In a letter from the beginning of 1799 addressed to his mother, Hölderlin makes a sort of confession that fully illuminates (in a multum in parvo fashion) what he understood as a quiet or serene life. Or at least, it allows to grasp how he comes to envision it and towards what end. At first sight, what is striking is its bare literalness, too strange for a poet, and too mundane if it were not for its intrinsic lyricism. It is a lyricism that comes forth effortlessly, which speaks to the quality of its furtive testimony. Literalness is also described in its engagement with the world – and, more fundamentally, the sufficient condition for sense to emerge. This is the fragment in question (from Helena Cortés’ translation of the correspondence):
“No quise rechazar de plano para tener por si acaso una vía de escape, y sobre todo puesto que se ofrece a buscarme una plaza que consiste en acompañar a la universidad a un jovencito. Conocer más mundo (conocer el pueblo alemán le es tan necesario, especialmente a todo el que quiera convertirse en un escritor alemán, como conocer el suelo al jardinero) es al fin y al cabo la única compensación que me puede ofrecer una situación tan fatigosa, y lo alejado del lugar, que de todos modos muy lejos no puede estar de alguna universidad, me parece más ventajoso que perjudicial durante un par de años en los que aun no puedo contar con gozar de una vida tranquila entre los míos”. .
There is little doubt that the world disclosed here is well within the bourgeois interiority: there is economic calculation and anticipation. At this time Hölderlin was being offered the position of a preceptor to a university student. But there is hardly only this. There is also the affirmation of fleeing from what this world has to offer – and this means quite a lot in the early quarters of the Enlightenment. Una vía de escape – for Hölderlin the way out is not merely from economic hardship, but also the possibility to retain a certain knowledge that he dares to qualify as “of the world”: “to know the world, which is the only compensation to a fatigued situation and the remoteness of place”. Loss of fixity to place demands access to the world.
This is not your expected aesthetic education of man. The subject of the Enlightenment – its commitment to historical abstraction and the possession of aesthetic form as mediation to totality – prevails at the epistemic register at the cost of rescinding the dislocation from nature. By contrast, the knowledge implicated in knowing thy world should be like that of the soil with the gardener (pay attention to how Hölderlin inverts subject and thing: it is the ground that becomes accustomed to the gardener, and not the other way around). But at the threshold of the eighteenth century, Hölderlin’s “vía de escape” was also compensatory to the fatigue of a nascent epoch of the subject. The compensation did not entail an excess of knowledge; it was rather knowledge a way to disengage with the presupositions grounding the historical epoch.
This seems to me the operation at work in Hölderlin’s epistolary confession. Carchia was right in positing Hölderlin’s poetological aspiration of spirit and nature was entirely pre-Olympian, which requires subtracting himself from the modern parody of cultic romanticism . A way out appears in cleared space when serene life is finally realized between friends; that is, among those that I make as friends (“los míos”). Poetry and making are here at their closest proximity cutting through the thicket of experience. This is what it means to know thy world. At the center of Hölderlin’s ethics there is a sense of distance – the waiting for a serene life in which language will finally gather itself unto presence. Ultimately, this is the plain literalness that the 1799 letter offers us.
1. Friedrich Hölderlin. Correspondencia completa, traducción de Helena Cortés y Arturo Leyte (Libros Hiperión, 1990), 467.
2. Gianni Carchia. “Introduzione” to Walter Otto’s Il poeta e gli antichi dèi (Guida Editori, 1991), 8.
There is no surprise that the growth of social fragmentation runs parallel to appeals to community and communitarian affirmations. For anyone today in the university (at least in the United States, but I am told that the trend is similar across parts of Europe and elsewhere) it is easy to see that all initiatives and justifications for actions (an art curatorial project, a library event, you name it) is almost always done in the name of the community. The communitarian affirmation emerges to help cure the otherwise too crude and unbearable wounds of the social bond and the community of the species (Gemeinwesen). A friend was on point recently in defining these communities of obligation, participation, and self-valorization as a minima societas; a mini society that helps to create the illusion that “Society”, somehow, is still here.
As we know, this is not far off from Edmund Burke’s famous theory of “little platoons” meant to orient humanity towards the virtues of public affections. The collapse of civil-society and state mediations realized the Burkean predicament to its integral idealization, which is why today radical Marxist, academic bureaucrats, postliberal nationalists, experts in mental health and psychiatric treatments, contemporary art curators and even special units of the police can all agree that community is the highest value that must protected and sustained. In this framework, there is no outside to the community, and every outside becomes integrated into the community as a value.
