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.



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 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)


Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting Time

This summary of Chapter 5 from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book, “Sculpting Time”, will be read and discussed along with a selection of clips from his films and a similar discussion/analysis of the work of Sergei Eisenstein for our Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Group Meetup in Gangnam on Saturday April 15th, from 4pm-7pm. We meet weekly to discuss contemporary philosophical texts. We have a Facebook page and meetup page. Please join us one afternoon.

Tarkovsky’s Sculpting Time (1989)

I’d like to build through Eisenstein, Tarkovsky. Chronologically it works of course, but there is a great deal more than just historical trajectory I have in mind. To repeat a few points about Eisenstein’s thought, art is always in conflict. This is fundamental. The basic elements of film are shot and montage. For many, montage is the laying out of an idea in single shot form, one after the other in succession. As art however, it is better understood as the collision of independent and even opposing shots after one another (Eisenstein, 4). In this sense Eisenstein’s well-known point is that succession is not a rolling out of one shot to the next, but a layering. One shot in the mind’s eye of the viewer is superimposed with another shot. The previous shot is not forgotten in the mind, but retained.

(The Old and New, Cream)

Eisenstein sees film previously as a direction of emotions. With his understanding of film however and with his new filming style, quick clear shots and powerful images superimposed over other powerful images, he is able to grab hold and direct the entire stream of thought of the viewer. Film, traditionally a direction of emotions, is now given the opportunity to direct the whole thought process (Eisenstein, 16). He leads himself in this analysis to the idea that his form of film is most suitable for the expression of ideologically pointed theses. As we have seen this couldn’t be any more accurate. I want to drift toward the word propaganda here. Eisenstein’s technique of cinema, leads itself to the propagation of a particular strand of thought. The images are surely dynamic, but it is unidirectional in a sense, because one image leads to the next so quickly and forcibly, there is little else one could think about, but the represented image itself. One second later, there is a new image. Any kind of reflection is limited or condensed into a very short space. By doing this, they become all the more powerful and effective. Eisenstein writes that with this new form of film expression, we are freed from traditional limitations and move toward a purely intellectual film (Eisenstein, 16). Eisenstein’s four major films were of this type for certain. The nerve of cinema for Eisenstein is montage. That he uses the term “nerve” here is appropriate. Eisenstein’s films, at least his earlier silent ones, are of the cerebral, intellectual kind. They hack into the central nervous system directly. They are meant to take control of you.

If Eisenstein is of the central nervous system, Tarkovosky is all the other systems, notably, more than the others, the circulatory system, the human bloodlines. Much of the distinction has to do with the time in which both directors worked. Eisenstein a child amidst the revolutions, Tarkovsky a child long after the revolutions had settled. Furthermore, the impression we might have of Eisenstein is that we have the beginning of filmmaking in general, and an inner desire sparked by the times (the revolution and new Soviet era) to create new methods for this new medium. By Tarkovsky’s time, many years later, film had shifted, finally, into a kind of poesis. Poesis is not merely creation, but action that transforms and continues the world. In it comes a resolution, of sorts we might add, of thought with matter, time and being, the being, in the world. This term complements the work of Tarkovsky well. In his work, again and again, we are reminded that there is not meant to be any kind of technical wizardry at play here for the guided direction of thought (a la Eisenstein), nor are there any romantic allusions to some ideals or concepts of being human and being capable to do whatever it is that humans do. Tarkovsky says that just as sound is to music, color is to painting and character is to drama—time is to cinema. This makes a film bigger than what it is. The power of the film, its evocation itself in its poesis, does not comes out of the precision and technicality of the film form, but instead seeps into you, taking hold of you in a very different way than montage methods do. This seeping far extends beyond the ending of the film, the edges of the frame. It’s a haunting.

