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|Thursday, May 5th, 2011|
|The Walking Wounded- A Play
A man and a woman, unnamed, facing each other on chairs, a light bulb between them. Intense light, the rest of the stage in darkness. As the action begins, they appear to be engaged in a particularly animated conversation. The man has evidently told a rather good joke. A loud, uproarious burst of laughter, which quickly dwindles into a series of periodic guffaws and subsides. Both stare into distant space, lost in a moment’s reverie. The man mumbles something under his breath, a reprise of the joke’s punchline. This is not so successful. The man and woman indulge in a bout of feigned mirth, before becoming embarrassed for themselves. An awkward pause. The man begins to contort his face into a variety of grotesque expressions, arousing an uncomfortable giggle from the woman. He then proceeds to wiggle his ears, edging them towards his wife for maximum comic effect. This garners a hearty chuckle. Pleased with the sincerity of this response, the man lapses into a self-satisfied conceit, baring a grin before the audience. He then proceeds to take off his coat. He drapes it around his chest and across his face, slouches into his chair and falls asleep.
The woman fumbles with the pleats of her dress with her left hand, while chewing nervously on her lower lip. Timorously, her feet edge towards his, only to withdraw from them several times. The man is scarcely breathing- he is perfectly inert, an anonymous mass of muscle beneath a plaid blanket. Finally, the woman summons the courage to tap the tips of her toes on his. There should only be the lightest contact, indicating a decision taken without resolve. The man is visibly distraught by this- the contact reverberates through his leg like an electric current, and the foot recoils behind the leg of a chair. In this awkward position, the figure of the man once more achieves a state of perfect repose. The woman, angered by this, raises her foot a few inches above the ground, and stomps on the man’s other foot. The man’s torso immediately assumes a rectilinear position, throwing the blanket off his face.
W: We do have a good time together, don’t we?
M: [incredulous and groggy] mrmmhmmm
W: All kidding aside though, my dear, do you love me?
M: My God, what does that have to do with anything? The man assumes a posture of righteous indignation, leaps off his chair, kicks it to the ground, wrestles with its legs and attempts to snap them off the frame. While doing this, he gnashes his teeth, clenches his fist and pounds the ground with impotent rage. After thumping the floor with a semi-convincing vehemence, the man begins to derive great gratification from this. He lies prostrate, face down upon the ground and bangs his fists against it with growing aggression, growling and flailing his legs in the air. Having exhausted his ire, he applies himself once more to the chair, punctuating each attempt with a savage bellow. Failing to break the legs, he decides to try his strength on the chair’s bars instead. This proves to be more successful- the chair’s age is revealed in the brittleness of these bars. He stands up, waves the bar in front of the woman and snaps it in two with a malicious glee. Following this, he turns his back towards her and stomps forward, gesticulating to the ceiling.
M: Is this just reward for the joke I just told? Is this a fair return for the gift I have offered, a gay coda to a (blissfully) tepid day? [crosses himself and looks towards the ceiling] For the few seconds we have stolen from tedium, a welcome reprieve, a few transports of joy for these asthmatic lungs? Have you no delicacy? Cowed by his eloquence, the woman casts a downtrodden look towards the ground.
F: Well, I’m sorry, darling, but it’s just that you haven’t said it in such an awfully long time. It wouldn’t hurt, would it, if you were to say it once more, that which has been said so many times in the past?
The man swivels himself about with great force and theatricality. His fury, while fearsome, borders upon affectation. He thrusts an accusing finger at the woman.
M: Your presumption, madam, is most noxious to me. Precedent promises nothing. You must not deduce…
W: Oh do, dear, please, just once, I need to hear you say it.
M:...deduce, from prior evidence, that the present is an adjunct of the past. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory.
This evidently touches a nerve, and the woman shoots a contemptuous glare at the man.
W: How could it be otherwise? Would I be sitting on this wretched chair, in this wretched hovel, laughing at your smutty jokes had I not imagined, once long ago, that things would be otherwise?
M: Explain. I am in the dark. The woman, having gained ascendancy in this confrontation, draws herself up to a formidable height.
W: The chain of causality runs thus, observe: Now. [looks at watch] 8:34 pm. May 14th. The year of our lord Anno Domini Two Thousand and Nine. Arse on moldering stool. [The woman takes out a roll of measuring tape from beneath her skirt, measures the width of the stool, then proceeds, with some difficulty, to measure the circumference of her ample backside] Width of stool seat: 11 inches precisely. Girth of arse: 13 inches. Warts on left cheek. Splinters in right. Sawdust shack with mildewed walls. Vermin problem. Malodorous outhouse. Fine. Inventory taken every day. Inventory found to be generally satisfactory. Just. Why? The woman stares intently at the man.
M: Why? However should I know?
W: Three words, uttered with irresistible conviction and reassuring frequency over the span of a decade. A deluge of devotion. A torrent of tenderness. An avalanche of affection. What lass could resist? [blinks rapidly, eyes aflutter, hands on breast, film forms on dreamy eyes. Reverie subsides, woman scowls and forms fist with both hands] And then none. The faucet of forsworn fidelity, run dry!
The man, flabbergasted, can do little but stare at his wife, mouth agape.
W: Would I be here without your pledges and your platitudes? Your vows and vouchsafings? Your concupiscent confidences? For all of this I ask no recompense, but three words. From you, the most meager of offerings, you, who was once so good with words!
M: Was! Once! Was! Once! Ah, blessed past tense, blessed, hallowed, sacred past tense. Is it gone now, truly? [Man gets down on one knee, clasps both hands upon the woman’s arm and shakes it fervently] Say it once more, I need to be certain that it has passed. Say it, say!
W: The most gifted poet of his decade, the foremost wordsmith of his age, leader of the Post-Post-Renovationists, feted by the right, the left and the incurably apathetic, darling of the academies and the Fair Trade Cafes, at my feet!
M: [derisory] That was a sight to behold, I trust.
W: [turns to audience] And his very best poems, epistles to me! Observe. The woman lifts the fringes of her skirt, unveiling a plethora of knick-knacks. This extraordinary trove is evidently a repository for all manner of sentimental items. Hidden in the ruffles is a bulging, frayed pouch, stuffed with yellowed papers and torn envelopes. These papers are slightly moist.
W: “Thick rivulets of jet, a billowing crepuscular surge…”
M: Yes, reading Baudelaire can do that to you, I’m afraid…
W: “My ardor glows with the will-o-the-wisp!”
M: [Turns to audience with exaggerated grimace] Edgar Allen rears his ashen brow!
M: [Holds nose, facing audience] Pah, it reeks of Rimbaud! Mentholated metaphors that barely cloak the stink! [pause] Look, need you remind me of all my falterings! Of my borrowings? Of my scrapings from the symbolist cistern? That mucus from the surrealist spittoon! You want more of these, these…abortions?
W: [Presses pathetic scraps to her breast with touching solicitude, stroking the ends with her raw fingertips] They’re the most beautiful lines I know.
M: [affecting an academician’s air] Your ear, I fear, is irreparably damaged.
W: [waves moist papers in air, begins to bawl] Lies? Lies?
M: Listen. Every day you learn. Learning is losing. Every day you must learn to lose. Will to lose. BEG to lose. Man is a damp snotrag that must be wrung. A moist faggot that is not yet fit for burning. Words, they moisten. They lubricate the pistons of life, they grease up the sprockets so the world can steamroll over our ribs. The everlasting treadmill. I WANT OUT! I WANT OFF! I WANT TO VEGETATE IN SILENCE! [looks anxiously at woman, imploring her to understand] Listen to me. Listen, or you won’t have understood a thing. Not a thing.
W: [tearfully] Why write? Why speak?
M: Bloodletting. The pen is a spear in my side. A tourniquet. I want every poem to be a wound. I want each verse to tear an artery open. So that I need no longer feel this compromise, this surrender in my veins. I’ve had enough of saline words, of pustulent words, of insecticide words, of iodine words, of muskrat words, of bacterial words sprawling with silverfish, an endless fungal bloom, sprouting, sprouting, acrid yeast fermenting in every orifice, sprouting, sprouting, a milky moss coating the tongue, sprouting, sprouting, SPROUTING… The man begins to scrape at his tongue desperately with his fingernails, and in his delirium he begins to feel quite ill. He covers his mouth and excuses himself, stumbles forward and lands on his knees. The woman, wrenched from her fit of pathos by the sight of her ailing lover, reflexively springs to her feet and attends to him in a moving, but rather abject fashion. She strokes his back with great affection, subduing her despair. The crumpled poems are still pressed to her breast; her arm is stiff, clutching desperately at the papers. The man turns to her with alarming suddenness, seized by an inexplicable frenzy.
M: More words? More words? To muffle the thud of the piledriver? To drown the sound of bludgeoning? To silence the endless WHIRRRR of the meat tenderizer? It flays the flesh, it flays the flesh, it makes a mockery of our maunderings and melodramas… The man is mortified by his speech, his face blanched by a hideous terror. He begins to choke, gagging on his own grandiloquence. Chest heaving, the man gets to his feet, eyes bulging from their sockets. The man begins to wheeze, lungs desperate for air. He stumbles to stage right, right arm stretched towards the audience.
The woman instinctively takes to her feet and begins to move awkwardly towards the man, only to trip over the voluminous ruffles of her skirt. Neither the man nor the woman is particularly adroit. Her right arm thrusts beneath her to guard her fall; her left arm remains pressed firmly to her chest, fist wrapped tightly around the poems. She hits the floor with a thud, surprised that her left arm remained rigid throughout her descent. The left arm has evidently assumed a life of its own, dislocated from the rest of the body. The right arm begins to claw at the left, attempting to rouse it. With effort, the woman manages to bring her left arm down to her belly. Pressing the left forearm down with her right elbow, she wraps her left arm between her legs, holding it in place as she begins to prise her fist open. In her solicitude for the man, she had forgotten what the fist enclosed. When she discovers its contents, she is delighted. Her eyes indicate her surprise, and she begins to unwrap the crumpled balls of paper with her right hand. Her left arm, intransigent as ever, remains lodged between her hips. As she reads the poems to herself, she lapses into a state of complete transfixion, occasionally lifting her eyes from the parchment, only to lose herself to a distant reverie. She begins to mumble certain verses to herself, reciting them as though they were a mantra, an incantation. The man begins to gasp loudly on stage right, right fist thumping his chest with pronounced violence. As the volume of his expectorations escalates, the woman’s voice grows louder, shriller. What results is an awful cacophony, a discordant mix of groans, yelps and syncopated speech, as each voice attempts to smother the other. As this reaches its apex, the man crawls towards the woman and begins to howl volubly into her ear. The woman, unperturbed, continues to drown his shrieks with bellowed verse.
The man is overwhelmed. Defeated, he retreats to his chair, drapes his coat over his face and once more assumes the posture of sleep. His right arm reaches towards the light bulb and pulls at the switch. Darkness. The woman’s voice subsides into a vague mumble, punctuated with tearful gulps. The voice continues to soften, until it becomes a spectral whisper. Silence. Nothing is heard for a space of a minute or two.
The man’s right arm reaches once more for the switch. The stage is illuminated once more. The woman’s back is on the ground, her right palm covering her face. Her left arm remains between her hips. This is, of course, an extraordinary posture to assume. The poems, crumpled into small balls, are scattered around her. The man peeks timorously beneath his coat to gauge the gravity of the situation. Feigning apathy, he wraps the coat tightly around his face and turns the light off once more. Darkness.
In the course of a minute, the light goes on and off periodically, as the man wrestles with his inclination to respond to the woman. He decides to leave the light on. The arm relinquishes the light switch and casts the coat off the man’s face. The man falls to his knees and moves cautiously towards the woman. This is a slow and excruciating process- the man is checked numerous times by reticence, pride, bashfulness. He looks behind him several times, casting his gaze longingly upon the chair, the coat. As he does this, he stumbles upon her, falling upon her body. He begins to kiss her, his lips moving across her right arm, towards her cheek. His kisses are saturated with desire and apology. The woman lowers her right palm, brings her left hand to his cheek. They stare at one another. Their lips meet.
|Wednesday, April 27th, 2011|
|The Extinction of the Negative: Megamind with Mouffe, Schmitt and Gaddafi (1/3)
In Dreamworks’ latest feature-length animation, Megamind, the viewer is thrust into a Manichean world balanced by two polar forces, a world pivoting around an axis of Good and Evil. The eponymous protagonist of the film is an archetypal evil genius with a prodigious cranium and a remarkable faculty for science and technology, who spends much of the opening third of the film contriving plots to defeat his arch-nemesis, a squeaky-clean epigone of Superman named Metroman. In a rapid recapitulation of their respective origins, Megamind reveals that the two of them- like Kar-El in Superman and Ka-ka-rot in Japan’s Dragonball series- are refugees from vanished planets, having been catapulted to earth in their infancies. Megamind then proceeds to reconstitute the chain of causality that led to his notorious career- having landed in the yard of a penitentiary, young Megamind soon falls in with a band of infamous criminals, some of whom take it upon themselves to educate him in the rudiments of brigandage. On the other side of the spectrum, Metroman lands at the door of an affluent Metrocity household, where he spends a painless suburban childhood impressing his friends with his peerless strength and good looks.
Megamind- as befitting a blue-skinned, hyper-intelligent mutant thrown into the jungle that is the grade school playground- is taunted and excluded for his awkwardness as much as his bookishness. Having realized that his only talent lies in contriving elaborate mathematical models and manufacturing machines of mass destruction, Megamind resolves to put his talents at the service of high villainy. What is fascinating about this is that Megamind is not- as Kant might suggest- marked by some primordial decision of radical Evil; evil is not encoded in his genetic makeup as an incipient strain that is striving towards realization. Rather, it is Metroman whose destiny seems to have been allotted to him by fate- Metroman is an incorruptible force of Good, and it is this unadulterated goodness that renders him utterly unsympathetic to the viewer. In contrast to this, Megamind derives from pure contrarianism- it is an ethical posture that he adopts to distinguish himself from those who, in standing alongside Metroman, declare their antipathy towards him. What results is a lifelong feud between Metroman, who grows up to become Metrocity’s champion of justice, and Megamind, whose diabolical schemes to defeat his foe often come to naught.
What strikes one immediately at the outset of the film is the ludic character of this conflict, wherein both sides approach one another as players in a formalized, ritualized and interminable game. It is almost as though one were watching a comic enactment of Lacan’s logic of desire, where the prospect of victory is merely a pretext for an extravagant series of lures, feints, snares and challenges. One gets the sense that neither wants to annihilate the other. Neither wants to win. Rather, it is this perpetual pursuit of the Other, this circuit of reciprocity and response that keeps desire alive. Amplifying the theatrical aspect of these combats is the fact that all of this is televised and rendered as spectacle for an admiring public. Metroman, like any charismatic celebrity who serves as a conduit for our vicarious desires, is transfigured into an image and an avatar, a sublime object that crystallizes all of the noumenal aspects of ‘Metrocityness’. In Lacanian speak, Metroman is the ‘quilting point’, the transcendental signifier that- in incarnating the essence of Metrocity and ‘assuming the dignity of the maternal Thing’ (Zizek)- holds the collective together and shields it from chaos and dispersion.
It is this coherence, symbolized in vague ideals like ‘justice’ and ‘goodness’, that Metroman holds together. Complicating matters is the fact that Metroman’s grasp of these ideals are hardly more concrete than those of his fellow citizens. Rather, he takes delight in embodying this emptiness, so much so that he, like Narcissus, becomes fascinated with the vacuity of his own image. In a telling scene, Metroman unveils a titanic statue of himself, built to commemorate the opening of a museum memorializing all of his crimefighting exploits. In a very real sense, the history of Metroman, insofar as its archives the community’s persistence against the ever-present threat of absolute Evil, is the history of the city. Like Nasser, Hitler, Khomeini, Chavez, Castro or Mao, Metroman is the populist icon, the objet petit a whose sublime presence galvanizes, condenses and gives corporeal form to the longings of a people.
What undermines Metroman’s seemingly unblemished goodness, then, is the reflexive sense of enjoyment that he seems to derive from playing himself in the ongoing pantomime that he stages with his partner, Megamind. A living cliché, Metroman’s dramatic repertoire has been honed and perfected through years of practice- he utters vapid superhero mantras by rote, accentuates these oratorical effects with plenty of muscle-flexing, newspaper-friendly posturing and sweeping, overwrought gestures. Metroman, to paraphrase the existentialists, is a hero-for-others, and he lives his reality as such, experiencing it through the eyes of his adoring audience. The struggle between the two, in a certain regard, is a struggle to occupy this position, to attain to being by becoming an object of unconditional love. At the same time, Megamind seems to develop a masochistic fixation with failure- for a time, Megamind seems content with being a foil for Metroman’s incandescent brilliance. The reason for this almost symbiotic dependence upon the Other is not difficult to discern- both seem dimly aware that the vanquishing of the Other would deprive them of their raison d’etre: the presence of a well-defined, undefeatable enemy makes Metroman indispensable to Metrocity, while Megamind’s entire existence would fall apart if his quest for revenge were satisfied. Derrida’s logic of the ‘constitutive outside’ is entirely apposite here- the identities of both sides are derived negatively, in contradistinction to the Other. The crucial thing to note about Metrocity is that- for all of the apparent dissymmetry between Metroman and Megamind- the logic of Manicheanism that characterizes this world necessitates the indestructibility of both sides. The conflict between them, then, is never-ending, but- in demarcating the battle lines between them and formalizing the rules proper to adversaries- this conflict supplies coherence and sense to the world that they inhabit.
This is, of course, until the unspoken entente between them is breached by an inadvertent victory. Megamind constructs a death ray that will concentrate all of the heat of the sun into a burst of light, only to discover- by a combination of incompetence and blind chance - that Metroman’s Achilles heel is actually the exact opposite: darkness. Nevertheless, Megamind fires the ray at Metroman, which reduces him to ash upon contact. The rest of the movie, then, revolves around Megamind’s pathetic attempts to acclimatize himself to life after Metroman, as he wrestles with the disbelief, self-pity and melancholia that set in following the loss of his object of desire. Having eliminated the city’s living guarantee against anarchy, Megamind and his assistant, Minion, endeavor to plug the gap in their lives by looting the Louvre of all of its masterpieces and filling their chambers with all manner of goods. As one might expect, gluttony and debauchery do little to lift Megamind’s spirits. Even bouts of mindless destruction, the wanton devastation of Metrocity’s infrastructure and the terrorizing of its population fail to cure him of his despondency. We are well aware that he did not pursue a life of crime because of rapacity, hatred or a will to power, but because he needed some sort of ontological consistency in his existence. Disconsolate, Megamind founders in a mire of nihilism and regret, ruminating on the irrevocable loss of meaning, the absence of an enemy whose threat to one’s being gave one an impetus to struggle for one’s survival.
Surely, the movie would be rather dour if it simply ended at this point. What reinvigorates the film is a sudden flash of inspiration- Megamind will invent a new enemy by injecting an unsuspecting Metro-citizen with Metroman’s DNA and training him to combat crime. In that way, the game could be resumed for all time, and a cosmic purpose could be brought back to a decrepit universe. The recipient of this awful boon is a nerdy, overweight cameraman whose repeated overtures to the sole female character of the film- a TV reporter who will emerge as a trophy that each of the male ‘heroes’ desire to possess- are rebuffed with unerring cruelty. Megamind’s fatal mistake, of course, lies in entrusting this awesome power to a man blinded by ressentiment and megalomania- instead of dedicating himself to the defence of Metrocity, Megamind’s creation sinks the city into deep disorder, as he wreaks havoc on the metropolis in a fit of blind rage. To make matters worse, Metroman resurfaces, only to declare that he feigned his own death, weary of the burden that he had shouldered for so many years. Bowing out of the superhero game, Metroman refashions himself as ‘Musicman’, an Elvis-styled bluegrass raconteur. Metroman’s parting words for Megamind are a self-fulfilling interpellation: every evil invokes the good that will defeat it. By passing the mantle to Megamind, Metroman shatters the transferential relationship that bound them together, leaving Megamind alone with the destitution of decision. True to form, Megamind, spurred by his burgeoning love for the news reporter, fights a cataclysmic duel with his own monster, one which almost reduces the city to ruins. Naturally, he wins, and in a fitting turn of events, the Metroman museum is replaced with a state-of-the-art Megamind equivalent. The reporter plants a wet kiss upon his protuberant dome, confirming his homecoming- the pariah has finally found a place in the world.
