Spit it out!


To argue is to disagree about the world: what it has been, how it is, what it should become. Alongside this, a disagreement about our place in it, about who belongs where. It’s where world is no longer fact but problem. And so everything, rightly, depends on solving it – arguing it out.

Our defense of a point is as much about us as it is about the point itself. The latter is often just an alibi for self-assertion, self-defense. Weapon, shield, or both at once. This is excusable: were it not for that ‘self’, the argument would not matter. And so we are ready to argue over the most pointless things.

What irritates us at first may later prove pathetic. What got under your skin is now easier to manage; you’ve learned something. The sliver you were neglecting to remove suddenly works itself loose. You begin to feel sympathy for the irritant, remorse for arguing. But be careful: your opponent may benefit more from your chagrin than your pity…

Certain situations are ripe for you to *play* at being upset. This tends to work best when you don’t yet know it’s a play.

A clever mix of indirection and precision, frivolity and seriousness, understanding and inflexibility. Letting much wander, stray, error, digress – yet somehow never missing the mark.

There’s comedy in every passionate outburst, every contentious display, even in justified protest, but it is better if this is discovered after the drama’s run its act. The actor needs a stage and an audience to rave at first – even if it’s just an audience of ‘self’.

As the actor must believe their part, you must believe you can still live better – can still stomach more of the difficult truth.

“There is no salvation for impatience.”—Albert Camus

In the end, if you cannot laugh at yourself, you have lost; but never make a mockery of yourself, or fear to stand firm in your position, mid-game. Otherwise, the game will never end.

Arguing is play-acting: to take a position for the sake of arguing. That is why it hardly matters what you say. Aggravation is part of the pleasure. It indicates a longing for genuine reconciliation. A sure sign you are not just play-acting.

It is as with God or any beloved: more threatening than jealousy, reprimand, or punishment, is incuriosity and disregard. The latter may be mistaken for forgiveness or a sign the battle was won, when in fact it’s just that the sin no longer matters, the war irrelevant. We fight so that we do not forget our love.

Often, what in other people most provokes your criticism has largely to do with pieces in yourself you’ve refused to face – aspects of your own attitude and behavior you’ve yet to process and figure out. That is why you stick so adamantly to the debate, why you cannot sleep, why you fall into fits of frustration. You are about to meet a truth about yourself, about what obsesses you, but you hesitate at the threshold and blame your opponent for the barricade, as if they held the key to dismantling it. And if they do?

Patience is the heart of life. As Kafka put it, impatience is what got us expelled from Paradise, and it’s what keeps us from getting back in. But what is patience without the possibility of impatience? What is action without the possibility of laziness? Ours is a world of codependent opposites that are not, however, equal – neither in worth, nor in difficulty.

Where laziness signals incuriosity and disregard, impatience signals concern, desire for focus and achievement. Laziness avoids to bear a difficulty, but impatience is so strapped and enraptured by difficulty it cannot let it go. Perhaps the only difference between patience and impatience is – the strength of the grip.

Arguments run the gamut from strangulation to make-up sex, bombing campaigns to merged territories. Division and union belong to a dynamic wherein the future of the world is at stake. Love may be a ridiculous game, but it would be even more ridiculous to treat it that way. We shall argue until we are blue in the face: until defeat or reconciliation.

It is impossible to go straight to the finish line, and if it were, you wouldn’t want to, since then the contest could not be savored. Nothing makes sense without a detour of conflict – without a failure in judgment, a wrong move, an exaggerated injunction, an overblown indignation here or there. This is why you cherish your impatience so: it is your constant reminder to be more patient. To learn that the path is a good one, and goes elsewhere than you thought.

Patience laughs at the folly of impatience, but it needs this laughter like an animating force, lest it become lazy, incurious, neglectful. That is why it must carry it like a silly sidekick wherever it goes: without it, patience would lose its why – its urgency.

Hurry is not the opposite of focus, but its teacher. It teaches it how to stop, how to be patient differently.

If peace is just a lull between hostilities, at least hostility calls out eternally for peace. To argue, only, without violence: isn’t it already a sign hostilities can cease?

Often, all we are really struggling for is a good use of our frustration, for deep down we know: it’s telling us what we want. And we do not want the world to go to waste.

A hypothesis: without contention, strife, disagreement, no progress, no freedom, no light. It is only the pace through them that differs between us – depending on our willingness to let go, or to fight?

What is easier, what more difficult – to hold it in, or spit it out? Either way, the right word is in search of you, and it will not let it rest until it’s heard.

“Strange is the world that reveals its feelings about itself despite its arguments.”—Fanny Howe

An argument may be called resolved when everybody involved goes in a new, or renewed, direction. Clearer in the head, less angry in the heart. By then, these will be the only directions worth it, the only ones that could exist. Such is the virtue of a good argument: it leaves us no other option than to switch places.

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General Energy

original: April 16, 2015

Bataille argues that the world of work (civilized society) poses human beings as objects among others, like tools designed to have function or a goal, objects that can fall into disuse. In his view, out of all the horrors society imposes on our being, this is the worst or the core one, for it forces us to constantly and exclusively think of our being as own-being, as having a duration in time, with all the name-tags and identity-crises that follow from this concept of self.

