Monday, June 2, 2008

Bachelard, Baudelaire, Bersani

I initially thought that I had never before encountered Gaston Bachelard’s thinking. From the brief entries in the Columbia History and in Cutrofello’s book, I can glean that he is something of a man-behind-the-curtain for a number of the more recent theorists whose work I am most fond of. Bachelard seems to be an unspoken influence on Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, and Leo Bersani.

Badiou’s project of mathematical ontology may be influenced by Bachelard’s anti-Bergsonian assertion of the ontological priority of thought time (a product of counting, which enables conceptual discrimination and has a digital essence) over the lived time of intuition. Like Badiou’s ontology, Bachelard’s thus takes set theory as its ground.

Gilles Deleuze’s relationship to Bachelard is perhaps not solely one of antagonism. Bachelard is mentioned only once in Difference and Repetition and only once in The Logic of Sense, both times in footnotes. Yet Deleuze seems to have thought a great deal about Bachelard’s assertion of the noumenal priority of relations as well as the earlier philosopher’s view of experimentation as “the instantiation of one of an indefinite number of possible cases given by the theory itself” rather than the empirical testing of particular cases (Cutrofello, 59-60)).

Lastly, Bersani (about whom I am better equipped to speak) seems to have taken up Bachelard’s privileging of poetic reverie as ontologically creative. Bachelard establishes three orders of reflective consciousness, each aligned with a version of Descartes’ most famous philosophical postulate as well as with one of Aristotle’s kinds of causality.

1. Bachelard’s (cogito)1 is the cogito as Descartes stated it: “I think, therefore I am” (more accurately, “I am thinking, therefore I am”—but Cutrofello uses the more familiar translation, so we’ll stick with that). This is thinking at the level of efficient causality (a.k.a. motive causality), which Bachelard associates with Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics. This is the causality of “The ball fell because of gravity” as well as of “The ball fell because I dropped it.”

2. (Cogito)2 is expressed as “I think that I think, therefore I am.” For Bachelard this second-order reflexivity of consciousness subordinates efficient causality to final causality, better known to non-Aristotelians as teleology. This is the causality of “I dropped the ball in order to free up my hand for eating,” or “I dropped the ball in order to make it fall, because I consider the falling of balls to be an inherently good thing” or even, say, for a Hegelian, “The ball fell in order that Spirit might move toward its self-realization in history.”

3. (Cogito)3, “I think that I think that I think,” announces the reflective consciousness of formal causality. Aristotle describes the formal cause thusly: “A thing is called a cause in one way [. . .] if it is the form and pattern, that is, the formula of its essence, and the genera of this (for example, 2:1, and in general number, of the octave), and the parts present in the account” (cited in Barnes, 83). As Jonathan Barnes puts it in Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, taking the example of an eclipse, the eclipse’s formal cause “states the form or essence of an eclipse—it says what an eclipse is.” Formal causality relies upon a given account of an event or thing. Again, in Barnes’s example, “What it is and why it is are the same. What is an eclipse? Privation of light from the moon by the earth’s screening. Why is there an eclipse? [. . .] Because the light leaves it when the earth screens it” (87). In other words, the moon is eclipsed because (1) the moon is deprived of light by being screened; and (2) things deprived of light by being screened are eclipsed.

Thus, formal causality is discursive and relational. As Cutrofello writes, quoting Bachelard, “To live at the level of (cogito)3 is to seek ‘links, agreements, even Baudelairian correspondences’ between ‘pure thought and pure poetry’” (62). In his indispensable account of the various influences upon Baudelaire’s concept of correspondences, Henri Dorra quotes the early-nineteenth-century philosopher Pierre Leroux, who, when Baudelaire was ten years old, wrote, “Poetry is the mysterious wing that glides at will in the whole world of the soul, in that infinite sphere, one part of which is colors, another sounds, another movements, another judgments, and so forth, all vibrating simultaneously, according to certain laws, so that a vibration in one region communicates itself to another region. The privilege of art is to feel and express these relationships, which are deeply hidden in the very unity of life. From these harmonic vibrations of the diverse regions of the soul an accord results, and this accord is life; and when this accord is expressed, it constitutes art” (cited in Henri Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories, 8).

Bersani calls this vibration “the correspondence of forms.” It is a sort of synaesthesia between various lines of the world and various lines of consciousness (or of the subject). Consciousness at once locates the correspondences in the world (as ontologically prior to the moment of their location) and “cultivates” those correspondences in the world through the act of locating them (Bersani, Intimacies, 87). While Bersani does not speak explicitly in terms of phenomenological reduction, as does Bachelard (who insists that a qualitatively new reduction is necessary to move from one level of the cogito to the next), nonetheless it seems easy to reconcile Bersani’s project with that of Bachelardian aesthetics as I tentatively understand it. As Cutrofello writes, “In aesthetic reflection, thought finds itself confronting not ‘objects’ that can be determined by a legislative subject but ‘forms’ that in some sense resist determination. Although at the level of (cogito) 3 we find ourselves unable to subsume objects under determinate concepts, we [do not] experience this failure [. . .] as a cognitive shortcoming because the objects in question present us not so much with the demand that they be determined as with the meta-level (or higher order) demand that our thinking confront the very demand that objects be determined” (63). This account seems to jibe quite well with Bersani’s aesthetics (laid out most fully in Arts of Impoverishment, Caravaggio’s Secrets, and Forms of Being), which cultivates relations among terms while refusing any moves to determine those terms (moves that Bersani would regard as identitarian).

Equally compelling is Bachelard’s attack on Heidegger. For Bachelard, the imagination is the subject’s capacity to engage in reverie, that is, the consciousness of (cogito)3. Bachelard prescribes reverie as the highest state to which we should aspire: “We ourselves have found it exceedingly difficult, psychologically speaking, to attain to (cogito)4. We believe that the true region of formal repose in which we would gladly remain is that of (cogito)3” (cited in Cutrofello, 62). For Heidegger, imagination is not reverie; rather it is the primordial temporality of Dasein, in connection with which Dasein becomes resolute and authentic. “Thus, whereas Bachelard suggests that ‘it is through reverie that one must learn phenomenology,’ Heidegger suggests that phenomenology can only be learned by abandoning oneself to the self-disclosure of being. [Isn’t Heidegger’s] ‘step back,’ by which the thinker allows Enframing to show itself as such, ultimately just a reflection on (cogito)3 from the standpoint of the Ereignis itself?” (Cutrofello 63). In this way Heidegger’s self-disclosing being is critiqued as a misapprehension of “the elusive perspective of (cogito)4,” a mistaking of “I think that I think that I think that I think” for something like “my being thinks me.” This is perhaps a very understandable confusion, since Bachelard suggests that it’s impossible to understand (cogito)4 but acknowledges the ineradicable temptation figured by the possibility of attaining that state someday, somehow.

1 comment:

Muskeget said...

Where can I find a concise introduction to Bachelard (especially in regard to Badiou)?