“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A stele is found in the desert: what kingdom was this?

You say we're almost all alone together...

“…il doit se dire d’avance que ceux qui les écrivent ne sont pas des Français, des beaux-esprits, des académiciens, des philosophes ; mais des provinciaux, des étrangers, des solitaires, de jeunes gens, presque des enfants, qui, dans leurs imaginations romanesques, prennent pour de la philosophie les honnêtes délires de leur cerveau.”- from the introduction to La Nouvelle Heloïse

When I talk about my happiness thesis to people who aren’t necessarily readers of LI, a spark of recognition will appear in their eyes, even if they disagree with me. But that spark dies when I try to explain the human limit.

My thesis is built upon these two themes. One of those themes is the emergence of a happiness culture, defined as a culture that adopts happiness as a norm by which to judge one’s life and expectations (on the individual level) and the success and intents of one’s collectivity (on the social level). That the happiness culture is a background constant for both capitalist reality and the socialist dream points to the way it emerges from the ruin of the previous order, the order of dependence and the limited good. But my second theme is that the happiness culture emerged in tandem with a particular kind of alienation at its margins. This alienation from the total social fact of happiness saw a dangerous cultural and social vacuum, which threatened the human imagination, as a product of the norms of the happiness culture. Of course, they didn’t see it as programmatically as I am expressing it here – they saw it in bits and pieces, and the alienated marginals often borrowed their vernacular and concepts from the happiness culture, often used unhappiness as a protest not against the norm of happiness itself, but against a system that produced unhappiness.

I am intent on tracing the interplay between, on the one hand, the creation of the happiness norm, and, on the other hand, the dissolution of the human limit – but as the latter process is dialectically complex, it is not an easy thing to trace. The idea that human power – through science, or through conquest – takes dominion over the world is an old, positivist theme. But in that process, the old human thing, defined by a world of limits and dependences, of sanctions and gods, necessarily collapses; its reconstruction as a human subject is, in a sense, the interiorization of a system of management that was not predominant in the old human thing.

Obviously, the philosophical history of the decline of the standing of ‘place’ has a connection with one part of my story – that is, the story of the dominion of man over the world. But, insofar as place is a notion that is neither formal nor material – as Aristotle noticed – we should notice place spreads over the physical and the moral order. It would be easy to draw the Heideggerian parallel between the displacement of place by space and the displacement of Dasein by the cogito. This may be one way of describing what is happening in the background. My notion is that the great transformation to capitalism pivoted upon a new sense of the substitutability of the human thing: Marx’s abstract labor. And there were several aspect of this new regime of substitutability – among them, the notion of equality. If the old order presumed on its ‘places’, with everything in its proper place, the emerging order presumes on its spaces – an equality can be set up so that theoretically, all subjects have a place in the public domain. And that means, as Condorcet was quick to see, that men and women have equal footing there.

Rousseau is an exemplary figure in as much as he experience to the full the agony of these shifts. And so it is that I am approaching him from the viewpoint of the place of women, because there is a maximum tension in Rousseau’s thought at this point. One shouldn’t, however, fall into the habit of thinking of this as a history that occurs in “thought’ – rather, it is a real history fought out in homes, shops, streets, frontiers, courts, markets, etc. It is under the sign of place and displacement that the notion of liberty and the notion of the stranger – a figure that incorporates the modality of adventure to which I keep returning – comes in. Instead of presuming that I know about public and private spaces from a sort of Habermasian assumption about coffee houses and domestic spaces, I have a notion that it is the possibility of the stranger that is on the horizon of the public/private divide.

This note I shore against some future use.

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