The thingRudi Visker, Truth and Singularity: Taking Foucault into Phenomenology, Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht/Boston/ London, hb. 1999; pb. 2001. 399 pp., £110.00 hb., £29.00 pb., 0 7923 5985 2 hb., 0 7923 6397 3 pb.by some “thing” that refuses to become part of the order of meaning (signiﬁcation).ʼ My ʻthingʼ is thus something to which I am irresistibly drawn – I would like to know, that is, who I am – but by which I am also repelled, as I do not own my ʻownʼ thing, but am disconcerted by my detachment from it and by the impersonality of what is most intimate. The subject, Visker declares, is decentred not because it has no centre but because it has a centre ʻwhich it may neither abandon, nor comfortably nestle itself intoʼ. This centre, which cannot be shared, is both the source of the subjectʼs ʻdignityʼ (its singularity – what in another vocabulary would be called its ʻalterityʼ) and of its ʻmetaphysical unrestʼ, its ʻontological lonelinessʼ. The subject suffers from the burden of its thing, both because of its lack of access and because of the impossibility of escape. It is both ʻnot enoughʼ and ʻtoo muchʼ. The ʻthingʼ, ﬁnally, is that with which I cannot bear to be alone, even though it makes me the singular being that I am and is what makes it possible for me to be a human being among other human beings. As subjects, then, we are dissociated within ourselves. Unable to inhabit that centre which is most proper to it, ʻthe subject is something that has missed an appointmentʼ, marked as a singularity by something it cannot see but which weighs upon it: ʻMan is a being . . whose being consists in caring for something that does not care for it.ʼ
These statements are collected together from the various essays in the book. This existential core functions, structurally, as the ʻthingʼ of Viskerʼs project, the decentred centre of the book. The essays, on otherwise disparate topics, return obsessively to it without ever pinning it down ﬁrmly. They circle it, they pretend to ignore it, but they always end with it in such a way as to indicate its presence from the beginning. It intrudes. It will not be ignored. And to that extent this is, in one sense, a very personal book.
On the other hand, the philosophical (especially existential) and psychoanalytical antecedents of the
ʻA volume of essaysʼ, Rudi Visker writes in his Introduction, ʻis not a bookʼ. It owes its synthesis – ʻas the German kindly reminds usʼ with its name for this kind of collection, Buchbindersynthesen – to a glue of a literal rather than a literary kind. This volume collects together twelve essays, most previously published (the earliest in 1991), representing Viskerʼs careful, illuminating and even devastating readings of major thinkers in what in Britain is called the ʻcontinentalʼ philosophical tradition. Visker is one of the more prominent commentators in contemporary continental circles, and, as these essays bear out deservedly so. Writing on, amongst others, Heidegger, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, each of Viskerʼs critical essays is given weight by an impressive knowledge of the various texts under discussion.
Despite Viskerʼs disclaimer, however, this is also a collection of essays that wants to be a book, and the way in which it is a book is peculiarly appropriate to its subject matter. The essays appear, at ﬁrst, to be rather awkwardly grouped together under three even more awkward section titles, as if to impose a retrospective (but not strictly chronological) intellectual unity to justify the bookbinderʼs glue. Paragraphs seem to have been added to the ends of many of the earlier essays, linking them somewhat adventitiously to their successors and to the more developed themes of the later essays, as if to ﬁt them into a philosophical project conceived with the beneﬁt of hindsight. If, however, the mechanisms of these revisions and elaborations are rather obvious – inelegant, even – they highlight a genuine thematic unity and the working out of a set of problems which make the book more than the sum of its essayistic parts.
The central thesis is a bold declaration of an existential ontology: the human subject is singularized by attachments or ʻrootsʼ from which it cannot escape without ceasing to be itself but to which it has no access. The ʻmeaningʼ of the singular subject is therefore not available either to itself or to the others who see it from the outside: ʻThe subject is singularized position are easily identiﬁed, and like those of his predecessors Viskerʼs claims are speculative, in the sense that they cannot be proved. They function not as the conclusion to a series of arguments but as their presupposed ground, and their putative justiﬁcation lies in their application to a series of problems. Perhaps aware of the slightly ﬂorid character of some of the formulations, Visker ascribes his commitment to the position not to ʻa strange predilection for linking subjectivity to pain, or to a crypto-romantic coquetry with the lonely and the gloomy sides of existenceʼ, but to ʻthe wish to do justice to some of the phenomena that embarrass all of us today (racism, multicultural-ism, Eurocentrism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, etc.).ʼ The proof of the pudding, then, will be in the eating. The test is whether this conception of the structure of the singularization of the subject can illuminate anything about these and other phenomena.
Squeezing some of the essays in the book under this rubric does not work. These essays are best read for what they are: insightful investigations of the articulation of certain philosophical problems in Heidegger, Foucault, Habermas, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Rorty and others. If there is a unifying method in Viskerʼs readings here, it is in the identiﬁcation of what he calls the ʻunthoughtʼ of various thinkers – that which, in relation to the founding conceptual schemes or assumptions of a philosophy, could not (and perhaps need not) be thought. Although these schemes and assumptions are most often found to consist in pairs of conceptual oppositions and hierarchies, this ʻunthoughtʼ is not posited as the unconscious of any of these texts and the method is not, therefore, deconstructive.
Rather, Viskerʼs guide is, consistently, a Foucauldian conception of discourse as the determining context of what may count as (not what is) true or false, and the identiﬁcation of the unthought of a philosophy is simultaneously the revelation of the conditions for the possibility of what is thought, and the exposure of their contingency. (The ʻtruthʼ in Viskerʼs title is worked out via Heidegger and Foucault as a distinction between a truth that is opposed to falsity – the validity model – and a truth, called aletheia or discourse, that is not, but is the condition or the occurrence of the former.) Thus, to take the example of the ﬁrst essay in the collection, Heideggerʼs failure in Being and Time to account for the possibility of the modiﬁcation of everydayness or doxa (such that an authentic everydayness could at least be thought) is traced back to a reliance on a founding distinction between truth and untruth intolerant of the thought of ambiguity, which relegates a merely semantically conceived ambiguity to the sphere of the everyday inauthenticity of the ʻtheyʼ.
The lesson learned in the uncovering of the unthought of Heidegger and others points to the need for a certain self-reﬂective vigilance, in relation to a certain impossibility. Committed to the Foucauldian thesis of the inevitable ʻrelativism of conditions of validityʼ, a thesis which is only lazily confused with a vitiating ʻpostmodernʼ scepticism (our problem is not that ʻthere is no truthʼ; if anything, there are too many truths), Visker counsels repeatedly against the avoidance of the question of the contingency of our own ʻordersʼ of thought. He also constantly reminds us that we cannot have access to their conditions of possibility and thus, in a sense, have no access to the speciﬁcity of their contingency.
At this point the sense of Viskerʼs subtitle, what he later calls an ʻexistentialization of Foucaultʼ, becomes clear. For this is, again, the structure of singularization writ large, or the place where the ʻtruthʼ and the ʻsingularity ʻ of the title meet. These orders of thought are, it seems, the most highly developed forms of the various symbolic structures generated from, but not under the control of, the subject. The explanation of this occurs at several different levels of analysis. At the highest level of abstraction, discourse confronts the subject with that in it which is neither simply universal (the subject is not dissolved and could not dissolve itself in discourse, contrary to the claims of some readers of Foucault) nor ʻcharmingly singularʼ. The singularizing roots or attachments of the subject are located in contingent structures of nation, ethnicity, family, and so on, in a way that complicates, fatally, the traditional opposition between particular and universal. At the same time – and this points to the obstinate core of Viskerʼs position – the symbolic structures of society are said to protect the subject from its ʻthingʼ. The subject ﬂees from itself to others, to ethics and to politics, and thus tolerance is born.
