“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

Thursday, March 24, 2011

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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

combining the last two posts

Note: I combined the last two posts here. It makes for a prettier read.

In the introduction to his story, A Gentle Creature, that Dostoevsky produced for his column, A Writer’s Diary, he traced the story back to a fait divers about a seamstress who committed suicide with an icon in her hands. Dostoevsky scholars have found other routes to the story – Dostoevsky brooded over a similar plot quite a bit before the newspaper story precipitated the narrative as a whole in his mind, with the picture it gave him of the husband, a pawn broker, telling the tale as his wife lies stretched out dead on a table in their apartment. Unlike Henry James, whose introductions are quite consciously framing work, existing outside the work in tone and vision and highly enjoyable in themselves, although eminently dispensable except to the stories they preface (except in so far as the artist wants his critical word, too), Dostoevsky does not separate the preface from the story: quite otherwise, he, in a sense, invites his readership to understand the story from its first crude working up. It is as though the story and the introduction are bound by an umbilical cord that Dostoevsky does not cut – although his translators do. The story is not reprinted with the preface in, for instance, in the Oxford World Classics edition. This is too bad, since he manages to tell us something vital to understanding his method – a method that is as important for understanding the content of the tale as Sherlock Holmes’ method is for understanding the unfolding of the solution of a crime – in his own way, just as does the more recondite James tells us in his way:

“If there had been a stenographer to listen to him and note it [the narrator’s monologue] down, the result would doubtless be more staccato, more unformed than that I am presenting to the reader, but, or so it seems to me, the psychological order would remain the same.” [Translated from the French]

I have connected the underground as one of the loci – a metaphorical and metaphysical locus – in which was formed, in the nineteenth century, the oppositional character under capitalism. And I have also noted the relationship to the agent of circulation – to, in fact, the growing cultural dominance of what Mill called the Middle Class, the ancestor of what C. Wright Mill called the White Collar class.

For Dostoevsky, as it happens, the stenographer is not a neutral figure. He met the woman who became his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, when he hired her as a secretary – a stenographer. In Joseph Frank’s biography, we read:

Dostoevsky, who had agreed to try working with a stenographer only with great reluctance and as a last resort, was nervous and distraught, obviously at a loss on how to treat this newly intrusive presence. To break the ice, he began to question Anna about her study of stenography, then a relatively new method of transcribing speech… Anna informed him that her class had begun with more than a hundred students, but only twenty-five were left at the end; many, thinking that stenography could be mastered in a few days, had dropped out when this supposition proved false.” (156)


In fact, the image of the couple – of the teller and the scribe, or the stenographer – seems to arrive in Dostoevsky’s work after he has already used this method extensively. It is the method of the Night section of The Demons, and, similarly, of Notes from the Underground. It is important that in the notes leading up to A Gentle Creature, Dostoevsky imagines a pawn broker who is “misanthropic… with an underground’. [Ludmilla Koehler, Five minutes too late…] In both the Notes and The Devils, the problem of epistemological access, that is, the question of who knows the story, or the events that become the story, and how they interpret them, and how their interpretation is woven into the events themselves – that problem which bedeviled and enchanted James – is cut with one, clumsy (at least from the standard of the novel as James conceived it) blow. Testimony and confession, here, converge. “Who is that other who is always besides you…”

The stenographer is not a mirror, is not epistemologically neutral, but creates an epistemological situation, one in which the teller can be ‘caught out’ – can ‘slip up.’ Ultimately, the stenographer is an ambassador of police power. It is the invisible stenographer that creates, in these stories, the sense of a thing happening that will be reiterated in a police interrogation room or in court.

It is surely important, too, that the narrator of A Gentle Creature is a pawnbroker who quotes Goethe’s Faust. The pawnbroker or money lender was the shadow side of the financial power that is embodied in bank, one of the major hubs of circulation. The pawnbroker, in one of his first conversations with the woman – or, actually, girl - whose suicide hangs over the story compares himself to Mephistopheles. The pawnshop is, for Dostoevsky, the place that the money economy loses all its pretences, and shows itself, at last, as the ultimate exploiter of human despair. Dostoevsky, like Marx, was, much to his disgust, personally acquainted with pawnbrokers. Both lived and worked under the gun. Under their various manias, their undergrounds.


