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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Walser

Against the ‘enchantment’ of poetry and for the ‘arrogance’ of critical thinking

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Robert Walser’s stress on the small, the insignificant, the minor, the almost-invisible is constitutive of his aporectic – I prefer to call it asymmetrically dialectical — literary discourse that ‘arrogantly’ affirms singularity precisely in and through the ‘humility’ of “continually stepping aside” from the light of recognition that affirmation of singularity inevitably calls upon itself. In one of his stories, for example, a heroic figure erupts suddenly from the insignificant margins of life only to once again melt away and disappear.

Does this Walserian sensibility not resonate with Blanchot’s literary practice, which is an affirmation of the singularity of visible-invisibility (or arrogance through humility)? Blanchot’s reclusive life-practice, which can arguably be construed as the continuation of his conception and practice of literature — writing as a continuous process of withdrawal from itself — beyond the paradigmatic frame of the literary, was possibly a demonstration of this ethics (and singularity) of arrogance-through-humility. This is a quality that is neither arrogance nor humility, but something entirely novel in that it exceeds the anthropologically-indexed affective coordinates of arrogance and humility in their dualised existence.

Walser’s style, if we may still talk in those terms, is the constant articulation and questioning of style itself as something that is always imperfect, and intrinsically inadequate. In that context, we would do well to conceptually approach poetry, not so much as style — which is thinking poetry through a foregrounding of its experiential dimension that is the necessary anthropological register and anthropological-passional index of its historically determinate instantiation as excess of meaning and language — but as a mode.

To conceptualise, and envisage, poetry modally is to grasp it, and have it articulate itself, in a manner that its form is already always a demonstration of its own excess. (Here the importance of the experiential dimension of poetry as the necessary condition of its determinate emerging is doubtless acknowledged, but what is also indicatively underscored is that this dimension is, in itself, not a sufficient condition for poetry to continue being itself.)

In such a (singular) situation, the separation between enchantment and disenchantment is rendered a zone of undecidability, and is thus immensely complicated. For instance, is the singular in the excessiveness of its eruption, which amounts to a break with the thrall of the banal, an enchantment or a disenchantment? And this poses yet another question: what is the condition in which the line shifts, causing the defamiliarising singularity of the quotidian to lapse into the familiarity of the exchangeable and the banal? Is familiarity, insofar as it’s an anthropologically-indexed affect concomitant with the internalisation of domination, disenchantment or enchantment? And, in such circumstances, is defamiliarisation — as an anthropologically- and thus passionally-indexed affectivity of singularity in its excessive eruption — enchantment or disenchantment?

The real question then is, can poetry be approached, and envisaged, as a decision of dwelling in that zone of undecidability? There can, of course, be more than one literary register through which such dwelling in the undecidability of excess is accomplished: the savagely explosive registration of continuous excess (the surrealist poems of Eluard, Aragon and Peret, or Rimbaud’s poetry); the fragile web of language, but one which is baroque in its interminable convolutions and elaborations, and which gets spun through the ceaselessly persistent valorisation of the evanescent and the irreducible (Proust, Beckett); but also, excess as the quiet slipping through of the small, the insignificant and the minor through the meshes of the system (Walser, Kafka, Celan ). In none of these registers, however, does the undecidability with regard to the distinction between enchantment and disenchantment become less demanding in any essential sense. All that such registers of ontological excess in their variegated multiplicity appear to accomplish are different anthropological-passional indexing of the truth of undecidability.

The same – that is, the decision to dwell in the undecidable, the purely possible –holds true for politics as well. That, needless to say, renders poetry and politics, vis-à-vis one another, a question of encounter rather than of some kind of deep or hidden ontological similitude. It is not for nothing that philosophy as the passion for truth begins, as Brecht accurately pointed out, in wonder and awe.

Truth on one hand, wonder and awe on the other. How much more aporetic — and thus undecidable — can a situation be? In such circumstances, to grasp such undecidability as enchantment is to privilege the experiential dimension of such undecidability over its practical-evental/performative dimension that informs the former but is irreducible to it. To indulge in such privileging of the experiential over the performative (or the practical-evental) is to abandon the post-phenomenological rigour of thinking and envisaging sensuousness for a phenomenological (and thus descriptivist) accounting of the same. This phenomenological — and wholly experiential — mode of approaching the sensuous logically amounts to moving away from conceptions of immanence and allegory (which is the immanence grasped in its inscription) to conceptions of interiority and myth, and thus productivism. The latter is inconsistent in its sensuousness because experience remains in it a subjective depth that does little to suspend the objectivity of presence and its metaphysics. In other words, in the phenomenological accounting of sensuousness, experience in its subjectivity fails to seek the institution of its own commensurate materiality and, thereby, become its own surface. As a result, experience, and the subjective, remains interiorised as a depth that is always in diremption from its objectivised and objectified surface. This is, to say without pulling too many punches, the abdication of materiality to spirit. This is a return, albeit through the rear window, of the Hegelian notion of art as the identitarianisation of the negativity of religion. This is poetry, not as the condition and procedure of truth, but as religious mystification.


