Tag Archives: excess

Edmund Burke – “An Introduction on Taste,” in A Philosophic Enquiry (1759)

Page numbers refer to Oxford World’s Classics (2008)

The 1759 edition included an introductory section on the concept of Taste. Burke believes that we can derive a universal standard of taste by carefully observing the passions and the way external actions affect our bodies (the corporeal-erotic aspect of Burke is palpable). In the Preface to the second edition, he expresses hope that an analysis of taste will recur on the “severer sciences” and consequently inflect them with its graces, etc (6). Just curious because for Burke, taste becomes a very loss and usable term, accomplishing much of what Kant hoped it would, but by less complicated means.

TASTE: For Burke, taste is the faculty of mind that forms judgments about the works of imagination. Curiously, imagination will also be the thing that is affected, and he wants to bring together the imagination with reason. He begins by positing that everyone agrees about basic physical tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. And then moves to say that everyone agrees about their metaphorical applications (sweet and sour dispositions, bitter remark, etc.). In the biological sphere, someone claiming that honey is sour is considered wrong, but somehow “vitiated” or “mad” (14). The move to the metaphoric (a part from being the weak link in Burke’s argument) signals the move to the Imagination, for which he claims a congruence with the senses. In the imagination, our sensations get converted into representations. Yes, HUME is important here. And for this reason, Burke’s examples focus in differences in degree…how to judge a smoother or rougher table, while the relative beauty of these characteristics goes unquestioned.  Nevertheless, his tripartite definition of taste–immediate sensual pleasure, secondary representative pleasure of imagination, and the conclusions of reasoning faculty–point towards the sequences of both Kant and Schiller. The difference is that Kant will rigorously distinguish between the sensual and rational aspects of the human. For Burke, there is simply a process of degree. In Kant, there is chasm that needs to be bridged. Burke does offer his own curious categories: lack of sensibility leads to dull taste while lack of judgment leads to bad taste. Thus taste is not a faculty of judgment, but rather something which judgment, associated with reason, regulates (mark the difference with Kant). In fact, judgment can even impede taste, or what Burke sometime calls “the imagination.” But, paradoxically, the cultivation of taste can also recur on judgment, improving it.  The point here is that taste, in Burke, is not a separate faculty, but merely a mode or inflection of reason, understanding, or the imagination. Obviously Burke is less rigorous than Kant, but for this reason, he gets some good work done.




Lauren Berlant – “Slow Death” (2007)

Berlant explains the concept of slow-death as a way of living in this current stage of capital. It is not merely the quiet desperation of Thoreau’s community-others, but a way in which life can be lived laterally, as a self-interruption of the capital subject otherwise exhausted by the forces of capital extraction that soak up all practical energies.

[The essay] argues that in the scene of slow death, a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life, agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment.

She uses obesity as an example of how the processes of eating have become perverted by capitalist pressures. “In the contemporary U.S. context, obesity figures as the freshest case of slow-death crisis-scandal management.”

It is a form of slow death; in fact, the only form of slow death available to many marginalized peoples.

When one African- American essayist describes the ongoing familial and cultural lure of the actually existing American four food groups (sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine), we see that morbidity, the embodiment towards death as a way of life, marks out slowdeath as what there is of the good life for the vast majority of American workers.

She points out that being-fat was always associated with the rich not the poor, and now the number of “overfed” matches the number of “underfed” people in the world for the first time. Thus an old-fashioned Malthusian argument won’t work here—where it is the excessive resources that are killing the poor and people of color. Such “excess” dovetails with a whole range of racist associations: that African American are controlled by animal appetite rather than cultivated restraint; that this excess if marked by their political “excess” or expendability, etc.

She thus points out that the obesity epidemic cannot be explained in terms of liberal concepts of individual sovereignty, choice, freedom, etc. Rather, the biopolitical state forces us to rethink the modes of agency that constitute personal change—such as healthy or unhealthy eating. Remember that for Foucault, sovereignty “is not the right to put people to death or to grant them life. Nor is it the right to allow people to live or to leave them to die. It is the right to take life or let live.” Thus much of what Berlant is arguing is that life-maintenance can in and of itself be equivalent to a form of life-building, but with the idea of construction signifying otherwise than capital modes of accretion. [Relate this to Schilleren idea of not tasting more, but of tasting differently.]

