Developing Eric Santner

What follows are some proposals addressed to the readers of Eric Santner. This is a community of those drawn into the folds of his argument, and who are thereby affected with a new intellectual disposition. His discourse interpolates us into a ‘call for work’, such as what Freud referred to as an Arbeitsanforderung. Our community is not concerned with repeating the transparent aspects of Santner’s discussion. We are all initiates of his discourse, and this is not a cult of the master. Rather, we are called to work on its darker, undeveloped corners, for the delivery of a new kind of philosophy.

Let us begin by qualifying Santner’s discourse as aleatory. This is to emphasize his way of taking chances, how he makes wagers or gambits at every turn. Such a discursive mode of theory is articulated in the way an options trader builds a portfolio, placing bets in hopes of catching a rare event. This financial mediation – or perhaps we could say allegory – can guide our reading. This pushes philosophy to participate in speculative capitalism, by staking positions in an uncertain course of development. This opens a direction along which can be delivered a bastard child of Santner’s, and this shall necessitate some negotiation of a very complex paternity.

The wider development of industrial society sits in the background of Santner’s discussion, and our departure will proceed by emphasizing this developmental orientation. This topic registers most directly in what he terms ‘ontological vulnerability’, which can be considered a feature of life in capitalism. This is a concept for the sensitivity and exposure to the uncertainty of the future which arises due to the enterprising proclivities of modern society. This vulnerability can stand for both our highest potentials, as well as our greatest dangers, and it riddles our lives with tensions and impasses. This opening resists representation because this is where representation fails due to uncertainty and indeterminacy. This point is sensitive because it is ontologically critical, as our self-representations are destined to fail at this point of uncertainty. It seems that representation itself can turn around this sensitive unrepresentability. Santner offers us a constellation of figures which can mediate our relations with this unrepresentable opening.

Next let us note how certain terms in his theory are charged with temporal significance. Most prevalent in this regard is how the term ‘kingship’ is coded as chronologically past. According to his theory, kingship can provide a shield from ontological vulnerability because it stabilizes representation around a master signifier. It reduces indeterminacy through the reference to divine agency, so that our own indeterminacy is accounted for through the reference to a higher power. But this arrangement declines with the advent of capitalism which leaves populations exposed to the non-existence of the symbolic Other.

The issue that concerns us here is how this contrast between kingship and capital implies historical genealogy, and our initial guiding question would be like this: what would become of this theory if this historical dimension were subtracted? What might become of his theory if it lost this historical mooring, and shifted towards some other sense of history. Our problem, more specifically, is to subtract bourgeois history from Santner’s theory, and then explore what possibilities might remain.

Our suspicion is that the theory employs kingship as a kind of historical fetish that serves to limit its exposure to the non-existence of the Other.  

Santner’s theory would seem to rely on a history of secularization. It would have us assume a direction of modernization, where there is a progressive decline in the ideal symbols of sovereign power. This implies a contradiction which is precisely deconstructive. The decline of ideality itself implies its own ideality – where historicism acts as a kind of fetish – and so it seems that this liberal history has a way of abolishing itself through the course of its own movement. So our problem is to draw Santner’s theory into a threshold where this bourgeois history collapses through the course of its own progress.

Santner himself is perhaps already touching on this point, but we shall be taking this further. As proceed to go further, there looms an obvious paradox, which would concern the oxymoronic term post-historical. A condition where history was abolished would be implicitly historical. To avoid this rather uninteresting logical pitfall, it’s worth emphasizing again that this proposal is just to abolish certain particular historical relations, and not to permanently exorcise all of history from the theory tout court. The point is to develop the theory towards another (non-bourgeois) historical condition, and this transition seems to require a temporary eclipse of all history.

This subtraction of history from his argument would involve a shift from chronology to circularity, and then back to another chronology. Santner’s discussion already involves a lot of circularity, which it seems to adopt from Lacanian discourse theory. The historical transition from kingship to capital corresponds with the transition from Master to University discourse in Lacan’s theory. The four discourses of psychoanalysis form a transitional circuit, but this model remains in an equivocal relation with liberal history. So this proposed subtraction may require dispensing with the Lacanian discourses, or at least adjusting their circuitry.

