Like : Jacques Lezra

Leonardo Da Vinci / Study of HandsLeonardo Da Vinci / Study of Hands

Like :
Jacques Lezra

Cher: “So, Okay, like right now, for example, the Haitians need to come to America. But some people are all “What about the strain on our resources?” But it’s like, when I had this garden party for my father’s birthday, right? I said RSVP because it was a sit-down dinner. But people came that, like, did not RSVP so I was like, totally buggin’. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, squish in extra place settings, but by the end of the day it was, like, the more the merrier!”1

[T]he most common and clearest example is furnished by the limbs of the human body, which are symmetrically arranged relative to the vertical plane of the body. The right hand is equal to, and like, the left hand [Die rechte Hand ist der linken ähnlich und gleich.] And if one looks at one of them on its own, examining the proportion and the position of its parts to each other, and scrutinising the magnitude of the whole, then a complete description of the one must apply in all respects to the other, as well.2

When I say that the word “like” is a political concept, I am taking advantage of the peculiar features of the English language, in which “like” serves a number of different grammatical and conversational functions, stands at the point of convergence of diverse etymologies, and gathers together (rather uncomfortably) levels of diction often kept apart by social, economic, and regional convention.3   In English, “like” may be a noun (“Fred is one of my likes”); an adjective; a verb; a preposition; or a semantically void marker of dysfluent, phatic communicative solidarity (“People came that, like, did not RSVP”). What makes “like” a political concept flows from the oddly unsystematic way in which these different uses come into relation to one another: they are like one another in a way that shifts how we must think, not only the concept of the concept, but about the concept of politics as well

Allow me to provide four of “like”’s registers, in order of increasing unlikeliness. I will close offering an example of how this unsystematic organization of the “likeness” of the registers on which “like” operates is politically staged, at the onset of European modernity, in one of its greatest cultural icons. The historical claim I will be making pertains to this nexus of cultural imagination and historical circumstance. This claim runs in three steps. First: The political, understood as a field of actions, identifications, desires, even of “likes,” organized around concepts and itself susceptible of conceptualization, has become a marker of modernity in thought and in administration. Second: On this description, concepts can be political, and politics can be conceived, on the basis of strictly modern notions of coherence and systematicity. Third: The limits and internal borders of these notions—of coherence and systematicity—may be approached systematically today through the defective concept that the word “like” gathers together.

Resemblance. When I say that “like,” like-as-resemblance, is a political concept, I first have in mind a strong view regarding resemblance. Let us say we agree that “This group of people has a common interest, let us say they are all interested in gaining access to land that will allow them to grow food, or to employment that will allow them to feed their families,” and that I am a member of that group. We share a “likeness” that is the condition upon which we enter into the class or the group; and whatever-it-is we share trumps what we do not share and allows me (at least) to overlook the differences I may note. We are all, we might say, hungry people, or people desirous of employment, or people (as Paul North, following Tarde’s critique of J.-J. Rousseau, has recently and marvelously shown) driven to “enliken” ourselves, each alone and all alike, each to the other—and this quality that we share is the condition on which we can be understood to be a class.5  It is the condition of our resemblance, the condition on which we can be grouped and our interests assessed, compared, and measured in a general economic frame: like with like. (I may want to weaken this account by noting, for instance, that we may not share a definition of “hunger,” or feel it in the same way, or attach it to the same things. On the weaker, Wittgensteinian, but more realistic view, “hunger” then works more like a family resemblance—like family likeness. “[B]y the end of the day,” Clueless’s Cher Horowitz says, “it was, like, the more the merrier!” A weakened account of the “like”-ness required to determine a class proves, in one Southern Californian classroom, the vernacular instrument of the liberal imagination.)

I say that “like” is a political concept, and I also intend something like this. When I mark off a class of actors or objects who have some commonality—let us call the actors an economic class, or a social class, or an interest group: the basic unit of political association; and let us call the group of objects that have something in common a set—I may say that the members of that class or group or set resemble one another, that they are “alike,” not just in sharing a quality (hunger, say) but also in this: that they belong to that class. Whatever differences I may want to note among them, whatever the specific quality we (or they) share, this at least will be true: they share a spectral resemblance to one another inasmuch as belonging-to-the-class or -set qualifies them in the same way. They are alike in that respect. “Likeness,” resemblance, is, on this description, a logical operator rather than a concept, strictly speaking—but a powerful one, whose abstractness can get us into trouble rather quickly. In both senses of “like”-as-resemblance, my “like” actors may not recognize that they are alike, but if they do they have at their disposal the lexicon of solidarity, even of fraternity, in which to express the recognition of their likeness, and with which to police the differences that may threaten it. (And a suitable weakening of this abstract relation will also be possible, as when I said just now that you and I “hunger.”)

