Lacan vs. Adorno: Religion and Critical Theory

Douglas Collins
Department of French and Italian
University of Washington
“No one here wants to be tied to a story.”
Maurice Blanchot

Not the will but the veleity to power, Valéry says, in the French having the fun of the v’s: “Pas la Volonté de puissance, non, —seulement la Veléïté” (VII: 322). But how to peel one from the other? From where would come the pressure to distinguish between two degrees, two intensities of willing, and to what consequence? In a description of the strategy he terms “fooling desire,” Valéry takes compressed notice of the master stance organizing the entirety of that field we call “critical theory:” “Man can fool his desire, by directing himself towards the object, brushing against it without a definitive intention, and without irreversible act—And to the extent to which it is in this way that he approaches it—the desire that up to that point is satisfied, does not cause him to suffer, nor does it cause any rival of this desire to protest” (V: 310). And, indispensably, Valéry had a further point to make about this lethargy, this undermotivated objectality: “When the object to which we pay attention is weak,” he says, “—it is to ourselves that we attribute the attention that we give to it—This we is then like a source” (V: 274).

Source of what? Source of self-love, to be sure. But made possible by what? Insignificance, Valéry says. An object is revealed to be without power to distract more than momentarily from self-love, after having produced the wisp of an alienation, having become merely the unresisting surface (the weakness, the poverty) that facilitates desire’s uneventful homeward turn. There is only the alchemy of the shift from self-love to love for something Other and then back, only these returns to the self after loving something that is not the self, Derrida tells us: “Utterly irreducible hetero-affection inhabits—intrinsically—the most hermetic auto-affection” (56). What is there about the insignificant thing that causes it to successfully function as a mediation of self-love? What are the conditions of the availability of insignificance, a saving insignificance that fools desire, bringing about this happiness that does not “cause any rival of this desire to protest,” according to Valéry? How did the object get weak? Is there a single process or are there multiple processes by which insignificance becomes insignificant? It is the becoming weak of the object that we need to know all about. However colorfully varied the vocabulary, the matter of the process is the single focus of theory. Are we the source of this insignificance, the agency of the becoming insignificant? Upon our answer all depends.

Of particular note is the help we get from notice of the field within which Lacan situates Valéry’s weak object, on the relation between insignificance, violence and self-love—for his logic casts light upon what critical theory was, and what it had to betray itself to finally become. “What I have invented,” said Lacan, “is the object a.” There are those who might wince at the claim, given how close this concept appears to Melanie Klein’s “partial object,” Lacan’s obvious source. But the French psychoanalyst nuances her idea in a way that has become productive, supplying it with another dimension by describing the object as having roles in two economies—a zero sum affective economy, and an economy of infinite good. The modification insisted upon is not only important intrinsically, but will have a crucial role in French intellectual history, as major critics will follow his adjusting example. Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard all had early attention for Klein, and if in their arguments we notice grounding similarities, it is because they have in common the fact that they followed Lacan’s lead in making the identical alteration in the logic of the author of Envy and Gratitude.

Adorno was no reader of Klein, but the object relations that underpin the negative dialectic are structurally identical to those exfoliated in Lacan’s modification. At a crucial point, however, Lacan’s logic lifts away from that of Adorno, leaving him to the pathos of an impacted position that can pry from itself no alternative to what he termed “the impotent utopia of beauty,” (MM 94) a pathos that becomes ever more vivid as his wispy moments of redemption fade ever more decisively into the logic against which it had been deployed to however weakly protest.

Daniel Sibony noticed what was obvious, to the French if not to us, when he wrote that “L’enjeu de Lacan semble marqué massivement par l’accent religieux. Non pas au sens du rite obsessionnel, mais au sens de l’incarnation” (213). (Incarnation in the sense of immanence, it is to be immediately added, for the religion that structures his view of desire and the solution to its entanglements is a Spinozism, the Spinozism that had been the psychoanalyst’s major resource since his adolescent years).