The history of secularization, this de-idealization of the symbolic master, can imply a passage into materiality. This process could be the dialectics of the Enlightenment as described by Adorno, but Santner has highlighted an important corrective for that discourse. There is a psychoanalytic amendment for that theory whereby we are forced to accept that there is always some remainder, that Enlightenment can never be absolute because human sexuality inevitably implies some ‘infantile idealism’. So let us suggest that the historical fetish in question could be considered a receptacle for infantile sexuality. Then there arises the question of what becomes of infantile sexuality when it is de-historicized and then re-historicized otherwise.  So in this transition from one history to another, the decisive question perhaps concerns how this elusive infantile sexuality is shifted around.  

Let us be more specific about the sort of history which is being subtracted from Santner’s theory. This requires some insinuations on the conditions under which he is working. There is a kind of bourgeois historicity which can be implicated with professional offices and with the disciplinary framing of intellectual work in a university. This has to do with the way a liberal scholar orients themselves in their busy-body activity. The articulation of academic work as an historical discourse facilitates the way that colleagues are able to make sense of it. In this sense, history can provide a protocol or heuristic for what counts as work. A busy-body’s need for work might be related to a theoreticians need for history, or otherwise we could say this work might be counting itself as work by how far it develops history forward. Here we can see how a reflexive labour accounting might be coupled together with progressive politics. An exemplary case for this sort of assembly would be freelance activism, where people feel called to work independently on the progress of history.  

There is no need for us to discredit Santner’s orientation within European history, but just to consider what could happen to his theory if it were unfixed from such mediation. Near the end of his latest book, Santner suggests that what he has written so far is merely provisional, and announces that he is planning to further his study of Rilke. This comment could be read as tongue-in-cheek. This supposed provisionality might only be a pretext for the continuation of busy-body scholarship. This is like how the producers of a soap opera are always seeking new plot turns to create more seasons, to keep the entertainment machinery rolling.  

This leads towards some questions concerning how work in the humanities is conceptualized. Perhaps he is planning to develop this argument further so that it will be more convincing, or more accessible to readers with less erudition. If it were more clearly laid out, then his thinking could become established as a school with courses offered by specialists around the world. Maybe he wants to develop his theory into a stable institution, where its limits would be secured by his name as a master signifier. This wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad idea, but it’s just that our direction proposed here is to develop this doctrine to a point where it transforms into something else. Of course Santner and his colleagues may not be too thrilled about this, as it could disrupt the customary patterns of their discussion.

Santner’s historicality is enigmatic like Benjamin’s, because his writing invokes a spectral temporality where time is disjointed. So someone might assume that he has already dispensed with chronology. Or rather perhaps he is already subtracting the fetish of chronological liberal history. But then the question is about how this kind of work might be still getting inscribed back within said history. The aim of Santner’s work might just be to hystericize his readers, to put it in the terms of Lacanian therapy. But pushing aside this sort of psychoanalytic pretence, it is possible to pursue a more Benjaminian line of interpretation. Then this becomes a more opaque sort of practice, where some relics are gathered and arranged into constellations, and then some new images emerge. So we are trying to move the theory towards a point where a new image of history could emerge. And as Benjamin’s biography demonstrates, this kind of work is difficult to value, as it cannot rely on the value-forms which are accounted for as the progress of bourgeois history.  

This proposal certainly doesn’t involve dispensing with the past, nor throwing away any particular authors, such as Rilke for instance. It should become clear in what follows that Rilke is very much implicated in where this is going. The issue is about subtracting the relevance of bourgeois history as an ordering schema. The problem is to move the theory to a threshold where this chronological fixation is absolved or becomes reversible.

Is it possible to reach a phase of absolute secularity where terms like kingship or religion no longer have any special association with the past? Can we reach a point where kingship might just as easily refer to something of the present or future?

