Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (4)

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

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All sorts of things transpire—but nothing any longer happens—that is, no more decisions fall . . .

— Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen IV (in GA 94), ¶219


. . . it’s neither here, nor elsewhere . . .

— Alain Badiou, Images du temps present (January 14, 2014)


I had one opportunity. I had to cut out all ties with the flattening, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.

But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family . . . And I had a weakness in my character . . . that was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening.

I was a whore. This was the only suitable term.

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


Points of decision are crisis points. “Critical condition” in the medical sense is the condition of a patient who is at the decision point between survival and demise, where the body—with, it is to be hoped, the assistance of the medical staff—must marshal all its resources to sustain life, in the minimal, zoological sense. In the passage cited above, Knausgaard describes how he came to stand at a critical point of decision for or against life in the full, no longer merely biological sense of the term—the truly live-ly sense, we might say, in contrast to the rather deadening sense of bare survival.

Actually, that way of putting it, “ a critical point of decision for or against life,” won’t quite work. Rather, Knausgaard describes coming to a point where he was faced with the need and opportunity at last actually and fully to make a decision in the first place and, by and in making it, to become truly alive at last. At that point he was faced with either “choosing to choose,” as Heidegger puts it in Being and Time, or else just going on going on, literally just surviving (“living-through” or “-over”) his own life, having already outlived himself, as it were, by letting his moment of opportunity slip by, in failing or refusing to decide at all.

The way that Alain Badiou puts it in his seminar on “images of the present times” (in the session of November 27, 2003) is that what he calls simply a “point” is “the moment where you make the world [as such and as a whole] manifest in the yes or the no of a decision. . . . It is the manifestation of the world in the figure of the decision.” He adds right away that “[o]ne is not always in the process of dealing with points, thank God!” Badiou, a self-proclaimed atheist proud of his atheistic family heritage, adds that ejaculation of thanks because, as he goes on to say: “It is terribly astringent, this imperative necessity that suddenly the totality of your life, your world, comes to be the eye of a needle of yes or no. Do I accept or do I refuse? That is a point.”

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Early in the second of the six volumes of the long story of his “stuggle”—Kampf in German, it is worth remembering, as in Hitler’s Mein Kampf—Knausgaard himself has already noted how challenging it is actually to have to decide to live one’s life, rather than just to keep on living through it. Toward the very beginning of that second volume—toward the very end of which comes the passage already cited –he writes: “Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy.” The everyday life at issue for him during the time he is addressing was one of an at-home husband of an employed wife, and a father taking care of his young children while his wife was at work. Thus, it was a life filled with such things as washing floors and changing diapers. However, Knausgaard immediately tells us that his mere endurance rather than enjoyment of such a life “had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers.” It was not that he disdained such activities, or regarded them as beneath him, or anything else along such lines. It had nothing to do with all that, “but rather,” he continues, “with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.”

Knausgaard immediately goes on to tell us that his failure to make his everyday life his own was not for lack of effort on his part to do just that. In the process of telling us of his efforts, he also offers at least one good explanation for giving his massive, six-volume, autobiographical novel the title it bears. “I tried to make it mine,” he writes, “this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it . . .”

He loved his wife and his children, and he wanted to share his life with them all—a sharing, it is to be noted, that requires that one first have one’s life as one’s own to share. Thus, “I tried to make it mine,” he writes, “ . . . but I failed.” That failure was not for lack of effort but because: “The longing for something else undermined all my efforts.”

Conjoining the two passages, one from near the start of the book and one from near its very end, suggests that Knausgaard’s long struggle has been of the same sort as that of St. Augustine, as the latter depicted it in his Confessions. That is, the “struggle” at issue derives from the ongoing condition of not yet having made a real decision, one way or another. In such struggles, the struggle itself comes to an end only in and with one’s finally making up one’s mind, finally coming to a resolution, finally deciding oneself.

In the passage at the start of today’s post, coming more than 400 pages of “struggle’ after the one just cited, Knausgaard gives the fact that he “had a family” as the first reason he “couldn’t grasp” the “one opportunity” that he says he had.   Nevertheless, what is really at issue cannot be grasped in terms of choosing between two equally possible but conflicting options, either living the life of a family man or living the life of an artist. Rather, what is at issue is something only Knausgaard’s subsequent remarks really bring to focus: what kept him from seizing his sole opportunity was nothing but himself. It was not the love of his family that hindered him. It was the love of his own comfort—or at least the desire not to disturb his own comfort by disturbing the comfort of others nearby.