The community lodges the artificial allure to retract from catastrophe, but it does so by reproducing the catastrophic it seeks to avoid: that is, by negating the possibility of exteriority of every community sustained by the affective transmission of vanity and recognition. This is why to speak of community of friendship is a misnomer at best, which introduces a great amount of confusion between these two forms of contact. In a fabulous moment in his Il dialogo della salute, Carlo Michelstaedter goes as far as to write that: “In the communities of friendship that are born from a common vanity, every life off the death of those who are already outside the community. Everyone in its own solitude swallows with an empty stomach the sour implications of these lethal conversations. But these are the companies that please men”.
It is a remarkable passage that exposes the irredeemable position of a community of friendship, which ultimately subsumes the friend into the logistics of debt, obligation, and recognition and satisfaction. As in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Oasis (1949) about a group of disaffected antinuclear intellectuals who form a community in the mountains of New England, every community of friendship is destined to the worst catastrophe imaginable sacrificing both friendship and the world through the circulation of value.
Precisely, if friendship means anything, is that it is on the other side of valorization that permanently conflates language and directives of action. What happens in McCarthy’s The Oasis is precisely that language becomes a medium for directives and exchange, and friendship a hellish reality of ‘those who belong’ but now have nowhere to go.
The impossibility of separating community and friendship will only perpetuate the politics of catastrophe that has colored the entire course of Western political modernity. The Spanish political leader Pablo Iglesias recently captured the bad faith of our times: “Puede que la manifestación no tenga un impacto político inmediato pero del mismo que los católicos se encuentran en misa nosotros nos encontramos, nos abrazamos en las movilizaciones. Somos parte fundamental de una comunidad.”
For sure, a magnetic secularized religious liturgy lives on Iglesias’ candid heart. But we know that the partition of friendship is neither an offshoot nor a declension of a substantive community; it is what takes place on the other side of pathetic valorization.
In the very last article that Maurice Blanchot wrote for the collective publication Comité in the wake of May 68, he draws a scenario that is still very much with us in the present. The “realism” is almost outstanding when Blanchot writes the following: “…from now on I will hold onto an exigency: to become fully conscious that we at the end of history, so that most of our inherited notions, beginning with the from the revolutionary tradition, must be reexamined and, as such, refuted. Let us put everything into question, including your own certainties and verbal hopes. The revolution is behind us: it is already an object of consumption, and occasionally, of enjoyment.” . There was no question that the crisis of the very foundation of modern political thought has collapsed, including, as it couldn’t be otherwise, the generative principle of revolution. Blanchot did not even attempt to convince himself that the revolution could be brought back in an astronomical sense to revitalize a naturalism previous to Rousseau’s social contract.
So, for Blanchot the revolution was over, and yet, whatever it was that followed had no name. What was left, then? In order to avoid paralysis, Blanchot toyed during those months at the Comité (September-December 1968) with two possible maneuvers. The first position resided in what he called the “movement of possible speech” in order to establish an ardent and rigorous relation between the sequence of the French May and the Czech May, Soviet domination and Gaullian State. Blanchot called for (in the spirit of Bataille) a “transgressive speech”: “the impetus of outrageous, ways speaking beyond, spilling over, and thus threatening everything that contains and has limits” . But we know that transgression is still within the logistics of the administration of order and temporal containment of the regulated exception. This was, in fact, the very rupture of the revolutionary break that was in crisis.
But Blanchot was up to something along with his friend Dionys Mascolo in thinking through language and communication as a path towards the outside. Hence the second option, which is really a third option (after the sleepwalking of ideological revolutionary ‘racketing’ of voluntarism); mainly, what he calls, although does not get to tease it out, the “clandestine resistance in the open”. Blanchot only tells us what he is thinking about through a recent example: some members of the Czech resistance when law was suspended had to confront the raw enemy military power, but they also experienced a freedom “through words and through writing than ever before”, tells us Blanchot. But this still does not explain much, given that if there is a naked military power threatening us, how could something like a clandestine form of life take place in the open? And at what risk?
