The Test Drive

The Test Drive

by Avital Ronell

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Beginning with Nietzsche's discovery of the "experimental disposition," Ronell explores testing's ascension to truth in modern practice. To know something, and to know that it is true, has never been a simple matter of recognition and assent. Instead, increasing numbers of tests of ever increasing complexity have been established to determine and constitute what is…  See more details below


Beginning with Nietzsche's discovery of the "experimental disposition," Ronell explores testing's ascension to truth in modern practice. To know something, and to know that it is true, has never been a simple matter of recognition and assent. Instead, increasing numbers of tests of ever increasing complexity have been established to determine and constitute what is true, probable, or verifiable. _x000B__x000B_Tests are pervasive, and inflect the master-narratives of our historical existence. The Bible dramatically presents tests of Abraham and Job, great works of literature track the tested subject, the vast apparatus of modern science and technology is built upon extraordinarily exacting tests, and the need for truth in times of trial and crisis links state-run testing apparatuses to events of arrest, torture, and death. On the evening of 9-11 the President of the United States said, "We are being being tested."_x000B__x000B_What propels this drive to test? What can satisfy it? What is the subterranean history of its effects? _x000B__x000B_In The Test Drive, internationally acclaimed scholar Avital Ronell explores vast areas of testing in the works of Husserl, Popper, Freud, Lyotard, Derrida, and others, including Zen philosophies. She then proceeds through the major transformations in twentieth-century philosophy and science that have inclined the world toward more and more tests. _x000B__x000B_Higher education is perpetually involved in tests, tests about tests, and in the creation, assessment, refinement, and justification of tests, so much so that some critics argue that education has become obsessed by tests. _x000B__x000B_Ronell shows that the obsession to test is likely more deeply rooted and more broadly exercised. The need to define, the need to know, the need to be sure, and the need to establish rank, are needs that press with the urgency of hunger.

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"A brilliant success. Ronell’s book makes us better understand who we are and what 'drives' us—that is to say, this is a book of the very first rank of importance."—Rüdiger Campe, professor of German, Johns Hopkins University

"As Ronell pursues the conceptual, figural, rhetorical, and even visual investigation of all the registers of testing, her line of argument remains exceptionally clear. The writing is always astute and imaginative—even witty. The Test Drive is cogently argued, exceptionally erudite, and stunningly original work.”—Hent de Vries, author of Religion and Violence: Philosophical Reflections from Kant to Derrida

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The Test Drive


University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02950-X

Chapter One

TESTING 1 On Being Tested

Whether you mean to prove that you can do it, or we are driven by what Maurice Blanchot calls "the trial of experience," and he submits himself endlessly to Nietzsche's loyalty tests, or she is a runaway replicant whose human factor is being scrutinized, or the sadistic coach has us revving up for an athletic contest; whether you are entering college, studying law, or trying to get out of an institution; whether they are giving you the third degree; whether you are buffing up on steroids, or she had unprotected sex, or he doesn't know what he has but he's fatigued and nauseated; whether they have to prove their mettle or demonstrate a hypothesis or audition for the part, make a demo, try another way, or determine paternity; whether you roll back to the time of the Greeks who first list their understanding of basanos, or to the persecution of witches and press forward to push out the truth in the medium of torture and pain: it seems as though everything - nature, body, investment, belief - has needed to be tested, including your love. What is the provenance of this need to torture, to test? A link between torture and experiment has been asserted ever since Francis Bacon; yet, what has allowed acts and idioms of testing to top out as an essential and widening interest, a nearly unavoidable drive?

A kind of questioning, a structure of incessant research - perhaps even a modality of being - testing scans the walls of experience, measuring, probing, determining the "what is" of the lived world. At the same time, but more fundamental still, the very structure of testing tends to overtake the certainty that it establishes when obeying the call of open finitude. An unpresumed fold in metaphysics, testing - that is, the types and systems of relatedness that fall under this term - asserts another logic of truth, one that subjects itself to incessant questioning while reserving a frame, a trace, a disclosive moment to which it refers.

There is nothing as such new about the desire bound up in the test; yet the expansive field or growing promiscuity of testing poses novel problems and complicates the itinerary of claims we make about the world and its contractions, the shards of immanence and transcendence that it still bears. Our contract with Yahweh, whether piously observed or abominated, involves the multiplication of test sites. Shortly after completing his Critique of Judgment, Kant, in response to a public questionnaire, examined the problem of testing the faith of theology students. Can faith be tested or is it not the essence of faith to refuse the test - to go along, precisely on blind faith, without ground or grade? Or again, perhaps the Almighty Himself has proven time and again to be addicted to the exigencies of testing. If God can be said to have a taste for anything, then it may well be located in the incontrovertible necessity of the test. No one is not tested by God, at least by the God of the Old Testament who showed a will to perpetual pursuit, perpetual rupture. Even the satanic beloved, who got away or was kicked out (depending on whether you are reading the satanic version of Goethe or God), became a subsidiary testing device for the paradisiacal admissions policy. In German, Versuch unites test with temptation - a semantic merger of which Nietzsche makes good use. The devil is the visible mark of a permanent testing apparatus. It is one name for an operation that engages the frazzled subject in a radical way.

