Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Descombes on Modernity, Reason and Ontology

In the last few days I have been reading Vincent Descombes' Barometer of Modern Reason.  I cannot quite put my finger on its point of origin; there is clearly a Hegelian historical bent, but there is also something else.  At times, despite being the work of a French writer commenting on Kant and Hegel--and whom repeatedly extols incredible insight into the logic of French thought--there is a pragmatic aspect that synthesizes well with his historical interests. I haven't yet gotten to the chapter on Epochal Metaphysics, in which I assume he takes Heidegger and the 'ontologists of the present' to task; but he has already taken down Foucault and Habermas in opposite regards. 

The critique of Foucault is one similar to Adorno's criticism of Heidegger; essentially, for Foucault the task of present philosophy is to derive a history of the present, or rather to treat the present in a historical way; uncovering its mechanisms with an eye of neutrality.  For Descombes this is interesting enough, but he wonders why Foucault refers to a "history of the present" as an "ontology of the present" or "ontology of ourselves."  Descombes asks, how is an essentially metaphysical category accessed through the intellectual practice of history? His answer is that ontology requires the treatment of the present in a redublicative way.  The present is treated as present, time is treated as time.  Ontology thus has a reductive or formalizing effect, the "being" of the present is recognized only through abstracting its substance to a formal level (this may synchronize with Deleuze's description of Foucault as a transcendental, rather than pragmatic philosopher).  This issue of "ontology of the present" bears on a second question for Descombes, if we are to treat the present, and with it the political event (I assume a critique of Badiou is latent in this) as the event and treat it as if it has a certain fatedness, then how is one to be responsible for their own speculative suggestions.  He points to Foucault's response to critique of his support for the 1979 revolutions, wherein Foucault states in the voice of 'power', "What does one death, any one complaint or any one uprising matter when compared with the overarching necessity of the whole?  On the other hand, what does any one general principle matter to me in the particular situation we now confront?" For Descombes, this position is untenable and essentially skirts the problem of responsibility in political speculation.  Through Foucault's ontologizing, he essentially hypostatizes the notion of a "whole," against which is opposed the rupture of the political revolt, or a "singularity." The singularity, or revolutionary, is always by virtue of their contradiction of the ancien Regime, right, irregardless of that revolution's end. The whole functions as a political tyrant against which one must automatically treat the singularity as real, active and possessing truth.  The tyrant is consigned to represent the transcendental or general law, while the singularity (revolutionary) is with the natural forces of desire (for freedom and emancipation).  The tyrant is thus deprived of its own singularity and with it, the political actor is deprived of the "I" in an ontology of ourselves, since the whole process of a political event is automated.  A political philosophy which treats its critical agency in this way has no possibility of responsibility, as the state and its organization is necessarily a false appearance, so even failure is always overshadowed by the dominant and intrinsic failure of the state.  Descombes finds this to be a form of radical philosophy, in which the mores of the community are inverted and the margins are emphasized; this general disinterest in philosophical questioning is fundamentally a form of antiphilosophy. Instead, for Descombes, a philosophical appraisal of historical events will use both the critical standpoint as well as the antiquarian or the monumental (or to use Kant's categories instead of Nietzsche's, the critical, the skeptical and the dogmatic)--it will enter the mindset of "the whole" so that it may speculate an alternative in which the singularity is considered, so that one may also question, 'is the state or revolution specifically legitimate?"  Descombes says "the role of a philosophy of historical events is not to present another--philosophical--report on the course of those events.  Rather, it is to help us to understand and judge what is reported in the press (and repeated by the public), and it can do this only by improving the conceptual apparatus through which we attempt to understand, in any given situation, what is going on in the world."  Philosophy must avoid formal, apolitical and unhistorical interpretations of events; it must instead enter into the manifest image of the present and develop through past means an increasingly complex moral and epistemological critical apparatus for living in the present.