Bourgeois history gets implicated with an affective orientation where linear chronology anchors symbolic time. This might be the liberal fixation on the joy of some spectacular events, such as the abolition of slavery. This is a sense of time where that infantile idealism is projected into an undeveloped past, but where this very projection is also a disavowal of the projector’s own infantile idealism. What we are talking about could amount to overcoming a particular professional bias.

Now let us move on to consider this momentary eclipse of bourgeois history more directly. When bourgeois history is lost, we enter a condition where development is alienated and multiplied, in that it is no longer ours but only the development of others. Alternate developmental lines confront us living relics, where vectors continue to circulate and spiral in multiple directions. In this phase, taking certain events as “historical” just means adopting a certain bias, where we assume a particular direction to this spiralling. Absolute secularity would be a phase of neutrality with regard to all possible directions of development. This could be called a phase of absolute transitionality where there is no sense of subjective development.

This point of absolute ontological uncertainty might only by hypothetical, or something that we could approach but never actually reach. So our problem is to draw Santner’s theory closer to this point and perhaps even to pass through it. This point would be the zenith of the relativity which is the bane of conservatism. This point might correspond with Alenka Zupancic’s interpretation of Noontide, as a kind of maximum uncertainty where the hole at the heart of the Other is left most open. Another literary trope for this moment would be Blanchot’s hole opening in the sky, which he recalls as a childhood reverie. This moment would be where history loses all chronological ideality, where time becomes perfectly unsymbolic, and this would leave a multi-valent spiralling of different developmental trajectories in all directions. Another relevant term here is what Nietzsche referred to as Augenblickt, which would be like an instant of exposure to the Other’s non-existence where some absolutely secular condition is realized.

This point of maximum contingency is related with Santner’s discussion of Franz Rosenzweig, and especially where he discusses something like a Neoplatonic soul. This would be like a sort of kernel of the ego (A) that exists independently from any enveloping external condition (B). Absolute secularism would be the point where that kernel (A) is not enveloped in any external situation, and where it enters into (entertains?) a pure self-relation. History in this sense would be the external situation that must be absolved in order that this pure self-relation may take place. This Noontide would be a point of neutrality with regard to all possible developmental spirals. Once this self-relation is established then it may become possible to enter into a new historical condition.

This self-relation resonates with the discourses of Johann Fichte, in that this moment of noontide would be a kind of Sabbath where the operation of subjectivity is suspended. It’s worth noting that Fichte was a man of plebeian origins who was never properly trained as a philosopher, but rather as a pastor. This background positioned him to shift the Kantian philosophy towards the aporias of Semitic scripture, so that historical subjectivity would be suspended as it is deposited into the not-I of the mysterious Hebrew Other. A key Ficthean term for this suspension is Anstossen, a kind of alien phantasm that will be discussed further below.

This relativizing of development poses the danger of dissolution – an entropy of the naked ego confronted with alien symbols of development – but the gambit here is that one might traverse this void through an intimate self-relation. The problem arises here of how an ego could remain constituted without a symbolic situation, thereby allowing for a transition between symbolic situations. This Sabbath of the naked ego would be a suspension of linear development, where its flesh (?) is exposed to the alien tension of multiple interfering spirals of development. I would suggest that here the ego can still find itself within a situation, but one that is not symbolic in the Lacanian sense. A symbolic situation would have the sense of a before and after, a more developed and a less developed – such as the parent-child relation – whereas at Noontide there is just the tension between multiple conflicting developmental orientations which are attributed to small others. So this is a moment of exposure to alternate senses of time.

