Friday, 7 December 2012

Walser Addendum: Two Anthropologies

It may be that my reading of Walser in recent posts – with its reliance upon Simmel’s theory of depersonalization and then Jaspers’ projection of a hermeneutic of transcendence – is riven by a tension between two conflicting anthropologies, functionalist and transcendental. In his Karl Jaspers, Thornhill notes that whilst a functionalist anthropology ‘views human life as both produced, and adequately described, by its objective forms’, a transcendental anthropology such as Jaspers’ promotes the view that ‘the human being is most human, most existent, insofar as it is least material, and least bound by the objective forms (laws) of scientific rationality and social orientation’. Thornhill observes:

‘The constructive receptions of Kant which underpin the philosophies of Jaspers and Heidegger [...] describe an unbridgeable fissure at the centre of German existential thinking. On one side of this, Jaspers insists on the ethical difference of humanity from its forms. On the other side, Heidegger insists on its ethical adequacy to these. Jaspers’ philosophy is a morally transcendental anthropology, in which humanity interprets itself most truthfully in its unconditioned imperatives. This has later echoes in the neo-Kantian writings of Habermas. Heidegger, by contrast, provides the basis for a functionalist anthropology, anticipated already by Georg Simmel and Carl Schmitt, and echoed later by Arnold Gehlen, in which human life interprets itself as delivered unto its realized objective forms. Jaspers’ anthropology is strongly obligated to the remnants of idealism and transcendental subjectivism, and it creates a metaphysic of the person on the foundation of these. In Heidegger’s anthropology, in contrast, the transcendental subject, and its ethical derivates in practical reason, are replaced by a historicist metaphysic of the Volk, or of the functions which the Volk imposes upon its members.’

In my presentation of Simmel’s theory of depersonalization here it is unclear whether I am maintaining that Simmel critiques the functionalization of the human or (as Thornhill indicates) merely discerns it.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Behind the Mountains, part 3

A second radical implication of Walser’s articulation of modern self-abnegation, relates to the way in which it enables his writing to develop its thinking of freedom. In ‘Tobold (II)’ the narrator celebrates the fact that ‘I was a servant! I served!’:

‘My position, consequently, was a good one, which sufficed to set my person to rights. Isn’t it true our lives first take on beauty when we’ve learned to be unassuming, to forget or set aside our own wishes and desires, and instead devote ourselves with all our liberated, willing hearts to a precept and lifelong service, to satisfy people with our conduct, and meekly and boldly forgo beauty?’

The dialectic of the precept and liberation here is accompanied by a twinning of self-abnegation and self-exaltation (or self-transcending self-elevation), which Walser proposes in the preceding sentence. ‘So exalted I felt, even, I can say, yes, elevated far above my own person, which I scarcely dignified any more with so much as a hasty glance, or rather a hasty thought.’ Self-transcended, the narrator paradoxically no longer looks down on himself as on an alienated object (with ‘a hasty glance’), and can instead give a ‘hasty thought’ to his serving self. Walser’s sense of transcendence as something that gives one back to oneself, was voiced already in the following statements of the narrator’s towards the beginning of ‘Tobold (II)’.

‘Newly emerged from a terrible weariness of life, I attained fresh insights, began to enjoy living. As Peter, I’d had no real worldview, no true notion of life; […]. Living can be so tiresome when you lack an inspiring, elevating thought or point of view or vision to help you come to terms with the disappointments awaiting you in life. No longer did I chase after fame or the like; the sublime no longer drew my gaze. I had learned to love the small and insignificant, and, armed with this kind of love, I found life beautiful, just, and good. I was delighted to renounce all ambition.’

These lines identify self-abnegation, cast in terms of the renunciation of monetary ‘ambition’, with the self-transcending self-elevation enabled by pursuit of a transcendental idea, or ‘an inspiring, elevating thought or point of view or vision’. Walser thereby suggests that truly el(ev)ating happiness, true enjoyment of life, can be attained by holding to an inspiring vision of non-elevation. Elsewhere in ‘Tobold (II)’, the narrator identifies the happy condition of non-elevation itself – of ‘modest being’ – with spectatorship of an inspiring vision of others’ happiness. Genuinely fulfilling personal modesty is here contingent upon (liminal observation of) others’ illusory ‘glory’. Walser ironizes the notion that the elevated might really be freer: for him what matters is holding to the transcendental idea of happiness, to the 'glow' that surrounds the aristocratic diners 'playing their roles'. ‘I always took great pleasure in observing the splendour, the glory; for myself, though, I’d always desired a place in the quiet, modest background from which I could gaze with happy eyes up to and into the bright glow.’ The ‘twilight shadow’ is where the ‘common servant’ finds ‘a great benevolence’ and feels ‘most secure, most faithfully sheltered’, precisely because privileged life is viewed as a mere ‘magical spectacle’, at which the narrator ‘thought it lovely just to look on, entranced’. The idealizing worldview - the ‘whole picture’ – is what he ‘found so beautiful and cherished above all else’. But just this idealization of power is what enables him to find freedom in the refusal of power. ‘So I was always conscious of my merit, station, and joy in life, and took extraordinary delight in the modest being I embodied.’

In a short piece from 1917, ‘The End of the World’, Walser’s twinning of self-abnegatory, radical modesty with the self-transcending self-elevation enabled by pursuit of a transcendental idea, can be seen to expand into what could be called a broader geo-political twinning of apocalypse (or the limit) with utopia (or absolute freedom). In this piece, after ‘imagining the end of the world […] as a sea of bliss in which it could rock forever’, ‘everything looked so prosperous, fine, and free that at once the child was convinced this was the end of the world’. In this context we could also think of the inversion of nature associated by Walser with human conflict in ‘The Battle of Sempach’; when ‘Nature is […] annihilated in a battle’. ‘The sound was like a black, gaping abyss, and the sun now appeared to be shining from a darkened sky, glaring down more dazzling than ever, but as though from a hell, not the heavens.’ Here, unnaturally, the sun becomes brightest when as if apocalyptically detached from its heavens. Excessive brightness – brightness aspiring to the absolute, pushed to its limit – has already been associated with apocalypse on the previous page. ‘The whole earth, no matter how bright it looked, seemed to him to rumble and thunder in anger.’ Walser sees the earth, like the sky, to be darkened by its own aspiration to dazzle. A conception of the end of the world, for Walser, is inseparable from the conception of a transcendental urge towards brightness, freedom, utopia.

Walser’s imbrication of the limit and transcendence seems to me to be echoed by Karl Jaspers’ theorization of the decisive hermeneutic of transcendence available to those in existential crisis. As Thornhill summarizes in his book on Jaspers, for Jaspers ‘Transcendence is accessible only to a decisive hermeneutic, which stands in the absolute limit-situation of human existence, interpreting transcendence through its own crisis.’ Thornhill quotes from the third volume of Jaspers’ Philosophy : ‘“Failing [Scheitern]”, Jaspers argues, “is the encompassing ground of all cipher-being. Seeing the cipher of the reality of being arises from the experience of failing”.’

