Thoughts on the Human Limit

August 11, 2009

There’s been some discussion, on some of the blogs I read, recently, and on this blog too, about science, philosophy, mysticism, totality. There is a philosophical longing for, in Derrida’s terminology, presence – for completeness, the non-division of the self, the non-invasion of the self by a desire that tears the self in pieces; a desire that works to suppress the non-completeness of the self in the form of mortality, our knowledge of the ultimate collapse of the temporarily self-maintaining biological systems that have no self or sense of self outside that maintenance. Dissolution. This longing for completeness and security leads to philosophical fantasies – the desire for something that cannot be lost, even if that something is nothingness, as in the Fort! of Freud’s grandson’s Fort-Da game. (What is really lost in that text and life, of course, is not the mother, but the grandson – dead, buried and grieved.) But the self-division at the heart of that desire for non-self-division is present in and as desire. And this in turn is analysable in physical, biological, and contingently empirical terms. The terms of our painful, real, and exorbitant lives.

Knowledge is, for philosophy, shadowed by the dream of absolute knowledge. And this dream is only a dream – a dream more potent than the dream the dream dreams – the dream of apparent knowledge, as dreaming. I mean to say: Descartes imagines that all the world might be a fantasy. But this is the real fantasy, and the only fantasy Descartes refuses to doubt. For that would make him vulnerable to more exigent doubts still.

I’ve been advancing, on this blog, a claim that should be much less controversial than it is: the claim that scientific knowledge’s authority comes from its status as hypothesis. Which is also to say, in a sense, its status as fiction – or as possible fiction. It is the fact that we cannot ultimately know whether a scientific claim is a story we are telling ourselves that gives science its status as source of truth – as non fiction. Which is also to say, with Derrida, that the categories of truth and fiction are far less cleanly dissociable than they are often taken to be.

In the current theoretical reaction against not just post-structuralism, not just the linguistic turn, but against the post-Kantian problematic of human finitude itself, many fought-for insights are being suppressed and attacked. Not least of these is this emphasis on human finitude as incorrigible limit – not a locatable limit, which pens us in, but simply a limit described by wherever we happen to be and whatever we happen currently to think and do. We can move elsewhere – we can think more – we can expand or transform the limit. But a limit remains while finitude remains – and finitude is our fate and only habitat, as biological, fleshy, mortal and substantial organisms. The occlusion of the human limit gathers its forces as its pragmatic justifications fall away – as the culture of happiness reveals yet again its pale and bleeding underbelly.

I’m riffing off of and distorting Roger’s work. (Here; here, for example.) And I want to talk about Roger’s work. But for now I want briefly to pursue this idea of limit as finitude innate in knowledge and in fiction. I’ve thought for a long time that one of the more ghastly effects of the ‘analytic / continental’ divide that did so much damage to twentieth century philosophy, was the way it suppressed the resonances between the literary-theological-political emphases of ‘continental’ theorising and the logical-scientific emphases of ‘analytic’ thought. There are profound resonances and homologies here. One such homology is this idea of finitude as fiction as hypothesis, in its connection to truth.

Here’s a famous Nabokov quote: “One must have the passion of a scientist and the precision of an artist.” And there’s another quote I can’t find right now, in which Nabokov outlines the career of a researcher. The more one studies, the more there is to uncover, Nabokov writes. One encounters an endless opening up of knowledge and experience. Everything unfolds forever. This is the agony and the intense joy of curiosity and consciousness. One pushes back the limits of knowledge or experience endlessly, endlessly, endlessly – without limit, as it were.

This resonates, for me, with the scientific method. One learns more and more, builds more and more elaborate or expansively simple theories or descriptions – but one doesn’t reach the point, ever, at which the theory becomes identical with its object, rendering each pointless with respect to the other. No – the limit remains but changes.

