The Future of the Humanities: Experimenting – Samuel Weber

Do the Humanities have a future? Is there a place for the study of literature, of art, of language and of philosophy in a world progressively dominated by an economic logic of profit and loss? What possible purpose can such disciplines fulfill in the face of technologies that seem to be rapidly rendering obsolete what was perhaps the most defining function of ‘man’ at least since the European Renaissance: the function of productive labor? If the past three centuries saw an increasing tendency to assign value to human activity in terms of its ability to create wealth through the organization of production, then something very radical has happened in the twentieth century: the separation of productive labor from the accumulation of wealth. To be sure, this separation has always existed in varying degrees. But in the past decades it has returned with a rather alarming intensity. Those who have to ‘work for a living’ have seen themselves increasingly marginalized in large parts of the world, and in particular in those areas which had looked to labor as a means not just of survival but of salvation. In the process, not just the value of work has been called into question, but the entire system of values that has grown up with it. First and foremost, perhaps, the notion of ‘humanity’ as a form of life that is privileged insofar as it fulfills its destiny through productive, wealth-producing activity.

In short, since the Italian Renaissance, the notion of the ‘human’, which underlies that of the ‘Humanities’, has been largely understood as designating a mode of being that has been regarded as self-producing. To be ‘human’ came, at least in the modern period, to be synonymous with the power and potentiality of self-realization, and productive labor was seen as a manifestation of that more defining possibility. In short, the ‘human’ and the Humanities were defined in terms of a capacity of self-determination through labor that modern technology and the economic relationships it serves have seriously undermined.

In what sense ‘undermined’? Quite simply through the fact that ‘production’ and ‘selfhood’ were, through the development of technology, increasingly separated from one another. First, through the introduction of mechanical technology, in which productive potentiality was progressively transferred to the iterative action of machines. The mechanisms of mechanized production however still functioned in a space and time that was compatible with that of the individual human body, taken as an organic whole, construed as the material condition and container of a no less holistic psyche or soul. But from the eighteenth century on, the auto-matic, reiterative quality of mechanical operation provided a model for what can best be described as an uncanny return of the other to haunt the Self.

It must be remembered that the modern Self of which I am speaking is the product of a tradition that in its origins was specifically European, but that has progressively extended its influence over large parts of the globe, first through military conquest and more recently through economic and technological means as well. This modern, ‘Western’ Self defined itself by assuming a position vis à vis the world and in its mirror-image; which is to say, by denying to the other(s) the independence it claimed for itself. The Cartesian Cogito, for instance – and it is certainly an exemplary instance – defined itself as the power of representing and positioning itself by deliberately ignoring or bracketing the specific reality or quality of everything other. The dimension of alterity was thus condemned to serve as a sort of inverted mirror-image of the Self: as res extensa, for instance, as opposed to the res intensa of self-consciousness. But even more than such spatial metaphors would suggest, the privilege of the thinking Self over the ‘external’ world was construed as inhering not in a state of being, but in a power to accomplish the action of representing: that is, of bringing others before the Self. In cutting itself loose from the bonds of traditional (religious) authorities, this skeptical, nominalist, essentially Protestant move affirmed the foundational privilege of the indivisible Subject of self-consciousness precisely in and through its separation from the world and from others. ‘All the contents of my representations may be illusory’, Descartes argued in substance, ‘but not the fact that such representations, even as illusions, demonstrate the sure and certain existence of an underlying subject consisting in the power of representation itself’: not just an ego cogitans, but a cogito me cogitare, as Heidegger puts it: a thinking-myself-thinking.

In this Cartesian and European definition of the ‘human’, there can be distinguished two interrelated aspects that have found institutional expression in the modern university. First, the effort to demarcate a sure and certain, reliable and self-contained position through a gesture of separation from a (spatial) world and a (temporal) tradition held to be unreliable and deceptive. Second, already implied in the first effort of demarcation: the tendency to construe the position of the Self as prior to both space and time, insofar as they entail the possibility of alteration and of alterity. Thus, the certitude assigned to the Cartesian Cogito requires it to be conceived as being neither essentially temporal nor spatial in structure. Rather, it must be thought as an instant conceived to be above and prior to space and time (you will notice that it is difficult if not impossible to articulate such a position independently of temporal and spatial figures of speech: ‘above’, ‘prior to’, and so forth). Both these two characteristics – positioning through demarcation and separation, and positioning as an instant prior to temporal and spatial alteration – can also be attributed to universities since the Renaissance. First, universities sought to establish themselves at a more or less secure distance from the conflicts of social life. Descartes’ account of his ‘retreat’ from the active life in order to have the peace and tranquillity necessary for reflection could also serve as a description of a certain type of academic career, although it is one that is today undergoing radical transformation. Second, they demanded such distance in the hopes of better arriving at secure and reliable knowledge. And in addition, they tended to conceive of the bases of that secure and reliable knowledge as grounded in their own powers and procedures of representation and cognition.

