What is it to Live and Think like Gilles Châtelet?

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– What is To Live and Think Like Pigs about?

[Châtelet:] It’s a book about the fabrication of individuals who operate a soft censorship on themselves…In them, humanity is reduced to a bubble of rights, not going beyond strict biological functions of the yum-yum-fart type. . .as well as the vroom-vroom and beep-beep of cybernetics and the suburbs. . .So people with entirely adequate IQs don’t become free individuals. . .instead they constitute what I call cyber-livestock […] All fresh meat, all fresh brains, must become quantifiable and marketable. 

In the opening pages of his foreword to Gilles Châtelet’s To Live and Think Like Pigs, Alain Badiou repeatedly emphasizes the need for preparation on the part of the reader. In spite of Châtelet’s critical violence, poignant sarcasm, and general disenchantment with the present state of affairs, we readers must prepare ourselves for the encounter with that “rage to live,” which “animated Gilles Châtelet” (‘What is it to Live?’ 5). A rage whose urgency makes itself felt already in the books Preface. However, remarks Badiou, this was always a rage bound to and tempered by a melancholy felt in the face of the fact that more and more each day “we are solicited (and increasingly so) to live – and to think – ‘like pigs’” (5). What is more, adds Badiou, what is additionally exceptional and worthy of note is the fact that despite Châtelet being someone better known for his expertise in the history and theory of the sciences and the philosophy of mathematics, the fundamental commitment and impetus that guides his thought is better understood as one in which “every proposition on science [i.e. principle of Thought] can be converted into a maxim for life [i.e. principle of action].” Thus, if Châtelet is to be remembered, it will be as an individual whose life and thought will forever remain irreducible to the concerns of a pure epistemologist or professional academic. And for Badiou, Châtelet’s is a thought whose chief concern was always the question what does it mean to live? Now, to demonstrate why this is so, Badiou proposes the following five principles that are to serve as an introduction to, and outline of, the architectonic of Châtelet’s life and work as a whole: the principle of exteriority, the principle of interiority, the principle of determination, the principle of the indeterminacy of Being, and the principle of invention.

Principle of Exteriority: Thought is the unfolding of the space that does justice to your body

According to Badiou, if we were to identify the single theme that unifies Châtelet’s range of interests, which span from the arts and sciences to questions of revolution, it would be the idea that “thought is rooted in the body;” where body is “conceived of as dynamic spatiality” (5). What does it mean to say that thought is rooted in dynamic spatiality; that the grounds for thought is the body? It means that Thought finds its “origin” (this is Badiou’s formulation) in geometry whereby “all thought is the knotting together of a space and a gesture, the gestural unfolding of a space” (5). In other words, if Thought is rooted in the body or that what grounds Thought is a certain spatial dynamism, then ‘to think’ necessarily means to engender a particular act (gesture) within a particular organization of space (geometric plane) – Thought, says Châtelet, was never solely the domain of the mind and necessarily involves the conjugation of the points of one’s body with those of a plane. And it is this image of Thought as the conjugation of a body with a plane that leads Badiou to claim that Châtelet’s first maxim was as follows: ‘Unfold the space that does justice to your body’ (5). And it is this maxim of finding the space that does justice to one’s body that is the practical correlate to Châtelet’s own image of Thought as being founded upon a body (i.e. spatial dynamism): insofar as we are thinking and thus rooted in a body, we are simultaneously compelled to act in such a way that the conjugation of body and plane does justice to the body of Thought (the body which is the ground for Thought): “Châtelet’s love of partying obeyed this maxim. It is more ascetic than it might appear, for the construction of the nocturnal space of pleasure is at least as much of a duty as a passive assent. To be a pig is to understand nothing of this duty; it is to wallow in satisfaction without understanding what it really involves” (6).

Principle of Interiority: Solitude is the ‘Intimate Essence’ of Alterity

If Thought is rooted in the body and establishes the obligation of determining the space which does justice to one’s body, what we discover is that for every process of realisation there exists some, “virtuality of articulation that is its principle of deployment. Geometry is not a science of extrinsic extension…it is a resource for extraction and for thickening, a set of deformational gestures, a properly physical virtuality. So that we must think a sort of interiority of space, an intrinsic virtue of variation, which the thinking gesture at once instigate and accompanies”(6). In other words, the fact of Thought being grounded upon the body (as spatial dynamism) has as its necessary consequence the fact that the very function of any given process of realization (or actualization) can only be grasped by understanding its raison d’etre; by grasping why and how a given phenomena was able to be realized in the first place. That is to say, realization or actualization is a process that is not determined by that which it produces (i.e. the latent potential of any social phenomena can in no way serve as reason or cause for that which has been actualized). That said… how does Châtelet view this maxim of Thought as a maxim that also holds for the question of ‘what does it mean to live?’