Like Adorno, Lacan is aware of the critical power of the insignificance of which Valéry speaks. He will share with the Frankfurt School notice of how attachment to a weak form can be described as making possible an aconflictual happiness. But as Lacan grasps the basis of the defining affectivity of critical theory, he anticipates simultaneously the grounds for a sense of vulnerability, the basis for the fragility of Adorno’s faith in the esthetic as a redemptive category. Poor objectality becomes concerned with its own nakedness, with the fact that if it appears in the world unaccompanied, it risks a free glide into the impossible alternatives it had been invented to block. We will then see how Lacan will take notice of the force of this same miserable form, explain its logic, but then, through reference to Spinoza, he will show how it is possible to submit it to an infinite critique. In his references to Spinoza, Lacan gives birth to a vast movement of which we know nothing in this country. He puts himself at the center of a future communion of Saints possessed of a national mission. This mission I will seek to describe in terms of the protection of that French Uncanny that I will term “the prowess of poverty.” “[L]e mieux est d’opposer les moyens les plus pauvres” (V: 435). Bataille wrote. “Greatness,” Adorno said, “the instinct against it is specifically French” (AT 187)

Immanence will not be called upon to replace insignificant objectality, but rather will be deployed to arrest the decay of this objectality and the sociability that is attached, into either of the opposing positions of charismatic group formations and the market. The social goal—the resacralization of poverty—is inseparable from the philosophical project: the simultaneity of the completion and reversal of negativity.

Lacan’s objectality finds its unity in a disjunction, in the same binary performance, the same antagonistic constellation that organizes critical theory, the contrasting sociabilities his ruling pair of concepts serve to construct. It will be my point that the confirming overlap with the positions of Adorno serves to explains both the power of the logic as well as to anticipate its limitations.

Most efficiently put, his “objet a” is the metaphor for the lack of an object. In Lacan’s lessons, Klein’s partial object assumes two forms, forms associated with two patterns of identification. One version of the object—familiar as Klein’s partial object, because it is hoarded, familiar as the desire for the desire of the Other of Kojève/Girard—is central to his view of sacrifice, while the other—the unhoarded, not known in Klein—is familiar as the insignificant object of Valéry, that mediates a very different set of interpersonal relations, the uncontentious, unritualizable self-love described above.

Basing his reasoning on Klein, Lacan sees what Freud called the ego ideal as made possible by an exclusive control of objects, nonobjects that are the sign of its provocatively arrogant unmediated relation with the world. In the first pattern, again associated with sacrifice in Lacan, access to the object can only be had through dynamic entry, via a penetration into a preceding, mediating happiness that must be violently displaced because it would appear to have exclusive access to the happiness of unmediated relations. Before it there is the drive to despoil, to have access to its store of “objects,” their soul force immediately, angrily drawn into the unsharing control of another, triumphantly constituted upon the emptied prior form, a form now destitute because of my violently achieved success.

The only possible happiness, an exclusively contrastive one, is available, in this zero sum game, through an invasive procedure, through a breaking into what Lacan called “the ideal body,” or “the statue” (SJL 148). Greedy for its miracle resources: “The patient says to his partner, to the analyst, what amounts to this—I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you—the objet petit a—I mutilate you” (FFC 268). Adorno, like Lacan below, will describe the annihilation of a toy as revealing of the need to roughly pass through a closed surface:

One has only to listen to children aged between two and five playing, alone or together, to know that the pulling off of the head and the ripping open of the belly are themes that occur spontaneously to their imagination, and that this is corroborated by the experience of the doll torn to pieces. (EC 11)

There is only the going in after it. Existing only as delivered to danger, it is, if hoarded, only killingly accessible, this thing the availability of which brings a shaming enchantment to an end. The provocation of an endomorphic impounding thus triggers a markedly stationed sequential pattern—identify, then don’t identify—the serial distribution of the experiences of absolute custody and lack over a diversity of bodies and moments, the airless passage of the undecidable wrenched in this flayer’s zone from one frame directly into another. This form of the raw object constitutes and undoes the extrasocial force of ego ideals in the course of its exclusively subcutaneous, always alternatively, starkly, enriching and impoverishing travels:

At first. . . desire exists solely in the single plane of the imaginary relation of the specular stage, projected, alienated in the other. The tension it provokes is then deprived of an outcome. That is to say that it has no other outcome—Hegel teaches us this—than the destruction of the other. The subject’s desire can only be confirmed in this relation through a competition, through an absolute rivalry with the other. . . . And each time we get close, in a given subject, to this primitive alienation, the most radical aggression arises—the desire for the disappearance of the other in so far as he supports the subject’s desire. (SJL 170)

Thus “arises the impossibility of all human coexistence” (SJL 171). Thus the necessity “to destroy the person who is the site of alienation” (SLC 172).

This despoiling of the bricked-up royal chamber of the ego ideal is associated by Lacan with ritual performance. “Sacrifice is . . . the capture of the other. . . in the network of desire” (ANG 23). And it is not just any prey that will do, its goal being “to catch the gods in the trap” (ANG 25). The mortals involved in ritualized waste of important resources promote themselves to a higher ontological plane as they appear before the now indignant god as “the object a.” Through this preposterous gesture, lack is projected outside the self, transferred outrageously to the position of the imagined angrily incredulous god, “the dark god,” Lacan says, the god whose anger, i.e. his deficiency in relation to the sacrificer, establishes that the change of address of lack has indeed occurred. For Lacan, sacrifice is an invitation to a god to breach a membrane, the trapped divinity thereby revealing himself to be in a relation of lack to us. The waster/sacrificer in this zero sum game now triumphantly faces lack, rather than miserably being lack. Sacrifice is the trap for a god, in that it transforms him into a victim of lack reversal, lack projection. “The entire question is about knowing if the gods desired something,” he says. “Sacrifice consisted in behaving as thought they desired in the way that we do, and that they desire the a as we do. . . .” (ANG 24).

The temptation is, most problematically, a human universal: “It is our shared experience, that whoever we may be, we do not live our lives without ceaselessly offering to who knows what unknown divinity, the sacrifice of some small mutilation that we impose upon ourselves. . . . “(ANG 24). Sacrifice is near unavoidable because it is rooted in and repeats the structure of the mirror phase, the imaginary-paranoiac moment of the constitution of the ego—one seeks here to recognize oneself as coherent, as desireless, in an image of oneself as coherent in the look of the shocked other. The indignation of the reflecting god would be the index of success.

And the point of the spectacle of the transfer? One is always broken before this frozen god. The consequence is what Klein labels envious superego, the dynamism-stalling sense developed by the community in ritual that the self-pleasure of the eccentric one will always merely mediate the self-love of the leveling group, self-loving only through the exclusion of the possibility of what would have been a potentially dynamic difference. For Klein, the defense against envy assumes the form of the degradation of the object. A grinding judgment. Thus the avalanche of the group’s attention results in the torpor of the sociability it produces, a traumatogenic, monitory self-pleasure, incompatible with modern society, incompatible because of the providentially animating eccentricity that it corrects out of existence.

But Lacan also takes notice of a contrasting figure of infinite good that undoes the stagnant gregariousness associated with zero sum objectality, a quasi objectality that preserves an illusion of anobjectality as a dispersed, rather than as massed achievement. Through banalization, through ubiquity, one can diminish the extent to which unmediated objectality is associated with an image of exclusive, thus provocative capture. Access is not through another, a prior, mediating happiness, that would be violently displaced if the illusion of unmediated relations is to be achieved. The a, as hoarded, constructs convergent, counterclaiming subjectivities, the a as unhoarded, through its insignificance, constructs, as Valéry noted, divergent subjectivities, contiguous autisms—a multiplication without fusion. Idempotent: the property of being unchanged after multiplication. Asyndetically arranged figures of happiness are the product—there is no longer a contrastive greatness to draw the lightning. I do not see indifference, for that is what I myself have without struggle become. More certainly is this the case than in Hegel’s story of the adventures of indifference, for here there is the possibility of the parallel and indefinitely multiplied achievement of indifference that subtracts terror and irony from the master/slave relation in which there is the Other who seeks to occupy my exclusive space of narcissistic advantage. Instead of the object that is no object becoming available through a weakness for which I, through my violence, am responsible, this object, that is also the sign of the absence of an object, is always already available—no breaking and entering required. Because this object does not have the status of the spoils of intersubjective war, the freezing lesson of supplanted happiness will not be learned. With insignificance between us, in depthless attention, one has one’s distance and eats it too.

