Peter McHugh 1929–2010: The Unique Gesture
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- Blum, A. Hum Stud (2010) 33: 231. doi:10.1007/s10746-010-9154-9
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In thinking of my relationship to Peter McHugh as an intimate collaboration, I take some reactions elicited to a most recent unpublished writing of his on intimacy as an occasion for discussing both intimacy and collaboration as a notion in-itself and as applicable to us in particular, treating that space between the general and particular of intimacy as its zone of fundamental ambiguity. I try to being to view a story of the imaginary of community, its elemental stirrings, that Peter might appreciate. In this, I reorient Arendt’s notion of communicating with the dead to the problem of the intimate collaboration and of how each might be a practice that mirrors the other, intimate collaboration being one way of confirming the vow in communicating with the dead to witness, and reciprocally, such communication being a way of practicing intimate collaboration. This leads me to bring to view a range of unstated resonances of the discussion that have applicability to our shared history. First, is intimate collaboration possible in organizations such as the university and how does it coexist among adversarial exchanges, factitious coteries, alliances, and collegial networks? Second, is communicating with the dead another way of speaking of tradition and dissemination in any context as such and what could the manner and method of orienting to this desire say about the quality of life in commemoration per se?
“We don’t know what happens when a human being dies. All we know is that he has left us. We cling to the works…(which) are what someone who dies leaves behind in the world that was there before he came and will go on when he leaves it. What becomes of them depends on the course the world takes. But the simple fact that these books represented lived life—that fact does not become immediately apparent to the world and can be forgotten. What is at once the most fleeting and at the same time the greatest thing about him—the spoken word and the gesture unique to him—those things die with him, and they put a demand on us to remember him. That remembering takes place in communication with the dead person, and from that arises talk about him, which then resounds in the world again. Communication with the dead—that has to be learned and we are beginning to learn it now in the communion of our mourning” (Arendt and Jaspers, Correspondence 1926–1969; Maier-Katkin 2010: 684–686).
Peter loved a laugh and any communication with and about him has to earn this laugh. It has to resist the historical detail of an obit that is bound to leave its ‘recipient’ untouched, and the hysterical overproduction of the homage that Derrida specializes in and even more, must overcome the temptation to platitude of the encomium that praises him to the sky or alternatively might roast him in retrospect (see Long 1987 on a good analysis of obituaries; Derrida 1991 on deconstructing the homage). So Arendt is right to say that this is a communicative situation and one that needs to respect the demand that its writing answer to this challenge. Peter would expect something like an analysis of a writing such as this.
Since my collaboration with Peter McHugh seems most central to my reflection upon Peter and the fact that this collaboration was not casual or prosaic but infused with the stamp of an intimate rapport, I need to talk about the relation of collaboration to intimacy in our work as both an ‘object’ represented and as a manner and means of doing representation. This will lead me to raise the question of what is and what is not an intimate collaboration, as the kernel of the story of what we might mean to one another, he to me, me to him, and to any and all of the others who would or might care.
Quality and Quantity
The tension between quantity and quality, so endemic to the intellectual history of the university and its discourse, shaped the environment in which we both were educated at our universities, in his case UCLA and Northwestern, and for me, Chicago. I met Peter McHugh when we were both assistant professors at Columbia University. Then, Columbia offered the spectacle of tepid remains from the war between quantitative and qualitative research, translated in its pacific way into the prosaic view of an antagonism between the claim of what was labeled subjectivity and objective knowledge, a conflict that had circulated in the 1950s, especially in my graduate department at the University of Chicago where the renown ‘Chicago school’ that had attracted me to that place was destroyed and reincarnated in another shape as a sanctuary of empirical knowledge (Abbott and Gaziano 1995).
Fortunately for him, so it seemed, Peter had better influences, the liberal reawakening of Sociology in California and its offshoots, and even I was able to escape immersion in empiricism by picking up bits and pieces of these ‘winds of change’ that Gouldner was later to try to describe in The Coming Crisis of American Sociology (Gouldner 1970). Thank God for those like Goffman and Garfinkel who modeled for us ways and means of doing Sociology otherwise, also pointing us, by implication of the limits we discerned there, to the works of Wittgenstein (1953) in particular and of course, Heidegger, while these and some of our own students (particularly Stephen Karatheodoris who we had the good fortune to encounter as an undergraduate student at New York University in the late 1960s only to lose to premature death some few years later) pushed us to reread the Greeks and to treat them seriously rather than as anecdotal.
The discourse of the university (see Lacan 2007 on this conception; also Blum 1991) and its imaginary fixation upon knowledge transfer (today) and the mechanical application of knowledge to life, invariably reinstated as a recurrence of the mundane opposition of objective and subjective, was institutionalized at Columbia University, then engaged in promoting itself as an overcoming of sorts through the gesture of a ‘moderate’ reconciliation reflected in the figures of Merton and Lazarsfeld and the students and faculty that they had shaped, supported by the guile of the former and charm of the latter that inspired fear in the inmates who, shortly after our arrival, would participate in the great Columbia strike of the late 1960’s. This was another event, besides drinking and talking into the later hours, that drew McHugh and I closer in solidarity with the strike, ecstatically connected by virtue of our jail time and our common lawyer Jay Julien. As former heretics (so we felt) in our graduate departments in our relations to the bureaucratic and empirical sensibility we experienced as omnirelevant, McHugh and I bonded in the most immediate way in response to what we conceived as the overconfidence of the Sociology department of Columbia, its apparent self understanding that it exemplified the very acme of an enlightened canon and because of this, could afford to digest any once heretical traces from the past by marginalizing them as ‘interesting qualitative’ positions under its mask as a university that celebrated pluralism.
