The Nonstyle of Misknown Nonnaming: A Response to Anthony Paul Smith’s The Misknown Desire of the Philosophers: On Evaluation and Hermeticism

“The project of creating in a secular culture an institution that can manifest a dark, hidden reality is a contradiction in terms”

(Susan Sontag in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, Edited by Susan Sontag. Translated by Helen Weaver. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976, p. xlv)

The tense relation between philosophy and hermeticism (increasingly, in my work, “hermeticism” is a generic term for the “spiritual sciences”) is a kind of double-cross. There is a kind of conflicting and twice-over short circuit between necessity and contingency that binds and blocks these two levels or modes of apprehension. On the one hand, philosophical concepts are grounded or founded upon a putatively universal appeal, an appeal to what would be or might be necessary for anyone with reason to assent to. On the other hand, there is the contingency of the perspective from which any such an appeal is made. I have argued in the book that philosophers themselves do a lot of work (and have a lot of work done to themselves) at the level of their perspective, having it shaped by a distinctive but often suppressed or unexpressed spirituality, a set of disciplines or practices that inform and potentially transform their explicit or stated concepts. (This is, incidentally, what the entire opening of Deleuze’s book Nietzsche and Philosophy is cryptically about).

But that is only the first cross. The double-cross is formed by the pressure upon reflection to bracket or encompass the entire situation of the relation between contingent and necessary, perspectival and absolute—here, for the moment, hermetic and philosophical—within some yet-more-abstract account that can encompass or “englobe” the relation between concept and referent, or between thinker and thought, or to put it in the idiom Anthony is using here, between creature and its apprehension of/affective relation to createdness. There seems to be tremendous pressure, that is, on philosophy to account for the status of its own discourse, generally in response to something like the question, “Even if you are right [in your concept], how can you [philosopher] place the demand of that truth upon others, unless you can demand also that someone else, per impossible, occupy your (nonconceptual) perspective?” It is probably Laruelle who has seen the problem of this doubling in the history of philosophy as the problem that somehow has to be avoided or sidestepped through what he calls “dualysis,” which, at least on my reading, is in part a strategy designed to undo the double-cross (no more philosophical saviors!), refuse or resist the very move from the first level of enunciation to the second, thus preventing the double-cross, in advance (or at last undoing it after the fact, producing an uncanny effect of a positive, necessary truth only where there is irreducible perspective: the-last-instance). It is important to evoke Laruelle, here, because of the by now famous fact that at the end of What is Philosophy?—whether or not Deleuze and Guattari characterized Laruelle’s project correctly—D&G pointed to something like “non-philosophy” as the perspective from which the question of what philosophy is should be answered.

In a flatfooted way this just seems like the eternal problem of the status of reason itself in relation to reality, and perhaps it is. How can the rational make claims upon, and thus bind us to, the real? But for me the question is sharpened and focused by the contingent necessities of the felt contemporary challenge to philosophy to be modern, to be secular, and to be pluralist, and, for me, how philosophy’s repressed but consistent hermeticism complicates that challenge. I do not think these demands—be modern! Be secular! Be pluralist!— are very well understood, but are profoundly felt. In a certain way I read Deleuze’s relation to his own hermeticism as symptomatic of a philosophical era (which may be an era much longer than the 20th century, or even of the “modern era”) whose attempted modernity, secularity, and pluralism remain constitutively haunted by the archaic, religious, and absolute demands of a spiritual perspectivalism that cannot be directly countenanced, but that is necessarily “misknown,” as Anthony puts it.

In this sense, Plato himself is the first, since it is clear that much of his system is dependent upon an appreciation of the mystery cults, although it is unclear whether and to what degree Plato participated in those cults, with their affirmation of an eternal life (and I intend, in my final word for this book event, to return to Christian’s question about the “eternal” perspective implied in hermeticism). Plato is constantly having Socrates hesitate to affirm directly any “religious” truth, and to present it in the form of “it is said by the wisest among us,” or “those with experience say,” or some other caveat for distancing the necessity of some religious experience from the necessity of philosophical truth. That latter truth is supposed to be able to stand alone, to be assented to or denied in the context of a dialogue, or a dialectic, in abstraction from a transformative experience. I don’t know what else I want to say, exactly, about that situation in Plato, other than to simply point to the fact that the double-cross already seems to be there, operating. In order for reason to be what it is—that is, to make necessary claims on everyone who thinks, apparently reason must present “as contingent” the experiences that lead to (or at least enable us, through paideia, to adhere to) its necessary truths. The question then becomes, and here comes the double-cross, is this entire situation necessary or contingent?

