[Written during my first semester back at college in 2008, after my father died and I was enrolled in numerous courses about death and dying, this long poem or confessional was the earliest step in the writing project, FOR NOW (an experiment with “direct address” on the verge of poetry and philosophy). As a piece alone, it is extremely personal, tracing my struggle to find myself and my voice after my parents died. It includes memories of them, projections of hopes, dream sequences, poems, short stories, exhaustions, notes on faith and loss, skeptical inner monologues, prayers to strange gods and also some nonsense. JOIE CHRONOLOGIQUE is dedicated to my parents. See the end for Table of Contents.]


For my parents
Jim and Nancy Lavenz

Father’s Hands

On the shovel moving dirt in the sandy backyard, replacing it with fresh top-soil and peat moss and laying down a root system foreign to the human hands that root them—no tool, no valuable, no object, but the poetic word fully foliage, core upside down in the empty ground, a space there too, hopes of longevity, the developed system. Dead is the developer and lively the participant, caring for emptiness and the system.

Hands on my shoulders,
hands that cared to dig.

Hands that did.

Hands crusted over for ages,
soaking in one skill.

Hands to transfer this…

Poor dead sparrow, resting on the palm of my memory, only touched, the hands unsinging.

On a world-horizon, reaching, slowly–
Missing them.

White cross stuck
in the frozen
red rosary.

Mother’s Voice

No one’s here anymore.

I survey the cabin of my machine: the back seats are turned down where an angel sleeps. Poor child, horrible welts on her side, her eyes tearing up. It’s bloody on her scalp and there’s hair twisted around the brown crust of her disfigured ear. She is thin, and it’s evident she is young or even unborn. Her presence is electrifying, incapacitating. I need soapy water and a rag. Every syllable is a mystery to her. I’m screaming to be delivered but the cabin is a cacophony and she’s amplifying the echoes. I can’t yet tell her apart from the words I’m shouting. Deliver. Or the words… is she shouting them?

A red hue comes but not from the sun. She’s become a blinding crimson and is everywhere. She’s a root system, tree itself. I’m starting to see it all quite clearly: she’s the one offering the dead sparrow, not me. She’s the whisper and I’m the dream. Continue reading

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Empathetic Engagements

[The following was provoked in response to an article by Daniel Rhodes posted at Epoche Magazine, On Honneth’s Reification, which draws from Axel Honneth’s 2005 Tanner Lectures, Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical ViewI recommend the reader to look at both when they have the time. In the meantime, I’ve edited and filled out my initial response, so that hopefully it is readable in this form, on its own.]

Althusser writes in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses“:

As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being’. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc…). Like all obviousnesses… the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect. It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’

However, it is clear that the ‘obviousness’ of our interpellation as a concrete subject is not something Althusser wants to affirm ‘just how it is’, as if interpellation were a good thing. In a subsequent paragraph, he continues:

But to recognize that we are subjects and that we function in the practical rituals of the most elementary everyday life (the hand-shake, the fact of calling you by your name, the fact of knowing, even if I do not know what it is, that you ‘have’ a name of your own, which means that you are recognized as a unique subject, etc.) – this recognition only gives us the ‘consciousness’ of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition – its consciousness, i.e. its recognition – but in no sense does it give us the (scientific) knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition. Now it is this knowledge that we have to reach, if you will, while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology we have to outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of a scientific (i.e. subject-less) discourse on ideology.

These two paragraphs articulate the illness and the cure: on the one hand, the obviousness of the ideological operation that renders each of us subjects; on the other, the science of this operation, knowledge about how this mechanism of ‘ideological recognition’ works.

Axel Honneth, by contrast, articulates the illness and the cure in different terms. As the title suggests, for him the illness is ‘reification’ and the cure is ‘recognition-view’ or ‘recognitional stance’. Reification is a translation of Verdinglichung (thing-ifying) and it stands for the process or distortion whereby the world is objectified and everything in it treated as an object, equivalent or exchangeable with any other. Reification reigns in commodified exchange. The effects of reification on the lives of humans is pathological like a “mental habit or habitually ossified perspective.” Honneth references Lukacs who tells us that under reified conditions, “subjects begin to perceive their surroundings as mere thing-like givens.” This comes into play, “as soon as [the thing-like givens] come to be viewed according to their potential usefulness in economic transactions.” This in turn causes subjects to lose their empathetic connection to their surroundings and those who populate them. Once everything is a thing, it is easy to detach, not care, and act like an objective observer or bystander. Things, others included, become valuable only insofar as they are, “useful for the pursuit of profit.” These are all distortions of a more genuine praxis of life, which Honneth believes we can restore ourselves to by taking a ‘recognitional’ view on reification (rather than, we could say, an object-oriented one). I will come to Honneth’s understanding of recognition in a moment, but first Althusser.

As is often the difficulty, it is hard to tell here sometimes if the subject is being treated as an object or as a subject. When Althusser suggests that the ideological operation is what first sets the subject apart as a subject, is it not more precise to say it turns it into just another object in the ideological field? Suddenly the individual has a name, a position in space and time, a duration like an object (as Bataille has also noted, this is what brings us into the world of work and utility; my discussion here). As far as ideologies go, nothing could be more fundamental than the interpellation of individuals as subjects in an intersubjective milieu, which comes along with the ‘reification’ of the lifeworld into objects in an external milieu (in which those subjects are also included). In truth we know that this reversibility of the subject, the fact that it can be treated like an object, a thing with a first name, is what opens it to the worst exploitation. The ideological form of recognition that Althusser names is really the solidifying of the subject-object duality: ‘reification’, this time explicitly applied to the individual as a State operation. This cognition, this way of counting things, divides experience up according to the coordinates of space and time; it divides an otherwise holistic environment into a grid of manipulable representations. The individual is reduced to being represented to the other like any other object might be, even if it is nominally endowed with predicates like ‘free’, ‘human’, ‘speaking’. But we do not need to equate all ‘recognition’ with reification, since the question remains: upon what is ideology overlaid? A science of ideology ought to help us recognize what, in recognition, might precede ideology and make its very mechanism possible.

