Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mal-Formed Thoughts and Half-thoughts on The Tree of Life

Some anticipated themes:

1.  Does The Tree of Life merit its title?
2.  The style of the film
3.  The psychology underlying it
4.  The intended audience
5.  Certain narrative problems (ambiguities, lack of locus/frame/etc.)
6.  Theological undertones


1.  Does The Tree of Life merit its title?  This is a difficult question.  What is intended by "The Tree of Life"?  The film's epigraph is from the book of Job, though its title takes us back to Genesis.  Let's be generous and attempt to find a sense for the title.  The tree is a tree in paradise, the fruits of which preserve us from death before the fall.  With Job as its theme, though, the film cannot be about the fall, cannot be a matter of mapping evil onto that original fault.  And so it cannot be about our loss of paradise, or about the tree of life as preserving us from death.  At least, not in the obvious way.  Instead,  let's take Job as the key and begin from there.  "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" This is from God's reply to Job's complaint.  Job's complain is about the pains he has suffered, and the difficulty of justifying the existence of pain without fault.  By my intuitive reading of his reply, God is saying that he needs no justification for the design of what he has made. Something along the lines of St. Paul: Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?  But perhaps Malick takes a different reading of the reply to Job.  Perhaps it has something more to do with natural evil, with the evils of pain and death and their role in the tree of life itself.  In this case "The Tree of Life" is less about the original gift of immortality than it is about the place of suffering in the unfolding of creation itself.

2.  The film is beautiful.  There's something about the way the camera follows the boys around that makes it possible to identify with their experience.  The shots are all beautiful, the imagery is amazing, and there are some really cool visual metaphors.  I think everyone recognizes this enough that I don't need to say more.

3.  Obvious freudian undertones, rebellion, relation to authority, development of personal identity, etc.  This layer of the thing is probably the most obvious and the least interesting.

4.  It demands a particular audience.  I think in order to love this film one probably ought to have had the sort of childhood portrayed in it.  Not in every particular, but in the kinds of places and people and experiences.  My childhood was devoid of almost all of these tropes (no domineering father, no saccharine/angelic mother, no broken windows, no brothers, no lectures on making one's way, no wispy moralizing on the way of grace).  I can appreciate the portrait given of all these things, but lacking grounds for identification, I do not really know them.  They seem to me to make up a system of tropes given reality because of Malick's directorial skill, but which, if not masked by all this beauty, would end up being grim and stiff symbols.

5.  Narrative problems.  The film lacks a center.  It lacks a definite frame.  Is the Sean Penn storyline the frame?  Is it a fragment of the whole?  If it's just a fragment, then what does it have to do with the rest?  Why include it?  If it's the frame, then what exactly is going on there?  Any story or graspable evidence about Sean Penn's current life (aside from being the emotionally scarred adult version of one of the brothers) is so effaced in the film's portrait of things that he's basically meaningless.  Yes, one of the brothers dies, yes, another grows up laden with the pain of the memory.  But it is not the voice of that adult that remembers the pain, but the voice of the child.  And what exactly is the boundary of these memories?  At first glance the title suggests something cosmic: perhaps the progression of life itself and the path its branches trace back to the unitary source.  Then we get something else: the problem of evil, the dialogue between suffering men and a silent creator.  But what the movie shows us most of all is neither of these: it's a reflection on reminiscences of childhood and a demonstration of our habit of selecting memories for their emotional and moral weight.  I have a sense that Malick is groping here for a Kierkegaardian balance: the preservation of the Universal and the Particular in relation to each other, the Universal maintaining its grandiosity and power of explanation, and the Particular nonetheless keeping hold of its incommunicable inwardness.  But does he do with Job what Johannes de Silentio attempts with Abraham?  No, I don't think so.  I think the tension between the two is sidestepped, and what we get instead is a few layers of incomplete narrative structures, each rendered less intelligible by its relation to the others.

6.  The theology is good, assuming I'm not just reading orthodoxy into it (a definite possibility).  I appreciated the steady patter of biblical citations incorporated into dialogue.  I appreciate that Malick is attempting to give a treatment of these themes, which are difficult and not exactly disposed to be engaged in a narrative the way they are here.  He does very well.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

So, you want to watch some movies?


I put together the following list more or less off the cuff for a friend of mine who asked for some movies worth seeing.  It's based mostly on old movie ratings I had stored and things that came to mind (hence, heavily biased toward movies I like).  They're divided in three parts from least obscure to most obscure.  I think all of these have something substantial to offer, generally in terms of stuff to think about, but always also in terms of artistic quality, skill of execution, etc.  There are flaws (some of them are better written, some are better shot, etc.), but such is life.  A great resource for becoming familiar with movies is http://www.criterion.com/explore




To start with, here are some greats that you should have already seen but maybe havent:

  • Apocalypse Now Redux (important: see the redux version, it's a totally different movie)
  • The Godfather
  • Groundhog Day
  • Rear Window
  • Chinatown
  • Schindler's List



Other things that are very good (or great) and easy to enjoy, but a little more obscure (foreign ones list the original language):

  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (french)
  • High Noon
  • Jules and Jim (french)
  • Network
  • Smiles of a Summer Night (swedish)
  • Yi Yi (chinese)
  • Gandhi (long)
  • Babette's Feast (danish)
  • La Strada (italian)
  • The Navigator (silent but hilarious)
  • Ikiru (japanese)
  • A Man for All Seasons
  • Spirited Away (japanese)
  • M (german)
  • Michael Clayton
  • Pleasantville
  • The 400 Blows (french)
  • The Lives of Others (german)
  • Annie Hall
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's




Other things that, because they have dark subject matter or are unusually deep or very long, are difficult to get into, but are frequently greater films than the above.  I'll list a quick blurb after these, because they're worth it:


The Last Emperor (extremely long) — The last emperor of China is deposed while still a child.  We follow him into adulthood as he tries to find his place in the world. (based on fact)

Stalker (the one directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, russian) — A scientist and novelist are lead into a quarantined paranormal zone by a "stalker" who knows how to find a room where your heart's deepest desire comes true.  Extremely profound.

Seven Samurai (japanese, extremely long) — A village hires seven samurai to protect it from raiding bandits.  Consistently listed among the greatest films ever made.

Andrei Rublev (russian, extremely long) — We follow a famous icon painter through adulthood into old age as he struggles with his skill, other people, and his faith.  Unquestionably one of the greatest films ever.  (based on fact)

Lawrence of Arabia (extremely long) — A nerdy and eccentric british officer leads an army of camel-riding Arabs during WWI.  Very psychological, one of the greatest films ever made.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — A professor and his wife invite a young professor and his wife over for an after party.  The first pair engage in vicious psychological attacks on each other and their guests, masked as a series of "games".  Intense, but amazing acting from Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.

Wild Strawberries (swedish) — An old doctor goes on a road trip to receive an honorary degree, and reassesses his life along the way.

Lost in Translation — A young philosophy grad (Yale!) meets a burned out movie star at a Tokyo hotel and they become friends.  Good when you're lonely.

The Conversation — Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert plagued with fears about the intentions of his latest client.  It's unnerving and it's got a great Jazz soundtrack.

Cries and Whispers (swedish, psychologically disturbing) — We watch a woman struggle through her last days with cancer through the eyes of her two sisters and the maid.  Very intense, potentially upsetting, nonetheless some of the best directorial work ever done.  The film hits hard on questions of faith, suffering, psychology, love, generosity, and self-loathing.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Even more tedious continuation of intellectual conversion narrative


As I've already discussed, around the time I decided to convert to Catholicism I also convinced myself that my philosophical investigations were at an end and that, like Wittgenstein, it was time to throw away the ladder.  As a result, the development of my theological habitus parallels some of the later developments I have already described, but was independent of them.  Doing a genealogy of my theological leanings shouldn't be that difficult, but it's necessary to understand how things worked out.

