Must one not first hate oneself, in order to love oneself?

(Nietzsche 1984: 53)

There is a true world, though we experience this world very differently after the death of God, from which point it appears as no longer true. But this means that the true world continues to be, only now in the form of its not being. To put it simply, though we now doubt the existence of the true world, the true world is still with us. The true world has changed our world forever by transforming it into this world, a world that we can have a perspective on – the ‘magnificent gift of exteriority’, as Deleuze (1983: 157) called it. Having this perspective, we can either bless this world or curse it. Although the latter might well be nihilism, there is no doubt that the possibility of the former is just as much an outcome of the true world. The world is enough, but this can only be said because once the world was not enough. And this affirmation, though it is fully immanent to the world, is also not reducible to the world. The world that is affirmed is changed by this affirmation.

This is how we must read Nietzsche’s death of God – which is in no way a pronouncement that there never was a God, but rather an announcement of his death. And this death alone, as Nietzsche specifies with regard to the death of the true world (which is of course the same thing as the death of God), is the great liberation. The death of the true world does not restore us to some halcyon age before this world was found wanting, since then this prelapsarian world would itself be that liberation. No, the great liberation is the demise of the true world with nothing in addition.

Nietzsche’s announcement that the true world is dead is not a truth about the world, but a claim about our history of truth. And once we turn our attention to this history of truth – as Foucault, inspired by Nietzsche, did – then we are reminded that the true world was but one outcome of the will to truth. With Socratic parrhēsia, the will to truth bifurcated and the long-standing concern of wisdom with the truth of the world became in addition a question of what is true about the customary ways of life. If both of these paths led to nothing – to nihilism – it has been a very different nihilism in each case. If the first way of nihilism negated the world, thereby handing us over to the nothing of other-worldliness, then the second way rather negated the nomoi while remaining firmly in the world – opening up the world in the process.

The experience of this nothing is not nihilism but, if Heidegger is to be believed, rather an experience of the very truth of our being, of what is proper to us, namely that nothing is. We are not present at hand, not thing-like in the way that humanism assumes with its rational animal. As no-thing, human being is open and it is obliged only to be. In this sense, Socratic nihilism, quite contrary to wisdom, delivers up some truth. Nietzsche’s bon mot about truth lying does not apply to this truth. Yet for Heidegger, this freedom is unveiled only in its being veiled by the life of a people. The polis, even though it is founded on nothing, remains necessary – proper to man.

This is why ancient Cynicism is so significant; for in the life of the Cynic human freedom is made available not in the form of its withdrawal in the polis but as a mode of living that subtracts itself from the polis. The Cynics constituted the true life not as an authentic relation to conventional existence but simply as the destitution of conventional existence. In living their lives in this destitute way, the Cynics passed from the form of life they found themselves in (the polis) to a form-of-life (apolis) defined only by the claim that nothing of their previous life had anything necessary about it. The true life coincided entirely with living a life that, once having realized that the nomoi are nothing, did not flee from this truth but, rather, clung stubbornly to it, indeed made itself at home in it: ‘And who is able to compel you to assent to that which appears false? No man. And who can compel you not to assent to that which appears true? No man. By this then you see that there is something in you naturally free. Wretched men, work out this, take care of this, seek for good here’ (Epictetus 2010: 252).

Paul’s messianic vocation, as indicated by the ‘as not’ of 1 Cor. 7.29–31, is similarly one which makes the truth of our worldly vocations only that they have been rendered ‘inoperative’ (katergein) in Christ. Since inoperativity in no way means the abandonment of these vocations – as Paul makes abundantly clear even to the extent of stipulating that the one called as a slave remain a slave (1 Cor. 7.21) – it can only mean that operativity (work) is no longer the way in which we inhabit these vocations. The messianic vocation, which is not a new vocation, is thus the overcoming of any telos, which is what vocation (calling) usually implies. The messianic vocation renders existing vocations operation-less, and this is all it does. In no sense called away from our worldly vocations, we find in messianic time that their inoperativity means that they can be used otherwise – like a child that picks up some object from the adult world and, in playing with it, puts it to a new use.

