The Stakes of Silence

24 May

My favorite ex got married a few months ago. We broke up long ago (if you’ve been with bogey from the beginning you might remember him) but you can’t spend five years with someone unless you really like them, and when he first told me he was getting married I kept waiting for nostalgia or resentment or even envy. Most everyone I’ve dated is now married and it has never occurred to me to care, but I felt I owed him—or rather I owed the us-as-was—an attempt at appropriate emotion. Try as I did, though, all there was to it was happiness and the narrative satisfaction of loose ends neatly tied together.

Then the wedding happened, and there were pictures, and there were comments on those pictures (by various random humans) about how he had “saved the best for the last” and that was when my temper flared. It was comforting, after the stormy year I’ve had, to finally feel a small sorrow, and I started listening to the song in pursuit of a pleasantly maudlin night. I soon discovered I was “some silly girl” and growled I am a fucking woman and took the whole thing very personally indeed. It hurts to be reduced into a trivial obstacle in the drama of someone else’s life; it’s the sort of thing most of us know about ourselves even as we rarely face the full shattering reality of it. Other people, so to say, are always already the reserve army of emotional labor, and all it means to honestly love someone is to convince them that they are not expendable.

This past year I tried, belligerently and often ridiculously, to do precisely that—and it was the hardest thing, bar none, that I’ve ever done. But there’s no convincing people that prefer to remain indifferent; there’s only accepting it, which sounds perfectly obvious until you live through the knowledge that the person you love has no space for you in their life and is willing to be quite ruthless about it. (It took Hegel to teach me about indifference, because I am a very deep idiot.) The how, why, and where of it all requires rather more backstory that I’m willing to go into but essentially what happened last year was that two people I trusted beyond all reason betrayed that trust within a few months of one another and I lost my mind. Around the same time, I was harassed, if that’s the word, with devastating intimacy, by someone (else) who had clearly been far more attentive to my online existence (and those of the people in my life) than I had. It wasn’t all a coincidence, it was a… whirlpool. There were a lot of emails, there was a breach of privacy, there was a great deal of embarrassment; it wasn’t threatening, but it went on for far too long and eventually there was the grim vulnerability of knowing I had handed someone the weapons with which they hurt me.

At this point, I could have taken down bogey, deleted my social media, and gone to ground. I almost did. Perhaps, in retrospect, I ought to have. At the time, though, that felt like defeat—and I can be, have you noticed, a pretty pugnacious human. So I stuck around, made my jokes and my peace, and figured I would get over it and start publishing again; I was certainly writing enough, if not quite well enough. Each time I got to a pitch or a byline, though, I stalled. Last year’s post took me six weeks to upload, and the thought of actually publishing something made me feel horribly exposed. It took Aisha weeks to convince me to publish the Shape of Water review, and the only way I can cobble together Advocate editorials is by writing boring and/or obvious ones.

Speaking of that review— the first essay I published under my own name after the Deccan history essay last February— the title of this post was the working title on it, born as it was from a year in which it felt like I all was doing was throwing some sort of very principled tantrum even as I was utterly unable to say something (anything!) that might actually matter and that might give me some pride rather than steadily deplete it. I can’t quite explain it, if anything twitter ought to make me feel more vulnerable than writing a bogey-post six people will read. And so it does, but for precisely that reason it’s easier to feel brave (or something) every time I log in. In the act of preserving my right to have a voice, I seem to have lost my actual voice— I began bogey to be a writer, but these days I feel like I kept bogey and lost the writing.

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Keyezua, “Fortia,” 2017

A lot of this exhausting year has been about scavenging a life from the debris of my previous one. I’ve spent so long trying to sort out the kind of life I can have that I lost sight of the one I want to have. I don’t regret it; I would do it all again, fall in love, risk a broken heart, even sacrifice my dignity until it began to feel like I simply had none left. (I do, of course, I have enough dignity to drown a dromedary.) But somewhere along the way I began to… disintegrate, and it’s time to admit a measure of defeat. I’m, well, scared. Not of anyone else, all that’s sorted, just for myself. The past two summers have been bleak, and I don’t know what to do with this one except retreat and hope to emerge with some wisdom, some wit, some discipline. Which brings me roundabout to my point.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: I want to build a life I won’t eventually need to delete. I have erased novels and voices and cities and lovers and careers and I am just fucking done. And I want to write; since I can’t make myself write posts or essays, I’m writing letters. To you lot, to those of you who want them, anyhow. Mostly I’m doing this for the structure of it, and I’ll be quite content writing into a void, so long as I can pretend to myself it isn’t one, which was always the point of bogey anyway. I’m also kicking myself off the internet once I get home in June, so if you want me, this is where I’ll be. I’ll send one every Thursday starting next week, until September— and there will be no archives. If you see this in July or something and want to catch up; write me and if I know you we can work something out. If we’ve never interacted, I apologize for being rude, but I won’t respond.

