Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Erotic Phenomenon

Am about half-way through reading this book. Jean-Luc Marion starts by challenging the idea of modern philosophy since at least Descartes which thinks that for human beings the most important question is one of ontology, the question which seeks to know itself through Being: I think therefore I am. Marion thinks that this is backward; questions of ontology are secondary to the question of Am I Loved? To simply prove one's existence to oneself through philosophical reasoning before asking questions of significance or meaning renders any possible answer essentially meaningless. To seek certitude of either one’s being or one’s not-being is to ask the wrong question because it places the most important question (not ‘To be or not to be’, but a question the answer to which makes the world of difference, ‘Am I loved?’) to a position of secondary importance compared to hard metaphysical conundrums.[1] He writes, ‘The presupposition is that in order to love or to make oneself loved, one must first be.’[2]

 As any excursion from the realms of pure theoretical speculation will attest, however, the exclusion of both this question and any possible answer that may be given in response renders the answer to all other questions, even those of starvation, obsolete.[3] Marion elaborates his argument that the ontological certitude philosophy has chased after in relation to things in the world can only ever reveal things as objects, and thus to find, or imagine that one has found, an ontological certainty of the self is to find the self as an object.[4] For Marion, prior to entering into a relationship with the ego that which is constituted by the ego’s knowledge as an object cannot be said to be an object, because for him an “object” designates a type of relation within human knowledge. Consequently, the certainty with which the object ‘shines’ with meaning is a certainty that can only be found in relation to a knower who enjoys his knowing, and who knows himself better through such self-enjoyment of knowing certainty.[5] What this means is that, just as knowledge of objects only makes sense in relation to a knower who wants to know (and know that he knows), so this knowledge exposes the knower to himself as a knower, but not with the certainty that one gets with objects, because to know with certainty would render the ego an object unto itself. He writes:

Metaphysics imagines itself accomplishing an incomparable exploit in attaining the certainty of the object, and then extending it even to the ego. But this accomplishment only attests to its blindness [delivering only a ‘certainty of objects’].

[I]t is silent about the certainty that would matter to me – the certainty which concerns exactly that which matters to me first and foremost: me. The products of technology and the objects of the sciences, the propositions of logic and the truths of philosophy can very well enjoy all the certainty of the world, but what have I to do with it – I who am neither a product of technology, nor an object of science, nor a proposition of logic, nor a truth of philosophy.[6]

Such certainty, therefore, is not appropriate to the human ego, because the human ego is not an object, nor is it detached from the body of the one who has an ego. If the human ego were an object like an orange, a book or a galaxy, then the question of it’s being would be the question most appropriate to it, to which Marion would retort, ‘Who cares?’ or ‘What’s the use?’ Such ontological certainty is, in his words, ‘a useless and certain certainty.’[7] For this reason, prior to questions of self-certitude, in order to ward of the ontological vanity of object-certitude, Marion posits the thesis that the question facing the human being is not ontological, but simply, ‘Does anybody love me’[8]

[1] Marion, p. 5

[2] Marion, p.5. Italics mine.

[3] Why would one want to survive starvation in a world in which love was either unknowable or impossible? Perhaps this sounds incredibly glib, the point though is to highlight the fact that once starvation has been overcome by the would-be starved questioner any potential inability to ask or answer the question of whether or not one is loved renders survival in such a world worthless to the individual.

[4] The science of psychology is one example that certainly seems to reveal the human as object to be unpicked by its devices.

[5] Marion, pp. 12, 13

[6] Marion, p. 16

[7] Marion, p. 18

[8] Marion, 20. Marion avoids the obvious argument that to be loved one must first be (and therefore questions of love are secondary to questions of being), partly by insisting that, au contraire, because the question of human being prior to or in exclusion of love would render human being a valueless object, to ask questions of being without first asking questions of love is to fall into vanity. It is essential therefore to ask prior to questions of being, questions of love. Philosophy/metaphysics hasn’t asked this because to do so would focus thought on the particular I/me person at the expense of the universal Man.

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