"Wittgenstein" is the nickname of a philosophy don at Cambridge (we never learn the character's real name) who is so-called by his students because of his intensity, his brooding melancholy and his habit of utterly gnomic aphorisms *sample: "One day, logic will whisper in our ears. Logic will say the kindest words. We will mistake it for roaring ... We will confuse it with the howling wind ...") The novel is told from the point of view of Peters, a Northern undergraduate who falls in love with Wittgenstein. But Wittgenstein is not an easy man to love - almost too brilliant to live, tortured by thought, and by the suicide of his mathematical genius brother, he's constantly on the verge of a crack-up. Lars Iyer also captures the ceaseless ironic banter and the heavy drink-and-drug intake of the undergraduates. The style is unfailingly funny and felicitous. And it's just so clever. Think Martin Amis meets Nietzsche. It's not much longer than a novella, but it has all the heft of a big fat novel.
Brandon Robshaw reviews Wittgenstein Jr in The Independent on Sunday.
The paranoid as Buddhist: Schopenhauer’s uniqueness.
The thinker has emptiness around him. He pushes everything away until there is enough emptiness around him, and then starts leaping from this to that. In his leaps, he creates his road. The ground is sure only because he steps on it; everything in between is doubt.
The illuminating mind is like lightning, it flashes rapidly over the greatest distances. It leaves everything aside and shoots for one thing, which it does not know before illuminating it. Its effectivity begins when it strikes. Without some minimum of destruction, without terror, it never takes shape for human beings. Illumination per se is too boundless and too shapeless. The fate of the new knowledge depends on the place of the striking.
All days referring to days that will never come.
The unbroken, how do they do it? The unshaken, what are they made of? When it is past, what do they breathe? When it is still, what do they hear? When the felled one does not stand up again, how do they walk? Where do they find a word? What wind blows over their eyelashes? Who opens the dead ear for them? Who breathes the frozen name? When the sun of eyes goes out, where do they find the light?
It might be that only the unhappiest man is truly capable of some happiness, and this could almost seem like justice – but then there are the dead, and they seem to be silent about that.
I knew him when he walked down the street with hateful fingers and snarled. He was still young, and he thought he needed no one. The distaste he felt towards aging passers-by influenced his motion; he walked along in kicks as it were. He noticed everyone, because he disliked everyone. As for friends, he knew – and he was fortunate – that he had no friends. It rained on everyone, and it humiliated him that the others felt the very same drops on their skin as he did.
He would like to start from scratch. Where is scratch?
The new, the actual discoveries about animals are possible only because our pride as God’s highest creature is a thing of the past. It turns out that we are really God’s highest creature, that is to say, God’s executioner in his world.
‘The Oriental church fathers claimed that Christ was uglier than any man who ever lived. For in order to redeem mankind, he had to take upon himself all of Adam’s sins and even his physical blemishes.’
Wretched the man who knows. How wretched God must be, all-knowing.
More than ever before, there are things in the world that would like to be said.
The prestige that writers draw from their martyrs: from Holderlin, Kleist, Walser. Thus with all their claim to freedom, vastness, and inventiveness, they merely form a sect.
I wonder whether among those who build their leisurely, secure, linear academic lives on the lives of writers who lived in poverty and despair – I wonder whether even one of those people is ashamed.
The end, no matter how one glosses over it, is so senseless that no attempt at explaining Creation will mean anything, not even the concept of God as a playing child: the child would have lost interest long ago.
Stupidity has become less interesting, it spreads in the twinkling of an eye and is always the same in everyone.
[…] But he is naturally so much, that he needs a different balance from other people. It is not stilts that he walks on, he always rests roundly upon himself as a gigantic world-globe of the mind; and in order to understand him, one has to orbit him like a small moon, a humiliating role, but the only suitable one in his case.
Everywhere, two paces from your daily paths, there is a different air sceptically waiting for you.
There is a wailing wall of humanity, and that is where I stand.
So long as one says ‘tomorrow’, one means ‘always’; that’s why one loves saying ‘tomorrow’.
It is true that he seduces one into taking leaps. But who is capable of them? Lichtenberg is a flea with a human mind. He has that incomparable strength to leap away from himself – where will he leap to next?
To find an old man who has forgotten how to count.
What are you ashamed of when you read Kafka? You’re ashamed of your strength.
Not to wait until dreams become laments.
God put the rib back into Adam’s side, blew out his breath, and deformed him back into clay.
The last people will not weep.
What if it should turn out that we, the everlasting penitents for the future, had lived in the best of all possible time!