The letters won’t be all about my life or anything, which is in any case not that interesting. It’ll mostly be stuff I’m reading and thinking through—some of which will be tinged with the personal; it’s just how I’m writing these days, especially with the exciting state of feminism—so they’ll be some sort of cross between my twitter account and what bogey used to be. I expect them to be much shorter than the traditional bogey post (certainly this one) and far chattier, but I tend to get obsessed with whatever I’m working on, so mostly it’ll be me blathering about trains or mythology or legal reasoning or fossils or whatever. If I get too arcane, please do write me, and I’ll fix it in the next letter and explain and so on. I desperately want to find my way back to writing for non-academic audiences and I’ll very much appreciate all the help I can get. Again, if I don’t know you and you email me: I will read, but I won’t respond, at least not directly. I’m sorry to sound pompous, it’s not that I think I’m above reproach or debate, I just need the space and silent strangers.

Below the fold, belying all that I just said, is a very academic thingamajig about Adorno’s reading of Kant, which is such a beautiful piece of philosophizing I thought it was the perfect way to start and couldn’t bring myself to tamper with it by simplifying it any further. I can, however, alert you to the stakes, so I’ll do that first.

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Max Ernst, A Week of Kindness, 1934

 

Ontology is the branch of (what used to be called) metaphysics that talks about “being” in the sense of what essentially is, independent of cognition or history. The simplest way to understand what that means is to contrast it with epistemology, which is the theory of knowledge. One (only slightly wrong) way to think of it is as the difference between essence and appearance: what something actually is vis-à-vis what it seems to be.  Another is the difference between a thing (ontology) and an object (epistemology). People often think Kant exiled ontology from philosophy for the long 19th century, because part of his point is that we are frequently deluded by desire into confusing appearances for essences (and tho’ he doesn’t say this, being as he is a man, into assuming that people are subjects are objects are things.) Having just had my heart and judgement battered, you’ll see why I’m inclined to agree. So one of Kant’s signature moves was to say well fuck essences and let’s stick to what we can know, which is how human beings perceive and organize the world. My essay is partly about how the “Kant destroyed ontology” take is a bit much, but it’s certainly true his chief interest was in establishing epistemological first principles that would be universally valid without depending on divine sanction. In literally the first page of the first critique he’s super upset that metaphysics has been dethroned as “the queen of the sciences” because scholars have been so busy quibbling for so long they forgot to notice the ground under them had basically vanished.

 The Critique of Pure Reason was published, it seems important to say, less than a decade before the French Revolution. Kant’s whole question in this book is “how do we know what is unless we know how we know it.” This is less fatuous than my framing sounds, cos if you’re busy arguing about reality you can’t actually do any science and Kant really wanted people to be able do science. He greatly respected what he calls “the given”— the truths we arrive at by experience and experiment about the shared reality we inhabit—and one way to read the entire first critique is as a long argument with Humean skepticism, and as is the way in such things (see also: Heidegger vs Adorno) the smallish space of disagreement between them outweighs the dozens of things they agree about.

Everyone these days hates on Kant, which is why I thought it worth figuring out what he said. Turns out it’s true, Kant does kinda suck and is incredibly boring besides, but also people have been saying that since like Schelling and he remains partly the reason there’s a thing called “theory” and another thing called “philosophy.”  People usually preface their hating-on-Kant by saying he elevates (white male) subjectivity to this cosmic event and then leaves no room for it to do anything besides conform to the world-as-given, such that his entire corpus is one giant exercise in gaslighting. Adorno’s reading of why and how he does that was one of the shorter essays I wrote for my Kant-and-Hegel class this term. I’m sorry to subject you to… unmediated schoolwork, but I can’t really explain it better and it is just so lucid. (Adorno’s analysis is, I mean, not my essay, which does it no justice, so perhaps you should stop now and read his lectures on The Critique of Pure Reason instead.) Also I should say, the essay might read like a love letter to Adorno– and I think he’s an amazing companion to Kant/Hegel— but I’m sort of at war with him in my head these days cos I think he’s fully brilliant and fully wrong. Obvious caveats apply: I’m only a grad student, and not even one in political theory, and stuff I think is !revolutionary! is probably old hat to everyone who cares and pointless to everyone who doesn’t.