Or at least this, according to Visker, is the best-case scenario. Nationalism and racism are other outcomes. If the ʻmetaphysical unrestʼ of the subject consists in its being attached to something to which it has no access, nationalism offers it the reassuring (but false) fantasy of knowing, inhabiting and, in the last instance, being (in the sense of substantively coinciding with) those roots. Xenophobia and racism are another side of the same coin: not knowing the meaning of our own attachments and yet not able not to care, we ascribe imaginary meanings to the attachments of others – to the colour of their skin, for example – in order to avoid being confronted with that ʻstrangeness which lives with us but not according to our house rulesʼ.
If this is the diagnosis, the prescription is minimal.
The inevitability of our need for the symbolic structures with which to mask our ʻthingʼ – structures in which we must, to some extent, misrecognize ourselves and forget what the structures are for – can only give rise to the weak hope that there may be some such structures ʻthat allow us better (!?) than others to cope with the fact that for man [sic] the source of his dignity is also the source of his miseryʼ. Failing this, Visker returns to the counsel of vigilance, to the hope that the recognition of the singularity of the symbolic articulation of the otherʼs attachments may not lead to the pathologies of racism, but might make the contingency of my attachments, also, recognizable to me. The model here is the phenom-enological reduction, the outcome of which, as Merleau-Ponty said, is always to reveal the impossibility of a complete reduction. This may not seem like much. The point, however, was not to offer a solution to these political problems, but rather to show that they have their philosophical dimensions, too.
As an attempt to understand certain phenomena, and in particular certain philosophical problems, in terms of psychic structures consequent upon what Visker sees as the structure of singularity, this is a fascinating book – even if, to this end, the cart does sometimes seem to be pushing the horse. Its own attachment is to the thought of an ontology of the subject, but it is one with which the content of the book does not (and, given what has been said, perhaps cannot) coincide, whilst nevertheless being compelled to try. This theme becomes more insistent in the ﬁnal chapters, which would perhaps have made a more coherent book on their own. Here, in some out-standingly good essays, Levinas and contemporary Levinasianism emerge as Viskerʼs true adversaries, though he downplays the force of his attack. What amounts to Viskerʼs refusal of Levinasʼs ʻethicization of the subjectʼs subjectivityʼ is arrived at through an intricate demonstration of the essential philosophical role of the word ʻGodʼ in that ethicization (anyone interested in Levinas should read this) and through the developing suspicion that there is something about the ʻprovocationʼ of Levinasʼs work, ʻsomething about its way of shocking people that is sufﬁciently soothing to makes them choose its sideʼ. (What Visker would do to avoid the same charge in relation to the perverse thrill of his own horror show is an interesting question. But what would be the point of a dull existential ontology?)The non-ethical singularization of the subject is the ʻunthoughtʼ of Levinasʼs work, according to Visker. It is not able to be thought within its determining distinctions between inﬁnite and ﬁnite, face and form, invisible and visible. According to these distinctions, others can only be encountered in their alterity without a context, without a culture, without even eyes of a determinate colour, let alone a determinate skin colour or sex. The reverse strategy of the particularism of nationalism (identiﬁcation with oneʼs attachments), this peculiar form of universalism looks for ʻmanʼs essenceʼ beyond or before rootedness. Viskerʼs counterclaim that the other is never without a context or a culture is surely right, as is the claim that the ultimate meanings of these attachments, to which we cannot be indifferent, always escape us.
For Visker, the singularizing ʻpartʼ of the subject does not respond to others because it does not even respond to the subject. This insistence on a singularization that is not only not ethical, but that bears within itself the possibility of the destruction of the ethical, is much more sober than the earlier hyperbole of misery and horror suggests. Its apparently pessimistic conclusion offers a surer foothold, in the end, than that ʻphilosophy which is still too conﬁdent in the sublative powers of the ethical . . and that lost its trust in the visible too soonʼ. And yet Visker will also claim that ʻthe attachment which singularizes the subject . . has the structure of a vague debtʼ, a debt ʻwhich obligates the subjectʼ without that subject knowing ʻwhat he must do in order to repay itʼ. This obligation arises, it seems, because it is to this thing that the subject owes its singularity. But is this not to reintroduce the ethical structure apparently so foreign to this part of the subject? Is not the subjectʼs relation to its ʻthingʼ thus the same thankless obligation of Levinasʼs subject in its ethical relation to the other?
Finally, Viskerʼs conception of truth frustrates the asking of certain questions about the truth of his claims, yet – as a consequence of the existentializing of Foucault – the notion of ʻtruthʼs transcendent claimsʼ is not ruled out. The relation of Viskerʼs truth to ʻtruthʼs transcendent claimsʼ is thus the unthought of this book, ʻwhat he did not have to think in order to formulate his thoughtʼ, but which we must think in order to criticize it.
Blind spotGary Gutting, French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001. xiv + 419 pp., £45.00 hb., £15.95 pb., 0 521 66215 2 hb., 0 521 66559 0 pb. Jason Barker, Alain Badiou: A Critical Introduction, Pluto Press, London, 2002. viii + 189 pp., £40.00 hb., £12.99 pb., 0 7453 1801 0 hb., 0 7453 1800 2 pb.
Yet besides its ecumenical breadth and pedagogical function, the book defends a rather contentious thesis: namely, that French philosophy in the last century is best understood in light of the problem of freedom. Although this thesis does not mar the generosity of Guttingʼs single readings, it affects the weighting of the book considerably. Three of the six authors afforded chapters of their own are existential phenomenologists – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty (the others being Bergson, Foucault and Derrida) – and the judgement passed on philosophical movements follows suit. Spiritualism, encapsulated in the thesis that ʻthe qualitative content of concrete things is the contingent product of spontaneous activityʼ, is, in its Bergsonist guise, identiﬁed as the originary locus for the French formulation of the problem. If science and common sense are grasped as freedomʼs ʻfreeze-framesʼ (its clichés), the task of philosophy is that of moving by means of intuition behind the sediments of activity in order to assume the concrete movement at the heart of the real. To capture this stance, Gutting uses a term that can in varying and often divergent guises be applied to many of the ﬁgures here on show: transrationalism.
