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Hans Blumenberg’s Dichotomies

Having just finished The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I made a list of some of the dichotomies he treats. There are a lot of them, and the major headache of the book came from trying to keep their shifting relations in mind all at once. Blumenberg isn’t the sort to ever claim a definitive sequence or priority of concepts and their interactions, so the various ideologies treated in the book, from Platonism all the way to Feuerbach and (briefly) Freud, each create their own correlations between these concepts. Occasionally, some of the dichotomies collapse entirely, as with Nicholas of Cusa’s attempt to reconcile the finitude of the Incarnation with the infinity of God.

  • Gnosticism vs Scholasticism (especially voluntarism)

  • Holism vs subject/object duality

  • Immanence vs transcendence

  • Progress vs stasis/circularity

  • Perfection vs imperfection

  • Infinite vs finite

  • Knowledge vs morality

  • Knowledge-seeking vs happiness

  • Curiosity vs resignation

  • Geocentrism vs Copernicanism

  • Completeness vs incompleteness

  • Public vs private/secret/invisible

  • Autonomy vs indifference

  • Platonic realism vs nominalism

  • Form vs substance

Some disparate philosophies get combined on one side or another at times. Skepticism, stoicism, and Epicureanism, contra Hegel, are all treated as forms of resignation against pursuing knowledge.

Hans Blumenberg on Heidegger, Freud, and Others

The terms “forgetfulness of Being” and “repression”, deriving from very different sources in the thought of our century, represent a common underlying circumstance, namely, that what is past and forgotten can have its own sort of harmful presence.

Talk of the “undealt-with past” has concentrated in recent decades on the sins of omission of what has now become the generation of the fathers–in fact it has concentrated (increasingly) less on those who set the machinery of destruction in motion than on those who neglected to destroy it in good time or to prevent its schemes from being implemented in the first place. One should not fail to notice how such structures of reproach become plausible: They are integrated into a familiar schema, which through its capacity for variation continually gains in apparent conclusiveness.

Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success. The suggestion of a distant event that is responsible for what is wrong in the present…is an additional reason why the category of secularization is in need of a critique.

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I.9

In other words, in bad times we seek out frameworks in which we can point to some point in the past where things went wrong, either by ignoring certain facts of existence or entering a philosophical cul-de-sac. This conveniently generates both an excuse for terrible things that might otherwise be wholly our fault, as well as a clear corrective that gives moral standing to the diagnostician. (Or, in the case of Adorno, the insistence that there is no possible corrective gives him moral standing.) Remember Being! Remember neurosis!

The solution doesn’t have to take the form of a return to the past, but it does have to cause some sort of undoing of the present, which I take to be the underlying motivation of such strategies: the desire to go from here to not-here and, even better, never-was-here. The shape of not-here matters less than the appealing prospect of having forgotten the bad times and being All Better Now.

Secularization and Heidegger seem to be the better examples. With (late) Freud and Adorno, their sheer pessimism undermines the case against their original frameworks. On the other hand, students of both of them have had no trouble constructing prescriptive frameworks that promise corrective measures just as boldly as Heidegger does.

Freud on the Uncanny/Unheimlich

The uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, merits in truth a separate discussion. Above all, it is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life. The contrast between what has been repressed and what has been surmounted cannot be transposed on to the uncanny in fiction without profound modification; for the realm of phantasy depends for its effect on the fact that its content is not submitted to reality-testing. The somewhat paradoxical result is that in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place, that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.

The Uncanny

Elsewhere in the essay Freud (taking off, magpie-like, from Ernst Jentsch’s conception of the uncanny) discusses the partial synonymy between heimlich and unheimlich, suggesting that the latter is a product of the repression of the former. But I like the idea that fiction and presumably other forms of art and writing as well bring with it its own set of standards for what is and is not uncanny, and these standards are in no way mimetic of the real world. It seems like an obvious enough point, but how many discussions of the uncanny ignore the clear difference between those standards for what one experiences in reading and those standards for what one experiences in life? (Benjamin, for one, as with when he treats Kafka.) And how often do one’s expectations of uncanniness in stories get projected mistakenly onto life itself?

Moreover, the writer works overtime to create uncanny effects well beyond anything that we tend to encounter in life (or that if we encounter in real life, we think it to be is “stranger than fiction”), then has to be held to the ever-shifting standards of the uncanny, and how robust the writer’s conception was determines the reception of their work in the ensuing years. (That is, the nature of the “reality testing” changes as the social conception of reality does.) Private, unshared neuroses may cause any would-be uncanny effects to quickly fade from the page.