How are we to read this rather epic cartoon, and, more importantly, what does this have to do with cosmopolitanism? I would suggest that this seemingly innocuous piece of animation can be taken as a complex allegory of the long twentieth century, as well as a stark portrait of our own time. It’s all here: the abrupt end of the Cold War, the near-spontaneous collapse of the Soviet Union, the West’s astonishment at the crumbling of a nemesis that had- once upon a time- threatened to engulf the world and transform the course of history, the creation of a new enemy (in both a physical and ideological sense) in the Afghan mujahiddin. Like the Soviet Union, Metroman was a catalyst, a symbol for an admiring public, a beacon of reason and progress in times of barbarism and depravity. As Eric Hobsbawm shows in his most recent work of Marxist historiography, How To Change The World, Bolshevism after World War I had, for many disenchanted Europeans who felt disgusted with the miseries of capitalist ‘civilization’, inherited the legacy of the Enlightenment from the Western world, and would gain considerably more prestige when it led the vanguard of anti-fascist struggle. Despite its crippling assumption of autarky, the relentless productivity of the Soviet Union had led many begrudging commentators to believe that the cleaving of the world into two antagonistic halves could very well be a permanent state of affairs. Like the Soviet Union, whose downfall was precipitated by the development of the information economy, the demands of which the monolithic, centralized command economy could hardly hope to meet, Metroman was defeated by the most infinitesimal of factors. The productivist economism that supplied the scaffolding of the Stalinist project could scarcely hide the discontents that had irrupted in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, exposing the manifold resentments that were burgeoning amidst men and women who were tired of shouldering the mandates of history. The breaking apart of the Soviet Union and the fatal ‘shock treatment’ that Jeffrey Sachs and his IMF cowboys applied to Russia- the first among many future operations- foreshadowed the fate of the neoliberal world, one that would see the emergence of innumerable ‘nations’ through internecine and sectarian strife, almost always aroused and abetted for political gain, and the mass privatization of the commons for the benefit of oligarchic mandarins.
The film’s diagnosis of the post-Cold War order goes further- what happens when capitalism is, as the saying goes, the ‘only game in town’? As recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have shown, the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a reservoir of foreign aid and arms makes a world of difference in the foreign policy of nation states, and these paradigmatic shifts can engender some rather peculiar political and economic contradictions. In the case of Egypt, the humbling blow inflicted to Nasserism in the imperialist-backed war with Israel and the waning of pan-Arabic aspirations in the twilight years of Nasser’s reign paved the way for Sadat’s intifah to the market, opening gates that Nasser had sealed shut, clearing the way for the depredations of the market. Mass privatization of land, the shattering of Nasser’s corporatist-unionist structures that mediated between the central state structure and constituencies on the ground, the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite- these are features that we have become rather familiar with over the last two decades. Factor in the debacle of Camp David, and the humiliation, despair and rage that characterized life in Mubarak’s Egypt will come into relief. As a central piece in America’s half-realized plan to weave a free trade zone (bound by FTAs) in the Middle East and the Gulf states, Mubarak’s Egypt made their reconciliation with Israel official by throwing in their lot with the War on Terror and housing a number of Qualified Industrial Zones, intensive sweatshop sites that had duty-free export access to America’s consumer market on the condition that Egypt opens itself up to Israeli goods by importing a mandatory quota of Israeli products every year. Little wonder that Egypt, the border of which has always been crucial for Palestinian insurgency, has cringed at the thought of Israeli camaraderie, let alone Israel’s transparent desire to seize the scepter that Nasser once held aloft, claiming that it alone can man the helm in the Middle East.
In Libya, the bewildering concatenation of events that have transpired over the last few weeks would confuse most observers, though a consideration of Gaddafi’s legacy in the light of a longue duree would help to illuminate matters. Gaddafi, as Gilbert Achcar rightfully notes in his recent interventions in the Libya debate, has always been a rather enigmatic figure, not least among his fellows in the Arabic and Islamic world. Modelling himself on Nasser’s Free Officers Movement of 1952, Gaddafi fused a penchant for oratorical utterances (he did, after all, produce a ‘Green Book’ to announce his affinities for Mao and Kim Il-Sung style grandstanding) with a rather haphazard political approach. Gaddafi’s studied mimicry of Mao and Nasser culminated in a Cultural Revolution-style upheaval where, following a wave of indiscriminate nationalizations (even hairdressers were not spared), he baptized Libya as a ‘State of the Masses’, effectively confiscating the right to strike (if the state is, as the name says, a state OF the masses, a consummate realization of the popular will, any dissent is logically construed as being counter-revolutionary) and embedding police/informant apparatuses in workplaces and universities by setting up ‘revolutionary councils’ akin to Red Guard units. As we know, the support of the Soviet Union, which had grudgingly supplied arms and aid to this rather erratic and grandiloquently anti-American charge, made Gaddafi a pin-up for anti-imperialist forces the world over- Ronald Reagan, who dubbed Gaddafi “the mad dog of the middle East”, personally ordered a bombing of Gaddafi’s house, one which claimed his daughter. The dissolution of the Soviet Union would lead to a swift swing to the West, opening up the Libyan oil fields to the likes of Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil while transforming Libya into a greenfield for foreign investment, keeping wages of his own people down by hiring massive numbers of migrant laborers (among whom many are, like myself, Chinese) and short-circuiting working class dissent by following the textbook stratagem employed by English capitalists on their unemployed countrymen, setting them against the Irish migrants who were allegedly taking their jobs. This ploy, the oldest and the most effective trick in the playbook, has been wielded to devastating effect by every unscrupulous politico, from Sadat (whose harnessing of the Muslim Brotherhood, persecuted and criminalized by Nasser, to undo and uproot all the structural and organizational underpinnings of Nasserism led to his own assassination) to Mubarak (whose security ministers repeatedly instigated confessional conflict between Coptic Christians and Muslims by setting churches and mosques on fire) to Saleh and Gaddafi, whose alliances with a loyal coalition of tribes lead them to underdevelop other areas of their countries (the Libyan East and the Yemeni South).
Sadly, sections of the anti-capitalist Left continue to back stooges like Gaddafi, who manages to beguile supporters and foreign admirers alike with his cryptic, superficial rhetoric, peppered with populist denunciations of the Great Devil, the United States and its international syndicate of servile clients. This has been the story with every great populism of the 20th century, whether this assumes the form of radical Islamism (the Ayatollah Khomenei and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 being the archetype of political Islamism premised on the restitution of the shari’a), the doddering Castroism (Raul planning on taking the ‘Chinese path’ of capitalist accumulation to revive Cuba’s fortunes) or the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, the former of which obscures his honoring of oil contracts to the United States by fuming denunciations of it. Elsewhere, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad does a hackneyed impression of a dedicated anti-imperialist and an impassioned defender of an emancipatory revolution while he solicits the open partisanship of Ayatollah Khamanei in crushing the non-violent Green Movement. Obama woos an apathetic student body and politicizes a large proportion of the youth in the United States for the first time in a recent memory, only to exhibit an astonishing lack of will in a multitude of areas, missing the opportunity to institute a ‘new New Deal’ following the financial meltdown, compounding matters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, dragging his feet with Guantanamo Bay, failing to make any significant strides towards a greener, more sustainable economy and disappointing the electorate by reneging on vague promises to reform the healthcare system and deliver Americans from the despotism of private insurance and pharmaceutical companies. China, meanwhile, permits the press to flatter its vanity by pointing to it as the spearhead of a BRIC-led capitalism, all the while knowing that it cannot- at the present moment at the very least- assume the reins that America seems to be relinquishing. Besides, the symbiotic relationship between the two countries (and, indeed, between ALL of the extant capitalist economies and the United States, making the massive bailout and ‘quantitative easing’ plan unfurled by the US a local intervention with global benefits) is common knowledge to anyone who reads the business papers. All of this was captured very well when Luo Ping, director-general at the China Banking Regulatory Commission, spoke at the Global Association of Risk Management’s 10th Annual Risk Management Convention, laying bare the coordinates of a post-Bretton Woods, post-Gold Standard economy pegged to the US dollar: “Except for US Treasuries, what can you hold? Gold? You don’t hold Japanese government bonds or UK bonds. US Treasuries are the safe haven. For everyone, including China, it is the only option. We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion [$1,000bn-$2,000bn] . . .we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do.” Much as they would like to follow sanguine economists the world over and ‘decouple’ from their fatal dependency on the US (something that China is, admittedly, setting as a long-term target), at the present moment There Is No Alternative.
Nationalism, in the long march of modernity, was typically a state-led, secularist project that fostered an ‘imaginary community’ above and beyond regional, tribal and ethnic divides, producing citizens that would rally to a flag and shed tears at the rousing sound of an anthem. Today, it is more often than not a smokescreen that obscures the unanimity of the world order on the fundamental prerogatives of the world market, the terms of which are- unless we give credence to Hardt and Negri’s highly problematic suggestion that Empire is a centre-less, multilateral network of power- largely dictated by the United States and its various disciplinary arms, among which are (naturally) the IMF and the World Bank. If this is tedious and repetitious, if this is a mere recantation of tired imperialist chestnuts that everyone has spouted since the Vietnam War, outmoded theoretical baggage that we should throw overboard in favor of a sexier, sleeker model more in keeping with liquid modernity, then it is simply because imperialism- as the combined and uneven development of the world economy in favor of certain centers of command and its willing clients- is not a problem that is going away anytime soon. In fact, the interventionist debacle in Libya is the clearest possible expression of this. Mammon, always hungry for cheap oil, faces a long-term volatility of oil supply and prices in the simmering political climate of the Arabian Spring. Worse, what would happen if some overzealous upstarts got it into their heads to nationalize their oil wealth or form a federated regional union that operates on solidaristic, socialist principles of wealth-sharing, taking bolder steps than their Latin American confreres in the Bolivarian bloc? What goes under the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is simply an effort to have business carry on as usual, without the pesky hiccup of politics jamming up the works.
And it is this disappearance of politics that Megamind takes up in an oblique, tangential way. When Megamind laments the lack of an enemy to struggle against and the sterilizing, stupefying effects of a world wherein the negative has been entirely extirpated in lieu of a frictionless utopia, it is almost as though he were invoking Carl Schmitt on the one hand and Jean Baudrillard on the other. Here, I would posit, is precisely where Megamind puts itself forward as a scathing critique of any theory of ‘cosmopolitanism’ that premises itself upon a certain appropriation of Kant, whether this assumes the form of a modified Rawlsian theory or a Habermasian dream of ideal speech situations. To show how this is so, it would be prudent to refer to Chantal Mouffe, whose brilliant readings and confrontations with Schmitt deftly underline the problems with these neo-Kantian approaches, which attempt to evacuate the contingency at the heart of the political in favor of the procedural, operational mode of ‘politics’ so common in our times of consensus.
In Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox, Mouffe takes up a classic antinomy that Schmitt put forward as a critique of liberal democracy. For Schmitt, the term ‘liberal democracy’ is this paradox, and it is an insupportable one: “Schmitt asserts that there is an insuperable opposition between liberal individualism, with its moral discourse centered around the individual, and the democratic ideal, which is essentially political, and aims at creating an identity based on homogeneity. He claims that liberalism negates democracy and democracy negates liberalism, and that parliamentary democracy, since it consists in the articulation between democracy and liberalism, is therefore a non-viable regime…In his view, when we speak of equality, we need to distinguish between two very different ideas: the liberal one and the democratic one. The liberal conception of equality postulates that every person is, as a person, automatically equal to every other person. The democratic conception, however, requires the possibility of distinguishing who belongs to the demos and who is exterior to it; for that reason, it cannot exist without the necessary correlate of inequality.” (Mouffe, 39)
What Schmitt means when he points out this essential incompatibility between liberalism and democracy is that liberalism is not a politics, while democracy is a patently political concept, one which (for whatever reason) has- in our Western polities- been bound up with liberalism for so long that we hardly notice their radical difference. More than this, Schmitt proposes that liberalism is an anti-politics, one which nullifies the properly political moment of democracy and displaces it into other areas of social life: “In the domain of the political, people do not face each other as abstractions but as politically interested and politically determined persons, as citizens, governors or governed, politically allied or opponents- in any case, therefore, in political categories. In the sphere of the political, one cannot abstract out what is political, leaving only universal human equality…[in liberalism inequalities] would shift into another sphere, perhaps separated from the political and concentrated in the economic, leaving this area to take on a new, disproportionately decisive importance. Under the conditions of superficial political equality, another sphere in which substantial inequalities prevail (today for example the economic sphere) will dominate politics.” (Schmitt, quoted in Mouffe, 41-2) Schmitt’s point that liberalism, in dissolving the concrete in favor of the abstract, resonates with many conservative, communitarian critics of contemporary cosmopolitans and their assertions that a deracinated, decontextualized and ahistorical conception of the cosmopolitan subject could not possibly inspire a political endeavor infused with enough blood and passion to construct a collaborative global project. My feeling is that this rather Hegelian critique of a certain neo-Kantianism is largely correct, and I would like to demonstrate this later on via a discussion of Alberto Toscano’s incendiary take on the Enlightenment in his superb book, Fanaticism: Uses Of An Idea. Here, it would suffice to say that Kant himself- for all of the caricatures of his ethical subject as a de-pathologized moral machine that did its duty regardless of the circumstances- is not as anodyne as many Kantian liberals would have us believe. Schmitt’s point that ‘universal human equality’ masks real inequality is rings true with those of us who have been weaned on Marx’s Critique of the Philosophy of Right and Lenin’s programmatic statements on ‘formal’ and ‘real’ democracy, and his discussion of the eternal dilemma of liberalism- namely, how does a philosophy that espouses the elemental equality of all human beings justify a legacy of slavery, colonialism, torture and imperialist warfare?- provides the bases for the powerful work of Domenico Losurdo. The fact that Schmitt foresaw the dilution of the political, its shattering into single-issue ‘ethical committees’ and lobby/interest groups and its disastrous reduction to the economy presaged Hannah Arendt’s sober elegy for the Greek polis, wherein the ‘unnatural growth of the natural’ oikos was kept apart from the public, democratic sphere.
Developing on these insights, Mouffe dwells on the foundational trope of Schmitt’s political theory, that of the frontier between friend and enemy. For liberalism, this antagonistic frontier simply does not exist- everything is subject to a continuous, procedural dialogue in which everyone is included and violent contestation is not admitted: “Democracy, according to Schmitt, consists fundamentally in the identity between rulers and ruled. It is linked to the fundamental principle of the unity of the demos and the sovereignty of its will. But if the people are to rule, it is necessary to determine who belongs to the people. Without any criterion to determine who are the bearers of democratic rights, the will of the people could never take shape….By stressing that the identity of a democratic political community hinges on the possibility of drawing a frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, Schmitt highlights the fact that democracy always entails relations of inclusion-exclusion….One of the main problems with liberalism- and one that can endanger democracy- is precisely its incapacity to conceptualize such a frontier. As Schmitt indicates, the central concept of liberal discourse is ‘humanity’, which- as he rightly points out- is not a political concept, and does not correspond to any political entity. The central question of the political constitution of ‘the people’ is something that liberal theory is unable to tackle adequately, because the necessity of drawing such a ‘frontier’ contradicts its universalistic rhetoric. Against the liberal emphasis on ‘humanity’, it is important to stress that the key concepts of democracy are the ‘demos’ and the ‘people’….The democratic logic of constituting the people, and inscribing rights and equality into practices, is necessary to subvert the tendency towards abstract universalism in liberal discourse.” (Mouffe, 43-44)
The implications of this lengthy extract for the sort of ‘abstract universalism’ found in self-help books and cosmopolitan theorizing today need hardly be stressed. One need only look, once more, at the Libyan crisis to discern the profoundly depoliticizing effects of this substitution of ‘humanity’ for political agency, replacing politics with moralism. The pretext for the passing of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 was, of course, the impending incursion of Gaddafi’s forces into the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, as well as the anticipated slaughter of tens of thousands of Libyan civilians. To enlist the general public’s sympathy for a concerted allied air strike (a rather amnesiac public, I might add, in light of all the disasters that such ‘interventions’ have visited upon the very civilians that NATO has always sworn to protect), a rather slapdash sketch of projected proceedings was drawn up and circulated on the international news: Gaddafi is another raving mad, Hitler-esque lunatic who will not listen to reason. There is no point negotiating with such madmen, they only respond to force. Ergo, a quick and ruthless offensive will coerce him to capitulate. Like Saddam in 1990- who, it bears reminding, was willing to negotiate his way out of Kuwait- Gaddafi’s Libya would be ‘bombed into the stone ages’ to show them what’s what. Gaddafi had, in other words, reverted back to the rabid dog of the Middle East, and the ‘people’ of Libya would live to see a glorious dawn after the smoke of the guns subsided. What faded away in this broad-stroke sketch of vainglorious, frothing-at-the-mouth tyrants and their wretched, defenceless peoples was any discussion of the geography of the nation, its history, the evolution of its economy, its social dynamics and the political tendencies within the cluster vulgarly termed as ‘the rebels’ or ‘the opposition’. That a large faction of the rebels had vigorously objected to the imposition of the no-fly zone was ignored, as were the repeated pleas of certain sections for the requisitioned funds of the Gaddafi regime to be sent to rebel forces to buy arms. Further, nobody seemed to ask why it was that regimes just as autocratic as Gaddafi’s (Tunisia, Egypt) had fallen without any major bloodletting. That is, if the Libyan ‘rebels’ are truly representative of the Libyan people at large, if they are a truly popular movement, why is it that they require assistance? Such questions are occluded the moment we begin to distort the Libyan fight for autonomy and democracy by:
a) Holding fast to the enervated, impoverished conception of ‘really existing democracy’ as practiced in our liberal-democratic polities, which equates democracy with an electoral form commandeered and overseen by technocrats. The pernicious consequences of this are plain to see when the Western press enframes the struggles of the Arab world as a struggle to ‘be just like us’, proving themselves worthy to ‘enjoy our freedoms and liberties’, rather than investigating the concrete social conditions of said countries, the rich and innovative organizational forms that originated from them, the unique role of culture and religion in the formation of political groupings. In other words, the aspects of these insurgencies that have something to teach those of us who have forgotten the very meaning of political action.
b) Separating this political moment from what, in my view, is just as crucial, the economic one. The media’s propensity to poetize endlessly about ‘universal human rights’, ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘democratic rights’ is characteristic here, and an oft-repeated slogan of many Egyptian workers exposes the shortcomings of such rhetoric: “We cannot eat democracy!” It seems intuitive that, insofar as we live in a capitalist world order, and insofar as this capitalist world order is a globalized order that curtails workplace protagonism and radical democratic praxis in the interests of profit, politics and economics are indissolubly bound up with one another. In other words, there is no democracy without economic democracy. This seems so obvious that it hardly warrants mentioning, but it has taken revolutionary action to make the world take notice of the most elementary demands of the global proletariat- workers, students, peasants and the poor. Still, old habits die hard, particularly when they’re reinforced by the iron fist of power, and it could very well be that these voices, having been silenced and extinguished for the last two and a half decades, could be suppressed beneath the petit-bourgeois clamor of ‘democracy’ and ‘suffrage’ once more.
c) Liquidating all specificity, local identity and political subjectivity in the catch-all abstraction of ‘humanity’. In itself, this is not so objectionable. What is reprehensible about this conception is how it tends to strip the human being of any trace of active agency, so that the human being is reduced to being what Alain Badiou has called the ‘human animal’, or what, in Giorgio Agamben’s terrifying vision, has labelled homo sacer, the possessor of a body that can be mangled and destroyed with abandon. It was this image of the suffering, passive human being that was mobilized to elicit enthusiasm for the Libyan intervention. Exacerbating matters was the typical liberal contention that ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’, and that ‘risking the bad is better than permitting the possibility of the worst’. One forgets that doing something often instigates the worst- Gaddafi, having been cornered and betrayed by Western powers that he had been cosying up to for the last two decades, will now make good on his promise to hunt Libyan dissenters down in every nook and cranny. One also forgets that men and women are not helpless victims of fate, nor are they condemned to being the pawns of power. When properly organized and determined to win, they are perfectly capable of reversing, overturning the relations of subordination that they have endured. As such, even if the Libyan rebels were to fail in this venture, they would be forced to learn from their mistakes in order to regroup and try again next time. In the eyes of the anti-imperialist Left, ‘humanitarian intervention’ is the worst possible eventuality that could happen, and the near-unanimous consensus on military interference does not bode well for the future- what is to stop the United States from engaging in cavalier regime changes across the region, establishing new and improved client governments in the name of ‘human rights’? In effect, this ‘humanitarian intervention’ will prove to be a saccharine-coated euphemism for a repressive police action that eliminates political antagonism and restitutes the despotism of the Same. Beneath a few surgical, cosmetic changes, business will resume.
