From Catastrophic Messianism to Comic Fatalism – Part VI

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

 

Part VI. Ending the Long March: On Aaron Schuster’s “I’m a Fatalist, But not by Choice”

To end this long march through the wonderful counter-provocations against Abolishing Freedom, I will now finally turn to Aaron Schuster’s amicable and comradely response. It is a true thorn in my side, as it offers in many respects a more pointed and succinct rendering of the most significant parts of my arguments than I was able to do myself. What could be worse. Well, maybe that I find myself mostly in absolute agreement with the better versions of my arguments: I am not trying to add to the general “apocalyptic mood of the present but [rather aim at] puncturing a hole in its self-satisfied complacency”[1]—somehow similar to a psychoanalytic intervention, as Schuster says, or similar to a Hegelian conceptualization, which—and in Hegel this is often good news—can only commence when the day has turned to dusk and everything else turned to dust, too. Schuster is perspicacious when it comes to filtering out the multi-headed moving target of my attack, noting that what is at stake is also—as I remarked some pages ago—the institutional and overall power and influence of contemporary Aristotelianism and especially Aristotelian Hegelianism. It is a target because often it attempts to re-naturalize not only Hegel but also, with him, all kinds of practices and the relevant capacities necessary to participate in them.[2] Schuster succinctly characterizes the implicit concept of freedom I am alluding to as one in which “I am most free… when I have ‘no choice’.” He adds the important qualification that I endorse not any kind of fatalism, but what I call a “fatalism without fate,”[3] a “necessity without a master plan.”[4] He elucidates it not only by pitting it against a “fatalism with fate” (Schuster’s term), the classical Greek style tragedy, for example (or for Sorelian-type forms of radical transformation). And I also agree that the book thereby attempted to provide a potential “Protestant genealogy of psychoanalysis”[5] and also of the major tenets in German Idealism. I do not want to go into the pointed and marvellous reconstruction of the different chapters that Schuster presents—I would literally make things worse—but I want to emphasize that he is again right to point out that “subjectivity is the worst,” as it comes with a derailment that exceeds any given measure.[6] For indeed, what comic fatalism seeks to repeat on a conceptual level is precisely the derailment that formally is the gesture of subjectivization, the form of becoming a subject.

This also makes palpable why through Schuster’s suggestive reading of the idea of a gradual production of thought while speaking, Kleist actually becomes an ally of comic fatalism. If one seeks a trivial empirical proof of comic fatalism, as he recommends, just start talking. I take Schuster to claim: “Speaking is fatalism (without fate).”[7] This adage should be read in line with Hegel’s “the spirit is a bone” and brings together what at first might seem to be the highest and the lowest. It expresses a fully a-theological conception of fatalism (as if an a-theological version of Christianity): it is the very loss of any redemptive perspective that is constitutive of any real faith or thinking. For if thinking survives speaking—its own proper fall, the fall into words in which it can never express itself appropriately, since it always says too little or too much or loses itself and finds itself again somewhere else—maybe thinking is therefore constitutively post-apocalyptic[8] (language then being, not the apocalypse, but literally the sign of the apocalypse).[9] Yet, as already remarked, comic fatalism is “a philosophy of the interregnum” and thus does not propose a general theory of language or of human beings, etc.[10] It is neither just a non-philosophical reflection (because it is fundamentally conditioned by its time and reflects on it, as does any philosophy, and it can do so only if it conceives of the end of this very time—and therefore is not simply limited to the time whose end it tries to think); yet because of that time it is also clearly timely and a strictly particularized philosophy (although, as is any philosophical position, with a universal claim). As Schuster states, it attempts to repeat Luther’s gesture, but I would add, this repetition is undertaken by employing the conceptual means of modern rationalism, and it is thus undertaken outside of a theological framework.

Schuster’s response would certainly be too good to be true if he would not also raise some delicate points that do either need further development or are more than difficult to answer. Sometimes from the too good to be true to the worst, it takes only one step. He opens up two larger conceptual hellholes by emphasizing two discussions that are present only in the background of Abolishing Freedom. The first abyss opens up within the frame of a discussion between Badiou and Žižek. One might say that at stake here is the precise status of what is a subject, since Žižek critiqued Badiou for neglecting to introduce (something of) the subject that must precede any kind of subjectivation through an event; otherwise we could not account for why there could be subjectivation in the first place, a symptom of which the former sees in Badiou’s reference to the “human animal” that is supposed to provide the material from which to make a subject.[11] Therein we thus encounter a return of the repressed, a material proto-subject before the subject. For a proper elaboration of what this material resource is—this something that grounds any materialist position—Žižek introduces the concept of the death drive that names the inconsistency not only of something but even of nothing and is thus what in a dialectical sense precedes the very constitution of material being (even though this is a retroactive statement).[12]