In these three features, what one could call, in a somewhat paradoxical phrase, the ‘traditionally modern’ university – the university, as it developed in Europe since 1800 – demonstrated its profound affinity with the Cartesian Cogito, and through it, with an essential dimension of modern humanitas. What were the functions performed by the Humanistic University, in this context? First, that of providing a certain security and certitudevis-à-vis a world full of uncertainties as well as of opportunities. Second, that of providing security through the production of knowledge, understood not just as the discovery of an external reality, but as the production of techniques through which that externality could be mastered. In this perspective, the production and transmission of knowledge has never been simply a neutral process; it has always involved the effort to overcome uncertainty and to provide security (two sides of the same coin). And this was accomplished through a third function, tied to the two I have just mentioned: namely, that of providing a model of unification legitimating the political containment of conflictual diversity, whether that of social relations or that involved in historical transformations.

The political institution that was fundamentally associated with the modern University, whether directly, as its source of financial support, as in Europe, or indirectly, as in the United States or in Britain, was therefore that of the nation-state. For the nation-state is the institutional manifestation of the unity and wholeness of a given society, above and beyond the diversity and often the disunity of its component groups, whether these groups are defined ethnically, economically, regionally, religiously, or, as more recently, in terms of gender, ‘race’ or sexual preference. The way in which even the most stable of ‘societies’ individuate themselves, the way they set their defining limits, for instance, through laws of immigration and of naturalization, always entails a more or less conflictual process.

And it is precisely in this conflict that universities in general, and the idea of the Humanities in particular, traditionally intervened. The notion of humanitas, as the OED reminds us, carries with it an indelible reference to Latin writers such as Cicero and Aulus Gellius, and through them to the kind of education ‘befitting a man’. Since the nineteenth century this has generally been understood as what today we might call ‘literary culture’. To speak of the Humanities, then, is to imply a model of unity based upon a certain idea of the human, whether as opposed to the divine (medieval, scholastic humanism) or to the non-human animal world. But as I have already suggested, this relatively stable, initial notion of the human has, since the Renaissance, been displaced by a more dynamic, more self-referential conception, in which precisely the destabilizing dynamics of production have created an ever more pressing need for a model of unification.

To formulate the issue in this way is, to be sure, to suggest that a major aspect of the Humanities has always been that of providing the State with a universalizable, ‘anthropological’ and cultural model in order to legitimate the violence and inequalities that constitute the disruptive dimension of social and political interaction. And this remains true even today, I would argue, when the ‘cultural’ model has been updated itself in unabashedly ‘multicultural’ terms. A ‘multicultural’ university, such as the one in which I teach (UCLA), still inevitably requires the implicit appeal to a more or less transcendent unity in order to justify its existence.

The unity of the university remains profoundly bound up with the notion of a universally valid essence of the ‘human’, which is the anthropological correlative of the epistemological universalism that resides at the core of the university as an institution. The tension, which has been exacerbated by what is known as ‘globalization’, in all of its senses, is the result of a conflict between local, particular or even national problems and a universalist vocation that claims to respond to them, or rather, to transcend them. In this conflict, an ostensibly universalistic perspective – that of the ‘globe’ – has been used in order to justify a process that has been anything but simply universal in its effects: for instance, in the redistribution of wealth it has brought about in the past few decades. ‘Globalization’ is the name that succeeds the binarism of the Cold War. What lurks behind its ostensible universalism is the message that there are no longer any alternatives to the dominant political-economic system. Despite the many adverse effects that the neo-Liberal tendencies of this system have had, and are having, on the organization of higher education, there remains a fundamental affinity between the traditional biases of the university and the ostensibly universal perspective of ‘globalization’. As the Cartesian institution par excellence, the modern university conceives of itself as a place where universally – ‘globally’ – valid knowledge is discovered, conserved and transmitted. This universalist bias of the modern university is not related to any specific cognitive content or discipline but rather results from the premise that underlies cognitive activity in general: namely, that it is universally valid. Such universalism is thus inherent in the traditional notion of truth that underlies the notion of knowledge. ‘Untrue knowledge’ is an oxymoron, since knowledge that is untrue would not be generally considered to be knowledge at all. And the truth-value of propositions is similarly expected to hold universally.

It is this premise that gives to the twin and associated values of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ their consoling force, even if their contents are in and of themselves reprehensible or otherwise intolerable. It is this that has traditionally given to the university its defining quality: whether as a site of teaching or of research, the unity and universality of the university has depended upon a certain notion of knowledge as both unifying and totalizing, which is to say, as comprehensive and all-encompassing.

To be sure, the intellectual division of labor has for at least two centuries haunted this ideal of comprehensive, total knowledge, by increasingly distancing the different divisions and disciplines from one another. Indeed, the most eloquent formulations of this ideal, which go back some two centuries, are already marked by this challenge. In 1803, Schelling published the lectures he had given the previous year in Berlin under the title, Lectures on the Method of Academic Studies. In the introductory pages of his text, Schelling gives a picture of university studies which, mutatis mutandis, could have been written today, at least insofar as many European and State universities are concerned. Schelling begins by defining his addressee as the ‘student youth’, formulated in the masculine gender, to be sure (den studierenden Jüngling), whose initial impressions of university study he describes as follows:

Upon first beginning his academic career, and in proportion as he has a sense and urge for the whole, the young student can hardly have any other impression than that of an undifferentiated chaos, or a vast ocean in which he has been thrust without compass or pole star. (Schelling, 1990: 5)

