Saturday, December 21, 2013

Toward the Nova: the Role of the Dialectic in Modern Thought

*The following is a work in progress, intended for panel presentation soon.

            What connects modernity to the future?  What does the future tell us about modernity?  What relation is there between modernity and the future?  The more I stare at the word modernity, the more I realize that the modern world is only beginning to come into focus.  High Modernism may have passed in the 1930s, but modernity – and its aesthetic counterpart, modernism – is alive and well.  So what does it care about the future?
            In a fantastic novel by Richard Powers, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, the narrator conceptualizes something he calls “trigger points”:
As with free-falling bodies, it seems apparent that such quickening change, whether evolutionary, cultural, or technical, cannot accelerate indefinitely but must reach some terminal velocity.  Call that terminal velocity a trigger point, where the rate of change of the system reaches such a level that the system’s underpinning, its ability to change, is changed.  Trigger points come about when the progress of a system becomes so accelerated, its tools become so adept as self-replicating and self-modifying, that it thrusts an awareness of itself onto itself and reaches the terminal velocity of self-reflection. (Powers 81)
Something is coming to consciousness in this description by Powers.  Complex systems are achieving a state, or level, at which their inner workings become self-sufficient and, in the process, become reflexive in a way that allows them to represent themselves back to themselves.  They acquire the ability to conceive of themselves as a system, along with the capacity to critique their own composition.  At this point, Powers claims, the system reaches a point of critical mass, beyond which it cannot evolve.
            Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which covers three narratives strands from the early 1900s to the contemporary 1980s (the novel was published in 1985), identifies here the moment of modernity itself.  That is, the moment at which history objectifies itself and thus fragments itself.  To put it in psychoanalytic terms, the subject is split, Lacan’s $ (coincidentally also the sign of the dollar, the ultimate alienating symbol of modernity).  History, at this moment, also becomes “about history,” as Powers puts it: “the century has become about itself, history about history: a still, eclectic, universally reflexive, uniformly diverse, closed circle, the homogeneous debris in space following a nova” (83).  The self-divided whole organizes itself, in Powers’s terminology, around what will eventually become a singularity, or perhaps already is.  The nova – a phenomenon that occurs when a star collapses and builds an accretion disc of matter and gases – is fated to become a gravitational singularity, but Powers means it in a metaphorical sense, as a figure of representation.  Here we have to enter into the tricky business of keeping the figurative constructions separate from their objective correlates, and in order to do this I choose to employ that ever feisty device: the dialectic.
            In recent decades, the dialectic has become an increasingly controversial term, drawing criticism from new Right conservative philosophers,[1] new Left speculative philosophers,[2] and even from its once loyal bedfellow, literary studies.[3]  To invoke dialectics often means to conjure the specters of Hegel and Marx, along with their two late 20th-century innovators: Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek.  Despite the recent skepticism toward dialectical methods of analysis, I insist on their presence in this piece and elsewhere for one primary reason: dialectical thought remains the most convincing and challenging conceptual form for representing our reality to this day.  Aside from dissolving the subject entirely – even admitting its existence as an illusion, a mental construction that emerges from brain activity – there exists a fundamental correlation between the external world and the world as perceived by human individuals.  This is not to say that the external world does not exist except in our perceptions; rather, it is to emphasize that we remain beholden to our empirical observations of the world, even if these observations are executed by instruments of modern technology.  The closest we may come to thinking the external world in-itself is the epistemology of posthumanism; coincidentally, the emergent epistemology of modernism itself.[4]
            The dialectic does not propose to grant access to objective reality.  Furthermore, the dialectic (as I deploy it here) does not threaten to hermetically seal us off from objective reality entirely, leaving us blind to the external world.  Rather, the dialectic must be recognized as the privileged form of representation which simultaneously constructs, and exposes the fragility of, the human subject as it exists in reality.  Powers’s “trigger points,” demonstrate the coming-to-consciousness of the modern world, but they also purport to establish a conceptual and ontological boundary beyond which knowledge no longer develops.  The boundary casts consciousness retrospectively onto the system that gives rise to it, but no longer constitutes the (preconscious) acquisitive expansion of material information.  Instead, the subject that emerges out of the system must conceive of itself dialectically in relation to that which exists (ideally) beyond the point of terminal velocity.
            This is how Powers arrives at the image of the nova, which will eventually become a black hole.  In terms of the physics of the universe, black holes are not only epistemologically unavailable to us; silent objects in dark rooms which would become luminescent if we could simply turn on the light.  They are, based on the very forms (space and time) that human beings require for knowledge, ontologically unknowable.  They are physical implosions of space and time, anomalies that warp the material universe immediately surrounding them (and likely, judging from their apparent ubiquity in the universe, they exert considerable force on physical reality as a whole).  Powers’s choices to describe the development of modernity, of history itself, as the matter orbiting a nova, and as a series of trigger points reaching terminal velocity, express a dialectical concern over historiography.
            On the one hand, the novel attempts a cohesive representation of history by tying its third-person narratives together through the central motif of the eponymous photograph taken by August Sander; the first-person narrative, in the voice of “Mr. P”, comments on the impact of photography and other technological media, and offers some speculations on the nature of history.  On the other hand, the novel disrupts this attempt, failing to draw together any ultimately meaningful narrative.  In fact, the novel’s conclusion is almost deflationary; Peter Mays, after having discovered his inheritance of a large sum of money from his ancestors, subsequently learns that it is worth almost nothing due to inflation.  Its most obvious narrative strand thus loses all steam, coming depressingly to an abrupt and nearly inconsequential halt.