I can identify! It was really not my love of my daughter that tripped me up when her childhood pet, Fluffy the guinea pig, died one day, causing me to tempt my own daughter to betray her love for her pet by rushing out to buy a replacement, as I recounted in my preceding post. I did love my daughter, to be sure, as I still do. But, as I already revealed when first discussing the episode, what tripped me up was really not my love for her. Rather, it was my discomfort with my own discomfort over her discomfort over Fluffy’s death. I betrayed myself out of love of my own comfort, not out of love for her. So my betrayal as such was not done out of any genuine love at all; it was done just out of fear—the fear of dis-comfort. That is how clinging to one’s precious comfort always manifests itself, in fact: in Knausgaard’s case no less than my own.

Now, there may truly be cases in which points of decision manifest as what we might call “Gauguin moments.” That is, there may really be cases in which, in order to make one’s life one’s own, one must indeed leave behind one’s family and one’s home and go off into some other, far country, as Gauguin did in the 19th century for the sake of his art (or as Abraham does in the Bible, though not, of course, for the sake of art).

What truly marks points as points of decision, however, is not a matter of the difference in content between two equally possible life-options (let alone the romantic grandiosity of the choices suggested by Gauguin’s, or Abraham’s, model). What defines them (including in such dramatic examples) is just that they are points at which one confronted with the necessity at last truly to decide, that is to resolve oneself—to say yes or no to one’s world, and one’s life in it, as a whole, as Badiou puts it.

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German for “moment” is Augenblick—literally, “the blink of an eye.” Heidegger likes to note that etymologically Blick, an ordinary German word for look, glance, view, or sight, is the same as Blitz, the German for lightning-flash, lightning-bolt. Points of decision, in the sense that I am using that expression, are moments that proffer what Heidegger calls an “Einblick in das, was ist,” an in-sight or illuminating in-flash into that which is. Points of decision are moments of illumination of what is there and has been there all along, though we are only now, in a flash, given the opportunity to see it. They are those points in our lives that offer us the chance to make our lives our own: to come fully alive ourselves—at last and for firsts.

In common with Blitzen in the everyday sense of lightning-bolts, moments or points of decisive in-sight/in-flash sometimes come accompanied by loud thunderclaps, or the equivalent. God may come down and talk to us as God did to Moses as the burning bush, or come in a whirlwind, or with bells and whistles. At least as often, however, moments or points of decision come whispering to us in a still, small voice, one easily and almost always drowned out by all the noise of the everyday traffic with which we everywhere surround ourselves (even if only in the space between our ears), for very fear of hearing that voice . . . and being discomfited by it.

Points of decision may break the surface of our the everyday lives—those lives that, like Knausgaard, we endure without enjoying—as suddenly and dramatically as the white whale breaks the surface at the end of Melville’s Moby Dick. Or they may come upon us slowly, and catch up on us all unawares, such that we waken one morning and realize that for a long while now, we have not been in, say, Kansas any longer, but have no idea of just where and when we might have crossed the border into whatever very different place we are now.

All such differences make no difference, however. What counts is only that we come to a moment, a point of clarity, where we are struck, as though by a bolt of lightning, with the realization that we do indeed have a choice, but only one choice. We have a choice, not in the sense that we can pick between two different options, as we might pick between brands of cereal to buy for our breakfast. Rather, we have a choice in the sense that, like Knausgaard, we realize that we do indeed have one and only one opportunity, which we can either take, or fail to take. We are faced with the choice, as the Heidegger of Being and Time put it, of choosing to choose, choosing to have a choice to exercise, rather than continuing just to let ourselves live through our own lives, without ever having to live them. The choice is either to live, or just to go on living.

An acquaintance of mine once came to such a point of decision in his own life, and who did indeed decide to make his life his own at that point. When asked about it, he says that up until that point it had always been as though his life was running on alongside him, while he was just sort of standing there observing it. What his moment of decision offered him, he says, was precisely the opportunity to “take part in” his own life, rather than just continue to let it run itself next to him. In a certain sense, he may have “had” a life up to that point, but only at that point did he come to live it himself.

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In The Politics of Things (La politique des choses, first published in France in 2005 by Navarin, then in a slightly revised, updated edition in 2011 by Verdier) contemporary French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner traces the global processes driving inexorably, in what passes for a world in what passes for today, toward eliminating the very possibility of there being any genuine politics at all. That goal is being achieved above all through the development of ever more new techniques of “evaluation,” and the ubiquitous spread of processes of such evaluationinto ever more new dimensions of individual and collective life. (In the United States, we might add, the deafening demand for incessant development and promulgation of ever more new ways and means of evaluating everything and everyone is typically coupled with equally incessant palaver about the supposed need for “accountability.”)

