Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to think like a moth - Thought after the "Death of God" (Part I)

Thinking after theDeath of God, thought must learn to cope with loss and find a new footing in the abyss that has opened up beneath it. This might seem like an impossible task. For is the loss of the absolute not also the absoluteness of loss, that is, an absolute loss which can as suchby definitionnever be recuperated or compensated? Yet the principle of chiastic reversal on which this impossibility is predicated (loss of the absolute = absolute loss), might perhaps at the same time give us some hope. For can we not also say that the loss of transcendence is simultaneously the transcendence of loss, such that transcendencethe ek-stasis towards the divineis now experienced through that loss which has become absolute? Is the absence of ultimate foundations not also the ultimately foundational importance of absence, which thus becomes the abyssal ground (theAb-grundin German) on which newcathedrals of thoughtcan be erected, reaching to previously unattained conceptual heights? Is the so-called End of History not also the History of the End, being the new teleology in which the abyssal ground is revealed as history's eschaton?

In light of this speculative potential of the chiasm as a figure of thought, which – to paraphrase Adorno – resurrects metaphysics in the moment of its fall, it seems perfectly fitting that “chiasm” shares its etymology with “Chiasmia”, the name of a genus of night butterflies, ie. moth. Based on the X-form of the Greek letter “chi”, the original Greek word “chiasma” means “formed like a cross”. This word was and still is used to describe any structure of inverted parallelism – a well-known example being the optical chiasm, the crossing of the optical nerves from the left eye to the right side of the brain and vice versa. In the case of the Chiasmia, obviously, the name derives from the inverted parallelism of the markings on the wings – something that characterizes all butterflies, of course, but has apparently inspired the name of only one genus of moth. One wonders why. Why has the chiasma given its name to just a genus of humble moth, who stretch their wings only at night, when no one sees them? What is the point of having colorful X-patterned wings in the dark of night whento speak with Hegelall cows are black? Or do we detect here another analogy with the chiasm as a figure of thought, resurrecting metaphysics in the moment of its fall?

The first analogy: the wings that the chiasm apparently gives to thought. As the moth takes flight by flapping its X-patterned wings, so the continuous conceptual movement of the chiastic reversal – the to-and-fro between the inverted propositions – allows thought to take off and reach new heights of speculation. In that sense we can say that the chiasm is like a conceptual butterfly, a Chiasmia of thought, short-lived perhaps, and flying in a rather disorderly and jolting fashion, apparently ad random, moved more by the wind than by its own design – yet flying nonetheless, from flower to flower, looking for and finding the nectar of metaphysical meaning.

The second analogywith the unseen night life of the mothvisualizes the fact that the chiasm appears to resurrect metaphysics in the moment of its fall, transforming the absolute darkness of its death (theDeath of God, the loss of transcendence) into a new and somewhat eerie light (the transcendence radiating from that loss). As if the natural light of truth comes no longer from the sun but from the moon, revealing a new world in a monochromatic grey on grey. In contrast to Hegel's owl of Minerva, whichspreads its wings only with the falling of dusk” – that is, when the Spirit of a civilization reaches its peak, the Chiasmia of thought become active only after dusk has given way to night, when the Spirit has already died, and the End of History has become yesterday's paper.

what thento continue our analogyis the wind by which the Chiasmia of thought are blown forth? Is this not the dying breath of God Himself, the storm which according to Benjamin is blowing from the lost paradise? Is our chiastic moth identical to Benjamin's angel of history, who is blown forth by that storm, whichhas caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future...(Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII) What is this future? What comes after the End of History? Will the night, in which the Chiasmia fly, give way to a new dawn, a new telos of History? Are the wings of the Chiasmia strong enough to carry usblown forth by that stormfrom the loss of paradise to a new paradise, regained but predicated on that previous loss? How is this possible? What does aparadise predicated on lossmean? How can the loss of transcendence at the same time be the transcendence of loss, the absence of ultimate foundations be the ultimately foundational importance of absence? In short, how is the chiasm as a figure of thought possible? What is its logic? Is it a sound logic?