            The text reflects what Powers defines as hyperprogress: “Hyperprogress transmutes, paradoxically, into stillness.  It is still true that things have changed more in the last thirty years than in all the time since Christ.  Since it is still true, then nothing has changed since Peguy.  Social culture has taken tail in mouth and rolled a benzene ring” (83).  What appears as progress exposes itself as meaningless, valueless development; but this does not mean that the ideal of progress – the object of desire – disappears.  Powers identifies the tendency of modern history to disguise itself as progress while being nothing more than senseless accretion, as the matter surrounding a nova; the Benjaminian storm that rages against the Angel of History.  The fantasy that is a progressive society constructs an imaginary ideal – an image of cultural improvement and/or perfection – and conceives of itself as striving toward this ideal.  However, history never achieves this ideal, but can only ever approach it as a curve approaches an asymptote: “Change in these fields [of science] does not stop at a trigger point.  Only the curve of progress reaches a critical moment, the second derivative goes to zero, and a new curve begins, pushed forward into a new country” (82).  Powers conceives of history in an asymptotic fashion.
            Fredric Jameson, recounting Derrida’s reading of Hegel, expresses the French philosopher’s latent dialectical conclusion.  Derrida, Jameson notes, declares that the Hegelian Aufhebung is “not an event, but a repetition”: “Nothing happens; all Aufhebung are the same.  They all seem to involve the transcendence of nature; yet the latter is merely a name for whatever is transcended in any of these processes, it is purely formal, the name of a moment, it has no content in its own right” (“Hegel’s Critics” 105).  Jameson moves deftly from poststructuralist to poststructuralist, explicating Derrida’s, and then Deleuze’s, critique of Hegelian Aufhebung; but the emptiness, or ideal figuration, of Aufhebung lurks as a constant specter (to invoke Derrida’s own terminology) in the background of his analysis.[5]  What emerges in Jameson’s intense study of Derrida’s and Deleuze’s critiques of Hegel is the understanding of Aufhebung not as material development, but as a representation of what matter develops toward.
            This representation, as Jameson declares, is purely ideological (106).  Powers confirms as much when he totalizes it as a modern synthetic image: “Nothing can take place in this century without some coincident event linking it into a conspiratorial whole” (Powers 83).[6]  The reflexivity of history – its self-awareness – does not give birth to some genuinely metaphysical, or essential, notion of history that is at work in the world.  Reflexivity results in the image, or the figure; above all else, the representation.  History appears on the horizon as something predestined or predetermined, as a course of necessary progression; but at the same moment that it appears as such, it also undermines its necessity.  It gives rise to the “conspiratorial whole” but emphasizes that this whole is purely figural.  It does not subsist in reality; but it shapes our relationship to reality because it is the only way in which we can conceive of this relationship.  And in this sense, the representation of reality confronts reality itself dialectically.  It is true that we cannot know the in-itself; but this does not dissipate the in-itself into nothing more than a cognitive illusion.
            That which escapes our representation, but which does not dissipate, is epitomized by the mathematical (and, I’m inclined to say, ontological) existence of the gravitational singularity; and this material singularity shapes and constructs all other theoretical singularities.  That which Aufhebung purports to represent – the historical singularity, the virtual space of all possible historical trajectories – is unavailable to us as human subjects.  We can only ever approximate the historical singularity through representation, which nears the asymptote of the singularity but can never surpass it.  The asymptote, in this conception, is equivalent to the black hole’s event horizon,[7] beyond which no matter (not even light) can escape the black hole’s gravity, thus making the black hole epistemologically and ontologically unavailable to us as observers.  We organize time into linear constructs, and space into geographic mappings; but black holes break down space and time, organizing an accretion disc of matter around the physical implosion of space-time.  Analogically, the historical singularity (represented through the image of Aufhebung) organizes time around perpetually collapsing matter: Benjamin’s Angel of History protesting the encroaching storm of progress.
            The “black hole,” the mathematical evidence for the gravitational singularity (according to which there exists a supermassive black hole at the center of most, if not all, galaxies), forms in our minds but remains unrepresentable except through its unrepresentability.  It is dark, lightless and soundless (empirically absent), because it deconstructs the forms by which human subjects can know – Kantian space and time.  Similarly, the historical singularity forms in our minds only through the idealistic and ideological representations of Aufhebung; but the actuality of what we might term history – what others have termed “deep time” or cosmic time[8] – exists beyond notions of linear time and geological space.  The event horizon of the historical singularity is insurmountable according to the Kantian forms of space and time, remains insurmountable even by our technological instruments.  We can only approach it on an increasingly shallow curve, representing it to ourselves as that which we approach in hopes of achieving, as Don DeLillo describes in his novel, Point Omega: “‘The omega point,’ [Elster] said.  ‘Whatever the intended meaning of this term, if it has a meaning, if it’s not a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea outside our experience’” (72).
            DeLillo brings us even closer to the gravitational singularity than Powers.  As a singularity that organized matter around collapsing spatiotemporal reality, the black hole reflects our inconsequential materiality back to us: “‘We want to be the dead matter we used to be.  We’re the last billionth of a second in the evolution of matter’” (50).  Recalling the Freudian death drive, Thanatos, DeLillo echoes Deleuze’s (and Nick Land’s) transplantation of the death drive into matter itself.  We all orbit black holes, subjective accretion discs, preparing for inevitable spatiotemporal implosion.  The construct “human” exposes itself as merely one more idealism: “‘De we have to be human forever?  Consciousness is exhausted.  Back now to inorganic matter.  This is what we want.  We want to be stones in a field’” (53).  Forget time, forget space; eventually, neither will be ours to remember.
            There is one important difference to illuminate between the historical and gravitational singularity.  The historical singularity exists, as does the gravitational, beyond the standard form of time.  We cannot traverse the singularity’s event horizon because beyond this limit we would descend into multi-dimensional time, into virtual time.  However, the event horizon of the historical singularity is still an ideal construct; if Aufhebung represents the unachievable, but remains an ideal, then the line of demarcation also remains ideal.  We can never cross the event horizon of Time because we have sealed ourselves off epistemologically, experientally.