What Milner calls “the politics of things” aims at what he calls “government by things.” At issue is the longstanding global drive to substitute what is presented as the very voice of “things” themselves—that is, what is passed off for “reality,” and its supposed demands—for any such messy, uncertain politics or government as that which requires actual decisions by human beings.

Thus, for example, “market mechanisms” are supposed to dictate austerity according to one set of “experts,” or deficit spending according to another set. Whichever set of experts and whichever direction their winds may blow doesn’t really make any difference, however. What counts, as Milner says, is just that it be one set or another, and one direction or another.

That’s because, he observes in his fourth and final chapter, “Obedience and Liberties” (in French, “Obéissance ou libértes”), the real aim of the whole business is simply the former: sheer obedience—what is indeed captured in the English word “obeisance,” derived from the French term. He writes (page 59) that, “contrary to appearances, the government of things does not place prosperity at the summit of its preoccupations; that is only a means to its fundamental goal: the inert tranquility of bodies and souls.”

To achieve that goal, the government of things plays upon human fears—two above all: the fear of crime, and the fear of illness. Under the guise of “preventing” crime and/or illness, the government of things reduces us all to un-protesting subservience. We prove always willing to do just as we’re told, as unpleasant as we may find it, because we have let ourselves be convinced that it is all for the sake of preventing crime or illness.

I will offer two examples of my own.  The first is how we line up docilely in long queues in airports, take our shoes (and, if requested, even our clothes) off, subject ourselves to pat-downs and scan-ups, delays and even strip-searches—all because we are assured that otherwise we run the risk, however slight, of opening ourselves to dreaded terrorist attacks. My second example is how we readily subject ourselves to blood-tests, digital rectal examinations, breast ex-rays, hormone treatments, and what not, all the tests, checks, and re-checks that our medical experts tell us are necessary to prevent such horrors as prostate or breast or colon or skin cancer, or whatever. We readily subject ourselves to all these intrusive procedures, only to be told sooner or later by the very same experts that new evidence has changed their collective expert thinking, and that we must now stop subjecting ourselves to the same evaluation procedures, in order to prevent equally undesirable outcomes. In either case, we do just as we’re told, without complaint.

We do as we’re told, whatever that may be at the moment, to prevent crime and/or illness because, as Milner writes (page 61): “Under the two figures of crime and illness, in effect one and the same fear achieves itself, that one which, according to Lucretius, gives birth to all superstition: the fear of death.” In fact, we are all so afraid of death and so subject to manipulation through that fear that we fall easy prey to the “charlatans,” as Milner appropriately calls them (on page 62), through whom the government of things seeks to universalize what amounts (page 64) to the belief in Santa Claus (Père Noël in France, and in Milner’s text)—a belief, finally, that “consists of supposing that in the last instance, whether in this world or in the next, the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.”

The government of things strives to make everyone believe in such a Santa Claus “with the same effect” that it fosters the development and universalization of techniques and procedures of evaluation: the effect of “planetary infantilization.” Furthermore:

One knows that no Santa Claus is complete without his whip. Indefectible solidarity of gentle evaluation and severe control [our American Santa making up his lists of who’s naughty and nice, then rewarding the latter with goodies and punishing the former with lumps of coal, for instance]! The child who does not act like a child [by being all innocent and obedient, sleeping all nice and snug in her bed, with visions of sugar-plumbs dancing away in her head] is punished; that is the rule [and we must all abide by the rules, musn’t we?]. All discourse not conducive to infantilization will be punished by the evaluators, that is the constant. Among its effects, control also carries this one: the promise of infantilization and the initiation of transformation into a thing.

After all, the desideratum is a government not only of things, but also by things and for things (pace Lincoln—at least it we grant him the charity of thinking that’s not what he really meant all along).

In the closing paragraphs of his little book (pages 66-67), Milner issues a call for resistance and rebellion against all such pseudo-politics and pseudo-government of things, and in affirmation of a genuine politics. It is a call, quite simply, for there to be again decision.

“If the name of politics has any meaning,” Milner writes, “it resolutely opposes itself to the government of things.” In rejecting the pretense of a politics of things, real politics “supposes that the regime of generalized subordination can be put in suspense.” A politics worthy of the name can emerge only if at last an end is put to all the endless chatter about how we all need to show “respect for the law,” “respect for authority,” and the like, all of which is just code for doing what we’re told.