This posing or assumption of ourselves as individual, delimited objects, determined by social work value, is at the root of our sense of subjugation and alienation, our separateness from others and from the universe. It functions as an ‘unshakable’ norm of social interaction: we are each isolated beings with our own past that we must preserve and our own future for which we must constantly take precautions. This separate being is thus conservative of itself, cautious, preservative of its ‘own’ interests above all else. To question this, like Kafka or Bartleby, is deemed juvenile or insane, a ‘giving up on oneself’, and evil. For that social, self to function needs to ensure its ‘duration’ in time as a social object, possess and protect itself as private property. By that token, it is trained to avoid risk, outburst, and excess, and instead submit itself to regulatory procedures. For this object is evidently a servile one: it is subordinated to the use that rational, goal-oriented, accumulation-oriented society puts it to (and not only in the sphere of employment). This separate being is then the locus of our anguish of our ‘own’ prolongation, the anguish of ‘dying’, for ‘death’ applies precisely to the end of duration of this separate being.

The separate being, then, is also the locus and focus of our energetic economy: the calculations we make regarding energy and time expenditures. The need to persevere in separateness effects cycles of energy, and how energy is consumed and expended, in the direction of the particular. The human body cannot act in the world of work without a regulation of energy cycles: hours of sleep, types and times of meals, exertions of physical and/or mental energy at specified times, exercise and hygiene, weekend leisure as preparation for the work week… and this is only the beginning, once we start to consider all the social-symbolic energy connected to ‘locating’ one’s separate self in the social space of other separate selves. All this regulation, the imperative to be “regular,” is geared to have us function like a “well-oiled machine,” i.e., to run the maintenance routines of selves and bodies such that the past-present-future continuum of separate, isolated beings isn’t jeopardized; so that their role- and aim-oriented lives undergo as few hiccups as possible and do not clash too often with the other isolated beings’ road-schedules, work-schedules, marriage-schedules, retirement-schedules, and so on. The goal of this maintenance is to keep our social standing and uphold the rational and logical structure of the world.

The threat that hangs over all this and under-girds it is, no surprise, the threat of death and poverty, threat of loss of standing, of sustenance, of socio-economic or physical integrity as an isolated, self-same, (and in this set-up necessarily) proud, self-displaying, self-defensive being. If we were not caught in servile “regularity,” society would not recognize us, and neither would anyone else, precisely because there would be no one, no me-separate being to recognize. We would not “be” in the sense that we are regulated to experience being; we would not-be; we would “effectively” be dead; in relation to society and history, we would be useless (the accursed share). The argument of a “necessary future for ourselves” that shackles us interminably to anguish and all the measures meant to stave it off would dissolve and disappear.

This abandonment of efforts to preserve the separate self into the future implies, however, acceding to anguish to the point of laughter, ecstasy, tears—and dying (ellipsis to Paul’s, “I die daily”). There is what Bataille calls the sovereign moment: a moment insubordinate to language, social worth, stable meaning, the duration of separate entities and integrity of the constructed world whatever its form. The sovereign moment—arising, essentially, not from labor but chance—is foreign to the activity- and maintenance-oriented regulations of self-isolating society, since here there is no longer some “one” to persevere. This loss or dissolution, halt of knowledge and function, exists for Bataille as a return to “intimacy”: the distinctions that once separated me from my fellow human beings and from the entire universe no longer hold and I communicate or rather am communication (elsewhere, loyalty). Such is sovereignty: NOTHING: the exuberance of a useless expenditure that is not regulated and, more importantly, not owned or used up by anyone. It is rather the crossing-over of consciousnesses, so that its ‘electricity’ is all there is in motion, no isolated ‘bulb’ needing to shed its ‘own’ light. Theoretically, it is the difference between a particular economy, where energy is the possession of set beings, which they expend for the sake of self-preservation, and general economy, where energy is continuous, without ownership, and can be squandered exorbitantly without any thought of saving it for any future.

Bataille’s contention is not that we jump by a leap of faith or force of will outside of our isolated being. Any attempt contradicts the sovereignty of the moment; it accesses us like a strike, like tears. In this “return to intimacy,” this dissolution, dispossession, destruction or fiery consumption of ourselves—of everything that ties the anguished being to death, since here death is nothing (and the contiguity here with sovereignty is not accidental)— there is an unleashing of energy that is unimaginable to any knowledgeable subject of action in the world, who would durate. Intimacy means the subversion, the ‘transformation into light dust’ of the separate being and all its regulations: it is thus nothing less than a testing of the limits of the possible. How far can energetic resources that aren’t yours and are beholden to no one be pushed? This unleashing of an energy is general or generic and uncontainable, for the only thing that ever contained it was what we “falsely,” normally and conventionally, held ourselves to be (and let’s not kid ourselves, this illusion is inescapable: we cannot not “traverse the fantasy”).

In the continuity of being, where our discontinuity with being reaches its zero limit and the “intimate dark” dawns; in this world where there is nothing to anticipate because death is nothing and you are nothing, “Exuberance is beauty” (William Blake) and, “What is intimate, in the strong sense, is what has the passion of an absence of individuality, the imperceptible sonority of a river, the empty limpidity of the sky…” (Bataille).

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Philosophy of the Encounter


Louis Althusser presents his thought of a “philosophy of the encounter” as follows:

1.) Before the formation of the world (any world), an infinity of atoms rain or fall through the void. All the elements that could potentially make up a world are there before any forms; at the same time, there is nothing but the void. The atoms lead a “phantom existence” in a “non-world that is merely the unreal existence of the atoms.” What confers reality on these initially abstract elements, what gives them any semblance of “consistency and existence,” is the encounter.

