1. Metaphysics = Thinking sans Anthropology (Was heisst Denken?)
There was a time when thinker and philosopher were more or less synonymous, and the list of great thinkers of past centuries is no more difficult to establish than those of great artists, generals, inventors…. But today, with the proliferation of academics in various fields, with the redefinition of “philosophy” as an academic discipline rather than covering, as it once did, the whole domain of speculative thought, we are no longer sure about what a “thinker” thinks.
This is no mere problem of nomenclature. The Greeks inaugurated speculative thinking, first given a formal shape by Parmenides, then defined by Socrates/Plato as specifically metaphysical, leading to a set of reflections on the categories of being, which Aristotle (whom medieval scholars called the Philosopher) formalized in his Organon.
In contrast to previous modes of thought, GA defines “metaphysical” quite specifically. The philosophical thinking that began with Plato may be minimally defined by its unquestioned premise that mature, declarative/propositional language should not be understood as a (human) invention that emerged from earlier prelinguistic and protolinguistic states, but as a neutral medium independent of its origin, whether conceived as immanent in nature or as the gift of God.
Plato formalized the notion that the definition of words is the basis of philosophy, but in his way of thinking, the words of language are merely the signifiers of Ideas. However we interpret the Ideas whose shadows we see on the walls of the Cave, it is clear that they are not our inventions—not, in Saussurian terms, the signifieds of human signifiers.
2. The Esthetic and the “Overcoming of Metaphysics”
What I call metaphysics is what has been historically known as philosophy. An implicit corollary, which I very much doubt ever crossed the mind of Plato or his successors, is that no hypothesis of the origin of human language is either necessary or relevant to the productions of philosophical “reason.” The dawning awareness that such a corollary is the necessary anthropological condition of metaphysics gave rise, beginning in the mid-18th century, to its “deconstruction” or “overcoming” (Überwindung).
Prior to my The Origin of Language in 1981, no one either before or after Darwin had seriously hypothesized that the anthropological act of not merely using but inventing language was the foundation of the human symbolic culture of which philosophy is a part. The idea that, before humans began using what Peirce called “symbolic” signs, these signs simply did not exist—and that goes for numbers as well as words—is on the face of it a truism, yet it is one that thinkers have, from the origin down to today, found hardest to accept. Which is why I believe I am justified in calling generative anthropology a new way of thinking.
I may be the first “thinker” to have confronted this problem directly, but it has troubled my predecessors for the past quarter of a millennium, since the “pre-Romantic” era of Rousseau and Kant. It is no coincidence that Derrida’s star witness of the paradoxes of “speech” and “writing” was Rousseau, nor that the latter was Kant’s most admired predecessor. Deconstruction is metaphysics’ last credible attempt to save itself by incorporating its own demise, so to speak in a Wagnerian Götterdämmerung that would have been at home in Heidegger’s Schwartzwald.
As I suggested in the previous Chronicle, Kant, in a purely negative sense, should be understood as the first deconstructor. Instead of Rousseau’s fascinating self-contradictions, Kant’s gesture was simply one of sage renunciation. Whence the fascinating paradox of his final Critique of Judgment: almost the entire book is devoted to varieties of judgment, unlike the ones used in practical or logical circumstances (“the cat is/is not on the mat”), that are non-metaphysical, “without a concept,” embodying “purposefulness without purpose”: judgments of beauty and the sublime, of taste and transcendence.
Descartes’ Cogito may have founded modern philosophy, but the Cogito is a proposition, and the “thinking” it refers to remains implicit in our use of language. The foundational intuition of GA—that language in its earliest form could not have contained declarative sentences, that before communicating information, its originary function was to communicate deferral—is nowhere implied. But in Kant’s discussion of beauty and sublimity, propositional judgment is secondary to an intuition that, in the light of GA, we may call ostensive.
After Kant, the overcoming or deconstruction of metaphysics occupies the rest of the history of philosophy, along with the parallel development of an analytic philosophy that makes explicit the retreat of metaphysics from the anthropological realm. It is no coincidence that the same period gave birth to a new science of anthropology, based on the systematic exploration of the remaining tribal societies, whose Ideas, such as Mauss’ “gift,” had to be discovered empirically rather than read off the wall of the Cave. The most fundamental of these, Durkheim’s notion of solidarity, is irreducible to Aristotelian categories: it presupposes not, as in the Politics, a paradigmatic set of orders, but a prior and always renewable disorder, for the sake of whose deferral, culture-mediated solidarity must be constantly reinforced.
