Balance and imbalance

Which comes first, balance or imbalance? Which is more primordial? Many would have it that balance comes first, that there is a preestablished harmony that is then disturbed, often by human willfulness. In our contemporary world, for instance, many would hold that the market is inherently balanced and is only thrown off by extraneous human interventions — a modern-day notion of the inexplicable intrusion of original sin into God’s perfect creation.

Yet there can be no such thing as a permanent, inherent balance, because balance always presupposes at least two things. If we see something that looks like a balance and is permanent and inherent, then it is only a balance by analogy — really, we are just looking at parts of one thing and noting how they go together. Balancing always means balancing things that are not the same, that are not inherently compatible, that don’t automatically fit together. Balance is always an achievement, and one that must be continually renewed.

This provides us with one way of interpreting Zizek’s claim, based in his reading of Hegel and Lacan, that the gap is primordial, that difference actually generates what seem to be its positive terms. Take, for instance, the gap that separates the biological from the mental, nature from culture — the gap that Freud designates as the space of “drive.” The negativity of drive is what allows for the emergence of something like culture, but it also changes what it means to have a body. The “body” as such, as it occurs (at least) among humans, is a product of the distortion introduced by that negativity. The drive is logically prior even if we must concede that the matter that makes it up in some sense existed “before” the introduction of the gap. Drive “posits its presuppositions” — it transforms the “purely natural” body into something fundamentally different. (Indeed, drive is what creates the fantasy of a “purely natural” body that would simply exist in an unproblematic way.)

We can read Agamben’s treatment of the oath in The Sacrament of Language in a similar light. It’s not as though the oath marks a primordial correlation between words and things that is then disturbed by the intrusion of perjury. The oath grows out of an originary experience of the gap between words and things, which must then be forcibly brought into some kind of balance or correspondence. The lack is constitutive, and it produces our very sense of what words and things are — whatever material reality underlay them is completely transformed by the negativity that originally brings them into relationship.

In her recent book Why Psychoanalysis?, Alenka Zupancic argues that the task of psychoanalysis is precisely analysis, separation — and never synthesis. We come to analysis due to the fall-out of a failed synthesis, and the goal of analysis is not to produce a (more) successful one, but to get us to give up on the synthesis altogether, to let the gap be the gap. The goal is not to finally and definitively interpret that analysand’s unconscious, to extract all their drives and translate them into the realm of the Symbolic or big Other, but to get them to give up on meaning, to recognize the meaningless core. Similarly, Agamben calls for us to rethink our privileging of language, to stop trying to find something like meaning or purpose in our relationship to language.

For both, there is the counterargument that they are knocking at an open door. In Agamben’s case, he explicitly starts the book with the admission that the oath is losing its hold on Western culture, and Zupancic must face the commonplace observation that in our contemporary world, the big Other has lost its charge amid a culture of universalized transgression. Aren’t we already living in their proposed solution? I’d suggest that we can understand their critique better if we refer to the commonplace claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Many religious critics of this stance emphasize the fact that people who self-identify in this way don’t want to do the hard work of committing to a particular tradition, etc., and that is certainly part of it — but their reason for doing so is to preserve some abstract sense of believing-ness that is free from any fallible real-world instantiation and thus can never be disappointed. Far from being a cheapened form of belief, the “spiritual but not religious” stance elevates belief to a transcent and absolutely unassailable plane. Yes, such a person wants to keep all options open — except facing up to non-belief, to lack of meaning.

Hence the solution is perhaps to become “religious but not spiritual,” to let our various cultural rituals be meaningless. This is something different from ironic distance, which presupposes some “other supposed to believe” — enshrining the idea of sincerity through the negative reference to the presumed naive sap who “really believes” (the person who would really like the bad movie, who would take the shitty job seriously, etc.). Ironic distance is the last refuge for sincerity, which preserves it by elevating it to an impossible standard to which we can relate only negatively. What we need is neither to affirm nor deny meaning or sincerity, but to deactivate it, to render it inoperative, to stop the endless work of balancing.

22 thoughts on “Balance and imbalance

  1. I read a lot of Agamben’s work as a comment on this split nature of reality that you refer to in the Sacrament of Language. The split nature is described as that between sound and sense, poetry and prose, human and animal, body and soul, Jew and Gentile etc. etc. Particularly interesting is that he describes his method in The Signature of All Things as analogical, which I think opens the door to read this split nature of reality according to theological accounts of analogy, of which I find that of the Catholic theologian Erich Przywara particuarly helpful.