There were several pre-existing influences which led me to recognize the structural integrity of Catholicism and feel the need for authority: doctrinal indeterminacy and fraying among all the protestant denominations, a recognition that my own intellectual stability could only be grounded on the stability of something else, faint memories of reflections on tradition and exegesis from high school.  The problem in converting to anything was the problem of judging the rightful claimant to the tradition.  I believed for a long time that this problem was insoluble, that primitive Christianity was lost behind the twofold veil of the Dark Ages and the Constantinian absorbtion of the Church into the imperial bureaucracy.  Newman smashed these ideas and introduced me to the Church Fathers, making a compelling case that continuity existed, and that continuity was with the Roman Church most of all.

I leapt into this.  Because of my sense that repetition was important (again, from Heidegger and Kierkegaard) I had considered converting for some time.  The mass meant something; its continuity made possible a richness and unity of human experience and understanding that, I began to see, stretched back to the first century.  The friend who introduced me to Newman had also been eyeing Rome for some time, but was feeling drawn to the East.  I resolved to read into the controversy with him.

My first introduction to dogmatic Theology was in researching the differences between East and West.  The causes of the schism, the filioque, ecclesiological differences, the roots of dogma, the Papacy: these were the main areas of interest.  I read most of Timothy Ware's book on Orthodoxy, discovered Denzinger and Ott, and became acquainted with Chalcedon, especially its Acts and Canons (though I ignored the Christological content).  I decided that the Ecclesiology put forward by Ware against the Roman model was disjointed and ultimately inconsistent, that the objections to the filioque were masks thrown up to cover the political roots of the controversy, that the eastern churches were excessively provincial and lacked the evangelical zeal which so characterized the early church.  I had never seriously considered Orthodoxy except out of a desire to remove my friend's doubts.  I was prepared to stick to Rome out of obedience and blind commitment, but the evidence seemed to remove the need for that sort of thing.

During RCIA I committed to the program and was religious about it.  We were assigned to read substantial portions of the Catechism each week, and I did so.  We were told to read Lumen Gentium, and I read it.  The Catechism reading was occasionally illuminating and occasionally problematic (I circled difficult passages), and the politics in Lumen Gentium seemed outdated and naive, but I wasn't in a questioning mood, so I didn't worry about such things.  However, my friend had doubts and I enthusiastically took to resolving them, developing a repertoire of doctrinal sources along the way (Denzinger, Ott, Tridentine Catechism, the acts of the councils, etc.)

Intellectually, I was increasingly geared toward writing my bachelor's thesis at this point, which I thought would be on free will or originality or something related.  Intellectual explorations tended less toward theology and more toward the working-out of philosophical themes I had already uncovered in previous reading.  For devotional reading I stuck to the Liturgy of the Hours, with a little Catherine of Siena, and some others.  I attended daily mass at St. Mary's parish, run by the Dominican Friars.  I felt lost, for the most part, because any project I was interested in was worthless, and I had a looming sense that the vacuity and indeterminacy of my life would sooner or later culminate in disaster.  

Summer 2010 I persisted in this funk while interning at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton.  I was not at my best, found it difficult to motivate myself, lacked confidence, etc.  I spent excessive hours in the gym and watching movies and limp with general anxiety.  During this period, while running OCR software on public domain books for work, I discovered a treasure trove of lectures given at the Dominican House of Studies.  My favorite of these were given by Fr. John Corbett, OP, and Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP.  One was on Charles Taylor's account of self-hood in A Secular Age, the other on the Image of God, Divine Sonship, and the Sacraments.  I listened to them and others repeatedly and found myself burning with excitement at the intelligence and newness of this mode of discourse.

Despite this discovery, my personal anxieties worsened over the next several months.  I continued going to mass frequently, assembled the materials for my thesis, but felt like I was slipping into a pit.  By Christmas 2010 I had reached a low and was experiencing mild but debilitating anxiety attacks.  These were related to a number of things, mainly that I had felt the need upon converting to flush away the greater part of my own identity, but we don't need to discuss that here.  I did not know what I wanted to do with my life, felt unprepared for the world, and therefore decided to apply to master's programs in theology.  The Dominican House of Studies was at the top of my list.  A good friend I had met since converting had taught me enough about theology to back away from Balthasar and respect Thomas, and my admiration for Thomas was confirmed by the brilliant moral theology I was hearing over the DHS podcast.  Next to DHS I tried to find schools that were respectable and orthodox.  In my mind my primary interest was in Patristics, so I applied to Notre Dame's History of Christianity M.T.S., and the M.A. in Historical Theology at Catholic University.  Notre Dame was attractive mainly because it was free and has a recognizable name; I did not realize at the time how good the patristics program there is, nor did I realize (blind as I was) that my character and interests tended more toward sysematics than patristics.  I knew, in any case, that I did not want to study Rahner or anyone whose project was so evidently bound up with the present age.

During this period I read a biography of St. Dominic, given to me by one of the (excellent) priests at St. Mary's, and was again filled with enthusiasm for the Order of Preachers.  I loved their theology, I loved their founder, and I loved their mission.  I contacted the vocations director and visited DHS, and was overwhelmed by the experience.  For much of my final semester at Yale, I would fall asleep listening to Fr. Fred Hinnebusch's lectures on the history of the order.  This sort of thing gave me consolation and a sense of stability that I had been lacking for the prior 18 months.  That semester I wrote my thesis (on the existentialist concept of anxiety as a form of moral nihilism, and its relation to the possible intelligibility of conversion), finished courses, and left Yale.  I had been admitted to Catholic and DHS, and obviously chose DHS (lower tuition, more cohesive faculty, and Dominicans).  My plan was to do my M.A. and then decide whether to enter the Order at the end of it.

The summer before I began at DHS, I tried to get ahead by reading Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles. I made it through book one, and suddenly found my old philosophical roots re-awakened.  Here was Aquinas, a man I was supposed to believe, making metaphysical claims of the sort that I had rejected for years.  How?  The Heideggerian hermeneutic structure I had used to reach Catholicism seemed to be swept aside as Aquinas bluntly confronted the enlightenment.  Was he right?  Does metaphysics work?

[there might be a third part...]

The Genesis of Psychological Alienation

[The soundness of this argument with reference to the confinement of the insane seems sufficient to justify not only Foucault's project in the History of Madness, but also the archaeological endeavor as a whole.  Though it is not Foucault's point, I think this demonstrates very powerfully how much control the bureaucratic and police apparatus have over social functions and popular self-understanding in the long term.]

But there is no certainty that madness was content to sit locked up in its immutable identity, waiting for psychiatry to perfect its art, before it emerged blinking from the shadows into the blinding light of truth. Nor is it clear that confinement was above all, or even implicitly, a series of measures put in place to deal with madness. It is not even certain that in this repetition of the ancient gesture of segregation at the threshold of the classical age, the modern world was aiming to wipe out all those who, either as a species apart or a spontaneous mutation, appeared as ‘asocial’. The fact that the internees of the eighteenth century bear a resemblance to our modern vision of the asocial is undeniable, but it is above all a question of results, as the character of the marginal was produced by the gesture of segregation itself. For the day came when this man, banished in the same exile all over Europe in the mid-seventeenth century, suddenly became an outsider, expelled by a society to whose norms he could not be seen to conform; and for our own intellectual comfort, he then became a candidate for prisons, asylums and punishment. In reality, this character is merely the result of superimposed grids of exclusion.