What is “true metaphysics” and why materialists should embrace it?

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Whether one aspires to be a militant of revolutionary action or strives to be an artist committed to a radical aesthetic, one would do well, in a certain sense, to follow Foucault in giving up the Kant of Critique of Pure Reason, and its project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude, and affirming the Kant of Critique of Practical reason and its project of practical philosophy as the ontology of the present.

However, instead of conducting this operation in the Foucauldian mode, which amounts to abandonment of the Kantian project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude from the standpoint of Kantian project of practical reason (or ontology of the present), which is thereby rendered ethics a la care of the self, one would do well to adopt a different modality for setting aside the Kant of the First Critique and its project of theoretical philosophy. And that modality would be thinking the Kantian project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude and the Kantian project of practical reason as ontology of the present together, but in their separateness — in a dialectically articulated separateness to be precise.

That would arguably be constitutive of what Alberto Caeiro (a heteronym of Fernando Pessoa) calls “true metaphysics”. This “true metaphysics” is, pace Badiou, thought as already always the presentation of its own void or the instantiation of its absent-cause (which is non-thought) in its limit. Hence, it’s not about thought as knowledge but thinking as that which exceeds thought as knowledge by subtracting from it. It’s thinking as excess of — or, more precisely, subtraction from — its own cogitative capture. In the words of the Marx of The Holy Family, it’s matter that thinks. Not what matter is in thought, but matter as its own immanent thought in action as disavowal of matter in thought.

Thus propositional knowledge is not, in the first instance, its own limit as knowledge. Rather, it is the limit of the presentation of the impossibility of knowledge (which is ontology of the present) that therefore then amounts to propositional knowledge being its own limit. Not metaphysics but metaontology. That in Caeiro’s words is “true metaphysics”.

So, Caeiro as “the keeper of the flocks” — a witness to the emerging of thought as the instantiation and interruption of the non-thought, whose importance as such a witness lies in his vigilance that prevents thought from valorising its limit and thus become metaphysics. Here is a poem by Caeiro that acutely demonstrates that even as his “true metaphysics” is thinking the void, it is not nihilism.

“If at times I say that flowers smile
And if I should say that rivers sing,
It’s not because I think there are smiles in flowers
And songs in rivers’ running…
It’s because that way I make deluded men better sense
The truly real existence of flowers and rivers.

“Because I write for them to read me I sacrifice myself at
To their stupidity of feeling…
I don’t agree with myself yet I forgive myself
Because I’m solely that serious thing—an interpreter of
Because there are men who don’t understand its language,
Being no language at all.”

True metaphysics, a la Caeiro, is a new order of affirmation that is not productive. Badiou’s in-existing as invention (his “nothing-as-something”) is, as far as one is concerned, what Caeiro’s true metaphysics amounts to. Not for nothing does Badiou insist, “Non-thought is rather, for him, the living wisdom of thought itself, and in particular of philosophy in its entirety.” The Swiss-German writer, Robert Walsermust also be mentioned here in that context. Walser’s prose fiction both declares and seeks to enact precisely that singularity of “living wisdom” — excess as ontological subtraction amounts to that — in its inimitably peculiar minoritarian register. Here is a small tale that comprises his ‘Six Little Stories’ in his A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories: “Now I’ve just remembered that once upon a time there lived a poor poet, very oppressed by dark moods, who since he had seen his fill of God’s great world, decided to put only his imagination into his poems. He sat one evening, afternoon, or morning, at eight, twelve, or two o’clock, in the dark space of his room and he said to the wall the following: Wall, I’ve got you in my head. Don’t try to trick me with your strange and placid visage! From now on, you are the prisoner of my imagination. Thereupon he said the same thing to the window and to the gloomy view it offered him day after day. After which, spurred on by wanderlust, he undertook a walk that led him through fields, forests, meadows, villages, cities, and over rivers and lakes, always under the same beautiful sky. But to these fields, forests, meadows, villages and rivers he continually repeated: Guys, I’ve got you locked tight in my head. Don’t any of you think any longer that you make an impression on me. He went home, constantly laughing to himself: I have them all, I have them all in my head. And presumably he has them there still, and they can’t (however much I want to help them do so) get out again. Isn’t this story very full of imagination???”

