From Catastrophic Messianism to Comic Fatalism – Part I

By Frank Ruda
Issue 1 September 24, 2020 Download PDF
Intro Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI

 

Part I. Introduction: Catastrophic Messianism and Beyond

1. Mythical Catastrophism

It is well-known that Walter Benjamin in one of his most famous texts, the Critique of Violence,[1] draws on one of the pioneers of syndicalism, Georges Sorel, who sometimes is also accredited with the dubious reputation of having been a precursor of (Italian) fascism.[2] It is also well-known that Benjamin refers to Sorel affirmatively. And the reason for this is that in his Reflections on Violence—a violent defense of emancipatory violence—Sorel identified the idea of the proletarian general strike as a means to halt and transform what appear to be the unchangeable laws of (capitalism’s) history.[3] It is this idea that Benjamin in turn identified with a form of violence—divine violence—that potentially escapes and interrupts the badly infinite dialectic of law-making and law-preserving violence that has structured human (state) history since forever.[4] The proletarian general strike names the divine form of violence that will supposedly revolutionize the very workings of history.

What is less known is that in his Reflections Sorel argued that the concept or idea of the proletarian general strike is essentially mythical. It is a myth, even though a politically necessary one. Emancipatory politics cannot exist without myths, because the latter provide the required subjective energy-source for objective emancipation. It is hence rationally justified to employ myths in radical politics. Any mass striving for liberation needs a unifying motivational framework, and this is what mythical narratives provide. This is like emancipation’s mirror stage: through a myth emancipation receives a Gestalt. The proletarian general strike offers a mythical representation of what the (emancipatory) act of abolishing the present state of things will look like. But it is like a purely negative mirror stage: it erects an idea of emancipation by imagining the Gestalt of crumbling of all existing Gestalten of politics, a representation of the end of (the present kind of) representation. Therefore, it must be mythical. The myth of the proletarian general strike allows us to imagine what seems impossible to imagine and what we nonetheless must imagine to imagine true change.[5] For Sorel, there will never be emancipation without imagining the end (of capitalism) in the mythical form of the proletarian general strike.

What is even lesser known is that Sorel believed the mythical constitution of emancipation to be essentially indeterminate. It provides no determinate vision of the end (of capitalism). This may sound as if Sorel endorses the incoherent position of envisioning the end without really envisioning the end. But even though indeterminate with regard to its concrete manifestation, the myth of the proletarian general strike does tell us something about the form in which the end (of capitalism) will occur. It will occur in the form of a final battle between those who strive to abolish and those who seek to preserve it. The formal determinacy and contentual indeterminacy of the myth—its determinate indeterminacy, as it were—is supposed to allow the masses to project onto the mythical formal frame whatever concrete content mobilizes them most (obviously, they do not decide this consciously). There can be all kinds of concrete fantasies of the final battle, but they are all fantasies of this battle. The myth of the proletarian general strike thereby works like a collective-projective screen: “a body of images capable of evoking instinctively all the sentiments which correspond to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by socialism against modern society” (118). It allows the respective individual imaginaries of the activists to be collectivized (and potentially unified). Everyone imagines in the same direction, as it were, and this not only creates (individual as well as collective) motivational energy, but shall ultimately, practically and thus effectively, allow for the formation of an emancipatory mass-movement. What motivates every single activist is his or her imagination—Sorel’s language is here reminiscent of later Carl Schmitt—of the moment of “heroic decision” in which it is either them or us (132): “the end must always be the catastrophic defeat of the enemy” (130).[6] If we want to imagine what we cannot imagine, for Sorel, we need a catastrophic myth, a mythical heroic representation of the catastrophic defeat of our enemies. This is because “the passage from capitalism to socialism” can only be “conceived as a catastrophe,” one that is so drastic it “defies description” (130).

2. Traversing Optimism

It is mostly forgotten that the very year Sorel published his Reflections on Violence (in 1908), he also published a book with the outspoken title The Illusions of Progress in which he violently attacks all forms of the latter. Progress as well as the belief in it are for him per se bourgeois.[7] This is why they are a crucial component of any liberalism and why it is disastrous when they are used by revolutionary parties. Sorel’s list of the conceptual flaws of the belief in progress reads like this: it privileges historical continuity over discontinuity (reform over revolution); it disregards real historical conjunctures, because it attempts to recognize rational patterns in history; it transcendentalizes one—harmonious—form and direction of historical development (there is—only—one history); it assumes that (the motor of) this development is always already at work and thus neither man-made nor to be made; thereby it generally and formally endorses the idea not of change but of reproducing the always already given. These are the illusions of progress. They are illusory because they are what progressive people believe they see, yet what isn’t there. But for certain political stances (e.g., liberalism), they are structurally unavoidable. The revolution needs myths, bourgeois liberalism and reformism thrive on illusions. But sometimes the difference between the two is hard to tell. This facilitated the appearance of illusions within Marxism.