By this we are to understand a philosophy that traverses the representations of scientiﬁc fact and common sense in order to capture the acts that either give rise to these representations or rupture their stability. In this sense, a philosophy of freedom, articulating constitutive activity and constituted fact, can at once be regarded as a movement towards the concrete (in the decisions that articulate a lifeworld) and beyond it (in the intuition of a vital impetus cloaked by utility). Only in the midst of the violence of the 1930s does spiritualismʼs conciliatory cosmology become superseded, and the theme of freedom truly comes into its own in the form of a philosophy of radical subjectivity. After its statement in Being and Nothingness, a text positively reassessed by Gutting, the question of existential phenomenology becomes that of situating this freedom, of maintaining the radicality of its irruption into the everyday without dissolving it in the sterile agitations of solipsism. Thus, Sartreʼs own Critique of Dialectical Reason moves to the problem of the relationship between the nothingness of subjectivity,
Whilst the systematic exposition of ʻnational philosophiesʼ, once so dear to German Idealists, has disappeared as such, the habit of responding to philosophical systems and their propounders along national lines is, for better or worse, very much with us to this day, and no more so than with respect to French philosophy. Anglo-American reception of French thinkers often oscillates between blanket denouncements of hermeticism and parochialism, on the one hand, and mimetic allegiance, often verging on unintentional parody, on the other. Yet is there such a thing as ʻFrench philosophyʼ, a native core to be salvaged from its many, often divergent guises? And is any philosophical innovation from across the Channel marked (or even tainted) by its provenance? These two books are welcome compasses for the task of orienting ourselves to the question of whether ʻFrenchnessʼ might be of any philosophical interest.French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century is an admirably lucid survey of the French philosophical scene from 1890 to 1990. Though opening with a brief and illuminating treatment of the institutionalization of philosophy in the Third Republic, as the crowning discipline in a national system of secular education, Guttingʼs is really a ʻlogical geographyʼ of ﬁgures and movements, concerned above all with the presentation of their principal motivations and key concepts. Structured as a series of quasi-autonomous monographs linked by short transitions dealing with polemics, doctrinal sequences, and political context, this is an avowedly philosophical history, and not a genealogical intervention of a Foucauldian sort. Many of the authors and movements dealt with, especially in the ﬁrst half, will be unfamiliar to most readers, but Guttingʼs pedagogical ﬂair and his ability to evoke a philosophical positionʼs conceptual physiognomy with brevity and insight make this a very good introduction. Whether delving into Jules Lachelierʼs singular Kantianism, investigating the formation and unfortunate (and continuing) isolation of French philosophy of science, or outlining the conservative trends of Thomism and the Catholic philosophy of action, Guttingʼs book functions equally well as historical panorama or incitement to deeper inquiry.the realm of the practico-inert and the transformative opportunities of collective political action. De Beauvoir problematizes the possibilities of transcendence in terms of the biological immanence of woman. And Merleau-Ponty embodies freedom in the density of bodies and their practical comportments. In all these instances it is the positive insertion of the nothingness of the subject – that ʻworm in the heart of beingʼ (to use Sartreʼs evocative phrase) – into the realm of constituted reality that is at stake.
The structuralist and poststructuralist attacks on existential phenomenology are very well staged here, via the polemics between Sartre and Lévi-Strauss, on the one hand, and Sartre and Foucault on the other. But although Gutting recognizes and catalogues some of the salient moments of structuralism as the ﬁrst ʻalternativeʼ to the Sartrean legacy, his verdict is that it did not live up to the claim of having ﬁnally achieved a scientiﬁc methodology, and thus failed truly to counter the existentialist project. In its outright denial of the importance of subjective action, structuralism as antihumanism is viewed here as a transitional phase, interesting in its details but of minor importance overall. For Gutting, the real critique of existential phenomenology takes place in the poststructuralism of Foucault, Derrida and the philosophers of difference (Lyotard, Deleuze, Irigaray). With poststructuralism, we witness the prolongation of the anti-humanist agenda, but now accompanied by a suspension of structuralismʼs scientiﬁc claims. This constitutes a decisive break in the continuity of French philosophy, hitherto dependent on some philosophy of human nature (of which structuralist anthropology was, despite itself, still a variation), a break embodied in a thorough transformation of the style and claims of philosophical activity.
Reading Foucault, Gutting advances the provocative claim that poststructuralismʼs blind spot resides precisely in its relationship to the constitutive role of freedom, particularly in the sense of praxis. Thus, although poststructuralism, in its myriad forms, is both stylistically and, to a great extent, politically an exercise in liberation (from the tyranny of the signiﬁer, the axiomatics of capital, or the asymmetry of sexual difference), it is not a philosophy of liberation. Yet it could be argued against Gutting that it is precisely in presenting itself as an intransigent critique of representation, and thus of any subject of an ʻintentionalʼ freedom, that poststructuralism thinkers both problematize and shed new light on the issue of liberation and political action, turning towards an ethics of the material and institutional articulation of desire, rather than to the irruption of subjective nothingness. Ultimately, the stakes common to Foucaultʼs History of Sexuality and Deleuze and Guattariʼs Capitalism and Schizophrenia would seem to be that a practice of liberation can – indeed, must – do without a philosophy of subjective freedom in the Sartrean mould.
It would be difﬁcult to imagine a starker contrast than the one between the last chapter of Guttingʼs book, chronicling the ʻmove to the centerʼ of recent French philosophy, allegedly returning to its ﬁn de siècle role as the handmaiden of liberal humanism, and the opening pages of Jason Barkerʼs introduction to the thought of Alain Badiou. On the one side is the reaction against postwar radicalism exempliﬁed in the moral and theological concerns characteristic of late phenomenology; on the other is Badiouʼs ʻimpossible wagerʼ, the deeply polemical formulation of a philosophy of militant subjective truth articulated on the basis of a set-theoretical ontology. Yet the thematic continuity between Guttingʼs compelling characterization of French philosophy and Badiouʼs project is remarkable. This is evident in the best of Barkerʼs treatment, where he deals with the radical demands at the heart of the development of Badiouʼs thought, providing acute comparisons with other accounts of the political ontology of the subject, such as Rousseauʼs volonté générale or Foucaultʼs disquisitions on power and subjection. In ʻMaoist Beginningsʼ, an excellent chapter delineating the fertile encounter between the politics of the Cultural Revolution and Badiouʼs initial Althusserian ʻscientismʼ – a moment as essential to the proper understanding of Badiouʼs project as its theoretical and historical coordinates will be alien and obscure to the average Anglophone reader – Barker introduces us, via the close reading of a set of politico-philosophical pamphlets from the 1970s, to the singular twist given by Badiou to the question of subjectivity. Immersed in the antagonistic dialectic of philosophical Maoism, Badiouʼs subject emerges, purged of the individualistic and experiential concerns of a phenomenology of freedom, as a party bent on the destruction of the capitalist system of class assignation. Concurring with Sartreʼs critique of Foucault, Badiouʼs conviction is that there is no emancipatory hope to be deduced from an objective analysis of the structures and becomings of power; that, on the contrary, in Barkerʼs elegant formulation: ʻThe subject is the anchorage of subversion.ʼ
Unfortunately, although providing a nuanced and stimulating invitation to the work of Alain Badiou, Barkerʼs book does not sufﬁciently clarify the (admittedly difﬁcult) question of the development from this dialectical theory of subjective destruction to Badiouʼs more recent work, in which the ﬁgure of subjectivity, no longer bound to the party, is linked to an evental truthʼs rare subtraction from constituted knowledge. The manner in which this radical revision of Badiouʼs philosophical beginnings is ultimately sustained by the equation of mathematics with ontology is insufﬁciently ﬂeshed out. Perhaps this is because of the regrettably little attention granted to Badiouʼs most systematic exposition of the dialectics of destruction, his Théorie du Sujet (1982). (This omission also explains the lack of clarity on the issue of Badiouʼs peculiar brand of materialism, and the inaccurate claim that his concern with ethics began in the 1990s). The mathematical ontology is dealt with somewhat impressionistically, although, to be fair to Barker, it could hardly be abbreviated from the deductive consistency of Badiouʼs own expositions without losing its pedagogical clarity. Again, it is through his effective political illustrations of the concepts of ʻstateʼ, ʻsituationʼ, ʻeventʼ and ʻﬁdelityʼ that Barker offers us a fruitful point of entry into the extra-ontological theory of subjectivity presented in Badiouʼs more recent works, and to the way in which it moves beyond politics proper. More insistence on this point, perhaps to the detriment of the excessive attention paid to his confrontation with Deleuze, would have illuminated the way in which Badiouʼs post-Maoist thought presents a profoundly challenging radicalization of the ʻtransrationalistʼ tendency reconstructed by Gutting.
