From Catastrophic Messianism to Comic Fatalism – Part V

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


Part V. Excrementalism? From Hobbes to Maradona: On Andrew Pendakis’ “Dialectics of Determinism”

This is the point where I’d like to turn to the reply of Andrew Pendakis, who painted a charming tableau of conceptual snares and pitfalls that he identifies in my position and that are set up to make fatalism comically stumble, fall and break its neck, I guess. I will try to fail the best I can in responding to some of the issues he brings up. The first and quite crucial one concerns the genealogy of the situation in and against which Abolishing Freedom argues for the use of fatalism. I—in an intentionally exaggerated mimicry of Heidegger—present Aristotle (and Aristotelianism, especially in its contemporary and unconscious variants) as the main culprit of a profound and influential misunderstanding of freedom whose name is indifference. Pendakis sees Hobbes at the very origin of what he refers to, not, as Dupuy once did, as “supermarket-freedom,” but nicely as “metaphysics of the shopper.”[1] To slightly raise the stakes in this battle of genealogies, I want to add four remarks of clarification:

  1. I do not think it is a coincidence that Descartes was the first within the history of modern philosophy—the first because he was its inaugurator—to offer an analysis of indifference as what he identified as the “lowest grade of freedom,” an empty form of freedom in which freedom is practically (in both senses of the term) absent; the state of the lowest actuality of freedom.[2] Descartes—already an antagonist of Aristoteles’s philosophy because from a certain point on he faced the problem that in the Netherlands all philosophies except that of Aristotle, including his own, were prohibited by the Utrecht senate[3]—saw “indifference” as an outcome inter alia of Suárez’s position, which sought to mediate between Scotus and Ockham by recourse to Aquinas.[4] Whatever this means in detail, Descartes identified therein an attempt to formulate an actualized, contemporary version of Aristotelianism. The historical and economico-political situation Descartes was thinking in—so, the starkly developing capitalism—was obviously so compatible with classical and updated Aristotelianism that it is difficult not to assume that there must be some relation, to put it in most direct and reductive terms: between economic base and anthropological and cosmological discourses in the super-structure.[5] Descartes identified Aristotelianism as one of the main ideological schools of thought that stand in the way not only of certainty—by being dogmatically metaphysical—but (thereby) also of freedom.[6]
  2. Recently Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback has pointedly observed that capitalism resembles the Aristotelian unmoved mover around whom everything turns, but which—like the Aristotelian God—is so self-satisfied that it does not move a single bit.[7] If capitalism in this sense can be called structurally Aristotelian—and even if this might be a reification of Aristotle—does it truly sound so off to suspect Aristotelianism of being (almost, if this additional exaggeration makes any sense, metaphysically) capitalist?
  3. But it is not only Descartes (and Schuback) who attacks Aristotle and Aristotelianism as positions that imply a problematic conception not only of the cosmos and of human beings within it but also of freedom. It is also, before Descartes, Luther. The aim of the first chapter of Abolishing Freedom—a reconstruction of the conceptual stakes and coordinates of the harsh debate between Erasmus and Luther—is thus threefold: it is not only, firstly, to demonstrate that ultimately it is a debate about the very concept of freedom (in religion) but, secondly, that this debate is able to shed a light on Max Weber’s famous reading of the protestant ethics and its function within the formation of the spirit of capitalism, notably—as Weber clearly saw—that Luther is not the culprit of formulating the ethical framework of capitalism, but that this is rather Calvin (who believed that there can be earthly signs that give us an indication regarding our salvational stati). Yet, Luther attacked Erasmus precisely for turning religion into capitalism and the philosophical name behind this transformation—thus what is attacked in Luther’s attack on Erasmus—is scholasticism, and this means—in a very abbreviated manner again—Aristotelianism.[8] As Luther already argued in 1517 in the 97 theses that constitute his “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology”: “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace”; “It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle… Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle”; or: “Even the more useful definitions of Aristotle seem to beg the question.”[9] What is Aristotelian in Erasmus (as in many Scholastics)? An oblivion of difference, an assumption of continuity and cooperation; in short: an ontological belief or a belief in ontological cooperativity (and sameness) between man and God. But God is—pace Joan Osborne—not one of us, obeying the same ethical orientations and norms. Aristotelians replace real and absolute difference with an ideology of continuity and measurement—since how to measure without continuity?[10]—and thereby produce an obfuscation of real difference. If Luther is fundamentally anti-Aristotelian, how could Kant and Hegel not be? Did Hegel not famously state: “We Lutherans—I am one and I want to remain one—only have this original belief”?[11] This is the overall background against which I believe to be justified to construct an “Aristotle / Aristotelianism” as the emblematic epitome of the practically influential ideology of freedom.[12]
  4. Almost twenty years ago, Giorgio Agamben, endowed with the rare gift of turning around whole traditions of thought with a—quite laborious—stroke of the pen, presented a reading of Hobbes that not only opposes that of Pendakis but also thereby brings Hobbes much closer to the fatalistic rationalist project of Abolishing Freedom than one might have anticipated.[13] Starting from a detailed analysis of the political implication of the representative frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan, Agamben raises a question that was raised once before by Carl Schmitt, notably why the book is called Leviathan after all? Contrary to those who argued that Hobbes was simply unaware of the negative connotations of this name, Schmitt claimed it was rather an expression of “the English sense of humour”—so there is some kind of comic dimension to this book—for which Hobbes at the same time paid quite a high price (very unintended comic fatalism, if you wish). Because with the title he conjured a kind of “heartless demon who will deliver him into the hands of his enemies.”[14] Schmitt here refers to all the interpretations that identify the Leviathan with the Antichrist. Agamben’s stroke of genius now lies in bringing together this eschatological perspective on the Leviathan wherein it was identified with the “man of anomia,” the outlaw or the lawless, by the Church fathers, with the third part of Hobbes’ book. This part is rarely taken account in renderings of Hobbes, because it is entitled “Of a Christian Common-Wealth” and does not fit the prominent image of Hobbes as thinker of the modern conservative state.[15] Agamben’s point is the following: if the third book of the Leviathan entails the principles of Hobbes’ “Christian politics,”[16] and if therefore Hobbes’ political theology of the modern state must be read eschatologically, it comes in handy that there is a crucial reference in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, in which he describes a dramatic eschatological battle between the Messiah and someone who is referred to as “man of lawlessness,” as “the son of destruction.”[17] So, Hobbes—as a Christian politician—must have known this.