“The everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday” (190), wrote Benjamin. By describing the closed context within which strangeness appears—mediation of unmediation—as a logical impossibility, by distributing, unviolently, the contents of what was the imagination of a perfectly packed fullness through all of experience, the object that is no object—synchronic totemism— opens the way to the demilitarization of narcissism, its demassification, its amoralization. The success: discovery of a crawl space within the dialectic, the reenchantment of the world on a noncharismatic basis, a shift in attention from the reflecting subject to the medium of reflection—the magic beans of theory—that make possible an only minimally contrastive self-love that does not hang upon the indignities attached to a transit through a breached, edifyingly degraded human form. The lesson: the always already sorry object—yes; the first unsorry, then sorry subject—no. In Lacan’s terms this would be the a without the i, as abandoned rather than rapaciously treasured, the a making no postoperative appearance. It is the conditions of removal that are decisive—whether it, the skin, is always already broken through. If the autoalienation of affection of sacrifice stages an elated identification that is inseparable from a depression for the sake of preachily overcoming that depression in a crippling, because individual difference stunting group bond, then the autoalienation of affection mediated by the poor object critique decouples narcissism and envious superego. Each, from the perspective of the other, would be the homeopathy of self love.

As it is the death-worthiness of the hoarding form that decides ethical content, the goal of the disconnect made possible by preemptive release of insignificance, is the decriminalization of the self-satisfaction that would otherwise be burdened with the awareness of its impossibility outside of the context of the stalled group. The object is held in, not for suspense. If autoaffection has a double orientation, then the project will be the decoupling that preserves heterogeneous elements as heterogeneous, without transforming the illusion into the mediation required for the production of the homogeneous group. (1) When the source is insignificant from the beginning instead of becoming insignificant, insignificance relocates indifference and secures its pleasure from bonding with the envious superego. It does not have to change hands. Timing is everything in the production of duty-free objectality. Identification there will always be, but all hangs upon the terms of release.

Adorno took appreciative notice of those who turned to the weak object as a resource. “Valéry,” he wrote, “. . . returns again and again to the mortality of artifacts. What seems eternal, he says . . . contains within itself the impulse of its own destruction” (PR 178). Crucial in his thinking were the circumstances attached to the misery of the form. “Whatever is, is experienced in relation to its possible non-being” (MM 79), Adorno says. But all depends upon the timing of the imagining, the agency of the disappearance. Distinction is to be made between what has already been subject to an anonymous work of undoing and what will be or has been subjected to the temporality of a resentful attention excited by an invidiously perceived flawlessness—the time of reckoning versus a timelessness of the unobserved, always already accomplished, faceless work of embarrassment. In Adorno there is the thickly present pattern of the critique of the becoming insignificant from the perspective of what is always already insignificant—”the fooling of desire” of Valéry that is opposed to the narrative of disappointment.

For Adorno the problem is a sufficiency that causes violence to arrive from outside, and this is associated with sacrifice. His view of sacrifice appears vividly in a black view of the lineage of applause. In the disturbingly only half-disenchanted concert-hall experience, preserved in denial in the roles of virtuoso and listener are the “ghosts from mythical times”:

It is the virtuoso above all who merits our applause, because it is he who most clearly preserves the features of the priest performing a sacrifice. Provincial critics who talk of the ‘gifts’ which are liberally bestowed in a solemn, consecrated hour, are actually on the right track without knowing it. Like the matador, who even today dedicates the bull to a saint or ruler before entering into combat, the virtuoso slaughters the piece of music in the name of the spellbound community as an act of atonement. In exchange he has to bear the risks of missing his aim and being gored on the horns of the Etudes transcendantes. But long practice and strict conventions enable him to disembowel the dead piece and set it ablaze in honor of unknown gods. In the process juicy tidbits can be garnered by the listener. (STR 66)

