From Catastrophic Messianism to Comic Fatalism – Part II

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

 

Part II. Kantian Problems? On Alenka Zupančič’s “The End”

Against this background, let me finally turn to my inquisitors. I will pass through the individual counter-provocations and address some of the points that I take to be most pointed or brutally correct, marking a serious need for clarification. I will begin with Alenka Zupančič’s “light philosophical side dish,”[1] which is ultimately not overly light after all, since it is true that things often and surprisingly only show their true face when looked at with a sideways glance, with a biased and one-sided perspective. Her text represents a multifaceted register of different types of how to end things, and of how to avoid doing so. And, this obviously hits the mark spot on.

Zupančič conceives of the ideology of freedom that I attack as being derived from an inversion of Kant’s famous “you must, therefore you can” into “you can, therefore you must.” Such an inversion problematically assumes freedom to be an always already given capacity to act in this or that way. Not only does this mean that we always can act freely, it also furnishes the assumed given capacity with a super-egoic dimension (with an—ethical—obligation). With ownership comes responsibility. Against this background, she draws critical attention to the series of “as if” imperatives that I propose at the end of each chapter of Abolishing Freedom as a concentrated point of orientation, as condensation of the previous elaborations. Examples of this are: “Act as if the apocalypse has already happened!,” “act as if you are an inexistent woman!” and the like. Immediately these slogans—or, more precisely, provisory moral rules—sound Kantian. And they thus seem to come with Kantian problems, as not only Zupančič but also, from a different perspective, Aaron Schuster (to whose comments I will return below) remarks. What is at stake here is not a matter of general philosophical classification (are those slogans rather Platonist or Kantian or Freudian, etc.?). Rather the potential suspicion is that they are Kantian in essence, and this means that the rationalist fatalist may be confronted with pitfalls like those that arose from the formulations of the Kantian imperative.

To be more concrete: If I want to stop smoking—this is Zupančič‘s example—“how do I actually get to act as if I have already stopped?”[2] How do I practically apply rationalist, comic fatalism? Or, in a more technical language: what generates the Triebfeder, the actual incitement that makes me comply with and adopt any of these “as if” imperatives; what makes me act as if I already stopped smoking? Because when I do act as if I had already stopped, I will actually have stopped (and hence there is no “as if”). As soon as the “as if” becomes practically effective it disappears. To reformulate the criticism that I see implied in Zupančič’s question: Ruda, are you not committing a petitio principii? You are assuming that we can apply these imperatives and thus you are taking the very position that you want to attack, notably you think that we always already can do what you ask us to do and that there is thus now an ethical obligation derivable from it. In short, the resource for my attack is the very position I attack. And if this were not the case, how to explain the practical effectivity of any of those at first sight purely theoretical imperatives? What is it that makes the adaptation of this orientational principle (practically) effective? Furthermore, and here things get worse, the political and practical implications of this will ultimately identify me as a Vaihingerian interpreter of Kant, that is, as someone whose position is fully adaptable by the capitalist framework, by the very comprehension of freedom I set out to criticize. If my position were Vaihingerian then it would be always already hijacked in advance by the very dynamic I attempt to abolish. But am I a Vaihingerian?[3]

Well, the expectable answer is: no, I am not. But I can only argue for this by making things worse, three times. Why? 1) Because I endorse the idea that what I am suggesting is precisely not immediately practically effective, but rather makes a particular formal(ist) point. This is why all “as if” imperatives I use do border on the absurd or, more precisely, on what cannot but appear impossible, and try to give it a form. They seem in this sense to be free of positive content (without being prohibitions). And 2) this seems to make things even worse, since in many contemporary debates Kant’s, especially ethical, position is often considered to be problematically formalist.[4] But, as already the early Hegel criticized Kant, the problem is rather that his position is never formal enough but secretly imbued with content.[5] My argument for using the form of the imperatives is ultimately Hegelian in the following sense: the “as if” imperatives I chose do have a particular content, notably specific negations of content, or more precisely: specific contents that appear impossible as orientational maxims, that affirm points that appear impossible to follow. The reason for this is that the “as if” slogans I use are all situation-specific—I derive them from the history of philosophy for a time in which freedom became a signifier of disorientation (and thus of obscure and obscured oppression). The aim is to thereby bring out a transhistorical validity in the philosophical positions I discuss in the book (for times when freedom became a signifier of oppression). In different terms: it is not the “act as if you were already X” form that is the crux of my argument, but the specific X it is about.