(Nostalghia, Farmside,)

Time flows beyond the edges of the frame of a film and it becomes something other than its ostensible existence (Tarkovsky, 118). Tarkovsky is interested in the moral qualities which are inherent in time itself, since the time that a person lives gives her the opportunity to know herself as a moral being, engaged in the search for truth (Tarkovsky, 58). He writes, “And life is no more than the period allotted to him [man], and in which he may, indeed must, fashion his spirit in accordance with his own understanding of the aim of human existence. The rigid frame into which it is thrust, however, makes our responsibility to others and ourselves all the more starkly obvious. The human conscience is dependent upon time for its existence” (ibid). Film is the essentially the observation of phenomenon passing (Tarkovsky, 67). Passing implies the signature of time and movement. With film, for the first time in the history of the arts, man found the means to take an impression of time (Tarkovsky, 62). We can take a moment and look at the following clip. 1898. Pay attention to the depth and bustle. The people filmed likely hadn’t the slightest idea what the instrument beside the train tracks was.

(L’Arrivee d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat, clip)

The story goes in the first screening of this film, the people in the theatre jumped up and ran away as the train approached the tracks. In their jump and run, a new aesthetic principle was formed, according to Tarkovsky. In film, man acquired a matrix for actual time. Just as the sculptor carves into the marble before him, the film director, is a sculptor of time. As an artist he is inwardly aware of the features of his finished piece. The key to this form of editing is rhythm, the expression of time in each frame. Tarkovsky uses the image of bodies of water of differing sizes flowing into each other, or alternatively water pipes that need to be connected. It is the director’s job to control the operative pressure of these waters as the volume of their liquids change from one scene into the next. Tarkovsky’s film directing process then is in stark contrast to Eisenstein’s process, indeed he outright rejects it in the text. For Tarkovsky, the editing process does not engender or recreate a new quality; it simply brings out a quality already inherent in the frames that it joins (Tarkovsky, 118). Perhaps this is why he is inclined toward long cuts, where details can be detected and sat with in the mind of the viewer, in effect becoming old and familiar even though they are presented on the frame over the course of a singular take in a minute or less. Tarkovsky’s affinity to the Japanese aesthetic is evident here. In the book he is led to a discussion of saba, rust. Quoting a journalist, he writes that for the Japanese, time helps to make known the essence of things (Tarkvosky, 59). Saba is link between art and nature, a theme very much alive in all of Tarkovsky’s work. Cinema, for Tarkovsky is first and foremost, observation. This observation is immediate, there before us. It may be filtered with our perceptions or memories, but it is ongoing before us, and even when we take our eyes off of it, we have come to know through age or experience, that it will continue beyond our recognition of it. “On screen”, he writes, “the logic of a person’s behavior can transfer into the rationale of quite different—apparently irrelevant—facts and phenomena, and the person you started with can vanish from the screen, replaced by something quite different, if that is what is required by the author’s guided principle”.

(Rublev, Climbing)

(Sacrifice, To Go)

What we have for Tarkovsky is film, an impression of time that situates itself in the space where the aesthetic coincides with the ethical. There is a scene in his first long film that pulls these three factors together; time, the aesthetic and the ethical. Here we have a young boy passing by a shoppe window. Aided by mirrors, he suddenly becomes aware of the passing of the world. The moral, the child’s place in the world, comes out in his smile. He is mesmerized, caught up in the world and his smile brings gives him a place in this, a recognition. For us the viewer, it does the same.

(The Steamroller, Morality)

Why do people go to the cinema, he asks? Because people want an enhanced concentrated version of time. Our memories exist as such. They are impressions or stamps of a brief moment. A number of Tarkovsky’s most memorable scenes work as concentrated time. They always involve a natural movement toward that most impressionable moment. In this scene, a child awakens from his bed and gently walks out of his room. Without this scene prior to the Water Dance, one wonders of its effectiveness.

(Mirror, Water Dance)

Another reason why Tarkovsky is so against the montage method is that the methods are apparent. Keeping inline with his aesthetics, he believes the audience should never be fully aware of why a director is choosing any one method over another, otherwise, as Marx warned, the spring starts to stick out on the upholstery (Tarkovsky, 111).