Yet an even more important basis of our solidarity was our sense of the limits of the academic vision of professionalism that was affirmed in the discourse of the university in the professorial life idealized as the exemplary model of being. Our incipient antipathy to didacticism in teaching and pedantic relations to material, particularly texts, formed an important part of our learned responses and readings over the years, finally legitimated today in the university in Ranciere’s notion of the emancipated spectator (Ranciere 2009; Blum 2010a, chapter 13) but always implicit in the precedents of Wittgenstein and Heideggerian violence upon exegetical formulae. Though we were both ambitious for our work and in many respects for ourselves as well, the self understanding of the professoriat was always a life we could only inhabit playfully. Partly this was due to the fact that we bonded around the pleasure of theatricality: he came from a show business background and I had a stage mother who was always pushing me to stardom. This led to a hypersensitive reaction to pretense in our ribald ways, the concerted gesture of the énfant terrible making the gravity of the university and its solemn dedication to the manner and means of its microworld always appear queer.1
The 1960s were especially appealing to us because the influences in the air could only challenge this model of gravity; and here I speak not simply about music, or Pinter, Goddard, LeRoi Jones, the Black Panthers, but of the energy in circulation. With our students, our relationships and with ourselves together, Peter and I began to take pleasure in working together, in making our shared imaginings operational by experimenting with the limits of the relations of speech to action, with the exploratory moves authorized by and exceeding the symbolic order. The relationship of work to pleasure, to desire and enjoyment, was the order of the day. If the discourse of the university formed our environment, we learned the necessary connection of work and play, of desire to theorizing, developing (in the words of Lacan) an ethical stance toward desire itself, never giving ground in relation to our desire (Lacan 1992), that is, not succumbing to misology (Plato 1955), always trying to hold onto a sense of the relationship of work to life.2
Administrative indifference and collegial suspicion begin to provide a vivid picture of the discourse of the university that we inherited and in terms of which our collaboration developed. Thus, Peter’s concern for the intimate register of a prose that would be true to the distinctions and actions he explored could only be nurtured in such an environment though collaboration because the ‘lone wolf’ can only be a privatized sacrificial lamb. Collaboration promises to save the fragile dedication to quality and its unregulated eros from lunacy and to offer ways of measuring and limiting this concern, channelizing it in certain directions (McHugh 1968). Yet collaboration too needs a qualitative focus at its center to be more than prosaic, in order to overcome the restraint of cooperation and the organic solidarity of a division of labor that oft requires the sacrifice of such pleasure. The experimental nature of such a collaboration, plays at its pursuit in ways that can only expose both one and the other to the acknowledgment of their togetherness in their joint riffing on subverting and renovating linguistic formulae that only they can be expected to endure and enjoy. This is bound to invest the relation between intimacy and collaboration with a degree of insularity that can and must pass through a stage of separatism in its public life. The value of the relationship remains vulnerable to an environment that seems excluded from its circuit.
The Third Way
Peter and I did not connect on one side or the other, say with quality as over against quantity, but shared a relation to a concerted desire to rediscover the quality in quantity while preserving the quantitative dimension of quality. This incipient grasp of the Grey Zone (Blum 2010a) made it impossible for us to adopt partisan academic positions one way or the other on the conventional issues because we were in the process of digesting Plato’s vision of the mathematical as the necessary upbringing for theorizing (Plato 1945; Heidegger 1967: 66–77), the necessity for cultivating a receptiveness to dialogue and especially, a relationship to discrimination and distinction (reflected in the reciprocal exchange between quantity and quality) that could enable us to appreciate how any one thing is (first) a construction that is differentiated, and (second), as both the same and other than the others, that the relation of separation to connection constitutes what is called meaning; and that while counting might begin the search for quality (in distinguishing one thing from the other), the reconstitution of the quality of each of the things must preserve their sameness and difference, their togetherness and apartness, in ways that are accountable. That is, while counting (as in separating, telling apart) must be accountable to quality, any representation of what is apart must reconnect to its living differences in a way true to life. Plato’s notion of the likely story (Plato 1949a) suggested for us that a good story must be both coherent and efficient, aesthetic and ethically potent (see the concern for social rehabilitation as a precursor of this ethical interest in McHugh 1968; see also the review in McHugh 1992a).
He doesn’t have to guide the subject to a wissen, to knowledge, but onto the paths by which access to this knowledge is gained. He must engage him in a dialectical operation, not to say to him that he is wrong since he necessarily is in error, but show him that he speaks poorly, that is to say that he speaks without knowing, as one who is ignorant because what counts are the paths of his error…The art of conversation of Socrates in the Meno is to teach the slave to give his own speech its true meaning. And it is the same in Hegel. In other words the position of the analyst must be that of an ignorantia docta, which does not mean knowing, but formal, and what is capable of being formative for the subject (Lacan 1988: 278).
Intimacy as a Practice
Intimacy makes reference first and foremost to a relationship and is not simply a state of mind or instance of reverie but a kind of social bond that invites us to explore its social form. In the same way that every social arrangement, even family or friendship, does not necessarily qualify as intimate, neither does intimacy characterize every form of close collaboration as we know from our various organizational projects, and from the cooperative affiliations in which we routinely participate in the division of labor. Because the collaboration between us was intimate, I have to raise the question of how a social relationship needs to be formulated to be seen-as intimate? Of course the evidence for this, such as it is, invites not an empirical survey of usage but an exploration of a discursive terrain guided by concern for what the usage of intimacy answers to, what sort of problem it reflects in collective life.
What Peter and I call the ideal speaker pictures the inquirer as such a one, not immersed in the nuances of a word, the signifier, as if it stands alone, but as an oriented actor inspired by the desire to engage the word as if its unstated problem establishes a relatedness among those it touches (see Durkheim 1961: 486–490 on the ‘communicative function’ of the concept or object). What Peter and I called the ideal speaker, the alter ego we imagined for theorizing, was the one necessarily engaged by the question of form and its pursuit through an expository struggle not to define or determine form as such, but to definitively open up the question of what it is and what it is not, bringing to view this dialogical irresolution as the end of inquiry, the enigma serving as the very catalyst of collectivization. This should not be an eccentric usage: it was modeled vividly in Aristotle’s Poetics in his conception of mimesis as the imitation of an action when the writer must imagine the action and life of what is being represented (Aristotle 1961: 31). In this sense our inquiry was always inspired aesthetically: “Aesthetics means, in effect, a ‘finality without end,’ a pleasure disconnected from every science of ends. It is a change in the status of the as if” (Ranciere 2006: 5). Yet our conception of inquiry always linked theorizing to desire through the model of a narrative trajectory that limited its aesthetic drive by an ethical responsiveness to the other imagined as a commitment to teaching and to the reciprocal aporia it has to envision. Such an actor had to be a subject of desire, both oriented to it as a means towards something other than acquisition, and knowing that such means could be otherwise.
