badiou summarizes lacan in 800 words!



The trials of the post-Freudians: Jacques’ cigar has gone limp! 


Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) 

 

The man who has just died was all the greater in that greatness is becoming rare — very rare — in our uncertain lands. The media let him see that very clearly, as their goal is always to align that which exists with the transient and limited prose of journalism. They all asked his sworn enemies and those who go through the dustbins to say something about him.

 

When not even death can silence envy, it really is a sign of just how barbaric our societies are. All those psychoanalytic dwarves, all those gossip columnists amplifying the mean cry of ‘He was standing in my way, and now he’s dead at last. Now pay some attention to ME!’

 

It is a fact that Lacan was on the warpath right from the start, denouncing the illusory consistency of the ‘Ego’, rejecting the American psychoanalysis of the 1950s which proposed to ‘reinforce the ego’ and thereby adapt people to the social consensus and arguing that, because it is symbolically determined by language, the subject is irreducibly the subject of desire, and as such cannot be adapted to reality, except perhaps in the imaginary.

 

Lacan in effect established that the cause of desire is an object that has been lost, that is lacking, and that, being articulated under the symbolic law, desire has no substance and no nature. It has only a truth.

 

He made money out of this particularly bleak vision of psychoanalysis, in which it is the truth and not happiness that is in play, thanks to the practice of what were sometimes very short sessions. The crucial and non-existent role of psychoanalysts in the plural is to let shine — with a searingly subjective brightness — the signifier of a break that lets slip the truth of desire, whilst the individual psychoanalyst must, ultimately, reconcile himself to be nothing more than what is left at the end of the analysis and when that work is done.

 

The practice of short sessions polarized a real hatred of the truth against Lacan. As a result, he was literally excommunicated by the psychoanalytic International. The need to organize the transmission of his thought, and to train analysts who would act in accordance with what he believed to be the ethics of psychoanalytic practice, led him to found his own school. But even there, the splits and dissolutions were testimony to a stubborn reluctance to hold the severe position he promoted to the end.

 

It had become good form to state that the ageing Lacan was no longer transmitting anything worthwhile from the 1970s onwards. In my view, it is quite the opposite. Having lamented the theory of the subject’s subservience to the signifying rule, Lacan made one final effort to pursue his investigation into its relationship with the real as far as he could. The rules of the signifier were no longer enough. What was needed was some kind of geometry of the unconscious, a new way of representing the three agencies (symbolic, imaginary, real) in which the subject-effect is deployed. Lacan’s recourse to topology was an internal requirement born of this new stage in his thinking, and it brought out his underlying materialism.

 

Lacan held that politics has no effect on the real. He used to say that ‘the social is always a wound’. And yet it so happens that even a Marxism in crisis cannot avoid making reference to the dialectic of the subject that he outlines. It is in effect clear that the fiasco of the Party-States that emerged from the Third International opens up radical questions about the essence of the political subject. Now, neither the subject-as-consciousness (Sartre‘s thesis) nor the subject-as-natural substance will do. The at once divided and errant subject theorized by Lacan in his own realm does offer us a way out of that impasse. For such a subject is a product of a break, and not of the idea that it represents a reality, not even that of the working class. For today’s French Marxists, the function of Lacan is the function that Hegel served for the German revolutionaries of the 1840s.

 

Given the trite situation in which we find ourselves, marked by the platitudes and relative self-abasement of our intellectuals, the death of Lacan, coming so soon after that of Sartre, does nothing to improve matters. We were anxious to hear what he might still have to say. Quite aside from the content of his teaching, he developed an ethics of thought that is now highly unusual.

 

Le Perroquet1 will of course come back to the almost incalculable import of that ethics. For the moment, the important thing is, without any restrictions or any presumption, to pay tribute to one who is no longer with us.

 

 

 

1 This text appeared in the fortnightly Le Perroquet, which was founded by Natacha Michel and myself, and which was probably the most interesting paper published in the 1980s; the accuracy of that eulogy can be verified by reading the complete run (1981-87). Written just after the death of Lacan, the article appeared in the pilot issue of the fortnightly, dated November 1981.