For Jaspers, Thornhill writes, ‘Being […] is present only negatively, as a series of possible implosions in the order of human consciousness, in which consciousness is referred to its own limits.’ Jaspers’ conception of the decisive hermeneutic of transcendence practiced by those in crisis, rests on the view that, subjectively, such implosions (as Thornhill notes) are ‘decisions’, through which ‘human life decides interpretively to reflect upon its own possibilities (ideas), acts in a manner which accords with these, and thus places itself upon a more unified level of reflection above its habitual practical and cognitive orientations’. The narrator in ‘Tobold (II)’ indeed decides to reflect upon self-abnegation, identifying it as a decision to ‘devote ourselves with all our liberated, willing hearts to a precept and lifelong service, to satisfy people with our conduct, and meekly and boldly forgo beauty’. Continuing his self-hermeneutic, he emphasizes too that to freely and decisively act upon such radical modesty, and ‘forgo heaven’, is to interpret the possibility of transcendence ‘many times more beautiful’:

‘For when I forgo something beautiful: doesn’t a brand-new, never-before-dreamed-of beauty a thousand times more beautiful come flying toward me in reward for my display of goodwill and my kind, strongly felt self-denial? And if, of my own free will, elevated by courage and compassion to nobler sentiments, I should forgo heaven: won’t I then, sooner or later, in reward for my righteous behaviour, fly into a heaven many times more beautiful?’    

We can view Walser’s writing as a whole in Masquerade and Other Stories as itself a decisive hermeneutic of transcendence, undertaken by a vulnerable adult. In linguistic terms, the transcendence at which it aims is, surely, the sort of visionary register to which Bernofsky points when – in her translator’s preface – she quotes from Walser’s ‘Meine Bemühungen’ (‘My Efforts’) of 1928-29. There he comments that in his late work he was ‘experimenting in the linguistic field in the hope that there existed in language an unknown vivacity which it is a pleasure to awaken’. This vivacity is in language but also beyond it, as Walser hinted already in his piece ‘Tableau Vivant’ from 1909. ‘Words won’t venture anywhere near the description of this dynamo. He sings, or something around him seems to be trembling with sounds. Behind the mountains, bells are ringing.’ Walser’s staged tableaux and prose masquerades are also aiming at transcendence in terms of an ideal ‘whole picture’, or ‘dream’, the construction of which they often dramatize. I am thinking here in particular of these marvellous lines in ‘The Aunt’:

‘Gradually I came into the mountains and soon reached an isolated village ringed all around by high crags; this was the birthplace of my mother. It seemed strange to me, yet also familiar and familial. The whole world, and I as well, appeared wonderfully old and young; earth and earthly life were suddenly a dream; I felt everything was perfectly comprehensible, yet also utterly inexplicable.’

Karl Hofer, 'Montagnola' (c. 1930)
What better description could there be of the goal of Jaspers’ hermeneutic process working towards (in Thornhill’s words) ‘a more unified level of reflection above its habitual practical and cognitive orientations’? Walser here captures the existential uncertainty – the sense of the ‘utterly inexplicable’ – which, for Jaspers, accompanies any decisive hermeneutic bid for a transcendental cognitive unity at the limit of knowledge. As Thornhill observes in Karl Jaspers, whilst Heidegger argued that language (as Thornhill puts it) ‘defines and constitutes the practically disclosed horizon of the world’, and thus ‘expressly excludes all ideal components from experience’, Jaspers by contrast maintained that language ‘always positions human consciousness in a relation (albeit existentially uncertain) to its primary ideal unity (its transcendence), and it thus permits an ideal/practical disclosure of this unity’. Thornhill, moreover, describes Jaspers' implicit fusion of Hamannian hermeneutics and Kantian epistemology by referring to Jaspers’ view of revelation or transcendence as mere ‘appearance’ – a term which seems to parallel Walser’s ‘whole picture’ or ‘dream’:

‘The hermeneutic of revelation […] has its profound validity in its ability to signal that the ideal limits of cognition do not reflect the absolute limits of being itself. Nonetheless, with Kant, Jaspers also argues that transcendence can only be knowable as a mere appearance of the possible unity of knowledge: true transcendence, thus, is inevitably beyond the limits of human thought.’

Walser’s lines in ‘The Aunt’, therefore, seem to me to exemplify what Jaspers would call an aesthetic cipher. Ciphers, though also decisive ‘moments of experience, embedded and disclosed in human historical life’, are for Jaspers (as Thornhill writes) ‘only the fleeting appearance of guiding ideas – akin to Kant’s transcendental ideas – which give shape to, but do not encompass, the ultimate underlying unity of human life and knowledge’. For Jaspers a truthful hermeneutic of ciphers ‘always also requires a critical-epistemological approach’ – Thornhill emphasizes – which with Kant and against Hamann, posits God as ‘an “idea”, which illuminates the limits of human consciousness, but which is never the realized experience of human transcendence’. (Walser: ‘It seemed strange to me, yet also familiar and familial.’) Thornhill sees that for Jaspers, it is indeed ‘only because the idea of God is not the experience [but the] appearance of transcendence that it is interpretable as transcendence’. As I have argued elsewhere, you could say that mere appearance lends the quality of definition (or decision) to Jaspers’ visionary hermeneutics – in Thornhill’s words, ‘it is the (epistemological) recognition of the limits of human knowledge which makes the (hermeneutical) disclosure of transcendence, in ciphers, so radical and truthful’.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Vortex Out of German London

I am glad to announce that ‘Vortex Out of German London’, a long essay of mine from 2006, is now published in the Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies, 3 (2012), 28-66. A copy of the final proofs is available to read here.

Focussing in particular on the involvement in Anglo-German cultural phenomena which characterizes both the Vorticist-period radical culture in London and contemporary neo-Vorticist activity, my article documents points of affinity between the visionary sensibilities of a range of ‘extraterritorial’ cultural phenomena across the twentieth century: Vorticism, the ‘Lukács circle’ and Expressionism around the First World War, along with the London neo-Vorticism developed by Iain Sinclair and Brian Catling during the mid-1970s and after. In the article I argue that the floating social position, as well as the visionary perspective and strategies, adopted by these extraterritorial avant-gardes is of considerable relevance to today’s intellectual life – a condition increasingly riven by reliance on the short-term academic contract and random redundancy. I conclude that the vitalist primitivism of Vorticism, laid out first by Lewis in Blast, leads the aesthetic to occupy a place within a traceable lineage of visionary London writing concerned with the modern citizen’s spiritual passion. This explains why Vorticism interfaces with the exilic modernist sensibility developed within central Europe, which similarly fused romantic anti-capitalism with a magical perspective.

If I were writing the article now I would probably seek to derive its existentialist content from Karl Jaspers rather than Siegfried Kracauer – but, in its belated appearance now, my work drawing on Kracauer does at least chime with what seems to be a tiny Kracauer vogue at the moment (given the current New Formations devoted to him and Graeme Gilloch’s long-awaited monograph out at the end of the month).  