Sorel’s attack on the idea of progress is therefore part of an attempt to filter out these illusory elements from Marxism. The attempt is to get the bourgeoisie out of Marxism, liberalism out of emancipation, and reformism out of the revolution. Otherwise, one relies on illusions that one believes to be myths and therefore there is disorientation. Unidentified illusions can—often from the outside—appear as if they were nothing but a “superstructure of conventional lies,” and such an impression can affect even rational and solid systems of thought like Marxism (which sounds as if Sorel anticipated one familiar critique of twentieth-century communism, namely that people were enticed by irrational mass-illusions whose realities at the same time—should have—cured them of them). The symptom that Sorel focused on most is that by infiltrating Marxism a peculiar result was produced: from the left to the right, from the bourgeoisie to the working class, people started to become optimists.[8] Optimism names a specific—imaginary—relation of a subject to its own—real—historical condition.[9] It is paradoxically—as indicated before—one in which the subject—unknowingly—accepts that nothing will ever change. Optimism as disguised belief in historical progress thereby turns out to be a belief in the end of history. It is the abolishment of practice by means of the belief in its continuous progressive development. It is a practically and politically pacifying, irrational illusion that there is one given law of history. Optimism is practically wrong—it even is a wrong done to practice tout court—and theoretically untenable—an illusory belief.

What thus far—to the best of my knowledge—was not taken into account at all is that therefore Sorel emphatically embraces pessimism. And it is easy to see why.  Sorel proclaims his pessimism is comparable to what Kant formulated in his “metaphysics of morals” (9). If Kant therein investigates both what dutiful acts between people ought to be like (manifested in the form of rights) and what such acts that originate solely in subjective self-determination ought to be like, treating humanity as an end in itself (that manifest as virtues), Sorel’s pessimism must by analogy also address the determinations of actions between people (this is what the concept of the myth does) and issues of self-determination.[10] Thereby it would be able to serve as a practical counter-orientation to the optimistically disorienting bourgeois ideology. To see more clearly what constitutes Sorel’s pessimism, it is instructive to examine how he distinguishes it from what he thinks is responsible for its bad contemporary reputation. The latter originated at the beginning of the nineteenth century, where one finds a general atmosphere that Sorel describes as “a concert of groaning which greatly contributed to making pessimism odious” (9).

The groaners were essentially “poets” (9), beautiful poetic souls that demanded more from the world than it could deliver. They are culprits of pessimism’s bad press, since theirs was triggered by disappointment, and their disappointment was in its turn an effect of their previous exaggerated expectations. Their complaints thus originated in an inability to adopt the reality principle. Yet, because the poets did not want to appear as situation-blind and egoistic as they were, they pretended—this is where being poets helped—to bemoan not only their own disappointment but also a more general mishap: the human condition in general. The poetic groaning of the nineteenth century was fundamentally an expression of egotistic existentialism that had disguised itself as pessimist (structuralism). Shortly after—and this is where the bad reputation ultimately originated—it showed its true face. With the advent of the industrial revolution the poetic pessimists simply stopped complaining.[11] Yore pessimist poets converted into content realists when reality was refashioned to satisfy their desires. The industrial revolution depreciated pessimism altogether by exposing it as a dishonest attitude—pessimism is only for those who believe they did not get what they assume the world owes them. Now all pessimism became “pretended pessimism”; all pessimists were identified with individually disappointed and “disillusioned optimist[s]” (10).  Pessimism was the dishonest ideology of the unlucky.

It was thus taken to be a disingenuous and derivative theoretical and practical orientation[12] and identified with an expression of all those who were not lucky enough to be part of the bourgeoisie (but want to). Not only is optimism structurally bourgeois, pessimism is structurally an expression of the disappointment of not being bourgeois. Because it is non-bourgeois, it is stigmatized by the bourgeoisie. But for Sorel one must not be afraid of this stigma. Rather, he argues, one must radicalize pessimism: from poetic to political and philosophical pessimism, since only such a worldview provides a realist vision of society for all those who do not belong to the bourgeoisie. Pessimism is not only not-illusory, it can also serve as a weapon in the struggle against illusions. For Sorel, pessimism provides the very form of the proletarian gaze.

