Claire Colebrook

Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Volume Two

    3. Post-Phenomenology’s Evil Cartesian Demon

    There is a doctrine about the nature and place of minds which is so prevalent among theorists and even among laymen that it deserves to be described as the official theory. Most philosophers, psychologists and religious teachers subscribe, with minor reservations, to its main articles and, although they admit certain theoretical difficulties in it, they tend to assume that these can be overcome without serious modifications being made to the architecture of the theory. […] the central principles of the doctrine are unsound and conflict with the whole body of what we know about minds when we are not speculating about them.

    The official doctrine, which hails chiefly from Descartes, is something like this. With the doubtful exception of idiots and infants in arms every human being has both a body and a mind. (Ryle 2000, 11)

    If I am right in thinking that Descartes’ badly argued hunch, the one which made him able to see pains and thoughts as modes of a single substance, was that indubitability was the common factor they shared with nothing physical, then we can see him as working his way around toward a view in which indubitability is no longer the mark of eternality, but rather of something for which the Greeks had no name—consciousness. Whereas previous philosophers had more or less followed Plato in thinking that only the eternal was known with certainty, Descartes was substituting ‘clear and distinct perception’—that is, the sort of unconfused knowledge gained by going through a process of analysis—for ‘indubitability’ as a mark of eternal truths. This left indubitability free to serve as a criterion of the mental. For although the thought that I am in pain does not count as a clear and distinct perception, it can no more successfully be doubted than the thought that I exist. Whereas Plato and the tradition had made the lines between confusion and clarity, dubitability and indubitability, and the mind and the body, coincide, Descartes was now rearranging them. The result was that from Descartes on we have to distinguish between the special metaphysical ground for our certainty about our inner states (‘nothing is closer to the mind that itself’) and the various epistemological reasons which ground our certainties about anything else. (Rorty 2009, 58-59)

    I will begin with the most general and attenuated axis of continuity, the one that begins with Plato, winds its way to its most lurid expression in Augustine, and finally becomes metaphysically solidified and scientized by Descartes. I am referring, of course, to our dualistic heritage: the view that human existence is bifurcated into two realms or substances: the bodily or material, on the one hand; the mental or spiritual, on the other. Despite some fascinating historical variations which I will not go into here, the basic imagery of dualism has remained fairly constant. Let me briefly describe its central features; they will turn out, as we will see, to comprise the basic body imagery of the anorectic.

    First, the body is experienced as alien, as the not-self, the not-me. It is ‘fastened and glued’ to me, ‘nailed’ and ‘riveted’ to me, as Plato describes it in the Phaedo. For Descartes the body is the brute material envelope for the inner and essential self, the thinking thing[…]. (Bordo 2004, 144)

    There has, in philosophy and popular culture, been a turn to ‘mindfulness’ that is perhaps best defined by understanding the problem that mindfulness has been designed to solve. We suffer from mind, from the imprisonment in our own Cartesian theatre (Dennett 1991, 106), or what Raymond Tallis refers to as the ‘Cartesian prison’ (Tallis 2004, 49). Somehow, somewhere along the line we forgot that mind was a part—not even a part, a process—of engaged embodiment. We forgot that we emerged from an entire ecology of living processes, all of them mindful in their own way. We bifurcated, disenchanted and calculated the world to the point where there was a great divide between mind and world. In addition to the plethora of self-help books on the topic, that claim to amalgamate Buddhist mindfulness with Western therapeutic methods, the notion has also been consecrated by ‘legitimate’ philosophy and theory, most notably the systems theory of Maturana and Varela, and the solution to the hard problem of mind put forward by Owen Flanagan:

    Eudaimonia (Buddha) = a stable sense of serenity and content (not the sort of happy-happy-joy-click-your-heels feeling state that is widely sought and promoted in the West as the best kind of happiness), where the serene and contented state is caused or constituted by enlightenment (bodhi)/wisdom (prajna) and virtue (sila, karuna) and meditation or mindfulness (Samadhi). Wisdom consists of deeply absorbed (intellectually and meditatively) knowledge of impermanence, the causal interconnectedness of everything, that everything (buildings, plants, animals, stars) lacks immutable essences (emptiness), and, what follows from these, that I am a man, a passing person, a person who passes, a process or unfolding that is known by a proper name, but that changes at every moment, until it passes from the realm of being altogether. (Flanagan 2011, 95)

    We somehow thought that there was a blank material nature on the one hand that then had to be grasped by a valuing and representing mind on the other. This, according to Bruno Latour, was the great project of modernity and one in which we are still imprisoned. Even though Latour is in line with a great deal of his contemporaries who seek to put mind and world back together, by undoing the great modern separation of nature on the one hand and its mental mirror on the other, Latour is quite trenchant: we do not need to reunite mind and world. We need to see that it is the separation that should appear puzzling. How on earth did we come to think that there was this thing—nature—that could be the object of science and that would be divorced from some other human, moral, political domain?

    In suspending the critical gesture, we begin to understand retrospectively the oddness of the definition of nature to which critique had been wed. It had two surprising features: the discovery, revelation, unveiling of what lay behind the subjective fog of appearances; and what ensured the continuity in space and time of all beings in their inner reality. It has long been realized by science studies, by feminist theory, and, in a much wider way, by all sorts of environmental movements, that this era’s character was precisely not the long-awaited taking into account of nature, but rather the total dissolution of the various notions of nature. (Latour 2010, 466)