As soon as we transform the specific X or abstract from it, it seems to me, we transform the nature of the slogans. I am here emphasizing the situation-specific indication of points of impossibility, because I do not contend, and argue in the book, that these slogans form the ultimate corpus of a universally applicable ethics or would offer the basic coordinates of a general theory of action. These are rather provisory and moral rules that seek to locate what appears to be specifically impossible in times Badiou refers to as intervallic [temps intervallaire]—times, in which reactionary and obscure ideologies appropriate (or dismiss and attack) whatever signifier might once have had an emancipatory potential.[6]

But I do also agree with the libidinal economic subtext of this question, notably: does knowing that we are not free practically help us to leave behind our attachment to the very form of freedom that we want to believe in? Since sometimes it is precisely knowing something to be the case that makes it difficult to practically realize it. Does what Abolishing Freedom attempts to do have the power to effectively change the belief that we know not to be true?  These questions problematize whether the slogans do assume there to be a subject that already knows and is willing to follow them. But is this so—for if the subject would be ready to follow them, why would it need the slogans? Also, my position does not seem to account for the very structure of fetishistic disavowal at work in the contemporary practices of freedom (i.e., it therefore does not prove sufficiently apt to counter the “ideology of freedom”). And of course, there is a gamble here. Abolishing Freedom seeks to take up the split constitutive of the economic grammar of fetishistic disavowal (I know very well, but all the same) and attempts to forcefully exaggerate a point of impossibility—or truth—in the very knowledge that fetishistic disavowal brackets, so that from this point, the disavowing brackets might explode. It emphasizes the actual impossibility—taking up the classical distinction of potential and actual infinity, I do not emphasize potential but actual impossibility—at the root of any true concept of freedom. Freedom is nothing we could ever have at our disposal, could ever own. The orientational slogans in their respective ways articulate and emphasize this actual impossibility (which is why it is quite difficult, actually impossible to just follow them).

In this spirit, Abolishing Freedom presents a provisory morality composed of concrete universal “as ifs” for times in which “freedom” became a signifier, if not of direct oppression, at least of disorientation, a buzzword. And therefore, I agree: “we do not arrive at concrete freedom simply by rejecting/abolishing the abstract freedom”—something Abolishing Freedom did not mean to claim in any way—“but by saying no to a concrete existence of abstract freedom,” notably to the problematic form of freedom as given (and/or natural) capacity in its different manifestations.[7] But we say “no” to this concrete existence of freedom in the form of a series of concrete universal, impossible provisory orientational rules. For, what unites all of them—and this is not an arbitrary feature—is that they, in Lutheran spirit, confront anyone willing to follow them with the impossibility of doing so. This impossibility seems to me to be quite different from the impossibility I encounter when I am trying to stop smoking (even though this may also appear to me to be undoable as long as I am still smoking). The crucial difference lies in the fact that the moral provisory rules are essentially concrete and universal, necessary, yet impossible at the same time. One must follow them—they are necessary to break with the problematic concept of freedom—yet one can’t (which is how they make us aware that freedom is nothing we have at our disposal): they articulate points of impossibility. We must act accordingly, we cannot act accordingly, we will act accordingly. This is not another version of a—Levinasian—impossible-demand story (that would tell us that at the ground of any ethics there lies a demand of an Other that is so primordially other that we will never be able to meet what she/he/it demands from us no matter what we do). Rather—and this is what makes them concretely universal—these demands are related to a concrete situation wherein a specific understanding of freedom, abstract freedom, dominates that needs to be negated (that is: freedom as capacity).[8] In this sense, the specific grounding of the argument and its designated target is essential for the constitution of these slogans.[9]

