The elaboration of the concept of an event as abrupt discontinuity has often drawn on privileged examples from the history of science. But the notion of the audacious scientific break from prior knowledge that is thus translated into political terms was already invested with revolutionary thought. In its relation to the subject it also converges with an earlier, philosophical ‘cut’ that presaged the ‘split self’ of psychoanalysis. Thus, the notion cuts across the questions of collective and individual transformation.
In his work from the 1930s–50s, through the close study of particular sequences in the history of science, Gaston Bachelard set out the principles of what we could call the historical production of reason. For Bachelard, what rationality means is periodically expanded, through unforeseeable breaks with orthodoxy, ruptures with sedimented modes of thought. Mobilising this conception against the preceding generation of academic philosophers in France, Bachelard admonished them for having reacted to the prospective hegemony of scientific rationality by continuing to foster the notion that there could be ahistorical conditions for rational thought, over and above those conditions perenially under construction by those making rationality. Worse, they tended to opportunistically appropriate particular scientific ideas as props for an outdated vision of philosophy as the global discourse of eternal reason. Combining philosophical humility with an enthusiasm for the study of science in action, the ‘discontinuism’ of Bachelard sought to make possible a truly historical philosophy of scientific rationality, according to which the latter proceeds by way of ‘cuts’ in the fabric of received knowledge (sanctioned by the stability of common sense or institutional inertia).
Thus the history of science is imbued with a zeal for the revolutionary break, and ‘continuism’ is condemned as reactionary: Rupture is the very essence of historicity, and the very idea of a global, continuous system or development of thought, by rendering it reversible in principle, neutralises history and deprives it of any effective meaning. According to this point of view, the development of knowledge is not just a steady, progressive unfolding of a domain of truth that is, in principle, entirely deducible via eternal precepts. Reason takes place through truly unforeseeable, unprecedented acts, in which ossified complexes of knowledge, ‘epistemological obstacles’, are broken up by the cutting edge of thought, forcing entire fields of knowledge to be knitted back together according to different patterns in its wake.
Such thought-events are always responses to the particular epistemological obstacles bequeathed to a specific historical context. There can be no general theory of rationality, no transhistorical continuity of Reason, no smooth story of progress. These philosophical fables are only ever retrospective illusions, which try to smooth things out by projecting present successes back onto imagined ‘origins’, sanctioning a whig view of history in which current knowledge approaches the completion of a perennial project.
If the unmistakeable glint of the guillotine can be detected here, it is Louis Althusser who, in the 1960s, revives the revolutionary undercurrent of Bachelard, turning the epistemological cut into the principal instrument of historical materialism. For him, science—the sciences per se standing for a Marxist science to come—must perpetually seek points of rupture with the ideological ‘givens’ that constitute, at once, raw materials with which it must work, and epistemological obstacles blocking its path. Thinking always begins in the matrix of ideology, and must cut its way out.
Althusser’s task consists in differentiating what is ‘given’ in knowledge, by way of a cut that divides, within this given, what is truly productive from what merely re-presents it according to ideological determinations. This cutting is itself a productive gesture in so far as it succeeds in materializing the difference in the form of a clear ‘line of demarcation’, a score that can be followed to ensure correctness.
In 1967, Althusser launched his ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’, whose aim was to wrest philosophy from its academic confinement and to make it accessible to ‘the masses’ through an ‘initiation’. Firstly it aimed to induce the audience to recognize their own unconscious implication in philosophical thought. What philosophy does is to draw demarcations, to cut up reality in a certain way; and what appears to in experience as ‘natural’ is invariably the result of such theoretical demarcations, albeit unconscious. Secondly, it aimed to draw lines of demarcation between such ‘spontaneous philosophy’ and a stronger philosophical position that would enable them to loosen its ideological grip.
Althusser’s address to the ‘masses’ of non-philosophers, then, aimed to reveal to them that they were always already implicated in philosophy despite themselves: Scientists and other practitioners obscure the productive historical reality of their practice by understanding it ‘spontaneously’—with the all-important qualification that this ‘spontaneity’ is only ‘spontaneous because it is not’; that its apparent immediacy is precisely the most odious of ideological illusions, ‘the illusion of the “natural”’. The apparently natural categories through which they make sense of their knowledge tend to ‘dissimulate [the] contradictions’ of the ideological mechanisms that really produce these categories: so that ‘what seems to pass before them in reality passes, in what is essential, behind their back’.
If we are always already within philosophy, as subjects of social forces that cut up and demarcate the world in a way that appears ‘spontaneous’, Althusser proposes that we can use philosophy, paradoxically, to ‘trace lines of demarcation within the fact of tracing lines of demarcation’. The initiation of specialists from outside philosophy invites them to recognize the forces at work behind the pseudo-categories with which they represent their own practice; to take up a position by rupturing with these ideological representations; and to make cuts in the fabric of ideology (itself a set of cuts) in order to demarcate its phony self-representations from its effective materiality. In this way Althusser makes it known that the ‘after’ of philosophy—that is, of the cut—is in fact the same element as the ‘before’, but after its productive materiality has been forcibly brought to our attention through this ‘initiation’.
The cut takes place between between the compromised enterprise of ‘making sense’ of a practice, and its effective materiality. And this even though (or precisely because) the two are always found in de facto alloys: ‘There is no scientificity that is not from the start mixed with ideology […] there is no pure scientificity’ and yet ‘[p]hilosophy has as its major function to trace a line of demarcation between the ideological of ideologies on one hand and the scientificity of sciences on the other.’
