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Francois Hartog “Regimes of Historicity”

January 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Hartog, Francois 2015. Regimes of Historicity. Presentism and Experiences of Time. New York: Columbia University Press.

Presentism – stop gap or new state
[…] “presentism”: the sense that only the present exists, a present characterized at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of an unending now.

As for why I have opted for (regimes of) “historicity” rather than of “temporality,” the latter has the disadvantage of referring to an external standard of time, such as can still be found in Braudel, where the different durées are all measured against an “exogenous,” mathematical, or astronomical time (which Braudel himself calls the “imperious time of the world”).

A regime of historicity is, rather, an artificial construct whose value lies in its heuristic potential. And it should be classed alongside Weber’s ideal type, as a formal category. Depending on whether the category of the past, the future, or the present is dominant, the order of time derived from it will obviously not be the same.

Today’s presentism can thus be experienced as emancipation or enclosure: ever greater speed and mobility or living from hand to mouth in a stagnating present. Not to forget a further aspect of our present: that the future is perceived as a threat not a promise. The future is a time of disasters, and ones we have, moreover, brought upon ourselves.

Introduction – orders of time and regimes of history
[…] in a lecture from 1935, Valéry drew an even sharper picture of this experience of broken continuity, where “each person” feels he belongs to “two eras.” “On the one hand,” he continued, “there is the past that can neither be abolished nor forgotten, but from which we can derive almost nothing that will orient us in the present or help us to imagine the future. On the other hand, there is the future without the least shape.”

In 1968 the Western and Westernized world was convulsed by a movement of contestation targeting, among other things, capitalist progress. It gave expression to a loss of faith in time itself as progress, that is, as an agent moving to overturn the present.

At the time, I defined “regime of historicity” in two ways: in a restricted sense, as the way in which a given society approaches its past and reflects upon it; and in a broader sense, as “the modalities of self-consciousness that each and every society adopts in its constructions of time and its perceptions.”

[…] how, depending on the way relations between the past, the present, and the future are configured, certain types of history are possible and others are not.

For Koselleck, the temporal structure of the modern period is characterized by an asymmetry between experience and expectation that is produced by the idea of progress and the opening of time onto a future. This asymmetry grew ever more extreme from the end of the eighteenth century, as time speeded up. The history of modernity could thus be summarized in the words “The lesser the experience, the greater the expectation.” In 1975, Koselleck tried to formulate what an “end” or “exit” from modern times might look like. Maybe, he suggested, it could be captured in a formula such as “The greater the experience, the more cautious one is, but also the more open is the future.”

Has a somewhat different configuration not taken over since then, in which the distance between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation has been stretched to its limit, to breaking point? With the result that the production of historical time seems to be suspended. Perhaps this is what generates today’s sense of a permanent, elusive, and almost immobile present, which nevertheless attempts to create its own historical time.

ORDERS OF TIME 1
2 – from odysseus’s tears to augustine’s meditations
„Suppose I am about to repeat a psalm which I know. Before I begin, my expectation is directed towards the whole. But when I have begun, the verses from it which I take into the past become the object of my memory. The life of this act of mine is stretched two ways, into my memory because of the words I have already said and into my expectation because of those which I am about to say. But my attention is on what is present: by that the future is transferred to become the past. As the action advances further and further, the shorter the expectation and the longer the memory, until all expectation is consumed, the entire action is finished, and it has passed into the memory. What occurs in the psalm as a whole occurs in its particular pieces and individual syllables. The same is true of a longer action in which perhaps that psalm is a part. It is also valid of the entire life of an individual person, where all actions are parts of a whole, and of the total history of “the sons of men” (Ps. 30:20) where all human lives are but parts.“ (augustine)

Now Odysseus is unable to organize the events of his life according to this model, shuttling between memory and expectation. One could say that he has distensio but not attentio. As Auerbach noted, the Homeric hero, unlike biblical figures, lives each day as though it were his first. I have already mentioned that Achilles can exist only in the present, and he knows no past or future. But even he is obliged to “let [these things] be as past and done,” to put behind him the outrage of Agamemnon’s insult, to get beyond it: in other words, to consign it to the past, without which he must cease in a certain way to be Achilles. His heroism must include overcoming his thumos, so that the action can start up again and he can be wholly himself, Achilles, the “bane of the Trojans,” living to the full his brief life in the present.

Odysseus has not read Augustine in yet another sense. Augustine’s phenomenology of human time is embedded within the structure of an eternal God who has created all times, such that “distension” must additionally be understood as integral to the human condition. Man’s lot is dispersion: “I am scattered [dissilui] in times whose order I do not understand [ordinem nescio]. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts.”

The Christian order of time to which the believer may aspire thus involves the passage from the mutability of the many to the immutability of God’s eternity. The path leads from dispersion to tension, reaching out by means of an effort of intention (and not simply of attention) toward those things that lie before (ante) (and not simply toward the future). Augustine is here simply following Saint Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: “Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The image is that of a runner in the stadium. A similar order is suggested at the beginning of The City of God, in which the Christian “in this fleeting course of time [in hoc temporum cursu]” walks “in the midst of the ungodly [inter impios peregrinatur]” and “waits for [expectat] the fixed stability of [the City of God’s] eternal seat.” And Saint Paul once again: “whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing…for our conversation is in heaven.”

It was not Christianity, however, that conceived and experienced time as an expectant tension or an opening of anticipation. This relation to time was already present in Yahweh’s promise to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great.”

As regards relations to time, Christianity’s specific contribution was the decisive event of the Incarnation—the birth, death, and resurrection of the Son of God made man—which broke time in two. A new time started, which was to end with a second and last event, the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment. The in-between time was a time of anticipation: a present inhabited by the promise of the end. Jesus himself announced this: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.…But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.…Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.…Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.” Vigilance is, quite literally, what is required: “Banish slumber,” says Saint Luke’s gospel.

Besides this eschatological present, what is really new in the New Testament is “the tension between the decisive ‘already fulfilled’ and the ‘not yet completed,’ between present and future.”69 On this founding tension is constructed a properly Christian order of time, and history as the history of salvation. But the already does not balance out the not-yet like the two sides of a set of scales: the already carries more weight, since that “decisive point” has irreversibly changed the course of history.70 The world has already been saved. The present ushered in by this “already” is consequently a privileged time.

All in all, the Christian order of time retained a certain malleability, which allowed present, past, and future to be articulated against a backdrop of eternity. It was not a single regime of historicity, nor can it be reduced to one, not even to its predominant regime of historia magistra.

3 – chateaubriand, between old and new regimes of historicity
Western civilization’s relation to time was profoundly and lastingly structured by the couple “the ancients” and “the moderns.” The many quarrels punctuating its history each time expressed the tension inherent in the pair.9 The notion of “the savage,” which figured already in the first travel writings from the New World, introduced a new term. Arguments no longer hinged on two elements but on three and, most often, on one-plus-two, that is, the moderns versus the ancients/savages.

For Rousseau, the movement thus went from the past to the future, or rather toward a future yet to be brought into being, as a goal on which to set one’s sights. But even if, in the Social Contract, society had something of an ideal Greek polis about it, every society (including ancient society) was nonetheless a mutilation compared to the state of nature. Hence the figure of the savage, which the young Chateaubriand invoked and brought to life: “Oh man of nature, you alone make me proud to be a man! Your heart knows no dependence.”11 For Chateaubriand, far from unrest and revolution, the savage resembled an island on which the shipwrecked traveler could find refuge;12 Rousseau had been left far behind.

