If you can read the whole thing, great. If not: be sure to read Socrates’s speech (198b to the end) and the short introductory dialogue; if you have time for one more dialogue then read Aristophanes’s. Here are some notes on what I think are the main themes.
1. The methodological distinction of Socrates’s speech. Socrates casts his eulogy to Eros as a total repudiation of his forerunners’ speeches. Socrates rebukes his companions for taking the goal of their competition to be that one “should be thought to eulogize Eros, and not just eulogize him,” and consequently for “attribut[ing] to the matter at hand…the greatest and fairest things possible regardless of whether this was so or not” (198e). Like the ritual of Agathon’s “victory sacrifice,” they take eulogy to involve a ritual of homage and thanksgiving, invoking what is greatest and fairest in praise and thanks for gifts whose particular character they do not pretend to understand. This characterization of his competitors doesn’t appear altogether fair; but in any event it makes Socrates intention for his eulogy clear: Socrates’s speech will play an altogether different game, it will not be mere praise for praise’s sake, a mere obeisance which maintains an absolute separation between divine and mortal, but praise that somehow responds to the specific nature of the object praised. This responsiveness to the specificity of eros already implies the possibility of narrowing the separation between divine and mortal or, (to frontload the key term of Plato’s account) of a human ascent toward the divine.
2. Eros defined by its indefiniteness (i.e., obscurity, sublimity). So Socrates intends his eulogy to demystify and secularize Eros, emphasizing that it is “about this very word” (199d). Thus Socrates begins by pointing out its peculiar logical structure: Eros requires a genitive object; it is always of a particular object. The implication of this logical structure is that “the desirous thing desires what it is in need of, and does not desire unless it is in need” (200b) and, consequently, that “Eros is in need of and does not have beauty…is neither beautiful…nor good” (201b). Eros represents the negative form of human desire, the fact that we want what we do not have, that we want to make ours only what is not ours. The fact that Eros functions in this negative way opens up an intermediary space between complete knowing and ignorance, beauty and ugliness: a middle ground of practical ambiguity which Socrates’ competitors’ hegemonic appeal to conventional religious authority tends to suppress. In turn, Eros himself is not in fact a god at all but a demon, an intermediary between the human and the divine. Indeed, the practical consequence of Eros’ logical negativity, his constitutive dependence upon what he lacks, is to make his fundamental function that of mediation: “‘Interpreting and ferrying to gods things from human beings and to human beings things from gods’” (202e). So whereas Socrates claimed his account would be distinguished from his companions’ by determining Eros’ specific truth, he does so only to reveal that Eros’ defining function is to inject a radical indeterminacy or ambiguity into human practical life, and thus to preclude such conclusive determination.
3. Eros can’t be defined but only enacted. Thus there is a profound and characteristically Socratic irony to this account; an irony which tends to push the account from the exclusively theoretical onto the practical plane, such that we come to see Socrates’ claim to state a singular truth also, and perhaps more importantly, as an exemplary instance unto itself of the ubiquitous “interpreting and ferrying” that truth entails. This irony is I think the key to understanding Diotima’s famous and odd formulation, “eros is not of the beautiful,” but of “bringing to birth in the beautiful” (206b). Diotima claims that the activity of “ferrying and interpreting” “shares” in immortality without actually being “the immortal” (immortality itself does not share in erotic activity but “has a different way” (208b)). As Diotima characterizes it, “the pregnant draws near to beauty,…becomes glad and in its rejoicing dissolves and then gives birth and produces offspring” (206d). This reproductive activity manages to share in the divine, Diotima suggests, not in virtue of successfully seducing or capturing it and “ferrying” it home, nor of arriving at an interpretation so correct that it goes beyond interpretation and becomes simple truth; on the contrary, it comes to participate in the divine precisely in virtue of its own, eminently temporal and concrete self-propagation. Hence the ultimate object of desire is always the regenerative activity itself to which desiring gives rise: eros is “of engendering,” Diotima says, “because engendering is born forever and is immortal as far as that can happen to a mortal being” (207a). The activity of bringing to birth is itself “born forever:” birthing gives birth to birthing in perpetuity. Consequently, we approach the beautiful object of our desire only to discover that it ultimately devolves to, or, in Diotima’s term, “dissolves” into the activity itself of our approaching. (This is just what Shelley is getting at when he writes in the Defense that “[m]an in society, with all his passions and his pleasures,…becomes the object of the passions and pleasure of man; and additional class of emotions produces an augmented treasure of expressions; and language, gesture and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony.”)