Since to cut is at once to demarcate and to take up a position, it is also a refusal of the aspiration to depolemicised universality. Recalling Bachelard’s attack on philosophical globality, Althusser argues that to engage in philosophy proper is ‘To dissipate the fusional illusions of continuity, such as developed … by the discourse of the universal which philosophy usually takes up’; ‘to have done with the attitudes of compromise which sacrifice all to the desire for unity’; and ‘to recognize the necessity of […] rupture’ in drawing ‘the full consequences of the fact that there are everywhere contradictions, tensions, struggle, conflict, and that no practice escapes them’.
Another significant philosophical sense of the ‘cut’ came earlier, in the eighteenth century, with Kant’s departure from the dogmatic pretensions of the rationalist philosophy. Whereas rationalists had claimed some privileged mode of knowledge that would allow us directly to cognize the nature of being, Kant insisted that we have access only to appearances. These appearances being subject to the conditions of our finite sensibility and understanding, we cannot say what they may be appearances of. The ulterior nature of that which appears to us, remains veiled; the most we can hope for is a systematic knowledge of the conditions of its appearance—what Kant calls ‘transcendental’ knowledge.
Perhaps the most profound ramification of the introduction of this ‘transcendental cut’ between what appears and the conditions of its appearance, lies not in the critical proscription of speculative knowledge regarding what objects may be ‘in themselves’, but in the fact that this proscription also applies to the self, in so far as the self is also something that appears within experience.
As empirical intuition, my experience of the thinking ‘I’ is delivered through the synthetic operations of inner sense, that is, time. But the ‘I’ whose appearance is presented by these operations, being a ‘mere appearance’, cannot possibly be identical with the very transcendental condition of the syntheses that make it experienceable. Kant thus has to distinguish between a self that is experienced in time, and a self that is the true seat and condition of all experience, but remains inaccessible to experience. The transcendental cut passes right through the subject. And although I can indeed think the indeterminate existence of the transcendental subject, the real ground of all experience, I can determine nothing whatsoever in regard to it: In this empty concept, as Kant says, ‘nothing in myself is […] given for thought’; it is just an ‘X’, an ‘it’ that thinks.
So self-knowledge is afflicted by a primordial opacity, where the transcendental cut bisects the ‘I’. My thoughts come from outside, the spontaneous is elsewhere, a ‘thing that thinks’ whose acts pass through the me I see, being carried out on, not by, the self that I know. ‘I is another’, as Rimbaud wrote. For Deleuze, this revelation of the schizophrenic state of dissociation as the truth of the subject dramatises the advent of transcendental logic as such: Rationalist thought had required some divine agent, a guarantor of the transparency of knowledge, to bridge the external difference between what is, and what can be thought. In contrast, with the introduction of transcendental thought, the relation between thought and being becomes that of a cut, at once a relation and an estrangement.
According to Deleuze, Kant thus ‘establishes difference and interiorises it within being and thought’—difference not as a conceptual difference between determinations, but as difference between determination and that which is determined, at once a gap and that which closes the gap. ‘A fault or a fracture’, ‘a ‘demarcation’, takes the place of ‘the mark or the seal of God’.
And this cut becomes the profane wellspring of experience: it is the difference that passes through the subject that drives the dynamism of its ‘internal’ life. In Deleuze’s most disconcerting image, the transcendental cut passes through the I like a crack in a pavement, from whose unfathomable depths spill ideas, like swarming armies of ants.
The cut of transcendental difference, as condition of identity, can only ‘appear’ in in secondary and derivative fashion—as exemplified by Oedipus’s moment of realization that he is other than who he thought he was, that his acts have a different meaning to those he attributed to them, and that his destiny has been sealed by the very difference between this new revealed identity and the identity he had previously lived. The cut can only manifest itself within experience episodically, as a faultline in identity, in moments of initiation or rebirth: nothing will ever be the same, and I am another.
It is this limit experience that may connect the two senses of the cut: Just as Lacan needed to develop what Freud called the ‘split I’ [Ichspaltung] into a play of fente and refente, a cracking-up and reforging, so, in thinking the historical dynamism of collective thought, Bachelard’s ‘epistemological cut’ immediately finds itself also called to account for a certain rejoining—for the way in which communities of thought discursively absorb ruptures without betraying their radicality. The question is the same in the domain of personal identity and collective history: How to bear witness that something has really happened, how to thread it into the fabric of reality?
The idea of the rupture as a break in history, in fact, necessitates the recognition of a ‘transcendental cut’ internal to knowledge itself: the difference between its self-representation—the way in which it constantly ‘makes sense’ of itself as an in-principle continuous whole—and the episodic, historical, patchwork, and conflictual reality of its practice. This is the very demarcation that Althusser insists upon.
The cut is not a gesture of division any more or less than it is an affirmation of unity: it is a wound through which the real bleeds, a trauma without which there would be no life. And, as Freud tells us, for us trauma is something from outside, something excessive, which we can never entirely ‘bind’. But it also cannot be thought apart from a healing which does not negate or neutralise it, but which, time after time, ‘remakes’ us.
To the question: ‘What happens when something happens?’ we therefore answer: the complacent environment of continuity in which we wish to believe is revealed to be made of nothing but cuts; they tear open and are remade again, sometimes leaving behind nothing but a conviction that ‘something happened’, sometimes setting us the challenge of reconstructing ourselves from something that seems fractured, that makes no sense.
The moment of cutting, the trauma, the faultline in time and identity, is the closest we get to the real. If they cannot guarantee it, the most we can hope from works of art and thought is that they should invite us ‘to have done with the attitudes of compromise which sacrifice all to the desire for unity’, to affirm the broken moment and the impossibility of perfect healing. They can encourage us to demarcate pacified and harmonious representations from the tension, struggle, discord and incompleteness that actually give dynamism to practice and participation. And to pay attention to the specificity of every cut, sometimes even giving into the curious compulsion to scratch at healing wounds, as these desperate inscriptions may be the only score our lives follow.