Friday, August 27, 2010

Allan Megill - Prophets of Extremity


All the writers examined here share an aestheticism, not a concern with aesthetics, but a desire to expand the aesthetic to embrace the whole of reality. Foucault's discourse, Heidegger's language, these stand as successors to the work of art (3). Like the Romantics, these authors saw themselves as living in a time of change. But unlike the Romantics, they saw no promise of return, only a circuitous journey, a crisis without resolution, a dialectic without reintegration. All followed in the footsteps of Kant's third critique, which sought to bring together science (the realm of unfree objects) and morality (the realm of free subjects). All desire to circumvent the subject/object distinction, using art as a mediator. They all follow Schiller in theorizing modern alienation, and Schelling in putting art above philosophy. They all also desire to break down the barriers between philosophy and literature. Megill would have liked to have included Gadamer in this bunch because he thinks of the work of art as the model for all experience, but Gadamer rejects the notion of a radical crisis.


1. Nietzsche and the Aesthetic

Against the "naturalist" interpretation of Nietzsche, Megill argues for an aestheticist view, which sees Nietzsche as questioning the very notion of "natural." Nietzsche gives art an ontogenetic, or world-making, significance (31). He thinks of the "natural" as a human creation, and that nothing is "behind" this web of illusion. As he says, "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified."

Nietzsche condemns the present world as null but rejects the alternative of searching for another, saying that there is "no true world," only perspectival appearance. Nietzsche desires a return to myth, and he sees in art the method. While the Romantics thought that art could penetrate to the truth of things, Nietzsche believed art is a vehicle of illusion. He sees immediacy as unattainable but still desires it. He delights in the play of language for its own sake.

The early Nietzsche opposes Apollonian formalism and Dionysian formlessness. Men cannot bear the full burden of reality, so the Apollonian veil shields us from its harshness, while the Dionysian tears aside the veil, opening the way to the mysterious primordial unity.

In his later writings, Nietzsche comes to oppose Schopenhauer's will and to desire a justification of life, an affirmation of reality. In the Gay Science he distinguishes between two kinds of art, that done suffering from an impoverishment of life and that done suffering from the over-fullness of life. Only the latter is truly Dionysian. Kaufmann believes that the two figures of Apollo and Dionysus become congealed in Dionysus in the later Nieztsche, but Megill argues that the Dionysian itself undergoes a change. It becomes less an intoxicated reality and more a reality that can be turned into art. With this new conception of Dionysian realism, Apollonian illusionism goes by the wayside.

Nietzsche shares Kant's view that the aesthetic offers an alternative to the mediating and complexifying influence of concepts (48). But while Kant thinks these concepts constitute our world, Nietzsche thinks they dissimulate it. The human intellect claims to give us a true knowledge of the wold when in fact it does not. The world, in Nieztsche's view, is made up of absolutely individualized fragments: no thing, no occurrence, is exactly the same as any other thing or occurrence. We can nonetheless grant concepts an aesthetic, metaphoric status. Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which have become worn out and have lost their sensual power. A free play of intellect delights in play for its own sake, in bringing forward "forbidden metaphors" and "unheard-of combinations of concepts." In Kant, the process of constructing reality is the same for all humankind, but in Nietzsche, the process is highly individual and arbitrary. Concepts order reality for Kant, they dissimulate it for Nietzsche.

The later Nietzsche equates theoretical learning with Apollonianism, which is irremediably hostile to art, which means it is also hostile to culture. Creativity comes from the instincts, the passions, the unconscious - from the dark, hidden recesses of the human spirit, not from theory. The immediacy of unconscious creativity made the Greeks great, and Socrates ruined everything for them by making consciousness creative. After him follows a total inversion of Greek culture. He was the founder of an entirely new system of culture which believed in the profound illusion that thought can penetrate the deepest abysses of being (56). But at its limit, Socratic questioning turns back into and pronounces the need for art.