The exemplary ritual death has its epistemological analogy. Adorno: “Cognition of the non-identical is also dialectical in that it itself identifies, both beyond and differently from identifying thought. It wishes to say what something is, whereas, identifying thought says what it falls under”(ND 152). “In its proper place, even epistemologically, the relationship of subject and object would lie in a peace achieved between human beings as well as between them and their Other. Peace is the state of differentiation without domination, with the differentiated participating in each other” (OSO 247). The organizing distinction between mimesis and imitation in Adorno is about the separation of Lacan’s two objects. A passive relation, unprovoked to manipulate by an excluding surface, blocks the going in after hoarded happiness. A yielding to an object is what he terms mimesis:

Mimetic behavior does not imitate something but assimilates itself to that something. Works of art take it upon themselves to realize this assimilation. They do not imitate the impulses of an individual in the medium of expression, much less those of the artist himself. If they do, they immediately fall prey to replication and objectification of the kind which their mimetic impulse reacts against. At the same time, artistic expression carries out the judgment of history which has condemned mimesis as an archaic mode of behavior, a judgment that finds mimesis falling short of cognition; that finds mimetic assimilation falling short of true identity; that finds mimesis falling short period—except in art, which absorbs both the mimetic impulse and the critique of that impulse by objectifying it. (AT 162)

Passivity is assisted through its meeting with the form that has preemptively internalized destruction. Numberless are his depictions of a structure of front-loaded failure. On beauty: “it makes itself bad, in order in its defeat to convict the judge” (MM 95). And: “What can appear only negatively defies dissolution” (AT 79). And: “What guarantees the aesthetic quality of modern art? It is the scars of damage and disruption inflicted by them on the smooth surface of the immutable” (AT 34). And: “Art partakes of weakness no less then strength. In fact, the unconditional surrender of dignity may even become a vehicle of strength in modern art” (AT 58).

The destitute form brings punishment to an end: “The unity of logos is caught up in a complex of blame because it tends to mutilate what it unifies” (AT 100). The disappearance of time is the disappearance of agency: “Only that art can survive which refrains from trying to build its own immortality into itself by eliminating everything that might develop in time” (ST 159). The achievement of narrative incompetence—the anxiety of the end brings about the end of the end.

So close to the logic of Klein and Lacan are the likes of the following: “The reconciled condition would not be the philosophical imperialism of annexing the alien. Instead, its happiness would lie in the fact that the alien, in the proximity it is granted, remains what is distant and different, . . . beyond that which is one’s own” (ND 191). And in a striking sentence that only makes sense in a Kleinean perspective: “Happiness. . . gives us the inside of objects as something removed from the objects (ND 374). Through unviolent removal it is to be added. This is to be contrasted with:

Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage, the capacity to convert energies once intensified beyond measure to destroy recalcitrant objects, into the concentration of patient observation, so keeping as tight a hold on the secret of things, as one had earlier when finding no peace until the quavering voice had been wrenched from the mutilated toy. (MM 109)

Critical theory is about this single thing—the sequencing of the ego ideal, the relation of the moments of catch and release. And its goal, through the immanentization of violence, is to interfere with the process with the aid of the images of the collapse of the moments of this process.

But the pathos attached to Adorno emerges from the sense that the only solution to sacrifice is this thing that is always collapsing into the new that he reviles:

The archetypes of our time, synthetically concocted by film and hit-song for the bleak contemplation of the late industrial era, do not merely liquidate art but, by their blatant feeblemindedness, blast into daylight the delusion that was always immured in the oldest works of art and which still gives the maturest their power. Luridly the horror of the ending lights up the deception of the origin. (MM 226)

Thus there is only disappointment management, only intensities of oscillation between the there—and—gone of desire, only the margins for, temporalities of disappointment. The choice is between sacrifice and the crowd-dimming indifference of the poor object, our only tool against the return of myth. But this last is always in the process of blurring into that other horror—the market, the objects and relations that constitute its world.