            But you, I, we, can all traverse the event horizon of a black hole.
            The black hole is epistemologically and ontologically unavailable for the primary reason that to access it literally equals death.  We cannot know it, in our forms of space and time; and we cannot access it because of these same forms, but also because the black hole is a monster that eats us.  Eats everything; it eats space, time, gas, sound, light, the matter of universal reality collapses in the gravitational anomaly.  Human bodies are broken down, halved infinitesimally, until nothing more than the subatomic particles that comprise them (if not less…).  Black holes are the ontological instantiation of the material universe – reality, the real – that remains inaccessible for human knowledge.  Thus, if we maintain the analogy, we must ask ourselves a daring question:
            Is the historical singularity – which we represent to ourselves via the peaceful, utopian, desirable figure of Aufhebung – also that which is only available to matter itself; to the non-conscious?  To the ground known to Wordsworth’s Lucy?
            No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
            Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.
What connects modernity to the future?  I would venture that it is this very quality of modernity by which it turns its objectifying lens onto itself, and thus relates itself representationally to the future it desires to achieve.[9]  Futurity, closely aligned with the concept of historical singularity, must exist in a virtual sense in that it possesses an openness; but we must impose on it the representation of Aufhebung.  That is, we must narrow our scope so that we accommodate the Kantian impositions of space and time.  Futurity, as it actually exists – the dark reality that wells up around our ankles – would kill us, consume us.  The dialectic thus serves two purposes: it protects us from the spatiotemporal apocalypse that awaits us beyond the event horizon; and it provides us with the form by which we can simultaneously understand and critique our own relation to the world.
            What Derrida perhaps unconsciously realized – and what Jameson certainly realizes – is that the dialectic is its own critique; its own deconstruction.  The dialectic does not destroy reality or seal us off entirely from it.  The dialectic is the self-refuting form of our relationship to reality.

[1] See Nick Land’s neoreactionist denunciation:
[2] The new movement known as Speculative Realism has demonstrated considerable resistance to dialectical thought.
[3] For an example, see Susan Stanford Friedman’s criticism of Jameson in “Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies.”  Friedman accuses Jameson of a “reductionist” view that results in “singularity”; namely, the reduction of modernism to the effect of global capitalism.  In opposition to Friedman’s argument, and building on Jameson’s, this essay contests the following: a) the emergent “singularity” produced by dialectics is not interior to dialectics, and b) the dialectic is not dismissive to that which is exterior.
[4] This paper resists Quentin Meillassoux’s daring circumvention of all post-Kantian “correlationist” philosophy, as argued in After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency.  Meillassoux’s compelling argument about the possibility to think a world without thought – for the object of thought to be non-thought – provides a momentous and exciting departure from the tradition of Western philosophy.  However, the threat (if we may call it such) of human extinction, and its ramifications on thought, are broached already in 1987 by Jean-François Lyotard in book, The Inhuman, in a poststructuralist manner quite different from Meillassoux’s method.  Without succumbing entirely to Lyotard’s postmodern pessimism, I venture a via media that allows the dialectic to persist, but to accommodate the possibility of thinking the non-thought.  The following pages will lay out a preliminary argument for such a possibility.
[5] The title of the section in which the essay is included is ‘Hegel Without Aufhebung’.
[6] See the first essay in Jameson’s Postmodernism: the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism for commentary on the ideological structure of conspiracy theories.
[7] I am tempted here to invoke Alain Badiou’s concept of the event; a common philosophical concept, but one that Badiou conceives of as blasting the finitude of the State beyond its inherent limitations (see Badiou’s brief essay “The Idea of Communism” in the eponymously titled collection.  This language recalls Benjamin’s Messianic force of blasting history open in his Theses on the Philosophy of History.
[8] See Stephen Jay Gould’s Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle and Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude (respectively).
[9] One must be careful with psychoanalytic language lest one imposes a psychoanalytic reading onto an objective ethos, a Weltanschauung; but if Aufhebung is an ideological construct – that is, a fantasy – then psychoanalysis has something to offer, to an extent.  At the moment, all I will say is that if we maintain the Freudian/Lacanian structuralism of a subject that desires and an object of desire, then we can read our historical narrative accordingly: that is, that history only appears retrospectively, that its object is imaginary (and thus unattainable) but that it is simultaneously “written” by the object that it pursues.  The fantasy, as Žižek tells us, actively constructs our reality.  Jameson unveils a very similar theory of history in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.  

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Beyond Hyperreality: the Beginnings of a Critique of Relativism

            In his now canonical 1967 essay, Jacques Derrida provides a notorious critique of all brands of critical, humanistic thought by claiming that the structure of every theoretical framework is founded upon an arbitrary centrality.  That is, all fields of study merely appropriate the same material resources but attempt to organize these resources around their own proposed “center” (Derrida’s word).  Instead of arguing that successive fields of study might persistently better approximate the location of the mystical center, Derrida claims that all fields are engaged with one another in an endless intercourse of “play,” and that even within themselves all fields experience perpetual reconfigurations and reorganizations that establish perpetual patterns of play.  In what is perhaps the essay’s most infamous and controversial statement, Derrida overturns the existence of the concept of the center:
Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible.  As center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible.  At the center, the permutation or the transformation of elements (which may of course be structures enclosed within a structure) is forbidden.  At least this permutation has always remained interdicted (and I am using this word deliberately).  Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted the very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality.  This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it.  The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere.  The center is not the center. (“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences 279)
The final sentence has invited everything from praise, mimicry (in the entire practice of deconstruction), admiration, skepticism, dismissal, and outright condemnation.  Various critics have attacked its paradox, its impenetrability, and its elitism.  Others have praised it for its insight, its iconoclasm, and its influence.  All of these assessments possess legitimacy, and critics argue over Derrida’s relevance to this day.  However, there is one looming criticism that persists to this day which I aim to challenge in this post: the charge of relativism.