Anyway, onward to ontology!

SALVAGING ONTOLOGY

Adorno’s claim that Kant “salvages” ontology is fundamental to his reading of the Critique of Pure Reason, and his reasoning in establishing it is how he eventually suggests that Kant’s “grandiose metaphysical system was able to become the world view of alienation and of the blunted consciousness of the bourgeoisie.” Yet Adorno cautions us, repeatedly, against the idea that Kant embraced an ontology in any positive sense, and insists that we work our way through the “ineluctable duality” of appearance and essence rather than seek a lost unity between realms that Kant himself firmly sunders. How does one, then, salvage what has never existed? If Kant’s entire argument presumes the impossibility of ontology as a species of valid knowledge, in what sense does he “rescue” it?

Adorno begins by noting that Kant defines ontology, in Progress of Metaphysics, as precisely the domain of “ancestral concepts” that the first critique concerns itself with.  Kant’s guiding question in The Critique of Pure Reason is “how is metaphysics possible as a positive science,” and he must first secure its foundations— ontological concepts like the self, the world, and the thing— against Humean skepticism, which dissolves their substantial reality by arguing they are products of experience (i.e. that they arise from experience, rather than merely in experience) and thus remain contingent. As Adorno frames it, Kant’s dilemma is as follows: on the one hand, existence can only be apprehended by a unified consciousness, the radically empowered Kantian subject. On the other hand, these subjects must in turn be constituted by existing reality and cannot simply be presupposed.

This implicit dialectic is why Adorno argues that the conventional reading of Kant as a champion of subjectivity is an incomplete reading. While it is true that, for Kant, subjectivity is a precondition for objectivity— that “the subject has priority in bringing the object into being”— Adorno argues that it is equally true that “objectivity is the secret of subjectivity,” that without the absolute logical possibility of conceptual objectivity, the entire Kantian project would be simply impossible.  Thus the unity of the subject as a perceptual being is correlated to the unity of the object, and “the mechanisms that Kant represents as truly transcendental mechanisms, those which provide the foundations for subjective unity, are indistinguishable from those that which enable us to perceive things, objective existent beings, as identical objects.*”

[*The word identical is crucial in that quote, for all sorts of reasons I wish I could explain, including like half of Negative Dialectics, but let’s just say for now that accurate and precise identification of things by subjects—such that thought conforms to experience and vice-versa in universal, timeless, and non-contradictory ways—is absolutely central to Kant’s understanding of truth. Yet the power of Kant’s critical philosophy, for Adorno, is all the ways in which it realizes that identity is not possible, in the ways in which it “blocks” such identity. This grows even more important in his reading of Hegel, who is all about identifying with stuff, and Adorno uses Kant against Hegel there much as he’s quietly using Hegel against Kant here]

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Max Ernst, A Week of Kindness, 1934

Adorno’s arguments about Kant’s objective subjectivity are developed primarily in two lectures about the concept of the thing, which begin by distinguishing between “the thing-in-itself” or the “entirely unknown and indefinite cause of phenomena” and the thing as the “law [or the synthesis] of its possible appearances,” the thing as an object for knowledge. In this latter sense, Kant skates very close to Hume, with the important emphasis that for him such laws are absolutely and ontologically necessary, for without them there would be no subjective unity of perception. The laws that govern the relations between phenomena are independent of experience; they are objectively given to the subjective mind, even as they remain open to discovery through sustained inquiry.

This is why the laws of thought and the laws of truth coincide in Kant, and why he insists on absolute and timeless identity as the criterion for valid knowledge. As Adorno notes, “there is no vast difference [in Kant] between the concept of laws and the concept of givens, even though they lie at the opposite poles of knowledge… it is in that sense that there is no paradox to ascribe the objectivity of things to the subject, and we can speak of laws only as the laws of thought.” How such synthetic laws that regulate reality can exist, where they can be said to come from, as it were, is precisely the question the Critique is meant to resolve. Kant, Adorno writes, operates within an embattled and “residual” theory of truth, in which what is at stake is not knowledge itself, whether scientific or otherwise, but the very possibility of knowledge—of a founding reason that extends beyond empirical facts precisely because it encompasses and grounds them.

