Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00

THE italIAN DIFFERENCE 2

Philology and repetition
At the basis of the philological attitude lies a choice that favors repetition, the significance of which is not immediately evident. It has very little to do with the term that Kierkegaard used to describe the nature of moral life, which is founded on the repeated affirmation of the individual`s choice. The Kierkegaardian notion of repetition has its roots in a pathos, in an emphasis on the individual, on consciousness, and on lived subjectivity according to the spiritual perspective opened by Protestantism. italian repetition does not belong to the sphere of the autonomous subjective will, free to choose and to decide and therefore to repeat the choice and the decision (a sphere that Hegel designated by the term ”Moralität”); rather, it pertains to the dimension of customs, of social attitudes, and daily life (a realm that Hegel designated by the term ”Sittlichkeit”). italian repetition is not moral, but ethical. It does not assume as its motive of action the idea of ought-to-be, of the categorical imperative, of ”Sollen”, but rather that of habit, custom, and convention. Thus philological scrupulousness does not arise - as happens in Germany - from the secularization of a spiritual vocation, pertaining above all to the individual and his relationship to the transcendent; rather, it arises in the pursuit of a custom that has always been secular, social, and collective.
It would be just as mistaken to consider italian repetition as something similar to the repetition compulsion of Freudian psychoanalysis. Whereas for Freud, repetition is a displeasing phenomenon by definition, in which the subject is compelled by the recurrence of repressed contents, in italian repetition no contents can recur since from the beginning experience is constituted as an emptying, a belittling, an abolition of contents, but never as a repression of them. In italy, substitutive formations do not exist because all formations are already substitutive. It is impossible to arrive at the primal scene, at the original fantasy, because they have never existed. Paradoxically, it could he said that in italy the origin is to exist without any origin, to consider oneself ”ab imis” and irremediably spurious and derivative. It follows therefore that repetition is not displeasing, anxious or obsessive, but consolatory. It poses itself at the beginning, without being the origin. It is located at the base, without being the foundation. It has effectiveness, without being the cause.
The lack of a founding myth, the absence of a national identity endowed with well-determined and unequivocal contents, the impossibility of an autochthonous characteristic which would provide a true national basis - all these characteristics might seem to press towards innovation, creation, and originality. However, in italy exactly the opposite happens. From this apparent paradox emerges the particular and singular character of italian repetition, which is, so to speak, a ”repetition qua repetition”, repetition that ignores its contents, a saying yes to the past that leaves indeterminate and undecided which past it refers to.
The italian philological attitude is an affirmation of the past, an affirmation that is so broad and so unconditional that it deserves attention and consideration in itself for it is unusual in comparison with Western philosophical culture. italian philology is ”philology for the sake of philology”, it is love of philology and not of ”logos”. But precisely this paradox permits it to go beyond the logos. ”Philology for the sake of philology” is not a cocoon, in which the italian philosopher shuts himself up; on the contrary, it is a net that can link anything. The fact that philological activity is separate from the testimony of truth that favors contents can make it appear faded and dead, if not even crazy; but it is precisely this distance between philology and ”logos”, between care and the object of care, between repetition and what is repeated, that allows italian philosophical culture an openness and a receptivity without equal in the world.

