Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Alexander Kluge and the dialectic of Galilean heresy

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“It is said that the true reason why Galileo Galilei was summoned before the Holy Inquisition, and had to recant, was not his inclination to the Copernican system, but his thesis that the observed appearance of physical objects tells us what they actually are. Which violates the doctrine of transubstantiation: if the wafer broken at the altar appears to be a baker’s product and if there is no experiment by which one may distinguish between the bread before and the bread after the transformation, then, so Galileo maintained, the bread on the altar was bread and nothing else.

“— Galileo has gone too far. Now he must retreat.
— He has gone no further than the natural sciences today. What he says is one of the core assertions on which science is based.
— But he cannot cut open the holy bread with a knife to see if blood comes out. What would he do, if the bread really does bleed?
— He often did try that at night, in Venice, on extraterritorial soil. There was no blood.
— He could not have known that beforehand. The next time he cuts it open he will find that he has sinned. Then he’ll be burned.
— He did recant, after all.”

–Alexander Kluge, ‘Galileo, The Heretic’ (The Devil’s Blind Spot)

This “novel in a pill-form” by Kluge astutely reads Galilean empiricism as, to use Pasolini’s Epicurean-Marxist concept, “heretical empiricism”. And this, for Kluge, is accomplished first by Galileo’s assertion of empiricism as the natural-scientific truth and then by his recantation of the same before the Holy Inquisition, a theological (and thus metaphysical) tribunal. What these two coupled acts emphasise is the absolutely undeniable importance of effects, but not as expressivist meanings of a prior cause but precisely as instantiations of disavowal of such a hidden cause and its expressivist meanings.

Therefore, even as Galileo’s assertion “that the observed appearance of physical objects tells us what they actually are”, disavows the prior cause of transubstantiation of baker’s bread into Christ’s flesh, his recantation of the same is a continuance of the same disavowal of a priori knowledge that a bread transformed by the Church ritual of Eucharist is only a baker’s bread and hence will not bleed if sliced into. This must be read as Kluge’s brilliant allusion to radical fidelity — or, difficult commitment — to the heretical essence of Galilean experimental science. This is, to all intents and purposes, Kluge’s rearticulation of his teachers’ (Adorno and Horkheimer’s) concept of the dialectic of Enlightenment. One that, among other things, transforms the conception of experimental science and practice from a heuristic process of falsification to a conception of dialectical process of truth and error.

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