2.) Nothing is more unstable and uncertain than an encounter. It may or may not happen; if it does, it may or may not last; nothing guarantees it and nothing could. In a sense, the encounter is as improbable as being born. Any formed world is like “impossible.” Because it depends on the taking-hold of encounters and their holding-together, it is always, if it is, a “pure effect of contingency.” What we call and believe as our world of necessities, of reasons, of meanings, of ends, of sociality and of laws—all of this is portrayed as a most precarious hanging-together that is permanently in threat of dissolving, of changing entirely and unprecedentedly, of death or disease or misfortune coming like a thief in the night to rob us of every assurance and certainty of our personhood, of life.

3.) It is thus that a philosophy of the encounter favors dispersion, disorder, nothingness, or the Nothing (which Althusser correctly connects to the Es gibt (“It gives,” “There is”)), the throw of chance. Correspondingly, it seeks to cultivate a taste for these as an openness to the swerve, to the ‘moving train’ of encounters already unfolding unexpectedly before it, to the ‘smallest deviation possible’ (which recalls Agamben’s description of the redeemed or coming world in which ‘everything is as it was, but a little different’). Taking no object, logic, law, thought, fact, or atom as its basis, principle, question, or topic of study, such a philosophy seeks only to understand and develop its affinity to the inaugural deal, the Es gibt prior to presence and placement. It affirms an aleatory materialism and the primacy of the play of atoms, while also affirming its own jump into their “fall” or “rain”—into what happens, namely: the necessary encounter of contingencies.

What must be stressed is how this philosophy’s only “resource” is the swerve itself, so much so that none of its elements (atoms) can be determined except retroactively. Moreover, it suggests that this retroactive look back to determine what has become always comes at the expense of that becoming, of the swerve. To repeat, the “beings” (elements, atoms, individuals) are unreal without the reality an encounter confers on them; nothing about them prefigures what the on-rush of encounters makes of them. In their convergence, in their ‘taking-hold’ in the encounter, these beings “first” emerge. It is essential to emphasize this paradox: what or who converges comes after the convergence; the encountered comes after the encounter. What will have been (encountered) can only be determined ‘from’ the encounter. Knowledge or placement of the elements, the need of ours to see or know who or what “gels,” only acts as a retardant against the flame of the encounter, a break on the swerve. Any “one” becoming tends to thwart it.

What this philosophy seeks to resist is any and all reliance on whatever seems to ‘follow’ (naturally, logically, etc.) from the encounter’s having-taken-hold. It resists repeating any forms or formulas that have ‘so far’ issued, because the case (chance/occurrence), the fall of the case—being nothing— is prior to and has priority in relation to any form, element, law, being, or fact (all of which are retroactive determinations, dampening the pure thrust of the swerve). To operate otherwise is the “very great temptation” facing this philosophy. What it calls for instead is to let its world—forms, decisions and determinations, down to the seemingly most stable laws of what has ‘taken-hold’ in or as the world—to let it all remain “haunted by a radical instability,” so as to reveal “the aleatory basis that sustains [it]” and thus the possibility of its changing “without reason, that is, without an intelligible end.”

4.) The surprise of taking-hold in the encounter thus inspires the heart of this philosophy, this thought, this moment, this life. Yet, it is not as if it were all ‘for the sake of’ surprise—even if the desire for the unexpected, for the new form, for the fresh commencement, for the inaugural touch of something, drives this “materialism of the encounter.” No, for the swerve always will, always does, turn any and every ‘for the sake of’ on its head. If the individual—the ego with its identity, hope, and history—is the most developed figure we have for the ‘falling atom’, then this philosophy would signify its total putting-back-into-play, a de-termination as subtle, sudden, and ceaseless as the swerve itself. Perhaps it is even best to consider this individual ego-atom as an after-thought, an effect of retroaction (nachträglich), an “abstract element”—as nothing, as leading a phantom, unreal existence (if ever considered apart from the encounter).

This condition of falling in a void is nothing to be overcome or superseded, nor is it meant negatively. On the contrary, it affirms this fall just as it affirms the swerve, “with the void as the condition of their movement.” To move and live, speak and be, with the abyss ever under our feet, is to dwell in the unfinishedness of the ‘all’, the incompleteness of ‘being’, in the pure possibility of form and world, searching, perhaps, for the infinite felicitous moment. Or again, to comport ourselves to the void, the fall, and the swerve such that we perceive and experience this to be felicitous; to wait on it, in whatever extreme uncertainty and hopelessness that implies; to foster conditions for the swerve (starting from nothing, as nothing, in an unassignable place); to be lost in it entirely, dispersed and dissolved in the intimacy of the encounter Es gibt. Here, eternal blessedness is identical with instant communication in the strong sense, and it is so without any choosing intention or free act. Here, as ever, is the ever-ungraspable surprise of taking-hold, which a materialism of the encounter neither makes possible or knows but rather is, if at all, when it is, now, before now, or after.