How did we arrive at this point, where an anti-politics has expelled all traces of negativity and contingency to its fringes? It is as though political philosophy’s long and protracted struggle against the excess of politics- inspired by a ‘hatred of democracy’ that Hannah Arendt and Jacques Ranciere examine at great length- has finally managed to consummate the ‘becoming-world of philosophy and becoming-philosophy of the world’. For Mouffe, the constitutive paradox of liberal democracy must be acknowledged and protected, keeping both dimensions of the liberal democratic tradition in dialectical tension rather than collapsing- as the so-called ‘Third Way’ of consensus politics has done- one into the other: “We do not have to accept Schmitt’s thesis that there is an inescapable contradiction between liberalism and democracy; such a contradiction is only the result of his inability to grasp the specificity of modern democracy, between its two constitutive principles of liberty and democracy. They can never be perfectly reconciled, but this is precisely what constitutes for me the principal value of liberal democracy. It is this aspect of nonachievement, incompleteness and openness that makes such a regime particularly suited to modern democratic politics. Unfortunately, this aspect has never been properly theorized, and liberal democracy lacks the political philosophy that could provide it with adequate principles of legitimacy. Schmitt is certainly right to agree that those principles are quite unsatisfactory and in need of reformulation.” (Mouffe, The Return of the Political, 110, emphasis mine)
|Saturday, April 9th, 2011|
|Eight Theses On Globalization, Cosmopolitanism and Universality
Eight Theses On Globalization, Cosmopolitanism and Universality\
“For the universal was an Idea. When it realizes itself in the global, it commits suicide as an Idea, as ideal end. Having become the sole reference- and a humanity immanent in itself having occupied the empty place of the dead God- the human now reigns alone, but it no longer has any ultimate rationale. No longer having an enemy, it generates one from within, and secretes all kind of inhuman metastases.” – Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism
1. Rumors of the United States’ impending decline, while accurate to a certain point, are vastly exaggerated.
Here, Giovanni Arrighi’s two preconditions of hegemony (a globally effective means of force and a globally recognized means of payment) remain salient. The United States is, contra the cheerleaders of the ‘BRIC bloc’, the foremost military power of our age as well as the issuer of the currency that the fate of the global economy is pegged to. This is not to say that cracks in the American edifice have not begun to show. Alex Callinicos’ excellent book, Bonfire of Illusions, argues that two events- Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the 2008 financial meltdown- have exposed the US’ military and economic fragility, denting the myth of American infallibility. What remains true, however, is that the United States must- for the time being, at least- continue playing the hegemonic role that it has assumed for itself, acting as the sink for the world’s exports as well as the guarantor of global security. Having made the world safe for the free market and having established a sprawling syndicate of subordinates and satrapies, it is forced to govern.
2. Far from being a relic of the Maoist and Trotskyist Left, empire is a living reality. As such, we require a responsible and materialist consideration of imperialism, one that probes the dialectical contradictions of our geopolitical order.
With the likes of Ahmadinejad, Castro, Chavez and Kim Jong-Il all joining hands in denouncing the Great Satan, it would appear that the substance of anti-imperialist rhetoric has worn rather thin. Yet, far from being an anachronism, the realities of imperialism are becoming more and more apparent as the United States begins to grapple with the emergent contradictions of imperial rule. Theorists such as Alex Callinicos (Imperialism and Global Political Economy), David Harvey (The New Imperialism) and Chris Harman (Zombie Capitalism) all locate the US’ burgeoning problems in the ‘overstretching’ of their military capacity. This overstretching- as evidenced by Robert Gates’ voluble objections to intervention in Libya, overruled by the likes of Obama and Hilary Clinton- is beginning to cause considerable alarm in the Pentagon, particularly since the United States now finds itself having to exercise direct neo-colonial power in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, such as Albo, Panitch and Gindin, have usefully suggested that today’s global order runs on ‘free rider’ principles, where various subordinate states rely and capitalize on the United States’ financial and military might while expressing disgruntlement about American unilateralism. Yet, Albo, Panitch and Gindin also make clear that this is not simply opportunism- the global market does, insofar as it has plunged its savings into US bonds and invested its future into the order that American force has carved up, hinge upon the US’ ability to act decisively in moments of crisis. In that sense, one can say, without jest, that we are all pegged to the US dollar. At the same time, the very fact that the US, being the world’s foremost debtor as well as being the leading promulgator of an increasingly bankrupt economic model, is so dependent upon the cooperation and the consensus (however begrudging) of other states renders it extremely vulnerable. Political economists on the Left have often pointed at the blatant hypocrisy of American profligacy as far as their trade balances go- any other country would have been subjected to massive ‘structural adjustments’ by the IMF. This, however, cannot be ruled out as an eventuality- if, in the conceivable future, a new reserve currency is found and another hegemon emerges to take the US’ place, capital flight could very well ensue, following which the US would have to face the grim austerity measures that it has so willfully imposed on intransigent protectionists the world over. One cannot anticipate when such a disaster will come to pass, but we can be certain that the US will not go down without a fight that will involve us all. That other states are taking liberties with their growing capacity to flout US mandates and incur its ire is becoming clear- China, while quietly expanding its naval force and infiltrating into states that once did most of their business with the US, is worrying the Americans, while a growing number of errant states- with Pakistan and India being among the most dangerous of these- are beginning to arm themselves with nuclear weaponry.
3. Unless we invent a new Left politics, we shall remain- as Tariq Ali put it- between two fundamentalisms.
In a sense, the rather unfortunate thesis of Samuel Huntington is perfectly right. It is necessary, however, to correct his contention that we are witnessing a clash of civilizations. On the contrary, what we face today is a clash of barbarisms- that of the unhindered free market and that of religious atavism. One might say that this is a combat between the hypermodern and the anti-modern, between a heedless valorization of the new and a hyperbolic affirmation of the ancient. Yet it always bears reminding that both fundamentalisms are fundamentally reactionary, that they both bear the scars of the ‘god that failed’, revolutionary socialism. Just as the New Deal and Keynesian macroeconomics were devised to forestall the red tide from spreading, neoliberalism cannot be understood as anything other than a concerted attempt to break the back of the working class and reduce it to a position of total servility. Both measures must be apprehended from the perspective of class war- while Keynesianism was a defensive security measure, neoliberalism constitutes the most savage offensive led by the global bourgeoisie to date. Analogously, religious fundamentalism- whether it assumes the form of apocalyptic Christian militias in the United States or extremism in the Islamic world- is equally incomprehensible without a grasp of the shifts from the Cold War to capitalist globalization and the sociopolitical repercussions that it produced. Radical Islamism, far from being an intrinsic, let alone dominant, dimension of Islam, was produced by a consummate blindness on the part of both the West and its secular Arab nationalist counterparts. The US’ part in arming and radicalizing the Afghan mujahiddin with Saudi and Pakistani assistance is well known, while the Arab world’s rather schizophrenic relationship with its Islamic militants- persecuting them at one moment and instrumentalizing them to suppress communists at another- is less so. What both approaches share in common is their awareness that the greatest threat to repressive state power is a secular, communistic politics grounded upon the initiative, self-belief and discipline of popular power. The price that they have paid for eliminating this alternative, when seen against the background of their own political ineptitude and the bewilderment that unfettered markets engender, is the transmutation of popular discontentment into obscurantist, millenarian fury. Is it any surprise that many of the most militant members of the fanatical Tea Party are disenfranchised, exasperated rejects of the old working class? Their rage against immigrants, homosexuals and blacks, all of whom were on the receiving end of post-civil rights America, is a return of the repressed in its cruelest form: it reveals the depth to which ‘culturalism’ has penetrated the depths of the social strata, substituting identitarian, racial and cultural explanations for political and economic ones.
4. One must never forget that neoliberalism is not simply an ideology, it is embedded in material institutions and safeguarded with a dizzying plethora of legal regulations.
Have business writers fallen for the cultural turn, too? If not, why do they continue to vacillate on the viability of neoliberalism as an operative model? When the financial meltdown began, business journos everywhere formed a chorus decrying the excesses of neoliberalism, each of them taking turns to indulge in a bout of mawkish self-criticism. Before the cadaver had settled into its grave, the morticians gave it a full bill of health, pointing to the revived performance of the stock market. This bipolarity has been the norm for the business times over the last two years, as the devout wake up singing hallelujahs and go to bed grumbling about the death of God. We can leave them to their tiresome outbursts, as it is imperative for us to remember that neoliberalism is far from dead. This is precisely where the significance of Albo, Gindin and Panitch’s book In and Out of Crisis: The Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives lies: for them, an analysis of neoliberalism cannot remain at an ideological level, as though neoliberalism were not a hegemony in the Gramscian sense, a concrete articulation of discourses and non-discursive elements. They remind us that it would be foolish to take neoliberalism at its own word, as though it simply meant an attenuation of state regulation and intervention in favor of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. In this regard, neoliberal ideologue Fareed Zakaria is a lot more honest when he asserts that the invisible hand of the market must be backed up by the iron fist of American might: one should never forget that- as mentioned above- the world must be made safe for the free market; the state has to actively create, maintain and reproduce optimal market conditions for investors to operate. Besides this, the 2008 meltdown has revealed something that us common-folk tend to forget, blinded as we are by our fascination with footloose, liquid capital- multinational corporations, hubristic as they may be at the worst of times, are always bound by an umbilical cord to the nation state.
As such, it is absolutely imperative for us to go beyond a facile dismissal of neoliberalism as a decrepit discourse that is on the wane, as though we could spirit it away by ignoring it and pretending that it is going to go away. It will not, and it is necessary for us to investigate the structural reasons for neoliberalism’s ascent in the first place. Chris Harman, in his Zombie Capitalism, ties the rise of neoliberalism to a crisis of profitability that originates in the ‘70s, while thinkers in the post-Operaist tradition (the essays of whom are collected in the book Crisis in the Global Economy) link the invention of new financial instruments to the radical unquantifiability of the principal engines of the new economy: immaterial labor, thought and creativity. Whatever the case is, the chronic short-termism, the proliferation of ‘irrational exuberance’ and the impossibly sanguine betting on volatile bubbles that neoliberalism produces are not simply an error of human judgment that can be calibrated and corrected to generate a sounder, more responsible economy. Neoliberalism was a specific intervention in a specific conjuncture of capitalist accumulation, and unless an equally revolutionary intervention can be formulated- and the possibilities of this are, in a globalized space that is reaching absolute saturation, rather dim- it will continue to squeeze profits out of every conceivable pore. So, nothing will be gained unless we take our leave of those who proclaim that the worst is over, that the madmen who gambled our lives away will come to their senses, as well as those managerial types who insist that the lessons learnt from this escapade can- with a little bit of help from ‘behavioral economics’ among other newfangled forms of statistical modeling- finally put us on the way of founding a crisis-free capitalism. Rather, it is necessary for us to examine the material underpinnings of the current politico-economic order, the ways in which it is reproduced and protected by state ordinances and policies. The post-Marxist Left- from John Holloway to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt to Alain Badiou- has become rather good at playing pretend as far as the state goes, but turning one’s back to the state does nothing to diminish its eminence or halt its operation. Which brings us to the next thesis…
5. Unfortunately, you can’t change the world without taking power.
Again, the lessons of the Middle East have been incredibly instructive in this respect. It seems more than a little bit asinine to suggest that a Palestinian teenager on the Gaza strip should fight the microphysics of power by rooting out the fascism in his unconscious by formulating a molecular, rhizomorphic form of politics that immerses him in the pure immanence of becoming. Not that I have any problems with this approach, though it does tend towards a rather mystical sort of aestheticism that remains, in Deleuze’s unforgettable words, ‘too French’. For the Palestinian teenager, Hamas, in compensating for the infrastructural deficits of a Palestine under siege, eliminating the excesses, corruption and complacence of a compromised Fatah and creating the rudiments of a militant resistance movement that insists on being taken seriously as an interlocutor in the struggle for an independent Palestine, makes a definite claim upon his political sympathies. In the same way, the radical Left in Egypt has worked closely with workers unions since the strike waves of 2006 and 2007, while the Muslim Brotherhood has, through its community work and its network of mosques, created disciplined and organized cells. If participatory, collaborative politics is to stand a chance, it clearly has to start on the ground level through concerted organization and mobilization, through the creation of centralized but democratic bodies that can supply some form of unity and support to its members over time. At the same time, the neo-anarchist tendency- evident even in the work of Alain Badiou- to dismiss the state as an administrative body facilitating, in Lacan’s coinage, the ‘servicing of goods’ is rather irresponsible. One fails to see why thinkers like Simon Critchley recommend operating in the ‘interstices’ of state power, remaining at a distance from the state while assaulting it with hyperbolic ethical demands. The fixation with ‘resistance’ in our day and age is more than a little bit dangerous, and the universal acclamation of the Zapatista example- a lesson that undoubtedly warrants our close attention and scrutiny- has led to a serious stifling of political dialogue on the Left. It seems that whenever one speaks of running candidates for seats in municipal elections or parliament one touches a nerve with certain activists. Yet, even a lifelong anarchist like Chomsky (see certain interviews in Chomsky on Anarchism) is well aware that political struggle should utilize every available channel, that the state is not, as Marx and Lenin- writing before the likes Gramsci, Offe and the later Poulantzas- believed, merely the instrument of the bourgeoisie, but a body that is shot through with competing tendencies and forces. Where Marx and Lenin were right, though, was in insisting that there can be no substantial change unless state power is forced to put itself at the service of the people, something that no amount of autonomist lifestyle experimentation, however emancipatory this may be on an individual or collective level, can accomplish. This is what prevents us from legislating upon the Egyptian revolution, which remains in the balance of a long battle between the people and the army, still the deciding force in Egyptian political affairs. One thing, however, remains clear- the only possible way for the Middle East to enforce its autonomy from the pax Americana that has strangulated it for decades and declare its solidarity with struggles for a different globalization is to form a federated bloc of revolutionary states along the lines of the European Union or the coalition of Bolivarian republics in South America. Without resolving the local/global debate in either direction, we must however realize that without contesting for power at the municipal or state level, change is an illusory prospect. In other words, the dialectic between national and international/transnational revolution needs to be re-evaluated and re-invigorated.
6. We require a new political subject, and this subject remains the proletariat. Having said this, we require a new theory of proletarianization, one that elaborates upon the subjectivities that are produced by widespread marketization and financialization.
It is a bit tragic that any mention of the proletariat today is met with either nostalgia or derision. Indeed, we can only thank Bernard Stiegler for reminding us that Marxism has, at the risk of committing a very grave error, tended to confuse the proletariat with the working class , resulting in the conflation of a political subjectivity with a sociological category. What we have to recover today is a dynamic conception of the proletariat, one that retains Marx’s insistence that the proletariat is, at one and the same time, the ‘waste product’ of capitalism as well as its gravedigger, its symptom as well as its cure. This approach would necessarily have to be a dialectical one, showing the ways in which technological advance and human regression accompany one another in a dynamic system riddled with contradictions. This is, as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment made clear so long ago, what proletarianization produces as an ontogenetic and dialectical process- an anxious and dependent subject dispossessed of knowledge (withheld and manipulated by the mass media), knowhow (outsourced to technological appurtenances and prostheses, a dynamic captured brilliantly by the work of Jean Baudrillard, Bernard Stiegler and Ursula Huws) and, yes, the means of production. One would have to add something beyond Marx’s theory of proletarianization here: capitalism today deprives a growing proportion of the human race of their very means of survival. Marx certainly made a note of this with his famous statement that capitalism, if left to its own devices, would devastate the working class’ capacity to reproduce itself by pressing wages below the level of subsistence. This was followed with his witty suggestion that capitalists would, if they could, pay workers with air, though they could hardly entice anybody to work unless they found a way to privatize and commodify the air supply.
When Marx made this joke, it wasn’t entirely easy to tell whether he was speaking in jest. Certainly, he was well aware that anything, even the most intimate human traits, can be commodified; such a discussion takes up one of the most memorable sections of the 1844 Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts. All public goods that are held in common can be privatized and transformed into a source of rent. That this has happened with increasing regularity in our own time lends Marx’s joke a rather ominous air. That this aspect of capitalism continues to be treated as an unfortunate excess practiced by a few unscrupulous predators rather than a central component of capitalist accumulation really beggars belief.
Proletarianization, in fact, assumes the most unassuming, the most quotidian of forms. To name but one popular example: recent attention concerning the ecological footprint of food, revealing the absurd distances that food travels to maximize- in an identical fashion to international production and supply chains for consumer goods- on profit margins, has shed light on two interlinked processes: the displacement of small farmers from their land through the ‘green revolution’ and agribusiness as well as the reliance of the human race on mass-produced foodstuffs generated by agribusiness methods, food which- while being exceedingly cheap and available in great quantities- is slowly devastating the environment and diminishing the amount of arable land available for food production. This is why Raj Patel, author of two fine books on globalization and the global South (Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing), reminds us that in the last reckoning we get what we pay for: the price that we pay for cheap food hides an array of externalities that are assumed by ourselves (by reinforcing and keeping us oblivious to the international division of labor that keeps us from growing healthy and wholesome food for ourselves) and the farmers that have been driven out of business by competition and the extortionate price of agribusiness seeds. In the end, we all pay for the profit-driven madness that is agribusiness, as it mindlessly destroys local agriculture through the planting of ‘one-size-fits-all’ mutant seeds, subjects large numbers of erstwhile agricultural workers to poverty and famine in order to export tasteless, chemically-altered produce to the developed world. All of this while forcefully inhibiting the advancement of a genuine globalization- one where able-bodied men and women can tend to land held in common, breaking the short-sighted monopoly of agribusiness through the development of sustainable food solutions and the sharing of local agricultural and geographical knowledges across borders. Here, we see proletarianization in its most prosaic form, as well as a remarkable illustration of the ways in which capitalism is impossible without a constant supply of cheap energy and cheap labor, the price of the latter being kept low by inexpensive food and subsistence goods.
This is not to say that proletarianization is no longer visible in the metropolitan workplace. Rather, the obverse face of the absolute, nomadic liberty that the postmodern world purportedly offers is abject dependency, anxiety, precariousness and anomie. Richard Sennett illustrates this very well with his illuminating juxtaposition of the militarized, regimented labor model of Bismarck and Weber’s age with the flexible, decentralized mode of command in the ‘network society’. For Sennett, full employment corresponded with a broadly-felt need to assimilate citizens to a corporatist style of rule, giving each and every worker a sense of purpose and belonging. In keeping with Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that ‘society does not exist’, this bureaucratic, organicist structure was dismantled while new financial and technological instruments equipped capital with the capacity to reduce and streamline the workforce, develop new forms of real-time surveillance and discipline employees into accepting responsibility for their ‘employability’. In tandem with these developments in the private sector, states around the world reconfigured their own operations by restructuring the relationships between central and municipal governments, trimming public expenses, reshaping traditional welfare programs in line with a ‘workfare’ model, seizing vast stretches of land for property development or the creation of ‘greenfield sites’, selling large parcels of state-run services to private hands.
