«It is frightfully sublime in part because of its obscurity.» – Immanuel Kant.
Implicit within the debate on Coronavirus curated by Antinomie and archived by Sergio Benvenuto is the question—for what must we carry on? That is, do we—humanity, which has been reckoned by many thinkers as the error in nature—carry on for the sake of carrying on? Or, should we, following Thomas Taylor, M. K. Gandhi, Pierre Clastres, and several others, proceed with a project of returning towards a moment in history that, for Agamben, is “the normal conditions of life”. Is not Agamben’s notion of normal life none other than a mythical European bourgeois idyll where “the churches” do not “remain silent”? Should we continue to evaluate everything in our present with these “normal conditions of life”?
These conversations have been happening in America too, where “the boomers”—those few of a post-war generation who enjoyed prosperity and relatively stable conditions of life—evaluates the lives of “millennials” on the basis of its own myths and idylls. Wittgenstein distinguished the philosopher from the bourgeois thinker who thinks “with the aim of clearing up the affairs of some particular community”. It is impossible to avoid the fact that the “normal conditions of life” to be guarded from “biopolitics” were, and are, dependent on colonial, capitalistic, and other exploitative processes which all these families of thoughts including the theory of “bio-politics” seek to criticise. Since the notions of “normalcy” and “biopolitics” held by Agamben, and derived from Michel Foucault, have been exported through analogy over regions of the world and of thought that are homologically distinct, a certain “bourgeois thinking” has become the universal today. In many parts of the world these theories provide the experience of a conspiratorial spirit in history determining its course, leaving humans to merely lament, which is our sense of “resistance” today.
The terror before this question—for what must we carry on?—was always understood and it is not limited to any epoch or region. The closing off of this question has been mostly the work of what we call “religions”. However, it began to acquire an urgency with Nietzsche’s destruction of all values towards a revaluation of all values. Nietzsche pointed to an obscure object of thought as the reference for the revaluation of all values—eternal return of the same. Martin Heidegger would execute a certain act in philosophy in 1934 which would then suppress the import of the question for what must we carry on in a lecture course titled “Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language”. In this lecture, long before Foucault and Agamben, Heidegger specified a certain form of politics—“population politics”—which considers people with indifference to their blood-lines and ‘tongue-lines’. He wrote,
In a census, the Volk is counted in the sense of the population, the population, in so far as it constitutes the body of the Volk, the inhabitants of the land. At the same time, it is to be considered that in a governmental order of the census a certain part of the Volk is included, namely the part that dwells within the State’s borders. The German nationals living abroad are not included in the count, [they] do not belong in this sense to the Volk. On the other hand, those can also be included in the count, those who, taken racially, are of alien breed, do not belong to the Volk.
Here, population refers to something of a “motley crew”, whereas the ideal type for “a people” are those dwellers of the soil who once enjoyed a mythic unity with one another. Here is a German bourgeois thinker.
If we assume that this tendency of the last century is “Eurocentric” it will be a grave error. In fact, its most profound and startling expression can be found in the subcontinent. M. K. Gandhi too conceived an Indian village idyll and contrasted it with “western civilization”. Gandhi’s idyll is the village of the privileged upper caste Indian under whom the racial hierarchies and exploitations of the majority lower caste people carry on, but without an ounce of resentment on part of the exploited. The logic of surrendering to the caste order without resentment in the subcontinent is called “Karman”. Gandhi understood that this ideal was never realised in history, and never will be.
However, Gandhi’s evaluation of mankind was not founded on the ideal village as the “normal conditions”. Instead, the village itself was founded on the principles of hypophysics, according to which nature is the good. We had called this mode of thinking hypophysics following Kant’s taxonomy of moral thought. The ideal Indian village is the home of hypophysics where all things are retained at their original value, that is, a place where nature was never de-natured. The ideal village conservers the “normal conditions” in spite of the presence of man. Gandhi’s verdict was that man was infected with a range of faculties that allowed him to explore all the milieus given in nature and also propelled him to discover the milieus unknown to nature. The being without an appropriate milieu is the effervescent error in nature. If a being cannot be given a fixed milieu then what is good and bad for it are also indefinable. That is, action in the moral sense is impossible for such a being, who must therefore seek its own dissolution in nature.
As we know Gandhi’s goal in life was to reduce himself to “zero”, a point at which no action was required. As with all rigorous thinkers, he sought the same end for humankind itself—we must not carry on. Gandhi’s advice to Martin Buber on the fate of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany came from his interpretation of “for what must we carry on”. When Gandhi was requested by Buber to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people using his considerable moral standing in the world, he responded:
The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror.
The schema of this response, shocking as it is, continues to reign over our time. What holds the schema together is hypophysics, and the theory of “bio-politics” is itself a species of hypophysics.