Such suspension of generalized subordination and end of infantilizing chatter may not last long: “Maybe only for an instant . . .” But that instant, that moment, that blink of an eye, “that’s already enough, if that instant is one of decision. What’s needed is that there again be decision.”

That’s all that’s needed, but that’s everything. As Milner writes, “politics doesn’t merit the name unless it combats the spirit of subordination. One doesn’t demand that everyone be generous, or fight for the liberties of everyone; it is quite enough if each fights for her own freedom.” The return of a genuine politics requires that we stop relinquishing our own choices to “the order of things.” It requires, instead, “[t]hat at times we decide for ourselves . . .”

There is no future of politics otherwise. Nor, without decision, is there any future of culture in any form, be it political, artistic, philosophical, or whatever. But that just means that, without decision, there really is no future at all.

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I intend my next post to be the last in this current series on “Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture.”

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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Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (2)

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

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In the New York Times for Thursday, June 26 of this year—which was also the day I put up the post to which this one is the sequel—there was a news-piece by Mark Mazzetti under the headline “Use of Drones for Killings Risks a War Without End, Panel Concludes in Report.” The report at issue was one set to be released later that same morning by the Stimson Center, “a nonpartisan Washington think tank.” According to Mr. Mazzetti’s opening line the gist of the report was that “[t]he Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt in the future.” Later in the article, Mr. Mazzetti writes that the bipartisan panel producing the report “reserves the bulk of its criticism for how two successive American presidents have conducted a ‘long-term killing program based on secret rationales,’ and on how too little thought has been given to what consequences might be spawned by this new way of waging war.”     For example, the panel asked, suppose that Russia were to unleash armed drones in the Ukraine to kill those they claimed to have identified as “anti-Russian terrorists” on the basis of intelligence they refused to disclose for what they asserted to be issues of national security. “In such circumstances,” the panel asks in the citation with which Mr. Mazzetti ends his piece, “how could the United States credibly condemn Russian targeted killings?”

Neither Mr. Mazzetti nor—by his account at least—the panel responsible for the Stimson Center report bothers to ask why, “in such circumstances,” the United States would want to “condemn” Russia for such “targeted killings” on such “secret rationales.” It is just taken for granted that the United States would indeed want to condemn any such action on the Russians’ part.

That is because, after all, the Russians are among the enemies the United States must defend itself against today to maintain what, under the first President Bush, used to be called “the New World Order”—the order that descended by American grace over the whole globe after the “Cold War,” which itself characterized the post-war period following the end of World War II. Today is still just another day in the current “post post-war” period that set in after the end of the Cold War—as Alain Badiou nicely put it in 2002-2003, during the second year of his three-year monthly seminar on Images of the Present Times, just recently published in France as Le Seminaire: Images du temps present: 2001-2004 (Librarie Arthème Fayard, 2014).

It is really far too late on such a post post-war day as today to begin worrying, as the Stimson panel penning the report at issue appears to have begun worrying, about entering upon the “slippery slope” that panel espies, the one that slides so easily into “perpetual war.” For one thing, what’s called the Cold War was itself, after all, still war, as the name says. It was still war, just “in another form,” to twist a bit a famous line from Clausewitz. Cold as that war may have been, it was still but a slice of the same slope down which the whole world had been sliding in the heat of World War II, which was itself just a continuation of the slide into which the world had first swiftly slipped at the beginning of World War I.

Let us even go so far as to assume that the great, long, European “peace” that ran from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 all the way down to 1914, one hundred year ago this summer, when it was suddenly interrupted by a shot from a Serbian “terrorist” in Sarajevo, was peace of a genuine sort, and not just the calm of the proverbial gathering storm. Even under that assumption, peace has never really been restored to the world again since the guns began firing in August or that same year, 1914, if the truth is to be told. Instead, the most that has happened is that, since then, from time to time and in one place or another there has occurred a temporary, local absence of “hot” war, in the sense of a clash of armed forces or the like. The guns have just stopped firing for a while sometimes in some places—in some times and places for a longer while than in others.

So, for example, even today, a quarter of a century after the end of the post-war period and the beginning of the post post-war one, the western and west-central European nations have remained places where “peace,” in the minimal, minimizing sense of the mere absence of “active hostilities,” has prevailed. Of course, elsewhere, even elsewhere in Europe—for example, in that part of Europe that during part of the time-span at issue was Yugoslavia—plenty of active hostilities have broken out. In many such cases (including the case of what once had been Yugoslavia) those episodes have often and popularly been called “wars,” of course.