The gesture that proscribed was as abrupt as the one that had isolated the lepers, and in both cases, the meaning of the gesture should not be mistaken for its effect. Lepers were not excluded to prevent contagion, any more than in 1657, 1 per cent of the population of Paris was confined merely to deliver the city from the ‘asocial’. The gesture had a different dimension: it did not isolate strangers who had previously remained invisible, who until then had been ignored by force of habit. It altered the familiar cityscape by giving them new faces, strange, bizarre silhouettes that nobody recognised. Strangers were found in places where their presence had never previously been suspected: the process punctured the fabric of society, and undid the familiar. Through this gesture, something inside man was placed outside of himself, and pushed over the edge of our horizon. It is the gesture of confinement, in short, which created alienation. It follows from this that to rewrite the history of that banishment is to draw an archaeology of alienation. What is to be determined is not the pathological or police category that was targeted, which would be to suppose that alienation pre-existed exclusion, but to understand instead how the gesture was accomplished, i.e. the operations which together, in their equilibrium, composed its totality, and the diverse horizons from which those who suffered the same exclusion originated, to investigate how men of the classical age experienced themselves at the moment when familiar faces began to become strange, and lose their resemblance with that image. If the decree does have a meaning, where modern men have designated their own alienated truth in the mad, then it must be in the extent to which the field of alienation where the mad found themselves banished (together with other figures who to our way of thinking had so little in common with them) had already been constituted before it came to be symbolised and peopled by the insane. That field was circumscribed in real terms in the space of confinement, and the form it took should show us how the experience of madness came into existence.

—Michel Foucault, History of Madness

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Another one of those tedious intellectual conversion narratives (part 1)

Long ago, in a distant land, I was an earnest high schooler trying to educate myself. I discovered Kant and Descartes at around the same time, and read the Discourse and Meditations while I was just getting into the first Critique. At first, I wanted to read philosophy because I had a firm conviction that Christianity was true, and I wanted to find a demonstration of it from logic. I had read the Republic and thought it was wonderful, and Mortimer Adler told me that great books make great minds, so I was enthusiastic. I swallowed Descartes whole, believed in the whole cartesian project, believed in his path out, etc. Reading Kant, I found a development and challenge to that project and over the course of a year gradually had my hopes of proving Christianity dashed. Kant's system was right and beautiful and coherent, but it clearly showed that you can't even prove the existence of God, much less all of Christianity. But Kant throws a bone to the Christian, by pointing out that you can't prove his non-existence either, and this gave me a tool to use in arguments: anyone's non-belief is just as arbitrary as my belief.

Then a month or two after I finished with Kant, I came across Russell's history of philosophy and read his chapter on The Master. He was unkind. His treatment of Kant is dismissive and cuts right at the heart of the kantian project. I was devastated. Kant my hero, who had already smashed half the certainties of the world, had himself been smashed in under 10 pages, leaving no certainties at all. I gave up and read Dostoevsky, still committed to the "my arbitrary belief is just as warranted as yours" defense of Christianity.

What followed over the next year was a series of misadventures: a lot of Kierkegaard, some Epictetus, some Lao Tzu, some Rushdie, and more Kierkegaard. I defended Christianity with skepticism, but my notion of Christianity was vague and disconnected from my life. I believed that life has meaning, that the soul lives on, and that there is some being who cares for souls. I had a loyalty to scriptural literalism, but was willing to interpret things loosely in order to make them agree with my philosophical views. From Kierkegaard I had a strong sense of the importance of self-presence and resolute consciousness, and tried (and failed) to better myself by working toward "faith". Faith never came, and so I just cycled in and out of despair.

Because the whole original project of believing in something rational and figuring out the world from first principles had bottomed out, I changed my life goals. I wanted to be an academic instead, so I decided to go with continental philosophy and become good at that. I picked up Heidegger and spent a month reading Being and Time. By this point I had become aware of my tendency to instantly adopt all the convictions of whoever I was reading, so I was more careful with Heidegger. I kept in mind all the other people I'd read, and compared. Heidegger's approach to philosophy was novel and very powerful. The first principle at work in Being and Time is that understanding is an interpretive exercise. Given my experience of the plurality of internally consistent philosophical systems, that understanding was a function of hermeneutic prejudices made total sense (it still does). The question then became one of method, and I read Being and Time more as a methodological handbook than anything. Heidegger's method is brilliant. He begins by proposing an investigation, and then proceeds through a sequence of cyclical exegeses of the problem, each time broadening the scope of his analysis by introducing some new concept or aspect for consideration. There are few arguments in Heidegger, because he recognizes the futility of trying to prove a philosophical foundation. "They will say I assume too much," he says, "but they assume too little." There is logic, but the logic is that of interrelated ideas unfolding various aspects of each other. Truth, he says, is not best understood as adequatio res et intellecta, since we have a degenerate view of "res" and "intellecta" and our notion of "adequatio" is absurd. Instead it is the self-disclosure of things.

There are great faults in Heidegger, and the core of Division II is stolen from Kierkegaard, but as a methodologist he is brilliant. His treatment of hermenutics and his critique of cartesianism (both in Division 1) are both among the best philosophical analyses I've ever read. Where Kierkegaard had gotten past the either/or of Kant and Hegel by asserting that truth is inwardness or individual subjectivity, Heidegger points out the faults in the entire cartesian problematic and restores a hermeneutical primacy to the structures of everyday existence: community, care, equipment, goals, etc. He does this not on the basis of a self-satisfied appeal to "common sense" or "the obvious", but because he finds the modern exegesis of reality ultimately inadequate. To talk about things the way Descartes does or about subjects the way Kant does is unrealistic, on one level because this is simply irrelevant to the way they actually present themselves to us. But even more than this, Heidegger's critique centers on the fact that the cartesian and materialistic modes of speech are generated by intentionally mutilating one's gaze on the world, creating perspective which intentionally ignores the way things ordinarily present themselves to us, and so reconstructs reality based on fragments of things, instead of their wholes, to produce a weird vision of the world totally detached from what we actually live in.

After Heidegger, my philosophical attitude was much more optimistic. I had a way of thinking about pluralism and, through hermeneutics, a way of adjudicating between rival claims to truth. I had a new sense that proof was not the best method in philosophy: that to convince someone of something you mainly have to show them what you see. Foundationalism and the quest for certainty had had their day, and had by their own standards shown themselves fruitless. Now there was something new that was capable of taking hold of the world and dealing with philosophical problems. I took a seminar that fall on Hermeneutics and Critical Theory, for which we read some Gadamer. This developed the project further. Gadamer explains intersubjectivity and the adjudication between radically different worldviews in a way that Heidegger does not. Furthermore, Gadamer's critique of the enlightenment is much less obscure than Heideggers, and exposes the implicit epistemological inconsistencies in the project.

The next term was my introduction to French philosophy, which I delighted in. I realized how fun philosophy could be when it was totally divorced from reality and wrapped up in logic (Derrida), and I saw the power of Nietzsche's genealogical method applied to history (Foucault). It didn't do much else for me. Meanwhile from Heidegger and Kierkegaard I had a received a neat little tool for assessing the practical value of customs behaviors and objects, and assessing the significance of things. This was repetition. SK has a wonderful little novella about the problem of Repetition, which you should read. Significance comes from the ability to sustain an ever shifting but nonetheless constant action or affirmation through time. In life this takes the form of little rituals: the way a meal is consumed daily, the rituals surrounding it — in society this takes on larger forms. And of course I was interested in religion. (I won't fill out the details here, I assume you can see how the connection works.)

After this period I was introduced to Newman and Chesterton and though I continued to tried at mastering Kierkegaard, I was not very optimistic. Under the influence of a friend, I convinced myself that philosophy was dead and needed to be abandoned. Fortunately the ladder of philosophy had brought me up to these heights, but it was time to kick away the ladder and read G.K. Chesterton and more C.S. Lewis. I was an idiot, and I paid for it dearly in general anxiety and self-loathing, not to mention a huge amount of wasted time fretting over absurdities.