 

I have written on, or about, Lacan very often. He is an essential point of reference for my first ‘big’ book on philosophy, Théorie du sujet (1982). In 1994-95,1 devoted a whole year’s seminar to him. In addition to the two sections of my systematic syntheses devoted to his thought in, respectively, the last and 38th mediation of Being and Event L’Etre et événement, 1988] and Logics of Worlds [Logiques du monde, Book VII, section 2, 2006]. Long discussions, both admiring and critical, can be found in Conditions (1992), with particular reference to Lacan’s relationship with the concept of the infinite, the notion of knowledge and the real experience of love. My most recent and complete text on the crucial question of Lacanian anti-philosophy appeared in English in the journal Lacanian Ink no. 27 under the title ‘The Formulas of L’étourdi’.

 

 

—from Alain Badiou, Pocket Pantheon: Figures Of Postwar Philosophy, Verso 2009. Translated by David Macey from Petit Pantheon Portatif, Editions La Fabrique, 2008.

the philosophy of boredom: the boredom of philosopy


boredom as a philosophical problem

Svendsen’s conclusion: “Boredom is life’s own gravity."

As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live. We ought not – and are actually unable to – avoid considering our attitude towards the question of being from time to time. There may be many initial reasons for reflecting on one’s life, but the special thing about fundamental existential experiences is that they inevitably lead one to question one’s own existence. Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’


The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomenon for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely
when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomenon of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as the nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world.


Boredom is usually considered as something random in relation to the nature of man, but this is based on highly dubious assumptions regarding human nature. One could just as well claim that boredom is embodied in human nature, but that would also presuppose that there is anything at all that can be called ‘human nature’ – a presupposition that seems problematic to me. Postulating a given nature has a tendency to put an end to all further discussion. For, as Aristotle points out, we direct our attention first and foremost to that which is capable of change.
By postulating a nature we are claiming that it cannot be changed. It can also be tempting to postulate a completely neutral human nature, where man has just as great a potential to experience sadness as happiness, enthusiasm as boredom. In that case, the explanation of boredom is exclusively to be found in the individual’s social environment. I do not believe, however, that a clear distinction can be made between psychological and social aspects when dealing with a phenomenon such as boredom, and a reductive sociologism is just as untenable as a psychologism. So I choose to approach the matter from a different angle, adopting a perspective based partly on the history of ideas and partly on phenomenology. Nietzsche pointed out that the ‘hereditary fault of all philosophers’ is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth. So I will make do with stating that boredom is a very serious phenomenon that affects many people. Aristotle insisted that virtue is not natural, but that it is not unnatural either. The same applies to boredom. Moreover, an investigation of boredom can be carried out without presupposing any anthropological constants, i.e., anything given independently of a specifically social and historical space. We are dealing here with an investigation of man in a particular historical situation. It is us I am writing about, living in the shadow of Romanticism, as inveterate Romantics without the hyperbolic faith of Romanticism in the ability of the imagination to transform the world.


Even though all good philosophy ought to contain an important element of self-knowledge, it does not necessarily have to take the form of a confession modelled on Augustine’s
Confessions. Many people have asked me if I undertook this project because I suffered from boredom, but what I personally feel ought not to be of any interest to readers. I do not conceive philosophy as being a confessional activity, rather one that labours to gain clarity – a clarity that is admittedly never more than temporary – in the hope that the small area one feels one has shed light on will also be of relevance to others. From a philosophical point of view, my private conditions are irrelevant, even though they are naturally important to me.


I carried out a small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances that revealed that they were on the whole unable to say whether they were
bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative – and one person even claimed that he had never been bored. To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One tries to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, but does not gain sleep, ending up in a no man’s land between a waking state and sleep. In Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa wrote:


Certain sensations are slumbers that fill up our mind like a fog and prevent us from thinking, from acting, from clearly and simply being. As if we hadn’t slept, something of our undreamed dreams lingers in us, and the torpor of the new day’s sun warms the stagnant surface of our senses. We’re drunk on not being anything, and our will is a bucket poured out onto the yard by the listless movement of a passing foot.