Like with like.” I am now founding the second, abstract sense in which I say that this or that person is like another, upon a prior, qualitative likeness we share: we resemble one another in being hungry, or desirous of employment, or in “enlikening” (North) things in the world, including ourselves, to other things. We are first alike in this definitive and immanent sense, and then we may discover to one another the abstract relation we also share; being possessed of that quality is also an abstract relation. It is not just that you and I are both hungry, but that being-hungry means we also share in belonging-to-a-class. Here too we will have at our disposal the lexicon of solidarity, or of fraternity, in which to express this recognition of our likeness, and with which to control the differences that fringe it.

Appetite. When I say that the word “like” is a political concept, I may have in mind, in the second place, something quite different. In the first two senses, “like,” like-as-resemblance, functions as an adjective: I say, “the Ghost is like Hamlet’s father” or “I am like Fred, inasmuch as we both belong to the class of hungry people or people desirous of employment,” or “I am like Fred, inasmuch as we are both hungry, I can see that he is hungry or he has told me that he is.” “Likeness” is the substantive, or the concept, that subtends these “likes.” But say that I exclaim, “I like Fred!,” and use “like” as a verb. Here I mean either that I have affection for Fred or for the thought that Fred elicits in me, or that I enjoy the taste of Fred, as when I say that I “like” green beans. “Like”—verbal “to want” or “to have affection for” or “to enjoy”—now has a rather different value from, and is used on a different level of diction than, better-known political concepts. I may say, for instance, “I am hungry, I want food, I love my neighbor, or I desire employment.” “To want,” “to desire,” and “to love,” apparent synonyms for “to like,” are good, established grounds on which to build associations and collectivities; one’s identity may be tied to wants, to lacks, to desires, to loves. For instance, I mentioned, we are both hungry, that we want employment, or that we lack it, as the ground on which I may build my association with someone else. I might also say: I associate with you because we desire the same things, because we will not relinquish our desire. Or I may follow the Abrahamic Golden Rule, and love my neighbor as myself. To hunger for something, to lack it, to love it or to love someone, to desire it or to desire someone—these are all verbs that support phrases denoting a relation to a specific object or concept, which the class to which I belong can then demand of someone or some institution.

But “to like”? Isn’t it a bit like that famous Melvillean verb, “to prefer”? I “like” something, but it is a superfluity that I “like”: neither the act of “liking” nor the object I “like” seems serious, definitive. “Like” is gastronomic; it is a matter merely of taste; it speaks of the lowest form of aesthetic enjoyment. I like Fred, to be sure, but I also like coffee, and I like tea, dogs as well as cats. As for the class of people to which I belong inasmuch as we all “like” this thing or that, this class would seem most ephemeral: we “like” what we do not love, or desire, or want, whether in our physical lives or on social media. If “to like” is a political concept, or if the verb “to like” corresponds to a concept in this sense, it will be a concept hemmed in by stronger concepts that overshadow it. We like, verbal, when we are in the household of bourgeois appetites, where suburban miseries and affections live constrained, petty lives.

Or perhaps this is just wrong. Perhaps we should say: if this “like,” verbal “like,” the gastronomic near-synonym of “want” or “have affection for” or “love” or “enjoy,” is a political concept, it is in a sense of the term “politics” remote from the heroic vein in which most political association and most political identity are routinely claimed. This non-heroic sense of “politics”—the politics of those who “like” just “likable” objects, things, or ideas—may not be any less useful, or encompassing, or radical, or disturbing than the politics of the grand emotion or the great gesture—quite the contrary.

Differential liking. In the third place, when I say that the word “like” is a political concept, I may be stressing mere similitude, and using the term to distinguish “like” from a stronger form of identification: this is like that, but it is not identical with it. My right hand is like my left—but it is not the same. How do I establish that something is “merely similar” to something else? What faculties will I use to specify what’s different between things that resemble one another? Here, I am saying that “like” discovers a difference that may not be trumped or overlooked. The philosophical stakes are very high, indeed. Kant’s early essay “Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space” says: “The right hand is equal to, and like, the left hand. [Die rechte Hand ist der linken ähnlich und gleich.]” But they are not identical: the second, Kant continues, “is the incongruent counterpart of the first. In other words, if the hand in question is a right hand, then its counterpart is a left hand.”6  That my right hand is not the same as my left, but its incongruent counterpart, is something I can apprehend intuitively but cannot derive rationally from my perception of the two hands in space, since judgments of reason work just with the order of relations—similitude and equality imagined as nearness, Ähnlichkeit—on which they are, in fact, indiscernible.7   The distinction between reason and originary intuition, and between the sorts of objects proper to one and to the other, is the base of the critical project.

