Walter Benjamin once wrote, “the knowledge of which we can give the clearest account will be the most profound.” For Benjamin, this meant a theory of knowledge and a concept of experience as little grounded in subjectivity and “cognizing consciousness” as possible. Such knowledge will have been liberated from the subject-object dichotomy, which has dominated understanding in the modern era. That is, it would no longer follow the paradigm of adequatio intellectus et rei, where the subject’s knowledge was justified insofar as its representations corresponded “adequately” to the objects it represented. Why, exactly, should we reject this paradigm? Because not only does it tend to deny any world apart from the subject’s own representations (its “world-view”), but also because it tends to deny experience itself – for in experience the split between subject and object presupposed here can never in truth be achieved, and the represented world never really matches the one experienced. In other words, by asking the subject to represent the world of experience as an object, even as its own object, it cannot not help but get trapped in the solipsism of its own constructions, and to deny – by repression or outright hostility – whatever does not fit into the world of its “view.” It is this totalizing aspect of cognizing consciousness that Heidegger also diagnoses in his important essay, “The Age of the World Picture.”
To obtain a clearer account of knowledge and experience would mean, first, to liberate ourselves and our account from the trap of objectivizing consciousness, and to forgo any grounding operation in the subject, in its representations and “self-certainties.” Indeed, the difference between self-certainty and experience would have to be kept constantly in mind. Every “knowledge claim” (if claims we make) would have to be articulated in the space of this difference, in the gap between self-certainty and its failure. Eschewing knowledge directly defined by the subject and its “impositions,” our account would seek not to ground itself per se, but to expose itself; and it would strive to reveal experience itself as the ex-position of the “subject.”
Exposition has the meaning of “setting forth the meaning or purpose,” but also of displacement, shifting, reorienting, and re-moval. A theory of knowledge based in exposition would therefore strive be displaced on the spot, without however surrendering the rigor of “knowing.” The question becomes: How to encode this incessant shifting? How to articulate this zone of nonknowledge where the subject as such “blacks out”? How to bear witness to desubjectification? How to think, exposed at every point, radically “open”? How, in a word, to know oneself at a distance from oneself – to know experience as ungraspable, yet whole?
To articulate an experience stripped of subjective delusions and its corresponding reliance on “world-views” does not mean articulating a new subject-position or advancing a new world-view. On the contrary, it will never be a matter of adopting a new standpoint, but of thinking ourselves and our “being-in-the-world” outside of standpoints and positions as such – of rethinking them from the outside out, bringing them to a halt and loosening our reliance on them altogether; and so to be taken up into a more total involvement, named experience, which is nothing if not exposed. The task for this knowledge would be to enter experience and its “event” as such – not to know “about” this, that, and the other thing, but to reveal experience to itself on its own terms, over the abyss of its own (non)knowledge and freedom. To do so means to come to terms with this: all necessity in experience is lacking (no necessary position, world-view, expression, idea, trajectory, etc.). Our theory must take this into account right at the level of its own formulation; that is, it must accept its own “contingency.”
To be aware of contingency means to withdraw from all fixity. It means living displacement and exposition; somehow, this must be brought to the exposition, in its very construction. Yet this does not “relativize” anything, as if cutting everything up into a meaningless stream of nothings. On the contrary, only with a thoroughgoing awareness of contingency do we become aware of the “absolute value” of each, do we free ourselves to whatever is coming “next.” Likewise, it frees up our use of knowledge: because there is no final destination, each step along the way becomes “vitally important.” There is no more correctness than there are any mistakes. This implies an experience of the precision of the instant, the absoluteness of what comes. It reveals the preciousness of each instant, articulation, and “fragment of life.” It reveals that it doesn’t lead up to anything and doesn’t have to; it reveals every instant as culmination. Each one, each instant: absolute and irreplaceable. But once again, without necessity.
Relevant knowledge only opens and exposes, without end, and so it refuses to resist its own reformulation, because only in this way does it remain justified and true. To hold knowledge to the precision of the instant, absolutely: only thus do we create a world instead of just representing one.
To inscribe experience into theory, without relying on any self-certainty or world-view, calls for a mode of exposition as fragmentary, exposed, and uncertain as experience itself. But this has nothing to do with the intentional writing of fragments no more than it does with trying to add everything up. Our starting-point is never intention, nor a given mode of exposition, nor an anticipated unity, but always the event of existence as it comes. Perhaps we could reference Heidegger here, who alludes to this fragmentary method as a leaping from station to station along a path of thinking, such that a momentary clearing is forged at each station, while simultaneously, and from within the cleared area, new paths to be cleared immediately present themselves:
For the author himself there remains the necessity to speak each time in the language that is, in each case, appropriate to the very stations on his way.