3. Tragic Pessimism

There are thus two readings of pessimism: the bourgeois and the proletarian. The former takes pessimism as a secondary and derivative representation of a subject’s position in social reality. It became predominant as an interpretation of the lamenting poets of the nineteenth century. The latter emphasizes a different take on the negation of optimism. Proletarian pessimism is neither an expression of “a lack of mental balance” nor does it endorse the “caricatures […] usually presented of” it (9). It rather is a system of thought in its own right. But three hundred years ago a crucial intervention against it had been undertaken, when the Jesuits transformed the functioning of the university.[13] They started to govern and direct an institution that was from its beginning closely linked to Catholicism and the Church and therefore to the ideological reproduction of the existing social elites. Jesuits were essentially optimists. And within the university they started to “combat the pessimism which dominated Protestant theories” (8). Optimism vs. pessimism is thereby a new version of the older struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism. This struggle that in the sixteenth century tore apart the unity of the Church—and wherein Catholicism had suffered a major blow—started to threaten in its new form the unity of the university and with it the social reproduction of the bourgeois elites.

If there is thus class struggle in religion, modern capitalism has been born from within it, initially from the spirit of Catholicism. It took the Gestalt of optimism, which is thus a child born within and for the sake of class-ideological warfare.[14] Protestantism (in its original pessimist form) seemed to be winning until the religious bourgeoisie (the Jesuits) launched an intervention (optimism) that shifted the terrain of class struggle from religion to education. This intervention had quite a devastating impact. With the institutionally ensured implementation of optimism in the subjective attitudes of the re-educated generations, they were—tragically—deprived of something.[15] What they lost in and through their inculcation with optimism was their sense for tragedy, for the tragic nature of (their own) life and thus a proper understanding of the latter. The tragedy of optimism’s triumphant march through the institutions culminates in a tragic oblivion of (pessimism and) tragedy. Sorel’s critique of optimism proves to be a critique not only of the reproductive strategies of the bourgeoisie but also of nihilism, since it has always been a constitutive feature of nihilism that makes everyone incapable of even recognizing its own nihilist nature.[16] Optimism’s dominance in education thus creates a forgetful reign of nihilism in culture and society in general.

A symptom of this is that the optimistically enlightened moderns started to discredit the validity and significance not only of myth in general but also of tragic myths in particular for modern life. Against this nihilist oblivion at the core of modernity, Sorel seeks forcefully to bring back pessimism to reinvigorate the proper comprehension of tragedy and more specifically of tragic myths.[17] Without it, we lack the most trivial self-understanding and any true historical perspective. But how to resurrect the tragic worldview for emancipatory politics under modern nihilist conditions?

Sorel returns to the birth of (the practice of) pessimism that preceded its institutional implementation in Protestantism. He returns to the (theoretical) spirit of tragedy in ancient Greece.[18] Pessimism there constituted itself as a unified belief-system for all the “complaints of the great poets of antiquity about the sorrow and pain that constantly threatens mankind” (11). It began by transforming the previous poetic practice of complaining into a totalizing system that was not only (in)formed by the history and literature of grief and complaint but also proved practically applicable.[19] Pessimism was in its original conception the name for the practical orientation that emerged from the pain that was linked to being alive. The groaning poets of the nineteenth century where only disappointed optimists and had no sense for tragedy, yet the Greek poets still really felt the pain that perforates the life of every human being. This pain subjectively expressed an experience of negativity that became the building block of pessimism. It gained traction in ancient Greece because it allowed for a consistent total image of the world that provided practical orientation.

With pessimism we thus move, for Sorel, from poetic feeling into a practical orientation. This orientation finally revealed that “social conditions […] form […] a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded.” Pessimism thereby proved to be rational(ist), since it made people see and decipher those allegedly unchangeable laws that constitute(d) reality. To modify one of Hegel’s famous sayings: to she who looks upon the world in a systematically pessimist way, the world in its turn presents a systematic-pessimist aspect. This aspect consisted back then and still consists for Sorel today in making us understand that the existing social and political conditions “can only disappear through a catastrophe which involves the whole” (11). Pessimism makes us into realists. It forces us to see that tiny adjustments of the system will not change anything. Pessimism makes us into paradoxical realists, as we face the fact that we can only change the world if we imagine what seems impossible to imagine, and thus take recourse to myths of the final catastrophe. Things can only be changed if all things (as they are) disappear.[20]

Yet, pessimism is not only systematized tragedy; it is also a tragic system. And the coincidence of form and content is the “most fundamental element of pessimism.” It is not simply a way out. Rather it is a position that takes seriously the assumption that there is no way out. But the tragedy of pessimism lies not simply in the claim that a catastrophe is necessary, but rather “in its method of conceiving the path towards deliverance” (11). It is linked to the insight that the very agent who potentially will be able to transform the world—by destroying it as it is—is at the same time fully determined by the structure it will abolish. The future catastrophe, therefore, will also be the catastrophe of those bringing it about. By destroying the world, the emancipatory agent will thus also destroy itself; it will heroically self-destruct—just as the proletariat in Marx was supposed to be able to revolutionize the world by also abolishing the very conditions of its own existence, i.e., by abolishing itself.[21] This is why “[t]he dogmas of sin and of predestination” (14) are fundamental axioms for contemporary pessimism. That their significance and political validity have been weakened by the optimist interventions of the bourgeoisie will not irritate the revolutionarily firm pessimist, as she can live with the fact that “many people” will be “annoyed […] because of the pessimistic conception”—as Sorel noted apropos of his Reflections (8) and because thus far nothing justifies optimism. This is why one must abide by pessimism.