I entered the Church, which did a lot of things for me. It gave me a new and more coherent understanding of history. It explained for the first time what Christianity actually was. It gave me a lot of joy and love and (in time) courage (oh, and grace). But aside from this I was in dire straights for a while. I had this idea that I should immerse myself in Balthasar, but I had no motivation to do it. People kept telling me to read Ratzinger, but I found him unappealing. What was there to respect? I could never get myself to read contemporary authors. They were unproven, and I wanted great things. I bought the Summa out of a sense of duty. It was the obvious thing to do, though Thomas's style is tedious and impossible to get into. Meanwhile I just affirmed everything and began to read up on catholic dogma.

[to be continued, maybe]

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some Serious Variations

I post this for the Mendelssohn piece at the beginning.  Richter is wonderful.




The entire recording by Richter can be found here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How Christ Satisfies

The question of satisfaction is difficult and requires great sensitivity. This is true not only because Christ’s satisfaction lies at the heart of the Christian faith in all its dimensions (ecclesial, sacramental, theological, personal), but also because the intellectual problem of the atonement involves the intersection of several independent but similar logical structures (legal theory, grace, moral psychology, divine providence). In the following essay we will attempt to answer the following question with the help of Thomas Aquinas and Rik Van Nieuwenhove: What does it mean that Christ satisfied for our sins and why should his passion have satisfied for them?

In order to answer this question we need to begin with an understanding of sin. Satisfaction, after all, is somehow meant to alleviate the consequences of sin (more on that later). What is sin? Sin is, according to Augustine’s definition, “any word, deed, or desire contrary to the eternal law” (cf. ST Ia IIae q.71 a.6). Now, a human is capable of sin because he is free, and he is free because he has an intellect and will capable of comparing apprehended goods and selecting the best way to achieve his desire (cf. Ia IIae q.13 a.6). At the heart of man is one ultimate desire, which motivates every choice: the desire for happiness (Ia IIae q.1 a.7). And true happiness, as Aquinas tells us (Ia IIae q.3 a.8), is the attainment of that which is better than everything else: immediate knowledge of and participation in the divine life itself.

The will that drives a man is not an independent machine. Rather, it operates by incentives. The object of the will is the good understood (Ia q.82 a.4), and the will always follows the judgment of the intellect. It follows from this that our ability to desire perfectly the happiness for which we were created depends on the perfection of our understanding of that good: the richer this understanding, the fuller the desire. Now sin, as we said before, is an act of the person contrary to the eternal law, that is to say, an act of the person by which he deviates from the course set out in his nature (and paved by grace) toward the achievement of his ultimate goal. Since man was created in a state of natural perfection (Ia q.95 a.3) and grace (Ia q.95 a.1), God had readied the path for him into beatitude. But Adam, before he had followed that path to its divine conclusion, chose to deviate from it, and thus destroyed in himself the gifts by which his journey was possible in the first place. His mind, formerly perfect, was darkened. His will, originally set on God, was instead weakened and subject to the vagaries of his bodily passions. He did not have clear knowledge of his destiny and if he had, his will was ill-suited to direct him thither (cf. Ia IIae q.85 a.3).

This fallen state was transmitted from Adam to all his descendants (cf. Ia IIae q.81), sin was compounded upon sin through the generations. Man was disoriented, and in his lack of proper direction his offenses against God multiplied. Our creator, however, was gracious and had conspired to save us from sin and set us back in proper relation to Him. What was necessary for this?

In the ordinary notion of offense, the one who offends must pay the price for his crime, or the proper order of justice has not been restored (cf. IIa IIae q.62). In order for a thief to enter back into right relations with the one he has stolen from and the society of which both are members, restitution must be made. Now, someone else can make restitution for the thief out of generosity, or the thief can make payment himself, but the payment must be made. The question then is this: We sinners have offended God. We have, as it were, stolen from him the love and good works he deserved. Is there not some intrinsic law of the universe which makes it impossible for our relationship with Him to be restored until this debt is paid? (van Nieu 289)

There is something correct about this way of thinking. In sinning we do incur a debt, and a very great one. In acts of penance, our debt is paid back, and if we are incapable of making up the debt, perdition awaits. Justice does indeed enter into the consideration, and restitution is significant. However, the analogy is ultimately flawed. Why? In comparing God and sinner to victim and thief, we have presupposed some sort of absolute "law of the universe" to which God is subject (van Nieu 289). But God is subject to no law but his own nature, and his nature is personal, loving and merciful. Outside the context of a state, when the consideration is simply that one person has offended the other, the only thing absolutely necessary for the relationship to be restored is sorrow and love on the part of the transgressor, and mercy on the part of the one wronged. This sorrow and love can bear fruit in restitution, or the restitution could theoretically happen independently, without love, but in a relationship between persons not governed by some higher law, the vitality of the relationship depends primarily on the coordination of the wills of the persons involved, and not on the compensation for offense.

Let's translate these thoughts back onto the problem of sin. In sin, we do not know God as our destiny, and we do not desire Him as our highest good. This is wrong, and is a kind of theft that deprives God of the happiness for which he created us. We said that there are two ways of mending the relationship: restitution and conversion of heart. The extent of restitution depends not only on the thing taken but also on the dignity of the one offended. To deprive God of one's own perfection and happiness by mutilating and debasing oneself is a great crime, but this pales next to the consideration of our offending God in himself by detracting from the goodness he has laid out for us. It is impossible for me, in my damaged state, to pay the price for the perfection I have rejected: a car stolen and then wrecked could not be offered up as a replacement for what was originally taken. But even if we could pay condignly for the loss of ourselves, we can never compensate for the offense against God, which is infinite. So restitution is doubly impossible.

Likewise, conversion is impossible. We said earlier that sin darkens the intellect by leading it away from the truth and warping its judgment of the good. But without a clear intellect, it is impossible to know God as He is, as He calls us to himself. And without this knowledge, it is impossible to love him in a manner befitting his relationship to us. The intellect and will are the motors by which a person moves about in the world, aspires, and grows spiritually. Once these are damaged, they cannot heal themselves.

Before we proceed, notice another difference between the problem of sin and that of theft. In theft, the good that is violated is one of right and property. Prior to the crime there need not have been any relationship between victim and thief, and after restitution likewise. But in the relationship between God and man, the crime itself is a violation of that fellowship with God for which man was made, and so this is both essential to the restitution and to the restoration of the relationship. Without a real friendship with God, the problem of sin cannot be fixed.

We have established what distinguishes the problem of sin from other kinds of offense, and we have shown that the sinner can neither repay God nor restore the damaged bond. It follows that in order for man to be saved from paying for eternity a debt which, lacking charity, he can never satisfy, he needs grace to enlighten his mind and transform his will so that he can enter back into fellowship with God. Though this restoration does not in itself include restitution for sins committed, the dispensation of grace would be sufficient for man’s entry into beatitude.

God, however, is much greater than that. This personal God, who loves us enough to restore us, is also a God who brings forth the excellence in created things by mediating his blessings through them. And since it was the sin of man that brought death upon Adam's race, God ordained that through a man grace would be dispensed, and more marvelously still he chose (freely, without necessity) that humanity would be restored in such a way that its offenses were covered and its redemption merited in full. But none but God himself could cover the sins of all mankind, because while we were still sinners we were bound by the law of sin, which is spiritual death. So God became man, fashioned for himself from the flesh of a virgin a human body and breathed into it a human soul, and for a time the very being of the Eternal One walked among us clothed in our own nature. He taught us and healed us, and in accord with the divine plan, died for us to merit our salvation.

