Mythology, Madness and Laughter – The Mythological Being of Reflection 1.2

It’s good that somebody raised the issue of ecology, particularly as it relates to the dissolution (& emergence) of the self, in the comments of our previous post, because this seems to re-emerge with a certain renewed vigor in 1.2, “The Unprethinkable Being of Mythology — Schelling on the Limits of Reflection.” I appreciate how Gabriel highlights this with an appeal to Kant’s “transcendental affirmation,” wherein “all true negations [i.e., conceptual categorizations / differentiations] are nothing but limitations — a title which would be inapplicable, where they not based upon the unlimited, that is,  upon, the All.” (qtd. p. 52). By this, Gabriel argues, Kant is pointing toward the fact that there is always more potential data in the world than there is comprehension of this data.  That is to say, when we encounter phenomena, the process of our making sense of it, of categorizing it into comprehensible concepts, is incapable of accounting for this very process of “making sense”.

We are always confronted with the higher-order problem as to how to determine the necessity or contingency of a given framework which allows for necessary statements. If we are to assert that a given framework F is necessary then we ipso facto have to rely on another framework F* which allows for the quantification over frameworks. (p. 51)

While we are, especially when pressed philosophically, more or less inclined to accept this with regard to phenomena generally accepted as contingent, we are (I think it is fair to say) considerably less inclined to do so when it comes to addressing those things we regard as necessary.

Inasmuch as we are faced with the endless task of reconciling (at attempting to reconcile) the content of our finite conceptual structures and the non-conceptual form that makes these structures possible, Gabriel affirms and supplements Badiou’s conclusion that “the being of consistency is inconsistency.” (qtd. p. 54) It is here, with this reconciliation (or attempted reconciliation), that Schelling really goes to work. Importantly, for Gabriel, when we identify inconsistency as “the being” of consistency, we are not saying that inconsistency is a state of affairs, or “a primordial nameless tohubohu in the beginning waiting to be ordered by the divine world.” (p. 55) On the contrary: “The being of consistency,” i.e. the absolute identification of the indeterminate condition (the abgrund) for determinacy, is identified as such retroactively — prior to its determinate identification, “that which eludes our grasp (however we name it) . . . does not even exist.” (p. 55) I think this long quote from Gabriel spells things out pretty nicely:

The very indeterminacy Schelling refers to under the heading of ‘absolute indifference’ has to be such that its indifference can only be realized in difference. Indifference only lies in difference or to be precise: indifference only manifests itself in the process of differentiation. In other words, the non-ground, the unprethinkable Being is that which eludes any distinction and, at the same time, makes all distinctions possible by making possibility possible. It is the facticity which turns out to be contingent necessity, a necessity established retroactively by the existence of some apophantic environment or another. (p. 59)

Which is to say that because that which is necessary must be identified as “necessary,” its necessity is a result of its contingency. (In fleshing this out Gabriel uses an image that I absolute love: “The assessment (emphasis his) of necessity presupposes the availability of judgments which can only exist as soon as there are concept-mongering creatures (emphasis mine!) whose very core is contingency.” (p. 58) As such, intelligibility is rooted in a process for which it cannot fully account for itself. This, Gabriel says, is Hegel’s blind-spot, in his drive to articulate (via allegory) the “truth as it is in truth.” (p. 61)  (I am curious if Zizek will respond to this claim in one of his subsequent chapters, as it does not correspond at all with his reading of Hegel.)

In contrast, Schelling embraces mythology and resists the allure of allegory. His rationale, Gabriel explains, is that in mythology we move closer to “recovering a sub-semantical (a-semic) dimension preceding discourse.” (p. 57)  Mythology must be taken at its word, as it were, not “translated” by the process of (logical / dialectical) reflection: “Reflection is limited precisely because it is engendered by mythology and not the other way around.” (p. 62)  This is because, Gabriel argues via Schelling,

Mythology is the brute fact of our thrownness into a meshwork of beliefs, into a belief-system which is only accessible from within. The project of achieving a survey of the belief-systems we inhabit necessarily engenders a metaphorical use of language. (p. 66)

Again, Gabriel argues, this is Hegel’s blind-spot. By presupposing “there is an ultimate rational (that is dialectical) form of expression in which form and content coincide,” Hegel misses that he is actually appealing to an underlying constitutive mythology that frames his logical expectation; he instead reduces mythology (and art) as merely forms or representations, not “absolute form[s] of expression.” (p. 65) As such, as much as one might try to “allegorize” away mythology, it is as unavoidable as experience, because we do not “experience” anything without an in-built system of of beliefs whose basis you ultimately have to some extent to take for granted; for, indeed, by truly taking them for granted, you will have internalized mythology in such a way as to resist absolutizing/autonomizing claims that unite form and content.