Regarding interpellation and reification, other traditions have recognized these to be the cause of misery and lack of ‘empathy’ in the human lifeworld. In Buddhism, for example, both the notion of myself as subject (the obviousness of ‘I’, my ‘self’ as a thing or unified entity) and my relation to the external world of objects (reification, illusion, projection) arise from the same ignorance. Individuals and things are certainly cognized in this operation, but it is is never guaranteed that such cognitions aren’t ignorant. Spiritual practice was, in large part, a way to recognize what underlies all these cognitions, what lies underneath the name and form we organize in our head, what is behind the ‘other subject’ we interpellate and who interpellates us, and what we share in terms of consciousness or ‘interestedness’. Otherwise, thinking remains ideological: it wallows in an ignorance or forgetting of something more primary about our shared lifeworld that in every case is more immediate than thought and ‘prior’ to it. That more immediate, qualitative experience, which in a sense precedes the ideological world and its subject-objects each time, gets lost with ‘reification’. This loss is exacerbated with the full development of capitalism and its scheming, calculating attitude; or by science when we are treated as automotons, consumers, or a mere bundle of neurons. Buddhists would more radically understand ‘reification’ as an unfounded belief in the reality of the phenomenal world, an attachment to things and the ‘profit’ they might bring in terms of wealth, status, pleasure, and a lack of insight into the ’emptiness’ of such cognitions (ideology is “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”). Enlightenment could even be compared to a quasi-instantaneous ‘recognition’ of what is each-time-prior to the reified world and our acts of cognition, though obviously it is not separate from them. If reification is what imprisons, recognition may liberate.

Now approaching Honneth, any recognition of the falsity of ideological interpellation and reification must be based upon recognition of a more original, antecedent lifeworld or meaningful context that self and other share prior to all cognition. Solterdijk has amply explored this in his Bubbles (see my review). Adorno also states, importantly, that the most primordial aesthetic phenomenon is the shudder, which signifies being-touched-by-the-other [vom Anderen Angerührtseinbefore we are constituted as a subject ourselves; it is the ‘aesthetic’ element of a sensible recognition or contact between… that precedes ideologically produced identity. There, “subjectivity stirs [sich regt] without yet being.” Acknowledging the “blind anxiety” provoked by such a contact, driving the subject into the spell of being, Adorno nonetheless tells us that, “life in the subject is nothing but what shudders” [nichts ist Leben am Subjekt, als daß es erschauert]. He then makes clear the importance of ‘recognizing’ this antecedence of the other’s touch: “Consciousness without shudder is reified consciousness” [Bewußtsein ohne Schauer ist das verdinglichte].

Though we ourselves struggle to find a language to express or communicate this ‘shudder’, this prior-to-self touch or encounter, this qualitative experience that precedes the mind-driven division of…, we nonetheless find many testimonies to this effect. What is crucial in combating the reified world is a recognition of what it itself is based on: the shared lifeworld, non-identitarian consciousness, mutual meaningful involvements, etc. Broadly speaking, this ‘recognition’ would always seem to come ‘prior; to cognition, while also making it possible (Krishnamurti deals with this problem in the transition from thought to ‘intelligence‘). However we phrase it, for Honneth recognizing the antecedent self(-)other interaction, cross-identification or sympathy, obliges us to undertake the difficult work of suspending our ‘indifferent, observing activity’, our habit of relating to the world by way of a ‘neutral cognition of objective circumstances’ (facts included, since facticity is only grounded in care). For him, “the conception of objectified and reified relations is merely a kind of interpretive veil concealing our factical care and empathetic engagement.” That interpretive veil is the ideology we so spontaneously have about subjects and objects, interpellation and duality. It is ‘obvious’ and unquestioned, yet everyone suffers under the careless, emotionless, self-based ‘society’ it creates.

Let me say why I take issue with Rhodes’ characterization of Honneth. He writes that the latter advocates, “a pre-critical stance in which things are so merely because they are so” and elevates “precognition” or “uncritical obviousness” to the level of “redemption” (Honneth uses none of these terms). First, the ‘obviousnesses’ in Althusser referred to the way in which we are submitted to the ideological operation par excellence: our being interpellated as a subjects in an intersubjective space, ‘reified’ as atomic things in the external world. This ‘obviousness’ is of the ideological operation itself, not of what is in itself. Indeed, the moment one questions the obviousness of ideology, of life according to the Logos, one asks what is underneath language itself and the entire mechanism of naming, what ‘prior engagement’ might be driving cognition itself. Prereflexive knowledge could very well lie beyond acts of cognition; neither contradict awareness. If what Honneth urges us to recognize is ‘obvious’ in any sense, it is clearly an obviousness we struggle to remember and which we have a very hard time bringing to language (whereas ideological obviousness functions smoothly, it ‘works’ every time). The obvious is always ‘vanishing’ from our thought–or at least from wherever thought looks for it.