He died? But why should his death pay for our life? What good is it to die? To die is, in itself, nothing good at all. But remember what was said earlier: what was taken from God was the love and fellowship due to him. It was stolen through disobedience. Christ came to proclaim the truth, to give us light by which to see him, and to show us the path to him. All of these aspects of his mission are fulfilled in the cross. Christ's passion proclaims to us the profound love of God for humanity. By his obedience (cf. van Nieu 291) in an overwhelming spirit of charity (cf. ST IIIa q.48 a.2) he offers up to the Father something more precious than the price of all our guilt: Himself, the One and Only. But finally he shows us the way, the path of self-denial and abnegation (cf. van Nieu 286), by which the grip of worldly things upon the mind and will is loosened so that, enlivened by grace, they are free to turn back toward the excellence for whom they were made.

And so we see the utter perfection of Christ's satisfaction for our sins. The God-Man is the head from which flows all the grace necessary to sanctify and enliven His body. By virtue of his grace living in us we are capable, joined in his mystical body (van Nieu 290), of meriting our salvation and satisfying for our sins and those of others. But this is possible first of all because he satisfies the demands of justice, and his satisfaction is itself a demonstration of mercy, since our salvation could have been achieved by other means. Because this fulfillment of justice is so profoundly and visibly merciful, we cannot but encounter in Christ crucified the most wonderful image of God's love for us.

Old Thoughts

"The most obvious thing in the world is that I am of no consequence. The narrator demonstrates this masterfully by the connection between his visit and the loss of Marina Petrovna’s hair. The connection is meaningless. Did he bring some shears? Did he poison her?   Is it possible that between the two clauses the entire plot of The Count of Monte Cristo has occurred? No, it is utterly impossible. I have no creative ability; I am merely a scribbler, here, falling off my chair, hovering beside a desk, clacking away at an indifferent machine which could say anything in the world — if it had a voice."



"In the world of textual exchange, it is all too easy to imagine interlocutors as floating pieces of thought or expression, and to generate caricatures of unseen people based on the visible text they produce. This is why internet debates go sour so quickly: I am not talking to you; you are not talking to me. Instead each of us is talking to a projection we have of the other, frequently as stupid and ugly and wicked as we typically imagine a person of those views to be."



"God, however, is much greater than that. This personal God, who loves us enough to restore us, is also a God who brings forth the excellence in created things by mediating his blessings through them.  And since it was the sin of man that brought death upon Adam's race, God ordained that it might be through a man that grace would be dispensed, and more marvelously still he chose (freely, without necessity) that humanity would be restored in such a way that its offenses were covered and its redemption merited in full.  But none but God himself could cover the sins of all mankind, because while we were still sinners we were bound by the law of sin, which is spiritual death.  So God became man, fashioned for himself from the flesh of a virgin a human body and breathed into it a human soul, and for a time the very being of the Eternal One walked among us clothed in our own nature.  He taught us and healed us, and in accord with the divine plan, died for us to merit our salvation."



Obviously

Of course I don't say what I really think.
Polite society deserves respect.
And one should not reveal in talk or print
The doleful secrets of our common flesh.
For we, the weak and helpless, have been dared
To lift ourselves an inch above our heads,
To be able to say to someone in despair,
"I've lived who also wished that I were dead."


—Milosz

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Is it true that Bernard, Albert, and Thomas all denied the Immaculate Conception?

It's true that Bernard, Albert and Thomas all denied the immaculate conception. The latter two did this primarily on the authority of Bernard, who they assumed was passing on something he'd gathered from reading Augustine. (This information comes from the mouth of Fr. Timothy Bellamah, OP. I haven't read Bernard or Albert on this topic.) Confusions of this sort happened occasionally in scholastic theology. For example, a couple of major early scholastic thinkers adopted a view of Christ that was basically Nestorian (a condemned heresy), because they were under the impression that this was the received teaching of X or Y church father. Errors like Nestorianism are close to the heart of the faith (is Christ one person or two?), and hence tend to get rooted out pretty quickly. But the question of the Immaculate Conception is subtler, and not directly attested to in scripture, so while ordinary people went on believing it, the theologians debated the question for some centuries. Dominicans tended to follow Thomas and deny the Immaculate Conception, not as impossible or unfitting, but just because they didn't see the evidence for it. Franciscans tended to affirm the Immaculate Conception, due in part to their tendency to center theology on the Incarnation. Neither side thought that Mary ever sinned, and the Dominicans who denied the Immaculate Conception believed that she was sanctified sometime after her conception while still in the womb. The principles at work were already accepted: that Mary's sanctification was in light of the foreseen merits of Christ, that it was fitting for the mother of the redeemer to be pure and without sin. The mind of the Church was, on the whole, already established. It just took a dogmatic proclamation to settle the debate finally among theologians.

An Imaginary Dialogue between Sleep and Hesitation


Oknos: did I tell you about these shoes?
  they're going to make me a good person
4:07 AM Somnus: ?
4:08 AM Oknos: yes
4:10 AM Somnus: nice
 Oknos: why do I suck so much at life
 Somnus: ?
4:11 AM Oknos: it's because I don't have those shoes
  also because I am not a plant
 Somnus: true
4:12 AM Oknos: I am going to publish this conversation
  add your gems now, before it's too late
 Somnus: what sort of plant are you inside?
4:13 AM Oknos: I am a coniferous sunflower
  my foliage never withers
  and I am planted on a mountainside
  but my face always turns toward the sun
 Somnus: sounds about right
 Oknos: what sort of plan are you?
4:14 AM Somnus: I have no plans
 Oknos: plant, then
  wow, it takes great courage to have no plans
  or no courage at all
 Somnus: I am a Welwitschia
4:15 AM I have two leaves
  they grow and grow until I die
 Oknos: this is so poetic
  and painful
 Somnus: it's because you have bad shoes
 Oknos: a picture of humanity:
 Somnus: they are hurting your feet
4:16 AM if that is not man, then I don't know what is
  Where do your shoes take you?
4:17 AM Somnus: the desert
4:18 AM Oknos: a priest told me the other day that advent is a time to live in the desert like John
  I think this is a good thought.
4:20 AM It reminds me of that Roethke poem:
  My lizard, my lively writher,
May your limbs never wither,
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy’s mean gaze;
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
And your hair ever blaze,
In the sun, in the sun,
When I am undone,
When I am no one.
4:21 AM Somnus: holy cow,why aren't you in bed?
4:22 AM Oknos: Hinduism has never much appealed to me, of the major religions.

Sanctifying the Night

[Written in the spring of 2010 as a writing sample for my application to take a fiction writing class.  This was shortly before my admission into the Catholic Church.]



The standard Roman Catholic Psalter consists of four weeks, each of seven days, with seven sections in each day. The day begins at 3 A.M. and ends at around 9 P.M. Every four weeks the Psalter covers all one hundred fifty psalms, a variety of hymns, sermons, and readings, and many repeated prayers. I discovered the Psalter some time this past fall, wandering through the internet trying to find out what holy people do with their free time, trying to dispose of some of mine.

We begin with Matins, the prayers said before dawn, the office of readings. I have only said Matins twice, and never upon waking up. I was up at three for different reasons than thecloistered monks and nuns who have developed and maintain this tradition. I read somewhere that our selves shut down at night, like shops in suburbs and lonely Midwestern farming towns, but it seems untrue for me. When I’m alone, things tend to come alive in a particularly aggressive way, and I think that if my life has shut down, then somehow I’m stuck in the dark interior, stumbling down aisles of shaded apples and anonymous boxes through the night in which all cows are black. Matins is the longest of the seven hours that make up a day’s prayer. I suppose if I were more exciting, I would compare myself to Allen Ginsberg and talk about some “angry itch” I have. But it’s not an itch, and I’m not crazy. Only disconnected and self-conscious.