To return and summarize: the world is the product of atoms encountering each other, entering into relations and leading to forms. This constitution is aleatory in at least three senses: 1) which atoms will encounter each other (and what those atoms are) is never prefigured; 2) that atoms will encounter each other is never predestined (they may never; most atoms don’t); and 3) that the encounter will last is never guaranteed. This is a materialism of the mutability of worlds: each is “built” on sand (atoms), liable to morph or decay back into nothing at any time. And this is precisely what they do, what they cannot not do. The following consequences might be drawn:

Given the inaugural quality of every Es gibt, There is, or swerve (the clinamen precedes presence, since without it there are only abstract, unreal elements and not a ‘world’), nothing can be “‘held’ to be” without jeopardizing the openness required for the encounter to take-hold (without which there is no ‘being’). The temptation is always to believe in the stability or reality of beings (as atoms) as if beings had any stability or reality outside the encounter—as if there could “be” such an outside. Indeed, what lies outside the encounter? Abstract elements, unreal or phantom (non)existences falling through a non-world, a void.

Being itself is a ‘practice of the outside’, a practice of turning in or toward the swerve, losing itself in the changing of worlds, from form to form. Taken to the limit, this practice ‘demands’ that one not consider oneself ‘one’; that one look upon oneself or one’s being (in the restricted sense of ‘me’) as an after-thought (autos as product of a split-effect). No self without other, no ‘self’ at all without this split-off, this determination of self qua the expulsion of encountered elements determined to be foreign. Acknowledgement of this obliges us to reconsider the traditional model of self as atom, as autonomous outside or aside from other atoms. It throws into question the very possibility of pure solitude and solipsism, or that ‘someone’ could ever be independently of their encounters. The other is thus introduced at the heart of self-reflection, of the cogito, of decision—for these too are swerves. And, as Althusser advises, it is simply a repression of this teaching to attribute a swerve to the will, freedom, or drive of an individual/atom. No doubt, for centuries it has felt that way—as if our great and passionate in-clinations sprang from us, heart and soul. No one denies that it can still feel this way. But to resist this act of attribution is to acknowledge the passivity of this “passion.” Or again, our passion is the very practice of being, which takes us ‘outside’ the ‘one’ we conceive ourselves to be.

We can actually venture more. Not only is there no possessing, controlling, or mastering the swerve, but also, the swerve itself—es gibt—is the dispossession, dethronement or disarmament of whoever would deem themselves proper to it. Not only do we belong to swerves; the conglomeration of atoms we are at any moment due to the swerve is due to change, break up, dissolve. We are no less unstable and uncertain than the world. Nor is our constitution any less aleatory or any more guaranteed. As a form, the clinamen deforms and reforms us in spite of preventative measures. It is thus that the self or individual atom guided by this materialism of the encounter inevitably places death at the forefront of its thoughts and self-considerations. It is a philosophy of the void in favor of encounter-potential or encounter-surrender, unable to know ‘what’ will come of it.

For the type of subjectivity that believes it ‘is’ outside its being-touched-by-the-other, nothing could seem more threatening, more challenging. One waits interminably for oneself, knowing one will never arrive, save in an encounter that exposes its oneness to otherness and proves identity-with-oneself untenable, a step-backward. Whereas the swerve—the rush of otherness—only surges forward, mixing it all up already beyond recognition and ‘intelligible end’. Such is why there is only the dive into this unknown, ever-repeated practice as ever-arriving event—practice that lets the other come across a self that in the end is merely an abstract element: event that is pure coming or advent of the ‘es gibt’ and so never assignable as ‘there’ (solid, steady, sturdy) like an accomplished fact.

Unaccomplishing, inoperating, incompletion, finality without end, eternal return of the ‘same’ turn of expropriation, messianic pivot that goes perpendicular to any time, directionlessly unto time’s end—all this signifies a “will to chance” without sovereignty, an unconditional without power and without needing it. Such is the j’accepte [I accept!] that says yes to everything, evacuating itself or letting death come to it, so as to let itself go on underway, dispersed but destined to travel and burn—to reach you not reaching you, to stand on the other side writing as occurring, vulnerable in the night of non-knowledge you become as you read. Such is the mystery of the encounter: what it does it does as if it had already done it, since encounter must be at the inception. Its result—that we await—is in fact the commencement that we are. The materialism of the encounter keeps on.


The ethical point to be drawn is then as follows: (a) consider oneself not as an atom but in-swerve, as deducible only from encounters, from events; and (b) consider the world not an accomplished fact but as-yet unmade, aleatory and ever subject to having its laws changed, as quasi-void or non-world: the radically equal “place” where atoms fall and may or may not encounter each other.

What comes of identity when, rather than a starting-point, accomplished or assignable, it only ‘is’ in the future anterior, only deducible ‘after’ the encounter? When this horizon (the point in time when the deduction could be made) recedes forever? And not only to death (which is not necessarily our last encounter) but to the end of existence (for we may still be read, remembered; nothing could guarantee we went ‘out of circulation’ forever)?

Recall Kierkegaard: we live forward, but we understand our life only backward. What happens, in this materialism, if the look back to understand is (at least partially) prohibited? Then there would only be “live” and not “our life.” Then there would only be the surprise of taking-hold in the encounter, and nothing that ever “held,” let alone “held true.” I leave aside the objection, relatively speaking, that certain things would hold true (in my case: “He was born in Iowa to a certain Jim and Nancy”), since what is at stake here is not the cancellation of knowing but an altered relation to it. What matters is to understand the meaning of what may or may not hold (and who will ever know what all the encounters in Iowa and elsewhere meant to “him,” to this writing, etc.?). Thus if we say “it’s never over,” we mean: whatever has been, if it still is, is in the encounter.

