Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence

Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence

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Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence

For over two and a half millennia human beings have attempted to invent strategies to “discover” the truth of time, to determine whether time is infinite, whether eternity is the infinite duration of a continuous present, or whether it too rises and falls with the cycles of universal creation and destruction. Time-Fetishes recounts the history of a tradition that runs counter to the dominant tradition in Western metaphysics, which has sought to purify eternity of its temporal character. From the pre-Socratics to Ovid and Plotinus, and from Shakespeare to Hegel, Schelling, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, Time-Fetishes traces the secret tradition of the idea of eternal recurrence and situates it as the grounding thought of Western philosophy and literature.
The thinkers in this counter-history of the eternal return lingered long enough on the question of time to learn how to resist separating eternity from time, and how to reflect on the possible identity of time and eternity as a way of resisting all prior metaphysical determinations. Drawing out the implications of Nietzsche’s reinvention of the doctrine of return, Lukacher ranges across a broad spectrum of ancient and modern thinkers. Shakespeare’s role in this history as the “poet of time” is particularly significant, for not only does Shakespeare reactivate the pre-Christian arguments of eternal return, he regards them, and all arguments and images concerning the essence of time and Being, from an inimitably ironic perspective.
As he makes transitions from literature to philosophy and psychoanalysis, Lukacher displays a theoretical imagination and historical vision that bring to the forefront a host of pre- and post-Christian texts in order to decipher in them an encounter with the thought of eternal recurrence that has been too long buried under layers of rigid metaphysical interpretation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822322733
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/05/1999
Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.08(w) x 9.36(h) x 0.56(d)

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The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence

By Ned Lukacher

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9883-7


The Anachrony of the Time-Fetish

The Pythagorean great year or Metakosmesis, to which Plato refers in Timaeus (37d) as the completion of the cosmological cycle wherein all astronomical bodies return to their original positions, was presumably, at least for Pythagoreans, a year of a calculable duration. It has turned out to be a very lengthy calculation indeed, and two and a half millennia later we are still waiting for the results. It is surely not the 38,000 years Plato may have supposed, and even today's cosmologists disagree by billions of years regarding the age and possible duration of the universe. Like the ancients, we moderns wonder if this model of a rotary astronomical cycle will be finally relevant to the configuration of the total cycle of the motion of our expanding universe. And if the total cycle does not take the form of a ring or circle, and if all that returns is an infinite nonreturn, then "the great year" might finally end up naming a most singular finitude, and the expiration of a limit that is really without anniversary or return, merely the measure of the lifespan or duration of a universe that repeats nothing and that can never be repeated. In view of such a narcissistically unappealing temporal horizon, which remains as unthinkable for many today as it has been throughout human history, is it any surprise that the meaning of time and eternity has always been prey to a certain predilection for time as a circular cycle? The very presupposition that the circle's anniversary or nuptial number existed in the first place and could be calculated lies at the foundation of all metaphysical determinations of the meaning of time and eternity.

Plato returned in the Timaeus not only to the great Pythagorean theme of the mystical number and the harmonies of universal motion but also to the accompanying theme of the finitude of the cosmos, which is to be distinguished from the emphasis of Ionian philosophy on the apeiron, the infinite, unbounded, or unconditioned from which the cosmos emerged. Plato, of course, addresses all these issues concerning the imposition and duration of limits, which culminate for him in the strange non-conceptual concept of the khôra, which is the maternal or nurselike receptacle or container for all the inorganic and organic matter in the cosmos (Timaeus 51b). The Demiourgos imprints theparadigmea on the matter within the khôra. The nature of thekhôra and its neo-Platonic elaboration in the Enneads of Plotinus is a topic for later discussion. Here let us merely note that Plato alludes to its aporetic (aporétatá), perplexing or baffling, relation to thought and intelligibility. As we will see,khôra is a time-fetish, the fetish-name, if you prefer, for the enigmatic character of the question of time, for that which is neither becoming nor eternity and yet both of them at once. Aristotle will use the same language in Physics, book IV where he famously remarks that "time either does not exist at all or barely, and in an obscure way" (217b35). The aporia of time, in other words, is all about the difficulty that philosophy has always had in reappropriating the externality of time as universal motion in anything other than the subjectivist mode of a merely circular willing. And that is precisely why Aristotle decided to refocus the question of time, no longer on the impossible task of calculating the motion of the total cycle, what he calls "the cycling of the astronomical system" (Physics IV, 223b12), but on the "now time," the living present of the human subject. If the khôra names the threshold of the aporia of time, then the Aristotelian notion of durational time signals a decisive step back from the question of originary, nonsubjective time. While there is no access to the still withheld "true time" of the absolute cosmos, time is not simply durational time either. And yet these are the oppositions into which the philosophy of time has rigidly settled.