According to Badiou, the fact that processes of actualization are determined by their virtual components are, for Châtelet, indicative of the fact that the process of extensive unfolding of (‘just’) space proceeds via gesture is repeated but this time with respect to what is intensive and belongs to interiority. For, as Badiou remarks, Thought is comprised of “a set of deformational gestures, a properly physical virtuality” (6), i,e. the deformation of a space that remains unjust vis-a-vis our body, and whose movements are guided not by the requirements of realisation but by what is virtually possible and/or impossible. It is in this way that Châtelet’s first principle (Thought is rooted in the body) gives rise to its second: just as the ‘deformational gesture’ is the developmental or extensive function of Thought (the pure function which is to be realised), so too is it the case that solitude as the ‘interiority of space’ and which harbors that ‘intrinsic virtue of variation,’ is Thought’s enveloping or intensive function. Thus Badiou can write that, “[I]n terms of life, this time is a matter of remarking that solitude and interiority are, alas, the intimate essence of alterity…Gilles Châtelet knew innumerable people, but in this apparent dissemination there was a considerable, and perhaps ultimately mortal, dose of solitude and withdrawal. It is from this point of bleak solitude, also, that he was able to judge the abject destiny of our supposedly ‘convivial’ societies” (6). And it is in this way, then, that in affirming the maxim of unfolding the space that does justice to our body; a space that also serves as the very ground for Thought as such; we discover that the development of ‘just’ space is only made possible by preserving the interiority of space for solitude and withdrawal. While embodiment may define the Being of Thought, it remains the case that it is through the solitude of interiority that Thought-as-gesture-of-deformation possesses any degree of determinacy. And in the absence of any interiority; lacking solitude as that “intimate essence of alterity and of the external world;” Thought becomes capable of nothing more than its passive assent to the nocturnal space of pleasure:

At this decades’ end, a veritable miracle of the Night takes place, enabling Money, Fashion, the Street, the Media, and even the University to get high together and pool their talents to bring about this paradox: a festive equilibrium, the cordial boudoir of the ‘tertiary service society’ which would very quickly become the society of boredom, of the spirit of imitation, of cowardice, and above all of the petty game of reciprocal envy – ‘first one to wake envies the others’. It’s one of those open secrets of Parisian life: every trendy frog, even a cloddish specimen, knows very well that when Tout-Paris swings, ‘civil society’ will soon start to groove. In particular, any sociologist with a little insight would have been able to observe with interest the slow putrefaction of liberatory optimism into libertarian cynicism, which would soon become right-hand man to the liberal Counter-Reformation that would follow; and the drift from ‘yeah man, y’know, like…’, a little adolescent-hippy but still likeable, into the ‘let’s not kid ourselves’ of the Sciences-Po freshman. (Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 8-9)

Principle of Determination: ‘Be the prince of your own unsuspected beauty’

Now, if it is the case that virtual solitude alone is capable of rendering Thought’s deformational gestures (gestures which unfold a ‘just’ space vis-a-vis the body as foundation for Thought as such), then the question necessarily arises: What is the criteria or measure by which Thought attains a discrete and determinate existence? If the virtual is what guides the process of actualisation, to what end does virtuality as such aspire? According to Badiou, the virtual determination of actualisation, appears in Châtelet’s text as a form of determination that is oriented toward the ‘latent’ and/or ‘temporal’ continuum. As Badiou writes, “[T]he latent continuum is always more important than the discontinuous cut […] For Châtelet, the history of thought is never ready-made, preperiodised, already carved up. Thought is sleeping in the temporal continuum. There are only singularities awaiting reactivation, creative virtualities lodged in these folds of time, which the body can discover and accept (6). Now, just as the body is the ground for Thought, the latent continuum as that set of not-yet realised virtual-potentials provide the outline of that which the process of actualisation is to realise. To unfold the space that does justice to one’s body; to deform actual or realised space (i.e. to no longer passively assent to the present order of space); such that thought and gesture are explicated in accordance with everything that has not yet been given its actual and concrete form. Thus, Badiou concludes,