Criticise with weapons even as you wield the weapon of criticism, but don’t mix the two up

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That our wielding of the weapon of criticism does not exhaust and preclude the task of criticising with weapons is something Marx says in his A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Needless to say, old chap Karl is right on the mark. But through this formulation of his, Marx is also clearly drawing our attention to the fact that the weapon of criticism and criticism with weapons are two different levels of abstraction of the indivisible real movement of the universalisability of the singular. And in revealing that real movement in and through its two different levels of abstraction, Marx is asking us, his readers, to be attentive to the fact that the indivisibility of the movement – precisely that which renders such movement real — from one level of abstraction to the other does not mean those levels stand conflated. Clearly, one cannot have criticism with weapons at the level that is constitutive of the wielding of the weapon of criticism, even as the movement from the one to the other has to be uninterrupted for it to be real. The respective discursive specificities that operationalise through inscription the different activitities of criticism (which are singularities in and as those different activities) of respectively different discursivised rationalities must be attended to, and maintained in and as their difference, for them to retain their respective singularity. This, needless to say, is not a blow for local ideology formation and discursive rationalities. It’s precisely meant to be a critique of such local ideology formation, albeit obviously in the specificity of the local. The universality of such singularities is, therefore, clearly not about rendering them mutually conflatable, and thus replaceable, which would amount to their de-singularisation.

Such universal-singular is, instead, a movement constituted in and by the unlapsed indivisibility of different moments of criticism (as activity) of respectively different discursive rationalities. These different moments of activities of determinate criticism of different discursive rationalities (read ideologies) are nothing but different moments of performativity of differing away from different identities. This is precisely what many of our comrades — who have fallen into the easy but extremely damaging habit of getting drunk on Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feurbach without any sense of how one is supposed to drink this potion — miss when they seek to drag criticism with weapons on to the level of the weapon of criticism. The result: ad-hominem attack on producers of ‘rightwing’ philosophical, scientific and aesthetic works passing itself off as polemical criticism of their works. As a consequence, what the weapon of criticism amounts to, in such circumstances when it stands conflated with criticising with weapons, is throwing out the baby of such theoretical, scientific and aesthetic thinking and production with the bathwater of what the practitioners of such thinking and/or producers of such theoretical, scientific and aesthetic works would have their engagement in such practice yield. So, ad-hominem attacks on producers of such works on account of their politics as thinkers, scientists, artists is extended seamlessly to the politics of the process of theoretical and/or aesthetic production they are engaged in. Hence, the labeling, and rejectionist abuse of such theoretical and artistic work — without any attempt to dialectically separate such work as the instantiation of the process of its production that renders the work text from the work per se in its asserted completeness — has become de rigueur at the level of abstraction constitutive of the weapon of criticism.

Of course, there cannot be any dispute that the task constitutive of the level of abstraction of weapon of criticism is to inquire into how a particular theoretical, scientific, or aesthetic practice (and thus process of production) produces the ontic effects it does to dialectically brush the former against the latter in order to reclaim it in, as and for itself. That is what Althusser’s class struggle in philosophy – or Marx’s wielding of the weapon of criticism at the theoretical level of abstraction it is constitutive of – arguably amounts to. However, that, contrary to the widespread assumption among comrades, is not at all the same as judging such theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) by the effects or the ontic violence they produce. In other words, while class struggle in philosophy – or Adorno’s theoretical moment of class struggle – is all about figuring out the particular articulation of theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practice (or process of production) that produces a certain kind of effect or ontic violence, it’s certainly not about rejecting theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic works that when grasped as such effects are rendered thinkable as instantiators of those theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) in the specificity of their concrete articulations.

In short, while a theorist/philosopher, scientist and/or artist must be criticised with weapons – i.e. shot – for politically practising and purveying the violent and oppressive ontic effects they produce a la their rightwing discourses; those discourses as instantiations of theoretical/philosophical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) cannot be labelled rightwing, counter-revolutionary, status-quoist philosophy, science and/or art, and thus junked into the waste-bin of history. Rather, they should, as mentioned above, be engaged in the internality or immanence of their practices, or processes of production. This, in order to grasp their incompleteness, and lapse of rigour, that leads them to produce the violent, reactionary, status-quoist ontic effects they do. For, without such engagement — and their rejection would amount precisely to a refusal to engage with them in their processual internality – theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practice will always remain open to such lapse of rigour, and thus also to the politically pernicious consequences concomitant with such lapse. And being a card-carrying radical is absolutely no guarantee that one will not be the locus of such lapse of rigour in theoretical, scientific and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production). History has, time and time again, demonstrated that.

