Stirner’s Subject

For many decades the words “egoism,” “individualism,” and “nihilism,” have been used as synonyms by anarchists. This permits a fixing of the concept governing Max Stirner’s book „Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum“. These fixations determine in advance our reading of the text by accenting those words which have carried unfortunate connotations for so many decades, thus leading us to believe that there may be some unitary and transparent self at the foundation of Stirner’s Egoist thinking. This misreading is no different from the one which has cursed Cartesian philosophy for so many years, and which has permitted, quite paradoxically, a thinking which has nothing to say about existence. I state this without waiting another moment: these scholars do not think, and ought therefore not exist.

We must emphasize the nihilist moment in Stirner’s work so as to provide a counter-point to the Cartesian boogeyman erected by enemies of thought. Stirner’s self is not really the ego misleadingly translated from Freud’s work. Rather, it is the subject as we understand it in the Lacanian tradition. Stirner’s subject, his creative nothing, is grounded on something absent or missing from the normative abstractions governing daily life. It is a subject which forces its way into the appearances of the world – it makes room for itself in the world, by forcing itself as truth. It is a subject based on nothing which, at its creative moment, forces itself in opposition to the deceptive process of suturing. Stirner reminds us that we must not avoid acknowledging the subject as this creative element missing from symbolic life. Put differently, at the heart of all appearances, spooks, normative abstractions, and so on, there stands something which can not be contained or captured, something which exceeds all attempts to suture it, and something which is, from the standpoint of the world of comforting appearances, properly traumatic.

Stirner concludes his book with the radical forcing of the subject:

They say of God, “Names name thee not.” That holds good of me: no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me; they are only names. […] In the unique one the owner himself returns into his creative nothing, of which he is born. Every higher essence above me, be it God, be it man, weakens the feeling of my uniqueness, and pales only before the sun of this consciousness. If I set my affair on myself, the unique one, then my concern rests on its transitory, mortal creator, who consumes himself, and I may say: All things are nothing to me.

NOTES – LACAN’S SEMINAR ON ANXIETY (X): 12 JUNE 1963

Lacan has been demonstrating that anxiety resides, essentially on the side of the Other, where the other is lacking, perhaps even as a signal that something is lacking there. However, we know by now that the Other is not the Other as such, at least not at the level of anxiety, it is much rather the Other as it is in its relation to the Subject. Anxiety is there where the desire of the Other is a question. So this means that desire, which is always desire of the Other, opens up at some level to anxiety, at those times when the question surfaces as such. At least, I think this is the correct interpretation.

Desire is in a sense revealed by anxiety, precisely because anxiety is that which does not deceive. We can be sure that we are not deceived when anxiety is in the picture. We also know – at least, we presume that we know since this was not articulated in any depth during the last two years (1962-3) of classes – that the Other is the place of the signifier. We discussed in previous classes that, quite obviously, we are not born with language, it comes from some place, it is transferred from the Other. So, we get our signifiers from the Other and, when this comes through to us, we become barred-subjects, subjects barred into the signifier to signifier relation. At this point I want to be clear about what Lacan seems to mean by the barred-subject. It is not that the subject is somehow hiding behind signifiers, or that anything at all is hiding behind the signifiers, it is that the subject is nothing but this signifier to signifier relation, at least at a certain level. Desire, object a as the object cause of desire, is a gap in the signifier to signifier relation, a residue, it is what is left over after the subject becomes caught into this signifier to signifier relation.

When anxiety appears, at the level of object a, from the position of the barred-subject, that is, through the matheme of fantasy $<>a, it does so, then, necessarily, in some relation to the desire of the Other – precisely because it comes after, in some sense, subjectification to the bar. This is why Lacan always places the object a on the side of the big Other. The object a is dependent upon the subject vis-a-vis the big Other, it is at the intermediary position, in between, to some extent. Thus, the object a is also, in effect, prior to the constitution of the Subject. It comes before precisely because it is on the side of the Other. This is where things could get complicated real fast. I’m going to slow down so that I don’t get lost.

The object a is also the cause of desire, it is the subject’s cause of desire inasmuch as it is caused from the Other. In other seminars Lacan will describe this, with hysterical neurosis as its support, using the formula: desire is desire of the Other. You can see that the subject’s desire is caused by something Other.