For Sorel only a tragic pessimist is able to see that we are, in a sense, all sinners (affected by the very corrupted system we seek to overcome) and that emancipation might only be brought about by acting upon a myth of an unimaginable catastrophe the outcome of which is at the same time entirely out of our hands (as it is predestined in the sense that its outcome is, from our point of view, as necessarily contingent as God’s plan for Protestant theories of predestination). The first act of preparing emancipation is thus to pessimistically accept one’s own tragic involvement in what one wishes to overcome and not hope for individual salvation. Tragic pessimism allows us to see that not even the revolutionaries can be saved from the dynamic of the revolution to come—which overall does not seem to be the worst anticipation of what will happen in most subsequent revolutions in history. For Sorel this is true because the revolutionary catastrophe is only the beginning of a process that is entirely non-anticipatable. What will follow is even more unrepresentable and unimaginable—if these categories allow for further superlatives—than the end of the present system. There can therefore be no mythical representation of what will happen after the mythically imagined catastrophe at the revolutionary end of the world—only God knows, hence predestination. There can be no after-myth to the myth of the catastrophe—communism (or socialism, in Sorel’s nomination) remains unimaginable, unavowable.

4. That’s One Small Step for Modernity (from Pessimism to Fatalism), One Giant Leap for Mankind (from Tragic Pessimism to Comic Fatalism)

But why discuss all these details of a messianic, mythical, tragic pessimism in a text that is supposed to respond to, if necessary rebut or counter, or if worst comes to worse, chicken out of confronting the counter-provocations that were devoted to Abolishing Freedom? The answer is that the reconstruction of Sorel’s position can provide a background against which the contours of the fatalist position that I seek to defend can be more precisely articulated, especially by acknowledging that Sorel’s tragic pessimism might inhabit a conceptual neighbourhood located rather nearby. Yet, there are significant differences. Differences so fundamental that they turn the common ground into a rift as deep as (or deeper than) the Mariana Trench.

It is important to draw lines of demarcation in one’s neighbourhood, as sometimes a position is criticized that is effectively closer to one’s neighbour’s than to one’s own and sometimes one’s neighbour’s position is closer to the position of one’s critic than to one’s own. Sorel thus serves me here as a kind of prism of such demarcations. The aim of the following remarks is to point out that Sorel ultimately and involuntarily remains too optimist, his pessimism is not enough. After establishing what distinguishes the fatalism I defend from Sorel’s pessimism, we will be equipped to turn to the counter-provocations.

  1. When the primordial choice is declared to be between optimism and pessimism (as elaborated by Sorel), this very choice can be taken to be a given or something that needs to be constructed. Sorel mediates these two and claims that identifying the choice between pessimism and optimism as an historically (but forcefully forgotten) given is already an emancipatory move. Rejecting any assumption of givenness, a fatalist will at first also opt for pessimism—as it does not seem to be a validly given option, and this is why Sorel is, for a bit, a fellow traveller.[22] Yet, the fatalist will exaggerate pessimism—methodologically following Adorno’s witticism that in psychoanalysis nothing is true except its exaggerations. Fatalism exists only in exaggeration, exaggerating even all forms of exaggeration. The fatalist will exaggerate pessimism to a degree that she forces out what is in pessimism more than pessimism,[23] so that the assumption that there is always a given—even if forgotten—choice between pessimism and optimism—and that potential emancipation arises from identifying this choice as a choice—is also pessimistically given up. Emancipation is not per se linked to identifying a choice different from the ones that appear to be the only ones; it is not about (free) choice.