            Relativism is not directed specifically at Derrida, but at the whole of what typically is labeled as “postmodern theory,” and it charges (in short) that theory has abandoned its claims to absolute truth and correctness in any objective, logical sense (logic itself being a target of the human sciences).  In many cases, from Wittgenstein to Lyotard, relativism became the first accusation levied against the postmodernists, despite their vastly different theoretical approaches.  In some cases, the figures themselves (or their claims) appear to invite the criticism: Lyotard, who suggests that capitalism is the only system to have ever existed (from our perspective); Wittgenstein, who claims that individuals practice their own language games which in turn constitute their own forms of life; Baudrillard, who claims that reality itself has vanished behind the veneer of simulacra; Butler, who claims that bodies do not exist, but only the system of expressions they project; Latour, who claims that tuberculosis could not have killed Ramses because tuberculosis wasn’t invented until 1882 (tuberculosis was discovered, of course, not invented; but Latour is making a melodramatic comment).  All such theorists invite criticism for these seemingly relativist remarks.
            But does Bruno Latour mean that the bacterium which causes the disease known as tuberculosis didn’t exist in the time of Ramses?  Does Baudrillard mean that actual material reality has vanished, or that we no longer experience it (like in The Matrix)?  Does Butler mean that physical bodies don’t exist?  Relativism seems to eschew the notion of objective reality entirely; but are these theorists honestly adhering to such a position?  And is Derrida, the ultimate theoretician of deconstruction and poststructuralism, the spokesman for this apparently frustrating moment of philosophical history?
            I argue that relativism represents a misunderstanding of poststructuralist theory, and I hope to demonstrate this claim in my post.
            Relativism encounters its most objectionable circumstances in sociopolitical circumstances.  A poor man murders a rich man for his wallet, and certain actors argue that we attempt to understand the murderer’s perspective; this kind of relativist posturing is extremely common in sociopolitical circles, but it is not an actionable perspective supported by theorists such as Derrida.  In actual material programs and situations, the nuances of poststructuralist theory often lose their subtlety and become lost in the rhetorical grandstanding and empathic appeals of those involved.  For those who read poststructuralist theory (and read it closely), we can see that what look to be paradoxes, contradictions, or falsities are in fact gestures toward something else: a higher resolution, an amplified receptivity, or an adapted perspective.  If we pursue the problem in a dialectical fashion, then we must always be prepared to take the next step; but the presence of the next step doesn’t negate the existence of truth entirely.  What it does, on the contrary, is propel us toward it.  Dialectics is propulsion.
            Later in “Structure, Sign and Play,” Derrida explains the notion of play, this whimsical component that constitutes the true nature of a conceptual field:
This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions.  One could say […] that this movement of play, permitted by the lack of absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarity. (“Structure” 289)
The imposition of a center has the effect of limiting a field; the center establishes boundaries, limits, borders by which all interior components now gain the semiotic status of concepts.  In effect, the imposition of the center creates a field of epistemology.  It establishes a framework of knowledge in which its individual terms and ideas can be said to have substantive meaning.  However, Derrida says, by the very nature of the mutability of the center, the field slips into a state of play.  Terms begin to stand in for one another, trade meanings, and even manifest in forms of mistaken use, misspelling, or combination with other terms.  As these new terms proliferate, they serve to inspire more substitutions and interchanges; thus, the state of play is infinite.  Derrida does not connect this to the fluidity of human use (as Wittgenstein does), but to the materiality of language itself.  Humans are not always aware when they use words incorrectly, substitute one for another, or even introduce a new term.  Language itself, through its almost parasitical permeance, invites and seduces us.  Of course, this grants a degree of anthropomorphism and intention to language that may not be there; but the point is that it is not in human actors either.  The intention, the awareness, is nonexistent.  Language, like an evolutionary process, simply adapts.
            None of this denies the material existence or objectivity of language, or of physical reality itself.  Instead, it suggests that material reality as we know it is changing.  The words and equations that we employ in order to know the world, to calculate it and figure it out, do not stop at mere representation – they actively alter the matter they appropriate.  Like a mirror that reflects the image of an object, it also has an external effect on that object.  In order to reflect, mirrors must capture and bounce back light, thus bouncing back an image; but in doing so, they bounce that light back onto the object.  Merely stand in front of a mirror and shine a flashlight into the glass.  The mirror will reflect you holding the flashlight, but it will also bounce the light from the flashlight back onto you.  What the mirror reflects is not an image of you as you are without a mirror in front of you:
            The mirror can only reflect you as you are in front of a mirror.
            The degree, amount, intensity of light present on your body will never be the same in front of a mirror as it is when there is no mirror next to you, even if that degree is minuscule.  What the mirror reflects is the image of you being reflected by a mirror.  Thus, the inevitable question arises: which is the original; the image of your reflection in the mirror, or the body being reflected?  The answer is obvious: there is no original.
            Just as we cannot think of the image in the mirror as an accurate representation of an eternal truth, neither can we think of networks of words, signifiers, or concepts as accurate representations of eternal truths.  As soon as the medium intervenes to reflect its object, it changes its object.  The original is lost.
            But the idea persists.
            Derrida explicitly comments that the lack of an origin opens up a field of play, prevents the field from arresting a constant structure, a structure consistent in its finitude.  As we acknowledge the rupture of history from its origins, we immediately constitute a new origin – a new event.  As Derrida masterfully communicates, every new dismissal of centers, origins, events, merely introduces new centers, new origins, and new events.  The relativism now appears immanent: the more we try to establish something closer to truth, the more we merely introduce new models, new epistemologies, thus appearing to remove ourselves even further from any high, spiritual, metaphysical notion of Truth.
