Sunday, April 16, 2006

Two Kinds of Critique

In an earlier post, Yusef suggested that there's a certain kind of critique, a Platonic critique, which is distinguished by the importance of "testing of claims and claimants." I want to take up a minor disagreement with this assessment, but it is always the minor points on which everything else turns.

Platonism (but not necessarily Plato himself) is the enemy for the historical-libidinal materialist tradition (Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Negri). Why Platonism? And what is Platonism?

In Nietzsche and Philosophy, Deleuze gives us the contrast: it is Socrates (speaking through Plato) who asks, "what is . . .?" Socrates/Plato asks for the definition, the identity, of the thing (of love, of virtue, of courage, of beauty, of justice). But Dionysus (speaking through Nietzsche) asks, "who is the one who says . . . ?" Dionysos makes the radically "relativizing" move by risking acknowledgement of the perspective which informs the assertion being made. Where Plato is the great de-contextualizer and de-perspectivizer, Nietzsche is the opposite.

But at the same time we cannot ignore the ways in which "the opposite of Plato" is itself another of Nietzsche's many masks . . . the hermeneutic problems multiply into a swarm of hornets when one considers how Nietzsche characterizes metaphysics as "the faith in opposite values," in Human, All-too-Human and in Beyond Good and Evil. The "faith in opposite values" is the faith that reason could not have emerged from the irrational, that what is noble and good could not have emerged from what is base and bad. If Nietzsche is "the opposite of Plato," then he is the opposite of opposition, and he himself is only one more metaphysician. I suspect that something like this underpins Heidegger's reading of Nietzsche as "the last metaphysician" -- the thinker whose opposition to opposition made opposition impossible.

Deleuze, on the other hand, attempts to side-step this problematic by adopting the Spinozist assertion, Non opposita sed diversa -- "Not opposed but different" -- as the watchword for a very different kind of ontology, a flat ontology of virtual multiplicities and processes of actualization. And corresponding to this ontology is a different kind of critique than the Platonic critique. The Platonic critique seeks the heights; its mere inversion, which is the Heideggerian, seeks the depths. What neither Plato nor Heidegger know how to do is how to say on the surface.

But how might a critique stay on the surface and yet be critical? There is a model for this that is even older than Plato, against whom Plato is reacting: the History of the Peloponessian War of Thucydides. One need only think of his work as "On the Geneaology of the Peloponessian War" to see the convergence with Nietzsche. Thucydides asks, "who is the one who says . . .?" in the famous dialogue of the Athenians with the Miletans, in Pericles' funeral oration, and throughout the History.

So here, too, there is a "testing of claims and claimants" -- but of a very different kind.

Where Plato looks for Ideas, Thucydides looks for the tangle of motives and desires. It was Foucault who said, "People know what they do, and they frequently know why they do what they do, but what they don't know is what what they do does." This is a Thucydidean thought, and one alien not only to Plato, but also to Aristotle, who rated history as even further from truth than poetry is.

If one considers the Greece of Democritus and Thucydides, it is clear that Plato is reactionary. But what makes him reactionary? It is not that he demands clarity of definitions, but that he uses this demand in the service of myth. No careful reader of Plato can fail to be amazed at the parade of myths, metaphors, and stories in the Platonic dialogues. Everywhere Socrates says, "I don't know what it is, but I can tell you what it is like": the Myth of Er in Republic, the story of Eros in Symposium, Socrates' death-bed revelation in Phaedo.

What is remarkable about Plato, and what marks him out as a reactionary, is that mystification and mythification are presented after the First Greek Enlightenment (the physicists, sophists, and historians). Not that mythification is itself reactionary, but to present myths in a deliberate, self-conscious fashion, after enlightenment, as a response to enlightenment -- that is reactionary.

(However, one might point out that this is not entirely fair to Plato; if mythopoesis is a reaction to enlightenment, it is not necessarily reactionary -- otherwise Blake's response to Newton would also be reactionary.)


Anonymous Yusef said...

The testing of claimants is a common theme, a common plot line, even, in mythology.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

That's true -- the suitors in The Odyssey, the Trial of Paris -- heroes are tested for their worthiness, valor, etc.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Comment 1. Have you read Nehamas' great book on Nietzsche's response to Socrates, "Nietzsche: Life as Literature"? I wrote a paper on that once... the idea that N was half-obsessed with the idea of himself as the new Socrates/anti-Socrates.

Comment 2. If you haven't already, you should also read the introduction to Carlo Ginzburg's "History, Rhetoric and Proof" which discusses in depth Nietzsche's reaction to Thucydides.

Comment 3. I'm not sure the label "reactionary" is very useful when dealing with a figure like Plato. Plato was an aristocrat, trying to preserve what he perceived as an older order against the invasions of ethical relativism, not to mention the sharp decline of Athenian prosperity after 400 BC. In that sense he might be called a political reactionary. BUT--he is, on another level, quite the reverse, entirely radical. In his two works on the State, he advocates all sorts of odd reforms, some as caricatures of Spartan communalism, others as pure utopian experiments (eg. public drunkenness and naked house-searching in the "Laws").

Plato spoke in myths, but did not indulge in "mystification". His myths are often more like elaborate parables; what connection to the very anti-reactionary Jesus of Nazareth?

In terms of the "Greek Enlightenment", let's not forget that Plato was responsible for training the finest scientific minds of 4th century Greece! It has been suggested with considerable plausibility that much of the "physics" of the Timaeus was a great advance on previous theories, and in particular the notion, which he seems to have been the first to propound, that celestial irregularities can be modelled as a composition of regular circular motions (see, eg., Gregory Vlastos, "Plato's Universe").

2:57 AM  

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