As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Theory + Practice is a series supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
German philosopher Marcus Steinweg just published his first book to appear in English translation. The Terror of Evidence, written in 2015, borrows its structure from a core glossary of terms. Those who have listened to Steinweg’s impassioned live lectures (delivered unscripted), will find a different tone in his written work—a potent mix of intellectual acuity and a matter-of-fact sensibility. From themes like Naiveté to Beckett to Emotional Atheism to PolitHysteria, Steinweg marches through 191 concepts in 138 pages—all in a book slightly larger than your average passport. Whether you are a newcomer to philosophy, an enthusiast, a skeptic, or a fanatic, Steinweg’s determined undoing of one Gordian knot after another will guide you through questions of aesthetics, ethics, literature, and, inevitably, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and theology.
My first symbolic handshake with Steinweg happened in 2010, when he accepted an invitation to contribute a catalog essay for Abstract Resistance, a show I curated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Three years later, we worked together on Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument in New York City’s South Bronx (commissioned by Dia Art Foundation), where Steinweg delivered magnetizing lectures on philosophy for seventy-seven consecutive days. In 2016, we were reunited once again by Hirschhorn, joining him in the Sommerakademie at Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, where Marcus and I lectured daily for a period of one week.
Steinweg is well known in art circles for his essays and talks on the commonalities between philosophy and art, and for his collaborations with artists. He and his twin brother, Christoph, and sister, Olivia, grew up in a village close to Koblenz in what was then West Germany. Steinweg began studies in philosophy, literature, and ancient Greek, which he abandoned after two years, “disappointed that there is no real thinking in the academic sphere.” SinceFrakturen, a book of poetry in 1994, he has published sixteen books on philosophy. He divides his time between Paris and Berlin and this year became a professor at the State Academy of Fine Arts, Karlsruhe, Germany. MIT Press will release Steinweg’s Inconsistencies this October. It consists of fragments, maxims, meditations, and notes, formulating a philosophy of thought that expresses and enacts the inconsistency of our reality. The following exchange was conducted over email this past summer.
Yasmil Raymond You’ve said that you’re not alone when you write, that all the philosophers you’ve read and studied accompany you. Which of them have been the most generative interlocutors thus far?
Marcus Steinweg Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Deleuze, and Derrida are crucial. Wittgenstein because of his insistence on implicit affirmations in his later work— to be critical always means to affirm something; it’s never a purely negative gesture. You articulate yourself within a language game, a form of life. Heidegger because of his redefinition of philosophy as ontology—it’s about the being-status of things. Deleuze because of his affirmation of chaos—the ontological inconsistency of reality as such. And Derrida as the philosopher of the irreducible gap he calls différance. There is space between me and me—nonidentity is how Adorno put it. I’m not identical with myself. There is a fissure, a break, emptiness, void.
YR So when you say, as you do in many of your lectures, “the ghosts are in the house,” are these philosophers giving you the courage to face phantasms and fears?
MS The ghosts are facing me. That’s the problem. That they are in the house means that they are already here, in my mind, in the core of the subject. They are comrades, friends, or enemies. Whether I like it or not, I have to deal with them because they are dealing with me. Call it Freud’s unconscious or Lacan’s real. These concepts indicate the presence of an absence. This present absence is powerful and strong. It determines everything I think and do: all my decisions, all my thoughts, in ordinary life, in politics, in love. We do not live without ghosts, phantasms, illusions. They are constitutive of the human subject—a subject without subjectivity, meaning without given essence or nature, a subject without god. Nietzsche, Deleuze argues, is by no means the “inventor of the famous phrase ‘God is dead.’ On the contrary, he is the first to believe this phrase to have no importance whatsoever as long as the human occupies the place of God. Nietzsche was trying to uncover something that was neither God nor Human, trying to give voice to these impersonal individuations and these pre-individual singularities … that’s what he calls Dionysus, or also the super-man.” A thinking after the death of god must take its beginning from the impossibility of man, from an originally evacuated subject, a primordially splintered cogito, whose task will be to confront this void and fragmentation rather than strive for a substantial beginning and a reasoned finality.
YR This awareness, Adorno’s splinter in the eye, or Foucault’s breaking away, is an emancipatory act. Is this what you mean when you speak of the need to “leave the house” in order to have an experience? When did you make the decision? When did you know you wanted to write philosophy?
MS At the age of fifteen, maybe even earlier—philosophy or literature, or both. I believe in philosophy as a hyperbolic mode of literature. It’s about naming the ghosts. Like pets, they’re weird members of your family. They belong to you while simultaneously they mark an insurmountable difference from you. Philosophizing means opening up to this difference, conceptualizing the ontological inconsistency of reality. The supposedly consistent reality is inconsistent and contingent. It’s like it is, but it’s not necessarily like it is!
