrative in order to continue it later. Another way this is achieved is that her characters also tell stories, and there are numerous characters and stories, the labyrinth of text.

By Arendt’s definition, Scheherazade’s stories are realistic despite their fantastic nature. The history of humanity is an interweaving of different life-stories that appear and leave the world. “And because he [Homer] puts into words the plot of the stories from which history results, Hannah Arendt assures us that the Homeric epic is more ‘realistic’ than the modern historiography” (124) Another point of similarity between Homer and Scheherazade are their use of mimesis and diegesis, direct and indirect narrative, which Cavarero sees as an imitation of the originary force of the tale.

“Having come from Arendtian realism, intrigued by Scheherazade and invited by Homer, we are thus led to an even more material kind of realism; or better still, to the everydayness of certain experiences where the habit of narrating stories, one’s own as well as others’, is a fact. In order not to lose the thread of the argument, we will limit ourselves to drawing some conclusions, formulating a story of literary. This theory begins by claiming that narrative imitation by pot [a intreccio] responds directly to the practical context that engendered it.” (126) Instead of looking for the death, the end, of the author, Cavarero points to Scheherazade and Homer as the beginning of a succession of tales.

Adding to the list of storytellers is the modern Scheherazade, Karen Blixen. Blixen considers herself a storyteller rather than a novelist. Whereas the modern novel “constructs characters and is ready to sacrifice the tale to their psychological substance” and “loves explanations, and loves to look inside, to excavate appearances in order to discover the interiority of the subject” (140), the storyteller lets the tale reveal the character, “the story makes the hero shine” (140) and “by telling of a uniqueness in which a destiny that outlines unforseeable events comes to the fore, Blixen pursues that “desire for meaning,” for imagination, for re-enchantment, which persists, like an unconfessable secret, in the stubborn desire for the contemporary reader.” (142)

Simply put, for Cavarero, it is the uniqueness of the narratable self that is the power of the story, whether the character is real or fictitious. And subordinating that action to psychological explanation runs the risk of creating sociological types, Man and Woman.

The world is indeed ‘full of stories, circumstances and curious situations which are just waiting to be told.’ More precisely, suggests Arendt from her unique perspective, the world is full of stories because it is full of lives. To be faithful to the story ‘means being faithful to the life.’ […] For the stubborn realism of Arendt, therefore, Blixen’s art does not consist in invention, in fiction, or in the fantastic vein that creates stories. It consists rather in the ability to look at the world as a stage on which many lives intersect, leaving behind their story.

The uniqueness of the existent has no need of a form that plans or contains it. Rooted in the unmasterable flux of a constitutive exposition, she is saved from the bad habit of prefiguring herself, and from the vice of prefiguring the lives of others. The figure, the unity of the design, the profile of the stork -if it comes- only comes afterwards: as in the dream of a fable, or, perhaps, as a desire that is not exchanged for its dream. (145)