Crisis? What Crisis?


While we occasionally hear talk of crisis in various areas of human experience, from different natural and human sciences to the financial system, the justice system, to philosophy and religion, such talk is generally quickly squashed, usually to the reassuring tune that the crisis is ‘not fundamental’, ‘is passing’, ‘is very temporary’. The worst type of crisis is one that is so fundamental that we are afraid that admitting to the possibility of a crisis would itself precipitate that crisis. We know this experience as that of paranoia. Paranoia reaches its apogee precisely when the paranoiac can no longer admit his fears, for fear that admitting them would unleash the very worst of those fears.

And yet, things go on. That things go on despite having recently experienced the worst financial crisis in history is taken as proof that the crisis is not fundamental, is very temporary. Yet the government has acted in a classically paranoid fashion by not even admitting that it was the worst in history, precisely for fear of that admission instigating a worse one, one that bailouts won’t suffice to bandage over.

Research goes on in various sciences, such as cognitive science, where crisis has reached the point that the very subject matter of the science, the mind, cognition, is no longer a confident object for that science, it appears illusory. Rather than wonder that beings are, from cognitive science to quantum mechanics, when scientists can bear to think about the implications for reality of their heavily mathematized theories, we find dismay that precisely at the most fundamental level, at the fundament itself, you might say, nothing properly is. Matter proves to be at base non-material, energy appears to be less than energetic. The nothing itself proves to be not a simple nothing, but a nothing in unmediated tension, and everything is simply nothing mediated into a lower state of tension, or energy. Or as Žižek puts it, “Less than” Nothing.

Religion goes on as well, indeed becomes more totalizing and the demand to believe more demanding, precisely when an admission that there is a crisis of religiosity (providing that crisis is posited as ‘over there’ in some sense, not ‘here’) has become so commonplace as to be unremarkable. Europe is often the ‘over there’ for religious crisis, both in the Americas and in Asia. The insistence on teaching evolutionary theory as totalizing truth goes on (along with the doomed from the start attempt to explain virtually everything via said theory), and becomes more and more vehement, precisely when two of the most famous atheists in modern philosophy have thrown up their hands specifically over the limitations of current theory, in one case embracing a modified creationism, in the other a naturalistic teleology that makes both consciousness and reason irreducible, which while retaining the appearance of naturalistic atheism makes that appearance extremely questionable (what name can you give to a rational consciousness that is a priori to reality?).

Most tellingly the phrase ‘identity crisis’ has become commonplace, when not simply the common man but psychology itself has no proper definition for ‘identity’. Although ‘self-identity’ appears to be the implicit meaning, it is no more defined than ‘identity’ in general. And at this point we hit full circle with cognition and therefore self itself appearing illusory to many cognitive scientists.

It raises the question as to whether the paranoia is properly paranoia or not, rather like the old joke that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being followed.

If the crisis, far from being ‘not fundamental’ is in the fundament of each of these areas of experience, that is, in their ground, and far from being ‘very temporary’ is in danger of becoming the permanent source of new superstition due to our inability to face it as crisis, then we have to inquire into the ground of these areas of experience. Does each of these areas have a different ground, or is the crisis of ground a shared crisis? It might seem strange for apparently antagonistic areas of experiences to share a ground, and even stranger for the crisis in both to be common to that ground, yet that is precisely the situation.

The key to this realization is simply that experience, which always means the self-aware conscious experience of a self has to ground all the areas of experience we in fact participate in, by the simple fact of them being areas of experience, is ungrounded by any commonly accepted notion of the self that undergoes such experiences. Science has no epistemological problems as long as it stays in the laboratory, and keeps the scientist himself out.

It seems we’ve disincluded what we began with though, since a financial crisis isn’t in itself an area of experience, in the sense that a science or religion is, but that appearance is itself part of the nature of the problematic self and its identity. The paranoia on the part of the government that a shared experience of the extent of the last financial crisis would in itself bring about a worse one points to crisis in social systems being an experiential matter, and thus grounded in the self that experiences both reality and itself. And the question of whether Nagel’s ‘a priori rational consciousness’ or indeed the singularity of the big bang theory constitute a self is largely the extent of the argument today between theists and atheists, since otherwise the schema of god in theism is largely the same as the schemas of the being posited as a priori to reality by the majority of atheists.

I noted above that our conception of the self is that which experiences both reality and itself. If reality is taken as reality-as-a-whole, in whatever sense one projects such, then there is an inherent contradiction, since the “and” names two things that are not separate. The entangled nature of the observational apparatus in quantum mechanics is only one demonstration of the impossibility of projecting reality as such while leaving the experience of reality out. Yet that is precisely what subjectivity, which includes scientific objectivity as an achievement of the subject, invariably attempts to do, to the point where if the subject has to be positively identified science posits essentially an extinct subject.

In the last paragraph, though, there was a shift at the very least in terminology, and since we haven’t a fully determinate notion of the self, we cannot be sure that it was in terminology only. The subject was substituted for the self, just as it was at the beginning of modernity by Descartes, without questioning what the ego, or “I” in fact is, or even whether the “I” that thinks is the same “I” that experiences that thinking, or the same “I” of whom “I” think. Although Descartes referred to thinking, what is at issue is clarified more if we use the term represented. The question was never asked as to whether the “I” that represents is at all the same as the “I” for which the representation is performed.

As it happens, representation is crucial, precisely because the “I” for which the representation is performed is what was understood already in Descartes time as the “subject”, and for a specific reason. The representation for the subject was specifically a re-presentation because it took place in a work of art. As a painter painting in one-point perspective I paint for a viewer, and in a sense I register that viewer in the painting, the viewer becomes the subject of the painting insofar as he pictures himself viewing the scene.