Descombes similarly finds a static means of political critique in Habermas' rehabilitation of the "modern project", but to different ends.  While Habermas identifies his activity with Baudelaire's category of the modern, Descombes describes his conception of the modern project as an academic process, wholly different from the lived modernity which Baudelaire describes.  Habermas' treatment of Baudelaire is, like Benjamin's, entirely aesthetic. Or rather the critical theorist treats, in harmony with Kant's autonomy aesthetic judgments under the condition of their communicability, Baudelaire's modernity as an aesthetic or poetic modernity autonomous from a scientific or political modernity.  The problem with this interpretation, is that for Baudelaire, modernity is not a distinctive property of things; it is not adjudicated through formal conditions of modernity (in the case of art as freedom from moral and representational means); but is instead a substantive and lived kind.  For Baudelaire, Romanticism, which he would later call Modernity, is a direct expression of the moral sense of a time and that beauty itself and critique of beauty is not determined by formal aesthetic criterion, but by poetic and heroic criterion, which relate the quality of the beautiful and the modern directly with the moral flux of an epoch. Critical theory will always have a difficulty in grasping this, because in their appraisal, the modern is dialectically tied to the demystification of the morality of the past; but in Baudelaire's conception, the categories of the past retain a "mysterious" coherence, relating directly to the peculiar modern mythology that generates its own inspirational quality. An academic modernity becomes philosophistic--modernities are transformed into ahistorical general law, whereas they are real processes of becoming, whose ends remain unforeclosed.

As per my own research, the book has opened up considerable points of departure.  First off, there is a beautiful passage in which Descombes confirms a critique I have considered, or at least peculiarity that I have observed in the negative Analytic and Rationalist interpretations of French philosophy (Habermas, Pippen, Chomsky, Dennett, etc.) Descombes says, "we in France do not reason within the perspective opened up by a modern project. Rather, our thinking is determined by what one might call a modern accomplishment.  We do our thinking in the wake of our Revolution, the legacy of which deeply unites use even before dividing us from one another. And this can only mean one thing: we reason in the wake of the (French) Revolution's failure to liberate humanity."  The difference between Francophone philosophy and others is quite pronounced here, one cannot think of the critique of history, the critique of rationalism without considering the failure both of Revolution in its unfolding--the terror, Napoleonic violence, etc; but also its misapprehension of the possibilities of modernity, in the forms of "nationalism" and "populist demagogy." The French have a different meaning of reason in this sense, and their abstractions have a demonstrative role immanently tied to their specific historical development; wherein metaphysical philosophy is opposed to the rationalist intellectualism of the Philosophes.  Reason is rather the rationality of progressivist and positivist optimism, and its critique derives from these positions a political and ethical discourse.

Descombes also draws on a historical category which Habermas describes as a third (flawed) alternative to leftist and traditional forms of Hegelianism, which he calls Nietzscheo-Hegelianism.  This means that reality is no longer treated as optimistically potentiating historical progress (the leftist position), or as slowly assimilating individuals tied to "immediacy" into the self-reflection of religion and the state (the conservative position), but instead as being too rational and thereby uncreative or masked--in other words, that which we constitute as reality is predetermined by our contingent desires and our internalized and individual values.  Habermas denies this position any merit, as he says for an argument against rationality to be intelligible one must appeal to reasons predicated by that rationality being critiqued.  As far as I am concerned, this is an inadequate critique.  For one, it is questionable if the Nietzscheo-Hegelian method calls upon reasons at all, or if it dissolves reasons into ways of thinking and therefore never explicitly asks that you treat the critique as real in a conventional sense; that is, if Reason has become hyperrational, change is only determined by an aesthetic function which appears as a logic.  But also, Habermas seems to conflate the concept of reason and rationality.  As in Hegel reason is not recognizable (though it can be) in empirical or individual experience; instead reason is a non-physical order that often acts counterinuitively to thinking. A rational explanation is thus reached ex post facto.  The rationality which is being critiqued is a more general existential rationality, in which a particular justification or reason is read into the present instead of ambiguity; as Wittgenstein says in critiquing the legal conception of motive, "people sometimes say: "No one can see inside you, but you can see inside yourself", as though being so near yourself, being yourself, you know your own mechanism.  But is it like that?"  In other words, the motive is something to be read into one's own actions, motive is a self-reflection which effectively alters the image of things and maybe the causal efficacy of human behavior itself.  It is in no way contradictory to critique the rationality of common sense, the state, etc. and also draw upon reasons, as there is an essential gap in a rational justification and the reason that the real state of affairs consists in.  The critique of reason doesn't suggest that causes or motives do not exist, but rather that a Hegelian concept of Reason creates two problems in empirical settings.  (1) That it permits the assumption that a projected rationalization is better than acceptance of ambiguity (a tendency explicit in Hegel's notion of providence)  and (2) that it creates a ontological reduplication--"rationalization" or "Reason" as a distinctive quality independent of scientific cause--by which the order of the present is justified by an implicit and transcendental (though immanently transformative) reason, which aligns naturally with the state.  In other words, the present may seem miserable, but there is a reason for it.  The important part of overcoming this problem of reason, is in not hypostatizing the revolutionary "singularity" as a reactionary response to the rationalizing impulse; this is a problem in Foucault as well as Adorno. It is, instead, to say, what complexity can we read out of our set of materials.  What does the evidence say or not say. (I have yet to decide if Deleuze's formal notion of difference as a virtual affection of an actual state of affairs, or in more simple terms, the idea that there is a non-repeatable change that is implicit to the present, but at the same time does not effect it, has the same problem.) 