The maxim of life this time is: ‘Reactivate your dormant childhood, be the prince of your own unsuspected beauty. Activate your virtuality.’ In the order of existence, materialism might be called the desiccation of the virtual, and so Gilles sought to replace this materialism with the romantic idealism of the powers of childhood. To live and think like a pig is also to kill childhood within oneself, to imagine stupidly that one is a ‘responsible’ well-balanced adult: a nobody, in short. (Badiou, ‘What is it to Live?’ 6)

It is this latent continuity of the virtual that give form to Thought’s deforming gestures and render it as an act whose very significance is indexed to the not-yet realised potential of interiority. For if Thought is said to be disfiguring in its deeds it is precisely because what is realised are modes of being who remain in an asymmetrical relation to the currently existing order of things. Perhaps we could say that one of the inaugural gestures of Thinking is its disagreement with the structure, and thus reality, of the world which it confronts. Absent this disagreement, Thought confronts, once more, that passive assent which signals its imminent failure.

Principle of Indeterminate Being: ‘Love only that which overturns your order’

Now, while it is the case that Thought resides in the latent continuum of virtuality and orients its actualisation in accordance with ‘the prince of its own unsuspected beauty,’ it is also the case that Thought grasps Being only in moments of its indeterminacy. For Badiou, Being as indeterminate commits Châtelet to a certain “dialectical ambiguity” wherein “Being reveals itself to thought – whether scientific of philosophical, no matter – in ‘centres of indifference’ that bear within them the ambiguity of all possible separation” (6). For, as Châtelet writes, it is these “points of maximal ambiguity where a new pact between understanding and intuition is sealed” (7). However, one might ask, what does indifferent Being have to do with the virtual’s determination of actualisation? What is the relation between indeterminate Being and the determinations of Thought? For Châtelet, it is this confrontation of indeterminate Being and the determination of the virtual of Thought that acts as that propitious moment whereby the virtual acts upon the process of actualisation; for it is precisely in the absence of the self-evidence of determinate and definite space, which served as that which Thought passively believes to be “capable of orienting itself and fixing its path,” (7) that the virtual and the actual are drawn together to the point of their indistinction. Thus it is when Being is indeterminate (or ambiguous) that Thought increases its capacity of deforming space in the name of its body. Hence, says Badiou, this principle of indeterminate Being is given the following, practical, formulation: “‘Be the dandy of ambiguities. On pain of losing yourself, love only that which overturns your order.’ As for the pig, he wants to put everything definitively in its place, to reduce it to possible profit; he wants everything to be labelled and consumable” (7).

Principle of Invention: To live is to invent unknown dimensions of existing

Thus far we have seen how in beginning with the maxim of Thought as the unfolding of a space that does justice to the body as ground of Thinking, Châtelet goes on to develop the principle of interiority/solitude, which leads to the discovery that the virtual determines actualisation, and thereby obliging us to “love what overturns our order” insofar as Thought’s passive assent to a certain pre-established harmony of space is that which Thought must deform through its gestures. However, the question necessarily arises: is the logical outcome of Thought’s deformation of a predetermined space nothing but the naive celebration of disorder pure and simple? As it approaches the limits of what it is capable of when confronted with indifferent/ambiguous Being, can Thought be something other than the discordant harmony of deformed space and the idealized continuum of time? To these questions, Châtelet’s response is strictly Bergsonian. Following Bergson’s insight that it would be false to treat disorder as the opposite of order (since ‘disorder’ is the term used for the discovery of an order we were not anticipating), Châtelet argues that not only is Thought something more than the multiplication of deformed space and ideal time; it is precisely when the preceding conditions, or maxims, of Thought have been satisfied that “the higher organisation of thought is…attained” (8). What is this higher order of Thought? Badiou’s answer to this question, as lengthy as it is moving, deserves to be quoted at length:

As we can see: a thought is that which masters, in the resolute gestural treatment of the most resistant lateralities, the engendering of the ‘continuously diverse.’ The grasping of being does not call for an averaging-out…it convokes…the irreducibility, the dialectical irreducibility, of dimensions. In this sense thought is never unilaterally destined to signifying organization…But this is not where the ultimate states of thought lie. They lie in a capacity to seize the dimension; and for this one must invent notations, which exceed the power of the letter. On this point, romantic idealism teaches us to seek not the meaning of our existence, but the exactitude of its dimensions. To live is to invent unknown dimensions of existing and thus, as Rimbaud said, to ‘define vertigo’. This, after all, is what we ought to retain from the life and the death of Gilles Châtelet: we need vertigo, but we also need form – that is to say, its definition. For vertigo is indeed what the romantic dialectic seeks to find at the centre of rationalist itself, insofar as rationality is invention, and therefore a fragment of natural force […] It is a matter of discerning, or retrieving, through polemical violence, in the contemporary commercial space, the resources of a temporalization; of knowing whether some gesture of the thought-body is still possible. In order not to live and think like pigs, let us be of the school of he for whom…only one questioned mattered in the end-an imperative question, a disquieting question: The question of the watchman who hears in space the rustling of a gesture, and calls our: ‘Who’s living?’ Gilles asked, and asked himself, the question: ‘Who’s living?’ We shall strive, so as to remain faithful to him, to choose. (Badiou, ‘What is it to Live?’ 7-8)

For Badiou, then, Châtelet never faltered in his commitment to Thought as deformational gestures which allow Thought to grasp diversity as such; to grasp the multiple as “the production of a deformation of the linear [the order enforced by the pig who wants to put everything in its place; the space of consumption and circulation] through laterality [the time of inventing new dimensions of existence determined by the latent continuum of the virtual]” (7). That is to say, in every deformed and mutilated act Thought is able to prise open the rigid organization of commercial space and re-establish its relation to those virtual images over-determining the realization of actual object. Such is the manner by which Châtelet conceives of this relationship between deformation (of the linear) and organization (of the ‘continuously diverse’); between Thought’s gesture that introduces disorder into the highly ordered space of circulation-consumption. Moreover, and much in the same way as Deleuze understood the relationship of the actual to the virtual, so too does Châtelet maintain that the virtual image is contemporary with the actual object and serves as its double: “its ‘mirror image,’ as in The Lady from Shanghai, in which the mirror takes control of a character, engulfs him and leaves him as just a virtuality” (Dialogues II, 150).

Hence Badiou can write that at the height of its powers, Thought undergoes a transformation and comes to establish a new “pact between understanding and intuition” such that “separative understanding and intuition fuse, in a paradoxical intensity of thought” (6-7). For it is this moment of Thought’s intensive functioning wherein what is given in our experience of the virtual finds itself without a corresponding actual phenomenal object. And in instances such as these, Thought is obliged to invent or discover the forms by which the temporalization of what is virtual within laterality achieves an intentional and determinate deformation of the axis of linearity. Only then does Thinking reach the highest degree of its power, which is its ability to expose the form or exact dimensions of existence, which will serve as the criteria for the reorganization of space (discrete, discontinuous).  Not to live and think like pigs, then. To remain faithful to everything that is at stake in the question of ‘What is it to live?’ and to always inquire into who among us are in fact living. As we have seen, any possible answer to these questions begin with a gesture that desecrates what is sacrosanct in cybernetic-capitalist terrestrial life. And perhaps from the present vantage point we are not too distant from the position Châtelet found himself; thinking and posing these questions – ‘what is it to live? and who among us are living?’ – in the shadow of neo-liberalism’s Counter-Reformation; that era, says Châtelet, which came to be defined by “the market’s Invisible Hand, which dons no kid gloves in order to starve and crush silently, and which is invincible because it applies its pressure everywhere and nowhere; but which nonetheless…has need of a voice. And the voice was right there waiting. The neo-liberal Counter-Reformation…would furnish the classic services of reactionary opinion, delivering a social alchemy to forge a political force out of everything that a middle class invariably ends up exuding-fear, envy, and conformity” (TLTLP, 18-19). And if we were to pose Châtelet’s question for our historical present, one would find an answer from Châtelet himself; an answer that is, however, a negative response:

“…here lies the whole imposture of the city-slicker narcissism…the claim to reestablish all the splendour of that nascent urbanism that, in the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, brings together talents, intensifying them in a new spacetime – whereas in fact all our new urbanists do is turn a profit from a placement, a double movement that pulverizes and compactifies spacetime so as to subordinate it to a socio-communicational space governed by the parking lot and the cellphone. From now on the spacetime of the city will be a matter of the econometric management of the stock of skills per cubic metre per second, and of the organization of the number of encounters of functional individuals, encounters that naturally will be promoted to the postmodern dignity of ‘events’ […] In any case, for the great majority of Turbo-Becassines and Cyber-Gideons, cosmopolitanism is above all a certain transcontinental way of staying at home and amongst their own by teleporting the predatory elegance that immediately distinguishes the urban monster as a bearer of hope…from the Gribouilles and the Petroleuses, afflicted with vegetative patience or saurian militancy.” 

(Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 67-68)

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Notes on Christian Jambet & the Question of the One

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If there is one conviction shared by the majority of contemporary philosophers, this is it: the one is not [l’un n’est pas]. . .Once affirmed, this conviction converts smoothly into various systems of thought, until either every attestation of the real is renounced, or at least until the real is thoroughly separated from its theological identity with the one. . .Whatever the merits of this decision may be, its unavoidable consequence is to conceal what is at stake, metaphysically, when the mind acknowledges that the highest power resides in the one. [1]

“Que peut la philosophie? « cette pensée avec laquelle on ne peut essentiellement rien entreprendre et à propos de laquelle les servantes ne peuvent s’empêcher de rire (Heidegger). Je suis voué à l’impuissance traditionnelle de la philosophie, plus simplement de la vie contemplative. Longtemps prisée en Occident comme le privilège, la meilleure part de l’homme, ce dont tout être qui mérite le nom d’homme ne peut être privé, ce par quoi l’on touche à l’éternité, cette heureuse impuissance a vu son sens renversé. Thalès ne vaut plus la servante. La vérité, séparée de la vie, ne vaut pas la vie qu’elle contribue à opprimer. [2]

Y a-t-il une philosophie française?

It would seem that Christian Jambet’s intervention in the history of philosophy have largely escaped the attention of the Anglophone reception of  contemporary “French philosophy.” Hence the importance of Peter Hallward’s reflections on Jambet’s life and work in his 2003 introduction to Jambet’s ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One’ published in Angelaki. [3] For Hallward, this relative neglect of Jambet’s work is a disservice to ourselves and to the image of French theory/philosophy that continues to be faithfully passed down within academia – especially given a person who was influenced by “Mao and Lacan” while also serving as “the translator of Rumi and Oscar Wilde” and “an attentive reader of Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou.” Given this range and diversity of Jambet’s thought, and as Hallward puts it, Jambet quite frankly “makes mainstream work in comparative philosophy look positively parochial” [4] and constitutes a blindspot regarding our understanding of the developments specific to the French tradition.

According to Hallward, Jambet’s intervention can be understood as constituted by its two main concerns: revolution and philosophy. Regarding the latter, Jambet defends a view of philosophy, not as the pursuit of knowledge or opinion, but as the reflexive undertaking that, when applied to oneself (“an entering into discord with oneself”), transforms both the subject and its image of thought. That is, philosophy is to be found in all those acts, which pursue a line of inquiry that is also defined by its qualitative break with every prejudice and acculturated habit that is recognizable by its belonging to a certain ‘common sense.’ As Hallward writes: “a genuine “philosophical act takes place when its subjects overturn their conception of the world,” when, breaking with prejudice or habit, they devise ways of thinking along lines indifferent to all received representations of the world. Philosophy…is a reflexive work of transformation applied upon oneself…so as to accord with a way of thinking that holds, in principle for anyone at all.”[5] For Jambet, what is at stake in the practice of philosophy is the transformation of the thinking subject such that this subject’s mode of thought is marked by a break with those forms of thought sustained by either tradition (“good sense”) or convention (“common sense”).

Qu’est–ce que la revolution?

