Self-Constraints

I wonder if philosophers are aware of the despair they induce in humans with their subtle conceptions of self, their incitements to becoming and individuation and experience? Of course, we are all more or less spontaneously seduced by the idea of (our)selves, and so we take pleasure in philosophy. Since it is not only philosophers who exercise it, and seeing how in a sense it is present in all self-discourse, self-narrative, self-expression, self-recording, one cannot avoid the impression that we are immersed, if not imprisoned, in it. What leads one to study philosophy in greater depth is, perhaps, always this drive to better understand the seduction of self and the system it forms, i.e., to better understand oneself. For one is caught in a presupposition (I=I) that then must “become real,” and one would like to do it best. An almost unbroken line runs from the oracle at Delphi’s “Know thyself” to Nietzsche’s “become who you are” and Agamben’s “become who you will never be.”

The self has exerted such a fascination on humanity that it is hard to imagine how to get out of this ambitious and vicious circle in which everyone, auto-infected, seems caught. Making things worse, if this exit came from the self and its own decision it would in a sense deny itself, in its very success, reaffirming its power of decision, from its place of exception, and so confirming itself in what is most proper to it: its excess over itself and over the All. Of course, each philosopher considers this circle and its excesses, or its “framing,” differently. Countless models of the self-with-itself, self-knowing-itself, self-knowing-itself-through-its(other)(self) circle, swinging now to the ideal-transcendental, now to the material-technical, have been elaborated. Thus we all feel free to pick out our own theory and conduct ourselves accordingly, mixing and matching abstractions while adding some ethics here and there somewhat arbitrarily. In all likelihood, our preference for one model over another probably boils down to the schema of self (of the “thinker”) that we have most favorably discerned, the one that best helps us make sense of self-and-world or achieve, at least for a moment (but philosophy will only ever give you moments), some transcendence. Transcending the world or the self, it makes little difference, for both have their ultimate reference in the ek-stasis of self vis-a-vis the world-All, over which it rises triumphant either by releasing it totally or by subsuming it in a moment of its own progress, but either way caught in it, confusing itself with everything.

Philosophy is not only a battlefield because there are an endless array of models to choose from, to mix and modify and reject and recommence. It is a war zone from the beginning, in its very system of self. It forms a circle that demands repeated leaps out (over it/self). It endorses and enforces this, as can quickly be discerned in the mystical authority and aura it grants to the proper name (which stands in language for the singularity of the self in its being). Of course, understanding how the self has been exploited in the past (turned into slave, worker, ideologue, tyrant, murderer, “human,” etc.), philosophers have tried to reduce the self to its most minimal structure or point, even its most scientific point (Kant, Husserl, and in a different way Freud). Or they tried to exert some force of subtraction on it, to empty it of all its predicates and works, linking it with openness, inoperativity, or relationality. Or they have tried to situate and sober it by pointing out its constituent elements, drawing out its in-the-world “facticity,” its contact with others, with tools, with signifying networks, technical apparatuses, linguistic confusions, bodily affects, animals, its “entanglements,” and so on (Foucault, Wittgenstein, much of critical philosophy). But these moves all have mixed results and in fact come back to justify the old presupposition, the old priority of self as primal or primary “node” or “locus” of the World-circle or -play, again well summarized as care-of-self. Take just a few more examples, since it is essential to take a broad view of the problem:

One philosophy envisions the self in its pure difference from itself, its immanent excess-over-itself, and names this excess the rupture of the symbolic order, of discourse and knowledge, inviting disruption at every corner; but desire’s tortured structure, its inevitable confrontation with the obscurity of the Other, remains, and with it all the aporias of freedom (Zizek). Or the self is immanently inseparable from itself and what drives it to be; then it is identified directly with Life itself and its essential manifestation (Henry). Another sees in the self an auto-absenting subjectivity, a point of “emission-reception” that vibrates in a present that slips away just like it, yet through this distance amplifying itself (its call or silence, Nancy). Or the self is instead a “mode,” constituted in and through its “way,” emerging through the habitual interactions of self and world, bodies, languages, and landscapes; yet all this remains a “use-of-oneself” that is auto-constitutive of self and culminates in a soul or form-of-life (Agamben).

