Read Part 5 here
Hegel’s thought represents the final attempt at one grand, generous synthesis of all the materials of knowledge. He reached out to grab hungrily at all things in the cosmos, all of consciousness, all ideas, and kept on until nothing could any longer be cast into the outer darkness of his system—thus, there was no outer darkness to his system.
The pathway that travels between the Left Hegelians and those a step left of them marks the beginning of our current era—one which, for want of better or adequate phrasing has been called ‘the postmodern.’ It begins, not with a person, but with a break in the narrative continuity of history so complete that there forms a recognition of the multiplicity of historical narratives but no way to synthesize them toward a common project. Those who wish to chase the tail end of one narrative are much the same as those who try to step out of every narrative: They fall into the realm of Idealism.
Roberto Calasso said of Nietzsche and Marx that they were both far too polite to ‘philosophize with a hammer,’—an immodest posture assumed in the subheading of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. He said, rather, that Stirner accomplished this in The Ego and Its Own. His polemic was simple and relied on the personal and the sensational. It was meant for ears to take from it what they would or to take nothing from it at all.
All thinkers striving toward an extreme autonomy would be forever trying to catch up with Stirner by taking the point from which he started and reaching further back in order to work up to it, as if it had not had its proper foundation. Nietzsche could only call for ‘the transvaluation of all values’ once he’d traced his genealogies, and thus, a rigorous polemic against the resulting values. The Will to Power, to which Nietzsche would have us constantly say ‘yes’ with Eternal Recurrence in mind, is another narrative meant to escape all others.
For Georges Bataille all of culture comes about through a response to the excess material that results from a surplus of energy occurring in different societies. Everything from blood sacrifice to economic shifts to pieces of art are a result of this oscillating tendency in every society to either burn up the excess or give it away as a gift or an act of ‘ostentatious celebration.’ Bataille’s recognition of this process in The Accursed Share becomes a self-enclosed system meant to make that very oscillation the explanation for all being—a means of dealing with the ‘nothing’ beyond. At the book’s close, he tells us, ‘Sovereignty is nothing.’ It is, like the Will to Power, a new narrative meant to escape all others.
Heidegger’s attempt at retrieving Being is, simultaneously, the attempt to ‘leave metaphysics to itself.’ The near inexplicability of this crisis belongs to the crisis itself. Heidegger’s ontology of finitude becomes one of the more extreme means of stepping outside of the full narrative in favor of another.
Foucault mapped out the ‘episteme’ in the history of knowledge and where taxonomy lent history its sovereign nouns. Foucault announces that ‘Man is a recent development’ and warns us that Man, as a conventional idea, is coming to an end. The tracing of the episteme and Man’s place in it is all too reminiscent of Stirner’s conviction that ‘Man’ was simply capitalized to replace ‘God.’
The false inheritance of autonomy starts with Stirner’s Ego—an investment of self-interest in itself. Nietzsche’s distrust of any in itself leads him to his autonomous interpreter—the ubermensch; an announcement that ‘man is something that must be overcome.’ Foucault neutralizes man and allows him to recede into the background of the ‘ontology of actuality.’
These disappearances have become pervasive throughout the language of modernity, whose grammar suggests a desire for autonomy. ‘The death of God.’ ‘The end of man.’ ‘All things are nothing to me.’ ‘Sovereignty is nothing.’ ‘The retrieval of Being.’ The common thread in all modern thought stems from a sense of crisis. Though the crisis assumes a different name and carries different materials in the case of each thinker, the sequence of the crisis is always the same. There is a sense of something lost. There is a sense of something that must evaporate or die before that which was lost (or that which never was) can be gained. A new secular Beyond must be reached to redeem man. The salvific crisis of theology in religious thought, once snatched away, is filled with a crisis so confluent to it that they may well be the same. Philosophy finds its own Fall of Man. Just as Nietzsche said of Dionysus and Jesus, the situation is the same; it is only the way they are interpreted that is different.
What options do these thinkers then give us in terms of social hope? Heidegger was a Nazi. Nietzsche, though reverent of the Jews, was paradoxically used by the Nazis. Bataille sees western Christian piety as only a degree short of De Sade’s worship of chaos. Stirner would have it that all possibilities were opened up, including incest, thievery and murder, if only it meant he could also have his own freedom. On all fronts, it would seem that autonomy does not rest easy with itself, but requires the ‘disappearance of man,’ as phrased by Foucault. The creation of The Individual was never enough. The Individual could only exist in an apocalyptic landscape in which current value systems were either being torn down or in which those value systems were on their way out.
Richard Rorty was the first to suggest a radical syntheses between social practice and private individuality. Thinkers have, for the most part, separated the two aims. Rorty suggests that Dewey and Whitman can tell us how to reach a spirit of social solidarity without relying too much on proofs, on scientism, or on natural phenomena to show us where our sense of ethics must lie. On the other hand, he would have it that Proust, Nietzsche or even Nabokov could teach us how to cultivate a sense of personal style, a ‘private irony’ as he calls it, while consciously separating it from the other. The suggestion is so incredibly simple yet ideologically subversive that it makes the thinkers of the nihilist-hermeneutic strain appear quite conservative—in that they are always trying to escape the narrative by falling into a different absolute. Rorty’s political vision is not one that arranges people in a proper order of rank based on natural phenomena like Will to Power, but on the idea that, ‘the only truth is the truth that’s best for you and me.’
In this sense, Rorty might skid close to Stirner. Where Stirner says, ‘I shall find enough anyhow who unite with me without swearing allegiance to my flag,’ Rorty would think less about the ego and its own and more about societal-political possibilities. It would be arbitrary if the ghost of Stirner would answer him and say that those visions of societal possibility are mere investments of self-interest—arbitrary for the sole reason that others have united to his cause. It is not the man that hallows a cause but the collection of wills that give it a voice. Social hope then becomes, not a display of power as strength, but power as unity and agreement. Rorty needs no metaphysic to harden this vision into reality. He is not afraid of risking vulgarity in the self interest of everyone uniting. The place that self-interest plays recalls Bataille’s analysis of ancient tribes in which daughters were given to other tribes as wives so that wives would be given to the givers in kind. La Rouchefoucault may have found cause for disgust in the self-interested root of all virtue, but Rorty does not flinch at it. It forms the fabric of societal stability and renders Stirner a mere interpretation amidst the self-interested many.
Gianni Vattimo agrees with Rorty through a more rigorous interpretation of the aforementioned thinkers. He was the first to suggest that Nietzsche’s ubermensch, the autonomous interpreter, was only truly a possibility in a world set up for a multiplicity of interpretations—a result of mass telecommunication. He radicalized Heidegger’s need for a ‘weak ontology’ and delved into the finitude of man’s place in the history of being, thus allowing him to accept ideas that metaphysical thinking would have, before, required him to abandon.
Roberto Calasso is ever-hinting at something that Rene Girard was convicted of from the beginning of his career—that true autonomy is impossible. The myth that abandons all myth is still a myth. Roberto Calasso tells us in the closing pages of Forty-Nine Steps that we are always in the midst of a fable not of our making and that it is not we who interpret myth but myth which is constantly interpreting us.
Complete autonomy, much like most of our invested engagement in myth, reveals itself not as a political truth, but as a sensation and only a sensation.
Read Part 5 here