Final Remarks on Jean-Luc Nancy

6/3/09

This is the third consecutive post I have devoted to French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s ongoing project of rereading Christianity–rereading it in a way I find very suggestive for the study of trauma.  Today’s post contains my philosophical journal entries, first written on the dates indicated below, on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure:  The Deconstruction of Christianity, translated by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2008).

 One of the reasons for the strong appeal Nancy’s effort at recovering Christianity (largely from itself) has for me, lies in his consistent, insistent rejection of any sort of cheap and easy “redemption” or “salvation.”  So, for example, on page 20 of Dis-Enclosure he writes:  “If I am undertaking, at present, a meditation on monotheism, it is not to seek in it some way out, some remedy or salvation.  ‘Salvation’ represents, on the contrary [to what he is attempting], the confirmation of the world of nihilism by the necessity of the redemption that it asserts.”  In Dis-Enclosure and elsewhere, Nancy is careful repeatedly to reject any redemption or salvation so conceived.  Accordingly, his thought makes room for, and thereby respects, the lesson that the Holocaust, the definitive “historical trauma,” and, indeed, that trauma in general, teaches–the lesson that there is no such “redemption” possible, as I have explored in some of my earlier posts at this site.

A little later in the book, in a critical reading of Heidegger in and as a chapter called “On a Divine Wink [German for “hint”],” Nancy also provides grounds for thought on the connection between the Wink or hint, translation (which winkt or hints when it makes an exception for an “untranslatable” word, such as “Wink” itself, just as it functions in the title of Nancy’s essay–and as he perfectly well knows), and sovereignty, which especially today attempts to establish itself on the declaration of “exceptions” to the presumed rule of law, exceptions necessitated by such public or historical traumas as the attacks of September 11, 2001.  (To cite Carl Schmitt’s famous definition, “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”) 

Thus, Nancy writes on page 106:  “The exception of the untranslatable constitutes the law of translation. . . . Where there is exception, there is sovereignty.  What is sovereign is the idiom that declares itself to be untranslatable.”  Then, in the very next paragraph (on page 107), he goes on to write:  “Sovereign is the translator who decides to suspend the translation, leaving instead the word in the original.”  Then he proceeds to express a double connection between the Wink and sovereignty: 

Thus we can establish, on the one hand, that the Wink is sovereign, and on the other, correlatively, that the sovereign winkt. . . . Nothing is more specifically characteristic of sovereign majesty than the frown, the wink, the expression said to be ‘imperceptible,’ the reply to which is called a ‘sign of complicity,’ in the sense that, in that complicity, connivance precedes and exceeds understanding, in the sense that complicity has already understood whatever it is that has not been openly offered up to the understanding, but is expected.  The Wink opens an expectation at the same time as an impatience to which the decision to understand without waiting, in the twinkling of an eye, responds.

In his essay on the Wink Nancy connects Heidegger’s notion of “the last God” as the God who winkt, with  Derrida’s différance (the ordinary spelling of which, in French as in English, uses an e where Derrida writes, instead, an a)–noting in the process that the a in différance is itself a Wink (the very difference to which it calls attention can only be indicated in writing, since as pronounced in French there is no difference between the word written with an a and written with an e)–and with the idea of what passes by, as Heidegger says “the last god” passes by and is the last god only in so passing.  In that connection (of connections) itself, Nancy sees a Wink that opens upon “another sense”–a sense other than that of sovereignty, including, especially and essentially (since, as Derrida taught in Speech and Phenomena, there can be no “meaning” without “indication,” which is to say without any winken that opens the space for “signification”) the sovereignty of “meaning” itself (of that very sense of sense).

On page 113, Nancy writes, on this “other sense”: 

It is not the sense of the other or of an other [as in, say, Levinas], but the other of sense and an other sense, an always other sense that begins freelyif freedom consists in the beginning, and not in the completion, of a new series of events, a new sending back and forth of sense.  This inaugural and never terminal freedom accedes to that excess of sense–which is its sense, which is to say also the sense of being–as if to a climax, a supreme or a sublime that we cannot (and this is precisely the point) call “supreme being,” and that corresponds rather to the suspension of the supreme or of the foundation by which sovereignty declares itself.

