Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

1.3. Instabilität und Zerfallsformen gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhänge: Soziale Ungewissheit, Unsicherheit und Prekarisierung
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Rolf-Dieter Hepp (Berlin)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation


Tadeusz Rachwal (Warsaw School of Social Psychology)



"What we need is a vision that can lift the much abused spirit beyond the sordid present" (Edward Said, "A Vision to Lift the Spirit", Al-Ahram Weekly Online, October 2001).


In Discourse on the Method Rene Descartes presents his maxim concerning firmness and resolution making a resort to the metaphor of travel:

My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I was able, and not to adhere less steadfastly to the most doubtful opinions, when once adopted, than if they had been highly certain; imitating in this the example of travelers who, when they have lost their way in a forest, ought not to wander from side to side, far less remain in one place, but proceed constantly towards the same side in as straight a line as possible, without changing their direction for slight reasons, although perhaps it might be chance alone which at first determined the selection; for in this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they desire, they will come at least in the end to some place that will probably be preferable to the middle of a forest.(1)

This pretended certainty does not grant one to reach some definite point of destination. It is a means of escape from "the middle of the forest", from loss, from what might be called the uncertainty of place. The firmness of this aspect of the method consists in walking straight ahead in the hope that there is a better place, a preferable one, outside the forest, a secure place which promises both homeliness and a possibility of further voyage.

Descartes feels uncertain in the forest which he treats as a roadless territory through which he desires to construct a road, a public space of movement, a clearing leading to the point of destination of philosophy which, in his case, is the certainty of the "I", its timeless and permanent existence. This permanence consolidates the being of the subject beyond any visibility, the latter always being too subjective and thus, potentially, illusory. Descartes’s epistemology is in fact a road to ontology, a road which, of course, has to be constructed, but one which also is designed in order to be forgotten once the destination has been securely achieved. The "travail", the hardship and the effort of "travel is but an inconvenience on the way to the thinking "I". Hence the deprival of Descartes’s "thinking" of its grammatical transitivity, of its dynamic nature. In "I think, therefore I am" the verb "to think" is used intransitively so as to exclude the "what" of the thinking, its external placing whose achievement always involves a movement. This "what" may always regress the traveller back to the forest, to the non-preferable space of the loss and uncertainty which is situated somewhere in the midst of the wilderness and wildness of the forest. Thinking can only think itself in the midst of isolation, within the most private of private places whose extension to a public space translates this space into something equally dangerous as the forest, a space from which one should be always ready to methodologically escape. Descartes’s position can be rightly labeled misanthropic, a version of St. Anthony’s ascetic blindness to the external, sensual world.

In the first Meditation Descartes quite clearly states that the senses cannot be a reliable source of certainty, that the sensory certainty is always already uncertain:

All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived (Meditation I).

Thus beginning his search for absolute certainty with a denial of the perceptible outside, the philosopher reaches the certainty of position perceiving himself as lack of extension, as a self-present void of sorts: "I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing" (Meditation VI).

If the source of Descartes’s uncertainty is the fear of extended reality which threatens him with the possibility of loss, John Locke fills in the void, the empty space of the subject extending it to property, and, more exactly, to private property. His idea of private property which he presents in Two Treatises on Government is exactly that of an extension of a person:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a "property" in his own "person." This nobody has any right to but himself. The "labour" of his body and the "work" of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this "labour" being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.(2)

Being is transformed here into having which is strictly linked with the ability and possibility of work. By labour, one extends oneself to the natural by way of annexing nature to one’s "person" which is also an object which is possessed. It is, I think, here that work and property become a matter of existential anxiety. The forest from which Descartes desired to escape becomes, in Locke, a space to be enclosed by labour, and thus appropriated, endowed with the property of being a property. Locke materializes the "I" by appropriation in which the certainty of having is fundamental in the construction of the subject.