Koselleck’s by-now classic analyses have shown how the development in Germany of the modern concept of history (die Geschichte) around 1760–1780 gradually devitalized its understanding in terms of exemplarity and repetition.32 History in the singular (die Geschichte), understood as a process and conceived as history in itself, with its own proper temporality, abandoned the exemplum and redefined itself around the uniqueness of the event. A gap and a tension opened up between individuals’ space of experience and their horizon of expectation.33 The modern concept of history enabled the production of this gap to be understood and explained, and it could even illuminate historical progress in general. Although these theories from the German historical school were already in circulation earlier in the century, they were really put to the test by the French Revolution, which many experienced as a time of acceleration forcing apart, to breaking point, the space of experience from the horizon of expectation.

How do space and time interact here, or, more precisely, what effect does movement in space have upon Chateaubriand’s relation to time when, having returned from America and left the Army of the Princes, he begins writing the Historical Essay? Time is above all the time of getting older: “When I left France I was young; four years of misfortune have put years on me.”65 Time’s ravages are such that, as we have seen, this travel diary of a self in search of himself is presented, via Tacitus, as the writings of a dying man, or even as writings from beyond the grave.

Time flies, swifter than the pen, and the craft caught in the storm is swept past an unrecognizable or unknown coastline, which races along. These remarks, from the 1826 preface, are crucial. They demonstrate what contemporaries were most struck by, namely, time’s acceleration and their resultant loss of bearings (the boat is swept away and the coastline races past). The present is ungraspable, the future is unforeseeable, and the past itself has become incomprehensible.

Besides, who can take an interest in the “collapse of the old world” when one is living the “collapse of the new”? Be that as it may, whether Chateaubriand was writing a history of France’s present (as in the Historical Essay), or its past (as in the Historical Studies), he seemed always to miss the moment, to be out of step: always, ineluctably, too late. So what other option was there but to go on writing nonetheless, to exploit this gap as the mainspring or even the motive of his writing? When he began writing the Historical Essay he was not yet at that stage; he had simply experienced the impossibility of escaping the maelstrom of time. And, having crossed the Atlantic again, from West to East this time, the New World’s island-in-the-storm and its untouched forests reverted to nothing more than utopias, which could be visited only in memory or in writing.

So the America of Chateaubriand’s travels no longer exists, and the dreams of his youth have evaporated. He did not discover the Northwest Passage, French influence was eclipsed, and the savage is dying a slow death. Yet suddenly, at the end of this requiem for a dead America, the reader is presented with “a wonderful spectacle,” painted in the glowing colors of modern freedom.87 The Historical Essay ended on a hymn to the freedom (or independence) of the savage, as the only authentic freedom (in relation to which all others, including the freedom of the ancients, appear false). The Travels ends on the recognition and celebration of modern freedom: the United States’ discovery of a representative republic is “one of the greatest political events that ever occurred.” From this assertion Chateaubriand is led back to the familiar pair, ancient and modern freedom. The case of the United States has proved that there are
„two practicable types of liberty; the one belonging to the infancy of nations, the offspring of manners [fille des moeurs] and of virtue, the liberty of the first Greeks and the first Romans, and the liberty of the Savages of America; the other born in the old age of nations, the offspring of knowledge [fille des lumières] and reason, the liberty of the United States, which has superseded the liberty of the Savage. Happy country, which in less than three centuries has passed from one liberty to the other, almost without effort, and by means of a contest which lasted only eight years!“

Unlike in the Historical Essay, Chateaubriand here historicizes the freedom of the savages, and also that of the ancients, which is thereby rehabilitated. The native Americans, the first Greeks, and the first Romans all belong to the same moment of freedom. That is the deeper meaning—and the miracle—of American history (which is the product of an acceleration of time).

The principle of historicization he introduces (freedom as “offspring of manners” leading to freedom as “offspring of knowledge”) situates the United States not only as the birthplace of a new sort of freedom, but also as the place where “almost without effort,” and at great speed, the former gave way to the latter.91 The Scythians had embodied an “abridged, but complete” history of the three ages of humanity. Here, the United States achieve a similar synthesis, but of their own past with their own present: they embody a historical development.

Above all, the American discovery of modern freedom ruins the whole system of parallels on which the Historical Essay has been constructed. In the 1826 preface, Chateaubriand writes: “I have always based my reasoning in the Essay on the Ancients’ republican system of liberty, liberty the offspring of manners; I had not sufficiently reflected upon that other sort of liberty, liberty offspring of knowledge and a perfected civilization: my discovery of a representative republic has changed the whole matter.”

In short, Tocqueville preserves the model of historia magistra, but inverts it; the lesson to be learned comes from the future, not the past. He himself explicitly recognizes this, toward the end of his work: “Although the ongoing revolution in man’s social state, laws, ideas, and sentiments is still far from over, it is already clear that its works cannot be compared with anything the world has ever seen before. Looking back century by century to remotest Antiquity, I see nothing that resembles what I see before me. When the past is no longer capable of shedding light on the future, the mind can only proceed in darkness.”129 One can no longer, as Chateaubriand still thought possible in 1794, “with the torch of past revolutions in our hand,…boldly enter into the darkness of future ones.” The previous regime of historicity, in which the past precisely illuminated the future, was over for good. A world which is “totally new” requires a “new political science.” This was precisely what Tocqueville set out to develop from his vanguard position, perched in his lookout to scrutinize the future.130

ORDERS OF TIME 2
4 – memory, history and the present
Returning to the schematic parallel I made between Chateaubriand and Nora above, what is immediately striking are their different relations to time. The “new plan” required by the “progress” of reason implied a vision of time as a process of improvement and progress, which ushered in freedom “offspring of manners,” as discovered in America. The Historical Essay’s many revisions show this clearly. Yet Chateaubriand could not ignore that the way liberal historians worked, taking this new world as “a revised scale by which to measure the old one,” was poles apart from his own way of writing, constantly crisscrossing, and crossing out, from one world to the other.6 By contrast, when Nora set out on what was to become the Lieux de mémoire, not only was there no question of a progressive time, but he remained entirely within the circle of the present. He aimed at a kind of inventory prior to a death foretold: “The rapid disappearance of our national memory seemed to me to call for an inventory of the sites where it had chosen to manifest itself.”7

There are cogent arguments for situating the modern regime of historicity between the two symbolic dates of 1789 and 1989. I would suggest, at least provisionally, that the two dates mark the entrance and the exit of this regime on the stage of History. At the very least, one can suggest that they constitute two caesuras, or breaks, in the order of time.10 11 September 2001 poses no serious challenge to this outline, unless the American government has decided to make it into a new beginning of world history, a new present and one alone, that of the war on terror. That said, with 9/11 the contemporary event reached its logical limit. Under the glare of the TV cameras, the event exhibited itself in the making, undergoing a real-time transformation into history that was simultaneously, and already, a (self-) commemoration.11 In this sense, the structure of the event had become absolutely presentist.