Rigorously speaking, we cannot say whether time is finite or infinite, or if there is an infinite series of finite universes that rise and fall, or whether creation is sequentially singular or simultaneously multiple (i.e., "the multiverse"). We can, however, consider what has been said, what arguments, concepts, words, and images have been used to indicate the persistent aporia of time and/or to conceal, evade, or simply ignore it. If one thinks one can calculate the great year, then one is playing a deluded astrological-theological game. But if one understands that the great year is only a marker, a formal notation of the still unthought essence of the meaning of time as the total cycle of the absolute cosmos, then the thought of the great year can, in effect, indicate the same aporetic impasse between our normal experience of time as continuous duration and time's enigmatic secret. Metakosmesis and khôra are at once time-fetishes, that is, names for time's impossible essence and names for the aporetic character of the timequestion. It is this divided structure, or multiple nature, of the time-fetish that I want to adduce at the outset.

Because there is always an irreducible tonal instability, always a certain aporetic irony within every presumed principle of reason, when it comes to the words used to indicate the relation between the world of becoming and the realm of Being, between time and eternity, they are just as likely to be regarded as true concepts as they are poetic figures. They are most fetishlike when they appear as true descriptions of the world, as true accounts of what is living and what is dead; and that is because the fetish is precisely that which quickens the life of the subject by speeding up the circle of appropriation, by bringing the otherness of the other into the proximity of the self-same. But the interesting point about the time-fetish is that it combines this conventional fetish appeal with the absential or aporetic component; the time-fetish as fetish and antifetish, together, inseparable.

If metaphysical thinking, which takes so many forms (poetic, theological, architectural, etc.) may be said to be a kind of Meta-Fetishismus or "metafetishism," then my determination to read the secret history of the idea of eternal recurrence through a series of time-fetishes may be said to follow the effractions of what Freud regarded as a more subtle kind of fetishism, one characterized by a "divided attitude to castration" (Standard Edition 21:156). Not only is the castration of women both affirmed and denied, but such "subtle" fetishists are similarly divided in their attitude toward the castration of men. I adduce these Freudian reflections as analogous to the plurivocal stance of the time-fetish, which embraces the fetish and the aporia, and which is thus unlike the conventional fetish as ersatz or substitute for the noumenal thing-in-itself that merely disavows castration but never actively confronts the aporetic character of the time-question. The antinomical time-fetish tends, again in Freud's idiom, "to linger" over the question of time and thus over its aporia, while the traditional ontotheological metafetishist mistakes the sexual prosthesis as a pure substitute for the erogenous zones. Freud defined the perversions generally as a "lingering over [Verweilungen] the intermediate relations to the sexual object" and as an "extending beyond [Überschreitungen] the regions of the body that are designed for sexual union" (SE 7:150). To seek a certain satisfaction in the undecidability between the prosthesis and the castrated/uncastrated erogenous zone, rather than in the prosthesis itself, is perhaps not a bad description of what it means to read the secret history of eternal recurrence, where time's aporia has become the originary erogenous zone.