    Przywara describes analogy as a simiarity within an ever greater dissimilarity with the form in-and-beyond (essence-in-and-beyond existence, God-in-and-beyond the creature etc). I wonder if this could also be applied to balance and imbalance, that there is balance within an ever greater imbalance, or that imbalance exists in-and-beyond balance. If this were the case, imbalance would not simply overcome balance, nor would balance be an attempt to overcome imbalance, but would presuppose it. The caesura between balance and imbalance would become a suture that would make the sorts of analogical relationships that you describe possible, such that the division between balance and imbalance itself would be rendered inoperative, not by overcoming one side of equation or equating the two into a synthesis, but according to the in-and-beyond relationship that divides the division.

  2. I think you’d need to put in some serious work to verify that there’s more similarity between Agamben’s work and theological accounts of analogy than just the name.

  3. The notion that imbalance is ontologically prior is also central to Deleuze: the virtual is prior to the actual, where the virtual names a field of preindividual singularities that are intrinsically differential; this intrinsic differentiality is also an intrinsic problematicity, and the actual then becomes the (necessarily never final) resolution of this differential problematic. Looked at from this angle, it appears to me that the essential problem with analogy is that it disavows this ontologically prior difference. It can read it only as “ontological violence.” When in fact the real violence is to read problems as somehow always already solved — that is, already solved ontologically, and thus only in need of political incarnation. This means that adequate politics depends on having an adequate ontology, i.e. an ontology of peace, i.e. analogy. For what it’s worth, this is (a crude summation of) my argument against Milbank, Hart, etc. in a chapter of my *Deleuze and the Naming of God* book. All of which is to say i absolutely agree.

    This also indicates, Lexi, that I have a position different from your proposal. But it’s an interesting proposal you make — as i understand it, and forgive the reductions involved in my brief restatement, i take it that you’re saying analogy should not be read as advocating balance and opposing imbalance. In other words, analogy is not about balance vs. imbalance, it is instead about a relationship between balance and imbalance (correct me of course if i’m misreading). If this is the case, though, it seems to me that this implies a balance between balance and imbalance, such that balance still is understood as prior to imbalance, or to the difference between balance and imbalance.

  4. Dan, that was such a good comment that I just spent ten minutes trying to buy your book before realizing it is forthcoming.

    I’ll look forward to reading it in December.

  5. I’m working on it, but for a start Agamben says that analogy moves from singularity to singularity within a field of polar tensions. He opposes this to attempts to resolve logical dichotomies into a larger synthesis (p 19-20). Przywara’s analogy is also a transformation of antitheses into tensions, rather than dialogical identities or syntheses (Polarity, p 64). The resulting movement is an oscillation between poles. In both cases, polar tension enables a movement between things (singularities or poles) that is not a straightforward movement towards a synthesis. The accounts are not identical, but the form of the relationship is similar, which suggests to me at least more similarity between the two than just the name.

  6. Thank you, Dan. I suppose then, the question is whether it’s possible to think about a relationship in terms other than balance. It seems to me that most relationships are not in fact balanced. So must we necessarily think of a relationship between balance and imbalance as a balanced one?

  7. Lexi, i’m not sure — i suppose that i take balance and imbalance, starting from face value, as mutually exclusive. So, where to go from here? It seems that one can run the opposition of balance / imbalance through a number of mediations or whatever, but in the last instance one is going to prior to the other. … So, from this point of view, to claim that there is a relation between balance and imbalance could certainly be a mediation, but if it’s an ultimate claim, then the very idea of a relation seems (to me in any case) to imply that there is a balance between balance and imbalance. (For instance, to claim that there is a relation is to refuse that notion that there is no relation; also, to claim that there is a relation seems to imply a third term between balance and imbalance, even if that third term is unsayable or uncapturable, etc.)

  8. Oh, I see. If one understands imbalance as prior, then one will necessarily see them as mutually exclusive, whereas if one thinks there can be some sort of mediation between them, then one has already privileged balance, as it is necessary to any such mediation. Is that right? Does that mutual exclusivity then mean that any balance we perceive is only a semblance of balance? That there is no real balance, even a transient, fleeting one? If that were the case, then it would seem to me that the virtual isn’t merely prior to the actual, but that there is no actual.

  9. It seems to me that the claim of analogical thinking is always to have created a balance beyond balance and imbalance — to be so balanced that it can afford to include imbalance. You can keep doing meta-levels like that, but I think in the end analogical thinking as practiced in the Christian tradition is always going to wind up privileging balance. But I don’t think Agamben is doing that with his invocation of analogy.

  10. Thank you, Adam. I’m curious about that. Is there something about the Christian tradition that makes it necessarily privilege balance? If so, what is it about Agamben’s analogy that would make it irreconcilably different?