    Here is the story: at some point in the history of Western thought the notion of disembodied and distinct mind took hold of reason. The usual culprit for this maneuver is Descartes, the thinker who came and doubted and established ‘the subject’ as the one point of certainty, and the point from which the rest of the world (as extended rather than thinking substance) would need to be deduced (Flanagan 2003, 58). The literature on mindfulness is clear on this point: ‘Descartes’ infamous Cogito has, arguably, been responsible for more philosophical wrong turnings than anything else in Western thought’ (Hyland 2011, 19). There are other villains in this tale: Plato, who set up a world of separate ideas or truths that would leave this world as a pale and second-rate shadow, or—more generally—modern science with its disenchantment of the world and its striving to establish the world as so much manipulable and calculable matter. What would be lost in this Cartesian turn to the subject, certainty, extended substance and the world that needs to be known or represented by mind is the original connectedness from which the subject was detached. The concept of mind is an effect—the outcome of a history of calculation, practices of logic and intellectual abstraction—that mistakes itself for a cause, seeing itself as the point from which the world unfolds. What would be required, today, is to re-narrate the emergence of ‘mind’ (as reasoning subject) from a more practical, historical, embodied and dynamic life: Cartesian subjectivity, or the impoverished conception of ‘mind’ would be but one aspect or capacity of a broader domain of life and would need to be recognized as partial, dependent and (possibly) pernicious. For Bruno Latour, postmodern constructions of reality are no less Cartesian than any of the previous elevations of detached mind:

    Who can avoid hearing the cry of despair that echoes deep down, carefully repressed, meticulously denied, in these paradoxical claims for a joyous, jubilant, free construction of narratives and stories by people forever in chains? But even if there were people who could say such things with a blissful and light heart (their existence is as uncertain to me as that of the Loch Ness monster, or, for that matter, as uncertain as the real world would be to these mythical creatures) how could we avoid noticing that we have not moved an inch since Descartes? That the mind is still in its vat, excised from the rest, disconnected, and contemplating (now with a blind gaze) the world (now lost in darkness) from the very same bubbling glassware. (Latour 1999, 8)

    It would seem that this anti-Cartesian story, told so widely today, would be supported by contemporary insights from neuroscience, cognitive archaeology, artificial intelligence and evolutionary theories of mind. Andy Clark, the philosopher who has done so much to bring insights from artificial intelligence research into theories of mind, approvingly quotes (the widely-quoted) John Haugeland:

    if we are to understand mind as the locus of intelligence, we cannot follow Descartes in regarding it as separable in principle from the body and the world[…]. Broader approaches, freed of that prejudicial commitment, can look again at perception and action, at skillful involvement with public equipment and social organization, and see not principled separation but all sorts of close coupling and functional unity[…]. Mind, therefore, is not incidentally but intimately embodied and intimately embedded in its world. (Haugeland 1998, 236-37 quoted in Clark 2010)

    Perhaps the most significant integration of a pseudo-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ with a diagnosis of the fall into Cartesianism comes from Maturana and Varela, whose work on embodied cognition claims to draw from philosophy, Eastern thought and contemporary science:

    The revolt of the rationalists—Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz—began from a principle of ‘methodical doubt’. But they became lost in mechanism, dualism and more and more categorization; and they ended in denying relation altogether. But relation is the stuff of system. (Maturana and Varela 1980, 63)

    But this story would also seem to have a decent philosophical pedigree, ranging from Nietzsche’s general criticism of the enslavement of a once masterful and active life of forces to a miserable reactive slave consciousness, to Foucault’s Nietzschean criticism of an ‘ethics of knowledge,’ and then to the entire phenomenological tradition that sought to render the subject transcendental (and not as some distinct substance). Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations criticizes Descartes’ process of doubt for saving some ‘tag end of the world’; had Descartes doubted more radically he would have seen that the psycho-physical subject or individual mind presupposes some event or life-world from which the ‘mind’ of man is disclosed.

    It must by no means be accepted as a matter of course that, with our apodictic pure ego, we have rescued a little tag end of the world, as the sole unquestionable part of it for the philosophizing Ego, and that now the problem is to infer the rest of the world by rightly conducted arguments, according to principles innate in the ego.

    Unfortunately, these principles were at work when Descartes introduced the apparently insignificant but actually fateful change whereby the ego becomes a substantia cogitans, a separate human ‘mens sive animus’, and the point of departure for principles of causality—in short, the change by virtue of which Descartes became the father of transcendental realism, an absurd position. (Husserl 1977, 24)

    Husserl’s criticism of Cartesian error—of assuming rather than accounting for a subject—is intensified with Heidegger, for whom the question of epistemology (or how we know the world) can only occur if we forget that in order to ask the question of knowledge we must already have a world. If phenomenology is anti-Cartesian in its inception then it appears to become even more intensely so as the tradition continues and starts to embark on self-critique. Was not Husserl, for Heidegger at least, still too Cartesian in keeping a transcendental subject as opposed to a thought of Being’s disclosure, of which the subject would be nothing more than a site for revealing? And is not deconstruction continuing this counter-Cartesian gesture when it insists that Being, too, would act as one more presupposed foundation that would necessarily efface the dispersed, never present, process of tracing that allowed something to appear as present? Perhaps, though, anti-Cartesianism reaches its zenith in the work of Gilles Deleuze, for whom the task of philosophy would be to reverse Platonism and arrive at thought without an image (Deleuze 1994, 131). Not surprisingly, there have been those who wish to align Deleuze with a neuroscience of distributed cognition, with a nature of living systems and with a broader ‘turn’ to naturalism (Lauwereyns 2010, 159).

    The implications of this counter-Cartesian gesture, along with a certain self-understanding of a false turn or error taken in philosophy, are also significant for whatever is left of aesthetics. If the Cartesian story is correct and mind is primarily or properly logical, then mind’s first task is knowledge, and it would be from knowledge that something like art (as a handmaiden to cognition) would follow. Certainly, this is how one strand of thinking about the relation between the brain and art has proceeded. Today, continuing this primacy of cognition (with art as extension of the survival-oriented brain) various forms of literary Darwinism have sought to ground the acknowledged complexity of art in the artwork’s capacity to stimulate those problem-solving capacities that are the mark of practical knowledge (Ramachandran and Hirstein 1999; Boyd 2009; Carroll 1995). Such approaches are anti-Cartesian in their rejection of mind as disembodied and as a separate substance and wish to see mind as emergent; the seemingly ‘Cartesian’ emphasis on aligning art with the primacy of cognition is countered by an insistence that cognition is not a distinct faculty, but one evolving natural activity among others. But a dominant motif has been the dethroning of cognition and logical reasoning in favor of a primarily affective and aesthetic comportment. Literary Darwinism can begin to indicate the problem of being anti-Cartesian: if one rejects the autonomy of the aesthetic, and aims to return art and the mind to life, but then does so in favor of survivalist logics, then one is both anti- and hyper-Cartesian at one and the same moment. The rejection of ‘mind’ seems at once to be post-subjective and even post-human, returning all processes to one survivalist logic, and yet the grounding of all life on a logic that can be discerned through human reflection on its own practices takes on the very structure of the subject, of a single discernible ground for all emerging systems.