And now another discussion of the fooling of desire, this from Clément Rosset, who sees the strategy in relation to a very different position. He begins by recalling the logic of Valéry:

Without doubt desire, in an effort to in some way deceive its hunger, can attach itself to that which is undesirable and be satisfied with it, that is to say to ignore its undesirable character, thus becoming as absurd as the object to which it is attached, just as fragile, just as uninteresting. But is there not an other alternative offered to desire? Could one instead imagine a situation in which desire attaches itself with an unconditional love, a love without reserve, for what would appear to be unworthy, in full understanding of how it could be seen as unworthy? If such a desire were to exist, it poses to philosophy to the most serious question, perhaps the only serious question. (96-7)

This alternative to fooling desire with equal opportunity insignificance would be the tertium non datur in Adorno, the missing position noticed by Lacan, whose strategy of sublimation is otherwise compatible with that of the negative dialectic. Lacan’s two objects, like Adorno’s two positions—fraternally different expressions of a single identification pattern—were about the differing temporalities of disappointment, differing rapidities with which one moved into and out of an ego-ideal identification. But Lacan supplies an alternative to the choice of scales at which we live invidious contrast when he says: “It is the eternal meaning of the sacrifice, to which no one can resist, unless animated by that faith, so difficult to sustain, which, perhaps, one man alone has been able to formulate in a plausible way—namely Spinoza, with his Amor intellectualis Dei” (FFC 275). What Lacan is here suggesting is that what he calls sacrifice can never generate the terms of its own arrest, that only immanence can solve the problem. Because sacrifice and miserable objectality are differently scaled versions of the same thing, they are continuously collapsing into one another.

The Spinoza position involves the absolute refusal of the autoaffection/heteroaffection swing. “[T]he fundamental mainspring of the analytic operation,” Lacan said, “is the maintenance of the distance between the I—identification—and the a” (FFC 273). This would be possible through two strategies—either through sublimation or through a negativity evaporating position such as that supplied in the Spinoza idea of Deus sive natura, the saturation of the entirety of experience that would bring to an end the possibility of invidious contrast. André Compte-Sponville is noticing this when he writes: “Ce que peut apporter la lecture de Spinoza à des lecteurs de Freud: une théorie de désir débarassé du manque” (UEP 245).

Lacan’s premonitory Spinozism foreshadows future French preoccupations. Gabriel Albiac summons to a choice: “Our century closes on a disjunction: Spinoza or Hegel” (110). But to give a brief sense of the scale of the presence in French thought of Spinozism I’ll supply a few examples. Althusser: “La philosophie de Spinoza introduit une révolution théorique sans précéndent dans l’histoire de la philsophie, et sans doute la plus grande révolution philosophique de tous les temps” (LC 50). He was “[un] liberateur incomparable de l’esprit” (UTM 76). “Mon unique maître: Benoît Spinoza,” he wrote to a friend. He was “le plus grand de tous, à mes yeux” (LF). Deleuze and Guattari labeled him “the prince of philosophers” and “the Christ of philosophers” (48, 60). And Paul Ricoeur: “Au fond, si j’avais à me chercher un ancêtre, ce serait Spinoza. . . . “(30). André Compte-Sponville: “Have I been understood?—Spinoza against the Antichrist” (in Ferry and Renault 24). In his description of the final years of Sartre, Bernard-Henri Lévy asks: “Sartre est-il devenu fou, à la fin? Ou spinozist” (640)? Among other recent Spinoza events are the books by Alain Minc and Patrick Rossel. Of particular note is the new book, a vast one, by the French-Israeli biologist Henri Atlan—Les Etincelles de hasard.

An index of the scale of the Spinoza spike would be the examples of a penetration into popular culture. Jean-Bernard Pouy wrote two end-of-history “polars.” The first concludes: “J’ai de l’espoir. Spinoza vit et pense. [. . . ] On réapprendra à s’aimer et à se toucher. On s’aimera. [. . . ] Il fait beau. Je suis bien. Spinoza s’agite dans mes veines. L’Ethique reprend ses droits” (SH 140-2).