Logic is the attempt to comprehend the actual world by means of a schema of being posited by ourselves. It is one of man's many arts. But it becomes a problem when rigidified, when philosophers try to mummify our experience in concepts instead of accepting the evidence of the senses, that all is in constant flux. The eternal return is the myth that expresses this flux, but it remains an intuition, never fully developed in Nietzsche's work. He justifies his lack of definition by saying that it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new 'things.'" N's remedy for all things is: become an artist. Art is the 'cult of the untrue' that makes bearable for us the general untruth and mendaciousness of the world (64).

2. Nietzsche and Myth

In the positivistic middle period, Nietzsche represents artists as intellectual lightweights. He here thinks of art in a kind of Hegelian way, as a stage on the way to something greater: science. But this is not to say he was a positivist, for he approached science in anticonceptualist terms. Thus, even in his positivistic period, he views science in terms of art, but remains uncertain about its mythical potential.

Myth begins by creating culture, but then it is hardened into religion, where the feeling for myth perishes. The resurgence of myth in Greek culture died with Socrates and the new Alexandrian culture of the theoretical man which sought to dissolve myth (73). We live today in a culture within which the binding force of myth has been loosed. We have made mythic consciousness all but impossible by examining the past in a critical and scientific spirit. The destruction of myth has robbed our culture of any fixed and sacred primordial site.

The problem, then, is to recover myth and to restore the lost vitality of culture. The process by which myth was lost is not to be followed by the reverse process, the gradual awakening of the Dionysian spirit in our modern world. One is reminded of Schelling’s Ages of the World, which looked forward to a golden age when truth becomes fable and fable truth. From logos to mythos we go from a debilitating skepticism and ironism to a renewed ground of certainty.

The myth of the future is the doctrine of eternal return, which is an attack on the ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness (82). Language is the prime expression of the will to power operative in the eternal return. Nietzsche intended eternal return as a denial of both the Christian myth of redemption and the 19th century bourgeois myth of progress. Like many of Foucault and Derrida’s concepts, it is easier to say what eternal return is not than what it is.

The process of interpretation is an infinite unfolding in which a ground is never reached because a ground does not exist. Foucault claimed that Nietzsche contributed a great deal to the liberation of the signifier from its dependence or derivation with respect to the logos and the related concept of truth (85). Nietzsche claims that it is a mistake to the believe that if all perspectives on the world were deducted, a world would still remain over. Facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretation. Interpretation is a total imposition of meaning and reality upon the world.

Though Kant and Nietzsche share many of the same concerns, Kant saw himself as a critic, Nietzsche as an artist and mythmaker. Kant views the categories as world-constitutive, Nietzsche as Verstellung, dissimulation. Nietzsche delighted in interpretation, suggesting that there is a positive enjoyment and nobility in the attempt to throw a new interpretation over the world. What matters for Nietzsche is not the objective “correctness” of interpretation but rather the courage and daring of the interpreter and his ability to pursue his insights at length and in a single direction (91). Nietzsche avers that good interpretation does not stick too close to consciousness, which is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text. The true thinker is one who escapes an academic gravity and seriousness, who is able to remain airborne, spinning out interpretations of a reality that lies irremediably beyond human ken.

Nietzsche does not believe that language distorts reality but that it is reality – with nothing outside of language to be distorted. Thought is brought back towards language itself, toward its unique and difficult beginning. N’s conception of language as active, independent being, speaking what is allegedly its own truth, provides the framework within which we are able to grasp the role that eternal return plays in his thought.

N’s true predecessor as a mythmaker is Jesus, who is a symbolist par excellence. Nietzsche could not create a myth on his own, however, and only appealed to a hoped-for revival of myth.