    This breaks with the latent optimism—and all-too structuralist inclination—of pessimism. The struggle between optimism and pessimism continues inside of pessimism, and only fatalism, being more pessimistic than pessimism, is able to take this into account. This is not a scholastic competition about who actually thinks and says the worst best (to modify Beckett hereon). It is rather an attempt to clarify what it means to conceive of what is worst as the actual and of what is actual as the worst, to borrow Andrew Cutrofello’s brilliant formulation.[24] Only such a position, flagged out consistently, can actually provide the contemporary precondition for truly conceiving of emancipation, i.e., of freedom. Abolishing Freedom argues that the act of thinking freedom must be conceptually linked to a specific kind of fatalism—that is a specific understanding of fate and determination, as articulated, in part, in theories of predestination—at least when the very means of emancipation, i.e., freedom, are corrupted and turned into means of oppression (so a situation similar to the one described by Sorel). This is why a consistent fatalist position is not content with constructing the choice between pessimism and optimism, but rather also problematizes the assumption that we are always able and have the capacity to make this decision.
  1. This implies taking a distance from Sorel’s account of the coming revolution: because he could still optimistically believe that “revolution” or “catastrophe” are concepts that we just have at our disposal for imagining a future transformation. Fatalism is not about imagining change by using anew what is given. It rejects the optimism of givenness as well as the givenness of optimism. It is about imagining how not to imagine freedom—it is thus about imagining differently (and thus radicalizes the idea inscribed in Sorel’s conception of myth). The language of freedom and liberation is no stable requisite or given in advance—fatalism’s language rather resembles the stuttering creation of concepts while speaking that Hegel depicts in the beginning of his Logic (after the end of all—phenomenologically conceivable—worlds). This is also why a presumed language of freedom can sometimes be or become an obstacle to freedom and why it is justified to undertake an ideology-critique of the ideology of freedom (as given) or of freedom as ideology. Fatalism thereby aims to liberate us from problematic ways of imagining ourselves to be free—notably in terms of a capacity that we (naturally) have.

  2. Fatalism therefore does not aim at generating an activating impulse (in the masses). Rather it consciously rejects immediate activation, seeking to draw us out of and liberate us from our spontaneous involvement and belief in the givenness of freedom that plays a crucial part in the reproduction of the situation as it is (tempting us into all kinds of unacknowledged forms of reproductive actions).[25] Even though this seems to condemn the fatalist position to inaction, it is crucial to repel the mythical assumption that there is an always already given agent of change that just needs to be mobilized or that there is always already something significant to do—mythicisms pertinent in many interpretations of Marx. Fatalism does not aim at activation but at a peculiar form of de-activation; against the assumption of an always constituted subject it repeats Luther’s gesture of subjective destitution—and this can entail acting differently. Only in this way, we exorcise not only its mythical kernel but also—and this is precisely what Sorel deemed impossible—its mythical shell, the attachment to the existing system as well as to the dominant forces of oppression at work in them. Comic fatalism is an attempt to turn us into “pitiless censors of ourselves”—a method of forcing us out of ourselves.[26] It endorses the unlikely comedy of Celan’s Münchausen-like imperative: “throw yourself // out of yourself.”[27] Fatalism emphasizes the preparatory element of emancipatory unbinding.[28] This is also why Abolishing Freedom speaks of preparation, not of revolution.[29]
  3. All this is to say, at least, that the assumption that there can (or will) be a revolution with a potentially positive outcome—and we just have to find the appropriate means—is clearly too optimist.[30] It is optimist in at least four senses: first, it believes that there will be a revolution; second, it believes that we will be the ones who are able to make it; third, we have all we need to do so, and even though it will first lead into a final catastrophe, we, fourthly, cannot but assume that with and through it, things will get better: Even if there will be nothing left, this nothing will be a better nothing. This is an elaborate theory of progress. This fourfold (of) optimism (the optimism of the future, of the subject, of its capacity, and of progress) should be rejected to get rid of what Sorel rightly sought but fell short of exorcising. To do so, it is rational to assume that there is right now no future and that there never will be anything worthy of that name. There is not and never will be a subject of emancipation, and if there were any subject it would be totally empty, which is why, if there ever were one, it would certainly not be capable of doing what we now presume it should be able to do. Therefore things will not get any better. Yet, it is calming to assume that they will also not get worse, as with these assumptions, the worst already took place. There is nothing to hope for but also, finally, nothing to fear—even though this can make us quite anxious.

  4. In all its preparatory guise—and part of this preparation is the insight that preparation is absolutely in vein, as it is a preparation for what one cannot prepare for and hence coincides with de-preparation—comic fatalism describes a philosophical and not political concept, even though it does have practical implications. Sorel’s pessimist stance aims to provide a frame for a political intervention, even though it borrows from essentially artistic resources: pessimism is tragedy turned into a political and practical orientation. Sorel’s pessimism vs. comic fatalism is a poetic-political position vs. a philosophical one—as the comic nature of fatalism does not lyricize the philosophical discourse. If “pessimism is a lyrical failure of philosophical thinking,”[31] and this failure is embodied in the rational recourse to an orientational myth, comic fatalism finds its medium neither in poetry nor in myth but traverses both. It consciously takes up and emphasizes a feature of modern rationalism (notably a form of determinism) to subtract the last bit of mythical givenness from the concept of freedom. But fatalism does not thereby succumb to a poetic, Hölderlinian myth of emancipation, endorsing the principle that where the danger lies, there also lies the rescue.[32] Rather it seeks to exorcise everything that needs to be exorcised to conceive of freedom in a non-mythical way. There is no readymade lyrical wisdom to rely on.