I lied a little bit. I’m up past three most nights, not working but sitting alone, not reading or writing or thinking, but persisting in this strange limbo. Time passes slowly and I think that monotony does not speed things by, though I can never seem to remember where it all went. Life moves like a draining bathtub. You sit there watching for a water funnel and it’s only when you’re perfectly still that all the tension and anxiety of the falling water can focus itself into a little hole. That’s what happens in the early morning hours. It’s almost that time now, and I begin to feel it.

The second of the seven hours is Lauds, said around dawn. Lauds is a pleasant set of prayers; the ritual combines with the weak morning light to suggest a tenuous renewal of reality. Sometimes reality reveals itself in the form of regret for failures, mistakes and sins, for the desolation of the passing darkness. The shame and bitterness can be overwhelming. But this morning the gray cloudy skies and construction workers seem to sing a more jubilant song. Lauds is the hour of praise, the hour when we celebrate the sun’s rising again for a new day. We have been baptized in night, have been cleansed through a spiritual death in the cold waters of solitude, and now we emerge from the darkness of the soul to see the world again and hear the stones proclaim their eternal message.

This morning I have a conversation with a friend. We have spent the long hours together, and it is now six o’clock when we part. We play a game, back and forth, talking through problems of knowing people and thinking about ourselves, digging up grave matters and sitting at the table with them, livening them up with coffee, seeing something hilarious in their stiff forms. This morning there is dancing at Lauds and we feel so surprised by the simple perfection of life that when we part we can barely help but join the stones in crying out.

Midmorning passes in sleep and I rejoin the day around noon. It is time for work and plodding. Terce, Sext, and None slip by unsaid, lost to pillows and classrooms, lectures and lunches. Most days I cannot remember what transpires during these three hours, but soon enough None has past, it is four o’clock, and I am wandering through some book or another, looking for a development or distraction which will give the day value as it wanes. The evening meal is taken in company, and there is laughter of a different sort. The smiling faces around me seem confidently embalmed most days: eerie replacements for the laughing corpses of dawn. As the sun returns again into his grave, I make absurd jokes and feel the morbidity of this shared life, sense that our communal body is not far from the tomb.

Vespers comes at dusk, when the candles are lit or the lights switched on. I mutter the Magnificat while kneeling in front of my window. This time the prayer seems much more present than usual. At Vespers I commit myself to living out the day even though the sunlight is gone. I will be awake for a long while yet, and keep my own lights on in vague expectation of the dawn. The dawn is so distant, though, and I busy myself with books, studying earnestly or working out, feeling the potential in myself for a million ever-uninitiated tasks. My lights brighten the night and I am cheerful.

Tonight after vespers I take out my Vulgate and try to master the Latin, or I read a Borges story and think about Kant. I remember what I have seen in the day and let all the people and details crystallize into simple forms and types. The world eases toward an aesthetic unity, threatening to teeter over the edge into mere fantasy. Faces are blurred by facts and formulae. I mull things over.

By Compline I have reached an extreme. The final hour should be said just before bed, but if I ever get around to it, it comes at midnight. The lights have gone out everywhere and I am alone. My solitude hits me and I write a letter or retreat into the internet. I read Rilke and know that this is the hour when loneliness “flows with the rivers.”

As I lie face down on my bedroom floor to groan, I make no effort to remember the approach of dawn, or my covenants from dusk. Dawn is no consolation now when all promises are broken, when the fragments of a faith that nourished me huddle behind closed doors, frightened of the world. If the sun rises again, I think, it will be to my shame. I dive deeper into the night, glad to forget the resurrection, magnifying only my own sorrow and shame in the face of an imaginary world.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Closure of Madness


[The following was written for a seminar on French post-structuralism with Yue Zhuo at Yale.  One of my favorite undergrad courses.  At the time I was unaware of the famous Foucault/Derrida exchange about Descartes and the History of Madness, but I don't think the paper suffers for it.]





An Exploration of the Limits of Discourse in Foucault and Derrida

  In reading the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, we are constantly faced with questions about discourse:  How are our discourses structured?  Where are they centered?  How are they historically conditioned?  What made possible the development of a certain mode of thinking about the world?  Chief among the questions raised by both philosophers is: What lies at the limits of discourse and is there a space beyond?  In the following paper I will attempt to give a detailed explanation of Foucault’s answer to this question, and then briefly compare it to Derrida’s.  Ultimately we will see that while Foucault allows for a space beyond the limits of discourse, Derrida insists that everything must return within the playful closure of representation. 

  Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I is largely a reflection on the ways power serves to structure our understanding of things and things themselves, i.e., power is a primary organizational function, which establishes relations between things.  Power is, first of all, “the multiplicity of force relations [italics mine] immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization” (Sexuality 92).  It is also the process which transforms these force relations “through ceaseless struggles and confrontations,” as well as the compounding or contradiction of these relations with one another in order to create “a chain or system” or the reverse (92).  Finally, power consists of the strategies in which these force relations take effect, i.e. the ways difference is deployed within the field of force-relations (e.g. through law, social norms, taboos, etc.).  Foucault complements his definition of power with the clarification that power relations are not exterior to other types of relations — economic, social, legal, etc. — but are “immanent” in them, and in fact power relations are “the immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums which occur in the latter” (94).  In short, Foucault defines power as the condition for the possibility of difference between individuals, groups, positions, possibilities, etc., as well as the processes and strategies through which that difference is enacted, transformed, and maintained.  

Within his definition of power, Foucault has already opened up an incredibly rich network of possibilities for describing and explaining social (and anti-social) activities and structures of classification.  It is important to realize, as Foucault points out, that power is not merely a matter of military-political coercion or the allocation of monetary resources.  Power includes the whole field of differences: differences in knowledge, taxonomy, behavior, sex, speech, physical ability, and on and on.  All of these take their place in the play of power relations.  Chief among Foucault’s applications for the concept of power is the issue of taxonomy and discourse: How are our ways of describing and classifying phenomena related to the deployment of power?  How is “power-knowledge” deployed?  In order to answer these questions we will look at Foucault’s discussion of issue of the disclosure or “Truth” of sexuality and the development of sexual taxonomies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As part of his attack on the “repressive hypothesis”, Foucault attempts to show that, far from being hidden away in the Victorian era, it is primarily in the nineteenth century that sexuality is brought into discourse.  Foucault sees the nineteenth century as a late stage in the long development of western “confessionalism”. Confessionalism is the impulse toward disclosing the “truth” of things.  Foucault insists, contrary to the familiar adage from John’s gospel,  “that truth is not by nature free—nor error servile—but that its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power” (Sexuality 60).  Confession as a struggle to disclose truth is thus seen as directly related to power-knowledge.  Much of Foucault’s work in The History of Sexuality involves exploring the power relations involved in the disclosure of sexuality. Foucault sees sexuality as an object of concern for the Victorian middle-class, and the attempt at disclosing the truth of sexuality (through its medicalization) as a way for the bourgeoisie to consolidate themselves by regulating social-sexual practices.  However, at each new stage of disclosure the vocabulary of sexuality must be changed an expanded.  For example, in the late middle ages the discourse of sexuality focused primarily on marriage, leaving sexual irregularities like sodomy poorly defined and treating the sexuality of children with “indifference” (37).  On the other hand, by the late nineteenth century a whole taxonomy of irregular sexualities had been invented, stretching from “zoophiles and zooerasts” to “dyspareunist women” (43), and there was a great deal of interest in hysteria and child sexuality.  Foucault highlights the transformation by pointing out that in the Middle Ages “the sodomite had been a temporary abberation; [while by the nineteenth century] the homosexual was now a species” (43).  Thus the impulse to uncover the “truth” of sexuality and the “demand that it tell us the truth of its truth” (69) is a drive to create distinctions and differences within the field of sexuality and thus bring sexuality explicitly within the domain of power-knowledge.  Perhaps Foucault’s greatest thesis in The History of Sexuality is:
“Sexuality [is not] a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or ... which knowledge tries gradually to uncover [but rather] a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse... the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.” (105-106)
The greater part of sexuality, for Foucault, has been invented within the past few centuries in the process of developing the taxonomies and assumptions through which we describe it, and it has been invented as part of a strategy for transforming the power relations within society.  

