Quignard’s The Silent Crossing – thoughts on society

One of the recurrent themes of Pascal Quignard’s Lost Kingdom series, at least across the three volumes I’ve read, is the denial of community. In The Silent Crossing Quignard writes:

To turn one’s back on society, to break off from believing, to turn away from anything to do with looking and to prefer reading to surveillance, to protect those who have passed on from the survivors who denigrate them, to give succour to what is not visible—these are the virtues. The rare ones who have the matchless courage to escape spring up out in the wilds.

Quignard’s turning away from the world is centred on the idea of detachment from given identity. He writes “Do not become the slave of your people in the patronym they gave you within the collective language they taught you. Otherwise, the name they gave you will take the place of your flesh.”

Like an echo before a mirror, this idea has played on my mind for days until, this morning at 4.00am I dug out an old book and found the reference I was seeking. Before this blog, there were times when I was preoccupied with the work of Bourdieu and Badiou (at different periods). In this case I was trying to ferret out references from the work of the wrong ENS philosopher. What I was looking for I found in Badiou, mostly from one of the best introductions to Badiou’s  philosophy, Peter Hallward’s Badou: A Subject to Truth.

I have no competence in philosophy so forgive any misinterpretation. Badiou, like Quignard, rejects concepts of the Other. Hallward writes:

The whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned. For the real question—and it is an extraordinarily difficult one—is much more that of recognising the Same.

Badiou holds that assertions of any group identity are pernicious, writing in his Ethics, “Rimbaud was certainly not wrong when he said ‘I am another.’ There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself.” Assertions of difference, whether social, biological, cultural or other, are not incorrect (or lacking powerful effects) but simply banal. It is not of course that there are no differences between us. There are only differences and each of us is not a self-identity but a self-difference.

Where Quignard and Badiou might differ is that denying community entails a turning away from the world. Badiou is after all Marxist to his core. In response to the Do Not Become What You Are quotation I posted recently, a reader linked to this conversation between Gilles Delueze and Antonio Negri which ends like this:

One might equally well speak of new kinds of event, rather than processes of subjectification: events that can’t be explained by the situations that give rise to them, or into which they lead. They appear for a moment, and it’s that moment that matters, it’s the chance we must seize. Or we can simply talk about the brain: the brain’s precisely this boundary of a continuous two-way movement between an Inside and Outside, this membrane between them. New cerebral pathways, new ways of thinking, aren’t explicable in terms of microsurgery; it’s for science, rather, to try and discover what might have happened in the brain for one to start thinking this way or that. I think subjectification, events, and brains are more or less the same thing. What we most lack is a belief in the world, we’ve quite lost the world, it’s been taken from us. If you believe in the world you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control, you engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume. It’s what you call pietas. Our ability to resist control, or our submission to it, has to be assessed at the level of our every move. We need both creativity and a people.

This is one consequence I like about Quignard’s work, that it compels so much more thinking and reading. It is like a hunt chasing down allusions and memories that range across Badiou, Lacan, Melanie Klein, Freud and numerous ancient Franks, Greeks and Romans.

Great Secondary Philosophical Work

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is pleasing in several different ways. A great start to a new year’s reading, as it’s got me reading, writing and thinking like a man on fire.

I’ve always been stubborn about tackling the major thinkers directly, head on. Stubborn and in cases like Derrida, likely to end in tears. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is a first-rate work of literature, as good as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche felt, probably correctly, was his finest moment. I’ve lined up other secondary material on Nietzsche by Nehemas, Safranski and Malcolm Bull.

But I’m wondering what other books on the major thinkers stand up as works of literature in their own right? Is there someone I ought to be reading that will open up Bourdieu’s philosophy/sociology in the way Kaufmann has for Nietzsche’s work? Or Deleuze’s work, which I almost read as poetry, allowing meaning to sink in where it can?

It isn’t just Kaufmann that has me thinking along these lines. Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus was enlightening. I also became aware from Samuel Beckett’s Library, one of my all-time favourite pieces of secondary literature, how much Beckett approached the major thinkers indirectly before, if ever, launching a direct assault on their major works.