YR What do you mean by that?
MS The thinking that is of itself in relation to the obscure is the thinking of such contingency. It owes its agility and flexibility to the absence of substantial structures that would absolutely prefigure it being in the sphere of objective finitude: in reality. And yet, this very sphere—the space of socially, economically, politically, culturally, historically, technologically codified facts— burdens the subject that inhabits it with hetero-affects that distinctly structure it.
YR “Hetero-affects” being the specific conditions that define and structure our lives, like the education system, or the heartless economic disparities endemic to globalization and to the political ideologies of our (elected or non-elected) governments?
MS There is no pure subject, or one unconcerned with heteronomies, at least not outside the fantasies of those beautiful souls who interpret any contact with reality as a threat to their narcissistic integrity and must accordingly shun it at any cost. The obscure to which any subject is related qua subject marks the incommensurability of its world (of a world, however, that is not its), the uncontrollability factor of the reality of fact. Control and self-control are fundamental parameters of occidental metaphysics. The aim was always to furnish the subject with instruments that were to help it minimize the share the uncontrollable had in its existence and its external realities—which is to say, to shrink the incommensurable down to commensurabilities in order to generate at least the sentiment of improved protection against contingency affects.
YR You are saying Western societies have trained their citizens to falsely believe they are in control and properly prepared in case of unforeseen events on an individual or collective level. You’ve called Marguerite Duras an influence. Have her novels helped you reconcile these incongruities?
MS Duras wrote novels that are inhabited or haunted by ghosts. What she calls writing (écrire) means welcoming them. Writing is not identical to creating literature for her. Writing means affirming the ghostly parts of the human subject and its world. My artist friend Rosemarie Trockel and I published a book on Duras in 2008. It’s Rosemarie who was first fascinated by her work. I understood that Duras’s concept of writing is close to what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze meant when referring to Maurice Blanchot: opening up the inner outside(dehors), an immanent (in the nonreligious sense) transcendence. Duras calls it the inner shadow (l’ombre interne). It’s about opening toward an element that denies full selfconsciousness; a closed self-presence that destabilizes the subject in its entirety and makes it stumble. This inner shadow calls upon the subject to adopt a conception of itself that would leave behind the phantasms of a presence and self-presence rid of all specters. The subject, moving on the trace of its own disappearance, encounters—on the line of its rampant absence—itself as though it were its own spectral double. This means that it is itself a phantasm, one that does not cease to beset itself with questions it cannot answer.
YR Meaning our notions of self are ultimately unpleasant distortions?
MS The legacy of metaphysics would perhaps be nothing but this self-riddling, this drilling of holes into the subject and never ceasing, creating a gap or hollow large enough to make room for all sorts of specters. These specters begin to spread through the subject and will ultimately supplant it altogether. And yet, as Derrida has shown, it would be a mistake to trust in the deferred action of specters, as though there had ever been a nonspectral subject whose unperturbed self-certainty and self-presence were only now being unsettled by a spectral power. The subject has never been anything but a specter. The rift that divides it cuts through it from the subject’s very beginning by making it teeter on the edge between presence and absence, infinity and finitude, ideality and reality. Man disappearing “like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault) means that disappearance is the mode of his being, that he must resign himself to being the index of his own inexistence; yet an efficient inexistence, an agile and, if we may say so, operative absence.
YR Perhaps it is precisely the awareness of our mortality that obliges us to indulge blindly in this inconsistency.
MS We might also say that the subject, though impossible as a full subject of consummate autonomy, self-transparency, etcetera, nonetheless asserts, as this impossibility, a certain subject status. For what is the subject if not the relation to its own impossibility? Within the horizon of the analytic of finitude that supplants the “metaphysics of the infinity,” Deleuze writes, man is “traversed by an essential disparity, almost an alienation by rights, separated from itself by its words, by its works, and by its desires.” It would be wrong to misconstrue this alienation as coming upon man a posteriori. It’s part of man (or of the subject) as a sort of originary possession. The rift, the disparity, the différance (the spatialization, the split) are elemental features of a subject that, instead of resting (and taking a rest) on an eternal apriority—that would serve it as the stage on which to act as the owner of its realities—represents the placeholder for the inexistence of such an apriority, a shaky entity that is not substantialized by any ontological guarantee. We might also speak of an uncovered credit, a credit to be redeemed by the future, by its indeterminacy and contingency.
YR Right, the solace of admitting that the ghosts have always been inside the house. With this set of intensified concepts, what would you say are the disadvantages of being a philosopher in 2017?
MS I don’t know. I don’t care.
YR What about the experience of love? Did you ever question the role of love in philosophical terms?
