Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Revisiting Some Abandoned Questions

Just a little over a year ago, on February 16, 2006, Dr. Spinoza proposed the following initiatory questions :

-what was the Enlightenment?

-what was the Counter-Enlightenment?

-what is “the dialectic of Enlightenment”?

-why is the Enlightenment currently under attack?

-why did the Left abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals?

Except for a very few, brief, almost furtive attempts made during the first month of the blog, these questions have received no attention – they’ve been abandoned.

I wonder why this is.

Do we need to give some account of the Enlightenment, how we view it, and how we situate ourselves with regard to it, as citizens of a western democracy and as bloggers writing under the banner of “The Enlightenment Underground,” or are we excused from taking it seriously – are we excused from this tradition?

I think that we must provide a better idea of why we wanted to take up this theme of Enlightenment – even if our account of that is never very fulfilling or far reaching…. We need to say why we thought the Enlightenment theme was important in the first place.

I want to re-initiate work on these initiatory questions of Dr. Spinoza.

Of the five questions, the last three seem to be secondary…to have derived from the first two, but not in some straightforward or unbiased way. It seems to me that they only come up if the first two questions are answered in a certain way, but not the way I would answer those first two questions. Therefore, I am going to bracket these last three questions and hold off yet further on them. Maybe I will come back to them… It will depend on the direction our discussion of the first two questions takes us.

Even though I plan to give a short answer to the second question, it bothers me for reasons I explained a little bit last week.

Which brings me to the first question: “what was the Enlightenment?”

I want to point out something I’ve noticed about the form Dr. Spinoza has given this question: he has placed it in the past tense. He has not asked: “what is the Enlightenment?”, but “what was the Enlightenment?” This is important, I think. Both Kant, in his essay “Was ist Aufklarung?”, and Foucault, in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”,( which is an essay in part about Kant’s essay), use the present tense—they are asking a question about the present – their present.

I think we need to do the same.

We need to be asking: what is the Enlightenment?

If we cannot ask it this way, we need to find out how it is that the Enlightenment is no longer a part of the present. We need to get a better grip on how it is that Kant and Foucault include the Enlightenment in, as Foucault says, “the question of [their] own present,” a writing of “the ontology of the present, an ontology of ourselves,” but our time is now so much different that we do not so include it – and what this difference is.

I very much love the succinct way Foucault summarized the extraordinarily potent themes of the Enlightenment which he felt were, or needed to be, active and activated in his time, ( our recent past.) I quoted Foucault's summary in last week’s post, but I give it again:

“I have been seeking, on the one hand, to emphasize the extent to which a type of philosophical interrogation—one that simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject—is rooted in the Enlightenment. On the other hand, I have been seeking to stress that the thread that may connect us with the Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather the permanent reactivation of an attitude—that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era.”- M. Foucault, essay: What is Enlightenment?

To highlight their thematic importance for my own questioning of my present, I will enumerate these three Enlightenment elements I identify in Foucault’s words:

1. To problematize man’s relation to the present;

2. To problematize man’s historical mode of being;

3. The constitution of the self as an autonomous subject.

Of these, I find the last to be of the most ringing importance.

I am answering the present tense question of “What is Enlightenment” by reactivating the philosophical ethos which contributes in our time to the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject.

The second question, “What was the Counter-Enlightenment?” (vis, “ what is the Counter-Enlightenment?”) I thus would answer: the Counter-Enlightenment is that which works to prevent the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject. However, please note – I do not believe that there exist Counter-Enlightenment projects, conspiracies, or groups, per se.

We can rephrase the other thematic question Dr. Spinoza posed a year ago, “Why do people desire their own repression?” by putting it this way: “Why don't people direct their efforts and desire toward the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject, but choose instead one that is non-autonomous?”