Given Jambet’s experiences as a member of the Maoist groups Union des Jeunesses Communistes and Gauche Prolétarienne and ultimate disappointment with the direction taken by Maoism in both China and France, he returns to and refashions a theory of revolutionary subjectivity (as developed in his text L’Ange from 1976 and furthered in his 1978 work Le Monde) which allows him to begin theorizing revolution as a “spiritual affair” – a revolution whose “most immediate enemies are those…who seek to harness its forces to merely social or historical ends.”[6] However, we should not understand this spiritual definition of revolution as a regression or inherent mysticism regarding Jambet’s political thought. Rather, for Jambet, revolution belongs to the category of Spirit precisely because it is Spirit that is said to be the locus of the genesis of novel forms of both thinking and living. This revolutionary spiritualism opposed to a theory of revolution bound by the dictates of History (world), says Hallward, allows Jambet to directly address what is at stake in both emancipatory politics as well as the history of Islam:

“Jambet’s decisive encounter with Corbin…is what determined him to look for such points of reference primarily in esoteric Shi’ite philosophy, in which the struggle between world and spirit (between a literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran and one that urges the invention of new forms of interpretation) is particularly acute. The question posed today by the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden is the question that has divided Islam from the beginning: is God’s will essentially mediated by rules and institutions and thus caught up in the enforcement of law, or “is God creative freedom, pure spontaneity, such that true believers express this divine freedom in their own spiritual practice,” as so many instances of “boundless spontaneity”?” [7]

So, for Jambet, revolution is decidedly ‘spiritual’ insofar as it is precisely those instances which belong to Spirit that are also acts/moments/thoughts/lives/etc., that realizes that novel and creative force, which expresses, not the relative and particular intentions of human agents, but the logic of that which can only be said to be absolutely free, creative, and spontaneous. If Revolution no longer answers to the demands of realizing historical institutions such as law, or the state, this is because to do so would ultimately mean reversing the relation between the absolute and what is relative to it – which, as Hallward notes, when translated in practical terms is a reversal defined by the very agendas set forth by Khomeini and bin Laden since each, in their own way, valorize a policing relation based on a ‘literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran’ (a metaphysical reversal whose political correlate is categorized as World). So, if revolution is to mean anything it must necessarily be so many instances (i.e. so many moments of a coming-into-being and in accordance with substance and attributes of which it is an expression) of the divine attribute of “boundless spontaneity.” And in this manner, says Jambet, revolution is nothing if not a spiritual affair.

However it is at this point in Jambet’s reconsideration of the fundamental features of revolution that we would be right to ask the following: what leads Jambet to think revolution from the vantage point of a substance based metaphysics? What is it that compels Jambet to deny the dictum that l’un n’est pas [the one is not] and to recuperate the existence of ‘the One’? In any event, it is the radical transformation of oneself and the world that remains at stake. And as Jambet will show, it is only by virtue of ‘the One’ that (i) Thought has access to the reality of revolution just as (ii) it is by virtue of ‘the One’ that revolution becomes a real possibility in Practice.

So, on what basis is Jambet able to claim that Revolution is only said of Spirit and not of the World? On what grounds does Jambet’s theory of revolution avoid turning into a politics founded upon an underlying mysticism and whose subject is characterized by a properly agnostic paralysis; or a less prosaic variant of a heavily mediated idealism? These questions become all the more serious since Jambet’s position seems to go against the very method (historical materialism) that allowed Marx and Engels to develop a theory of revolution whose promise was the universal emancipation of humanity. So, all of this is to ask: ‘can revolution be accomplished in thought and action if we abjure our relation History, which would be, for Jambet, an attribute, not of Spirit, but of the World?‘ On this point Hallward is again instructive since, for Jambet, revolution undoubtedly belongs to ‘Spirit’ insofar as its defining characteristics are only many expressions, or emanations, of its attributes:

“Any conception of spirit as absolute creativity must have at least three fundamental attributes…In the first place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Spinoza)…an unlimited creative force can only be singular, unique…In the second place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Hegel)…pure creativity can only be thought as subject rather than an object, and the only subject adequate to the One is God himself…In the third place, then (for reasons similar to those embraced by Bergson), we ourselves can know God only in so far as God thinks through us…The only true principle immune to radical doubt here is not “think” but “I am thought (by God)” – cogitor rather than cogito.”[8]

 

endnotes
[1] Christian Jambet, ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One,’ Angelaki vol. 8, no. 2, (August, 2003), 36-41, 36.

[2] Christian Jambet, Apologie de Platon. 11.
[3]For more see Hallward’s introduction in Angelaki vol 8, no. 2, August 2003, 33-35.
[4] Ibid, 33.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 34.
[8] Ibid.

On the End of History & the Death of Desire (Notes on Time and Negativity in Bataille’s ‘Lettre á X.’)