Overcoming, manifesting, disappearing, appropriating-expropriated, thrown or carried-along, the self retains its central place here however shiftily, and it retains it all the more the more it is displaced. And it retains it best when it sees the world as “inappropriable,” not to be owned, etc. We do not dispute the elegance of these solutions which will continue to exert their attraction. We only wish to point out that, however much the mirror of reflection is bent or broken, the self’s image, however much later, comes back, and this return-back is implied in its initial-step, in its every last repetition. It is set to return, to take place eventually or for all eternity, the difference is little. Everything it passed through and that passed through it will in the last instance refer to itself, will be or will have been itself (as different from itself, of course, altered, perhaps immortal), for all time: eternal return of the same at the heart of an infinite self-difference. Philosophy grants itself all this in the play of distinction and emergence, the play of the singularizing self (auto-poetic, auto-(re)commencing, auto-narrating, etc.): an auto-divided unity that (re)composes itself through its own division. We should stress that this is how it gets its being.

Note the circularity of these models and the flimsiness of their linchpin. The self is caught in a circuit; breaking out demands some kind of effective action or decision, a comportment of releasement or a deactivation of the circuit’s power from within, etc. It will have to do this because its reputation is on the line, for it could not stand to be confused with anything existing except itself (this is its responsibility). Despite the variations along the spectrum, from stoic detachment and its clandestine happiness to the restlessness of the negative and its enthusiasm to ex-pose, all these models take the self for Absolute, obsess over its (non-)place in the circuit that it ultimately has to consume and negate or else immerse itself in to the point of dissolution, always through a repeated leap-outside-self or some other decisional operation. Whether they gesture toward an augmentation of self in an absolutely immanent life (imperceptible in Deleuze, invisible in Henry), or toward the removal or “exemption” of oneself from the cosmos (Blanchot), or toward an anxiety- or melancholy-driven self-nihilation (Bataille, Heidegger), the circle of self as Absolute never ceases to recompose itself on the reverse side of its equally necessary liberation. It is thus despair, an unending tribulation if only because it implies the recurring turbulence of the Nothing-in-Being. Displacement only turns about in (the ideal) place (of self), even though nothing is there. The self can only vanish as object, image, being, whatever, into the “no-thing” it will have been and which it signs. The self thus on the way to returning to itself even when it leaves itself, and to leave itself turns out to be a most effective means of return, and so the contract is sealed, the self will “leave” itself (to itself) until the end – never returning, perhaps, yet retaining itself as the thing to which it will never return, the self as mark of its own erasure. This is how Nancy puts it in a recent interview:

The “self” is an infinite relation to self. It has no completion, it is nothing more than opening and referral. It is neither a “substance” nor a “subject”, it is a to-itself, in-itself, for-itself, it is a to-in-for-without-towards-by-from. It hears itself and hears that it hears, but what it hears is nothing but the distance from the self that opens it up as self. In the first analysis, seeing is different: the subject sees things outside of itself and as a result refers back to itself as an object. However, it does not see its seeing. On the contrary, seeing escapes in the view and in view. But it disappears into the view and reemerges like another vision which turns back on itself and sees that it sees nothing, nothing but the distance from itself.

I reiterate my question: do philosophers realize how much despair they introduce into human life through such models? Here we have a being that is always already divided, separated from itself, and sees nothing wherever it looks to find itself, except always something or someone different. It can hear itself by continuing to speak “or” by listening, but this doesn’t change that it is trying to hear itself, in relation to itself as a relay-self (relaying knowledges, affects, beings, etc.). Indeed, the self is one giant pre-position (“to-in-for-without-towards-by-from”) tending to every direction, whose every movement leads to a not-to-be-found, save in displacement (or language!), like an empty point totally exposed and vulnerable yet stuck to its presence and, precisely, to its “being,” destined to self-return as nothing. Stuck to its being, (as) stuck to nothing: here philosophy finds a bottomless resource for its recapitulation of self, since nothing can mean anything. The self occupies its “point” as if it were simultaneously one of absolute distinction and difference (not-All) and of absolute event or emergence (not-All-in-All):

How do we know that we “are”? Because others stand outside of us. The “with” consists of this outside which relates us to ourselves as other from others. The “with” is always “without”. The “with” and the plural mean only that there is no such thing as non-relation, no continuum or fusion, just as there are no atoms without interactions. Each “subject” or point of emission/reception is nothing but this, a point, without dimension, without any property but the exactness of emission/reception.

