Saturday, April 19, 2008

“Myth is Totality” as Desire, Part III

I want to aggravate and transmute Carl’s theory of the Enlightenment, “Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” into a form which is more general than Carl's, but somehow implicit in his,

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of bad nastiness (the bad) through good wonderfulness (the good.)”

This is a far more atrocious formulation of the theory than the one I came up with before, “Enlightenment is the smuglumpkikohk of pebersmacknik through spmikregoog,” which is mere nonsense and as such is limited in its pathological consequences.

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of bad nastiness (the bad) through good wonderfulness (the good,)” has nearly unlimited pathological consequences for all who have swallowed it or something like it, and I believe we have all swallowed it or diluted forms of it – unfortunately, Carl’s originally-stated theory is a diluted form.

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” was intended as a general framework for explaining the historical Enlightenment (1648-1789), the tensions and difficulties that animate the work of the great Enlightenment thinkers (especially Spinoza, Hume, and Kant,) the appeal of the Counter-Enlightenment, and the temptations of fascism.

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of bad through the good,” is an even more general framework for explaining the historical Enlightenment, with the advantage that it helps to open up features of the historical Enlightenment which Carl’s more narrow version precludes us from considering. Whatever the immense positive contributions of the historical Enlightenment (if such they be,) the historical Enlightenment, which in many ways was a reaction against religion and clergy, also contributed to strengthening authoritarian social forms exceeding in harmfulness what religion and clergy had already accomplished. Interestingly, Carl’s narrow and innocent version makes the nature of these further encroachments difficult to conceptualize.

In Carl’s theory, we must assume myth to be bad (whether myth is understood as totality, error,religious thinking, murkiness, or whatever,) and we must assume critique to be good (whatever critique may be); we must assume the Enlightenment and the processes of historical Enlightenment to be good; we must assume whatever gets overcome by Enlightenment to have been worthy for overcoming.

I don’t object to the use of assumptions, even a lot of assumptions, in the construction of a theory like this, but these are a particular kind of assumption—these are evaluative assumptions—and with evaluative assumptions I become wary. Is it productive to give evaluative assumptions the primacy they have here? Do these evaluative assumptions facilitate questioning and thinking, or shunt away what was worthy to be thought? By stating the theory as, “Enlightenment is the overcoming of the bad by the good,” I think it becomes obvious there is nothing more to be thought, and to make that explicit is why I think this form of the theory is worthwhile. Later I want to look at how the optical metaphors at the center of the Enlightenment’s project are a key to what keeps us from looking at what the Enlightenment wanted kept in the dark—the Enlightenment’s own evaluative assumptions.

Monday, April 07, 2008

"There Is Nothing Outside The Text "

Stanley Fish had a op-ed piece in The New York Times yesterday, Yusef, that seems relevant to us. Here are a few quotes,

It’s a great story, full of twists and turns, and now it has been told in extraordinary detail in a book to be published next month: “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States” (University of Minnesota Press). The book’s author is Francois Cusset, who sets himself the tasks of explaining, first, what all the fuss was about, second, why the specter of French theory made strong men tremble, and third, why there was never really anything to worry about.

Certainly mainstream or centrist intellectuals thought there was a lot to worry about. They agreed with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who complained that the ideas coming out of France amounted to a “rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment” even to the point of regarding “science as nothing more than a ‘narration’ or a ‘myth’ or a social construction among many others.”

This is not quite right; what was involved was less the rejection of the rationalist tradition than an interrogation of its key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the “I” facing an independent, free-standing world. The problem was how to get the “I” and the world together, how to bridge the gap that separated them ever since the older picture of a universe everywhere filled with the meanings God originates and guarantees had ceased to be compelling to many.

The solution to the problem in the rationalist tradition was to extend man’s reasoning powers in order to produce finer and finer descriptions of the natural world, descriptions whose precision could be enhanced by technological innovations (telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers) that were themselves extensions of man’s rational capacities. The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail — account of natural processes. Francis Bacon, often thought of as the originator of the project , believed in the early 17th century that it could be done in six generations.

To this hope, French theory (and much thought that precedes it) says “forget about it”; not because no methodological cautions could be sufficient to the task, but because the distinctions that define the task — the “I,” the world, and the forms of description or signification that will be used to join them — are not independent of one another in a way that would make the task conceivable, never mind doable.