    Heidegger, criticizing the very idea of ‘logic’ as the proper and universal system through which we know the world, retrieved a more original logos—or speaking about—that would still remain discernible in today’s poets, for whom poiesis was the bringing into being of an event that was not simply the unfolding of a blueprint. (And it is this primacy of a poetic bringing into being of the world which is continued by Giorgio Agamben for whom we need to rethink ‘the political’ not in terms of a life that can be known and managed but in terms of an ‘open’ that is the very possibility of any world at all.) One strand of anti-Cartesianism would seem to involve a turn away from mathematical certainty and formal logics in favor of a broader and living logos that would emerge first creatively only then to be reified into fixed systems. One would then view systems insofar as they extend the living, imaginative, social and affective body, not the detached and judging ‘mind.’ Much of the anti-Cartesian rhetoric today consists of a rejection of a computational model of thinking and instead grounds thinking in life, including—as in many supposedly Darwinist models—a life oriented toward the organism’s ongoing survival. (The problem with that anti-Cartesian counter logic is of course that it is possible because of something like the Cartesian gesture: a refusal to accept the given as given and instead to question its genesis. And even though one might want to think of this question of genesis as philosophical in general rather than Cartesian, it is possible to note a tendency in Cartesian doubt that prompts many of the anti- and post-Cartesian war cries: separation. The Cartesian subject does not just question but also doubts and subordinates the world and then finds something like the act of thinking that possesses an indubitable certainty and privilege. Question: given some of the smug self-certainties of the twenty-first century, including the notion that thinking is natural and world-oriented and that it would be scandalous not to see ‘us’—we humans—as world-oriented or world-embedded, perhaps some form of Cartesian doubt might open us up to the thought that the link between mind and world is not as symbiotic as all that. And, further, given some of the dismissive readings of what has come to be known as ‘theory’—that theory was too textualist to think the material or scientific conditions of the world—it might be worthwhile to at least pose the question of just how certain we are about connectedness to life. Here one might want to think the double claim of the Heideggerian legacy: in addition to being the philosopher of being-in-the-world, Heidegger also suggested that something like Angst would prompt us to question just how it is that we are ‘in’ the world and that this question has been closed off too readily.)

    Apart from a general appeal to Heidegger in claiming that the world that is given in a primarily creative and conversational—rather than logical—manner, there is a more general sense that approaching the world and life aesthetically is more mindful. Either we think of something like ‘mind’ that mirrors or pictures its world and then adds creative frills, or we think of a general creativity: a world in which aesthesis or sensation, feeling or being affected is primary. It would be from that latter interconnected, affective, attuned and mindful comportment that something like Cartesian man would be an unfortunate detachment, an error or illusion. Not only has there been a widespread ‘affective turn’ where cognition is deemed to be either a late and partial add-on to a life that proceeds primarily through sensations and creates its social, embodied and dynamic attachments, more specifically Deleuze and post-phenomenology seem to privilege the primacy of aesthetic perception. One introduction to Deleuze’s thought—despite defining affect as mental activity—sees Deleuzian affect as an ‘attack’ on Cartesian subjectivity:

    According to Deleuze affects are basic components of mental activity. Now the concept of an affect does not entail the concept of subjective self-awareness. To understand an affect is to see it as a force, a particular type of energy and this energy does not presuppose self-consciousness […]. What affects is the mind capable of? What thoughts are generated by affects? In this philosophical perspective, the mind is a site of thoughts rather than a centre of consciousness. These thoughts are not defined by the fact that someone can say: they are my thoughts. Thoughts, in other words, are not defined as belonging to a subject. Deleuze’s books on Hume, Nietzsche and Spinoza each develop a particular aspect of this affect psychology and attack a specific dimension of the concept of the subject in its Cartesian or Kantian versions. (Due 2007, 10) [6]

    This enlistment of Deleuze and affects—against Descartes, the self and consciousness—is typical of a broader notion of continental philosophy as either properly opposed to Cartesian truth and certainty, or lamentably irresponsible in retreating from the claims of truth and reason. We do not need to follow Richard Rorty’s notion that deconstruction reduced philosophy to a ‘kind of writing,’ (Rorty 1986, 90) or Habermas’s less charitable but similar account of French thought as having rejected reason in favor of a celebration of literature (Habermas 1987, 102), for there is a more tempered and nuanced theorization of thinking after Heidegger that would suggest that philosophy (and approaches to mind more generally) would do well to begin with the processes that are disclosed in art, rather than logic. Art, too, seems to have taken up this turn to mindfulness, not only in the general advent of installation art that is interactive and is oriented less to detached viewing than it is to walking, touching, feeling and contributing, but also in a new mode of inter-artistic analogy.

    The artist’s mindfulness might be said to display fidelity to phenomenological happening in its originary richness. […] we find a recovery of agapeic astonishment before the aesthetic equivocity of becoming: this stuns us into mindfulness of charged and expressive presence. We may even find a rapport with the primal ‘It is good’ which celebrates the giving of creation. The neutralization of creation into an indifferent, objective ‘It’ is overcome in terms of its originary abundance[…]. This ambiguity is intolerable to the heirs of Descartes and modern science who would be the masters and possessors of nature. (Desmond 1995, 94-95)

    Perhaps everything will approach the condition of music, moving towards a non-semantic register, abandoning narrative modes—to the degree that such a mode is at all possible. How else could one escape the Cartesian prison of logic and self-consciousness other than by way of something like a pure affect that does not turn back upon, constitute, affect and touch itself? This would seem to be the task of the twenty-first century, an annihilation of the self-gathering subject and a becoming-one-with a broader inhuman ecology.