(Mirror, The Slaughter)

The director above all through attention to time, acquires a sense of rhythm. As we mentioned, the director directs the flow of the various rivers and streams. Here too a director develops his or her own individuality. Tarkovsky argues that this is what is lost in Hollywood films, a distinct time signature of the director, which a careful eye would recognize instantly as a particular director no matter where one might be in that director’s filmography. One’s rhythm then colors a work with the stylistic marks of a director (Tarkovsky, 120). This cannot be constructed entirely on a theoretical level nor fully planned out before hand. There has to be a level of spontaneity to the filming process, which comes from “the director’s innate awareness of life, his ‘search for time’ (ibid). There are at least three scenes in three separate films that Tarkovsky records the flow of a water plant moving under a current. In this text, and given the aesthetics of time and Tarkovsky’s shift and interest in it as the basis for man’s morality, their movement tells us something. Just as the movement of a reed tells us the direction of the current or wind, all that is available to us, all that is observable, tells us, the movement of time. This leads us to fire. We could imagine an Eisensteinian scene of a fire, followed by a frantic group of people with buckets of water trying to douse it. Their sweaty eyebrows are in close up, their charred hands, the fire violently giving into the whim of the wind. The fire goes out, brows are wiped and smiles all around. It is so often with Tarkovsky, that we not only see the fire, but we see the people, his characters seeing the fire. What comes of this is something much more intimate, arguably, real. For Tarkovsky too, we don’t witness the fire going out. We know it will, as fires do, but for now, the fire lingers as it should.

(Mirror, Farmhouse)

Sergei Eisenstein A Dialectic Approach To Film Form

Sergei Eisenstein adopts the theory of dialectics into art. Where the dynamic force that animates art is given as a series of conflict: conflict of social mission, nature and methodology.

“According to its social mission because: It is art’s task to make manifest the contradictions of Being. To form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator’s mind, and to forge accurate intellectual concepts from the dynamic clash of opposing passions.”

According to its nature because: Its nature is a conflict between natural existence and creative tendency.

The ossified, inorganic, dead formalism that no longer has the power to move is in combat with an effortful move towards the new. This dynamic conflict Eisenstein sees this not just as the basis of art, but all thinking:  the intellectual lives of Plato or Dante or Spinoza or New- ton were largely guided and sustained by their delight in the sheer beauty of the rhythmic relation between law and instance, species and individual, or cause and effect.

Finally, there is the conflict in the methodology. Eisenstein looks at the basic movement of image to image: the montage. He looks at the older theory of montage, which sees it as a sequential series of images to convey an unfolding of an idea. ” The earliest conscious film-makers, and our first film theoreticians, regarded montage as a means of description by placing single shots one after the other like building-blocks. The movement within these building-block shots, and the consequent length of the component pieces, was then considered as rhythm.”

But he thinks this is a mistake. The power of the images are not so much in their series, but in their relation to one another. “According to this definition, shared even by Pudovkin as a theoretician, montage is the means of unrolling an idea with the help of single shots: the “epic” principle. In my opinion, however, montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots-shots even opposite to one another: the “dramatic” principle.”

Like how art creates dynamism by vibrant contrast of colors, arrangement of lines or postures to convey movement, or use of disproportion to draw attention to ideas; like music that uses counterpoint to expand it’s theme, the montage creates dynamism by drawing out the conflict between images

For all this, the basic premise is: The shot is by no means an element of montage. The shot is a montage cell (or molecule). In this formulation the dualistic division of Sub-title and shot and Shot and montage leaps forward in analysis to a dialectic consideration as three different phases of one homogeneous task of expression, its homogeneous characteristics determining the homogeneity of their structural laws. Inter-relation of the three phases: Conflict within a thesis (an abstract idea) – formulates itself in the dialectics of the subtitle – forms itself spatially in the conflict within the shot – and explodes with increasing intensity in montage-conflict among the separate shots.