Lacan seems particularly interested in Obsessional Neurosis at this point. The emphasis on cause, with respect to object a, is crucial at the level of obsession and compulsion, as we shall see. At some level the obsessional who suffers from compulsions is confronted by anxiety at that moment when he fails to act with respect to his desire. In other words, if the compulsion concerns checking that the stove is shut off, or that the front door is in fact locked, then anxiety sets in when he fails to check. It is his own inability to act that causes obsession, in this case. You can see here that it is when the Other – the message from the Other – is not addressed that the possibility of its lack sets in, the possibility of anxiety as such.

The obsessional must be brought to recognize that that’s how it works. It is schematic, it is a mechanism, the machine perhaps, that he must come to understand. Thus, the crucial first step of analysis consists of simply having the obsessional realize at some level that there is such a thing as an unconscious, at the level of a system, at the level of the machine, at the level of formulae, topology, whatever. The obsessional is quite often even aware of his symptoms, but even here he might fail to address them, to subjectify them. There is only one way through and it is to “grab the symptom by the ears […] [that is, it is to grab] the unassimilated side of the symptom, unassimilated by the subject, [by the ears.” You grab him, you force him to see that this is how it works. At some level, what you are really doing is demonstrating that there’s a cause behind this. This there’s a cause behind this is enough to open up the point at which he can in fact open himself up to his pact with the Other.

Thus, many times the wrong move is to spell out what the problem is, to articulate it, put it into words, come to understand it, and so on. More often, I believe, the more effective move is to merely bring others (as well as oneself) to recognize the fact that, as Lacan puts it, there’s a cause behind this. This is why the technique of free association is not enough with obsessionals. Learning to speak, fully, is, in this conception, essential. But learning to speak is much more difficult for the obsessional. Free speech, despite what early Brauer and Freud believed, is never anything like free for the obsessional. Imagine, for example, these rap superstars who produce videos of themselves on youtube, freestyling. We all know that those lines are rehearsed, that there are certain formulae guiding the process of their speech. It is precisely the same in the clinic. It is not enough to simply verbalize, if the cause doesn’t slip it. This is not how it works, there is a cause behind all of this. The obsessional needs to recognize that the unconscious works, even while all his postures aim to demonstrate this possibility. This is why we need to bring out the object a relation as cause of desire.

We must take seriously the question of cause. The point is that causality does exist. And we need to begin to think about it in terms of what Lacan calls his “transcendental ethics”. We know that space is not an a priori sense perception. Our understanding or intuition concerning space develops. It is not as simple as the point that subjective experience is inside and thing-in-itself is outside. Space is a part of the real, in all cases, for Lacan. At this point, I think Lacan’s argument is itself limited. The ontological twists he develops here with respect to the mobius-strip and the cross-cap are precisely on the side of the subject, ultimately. It is psychical, at base. Yet, there is another dimension here which is per-embryonic, which is before the subject, and which generates the very embryonic structure which comes to define the life of desire. In any case, the twisting of the strip is itself a way of organizing life lodged in real space, but what about real space lodged within life? This is not even a question. Three dimensional space – unlike, in many ways, the two dimensional space of the Eulerian model – allows us to understand the presence of desire at the scopic level, in fantasy.

Cause can not be grasphed. It evades, withdraws, and so on. And yet everything is caused. Cause is also quite literally a question. Lacan was explicit about this, even if he didn’t dwell on it. Cause is a question. Is it, then, perhaps, the question that being – jouissance – asks? At this point Lacan makes a number of distinctions:

  1. Cause = object cause, object a
  2. Effect = desire (but there is nothing effectuated about desire)
  3. Result = Symptom (result of a question, not the effect of a question)