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Behind the Mountains, part 2

Gass returns to the characteristically depersonalized and depersonalizing quality of Walser’s writing when he notes the ‘detached, desperate “inhumanity” of his work’. The narrator’s depersonalizing self-negation is foregrounded explicitly in ‘The Alphabet’: ‘I. I skip over, for this is I myself.’ Depersonalizing narratorial strategies are most evident in ‘Tobold (II)’ however, in numerous instances of self-negating narration such as this sentence:

‘Concerning a keg of the finest rye whiskey that, to the delight of the steward and that of a certain additional person – namely, to my very own, grinning, hand-rubbing delight – showed up only to be closely inspected and quite thoroughly investigated and examined by the two abovementioned important or insignificant personages, I shall take care not to waste another word.’

In ‘Tobold (II)’, the ‘certain additional person’ that is the modern self is brushed aside and reduced to the point where his very moods and their attendant whims are directed by an invisible heteronomy. The narrator’s investigation of his workplace is less a focussed product of individual agency, than a dissipated effect of being seduced by that which is more powerful: ‘The castle itself was an imposing edifice, and the many beautiful rooms and chambers I was permitted to glance into as the mood struck me naturally captured my attention and interest with their aristocratic appearance.’ Narration once more becomes a vehicle for expressing the narrator’s self-alienation and loss of personal agency, in the following presentation of vigilant attention directed by the formless authority which it tends:   

‘One of the choicest duties I had to perform was caring for the numerous lamps, an occupation that gave me great pleasure, for I developed quite a fondness for it. Each evening at nightfall I brought light, so to speak, into the dubious twilight that reigned on all sides, or if you prefer, into the darkness. As the count was a fancier of beautiful lamps and lampshades, these always had to be tended and treated with the greatest care. On beautiful evenings, as I crept about the rooms, all quiet as a mouse, a delicate mood in the air, the entire castle seemed bewitched. All the rooms were as if enchanted, the park an enchanted park, and with my soft, discreet, cautious lamplight, I seemed like Aladdin leaping one evening with his magic or miraculous lamp up the high, broad palace steps spread with splendid oriental rugs.’  

In this passage the radical modesty of the narrator – as he creeps about the rooms, ‘all quiet as a mouse’ – renders him indistinguishable from the narrated environment: the succeeding clause, ‘a delicate mood in the air’, could refer to him just as easily as to the castle. Then this submersion of the narrator’s identity within the described environment blends into a self-alienation in the form of a self-fictionalization: ‘I seemed like Aladdin’. The sense of narratorial self-alienation has already been generated by the recurrently self-qualifying, self-negating prose: ‘I brought light, so to speak, […] or if you prefer […]’. Here we are reminded of Walser’s foregrounding of the depersonalized quality of his writing in ‘The Green Spider’, where the narrator refers to ‘my mouth and its modest tool, my inherited language’, so divorcing a potential description enabled by such language from his human physicality ‘incapable of […] stammering it out’. By self-consciously stressing that this is writing removed from its writer, Walser emphasizes his own radical alienation from the reader. This is the effect of the final lines of ‘A Flaubert Prose Piece’ too, which once more draw attention to Walser’s writerly self-abnegation and the depersonalized quality of his prose. ‘Her report contained nothing that might have surprised him. They glided and passed among the people gliding and passing by, like a dream vision within the vision of a dream.’  

I want to draw out the radical implications of Walser’s articulation of modern self-abnegation; of the radical modesty of being, as Gass puts it, ‘Lightly attached to people, to the formalities of society, to any work which lies beneath another’s will like a leg beneath a log’. To take a first example, Walser’s position of self-abnegation enables his writing to develop a powerful critique of self-interest. In her translator’s ‘Preface’ to the collection, Susan Bernofsky quotes Elias Canetti on Walser, in the former’s The Human Province : ‘His deep and instinctive distaste for everything “lofty”, for everything that has rank and privilege, makes him an essential writer of our time, which is choking on power.’ Walser’s fascination with power struggles – his typical focus on human relations in terms of conflict or war – is communicated, for instance, in the following passage in ‘Tobold (II)’. Here the narrator discerns two distinct forms of human conflict, low battles concerning self-interest and ‘noble’ battles concerning natural morality:

‘Intrigues show up in castles, the same as in all other major establishments and institutions. Now the cook wanted to incite me against the steward, now the steward against the cook, but all this factional bickering and class conflict left me cold, for I had no interest in it. Anywhere a noble, splendid, sensible struggle can be found, I’ll be glad, perhaps, to take part in it – why not? – for instance in the struggle of the good versus the wicked, the benevolent versus the malevolent, the open and flexible versus the hardened and insensitive, the quick-witted versus the unenlightened, the diligent and industrious versus those who do nothing yet always stay on top, the struggle of the guileless versus the crafty and sly. This could be a battle I might like to lend a hand in, it can rain blows and punches for all I care, the more the merrier.’     

Walser’s critique of modern, institutional self-interest relates to the way in which his writing – as I want to suggest – projects a similar opposition of modern purposive rationality to natural human life, to that proposed within Georg Simmel’s contemporaneous The Philosophy of Money. (Simmel’s text was published in 1907, whilst Walser’s ‘Aschinger’ and ‘The Battle of Sempach’ – to which we will refer soon – date from 1907 and 1908 respectively). In his German Political Philosophy, Chris Thornhill outlines how Simmel’s political and sociological theory involved ‘the first major step on the path towards a reconstruction of vitalist philosophy, especially that of Nietzsche’.

‘Like Nietzsche, […] Simmel saw the capitalist economy as marking the final triumph of the human being as a formally purposive agent, and he also saw the purposive rationality of capitalism as weakening or neutralizing the relation between people and the purposes or objects of their possession, and even between people and their own actions. Under the generalized rationality of capitalism, therefore, the purposes of economically constructed persons assume a heteronomous primacy over human life itself.’

Indeed, as Thornhill summarizes, because the formal purposiveness of modern monetary subjects involves an alienation of those subjects from their own true purposes, it generates – Simmel maintained in The Philosophy of Money – an experience of depersonalization, such as we have seen reflected throughout Walser’s prose pieces:

‘As an agent seeking purposes, he [Simmel] argued, the modern subject alienates itself from the experiential sources of genuine subjectivity, and it constructs itself as a thinly neutralized set of contents and objectives. The monetary alienation of the human subject from its purposes and actions, then, also leads to a weakening or dissipation of the relation between people and other people, and ultimately, to a weakening or dissipation of the person itself – to a lack of “definite substance in the centre of the soul” or to a diffuse experience of depersonalization.’

We can find Walser detailedly projecting an opposition of formal purposiveness to natural human life within the following extraordinary description of war in ‘The Battle of Sempach’.

‘The rushing crowd, apparently full of passion, drew closer. And the knights stood their ground; suddenly they seemed fused together. Iron men held out their lances; you could have gone for a buggy ride across this bridge of lances, the knights were squeezed in so tightly, lance upon lance stuck out so mindlessly, firm and unyielding – just the thing, you might think, for such an impetuous, raging human breast to impale itself on. Here, an idiotic wall of spikes; there, people half-covered with shirts. Here, the art of war, the most prejudiced there is; there, people seized with helpless rage. Just to put an end to this loathsome horror, one man after the other recklessly charged into a lance tip, maddened, insane, flung by fury and rage. Flung to the ground, that is, without even having struck the helmeted, plumed iron scoundrel with his hand weapon, bleeding pitiably from his breast, tumbling head over heels, face down into the dusty excrement left behind by the noble steeds. This was the fate of all these almost naked men, while the lances, already red with blood, seemed to smile in scorn.’     