All the great spiritual disciplines, which are in their own way sciences of ideology, emphasized that we have forgotten our source somehow, our essence. Even if its idea is firmly planted in us, it takes work to break reified habits and overcome ignorance with knowledge and insight into these mechanisms. Honneth speaks of ‘prereflective knowledge or marginal practices’, but he says clearly analysis helps us recognize this knowledge; this is no more pre-critical than Buddhamind or gnosis. Recognition is not a magic wand but a practice that protects against ‘pathology’, ‘skepticism’ and ‘identity thought’. It increases our attentiveness to interdependence (pratītyasamutpāda); to the qualitative experience and engaged praxis that precede all ‘useful doings’ and ‘acts of detached cognition’ (111); and to the holistic nature of the world as its value —everything that ideology, which interpellates us as social atoms, reifies the subject-object duality, and renders everything manipulable by representation, obscures and deadens our capacity for. Subject and object only correlate when they indicate together their common origin or common belonging in a disclosed whole world, in the ‘total pervasive quality’ of the immediately ‘given’ (but this is not a ‘thing’ and no ‘subject’ receives it).

So, we must be careful to avoid a misunderstanding. Honneth refers to a recognition of what is antecedent a) to ideological interpellation as a subject in Althusser’s sense and b) to reification as a thing in consciousness more broadly. It is antecedent to ‘obviousnesses’ of ideology, but this is far from obvious, except perhaps in moments when we shudder. The difficulty, of course, is that any recognition of our prereflexive co-implication with others is all but ignored or brushed over in our normal thought-worlds. ‘Forgetfulness of recognition’ is at the root of wars and capitalist discourse, violence and dispute, for to forget it is to forget our antecedent interaction and reify the other as a thing to be judged, placed, manipulated and exploited. What is pathological about this forgetting is that it encourages an environment in which humans act without acknowledging each other and each other’s meaningful involvements; without recognizing that an affirmation of the other is presupposed in all our acts and that therefore care and justice must always be involved.

What is clear is that Honneth does not mean ‘recognition’ in the sense that Althusser outlines at the end of his text. There, individual is interpellated as a subject in order to be subjected to the Subject, through which subjects will recognize each other and their subjection, leading them to accept everything as it is and say ‘So be it!’ In this form, recognition only guarantees, “the conditions of exploitation and its reproduction,” and assigns subjects to their posts. But Rhodes’ comment that, “perhaps there’s no escaping the reality that we are all interpolated subjects,” cannot be Honneth’s position, because ‘escaping’ such a subject-ified reality (ideology, reification) is what recognition helps us with or paves the way toward. Better put, recognition implies another vantage point on, stance toward, the reified social world as such. It encourages different economies of care between self, other and nature that can resist the individual’s ideological interpretation as a subject to a Subject it must obey. When Honneth writes, “I am concerned with showing that emotional receptivity ‘comes before’ the transition to cognition of intersubjectively given objects in a strictly temporal sense,” this includes the subjects that are treated as objects (i.e., reified, commodified, sold, etc.) by the powers that be. The critique is lodged against ‘cognition’, ‘scheming’ and ‘calculation’ because the ISA reaches down that far. Implied is not a rejection of thought for the sake of some pre-critical ‘thereness’, but a call to reground cognitive our activity and habits in recognitional stances (Cavell) that, in a sense, refuse the operation of interpellation and reification as much as possible. (Martin Buber also contrasted the I-You relationship with the I-It object world and sought to brighten the latter by entering fully into the light of the former.) At any rate, Honneth understands, “the antecedent act of recognition not as the contrary of objectified thought but as its condition of possibility,” which in turn means that, “acknowledgement of the other is the nonepistemic prerequisite for linguistic understanding” (acknowledgment is different from interpellation). Prior to acts of reason, acts of com-passion. Prior to logos, meaning or ideology, an encounter and focus of listening. Understanding as a product of care and empathetic engagement, not its opposite.

Rhodes is right to point out the quasi-religious element that pervades this form of thought and all the others that Honneth examines, but he either does not grasp the kernel of this religious element or he exaggerates and mischaracterizes how is being retained here. Contrary to the impression he gives, this entails no ‘let it be’ mantra or obvious messiahs. Moreover, I see no reason to consent to Rhodes’ assertion that, “We cannot shine our intellectual lights upon recognitions.” Don’t we do this all the time? If I recognize I love someone, sure, this means I ‘already’ love them. This is a fact before I can or know how to think about it (and we all know that cognizing it sometimes brings trouble). But that does not mean my love remains impenetrable or unthinkable for me. On the contrary, I am capable of reframing my entire life based on this recognition. A primary recognition could potentially be thought through infinitely, since no act of cognition or expression of it can ever exhaust it. Without that possibility, what good would be psychoanalysis, for one, or investigating the mechanics of consciousness through other methods, for another? I might even argue that all great ‘intellectual’ pursuits are based in recognitional stances, upon profound recognitions (unforgettable) and ‘nonepistemic’ understandings that take form in habit and bloom in works and contemplation (in Agamben’s sense, not Althusser’s). Recognition need not imply something static; in fact its fundamental mode might be surprise or, following Adorno’s suggestion about the ‘life in the subject’, shuddering. The point is that we did not recognize before what we now recognize and this changes our view on everything. Even if it was waiting there all along, recognition itself is the crucial step, the watershed moment from which unknown and potentially infinite consequences can flow. It cannot be overestimated, since only upon recognition can it be estimated.

