Provocation and interruption are, respectively, the origin and goal of philosophy. This sense of philosophy finds expression in the following quotations from Peter Sloterdijk, the first of which suggests that philosophy is a trace of an unavoidable provocation, while the second articulates the function of the philosopher as an interrupter.
It is a characteristic of humanitas that human beings are confronted with problems that are too difficult for them and that nevertheless cannot be left unaddressed on account of their difficulty. This provocation of the human being by something that can be neither avoided nor mastered left an unforgettable trace behind already at the beginning of European philosophy—indeed, perhaps philosophy itself is this trace in the broadest sense.
(Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Park,” Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger [Polity Press, 2017], p. 211)
We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society, if I may express myself in such pathetic terms. His missions is to show that a subject can be an interrupted, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering.’ With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or the automaton of an ethical imperative.
(Sloterdijk, Neither Sun nor Death [Semiotext(e), 2011], p. 84-5)
Meillassoux suggests that Kant’s Copernican revolution was not actually Copernican at all. Kant (and so many post-Kantians) improperly inverted Copernicus, returning to a pre-Copernican anthropocentrism (see “Ptolemy’s Revenge” in After Finitude). Kant is obviously anthropocentric, but is that really an inversion of the Copernican turn? Or…might we be able to speak about the birth of the Copernican revolution out of the spirit of anthropocentrism? If Meillassoux wants to get past Kantian idealism, he might need Ptolemy more than he knows.
Bruno Latour articulates a wonderful idea in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, where he argues that morality is in the world, not just in humans. For anything to exist it must persist in its being: everything emits “must,” like a musty smell. To be is to emit value, to evaluate. It is value all the way down. Here’s what Latour has to say:
We have to go down long lines of Bifurcators before reaching Kant, who expects humans deprived of world to “add” values to beings “deprived of ought-to-be.” Before him, and in the rest of the world, there hadn’t been a single existent that had failed to exclaim: “It must,” “It mustn’t,” measuring the difference between being and nonbeing by this hesitation. Everything in the world evaluates, from von Uexküll’s tick to Pope Benedict XVI—and even Magritte’s pipe. Instead of opposing “is” to “ought to be,” count instead how many beings an existent needs to pass through and how many alterations it must learn to adapt to in order to continue to exist. On this point Nietzsche is right, the word “value” has no antonym—and especially not the word “fact.”
Just as a geologist can hear the clicks of radioactivity, but only if he is equipped with a Geiger counter, we can register the presence of morality in the world provided that we concentrate on that particular emission. And just as no one, once the instrument has been calibrated, would think of asking the geologist if radioactivity is “all in his head,” “in his heart,” or “in the rocks,” no one will doubt any longer that the world emits morality toward anyone who possesses an instrument sensitive enough to register it. (pp. 453, 456)
This means that the task of ethics is aesthetic—becoming sensitive to the ethical emissions of things, cultivating something like Humean sympathies for the values of different modes of existence. However, Latour expands on Hume by making ethics cosmological in scope. Everything has value, everything matters. This is similar to something Karen Barad says in Meeting the Universe Halfway. “A delicate tissue of ethicality runs through the marrow of being. There is no getting away from ethics—mattering is an integral part of the ontology of the world in its dynamic presencing. Not even a moment exists on its own. […] We need to meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role that we play in the world’s differential becoming” (p. 396).
It’s worth remembering the following passage from Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
“Fiat ars—pereat mundus” says fascism, expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. (p. 122)
Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935-1938. (Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, Trans.). Harvard University Press, 2002.
The moral of the story is that the simple implosion of politics and aesthetics is equivocal. Smooshing them together isn’t inherently beneficial. The distinction between aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics is crucial. The same holds true for the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, a relationship that just about everybody has thought of in terms of the portmanteau, “aesthethics.” On that note, I’m interested to see how the implosion of the aesthetic and the ethical is figured in the new anthology, Aesth/Ethics in Environmental Change: Hiking through the arts, ecology, religion and ethics of the environment, edited by Sigurd Bergmann, Irmgard Blindow, and Konrad Ott (LIT Verlag 2013).
To find oneself in love is to find oneself not free but captivated.
Eroticism is suspect to the ethical mind. Orgasm is pleasure in the breakdown of laws, action, responsibility, conscientiousness, and consciousness. Sensuality is transgressive. In the bodies denuded, sexual excitement surges in the meltdown of built-up structures. As our bodies become orgasmic, the posture collapses, the manipulative diagrams of the limbs soften, legs and thighs roll about, fingers and hands move in aimless, unendingly repetitive caresses, allowing themselves to be stroked and crushed. Our lips loosen, soften, glisten with saliva, lose the train of sentences; our throats issue babble, giggling, moans, and sighs. Our sense of ourselves, our self-respect shaped in fulfilling a function in the machinic and social environment, our dignity maintained in multiple confrontations, collaborations, and demands dissolve; the ego loses its focus as center of evaluations, decisions, and initiatives. The psychic structures with which we screen, filter out, and channel the superabundance of outside stimuli that flood our senses at all times are shattered and the stimuli flood us pell-mell. The structures by which we fix an inner ego identity and censor out a whole underworld of unconscious drives and cravings buckle and crack; in sexual excitement the gates of the lower dungeons are opened and feral drives and cravings bound up and overwhelm our conscious intentions and purposes. Our impulses, our passions, are returned to animal irresponsibility. The pleasure and torment in contact with the nonprehensile surfaces of our bodies, our cheeks, our bellies, our thighs, irradiate across the substance of our sensitive and vulnerable nakedness.
Alphonso Lingis, “The Immoralist,” in The Ethical, ed. Edith Wyschogrod and Gerald P. McKenny (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 205, 211-212.