I think one way to read this incorrectly or insufficiently would be to think of Blanchot’s suggestions as a sort of martyrdom or self-immolation. But it is no less true that Blanchot wanted to avoid a sort of Batallian “inner experience” or monastic xeniteia. Thus, he “refused” the fiction of self-clandestine life as sponsored by the Situationists; while, at the same time, also rejecting subjective revolutionary militancy. A third way emerges: the clandestine life into presence by way of friendship. A new “estilo de vida”, which I think could be read in the way that cryptojews and averroists lived in early Modern Spain: “a modo de sociedades secretas o semi-clandestinas, deben haber concebido la filosofía como un estilo de vida para sus iniciados…” . Unlike the bogus image of the secret society as an alienated community of knuckleheads, I think what emerges in the clandestine open region is a form of shared friendship that does not retreat from the world, but rather that is capable of living in it. This was most definitely the transformative practice that during these years, Dionys Mascolo, dared to call the communism of thought that for him belonged to Hölderlin rather than to Marx. If open conspiracy is an act of the sharing and participating in language without meaning or command dependence, then this is already a poetic practice. After all, for Hölderlin the poets reveal an originary loss from nature. It is no surprise that Hölderlin favors a world opening even after the destruction of the leader-figure of the poet (Empedocles).
So, there is only clandestine life in the open when the sharing of language among friends take place (an event). This use of language is always harboring on the threshold of the last word to come. In short, the clandestine form of life has nothing oblique with respect to the world – it is not necessarily the space of an infinite night of contemplation, and it is also indifferent about fugitivity – it demands a return to appearance by way of experience. This might explain what Gilles Deleuze tells Dionys Mascolo at the end of their correspondence about friendship and thought: “it is a question of what we call and experience as philosophy” . This form of experiential thought against the dissatisfaction of political domestication points a way out. For Blanchot this was a “fragmentary, lengthy, and instantaneous” path; a conspiratio unlocked by philia.
1. Maurice Blanchot. “On the Movement”, in Political Writings 1953-1993 (Fordham University Press, 2010), 106.
2. Maurice Blanchot. “Clandestine resistance in the open”, in Political Writings 1953-1993 (Fordham University Press, 2010), 106.
3. Francisco Márquez Villanueva. “El caso del averroísmo popular español”, in Cinco Siglos de La Celestina: aportaciones interpretativas (1997), 121-134.
4. Gilles Deleuze. “Correspondence with Dionys Mascolo”, in Two Regimes of Madness (Semiotexte, 2007), 332-338.
1. Remembrance without restitution. The publication of Dionys Mascolo’s essays in La révolution par l’amitié (La fabrique, 2022) opens a path to a singular thinking that refused to conform to a master thinking, and even less what has come to us as political theory, or radical critique. Theory and critique have shown their resilient adaptiveness to university discourse. Thinking, on the contrary, moves annexes a relation with the missing word. This caesura negates the closure of both politics and community, it shows its insufficiency. In a letter to Maurice Blanchot regarding his ceased friend Robert Antelme, Mascolo comes to terms with this specific question: the remembrance of what loss in the actual word is – the voice of his friend Robert Antelme – what cannot be posited as a restitution of representation, but rather as effective effort to transcend mutism and silence that would have sunk writing into a pathos not short of a “miserabilist” stance . The exigency of language is absolute. In an analogous way, we can say that the writing in La revolution par l’amité (La fabrique, 2022) is not a matter of restituting the history of Marxism, the intellectual debates of French theory, or even the burial site of a thinker that rejected repeatedly the metaphysical function of the public intellectual (a sort of captain at the steering wheel of public opinion, a cybernetician); but rather the remembrance that thinking is the irreductible site of common to the species. Remembrance has no “archive” and it does not produce anything; on the contrary, it invites a path to thinking in order to bring the absolutism of reality to an end.
2. The irreducibility of the species. For Mascolo – as for Nicola Chiaromonte – the stimmung of the modern age is not a lack of faith, but a bad faith subscribed by the subject of knowledge, a guardian of the nexus of legitimacy. In his practice of writing, Mascolo explored something like a countermovement to the rationality of the intellectual posture, in which communication ceases to be a common means in order to become a production of ends and instrumentality. Hence, what Mascolo called the “part irreductible” – and its “doubt in any system of organized ideas in sight” – is the only intuition of the unity of the species in communication. And if the intellectual is an organic unity of hegemony that replaces the function of the priest in the Church bureaucracy and its paideia (recall Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectual”), for Mascolo irreducibility in the sharing of thought in communication is “not political” as he states in Autour d’un effort de mémoire – Sur une lettre de Robert Antelme (1987). This step back from the production of modern politics thoroughly imagines another figure of communism. It is at this point where the whole Cold War polemics between humanism and anti-humanism is destituted internally: the species finds a way out of political domestication.