I can’t tell you what headaches this gave me trying to figure out – even if I’ve only dedicated a few moments to it. I’m still somewhat at a loss. We see three distinctions: cause, effect, and result. The object a is literally the cause of desire, the support of desire and fantasy. And yet it is also ungraspable, unknowable, and yet entirely causal. Desire is the effect of the object a, but it is not “effectuated” – which must mean that it is not forced. There is no strict forcing of desire by the cause of desire. There is something ungraspable and so there is a way of moving around in relation to this ungraspable cause. Finally, result is the symptom. I wonder if this means that the symptom is the question itself, the question asked as a result of the effect of the cause. This makes some sense for me so I’m going to roll with it. I’m going to, for now – until I see evidence to the contrary – presume that symptom relates to the question, desire to the fantasy, and object a to the ungraspable cause. The cause itself introduces a gap in the effect, and produces a result which, eventually, can fade away. It fades away because new questions get asked. Take, for example, the case of science. In science we have a cause of desire which effects something and results in a question. We ask the question – obtain some progress – and the question fades away precisely because the gap gets filled in. We obtain an answer for the cause. Put differently, whenever we make a discovery in the field of science we often forget to ask about waht it was that drove us to ask that question in the first place. Why do we care about the nature of light, for example? Why was the Atom Bomb discovered? What drove Einstein to his famous formula of relativity? Lacan puts it like this: “the cause vanishes into thin air – what we didn’t know vanishes into thin air.”

Now, we can latch onto some more diagrams. I can’t reproduce them here due to limitations of the medium but I will try to describe them. Actually, I will produce them using symbols, where parentheses should be taken for circles. We have five levels. I’ll put them all here right away:

  1. (S (a) barred-A)
  2. (a ($) barred-A)
  3. (M (-phi) W)
  4. (S (x) +phi)
  5. NOT PRESENTED YET

Lacan describes these are five “levels” in the constitution of the a in the relation between S and A. In the first operation, we can see, the Subject is in some relation to the barred-Other. The Subject is not barred here, for some reason. He is the mythical subject, or, at least, he must be. The Other is split open, and split open to reveal the lack, the signal of anxiety. And this lack, this object a, is transferred, or so it seems, onto the Subject. So the subject is, thus, split between himself as mythical subject and himself as desire of the Other. In this sense, he is in need in the Other. The subject has his support in the Other, and at the level of the Other. His desire is literally the desire of the Other. It is the oral dimension.

In the second phase, the object a is split from the Other entirely and what is between is the barred-subject. There is a passage from the S into $, moving from left to right, from mythical subject to its operation on the Other, whereby the subject enters the world of the signifier. Here, via the signifier, there is demand in the Other. There is a concern here with the remainder in the Other’s demand, that which is left over from the demand. I suppose this is why the object a is in the place of the mythical subject. Who knows.

The third level is the phallic dimension. Lacan brings us back to his discussion of the relation between the sexes, constituted as it is by the minus-phi. What we are dealing here is always with imposture and masquerade, with the lack of an object, and with how one relates to this lack. At this level it is not demand but jouissance in the Other which matters. This is the level of true castration anxiety.

The fourth level concerns the eye. It seems to be the most “mature” level, in a sense. The subject is confronted with fantasy, the x from early in the year, and it is the might in the Other which matters. The subject is here doomed toward nonrecognition. I presume that Lacan will go over all of these again very soon, because he does not spell them out in much detail.

The final operation concerns the desire of the Other in its purest form. We see it in obsession, where anxiety is at the fore. As I wrote at the beginning of this blog, the obsessional is always repressing the desire of the Other. Object a is thus reduced to angst, to anxiety. And through this reduction the obsessional must move toward Demand, as a cover for anxiety. The obsessional requires authorization – the other needs to demand him to do something. You can imagine, then, that, for example, someone writing a blog, collecting notes, about the 10th seminar of Lacan’s, who wanted to exit the stage, required a certain somebody, or a certain number of somebodies, to demand that he continue. The Other has to ask him to do something.

The obsessional covers over the desire of the Other by means of the demand of the Other. The object a is situated here at the anal level – at the level where the gift, excrement, must be demanded of him. Here it is, my shit – for you. And so this opens up the field of anal anxiety. Anal anxiety which, I wonder, must have some relation, lets hope not in its psychotic dimension, to fear and trembling, to panic

Scribbles, about Alenka Zupancic’s Newest Work

Alenka Zupancic’s newest work aims to pursue something like a “philosophy” or “ontology” of sexuality within Lacanian/Freudian psychoanalysis. Some things:

(1) A brilliant/clear response to those who claim that Freudian sexuality reduces all problems to the answer of sexuality. On the contrary, Zupancic notes that Freud’s position is not that sexuality is the answer to all problems but that sexuality is itself the problem for all answers. Freud did not normalize sexuality but rather posed it as the question.