This means that Hobbes’ state “cannot in any way have the function of a power that restrains and holds back the end of time,” as the standard reading of Hobbes suggests; rather it “coincides with the very eschatological beast which must be annihilated at the end of time.”[18] What does this mean? It means that Hobbes’ theory of the state that became a modern paradigm is actually profoundly different from what was assumed by the moderns. It does not give us a normative account of a stable state against the incoherent mob from which it is formed; it rather indicates that we have reached the end of times and that the final battle is not simply—as with Sorel—at the horizon, but that we are already fighting it. Worse, we are in it, but we are not even aware that we are or should be fighting it, and therefore we are losing it, since we have even become unable to identify our enemy—the state—and therefore also unable to identify what we do—fight. The apocalypse for Agamben’s Hobbes already happened, and for Agamben no one noticed it until now (Agamben did). The beauty of this reading is that it turns Hobbes into a surprising ally of fatalism: he announced the coming apocalypse or rather identified the end of time, the final battle; but the apocalypse was so unexpectedly bad that it went unrecognized. And worse: its promulgation was taken to be the normative philosophical theory of the very state that the announcer identified as the first and last rider of the apocalypse. And it is precisely this move that ultimately brought about the apocalypse. In Agamben’s rendering, the apocalypse was not even recognized as apocalypse, and this was the apocalypse—a diagnosis reminiscent of Heidegger’s diagnosis of nihilism. Agamben’s Hobbes does seem to pass the entrance exam for the camp of modern comic fatalism.[19] And it should come as no surprise that from within the history of what is often referred to as political philosophy, Hobbes is maybe one of most radical anti-Aristotelian thinkers in modern history.

Let me move on: Pendakis remarks in passing that Abolishing Freedom unfolds “a fully executed fatalist theology”—but it is important to specify that this remark is only adequate when it is also noted what precisely this means.[20] Borrowing this methodological move not only from Žižek but already from Hegel, the book attempts less to develop a systematic fatalist theology than to show how a theological transformation that deserves to be called fatalist (Luther) offers a prism through which one can read a common trait of modern rationalism that allows us to systematically connect thinkers from Descartes through Hegel to Freud (and others).[21] This is not to say that the development of modern rationalism corresponds to a history of the secularization of theological fatalism. Rather modern philosophical rationalism takes its form by traversing the theological framework and its basic coordinates whereby in the end even god must admit that she never existed in the first place. Modern rationalist fatalism enables us to conceive of a truly atheist philosophy (that does not fall back behind the conceptual heights of religion). The account of the formation of this philosophy does in its course deal with “history”—even if Pendakis critically remarks that I am almost isolating the history I am constructing from any real history. As I already argued above, the history of rationalist philosophy stands in a close relationship to capitalism, and the former reacts to forms of a problematic expatiated ideology of freedom and through and in this battle takes its shape.[22] In this context, Pendakis refers to Lenin, who seems to embody the virtues of criticizing problematic notions of freedom, yet he also always did not seem to opt for any claim to political predestination (and I think it is important to note that we are here leaving the rather purely conceptual and philosophical territory of Abolishing Freedom).

But I can happily take Pendakis up on this reference. One should, to my mind, not forget that it is Lenin who expands Marx’s critique of “political indifferentism”[23] to a larger scale by arguing that people are getting practically habitualized to indifferentism by signifiers of disorientation that he addresses as “phrases.”[24] Phrases are part of a linguistic opium for the masses implemented by the “watchdogs of capitalism”;[25] an opium that is composed—in Lenin’s view—of signifiers like “freedom,” “equality,” or, famously, “social democracy.”[26] The constant use of such signifiers—especially in the framework of a parliamentary democracy—is practically disorienting and can produce indifference. Why? Because there is no freedom and equality in capitalism—and social democracy from a certain moment on became a name precisely for what is neither really social nor democratic (which is why Lenin was convinced that it was right to rename the Russian social democratic party). This is to say, when we speak of “freedom” within a capitalist framework this very signifier is determined by others, for example, by the concatenation with “equality, property, and Bentham” (as Marx’s famous adage goes)— “Bentham” giving the series its specific determination. Thereby the important question to raise is always, as one can learn from Lenin: what kind of freedom and for whom?[27] Precisely because “freedom” does not have a transhistorical or uncontroversial meaning—it is rather an empty signifier that may serve for all kinds of problematic practices as a reference point. In this vein, Lenin almost directly repeats an argument one can already find in Luther, who attacked Erasmus for using the term “free will” in a way that it was just an “empty name,” “a mere dialectical fiction.”[28] Luther replied to this by defending predestination—even if this meant risking to plunge the world into theological and political disorder (the turmoil brought to the streets by his attack on the church; a political reference I make quite explicit in Abolishing Freedom).[29]