    But here is another story: Heidegger argued that the story of Descartes as a philosopher who came and doubted was nothing more than a ‘bad novel.’ And it appears—in true postmodern style—that Heidegger has become a character in his own bad novel. For many now read Heidegger as the philosopher who came to reject man and the subject in order to put the world together again. But here is another possible account: Heidegger’s point was that Descartes could not be seen as a simple lapse or error, and that this seemingly unfortunate Cartesian accident had something to do with the very possibility of thinking. Husserl, also, thought that taking the figure of mind seriously—asking how and why we possess a ‘natural attitude’ in which there appears to be something like ‘mind’ or substance as a thing in the world—would require us to be more or hyper-Cartesian. The problem was not that Descartes came up with this unique substance ‘mind’ and thereby destroyed the lived unity of the world: the problem was that this ‘mind’ was still too worldly, still too similar to all the other objects with which we live and work (and still too close to older concepts of the soul or psyche as privileged or special type of thing). The Cartesian error was not some break with an otherwise unified, enchanted and mindful world. Indeed, the problem with Cartesianism is not mathematical separation and disenchantment but an excessive commitment to some special magical substance or ‘res cogitans’; there is an insufficiency of calculus, for Descartes still relies on turning back to some living thing that will explain the separate world; he will not begin with separation, even though that is exactly what the Cartesian project promises. The world is not given, nor is relation; it is from some presence without any assumed relation whatsoever that Descartes must turn back upon himself and establish the one indubitable relation from which all other relations would be possible. For Heidegger, this was the scandal of Cartesianism—not the subject, but the failure to really account for relations by assuming some self-relating special thing. Metaphysical philosophy had always had the goal of establishing some ultimate ground, hypokeimenon or subjectum. With Descartes that ‘subject’ becomes the self. What ought really to have occurred—had Descartes been truly radical with doubt and beginnings—is not the unfolding of the first relation from self back to self, but a realization that the self is an effect of relation; in the beginning is the relation, a being-in-the-world that precludes anything like a ‘pre-relational’ subject. At the same time, that being-in-the-world is always ‘a’ world for some thrown Da-sein, and so establishing the world of relations and projects as first or originary is no better than establishing ‘a’ subject. There is no thing that is primordial, only an equi-primordiality: both sides of the relation have a certain firstness.

    For Heidegger, there had always been a tendency towards subjectivism, or the establishing of a single ground that would underlie and explain all beings and events. (We might ask, today, whether shifting this underlying ground to ‘life’ really changes things that much, and whether grounding all that we know, do and feel in one affective and interconnected life does not partake of a simple Cartesian logic of a unified knowledge at the expense of a radical Cartesian detachment of a mind that is its own place.)

    So I would pause at this point to make a minor conclusion: in terms of intellectual history it is inaccurate to see a straightforward anti-Cartesianism in the very tradition that is often appealed to, today, to make the case for ‘Descartes’ error.’ Even Nietzsche—who would seem to be the philosopher to whom one might wish to appeal in order to get beyond the Cartesian prison and think a life of forces—was not so clear in attributing the blame to Descartes. Nietzsche even suggested that the modern ‘assassination’ of the soul was actually counter-Cartesian and, for that very reason, utterly pious. Nietzsche saw a religious fervor in modern philosophy’s extirpation of the soul, and a pseudo-Christian self-abnegation in a tradition, after Descartes, of ridding the world and life of anything like the soul. Not only was it inaccurate, then, to think of Descartes as the father of modern philosophy; there was also something reactive in certain destructions of the self:

    What is the whole of modern philosophy doing at bottom? Since Descartes—actually more despite him than because of his precedent—all the philosophers seek to assassinate the old soul concept, under the guise of a critique of the subject-and-predicate concept—which means an attempt on the life of the basic Christian doctrine. Modern philosophy, being an epistemological skepticism, is, covertly or overtly, anti-Christian—although to say this for the benefit of more refined ears, by no means anti-religious. (Nietzsche 1989, 66)

    Nietzsche suggests both that there is something religious, or will-destructive, in the ongoing assassination of the soul, and that this ‘modern’ gesture is not at all Cartesian but occurs despite Descartes. Noticing this inaccuracy is important for philosophical (rather than just historical) reasons. If Cartesianism occurred what does this tell us about life? What is life such that it gives birth to Cartesian man? Most importantly, why are we so insistently anti-Cartesian? What are we willing away? Is it not the most Cartesian of errors to think that an event might simply be dismissed, deemed to be erroneous and separate, with proper life having an entirely different nature? One of the arguments of phenomenology is that the Cartesian subject—that fragment of the world that takes itself to be the representing ground of the world—evidences a transcendental capacity, as well as the potentiality of that capacity to fail to actualize itself. It is the very nature of life, as relational, to be always oriented towards what is not fully present or given: this applies as much to conscious life as it does to any living form that is not self-sustaining. Consciousness is not only in relation to what is not itself; it has a sense—or anticipation—of what is not fully present.

    Consciousness is intentional or related to what is other than itself via sense—an anticipatory orientation. I see something as something, having—in advance—some mode of relating in a certain way, with the expectation of certain outcomes. Because of this I tend to imagine the world’s separate and independent existence as a realm of objects with certain determined features, and from there I also naturally assume that I too am one object, as a mind, among others. When Descartes doubted the world, and found the subject, he also assumed that the subject would be the most certain substance we could know: he was continuing a tendency of thought to find certainty in some privileged thing or substance that could be known apodictically. For Husserl and Heidegger the problem of Descartes’ positing of the subject was not its specialness, its implied human exceptionalism, nor its tendency to separate the world of complex materiality from processes of knowing or thinking. On the contrary, the problem is Descartes’ residual humanism; the cogito defines subjectivity as a special type of thing, as a distinct substance. The real, properly Cartesian question is how this appearance of something like a subject is possible: how did a certain type of living relation, a relation of knowing or sensing, come to appear and come to have a sense of itself?