Walser’s tableau foregrounds two aspects of human experience. The ‘people half-covered with shirts’ represent passionate humanity. Their behaviour, their purposes, are self-directed: these are people simply ‘impetuous’ or ‘seized with helpless rage’, who are representatives of uncontrolled nature – ‘maddened, insane, flung by fury and rage’. On the other hand, there are the knights reified into their weapons: ‘an idiotic wall of spikes’, ‘the art of war, the most prejudiced there is’. On this side it is impossible to separate reified humans (‘Iron men’, ‘the helmeted, plumed iron scoundrel’), from humanized lances which ‘seemed to smile in scorn’. These knights emblematize an alienated condition of formal purposiveness. Their behaviour is rigidly purposeful, to the point where they are themselves indistinguishable – ‘squeezed in so tightly, lance upon lance stuck out so mindlessly, firm and unyielding’ – from the object-world of instrumentality and neutralization that they project. Walser obsessively delineates what he intuits to be the structuring conflict underlying modern life, and his forecast of the outcome is not utopian: as he writes in the preceding sentence, ‘Nature is always annihilated in a battle’. 

Thornhill shows how Simmel’s opposition of formal purposiveness to natural human life was grounded in Nietzsche’s thinking about law, reason and nature. Nietzsche, Thornhill summarizes, thought that fear of nature stimulates the legislation of ‘rational or moral purposes for humans to pursue, so that they are distracted from their naturalness’. Laws are formed in order to differentiate human life from ‘the cyclical temporal processes of mere nature or from the chaotic temporal events of historical contingency’. ‘Laws and values produced in this manner serve to humanize the world’, Thornhill notes; ‘they allow human beings to live, at least, in an illusion of human justification and moral purpose’. But they also reflect ‘a fearful will to obtain power, a power that can only be secured through the extirpation of whatever is residually natural – including the residues of nature in reason itself’:

‘Whilst possessing the obvious psychological utility that they protect people from knowledge of their own naturalness, however, Nietzsche argued that the laws created by reason form highly coercive and dominatory intellectual structures, which, in seeking to suppress fear, fixate human reason on the acquisition of power.’ 

For Nietzsche, as Thornhill writes, this is ‘invariably the will to power of weak people’; it is ‘power resentfully desired by those who cannot contentedly tolerate the naturalness and spontaneous futility of life’. Those who cannot accept contingency, and remain trapped in nihilistic horror vacui, ‘produce sense for their lives only through the pursuit of obligatory, yet ultimately illusory laws and purposes’.  

We can argue that Walser’s writing articulates the perspective of those whom competitive capitalist society labels ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’ – of the radically modest – in order to discern, with Nietzsche and Simmel, the true weakness of those who pursue ‘obligatory, yet ultimately illusory laws and purposes’. In Walser’s ‘Aschinger’, their rushed, non-accepting satisfaction of appetitive processes of mere nature is not enough for the competitive and power-seeking, who must then flee into ‘the commercial air’.

‘The dissatisfied quickly find satisfaction at the beer spring and the warm sausage tower, and the satiated dash out again into the commercial air, generally with a briefcase beneath their arm, a letter in their pocket, an assignment in their brain, firm plans in their skull, and in their open palm a watch that says the time has come.’   

Walser suggests that, slotted into their new, artificial time (of money, not of nature), the supposedly ‘firm’ purposes of economically constructed persons do not derive from their own natural brains – or from any ‘definite substance in the centre of the soul’ – but are instead plucked out, as if at random, from the empty, depersonalized skulls within which they float. A critique of the modern differentiation of ‘plans’ from naturalness or contingency may also be said to lie behind Walser’s ironization of the self-with-attainments in ‘Tobold (II)’: ‘Incidentally, it should also be mentioned that the secretary was an excellent pianist. Why shouldn’t we have a fondness for people who bring us pleasure with their skills, gifts, sciences, or knowledge?’ Walser proposes, in ‘Marie’, that the illusory plans and instrumentalized attainments which animate the capitalist city merely sustain a society in which both ‘work’ and ‘sophisticated pleasure’ are paratactically, and barbarically, inseparable from ‘privation’:

            ‘“Where are you going?” Frau Bandi asked.
            “I’m not quite sure yet. Well, to one of the centres of contemporary civilization, culture, work, privation, sophisticated pleasure, modern elegance and education, to one of the big, noisy cities where I’ll learn how to go about winning some respect and repute for myself among my fellow men.”’


Friday, 19 October 2012

Behind the Mountains

The world of the prose pieces of Robert Walser’s assembled in the collection Masquerade and Other Stories is one of those who hold to ‘modest being’, as Walser phrases it in ‘Tobold (II)’. It may be easy, at first sight and when one is aware of Walser’s own history of depressive illness, to confuse such modesty – perhaps particularly when expressed in terms of an abdication of agency or occupation – with mental incapacity. In his ‘Introduction’ to the collection, William H. Gass describes Walser’s eventual institutional mode of existence, when he deliberately abandoned his lifelong, modernist vocation of obscurity.

‘His mind pleads incompetence. Asylums are asylums. There he can guiltlessly surrender his fate and pass his days at the behest of others. He will no longer need to write in such a way that its public obscurity is assured. He will no longer need to write. The daily walk will suffice.’

Yet, in the course of his description of the narrator’s unemployment in ‘Marie’, Walser places depression – or the radical form of modesty which is a personal refusal of occupation – in dialectical relation to an impulse towards freedom. Even as he is ‘confined, restrained, imprisoned’ by, or reified within, his obsessive negative thought patterns, Walser’s narrator ‘should have liked to wander far off, out into the bright, wide, open, healthy world’. However self-ironizing, repetitious and concentric Walser’s depressive’s prose may be here, this conjunction shines out: ‘I was free, then suddenly wasn’t at all free.’

‘Sometimes I did in fact reproach myself most sternly about my idleness, but without being too terribly worried about it. Employment was always on my mind; I resolved to get to work, but for all that was still a long way from working, and instead kept running around jobless, without anything at all in the way of occupation. Melancholia and pensiveness held me strangely captive; all day long I was unable to free myself from any number of thoughts, found myself bound by my ideas. I was, so to speak, both prisoner and prison, felt confined, restrained, imprisoned. I was free, then suddenly wasn’t at all free. […] I should have liked to wander far off, out into the bright, wide, open, healthy world, but then again didn’t have the least desire, the slightest urge to do so, though I was by no means really too indolent.’       

Precisely the unfreedom of the narrator in ‘Marie’, the way in which he is crippled by his depression, conditions his particular form of freedom, which consists of an impulse towards freedom or a desire to be free: the ‘certain ardent searching and longing’ upon which Walser expands on the following page. Walser’s hyper-irony notes that this longing too is a mode of unfreedom, though one that we ‘should not even strive’ to escape. Indeed, as (in) a sort of beneficient infinite recursion, it is itself ‘desirable’, and more so than any utopian end-point:

‘Around this time I went for a walk across the mountain with an honest, straightforward man. I vividly recall a good and most agreeable conversation we had along the way, in the course of which the person in question, my walking companion, pursued a train of thought according to which we humans, as long as we live, are generally incapable of freeing ourselves from a certain ardent searching and longing, and should not even strive to; that our longing for happiness seems far more beautiful, always far more sensitive, more significant and all in all probably far more desirable than happiness itself, which perhaps need not even exist, since the fervent, gratifying pursuit of happiness and an everlasting, deep desire for it perhaps not only suit perfectly our needs, but satisfy them far better, far more profoundly; that being happy is by no means to be taken casually, unquestioningly as the meaning of the world, the goal and purpose of life, and so on.’

