restricted access Eccentricity
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75 Eccentricity There is an enduring, classical assumption that the animal is its body. I simply don’t know whether this is true. Wittgenstein writes that, if a lion could speak then we could not understand him. Which probably shows that Wittgenstein didn’t spend much time in the company of lions. Yet, when a parrot does speak then we assume that he does not understand himself . But who knows? Whatever the truth of the matter with animals, in my view human beings are essentially eccentric, that is, we have an eccentric position with regard to nature . This thought can be confirmed by the fact that not only are we our bodies, we also have our bodies. That is, the human being can subjectively distance itself from its body, and assume some sort of critical position with respect to itself. This is most obviously the case in the experience of illness, where one 76 might say that in pain we all try and turn ourselves into Cartesian mind/body dualists. In pain, I attempt to take a distance from my body, externalise the discomfort and insulate myself in thought, something which occurs most obviously when we lie anxiously prone in the dentist’s chair. But more generally, there are a whole range of experiences, most disturbingly in anorexia, where the body that I am becomes the body that I have, the body-subject becomes an object for me, which confirms both the possibility of taking up a critical position, and also underlines my alienation from the world and nature. Yet, the curious thing about such experiences is that if I can distance myself from my body, where being becomes having and subject becomes object, then can I ever overcome that distance? If, the moment that reflection begins, I become a stranger to myself, a foreign land, then can I simply return home to unreflective familiarity? Might one not conjecture that human beings, as eccentric animals, are defined by this continual failure to coincide with themselves? Does not our identity precisely consist in a lack of self-identity, in the fact that identity is always a question for us – a quest, indeed – that we might vigorously pursue, but it is not something I actually possess? As Plessner says, ‘Ich bin, aber ich habe mich nicht’. I most certainly am, but yet I do not have myself. 77 Incidentally, I think this is the truth of satire, which does at least two things: it engages in a strategy of bathos or philosophical ‘descendentalism’ (the word is Thomas Carlyle’s) as opposed to the somber transcendentalism of an Emerson or a Coleridge. Satire deflates pomposity and ridicules the seemingly august , elevated and noble. It reveals the depth of our moral hypocrisy. Secondly, satire exhibits the self as essentially divided against itself. One can see this most clearly at work in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, subtitled a satire , where the action consists of a dialogue between two characters, an ‘I’ and a ‘He’, incarnations of the two opposed sides of the same psyche, one governed by reason, the other by appetite. Diderot’s point is that we are, at the very least, two-faced beings: desiring creatures possessing a rationality that never succeeds in suppressing our appetites. Priggishness, censoriousness and the seemingly endless capacity for self-justified moral outrage flow from the denial of our Janus-faced nature. We find this taste for satirical self-division in Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous texts and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. But nowhere is it more rabid than in the tragic-comic division of the self that one finds in Nietzsche’s very late ‘autobiography’, 78 Ecce Homo. Mocking Pilate’s words to the scourged Christ, it is clear from the title that we most certainly do not ‘behold the man’ – one, unified and unique – but a satirically split self whose chronic divisiveness is playfully accentuated through chapters titles like ‘Why I write such excellent books’, ‘Why I am so clever’ and ‘Why I am a destiny’. Satire is the comic expression of the division of the self. As Rimbaud said, Je est un autre. But why is it that one can only present one’s own ideas in the guise of another, or many others? Why is direct speech either impossible or simply dull? What is the necessity for linguistic indirection? ...


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