This other sense is–to use the title of the next chapter from Nancy’s book, which reflects on a notion of Roland Barthes’, as the preceding essay does on a notion of Heidegger’s–“an exempting from sense.”  Nancy observes (pages 125-126) that to “exempt” is “to relieve of an obligation, to free, to exonerate from a duty or debt.”  Thus, “an exempting from sense” requires (to make sense) that “first sense must have been posited at the level of an obligation, an injunction of some sort . . . an imperative. . . . We have to make sense and produce sense, or else produce ourselves as sense.”  Later (still on page 126) he adds that “the formally sublime dignity of the ‘person’ and anonymous monetary circulation [which defines global market capitalism, of course]” are but the two sides of the single coin of what sets (itself) up (as) the sovereign–and together, as globalization of market economics, constitute the process to which “the other sense” of the preceding chapter on the Wink would be “other.”  Nancy then goes on, still on the same page: 

The wanting-to-say [that is, the “meaning”:  vouloir dire, in French, which literally means “to want to say”] commanded by sense always consists, in sum, in a wanting-to-have-said (“I have said” is the word of the master).  An exempting from  sense, by contrast, designates a wanting-to-say [a “meaning”] in which the wanting melts into the saying and gives up wanting, so that sense is absent and makes sense beyond sense.

“There is no sense that is not shared,” Nancy has said already, at the start of his essay on an exemption from sense.  Returning to that observation on the last page of the same essay he writes:

Sense is shared or it does not exist.  The contrasting couple of the exclusive ineffable and the general equivalent, or, if you prefer, of negative theology and monetary ontology, is the result of the disintegration of sharing itself, in which each of the two senses falls to a single side.  Unique sense, in sum, is always unilateral, and no longer has any sense for that very reason.  Nor is it a question of juxtaposing multiple senses.  Here’s the point:  What makes sense is one person speaking to another, just as what makes love is someone making love to someone else.  And one being the other by turns or simultaneously, without there being an end to these comings and goings.  The goal–if we must speak of a goal–is not to be one with sense.  It is not even mutual understanding:  it is to speak anew.

 Then, at the bottom of the same page, he ends the chapter with this:  “And there we have, if I still dare use this word, an ethics for our time–and more than an ethics.”

Nancy then follows with a third excellent chapter, on “Prayer Demythified,” at the end of which (pages 137-138) he writes the following reflections, which illuminate fanaticism as the most destructive form of the endeavor to avoid or deny trauma–though he does not himself use that term.  What he says applies not only to contemporary religious fanaticism of whatever sort, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian–as in the murder in Kansas just a few days ago of Dr. George Tiller, in the name of the protection of the “rights of the as yet unborn,” as it has sometimes been put.  It also applies to Nazi and fascist fanaticism, as Nancy’s own remarks make clear, and to all other forms of political fanaticism, “religious” in professed motivation or not.  Above all, Nancy’s analysis casts light on the connections between distortions of language and the fanatical avoidance of trauma, just as his earlier discussion of the Wink casts light on the connections between translation and sovereignty.  Nancy writes:  “Fanaticism is nothing but the abolition of the intractable distance of the real [the traumatic structure of “reality” as such, in effect], and consequently also the extinction of prayer and all speech, in favor of effusive outpouring, eructation, and vociferation.” 

In contrast to all such denial and distortion, prayer as such, as he has been arguing in the essay on prayer that precedes that comment on fanaticism, is nothing but the lifting up, the elevation, of the saying that is prayer itself.  Hence, he goes on: 

In the elevation of prayer, a supplication also, albeit “accessory,” cannot fail to intervene, for in it [that is, in prayer] is revealed the “poverty” [of all human speech itself].  The fact is “poor humanity” may have nothing else to pray.  Prayer thus conceived does not enrich, does not remunerate the “poor humanity” that we today have just as many reasons to bemoan [as ever].  It carries poverty over to saying–and it isn’t poverty but saying that is obliterated in this prayer.  Does not the same apply (isn’t it the same thing) to the  saying of love, the saying of mourning, and the saying of speech itself?

However that may be–and clearly his questions function rhetorically here–Nancy concludes that to

concern ourselves with this empty remnant [Note that term!] of prayer, remain faithful to this obligation . . . , [f]or us . . . has the force of a categorical imperative, for nothing today is more important than this:  to empty and let be emptied out all prayers that negotiate a sense, an issue, or a repatriation of the real within the narrow confines of our faded humanisms and clenched religiosities, in order that we may merely open speech once again to its most proper possibility of address, which also makes up all its sense and all its truth.