Instead (and this is the killer), both the “I” or the knower, and the world that is to be known, are themselves not themselves, but the unstable products of mediation, of the very discursive, linguistic forms that in the rationalist tradition are regarded as merely secondary and instrumental. The “I” or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being.

Obviously the rationalist Enlightenment agenda does not survive this deconstructive analysis intact, which doesn’t mean that it must be discarded (the claim to be able to discard it from a position superior to it merely replicates it) or that it doesn’t yield results (I am writing on one of them); only that the progressive program it is thought to underwrite and implement — the program of drawing closer and closer to a truth independent of our discursive practices, a truth that, if we are slow and patient in the Baconian manner, will reveal itself and come out from behind the representational curtain — is not, according to this way of thinking, realizable.

…what was important about French theory in America was its political implications, and one of Cusset’s main contentions — and here I completely agree with him — is that it doesn’t have any. When a deconstructive analysis interrogates an apparent unity — a poem, a manifesto, a sermon, a procedure, an agenda — and discovers, as it always will, that its surface coherence is achieved by the suppression of questions it must not ask if it is to maintain the fiction of its self-identity, the result is not the discovery of an anomaly, of a deviance from a norm that can be banished or corrected; for no structure built by man (which means no structure) could be otherwise.

More here:

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Overcoming Of Unreason. Part II

The historical Enlightenment is a concept. And we can do "the linguistic turn", go Wittgensteinian on it, and bear in mind the fallacy of representation power of language. Let's instead go historical: who was Kant writing to? In all probability he was addressing the 2 percent of the population that belonged to the nobility. But what did central Europe look like at the time in the late part of the 18th century:

The pattern of Europe's social organization, first established in the Middle Ages, continued well into the eighteenth century. Social status was still largely determined not by wealth and economic standing, but by the division into the traditional "orders" or "estates," determined by heredity and quality. This divinely sanctioned division of society into traditional orders was supported by Christian teaching, which emphasized the need to fullfil the responsibilities of one's estate. Inequality was part of that scheme and could not be eliminated.

Although Enlightenment intellectuals attacked these traditional distinctions, they did not die easily. In the Prussian law code of 1794, marriage between noble males and middle-class females was forbidden without a government dispensation. In cities, sumptuary legislation designated what dress different urban groups should wear so as to keep them separate. Even without government regulation, however, different social groups remained easily distinguished everywhere in Europe by the distinctive, traditional clothes they wore.

Since society was still mostly rural in the eighteenth century, the peasantry constituted the largest social group, making up as much as 85 percent of Europe's population. There were rather wide differences, however, between peasants from area to area. The most important distinction at least legally was between the free peasant and the serf. Peasants in Britain, northern Italy, the Low Countries, Spain, most of France, and some areas of western Germany shared freedom despite numerous regional and local differences. Legally free peasants, however, were not exempt from burdens.

The nobles, who constituted about 2 or 3 percent of the European population, played a dominating role in society. Being born a noble automatically guaranteed a place at the top of the social order, with all of its attendant special privileges and rights. The legal privileges of the nobility included judgment by their peers, immunity from severe punishment, exemption from many forms of taxation, and rights of jurisdiction. Especially in central and eastern Europe, the rights of landlords over their serfs were overwhelming.

Kant was an aristocrat, however puritan in his daily life, who was a supreme concept-maker in true Deleuzian fashion. And as such we should approach him and his concepts. He was an Utopian, a dreamer who nevertheless heralded a vision of equality and intellectuality.

He was not only privileged, but also narrow-minded.

Are we still?

“Myth is Totality,” as Desire, Part II

Carl offered what appeared to be a relatively straightforward theory of the Enlightenment,

“Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,”

which turns out to not be at all straightforward unless the theory’s constituent terms can be considered straightforward, which they cannot.

As Orla might say, “it all depends on what is meant by overcoming, myth, and critique.”

What Orla said on March 1, 2008 about an Adorno and Horkheimer quotation would surely apply (mutatis mutandis) to Carl’s theory of Enlightenment as well,

“The theory relies so heavily on the thinking of opposites and differences. The meaning of ‘myth’ depends on the meaning of ‘critique’,and as Derrida would say the process is circular. The opposites relate to themselves rather than to what it purports to describe. And in this system of differences the first is invariable loaded with negative associations."