(2) Zupancic notes the primordial negativity of sexuality (in other words, she claims that sexuality is itself the primordial negation). This is a negation which is without substance but not, for that matter, is it “nothing”. She tells the following joke (who told this one first, Zizek or Zupancic?): a man goes into a cafe and asks the waiter for a cup of coffee, without cream. The waiter goes away, but returns again: “I’m sorry sir, we don’t have any cream. We have milk though. Would you like your coffee without milk instead?” The joke makes a serious point, the negativity is not nothing – it really matters.

(3) Zupancic made a point about the stage through which the onset of sexuality is typically first made apparent in infantile psychical development: when the question is asked: “where did I [where do children/babies] come from?” The child is then confronted with a number of answers, all of which are unsatisfactory. So, rather than positive knowledge, the child’s sexuality, as a negation, is introduced.

(4) I note the phrase “unsatisfactory” in the previous paragraph. It is hysterics whose desire remains unsatisfied. For this reason, I can not help but wonder why, in an hour-long presentation on sexuality, she did not once describe the differences that occur across the clinical structures (and thus, as it were, between the two central neuroses: feminine and masculine). For this reason, it seems to me, she reduces sexuality to the feminine type.

(5) Sexuality was often described as a ‘stumbling block’. I like this phrase, I heard it first from Bruce Fink. But for Bruce Fink it is the Master Signifier, S1, which is the stumbling block. In any case, it seemed to me that Zupancic often conflated the Real with Sexuality, as if the two were synonyms.

(6) This phrase – “stumbling block” – was picked up again by a theologian in the audience who informed us that the word in Hebrew, from the old testament (Psalms), means the same thing as “corner stone” or “foundation stone”. He noted that it was the “stumbling block” which allowed the builders to construct pieces of great architecture. What a profound point.

(7) Zupancic claims that her ontology discusses being and non-being (housed in the unconscious). At one point she intimated that her philosophy is not necessarily reduced to humans. Yet, this is precisely one of the problems with her work. It no doubt explains why she was critical of a negative theology (describing it as a theology of the death of god, improperly, which ensures that religion lives through other more permanent means). The problem is that this world of ‘constitutive lack’ exists only for special types of beings, and not even all human-beings (it is even more particular than this): neurotic beings.

Great talk, it was definitely worth the trip.

Everything You Want to Know About Kierkegaard, Badiou, and Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Arcade Fire)

Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light; Alone in the darkness, darkness of white

Unfortunately, there is a profound truth to Jodi Dean’s argument about contemporary politics. She claimed that “democracy organizes enjoyment via a multiplicity of stagings, of making oneself visible in one’s lack.” Isn’t it the case, then, that contemporary democratic politics engages in a politics of being seen. Dean continued, “Contemporary protests in the United States, whether as marches, vigils, Facebook pages, or internet petitions aim at visibility, awareness, being seen. It’s as if instead of looking at our opponents and working out ways to defeat them, we get off on imagining them looking at us.” This is an example of what, long before Dean, Kierkegaard referred to as the main characteristic of the present, reflective, age. Kierkegaard wrote that, within the present age, we all act within the public – that is, we all act within view:

Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age, a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. […] a political virtuoso might […] write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home — having spent a very pleasant evening.

This is the point – everything today which is an action appears within public view. And it is the publicity and advertisement which matters before the action, and so, by all standards, it is not an action at all. One can state this another way: the image of rebellion is what matters – and not the rebellion itself. In fact, as long as the image of rebellion lives there is, within the present age, no need for authentic rebellion. Why? Because the image is something which provides a certain degree of satisfaction, or, if we like, the image is what provides a certain type of enjoyment for us under democratic capitalism. If we are trapped in an image, it is a dark image – an image which is illuminated, that is, which is there for us to see and view, but which is nonetheless dark inasmuch as it is devoid of anything authentic or real. There is lightness in the present age, but it is not an enlightenment – it is not an illumination, it is just empty light.

It is publicity, then, which largely defines the time in which we live. So here is the darkness of the time: every time that we think we’ve found a way out of the spectacle of the present age, we seem to be recuperated ever more. Today’s most rebellious models seem to operate purely within the world of empty light. Indeed, those models which bring us the most profound hope for the future – models of alternative higher education, models of alternative distribution, models of alternative economic exchange, etc – always seem to begin from the image. Will we ever see what is on the other side of the image?