The lesson to be drawn here is that intellect and cognition are rooted in an ‘empathetic engagement’ where an attitude of care prevails; and that they risk becoming pathological and ‘inhuman’ whenever care is lost. But recognizing these care-structures rooted in the I-You perspective, prior to interpellation; recognizing ‘us’ as preceding and making possible cognition of the I-It object world; waking ourselves up from ignorance, from the ‘socially compelled neutralization’ of primary recognitions; overturning the most fundamental moves of ideology, inter-subjectivization and subject-object duality — none of this is easy business. There is no false messiah of obviousness here, but the hard work of caring, of undecidable compassions, of disclosing meaningful and creating just worlds in and for others, seeing that all our world-making activities involve all. The suggestion that Honneth thinks, “our world is ultimately justified in that nothing is unjustifiable,” is not supported by my reading of the lecture. He does not promote the simplistic reality Rhodes accuses him of promoting in which, “answers precede solutions and questions never become problems.” The allusion to Heidegger’s embrace of remembrance and poetry as evidence of Honneth’s potential complicity with fascist, aestheticized politics is not to my mind a reasonable conjecture. It seems to me, on the contrary, that he is at pains to emphasize how conceptual thought is not the opposite of empathetic engagement [Anteilnahme]. To speak of empathy and care in the construction of meaningful worlds, to see that recognitional stances have, “genetic and categorical priority over all other attitudes toward the self and the world,” does not mean abandoning our critical faculties. Though he does not recommend ‘reasonable policy’ as Rhodes would like, Honneth’s recognition-view of reification is clearly meant to help us toward better uses of life, nature, technology, language, economy, other and self. Granted, it is not a prescriptive method; it can only approach us on an ‘individual’ level, where it is our singular intrications, potentials and life-tasks that we become more aware of (though what is recognized each time is indeed perhaps much simpler). It is not a flight into poetry that naively says yes to things as they are, even if it sometimes is. To mistake recognizing the simple with a simple task is to misrecognize recognition, including one’s responsibility to the other and to recognition itself. To see the challenge in the simple: that is empathetic engagements’ great chance.

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Laruelle: Concept-Collider

[The following is my translation of an interview with Francois Laruelle published in February 2015 by Philosophie Magazine, “Je suis un collisionneur de concepts, pas un dialecticien”: “I am a collider of concepts, not a dialectician.” The French transcript can be accessed at the blog Non-Musicology.] Continue reading

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Musings on Writing

In lieu of posting multiple smaller entries, I’ve decided to gather on one page some of the miscellaneous musings on writing that I’ve written in the last few years. These are all very occasional pieces, sometimes quite divergent in argument and aim. None of them are really what you would call “practical,” but hopefully they offer fruit for meditation nonetheless. I’ll try to update this page when new material on the topic is produced. Note that at the bottom I’ve collected links to other writings on this site which deal more or less directly with the question of writing. Thanks for reading.

Writing is like giving birth: we cannot help making the supreme effort. But this applies to our actions in the same way. I need have no fear of not making the supreme effort―provided only that I am honest with myself and that I pay attention. ―Simone Weil

I. An Idiot for Miracles (March 21, 2017)

Writing is like spreading out into nothingness a clear, invisible, paint-like substance that upon contact with meter cools immediately, coagulating into a softbound clay image that foils meaning, or a thought-marble that harbors the bounteous silhouette of a dream. At this resistant block, you have no choice but to chisel, for it is raw and rough and an idiot for miracles. But with every stroke of your hammer, every chunk of material discarded, the strings of a cello glimmer out into the foreground, and the light vibrations so seduce you into passage that you must halt everything and paint what you hear.

II. Scripts of the Possible (September 20, 2013)

The one who writes is not he, but the one who dreams. The truth of it’s not his, but the truth of those who dream with him. Writing’s not written from the position of an actual being, but from the position of being’s possibility―the possibility of dreaming and speaking in anyone. It’s not someone’s, but anybody’s. Such is why the one who writes is never “one,” but many. Which is why anyone might hear him. No voice, no language is possible without this intermingling of the multiple in the same. And if these dreams mean anything, it’s because some multiple one dreams in them. To read them is for that multitude to be read. Singularity comes from this: that inside our words, inside our being, others are given a chance to dream and be also―to dream up their own possibility, their own speech.

Always more than ourselves, we’re equal only to the dream of we all―to this possibility of “all,” the possibility of saying “we.” Thinking’s heart beats only for this, and it’s how we dream this “we” that defines our uniqueness, makes each of us an absolute. To carry this dream―of being, of being ourselves, of being us―to the threshold of consciousness, where we touch one another without being fused, without exhausting our possibility in anything actual: this is what the dreaming writer will have always tried to do. This is what the dreaming multitude will have always been dreaming up in you.

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The Just Share

One can perhaps share two sorts of things: things that have just recently come to your attention and things that you’ve carried with you for a long time. Unless an informative description is attached, the recipient may not be able to tell which of the two it is: if what they’re seeing is new to the sender, too, or if they haven’t suddenly been given access to the contents of a mysterious crypt. Objects have a curious way of swallowing up vast stretches of time and space and labor and attention into neat, anonymous capsules. So one writes the date and occasion on the back of the photograph, puts one’s name on a storage box, specifying: caution, valuables, breakable. But even these notes are indifferent to whomever is unacquainted with the references. Everyone needs a storyteller to contextualize the thing, to communicate the experience it means, or at least to set the established facts in motion and unfold an interpretation that is relevant. To avoid the standard mush, an activity of selection and molding is necessary. Otherwise, the object stays wrapped up in itself, mute and distant; and the sharer disappears behind the thing shared, abandoning it naked to the world’s icy clutch.