The Intimacy of Collaboration/The Collaboration of Intimacy
Intimacy seems to suggest an aura of collusion as its expository style, and if this begins to mark the relationship that is collaboration, any representation can always risk externalizing itself in ways that appear to undermine its own intimacy. That is, if we cannot formulate intimacy in anything but a symbolic order (a system of reference and representation) that has to traverse what it formulates and so, must speak with a forked tongue, we are engaged in publicizing what seems incomparable. Instead of concluding that this impasse makes talk of intimacy impossible, McHugh and I have said that it makes such talk necessary and desirable as our manner of dealing with (and of healing) the relation of speech to jouissance, to the unattainable and impossible realization to which it need appeal and that it annuls in this appeal as such. This is how we can say that the signifier (intimacy, collaboration) is needed to see and say this while bringing us face to face with the limits of its seeing—as and of its saying. If an intimate speech seems self liquidating, this tension itself might be the focus of such a prose, both of the writing and of the relationship it writes about. Our first task would be to formulate the bond of intimacy as something other than the wink of collusiveness between conspirators (see Perniola 1986: 36–46 on the wink developed from a suggestion in Heidegger).
If the practice of intimacy is fated to be opaque in ways that obscure, at the same time the opaque can be used to make problematic, clarity itself in the way Adorno said that the incomprehension of the philistine is essential to modern art (Adorno 1984; Tiffany 2008). It is useful to read the responses to an intimate practice, the outraged reaction to an intimate writing, as a way of pointing to what intimacy means as if such a writing can in one gesture both obscure and dramatize the limits of the criteria that it is seen as obscuring. The practice of an intimate writing, seeming to confirm in its doing the exclusive and sectarian nature of the collaboration that sustains it, is fated to be provocative because the very collusiveness typically ascribed to those in rapport with one another is seen as acquiring its identity on the basis of its oriented exclusion of those who can only feel alien and external to such a precocious capacity to see-as (on the use of Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit in seeing-as, see Blum 2010a), and so, easily acquires the aura of an esoteric and specialized relatedness among and between compears and in relation to others, materializing in plural relations to the writing itself and the discursive antagonisms it releases. In a way this is the first problem of an intimate prose, its need to disentangle itself from mundane perceptions of its bond as ammiccare, the destructive wink of collusion rather than another kind of solidarity (Perniola 1986: 43).
The desire to give form to the signifier always must make reference to the signification that exceeds this word (Lacan 1988: 244), a process that can only develop by reimagining what the representation entails and evokes in its myriad collective resonances. The desire to give form to the signifier, say intimacy in this case, can only work with and against the plurality of the notion (its many senses, its many ways of being embodied as spoken, its trace of more than it can say, its truth as constantly at risk through disfigurement by what escapes it, its fate to be artifice and no more, and to be repeated as such and no more or to be reiterated insistently throughout life without effort).
We can ask then not what is banned or excluded in intimate speech but what must be left unsaid, as a way of pointing to the character of intimate prose, not simply as biased or selective, but as essentially obscure in the manner of speech that leaves its ambiguity implicit (ambiguity represented variously in the canon up to and including figures such as the ‘there is,’ essential vagueness, open texture, background expectancies, erasure, differánce, tendentious detail). If it seems as if what exceeds determination, what is unsaid, must be the truth for which speech aims as in Plato’s use of telos, arete or end, it can only be the Real as a concrete and intrusive force that empowers such idealizing as necessary equipment for living (Burke 1957), the necessary and unstable relationship to (what Lacan calls) ‘das Ding’.3 The Real, as the insistent opacity that intervenes in human action, takes shape in diverse ways in the particular contents of everyday life, such as intimacy, almost as if such groundlessness is molded by the content to take the particular shape it does, reciprocally stamping the content and its detail in its way as opaque in the manner of intimacy.
For example, the prose of intimacy can only be built up by those who make it jointly and in their special ways, those together and apart, alike and so different as Peter and I. If the pact of intimacy seems to signify collusion, let me suggest another approach. What is seen as shared between those involved, between he and I, is not so much a master plan or ‘agenda’ for concerted self aggrandizement or world domination, but a collective mark or stigma registered in the peculiarity of two coming together as one in their joint appreciation of and capacity to be entertained by the incomprehensible darkness and limits of the other. It is the comic character of this bond and of the esoterica of its affiliation, making the two into one, holding them with the laugh of this miracle, that begins to tap intimacy as a special kind of relation of connection to separation. What seems collusive is more like the insularity of this laugh. An intimate writing could only aspire to express this signature, this bias or angle, in its formulative work, achieving such a dialectic as if intense but bemused witnesses to its course.
Many years ago Peter wrote a paper called A Common Sense Conception of Deviance that was reprinted by an editor who re-titled it A Common Sense Perception of Deviance (McHugh 1970a). Peter didn’t cause a fuss but he was entitled to because conception and perception are distinct distinctions and though similar to one another in many ways, sufficiently different to be distinguished. Peter knew that any word, any signifier, had to anchor the play of the Same and the Other, revealing any word, any signifier, as itself a relationship both coherent and ambiguous. Baudrillard would come to say that chasing after the sense of such distinctions was itself a sign of life even though the chase might appear to lack a satisfactory realization (Baudrillard 1982, 1987), calling such a necessity “objective irony” to mark its difference from so-called critical theory while others such as Derrida would reinforce this image of the end of the aporia, of the pursuit, as the mark of the end of life, signaling in his way that a vital life was correlative with such desire and that death was only imaginable from this angle (the angle of such a life) as the cessation of desire (Derrida 1993).
Peter was relentlessly engaged by this pursuit and so by the desire to live according to its need and demand. Peter knew that respect for a distinction was not simply fastidious but a sign of respect for the action named by the distinction, a willingness to give it its due as both the Same and Other and as singular by virtue of an aura that appeared to exceed determination pointing to the beyond of signification. Peter knew that paying respect to the distinction was itself a form of respect, requiring both familiarity and a degree of distance, a distance he repetitively impersonated in the aristocratic desire to give form to material conditions, to give voice to the body of the word. In this he seemed to emulate the elegance of Simmel but in his particular way, an elegance he learned from those who nurtured him and those he read and admired from the Greeks through others whose grace and humanity could only fortify him in the environment of the university.
