Sunday, February 7, 2010

Conor Cunningham on the Holocaust of Modern Knowledge

"Every description literally takes the place of that which it describes; reducing it to nothing, except the formal difference of an epistemic description…It is possible to argue that systemic erasure is the basis of modern knowledge—in all its postmodern guises. For the moment let us tentatively, yet somewhat insufficiently, endeavor to develop an understanding of this disappearance; a disappearance referred to as a ‘holocaust,’ because every being which falls under such description is lost, and every trace erased.

What we may begin to realize is that the form of nihilism’s discourse is complicit with a certain ‘holocaust.’ It will speak a ‘holocaust.’ But how can one speak a holocaust? We do so if when we speak, something (or someone) disappears, or if our speech is predicated only on the back of such an erasure. We have to think of those who are ‘too many to have disappeared.’ They must have been made to disappear; we may be able to discern three noticeable moments in modern discourse which encourage the speaking of a ‘holocaust.’

The first moment is when the systemic description effects a disappearance. This is accomplished by placing what is described outside the divine mind, rendering it ontologically neutral—a given rather than a gift. The notion of a given allows for the invention of such neutrality. That which ‘is’ becomes structurally amenable to experimentation, dissection, indefinite epistemic investigation. For the first time there is something which can render the idea of detached, de-eroticized, study intelligible. There is now an object which is itself neutral, the structural prerequisite for ‘objectivity.’ This ‘holocaust’ is the a priori of modern knowledge. The second moment comes when modern discourse describes the initial disappearance, the first moment. Consequently, the first moment, the event of disappearance, disappears. Modernity will ask us ‘what can it mean to disappear’? Any ‘hole’ is filled up, every trace erased.

More obviously, but with greater caution and difficulty, we see modern discourse describe the disappearance of a ‘number-too-great’ to disappear, in terms that are completely neutral. It is unable to describe this dia¬-bolic (meaning to take apart) event in a way that is different from its description of the aforementioned leaf. This loss of countless lives can only be described in neutral terms, however emotionally. But discourse is predicated on a nothing to which every entity is reduced.

Our knowledge of a ‘holocaust’ causes that ‘holocaust’ to disappear (like leaves from a tree in a garden fire: kaustos). We see the disappearance of a ‘holocaust’ as it is erased by its passage through the corridors of modern description: sociology, psychology, biology, chemisty, physics, and so on. All these discourses speak its disappearance. ‘Holocaust,’ ice-cream, there can be no difference except that of epistemic difference, which is but formal. Both must be reducible to nothing; the very possibility of modern discourse hangs on it. In this sense all ‘holocausts’ are modern. The structures, substructures, molecules and the molecular all carry away the ‘substance’ of every being and of the whole (holos) of being.

The third moment comes upon the first two. We see modernity cause all that is described to disappear, then we see this disappearance disappear. In this way a loss of life, and a loss of death is witnessed. It is here that we see the last moment. If we think of a specific holocaust, the historical loss of six million Jews during the Second World War, we see that the National Socialist description of the Jews took away their lives and took away their deaths. For those who were killed were exterminated, liquidated, in the name of solutions. The Jews lose their lives because they have already lost their deaths. For it is this loss of death that allows the Nazis to ‘remove’ the Jews. That is to say, if the Jews lose their deaths then the Nazis, by taking their lives, do not murder. This knowledge, that is National Socialism, will, in taking away life, take away the possibility of losing that life (death becomes wholly naturalized). This must be the case so that there is no loss in terms of negation. In this way National Socialism emulates the ‘form’ of nihilistic discourse. There is nothing and not even that. There is an absence and an absence from absence. (This is the form Nietzsche’s joyous nihilism took.) So we will not have a lack which could allow the imputation of metaphysical significance.

The life that is lost is always lost before its death. They who lose their life are already lost in terms of epistemic description. When their life is ‘physically’ lost it is unable to stop the disappearance of that life, and the death of that life. So the living-dead are always unable to die; death is taken away from them before their life, in order that their life can be made to disappear without trace and without ‘loss’. Thus, the living are described in the same manner as the dead. Modern discourse cannot, it seems, discriminate between them.