Hegel, the last true metaphysician, sought to provide metaphysics with an internal dynamism (the “dialectic”) that allowed the Ideas to embody themselves in history. That the Hegelian dialectic could be turned to the task of deconstruction was obvious already in the days of the “left Hegelians,” and of course of Marx, although Marx’s claim to have set Hegel “back on his feet” in fact reconceived reality in terms of the “dialectical laws” of metaphysics (cf. Engels’ Dialectics of Nature)—with we know what results.
On the contrary, the fact that the deconstruction of metaphysics begins with the esthetic should suggest to us that Hegel’s periodization of human history can most usefully be understood as a series of scenic structures describing the enlargement of the human scene of representation, as if in anticipation of the series of “esthetics” I sketched out in Originary Thinking (1993). (Whence the outsized prominence of the most scenic moment of the Phenomenology: the “master-slave dialectic,” which Alexandre Kojève powerfully foregrounded.)
The advantage of situating the “motor of history” in the esthetic realm is that our ability to verify the scenic authenticity of these works provides this history with a solid transtemporal basis—solid to the extent that the society continues to support, as Kant assumed, a community of mutually shareable esthetic judgment. Given the persistence of this community, the existence of art, whether or not dependent on religious practice, provides us with a criterion for judging the status of the scenic in every society. However “fictive” the details of the esthetic scene, it remains a valid source of reflection on the operations of transcendence.
3. Beautiful and Sublime, Apollonian and Dionysian
We are all familiar with Kant’s view of the esthetic, or the “judgment of taste,” but the “sublime” is rarely a subject of interest. I suspect that this is because the sublime is not really a well-defined phenomenon, let alone a “concept.” Where the esthetic judgment is of Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck, the sublime is defined as overwhelming our categorical judgment altogether, as too powerful to be understood, in a word, as a revelation of the sacred. Yet Kant associates the sublime with religion only peripherally; his typical examples are not like God speaking from the burning bush, but of great mountains or thunderstorms that refuse to remain bound by the limits of the scene of representation. God is experienced as (“dynamically”) sublime only insofar as he is fearsome, not in his transcendent relationship to his creation. This lacuna reveals the incapacity of Kant’s metaphysical vision to encompass what is in effect God’s community-binding function, within which his “fearsomeness” derives ultimately from the fear of collective violence that he assumes and allays.
Consequently, from an anthropological perspective, the category of the sublime (hypsos), which in its original formulation by the pseudo-Longinus was in effect a way of incorporating Judeo-Christian transcendence into Greek metaphysical rationalism, is something of a category error, a little like Max Müller’s idea that the sun, because it is so powerful (and why not “sublime”?) must have been the signified of the first word.
Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime as our grateful awareness of the transcendence of “pain,” which is quite close to love as the transcendence of resentment, is sharper psychologically than Kant’s. But the simple dichotomy of sublime and beautiful, based on Burke’s intuitive psychology, lacks the dialectical subtlety we will find in Hegel’s exposition of the subject in his Esthetics, where, as resentment is to love, the sublime is the first moment of the dialectic of the beautiful.
For anything truly beautiful contains an element of sublimity, or transcendence. But it must be more than “transcendent” in the sense of overwhelming; God speaking from the bush is not beautiful. The beautiful is the transcendent bound within the scene of representation. If the sublime does more than gesture beyond this scene, it is no longer a category of the esthetic.
Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, his first and most significant work, by opposing the Apollonian to the Dionysian as two contrasting sacred forces, has already taken this dialectic beyond the realm of Ideas into what is in effect a religious anthropology. Although a Phidias statue is more Apollonian and Euripides’ The Bacchae more Dionysian, there is never a moment on the esthetic scene where we either find Apollonian fulfillment only within it or seek Dionysian fulfillment only beyond it. We are driven beyond the work and back to it, and it is this oscillation that maintains our attention on the esthetic scene itself, which embodies the crisis-transcending effect of the sacred in the absence of collective necessity. (Aristotle’s “pity and terror” already expresses this oscillation.) Nietzsche’s genius is to trace these effects back to their anthropological roots: calm contemplation and orgiastic discharge of energy, which he recognizes as formalized moments of sacrificial ritual, and which correspond in the originary event to the withdrawal from the sacred object leading to and followed by its minimally ordered consumption—just orderly enough to permit it to provide nourishment to the community with a minimum of internal violence.
4. Death of (some? all?) the Arts?
One final observation, or rather, interrogation. In vast domains of art: contemporary sculpture and “classical” music, recent melody-less popular music, lyric and really all forms of poetry—and one suspects, perhaps even the novel—public evaluation is so far from obeying acceptably objective standards of quality that one no longer feels the need, which is ultimately essential to the esthetic experience, for one’s own judgment of taste to fruitfully dialogue with others.