With your average post on social media, of course, everything tends to the cool and self-explanatory. Thoughtful touches are rarely contributed, at least not until one amasses a community of users around one who are similarly dedicated to transforming the social media space into one of just sharing. Otherwise, it often seems like the very purpose of the apparatus is to purge such touches from the polis or to scare away those who might risk them. But it would be a mistake to blame digital culture alone for this. It is tough to add thoughtful touches in any social setting, overloaded as they are with codes of dominant language and behavior. It is not even easy in the comforts of one’s own home or among friends. Even with lovers there can be disconnects, reluctances, great incommunicables. How does one ever know what to share and when? Even when the words are blurted out, the intimate detail confessed, the reception is often disappointing. We note in the other an uninquisitiveness, disinterest, distraction, or a simple inability to relate. Ambivalence can even wipe away our desire to be exposed raw, to attain lacerating communication and shaken out of normalcy. Everywhere just sharing encounters reasons to get discouraged: no one responds, people respond superficially, detailed responses get forgotten; there is much fatigue but no progress; no one learns anything, the crux of the matter is never fully conveyed; and so many gaps remain, so many petty assertions infect intersubjective space, so much misplaced superiority and ingratiating waste, so much reactive selfishness. The result is that sharing itself, and the hopes we place in it, degrade. Afraid of rejection or incomprehension, we forget our boldness and consent to a hushed mode that is safe but alone, while the mind rages.

Alas, it takes time and attention to find the justice in this affair and continue with it despite its many perils. As Bataille once said, giving voice to the void encountered in the trials of human communication: “Experience itself had torn me to shreds and my inability to respond finished tearing them.” Even the semblance of transparency is forbidden. Nothing shall diminish the earnestness of the divulgence. But no one who has not begun the long journey of experimenting with this “inability to respond” knows to what extent it prevails over every furtive success. The impossibility inherent here is the foundation for the most creative sendings and the most earnest receptions, in a word: of loyalty. For justice to be had in sharing, the enigma of what is shared demands its rights. The mystery demands to remain. Children know this and delight in the mysticism of sharing, absorbed in the  wonders that attend them. What if adulthood was the art of childhood regained, made excellent? What would that do to our serious discourse on the world? In any case, there must be an ethic to “posting,” lest the social sphere devolve into a quasi-automatic circulation of impersonal information, a sphere from which all sensitive souls are driven to the margins, ostracized and ignored. There must be something like a “just share” that does not imply the sacrifice of the soul, that strives to make no false or careless move, no rash or crude opinion, that does not weigh the evidence of the world or try to measure up to its cleverness, but exposes itself, at the limit of what it can recognize and formulate, to a community of strangers―the first best hope of a redemption that will ultimately hinge on their ability to be examples of “just sharing” for each other.

These remarks in mind, let’s turn to the two types initially mentioned: things that bespeak the new find, which could potentially enter the chest of treasures, and those that signify an everlasting acquisition, which at each new encounter reaffirm their relevance for our life.

Attached to the first is the excitement of discovery and the need to proclaim it. Social beings that we are, we cannot separate our enlightenment from that of others, so we are sure that whatever strikes us will surely strike someone else, too. One broadcasts out the song, quote, news, or image in hopes that it will catch on as suddenly and unexpectedly elsewhere as it did for us. Our surprise must be shared, for we have faith that it will be a surprise for others; in sharing, our own surprise is fulfilled. This is perhaps at the root of our love for teaching and spreading knowledge: it is only when we send back out what we have received that we ourselves fully receive it. Thus the urgency of the first type, which strives partially for our own wholeness, partially for the wholeness of the social whole. Our reasoning goes like this: whatever we have learned is something others should learn for themselves too, whatever has inspired us could also inspire them, and it is our duty to solicit their attention (or concern, indignation, curiosity, etc.) for the sake of universal interest and its edification. Aiding us here are the revelations themselves, which are by nature contagious. Their seductions overflow the limitations of past knowledge with the force of evidence, charm or truth. The sharer adheres passionately to revelation’s logic of bloom, like a child’s first musings on the growth of plants. One’s aim here, at least, is to make it possible for anyone else to be embraced by the beauty, not just of the revelation, but of transmission itself, too, a source of joy in sociality, in the release of thought and emotion and spirit into new materials, which is essential to the expansion of a rich human culture―for without the chance of crossing paths, no one would ever travel.

But then there are the things that haunt us. Far from beckoning us to chase them, it is they that chase us, even invisibly. They recur because they can never leave us: poems, videos, songs, quotations, anecdotes, persons whose spirit or mode are so deeply ingrained into our unconscious that one can never tell where they stop and our conscious thinking begins. These subcutaneous relics support the unspoken principles of our behavior and creativity. They accompany us, aide us, but also blind us, lead us astray. Thus is formed our irreplaceable singularity: after the fact, in dealing with these indelible marks, scars, tattoos of a life. We cherish them with a fatal attraction, knowing that the depth of our affection for them will die with us; and that only they, our partner in mad descent, know the heights to which we have carried each other. With them we shared nights in quiet wonder, giving thanks for them in solitude, alone with the universe yet linked up with it eternally through this object, that word, this memory or sound. At the same time, we are not always so meditative and often lack the time to reflect deliberately upon these fellow travelers. We forget them even though they remain unforgettable, having left their trace in all our words and actions in a way we could never articulate to ourselves or to anyone else. About these things, one does not hold long discourses except with great difficulty, with a mixture of mortal bitterness and endless gratitude. For we know these things, as much as they stick with us, are also lost irretrievably, for they have always already been thoroughly incorporated into the dreamscape that is our being or spirit―which, for better or worse, withdraws in the end from all obvious or immediate sociality.

