Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (3)

This is the third in a series of posts under the same general title.

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Getting things to run smoothly, working to achieve a lack of resistance, this is the antithesis of art’s essence, it is the antithesis of wisdom, which is based on restricting or being restricted. So the question is: what do you choose? Movement, which is close to life, or the area beyond movement, which is where art is located, but also, in a certain sense death?

                                    –Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Stuggle. Book Two: A Man in Love*

 

Just where is art “located”?

That interrogative sentence may be grammatically well formed, but the question it tries to pose may not be. One thing (one of many, really) on which Alain Badiou and Martin Heidegger are in agreement is that it is more nearly art that does the locating, rather than itself being located. The work of art is not, properly regarded, at some place, according to them both. Rather, the work of art is itself a place–and a place-ment—in the strongest sense.

Plato somewhere mentions the common case of the child to whom some adult holds out two closed hands, in each of which is a desirable gift, and asks the child to choose. Any self-respecting child in such a situation will, of course, want both. Plato uses that as a metaphor for the philosopher. The philosopher, he says, is the child who, made such an offer of two good things and told to choose between them, always begs for both.

As deficient a philosopher as I may be in other regards, I am a still a good enough one to meet at least that particular Platonic standard—which I would like to call the standard of the essential childishness** of philosophy. Just so, in the present case I want to have both my Knausgaard and my Badiou (and my Heidegger!) too.

In the passage I quoted above, Knausgaard speaks of art itself being located somewhere. He locates it in a certain “area.” That is the area—or to show, as usual, my own Heideggerian underwear (“foundation garments”), what might better be called the region—“beyond movement.” That same area/region is also where one is to find, Knausgaard says, “death,” at least “in a certain sense.” That last phrase—at any rate, in the English translation—can be read, I want childishly to suggest, to apply both to a certain sense of death and to a certain sense of location. The death in the vicinity of which art is located is not just any old sort of death, but only a certain sort of death. At the same time, art and death themselves can be located in one another’s vicinity not in just any old sort of location (or any old sort of vicinity, for that matter), but only in a certain sort of location.

The certain sort of place or location in which a certain sort of death or end of life lies near to art is like no place at all in the entire world (which itself is only in a certain sense world) of our day (which is only in a certain sense day). In our globally collective present times—which are both present and times only in a certain sense—neither art nor death can be located at all. In our present times, there is neither art nor death.

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Nor is the area, region, or realm in which art and death come into one another’s vicinity any place we can reach from our own certain sort of day’s certain sort of area, region, or realm, even though the latter is all-inclusive, both geographically and socially speaking—all-inclusive, that is, with regard both to such places as the states of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Sudan, the Ukraine, etc., and with regard to such places as the states of poverty, intolerance, illegal/undocumented-immigrant-hood, etc. (to allude to some remarks I made in my preceding post).

The place where art and death draw near to one another?

You can’t get there from here.

The only places you can get to from here, that is, from where we are today, in these present times, are such places as points on the globe. Or, we could also add, points “off-globe,” in interstellar space.

Most of us, of course, will never be able to get to any extra-global places from here, of course, since most of us are nowhere near rich enough to pay for a seat on one of the commercially driven spaceships now being readied for a very few of us to go to some such places. But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect the fact that such places can still be reached from here by some of us, even if not by 99.9% of us. Nor does it affect the status of all of us actual or only logically possible potential travelers universally, insofar as we all without exception count as citizens of democracies, actual or even only logically possible, where everyone is equal.

That’s because however rich or however poor any of us may be, the only places any of us at all can get to from where we are now are, anyway, places such that it really doesn’t make any difference whether we are there or somewhere else. They are all alike places the place of which doesn’t matter. After all, it you’ve seen one McDonalds, you’ve seen them all.

That indifference of the difference in go-to-able places stems from the underlying basic fact that the only sense of place for which our world today makes any room—the only sort of place that has any place in such a place—is that of what can be placed at some point in the grid of spatial coordinates that applies indifferently to any and every place alike in the one and only, all-inclusive cosmic space of physics and the other sciences (which are never guilty of childishness, by the way).

Thus, in the world of our present times today, what in my preceding post I called the “flattening” that transpires with the concept of war also transpires with the concept of space. Indeed, that same flattening also transpires with regard to the concept of time, as it does yet again with the concept of a person and even, finally, with the concept of an event.

Badiou is good on that.  So is Heidegger. Let us choose both.

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In the third session—held on December 4, 2002—of his three-year seminar on “images of the present times,” Badiou begins by addressing how the movement of reactionary endeavor is always toward “the installation of the idea that the world is not transformable, that the world is as it is, and that it’s fitting to accommodate oneself to it.” That can take the form either of presenting the world as never changing, or of presenting it as ever changing—that is, as changing constantly. In the former case all effort to change the world is futile. In the latter case, for fear of falling behind one cannot ever dare even to pause long enough to take stock of what things even can be changed, let alone should.  So either, like Zeno’s arrow, one can never take flight at all, no matter how fast one flies. Or, like a certain Rabbit, one must always just keep on running, running, running . . . to go nowhere.