Pessoa’s boredom is obvious – it is distinct in all its formlessness. It is, however, in the nature of things that very few people indeed can come up with an unequivocal answer as to whether they are bored or not. First, moods, generally speaking, are seldom intentional subjects as far as we are concerned – they are precisely something one finds oneself
in, not something one consciously looks at. And second, boredom is a mood that is typified by a lack of quality that makes it more elusive than most other moods. Georges Bernanos’s village priest provides us with a fine description of the imperceptibly destructive nature of boredom in The Diary of a Country Priest:


So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is a like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it, and it is so fine that it doesn’t even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off one. That is why people are so restless.


It is perfectly possible to be bored without being aware of the fact. And it is possible to be bored without being able to offer any reason or cause for this boredom. Those who claimed in my small survey that they were deeply bored were as a rule unable to state accurately
why they were bored; it wasn’t this or that that plagued them, rather a nameless, shapeless, object-less boredom. This is reminiscent of what Freud said about melancholy, where he began by stressing a similarity between melancholy and grief, since both contain an awareness of loss. But whereas the person who grieves always has a distinct object of loss, the melancholic does not precisely know what he has lost.


Introspection is a method that has obvious limitations when investigating boredom, so I decided to look critically at a number of texts of a philosophical and literary nature. I regard literature as excellent source-material for philosophical studies, and for the philosophy of culture it is just as indispensable as scientific works are for the philosophy of science. As a rule, literature is a great deal more illuminative than quantitative sociological or psychological studies. This applies not least to our subject, where much research has focused on how the deficiency or surplus of sensory stimuli cause boredom without this always being particularly illuminative when considering such a complex phenomenon as boredom.
As Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, has expressed it: ‘Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.’


—from
Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

lars svendsen on writing: “my reason for writing this book was this: i was deeply bored for a while”

My reason for writing this book was this: I was deeply bored for a while. What made me realise the importance of the topic, however, was the boredom-related death of a close friend. I came to the point where I had to agree with Rimbaud: ‘boredom is no longer my love’. Being bored was no longer merely an innocent pose or a minor infliction. Rimbaud’s complaint of ‘dying of boredom’ – later to be repeated in numerous pop and rock songs from G. G. Allin’s Bored to death to Depeche Mode’s Something to do – suddenly became real. These songs stood out as the soundtracks of our lives. I believed that this experience was not restricted to a close circle of friends but rather indicated a serious problem regarding meaning in our contemporary culture as a whole. To investigate the problem of boredom is to attempt to understand who we are and how we fit into the world at this particular point in time. The more I thought about it, the more boredom seemed to be seminal for understanding contemporary culture. We live in a culture of boredom, and A Philosophy of Boredom is my modest attempt to come to terms with that culture.


At a more academic level, I was motivated by a certain dissatisfaction with contemporary philosophy. Emmanuel Levinas describes contemporary thought as one that passes through a world without human traces. Boredom, on the other hand, is human – all too human.


This book was originally written as an essay at a time when I had planned to devote myself to leisure. After having completed a lengthy research project, I was going to relax and do . . .
nothing. But that turned out to be absolutely impossible to carry out. Obviously, I was unable to do nothing. So I thought I had better do something, hence this book. Most often, we do not have any well-developed concepts for that which torments us. Very few people indeed have any well-thought-out concept of boredom. It is usually a blank label applied to everything that fails to grasp one’s interest. Boredom is first and foremost something we live with, not so much something we think about systematically. Even so, we can attempt to develop certain concepts about boredom so as to understand better what it is that afflicts us when it strikes. This book is an attempt to develop such thoughts about what boredom is, when it arose, why it did so, why it afflicts us, how it does so and why it cannot be overcome by any act of will.


—from Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

deleuze on mcluhan & the future of literature

If Literature Dies, It Will Be Murder

 

People who haven’t properly read or understood McLuhan may think it’s only natural for audiovisual media to replace books, since they actually contain all the creative possibilities of the literature or other modes of expression they supersede. It’s not true. For if audiovisual media ever replace literature, it won’t be as competing means of expression, but as a monopoly of structures that also stifle the creative possibilities in those media themselves. If literature dies, it will be a violent death, a political assassination (as in the USSR, even if nobody notices). It’s not a matter of comparing different sorts of medium. The choice isn’t between written literature and audiovisual media. It’s between creative forces (in audiovisual media as well as literature) and domesticating forces. It’s highly unlikely that audiovisual media will find the conditions for creation once they’ve been lost in literature. Different modes of expression may have different creative possibilities, but they’re all related insofar as they must counter the introduction of a cultural space of markets and conformity—that is, a space of "producing for the market"—together.