Lenin’s suggestion is first of all to avoid using these signifiers as long as we are still living in socio-economic and political conditions within which these words cannot mean what we think they do (or should). So, his absolutely explicit claim is: let us not use the signifier “freedom” as long as we are still living in capitalist relations of production (and its respective modes of state government, even if some—democracy—can make us forget this insight). Let’s not pretend to be free—as this is what capitalism is about. And could one therefore not also see Lenin’s defence of dictatorship (of the proletariat)—a word that was for him not at all problematic but a “big” word, which precisely therefore should not be overused—a politico-ideological antidote to the problematic notions of freedom that abound in capitalism?[30] And this becomes even clearer if one recalls that for Lenin it is not simply a choice of “freedom” against dictatorship, but rather that it is either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that hides behind “freedom” and “equality” or the dictatorship of the proletariat. There is thus no freedom to choose between freedom and dictatorship. And is this not structurally comparable to the philosophical argument of comic fatalism?

Abolishing Freedom in this sense could be said to repeat a Leninist move. In profaning Lutheran, not foundations but rather, abysses, it seeks to exorcize all that which needs exorcizing not to make an illusory and practically problematic use of “freedom”—and it identifies what characterizes such a use (freedom as given in the form of natural property that is supposed to be already actual and real as potential). One could here even recall Lenin’s famous 1917 defence of the political “freedom of secession” (of Armenia, etc.) and claim that Abolishing Freedom attempts a philosophical reformulation of it for the sake of a critique of freedom: a philosophical freedom of secession even from freedom.[31] This is what Nietzsche called the “great emancipation” or “uncoupling (Losslösung)”—a detachment, uncoupling, and a secession in this case from the (bourgeois) myth of the givenness of freedom (as natural capacity).[32]

But Pendakis here raises an important question, namely how is the ideology of freedom experienced? He suggests that it is not in the form of a given natural capacity but in the form of a feeling. And I have nothing to object but think it is important to clarify what this means. On the one hand, there is certainly a kind of widespread politics and ideology of feeling—that was already criticized by Hegel a long time ago. The problem with it is that it comes with a questionable form of auto-justification (if I feel free, I must be free, how else could I feel free; if I feel hurt, I must be hurt, etc.). And it is problematic already because feelings—this is their conceptual catch—suspend conceptual universalizability—or in more trivial terms: objectivity—because they emphasize the very form of individual (and merely subjective) experience.[33] But it is important to add that these feelings (or more precisely: the understanding of what feelings are) are nonetheless objective expressions of a general form of belief (or of problematic epistemic assumptions). They are for example the expression of the idea that the truth of myself is only (or mainly) accessible by myself and that this truth cannot be articulated in a manner that is appropriately understood by others (through language, for example). This is why I do not see any contradiction between the claim that contemporary capitalism organizes its reign through the feeling of freedom and the idea that this felt freedom is a way in which individuals experience and represent (to themselves and others) the dominant understanding and ideology of freedom, i.e., the myth of the givenness of freedom as natural capacity.

It is against this background that one can understand why Descartes, whose Passions of the Soul introduces into modern philosophy the idea that fate and fatalism has an emancipatory potential, argues that the latter fulfils a strategic conceptual function. Notably, it is supposed to force us out of a situation where we think, act, and live under the predominance of feelings and passions (that have an effect on our capacity to determine ourselves; that thus determine our ways of determining ourselves). Being determined by passions leads into a problematic heteronomous practice wherein we constantly stand in a relation of hope and fear—feelings that for Descartes express that we accept not to be the determining instance (and are essentially lacking a relation to the present, since through this hope and fear we are fundamentally oriented toward the future). Fatalism has the task of leading us out of this passive determination to a form of thinking, acting, and living wherein we loosen the grip of the dictatorship of the emotions and start to experience a different kind of heteronomy (of predestination) that forces us not into dependency but potentially into freedom. Descartes’ claim is that if feelings (even of freedom) determine us, we are ultimately reduced to our bodily existence and hence are particles in the physics of emotions, which is upheld by a peculiar metaphysics of everybody, a fetishism of freedom: I do not know that I do not will freely (I thus do not know what I do), but I nevertheless do it (because I act as if I were free). Against this, Descartes seeks to split physics as well as metaphysics in two: fatalism is the crowbar made for it (acting as if we were not free). Now, and this is crucial, fatalism also brings with it its own affective product that Descartes describes as passions produced by the soul itself, i.e., the organ of thought. We thus also split the passions in two, so that there are passions and passions, to speak with Lenin. What are those other passions? The whole history of modern rationalist fatalism from its theological prehistory in Luther to Hegel knows a clear answer: what is produced here is anxiety (and despair). A clearly different kind of “feeling” (of freedom). I will return to this—but anxiety shatters all certainty and thereby becomes the only certainty. Now, here Pendakis raises another important question: Does the emphasis on despair, anxiety and strange heteronomous determination of the very core of our freedom turn Abolishing Freedom into what he, with Adorno, calls death metaphysics (of an almost Heideggerian cunning)? Am I giving (ontological) precedence to misery and pain, as if I replace humanist existentialism with an exaggerated excrementalism?