Badiou, on the other hand, perceives this as a problematic symptom of an unacknowledged philosophical orientation: in my understanding, the problem he therein identifies is that with the death drive it is assumed that there is something given and, more specifically, something of the subject. And this is a problem for Badiou even if this is something that is given in a purely negative way, notably as self-relating negativity. Why is this a problem? Not simply because one thereby seems to commit to a transcendental claim, notably that (something of) the subject is the always already existing condition of possibility of transformation. Rather because if one seeks to avoid transcendental philosophy in one’s rendering of this something of the subject (death-drive) one nonetheless for Badiou takes this something to define the very being of the subject that is (or more precisely: at a later stage of one’s ontology will be) constitutive of history. Therefore he assumes one cannot but claim that it is ultimately the “being” of the subject that authorizes any change and thus claims that there is a primacy of being over (history) or an event. Badiou seeks to turn this around and assert a primacy of the event and with it the “evental” emergence of a subject. What is Badiou’s problem with the other option? It sounds too much like Heidegger for him (and here I do not want to argue whether this is an appropriate interpretation—one should only remark that the perpetual self-cancellation / revivification that is specific of the death drive gives Heidegger’s position at least quite a spin). Was not Heidegger a harsh critic of any (metaphysical) grounding of historical transformation in a subiectum, in a subject at the ground? But if we transform the idea of the subject as ground—and thus follow Heidegger’s critique—and if we take the subject to have a being that precedes the event, for Badiou we afterward seem to defend a history of that very being (which is why Badiou even goes so far as to believe that the death drive is ultimately a version of Heidegger’s being toward death, because it negates one’s own finitude—the subject as ground—to open up the perspective of a history of being).[13]

I do not want to enter this intricate debate here and now. Partly, because I think I already pointed out a possible way out of this dilemma elsewhere. Suffice it here to say, and as Schuster recognizes, my attempt to mediate between these two interpretations was to introduce what I refer to as the “philosophical subject.”[14] What is a philosophical subject? Philosophy is a discourse that only has any proper meaning for Badiou if it does not deal only with itself. This means it seeks to grasp what is thought in practices outside of itself (Badiou calls these conditions). There is thought in the practices outside of philosophy when something is happening and subjects emerge who think (and create truths). Philosophy re-thinks what has been thought, which is why it thinks “truths,” so that it can also think the compossibility of different forms of thought (and formulate a concept of “truth”). But subjects can disappear and so can their fields of practice (the conditions). As there are longer periods of times in which nothing fundamentally transformative—or particularly interesting—happens. Sometimes, there is no new thought.

To put this more directly: obviously, profound political revolutions are rare (as are revolutionary subjects). Yet, what does philosophy think when it attempts to think in a time where there are no active subjects and thus no conditions?[15] The answer is twofold: it thinks what was thought when there was an active thought process (or more than one) and does so to understand how and why it (or they) disappeared, what kind of specific impossibilities it created for itself and where it failed better than others did before. This allows philosophy to generate a concept of history and to identify the historically specific situation wherein it thinks. Philosophy does so, secondly, to give the one claim that—according to Badiou—defines the core of its discourse an historically specific form and articulation, notably the claim that “there are truths.” In such an historical context, this claim is rendered as: there can be subjects because there have been subjects. Philosophy in this way—reminding us in a Platonic sense of what we already know—recalls the very possibility of subjectivization in times in which subjectivization seems impossible. But thereby it does not directly subjectivize anyone. It rather forces one to acknowledge, it forces into knowledge, this impossible possibility and thus confronts us with what we take to be impossible. Philosophy thus does not take the position of any particular subject (be it political or otherwise) nor does it become a meta-subject; rather it takes the position of the very form of subjectivization, by reminding us of what will happen if there were an event; by upholding the position of the act of splitting that is constitutive of any subject, it puts itself in a position to remind us that there can be a barring of thought. Philosophy does thus not subjectivize, but it can in intermediary times take the very form of subjectivization (i.e., of splitting, of barring) as form of its own discourse. And this is one of the reasons why I also take this to be the position from which Abolishing Freedom is articulated, which again leads to an utter agreement between Schuster and myself.

But Schuster opens up a second context of debate. Herein he is concerned with how my argument relates to that of Lacan. In Schuster’s reading, Lacan shows that without knowing it neurotics—and this is a symptom of modernity—actually all believe in a fatalism without fate. The symptom of this is that they have so much trouble making a choice, i.e., that they are often or mostly undecided or indifferent. And I do agree that indifference, indecision, and fatalism are closely connected. Actually, in a prequel to Abolishing Freedom, which does not yet exist in English, I take up a claim that appears in Lacan’s “Science and Truth.” Therein, in a context that perfectly fits Schuster’s description, Lacan refers to a mostly unknown and rarely mentioned theological thinker, namely Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais, who from 1817 to 1823 published several volumes that addressed the problem of indifference—a problem he saw as an “endemic symptom of modernity”[16]—particularly with regard to questions of faith and religion (the title of these volumes was “Essay on indifference in matters of religion”).[17] I do not want to reconstruct Lacan’s argument here in any greater detail, but in this text he raises the following question: “Who among you will write an essay worthy of Lamennais in political matters?”[18] Abolishing Freedom sought to at least gather some key elements to prepare such an essay, an essay not in political but rather more generally in practical matters. The step that, as indicated before, I try to make is one that leads from ontic to ontological indifference, from ontic indifference as symptom of a problematic concept of freedom to ontological indifference as an instrument against the former. I would thus argue that my argument about the problematic notion of freedom is compatible with Lacan’s argument (that is also: people are driven nuts because they believe they have it—freedom—but they do not know how it is supposed to manifest and thus prove unable to decide), and that the comic fatalism without fate is not one of its components but one of its antidotes.[19]