Then, too, there have been, as there still are, such varied, apparently interminable enterprises as what Lyndon Johnson labeled America’s “war on poverty,” or what Richard Nixon labeled the American “war on drugs.” In cases of that sort, it would seem to be clear that we must take talk of “war” to be no more than metaphorical, in contrast to cases such as that of, say, America’s still ongoing “war in Afghanistan,” where the word would still seem to carry its supposedly literal meaning.

Another of the wars of the latter, “literal” sort is the one that began with the American invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. As it turned out, that particular war broke out right in the middle of the second year of Badiou’s seminar on “images of the present times.”  In fact, the hostilities in Iraq started right in the middle of some sessions of his seminar in which Badiou happened to be addressing the whole issue of “war” today, during our “post post-war” period—as though tailor-made for his purposes.

In his session of February 26, 2003, less than a month before the start of hostilities in Iraq, Badiou had begun discussing what war has become today, in these present times. He resumed his discussion at the session of March 26—following a special session on March 12, 2003, that consisted of a public conversation between Badiou and the French theatre director, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and philosopher François Regnault. President George W. Bush had meanwhile unleashed the American invasion of Iraq.

In his session of February 26, 2003, Badiou had maintained that in the times before these present times—that is, in the post-war period, the period of the Cold War—the very distinction between war and peace had become completely blurred. Up until the end of World War II, he writes, the term war was used to mark an “exceptional” experience. War was an “exception” in three interconnected dimensions at once: “ a spatial exception, a temporal exception and also a new form of community, a singular sharing, which is the sharing of the present,” that present defined as that of “the war” itself.

We might capture what Badiou is pointing to by saying that, up till the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, war was truly a punctuating experience. That is, it was indeed an experience in relation to which it did make clear and immediate sense to all those who had in any way shared in that experience to talk of “before” and “after.” It also made sense to distinguish between “the front” and “back home.” Some things happened “at the front,” and some “back home”; some things happened “before the war,” and some only “after the war.” And war itself, whether at the front or back home, and despite the vast difference between the two, was a shared experience that brought those who shared it together in a new way.

During the Cold War, however, all that changed, and the very boundaries of war—where it was, when it was, and who shared in it—became blurred. Badiou himself uses the example of the “war on terror” (as George W. Bush, who declared that war, was wont to call it, soon accustoming us all to doing so) that is still ongoing, with no end in sight. The war on terror is no one, single war at all, Badiou points out. Instead, the term is used as a cover-all for a variety of military “interventions” of one sort or another on the part of America and—when it can muster some support from others—its allies of the occasion. Indeed, the term can be and often is easily stretched to cover not only the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the second President Bush but also the Gulf War unleashed against the same Iraq under the first President Bush, even before the war on terror was officially declared—and so on, up to and including the ever-growing use of armed drones to kill America’s enemies wherever they may be lurking (even if they are Americans themselves, though so far—at least so far as we, “the people,” know—only if those targeted Americans could be caught outside the homeland).

So in our post post-war times there is an erasure of the boundary between war and peace, a sort of becoming temporally, spatially, and communally all-encompassing—we might well say a “ going global”—of the general condition of war. Coupled with that globalization of the state of war there also occurs, as it were, the multiplication of wars, in the plural: a sort of dissemination of war into ever new locations involving ever new aspects of communal life. Wars just keep on popping up in more and more places, both geographically and socially: the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq (just recently brought back again—assuming it went away for a while—by popular demand, thanks to ISIS), the war in Syria, the wars in Sudan, Nigerian, Myanmar, Kosovo, the Ukraine, or wherever, as well as the wars against poverty, drugs, cancer, “undocumented”/“illegal” immigration, illiteracy, intolerance, or whatever.

At the same time, this globalization of war and proliferation of wars is also inseparable from what we might call war’s confinement, or even its quarantine. By that I mean the drive to insure that wars, wherever and against whatever or whomever they may be waged, not be allowed to disrupt, damage, or affect in any significant negative way, the ongoing pursuit of business as usual among those who do the war-waging. (The most egregious example is probably President George W. Bush in effect declaring it unpatriotic for American consumers not to keep on consuming liberally—including taking their vacations and driving all over lickety-split—in order to keep the American economy humming along properly while American military might was shocking and awing the world in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq.)