In Methods of Montage Eisenstein elaborates on five kinds of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. In true dialectic form, he believes that each state subsumes the other and enters into conflict with the one before it: metric is in conflict with rhythmic, overtonal with tonal. The overtonal is the highest form of this category, which works on the physiological (affect?) level. But Eisenstein has in mind a movement towards a new kind of film, the one that turns the intellectual montage into a full-fledged intellectual movie. Once the physiological overtonal conflict is resolved in the intellectual will this emerge:

The intellectual cinema will be that which resolves the conflict-juxtaposition of the physiological and intellectual overtones. Building a completely new form of cinematography- the realization of revolution in the general history of culture; building a synthesis of science, art, and class militancy.

Addenum: In his ideas concerning the intellectual cinema, Eisenstein relies on a concept well developed by Soviet psychologists which has been explored in the series on Bakhtin: that of inner speech. Here are some quotes from Eisenstein about the idea in relation to montage, from his book of essays Film Form:

How fascinating it is to listen to one’s own train of thought, particularly in an excited state, in order to catch yourself, looking at and listening to your mind. How you talk “to yourself,” as distinct from “out of yourself.” The syntax of inner speech as distinct from outer speech. The quivering inner words that correspond with the visual images. Contrasts with outer circumstances. How they work reciprocally. . . .
To listen and to study, in order to understand structural laws and assemble them into an inner monologue construction of the utmost tension of the struggle of tragic re-experience. How fascinating ! (105)

Inner speech, the flow and sequence of thinking unformulated into the logical constructions in which uttered, formulated thoughts are expressed, has a special structure of its own. This structure is based on a quite distinct series of laws. What is remarkable therein, and why I am discussing it, is that the laws of construction of inner speech tum out to be precisely those laws which lie at the foundation of the whole variety of laws governing the construction of the form and composition of art-works. And there is not one formal method that does not prove the spit and image of one or another law governing the construction of inner speech, as distinct from the logic of uttered speech. It could not be otherwise. (130)

Concerning “affective logic,” about which Vendryes writes and which lies at the base of spoken speech, montage very quickly realized that “affective logic” is the chief thing, but for finding all the fullness of its system and laws, montage had
to make further serious creative “cruises” through the “inner monologue” of Joyce, through the “inner monologue” as understood in film, and through the so-called “intellectual cinema,” before discovering that a fund of these laws can be found in a third variety of speech-not in written, nor in spoken speech, but in inner speech, where the affective structure functions in an even more full and pure form. But the formation of this inner speech is already inalienable from that which is enriched by sensual thinking

Thus w􀀅e arrived at the primary source of those interior principles, which already govern not only the formation of montage, but the inner formation of all works of art-of those basic laws of the speech of art in general-of those general laws of form, which  lie at the base not only of works of film art, but of all and all kinds of arts in general. But of that-at another time. (250-251)

Mikhail Bakunin (God and the State and Other Anarchist Selections)

This summary is for our group Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club meeting on April 8th from 4pm- 7pm.

GAS=God and the State

SSA=Stateless Socialism=Anarchism

SA=Statism and Anarchy

RC=Revolutionary Catechism

WIS=Where I Stand

Bakunin’s entire political enterprise rests on the notion of freedom, for people, and that which denies this freedom, authority. Any system or body that is put in place that realizes an authoritative stance, whether it is a god, the state or even a parent, is deplorable to Bakunin and must be revolted against. Our readings this week can be read from such an angle towards freedom and against authority. He does not say God is horrible, instead he strongly believes what the notion of God, in particular here a Christian god, does to humans is horrible. The State similarly, in a congealed, bureaucratized and hierarchical form too will always and forever subordinate humans and limit them in some way. Again, he is against the State here, but he is not throwing his hands up totally in regards to a social life between humans. This weeks readings give insight into Bakunin’s understanding of freedom and authority, the two best examples of the latter being, God and the State. As for the former, freedom, we will discuss Bakunin’s socialism in comparison to Marx’s, ending our discussion on his “Revolutionary Catechism” which reads as a futuristic list of demands for the kind of society Bakunin imagines. Held beside our previous discussions, which have tried to imagine a future society outside of our current neoliberal one, Bakunin’s work (almost all of which were fragments) and the life that he led in particular adds a great deal to the discussion.