Obviously, I am emphasizing the excremental status of human beings in Luther and endorsing that there is less than nothing that we can cling to—anxiety being its index. But for Pendakis the problem with this is that he takes it to be not dialectical enough. Why? Because it deliberately seeks to avoid what Žižek coined the Hölderlin paradigm of political and philosophical thought,  epitomized in the slogan “where the danger is, there also grows saving power.”[34] Before answering this charge, let me note in passing that I would like to suggest to lift the burden from Hölderlin’s back (Heidegger put it there) and re-coin this into the (Stefan) George paradigm of thought. It can also be nicely epitomized in one verse from the latter’s “The Star of the Covenant”: “Don’t fear fissures fractures wounds scratches // The magic that decomposes recomposes.”[35] The bottom line of both formulas is that it first must get really bad, so that when we traverse the horror we realize that this is just the precondition for things to finally turn out splendid again.[36] Abolishing Freedom is deemed not dialectical enough for two reasons: first, it does not really embrace the George paradigm of political and philosophical thought, meaning: it does not say enough about the conversion of the absence of—abolished—freedom into a new kind of freedom. And second, it avoids another option for how to construct the argument in a more dialectical manner, namely, even if the worst already happened, not everything is doomed. There are “cigarette(s),” “walking,” “philosophy” (even though the book challenges this), “Sex. Coffee.”[37]

If there is no dialectical twist to all the misery (and this is the Heideggerian cunning), does one not need to avoid totalizing the worst? Can the worst be totalized? Is everything bad? Can there be a totality of the worst? The worst totality (ever)? Must this not mean that if the worst totality is really the worst it contains a crack, and thus that Pendakis’ second option converts internally into the first one? To rephrase: after Pingree charged me with being a closet optimist, Pendakis charges me with being too much of a fatalist (and therefore not dialectical enough). The worst unity of opposites.

The answer to the last questions is directly tackled in the book, first, in my reading of Luther and by emphasizing the necessary contingency of grace. This is to say there is only reason for despair and anxiety—as this is the more rational and realist outlook, acknowledging that we will never be able to save ourselves—unless something that is totally beyond my control—and I know that this is the case—happens. So, there is only a conversion from the worst to something else if contingently there is a conversion from the worst to something else. There is no ground, guarantee or structural necessity (not even possibility) for it to happen. Knowing it does not help, yet it is better knowing (or believing it) than not. Confronting the worst is not simply a scare tactic that will force us into (remembering) freedom. The apocalypse does not help; in some sense it is useless. Secondly, this argument is becoming more complex in my reading of Hegel and through what I take him to demonstrate in the Phenomenology of Spirit. If philosophy’s task in Hegel is to think the worst—for reasons developed in the book—the Phenomenology (as introduction to the philosophical system) demonstrates how spirit cannot assume (and follow) the very insight it cannot avoid. It constantly invents new ways, new defense mechanisms against the absolutely rational and necessary insight. This is why the worst can be qualified with Hegel as at the same time necessary and impossible to assume (which is one way of saying: it is real).

So, what is all the horror, misery, anxiety and despair good for if it was not good for anything (as it cannot even ever be fully assumed)?[38] The answer is twofold. First, anxiety and despair as such clearly do not bring any salvation. But they shake all supposedly stable assumptions and foundations, all self-certainty and relaxed forms of self-critique, as they shatter even the self. This is similar to what Hegel describes in his Phenomenology—the pathway of despair, as he called it—notably how spirit “wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.”[39] The precondition for beginning his project was for Hegel to attain this form of dismemberment. Yet, there is automatism of the precondition, so to speak: the worst about anxiety is, again, that it does not necessarily lead us anywhere (which is why timing and the right dose are of the essence). It is necessary rather to see how impossible it is to move at all. But it thereby generates a peculiar abyssal orientation. It fights reigning disorientation (linked to the signifier “freedom”) with a more profound disorientation that provides a negative orientation, namely of how to avoid the previously unidentified disorientation.[40] This is to say that there is no tiny messiah hidden deep inside a pile of misery and excrement. If anything she would right now not be any better off than we are.[41] Assuming that the worst already happened is nothing but a precondition of freedom. This means it is not yet freedom. And what is the worst about the worst is that there is no path from the worst to freedom. It does not automatically convert into anything, not without a supplement, at least. Zupančič is right: the worst, the apocalypse, does not solve any of our troubles or problems. Maybe the worst about the worst is that it is both necessary and useless to think it. These are obvious structural similarities of the worst with philosophy, itself quite a useless activity—and it thus does not seem to be a mere coincidence that this futile form of practice repeatedly conceives of the worst. Uselessness squared.

Does this make me into a necrophilic mystic or ontologist of misery? As I suggested, despair or anxiety indicate a breaking up and away of all foundation. Anxiety is thus not only the name of some momentous horror but it is an index of a subjectivization of the insight that there is no necessity for things being the way they are. It indexes that there is no there is—even though this insight is subjectively destituting.[42] Anxiety and despair are less about an ontology of misery than indexes of impossibility (of knowledge and thereby an inscription of the distinction between knowledge and truth). In short, the maneuver of Abolishing Freedom is from this perspective not to praise suffering but rather to emphasize the fact and its related affect, the (non-objective, but subjectivized) af-fact that that there is no there is.[43] This is not turning the abominable into the new cool. Rather fatalism “about the nature, scope and seriousness of our problems can be far more productive than complacent optimism. If necessity is the mother of invention, fear is its grandmother. Be afraid.”[44] Be anxious! To break free from disorientation and problematic forms of freedom, Luther’s recommendation was: love what makes you anxious. And this still seems valid. Not only does anxiety express that we encounter the impossible but also that we cannot avoid it; at least if we want to have an idea of how profound any change would have to be to count as change at all.