Brunelleschi’s experiment in one-point perspective has an interesting feature that has largely gone unremarked: the “subject” of the painting was, for Brunelleschi, not what is depicted in it, or at least, not only what is depicted. The manner in which perspective is resolved registers the undepictable subject of the painting. As undepictable, the proper subject of the painting is only registered as a location, a point in space.

Painting in correct one-point perspective (a perspective system at the time not yet formalized in theory) the baptistery and piazza outside the duomo in Florence as they looked from a place inside the cathedral’s door, he placed a pin-hole at the center of his panel. In order to complete Brunelleschi’s experiment, the viewer was to stand inside the duomo at the very position from which the work had been painted. Holding a small mirror, he was to gaze through the pinhole, jockeying the mirror into such a position that it reflected the scene on the panel in perfect continuity with the actual scene that extended out visually from the mirror’s edge. The picture in the mirror and the scene beyond its border blended into a single image. The “miracle” about which Manetti, Vasari and others later wrote lay precisely in the way that the represented and real scenes blended – that the actual piazza appeared as a continuation of the space of the panel’s representation. In The Origin of Perspective, Hubert Damisch has argued compellingly that the demonstration here concerns the relationship between perspectival space and subjectivity (Damisch 1994, p. 121). While Brunelleschi’s accomplishment in this panel clearly belongs to a history of, if you like, “smoke and mirrors,” of quasi-magical perspectival effects, that both predates and outlasts it, the form that he chose here for his trick bears thought. Why force his viewer to hold this awkward small mirror when Brunelleschi might have dispensed with the pinhole and the mirror, having the viewer look, from the privileged “viewpoint,” directly at the panel superimposed on the scene? Why not look at the painting instead of through it? Such a technology would have been simpler and would also have demonstrated the “blending” of representation and visual space just as well as the preferred scheme.

Cutting the viewing hole in the painting precisely at the vanishing point collapses two representational functions, but in each of these, the effect of the pinhole and the mirror is to underscore the “subjective” nature of pictorial representation. On the one hand, a line perpendicular to the picture-plane behind the peep-hole itself contains the so-called “viewpoint” around whose symmetrical simulacrum in the painting the geometries of the representation are organized: otherwise put, jockeying the mirror allows Brunelleschi to demonstrate that the view represented is specific to a chosen viewpoint, that it is a representation for a viewer, and to that extent of a viewer. You picture your “self” in picturing where you are in relationship to the painted scene.

Brockelman, Thomas (2011-11-03). Zizek and Heidegger: The Question Concerning Techno-Capitalism


Thus, the “I” that represents and the subject for whom the representation is performed were from the beginning different. In his later works Lacan separated ‘je’ (I-subject) from ‘moi’ (me-ego), not as different entities, but as a non-entity versus an entity. The subject is what must be assumed to have been subtracted from every representation, including any representation of something as-a-whole.

Yet every change is always a change to something that was itself a change, there is no origin in the sense of something that can somehow ‘get behind’ change, as there is no mood one can point to ‘behind’ a change in mood. The “I” which represents, judges, thinks, as far back as the discussion regarding it in Plato, was never identical with the self. Plato regarded it as the measuring facility, the Kairos that measures the appropriate measure, not simply in the mathematical sense but in all the senses we use the term measured, such as a measured emotional response. Subjectivity is what allows for situational ethical judgment because the subject locates the judgment. It is a judgment about the situation from precisely here. But as precisely not me which is under consideration as the self, represented to itself, but that which represents the self to itself, and thus remains outside representation, only existing as the precondition for any representation at all, the subject can only be posited as a subject not there, an extinct subject. The flat, perspectival space of Newtonian physics depends on an impossibility, something required yet always already subtracted from reality-as-a-whole. Quantum mechanics names this something that must be part of the setup of an observation but cannot itself be observed the apparatus. What can be observed is dependent on the apparatus as what cannot be observed. This is not only true at the quantum level, it simply becomes extremely apparent at an extreme of the limits of observability. In the most every day, simple measurement observation with a ruler one cannot simultaneously measure the ruler.

In any event, the substitution of the subject for the self and vice versa without the recognition that they are not identical is a problem, and that problem is intrinsically one of identity. It’s of course not the case that all the issues with identity, self, and self-identity are the result of a Cartesian abstraction, or its effects on modern science, or even the common misunderstanding that Descartes himself fell into, but the commonality of the misunderstanding and the extent of its effects points to the same issue with the ground of experience that we suggested at the beginning. Descartes’ mistake, despite its continuation in the basic ideas of most of the modern sciences, is still merely a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

Kairos has another meaning in ancient Greek, as the appropriate or fitting measure it is also the term for currency. As the measure, currency itself cannot be measured. The touchstone, as the technology that enabled trust in currency, does not measure the currency except against another currency, originally that of a weight of the pure metal as opposed to the reduced amount of the pure metal in the minted coin. It can be easily seen that attempts to regulate the value of currency, such as the gold standard, are inevitably doomed to failure, because the value of each becomes reflexive. If the market valuation of gold increases a country using the gold standard can increase the amount of currency, yet there has been no change in available goods, which can only lead to a devaluation of the currency, precisely what the gold standard is intended to prevent. Yet fiat currency continues to be blamed when events such as those in 2007 / 2008 occur, indicating that not only do we not understand Kairos in Plato’s usage, we do not understand the target of the more common meaning of the term. Our relation to Kairos, whether the Kairos of ethical, scientific, artistic or financial judgment, is primarily a relation of superstition.




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