Kojin Karatani‘s Transcritique is the most useful and important book of philosophy/theory that I have read in some time. (Thanks, Jodi, for pointing me to the book, and to Zizek’s review of it). I mean useful and important to me; it might be too narrow and specialized in focus for people who don’t share my particular preoccupations. For years I have been struggling to find ways to articulate Marx together with Kant: and that is precisely what Karatani accomplishes here. Karatani’s rereading of Marx’s Capital for the twenty-first century is not as sweeping as that of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; nor does it have the vivacity and seductive wit of Zizek’s recent Marxist speculations. But perhaps it offers a more lucid account than either of what it really means to be encompassed on all sides, as we are today, by the flows of Capital, and by the supposed “rationality” of the Market.
In what follows, in order to explain Karatani I am going to move very slowly, and throw in a bit of Philosophy 101, just so that I can pin things down, and clarify them for myself, as carefully as possible. So please be patient, and bear with me.
Karatani’s basic move is to read Marx’s “critique of political economy” (the subtitle of Capital) as a “critique” in precisely the sense of Kant’s three Critiques. But what does Kant himself mean by critique — in contrast to the multifarious meanings the word has taken on in the two-hundred-odd years since? Most obviously, Kant asks the “transcendental” question: “what are the conditions of our experience?” For Kant, “all cognition begins with experience”; there are no supernatural or transcendent sources of knowledge. But experience (sensory data, perception, etc) does not itself come to us raw: it is always already structured in some way. Sense perceptions and other experiences already have a certain framework or structure. And this framework is (not transcendent, but) transcendental, which means that it does not “transcend” or go beyond experience, but it is also not itself given to us in experience (since it is always already presupposed by whatever experience we do have). Put this way, it might sound like we are stuck in a vicious circle: if all knowledge comes from experience, then how can we know about something that cannot itself be experienced, because it precedes and conditions any experience? Kant’s answer is to make a self-reflexive move (one that, after him, becomes characteristic of nearly all modern, or modernist, philosophy/theory): to have thought reflect back upon itself, to question itself, to scrutinize its own powers and limits. This is what he means by “critique.”
So far so good. But the particular way in which Kant does critique is not necessarily followed by his successors. Michel Foucault (in “A Preface to Transgression,” one of his best and most underrated articles) refers to “that opening made by Kant in Western philosophy when he articulated, in a manner that is still enigmatic, metaphysical discourse and reflection on the limits of our reason.” But Foucault goes on to say that Kant failed to sustain this “opening”; and that the two opposed lines of thought that followed Kant — “anthropology” (by which I think Foucault means positivistic scientific examination of Man as just another empirical object: which goes from 19th century positivism to so-called “evolutionary psychology” today) and “dialectics” (by which Foucault means Hegel and all the speculative thought that follows in his wake, thought that is overly subject-centered, that replaces Man, or his Reason, as the foundational point of speculation, and that concentrates on “the play of contradiction and totality” instead of upon Kant’s enigmatic self-questioning) — both repressed Kant’s “opening” and thereby returned to the overweening rationalism that Kant had rejected. The double bind of these two kinds of thought constructs “Man” as what Foucault, in The Order of Things, calls an “empirico-transcendental doublet.” In Foucault’s account, Kant is responsible for instituting this double bind — it is his solution to the conflicting claims of rationalism and empiricism — but Kant also offers a way out of it, a step back from it, a practice of “contestation” that avoids the dogmatisms of both positivism and dialectics.
This is where Karatani comes in and takes a fresh look at Kant. Karatani reads Kant’s “transcendental deduction” (his establishment of space, time, and causality as the transcendental preconditions of experience, in the first half of the First Critique) in the light of two other sections of the Critiques that are usually considered entirely separately: 1)the “Transcendental Dialectic” that forms the second half of the First Critique, and particularly Kant’s discussion of the Antinomies of Reason, cosmological ideas that come in contradictory pairs, which ultimately have to be judged as either both true (in different senses) or both false; and 2)Kant’s discussion of the problem of aesthetic taste, in his “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. (These are in fact the two sections of Kant’s works that I have been trying to work with, and work through, for over a decade; which in part explains why I found Karatani’s book such a revelation).