Anyway, Descombes finds this Nietzscheo-Hegelian tradition as problematic as Habermas does; but he instead points to Kojeve, rather than Nietzsche, as the genesis of the problem. Moreover, he notes that Habermas should instead think of a bizarre "dark Hegelian" tradition which consists of Blanchot and Klossowski as well as Foucault, Derrida and Bataille (and one can likely include Lefebvre, Quenaeu, Hyppolite, Lacan, Wahl and Genet among others); a tradition which indicates a massive disturbance in French thought between 1930-1960 .  In another unrelated section, Descombes references an early text written by Schelling and Hegel, in which they describe philosophy as an idealist "mythology of Reason", through which the proverbs of a time are transformed into mythological philosophical images so that Reason be made intelligible (as it is essentially non-physical) in the institutions of art, religion and politics.  I find it hard to separate, as many would, the function of "dark Hegelianism" from the work of Benjamin or some of Adorno's work (Minima Moralia), wherein mythological imagery is used to intuit an epoch reflectively and symptomatically; nor should their conclusions--(1) the self-destruction of logical systems when pushed to their conclusion, (2) the transformation of the profane and esoteric into means of emancipation and (3) the image of a society in essential crisis, caused by, as Descombes terms, ultramodern identity, or identities of class or racial conflict--be rejected.  It might be that the materialist and differential conclusion of Nietzscheo-Hegelian thinking was as much a necessary myth as that of Hegelian Reason.  That not only is their an organization which precedes and overcomes individuality in the form of Reason, but there is also a contingency that cannot be reduced to the expectation that the present be rational. The subject may be the substance of reality, but the reason of reality is caught in a becoming of inhuman forces that will not ever appear as rationality--the many violences between the 30s and 60s, be they Stalinist, Fascist or American, serve as examples.

The contemporary question, which is especially prescient in America is, if physics can eventually predict the causal order of things to infinity, will the inhuman forces--the non-subjective and unaffected by Reason--be rendered empirically rational; therein destroying both the Differential and Hegelian reason in a single movement. I assume that this scientific projection is one similar to the philosophical role of Reason for Hegel and Schelling; that the myth of an absolute physics, of a universe rendered entirely rational is a means of supplementing religious superstition with a realistic myth.  The problem then arises when the ideals of this myth inevitably fail and Reason's misgivings play out in unforseen ways.  For this reason I think the category of Dark Hegelianism will function as a large part of my thesis research on Deleuze. Descombes mentions Deleuze as being so preoccupied with trying to escape the "melan-Hegelianism" of the time that he came to be seen as a sort of anti-Hegel; one cannot recognize Deleuze's ingenuity without also recognizing its process of development out of that milieu.  Descombes comments also reminds me of Zizek's contention that Deleuze, unlike Derrida, was the only philosopher to fully escape Hegel's concepts of contradication and identity.  If I am to grasp Deleuze in full, it will be useful to read the self-destruction of Hegel which predicated him.  And it doesn't seem as if this strand of thought has stopped. Both Fukuyama and Zizek use the same mad logic, but one whose distorted lens complicates living and thinking and may supplement our own natural descriptive motives with another that clarifies the potential of life.

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