Peter McHugh 1929–2010: The Unique Gesture


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of my relationship to Peter McHugh as an intimate collaboration, I take some reactions elicited to a most recent unpublished writing of his on intimacy as an occasion for discussing both intimacy and collaboration as a notion in-itself and as applicable to us in particular, treating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?

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  1. 1.

    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).

  2. 2.

    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).

  3. 3.

    “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).

  4. 4.

    I am taking my impressions from a sample of anonymous responses to Peter’s most recent text.

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    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).


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Correspondence to Alan Blum.

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Blum, A. Peter McHugh 1929–2010: The Unique Gesture. Hum Stud 33, 231–252 (2010).

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  • Intimacy
  • Collaboration
  • Comedy