All of this is accompanied by the incorporation of more and more people into the oscillations of financial markets through a variety of predatory mechanisms- whether this assumes the form of privatized pension funds, credit cards or subprime mortgages- all crafted to capitalize on swelling stock and asset prices. Besides the fact that men and women in the ‘real economy’ are directly affected by the tempests of high finance, as companies downsize or shut down because of a contraction of ready credit and the rising of interest rates, their livelihoods are directly indexed to these developments through a variety of financial instruments and debt packages. In the end, the phantasmagoria of speculative finance have to be drawn back to contradictions at the ‘base’ of the economy, and a close interrogation of the relationship between financialization and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall would help to illustrate the rather mundane causes for our casino economy.
For workers in the global North, whose share in rises in productivity have stalled over the last two decades, the effects of which have been offset by the steady supply of cheap import goods and mass-produced foodstuffs, incomes (which remain stubbornly stagnant against the background of rising housing, health and education costs) have been supplemented through their active participation in stock and asset bubbles. The ‘symbolic violence’ that stock prices inflict upon the working class is clear- not only does it mask the retrenchments and ‘structural adjustments’ that capital (through practices like leveraged buyouts) imposes upon labor in the name of raising shareholder value, it also transforms them into small shareholders, rendering them complicit in their own collective disenfranchisement. On top of intensified competition at the workplace, there is intensified competition in the stock markets. In both cases, workers are rendered into ‘individuals’ responsible for their employability, for their work ethic, for their mental health, for their stock portfolios. This is ‘self-management’ in its most cruelly literal form.
Commonsensical as it may seem, it may very well be that our bare material being may very well be the basis of a new political subjectivity. This was, at any rate, Sebastiano Timpanaro’s forgotten, ‘vulgar materialist’ rejoinder to the emerging structuralist/post-structuralist orthodoxy of the ‘70s, On Materialism. His lucid and unpretentious humanism is sorely needed today, and it would be prudent here to cite him at length: “The historicist polemic against ‘man in general’, which is completely correct so long as it denies that certain historical and social forms such as private property or class divisions are inherent in humanity in general, errs when it overlooks the fact that man as a biological being, endowed with a certain (not unlimited) adaptability to his external environment, and with certain impulses towards activity and the pursuit of happiness, subject to old age and death, is not an abstract construction, nor one of our prehistoric ancestors, a species of pithecanthropus now superseded by historical and social man, but still exists in each of us and in all probability will still exist in the future. It is certainly true that the development of society changes men’s ways of feeling pain, pleasure and other elementary psycho-physical reactions, and that there is hardly anything that is ‘purely natural’ left in contemporary man, that has not been enriched and remoulded by social and cultural environment. But the general aspects of the ‘human condition’ still remain, and the specific characteristics introduced into it by the various forms of associated life have not been such as to overthrow them completely. To maintain that, since the ‘biological’ is always presented to us as mediated by the ‘social’, the ‘biological’ is nothing and the ‘social’ is everything, would once again be idealist sophistry. If we make it ours, how are we to defend ourselves from those who will in turn maintain that, since all reality (including economic and social reality) is knowable only through language (or through the thinking mind), language (or the thinking mind) is the sole reality, and all the rest is abstraction?... I believe…that the reduction of cultural activities to superstructures should be limited in another sense also. It is not only the social relations between men, but also the relations between men and nature that give rise to scientific and philosophical reflection, and to artistic expression. Philosophy, science and art do not draw stimulus and nourishment solely from the ‘artificial terrain’ of society, but also from the ‘natural terrain’…Just as we are born naturally male and female, die nearly always in spite of ourselves, are dominated by a reproductive instinct, so we also bear within our temperament specific conditions, which education in the broad sense of the word, or accommodation to society, may certainly modify within limits, but can never eliminated…For all these reasons, our dependence on nature, however diminished since prehistoric times, persists amidst our social life; as does the matter for curiosity and fantasy furnished by the spectacle of nature itself.” (Timpanaro, 45-6)
What Timpanaro rehabilitates in this marvelous book is the radically atheistic materialism of Lucretius and Leopardi, a reminder that “man’s biological frailty cannot be overcome, short of venturing into the realm of science fiction.” (Timpanaro, 62). This is the ontological meaning of the ‘genericity of the human’ that capitalism reveals through its revocation of every solidary bond, its nullification and relativization of every form of essentialism, its desacralization of every idol. In being reduced to a ‘pair of hands’, a starving belly, a target for bullets, a reservoir of commodifiable desires, we are forced to face the brute reality of mortality and finitude. Having accomplished the consummate secularization of the world, capitalism now wants to cure us of our last remaining illusion- that of eternity. Shattered is the Hegelian illusion that the Spirit of Nature discloses itself in and through Man, that Man’s journey through history is the absolute spirit coming into consciousness of itself. Gone is the theological supposition that the world was given unto man for his use and enjoyment. This world does not need us, and it seems to me that only a clear-eyed confrontation with the prospect of utter annihilation will compel us to transform the passive experience of proletarianization into an active political project. In a very real sense, today we are forced to be cosmopolitans- the impending prospect of total environmental collapse means that each of us is potentially an ecological refugee. Assuming that such an event does happen (and at the current rate of carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption, it is a matter of when, not if), the entire concept of national borders and citizenship will have to be rethought. Why should we wait until then to create the forms and institutions to avoid such a catastrophe? The dialectic of capitalist modernity has evicted us from our temples, our homes, our communities, our nations, our bodies. Having been expelled from all of these, it is imperative that we produce new ways of being-in-common, new forms of gregariousness and solidarity that are commensurate with the challenges of our time. The question of our time, then, has scarcely changed. “Being nothing, how can we become everything?”
7. There is an urgent need to separate the actual workings of ‘globalization’ from the ideological myth that surrounds it.
When a politician seeks to exculpate him/herself from some particularly devious action- drastic education and healthcare cuts, for example- he/she always has recourse to the one foolproof alibi that has stood the test of capitalist history: blame the exigencies of the market. In doing this, he/she reveals something that we always knew to be the case- that it scarcely matters what sort of person he or she is (or, indeed, what sort of person we thought they were when we cast our votes for them), in the last instance a politician in our age of institutionalized venality is not much different from an automaton. Hardened leftists have been weaned on the communist commonplace about voting and misrepresentation for so long that they scarcely notice its infiltration into the popular consciousness. As always, however, reflex actions are hardly reliable as a source of truth, and it would do us well to examine the disaffection and jaundice that characterize the ‘democratic deficit’ of our time. Blessed with the luxury of hindsight, we can afford to attribute the many failures of Obama to the general indiscernibility between the Democratic and Republican parties. Tariq Ali, after all, warned us of this when he noted- in 2008’s The Duel- Obama’s disquieting determination to pursue Bush’s ‘war of infinite justice’ until the bloody end. Yet, Ali later went on television to declare his pleasant surprise at the level of political enthusiasm among Obama’s young supporters, a generation that had supposedly cast its lot in with the silent majority. While Ali’s recent score-card of Obama’s performance thus far (published as The Obama Syndrome last year) could only have been written by a man who was disabused of any hopes in imperialist benignity many decades ago, there is no reason to believe that his appraisal of America’s young was insincere, nor that he expected Obama’s term in office to be as dire as it is.
Here, we encounter Kant’s famous discussion of free will once more- somehow, even though we know that the cards are stacked and that the game is rigged by all manner of lobbies and corporate interests, we still hold Obama responsible for disappointing us. After all, Obama’s failures can only be construed as such against the background of other possibilities. As such, all of the unrealized, virtual futures that Obama ignored when he stuck to the script shall plague him always. After all, not all American presidents were so drearily predictable- Roosevelt being the most prominent example of somebody who was willing to have a fair go at righting the collective delirium that unrestrained cupidity had sunk the nation into. One might say that the political and economic circumstances were rather different, and that the New Deal was hardly effective in setting the American economy on its feet once more- the specter of global communism haunted his sleep, and it would take another world war to clear the way for American hegemony. At the same time, forceful and decisive action in the face of self-serving plutocratic power is not unprecedented in American history. In a sense, the Obama debacle has shown itself to be a case study in the sort of soft populism that could very well prove to be the politics of our time- a populism that beguiles spectators the world over with inspiriting ‘yes we can’s while exhibiting a remarkable timidity to demand even the slightest concessions from capital. The greatest fault of populism in the 20th century was its incapacity to ‘go all the way’, to break the back of capital so that the ‘power of the people’ that it championed so volubly could be given the chance to crystallize into lasting democratic institutions. This was the tragedy of developmentalism, which- in its inability to please capital and labor at the same time- often found itself having to kowtow at the feet of the former, offering huge subsidies that capitalists often spent as they wished. Yet, populists like Nasser, Nyerere and Velasco did at least attempt to institute major reforms of their economies through nationalizations and expropriations, and they did treat the problem of worker participation seriously, though structural flaws in their respective approaches rendered them incapable of addressing working class aspirations in any satisfying way. For Obama, even the most modest of ventures in the way of, say, a green, sustainable economy or affordable healthcare are vigorously proscribed by his generous backers. In such a dismal political climate, we can only fear the worst- widespread disgust with purportedly ‘progressive’ parties everywhere can only lead to increased voter abstention or swings to the radical right.
And yet, the question has to be asked: how many ‘alternative modernities’ has the United States crushed in the 20th century? Besides its obvious part in stifling the Russian revolution (not that I am, by any means, discounting the preponderant weight of the USSR’s own internal flaws), American imperialism can also be held accountable for the deposition of Mossadegh, the strangulation of the Cuban revolution, the death of Sukarno and the massacre of the Indonesian Left, the defeat of Nasser, the bloodstained history of Pakistan and its troubled neighbor, Afghanistan, the confiscation of the gains won through the Mexican revolution, repeated sabotage of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, the coup that claimed Allende and, more recently, the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not content with restricting the margin of choice available to its own electoral candidates, it has sought to enforce its own strictures upon everyone else.
When the World Social Forum reminds us, then, that ‘another world is possible’, it is crucial that we begin to make sure that we are clear on what globalization is in the first place. In a sense, it is often rather difficult to disentangle fact from fiction when it comes to globalization, as commentators on the Left and the Right alike tend to fetishize a process that should be subjected to a sober analysis. In marking a total, ruptural break between pre-capitalist forms of production, informal modes of pre-industrial capitalist production, industrial production and the ‘immaterial’ forms of production that follow the real subsumption of labor in the postmodern Empire, post-Marxists are often forgetful of the fact that the gulf between modernity and postmodernity is not quite as wide as they like to think, and that the postmodern world is like a palimpsest in which all of these forms coexist synchronically. Hardt and Negri are perfectly willing to grant this- all they ask is that we acknowledge, just as Marx identified the significance of industrial production when it had yet to become the statistically dominant form of capitalist production, the pre-eminence of immaterial labor and the so-called ‘cognitariat’ in the new, creative economy. This is an interesting point, but Hardt and Negri’s fixation with flows and fluxes, their supposition that cognitive capitalism- in failing to establish the quantitative value of intellectual and immaterial labor- renders many of the founding principles of Marxist analysis irrelevant are more than a little bit dubious.
The principal complaint about Hardt and Negri’s trilogy concerns their treatment of the nation state system, a decline that accompanies the slow abdication of its once-incontestable sovereign, the United States. Now, it seems, is the time of footloose multinationals and the transnational forms of governance that supply a legal framework for their movements, facilitating all manner of deterritorialized flows. Strangely enough, this image of contemporary capitalism hardly differs from neoliberal enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman, who invites us all to share in his exhilarating vision of a world where the floodgates between the global North and South give way before a deluge of unrestricted investment capital. It hardly matters that thinkers like Hardt and Negri are far more circumspect and dialectical than Friedman is about such an eventuality - that they accept its plausibility is problematic enough. The final section of Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism, one of the most useful works of political economy to have emerged from the wake of the financial crisis, addresses these misconceptions of global capitalism, dispelling the notion that state sovereignty has been eroded by the capitalist deluge. Rather, the relationship between capital and the state today is akin to that of the errant child and the indulgent parent: haughty and hubristic as it can be, capital is wholly reliant upon the state to supply the conditions of possibility for optimal profiteering, for opening markets and securing attractive inter-state agreements for it through free trade treaties, for enforcing private/intellectual property rights, for assuming labor subsistence and reproduction costs whenever it can and rescuing it when things go awry. As Harman reminds us, even if capital really could go wherever it wanted, the choices available to it- assuming that it is willing to write off the costs of fixed capital in places that it wishes to leave behind- would be limited to sites where environmental costs are low and labor is relatively skilled, disciplined, well-educated, willing to accept low wages and few contractual obligations on the part of the employer. Besides this, the area would need extensive infrastructure, a formidable police force, a stable currency and, as Saskia Sassen points out in The Global City, access to a large range of other services, whether these take the form of amenities for émigré workers or banking facilities.
In pointing out that capitalism is- far from being an unbound force bursting through terrestrial frontiers- ‘rooted’ in various ways, Harman dismisses the fascination, reverence and fear that theorists on the Left feel towards ‘deregulated’ capital. Often, the sword of Damocles that capital suspends over labor’s head, the threat of relocation, is often just that, a threat that does not materialize because of capital’s incapacity to move. This is not to say that capital does not relocate when it suits it. Certainly, to propose this would be plain madness. Harman insists, however, that moving can be a very costly and time-consuming business, and decisions to uproot a plant and transplant it elsewhere are not made in a second and put into action in the next. As a consequence, far from ‘flattening’ the world and blurring the boundaries between center and periphery, global economic development is ‘lumpy’, accumulating at certain nodes and not at all in others: “Investment flows were similarly concentrated within the ‘triad’ of North America, Europe and Japan. In 2002-4 FDI flows into the European Union averaged about $300 billion a year. The total for the rest of the world- the ‘developing countries’- was only $180 billion, of which China (including Hong Kong) took two fifths, and Brazil and Mexico a fifth. Some 89% of the cumulative stock of FDI worldwide in 2004 was in the developed economies (roughly the same proportion as in 1990), and two thirds of that was in Europe. The pattern was not one of capital flowing effortlessly over a homogenous worldwide landscape. It was ‘lumpy’, concentrated in some countries and regions, in a way that was not fully grasped by either the crude globalisation view, by interpretations that stressed regional blocs, or by those who still spoke solely in terms of national economies.” (Harman, 263)
8. There are universalities.
Chantal Mouffe’s attempt to retrieve the political dimension of the liberal democratic tradition from Rawlsians, Habermasians and Rortyans must surely count as one of the most remarkable philosophical undertakings of recent years. The significance of her work can only be properly appreciated when set against the ills of our multicultural, post-political societies: in her valiant effort to rescue the public sphere as an agonistic space in which different political tendencies compete for hegemony, she endeavors to defuse and domesticate the mutually destructive antagonisms that characterize violent extremisms of every sort, religious or political. Yet, it is precisely here that we encounter the limits of Mouffe’s project- it is not always clear whether Mouffe recognizes that the liberal democratic leftism that she espouses is one universal among many, or whether she- like Rawls, Habermas or Rorty- assumes that it constitutes the universal, supplying a transcendental formal framework in which politics proper can take place. What Mouffe does not come to terms with, however, is that admittance into this formal frame- a rite of passage that would require the foregoing of adversarial antagonism for an amicable agonism- would require a tacit compact between all competing parties. This contractual obligation would require a formal renunciation of any aspirations to dismantle the transcendental frame itself, to respect the terms of competition that liberal electoral democracy sets for it. As the electoral triumph of Hamas in Palestine proves, however, the Western world’s purported commitment to this framework is often indistinguishable from a vehement intolerance for anything that challenges it. Ben Bot’s extraordinary remark that ‘the Palestinian people have opted for this government, so they will have to bear the consequences ‘(quoted in Hroub, 135) is exemplary of the enforced homogeneity of our political terrain, illustrative as it is of the particular interests that sustain its supposed universality.
While Mouffe’s project remains commendable and should, with a few qualifications, be defended, the tremendous difficulties of reconciling antagonistic projects with one another must be taken seriously if we are to develop any sort of cosmopolitan project worthy of the name. Here, a full-blooded investigation into what exactly Nussbaum means when she advocates the implementation of a ‘cosmopolitan education’ is necessary. A truly cosmopolitan, politically responsible syllabus would school its students in the rudiments of cultures vastly different from our own, cultures that cannot be properly assimilated within the constrictive parameters of contemporary ‘multiculturalism’. Such an education would enlist its students in the cosmopolitan project, engaging them in the extraordinarily difficult effort of formulating policies, working closely with migrant communities and reforming our societies in a truly egalitarian direction.
The famous debate over the hejab in France in 2004 remains the most notable example of these difficulties, exhibiting as it does all the barriers to mutual understanding that remain in Europe’s most liberal republic. Milton Viorst’s account of this episode in In The Shadow of the Prophet is worth recapitulating, marred though it is by a certain ethnocentric bias. Viorst’s interview with Dr Larbi Kechat, imam of the Adda’wa Mosque in Paris, is an incisive diagnosis of multiculturalism’s ills: “’What is being asked of us,’ [Kechat] answered, ‘is not integration but assimilation, which requires us to leave our identity behind. Individuals can be assimilated; a community cannot. A workable integration is one in which each party accepts the other as it is, with its own special culture. Our community, which started thirty years ago with soldiers and workers, is not mostly native-born and knows no other home. The idea of returning to somewhere else is not part of our thinking. We have become part of the French family, and accept our responsibilities to it. But we cannot be alone in making accommodations. As Muslims, our ideal is a totally Islamic society, but that is only an ideal. Of course, we would like the like of our community to be guided by our own laws, but we know that in France the circumstances do not permit it…But France must also make accommodations to us…The arrival in France of Protestants and Jews required changes in French society. Now it is the time of the Muslims.” (Viorst, 284-5)
Mouffe, in taking up Carl Schmitt’s tremendously important critique of liberal democracy, exposes the ‘democratic paradox’ that much neo-Kantian political philosophy simply fails to examine. Schmitt’s comment that liberalism and democracy are, in the last instance, incompatible is jarring enough, but the explanation that he proffers is even more so: liberalism, in placing the individual and not the political community at the center of its thinking, may function as a critique of politics, but it is not itself a politics. Hence its continual emphasis on negative freedoms, its insistence on limiting the jurisdiction of the state on individual conduct. Democracy, on the other hand, is inextricable from the notion of popular will, and while Schmitt’s rather chilling support of plebiscitary politics and ‘fascist democracy’ is morally objectionable, his point is not invalidated by it. When Hannah Arendt despaired of the engulfment of the polis by the oikos in modernity and pilloried political philosophy’s conspiratorial involvement in the extermination of political action, she launched the first- and to this day the most powerful- salvo against our societies.