If you have any suggestions please reply in Comments (so other readers can share) rather than Twitter, where everything just gets lost or buried in Favourites.

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

Not Knowing How to Look

Bourdieu’s judgement, and that of all those who denounce the aesthetic illusion, rests on a simple alternative: you know or you do not [on connaît ou on méconnaît]. If you do not know [méconnaît], it is because you do not know [sait] how to look or you cannot look. But to not be able to look is still a way of not knowing how to look. Whether philosopher or petit-bourgeois, those who deny this, those who believe in the disinterested character of aesthetic judgement do not want to see because they cannot see, because the place that they occupy in the determined system, for them as for everyone else, constitutes a mode of accommodation which determines a form of misrecognition [méconnaissance].

Rancière, Jacques and Jon Roffe (Translator). “Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge.” in: Parrhesia. Vol. 1, 2006. (English).

Simple Existence

Clément Rosset
Clément Rosset

This morning I’ve rummaged around the internet for information about philosopher Clément Rosset, whose philosophy seems to share certain characteristics of the Epicureans, Pierre Bourdieu and Gilles Deleuze. It seems that Joyful Cruelty: toward a philosophy of the real, the book I’d like to read is not in print in English translation. A passage from that book has a Deleuzean flavour to it (not that I am deeply read in Deleuze. Yet).

As evidence for his claim that “simple existence is in itself a source of rejoicing,” Rosset points to the importance people assign to recounting accurately the past events of their lives: “The smaller one’s investment in what was happening in the past when one was participating in the events, the more one now refuses to hear that artichokes were served that day when in fact one remembers excellent asparagus. . . . This fastidious character of remembrance can only be interpreted as the mark of recognition. . . . with respect to existence as such, of the inherent interest of all existence whatever it may be. . . .”

This reminds me of a passage I scribbled in my notebook (I’ll try and find the interview for tweeting and linking here in another post) from a 1988 interview with Deleuze:

Signs imply ways of living, possibilities of existence, they are the symptoms of an overflowing [jaillissante] or exhausted [épuisée] life. But an artist cannot be content with an exhausted life, nor with a personal life. One does not write with one’s ego, one’s memory, and one’s illnesses. In the act of writing there’s an attempt to make life something more than personal, to liberate life from what imprisons it. . . . There is a profound link between signs, the event, life, and vitalism. It is the power of nonorganic life, that which can be found in a line of a drawing, a line of writing, a line of music. It is organisms that die, not life. There is no work of art that does not indicate an opening for life, a path between the cracks. Everything I have written has been vitalistic, at least I hope so, and constitutes a theory of signs and the event.

If you are able to enlighten me in any way about Clément Rosset’s work I’d be appreciative.

Ethnocentric Criticism

Before (or after) reading my scattered musings in this post I’d urge you, if you haven’t read it before, to give your attention to Aijaz Ahmad’s essay entitled Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory”. Written in 1987 it is somewhat dated, and bears a tedious title. That aside, it is a surgical and incisive demolition of the concept of ‘third-world literature,’ and much of academic postcolonial theory.

I shall argue, therefore, that there is no such thing as a “third-world literature” which can be constructed as an internally coherent object of theoretical knowledge. There are fundamental issues-of periodisation, social and linguistic formations, political and ideological struggles within the field of literary production, and so on-which simply cannot be resolved at this level of generality without an altogether positivist reductionism.

Ahmad develops his argument to challenge the Three Worlds Theory, or at least Jameson’s conception of the theory. (It is here that the outdated part of the essay is most obvious, in the use of ‘Second World’ to mean socialist countries.) Nevertheless his argument is illuminating.

Elsewhere Ahmad has written (and hints in this essay), about the tendency of the élite or relatively upper class writers and philosophers from developing nations to be raised to canonical status in the West, simply as they are afforded more opportunity and access. Those from a working class background tend to go untranslated or unpublished.

Not, of course, that this is problem only for developing nations. Pierre Bourdieu is his “not-autobiography” Sketch for Self-Analysis contrasts the status (and volume of published work, secondary criticism etc.) of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, both from wealthy and privileged backgrounds, with Georges Canguilhem (as a young boarder he didn’t know what wash-basins were for) and by insinuation himself.