What Plato does so brilliantly is that he at least presents the necessity of reason as a kind of indirect revelation itself contingent upon power relations, on antagonisms within a given social milieu, antagonisms that may or may not reflect cultural universals or cultural particularities. Formally, if Plato is correct to do what he does in presenting philosophy the way he does, this implies that, at the very least, philosophical discourse is necessarily indirect. Is reason the rhetoric of the necessarily misknown?

In his ridiculously neglected New Science, Gimbattista Vico proposed that philosophy was the rhetoric of democracy, grounded upon a politics of “equity” in which each is presumed able to reason (in principle if not in fact). Philosophy seems somehow wedded to democracy (despite Plato, after all). Philosophy has to draw upon the profundity of experience without articulating that experience directly (in Vico’s theory of the three ages of cultural evolution, occupying the role of the “phatic” or “esoteric” would be a cultural devolution for philosophy, a reoccupation of the poetic language of the heroes, their esoteric discourse). One can read the history of philosophy since Plato as continuing to struggle with this problem, precisely in relation to hermeticism, such that it is the ongoing struggle of the spiritual sciences that is always the referent of philosophical speculation: how is it possible to draw from heroic or even gigantic experience without making those particular experiences (which are contingent) necessarily binding?

Deleuze’s early work, through Difference and Repetition, is really struggling with this problem of grounding or founding in philosophy. What does it mean that I “expose” or “out” Deleuze on his esotericism? Does it mean, unlike Deleuze, that I am willing to “betray” philosophy, to call its blulff? Anthony is right, we can’t answer the question of why he suppressed his early, explicitly esoteric writings. But perhaps this is not because Deleuze is too singular or his biography too unique, but because in this way he is all too common, all too like his other modern forbears. Perhaps we cannot answer the question of why he “misknew” himself unless we look at an entire series of philosophers who effectively make exactly the same move, from Plato (mystery cults) to Aquinas (Albertus Magnus) to Leibniz (Kabbalah), Newton (alchemy), Hegel (von Baader’s theosophy), Bataille (eroticism), Derrida (negative theology), and more recently Sloterdijk (Osho). It may be that there is no answer to this question (why does philosophy suppress its hermeticism) because it may be that the strategic suppression of the spiritual sciences defines the rhetorical gambit that philosophy in some sense is. And I am betraying, or have in some sense betrayed it? Does this make me a “non”-philosopher, because I am stepping to the side of this tradition rather than assuming the mantle of secrecy? Or is there some yet more secret apocalyptic pressure that animates my own work, some change in the nature of philosophical discourse of which my own work is symptomatic? I am not trying to be self-aggrandizing here. This is incredibly painful. Philosophers who have in some way attempted to be more explicit have been persecuted or driven mad or just ignored. But more importantly, in the “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy” article, Deleuze seems to realize that the whole problem has somehow to do with democratic versus aristocratic visions of power, and the alliance philosophy wants to try to make with democracy, with a people to come.

To conclude I am going to totally change tactic. I am going to ask a question I think Anthony might ask. What is hermetic ecology? What would happen if I revealed that I could not think or would not think or would not want to think without or other than through certain things that have happened to me, or happened to us? The hermetic practices have one rule: through a realization of consciousness as a body, one passes from the perceptions of one’s experiences as one’s own to the state in which other experiences, other creatures, other realities, are folded into one’s own body, one’s own consciousness, such that to attend to, and to become aware of one’s own body and consciousness, is to immediately develop an ability to interact with a number of others, and an increasing number of others. Hermeticism is a kind of “ecstatic ecology.” It is the development of sympathetic, vibrational relations, both implicit and explicit, that may or may not be verbalized or named, but that seem to insist in signs or signals within a complex, self-refracting milieu. I would like to call it, riffing on Anthony’s provocation, a nonstyle of misknown nonnaming.

Most spiritual disciplines and practices seem to converge on an intensification not of some “abolition” of the self, but some opening of the self onto the immediacy of a multiplicity of relations in a mode that makes coming to awareness of those relations an ability to unite with, belong to, and transform or be transformed by a multiplicity of others. One can easily get lost here. But on the other hand, is there really anything else left for us to do?

For example, under certain circumstances that were particularly painful for me, some of the details of which I strategically suppress, conditions were such on Holy Saturday, 2012, that I had the ability to hear a song being sung by the walls of my house, a song emanating from the broken sidewalks, shattered glass, and endless sorrows of my neighborhood. This song, however, was as much “me” as it was “them.” It was not “their” grief or “their” words any more or less than it was mine (it was generic). Anthony now shares this neighborhood with me, shares some of its brokenness, some of its slowly gentrifying “potential,” some of the souls that have lived and died here, stuck here.

