Claude Romano: There Is: The Event and the Finitude of Appearing

There Is: The Event and the Finitude of Appearing Book Cover There Is: The Event and the Finitude of Appearing
Claude Romano, Translated by Michael B. Smith
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Reviewed by: Edward Willatt (University of Greenwich)

The Preface to Claude Romano’s There Is: The Event and the Finitude of Appearing positions his project at the heart of contemporary philosophy. He raises the question of the contemporary legacy of Kant and transcendental philosophy. This has concerned Speculative Realists for whom a fundamental re-orientation to the perspective of pre-critical or pre-Kantian philosophy is necessary today. For Romano we must look to phenomenology to respond to the problems of Kant’s legacy. Rather than drawing energy from natural science as a way of overcoming this approach, as Ray Brassier amongst others has done (see Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Romano seeks to dig deeper into the human science that is phenomenology. His first sentence and inaugural gesture is therefore: ‘Does phenomenology have to be presented as a transcendental discipline?’ (xi)

The guiding concept of this project is the event. Romano’s thinking of the event invites comparisons with other thinkers of this elusive term. Rather than locating the event in an inhuman ontological landscape of subtractive mathematics (Badiou) or Becoming-Other (Deleuze), Romano situates the event firmly in the human and personal world of meaning and project. This is the finitude that faces us all and is here deepened by considering aspects of human existence that, according to Romano, have been neglected by phenomenology.

Romano outlines a distinction established in his previous work that is fundamental to this book and to his whole philosophy. The event as a domain of meaning is to be distinguished from the neutral fact and its causes (13). The understanding of a situation by an agent is at stake when they encounter an event. Crucially, an event happens to someone personally, while facts do not, and this forces them to make ‘ … a personal decision about who it is he [or she] will be’ (13). Romano rejects the opposition between free will and determinism that is often assumed in philosophy. Aristotle is credited with overcoming this opposition thanks to his interest in tragedy (15). Rather than an opposition between human acts and natural necessity we have a historical conception of an agent tasked with being open to the events they encounter in the world.

Romano’s book is structured by encounters with a number of thinkers and offers clear assessments of each one. The first two chapters engage with Heidegger’s early philosophy as a thinking of Being which analyses human existence. Yet a critical assessment of this existential analytic finds certain blind spots within a ‘forgetfulness of the event’ (20). For Romano birth is a dimension of finite human existence which is neglected and obscured by Heidegger’s overriding focus upon being-towards-death in Being and Time. For Romano we must fully situate human existence in-between birth and death. Birth is understood as a ‘bottomlessness’ (Ungrund) as Schelling uses the term (49). This enables it to be the source of genuine novelty and the transformation of people and their worlds. Birth is said to draw upon a temporality more original than the one Heidegger describes within his analytic of Dasein’s being-towards-death. The influence of religious thought, and of Kierkegaard in particular, is identified as a further limitation of Heidegger’s early work. Whilst Aristotle’s role is acknowledged as introducing concrete aspects of existence into the thinking of Being, religious models of human existence bring abstraction. According to Romano’s reading, the absolute decision of Dasein between authenticity and inauthenticity echoes Kierkegaard’s ‘either-or’ which is the source of this privileging of Dasein over wider dimensions of being (21-22). This concern with the transparency and absoluteness of the choice of this privileged entity insulates Dasein from the concrete world of events. We might wonder if Heidegger’s middle period work on the event could offer avenues for addressing the concerns raised here. We are not offered a consideration of the event as Ereignis which de-centres Dasein and takes away its privileged position in Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: Of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2012).

We move, in the third chapter, to Henri Bergson for a thinking of time as the source of novelty. This is to be an antidote to Heidegger’s abstract, formal time without events. Romano outlines Bergson’s critique of metaphysics which rejects the attempt to make time into an analogon of space (73). This is fruitful for Romano’s project because Bergson aims to restore to time its essential role of permanently creating novelty. After Heidegger empties time by investing in the privilege of Dasein and its absolute decision as the source of meaning, Bergson makes temporality the condition of the possibility of novelty (84). There is no further we can go with Bergson because his thinking of time, as duration, assumes cosmic dimensions as it develops through his work. For Romano we must get back ‘down to earth’, to the human situation and the events that concern it.

