The Unbearable Lightness of Being Nothing

In his Theory of the Novel, the pre-Marxist Lukács defines the epic (in terms of genre, enabling synthetic analysis and comparison with ‘the novel’ and ‘the drama’), following on Hegel and Schiller’s understanding of Homeric Greece as essentially “naive,” “childish,” etc., as the terrain of absolute empiricism, an ontologically and politically heterogeneous totality complete in itself, without need for a transcendent Other. “In the epic, totality can only truly manifest itself in the contents of the object: it is metasubjective, transcendent, it is a revelation and grace. Living, empirical man is always the subject of the epic, but his creative, life-mastering arrogance is transformed in the great epics into humility, contemplation, speechless wonder at the luminous meaning which, so unexpectedly, so naturally, has become visible to him, an ordinary human being in the midst of ordinary life.” As he will say over and over, the sphere of the epic is the sphere of life, the consistency of subject-object relations, the balance between man and nature, guaranteed by the positing of humanlike gods, arbiters of destiny from whom the heroes derive meaning through endless struggle against their decrees.

The novel by contrast, the “bourgeois epic,” operates in a different historical situation, one in which man has estranged himself from nature through the accumulated residue of his own subjective will. The world has been overtaken by the “second nature” of reification, the “charnel-house of long-dead interiorities.” Against this alienation, the novelist opposes form: “The epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life.” Or, more forcefully: “The abstract basis of the novel assumes form as a result of the abstraction seeing through itself; the immanence of meaning required by the form is attained precisely when the author goes all the way, ruthlessly, toward exposing its absence.”

This is of course the original quixotic quest, doomed to a whole typology of failures. The novelistic hero, “problematic individual,” invariably reveals him or herself to be nothing but the function of a formal principle that exceeds any given subject, the novelist’s development or pushing to limits of a “certain problematic of life.” Like the epic orator, the novelist abandons his characters to their fates, but where the suffering of epic heroes fulfills their role within the vital totality, the suffering of novel heroes is an impossible dilemma: the destitution of the world of false meanings by negative, formal Truth not only leaves them no place to stand, but no given terms in which to understand their fall. “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” writes Lukacs the secular utopian, and in so doing he reconstructs the dialectic perhaps most favored by intellectuals for defining modern European culture, Greeks vs. Judeo-Christians.

Fully in the manner of the Lukácsian novelistic hero, a role no philosopher or critic can shake (as it is basically the job description), Auerbach carries this opposition to its formal conclusions in Mimesis:

“The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical — it excludes all other claims. The world of Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality — it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they might please us and enchant us — they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”

And in summation:

“We have compared these two texts [Odyssey and the Old Testament], and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, ‘background’ quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.”

We first have to set aside any qualms we may have about historical accuracy in these schematic characterizations and understand them as the creations of philosopher-critics. Two figures are raised up as ideal types, twin extremes the modern subject is understood to define itself by rejecting, the child and the tyrant. Against these theoretical demiurges, undisciplined naiveté and arbitrary power, we come into the “maturity” and “virility” of alienation, the passage from Dante to Quixote and on to all that follows. Child and tyrant are thus linked in their immaturity, their being not-yet-modern. The idealism of pure, immediate sensuousness, and the tyranny (and mystery) of Truth become the stuff of Utopia.