In complete accordance with Zupančič’s claim that the problem inherent to the problematic understandings of freedom cannot be translated into a simple opposition between potentiality and actuality of freedom, my argument is thus that finding a point of impossibility might provide a provisional orientation—precisely because it does not (immediately) translate into practice, yet it is not simply non-sensical, either. It might force us to think (freedom differently). The ”as if” rules are therefore localization-attempts of points of impossibility starting from which one might begin dismantling the metaphysical assumption of givenness of freedom. So, it is not about ending (or stopping) in general, but rather about the concrete problem that the metaphysics of the givenness of freedom poses.[10] In this sense, the slogans are Kantian only insofar as Kant was a Lutheran. But ultimately, they are rather Hegelian, in the sense in which Hegel uses an “as if” at the very end of the Phenomenology—in the section on absolute knowing—where he claims that: “Spirit has to start afresh,” and apparently from its own resources, “to bring itself to maturity as if, for it, all that preceded were lost and it had learned nothing…”—which itself has quite a fatalist ring to it.[11] Spirit in Hegel can rejuvenate itself, can only constitute itself as spirit, when it engages in a practice of active forgetting. How do we commence to actively forget? It is a paradoxical task, as the more we try, the more we fail. Active forgetting is also not in our power. It is obviously an impossible task, yet at the same time absolutely necessary. Necessary for what? To conceive of what it means to start anew (or at all). In short, this means that in the Phenomenology we not only unlearn all we take for granted or take to be given but also have to learn that we are not simply able to unlearn. This means to reach a point where it is as if we learned nothing (that could for example and actually incite us to follow one of the provisory slogans); but this fundamental unlearning, a peculiar release or kenosis, is the self-annihilating yet necessary precondition for a commencement of the freedom of thought (depicted in the subsequent Logic and springing from a kind of unconscious decision).[12] More practically speaking, you can only be a communist if you—act as if you—learned nothing from the history of failures of communism (even though at the same time you must have learned enough not to repeat the same mistakes—one must be ready to create mistakes of a whole new kind).

For Hegel, such an “as if” is inscribed into the very constitution of subjectivity (i.e., absolute knowing) that confronts us with what we previously would have deemed impossible (or even continue to do so). Hegel takes up and modifies the Lutheran conception of the function of God’s commandments that, according to Luther, is able to make us aware and conscious of our own incapacity and thus deprived status—and one might herein even see an anamnestic function of almost Platonic, but slightly more materialist form. The commandments are able to do so because they constantly confront us with something that is impossible to realize and that we nonetheless do have to follow. But they do not, as in Calvinism, which herein is perfectly adaptable by capitalism, encourage us constantly to try better or feel guilty no matter what we do anyhow.[13] They confront us with our own impotence and raise it to a point of impossibility—an impossibility that in the end for Hegel, who here is more radical than Luther, is constituted when there is a coincidence of two incapacities: not only our own but also God’s, i.e., the Other’s. And raising an impotence to a point of impossibility is one definition of psychoanalytic cure.

There is thus a distinction between formally possible and impossible “as ifs”—and if truth clearly has the structure of fiction, the question is, which kind of fiction are we dealing with? The “as if” of fatalism must be an impossible one. Yet, an impossibility in this pointed sense comes with an historical index. Which is why I fully endorse the slogan that Zupančič adds to my list of orientation guidelines, notably: the world will surely end, but it won’t be the end of our troubles.[14] The end is not—and maybe never—a solution, otherwise comic fatalism could claim to be more than just provisory. Some ends actually might make things even worse—Wolfgang Streeck has recently formulated an argument along these lines: capitalism might actually be approaching and bringing about its own catastrophic end, but this will not open up the path to socialism, communism, or emancipation. Rather, this will lead to a universalization of the “zonages” (Badiou), of zones in which we no longer find any legitimized political agents but, rather, encounter temporarily stable, aggregate forms of more or less violent administration that do not obey or act according to any universalizable principles or rules.[15]