An engagement with Jean Paul Sartre in chapter 4 brings us back to the human situation from the inhuman, cosmic dimensions of Bergsonian duration. Yet Romano offers a highly critical reading of Sartre’s inversion or subversion of theology (88). He argues that when human beings replace God in Sartre’s ontology this is not a break with theology but ‘a parody-like inversion of it’ within which human freedom cancels itself out (88). Romano sets out Sartre’s conception of freedom as invoking an originary choice that is self-causing and unconditioned (100). Sartre calls this choice ‘absurd’ and Romano asks whether we can still call this ‘freedom’. The charge of this critical reading is that freedom is undermined by its total affirmation in Sartre. What about the constancy I can observe in the choices I make and the values I hold? For Romano freedom cannot have meaning for us if it is based upon an arbitrary and irrational choice since human freedom only makes sense if it relates to human concerns. Romano talks about the need to ‘reinject some being’ into the originary nothingness that makes this choice incomprehensible to us (101). The formal emptiness that we diagnosed in Heidegger’s temporality of human existence and remedied in Bergson threatens again in Sartre. The absoluteness and infinity of freedom mean that it escapes human power (105).

We encounter Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh in chapter 5. This is traced back to Husserl’s uncovering of flesh. Like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty seeks to bring abstract Husserlian concepts ‘down to earth’ by putting them in touch with concrete human projects, but this endeavour is compromised once again. If flesh is between the ego and the world as an interface in Husserl, it is not constitutive (120). Rather, this concept emerges in Husserl’s thought as a breach in his abstract transcendental idealism which cannot then be closed (120). While Husserl’s flesh belongs to my transcendental ego, implicating it in idealism and even solipsism, for Merleau-Ponty the subject and object are blurred by my body and in all worldly things. This is because the thing is woven into the ‘same intentional fabric’ as my body (129; Merleau-Ponty, Signs, Northwestern University Press, 1964, 167). However, in this ontology of the flesh Romano identifies a new form of idealism. This is a carnal idealism where the body is privileged as the entity which must be woven into the world and whose self-reflection gives rise to this process (the experience of double touching). Furthermore, Romano finds that concrete, meaningful distinctions which mark out human existence and make it possible are subsumed in a common flesh. If Heidegger gave us an empty time, Merleau-Ponty gives us an empty space where we cannot maintain the distinctions that make life full of meaning, such as between a self and an other whose indiscernibility in a common flesh is now overwhelming. We cannot pick out the distinction between what is mine and what belongs to an other because flesh transcends these partitions (131). To carnal idealism we add carnal solipsism (130). With an ontology of the flesh Merleau-Ponty fails to extricate himself from idealism: ‘To think of flesh as the origin of the world is still to think of it as not being of the world, to confer a status of origin on it, and thus retain the main features of the transcendental attitude’ (140).

Chapter 6 turns to J. J. Gibson’s psychology and interprets it as an ‘ecological phenomenology’ which has the potential to remedy the limitations of phenomenology diagnosed in the preceding chapters. Romano argues that Husserl’s phenomenological deduction failed to bracket the basic concepts of Cartesian and transcendental philosophy and this is the legacy that later phenomenologists have failed to overcome (168). Gibson shared with Husserl a rejection of the methods of natural science while going further and avoiding a dualism of subject and object. This he achieved by understanding perception through the involvement of living beings in their environment. We must focus on the behaviour of livings beings and structural invariants in the world that shape and develop this behaviour (158-9). Rather than a cognitive model, where sensory input must be assembled, Gibson offers an ecological model where perception is fully involved in its environment. This involvement makes perception self-reliant rather than having recourse to cognitive processes. Rather than needing to be ordered, perception possesses an order of its own because it is always already involved or embedded in the world as a structured exteriority or space (161). It is the continuous encounter of living beings with their environment that is the event in this model (150). We are able to encounter solidity and distinctions in the world rather than finding these undermined by an ontology of the flesh where such things are submerged. Romano’s criticisms of Gibson centre on his focus on animal life. Animal life becomes the paradigm and specifically human perception is not distinguished (174). How does the world have the rich meanings that humans experience through our ongoing encounters within it? This order of meaning must not depend on a privileged subject but neither can it emerge from the realm of animal life where human meaning is absent. For Romano the ability of the event to shock us with an ‘unforeseeable becoming’ (174) in the meanings we experience is now at stake.