Holy Saturday Blues

Don’t know what I came here for

Don’t know where I’m going to

Preacher tell me there be a place

Going to go up when I die

But when I see his face

I’m gonna ask him please

Why Lord you leave us here

Why we have to work so hard

I working every day

I working for the man

Don’t understand his plan

He don’t even know my name

Don’t know where I came here from

Don’t know where I’m going to

Lord why did you leave me here

Just to let me sing these blues

All the long day and night

They say we’re going to paradise

But if I get there Lord

I’m going to ask you good

What did I do sweet Lord

To make them do this to me

Take my family away

Take me to be some slave

Take me to work some land

I can’t eat no bread from

Lay down and cry all night

No one to comfort me

Lord Lord, why did you do this to me?

Was I a sinner man, did I do something wrong?

Why did I come so far from where I belong?

These Holy Sat’day blues

Be what I sing to you

Till you done raise me up

To drink that loving cup

To wipe my tears away

To keep me there to stay

Where they will know my name

Where I can sing my song

But will you answer me

Lord will you answer me

Will you come down and see, see

What they’ve done to me,

Lord, Lord?

These haunted voices, these ghosts, are the walls of my house. These bricks and fumes are my nature, at least for now, at least if I allow myself to be sensitive, to sense what it is to be here, to be this, now. This prepares me for something I would not otherwise be prepared to do, but it softens me, or is my softening. Acceptance, forgiveness, grief. What can I do, now? Not much, but I am convinced that I am prepared to do something, more than I would be able otherwise to do, by surrendering myself to the enigma of how I am implicated in what this is, of what this reality is.

So, yes, Anthony, I need to reveal some of my own ordeal—and I just did, I think— because somehow, now, even for a trained philosopher like me—that seems contingently necessary.

Nature is not hidden, it is overexposed. Or at least that’s how I’m starting to feel. Or maybe part of my ordeal has been that gospel music that inflected my soul so deeply, so early, that I can only, for the most part, access it indirectly, or relate to indirectly, such that I am not really hiding anything, but rather feeling overexposed in my “misknowing” of myself. Maybe there is no other kind of knowing but misknowing, like trying to know one’s own relation to gospel music, and why those deep old songs with the simple words rip your guts out, make you weep, and why that is its own truth, some truth that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone else yet somehow I’m undyingly grateful for, and have no other choice but to well, sing by other means, or by any means necessary.

8 thoughts on “The Nonstyle of Misknown Nonnaming: A Response to Anthony Paul Smith’s The Misknown Desire of the Philosophers: On Evaluation and Hermeticism

  1. You really ought to keep writing, Josh…your creativity at this point of “crisis” is outstanding.

    I’ve recently been toying with images of “anchoring”, or “revelatory anchoring” to be a bit more precise. My idea is that there is an anchor so to speak which is placed in the life of an individual, at the precise point of certain formative or otherwise constitutive experiences of one’s identity — usually traumas or in general intense periods of “highs or lows”. It seems that the difference between “philosophy” and the “spiritual sciences” as you call them is precisely that in philosophy we find a “lifting of anchors” (…can we understand the wide-scale Wittgenstein-effect as anything else? Do you remember the first time you read Wittgenstein and how it changed your life?), a rejection *tout court* of spiritual revelation; and, in the spiritual sciences, we find the opposite in anchoring by way of revelation.

    In this way, philosophy indeed can come off as cruel. It cuts like a knife, carving out the form of the subject in many ways. It often performs the act of leveling [niveler], and when the anchor is raised you may begin sailing… to where? to what end? In philosophy, you seem to run the risk of getting lost in your sailing, the winds sometimes take you away. Philosophy sometimes takes you outside, outside of life in the World. It sometimes has the effect of you (knowingly or otherwise) detaching yourself or alienating yourself from others, from loved ones, and so forth. It seems the hermeticist fills in the content with, well, meaning. Together, they make what I like to call one’s “ornamentation” (etymologically speakin “ornament” is a name for the overlap of form/content, I think). Obviously, these two do not always fit well…

    To take a philosophical “stab” at your question of whether it is necessary or contingent, the philosopher reveals it to be contingent more often than not, but the hermeticist likely would reveal it to be some kind of necessary — I mean like an “internal necessity” or compulsion let us say of the Spirit. Now, what would the spiritualist say in the face of the double-cross? What is it like to be double-crossed by somebody you trusted? He might caution us with something along the lines of… Let us together put down the knife, let us work this out together, let us not fight any longer. These are generalizations of course, but I think you get the idea I’m trying to send to you. I’ve come to think Nietzsche is getting at this thought too in particular with the idea of “vertical tension” (I’ve just finished Sloterdijk’s _You Must Change Your Life_ with much amazement). He seems to be trying to balance these two concerns, and he does do so better than anybody else I’ve ever read.