MS I wrote a book on love, Aporien der Liebe, which was published in 2010. The love experience is the very experience of an aporia, a deadlock. The beloved other is different to me. To love means to love or affirm this difference, this aporia, instead of denying it. It’s a challenge, often a catastrophe. Sometimes it works. Love can be joyful. Romanticism risks neutralizing love to an experience of fusion and complementarity or to the narcissistic drama of the unlivable. The subject of this narcissism—incapable of loving because it loves nothing but itself or what it thinks is its self—grinds itself up in the conflict between its objective being and its ideal image. This conflict plays out as a singular tragedy—the subject of love is confronted with the ordeal of suspending its factual identity as well as its projections in order to open the space of experience for real love. Let’s call this suspension an opening up toward a void that confronts the subjects entangled in the love experience with the incommensurability of their respective freedom. Emma Bovary is one example in modern literature, where the narcissism of the protagonist is exemplified in her fantasies drawn from books, all of which copy a tragic paradigm of love, a passionate moaning and deliquescence: “She rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate desires of her heart.” Stendhal insists that every woman “starting with the first novel she clandestinely flips open at age fifteen, secretly waits for passionate love” (which should not make us believe that a man is any less receptive to romantic love).
YR The experience of love—and, in my opinion, also of art and philosophy—requires a rigorous practice of loyalty.
MS The German sociologist Ulrich Beck characterized the addiction to love—he called love itself the “fundamentalism of modernity”—as “religion after religion” and “applied reading of novels.” In fact, real love goes hand in hand with a resistance to the romantic convention, which demands quasi-religious contempt for the world from the lovers. This is why Alain Badiou insists that love—instead of being just the experience of the other—is the experience of the world under the conditions of the duality constituted by the encounter. To separate oneself from the “rest of the world” seems to be a constitutive need of the romantic feeling. In order not to indulge in narcissistic world contempt, the lovers have to claim their singularity in the here and now of a reality that incessantly endangers this very singularity. Love is aporetic because it exposes the lovers to the conflict of singularity and universality without the promise of resolvability. Translated into a paraphrase of Baudrillard, this means: every love that deserves this name loses itself in the universal. As much as love can be defended in its singularity, it also has its share of structuring convention. It articulates this conflict between convention and singularity.
YR Do you consider love creative?
MS The encounter of love is a creative act because it cannot trust the overcome dispositifs, which include the correlating phantasms. In the conflict between reality and phantasm, love is the manifestation of singular universality. In the aphorism titled “Love and Duality,” in the second part of Human All Too Human, Nietzsche concludes: “What else is love but understanding and rejoicing that another lives, works, and feels in a different and opposite way to ourselves? That love may be able to bridge over the contrasts by joys, we must not remove or deny those contrasts. Even self-love presupposes an irreconcilable duality (or plurality) in one person.” The encounter of the lovers articulates their dissimilarity. It’s not fusion but affirmation that abdicates the model of untarnished selfness. The “irreconcilable duality (or plurality)” is the law governing every encounter that wants to be an opening toward otherness, even the self-encounter, which Nietzsche calls self-love in order to distinguish it from narcissistic self-misjudgment. The other is different—this is the first truth the loving subject tries to conform to. What proves to be a condition of the possibility of love is the rift between the lovers. A sentence from Derrida’s Envois brings together this rift and its affirmation: “I have never so desired what I could not desire—this cry between us.”
YR Is love another word for emancipation?
MS Everybody knows that to love demands the transgression of the narcissistic “narrative of the victim” (Eva Illouz), which declares the subject to be an object of a structure of determinants. Because this transgression isn’t easy, Jean-Luc Nancy distinguishes between “good” and “bad” narcissism. Good narcissism would be nearly indistinguishable from what we call selfconfidence, a stability owed to the awareness of the uncertainty of life. Being self-confident means consistently standing one’s ground in the confrontation with the outside, whereas bad or actual narcissism denies itself this minimal consistency in order to perform inconsistently through and through. The subject of bad narcissism lives on the affective reflex it hopes to actuate in other subjects. It never ceases to be unrecognized with regard to its imaginary nature, not getting a satisfying representation in the outside world. As a sort of miserable consciousness it inhabits the cleft between self-perception and external perception. Bad narcissism can be identified by this sort of self-melodramatization—it lets the subject immerse itself in resentments, in the constant attempt to attract regret, pity, or admiration. Apparently, what mirrors itself in the distinction between self-confidence and narcissism is the Nietzschean difference between active and passive nihilism. If love does not comply with morality—as long as we understand morality like Badiou, as the “practical obedience against a law”—then it’s a force that draws its intensity from the confrontation with the incommensurable, the void, the nothing.
YR What’s the difference between active and passive nihilism?