If authority is what Bakunin detests with all his heart, let us begin there. First in the abstract sense, what is authority? Authority is a power coming from laws of the natural world that are manifested in the physical and social worlds in which we reside (GAS, 28). We cannot know them, we can misunderstand them, but we cannot disobey them. In a strong sense, Bakunin’s “authority” comes awfully close to our understanding of hegemony that we have been building in our group, he writes, “they constitute the basis and fundamental conditions of our existence; they envelop us, penetrate us, regulate all our movements, thoughts and acts; even when we believe that we disobey them, we only show their omnipotence” (GAS, 28). We are slaves to these laws since they are not outside of us, they constitute our whole being and without them we are nothing. We haven’t made the jump yet from these natural laws of authority to the manifestation of them into and by an authoritative construct (i.e. State or God). Because of this, we might not call this slavery at all, since there is no external master outside of us who is commanding a particular manifestation of this authority. In our relation to these natural laws within us, we have but one liberty—the capacity to recognize and apply them (GAS, 29). By doing so, we exercise an authority and this authority, this “government of common sense” is never questioned (Ibid). At issue is not this process, nor the natural laws of this authority established by science, but that a great number of people are unaware of these laws, thanks to the government. Secondarily if not obviously, a great number of these laws in their application to human society (by a political body) have been poorly established and not have not been recognized by science itself. Political organization, direction and legislation that come, even if they conform to the system of natural laws, will always be hostile to the liberty and freedom of people, since they will always be a system imposing external laws. Bakunin sums up this libertarian view,

The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally impose upon him by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human, collective or individual” (GAS, 30).

Simply said then, freedom is not granted to us by the State (formal freedom), it is prescribed to us by the laws of our own nature and it consists in the total development of all the material, intellectual and spiritual powers that are in a potential state in everyone, thus no external legislators could enforce laws of freedom on us (WIS, 1).

Let us move from the abstract to the concrete. Though he shared a great deal of his concerns and conclusions, Bakunin is often contrasted with Marx (who he in fact had a heated argument with). Keeping these ideas of authority in mind, this contrast is made clear. Bakunin totally rejected positivism and the application, notably by an external force, of scientific laws governing objects to the behaviors of living people who have the ability to modify and choose (SA, 2). Bakunin’s use of science here is rather important.

Marx’s revolution, coming from theoretical analysis of natural laws, intending to be by the people, installs a new State (of the people). Bakunin and other “revolutionary anarchists” declare themselves enemies of the state and the statist principle (SA, 4). For Bakunin, natural and social life always comes before theory and theory is always created by life and can therefore never create it. We can understand theories as mileposts and road signs, they can indicate the direction and the different stages of life, but they cannot directly influence it. Bakunin believes strongly that people carry within themselves the future of social organization and that no scheme can be concocted from books that would be better than that scheme which is already within people. Putting these direct jabs to the intellectual establishment aside (he is filled with them), Bakunin believes that every state power, places itself outside and over people and to maintain itself this body necessarily subordinates the needs and aspirations of people (ibid).