 

— Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972-1990, p. 131

 

hegel, levinas & kojève: understanding the novels of maurice blanchot

 

 

Literature, scepticism, nihilism: Blanchot after Kojève

 The opening pages of Faux Pas make it clear, then, that for Blanchot nihilism is a form of naïvety in relation to the negative that is to be radically distinguished from the experience of the negative in literature.

 That this conception of nihilism as a naïve calculation is no passing whim in Blanchot’s theorization of the literary becomes evident as soon as one turns from this 1943 text to his next major general essay on the literary, ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, first published in 1948 and then included as the final essay in the collection The Work of Fire (1949).4 Here, Blanchot establishes what will remain a fundamental distinction between two conceptions of the negative in his work. On the one hand, there is the negativity of the Hegelian dialectic; that is, negation as a power ( pouvoir) for the production of being in its meaning and truth. It is through this labour of the negative that ‘existence is detached from itself and made significant’ (Blanchot 1995: 343). The figure for this meaning- and truth-producing negativity, which Blanchot draws from the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), is death in its possibility:

that an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom – this is the tremendous power [ungeheure Macht] of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure ‘I’. Death, if that is what we want to call this non-actuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what it cannot do. But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. (Hegel 1977: 19)

As glossed by Blanchot: ‘Death ends in being; this is man’s hope and his task, because nothingness itself helps to make the world, nothingness is the creator of the world in man as he works and understands’ (Blanchot 1995: 344).

Combining Hegel – read by way of Alexandre Kojève’s commentaries on the Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947) – with Mallarmé, Blanchot argues that this power is the negativity of language as naming, and again it is a matter of the feminine, although this time as that which is stripped of being:

For me to be able to say, ‘This woman,’ I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being – the very fact that it does not exist. . . . when I say, ‘This woman,’ real death has been announced and is already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is here right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and her presence, and suddenly plunged into a nothingness in which there is no existence or presence. (Blanchot 1995: 322–3)

This negation of being effected by language goes for the speaking as well as the spoken being: ‘When I speak, I deny the existence of what I am saying, but I also deny the existence of the person who is saying it’ (Blanchot 1995: 324).

As we have seen, this Hegelian form of negation has for its end the production of being in its meaning and truth, and just such a negation constitutes what Blanchot terms one of literature’s two slopes (pentes, versants): ‘One side of literature is turned toward the movement of negation by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated’ (Blanchot 1995: 330). In short, negation of this kind produces ‘meaningful prose’ (Blanchot 1995: 332). In so far as it is governed by negation in this Hegelian sense, literature’s ‘only concern is true meaning; its only preoccupation is to safeguard the movement by which this meaning becomes truth’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). For Blanchot, Mallarmé is the ‘master of this art of negation’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). Continue reading

was leo strauss really a straussian?

An overview of Leo Strauss by two of his former students who reject the widespread conception that Strauss was a conservative or reactionary whose ideas derived from the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Instead, they assert that Strauss’ animating idea was for a return to the ancients, since the relativism and, ultimately, the nihilism of modernity undermined the possibility not just of politics but of philosophy itself.  

 

Strauss’s Philosophical Project 

From reading the popular press (or, to speak more precisely, semipopular press) like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books in the thirty-some years since Strauss’s death, one would think that he had attained prominence in the United States primarily as a conservative political ideologue. Although he was a Jew who emigrated from Germany to flee the National Socialists, Strauss has even been castigated as a Nazi. Despite the portrayal of Strauss as the intellectual source of the “neoconservative” foreign policy of the Bush administration, he said and wrote very little about American politics. He did express his opinion that liberal democracy was much better than the totalitarian alternatives confronting it in the twentieth century; but as an émigré, he often stated, he was not really qualified to comment on American politics. Also, his chief concerns lay elsewhere, with the question of the character and fate of philosophy. “He rarely left the esoteric world of high thought, preferring to construct a history of political philosophy.” And that, we maintain, is where Strauss’s significance primarily lies. He presented a novel diagnosis of what is often called the crisis of the West but which could also be dubbed the end of philosophy.