The impossible is thus not a refashioned pile of misery. Rather it says something about the understanding of human beings that is at stake in Abolishing Freedom. For humans are neither simply natural nor simply non-natural (cultural) beings. There is something profoundly un-natural about them—not an additional quality, but something that even peculiarly derails what appears natural.[45] Human nature is out of joint. Rationalist fatalism therefore does not simply embrace an excremental anthropology but rather endorses the claim that what is specific about human beings is something strangely inhuman. Rationalist fatalism is a comic inhumanism. This is because it argues that humans are able not only to confront but sometimes even to do the impossible, that which exceeds all that is humanly possible.[46] Thereby it is set up against the omnipresence of all too human humanisms (here aligning itself with theoretical anti-humanism) and against the all too subtle, nuanced, invisible, and therefore almost omnipresent forms of naturalization.[47] Yet, it might be worthy to note again what Pendakis only remarks in passing and what Pingree missed entirely: the fatalism of Abolishing Freedom is structurally comic. And this is not simply a matter of style but of (dialectical) formatting. Tragic, nihilist, or existentialist fatalism relates to comic fatalism as what Nietzsche called passive nihilism relates to active nihilism. Why is the latter comic? Because “at the core of even the most frivolous comedies lies a heart of darkness,” “a distant vestige of primordial fear” from which we are led to a “thinly disguised re-enactment of the rebirth of the world,” as Segal describes some crucial features of comedy in general.[48] Comedy is a way of bringing and forcing out, of dealing with this fundamental kind of anxiety that is linked to the creation of a world.

Do I therefore, as Pendakis suspects, become ignorant of the sufferings of real slaves? Does the fatalist attack on freedom as a human natural capacity sit rather uneasy with all those cases where people are plainly and simply, “really,” unfree? Am I “ontologizing” a historical fact (that freedom is considered to be a natural capacity) and turn it thereby into just another requisite of an endless comedy of human errors (as if existentialism with some amusement instead of absurdity)?[49] To my mind, this is a misunderstanding. Firstly, because I am attacking a specific form of oppression. This form works through a difference between what is presented and we even experience as freedom and what freedom actually is. But when it is not about this specific difference, this obviously changes everything. It would be strange, conceptually unnecessary, and wrong to claim that oppression always and only operates through this difference. Because over-generalizing the claim would be problematic, which is why I do not over-generalize it. Let me turn this argument around: Did anyone defending slavery or slave-ownership ever really flirt with using the argument about fatalism that is similar to the one Abolishing Freedom defends? No, the slave owner did not even need fatalism. Sometimes slavery is just slavery. But certainly, there are different forms of slavery (wage-slavery, for example). And sometimes defenders of what appears to be slavery are just defenders of slavery. It is indeed important not to confuse this with the fatalism strategy I defend. It should now become clear why I am also not endorsing the claim that human beings are ultimately slaves (of their passions, social conditions, or a fate they did not choose or the like). My claim is quite explicitly that such a claim is per se problematic. Which is why I dispute that there is such a thing as a human condition as well as the idea that there is anything one could unhappily or happily cling to. If any defender of slavery would also like to be a contender of the kind of comic fatalism Abolishing Freedom defends there is a problem: slavery was and is often defended through reference to a given natural or naturalized hierarchy, and Abolishing Freedom rejects all forms of givenness and ideas of a given nature.[50]

In this sense, it seeks to avoid “ontologizing” anything, not even nothing (as the end of the book makes explicit). The claim that there is no human condition (as there is no there is) raises awareness of a specific ideological situation wherein the defence of a supposedly natural human capacity—freedom—serves as the inverse of what it claims (and thinks) to be doing, precisely by emphasizing what one might take to be an emancipatory givenness. Pendakis clearly sees that in my rejection of Aristotle I am also rejecting free-will-liberalism, but whereas he argues that liberalism took a distance to Aristotle when and because it identified him as defender of natural slavery, I would argue that it is rather Plato who had and still has a quite bad (political and philosophical) reputation, especially with liberal thinkers, and that it is often precisely Aristotle, the logician of practice, who, despite his defence of slavery and the inequality, say, between men and women, proved and proves to be astoundingly compatible with a whole variety of different systems of thought reaching from Soviet Communist philosophy (where Plato was often viewed as the idealist aristocrat and everything that was wrong with pre-Marxian philosophy) to contemporary pragmatism and neo-naturalism (where he is identified as the absolute maestro of life-forms and their inherent normativity). This is why Aristotelianism is what Abolishing Freedom identifies as a specific ideological frame that gained particular traction throughout the historical unfolding of capitalism. In modernity it works as oppression by means of freedom, through the imaginary redoubling (or representation) of freedom in the form of a natural capacity (that is: through ontic indifference). Against this, Abolishing Freedom mobilizes modern philosophy to formulate a contemporary provisory morality. And indeed, as in Descartes, this is an attempt which is strictly speaking philosophical and not theoretical in the sense that Pendakis uses the term “theory” (“the science of the gap or difference between philosophy and history”).[51]

