The Christian Topic

[The following is a translation of the Epilogue from Jean-Louis Chrétien’s 2014 book, L’espace intérieur. It is slightly abridged in the middle, splitting it into two parts. The text is then supplemented with a number of “footnotes”; these lead to other quotations from the rest of the book chosen simply for their beauty and wisdom, as well as for the light they shed on the Epilogue itself. The result, I hope, is an adequate representation of the author’s main ideas and intentions. To prepare the reader, a brief note is in order. The problematic at play here involves the self, subjectivity, and interiority. Chrétien wants to show that the modern version of this problematic has lost touch with its origin and its founding moments, which he traces to numerous Christian theologians and mystics. The crucial difference is this: where contemporary thought sees an increasingly isolated psyche struggling to gain control of its unconscious tendencies and become master of self and world, the Christian “topic” instead focuses on the edification, exploration, and expansion of an interior space in which God may dwell. Of prime importance here is the presence of infinity or alterity that we “house” potentially within ourselves, or even more strongly, whose residence we are. The book draws on numerous figures present in the Christian tradtion from its inception, from the chamber of the heart (Matt. 6:6) to St. Theresa’s Interior Castle, to illustrate the energetic, dramatic, and libidinal-economic dynamics at play in this Christian topic of interior space. Each chapter ends by showing how modern thinkers appropriated and twisted these figures, stripping of them of their God-orientation and tipping them progressively toward the “kingdom of subjectivity” we know so well today. Chrétien’s aim, however, is not proselytistic, but philosophical and schematic: to show the intelligibility of this model of inhabitable personal identity and how it might inform impasses that have proved intransigent for modern thought. I hope the reader will enjoy the contemplation of this text as much as I have.] Read from Interior Space

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Levinas-Effects

Les effets-Levinas, by François Laruelle
trans. by Timothy Lavenz

Pointless to talk about and comment upon Levinas, an enterprise he does not tolerate very well and, besides, there are colloquia for that. In the most decisive part of his work, he himself does not comment upon a tradition of philosophy. Husserl and Heidegger only serve him as foils. It’s not even certain that he does a reading of phenomenology in the rabbinical style. He does something that some philosophers do but with many mediations and ruminations of style, of which Derrida gave us an idea. He registers and “translates” as closely as possible, annulling the translation, the trauma of the Shoah, echoing it immediately “with” or rather “in” the means of a language whose intelligibility is no longer classic, even if these means are paradoxically the effects or affects of a globally ontological mode of intelligibility. If we don’t want to think ourselves capable of appropriating him in an erudite commentary, we also have a duty to simply register some Levinas-effects, which are those of a text as inadmissible as it is irrefutable. Levinas is impossible: there it is, without delay, i.e., without différance, the point of the situation. He will have persecuted us, we philosophers. Regarding this Levinas-persecution, here are some traits: Continue reading

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A Mind in Relief

Writing is perhaps the last best way to give broad thought form, for the mind itself can hardly extend its grasp beyond the singular detail drawing its attention just right now, though it sense at the periphery the many nebulous associations it provokes. Limited by its own power of mobile concentration, the mind does not, cannot stablize what it grasps; it can only dance around rippling circles of sense, meeting the tiny waves gingerly and purposefully, smoothing some and roughing up others, while the liquid itself is wicked away by time, lost between the fleeting fathom of the dance. By contrast, a written text, by dint of its basic inertia, can hold frozen an almost endless number of instances at attention, ideally in their most becoming flourishes and postures, approximating a photo album of the mind’s best takes. It lets stills lie flat together as on a contact sheet, concealing the chaos of the mind’s frenetic snap, the wild dilations of its aperture. Then, in the darkroom of editing, where zooming reigns, the developed captures can be enlarged, cropped, stitched, collaged, colored, rearranged, etc. Thus is the influence between each element made continuous, text-flow matched to thought-flow, though they be incompatible. An illusion as regards the mind’s process, it nonetheless renders the truth of its labor concrete in the lasting, legible form of a writing, accessible to any mind that can read and think.