3. Communism of thought. We can understand why for Mascolo “the word communism really belongs more to Hölderlin than to Marx, as it designates all the possibilities of thought; that which escapes in thinking, and only that can constitute its work (oeuvre)” . In other words, communism for Mascolo is not a matter of doctrine or an Idea, nor about philosophy of history and its inversion; it is not about a political subject or a unity of organization of political force; communism is a use of thought in language in proximity with what escapes in every communication. The inoperative communism, hence, is only possible in friendship, as a continuous experimentation of taste that cannot coincide with a community form. As Mascolo writes in his essay on Antelme: “We did not live in community. This is a deceptive word…we existed in a sentiment of mutual gift of freedom” (53). Any reinvention of a politics to come after the collapse of authority must commence with this rejection of a compensatory communitarian closure. Today only a conspiratio between friends can animate a new field of intensification for renewal.
4. Refusal and friendship. Even in his earliest stages of writing such as “Refus incoditionnel” (1959), the condition for friendship for Mascolo is to refuse the current state of things; to retreat from the demand of reality in order to survive in the imagination of the shared word. In this sense, the thematic of friendship does not make subjects of duty towards a social bond, but rather a secret in the word designated by separation. Friendship floats high above symbolic representation, as it moves to an inclination that is singulare tantum. If modern politics thought itself as a repression and administration of the hostis; for Mascolo the practice of friendship is the sacred space that is never inherited, but, precisely the dwelling of those who “seek” after in the wake of the homelessness of man and nature. This is analogous to Hölderlin’s allowance of thought which moves in passion while accounting for the abyss of our relationship with the world (aorgic) of originary detachment.
5. Revolution as style. In a brief text on the Cuban revolution of 1959, originally written for the collective exhibition Salón de Mayo in Havana, Mascolo says a new revolution in the island could potentially offer a the opportunity of a new style . Of course, as soon as Fidel Castro supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it was clear that such promised crumbled, and that the Revolution will fall well within the paradigm of the metaphysics of historical project and the subject (“a new man”). But what is style? Once again, this speaks directly to Mascolo’s passion for the irreductible outside of the subject, and for this reason never alienated from the schism of the species. The notion of style relates fundamentally to our exposition to the outside, to the event of expropriation, which defines our fidelity to the invariant dimension of our character. A new style, therefore, is not something to be produced, an effect of the subject, but rather the unit of an ethical practice in our encounter with the outside. If the apparatus of the revolution was instituted as a the production of a civilization; the fidelity to a style names the modes of life that cannot be oriented towards a specific work. A new aberrant freedom emerges.
6. Saint-Just’s ethos. Mascolo never ceased to reflect on the ethical determination of politics, against politics, and for a transfigurative notion of a politics for the here and now. And he dwelled on this problem in his writings on the ethical figure of Saint-Just during the French Revolution (“Saint Just” and “Si la lecture de Saint-Just est possible”). Unlike the monumental historiographies – both left and right, revolutionary and conservative, historicist or revisionist – that situated the revolutionary under the sign of Terror and Revolution, of will power and the emergency of Jacobinism; for Mascolo Saint-Just stands a figure that keeps an important secret. And this is it: “the inhumanity of Saint Just is that unlike many men, he does not possess many lives but only one” (130). This is a concrete definition of a ethos that is irreducible to the “monstrous arts of government” in an epoch where the political had become the secularization of fate. In the same way that Hölderlin turned his gaze towards the impossible and concealed distance of the moderns in relation to truth of the Greeks, for Mascolo’s Saint-Just the legitimacy of the modern universalization (in the State, the Subject, the Social) does not have the last word. The ethos of life keeps the remembrance of an abyss of the monstrosity of historical universality and the social equality.
7. Borrowed existence. Dionys Mascolo lived at the dusk of the modern arch of the revolution, whether understood as eschatology or a conservation of the natural order of the species, as Saint-Just proposed against the Rousseaunian social contract and the Hobbesian mechanical Leviathan in exchange for authority. We have already crossed this threshold, and we are in the desert of the political, retreating on its shadow fallen into administration of fictive hegemonies. Hence, the question of an ethos of existence becomes even more pressing from Mascolo’s thematic of friendship in order to refuse what he calls in “Sur ma propre bêtise et celle de quelues autres”, a “borrowed existence in a comedy that feels as if we are being watch by God alone” (219). Indeed, as some have diagnosed with precision, the religion of our time is absolute immanence, the full disposition of the tooling of our means . A cybernetic dreamworld, whose pathetic figure is the “influencer” (a few strata beneath the luminosity of the intellectual). This can only fix us into the stupidity of intelligence of the species: specialized intelligence, in other words, prisoners in the sea of nihilism. The intelligence of the species, on the contrary, is the cunning (methis) of the fox: a way out in spite of the swelling tides. But against the nihilism of a borrowed life of immanence (beatitude of the impersonal, and iconicity of things), Mascolo’s thought insists stubbornly in friendship as the initiation in an uncharted path to reenter the world once again.