            This, unfortunately, is a misinterpretation.  We are not leaving truth behind, or abandoning it, because we have mistakenly posited truth as something anterior and preexistent, something that we must analyze, experiment, and interpret our way back to.  If poststructuralism and its bedfellows have taught us anything, it is that we need a new definition of truth; and that this new definition, while resisting the old High Church sacredness of Logos, is substantial and effective nonetheless.
            We can no longer appeal to notions of what the Founding Fathers originally meant when they wrote the Constitution.  Their original meaning, their original intention, is not only useless; it is virtually nonexistent for us in our culture.  We can only hope to understand what the Constitution means for us, today, in our culture (and it’s possible that it may mean incinerating it entirely).  We can no longer ask whether or not Jesus Christ actually walked the earth; we can only ask what his existence is (and means) to us.  We can no longer ask what 9/11 was; we must continue to ask what it is.  While these approaches may deny the importance of an original, or even its existence altogether, they do not deny that there is something of truth in what these figures, images, symbols mean to us.  Just as Derrida’s systems engage in infinite play, so do our modes of production, our networks of signification, our fields of knowledge; but despite their endless play, they can still construct ideas, and where there are ideas, there are truths.
            I will not take this space to explore Alain Badiou’s new and radical concept of multiple truths, of truths that cause ruptures in the fabric of what is known and expected, although this philosophy seems to have some relevance here.  The task of distinguishing “multiple truths” from simply an obfuscation of relativism is too expansive and tiresome for a blog post.  I’m more interested in the perpetuation of poststructuralism and its related methodologies, sciences and studies which, in my opinion, have not nearly had their say.  The new movement deemed “speculative realism,” instead of tossing poststructuralism to the dustbin, is instead providing a bold new reinterpretation of its claims, even if some of them unsuccessfully sail the narrow strait between the Scylla of insanity and the Charybdis of obscurity.
            But beyond even the radical methodologies being boldly crafted by the speculative realists, there remains much substantive content to dredge up from the depths of poststructuralism.  If there is any literary form that is conjuring the old specters, it is Science fiction.  Studies in Science fiction, particularly those conducted by Fredric Jameson, Carl Freedman, and N. Katherine Hayles have brought poststructuralist terminology together with Science fiction literature (although Jameson’s and Freedman’s brand of Marxist hermeneutics opposes poststructuralism in some ways).  Despite its recent disfavor in academic circles, including literary departments, the allure of poststructuralism lingers on.
            But what does all this mean for relativism?  As the title suggests, this is only an initial step; in my personal opinion, Derrida’s writings offer something as far from relativism as we can get.  They offer a complex, rigorous, rational study of the operations of language, signification, and systems of communication (whether these be systems of language, knowledge, or culture).  If Derrida suggests that there is no center, it is not to emphasize the relativity of meaning and truth, but to merely suggest that systems, by their very nature, resist concretization.  The more we try to calculate and capture language, the more it calcifies; and, consequently, the more quickly it dies.
            Rather than consign these theorists and philosophers to the dustbin of relativism, we need to see how their ideas can illuminate truth in different ways.  To conclude, an example: in discussions of freedom, the object is typically referred to as a constant, an ideal, something essential that can be discerned and achieved.  Freedom is thus taken to mean something strict and definite.  In this sense, freedom is equated with truth.  While I do not intend to dispel the myth of freedom, I do think there is something to the myth of how freedom has been conceptualized; and that is to say, how it has been formed around the gravitational singularity of a center.  In my opinion, this center is that of the individual.  The individual constitutes a certain concept of freedom, and much of science and knowledge seems to support this center; but this center, despite its apparent universality, is still a historical construct.  It is still, despite any disbelief in the matter, something that we have made as a center.
            Without the individual, the concept of freedom does not disappear; it merely morphs, it adapts.  Without the individual, we do not lose touch with freedom as a truth.  It merely functions as a truth in a different way.  Truth, in this sense, still exists, and exists powerfully; but it can only ever exist in simultaneity with the culture that organizes it.  Like the mirror that reflects that object being reflected, truths can only be true for the entities for which they are true.  Tautologies galore, and I do not deny this; but there’s more.
            Once made into truths, into centers, these things (for what are they prior to their centralization?) complete a complex retroactivity.  By their very centralization – by their being made into truths – they achieve the illusion that they were truths all along.  That their essence of truth-ness existed prior to their projection; that they were prescribed as truths.  This very process of truth-making is more than simple illusion and false consciousness; for if that was the case, then this would mean that there is an ultimate baseline, a ground zero of truth that we can work our way back to.  The true illusion, in fact, is that there is any origin at all, any ground zero.  The appearance of illusion is an illusion.  The wild retroactive loop by which they appear as truth – by which they appeal real – makes them real, makes them into truth.  Ascribing relativity is merely a dismissal of the complexity of the situation.  The “truth” (oh, the ubiquity of a word…) is that truth doesn’t preexist us, it isn’t anterior to us; it is made along with us, and this making exists within a constant state of play.
            We should not see this as a diminishing or diminution of truths.  It is not a debasement or degradation.  It is the process of the process of truth.  The realization of the realization.

            The revelation that all truth has ever been is a continual process of revelation.

Monday, October 7, 2013

"Borrowing From the Future": Understanding Today By Looking at Tomorrow

            My first post on this new blog was about modernism.  I’m sure I’ll return to that topic more in future posts; but for now I want to make something of an introductory post to explain my new setting and new intention.