3. Heidegger and Crisis

In his book about Nietzsche, Heidegger tells us that thinking only begins when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought. Heidegger opposes all manifestations of the scientization of man. He shared the prewar belief that all continuity had been lost and that in consequence new and unexpected possibilities had, for good or ill, been opened up. Like Simmel, he thought of modern man as essentially alienated, characterized by a contradiction between a need for personal spontaneity and an objective, oppressive culture. World War I gave to the crisis notion a much greater currency and breadth. Integrally connected with this sense of crisis was the notion of apocalypitc change and regeneration. While Foucault would embrace the imaginative side of the Nietzschean heritage, Heidegger embraced the nostalgic side. He perpetually wants to go back, to return, to go home again.

In Being and Time, Heidegger says that the banal and superficial life that we lead when, in the broadest sense, we are out meeting the public conceals from us the knowledge that we are alienated beings and makes us feel at home in the world. Fallenness and anxiety here are manifested at all times for Dasein. Through the Destruktion of the history of ontology, Heidegger wants us to return to the question of being. At present we are so concerned with knowing about things that we risk not knowing anything at all. Our conscience calls us back to a (mythologized) origin, but this calling back is also a calling forth. As Derrida notes, Heidegger’s discourse in B&T is dominated by a metaphorics of proximity, of simple immediate presence, neighboring, sheltering, guarding, listening, etc. Heidegger’s nostalgia for an immediate presence can be read as a longing for the immediate Dionysian presence of the origin, from which all division, all separation, all difference is excluded.

Though most of the analysis in B&T is abstract, Heidegger does occasionally get into the particulars of modern life, for instance, when he writes: “In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next.” Or when he is concerned with “the anonymous and depersonalized subject of the modern industrial city.” After B&T, Nietzsche became a bigger deal for him. He says in “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” that ours is the age in which metaphysics is completed or the age in which nihilism comes to the fore (nihilism = the forgetting of being for beings). We are separated from being, from our beginnings, by both the Christian-theological world interpretation and the mathematical-technological thinking of the modern age (132). Heidegger lauds the thoughtfulness and sense of remembrance in peasant and thinks that philosophical work belongs in their midst. His idealization of the Volk is nostalgic in bearing.

In the political writings of the 30’s, Heidegger still thinks there is something to be done, but with his shift toward technology, his thinking becomes less a willing and more a waiting. In the Age of the World Picture, Heidegger accuses Descartes of unjustly equating the hypokeimenon/subiectum (foundation of beings) with man, which prevented beings from simply being. Henceforth being was violently seized upon by the Cartesian cogito, which grasped the world as a picture or model (Bild) standing apart from and against the human subject. This representation is not a self-unconcealment but a laying hold, an assault of man upon beings (139). So too is modern technology a seizing, a challenging-forth, as opposed to Greek techne, which still allowed beings to be. The nihilistic impulse of Western culture finds its culmination in technology, which turn everything into standing-reserve.

4. Heidegger’s Aestheticism

By the early 30’s, Heidegger had become a prophet of extremity. His later writings center around technology and art, the destroying and the saving powers. For the Greeks, techne was a poetic or revealing art, and Heidegger imagines a return to this openness. The later Heidegger is a radically ideal utopian because he feels an absolute revulsion against the present. The crisis of the modern age demands a turning, but the turning itself lies beyond our grasp, and we can only wait.

Heidegger and Hegel share many concerns, and Heidegger takes from him the idea of the end or fulfillment of history. But while Hegel sees what comes earlier as poorer in determination, Heidegger mythologizes the beginning, the Greeks.

The later Heidegger views language as a work of art and as an ontogenesis. He repudiates Sartre’s view that man alone creates, saying instead that what principally exists is being and that man stands out only in the truth of this being. Like Marx, Heidegger posited the estrangement of man but did not look to change the social order. The problem of freedom for Heidegger was rather a personal one, one of thinking. Such thinking is a recollection of being, and nothing else. It has no result. It is to think the world as a poem of its own making. This also means undermining the subject/object division, to question the being of the subject rather than simply assuming it as Kant did. Truth can no longer be conceived as a correspondence between knowing subject and known object but must rather be seen as an “uncoveredness” or “unhiddenness” of the things themselves.