1. Dionys Mascolo. Autour d’un effort de mémoire: Sur une lettre de Robert Antelme (Maurice Nadeau, 1987).
2. Ibid., 50.
3. Dionys Mascolo. “Cuba premier territoire libre du socialisme”, in A la recherche d’un communisme de pensée (fourbis, 1993).
Ángel Octavio Álvarez and I had the wonderful opportunity to have a brief exchange with Frank Wilderson III on Afropessimism (2020) for the weekly radial program Dublineses in Mexico. I am grateful to Wilderson for his time and generosity, since I am aware of his many speaking obligations around the book these past months. Because of time restrictions, both Angel and I did not get to ask Wilderson many questions. In my case, I felt that my last question did not come through in a clear away. In this note, I want to make an attempt to better articulate it here, not just for the sake clarification, but because I think it pushes the discussion forward; at least one of the possible paths of the discussion that Afropessimism elicits. At the end of my review, I asked whether it was possible for Black existence to imagine itself as a figure of friendship with the inhuman. I want to think of friendship as a “positive outside” of solidarity, which is a target in the book, in particular as it emerges in very concrete institutional contexts, such as the university and communitarian self-examination.
I agree with Wilderson that solidarity is always tendentially an apparatus that regulates “intra-communal narrative acts of transformation” (102). But to be committed to the narrative acts means that one is already subjected to its force, which essentially feeds off social death of black existence. In other words, solidary is the apparatus through which certain hylomorphic cohesion of the “Human” is organized and rendered legible. Essentially, this means that the transformative change always takes place at the level of the human (“a new man”, the ideal of Guevarism in the revolutionary imagination of the New Left) in virtue of disposing the inhuman. Humanity is essentially the somnambulism of the inhuman, as it cannot be otherwise.
There is production of Humanity through the different exercises of identification and demand – which ultimately entails the equivalence of singular sufferings – but there is also the side of the inhuman and social death in the world. Of course, the ultrapolitical question has been dominated by the metaphysical niceties of leninist reason: ‘what is to be done?’. But as Wilderson himself admits in the chapter on Stella (55-147), the ‘destructive act’ against the world that sustains social death is psychically unenabling and impossible (103). I take it that one of the things that Wilderson is pointing out here is that there is no “exodus” from the constraints of nihilism through sacrificial investment, nor by simple inversion of violence for the ends of liberation. There is also no exit through a narrative of redemption, or for that matter, any practice of narrativization of social death, which already amounts to the domestication in the other’s phantasmatic economy.
But it is precisely here where the question of friendship emerges; since friendship is irreducible to alliance or subjective solidarity. Friendship is the sharing in thought that is always constitutive of the outside of the sayable. This is how Mascolo defines friendship: a sharing of thought that is suspicious of thinking as a mere “foam of things” . Thought is the event of this encounter for which we are never prepared for. Assuming the unconditional function of thought frees a tonality of innocence that emerges without the compensatory excesses of original sin and guilt. Assuming one can traverse the theological apparatuses of the Christian tradition in his way – for which there is much archeological work to be done – could not one say that friendship is, in every case, the errancy of the afropessimist tonality? In other words, friendship is committed to the sacredness of the inhuman that in its proximity, it delimits an experience that is irreducible to normative ethics or political causes.
Infrapolitical friendship has no demands and retracts from a “politics of care” (the intramural pole of global solidarity); rather, its inclination is contingent upon the unscripted cartography that provides life with a sense of destiny. This a joy in an inhospitable world. What friendship (philos) finds is also alien to the genus of the Human. Every friendship dwell in the unnarratable fabric of experience. It seems to me that this is one of the gestures of Afropessimism, which resists narrative from experience without exemplum. It is most definitely what emerges in the story about Stella.
Unlike love that demands amalgamating and redemptive competences, friendship is the hard look unto a broken world in which the existence of paradise (outside the apparatus of Human nature) is its aftertaste. This is not merely remembrance, but the passage from metatheory to the event of thought. But this is, after all, only a mere question for Wilderson.
1. Dionys Mascolo. “L’amitié du non”, Lignes, 1990.