Our  mythological being-in-the-world consists in the fact that we have to impose limits of discourse in order to organize our experience at all. This imposition of limits is not itself a rational act which we can be held fully responsible for. At some point or other we run out of means to justify our justificatory practices. Precisely because there always is a groundless ground which can never fully be identified, that is to say, because there is unprethinkable Being, mythology takes place. (p. 71)

The key, then, is to own up to our own regulative mythologies: i.e. to take them for granted, but in such a way as not to hide the ways in which they produce meaning for us. Insofar as mythology “objectifies,” in the sense of disclosing the frameworks within which objects can possibly appear, it also must resist “the objectification of objectification,” or reification. (p. 77) This, Gabriel insists, is the problem with scientism in particular, but also with any anti-scientistic mysticism that claims “to have a special faculty of intellectual intuition which reveals some utterly inaccessible truth” (p. 80). Schelling, Gabriel concludes, is often misunderstood as striving for the latter, when in fact he “simply maintains that our creation of frameworks is supplied by energies which are not part of the meshwork of reason.” (p. 80)

Understanding, accepting, and “grasping” the constitutive elusiveness of that which conditions all possible, determinate experience, and to refer to it in terms of mythology, Gabriel insists, is ultimately a matter of ethics: “our lives express themselves in ways we objectify the unconditioned, in and as the world we inhabit.” (p. 75) I have no objection to this, and indeed think it serves us well as we reflect on the “revolutionary” potential for such an ethical practice. I’m not sure I can follow Gabriel in his development of how this actually plays out, though: “Mythology necessarily arises when we push reflection to its limits. It is only harmful when ideological use is made of it.” (p. 78, emphasis mine). I understand that by “ideological” Gabriel is using a convenient shorthand to identify that which powers the reification we have an ethical responsibility to resist, but it seems to me that he is overstating (a) our capacity to prevent ideological use of mythology, and (b) whether it would be helpful if we did. The dichotomy he creates between objectification and reification is helpful, but one wonders whether (for all his insistence that he is asserting axioms of determinacy only then to invert them) he in fact is not avoiding reification as much as he might hope. Indeed, one might even suggest that objectification (as described by Gabriel) is made possible only by way of a will-to-reification (frustrated though it may be). This, I think, is at the heart of Schelling’s point in The Ages of the World that evil is foundational to existence. (For elaboration on this see my essay “Original Sin, Original Voice,” p. 182.) While Schelling is certainly not saying we should revel in this pursuit of absolutization, neither I think does he find it plausible that we might avoid the pursuit thereof. It is, in a sense, the very spark that fires any revolutionary implications such a thinking might have. I simply do not see how, for example, the self is “objectified” without the primordial will-to-reify itself into a self-who-objectifies; the objectification of this will-to-reification, and thus the disordering of its absolutizing intentions, is an ethical endeavor, to be sure, but I would resist the priority Gabriel gives it here. They are, rather, if anything, a package-deal.

Revolutions, such as they, those noble and ignoble, unavoidably create “sides” — those who are “in” and those who are “out”. This is what makes revolutionary politics political. The ethics of revolutionary politics emerge, I would maintain, as the ongoing process to perpetuate revolutionary justice, but only after the will-to-reification, the evil heart of justice, as it were, is objectified. Which, in a way, places a priority on the will-to-reification (and thus, if you will, an ontological priority on the will-to-epistemology), and an ethical priority on the mythological process of objectification. I am eager to see how my conviction on this continues to shape, and is challenged by, my reading of Gabriel’s chapter.

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14 Responses to “Mythology, Madness and Laughter – The Mythological Being of Reflection 1.2”

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    So… are we rushing through this book too quickly for everybody, or was this just a particularly bad write-up about the section?

  2. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Although I think it is important to take Schelling’s discussion of “mythology” in the direction of ideology critique, it’s necessary to remember that “mythology” for Schelling was not just a metaphor as it mostly is for us (perhaps influenced by Adorno and Horkheimer’s identification of all ideology as mythology in Dialectic of Enlightenment), but referred particularly to Greek mythology and its multiple gods (polytheism is the crucial aspect of mythology for Schelling), and that this mythology reaches is apogee (according to Schelling) in Dionysiac cult and in Orphic rerenderings of Dionysus as the suffering and reborn god of gods. Dionysus gives way to Christ. It is here that we move from mythology to revelation, says Schelling. Revelation is the first political-social revolution against the world of mythology, then: god entering into historical time (not the way Dionysus manifests himself as a power in nature in cosmic time) in order precisely to open history up as such, as the temporality of Geist in freedom. This of course sounds Hegelian, but Schelling’s point is that revelation (what Hegel calls revealed religion) is not superseded by philosophy, but that philosophy’s task is to lay the foundations for the further unfolding of revelation. Schelling is not Adorno: he calls his philosophy “positive” precisely because it works within the horizon of historical revelation. Schelling is more like Benjamin, or actually Scholem, if we want to find a modern parallel, precisely because both of these figures shared Schelling’s kabbalistic understanding of revelation as the ongoing evolution of god within history/language. If we read Schelling as offering a more radical version of Hegelian “negative dialectics” we misread Schelling.