To share from out of the mystery of our own crypts such things, then, is to share a secret no one else will ever know. It is to accept the silent, confessional foundation of our own truth, lodged as it is in a million irretrievable corners of our history. One lacks entirely the exuberance of the proselytizing mode, for the only urgency here is the urgency of eternity. The goal is no longer to reveal a truth or spark interest, but to testify to something beyond fact or fiction. Put more strongly, one would like to resurrect a body, to let be seen the “ashes of our vital praxis,” from which something like our spirit would rise. What it bears is the melancholic certainty that there will be no direct contagion here, nothing “viral,” nothing that captivates any great mass all at once. The importance of one’s life-long bearing of this thing, too, will never be replicated; at best, someone else will incorporate it anew, but now in a way so unique to them that the experiences remain incomparable. It does not catch on, but carries us up. It does not extend unless it merges with us and brings us with it. It says that, between us and it, there was no distance, that we and it remain inseparable. To share such a thing is to share our entire creature, to grant a lens into our widest scope. Our heart looks at its heart, and its heart looks at ours. The other who stands in these crosswinds, receiving what is shared, is a stranger―not a voyeur, since the true drama is concealed to vision, nor a danger, since what rises is indestructible, but a friend, we could say: someone who will be caught up in our body, which they let free. For if they choose to stand there, we know that they are already being lifted up with our heart into a common one. We know then that there is no longer I, nor you, nor we, but just this Thing in love: the just share, rising, shining, unperishable.

―March 20, 2017

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False Scares

Usually what annoys us about a horror movie is the stupidity of the humans involved. A dreadful curiosity lures them to discover an Evil that paralyzes their reason and leads them into ill-advised, desperate, frenzied action. Many plots could be averted, and the story ended, if only they had left the thing, whatever it is, alone, and not given it any attention―except that, in most cases, Evil doesn’t leave them that option, but haunts, invades, seduces them into contact or imposes it. They climb the stairs looking for the source of that strange screeching noise, they cannot avert their gaze from the mirror that tricks them into killing themselves, they cannot leave unresearched the anomalous substance that threatens to invade them. Or they simply miss the clues, the discovery comes too late, and before they know it they are in Evil’s hands. We smack our foreheads with frustration as the character makes the exact wrong move and, as they should have been able to predict, gets their head sliced clean off.

Our annoyance is a way of asking, How could they be so stupid? They had it coming! But here one rightly objects that, were you faced with the real threat of a slashing, you too would probably not act so rationally. Suspension of disbelief will reach out to accept any monster, but we are not as patient with the monstrosity of human unreason. This shows to what extent we expect people faced with Evil to act as if the Evil did not affect them, as if its power ought to be bracketed and overcome through heroic action and the best strategic choice. Our concern as viewers is perhaps not even primarily that the character survive (it is perhaps rare that a horror movie genuinely endears us to them, though the best ones do; and then it becomes more of a psychological thriller), but that the characters fight for their survival in a convincing way and do nothing too irrational to jeopardize it. Whereas, when it comes to the Evil, we expect irrationality and do not begrudge it when it exploits human stupidity―although, admittedly, we are less impressed by an Evil whose task is made easy by humans than an Evil that overpowers even its greatest defenses.

The trouble is that, on the one hand, we want to discover the Evil and see it in action in all the gruesome detail, we want to see it express its power; on the other, we want humans to deal with Evil intelligently, even if ultimately it doesn’t make a difference. By this criterion, it should be no surprise that a professional is often introduced into the mix to supplement the dire scenario with a little hope. A psychologist, an exorcist, a detective, a paranormal export, or even a kind of militant―perhaps on a divine mission, perhaps not―who can pursue the Evil “from outside” or “from above,” i.e., rationally. In the capacity of expert or leader, they differ from the common person who is usually overwhelmed with fear and fails to handle the crisis adequately. This reflects our desire to see the Evil understood and conquered, even if in the most hopeless, fruitless and doomed manner. But above all, not to behave entirely stupidly.

The professional, part of the plagued party, is the one who can maintain an ideal of rational distance, unless it is spiritual (often modeled on the battle between Christ and demonic forces). This is a viewing distance that allows a gain in clarity, even if the action to follow requires improvisation, risk, life-endangerment, etc. The professional, as a narrative device, works so well because through the film it doubles, guides and mimics the action of the viewer (though we as observers from a different world maintain the “uppermost” position, the most rational and “unafraid”). Submitted to the horror scene but fighting for the minimal distance of an investigation―sometimes driven by an rather crazy curiosity, a type of obsessed determination―, they make decision about values, about what to save and leave behind, about why the Evil is worth confronting and what a meaningful response to it might be (if there are any).

Now, it doesn’t have to be a professional per se, but there is always a sort of becoming-investigator or becoming-scientist at play in a good character when he or she is confronted with an unimaginable horror. I believe this bears witness to a general human tendency, something probably to be admired no matter how haphazard and abortive its campaigns. Generally speaking, whenever this element of knowing is lacking, the story is limited to the hysteria of characters whose stakes are personal, familial, or perhaps even ‘humanitarian’, but chaotic because undirected and overly passional. These ‘pathological’ influences are what the professional is supposedly able, their heart racing, to suspend; and we know their investigatory stance is often tested directly by the Evil itself. Indeed, the one with a removed, sober perspective is often the one destined to get most caught up in the combat, or whose full entanglement with it is finally revealed to them as the cipher of their destiny. Those characters are weakest who show little more than “rage” and who fall quickly in their desperate attempts to fight Evil directly. This, incidentally, even leads us to doubt the strength, gravity, or believability of that particular Evil―as if any Evil that didn’t call for an increase in knowledge in its challenger wasn’t worth hearing about  (meaning it feels like a waste of time to watch that movie)

