Grant Answers Questions from 'Le Bac' #1

(im)Possibilities and
Configuring the Absurd

"Is it absurd to desire the Impossible?"

This question poses several openings for understanding, so it might be best for me to explain which path I might take from it in order to locate my answer. For such a short text, we'll look to the important words; absurd, desire and impossible.

The first, Absurd, suggests something contravening Reason or Logic. If something were Rational, that is within a system of understanding built on incontrovertible experience, then it must necessary exclude the Impossible. If it were logical, then it would be included in a realm of possibilities defined by its lack of paradoxes, which as a negative thought system could include in its present understanding (and thus utilization) many things that haven't been identified as paradox, even though they may be. At this stage, one can say simply that the category of impossibility is essentially at odds with either of these terms. Yet this is too closed a reading perhaps, because it excludes results that may be verifiable good, and therefore rational to pursue, yet are themselves not rational. We will deal with this in turn.

The second term is Desire. "To Desire" implies a level of agency on the part of the desiring-agent that is perhaps misplaced. Even if we accept individual agency on some level, Desire supposes an urge beyond the rational (which, as before, suggests that "absurdity" is not the right category for this question). Yet it also supposes a propulsive drive that exists outside the conscious and here we find the rub: a measure of "absurdity", even charitably defined, retains a negative value when applied to decision-making, the "positive" realm of the 'not-rational' or 'not-logical', thus sprouting dialectically from their other. If no such alternative exists, or if the reality of making the choice is absent (or impossible), we would always fail to categorize the choice in such a binary. It would then seem that, on the face of the question, any desire is outside the absurd because it would require a location that can contain logical or rational desires and our currently conceived illogical and irrational desires at the same time, while the term desire itself suggests both a single substance, a uniquely non-rational one (insofar as it continues to define the category non-rational, though perhaps we might revisit this point later) . Yet, again, we are faced with the pragmatic consequence that a desire might cause unpalatable consequences, and we would find these to be in a more verifiable or alterable circumstance to be absurd. We might also find that rational maneuvers can be instituted in order to circumvent these desires, alter these desires, or minimize those we consider agents in their own desiring, perhaps with that very label "absurd", conditioning the category 'desire' while remaining on its exterior.

The last term, Impossible, may be the most difficult to parse because our common notion is atemporal, that is something that is impossible will never happen. This may be a helpful definition in most circumstances, but in these tight quarters, a better definition is preferred; that which is not possible in the immediate circumstance. For we can consider the telephone to be a distinct "possibility" only because 1) it exists and 2) there exists an entire backdrop of technologies and practices that allow it to exist. Absent either element, for instance in the Middle Ages, the telephone not only becomes impossible but an absurdity. An argument, however, that stops at this point nullifies its use by ensuring that only perfectly understood circumstances (perfect knowledge of the past and present) and perfect knowledge of the future consequences of the present configuration. Requiring either of these, much less both, renders the notion of "impossible" itself "impossible", or at least unintelligible and unhelpful. However, in light of the appearance of the term "Desire" in the sentence as it relates to Impossible, we can impute a level of "understood impossibility", something that one comprehends is not possible, whether it is or not, and then chooses to desire anyway.

If these are the appropriate uses of each term, it seems we are left with two significant options. The passages under "Absurd" and "Desire" suggest a possibly pragmatic reframing of the issue. The question would not longer remain "Is it absurd to desire the impossible", but "Are there rationally defensible 'goods' that result from the decision to pursue that which appears not to be possible?" Despite the reframing, this does not provide us an obvious or necessary response, because there seems to be little connecting "possibility" and "desirability" sub specie rationalitas. For instance, a desire with "rationally" indefensible results like Universal Annihilation would be absurd regardless of its possibility. Similarly, there is nothing in desiring alone, as we traditionally conceive it, that seems to produce possibility. Yet desires have effects. Here we can consider two types of effects, 1) direct effects where simply the desire for a circumstance or configuration produces an action intended to create the possibility of its becoming, and 2) ecological effects, where the desire produces in a subject a circumstance that makes the impossibility more possible: the desire to see God in the afterlife as a reward for military service in defense of a rational Republic, for instance in the French and American Revolutions, where a slight increase in fervor spread over a battalion can shift a result. This is exquisitely illustrated in Che Guevara's foco theory of revolutionary action that suggests that the pursuit of revolution may be the most important ingredient in a future revolution, regardless of the current conditions in which the revolutionary finds himself. It appears to be unsolvable at this point without some more content with which to measure the absurdity or non-absurdity of the premise of desire.

