Life in the void!

WE may often find ourselves in a sort of other world: that moment when we awake and momentarily are not sure where we are, or even who we are. Or perhaps one’s memory of a place does not match reality on a return visit. This may be, of course, that things have actually changed. But often it’s because our memories play tricks on us. Is there a space – a void – somewhere between perceptions? This a notion that occupies the maverick philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his Incontinence of the void in which he explores the spaces between philosophy, psychoanalysis and political economy. As he delves into the realm of pure thought he quotes Hegel thus: “The system of logic is the realm of shadows, the realm of simple essentialities freed from all sensuous concreteness. The study of this science, to dwell and labor in this shadowy realm, is the absolute culture and discipline of consciousness.”

And we are in shadowy world – but without the logic – in Beyond Philosophy by philosophers Nancy Tuana and Charles Scott as they peer at life beyond certainties ‘beyond formations, values, and meaning – and to the libertory power that attunements with beyond can occasion’. They want to ‘rattle the cages of our certainties’ and ask whether we can carry out our commitments ‘without the illusion of fixed certainty’. In doing so they explore the worlds of Nietzsche and his sense of ‘beyond good and evil’, Michael Foucault’s ‘unreason’ and Gloria Anzaldua’s Napantha – a liminal space ‘where you are not this or that but where you are changing’.

A liminal space

For Nietzsche, of course, it meant beyond ‘conformity, beyond those satisfied with their goodness, and beyond the evil created by their God. But not beyond the night sounds of the forest, the deep howls from the darkness’. For him it is the wildness of Dionysus that matters, not the cold, bloodless rationality of Apollo; the ‘joyful affirmation of life with its suffering and tragedies’ rather than the solace of life-denial. In part Nietzsche is valorising the noble warrior – the Ubermensch, although the authors wonder whether we can transfer our admiration to natural leaders or people who have an ‘exceptional energy to take charge’ over all those who are ‘low-minded, common and plebeian’, without losing Nietzsche’s dynamics.

The wildness of Dionysus

Tuana and Scott also home in on Foucault’s concept of unreason, which can refer to any ‘event, state of mind, or manner or behaviour that is beyond reasonable sense or rational authority’. But it not opposed to reason – it’s just different from reason. The authors praise the anarchic freedom ‘which will find shelter in unreason’, which is freed from ‘normal decency’.

The deliberate destabilizing of Nietzsche and Foucault finds its apogee in the thought of Anzaldua who eschews reform in favour of transformations ‘which occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries’. It’s a state she calls ‘dwelling in liminalities’. More than Nietzsche or Foucault Anzaldua links this state with ‘social, political action and lived experiences to generate subversive knowledge’.

One might be forgiven for feeling a tad queasy after all this but Tuana and Scott attempt to bring it all together with what they call ‘liberatory philosophy’: “We are speaking of profound experiential and social transformation out of which people come to think, feel, desire, and act in ways that were not previously possible.” They are looking not simply to make reforms ‘if that means taking the same forms and expanding them or rearranging them’ but to transform in the liminal spaces’. One of the problems that the authors readily acknowledge is the fear of getting lost in these spaces but their, perhaps not entirely satisfactory answer, is to embrace this fear and a ‘willingness to be undone’. Further: “We wish to influence shifts of habits, affective dispositions, and attunements so as to catalyze transformations in ways of living.”

Liberatory philosophy?

One obvious response to all this is how do you live your life in a world of such instability and uncertainty; how do you break out of the world of unreason, the ‘dwelling in liminalities’ in order to establish a firm foothold for social action sufficiently coherent to effect the transformation one seeks? For those of us already in a permanent liminal state, in which there is no indivisible individual only what might be called dividuals – a bundle of character traits and emotions – and for whom the daily task is to coral all these disparate forces into some sort of coherent action, Beyond Philosophy offers only paralysis. It seems at times as though the authors are guilty of importing their previously held positions – particularly about climate change – without demonstrating why you need to plunge into the depths of liminality to have them. Without some sort of intellectual grounding there doesn’t appear to be any ‘reason’ or bulwark against Trumpism, alternative facts and amoral chaos.

And their answer to concerns like these is: “Perhaps the question is rather: How do we desire to live in the world? Apathetically? Without passion even though passion intensifies peoples living experience?” One is tempted to respond to this by saying that there is already much passion in the world, perhaps too much, and, to misquote D’Alambert, if we get rid of logic and reason and ethics, we would still have plenty of passion and ‘we would have ignorance in addition’.

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  1. My comment would start off in a different direction. I see the process of evolution as far from complete. Especially evolution of the human brain. Instead of looking for the Mind of the Individual to be indivisible, one should expect it to be full of expedients and compromises. It is a wonder that it should be capable of such an abstract concept as logical thought, even imperfectly. There has always been a mad ambition of logically minded people to believe that flawless and complete logic might be attainable. Until you wonder, why should it? Yours ever, C.Browne.

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  2. Hi Christopher, I agree with you about the evolutionary process – indeed I doubt whether it can ever be complete as such because it has no teleology. The brain is a remarkable organ and it, as you say, a wonder to behold especially since it is the result of blind and messy evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

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