  5. Therefore, if one were to read Sorel’s pessimism as an attempt to prepare us for emancipation, its understanding of preparation is fundamentally different from that of rationalist fatalism. And not only is one dealing with two different understandings of what preparation is and of who is being prepared, but—as indicated—also what preparation is actually preparing for. Sorelian and fatalist preparation are two different means of relating the imaginary and the real.[33]
  6. This difference also manifests in a major methodological difference: rationalist and comic fatalism opposes what we can anachronistically describe as Sorel’s Marxist Heideggerianism. The bone of contention concerns Sorel’s claim that the emancipation is linked to resurrecting what has been forcefully forgotten. He seeks to bring back a solution from the past for the sake of building a new perspective on the future, whereas comic fatalism seeks to recall and repeat a transhistorical philosophical gesture for the sake of detaching us from a problematic presence and present of freedom and its immanent conception of time.

  7. Part of this is that comic fatalism thereby exorcises the belief that we would always already have a stable footing in and take on the present, simply because of its emergence from a past. Rather fatalism assumes the Hegelian insight that the only thing one can learn from history is that no one ever learned anything from history. There is thus no instructive and helpful past (solution) on which we could rely. The past does not invite us to assume the heart-warming perspective on so many unrealized and/or forgotten potentialities, potentialities that one might enjoy bemoaning. Rather it assumes that we are responsible for our own bondage, as long as we take freedom to be something we are endowed with and whose potential we can actualize or resurrect whenever. Fatalism thereby breaks with the understanding of temporality that has been put to work by contemporary capitalism wherein a mythical past is the only means we have for conceiving of a future—this comes out in the belief that capitalism existed since forever or is an almost natural condition of human conduct. Capitalism is an historical mode of production, which actually de-historicizes temporality and thereby itself. Conceiving of the future as repetition of the past is capitalism’s way of transforming the structure of temporality into the annihilation of that very temporality (by robbing time of one of its dimensions: the present). Fatalism seeks to annihilate this annihilation or, more trivially, just take it as its word and structure.

  8. The temporal orientation of the two respective projects is thus radically different. One identifies solutions in the past and seeks to resurrect them for a construction of the future, the other seeks to unfold the consequences, in and for the present, of the insight that the worst already happened and not even time (and certainly not history) is on our side or something we could rely on.[34] A Heideggerian framework, even in its Sorelian rendering, will only redouble the present deadlock of being stuck in the repetition of the past as future and vice versa.[35] Even though both projects oppose problematic versions of historicity, the main enemy of rationalist fatalism is less the idea of progress—comic fatalists are endorsing an (anti-)progressive worsening—but a model of historical transformation that privileges the future as a time in which something given (a capacity that we always already have) is realized. The future as time of liberation and freedom. This is to say that rationalist fatalism is (structurally) modern, whereas pessimism is avowedly structurally Greek. The problem that the former addresses is a decidedly modern problem—not one that co-emerged with the origin of western history, but with the dominant form of organizing our society through the signifier “freedom.” It was this problem that in different forms was pointedly identified by rationalist thinkers from Descartes onwards up to Marx. It is a modern problem because it is intimately linked to the specifically modern form of organizing society: capitalism.[36] If the problem is modern, one should reject the fantasy of solving it by returning to some lost and obfuscated origin. If there can be a preparation for solving it, it must also be rigidly modern.

  9. All this proves finally that rationalist fatalism can essentially not be tragic. This is already the case because it does not rely on any transcendental structure, but is rather concerned with the breaking up, the doing away with (and implicitly coming to be) of transcendental structure—whereas tragedy epitomizes the transcendentality of structure. Tragic structuralism, structural tragedism transcendentalizes failure. Comic fatalism is not a transcendental position. It does not even take failure as stable coordinate or constant. When we get to failure, we have something to work with. Not even failure?

  10. As Abolishing Freedom argues, fatalism as construable from the history of modern rationalism is in its very constitution and proceedings comic, by forcing the transcendental structure of tragedy beyond itself into a collapse, by leaving behind even the givenness of the human condition, of history, or of tragedy itself for that matter. Comedy emerges precisely at the point where tragedy is pushed beyond its own limits. This also means that tragedy, especially when it is elevated (or essentialized) into the defining feature of the human condition or of history, is structurally too optimist—since it is at least this very condition that we can nonetheless and always rely on. Which is also why in ancient tragedies, after the tragic disappearance of the hero or heroine, things—in the community—(almost) always go back to normal. Comedy begins when we arrive at a point where this latent structural optimism of tragedy breaks down, a point where its transcendental form of tragedy itself cracks by being internally related back onto itself, a point where historicity proper arises. Rationalist fatalism does thus not resurrect a given form of practice and seek to mobilize it for a new performance (of freedom), but it insists on the comic afformative dimension of freedom.[37] This means to assume that one does not have anything, not even nothing, at one’s disposal. There is less than nothing to begin with, and this is why the (comic) axiom of rationalist fatalism is that “there is no there is.”