Again the self is outside the circuit which contains its outside: with-without. Wherever the self goes it finds only the precision of its own lack in the circuit, its own nothingness among beings, which Nancy gives a touching spin by calling it a point of passage, of conversation or adoration between all the beings of the universe. All the same, there are confusions here that bespeak an uneasy reconciliation: the self is an atom, but it is also a radio. A piece of infinite light and Light’s emitter. And yet, but a feeling:

And “being” is not a thing to encounter. Being is neither a being nor being. Being is feeling the noise of being, feeling its colour, its movement, its taste.

We shouldn’t be fooled here: these are delectations of the self in its infinite relation to itself, and it enjoys itself infinitely in this relation (Rimbaud). It is an atom in interaction, relaying interactions; or a body “dawning,” caressed and cut on the world-wide horizon of bodies; or a singular-plural being co-appearing with other beings on/at/in the limit of communication and sense, etc. What is so difficult here has to do with the impossibility of locating the self outside of a circuit, whether it be the circuit of the world, otherness, or life and death itself. This impossibility is immediately translated by philosophy into the self’s ownmost possibility (of being-becoming-itself) and however it conceives this possibility it only replicates this initial translation, refolding this en-circling or pass-through or referral (of) self that “relates itself to itself.” This is its original sin, to be (itself), and the self can only try to come to terms with it and philosophy is the most advanced attempt. Indeed, rooted in its own impossibility, the tradition has always been best honored by a betrayal; or when something that had been forgotten is assumed or retransmitted, saved from total oblivion; or when its origin has been displaced once more and in this way corrected; or when the whole thing is reduced to a solitary and quasi-secret cry “in the desert of the desert” (Derrida), which is probably always how the philosopher, whose desert is so obviously the World-circle, feels.

Because the self is precisely nothing, it can always occupy, at least ideally but that is all that matters, the place of any otherness (it can “understand” it), and thus ceaselessly shuffle itself outside itself while at the same time bringing every outside into the self’s “distance” or orbit or chain of signifiers or history or narrative or whatever: into its world. Ultimately its orbit and its “self” is indistinguishable from that circle, and it has rarely known how to define itself outside it. Levinas skirts this difficulty by placing the self a priori in the orbit of the Other, in an asymetrical relation to it, but here the self is only more responsible, only more pursued to its core and even persecuted as self. Derrida, on the other hand, has brought home the force of this entire system, inscribing the relation to self in a work of a priori mourning; and whenever someone dies, the world is lost, lost with the self that also loses it, a self/world that the survivor must somehow carry, mourn, inherit, respect, i.e., bring into its self-circuit somehow, albeit as an irreparable loss that, in the end, has the same structure as the self itself, being doomed to the same mourning work (which can only be balanced through an affirmation of the circuit itself (Nietzsche)).

The self is void, but it is also a void-referral. Its “substance,” now an intangible relation, is all the heavier for being emptied of material reality or “dying” as was recently said of the author or the subject. It has no problem looking at all this as a sacrifice, perhaps even in the name of truth, spirit, history, or in a play of simulacra and masks, without teleology or fixed meaning. Still everything is referred through reference of self. At the root of this operation, is perhaps the anxiety, “If I lose myself, I lose everything.” So many strategies can be improvised from that point (for example, losing everything to regain oneself). The goal remains the same: that the self “be” itself, that it come where it was or return to where it will be; that it be where it had been (somewhere in the circuit); or even that it know what it was be, or what being was; that it be its Being and transcend a little. The self proves inextricable from the Global Moment, the hiccup of the present; it is fused with it and can only gesture toward an escape from it or into its presencing; it temporalizes itself, spaces itself out, writes (to) itself, perhaps even a bit “indisposed”…

