Jacobi's sock

There is a philological dispute about whether Jacobi was the first to use the word nihilism; but there is no dispute that Jacobi was the first to introduce the word into modern philosophy, in his letter to Fichte renouncing the identity of the I and Not-I that, he thought, was the result towards which Fichte was taking transcendental philosophy.

Jacobi’s letter to Fichte is full of images that have long careers ahead of them. When Jacobi points to the the fearful essence of transcendental idealism – that totalitarianism of thought that, as Jacobi puts it, has the chemical quality of eating through everything - which is its leveling quality. It launches the equations that level the I and the not-I as the two categories that divide up the world as a sort of philosophical side show encoding the dream of a fully humanized earth, one wholly grasped by universal history. That history is, of course, the global market place.

How does one ward off the universal solvent? Here, too, Jacobi is prescient: one wards it off with style. Style is the archangelic foe of the equation. If Fichte’s philosophy is deficient, in Jacobi’s mind, it is in the failure to doubt the equation. To doubt its metaphysical sufficiency. In order to make this point, Jacobi compares the Fichtean procedure to a stocking:

In a malicious [muthwilligen] moment last winter in Hamburg, I looked for a comparison for the result of Fichtean Idealism. I chose a knitted stocking.

In order to make another than the usual empirical idea of the emerging and persisting of a stocking, we need only to untie the end of the web, and let it flow out from the threads of the identity of this object-subject. We will then see clearly how this individual is simply the back and forth movement of the threads, that is, it takes on reality through an unceasing limitation of its movement, and hindering of its striving towards the infinite -- without empirical addition, or other mixtures of additions.

To this my knitted stocking I give stripes, flowers, suns, moon and stars, all possible figures, and know: that all of this is nothing other than a product of the productive imagination of the fingers shuttling to and fro between the I of the thread and the Not-I of the stitch.All of thiese figures together with the essence of the sock are, viewed from the standpoint of the truth, the solitary naked thread. There is nothing stuffed into it neither out of the stitches, nor from the fingers: it alone and purely is this all, and there is in this all nothing outside itself. It alone is all this, and it is wholly and completely only with its movement of reflection on the stitching, that it has preserved in its advance, and thus become this specific individual.”

Jacobi’s knitted stocking begins a rich line of descent of the abject-object in philosophy and literature. I include, here, Gogol’s Nose and Bataille’s big toe – and the phantasmagoria in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The sock puts us, as it were, rightside up – we begin with the feet. And not just the feet, but with the covering of the foot. Blake, at the same time, is finding infinity in a grain of sand – an infinity that is brought to us via the wonders of the microscope, a vehicle of the same Newtonian science whose influence, in other respects, Blake deplores. Marx, too, will take up the head and foot thematic – of the body divided the underground krewe sings.

Similarly, the malicious moment in which the Jacobi found, in a knitted sock, a simile for the raveled philosophy of Fichte – this is surely a predecessor of the spite on which the Underground man insists in Dostoevsky.

On whose behalf was Jacobi protesting against the acidic creep of transcendental philosophy? Here, it is time to look at who Jacobi was. He was the son of a rich merchant from Dusseldorf, who considered the boy – as he later told his friend Roth – of limited talents and intelligence, especially compared to his brother. He had a panic attack at eight, being visited by a frightening vision of the ‘infinite’. I remember having the same kind of fright at that age – and playing with it. As Roger Caillois has pointed out, there is a whole category of games involving dizziness and vertigo, which he calls games of ilinx. These games have a frightening aspect – and surely Jacobi’s memory of ‘meditating’ on the infinite when he was eight touch on the panic face of the swingset, the twirl, the sense of reversals when one gazes on one’s back at the sky and ‘falls’ into it. Similar panic attacks visited him throughout his life. When Jacobi grew up, he retained a certain submissiveness and humor that Goethe, at least, found feminine – he compared him to certain of the women in Ruben’s paintings.

There’s no need to sketch Jacobi’s life, here, save to mention that he was acquainted with Enlightened governance, being himself a Hofkammer; that he read Adam Smith; and that he sought out vertiginous intellectual experiences and was, at the same time, panicked by them.

The panic, here, outside of its psychological form, was the panic of respectability. The norms of respectability changed in some important aspects from the 18th to the 19th century, but the form of the whole was similar. In one important respect, however, Jacobi was not respectable. Goethe’s rather malicious comparison to one of Ruben’s women shows how Goethe could feel this – Goethe, who had a serpent expertise in putting on the skin of respectability and shedding it again.

For Jacobi, the panic attack in his philosophical life occurred twice: once, when he realized that Lessing was a Spinozist, and once, when he broke with Transcendental Philosophy. Both times, the respectable retraction – breaking the sense of falling into a total system – was such that it threatened –maliciously – the stitching of respectability itself. The rebels – Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – were all divided between an almost laughable respectability (there is a story that Dostoevsky set a trap for the stenographer he made his second wife: he cunningly set out cigarettes for her on a table to see if she would take one. She didn’t! Dostoevsky was ever so pleased that the woman didn’t smoke) and their fidelity to their own malicious moments. It was the malice that taught them. It was the malice that dug, dug in the underground within them.