The result, continues Schelling, is generally in the best of cases disoriented searching and more often, resignation and cynical preparation for a practical career. And this discomfort is all the greater, as we have just heard, to the extent that the student ‘has a sense and urge for the whole’. For it is precisely the whole that is lacking in the industrious but chaotic activities that confront the beginning student. From this Schelling draws his first and decisive conclusion:

It is therefore necessary that Universities offer public and general instruction about the purpose and nature of academic study, both insofar as its particular objects are concerned and as a whole. (Schelling, 1990: 6)

<>pThe problem, for Schelling – and perhaps today as well – is to reconcile the particularity of university studies, of the knowledge and training it both imparts and seeks, which is necessarily limited in scope, with that more general dimension, which aims at the whole, the totality, and which entails the universality of knowledge and truth. Particular skills can be both taught and discovered at institutions and in situations that need not have anything to do with what are called ‘universities’: the specificity of the university as an institution, paradoxically perhaps, or perhaps dialectically, has to do with the fact that in it, knowledge ceases to be simply directed towards specific objects and instead, or rather also – for this is a parallel feature rather than an alternative – relates to the more general ability of human beings to learn and to know, independently of the specific use to which knowledge can be put.

In this sense, then, the university can be said to be the institution that provides, on a collective scale, the privileged conditions for the pursuit of the Cartesian notion of man as res cogitans, rather than as res extensa. Not for nothing does Schelling recur to the Cartesian notion of ‘Method’ in his title. For just as Descartes argued that the only possible way to certitude was to abstract from all the objective contents of our representations and instead to turn back, to re-flect upon the act of representing itself – which so reflected reveals itself to be the act of representing the Self – so Schelling argues that the indispensable unity and totality so sorely missed by the beginning student can only be provided by the university to the extent that it also reflects upon the general conditions under which specific knowledge is possible. Even the kind of empirical truth characteristic of particular knowledge, Schelling argues, could never derive from a relation to something called an object, since how could one ever arrive at such a thing unless it were through knowledge?

What Schelling is here suggesting is that the very process of producing or acquiring cognition may itself be particularly blind to its own condition of possibility, or impossibility, inasmuch as it tends to take for granted the status of the knowledge it produces. Why should this be a problem? Allow me to formulate a response in terms quite different from those that Schelling would have used, but which I believe are close to his fundamental concerns. All knowledge entails both contact with the unknown and the effort to comprehend it. Which is to say, the effort to assimilate it. Assimilation, as the name suggests, involves a process of ‘making-like’ or ‘similar’. How is it possible to ‘know’ for certain that in thereby assimilating the hitherto unrecognized ‘object’ to what is familiar, we are not abandoning or losing precisely that which makes it different, other. In short, that which makes it a potentialob-ject of knowledge. For if knowledge is to distinguish itself from hallucination, projection or mere phantasm, it must retain a relationship to that which resists subsumption under the familiar. The process of discovery, the production of knowledge, must thereby always entail a transformation of what has hitherto been familiar, taken for granted or considered as ‘knowledge’ into something less self-evident – just as inversely it transforms the hitherto unknown into something more familiar.

Schelling’s solution to this problem will probably sound very dated to most people today. For it seems simply to assert that no ‘finite knowledge’ would be comprehensible (begreiflich), were there not prior to it ‘that essential unity of the unconditionally Ideal and the unconditionally Real so that … what the one is, is the same as what the other is’ (Schelling, 1990: 10). In short, only insofar as thinking and being are ultimately one and the same can there be anything like sure and certain knowledge. This original and ultimate union Schelling designates as ‘the Absolute’, and from the insistence with which he uses this term comes his designation as an ‘absolute idealist’. The primary characteristic of this ‘absolute’ is already indicated by the etymology of the word: it is de-tached and yet at the same time, self-contained. In this sense, it can be seen as a continuation of the Cartesian Cogito, which is constituted precisely by withdrawing, re-flecting back and away from its involvement in alterity, from the external world of extended things, towards its own activity, which is not just that of a res intensa, but of an intensity, a tending-inward.

The paradox, however, is that with this separation from and exclusion of all exteriority in the name of a self-contained interiority, the enabling limits of the ‘interior’ are no longer fixed and hence no longer obviously ‘self-contained’. This is why Western thinking could not be long satisfied with the solution proposed by Descartes: that of an Ego as the unified and indivisible instance claiming to guarantee the integrity of thought. For upon closer inspection it was revealed that such an ego itself presupposed a relation to something else, at least in the immediate form of a recollection. And hence, that the ‘ego’, despite its apparent immediacy, was no less ‘extended’ than the ‘objects’ Descartes sought to exclude from it.