    Descartes’ answer is, for Husserl and Heidegger, not the best path to pursue, but his question is the question of philosophy. How does appearance appear, and how is it possible that we started to ask this question? How is it possible for life not just to be in relation but to ask questions about relations? As long as we assume that there is some thing in the world—man or subject—that would be the site from which relations unfold then we fail to ask about the relation (or question) that ‘we’ have to such a privileged site. It is that question that Descartes started to answer when he doubted even this body, here and now, which might (he thought) be mere appearing. When Husserl and Heidegger turned back to that point what they sought to do was render Cartesian doubt or questioning more radical: what is appearing, and how does appearing become questionable? End of minor conclusion: back to the argument.

    It is possible to read post-phenomenology as a rejection of the Cartesian remnants in phenomenology: supposedly Husserl wanted a truly transcendental subject, not another substance but an absolute ideal condition that would be the ground from which time (as the condition of substance) would unfold. Heidegger, too, in aiming to think the disclosure or presencing of being really repeated a mode of subjectivism, establishing an ultimate ground or foundation. Accordingly, Derrida would use words like ‘trace,’ ‘écriture,’ ‘text,’ or différance to indicate that any supposed site of emergence could only be known after some process of presencing, in which a temporality of before and after, and a spatiality of distribution has taken place; more radically, not only is such an origin only knowable after difference, the origin is itself differential. This strikes to the heart of Cartesianism and to any Heideggerian or phenomenological attempt to rethink genesis. Not only could there not be a subject as some fully self-present substance that subsisted and persisted before and beyond all relation, for the very self as identity must refer back to (and therefore be different from itself); but also, any supposed ground from which relations would unfold must itself be effected from relations. Self-presence is always given and achieved through relation, the self that recognizes itself as itself, must turn back towards itself through time. Identity or sameness, can only maintain itself, through time, by repeating itself, reiterating a quality through time, not being the ground of time. In the beginning is the rhythm. Deleuze, seemingly different from Derrida in his insistence both on the possibility of legitimately undertaking a history of the emergence of thought and systems of writing, and on the power of intuition to discern the differential forces or tendencies from which relations unfold, nevertheless seems to be even more insistently anti-Cartesian. Philosophy, despite its beginning in doubt and questioning, nevertheless always questions from an assumed ‘image of thought,’—a figure of good sense and common sense oriented towards that which can be recognized, legitimated and established through time as the ground of sound thinking. In that respect, philosophy has never truly been immanent and has always fallen back upon an already given image of thought—which would include Descartes’ cogito, but also Heidegger’s Being, the transcendental subject of phenomenology and the seemingly post-metaphysical domain of communication.

    Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that relations are external to terms does, apparently, insist that the actualized world of constituted terms does not exhaust what can be said to be: actuality emerges from virtual tendencies, and those tendencies could always create new systems and new terms. But that appeal to ‘the virtual’ is not another foundation, despite the full reality of the virtual. Not only do we only know the virtual as it is differentiated into actual relations, it is also the case that the virtual ‘itself’, unlike a supposed pre-existing world of possibilities, is real as a force for differentiation. The unfolding of the virtual is not the choice from among a collection of possible paths. This is why Deleuze places so much emphasis on the differential calculus: the creation of ever finer differences, producing ever more complex relations among differential powers, is infinite. This infinitely differential power theorized first in mathematics is nevertheless possible because of a broader truth of the differential: there cannot be ‘a’ subject or ‘a’ ground from which differences unfold, for difference is not a unity that is then disturbed or placed into relations. Unity and relations come into being from differential powers or forces—pure quantities or potentials to differ—that create points of relative stability. One way, then, of reading the tradition of post-phenomenology would be to read thinkers as diverse as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Irigaray, Kristeva, Agamben and even thinkers who seemingly assert the subject such as Alain Badiou as united in the anti-Cartesian project: if there is a subject it occurs not as substance but as event or act, known only after the event.

    I would suggest, though, that it is possible to produce a counter narrative in which post-phenomenology, like phenomenology, revives the Cartesian question in the spirit of Descartes. Doubt is more radical and does not leave subject as substance, but something is created in the Cartesian event, or what Derrida refers to as hyperbolic doubt. This Cartesian ‘something’ is what Deleuze refers to as ‘sense.’ It is helpful to see sense as at least in part Cartesian for two reasons: first, sense occurs as separation, when a thought or apprehension of an event detaches itself and takes on an autonomous power. Second, sense possesses some of the force of Descartes’ evil genius: we experience this world, here and now, as our own, as unfolded through our projects, our meanings, our bodily comportments, our affects and emotions—and yet it is entirely possible for this world of sense to be other than it is, for the world to have been different from what it is. To think of sense as akin to the evil genius is to see it as not the world itself, as establishing a world for us that may well not be what the world or the real exhaustively is. To think of sense is to open the possibility of counter-actualization. As we, today, are confronted by more and more of the sense of our utter contingency—that there might have been a world without humans and there might soon be a world without humans again—perhaps being shrilly anti-Cartesian and insisting on the intimate bond between mind and world is a profoundly rigid instance of self-important subjectivism.

    In many cases Deleuze will chart his way through philosophical history siding with other philosophers, such as Kant, Spinoza or Leibniz—against Descartes, but the issue is usually ontological and will still insist on the fracture of the subject, rendered more intense because the subject is not just another subject but a temporal torsion that will crack apart any notion of being as actualized substance. Deleuze will criticize any equivocity that posits two substances, for ‘mind’ is another expression of one expressive substance that is only in its all plural expressions, without any mode acting as ground for any other: MONISM = PLURALISM. And yet the incorporeality of sense that is different from states of affairs has a full reality and force that, in turn, has implications for what philosophy can do. Post-phenomenology is not anti-Cartesian, but it is post- or hyper-Cartesian, enabled by the thought or sense of separation. The potentiality of Cartesianism and the genesis of sense offer imperatives for divergent faculties.