Civil activism and transmission
This explains how, at the same time, the philologist can be ”un intellectuel 11agé” without there being a rational relationship between the two dimensions. Indeed, in italy even civil activism has altogether special and at first sight incomprehensible manifestations. It is devoid of that rigorously determined social and intellectual ”oughtness,” which derives from the modern notion of the subject. Civil activism in italy completely disregards formulations of norms and rules. Along with the paradox of a philology which is not love of thought, goes the paradox of a civil activism without a subject, without duties, without sanctions, extremely indeterminate, and susceptible to acquiring any characteristic.
Nevertheless, it would once more be unjust to measure italy by the Western norm. italian civil activism does not involve a responsible struggle for ideals, as is implicit in the humanistic conception of life; rather, it means taking part in the circulation of messages, in the movement of ideas, in the transmission of knowledge. Certainly the circulation is more important than the messages themselves, the movement is more important than the ideas, the transmission more important than the knowledge itself. But this scandalous disinterest in contents must be understood in terms of its most profound motives and it may not be passed off as mere superficiality. Thus, this brand of civil activism in italy does not involve the communication of content, almost as if language were a mere instrument through which something not-essentially-linguistic filters! Civil activism means that the phenomenon of linguistic transmission renders itself autonomous and happens for its own sake. The italian intellectual has nothing subjective to express: civil activism in italian philosophical culture is not the expression of individual dedication to the cause of humanity but rather the desire to participate in the movement of language which occurs independently of the subject. We are the artisans neither of our destiny nor of our language. These do not belong to us, rather we belong to them. History and language appear in their radical difference in regard to metaphysical being, to the humanistic subject, and to scientific law. The principles of identity, of non-contradiction, of the excluded middle are to be found neither in history nor in language. History and language are not dialectical, because they are not circumscribed within the sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; they do not proceed by affirmation and negation, because ”most of the time a third or fourth case occurs which had not been considered.” The course of things and of words is different and strange; it is irreducible to an order, to an ordination, to a system. It imposes itself on man, forcing him to appropriate it. Civil activism therefore means conforming to the inexhaustible claims of history and language. In civil activism, it is not we who make history and language, but history and language that make and speak themselves. This process is relentless and ineluctable. It is ”like a boat aboard which we find ourselves, and from which it is not within our power to disembark.” The italian type of civil activism is entirely derived from Stoicism: ”Ducunt volentes fata, nolentes truhunt.” But this does not lead to fatalism or to inactivity. Quite otherwise, precisely because it is so difficult to understand the meaning of events and of words, precisely because the entire historical and linguistic horizon of italy is full of subtleties, ambiguities, and surprises, close attention must be paid to all the mutations and even minimal variations.
Thus, contrary to what might appear at first sight, the virtues of civil activism are not ardor and enthusiasm, but discernment and prudence. Standing before the ”mare magnum” of history and language, whoever tries to enforce his own good will and his own purposes and desires is suddenly lost. However, that does not imply a need for conformity or a banal slyness: the course of things is so different that it is often understood better by the so-called ”crazies” than by the so-called ”sensible citizens.” Contrary to what is propounded by some uncouth literature, italy is not the nation of con men, turncoats, and traitors. These always arrive too late. To jump on the winning wagon, when the winner is well-known as such, amounts to contenting oneself with crumbs. Before the fact, no cunning man will ever have sufficient discernment to be able to recognize the victor before he is revealed as such, nor sufficient prudence to love ”felicitas” more than ”fortuna”. In the tradition of political and civil thought from Guicciardini onward, discernment is conceived as precisely the faculty of differentiating, of discriminating, of grasping radical divergences between things and words which appear similar; and vice versa, profound affinities between things and words that are apparently distinct from one another. In italy, success is much more secure, if the paths toward it have been cautious and silent. Glory is all the more stable to the extent that the turning of defeat into victory has been extraordinary and almost miraculous. Prudence does not mean cowardice, but on the contrary, as Guicciardini says, it means initiating a ”bigger game” in which reputation is more important than goodness or cunning. Therefore, in italy, civil activism reveals itself in profoundly original colors compared to those it assumes in other cultural traditions. It places itself beyond the classic contradiction between morality and politics, of which italy, with Savonarola and Machiavelli, has furnished exemplary models. The importance of italian civil activism consists precisely in the fact that it is neither moral nor political but if anything, historical and linguistic. Thinking designated as ”difference”, which in Germany emerges from a theological perspective, and in France from an artistic and literary one, is in italy quite strictly connected with attention to history and to language. In this attention consists the meaning of and worldwide interest in the italian path to the philosophical problematic of difference, that reveals itself most apt to understand the transmission of culture as it is active today on a planetary scale.

Translated by Roger Friedman
Published in ”Graduate Faculty Philosophical Journal”, volumeJAP Number 1
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