Being aware of this fact, neither comic fatalism nor any of its “as if” orientational rules is able to offer in advance solutions for the concrete problems we encounter when we start acting. But comic fatalism, by forcing us to think points of impossibility, allows us to start conceiving of an appropriate conception of action, including its starting points—without giving us guidelines or incentives to act. Comic fatalism rather allows us to make a difference (between real action and pseudo-actions derived from an ideological misunderstanding of freedom) by locating potential impossible sites for action. The collected rules of orientation thus do not form a practical manual but present a collection of points of impossibility that we might start turning into a line (of demarcation—that enables us to discriminate all the problematic ways in which we should not conceive of freedom and its realization). It is in this very sense that the whole book describes itself as preparatory; it makes its points and seeks to help to draw a line. It thereby does not directly solve our troubles but does delineate how not to. And this is more than nothing. We do not know what to do, but the situation may change when we become ready to admit this—which is far more difficult to do than one would like to believe (and actually might help to make the move from knowledge as part of the problem to ignorance as part of the solution).[16]

This does not commit me to defending the idea that comic fatalism is all about interpretation, but it endorses the idea that we first have to dash our conception of the world and our place within it to pieces.[17] It commits me to the claim that to conceive of any form of change, one of the conceptual fundaments of change, freedom, must be fundamentally revisited. For freedom must hold: where there was freedom as capacity, there shall become freedom as result. The comic move of fatalism consists, in a first step, in losing what we don’t have (freedom) so that we get what we never wanted; we become able to do what appears impossible when we are forced to. Its wit lies in confronting us with the abyss of unfreedom, so that we are forced to see that it is (only through working with and through the) impossible (that we might be able) to continue.[18]

To add another remark in passing: Raising the question of how to adopt an “as if” orientation that at the same time you know you are unable to realize, because it appears impossible to adopt practically anyway, in my understanding, closely connects the question of the very constitution of a Triebfeder to the concept of courage.[19] For example, it takes courage to admit that one does not know what to do and courage is always courage to do something that appears impossible. But this might be a very valid starting point (and actually is more than just saying that one does not know what to do—simply because politically the majority still pretends that they somehow know what to do or at least know someone who knows) and if we know that we do not know what to do, this is more than nothing. Courage is, to my mind, the concept that allows for an answer to how that which does seem impossible to ever become practically effective becomes, through the mediation of subjects, practically effective. Although this is not something Abolishing Freedom dealt with, it is a question that could not be more central to the overall project. I assume one must develop the idea of a courage to be a fatalist.[20] And this is a point that has already been convincingly argued for by Zupančič.[21] I will in the near future follow her on this path.[22]

 

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[1] Alenka Zupančič, “The End,” Provocations Issue 1 (2016); https://www.provocationsbooks.com/2016/10/31/the-end/.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Hans Vaihinger wrote his famous, nowadays mostly unread, book in 1911; see Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of As If (London: Routledge, 2008). One problem with his position is that it problematically psychologizes Kant so that “the idea of freedom and freedom itself are transformed into a fiction and as such, as an ‘As If’, they necessarily lose the absolute validity they ought to have (Theodor W. Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-65 [London: Polity, 2006], 244).

[4] A possible rendering of this is the following: because the categorical imperative is too formal and does not tell us concretely what we must do in this or that situation, whatever content we choose, we are radically responsible for it—this is Kant’s anti-Eichmannian twist—yet this obviously increases the super-egoic pressure even more, so that the more we obey the categorical imperative, the more it demands from us; the more we obey, the guiltier we become.

[5] Hegel argues that if I choose a particular maxim that does not contradict the formal framework of Kant’s imperative, this may nonetheless lead to contradictory consequences. His example of such a maxim is: Always help the poor! This does comply with Kant’s form of the imperative, yet if this maxim becomes a universal law, poverty will be abolished and the maxim itself will become meaningless. This is to say that there is content inscribed into what appears to be just a formal principle; see G. W. F. Hegel, Natural Law: The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T. M. Knox (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 80.