It is in the manner it ultimately separates subjectivity from its speciﬁcally political guise (the party), whilst making no concessions to any phenomenology whatsoever, that Badiouʼs thought transforms the move beyond the concrete. That this move is based on the most stringent – mathematical – rationalism regarding the being into which subjectivity irrupts, is what makes Badiouʼs position so profoundly unintuitive, whilst at the same time singling it out as the only recent philosophical project to have remained faithful both to the scientiﬁc (structuralist) and anti-humanist (poststructuralist) pretensions of French thought and to the demands of a militant subjectivity voiced by Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. In this respect, although distinguished from its forebears by its singular reformulation of the relationship between subjectivity and knowledge, or freedom and science, and by no means an expression of a ʻnational philosophyʼ, Badiouʼs thought evidences the discontinuous vitality of the problems articulated by French philosophy in the past century.
Revelation, halftruth and rumourAnselm Jappe, Guy Debord, trans. Donald NicholsonSmith, with new Afterword, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999. 205 pp. £29.95 hb., £12.95 pb., 0 520 21204 5 hb., 0 520 21205 3 pb.
Andrew Hussey, The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord, Jonathan Cape, London, 2001. 424 pp., £18.99 hb., 0 224 04348 X.
By now anyone interested in the Situationist International could spend a long time reading. Materials and documents are plentiful. Editions exist of all the major works of the Situationist International, and of its precursor, the Lettriste International. Minor scraps are soon to be available too, in a three-volume collection of public documents, pamphlets, posters and leaﬂets. Internal documents have been republished, allowing the tracking of rifts in a much-riven body. Reprints of letter exchanges chart connections and ruptures – six volumes of Debordʼs correspondence are in the pipeline. Debordʼs ﬁlm scripts and ﬁlm contracts are available, and soon to be rereleased in proper prints – as opposed to low-quality, much retaped pirate copies – are the ﬁlms themselves, withdrawn from circulation by Debord in 1984, in protest at the nonchalant public reaction to the assassination of his friend and backer Gérard Lebovici, who bought a Paris cinema that played continuously, even to an empty auditorium, four ﬁlms by Guy Debord.
In addition to these primary materials are abundant reminiscences about the SI years. Key participants have reﬂected – in interviews and monographs – on the events before, during and after the period 1957–1972. Former comrades, drinking pals, patrons and excoriated fellow travellers have all spoken. The latest books include Ralph Rumneyʼs Le Consul (in French, 1999; in English, 2002) and Jean-Michel Mensionʼs La Tribu (in French, 1998; in English, 2001). A subculture of sympathizers and champions of the SI and its various factions scrutinize the legacy and continue the ﬁghts – mainly in pamphlets and online. In addition, there are analyses of the SI by academics and para-academics. Some are narrowly thematic, focused, for example, on ʻthe Situationist cityʼ or détournement as art practice. Some are diffuse in their uptake of Situationist ideas, for example tracing links between ʻSituationismʼ and punk or using the ʻspectacleʼ to investigate Victorian commodity culture. Or they dip in to Situationist theory eclectically, perhaps using the Situationist notion of ʻdriftingʼ alongside Benjaminʼs ﬂâneur to examine a practice such as skateboarding, or excerpting willy-nilly Debord, Baudrillard and Foucault to theorize the birth of the modern spectator. (An annotated bibliography of works from 1972 to 1992 by and on the Situationist International can be found in former librarian Simon Fordʼs The Realization and Suppression of the Situationist International, AK Press, Edinburgh 1995. Many books contain annotated bibliographies. It appears to be de rigueur to be as judgemental as possible on other works. An online annotated bibliography can be found at Ken Knabbʼs Bureau of Public Secrets: www. bopsecrets. org/SI/bibliog.htm.)Academic and para-academic studies appear with increasing rapidity in France and in the Anglophone world. Frequently, within the academy, the Situationist legacy has been assumed to be a cultural rather than a political one. Political practice and theory, the relationship between Hegel, Marx and Lukács, the minutiae of sectarian disputes have not been considered worthy of investigation or analysis by those – many academics – who have no experience of revolutionary politics or who think that the seditious intent of the Situationists is outmoded, in particular when it yearns for proletarian revolt. Here Jappeʼs contribution is notable, for, as a student of Michael Löwy, he has a sensitivity not just to Marxism but to questions of political praxis and an interest in ʻthe Partyʼ form.
Biographical tittle-tattle was, for a while, considered too vulgar a pursuit, especially in relation to a man – Guy Debord – who mocked the spectacular nature of ʻcelebrityʼ, and who had, in his own ʻmemoirsʼ, as matter of principle, revealed almost nothing about his personality and life. Indeed Debordʼs book Mémoires was composed solely of snippings from magazines, newspapers, comic strips and building plans, dripped over by Asger Jorn, and expressing no word that might be called Debordʼs ʻownʼ. Something more akin to memoirs, Panegyric was oblique, with reﬂections on drinking and military strategy. Debordʼs 1985 commentary on Leboviciʼs murder (an episode in which some suspected Debordʼs hand) was much concerned to scorn journalists and secret service agents, and was used to secure damages for libel. Such retrospection sets the record straight. It is not autobiography, but rather political dissection – critique its aim, smashing of spectacular untruth its goal. Once the life was wrapped up, in 1994, biographies began to be written. Anarchist Len Bracken published an intellectual biography in 1997, a mishmash of theory, opinion, biography, history, by an admirer. Later biographers were less enamoured. In 1999 Jean-Marie Apostolidèsʼ psychologizing biography Les Tombeaux de Guy Debord appeared and Christophe Bourseiller published a gossipy Vie et Mort de Guy Debord. Husseyʼs attitude to Debord appears to cross-fertilize Brackenish admiration with journalistic revelling in details of Debordʼs cruelty. Despite the title, Jappeʼs book has little to say about the man as such. Guy Debord and The Game of War are contraries of each other. Anselm Jappeʼs is a study of political theory, its theory-rich approach evident in the section headings: ʻThe Concept of the Spectacleʼ, ʻThe Practice of Theoryʼ, ʻTheory Past and Presentʼ. Its subsections are soberly titled too: ʻHistory and Community as the Essence of Manʼ, ʻTwo Sources and Two Aspects of Debordʼs Theoryʼ, ʻThe Situationist Critique in Historical Contextʼ. Its antithesis, Game of War, is a book of revelations, half-truths and rumours about a man with a ʻbad reputationʼ. Its chapter headings crackle with dramatic energy, mystery and tragedy: ʻDark Passageʼ, ʻAttack by Fireʼ, ʻThe Death of a Princeʼ. Its subheadings aim for shock, scandal and irony: ʻNo Dialogue with Cuntsʼ, ʻGangland and Philosophyʼ, ʻLike a Pack of Bastard Dogsʼ, ʻExit, Far Left, the Mysterious Mr Kʼ, and so on. Husseyʼs book avoids philosophico-political theory and analysis, preferring the machinations, the scene, around Guy Debord. It is a story of excessive drinking, sexual antics, friendships and betrayals, intrigue and conspiracy, violence and illness. Husseyʼs next project is a history of Parisian low life. This appears to be a pre-study of that same milieu.