 

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[1] See Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” Selected Writings, Vol. 1: 1913-1926 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 236-252.

[2] Mussolini liked Sorel and considered himself a disciple of the latter—but only as long as he remained a (rather unread and naïve) Marxist. This changed from 1911 onward.

[3] Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). All further page references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

[4] The first constitutes a new (political and) legal system, the second is used to defend it. For law therefore to be lawful, this fact must be warded off. Law needs violence to preserve itself and seeks to violently make people forget the violence at its foundation. Any violent transformation of the law falls into the same trap: it can only destroy the system by repeating the very same dynamics. How to break this circle? Benjamin’s answer is by means of a different type of violence that does not constitute a novel system, but that rather destitutes it; a violence that does not posit [setzen] a new law [Gesetz], but effectuates the appalling, degrading, horrifying [entsetzend] de- or dis-position [Entsetzung] of law itself. In detecting this way out, Benjamin believes “that Sorel touches not merely on a cultural-historical but also on a metaphysical truth” (Benjamin, “Critique”, 249).

[5] Sorel’s vision is apocalyptic in the sense that Lawrence once assigned to the imagery of the apocalypse: “If it is imagery, it is imagery which cannot be imagined” (D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse [London: Penguin 1974], 7).

[6] To be fair, Sorel can rely on the famous passage from the Manifesto where Marx himself talks about “times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour [Entscheidung]” (Karl Marx  and Frederik Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/; accessed April 2020.

[7] It is important to remark here that this is a different critique than the critique that one finds in Rousseau—civilization as such is problematic—or pre-Marxian left-wing Rousseauism, as in Fourier—mankind did embark on an essentially problematic journey and progress is rather decay. For the latter, see Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 16-48.

[8] Georges Sorel, The Illusions of Progress (Berkeley / London: University of California Press, 1969), 152. One may see this as Sorel’s version of Schmitt’s famous thesis that liberalism replaced politics with ethics (and economics). See Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Here, liberalism replaced (practical) orientation with optimist disorientation. This analysis may have some contemporary value.

[9] Even though optimism (as a general belief system) is a result of the bourgeois belief in progress and progress is an invention of the eighteenth century, for Sorel there were already individual optimists before there was generalized bourgeois optimism. In a charmingly evil way, he writes for example that “Socrates was at times optimistic to an unbearable degree” (Sorel, Reflections, 8). He develops this idea in his early text (with an almost Badiousian title): Georges Sorel, Le Procés de Socrate (Paris: Akan, 1889). Optimism is an historical invention but can be retroactively recognized in the history before its invention (obviously only after its invention).

[10] Even today, pessimism is mostly taken to be “a philosophy of personal conduct,” i.e., a version of individualism; see Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 7.

[11] When the former irrational (science) fiction (of reality) became reality and the formerly crazy wishes appeared realist, i.e., to be (potentially) satisfiable.

[12] Sorel refers to this as the incorrect use of the term pessimism (Reflections, 9). For a historical account of some resuscitation attempts, see Frederick C. Beiser, Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[13] Althusser will argue that there occurs a shift within the general constellation of ideological state apparatuses, a move from the predominance of the church to that of the educational system, both trying to ensure the reign of the bourgeoisie (Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” On Ideology [London: Verso, 2008], 27 and passim). Sorel also indicates this shift.

[14] A little later Protestantism also made its pact with capitalism and gave birth to Calvinism—and the latter even made it seem as if it were identical to original Protestantism, i.e., Lutheranism (which it was not); see Frank Ruda, Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), chapter 1; and Felix Ensslin, Entbehrung des Absoluten: Luther mit Lacan (unpublished manuscript, 2009). Here, Sorel seems to be in line with Luther—and with Lenin’s later hostility to Max Weber’s famous thesis—in assuming that bourgeois ideology is fundamentally not protestant but at first essentially Catholic (even if then obviously later Calvinist).

[15] To make this more explicit: the idea of institutions of re-education is (for Sorel) primarily a bourgeois and not a leftist invention.

[16] For this see Frank Ruda, Indifferenz und Wiederholung. Freiheit in der Moderne (Konstanz: Konstanz University Press, 2018).

[17] It is overall remarkable that in some of his reflections Sorel is close to Freud. For example, similar to Freud’s determination of the dream as a specific form of wish-fulfilment, for Sorel parliamentary democracy is a compromise solution where one gets a kind of hallucinatory fulfilment of one’s desire for equality and freedom that—and this is the main problem—disguises itself as the real thing. Yet, Sorel’s inspiration came from Eduard von Hartmann who wrote a book in 1869 called the Philosophy of the Unconscious in which he defended a pessimism along the lines of Schopenhauer (a thinker who Freud also esteemed highly).