Marx’s communism falsely imagines itself to be the will of the people. How is this actually put into action? Is it possible for the whole proletariat to stand at the head of the government? What does this mean if 40 million Germans or 80 million Russians become a part of the government? This would be an impossibility, indeed the real living people haven’t the foggiest idea of this new ideology. For this and because of this Marxist theory comes up with a solution, the rule of a small number of people who represent the others. Of course this remains pseudo-representative. This is to say, Marx’s government of the people conceals the fact that it is still very much a state (albeit a new one) which has been conceived of by and is being run by a handful of privileged elite (presumably Marx and his intellectual friends) (ibid). Each step of the way, Bakunin seems to have a profound understanding or sensitivity to what it means to take on the responsibility of others and what can come with that responsibility (i.e. a politics and with it certain and specific claims in particular person’s wants and needs over others). In this context, if the proletariat are to become the ruling class, who are they to rule over? Always someone. The factory proletariats over the farming proletariats. Intellectuals over the factory workers. Marxist are well aware of this predicament and their measured response is that this rule over will only be temporary. In time, people are to be educated economically and politically to the point that a government is unnecessary and the state would come to lose its coercive character over people such that it develops into a free organization of communes (SA, 6). Bakunin would not have any of this, since the means to such an aim (in which he would agree with this aim) is still through a state dictatorship. Along with our previous discussions, especially as it was mentioned in the text Inventing the Future, Bakunin believes revolutions do not happen because their is no common ideal capable of inspiring a popular revolution. He completely embraces propaganda and a commitment to changing popular thought (SA, 17). At the same time, the social revolution cannot be done by any particular nation, but must be international in scope (SA, 13). Instead of this state socialism, an authoritarian revolution, a revolution from the top down, Bakunin wants a different kind of socialism, led by a libertarian revolution—a revolution from the bottom up (SSA, 5).

Socialism is justice and justice means equity, yet such socialism has never existed in any pure form across history (SSA, 1). Marx’s way would never lead to such equity as we have seen. Bakunin sees it best not to propose a new socialist system, but principle: “that every human being should have the material and moral means to develop all his humanity” (SSA, 1). This translates into the following problem worth quoting in full since it is the base from which our later discussion of anarchism will unfold.

“To organize society in such a manner that every individual, man or woman, should find, upon entering life, approximately equal means for the development of his or her diverse faculties and their utilization in his or her work. And to organize such a society that, rendering impossible the exploitation of anyone’s labor, will enable every individual to enjoy the social wealth, which in reality is produced only by collective labor, but to enjoy it only in so far as he contributes directly toward the creation of that wealth.” (SSA, 2).

There is after all no combination of geniuses so capable of representing the infinite multiplicity and diversity of all the people, their interests and aspirations (SSA, 4). Bakunin wants to abolish all political power and establish a federation from the bottom up, a genuine people’s republic, the republic as a true commune—the system of Anarchism (SSA, 3). How would this come about? Here lies an interesting similarity on the two sides of the Libertarian table, the anarchist-libertarian and the capitalist libertarian. Whereas the latter is committed to the spontaneous whim of capital, Bakunin believes that equality should and would “be established in the world by a spontaneous organization of labor and collective property, by the free organization of producers’ associations into communes, and free federation of communes” (SSA, 4). We will return to more detailed points Bakunin makes in his “Revolutionary Catechism”, below.

Bakunin’s sentiments about the State hold true for God. In God and the State he works with very similar themes in the context of and against a human construct, which by claiming a certain form of authority, imposes restrictions on people. The text is incomplete and at times reads like a tirade, but it brings further insight into Bakunin’s concerns for people, that is, his strong belief that governments, and God here in particular, systematically poison and stupefy the masses (GAS, 11). In this text, more than the others, Bakunin as a moral personality comes out more than anything else, rather than Bakunin as an intellectual authority (GAS, vi). This distinction may not have been particularly useful in our past readings, but with Bakunin especially it seems like a sensible remark. While reading him one gets a sense of not only a childlike enthusiasm, as Avrich in the introduction remarked, but of a childlike deviousness, an inclination to revolt endlessly. Case in point, his version of Genesis is devious and fun in and of itself, so let us start there.

