The following paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.
Poet: Good day, sir.
Painter: I am glad you’re well.
Poet: I have not seen you long: how goes the world?
Painter: It wears, sir, as it grows.
Poet: Ay, that’s well known:
But what particular rarity? what strange,
Which manifold record not matches?
(Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act 1, Scene 1)
How should we conceive the distinctive character, the “particular rarity,” of the wearing and growing of the contemporary world? How should we come to terms with our time? What words can we find that are fitting for its specificity when so many of the words we have found fitting hitherto, especially promising words about the course of human history and its political hopes, its hopes in the political (modernity, Enlightenment, civilization, socialism, etc.) sound more and more like the road signs of another age?
Are we not floundering today? Isn’t this, at least in part, what we need to understand, to make intelligible? So we might look out for writings, wherever they come from, that speak to and speak from this world, a world which today, it seems, more than ever, “wears as it grows.”
The British philosopher David Wiggins—writing toward the end of the Cold War, writing before the unpredictable acceleration that led, in a blink of an eye, to what we call “the fall of the Berlin wall,” and writing, with another lens, in what he called “a time after Darwin”—offers the following opening to the Act 1, Scene 1 of our “particular rarity”:
Unless we are Marxists, we are more resistant [today] than the eighteenth- or nineteenth-centuries knew how to be [to] attempts to locate the meaning of human life or human history in mystical or metaphysical conceptions—in the emancipation of mankind, or progress, or the onward advance of Absolute Spirit. It is not that we have lost interest in emancipation or progress themselves. But whether temporarily or permanently, we have more or less abandoned the idea that the importance of emancipation or progress (or a correct conception of spiritual advance) is that these are marks by which our minute speck in the universe can distinguish itself as the spiritual focus of the cosmos.
A time after Darwin, but also, quite clearly, a time after Copernicus. And, since he says that the formation of an understanding of the world and the significance of our lives always belongs to a “largely unconscious” development, perhaps also a time after Freud. (I will come back to these three, Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, shortly.)
Wiggins’s thought is rich. He says that we are more resistant to attempts to locate the meaning of our lives in mystical or metaphysical conceptions of emancipation and progress—and yet also that we have not lost interest in emancipation and progress themselves. We retain that classic interest—and yet something has worn away.
Whether what is not lost here survives without a certain survival of Marx (so that we are all Marxists) is something we might explore further. But Wiggins’s qualification “Unless we are Marxists” points toward the hanging on, as a vestige in our time, of a discourse in which the classic interest was more unproblematically “ours.” In particular, it points toward a discourse in which “our history”—that is Occidental European history—seemed to provide the clue to the history of humanity as a whole, a clue to the history of the world.
According to that old and wearing discourse, history could be related as a progressive movement for what was called “Man” from an original savage condition toward a fully human—radically emancipated, de-alienated, civilized—condition. Our understanding of ourselves—as “Man”—has been inseparable from this teleology, a teleology that is carried by, and centered on, developments in what Kant called “our continent”: a movement in which history unfolds according to a “teleological plan of nature” that will lead to the perfection of Man’s rational capacities—the emancipation of rational subjectivity—”and thence (as far as is possible on earth) to happiness.”
Aware that his philosophical narrative sounds more novel-like than historical, Kant appealed to what he regarded as the actual development of Europe to bolster his account: starting from “Greek history,” influencing next “the body politic of Rome,” which “engulfed the Greek state,” influencing next the “Barbarians,” who “in turn destroyed Rome.” Onto this backbone, Kant proposed that we can then tag the known histories of all “other peoples” of the world in order not to invent a novel-like fiction but to “discover a regular process of improvement in the political constitutions of our continent (which will probably legislate eventually for all other continents [der wahrscheinlicher Weise allen anderen derinst Gesetze geben wird]).”
It is in relation to the supposed discovery of such a history of the regular process of improvement that Freud articulated another history of discoveries, discoveries belonging to these same times, “the times of science”; a kind of counter-narrative to the discourse of Europe’s modernity, claiming to find at the very place where there should have been a signature mark of European promise (science itself) a wholly other story of “Man”—if not, as we shall note, the story of something wholly other than “Man.”
In the times of science, Freud said, there have been three offences or injuries or blows to the self-love of “Man,” blows we should say to the self-understanding through which we Europeans have come to think of (ourselves, especially) as (in terms of) “Man”—as a being that is on its way to its proper end. More explicitly than Wiggins, Freud marks the three blows in terms of three discoveries: the Copernican blow (our planet is not the center of the universe but a planet among planets); the Darwinian blow (our species is not the center of creation but a species among species with an animal descent); and finally the Freudian blow (our “conscious motives” are not the primary explanation for our behavior, but one among others, and not an especially important one at that).