In short, the process of separation was so radical that it tended to undermine the sphere it was introduced to protect: that of the indivisible, self-contained subject. It is this that leads Schelling to seek to construe the very process of separation itself as one of totalization. The unconditionally Absolute, in which Ideal and Real, thinking and being, are One and the Same, is precisely that which is radically Separate, but which, in and through this separation, also claims to be the Whole. In this Absolute Whole, ‘knowledge’ and ‘nature’, science and action are complementary manifestations ‘of the One Universe’. ‘Infinity’ and ‘Finitude’, ‘necessity’ and ‘freedom’ are joined in this sphere. But how? It is here, in the attempt to account for the juncture or conjunction of such fundamental opposites, that the reference to ‘human beings’ imposes itself:

Man, as the rational being par excellence, is positioned to be an extension and completion (Ergänzung) of the world-appearance: out of him, from his activity must emerge that which is missing in the divine revelation, since nature receives the entire divine essence, but only in the Real; the rational being (Vernunftwesen) must express the image of the same divine nature as it is in itself, and hence in the Ideal. (Schelling, 1990: 12)

Man created in the image of God: the value of the ‘human’ in this perspective, which obviously is the speculative-philosophical heir of a long-standing theological tradition, is thus to provide a phenomenal, manifest, visible and sensible synthesis of what otherwise would remain radically separated from the world and confined to the realm of the Ideal, to Thought rather than to Knowledge. For Knowledge presupposes a correlation between thinking and the phenomenal, sensible world, and it is the accessibility of this relation, bringing together the particular and the universal, that the ‘human’, and its study, the Humanities, were long called upon to guarantee.

Formulated in this way, it is clear that the first great challenge to this mediating, unifying and totalizing function of the Humanities had to come from the modern sciences, and above all, from that which gave them their internal unity and distinction: the experimental method. In place of synthetic, holistic interpretations, the knowledge elaborated by the sciences was limited in scope but within its self-set limitations, unlimited in generality. The validity of experimentally acquired knowledge was therefore of a radically different kind from that claimed by the Humanities. For what the experiment sacrificed in extension, it recovered in intensive force. The power and prestige of scientific knowledge was in large part based on its ability to establish replicable sequences of procedures under carefully controlled conditions. Its perspective, then, was oriented less towards the past, towards the notion of an origin constitutive of a universal ‘human’ essence, and more towards the future. By developing certain procedures under carefully controlled conditions, experimental science thus could lay claim toward providing the basis of moving towards a mastery of the future. To be sure, given the limited, local nature of the scientific experiment, such a movement always involved more of an approach than a full-fledged accomplishment. Science was thus adapted to a sense of the world as open, with infinite possibilities. But at the same time it offered the experimental method as a model according to which the future might be progressively mastered and its uncertainties gradually reduced, if not eliminated.

If science can thus be designated as the first historical challenger of the Humanities, a second more recent challenge to the synthetic and totalizing claims traditionally associated with the Humanities has come from a group of discourses that is difficult to classify or to name univocally, for one of the things they share is precisely the radical questioning of all such univocity. It is almost as difficult to situate these discourses chronologically as it is to locate them in terms of the academic division of intellectual labor into disciplines. They are, however, associated on the one hand with philosophy, or rather with a critical response to the systematic, totalizing claims of philosophy; and on the other, with the study of literature and of language as the medium to which that critical response appealed. This critique radicalizes the Cartesian movement of separation to a point where it no longer can easily serve as a basis for a self-contained subject, Cogito or ego. Instead, the process of demarcation tends to inaugurate, or reassert, a movement of substitution, exchange and above all, of repetition and recurrence that renders all synthesis, all unification, all determination problematic, if ineluctable. The model of knowledge thus shifts from one conceived in terms of self-expression and self-production – understood as constituting the distinctively ‘human’ – to one that has to negotiate with a notion of possibility no longer construed as a provisional mode of self-fulfillment but rather as a radical and aporetic dynamic of differentiation.

It is clear that the movement of thinking known as ‘deconstruction’ is inscribed in this aporetic, problematic tradition of thought. Its fundamental ‘tenet’, if I can use a word that is obviously not entirely appropriate, resides, I would argue, in the quasi-transcendental notion of ‘iterability’, a notion first introduced by Derrida in the essay ‘Signature, Event, Context’, and then elaborated in Limited Inc. This notion, which is already at work in Derrida’s critique of the Hussserlian notion of ideality (in Speech and Phenomena), can be situated in a tradition that goes back to Kierkegaard’s book Repetition, and which recurs in such thinkers as Nietzsche (Eternal Return), Freud (Repetition Compulsion), Heidegger, and of course, Gilles Deleuze (Difference and Repetition). In all of these thinkers, the notion of repetition or one of its avatars re-imposes itself in a way that confounds the traditional logic of identity – and which at the same time, it might be noted, confirms the acuity of what might be called ‘ordinary’, non-specialized English usage. In English one does not generally speak of ‘cognition’ but rather of recognition or of recognizing. This usage might well be irritating to those concerned with logical precision and consistency from language. But precisely this challenge to a certain logic might also be regarded as displaying an insight excluded from the more specialized discourses of philosophy and ‘cognitive psychology’, for instance. This insight, to be sure, is nothing short of scandalous: it proceeds from the suspicion that the second in a series turns out to be prior to all identification or constitution of the first. How can the second ‘precede’ the first? It is here that Derrida’s notion of iterability is helpful. Iterability irritates: which is to say, it ex-cites, impels one to leave the confines of the familiar and the consoling; it troubles, confuses and confounds, producing precisely the effects that the Cartesian method was designed to eliminate. As Derrida puts it:

The structure of iteration… implies both identity and difference. Iteration in its ‘purest’ form – and it is always impure – contains in itself the discrepancy of a difference that constitutes it as iteration. The iterability of an element divides its own identity a priori… it splits each element while constituting it… It is a differential structure escaping the logic of presence or the (simple or dialectical) opposition of presence and absence. (Derrida, 1988: 53)