Because the mind’s activity is necessarily in rapid dispersal, darting at slants and diffracting its energy around myriad thought-bulbs, it is essential that it leave footprints everywhere, shades of its arrows. It must pour out inscriptions at a breakneck pace, lest it lose heart in the endless race, or persuade itself it is winning. Without these pathmarks, these “facts” of thinking–detailed attention distilled into attentive details that can be grasped–the mind has only its own useless pride, built upon a heritage of errors. Pride deludes the mind into thinking it could stand up on its own, without the thousandfold externalized supplement; that it has a substance of its own to call home or defend, an inside or a depth dignified in itself; that it could retain something apart from its own refinement process, its labor on the details, which has only an outward face. Those who esteem their mind with pride accomplish little, believing there is something essential to it “behind” the accidents it handles. But the mind is not found in the abstract dimension of Self, where every shoot is stunted by an identity poisoning the roots; it abhors ambitions that only claw at importance and recognition, that fantasize about grand ideas too good for spadework. No, it is only between the lines–in the lining of a sequence that is yet to be sequenced through–that mind occurs. Outside of its work on the materials, its pursuit of breakthroughs and follow-ups, there is only a delusion of intelligence and its dead letter–half-hearted efforts and half-assed conclusions. Anyone satisfied thus, with verdicts and vindications, is doomed to a lifeless winter, however much fame they might accrue; while others, scared off by the bombast and conceit, default into an anxiety that paralyzes and postpones even further the fresh, inaugural gesture of writing proper, where the mind is activated by what could be, not what is. Faith must back this invisible wager, must testify to the truth the process engages, lest the mind seek itself in products and freeze.

And so, when seeking new details in uncharted territories, the mind can only really trust its orienteering gear, its nose and charting skill, its compass of intuition and will. From  maps of adventures it has already plotted, it reads off the mystery of its own search and desire, the unfinished history that makes possible its future. Relying on its native audacity, using references like walking sticks collected along the way–or whittled into masterpieces when fatigue made new hikes impossible–, the mind grows page by page in curiosity and skill, extending its exploration confidently, free from the past steps it loves to leave behind thankfully. Its gratitude for its “text”–rethought here as the tactile texture of the spirit in which it moves and lives–is an appreciation of its “death”–rethought here as the line of departure, infinite and without closure, that the mind’s massive journey represents to the world. Nothing static, no established sense, ever comes out of this; only the spark to venture farther into the distance that its love opens up to the incommensurable, which the mind only ever comprehends by overflowing itself. Though these concrete traces make up the framework of every move, the mind forgets them effortlessly, glued to the detail it can only just now pursue, and to the rhythm its pursuit composes–the new trail.

The work of the mind is entirely in these steps, in the quiet crunch of the traveler’s evanescence. In the physical effort each step takes and in the physical mark each step makes, we find the only manifestation of the mind’s roving span. Should we then think that broadness in thought is measured by the volume of traces? Or by the weight of their imprint, the stack of the maps? These would be superficial indicators. Mass is more an effect of time’s stretch than of mental sharpness, which on the contrary knows precisely how to strip time’s mass away, or to approach every volume through the weightless; this is in order to do justice to thought’s inherent liquidity, which is also its innocence. In any given moment, there is but a taste of the mind’s future consummation, when the climax of epiphany will pervade the whole human fabric. Besides, no mind has ever comprehended the “scope” of a thought at once, or ever. Such all-encompassing views are the province of illusory sovereigns who dread losing control over their domain; whereas the mind remains a wanderer in both foreign and familiar territory, content to bring to each encounter a humble tone, a word of insight, a knowing smile or a bit of laughter. The grace of its minor gestures relieves it of the pressure to own, impose, prove, or attain. Lightness is its only moniker, for it reports on time’s forgiveness, the mind’s ability to regain innocence after so many enslavements, and to let things be other than they have been.

Upon closer inspection, then, nearly everything but the presently swimming memory is lost to oblivion, and it is only with the support of a technical apparatus that all the lost pieces gather together. But through its patient work on the paper trail, the mind can make a force of this oblivion–not to master it, but to liberate it from the despair of its limitation, its inevitable incompleteness. In this act, memory embraces oblivion as essential to its own chance, since without it it would be stuck in what was, in a chain of consequences. If the mind could not let go of its mappings, it would be a trap, a prison. It would be confused with the object, monument or shelter that lends it concrete manifestation, which it needs but which never equals it. The mind’s act–equaling, essentially, zero, the void without which no inspired construction is possible–has to be in excess of the memorable, since otherwise memory would be no more than an account of facts, an adherence to the state of the situation. It would lose its redemptive impulse: to ensure that the memory in creation is not just welcoming of past traces, but generative of future ones that will soon come to reerase and reframe those past. Despite the finite evidence that the mind leaves in its wake, with each stroke it affirms this actual infinity, the passion of its escape velocity, which is its gift to humanity. Broadness of thought can only be gauged by reengaging the mind’s own broadening effort to think, and that takes all of us, our ardor and our patience. Only by binding and releasing detail after detail does the mind prepare its resting place, wherein its absurd destiny is perceived: to dwell in the majestic present of thinking.
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Doubts and Honesties