All that perfectly fits what Badiou goes on to call the “general tendency of the present times,” which is “manifestly the dissolution of the present in a general regime that is that of communication, [in the sense, standard today,] of circulation”—just as money and the merchandise it is used to buy must be kept constantly in circulation to keep things running smoothly everywhere today.

Thus, the “general tendency” at issue is toward the reduction of time as suchto a never-present present. At issue is the reduction of the “present” (itself taken to define time, as Aristotle said so long ago) to what is, in effect, no particular time, but just any old time. In such times as ours, any given time is interchangeable with any other–just like the money that, as the old cliché rightly has it, time today is. Time today is reduced to what, in effect, has no particular time—“has no particular time,” both in the sense that no moment of today’s time differs essentially from any other, and in the sense that time today grants or gives no time, no time to pause and draw aside, no time one can “bide.”

Conjoined with that reduction of time to what has no particular time, goes the reduction of place—Badiou goes on to observe a little later in the same session—to what has no particular place. He makes that observation in the context, specifically, of a discussion of Rimbaud and the colonial enterprise of Rimbaud’s day, but what he says applies no less to every day since Rimbaud’s day, even if the nature and status of the imperial enterprise itself has undergone considerable cosmetic do-over in the meantime.

“The imperial abstraction,” Badiou remarks, “is to transform the here [ici] into an it doesn’t matter where [en un ne importe où].” He gives an explanatory example clear to everyone (it doesn’t matter who): “That’s a feeling one experiences in the most anguishing manner when one is in an airport: you are sure you’re in an airport, but you could just as well be in Rio de Janeiro as in Paris or in Singapore. The airport is the absolute doesn’t matter where.” Just a bit latter he adds: “The contemporary savagery, the contemporary barbarism, is a barbarism that treats place [lieu] as if it is not a place. That treats place as if that place was nothing but a point in space.”

In contrast, for Badiou, the work of art is itself a truly singular place, not just any old place at all. Indeed, art as such is one of his standard four ways in which truth itself takes place. The other three ways, to repeat what I’ve said in earlier posts, are science, love, and politics. All four are, as it were, place-makers for truth. They are truth’s own em-place-ments, literally speaking.

In more than one place of his own, Heidegger says the same thing, at least about art, place, and space.  It’s become a sort of Heideggerian commonplace about place, in fact. Nevertheless, I will briefly cite two places he says such things. The fist is his lecture “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” first delivered in 1935. In that lecture he says emphatically that works of art as such—which means insofar as they are still “at work as art-works,” we might say—are not things that are located at certain places (such as in museums where paintings are hung, like corpses on nooses, or in the cities where the ruins of dead works of architecture can be visited still today, like the bones of dead ancestors in reliquaries). Rather, works of art are themselves places—places where whatever does take place, from people to rivers and gods to crickets, is allowed to take place. Thus, to use just one of Heidegger’s own examples from that lecture, the battle in ancient Greece between the old Minoan gods and the new Attic ones of the northern invaders, who came to define the very concept of “the Greeks” for us, is itself something that takes place in Sophocles’ Antigone, rather than being something that once took place somewhere else, then just got “represented” in Sophocles’ tragic drama. The Antigone itself is the battlefield, and the fighting of the battle takes place on that very battlefield.

My second Heideggerian reference it to something he wrote more than thirty years later,a short piece from his later works called “Art and Space” (“Die Kunst und der Raum”), which was originally published only in 1969, just seven years before Heidegger’s death. In it, Heidegger explicitly draws a strong, sharp contrast between the cosmic, place-less space of the physicists, on the one hand, and the place-scaped space, we might well call it, of the artwork—specifically, in this essay, the work of sculpture, which is itself a matter of spacing as the literal em-bodi-ment, the making into a body, of truth.   As one can easily see, at that point in making his point about spatial points, Heidegger may as well be Badiou. They both occupy the same space—which tells you the space they share is no longer Greek, by the way, or at least no longer Aristotelian.

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In the same session of December 3, 2002, already mentioned, Badiou remarks that Rimbaud, in poems written during his time as an enlistee in the Dutch foreign legion, referred to himself as a “conscript of good will,” which is to say one who conducted himself as befits a willing conscript. Badiou says that Rimbaud’s usage of the expression good will is “exact,” in the strictly Kantian sense of good will, which Badiou also labels “the good democratic will.” That is, Rimbaud is a “conscript of good will” insofar as he is a willing “soldier of the rights of man, of civilization,” as Badiou puts it, and willing to help carry those rights and that civilization to those who do not yet share in its blessings. (Just the kind of conscript of good will George W. Bush still needed well over a century later!)

As Badiou notes, Rimbaud also coupled being such a good democratic conscript with serving what Rimbaud himself called a “ferocious philosophy.” According to Badiou, that means “a philosophy of aggression and of the in-differentiation of place,” that is, of the washing out of all differentiation between one place and another.