    Once thinking is considered to be a problem, and a non-natural problem (if ‘nature’ is taken to be a single domain of self-maintaining life) then we are well and truly on Cartesian soil. What if thinking were discordant with what has taken to be life? To take thought and its capacity for separation seriously is at once simply Cartesian, but also demands a different thought of life: what is thinking life such that it can diverge from causal and efficient modes of reasoning? What is thinking such that it can ask the world-destroying question of Descartes’ evil genius, the question of the non-being of this world? This divergence of faculties is generally attributed to Kant who separated the capacity to think beyond the given world from the capacity to know the world as given: if it is possible to think what cannot be known or given then even though this ‘not knowing’ places limits on theoretical knowledge it nevertheless opens up the possibility of acting as if something like pure Ideas were possible. When Derrida writes about forgiveness, hospitality, democracy or justice ‘to come,’ or follows such concepts with the qualification, ‘if there is such a thing’, he might appear to be taking up a Kantian notion of the Idea. When Deleuze and Guattari write in What is Philosophy? of the separate powers of science (creating functions), art (creating affects and percepts) and philosophy (creating concepts), and when they write of the various syntheses of universal human history they would be seem to be indebted to Kant’s contesting faculties and distinct modes of understanding. But I would insist on Cartesianism, at the very least in addition to Kantianism, as a radical and hyperbolic thought event for two reasons: first, ontologically, it is Cartesianism that poses the separation of thought; second, tactically, one needs to read all the shrill and repetitive narrations of our fall and redemption from Cartesian subjectivity as reaction formations, where the insistent denial evidences a failure to recognize the naïve or vulgar Cartesianism of the present. If Cartesianism had two tendencies or sides, one turned towards a complacent humanism, the other to a hyperbolic distance from the actual world, it is the former that seems to have taken hold in the anti-Cartesianism of the present. And it is here that I would seek to align the modern figure of Cartesianism with a certain theology of evil.

    If there has been a normative image of life, as creative, fruitful, dynamic, relational, self-maintaining while other-directed, then this has marked all figures of the good norm of thinking from the Christian God who creates otherness from expansive expressiveness to the man of post-Cartesian life who is always attuned to his milieu and is nothing other than an ongoing receptivity to the sense of the world. Similarly, evil has always been figured as a refusal of life: as a contingent, inert, destructive, non-relational and utterly unbecoming force unto itself. In this respect a certain image of Descartes’ cogito stands as the modern equivalent of a radical evil that refuses any form of ongoing principle, relatedness and a certain understanding of sense (where sense is the capacity to understand, order and synthesize one’s world). But there is another understanding of sense, one that runs through phenomenology and beyond that embraces this radical evil, and is perhaps best described in Derrida’s response to Foucault and the defense of hyperbolic doubt.

    Foucault, with more sophistication than marks the usual criticisms of Descartes, argued that the Cartesian subject was constituted by doubting all possible physical experiences (including the body, including even the state of wakefulness) while nevertheless dismissing the possibility of madness. For Descartes the very act of thinking presupposes some organizing self-presence. In this move, according to Foucault, something occurs within history: madness had once been considered to be one mode of thought among others. In pre-modern distributions of knowledge and its assumed limits madness could grant insight or enigmatic illumination, and was deemed to be a different style of thought, for a thought that possessed a certain density. With Descartes there is no longer a continuity between reason and unreason, for thinking is self-presence. Any mad (or unworked) thinking would not count as thinking at all. Anything that did not present itself to itself, have a sense of itself, would not be a lesser or different style of thinking but would not be thought at all. If I am thinking then I am thinking myself thinking, gathered and present to myself. One way of reading this moment in Foucault is—as Derrida will do—to read Foucault as anti-Cartesian. Foucault, Derrida argues, wants to place the relation between reason and madness within history, as though one might look back at history and see the point at which reason violently refused all modes of ‘unworking’ or disordering; and then observe the internment of madness into a separate and other space. For Derrida such a maneuver is (especially on Foucault’s own account) itself Cartesian. Foucault does not accept reason as a given or constituted norm, but questions reason by assessing its history. As an aside, Derrida challenges Foucault’s reading of Descartes. According to Derrida, Descartes does indeed include madness in the process of doubt; for even if he were mad, here and now, he would still be thinking and would still (insofar as he is thinking) be a self-present subject. But the crucial point is what Derrida takes to be the force of Cartesian doubt. The capacity to ask about reason in general or ‘hyperbolic doubt’ is neither something Foucault can avoid in any genealogy of madness, for the question of madness or problem of madness places one in the domain of sense. To ask what madness is, necessarily creates a distance from any constituted definition, or—to shift to Deleuze—any extended set. If we do not accept that madness is defined by all those bodies designated or collected as mad, and instead ask about madness really then we engage (for Derrida) in a problem of sense that is at once historical and untimely. It is historical precisely because sense is history, or the constitution of a power to designate what would be the same for me here now, and for an other not yet present. Sense is a futural bet or wager on what Derrida will later refer to as the ‘to come’, and it is Cartesian hyperbolic doubt that detaches itself from sense as given (as ostensive or even stipulative definition) and—in a process that is almost mad—questions reason as such. If I ask what reason really is then I make a claim to some notion of what reason would be; if I challenge a certain ‘internment’ of madness as that which thought was once able to encounter, then I make some trans-historical claim regarding thought and its proper or potential sense. I have already detached myself from the simple positivity of the present and the given.

    I would suggest that when Foucault reads Descartes he is, to some extent, doing what Derrida describes: placing Descartes’ reason on trial, distancing himself from that enclosed definition of reason as self-presence, and then suggesting another thought that would not be at odds with what Descartes interred as a certain mad unworking. Rather, then, than include Foucault in the more general anti-Cartesian axiology of good and evil, where the Cartesian subject closes man off from a world of which he is properly a dynamic, attuned and affected being, it is possible to see Foucault’s creation of madness as ‘absence of work’ as radically Cartesian. It is only by reading Descartes in a certain way that Foucault creates a genealogy of another thinking, finding in Descartes’ refusal of a mad, dispersed, non-self-present delirium a point outside reason as logic. There is something radically Cartesian in the tradition of re-opening the Cartesian question, at least as that tradition runs from Husserl to Deleuze (but possibly also back to Kant). And there is something of a Cartesian domestication at work in the general late twentieth and early twenty-first-century counter-Cartesianisms.