‘Human rights’, the transcendental signifier of today’s post-political order, is directly illustrative of this ‘unnatural growth of the natural’- the dominant image of the human today is that of the homo sacer, the helpless wretch besieged by terrible forces beyond his or her understanding. It is this conception of the human, that of a victim stripped of any semblance of political agency, that legitimates the interventional actions of all sorts of ‘generous benefactors’- NATO, NGOs and the like. Yet, as the disaster of Afghanistan proves, such a discourse can be mobilized for the most nefarious purposes: “We have [a] proverb in Afghanistan that says, ‘May Kabul be without gold rather than without snow.’ This saying refers to the importance of melt water for farming and drinking water. But today many Afghans may be thinking, May Kabul be without foreign interference, ‘aid’ and NGOs, rather than without snow. Under every stone of Afghanistan today, if you look you will find an NGO, but most are corrupt.” (Malalai Joya, 193, emphases original) Leila Ahmed, whose classic book Women and Gender In Islam can still be read as a forceful indictment of Western discursive imperialism and its effects on Islamic societies, offers a prescient critique of the war in Afghanistan, initiated by George W and Laura Bush to ‘free Afghan women’ from patriarchal servitude. Her arguments are especially helpful here, as they elucidate the battle lines between the ‘clash of concrete universals’ that populate the political field. Taking up the subject of the veil, Ahmed examines the way in which it is overlain with a whole history of competing significations, inscribed as it is in a field of meaning that is overdetermined by the colonial experience. She is careful to note that the veil carries this political charge because of modernity and Westernization- Victorian conquerors were the first to identify the veil as the metaphor of everything that was oppressive and backwards about Islam. There was more than a hint of hypocrisy here, as the colonials, much like the Republicans of our day, were hardly supportive of women’s rights in their own countries: “Even as the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notion of men’s oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men. It was here and in the combining of the languages of colonialism and feminism that the fusion between the issues of women and culture was created. More exactly, what was created was the fusion between the issues of women, their oppression, and the cultures of Other men. The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples.” (Ahmed, 151)
In itself this wouldn’t be so terrible, being but another example of imperialist bigotry and disingenuousness. The problem, Ahmed insists, arises when indigenous resistance movements begin to adopt this discourse as their own, accepting the discursive terms and parameters that the colonials prescribe to apprehend their own experience. Discussing the work of bourgeois male modernizers in early 20th century Turkey and Iran, Ahmed notes both the sexism, explicit in the reduction of veiled women to silent and obdurate obstacles in the march to Westernization, and the uncritical espousal of Western mores in these discourses : “In their stinging contempt for the veil and the savagery with which they attack it, these two members of the ruling class…reveal their true motivation: they are men of the classes assimilating to European ways and smarting under the humiliation of being described as uncivilized because ‘their’ women are veiled, and they are determined to eradicate the practice. That is to say, theirs are the words and acts of men exposed to the Western discourse who have accepted the representation of their culture, the inferiority of its practices, and the meaning of the veil. Why Muslim men should be making such statements and enacting such bands is only intelligible against the background of the global dominance of the Western world and the authority of its discourses, and also against the background of the ambiguous position of men and women of the upper classes, members of Muslim societies whose economic interests and cultural aspirations bound them to the colonizing West and who saw their own society partly through Western eyes…The idea…that improving the status of women entails abandoning native customs was the product of a particular historical moment and was constructed by an androcentric colonial establishment committed to male dominance in the service of particular political ends. Its…essential falseness become particularly apparent…when one bears in mind that those who first advocated it believed that Victorian mores and dress, and Victorian Christianity, represented the ideal to which Muslim women should aspire.” (Ahmed, 165-66)
Ahmed, of course, is not advocating (like certain radical subaltern studies scholars, who espouse a radically Heideggerian-cum-Burkean line that is steeped in nostalgic romanticism) a wholesale denigration of Western modernity. Rather, she wants us to see that the political valences of the veil derive from the anguished experience of this modernity, that it has become a polemical stake in the resistance against Western domination. The final pages of her book are exceptionally lucid and sound in their evaluation of the ‘exportation of culture’ that has taken place since the age of empire: “The presumption underlying these ideas is that Western women may pursue feminist goals by engaging critically with and challenging and redefining their cultural heritage, but Muslim women can pursue such goals only by setting aside the ways of their culture for the non-androcentric, non-misogynist ways (such is the implication) of the West…The study of Muslim women in the West is heir to the history and to these discourses and to the ideas and assumptions they puveyed: it is heir to colonialism, to colonialism’s discourses of domination, and to its cooptation of the ideas of feminism to further Western imperialism. Research on Middle Eastern women thus occurs in a field already marked with the designs and biases written into it by colonialism…Consequently, awareness of this legacy…needs itself to be the starting point of any such investigation.” (Ahmed, 245) As Mr and Mrs Bush’s pseudo-feminist designs on Afghanistan prove, such an undertaking- in a world where much of the Western Left is totally ignorant as to how to express its solidarity with the Middle East in its struggle against American and Israeli domination- is more pressing today than ever before.
In Russia, acrimony between the oligarchs (themselves at war with one another) and the politicos enmesh the fate of millions in a deadly struggle over which they have neither interest nor control. Independent trade union activity is proscribed, hampering peaceable political mobilization on the ground. In China, the political has been entirely liquidated by astronomical growth rates and the promise of enrichment. Both countries are now bolstered by vulgar us-against-the-world chauvinism, flaunting their GDPs as badges of national pride. In a sense, one fails to see what separates the growth-for-growth’s sake, accumulation-at-any-cost mentality of the Chinese Communist Party from its Maoist predecessors. Both countries are racked by riots, wildcat strikes and other acts of desperation (the mass suicides at a Foxconn factory in China being a case in point) as a consequence of absurd labor laws, both countries are run by oligarchic cartels who, in internationalizing their operations, look to dispense with their national obligations. In the West, meanwhile, the thorough commodification of politics renders the citizen into a ‘customer’ who casts his or her vote as though it were an expression of consumer confidence in an attractive name brand: “So familiar are we with this crossover from consumer to political behavior that we lose sight of the consequences: the press’s and public’s endless obsession with politician’s individual character traits masks the reality of the consensus platform. In modern political performances, the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs, tastes- an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility.” (Sennett, 165)
Little wonder, then, that this dictatorship of the relative- wherein every positive and comprehensive project for political transformation has been extirpated in lieu of anomic individualism- is helpless before the explosions of negativity that it invariably secretes. When faced with the desire for universality and communal belonging that it has foreclosed and repressed, a desire that manifests itself in forms as varied as religious millenarianism, neo-fascist violence and ultra-left terrorism, neoliberal humanitarianism can only respond with fear and brutality- hardly affects that we associate with understanding. When Ali Haroun, a representative of the secular FLN party in Algeria, states that “If the FIS (note-a radical Islamist party competing with FLN for seats in the Algerian government) has the right to use democracy to destroy democracy, then don’t count me any longer among the democrats” (quoted in Viorst, 250), he indicates, in a precise and succinct way, the impassable limits of liberal democracy, which structures a field of permissible choices around a set of exclusions and prohibitions. It is here that Haroun indicates, without being entirely conscious of doing so (‘democracy’ for him being indistinguishable from ‘liberalism’) the Schmittian paradox that liberal democracy is built on- if the accent is placed upon ‘democracy’ and the popular will runs contrary to liberal mandates (individual rights, freedom of speech, a multiparty electoral democracy, etc.), democracy itself would have to be suspended. This is another way of saying that there are certain liberal democratic principles that are ultimately non-negotiable, since they structure the entire transcendental frame in which different political issues are discussed and contested. What this formally universal framework- the universality of which, to paraphrase Hegel, is irrevocably stained by particularity- cannot tolerate is its replacement by another transcendental frame, whether this assumes the form of an Islamic state premised upon the shari’a or a socialist one grounded upon the confiscation and abolition of private property.
It is from this vantage point that we can properly appreciate the salience, as well as the ambiguities of Mouffe’s project. Mouffe is convinced that the liberal democratic paradigm is the correct one, and her proposal to work towards an agonistic pluralism based upon spirited political competition is certainly laudable. Yet, her entire argument stands and falls upon the possibility of converting antagonism into agonism, as though antagonism were a libidinal drive that could be ‘sublimated’ and domesticated in and through the liberal democratic framework. Nowhere does Mouffe treat the problem of those who ‘use democracy to destroy democracy’, who participate in the liberal democratic game in order to do away with it altogether. Nor does she seem to take into account the fact that liberal democracy is obliged to suspend itself in the face of such adversaries, violating its own sacrosanct principles in order to defend them from an ominous threat. Mouffe has no ready answers for such dilemmas, and her work seems to foreclose any possibility of such a zero sum game. When she speaks of reviving the poles of Left and Right in contemporary politics, one wonders how far either party is permitted to veer in their respective policies- surely there can be no amicability or mutual respect between the far Left and the extreme Right, the one being driven by a passionate desire to eliminate the other. The experience of the forced choice- being given the right to choose as well as the moral obligation to make the ‘right’ choice- is one that the partisans of Hamas and Hezbollah have become intimately acquainted with, and liberal democracy’s congenital inability to accept wholly legitimate challenges to its hegemony, whether this takes the form of Salvador Allende, Jean-Bertrand Aristide or Hugo Chavez, is well-documented.
There are no easy answers to such problems, but Chantal Mouffe’s insistent emphasis upon their resolution in the political arena, through the procedures of public debate, sustained dialogue and free political competition, are sorely needed in a world where terroristic, trans/anti-political violence is regularly employed by Western ‘civilization’ and its enemies. That the West continues to treat political Islam as a Blanquist conspiracy intent on shattering the foundations of Western civility are culture is thoroughly irresponsible. Far from being a monolithic and monomaniacal monstrosity, political Islam is composed of many heterogeneous tendencies, some of which can be regarded as ‘fellow travelers’ of the radical Left. On the opposite side of the spectrum, its most extremist tendencies can and should be apprehended against the background of neoliberal globalization, which has armed and sponsored reactionary mullahs, supported repressive and corrupt regimes across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa while declaring its unequivocal support for the most vicious colonial power of our time, Israel. The consequences of this were discussed four decades ago in Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth- immense class disparities, the production of a corrupt and parasitic native bourgeoisie that siphons its money to tax havens abroad and indulges in conspicuous consumption at the expense of local industry and development, obscene injustices underwritten by foreign support and a formidable military apparatus. Combined and uneven development results in an urbane, Westernized class of technocrats on one end of the social ladder and slums, illiteracy and mass unemployment on the other.
The longer liberal democracy insists on repressing the formidable desire for meaning and empowerment in a world that is severely deficient of either, the more vulnerable it will become to apocalyptic movements that devote themselves to hastening its end. It would also be prudent to realize that, having exorcised the specter of worldwide communism and having kept the terrorist barbarians outside of its gates for as long as it could, the Western world- where resentment against austerity measures and populist rage against high finance have been incubating for the last two years- is primed for violent implosions of its own, convulsions that afflict it from the inside. To deliver us from such a cannibalization of the social, the formulation of an anti-capitalist political agenda, built upon egalitarian, internationalist and universalist principles, is an absolute priority. In this regard, Susan George’s Sorelian call for a new political ‘myth’ is apposite . Invoking the memory of the Shop Stewards Councils in World War I Britain, George pays tribute to the tremendous sense of moral purpose that guided this revolutionary effort to restructure work relations and reshape the very contours of the economy through a collaborative process. Whatever shape the new myth takes in the near future,
|Wednesday, July 21st, 2010|
|On Tzara's "Approximate Man"
having read this collection and lee harwood's 'chanson dada', i am now convinced that- alongside his countryman gherasim luca and aime cesaire- tristan tzara was the very best of the surrealist poets.
true, his verse can be exasperating in its unevenness (this, lamentably, is a distinctively surrealist trait, which never aspired towards poetic perfection to begin with), but the anthology does an extraordinary job of depicting the intrinsic *continuity* of his concerns, concerns which are much closer to us, the crestfallen clochards of postmodernity, than any of his contemporaries. like mallarme, tzara is concerned with vanishings, evanescences and disappearances, the ultimate (hegelian) identity of truth and 'illusory' appearance, irruptions that border upon the imperceptible, momentary flickerings of non-sense that can only be grasped by exacting effort. this is precisely the way in which tzara manages to bridge the intensely personal intimacy of the lyric form (few poems manage to sustain this sort of soul-searching subjectivity without becoming soporific) with its universal address and import.
for me, 'approximate man' is about hope, faith, tenacity. poetry, in tzara's conception, is a painful exercise of fidelity, a tightening of nerves, a seizing of singularities from the voracious maw of lassitude, indifference and disgust. thus, there is a monastic austerity, a remorseless rigor in tzara's work that contrasts starkly with the 'will to inebriation' that typifies surrealist poetics. there is a sense of purpose here that approaches solemnity, and the high seriousness of tzara's poetic production is likely to upset readers accustomed to the kaleidoscopic, freewheeling delirium of automatic writing which, to my knowledge, was not a technique that tzara indulged in. the experience of reading tzara is so 'difficult' because he does not operate on the surface of sense or sonority alone- while affording many pleasures to both the ear and the third eye, tzara tries desperately to galvanize a gallimaufry of images into a coherent conception of reality. anachronistic as it may have been in the high tide of the avant garde, tzara was deeply committed to writing MEANINGFUL poetry, poetry that would do more than point at an absent reality that poetry could merely prefigure (the symbolist heritage that surrealism inherited). in 'approximate man', i think, the moral compass of surrealist practice is placed in full view, while the exigencies and the demands that history places upon poetic expression are probed within the poem itself, giving rise to a triumphant sense of literature's irrepressible power, a power retrieved from the collapse of surrealism's virginal childhood.
why then, are tzara's poems so tortured, so riddled with anguish and regret? if tzara is, like pessoa, like beckett, like mallarme, like artaud, one of the great poets of failure and frustration, it is because he was never satisfied with the surrealist conception of language as a productive cinematic machine, a canvas for unconscious imaginings. adorno's imperious denunciations of surrealism's arrested development are worth repeating: its 'undialectical' and indiscriminate exposition of gratuitous images could only lead to the twin cul-de-sacs of aestheticism and mysticism. can we say, then, that tzara's work elucidates the relationship of surrealism to its historical conditions, the intensely ethical orientation of its human concern? in tzara, the icarian flight of automatism turns back upon itself, gazing back at the scorched earth from which it sprung. while affirming its inexorable autonomy, literature no longer claims exclusive access to the absolute, which it is nonetheless tethered to as though by an umbilical cord. this marks the solidarity between surrealism and the communist struggle, the reconciliation of poetic praxis with emancipatory politics. renouncing its celestial privileges, the clipped wings of poetry are streaked with the blood and tears of suffering humanity. yet it would not be poetry if it made its peace with pathos- poetry is the inexorable demand to have done with penance. hence the generosity and the power of 'approximate man', which, while regarding mortal finitude with tenderness and mercy, affirms the infinite, indomitable right of promethean revolt.
in this way, tzara saves literature from the dead end of transgression and its dialectical waltz with propriety, literary or social. a poetry that is truly 'trans-bourgeois', without exhausting itself in hyperactive formal experimentation. a poetry that is delivered from the french, all-too-french, kantian-schopenhaurian horizon of the sacred noumena. if tzara can say, with rimbaud, that the 'true life is elsewhere', it is not because poetry is forever ensconced in the slough of despond, expelled from a state of grace that is purely hypothetical. literature inhabits the space between nostalgia and anticipation, gathering the specral traces, the consequences of a truth that has vanished, clearing a space in which new certitudes will announce themselves. poetry is thwarted because it is ensnared in a critical impasse- it cannot speak with absolute certainty of that which has disappeared, nor can it properly prophesy that which will come. while literature cannot itself drain the real of the transient NOW into itself, it need not resign itself to mystical silence. what binds remembrance and expectation together is the unflinching avowal of CONTINGENCY, the fissure in every complacency which uncovers a primordial past while freeing the fugitive future. a poem, as a form of thought, is an aleatory affirmation, a caesura in the seamless cloth of possibility. this is the way in which it touches upon the impossible:
"The product of chance, it will return to chance, but to a humanized chance which would have lived out the space of a memory, a chance which would have taught memory its own adventurous ways of living and the inestimable perspectives it gives to human hope, through all the downfalls and infirmities, of bringing to life the object of dreams, outside every concurrence of circumstance." (198)
"Life appeared to me in cross section like an agate whose spots are moving in a perpetual flight of worms writhing alongside each other trying to avoid one another and seeking in a constant equilibrium a way out which would conform in contour to the oppositions, the barriers and the interdictions provoked by movement itself. Perhaps there will be a gap in the framework...Perhaps it will be seen that as darkness is only a crystal globe, a tumor, it is enough to break it in order for light to exist and to invade memory and the fear of death. Perhaps it will be a question of love. Then only will the moral laws empty their pockets, for man will be visible and visitable and no one will wish to know more than can be seen, the humanly thinkable will turn aside, on its tracks of the new laws of chance and humor, the hateful proplery thinkable which each day adds another stone to the millstone of our times of windowpanes and of clearings." (199)
we all know that, following their storied breaks with the surrealist movement, the likes of char, aragon, eluard and desnos all returned to the fold of literary orthodoxy, a maneuver that was in part inspired by their involvement in the communist party and the french resistance. we also know that their artistry suffered a good deal in the process, as they subordinated poetic expression to a populist poetics (char being a luminous exception to this).
tzara never capitulated to this compromise, and i can't help but feel that the sheer intransigence of his vision ensures that he remains among the most UNIVERSAL of the surrealist poets, his universality being a good deal closer to the likes of beckett, michaux, vallejo and artaud than his fellow wayfarers. despite the length of 'approximate man', there is a sinewy leanness and a precision in its menacing imagery that one rarely finds in surrealist poetry. the bloated gratuitousness, the overladen imagery, the ludic arbitrariness of surrealism are abandoned in favor of a highly concentrated, compressed style that, while harnessing the spontaneity of chance procedures (many of tzara's most arresting images were aleatory amendments to his original manuscripts, which bore the blemish of tzara's own inclinations towards symbolist sentimentality) achieves an unerring, almost mathematical clarity of vision that approaches that of mallarme. the incantatory refrains that punctuate each section gain momentum until they swell into paroxysms of pain or praise. there is a scarcely-veiled classicism that persists throughout tzara's best work- a hushed reverence for poetic communication and the capacity of his readers to receive its transmissions, however occult they may be on the surface-that never condescends to the hackneyed, naively humanistic 'neo-realism' of aragon, prevert or desnos.
in a way, i can't help but feel that much of tzara's earlier work is an 'approximation' of 'approximate man', which i now regard as one of the great epic poems of modernity, besides rimbaud's 'season in hell' (the black breath of which can be felt emanating from the bowels of 'approximate man') , whitman's 'song of myself', hart crane's 'the bridge' and neruda's 'heights of macchu picchu'. so, it is a bit anticlimactic to plough through the frostbitten fields of 'approximate man', only to be confronted with the taxonomic 'anti-poems' of tzara's dadaist youth, all of which were written to irritate and outrage. at the same time, 'approximate man' exerts a retroactive effect upon the slightly-juvenile execrations of the dadaist years, illuminating the latent moral purpose of these early fusillades.
near the close of this book, we are treated to the incandescent prose poems of tzara's late years. the seductively didactic 'seeds and bran' rivals peret in sheer imaginative power, siphoning the polemical thrust of the dadaist manifestos and tzara's nietzschean sense of the tragic through the protean plasticity of the surrealist imagination. i will be reading this collection for decades to come.
|Saturday, July 10th, 2010|
|Messr Badiou, What Is Your Political Position? On Badiou's 'Communist Hypothesis'
It seems to me that- having written three of the major philosophical interventions of our time- Badiou is now attempting to popularize his thought by presenting it in more accessible form. Think of this book, then, as an invitation to engage with some of the foremost questions in continental philosophy, a field which has always entertained an active relationship with its cultural and political exterior. For those of us who have been following Badiou closely over the last few years, this is more of the same. Large chunks of the book have also been culled from other texts (the Circonstances series, his novels and plays, Logics of Worlds...), though I would venture to say that this particular arrangement makes the connections between these seemingly disparate texts a lot clearer to the uninitiated. As the years go on, Badiou has been finding new ways to transmit and disseminate thoughts to audiences intimidated by the unwieldy, often-arcane tomes that populate today's philosophical landscape, nearly all of which require a polymath's erudition, a literatteur's aestheticism, a monomaniac's mental stamina, a pervert's anality and a masochist's endurance.
Those of us who work with philosophy can exult in the unparalleled rigor and logical gymnastics of Badiou's principal texts, but we can also rejoice in the fact that we can discuss these ideas with laymen, relevant as they are to our common fate as denizens of this belated world. I believe that this attests both to Badiou's belief in the universal transmissibility of truth (no flirting with the mystical aesthetics of silence and the ineffable here) and his insistence upon philosophy's universal, indiscriminate mode of address: "As a fiction of knowledge, philosophy imitates the matheme. As a fiction of art, it imitates the poem. As the intensity of an act, it is like a love without object. Addressed to all so that all may be in seizing the existence of truths, it is like a political strategy with no stakes in power." Poised upon the edge of the rancorous polemos (I would say that it is a philosopher's ETHICAL OBLIGATION to polemicize today) and erotic desire, Badiou is one of our most passionate proselytes today, an affirmative force akin to the likes of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre and Deleuze.
So, what's new? I believe that Badiou's Lacanian schema of the Communist Idea supplies the clearest expression of his materialist dialectic yet. It is also interesting that Badiou explicitly raises the Althusserian subject of ideology for the first time since his earliest texts. Put simply, the Communist Idea is a Borromean Knot that interfaces the Real of politics and the Symbolic regime of history through the medium of an Imaginary, interpellative (ideological) subjectivation. Or, (the unsymbolizble Real of) truth assumes the (Symbolic) structure of (an Imaginary) fiction. The subject process enacts a historical dialectic in which the Symbolic structure of places and knowledges is dis-placed by the exertions of subjective forcing. Emerging in the wake of the evental Real, the dynamic subjective process enters into a singular temporality (that of the future anterior) wherein it is possible to 'force' new bits of knowledge and transform the existing State of the situation, reacting back upon the transcendental logic (structured by its enyclopaedia of knowledges and index of intensities) that it inhabits. It is through an Imaginary identification that the human animal- a bundle of Symbolic predicates and coordinates- enters into the Real of a truth process that takes, as its aim, the transformation of this very Symbolic space. It is this Imaginary identification that makes it possible to treat the Real of its truth through Symbolic statements, incarnating it in transmissible, discursive form. At the same time, this process has a Real of its own- exposed to the Real, it welcomes the irruption of future Events that take it by surprise, revealing new possibilities that were imperceptible from within the limits of its horizon. This simple graphic schema captures, in a very powerful way, the dialectical form of Badiou's theory of the subject. Having reduced the Communist Idea to this formal framework, Badiou proposes to break with the idea of *A* Communist Politics, which would short circuit, in a catastrophically decisive way, the gaps between the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real by definitively identifying them with one another.
Does this mean that Badiou unreservedly affirms the Maoist proposal to 'Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom!', a maxim that has been appropriated by 'post-Marxists' of all stripes? Can we say that Badiou has cast in his lot with Laclau and Mouffe, Hardt/Negri and Judith Butler with their affirmations of post-party, hegemonic coalitions which give shelter to a kaleidoscopic plurality of interest groups and particularities? Or is Badiou capitulating to the Derridean expulsion of Marx to the phantasmal margins of the a venir, the sanctuary of messianic daydreams? I believe that all of Badiou's work up to this point would lead us to believe that this is not at all the case. Badiou states, in no uncertain terms, that the task of communism today is to find a form of organization, a rigorous discipline that- having discarded the saturated forms of the State and the party- faces the tasks that our time demands of it. To do so would involve- contrary to post-deconstructive fixations with difference and the impossibility of translation between contexts- the collective construction of the Same, the space of a One that isn't merely a tentative aggregate, a 'network' of differences and weak relations. This is why Badiou is so careful with his theoretical vocabulary- the proper designation for a member of this One is MILITANT.
Also of tremendous interest is Badiou's treatment of the 'cult of personality', which has languished in utter obscurity since Althusser's momentous anti-humanist repudiation of it. Having suffered a prohibition on the side of both the Left and the counter-revolutionary Right (the new philosophers), the texts of Robespierre, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Guevara, Castro and Mao have been rendered unreadable by decades of censure. Parallel to this is the widespread 'postmodern' tendency to humble its cultural correlates, the artistic avantgardes of the 20th century. A characteristic example of this would be Deleuze and Guattari's juxtaposition of Artaud and Breton, sanctifying the irrepressible 'nomadic' singularity of the former while disparaging the Stalinist, 'paranoiac' authoritarianism of the former. What this operation, which is irreducibly MORAL in nature, obscures is
a) The object of Surrealist activity, which was ultimately to probe the interstices of art and politics without collapsing either pole into the other. Surrealism was, in my eyes, the first great attempt to create a political art that would hold fast to the irreconcilable tension between politics and aesthetics. This required the collective determination of a platform, a line and a shared orientation. All of the great 'pariahs' of Surrealism (Dali, Artaud, Bataille) have been regaled as sovereign singularities humiliated by the inevitable mediocrity of Surrealist conformity. While these figures have my unconditional admiration, and while it must be admitted that they indicated many of the aporiae latent in the Surrealist movement, to take their side without reservations would be the same as backing Kautsky instead of Trotsky, the Central Committee instead of Lenin in 1917, the Mensheviks instead of the Bolsheviks...
b) The internationalist outlook of Surrealism, that cuts transversally across cultural frontiers and gave an inexorable impetus to Negritude and Aime Cesaire...The frenzy of unprecedented collective activity that gave birth to works that, while bearing the proper names of their creators, were really products of communal experimentation (the 'surrealist objects' of Giacometti, Dali, Man Ray and the like, the ventures in automatic writing that would culminate in 'The Immaculate Conception', the paintings of Max Ernst's middle period...)
Read alongside Ranciere's 'Aesthetics and its Discontents', Verso's timely Revolutionaries series and Badiou's own 'The Century', 'The Communist Hypothesis' authorizes us to reconsider the heritage that said century has left us, retrieving it from the occlusion and mystification that generations of petit bourgeois anarchism and neo-conservative liberalism have condemned it to. Central to this re-evaluation of our history is Badiou's emphasis on SEQUENTIALITY and PERIODIZATION, two concepts that allow us to have done with postmodernity's fixation with statistical results (the number of corpses in the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, Stalinist collectivization, the Gulags, the insurpassable impasses and sectarianisms of the avantgardes), which always amount to the judgments of the 'neutral observer'. In order to THINK these phenomena and the points at which they led to disaster, it is necessary to reconstruct the interior subjective space that they constituted, to trace the truths that they espoused, to locate the precarious points of decision (bifurcation) that punctuate them, to assess the value of the risks that they ventured. It is only then that we have the right to levy a verdict upon their consequences (consequences that, we must add, can only be properly SEEN from within the interior of these processes).
Supplementing this is Badiou's conception of the 'eternality' of truths, the trans-temporal dimension of a truth process that contradicts the linear flow of historical time. It is this eternity that makes them compossible, susceptible to 're-activation' in the present moment. What this means is that truths can never really perish- there is a dialectic wherein later [chronologically later] truths exert a retroactive effect upon the arrangement and sense of previous truths, but in the last reckoning truths, in their inalienable openness to retrieval and re-activation, constitute a repository of virtual trajectories that can be extrapolated ad infinitum through subjective formalization. These trajectories terminate at certain points because of their betrayal or obfuscation, but they can be re-assumed. Each of these assumptions incarnates a certain SEQUENCE of its actualization. This point becomes especially interesting when we consider Badiou's discussions of the Paris Commune, which postulate a temporal paradox that illuminates all of the deadlocks of Communist politics in the 20th Century. When read chronologically, the Leninist party can be seen to be a response to the shortcomings of the Paris Commune, and the Cultural Revolution can be regarded as a sequence differentiating itself from the inertia of that party form. Three different problematics formed one after another, each taking their point of departure from the limits of the last. What confounds this analysis, Badiou proposes, is that the sequence beginning with Lenin identified the WRONG PROBLEM in the Paris Commune. In an audacious move, Badiou contends that the Paris Commune had already SOLVED a problem that the party-form would find impossible to address on ITS OWN TERMS (ie without ceding its place to the autonomous rule of communes).
This permits Badiou to say that while the Leninist can be seen as an advance in one regard, it was disastrously regressive in another- the Paris Commune had effectively enacted the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', the 'withering away of the State' that the bureaucratic Party apparatus and the Cultural Revolution (mired as it was behind the transcendental horizon of the Party as indispensable locus of revolutionary activity) had failed to accomplish. So, insofar as Badiou holds true to the Communist Idea as the indisputable telos of egalitarian politics, he can propose that we hold fast to the truth manifested/enacted by its 20th century variants, while cutting ourselves loose of their archaic forms. The Cultural Revolution, while commendable in its reinvigoration of mass dissent and autonomous organization against an ossified bureaucratic structure, confronted the immovable transcendental limits of the party form and its conservative mandates. Having exhausted the possibilities of this form, it revealed its ultimate inadequacy. The Paris Commune, having sidestepped this dead-end, deserves to be repeated, re-activated.
|The Interiority Of Marxist Politics: Reading Badiou's 'Theory of the Subject'
To certain of Badiou's dedicated exegetes (among whom we can name the excellent Peter Hallward), Theory of the Subject is little more than a historical curiosity, a transitional stage that finds Badiou formulating positions that he would later abandon in a decisive and irrevocable way. Badiou himself, in the extensive exercise of 'self-criticism' that prefaces Being and Event, gives weight to such a substantiation.
Yet, for all that, those of us who have passed through the forbidding gates of Logics of Worlds should remain incredulous. Having read Bruno Bosteels' incisive introduction to this English translation, as well as Badiou's somewhat reserved endorsement of this reading in The Communist Hypothesis, I believe that this text can be regarded as a keystone for the rest of Badiou's philosophical edifice. Just as the Critique of Judgment serves as the mediating link between Kant's First and Second critiques while, at the very same time (a point that Deleuze and Adorno were keenly aware of), indicating a virtual excess that cannot be domesticated by Kant's system, Theory of the Subject remains of inestimable importance if we are to understand the central problematic of his thought, a thought that is uniquely his own. Bosteels wants us to see that it is in this book, heretofore regarded as a curio of intellectual history, the Swann's Way of Badiou's ongoing bildungsroman, that this singularity can be seen for the very first time. I would like, then, to show why this is.
We all remember that famous axiom in Logics of Worlds, which indicates in an unprecedented way the slight-but-momentous difference that distinguishes Badiou from democratic-materialist-historicism: 'There are bodies and languages, EXCEPT there are truths'. All of Badiou's thought is contigent upon this state of exception: "Further, and more profoundly, philosophy, confronted with such circumstances, seeks the link between the three types of situations: it seeks the link between a choice, a distance and an exception. A philosophical concept, in Deleuze's sense, that is a creation, is, I maintain, always that which knots together a problem of choice (or of decision), a problem of distance (or of gap), and a problem of exception (or of event).'
This definition of philosophy, which Badiou has remained faithful to since Theory of the Subject and Manifesto for Philosophy, is absolutely crucial if we are to understand Badiou's relation/non-relation to the Marxist tradition at large, particularly his eschewal of political economy (Das Kapital Volumes 1-3) in favor of 'interventionist' (some would say propagandistic) texts written by militants in a critical conjuncture. Keeping this conjunctural focus in mind, we can understand (just as we can understand Althusser's theoretical anti-humanism as a polemical position assumed in opposition to the blithe Young Marx humanism of Sartre and the post-Stalinist Soviets, a theoretical regression of the highest order if there ever was one) Badiou's demarcation of the frontiers between his philosophy and the dominant discourses of the time- structuralism and post-structuralism. Badiou's thought has inhered in this break for more than three decades now, and this book outlines the consequences of this rupture in the clearest possible fashion.
Zizek, whose glowing, somewhat hyperbolic sales-blurb on the dust jacket affirms the revolutionary aspect of this book, has often taken Badiou to task for neglecting the structural analytic of Marxist political economy in favor of a theory of subjectivity that, in its preoccupation with interiority, subtraction and fidelity, dispenses with the 'real' of the economy. There is a certain irony in this, considering this is the same Zizek who, in his impassioned pleas for a renewal of economic analysis, has shown little evidence of this in his own work, in its brilliant revival of ideological analysis/ re-formulation of the hackneyed dialectic between base and superstructure. Is Zizek's entire ontology, premised as it is upon a groundbreaking and refreshingly counter-intuitive reading of German Idealism, not a forceful demonstration of the untenability of such vulgar Marxist binarizations? Has he not illustrated, with unflinching rigor, the relationship between 'superstructural' idealism and its 'material ground', creating in the process a robust, sophisticated materialism that assesses the very materiality of ideological constructs as real abstractions that have relative autonomy from their economic ground?
Not that I am, in any way, opposed to Zizek's proposed rehabilitation of Marxist political economy. I too agree that cultural studies- that formidable academic industry- has, in its fetishization of ideology critique and its fascination with cultural forms, has forgotten that it is the real of the economy that opens and overdetermines the transcendental frame for these kaleidoscopic condensations.
An aside: It is a bit of a farce that, while taking its departure from some of the principal findings of post-structuralism, the historicist hermeneutics of cultural studies forgets one of the most powerful lessons propounded by the late Foucault: if power is monistic and resistance forms the reverse side of power, then one can properly say that the dialectic of Kantian critique with its object is ultimately static. While 'deconstructing' the heritage of Western 'metaphysics' with such fierce licence, exposing their operations in contemporary culture, these radical hermeneuts remain firmly within the Kantian-Hegelian dialectic of State and civil society. Foucault, for all of his anti-Hegelianism, was not oblivious to this problem, a problem that he probes in the self-reflexive interviews that he granted near the end of his life: if we are to think non-dialectical difference, political singularity and becomings unauthorized by a synchronic/structuralist analytic, we need to rethink critique's relationship with power in the light of criticism's intrinsic impasses. I paraphrase Foucault: 'For so long, politics has subsisted on complaint and sentiment- you can submit an impassioned, lyrical plea to the State, but remember that the State is never obliged to listen.' THIS is the 'cutting edge' of Foucault that tips towards the 'historical dialectic' that Badiou speaks of, the face that is turned towards the opening of militant truths.
So, translating this into Badiou's terminology, what can we say about cultural studies and its interpretative practices? Simply put, criticism is PLACED within the status quo- for all of its radicality, the university discourse merely performs the regulative function that power allots to it, circumambulating around its inherited place instead of enacting a DISPLACEMENT of the very system of places through creative praxis. Kant's brutal maxim expresses this with unparalleled clarity: "Criticize all you want, but OBEY!" An inertia in the guise of a deterritorialization, a mysticism of the Last Man- little wonder that many of Derrida's progeny wear the threadbare garb of the 'sad militant', exulting in the obscurantist religiosity of 'weak thought' and its vague eschatological supplications to 'radical Otherness'. The very dangers of the 'postmodern hypothesis', which post-structuralist epigones pretend to attack while exulting in the closure that it institutes, are all enacted here: if we are a civilization without history and without historicity, then all we can do is put our hands together and pray for the Messiah while tacitly accepting the endess perpetuation of the worst. All while satiating our consciences by wearing alter-globalist sneakers, listening to pseudo-dylanic alt-country, harping on the virtues of 'cultural hybridity' and deconstructing the pop culture that endlessly fascinates us. Postmodernism is the ultimate alibi for the petit bourgeois.
So, let us repeat with Zizek, with Badiou, with Laclau, that it is imperative that we return to revolutionary theory, of which political economy is a crucial part. At the same time, I can't help but ponder upon the contradiction between Zizek's vague, reductive declarations and the
properly philosophical complexity of his generaltheory. While I am ambivalent towards many of Ernesto Laclau's recent work, I think his reservations towards Zizek's polemical proclamations in 'Contingency, Hegemony, Universality' were entirely justified. These confrontational declaratives have yet to be fleshed out with concrete content.
It is also surprising that Zizek, whose 'Revolution At The Gates' and preface to Trotsky's 'Communism and Terrorism' allowed us to THINK the relevance of Leninism to contemporary politics again, chastises Badiou for doing the same. Badiou, in Theory of the Subject, makes it perfectly clear that his Marxism is a TRUTH PROCEDURE that sustains its subjective process by assuming its intrinsic PRECARITY. Kierkegaard had already shown us that Hegelian dialectics was unable to think interiority and the singular/molecular intensities that constitute it, operating exclusively with unitary, pre-constituted molarities seized from the outside. Hegelianism, in expelling the singularities that emerge in time by making them comparable with one another, had rendered itself incapable of thinking historicity. In order to think the passion of the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious, it was necessary to punctuate the unilateral process of Hegelian history with so many points of subjectivation, each of which opened up so many virtual, uniquely differentiated trajectories of time, possibilities that remain imperceptible to the placid, inhuman eye of the Hegelian dialectic. Nietzsche's own objections to the Hegelian procedure is just as widely known- the Hegelian dialectic is the method of the professor who conceptualizes while keeping his hands clean; what matters is the tragic dialectic that is LIVED on an existential level. Cue Difference & Repetition....
When we keep all this in mind, we can better understand where Badiou is going when he disjoins the structural, 'algebraic' dialectic of Das Kapital and Althusser's Reading Capital from the 'historical dialectic' of every subjective process. Put simply, the topographical, 'birds eye view' captured by structural analysis only leaves the truth of Marxism 'half-said', in the same way that any societal configuration (contingent on a static repertoire of functions and places) disavows the split subject by reducing him/her to a mere symbolic placemarker.
In Marxist terms, the structural dialectic renders itself amenable to the regimes of accepted knowledge because it merely treats the transcendental SYMBOLIC frame that capitalism opens up. As we have seen with Levi-Strauss, there is also the structuralist temptation to regard this symbolic arrangement as the unconscious of the Real itself- Levi-Strauss, in his comprehensive analyses of mythology, fabricates another myth of his own by absolutizing an invariable symbolic configuration as the 'deep structure' of social reality. Marx himself is not exempt from these troubling ambiguities- his assertion that the anatomy of the man is the key to the ape has led some to believe that he facilitated a universal structural key to understanding every pre-capitalist society as tending, asymptotically, toward capitalist organization.
To be sure, Marx's analyses of the crises and contradictions of capitalism indicate the Real that the market attempts to circumvent by all sorts of disavowals, foreclosures and repressions, all of which exact catastrophic costs from those who devote their lives to defending it. Badiou's rejoinder to this obvious fact is double, as we shall see. Its salience to those of us who lament endlessly about the indestructibility of capitalism in the wake of yet ANOTHER disastrous crisis is sobering indeed. Let us set out these two co-dependent theses in simple terms:
1. If, as Badiou affirms with such unequivocal virulence, 'There is no History' and all History is a History of the State (echoing Sylvain Lazarus and Nietzsche on the 'Uses of History'), then every invocation of the so-called 'logic of History' amounts to a cheap eschatology instrumentalized by the State. Between the knowledge that the structural dialectic affords and the emergence of subjectivity there is NO RELATIONSHIP. Jacques Ranciere, in his brilliant reading of Brecht and other forms of 'dialectical art' in 'Aesthetics and its Discontents' already outlined this crucial argument: the problem with commodity fetish is not that people are unaware, but that they are capable of disavowing their awareness. "Je sais bien, mais quand meme..."Class consciousness does not happen through mere knowing- it is perfectly plausible that an acute knowledge of exploitation could lead to nothing more than the endless statist negotiation that characterises trade unionism.
2. The structural dialectic takes as its object an order that Marxism, through the Real of political praxis, seeks to obliterate entirely. This is the order of PRODUCTION, a historical stage that Marxism is dedicated to abolishing. What the structural dialectic presents is the dialectic of this order's internal evolution- hence we can map the dialectic of critique and its absorption by the State, worker struggles and the State, crises and the market, insofar as they are sublated and recovered by this order's historical preservation. What results in this dialectic is a conservation of the same invariant terms and the relations between them (working class, lumpenproletariat, capitalists, rentiers). But what about those transversal processes that reject this grammar and this vocabulary? Processes that bracket this symbolic frame, establishing a 'plane of composition' that, by creating an inalienable distance from its despotic operation, suspends it in order to construct a new symbolic space, one that finds its ultimate telos in the consummate destruction of the old one?