Outside the encounter, there is no real and nothing holds true. Put otherwise, if there is to be truth, its taking-hold must be in-swerve, in-repetition, in taking-hold once more.

By stressing the ‘after-thought’ character of identity, we seek to analyze and understand ourselves from the starting point (now) to the very end (never) as an encounter or place of encounter; and otherwise, as void. As if the self were just this: other-than or nothing, in-swerve or inexistent, encountering the other making sense or falling insensately into nothing. Of course, it is no either/or. What this philosophy wishes to bring out is how the self “is” both: always in-encounter and always nothing, but above all never a real atom, a real something in an accomplished world, with a real place, status, and life. Not in rejection of this! Rather as its liberation into and for the encounter.

To bring this out requires a concept of experience that deconstructs selfhood and demonstrates the otherness without which no selfhood could ever be. It affirms a self that is constituted by encounters and that obliges it to deconstruct itself—for the sake of ‘living’ and ‘our life’, but this time truly ours, never the self’s own—for a self that is sent in-swerve, a life that is but a meeting point of elements.

[[Original date of writing: April 2015. Edited for fragilekeys: April 2019]]

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Gott sei Dank

The only relation of consciousness to happiness is gratitude: in which lies its incomparable dignity. —Theodore Adorno

Theological connotations and religious conclusions aside, let me briefly entertain the following hypothesis: the name “God” emerges from our spontaneous need to give thanks. “God” might be perceived and understood as a catch-all-and-nothing term that serves a psychological function for us, namely: it corresponds to our need to express feelings of boundless thanks. “God” names the ‘receiver’ of this thanks. This minimal definition of God leads to the idea that “God” is thanks through and through (Gott “sei” Dank); and that perhaps what pertains most profoundly to God in our experience is and has always been gratitude approaching the limit of what is thinkable, what can be known, what is.

Max Ernst , Birth of a Galaxy, 1969.

This thanks is boundless because it is not merely for this or that thing, occurrence, person, and so on, but for the that it was in general: the evident or apparent fact of it all having been. It is thanks for whatever has ‘hung together’ in having happened, and it is boundless because this ‘hanging-together’ surpasses logic and the scope of our vision. It renders descriptions impotent and symbols silent. It defies computation or full account. This thanks is boundless, also, because we can always penetrate into another aspect of the improbability of everything, the ‘gratuity’ of Being at all.

“God” is then a weakly sufficient term, a label by ‘default’ (better terms are lacking); it only has to correspond to this feeling or need to address boundless thanks to the ‘unlimited’ or ‘unconditional’, which nothing in our imagination can ever exhaust. Perhaps one needn’t even utter this word out loud, the feeling is enough. God then names that something or someone who might know why we give thanks, what all we give thanks for, and why thanks is so appropriate; who might know all this better than we do and be able to receive it better than any of us could.

The impression in question is so strong that the issue of ‘who’ exactly one addresses by the name “God” fades. In fact, it is almost irrelevant in comparison to the function that it or a substitute name would serve as the ‘addressee’ of ultimate thankfulness. Such an addressee is only hinted at in this upsurge of feeling toward an unknown ‘thankee’—surging for having existed, for having had a history, a body, a drive, a connection to others, to nature, to the world, and so on. Issued in holistic fashion, this thanks includes all: joys and sufferings, terrors and reliefs, in contemplation of the whole mortal state, without prettying it up. This is why it cannot help but seem like a miracle, unbelievable, an impossibility: that something happened at all, light and dark. God would represent first of all the possibility of being grateful despite everything, for the happiness we’d had amidst so many damages; for any glimmer of possibility, any convalescence, any chance.

One could easily object that such thanks needn’t be addressed to “God,” a name carrying much baggage and prone to misinterpretation and misuse. Thanks could be addressed to the universe or whatever else provokes wonder at our ‘abandoned’ existence. The objection is valid, worth the challenge. But using the name God needn’t imply what it has traditionally—a being who planned all this, wanted all this, the agent cause of all that is, including the worst. All of that could be discarded, so that God would no longer be conceived as the guarantor of order, but rather analogous to what emerges improbably out of disorder, like our lives. It may be a godless universe, dominated by entropy and death, but yet improbable moments and thankfulness for them do/did exist, however briefly. When our wonder and appreciation at the it was’ seeks something ultimate—not to explain the reason for existence, to make sense of suffering, or even justify it, but merely to offer a gesture of thanks—perhaps humans stumble upon this non-religious, almost ‘natural’ function for the name “God” in human language, as that which possibilizes the improbable (and from a certain perspective everything we’ve ever observed, known, and experienced was improbable, a gift).

Oklad (cover) of the Trinity icon by Andrei RublevBy invoking God, I do not wish to reduce the puzzle: whom to thank? Let it linger as an open question. My only insistence here is that this desire and need to give boundless thanks is profoundly human. It corresponds to the fragility of our situation; to the depth of our own receptivity regarding everything we experience; to the feeling that all the phenomena of life are gifts we receive, as if from nowhere; and to the ‘unendingness’ or infinity we sometimes feel in those subtle moments when we’re overwhelmed by the beauty of the whole in spite of it all—a beauty and profundity we perhaps name “the presence of God.” Such thanks is motivated by a saturation or excess of this emotion, when it overflows all the containers, aware of finitude and limited time, aware as well of the possible absurdity of addressing it to anyone at all.