Until the eighteenth century in Catholic countries, the predominant notion of confession was pre-eminently that of a sacrament. In the legal sense – that is, the sense ended up on trial, either in a ecclesiastical or secular court – the sacramental sense existed as a sort of sanctioning halo around the most direct witness to a crime – the witness of the perpetrator himself. The sacramental sense of confession lent itself to the justification of torture, that strange moment in the juridical process in which pain – usually associated with the punishment merited by the guilty – is used to give a proof of guilt. Punishment first, the sentence afterward – torture is by its nature an inversion of the course of justice, or at least its institutional logic. Torture can, of course, exist after the sentence – torture then merges with all the other punishments, and it loses its sacramental associations. Its diminishment becomes a purely humanitarian matter. It is through a connotation of sacrament that the torturer did not wholly undo the foundation of the law, its sanction, which, although making full use of fear, transcends fear in fairness, in proportion. The great cynics – for instance, De Sade – discerned in torture the true motive behind the law, the disorder of the libertine grin behind the solemn mask of the judge. The law, here, is wholly conformable to a certain desire in the hands of those who have the power to realize their desires, and who, in the process, take pleasure from their hypocritical pretense that they don’t.

In the Protestant countries, the sacramental sense of confession was outlawed, or at least banned in the Protestant church, and so it was taken out of the domain of the sacred into the domain of the autobiographical, the novelistic, the psychological, the criminal. Torture, then, is stripped of anything but utility. Still, even as confession is transferred from the sacramental to the secular domain, it is never fully disassociated from purgation and purification. The secular world may be one of different shames and rewards, but the old semiotic devils, the purges and purifications of the cult, retain a trailing, epiphenomenal insistence, like the shadow of a demon projected on the wall by a trick of the gesture of a hand.

It is in the form of confession that a truth other than the truth of experiment and scientific theory still holds on in a world of total utility. And yet, it is shoulder to shoulder with the world of total utility, just as the underground man is shoulder to shoulder with the stenographer – whose function is to be absolutely transparent. To be as if she isn’t there at all.

And yet of course she is. If the underground man hides, confession is his weapon, but it is not a weapon that he can employ without imagining the stenographer, the official representative of the desk, the typewriter, the office, the report. This should give us an idea of how odd it is to make confession a weapon. For it means the stripping away of the intervening structures that keep us – society, the state – from seeing the confessor, whose express desire is to find a mousehole. Or, like Rousseau, to retire to a remote and safe harbor. It is as if the motive that has produced so many underground labyrinths to confuse the seekers behind one, around one, is, in a gesture, vetoed. And yet, it is not hard to see the philosophical unity between this contradiction between the underground and the compulsion to exhibition. The pawnbroker in The Gentle Creature calls it pride, but what is that pride in? It is the pride of the non-identical.

Monday, March 21, 2011

some hasty thoughts about confession

Until the eighteenth century in Catholic countries, the predominant notion of confession was pre-eminently that of a sacrament. In the legal sense – that is, the sense ended up on trial, either in a ecclesiastical or secular court – the sacramental sense existed as a sort of sanctioning halo around the most direct witness to a crime – the witness of the perpetrator himself. The sacramental sense of confession lent itself to the justification of torture, that strange moment in the juridical process in which pain – usually associated with the punishment merited by the guilty – is used to give a proof of guilt. Punishment first, the sentence afterward – torture is by its nature an inversion of the course of justice, or at least its institutional logic. Torture can, of course, exist after the sentence – torture then merges with all the other punishments, and it loses its sacramental associations. Its diminishment becomes a purely humanitarian matter. It is through a connotation of sacrament that the torturer did not wholly undo the foundation of the law, its sanction, which, although making full use of fear, transcends fear in fairness, in proportion. The great cynics – for instance, De Sade – discerned in torture the true motive behind the law, the disorder of the libertine grin behind the solemn mask of the judge. The law, here, is wholly conformable to a certain desire in the hands of those who have the power to realize their desires, and who, in the process, take pleasure from their hypocritical pretense that they don’t.

In the Protestant countries, the sacramental sense of confession was outlawed, or at least banned in the Protestant church, and so it was taken out of the domain of the sacred into the domain of the autobiographical, the novelistic, the psychological, the criminal. Torture, then, is stripped of anything but utility. Still, even as confession is transferred from the sacramental to the secular domain, it is never fully disassociated from purgation and purification. The secular world may be one of different shames and rewards, but the old semiotic devils, the purges and purifications of the cult, retain a trailing, epiphenomenal insistence, like the shadow of a demon projected on the wall by a trick of the gesture of a hand.

It is in the form of confession that a truth other than the truth of experiment and scientific theory still holds on in a world of total utility. And yet, it is shoulder to shoulder with the world of total utility, just as the underground man is shoulder to shoulder with the stenographer – whose function is to be absolutely transparent. To be as if she isn’t there at all.