Since property/identity must be laboriously worked out, those who cannot work are excluded from the participation in the constructive communities and perceived as a threat to its stability and permanence. It is difficult not too see that Locke’s project is in fact a propagation of an entrepreneur, an individual who not only produces what he has, but who also protects his property as himself. If Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, the artificial man/state was constructed to protect and defend the biological existence of men, in Locke the central function of government must be the protection of private property. Though labour is ideally the sole source of economic value, the creation of monetary system makes it possible to store value in excess thus making the principle of the equality of individuals slightly uncertain. Since money is also an abstract extension of man in Locke, having no money reduces one to one’s own person which has the right to eat, provided, of course that there is some common space which would provide the food. To exemplify this Locke offers a trip to an America without money: " Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known." America figures in the Treatise as a land which is still common, not enclosed by any labour into plots, and thus as nobody’s land whose "uncultivation" testifies to the ignorance of the idea of labour in Indians. Indians know "no enclosure" and thus can make some use only of what is common:

The fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life.

Colonialism and industrialization of the world have gradually diminished the common to, say, very little, simultaneously institutionalizing labour not only as a means of survival, but also as a factor which stabilizes ones identity and social position. Labour became an attribute of being human, excluding all those who, like Locke’s wild Indians, were allegedly unable to work, to produce property.

Though Locke refers to the construction and constitution of private property as achieved by the "‘work’ of his hands", the very fact that he puts the word "work" in inverted commas slightly problematizes his otherwise straightforward argument. What he might mean by work seems to be a certain kind of technology, though not one understood simply as use of means to an end. The end, the task of labour in Locke is not so much "having," as being by having, which begins with the necessity of having and protecting one’s own, uncreated person. Private property is itself a means, something which Jean-Luc Nancy calls "the finish of Being", the constitutive gesture of the sovereignty of the human subject.(3) It is irrelevant what the subject produces, and thus has. It is having as such that positions the being of the subject within a territory of production and property. The position itself - let us stress - is empty, immaterial. Subject’s materiality is but an external actualization of its sovereignty and mastery over nature.

The subject thus emerging belongs both to Phusis and to technē, it is simultaneously born and produced, and exists within a technologically conquered nature which, as annexed to it, constitutes a territory whose construction is always already protective, a construction protecting the finish of Being, the finality of the execution of the sovereign position:

The finish consists in executing (ex-sequor means to follow through to the end), in carrying out something to the limit of its own logic and its own good, that is, to the extremity of its own Being. In our thinking, Being in general, or rather Being proper or plainly Being, in each of its singular effectuations or existences, has it substance, end, and truth in the finish of its Being.(4)

John Locke’s "hands" are hands which execute, they are detached from the sovereign, perhaps in the way 19 th-century workers were detached "hands" of the factory owner. "Hands" were also sailors working on boards of ships. As Deleuze and Guattari notice in their text on the war machine, without elaborating the idea in any extensive measure, proletariat’s origin is not only industrial, but also military, naval in particular.(5)

In the well known fragment of Robinson Crusoe in which Crusoe saves the life of Friday, Defoe, for some reason, describes the killing of one of the savages who chased the Indian boy as both "work" and "execution":

But there was more work to do yet, for I perceived the Savage who I knock'd down, was not kill'd, but stunn'd with the blow, and began to come to himself; so I pointed to him, and showing him the Savage, that he was not dead [...]. [M]y Savage, for so I call him now, made a Motion to me to lend him my Sword, which hung naked in a Belt by my side; so I did: he no sooner had it, but he runs to his Enemy, and at one blow cut off his Head as cleverly, no Executioner in Germany, could have done it sooner or better; which I thought very strange, for one who 1 had Reason to believe never saw a Sword in his Life before, except their own Wooden Swords.(6)

Once the work is done, Crusoe’s little war with cannibals triumphantly ends, the sign of triumph being Friday’s laughter ("he comes laughing to me in Sign of Triumph"). This labour of execution, of executing, posits its end, its finish, as a victorious triumph of man over nature, a triumph of homo economicus over wildness and savagery to which the idea of work, along with the idea of its alienation, is alien.