            Roadside Picnic is dedicated primarily to science fiction.  I will continue to contribute posts there, although likely not as much since I can’t afford to read as much science fiction during my semesters, especially now; I’m becoming more involved in my seminars, working on academic papers in my spare time, and also teaching American literature to undergraduates.  So my spare time to read science fiction is severely limited.
            However, my time to consider philosophy, critical theory, and literary analysis has become nearly universal.  It’s only natural that from the circumstances of my work I should encounter questions and issues that expand beyond the limits of the classroom.  I’ll be writing about those questions and issues here.
            “Borrowing from the future” is a phrase taken from Slavoj Žižek’s book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.  While I don’t think all of Žižek’s work is particularly illuminating, or applicable to literary studies, I do think he embodies a considerable philosophical force in critical thought today.  On top of that, I think some of his ideas are admittedly very innovative and brilliant.  “Borrowing from the future” is an idea that comprises multiple elements.  At once, it includes Žižek’s paradoxical theory of the objective ontology of the symbolic order; but it also communicates (in my opinion) a certain utopian kernel, which I hope to explore in this blog.  Žižek writes: “The symbolic order is not a cause which intervenes from the outside, violently derailing the human animal and thus setting in motion its becoming-human; it is an effect, but a paradoxical effect which retroactively posits its presupposition, its own cause.”[1]  To put it briefly, the symbolic order appears as an effect of speaking animals, but it also paradoxically inscribes itself as the reason for speaking animals.
            It’s possible to see this as a very narrow, inclusive line of argument.  However, I like to think that Žižek actually opens us to a new speculative brand of thinking the world; one that coincides with the utopian tradition of Ernst Bloch, Karl Mannheim, Fredric Jameson, and (more recently) Alain Badiou.  In this sense, what we “borrow” from the future is the virtual perspective – the perspective that casts our present as the past of an undetermined future, rather than as the future of a historical determined past.  The speculative line of thought isn’t one of blind guesses and whimsical fancies.  By speculative, we mean critical; we mean the ability to envision alternatives to what seems certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt.  We want to think in the shadow of doubt.  In different shades of doubt.
            However, if we borrow from the future, then we must put back what we took (we cannot “live in the future,” so to speak; we have to return to the present).
            A text is never a closed work, and this is where I diverge significantly (and where most contemporary literary critics do) from the New Criticism.  A text, in any forms, is always both part of a network and permeated by a network.  Shakespeare leaps centuries and runs a streak through Ulysses like a flash of paint across a Jackson Pollack canvas.  Ulysses itself runs through Dhalgren, runs through Infinite Jest, runs through House of Leaves.  No critical analysis is ever complete because the network of associations can never be exhausted.
            In order to approximate a more complete analysis, we must look not only as the history of literature and literary forms, but at its future; or, more appropriately, what Philip K. Dick eloquently describes as future history.  If a text expands, absorbs, extends, and continually breaks boundaries, then it makes sense that we have to reorient ourselves away from the closed epistemologies of the past and instead look to the open, virtual (and yes, abstract) archaeologies of the future.  “Archaeologies of the future” is a somewhat paradoxical phrase; archaeology implies beginnings, origins, not futurity.  What, then, can an archaeology of the future be said to be?  It is, in Fredric Jameson’s words, viewing our present not as the future of an ordained, categorized, and historically conditioned past; but instead as the unknown past of an equally unknown and potential future.[2]  Thinking in these terms often appears distanced and abstract, so allow me to offer an example.
            In 2008, the United States (and the world market, by extenuation) suffered one of the worst financial disasters in its entire existence.  In retrospect, people asked why; and many economists, business owners, philosophers, and journalists attempted to provide answers.  These answers took the form of histories of the United States’ financial markets, narratives that observed the behaviors of large financial institutions which issued subprime mortgage-backed securities to homeowners that couldn’t afford the properties they bought.  Observing the causal continuum between homeowners, banks, and insurance companies, these histories traced the origin of financial crisis to risky and, as some (anonymous) individuals suggested, dishonorable behavior of the wolves of Wall Street.  This entire history provides us with an illuminating perspective on how the stock market and financial system works in America, as well as a poignant tale concerning the intertwining of morality, ethics, and legality in the national and global marketplace.
            While such a history might offer some facts about the collapse of financial institutions (and the debt and decay incurred by unsuspecting citizens), it actually does very little to tell us what the 2008 financial crisis is.  “It means corporations are evil,” some say; “It means people were stupid,” others say; “It means that we’re a country based on greed,” yet more will claim; but does any of this truly say what the crisis itself, the evolving financial technologies and the ever-increasing environment of risk, is in the sense of our world’s future?  The vulgar answer, “We have no future,” fails to apprehend the deterministic way in which the future itself reaches back to us, sinks its teeth into the material fabric of our culture, and pulls us (perhaps unwillingly) through the turbulent wake between now and then.
            So, if we reorient ourselves toward the future… what does it tell us about the financial crisis?  What is it?
            First, the financial crisis is more than its causal components.  It is not the epitome of financial mismanagement or bureaucratic waste, but one of the initial signs of a global economy evolving in an unprecedented manner.  What we can borrow from the future, in this regard, is a perspective from which the economic behavior and crisis of 2008 is not the result of human individuals, but is the broader process of a vast virtual network attempting to reconcile its own internal inconsistencies.  Instead of seeing technology as a tool at our disposal, we can see it as an intelligence system of its own, coming to slow awareness and seizing at the aspects that do not compute.  The more we feed algorithms into the network, the more its neurons begin firing on their own, recording nearly instantaneous market crashes occurring faster than a human can blink its eyes.[3]  Some might argue that none of this constitutes autonomy; but autonomy has been known to successfully conceal itself.[4]  And autonomy from the future, it may be said, is even more elusive; here we may look to works of science fiction for a more descriptive expression of potential autonomous entities arriving back to us.