It is difﬁcult to write about the Situationists and Guy Debord – if you take the ideas at least halfseriously. Situationist thought strove to make itself poisonous for contemplative, speculative approaches. Much Situationist analysis spoke of ʻrecuperationʼ – the assimilation of radical, avant-garde thought into the spectacle. If recuperation – academic or media – was detected, then denunciations, threats, repudiation followed expeditiously. That still happens. If it is not revilement from the original players, then it is abuse from the next generations, the vocal and ever en garde clique of pro-sits and sub-situs clustered around the globe.
Jappe feels justiﬁed to write about Debord because he writes in unanimity with Situationist political critique. The ideas live for him. ʻWitheringʼ is a word that often crops up in his book in relation to the Situationist assault on people, artefacts or institutions. Jappe, too, can be ʻwitheringʼ in his condemnation of contemporary theorists and thought fads. In his ʻAfterword to the English-Language Editionʼ, he updates a sentiment from a 1967 SI journal, rearticulating for his own moment a distancing from faux-radicalism: ʻWe want ideas to become dangerous once again. We cannot allow people to support us on the basis of a wishy-washy, fake eclecticism, along with the Derridas, the Lyotards, the Rortys and the Baudrillards.ʼ (The original culprits were Sartre, Althusser, Aragon, Godard.) Jappe then reiterates the central theme of his book: that Debordʼs theory can only be understood as ʻin essence a continuation of the work of Marx and Hegelʼ, a fact that, he asserts unconditionally, has been acknowledged by ʻnone of the academic and subcultural accountsʼ. Jappe assigns to himself a political role: the continuation of the project of Hegelian-Marxist praxis, which is, for him, the kernel of Debordian critique, thereby, hopefully, exempting the study from attack. And he gains the seal of approval from a former Situationist, albeit an expelled one, T.J. Clark, whose foreword states that Jappeʼs book is ʻfar and away the best we have so farʼ.
Andrew Hussey makes little issue of the theoreticalpolitical problem of his writing about the Situationists – not that this evasion warded off attacks, threats and denunciations from remaining members of the inner circle. He thematizes recuperation, though, coining the phrase ʻLe Musée Guy Debordʼ, and pointing up the various signs of Debordʼs status as fashionable icon, a ʻChe Guevara of the 1990sʼ. (Jappe similarly refers to Debord as ʻsubject of a bizarre cult which threatens to turn him into a pop idol, a sort of Che Guevara for the more reﬁned tasteʼ.) A Paris rock magazine has a listings section called ʻGuide DʼAbord (La société du spectacle)ʼ, magazine features fuel the cult of Debord, and stencilled images of Debordʼs face appear on walls near Debordʼs old haunts – one if which appears on Jappeʼs book cover. Against this, Hussey sets the non-museal Debord, the Debord who lived, intensely, as corollary to the theoretical campaign.
For Hussey, Debordʼs life was lived as a game and a war, the two ﬁgures coming together in the ʻGame of Warʼ, the Kriegspiel board game that Debord found in a junk shop in 1975, renovated, and played endlessly with second wife Alice Becker-Ho. Not only is life lived as a game, for the biographer the life presents itself as puzzle. From the motivations for stances in Debordʼs life to the validity of versions of events, all remains a puzzle, a life lived under the sign of confusion in the shadows. T.J. Clarkʼs foreword to Jappeʼs book also speaks of two puzzles. The ﬁrst is that Debord preached insurrection but was himself no more than a writer: the idea of insurrection forged the literary style through techniques such as inversion or chiasmus, polemic and aphorisms – preﬁgurations of the slogans of May ʼ68. Clarkʼs second puzzle is that the writing came from the margins, and yet is the ʻtrue voiceʼ of the age, remaining its only political testament. Debord had said this too in paragraph 162 of Society of the Spectacle: ʻUnder the apparent trends which cancel and recompose themselves at the futile surface of contemplated pseudocyclical time, the grand style of the epoch is always in what is oriented by the obvious and secret necessity of the revolution.ʼ
For Hussey, the early life is described in terms of literary and ﬁlmic identiﬁcations; the death – at the bookʼs start and end – is a dramatic act, a literary gesture of deﬁance, which reanimates the imitative desire of the young bohemian wannabe, occurring just before his televisual debut, a ﬁlm made as suicide note. Debordʼs tale possesses a perfect sense of drama, and there is much in Husseyʼs book that reads more like a novel than a biography. The outside world features only as backdrop to events, and the past is glimpsed in widescreen, joining up unlikely things, such as Julia Kristeva and Emmanuelle as evidence of the ʻwoman questionʼ in the 1960s/1970s. Perhaps those links are real and only viewable later – Debordʼs publisher Lebovici had a ﬁnancial stake in Emmanuelle 3.
Pornography and gangster ﬁlms had their attractions, and comic strips could be détourned, but there was much in popular culture to vilify. A couple of anecdotes illuminate splits between the original French Situationists (reﬁned in their cultural tastes) and US and UK fellow travellers. Sixties rock music and the druggy counterculture were a mystery and abomination to Debord. Hussey relates a couple of stories about football and Match of the Day, evidence perhaps that while the Parisian Sits were at home on the terrasses, UK Sits and average workers were more drawn to the terraces. Husseyʼs book ﬁzzes with pop-cultural hipness, while Jappeʼs is judging and sombre. Choice or pseudo-choice?
A new GiedionSanford Kwinter, Architectures of Time: Towards a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture, MIT Press,
Cambridge MA and London, 2001. 232 pp., £20.50 hb., 0262 11260 4.
For sixty years architecture has been held in thrall to the principles laid out by Siegfried Giedion in Space, Time and Architecture. Giedionʼs manifesto conﬂates progress, industrialization, modernist ruptures, and (crucially) the introduction of a ʻnewʼ conception of space, with the production of architectural form. The new space he describes is that of the cubists, supported by a simplistic nod to Einsteinʼs space–time axis. It is the very directness of Giedionʼs rhetoric that is so appealing to architects, seducing them into believing the possibility of summoning up the spirit of the age through frozen form. Giedionʼs legacy is that of the autonomous architectural object, motivated by the polishing of aesthetics and technique. Autonomy is inevitable given the foundation on essentially classical models of space and time (not really so new after all) in which time is abstracted and represented within a ﬁxed spatial substratum. Giedion famously captioned a picture of a 1914 staircase by Walter Gropius as ʻseeming like movements seized and immobilized in spaceʼ. To a large extent architectural production still enacts this temporal abstraction, and with it divorces architecture from social conditions. The only difference now is that the power of computer-driven representation fools the designers at an earlier stage into believing that their detached and deluded operations are in some way depictions of forthcoming reality.