But, for most, the overwhelming present is less well symbolized by energizing images of sustainable life, less guaranteed than ever by the glorious promise of bodily longevity and social security, than it is expressed in regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty, lateral agency, and, sometimes, counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example, in sex, or spacing out, or food that is not for thought.

Jane Bennett – “The Force of Things” (2004)

Bennett proposes a phenomenology of non-human recalcitrance read as vitality, which she calls “thing-power.” She proceeds to give an alternative (to Marxism, Foucault) genealogy of materialism. This contradicts Adorno’s non-identical warnings by proposing a naïve realism—where concept and object are at least heuristically consonant—that helps us to imagine more ethical relationships to the non-human. Thing-vitality is that which stands in excess of material reference to human projects (be they failures (trash in Baltimore seen as mise-en-scène or assemblage) or success (monuments)).

“A material body always resides within some assemblage or other, and its thing-power is a function of that grouping. A thing has power by virtue of its operating in conjunction with other things.” (353-4)

This is derived via Deleuze via Bergson via Spinoza. [It should be connected to Esposito.] But this also leads to Latour’s notion of an actant (not actor) as way of describing a middle zone in the horizontal continuum between human and non-human (not a vertical chain of being).

Against Marxist (Adornian) critiques, Bennet asserts:

While humans do indeed encounter things only in a mediated way…a moment of [naïve relaism] is necessary for discernment of thing power…A naïve realism…allows non-humanity to appear on the ethical radar screen. (357)

Bennet accuses the fetish of mediation of a prejudice against things in favor of the subject (exactly what Adorno wants to avoid, btw). In contrast, Deleuze, Lucretius, Negri (and Bennett) presume to speak from the object’s position (which is also problematic).

Bennett does an extended reading of Adorno’s negative dialectics, and proposes joy as a way of responding to the non-identical, of motivating social awareness and change (ecological, political, etc.). While Adorno assigns the non-idenitical dark utopian (spiritual) forebodings—the thing materialist describes these things but they offer no promise, but rather hopes to make them more awake to us.

The ecology that emerges is not one of “organic wholes,” but one of participation in collectivities (not harmony, but participation—which is what Nietzsche advocates in Beyond Good and Evil).

Thing-power is an alternative to both historical materialism and body materialism (cultural studies, etc.).

Sigmund Freud – “The Return of Totemism in Early Childhood,” from Totem and Taboo (1913)

Published in Imago just before the war, the collection of four essays entitled “Totem and Taboo” attempts to locate the point at which human civilization emerges from the animal kingdom. The final installment, “The Return of Totemism in Childhood” is the most boldly speculative: it links the the universal neuroses of the Oedipal complex to the two principle ordinances of totemism: “not kill the totem and not to have sexual relations with a woman of the same totem,” coincide with “the two crime of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, as well as with the two primal wishes of children, the insufficient repression or reawakening of which form the nucleus of perhaps every psychoneurosis” (495). Be this is jumping ahead.

Freud points out that children have no problem treating animals as equals, and takes this as a paradigm for primitive man. Children associate animals im later life with the father–a fear of the father gets displaced onto animals. The sacrificial meal, then, involves the ritualistic slaughter of the totem animal (substitute for the father):

Everywhere a sacrifice involves a feast and a fest cannot be celebrated with a sacrifice. The sacrificial feast was an occasion on which individuals rose joyously above their own interests and stressed the mutual dependence existing between one another and their god. (496)

Crucially, the slaughter of a totem animal by an individual was not tolerated–“the whole clan must share the responsibility of the deed” (497). In this way, “the bond is nothing else than the life of the sacrificial animal, which resides in the flesh and blood and distributed among all participants in the sacrificial meal” (498).

The renewal of this bond–it’s materiality makes repetition necessary–is festival: “a permitted, or rather obligatory, excess, a solemn breach of a prohibition” (499). The festive feelings follow from the taking in of “the sacred life of which the substance of the totem is the vehicle” (500). But this momentary disorder is only the means to the ordering of civilization as such:

The totem meal, perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things–of social organization, or moral restrictions and of religion.(501)

Civilization emerges from a an act of substitution and violence, which leads to the production of a symbolic regime. The guilt of the primal act of violence becomes inherent in all religion, and morality is rooted in the penance demanded by this sense of guilt. Throughout history, representations of the killing of animals represent both the death of the father as totemic animal and his elevation to the sacred, which marks his greatest triumph (506).