Iterability is necessary because nothing can be recognized as being identical with itself – nothing can be ‘cognized’ – without first being re-cognized: that is, without being repeated, compared with its earlier instance, and through that comparison being constituted as self-same. What Descartes sought to exclude from the Cogito, namely, temporality, memory, forgetting, returns in all the forms of repetition and recurrence that haunt the Cartesian, modern, bourgeois subject: the other as excluded but necessary duplication of the Self. It is a similar mode of thinking that leads Freud, in discussing what he calls the ‘testing of reality’, the ability of the psyche to distinguish what is objectively real from what is merely hallucinated, to foreground the process of repetition: to determine something as real is not simply to ascertain its existence, once and for all, but to ascertain that it is ‘still’ there, there a second time, as it were, the result of a repetition. Identity, in short, is a relationship that presupposes repetition. It is not self-contained or instantaneous. But in presupposing repetition, it presupposes a process that inevitably entails alteration, difference, transformation as well as similitude. In construing reality in terms of the logic of identity, however, what we do is to abstract from, ignore or exclude – separate ourselves from – the dimension of heterogeneity contained in all repetition. And it is this dimension that returns, as a movement of return, of Eternal Return, to haunt both the modern subject, and its generalization: the universal essence of ‘man’, of the ‘human’.

The challenge to the Humanities, then, from this perspective, is to rethink the ‘human’ in terms of iterability; which is to say, as an effect that is necessarily multiple, divided, and never reducible to a single, self-same essence. The task of the Humanities would thus become nothing more or less than that of rethinking the singular, which is something very different from subsuming the individual under the general or the particular under the whole. The singular is not the individual, precisely by virtue of its mode of being, which can never be that of a once-and-for-all, but rather, paradoxically, that of an after-effect of iterability. The singular is that which emerges, which is left over after the process of iteration has come full circle: it is the remnant or remainder, what Lévinas and after him, Derrida, have called the trace. Trace of a difference that can never be reduced to sameness or similitude.

To speak about the situation of the Humanities ‘after deconstruction’ entails, as I hope has become somewhat clearer by what I have been saying, not just defining a situation obtaining after the work of a single author, however genial, but rather after, in the wake of, and in continuation of a tradition that involves many more or less ‘proper names’, some of which I have already alluded to in passing. I want to go back to one of the first of these, whom I have already mentioned, Kierkegaard, and in particular to his text on Repetition, in order to articulate a bit more concretely the difficult and perhaps aporetical relationship of singularity and repetition that determines what I take to be the situation of the Humanities ‘after deconstruction’. I am thinking of the work already named, in which much of what I have describing receives its initial and initiating articulation: Repetition. Just to set the scene, let me re-cite a statement of the narrator, one Constantin Constantius, one of Kierkegaard’s ‘pseudonymic authors’, since for reasons he deemed essential, his texts often were signed by such ‘pseudonyms’:

Say what you will, this question will play a very important role in modern philosophy, for repetition is a crucial expression for what ‘recollection’ was to the Greeks. Just as they taught that all knowing is a recollecting, modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition. (Kiekegaard, 1983: 131)

Repetition, as Kierkegaard accurately foresaw, is indeed ‘a crucial expression’ and it has indeed played a decisive role for modern philosophy, at least for certain of its tendencies, just as it has played a crucial role in the development of technology and in the effects it has had upon society. But what is entailed in this ‘crucial expression’? Is it so self-evident that we need not worry further about its semantic and conceptual implications, and only concern ourselves with their ramifications, empirical and other? In Danish, the word used by Kierkegaard is not exactly ‘repetition’, which exists as a foreign word in Danish. Rather, as his spokesman Constantin says, ‘repetition is a good Danish word’, as opposed to its Hegelian alternative, ‘mediation’ (Vermittlung), which apparently is not so good a Danish word. Be that as it may, much of what goes in this seminal text is, I believe, largely incomprehensible if one does not refer back to the meaning of the Danish word that is used: the word, Gjentagelse. The following decisive passage, for instance, in which Constantin Constantius acknowledges the failure of his efforts to determine whether or not repetition ‘is possible’, remains unintelligible if one relies only on translations:

How humiliated I was: I, who had been so brusque with that young man, had now been brought to the same point. Indeed, it seemed as if I were that young man myself, as if my great talk, which I now would not repeat at any price [and yet he has just repeated it indefinitely by writing it down… – SW], were only a dream from which I awoke to have life unremittingly and treacherously retake everything it had given without providing a repetition (Gjentagelse). And is it not the case that the older a person grows, the more and more of a swindle life proves to be… (Kierkegaard, 1983: 172)