These passages through ontology, language, and self are in fact all the same, and the confusions on one end of the trinity support the confusions on the other two ends. What am I saying about beings? Are beings what they say they are? Am I what I say I am or what beings say about me? Am I one being among beings? Am I to seek myself among beings? Am I to seek myself in language? Am I beyond being or language? Do I transcend the present and how? What have I been and how to express it? Where am I? It is not surprising that for many these questions sound pretentious, but they form spontaneous philosophy. The philosopher feigns to respond to the Voice of Being, the call of the Other, the tuning fork of Language, and to do so better than others, but really they only end up displaying one more system of self, which they amazingly forget to assume as a generic subject, choosing instead to universalize (qua singularization of course) the system, injecting it into the general circulation of self-seductions, one more theory of self for a globe of selves stuck in the time of infinite self-relation and self-relay.

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5 Responses to Self-Constraints

  1. Rex Styzens says:

    I just opened the email a few minutes ago and have read through it quickly. I look forward to taking more time to appreciate it. So these comments are off the top of my head.

    I understand Nancy’s work as an effort to express what it means to be free. A friend coined the phrase, “Yes, the truth will set you free. But first it will depress you.” I have yet to study his development of such an idea, but it resonates with your topic here.

    I am at work attempting to understand Nancy’s “being-with” where he offers alternatives to past views of the self and other, while retaining those words to express what he finds. I recall reading him quite clearly declaring, however, that we are not under an obligation to become something more than we already are. That will happen, of course, but not as a task to take us over. His ideal community is one that celebrates resistance to any attempts to take us over or give ourselves away.

    Your list of questions illustrate what it means to be free. In themselves, I do not find them depressing. The effort required to respond to them today is a challenge. But then, we’ve known for a long time that freedom is a demanding compatriot. We are as free to ignore it as we are to engage it. All we need to do is decide. I have decided to give more attention to your essay, as I am able.

  2. Rex Styzens says:

    Does not an “open” system escape your critique? You include Nancy in your critique of the systems of self as, “Another sees in the self an auto-absenting subjectivity, a point of ‘emission/reception’ that vibrates in a present that slips away just like it, yet through this distance amplifying itself (its call or silence, Nancy).” Except for the problematic noun “subjectivity,” that is a fair statement of what I find in Nancy, except again that it does not mention being “beside itself.” In BEING SINGULAR PLURAL, Nancy writes,
    “‘Self’ is neither a past given nor a future given; it is the present of the coming, the presenting present, the coming-to-be and, in this way, coming into Being. But there where it comes is not ‘into itself,’ as though into the interior of an determined domain; it is ‘beside itself.’(Bei sich: one would have to respond, ever since Hegel at least, to the constant crossing over, the mutual intrication and distancing, in the fundamental structure of the “self,” of the “in itself,” of the “near to itself,” and of the “right at itself.” The “for itself,” since it occurs and if it occurs, is only the result.) Beside itself means into the dispersal of the dis-position, into the general element of proximity and distance, where such proximity and distance are measured against nothing, since there is nothing that is given as a fixed point of ipseity (before, after, outside the world). Therefore, they are measured according to the dis-position itself.” Pp 95-96
    I confess that I do not yet understand exactly what Nancy intends with the hyphen in dis-position, but I suspect that it works to avoid generating a closed system.