 

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To continue from our conclusions regarding the question of what it would mean to love as a communist, we begin from the idea that abolition is what necessary binds communism as real movement to problems encountered in the life of desire, of the heart, of the family. And one key consequence of this would be the following: if communism, as the real movement that abolishes both itself and the present state of things, is what allows us to truly pose questions pertaining to sex, love, and family life, then the political and the libidinal, which have been historically treated as two distinct phenomena, are now revealed as inseparable and necessarily bound to each other. Thus, and as we will see Bataille write in response to Kojève, ours is a time wherein Desire’s libidinal activity can no longer be thought of, and even more so understood, as independent of the economic ‘base’ of the capitalist mode of production. So, if last time we saw that questions of sex and love are revealed to be inherently socio-historical and not merely personal and private, then the very notion of desire is given a new, and hopefully truer, meaning. Moreover, this new understanding of the life of desire also brings about a shift in our theoretical and practical perspective – from a position that has been comfortable in thinking desire as solely belonging to pertaining to private (as opposed to public) life to a view that finds it impossible to think through problems of libidinal life independent of their socio-political and material determination.

Given this more nuanced position, however, we are still confronted by the following question: what is the nature of desire in both its libidinal and politico-economic determination? If it is said that, now, Desire’s proper place as the ‘base’ and not ‘superstructure’, what, then, does this mean about Desire and its subjects? What kind of subjectivity is as political as it is libidinal such that it is simultaneously constituted by, while expressing itself through, the very forces and relations of production? This is to ask, in another way, about the meaning of a desire that is inherently irreducible to fantasy, dreams, or the physical act of sex?

Bataille & Kojève: A Meeting At The End of History

What is the nature of a desire that is both sexual and political; a desire that is at once psychic and socio-historical? On way of approaching the question of the sexual/psychic and political/socio-historical features of desire is that of Bataille; and particularly his treatment of desire in ‘Lettre á X., chargé d’un cours sur Hegel…’, a letter written to Kojeve in light of his seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Sorbonne. While Bataille’s letter does not treat the question of libidinal economy explicitly, he does take up the question of desire as it is linked to negativity, and what a desire with negativity at its heart would mean for the very notion of negation/negativity as such. And it is this treatment of desire’s inherent negativity that is instructive for our purposes since the abolition that binds communism to problems of sex, love, and gender is a relation that has negation at its center.:

In truth its no longer a matter of misfortune or life, only what has become of “negativity out of work”, if it is true that it does become something. I am there in the forms which it engenders, forms not at the outset in myself but in others. Most often negativity without power becomes the work of art…In what concerns me, the negativity which belongs to me didn’t give up work until that moment when there wasn’t any work: the negativity of a man who has nothing more to do, not that of a man who prefers to talk. But the fact – which seems incontestable – that a negativity turned away from action would express itself as work of art is no less charged with meaning given the possibilities remaining to me. It shows that negativity can be objectified […] the man of “negativity out of work”… He is in front of his own negativity as if before a wall. Whatever ill he suffers from this, our man knows that henceforth nothing can be avoided, for negativity has no issue. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 49) 

The task, then, is to see whether or not Bataille has good reason to posit a relation between desire, negativity, and the fact that to love as a communist means to love via the real movement of abolition.

The Economy of Abolition; The Economy of Desire

If Bataille shows that the problem of interpreting Hegel’s claim to an ‘end of history’ is not resolved with Kojève’s call for the ‘re-animalization of Man.’ Rather, if there is an ‘end of history’ it is a riddle solved in the attempt to delineate a different kind of negativity; one no longer tied to a notion of a productive activity that progressively attains its historical telos. Contra Kojeve, what the end of history forces us to think is a negativity no longer characterized as laborious. The negativity of desire, at the end of history, has exhausted itself of all productivity and is thus left with nothing to do. As Bataille writes regarding this non-productive negativity of desire:  

If the act (the “doing of things”) is – as Hegel says – negativity, the question then arises as to whether the negativity of one who has “nothing more to do” disappears or is subsumed under “negativity out of work” [négativité sans emploi]. Personally I can only decide on the one sense, my own being exactly this “negativity out of work” (I could not define myself better). I wish Hegel had foreseen that possibility: at least didn’t he put it at the outcome of the process he described. I imagine that my life – or its miscarriage, better still, the open wound my life is – this alone constitutes the refutation of Hegel’s closed system. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 48)  

Desire as negativity without work is nothing but its unemployment. If the essence of desire is this unemployed negativity, then we are confronted with the paradox of imaging a desire whose particular products and effects are generated through non-productive means; a negativity that can only live and create by means other than that of a life lived according to the dictates of labor. But why does Bataille maintain that, at the end of history, Desire continues to be productive in spite of the fact that Desire can no longer continue to be the labor of negativity?