I’d Lose My Heart, If I’d Turn Away From You

I want to ask readers to pause for a moment to think about the question I just asked: will we ever see what is on the other side of the image? This is an important question. If it is true that we live during a reflective age, and if it is true that we are constantly putting the image before the act – i.e., the cart before the horse – then how is it possible to act in such a way that our actions make it through to the other side? Put differently: is it possible to have an authentic rebellion? Perhaps we need to get our bearings from something obscure, something outside of the image. And yet, once again, we are met with the problem that there is nothing outside of the image. So, we can say that that which does not live within the image does not exist within the world. There are no authentic acts within the world because there is nothing that exists outside of the world of the image.

But Alain Badiou has taught us that this is precisely where we can locate our hope. An authentic rebellion occurs when a being which does not exist within the world makes itself exist within the world. In other words, by all accounts the world in which we live denies the existence of something which is outside of it. When existence is denied by the world then it is the task of that which does not exist to make itself exist. Thus, Badiou claims that “[a]n event, a political event, a revolution, can be defined by the transformation of ‘no existence’ into ‘real existence’ in a world.” This is what Arcade Fire explains, in their own way. There is something authentic about the affirmation of the existence of something within the world which was previously thought to not exist. In other words, if an element of an object inexists in a world, then it is only minimally identical to another element of the same object. What does this mean? It means that the world in which we find ourselves measures the relationship that occurs between elements of the world. If some element is not very similar to some other element then it inexists. A revolution occurs when some element within the world which once had a minimal value – which once was not entirely similar/identical to some other element in the world – attempts to obtain a maximal value.

All of this is to state: the revolutionary subject is the one who decides not to turn his back on the affirmation of this existence. Revolutionaries – don’t lose heart!

What if the Camera Really Do Take Your Soul?

We are absolutely terrified by the camera. And yet we seem to be ever more driven toward the products of the camera. We do not like being watched, but we enjoy being watched at the same time. How do we account for this which at first appears to be a paradox? The point is that we enjoy pretending that we do not know that we are being watched. If somebody points out that we are being watched we will act shocked! “Oh no!, How can they be watching me? How dare they!?” This is all a part of the game that we play with ourselves under democratic capitalism: watch me but please don’t tell me that you are watching me. Doesn’t this explain, in part, why it is that we only seem to get angry at Facebook (as a company) when they explicitly point out that they have the right sell our photographs, demographics, etc., to companies? Moreover, does this not explain why it is that we all hate facebook and yet we are all on facebook? This is the point: we want to be hit with the flashbulb eyes, we want to be watched, and yet we do not want to be told that we are being watched.

How do we overcome all of this? It seems to me that part of the solution is to paradoxically assert the spirit of the time: “go ahead, watch me!” Arcade Fire asserts this principle so as to affirm the inexistent dimension of the photograph: “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Isn’t this the most dangerous part of the photograph, the part which affirms itself as ‘nothing’? This was the victory of modern painting – the black background behind the brutal foreground. Slavoj Zizek describes this affirmation of the nothing of modern art as the “space for thinking.”

When Love is Gone, Where Does it Go?

All of this makes up a nice equation for thinking about revolutionary philosophy. We began with a question about the image and moved on to ask if an authentic act is even possible today. Is it possible to see something other than the image? We then asked if, within the inexistent darkness of the image we can begin to see a new light, a new love, a new heart. Finally, we ask a question about love and fidelity. If I ask you, as a revolutionary, not to lose heart, what I really mean is: did you turn away from the event which provoked you? Surely, there is a lot of pain involved when we remain on the path of the affirmation of the inexistent. It could even imply the loss of love. Many revolutionaries are forced to give up lasting relationships with their friends and families. The point is that we are forced to finally ask a question about love, about fidelity to the revolutionary event.

Traditionally, within Lacanian psychoanalysis, we conflate love with the transference. In other words, love is typically thought of as love for the image. It is a false type of love. Arcade Fire asks if it is possible that there is life after love-transference. In the clinical situation it is very often after much screaming and shouting, after much hatred – which is itself a form of love, that the analysand can finally ask the question: “when love is gone, where does it go?” This is the question we must now ask ourselves: is it possible to reinvent the concept of love? Is it possible that there are many versions of love, of which the love of the image is only one. Along the way, we must always be wary of the love of the image – we must always recognize that there are different modalities of love.