Schuster ends with a difficult question. What if, he asks, I am trying to make the best of this comic fatalism of the worst? And maybe it is part of the worst that this is quite difficult to say. It is certainly better to assume the worst than not to; it is also better to know the worst than not to; it is also better to expect the worst than not to. To respond as briefly as possible, maybe traversing the worst could actually be a solid precondition, not for the best, but for what Plato already called the good. The good can in this sense only arise from the worst. Maybe this could be said to be a preparation for the disappointment of returning to the cave and finding the others do not want to leave, do not even want to hear about the (new) idea. Maybe this disappointment, depicted in Plato’s famous allegory, should be integrated into the canon of thinking the worst; because the others do not want to see the good, they take what they have to be the best. And it gets worse: to make them even see the good, one has to force them out of the cave, has to force them out so that they see for themselves and become independent. The good is thus not always already there, it is not a given nor an always available option, but something has to happen for it to become a possibility, for one to be able to or be made to see it. How could one prepare for the good? By assuming the worst. It might be interesting in this context to revisit Nietzsche’s concept, not of active nihilism, but of the “gay science” (its gayness, which is not simple happiness, might actually point in the direction of this good that is strangely better than the best). This might allow us once again to use Julien Gracq’s wonderful label (he used it apropos of Marx’s 18th Brumaire) of “a gaya scienza of the apocalypse.”[20] Since ultimately, if anything, this is precisely what Abolishing Freedom tried to be.

 

________________________

[1] Aaron Schuster, “I am a Fatalist, But Not By Choice: On Frank Ruda’s Abolishing Freedom,” Provocations 1 (2017); https://www.provocationsbooks.com/2017/09/11/im-a-fatalist-but-not-by-choice/; 43.

[2] Instructive on this point is the debate McDowell had for several years with Dreyfus, because it presents us with the choice between two deeply flawed positions. On this see Frank Ruda, “The Battle of Myths” (forthcoming).

[3] Ruda, Abolishing Freedom, 106.

[4] Schuster, “I am a Fatalist,” 46.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 49.

[8] This is one of the arguments once brilliantly developed by Mladen Dolar; see “Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae”; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liDeHZh4qJg; accessed April 2020.

[9] Things obviously get more complicated when we are talking not about speaking but about formalization (as in mathematics). For the present purpose, I only indicate this crucial difference.

[10] Schuster, “I am a Fatalist,” 49.

[11] Schuster is right to point out that this is an intricate debate. It is inter alia intricate because to properly begin mapping the terrain would necessitate to take into account that 1) for Badiou there is no neutral ontology, which must imply 2) that there is no neutral anthropology and thus that 3) any account of a subjectivizable body must be read from a particular and engaged subjective perspective. Such a perspective can only be that of the event. But as any event is only an event through the consequences it yields, there must be a subject to produce these very consequences. In the beginning there is no subject but an event—which will only have been an event if a subject will have emerged as a result of it and unfolded its consequences. So, the question is: what is the subjectivizable body of the “first” event, the subject of the first event ever? I think there is an answer (as there is no “first” event, but this would demand a much longer elaboration).

[12] That in the beginning there is neither something nor nothing, but “less than nothing.” What this means is elaborated in Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso, 2013).

[13] All this is getting even more complicated because when Badiou invited Žižek to his seminar (when the latter’s Less Than Nothing was translated into French, with a preface by Badiou) at one point in their discussion Žižek brought up the question: what for him enables identification of an event as event, as there must be something that precedes the subject, Badiou agreed and claimed he calls this something “courage.” It is a longer argument that I will develop elsewhere how one can understand this answer, if this solves the problem(s), and what the relation between courage and death-drive might be, if there is any.

[14] Ruda, For Badiou, 117ff.

[15] Obviously, not all conditions (dis)appear at once. There can be active artistic processes, when there are no active political ones. Badiou makes this point inter alia in Alain Badiou and Fabien Tarby, La philosophie et l’évènement (Paris: Germina, 2010).

[16] Paul Laurent Assoun, “De Freud à Lacan: le sujet du politique,” Cités 16 (2003/04), 20.

[17] Félicité Robert de Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifference en matière de religion, Vol. 1 (Paris: 1821).

[18] Lacan’s text was previously presented as a lecture, and Lacan thus directly addressed his audience; see Jacques Lacan, “Science and Truth,” Écrits. The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), 729.

[19] And again here Schuster makes pointed observations about the comic nature of fatalism without fate.

[20] Julien Gracq, Lettrines (Paris: José Corti, 1967), 70. As the reader might know, this is how Gracq describes Marx’s 18th Brumaire—which from this perspective also develops quite a comic fatalist ring to it (as Cutrofello incisively remarked).

Posted in Issue 1.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *