Type
Essay
Category
Art
Philosophy
Politics

Practical epiphanies

1. A wealthy and worldly socialite, financier turned jaded art dealer, resigned to holding life at a certain ironic distance, encounters for the first time a piece of music that – in his emotional response to its phrasing and harmonies – holds out the promise of recovering authentic enthusiasm.Soon after hearing the sonata he falls in love, and its most memorable phrase becomes the leitmotif of the new couple’s relationship, the ‘national anthem of their love’; later, when his lover has proved unfaithful and they have parted ways, he unexpectedly hears the ‘little phrase’ again, causing vivid memories of the time when they were happy together to descend upon him in a rush, and with them the weight of irrecoverable loss. 

2. When the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity were codified in a political document, they were expressed in terms that did not confine themselves to revolutionary France, but posited a universal principle (at least for the male section of the world’s population) – ‘men are born and remain free and equal in rights’ – as well as the principle of national sovereignty. Such sentiments did not sit easily with the reality of France as a colonial power. But as the historian CLR James famously notes, the slaves of the Saint-Domingue colony recognised the declaration’s universality more forcefully than did its authors: ‘They had heard of the revolution and construed it in their own image: the white slaves of France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth … the slogans of the revolution meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.’2 Thus, via these two great revolutions – the French and the Haitian – the projects of modernity and decolonisation have been mutually imbricated from the outset.

3. Late one afternoon in the summer of 1958, a biologist sat slumped in his seat at a Parisian cinema. Earlier in the day, he had tried to write notes for a lecture on the behaviour of genes in different environments, but could not concentrate, and went to see a film to escape a sense of dissatisfaction with his work. The film, however, bored him; he closed his eyes. In an instant, he realised the connection between his own research on the way genes self-regulate in reaction to external stimuli, and an experiment carried out by his contemporaries. This insight struck him as ‘the astonishment of the obvious’ that filled him with ‘an intense joy’. In his memoir, he identifies this moment as a pivotal one in his career, and in the work that led, seven years later, to the Nobel Prize in Medicine.3In each of these cases, something is encountered – a work of art, a social disruption, a nascent hypothesis – and experienced as a moment of joyful recognition, as if something long-forgotten has been recovered. But the encounter actually generates something entirely new. When the biologist, François Jacob, interprets his epiphany as an encounter with ‘the obvious’, it seems that the effect is something like déjà vu: the new is apprehended as if it were, or should be, familiar. The first time that the art dealer, Charles Swann (a character in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time) hears the sonata, he feels that he has rediscovered a forgotten part of himself; the last time, it acts as a typically Proustian memory trigger that brings to mind what he would rather forget. And the vehemence with which Haitian rebels such as Toussaint L’Ouverture embraced the French revolution in fighting for their own (‘that sword…which France confided to me for the defence of its rights and those of humanity’) might be taken as a mistake, a misapprehension of the extent of a movement that understood itself in more parochial terms than they realised – were it not for the fact that it was precisely their appropriation of the revolutionary moment that gave it universal significance.To formulate this more concisely: an encounter that takes place at a singular point in time and space gives rise to a transcendence of its particularity. That transcendence can occur in the private sphere (such as Swann’s emergence from ironic detachment) or the public (a scientific advance; the overturning of feudalism). A rupture in the state of things allows truth to be glimpsed. Martin Heidegger’s notion of disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’ (aletheia) is relevant here: ‘The picture that shows the peasant shoes, the poem that says the Roman fountain, do not make manifest what this isolated being as such is – rather, they make unconcealedness as such happen in regard to what is as a whole.4 The subjective experience of disclosure, revealing or ‘unconcealedness’ results in the production of a new paradigm. This is, perhaps, most obvious in the practice of science, which the scholar Mark Dietrich Tschaepe argues should not be viewed as entirely distinct from the aesthetic realm: what he calls the ‘creative moment of scientific apprehension’ has an artistic dimension, albeit often ignored or disavowed.5 The emergence of the universal from the singular is defined with greatest clarity by Alain Badiou: ‘Every universal originates in an event, and the event is intransitive to the particularity of the situation.’6 For Badiou, the basis of political change is not ideological or doctrinal but material: the crystallisation of a new realm of possibility in a revolutionary event.All the above is an attempt to think about the present issue’s theme, ‘radicalism and radical critique’, and to consider the tension between those two terms. My claim is that, too often, the latter is assumed to do the work of the former. There is plenty wrong with the world in general, and with our corner of it in particular, but simply enumerating what is wrong does not redress it. Badiou again:

 

I think that we can have, naturally, negative feelings, negative experience concerning injustice, concerning the horrors of the world, terrible wars, and so on. But I don’t think that all that is the creative part of a new political subject … If we appreciate, for example, why we have during two years the great revolt of the slaves in the Roman Empire, under the leadership of Spartacus, it is not because slaves have the feeling of injustice and so on. Because they always have that, it is their experience day after day. It is rather because in one small place, a small group of slaves finds new means, finally to create a victory. A small victory, a local victory. And after that, as the effect of enthusiasm, of affirmation, of the possibility of something new, we have the possibility of the creation of a new subjectivity at the general level. 7

 

There is a saying in Bengali: সোজা আঙ্গুলে ঘি উঠে না, ‘a straight finger gets no ghee’. Radical critique can poke at the state of things as much as it likes, but to obtain results, one must crook the finger. Critique, then, is necessary but insufficient. Perhaps the best way to foster radical change is to remain open and sensitive to encounters, whether in the realm of the social and political or of the aesthetic, that point to possibilities beyond the current state of things, to affirm and to celebrate them, and to build from ‘small, local victories’ to larger ones.

 

1. Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin, 2002 (216-20, 226-7, 358-9).
2. James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Second edition, Vintage Books, 1989 (81, 198).
3. Jacob, François. The Statue Within: An Autobiography. Translated by Franklin Philip, Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press, 1988 (297-8).
4. Heidegger, Martin. The Origin of the Work of Art. Translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Perennial, 2001, pp. 17–76 (54).
5. Tschaepe, Mark Dietrich. ‘The Creative Moment of Scientific Apprehension. Understanding the Consummation of Scientific Explanation through Dewey and Peirce’. European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, vol. V, no. V–1, July 2013.
6. Badiou, Alain. ‘Eight Theses on the Universal’. Theoretical Writings, translated by Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano, Continuum, 2004, pp. 143–52 (145).
7. Badiou, Alain. ‘On Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance’. Critical Horizons, vol. 10, no. 2, Aug. 2009, pp. 154–62 (160).

 

 

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Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

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