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Self-Reflexivity and Self-Transcendence—Toward the Unknown

Thoroughgoing, unlimited self-reflection is required to look through all the constructions of self in order to see the self in relation to everything else, and thus to see things whole. This is not literally seeing an object, but rather seeing the infinite and non-objective in all. It is an existential “seeing” that can be enacted only through the imagination. Such self-reflection through imagination might equally discern no connection between things and feel only the eternal silence of infinite space that so frightened Pascal (“l’éternel silence de ces espaces infinis m’effraie,” Pensées 206, Brunschvicg ed.). Nietzsche embraced it, but even his Dionysiac affirmation of destruction belongs to this order of existential relation: it is total and concerns reality as a whole. By this account, the reflective self is already dissolved in its first emergence because it emerges as only a figure for a deeper, unfathomable poetic process or event. Self-reflection deconstructs the self and opens it into the infinite apprehended in finite forms. It is, to this extent, negative and is manifest as language. Especially the language of lyric concentrates and displays this self-reflexive structure.

By virtue of its proclivity for turning back on itself, language, whether lyrical or philosophical, taken to its ultimate consequences, tends to become a monadic whole, a specular, self-reflexive totality. This makes it a kind of mirror of the world—an uncanny one that infinitizes world as an endlessly iterable image. The work thus becomes a microcosm that repeats the world’s inner essence.

We have been exploring how especially lyric language throws this model of consummate self-referentiality into relief. However, the essential point I am stressing about self-reflection is that reflexive consciousness comes home to itself only through self-transcendence toward an unknown, transcendent order of existence—toward what can be correspondingly represented as a transcendent (self-reflexive) divinity. This fundamental condition has been elaborated with philosophical sophistication in Western tradition by apophatic thinkers from ancient Gnostics and medieval mystics to postmodern atheistic philosophers. Dante partakes in this speculative endeavor and shows it at its most fervid and convincing in the “making” of epic-prophetic poetry distilled to its lyrical essence in the Paradiso. This is why the moment of incapacity, and even of failure, is constitutive of the assault upon the ineffable, or of apophatic expression in its myriad manifestations in the Paradiso—and still in T. S. Eliot’s “raid on the inarticulate” (“East Coker,” Four Quartets).

The reasons for this “failure” concern the nature of self-negating or “apophatic” discourse as short-circuiting reference. However, it is important to realize that the failure of reference is not its suppression or erasure, but rather its réinscription in another, higher mode of selftranscending discourse. As Michael Sells observes,

Apophasis moves toward the transreferential. It cannot dispense with reference, but through the constant turning back upon its own referential delimitations, it seeks a momentary liberation from such delimitations. In terms of a spatial metaphor, to the linear referential motion apophasis adds a circular turning back (epistrophe). The combination yields a semiotic spiral motion ever deeper into the pre-referential ground (or groundlessness) of the discourse.1

An apophatic angle of reflection underscores, furthermore, that reflection is our only means of bringing out what is not reflection but is rather presupposed by it. Modern secular thought attempts to distill everything entirely into reflection, hence into immanence. By reflection, the objectivity of the world is made over—and is taken into—the self as a reflection of itself. This is crucially different from Gasché’s view (section 16) of reflection in a certain moment of German idealist tradition as always dividing and objectifying the world over and against the subject. Just as important is reflection as entailing a mediation that makes subject and object indiscernible.[1] This, in fact, is the standpoint of “absolute reflection” as it is developed and defined by Hegel.

In an analogous manner, Deleuze discovers a postmodern immanence that underlies reflection. Such absolute immanence is not produced by reflection, yet it can be brought to consciousness and is made perceptible only by reflection. Here we encounter the apophatic that cannot be sublated into reflection because it shows up only in the aporias and failures of reflection. It emerges as such for Deleuze himself in the guise of baroque paradox and enigma—of what escapes mediation by

Self-Reflexivity and Self-Transcendence 245 thinking. It shows Scotus’s metaphysics cracking at its seams. As these connections themselves tend to hint, this apophatic dimension of consciousness disclosed through self-reflection and mystical experience cannot but be ambiguous in its expressions.


Daniel Colucciello Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

  • [1] Michael Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 9. 2 Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). 3 Dieter Henrich, “Hegels Logik der Reflexion,” Hegel-Studien 18 (1978), 203-324. 4 Gilles Deleuze, “L’immanence: une vie ...,” in Philosophie 47 (1995): 3-7.
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