If people were to keep trying, even a thousand times, to examine how we managed to have so much freedom, so much air, so many ideas!
Many worm-thoughts: cut in two, they continue to grow.
This whole immense life, multiplying endlessly – for us? Only God can believe that.
I always know better, I have a terribly accurate knowledge of people; yet this knowledge does not interest me, anyone who has lived a while could have it. I am interested in what refutes this knowledge, what annuls it. I would like to turn a usurer into a benefactor, a bookkeeper into a poet. I am interested in the leap, the surprising metamorphosis.
There is nothing more to be found, no unknown species of man. Now is the time for entangling all that we know.
The Stoics overcome death by death. The death one commits on oneself doesn’t harm one any more, so one need not fear it.
Pause until the rediscovery of eternity.
Long before the creation of the world, there were philosophers. They were lying in ambush in order to be able to say that everything is good. For hadn’t they thought of it? And how could something they had thought of fail to be good? As their thought, they brought forth the dubious formation, and they giggled over the correctness of their prophesy.
It’s long, long past that he lived under cover of hatred.
It is possible that we are seeing a false history. Perhaps the correct one can be revealed only when death is beaten.
When one knows how false everything is, when one is capable of measuring the extent of falseness, then and only then is stubbornness the best thing: endless striding of the tiger along the bars of the cage so as not to miss the single tiny instant of salvation.
You held out your hand for an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation: close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.
The redescription in Updike’s criticism is obviously of a high order, and [of] a certain kind of generosity, too—that’s to say, he was a very patient and hospitable quoter of other people’s texts. But I always felt that there was a certain kind of ungenerousness in Updike’s work, too. The maddening equilibrium of his critical voice—never getting too upset or too excited—enacted, I always felt, a kind of strategy of containment, whereby everything could be diplomatically sorted through, and somehow equalized and neutralized, and put onto the same shelf—and always one rung below Updike himself. That’s perhaps unfair. But I think his fiction worked in the same way, too, despite the passionate attention of his prose: It existed to clothe the world in superb words, to contain it, somehow.
There is an advantage to being the last speaker at a conference. The stress of paper-giving is over for everyone else. There is a sense of festivity, of relaxation – of coming in the aftermath of hard work. Everyone’s mellow, a little weary, looking forward to a final drink. This isn’t the time-slot for the dry and the abstract. And so (I hope), there is a bit of licence granted to the last speaker, which allows him to go a little literary, perhaps. A little paraphilosophical…
Perhaps this is an appropriate timeslot for posing a valedictory question – a question to which I maybe shouldn’t give myself the right of posing: the question of what has been happening here over the last few days. Of what has been done, what has been thought. The trouble in answering such a question is that you only really know what you’ve been working on once you’ve finished it, or are at least moving towards its conclusion. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk. A real sense of a project can only be had retrospectively, only when it is complete, or moving definitively towards completion – that is to say, if I can play on words here, only as a re-ject. Deleuze and Guattari ask, what is philosophy?, but not until they come to the end of their career. It is a question, they note, that can only be posed late on, with the arrival of old age, when you have nothing else left to ask. My question – not ‘What is philosophy?’ but the much more modest, ‘What has been happening here at this philosophical conference?’ – is likewise one that can be posed only at the end of the event…
We live our lives forwards, but understand them backwards, says Kierkegaard. So perhaps it is only in the graveyard slot that we can really attend to SEP conference 2015. But there is another problem in grasping what has been going on here at this conference, for it is not only determinable tasks and projects with which we’ve been busy during the last few days – tasks that can work towards completion, or, at least, towards some measure of determinacy – there have also been activities that were part of no larger project, that might, indeed, have had no determinate end at all. Beside the serious labour of paper-giving, of formulating questions and answers, beside chat at tea-breaks and over dinner tables, beside gossip about who spoke well and who, badly, about scandals rocking this or that academic department, and so on, there is also that extempore fun, that fooling around and larking about which happens much more gratuitously. This is the festive aspect of the philosophy conference, which always gives it something of the carnival.