What is true of objects’ orientation in space is true (mutatis mutandis, that is, changing just what needs changing and leaving only what is like about the two situations) regarding political actors. Say that “I am like you” in this respect: inasmuch as we are both hungry and that we demand, together, that our needs be met. But we are not the same. We may even be alike in “liking” Fred, or in “liking” green beans. In fact, we may be alike in every way—we may share all properties—but still not be the same (The literature disputing Gottfried Leibniz’s Principle of the identity of indiscernibles stands behind me here—from Black’s 1952 “two spheres” argument forward.”)8   A simile will hold two terms in tremulous proximity, Ähnlichkeit, but the assertion of a metaphoric identity is never consummated: “Achilles is like a lion” in having a great mane of hair, in his valor, in his nobility, in being able to leap; but the word “like” calls up immediately an aspectual distinction between Achilles and the lion.9  Achilles is like a lion in this respect and that, but not in this other: not, for instance, in marching on four paws, or in allowing the female of the species to hunt for him, or in having a tail.

The aspectual distinction that “like” holds forth, and which the identity proposition of a metaphor or of a name hides, need not be quite so trivial as this aesthetic, Homeric example might imply. Indeed, one can organize an entire cosmology around this distinction between the assertion of likeness and the assertion of identity, as Thomas Aquinas does in Summa Theologica 1.13, “On the Names of God.” These are Aquinas’s famous words, which establish that “being,” existence, is the univocal, “universal ground” of “likeness” that permits other substantial, but equivocal, likenesses to be established among or discerned in actually existing beings. This univocal, universal ground produces its own likeness, the fact that existent beings exist, because it is univocal: and, in this sense, it is a likeness that precedes being-like-another-substance. It is, in short, the condition of transcendence, the ground of theology. This is the passage from Summa Theologica 1.13.5:

Although equivocal predications must be reduced to univocal, still in actions, the non-univocal agent must precede the univocal agent. For the non-univocal agent is the universal cause of the whole species, as for instance the sun is the cause of the generation of all men; whereas the univocal agent is not the universal efficient cause of the whole species (otherwise it would be the cause of itself, since it is contained in the species), but is a particular cause of this individual which it places under the species by way of participation. Therefore the universal cause of the whole species is not an univocal agent; and the universal cause comes before the particular cause. But this universal agent, whilst it is not univocal, nevertheless is not altogether equivocal, otherwise it could not produce its own likeness, but rather it is to be called an analogical agent [potest dici agens analogicum], as all univocal predications are reduced to one first non-univocal analogical predication, which is being.10

Political theology stands on the reticent relation of likeness that the sovereign bears to God: the sovereign is like God, but not in ways that humans can know fully, because God’s qualities are beyond us, and our terms for them are merely like the names God’s qualities would properly have. “[S]o the name of ‘lion’ applied to God,” Aquinas says, “means only that God manifests strength in His works, as a lion in his. Thus it is clear that applied to God the signification of names can be defined only from what is said of creatures.” “It is clear”—but how, and why? “The name of ‘lion’ applied to God” surely does not mean that God walks on all four paws (etc.); some attributes, and not others, are transferred from the animal to the divinity. And we must know, intuitively, what these must be; and we must have an intuitive understanding of God’s being that allows us to sort what attributes we should transfer and which we should not. This prior, intuitive understanding resembles nothing else, but is the ground for all likeness. How do we characterize it, how do we come near to it, how do we conceive it, what is like that which founds likeness? Here—as in Kant’s analysis of the intuitive apprehension of absolute space—we are at a loss for concepts. (I am ignoring cosmologies in which divinities have non-human shape—not to mention allegorical renderings of Aquinas’s tradition like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, where in any case Christ’s likeness to a Lion turns out to be merely his appropriate form in the “Shadowlands” of human history. After the Last Battle he has a different shape: “[As] He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them,” writes Lewis’s narrator.11 He “cannot write them”: in the end, he is at a loss for their concepts.)

There is more. What’s true for God is true broadly, again mutatis mutandis, again hewing to what’s like about the names just as names, about “Achilles,” “God,” “lion.” When God becomes a lion and when Achilles does; when we say “Achilles is a lion” or “God is a lion,” or when we say “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” we lose our guide along with the lost, aspectual “like” that would provide us with what Aquinas calls “proportionate likeness” among the aspects or attributes of each name. Now, when we must supply “likeness” where there is no “like” to indicate that we may do so, to indicate that we are licensed to do so; now, laboring under the weight of identity, we are required to provide, not just the aspects under which the similarity of the terms “God” and “Achilles” and “lion” or “chain” and “fetter more broadly construed” might fall, but also the figure of an identity without aspectual qualification: Achilles truly is a lion, when he is also manifestly not (there are aspectual differences between “Achilles” and “a lion”); man everywhere truly is in chains, when there are also and evidently men walking the streets, freely, whose manacles, real or mind-forged, we only imagine.