(As an example of the shifting, take Freud’s essay and larger work itself. Since so many versions of Freud’s ideas have passed into conventional wisdom, every time Freud doesn’t match one of the common conceptions in his writing, there’s an uncanny experience that Freud has greatly departed from what Freud is supposed to be.)

One other, metatextual point, is that you can hypothesize that the fictional standards from the uncanny bear an uncanny relation to the real-life standards; our laxer standards in fiction allow for the airing of more repression. Maybe this is too clever a formulation, but at least it merits bearing in mind before a critic jumps at the opportunity to point out every quirk in a novel as being uncanny. It’s become an overused category, and it would be better to document it descriptively than to postulate instances of it willy-nilly.

(The most famous application of the idea of the uncanny as nearly-familiar is Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley.)

Otto Mühl

The life and times of Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl, short version.

In 1970 Otto Mühl founded a commune in Vienna. The experiment was an offshoot of the ‘Aktionismus’, a Viennese version of the happenings in New York, lead by meanwhile legendary artists such as Nitsch, Schwarzkogler, and Brus. The happenings – in German ‘Aktionen’ – were an effort to lift all kinds of taboo in art. Many an artist proceeded to complement the revolution in art with a revolution in life itself. Life as the ultimate work of art, so to speak.

Declared enemy of the commune was: monogamy. Private property of women was considered to be the condition of private property of the means of production. Furthermore, marriage was the place where social repression was deeply anchored in personality. By limiting oneself to only one partner, sexuality was severely muzzled. The mobilisation of a revolutionary potential thus had to begin with releasing sexuality from such fetters.

The ideal of life-long fidelity was replaced by the ideal of absolute promiscuity. It was forbidden to make love with the same partner more than once a week. And also the frequency had to be reconsidered accordingly. With ‘bourgeois couples’ the frequency of copulation, grown to daily drudge, dropped to an alarming 2,57 times a week, at least according to the then widely known statistics of Kinsey. In Friedrichshof one was supposed to make love as often as a Muslim bows to Mecca. Whoever would like quality to prevail over quantity was reminded of the fact that ‘sex’ had to be unlinked from mere bourgeois ‘love’: foreplay and similar ‘romantic nonsense’ were unacceptable. Ideally, the job had to be done in a few minutes. To protect the communards from the dangers of bourgeois inertia, a rather efficient measure was introduced: men were not allowed their own bed. So they had to look for a shelter every night. Thus, even a slowly moving wheel had to turn at least one round a day.

In the beginning, the prescription to look for ever new partners was supplemented with the concomitant prohibition to reject less desirable ones: the marital duty of the bourgeois couple is nothing compared to such compulsive sex. But precisely because the differences were so apparent and remained so because of the maintenance of the free market, and precisely because the happy few precisely therefore preferred the happy few, they were no longer prepared to descend to the lower regions of the pyramid. That is how emerged the so-called ‘inner circle’, where the chosen ones could occupy themselves with the chosen few. To the utter dissatisfaction of the wretched on the base, who so dearly wanted to gain access to the top of the pyramid. The call for collective property has always originated in the excluded ones. In 1985 the conflict was settled in that the privileged closed the ranks, so that the excluded ones had to rely upon themselves.

Unlike the countless mayflies of those times, Mühl’s commune was granted a long life. Long enough to live to see her children come of age. Which immediately raises the question as to whether the children would join the ranks of the veterans.

As it appears, the ‘aktions-analytische’ therapy was not efficient enough to warrant a smooth succession of the generations. Especially the young girls happened to adopt a rather reticent stance on the sexual behaviour of their parents. No problem: according to the theory these were merely the last remnants of patriarchy that should be shaken off. If necessary with a little help: just like their parents, the girls had to be taken in hands by Mühl. Meanwhile, they were forbidden any contact with the boys. And – you have guessed it – in 1987 Mühl is bestowed the feudal right of the first night! Question of having the younger generation initiated in the secrets of sex by the appropriate person. Another natural proclivity is countered here: the preference for one’s own generation. Mühl did not even consider the possibility that he might as well initiate his own children: the women of Friedrichshof preferred Mühl not only as a lover, but also as a begetter. After the collective property of the commune had been transformed into the harem of a monarch, the monarch himself turns out to be to the very embodiment of Freud’s primeval father, incestuously swallowing up the next generation.

Stefan Beyst

In 1991 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for “moral offences and violation of drug law.”

What’s Missing from Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake has so many languages, so many people, so many sheer things that, although they don’t defy enumeration, they defy easy categorization. I spoke before of Joyce’s obsession with overlaying contradictory, consubstantial layers of signification and structure. But the one spot where Joyce can’t pull this trick is in omission and elision. I.e., there are certain areas which are conspicuous by their absence, or at least their relative scarcity. Here are several that were always present in my mind by dint of their absence in the text.