Why, or in what sense, is Constantin Constantius so disappointed in repetition? What had allowed him to vest his hopes in this ‘word’ as designating a movement that was not just supposed to be the reverse of ‘recollection’, but which entailed a promise of happiness: ‘Repetition, therefore’, he had stated at the outset, shortly after the first passage quoted, ‘if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy… ‘ (Kierkegaard, 1983: 131). It is only, I think, when we recall or discover how the ‘good Danish word’ being used here is in fact constructed that we begin to realize what is at stake in the question of the ‘possibility’ of repetition. Gjentagelse, in Danish, is composed of two words that have cognates in English: ‘gjen‘ is related to the English ‘again’; and ‘tagelse‘ to the word ‘take’. To ‘repeat’, therefore, as in Gjentagelse, is to ‘take again’. The promise of repetition is that through it the subject will be able to ‘take again’, to recover, to reappropriate what is lost through the passage of time, and ultimately, through finitude. Hence the bitterness of Constantin Constantius: whose name already expresses his desire, that of ‘constancy’ in the face of mortality. For what Constantin discovers is that through Gjentagelse, it is life which takes again, ‘retakes everything it had given, without providing a repetition‘, without, that is, allowing for the possibility of our taking back, retaking, recovering and reappropriating what has passed. Repetition, then, as the promise of happiness, in the sense of the reappropriation that might constitute a subject – it is this that reveals itself as impossible. Impossible, and yet in another sense, all too real:

One of my pseudonyms has written a little book called Repetition, in which he denies that there is repetition. Without being quite in disagreement with him in the deeper sense, I may very well be of the opinion that there nevertheless is a repetition…. When something is said to people that they do not want to hear, something true, the usual way they use in seeking to avoid what is in essential opposition to them, to avoid letting the truth decisively exercise its power over them and over conditions – the usual way is to treat the discourse on the truth as daily news and then say: We have heard that once – as if it were the day’s news that they were listening to when it was said for the first time and now they want to be done with it, just as one ignores the day’s news, which cannot stand a second hearing… (Kierkegaard, 1983: 330)

Any attempt to provide a simple answer to the question of whether or not repetition is ‘possible’, whether or not ‘there is repetition’, presupposes that the notion of the ‘possible’, and of the ‘there is’ are simple and straightforward. It is precisely such simplicity and straightforwardness, however, that the problematic movement of repetition calls into question. It is no accident that the title of the section of ‘Signature, Event, Context’ in which Derrida introduces the term ‘iterability’ has a strong Kierkegaardian overtone: ‘Parasites. Iter, on Writing: that it perhaps does not exist’ (‘Les parasites. Iter, de l’écriture: qu’elle n’existe peut-être pas‘). Nor is it an accident that the first section of that essay is entitled ‘Writing and Telecommunication’. For wherever it is a question of repetition, technology and telecommunication are never very far away. Why? Because, as Benjamin was perhaps one of the first to clearly state, the mode of being of modern technology is repetitive and reproductive. The ‘work of art’, so Benjamin insists, must henceforth be discussed with respect to its intrinsic ‘reproducibility’. And such reproducibility involves inscription: the tracing of traits: photography, cinematography and now, we might say, videography.

It is against this background that Kierkegaard’s remark about the ‘daily news’ should be read. The ‘daily news’ is brought to its readers, listeners, viewers, by and through a technology that installs repetition, or rather: repeatability, at the heart of reality, at the heart of the ‘once and for all’. Virtualization, one of the major tendencies of modern electronic media, redefines the ‘here and now’ in terms of the ‘there and then’. It thereby carries what in structuralism and poststructuralism were called ‘signifying processes’ into the very heart of everyday, perceptual reality – which is to say, into the very heart of what, for most people, seems hitherto to exist without the benefit of complex thinking or interpretation. It is this which gives ‘television’ its enormous power: it controls the way people see and hear the world, and hence the way they conceive of reality, whether of the outside world or of themselves. But – and it is here that Kierkegaard’s suspicion of the ‘daily news’ is more than justified – the media do not only raise the question, through their own interventions, of whether, as Kierkegaard put it long before television, ‘visible existence is not, in a certain way a repetition?’ (Kierkegaard, 1983: 275) – the media also provide an immediate answer to their own question, again and again: the answer of a repetition that presents itself as the return of the same, as ultimately self- contained, and in this sense, as just that self-enclosed separation for which the modern subject has always, in a certain sense, yearned: the self-contained space of the ‘in-dividual’. Walter Benjamin, once again, was attentive to this in his essay on the ‘Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ when he pointed to the depiction of the ‘face’ as the contemporary refuge, within the reproductive media, of what he called the ‘cult value’ of the original. And with respect to the importance of the portrayal of faces, not that much has changed with the advent of television in the sixty years since Benjamin wrote his essay.

What is the alternative, however, to such disappointment? Kierkegaard’s primary, most explicit response, of course, in the essay on Repetition, resides in his interpretation of the story of Job by the ‘young man’ who is the alter ego of Constantin Constantius. In other words, in a certain refusal of the logic of sense, of equivalence, of meaning, and in a certain opening to the absurd, to the other. I do not have the time here, nor would it be to our purposes, I believe, to enter into a detailed discussion of that ‘solution’. Instead, I want to point to two other elements, in both cases of which the disappointment with the expropriative effects of Gjentagelse, of repetition, that takes again without giving back, are defined not simply in negative, privative terms, as loss or lack, but as a possibility of freedom: albeit, of a freedom that is no longer defined in terms of individual autonomy and self-fulfillment. What is the essence of this freedom then? It involves the aporetic possibility of remaining open to the trace of the other in repetition even while confronting the same. The possibility is aporetic insofar as this opening to the other can never be free of a degree closure, of assimilation and of appropriation.