 He tried not merely to revive but to reform this distinctive form of intellectual activity, which, he argued, defines Western civilization. Strauss’s signature idea was his call for a return to the ancients, his appeal for a reconsideration and reappropriation of the political philosophy of the classics: the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and so on—a group of writers Strauss thought of as “Socratics” because they followed the path of thought opened up by Socrates. Strauss did not begin with a commitment to ancient philosophy, although, as his youthful attachment to Plato indicates, he was seized by an admiration for them, or at least for Plato, from an early age. It was only when he was well along in life, sometime in his thirties, that Strauss concluded that a return to the ancients was both possible and desirable. Like most German students of philosophy of his day, he began as a student of modern philosophy. Having studied with Ernst Cassirer and Edmund Husserl, Strauss met and came to admire Martin Heidegger, who later became the founder of existentialism. He also read Friedrich Nietzsche very seriously in his younger days. His attempt to return to the ancients represented a break not only with these particular thinkers, but with modern philosophy in its entirety.

 The important story about Strauss is the story of his call for this return—how he came to formulate it as a philosophic project, what he saw to be the barriers to such a return (barriers that made the very idea of return unthinkable to most of his contemporaries), what he meant by calling for return, and what the chief consequences of his call for return were. His main impetus for returning to the ancients was a growing dissatisfaction with the various manifestations of modern philosophy, including dissatisfaction with the great modern critics of modern philosophy, Nietzsche and Heidegger. In response to that dissatisfaction, he came to a new or at least very untraditional understanding of the ancients; he rediscovered an older and very nonstandard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy. It also opened up an understanding of ancient philosophy that was immune to the critiques to which it had been subjected by modern thinkers, from Machiavelli in the sixteenth century to Heidegger in the twentieth. Their criticism of ancient philosophy failed, he came to believe, because they never understood correctly the doctrines they were criticizing. The ancients to whom Strauss wanted to return were thus very different from the ancients as depicted in the textbooks.

The first and perhaps chief consequence of Strauss’s recovery of the ancients was therefore a reconceiving of the entire philosophic tradition. Not only did he come to understand the classics differently from the way they had been understood, but he also radicalized a commonplace distinction between ancients and moderns. With the emergence of modern philosophy, Strauss believed, there had occurred a cataclysmic break with the older philosophy, a break of such magnitude that all that came after was simply a working out of the implications of that break. In the Straussian frame, the difference between ancients and moderns became decisive; Strauss sided with the ancients and traced the ills of modern philosophy and many of the ills of modern politics to that break with ancient philosophy and the consequences of that break.

Part of Strauss’s new grasp of the ancients was an appreciation of political philosophy, of politics, and of the relation between politics and philosophy as a central theme of Socratic philosophy. Strauss had noted already that the greatest philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, those dominant when he formulated his philosophic project (Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger), all lacked a political philosophy or any serious philosophic reflections on politics. Another way to formulate Strauss’s signature doctrine, then, is as a call for the rebirth of political philosophy. In this reborn political philosophy, a philosophy that took its bearings from Socrates, not Nietzsche or Heidegger, Strauss believed he had discovered a far more adequate grasp of politics than that prevalent in the academy (social scientific political science) or in political life (ideologized politics). The reconceptualization of the philosophic tradition was thus to be at the same time a reorientation of thinking about politics. Strauss’s project was, to say the least, ambitious.

Although Strauss has recently become famous, if not infamous, the world was slow to take notice of him. One reason the significance of Strauss’s work is only now coming to be properly or truly appreciated in the United States is that many American intellectuals became aware of the arguments against which he positioned himself, in particular the thought of Martin Heidegger, only after Strauss’s death. Living and writing in America, Strauss wanted to respond to Heidegger, but he did not want to propagate Heidegger’s thought by explicating his turgid prose. As a Jew who had fled Hitler’s Germany, Strauss was all too aware of the unsavoury political associations of Heidegger’s Nazi-sympathizing thought. Strauss therefore directed his arguments against what he called “radical historicism,” by which he meant Heidegger. Few of his American readers understood whom or what Strauss actually had in mind.