The last term, Impossible, suggests an alternative to this limited pragmatic approach. Here we find an epistemological stance, where the "desirer", whether an agent or not, attempts to rationally consider themselves justified in presuming simultaneously that they are qualified to consider the limits of their immediate circumstances, while being unqualified to consider the limits of their immediate circumstances. One might find connections between this and a form of rationalist skepticism, but this seems to get outside of those boundaries by allowing, for instance, for Descartes' "Mad Genius" who has designed the universe in order to trick us, or holding out a possibility for the nullification of the Cogito (to keep this in a quintessentially rationalist realm) and suggesting that, in our most extreme formulation, "Whatever I consider as possibility requires that I exist in order to consider it, yet I may be mistaken, I may not exist, and therefore I find it rational to desire nonexistence while thinking." This is a highly problematic form of thought. The ability to consider possible might be occurring in a figure whose possible-considering ability is lacking or inverted, which suggests that it would be irrational for them at an existential level. One sees here how the Cartesian paradigm goes very nearly to the ground with its bizarre perspective on rational inquiry. If, however, contra Descartes, we can consider a certain level of reality as necessarily confirmed in order to operate intelligibly without being a "rational" or ground notion as such, and further, as a result we consider whatever level of knowledge we do achieve to be both provisional, based in the immediate circumstance, and "soft", which is to say never felt in any absolute degree, ungrounded. For this circumstance to be rational, we must insist on a notion of the intelligible universe as confined within sensory boundaries that are smaller than the totality of all things at all perspectives at a given moment. We must further insist on an empirical claim, alluded to earlier, that there exists evidence that what was once impossible has, after that moment, become possible. This suggests that even a quite highly attuned comprehension of possibilities in the immediate term can dispose he who comprehends to irrationally extend that comprehension further that might be expected. In fact, because the interaction of such a vast number of elements that create any "total moment", it may be a practical impossibility to adequately consider anything beyond the immediate. At this level, it appear that it would be entirely rational, considering the "soft" nature of definite principles, the broad array of such principles, the limitations of possible sensory experience and the evidence regarding historical pronouncements about the possibility or impossibility of any future event, to desire something that appears to be impossible but could, in fact, be possible. A more extreme version of possibility, imminent becoming, suggests even a further value to a soft epistemology, because in the occurring of the impossibility, even the inactive desirer will have a desire appropriate to the new configuration of the universe, while those with rational expectations are ill-equipped. One thinks of the perverse combination (or is it?) of Derrida's notion of History as the arrival of a totally other, and the neo-conservative preparation for a seemingly impossible invasion of Iraq made real in the aftermath of 9/11.

There is one last figure who needs to be considered, however, before we place this issue at rest, and in this figure we find that our presupposed notions are perhaps fatally flawed. In Spinoza, the near-contemporary of Descartes, we find a robust notion of two of our terms, Desire and (im)Possibility. Here, Spinoza suggests that an adequately configured mind would necessarily desire to be able to achieve a perfect knowledge of a certain mode of existence, and having achieved this state ("Understanding"), would through this perfect knowledge extend its configuration eventually to all things in all ways. To limit his inquiry as it regards to this question, we must consider that the future, the realm in which the metaphorical quantum wave of not-possibility collapses into either being or impossibility, is a realm dependent in some ways on the contemporary knowledge of the contemporary. For Spinoza, a higher level of contemporary knowledge would produce not an overestimation of the future applicability of the contemporary knowledge, but would inform he who Understood precisely of the limitations of this knowledge, or put slightly differently, knowledge is in two parts, the knowledge itself, and the nature of that knowledge in relation to its configurations. In this circumstance, one could not desire the impossible, because it would 1) only be a known impossibility with perfect knowledge of the future, 2) be undesirable at the level of its self-nullification. Inversely put, 1) if one desired that one thought was an impossibility and it had positive future effects such as the coming of the impossibility, then it would only have been a false impossibility after all. 2) if one could not know and assumed without evidence an impossibility in order to desire it than one would be overreaching ones epistemic boundaries needlessly because a desired possibility (even if incorrectly appraised) would exert more effort on the subject's part due to its plausible being. 3) If one knew the impossibility of a thing and continued to desire it, one could only be considered a nihilist who rejects available Understanding in order to attack Understanding itself. The first two are absurd. The last returns us to the above discussion of Pragmatic production, and can only be measured in its absurdity in that it attacks the root condition that must exist in order to allow for the possibility of a Absurd at all. Therefore, if we allow that a term Absurd legitimately exists, we must finally allow that it would be that term if we decided with knowledge or without to pursue that which is impossible.

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