Lukács writes of the modern novel: “The inner importance of the individual has reached its historical apogee: the individual is no longer significant as the carrier of transcendent worlds, as he was in abstract idealism, he now carries his value exclusively within himself.” The jab at ‘abstract idealism’ is one of the few references made to philosophy as a positive influence on the historical process of modernity’s self-definition, not ‘just’ a source for the invisible theoretical edifice. Odd when the whole enterprise, certainly modern and certainly formalist, just like the novelistic hero, is so plainly, irrecusably Hegelian. Hegel and his lineage — ‘philosophy itself’ — are permitted into the form but not the content of this narrative of the modern subject disguised as narrative of the modern novel; in this little glimpse we see only hubris (“carrier of transcendent worlds”), just another shorn vanity. Philosophy gets us from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or communalism based on shared myth to organized society based on legal binding, and Lukács has his critiques elsewhere of Kant and Hegel. But what about the ‘style’ of philosophy? Like the Old Testament its concern is Truth, but with an invitation to dialogue, its announced dependence on the testability (if not verifiability) of logical argument? Plato’s dialogues are already tricks of interpellation, a staged conversation wherein Socrates makes pronouncements in the form of questions, fools spout banalities in the form of argument, and Plato silently transcribes. The trail from dialogues to dialectics would be worth following.

Of course, the poststructuralists already tore down the barriers separating myth, theology, philosophy, and literature. Rancière gives a well-practiced version of this argument in “The Body of the Letter,” where he reads the avant la lettre ‘postmodern’ skepticism of Cervantes (via Borges) back down to the Bible, permitting a solution to the antinomy of Christianity — “a Christianity of incarnation that finds its realization in the pagan ‘Bible’ of the epic poem, and a Christianity of absence that founds the ‘modern’ epic of the novel” — by reducing the Bible’s cryptic eschatological promise to so many ‘textual economies’ generated by the in-existent secret:

“Against any facile theory of a god as master of stories, playing with the madness of his characters and the belief of his readers, the modern novel manifests this solidarity of the power of writing with the dispersion of the letter that travels the world without a body of legitimacy. And its story is also that of the inversion of the initial relationship of mastery, which becomes the subjection of literary absoluteness to any characer whatsoever, to any ‘madman,’ caught in the trajectory of the silent and loquacious letter.”

Even the most tyrannical, irrational, inscrutable proprietor subject is expropriated by the a-signifying logic of information processing, hoist by his own petard so to speak. The anti-‘anthropomorphism’ and expansive definition of subjective idealism presented by Brassier and (some of) his speculative realist pals, it should be noted, apply to all of the above, especially the latter (the old and now outdated source of anti-humanist jollies). Where precisely do they differ? Not on the level of form — there are only so many of those to go around — but on the level of Truth, a truth for which form is not the expression, is rather the vehicle for the return of subject to object. Brassier elevates what for Lukács are two unfortunate indulgences of consciousness:

“The desire to know a world cleansed of all wanting and all willing transforms the subject into an a-subjective, constructive and constructing embodiment of cognitive functions.”

“In the Romanticism of disillusionment, time is the corrupting principle; poetry, the essential, must die, and time is ultimately responsible for its passing”

to the realm of necessity — true no matter what ‘you’ ‘think.’ The “childish” naiveté of Lukács’ Homer is non-dialectically combined (a la Laruelle) with the expulsion from Paradise. Reality is Authority, and the subject has the inestimable privilege of being nowhere.

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17 Responses to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Nothing”

  1. “Even the most tyrannical, irrational, inscrutable proprietor subject is expropriated by the a-signifying logic of information processing, hoist by his own petard so to speak”

    (until 1694.)

  2. i was hoping for an accidental smiley there

  3. (the point being there is not only the question of how the sovereign can keep control the letter, but the reverse, how to force the sovereign to pay, to oblige the sovereign to make the letter good. Creditors have an interest in maintaining the power of debtors to pay.)

  4. sorry last thing from below:

    “unless you’re suggesting that at bottom no one takes any of it ’seriously.’”

    No I am just acknowledging liberalism. We take it all equally seriously. Including all the many nihilisms. Clearly the dominant assumption is that the meaning of life is fabricated, at the whim of people, and if you say there isn’t one that has exactly the same status as proposing a particular one. Meaning of life is absolutely optional. There no meaningful difference between meaningless and meaningful life. The question of whether life has or has not a meaning is for us meaningless. And no amount of zeal about it can change that.