Next let us review an inventory for an archive of important texts concerning the discourse on Noontide. The earlier edition of Freud’s ‘Three Essays on Sexuality’, and the way that text is studied by Philippe van Haute, provides a field of reference points in psychoanalytic discourse. This has to do with the alienation of the parent-child relation as described in Laplanche. This kind of alienation can be associated with an aesthetic of vertigo and spiral figures in the writing of Kafka and Borges, as well as W.B. Sebald. This can be considered an aesthetic figuration of the wandering Jew. Noontide would be an exilic agony or orphan-condition where the ego is bereft of its own symbolic time, and where it endures the indifferent lacerations of the symbolic time of others. Pierre Klossowski used the term ‘ascesis of affect’ for the kind of Stoicness that is involved here. Somewhere Zizek suggests that artists are more objective than scientists, because their objectivity penetrates through into their subjectivity.

We shall need to focus a discussion on the sort of work which could be done within this eclipse of the symbolic Other. Taking up the Blanchovian trope of the sky-hole, we might consider the possibility that this ego could somehow create or discover an original developmental spiral that turns around that cosmic hole. This way it might be able to somehow tame or subjugate the pre-existing developmental lines, so that a new original spiral would bring them under another power. This way a new situation could imply a new direction of developmental history. This way someone or anyone could be reborn to another history, where various developmental spirals would congeal into a new……style?

Now that we have outlined a conception of Noontide, next let us consider what lies beyond. It seems we must perform a kind of ‘salto mortale’ leap into a symbolic situation of the future. Santner’s writing gets reified within a certain division of labour, or maybe this is a division of idleness, or entertainment, and that this reification appears in his theory as an historical fetish. This is where bourgeois gentlemen entertain themselves by playing around with fantasies of liberal history.  But it seems this work would take on gravitas if it were moving towards the absolution of this bourgeois history and the initiation of another history. And this other history might not be so historical. It might be historical only in this limited sense of a play between alternate chronologies. So what sort of history are we talking about here? I want to propose that such a play could be subsumed into a larger system of geography. This way we could imagine that what lies beyond Noontide is a broader kind of subjective situation which is symbolized geographically.   

This future geographical subject would be a praxical orientation that relies heavily on fixed territorial positions. The prevailing ethos of unlimited global circulation would have to be abolished because it falls back onto bourgeois history. Globalization is an aspect of the bourgeois historical fetish that we are attempting to abolish here. There seems to be a trade-off between fixations in geography and history, so that there a choice between fixating on one or the other level. So what I am suggesting here is a liberation of history from Eurocentrism and its chronology, and this liberation can be afforded at the cost of new geographical fixations. These geographical fixations would not necessarily imply nationalism or even localism. Rather these would be migrations between territorial relays where exchanges take place. The alien developmental trajectories would intersect at these points, where they put pressure on each other. The new geographical subjects would be anchored at precise points of their contact.

Santner often describes a busy-body who is afflicted with a surplus flux, and I want to propose that this flux can be recaptured through market exchange. These would be instances of codification where surplus fluxes are absorbed, or metabolized, into symbolic representation. This way unemployed vitality gets represented (employed) through the process of exchange. A market then is defined as a site for an exchange of representational codes. I am unsure whether Santner himself has gone so far as to make this argument, but I think it at least connects closely to what he says, if it doesn’t follow directly from the overall inclinations of his theory.

This shift towards market-praxis would adjust the mood of Santner’s theory. It is difficult to decide whether his writing candidly expresses authentic historical crises, or whether this sensation should be interpreted more as a staged or mediate literary effect. Whichever way his theory is interpreted, the proposal here would aim to abrogate the romantic sense of history where ‘the desert is growing’, or where life is somehow becoming barer, or where we await the absence of gods to save us (Holderlin). The point of market exchange is where a broad normalization takes place that puts these romantic affections out of service. This way the baring of life is no longer a one-way street, but rather a quest for market exchanges where life is redressed for marriage. It’s only where suitable folds are believed to be eternally unavailable that life feels anxious about its permanent ineligibility, or perhaps we could say damnation. As long as it is possible to work towards a new market exchange, then life is never bare.

