Recently, I’ve been getting stuck in the office listening to colleagues complaining of being caught in the tides of outrageous demographics, and ground by the gears of mindless institutions. What they are saying is not surprising. Complaining is respectable as an expression of primary, passive subjection. But faced with this complaining, I am forced into the ethical quandary of sympathy. According to the prevailing ethics of responsibility, pity is often expected as a sort of benevolent compromise, which is a last resort for a humane relation. It’s a way to avoid the appearance of some rawer sort of negativity, such as indifference, disgust, offence or even schadenfrued. Pity is a morsel of dignity that compensates for unsatisfied representation.
But pity is insidious because of how avoids the rawer negativity of pathos. You might say it robs pathos of its sublimity. The alternative between pity and unsociability forms a kind of wall against objective pathos. What I mean by pathos here is a dimension of sovereign affect where life is exposed and abandoned in the real. There we all exist equally in this anonymous, a-personhood beyond any representable experience, subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. By pitying someone, you are denying the fresh air of that dimension, and often establishing a false relation.
Absolute pathos is a dimension of liberal instinct, where populations are adrift upon raw material forces. In the domain of symbolic representation, these forces are valued as power, which means they are both terrible and majestic. But common civility prohibits this pathos, and so we get caught in this alternative between pity and incivility.
Only by breaking the spell of this civics can we get abandoned in the turbulence of sovereign matter. One must discover a margin of exile from which society can be transformed once again.
This attitude is summarized in the old expression “resignation ad infernum”. Falling under the spell of an absolute pathos, embracing some primary material subjugation, is so contrary to common etiquette because it inverts the vertical values of goodness. And yet Charles Darwin titled his book The Descent of Man, and there is an evolutionary problem concerning how man descends into terrible majesty. The problem arises of how to bear the friendship of the abject pitilessly. Though admittedly here we are treading near the infernal mania of neoliberal competition, dancing with the devil as it were.
But let’s continue playing the devil’s advocate. Derrida made the demand for justice into a religiosity, and this liberal zealotry has left us with an ideal of sovereignty that is always answerable to justice. It seems we are reaching a point where this kind of ethics of responsibility is stifling.
The liberal responsibility can be interrupted by the Pindarian maxim “It is good to follow the just, it is necessary to follow the strong.” This “necessary” is not a logical or legal necessity, as in “if you don’t follow the strong, then they will punish you”, but something more profoundly existential. This can be read instead as a transcendental, apriori necessity. This is to accept that forces of the strong were responsible for our own constitution, although this denial of one’s self-constitution may provoke shame and pathos. The forces of the strong impose limits which we are constitutively incapable of crossing due to our relative weakness. So, in this way of thinking, strength has an ontological and existential primacy over justice, and our ideals would be a result of how we were constituted by strength.
Assuming responsibility for the other can be a source of dignity for the gentile. But this secular neo-religion puts us out of touch with the conditions of existence. Liberalism becomes hypocritical when it disregards the forces behind its own subjective constitution. From our realist perspective, the priority of strength is beyond moral or ethical values because it concerns the power that constitutes us. Next I would like to make a little historiographical detour to describe how we got into this situation. When Parisian philosophy was introduced into North American universities in the later 20th century, it was marketed as a kind of altruistic leftism to conform with prevailing humanism. Conservative aspects of the European avantgarde were obscured to create an easily digestible version of political history, where ongoing progress was conceived as a continuation of leftist resistance against the Nazis. A French poodle was sent strutting down the catwalk as an ideal of righteousness and benevolence. The conservative or aristocratic sides of Parisian philosophy were still there, but its sovereign abjection was neutralized. It becomes impossible to speak of dark precursors, because liberal doxologists are always waiting to exclude anything so intensive from the domain of politeness. The term “fascist” is used for anything remotely dangerous, which means anything remotely consequential in terms political aesthetics. The poet Anne Carson provides a reference point for this discussion, especially if we consider how her Homeric tendencies raise problems of violence and literature. It has been suggested that she “sublimates” the violence of the Homeric poetry, and I want to consider the interpretation of this word “sublimate”. Liberal doxologists want to value sublimation as a movement that is vertical in a trivial sense, where something old and evil magically becomes something new and good. This heuristic wants to quickly cash in an aesthetics of violence for the coin of a universally exchangeable virtue ethics. Instead of this idealistic movement, I suggest a horizontal process of awakening, where a subject is realizing how they are already subjugated by some obscure conditions. Her poetry does not change the ancient violent forces themselves, and all it changes is our awareness of them. There is an awakening to how we are already disposed of by violence. But poetry considered as such an awakening force can easily become indistinguishable from violence itself. Consider these lines from Carson’s 1996 collection Decreation: Here we go mother on a shipless ocean. Pity us. Pity the Ocean. Here we go. Is mother being coaxed or pulled? Is there perhaps a shade of adolescent vindictiveness here, in that maybe mother is being taken in a direction which she had feared all along. Maybe now she has grown too old and cannot resist any longer. Shipless ocean sounds is sovereign abjection, or our exposure to the objective dimension of forces that subjectify us, and constitutes us as abandoned subjects. The “here we go…” has a sense of destiny, as if this “going” had been an imminent danger all along that we are succumbing to. Resignation ad Infernum. Being resolved to the power of the dark precursor will ruin dignity, representation, reputation… this descent into abjection is allegorized as the psychopompic voyage to Hades, like the forces that Circe conjured to set Odysseus on his voyage.
Pity is a last resort for a symbolic relation – the last chance to recognize members of a human community. But then this line “pity the ocean” is a way of sacrificing humanistic pity. If being pitiable is a failure of humanity, then throwing pity to the ocean is like the failure of failure, and the movement beyond pity into the dimension of absolute pathos where there is no one left to pity. Pity is at the limit of symbolic relations, along with other affects such as shame, disgust and fear. These relations emerge when more virtuous relations are impossible, and whatever lies beyond these might be called anxiety. But the important question is whether there is something else besides anxiety which can exist in the dimension of sovereign abandonment. It seems that overcoming the anxiety of this dimension might require a transposition of liminal symbolic affects, as if pity could somehow be translated beyond the customary thresholds of representation and become something else. If “pity us” is a kind of symbolic failure, then “pity the ocean” could be an aufebung that translates this threshold relation into the abandoned currents of the beyond, as if pity removed its doxological mask to reveal a strange indigenous relation from the zone of absolute pathos… enjoyment of the Other?
On a last note, at some time I want to return to this topic, and consider how the mood of pathos contrasts with tragedy, irony and comedy.