Kant’s Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason begins with a discussion of the “peculiar fate” of human reason, “troubled by questions that it cannot dismiss… but also cannot answer.” This already suggests that the concerns of the “Transcendental Dialectic” are crucial to Kant from the beginning; and Karatani thereby reads the first half of the First Critique in the light of the second half. That is to say, you can’t separate Kant’s establishment of the actual conditions of our understanding from his concern to elucidate our unavoidable drive to always push beyond these conditions. One common way to read Kant is to say that he is a legislator, dictatorially setting forth the boundaries beyond which we must not push. But Karatani reverses this, suggesting that Kant’s experience of the discordances that come from pushing too far (in the second half of the First Critique) are themselves the positive basis of the limits that he sets up in the first half. The Antinomies of Reason are contradictory propositions (“the world is bounded in time and in space” vs. “the world is infinite as regards both time and space”) both of which seem valid from their own perspectives, but which cannot be true simultaneously. Kant’s “resolution” of these Antinomies is emphatically NOT to play them off each other as mutual negations, and thereby to “sublate” them into a higher formulation that self-reflexively incorporates both (which is the “dialectical” procedure later adopted by Hegel); rather, Kant shuttles back and forth between the perspectives of the two contradictory arguments, and establishes what he calls a “parallax” between them. That is to say, it is the unresolvable disjunction between the two perspectives, their otherness with regard to one another, so that they cannot be reconciled or made adequate to one another — it is this disjunction that opens up Kant’s “transcendental” reflection, and that provides the positive basis for the conditions presupposed by all experience.
Another way to put this is that the “resolution” to the Antinomies never happens all at once; each perspective can be addressed by “bracketing” the other one; but then we need to invert the procedure, and bracket what we previously privileged. This shunting back and forth is what Karatani means by “parallax.” And there is no higher synthesis of these contrasting bracketings, which is why, for Karatani, Kant’s critique is always a “transcritique,” a transversal movement from one perspective, or realm of experience, to another, without ever coming to a definitive fixity, or even a meta-level, a higher point of self-reflection. This lack of any fixity is why Kant’s transcendental conditions are always purely formal, rather than having any positive content (this holds true, of course, for Kant’s elucidation of morality in the Second Critique, as well as his elucidation of empirical understanding in the First); and it is why Kant insists that the Ideas of Reason can only have a “regulative” rather than a “constitutive” role — that is to say, why they can be used heuristically as a guide to our investigations, but not substantively as the actual inner principle of what we discover.
Now, Zizek actually gives a pretty good account of Karatani’s logic of the parallax, in his review of the book that Jodi cites (and provides a pdf for). And, after quoting Zizek’s paraphrase at length, Jodi is acute enough to remark: “Everybody is probably freaking out at this point, jumping up and down and screaming, BUT HOW DOES THIS WORK WITH HEGEL?” — My answer would be, precisely, that it doesn’t work with Hegel. Kant refuses to turn the Antinomies into negations; his reciprocal “bracketings” of the opposed perspectives do not interact with one another in the way that negations do in Hegel; there is no “labor of the negative” here. Rather, the basis of parallax is the stubborn positivity of both of its terms. This is precisely where Kant refuses (in Foucault’s term) to transform the “limit” into negativity, or into “the play of contradiction and totality.” This parallax is thereby the point at which Kant absolutely resists being subsumed into Hegel’s system, in the way that Hegel and Zizek want him to. Jodi answers her own question by saying, along with Zizek, that “the movement of negativity through Hegel is a kind of parallax, an account of the way ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it (and vice versa).” But this seems to me to be exactly wrong. To say that ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it is equivalent to saying that the Ideas of Reason can be used constitutively, and not just regulatively. Kant’s and Karatani’s parallax refuses such a move, and thus operates according to an entirely different logic than that of negativity. (Another way to put this: parallax doesn’t equate with negativity, but it also doesn’t negate negativity either — which would be a way of reinserting it into the Hegelian dialectic after all. Rather, it is radically other — oblique or orthogonal — to the movement of negativity).
(I should also note, given Zizek’s interest in Karatani, that although I think Kant/Karatani cannot be recuperated in Hegelian terms, it can be brought into a useful connection with Lacan. The trick is to read Lacan in a more Kantian way, instead of a Hegelian one. Karatani himself suggests that Freud and Lacan offer a kind of “transcendental psychology,” and that their criticisms of other sorts of psychology, like Lacan’s denunciation of “ego psychology,” is very much akin to Kant’s deconsruction of rationalist psychology in the Transcendental Dialectic. Karatani even equates “Kantian illusion/Lacanian Imaginary; the form/the Symbolic; the thing-in-itself/the Real” (34). This seems to me to be right, especially seeing Kant’s noumenon or thing-in-itself as equivalent to the unattainable Real in Lacan. But Karatani goes on to say, and I concur, that he finds it more useful to read Freud and Lacan through Kant, than Kant through Freud and Lacan).