Koselleck’s by-now classic analyses, which we mentioned earlier, summarize the modern regime as the passage from the German plural die Geschichten to the singular die Geschichte, History. “Beyond histories,” he says, “there is History,” History in itself. In Droysen’s words, as cited by Koselleck, History must become “knowledge of itself.”13 More importantly, it is conceived as a process, with the idea that events do not simply occur in time but also through time, with time itself as an agent, and even the agent. Since, today, the past no longer makes the future comprehensible, history’s lessons have become obsolete, and what is required are, rather, predictions. Historians are no longer in search of the exemplary, but of the unique. The topics of historia magistra had allowed the past to connect with the future through the exemplary model to be imitated: in looking back at famous men, I could also find them in front or ahead of me.

The modern regime replaced the exemplary with the nonrepeatable. The past was, a priori or due to its position (which amounts to the same), outdated.

The future illuminating the past and giving it meaning constituted a telos or vantage point called, by turns, “the Nation,” “the People,” “the Republic,” “Society,” or “the Proletariat,” each time dressed in the garb of science. If history still dispensed a lesson, it came from the future, not the past.

The twentieth century, in retrospect, combined futurism and presentism. It started out more futurist than presentist, and ended up more presentist than futurist. It was passionately futurist, blindly so, and, as we know, embraced the worst. In futurism, the imperative dimension of the order of time decrees that the viewpoint of the future shall prevail. It is an order that presents itself as constantly accelerating. History is made in the name of the future, and it must be written in the same way.

But the Futurist Manifesto also showed how one could move from futurism to presentism, or how futurism was also (already) a presentism. When Marinetti declared: “Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in a world of the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed,” the present became “futurized,” or, equally, there was already nothing but the present. Speed transformed the present into eternity and Marinetti, at the wheel of his racing car, could imagine himself to be God.

The linguist Émile Benveniste noted that the etymology of praesens is “what is ahead of me,” hence something which is “imminent, urgent,” and “will not permit delay,” in the sense of the Latin preposition prae.23 The present is imminent: it is the runner’s body tensed forward at the very moment he or she leaves the starting blocks.

“The present is never our aim, and while it and the past are our means, the future alone is our end. Thus we never live, but are always hoping to live, and, constantly preparing ourselves to be happy, it is beyond doubt that we never shall be happy.” – pascal

Perhaps the clearest sign of the radical exclusion of anything but the present in the Swinging Sixties was the slogan “forget the future.” Revolutionary utopias were nothing if not progressivist and futurist, even if they were also backward-looking and retrospective (the revolutionary barricades and the Resistance). But henceforth they had to adapt to the narrow circle of the present. The slogans covering the walls of Paris in May 1968 were “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“Beneath the pavings, the beach”) or “Tout, tout de suite” (“All, all at once, now”). But they were followed shortly by “No future,” in other words, no revolutionary present.

the present’s expansionism increasingly eclipses death, as the poet T.S. Eliot noted already in the 1940s: “In our age…there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is a provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which…the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares.”44 The dead no longer have a place, or even, as Philippe Ariès declared in his historical study of the phenomenon, “In towns, everything goes on as if nobody died anymore.”

Would it not be true to say that any self-respecting person today owes it to him- or herself to have no time for anything?

additionally the present, in the very moment of its occurrence, seeks to view itself as already history, already past. In a sense, it turns back on itself in order to anticipate how it will be regarded when it is completely past, as though it wanted to “foresee” the past, to turn itself into a past before it has even fully emerged as present.

To ensure that one is the first to cover the news, what better solution than to announce that something has already taken place when it is yet to come!

[Halbwachs]: Collective memory is “a current of continuous thought” (it retains from the past only what is still living), whereas the historian “can truly achieve his task only by deliberately placing himself outside the time lived by those groups that participated in the events concerned, which have more or less direct contact with these events and can recall them.”66 History, which “extracts changes from duration,” forges “an artificial duration having no reality for the groups from which these events are borrowed.”67 The bird of history can thus spread its wings only when night has fallen entirely, that is, when the present is absolutely dead.

However, if the historian who is thus excluded from the field of memory does not recognize himself in this portrait, then the rigid opposition between history and memory ceases to hold, whereupon the historian’s “hunting ground” may include collective memory or, better still, collective memory may feed into contemporary history. Nora always rejected the idea of a break between the past and the present, which he considered artificial and illusory. Unlike the authors of the report to the minister, Nora argued that it is for “the historian of the present” to make “the past consciously emerge into the present (instead of making the present unconsciously emerge in the past).” Nora’s reflections on the event additionally suggest a relation between the new status of the event in a consumer society and the perception of time: “Does our treatment of the event not transform time itself into something to be consumed, in which we invest analogous affects?”69 This idea points to another aspect of presentism: time itself, Nora suggests, is trapped in the time of consumption, and itself becomes a consumer product.

[Nora] For “our form of memory” is “nothing but history, a matter of sifting and sorting.” We have become obsessive archivists, transforming everything into memory, in furtherance of the present’s immediate self-historicization, which we mentioned above. Memory has become a private affair, entirely psychologized, introducing a new economy of the “self’s identity.” “An order is given to remember, but the responsibility is mine and it is I who must remember.” Hence “to be Jewish is to remember that one is such; but once this incontestable memory has been interiorized, it eventually demands full recognition. What is being remembered? In a sense, it is memory itself.” Lastly, “our” memory is based on a relation to the past in which discontinuity predominates. The past is no longer “solid and steady.” Hence we have moved “from a history sought in the continuity of memory to a memory cast in the discontinuity of history.” Today’s form of memory “is no longer what must be retrieved from the past in order to prepare the future one wants; it is what makes the present present to itself.”74 It is an instrument of presentism.

Given that “the Nation” and “Progress” had been so powerfully welded together in the nineteenth century, how could the idea of the Nation return when that of Progress was no longer sustainable? What was left of the Nation? It was often figured as a Nation without prospect(s), a retrospective and nostalgic entity, basically a refuge, linked to a form of history enthralled once again to the charms of historia magistra.

So we commemorate “Bastille Day,” in which 1880, 1789, and 1790 prefigure and echo each other.113 Péguy, in his Clio, had striking terms for this: “The storming of the Bastille was a genuine feast-day, it was the first celebration, the first commemoration and in a sense the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.…The Fête de la Fédération, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, was not its first commemoration. It was the storming of the Bastille itself which was the first Fête de la Fédération, a Federation avant la lettre.”114 Today, this phenomenon has become the norm, with every event already incorporating its own commemoration. This was the case in May 1968, and it was true again, in extreme form, for 11 September 2001, with all the television cameras trying to catch on film the moment when the second plane would crash into the World Trade Center’s second tower.

… the present’s tendency to transform itself instantly into history.

The end of the tyranny of the future also had the effect of making the past inscrutable again, and at least partly unpredictable too. This was not simply linked to the issue of contingency, which Raymond Aron highlighted in his critique of causality in Simiand.122 The past waiting to be rediscovered was neither linear nor unambiguous, and it was construed as a field crisscrossed by pasts that had for a time been possible futures, including those which had begun to exist and which had been prevented from doing so.

Our doubly indebted present: the reign of presentism
According to François Ewald, responses to uncertainty have taken three forms: foresight, prevention, and, today, precaution.23 The paradigm of responsibility (linked to the advent of liberalism) can be associated with foresight, that of solidarity (represented by the Welfare State) can be associated with prevention, and perhaps a new paradigm, for which a name has yet to be found, will come to be associated with precaution. Ewald proposes the paradigm of “security” and the concomitant emergence of a “Precautionary State.”24 “Foresight” implies not overlooking the ups and downs of life, “prevention” means evaluating risks on the basis of scientific knowledge, and “precaution” acknowledges that even science is not infallible. With it, a new relation to harm and to time is introduced: “there exist the irreparable, the irremediable, the unpardonable, the harm which is beyond compensation and the crime whose prosecution is beyond time restrictions [imprescriptible].”25 Irreversibility and sustainable development are concepts whose temporalities carry with them the idea of time as continuous and seamless, from us to future generations or from future generations back to us. Of course we look toward the future, but on the basis of an extended present, without interruption or revolution.