Thus—as Badiou puts it in his session of March 26, 2003—in league with the expansion of war into global presence and the random proliferation of wars goes a movement whereby simultaneously, among the wagers of war, “[e]verything is subordinated to a sort of essential introversion.” That is a reference above all, of course, to America, the only superpower that remained once one could no longer go back to the USSR. On the one hand, as both Badiou and the Stimson report with which I began this post indicate, the American government does not hesitate to claim the right to “intervene” anywhere in the world that it perceives its “national interests” to be at stake, no matter where that may be. It claims for itself the right to make such interventions whenever, against whomever, and by whatever means it judges to be best, and irrespective of other nations’ claims to sovereignty—even, if need be, against the wishes of the entire “international community” as a whole (assuming there really is any such thing). Yet at the same time such interventionism is coupled essentially with a growing American tendency toward “isolationism.”

This counter-intuitive but very real American conjunction of interventionism and isolationism is closely connected, as Badiou also points out, to the ongoing American attempt to come as close as possible to the ultimate goal of “zero mortality” on the American side, whenever, wherever, against whomever, and however it does conduct military interventions under the umbrella of the claimed defense of its national interests, as it perceives them, on whatever evidence it judges adequate. That is best represented, no doubt, by the aforementioned increasing American reliance on using unmanned, armed drones to strike at its enemies, a reliance that began under the Bush administration and has grown exponentially under the Obama administration.

Furthermore, the drive toward zero war-wager mortality is coupled, in turn, with another phenomenon Badiou addresses—namely, what we might call the steady escalation of sensitivity to offense. The more American power approaches what Badiou nicely calls “incommensurability,” and the nearer it comes to achieving the zero American mortality that goes with it, the less it is able to tolerate even the slightest slight, as it were. Rather, in such an affair—as he says in the session of March 26, shortly after the American attack on Iraq under the second President Bush—“where what is at stake is the representation of an unlimited power, the slightest obstacle creates a problem.” Any American deaths at all, or any remaining resistance, even “the most feeble, the worst armed, . . . the most disorganized,” is “in position to inflict damage to the imperious power that it faces.” As there is to be zero American mortality, so is there to be zero resistance (or whatever origin, including on the part of Americans themselves).

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All these interlocked features belong to what we have come to call “war” today. Or rather, the situation today is really one in which the very notion of war has come to be entirely flattened out, as I would put it. War itself has ceased to be any distinctive event—anything “momentous,” properly speaking: marking out a clear division between a “before” and an “after,” such that we might even speak of the “pre-war” world and the “post-war” one. That is what Badiou means by saying that we live today in the “post post-war” period. It is a strange “period” indeed, since there is, in truth, no “point” at all to it—either in the sense of any clearly defined limit, or in the sense of any clearly defined goal, I might add—which is what I had in mind in my earlier remark that war today has ceased to be any truly “punctuating” experience.

In one of my posts quite a while ago, I wrote that, in line with contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s thought about sovereignty and subjectivity, an insightful hyperbole might be to say that it had been necessary to defeat the Nazis in World War II in order that the camp-system the Nazis perfected not be confined to Nazi-occupied territory, but could go global—so the whole world could become a camp, in effect, and everyone everywhere made a camp inmate subject to being blown away by the winds of sovereignty gusting wherever they list.

Well, in the same way it might be suggested that the whole of the long period of preparation for, and then eventual outbreak and fighting of, the (“two”) World War(s), as well as the whole post-war period of Cold War that followed, was just the long ramp-up necessary for the true going global of war in our post post-war period.  That is, the whole of the unbelievably bloody 20th century, ushered in by the whole of the 19th, back at least to the French Revolution of the end of the 18th, can be seen as nothing but the dawning of the new, ever-recurring day of our present post post-war, unpunctuated period.

Indeed, war today has become so enveloping spatially, temporally, and communally, all three, that it is no longer even perceivable as such, except and unless it breaks out in some ripple of resistance somewhere, by some inexplicable means. Whenever and wherever and from whomever, if anywhere any-when by anyone, the power into whose hands the waging of war has been delivered suffers such an offense against it, no matter how slight the slight, then the only conceivably appropriate response is, as the old, post-war saying had it, to “nuke ‘em.”

Furthermore, since offenses are in the feelings of the offended, none of us, “the people,” has any assurance at any time that we will not, even altogether without our knowingly having had any such intent, be found to have done something, God knows what, to offend. If we do, then we may also come to be among those getting nuked (or at least deserving to be)—probably by an armed drone (maybe one pretending to be delivering us our latest Amazon.com order).

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By now, even the most patient among my readers may be wondering what this whole post, devoted as it is to discussion of the meaning of “war” today, has to do with “the future of culture,” which is supposed to be the unifying topic in the entire current series of posts of which this one is supposed to be the second. That will only become evident as I proceed with the series—though perhaps it will not become fully evident until the whole series draws together at its close. At any rate, I will be continuing the series in my next post.

Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (1)

 Is there any future for culture? That is the question with which I ended my previous post, more than three months ago now. It is where I want to resume now, after that long break.

To get right to the point, the answer to that question is no, there is no future for culture. The only future that what presents itself today as our global reality permits us is the endless continuation of the circulation of commodities, a pseudo-future that precludes all cultural production. We can only expect more of the same, that is, yet ever more new commodities, newly circulating. Culture today is impossible.

Accordingly, the creation of a future for culture—of a future itself—can today be only an impossible possibility. Since cultural production is no longer possible today, any cultural product that comes upon us must come to us on some other day than this one, this endless day of ceaseless commodity production and circulation.

Culture is no commodity, and no commodity is a cultural product.

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Martin Heidegger’s so called “Schwarze Hefte,” the “Black Notebooks” he kept from the period of his Nazi involvement early in the 1930s all the way down to the beginning of the 1970s, near the end of his life, have begun to appear in German in the Gesamtausgabe (GA), or Complete Edition, of his works. So far, three volumes containing fifteen notebooks labeled Überlegungen (Reflections) have been issued (GA 94-96).

In a note early in “Überlegungen IV,” written in the1930s after Heidegger’s controversial year as Rector under the Nazis at the University of Freiburg from 1933-1934 had ended, Heidegger writes (GA 94, page 210): “The ‘world’ is out of joint; there is no world any more, more truly said: there never was yet world. We are standing only at its preparation.” He then begins the immediately following note with the italicized remark that “[w]ith the gods, we have also lost the world.”

Where there is no world, there is no culture; and where no culture, no world. Nor is there anything of gods or the divine in such an indifferent, placeless place.

(What all that may have to do with Nazism, and with Heidegger’s relationship to it, I will leave for subsequent reflections of my own sometime somewhere.)

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Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has already come to count as something of a sensation of 21st century literature—if there is any such thing as literature any longer, which is a question with which Knausgaard is himself concerned—with the publication of his multi-volume autobiographical novel entitled My Struggle. Particularly in the original Norwegian, Min Kamp, that title was immediately controversial because of its obvious allusion to Hitler’s notorious Mein Kampf. Despite the expectations such a title might inspire, there certainly seems to be nothing of Nazism, anti-Semitism, Fascism, or the like in Knausgaard’s text. At least no critics I know of have suggested that there is, nor can I personally detect anything of the sort in what I’ve read of it so far—which admittedly is not that much, relatively speaking, since I am still only midway through the second of the six volumes of the work.

At one point well along in the first volume of My Struggle Knausgaard remarks on the common contemporary feeling that (as he puts it on page 221) “the future does not exist.” He explains that he means the feeling that what lies ahead for us today is “only more of the same,” never anything really new or surprising any more, vibrant with possibility. What that feeling indicates, he says, also “means that all utopias are meaningless.” However, he continues: “Literature has always been related to utopia, so when the utopia loses meaning, so does literature.” He suggests that the literary enterprise, or at least his own literary enterprise, has always been an endeavor “to combat fiction with fiction.” That is, by conjuring up a “no-place”—which is the literal meaning of the word utopia—literature aims to put the lie to what presents itself as being present, but is really no more than a sort of convenient lie or confabulation—something the proverbial powers that be, whoever or whatever those powers themselves may really be at any given time, would have us all take to be “reality” itself, rather than see the very different real reality behind such mere appearances. Telling tales that tell the tale on the tales we are told (often even telling them to ourselves): that is the work of literature, as I take Knausgaard to be articulating it.

What that which passes for “reality” today kept telling Knausgaard himself he “ought to do,” he goes on to say in the passage at issue, “was to affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in that way I would undoubtedly have a better life.” Surely that is indeed what he “ought” to do, instead of pursuing all this literary nonsense that leads straight to nowhere; “but,” he says, “I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t, something had congealed inside me, and although it was essentialist, that is, outmoded and, furthermore, romantic, I could not get past it, for the simple reason that it had not only been thought but also experienced, in the sudden states of clear-sightedness that everyone must know, where for a few seconds you catch sight of another world from the one you were in only a moment earlier, where the world seems to step forward and show itself for a brief glimpse before reverting and leaving everything as before.”

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Perhaps the most shocking thing about our present age is that today we can no longer be shocked by anything. Such moments as Knausgaard describes, when we are suddenly shocked out of the somnambulism of our daily conduct of business as usual, where there is only ever more of the same old same old—moments when we are brought alive in the world again—are perhaps no longer possible for us. At any rate, if even a glimmer of such an impossible possibility dares show itself to us, then the dark that wants to be taken for the real rushes in to close back over it again immediately.

