Read an ExcerptThe Thinking of the Master
Bataille between Hegel and Surrealism
By PETER BÜRGER
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2002
All right reserved.
Chapter One 1. About the Essay
A Letter to Malte Fues
This letter is not a letter. The intention to publish it transforms the spontaneity of expression into the result of a calculation and the searching movement of thought into a rehearsed staging. Moreover, the form itself has an immense tradition: "The Letter to Leo Popper," with which the young Georg Lukács introduced his collection of essays, Soul and Form. What we term the spontaneity of linguistic expression, however, may only be an illusion; to be sure, one that we need. Perhaps it is not even a matter of finding a new form, but rather of making use of an already available one so that it becomes necessary or essential. So much is beyond doubt: More misleading perhaps than our unfounded trust in form is the demand to arrive at the issue, because in this instance "the issue" is not in the least an object (Gegen-stand).
We have often discussed the undoing of a literary science that has forgotten that foremost it produces texts, that language is not a transparent medium that renders content, but rather that language is the very "stuff " of our thoughts. We live and think always already in language. That should make every beginning easy, which nonetheless always proves to be infinitely difficult. The suspicion that with the first sentence the entire text might be determined certainly dramatizes the actual deed, but it recounts a writing experience that has caused many never to write down that first sentence.
If, in spite of this, we do write, knowing that the text will never be our text, it all depends upon making light of that knowledge, as if it did not concern us at all. Only in this manner could this letter, which is not a letter, finally become something, namely, an essay. Now the cards are on the table: There is no object to consider here; rather, the only issue that matters is writing.
That is anything but a license to indulge whim. On the contrary, the essay is a strict form. Its strictness is certainly not that of the deductive progression of argumentation but, more likely, that of a conversation in which each word has weight. The scientist follows a method; that is, he applies methods of analysis and an analysis of argumentative connections. He always has his goal firmly in view and will therefore always reach it. The essay, by contrast, is always threatened with failure. To be sure, the essayist is well versed in the methods of scientific argumentation and makes use of them, but the artificiality of those methods has become apparent to him. The methodical certainty with which reconstruction controls its own activity renders those methods questionable. He therefore seeks an antidote. Subjectivity, however, is also suspect; the essayist is concerned with a strictness that is not one of method. As such, he begins to observe himself as he writes; he notes how his concepts form an object and how that object is constructed by the indexes of his text. In this mode of mistrustful self-observation, his writing is altered. Strangely enough, it does not become more difficult (in that reflection, as it were, doubles the text) but rather simpler. The second reflection generates a second immediacy. Mistrusting the certain progression of his thinking, the one writing discovers therein gaps, breaches, but he abstains from closing them, hoping that such breaches will give rise to attempts by others and to other attempts. The history that derives from the essayist's doubts about scientific activity itself is obviously fictitious, but that does not mean it is untrue. Its deficiency consists in that it ties the essay to the essayist. That is the perspective of Georg Lukács around 1910. He could, however, distinguish the essay from the essayist, "who could behold the fateful [Schicksalhafte] in the form." We can no longer formulate it as such. Unlike the young Lukács, our thinking is not poised between the poles of chaos and order, and it does not move toward systematicness. It does not seem probable that the completion of the philosophical system would announce itself in the subjectively postulated and, at the same time, necessary (symbolic) form. That is all very strange to us. And yet, the strange pathos of Lukács's texts moves us, because in those works he delivers himself to themovement of the text, because the author of these texts, despite his masterly gesture, is not master over that which he writes.
Adorno's Essay as Form (written from 1954 to 1958) also does not address our predicament, however conversant we might be with many of his formulations. Adorno draws out the consequences of a critique of philosophical system. His doubt about method leads him to develop a process whose goal it is to pronounce the particular without subordinating it to an identifying concept. To be sure, this process is performed without succumbing to the illusion that one could speak without mediation about this particular. As Adorno explains, "The essayist wants to use concepts to pry open the aspect of its object that cannot be accommodated by concepts."
I know how much you treasure Adorno's essay about the essay, and it would be easy to cite those passages that appear to describe our experience: "The thinker does not actually think, but rather turns himself into a scene of intellectual experience." Undoubtedly, that is the maxim of the essayist. But has Adorno himself followed it? Does he not always remain the antisystematic systematician? (In his debates with Benjamin, does he not always call him to order?) In short, does Adorno not simultaneously take possession of the essay and the system (even in the form of the latter's negation)? Even the Essay as Form seems to me to be shaped by this dual orientation: He describes a form (of thought), but at the same time he offers an exposé of Adorno's philosophy. His central motifs return in the introduction to Negative Dialectics.
Lukács constructs the essay as the form that registers a longing for philosophical system, Adorno, by contrast, as the form in which system survives as something that has been negated; tome the essay presents itself as a form that is no longer constructed with an eye toward philosophical system. That all sounds like a postmodern history of philosophy-and thus oblique. I mean in the first place something quite simple. Neither with Montaigne nor with Heine does the essay define itself from the standpoint of philosophical system. It ignores that. In equally small measure does it compete with the autonomous work of art or define itself in regard to its a priori form, the symbol. It positions itself between texts that it cites, comments upon, and tentatively relates to its own situation. At first, this positioning is rather unclear to the writer. He has repeatedly experienced the failure of attempting to go at the essay directly. The thought thus arises in him that a detour through the texts of the past might be the shortest path toward understanding his own time.