But what would be the contemporary Frenchness of 17th-century Dutch philosophy? In his treatment of Spinoza in his book Moses the Egyptian Jan Assmann suggests a place to start. Arguing that a starkly focused monotheism is a block to cross-cultural translation in the modern world and thus a source of intolerance for beliefs and the lives of others. According to Assmann, it is because of monotheism that we meet with a counter-religion that makes possible the invidious distinction between a true and a false religion. Before this the boundaries cosmotheistic cults were open, the names of divinities translatable from cult to cult. Translatability is grounded in and guaranteed by reference to nature. Monotheism, he argues, because grounded in revealed scripture tends to erect a rigid boundary between true and false religion. Assmann: “Whereas polytheism, or rather ‘cosmotheism,’ rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated” (3). Assmann:

If the space of religious truth is constructed by the distinction between “Israel is truth” and “Egypt in error,” any discoveries of Egyptian truths will necessarily invalidate the Mosaic distinction and deconstruct the space separated by this distinction. This method or strategy of historical deconstruction became especially important in the context of the Enlightenment, when all distinctions were viewed as opposed to Nature, and Nature came to be elevated to the rank of highest ideal. Spinoza’s (in)famous formula deus sive natura amounted to an abolition not only of the Mosaic distinction but of the most fundamental of all distinctions, the distinction between God and the world. This deconstruction was as revolutionary as Moses’ construction. It immediately led to a new appraisal of Egypt. The Egyptians were Spinozists and ‘cosmotheists. Ancient cosmotheism as a basis for intercultural translation was rediscovered. In the discourse of the Enlightenment, it was reconstructed as an international and intercultural mystery religion in the fashion of Freemasonry. (8)

Freud becomes Spinozist, he says, because “‘Revelation’ had to be (re)turned into ‘translation'” (147).

Zizek would seem to confirm the point of Assmann when takes the measure of the outbreak’s organizing contrast: “And it seems as if today we live in an age of new Spinozism: the ideology of late capitalism is, at least in some of its fundamental features, ‘Spinozist.'” The task: “The so-called ‘fundamentalism’ on which today’s mass media more and more confer the role of the Enemy par excellence (in the guise of self-destructive ‘radial Evil’: Saddam Hussein, the narco-cartels. . . ) is to be grasped as a reaction to the ruling Spinozism, as its inherent Other” (218-9). His points: where the charismatic is the market will not be; Spinoza is what is not the charismatic. That French affection for Spinoza has this basis is illustrated not only by the embrace of former Marxists (Balibar, Macherey, Althusser), but older figures, such as Alain, who saw in him the perfect “républicain.”

Fumaroli says, powerfully, that the historical project of modern France is that of reconciling the competing features of it past—somehow fusing key values of the ancien régime with the secularized universalism of the Jacobin tradition. We see the role of Spinoza here. But French Spinozism is always a strangely accompanied Spinozism, attached to something with which it is logically incompatible—the minimalist negativity that Bataille, who enjoyed emphasizing his peasant origins, called “useless negativity,” and that I would call “the prowess of poverty.” “I am different from my friends,” Bataille said, “in my mocking of all convention, in my taking a pleasure in the lowest of things. No shame do I experience as I live the life of a deceitful adolescent or as an old man. Failed and drunk. . . seeing me in this condition no one could imagine the joy I have. I experience myself as ultimately vulgar, and not being able to attain my object, I sink ever deeper into a real poverty” (VIII: 107). We have seen him say “[L]e mieux est d’opposer les moyens les plus pauvres”(V: 435). This poor esthetic is the residue of an ancient ideal—one we are quite insensitive to in this country. From Montaigne’s essay “Que notre désir s’accroit par la malaisance,” to the pastoral texts of the seventeenth century, to Pascal and the sermons of Bossuet, to Rousseau, to Balzac, Proust, Bernanos, Giono’s Lettre aux paysans sur la pauvreté et la paix, to Bresson and René Clair, to the Situationists, to Deleuze and Derrida, it is impossible to not take notice of the massive presence of this French version of the pattern identify/don’t identify, one based in the overdetermining influences of Stoicism, the Latin culture of poverty and the ideals of the oldest, noncourt nobility, withdrawn into the proud simplicity of its agricultural survivalism. “Cache ta vie,” said Montaigne, firmly in this tradition.