But, the philosophical provisory morality that attempts to combat the reign of ontic indifference—of the ideology of freedom—does not thereby turn into a mere thought- or ontological experiment. It should be clear that it must be linked to the time and social organization in which this specific ideology of freedom reigns. This is to say, it is linked to the history of capitalism and understanding of freedom constitutive for it.[52] Yet, the perspective of the book is not that of a critique of political economy—since it is not an attempt to understand and criticize capitalism from within—but it rather seeks to gather conceptual means offered by modern philosophy to counter the ideology of freedom. It is an attempt, if you wish, to attack the enemy not at its weakest but at its strongest link (or at one of its strongest). This is why Abolishing Freedom develops its proposal from a reconstruction of the history of modern philosophy in a Hegelian fashion, namely as a systematic unfolding of the conceptual tool that is deemed effective to abolish the dominant concept of freedom.[53] Modern rationalism proves not only that one is always right to rebel against reactionary understandings of freedom but also that reactionaries sometimes present themselves as defenders of freedom. Especially against them, modern rationalism organizes the rebellion through fatalism. I am thus happy to accept the description of my position as a “philosophy of the barricade”—a barricade against a certain kind of freedom and its mythical constitution. To be clear, this is not activism. But I do not therefore advocate passive resignation; rather it takes a lot of work to beat one’s inner reactionary out of oneself. And this is just one reason why sometimes it is important to think and not to act. Fatalism asserts that we also must become pitiless censors of ourselves, of our attachment to Aristotelianism.[54]

This is also why the comic form is important: the book, as the reader will know, ends by negating its own position of enunciation—claiming that there is also no philosophy, since the position that allows for the radical attack on the ideology of freedom can itself not be transcendentalized. Nothing provides us with the certainty that there is philosophy (as in philosophical thinking, it also is not simply a given). With this move, we return to Hegel’s observation on the proper form of presentation of the absolute, notably to what he says about the speculative sentence. It is a sentence that we read and, when passing from subject to predicate—and at first we cannot but assume that this is the stable form this proposition obeys—we are forced to confront a first disorientation: something of what we presumed to be the stable, unchanging subject returns, to our surprise, in the predicate, whereby not only the predicate as well as the subject proves to be different from what we took them to be, but we also do not know where we are; we thought we moved (from subject to predicate) but did not. Searching for a new halting point, we return for Hegel to the subject (of the sentence), but we encounter that, because it moved into the predicate, it actually is so fundamentally transformed that there is only an abyss, an absence. This therefore drives us to the predicate again, which thereby is as abyssal as the subject (as the subject repeats in the predicate). This back-forward stuckness-movement, as Hegel suggests, is the proper object of thought—an object we can only encounter in passing from one to the other. Abolishing Freedom seeks to repeats this gesture in its axiom that there is no there is. It takes neither history nor theory or philosophy as a given. Yet, if it might truly be the case that what is left when not even nothing is left provides a “tiny enclave” of consistent thought for Pendakis, my only fear is that we will not be able to inhabit it for too long.[55]

When I was imagining the interior of this enclave, it made me think of a joke, reportedly told by the former football star Diego Maradona. The joke was supposedly not even created as a joke but is something that supposedly took place when Maradona was brought to a mental institution. After a while in the institution he irritatedly exclaimed: “Here we have one who believes he is Napoleon, someone else thinks he is Robinson Crusoe. And they think I am crazy for saying that I am Maradona.” Somehow, I imagine the enclave of comic fatalism to be similar to the position of Maradona in this anecdote, which is actually the worst of those described. It is worse than the others not simply because he is seeing through the structure of the institution and yet is determined by it, but because he unwillingly seems to be pointing out the madness of assuming the idea that anyone can safely assume that she or he is her- or himself. In a way, if Abolishing Freedom is philosophy, it is one that seeks to take this into account, and thereby seeks to follow the “imperative… to…: Disband!” the last bit of givenness, even of its own form and assumed identity, creating not simply an unstable non-ground, rather a kind of whirlpool that might (also not) prove to be the precondition for a transformation.[56]



[1] Andrew Pendakis, “Dialectics of Determinism. Echoes of Necessity in Hobbes, Hegel, Marx and Ruda,” Provocations 1 (2017), 27;

[2] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 40.

[3] See Gustave Cohen, Écrivains français en Hollande dans la première moitié du XVII siècle (Paris: Champion, 1920), 357–602.

[4] Instructive on this is: Gilles Olivo, “L’efficience en cause: Suarez, Descartes et le question de la causalité,” Descartes et le Moyen Âge: Actes du colloque organisé à la Sorbonne du 4 au 7 juin 1996, ed. Joël Biard and Roshdi Rashed (Paris: J. Vrin, 1997), 91-105.

[5] I do have to agree that Descartes also articulates his argument in opposition to Hobbes. Yet, to my mind the Aristotle reference is more crucial, as should become clear through the next point(s). On the relation between Aristotle and Hobbes, see Frank Ruda, “Wer denkt asozial? Von Aristoteles zu Hobbes,” Das soziale Band, ed. Thomas Bedorf and Steffen Hermann (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2016), 143–163.

[6] There is also a clear reference in Descartes to Franciscus Gormarus, an anti-Aristotelian theologian.

[7] See Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, “Penser, esquisser: la limite illimitée entre philosophie et littérature,” Limite-illimité, questions au Présent (Paris: Cécile defaut, 2012), 227-249.

[8] There is a further charge to my genealogy and especially to me siding with Luther here, notably that I am endorsing not the revolutionary Müntzer but rather the reactionary anti-Peasant movement bourgeois thinker Luther. To clarify this just in passing: yes, the late Luther is a reactionary (and even an anti-Semitic) thinker, but it should be clear that 1) the peasant movement is hardly imaginable without a link to the Lutheran reformation, and 2) the early Luther and his quite drastic attack on the Catholic Church should not too swiftly be identified with his later reactionary servility. But 3) and most importantly: What if Luther has a point when attacking Müntzer and the peasant movement? It would be a longer debate to consider—as Felix Ensslin once has argued—if one can read Luther’s reaction vis-à-vis the peasant revolt as a critique avant la lettre of what later Badiou would describe as a defining feature of the twentieth century, namely a destructive “passion for the real” against which—as I clearly indicate in Abolishing Freedom—one should endorse a subtractive theology (and its respective subtractive passion for the real); see Alain Badiou, The Century, trans. Alberto Toscano (Malden: Polity 2007).