Hopefully it’s clear: boundless thanks in no way excludes concrete gestures of thanks to concrete others in our lives, ’empirical’ actors and factors that help us, challenge us, or somehow contribute to our journey in life. Rather, “God” would be whom one thanked for those factors and actors: for their very improbable ensemble and consequential impact on us. After all, none of them could claim total control over their having-been-there, their having-existed; none were the unique cause of themselves. God thus thanked for fortuity, chance, encounter, trial, discovery, event, understanding, all together in a contingent network of links and significances. God thanked for what happened at every scale of reality and how it seemed or appeared to us epiphenomenally—how it exceeded all our plans, efforts, and knowledge. It is a thanks for that which no consciousness could fully grasp. Or rather: which consciousness knows it only grasps, and grasps best, in thanks.

In the last instance, maybe ‘reality’ is indifferent to human meaning, which is fleeting, not to last, not ‘necessary’ in any merely natural system. But this does not cancel the emotion we sometimes have—however absurd, contradictory, illusory, or wishful it may be—of a need to express boundless thanks for a life lived that, although it couldn’t be, somehow was. Gott sei Dank! May God be thanks, nothing more, nothing less.

—from Sept 1, 2018, Trieste airport
—published online Thanksgiving 2018
Images: Max Ernst, Birth of a Galaxy, 1969; Andrei Rubilev, cover of the Trinity icon, 1425

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Nihilism and the Absolute

Both enchanted Nature and the immanent Divinities are lost once the Absolute comes close and wants to be near us, bei uns. What is left in its proximity is the disenchanted World, without any ‘outside’, any ‘sacred’—except perhaps where the Absolute is touched and traced. This is, or would be, true life: incarnate, embody, incorporate, in sum, mediate the Absolute in the World, in the absence of any other intermediaries; instantiate the ‘touch’ of the Absolute at the limit between somewhere and ‘nowhere’.

In this arrangment, Nihilism represents awareness of the loss of intermediary steps, of gradations, of mediation. Both real and apparent World, empirical and ideal, show their artificiality, constructibility, and contingency. This applies especially to any world or worldview that is bought or sold, marketed or packaged to any degree, which tries to persuade us it holds the key, that it could successfully mediate. Eventually, however, all are shown up as dust, corruptible, lossy, not absolute—at best, ladders to be discarded after climbing to a vantage point where one can survey it and see its nonsense. Every opinion, belief, worldview, can fall to such criticism, for all are by definition ‘less than’ the Absolute, which once known by touch is not easily mistaken to be where it’s not. Nihilism is a radical skepticism guarding against such a mistake, a criticism of anything ‘less’. It is always at risk of despairing before this fact, given the lack of intermediaries and, on closest scrutiny, the absence of God. Its tendency is to deny, given its artificiality, any meaning in the World, to accept such a state as ‘absolute’. (This is where nihilism proves incomplete: when it deduces from the Absolute’s ‘inexistence’ its outright impossibility.)

What is exacerbated by this criticism is the apparent ‘fact’ that there is no escape from ‘finitude’, the circulation of goods, spectacles, bodies, languages, views, opinions, etc.—except perhaps through some procedure of keeping in ‘touch’ with the Absolute, an open possibility I must leave unclarified. For such a procedure could involve many things, liturgy, art, romance, science, service; indeed it could never be reduced to any one intelligible activity. Such pressing issues burn from within, call upon all our powers of invention and imagination, as well as our courage and perseverence in the process. At stake here is what Lacoste calls the subversion of the topological, the transgression of World-space and -priority, though this is no leave-taking of the World either. The point to stress is that, inside, one recognizes the difference between the Absolute and its substitutes, enough to decide between them. In Kierkegaard’s parlance, the difference lies between the sickness unto death (endless circulation in the market of finite possibilities) and willing to be oneself (willing one’s potentiality in the infinite). Roughly, this corresponds to Nietzsche’s own distinction between passive and active nihilism. Conscience informs when the contact is true or not, when something ‘eternal’ is near or at play. It guards against being deceived about that contact or nearness, it being unable to accept any substitute for the Absolute, just as nihilism intuits.

By the same token, since there is no substitute for it in the World, the Absolute can never be said to be ‘here’ like a given element, just waiting to be found. The Absolute is never ‘there’, but emerges, arises, opens, like a surprise, a breakaway, an ‘event’. Such words only signify its otherness to what exists, its happening quality: as a suspension or swerve from the known, determined World (though this does not transpire in some other realm or hinterworld either). In point of fact, although the difference between the Absolute and whatever is ‘less’ can be recognized, no rule is at hand. Nor any criteria for reaching it, nor any Way. Why? Because Way is World, its components World; whereas the Absolute is not component, not destination, not ‘something’, not container or circumference of what exists. The Absolute is not a cheap trick, revealing itself at a magic word. Nor is it the object of an aim per se, but more like what is constitutively missing, no matter desire’s action.