Homosexuality. Given Joyce’s obsessive depiction of the body and its functions, explicit homosexuality is downright marginalized in the Wake. It takes such a secondary role next to heterosexuality that one always wonders where it fits in the cosmology of the book. It is less present in the Wake than it is in both Ulysses and Portrait, where homoerotic male friendships and gender confusion both play a significant part. Shem and Shaun are brothers-in-arms in both opposition and camaraderie, but there appears to be no element of a sexual relationship between them. HCE masturbates and has his obsession with anal and urinary functions, but appears wholly heterosexual. Hints of gender confusion are present for Issy and the Tristan-Isolde pairing, but this is relegated to a pre-adult portrait of sexuality, not one of homosexuality per se. What of this marginalization? Homosexuality does not move history along by generating descendents, but as an expression of the body, I find its rarity puzzling. If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that Joyce simply did not consider homosexuality to be primary, and thought of it as merely a misdirected heterosexual urge. But surely there is more….

Eschatology. I mean this in two senses, both in the sense of general finality and of religious teleology. The absence of finality from the book is core to its structure; nothing ever ends, and nothing ever develops. History and individual human lives reiterate the same patterns and archetypes. This much is evident, but by avoiding any greater eschatology, Joyce goes after any notion of “higher purpose” that is not contained in the physical world itself. We sin and do good, we reproduce and die, but the ideas that these things have a greater meaning and we are just shadows on the wall are anathema to Joyce. The chief religious myth he uses is that of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and even there he takes from it the cycle of sun rising and setting, Osiris’s journey through the underworld to be reconstructed and resurrected, and the inexorable battle between enemies. The idea of any paradise or finality, or even the idea of eternity itself, is as nonsense in the Wake. It is a temporal sequence that can be viewed forwards and backwards, but it is always moving and always changing. One can counter that Joyce views the archetypes and repeating events as eternal, but even in their repetition, they are always changing even as they are always the same. It is Heraclitus without the logos. Needless to say, this also extends to interpretations of the Wake itself: not postponed or unstable, but merely evanescent.

Metaphysics. As with eschatology, Joyce rejects any notion that the phenomenal world may only be a representation of something greater or hidden (in the gnostic sense, for example). His epistemology is simple and uncomplicated: what you see is what you get. Nowhere does he seem to imply that what he is representing is in any way unreal or questionable. Rather, the facts of human life, suffering, and pleasure are nearly sacred to him, and I feel as though he would be offended by any attempt to dismiss them. Samsara is it.

Politics. There is a caveat here, since the details of several political struggles, especially English-Irish relations, are quite frequent in the book. But Joyce always refers to them in a near-fatalistic manner, and even when he appears to take sides, it is on the more general grounds of anti-oppression rather than nationalistic partisanship; even then, he quickly points out the massacres and crimes of both sides. Intrigues and strategy are not particularly present; violence and death are.

Introspection. Yes, the author famed for stream of consciousness has comparatively little of it here. Physical description, third-person histories, and interrogation (lots and lots of it) are the order of the day here. ALP and Issy are the only two figures given extended spots of first-person monologue, and even ALP’s monologues are often given in the form of letters containing words shaped by Shem. Her verbiage in II.2 and IV, constantly analogized as a river, is less a “stream” of consciousness than it is the stream of existence, as both are interrupted by passages that could in no way be termed stream of consciousness.

There are unities amongst these omissions, especially in the hardcore physicalism that more and more pervades my view of Joyce. It becomes easier to understand his dislike of psychology and Freud specifically. Psychology, with its normative states of neurosis, repression, and mental health, would not hold an appeal to someone who had a tendency to see everything (or nothing) as normal. Perhaps homosexuality was not so notable, nor perverse, to obtain an primary position in the schema of the Wake. But I still don’t know.

Postscript: Fritz Senn adds one very significant omission that I can’t believe I forgot: eros. As he says:

There is a lot of sexual content, for some readers there seems to be nothing else. One unfortunate result of finding something sexual in every passage is that thereby SEX is removed from the book. What I do miss, however, is anything erotic.

In my response none of the abundant parts with sexual content, or overtones (or vibrations, etc.), are erotic as something pleasant or stimulating, or cheerful.

And I would agree with him. The joyous personal sexual reveries of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly are not apparent in the Wake. My own explanation for this absence is that Joyce’s exhaustive study of sexual behavior was, by this point, at the level of anthropoligical and biological activity: primarly procreative. At the level of archetypes and history, this may have been all sex seemed to be to Joyce. Eros was too particular and personal to fit into the figures of HCE and ALP.

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