Start discussing the effect of some piece of public sculpture and you can’t avoid talking about who the sculptor is, how much it cost, what “effect” it’s supposed to produce, whereas the question of its “beauty” never seems quite relevant. The kind of art-play begun a century ago by Duchamp’s “Fontaine” pointed in striking fashion to the previously hidden truth that art remains an “objective correlative” only to the extent that we can have faith that at the end of the day, we will all come to some kind of consensus—as remains the case for those masterpieces so far preserved from victimary re-evaluation.
I increasingly see cinema as the only contemporary artistic genre whose esthetic effects remain indisputably authentic. Making a feature film at the very least involves a great expenditure of time, and probably of funds, along with the collaboration of a number of people, and these factors reduce the number of candidates to a reasonable level, while the “language” of cinema, however radically it be extended, must remain “readable” to all. That the surrealist experiments of the 1920s were curiosities and not masterpieces is a lesson that all but the most eccentric later film-makers have understood.
Concerning the novel, a few decades ago I wrote an article on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La jalousie and Marguerite Duras’ Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein entitled “The Last French Novels,” (Romanic Review 83, 4; Nov. 1992). None of the recent French or non-French novels I have read, or tried to read, have persuaded me to alter my judgment. This is no doubt an intuition rather than a serious conclusion, but in any case it seems clear that the replacement of the verbal by the “screenic” (see “The Screenic,” Mimetic Theory and Film, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) has deeper esthetic and cultural consequences than the superficial sociological ones we constantly hear about.
We can only admire the “smart” cell phone, a portable computer with access to the virtual totality of encyclopedic knowledge—most of which remains expressed in words. But it is hard to deny that the rise of the screenic, which barring catastrophe is here to stay, signals the end of the ultimate prestige of narrative language.
It is interesting that the advent of self-conscious style in the novel with (my dissertation subject) Gustave Flaubert preceded by only a single generation that of moving pictures. Theatrical developments throughout the 19th century had attempted to “bring the world on stage” in violation of the classical conventions of the French and English traditions. Meanwhile, not to speak of Proust, Joyce, Woolf, or Kafka, writers such as the vastly underrated Australian Miles Franklin, Sigrid Undset, and many only slightly less powerful novelists, extended the vitality of the genre through the first half of the 20th century. But its fate in the postwar era is much less clear.
The nouveau roman, like the nouvelle critique that it helped inspire, possessed a certain authenticity, but at the same time lent itself to the kind of narcissism that Barthes misguidedly celebrated in Le plaisir du texte as the scriptible. The obvious conclusion is that only novelists committed to a clear anchor in reality, as cinema requires virtually as a matter of course, could be assured that their esthetic intuition is really communicable. Duras’ Ravissement, a genuine masterpiece, is not Duras’ only major work, but I don’t think any of her others comes close to it, and it is certainly not, like the more traditional forms practiced by Undset, Franklin et al., a template for further narratives. Indeed, Lol may well be seen, more even than the works of the avant-garde masters of the form, as “the novel to end all novels.”
Given the nouveau roman’s ultimate lack of any clear objective other than “defamiliarization,” which made most of its works intolerably boring and nihilistic, the postmodern novel has finally renounced its attempt to renew narrative prose. My “last French novels” were masterpieces because at this early stage of the movement, their linguistic pathology plausibly corresponded, as Beckett’s theater dialogue had succeeded in doing, to the pathologies of a postwar society whose norms, in the first place those of marriage, had lost their legitimacy. As witness Robbe-Grillet’s obsessively “jealous” husband and Lol’s betrayal by her fiancé for the sake of a femme fatale, without in either case the apparently indifferent social order rallying to their support. That Michel Houellebecq is today the only undoubtedly important French novelist is certainly no proof of what Brunetière had optimistically called l’évolution des genres.
At any rate, narration as such does not seem in danger. The fact that language is no longer its principal support, relegating the novel to a passe-temps for the idle or retired, is perhaps an inevitable effect of the screenic. I am far from the first to warn of the screen’s dangers, common since the introduction of talking pictures in the 1930s, to the purely verbal forms of narration.
I would love to see lyric poetry, which is in no way in competition with screenic modes, recreate a hierarchy of value to replace the distorted playing-field on which considerations of funding and PC far outweigh the evaluation of linguistic skill or literary refinement. But Gresham’s law has never been more applicable to the arts than in our Social Media era, where only the complexity and expense of film production permit of a reasonable level of esthetic discrimination.
Nonetheless, art, in whatever form, does not yet seem ready to desert us.