The best we can say, without overdetermining it, is that the Absolute is an intensity, an intensiveness which can charge any human activity but never becomes identical or exchangeable with anything extended (Earth and World). As such, however, it also prescribes the intensity of a possible dissatisfaction and restlessness, since ‘evidence’ for the Absolute in the World is perennially lacking and its intensities notoriously hard to grasp. What’s more, supposing such an intensity did manifest itself, was ‘reached’, it is all too easy to later doubt that very experience or forget it happened, so much so that one disbelieves its reality in one’s memory and excludes that anything like it could happen again. The intensity of the Absolute bears upon both extremes, missing and touch, makes both intense from the same longing, its same inexistence.

To formulate things this way is to take the negative road and emphasize the radical incongruity or ‘difference’ between the Absolute as intensiveness and the World as extendedness: the gap between infinite and finite. Yet there is no idea or thing to ‘absolutize’ here. Nor is there any room for belief in an Absolute, which would imply knowing what it is, that it is, where it is, how to attain it. Moreover, it would imply a language and categories to handle it, whereas the Absolute is by definition not known according to an already-existing logos. Epistemology, our access to the knowable, loses its status as intermediary, its status is ‘lowered’, largely due to the restlessness we feel in pursuit of the unknown, of what might satisfy our aptitude for truth.

This is very likely why the closeness of the Absolute—minimally: the enticement to true life—corresponds to the total disenchantment of the World (and, historically speaking, to the explosion of scientific knowledge about it). The subjective ‘mood’ of disenchantment, bereft of absolutes, is one of abandonment, a lack of divine assistance. Orientation to the Absolute here is ‘atheist’ in that sense: nothing in the world gives a foundation for it, no ‘sign’ can claim unequivocal reference to it. Faced with evil, no one can claim the World is its ‘expression’. On the contrary, it would appear that it lacks all expression of it, leading to the conclusion that there is no such thing and never was. Hence nihilism: the absence of any ‘answer’ regarding the Absolute, loss of any sure guarantee that there is anything other than World and information.

Yet ours could not be experienced as a ‘fallen’ World if there were not some memory or trace of what we’d fallen from, meaning, we retain some capacity to recognize what may be Absolute, even if at any given moment nothing fits the bill. Nihilism is a highly positive development in this critical sense: it functions as a very refined bullshit detector, forcing you, even against your will, to test the truth of everything against the stalwart powers of negation. However ostentatious, combative, and annoying the nihilist may be, a good one challenges unchallenged beliefs and forces examinations of conscience that eliminate hasty conclusions, ideological pipedreams, doctrinal commonplaces, and so on. For the worst offense to the Absolute would be an unacknowledged false belief, or false designation: that one had touched it when one hadn’t, that in lieu of genuine contact one had faked it, that one had spun a web of deceptions just to give an impression of absoluteness. But as the old saying goes, “God is not mocked.” Nihilism is coterminus with the phenomenon of never settling for less than the most truth-filled life, refusing to make a mockery of what could be true, or to compromise with the sloppy, simplicistic, uncritical, or rosy-eyed. Voraciously it devours whatever is deemed second best, even if no first best, technically speaking, can be found. If one ignores its prompt, either one lives in a bubble of happy deception, or eventually (thank God!) bitter consequences befall one, until a new choice is made and the bullshit left behind—even if this means staring into the horror of the void, answerless.

For once World and Absolute reveal such closeness, such that there’s no intermediary between them—which at the same time has made us aware of the infinite difference between them and sharpened our power of recognizing that difference—it is not obvious how to stay in touch with the Absolute, or indeed what such a phrase even points to concretely. At this point, relativism tries to step in and assuage restlessness prematurely, telling us that there is no Absolute, no Truth. As no evidence of it can be found in all the diversity of the world, best to give up on such illusions. But the nihilist’s discontent, making it difficult for to affirm anything whatsoever about the World, points in another direction, away from the good conscience of the relativists.

Whoever stares into the abyss knows that nothing ‘relatively true’ will ever satisfy our aptitude for the ultimate. If something cannot be recognized as participating in the Absolute, we know it. This knowledge haunts and hurts us. It raises within us, necessarily, the urgency of ultimate ends. It is here that many questions proliferate, many personal and profound journeys after that ‘touch’, that ‘end’, seemingly so vague and paradoxical: what activities sustain it, what keeps the lines open, such that it is not a ‘belief’, not just empty verbiage, to say, “I abide in the Mediator, the true life”?

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With Them Without Words

[This project from Fall 2009 has been revised for current publication. The essay below, “With Them Without Words,” explores the idea of a non-dual heritage stretching from Buddha to Friedrich Schlegel to the main protagonist of the research, Tristian Tzara and Dadaism, interpreted with the help of Jacques Derrida. The second text, Mr. Aa An Index, is a poetic ‘dictionary’ of quotes and poetic recombinations of lines from lots of Tzara’s poems. For a one-page chart of the overall perspective, see Dada Non-Dual. For two short appendicies to the project, see Dada Bodhisattva and Tzara Approximation. For Tzara’s own manifestos and statements about Dada, see his page at the Art History Archive.]