The urge to flee the confines of limited identity plagues me. I dream of discourses that would spread lightly through bustling channels of thousands of people, messages that would change the way they operated on a daily basis, the way they thought of “self,” and brought them peace; to turn them away from the bogus world discourse, the circus of politics and market, toward the work of justice, art, thinking, mercy, love–whatever brings to them the highest intensity of release from whatever limitation.

But instead of traveling out, instead of hitting the streets and commingling with persons, I gravitate always to the palace of words, study and writing, thinking perhaps naively that it is possible to draw everyone in. Placing my heart at the distance of art and language, I use the internet as my point of contact to an audience potentially universal, favoring the virtual over the actual forum because it is less combative and imposing, more composed and dispersive, like a book ought to be. I strive to deepen my discipline, improve the quality of my sentences, drown myself in complexity and detail to give them voice, seek out the untamed beauty of historical intelligence; then I submit my findings to an ethic of (nearly instantaneous) sharing, preferring the webpost to the book form because of the immediacy of its reach. Nothing lessens my desire to represent this effort as a work of art, and to seduce others to similar risks and enrichments of aesthetic engagement, knowing that, because of worldly constraints, most do not have the time and freedom to make such commitments. Yet it is precisely this situation of oppression, of harassment by a society built on the exploitation of classified and atomized individuals, that I wish to combat with my inventions.

My deepest ambition has been: to neutralize the “I” of thinking, to stage its destiny in the other’s epiphany, believing that this was the avenue to both an explosive creativity and an emancipatory “community,” founded not upon bonds but unbinding, upon a deep and rigorous release from all ontological determinism. Grounded in the “symbiotic kenosis” of creative energies, I’ve curated myself into self-vacating, staged an open space of non-identity, hoping in practice to merge the written “I” with this generic procedure, which is admittedly at odds with the conventional realites and discourses of the “world” I too must still contend with. But beyond my grasp, at the breakdown of knowledge, custom and memory, my faith is transported, the words raise me into you. I have such little guiding influence on this, suspended as I am on their clang and disappearance. Even to acknowledge this now, I am fictioned by them in a way I know seems self-absorbed, overdone, pretentious. But the elegance of the word’s solutions implore me, and I cannot fight the savor of their long-prepared taste, for it feels right to take this tone, the truest I could take, though it issue from the seemingly inhuman distance of poetry.

In myself I recognize, as I do in figures like Walter Benjamin, the struggle between a compassion for the universal that would love to proclaim a liberating message before an expansive populace, and the orneriness of a book-bound lifestyle dedicated to a “for all time” influence, with all the reclusiveness, dissimulation, and obsession this can entail. Every evolutionary energy, the ecstasy of entanglement with others, is funneled into a prose that can only pose a challenge to the singular listener, in a style appearing to aspire to the timelessness of literature—not a manifesto, nor purely theoretical, nor preachy or programmatic or analytical, but in the language of birds, of celebration, anticipating the end-time redemption today, pleading and affirmative and confessional.

Does this mode jeopardize my chance of reaching all? Does it sacrifice the simplicity of the street (something I’ve never known)? Is it all just an ornament to privilege? Or is it right to speak to humanity’s highest intellect and make them pause? Is it enough to pursue an artform and trust in the universalizability of its truth? Is it enough to heed a call and not look back? This I ask myself, aware of the social conditions of my own production. Into them I was fated, and I must put them to use as honestly and faithfully as I can, returning to others more than I’ve received, hopefully. Alas, I know there will never be proof of that, and that moreover any proof would have to be disregarded; thus does the horizon stretch to infinity, and I into vigiliant blindness.