The figure of the test belongs to what Nietzsche saw as our age of experimentation. Nietzsche's work can be seen to pivot around different appropriations of testing, and it is for this reason that I want to look at it more closely while tracking the phenomenon that appears to have flown beneath philosophical radars. Even where testing is mentioned in contemporary thought - the astounding commentaries of key theorists and philosophers tend to make mention but not use of the term's potentialities - it does not necessarily become an object of inquiry or a field of discovery, of anxious discrepancy. Husserl steps on the brakes at a moment when the question of testing emerges in his reflections on science; in any case, he swerves around Nietzsche, nearly hitting him but leaving him unmarked in the Crisis. Nietzsche, for his part, introduces the experimental turn in the most personal among his books, The Gay Science. Still, the last philosopher being and becoming who he is (that is, according to the ticking of the eternal return: Nietzsche, ever becoming who he will have been) at once announces and denounces this emergence. We must never lose sight of the Nietzschean ambivalence toward experimentation. With his future-seeing night goggles and his sensitive little radar ears he sensed that test sites would make the wasteland grow and foresaw the concentration camp as the most unrestricted experimental laboratory in modern history, a part of the will to scientific knowledge.

At the same time, though time has stood still, life as knowledge, Nietzsche hoped, would not be at best a bed to rest on or a slouch of leisure, but would embrace dangers, victories, heroic feelings. Nietzsche noted science's capacity for making immense galaxies of joy flare up. "So far, however, science deprived man of his joys, making him colder, more like a statue, a stoic." Nietzsche addresses his pressing demand to the science of the future. He asks that it account for its peculiar production of meaning, for its place and pace in human existence. In a sense Nietzsche set out to find a structure of possibility that reaches beyond life's "what is" while maintaining his irrefragable investment in the world. It is important to remember that Nietzsche had no getaway car that would take him to a mystified Elsewhere, though he reverted to the daring and dashing rhythm of mortal existence first scanned by the Greeks. Still, he did not establish the rights of a world-beyond or appeal for credit to a transcendental loan shark. Whatever his faults, he did not shirk his sense of responsibility to this world, here and now, which invited trouble on many levels and in different areas of his fractured thought. The effort to secure the time zone of the here-and-now was not the least of his problems, especially after Hegel had ditched it in favor of another temporal enterprise. Like Husserl after him, though they by no means formed a partnership, the urgency he sought to address concerns "not the scientific character of the sciences but rather what they, or what science in general [including scholarship], had meant and could mean for human existence [menschliches Dasein]." In order to think the world rigorously, one can no longer turn one's face from the pressure points of science, no matter how invisible, recondite, or elusive their impressions are. Reading and contesting Heidegger's statement that science falls short of thinking ["die Wissenschaft denkt nicht"], Derrida links science to mourning and memory. Lacan builds his Ethics of Psychoanalysis under the horizon of scientific encroachment: it is always there, ready to erupt, amaze, or blow you away. It holds sway but often in the mode of denial, as if one could walk or turn away from the sway of the scientific pregivenness of our modernity. Yet where is it? What is it? How does Nietzsche construe the possibility of a science that also bears the force of interminable resistance?