All this still leaves open the question of how we might constitute ourselves as the ones called by no calling. In Agamben’s account (2016: 277) of messianism, in deactivating our worldly vocations, messianic deactivation is not something separate from living in such a way that they are deactivated. Deactivation does not arrive from the outside as the highest vocation that deactivates all vocations – deactivation just is the making deactive that living a life accomplishes, without remainder. This means that the transition from form of life (given worldly vocation) to form-of-life (use of worldly vocations or messianic vocation) can, indeed must, take ever new forms.

Indeed, this emphasis on the use-value characteristic of messianic deactivation is what distinguishes Agamben’s form-of-life from Heidegger’s being-in-the-world. To a large extent, form-of-life expresses the same idea as being-in-the world, but where Heidegger’s being-in-the-world is what is given in a world, and so at best can only be appropriated in authentic existence, form-of-life is a given-ness that becomes open, that can be used. Appropriation is still ownership – there is still something proper to it. Use, by contrast, claims no property, which is why it is free.

The true life in Cynicism, as Foucault emphasized, is similarly an other life in the sense of the othering of mundane life rather than a life that is transmundane. Just as much as the messianic life, the true life remains as it is called. The Cynics did not posit any positive distinction between customary lives and the true life, the latter being solely the negation of the former. The Cynics defined themselves simply as those without citizenship (apolis) and remained in the polis. The provocation of the true life and the messianic life are only their making de-active their worldly life. The nihilism characteristic of the abandonment of worldly life is unknown in each case.

The negation at the heart of the messianic vocation and the Cynic true life helps us to account for the (negative) universalism of both – the first that it renders inoperative all vocations and the second that it subtracts itself from each and every polis. Reading this universalism more positively is, by contrast, unilluminating, as Foucault’s account of the brotherhood of man in Cynicism shows. In Foucault’s lectures the Cynic’s universalism is his friendship of all men; but this is a tautology. Foucault emphasizes the debt of Cynicism to the Socratic event, yet there is nothing of love for all men in Socrates. The path from Socrates to Cynic cosmopolitanism is that the incipient Socratic nihilism towards the nomoi was taken a step further in Cynicism such that, with the polis now negated, for the first time nothing stood between men. Heideggerian authentic existence, to the contrary, as a mode of relation to (rather than negation of) the polis, can never be universal.

In Heidegger’s thinking of Being, the nothing is constituted by time, or more precisely by finitude, a finitude that we only discover in being-towards-death. In Being and Time, Heidegger (1996: 378) is explicit that it is an inauthentic temporality that prioritizes the present – only future-oriented finitude, the unflinching look at my own death, can transform this inauthentic present into the authentic ‘moment’ (Augenblick) of action. Here it is a matter of opening historical being-in-the-world (the present as given by the past of a people) in the form of my own-most being-towards-death. My appropriation of my past depends on my awareness of my death.

What we see in the true life and in the messianic life, by contrast, is that using finitude is what is significant, not awareness of finitude. Use orientates us towards the present even as it transforms the present (as something that immediately passes) into the moment that can be seized. The messianic subject and the subject of the true life are turned not towards the future – this is not being-towards-death – but towards the time that remains. In fact, in this orientation towards the time that we have, messianic living opens the past, which is therefore no longer the past of a people. Similarly, the true life is incorporated into the present in such a way that the past is constituted anew – and this time not as the past of the polis but as the past worthy of a Socratic event that is precisely infinite in its consequences. As Badiou has shown, the truth of the event is not consigned to the past nor put off into the future but gives to us the present as eternity in time.

Finitude is an aborted nihilism. It is entranced by death, something which Spinoza’s free man thinks of nothing less than. In thoughts of finitude the true world remains operational, now as mortal time rather than eternity (indeed, finitude is only the opposite of eternity). Being is still a problem here – or a question, as Heidegger would have it. But, as Wittgenstein (2013: 6.521) argued in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the ‘solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem’. Arguing along similar lines, Agamben (1998: 59) is surely right that only an ontology that frees the nothing from every sense of destiny can perfect nihilism. At stake in Heideggerian abandonment of beings by Being ‘is not something (Being) that dismisses and discharges something else (the being). On the contrary: here Being is nothing other than the being’s being abandoned and remitted to itself; here Being is nothing other than the ban of the being’.