[…] Ewald has drawn our attention to an “extreme form of the figure of precaution,” according to which development itself would constitute a risk. Let us imagine a product with “an undetectable and unforeseeable defect, which only becomes apparent after a certain length of time. Moreover, the responsibility for the defect can be imputed to the product or producer only due to a scientific context different from the one existing when the product was first put into circulation, used and consumed.”26 How determine civil or criminal liability in such a case? How can someone be held responsible after the fact for something he or she could not possibly have known at the time?

Yet with development risk, when a danger is discovered at some future date, the past (in which the danger was unknown) is still considered to be part of the present of the risk’s discovery. This means that we never leave the present (or at least a legal present). The as yet unsuspected risk is (already) present, and once it has been proven, after the fact, it will continue to belong to that present; it will not be considered as past.

The lifting of statutory limitations here means that the criminal in crimes against humanity remains contemporary with his crime until his death, but by the same token we too are contemporary with the facts to be judged.

The present has thus extended both into the future and into the past. Into the future, through the notions of precaution and responsibility, through the acknowledgment of the irreparable and the irreversible, and through the notions of heritage and debt, the latter being the concept which cements and gives sense to the whole. And into the past, borne by similar concepts such as responsibility and the duty to remember, the drive to make every-thing into heritage, the lifting of time limitations, and last but not least the notion of “debt.” This double indebtedness, toward the past and the future, but derived from our present and weighing upon it, is another hallmark of our contemporary experience. The figure of debt is what transports us from the genocide of the Jews to the risks threatening the entire human species, from the obligation not to forget to the imperative of responsibility:29 in order that future generations may still have the life of human beings and never forget man’s inhumanity to man.

We “start out from” the present, but never really “leave” it? It is the source of all enlightenment. And in a sense there is nothing but the present, not as infinite, but as indefinite. The managerial response to uncertainty is called “flexibility,” where the idea is not so much to anticipate change as to be as flexible as possible at every moment, that is, to be able to be immediately present (“on the case”). It is worth noting that the centrality of uncertainty and of the present applies not only in relation to the future, but also in our approach to the past

[…] however eternal this present might appear, it also avidly or anxiously sought to historicize itself, as though it were forced to project itself ahead, in order to turn back and see itself as already past, forgotten.

Jacques Rancière “Figures of History”

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

Rancière, Jacques 2014. Figures of History. Cambridge; Malden: Polity Press.

Part 2 – Senses and figures of history
History is first an anthology of what is worthy of being memorialized. Not necessarily what was, and what witnesses testify to, but what deserves to be focused on, meditated upon, imitated, because of its greatness. Legends offer such a brand of history as much as chronicles do, and Homer more than Thucydides. No matter what has been claimed, it is not events that lie at the heart of this kind of history, but examples. (61)

Examples of fortune and misfortune, of virtue and vice. Not that far removed, in a sense, from the concern of the new history with moments and gestures that signal a way of occupying a world. Only, memorial-history doesn’t propose reading the sense of a world through that world’s signs. It proposes examples to imitate. This supposes a continuity between the scene that is worthy of being imitated and the act of imitating in its double sense: the work of the painter and the lesson drawn by the involved spectator. (62)

History secondly means a story. In a painting, a specific moment, significant for the action, commands attention. The movements of the characters converge on this central point or reflect its effect right to the outer edges of the scene. Eyes stare at it, outstretched arms direct us to it, faces broadcast its emotion, mimed conversations comment on its significance. In short, the painting itself is a story – that is, an arrangement of actions, a meaningful fable endowed with appropriate means of expression. (63)

In the meantime, a third type of history was to secure its dominion by destroying the harmony between the expressive disposition of bodies over a canvas and the effect of an exemplary grandeur communicated by the scene. This is History as an ontological power in which any ‘story’ – any represented example and any linked action – finds itself included. History as a specific mode of time, a way in which time itself is made the principle behind sequences of events and their significance. History as movement directed towards achievement of some kind, defining conditions and tasks of the moment and promises of the future, but also threats for anyone who gets the sequence of conditions and promises wrong; like the common destiny that men make for themselves but that they only make to a certain extent, since it constantly eludes them and its promises are constantly reversed as catastrophes. (66)

[…] as a matter of principle, no action or figure can ever be adequate to the sense of its movement. The distinctive feature of this form of History is that none of its scenes or figures is ever equal to it. (67)

History with a capital H is not just the power of sense to exceed action which is turned upside-down as a demonstration of non-sense, referring form to the material from which it emerges and to the gesture that pulls it from that material. History is not just the saturnine power that devours all individuality. It is also the new fabric in which each and every person’s perceptions and sensations are captured. Historical time is not just the time of great collective destinies. It is the time where anyone and anything at all make history and bear witness to history. (68-69)

Anthology of examples; arrangement of fables; historial power of necessary, common destiny; historicized fabric of the sensible. Four different types of ‘history’, at least, come together or come apart, contrast or interlace, variously reshaping the relationships between pictorial genres and the powers of figuration. (71)

But the opposite of the representational system is not the unrepresentable. The system is not, in fact, based on the sole imperative to imitate and make the image like the model. It is based on two fundamental propositions. One defines the relationships between what is represented and the forms its representation takes; the other defines the relationship between those forms and the material in which they are executed. The first rule is one of differentiation: a specific style and form are suited to a given subject – the noble style of tragedy, the epic or history painting for kings, the familiar colour of comedy or of genre painting for the little people. The second rule, on the contrary, is one of in-difference: the general laws of epresentation apply equally no matter what the material medium used in the representation, whether it be language, painted canvas or sculpted stone. (73)

The first poetics, which we might call abstract symbolist, deals the most radically with the collapse of the representational world as a whole and settles on art the historic task of replacing that world with an equivalent order: an order that produces a system of actions equivalent to the old order of mimesisand plays a role in the community equivalent to the banished vanities of representation. It contrasts the imitation of things or beings with the exact expression of the relationships that link them, and with the outline of the ‘rhythms of the idea’ that are able to serve as a foundation for a new ritual, sealing the duty that links the ‘multiple action’ of men. (75-76)

The second poetics is quite specifically dedicated to revoking the principle of the indifference of matter. It identifies the power of the work of art and of history as a bringing to light of the capacity for form and idea immanent in all matter. This poetics of nature, as ‘unconscious poem’ (Schelling), locates the work of art within the continuous movement by which matter already takes form, sketches its own idea in the folds of the mineral or the prints of the fossil and rises to ever higher forms of selfexpression and self-symbolization. Let’s agree to call this poetics, whose features are set out in the theoretical texts of Auguste Schlegel and the ‘naturalist’ works of Michelet, expressionist symbolist. (76)

[…] this poetics establishes one of the main processes by means of which the art of the twentieth century was to ‘catch up with history’ – namely, the play of metamorphoses through which what is represented, matter and form, change places and exchange their powers. (77)