4. The interdependence of comedy and tragedy. Socrates’ famous last words in the dialogue, according to Aristodemus’ hazy memory, are to the effect that “the same man should know how to make comedy and tragedy; and that he who is by art a tragic poet is also a comic poet” (223d). The problem with Alcibiades’ love for Socrates can be characterized along these lines: he only knows how to love tragically, which leads him hubristically to exceed his erotic means, and, falling far short of his aim, to confuse compulsive suffering, which he likens to a viper’s “burning poison,” with meaningful tragedy (218a). Hence Socrates’ advice to Alcibiades is to “consider better: without your being aware of it—I may be nothing. Thought, you know, begins to have keen eyesight when the sight of the eyes starts to decline from its peak; and you are still far from that” (219a, my ital.); how far from that is measured according to Diotima’s account of erotic ascent:
From one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies; and from beautiful bodies to beautiful pursuits; and from pursuits to beautiful lessons; and from lessons to end at the lesson, which is the lesson of nothing else than the beautiful itself; and at last to know what is beauty itself….[O]nly here, in seeing in the way the beautiful is seeable, will [a human being] get to engender not phantom images of virtue…but true….[O]nce he has given birth to and cherished true virtue, it lies within him to become dear to god, and, if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well (211c-212a).
Sustaining the “pregnancy” of desire is not a matter of disavowing the “phantom images” in which beauty may appear to us; on the contrary, the example of Alcibiades demonstrates the ‘deflating’ or ‘evacuating’ effect of such overweening pretense. Alcibiades needs to acknowledge that he sees too well, Socrates says, to bear witness to the higher order beauty of thought he claims to love in Socrates. Alcibiades thinks higher order beauty may be captured in the tangible physical forms of lower order beauty; in effect, he makes a fetish of Socrates’ body, attributing to it qualities that it is not in the nature of a body to have. In doing so he emblematizes what Nietzsche criticized as philosophical clinging of clumsy lovers, and Diotima as a “calculating” and “enslaving” “contentment with the beauty in one” (210d): Alcibiades needs to know he’s possessing the object of his desire in the same compulsive way a child needs to know he’s got his favorite toy in his hands, or an adolescent needs to know his love is reciprocated. For Plato, growth or ‘ascent’ describes the way in which what formally seems exclusively tragic comes to assume a comic aspect as well: part of tragic anagnorisis, of genuinely learning something from my tragic fate, is to become incapable of repeating the same disappointment in precisely the same terms. The effect of such learning is to “bring to birth” a new person, for whom the prospect of repeating the same disappointment in the same terms would involve a comic misrecognition on my part, both of my self and my world.