As the editors of Bataille’s letter helpfully clarify: “Bataille thinks this question [negativity] through by discussing what he terms expenditure. Expenditure may be either productive…or unproductive [and] … it is to this second sense of expenditure that Bataille reserves the term ‘expenditure’ sans phrase” (‘Lettre á X.,’ 47). It is for these reasons that Bataille will maintain that the end of history force’s Desire to undergo a substantial transformation: the labor of the negative, and this negativity as productive activity, do not persist at history’s end (and for Bataille this also means that if the labor of the negative was the motor of desire it was only because of historical and contingent factors). At the end of History, humanity isn’t forced to re-naturalize itself into what is animal (a la Kojève). Rather, we are forced to find ways to live the new found life of negativity, obliged to live a life no longer tied to labor or productive activity. With Bataille, it is as if the fate of humanity was to eventually see itself in a new light; as if, history was simply the first act in humanity’s reckoning with itself as a negativity now unemployed; as if what is instantiated is a form of subjectivity whose very possibility for existing is now constituted by the simple fact that it has ‘nothing more to do;’ at History’s end, then, the only thing we are left with is Time.

After History, Time

Now, with Bataille’s interpretation of the real and Subjective consequences brought about by the ‘end of History’ two things are clear. First, we are able to understand that there exists the persistence of negativity after History; even if negativity will persist in an altogether different form and be of a different nature. Second, and this is what will become important for this section, the unemployed negativity of desire may have been born at History’s closure but its life is lived in a world where there is ‘nothing but Time.’ So it seems that just as negativity persists after History, Time, too, continues on after History’s closure. Thus it is this question of the Time that emerges at the end of History that is at issue since, it is our intuition that the negativity of non-productive expenditure does not simply belong to a world where there is nothing but Time. What is more, this negativity will be said to have its own form of Time proper to itself (and the least we can say is that, for Bataille, Time and History are said to exist independent of each other, since it is the only way by which History can be resolved while Time presses onward). However, if these two consequences that follow from Bataille’s position are of any significance it is due to the fact that, when taken together, we begin to understand that the end of History doesn’t not mean the absolute exhaustion of Being and rather that Time and negativity persist beyond History (and we should add to this that they accomplish this only on the condition that they are constituted by a new relation, which determines and guarantees their mutual persistence).

Putting aside, for the moment, other possible consequences we may draw from the contents of this letter, we can at the very least say that the implicit but crucial thesis of Bataille’s letter is that of the ontological independence of Time and negativity from History. That is, if Time is said to be what determines non-productivity as the form Desire must take, it is only because the Desire, which comes at the end of History is the one that finds itself with “nothing left to do.” This persistence of negativity, that is to say, of Desire, is forced to confront itself by virtue of its post-Historical circumstance as a form of Desire that has at its disposal, and when aiming to secure its persistence after History post-Historical existence, nothing other than Time. To be sure, at the end of History Desire does in fact die even though it is made to be reborn in the persistence of this unemployed negativity.

And if we were to inquire deeper into just what exactly this time of unemployed negativity could be, we quickly finds ourselves returning to Marx; for it was Marx who already gave unemployed negativity a name when, in the Grundrisse, he spoke of disposable-time as a form of time that is irreducible to capital’s division between labor- and leisure-time (where the real difference is between waged and unwaged labor). Moreover, says Marx, disposable-time reveals itself to be the real meaning of wealth since it implies the development of the capacities, knowledges, and well-being of society as a whole: ‘For real wealth is developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time‘ (Grundrisse, tr. Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973, 708). And lastly, we saw that disposable-time as the time of communism also made possible attempted resolutions to questions/problems of sex, gender, and love since those relations can be created and recreated without the threat to the material- and/or social well-being of those involved. Loving takes time, or at the very least learning to love takes time and it is an education the temporality of which must be disposable.