This is why Badiou says that the enemy of the proletariat (which is NOT reducible to the symbolic, sociological category of the 'working class' but, as Marx showed, cuts transversally across class frontiers) is not the bourgeoisie, which would reduce Marxism to being little more than a dimestore Manicheism, but the VERY SYSTEM that determines the symbolic places of bourgeoisie and proletariat. In this way, Badiou is a true Lacanian- he exhorts us to remember that the subject is constitutively SPLIT, that it cannot be bound by its symbolic predicates and its imaginary traits/qualities.
So, let us retrieve the frayed thread of this argument. It is not that Badiou places the significance of political economy in question (though his prophecies that this objective, 'structural dialectic' could be appropriated tout court by the academic machines of mainsstream economics and sociology while purging it of its revolutionary, subjective content), it is simply that he wants to highlight the other dimension that Althusser had opened up with his thinking of historicity- the 'concrete analysis of the concrete situation' that political subjectivity would have to engage with, point by point. Badiou's insistence that there is NO transitivity between the structural dialectic and the singular subjective dialectics that open up in the seamless ontological fabric of being plainly articulates the orientation that his later work would take.
This is why Theory of the Subject is, in a fashion similar to Lenin's Materialism & Empirico-Criticism, at once a work of philosophy and a polemical treatise written 'in the conjuncture'. I firmly believe that we remain within this conjuncture. Difficult as it is (and this is by FAR the most difficult of Badiou's major works), this is an invaluable evaluation of our philosophical present.
Addendum 1. This book contains the very best reading of Lacan and his relationship to a 'third materialism', the materialist dialectic. There is a concerted engagement with the insurpassable limits of Lacan's 'anti-philosophy', limits that, I would say, can be understood if we remember that psychoanalysis was before all else a clinical practice. Prior to Zizek's astonishing reappraisal of the Hegelian dialectic and its relationship with Lacan's conceptions of subjectivity and truth, Badiou engaged in a sustained analysis of Lacan's thought, an analysis that is commendably sensitive to the periodizations in Lacan's evolving problematic. The sections on Lacan are extraordinarily dense, written in a ludic style that flirts with Lacan's propensity for oracular utterances. However, as far as I can tell, Badiou takes Lacan to task for remaining within the ambit of the structural dialectic, adhering to Freud's static topography where the Real is that which always return to its place (ergo Lacan's suggestion that May '68 was little more than an Oedipal provocation).
These are limits that, as we know, are sidestepped by Zizek's coupling of Lacan with Hegel. It is for this reason that all refutations of Zizek's readings of Lacan and Hegel ("but Hegel wasn't a pan-logicist! Lacan is so phallocentric!") are rather counterproductive. It seems to bother no-one that Derrida's Nietzsche and Heidegger are deeply problematic and reductive in their own way. Perhaps it would be more useful to understand Zizek's unique take on Hegelian dialectics?
Addendum 2. We are all very much aware of Badiou's contempt for the 'ethical turn' that spawned the likes of the 'new philosophers' and Lyotard. Yet- and this has been troubling me for some time- can we not say that Lyotard's hyper-Levinasian retrieval of the Kantian sublime as passivity before the Law fulfills all of the criteria of a truth process? His aesthetics, as suffused as they are with a nauseating pathos, charge us, as ethical witnesses, to consecrate our lives to the inhuman Law. This Law, of course, was born of the traumatic irruption of the Real, the Holocaust that broke the continuity of tme in two. I think this book, with its ethical categories of anxiety (at the point of subjectivation) and the superego (as the bedrock of castration underlying the subjective process), goes a long way to answering that question.
|Saturday, July 3rd, 2010|
|The Difference Is...I'm A Surrealist! Dali And The Surrealism of the Beautiful Soul
The Difference Is...I'm A Surrealist! Notes On Dali's Surrealism of the Beautiful Soul
We are all familiar with Dali's extravagant denunciations of Surrealism, with its anarchic explosion of classical codes, its stretching of figuration to the very limits of its possibilities (the very point where it would confront its IMPOSSIBILITY without capitulating, ala Kandinsky, to the temptations of abstraction), its probing of the antinomies of artistic production in capitalist life, in short- its EXUBERANT DISORIENTATION and lack of anchorage in the 'realities' of history and its inexorable movement. The contrarian tendencies of modern art, which exhausted itself in juvenile denials of historical fate, had culminated in an atmosphere of pathetic decadence, an Icarian affirmation of lacerated emasculation. We are also familiar with his proposals for a revived realism, one that would install the productive insights of Surrealism into the heart of a positive order, a sublation that would convert its hostile negativity towards the reality principle into the very motor of its development. This would require a retrieval of the 'eternity' of art that modernity had spurned in its Oedipal revolt against classicism, thereby forsaking its indispensable destiny. Why, then, do Dali's late canvasses, in their desperate attempts to unblock the stagnant tributaries of modern art to the eternal source of classicism, lack the vitality of his Surrealist endeavors? Ian Gibson's extraordinary biography represents a tentative attempt to supply an answer, one that I will supplement with reference to Surrealism's mobilization of Hegel and Marx.
The irony of this lies in the fact that Dali had, at this point, broken entirely with the Surrealist aesthetic of process over works, denouncing the practice of automatism as a cul-de-sac that belonged to the impotent negation of modern art. This is to say that Dali's early Surrealist works, informed by the paradoxical/impossible Surrealist aspiration to produce works that negated their own petrification as works, are of far greater value than his 'nuclear' cosmological canvasses, which, while admirable in their intent (subverting as they do the Surrealist privileging of interior space through the paranoiac-critical method, which reveals the ways in which the outside world is always-already saturated with unconscious desire), are as tiresome as they are banal. Reinvented as a prophet and a saint, Dali would supplement these empty vessels with cryptic elaborations on metaphysics, cosmology and quantum physics, proposing the impending advent of an 'affirmative culture' (Marcuse) that would draw the curtain on modernity, its antinomies and impasses. It seems clear that Dali, unlike the Surrealists, had not read his Hegel nor his Nietzsche closely.
For all of Dali's quasi-Nietzschean grandstanding, he ignores a crucial Nietzschean lesson that the Surrealist adventure remains faithful to- the deepest Yes resonates not in the Yea-Yuh of the ass, but within a certain way of saying No. What appeared to Dali as an atavistic recidivism on the part of the Surrealists, which espoused a continued fidelity to certain principles of Dada and the truth of automatism, was not a 'relapse' to a childhood that had been definitively superseded, but a tactical consideration. Surrealism was, above all else, a concerted and engaged attempt to think the gap between militant politics and avantgarde art, without subordinating one to the other. In holding on to this irreconcilable tension, the intensity of which varied with the vicissitudes of time, Surrealism can properly be described as a singular sequence of thought, a dynamic inquiry into the place of art in communal life.
Dali's renowned aphorism: "The difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist!" is more illuminating than it lets on: Dali, in his unflinching aestheticism, was perfectly prepared to abolish the dialectical tension between reality and surreality in favor of the imagination, a position that logically committed him to the consummate dismissal of injustice and violence as mere epiphenomena of the unconscious. By situating them on this psychic strata and passing them through the aesthetic prism of the paranoiac-critical method, Dali makes them all equivalent to one another, indifferent manifestations of a plastic mechanism that is essentially beyond good and evil. While the early Dali exposed the interpenetration of desire and reality, explicitly revealing civilization's unconscious investments in catastrophe, excavating the embedded perversions that sustain capitalist life, the late Dali would capitulate to pre-historic (or post-historic, it amounts to the same thing) mythology. One might say that the early canvasses are themselves steeped in myth- Dali perhaps made a bit too much of the 'bedrock of castration' to which humanity is riveted- but one thing becomes evident following Dali's excellent 'Nazi' paintings- libidinal economy would be jettisoned in lieu of vulgar metaphysics.
In this way, Dali's aesthetics might be regarded as a Surrealism purged of its social concern, a retreat into the 'eternity' of art at the expense of temporal engagement. The result? A cheap neo-Platonic mysticism that attempts to aim straight at the abiding eternal that subsists beneath the turmoil of time, an eternal that is becoming visible beneath the shifting kaleidoscope of ephemera. A Surrealism of the Beautiful Soul. The paradox of this is that Dali's gesture surrenders the autonomy of art entirely to an apocryphal, fatalistic 'logic of history', rendering the antagonism between art and the reality principle obsolete. The negativity of art would disappear in a fully postivized order where man would be reunited with the essence that he had externalized from himself. It is this that gives the lie to Dali's insistence of the primacy of art over history. On what basis does Dali announce the decrepitude of Dada and Surrealism, if not on his reading of the 'cunning of Reason', of the real as the rational? Revelation is placed entirely on the side of history and its archivists, while art is reduced to being a correct (read: profitable) expression of the 'spirit of the age'. In what way, then, was Dali's late art different from the socialist realism that he deplored?
What Gibson's biography reveals is that this dimestore Hegelianism was, for Dali, the ultimate dissimulation- a thinly-veiled alibi for Dali's opportunism and avarice, his servile willingness to place painting at the service of the highest bidder. Dali's absolutization of art was the ultimate imposture, obscuring the extent to which he betrayed it, advocating its eternal crucifixion upon the ignominious cross of so-called 'reality'. Little wonder that Dali has become synonymous with fashion and advertising- Dali’s late art was little more than an objective accounting of the permutations, the raw material that history supplied him with, a rapt fascination with the multifarious simulacra excreted from the bowels of the mass media.
This is not to say that we have nothing to learn from this magnificent turncoat. We can fully endorse his messianic prophecy of an art that rehabilitates the breach between the unconscious and waking life, emphasizing their dialectical interpenetration. What we cannot accept is Dali’s impetuous ‘jumping of the gun’, his reduction of the multiple temporalities of artistic events, indexing them to One uni-linear trajectory of historical development (a norm that, once adopted, can be used to condemn and marginalize tendencies that deviate from it). This is the deepest consequence of Dali’s reduction of art to judgment, the consummate denial and occlusion of the artistic events that punctuated the 20th century, opening so many points of departure from the ‘nightmare of history’ that Dali rhapsodized with such reckless abandon.
|Friday, March 12th, 2010|
|On Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland
Frayed Fabric: Dialectics, Change and History in Alice in Wonderland
For all of his preoccupations with Victoriana, Tim Burton is very much an auteur of our time. This formulation can only be understood if we insist that productions such as 300, Sin City, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, Marie Antoinette, Sweeney Todd and A Knight’s Tale are more directly illustrative of our desires and inclinations than their more ‘topical’ contemporaries. Whence our inexorable penchant for the rococo noblesse of the belle époque, the savage heroism of the Homeric epic, the murderous menace of the penny dreadful, the chastity of the chivalric romance? Can it be said that, having reached the ‘end of history’, we are condemned to an interminable retrospection of our storied past? Adrift in the swirling nebula of post-modernity, we grasp haphazardly at fragments of lost time.
To endorse such a hypothesis is to affirm that we are an essentially nostalgic age, as well as a tragic one. Movies such as these, then, would be fantasmatic expressions of a disavowed yearning, symptoms of an inexpiable loss. Nothing could be more naïve. We may be orphans of history, but we stake no claim upon our inheritance. The first thing that strikes the eye about such films (and they are eminently visual spectacles) is their profound complicity with fashion. The symbiosis of the two yields a kaleidoscopic array of ephemera, an iridescent patina of forms that yield all manner of surprising conjunctions. The fact that 300 siphoned an ancient narrative through state-of-the-art technology (digital manipulation, blue screens) is not paradoxical in the least. It merely incarnates, in a strange and unprecedented way, a vision that has haunted Eisenstein, Vertov, Godard and Brakhage- an ecstatic cinema, a purely autonomous visuality unfettered from every worldly and referential constraint. The image, when freed from the limitations of corporeality, constitutes a hermetic world unto itself, one subject to endless manipulation. Therein lies the miracle of Photoshop. Of course, things are not quite so simple. As Baudrillard has shown us, the clasps of extra-cinematic ‘reality’ have loosened their despotic grip on the possible. Thus the immaculate, digitally-rendered abdominal muscles of the Spartans in 300 merely exemplify the logic of a world in which bodybuilders wear their musculature as a suit of armor, ‘toning’ (a term weightlifting shares with the aesthetics of photography) and refining sinew with chemical cocktails and training regimens. If contemporary film shows us anything, it is that we live in a world of citation- rippling, Hellenic pectorals, 17th Century beauty moles, the pallid countenance of the Geisha- these are so many symbolic markers, ‘looks’ that can be wrested from their contextual moorings and transposed into our own. This polymorphous plurality, which transfigures the archives of history into a vast beauty pageant, is what gives us pleasure. If anything, we are a civilization of the shopping mall, where destiny is abjured and freedom of choice is esteemed above all else.
In the shadowy recesses of this sprawling food court, the discerning connoisseur can find the confections of Tim Burton. The fare on offer here is admittedly not for the squeamish, but the savor that lingers on the palate is not, in the last reckoning, disagreeable to modern tastes. In short, dear gourmands, you need not fear for your digestion. Let me refer you to his latest creation- through some marvelous process of synthetic transmogrification, Burton has managed to condense one of the heartiest platters in English literature into a bite-size capsule, coated with the saccharine of sentiment. A cursory glance at the ingredients should suffice to sway the surliest cynic- the talismanic Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, a suitably ghoulish Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts. To extract this delectable kernel, this alchemical distillate from Carroll’s unwieldy text is a laborious task- he had to press through layers of opaque flesh, purging it of its putrid pulp. Following this, he proceeded to process the rancid residue, allowing it to ferment in the intestines of middle-class morality. One can be sure that the pill, which satisfies all FDAA guidelines and supplies every nutritional requirement, spares you all the elementary processes of mastication and alimentation.
Of course, this is not to say that it does not simulate all of the delights of a gratifying repast, stimulating all of the requisite faculties. Alice In Wonderland is a sumptuous smorgasbord of forms, from the Friedrich-esque ruins of the climatic clash with the Jabberwocky to the Gothic majesty of the Red Queen’s palace and fire-ravaged plains worthy of Kubin. Many shots have the same crystalline impeccability as a Symbolist painting. One might even say that the concluding battle, an arching shot suspended precariously above a vertiginous drop, is one of the most awesome set-pieces that Burton has yet constructed. Yet this scarcely excuses Burton from eschewing all of Carroll’s formal innovations in lieu of its ‘allegorical’ qualities. One might go so far as to say that this is a thoroughly treasonous treatment of Carroll’s book, transforming its ludic weightlessness and its intellectual gaiety into a ponderous parable of the CS Lewis sort.
One might, of course, argue that fidelity and cinematic adaptation ought to be mutually exclusive. Artaud and Bresson have said as much, pleading for a cinema and a theater that liberates itself from the hegemony of the literary text. Yet, one gets the feeling that even if Burton were to reproduce all of the cosmetic indices of Carroll’s text, exercising a meticulous adherence to its letter, he would remain incapable of grasping the singularity of the Alice books. We need not be reminded that Burton is a devout Dickensian. All of Dickens’ hallmarks- his mordant, malicious humor, his delectation in the excesses of the human physiognomy, his yen for dust, decrepitude and decay, his taste for the macabre, the grotesque and the uncanny, are deployed with abandon throughout Burton’s oeuvre. It is that sense of lurking, insidious menace, the covert transgressions that bubble beneath the antiseptic surface of Victorian respectability, that Burton thrusts to the fore in his remarkable films. Yet Burton fails to grasp the element that distinguishes Dickens from all of his peers, marking his work as the apotheosis of his epoch, his people, in the same way that Balzac’s Comedie Humaine exemplifies his- the senseless, machinic automatism that drives his texts like a dynamo, the architectural structures that give shape to his narratives and circumscribe them. This is not the Dickens of the early picaresques, but the Dickens of Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit and Bleak House, the demographer, geographer and sociologist of a burgeoning London, with its zones of exclusion, its rigid partitions, its insoluble contradictions, its traffic of goods, diseases and peoples, its incipient technologies, its ardors, anxieties and aspirations. In regarding Dickens as a caricaturist, we fail to see that Dickens was, above all else, an incomparably keen observer of a world, a microcosm traversed by heterogeneous flows (money, people, languages, germs), exchanges, signs, desires. Beneath and beyond his delightful characterizations are the molecular forces that constitute the social. We must not forget that Dickens, being a contemporary of Saint-Simon, Feuerbach and Auguste Comte, was fascinated by the machine, which he correctly identified as the model of the social as such. This is the secret solidarity between Dickens, Carroll, Butler and Kafka, that devoted reader of Dickens.
What is absolutely inexcusable in Burton’s rendition of Alice, then, is his deplorable humanization of the text, bridging the breach that persists between ourselves and Carroll’s inscrutable universe with a miserable mélange of mawkishness and mythology (in the Barthesian sense). What results is- if you will pardon the invocation of a lamentably unfashionable category- a profoundly ideological work, the value of which lies in its po-faced presentation of the intellectual climate of our age. In its unwitting naïveté, Burton rehearses all the requisite gestures of neo-liberal postmodernity: its confused mixture of moralistic sentiment with millenarian obscurantism and apocalyptic utopianism. In a phrase, Burton’s Alice In Wonderland reinstates, with unprecedented violence, the dominion of the reality principle into Carroll’s intractable universe, abolishing all of its appalling fascination.
To illuminate this point, we need only reference Jan Svankmaijer’s compact interpretation of Alice, which retains all of the naked horror of Carroll’s text. In Svankmaijer’s extraordinary film, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare are reduced to automatons that repeat, with an inexorably automatic compulsion, the circumscribed range of movements ascribed to them. In effect, they become caricatures of themselves, clockwork mannequins doomed to reproduce the text scripted by that awful demiurge, Lewis Carroll . What strikes us about Svankmaijer’s unswervingly faithful recreation is his emphasis upon the terrifying anonymity, the consummate banality of Carroll’s world. Wonderland is, like Voltaire’s El Dorado, a hermetic world closed upon itself, a purely insular interior without any point of contact with its outside. In this regard, it is purely self-referential, a perpetual feedback loop that swallows its own tail. As such, it has reached a point of perfect identity with itself, an identity that obviates the very use of the word ‘identity’ as such, since the concept of identity can only be formulated with reference to difference. In this world, alterity, otherness and heterogeneity cannot occur, they are annulled in advance. The syntactical concatenations that Carroll constructs with his poetic portmanteaus should not deceive us. Far from being an anarchic space of pure possibility, Wonderland is a mortuary populated by the undead. For all of their idiosyncracies (which, from Carroll’s essentially Kantian perspectivism, are only idiosyncracies ‘for us’; the madness of the Mad Hatter is not so remarkable to the March Hare, the obscene violence of Wonderland is perfectly reasonable to its citizens), the personages in Wonderland are not so much ‘characters’ as they are personified drives, zombies compelled by some irrepressible force to repeat themselves without possible reprieve. Hence the significance of Alice, who functions in an analogous way to Dante, Christian, Candide, Lemuel Gulliver and K. In effect, these characters are empty ciphers, voyeuristic points of observation which give readers privileged access to these forbidding/forbidden universes. It is interesting to note that these nondescript characters are purely functional catalysts. In effect, though they introduce nothing in the workings of the worlds that they traverse, the narratives would not occur without them.