And yet of course she is. If the underground man hides, confession is his weapon, but it is not a weapon that he can employ without imagining the stenographer, the official representative of the desk, the typewriter, the office, the report. This should give us an idea of how odd it is to make confession a weapon. For it means the stripping away of the intervening structures that keep us – society, the state – from seeing the confessor, whose express desire is to find a mousehole. Or, like Rousseau, to retire to a remote and safe harbor. It is as if the motive that has produced so many underground labyrinths to confuse the seekers behind one, around one, is, in a gesture, vetoed. And yet, it is not hard to see the philosophical unity between this contradiction between the underground and the compulsion to exhibition. The pawnbroker in The Gentle Creature calls it pride, but what is that pride in? It is the pride of the non-identical.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

He comes with his underground: the stenographer

In the introduction to his story, A Gentle Creature, that Dostoevsky produced for his column, A Writer’s Diary, he traced the story back to a fait divers about a seamstress who committed suicide with an icon in her hands. Dostoevsky scholars have found other routes to the story – Dostoevsky brooded over a similar plot long before the newspaper story precipitated the narrative as a whole in his mind. Unlike Henry James, whose introductions are quite consciously framing work, existing outside the work itself and eminently dispensable to those who want to get the thing itself, Dostoevsky does not quite cut the umbilical cord so elegantly. The intro is shot through with the same eye gleaming urgency as the narrative – it seems to be of a piece with the monologue of the pawn broker through whose consciousness the story unfolds. This is what Dostoevsky says about his method, here:

“If there had been a stenographer to listen to him and note it [the narrator’s monologue] down, the result would doubtless be more staccato, more unformed than that I am presenting to the reader, but, or so it seems to me, the psychological order would remain the same.” [Translated from the French]

I have connected the underground as one of the loci – a metaphorical and metaphysical locus – in which was formed, in the nineteenth century, the oppositional character under capitalism. And I have also noted the relationship to the agent of circulation – to, in fact, the growing cultural dominance of what Mill called the Middle Class, the ancestor of what C. Wright Mill called the White Collar class.

For Dostoevsky, as it happens, the stenographer is not a neutral figure. He met the woman who became his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, when he hired her as a secretary – a stenographer. In Joseph Frank’s biography, we read:

Dostoevsky, who had agreed to try working with a stenographer only with great reluctance and as a last resort, was nervous and distraught, obviously at a loss on how to treat this newly intrusive presence. To break the ice, he began to question Anna about her study of stenography, then a relatively new method of transcribing speech… Anna informed him that her class had begun with more than a hundred students, but only twenty-five were left at the end; many, thinking that stenography could be mastered in a few days, had dropped out when this supposition proved false.” (156)


In fact, the image of the couple – of the teller and the scribe, or the stenographer – seems to arrive in Dostoevsky’s work after he has already used this method extensively. It is the method of the Night section of The Demons, and, similarly, of Notes from the Underground. It is important that in the notes leading up to A Gentle Creature, Dostoevsky imagines a pawn broker who is “misanthropic… with an underground’. [Ludmilla Koehler, Five minutes too late…] In both the Notes and The Devils, the problem of epistemological access, that is, the question of who knows the story, or the events that become the story, and how they interpret them, and how their interpretation is woven into the events themselves – that problem which bedeviled and enchanted James – is cut with one, clumsy (at least from the standard of the novel as James conceived it) blow. Testimony and confession, here, converge. “Who is that other who is always besides you…”

The stenographer is not a mirror, is not epistemologically neutral, but creates an epistemological situation, one in which the teller can be ‘caught out’ – can ‘slip up.’ Ultimately, the stenographer is an ambassador of police power. It is the invisible stenographer that creates, in these stories, the sense of a thing happening that will be reiterated in a police interrogation room or in court.

It is surely important, too, that the narrator of A Gentle Creature is a pawnbroker who quotes Goethe’s Faust. The pawnbroker or money lender was the shadow side of the financial power that is embodied in bank, one of the major hubs of circulation. The pawnbroker, in one of his first conversations with the woman – or, actually, girl - whose suicide hangs over the story compares himself to Mephistopheles. The pawnshop is, for Dostoevsky, the place that the money economy loses all its pretences, and shows itself, at last, as the ultimate exploiter of human despair. Dostoevsky, like Marx, was, much to his disgust, personally acquainted with pawnbrokers. Both lived and worked under the gun. Under their various manias, their undergrounds.