If We Can’t Go Back Then We Have to Overcome, Research Time, 19/12/2017

It’s a wistful book, What Is Philosophy?. There aren’t too many philosophy books that you can call wistful. But Gilles has his moments.

There's a moment about halfway through the book when Deleuze wonders whether the uniquely vibrant spirit of Hellenic culture could emerge in human communities again. The Hellenes lived with convivial hearts, where your ambition was to get rich enough to spend it all, leading your society through a jovial parliament of friendly, back-slapping rivals. Can it return?

There was once a young man who was very strong, with a good
heart, but who could not express himself in words. He could dream
about terrors that were coming to his people. Death and terror.
He wanted to warn them – he had to warn them.
Of course it can’t, because we live in a contingent universe where nothing can return exactly as it once was. But you can ask whether a human society can produce a similar cultural balance of brotherhood, ego, and intelligence.

But that spirit can’t return. Deleuze knows it. The question is why. When you ask why, you’re asking for reasons. Now, reasons are different from causes. A cause is a question of how, not why, but that’s a matter for semantics.

The distinction between why and how can help work out the difference between a reason and a cause.

Causes bring new processes about – they’re production processes. The universe being as complex as it is, nothing really has only one cause. That we ever thought causality worked that way was a matter of cultural stupidity – Western culture understood causality with images of billiard balls and clocks.

Compared to our contemporary understanding of complex systems – the sciences of turbulence, chance, and contingency – the West at the beginning of the imperialist era were worse than blind. They were foolish. Especially since the best ancient philosophical tradition that could help Westerners was about to get hit with a shotgun blast of colonialism.

But I’m digressing a little. Causes refer to the field of dynamic material processes whose activity constitutes the universe. Reasons refer to conditions – What about the world has to change to make a particular event more or less likely? Possible or impossible?

They were his friends, his family. He had to warn them, make plans,
do something to protect themselves from the coming horror. But he
could not speak well. He could only speak from his heart, not from
his mind. All he could say was, "The horror! It is coming!"
It’s what Bertrand Russell called the difference that makes a difference. Punny Brit bastard.

But yes, the question why hunts down possibility conditions, what kind of world there has to be for something to happen. So what’s changed possibility conditions so radically that the boisterous friendships of Hellenic culture can’t emerge in a new context?

Capitalism is one. The Hellenes never had to deal with the universal social solvent. Pick your flavour of capitalism. Industrial capitalism is a system whose products include mass manufacturing, revolutions in medical and communication technology, and pollution so thick and omnipresent that it’ll likely kill us all.

But the more relevant aspect of capitalism is the venture finance capitalism that I talked about yesterday – the one that converts the profit motive into billion-dollar piracy. Yet capitalism itself has that spark of freedom at the heart of all its processes – creativity in destruction. You have to raze to build again, even if the fires are horrifying.

No, Deleuze picks a worse fire than capitalism. However terrible the effects of unrestrained capitalist desire are, there remains a liberatory force in the structure of its system.

Held back from piracy and governed with heart, capitalism can lay the conditions for a free society – it’s the liberal vision of freedom. Maybe the liberal vision has become impossible now, but it could still have been – at least in its ideal, conceptual, philosophical form – a flight to freedom on many vectors.

Even for us, who think we're so smart and articulate, we find it tough
to talk about the real horror. We can make films, paint amazing
images of terror and its looming face. But look into the abyss itself
and it will do more than stare back. The abyss will make you as
empty as it is. Unless there's a friend to hold you back from the
ethical solvent of the desire for horror.
No, Deleuze is thinking of the Holocaust. We’ve become a people – humanity, that is – who kills by the millions. Worse than that, we’ve come to find it ordinary. Even worse than that – as if it could get worse – we’ve come to find it fun. It’s something we want, a desire for genocide. Mass murder has become a path to personal and community fulfillment.

Not that this happens very often. Anytime is too often, but there are rarely more than a few active genocides happening at a time. Most of them are slow matters of cultural displacement. This century, things are getting more terrifyingly frequent.

But a crime like the systematic murder and displacement of millions has become a matter of course. An ordinary thing. People run on this as a campaign platform in elections, win, then do it.

Can we be convivial friends in such a world? Deleuze doesn’t think we can, and I don’t think so either. Consider the magnitude of the destruction we bring on each other every day. Friends can’t smile and joke when faced with that kind of knowledge.

Philosophy in a culture where this horrific violence has become so ordinary can’t be so jocular or congenial. Philosophy for humans in the 21st century emerges from the tears of friends consoling each other over terrible losses, wondering how and why such things could happen.

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