[9] See Martin Luther, “Disputation against Scholastic Theology,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 39 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1970), 9-16. Therein Luther inter alia attacks Biel, who defended that Aristotle is a necessary point of reference for any thinker of the Church—in an only slightly exaggerated sense, Protestantism formed when Luther sought to get Aristotle—and what he stood for—out of faith.

[10] One should recall here that Sorel also made an argument that the bourgeoisie installs an oblivion of the true tragic nature of life and thereby forcefully seeks to make everyone forget real difference (between what I want and what I get). Bourgeois politics has always been about continuity. There certainly can be a different concept of measure, but this is another discussion.

[11] Briefe von und an Hegel, ed. V.J. Hoffmeister and F. Nicolin, Vol 4. (Hamburg: Meiner, 1981), 60.

[12] It hardly seems necessary to remind anyone of the influence of Aristotle in contemporary—institutionally influential and powerful—philosophy, at least in the west (a state of affairs that is absolutely different for Plato).

[13] See Giorgio Agamben, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, trans. Nicholas Heron (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

[14] Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996), 84.

[15] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan or The Matter, Form, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 255-416.

[16] Ibid., 255-260.

[17] See Agamben, Stasis, 65.

[18] Ibid., 66.

[19] It is comic because things went so bad—take into account Hobbes’ contemporary reputation—it explodes the tragic form.

[20] Pendakis, “Dialectics of Determinism,” 31.

[21] One thing that links these thinkers together is the claim that a certain misunderstanding of freedom (indifference) reduces human beings to a peculiar form of animality that is produced in the act of reduction. Fatalism (the use of the concept of fate) is—in its different guises—a conceptual weapon against indifference. This is later even instructive for Marx. For this see Ruda, Indifferenz und Wiederholung.

[22] Obviously, I am not claiming that one is able to reduce the whole formation of modern rationalist philosophy to a kind of unchanging class struggle about the concept of freedom. There are historical events (of a political nature, for example) that clearly have an important impact on philosophical inventions and transformations. Yet, the intricacies of the function of the concept of predestination and fate in their concatenation with the concept of freedom in modern rationalism can be systematically understood when read within the proposed framework.

[23] Karl Marx, “Political Indifferentism, “Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 23 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988), 392-97.

[24] For his critique of indifferentism, see for example V.I. Lenin, “The Socialist Party and Non-Party Revolutionism,” Collected Works, Vol. 10 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 75-82.

[25] V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Collected Works, Vol. 23 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 110.

[26] V.I. Lenin, “From a Publicist’s Diary,” Collected Works, Vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 301. 

[27] With some trivialization one could also rephrase this by saying: capitalism does not only rely on an empty signifier such as “freedom” and also not only on a particular “filling” of this empty signifier that constitutes what Laclau and Mouffe described as a logic of difference (freedom thereby deciphering itself socially as freedom of commerce and the market, of opinion and the press, etc.) but also on what they called a chain of equivalence whereby if “freedom,” for example, is threatened all the particular differences become equivalences of one another. Lenin’s (Marxist) point being that it is never neutral in what precise chain of equivalence a signifier stands.

[28] See Ruda, Abolishing Freedom, 30f.

[29] Luther’s reply against Erasmus‘ moderate political gesture was a Maoist one avant la lettre: there is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent (because if we are unclear on the most important questions—of faith—why and how should the world hinder us combatting about them; and why should we worry about the world as long as what truly matters is unclear). For this, see also Heiko Oberman, The Dawn of the Revolution: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 155-178.

[30] V.I. Lenin, “The Immediate Task of Soviet Government,” Collected Works, Vol. 27 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 265.

[31] V.I. Lenin, “The Tasks of the Revolution,” Collected Works, Vol. 26 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 62.

[32] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. Helen Zimmern (Edinburgh: Foulis, 1910), 4.

[33] Hegel’s critique of feeling is basically if you cannot say what you feel—because it is so deep and incommunicable—you properly do not know what you feel and hence do not feel it either. So, feelings produce a depth illusion. Yet, this account is certainly complicated by the fact that we cannot simply say what we mean (and intend to say), because we always say more or less—but it means that the truth of ourselves is, for Hegel, rather out there and not, never, inside of ourselves.

[34] See for example Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, 344ff.

[35] “Bangt nicht vor rissen brüchen wunden schrammen // Der zauber der zerstückelt stellt neu zusammen” (Stefan George, “Bangt nicht vor rissen brüchen wunden schrammen”;,+Stefan/Gesamtausgabe+der+Werke/Der+Stern+des+Bundes/Erstes+Buch/%5BBangt+nicht+vor+rissen+br%C3%BCchen+wunden+schrammen%5D; accessed April 2020.

[36] The slightly trivialized Rocky Balboa version of this is: first the pain, then the success; another would be: from here on things can only get better (which is mostly an illusion).