God, in his “egoistic solitude”, had created Adam and Eve for reasons we never know. Granting them the entire Earth, he placed a single limit on them. In so doing this he damned them to remain as eternal beast before God. But in comes Satan, “eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds” who “makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him…” (GAS, 10). God, “flew into a terrible ridiculous rage; he cursed Satan, man and the world created by himself, striking himself so to speak in his own creation as children do when they get angry; and, not content with smiting our ancestors themselves, he cursed them in all the generations to come, innocent of the crime committed by their forefathers” (ibid). Catholic and Protestant theologians look at this as being just and profound just because of its very iniquity and absurdity (GAS,11). God, remembering that he was not only a God of wrath, but also a God of love took pity on humans and sent him his son, only so that he may be killed (ibid). This became known as the mystery of Redemption, the basis of all Christian religions. Moreover, the paradise promised by Christ, is meant for an elect few, all others will eternally burn in hell. Bakunin ends, “Such are the absurd tales that are told and the monstrous doctrines that are taught, n the full light of the nineteenth century, in all public schools of Europe at the express command of the government” (ibid).

Bakunin derives three fundamental principles from this myth and two caricatures. In emancipating itself from its animality, humans had become something uniquely human—a human animality, as he calls it. With this, humans began to embark on a distinctly human history through this act of disobedience and what he calls “science”—or in other words, rebellion and thought. With human animality, we have the social and private. With thought, we have science. And with rebellion, is liberty. As for the caricatures, we have the idealist and materialist. One is described as the opposite of the other, such that we might simply look at the idealist (a long list of individuals including theologians, philosophers and politicians), who believes that all matter is vile. Their work transformed the only non-real matter into the only “real” matter, God. He writes,

They have taken away from matter intelligence, life, all its determining qualities, active relations or forces, motion itself, without which matter would not even have weight, leaving it nothing but impenetrability and absolute immobility in space; they have attributed all these natural forces, properties, and manifestations to the imaginary being created by their abstract fancy; then, interchanging roles, the have called this product of their imagination, this phantom, this God who is nothing, “supreme Being.” And, as a necessary consequence, have declared that the real being, matter, the world, is nothing” (GAS, 13).

We should rest there, but Bakunin is eager for more. The idealists insist on a salto mortale from which the divine, eternal, infinite and absolutely perfect decided to no longer be as such. All philosophical systems and religions hinge on this “iniquitous mystery”, this leap into the profane. Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, not to mention the Indian philosophers have written beautiful systems to describe this leap, but it remains a mystery (GAS, 15). In the mind of Bakunin, these efforts have been such a waste, albeit a beautiful one. But he asks the question, how would intelligent and well-informed people ever come into believing this mystery of the ages? People accept religion “without criticism and in a lump” (GAS, 16). Although he does not go into detail here, he does briefly mention how ignorance is a great condition for the use of power, particularly by a governmental body. Harkening on that notion of hegemony discussed earlier, or authority for Bakunin, he describes how religion is “artificially sustained” in the minds of people by a multitude of officials (from priests to laymen).

There is of course a class of people who do not share any of these religious beliefs, but they at least give the appearance of believing. For Bakunin it is this very class, which comprises all tormentors and oppressors including; the priests, monarchs, statesmen, jailers, monopolists, “vendors of sweet meats” and so many more (GAS, 17). His blending here of collaborators of the State and its administration and what we might call collaborators of God/religion and its administration is rather intriguing. It is not surprising here that he quotes Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (ibid). Yet another class, does not take to the Christian doctrines seriously at all, yet they haven’t the courage to renounce them altogether.