I Know Your Living in my Mind

There is a profound novelty in coming to understand the truth of one’s love. We should ask ourselves if we are really in love with the revolutionary situation, our sexual partners, our families, and so on, or if we are in love with the image of the revolutionary situation, and so on. Arcade Fire urges us to find the limit of the old modality of love, to awaken the desire for a new season of love. If we can finally come to grasp the love we have for the image then we can also finally prepare ourselves for the spring.

The Critique of Critique: Critical Theory as a New Access to the Real

Note: I, Duane Rousselle, have selected the title for this transcription of a talk that Alain Badiou gave to students of the Global Center for Advanced Studies on the morning of January the 8th, 2014. I have taken some minor liberties in my transcription so as to facilitate better comprehension. Alternatively, the reader may choose to watch the lecture rather than read it. This can be done by clicking on the following link: Alain Badiou, Live at GCAS.

The Critique of Critique: Critical Theory as a New Access to the Real

By Alain Badiou

The word “critique” has a very long history. In the old language, we have the word “krinein(κριτική)* and the meaning of “krinein” (κριτική) was ‘to sort, or to separate, something which is good from something which is bad.’ So there is always a relationship between the idea of “critique” and the idea of “judgement”; judgement concerning very different things; judgments concerning the true and the false, concerning the good and the bad, concerning what is appropriate and what is not, and so on. So, the philosophical history of the word “critique” is also the history of that sort of mental activity which consists of the separation between two values. Maybe the clearest example of critical enquiry is with Plato whom made the fundamental distinction between opinion and knowledge, and, between what is without philosophical interest and what is inside of the field of philosophical interest.

This is a very important point: critique is not reducible to a purely negative activity. Very often the word “critique” has a close relationship to something like negativity, and finally to a sort of skepticism. (Skepticism, in the sense of a purely negative conclusion or a negative activity.) But this is not exactly the meaning of the word “critique”. We must say that critique always has a negative part which is the negative determination of some activity, some mental disposition, or some orientation of thinking. But there is also always something which is good, which is the result of the separation between two forms of thinking, of knowledge, and so on.

As you know, another meaning of “critique” has a close relationship to the work of Immanuel Kant (in The Critique of Pure Reason, and so on). And so, it is very important for us to clearly understand the meaning of “critique” in the work of Kant. I think we can say something like this: with Kant, critique is not exactly the pure separation between what is true and what is false, it is more about the idea of a limit. Kant’s role was to determine the limit of pure reason, the limit of knowledge. So, the separation is not exactly between something true and something false but much more between what is possible and what is impossible. It is different from the original sense of the word “critique”. We have now passed from the idea of separation, the distinction between what is true and what is false, between opinion and clear knowledge, and so on, toward something of a different nature which is the knowledge of what is possible for human knowledge. And I think that this sort of transformation of the word “critique” is also the transformation of the function of negativity within knowledge itself.

For Kant, finally, the negative function of “critique” was to determine that something is impossible for human knowledge, that something can not be really known by humanity. And this is the idea of the limit. It is something like a radical critique of what Kant names dogmatism. Dogmatism is in some sense classical metaphysics. There was something in Kant which formed the real beginning of what I can name the modern tradition. The modern tradition is different from the old fashion of philosophy, under the name of metaphysics (when we are in the Heideggerian style), dogmatism (when we are in the classical style), and nonsense (when we in Wittgenstein’s style). But in any case, with Kant, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, we have the idea of something completely inappropriate, something obscure, and finally, with no value concerning knowledge within a large part of the philosophical tradition. And with the negative designation, under the name of dogmatism, nonsense, or metaphysics. A large project of human thinking is finished. Critics say something like that. The idea of critique is to transform the historical idea of something like the end of a philosophical style.