Friday, as a master executor, is posited in the novel as already culturalized and civilized, and his triumphant laughter in fact announces the victory of the Freudian positive repression, of what Freud calls "renunciation of instinct,"(7) which is the instinct governed by the desire of leisure rather than of labour, and which he also finds in the savagery of the unintelligent masses: "For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the individuals composing them support one another in giving free rein to their indiscipline."(8) Freud’s civilization is a war waged against "laziness", against the massive opposition of individuals who, without the repressive power of civilized institutions, would indulge in devouring each other rather than in preserving civilization’s edifice. Human work is the labour of war whose generals have, like Freud, sublimated themselves from the masses and become, as it were, impersonal, de-individualized leaders and defenders of culture. Using impersonal passive voice, Freud quite literally announces the necessity of defence against individuals’ hostile selfishness which "works" against the grain of human mastery over nature. "Thus civilisation," he writes,

has to be defended against the individual, and its regulations, institutions and commands are directed to that task. They aim not only at effecting a certain distribution of wealth but at maintaining that distribution; indeed, they have to protect everything that contributes to the conquest of nature and the production of wealth against men’s hostile impulses.(9)

Friday, unlike the cannibals left behind, works for Crusoe, and in fact, by way of finishing off the savage, finishes the colonial project in which alienated labour, at least in one of Karl Marx’s senses of the idea of alienation, is naturalised as the condition of being human. In Marx, as Nora Connor observes, working for another, for Crusoe for example, "is not a natural or desired activity. It is instead born of necessity, because the laborer has nothing else to sell in order to make a living."(10) Friday’s work is quite evidently a matter of survival in Defoe’s story, a way of "making a living" through displaying his ability to accept and embrace the idea of alienated labour as if it was natural. Friday’s subjection to Crusoe is thus a matter of natural slavery in which compulsion to work reveals a potentiality of being human, a will to defend culture whose actual and conscious defender and leader is Crusoe.

Freud’s conflation of "production of wealth" with the conquest of nature, seen as a war of labour in defense of culture in obvious ways hides an aggressive character of work, already hidden in John Locke’s idea of labour which constitutes a strangely undefined philosophical foundation of private property, consisting in annexation of nature by means of laborious enclosure of it within the limits of one’s domain and dominion.

Sovereignty needs hands to do the labour of its execution. It needs the protective labour of war to exist. It at the same time excludes itself from that work - one may think here of the exception of princes from battles - which is always a work of some war, Crusoe’s "more work" done by Friday’s unspoken nomination to executive power which is always used in the name of some peace, of the peaceful emptiness of the position of the sovereign. Signifying both dominion and independence, sovereignty, like war, has peace as its end and is governed by "the principle of final peace" which legitimises war. "Western war," writes Nancy, "denies itself as sovereign end, and its denial, of course, constitutes its admission."(11) Wars are waged in the name of the sovereignty of peace which guarantees peacefulness of labour to otherwise sovereign subjects. Though in its essence collective, war is always waged by the collectivity which is "endowed with sovereignty (the Kingdom, State, or Empire)."(12) Each individual taking part in war also fights in the name of individual sovereignty whose continuation is the State whose continuation is war. Clausewitz’s formula of war might be rightly reformulated as continuation of sovereignty by other means, the means being labour of the hands extended to the art, even mastery, of killing.(13)

Deleuze’s and Guattari’s idea of the naval origin of the proletariat mentioned above brings to mind the question of the leadership of labour, of Freud’s defenders of culture whose military nature, somehow anachronically finds its epitomised version in Thomas Carlyle’s praise of "Captains of Industry ... the true Fighters, henceforth recognisable as the only true ones, Fighters against Chaos" in Past and Present.(14) The Captains are first of all those who have learned how to work in the chaotic world which he compares to "a waste ocean" which nothing but desires to eat them:

All work of man is as the swimmer's: a waste ocean threatens to devour him; if he front it not bravely, it will keep its word. By incessant wise defiance of it, lusty rebuke and buffet of it, behold how it loyally supports him, bears him as his conqueror along. ‘It is so,’ says Goethe, ‘with all things that man undertakes in this world.’(15)

Read as a metaphorised version of Crusoe’s laborious existence and of his little war with cannibals, Carlyle’s homo nauticus is a man constructed in labour, the latter clearly being a matter of a survival. This survival, interestingly, consists not so much in remaining undevoured, but in transforming the "waste ocean" into a loyal supporter, into Crusoe’s friendly companion and servant in the laborious defence of humanity.

