The labyrinth of self-flagellation


Cornelius Castoriadis, Crossroads in the Labyrinth (1978) ”To think is not to get out of the cave; it is not to replace the uncertainty of shadows by the clear-cut outlines of things themselves, the flame’s flickering glow by the light of the true sun. To think is to enter the Labyrinth; more exactly, it is to make be and appear a Labyrinth when we might have stayed “lying among the flowers, facing the sky.” It is to lose oneself amidst galleries which exist only because we never tire of digging them; to turn round and round at the end of a cul-de-sac whose entrance has been shut off behind us—until, inexplicably, this spinning round opens up in the surrounding walls cracks which offer passage.”

Luce Irigaray, J’aime à toi (1992) ”I am militating politically for the impossible, which doesn’t mean I am a utopian. Rather what I want does not yet exist, as the only possibility of a future.”

The terrain suggested by a co-incident reading of the two quotations above configures the path of our Governance structure’s primary orientation. Examining these two quotes together is dictated by this path, not by some sort of pre-configured or presently contrived affinity.

Castoriadis’ rumination disengages thinking from all Platonic derivatives that map the journey to Enlightenment, which would pertain to a whole range of transcendentalist aspirations, revelations, epiphanies, but also intentions of perfectibility, including any pretensions to arrive at a clearing. He sees thinking as a peculiar mode of architecture in which the instrumental is always secondary to the creative. That this architecture is labyrinthine means that it is ultimately without end, despite its many, its ubiquitous, dead-ends. It is without end because, on its own terms, it is interminable and boundless, because the limits that emerge on every turn are of the thinker’s own making. Castoriadis’ mode is to leave behind the elegy-inducing Rilke for the enigma-provoking Kafka, recognizing in the latter’s vein that the labyrinthine galleries of one’s burrow are one’s thoughts in-the-making, with yet an important deviation: not as ideal projections of self-making (as for Kafka’s paranoid architectural creature) but as wondrous openings of self-othering. In this respect, thought becomes quintessentially poetic, that is to say, creative/destructive: a (self-)altering force that sometimes produces cul-de-sacs and other times opens windows onto chaos. Indeed, Castoriadis’ description of how a dead-end becomes a window onto chaos is one of the most dramatic encapsulations of his entire way of thinking. To think is thus to enact an austerity towards yourself and alterity towards the world. It is not to derive or emerge from an alterity, and surely not to desire austerity as telos—the labyrinth, a space resplendent with otherness, is always one’s own.

Whereas on the contrary, Irigaray’s personal account clarifies that the utopian and the impossible are hardly identical. This is not because the utopian may also be in fact possible, but because desiring the impossible is an entirely real and actual way to commit oneself to what is possible in the future. Her emphasis on “what does not yet exist” does not entail investment in a predetermined or providential element that will come to be in the future—some sort of future nascent in the present. Rather, “what does not yet exist” is configured as a permanent condition of alterity within present existence, a kind of unknown variable in the equation of what may come to be possible in the future, an equation that obviously carries no mathematical consistency but remains permeable to the ever unpredictable contingencies of human action. This condition, therefore, knows no time as X factor, it is achronos but it lies, nonetheless, in place across the entire range of history’s temporalities, perhaps as an already inscribed heterotopia. It is a condition open to the indefinite possibility of something whose “nonexistence” as “the only possibility of a future” is a presently existing condition, insofar as without this X the equation (present or future) cannot be constituted. The coveted object in both quotations, therefore, is some measure of the impossible, of what indeed appears impossible because the horizon of possibility in the perception is rendered inadequate by the reigning preconception. The impetus here is to imagine that human beings are characterized precisely by their daring to make the impossible happen, which has nothing to do with making miracles but it does have to do with encountering and acting in the world with a sense of wonder. Enquiring what animates and encapsulates this daring for the impossible will lead us to the fact that human-being, as a living condition, is immanently differential, which to say that alterity is intrinsic to it. The way of this inquiry is to contemplate an admittedly impossible concept: self-alteration. Strictly speaking, self-alteration signifies a process by which alterity is internally produced, dissolving the very thing that enables it, the very thing whose existence derives meaning from being altered, from othering itself. In terms of inherited thought, this is indeed an impossible concept at least, within the conceptual framework that identifies alterity to be external, a framework, I might add, that is essential to any semantics (and, of course, politics) of identity. Such framework cannot but vehemently defend, by contradistinction, the bona fide existence of what can thus be called without hesitation “internality,” even if, in a gesture of cognitive magnanimity, it may accept a fragmented, fissured, indeterminate, or even boundless internality. But internality thus conceived, however “open-ended” it claims to be, cannot enact self-alteration because alterity will always remain external to it, precisely so as to secure its meaning. Having said that, lets concede that this framework of an internally/ externally conceived distinction of identity and difference gives meaning to the language I am using at this very moment. It is, inevitably, the framework that enables us to build communicative avenues by positing totalities and identities that we consider recognizable even if we might significantly disagree over their content. I understand that, in this framework, self-alteration is an impossible concept, but I have a hunch that it is nonetheless possible, that it takes place in the only way anything can take place in the world in history, as history. At the limit, the conceptual inquiry I am suggesting, labyrinthine though it is in its own turn, configures its groundwork in the world of human action, not in the universe of concepts and propositions.

To conclude, it would be essential to add, following this Castoriadian terminology, that autonomy signifies a particular sublimation: a politics of sublimation that confronts the definitional heteronomy ‘experienced’ by the psyche when it encounters the social-imaginary, the nature of subjection in Butler’s terms; the effacement of sexual difference in Irigaray’s, as the pleasure of/in the force of alteration itself. This sort of sublimation would enact a subject whose psychic reception of society’s Vorstellung, enacted, in turn, by the psyche’s translation of society’s imagistic/affective/representational flux into its own terms would consist in a poietic experience: A performative experience of self-othering, which moreover signifies the non self-referential poetic pleasure of altering one’s world. In this respect, it seems apt to recall John Cage’s often quoted phrase “Art is self alteration” provided, however, that we don’t take it to mean a sort of artistic redemption or self-actualization (in some New Age sense), but that self-alteration names the core process by which our worldly existence can be radically transformed, which is also, after all, the deepest significance of art: the radical transfiguration of form. To this end, self-alteration cannot be conceptualized or articulated if the self remains a notion within the signifying limits of identity. The process of self-alteration is deadly to the sovereignty of identity.


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