Beyond its meaning for human existence, there is the question of science's self-understanding. In a manner reminiscent of the genealogical probe, Husserl traces a mutation in the formation of meaning "which was originally vital, or rather of the originally vital consciousness of the task which gives rise to the methods, each with its special sense." Scientific method is handed down, as is the progressive fulfillment of the task as method, an art (techne); "but its true meaning cannot be handed down with it." Science can master the infinity of its subject matter only through the infinite pursuit of its method and can master the latter infinities only by means of a technical thought and activity that are empty of meaning. A theoretical task and achievement like that of a natural science (or any science of the world) "can only be and remain meaningful in a true and original sense if the scientist has developed in himself the ability to inquire back into the original meaning of all his meaning-structures and methods, i.e., into the historical meaning of their primal establishment, and especially into the meaning of all the inherited meanings taken over unnoticed in this primal establishment, as well as those taken over later on." Husserl adds this caveat: "But the mathematician, the natural scientist, at best a highly brilliant technician of the method - to which he owes the discoveries which are his only aim - is normally not at all able to carry out such reflections." The scientist, limited to a circumscribed sphere of inquiry and discovery, does not know at all that everything these reflections must clarify "is even in need of clarification, and this for the sake of that interest which is decisive for a philosophy or a science, i.e., the interest in true knowledge of the world itself, nature itself." He concludes his elaboration: "And this is precisely what has been lost through a science which is given as a tradition and which has become a techne, insofar as this interest played a determining role at all in its primal establishment. Every attempt to lead the scientist to such reflections, if it comes from a nonmathematical, nonscientific circle of scholars, is rejected as 'metaphysical.'" The philosophical needs - "philosophicomathematical," "philosophicoscientific" - that are aroused by historical motives are largely unseen "and thus not at all dealt with." There is a vast area of scientific activity that is simply not submitted to the rigors of reflection or that aggressively risks sinking into the autism of one or another form of closure. The scene of this repression, which arguably governs our Dasein, is what needs to be addressed. This scene does not constitute science's outside but troubles its inner workings, pointing at times to a forgotten or displaced germ, a desire, an original need or sense of lack - what both Husserl and Nietzsche would agree belongs to the precincts of an original intensity, circumscribing that which in science is on the side of life. Even so, we are not concerned only with uncovering an original vitality but with listening to the future that science portends. In this context, science might be regarded as a kind of questioning, a structure of exposure that often forgets to turn back on itself in order to interrogate its vital impulses and philosophical point of origin. The severance of philosophical reflection and scientific endeavor is as artificial as it is dangerous. My purpose is not to make general pronouncements about the estrangement of science from philosophy. I regard both fields of articulated meaning with skepticism and on this matter must hold to the Flaubertian irony of non-conviction. Science and philosophy have failed us. But that is another story.

The test, which belongs at once to scientific and philosophical protocols but, joining what it severs, does not hold exclusive rights in either domain, leverages some of the discursive intensities that have formed around the issues at hand. It is made to stand in this work for a permanent innovation, introducing a new relation between techne and episteme. At the same time the experimental turn, which houses the test and gives shape to its particular contours, transgresses, in breaking down and disassembling the ground of a tradition, the limits of knowledge and technicity or method. Though articulated with unique precision by Nietzsche, the experimental turn should not be seen as the oriented homogeneity of becoming. By its very nature, it interrupts itself, discontinues itself.

Essentially relational and not static, testing admits of no divine principle of intelligibility, no first word of grace or truth, no final meaning, no privileged signified. How can such a phenomenological line-up of serial "no"s concern us today or speak to our needs? There is something on the order of absolute risk that compels our attention, something that, risking the knowable, requires extreme vigilance and establishes the condition of responsibility and decision. True responsibility, the kind that Dostoevsky, cited by Levinas, sees as always excessive - one is never responsible enough, I am more than anyone else responsible for the other - depends on a self-testing that is never satisfied with its results, never finished with exceeding itself. Nor can it rely upon the reassuring precepts of a determined knowledge.

The multiple disengagement to which the test attests takes us in the direction of the unknown, situated as it is in what Husserl might term an open infinitude. The test asserts that which is threatened from its first tracing or in any case points to a vacancy, an irregularity that no trace can stabilize. The space of what I am calling the test drive is circumscribed by an endless erasure of what is. In the context of Nietzsche's reflections on the experimental turn or what in The Gay Science he locates as the "experimental disposition," the concept of rescindability is introduced to express the fundamental mobility of thought given over to constant disturbance. Nietzsche is concerned with a structure or concept - though these terms in turn wear thin, throwing us into the rut of paleonymy - of the scientific trial, of that which makes us fail, rewind, and start again; still, Nietzsche operates the decimation of scientific thought by trial without downgrading the performance of failure - without having to bow to his Lordship, as he says, quivering with fear because only failure and erasure have been the returns of the day. But failure cannot be pegged or evaluated as such; it gets absorbed into the heat of testing, becoming its supreme articulation in a movement that provokes ruptures without interruption - or ruptures that do not interrupt. The movement that interests Nietzsche duplicates itself interminably, recurrently fissures itself, and contradicts itself without remaining the same, without yielding to any dialectic. It is as if the test held together the absolute immanence of which Seneca had spoken, the immanence of death at every instant.

As disappropriating forms of experience, testing and experimentation are related inextricably to acts of negating and affirming.


Excerpted from The Test Drive by AVITAL RONELL Copyright © 2005 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Avital Ronell is a professor of German, English, and comparative literature at New York University, where she also codirects the program in Trauma and Violence Transdiciplinary Studies. She is the author of Stupidity, Crack Wars, and other books.

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