With Them Without Words

A word speaks— to whom? To itself:
Servir Dieu est régner,— I can
read it, I can, it grows brighter,
away from “kannitverstan.”
—Paul Celan

My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.
    —Ludwig Wittgenstein

Both the song and the silence my beautiful country of joy
    —Tristan Tzara

To think through Tristan Tzara’s poetics requires that we enter a practice of poetry, for only with poetry can our language become essential and open space for an encounter with the real outside of ‘reality’ as it is defined. With poetry, we encounter the strangeness of language: it brings us to question our situatedness in it and to respond by re-situating ourselves in it (qua outside it), and thus to re-situate language itself, to lend it a more appropriate being-for-us. Poetry suspends the situation for the sake of re-situation. To respond with poetry is then to enter an active, living signifying process, no longer duped by the dream of set significations. What is outside of what we are, what is an exception to what is or is said to be, becomes what we are, or are in the process of becoming, without goal, without end, in a signifying process in the imago of a becoming-never-finished.

To recognize language as artifice and respond with poetry as a way to re-situate it initiates the non-dual, beginning with the recognition that all dualisms and ‘theses’ are situated in the artifice of language. In such a situation, what is called for is the poetic making of word and world, as a way to show the real beyond the deceit of dualisms and open a space for encounters between beings, events of ‘truth’. Such a non-dual heritage, more generally, is one that pays close attention to the performative aspect of language in various ways. A brief list of some points the rest of the essay will explore includes:

—an ironic stance toward any thesis statement, logic, ‘reason’, ‘philosophy’
—awareness of the transience of words and the inevitability of change
—openness to constant reformulation and rearticulation of basic truths and guiding principles
—priority of communication between spirits, not doctrines, exact meanings, debates
—focus on freedom and justice as ‘human constants’
—emphasis on the chance-like, spontaneous, process-nature of creation
—and finally, insistence that art/poetry and life must never be separated.

This non-dual recognition and response has a heritage as long as humans have dwelt in language. With the help of the Jacques Derrida and his thinking on language, the “desert in the desert,” and messianicity, I will show why Tzara’s Dada is a part of this heritage, later drawing in correspondences between his work and Friedrich Schlegel’s. Along the way, I will try to participate in it, too, articulating a human constant of freedom, life, justice, and futurality that in this essay Tzara will help us define.


Tzara’s response to the deceitful configurations of ideology, philosophy, and argument, was to unite poetry and life: to reignite the being of language. In his cultural context, this meant the harshest nihilism as a way to combat the ‘usage’ of language as a tool for ideologies and influence. He combined his rejection of large scale programs (nations, religions, aesthetic categories) with a general mistrust of words to convey anything at all. Nietzsche had already written years earlier: “That enormous structure of beams and boards of the concepts, to which the poor man clings for dear life, is for the liberated intellect just a scaffolding and plaything for his boldest artifices.” Tzara shares Nietzsche’s (‘non-dual’) recognition that all our truths are constructions built on the shifting sands of words and grammar, as well as the goal of liberating the intellect. But language as artifice can become real only by surrendering to the truth of its artificiality, playfully, for this surrender gives way to a new, utterly singular voicing of it: to give this truth a body by giving way to language-events that proceed from this awareness.

It is important to flesh out, then, what exactly we mean when we say that language is always artifice, for this is the recognition that characterizes the non-dual heritage we are attempting to trace out. Continue reading

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Creative Forgetfulness

Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.

So Nietzsche preached, and if there is one lesson to take away from his work, perhaps it is this: creative forgetfulness conditions fullness.

Nietzsche’s critique is lodged against those who, on the contrary, are stuffed up, clogged, overfull. It’s not just that they can’t forget what they’ve done, who they’ve been, and what’s been done to them – and thus are stung by bites of bad conscience, guilt, remorse and regret constantly. They also can’t get out of their head all the different behaviors they’ve observed in others – and so they struggle to define a mode of life that would deviate in any way from the norm, from anything that could not be absorbed in the mass of insignificance. Such people are damned to a straight-jacket of memories and unbendable observations, unable to sense new chances, or to will another way.

Being unable to forget, for Nietzsche, amounts to forgetting that one “is.” So stuck in the loop of what was, clinging to bygone determinations, one acts as if existence were beyond transformation – a trap, a “life sentence,” a punishment. Whereas, in reality, so long as we are still living, it remains unfinished, open to the end to new habits, new attitudes, new speech. Amor fati – to see what is necessary in things, so as to make them beautiful – liberates us from fatalism. It affirms our freedom to treat every circumstance as a gift, as an opportune occasion (kairos): condition of possibility for fullness.

The creative process – merged here with life itself, in that the ‘rule’ it follows coincides perfectly with the ‘form’ it takes – is no different. To produce the new is to forget what’s been produced past. But let’s avoid a misunderstanding: this does not imply that there’s no development from one stage to the next, or that what lies behind is ignored. Only that, in the heat of innovation, there is no time, no room, to pay attention to what’s already been transcended. Surely, it remains; we still survey and learn from our own traces and those of all humanity. But once we set off to generate new ones, to chase down new ideas, we hardly need to choose to forget the old. Suddenly they are all swept up into an unprecedented configuration. They have already disappeared or mutated, along with whoever in us created them. In this way, what’s past is perfected and ‘redeemed’.

For in truth we are always reproducing ourselves with a difference – a difference we can never master, a difference we never get the better of, but do undergo and can direct. It is this difference – eternal return, in every instant, of the ‘same’ creative forgetfulness – that lets us get the better of our blunders, to act beyond the confines of any previous stage, and so to ‘become who we are’, unknown to any former self, yet underway.

(Nov 12, 2016)

Dom Sylvester Houédard 1
Image: Dom Sylvester Houédard

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