The physical activity of exploring nature – the mountain walk – is an appropriate stimulant of these cogitations on this ‘ardent searching and longing’: in later pieces Walser explicitly conceives of longing in organic, natural terms. ‘The One of Fairy Tales’ has the phrase ‘The mountain fire of longing’. A 1927-28 ‘Prose Piece’ ends with this sentence:

‘Waves and branches have snakelike shapes, and there come moments when we know we are no more and no less than waves and snowflakes, or than that which surely feels, now and then, from its so wonderfully charming confinement, the pull of longing: the leaf.’
Whilst this prose piece highlights the passivity of a plant’s experience of longing, other pieces of Walser’s, such as ‘Fritz’, do emphasize human active longing and its attendant agencies. Fritz would dazzle his potential employer with his general positivity, his resolve and ‘willingness to lay it on as thick as possible’, in order to satisfy his ‘profound longing for rewarding and long-term employment’. Yet his ironical attitude towards all this is reinforced by the page’s typography.

‘She remarked that only ardent

who had a mind to go all the way could be taken into consideration, whereupon I replied I was resolved to be every bit as ardent and to go ever bit as far as I thought would please her; she’d be astonished. I was beyond all doubt an optimist.’

The narrator of ‘Tobold (II)’ again foregrounds longing, ardency and resolution: ‘Some day what I have long wished to do should and must be achieved.’ With this emphasis on will and courage, Walser here could be said to promulgate a radical decision theory:

‘That an act requires courage is, in my opinion, enough to make it worthwhile, that is, healthy and honest. Whether or not the enterprise has a chance of succeeding strikes me, as I said before, as irrelevant. What really counts, what has weight and significance, is showing courage and firmness, not failing to undertake some day the thing you’ve proposed.’

Yet because decisive undertaking is more about pure will than carried-through, practical action or the achievement of an objective goal, and because Walser’s narrators tend to verbalize or theorize undertaking rather than actually undertake anything, it is easy to describe Walser’s creations as passive, depersonalized selves, as does Gass.

‘Walser’s narrators (and we can presume, in this case, Walser himself) have become will-less wanderers, impotent observers of life, passive perceivers of action and passion. Only on the page, will the Will risk the expression and exercise of its considerable means.’ 


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Martian Time-Slip, part 2

In Martian Time-Slip Dick clearly upholds individual freedom, whether it be in terms of the schizophrenic ‘turn inward to meaning’ or Zitte’s bid for economic freedom. Yet the novel’s representation of mental illness also emphasizes the negative aspect of subjective inwardness. Dr Glaub draws attention to how ‘“in child autism, as with Manfred, there is no language at all, at least no spoken language. Possibly totally personal private thoughts…but no words.”’ Dick stresses how autistic noncommunication cages the subject within privatized existence – a sort of privatization which chills Jack Bohlen despite his experience of an empathy with the autistic boy, when he is ‘caught in a symbiosis with this unfortunate, mute creature who did nothing but rake over and inspect his own private world, again and again’. Earlier in the text, when he is exploring the ‘Public School’, Bohlen is troubled by the way in which autism ‘was in the last analysis an apathy toward public endeavour; it was a private existence carried on as if the individual person were the creator of all value, rather than merely the repository of inherited values’. Bohlen thinks that it is important that ‘The child learned that certain things in the culture around him were worth preserving at any cost’, and that ‘His values were fused with some objective human enterprise’. Dick bemoans the divorce of the radically noncommunicative from a communal objectivity, which he thinks of in terms of a taught tradition of values and culture. This divorce also represents the entrance to what Doreen Anderton, in conversation with Bohlen, calls ‘“the Tomb World”’.

‘Jack thought, And people talk about mental illness as an escape! He shuddered. It was no escape; it was a narrowing, a contracting of life into, at last, a mouldering, dank tomb, a place where nothing came or went; a place of total death.’

Dick thus associates psychotic noncommunication with a condition of total reification, or a freezing within an absence of experience; an absence of change. ‘It is the stopping of time. The end of experience, of anything new. Once the person becomes psychotic, nothing ever happens to him again.’ Yet despite lamenting the breakdown of the subject’s relation to objectivity in this way, Dick also offers a critique of objectivity in the form of the ‘composite psyche’ represented by the Public School. In this context he once more upholds the individual’s freedom, accusing an unfree society of imposing a diagnosis of mental illness on any child who displays signs of personal singularity:

Paul Klee. Early Sorrow. 1938
‘It was a battle, Jack realized, between the composite psyche of the school and the individual psyches of the children, and the former held all the key cards. A child who did not properly respond was assumed to be autistic – that is, oriented according to a subjective factor that took precedence over his sense of objective reality.’

Hence whilst Dick bemoans the alienation of the radically noncommunicative from intersubjective objectivity, or ‘the reality of interpersonal living, of life in a given culture with given values’, he critiques their educational institution – the Public School – which represents the ‘link’ to the ‘inherited culture’, and which is there ‘not to inform or educate, but to mold, and along severely limited lines’. ‘It bent its pupils to it [the culture]; perpetuation of the culture was the goal, and any special quirks in the children which might lead them in another direction had to be ironed out.’ Bohlen views ‘the fixed, rigid, compulsive-neurotic Public School’ as being, on one level, ‘an invention arising from necessity’ – insofar as its very neurosis offers the children a bulwark against their own psychosis, or ‘a reference point by which one could gratefully steer one’s course back to mankind and shared reality’. The reified, ‘compulsive-obsessive’ environment which the Public School represents – ‘a world in which nothing new came about, in which there were no surprises’ – at least enables ‘a deliberate stopping, a freezing somewhere along the path’ of psychosis. But Bohlen is also preoccupied by the way in which the Public School environment represents the conversion of ‘inherited culture’ into a form of reified intersubjectivity.

‘[…] Jack Bohlen, for the life of him, could not accept the Public School with its teaching machines as the sole arbiter of what was and what wasn’t of value. For the values of a society were in ceaseless flux, and the Public School was an attempt to stabilize those values, to jell them at a fixed point – to embalm them.’

It seems to be apparent, therefore, that what the novel’s treatment of the interface between mental illness and impaired communication is focussed on, above all else, is reification. Dick laments reified intersubjectivity just as he laments reified subjectivity. In Martian Time-Slip an important definition of psychosis returns to the vocabulary of jelling or coagulation, to describe the self reified beyond empathy and communication:

‘A coagulated self, fixed and immense, which effaces everything else and occupies the entire field. Then the most minute change is examined with the greatest attention. That is Manfred’s state now; has been, from the beginning. The ultimate stage of the schizophrenic process.’