Carlyle’s labour serves the purpose of saving the world from "waste," from unproductive activities which he ascribes to all creatures incapable of sovereign labour whose banner is permanence and light. In his notorious text on the "nigger question," written in support of the gory repression of the Moran Bay riots, Carlyle conflates English working class with rebellious Jamaican slaves on the basis of their inborn consumerism, the difference being that Blacks devour pumpkins produced for them by Europe:

Before the West Indies could grow a pumpkin for any Negro, how much European heroism had to spend itself in obscure battle; to sink, in mortal agony, before the jungles, the putrescences and waste savageries could become arable, and the Devils be in some measure chained there.(16)

Europe’s and England’s role is to constantly "plough the sea", to conquer in Heroic Labour, to win heroic battles with the darkness and madness of a world in the state of constant "mutiny, in confusion and destitution."(17)

The spirit of war is hidden behind the ethos of Carlyle’s labour. What labour grants is the sovereignty of the working subject whose arms are those of a wrestler, tools of war which, according to Nancy, "is sovereignty’s technology par excellence."(18) Perhaps Edward Said’s call for lifting the abused spirit figuring in the epigram to this paper is one more call to overcome sovereignty, the sovereignty of struggle which posits us, men and women, in the midst of the necessity of there being a finality with no end. This finality, this power of execution, of "finishing as such" is responsible for the sordidness of the present beyond which no spirit can be lifted as long as we do not conceive of the end of the end, a dissolution of the sovereign end whose vision Jean-Luc Nancy sees in being singular plural, in the spacing of the subject whose thinking "is not for us, not for our thinking, modeled as it is on the sovereign model; it is not for our warlike thinking."(19) As long as we identify our thinking with the warlike economies of Defoe, Locke, or Carlyle a vision to lift the spirit is not for us, labourers of war. If the idea of labour harbours a war, then why not re-think it, however unheard-of such a rethinking may seem. Nancy’s "world of spacing, not of finishing" seems to be one such unheard-of place, "a new horizon of unheard-of identities."(20)

According to Jean Baudrillard "we no longer fight for sovereignty or glory, we fight for identity. Sovereignty was a mastery; identity is merely a reference. Sovereignty was adventurous; identity is linked to security."(21) The spirit of mastery has given way to a happiness of certainty, to a sedentary kind of living which Émile Cioran reads as the end of insanity which sacrifices adventure to comfort, to incessant acts of "yawning".(22) We have finished ourselves off, executed ourselves to the position of Baudrillard’s mere, and certain, "reference" points which passively accept the change of work into employment as a natural progress of human society. The uncertainty of employment, of being used, which is the prerequisite of any market economy, demands "heard-of" subjects, the normal "heard-of" identities which have become commodified through labour, through occupation, whose lack makes them impossible to exist as futile. Nancy’s "unheard-of identities are in a sense futile identities, unaccomplished, and thus also useless, at lest in terms of economic exchanges and circulations. Futility, writes Cioran, "is the most difficult thing in the world" and demands that "we must sever our roots, must become metaphysical aliens."(23) Without that metaphysical alienation we cannot overcome the alienation of labour which Marxism, "that sin of optimism"(24) offered as a tempting state of happiness. A metaphysical alien is, needless to say, slightly mad as he "unmasks his fictions" and "renounces his own resources, in a sense, himself,"(25) the immobile certainty of himself.

