Anxiety and the Other

Through sin, sensuousness became sinfulness. -On the Concept of Anxiety

Kierkegaard has no good explanation for the biblical serpent. He simply assumes that Adam “talked to himself,” and thus Kierkegaard “most freely admit[s] to being unable to attach any definite thought to the serpent.” (pg. 58)

The malevolent mind is waved away, and with the presumption of a Levi-Straussian fidelity to the spirit of the myth over its mere letter, he returns anxiety to its proper place: in individual freedom.

We ought not, however, so hastily disown such a structurally sound character as the serpent. Certainly, Kierkegaard not only betrays the semantic component of the myth but also the syntactic; and thus becomes, at least, a poor expositor of the scriptures. Before Eve there was Lilith, before Adam there was the fall.

But what of Kierkegaard’s existential claims about anxiety; namely that it arises first and foremost as the condition of freedom in the phenomenology of individual subjectivity (which Kierkegaard, perhaps more accurately, terms psychology)?

Well. Kierkegaard is not the only psychologist to confront/disown some malicious other. Moreover, other philosophers cannot so easily pin these appearances on the peccadilloes of a very old story. It was, rather, a convenience for Kierkegaard that the serpent should appear in the biblical creation narrative, otherwise he would have been forced to first presuppose and then just as quickly disown such a being.

Consider Descartes’ own (psychological) meditations. In assuming that all sensuous appearances could be hallucinations, he must posit not one but at least two minds: the “I” and the evil genius.

But Descartes is primarily interested in the nature of the self (or, rather, creating a sufficient self for empirical science), not in hypothetical demons. So his genius is as quickly forgotten as Kierkegaard’s serpent. Need I mention the evil invoked by all brain-in-a-vat or any other Matrix-like hypotheticals? Thus, the most (or only) vexing question we can ask about mind is left completely ambiguous: is it one or many?

What of these ghosts in the originary philosophies of subjectivity? It is assumed very profound to, for example, claim that language and/or silence speaks. And perhaps they do. But doesn’t the Other speak as well!

Kierkegaard makes us understand that anxiety is the condition of the possibility of possibility, that anxiety is grounded in freedom. And so it is. But, then, how does a mind come to conceptualize freedom? We apparently learn (from Kierkegaard or Heidegger) that we are finitely free, and that anxiety is something like a metabolism between this freedom and this finitude. But in what manner is this finitude felt?

For one, perhaps finity is not the best manner in which to conceptualize freedom. Freedom is, rather, infinite and bounded. Like Fibonacci sequence, it is not total, but then it does not feel its boundaries in the application of whatever recursive function produces it. Or, per Max Tegmark’s meditations on the possible sizes of the uni/multiverse: that which could be real might never be perceived as an artificial limitation on the boundedness of that which can possibly understand itself as actual.

In short, freedom can only be felt as such by way of some external, positive limitation, in “the universe kicking back,” which is only ever understood as as an external agency.

Freedom, like Descartes’ I-sense, can only be posited with the tacit assumption of an external (contradicting) agency. And the fact that the necessary positing of this other mind is not in itself considered extraordinary is ample proof of the disrespect we pay the one-many problem with respect to mind.

Thus, bridging Descartes and Kierkegaard, we are confronted with a properly Kantian antinomy: “I” must be singular; “I” must be plural. Though I have not sought to prove the former, its evidence might be easily inferred, if only from popular philosophical consensus (cf., Nishida, Sartre, Peirce, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, panpsychists, et al).

Let us make no mistake: anxiety as the condition of/conditioned by freedom presupposes a plurality of minds.

In short, anxiety is always, necessarily social. Sure, freedom is the condition of its possibility, but the other is the condition of the possibility of freedom, since the other is the only conceivable interruption in an otherwise featureless night in which all free cows are black (to mangle a Hegelian expression). Adam’s freedom was his freedom to defy the deity; to, in the most Nietzschean sense, kill the deity. Likewise, the serpent represents Adam’s freedom to err. And, voila, we have a milieu!

Doubtless, Kierkegaard gives some credence to the one and the many in the interplay between “individual” and “race,” but the nonchalant-ness with which he disavows the serpent, and even (implicitly) God, proves how little a sense of compulsion he derives from the Other.

Kierkegaard, like so many preceding and subsequent philosophers, surreptitiously introduces the Other when convenient, and disowns it when convenient. The serpent does not speak or accuse, language itself does! Too convenient.

And perhaps even Nietzsche errs at this point, for he accuses the Yogis of nihilism, when they were really only elaborating the necessary concomitants of the unity of mind. What place could a monist possibly find for anxiety, or desire, or freedom or…etc.

Now we come full circle to this essay’s initiating quote, which we are naturally tempted to dismiss as a simple example of Kierkegaard’s prudishness: the question of sensuousness and sin. Let us pit two sages–in their own way–against one another: Patanjali and Baudelaire.

Now, Baudelaire represents the ultimate–narcissistic–conclusion of Kierkegaard’s exposition: the individuality of the individual, forever simultaneously presupposing and repressing its condition of possibility (the other).

Sensuousness is acquainted with sin, and it is by sin that sense is given gravity, or inertia, or whathaveyou. Thus, Baudelaire felt compelled to delve more deeply into “sin” to more efficaciously experience sensation. And all biographical details support this interpretation: his hatred and need for society, a master, etc. He is the portrait of the sadomasochist.

This is a too commonly observed phenomenon to be considered accidental: the inability to feel meaning except in transgression.

The yogis, as represented by Patanjali, on the other hand, are not at all guilty of denying the senses as Nietzsche claims in his Genealogy of Morals. The opposite is the case: ascetics experience supersensibility, an acuteness of the senses, which in themselves becomes objects of meditation. Concentration on the tip of the nose, etc.

The yogis’ “nihilism” derives not from their denial of sense, but from their denial of the sinfulness of sensuousness. For after such a denial, what is left? Only an apparent singularity, which must desire nothing, fear nothing, be anxious about nothing.

The Other is the only true condition of both anxiety and freedom; and the fact of anxiety is the evidence of the Other.