  5. traxus4420 Says:

    “There no meaningful difference between meaningless and meaningful life.”

    but then this produces not only your (and aside from idle curiosity, my) indifference, but also the lure of going beyond the criteria of meaning altogether. i’ll let brassier defend himself:

    “In fact the crucial sleight of hand in this attempted ‘refutation’ of EM [eliminative materialism] occurs in the second step, specifically in the claim that ‘the eliminativist’s belief that there are no beliefs is itself an instance of belief, just as the intelligibility of his claim that there is no such thing as meaning relies on the reality of the meaning which it claims to deny.’ But the intelligibility of EM does not in fact depend on the reality of ‘belief’ and ‘meaning’ thus construed. For it is precisely the claim that ‘beliefs’ provide the necessary form of cognitive content, and that propositional ‘meaning’ is the necessary medium for semantic content, that the eliminativist denies. Thus Churchland’s claim is not that there is no such thing as ‘meaning’ but rather that our spontaneous experience of ‘understanding’ what we mean in terms of propositional attitude FP [folk psychology – basically common sense] does not provide a reliable guide for grasping what Churchland calls ‘the underlying kinematics and dynamics’ of meaning…Churchland is not simply claiming that there is no such thing as meaning tout court…but rather that ‘beliefs’ (such as ‘that FP is false’) and ‘propositions’ (such as ‘FP is false’) are rendered possible by representations whose complex multi-dimensional structure is not adequately reflected in the structure of a propositional attitude such as ‘belief,’ and whose underlying semantics cannot be snetentially encapsulated. The dispute between EM and FP concerns the nature of representations, not their existence. EM proposes an alternative account of the nature of representations; it is no part of its remit to deny that such representations occur.

    Ultimately, the question-begging character of the ‘self-refuting’ objection to EM becomes readily apparent when we see how easily it could be adapted to block the displacement of any conceptual framework whatsoever by spuriously transcendentalizing whatever explanatory principle (or principles) happens to enjoy a monopoly in it at any given time. Patricia Churchland provides the following example, in which a proponent of vitalism attempts to refute anti-vitalism using similar tactics: ‘The anti-vitalist claims there is no such thing as vital spirit. But if the claim is true the speaker cannot be animated by the vital spirit. Consequently he must be dead. But if he is dead then his claim is a meaningless string of noises, devoid of reason and truth.’ Here as before, the very criterion of intelligibility whose pertinence for understanding a given phenomenon – ‘life’ in this case, ‘meaning’ in the previous one — is being called into question, is evoked in order to dismiss the challenge to it. But just as anti-vitalism does not deny the existence of the various phenomena grouped together under the heading of ‘life,’ but rather a particular way of explaining what they have in common, EM does not deny the reality of the phenomena subsumed under the heading of ‘meaning’ (or ‘consciousness’), but rather a specific way of explaining their characteristic features.”

  6. traxus4420 Says:

    “how to force the sovereign to pay, to oblige the sovereign to make the letter good.”

    good point. the rules of obedience include the strategy of manipulation.

  7. EM proposes an alternative account of the nature of representations;

    but isn’t this four flushing irritating and doesn’t it characterise everything he writes? EM doesn’t have an “explanation” or “alternative account” of anything; it has a wish list; one day, churchland hopes, neuroscience will be able to furnish some rudimentary description of brain activity corresponding to the simplest elements of brassier’s text, like “familiarity with Kant” so that scientists can hope one day to say this and this perceptible physical condition or state of this brain is what the consciousness of its possessor perceives as “being persuaded by Kant with reservations” which state differs from the physical condition of this other brain whose possessor percieves himself as “being wholly persuaded by Kant”.