When I meditate upon the severe limitations of my approach, upon the “loftiness” that might be preceived in it–an elevation I cannot help but love and pursue vigorously, with all my health and soul–my one consolation is the notion that we are all different members of one body, with different skills and stations and duties in the overall development of the socio-spiritual organism. But still I feel the doom of art–of unwittingly backing the victor’s spoils, of being disqualified by a lack of direct intervention into the situation of injustice (though I have tried at that too, and failed), or of speaking in a way that only a specialist might understand (though I strongly refute any claim to authority). This is an internal ordeal, raging between doubts and honesties, to craft an original form while remembering the “anyone” to whom it must be consecrated, whom it must welcome openly. It is upon the strength of anyone–my anticipation of you coming to my heart already–that I stand firm in my conviction: it is possible for the word to reach farther, to be more than just the echo or sepulcre of some dumb writer.

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Emptying Recurrence

The self is due–to be emptied.

How to read this interrupted sentence? How to read the hyphen that splits it in two? How to determine the status of these two divided parts? Does one command the other? Or do they arrive together? Or do they both state simply the case? But then when? To whom? To what self is this sentence due to arrive? And what does it mean, in this passive formation, “to be emptied”?

The self is due–to be emptied. As if nothing could be simpler than that.

The self is due–to be emptied. On the one hand, it seems to name an event that befalls the self: it empties itself, it is emptied, it’s due to happen, that’s all that happens, nothing could ever prevent it. On the other hand, and at the same time, it seems to name a duty: the self must empty itself or let itself be emptied, this debt to empty falls due, it has already fallen due, it can no longer be postponed. There’s no catching up to it, you’re already too late. Already, the self’s debt–to be emptied–is overdue.

The self is due–to be emptied. This sentence is open from the beginning to a repetition without end. Whatever it means (and at every instant, upon every repetition, it means something different–if it isn’t perhaps even a name for differance itself), it holds true to infinity. It holds the self’s truth–to infinity. For as long as there is a self, somewhere, in some form, in whatever state, it is due–to be emptied. It falls due, infinitely: “to empty” is how the self is itself, how it renders itself. To empty itself or to let itself be emptied: to render what is due. To be emptied: to render what is due to the other: the self itself as that empty space wherein the other might live…
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The Law’s Curse

Today’s mantra is: we must restore law and order. But without backing that mandate with an intelligent targeting of failing areas, of those areas in need of extra resources or attention, the illusion soon spreads that there is no law and order whatsoever anywhere (“an environment of lawless chaos”), and that a heavy-handed intervention must be made, since terror threatens every doorstep. In this way, every public space is rendered a potential check-point or quarantined area, but without any actual necessity to the excessive surveillance, save to assuage inflated fears that a grave danger is imminent. Continue reading

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The Lesson of Illness

Will humanity ever learn the lesson of illness?

I’m sure we’ve all learned this lesson personally. Times of illness exist on a different plane from times of health. Normally, we are driven by desires and duties, caught up in hundreds of swirls of activity. But when ill, the sick body becomes an unavoidable obstacle to the normal course; it demands attention, rest, nursing, operation, medication, therapy. Sometimes, however, it seems like even all this won’t be enough. Emotionally, we have all felt the fear of losing it entirely, of exploding with fever, migraine, ache, attack, up to that terrifying point: “I thought I was going to die.” We fall, faint, curl up, scream, unable to get rid of, or get outside of, this insane, sick, abnormal thing: the ill body forced to recognize itself as such and, if it can, “do” something about it–wait it out, get help, but from whom, and what if nothing can help? Such is the fear that cascades over us in a moment of great illness, paralyzing us with worry, foreboding the end of everything (or so we think).

The healthy, though they too have been sick before, cannot comprehend us in such moments, because illness cannot be imagined. Thus the shame of the sick body, its regret, its bleeding apology, even its “obscenity.” Our heart races, our skin crawls, our bellies churn, as if in a vacuum of madness, a chaos of evidence without clarity. Every inch of the flesh becomes a raging sensor, signaling our mortality, our fragility, and the thinness of the border between the normal course and its potentially indefinite suspension. This is not solitude, but the aloneness of the body, alone in its outcry and decrepitude. We even think illness portends death, because in it we “intuit,” beyond all speculation, a kind of personal portal or torture that coincides exactly with our ownmost individuality, so much so that we feel nothing will save us from the trial of our unique pain. Whoever surrounds us simply cannot look in, though we are sure they have or will face something similarly horrifying for themselves. (There is in illness grounds for a universal pity, and for an understanding of the shame of being housed in such corruptible vessels.)