Fortunately, Peter McHugh wrote a late paper on the topic of intimacy itself, reviewing the notion in his deteriorating condition, leaving us with an example of prose or of a writing commensurate with intimacy, offering a practice of intimacy in his very writing about it, giving pause for us to consider the reactions of readers who asked him to provide examples where they were viewed as lacking, complaining that the writing was devoted to “nitpicking” in its focus upon a word “without exploring the human dimensions.”4
So, this level of response confirms the vulnerability of an intimate writing, its difficulty in aiming to be self explicating as if engaging one totally strange to its practice for this would be as if beginning anew on any and every occasion, as if writer and reader, speaker and spoken to are invariably strange and only that rather than a mixture of both familiarity and distance that always requires some disruption. Here then, intimate speech, being asked by a reader to speak about itself in the most explicit way, is asked to justify the connection between its orientation to the word and ‘human experience’ and even more, to define its terms instead of giving ‘opaque pronouncements,’ to provide evidence for its talk instead of offering ‘grandiose generalities,’ to resist ‘stilted prose’ (or presumably jargon) that can become inflexible formulae such as ‘actor’ or principle, all threads of a concerted admonition to take the reader (other) into account. The vulnerability of the intimate practice is disclosed in the very accusation that it provokes in response to its appearance of collusiveness, the claim that it does not provide for itself in a way (give grounds, reasons, evidence, definition and explications, illustrations) that would supply with coherence the relations between its words in a manner that might be seen-as intelligible.
Here, one of the most important reactions to Peter’s intimate writing on intimacy is the claim that it clings to language, that it deconstructs a word in a way that deflects us from analyzing a dimension of human experience. This sample of responsiveness to his writing adds up to an accusation that is more than the sum of its parts, always depending upon its method of reading the writing, of seeing-as in this case of connecting the text to a deficiency. If the signifier (intimacy) can never stand alone like the cheese in the children’s rhyme, neither can the heap of signifiers making up Peter’s text add up to anything like an accusation without the human intervention of the respondent. Interpreting Peter’s text and interpreting intimacy are two reflections of the practice of representation that necessarily make implicit and unstated connections that always remain to be developed.5
I want to begin to place Peter here between these poles of an editor’s indifference to the word (in retitling it casually) that Peter’s work seeks to overcome, and a colleague’s resistance to such a pursuit as if it is only an example of verbosity rather than an exploration of the action to which the word makes reference. Here in the case of intimacy as a notion, Peter stands between these extremes, aspiring to imagine the course of action named by intimacy as if it can be pictured in language as an eventful encounter of subject to word, in the image of an elemental engagement with the primal situation to which intimacy responds. Peter demands of the relationship named by intimacy that it answer to a quality above and beyond what the convention requires (the commonplaces typically associated with intimacy) as if he is fired up by the promissory intuition of a quality that would be true to the word and by the possibility of representing that quality in the exposition itself, confirming that at best intimacy can be represented in an intimate writing, a writing that still must manage the risk of becoming what it is about. Thus, the pervasiveness of intimacy as a usage in life with its varying and heterogeneous inflections, must be the discursive territory to navigate as if the quantitative multiplicity of the notion; yet a pursuit traveled by one dedicated to recover the quality sustaining this discourse, not as a definitive essent or final definition, but as the façade of a moment of collectivization imagined as inspired by an unsettling question of existence. It is this start that I will try to recover and bring to a climax in my writing here.
The accusation, reflected in the demand to objectify or themetize one’s talk (see Heidegger 1962 on objectification) is a reputable demand issued in the service of knowledge from time immemorial and for our ears is probably best reflected in Carnap’s response to the work of Heidegger and what he saw as his distracting, obfuscating references to the signifier Being (Carnap 1959). There was a sense registered in Carnap’s response that Heidegger’s apparent narcissistic anti-social prose was part of a project designed to inaugurate an intimate writing practice more faithful to the ‘human dimension’ (what Heidegger called ‘Dasein’) of an actor in the world because only an aesthetically attuned practice could be imagined by Carnap as capturing the essential subjective character of existence. Even in his antipathy Carnap recognized the art of Heidegger, that his imaginary was oriented to the aesthetic and not so much an infraction or offense against science but part of a search for another way of speaking. Carnap more or less asked Heidegger to admit that he was a poet impersonating a philosopher and a bad poet at that.6 This response, offered in its challenge a way of bringing to view the stakes in the debate between the discourse of the university (the demand for objective knowledge) and what it conjured or assumed to be the interlocutor to its own mission, the speaker it envisioned as the hysterical commitment to jouissance expressed in the position that recognizes the limits of the discourse of the university and is viewed as if it is capitalizing on this awareness by fantasizing that that it alone can incarnate in its transgression the restitution of what is missing in the criteria of objective knowledge.
This is to say that the discourse of the university can misrecognize its critic as hysteric rather than as a theorist (in the way Athens was tempted to misrecognize the philosopher as a sophist). I am suggesting this point that the intimate practice (as the intimate collaboration) tends to be viewed at first in the most immediate and unreflective reply, as hysterical, and that this is intelligible, making sense as an expression of the imaginary of the university at this time (today of course the critique has been absorbed to the point where what was once seen as hysterical is now co-opted and normalized in other shapes, i.e. though anyone and everyone might recognize Being, or the need for some prosaic translation of the word as an ineffable and inscrutable beyond, no one knows what to do about it; that is, no one knows how to speak without blushing or fleeing into repression, resignation, or reduction). Peter showed what to do about Being in his paper on so-called postmodernism where he took on the convention of erasure among Derrida and some followers (McHugh 1996).