The other section of Kant that is especially important to Karatani is the “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. I find this especially important because critical fashion, for the last thirty years at least, has emphasized the Sublime as the crucial moment in Kant’s aesthetics, and has seen his discussion of the Beautiful as uninteresting, old-fashioned, and even as a kind of throwback to pre-critical and pre-Enlightenment thought, as opposed to the supposedly radical concerns of the Sublime. As far as I know (and my reading isn’t deep enough here, so I may well be missing some important recent work) Karatani is the only recent commentator, aside from Melissa McMahon and myself to find critical importance in Kant’s discussion of the Beautiful (for both Melissa’s article and mine, see the volume A Shock To Thought, edited by Brian Massumi). Basically, the Analytic of the Beautiful poses the question of singularity and universality. A judgment that something is beautiful is, according to Kant, completely ungrounded. It cannot be verified or falsified in the way that an empirical judgment of fact can be; nor can it claim absolute, “categorical” validity in the way that moral commandments do. Yet despite being ungrounded, an aesthetic judgment makes an implicit demand for universal assent. This is what separates aesthetic judgments from mere personal preferences. I love coffee ice cream, but that doesn’t mean that I expect (or want) coffee to be everybody else’s favorite flavor. But when I say that Proust is the greatest writer of all time, I am doing a lot more than just expressing a personal preference. Even if I say that this is just my own personal taste, and even if I know very well that Proust is not everybody’s favorite author, the very act of stating that “A la recherche du temps perdu is the greatest novel ever written” implies a claim going beyond the statement that it things are this way “for me.” Aesthetic judgments have no objective basis, but neither are they merely subjective. They are entirely singular — each case of judgment is unique, there are no broader rules under which aesthetic judgments can be subsumed, in the way that both empirical judgments and moral commands get subsumed under rules. And yet these aesthetic judgments claim universality, if only by the very way in which they are uttered.
Aesthetic judgment is crucial for Kant, Karatani argues, because it is the very place where the question of the “transcendental” first becomes problematic. In aesthetic judgment, singularity communicates with universality without any intermediate terms. There are no hierarchies of particulars and generalities, of species and genus; there is also no process of dialectical “mediation.” An aesthetic judgment can neither be generalized, nor mediated. Instead, each aesthetic judgment is a uniuqe; each one makes a claim upon others, upon the Other, without being able to appeal to any prior justification in order to back up or enforce this claim.
The problem of aesthetic taste in the Third Critique thus leads to an Antinomy, formally parallel to the Antinomies of the First Critique. Karatani suggests that these Antinomies, in their perpetual tension, are in fact the ungrounded “grounds” of the positive transcendental conditions derived in the first half of the First Critique. Though epistemology, the problem of cognition, comes first in the overt development of Kant’s system, and aesthetics comes in only much later, Karatani argues in effect that aesthetics is logically and ontologically prior to epistemology and cognition. For aesthetics is the place where questions of singularity and universality, and of the Other, are initially posed; and these are all necessary to the development of positive “transcendental” arguments.
In the “Analytic of the Beautiful,” as well, Kant distinguishes the claimed universality of singular aesthetic judgments from the general agreement that is the result of what he calls a sensus communis, that is to say of “common sense.” For Kant, the existence of the sensus communis is important in that it makes processes of communication and recognition possible. But the important thing about aesthetic judgment is that, although it relies upon the sensus communis, it cannot be reduced to sensus communis. “Common sense” is entirely empirical; it denotes something like the commonly accepted presuppositions, the consensus, of a given society or community. That is to say, it is something like “ideology.” But transcendental conditions can never be reduced to merely empirical ones, therefore they cannot come in the form of consensus. Transcendental reflection, as “transcritique,” must to the contrary move between incompatible and irreconcilable positions or “common senses.” Which is why all judgment, or all transcendental reflection, ultimately refers back to the paradoxes of aesthetic judgment.
I will stop here, and reserve the second half of my summary, Karatani’s reading of Marx, for another post.