I want to develop this counter-narrative with a further step, a further “blow,” with reference to what Derrida called an “aporetic post-script” to Freud’s comparative history: a fourth blow. However, whereas the first three provided a new notation (a new way of figuring “Man”) to replace the old ones, with this blow we are left without a way to come to terms with ourselves and our history. Coming back to Wiggins’s Cold War qualification, Derrida calls the fourth blow, the Marxist blow, the Marxist “coup“:
There is the temptation to add here an aporetic postscript to Freud’s remark that linked in the same comparative history three of the traumas inflicted on human narcissism when it is thus de-centred. . . . Our aporia would stem here from the fact that there is no longer any name or teleology for determining the Marxist coup and its subject. Freud thought he knew, for his part, what man and his narcissism were. The Marxist blow is as much the projected unity of a thought and of a labour movement, sometimes in a messianic or eschatological form, as it is the history of the totalitarian world (including Nazism and fascism, which are the inseparable adversaries of Stalinism). This is perhaps the deepest wound for mankind, in the body of its history and in the history of its concept. . . . For we know that the blow struck enigmatically in the name of Marx also accumulates and gathers together the other three. . . .The century of “Marxism” will have been that of the techno-scientific and effective decentering of the earth, of geopolitics, of the anthropos in its onto-theological identity or its genetic properties, of the ego cogito.
The blow is, Derrida suggests, two things at once: it is, on the one hand, the projected unity of a thought (Marxist science) and the spontaneous activity of industrial labor, a unity-to-come sometimes expressed in a messianic form sometimes in an eschatological form; and, on the other hand, it is the history of the totalitarian world, including in this Nazism and fascism, the inseparable adversaries of Stalinism. The “Marxist coup” is all of this, and in a sense the two dimensions identified are being proposed as aspects of the same “event.” What happens when we attempt to realize the Marxist dream of creating an ideal form of social life for Man (and of course that dream was never only a Marxist dream—it is the dream of the end of Man in the discourse of Europe’s modernity) is: disaster, the horror of the history of the totalitarian world.
In calling this event “the deepest wound,” Derrida is here, I think, in more or less complete agreement with Emmanuel Levinas: the trauma of the twentieth century is not the work of an extraordinary scientific achievement, it is an event, a terrible event. As Levinas puts it, “the end of socialism in the horror of Stalinism, is the greatest spiritual crisis in modern Europe. . . . The noble hope [of Marxism] consisted in healing everything, in installing, beyond the chance of individual charity, a regime without evil. And the regime of charity becomes Stalinism and [complicitous] Hitlerian horror.”
And where do we stand, if we still stand, in the wake of the fourth blow? Derrida’s main point, as I see it, is that the first three blows are indeed “blows to Man,” where “Man” is conceived as a being that has a History, from an origin to an end, to be grasped as the emancipation of rational subjectivity, de-alienation, etc. “Eschatology and teleology—that is Man.” The fourth blow, however, is not the upshot of a new notation, a fourth comparable to the first three: if there is a displacement of the old discourse of Europe’s modernity and its vision of “Man” in our time, it is one in which the general notation with “Man” at the center ceases to be a living or vital discourse on our Being; it loses its credibility as a discourse through which we can understand the world and the significance of our lives.
We are, are we not, lost today in a way that can seem beyond any hope, noble or not. Indeed, the fourth blow can, as Derrida notes, become “a weapon of philosophical propaganda” for those who would prefer to think that it is all over for emancipation and progress. But reflecting in Specters of Marx on a text by Alexander Kojève on “post-historical Man” that has been read in this hopeless way, Derrida urges us to read it “otherwise”:
In the same place, on the same limit, where history is finished, there where a certain determined concept of history comes to an end, precisely there the historicity of history begins, there finally it has the chance of heralding itself—of promising itself. There where man, a certain determined concept of man, is finished, there the pure humanity of man, of the other man and of man as other begins or has finally the chance of heralding itself—of promising itself.
There where the old notation was another notation had already—but without heralding itself—been at work, working away at “Man” within the same discourse that had celebrated him. And it is still on its way. In a time of floundering we are moving toward a less teleological understanding of the world and the significance of our lives, toward an understanding more in keeping with the blows. A new telos without telos.
1. David Wiggins, “Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life,” in Needs, Values and Truth (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), p. 91.
2. Immanuel Kant, “Idea of a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), p. 43.
3. Ibid., p. 52.
5. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalyis (1916), in James Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1963), 16:284.
6. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 97–98.
7. Emmanuel Levinas, Is it Righteous to Be? (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002), pp. 80–81.
8. Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992), p. 14.
9. Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 74.