The final pages deal more generally with Freud’s notion of a “collective mind,” a necessary concept for tracking the historical development psychic states. This grounds his insistence on the “reality” of psychical states that are never “factual.” “We must avoid,” he writes, “a contempt for what is merely thought or wished” (513). For neurotics, thinking becomes a substitute for doing. But in primitive man, Freud believes, thought passes directly into action. And that is why, he famously writes, quoting Goethe, “in the beginning was the Deed.”


Jacques Derrida – “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,” in Writing and Difference (1967)

A reading of Bataille’s reading of Hegel. Derrida explains the difference between lordship (grasping) and sovereignty (exploding). He then draws attention to the comic aspect of all lordship: it is funny that the slave has the advantage. Sovereignty comes with the ability to laugh at lordship. Hegel was blind to this laughter, which Bataille associates with the poetic, and this limit to his knowledge is what gives Hegel coherence but ultimately irrelevance with regard to LIFE. This is then read back on to the master-slave dialectic, in which the subject risks death in order to be truly live. Derrida points out that we must experience this death while living, in fact, which is a comic structure, after all. This is Hegel’s blindspot:

The blindspot of Hegelianism, around which can be organized the representation of meaning, is the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so reversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity—here we would have to say expenditure and a negativity without reserve—that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or a system. (259)

Hegel’s “revolution” was taking the negative’s “labor” seriously. Bataille does not take it seriously.In sacrificing meaning, sovereignty submerges the possibility of discourse: not simply by means of an interruption, a caesura, or an interior wounding of discourse (an abstract negativity), but, through such an opening, by means of an irruption suddenly uncovering the limit of discourse and beyond of absolute knowledge. (261)

“As a manifestation of meaning, discourse is the loss of sovereignty” (262)

“[Bataille’s] continuum is the privileged experience of a sovergein operation transgressing the limit of discursive difference…. Pushing itself toward the nonbasis negativity and od expenditure, the experience of the continuum is also the experience of ansolute difference, of a difference which would no longer be the one that Hegel had conceived more profoundly than anyone else: the difference in the service of presence, at work for (the) history (of meaning).” (263)

Sovereignty, like lordship, makes itself independent through risking its life, but does not conserve or attach itself to anything. It does not maintain itself or collect the profits. It cannot be defined as possession. [Cf. Andrew Cole’s reading of the Hegelian dialectic as being about the possession of land, transition from feudalism to capitalism]…” Soveriegnty must no longer seek to be recognized.”

Concludes with description of major vs. minor writing. Major writing exceeds the logos of meaning (lordship, etc.), while the minor merely interrupts it (?). This calls for a different type of reading, not bound by the constellation of philosophical concepts that Bataille is critiquing.

Sovereignty and discourse:

“To relate the major form of writing to the sovereign operation is to institute a relation in the form of a nonrelation, to inscribe rupture in the text, to place the chain of discursive knowledge in relation to an unknowledge which is not a moment of knowledge: an absolute unknolwedge from whose nonbasis is launched chance, or the wagers of meaning, history, and the horizons of absolute knowledge.” (268)

[Relate this to Levinas’ discussion of saying and the said, Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the self-interrupting flesh, and then show why Deleuze (and Judith Butler, ??) are different.

“Sovergeignty transgresses the entirety of the history of meaning and the entirety of the meaning of history, and the project of knowledge which has always obscurely welded these two together. Unknowledge is, then, supra-historical, but only because it takes its responsibilities from the completion of history and from the closure of absolute knowledge, having first taken them seriously and having betrayed them by exceeding them or by simulating them in play.”

[Relate to Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” where transmission and meaning only become possible at the moment of death, as well as angelus novus excerpt; also, Adorno’s conclusion to minima moralia, in which all philosophy must be conducted from the end of history; also Deleuze in What is Philosophy?, in which creation and becoming are a turning away from history rather than continuation of them.]

Writing and the General Economy: “Senseless loss (production of useless excess) is sovereignty.” Hegel’s Aufhebung and phenomenology are both restricted economies. They are restricted to the circuit of reproductive consumption, the utilization of wealth—all of which can determine difference only as work (the activity of the slave, after all). The Hegelian dialectic therefore exists within the restricted economy of history itself.