    I, certainly, have my own set of personal experiences, which have driven me to study, to write, to learn, to read, to live as I do. My own “crisis of faith” as a preacher’s kid which nobody seems to understand except other PK’s. I share some of these experiences from time to time, but I usually just cloud over the whole ordeal with what I’ve learned…the idea that the “crisis” commands. I’d like to hone in on the idea of “crisis” because it marks in many ways an adversary to the leaning-contingent decision (philosophy) and the leaning-necessary one (spiritual sciences). In philosophy, “the realm of decisionism” alone, I wish to provocatively propose the thesis that there is not nor can there ever be any such thing as a crisis. Perhaps we can think of “crisis” as a point of intersection between the two. In crisis, one does not decide, one cannot decide, there is no time to decide. It is urgent. There is a certain sense of emergency. There is an overwhelming immediacy. One simply does. One simply moves, as quickly as possible, like when you have to rush a loved one to a hospital. One attends to the vulnerability the best as one knows how. Automatically, almost instinctually.

    This continuous interplay between this horizontality (philosophy) and verticality (spiritual sciences) seems to be key, and a balancing between the two seems more or less key. Can we capture this movement for what it is? Now, I concede in advance that these various dichotomies and other categorizations certainly can’t hold much wait in the long run. They can’t hold up to the philosopher’s sharp knife nor can they stand up to the spiritualist’s mindfulness, for these are just fast-and-loose sketches of some of my more elementary thoughts, tied up in a make-shift blog comment. In any event, when all is said and done, I think it is important to occupy and indeed to explore the difficult position of being-in-crisis. This, this place, is what I call the Wilderness.

    Thank you for Wandering with me. Best, David.

  2. And again, after re-reading the song, with its many references to being-taken, I’d like to consider the idea of “takenness” (in hermetic terms, mostly) as being just as important as is that of “givenness” in philosophical inquiry. For all the fuss about Kant in the so-called speculative turn, why we haven’t thought to consider its opposite “takenness” is quite simply beyond me… I wish you well, and may the road rise up to meet you.

  3. “In crisis, one does not decide, one cannot decide, there is no time to decide. It is urgent. There is a certain sense of emergency. There is an overwhelming immediacy. One simply does. one simply moves, as quickly as possible . . . ”

    Here I am before the Master who is demanding of me an answer to the koan with which, seated on my zafu, I have been struggling.

    Gassho for your teaching.

  4. The problem seems to be that a particular expression of modernity has come to be signalled as normative, and even more so, as binding especially within the Academy. The modernity of the Bauhaus for instance was actually incredibly hermetic and perhaps what Josh is signalling is the recovery of a hermetic modernity that was, especially in philosophy, repressed in the name of analytic philosophy- and, to a certain degree, by pragmatism. The heremetic philosophy and experience relocated into the humanities- into literary criticism, art criticism, architectural criticism, eco-critcism and the whole raft of inter-disciplinary studies. Music, as Josh notes, has the ability to trigger the hermetic experience- the turn to gospel, or country, or blues by urban populations in search of what can be termed a secular transcendence is a note-worthy shift in pop culture, the turn to songs of hard-lived experience. Consider also art galleries as ‘hermetic experience machines’ ( to bastardize Le Corb and Mies on the modern house)- galleries are machines to hermeticize in. Is this also why we have seen the return to the exerience of the flaneur, one one to the experience of urban life in all its fullness, walking against the crowds of those who deny the hermetic possibilties.
    Perhaps this is due to me being a PK, a PK who travelled ( or more truthfully wrestled in the manner of jacob and still carry the wounds) as far as being licentiate for ordination but then, confronted by the stifling bureacracy and anti-intellectualism of the church- and now, i see, its anti-hermeticsm – went off on the 45degree angle between philosophy (horizontal) and spiritual sciences ( vertical). So i now live, think, write and subversely teach at the 45degree- which could, i see, be heremtic modernity.

  5. Reading David’s beautiful comments again, this morning, leaves me with little to add, other than that these concepts of “revelatory anchoring” and “takenness” should somehow form the architectonic of any future philosophy of religion, at least from my perspective. There is also a wonderful ambiguity in the concept of “occupy,” where it’s not clear, if one claims to “be fully occupied,” whether one is receiving or performing the action, possessing or being possessed, taking or being taken. Also, everything here resonates very strongly with Deleuze’s words, as a 21 year old, in the 1946 essay on Malfatti, where he speaks of the symbol in terms of the necessity of expression in a minimum of time. Thanks, again, David–I hope to respond to you more substantively in my final remarks for this book event, I’m composing them now and hope to have them up in a day or two.

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