But how? How does the imagination work, just here? In what respect can something both be and not be something else? A different concept of identity is entailed than classically obtains in the logic of propositions, including propositions concerned with such ontico-political matters as citizenship, or representativity, or sovereignty. If Achilles can both be a lion and not be a lion, if “man” can both be in chains and not be in chains, then a citizen may also be a slave, and someone who hungers, whose political identity is that he belongs to the class of people whose hunger is definitive of their political standing, this person may also not hunger; a sovereign may be other than a sovereign at once; a king may have two bodies. When identity propositions are haunted by the difference of mere “likeness,” “like” is not only a political concept—it gives us the privileged figure of theologico-political subordination to a single, ghostly, univocal predication that stands, in sovereign silence, over all else. The specter of “likeness” provides the privileged figure of modern political language: the simile, the figure of aspectual relation, which is to say of a contracted and limited identification with another, or with a group. I am like you, inasmuch as we hunger for the same things or desire in common this or that thing. But I differ from you as well, and when our goals are achieved or when they are shown to be unachievable my elective (or accidental: in any case, contingent) association with you reaches its term, and we part ways, and I find myself like to and allied with another, for now, in this or that context and to one or another end.

Phatic and apophatic like. Finally, and in the fourth place, I would like to take the opportunity to shift registers and take us to the fantastic world of Southern California, where sociolinguists tell us that in the middle 1980s the word “like” spectacularly assumed a latent colloquial sense dating to the late 18th century, as a filler or “meaningless interjection or expletive” sometimes used “parenthetically to qualify a preceding statement.”12 This demotic “like” triumphs across, like, the whole United States, on the shoulders of mass-cultural representations of Southern Californian life. Sociolinguists from the 1990s forward distinguish between so-called “Focuser Like” and “Quotative Like,” though we can presume that the characteristic usages they designate precede the distinction substantially. “I got to the station,” I say to you, “I wanted to get on the train to Providence, and there were crowds of people coming to the conference, like blocking my way to the train, you know?” Here my “like” is intended to focus your attention on the important word in the otherwise cluttered phrase: I was blocked from getting on the train. I can imagine focusing your attention on a different spot, in the same phrase, “I wanted to get on the train to Providence, and there were, like, crowds of people coming to the conference, blocking my way to the train, you know?” Here it is the extreme unlikeliness that there would be crowds of people clamoring to attend the conference that I am stressing, of course. Or I might say, “And then yesterday, the organizer is, like, ‘Welcome to our conference!’” This, of course, is an example of ‘quotative’ like. Neither of these is, strictly speaking or at any rate not in the derogatory sense intended by the editors of the OED, a “meaningless” statement, as they both do work, even important work, in the sentences I have invented for you. What is more important, indeed, is the hieratic vehemence with which “meaning” is denied to the expression of this “like.”

I will not entertain you with further, poor imitations of Valley-Girl speak. My purpose is not only to project onto the long history of “like’s” philosophical, theological, and political uses the ghost of phatic filler or speech disfluency that the Valley Girl’s “like” allegorically represents, in my little story. What is of greater importance is that this, like, “meaningless interjection,” that this phatic, parenthetical pause for qualification, is associated with the Valley girl, that is, that the matter of “like’s” association with gender now comes before us just where the merely “meaningless,” the merely “parenthetical,” or the merely “interjective” value of “like” steps forth. (I say that it “now” comes before us because the matter of gender in likeness has been with us, a particular theo-political “us,” all along: Eve’s appetite brings not just difference, knowledge and self-knowledge, shame, a moral sense; but also God’s realization that “the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever . . . the lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken,” Genesis 3:22-23, KJV. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil bears the fruits of difference and of likeness, of “as-one”-ness.)

The most widely cited study of dysfluent, phatic “like,” by Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain, concludes in this way:

Like other pragmatic markers such as “you know” or “well,” “focuser like” and “quotative like” are associated with more informal speech styles, and may have picked up both the more negative and the more positive evaluations simply by that association. On the positive side, the use of like makes the speaker seem more ‘attractive,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘friendly,’ and ‘successful.’ However, it is also associated with the speaker seeming less ‘educated,’ ‘intelligent,’ and ‘interesting’ (although ‘intelligent’ and ‘interesting’ are not statistically significant) . . . . [T]he use of like tends to be associated with ‘solidarity’ traits, while the non-use of it is associated with ‘status’ traits. This is not unlike the use of other forms of language characteristic of vernacular speech, which often have negative connotations to a listener in terms of status, but which also emphasize solidarity between the speaker and the hearer and thus are to a certain extent positively-laden. Taking this one step further, if we think about these stereotypes in relation to gender stereotypes found in many western societies, it may be the case that ‘solidarity’ traits such as ‘attractiveness,’ ‘cheerfulness,’ and ‘friendliness’ are traits that it is viewed as more positive for women to have, while ‘status’ traits like ‘educatedness’’ are traits that it is viewed as more positive for men to have. Certainly this was the case in traditional male and female societal roles. This could go a long way toward explaining why non-linguists associate “like” with women’s speech—if the use of like is seen as augmenting stereotypical female traits, but diminishing stereotypical male traits, it follows that it might well come to be associated more with women than with men.13