The essayist's intention is, of course, not entirely as modest as it has been portrayed here. He certainly trusts that his epoch and the form of the essay refer to each other-not in the sense of an absolute dismissal of system or of the "grand narrative," nor in the sense of a negative philosophy of history, but rather in a diagnosis of the time, which could be provisionally summarized by one sentence: The univocal triumph of capitalism is equivocal. In contrast to the famous Marxist dictum, it appears as if humanity poses itself problems that it is not in a position to overcome. But some form must still correspond to the total social aporia-not the paradox that merely affirms the aporia, but rather the essay. To be sure, the essay makes no such promises. It absolutely mistrusts "solutions." It harbors the suspicion that the facility with which we intellectuals would solve problems is more likely facileness. If certain predicaments are in fact inescapable, then the question arises: How do we deal with them? I do not mean the spectrum of reactions that stretches from Camus's spite to cynicism-those are visceral reactions that, however one may value them, all serve to still thinking. But how would a thinking look that posed for itself the aporia?
Any endeavor to recount the starting point of current efforts cannot escape the impossibility of rendering a true history-an impossibility demonstrated by Sartre. While contingent events successively befall the one subjected to experience, the narrator knows the starting point of that history and from that perspective lends the individual occurrence meaning. As a result, he misses the very experience he would reproduce. The following is valid in this instance as well: Whenever the individual essay reproduces its quest, that retrospective arrangement gives rise to the illusion that the essays were part of a project. In fact, the reverse is true: The project is a result of the essays. Only the essays reveal the aporia to which the essays appear to be subjected as a means of looking at the problem.
It is telling that the essay avoids being tied to a project formulated in advance. The structure of the essay is thus an experiential process, but in that process an inversion occurs. The constellation at the outset is transformed-if not into its opposite, at least into something different. What is decisive is that this transformation is not the result of the essayist's work on the object; rather, this transformation befalls him: "The thinker does not actually think, but rather makes himself into a scene of intellectual experience." That is more difficult than Adorno's formula would lead one to believe. The self of the essay does not simply renounce its privilege to think. If the essayist is to make himself truly into a scene of intellectual experience, then he must outwit himself. That requires another's text to offer resistance to him. The stranger, the more repulsive the other text, the greater the chance he will experience it. The art of the essayist consists in making the other text so powerful that his own knowledge finally gives way.
To have an experience does not mean to step into a previously unanticipated fullness, but rather to bear the retreat of certainty. In our everyday existence, we take a number of precautions to protect us from having such an experience. In times of radical change, such security systems are destroyed from without. The essay mimes radical change. The measurement of its success is whether or not it produces an experience.
But how does one produce an experience? Do describable procedures exist for doing so? That none such exist nor can exist is easily stated, but that is hardly of any help in the matter. Experience, we said, should be a process of disillusionment (Ent-täschung). Its object is our putative knowledge. The process is set in motion through the confrontation of our knowledge with the strange text. Even the process, however, does not simply express the truth; more likely, it contradicts itself (at least this is the assumption of the essayist). The essayist immerses himself in these contradictions; he does so not to expose them, but rather on the assumption that the truth shifts within them. The truth disillusions him; therefore, he defends himself against it. The essay does no more nor no less than manifest this struggle. Whereas the ideological critic knows that the truth unfolding in history is on his side and thereby finds a means to legitimate his judgment, the essayist exposes his thinking to an inversion, against which he can defend himself only insofar as he, for his part, inverts the inversion. The essay points to no exits unless such exits are immediately recognizable as paths that lead nowhere (Holzwege). The essay is the form of endless postponement. Its internal tense is the future, even when it speaks of something past. If the essayist has a process, then it is trust in that which lies distant. He hopes that an impetus or shock to reverse his knowledge will come out of this. In this respect, he shares with Benjamin the surrealist posture of expecting....
This letter is no letter, but perhaps it has become an essay. Indeed, it disillusions. The current return of the essay, as has been demonstrated, does not have the historical necessity that I ascribed to it. Does the essay therefore always destroy the knowledge it produces? It appears, in any case, to be so today. Which, then again, is not so surprising given the state of the world. That our truth shifts between the construction of knowledge and its disillusioning dissolution is something, however, that the essayist stubbornly trusts.
Bremen 19 March 1990
2. To Think Madness The Postmodern Novel, Surrealism, and Hegel
Since the beginning of the 1970s, National Socialism has enjoyed a cultural currency, which here in Germany has been rather vexing. In his book, Patrick Modiano draws a glittering portrait of the time of the German occupation in which cruelty and fascination blend. The Ogre, certainly the most important work to date by Michel Tournier, not only takes place in National Socialist Germany but also has as its protagonist a Frenchman, who searches for this Germany with his heart and soul. The post-structuralist philosophers Derrida and Lyotard see their task in the end to think National Socialism. Contact with this literature is difficult for us Germans. Either we run the risk of turning our irritation into a value judgment and impute to the authors an unconfessed fascination with fascism, or we seek to retreat to an apparent objectivity, which in the face of a matter that concerns us is hardly less questionable. As no manner of correct speech about fascism is available, so too is there none about the aforementioned French approaches to our most recent past. Since silence, however, would be the worst course, nothing else remains but nonetheless to speak. That should not occur from a position of unflinching judgment and critique or from specious partiality, but rather from the awareness that what would be the appropriate manner of speaking is to be produced first of all by writing. If between the decisionism of the critic and the objectivism of supposedly impartial representation a third path exists, which does not lead to caprice, it would be that of the essayist, who turns his ignorance, his refusal to pass binding judgments, into a formal principle.
Excerpted from The Thinking of the Master by PETER BÜRGER
Copyright © 2002 by Northwestern University . Excerpted by permission.
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