Can thought be put in danger?
I recently had the experience of encountering that old bogeyman of dogmatic thought while reading a text by someone whose writing I had gotten much from. I passed over it to get to the bones of what the article was saying but kept returning to it because the accusation niggled. I knew, of course, that the author was using a figure of speech. He had an image of thought as a conceptual character acting and being acted upon in a milieu of sorts; a character with an affective dimension, capable of being misused.
A form of agent-less causation could, indeed, apply to thought if one imagined thought as a structure of relation fixed in time – a sort of architectural idea of thought. (The most famous might be Marx’s use of the image “base and superstructure”). It’s a static image in which the robustness of thought is measured against an already established means of validation, a structure that holds it in place; a thought true, for example, to logical argument or scientific objectivity. The culprit in that case would be irrationality or lack of empirical evidence.
On the other hand “ danger to thought” makes one think of an action by an intentional agent, if only because human thinkers are the ones who “do” things to thought, against the backdrop of felt needs and interests. That seems to be the implicit meaning, a sort of a priori buried under the passive structure. Some thinker is putting thought in danger.
This formulation puts the statement where it might belong: in the context of philosophers contending about the validity of their ontological and epistemological postulates at a particular historical juncture. Suddenly we could find ourselves accused of putting thought at risk, almost of committing a thought-crime. Only a short step from that to the knock on the door at dead of night: to the thought-police, a gun to the head, the death of the thinker. Now there’s a dark plot indeed.
Someone is doing something to thought and someone else is condemning them for it. The active formulation replaces a synchronic image of thought– of relation via spatially conceived structure – with an image of change over time, involving the evolution of the thinker embedded in her social/political space, a drama in which philosophy casts its ideological shadow over thinking. As the torturer might say, bringing the blow torch a little closer to the thinkers face “You fucked us, now we fuck you”. Too extreme an image, perhaps, but only if you can efface the memory of a century of philosophical/ideological thuggery and it’s most recent expression- the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of agents acting on the orders of Saudi/American interests.
At any rate there is something generic about the statement – danger to thought – something that enables a proliferation of subjects and objects doing things to this or that iteration of thinking. Almost any philosopher could put his name to the following blank check: one of the main danger’s to thought today is…… (fill in the blank space). This is the small print of a sufficient system, sufficient because an invisible organising structure is not included in the question or the answer. Notice something miraculous about a blank cheque; we don’t have to know anything about the intentions of the signatory or the guarantor. The bearer of the check can use the money for whatever purposes he wishes, even to pay for the murder of a political opponent. The check only has to conform to a convention, codifying a structure of relation between anonymous buyers and sellers. What matters is the structure of relation, a concrete relation which has been subjected to a process of abstract imposition; one’s relation with someone else has been codified in units of currency whereby something is exchanged for something else.
Philosophy is an absolute codification of the universe such that the universe as World has already been philosophised, allowing for an exchange of ideas under an explicatory code authorised by philosophy. Any new entity clicks into place and is brought around on philosophy’s decisional machinery. Hence the appearance of the World as an automated process beyond our control. This World is, by and large, a production of the academy, a mode of production in which the energy of the professor and his adjuncts is harnessed to the machinery of philosophical decision to produce postulates exchanged in an economy of ideas. Like the real economy, in which money equals proliferation, in the economy of ideas it is decision that keeps the show on the road, producing endless philosophical iterations, a mountain of intellectual overproduction of ideas and an excess of “validated” knowledge, bought, sold, and now circulating for consumption. On this axis in it’s various forms the World turns. Political Economy is it’s bastard prodigy.
Can thought be put in danger?
To answer my own question: only a thinker can put thought in danger and only a thinker can be said to be in real danger. The problem with the image of thought being in danger is that thought is always in danger. Being in danger, one could say, is the very life of thought and the thinker of thought; to preserve oneself is, paradoxically, to open oneself to the risk of annihilation. One’s thoughts, and the self, codified as the effect of the system of thoughts into which one has been interpellated, must enter into relation as the sum of a series of abstract exchanges out of which we emerge as this or that successful or failed identity-in-circulation. One is bodily or psychologically in danger only in so far as one is reduced to an abstract set of concepts – an emigrant without papers, a person considered socially inept or psychologically challenged, a poor person in all senses of the word poor.
This is the general problematic out of which thinking emerges, inseparable from the lived experience of victims and perpetrators. To escape the invariant structure of philosophical thinking is to bring thinking into proximity to what philosophers will insist on calling an outside — politics, economics, class, race, ethnicity, psychology, personal history, gender, the body, the body in pain, the body afflicted, dying, dead, chucked into a hole, forgotten.