    If one reads Descartes’ subject in psycho-physical terms, with res cogitans providing a specific ‘tag end of the world’ (as Husserl put it), then one could criticize Cartesianism for the following error: one part of the world accounts for the world in general. Cartesian doubt both fails to doubt in a profound manner and does, indeed, enclose thinking in a way that must deny, repress or moralize certain rogue and untamed forces that could not be accounted for by separating the world into a simple opposition between thinking things and extended things. I want to conclude by considering a positive Cartesianism of sense that would not only go beyond Cartesian dualism, but would also allow us to read today’s ostensibly anti-Cartesian positions as modes of vulgar Cartesianism. (Following Derrida and Deleuze I would also suggest that such a fall or lapse into vulgarity is not something that is external to thinking.)

    Derrida: it is not only in his debate with Foucault that Derrida insists upon a Cartesian potential in thinking that cannot be reduced to a moment within history. In his reading of Husserl, Derrida argues for an impossible relation between sense and history. On the one hand sense is intra-worldly and historical. In order for a science or language or practice to be possible it must constitute some repeatable system that views the world here and now as it would be for any subject beyond me. In this respect the sense of the world, or viewing the world coherently through time, requires not only a perception of the here and now but an anticipation of what would be true for something like humanity in general. In his reading of Husserl it is the status of that ‘humanity in general’ that (I would argue) opens onto a Cartesian hyperbole in Derrida. Husserl wants to account for the ‘origin of the world.’ Resisting the psychological tendency to locate all meaning within something like ‘man’ as a specific substance, Husserl argues for a transcendental subjectivity that could not be reduced to physical humanity; humans appear as psycho-physical in the world because of sense. It is sense that allows the world and ‘us’ to appear as one unified human world continuing through time. History—the world as it appears—is possible because of historicity, or a process of synthesis that cannot take place within time. Husserl’s problem is the relation between humanity as a concrete psycho-physical species, humanity as constituted through time in this world, and humanity as an Idea, or humanity as a project of sense. In order for this ‘man’ here and now to (for example) pose a logical or moral truth he must imagine what would be the case for any subject whatever. He must, to some extent, annihilate all assumptions, all givenness and ask what remains. That question must always take place in the world, and yet posit a sense of the world. What makes this movement Cartesian, rather than Kantian, is the strange status it grants to the subject and sense. Kant, already criticizing Descartes for placing the subject within space and time, argues that the subject to whom the world appears must already be the result of a synthesis. The problem, for Husserl, Heidegger and Derrida is that, while the worldly human subject is thereby no longer seen to be the origin of sense and the world, Kantianism does not ask the question of the genesis of the transcendental subject. The origin of sense is left unquestioned. Descartes’ doubt begins with what appears, and far from positing a transcendental ground (as Kant will do) insists that all we have is appearing. The movement of doubt then introduces the gap between appearance and the event of appearing; insofar as I doubt I establish this relation to appearing.

    It is not surprising that Kantianism has enabled a ‘post-metaphysical’ suspension of the subject, and a move towards pure formalism and anti-foundationalism. For Kant and Kantianism we are always already within a world of constituted relations, with the origin or ground of those relations never in itself being a possible object of knowledge or appearance. Politically, this leads to a mode of liberal formalism in which the absence of law or foundation requires an ongoing process of deliberation and legitimation without any appeal to a ground or substance. It might seem that Derrida maintains this Kantian suspension when he insists on various terms such as ‘justice to come’ or ‘democracy to come’: there can never be an absolute experience of justice that can exhaust the process and deliberation of justice. It would follow that ‘deconstruction is justice’ if deconstruction were a commitment to potentialities released by the formal structure of experience that were themselves always beyond experience. Derrida will adopt certain modes of the Kantian conditional, where we can think or act as if there might be justice (or democracy, or friendship or forgiveness): how would such ideas open or deconstruct the present by indicating that which cannot be reduced to current structures? And yet I would suggest that the positive dimension of Derrida and deconstruction lies in Cartesian hyperbole, where we do not accept the formal limits of legitimation and possible consensus. No givenness or formal system in the world can silence the question that would ask about the genesis or appearing of forms and systems. Appearing cannot be reduced to a substance (res cogitans), precisely because substance emerges from an unfolding of appearances. Refusing to interrogate, or remain open to, what Heidegger referred to as Kant’s ‘hidden source’ cannot tame the Cartesian question. In many respects Derrida regards this Cartesian movement of hyperbolic doubt as not only internal to philosophy, but as operating in any possible experience (except perhaps for literary experience, or at least operating differently in literary experience). Insofar as I experience anything before me as present, as being there, then I have already gone beyond the putative pure self-presence of what is given; I have already anticipated that this present here and now would also appear in the same way for any subject whatever. This is why Derrida locates a structure of mourning in the given (for I am already oriented beyond what is given to me towards what would be there beyond my existence). How is it that ‘mere appearing’ presents itself as the appearing of what would be there for me and for any subject whatever; from where does this givenness unfold? What is being, really? If we suspend any supposed ground that would be the source of all appearing, what remains, what can be said to be? Philosophy occurs in this question of sense, in this movement from what appears as present to what we can assert, say or posit as having true being. This is why literary experience as a ‘saying’ that is that of text itself freed from any claim to being would be quite different in its relation to presence. The movement of doubt is at once negative—ruling out any presuppositions regarding what we assume true being to be—but also positive. What is philosophy such that it can move from the world as given and then ask what is truly given and what might truly be?