Dailey-O’Cain’s claims do not concern any intrinsically “feminine” qualities that this or that word or part of speech might exhibit; her argument does not require us to imagine that young women are or are not likely to use a word or a part of speech more often than their adolescent male counterparts for any particular reason. Her conclusions bear instead on the association between the “meaningless,” “interjective” use of “like,” and the so-called “solidarity” traits that many Western cultures associate with women. On a first approximation, then, if we were to make this sort of “like” bear political weight, or bear weight as a political concept, we would want to stress “like’s” function in producing “solidarity.” Now, the notion of “solidarity” at issue in this sociolinguistic context may strike us as rather weak, as “liking” seems superfluous, merely gastronomic when compared to “desiring” or “loving.” Yes, “attractiveness,” “cheerfulness,” and “friendliness” may “emphasize solidarity between the speaker and the hearer,” but it’s a peculiarly contentless “solidarity.” Clueless’s Cher Horowitz goes, like, “like,” and achieves “solidarity”? Solidarity with respect to what? “Solidarity” in this sense is simply the agreement that yes, one is being “friendly,” or, even more neutrally, that one entertains a communicative disposition toward another rather than feeling fear, or hatred, or indifference. I say “like” in this sense, and I designate or I produce a kind of Rawlsian original position of communicative solidarity on which, according to neutral and mutually agreed principles, my interlocutor and I can build a fair society. In the lines I cited as an epigraph, Cher is arguing for the proposition that “All oppressed people should be allowed refuge in America.” “So,” she says, “Okay, like right now, for example, the Haitians need to come to America.” The “solidarity” she establishes with her classmates (who clap loudly for her) does not flow from the logical strengths of her argument, but from its analogical shape (Haitian refugees, her example, are like the extra guests at her father’s party; the US government should treat them as she did those guests: it should “redistribute” finite resources). The Valley girl’s “like” slows down status-speech, redistributes it, interrupts it even; like the gastronomic verbal “like” that I employ to state that I “like” Fred, it fringes upon the aesthetic. It is not so much, however, a matter of taste as it is a matter of time. Like the likeness that Eve introduces in Eden, this “like” marks a break, a caesura, a pause in the time of achievement, of ambition, of debate, of production. We do not know where it comes from, where it is going, what it is like. The Valley girl’s “like” is meaningless, which is to say that it is, on one description at any rate, unproductive, or, even worse, anti-productive. We are no longer in California, and we are no longer concerned with a specific sociolinguistic phenomenon: the shadow, or the ghost, of unproductive time falls between what is, and what is “like” it, as the ghost of aspectual “like” falls on any proposition of identity, including self-identity. “Solidarity” is another name for this shadow, or for its effects.

Let me pull things together in conclusion. I suggested at the outset that what makes “like” a strong political concept is the defective, unsystematic, even the incoherent way in which its different registers are organized today in relation to one another. To make this suggestion stick, you will have to agree that “like” works more or less as I have outlined in each of these registers that I have provided you, but also that each “like” works for each of these registers as the term of relation to the other registers on which “like” operates—and that it is precisely this double function that likens each of these “likes” to the others. This arrangement can, I think, be described formally with a degree of rigor, but for the purposes of concision I am going to rely on the more economical genre of the theatre to show you what I mean.

Here is the little trick I have been playing. I have been referring throughout to the “ghostly” effects of each of the “likes” I have been lining up, whose systematic unsystematicity I have been underscoring. I am doing this for rhetorical purposes, of course, but also in order to emphasize the connection that “likeness” has to a specific biopolitical, bio-theological register, in which sovereign power is invested in political subjects and transferred across generations, according to a familiar, familial principle tied classically to likeness to the father. The systematic unsystematicity of “like” reflects in part, and in part generates, crises in the application and in the understanding of that principle, crises that take institutional form in and at the advent of European modernity.

Here is my closing example.

We are on the battlements in Elsinore, where Horatio and the watch greet Hamlet and open the play on the question of the likeness between their recollection of the dead monarch and the appearance of his ghost. Look, Marcellus says, “There it comes again!”14 “In the same figure, like the king that’s dead,” Bernardo exclaims. “Looks it not like the king? mark it, Horatio.” And Horatio: “Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder” (I.1.41–45). Here it is the similarity of appearance between the ghost and the living king that Shakespeare’s characters intend to stress. If “like” is a figure, it is a figure tending not toward substitution but toward identity: “In the same figure, like the king that’s dead”; here, the “same figure,” the figure of sameness, is the figure of “like.” The stakes become clearer when we switch languages and lose “like’s” range. Take, as example, this translation of Hamlet in Castilian Spanish. In Moratín’s very early translation of Hamlet, from 1798 (published under the pseudonym “Inarco Celenio”), Bernardo does not say “In the same figure, like the king that’s dead,” but rather “Con la misma figura que tenía el difunto Rey,” and then, to Horatio, “¿No se parece todo al Rey?,” to which Horatio answers “Muy parecido es.” [Literally, “With the same figure [misma figura] as the deceased king had,” and then “Does not he resemble, in all [todo], the king?” Horatio: “He is very similar.”]15  Moratín’s translation drops the first “like,” rendered in Castilian just as having or possession, tener, and strengthens the claim of resemblance: todo, all of it, in every aspect, resembles the King. By 1905, Roviralta Borrell translates the same exchange differently. In this version, Bernardo says, “En la misma figura, y en todo parecido al Rey difunto” (“In the same figure, and in all things resembling the deceased king”) and Horatio answers Bernardo’s “¿No es cierto que se parece al Rey?” with the word “Exactamente.”16 Parecer, complicated and dense though the concept is (inasmuch as it brings together “resemblance” and mere “counterfeit”), does not cover all the register of “likeness”—hence perhaps the anxious insistence that the resemblance is indeed complete between the Ghost and the King—en todo parecido. On this lexical difference one could build a story regarding the political futures of the nations to which these languages are attached.

