Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the great law gift-gift

“…étranges croisements d'idiomes comme ceux qui
traduisent « se donner la mort » par « to take one's life ». Cette
inversion relève de la grande loi du Gift — gift.” – Derrida, Donner le temps

“Fundamentally, there is nothing less interesting than the life a morphine addict. It is limited to the periods in which he takes the poison, and periods, in which society forces him to give up the stuff. All the reasons that people have discovered to excuse addiction may work on the literary and poetic level: concretely it is sheer filthiness, because you are ruining your life with it. “ – Friedrich Glauser, Morphine (my translation)

Glauser was a Swiss detective novelist. He was enormously influential in that genre. He was also a sad case, a juvenile delinquent in Vienna, a druggy in Basel. According to his account, parts of which are published at this excellent site , he ‘started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff’ – or, less poetically, he found WWI so unbearable that he could no longer get drunk enough to forget it was happening.

I came to morphine through a detour. During the war, the daily need to ignore reality, even in neutral countries, was very strong. Since I could take even large quantities of alcohol without any problem, I sought other means, and began with ether. But his is an unpleasant poison. Its smell is hard to get rid of and remains as a penetrating taste in the mouth all day long. Also, ether attacks the lungs. During one cold night, I suffered an attack of bronchial bleeding, and had to search out a doctor at midnight. This man gave me a morphine injection, and had me drink concentrated saltwater.

I still remember exact the effect of this injection. Suddenly I became quite weak. A curious, hard to describe feeling of happiness “took possession of me” (one can hardly express it otherwise). In spite of that fact that, materially, this things were going badly with me, everything was suddenly changed, misery lost its importance, it was no longer present (vorhanden), I held happiness in my hands: it was, to make a bad comparison, as if my entire body was a smile. And then I lay there, awake, until morning.”

In the twenties, Glauser mixed up some hopeless affairs (“And yet another effect of opium and related poisons: they repress sexuality. I came to morphine after a bad love affair. In the ‘unconscious’ I made a conclusion and saved myself by regressing to a childhood stage, a sage, in which the business of dealing with the sensations of my own body had handed in the prize of pleasure.”) with stays in prison or clinics for the mentally ill, where he would set fires. Having happiness in his hands once, he wanted it again; and so the pursuit of happiness led him to the marginal life of the main chance.

To be marginalized in the pursuit of happiness, which one has found, as de Quincey says, in pill form – this is an anthropologically important social fact.

And one that leads to the direction of the pursuit – either inwards or outwards. Or, by some impossibility, can the inward become the outward?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The dialectics of diddling

IT – and I will interrupt the continuity of this post in the very first sentence to say that I, at least, refuse to identify the semi-autonomous heteronym, Infinite Thought, with the semi-autonomous philosopher, Nina, so this is about IT – recently wrote a post that makes an oblique but telling point against the current fashion for returning to things as they are via some kind of speculative realist ontology. As she notes, this gesture seems to go along with a taste for a politics that is so catastrophic as to be an excuse for no politics.

“proliferating ontologies is simply not the point - further, what use is it if it simply becomes a race to the bottom to prove that every entity is as meaningless as every other (besides, the Atomists did it better). Confronting 'what is' has to mean accepting a certain break between the natural and the artificial, even if this break is itself artificial. Ontology is play-science for philosophers; I'm pretty much convinced when Badiou argues that mathematics has better ways of conceiving it than philosophy does and that, besides, ontology is not the point. What happens, or what does not happen, should be what concerns us: philosophers sometimes pride themselves on their ignorance of world affairs, again like watered-down Heideggarians, no matter how hostile they think they are to him, pretending that all that history and politics stuff is so, like, ontic, we're working on something much more important here.”

Being the Derridean type, I expect that any attempt to create another, better ontology will produce the kinds of double binds that Derrida so expertly fished out of phenomenology. There have been a lot of replies to I.T.'s post. I thought the most interesting one was by Speculative Heresy, because he makes it clear that Speculative Realism is a return to a distinction that was popular among the analytic philosophers in the 50s, where a value neutral view of philosophy as a technique supposedly precluded the relevance of any political conclusions from conceptual analysis, and at worst blocked the advance of philosophy as a science. Here, the part of the natural is played by the question, which apparently asks itself in the void:

“Which is to say that philosophy and politics are born of two different questions: ‘what is it?’ and ‘what to do?’ The latter, political, question need never concern itself with the former question.”

IT rightly sees this reverence for the question in itself, and its supposedly fortunate alignment with the disciplines we all know and love, with their different mailboxes in the university, as a very Heideggerian gesture. And, as an empirical fact of intellectual history, it is very curious to think that a discipline is “born” from a syntactical unit peculiar to certain languages. Again, we run into a very old thematic, in which the question giving "birth" is entangled in the parallel series of logos and the body, in which each becomes a privileged metaphor for the other. There's nothing more political than this.