The third poetics emphasizes the destruction of the relationship between form and subject. It not only plays on the equality of all those represented but, more broadly, on the multiple forms that the de-subordination of figures to the hierarchy of subjects and dispositions may take. (77)

Let’s agree to call this poetics (sur)realist to indicate the following: ‘realism’ is not a return to the triviality of real things as opposed to the conventions of representation. It is the total system of possible variations of the indicators and values of reality, of forms of connecting and disconnecting figures and stories that their destruction makes possible. (78)

The age of History, then, is not the age of a kind of painting that is driven by world catastrophe, and by its own movement, towards rarefaction and aphasia. It is rather the age of the proliferation of senses of history and the metamorphoses that allow the interplay of these to be staged. (79)

If every object immediately has the potential to become subject, form or material, this is not only, as has sometimes been suggested a bit too hastily in the age of Pop, because of its ‘documentary’ value, which turns it into a vehicle of a critical function. It is because, in the age of history, every object leads a double life, holds a potential for historicity that is at the very heart of its nature as an ordinary perceptual object. History as the sensible fabric of things is doubled by history as fate-dealing power. Freeing historyas-example and (hi)story-as-composition from their subjection to representation, it multiplies the figurative possibilities which all forms of defiguration then enjoy. And this multiplication supports the various forms of historicization of art, making compossible, or co-existent, two ‘fates for art’: the constructivist-unanimist project of ‘transforming the whole world into one gigantic work of art’ (Schwitters), but also its apparent opposite – the critical project of an art that eliminates its own lie in order to speak truthfully about the lie and the violence of the society that produces it. (80-81)

The completion and selfelimination of art go together, because it is the very particularity of history as a fate-dealing power that, in it, any existing form aims for a completion that is identical to its own elimination. And the age of History also confers upon all formless matter, just as it does on all established writing, the possibility of being turned into an element in the play of forms. The age of the anti-representation is not the age of the unrepresentable. It is the age of high realism. (81)

Iain Thomson “Death and Demise in Being and Time”

December 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Thomson, Iain 2013. Death and Demise in Being and Time. – Wrathall, Mark A. (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. New York: Cambridge University Press, 260-290.

In a crucial passage in Being and Time (which I shall refer to subsequently as P1), Heidegger distinguishes between three terms we might otherwise tend to use interchangeably, namely, “perishing” (Verenden), “demising” (Ableben), and “dying” (Sterben): „[P1] The ending of that which [merely] lives we have called perishing [Verenden]. Dasein too “has” its physiological death of the kind appropriate to anything that lives . . . but [“has” it] as co-determined by its primordial way of being [namely, “existing” or “standing-out,” Ek-sistere , into temporally structured intelligibility]. Dasein can also end without authentically dying [eigentlich stirbt], although in this latter case it does not, qua Dasein, simply perish. We designate this intermediate phenomenon as demise [Ableben]. Let the term dying [Sterben] designate the way of being in which Dasein is toward its death [Tod]. We must thus say: Dasein never perishes. Demising, however, is something Dasein can do only so long as it dies. (247)“ (264)

Derrida misses the crucial point that, for Heidegger, Dasein can experience its end (indeed, as we will see, this experience is precisely what Heidegger calls “death”). (265)

Heidegger thinks that the converse is also possible; one can experience one’ s own end without yet having demised. As this suggests, after distinguishing perishing from demise, Heidegger then goes on to distinguish demise (the “intermediate phenomenon”) from death. Heidegger insists that we need not demise in order to die, in large part because of his aforementioned conviction that Dasein can experience its own end. Indeed, Heidegger thinks we can experience our intelligible world’s having ended (and that we do so in what he calls “death”), even though, by all appearances, we cannot live through our own demise in order to experience that end from beyond it. (265)

[…] how can Dasein – an entity whose being is constituted by worldly projects that stretch into an unknown future – ever comprehend itself as a whole? What most readers seem to miss, however, is that Heidegger is able to solve this problem only by introducing his existential-ontological conception of death in distinction from demise. […] As he puts it: “In such being-toward-itsend, Dasein exists in a way which is authentically whole, as that entity which it can be when ‘thrown into death.’ Dasein does not have an end at which it is simply stops, but instead [it has an end at which it] exists i nitely[existiert endlich].” (329) (266)

Bereft of all its worldly projects , Dasein can fully grasp itself in its own “finitude” for the first time – and thereby come to understand itself as a “primordial existential projecting” (330), as we will see. (266)

[…] we can die without dmising is that „death“ nor „dying“ (nor even „authentically dying,“ to which we will return) requires us to suffer the terminal world collapse of demise. (267)

„Death is a way to be, which Dasein takes over as soon as it is.“ (245) (267)

To anyone familiar with Kierkegaard’ s brilliant text (as Heidegger was), it is clear that Being and Time’s phenomenology of existential death seeks to secularize the mystical Christian idea that, in order for one to be born truly into the life of the spirit, one must first die to the material
world – so that one can be reborn to the world in a way that will unify the spiritual and material aspects of the self . (267)

For when not just one but all of our life projects break down in what Heidegger calls “anticipation” (Vorlaufen) or “running-out” toward death, we experience ourselves as a kind of bare existential projecting without any existentiell projects to project ourselves into (and so understand ourselves in terms of). We can thereby come to understand ourselves as, at bottom, a “primordial existential projecting” (330), a brute projecting that is more basic than and independent of any of the particular projects that usually give our lives content and meaning. (269)

In fact, Heidegger’s insistence on the “uncanniness” or “not-being-at-home” in the world seems to be his way of secularizing – and so preserving the core phenomenological insight contained in – the Christian idea that we are in but not of the world.) (270)

To grasp what Heidegger thinks the self ultimately boils down to (in this existential version of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction), it is crucial to remember that when my projects all break down or collapse, leaving me without any life project to project myself into, projection itself does not cease. When my being-possible becomes impossible, I still am; my ability-to-be becomes insubstantial, unable to connect to the world, but not inert. My projects collapse, and I no longer have a concrete self I can be, but I still am this inability-to-be. Heidegger calls this paradoxical condition revealed by anticipation “the possibility of an impossibility” or death. In his words: „Death, as possibility [i.e., as something we project ourselves into], gives Dasein nothing to be “actualized,” nothing which Dasein could itself actually be . It is the possibility of the impossibility of every way of comporting oneself toward anything, of every way of existing. (262)“ (271)

Nevertheless, it is by embracing this finitude – giving up our naïve desire for either absolute freedom or a single correct choice of life project and instead accepting that our finite freedom always operates against a background of constraint (in which there is usually more than one “right” answer, rather than none at all) – that we are able to overcome that paralysis of our projects experienced in death. It is thus important that Heidegger sometimes hyphenates “Ent-schlossenheit” (literally “un-closedness”) in order to emphasize that the existential “resoluteness” whereby Dasein freely chooses the existential commitments that dei ne it does not entail deciding on a particular course of action ahead of time and obstinately sticking to one’s guns come what may, but, rather, requires an “openness” whereby one continues to be responsive to the emerging solicitations of, and unpredictable elements in, the particular existential „situation,” the full reality of which only the actual decision itself discloses. (273-274)