Trauma calls for just and only such prayer as response–a prayer that lifts up trauma and the traumatized themselves, and, in raising them up, obliterates not trauma and the traumatized but the praying voice itself, vanishing behind what it exhausts itself in lifting up.  Such a remnant prayer, which expropriates those who pray–dis-appropriating them of all their own property, in order that they may at last pray properly–is the only proper prayer, indeed, the only proper speech, of those remnant communities, as I have called them, that are the only real communities, in any world of trauma such as ours.

 

What follows are my entries on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure in my philosophical journal from last fall.

 

 

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure.  The second essay, “Atheism and Monotheism,” from page 25 to the end of the essay on page 28, is excellent.  In general, he is good indeed on the belonging together of atheism and theism, and on the identity (in Heidgger’s sense [of just such belonging-together, as contrasted to identity taken as mere belonging-together]) of the two as defining the West, but in these last few pages of the piece he is even better than usual.  Just to hit some of the highlights:

P. 25: 

Faith is not weak, hypothetical, or subjective knowledge.  [It’s not knowledge at all.] . . . On the contrary, it is the act of the reason that relates, itself, to that which, in it, passes it infinitely:  faith stands precisely at the point where atheism [as the casting loose, one way or another,  of God, if “God” names the principle of totality, as he’s arguing it does]. . . . This is the point Kant already recognized formally [see his critique of reason to make room for faith] when he spoke, for example, of “the incapacity in which reason finds itself, to satisfy by itself its own needs.”  Reason does not suffice unto itself:  for itself it is not a sufficient reason.

P. 26:  However,

the name “God” . . . in [an] atheological [sense, rather than the principle/God of theism/atheism] . . . refers to “something,” to “someone,” or to “a nothing” . . . of which faith is itself the birthplace or the creative event.  That “God” himself may be the fruit of faith, which at the same time depends only on his grace (that is, exempts itself from necessity and obligation), is a thought profoundly foreign–perhaps it is the most foreign–to the theism/atheism pair. . . . Yet this thinking is not foreign to Christian reflection–no more so than to reflection in Judaism or Islam.  Let us cite only Makarios of Magnesia [4th century].  “This one who does the will of my Father gives birth to me [Christ] by participating in this act, and he is born with me.  He who believes that I am the Son of God engenders me in some sense through his faith.”

Bottom of p. 26 he cites “the word that was in a sense Heidegger’s last:  ‘Only a god can save us now.’ ”  Then, top of p. 27:

It is not politically correct to treat his sentence without contempt.  Yet it is philosophically necessary. . . . Now, to “save” is not “to heal.”  It is not a process, and it is not measured against some ultimate “health” (salus and sanus are not the same terms).  It is a unique and instantaneous act [note:  a Heideggerian Event!], through which one who is already in the abyss is held back or recovered.  “To save” does not annul the abyss; it takes place in it.  (Perhaps buddhist “awakening” takes place in a comparable fashion, if it takes place,  right in the middle of the world and not outside it).

A little later on p. 27:

And the “god” of which he [Heidegger in the article in Der Spiegel he gave 10 years before he died, with the proviso that it only be published posthumously] is speaking designates . . . the “nothing other” for which philosophy is neither the site nor the regime.  That god, that “last god” as he puts it elsewhere–that “god,” insofar as every god is the “last one,” which is to say that every god dissipates and dissolves the every essence of the divine–is a god that beckons [winkt].  That means, it makes a sign without sense, a sign of approach, of invitation, and of departure.  That god has its essence in winken.  And that sign-making, that blink of an eye comes to pass, starting from and in the direction of the Ereignis–the appropriating event through which man, appropriated to or by being, may be disappropriated (ent-eignet) of an identity closed in on its humanity.  Man may thus “propriate” himself, address himself and dedicate himself (zu-eignet) to what is infinitely more than him-“self” [lui-“même”].

 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “Opening” (first piece), p. 10:  “Christianity designates nothing other, essentially (that is to say simply, infinitely simply:  through an inaccessible simplicity), than the demand to open in this world an alterity or an unconditional alienation.”  Then, a bit later:  “Christianity can be summed up, as Nietzsche, for one, knew well, in the precept of living in this world as outside of it–in the sense that this ‘outside’ is not, not an entity.  It does not exist, but it (or again, since it) defines and mobilizes ex-istence:  the opening of the world to inaccessible alterity.”

Thus does Christianity itself become de-constructive.

Following up further (pp. 11-12):  “. . . the true scope of the ‘dis-enclosure’ can only be measured by this question:  Are we capable, yes or no, of grasping anew–beyond all mastery–the demand that carries thought out of itself without confusing this demand, in its absolute irreducibility with some construction of ideas or with some sloppy assembly of phantasms?”