Following the logic of Fumaroli, this is an ancien régime value that has been fused with universalism. Creating a field of tension between incompatible positions, this ideal of sly destitution lives on within the dominant Spinozism—in Serres, in Deleuze, in Badiou, and especially in Michel Henry. Henry’s life’s work—that began with a book titled Le Bonheur de Spinoza—according to Jean Lacroix, constitutes a “traité de la pauvreté.” (2) Jean-Luc Marion, described the project of Henry as the quest for something “poor” (in Caputo 56).

What is the meaning of an accompanied Spinoza, one not chemically pure, that harbors its minimally expressed opposite? “To rescue difference from its state of malediction seems. . . to be the project of the philosophy of difference” (DR 29), Deleuze said. There are two difference-threatening maledictions from the French perspective—the charismatic, always from the perspective of the modern, public enemy number one, and the tirelessly complained of thing that the French term “le libéral,” the market, the new—what is produced by the trap—and—release pattern of identification that the French ideal of poverty is always in the danger of collapsing into. The dash to Spinoza is the sign that the force of the unchaperoned esthetic critique is in the process of being devoured by its relation with the “new.” (One sees this so clearly in the Americanism of both Bataille and Derrida.) Spinoza has a multiple function in relation to the maledictions, blocking the collapse into the charismatic, because of the thorough decharismafication of the divine in the Ethics, and simultaneously braking absorption of the poverty pattern of identification into the predatory new. Thus, the partial haunting of Spinozism has a role in an ecology as a sheltering position, a buffering logic—the preservation of national memory. Its conservative dimension—it shields poverty from recuperation, economically deactivates difference, producing an effect of the lethargy of difference.

Bossuet: “Entrez en commerce avec les pauvres: donnez et vous recevrez; donnez les biens temporels et recueillez les bénédictions spirituelles; prenez part aux misères des affligés, et Dieu vous donnera part à leurs privilèges.”(3) Resought is the critical power of these privileges when, in a moment of cultural crisis—a soft Americanization—poor-object logic finds itself naked before the new, becomes aware of itself as haplessly fading into contrasting impossibilities that it’s self-deprecating magic was born to undo. And thus an ideal of poverty—French national difference—awaited the recovery of its moral authority. Aghast over the consequences of the entire crippling of the force of a miserabilist esthetic, over the fact that poverty could no longer through it insist upon itself as a redemptive mode, French theory resacralizes poverty to reclaim the pride of a lost difference. Thought that had found all its strength in a poverty as contingent condition, could only rearm through the rediscovery of its dignity as ontological category. A second solution to the problem of representation—as invitation to a killing—in a second view of poverty. Poverty required rebaptism, its downward definition reversed—the transferal to a determined, contingent mode undone so that its critical power could be reclaimed: the prowess of poverty. In it a decharismatized heterology blurs into a decharismatized theology. The critique of the charismatic is the linking bridge, but a world separates one position from the other. “A vot’ bon coeur, messieurs dames,” “brother can you spare a dime,” says this God, hoping for spare change, his pockets turned out, for all he is is everything—the simultaneity of the completion and reversal of negativity.


1. Bataille describes this pattern in “The Psychological Structures of Fascism,” in Visions of Excess. Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. and trans. Alan Stoeckl, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, 1985, 137 – 160. (back)
2. Jean Lacroix’s term for the project of Henry, in Panorama de la philosophie française contemporaine, Paris, PUF, 1968, 163. (back)
3. For an economist’s analysis of this sermon, cf. Bernard Edelman’s La Personne en danger, Paris, PUF, 1999. (back)


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