Something similar takes place in literary endeavour, I believe. Nabokov was of the school of artists who believe in an incorrigible mystery, which can be limned in aesthetic production. This is a flaw of Nabokov’s art. The limit cannot be understood in these terms – it is more empirical than that, more basic and arbitrary. The limit is not a hole in being, through which another world can be glimpsed (as Nabokov and many many others believed). It is simply the stuff we haven’t yet gotten round to understanding or experiencing. It is the empirically undeniable fact that there are many things we will never understand, will never experience. Individually or collectively.

Nabokov’s aesthetics ontologises this limit – makes it a feature of Being itself, rather than a limit to our individual or collective understanding and experience. And this ontologisation in turn produces a suppression of the attempt to move beyond the limit – the attempt to push aesthetic, ethical, political or scientific understanding beyond the limit that is our current understanding. This aesthetic – or ethic – can present as humility; but ontologisation is never a humility; it is the narcissism of believing that reality shares our qualities – and is therefore a fundamental suppression of the nature of the limit, and, ultimately, of the limit itself. (Here Nabokov shares something with the current turn to ‘speculative’ realism – which means, of course, no realism at all.)

In his writings on aesthetics Nabokov articulates his project in a double way. On the one hand there is the task of description – of vivid and intense and ardent evocation of the details of experience. On the other hand there is the effect produced by the collation and juxtaposition of these descriptions. In these juxtapositions something is summoned or evoked which is not present in any of the individual items – something inexpressible through mere description – something, for Nabokov, transcendent – something which can touch on the divine.

This aesthetics is fractal – it describes every level of the poetic endeavour. Thus, above all, it is a description of metaphor. Two words placed side by side, or bound by a copula, summon a meaning-unit unachievable except through this contact, which transforms, in so doing, the words themselves. But this is also an account of the macrostructure of Nabokov’s novels, in which the incidents and non-incidents of their protagonists’ lives summon a larger scale meaning-unit which conveys something about those lives, or about life itself, which cannot be achieved via any descriptive account.

But what is this inexpressible? Is it inexpressible because it touches the secret of existence qua existence? This, I think, is what Nabokov would have us believe. But I prefer a more down-to-earth analysis: the inexpressible is simply what we’re not able to express – not here, not now; maybe never, but maybe just for today.

And so an honest aesthetics, I believe, engages in exactly this endeavour – the evocation of the inexpressible – but without hypostatising the inexpressible as inexpressible. Rather pushing forward, basely, in the base analysis of the production of the sensation of the unconveyable – which in turn yields new limits, and new exorbitant beauty.

I meant to go on from here to write about other things – to discuss some of Roger’s recent ravishing posts. But I think I have reached my limit, for today.

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on the Human Limit”

  1. roger Says:

    Duncan, you are too sweet about my posts!

    To radically simplify, I take the story of the human limit (which is, I think, to be thought in relation to happiness – a total social fact a la Mauss) to have two seemingly asymmetrical sides – on the one side, externally, the abolition of limits on the human use of the world (which of course involves understanding the world and lifting the ban on such things as curiosity), and on the other side, internally, the collapse of the foundations of the human – a sort of emptying out of the humors, the soul, character, etc. An emptying out that runs by itself – as quickly as something is put into play, say consciousness, it is emptied out. What is left is sheer power. Happiness mediates between these two sides. This is a crude sketch of modernity, but hey, that is what books are for!

  2. duncan Says:

    Thanks roger. This abstract of your project is terrific. Alas I meant to discuss your work in this post, and instead appropriated its terms to work through my own concerns. Readers – turn to roger’s blogs to get a sense of the terrain of his project.

    I will say this, though – bringing matters back to the things that are currently on my mind. Speculative Realism’s double assault on anthropocentrism and on the Kantian severance of the human from the absolute, is a product of the forces roger analyses: the total subordination of the world to man, on the one hand – and the evacuation of the human, on the other. How else to understand Ray Brassier, in his valorisation of science and his obliteration of the human by the power of being-nothing? These are the desparate moves of a happiness culture reconfiguring itself under the threat of transformations both ecological and political-economic.


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