style, nihilism, substitution

Three lines of thought.

a. The first is the need for style. In the 18th century, the 17th century battles over style were, seemingly, at an end. The principles of good writing, or the plain style, seemed as clear as the principles that governed reason. Enlightened self-interest and enlightened communication were of the same metal. But the vogue for sensibility and the Romantic movement at the end of the 18th century turned the ideal of enlightened communication on its head. Rather, communication under the sign of sensibility was a search for style.

b. One of the key moments in Jacobi’s letter to Fichte is an exercise in style – a willed confusion, instead of the accidental confusion of the willed clarity that motivated transcendental philosophy. The latter, for all its clauses and pauses, was accumulative. But Jacobi’s style is anything but accumulative. Nor is it critical in the normal way – that is, taking apart the conclusions and analysis of Fichte. Rather, it is ludicrous.

“Since outside of the mechanism of nature I meet nothing but miracles, secrets and signs, and since I have a terrible repulsion in the face of nothingness, the absolutely indeterminate, the thorough void (these three are one: the platonic infinite!) especially as the object of philosophy or the purpose of wisdom; yet, as I seek to ground the mechanism, as well the nature of the I as of the Not-I, I arrive at a mere nothingness-in-itself, and in my transcendental nature (personally, so to speak) am in this form inducted into, gripped by and taken up by it; just in order to empty out the infinite, I have to want to fill it up, as an infinite nothingness, a purely-wholly-and-completely-in-and-for-itself, if it were only not impossible!! – since that is the way it is with me, I say, and the Science of the True; or more precisely, of which the true science is composed; I don’t know why I should as a question of taste prefer my philosophy of not knowing to the philosophical knowing of nothing, if only in fugam vacui. I have nothing against me than Nothing; and even chimeras could measure themselves against that.

Truly, my dear Fichte, it will not bother me if you, or whoever, want to call this Chimerism, which is what I maintain against Idealism, which I chide as Nihilism.”

c. What kind of nothingness is it that has found its moment and lept, here, on Fichte’s page, crystallized in nihilism? Nothing seems, of all things, the clearest – it is nothing, and there is nothing to say about it. Yet in the 19th and 20th century, nihilism – the faction of nothing – has appeared on opposite sides of the conceptual ledger, now pointing to the destruction of the economic, social and moral system – a la Netchaev and his kind, terrorists who strike in the name of the negative (as Belinsky said, Negation is my God, although he immediately jumps to the positive by naming dissidents like Luther, Voltaire, and Byron’s Cain – not, in the end, the party of nothing). And yet there was another tradition which, though identified as nihilists themselves, saw that the party of nothing was in the dark heart of the system, the patchwork order of bourgeois norms that had, supposedly, replaced the old order. “Replaced”, however, is a big, big word. In reality, as long as the nineteenth century order was agricultural – and up until the end of the century in every country except Britain, the majority of the population was still rural – the old order was still alive. Or perhaps it is best to say that the energies in the struggle between the orders were in flux, shifting slowly towards a bourgeois order that was shaped by the struggle. Marx was prescient in announcing the industrialization of agriculture, but he was a century early.

And finally, we should look more closely at the repulsion, the Abscheu, that Jacobi felt at the particular nothingness of the endlessly indeterminate. Isn’t the money economy, isn’t the capitalist genius for finding substitutes for every commodity and service, a form of endless indetermination?