Of course, we would have to ask what exactly is meant by “one’s own” here. How might this “one’s own” be justified in light of our previous considerations? And on the other hand, can we really keep from thinking existence in terms of “ownness”? Isn’t everything from our bodily existence to our existence in language geared to this “mineness” of sensation, thought, and expression?
In lieu of an extended analysis, we can at least say that Heidegger pointed toward an “owning” of existence in light of the very impossibility of “owning” it – an experience of “ownness” as of the inappropriable, of the inappropriable as our “ownmost” – which is, simply put, the experience of existence (freedom…). At each instant, there is the surprise of this inappropriable event as the surprise of “being oneself,” which is nevertheless never “mine” in terms of a property. That we can still detect in Heidegger’s thinking various traces of the subject-paradigm, which on the other hand he never tired of questioning, indicates that the only “exit” from this paradigm will be painstakingly indirect. As we have said, it does not imply that some substitute should come in place of the subject. Rather, what we have to do is to think and speak the subject at the limit – exposed, displaced, neutralized, and deactivated. To do so implies calling into question every one of our constructions, at every point. Only with a vigilant attention to the contingency of our own formulations will we, perhaps, achieve a theory of knowledge justified in experience, and to the very extent that it remains open to this inappropriable event of existence that, paradoxically, is ours.
Perhaps, then, we could say that at each station along the way there is a new language to make “one’s own.” This means that the language that comes to us is never “originally” ours (or anyone else’s, for that matter). On the contrary, what we say always comes from elsewhere (and returns there). Our voice is not properly our own until we make it so, by exposing ourselves to it. We do not so much constitute it, as it constitutes us; and however much the subject “owns” its voice, the unity of this voice must be called into question at every station, exposed to ever new voicings. There is no “application” of our voice, nor of our knowledge; we must only study it, what it says to us and presents to us as ours. Otherwise, there is no path of thinking, but only a series of assertions that refuse experience. Whereas it is experience itself that calls all these unities into question. It is experience itself that exposes us to our own “newness-of-self,” undoes every supposed “world-view,” and brings us into contact with always-other voices – for even our own voice is inevitably, always already, another(’s) voice.
What we must think, then, is how the unity of the voice – and so of our theory of knowledge – has nothing to do with the unity of an intention or a subjective presence that would somehow take precedence over the exposure of the voice in all its voicings, or over the exposure of life in all its events. The task of this theory of knowledge would be to comprehend how the unity of “a” being, “a” voice, “a” subject, and so of knowledge itself, is constantly thwarted in experience. That is, we would have to understand the “unity of experience” starting from this experience of “self-unity” being thwarted, instantly so, incessantly so – because, in a sense, to be thwarted, to “error,” is precisely what’s called for here. That, at least, is our experience: there can be no “ownness” without it, without erring – without being exposed to the other that comes.
Not by the glue of intention, then, nor by the workings of logic and world-view, but solely in resonance, in reception, do the words of this “theory of knowledge” hold together and hold true – in the “openness of self-opening,” in the break-up and “death of intention.” It is in this sense that we can say the “unity of experience” being articulated here begs resonance from you. It asks that we deepen our sense of “togetherness,” not as subjects in an intersubjective milieu, but as friends who co-constitute, co-implicate, and even “co-sense” or “con-sent” to one another – who, in a sense, only “are” in their relationship to one another. To be with, to be in relation, suspended: this is the essence of experience, its eventfulness, its existence, and the authority of all knowledge rests on what’s revealed in resonance, in reception of this event and of all the others in it. Otherwise, what truth could there really be? Knowledge can only base itself on the claim that experience makes on itself, and which others make on it, which is always revealed intimately, albeit an intimacy cut loose – shuddering, wondering, exposed, shared out, and free…
Intimacy estranged: nothing but a call to rethink relationship as such, a new practice toward self, other, and world, of receptivity, rooted in the deactivation of every apparatus that would capture experience and subjugate its freedom, and so dedicated to an exposition that would aim to justify itself only to the extent that it exposed itself in full. Justification only in this: relay, passage, transmission, and exchange. In sum, a mode of expression rooted in listening. Here we ponder, in a state of maximum receptivity, a new future for ourselves as subjects and a new comprehension of our history, where the subject is grabbed hold of and overrun by love in its very tracks. Nothing less than a “messianic abbreviation” of time, as Benjamin put it, where thought reaches its zero-hour (Stillstellung): a pause sustained mid-action, waiting on the surprise of the event, waiting on the other(s) I will have been and met. In other words, always in other words: experience.
I find more here than I can respond to because it is more than I can readily comprehend. So this is a preliminary initial response.
The topic of epistemology is fundamental and at the same time elusive. I have yet to study anyone’s serious grasp of the implications of Heidegger’s address to aletheia as a plea to see what shows itself to us. I saw a comment in Stanley Cavell’s work on Emerson to the effect that Nancy insists a text can show us its meaning as well as tell us a meaning. I have not yet run across that in Nancy, but I have read only a small portion of his work.