The terrible attraction of the great horror film is an Evil that we cannot not want to know about, even if it is in the end unstoppable, or stoppable only for a time. But that Evil be unstoppable is, also in the end, unacceptable for humanity. We can see in the horror genre a dynamic allegory for our condition as beings endowed with knowledge of good and evil who, nonetheless, do not do the good we want to do, and do do the evil we do not want to do. Barring the notion that we are innately evil at heart―to which there is much counter-evidence in religion, art, philosophy, and politics, and daily life―we know and over time have progressed in knowing that Evil forces, within and without, can be seen and overcome. But time has brought the fall of religion as our moral measuring stick. Its full replacement by juridical and governmental apparatuses, which ensure a minimum of “freedom” but fail on countless other levels, not answering the question of Evil but controlling Evil by force and punishing its occurrence, has unleashed an era of the conflicts of values, between every different class and sort of person. We have witnessed just to what degree humans can persecute and kill each other, beyond all imaginable boundaries or rules of engagement. Our times are characterized by the obligation to pass through evil in a raw, naked, horrifying way, not only collectively but personally―to stare into the abyss, as Nietzsche put it, and he warned us to be careful that an abyss does not stare back. Very often, an abyss does stare back; but perhaps this is the moment of selection, the moment of progress in knowledge. We understand now that the entire question is reflected in our inner mirror and plays out in the struggle of our soul.

Not only military and intelligence experts, politicians, priests and other leaders, but we too are called to be experts in the ways of handling Evil in our own confrontation with the world’s horrors and those buried deep in our minds and hearts. We too feel the pressure of the professional to stand back and appraise, investigate and put together, if only to stay sane and ward off hopelessness. So we invent countless strategies of interpreting, preventing, redirecting, and explaining Evil. And yet, with each murder or mass shooting or bombing, Evil confirms its overwhelming character, its apparent unstoppability. Often we are reduced to tears like a family caught in a broom closet while the villain lurks outside. And yet we do not give in. We fight our way out at risk of life and limb, sacrificing everything if it means the Evil will be understood and conquered. Even if our direct goal is to save those closest to us, the implications of our deeds is almost metaphysical. We prove the value of hope and knowledge, their participation and ours in the Good.

The horror movie perhaps reflects this struggle between fear and overcoming, giving us a jolting image to prompt our reflections and to take stock of the falsity or “artificiality,” as Rex Styzens puts it, of the special effects that produce terror. But I don’t want to give the impression that I mean all scares are false. My point is philosophical in nature, emphasizing the need to recognize the falsity and illusion of Evil where it would try to drown us in its confusion and paralyze us. Of course, however artificial the means and motives of fear, however base, misleading, and obdurate it is, in the real world it produces real violence, injury and death; and it perpetuates itself through thought-images like a virus, duplicating its wrath in new spheres. Perhaps horror movies teach us something here, perhaps not. Representation works for the cognitive response, but the affective runs into deeper spaces and complexities, harder to understand and express. While movies can conjure these elements of emotion as well, nothing compares to a real-life situation of horror. I share with Rex a “mute admiration” for those who survive it. I wish for them a life of recovery from their traumas and protection from the abreaction into evil behaviors themselves.

I won’t say more on these matters of Evil in society, except to voice a hunch: In the long run, the best way to address it is to assume the fullness of our confrontation with Evil in the deepest recesses of ourselves; to question our own habits and views down to the most granular detail; and to exorcise all the demons that possess us―the automatic reactions, narrow desires and minor violences that generate an atmosphere of combat, vengeance, jealousy and covetousness in society. The point is to see where we are doing violence and what we can do about it. My hope is only that we learn how to brave evil in our own spheres however we can, inside and out, to root it out―which is very difficult in itself, especially if we take the investigation sincerely into all our thoughts and habits.

Once it is accepted that each of us is called to become a professional in the matter of Evil (whether or not it is “supernatural”), it can no longer be a matter of a straightforward moral education or prescriptions. Nothing outside of us can guide us all the way here, for gaining lived knowledge is essential. Sometimes this means more than observing and reflecting. We feel and incarnate evil feelings in ourselves, feeling them fully so as to examine them and to stop acting upon them; in the process we gain compassion for those who do, since we see how we are complicit in their exercise. As we know, it is often by befriending the threatening source that we gain our understanding of it and are able to help it out of its confusion, liberate it from the suffering it so clearly has. This is the hopeful vision advanced by the courageous humanity sometimes displayed in horror movies. One wonders if it isn’t Evil that is most scared by the Evil in them; and perhaps they remain Evil because they cannot or refuse not to know anything about it, preferring to remain vicious, unfeeling, and brutal in spite of everything, ignoring feedback and the need to observe, reflect, and release. Whatever their situation, the horror movie shows that it is humans who are in the best position to enter that practice or profession.

Evil in the movies is obviously not always like a wound in need of healing. As in the real world, it is often portrayed as fundamentally senseless and chaotic, even if it exhibits a high strategic intelligence for attaining its rabid aims. But even here we notice how the Evil thing is subject to its own cravenness and insanity, the baseness of its drives and attacks. It is not clear, in many cases, how a knowing and careful influence is supposed to overcome the fear it generates. The possibility that we will die―by approaching it or just as a random victim―is never alleviated. But knowledge and perspective still helps us survive, even when these cannot penetrate the hard shell of brutality, idiocy and inconscience that shields Evil from its inevitable contact with the Other, with a beyond of division and mutual devourment. For it is always by a false understanding of our intimacy and intrication with the Other that we devolve into separateness and disconnection. What we do know is that this devolution leads to horror, which should be enough to accept the call.