In some sense, it takes a loss of life and a loss of death to engender ‘holocaust’. For it is this which forbids the registration of any significance—any significant difference between life and death. ‘Modern’ description has no ability to speak differently about lost lives, because before any physical event ‘dissolution’ has already begun to occur (all that remains is for the bodies to be swept away). The preparation is carefully carried out so that a ‘nonoccurrence’ can occur.

The fundamental and foundational neutrality in modern discourse is here extremely noticeable. Its inability to speak significantly, to speak ‘real’ difference, carries all peoples and persons away. In ‘modern’ death there are no people, no one dies. Here we see the de-differentiating effect of nihilism. Bodies come apart as different discourses carry limbs away. This cool epistemic intelligibility of a Dionysian frenzy fashions whole systems of explanatory description."

from Conor Cunningham's Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology


Joshua Lore said...

This piece is very intriguing to me because it touches on many question's and idea's that have been of real interest to myself, especially over the past year. I'm always interested to see what is going on in someone's mind when they post or copy a piece of text like this. How would you take it to task? What do you feel is essential about it, in the immediate sense?

I think instantly of Heidegger's notion of "standing reserve" as I begin to read this, as he comments on Kant's idea of a world given value by man. A world initially rich in its own inherent significance, flattened by modernity, which seeks always to diminish the "spontaneous activity of nature," as I believe John Mill called it, or the mysterium tremendum, to use the Church's vocabulary which I believe is more accurate. Things begin to have no inherent dignity in themselves, but only insofar as we find them useful. A "Factory World"--one of lack, as opposed to one of abundance, which must be tamed to operate via laws of efficiency in order to persist for our good (but with a critical loss of freedom). I realize this veers away somewhat from the focus of the author you've posted here, but it's the side of this line of thought that I am more familiar with and which is, I believe, closely related to this idea of "systemic erasure." I wonder though, in Cunningham's terms, how should we speak 'real' difference? How do we describe the world, events, tragedies, without delimiting the power of these things to make real demands upon us? Or, worst of all, am I missing the point entirely?

Michael Serra said...


I would love to chat with you about this sometime soon. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on some of the issues you are raising as well. I am honored that you would want to hear more of my thoughts on this, but find myself momentarily impatient with using the internet as a mediator. I hope that we can perhaps get to know each other a bit more as I am in your area, and certainly, I always appreciate your thoughtful responses on this blog.

As far as speaking 'difference,' without disinheriting forms and persons of their ultimate significance by a sort of choose your own adventure game of applying meaning through language, in the realm of writing about culture, tragedy, and the quotidian, I am certain that language can never carry the burden of representation for the tragic, the terrible, and the suffering, in a way that evades some sort of effacement. Language can never carry the burden that it is forced to when individual suffering and bodily pain (See Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain)isolate an individual from the common currencies of descriptive language.

Questions of ultimate importance for me in the realm of language are becoming more attuned to the underlying strictures of discursive analysis that render all things capable of being objects of knowledge. This is a type of illness that I think a greater proclivity for the subtleties of language can partly treat, but not wholly. I am convinced, unlike the friends of Radical Orthodoxy, that even theology's attempt to bathe language in a theology of peace, effaces and wields a sort of grammar of power acknowledged in the form of discourse. What must be acknowledged is that we have the ability to abstain or comply with granting something its power if its power is a construction. Or unless, it is authority, a word which makes our modern skin burn with discomfort and ache with the predilection that it is not, in fact, up to us.

Kierkegaard responded to this idea in the late 1800's with his essay, "The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle." The Apostle, unlike the genius, has authority. Today, we are fairly well convinced that we have the ability to grant or take away that authority (from anyone at all) when we please, and our discourses of thought will well render the fury of authority, at the behest of convenience, with a sort of glib ease and willingness to give no account whatsoever for our severity, ignorance, and whimsical self-indulgence, at our own peril.

Radical Orthodox Theology's answer to your final question is taking up the Thomist cudgel of analogical writing and thinking. Is it possible to write or grow in thought without embedding ourselves in a sort of laissez-fairre vision of pursuing knowledge, which I am coming to think is the true curse of the Fall? (We can chase ideas, domesticate them, and make them obey us, and comply with whatever we choose, but we are cursed with the need to chase them.)

One of my favorite images: At being unable to account for the seventh tide of the sea of Euboia, Aristole, throwing himself into the sea, said, "Because I cannot understand you, you shall have me."