That occurs to me in view of the several references in this essay to “expose.” Indeed this essay is itself a plea for exposure, and it does so by exposing the significance of exposure in what is called “experience.” I have studied Emerson’s brilliant essay titled, “Experience,” as well as Heidegger’s exploration of Hegel titled, HEGEL’S CONCEPT OF EXPERIENCE. Yet I am unable to define “experience” still.
This essay strikes me in my initial contact as a valuable effort to show us what experience means. As that is a concept essential to our common search for meaning, this essay makes a place where open discussion can promise to take us one more step along the way
I have long appreciated the implication of Ram Dass’ book title BE HERE NOW. As a prescription, it is a guide to mental health. Yet my ‘now’ remains implicated with my memory and my anticipation. My ‘here’ remains implicated with my ‘over there.’ And my ‘be’ is always “to be or not to be.” So my knowledge finds me scattered as always already and everywhere. I find it confusing to be both something and nothing. I understand the laughter of the Zen teacher who views my confusion as a worthwhile achievement.
Thanks for your kind comments. I too doubt “experience” will ever find a definition, but I’m not sure it needs one. If anything, it is (by definition?) what undoes every definition.
BE HERE NOW has been a treasured book in my life since I first discovered it at the ripe age of 17. It was one of the first books to get me interested in Eastern spirituality, which has been an indispensable part of my personal and intellectual development. There is definitely something confusing about being both something and nothing; but I think that from the standpoint of “being-nothing,” what comes to the fore is again and again relationship. For a long time, I struggled with this question, “Well, if I am not a thing, if I am nothing, what is left?” And the answer I usually came up with was – void, nothingness, etc., not always in a despairing way, but sometimes, though also sometimes quite ecstatic and free. Now, it seems to me that to think that somehow only void is left over is the wrong way to take it. Perhaps you’re familiar with Martin Buber’s I AND THOU? There he distinguishes between two registers, the I-It and the I-You. Where I am “nothing” is on the I-It register: I am not a thing. But where I am “something” (in a manner of speaking) is on the I-You register: the level of address, invocation, salutation, adoration, worship, etc. And then, because I’m not an “it”, but only I/You, to be nothing is to be everything: it is to address and be addressed in full. I think humanity is still young in realizing the radicality of the difference here between the I/You and the I/It. But we will also find that it is not without precedent in our human history, precisely because only upon entering into the relational register of I-you do we become humans in the first place – do we enter into language and love.
Thanks for your correspondence Rex. I’ve already learned much.
I keep trying to somehow capture the Copernican twist Nancy offers. My interests are slightly different from his. As a philosopher, he can take thinking to whatever it can think as a worthwhile subject for thought. With my interest in religion, and although I wish to think the limit also, I want to be compatible with Nancy but in a less expansive way. Tell me what you think of this in terms of its compatibility with Nancy:
It has been our view that the self is the center, around which everything else turns. Nancy blurs that by insisting the self is far less definite. I want to accept his notion that the self is in a different place at every moment. What if I add to that the assertion that the world is what doesn’t change its position? That is, in effect, we go around the world but the world cannot be defined in terms of a change in position. Does that make any sense to you? I wonder what of Nancy’s arrangement I am giving up.
But does the world not change position? I’m not entirely clear what the hope would be in saying that it doesn’t, especially when it so obviously does. So instead of going into much of an answer, I would be interested in hearing more about what your goals are? Generally, I think it will be hard to graft on to religion per se the thoughts of a thinker who so clearly has tried to think a way “out” of religion. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t possible of course.
I’m trying to think Nancy’s “exceed” or “excess” as “world.” Clearly Heidegger’s “world” is dynamic, but I have not made much headway with Nancy’s sense of world. Probably I have just not read enough of his stuff. I am comfortable with his deprecation of organized religion, but it also seems to me that what he is reaching for has religious overtones–at least for me. I regard religion as what we do to be more complete persons and what we make our reason for being here.
I think that to interpret “world” as “excess” is exactly right.
Three (count ’em) years later, I happened across my hard copy version of this essay, not remembering where it came from. I have now re-read it at least three times to marvel at the provocative conciseness. I have been studying Nancy on and off during that time, so the comments now resonate with what I have found in my own reading. I am just as drawn to the essay today as I was way back when.
And still struggling to link Nancy with my Unitarian Universalist tradition. It’s okay that he wants nothing to do with religion. Most see our tradition as something less than religion, anyhow. We can be understood to represent a religion that allows escape from religion. But we also might be one place where Nancy’s remarkable insights are popularlized (something he wrote somewhere as being desireable),
As I have not followed your blog since way back when, I have a lot of catching up to do. Just want you to know that this reader finds your comments spot on.
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