 

Strauss’s Departure from Heidegger and Nietzsche

Strauss opposed Heidegger, at least in part, because, as he saw it, he and Heidegger had begun with the same philosophical problem or source—the challenge posed by Friedrich Nietzsche. In classes at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, Strauss suggested that the best introduction to Heidegger’s thought was to be found in his lectures on Nietzsche, first published in German in 1962. Whereas most others would look to Being and Time, Strauss thought Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche was most revealing of Heidegger’s project.

Strauss himself had been enthralled at an early age with the author he had read furtively in gymnasium. Indeed, Nietzsche exercised a powerful intellectual influence on him for quite some time. In a letter he wrote to Karl Loewith in 1935, Strauss stated that “Nietzsche so dominated me between my 22nd and 30th years, that I literally believed everything that I understood of him.” By the time he wrote to Loewith, however, Strauss had discovered that he agreed with Nietzsche only in part. Like Nietzsche, Strauss “wanted to repeat antiquity . . . at the peak of modernity.” Like Nietzsche, that meant, Strauss wanted to revive a truly noble form of human existence. But Strauss had come to believe that the polemical character of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity had prevented him from realizing his intention. Strauss came, moreover, to have a very different notion of the peak of antiquity, or the most noble form of human existence. Whereas Nietzsche praised blond beasts and Caesar with the soul of Christ, Strauss tried to revive Platonic political philosophy and the Platonic hero, Socrates, who was not a great favorite of Nietzsche’s. In contrast to Nietzsche, Strauss never praised ancient generals and statesmen such as Pericles or Caesar, nor their modern imitators such as Napoleon. He wanted to revive ancient political philosophy, not ancient politics.

Strauss came to question not only the adequacy of Nietzsche’s understanding of the ancients, but also his analysis of the modern crisis. The date at which Strauss says that he ceased to believe everything he understood of Nietzsche coincides roughly with the publication of his own first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1930). Strauss’s study of Spinoza led him to conclude that the early rationalist modern critics of scriptural religion had failed in their effort to prove that revelation was false, because revelation had never claimed to rest on, or be available to, human reason; and human reason had never been able to generate a comprehensive account of the whole that left no room for the biblical God. “If one wished to refute orthodoxy,” Strauss maintained, “there remained no other way but to attempt to prove that the world and life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of an unfathomable God. . . . Man had to establish himself theoretically and practically as the master of the world and the master of his life; the world created by him had to erase the world merely ‘given’ to him.” Merely showing, as Spinoza had done, that statements in the Bible were contradictory or anachronistic did not prove that they were not the word, or accurate depictions of the acts, of an omnipotent and unfathomable God. To show that miracles were impossible, modern rationalists had to give a systematic explanation of everything that had occurred or could occur. Unable to do so, Enlightenment thinkers had attempted by means of mockery “to ‘laugh’ orthodoxy out of a position from which it could not be dislodged by any proofs supplied by Scripture or by reason.” By the twentieth century modern rationalism in the combined form of natural science, progressive politics, and industrial technology had shown that it could not describe or remake the world in completely rational form. In Nietzschean terms, Strauss’s study of Spinoza had convinced him that God was by no means necessarily or evidently dead, either as a philosophically disposed-of entity, or as an object of human attachment and belief.

Nietzsche had insisted that the denial of God was a requirement of intellectual honesty, or probity, which, he thought, was our last virtue. Probity constituted a kind of spiritual courage or, in Heideggerian terms, resolution to face the utter meaninglessness of human life and the world. But, Strauss objected in his 1935 book Philosophy and Law, if the world is utterly meaningless, if there is no truth, then there is no basis for Nietzsche’s obligation to declare it or to live by it. According to Nietzsche, the intellectual probity that required him to posit and declare that God is dead was a product of the Christian conscience turning against itself. However, Strauss again pointed out, if there is no God, there is no ground or reason to have, or to listen to, such a conscience. Nietzsche’s own philosophy was based on the same scripturally derived morality he himself had declared to be invalid once the ground of that morality, faith in God, was eroded. Strauss thus attempted to move beyond Nietzsche, for Nietzsche’s philosophy was paradoxically grounded or generated by the very commitments he renounced. Nietzsche was, in this sense, deeply incoherent.