The sweet truancy of missing papers, of laughter breaking out in the lecture room, generalised irreverence, the exchange of comic banter, lucid or not so lucid to-and-fros, the room-to-room search for a source of alcohol after the pubs close, staying up all night with a bottle of spirits between you: these are not usually the kind of experiences whose details we remember or seek to remember. Perhaps you simply had to be there. It happened, and that was it. Who can remember who said what, or recall the specifics of one flight of fancy or another? What was so funny at four AM last night? Indeed, we might plausibly regard it as a betrayal, or a kind of impropriety to seek to remember the night before. What goes on tour stays on tour! Is there even a dignified vocabulary for such things: larking about? fooling around? — although they do seem related to what Bataille calls ‘unproductive expenditure’, what Levinas calls ‘enjoyment’, what Bakhtin calls the ‘carnivalesque’, what de Certeau calls, ‘wigging off’ and what Blanchot, as we will see, calls the ‘limit-experience’. And what of our partners in these crimes? They are not really friends in the strong sense – they are not bound to us in relations of intimacy, of trust, of constancy and so on. They are conference-frequenters, just as we are — conference habitués who want to have a laugh, who want high- or low-minded fun before the start of the next term. Short-term, sporadic, formed and dissolved by chance, idling without commitment, the equivalent in amity of a one-night stand, we might see such interrelations as really only a parody of friendship. And we might remember what Adorno writes: ‘parody means the use of forms in the era of their impossibility’.
So how are we to reflect on these carnivalesque, collective modes, which lie alongside ‘serious’ tasks and projects? What kind of philosophical or paraphilosophical framework is needed to understand or at least to witness the comic art of such interrelations? Here, I aim to follow a little distance the red thread of the concept of friendship, and in particular of intellectual friendship.
How is friendship faring in our time? The authors of Friendship: A History have it that the postwar period in the West has been the age of friendship, insofar as friendship has become ever more distinct from relationships with neighbours or kin, from relationships based on proximity, need or birth. Friendship, they argue, has become an emotional bond rather than a primarily instrumental one, a bond that, because of affluence, mobility and new technologies of mass communication, is based on ‘intimacy, shared pleasures and recreations, reciprocity, equality and negotiated (rather than necessary) interdependence’.
Friendship, on this account, has become defined by a concern for the other person, insofar as the other person is a unique individual, with whom we feel a sympathy in the context of increasingly fluid, increasingly contingent, extrinsic factors. Friends, so goes this account, share views and values in a manner that is hard-won from a society that does not support them. Now model of friendship has had its critics, who have pointed to the potential narcissism of the relation, to its characteristic retreat from public life – too little is at stake in such a sentimental remove from worldly affairs. But it is possible, even necessary now, to expand this criticism, and do justice to the extent to which this model of friendship is now the most worldly thing of all. To understand this, we must turn, briefly, to the transition our society has undergone from the mode of discipline to the mode of control.
In the societies of discipline, as Foucault tells it, power operated modestly, from the bottom as it were, quite differently from the spectacular excess of top-down sovereign power. But the fact that the populations of these societies continued to think of power as a top-down operation meant that they experienced themselves as free, and were free, even as discipline was producing its effects – free to pursue their vocation, free to exercise their power of judgement, and so on. Disciplinary power operated through normalisation, not repression – through comparatively hidden, modest, and liberatory exercises. One way to understand this is in terms of the contrast between doing a job and having a profession; having a profession does not just inform your identity, it defines it. The disciplinary don, like the nurse or the policeman, was the product of a process which saw norms of thought and action go all the way down. But it didn’t feel that way. The disciplinary don enjoyed respect, he was entrusted with judgement, and given the space and time to exercise it. Normalisation went hand in hand with authenticity, to the extent that we might say that these figures were their professions and experienced their relationship to institutions as liberatory. In one sense, we can see the old dons of Oxford and Cambridge, as described in Gilbert Annan’s history, as being confined – they had their wood-panelled offices, they gave their lectures in the great halls, they had to be available for students, and for college and university tasks. But this was not simply confinement, for the old dons saw themselves as part of the genius loci of Oxbridge, at least potentially becoming outstanding scholars, devoted teachers, cultivating originality and imagination, showing open-heartedness and magnanimousness, and having as their noble aim the transformation of the old universities into institutions of education and research. And they shared this ethos with other professionals — civil servants, school inspectors, secretaries of philanthropic associations, periodical editors — to whom they were often related by family, constituting what we might understand as a single disciplinary block, sharing a soaring patriotism, a sense of moral purpose and a reformer’s zeal.