The lesson of illness is not about the virtue of health, but about the “grace period” of healing and recovery between illnesses; the temporary restoration of the body to its own relatively autonomous order, where it does its daily thing rather miraculously, without our having much of a clue how it all actually holds together. When the tension abates, when the poison is evacuated, when movement is released, when we are back “on our feet again”: for the ill body, this is quite enough—enough to be thankful for, the simple continuation of life without outstanding pains. Who has not felt the almost divine nature of such breakthroughs, marked essentially by the fact that the body is no longer screaming at us like a parasite on our soul. We feel so renewed because it implies a return of ease, that is, a use of the body that is not forced to be conscious of itself, and that can thus act spontaneously, or trust habit, or plan deliberately, or contemplate what it can do, etc. Outside of this, we do not even recognize life proper, but only an interim stage, neither dead nor alive.

The heart of the lesson of illness is to be found in the gratitude we feel when the simple potentiality of life is restored to us corporeally, for this frees us from the sick body of constraint, and moreover frees us for the convalescing body of creation, shot through with that simplest potential. After a serious illness has finally cleared, we feel like newborns, shaken by what we’ve felt, but ready to embrace the chance of even one more day. The lesson of illness is there, not in the pain, but in the subtle bridge that links it to knowing convalescence. If it inspires such incredible thankfulness in our hearts—yes, even just one more day!—it is because it signifies nothing less than the presence of eternal life in us. On those days, we even experience the truth of our participation in it. The lesson of illness is that the sick body and the convalescing body are the same. (Would this not be the phenomenological core of resurrection? Paul: carrying with us always the dying body of Jesus, so that we might live his resurrection, the power of God perfected in weakness, etc.; much to be said here.)

For years I’ve fantasized about writing a book with the title: The Peace of the Invalids. I love this phrase because of its many paradoxes. Invalids are those who cannot participate in the normal course of society any longer, not by revolutionary choice, but by physical inability. They require the care of others because they physically cannot care for themselves. This group is essentially rejected by the world of politics and economics, whatever we call society. They are literally invalid: they cannot work or create value or in many cases even move. They not only produce nothing, but they take up the time of other members of society who could be more productive but are instead occupied by invalids who may never be nursed back to full health.

Then there is the paradox of peace, for an invalid can only find peace through a renunciation of any return the normal course of things, through an acceptance of their mortal fate or condition. It’s true I imagine this as a version of deathbed peace, which I think I have witnessed, though I certainly cannot, today, imagine having it. But from the limited observations in my own life, I can say that such peace is not had easily; it bears upon the whole struggle of holding onto life and letting go of it; essentially entrusting the eternity of life to others, even though we only ever felt it through our own living body. A terrifying and beautiful process. No one comes back from it; but along it, a knowledge that no other form of “research” could procure does seem possible. At such terminal points, the importance and reality of love—including the unshakeable bond between the living and the dead that love alone can establish—is communicated in its fullest impact and breadth. Again, it is not imaginable: it comes from the other side, just as the spoon feeding you is held by the hand of a caretaker. (It is given but exceeds our ability to receive it.)

The ultimatum posed to humanity by illness is just this: if we will feed the body of the invalid, or not? Will we grant the dying body its peace?

It is not economy or politics or art and philosophy that matter in the end for humanity: it is illness, the ill. It even defines humanity in its singularity: an obsession with its own end, its own impossibility. It’s no metaphysical mix-up that we think so much about death, for it is rooted in the most unmistakeably raw experience of illness. Only this theme will take us past the hostile logic of the survival of the fittest, which only makes sense if we leave out or deny sickness. Yet we never learn the lesson of “sickness unto convalescence,” of daily resurrection into life. We fail to hold tight that gratitude, and instead just move ahead. Once healthy, we fall back into the groove of the normal course, taking it for granted that the body will do what it’s told, forgetting that all around us there are burdened and broken bodies that cannot and won’t. The laboring body–is it as capable as we pretend? Is it healthy, or merely convalescent? Is there not an invalid underneath it, waiting to find peace?

And why is it that the body that has dwelt long with illness, by and large, finds it so absurd to return to the normal course once it has healed and refound its ease? Why does it feel—or how does it know—that this would be a total waste of the extra time, the grace period, it has been granted? Why does a taste of invalidity lead to such courage in refusing the society that operates on the assumption of general health (as opposed, for example, to the assumption of a general resurrection)? Why is the peace of the invalid so hard for us, invalids in wait, to face?

I wait upon the restructuring of society that would do justice to our common invalidity. It is love, a caretaker’s love, that will do this—not law or political drum-thumping.

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