Later on p. 12:  “. . . it is a question . . . of wondering whether faith has ever, in truth, been confused with belief.”  Indeed!  Then, as he correctly and importantly adds:  “In effect, it is enough to observe that belief is in no way proper [that is, here, “exclusive”] to religion.  There are many profane beliefs”; there are even beliefs among scholars and philosophers.

 

P. 36 (in third essay, “A Deconstruction of Monotheism”):

With the figure of Christ comes the renunciation of divine power and presence, such that this renunciation becomes the proper act of God, which makes this act into God’s becoming-man. . . . In its principle, monotheism undoes theism, that is to say, the presence of the power that assembles the world and assures this sense.  It thus renders absolutely problematic the name god–it renders it nonsignifying–and above all, it withdraws all power of assurance from it.

 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Judeo-Christian (on Faith),” p. 53, parenthetically notes that in the sense of “faith” at issue in the letter of James “there is at the heart of faith a decision of faith that precedes itself and exceeds itself,” then writes:  “If belief must be understood as a weak form of an analogy of knowledge, then faith is not of the  order of belief.”  But first (right after the parentheses) he writes that, as such a “decision,” “faith cannot be an adherence to some contents of belief.”  At the end of the same paragraph he writes: 

Taking a step further, even a short step, we could extrapolate from James a declaration like the  following:  “It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a ‘belief,’ for example, in the belief in redemption by the Christ, that which characterizes the Christian:  only Christian practice is Christian, a life like that lived by him who died on the cross”–a declaration that we cold read in Nietzsche.

Perhaps there is, in that last remark, an indication of a genuine difference between Nancy’s articulations and those of [Gianni] Vattimo on the relevant point of faith:  Vattimo does indeed continue to think  in terms of what in the broad sense may be called the “contents” of belief–taking the latter still as a “holding for true” in some sense.  In contrast, Faulkner, say, in Requiem for a Nun is clearly no longer thinking that way at all, and his use of “belief” is such as to make it the same, I’d say, as Nancys “faith.”  More importantly, I think the reading of Vattimo on the basis, in effect, of Nancy’s understanding of “faith” would help articulate a less rigid distinction between “contents” of belief and “practice” of faith.

For example, to “believe” in the power of prayer could surely be taken to be “holding for true” that prayer is effective.  Thus, the latter could be called the “content” of such a belief.  However, to hold that “content” for true is to act in a certain way.  So one might say something such as this to an “uncertain” believer of a certain sort (a certain sort of “uncertainty”):  “If you believe in the power of prayer, why don’t you act like it?”  That is, genuine belief itself must manifest as and in “works.”

Similarly, to use Nancy’s own example, to believe “in redemption by the Christ” is to be empowered and sent underway into redeemed life, a life lived as redemption and [therefore] lived redemptively.  And that “belief” is as much a gift and a grace as Nancy recognizes [what he calls] “faith” to be.

The happening of truth!

On p. 53 Nancy writes:

In a certain sense, James’ Abraham believes nothing, does not even hope. . . . James’ Abraham is not in the economy of assurances or substitutes for assurance . . . . The reasons that this faith has “to believe” are not reasons.  Thus it has nothing, in sum, with which to convince itself.  This faith is but the “conviction” that gives itself over in act–not even to something “incomprehensible” . . . , but to that which is another act:  a commandment. . . . Faith resides in inadequation to itself as a content of meaning.  And it is in this precisely that it is truth qua truth of faith or faith as truth and verification.  This is not sacri-fication [making-sacred] but veri-fication [making-true].

Then, on the next page (54):  “The work of Abraham is the acting or doing of this inadequation:  a praxis [acting] whose poiesis [making] is the incommensurability of an action (to offer Isaac up) and of its representation or its meaning (to immolate his son).”

Yet “to offer up” is no less a “representation,” finally, that “to immolate.”  So I don’t see that he has succeeded in isolating two opposed ideas here.  Despite his parenthetical remark to the contrary [at least as I read its suggestion above], Kierkegaard and Vattimo are pointing toward the same thing he, Nancy, is himself pointing to.  Those are three different ways, terminologically, of pointing to the same thing, I’d say–though none of the three quite succeeds as an articulation, in my judgment.