There is no assurance the words myth,reason,overcoming,totality, or even critique can work as they would need to work to make this theory do something. My fear is that we can pour any amount of time, effort, and thinking into the meaning of Carl’s theory and come no closer to discovering what it is which entices us about the historical Enlightenment, or where our fear of the historical Enlightenment also comes,

“Enlightenment is the smuglumpkikohk of pebersmacknik through spmikregoog.”

If we use the concept of myth, reason or unreason in our theory of Enlightenment, we have to explain what we mean: we have to define these terms. Defining terms is not a difficult matter, and in the case of the term myth, Carl already made a start of it by saying myth is totality. However, what is hard is to define the terms in such a way as to avoid Orla’s above-mentioned criticism, which in part means avoiding arbitrarily defining the terms of the theory; which means to avoid defining the terms of the theory with the definitions having no relationship to reality—-having no relationship outside their own peculiar circularity.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Overcoming Of Unreason. Unfinished.

The historical Enlightenment was (and is) precisely this: Spreading the LIGHT (the metaphor can hardly be emphasized enough) over the human darkness of superstition, myths, religion, ignorance, and illiteracy of mankind more than 200 years ago. In practically every area of human enterprise we have advanced into the light. And yet, as always is the case with the concept of "development" (another ambiguous trope) we witness the ebbs and flows of thinking and practice.

Kant himself in his seminal answer to the question Was ist Aufklärung? from December 5, 1783, wrote,

If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer
is:No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things are at present, we
still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or can
ever be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently and
well in religious matters, without outside guidance. But we do have distinct
indications that the way is now being cleared for them to work freely in this
direction, and that the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man's emergence
from his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer.

So, Yusef, are we still there? The obstacles are fewer. Granted. The way is now being cleared for man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Granted. But are we confronted with a systemic flaw: Does man secretly wish for his self-incurred immaturity?
Painting by Stephanie Willis: From the Enlightenment Series, 2008

Friday, April 04, 2008

“Myth is Totality,” as Desire, Part I

If we had been obeying conventional wisdom, we at the Enlightenment Underground would have begun our enquiry (and defense?) of the historical Enlightenment with the recognition of the Enlightenment as that period in the intellectual history of the West when reason comes to be urged as the basis for political authority. Our defense of the Enlightenment and resistance to the Counter-Enlightenment would have been straightforwardly an urging for a return to the principles of the authority of reason and a resistance to those political forces or movements supporting anything other than reason as a basis for political power.

Upon this conventional understanding of the Enlightenment (and Counter-Enlightenment) Carl’s theory of the Enlightenment, “Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique,” would have been rendered as, “Enlightenment is the overcoming of unreason through critique.” Overcoming would then denote the processes by which unreason is replaced or supplanted by reason, and critique would simply be equated with reason, “Enlightenment is the rational replacement and rational supplanting of unreason by reason,” is how Carl’s theory might then read. (A threatening redundancy in the theory becomes clearer.) Our mission here at Enlightenment Underground of defending the historical Enlightenment and resisting the Counter-Enlightenment would have then also been much more straightforward: we’d simply need to show where in the political and social realms there are transgressions of reason and how reason might be reasonably reasserted.

However, we didn’t obey conventional wisdom – we didn’t even give a nod in its direction until now. We preferred to blithely ignore any stability and orientation we might have received by treating “reason” as a real or unitary thing, as the conventional wisdom of the Enlightenment demands it must be. Perhaps because that conventional view of reason seems so ridiculous to us, we happily wandered into dark and ugly thickets of thoroughly unenlightened entanglements. Not that I necessarily regret it or think holding to the obvious straight and narrow path of “reason” would be more productive, “correct”, or intelligent. But my goal now is to understand why we went astray in the manner we did.(Is it productive to equate going astray with productivity?) What is our temptation and what are our fears? What do we want?

We want something from the historical Enlightenment, and yet we do not (at least not in the same form – but in a different form reason is not reason,) want what the historical Enlightenment wanted: political and social authority for “reason” alone. Do we?