In our “normal,” propositional-conceptual-representation thinking, we project a grid onto the world, onto “things.” But the thing resists this conceptualization, it “evades thought most stubbornly.” Art presents us the thing as thing. Heidegger’s ontological view (as opposed to the aesthetic view) of art holds that art is not mere play (as in Kant) but is rather a revelation of truth and hence of being (159). Hegel held the same view but nonetheless put philosophy above art. Heidegger attacks the “subjectivist” view of art, saying things like, it is not van Gogh who speaks through the painting but the painting itself that speaks. Art simply is, and questions of subjectivity and objectivity are irrelevant. Artwork speaks in a nonsubjective, being-attuned voice. Blanchot and Derrida follow Heidegger but reject truth in art.

In 1959, with On the Way to Language, Heidegger turns from the work of art to language. Language, like art, sets up a world; we must let this enigmatic center that resists clarification speak for itself. Language is the original essence of the truth as there. In language, we find a dwelling, the means for overcoming our crisis. There is no difference between language and being/reality.

Among the poets who Heidegger praises, Holderlin is at the top. With Holderlin, the Hegelian crisis acquires a more markedly nostalgic basis. Holderlin, like Heidegger, sought the rediscovery of the authentic Greek spirit (173).

For Heidegger, thinking is laying inconspicuous furrows in language. The philosopher is a creator who initiates profound transformations by devious paths (reminiscent of Nietzsche). Today we are dominated by a calculative, technological thinking. Heidegger recommends Gelassenheit, a releasement towards things, to combat the uprootedness that our excessive seizure of things has caused us. In the end, then, Heidegger recommends quietism, a reality left as it is.


5. Foucault and Structuralism

Foucault assumes a crisis similar to Nietzsche and Heidegger. He persistently misuses and misinterprets texts, but this is because he wants them to go out into the world and, by the power of their rhetoric, change it. He wants his works to self-destruct after use, like fireworks. He recognizes his predecessor as Nietzsche, wherein he sees the promise of a postanthropological future. Foucault’s activism is in marked contrast to Heidegger’s quietism. Heidegger embraces the nostalgic side of Nietzsche, Foucault the imaginative side.

Foucault’s influences outside of philosophy include Artaud and Bataille, who intensified Kojeve’s notion of the violence of the dialectic to shake up the dialectic. Artaud and Bataille both expressed an “excessive” character similar to Foucault. He was also influenced by the structuralisms which attempt to move the center of intellectual concern away from the speaking subject and toward the structure of the language being spoken.

In his first works, the History of Madness and the Birth of the Clinic, Foucault is still concerned with uncovering an “experience,” though this notion of experience drops out of the picture in the Order of Things and the Archaeology of Knowledge, replaced by a concern with “language” or “discourse” (191). In these two later works, Foucault is under the “illusion of an autonomous discourse,” like the aestheticist Nietzsche and the later Heidegger.

Foucault sees the history of the west as a conflict between Same and Other; when an Other is absent, it must be invented, as demonstrated in the History of Madness, where a society deprived of lepers turn toward the insane to enclose. And in the Birth of the Clinic, which places bodily illness under the same gaze. And in Discipline and Punish, where criminals are put under observation in the same way as the insane. In all, Foucault is concerned with a mounting series of attacks on the existing order of things. The presence of crisis is indicated by his well-known penchant for seeing history as broken by a series of ruptures or discontinuities. Foucault identifies with no particular subjugated knowledge but with subjugated knowledge as such. All knowledge is connected to power, and since there is no such thing as objective knowledge, one must be active in shaping it.

Megill portrays Foucault as a utopian idealist in rejecting the present in all its forms. But utopia can never be reached, and thus all one can do is constantly contest the existing order, involve oneself in a permanent revolution.