Today, the dominance of this tendency—hypophysics—is not to be scorned upon without understanding the conditions in which it arose. Hypophysics came to be dominant when metaphysics became impossible; that is, instead of referring to another domain for values we began to find the Ideal within our preferred socio-economic milieus and in the calamitous misunderstandings of nature. We became acutely aware of the absence of “value” and hence a certain inability to distinguish between good and evil in the last century. We must note that this aversion of the eye from the absence of value, which makes one hold fast to the nearest ideal or idyll, is still a caring thought.
The formalisation of the experience of being without value, without an orientation in the face of the question “for what must we carry on”, is most acutely found in the schema of Heidegger’s early works. In philosophy, difference is found in something which is differentiable. For example, we say that “1” and “a” differ in the differentiable “written characters”. Duns Scotus’ theology relies on thinking being as the ultimate differentiable in which God was the infinite being and creatures the finite beings. This gives us something akin to infinite man and finite gods to work with. Being, in which the difference is made, gives man his orientation in God. The similarity between the logic of this division in being and the theory of Idea in Plato’s middle period made Nietzsche remark that Christianity was Platonism for the masses.
Heidegger would propose a new kind of difference without precedence—ontico-ontological difference or the difference between being and beings—for which there is no differentiable. From this moment, being could not be thought as something that is the primary differentiable, nor could it be thought as the place holder for the higher beings—Idea, Subject, Will—for there is no primary differentiable. Heidegger’s unthinkable logic would open the mystery of being itself and at the same time keep in abeyance the unthinkable through the narrative of the decline in the history of the difference between being and beings. In this narrative, there once was an ideal village in Greece where “normal conditions of living” were available.
Jean-Luc Nancy pursued and revealed the limits of this thought when he wrote the obscure proposition “existence precedes and succeeds upon itself”. It stands outside the family of propositions such as “existence precedes essence” and “essence precedes existence”, and it implies at least two things. First, reason can be given for the succession of each thing upon itself and of a thing upon another thing. However, there is no reason, under any other names, for the persistence of existence. Second, we can determine our actions, or our movement from moment to moment, through reason which drives this movement in spite of us. However, we are abandoned in the face of the moment itself, which does not submit to reason. That is, the duratio noumenon is properly obscure. The world wraps around us with its intrigues of reason while at the same time reason itself drives us towards the absence of itself in the fact of reason, a seizure from which one cannot shake free.
In a series of proper names—Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy—and through different logics and systematicities, we have come to an acute understanding of this fact: that we are forsaken. But what does it imply, especially now when we are seeking an orientation in the face of an epidemic, and then other calamities? In a short text with the least formal steps something can still be indicated and shared. Anticipation is when we say that “there is lighting, and thunder is set to follow”. When several elements are involved in the constitution of a phenomenon our anticipations are likely to meet with disappointment or surprise; for example, a concert may be cancelled due to an earthquake. The moments, and the relation between the moments, which we can account for through reason can fall within the experience of anticipation; that is, everything in the world. However, there is something outside anticipation—the persistence of the world—which we embrace with the absolute certainty that its disappearance with us in it is never a concern, although we know that “a world” of a “someone” will withdraw, including our own. In each step of anticipations and disappointments we are surprised by this disorienting certitude. If we bring Kant and Wittgenstein together the end of the world is not an event, for it is not an event in the world.
This absolute certitude is the most obscure experience, while also being the most distinct. Like a membrane it envelops everything while penetrating everything as we look into everything. Early Wittgenstein’s experience of this mystery was that of the individual who in his solitude experienced the sense of the world lying outside it while the being of the world itself was for that very reason obscure. But what we can say, for now, is that this experience of the obscure—the assurance of an absolute persistence—is possible on the condition that we are able to speak with one another in sharing our reasons and responsibilities. Later Wittgenstein would argue that the possibility of each experience is public, for there is no private language. Then, each one of us, without knowing the whence and whither of it, share the obscure because we can share words, cultures, love, cautions and tragedies.
From the experience of the obscure we should think of the other side of hypophysics, which is technological determinism. It is the same aversion from the obscure experience that turns us towards technological exuberance where a new god is being founded—the hyper-machines that will make machines which humans can neither build nor comprehend. It will be these machines that will then give ends to man. Bio-politics and other theories are rendering us immobile and resigned like animals who are caught in the headlights, but of our own rushing technical exuberance.
Tonight we should rest a while in our shared solitude (the only kind of solitude as we can see) with the thought that the mystery is not that the world is, but that it is mysterious to us making of us the mystery, the obscure “mysterium tremendum”. In the words of the poet tonight we are “Alive in the Superunknown”.
Shaj Mohan a philosopher based in India. The text is part of a conversation between Jean-Luc Nancy and him. Nancy’s text was published in Libération on March 24, 2020: www.liberation.fr/debats/2020/03/24/communovirus_1782922