The antagonism to religion characteristic of modern philosophy that Nietzsche had made manifest was not a result simply of the demands of reason, Strauss concluded. The late modern philosophical critique had established, if anything, the limits of reason, and that conclusion made even more incredible the claims of reason to disprove revelation. Rather than constituting a logical conclusion, modern philosophical atheism rested on an act of will. Modern philosophers, even those prior to Nietzsche, had insisted that there was no superhuman, independently existing order or source of morality, because they wanted to improve the human condition. To improve that condition significantly, Strauss maintained, they thought it would be necessary to manipulate nature, even to transform it entirely. But nature would not and could not be manipulated so long as it was regarded as the product of a divine creation. To remake the world, modern thinkers were led to deny the Creator God.

Strauss thus began to suspect, as Heidegger was to argue later, that the core or essence of modern philosophy was technological. But, whereas Heidegger argued that the technological grasp of beings was a necessary result of a fateful dispensation of “Being” itself, Strauss saw it to be the result of a fateful choice. The crisis of modernity was not so much scientific in origin as it was moral and political. The modern attempt to improve and elevate human life threatened to end, as Nietzsche had so powerfully shown, in the utter degradation of human life in the “last man” or in mass society. Once human beings ceased to recognize any superhuman goals or standards by which their efforts could be judged, they stopped striving for anything beyond comfortable self-preservation. As a consequence, their lives lost all nobility. The early modern political philosophers had made the acquisition of power a means to the end of relieving the general human condition; the acquisition of virtue was no longer viewed as an end in itself, and the ancient conception of human excellence as the form of human life worth living had been lost.

 

Strauss’s Analysis of the Contemporary Crisis

The point of departure for Strauss’s call for a return to the ancients was the congeries of ill effects of modernism that he called “the crisis of our time.” The crisis was both announced and partly provoked by Nietzsche and his successors such as Heidegger. As Strauss understood it, the crisis was constituted by the triumph of “radical historicism,” which he thought to be ultimately another name for nihilism. Radical historicism was radical not merely in reductively insisting that all thought reflected its age, or that no thought could escape the limitations inspired by its historical situation. It was radical also in denying that there were any permanent realities whatever. The consequences of this denial were very grave, Strauss thought. On the one hand, there was the contention we now identify with postmodernism: the denial of “foundations” for knowledge or truth. That denial meant the end of philosophy as it was known from Thales to the twentieth century. The “end of philosophy” meant the replacement of the quest for truth with the positing of conventions, or the consensus of “communities” of “knowers,” or mysterious dispensations of fate, or poetry, or pragmatic effectiveness as the measure of a “truth” that could only be written in quotation marks. On the other hand, Strauss thought, the “crisis of our time” was more narrowly political and moral; because it heralded the “end of philosophy,” it also produced a deep-going relativism, denying the possibility of trans-historical truth with respect to moral phenomena. The loss of faith in moral and political truth had two apparently opposite but intimately connected and unfortunate consequences, as Strauss saw it. One was that it encouraged a kind of decisionism, such as is found in many continental philosophic movements of the twentieth century, existentialism for example. In the face of the groundlessness of moral and political choice, what counts is “commitment,” the decision itself, not the substance of what is decided for. Intrinsic merits of political and moral choices were held to be beyond debate: justice, moderation, and sobriety, traits once held to be sine qua nons of responsible action, were not merely no longer favored; they were positively disfavored as signs of lukewarmness or weakness of will. Understanding them to be responding in this way to “the crisis of our time,” Strauss was not surprised to see great thinkers at the “end of philosophy,” like Heidegger, support Hitler and the Nazis.