[18] In an again almost Heideggerian fashion Sorel believes that at the Greek origins of Western culture and thought there lies a thought (tragedy) that has been (forcibly) forgotten and we need to return to it (by converting to pessimism)—as if the motto is: where there is no rescue, there lies the rescue.

[19] For the productive nature of complaining and its link to subjectivity, see Aaron Schuster, The Trouble with Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2016), esp. chapter 1.

[20] One might here even identify an almost Hegelian insight (which is the point of view from which he writes his Philosophy of Right): as soon as one can grasp a social and historical situation in its conceptual entirety this is an index that it is already past, gone, and about to collapse. Sorel transforms this into the following position: if a social-political state (of a situation) is still forcefully intact, what one can do is to create the fiction that it is already gone.

[21] This is why for Sorel in the Christian tradition Jesus had to die. And also why “in primitive Christianity we find a fully developed and completely armed pessimism” (Reflections, 13).

[22] To address an obvious counter-argument directly: if any kind of myth of the given has to be avoided, is there not also a myth of the non-given (as Adrian Johnston pointedly remarked)? In my understanding, myths of the non-given are ultimately myths of the given (as they take the non-givenness as given and thus must indeed be rejected); see Adrian Johnston, “Reflections of a Rotten Nature: Hegel, Lacan, and Material Negativity,” Filozofski Vestnik 33.2 (2012), 23-52.

[23] This is a formula coined by Aaron Schuster in The Trouble with Pleasure (4 and passim).

[24] Andrew Cutrofello, “But Wait—It Gets Worse: On Frank Ruda’s Abolishing Freedom,Provocations 1 (2017), 10; https://www.provocationsbooks.com/2017/01/31/1-2cutrofello/.

[25] A common-sense reproach to contemporary brain science is that, independent from what this science tells us about us being determined in multiple ways, we nevertheless experience all our conduct as self-determined and free. Surprisingly, it is precisely on this level of experience that we encounter the ideology of freedom. One should not trust what you immediately cannot but believe (and sometimes one must trust what one would not believe twice).

[26] Alain Badiou, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” Lacanian Ink 22; http://www.lacan.com/issue22.php; accessed April 2020.

[27] Paul Celan, “Wurfscheibe,” Lichtzwang (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994), 86.

[28] Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit depicts from within the processes at work in such an unbinding whose maximal form is, as is well-known, absolute knowing. I have developed this in detail elsewhere. The political implication of this becomes apparent if one recalls Badiou’s claim that the “the State is not founded upon the social bond, which it would express, but rather upon un-binding, which it prohibits” (Alain Badiou, Being and Event [London: Continuum, 2006], 109).

[29] Obviously, the danger of such preparation is that one goes on endlessly, unless, of course, as comic fatalism claims, the end did already take place.

[30] Instructive here is the absolute fatalism, or if you prefer, realism—often critically denounced as apocalypticism—of Mike Davis; see, for example: Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2007).

[31] Eugene Thacker, Cosmic Pessimism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 3.

[32] For further critical thoughts on the “Hölderlin paradigm” of emancipation, see Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso, 2015), 344 and passim.

[33] Fatalism aims at the real of the imaginary (that enchains us into a certain conception of freedom), whereas Sorel aims at mythically imagining the real. For this also see Alenka Zupančič’s Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan (London: Verso, 2012).

[34] This entails that if there ever could be a past that is of any use for the present, it must be constructed as part of a newly construed present. But “only a person who has the power to tear themselves loose from themselves […] is capable of creating a past for themselves,” as Schelling already knew; see F.W.F. Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Jason M. Wirth (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), 42. Otherwise, comic fatalism is in line with Hegel’s claim that “we must not expect to find the questions of our consciousness and the interests of the present world responded to by the ancients” (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Greek Philosophy to Plato [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995], 45).

[35] I say this in awareness of two facts: 1. that Sorel himself might have come up with a different strategy were he to have lived in our present condition; 2. irrespective of any consideration whether taking Sorel as an impossible reader of Heidegger implies a productive interpretation of Heidegger, since one could also take into account Heidegger’s (tragically) fatalist slogan that only a God can save us because it implies that, without us acknowledging it, (things are so irreparably damaged that) we are already dead and who else would have the power to resurrect us (even though God does not yet exist)—late Heidegger is in this respect like the philosophical version of the movie The Sixth Sense.

[36] Even though this may have immediate repercussions for the broader discussion if what needs to be done is an exit of the “Neolithic age” or not. See Alain Badiou, “On the Russian October Revolution of 1917,” in Crisis and Critique, Vol. 4, Issue 2, 12-23; https://crisiscritique.org/2017/november/Alain%20Badiou.pdf; accessed August 2020.

[37] See Werner Hamacher, “Afformative, Strike,” Cardozo Law Review 13 (1991-1992), 1133-1158.

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