In the societies of control, by contrast, as Deleuze indicates, professional figures of this kind have been supplanted by much looser assemblages with much more passing and precarious identifications. True, some elements of discipline do survive: we continue to be identifiable and representable subjects for administration and management; but the ‘I’ at the core of my disparate and precarious experiences, the seat of my desires and the source of all my interests, is now much more unstable. The post-professional of the society of control experiences a distinct of the space and time that the old don enjoyed. Our freedom to make decisions, to oversee things from a distance, is supplanted by new mechanisms of auditing and surveillance. Harried, over-managed, subject to intense bureaucratic scrutiny, never left alone, the contemporary academic is endlessly distracted, with a continual sense of being nudged, of someone pulling at her elbow. We are always behind now, in our work of filling out forms, making research bids, inputting our personal details, posting on Twitter… Today’s academic is hassled by on-the-job training, continual monitoring, lifelong learning. As Sinéad Murphy explained in her talk at this conference, it’s not even that we are now required to do a job rather than have a profession, we are now required continually to find our job, and to keep our job, to be employable.
What, then, of friendship? As Annan explains, the dons who walked with their hands behind their backs on the English lawn had ample space and time to cultivate friendship, even though the ‘dry fierce heat’ of unreserved affection and support did make considerable demands and imposed considerable duties. You could expect rebuke if you were not living up to your intellectual potential; your friend was a challenger and a goad, trying to push you to be better than you were. Educo, the Latin root of education means, ‘I raise up’, or ‘I lead forth’ – old-style dons sought to raise each other up, according to the old notion of Bildung – turning each other towards higher ideals, lighting each other on the road to full humanity.
Certainly, this mode of donnish friendship is no longer for us. The sense of common culture and shared endeavour on which it was premised has now been supplanted by a range of emotional tonalities that Paolo Virno describes very well: cynicism, opportunism and sentimentalism.
Cynicism, Virno explains, involves a fulsome awareness of the rules of the situations in which we find ourselves – we know what we’re doing; we perceive the conventionality and mutability of the rules of the game – but we play along anyway. Hence our opportunism – our readiness and willingness to avail ourselves of the chances that arise without any conviction in their lastingness or worth. Cynicism and opportunism are what allow us to push on in ever-changing conditions, to cultivate a sense of proactivity and can-do, and to maintain at least a public appearance of positivity in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. How does this affect our relation to the friend? Well, the transition to contemporary society, to the contemporary university, means that we lack the older forms of personhood, of identity, of inwardness — the older norms and virtues that Richard Sennett argues are necessary for the flourishing of the established forms of friendship. And the rise of cynicism and opportunism means that intellectual interrelation risks being reduced to little more than a contractual dimension of recognised reciprocal interests.
The cultivation of cynicism and opportunism does, Virno allows, generate a kind of free-floating anxiety. But we overcompensate for this through a third emotional tonality, sentimentality, which makes us cleave onto the most clichéd and saccharine glimpses of meaning such that when contemporary friendship is not about the furthering of reciprocal interests, it is the kind of haven that is presented to us in television programmes such as Friends – a retreat from the vicissitudes of adult life onto the sofa in Central Perk, a retreat that is not founded on any shared values and substantial sympathies, but on only the most surface, the most happenstance, the most mawkish of alliances. Such relationships offer mutual reassurance, but of the most contentless kind, such as we find on social media, whether we congratulate one another on our promotions, complain about administration, celebrate the last day of the teaching term, and so on.
And what, then, of the forms of association that are my topic: those marginal, mischievous, pub modes of skiving off, those forms of having a laugh, of playing truant, of generalised irreverence? Are not these, too, a kind of sentimental retreat, a kind of Central Perk break from bureaucratised association? And if so, what then? Tonight, our small version of mob-joy, our mini-bohemia, our search for collective delirium, our freedom and laughter, our parody, pastiche and mock reversals of the social order. But tomorrow, what then? It’s not just as Brecht describes in ‘To Posterity’: ‘Truly I live in dark times!/ The innocent word is stupid. A smooth forehead/ Is a sign of insensitivity. He who laughs/ Has simply not yet heard/ The terrible news’. It’s not just that we must put away our childish things, and get back to work. Work, too, seriousness, too, cannot attend to the terrible news. Climate change, financial catastrophe, control society itself – our bureaucratised gravitas works to turn us from this news and not towards it. And yet, if as Virno argues, the modes of being and feeling available to us in the society of control are now our degree zero – if the strongly determined goals and identities of discipline can never be available to us again, then we have to find a way of passing through the modes of interrelation that mark the society of control, rethinking the framework in which they might operate and be understood.
Blanchot’s story, ‘The Infinite Conversation’, narrates an encounter between two weary men, a host and a guest, who have come together over the years in order to learn something from their weariness. But this ambition is continually frustrated – the men are too weary to learn anything. ‘I had not realised that what weariness makes possible, weariness makes difficult’, one of them says.