If I’ve been followed in all this, I think it is obvious that I’m putting enormous stress on the concept of “autonomy.” And that’s dangerous, I think, because I’m not even sure that “autonomy” exists, or if it does, that it has the desirability I’m now giving it. I want to study “autonomy” in much greater detail. In particular, I want to show what "autonomy" looks like within that thinking which is "a pragmatics of the multiple."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Yusef,

It's good to read your process of clarification and getting down to the roots of the original intention of this admirable blog.

A few stray thoughts:

The easy answer to “Why do people desire their own repression?” is, of course Kant's own in his essay: that it is the laziness of not being mature that seems appealing, letting others read the books and tell you what to believe, letting the doctors determine what your diet should be, etc.

But it is also appealing to us today to go all Freudian and/or schizoanalytical
in our attempts to answer the question - which I don't really find that interesting.

You write, I want to study “autonomy” in much greater detail. In particular, I want to show what "autonomy" looks like within that thinking which is "a pragmatics of the multiple."

Now THAT would be a fascinating project that I would like to follow. Could you elaborate a bit on "a pragmatics of the multiple."

I presume you would go Deleuzean on that one, which makes it even more intriguing.

Deleuze's concept of individuation has always fascinated me and I want to learn more.

Good to hear from you again, Yusef. Let your posts be more plentiful ;-)

Orla Schantz

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

Good to hear again from you too, Orla.

I always appreciate your input. The phrase " a pragmatics of the multiple" is one I have taken from Deleuze's book entitled, " Foucault"; Deleuze says something to the effect that Foucault's entire philosophical project may be summarized as a " pragmatics of the multiple." My theory is that this "pragmatics of the multiple" is the revolution in thinking which is yet to happen -- a revolution which will revolutionize "revolution."

I want to return to developing the idea of an Enlightenment Haeccity which I commented briefly upon some time ago. I remember being intrigued by your take on it - you understand haeccity as " contingency." For me, the word means something much closer to "individuation" - but this doesn't mean that I thought you were wrong. I've actually seen quite a variety of different interpretations of this concept, "haeccity"; I want to explore them.

I've got a feeling I am going to be on the one post per week regimen for some time to come. Maybe Dr. Spinoza will pitch in a few more. Would you be interested in posting here? Best wishes to you.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment, Yusef.

Lets' see: In your post you end by saying you want to concentrate on "autonomy", and in your reply to me you want to explore haeccities. They are of course linked, but let's get a handle on Deleuze's term "haeccity".

It's true that I previously defined it as "contingency". But as you point out, this is a misunderstanding. First, haeccities consist entirely of movement and rest (longitude) between non-formed molecules and particles. Second, they have the capacity to affect and be affected (latitude)

In A Thousand Plateaus 10: "1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal..." there is a great passage where D&G define the concept. I'm reading the Danish translation, so I can't give you a page reference, but it is about 35 pages into the chapter in a section called The Memory of A Haeccity

(Roughly translated): "There is a way of individuating which is very different from the way that is characteristic of a person, a subject, a thing or a substance. For that we will reserve the word haeccity. A season, a winter, a summer, an hour or a date each have a complete individuality that lacks nothing, but it is not the same individuality as the one characterizing a thing or a subject."

D&G then go on with really great examples from literature, from Charlotte Brontë, Fernando Garcia Lorca, Ray Bradbury, to Virginia Woolf.

Then they write, "One should really avoid an all too simple reconciliation which pretends that on the one hand there are molded subjects of a type like "things" or "persons" and on the other spatio-temporal coordinates of the type "haeccities". You will never give the haeccities anything without first having grasped that you yourself are haeccities and nothing else.

And later:

"A haeccity has neither beginning nor end, neither an origin nor a destination; it's always in the middle. It does not consist of points, but of lines. It is a rhizome."

NOW we are getting warmer, Yusef. And let's then stick to this (and ONLY this!) in our further exploration of the question: Is the Enlightenment a haeccity?

Would I be interesting in posting on your blog? Sure. I hope I'm up to it. But you can post this. I guess I will need a password or something. Mail me at


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