Bakunin settles down a bit. For the revolutionary socialist, none of this is surprising. History appears to us as the revolutionary negation of the past it consists in the progressive negation of the primitive animality of man by the development of his humanity (GAS, 21). Why we still believe in god the divine idea is an outcome of ourselves, an error historically necessary in the development of humanity (GAS, 22). We must take note and grab hold of this “development of religious hallucinations in human conscience” (GAS, 23).   When we can fully give an account of the supernatural or divine world, how this world developed and more crucially how it developed in the historical evolution of the human consciousness, all our scientific conviction of the absurdity of it all will be continually be in vain (ibid). If we want to succeed in annihilating the opinions of the majority, again a necessary measure for Bakunin’s revolution, we must reach into the depths of the human being where these ideas are born. Perhaps even, the revolution starts here. Summarizing his thoughts on religion he writes: “The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice,· it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice” (GAS, 25). Returning us full circle to his detest for authority, he continues a little later on the same page, “If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist” (ibid).

To end we might highlight a few points from Bakunin’s “Revolutionary Catechism”, a document highlighting the practical problems of the Anarchist revolution as well as describing a list, in effect, of commands. As we mentioned with the transitional phase of Marx’s communism above, Bakunin was well aware that his project would take generations and therefore this document or outline was meant towards the more immediate early stages of the revolution. Much of what we have discussed is here in condensed form. The direction of this revolution and the ultimate political and economic organization of social life, for example, is clearly outlined as starting from base to summit, from center to circumference (RA, 1), in contrast to Marx’s revolution which in spirit is intended to move in this direction, but in action, doesn’t. The only way to real freedom, unconditional freedom as he writes in his, “Where I Stand”, is through the actualization of certain conditions, in which this catechism is one long list. A few are worth highlighting as they offer further insight into Bakunin’s thought. We might end here and use a selection of these points as a conclusion.

A.) The abolition of all state religions and all privileged churches, including those partially maintained or supported by state subsidies. Absolute liberty of every religion to build temples to their gods, and to pay and support their priests.

B.) Abolition of monarchy and the establishment of a commonwealth

C.) The abolition of all classes, ranks and privileges; absolute equality for all men and women; universal suffrage

D.) The total abolition, dissolution, and moral, political and economic dismantling of the all-pervasive, regimented, centralized State.

E.) Immediate direct election of all judicial and civil functionaries as well as representatives (national, provincial, and communal delegates) by the universal suffrage of both sexes.

F.) Individual rights. The right of every man and woman, from birth to adulthood, to complete upkeep, clothes, food, shelter, care, guidance, education (public schools, primary, secondary, higher education, artistic, industrial, and scientific), all at the expense of society.


And further on these individual rights:

  1. The freedom of adults of both sexes must be absolute and complete, freedom to come and go, to voice all opinions, to be lazy or active, moral or immoral, in short, to dispose of one’s person or possessions as one pleases, being accountable to no one. Freedom to live, be it honestly, by one’s own labor, even at the expense of individuals who voluntarily tolerate one’s exploitation.
  1. Unlimited freedom of propaganda, speech, press, public or private assembly, with no other restraint than the natural salutary power of public opinion. Absolute freedom to organize associations even for allegedly immoral purposes including even those associations which advocate the undermining ( or destruction ) of individual and public freedom.


G.) The basic unit of all political organization in each country must be the completely autonomous commune, constituted by the majority vote of all adults of both sexes.

H.) The province must be nothing but a free federation of autonomous communes. The nation must be nothing but a federation of autonomous provinces.

I.) From the moment of pregnancy to birth, a woman and her children shall be subsidized by the communal organization. Women who wish to nurse and wean their children shall also be subsidized.

J.) Parents shall have the right to care for and guide the education of their children, under the ultimate control of the commune which retains the right and the obligation to take children away from parents who, by example or by cruel and inhuman treatment, demoralize or otherwise hinder the physical and mental development of their children.

K.)  Children belong neither to their parents nor to society. They belong to themselves and to their own future liberty. Until old enough to take care of themselves, children must be brought up under the guidance of their elders. It is true that parents are their natural tutors, but since the very future of the commune itself depends upon the intellectual and moral training it gives to children, the commune must be the tutor. The freedom of adults is possible only when the free society looks after the education of minors.