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Bruce, I recall you saying that you’ve yet to read Gabriel’s chapter on Schelling. If that is still the case, I think you’ll be pleased to see that he more or less goes along with your reading here — though at least in 1.2, he does not get into the specific mythological content. Which is to say, I think Gabriel is rendering Schelling into a “more radical version of Hegelian ‘negative dialectics'”.

  4. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I’m hoping that the book arrives today.

  5. Guido Nius Says:

    Brad, you made me remember with fondness these Kantian images of wanting to build grand houses but having a much too limited supply of materials … It’s a mythological image if you will. I’m reading this and (although it gets a little bit too mystical in the second half for me), and much of it really can be transposed into a discussion of what e.g. Quine said, on intranslatability.

    The problem for me (coming from a very different place than most of you as far as I can gather) is that this bit that can’t be pinned down exactly is put as the really interesting bit. I always thought that the bit that is clear and particularly the bit that we’re just starting to be able to clarify is what really is of interest.

    But I am not sure whether I understand. I am also not sure that if I understand you can see merit in transposing this in a tradition that is radically foreign to the one discussed in a book like this one.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    Guido, that’s interesting that you detect mysticism. Can you pinpoint an example for me? I got the impression Gabriel was really trying hard to avoid that. (His success is dependent on his readers, of course, which is why I’m asking.)

    Also, don’t be fooled. We have a very big tent at AUFS. I would actually affirm what you say in the second paragraph about “the bit that we’re just starting to be able to clarify is what is really of interest” — though you & I may very well disagree on how that interest plays itself out.

    I don’t really follow what you’re saying in the third paragraph.

  7. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’m in a middle of a move so I wasn’t able to read this section until today. I’m not sure what else there is to say, as you did a really good job and I’m glad to see you highlighting your own work as I think it’s really good.

    I do note that I am finding his essay very interesting in so far as he is advocating a kind of non-religious, non-scientistic philosophy. I’m not sure it works, but it’s very well done.

  8. Guido Nius Says:

    Hey Brad, I have to apologize. I am not reading this book & I probably missed it as a prerequisite for contributing here. If it is, just let me know and I will disappear. I have no time to read an additional book now and I was taking this as a chance to connect with something I cannot connect with in first hand.

    But whilst I’m at it: talking of ‘groundless grounds’ is for an analytically predisposed person as I going rather mystical – there is a difference between e.g. pictures such as building materials insufficient to carry out grand plans, boats which have to be rebuilt whilst in the middle of the sea and uses of paradox pointing to something inexpressable. The former with some stretch could be classed in mythology whilst the latter for me is a sign of mysticism.

    Anyway, maybe I’m just plain wrong.

    As to my 3rd paragraph: is there an interest in transposing the findings in the continental tradition to a wording that is fitting in the analytical tradition?

    (I hope that despite my possible transgression I can still be sometimes welcome in the big tent; it gives me great peace to smoke there)

  9. Afshin Says:

    As a fairly newcomer to breaking down philosophy to understandable chunks, I greatly value your review. I have now come to realize that this book goes beyond the debates between reason/dialectics and faith/religion to provide an opportunity in appreciating the different structures of knowing. I purchased the book over the weekend and although I’m new to the game, I wish to still learn some things that will help fortify my understanding of the different ideologies in the game.

    I hope along the way questions like those an undergrad would have are welcome here.

  10. Brad Johnson Says:

    Guido … there are no prerequisites. I just misunderstood that you were in fact reading. No worries.

    I’ll reserve judgment and comment on the mysticism idea for now. Maybe in a later post. I think it sends us a little too far away from the text in question for the moment. For the sake of not avoiding the question, though, I would simply say that if what Gabriel is doing is mysticism, it is not entirely of the apophatic tradition. I think what Schelling offers in general is a radically different way to think about mysticism materialistically.

    is there an interest in transposing the findings in the continental tradition to a wording that is fitting in the analytical tradition?

    Yes. I did not go out of my way to highlight this, but this seems very much an interest of Gabriel. He cites Bransom, Cavell, Quine, Wittgenstein, etc. throughout this particular essay.

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    Afshin, ask away. As this is a blog, I cannot always guarantee the quality or the tenor of the answers received, but in general we are always receptive to genuine questions.

  12. Earnest O'Nest Says:

    A-OK then, I’ll bother you some more when my flue stops a-bothering me.

  13. Guido Nius Says:

    Sorry Brad (& all), this thing of maintaining two blogs on the wordpress with 2 pseudonyms is a bitch. Earnest=Guido.


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