One should surely add: between one person and another, too!  After all, everyone (no matter who), everywhere (no matter where), at every time (no matter when) is entitled to the “universal rights of man” (please forgive the sexist language of the standard Enlightenment phrase). Furthermore, those rights boil down, essentially, to being allowed to vote (no matter for whom) in free and open elections, and being free to live out one’s life however one chooses (no matter how, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else).

Who cares if the elections we vote in and the lives we live out are all equally meaningless? All that finally matters is that all our votes get counted equally, and all our lives lived equally out.

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Once again, Heidegger also points to such a flattening out of the notion of the human, to go with the flattening out of the notions of time and space. And once again he does so in more than one place.  This time, I will cite just one brief passage. It is one I read just recently, alongside Badiou’s seminar. The passage in question is from “Zu Ereignis III,” one of the six manuscripts about the “thinking” (Denken) of “the event” (das Ereignis) recently published together as Zum Ereignis Denken (volumes 73.1 & 73.2 of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe). This third of the six manuscripts is from the same Nazi decade as “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” cited above.

In ¶58 of “Zu Ereignis III” (GA 73.1, page 375) Heidegger discusses “the singularity [Einzigkeit] of Dasein,” which is to say the singularity of that being each of us human beings is given and called to be—however many of us may fail at that task, however often. Such singularity, he writes, is “precisely not individuality [Einzelnheit]—but also not the empty generality of what’s common.”

The terminology—which I have rendered as “singularity” and “individuality”—is not the crucial thing. What matters is the distinction itself, the one being marked by that terminology. That is the same distinction Badiou calls to our attention in his discussion of Rimbaud: the difference between what we might call two different sorts of “one of a kind.” On the one hand, there is what is “one of a kind” in the usual sense of that expression, where it means something that has no like, something truly unique, something altogether irreplaceable by anything else. That is the sense in which, for example, Muhammad Ali can rightfully be said to be “one of a kind.” On the other hand, there is what we might call “one of a kind” in a minimizing, even pejorative sense. In that sense, “one of a kind” would mean: just one of any number of possible instances of some given “kind,” that is, some common or general class of things of which any one member of that class could serve just as well as any other as an example, since they are all equal, all interchangeable with one another, as instances of the kind or class at issue.

Take Fluffy as an example.

Fluffy was my daughter’s pet guinea pig when she (my daughter—Fluffy was a “he”) was a child. One day Fluffy went belly-up in his cage. My daughter was, of course, troubled by Fluffy’s passing. She cried. That, in turn, troubled me, her father. Utterly lacking in the pertinent skillful means myself, at least at that particular time in that particular situation, I attempted to console my daughter by telling her it was all right, we could just go to the pet store and get her another guinea pig to have as a pet. Her voice and expression full of the disgust and contempt such a wholly clueless attempt to “fix” everything warranted, she replied indignantly that she did not want any “other” guinea pig—she wanted Fluffy.

For me, Fluffy was just in a certain sense one of a kind, the sense of being no more than one instance of the general kind, guinea pig. For my daughter, Fluffy was—well, Fluffy, who was one of a kind.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with guinea pigs, or with liking them as such. And if all there is to it is it that you happen to like guinea pigs just because they’re guinea pigs, then it’s no big deal if your guinea pig of the moment dies on you, so long as you have access to others. All you need do is go out and get another guinea pig, any other guinea pig will do, since being guinea pigs is what you like about them all equally.

However, if you make the mistake of coming to love whichever guinea pig fate may have sent your way at some given time, and your beloved guinea pig dies on you, then things are not so easy. Indeed, should such a thing happen, should your beloved guinea pig pull a Fluffy on you and go belly up—as, of course, it eventually will, unless your beloved guinea pig just happens to outlive you, like the last coat a given tailor cuts might well outlive the tailor that cuts it, to borrow another example from Plato—then you will find yourself, in fact, at a point of decision.

At that point, you may decide to remain true to your love, with all the pain that entails under the circumstances—since it does indeed hurt to lose someone you love, as my daughter could testify it hurt to lose Fluffy. Or you may decide to betray your love and seek you own comfort by rushing out to find some replacement for the irreplaceable—as I shamefully encouraged my daughter to do, in my rush to escape my own discomfort over her pain for the same Fluffy loss. You can choose, that is, to numb your love, and thereby deny it. Or you can choose to feel it in all its pain, and thereby affirm it.

At such points, the decision is up to you. That’s what defines them.

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My next post, continuing this series, will start at the same point, with points of decision.

 

* Translated by Don Bartlett (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), page 506 of the e-book edition.

** The right term! Presuming to display charity, some might try to substitute “child-like” for “child-ish.” But—as is true for so much charity— the caritas in such charity, however well intentioned it may be, is utterly lacking in skillful means. Endeavoring to help, it actually harms. From the point of view of what passes for a world in what passes for today, philosophy can only manifest as an enterprise that it is utterly childish, not just childlike, to pursue; and the dignity of philosophy demands that its true rank in relationship to our “present times,” as Badiou’s puts it, be acknowledged and granted. To pursue philosophy today, a day of such times, is utterly childish: Philosophy is really useless, something no serious adult can afford to waste any time on.

Published in: on July 18, 2014 at 8:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. I love what I’ve read of your work so far!


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