That is just what it does for Sally Elliott, a character in another novel I have recently been reading.

Only a few weeks ago American novelist Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath was published, and I immediately downloaded a Kindle copy and read it. It is the long-awaited—and very long—sequel to his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, which first appeared long ago, way back in 1966, when it won that year’s Faulkner Prize for best first novel.

Briefly, Coover’s fictional Brunists are a typically American, whacko fundamentalist Christian extremist sect. In the first of the two novels about the Brunists, Cover traces the sect’s emergence. The Brunists then return to the scene of their cultish birth five years later, in Coover’s eventual follow-up. That story of their return to the scene culminates in a typically American, eruptive and violent bloodbath, a sort on anti-apocalyptic apocalypse that, once it has happened, ultimately just lets everything keep right on going pretty much the same as before, really.

Sally Elliott appears as one of the many characters that people both novels. She is anything but a Brunist herself, being not only atheistic but also even anti-theistic—or more properly put anti-religious, since she does not confine her critique to theism as such. For the most part Sally stands aside from the main action of the story of the Brunists, to serve Coover as a sensitive observer registering the events that unfold around her. Still just a child during the action in the story of the Brunists’ origin, she becomes the very anchor of moral sanity in the narrative of their eventual day of wrath.

Relatively early on in the later novel, Sally pays a spy’s visit to the Brunist camp. There she encounters some young Brunists with hopes of converting her.   When Sally grows faint, they become concerned and lead her into the communal tent to rest, and where they give her a cream soda to refresh herself. Coover pauses with her there to write (starting at location 3,844 of a total of 15,901 in the Kindle version I read): “Sometimes, it seems to her [despite or at least apart from all her anti-religious sanity] that she grasps or is embraced by a great cosmic mystery, and for a moment she enjoys a certain rapt serenity. But usually the mystery eludes her of it evolves into some familiar banality, like the cream soda she burped then, and it never comes close to happening when she’s bummed out with the blahs.”

The very point of what presents itself as present today is to bum us all out with the blahs, so that nothing of the future may ever come—and even if it does, will fizzle out again right away, like bubbles from some cheap carbonated soda.   What presents itself as present today lacks all presence. It cannot hold. It has no grounding.

Nor can it, accordingly, offer any ground for anything else to grow in it. Nothing can be cultivated in such soil. No culture can take root there.

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Nietzsche remarks somewhere that his ambition is to say more in a single aphorism than others say in an entire book. Then he immediately corrects himself and says, no, his goal is to say more in a single aphorism than others do not say in a whole book.

Indeed, Nietzsche aims to say the whole world in a single aphorism. At least one aphorism where he succeeds in doing just that is in a passage about the very nature of “world” itself, a passage from The Twilight of the Idols entitled “The History of an Error: How the ‘True’ World Finally Became a Fable.” At the end of his telling of that history, Nietzsche asks just what’s left of the world, once the belief in some “true” world has finally shown itself up as no longer worthy of any belief. When the “true” world finally vanishes, just what world remains? The “apparent” one, perhaps? But no, Nietzsche answers. Along with the “true” world, he says, the “apparent” one also vanishes.

Half a century and two World Wars (at least by one count) later, Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception glosses Nietzsche’s remark by saying that, with the collapse of the very grounds for any distinction between a supposedly merely apparent or “false” world, on the one hand, and a supposedly “true” one, on the other, the world itself at last comes forth clearly for itself, as the very place where sense and non-sense, meaning and the lack of it, themselves emerge. This world itself is neither “true” nor “false.” The world is just that, the world—of which, as Merleau-Ponty nicely says, “the true and the false are but provinces.”

Unfortunately, however, there is another possibility, one which neither Nietzsche nor Merleau-Ponty would have welcomed at all, but of which both were all too much aware, as I read them. That is the possibility that, to borrow a way of putting it from Heidegger, who came between those two, the world itself might simply cease to world at all.

Framed in those terms, to continue considering whether culture has any future today confronts us with the no doubt strange-sounding question of whether, in the world of today, there is any longer any world—or, with it, any today—at all. Can anything really present itself at all in what presents itself today as what is present?

That is precisely the question with which contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou occupies himself in yet another book I’ve been reading just recently, since my last post to this blog more than three months ago now. I will start with Badiou in my next post (which I do not think will take me another three more months to put up).

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