On the battlements, before the hour when the cock crows, likeness strikes the eye—in English; from this “like” flow the claims that the specter makes upon the living. To the extent that one generation truly resembles, is like, another, the state’s coherence is secured. Like passes to like, the ghost of sovereign authority carried upon genetic or other aspectual likeness. (Fortinbras may turn out to be more like Old Hamlet than Hamlet is.) In this sense, the play Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most searching consideration of the politics of likeness.

Hamlet himself is less sure that “likeness” of this sort secures the claims of the sovereign and the father—“The spirit that I have seen,” he says, “May be the devil: and the devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape” (II.5.551–553). He famously dithers; he offers a conception of man that takes up the matter of likeness, and finds it unsatisfactory, and lacking in delight. “What a piece of work is a man!,” Hamlet will exclaim. “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” (II.3.286–288). How like an angel; how like a god. That Hamlet then goes on to stress man’s disanalogy to both gods and angels and his dislike for man in general—and woman too—tells us how far he has moved from the battlements at the play’s opening, but also from the Thomist stress on the univocity of Being, the universal ground on which substantial, equivocal analogies stand. Finally, the grounds the play provides for Hamlet’s decision to seek revenge are not clear: the “likeness” of the ghost to his father alone is shown to be insufficient.

But this is already true on the battlements, where Shakespeare ties the incoherence of the concept of likeness both to doubts concerning the transmission of legitimate sovereign power and to the overdetermination of his medium. These are the lines I am remembering. Horatio is addressing Hamlet, explaining what he and the watch have seen in past nights:

HORATIO. Two nights together had these gentlemen,
Marcellus and Bernardo, on their watch,
In the dead vast and middle of the night,
Been thus encounter’d. A figure like your father,
Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe,
Appears before them, and with solemn march
Goes slow and stately by them: thrice he walk’d
By their oppress’d and fear-surprised eyes,
Within his truncheon’s length; whilst they, distilled
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did;
And I with them the third night kept the watch;
Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes: I knew your father;
These hands are not more like. (II.2.196–212)

“I knew your father; / These hands are not more like.” We know what Horatio must mean: this hand, my left for instance, is like this other hand, my right, say, in the way that the dead king is, or was, like the ghost. Proportional analogy stands on and in the actor’s hand, which gathers together the ways in which the play can resemble, be like, things living and absent, dead or unrepresentable things like sovereignty itself. The actor gathers them into a gesture and presents them so as to catch the conscience of the Prince, and of the play’s audience. But what does Horatio mean? Is the subject’s hand “like” the living prince’s hand in the way that the remembered King is like the ghost? Does proportional analogy still and always secure the bio-theo-political domain? Horatio’s gesture catches the theater’s dilemma: what is the actor’s body designating? What is the gesture like, what does it mime, of what is it a mimesis?”17 The demonstrative pronoun, what the hand and the tongue indicate, pitches the matter into the director’s lap: here, you do something with “these hands.” Neither the author’s hand, nor the hand of the player who copied these lines in the author’s hand for his use, will illuminate us; nothing beyond the demonstrative gesture is indicated; we do not know what it is like or what it differs-from, this gesture; in it, we fear or we feel, the likeness of the father’s ghost is not affirmed, but put into question; what it means to know the Prince’s father, to the extent that such knowledge is expressed as the knowledge of his likeness, of his figure, is also placed into question.

It helps not one bit that we know or think we know the work’s author, that we see or do not see here the hand of the writer or of the director: these hands that Horatio indicates, just here, are not like them in any way that can be read upon them. If I do not know whether this hand that I hold out, which holds together the system of proportional analogy that holds my theologico-political life in hand, if I do not know that this is my hand, then I also do not know your father, or my own, or myself. Marcellus says, about the Ghost: “Is it not like the king”? And Horatio answers: “As thou art to thyself.” Shakespeare’s, or Horatio’s, “like” places before us the spectacle of the disarticulating of the unitary conceptions of “like”-ness-to (and “difference”-from) on which sovereignty classically stands, and on which the concept of the concept stands classically. This disarticulating, and the rearticulating of the field of the political about the systematic unsystematicity, temporal, representational, logical, and political, of “like”-ness-to (and “difference”-from), are the two hands that the defective concept of “like”-ness holds out to us, like, today.