The transference relation between the discourse of the university and the hysteria it sees mirrored in transgression can only be overcome by a reflection upon the opposition as an expression of different relations to a common problem, the collective concern for ways and means of practicing a writing in the face of human plurality that brings to view the continuous spectacle of the comingling of proximity and distance, insularity and exclusion, apartness and togetherness, as the material conditions of speaking.7 Similarly, what gives form to this encounter that we name collaboration, as a regime of expectations, of role and power, as a ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Ranciere 2009) or the ‘generalized other’ (Mead 1967), might be no more than us and our dream of perpetuity, as that vision of influence or the moving point that we idealize as stable and yet infinite, the virtual site of the imagined dialogical meeting of minds.
It makes problematic the difference between the wink and the laugh;
It shares the dream of making the laugh into the work of speech, the craft of representation, the labor of love for life under the specter of forclosure (“Man is the artisan of his own support system” Lacan 1992: 119–123);
It implies a vow of mutual witnessing and the dissemination of its story;
It keeps at the work of recalling the unique gesture, not giving ground to the ephemerality of grief (“For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself, than beauty: namely grief”) (Proust 2003: 7);
It can only find jouissance in the solitude that must exceed the life of the relationship in the remains forever to be suffered as the pathos of intimacy.
Life and Death: The Circle and Beyond
Lacan has shown how Freud’s conception of ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ (Lacan 1991) was his precocious way of talking about the beyond of the normative order, how the homeostatic principle of social order and motivated compliance that our generation grew up with needed to be conceived as exceeded by the repetitive and insistent force of the Real and its drive. The Real is nothing other than what Nietzsche called the groundlessness of Being, the condition of nihilism itself as an oriented action (Nietzsche 1956: 51, 77, 88–90) with the Freudian-Lacanian qualification that the repetitive insistence of this force in life, as a recognition both terrifying and possibly ecstatic in the image of ‘das Ding’ (the ineradicable specter of contingency), materializes in life as a kind of mindless drive, beyond the pleasure principle, making reference to the engagement with this demand, almost as a corporeal recurrence, necessarily survived but never mastered through symbolizing and its regimes, incurable but necessary to heal. Peter’s laugh reflects one way of healing this ambiguity. The hole in Being means that the leak in the whole is nothing external but intrinsic to life in the way of fundamental ambiguity, a Grey Zone (Blum 2010a). The circle has a beyond that is internal to it, or both inside and out, captured as I have said, in the image of the Thing, ‘das Ding’ (Lacan 1992).8
Peter had an understanding of the circle and of circularity that he wielded like a scalpel. He did not treat the circle as a vision of hell from which we need to escape, aka the prison house of language, but as the human condition, circularity, being in circulation, as the quintessence of being human (McHugh 2010). In line with the most important influences from which he learned (from Plato to Wittgenstein and Arendt), he found his interlocutor not in the one who would charge “circular reasoning” or the infinite regress, but in the one who, purportedly sharing such an awareness with him, would still seek to close the circle or remove herself from it, or exploit it cynically for manipulation and profit rather than engage it as the condition it was (Heidegger 1962: 27, 363). If Peter had to confront such responses in his early days as he entered Sociology and its wars between empiricism and anything other, his later writing came to overcome that transference relationship, identifying his interlocutor as the Sophist. If life itself is a circle, the question he raises asks if the end is different from the beginning (different in kind as ‘progress’) or the same (unchanging as in constant repetition of its origin), or is the relation of his beginning to end much like a story of the constant reiteration of what Arendt calls “the gesture unique to him”? In this sense, if any and each life can be read as a circle, Peter’s life was the same in that sense, and Peter’s life was different (with respect to how he engaged his circle). That is my problem: how to speak about the gesture unique to the man, to Peter, as my way of beginning to communicate with the dead. If life itself is going around in circles, then the unique gesture must pertain to how this circuit is navigated without giving ground to one’s desire.
The Teacher of Peter
To grasp the gesture unique to Peter, we must understand to what he looked up as a teacher and as a man. Though the education of Peter moved through any number of influences, in his teaching and his life he looked up to Socrates and that figure served him mimetically as both an object of desire and an occasion to respecify and renovate. Let me try to rescue this claim from puerility.
The Meno (Plato 1949b) is all about the violence of teaching and how it connects to human excellence as a form of right conduct. Note that Meno treats Socrates like a slave in the ways he asks him for answers as if he is a paid expert, and Socrates treats the slave differently. There is a difference between treating a man as a slave (Meno’s treatment of Socrates) and treating a slave like a man (Socrates’ treatment of the slave). Then of course, there is Socrates’ relation to Meno and Meno’s representation of his relation to Gorgias. These examples of teaching that are spoken about could be like the swarm of virtues Meno advances as a solution to the ‘what is virtue?’ question. If teaching is discussed against the background of a non-teaching, this otherness can only mean poor teaching, and this calculation presupposes knowing what is teaching. But we cannot address the question—what is teaching?—without going through the exercise of examining the many views that opine about what teaching is, the multis of this aggregate of beliefs in its various shapes.
Asking ‘what is teaching?’ can only expose us to a swarm of views. We begin discriminating among the views by forcing upon them our need and desire as a concern for limit, particularly in this case as in the difference between good and bad teaching by which they might be measured. If we force upon the situation a concern for difference, this gesture is designed to be the beginning of a dissemination of influence empowering every one to find their voice(s) in the exploration as if equal parties to this dialectical situation by virtue of a shared ignorance in relation to the direction of the analysis. (For the line of continuity in this approach see McHugh et al. 1974; McHugh 2005; Ranciere 2009; Blum 2010a, chapter 13). It is impossible for humans to speak about what something is directly and so we speak about how what something is is spoken, that is, to what good and bad apply in its case. If to speak about teaching is to speak about human excellence (virtue) in teaching, after starting from usage and its many examples (the otherness of teaching as displaced in these many usages), we try to determine how teaching in its sameness persists and is seen as the same in these differences. We resist the mistake of seeing teaching as self evident without respect to its differences as if the common look is indivisible; and we resist the mistake of seeing teaching as the same as its different usages, as if the differences are not ignited by the look of a common problem. That is, we resist denying the distinction between the Same and Other, because teaching must be the same as itself in its many differences.