If we turn away from The History of Sexuality and consider The Order of Things, we can see similar forces at work.  Instead of focusing on the production of sexuality, The Order of Things attempts to uncover “how a culture experiences the propinquity of things, how it establishes the tabula of their relationships and the order by which they must be considered” (Order of Things xxiv).  Here Foucault aims to express the implicit undercurrents through which the discourses of various periods of western history have been organized.  As a consequence of what we have already said, the structure of any episteme (Foucault’s term for this implicit ordering of things) must be tied up with power, because through it we recognize the differences and inequities that constitute our world.  This means that language itself, reason, and representation are all wrapped up in the structure, transformation, and maintenance of power relations.  Since order and reason are essential ways of determining what is included within a given discourse, what can be said and what cannot, this means that the bounds of reason and the limits of discourse are also part of the field of power relations.  This raises the question of how power-knowledge, discourse and order map on to silence and the space outside of discourse.

Foucault treats the issue of silence in two different ways, thus allowing for two different kinds of silence.  First there is the silence of what is left unsaid; for example the everyday Victorian silence about sexuality.  Here silence is clearly a part of power-knowledge because there is still consciousness of what is left unsaid.  For example, with reference to child sexuality in the eighteenth century, Foucault says: “Not any less was said about it; on the contrary.  But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them, from a different point of view, in order to obtain different results” (Sexuality 27).   He illustrates this point by describing the panopticon-like architecture of secondary schools and various rules about vigilant observation of solitary students.  All of this helps to demonstrate that consciousness of child sexuality was in fact more intense at this period than before, even though it had seemingly fallen out of public discourse.  Thus this silence can be seen more as a shift in the means through which a discourse is expressed than as “the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a clean boundary” (27).  This naturally leads us to ask about the absolute limit of discourse and seek a second, more complete form of silence.  Instead of a silence which has merely shifted expression from speech to other modes of discourse, we must find a silence which eludes the taxonomy of our knowledge structures, which stands outside of the order of things and transcends reason.  Foucault finds the possibility of such a silence in madness.  

Foucault’s History of Madness tracks the evolution of the western conception of madness from the late Middle Ages to the turn of the twentieth century.  Madness is placed in a complex and unique relation to order, reason, and truth.  In the late middle ages, the madman is exiled from the civic center and put to sea on the “ship of fools”.  He stands outside the order of things and is represented in scenes of senselessness, misdirection, and destruction.  Later, the madman is absorbed into the discourse of reason and seen as possessing special access to the truth of things.  He is epitomized by the figures of the holy fool and the court jester, who, through their absurdity are able to express more sharply than anyone else the truths which lie at the basis of everything.  This version of the madman, which predominated during the Renaissance and can be seen in works such as Erasmus’s Encomium Moriae, is described by Foucault as a way of subverting the wild terror of insanity and bringing it into reason:  “Madness was no longer a dark power that threatened to undo the world ... it is caught up instead in the indefinite cycle that attaches it to reason; they deny and affirm each other” (Madness 32).  Here madness and reason become interdependent: one cannot exist without the other.  Eventually the Renaissance conception of madness gives way to the penalization and then medicalization of the insane.  In this reconception, madness is given a new place.  Rather than being the terminus of order or the absolute in view of which all reason is folly, madness becomes a form of sickness which is to be treated.  In the middle ages, the madman was exiled from the order of the community as a symbol of chaos and apocalypse.  In the renaissance he was idealized as a source of secret knowledge and unspeakable truths.  In the enlightenment he was seen as a useless member of society who was guilty and was to be punished or confined so as to become productive.  Finally, this sense of the madman’s guilt is coupled with the desire to reintroduce the madman into society at the turn of the nineteenth century to create the last major iteration of the madman; one who is guilty but is required to tell the truth of his insanity in order to be cured.  In other words, the madman as “alienated”.  

Here once again we return to the theme explored in The History of Sexuality: “the truth shall set you free.”  At the hands of the proto-psychiatrists, Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke, the insane are seen as alienated from proper self-knowledge.  In order to recover (i.e. to rejoin society and leave the asylum), the madman is required to submit to the imposed social order:  “The city of reasonable men only welcomes him to the extent that he conforms to [an] anonymous type” (487).  The requirement that inmates conform to social stereotypes as a part of the recovery of their identities places this new “cure” for madness firmly in the midst of the play of power relations.  By telling the truth of his madness, the madman is forced to accept a new dimension of his supposed guilt.  While formerly a marginalized figure kept at bay by the protective walls of the prison and left to his own devices, the madman is now taken from his cell and forced to speak.  In this move, his exile is internalized once more.  Though once he had been removed from populated areas entirely (via the “Ship of Fools”), and then later exiled within society by means of imprisonment, the madman is now physically let free, but “trapped in his own truth and thus exiled from it.  A Stranger from himself.  Alienated.” (Madness 516).  The development of alienation introduces a new dialectic into the madman’s self-consciousness.  Induced into the space of language, “wrapped in a language that was never exhausted... reflected in a game of contrasts and opposites, where man appeared in his madness as being other than himself” (527-8), the madman is perpetually drawn between the poles of identity and difference.  


The play of identity and difference is quite complex.  On one hand, “identity” is tied to the circle of language and the drive toward the madman’s re-entry into the dominant discourses and “reason” of the period.  “Difference” evokes the absolute alterity of a madness which is without reason and stands outside of discourse.  At the same time, it is only through difference that any discourse is possible, and the play of differences is the field of power relations.  Thus the madman’s madness must transcend the dichotomies which usually frame structuralist conceptions of difference and must fall totally outside of language.  At this point the question of freedom re-enters our discussion.  

By liberating the insane, Pinel attempts to force them into the circle of language, much as the researchers of the nineteenth century brought sexuality into the circle of language.  Both processes can be understood as strategies within the field of power-knowledge.  Thus what Foucault says of sexuality can also be said of the psychology of alienation: that it is “a great surface network in which... the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, [and] the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.” (Sexuality 105-6).   Additionally, just as the confessional impulse to have sexuality “speak the truth” (69) is not freeing sexuality but implicating it further in power-knowledge, the treatment of insanity as guilt and alienation which must be remedied through a confessional talking cure is similarly not liberating the insane but forcing madness into a paradoxical space at the limits of freedom and determinism.  The madman is free in that he is no longer confined within his cell, but is also confined by the circle of language and the taxonomy of social types which he is forced to join.  He is freed from criminality while being “locked into the rigorous mechanisms of a determinism” (Madness 514) without which he would also be guilty.   A series of paradoxes surround the madman on all sides, and among these paradoxes psychology comes into existence to help madness disclose itself.

Psychology thus seems to have the last word, but it is not the end of Foucault’s account.  Instead Foucault looks to the figures of Goya, Sade, Nietzsche, and Artaud for a madness beyond psychology.  In these four figures, Foucault sees the image “not of the mad who were thrown into prison, but that of man cast into his own night” (531).  In particular we think of Nietzsche, with his great pronouncement that “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” What does this mean for Foucault?  In the absence of truth, there is an absence of discourse; discourse is closed off and difference eliminated.  In this space without truth, power-knowledge cannot play a role.  Nietzsche does not simply stand at the limit of discourse and look out upon madness; his work actively partakes of madness, thrusts itself into void of unreason and ultimately falls silent: “Madness is an absolute rupture of the oeuvre: it is the constitutive moment of an abolition... it delineates the outer limit, the line of its collapse, its outline against the void” (536).   Here, beyond reason and the limits of discourse, Foucault finds “a new triumph for madness” (538) and ends his account.