Freud provides the example of the "subtle" fetishist for whom a certain kind of athletic support-belt managed "to conceal the distinction between [male and female genitals]" (SE 21:157). This kind of fetish, "doubly derived from contrary ideas," holds particularly well (157). The antinomical spring that makes such a complex symptom essentially resistant to therapeutic modification adheres by virtue of joining fetishism, not simply to antifetishism, but to something other than fetishism. This sort of "divided attitude toward castration" seems to me to describe the antinomical structure of the temporal aporia between durational, subjective time and the cyclical motion of the entire system. In strictly Kantian fashion, time does and does not have a beginning, it is and is not finite and calculable. Although Kant might have preferred to speak of fetishism as a psychological paralogism rather than as a cosmological antinomy, the result is virtually the same. In Kant's idiom time-fetishes would be something like the theological ideals of pure reason, our minimally fetishistic phenomenalization of what is still a resistant noumenal absence. The difference between antinomies, paralogisms, and ideals ultimately lies, like Freud's symptoms, in their resistance to a resolution of their contradictions. We will consider Kant in more detail in chapter 5, so let me remark here only that Kant brings the epoch of Aristotelian durational time to a kind of closure, by making apparent the subjective presuppositions that had always ruled this regime of metaphysical phrases. Metafetishism is my Freudian rendering of Heidegger's critique of the history of Being as metaphysics, which has mangled the meaning of Being because it could not suspend its own will to power long enough to take account of the default or gap in Being, which is all that has actually ever appeared. Caught between a disavowal of castration and the hallucinated life of a prosthetic phallus, the metaphysical/metafetishist interpretation of time has always been derived from a prior determination of the meaning of Being. Metaphysics has always denied the temporal derivation of Being itself and in so doing has produced, not a philosophy of time, but a series of time-fetishes. If post-Kantian philosophy turns back to the question of time as precisely an antinomical double aporia, and if this is the great legacy of Kant for Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, then what might the (ironic) history of the time-fetish look like? What makes this an ironic history is that it tends to reveal an opposition between the crude (or less subtle) fetishism of the dominant metaphysical tradition and the subtle fetishism at work in the secret history of pagan and modern fetishes with their doctrine of eternal recurrence.

When Nietzsche looked back in Ecce Homo for historical precedents of his own version of the doctrine, he focused on Heraclitus:

I have looked in vain for signs of it even among the great Greeks in philosophy, those of the two centuries before Socrates. I retained some doubt in the case of Heraclitus, in whose proximity I feel altogether warmer and better than anywhere else. The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming, along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being –all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else thought to date. The doctrine of the "eternal recurrence," that is, of the unconditional and infinitely repeated cyclical course of all things [Kreislauf] – this doctrine of Zarathustra might in the end have been taught already by Heraclitus. At least the Stoa has traces of it, and the Stoics inherited almost all of their principal notions from Heraclitus. (Ecce Homo 272-74, translation modified) The self-proclaimed "last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus" (Twilight of the Idols, 563) is more properly speaking Heraclitus's last disciple, and one who is indebted as well to the Heraclitean Stoics with their emphasis, not on the great year but on the completion of the world-cycle as world-conflagration or ekpyrosis. In this connection, Nietzsche is surely thinking of Heraclitus's fragment 37: "This cosmos, the same for all, was made by neither a god nor a man; but it always has been and will be fire ever-living, kindling itself in measures, and quenching itself in measures" (trans. McKirahan, in Philosophy before Socrates, 124). The phrase "fire ever-living" (pyr àeizöon) takes us directly to the central issue from which we will never stray very far or for very long: the question of the temporal relation between the living being and the fiery, ever rising and falling, river of time, here instanced by the linkage between fire, life, zoé, and eternity, aei. The measures or métra are presumably identical with what fragment 43a, an apocryphal fragment, calls "the great year," or praeterea annus (the only version of this fragment is in Latin), which culminates in ekpyrosis (the only Greek word in this fragment): "This cycle consists of 10,800 years" (Kahn, Art and Thought of Heraclitus, 49). Here we see in brief how Heraclitean ekpyrosis became assimilated to the Pythagorean great year. For Nietzsche the destructive, Dionysian, aspect of the eternal cycle was precisely what remained most essential about the doctrine. Nietzsche also admired Heraclitus's understanding of just this relation between life and eternity, particularly as it appears in fragment 52: "Aion is a child playing checkers." The word aion is the key to the problem here. Aion, eón, aei: do these words mean eternal duration, an eternal present, or an individual lifespan, the time of the world or the time of a living being? The meanings of this word sketch out the history of the subjectivization of the meaning of time; which is what Heidegger meant when he said, in his reading of Anaximander, that "the fate of the West hangs on the translation of the word eón" ("The Anaximander Fragment," 33). This may seem a portentous utterance, but it conveys, I believe, a central and important insight. Let us see how two translations of Heraclitus's saying reveal precisely this confusion between aion as the individual lifespan, that is, subjective duration, and aion as world-time, that is, the total cosmic cycle. Charles Kahn chose the former (Kahn, Art and Thought of Heraclitus, 71), while John Sallis and Kenneth Maly picked the latter (Sallis and Maly, Heraclitean Fragments, 11). The plurivocality of the saying of the meaning of presence, and above all its irreducible division, remains, it would appear, unsayable even today. Are we ready to listen to Heraclitus and hear what he has to say about aion?