By “death,” we have seen, Heidegger means the experience of existential world collapse that occurs when we confront the ineliminable anxiety that stems from the basic lack of i t between Dasein and its world, an anxiety that emerges from the uncanny fact that there is nothing about the structure of the self that can tell us what specii cally to do with our lives. By “dying,” I have suggested, Heidegger means the mere projecting , disclosing , or ek-sisting (“standing-out”) that we lucidly experience when our projects collapse in death. By “authentically dying,” let me now suggest, he means the explicit experience of undergoing such world collapse and thereby coming to understand ourselves as, at bottom, a mere projecting , that is, a projecting into projects, a fundamental existential projecting that survives even the (nonterminal) global collapse of these worldly projects. (274-275)

Heidegger’s phenomenological attestation of death thus begins with an analysis of our everyday understanding of demise . After isolating and “formally indicating” the most significant structural characteristics of the ordinary ontic phenomenon of demise (in which, however, these formal characteristics have quite different meanings), Heidegger then seeks to flesh out these structural characteristics, collectively, in a way that will reveal the heretofore unnoticed ontological phenomenon of “death” that supposedly conditions the phenomenon of ordinary ontic demise. (276)

[…] what we are really afraid of about demise is what he calls death, namely, losing our world and still being here to experience that loss. (280)

For there is an experience in which what we are afraid of about demise – namely, not being, or, more precisely, being our not being – can actually happen to us. […] this strange experience of being in a way in which we are not able to be anything is precisely what Heidegger calls death. (281)

Sebastian Rand “Organism, normativity, plasticity”

November 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Rand, Sebastian 2011. Organism, normativity, plasticity: Canguilhem, Kant, Malabou. Continental Philosophy Review, 44(4): 341-357.

[…] the organism itself is the only available authority for the establishment of its biological norm. The pathological is not to be thought of as logically posterior to the physiological, but as that through which the physiological (as normal function) first announces itself; the normal only becomes distinct from the pathological when the functioning or activity of the organism orients itself toward leaving a current devalued state and achieving a valued different state. The name for an organic functioning or activity that is not normal, and that has normalcy as its goal (even if this goal is not achieved), is ‘‘pathology.’ (344)

It is the disease, as reaction, that first establishes the very normality or normative activity of the healthy state from which it is the departure. In this sense, ‘‘disease is not merely the disappearance of a physiological order but the appearance of a new vital order,’’ the establishment of a new norm. (344)

Canguilhem does notclaim that there is some original healthy state the re-achievement of which, or the return to which, is the true stable goal of the organism’s activity. The aim of the activity of the living is not the restitution of an original state, but ‘‘repairs which are really physiological innovations.’’ It is in this sense that ‘‘there is no disorder, there is the substitution for an expected or loved order of another order which either makes no difference or from which one suffers.’’ (345)

[…] subordinate variety of normativity can also look like a potential basis for a reduction of all organic normativity to norm-following normativity alone. On such a reductive approach, the alleged norm-establishing capacity of an organism is really just an ability to change themeansit employs to achieve an endnot itself selected by the organism; the various norms the organism is capable of establishing would thus all be subordinate technical tools for conforming to some ultimately authoritative norm established for the organism from the start. (345)

In claiming that there is an ‘‘original normative character of life’’ and that ‘‘life is a normative activity,’’ Canguilhem is claiming that the norm-guided and norm-establishing activity of the organism indeed aims at a supreme, fixed good: the preservation and expansion of the organism’s normestablishing capacity as such. (346)

On the one hand, norm-following can only count as such if the organism must act to keep itself in conformity with the norm; but it only needs to do so if it is violating it. Similarly, norm-establishing occurs precisely in reaction to the failure of the organism to maintain the already-established norm. Thus both normfollowing and norm-establishing are activities in response to violations of given conditions. (348)

[…] it is not just one or another norm that is subject to violation, but the animal’s norm-establishing itself that can be tested. Thus, whatever positive character we might have been inclined to attribute to norm-establishing normativity is now wholly eliminated by Canguilhem, in favor of a conception of normativity on which the condition of possibility for organic normativity in general is the possibility of failure. (349)

[…] the ‘‘finality’’ of the norm—its unifying function in relation to the organism and organism’s activity—is not a ‘‘real ontological finality’’ that would replace the ‘ought’ of the norm with an ‘is’ and convert Canguilhem’s position into a traditional teleological metaphysics; it is rather only ‘‘a possible, operative finality.’’ It is thus a normativity that can serve its organism-constituting function only by being removed from natural existence. And in fact, this removal of normativity from the natural realm—in the midst of an effort to demonstrate precisely an ‘‘original normative character of life’’—is not just (and perhaps only metaphorically) spatial, but temporal as well. (350)

Ontologically speaking, the norm that is violated does not exist at all, on Canguilhem’s view, and so certainly does not preexist its violation; at best it is only retroactively established by the organism itself as having-been-in-force just when it is violated, that is, when the organism establishes a new norm in its place. In other words, Canguilhem’s recourse to a conception of the norm or rule as essentially non-real, non-actual, non-present allows him to claim that the norm violatedwill have beenin effect just in case another, different norm is established later. Thus, the norm-establishing activity of the organism establishes both which norm was violated and which norm is in force now; such temporally non-natural ordering can be attributed to the autonomy of the organism only to the extent that it is itself essentially constituted by a relation to the non-natural. (350)

[…] organic autonomy seems to involve a temporal ordering unlike anything in nature. Thus, Canguilhem grounds his account of natural life and normativity ‘‘in the fullest sense’’ in the organism’s essential relation to what is non-existent, that which is beyond nature, that which cannot be confronted as an objectwithinthat experience, that which cannot be observed. The natural organism is essentially normative if and only if the normative is essentially non-natural. And while he may in this way have accomplished Kant’s first goal—to show that the life sciences have so far depended on values and norms they themselves tried to exclude from their ken—he has taken the rest of the Kantian path as well—in agreeing that norms as such cannot be found within nature—and so does not present a genuine alternative to its transcendental picture. (351)

[Malabou] understands ‘plasticity’ as designating a threefold capacity: the ability to receive form (as in the plasticity of clay), the ability to give form (as in the plasticity of the plastic arts), and the ability to destroy form (as in the French verb ‘plastiquer,’ meaning ‘to blow up’). (351)

[…] while Canguilhem’s organism is capable of receiving content (that is, natural changes in its bodily state and the environment), it is not capable of receiving a new form—it is defined as that which manifests itself as extra-natural norm-establishing form in the face of any and all received natural content. Conceived of as ‘‘plastic,’’ by contrast, the organism not only gives form to a content, but can give itself form and receive form in a way that changes what it is: it subjects itself as normestablishing to the possibility of transformation of its normativity, at its own hands or at the hands of something outside it. Thus, plastic normativity goes beyond Canguilhem’s organic normativity (and beyond his Kantian antecedents) by insisting on the capacity to have its own form destroyed. (355)

Put ontologically, Malabou has used destructive plasticity, the exposure of the organism to constancy-changing or form-changing accident, to bring organic normativity back within the realm of nature. Rather than seeing this exposure to destruction or deformation or transformation as a threat to the biological autonomy of the organism, as Canguilhem does, Malabou integrates this possibility into the concept of being as such. (355)

To be open to genuine change in form, and thus to destruction, is not to display a lack of autonomy and constancy, but rather to display one’s plasticity. Something like this is what Canguilhem was after: a conception of the organism as having its very being in its alterability. But he saw this alterability as ultimately a self-transformability, rather than a susceptibility to an outside influence or force, and thus conceived of it as a sovereignty of extra-natural form over natural content. (355)

Gabriel Gohau “Le myth de l’éternel recommencement”

December 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Gohau, Gabriel 2003. Le mythe de l’éternel recommencement. Études sur la mort 124(2) : 121-130.