 

Something in all this has just occasioned this reflection, linking the interpretation of Abraham and Isaac with the idea I recently wrote of, that giving birth to a child is giving the child over to death:  Perhaps we could read the story of Abraham and Isaac as a parable of birth.  Perhaps all parents are Abraham, and all their children Isaacs who are “offered up” by those parents themselves to “God” = to no-thing = death.  Giving birth is offering up the born to God = death.

 

Later on p.  54:  “. . . what James . . . calls . . . ‘justification’:  that which makes just, that which creates a just one. . . . would be tied first to faith in the other. . . . The just one or justified one would be he who lets himself be attested, borne witness to, in the other.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins [in the untitled poem that begins, “When kingfishers catch fire”]:  “The just man justices.”

 

Thursday, November 27, 2008–Thanksgiving Day

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, the end of the reflection on James (“The Judeo-Christian (on Faith)”), p. 59:

What is changing, in the instituting configuration of the West, is that man is no longer the mortal who stands before the immortal.  He is becoming the dying one in a dying that doubles or lives the whole time of his life.  The divine withdraws from its dwelling sites–whether these be the peaks of Mount Olympus or of Sinai–and from every type of temple. It becomes, in so withdrawing, the perpetual imminence of dying.  Death, as the natural end of a mode of existence, is itself finite:  dying becomes the theme of existence according to the always suspended imminence of parousia.

Next paragraph, on [the sacrament of] anointing the sick, especially the dying: 

. . . unction signs not what will later be called life eternal beyond death but the entry into death as into a finite parousia that is infinitely differed or deferred.  This is the entry into incommensurable inadequation.  In this sense, every dying one is a messiah, and every messiah is a dying one.  The dying one is no longer a mortal as distinct from the immortal.  The dying one is the living one in the act of a presence that is incommensurable. . . . Death is tied to sin:  that is, tied to the deficiency of a life that does not practice faith–that cannot practice it without failing or fainting–at the incommensurable height of dying.  Yet despite this, faith gives; it gives dying precisely in its incommensurability (to give death, “the gift of death,” he [that other “James,” namely, Jacques–French for James–Derrida] says):  a gift that is not a matter of receiving in order to keep, any more than is love or poverty, or even veridicity (which are, ultimately, the same thing as dying).

 

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, in “The Name God in Blanchot,” p. 76: 

Blanchot. . . neither asks nor authorizes any “question of God,” but he additionally posits and says that that question is not to be asked.  This means that it is not a question. . . . God is not within the jurisdiction of a question.  This does not mean that he falls within an affirmation that would answer the question in advance.  Nor does he fall within a negation.  It is not that there is or is not a God.  It is, quite differently, that there is the name God, or rather that the name God is spoken. . . . If all questions intend a “what,” a something, the name God corresponds to the order, the register, or the modality of what is not, or has not, any thing.

He goes on to write that Blanchot also uses words

such as being (as taken from Heidegger) . . . . For them as well,  the question is not to be asked, for it is already deposited within them.  But they are words (concepts), whereas God is a name (without content [any more than any name, properly speaking, has “content”]).  The name God must, then, represent something other than a concept here, more precisely, it must bear and bring to a head a trait common to names as such:  to be at the extremity and the extenuation of sense.

 

Next essay, “Blanchot’s Resurrection,” p. 89 (first paragraph of the essay):

The resurrection in question [in Blanchot] does not escape death, nor recover from it, nor dialectize it.  On the contrary, it constitutes the extremity and the truth of the phenomenon of dying.  It goes into death not to pass through it but, sinking irreversably into it, to resuscitate death itself.  To resuscitate death is entirely different from resuscitating the dead.  To resuscitate the dead is to bring them back to life, to bring life back where death had destroyed it. . . . Resuscitating death is a completely different operation. . .

The point is, indeed, to let the dead be dead:  thus to resurrect or resuscitate death, and the dead as [still] dead.

 

Next essay, “Consolation, Desolation,” is a reply to Derrida on Nancy’s deconstruction (in Noli me tangere) of the notion of resurrection.  P. 101:  “Faith never consists–and this, no doubt, in any religious form–in making oneself believe something in the way that one might convince oneself that tomorrow one will be happy.  Faith can only consist, by definition, in addressing what comes to pass, and it annihilates every belief, every reckoning, every economy, and any salvation.”

 

Monday, December 1, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “On a Divine Wink” [Wink is German for “hint,” and the English “wink,” as in “wink of an eye,” is derived from it], p. 119:  “Such is the divine truth of the Wink:  it stems from the fact that there is no wink of god, but that god is the wink.  He does not do it, he winks himself there, just as he states his name in it, properly common and commonly proper–the name, in sum, of every person.”