Published on September 30, 2023


Jacques Lezra is Professor of Hispanic Studies at University of California, Riverside


1. Clueless, dir. Amy Heckerling (Paramount, 1995).

2. Immanuel Kant, “Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space,” in Theoretical philosophy, 1755-1770, trans. and ed. David Walford and Ralf Meerbote (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 370; mod. trans.

3. In the second epigraph, Kant is offering an example “that the ground of the complete determination of a corporeal form does not depend simply on the relation and position of its parts to each other; but also depends on the reference of that physical form to universal absolute space” (Immanuel Kant, Theoretical Philosophy, p. 370). See also Immanuel Kant, “Dissertation on the From and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World” (De Mundi Sensibilis atque Intelligibilis Forma et Principiis ([1770]): “Which things in a given space lie in one direction and which things incline in the opposite direction cannot be described discursively nor reduced to characteristic marks of the understanding by any astuteness of the mind. Thus, between solid bodies which are perfectly similar and equal but incongruent, such as the left and right hands (in so far as they are conceived only according to their extension), or spherical triangles from two opposite hemispheres, there is a difference, in virtue of which it is impossible that the limits of their extension should coincide—and that, in spite of the fact that, in respect of everything which may be expressed by means of characteristic marks intelligible to the mind through speech, they could be substituted for one another. It is, therefore, clear that in these cases the difference, namely, the incongruity, can only be apprehended by a certain pure intuition.” (ibid., p. 396).

4. A very useful collection on the topic of analogy is Stella Vosniadou and Andrew Ortony, eds., Similarity and Analogical Reasoning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). For what I am calling “systematic unsystematicity,” see, esp., pp. 1–60 and 76–122.

5. Paul North, Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe: The Logic of Likeness (New York: Zone Books, 2021), p. 281: “Under the sway of this Tardean systematic of enlikening, human sociality, with its tendency toward replication and rereplication, in its meandering, dissipating, and yet relatively constant, asymmetrical, but always downward and outward distribution of likenesses, perhaps the most vital condition for sustaining a world-wide group in diaspora among itself—sociality itself, as a whole, comes to look like a bizarre-privileged item in the universe, a BPIU in its own right, and as such a good object for a homeotic science, after the fashion of butterfly wings, praying mantises, language, and anything.”

6. The bibliography on Kant’s analysis of orientation in space is substantial. I have been especially influenced by two philosophical outliers: Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) and Peter Szendy, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions, trans. Will Bishop (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013). For a sound account of the development of the notion of “incongruent counterpart” [inkongruente Gegenstücke], from Kant’s precritical essay “Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space” through the dissertation and later critical works, see Sven Bernecker, “Kant on Spatial Orientation,” European Journal of Philosophy 20:4 (2010): 519–533.

7. This point is controversial. For contrasting arguments regarding conceptualism in Kant, in particular the intuition of absolute space, see Colin McLear, “Two Kinds of Unity in the Critique of Pure Reason,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 53:1 (2015): 79–110 and Stefanie Grüne, “Sensible Synthesis and the Intuition of Space,” in Dennis Schulting, ed., Kantian Nonconceptualism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 81–98. For an influential intervention advocating for Kant’s nonconceptualism, see Lucy Allais, Manifest Reality: Kant’s Idealism and his Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). A particularly useful contribution to the bibliography on “nearness” (especially in comparative cultural studies) is Ähnlichkeit: Ein kulturtheoretisches Paradigma, ed. Anil Bhatti, Dorothee Kimmich, and Sara Bangert (Konstanz: Konstanz University Press, 2015). 

8. Max Black, “The Identity of Indiscernibles,” Mind 61 (1952): 153–64.

9. This is what Aristotle states on proportional analogy: “The simile is a metaphor too, since the difference involved is slight: whenever [the poet] says of Achilles, ‘And like a lion he rushed on,’ it is a simile, but when he says, ‘A lion rushed on,’ it is a metaphor. For since both [Achilles and a lion] are courageous, he addressed him [in the latter verse] by transferring ‘lion’ to Achilles . . . [S]imiles are metaphors lacking the [explanatory] account. But the metaphor based on analogy must always be reciprocally applicable and apply to either of the two things of the same genus. For example, if the drinking cup is a shield of Dionysus, then it is fitting to say that the shield is a drinking cup of Ares” (Rhetoric 3.4 [1406b 202–4, 1407a 13–17], cited in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, trans. Robert C. Bartlett [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019], pp. 167–168). See Jacques Derrida for an important analysis of the “dividend of pleasure” in Aristotle, that is, “the recompense for the economic development of the syllogism hidden in metaphor, the theoretical perception of resemblance.” Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1982), 239. For Derrida, “the energy of this operation supposes, nevertheless, that the resemblance is not an identity” (ibid.). A valuable collection, many of whose contributors study what Andrew Ortony calls “the role of similarity in similes and metaphors,” is Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 12. Besides Ortony’s own contributions, see in particular the essays of Max Black, Samuel R. Levin, Geroge Lakoff, and John Searle.

10. TThomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1947); available at For the Latin, I refer to Thomas Aquinas, Opera Omnia (Rome: Ex Typographia Polyglotta S.C. de Propaganda Fide, 1888), v. IV: 147; available at Aquinas is recalling the discussion of metaphor in Aristotle’s rhetorical works, but here he has in mind especially Aristotle’s influential formula from the Metaphysics: “Being has many meanings, but these are related to one thing [pro hen], not merely equivocal [ὁμώνυμος, homonymous] . . . . Meanings related to some one thing are in a sense univocal, and therefore the subject of one science” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. William D. Ross [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924], 4.2, 1003a 33–35; see also Ross’s careful commentary on pros hen in 1003a 33–35, p. 256). For an excellent recent account of the theological uses of analogy, see Andrew Davison, Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 171–197. A useful study relating Derrida’s work to Aquinas on analogy, and attending to this passage in particular, is Jacob Petrus Kruge’s “Transcendence in Immanence—A Conversation with Jacques Derrida on Space, Time and Meaning,” unpublished PhD dissertation, University of South Africa (9/2011:; available at On Medieval analogy, consult Earline Jennifer Ashworth, Studies in Post-Medieval Semantics (London: Variorum, 1985) and Les théories de l’analogie du XIIe au XVIe siècle (Paris: Vrin, 2008); Domenic D’Ettore, Analogy After Aquinas: Logical Problems, Thomistic Answers (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2019); Alain de Libera, “Analogie,” in Barbara Cassin, ed., Vocabulaire européen des philosophies (Paris: Seuil, 2004). 

11. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (Chronicles of Narnia VII) (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 228.

12. An excellent overview of “like”’s shifting senses, in John McWhorter, “The Evolution of ‘Like,’” The Atlantic, November 25, 2016; available at (last accessed December 26, 2022). For a comprehensive recent study, see Alexandra D’Arcy, Discourse-pragmatic Variation in Context: Eight-hundred Years of LIKE (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2017). See also Gisle Andersen, “The Pragmatic Marker Like from a Relevance-theoretic Perspective,” in Discourse Markers: Descriptions and Theory, ed. A.H. Jucker and Y. Ziv (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1998), pp. 147–70; and Gisle Andersen, “The Role of the Pragmatic Marker Like in Utterance Interpretation,” in Pragmatic Markers and Propositional Attitude: Pragmatics and beyond, ed. G. Andersen and T. Fretheim (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000), p. 79.

13. Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain, “The Sociolinguistic Distribution of and Attitudes toward Focuser like and Quotative like,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 4:1 (2000): 60–80, esp. pp. 75–76. Compare D’Arcy’s analysis of the “ideologically driven (mis)perceptions about [like’s] uses and users,” in Discourse-pragmatic Variation in Context (pp. 125–147), and especially her conclusion: “The discourse functions of ‘like’ are not simply a girl thing, a teenager thing, or some combination of the two (e.g. a Valley Girl thing), nor can it be said that they are a strictly American thing. By and large, these forms are everybody’s thing—and they have been so for quite some time” (ibid., p. 147).

14. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ed. Philip Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985; 2003); citations by Act, Scene, and Line.

15. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, trans. Leandro Fernández de Moratín, in Inarco Celenio, Obras dramáticas y líricas de D. Leandro Fernández de Moratín, entre los Arcades de Roma, Inarco Celenio, v. 4 (Madrid: Oficina del Establecimiento Teatral, 1840), pp. 8–9. The 1898 translation of Hamlet into Catalan, by Arthur Masriera (Hamlet Princep de Dinamarca, Barcelona: L’Atlántida), has “¡Igual figura/ Si, com la del rey mort!” “¡Y, guayta com s’assembla/ del tot, al rey!” and “¡Ohsi, s’hi assembla molt…!” (ibid., p. 15). It would be fascinating to follow through the history-in-translation of this scene; space does not allow it.

16. William (“Guillermo”) Shakespeare, Hamlet, príncipe de Dinamarca, tragedia de Guillermo Shakespeare, trans. José Roviralta Borrell (Barcelona: Antonio López, 1906), p. 15. I cite from the second, 1906 edition of the Roviralta Borrell translation (“esmeradamente corregida”) of 1905.

17. A subtle analysis of hand-writing in Hamlet (via Derrida and Heidegger) can be found in Jonathan Goldberg, “Hamlet’s Hand,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39:3 (1988): 307–327. For Goldberg’s argument that “the identity of the Ghost is confirmed by the identity of the hand,” see esp. pp. 111–112.