Still, when IT refers to Badiou, I – as always – baulk. On the one hand, it seems that she is taking Badiou to be reprising Quine’s pythagorianism, and on the other hand – from what I have read of Badiou – I have never quite understood why set theory or Dedekind's cut gives us an ontology that is purified of its double binds, of its perennial failure to shuck its textuality.

It isn't that I am wholly unsympathetic. To return not to Descartes but to Newton - the Newton of the glorious letters on the theory of light and color, with his attack on the whole idea of hypotheses - strikes me as a valid project. In the letter to Pardies, Newton writes,in response to Pardies attribution of his theory to a hypothesis:

"Tis true, that from my Theory I argue the Corporeity of Light; but I do it without any absolute positiveness, as the word perhaps intimates; and make it at most but a very plausible consequence of the Doctrine, and not a fundamental Supposition, nor so much as any part of it; which was wholly comprehended in the precedent Propositions. And I somewhat wonder, how the Objector could imagine, that, when I had asserted the Theory with the greatest rigour, I should be so forgetful as afterwards to assert the fundamental supposition it self with no more than a perhaps. Had I intended any such Hypothesis, I should somewhere have explain'd it. But I knew, that the Properties, which I declar'd of Light, were in <5087> some measure capable of being explicated not only by that, but by many other Mechanical Hypotheses. And therefore I chose to decline them all, and to speak of Light in general terms, considering it abstractly, as something or other propagated every way in streight lines from luminous bodies, without determining, what that Thing is; whether a confused Mixture of difform qualities, or Modes of bodies, or of Bodies themselves, or of any Virtues, Powers, or Beings whatsoever. And for the same reason I chose to speak of Colours according to the information of our Senses, as if they were Qualities of Light without us."

That is a decisive blow struck for an ontology of the variable, which is a tittilating thought. But I think IT retreats, here, from her more interesting insight into politics by holding that an ontology taken "care of" by mathematics is not political.

While it may seem that we are rowing away from politics, we are really rowing towards it. After all, what is the ‘catastrophe’ of the moment but a prevision of the wreck of our models, the main effects of our side effects. It is, after all, the success of the model in physics that has been the motive force and prompt of the proliferation of the model in economics. And it is here that one would like to see speculative realism show some teeth. One would like it to encounter Stanford nominalism – the work of the pupils of Patrick Suppes (John Dupre, Ian Hacking, Peter Galison and Nancy Cartwright). This school does have a distinct political orientation – or at least Dupre, Hacking and Galison seem to me to be close to a Foucaultian left.

Finally, I am putting this post about IT’s post on Limited Inc., instead of my News From the Zona blog, because of this part of her post: “Confronting 'what is' has to mean accepting a certain break between the natural and the artificial, even if this break is itself artificial.” I am using psychoactive substances not only because, as Mintz has argued, sugar – and I think you could extend this to tobacco - was the commodity around which the factory structure first takes hold, but also because the built environments of modernity exist not only in the streets we walk in but form part of the very bloodstream of our bodies. Our mood alteration drugs begin, very early, to shape our moods altogether. When Baudelaire uses drugs – haschisch, opium – as the keys to the artificial paradises, he has stumbled on an essential structure of modern artifice.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

whose side are the side effects on?

In this spot, place, lieu, here, before I lift my pen – for I write these posts before I type them, and then, in typing them, watch them shift their shapes and burdens – I feel a rush, a lunge of citations and themes, as though, in the first sentence, at the entrance of the thing, the establishing period, everything must come tumbling out (as in some dopey comedy skit in which some target character X, laugh a minute X, opens some target door Y, boobytrapped Y, and the things behind it avalanche upon him or her). For surely I’ve reached the point in this long long course of things at which (in which?) suddenly the happiness culture, more a blueprint or a Platonic form, suddenly extrudes itself into the psychoactive, chemical phantasmagoria we are all familiar with, dosed with, prescribed, stoned and high on, chained to, attuned to deep in the immune system, our biochemistry altered in its ticking and secretions by the water we drink and the incredible array of chemicals, such as were never before on earth and never before metabolized by any terrestrial organism, that we have so casually strewed about every sphere of the planet.

And this even before I lay my hand on De Quincey’s text, which, though entitled the Confessions of an Opium Eater, could be entitled, Confessions of a side effect. For by De Quincey’s account, his opium addiction came about through the use of a palliative for pain. In fact, this is how Wilberforce, the abolitionist, became a lifelong opium addict. And of course we now live in the age of side effects and are advancing rapidly into a world in which the climate has been the victim of one of the hugest side effects ever. Meanwhile, who doesn’t know from personal experience or from a friend’s tale of the side effects of mood altering drugs – for every mental ill – ranging from biliousness and water retention to a total, catastrophic loss of sexual desire – all side effects. Or, as they are known in the industry, ADRs – adverse drug reactions.

And in this way, the building of the artificial paradise puts the question of the human limit in a different form: whose sides are these side effects on?


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