The challenge of thinking about nothing is considered in chapter 7. The context is Heidegger’s rejection of any attempt to circumscribe thought by logic (178). Rudolf Carnap’s attack on metaphysics as a ‘meaningless set of pseudo-propositions’ (181) is related to his disputation with Heidegger. Carnap advocates a logical formalisation of thought where meaningless propositions are identified and rejected. Romano finds confusion and misreading in Carnap’s critique of Heidegger’s engagement with nothingness. For Carnap Heidegger is both deluded by grammar when he talks of nothing and rejecting logical formulation in order to think differently (190). Either Heidegger’s thought can be formalised logically, and thus be in error when he uses terms illogically, or it exists outside of this paradigm. Heidegger rejects logical formulation, as demonstrated by his lecture What is Metaphysics? Romano argues that Heidegger draws upon the temporal nature of existence to show the inadequacy of atemporal formal concepts in thinkers like Carnap and Frege. This reveals the limitations of a logical formalism that fails to examine its philosophical presuppositions. It also reveals the positive role of nothing in a temporal process, as ‘… the condition of the appearing of the world …’ (206). Nothing is understood as ‘… the withdrawal or absence constitutive of all coming to presence as such…’ (208).

The final chapter sets out a conception of the event as the appearing of appearance. Heraclitus is identified ‘the very first phenomenologist’ for his engagement with this elusive event (215). Phenomenology returns again and again to this ontological difference, this event it continually seeks to capture but always misses (216). Phenomenology’s inadequacies have been diagnosed throughout this book and here the antidote is identified in emptiness. This emptiness involves not having expectations, not imposing Dasein’s closed project or any transcendental structures on the world. The result is openness to events in the midst of situations which are not at all transparent to us and which we do not chose. This gives rise to new definitions. Freedom is ‘… the ability to be [oneself] in the face of what happens to [us]’ (230). It is an ability to be open to events rather than a model of decision like those criticised by Romano in earlier chapters. Rather than Dasein we have the ‘advenant’ who is defined as the capacity to ‘… undergo the unsubstitutable experience of what happens to him or her’ (219). The advenant, as the ‘very humanity of the human being’, does not involve the closed project of being-towards-death but the exposure to events that results from being born into a finite existence (219). This brings Romano to the openness that dispenses with expectations in order to have the capacity to undergo events that are transformative of the worlds we inhabit.

This book gives us a clear and coherent engagement with the history of phenomenology while drawing upon figures outside of this tradition, such as Bergson and Gibson, in order to inject new concepts. This allows Romano to enact a critique of ontological structures that fail to draw upon the events that are vital for human existence. This project contributes more widely to critiques of philosophies that fail to account for human concerns, for the actual situations such beings find themselves in. Critiques of the work of Gilles Deleuze have also alleged a neglect of the actual, human dimensions of existence (see, for example, Peter Hallward, Out of This World, Verso, 2006). Romano seeks to populate human landscapes with events in order to realise the transformative potential of these encounters in specifically human ways. He has to answer the challenge that the novelty of events is undermined by tethering them to worlds that are perhaps human, all too human. In seeking to define what is specifically human, he runs the risk of putting such beings too far away from the event that constitutes a transformative break with what is already the case. There is a tension between Romano’s critique of idealism and the privileging of a particular entity (such as Dasein), and his own emphasis upon humanity (such as when he questions Gibson’s focus upon animal life). Might this preserve the human side of existence at the expense of what exceeds it? Might we understand humanity better through what exceeds it? This crucial debate is ongoing and Romano’s engagement with it represents an insightful, rigorous and provocative contribution.

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