Kant partly resolves the problem of irreducible givens by banishing these things-in-themselves to the paradoxical realm of the transcendental, where they exert tremendous causal force even as they remain immune from reasonable investigation. In this sense, he creates a sort of dual reality, in which there exists a world that hovers behind our world of appearances, but this is not to say that Kant rescues thought by effectively abandoning it. It is perhaps more productive to read the “thing-in-itself”—about which nothing can be known because nothing can be proved, as in the famous fourth antinomy—as the origin story of a mode of thought that takes sober empiricism very seriously indeed. The mysterious first cause it signifies is only as powerful as it is ultimately irrelevant, and it points us to the fundamental social contradictions that Kantian metaphysics would prove to be so influential in theorizing. This is why Adorno suggests that Kant exemplifies a method of thinking that expresses—in the full Marxist sense of the term—the objective aporias of bourgeois modernity.  [This is the move I really like]

That Kant’s thought is concerned with bourgeois values, and often assumes them, is evident from his frequent resort to metaphors of property and conquest, such as when he suggests that his project is to establish “by what title we occupy even this [radically enclosed] land, and can hold it securely against all hostile claims.” But Adorno calls Kant a bourgeois philosopher not merely to historicize or contextualize him. His analysis demonstrates the logic of Kant’s thinking; the ways in which he perfected the exchange theory of knowledge. Adorno calls Kant’s investment in timeless and binding truth “primordially bourgeois” because it assumes that reason can be immensely productive without being creative in the sense of bringing something utterly and gratuitously new and marvelous in the world.

This is why Kant’s thought prefigures the utopia of reason even as it simultaneously forecloses it, and this curious melding of dogma and skepticism is symptomatic of the disenchanted world that Kant found himself grappling with—a world characterized by commodification, in which humans remain alienated both from one another and from their habitat. Adorno attributes Kant’s simultaneous elevation and denunciation of reason—on the one hand, human reason regulates reality; on the other hand, reason must be sternly curtailed—to precisely this specific historical conjuncture in thought. Kant, Adorno writes, marks a threshold, a moment in which “the destructive potential for heteronomy, that is the passive acceptance of what is merely the case, has appeared menacingly on the horizon, just as the shadows of the old dogmatism are about to be dissipated.” This is why the political implications for Kantian metaphysics— obedience, conformity, rationalization—are so disturbingly quietist, despite his strong claims about radical potential of human subjectivity.

Kant’s philosophy is profoundly inflected by the paradoxical truth that reification is a function of subjectivization** and that our mastery of “nature” as a passive externality governed by predictable and positive laws is purchased “at the price of metaphysical despair.” This, Adorno insists, is the fundamental antinomy of bourgeois society: that the more we rationalize the world in order to control it, the more it controls us, and it is a social reality that finds its philosophical correlate in Kant.  Insofar as Adorno speaks of a “salvage” operation in Kant, thus, he suggests by it that Kant tries to rescue the human capacity for action by refracting it through objective subjectivity. The higher and deeper truths might forever be lost, and we might live in a deeply determinate universe that is governed by implacable laws mandated by ineffable things, but as long as those laws take their warranty and their reality from us, we may continue to behave as if they are not infallible.

This peculiar and dialectical relation between the subject and object and the related (but not overlapping) relation between form and content enters history, as Adorno would emphasize, at a very specific conjuncture, and has very material effects in shaping what is considered possible and plausible, as Kant’s long legacy in modern thought suggests. This is what Adorno means when he writes that “history is in truth”. Thinking our way through this quixotic formation of an objective subjectivity—and the kinds of truths it both presupposes and authorizes—helps us notice both the manner in which Kant limits reason as well as the ways in which the determined and earnest pursuit of reason limits him.

[** I don’t know Lukács well enough to know if Adorno’s following him here, but I think so. It’s not explicit in the text and he’s usually pretty scrupulous about that, far as I can tell. But maybe someone who knows more gossip will be all lol no he was mighty skint. The despair stuff seems highly Adorno tho. Koselleck has a whole bit on Kant as prophet that also talks a lot about the nature/culture divide and history and suchlike and he’s generally pretty grouchy but my memory is Kant comes off looking fairly cheery in that text]

 

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