In fact such an outside is immanently prior to the creation of a philosophical postulate. What is politics, economy, psychology, the body, a thought, shorn of philosophical excess? The sheer lived-of-the-human, the ordinary, the shared humdrum of life, the lived, before it is posited as the empirical and taken up into philosophy.
The greatest danger is to separate thought from living beings at the expense of the being who thinks, feels and lives under the watchful eye of authorities. A being who must speak her thoughts under his eye, as that popular television series put it. Radical images of thought or no, one would then have joined the school of Idealist or Materialist scholastics, who separate thought from living beings as a being always philosophizable in essence; a being composed of philosophical postulates, or a mixture of postulates, scientific theories and empirical facts. In short a predicate of the philosophical subject determined by it rather than an always and already given-without-givenness of the human determining philosophy in the last instance.
What could be included in the image of thought is that living beings not only encounter thought in pre-structured synchronic forms -philosophical world-views, ideologies – but that to think just is a real-time operation on thought by a living being, breaking the self sufficient circle of thinking that would propose that “thought was in danger from thought”.
Bodies and thoughts are distinct, of course, but inseparable in a funny sort of way, as any smirking dictator knows, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for example, that idiotic feudal remanent, a puppet jumping on American strings. One cannot separate thoughts from a living body but one can separate a body from thought by shooting it in the head, or hanging it, or starving it to death. Thought, in that last instance, unilaterally ceases. Remember Jamal Khashoggi.
No one is getting killed in the west in so blatant a way by “state actors”. King Trump exports more than his stupidity. We are still living in a democracy, and even a bourgeois democracy should know the difference between legal killing and extra judicial assassination. Don’t hold your breath, though. In periods of instability the state reveals itself as an instrument of naked coercion. So history shows. What is coming is the mother of all instabilities. The revenge of the trees, the animals, the air, the soil, our mute suffering bodies, the great unwashed, the marginalised, the excluded. We should celebrate it, dance for joy. Babylon will be undone. Or not. Either way there will be an end to this world in the image of King Trump and all the King Trumps and Crown Princes who ever smiled on death.
The State will always have the advantage over oppositional forces, of course. It will use lethal force because it can. The militarisation (worldwide) of auxiliary police forces, a feat accomplished without any fanfare under the trope of professionalization and anti-terrorism, already augers what is to come – direct repression, using a streamlined force under the command of politically trusted adjuncts. If thinkers are likely to be put in danger, it will be from religious fundamentalists, political dogmatists, opportunists, racists, neo-fascists and the corporate and state interests which will try to manipulate them; and directly from the armed forces of that state. Radical thinkers will likely share a mass grave. Or the wall, as Margaret Atwood envisioned. Be afraid and act when it is opportune to do so.
One cannot feel compassion for a thought but one can have a thought of compassion for a body left hanging there, a piece of collateral damage devoid, now, of all thought. Or for a woman left standing in the street outside her own embassy, waiting for a loved one who will never return, not even his mutilated body. One can have a theory as to why this is allowable and even encouraged, a theory determined by a partiality towards victims and, on principle, opposed to all authorities, philosophical, legal, scientific and administrative. Of course, a theory must be testable. That should be conceded to the rationalist, the logician, the quasi-scientist in philosophical garb, the matter-of-fact man in the street, that invention of lazy journalists, as some French Philosopher once quipped.
Testability. Yes. But test for sentience first; find a pulse, a flicker of thought. Is she dead or alive, forced to live a living death, half alive, half dead, dying, minimally alive, wishing she was dead, soon to be dead, dead in the last instance. As an axiom, say, test from the real of her victim-hood, and only afterwards, if you can hold on to your “rational self-possession”, test for truth, rigour, logicality. But not for philosophical validity, a doubling of her pain as identical with this or that philosophical postulate of what her pain might mean to those contemplating it.
Actually, as every Professor of Philosophy knows in their bones, we don’t need a test. The problem is: what a professor knows in his bones he is liable to transform, in the blink of an eye (his transcendental eye) from use-value-knowledge into exchange-value-knowledge to be put into circulation for profit, locked behind paywalls or hiding between the cover of yet another book telling us what the dogs in the street already know. More fuel for the world’s funeral pyre.
That age old knowledge in his bones will have become non-thetic or mere folk knowledge, by definition, non-sequitur and without exchange value in the market of ideas.
Meanwhile, as we all know, our world burns.