Therefore, in order to be a committed militant of revolutionary transformation one must be committed to the actuality of the real movement in its indivisible unfolding from the level of abstraction of the weapon of criticism to the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons, precisely by maintaining their separation from one another as two distinct levels of abstraction. A committed militant would, therefore, be one who makes himself/herself constantly aware that while there are thinkers/philosophers, scientists, and/or artists, who are rightwing, reactionary and/or status-quoist, there is or can be no rightwing theory/philosophy (better philosophising), science, and/or art. For instance, Heidegger and Schmitt, and Pirandello and the Italian Futurists were, as philosopher-individuals and artist-individuals, part of rightwing political projects in their respective countries (Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy). But that does not, therefore, make their philosophising/thinking and writing rightwing as such. Rather, what we need to figure is how and why do they have their philosophising and aesthetic production construe themselves as things that seamlessly blends with the reactionary political projects they participate in as philosopher-individuals and artist-individuals. That, presumably, is how one ought to also approach the ‘relationship’ between anti-communist and/or anti-working-class politics of such Indian writers and poets as Nirmal Verma, Ajneya, Ashok Vajpeyi, Kunwar Narayan, Satinath Bhaduri and O.V. Vijayan and their literary production.

Not surprisingly, the absence of such awareness among most militant comrades has ended up making their practice an integral part of the pernicious political logic that they seek to destroy and which is supposedly affirmed only by their opponents, who claim that the theoretical and artistic works they produce exhaust the task of criticism in its entirety by having the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons – or the singularising moment respective to that level of abstraction — disappear into the level of abstraction of the weapon of criticism. [Of course, the militant task even here is to make sense of this lack of awareness in supposedly militant political practices in terms of its material basis.] This, then, amounts to a reinforcement of the constitutive duality of “party of philosophy” and “party of practice” that Marx had criticised in the Introduction to his ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ in order to break with it.

Pragmatism and theoreticism – notwithstanding the appearance of their unmitigated enmity with one another and, in fact, precisely on account of such ‘enmity’ – are essentially the same. They are a constitutive diremption; a disjunctive synthesis. Revolution, or communism, can, in such circumstances, be nothing else but a movement that is real. And a movement will be real only when it’s a movement of breaking with this constitutive duality – this disjunctive synthesis – of pragmatism and theoreticism. Hence, a movement is a real movement only when it constitutes itself through abolishing, resisting and precluding the suture of the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons (the level of practice, wherein practice is the instantiation of its own immanent thought) with the level of abstraction of weapon of criticism (the level of philosophy, wherein thought is its own practice of thinking). As the Swiss-German writer Robert Walser put so acutely: “Everything at its proper time. So, fighting and throwing stones at its, and good intentions at its. It’s important to know every side.”

Some Random Observations on Robert Walser’s Prose Fiction

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‘A Schoolboy’s Diary And Other Stories’ is the fourth Robert Walser book I’ve read so far. And what strikes me about the Swiss-German writer, among other things, is the following: if the ontological characteristic of art and literature be rupture with distribution of the sensible constitutive of the horizon of meaning; and thus rupture with cogitation, signification and measure, then there are two modalities for this ontology of the immeasurable or the meaureless to register itself. The first is that of an explosive evental heroism while the second is inconspicuousness of self-effacement, or progressive minimisation of the self. A kind of persistently joyous self-evacuation, or kenosis. It’s the latter that Walser’s ‘prosaic’ literary discourse offers.

If the first inspires a romanticism of the political as the moment of an eruptive break with the tyranny of the monumental, the second arguably instils in us fidelity to that break with the monumental in the ethical form of persevering in the measure-eluding inconspicuousness of the minor. This puts the Walserian minor on the same page as Walter Benjamin’s “destructive character”. Benjamin described the destructive character with reference to Brecht thus: “…challenges everything almost before it has been achieved.” And Brecht is correct in characterising this destructive aspect of his character as “manic”.

In Walser, this mania emerges, however, not as anxiety but in hues that are pleasing, clam, tender and sweet..In Walser’s work this mania, or hysteria — which necessarily always manifests itself in pleasantly whimsical and achingly wistful tonalities — is, at once, both an articulation of infantilising petty-bourgeois neurosis equivocating between difference and measure, and that of its radical opposite: the minoritarian movement of the universalisability of measurelessness or singularity. Distinct from the Nietzschean master-morality and its heroic register of pagan-warrior nobility is Walser’s equally pagan natural-historical morality of radical solitude and peaceability, which is registered by smallness, insignificance and fleetingness. In a certain sense there is, as my wife Paramita once remarked after reading The Assistant, a certain unmistakable affinity and resonance between Walser and Vinod Kumar Shukla. That Robert Walser told fairy-tales of modernity will be quite apparent to anybody who cares to read anything by him. His work, however, is arguably an accomplished poetry of materialist ethics too.

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