In his early “phenomenological” works, Foucault contends that the concept of mental illness has wiped out our contact with this experience, and thus he wants to go back and let madness speak for itself, before it was captured by knowledge. This is not unlike the phenomenologist’s desire to get back to the “thing itself.” In his next “structuralist” stage, being the Order of Things and the Archaeology of Knowledge, experience disappears; he now proposes to substitute for the enigmatic treasure of ‘things’ anterior to discourse the regular formation of objects that emerge only in discourse (203). The object, a something independent of the subject, is destroyed, and the destruction of the object is accompanied by the destruction of the subject as well.

Foucault might be characterized as a structuralist inasmuch as 1) he is concerned with language, 2) he attacks subjectivism and anthropologism, 3) he focuses on discontinuity rather than diachrony, 4) he speaks in binary oppositions (Same v. Other), 5) and he talks about the concept of the sign. Megill rejects these attributions one by one. First, Foucault’s concern with language has more to do with Mallarm√© than Saussure, and his rejection of subjectivism more to do with Nietzsche and Heidegger. His focus on discontinuity has nothing to do with the synchronic/diachronic division, and his attraction to binary oppositions was rather temporary and unimportant. Finally, there is his concern with the sign. The Order of Things is no doubt concerned with language, but less language as a system of signs and more language as an ontogenetic work of art. He argues that representation is characteristic of the classical episteme in the way signification is of the modern episteme. Representation involves a doubling, a signifier and a signified. Signification involves only signifiers in a play of difference. Because for Foucault there is no transcendental signified today, there can be no sign, and thus the fifth connection to structuralism is refuted.

Megill continues with more debate on whether or not Foucault is a structuralist. He then talks about Derrida’s view of structuralism, which is of course that it is intimately tied up with logocentrism, the metaphoric of light and vision, the persistent Apollonianism of Western philosophy, etc. Foucault is part of this tradition too, portraying for us a lucent, Apollonian world, says Derrida.

6. Beyond Structuralism

In Foucault, as in in Nietzsche, art is a matter not of truth but of lie. Foucault radically denies the notion of return as involving the recovery of something that is simply there, waiting for us to pick it up again. The Archaeology of Knowledge displays this disappearance of any such nostalgic and lyrical suggestion. In it, both “work of art” and “language” are replaced by “discourse.” Foucault holds up Nietzsche, Marx and Freud as having discovered that there is no solid and objective truth that can serve as a point of termination. In this middle period, we see Foucault turning away from discourse conceived as a system of signs pointing outward and toward a discourse that would systematically form the objects of which it speaks. Yet his commitment to the principle of exteriority, which states the lack of any depth or ultimate referrent, remains inconsistent, for he continues to conceive of his project in terms of the visual and spatial metaphoric evoked in Chapter 5. See the Order of Things, where he talks about an “order that manifests itself in depth” and “this order, taken as a firm foundation.” But by the Archaeology of Knowledge, his rejection of images of depth is unequivocal. “We do not seek below what is manifest the half silent murmur of another discourse.”

The Archaeology of Knowledge is the most consistently misread of all Foucault’s works. One should know first that it is a parodic repetition of Descartes’ Discourse on Method. Its basic thesis, insofar as it can be said to have one, is that the uncovering of the archive - the first law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events - can be carried out only by an analysis that is concerned neither with the internal play of signifiers (literary critics) nor with the external reference of signifieds (historiography). But what the uncovering of the archive is is never made clear. The work is an attack on science, on the whole idea of an objective knowing. He writes that in “archaeological analysis,” “one is not seeking to pass from the text to thought, from talk to silence, from the exterior to the interior, form spatial dispersion to the pure recollection of the moment, from superficiality to profound unity. One remains within the dimension of discourse.”

The Archaeology of Knowledge is still, however, caught up within the spatial metaphoric. In the writings that come after it, Foucault abandons the lingering theoreticism of that work. This shift toward a notion of discourse as praxis can be linked to the events of 1968. After 1970, Foucault characterizes his work not as archaeology but as genealogy, at which point he also acknowledges the fictional character of his historical writings. He says in an interview that “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. It seems to me that it is possible to make fiction work inside of truth, to induce truthful effects with a fictional discourse.” Foucault accepts, in his later writings, Nietzsche’s notion of history as something that propagates, or at any rate ought to propagate, myths that will be useful in the present. If Heidegger’s project may be titled Waiting for Godot, Foucault’s may be called Running after Godot - it being understood that Godot will not allow himself to be caught, if he exists at all.