Agamben wants us to think Heidegger’s abandonment of beings by Being as an experience of abandonment as such.1 This experience of abandonment is really only the realization that in our abandonment nothing has abandoned us, which is the real destruction of metaphysics that Heidegger, with his mystery of Being, never fully accomplished.2 This is what it means to say that the relation of abandonment is actually not a relation at all, rejecting Heidegger’s ontological difference between Being and beings and replacing it with a non-relation (not no relation) (Agamben 2003: 60). The non-relation of Being and beings means that the nothing, contra Heidegger, no longer prescribes anything that might be called authentic existence. Imperfect nihilism would be that which seeks to make a destiny of the nothing rather than seizing it as an inexhaustible opportunity. Humanity has no work. We are the sabbatical animal, the inoperative being, not the ‘shepherd of Being’ as Heidegger’s ‘Letter on Humanism’ has it (1998a: 252).

As that which deactivates work, we saw that messianic time is not clock time but the moment or, to use Benjamin’s expression (1968), the jetztzeit (now time). Messianic time, being both now and not yet, is available (otherwise it could not deactivate all works) and yet incomplete (without which it would itself be that work). It is caught between the coming of the Messiah and the Parousia – his ‘second coming’ in the Christian tradition but for Paul simply Koine Greek for ‘presence’. In the idea of the Messiah’s return as his full presence, we should hear Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics as a philosophy of presence. Messianic time is not that eternity in which being is accomplished, in which there is the full and permanent presence of every thing to itself. But neither is messianic time the infinite deferral, the future always to come, of deconstruction in which it is essential that the Messiah never arrives. The Messiah is already here in the form of his absence, which is not the absence of never arriving but the absence of remaining with us as absent.3

It is in this sense that we should see the true world as messianic. The true world abides in the form of its absence. And in its presence to us as absence, it has bequeathed to us a fallen world that can never be saved. Without the coming of the true world neither could there be a world in need of redemption. And without the departure of the true world, this fallen world would never have become irredeemable. But that which is irredeemable is also that which is never brought to fulfilment. That there is no true world means that there can be ever-new worlds. This is what Nietzsche means when he says that the death of the true world is itself the liberation.

Nietzsche’s insight that we should start from the death of the true world is in some ways only a restatement of Spinoza’s accomplishment. As Deleuze (1988: 111–12) notes, if Spinoza’s earlier work argued for the coincidence of God and Nature then the breakthrough that is his Ethics consisted in its identification of God and Nature. This stronger identification, Deleuze argues, became possible because Spinoza’s underlying method changed. Starting now from ‘given substantial attributes’ – namely from that which expresses God/Nature – Spinoza ‘deliberately avoids beginning with God’ and, in the process, arrives at him ‘as quickly as possible’ as that substance which is constituted by all the attributes. Though Spinoza arrives quickly at God, he cannot do so immediately and this is fully a part of his method. While Spinoza generally wants to proceed from causes to effects, he knows that he cannot establish himself in the cause ‘as if by magic’. One must start from what is given. Spinoza is able to identify God and Nature precisely by not starting with God – a negation that requires, first, that there be God. Only by dispensing with a transcendent God does Deus sive Natura become sayable.

1For a discussion of the political implications of ontological abandonment, see Prozorov 2009.

2There is no denying that Heidegger himself sometimes states abandonment in these terms, as for example in his conclusion to his lectures on Hegel (1988: 149, emphasis added): ‘is [Man’s] essence not abandonment itself, in which alone what can be possessed becomes a possession?’

3This ‘Eucharistic’ presence in absence is a core theme of Quentin Meillassoux’s strange but compelling book (2012) on Mallarmé’s revolutionary poem, Un Coup de Dés.

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