To answer these questions, we must obviously leave the figurative realm of analogy and enter into a literal investigation of the thing itself, the rationality of the chiasm as a figure of thought. We must, that is, leave our humble moth alone, with admiration and gratitude, since it has taken us so far already, so it seems. We must open our hands and set it free, allowing it to return to its natural habitat, which is definitely not the dusty and somewhat morbid atmosphere of the “post”-modern philosopher. We learn nothing from it if we put a pin through its thorax and add it to our collection of Lepidoptera, dead and motionless, filed away in some cabinet of curiosities, Renaissance-style. To really learn from the Chiasmia, we must study them in their natural surroundings, see how they fly, forage and reproduce, their symbiotic relation to certain flowers, their movement through the transformative cycle of egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly...

But why, then, did this specimen of Chiasmia fly through my window, which was open since it was a beautiful summer's night? I was sitting at my desk, writing by candle light, like a true Romantic, kept awake by theDeath of God. And in flew this moth. Undoubtedly, it was attracted by the flame of the candle, by which it was almost burned if I had not gently though decidedly grasped it with one stroke of my hand. Isn't it odd for such a creature of the night to be so obsessively drawn to light? One would think that light doesn't interest them, adapted as they are to darkness. You don't see them fly to the moon when it's full and bright, do you? So why does the moth seek the flame? Is it suicidal? Or does this creature of the night desire the light just like the philosopher desires to escape from Plato's cave, working towards a periagoge, the turning away from the shadows on the wall towards the blinding light of the Good? Or are these two thingsbeing suicidal and being a seeker of wisdomthe same for our moth? Can it reach the ultimate ground only by running aground in death, in the earth of the burial ground (zur Grunde gehen, as the Germans say)? Is the moment the moth gets burned by the flame also the moment of its ecstatic enjoyment of the Truth? Like Semele being burned to ashes when she finally beheld the true appearance of her lover Zeus, the pure energy of his divine manifestation (in comparison, the glow on Moses' face, after speaking to Yahweh on Mount Sinai, seems rather paleExodus 34:29)? Like the orgasm of the hanged man, whose spermaccording to folk legendspawns a mandrake in the ground under the gallows? In other words, to speak with psychoanalysis, did I rob my moth of its moment of jouissance when I saved it from the flame?

These thoughts went through my head when I opened my hand and let the moth fly out of the window, sayingAdieu, my little Moses with the glowing faceas it flew into the night. After all, I wanted to study the logic of the chiasm in itself, not just in its analogy with a moth, however noble and wise this animal is. But as I watched it flitter, its hairy body so shiny in the pale light of the moon, one last thing struck me, one final analogy that will bring us to the heart of the matter, the center on which the logic of chiasm turns. For it is indeed a turning movement that constitutes this logic (and one wonders how this relates to the turning of the periagoge), the to-and-fro between the reversed propositions, so similar to the semi-rotating movement of the moth's wings, causing it to fly. But as the semi-rotation of the moth's wings are made possible by its shiny body in the middle, the thorax to which the wings are attached, so we may ask what the middle of the chiasm is, the hinge on which it turns, the axis of the circular movement betweentranscendence is lostandloss is transcendence. For it would seem that the rationalityindeed, the truthof the chiasm as a figure of thought depends on this middle as a secure ground, a reliable bridge between the inversed propositions. As the movement of the moth's wings depends on the muscles in its thorax, so the conceptual movement of the chiasm depends on the power of its middle. What, then, is this middle? And wherein does its grounding power lie?

Stay tuned for more philosophical lepidopterology next time:

Chiastic metaphysics after the "Death of God" (Part 2): On the trail of the lost centre

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece! Maybe the moth seeks for warmth or in other words protection which kills her/him. In other words: the loss of belief is a dark and cold business. On the other wing ...uh...hand, when you are knowing in stead of believing you're dead. As the moth flirts with the light and the warmth, believing is flirting with the truth.

    Moths are mostly male and female at the same time which is also a nice chiasm.