[37] Pendakis, “Dialectics of Determinism,” 39. When I read this quite amusing part of Pendakis’ reply, I had a spontaneous Kantian reflex thinking: at least some things on this list are simply agreeable and thus, if Kant was not totally wrong, it lacks a proper universal dimension. And who would disagree that even if the worst already happened, some stuff is still agreeable? But, and this is the implication of Kant’s distinction, the agreeable is what humans share with animals (they share it specifically because the agreeable only concerns man as animal)—and this must mean that one way of generalizing the misconception of freedom that I oppose is even to generalize the agreeable (and this is precisely what Plato does when he describes the state of pigs. For this, see Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies (London: Urbanomic, 2014).

[38] Despair is Luther’s and Hegel’s name for an affect that is salvationally (Luther) or conceptually (Hegel) necessary.

[39] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 19.

[40] Rationalist fatalism is thus not closet optimism, because it actually attempts to exorcize the myth of givenness of freedom and does not produce a new anchor. It is not negative dialectics, even though Adorno can certainly be an ally for some of the way. He might then help point out the fact that there is no (given) way out of a totally messed up situation and each individual and particular experience which seems to entail the potential of a way out is actually immediately integrated into this very system, whereby even the assumption that there could be a non-contaminated element within it—cigarettes, philosophy, etc.—must be given up. The obvious difference between comic fatalism and negative dialectics, though, is that the former is quite simply not tragic, whereas the latter is. Comic fatalism attempts to detect points of impossibility to which it can cling no matter what.

[41] Lula is supposed to have said once when someone addressed corruption charges against him that if Jesus would return and come to Brazil, even he would immediately make a pact with devil (or Judas). The point does not so much attest to the unavoidable omnipresence of corruption in today’s politics, but rather problematizes the fantasy of a pure (never violent, always clean) form of emancipation or salvation. The latter is itself rather metaphysical; yet it would be equally problematic to assume that thereby one is simply condemned to never finding true emancipation or always needing to give in to corruption. There is never any purity of emancipation that would not itself be practically generated.

[42] This bears similarity to Luther, for whom God’s laws confront us with our own incapacity and as soon as we try to follow them without being able to, we not only encounter the fact that we are unable to do so, but we also generate a knowledge of an impossibility. This strange knowledge—which is not objective knowledge—is expressed in anxiety (and might be an indication of why Hegel believed the pathway of despair leads to what he called absolute knowing).

[43] I write af-fact following Hamacher’s reflection on the term “afformative” in “Afformative, Strike.”

[44] Steven Shapin, “Libel on the Human Race,” London Review of Books 36.11 (June 4, 2014), 29. I leave aside the distinction between fear and anxiety here.

[45] On this see Alenka Zupančič, What is Sex? (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).

[46] Already at the very beginning of modern philosophy, Descartes argues that what is properly human about human beings, notably that they think, even though they are embodied beings, necessitates them to think what is impossible to think (God) as only this is properly thinking (and thus human). In a different but similar vein Varlam Shalamov reports from his time in a Stalinist gulag a scene where prisoners were forced to work under horrible conditions; and when even horses started to collapse, the prisoners continued to work. Shalamov could not help but think that this provided proof that human beings are physically stronger than any animal could ever be. This peculiar kind of other “physicality” is linked to what I refer to above as inhuman.

[47] This alliance can also be read as an alliance with a negative dialectical position. As Adorno clearly stated, “[s]elf-righteous humanity […] only intensifies the inhuman state of affairs” (Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973], 67).

[48] Erich Segal, The Death of Comedy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 13.

[49] Pendakis, “Dialectics of Determinism,” 34.

[50] This might make palpable why what I address as “ideology of freedom” reduces human beings to their animal bodies. I have shown elsewhere in what sense Marx can be read as providing a systematic account of how to understand the reduction of human beings to their bodies—a thesis that one finds from Descartes through Kant to Marx and Badiou. He describes it as a productive ideological operation constitutive of capitalism (which is also why we are still talking about wage-slavery): it is productive because the animal body to whose needs human beings are reduced is ideologically produced in the very act of reduction. This is an effect of the indifference specific to capitalism. For this, see Slavoj Žižek, Frank Ruda, Agon Hamza, Reading Marx (London: Polity, 2018). As Pendakis clearly remarks, the subject is not identical to the body, but this does not also mean it is something that would therefore simply be immaterial (and not manifest); it is nothing but its effects (Pendakis, “Dialectics of Determinism,” 34f). This is why I agree with Descartes that humans are embodiments of the un-relation between the physically determined body (nature) and the not-physical freedom (un-nature)—a un-relation between an un-being and being—which introduces a split perspective into physics.

[51] Pendakis, “Dialectics of Determinism,” 39f.

[52] The precise way in which the assumption of freedom as property and possession is constitutive for liberalism and the disastrous political implications of this are systematically formulated in Christoph Menke, “Im Schatten der Verfassung. Die Voraussetzungen des Liberalismus”;; accessed April 2020.

[53] It is obviously Hegelian, because I claim that all the thinkers I refer to articulate the same idea, which is then elaborated in an increasingly systematic and, if one wishes, radical manner.

[54] I am even happier to read that Pendakis agrees with me ontologically. Yet, it still remains to be developed if fatalism could at all be an ontology (and if so, what kind) or is constitutively transitory (as the self-negating contradiction at its core) and strategic (opposing reactionary ideologies) because it is rather determined by at least one non-philosophical form of practice, notably politics (since the ideology of freedom is present everywhere but seems to have a footing in the political sphere)—or if one has to say more on this point (Pendakis, “Dialectics of Determinism,” 37). Also, it would be a discussion whether Aristotelianism can be avoided.

[55] Ibid., 40.

[56] This is how Badiou described the fundamental maneuver of Lacan; see Alain Badiou, Lacan: Anti-philosophy 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 131.

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