It is weariness in all its twists and turns that brings these men together, that gives them life and permits them to speak. But weariness does this without ever revealing itself. Why so? Because weariness is not something that happens to an intact subject, to an ‘I’. As one of the men tells the other, weariness is ‘nothing that has happened to me’: nothing, that is, that has happened to him in the first person. By attempting to think from and to answer to weariness as they continue their fragmentary, hesitant conversation, the men are able to discern a ‘background’ to the words, a murmuring that interrupts the language they use to express themselves, their ‘I thinks …’, their ‘I feels …’, their ‘I dos …’ and so on.
Émile Benveniste argues that saying the word, ‘I’, is a kind of performative. Subjectivity is enacted, he claims. One becomes a subject because one says ‘I’. The reality of the subject is fundamentally a reality of discourse. This reality allows the subject to appropriate language, using it on its own behalf, and thereby constituting itself as a subject. Once this subject-position has been attained, the rest of language follows. Indexicals, demonstratives, adverbs, adjectives, verbs and so on achieve the organisation of experienced space and time in relation to the subject, who becomes an ‘I’ in the moment he or she speaks. In this sense, we might say with Benveniste that the pronoun ‘I’ has a transcendental function, marking the speaker’s assumption of language as a whole through the successful identification between the pronoun and a life.
But on Benveniste’s account, this appropriation of and entry into language, this enactment of subjectivity, implies our removal from our pre-subjective reality. And it is this reality to which we are returned when the capacity to say ‘I’ fails us, when the identification of pronoun with life falters. Weariness, in Blanchot’s story, is just such a ‘limit-experience’, which is why the men in the story insist they are not present to undergo the experience. Yet, despite that, the characters do seek to reach weariness, to undergo what they cannot experience in the first person, to expose the ‘truth’ of this experience. In this sense, what the men want is to step out of discourse altogether, to undo the enactment of the ‘I’, but to do so as an ‘I’. The content of their conversation – and of Blanchot’s story as a whole – concerns this impossible attempt to undergo the ‘truth’ of weariness in the first person – and therefore to round it off as a particular event which could then be remembered, conceptualised, or assembled into a narrative.
How can Blanchot’s story help us with respect to the nature of the modes of interrelation that are our focus here, the larking about, the fooling around, at the margins of the business of life? We might begin with the very notion of the limit-experience, which provides a way of understanding the interrelation we’ve been exploring, in terms of a shared experience of depersonalisation. What I have been calling variously, play, larking about, festivity, and so on, are very different in kind from weariness, of course. But does this matter? The paradox of which Blanchot’s characters make so much is that we are only completely weary when we are no longer present in the first person to undergo our weariness. And something similar might be said about the ludism of play and festivity as ecstatic phenomena, which likewise dissolve the first person. Indeed, this is exactly what Nietzsche captures in his account of rapture [Rausch] as a communal experience of ecstatic passage, a becoming-other – as an ‘explosive state’, as a ‘superabundance of means of communication’. Rapture is, on this account, analogous to the limit-experience of weariness because it involves a depersonalisation. Those drawn together in rapture might be understood to be in search of an experience they can undergo only pre-subjectively, only in a dissolved, experientially diffused manner – an experience of a fleetness, of lightness of touch, of transpersonal ecstasy.
But how might this transport, this rapture, be fostered? How might it be more than just a momentary event, a momentary remove from which we return to ourselves as we were? As with Blanchot’s characters, who bring themselves over and again to seek the ‘truth’ of the limit-experience, this task demands a kind of deliberateness on the part of its participants with respect to what is at stake in their exchange. This deliberateness must not be overdone – it is not a question of theorising the exchange in mid-flow, of halting it in order to summarise its ‘results’. But there must be an effort to maintain it and redouble it – there must be a kind of tenacity, a constancy of effort to reach the ‘truth’ of the limit-experience, which is to say, to undergo it. And as is the case with Blanchot’s characters, this effort must be collective, marked by a shared vigilance concerning the nature of the limit-experience at issue – a vigilance which ensures that each continues to permit its transpersonal play. Which is to say there must be no predominance of individual will, no assertion of subjectivity, no attempt to lay claim to what is said in the first person. Lightness is all – a transpersonal fleetness that passes between the participants, moving to and fro for as long as the interrelation can be maintained, whether it be for a few minutes, hours, or a whole night. Each participant must show a thirst for self-effacement, for disappearance into joy or laughter, coupled with an effortful watchfulness over the mode of interrelation that is its condition. Each must take a responsibility for the suspension of ordinary relations, and of their former place in the world.