Sanford Kwinterʼs timely book provides an important and sustained alternative to this position. Whilst Giedion is not explicitly mentioned, there is throughout Architectures of Time a brilliant critique of so many of the values enshrined in normative architectural production. The book is that of a true polymath, ranging over a vast intellectual territory. A broad thinker such as Kwinter is not so much interested in the singular nuances of a particular philosophical or cultural position, but is fascinated by the connections that can be made between these positions. This mode of thinking is an extrapolative, even creative, process that differs from the inward interpretative gestures of traditional hermeneutics. As such it may be easy for the curmudgeonly reader to pick holes when Kwinter touches on their own particular area of expertise, but this would be to miss the extraordinary possibilities that open up in the interstices of his cross-readings.
The book opens with a simple question: ʻWhat would it change in our arts, our sciences, and our technics if time were conceived of as something real?ʼ To help answer this question Kwinter draws on a well-worn philosophical genealogy: the Nietzsche of Genealogy of Morals, the Bergson of Matter and Memory, the Foucault of Archaeology of Knowledge, and the Deleuze and Guattari of A Thousand Plateaus. Throw in passing references to Benjamin, Bataille and Bruno and one might sense one of those rapidly dating collections of cultural criticism that prop themselves up on fashionable philosophical frameworks. However, Kwinterʼs depth of reading, the cogency of his arguments, and the grace of his writing allow him to evade this trap. His originality lies in the application of these ways of thinking into a wider cultural context, and in particular his willingness to cross the artiﬁcial divide between the sciences and arts. On the one hand, he points to the revolutions in science at the end of the nineteenth century; on the other, hand he describes the cultural contexts (aesthetic and literary) in which these new concepts may ﬁrst be seen to unfold.
Kwinter starts with the well-documented move from the linear understanding of time, as represented by the abstraction of clock time, to more complex non-linear systems in which time must be considered as folded into a spatial–temporal ﬁeld of ﬂows and energies. This is then supplemented by more recent developments in physics and mathematics that attempt to describe these dynamic temporal systems. Kwinter connects this scientiﬁc revolution with philosophical revisions to concepts of time, centring his analysis on Bergson. Thrown out is the classical separation of time and space – and with this goes any conception of space in extension and the associated reliance on perspective worlds as the basis for design and perception. In this much, Kwinterʼs arguments follow standard routes, but when he starts to relate these concepts to the architectural context more interesting opportunities open up. Where traditional models of metaphysics can be associated with an architecture of the object – a ﬁxation on the relation of ʻbeautifulʼ buildings to each other in the controlled space of extension – Kwinter argues that the new scientiﬁc descriptions of time, and the new thinking of time, lead to a completely different spatial–temporal model. The processes and practice of architecture, he argues, must not attempt to represent these new temporal conditions, but rather they must engage with the complex systems ʻat certain speciﬁc and local pointsʼ.
This engagement is necessarily an engagement with time as something real, and develops with it ʻa theory and praxis of the eventʼ. The ʻeventʼ is central to Kwinterʼs argument; events are ʻemergent phenomenaʼ which arise out of the complex ﬁeld. The event is for Kwinter productive; it ʻpunctuates and inaugurates a totally transformative proceedingʼ. Kwinterʼs proposed architectural milieu provides a ﬁeld for the propagation of event. He ﬁnds in the work of the futurists the ﬁrst and clearest expression of this new sensibility. Boccioniʼs triumph is to ʻincorporate space so deeply into the body of time as to change its natureʼ, a sensibility that Kwinter relates (in a non-causal way) to Einstein and Bergson. In SantʼEliaʼs visionary drawings of cities, Kwinter ﬁnds the promise of procedural maps. He does not treat the images as the depiction of realizable objects, but as ʻa set of instructions … capable of endowing with a substantial body all those events, processes and ﬂowsʼ.
Kwinterʼs project is not limited to a revision of architectural and aesthetic models. He has a more ambitious aim: to understand the ontology of modernity. For this he turns in the second half of the book to a detailed reading of the work of Franz Kafka. Most insistently, his reading overcomes the clichéd interpretation of Kafkaʼs writings as depicting a nihilistic world of despair and political impotence. Kwinter passionately and convincingly posits a reading of Kafka that, whilst not happy, is afﬁrmative, and goes well beyond that of Deleuze and Guattari. The event again plays a central role: Kafka, Kwinter suggests, ʻoriented practice around something else than the “strategic” cureʼ. The event, as tactic, is in Kafka that moment of productive resistance – ʻinﬁnitesimal deviations which could produce holes in Being through which entire worlds may eruptʼ.
Writing about Kafka, Kwinter states that one must read the relations and the movements, not the image, the totalities. This in effect becomes the message of Architectures of Time itself, as well as a suggestion as to how to read the book. Strangely, Kwinter does not always open up the full potential of these relations. Indeed, he even suggests that those with an interest in design could skip the sections on Kafka. For me, as a designer, this book might have been more powerful if the sections on the futurists had followed that on Kafka, because the work of SantʼElia would then have been more fully imbued with afﬁrmative potential. As it is, Kwinterʼs readings of SantʼElia are sometimes overdetermined by a formalist analysis. Whilst he is, of course, aware that this formalism alone is not enough, a sense lingers of the fatal connection between formal invention and social revival. Less aware readers – God help us, even architects – may fall into the trap of believing that a few new formal tricks of rotation, schism and overlayering will in themselves be politically productive.
In the end, it is the political potential of the book that is never fully developed. Kwinter is rightly insistent in his call for the reconnection of the practice of architecture (and other cultural movements) back to a politics of form ʻbased on the productive, the positive, the mobile, the newʼ. However, I do not share Kwinterʼs optimism that a concatenation of events will inaugurate totally transformative proceedings. Part of the problem is the radical subjectivity that underlies his analysis, in which the voices of individuals never assume a collective strength. In one beautifully observed section, Kwinter describes a contemporary climber on a rock face, negotiating the complexities and problematics of the site. The climber becomes a ﬁgure for how to engage with the world; but in this creative and heroic gesture, there is also something hopeless – what happens when they reach the top? At fault may be Kwinterʼs overreliance on de Certeauʼs tactics/strategy dialectic. It has recently been philosophically and politically correct to champion the tactic over the strategy as the course of political action. Strategies bring with them all the trappings of power and control, whereas tactics provide a subversive resistance to these mechanisms. However, as Gillian Rose and others have noted, the unequivocal repudiation of knowledge (as power) and the collapse into the atomistic multiplicity of individuals, denies the opportunity for the reformulation of knowledge and power, the reconﬁguration of activity and passivity. It is maybe in manoeuvring through Roseʼs ʻbroken middleʼ that the true space of political potential opens up. This is not meant as a curmudgeonly critique of Kwinterʼs book, but as an acknowledgement of the productive possibilities that this brilliant work opens up.
Terry’s turnsTerry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir, Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, London. 192 pp., £9.99 hb., 0 713 99590
4. ^ ʻWe were a family of performers rather than achieversʼ, Eagleton says in this memoir of his passage from Irish Catholic working-class Salford to Cambridge, Marxism and renown. Of course, Eagleton is both – probably Britainʼs best-known literary critic, fêted and reviled in equal measure, and a great teller of tales. Both personae rest on an unrivalled talent for writing and an inordinate capacity for production, something the memoirist feels sets him apart. He belongs to the small number of academics for whom writerʼs block is a stranger: ʻinstead of ﬁnding myself unable to write books, I ﬁnd myself unable to stop … a disgracefully privileged problem to be plagued withʼ. But this is overcompensation ʻfor the uncertain literacy of my early environmentʼ, or, more pointedly, for his fatherʼs silence, the silence of a man ʻagonizingly inarticulate and deeply ashamed of itʼ. Writing is the symptom he has learned to enjoy.