  8. traxus4420 Says:

    “it has a wish list”

    so, not so different from radical in relation to liberal political theory. not so alien to ‘common sense’ either — you can’t explain anything in terms of itself. its immediate usefulness for philosophers of mind is that it permits the theorization of subsequent descriptions of brain activity, rudimentary or no, without having to rely on subjective states as truth criteria. my intuition would be (based on having been sufficiently bored by phenomenology) that we can’t even begin to improve our theory of mind without first ruling out subjective states as truth criteria.

    usefulness for other people is still something of an open question (i think my last two posts make it pretty obvious i don’t think brassier’s stuff is without plainly reactionary elements).

  9. traxus4420 Says:

    so as to not completely play devil’s advocate here, one problem with EM that seems pretty clear, and related to the issue i brought up earlier about how language is left out, is that, just like husserl, it ‘brackets’ phenomena, just relocates truth to the other side. so the possibility of conscious representation feeding back into the brain is prohibited in advance. kind of stalinesque if you think about it.

  10. traxus4420 Says:

    in terms of traditional philosophy, spinoza + the autonomous subject, where spinoza’s monism is shorn of its identity (God) and put in a non-relation of transcendence over subjective phenomena.

  11. “subjective states as truth criteria”

    subjective states are the thing one is trying to account for. “mind”. also the primary instrument of the research. a unique situation.

    “the possibility of conscious representation feeding back into the brain is prohibited in advance. kind of stalinesque if you think about it.”

    yeah, but they feed into an implied second mind in the brain. there are three minds in the brain we can identify referred to by em and also by brassier (who is not championing em): there is (a) the mind which produces the illusion of subjectivity and subjective states, pain, intention, concept production; there is (b) the mind which consumes and is deceived by these illusions; there is (c) the mind which observes this, undeceived. Presumably this last one is usually the infallible one which faithfully reflects “things”, but on several occasions it is implied that mind (b), while deceived by mind (a), is a reliable collector of data about most other things, possessing a selective power of discernment between reality and illusion that is only vulnerable to the trickery of mind (a).

  12. (a) produces the illusion of personal, active doubt
    (b) is fooled and produces the unnamed ‘theory’ of “folk psychology”, or theory of mind
    (c) produces texts by Churchland

  13. “so, not so different from radical in relation to liberal political theory.”

    right; the main thing churchland says is, if there is ever anything produced by brain science that explains mind, we would have to accept it over what we have haphazardly put together in psychology. Just so. I don’t think anyone objects to that. But then he says, so, in anticipation of that day, we are obliged to assume in advance that everything cognitive science posits now is false, etc.. This is I think what people find unreasonable; Fodor for example argues that this is the only case in memory among “scientists” where the best theory, “folk psychology”, which is indeed the only theory with any predictive success – in this case, stunning success rate – is proposed for trashing just becuz; that is, in the absence of any theory at all to replace it.

  14. “spinoza + the autonomous subject, where spinoza’s monism is shorn of its identity (God) and put in a non-relation of transcendence over subjective phenomena”

    okay. but isn’t it kind of personified, in the details? brassier is sure its childhood is formative too and the knowing of it involves putting in on the couch and looking very seriously into that babyhood of the universe. the goal, what the will to know is driving at, is this epiphany at the end of regression, he wants to record in the human mind, or let the universe relive through the mirror of this mind, spacetime’s own ‘horror’.

  15. “you can’t explain anything in terms of itself”

    yeah maybe this is really the “horror”. and why this interest in kant’s souls of things, which solve this problem of textual production that drives the philosophical decision. because you can’t explain anything in terms of itself – you can’t ask what is matter/energy? and if for philosophy, “intelligibility” is representation, mirroring, then plainly there is a dead end there, the project can’t complete, without the bifurcation provided by the divine. The problems and questions of philosophy, its defining features, were developed with this feature built in, and its possible it can’t do without it. We can, thought can, but its possible that properly philosophical thought really can never produce without at least the implication of the reflection.

  16. lukacs is a post-marxist not a pre-marxist like said in the first sentence. This makes me question the validity of the whole article.

  17. ok makes sense now after a few reads. sorry this was his period before going into marxism.

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