But is all of this hope that we are placing in the impersonal murmurings that are revealed through experiences of weariness and rapture – is all of this hope of interest and effect only in a society in which the personal, the subjective, is the dominant mode? What, in other words, of the society of control? What of the society, our society, in which strong subjective experience has broken down? In seeking to loosen up structures of identity, does the lightness of larking about do any else than render even more flexible the human interrelations that are characteristic of control? The objection might come that those structures are crumbling anyway, and are in need of no additional help from ludic practices. Fleetness, lightness, which would suspend ordinary relations, is insufficient if it does no more than allow us to adapt to new conditions. Indeed, it may be that Blanchot’s limit-experience is not only not effective but is actually acquiescent, being worryingly akin to the mode that Virno claims defines the society of control: the mode of idle speech.
Let me explain. Virno argues that the paradigm of the mode of production in the society of control is interrelation, exchange, forms of linguistic cooperation. Human labour directly involves our cognitive and linguistic powers, which are operative not only in sales, or in advertising, in marketing and PR, but also in the Fiat factory. An abstract, bureaucratised, technologised form of talk, infused with sentiment and a generic personalisation, has become universal. Workplaces which until recently were characterised by things they did or made — by modes of productivity that are now, for the most part, automated, outsourced or atrophied — are characterised by a bureaucratic language less tied to concrete processes and more to the exchange of abstract possibilities which are expected to operate across a range of contexts. As such, inter-worker communication is no longer a marginal activity that occurs alongside the real business of production, it is this production itself.
This occurs very clearly in the university. On the old disciplinary model, the Ph.D. supervisor was a professional – no one was checking directly on whether she was meeting her students, making sure that they were appropriately looked after. With the demise of the model of the professional, however, and with continual monitoring, we find the replacement of concrete, lived experience and possibilities with abstract roles. Instead of discussing ideas and the personal difficulties with our student, maybe in the pub or over coffee, we now have a scheduled mentoring meeting at 3.00 PM, which has to be recorded appropriately. This meeting transmits little that is real, because it imposes itself as the real thing. We are now mentoring – the abstractions accumulate before the experiences, as Virno puts it.
To understand this central feature of contemporary life, Virno historicises and politicises Heidegger’s analysis of idle talk. Heidegger writes of the idle talk which belongs to no one in particular and is held in common by the ‘eternal average’, or the ‘normal man’. In the everyday mode of being-with-others, my potential for becoming authentic, for seizing my existence for myself, is continually averaged out or levelled down by the temptation of doing what they do and saying what they say. The individual is not itself, but is ‘dispersed’ among a set of possibilities in which nothing is allowed to be original or genuine. My speech, as an idle speaker, is something other than mine; I cannot claim ownership over what I say, and the results for which I use it cannot be called my own work.
But here, the similarity with what Blanchot called the limit-experience should be apparent, except that the impersonal murmuring that used to reveal itself only in weariness and rapture are now all around, even atwork. In contemporary society, Virno argues, idle talk is the dominant mode, and the murmuring upon which it draws – the formless and inchoate chaos of words, which used to be the barely audible background of first person speech, has now drowned out the modes of the spoken constitution of subject experience. The heretofore background has come to the foreground of contemporary speech – it is that on which the flexibility of control society is founded. This is what accounts for the rise of the emotional tonalities Virno discusses, since there is no longer a straightforwardly secure and determinate relation between the referents of our speech and the speaking subject. And it is, strange to say, the condition for the superlatively uncreative forms of management-speak that flourish in our universities and everywhere else. Blanchot’s limit-murmuring is the soundtrack to our workplace.
Now, Virno holds that the impersonal mode of interrelation that the society of control has brought in from the limits can be the condition for a more creative use of language and even of flexibility more generally. Because, Virno argues, we are no longer bound primarily to describing or representing the world, we can change the world by drawing directly on the empty forms of language that are available to us as never before, on the impersonal nature of our murmuring. Idle speech, on this account, is potentially creative to the extent that it draws on the fissure that separates language from the world it names even if this creativity is at present almost concealed by the emotional tonalities of cynicism and opportunism.
It is in terms of this creative possibility that I would like to understand what might be operative in the modes of interrelation that I’ve been looking at here. Can these modes of interrelation, these light, humourful, fleeting interactions, achieve something with their impersonal style in a manner not to be co-opted by cynicism and opportunism? And might this point to a way to understand a role for intellectual friendship today?
Speaking this week at the Society for European Philosophy/ Forum for European Philosophy annual conference, hosted by the Centre for Continental Thought at Dundee University, Thursday 3rd to Saturday 5th September. Programme here.