The other political and moral outcome of radical historicism was loss of faith in any moral truths and the adoption of a passionless lack of commitment to anything but toleration. Strauss never denied that toleration was a virtue, but he shared, in this case, Nietzsche’s revulsion against the “last man,” who said “we invented happiness” but who knew nothing of striving, of the search for excellence, of sacrifice or commitment to anything beyond reality T.V. or Monday Night Football. This lack of commitment, which Strauss’s student Allan Bloom called “flatness,” not only emptied human life of its higher callings, but also endangered the societies that fell prey to it, because life poses challenges not well met by those who look no further than comfort and entertainment.

Strauss came to see that this crisis, in both its philosophical and its political aspects, derived from modern philosophy’s great act of rebellion against classical philosophy and biblical religion. The founders of modernity, thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza, set mankind on a path that, via an almost inexorable dialectic, produced the end of philosophy and the “last man” as announced and diagnosed by Nietzsche. If modernity was at the bottom of the problem, then, Strauss concluded, the proper response was a retreat or a return to premodernity. Strauss’s first efforts at return were to call for a return not to the ancients themselves, but to the “medieval enlightenment,” as developed by the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, to whom he paid abiding and recurrent attention throughout his long scholarly career. Strauss’s turn to Maimonides proved, however, to be a step on his way to Plato and Socrates.

—from Catherine H. Zuckert, Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, (2006), pp 30-36.

 

 

 

 

baudrillard’s america: “nostalgia born of the immensity of the texan hills & sierras of new mexico”


the opening of jean baudrillard’s america always makes me think its writer is not a sorbonne professor but a wide-eyed innocent on whom nothing is lost, a child precocity who counts  among his forebears de tocqueville, kerouac and nietzsche. . . 

 

  

  

  

VANISHING POINT

Caution: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear!

 

Nostalgia born of the immensity of the Texan hills and the sierras of New Mexico: gliding down the freeway, smash hits on the Chrysler stereo, heat wave. Snapshots aren’t enough. We’d need the whole film of the trip in real time, including the unbearable heat and the music. We’d have to replay it all from end to end at home in a darkened room, rediscover the magic of the freeways and the distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed and live it all again on the video at home in real time, not simply for the pleasure of remembering but because the fascination of senseless repetition is already present in the abstraction of the journey. The unfolding of the desert is infinitely close to the timelessness of film…

 

SAN ANTONIO

 

The Mexicans, become Chicanos, act as guides on the visit to El Alamo to laud the heroes of the American nation so valiantly massacred by their own ancestors. But hard as those ancestors fought, the division of labour won out in the end. Today it is their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are there, on the same battlefield, to hymn the Americans who stole their lands. History is full of ruse and cunning. But so are the Mexicans who have crossed the border clandestinely to come and work here.

 

 

SALT LAKE CITY

 

Pompous Mormon symmetry. Everywhere marble: flawless, funereal (the Capitol, the organ in the VisitorCenter). Yet a Los-Angelic modernity, too — all the requisite gadgetry for a minimalist, extraterrestrial comfort. The Christ-topped dome (all the Christs here are copied from Thorwaldsen’s and look like Bjorn Borg) straight out of Close Encounters: religion as special effects. In fact the whole city has the transparency and supernatural, otherworldly cleanness of a thing from outer space. A symmetrical, luminous, overpowering abstraction. At every intersection in the Tabernacle area — all marble and roses, and evangelical marketing — an electronic cuckoo-clock sings out: such Puritan obsessiveness is astonishing in this heat, in the heart of the desert, alongside this leaden lake, its waters also hyperreal from sheer density of salt. And, beyond the lake, the Great Salt Lake Desert, where they had to invent the speed of prototype cars to cope with the absolute horizontality… But the city itself is like a jewel, with its purity of air and its plunging urban vistas more breathtaking even than those of Los Angeles. What stunning brilliance, what modern veracity these Mormons show, these rich bankers, musicians, international genealogists, polygamists (the EmpireState in New York has something of this same funereal Puritanism raised to the nth power). It is the capitalist, transsexual pride of a people of mutants that gives the city its magic, equal and opposite to that of Las Vegas, that great whore on the other side of the desert.