Eagleton enjoys getting up there and doing another turn in another genre – after all heʼs tried the lot:
criticism, ʻtheoryʼ, introductory primers, the novel, screenplay, theatre, so why not a ʻmemoirʼ? And this hybrid form gives an unparalleled freedom. Leaning on the autobiography, but with none of its formal constraints, the memoir makes a goal out of digression and a virtue out of errancy. Eagleton can invoke his childhood and indulge in sentimental portraiture but avoid the rigours of confession; he can tell vignettes about Marxist political activity (with the Workersʼ Socialist League being coyly unnamed) but without the bitterness of denunciation; and can muse aphoristically on the vicissitudes of contemporary life –academic and otherwise – or do a routine about cliché, without the panoply of demonstration and justiﬁcation. Nor does he feel compelled to tell us some unvarnished truth: the space for posing is great, and the various characters he plays – long-suffering academic, wryly incompetent militant, overly pious Catholic schoolboy – have free range. He is decidedly not in the business of audience-pleasing revelation: there is no sex, no drugs, no egregious crime. You have to read asquint to ﬁnd the dirt: ʻmy father was a devout teetotaller. Perhaps I compensated for him in that way too.ʼ
The book is presided over by a dichotomy: the just versus the ﬁne, the ethical versus the aesthetic. One of Eagletonʼs observations is that poverty is anti-aesthetic: not merely because it is unpleasant, but because it rules out ʻlearning how to savour things in themselvesʼ. The requirement of leisure for the appreciation of beauty is, of course, the great Adornian critique of the bourgeoisie, but the demand for the space of the aesthetic is also one of the great utopian demands. For Eagleton, one suspects, the dichotomy causes great travail: the demand for justice drives his politics (though he is sensitive to the virtues of mercy), but the demand for the ﬁne drives his intellectual life. The memoir belongs to the ﬁne, to the useless and therefore to the pleasurable, but this transﬁguration is not a redemption. In a reported conversation with Dr Greenway, his supervisor as a Cambridge undergraduate, Eagleton rejects the latterʼs idea of tragedy, that suffering could have a meaning. But nor could the authorʼs early life have a simple, pleasing, aesthetic presentation. There is an unresolved tension between the desire to tell the ﬁne story and a more exigent truth. This gives the earlier episodes about life in Salford a poignancy lacking in the more polished anecdotes about Oxbridge and encounters with the aristocracy, all too suffused with a sense of déjà lu. The performance falters here, as though the Waugh paradigm had suffered too little deconstruction, too little alienation. There are the usual fractious, egotistical dons, whose eccentricity is a cover for gross ignorance or turpitude, and the prematurely fogeyish students. There are the peculiar accidents of employment, and the standard self-deprecation over talent and aptitude. Even the language grows tired: the rare liberal don is ʻegregiously wittyʼ (what else would he be?) and praised in oddly anodyne ways, ʻa general liberal of the old school, a champion of justice and libertyʼ – which lacks a certain Marxist precision, shall we say?
If we turn back to Eagleton reﬂecting on his early life, however, the language changes and fuses thought, insight and empathy in a remarkable way. In the opening account of the cloistered world of the Carmelite nuns, which the young Terry tended in his role as gatekeeper, the pre-pubertal innocent who stood on the boundaries of that sequestered space, Eagleton shows an affecting sympathy for the vocation that impelled these young women into their demanding self-restriction. Indeed, his respect for a certain Catholic spirituality and the collective forms that embody it is pronounced, and perhaps should not have been unexpected. He sees in them a recognition of ʻhow dire things were with us and how much it would take to repair themʼ, an anticipation of his own radicalism, and even allows his own vocation as literary theorist might have been prompted by Catholicismʼs combination of ʻrigorous thought and sensuous symbolismʼ. And of course Catholicism is ʻdeeply un-Englishʼ, compounding Eagletonʼs own disaffections, isolated from family by his prodigious learning, from class by the move to Cambridge, and from Oxbridge by the class he came from and the allegiances he professed. These disaffections led to Marxism in a fairly predictable way – after all, ʻCatholics are prime candidates for the political leftʼ and ʻthe path from the Tridentine creed to Trotskyism is shorter than it seemsʼ. Catholics can bypass liberalism, a position (except in his lazy characterization of Maurice Bowra) that Eagleton deplores, along with ʻpost-modernismʼ the only constant object of his scorn. Eagleton escapes capture by the missionary order he auditions for, but ends up selling Trotskyist papers on the streets of Oxford, still saving souls. (Though Eagleton does not mention them, he might have found anticipations of his Leftʼs demonstrations in the processions of faith at Whitsuntide that swept Catholic children into the centre of Manchester throughout the 1950s and 1960s, turning the Otherʼs space into ours, if only for the afternoon.)But if one were to look for the heart of the memoir, the site of ambivalent identiﬁcation, unsurprisingly it would be found in the delicately sketched ﬁgure of the authorʼs father, whose death on the cusp of Eagletonʼs entry into Cambridge – he dies as young Terry is ʻupʼ for his entrance examinations, and the boy has to be informed by the emotionally ineffectual Greenway – provides the climax of the memoir. It is here that ʻpain, tragedy, class, sacriﬁce and traumaʼ converge. This taciturn man, whose class provenance in the unrespectable working class inscribed a certain status hierarchy into the heart of the family (his motherʼs family were assertively ʻrespectableʼ), ʻbored his work matesʼ with praise of his sonʼs achievements, yet remained utterly closed off to his son. But the silence only masked a relentless sacriﬁce on behalf of his child, a sacriﬁce that repeated the gesture of all working-class parents whose self-denying ambitions for their children – that they lead lives precisely not marked by their own sacriﬁce – lead to the loss of the children themselves, alienated into a class that rejects the parents as inferior. There is a certain Marxist pungency in the paradox that Eagleton must be lost to his father in order to remain true to the latterʼs values, and death is just the most extreme version of this sacriﬁce.
It is perhaps this ambivalence, the register of compensation and guilt, talent and suspicion, that predestines Eagletonʼs choice of intellectual models: Brecht, with his skilful unpicking of the apparatus of theatrical illusion, even as he relies on it to exert his art; Wittgenstein, with his simultaneous eloquence and radical mistrust of language as snare and enchantment; and Wilde, with his self-ironizing ʻawareness of his own inauthenticityʼ. These ﬁgures who undo the very forms they consummate perhaps mark the abiding presence of the inarticulate man who made all this literary proﬂigacy possible.
Full-bodiedJames Mensch, Postfoundational Phenomenology: Husserlian Reﬂections on Presence and Embodiment, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park PA, 2001. x + 275 pp., £37.95 hb., 0 271 02047
4. ^ Samuel Todes, Body and World, MIT Press, Cambridge MA and London, 2001. xlvi + 337 pp., £37.95 hb., £15.95 pb., 0 262 20135 6 hb., 0 262 70082 4 pb.