There was a moment there, about 1916, let's say, when beards and thought separated. Until that date, to think was to have a beard. This was no mere fashion: women have no facial hair. Monks do. Scholars do. They are men. The practice of thought, of gravity, was the prerogative of the bearded. The threat of the modern was multiple: it threatened manhood, what was understood by 'thinking', and it allowed women to practice. The beards of the 'great' thinkers, Marx, etc. thinned out into the goatees of Freud and Lenin, as philosophy transitioned to modernity. Hair is not frivolous, as the British court still understands. Hair is philosophy. The fact that both men and women have it, in a manner domesticated by 'civilization' (which is only the manufacture of hair-islands), means that a strict division of labour had to be established when the bourgeoisie distributed commodities: thought was produced by face-hair, psychology by womanish long hair. bankers and Jews (identical in the mid-18th to late 19th centuries) were compelled to shave clean to show that they were producers neither of thought nor of reproduction. In an age when artists masqueraded as thinkers [...] Tzara's clean-shaven mug proclaimed its solidarity with abstraction, i.e., money and relativity. Until Wassily Kandinsky and Roman Jakobson, unbearded Russian philosohpers were inconceivable: abstraction was born in Russia only when the clergy shaved.
Nor should one underestimate the importance of the time spent being inactive. I think it was Flaubert who once termed “the marinade” those countless hours that you while away spread out on your couch, seemingly impassive and dejected, not doing much of anything, certainly nothing of social use. And yet, afterwards, when you’ve finished your text, you realize those protracted moments were not only vital but essential to where you were going.
Natural history museum, Vienna. The schoolchildren with W. in the dinosaur skeleton exhibit. W's theory that systems of a certain size tend to catastrophe. All inventions, the true ones, are in the beginning too small. All insane ideas by contrast are large. But also the true inventions grow eventually to insane ideas. The murmuring of children among themselves as W. comes to the end of his disquistion.
W.G. Sebald, passage from a draft for his uncompleted 'Wittgenstein Project', a film, abandoned by the late '80s.
[Beckett’s] late plays and fictions move […] from repetition as compulsion to repetition as release, testing out the ground, no longer concerned to separate the one firmly from the other. As we ourselves are lapped in the rhythm of repetition we sense that the work only exists, that we only exist, within the folds of that repetition, within the rhythm of that rocking.
I am called the last philosopher because I am the last man. No one speaks to me except me myself, and my voice reaches me like that of a dying man. With you, lovely voice, with you, last breath of a memory of all human happiness, let me be with you for just one more hour; through you I trick solitude and I let myself be deluded in multiplicity and love, because my heart refuses to believe that love is dead; it cannot sustain the shiver of the most solitary of solitudes and it forces me to speak as if I were two.
Do you still hear me, my voice? Do you murmur a curse? If only your curse could break up the viscera of this world! But the world still lives, and alone it watches me, full of splendour and ever colder with its pitiless stars. It is alive, stupid and blind as always, and only one dies - man.
And yet! I am still listening to you, lovely voice! Another beyond me also dies, the last man, in this universe: the last breath, your breath dies with me, the long Oh! Oh! breathed down on me, the last man of pain, Oedipus.
We ought perhaps to admire a book deliberately deprived of all resources, one that accepts beginning at that point where no continuation is possible, obstinately clings to it, without trickery, without subterfuge, and conveys the same discontinuous movement, the progress of what never goes forward. But that is still the point of view of the detached reader, who calmly considers what seems to him an amazing feat. There is nothing admirable in an ordeal from which one cannot extricate oneself, nothing that deserves admiration in the fact of being trapped and turning in circles in a space that one can't leave, even by death, since to be in this space in the first place, one had precisely to have fallen outside of life. Aesthetic feelings are no longer appropriate here. We may be in the presence not of a book but rather something much more than a book: the pure approach of the impulse from which all books come, of that original point where the work is lost, which always ruins the work, which restores the endless pointlessness in it, but with which it must also maintain a relationship that is always beginning again, under the risk of being nothing.
Blanchot on Beckett's The Unnameable, from The Book to Come
Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished, and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions, are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone. The tables of the gods provide no spiritual food and drink, and in his games and festivals man no longer recovers the joyful consciousness of his unity with the divine. The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men. They have become what they are for us now - beautiful fruit already picked from the tree, which a friendly Fate has offered us, as a girl might set the fruit before us. It cannot give us the actual life in which they existed, nor the tree that bore them, nor the earth and the elements which constituted their substance, not the climate which gave them their peculiar character nor the cycle of the changing seasons that governed the process of their growth. So fate does not restore their world to us along with the works of antique Art, it gives not the spring and summer of the ethical life in which they blossomed and ripened, but only the veiled recollection of that actual world.