This step into marketization won’t be an easy sell at the university. The greatest resistance to this step will come from the quarters which we might refer to as Romanticism. There is a romantic inclination to hystericize, and this effort is continued in Lacanian therapeutic practice. To move Santner’s theory into a market-praxis would involve a broad normalization of conditions which runs against this inclination. The hysterical tendency is like what modernists called de-familiarization, and this has become part of the everyday attention-grabbing of our panic-stricken entertainment culture. This kind of modernist avante-gaard shock-aesthetics is antiquated under our contemporary circumstances. This relates to the way that markets are oscillating, for instance between boredom and fascination. The move to marketization of philosophy could be described as one of profanation, but this would not just imply a profanation of the sacred, but something broader that would involve de-hysterization, de-eroticization, and de-alienation.

This normalization can be related back to Santner’s

theory. He describes an incongruence between the normative and the somatic, but his theory would seem to have a weakness in that it is only able to describe this gap. There is an insinuation that this is a horrific conundrum which can only be approached through some elaborate theoretical means. Where he has described this gap as an insurmountable difficulty, we propose that there are solutions more readily at hand. Philosophy can aim at solutions to this problem, and that this requires fundamental adjustments in its mode of operation. And perhaps the issue of whether this operation would remain identifiable as philosophy is not so important.

The solution to this gap could be allegorized as a matter of finding suitable clothing for the flesh. If priestly gowns and kingly crowns don’t fit us anymore, if our flesh is leaking out from under them, then what we require is a superior tailor.

There are certainly reasons why Santner would present this “gap” as a profoundly terrible historical problem. For one thing, there is the way that history can involve trauma, especially surrounding extreme events like imperialism, the Shoah or allegedly man-made environmental disasters. If this gap is somehow related these events, then it is easy to see why it would be charged with such passion. These just happen to be sensitive spots. But even if we disregard these disasters, then there is still the potential for trauma associated with ontological vulnerability, which can be like a trauma of how the uncertainty of the future unhinges the present. This would be a trauma which is inevitable during the course of intellectual maturation.

So is the gap between the normative and the somatic necessarily traumatic? I propose to wager that it is not, and that this trauma is more likely a symptom associated with the bleeding-heartedness of liberal culture and its hysteria, nihilism, and existential masochism.  So I suggest that the gap between the normative and the somatic becomes traumatic due to a pathological romantic heritage. Our wager is that this ontological vulnerability can be resolved through the marketization of philosophy.   

At this point I would like to bring up again those Fichtean Anstossen, those bits of resistant nothingness, those not-Is which the Is come up against. Those things might be considered remains of romantic sacredness – remains of remains – which seem to have a complex social-regulative function which is excremental. These would be the things which fix the romantics in the affects and passions of their history. It would seem that these obstacles somehow get charged through the exaltation of certain forms of communal life. This would be a kind of paralysis that is secreted through the sanctification of vitality.

There may indeed be some inevitable disjunction between the normative and the somatic, but perhaps this only becomes so problematic due to poor choices regarding what to revere. My suggestion here is that populations succumb to ontological vulnerability due to spiritual misguidance. The legacy of romanticism seems to be a labyrinth of pathological imbalances, where xenophobia is the flipside of xenophilia, prudishness is the flipside of hedonism, and belligerence is the flipside of pacifism. The most prevalent expression of this madness today would seem to be the environmentalist attitude of fear/hatred towards capitalism. This attitude may be well founded, but that does not change the fact that it is apparently pathological.

This romantic heritage has to do with Heideggerian authenticity as anxious finitude – this would be like the epitome of pathological romantic historicity. This kind of thinking falls into a trap by assuming that finitude is reducible to mortality. Peter Sloterdijk recently offered a description of Heidegger in his rustic village, wearing a peasant cloak which he tried to adapt for the look of a worldly scholar. This is maybe reminiscent of Rousseau in his sheepskin. These images can be connected with the scene from the Notebooks of Malte Brigges of the vagrant hopping down the street and flipping his collar. This gesture of circular ‘turn-coating’ was noted by Pierre Klossowski in his book Nietzsche’s Vicious Circle. These are images of a vertigo that afflicts people unable to dress themselves.