Whereas in the Archaeology of Knowledge, discourse was a kind of plane surface that one seeks to order or disorder, it is now seen, in his later work, as that for which, that by which one struggles, the power that one seeks to seize. Pre-1969, he dealth almost exclusively with linguistic practices; after 1969, he deals with social practices that formed by institutions and discourse.

In the Will to Knowledge, Foucault denies the “repression hypothesis,” claiming that sexuality has not been repressed in the modern world but has rather proliferated. He portrays discourse here as something that goes out to battle. He is viewing the world as if it were discourse. In the reigning discourse, homosexuality is subjected to exclusion, and Foucault wants to show that absolutely arbitrary character of that exclusion. To be sure, when the present order is overturned and the subversive discourse becomes the reigning one, it, too, will be subject to discursive attack. Foucault articulates an instrument of systematic suspicion toward any order whatsoever.

Power in the later Foucault “tends to occupy the ‘anonymous’ place which classical treatises in metaphysics reserved for substance” (240). One can only understand Foucault’s conception of power when we understand his turn to Nietzsche. He conceives power not as a negative but a positive phenomenon: “Power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.” Discipline and Punish testifies to this new conception of power, for its central contention is that the social role of the prison was not to repress delinquency but to create it. By manufacturing a threat to social stability, the prison provided a rationale for the construction of the vast apparatus of control and discipline that now dominates bourgeois society. We all are caught within disciplinary systems - micro-pouvoirs. These systems exist throughout bourgeois society and control our behavior without our knowing it. This disciplinary power is exercised through its invisibility, yet at the same time, it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. Foucault engages in a reversal of Rousseau, viewing as insidious and threatening what he saw as desirable. Foucault said in an interview that “what I am trying to do is grasp the implicit systems which determine our most familiar behavior without our knowing it. Against the will to knowledge that has dominated our perception, he deploys a will to creative opinion. He engages in a legitimate rhetorical tactic, telling us lies about the past in order to open our eyes to the reality of the present. But the present reality is also a fiction. The question remains, however, whether the “dream of Apocalypse” that Foucault puts before us is really one we want to make our own.

Marx and Foucault both see the connection between knowledge and power, but Marx is committed to a notion of objective science, which grounds his revolution. Without a similar ground, Foucault’s revolution is against everything. Again, why should we opt for Foucault?

Foucault believed that thought is not theoretically, that it acts. This notion of the ontogenetic function of discourse has a strategic potential: it opens up a space within which the bearer of discourse can act to change the world. In the Will to Knowledge and elsewhere, Foucault articulates an antinaturalism, claiming that there is nothing natural about the current order and that it can and ought to be changed. There is no “natural,” just successive regimes of power. The same goes for Foucault’s own writings: there is no one Foucault, just a succession of positions.


7. The Deconstruction of Crisis

To interpret Derrida is already an act of violence because his writings are literally non-sensical. As opposed to Foucault, with Derrida one finds an anti-ocular, antispatial stance so radical that all positions seem to be wiped away as soon as they become visible. Derrida’s irony is so radical that he rejects the ideal, utopian worlds of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault.

In the Critique of Judgment, Kant founded the philosophy of art; Derrida seeks to undermine this philosophy by calling into question the distinction between art and reality. This attack on aestheticism is coupled with one on the root of nihilism: historicism (being any attribution of directionality to history). This also undermines crisis thought. Megill chooses to see Derrida’s project as twofold: deconstruction of crisis (historicism) and deconstruction of art. Derrida’s comical catharsis is postethical, aesthetic laughter.

