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.  

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating essay. I also enjoyed your "Dr. Freelove" piece, and in light of that I'm inclined to speculate on applications of the dialectic in the context of capitalism. I'm of course familiar with communism as a dialectic antithesis of capitalism, but now I also wonder if a self-reflective nature can be attributed to capitalism internally -- specifically, if it could explain the phenomenon of capital accumulating around competing interests.

    I suppose there could even be cases where competition between two leading companies in one nation -- often dismissed as a facade of competition maintained by a rubber-stamp government within that nation -- is actually perpetuated by foreign nations who invest (or meddle covertly) in the competition as part of a political balancing act. If that does happen, it could be interpreted as part of the pattern of self-reflective interplay that prevails throughout history. What do you think?