This transformation is very important because if critique in a primitive sense is the exercise of practical and theoretical separation between true and false, opinions and truth, and so on, then practically all philosophers must admit that activity is in some sense a metaphysical one. Because inside metaphysics, inside skepticism, inside critical theory, and so on, we have always some separation between that which is true and that which is false, or truth and accident, and so on. There is no thinking without the work of separation. But if critique takes the modern meaning of something which is historically accomplished or historically finished and if the meaning is that philosophy must accept the limit of its proper activity, then this is something different. It is something different because it is not a general characteristic of philosophical activity, but it is a philosophical proposition. And a philosophical proposition can be discussed and can be refused, and so on. At this point I can say something like that.

We have two meanings of critique. First, in some sense a weak meaning: which is only the activity of separation between what is possible within philosophy and what is outside the world of philosophy. And, in this case, the point is only what is the extension, the dimension, of negativity. We can begin from the Platonic position, which is that we can, after a good critique, we can have an idea of Truth, toward the skeptical position, which is that we have no idea of Truth. But in any case, the separation is the point and the separation is active and affirmative, finally, in the case of Plato, and the separation is completely negative in the sense of skepticism. It is the classical meaning of critique, if you want. But now, in the modern time we have a strong meaning of critique which is the idea that a large part of philosophy, the destiny of philosophy, must be determined as something which is finished, something which is historically finished.

We can say some words about the latter position [about the strong modern meaning of critique]. I am in some sense against the modern meaning of “critique” if this modern meaning is a judgement concerning the complete history of philosophy. I don’t agree with the idea that after some centuries of dogmatic power [in philosophy] we are now in the field of “critical” possibility and that we know the limits of reason. And, why? It is because I think that in fact we can not know something that limits reason. So it’s my critique of critique. We can not know the limit of reason because human reason is in some sense the infinite dimension of our existence. And “infinite” must be understood in the strong sense. “Infinite” means that we can not know precisely the limit of what we can know, of what we can understand, and so on. And so I think the true modern idea of critique, on the contrary, is to assume that we can not understand, we can not have a clear idea, of what is an “end” or a “limit” of reason.

My position is contrary to the modern sense of critique as the determination of something impossible. Why? On this point, I am Lacanian. I think that the impossible is precisely the name of the Real. So when we say, “okay, I know the limits of reason, I know what is impossible for reason to know,” and so on, I am saying, finally, “I am not able to understand the Real at all.” After all, this is the position of Kant: that being-as-such and the Thing-as-such, can not be known, precisely. Maybe it concerns the field of practical reason, but in the field of knowledge we can not know it. And so there is a close relationship between Kant and Lacan on the topic of the Real; the Real, precisely as being-as-being [being qua being], being-as-such, can not be known, and so it is a point of impossibility. The Real is also something impossible. That’s a conclusion. It’s not that it is completely impossible to have access to the impossible. We can perfectly have the conclusion that something of the Real can be known under the condition of a displacement concerning the limitations of possibility and impossibility. Part of what is impossible can be known if the separation between what is impossible and what is possible changes. And, it is my conception, basically, that something which satisfies the limit between impossibility and possibility opens a new access to the Real as such.

Finally in that sort of context, what is the possible definition of something like “critical theory”? The definition would be something like this: “critical theory” is the opening up of the new possibility to think the Real through the possible modification of the separation between what is possible and what is impossible. In some sense, the goal of “critical theory” is always to know, to have an understanding (to have a new form of understanding), of what is impossible to know. So it is something which accepts the Kantian idea concerning the relationship between the Real and the impossible. That is the Lacanian part. To be on the side of Kant and also on the side of Lacan is precisely on the point of this close relationship to the Real. Although we can accept all of that, the conclusion concerning critical activity is that the field of critical activity is always to work at the limit of the possible and the impossible with the idea that this limit is not a stable limit, it is a limit which in some sense can be modified, can be transformed.

The work of critical thinking is precisely the work on this limit. So, as a retroactive conclusion, my vision is first to accept the classical meaning of “critique”: “critique” is always a question of separation and so of a limit between, classically, the good and the evil, and so on. I also accept the modern meaning of “critique”: that is the meaning given by Kant, which is that the question of the limit is the question of the limit between the possible and the impossible. But my conclusion is not a negative position, my conclusion is an affirmative one. That is, that we can open up a new access to the transformation of the limit itself. So, it is not only the activity of the defining of the limit but the activity of the change of the limit itself.

* Thanks to Simon Gros for providing this more correct Greek version of the word.