Si l’on croit l’historien des religions Mircéa Eliade, qui a écrit un petit ouvrage très éclairant sur Le Mythe de l’éternel retour, celui-ci est en fait une caractéristique des sociétés archaïques, qui affichent par ce canal leur volonté « de refuser le temps concret, leur hostilité à toute tentative d’ « histoire » autonome ». (122)

Dans ces civilisations, tout comportement est la répétition d’un geste antérieur, un archétype, répondant à une réalité transcendante. Toute création répète la Création du monde. Toute construction humaine a son modèle céleste. […] Du coup tout est sacré : le profane est par nature inessentiel. Les événements sont rapportés à des catégories. (122)

Le temps et l’histoire sont annulés par cette référence. L’individualité, source de spontanéité, qui mène à « l’authenticité et l’irréversibilité » de l’histoire, est rejetée. Pour se défendre contre les germes d’évolution, la société primitive doit régénérer périodiquement le temps. (122)

Déjà le Dieu des Juifs, par ses interventions personnelles, rompt avec la vision archétypique ancienne. La vie de Moise est un événement unique, irréversible, et la venue attendue du messie est destinée au salut du monde, et donc à l’arrêt de l’histoire. Il y a régénération, mais une seule fois. Les chrétiens, selon Eliade, vont plus loin : « le Christ n’est mort pour nos péchés qu’une fois, une fois pour toutes ; ce n’est pas un événement réitérable […] Le déroulement de l’histoire est ainsi commandé par un fait unique, radicalement singulier ». (123)

Il y a bien sur, près de nous Nietzsche, qui puise sa philosophie dans l’œuvre de Zarathoustra (Zoroastre). Convaincu que l’univers est infini, alors que les combinaisons énergétiques sont en nombre fini, puisque le total des forces est constant, le philosophe allemand ne peut douter du retour des mêmes combinaisons. En rupture avec la religion judéo-chrétienne, il utilise le cycle pour refuser toute finalité providentielle : le retour introduit une « innocence du devenir ». Son traducteur, G.A. Goldschmidt, caractérise sa pensée comme une « insurrection contre l’histoire », visant à son « annulation et abolition ». (124)

Tout le développement sur les analyses de Mircéa Eliade montre que la croyance au retour éternel est une façon de nier les effets de l’histoire. En ce sens elle est caractéristique de la pensée archaïque. La modernité ne peut donc naître que par rupture avec elle. Ce qui ne signifie nullement que les idées traditionnelles ne persistent pas dans nos pensées les plus contemporaines. On pourrait dire, par comparaison avec l’opposition bachelardienne entre la pensée commune et la pensée scientifique, que le temps historique ne peut s’établir que par une lutte constante contre les paresses de l’esprit qui nous ramènent au temps cyclique. (127)

Les physiciens ont compris que la sensibilité aux conditions initiales, dont les situations météorologiques forment le modèle, exclut qu’on puisse connaître l’avenir et reconstituer le passé par la simple connaissance du présent comme le croyait Laplace au début du XIXe siècle. C’est en ce sens que l’histoire, celle de la Terre, comme celle de la Vie, ou celle de l’Univers, et a fortiori celle de l’Humanité, échappent, tout à la fois, au retour cyclique et à ce qu’on peut nommer fatalisme ou nécessitarisme. La biosphère est imprévisible disait un illustre biologiste (Monod, 1970). « Le temps peut-il être enclos dans le mouvement nécessaire d’une liaison logique ? » s’interrogeait le philosophe-mathématicien marxiste Pierre Raymond dans un ouvrage au joli titre brechtien : « La résistible fatalité de l’histoire ». (128)

Gilbert Hottois “De l’anthropologie à l’anthropotechnique?”

December 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Hottois, Gilbert 2005. De l’anthropologie à l’anthropotechnique ? Tumultes 25(2) : 49-64.

Que comporte ou comportait la valorisation traditionnelle, directe ou indirecte, du langage ?
– Le langage n’est pas un outil comme les autres, utile seulement à la communication entre les humains et à leur organisation ;
– il est l’instrument de l’hominisation, du devenir humain : il institue l’humanité en général et chaque sujet individuel en particulier ;
– cette institution langagière de l’humain est constitutive de la raison et de la liberté, caractéristiques traditionnelles de l’homme ; c’est parce qu’il a la capacité de se représenter symboliquement des possibles avec leurs contextes, justifications et conséquences (représentation rationnelle) que l’homme peut délibérer et choisir entre ces possibles (liberté) ;
– intimement solidaire de ce qui fait l’être humain, le langage apparaît aussi comme le seul instrument légitime du progrès authentiquement humain tant au plan individuel que collectif. Vouloir substituer au langage un autre moyen d’évolution ne pourrait donc être qu’aliénant. (50)

Les techniques matérielles ne font pas partie de la culture au sens noble du terme qui identifie culture et ordre symbolique. Empiriques et mécaniques, les techniques n’aident pas à l’institution de l’homme en tant qu’être rationnel et libre. Elles s’appliquent au monde matériel, au milieu extérieur à l’homme. (51)

Ce qui s’oppose donc à l’idée d’anthropotechnique est la très ancienne idée « anthropo-logique » elle-même : c’est par le logos exclusivement (aujourd’hui : le langage) qu’anthropos se constitue et progresse. (51)

Signalons toutefois que des courants utilitaristes anglo-saxons soulignent l’importance de la sensibilité des êtres vivants, commune aux humains et aux nonhumains, plus que du langage, et voient dans l’accentuation de la différence anthropologique sous la forme du logos une expression du spécisme anthropocentrique, c’est-à-dire d’une sorte de chauvinisme étroit de l’humanité, qu’ils dénoncent pour des raisons éthiques et de philosophie générale. (51)

Un postulat anthropologique est que les techniques matérielles s’appliquent au milieu : c’est par rapport au monde que l’homme est légitimement homo faber. Par rapport à lui-même, il est légitimement seulement homo loquax. (52)

Parce qu’elle est médecine toujours tributaire de la philosophie traditionnelle, la médecine contemporaine ne peut pas en principe intervenir dans un sens autre que thérapeutique. Mais ses capacités opératoires et les demandes, individuelles et collectives, auxquelles elle ne cesse d’être confrontée, la tirent de plus en plus du côté de ce qu’on devrait appeler « biotechnologie appliquée à l’homme », c’est-à-dire « anthropotechnique ». (52-53)

Nous retrouvons ici le nœud déjà signalé : il est permis à l’homme d’être créateur symboliquement, libre inventeur d’images, de représentations (quoique cette liberté soit déjà pernicieuse, car elle peut être sacrilège). Il ne pourrait pas, en revanche, être libre créateur techno-physiquement, bouleverser l’ordre de la nature et, surtout, modifier sa propre nature, sans précipiter l’apocalypse. (53)

L’homme reste créature avant d’être créateur : sa transcendance doit demeurer symbolique ; elle ne peut se faire opératoire. N’étant pas Dieu, mais seulement à Son image, l’homme ne peut être créateur qu’au plan des images. (54)