Renewed attention to the body punctuates the landscape of contemporary theory, especially amongst the now de rigueur denunciations of Descartes with which every other ʻpost-ishʼ work in epistemology or ethics or social theory begins. Typically, though, as Terry Eagleton is fond of noting, the reconceived body which emerges is a rather passive affair: a recipient of gazes and regulations, object rather than subject, effect rather than effecter. Any claim that embodiment might be intimately connected with agency – and that Descartesʼ mistake was precisely to present the body as burdensome luggage, an intrusion on the selfʼs engagement with the world – goes largely unaddressed. Instead, the totem runs deep that neither self nor world can be separated ontologically from the workings of discourse. Thus conceived, embodiment becomes distanced, fractured and indeterminate. Things are not looking good for the idea that, phenomenologically, our bodily self-presence might have anything constant, unitary or even dialectically secure about it. In differently impressive ways, these two books set out to retrieve it.
Todesʼ work is a reissue, with new introductions and appendices, of a doctoral thesis submitted in 1963 and published in 1990 as The Human Body as Material Subject of the World. It promises an engagement with the bodyʼs role in our knowledge of objects which avoids the idealism into which phenomenological accounts – even Merleau-Pontyʼs, for all its nuance – too easily slip. For Todes (who died in 1994) our familiar situation is one of being ʻin some sense identiﬁed with our active subject-body in the midst of circumstances whose givenness implies that our body is also an objectʼ. It is a situation with which the philosophical tradition has failed to grapple with much success. For Descartes, the body is merely another object in the world. Hume, meanwhile, ʻshrinks our active body down to the vanishing point of our visual point of view as a pure spectator with an inactive bodyʼ – a spectator for whom experience cannot justly be said to be unitary or ordered. Kantʼs response to Hume comes far closer to approaching our familiar situation. But he, too, says Todes, projects a severance of self from circumstances in order to secure the formerʼs autonomy, assimilating our circumstances to our spontaneous self, and making reason the legislator of its object.
Whatʼs wrong with all this? Put brieﬂy, a shared assumption that the human subject cannot be at the same time fundamentally material and not merely a thing amongst others. For Todes, the body is ʻthat material thing whose capacity to move itself generates and deﬁnes the whole world of human experience in which anything, including itself, can be foundʼ. It is uniquely material. In so arguing, Todes rejects the claim that (as Rorty would put it) interpretations, or language, or social construction, go ʻall the way downʼ to the root of either world or selfhood. His conclusions are critically realist. The body is constitutively needy: it depends on an antecedently existing material environment. We determine the objects of experience as objects of a particular sort. This is what affords the regularity of experience. But this determination is ʻmade possible by our making an active response to anticipated objects of experienceʼ. This response is ʻdirected toward the satisfaction of a body needʼ.
Thus, in a conception redolent of the early Marx, dependence on the material environment is reconciled with an account of the self as active centre of its experienced world – a world the disclosure of which is both spontaneous and receptive. Todes invests much in the ʻfront–back asymmetryʼ of the bodyʼs activity: the fact that objects being made present to us derive from a forward-directed, intentional, primordial engagement with the world. He puts this down to ʻpoiseʼ: the way in which I know what I am doing because already knowingly in touch with the objects around me. The perceptual world is the counterpart of our bodyʼs ongoing poised response to the challenges and tasks it faces. Importantly, the book culminates in a prolonged, sympathetically critical discussion of Kant, in which Todes seeks to supplement the Tables of the ﬁrst Critique with a further one: that of perceptual knowledge, understood as the missing link in Kantʼs bifurcation of knowledge and feeling.
Menschʼs latest work follows up a series of selfprofessedly Husserlian engagements with the legacies of ʻmodernityʼ in philosophy. He seeks to redeem Husserlʼs thought as avoiding the pitfalls of that tradition – and, as his title suggests, as affording the scope for a postfoundational phenomenology. In a style direct and economical without avoiding the complexity of the issues he confronts, Mensch aims to retrieve key elements of Husserlʼs thinking from the clutches of those who have praised his project only then to bury it: Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida.
He starts out from the claim that, despite protestations to the contrary, these exponents of the ʻpostmodernʼ tradition remain wedded to a core contention of its ʻmodernʼ counterpart. This is that the ʻgroundʼ of selfhood must be characterized as an absence. Whether in terms of the noumenal self or the will to power, of the cogito or différance, philosophers from Hume to Derrida have assumed that selfhood is to be explained by way of an appeal to a ghostly something beyond our bodily self-presence: a ground able to function as such by virtue of lying outside of what it grounds. To the extent that postmodernists retain the insistence that selfhood is a function of an absence that cannot present itself in experience, their formulations represent ʻthe last, most extreme examples of the foundationalist enterpriseʼ, and are similarly ill-equipped to deal adequately with a body subordinated to, or rendered unapproachable because of, the priority of action going on elsewhere.
Mensch ﬁnds in the post-1920 Husserl – of the later, often unpublished manuscripts, rather than the Cartesian Meditations or the Logical Investigations – a seeking not for a ground for presence, but a means of describing it in terms of embodiment, without appeal to a disembodied, ʻpureʼ phenomenological observer. Of course, Husserl is standardly regarded as a prime purveyor of precisely this sort of appeal. But latterly, says Mensch, he switched registers, examining instead the bodily origins of our perceptual intentions. What emerges is a self that is neither grounder of the world, nor grounded by it. Rather, it is a process of embodied engagement with a world towards which it is drawn in order to satisfy instinctual needs. Reason and freedom develop through the process of this striving: rational self-reﬂection is the upshot of our self-constitution. Constitution is inherently temporal, but not in the subjective sense which Mensch discerns in Heidegger just as much as Kant. Rather than an absence, temporalization is a kind of embodiment, through which the key instincts – of retention, protention and objectiﬁcation – function. Thus the bodyʼs presence is a sort of shifting centre between the past and the future. It grasps itself across the temporal distance between what it was and what it will be.
Mensch defends Husserlʼs claim that speech must be anchored in intuition: in our ability to embody or make sensuously present the world we report on. He thus disputes Derridaʼs insistence that consciousness is not possible without the voice, and that its necessary mediation through indicative signs means that it is characterized by a lack of original presence. Instead, we are given a picture of self-reﬂection as mediated not only by language, but by a momentum set in train by primal impressions, received from the world. As he puts it, ʻlearning to use language requires the childʼs ﬁrst having learned to see its world as suchʼ. By avoiding both naïve realism and linguistic idealism, it provides a challenging scene-setting of issues in contemporary phenomenology and a defence of Husserlʼs critical ambitions. The ﬁnal chapters offer an account of self-responsibility and responsibility to others as inevitably conjoined while avoiding Levinasʼs ʻaporeticʼ conclusion that ethical responsibility arises in our responding to the other as an absence. Rather, responsibility arises from a response to the presence of life – to the presences which, for Mensch as for Husserl, constitute selfhood.
Both these works, then, return us to the problem of embodiment without resort to reductionisms, whether naturalistic or social-constructionist. Both combine accessibility with depth. And Todesʼ book, in particular, provides a basis on which a non-idealist phenomenology might build. That, whatever the agencies of discourse, independent reality still intrudes is something with which duly subtle phenomenological approaches, like those of Todes and Mensch, can deal – as is serious attention to pre-discursive human need as a primary aspect of our orientation towards the world.