"One always pays dearly for having taken ‘civilization’ seriously, for having assimilated it to excess,"(26) writes Cioran. Unlike Freud, who, as we have seen, defended civilization against individuals, Cioran warns against its power to assimilate all excess, of its power to normalize which is responsible for the social/cultural production of uncertainties, of the negative sort of excess to which there is ascribed a precariousness of position. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it:

To be ‘in excess’ means to be too many, or too much: too hot or too cold, too spicy or too bland, too tall or too short, too bold or too meek, too hard or too soft, too light or too dark, too frequent or too rare, too crowded or too empty... ‘Too’ signals that something is not really necessary, desirable or pleasing. ‘Too’ means redundancy; uselessness; waste.(27)

Uselessness of excess is produced by its negation, by the desire to eliminate it and thus normalize the world: "Excess needs norm to make sense; norm, however, needs excess to exist (if only as an apparition)."(28) Civilization is in fact a kind of rebellion against excess, against the dose of madness which Cioran finds to be a necessity of life: "We cannot be normal and alive at the same time".(29) Perhaps, eventually, the power of normalization will turn against itself, Cioran hopes,

... against us ... Perhaps then we shall regain our supermacy over time, unless, the other way round, struggling to escape the calamity of consciousness, we rejoin animals, plants, things, return to the primordial stupidity of which, through the fault of history, we lost even the memory.(30)

Though to exceed excess sounds as a paradoxical proposition, the fact that such a possibility has become thinkable is worth, as it were, thinking about.

© Tadeusz Rachwal (Warsaw School of Social Psychology)


(1) René Descartes, Discourse on Method for Reasoning Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences , translated by I. Johnston,, not paginated, Ch. III [accessed 15 November 2005].

(2) John Locke, "An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End Of Civil Government," in: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: Dent, 1977), p. 130.

(3) Jean-Luc Nancy, "War, Right, Soverignty - Technē", in Being Singular Plural, English translation by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 111.

(4) Nancy, p. 118.

(5) Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Nomadology. The War Machine , English translation by Brian Masumi, Semiotext(e), New York 1986, p. 147. Deleuze and Guattari refer the reader to Paul Virilio’s Vitesse et politique, Galilée, Paris 1977, pp. 50-51, 86-87.

(6) Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 146. (Italics mine).

(7) Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. James Strachey (New York and London: Norton, 1961), p.8.

(8) Freud, p. 9.

(9) Freud. p. 7.

(10) Nora Connor, "Welfare, Workfare, Alienation: Early Marx and Late Capitalism," Bad Subjects, Issue 53 , January 2001, p. 1.

(11) Nancy, p. 125.

(12) Nancy, p. 122.

(13) Kenneth Robert Olwig convincingly shows the ways in which war controls mapmaking and landscape painting in his reading of Henric Ratzau’s construction of the estate of the Danish king in the 16 th century. Cf. his Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic. From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press 2002), pp. 26-30.

(14) Thomas Carlyle, "Past and Present," in: Sartor Resartus, Heroes, Past and Present (London: Chapman and Hall, 1907), p. 233.

(15) Carlyle, "Past and Present," p. 171.

(16) Thomas Carlyle, "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question," in: Eugene R. August, ed.,Thomas Carlyle, The Nigger Question, and John Stuart Mill, The Negro Question (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971 p. 30.

(17) Carlyle, "Past and Present," p. 236.

(18) Nancy, p. 117.

(19) Nancy, p. 141.

(20) Nancy, p. 143.

(21) Jean Baudrillard, Paroxysm- Interviews with Philippe Petit. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1998, p. 49.

(22) Émile M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist, trans. Richard Howard, Quadrangle Books, Chicaho 1968, p. 50.

(23) Cioran, p. 20.

(24) Cioran, p. 49.

(25) Cioran, p. 55.

(26) Cioran, p. 52.

(27) Zygmun Bauman, "Excess. An Obituary," parallax, 2001, vol. 7, no. 1, p. 85.

(28) Bauman, p. 85.

(29) Cioran, p. 61.

(30) Cioran, p. 47.

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