Let us begin with Nietzsche's sense of fragment 52. Nietzsche understood aion in Heraclitus as naming the duration of "the impermanence of everything actual, which constantly acts and comes-to-be but never is" (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, 54). Nietzsche wanted, of course, to recover a primordial sense of the word that had been lost by repeated renderings into the register of eternity, permanence, and Being. Nietzsche concludes with his central observation: "Heraclitus as a human being was unbelievable. Even if he were observing the games of noisy children, what he was thinking was surely what no other man had thought on such an occasion. He was thinking of the great world-child Zeus" (67). Nietzsche's Heraclitus reopens the question of time's relation to Being. But he unnerves us as he deprives us of any principle of certainty by comparing the emergence of the cosmos to the caprice of child's play. Only by risking everything on chance does the "ever-living fire" achieve an eternally recurrent presence.

In a remarkable and indispensable essay entitled "Le sens philosophique du mot Aion," A. J. Festugiére has traced a bizarre philological history in which the meanings of aion andchronos are effectively reversed or exchanged in the centuries between Homer and Aristode. Aion, which originally meant an individual lifespan, becomes an abstract eternal living present, and chronos, which had meant absolute time, the duration of the astronomical cycle, comes to mean the calculation of duration in the world of becoming. In the Timaeus, for example, Plato regarded aion as the eternal present or "ever being" (aei einai), the unchanging form or model in the realm of intelligibility. Time as chronos, as measurable duration, becomes, famously, "the moving image of eternity" (aionis eikon). Chronos became mere copy, the cyclical recurrence of aion. Nietzsche's reading of aion in his early lectures onPhilosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks reveals that Plato's abstraction of aion from the world of becoming had already lost the fundamental sense of the Heraclitean saying, which was that the ever-living fire of time and becoming lives its life and dies its death like a living being. The antinomy of this paradox is that the ever-living survives by dying, by suspending itself. Zeus as the god who survives ekpyrosis is a well-known Stoic allegory, and Montaigne speaks of the belief of Chrysippus "that all gods died in the last conflagration of the world, except for Jupiter.... Diogenes of Apollonia says God is Time" ("Apology for Raymond Seybond," Complete Essays, trans. Screech, 575). Nietzsche's favorite name for the god who survives, for the god who recurs eternally, was not, of course, Zeus but Dionysus, who literally underwent gestation within, and was delivered from, his father's, Zeus's, body. The significant point is surely that for Nietzsche Heraclitean aion names that specifically Dionysian experience of time and becoming to which Nietzsche devoted most of his later years.


Excerpted from Time-Fetishes by Ned Lukacher. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgments,
I The Ancients,
1 The Anachrony of the Time-Fetish,
2 From Ovid to Titian: Eternal Return and the Cult of Bacchus and Ariadne,
II Shakespeare,
3 "Shakespearances"; or, The War with Time,
4 Anamorphic Perspectives, Human (Im)postures, and the Rhetoric of the Aevum,
III The Moderns,
5 Anamorphic Ghosts of Time: Schopenhauer, Kant, and Hegel,
6 Drive-Time: Eternal Return and the Life of the Instincts in Schelling, Freud, and the Marquis de Sade,
7 Playing with Cinders: From Nietzsche to Derrida,
8 Forgetting the Umbrella; or, Heidegger and Derrida on How to Say the Same Thing Differently,

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