The alternative to romantic history would be an eternal Baroque or Neoplatonic condition. To make this fit together, it may be possible to stitch Santner’s theory together with Deleuze’s, so that the A->B relation in Rosenzweig corresponds with the two stories of Leibniz’s Baroque house. An important reference for fitting this together will be Pierre Klossowski’s Living Currency, which has just appeared for the first time in English translation. Much of this theory would hinge on the interpretation of Neoplatonism as an alternative to bourgeois history, which would be a hinge for the new geography that I am proposing. I won’t go into any detail on this topic here, but only shall say that this is where a finer articulation between rationality and esotericism (i.e. infantile sexuality) can be worked through.  

Our broader argument here is that Santner’s theory can be developed into a geographically oriented market praxis. This would not be a financial praxis, but rather what we might call a dressing-praxis, or a dramaturgy where anxious flesh is dressed in suitable clothing. The symbolic time of employment would be the clothing that makes our essential unemployment bearable. The symbols of employment are what captures the flux of bare life into representation. A market is the geographical site where the naked unemployed enter the folds of symbolic repose.

This theory has a providential coloring, but it’s important to emphasize that this effect results only from the cunning of reason. Through the ongoing intellectual work of stage management, roles and costumes are constructed to fit the contingencies of naked vibrations. This cunning only comes into play through the longue duree of fixation at geographical sites. Only through experimenting with the repetitions of flesh at a particularly site can a confluence between interfering spirals be forged, and representation can begin a new rotation around the absence of the Other. The event of market exchange would occur through a staging of the relations between conflicting developmental fantasies. So this staging would be a redoubling of flesh with its symbolic that only becomes possible through this detached experimental duration.

I would like to conclude this proposal with some suggestions about the sort of social role that this sort of philosophy would play. In the book Infinite Conversation, Blanchot describes how philosophy has adopted different roles. He gives the examples of Einstein and Freud for the philosopher-as-researcher, de Sade and Nietzsche for the philosopher-as-writer, and Hegel for the philosopher-as-educator. Compared with these illustrious figures, the kind of philosophy we are proposing here would be something monstrous, because it implies a higher order of hybridization of the roles. This hybridization of roles is a response to the greater complication of social conditions. Whereas these famous figures were cast into social prominence, this philosophy would have to remain relatively marginal. This could mean essentially that philosophy would have to be done under disguise, or that it’s public role would be limited to making occasional interventions on a dramaturgical level. But for its own self-understanding, the closest analogy would perhaps be the Hegelian philosopher-as-educator. It is in the field of education that philosophy can play a role within market development.

This way philosophical education would be involved in the delivery of the flesh to the market. To put this in overblown hysterical terms, someone might say that pedagogy participates in the political-economy of human trafficking. Of course this prospect of flesh trafficking would make some people very uncomfortable. But it would seem that this sort of praxis may be a repressed truth of the liberal arts, or else we might say that this is the inevitable capture of the humanities into the singularity of capital. We need to seriously consider what humanities departments are already doing. This relates to the problems of normalization and market participation, and the overcoming of romantic hysteria.

Finally, I would like to name two philosophers whose work could be especially important for arranging these sorts of market performances. Some of the particularly dangerous problems can be metabolized through dialogue with Pierre Klossowski, who we might refer to as Rilke’s enfant terrible. He seems to approach the most dangerous aspects of romanticism most directly, although his directness is tempered with subtle equivocities. And at the ultra-normative end of the spectrum of there is Peter Sloterdijk, another Rilkean thinker who becomes important because of how his work is moving towards the renormalization of philosophy within capitalism. He adopts a benign liberal posture, which is perhaps not so benign as it appears. Between the extremes of these two thinkers – the somatic Klossowski and the normative Sloterdijk – it may be possible to construct a circuit of discourse that communicates through the sensitive core of ontological vulnerability, and sets representation twisting again around that exposure to the void. God help us!

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