5. The end: immortality and Socrates’s body. There is no denying that in her account of the ascent, Diotima appears to hold out the possibility of achieving immortality despite her claim that the immortal itself “has a different way” than, is not implicated in, erotic ascending. Socrates’ impassive response to Alcibiades erotic advances clearly lends itself to the inference that Socrates is supposed to represent the actualization of this possibility. What is remarkable about the dialogue’s ending, however, is the emphatic way in which Plato nonetheless insists on Socrates’ abiding implication in the inexorable corporeal repetitions of temporal existence: Plato’s provocative concluding sentence evokes precisely the inertia of Socrates’ sleeping body, its intransigent, mechanical “order.” Socrates’ evidently extreme bodily discipline only accentuates the fact that the compulsion to sleep is no less involuntarily imposed upon him than Aristophanes’ hiccups: in a sense, we may see Socrates’ sleep as merely the final iteration in the series of corporeal compulsions evoked in the dialogue, proceeding through hiccups, sneezing and laughing. If we chose to see Socrates as pregnant with immortality, Plato insists that we understand that he is only pregnant with it, that he is pressing up against the limits of earthly existence, perhaps, but not pushing beyond them. Thus Plato suggests that even the final stage of Diotima’s ascent is inexorably tragic insofar as immortality or beauty itself may be temporally ‘realized’ only at the cost of reducing it to an “image.” The comic aspect of this scenario, then, is the flip side of the tragedy: Socrates ‘loss’ of immortality simultaneously “brings birth to” new possibilities not for immortality itself, but for temporally “interpreting and ferrying” immortality. If the tragedy is the way in which his seeming actualization of immortality was revealed as only an actualization of seeming immortality, then the fruit of this tragedy is a new perspective that is capable of retrospectively reconstruing it as a comedy of misrecognition, and that, consequently, may no longer be tragically enchanted by quite the same image of the one true immortality. This is not to say that it cannot subsequently be tragically enchanted by another such image; but, having watched the prior tragic enchantment “dissolve” into a comedy of misrecognition, this perspective has ‘ascended’ in the sense that it no longer sees quite so much distance between the object of desire and the activity of desiring, the immortal itself and the mortal activity that merely “shares” in it. By the same token, it no longer sees quite so much distance between tragedy and comedy.
The Ignorant Schoolmaster
1. Why does “the logic of explication call for the principle of a regression ad infinitum” (4)? How does this relate to what Ranciere calls “the singular art of the explicator: the art of distance” (5)? Note that this art is not just one of asserting distance but of alternatively asserting and eliminating it: “The explicator sets up and absolishes this distance” (5). How is this “art of distance” related to what Benjamin described as the traditional notion of art as something that takes place at two meters distance from the body?
2. Why is it “the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around” (6)? what is the explicator’s “double inaugural gesture” (6)?
3. Why does Ranciere say that “before being the act of the pedagogue, explication is the myth of pedagogy” (6)? How does this myth “divide intelligence in two” (7)? and how does it “enforce stultification” (7)?
4. In Ranciere’s claim, “this word [understanding] brings a halt to the movement of reason” (8), is the distinction between understanding and reason, word and movement, or both?
5. What does Ranciere mean by saying “there is nothing beyond texts except the will to express, that is, to translate….to say what one thinks in the words of others” (10)? So is translation the paradigm of non-hierarchical relationships among people? how does this notion of translation relate to the translation and ekphrasis we’ve discussed in Keats?
6. Why does Ranciere call “the true movement of human intelligence taking possession of its own power” the “blind” and “shameful method of the riddle”(10)? explain the connection among all the terms he applies to this method: besides a method riddle he calls it a method of chance, of equality “and above all a method of the will” (12).
7. What does it mean to respond to language “not as students or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality” (11)? do you find this distinction tenable?
8. What’s a master who isn’t a master explicator (12f)? how can “obedience to another will” result in “emancipation,” and “the master’s domination result in an entirely liberated relationship between the intelligence of the student and that of the book” (13)?
9. Explain Ranciere’s claim that Jacotot “was experimenting, precisely, with the gap between accreditation and act” (15); how does an act without accreditation appear? does the notion of sheer action without (need of) accreditation help clarify Ranciere’s similarly enigmatic claim that “to emancipate an ignorant person, one must be, and one need only be, emancipated oneself, that is to say, conscious of the true power of the human mind” (15)?
10. Hence Jacotot’s principle of “universal teaching:” that “each ignorant person could become for another ignorant person the master who would reveal to him his intellectual power” (17). Ranciere correspondingly heaps contempt on “progressive” norms of development, but does he go as far as Lacan and Benjamin’s equation of the notion of development per se with tyranny?
11. Does Ranciere’s critique of the “stultification” of hierarchical pedagogy apply to the Platonic erotic ascent? is Eros as Plato presents it implicitly hierarchical? could Ranciere’s “universal teaching” effect Platonic eroticism?