[6] See, for example, Alain Badiou, “Épilogue,” Autour de Logiques des mondes d’Alain Badiou, ed. David Rabouin, Oliver Feltham, Lissa Lincoln (Paris: Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2011), 188.

[7] Zupančič, “The End,” 6.

[8] As Cutrofello rightly points out: each of these imperatives exhibits a strategy of “Reculez pour mieux sauter” (“But Wait,” 14)—and in precisely this aspect they are de facto close to the structure of the “enlightened catastrophism” of Jean-Pierre Dupuy; see Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme eclairé: Quand l’impossible est certain (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

[9] Again put differently: It is a provisory morality for intermediary times—of freedom as signifier of disorientation—and not a transcendental argument about the structure of freedom as such, and to me this seems to be a crucial difference. Lenin, for example, nicely argued that “freedom” and “equality” should only be referred to when a fundamental revolution of the basic coordinates of society will have taken place. As long as this did not happen, these signifiers cannot but have a deceptive effect on people: “if freedom runs counter to the emancipation of labour from the yoke of capital, it is a deception,” a “freedom on paper, but not in fact.” This is why “their ‘freedom’ must be abolished, or curtailed” (V.I. Lenin, “First All-Russia Congress on Adult Education,” Collected Works, Vol. 29 [Moscow: Progress, 1972], 351 and passim).

[10] In this sense, a book on the dominant problematic renderings of “equality” would look quite different.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 492; my emphasis.

[12] Cf. Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, The DashThe Other Side of Absolute Knowing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018).

[13] For this, see also the brief chapter on Calvin in Ernst Bloch, Thomas Münzer: Als Theologe der Revolution (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1967), 135 and passim.

[14] Zupančič, “The End,” 9.

[15] Cf. Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (London: Verso, 2017).

[16] In another text Zupančič makes this point beautifully by claiming that “apocalypse is already here […] The problem is that, for the most part, we haven’t yet accepted that this change is already operative—we still think of the world as pre-apocalyptic, we are expecting the catastrophe, are afraid of it, and hope that perhaps it won’t happen” (Alenka Zupančič, “The Apocalypse is (still) disappointing”, in: S: Journal of the Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique, 10 & 11 [2017-18], 26). She also convincingly claims: “‘the courage of the hopeless,’” the courage to admit that we don’t have a solution and that there is none visible on the horizon. Instead, we would quite literally ‘rather die’ than admit this” (ibid). In a similar vein, Adorno once stated that one should conceive of subjectivity as an error—the error to exist at all—but we would rather die before we would be ready to admit this.

[17] For this argument, see again Comay and Ruda, The Dash.

[18] As Žižek put it: “I am free when I ‘feel like a slave’—that is to say, the feeling of being enslaved already bears witness to the fact that, in the core of my subjectivity, I am free; only when my position of enunciation is that of a free subject can I experience my servitude as an abomination. Thus we have here two versions of the Möbius strip reversal: if we follow capitalist freedom to the end it turns into the very form of servitude, and if we want to break away from capitalist servitude volontaire our assertion of freedom again has to assume the form of its opposite, of voluntarily serving a Cause” (Žižek, Like a Thief in Broad Daylight, 239).

[19] Žižek has also pointed in this direction; see Slavoj Žižek, The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously (London: Penguin, 2018).

[20] This is linked to Heidegger’s claim that to make the move into a proper anxiety, one needs “the courage to be anxious”; but this is also a modification of Tillich’s claim that it takes “courage to be.” I will argue, it takes courage to see that not even being is a given.

[21] See again, Zupančič, “The Apocalypse is (still) disappointing,” 26 and passim.

[22] One of my reference points for this project will be—again: can it get any worse?—Heidegger, who formulated a complex theory of courage [Mut] that has not yet been systematically reconstructed (to the best of my knowledge) —although Brecht, Danton, Lenin, Nietzsche, Hegel and others will also play a major role.

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