It is as if the reified self expands until, become pure 'attention', it wipes itself out. Jameson’s ‘Philip K. Dick, in Memoriam’ concludes with a discussion of Dick’s prophetic treatment of the ‘end to individualism’ which increasingly characterizes society now. In response to the ‘death of the subject’, Jameson sees Dick’s writing as staging a ‘fitful and disturbing reappearance’ of ‘the collective’ – when the collective reappears precisely in the context of our reified intersubjectivity, or ‘the logic of stereotypes, reproductions and depersonalization in which the individual is held in our own time, “like a bird caught in cobwebs” (Ubik)’. Jameson reads Dick’s fiction as colliding a marginal collective made up of the vulnerable and the posthumous, with the radically alienating world of digitalized, virtualized intersubjectivity imposed on us by technology and mass media: within this scenario, Dick can attach some sort of redemptive value to the reification experienced by the autistic or ‘half-life’ community.

‘It is a literature in which the collective makes a fitful and disturbing reappearance, most often in a paralyzed community of the dead or the stricken, their brains wired together in a nightmarish attempt to find out why their familiar small-town worlds are lacking in depth or solidity, only to discover that they are “in reality” all immobilized together in some cryogenic half-life.’

As Jameson would go on to stress, in his ‘History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick’, in Martian Time-Slip Dick upholds the marginal, immobilized collective as the only social formation capable of future mobility. At the end of the novel, Dick presents Manfred Steiner as having been rescued, eventually, by Jack Bohlen’s attempt to communicate with him. In the novel’s climactic scene back-from-the-future Steiner may now be, as Jameson puts it, an ‘android-type prosthetic being’, but this is also Steiner’s (in Jameson’s phrase) ‘final apotheosis’, and a moment in which he can thank Bohlen for his humanity. ‘It lapsed into silence and then it resumed, more loudly, now. “You tried to communicate with me, many years ago. I appreciate that.”’ Though physically quite literally semi-reified, by now Steiner has found a way of releasing himself from the sort of contemporary reified intersubjectivity emblematized by the AM-WEB building, precisely – so Dick suggests – as a result of a developing capacity for communication and relationality. Bohlen asks Steiner, ‘“Did you escape AM-WEB?”’ ‘“Yesss,” it hissed, with a gleeful tremor. “I am with my friends.” It pointed to the Bleekmen who surrounded it.’ Relating to the Bleekmen, as Bohlen had surmised earlier, can enable Steiner to break through reification, by learning how to adjust – to change – precisely through learning how to be true to his own singularity:

‘Perhaps, for the first time in his life, the boy was in a situation to which he might make an adjustment; he might, with the wild Bleekmen, discern a style of living which was genuinely his and not a pallid, tormented reflection of the lives of those around him, beings who were innately different from him and whom he could never resemble, no matter how hard he tried.’  
Franziska Moebius. Kinder im Weg. Leipzig 2006.
transit trauma and arrested development

Friday, 14 September 2012

A Return to Postwar Humanism?

I am interested by the statement made by the leftist London cultural historian Ken Worpole, in his response early last year to new editions of novels by Alexander Baron [here], that ‘we sorely need’ a ‘return’ to the ‘vital postwar humanist “moment” in European cinema, fiction and intellectual life’. I can certainly identify the category of postwar humanism in terms of (what I have called elsewhere on this blog) ‘English existentialism’: Murdoch, Wilson, and quite probably Gascoyne, Read and Baron himself. Karl Jaspers is presented by Chris Thornhill as an – perhaps the – exemplary German humanist thinker of the immediate postwar period. But as I read more deeply in Thornhill’s books, I am realizing that the postwar German moment of reconstruction was far from straightforwardly humanist: there is also the functionalist strand of social thought, or social philosophy, which culminates in Luhmann’s antihumanism. I wonder too whether, within the British context, Worpole’s category of postwar humanism is not rendered similarly paradoxical by the development of welfare state ideology: the British functionalism?  

I found Worpole’s article via Susie Thomas’s worthwhile piece for the Literary London Journal, ‘Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963): Remembering the Holocaust in Hackney’ [here]. I have written about Baron's wonderful novel myself elsewhere, though I have not been able to approach its treatment of the war. Thomas notes of Baron’s protagonist Harryboy Boas:     

‘Harryboy's longing for oblivion, and his repeated failure to retain any material possessions, is also connected to the fate of the Jews in postwar Europe: in particular to the need to be exonerated of the guilt of surviving. At one point Harryboy considers becoming a slum landlord in the East End: “I could get a whole tribe of immigrants in here, straight off the boat, paying me a pound a week each to kip on mattresses on the floor. My golden future”. But he loses the houses in a crap [sic] game: “Empty, the burden of possession lifted from me, I walked away”. Only by having nothing can he remain innocent.’

This resonates, I feel, with my own strangely innocent and contactless life, as a London-born, guilt-born son of an East German refugee, and in particular with the idea of a 'vocation of obscurity', which I propounded in my book Iain Sinclair and then, on this blog, in relation to Hamann's early form of Christian existentialism. It is as if already with Hamann, humanism is contiguous with a more Eastern-style, Zen or Daoist detachment from the subject, an abdication of agency; in the same way, perhaps, as a dialectic of humanism (manifesting for example as post-Kierkegaardian decisionism) and antihumanism (Heideggerian indifferentism/fatalism; Schmitt?) later emerged to vividly characterize interwar German thinking.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Speculating Histories

I notice that my article 'Speculating Histories: Walter Benjamin, Iain Sinclair', which was published in Historical Materialism, 14.2 (2006), 3-27, is now available online. So I have placed it in my Scribd folder [here] too.

more Luskacova

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Martian Time-Slip

‘Helio, lowering his book, said, “This child has a speech impediment which I am overcoming.”’

Edward, Spitalfields 1989
by Marketa Luskacova
It is, surely, Dick’s unflinching presentation of the interface between mental illness and impaired communication in his 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, which brought Patricia Warrick – as Umberto Rossi notes in The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick – to comment on the ‘terrible sincerity’ of the text. For Fredric Jameson, in his ‘History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick’, the settlements on Mars in Martian Time-Slip represent ‘the most depressing of all his novelistic “realities”’ – though I would add that the settlements presented in A Maze of Death are none too cheering either. The sincerity which Dick achieves in Martian Time-Slip is particularly sobering, I would argue, because it posits the misery involved with mental illness to be an increasingly generalized condition within contemporary life. When Rossi writes that ‘the title of the 1963 novella “All We Marsmen” – that Dick expanded into the novel – might also suggest that it is a story about “All We Madmen (and Women)”’, I would go further and emphasize Dick’s intention in the novel to suggest that, increasingly, We Are All Madmen and Madwomen now. Martian Time-Slip has Jack Bohlen remark that schizophrenia poses ‘“one of the most pressing problems human civilization has ever faced”’; later the text describes schizophrenia as ‘the most pervasive, ominous psychic process known to man’.   