Where there is aporia, there is no way out, no simple solution or resolution. Kierkegaard’s text provides us with two possible models for negotiating this impasse in a useful manner. The first has to do with the notion of ‘experiment’, or more precisely, with ‘experimenting’. Kierkegaard added the word to the subtitle of his study of Repetition ‘at the last moment’, as his editors and translators, Howard and Edna Hong, write in their highly informative preface to this work. And Kierkegaard’s decision to use this word is striking, they add, for the following reasons:

Not only was the term Experiment uncommon in Danish at the time, but the form used in the subtitle, the present participle, experimenterende, was even more unusual… The active character of the participle is still more pronounced in Frater Taciturnus’ later use of ‘experiment’ as a transitive verb when he says he will ‘experimentere en Figur‘. (Hong & Hong, in Kierkegaard, 1983: xxii)

In selecting this unusual word, and it giving it the even more unusual form of the present participle, it is notable that Kierkegaard chose to define his own undertaking by referring to that from which it clearly distinguished itself, and yet which in another sense it is also ‘repeated’: the experimental method of the sciences. ‘Experimenting in figures’ suggests what was at stake. The ‘figures’ being ‘tried out’ (my suggested translation for the transitive use of ‘experimenting’) have two distinct but interrelated dimensions. On the one hand, they refer to those ostensibly autonomous but fictitious subjects or things, like Constantin Constantius and the Young Man, whose situation the text articulates; and at the same time, they refer to the figural use of language, to the necessity of ‘indirect communication’, as the Hongs put it. In short, what ‘experimenting’ shares with the scientific method is its dependence upon a certain repetition, on the one side, and its fragmentary, non-total nature on the other. However, whereas the scientific experiment still seeks to subsume the particular case under the general, and whereas it still situates itself within the confines of a system or at least with respect to systematisable knowledge, the Kierkegaardian experiment is an attempt, a ‘venture’, an essay (Førsog) to articulate the singular (Enkelte) without entirely dissolving its differences into the similitude of the universal. This venture, however, requires that the apparent stability of the substantive, the noun ‘experiment’, be brought into motion and at the same time split off from itself. And this is why Kierkegaard resorts to the unusual form of the present participle to designate his work: it is not so much an ‘experiment’ as experimenting, experimenterend. For the present participle involves a movement that is first of all, repetitive, second of all, never conclusive or contained, third, on-going and futural, and fourth and finally, actual and immediate. Whereas the model of all knowledge, including scientific, experimental knowledge, is based on the past participle, the result, the present participle moves in a quite different, more transitional way:

All such things are permissible in a book that does not at all claim to be a scientific work and whose author, revolted by the unscientific manner in which scientificity is trumpeted, prefers to remain outside this hullabaloo […] When movement is allowed in relation to repetition in the sphere of freedom, then the development differs from logical development in that transition comes to be [vorder]. In logic, transition is movement’s silence, whereas in the sphere of freedom it comes to be. Thus, in logic, when possibility, by means of the immanence of thought, has determined itself as actuality, one only disturbs the silent self-inclosure of the logical process by talking about movement and transition. In the sphere of freedom, however, possibility remains and actuality emerges as transcendence. (Kierkegaard, 1983: 309-310)

What is the most immediate form of an ‘actuality’ that ’emerges as transcendence’ if not that of the present participle? It is ‘transcendent’ in never being identifiable with itself, always open, on-going, but also always taking leave of itself in the very process of coming to be. In this, the present participle articulates a phenomenon that assumes a central role in Constantin Constantius’ effort to discover whether or not ‘there is’ repetition. This takes us to the second dimension of the Kierkegaardian negotiation with alterity, singularity and repetition: a dimension of theatricality. Or, to put it more precisely, the dimension of what, in German as in Danish, is called the posse, and for which ‘comedy’ would be a weak translation. For the posse – which designates the genre of popular, farcical theatre – is not primarily representational or bound to a narrative story. It diverges radically from the mainstream of respectable Western theatre, which, ever since Aristotle, is defined in ‘mythological’ terms, which is to say, in terms of story and plot. For the posse, on the contrary, theatrical ‘action’ is not primarily a subject of depiction or of contemplation, it is performative, taking place on the stage. It is, therefore, on the one hand far more immediate and actual than traditionally representational theatre, in which whatever happens on the stage is taken or viewed as designating something whose meaning is generally understood to derive from its non-theatrical narrative structure and properties. The posse, by contrast, is all performance. At the same time, however, in its very immediacy it violates the rules of good form, of the good Gestalt: it is not self-contained nor are its lines continuous or harmonious. The origin of the word is suggestive in this sense, since it derives from words that entail both the constitution of figures – for example, the ‘bas-reliefs’ jetting out from their support to display their very figurality – but also the very ‘deformation’ of the figure, its disfiguration. Thus, posse is related to the French word for ‘dent’: bosse. The word itself thus designates that ‘experimenting with figures’ which marks Kierkegaard’s style, but also his thought.