While Foucault’s critical archaeology of the history of psychology is very systematic and structurally organized, the work of Jacques Derrida is based on a move against systematicity and toward the dismantling of structural frameworks.  Derrida’s philosophy often seems endlessly complicated and frustrates all attempts at comprehensive interpretation.  Hence what follows can only be seen as a provisional analysis of Derrida’s treatment of the limits of discourse.

For the comparison of Foucault and Derrida there is a convenient point of departure.  Both show an interest in the work of Antonin Artaud.  For Foucault, Artaud stands with Nietzsche as an individual who thrusts himself into the night of unreason.  Derrida’s analysis is somewhat less accommodating.  Derrida’s essay on “The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” in Writing and Difference analyzes Artaud’s conception of the “theatre of cruelty” as “not a representation ... [but] life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable” (WD 234).  Derrida highlights several further characteristics of the theatre of cruelty.  First, the theatre of cruelty excludes “all theatre of words” (243).  The theatre of cruelty cannot be determined by speech; it cannot favor the spoken word, cannot be scripted.  Thus the threatre of cruelty resists entry into language.  Second, the theatre of cruelty is not the theatre of alienation.  The audience is not meant to become conscious of its simultaneous presence and distance from the stage.  Instead, the theatre of cruelty effectively dissolves the audience, so that “there is no longer spectator or spectacle, but festival” (244).  The theatre of cruelty erases the difference through which the audience is able to exist.  Third, the theatre of cruelty does not aim to communicate.  It has no message to be repeated, but must itself in its absolute singularity and difference be incapable of reproduction and repetition: “Artaud wanted to erase repetition in general” (245).  Instead of being communicative or representational, the theatre of cruelty must offer “pure presence,” which “can never be made the same way twice” (246).  

What, then, is the theatre of cruelty?  Derrida points out that in excluding all of the forms which the theatre of cruelty is not, we are forced to realize “that fidelity is impossible” (247), and the grammar Artaud proposed for the theatre of cruelty “will always remain the inaccessible limit of a representation which is not repetition, of a re-presentation which is full presence, which does not carry its double within itself as its death...” (248).  As a theatre of presence, the theatre of cruelty is always already representational, because in doing away with the structures which necessitate repetition (God, Being, and the Dialectics), it eliminates the possibility of any point of origin.    Without origin, presence “has always already begun to represent itself” (249).  In the absence of the transcendental structures the theatre of cruelty, as nonrepresentational and noncommunicative, seeks to destroy, the very horizon against which nonrepresentationality was defined becomes porous.  The horizon of representation, opened and limitless, thus envelops the theatre of cruelty once more in the play of representations.  

Derrida’s discussion of the theatre of cruelty is clearly relevant to Foucault’s treatment of madness.  We note that both the theatre of cruelty and the Nietzschean form of madness turn away from alienation and reject submission to “discourse”, whether in the form of prioritized speech or psychological confessionalism. However, for Derrida it is impossible to escape the enclosure of representation.  The moment one steps outside the circle of representation, one must admit that the circle itself has been poorly defined and is permeable.  A constant, playful exchange occurs between the “inside” and “outside” of representation which effectively destroys the distinction between the two.

If one cannot escape the closure of representation, how does one defy systematicity?  Derrida provides an answer to this question in his essay “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve.”  This essay attempts to apply Georges Bataille’s notion of “expenditure” to the Hegelian system.  Expenditure is a sort of destruction without reserve which is derived from the Native American practice of “potlatch” in which one person expends a wealth of resources in the form of gifts or simple destruction merely to demonstrate his superiority and humiliate his rivals.  Expenditure is “without reserve” because there is no simple utilitarian purpose for it.  The expended resources are not recovered.   

Derrida is looking for “the blind spot of Hegelianism” and he finds it at “the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so irreversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity... that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or a system” (WD 259).  What is particularly significant for Derrida about Hegelianism is the Hegelian aufhebung, the negation which embraces and elevates so that no direct contradiction to the system can help but be absorbed by it.  Derrida’s way of undoing Hegel and reinterpreting him against himself depends on the concept of sovereignty.  Sovereignty is a re-interpretation, a “doubling” (260) of the Hegelian concept of lordship.  Hegel’s lordship comes into conflict with and then is absorbed by the figure of the bondsman, in accordance with the system.  However, in Derrida’s re-reading of Hegel, the concept of “sovereignty” replaces lordship in such a way that it overflows the economy of lordship:  “sovereignty provides the economy of reason with... its unlimiting boundaries of non-sense ... and makes it function within the sacrifice of meaning” (260-1).  Sovereignty sacrifices meaning and “submerges discourse... through ... an irruption suddenly uncovering the limit of discourse and the beyond of absolute knowledge” (261).  Furthermore, sovereignty is silent, and in its silence it is “foreign to difference as the source of signification” to the extent that it pushes itself toward “the experience of absolute difference... a difference which would no longer be ... in the service of presence, at work for (the) history (of meaning)” (263).  Rather than Hegelian difference, through which History comes into relation with itself as Absolute Spirit, “a sovereign silence ... tolerates no relations” (264).  It does not belong to the order of things.

As with the theatre of cruelty, Derrida’s description of sovereignty begs the question: What is sovereignty?  His reply is unsurprising:  “There is no sovereignty itself.  Sovereignty dissolves the values of meaning, truth and a grasp-of-the-thing-itself... Sovereignty is the impossible, therefore it is not” (270).  However, when we read sovereignty into Hegelianism, and the sliding of Hegel’s terminology “makes the entire old shell crack” (260), the system is not “simply overturned” (271), nor does sovereignty somehow “escape dialectics” (260).  Instead, the system remains, but its horizons are transformed and opened up into a “general economy” which is without reserve.  This general economy’s openness makes it impossible for the Hegelian aufhebung to perpetually reabsorb that which is negated.  Hence there is no reserve, but rather an opening up of expenditure through the figure of sovereignty.  

Sovereignty has clear relevance to Foucault.  In its opposition to the closed system of meanings which constitute the Hegelian discourse, sovereignty resembles madness.  However, the two are very different.  While Madness stands on the other side of a boundary and represents absolute alterity, sovereignty works from within the system to transform it.  In the silence of sovereignty we do not have a plunge into the night of insanity, but a silence which, through its expenditure, bursts the rigid boundaries of the system.  The Madman cannot transform the order from which he is excluded.  Instead it is against that order that the madman is perpetually be defined and re-understood.  By contrast sovereignty is capable of enacting a subtle but fundamental shift in the structure of discourse and works from within.  

The discussions of the limits of discourse in Derrida and Foucault overlap considerably.  Both see in the limits of discourse an essential issue for coming to terms with western rationality.  For Foucault, the limits of discourse open the possibility of a critique of psychology and a renewed look at the history of sexuality.  For Derrida, the consideration of these limits shows the essential permeability and openness of any system of discourse.  However, their conclusions are as different as their writing styles.  For Derrida there is no escaping the field of discourse, but there is always the distortion and incompleteness inherent in our structures of speaking and understanding.  We can summarize their differences by considering how each would describe Nietzsche.  Derrida would think of Nietzsche as engaged in counter-readings of the western tradition and wrapped up in the play of meanings which eventually deconstructs western metaphysics.  However, Foucault assigns him a much more serious role.  For Foucault, Nietzsche is the figure within discourse and reason who willfully thrusts himself into the night of insanity and becomes exterior to the system.  Nietzsche’s move into madness is a way of relating to knowledge-power which subverts the given orderings and reason of the period.  Ultimately, their difference resides in the fact that Derrida does not allow for an absolute alterity which escapes discourse, while Foucault does.