  11. The mainstream Christian tradition has always privileged balance as far as I can tell, particularly in the Catholic tradition. Agamben’s analogy does not presuppose an overall balance, synthesis, hierarchy of being, etc. It’s not a more nuanced and complex step toward synthesis — it excludes synthesis. Now I’m at a disadvantage, never having studied Przywara closely, but unless Przywara turns out to be a really heterodox thinker, he’s going to presuppose a higher synthesis. Even if “locally” the techniques might look similar, they aren’t part of the same project.

  12. I think I’m just not yet convinced that balance and synthesis must always go together. There is a certain balance in Przywara, but it’s one that seeks to keep tension open rather than synthesize it. So, I definitely agree that Agamben excludes synthesis, but in making analogies between singularities, even without synthesizing them into a higher general rule, is he not striking some sort of balance, no matter how transient, between those singularities? Both thinkers certainly have different projects, but balance for both is something transient that happens in movement, rather than a static state that we are trying to maintain.

    The question about Barth is certainly interesting. In one way his early work, especially, is unbalanced, (which is precisely Przywara’s critique of him). But perhaps this is also simply another attempt at balance – humans are too difficult and must therefore be reduced to nothing so that God in his balanced-ness can become everything. I don’t know.

  13. From your description, it seems that Przywara’s is a meta-balance — there’s dynamism, there’s ongoing management of imbalance, there are various tensions, etc. — and yet it still takes place within an overall framework of balance. Even if balance is something that is constantly a “work in progress,” there isn’t any real danger that God is going to drop the ball and let things fall totally out of balance. It’s a balance between balance and imbalance, in short — balance is still presupposed as ontologically prior and as the overall goal. Again, even if they’re “locally” similar, systems in which overall balance is presupposed and in which imbalance has priority are very different.

    Some form of balance exists whether we prioritize balance or imbalance — so no, balance doesn’t presuppose overall synthesis. The debate is not about whether balance exists or not, but about its relative priority. Agamben may be striking a balance at certain points, but that doesn’t make his strategy the same as that of a Roman Catholic theologian who is working within the terms of the analogia entis. You said earlier that it seems to you that balance just doesn’t exist in a system that presupposes imbalance, but that strikes me as a way of stacking the deck (“either there’s overall ontological balance or total chaos!!!”). I’ve never denied that some form of balance exists, nor has Dan.

  14. I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to stack the deck. It’s great that some form of balance exists. But what I’m trying to figure out is what it’s relationship to imbalance then is. Can they interact at all or is every such relationship always an ontologically prior form of balance?

    (By the way, I’m new at this, so while this is interesting and helpful for me, I do not want come across as belligerent or annoying, or keep going when everyone else is really done with the conversation)

  15. The very abstract terminology seems to be causing communication problems. What if we said there are two pairings at stake — balance/imbalance and global/local? I’m proposing a system in which there is global imbalance but there can be provisional local imbalances. It sounds to me like Przywara is saying that there’s a global balance that incorporates local imbalances (which adds an element of dynamism to the system). Does that make any more sense?

  16. It does, but I think it is more complicated than that for Przywara. While God is certainly unity, balance etc. he doesn’t contain creaturely reality as a global would contain a local. Przywara describes the transcendent as a vertical axis intersecting the oscillating horizontal axis. I guess that could still mean that there is an overall greater balance governing the interaction of the axes, but my understanding is that the vertical axis has a sort of disrupting effect on any premature attempt at synthesizing the immanent into a balanced whole unto itself. It’s not we who cause an imbalance that must be contained, but we are tempted to prematurely closed-off balances that must be disrupted. At least this is how I read him. Perhaps I am wrong.

  17. Out of my depth academically on this, I wondered if some ideas from the Newtonian mechanics I teach might fund the metaphor. Essentially, there are two sorts of balance – or what Newton would have described as ‘equilibrium.’ The first is a stable equilibrium – which you would see in a still pendulum. You can knock it out of balance, but the nature of that equilibrium tends back towards equilibrium. It has a ‘centre-seeking acceleration’. The second is an unstable equilibrium – a house of cards if you will – which is in balance, but will topple into catastrophic ‘imbalance’ given just a nudge. One is the marble sitting in a rut – which when disturbed will tend back to sitting in the rut, and the other is the marble sitting on a hill, which will simply fall away.

    So my own shallow reading of the above about the ‘management of imbalance’ would add that this management can take a number of forms, depending on whether the balance being attempted is stable (“so balanced that it can afford to include imbalance”) or unstable. Though this might actually be bullshit!

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