 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Deconstruction of Christianity”–relevant to my own thoughts on “survivor guilt”–pp. 155-156, arguing that sin is not a “misdeed,” but a “condition,” the very condition of the human in need of redemption (or salvation), and that there is a radical “indebtedness of existence itself”: 

Temptation is essentially the temptation of self, it is the self as temptation, as tempter, as self-tempter.  It is not in the least a question of the expiation of a misdeed, but of redemption or salvation, and salvation cannot come from the self itself, but from its opening . . . and as such it comes to it as the grace of its Creator. . . . Through salvation, God remits to man the debt he incurred in sinning, a debt that is none other than the debt of the self itself.  What man appropriated, for which he is in debt to God, is the self that he has turned in upon itself.  It must be returned to God and not to itself.  Sin is an indebtedness of existence as such.

     In other words, while Heidegger tends to detach existential Schuldigkeit [guilt] from the category of “transgression” or of “debt” (in the ontic sense of the term), I wonder, rather, whether that Schuldigkeit does not realize the essence of sin as the indebtedness of existence–“indebtedness of existence” meaning, at one and the same time, that existence itself is in debt, and that which it is in debt for is precisely for itself, for itself, for the ipseity of existence.

I don’t read Heidegger quite the same way he does.  More importantly, I’m not sure he is not still leaving less than sufficiently clarified the difference-in-interconnection of guilt as simple “indebtedness” and guilt in a negative sense.  Yet his remarks point, perhaps, to the nexus of that interconnection-in-disconnection.  Maybe it is something like this:  the basic “indebtedness of existence” grounds in, and manifests in, the closure toward “self,” which then and as such is the refusal of the debt.

Trauma and Sovereignty — and Alcoholics Anonymous

12/14/08

After the entry posted yesterday, the next entry of significance pertaining to trauma in my philosophical journal occurs almost a month later. As was also true of the first posted entry and will be true for subsequent entries overall, the entry below was occasions by my reflections on the literature about trauma that I was reading at the time. Just as there is something appropriate, as I mentioned in my previous post, about both the delayed posting of these entries from my philosophical journal and the episodic nature of the entries themselves, so is there something appropriate to the general subject of this website–trauma–about the typically responsive character of all the entries: their being occasioned by reflections engendered by earlier experiences, in this case, earlier reading. The truths carried to us in trauma always require just such response for their reception. What is more, if, as I will be arguing in a variety of entries for future postings, truth itself is unavoidably traumatic, then the coming of truth itself must always take place in such responsiveness.

The entry posted below also introduces the reader to another of my long-standing philosophical and personal interests, that of the philosophy of addiction and “recovery.” Readers unfamiliar with my earlier work and interested in pursuing some of my writing on that topic may consult my book Addiction and Responsibility: An Inquiry into the Addictive Mind, which was originally published in 1993 (New York: Crossroad), and which I have recently made available chapter by chapter online at

http://blog.addictionandresponsibility.com/.

Below is the newly posted entry from my philosophical journal.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Reading Trauma and the Memory of Politics, by Jenny Edkins (Cambridge U. Press, 2003).

Pp.188-189: Very good, clear, short summary of [contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio] Agamben [in such works as Homo Sacer] on how, in the [Nazi concentration/extermination] camps, the zone of indistinction between zoe [Greek for life in the minimal zoological sense] and bios [life in the full, human sense, as involved in a person’s “biography,” for example] is reached. And, even better, she grasps and presents how, for Agamben, testimony bears witness to the inseparability of the two. As she sees it, it is that testimony/witness to their inseparability that truly contests “modern sovereignty.” But she ends by throwing away her own insight, it seems to me, when she goes on to write (p. 189): “The distinction between zoe and bios underlies sovereign power–is fundamental to it.” Her whole analysis shows, on the contrary, that it is not distinguishing between the two that founds sovereignty, but is, rather, the self-dissembling of that very distinction–the engendering of the myth of the natural or original givenness of the distinction, as it it were, rather than the acknowledgment of the artificiality and conventionality of the distinction, [such a mystifying mythification of the distinction being necessary] to get sovereignty up and running in the first place. What testimony/witnessing does is point to the fictional “nature” of the distinction–its non-“naturality,” as it were: the emperor [of Hans-Christian Anderson’s fairytale story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”] never has any clothes! (She ends up saying the same herself, in effect, on p. 232.)