All of this converges in the description of one of the leading Posse-actors of the day, Beckmann, who dominates Constantin’s description of the theatre he returns to Berlin to find – and with it, to find an answer to his question, whether or not ‘there is repetition’. What distinguishes Beckmann’s style of acting, as Constantin remembers it, is nothing more nor less than the way he enters the scene. In English, the key phrase is translated in a way that conceals its true intensity: Beckmann, whose talent lies not ‘in the commensurables of the artistic but […] in the incommensurables of the singular’, ‘comes walking’ onto the stage. And Constantin comments:

In an art theater proper, one rarely sees an actor who can really walk and stand. As a matter of fact, I have seen only one, but what B. is able to do, I have not seen before. He is not only able to walk, but he is also able to come walking. To come walking is something very distinctive, and by means of this genius he also improvises the whole scenic setting. (Kierkegaard, 1983: 163)

What is distinctive about Beckmann is that he enters and moves in such a way as to be able not just to portray this or that figure – ‘experimenting in figures’ – but:

in such away that one experiences everything, surveys the smiling hamlet from the dusty highway, hears its quiet noise, sees the footpath that goes down by the village pond when one turns off there by the blacksmith’s – where one sees B. walking along with his little bundle on his back, his stick in his hand, untroubled and undaunted. (Kierkegaard, 1983: 163-64)

Beckmann, precursor of Chaplin, it seems, does not just portray people but also places and things: the smiling hamlet, its quiet noise, its footpath. But above all, ‘he is an incognito in whom dwells the lunatic demon of comedy, who quickly breaks loose and carries everything away in sheer abandonment’. Beckmann’s movement quickly breaks out into dance, and from dance into laughter: ‘He is now completely beside himself. The sheer lunacy of his laughter can no longer be contained either in forms or in lines’. The experimenting in figures breaks out of the figure, bending and twisting it, distorting it in a posse that never reaches an esse. For the transformation of posse, not as farce but as possibility, into esse, has, as Kierkegaard elsewhere remarks, ever since Aristotle been defined as the task of the historian.1 It is precisely this assimilation, however, that the ‘poet’, writer and thinker that is Kierkegaard refuses.

And he refuses it in the name of an ‘actuality’ and an ‘immediacy’ that is by no means the historical property of a movement of thought that can be safely tucked away under the name ‘Existentialism’. For Kierkegaard here is perhaps the first and foremost thinker of that trait that precisely today’s technological media are imposing upon what we still call ‘reality’: namely, the trait of virtualization, to which we have already referred. The ‘transcendence of the actual’ is precisely what defines the virtual: the here and now does not cease to be, but it becomes at one and the same time a there and then. ‘There and then’, by the way, would be my suggestion as the English rendition of what Heidegger is aiming at with the German term, Dasein.

I will try to bring what have been, obviously, very preliminary remarks on a dauntingly urgent topic to at least a tentative conclusion. The future of the Humanities in a world of virtualization and of globalization cannot reside in the continued propagation of a model of unity and totality for societies or nations. It can no longer consist in a continuation of the project of Western modernity: that of separation and demarcation as a means of constituting secure and self-contained entities, whether individuals, collectives or even ‘humanity’ itself. For if there can be a distinctive sense to the ‘human’, something which is by no means certain or assured, than it cannot lie in the direction of unity, totality and autonomy. It must consist, rather, in the opening of and toward heterogeneity. Nothing else was and is at stake in the rethinking of repetition that runs from Kierkegaard to Deleuze and Derrida. Kierkegaard found a word and notion that perhaps brings all of these tendencies together: that of exception. This is how Constantin describes it:

Eventually one grows weary of the incessant chatter about the universal and the universal repeated to the point of the most boring insipidity. There are exceptions. If they cannot be explained, then the universal cannot be explained either. Generally the difficulty is not noticed because one thinks the universal not with passion but with comfortable superficiality. The exception, however, thinks the universal with intense passion. (Kierkegaard, 1983: 227)

The notion of exception would thus continue the project of separation, while at the same displacing its ultimate goal: that of securing the Self, the se-parare that would reduce distance, difference and alterity to functions of an identical and constitutive subject, to its outermost borders. The notion of the exception, by contrast, repeats separation but in so doing transforms and deforms it: rethinking it as a movement of resistance that defines and determines what it resists, the ‘norm’, without being assimilated by or into it. A task for the Humanities would be to rethink not just the ‘human’ but everything connected with it not, as hitherto, strictly from the perspective of the universal, the concept, but from that of the exception; which is to say, from the perspective of what refuses to fit in, what resists assimilation, but what, in so doing, reveals the enabling limits of all system, synthesis and self-containment. ‘When one does this’, Constantin remarks, ‘a new order of rank results and the poor exception… like the girl spurned by the stepmother in the fairy tale, enjoys favor and honor’ (Kierkegaard, 1983: 227-228).

A fairy tale for the Humanities? A passion play? A posse? Perhaps all three. For, as Kierkegaard once wrote, ‘a person must be careful about where to become serious’.


1.’The historical is always raw material which the person who acquires it knows how to dissolve in a posse and assimilate it as an esse‘ (Kierkegaard, 1983: 359).


Derrida, J. (1988) Limited Inc. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Kierkegaard, S. (1983) Fear and Trembling: Repetition (edited by H. Hong & E. Hong). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Schelling, F.W.J. (1990) Vorlesungen uber die Methode des akademischen Studiums. Hamburg: Meiner.

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