Derrida shares much with the other prophets of extremity, but undermines their projects in important ways. Against Foucault’s apocalyptic vision of history, Derrida makes no ringing claims to have detected earthquakes in the offing or the imminent wiping out of man. Derrida’s real interest seems to be in opening us up to the hermeneutical possibilities of the written word (271). His project is explicitly anti-Hegelian. He refers ‘to Hegel, who is always right as soon as one opens one’s mouth in order to articulate meaning.’ All Derrida’s texts are prefatory, meaning they do not point toward a rational end but are rather dogged and aimless crisscrossing of territory.

One of Derrida’s favorite tools is the “rule of four,” also known as dissemination. If the threefold dialectic is a process of reproduction, the fourfold dissemination is a falling of seed on barren ground. The possibility of a fourth moment of the dialectic destroys the whole dialectical machine. Position, negation, negation of the negation, deconstruction (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida).

As opposed to Foucault, who gave up the formal study of philosophy, Derrida remained within philosophy. Whereas Foucault’s concern with alterity was with different oppressed groups (the sick, the insane, criminals, sexual deviants), Derrida’s was with alterity as such.

Derrida devotes a great deal of time to literature, specifically Artaud, Bataille, Sollers and above all Mallarme. Like Blanchot, he rejects Heidegger’s idea of truth in art; art, in Blanchot’s view, hides itself from signification, designating that region where nothing lives. Blanchot makes a distinction, following Mallarme, between parole brute - language as it is concerned with the reality of things - and parole essentielle - language which distances us from things, making them disappear. Parole essentielle is the language of poetry.

Derrida’s primary “thesis” is that over the course of Western history writing has been abased in favor of speech. Speech stands for immediacy, writing for secondariness. Writing, the sensible inscription, has always been considered by Western tradition as the body and matter external to the spirit, to breath, to speech, and to the logos. Writing is presented as the dissimulation of the natural, primary and immediate presence of sense to the soul within the logos. From this follow Derrida’ attack on Hegel’s “here and now” and Husserl’s “living present.”

Adopting Rorty’s “hermeneutical stance,” Derrida tells us that there is nothing outside of the text, that interpretation is an endless play that connects with no extra-interpretive referent. Literature is at once reassured and threatened by the fact of depending only on itself, standing in the air, all alone, separated from being. “Traditional” criticism always seeks a theme that is outside the text. Derrida hopes that “language is beginning to let itself be transferred to, or at least summarized under, the name of writing. Yet Derrida’s apocalypticism is tempered by humor, not at all like Foucault’s.

Derrida undermines crisis philosophy by revealing that it is based on a certain view of history that is linear or directional. 19th c. historicism gave way to 20th c. crisis commitment. The convincing power of the crisis notion depends on one’s prior belief in the linear or directional character of history, yet the whole point of the crisis notion is to undermine any such belief.

8. The Deconstruction of Art

The other prophets of extremity flirt with their aesthetic strands, but Derrida’s is so prominent that we might be inclined to confine ourselves to a reflection on art and aesthetics alone. Derrida can be seen as providing the intellectual or philosophical complement to such aesthetic developments as Duchamp’s urinal/foundation and Christo’s monumental sculptures.

The two traditions Derrida deals with are philosophy and Judaism, which he conceives as both an historical reality and a symbol of marginality. Megill links Derrida’s deconstruction of art to four names: 1) Levinas and the question of the other, 2) Jabes and the question of writing, 3) Freud and the question of interpretation, and 4) Kant and the question of art.

With Levinas, Derrida calls into question Husserl’s unswerving allegiance to the visual metaphors of theory and intuition. He also argues against Heidegger that his distinction between Being and beings, and the alleged priority of the former to the latter, is a manifestation of the most vicious of all tyrannies, that of the same over the other. This compromises the alterity of the other, enclosing it within an other-denying totality. The distinguishing feature of Western civilization has been the advance of reason; this project is utterly dependent for its persistence on the preservation of precisely that interiority which the advance of reason aims to destroy. To Western philosophy Levinas opposed eschatology, which institutes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history. Derrida focuses on Levinas’ conflict between an eschatological Judaism and a totalizing Greek philosophy. Against Levinas he sees in the Greek tradition an alterity that is explcitly denied. He also maintains that the “themes of nonpresence” work over phenomenology unceasingly. In brief, he argues that Western philosophy is always already fissured by alterity, and also that Hebraism is corrupted by the totalitarian violence that it seeks to evade. Whereas Levinas presents himself as an apologist for a pristine Judaism, Derrida can do nothing more than point out the impossibility of such a Judaism. Derrida thus attempts to erase the distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism.