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, on the unhappy consciousness.
The end of my writing is coming, for things have now been revealed to me that make everything I have written and taught look foolish, and so I hope that with the end of learning that of life will also come soon.
All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet – I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that insofar as something in me says ‘I’. I can do something for all that and for God – namely, retire and respect the tete-a-tete … I must withdraw so that God can make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not he maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed loves and ought to go away so that they can really be together. If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear …
In this way, Company foregrounds equally the two dimensions of Beckett’s writing which make up the paradox I would like to discuss – formalizing abstraction and obtrusive affect, the ‘timeless void’, with its indeterminate blanks, and the time of life on earth – and it shows how these dimensions are inextricably linked in the language issuing from a narrative voice. And Beckett’s voices, despite their attenuation, are committed to being narrative voices: voices that tell stories and posit worlds in which events are said, however equivocally and indefinitely, to unfold in time. The repulsion of the subject and of a past thus draws into fictions that would be absolute, but that continually meet with the stuff of a singular time, on a scrambled border that divides ‘my own’ from the pure forms that make it possible.
Another way to pose this problem is to point out that, regarding the apparently forced synthesis of abstraction and affect in the preceding passage, for example, it is impossible to determine which of these two terms has priority – that is, which one was forced on the other. The passage suggests, as does most of Company, that an impersonal language drones on in a void and nowhere’ space, blankly and indifferently, determined more by a machinelike grammar than by anything like ‘experience’, injecting its tales with a perfunctory and artificial pathos.
But the fact that this droning language drones from a voice, and that each time it speaks it has a given source in a singular instance of language, entails its own inevitable structural implications. The most important of which is perhaps this: if a voice exists, it must have come into existence, thus it must have an origin in time and it must have a past that has marked it in its idiomatic singularity.
The unavoidable logic of this situation can be called a logic of birth, a logic of time and finite existence which necessarily saddles every voice with an at least implicit narrative of a life: am embodied existence marked by the violence of birth, and by all the dear old names. The logic of birth, however, is easily confuted by a logic implicit in the very conventions of literary, fictional narration, but which an unlocatable narrative voice is conceived as speaking anonymously from the void – or at least from the irreducible space separating the narrator from the empirical author – as positing its creatures with the sovereign speech of a god, that is, at the inevitable extreme so often evoked by Beckett, as an absolute and creative instance of language.
Such a logic of creation ex nihilo opens a space in which a voice may well exist without, apparently, being burdened by the eight, the deposits or ‘precipitates’ of a prior life, and Beckett is one of the first modern writers to radicalise the implication of this logic, revealing it both as inherent to any fictive gesture whatever, and as sharply untenable, riddled by the emptiness and vanity of a language that can in no way create what it names but that is strangely struck with the stuff it calls forth.
Now the paradox I am pointing to consists precisely in the simultaneous incommensurability and inseparability of these logics (of ‘birth’ and ‘creation’), and in the undecidable status into which this casts the question of what is real and what is artificial in a fictional text as such, what is irreducibly prior and what is a gratuitous supplement. For, referring again to the quote from Company, between the deadpan voice in the algebraic void and the sentimental attachment to a name and its past, which is the added artifice and which the true irreducible? Is there an originary impersonality inherent to language that somehow produces affect (and memory) as a sheer illusion of grammar and of the protocols of ‘verisimilitude’? Or is there a fundamental (and painful) affective drive, intimately bound to the names and places of a particular past, that has been distanced and defused by the fiction of a placeless language without history? Is the attachment to a past merely a palliative for the horror of being at bottom nowhere and no one (and therefore of being radically, uncannily interchangeable, as Beckett’s characters tend to be), or is the space of blanks and variables a desperate escape route from the places that stubbornly remain , from the painful residue, so hard to completely efface, of having been someone, of having had a life, out of which speech cannot help but draw its very breath – the rhythm, style, and contours of its habitus? Finally, which is more fundamental, the impossibility of expression, or the inevitability of expression?
It is well known that in his critical and polemical statements, Beckett placed much greater emphasis on the former than on the latter. But the same writer who insisted that ‘expression is an impossible act’, also made, in another critical piece, this crucial observation: ‘With words one can do nothing but tell one’s story. Even the lexicographers expose themselves. And we betray ourselves even in the confessional booth’.