My problem with the Law…

People who know me know that I live by my own principles. I have a constitutional (!) allergy to rules, as well as a generalized condition of avoidance (if not out-right hostility) to dogmatic principles. The law falls under this rubric. But so too do many things opposed to law. Dogmatic violence (“insurgents” in Iraq), dogmatic freedom (US occupation of Iraq), and so on. I’m interested in the intrinsic, the particular, and the spontaneous. That said, of course, it’s not possible to run an economy, or organize society, without generalization (aka, the rub).

Here’s a great passage from Gilles Deleuze’s incredible text on Immanuel Kant’s Critiques. In it he describes the passage from law to imperative/command, capturing the manner in which law departs from value, and becomes oriented itself. The result can only be a shift from the good life to the obedient life…. It’s through a move like this that the law comes to support stupidity.

This became clear to the free speech movement, it became clear to the Panthers, it became clear to King, Malcolm… Why have we lost our sight again, so soon?

“The third aspect of the Kantian revolution concerns the Critique of Practical reason, and might appear in formulas akin to those of Kafka. ‘The Good is what the Law says’ … ‘The law’ is already a strange expression, from the point of view of philosophy which only scarcely knew laws. This is clear in antiquity, notably in Plato’s Politics. If men knew what Good was, and knew how to conform to it, they would not need laws. Laws, or the law, are only a ‘second resort’, a representative of the Good in a world deserted by the gods. When the true politics is absent, it leaves general directives according to which men must conduct themselves. Laws are therefore, as it were, the imitation of the Good which serves as their highest principle. They derive from the Good under certain conditions.

When Kant talks about the law, it is, on the contrary, as the highest instance. Kant reverses the relationship of the law and the Good, which is as important as the reversal of the movement-time relationship. It is the Good which depends on the law, and not vice-versa. In the same way as the objects of knowledge revolve around the subject (I), the Good revolves around the subjective law. But what do we mean by ‘subjective’ here? The law can have no content other than itself, since all content of the law would lead it back to a Good whose imitation it would be. In other words, the law is pure form and has no object: neither sensible nor intelligible. It does not tell us what we must do, but to what (subjective) rule we must conform, whatever our action. Any action is moral if its maxim can be thought without contradiction as universal, and if its motive has no other object that this maxim. For example, the lie cannot be thought as formally universal without contradiction, since it at least implies people who believe in it, and who, in believing in it, are not lying. The moral law is thus defined as the pure form of universality. The law does not tell us which object the will must pursue to be good, but the form which it must take in order to be moral. The law as empty form in the Critique of Practical Reason corresponds to time as pure form in the Critique of Pure Reason. The law does not tell us what we must do, it merely tells us ‘you must!’, leaving us to deduce from it the Good, that is, the object of this pure imperative. But it is the Good which derives from the law, and not vice versa. As in Kafka’s The Penal Colony, it is a determination which is purely practical and not theoretical. The law is not known, since there is nothing in it to ‘know.’ We come across it only through action, and it acts only through its sentence and its execution. It is not distinguishable from the sentence, and the sentence is not distinguishable from the application. We know it only through its imprint on our heart and our flesh: we are guilty, necessarily guilty. Guild is like the moral thread which duplicates the thread of time.

from the preface of Gilles Deleuze, Kant’s Critical Philosophy.

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