This begins to point to excellence in any notion as more than a concern with common properties (what teaching has in common) because that could be a generic formula that does not describe it, say teaching, in a way that could discriminate between Gorgias, Socrates, and Meno for example. We suggest that one difference between Socrates and these others is that Socrates resists and tries to overcome the transference in the exchange. Whereas they resist the work of dialogue (focusing upon opinions), Socrates listens to the slave, to Meno, and to Antyus in ways that resist perpetuating a struggle between them. The idea of recollection or anamnesis is meant to describe this proper focus: the universality of memory as an archive is not sufficient without the intervention of teaching.
Dialogue always risks being arrested or fixated interactionally, as a transference relationship. Surpassing this involves listening to language (Other), that is, to the ways in which common distinctions reverberate as they are spoken and circulate. What are they trying to say? What are they leaving unsaid? If the passivity of the figure of slave shows how any man has such an archive that provides access to such questions, the passivity of Meno shows how his background and personality function to inhibit such relaxation and its correlative intensity. We have to work to overcome the idea that unaided memory or habit, or even abilities and artfulness are sufficient for inquiry. Both the slave and Meno need a jolt and neither can inquire in a way that is unassisted. Dependency and desire enter into the relationship in a way that might be anathema to a privatized and ‘individualistic’ emphasis on mastery, self containment and its egoistic imaginary. Despite the archive to which anyone and everyone has access, a push is required that we can call teaching. This shows in its way the limits of self sufficiency: neither the slave nor Meno really asks a question. Dialogue requires the passion of a question or what in therapy would be a recognizable problem that the client needs to solve. Meno looks for expertise; the slave survives and slumbers; Antyus is indignant and wants retribution (is simply emotional). The difference between Greek and barbarian is that the Greek seems dissatisfied and the slave seems indifferent until aroused. So arousal and seduction are important figures for inquiry because they seem to stress the requirement of desire.
The difference between good and bad teaching might be glimpsed in the account of how Gorgias teaches Meno (which is obscure because it is never described and must be judged poor because Meno cannot apply or ground it). Bad teaching is then seen as formulaic in a way that leaves the soul of the learner untouched. Meno treats Socrates as the same kind of teacher (asks him empirical questions about something as if he is an expert who can simply exchange answers to the question and ‘make’ the student learn and knowledgeable in the same way as the question asks if virtue can be taught). Meno presupposes teaching to be that kind of exchange. Meno prematurely asks what virtue is associated with where any table of coefficients still remains to be interpreted or grounded (the unthought relationship between the variables). Meno treats Socrates as the answer-man to whom he will compare his past teachers. The imaginary of such teaching: aspiring to an unaided vision of all there is or of whatever, without showing an inclination to know one self (Kierkegaard’s “man of the world”). We could say here that on the one hand, Meno imagines himself (or the student) as an ideal ego who can overcome limits by discovering an expert or an ego ideal whom he fantasizes as one who might serve him in such an endeavor. It must be because of who Meno is, his ‘who’ rather than ‘what’ (which he does not explore) that this rich, spoiled slaveholding landowner with a background of Sophist instructors could learn such habits of inquiry.
We see that if the dialogue on virtue (what is it and whether it be taught) is a dialogue on human excellence and its limits (virtue and/or human excellence is not simply a knowledge that can be passed on or disseminated as if an exchange), then what it exposes is not the possibility of the teaching of human excellence (which is a matter of fortuna, divination) as if we can be made excellent, but the possibility of teaching human inquiry (that is, excellence can be addressed and talking about addressing human excellence is a necessity and indeed, might be the human way, the second best way to achieve excellence). If we cannot teach excellence we can teach inquiry into the question of excellence (see Bernardete 1989).
Now we note that the question—can virtue be taught?—that Socrates claims to be presupposed by the meaning of virtue, really makes reference to the question of teaching. That is, humans can approach ‘impossible’ questions of knowledge, virtue, truth, the soul, immortality through an inquiry into best methods of posing and developing questions, imagining problems and pursuing ways and means of representing them. This can be taught in a way that converts the question of excellence into a concern for the best ways of developing such a teaching, a question impossible to settle with finality but needing to be raised, engaged, and enjoyed.
There are several things to say about good teaching at this point in terms of what it is not: it resists the kinds of practices represented by Meno, Gorgias, Antyus; it resists the transference of adversarial and/or egocentric exchanges; it resists any attempt at proof or “performance evaluation” that seems to beg its question and to appear self-serving, but still must strive to be accountable. Yet, this is all stipulative and depends upon a notion of teaching that is the very matter in question. What does good teaching seem to do? According to the Meno, it aims to teach what it is to do inquiry into what cannot be known and in proposing a method for this it aims to provide enjoyment and a way of committing to life in the present, to a belief in life. Teaching aims to exemplify human excellence in this particular way, not by proving a doctrine, but in trying to show that inquiry can be taught and that it matters. Teaching supplies the healing touch to the paralysis of imaginary desire through its specification.
I have said that as a teacher Peter stood for inquiry into what will remain unknown and irresolute, knowing this full-well as a pursuit that must be undertaken because such a pursuit promises to be good for the one who engages it and for the one who seduces him to this path; and he believed, to paraphrase Lacan, that one “not give ground relative to his desire.” Peter understood this commitment as an ethical gesture summarizing the responsibility of the teacher to himself and to the other, the responsibility for providing the subject of ambiguity and of the impasse with the healing touch. How can such a teacher function in the university, particularly in departments of Sociology in universities such as Delaware, Columbia, the City University of New York, and York University in Toronto, Canada? If this question seems to intimate the elements of tragedy, for both Peter and myself it resonates best with the idea and promise of comedy (1992b).
The Hero and the Ordinary Man
What I call “giving ground relative to one’s desire” is always accompanied in the destiny of the subject by some betrayal…Either the subject betrays his own way, he betrays himself, and the result is significant for him, or more simply, he tolerates the fact that someone with whom he has more or less vowed to do something betrays his hope and doesn’t do for him what their pact entailed…Something is played out in betrayal if one tolerates it, if driven by the idea of the good—and by that I mean the good of the one who has just committed the act of betrayal—one gives ground to the point of giving up one’s own claim and says to oneself, “Well, if that’s how things are we should abandon our position; neither of us is worth that much, and especially me, so we should just return to the common path.” You can be sure that what you find there is the structure of giving ground relative to one’s desire.