The name of the secondariness that follows from the death of God is writing. Derrida stands as a successor to the Kabbalah, for where the Kabbalists sought, through the manipulation of words and letters, to find a path back through the ten Sefirot to God, Derrida takes the manipulation of words and letters as something close to an end in itself. While Nietzsche deals with nihilism, Heidegger with technology and Foucault with humanism, Derrida confronts the holocaust. Derrida is attracted to Jabes because he connects Judaism and writing. Viewed in a longer historical perspective, the labyrinthine text that is Derrida’s can be seen as having its precursor in the labyrinthine wanderings of the Jew. The encyclopedic, that is, circular Book gives way to the post-Nietzschean figure of the ellipse - the ellipse of writing that lacks the center of a meaning. Two figures are important for Derrida: the poet and the rabbi.

Since Freud saw himself as a man of science, he is distant from the prophets of extremity and their antiscientism. Lorin Anderson argues that Freud was a secret disciple of Nietzsche. But Freud is better seen is one of the prime mythopoeic thinkers of our age. The modernist Freud offers a way of living. The Freudian analytic attidue gives us the detachment needed to survive the modern, crisis-ridden civilization. Post-moderns reject this, praising him rather for his skills as an interpreter. Freud the modernist as epistemologist, Freud the post-modernist as hermeneut, playing with text. An investment in “reality” supposedly separates Freud from the prophets of extremity, but his reality is highly elusive. It is not what happened that is important but what the fantasies about what happened were. Freud had the courage and imagination to build, on a foundation terrifying in its exiguousness, an immense interpretive edifice. Freud’s hostily to art marks him off from other aestheticist thinkers? Derrida stresses the fictive aspect of psychoanalysis. And Freud’s dream interpretation bears a striking resemblance to Derrida’s wordplay. Glas is an intellectual fantasy constructed from the detritus of 2500 years of western culture just as the dream work is constructed from the detritus of the day.

All the prophets of extremity desire a “mythic moment” except for Derrida, who is too ironic to articulate myth. He argues that art is as much under the sway of the Greek logos as philosophy is. That central to Derrida’s project is an importing into the realm of ideas what was already present in practice in the realm of art. Like postmodernists he substitutes for the modernist faith in depth and penetration an adherence to surfaces. One has in Derrida the sense of an ending, of both Hegelianism and Nietzscheanism.


Modern Western intellectual history has up to now been mainly defined by the thought of the Enlightenment. The prophets of extremity try to deal with the crisis of the Enlightenment with aestheticism, which Megill defines as “an attempt to bring back into thought and into our lives that form of edification, that reawakening of ekstasis, which in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment view has been largely confined to the realm of art.” Aestheticism can lead to both activity (Foucault) and passivity (Heidegger). Megill expresses worry about Foucault’s confusion of discourse and world. He concludes by saying we ought to approach this kind of aestheticism with a sympathetic skepticism. The intent of the prophets of extremity was to break us out of our routine, but once they accomplish this, one must ask, “Now what?” They are therapeutic thinkers, attacking received ideas, demolishing previous platitudes. Megill worries about the crisis notion as itself a danger.

The thinkers in this book remind us that there are compelling reasons for disbelieving in the One True Way. This is all the more important today when total destruction is a real possibility.

1 comment:

  1. So on a scale of 10 how good is this book? It's always dangerous to take one's slant on major thinkers (4 of them in this case!) from an academic with an angle to push.