Mental illness is repeatedly presented by Dick in terms of a breakdown of communication and relationality. He has the psychiatrist, Dr Glaub, observe that ‘“In autism, especially, the faculty of interpersonal communication is drastically impaired.”’ As Rossi comments, in connection with the novel’s autistic protagonist Manfred Steiner and his disturbance in time-sense, ‘the time-slip that allows Manfred to see what will happen also prevents him from communicating with others in the present’. Dr Glaub describes ‘“disturbed persons”’ as ‘“encapsulated individuals cut off from ordinary means of communication”’. Bohlen articulates Dick’s understanding of such noncommunicative isolation:

‘Now I can see what psychosis is: the utter alienation of perception from the objects of the outside world, especially the objects which matter: the warmhearted people there. And what takes their place? A dreadful preoccupation with – the endless ebb and flow of one’s own self. The changes emanating from within which affect only the inside world. It is a splitting apart of the two worlds, inner and outer, so that neither registers on the other. Both still exist, but each goes its own way.’

Dick’s understanding of mental disturbance as a confinement within interiority, relates to his sense that contemporary mental illness derives from the influence of the exercise of modern rationality. Manfred Steiner’s father traces his son’s autistic alienation back to the influence of Manfred’s mother’s academic personality, with its detachment from lived sensuous experience, its coldness and lack of love. Her dominative, instrumental rationality has reified her. By contrast, Silvia Bohlen is ‘a genuine mother and woman, vital, physically attractive, alive’:

‘In his own mind, Steiner blamed it all on his wife; when Manfred was a baby, she had never talked to him or shown him any affection. Having been trained as a chemist, she had an intellectual, matter-of-fact attitude, inappropriate in a mother. She had bathed and fed the baby as if he were a laboratory animal like a white rat. She kept him clean and healthy but she had never sung to him, laughed with him, had not really used language to or with him. So naturally he had become autistic; what else could he do?’

Dick consolidates an imputed critique of today’s academic culture and academic reason, when he has Dr Glaub refer to disturbed ‘“minds so fatigued by the impossible task of communicating in a world where everything happens with such rapidity that -”’. Here it is difficult not to think of the purposelessly accelerated, bureaucratized conditions of contemporary academic production – or this society’s ‘publish-or-perish’ privileging of the quantity of academic research produced over its quality – and the damage that these conditions do to our mental health. Martian Time-Slip in fact offers a potent Weberian or Frankfurt School-like prophecy of our existing culture of enforced higher education, intensified social differentiation and career specialization:

‘The ad listed all the skills in demand on Mars, and it was a long list, excluding only canary raiser and proctologist, if that. It pointed out how hard it was now for a person with only a master’s degree to get a job on Earth, and how on Mars there were good-paying jobs for people with only B.A.’s [sic].’

Jack Bohlen further illuminates this vision of a fast-paced, specialized polis, the complexity of which entails an ultimately changeless, reified and reifying, density of experience which threatens our sense of the freedom of the self.

‘“Frankly, Kindly Dad, I emigrated to Mars because of my schizophrenic episode when I was twenty-two and worked for Corona Corporation. I was cracking up. I had to move out of a complex urban environment and into a simpler one, a primitive frontier environment with more freedom. The pressure was too great for me; it was emigrate or go mad. […] I went mad standing in line at the bookstore. Everybody else, Kindly Dad, every single person in that bookstore and in that supermarket – all of them lived in the same building I did. It was a society, Kindly Dad, that one building.”’

The novel develops its critique of the modern use of instrumental reason in the course of a conversation in which Heliogabalus describes schizophrenia as ‘“the savage within the man”’, and Arnie Kott responds by calling it a ‘“reversion to primitive ways of thought”’. Helio identifies psychoanalysis, taken as an instance of the sort of modern instrumental reason which would reshape suffering selves, to be a ‘“vainglorious foolishness”’ which is mistaken in its therapeutic mission of restoring the subject to optimum functionality and sense of purpose.

‘“Question they never deal with is, what to remold sick person like. There is no what, Mister.”
“I don’t get you, Helio.”
“Purpose of life is unknown, and hence way to be is hidden from the eyes of living critters. Who can say if perhaps the schizophrenics are not correct? Mister, they take a brave journey. They turn away from mere things, which one may handle and turn to practical use; they turn inward to meaning . There, the black-night-without-bottom lies, the pit. Who can say if they will return? And if so, what will they be like, having glimpsed meaning? I admire them.”’ 

Dick here suggests that in a real sense mental illness is itself a valid response to the perennial philosophical question of human purpose. Modern instrumental rationality involves an objectivizing use of reason, which latches on to objects to ‘turn to practical use’; in contrast, (rational) irrationality can refuse objectivity and seek not practical purpose, but the impractical purpose of uncovering the absolute grounding humanity. It is in this context of the ‘turn inward to meaning’ that Dick’s conception of irrationality, converges with the conception of existential reason developed in Jaspers’ thinking: as Chris Thornhill notes in his Karl Jaspers, 'transcendence' is for Jaspers 'an inner attribute of truthfully self-interpreting humanity'. Dick’s defence of the schizophrenic turn inward to meaning is also supported by the novel’s depiction of the Martian environment; Mars is presented as ideal territory for asocial interior voyagers towards the sources of human value, in a way that recalls a phrase from Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat : the ‘private moon voyage’. Early in the novel, Bohlen judges that his father will adjust to Mars precisely because he is ‘in touch with some level of knowledge which told him how to behave, not in the social sense, but in a deeper, more permanent way’. Then the ‘lonely’ children of Mars appear; frantic yet diffident, Kafka-solitary pursuers of the transcendental beneath the surface. Young hermeneuticians, slightly dazed by the austere immensity of their ‘black-night-without-bottom’, the landscape of their quest.

‘The children had a large-eyed, haunted look, as if they were starved for something as yet invisible. They tended to become reclusive, if given half a chance, wandering off to poke about in the wastelands. […] When he flew by ‘copter, Arnie always spotted some isolated children, one here and another there, toiling away out in the desert, scratching at the rock and sand as if trying vaguely to pry up the surface of Mars and get underneath…’

The novel’s foregrounding of the schizophrenic turn inward to meaning has a sociopolitical correlate in Dick’s characteristic vaunting of repairman Otto Zitte’s doomed bid for personal economic freedom.

‘He hated the big racketeers, too, same as he hated the big unions. He hated bigness per se; bigness had destroyed the American system of free enterprise, the small businessman had been ruined – in fact, he himself had been perhaps the last authentic small businessman in the solar system. That was his real crime; he had tried to live the American way of life, instead of just talking about it.’

Of course these statements are representative of Dick’s typical populist celebration of, in Jameson’s words (in his ‘Philip K. Dick, In Memoriam’), ‘small employees such as record salesmen, self-employed mechanics and petty bureaucrats […] caught in the convulsive struggles of monopoly corporations and now galactic and intergalactic multinationals’. Darko Suvin, Rossi records, has interpreted the AM-WEB building in Martian Time-Slip as a reference to the ‘American Web of big business, corrupt labour aristocracy and big state’. The novel’s defence of an individual’s freedom, in the face of both the right-wing and left-wing varieties of reified intersubjectivity which manifest in our contemporary convergence of monopoly capitalism and bureaucratic statism, is clear.     

To be continued.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Transcendence of Soviet

Beyond cool. DDR synth music from 1978. Found at The Glimmerlight .