MS Passive nihilism immerses itself in this void, while active nihilism affirms the subject’s self-elevation in the emptiness of universality. Instead of bowing to a morality, it appeals to the power of self-invention, which implies disobedience against symbolic standards. The subject of love defies narcissistic obedience by positioning itself beyond the sphere of the established. What distinguishes love from narcissistic self-objectification is that it must sustain itself without any support of a positive force. Narcissism, on the other hand, relies on a support that appeals to an authority (an inner voice, etcetera). Love needs the progression toward the other without the safety of a principle of primordial togetherness or any teleology. Love carries the subject beyond itself; it starts to experience the brittleness of its identity. Neither the self-confident nor the narcissistic position exists unspoiled. The subject of narcissism is different from the subject of self-confidence insofar as, instead of accepting its original imperfection (contamination, etcetera) as normal, it claims some sort of imaginary untouchability. An ontology of love is justified already by its consisting in the experience of love as an experience of being. Love affects all the realities of the subject; it is its reality check. Those who avoid this examination do not love, but shrink from the force of this experience.
YR I like the idea of love as a subject’s or person’s reality check. It’s a good concept to keep in mind. You tend to lecture without notes. Why is improvisation important to public speech?
MS I don’t believe in improvisation. I’m super prepared by not being prepared for a specific talk. Nevertheless, I want to put myself in a situation of augmented vulnerability. I refuse to read a written text to an audience. I want to generate thoughts in the desert of freedom. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
YR What do you mean exactly by “the desert of freedom”?
MS The desert of freedom is the gap I spoke about. I experience myself as the ghost of myself. It’s about nonidentity, inconsistency, and nothingness. Jean-Paul Sartre’s thinking deals with this nothingness and freedom: we are fucked up in freedom or nothingness. This is the reason why, nowadays, we live our lives refusing to be free (for decisions) by reducing ourselves to consumers of options, possibilities, or choices. We choose not to make decisions. A choice avoids freedom. To decide means to vote for a freedom beyond consumable choices. Capitalism is a choice system. A real decision breaks up with this system.
YR What would you say is the main difference between the process of writing philosophy and reading philosophy?
MS Reading is more fun. Writing is more satisfying.
YR You’ve used outlines, diagrams, and schemas to map your concepts. How do you understand these strategies operating in your work?
MS They are visualization, formalization. My diagrams are two-dimensional word sculptures. A diagram stands between order and chaos, just like the subject. It’s wrong to think it does nothing but oppose chaos—that is, as long as we define chaos as universal incommensurability, which, instead of describing a mad world, indicates a one-and-only world, our shared world without exit. Chaos is not an exterior somewhere; it’s the world without a metaworld, the world without final meaning, the world without god. A world without world, if we can say so: the world as a nonhomogeneous universe of explosive heterogeneities and implosive energies, a world incessantly caving in and accelerating beyond itself without boundaries. A nonascetic world, not subject to any sort of last measure, a world of excessive processes that threaten even the most insignificant, inconspicuous, and controlled normative processes. We, the subjects, have long since absorbed this world and belong right in the middle of it without demarcating its center. We can therefore say the subject is a kind of diagrammatic subject, regulating the chaosmotic traffic between inside and outside, though not necessarily doing a good job of it. “The diagram is indeed a chaos,” Deleuze writes in his book on Francis Bacon, “but it is also a germ of order.” The same holds true for the subject accomplishing a bit of consistency production in the ocean of ontological inconsistency—that’s about it. Not for art, not for science, not for philosophical thought.
YR Does the diagram then reflect reality?
MS The implicit violence of diagrammatic practice is that it attempts to reductively tame the overcomplexity of a confusing texture of reality. This is analogous to the reductive or subsumptive violence of terminological thinking that conceptualizes the heterogeneous multiplicity of what exists, defusing it in such a way, simplifying and reducing it to something it is not. There is no beyond of violence. There is only “economy of violence,” Derrida writes, because “here we only wish to foreshadow that within history—but is it meaningful elsewhere?—every philosophy of nonviolence can only choose the lesser violence within an economy of violence.” This is true for art, science, and philosophy. Which is why it is essential that the philosophical diagrammatic, instead of disguising its violence, must exhibit it. A diagram exposes itself as violence. This is where its enlightening power, if we can call it that, resides. It’s both in one: reduction and demonstration of complexity. It demonstrates the state of the human subject as a subject of reduced overview. Simultaneously, it indicates this subject’s necessity to orient itself in disorientation. And this is precisely what defines the diagrammatic as the attempt to generate—amid the chaos and confusion of the world—images of this world that are more than indices of the impossibility of an ultimate worldview.
Yasmil Raymond is an associate curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. At MoMA, she has organized projects including Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection (2017). Previously, she served as a curator at the Dia Art Foundation, where she organized exhibitions and projects with Allora & Calzadilla, Carl Andre, Thomas Hirschhorn, and others.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.