I have therefore articulated three prepositions.
First, the only thing that one can be guilty of is giving ground relative to one’s desire.
Second, the definition of a hero: someone who may be betrayed with impunity.
Third, this is something that not everyone can achieve: it constitutes the difference between an ordinary man and a hero, and it is, therefore, more mysterious than one may think. For the ordinary man the betrayal that almost always occurs sends him back to the service of goods, but with the proviso that he will never again find the factor which restores a sense of direction to that service (Lacan 1992: 321).
The betrayal, not simply the disturbing contingencies of life, nor even the temptation to relinquish one’s principle as in misology or any gesture that offers to renounce commitment to what inspired it, could never be attributed to Peter who persisted to the end in unwavering devotion to that for which he claimed to stand. Yet if this seems heroic I think Lacan’s distinction risks making the choice an either-or destination without appreciating the ambiguity of the passage itself, the passage between hero and ordinary man. At best, it is this passage that the extraordinary person inhabits as part of the circulatory movement of his life and this passage that will be told and retold in whatever replies it can summon up as part of the story or unique gesture of the man. Betrayal then takes on a different shape than the reversals of fortune implied by Lacan, for the essential betrayal is perpetrated by life itself, the revocation of its implicit promise of eternity and fullness, registered in the inevitability of death and all that it might conjure up for the living. The hero who can be betrayed with impunity is the one who might see through and accept this seductiveness of life with a laugh.
This begins to speak back to intimacy, for the collusion between the two can only be a sharing of the laugh that this relationship, so much and so little, all we have and bound to pass, nothing and yet something, like the very word intimacy, must be something made out of nothing and so perishable like Heidegger’s vase that creates the void and thereby introduces the possibility of filling it. Emptiness and fullness are introduced into a world that by itself knows not of them “makes the hole or emptiness in it something to be filled in” (see Lacan 1992: 119–121, and its discussion in Weber 2001: 210–211). This sharing, its error of imagining intimacy as a unity of two, disguised on the model of love as the deception mistaking the evanescence of the word for its destiny, this use of the signifier to conceal the essential solitude glossed here, could only evoke for intimates such as us the laugh that we held in common together and apart, the truth that we could only concede in the mistake: “In persuading the other that he has that which may complement us, we assure ourselves of being able to continue to misunderstand precisely what we lack. The circle of deception.…highlights the dimension of love” (Lacan 1981: 133, 268, 285, 1988). McHugh and I always knew that we need not aspire to produce a meeting of minds or identity but instead a reserve towards that very aspiration, knowing that intimacy was united in a degree of impersonality and it was this sense of share that could and does inspire affection and reserve in intimacy (McHugh 2005). The laugh of intimacy in our case can only be the acknowledgement that understands what intimacy must lack, that it cannot transform the essential and fateful solitude that its word and work must mask. But as McHugh and I know, even this lack lacks, for it (the hole of intimacy) was created and put into the world like Heidegger’s vase, as an expectation that could only make something out of nothing, and anticipating its devolution and back again into that nothing from which it began. Many would call this an intimation of the movement of tragedy but Peter and I always conceived of such a tragic movement as dependent on expectations that comedy never conceded, necessarily condemning ourselves to sharing the pathos of the laugh, the last laugh.
The post-mortem atmosphere, for the great and common alike, is inhabited by many selves and by a personhood who no longer possesses one, all amidst a near-infinite accumulation of transitions. It is an atmosphere that exposes the dead as communicants still, but whose only human capital, personhood, is no longer given a place, stateless now, not anonymous but out of the picture, irrelevant, just another transition and one more opportunity for any party to refashion as it chooses. In fact, given the default participation of the dead inherent in perfect asymmetry, there would continue to be an open opportunity for any public to circulate any possible possibility of transition, many a possible possibility, even every possible possibility, separately or together.
Thus the perfect asymmetry of the capacity to initiate/resist between living and dead shifts all power to determine the substance of transition to the living, as the former twoness of a transition becomes by default a oneness plus that one’s memories of the antecedent twoness, that is, a oneness together with a now phantom twoness. At base, this is a one acting for the other and subject to the vagaries of the other’s death, as well as one’s own memory and intention, however faithful. It resembles what now must be an imagined rehearsal attached to a remembered alter (another transition) rather than full blown two-in-one. But in its sum it will nevertheless carry the representative effect of genuine transition, in spite of the discrepancy in authorship, if it becomes known by those close to the dead and it comports with their knowledge of the history of the relation, or if it can be made to seem so. In principle, various living members inherit as their own histories various aspects now cached in the silhouette, and work things out with others who express some interest or claim as participant in the deceased’s welfare.
Yet culture, both popular and elevated, and our brief diversion here into the simplest of practicalities, should prepare us for live conduct in these affairs that can run from melodrama to farce, sometimes on the basis of the very same materials. Imagine the discovery of contradictory wills at a meeting to “read the will.” The muttering, glowering, and cursing that signal melodrama, along with simultaneous happy whoops and shouts, may make for farce, for free-for-all, any and all of which are transformations in various degrees of conformity or not – heartbreak would seem to have no place at this table – with the images that inhabit the presence of the absence of the former personhood at issue. In these encounters the dead and the living continue to change, in the vernacular, before our very eyes, as encounters that would join the presence-of-the-absence and are constituted by whatever images they have created as part of their content, mundane and otherwise.
This is the last word I have for now on the former twoness that is now a “oneness together with a now phantom twoness,” the phantom twoness or ghostly remains that seems to be, for now at least, the memory of our intimate collaboration, as long as I am here at least, to be myself replaced, taking part, today as witness, tomorrow as witnessed, trying to figure out what it could mean in the best way to communicate with the dead.