Since I’m writing this on Halloween, let me close with a story. One year, probably 2009, I decided to wear for the occasion a hideous mask misshapen like an alien and bleeding from cuts like a slasher victim. I put something under the left shoulder of the woodsman flannel I wore to give the appearance of a hump. Though not elaborate in construction, I was able continually to jump-start any of my friends who looked my way not expecting to see this face. Even to wear it casually in the room unnerved. It quickly became an exciting, powerful game for me. That evening, after partying a bit, we decided to go out to the bars. What grabbed a hold of me then was strange and memorable. I could not step out into the street―the Ped Mall of Iowa Cit, where hundreds of other students in outfits gathered―without staggering and playing the part. But immediately the game escalated. I started lumbering hunched through the lines of crowds waiting to enter bars and bantering, growling in a very low voice and loudly, breathing with great disturbance. Through the eye holes in my mask, I could tell that many around me, especially some females, were made very uncomfortable at my presence. Looks and glares, some fascinated but many disapproving, met my menacing poses. I felt I had actually become suspicious and threatening in some of their eyes. But I kept on with it for at least an hour, until I found myself wandering alone in an alley, still committed to the Evil acting-out―until something snapped and I “woke up,” stood up straight, took off the mask, chuckled and started walking normally, inside very disturbed at how I had gotten there, how I could take the delusional image so far.

Perhaps Evil is a little like this. Worn like a costume for some purpose―and this can begin in innocent inconscience, however twisted it later becomes―it gives us a feeling of power and control. It brings us attention, however horrified and disgusted. And it is full of passionate abandon, a sort of trance-activity, unreflective, uninhibited, aggressive, free and pleasurable. But inside it is terrifying. Perhaps Halloween is about inhabiting the Evil figure from the inside, playing it out for a night to neutralize its attraction over us. Yet there are probably costumes we wear daily that could be discarded. These are the costumes of our own fear, false scares that hold us bound to scary images. No doubt it is not easy to snap out of the trance of violence, divisiveness and aggression, but there are certainly opportunities to try. The calmness of the expert is not at odds with a quick jump into courageous, decisive action. If anything is certain about them, it is that they have seen what Evil has in it and know what it takes to take it down or to transform it. Their fear need not be absolute; it doesn’t need to control the response, for it is only relative to a gap in our perspective, in our acknowledgement of what we know about Evil’s extent. This doesn’t make it any easier to handle, its vanquishing any quicker. Nothing guarantees success and the professional remains in the dark about much. But in seeking to overcome, dispelling ignorance with knowledge, we prove that the scare must be held false, and that Evil need not win when it is possible for humans to understand it.

―Halloween, 2016 and 17

Note related posts:
Unspeakable ― on the pain of the event, written during Sandy Hook
Boredom & Terror ― on the “wish for explosive pain”
The Law’s Curse ― on forgiveness
Thinking the Gift of Death ― review of Fernando’s The Suicide Bomber

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The key discovery is that the “steam of consciousness” is outside, without there being any “outside” anywhere.

It never exactly reflects back upon itself or shapes up into a conscious being. It never folds over itself or doubles up. If it can appear as historical, it is only because the stream can recognize itself through the very same power that undoes, underdetermines and unbinds it—by a sort of “return” to the stream, which is more like the Turn of the stream itself in its indefinite restlessness—or rather, in the stream’s remaining with itself the Same, despite whatever is made to ripple in the it, the stream’s “turning itself (in).”

That the stream of consciousness is in its turning “outside” every object or position of consciousness (whatever might be observed to be floating along the current) can lead to the well-intentioned illusion that it is actually language or some other ephemeral or incorporeal material—not a constituted language made of definitions and grammars, but the primordial soup of thought, made of infinitely divisible and reshapeable sounds and letters and senses—as well as numbers and their relations (quantum and geometrical)—or perhaps of ghosts and spirits, evil and benevolent, but above all in-visible forces—or finally of things themselves, of pure reality-matter, however it could be conceived.

But whether we call it consciousness or language or materiality, all we can know is that every access to it (if it be an “it” at all, which is doubtful given the fundamental instability and “non-objectivizability” of the stream) is common, generic. No one ever owned an ounce of it for themselves; and every splash they made there was sent instantly elsewhere. The history of the stream can be viewed fruitfully as a karmic chain, or as unconscious traces, or as structured in an astral field or in a cosmic hologram—all these metaphors (or simply “phors”: carryings without distance, without any exterior space of passage or transfer) express the “immanence” of the stream (to) itself—meaning that we are each entirely submerged or pre-(e)merged, so much so that there is no “we” but this quantum of expression: One-stream that flowed from no source (because never leaving itself, because it is nothing but the flow of the generic Same, source of “no one” as generic Turn)―a wave that ever laps and never lapses and ever goes: “oceanic transindividuality.”

What is lived experience itself—whether we call them memories or moments or anticipations—how could we describe it if not in this way: as essentially ripples in the stream of the One or even as the wave (of) One-stream “itself”? Generic waves, not added, not accumulated, never subtracted, never folded, but simply superposed and superposed without our action or effort: instantaneous “participation” of every lived wave in the generic stream—which now needn’t be seen as conscious or unconscious, linguistic or beyond language, because it is simply lived and that is sufficient: without any need of predication or definition, because “accessed” only as quantic faith in the stream.

The key discovery is that we are indivisibly “in” this “outside”—so much so that this (out)side is nothing-but-in-One. Thus the ease of access for thinking to the undivided essence (of) the stream. With our vision thus in-verted, with the distance that would separate us from it reduced to an objective appearance not at all of the essence of the Real, we see there is no “side” that is not “in(side)”; and that the One-stream, by the simplicity of its radical immanence, by its unilateral essence, comes one time each time prior to “what is”―prior to any determination that could be made of the stream.

Thus the joy of splashing, of entering each time for the first time into this flow we’ll never leave―the peace of consciousness seeing itself in-One-streaming.

—May 24, 2017

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