I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments. I thereby help to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change. I take my job to be only mildly discreditable, partly because I don’t think, finally, that this realm of words is in most cases much more than an epiphenomenon secreted by power relations which would otherwise express themselves with even greater and more dramatic directness. Partly, too, because 10 percent of the job is an open area within which it is possible that some of these young people might become minimally reflective about the world they live in and their place in it; in the best of cases they might come to be able and willing to work for some minimal mitigation of the cruder excesses of the pervading system of oppression under which we live. The remaining 5 percent of my job, by the way, what I would call the actual “philosophical” part, is almost invisible from the outside, totally unclassifiable in any schema known to me—and quantitatively, in any case, so insignificant that it can more or less be ignored.
So the experience I have of my everyday work environment is of a conformist, claustrophobic and repressive verbal universe, a penitential domain of reason-mongering in which hyperactivity in detail—the endlessly repeated shouts of “why,” the rebuttals, calls for “evidence,” qualifications and quibbles—stands in stark contrast to the immobility and self-referentiality of the structure as a whole. I suffer from recurrent bouts of nausea in the face of this densely woven tissue of “arguments,” most of which are nothing but blinds for something else altogether, generally something unsavory; and I feel an urgent need to exit from it altogether. Unsurprisingly, Plato had a name for people like me when I am in this mood: misovlogos, a hater of reasoning. I comfort myself for being on the wrong side of Plato by thinking that I am also, at any rate, never unaware of the potentially questionable nature of this desire. One might be inherently suspicious of what is clearly the luxury complaint of someone who occupies what is in effect a very privileged position in a rich society; those suffering from debilitating diseases, struggling to get access to clean water, trying desperately to avoid the systematic attentions of a repressive state-apparatus, or enduring the more or less random violence of armed gangs in regions where public order has broken down might well be thought to have more pressing concerns. To that extent perhaps my reaction does not throw a morally flattering light on me. That does not, however, exhaust the objective disquiet my impulse causes me.
A world utterly without “why” can have one or the other of two very different aspects. It can seem a deeply contemplative, even if not necessarily thoroughly pleasant, place, as in the poem by the seventeenth-century mystic Angelus Silesius:
Die Ros’ is ohn’ Warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet. Sie acht’ nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht ob man sie siehet.
The rose is without why; she blossoms because she blossoms. She pays no attention to herself, does not ask if anyone sees her.
The rose may have a thorn and her self-less insouciance will perhaps be barely distinguishable from cold indifference; still, this vision of reality as freed completely from the subordination of any of its parts to purpose or functionality might have some aesthetic appeal. The other, potentially diabolical, aspect of this construction is the one which presented itself to Primo Levi when he realized that in Auschwitz there was no “why.” Levi’s experience, of course, was not really of a place in which there was no “why” at all. The SS officers with whom he came into contact had a variety of reasons for what they did and what they allowed to happen. Some of these reasons, to be sure, were un- reflective and conflicting, some perhaps fantastic and delusional, and many were deeply malicious— but that is a different thing. It was not in fact that an extermination camp had no “why” whatever, but that those in control of Levi’s fate were in no way required or inclined to give him any reasons for anything that occurred. Nevertheless, a world in which reason was utterly inaccessible to the individual is at least an approximation of one possible form of a “world without why.”
“Anywhere outside this world” was Baudelaire’s plea. But our networks of institutionally anchored universal ratiocination are hard to escape. How in fact could one get out, assuming one wanted to? Offhand, I can think of three possible ways. First, one could be clever enough to turn the why-game against itself from within. This has been the dream of any number of philosophers including, most notably, Hegel and Heidegger. This way out does not recommend itself to me because I am not clever enough to tread this path successfully, but also because even if I were successful, who would notice? The second possibility is action. One deed is worth any number of words. A deed can cut through—I always think of this with the French word trancher—the spider’s web of bogus rationalizations and create not merely new words, but new facts. Unfortunately, this second course of action requires very significant amounts of courage and practical skills of various kinds— neither of which I possess. The courage in question, by the way, is not merely personal fearlessness in the face of threats to oneself, but also the moral courage to face the possibility that one’s actions— which, if they are going to be effective at all, will certainly be almost completely out of one’s own control as far as their actual consequences are concerned—may turn out to inflict great suffering on the wrong people (even assuming one were to know for certain who these are).
The third possibility is the invitation—in particular the invitation to observe, look at or consider something. One kind of thing one can be invited to consider is a juxtaposition: masses of anonymous people storming the Winter Palace and two stone lions standing up on their pedestals, or the Prime Minister oleaginously addressing the House of Commons and a pile of bodies in a ditch in Iraq. By putting two (or more) separate “things” next to each other and inviting people to look at them together, one is not necessarily asking or trying to answer the question “why.” A poem may cause someone to ask a question or to initiate a line of reflection, or even to develop some hypothesis or theory, but then a clap of thunder or a sudden pain in the chest may do the same— that does not make either the pain or the poem a theory or a “line of argument.” A word in a good poem is not a concept. Since neither a picture nor a poem is an argument, neither is a suitable object for counterargument. Paul Éluard’s La terre est bleue comme une orange [The earth is blue like an orange] is not best understood as “asserting a proposition.” Neither is
Der Nordost wehet, Der liebste unter den Winden Mir, weil er feurigen Geist Und gute Fahrt verheisset den Schiffern.
The northwest wind blows, the dearest of the winds to be because he promise fiery spirits and good passage to sailors.
Nor finally even:
Ver erat, et morbo Romae languebat inerti Orbilius.
It was spring and in Rome Orbilius was suffering from a debilitating sickness.
You can’t refute an invitation (although you can refuse it, closing your mind and heart to it): it makes no claim. At the end of all the talk, the poem, if it is good enough, is still standing there, waiting. An invitation has neither the direct constructive or coercive power of action, nor the indirect coercive power of ratiocination—Habermas’s “peculiarly uncoercive coercion of the better argument.” If one is lucky enough to live in a society in which a sphere of “free” artistic activity is permitted to exist, no one is forced to look at one’s picture, listen to one’s poem or read one’s novel. Still the work of art need not be without effect on those who accept its invitation.
Simple juxtaposition of external objects, persons or events not usually seen together has a number of variants which are perhaps no less interesting and “compelling” (to use the peculiar expression that seems natural here). Rather than allowing the sewing machine to encounter an umbrella on the dissecting table, one can invite the reader to pay attention to something usually overlooked or taken for granted, which seems to have a unity that upon inspection dissolves. The world can occasionally turn itself inside out or upside down. No one who lived even in complete personal security through the period of the Vietnam War could thereafter ever hear the sound of a helicopter in exactly the same way again. Is a “sand-pit” a child’s playground, a Roman arena or the abstract space within which military experts plan thermonuclear war? I invite you to consider this.
Shall we go to the sand-pits?
Yes, let’s go to the sand-pits.
Will the air be fresh and clear
over the sand-pits?
Depending on the season, the time
of day, and the weather
the air will be cool, sultry, or mild
over the sand-pits.
Shall we whistle and get a drink
at the sand-pits?
Whistling and drinking are de rigueur
at the sand-pits.
Will there be a crowd
at the sand-pits?
There is almost invariably a crowd
at the sand-pits.
Shall we take our whips
to the sand-pits?
In what tree have you parked
your brain, imbecile?
Without whips what would be the point
of the sand-pits?