How to read this? As a celebration of USSR-funded technology or instead as an articulation of a transcendental aspiration to flee from Stasi oppression into the cosmos?

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Scheitern, part 2

Thornhill shows the congruity of Jaspers' conception of foundering communicative reason as a decisive ‘hermeneutic of possible transcendence’, with the Weimar socialist theologian Paul Tillich’s theorization of revelation. For Tillich as for Jaspers, revelation involves ‘the shattering of reason’ (in Thornhill’s words); precisely as such however, revelation ‘is not the negation of reason’, because it is ‘the moment where reason experiences its highest degree of transcendent and unconditioned truthfulness’. Both Jaspers and Tillich conceive of revelation as being ‘not solely a fact of faith, but also a philosophical possibility of human reason’, which presents itself wherever reason founders, or ‘encounters the limits of its formal processes’. Thornhill also explains how Jaspers’ theory of the limit, or of a decisive hermeneutic operating in existential limit-situations, parallels Tillich’s conceptualization of kairos, and how both thinkers thus theorize a ‘decisive moment of responsible transcendence’.

Tillich used the concept of kairos to capture what he called ‘fulfilled time’; the moments in human life ‘in which eternity breaks in’ on the usual conditions of human history. In Thornhill’s words, kairos is thus ‘a moment of historical time in which human life reflects upon its possibilities at the limits of its historicality’; in a way recalling Jaspers’ theory of the limit, Thornhill notes, Tillich could therefore assert kairos as a ‘historical consciousness […] whose ethos is unconditioned responsibility for the present moment in time’. Thornhill stresses that – and whilst Heidegger simply ‘interprets the moment of human decision as the awareness of the immutability of the historical forms in which human life is placed’ – Tillich and Jaspers alike understand ‘true kairological decisiveness’ to be an ‘ethical position’. This is because they both sense that genuine ‘transcendent(al) self-knowledge’ articulates itself in ‘acts of active self-choice, self-disclosure and, in the strict sense, historical responsibility towards others’. Both Tillich and Jaspers assert, Thornhill clarifies, that ‘kairos provides the grounds for an innerworldly ‘metaphysic of responsibility’. Quoting Tillich, Thornhill emphasizes this point:      
‘It is only in the kairological specificity of historical responsibility, not in the compliance with “universal law”, that human life explains and enacts the possibilities of its transcendence. The decisive moment of responsible transcendence (kairos for Tillich; Grenze [limit] for Jaspers) does not effect here (as for Barth) an absolute crisis of the human realm. Rather, in quasi-Kantian, or even quasi-Weberian manner, both Tillich and Jaspers see the kairos of responsibility as an ethical intrusion into the existing conditions of human life, and as an unconditioned position of accountability towards these conditions.’

It is important to note, finally, that when (what Thornhill calls) Jaspers’ ‘ethical kairology’ enables him to posit an innerworldly metaphysic of responsibility, he is thereby nonetheless thinking towards a true non-secularity; for Jaspers, as Thornhill writes, ‘the truth of history, although interpreted in history, cannot be reconciled with the present conditions of historical life’. Thornhill underlines this point by explicating the shared foundations of Jaspers’ and Karl Barth’s ‘eschatological hermeneutic as the guarantor of the historicality of history’.

Jaspers and Barth, Thornhill sees, ‘share the conviction that revelation cannot be objectified in a particular set of worldly imperatives, and that revelation cannot be cemented in any system of legal or political obligation’. Both assert that, as Thornhill puts it, ‘No order within history itself, […] can arrogate the authority of transcendence to itself. Any attempt of this kind is merely an example of bad secularity, or bad metaphysics.’ Hence both thinkers claim that ‘the disclosure of transcendence occurs at all times at the limit of history, and that it cannot be incorporated into the fixed orders of everyday history’. Moreover both Barth and Jaspers indicate that ‘human life can only interpret itself adequately insofar as it interprets itself and its products under the index of their limits and their possible otherness’. Barth and Jaspers’ shared argument that ‘humanity interprets its own transcendence only as it brings into suspension the forms in which it exists, only as it knows itself external to the forms of its worldliness’, Thornhill stresses, is precisely why Barth (from a christological viewpoint) and Jaspers (from a hermeneutical viewpoint), ‘retain a far stronger attachment to the eschatological basis of Christianity than their opponents amongst liberal and conservative theologians’. Jaspers’ identification of a truthful hermeneutic of transcendence with a self-hermeneutic of individual crisis or failure, means that for him – as for Barth – transcendence is, in Thornhill’s words, ‘merely a decisive possibility at the limit of the temporal’; for both thinkers ‘true interpretation must take place at the limit of objective self-awareness’, and ‘all attempts interpretively to integrate transcendence into a historical synthesis inevitably fall into the trap of false objectification’. Jaspers and Barth’s shared conviction that, as Thornhill writes, ‘the interpretation of revelation is never final’ is therefore what brings both Jaspers and Barth to suggest ‘an either explicitly or implicitly eschatological hermeneutic as the guarantor of the historicality of history’: both thinkers hold ‘the essentially eschatological belief that human history in its present condition cannot provide for final truthfulness, and that the truth of history, although interpreted in history, cannot be reconciled with the present conditions of historical life’.      

Thornhill thus pays considerable attention to the way in which Jaspers, like Barth, argues that ‘the interpretation of transcendence cannot be historically fixed as a reflex within any continuum of culture, politics or doctrine’. Yet, crucially, Thornhill also suggests that the type of non-secularity established within Barth’s thinking, is distinct from the true non-secularity established within Jaspers’. The truth of the non-secularity thought by Jaspers, Thornhill’s argument hints, hinges on his proposal of a self-hermeneutic of individual failure. Jaspers, Thornhill sees, charges Barth and the dialectical theologians with interpreting revelation as ‘the unique source of authority against human history’; precisely in their opposition to secular legitimacy, they ‘succeed only in recreating revelation at the limit of human history as a new source of objective authority’. Thornhill writes that when Barth in this way insisted on the objective authority of revelation, and so ultimately aligned himself with the Lutheran theologian Emanuel Hirsch and Barth’s other reactionary adversaries, he became ‘complicit in the process which secularizes and materializes religious contents’.

Crucially, Thornhill stresses that, viewed from Jaspers’ perspective, Barth’s thinking of radical anti-secularity necessarily creates an ‘objectivizing system of belief’, precisely because it fails to recognize ‘the human relativity of all truly transcendental interpretation’. Thornhill maintains that when the Lutherans, viewed from Jaspers’ position, ‘crudely press revelation into service for the authority of the nation state’, and Barth poses revelation at the limit of history as a new source of objective authority, this is because – so Jaspers’ thinking intimates – they all obscure ‘the absolute relativity of revelation’. ‘In this respect, both eliminate the genuine transcendence of revelation, which is its uncertainty, and both falsely concretize transcendence as authority – as law.’ Thornhill’s work suggests that, in opposition to this juridical tendency of Weimar theology, Jaspers’ identification of a truthful interpretation of transcendence with a self-hermeneutic of individual crisis or failure, recreates the relativity of truly transcendental hermeneutics, and so establishes a true non-secularity – one which ‘relies on an interpretive component of humanity, secularity and liberality ’.