Related: Right after that (pp. 190-191) she discusses the processes whereby the status quo appropriates testimony/witnessing through such devices as memorialization (narratives of rescue and hope), mediatization, etc., thereby diverting, in effect, the potentially disruptive power of such testimony. Well, I’ve long been aware of that precisely as it applies to AA. It could certainly be plausibly argued that AA itself functions as just such a diversion of otherwise potentially disruptive power, by diverting the addict from the angry manifestation of anger itself–that disruptive power–in substance/practice abuse, into “peaceful” channels, so that the addict gets “set straight,” back on the road of socially useful and productive behavior.

Such an analysis is not without power of its own. However, there are two factors about AA, concretely taken in the context of addiction and society in interaction, that tell me the analysis along those lines needs to be thought through into a different analysis, if the analysis itself is to serve any liberating potential. Those two factors are:

1) It is addiction itself–e.g., alcoholism–that actually serves the status quo as a diversion of the potentially disruptive power that the potential addict could otherwise become. Precisely by giving all us social malcontents, us “restless, irritable, and discontented” people [a reference to a well known line from “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous], something to keep us occupied, as it were, the power that is–the “status quo”–effectively neutralizes us. That’s why truly to hear [someone in an AA meeting say, as someone often will, especially if there is a “newcomer” present], “You never have to drink again [if you don’t want to],” is [potentially] so liberating for the alcoholic, but also carries a hidden potential to liberate the socially disruptive power that till then had been so successfully neutralized.

2) That newly liberated potentially disruptive power, in turn, works–not by encouraging/propelling recovered addicts to organize/mobilize for direct political action. That would not accord with the 10th AA tradition, against having any “opinion on outside issues,” as well as the 5th tradition, on keeping “singleness of purpose” (“but one primary purpose” [namely, “to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety”].  Rather, the revolutionary potential is AA itself! It is “life together” in AA that marginalizes the very things that, outside AA, marginalize segments of the [larger] society (blacks, gays, women, whomever). In AA [AA members] live together in such a way that all such divisions are set aside. Thus, it is at the level of AA as a border-less, place-less place in the social landscape–a place where, whenever one comes into that place, the fictions of sovereignty are swept away as the fictions they are–it’s as such a place without place that AA simply lets free life occur.

To Begin: Trauma, Truth, Sovereignty, and Philosophy

As I wrote in the text for a talk I was invited to give in May, 2008, to the Political Theory Club at the Korbel School (formerly the Graduate School) of International Studies at the University of Denver, and which I entitled “Trauma, Truth, and the Sovereignty of the Image”:

“Recently, my thinking and research has come to focus on the intersection of a number of concepts or figures/tropes of diverse provenance but sometimes surprising convergence: (1) ‘trauma,’ in the sense at issue–to cite a definitive example–in Freud and psychoanalysis; (2) ‘event,’ as that term comes to be deployed in the works of such continental European thinkers as Heidegger, Derrida, Badiou, and Žižek; (3) ‘truth,’ as used (some might say abused) within that same European philosophical tradition; (4) ‘sovereignty,’ primarily in the political sense at issue in contemporary discussions centering around the recovery of the thought of Carl Schmitt–for example, and especially, in the works of Giorgio Agamben; (5) ‘representation,’ in both the political and the philosophical-literary senses—the ‘image’ of my title; and (6) ‘the political,’ in the sense of that term in which such recent continental European thinkers as Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe would distinguish between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.”

That nexus of concepts first began to come into focus in my thought in connection with a class I taught at the University of Denver in fall term of 2005. My work on those themes in conjunction with that class soon resulted in an article which has since been published online in The Electronic Book Review (“9/11 Never Happened, President Bush Wouldn’t Let It: Bob Dylan Replies to Henri Bergson”). Since that time, I have continued to work with the interconnections of the concepts involved. Then, in December of last year, I resumed, after a long gap, the practice of keeping a regular “philosophical journal,” more or less restricting my entries to recording my responses to what I was reading at the time in the relevant literature on trauma, a literature which I have been continuing to explore to the present.

I have decided to devote this blog to sharing entries from that journal, beginning with the earliest one pertaining to trauma, which I wrote in February, 2008, and which is reproduced below. As I am able in the future, I will add further entries, until catching up to the present, after which I will continue to add any new entries as I happen to write them. At times, I may also preface an entry with further current reflections such as this one, when that seems appropriate. When it seemed necessary for the reader’s sake, I have provided additional information or explanation within brackets added to the original text of my entries.