            This is the difficulty of skeptical thought.  To dare the irrational, tempt the illogical.  While I do not claim to avoid contradiction, its existence does trouble me.  I think that where paradox is its strongest, we must fight to consider how our thought is entrenched in logic that precludes us from seeing ulterior modes, virtual paths.  As science has demonstrated over and over, the real is not always logical.  In order to prepare for the future, we must think the present.  And in order to think the present, we must borrow from the future.

[1] See Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, page 562.
[2] This concept is voiced at the conclusion of Jameson’s book, A Singular Modernity, and is also in the title of his book on Science fiction literature, Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.
[4] Consider, for instance, Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of mimicry; or, perhaps a more complex theory, Michael Taussig’s explanation of mimesis in his book, Mimesis and Alterity: a Particular History of the Senses.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Question(s) of Modernity

            Lately, I’ve been concerned by a series of pressing questions: what is modernism? What is modernization? And what is modernity?  I should preface by saying I don’t think they are all the same thing, although I believe they are part and parcel, and that they are all related.
            This question has been on my mind partly because it’s the primary topic of one of my seminars, but also because I’m working on a paper that will hopefully be ready for publication sometime next year, and I find myself confronting these same questions.  For literary studies, this is a region of controversy.  Where does the division between realism and modernism occur?  Does modernism succeed realism in an intellectual as well as chronological sense?  What exactly is “postmodernism,” and is it important for understanding modernism? (Fredric Jameson thinks so)[1]  The scholarship on modernity and modernism is vast, and primarily taken up by literary critics who are intent on describing the modernist “break” from realism; but Jameson, in A Singular Modernity, expresses interest in modernism from multiple angles, and his conclusions prove enlightening (as always).
            Modernism, as an aesthetic style, is often isolated to a period of time ranging from about 1900 to the end of World War II (despite the fact that many different styles of literature emerge during this time).  In 1899, Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams, which inaugurates a shift in literature from history and context to the personal and the wholly subjective.  No longer do we see Walter Scott’s hapless Scotsmen caught up in the tragic history of the Porteous Riots, or Elizabeth Gaskell’s Esther left to perish on the streets of industrial Manchester, an exile from society.  Now, suddenly, we find ourselves transported into the minds of immensely complex characters:
            Stephen Dedalus listens, as a young boy, to his father and governess bicker about religion and Charles Parnell; unaware of the history, Joyce records his impressions as they are received by a young, naïve boy.
            Orlando progresses through the ages, blessed (or cursed) with longevity, allowing Woolf to comment on the ephemeral literary styles and movements that precede her in a form both fictional and biographical (Orlando is, after all, a “biography”).
            Pound reduces lyrical imagery to its bare minimum, attempting to capture the subjective impression in one brief and envied sweep of his pen.
            Benjy yammers on about fences and boundaries, memories popping up almost randomly and sparkling across a narrative not at all rooted in linear time, allowing Faulkner to explore possibilities of knowledge beyond the social and historical (Benjy’s name changed from Maury to Benjamin in 1900; an allusion to some kind of broader historical moment planted in an aesthetic that clings to the first-person…?).
            Some scholars will strike back further than Freud, finding the dawn of modernism in the figures of Baudelaire or Nietzsche, and some even daring to stretch back to Marx; but while modernity may very well have begun this early, it seems clear that modernism, as an aesthetic choice, does not begin until sometime after the novels of realism have had their say, realism itself being a reaction to the boom of unchecked industrial capitalism.
            Some scholars will say modernism, while influenced by Freud, cannot truly begin until World War I, a war on an unprecedented scale that fragmented not only nations but also psyches, and led to the coercive and forced creation of a global society on a level that no one person could mentally conceive.
            Virginia Woolf herself claimed that 1910 was the year when human nature changed.
            The jury is still out, it would seem.
            But if we can’t discern when exactly modernism and modernity began (and did they begin at the same time?), can we discern when they ended?  Did they ever end, or is our current embedment in an unfathomably complex global capitalist state merely a symptom of what some might call “late modernism.”[2]  Does postmodernism describe our contemporary state; or is this term “too theoretical, not yet popular enough or in wider currency, the ‘post’ automatically provoking malaise, quizzicality and ironic inquiry” (A Singular Modernity 10)?
            Or should we pursue the possibility that modernity already contains within itself the postmodern?  Perhaps the postmodern “break,” in Jameson’s language, is already part and parcel of the modernist shift (I hesitate to say “ontology”).  Postmodernity, rather than some inaugural break or rupture heralding a new mode and aesthetic that are distinct from those of modernity, is instead a development of modernity, an unraveling of the modernist kernel.  From this perspective, modernity (and, by extension, any historical mode or period) cannot conceive of itself unless it has conceived of its evolution as a series of divergent paths (crises? Henri Lefebvre seems to think so…)[3] away from its original (imaginary) unity.  The error lies in trying to define and describe.  Instead, we should refine and re-scribe.
            What are the purposes of such speculation?  For literature scholars, the question of periodization, aesthetic – form and content, style and technique – is everything.  Many of us today believe that texts, whether they be fictional or factual (whatever that separation means), contemporary or historical, reflect something about the society and culture in which they’re produced and consumed.  Furthermore, they also produce something about that culture and society.  Drawing a one-way street in which there are individual actors in society who write and publish books that then have a discernible impact on others is futile.  No one-way street exists.  The books that you buy may produce us, but they are also produced by us – all of us.  Texts aren’t the words of an author, although they are partially that.  They’re reflections of the cultural consciousness, and (more importantly) the cultural unconscious.  And thus, they are artifacts worthy of close analysis.