    I would suggest that Deleuze is a more Cartesian philosopher than either Derrida or Heidegger. First, Deleuze and Guattari make a formal or essential distinction between the tendencies of art/literature and philosophy. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze re-opens the Heideggerian question of what it is to think, and in this respect Deleuze (and later with Guattari in What is Philosophy?) takes up Heidegger’s criticism of Descartes. The question of thinking is short-circuited if one imagines a substance oriented towards a correct picturing of the world; a specific being is then assumed to provide a ground for the thinking of being in general. Against this error of transcendence (one being as the distinct ground for others), or this error of equivocity (one being as a different thinking substance in relation to another extended substance), and against this error of good sense and common sense (where thinking is given as the same for all in relation to a common world), Deleuze poses the challenge of thought without an image. In so doing, like Husserl and Heidegger, Deleuze takes doubt or the question to a hyperbolic level, not content to stop with any supposed being who questions. Indeed, the question no longer characterizes the subject but acts as a way of releasing thought from any ground whatever. For it is not only philosophy that questions; it is not only the subject, Dasein or man who exists at once in relation while also not being exhausted by the relations through which becoming is actualized. Deleuze writes being as ‘?being,’ indicating not that we cannot know what being is, but that being exists in a mode of relation in which the relations that occur are not determined in advance. More positively, this then allows for a way to think about the different relational potentials of thinking: art, philosophy and science. If Heidegger insisted that truth was not something that thinking may or may not bear a relation towards, this was because the relational nature of thinking—its comportment—is truth. Even the most erroneous or seemingly accidental event expresses something about thought’s possibility. Deleuze, too, does not dismiss error, illusion, stupidity or malevolence as distinct from thinking: there is one being that gives itself in multiple expressions. Deleuze and Guattari distinguish various orientations, tendencies, styles or temporal distributions of the question of ?being, and their distinction among philosophy, art and science gives us—I would suggest—a positive Cartesianism.

    In some ways it might seem to make more sense to see the diverse lines of thought’s potential as Kantian: there are modes of thinking, such as philosophy’s creation of concepts, that indicate an opening of new relations and temporalities (such as the notion of thinking as such, that would be different from the reference to actual thinking individuals). But I would stress a certain Cartesian dimension. First, Deleuze stresses the significance of both malevolence and stupidity, as though thought’s resistance to alignment—its errancy and capacity to detach itself from good sense and common sense—does not accord with Kantian notions of thought’s conditions as oriented to world-forming and coherent synthesis. In response to Descartes, Kant had insisted that insofar as one thinks and doubts, then there is already a form of time and space that would enable this doubting by me, and of this world to take place. The self who doubts a world beyond itself is already synthesized into a continuing unity in relation to a spatially distanced world. But it is just this already present transcendental and conditioning form that Deleuze questions. In Difference and Repetition passive synthesis is not presupposed (and not subjective) but opens the possibility that there may be various and divergent orientations—not those of a spatial world set over and against a subject. Deleuze refers to ‘contemplations’ or ‘perceptions’ that are neither human nor organic, and so the world’s syntheses could also be attributed to rocks, waves and particles. In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari argue for philosophy not, as Kant had done, as a critical procedure to draw thought to its limits in terms of an experience that must be given to a finite subject, but as the creation of potentials and tendencies that do not presuppose a subject-object relation. Although it is Descartes who is widely accepted to be the author of (not surprisingly) ‘Descartes’ error’, or the mistake of separating the subject from the world, it is Cartesian doubt—doubting even the body that appears to be mine, even that the self I experience and the entire world might be a dream—that destroys the transcendental form of an already given time and space. If there are no transcendental conditions, then it follows that we could have philosophy in which concepts might be created that do not refer to objects of possible experience (such as time in its pure state), and also that we could have art in which the expressiveness of matter appears as such, and not as it is for me.

    Even though Deleuze’s thought is quite fairly and accurately deemed to be a form of realism in its Bergsonian commitment to intuiting durations and rhythms as such, and not as they would be from the point of view of the practical subject, there is a strong Cartesian drive in the affirmation of thinking as a power to create a realm of sense—a plane of orientations, relations, ideas and concepts—that are not reducible to the world’s functions (which have their scientific legitimacy and organize a world that is distinct from, but related to, observers). Sense is not the Kantian Idea, whereby I recognize that I cannot experience or know the law as such, but nevertheless act as if I were a being whose will might be pure law. Sense is not the self that wills itself as if it were nothing other than a pure form of willing, unimpeded by any desire or motivation other than itself; sense is the creation from experience of something like a pure predicate, released from subject-object relations, opening the idea of the appearance as such, in itself. Sense is separation, taking the form of what—theologically—has been deemed to be evil: cut off from ecological life, without the assumption of a body or mind to whom the appearance is given, sense is a world in which the mind is its own place.

    This, also, is the force of Deleuze and Guattari’s various formations of becoming-animal or becoming-imperceptible or even becoming-woman: such maneuvers are Cartesian because they do not (like today’s supposed anti-Cartesians) insist on the world as always the world for this or that body, existing in history, contexts or in terms of the meaning that the world would have for this always oriented body. Instead, these operations of becoming, especially becoming-imperceptible, do not assume a body, a lived world, a connectedness and certainly not a constituted or even constituting time and space. These becomings are movements of sense in which what is perceived is not located as an object within time but becomes a pure predicate, what it is in the animal that ‘animals.’ It is as if we could, indeed, annihilate the world, not accept the given, including even my body here and now that seems to be the condition or point from which the world unfolds.


    1. One might offer a reading of Deleuze that reversed this quick account of the subject, psychology and affect. The world is composed of multiple self-consciousnesses, well beyond the human being and psychology, and well beyond thoughts. Indeed, one might say that the world is multiple self-consciousness or self-enjoyment, plural subjects, beyond thinking and beyond psychology. Or in Deleuze’s Leibnizian voice: the subjective form is the way by which the datum is expressed in the subject, or by which the subject actively prehends the datum (emotion, evaluation, project, conscience …). It is the form in which the datum is folded in the subject, a ‘feeling’ or manner, at least when prehension is positive (Deleuze 2006, 88). return to text