See Ranciere on the disciplinary configuration of sociology which he treats as exemplary of a degree of professional closure. “A discipline, in effect, is not first of all the definition of a set of methods appropriate to a certain domain or a certain type of object. It is first the very constitution of this object as an object of thought, the demonstration of a certain kind of knowledge—in other words, a certain idea of the rapport between knowledge and a distribution of positions… It is a way of defining an idea of the thinkable, an idea of what the objects of knowledge themselves can think and know. It is therefore always a certain regulation of dissensus…in relation to the ethical order (aka normative order: AB), according to which a certain type of condition implies a certain type of thought. This ‘belief’ does not hide any reality. But it doubles this reality which the ethical order would like to consider as only one…It is this doubling that the sociologist refuses. On his account the as if can only be an illusion. Knowledge cannot be aesthetic, but must be the contrary of the aesthetic. The aesthetic is, in effect…an interference in the order of sensible experience which brings social positions, tastes, attitudes, knowledges, and illusions into correspondence” (Ranciere 2006: 6).
On misology, see Socrates on the occasion of his impending death, tempted to renounce what he believes in: “When without experience one has put one’s trust in an argument as being true, then shortly after one believes it to be false, as sometimes it is and sometimes it is not, and so with another argument and then with another again—you know how those in particular who spend their time studying contradictions and believe themselves to be very wise and that they alone have understood that there is no soundness or reliability in any object or in any argument, but all that exists simply fluctuates up and down as it were Euripus and does not remain in the same place for any time at all” (Plato 1955: 40–41).
“The world of our experience…assumes that it is this object, das Ding, as the absolute Other of the subject, that one is supposed to find again…We have here an original division of the experience of reality… It is to be at the most as something missed…das Ding is at the center only in the sense that it is excluded…in reality das Ding has to be posited as the prehistoric Other that it is impossible to forget—the Other whose primacy of position…something strange to me although it is at the heart of me…” (Lacan 1988: 222–224, 1992: 52, 71, 186). Or Van Haute’s accessible rendition: “However far I may go in my pursuit of the Thing or the Other, I will never find any thing but one or another memory traces that at the same time also prevents me from reaching the Other…(because) Desire, as desire for the Thing, is an effect of signifiers that refer to something beyond and which itself can no longer be expressed within the order of signifiers. These signifiers at the same time determine our fate as mortals (Van Haute 1998: 108–110).
I am taking my impressions from a sample of anonymous responses to Peter’s most recent text.
The notion of form is relevant here, following from the division in the subject that actually makes aesthetic appreciation, or concern for the form of a notion and practice expressive necessarily of a certain disinterest in many of the inessential conditions accruing to its usage as a preoccupation that inhibits concentration, or to paraphrase Kant, aesthetic appreciation of the form depends upon the ban (ignoring, bracketing, disengaging) in a way that distinguishes all knowing as action, making the as if seem illusory to (what Ranciere calls) sociology and those without such a touch.
Carnap of course reflects a limited notion of art. Note the contrast Ranciere creates: “At the end of the fifteenth of his Lectures on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind Schiller states a paradox and makes a promise. He declares that ‘Man is only completely human when he plays’, and assures us that this paradox is capable of bearing the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the still more difficult art of living. We could reformulate this thought as follows: there exists a specific sensory experience—the aesthetic—that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and community. There are different ways of coming to terms with this statement and its promise…At stake here is not the ‘influence’ of a thinker, but the efficacy of a plot—one that reframes the division of the forms of our experience… This may be summed up in three points. Firstly, the autonomy staged by the aesthetic regime of art is not that of a work of art but of a mode of experience. Secondly, the ‘aesthetic experience’ is one of heterogeneity, such that for the subject of that experience it is also the dismissal of a certain autonomy. Thirdly, the object of that experience is ‘aesthetic’ in so far as it is not—or at least not only—art” (Ranciere 2002: 133, 135). McHugh’s conception of theoreticity and conventionality as conditions of social action (McHugh 1970b) was a perfect anticipation of this conception of the divided subject, oriented to what could be otherwise, suggesting in its way that “each knowledge is accompanied by a certain ignorance and that therefore there is a knowledge which represses and an ignorance which liberates” (Ranciere 2006: 3). In other words, just as the code can be oppressive as we subject ourselves to it mechanically, so our ignorance in relation to whatever must remain ambiguous can be an incentive to thought and action. In this usage the ‘aesthetic’ refers not to art particularly but to a course of action engaging form and quality as if a mode of sensibility or relationship to the world, a mode of experiencing words and actions that best seems to distinguish Peter.
For a Socratic vision of the transference, we can note the vertigo of Socrates evoked by the arguments of others on occasion of his impending death as a kind of consciousness into which one is forced when he cannot muster the necessary aesthetic playfulness towards discussion: “I am in danger of not having a philosophical attitude about this, but like the uneducated, when they engage in argument about anything, give no thought about the truth of the subject of the discussion but are eager that those present will accept the position they have set forth” (Plato 1955: 41). Correlative with the transference the speaker is reduced to resembling the argumentative uneducated who squabble about opinions in an adversarial exchange without the gift of elevation through an Aufheben to disengage from this dispute for the purpose of recovering the common ground or problem to which the differences are a reply. In Hegelian, to overcome the transference is to cancel the opposition while yet preserving the difference.
Read Levinas on the Real. “Expressions such as “a world in pieces” or “a world turned upside down” trite as they have become, nonetheless express a feeling that is authentic. The rift between the rational order and events, the mutual impenetrability of minds opaque as matter, the multiplication of logical systems each of which is absurd for the others, the impossibility of the I rejoining the you, and consequently the unfitness of understanding for what should be its essential function—these are things we run up against in the twilight of a world, things which reawaken the ancient obsession with an end of the world. This term when stripped of mythological overtones expresses a moment of human destiny, whose meaning can be brought out by analysis. It is the moment of a limit, and thus singularly instructive. For where the continual play of our relations with the world is interrupted we find neither death nor the “pure ego”, but the anonymous state of being. Existence is not synonymous with the relationship with a world; it is antecedent to the world. In the situation of an end of the world the primary relationship which binds us to being becomes palpable” (Levinas 1978). The Real (that Levinas calls the ‘there is’) makes reference to the intrusiveness of the remains of such a “primary relationship”, as if a recurrent and insistent force in life that shadows any and every action as unspoken. This is compatible with Lacan’s notion of ‘das Ding’ as the ‘experience of the prehistoric Other’ though Levinas is often treated as a pacific version of Lacan (see Brody 1998).