            Of a familial relation to the question of modernism is the question of what exactly happens after World War II.  Is Ellison’s Invisible Man a modernist text?  Is Nabokov’s Lolita?  Is Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus?  At this moment in time we begin to see novels that look remarkably less modernist, and yet somehow still modernistic.[4]  During this same period we are also seeing numerous texts emerge in the category of “Science fiction,” many of which successfully strive to challenge modernist norms.  However, the hackneyed label of “postmodernity,” when it doesn’t cause eyes to roll, simply causes confusion; and it especially raises eyebrows when scholars begin to contemplate what comes after postmodernity…
            None of this is to say that I have the answers.  My head is spinning just as much as yours is, I hope.  All I want to do is begin collecting various objects for a kind of constellation of modernism – calls them items, facts, observations, recollections, speculations, etc. – that will hopefully organize the discussion in a meaningful and productive way.
            Let us begin simply by taking the primary thrust of Jameson’s argument in A Singular Modernity: modernity, and modernism, only becomes conceivable as a moment after it witnesses an interminable failure on the part of its later practitioners to identify and break from it.  What this means is that only when theorists, writers, and philosophers attempt to organize themselves around something called “modernity” and subsequently move away from it, are we (as a culture) able to recognize that thing called modernity; but we must also recognize that the attempts of those writers and philosophers to break away from modernity ultimately fail.  The possibility for us to understand modernism relies on a fundamental failure.
            So, to look at the entire process more structurally, we can see that modernity must establish, from the outset, a space (or category) for failure.  There is something that modernity must posit as a question to be answered; but there isn’t a single answer to this question, and the answers that present themselves never quite serve to answer the initial question either.  Modernity, in this sense, is a process.  A process, furthermore, that we have yet to complete (is there such a thing as the “end of modernity”; the “end of history”?) and that is, in the fullest sense of the word, emergent.[5]
            In one sense, modernity is, and must be, an ideology.  As it organizes vantage points and perspectives, as it structures epistemological frameworks and establishes aesthetic modes.  But it is also revolutionary.  As it enacts perspectival shifts, as it encounters the edges of its various epistemologies, as it suggests new aesthetically “superior” modes.  For an example of all three of these, one need merely look to the enormous change in literary styles and composition between Henry James and William Faulkner (in this example the dialectical relationship between psychological realism and an almost schizophrenic modernism emerges full-blown).  Is modernism a radical break with realism?  Or is modernism merely a kind of cancelled realism, a realism of a new kind, a realism of impression and subjectivity?
            Despite the efforts of recent thought to more substantially posit a break from modernism, its presence looms larger than ever, perhaps even in the inescapability of its numerous “turns”: the Linguistic Turn (popularized by Rorty), the Cultural Turn (popularized by Jameson), and now the controversial Speculative Turn (popularized, although perhaps not explicitly condoned, by various Continentalists, particularly Ray Brassier and Quentin Meillassoux).  Even the Speculative Realists (as some begrudgingly acknowledge), who should most actively be pursuing a rupture from modernity, find themselves embroiled in it.  Brassier insists that a new study of Romantic “Prometheanism” is in order, a clear influence on modernism, while Meillassoux pursues a new understanding of uncertainty, contingency, and the aleatory, all familiar concepts in modernity.  It seems we cannot shake modernity’s tyrannical (or liberating?) hold.
            Some may find a study such as this obviously ridiculous.  We are modern.  The modern is now.  Isn’t that enough?
            My answer is: not nearly.
            If modernity poses an implicit dilemma, a series of unanswered questions, then our responsibility is not to dismiss those questions by explaining them away (i.e. answering them).  Our responsibility is, rather, to collect the various answers and theories, to study and reinterpret the hypotheses put forth; not to discern the correct one (as though there could be such a thing) but to identify the patterns and dialectical resolutions that emerge from them.  As Jameson says, we must not concoct genealogies of the past – the digging up of old bones to see how they explain current skeletal structures (metaphorically speaking), the reading of old texts to understand the form and content of current ones.  Certainly there is a space for this, but it does not lie in the philosophies of modernity (i.e. the question: “what is modernity?”).
            Instead, Jameson says, we must explore “archaeologies of the future.”  This is the quote that concludes A Singular Modernity, and it also assumes the role of title for his work on Science fiction.  This is a definitionally paradoxical statement; archaeologies, by definition, are studies of the past, the term arche deriving from the Greek word for origin.  In order to enact such paradoxical archaeologies, we must force a perspectival shift; to skew ourselves in our skin, to boomerang through time, as Ellison’s invisible man does.  If we want to understand modernity, then we must try and understand the potential answers to the uncertainties it poses.  We must see our present not as the future of a historicized and documented past, but as the past of an undocumented, unforeseen future.  Modernity, thus, lies not in the now.  Not even close.  Nor does it lie in the old, in the early twentieth century, in the texts of Eliot, Pound, Proust, or Joyce.  Nor does it lie in the works of Faulkner, of Hemingway, of Stein, or even of Nabokov, or Ellison, or Roth.
            Modernity lies in the past in its relation to the present; in the present in its relation to the future.  More than anything, modernity is coming.
            It’s coming for us all.
            (cue ominous atonal music…)

[1] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity, New York: Verso, 2012: “No ‘theory’ of modernity makes sense today unless it is able to come to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern” (94).
[2] See Jameson’s A Singular Modernity again.
[3] See Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, New York: Verso, 2011: “If modernity (our modernity) is unfolding as a series of crises, can we not think that these crises are the small change of the unique and total revolutionary crisis envisioned by Marx, which the radically negative and creative proletariat would have resolved in one historic action?” (236)
[4] Here specifically is where Jameson situates “late modernism,” or “neomodernism.”
[5] I refer here to the concept of emergence theory, its applications for consciousness, urbanization, language, but also (I believe) historiography.  For more on emergence, see the work of Manuel DeLanda, particularly his book Philosophy and Simulation: the Emergence of Synthetic Reason, New York: Continuum, 2011.