Pourquoi ne pas considérer que le corps humain (y compris le génome et le cerveau) constitue, en réalité, le milieu physique le plus proche de l’homme ? Pourquoi faudrait-il respecter les limites, les servitudes, les contraintes, toutes contingentes, qu’il impose ? Pourquoi ontologiser la finitude physique et n’accorder à l’homme qu’une transcendance symbolique ? (55)

Répétons-le : le débat ne porte pas sur le caractère indispensable de limites, c’est-à-dire aussi de règles — structures, stabilités, repères. La viabilité de la nature et de la société repose sur leur existence. Leur absence est synonyme de chaos, c’est-à-dire d’anarchie au plan social et de folie au plan individuel. La question est : avons-nous besoin de la fiction de limites absolues, de structures ontologiques ? Ce type de fiction — la fiction de la Vérité — est-il compatible avec notre type de civilisation ? Le problème vient donc de la demande de limites immuables et universelles qui sont des impératifs — principalement des interdits — catégoriques, c’est-à-dire non conditionnels, non contextuels, non évolutifs, non révisibles. De telles limites ont pour fonction non seulement d’interdire certaines applications technoscientifiques, mais les recherches elles-mêmes qui permettraient de concrétiser certains possibles déclarés absolument mauvais. (57)

L’exemple spectaculaire le plus récent de ce type de limites est l’interdiction du clonage humain reproductif (CHR). L’éventualité du CHR est une parfaite illustration d’un bouleversement anthropologique radical à partir d’une possibilité d’anthropotechnique dans le domaine de la biotechnologie appliquée à l’homme. (57)

Sauf à adopter une position métaphysique spiritualiste traditionnelle ou d’adhérer à une sorte de principe anthropique qui place l’homme tel qu’il existe depuis quelques millénaires au sommet final de l’évolution cosmique ou encore à considérer que l’espèce humaine n’a pas d’avenir lointain et qu’elle est condamnée à être emportée dans quelque catastrophe cosmique ou technologico-historique majeure, il nous semble pertinent de concevoir l’invention du futur de l’humanité comme anthropotechnique autant qu’anthropologique, ou en un mot comme anthropotechnologique. Cette articulation n’est pas du tout inconcevable ni impraticable : le langage n’est pas étranger à la matérialité et à l’opérativité, et la matière étend, elle-même, son énigme de la physique quantique jusqu’au cerveau conscient. (64)

Marc Champagne “What Anchors Semiosis: How Descartes Changed the Subject”

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Champagne, Marc 2008. What Anchors Semiosis: How Descartes Changed the Subject. Recherches Sémiotiques / Semiotic Inquiry 28(3-1): 183-197.

To recapture the truly revolutionary scope of Descartes’ inluence, we have to consider the curiously bifurcated semantics of the term “subjective”. The Collins English Dictionarycontains two deinitions in its entry. On the one hand, “subjective” is described as “the grammatical case in certain languages that identiies the subject of a verb”. On the otherhand, it is said to be “of or based on a person’s emotions or prejudices”. These incommensurate meanings are an archaeological trace, a scar that bears silent witness to a severe paradigmatic tear. At the risk of oversimplifying, the irst acceptation owes mainly to Aristotle, and the second to Descartes. (185)

By retreating strictly to what is phenomenally present before the mind, Descartes deliberately casts aside this long-standing way of viewing the world in favour of an agent-centred viewpoint, one which willbecome a deining staple of philosophical Modernity. (186)

[…] Aristotle introduced a very inluential distinction between “matter” and “form”. Exploiting an analogy with a sculpture refashioned into various shapes, he adduced matter as the source of whatever “thisness” stays constant throughout the change, concomitantly letting the form imposed on that matter account for the “suchness” that undergoes modiications from one moment to another. (187)

All we need retain for the purposes at hand is the idea that, in the Aristotelian conception, what anchors the succession of states is the substantial subject. According to this theory, there is an ontological substrate which carries a given thing’s various properties (see Lisska 2010 : 144). (187)

As Aristotle explains : it is plain that there must be something underlying, namely, that which becomes. For when a thing comes to be of such a quantity or quality or in such a relation, time, or place, a subject is always presupposed, since substance alone is not predicated of another subject, but everything else of substance. (Ibid.: 325) (188)

What we ind in the well-known remarks about the melting piece of wax is a drastic revision of the notion of “subject”. (189)

[…] the idea of “subjectivity” as pertaining to a grammatical subject — which includes but is not limited to the irst-person pronoun— goes back to a bygone ontology of substances. Unlike the construal of the subject as that which apprehends, this more archaic sense of the word pertains to that which is apprehended. Our grammar still attests to this Aristotelian thesis. (189)

We can thus say that Aristotle’s “subject” is the “it” lying in the world, whereas Descartes’ “subject” is narrower and is limited solely to the singular and incorporeal“I”. (189)

Of course, once a thing’s predicates are stripped away, it is not altogether clear what — if anything — remains. The only plausible candidate seems to be that extension through space is the one primitive that cannot be eliminated. In his 1634 The World (Descartes 1985 : 90-92), Descartes endorses an arid quantitativeontology akin to what one would ind in a purely geometrical universe. But at this point in his investigations, Descartes is more preoccupied with the still more problematic question of how one could come to know this sort of bare extension. Seeing how the senses each latch onto qualitative properties that shift and replace one another, what faculty can possibly allow us to gain insight into the residual presence that is left over? (190-191)

Note that the level of insight into the wax’s true nature depends not on the thing itself, but on the degree of care and rigour with which the “thinking thing” ponders it. (191)

[…] the senses provide us with a qualitative spectacle, but it is the unaided intellect which grasps quantitative aspects like extension. And since such extended space is in the inal analysis all that bodies consist in, Descartes holds that only mental scrutiny gives us insight into the nature of things. (191-192)

In the Aristotelian scheme defended and expanded by Latin thinkers like John Poinsot, experiential predicates like hot, soft, and pungent were united by and anchored to a worldly “subject” in the archaic dictionary sense outlined earlier. In the new Cartesian scheme, it is a mental “subjectivity” which gathers these qualities and judges them to appertain to a common spatial region. Predicates are therefore notthe gateway to a clear and distinct knowledge of things. Much the contrary, since they can morph to the point of unrecognizability, they obscure and distort the true essence of a thing, which is its inert spatial extension. It is the unaided intellect of the thinking subject which attains a true knowledge of the nature of things, and it does so by putting aside the unclear and indistinct qualitative distortions of the phenomenal field
and relying solely on the ironclad verdicts of rationality. (192)

Instead of a plurality of worldly subjects, intelligibility is now beholden to a singular mental subject. Descartes’ relections on the piece of wax can thus (in hindsight) be seen as the precise locus of this paradigmatic rupture (it would be interesting to pinpoint the exact date when Descartes sat in front of his ireplace with wax). (193)

Indeed, by the time we reach the irst edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, Hobbes’ proposed terminology has become the norm, such that Kant no longer feels it necessary to mention any departure from the once-accepted scholastic usage : “I, as a thinking being, am the absolute subjectof all my possible judgments, and this representation of Myself cannot be used as the predicate of any other thing” (Kant 1998 : 415-416 [emphasis in original]). (194)

Although the task of pinpointing the precise date when this shift manifested itself in natural linguistic usage is best left to lexicographers, I have proposed that the philosophicalrupture from the subject-construedas-a-worldly-thing to the subject-construed-as-a-solipsist-mentalactivity can be traced back to Descartes’ introspective relections on the piece of wax. (194)