  3. Rex Styzens says:

    Does not an “open” system escape your critique? You include Nancy in your critique of the systems of self as, “Another sees in the self an auto-absenting subjectivity, a point of ‘emission/reception’ that vibrates in a present that slips away just like it, yet through this distance amplifying itself (its call or silence, Nancy).” Except for the problematic noun “subjectivity,” that is a fair statement of what I find in Nancy, except again that it does not mention being “beside itself.” In BEING SINGULAR PLURAL, Nancy writes,
    ‘Self’ is neither a past given nor a future given; it is the present of the coming, the presenting present, the coming-to-be and, in this way, coming into Being. But there where it comes is not ‘into itself,’ as though into the interior of an determined domain; it is ‘beside itself.’(Bei sich: one would have to respond, ever since Hegel at least, to the constant crossing over, the mutual intrication and distancing, in the fundamental structure of the “self,” of the “in itself,” of the “near to itself,” and of the “right at itself.” The “for itself,” since it occurs and if it occurs, is only the result.) Beside itself means into the dispersal of the dis-position, into the general element of proximity and distance, where such proximity and distance are measured against nothing, since there is nothing that is given as a fixed point of ipseity (before, after, outside the world). Therefore, they are measured according to the dis-position itself. Pp 95-96
    I confess that I do not yet understand exactly what Nancy intends with the hyphen in dis-position, but I suspect that it works to avoid generating a closed system.

    • tmlavenz says:

      The degree of openness or closedness of the system doesn’t change how it is structured or how it functions, which is what I tried to describe. The point is well illustrated by the quote you shared. The center of the problematic remains the self and its fundamental structure. The fact that it “isn’t a fixed point” doesn’t eliminate the “point” of self; it’s just that instead of having a given spatiotemoral coordinate, this point is itself emergent, constantly put back in play, ex-posed. It is still entirely “in” the general element of proximity and distance (i.e., still spatiotemporal, Heidegger’s “nearness”). And if this dis-localization can only be measured by be-ing itself, i.e., by nothing, it seems all the more clear that the self is at the heart of this experience of nothing, of opening, and of coming-to-be-without-placement.

      In other words, despite all the contortions it stays close to itself and never ceases to refer the movement of being to itself, to its own (coming) being. “Near itself, “right at itself,” “beside itself” are all interchangeable, they denote dis-position of a (im)possible position-of-self. The ambiguity is that the point cannot be measured except after the fact, yet it is still presupposed as being before the fact, almost like a “futural preposition.” Everything will come down to the self in the end, or at least to the relation of self to world, other, etc. The horizon of expectation, in my view, remains the “result” of this “for itself,” however much it passes through difference (which it obviously has to do, since it has no consistency in itself, being relation itself, a pure or formal pre(sup)position). Granted, these are all good efforts toward showing the non-pre-determined nature of the self, of its non-enclosure and movement, but they all exert themselves in the same direction, i.e., the self as result. Adding the caveat, “if it occurs,” only strengthens the self in its central position, with its circling questions What am I? Where am I? Am I? etc.

      Philosophy has never been content with psychology, meaning it has never wanted to let the self go flat. It wants it to determine itself or let itself be determined by the other in some fashion. But this desire is in any case desire for self qua desire of/for the other self. It remains this problematic: what can be decided about self? It returns even if self-dispossession and self-destruction are the imperative (Bataille) and retains its core even its coincidence with itself is deemed impossible (Lacan) and must be reduced to something like a “pure difference.” Different from what? Itself.

      In these comments I’m not trying to do anything but describe the system and how it is structured. I do mention at the end of the larger text the notion of a “generic subject” which would be capable of neutralizing this system, though it could not just be another decentralizing of the self that would return somehow “as” generic. The only path to take here, in my estimation, is to posit axiomatically an “Outside” that does not relate to self or form a ground upon which the self would constantly resume its self-relating, self-interrupting operations (or worse, posit itself as a non-self!). The Real impossibilizes the self without needing to perform any operations or to “act upon the subject” in any fashion. This does not so much critique or reform a conception of self as it neutralizes it immanently and does not lead to its return.

      Thanks as always for your comments, Rex. Helps me think all this through. Wishing you the best,
      Tim

      • Rex Styzens says:

        Thank you for the thorough response. I understand Nancy to share your concerns. I shall keep them in mind as I continue my study of him. This is my favorite sentence in your response:
        “The only path to take here, in my estimation, is to posit axiomatically an “Outside” that does not relate to self or form a ground upon which the self take constantly resume its self-relating, self-interruption operations.”
        While Nancy does posit an ‘outside,’ I don’t know that it satisfies your demand.

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