There is something appropriate in having a definite delay between the date I originally wrote these episodic entries about trauma, and my decision now to make them available to others. After all, Freud has taught us well that it belongs to how trauma works—how it traumatizes—that there be a certain characteristic Nachträglichkeit or “belatedness” of traumatic impact, a sort of being out of temporal synch with itself, which manifests precisely in episodic recollections and insights that are somehow pushed beneath the surface of the traumatized mind by the traumatizing event itself, only to surface after a delay, sometimes of sizeable duration. Correspondingly, perhaps the most traumatically proper way to write of trauma is episodically and in fragments. Freud’s own writings on trauma surely fit that pattern, at any rate, which gives me a good precedent.

I hope that there is also something traumatically appropriate about dropping the reader suddenly down my entries mid-stream of their current, as it were, without attempting to fill in the thought and reading that led me to make those entries in the first place, or projecting an outline–like a bad fighter telegraphing his punches–of how my thinking has progressed since the date of the given entry. As many of those same entries will at times address, trauma itself has a way of dropping us down in the middle of what seems to be an ongoing story in which we are playing some part, but in which we find ourselves without access to the script, or any clear sense of the storyline.

At any rate, to delay the delay no further, I have reproduced below the first entry from the relevant passages of my ongoing philosophical journal, beginning with its date of original entry.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reading Paul Eisenstein, Traumatic Encounters: Holocaust Representation and the Hegelian Subject (SUNY, 2003).

He does a very nice analysis of liberalism [in the classic sense of that term, not the modern, American one] as sharing [with Fascism] the endeavor to avoid trauma (pp. 42ff). But it strikes me that he fails fully to appreciate what his own analysis shows. I can use a phrase of his to point to what I think that is—what his analysis does show. At the very start of that analysis, he uses the phrase (p. 42) “the prevention of future catastrophes” to name the goal at which he aims his own analysis (he does go on in the next sentence, ‘Or at least, that . . . ,” to weaken his goal statement a bit, but that does not concern what I want to say here).

The argument he advances is that both liberalism and National Socialism end up “disavowing” the traumatic kernel (the Lacanian point de caption, “quilting point”) that is “internal” to any political order (like the point of “decision” from which law/right themselves come, according to Schmitt—though Eisenstein does not draw that connection). They disavow that “traumatic instability/inconsistency” that is internal to social order, by turning it into a definite historical something, rather than keeping cognizant of its “transcendence”—by giving the quilting point (p. 45) “a context, a history, from the beginning” (he writes that of “the figure of the Jew” in National Socialism, but his analysis shows it also applies to the liberal construction of any such starting point as [John] Rawls’ “original position”).

What it seems to me he misses in this excellent analysis is precisely what it brought most clearly to my own attention. That is, that the very endeavor to “prevent” such catastrophes as the Holocaust is itself precisely a move of the sort he so clearly exposes in liberalism and National Socialism. In short, it is precisely the endeavor to secure oneself against a future recurrence of catastrophe that generates just such recurrence—indeed, that requires such catastrophe to found itself and whatever order it imposes, found itself and its order in and as the very disavowal of the un-disavowable occurrence of trauma.

As I noted in the margin of his book on p. 42, the discussion could also be cast in terms of the notion of idolatry as I explore it in Addiction and Responsibility [New York: Crossroad, 1993] and especially in my article on RB 7 [“Humility, Maturity, and the Love of God: Reflections on RB 7,” The American Benedictine Review]. National Socialism, liberalism, and Eisenstein’s own notion of “preventing future catastrophes” are all “idolatrous,” in that they all make the contextualizing, historizing moving whereby a “transcendence” is made into an “object”—to sue the Kantian language Eisenstein himself does here. They all make God into an idol.

Entered a bit later the same day:

Eisenstein himself elsewhere all but sees and says what I write above. Thus, he argues, contra [contemporary American historian] Dominic LaCapra, that “structural trauma” is indeed and clearly the “precondition” for “historical trauma,” and that it is only by remembering/
”repeating” the former that we can lessen the frequency of the latter. But what does that entail, if not that the very focus on “preventing” “historical” trauma engenders that very trauma? Only, as Eisenstein argues, in remembering structural trauma can we not keep on doing “deadly” repetitions/recollections of historical trauma, acting them out again and again (as, for example, the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians can be seen to be a re-enactment of the Holocaust itself, with new victims and with the old victims now become victimizers).