What complicates matters is the fact that these figures act as the double of the reader, acting as his/her eyes. They effect an identification with the reader because they themselves are always-already in the act of reading and interpreting- it is only through them that the multifarious relationships, codes and exchanges that structure a world can be recognized and constituted as objects as such. It is from this ‘alienating’ cleavage between thinking subject and estranged object that thought and interpretation become possible in the first place: “The real, active relationship of man to himself as a species-being or the manifestation of himself as a real species-being, i.e. as a human being, is only possible if he uses all his species powers to create (which is again only possible through the cooperation of man and as a result of history), if he relates himself to them as objects, which can only be done at first in the form of alienation.” (Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, emphasis mine)
It seems commonsensical enough, but the book is inert without the animating breath of the reader. Each book would be an interminable soliloquy, a monadic, self-identical cell, were it not for the wound that it bore at its very heart- the reader to whom it submits and, in the very flesh of its language, consecrates itself. Incarnated in print, the book necessarily invokes a virtual interlocutor, establishes the premises upon which a dialogue can take place. This Bakhtinian axiom cuts to the very heart of textuality and signification as such. Thus, it is interpretation, with all of its arbitrariness and uncertainty, that sets these worlds into motion- to take worldliness and historicity for granted, as the inhabitants of Wonderland ostensibly do, is to inhabit a world without time, without change. This is the world that Carroll describes, an endless cyclicality that perpetually revolves around its own axis- the White Rabbit is forever late; the tea party held by the March Hare and the Mad Hatter is literally interminable; Unbirthdays are celebrated all year-round; Tweedledee and Tweedledum tirelessly repeat their nonsense lyrics to a non-existent audience; the Queen of Hearts has an inexhaustible supply of heads to sever from their bodily hosts. There are no events in Wonderland as such, only an eternal succession of the Same, a Spinozistic compounding of Far from affecting the invariable outcome of these rigorous formulas, Alice is inserted into them, being but one term, one vector among many in an unfathomable equation; she is entirely subject to their jurisdiction. Of course, it is only through her eyes that we can apprehend the groundless contingency, the transcendent monstrosity of the Law. It is important that we tarry with this specular metaphor: Alice affords us a specific angle of vision that is incompatible with the otherwise uniform surface of Wonderland.
Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty formulated phenomenologies that describe the experience of immersion in an umwelt, an existential embeddedness that ‘forgets’ the objecthood of the object by incorporating it, transforming it into an ‘extension of man’. In their consummate ordinariness, our relationships with objects become purely reflexive, habitual; a sub-reflective understanding renders the cleft between ourselves and our surroundings imperceptible. The inassimilable, inhuman objectivity of the object can only be seen at a tilt; at eye-level, gradations, levels and differences are homogenized, flattened into lateral equivalences. It is precisely from this disjunction between Alice’s world and Wonderland, this collision between substantially irreconcilable (but formally analogous, see below) logics that the sheer strangeness of the narrative emerges. Let us imagine that Alice in Wonderland assumed a different form: instead of being a narrative recounted from the vantage point of Alice, let us hypothesize that it adopted a technique beloved of science fiction, adopting the perspective of an inhabitant of Wonderland (let us say the Mad Hatter). One imagines a prose fragment, culled from a diary perhaps, where all of the wonder of Alice’s fortuitous encounters is replaced by a staid, sober account of the day’s dealings: grocery lists, itemized to-do lists, petty anxieties, records of conversations conducted in gobbledygook, Unbirthday resolutions. The style, one imagines, would be markedly different, it would even border upon tedium, but the effects would be rather similar. What appears utterly insignificant to a fellow Wonderlander would, in its inalienable foreignness, fascinate us.
It is necessary to reiterate this foundational axiom of Derridean doctrine, the force of which has perhaps been dulled by doxa- the reader is the name of the text’s Other, the opening that prevents a textual world from closing in on itself, a locus of radical possibility. There is a reciprocal, intersubjective exchange that occurs between reader and text, a mutual exposure with its own secret dialectic. What happens is something like the Sartrean confrontation between two freedoms or the Levinasian face-to-face: the pure interiority of the subject’s (onanistic) self-relation, represented by the narcissistic mirror image, is disrupted by the disquieting intrusion of the Other. There is a certain violence that is intrinsic to literature, in its power to puncture a hole in the heart of reality, estranging us from any complacent familiarity with the world. In the same way that literature uproots us from the immediacy of lived experience, affording us a space by which we can observe ourselves outside of the regime of rubrics that legislate upon reality, the reader delivers the text from the hell of self-identity. Without Alice, Wonderland would be a concave cavern of mirrors, an echo chamber resonating with refrains. To be sure, her presence does not effect any sort of Lucretian clinamen in Wonderland’s causal circuitry, she is neither an exception nor an interruption. Her purpose is different- she is a point of transmission, an emissary through which these echoes can be audible for us. Troublingly, the acoustics reverberating through these halls are not so different from our own.
Between the insuperable gulf that opens up between two nominal instances, we can glimpse the very nature of worldliness as such, the structural relationships that striate space, the grids that segment time, the codes that legislate upon speech acts. In Kantian terms, Carroll trains us to apprehend and scrutinize transcendentals, trans-worldly variables that constitute the very fabric of reality. This is precisely the ‘looking glass’ that Carroll forges for us, something that becomes much clearer in the second Alice book, where the real subject of the text is not the pieces of the game, but the chess board that coordinates and regulates their possibilities, constraining them to a static set of conditions: “Thus it is in the working over of the objective world that man first really affirms himself as species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through it nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of work is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man; for he duplicates himself not only intellectually, in his mind, but also actively in reality and thus can look at his image in a world he has created.” (Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, emphasis mine)
Here, we should perhaps recall Humbert Humbert’s pithy insights in Lolita, which succinctly formulate the intrinsic inertia of every literary world: no matter how many times we read Madame Bovary, we submit to the command of an imperious prescription- Emma cannot but behave in the fashion that she does. Because it was written, it shall always be so, and the actualization of Emma’s exploits is ultimately fatal- the novel is a cryogenic operation, ‘freezing’ a destiny. It is this dimension of the literary ‘world’ that Lewis Carroll renders explicit in his Alice novels, extrapolating it to describe an axiomatic invariant that structures every world qua world. It is no surprise that Lewis Carroll was a logician and a mathematician. It is essential that we recognize that Alice In Wonderland is directly co-extensive with Carroll’s mathematical bent, that the cleavage between Carroll the geometrician and Carroll the fabulist is a false one. Carroll’s ultimate concern is with the axiomatic logic, the principle of equilibrium that underlies all of Wonderland’s rituals, gestures and transactions, the economy of sense that saturates its spaces with meaning and significance, however tentative.
This is not to say that there is some skeleton key, some master code by means of which we might decrypt all of the puzzles that Carroll devises. It is foolhardy to assume that Carroll himself was in possession of such a key. At any rate, the pursuit of such a solution is of scant interest. The interest of the Alice books lies in their prodigious elaboration of unconscious/pre-conscious procedures, practices, proprieties and protocols, locating the junctions and intersections between them, mapping the coordinates that give shape and consistency to social reality. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does sense persist beneath the most manifest forms of non-sense? This last question has been probed at great length by one of Carroll’s keenest disciples. JG Ballard has remarked that the Alice books are among his foremost inspirations, and one can certainly see, through the intertextual prism that this series constitutes (Carroll-Melville-Kafka-Huxley-Orwell-Ba
llard), the value that Carroll has for us. Ballard’s shift from dystopian futurism to ‘realist’ fictions set in contemporary times- a pursuit shared by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling- has not, in my view, made a great deal of difference in the trajectory of Ballard’s vision. From ‘Crash’ onwards, Ballard has photographed a world in which the Bataillean antitheses of restricted and general economy, conservation and expenditure have been transformed into complementary faces of the same order. The transcendence of transgression is thereby collapsed into a space of pure immanence; illegality is smuggled into the heart of the law itself. Ballard’s hypothesis, which he develops in tandem with fellow wayfarer Jean Baudrillard and reiterates with monomaniacal urgency, is that we live in obscene times. Ballard’s late-capitalist universe is a veritable playground for the drives, one that mobilizes and harnesses violence, carnality and fanaticism in the service of profit. The senseless excess of Sadean-Bataillean sovereignty is directly correlative to the ‘moraline-free’ flux of speculative capital, a perpetual play of monetary signs without limit, beyond good and evil. All of the terror and inhumanity of Wonderland, with its implacable cruelty and perverse legality, is amplified and rendered transparent by Ballard’s troubling texts.
Marvelously, Burton’s film manages to reverse, displace and overturn the tremendous accomplishment of the Alice books. What results is a logical paradox that Carroll himself would have delighted in- while two centuries separate the original and its reproduction, Burton’s film, in its treatment of themes probed by Carroll, is essentially pre-Carrollian. One might liken this to a return to a pre-Copernican universe, a ridiculous atavism. This is not so surprising to Spenglerians or enthusiasts of Vico- our age has witnessed all manner of resurgent barbarities. Huntington’s hypotheses, while devoid of any critical value, indicate the feverish temperature of a hysterical, paranoiac epoch. Let us examine the consequences of Burton’s tremendous involution, which succeeds in transforming one of the most unsettling texts in world literature into a comforting parable, sublimating all of its intransigent impasses and deadlocks.
This, in itself, should be an immediate cause for concern. For many of us, the mildewed pages of Alice in Wonderland are redolent of summer afternoons in bucolic settings, the aroma of teatime pastries, the ambrosia of childhood. Alice in Wonderland’s continued popularity among the young and its nostalgic value for their elders have dulled our receptivity to its finer merits. Like many canonical texts, it has been rendered unreadable by time. The very fact that we are able to feel at home in Burton’s Wonderland corresponds to its canny recognition of this characteristically postmodern desire to revisit one’s childhood, to recover the homeostasis of home. Why should this be so, when Burton’s rendition takes so many liberties with Carroll’s text, eschewing many of its hallmarks in lieu of a landscape that resembles Narnia more than it does Wonderland? I would suggest that Burton’s Wonderland is a fantasmatic space upon which a plethora of contemporary desires are staged and resolved. It is little wonder that Burton has recourse to two hegemonic faiths, two metalanguages that enjoy a disquieting eminence in the collective imagination, the ‘invisible hand’ of neo-liberalism and populist psychiatry/ego psychology.
There are moments in Alice in Wonderland when one feels that one is watching a dramatization of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, with its rhapsodic annunciation of the culmination of historical time. With the collapse of state socialism, one witnesses the passing of history with all of its antagonisms and antinomies- the labor of the negative sublates itself and the verdict of historical necessity reveals itself. When all historical adversaries to the neo-liberal model have been vanquished, infractions and insurrections are handled by administrative police action. Everywhere else, the necessary conditions must be established so that the miracle of the market can work its magic, fertile land must be ploughed. This is the advent of a ‘peace more terrible than war’, Empire. Seen from this angle, the restitution of the White Queen in Burton’s Wonderland ought to make us tremble. Burton’s Wonderland is a world of immaculate causality, where the incandescent light of Reason dispels all ambiguities, resolves all contradictions, even that of Evil itself. One need only cite two instances to render the psychopathology of Burton’s Wonderland transparent- the ‘madness’ of the Mad Hatter is not intrinsic to Wonderland but individualized, the symptom of a historical trauma that can only be dissolved by the restitution of a lost object. The Red Queen is exposed as a petty despot, yet another megalomaniac whose disavowed repressions and ressentiments erupt into neurotic acts of negation. By inscribing Evil into the Oedipal triangle, Burton posits two incontrovertible laws that preside over Wonderland: that of Plato (Evil as the absence of Good, a contingent impurity that has no Being, no ideal essence of its own) and that of Freud . That we can accept either of these necessities is itself symptomatic of our incapacity to think the autonomy and the inhumanity of Evil, allowing it to proliferate beneath all-too-human disguises (the naked brutality of Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, dissimulating itself behind the mask of a practical joker, disarming critique by lampooning himself).
Beyond the facile, Cold War Manichaeism of its structure, a morality that is nowhere present in Carroll’s universe, one wonders whether the White-Red opposition is as disparate as it seems. Bizarrely, Burton eschews the radical alterity of Carroll’s world, one which, in its obdurate otherworldliness, reveals a structural affinity with our world. In its place, he substitutes a Wonderland that is largely indiscernible from our own ideological constellation.
[It is telling that the force of Good in Burton’s movie is represented by the color White, which is the Platonic color par excellence, the Idea of color that is the pure absence of color. It is a color without any admixture, without contamination. The color, that is, of fascism. If every other color is a composite compounded atop the primordial, elemental base of white, then many of the tropes in Burton’s film become clear, particularly when we evaluate its treatment of right and sovereignty. Effectively, the culmination and termination of history that the White Queen represents coincides with the disappearance of politics as such, insofar as we retain Schmitt’s emphasis upon the conspicuousness of the political arena as a polemical and agonistic space. History being a theatre of tragedy, an antagonism between adversaries that cannot be resolved until there is a victor, awaits the judgment that time will pass upon it. What the White Queen represents is the inauguration of the Hegelian-Kojevean urstaat, the cold monster that stands at both ends of history as its origin and its inner, unconscious telos. With the establishment of her dominion, the White Queen embodies Reason’s return to itself, its glorious homecoming, the inexorable triumph of necessity. It is on the strength of this Idealist-historicist hypothesis that we can construe the Red Queen as a usurper of natural right, which belongs entirely to the White Queen. The vainglorious Prometheanism of the Red Queen, whose romantic defense of human agency is tragic to the extreme, fails to grasp something that the White Queen submits to without reserve, the irrepressible march of Spirit that orders the outcome of events in advance. Thus the trajectory of time in Burton’s Wonderland is a circular one, charting the movement of a History that is not one, a fatal game that is rigged from the start: so it has been, so it shall be forever. The White Queen is the principle of Right, the essence of Good, the loss and recovery of which constitutes the entirety of human history. This is why she is, like every Platonic Idea, essentially immobile, conservative, impermeable to change: she remains outside the permutations of linear time, the static Eternity that every vicissitude, every moment inclines towards. These Hegelian references are not accidental, and I shall discuss Burton’s treatment of history in full later.]
There is much to be said about the very childishness of Burton’s production, its replacement of Carroll’s obscenity and senselessness with an obscenity that is all the more horrifying because of its essential imperceptibility, a hyperreal excess of sense that renders everything transparent. Such a maneuver announces its profoundly manipulative complicity with our own fantasmatic longings for a past that never was, a fantastic time prior to the utter bewilderment of late capitalism, when the promises of liberal democracy and the free market were totally virtual and uncompromised. Herein lies all the power and agony of Flaubert’s L’education Sentimentale: this lost eschatology, this unblemished hope is always hypothetical, always fetishistic, always grasped in a retrospective mode as a compensation for unbearable disappointments. Despite all of our exuberant pronouncements to the contrary, we postmoderns tend to regard ourselves as a civilization of senility, compounded beneath a stultifying excess of history and culture. We have all the jaundice and disaffection of an outworn people, masochistically passing judgment upon the naïveté of our elders, their well-intentioned fruits: the death of philosophy, the death of art, the death of emancipatory politics, the death of innocence. Disinherited by history, we have outlived all its illusions. Old before our time, we despair for a childhood that we have never known, with its unlimited prospects, Promethean dreams and giddying passions. This explains our profound need for Burton’s interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, a need that he acknowledges and exploits to the fullest: “A man cannot become a child again unless he becomes childish. But does he not enjoy the artless ways of the child, and must he not strive to reproduce its truth on a higher plane? Is not the character of every epoch revived, perfectly true to nature, in the child’s nature? Why should the childhood of human society, where it had obtained its most beautiful development, not exert an eternal charm as an age that will never return? There are ill-bred children and precocious children. Many of the ancient nations belong to the latter class. The Greeks were normal children. The charm their art has for us does not conflict with the primitive character of the social order from which it had sprung. It is rather the product of the latter, and is due rather to the fact that the immature social conditions under which the art arose and under which it alone could appear can never return.” (Marx, Grundrisse)
Perhaps, then, all of the dialectical hairsplitting that I have subjected you to has merely obscured the true genius of Burton’s production, the feature that, in its pronounced grasp of historicity, distinguishes it from the period pieces that populate today’s cinematic landscape. I have, up until now, castigated Burton for what I deem to be a betrayal of Carroll’s text, a position that is besmirched by an unfortunate idealism. Perhaps, with the introduction of various psychoanalytic categories that I have withheld until this point, we can illuminate the ways in which Alice in Wonderland is a truly historical film, a sly reflection on contemporary experience that accomplishes, in a way that is quite different from Lewis Carroll, a critical reflexivity that exhorts us to confront our own nostalgia.
Contrary to many period pieces, which are situated in an ahistorical u-topos dissevered from any concrete historical referent, Burton is careful to mark his Victoriana with the stigmata of history. Burton, in pointedly unequivocal fashion, foregrounds the imperialist impulse throughout the movie, an impulse that passes from virtuality to actuality as Alice matures. This trope forms the central hub, the very motor of Burton’s film, which is the arena upon which various discourses compete and clash in a Hegelian struggle to the death. We must remember that time is of inestimable importance in Alice’s world, as well as Wonderland: Alice can only perform her historical task at the appointed time. It is at the conclusion of Burton’s film that this task is made clear, and the profound identity between her role in both worlds is made manifest: the return to Nature and the restoration of natural right in Wonderland coincides with her task in the ‘real world’, the conquest of universal prehistory and the advent of the global market through colonialism. Wonderland and Alice’s world are thus situated on two heterogeneous planes, the former embodying the Being of the latter, which is still ensconced in/impelled by the dialectic of Becoming. Wonderland is capitalism accomplished, the Platonic Idea of its historical process.
The fact that Alice lives her stay in Wonderland as a dream conjures up all manner of Freudian resonances, as does her awakening prior to the final battle with the Jabberwocky, wherein she sees the fundamental homology between two worlds, the eschatological future to which both dimensions are destined. At this very moment, the impossibility of dream passes into the realm of concrete possibility, the virtual becomes actual. Remember that the aspirations of her Father could not be articulated with the tenor of his times; the discord between his vision and the prevailing ideological climate hindered it from according any credence to the discourse that he put forth: situated at the embryonic stages of the bourgeois revolution, his fancies could not be recognized as tenable courses of action. The figure of the enterprising noble/Alice’s prospective father-in-law is of especial importance here- in his person is marked the passage of time and the seachange in opinion that it brings. In him, we see the nobility’s recognition of its own invariable demise, its concession to the nascent rise of the middle classes. One imagines that Alice’s maturation is coextensive with the convergence of all manner of fortuitous conditions (the discovery of gold in America, developing modes of technology and communications, the burgeoning need for new markets for British goods and cheap raw materials, consequences of the French Revolution) that were propitious for bourgeois revolution. Alice does not merely inherit a dream from her father, she inherits a history in which this dream can be realized. The moribundity and oblivion of the nobility, which Burton magnifies to grotesque effect in the opening half an hour of the film, is ironically the most Carrollian portion of the film, with its pallid, effete heirs and heiresses, its outmoded ritual forms, its vacuous functions peopled by Miss Havishams and waltzing clotheshorses. To underline this, Burton has Alice recognize the analogical similarity between two pairs: Tweedledee-Tweedledum and the twins that harangue her at the nobles’ party. Both are démodé types, living caricatures to be consigned to the furnace of history.
To go further. If we assume, as per the strictures of psychoanalysis, that desire is desire for and of the Other, then the very structure of Alice’s symbolic and imaginary axes are inherited from her father, attesting to a profound continuity of vision. This vision must await the ripening of time, the destinal moment allotted to its fulfillment. Alice, like the White Queen, is a vessel for the ‘cunning of reason’, the revenge of her father upon the world that spurned him. This introduces a disquieting determinism of desire that undermines any presentation of Alice in Wonderland as a celebration of childhood and its untrammeled, anarchic imagination: Alice effectively inherits her father’s desire, repeating it with immaculate aplomb. The secret motivation of the film’s conclusion is the perpetuation of the Father’s name, its official inscription into the record of history. Keeping all this in mind, I would venture so far as to say that the real subject of Burton’s film is history, or, to be more specific, a certain representation of history, the writing of a theodicy that the bourgeoisie constructed to affirm its self-appointed legitimacy. Under the cover of a filmic adaptation, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is an autobiography of the bourgeoisie, an account of the relationship between its aspirations and the vicissitudes of time. From this concatenation of contingencies, the bourgeoisie manufactures a mythology that commemorates its own victory, concealing arbitrariness beneath a façade of necessity. Effectively, Alice in Wonderland is a chronicle of the bourgeoisie and the evolution of its self-image, the way in which it imagines itself as the bearer of historical necessity, the harbinger of fate.
The sadness of Burton’s film, a melancholy that belies the sanguine spirit of adventure that closes it, lies entirely in the fact that we are intimately familiar with the events that transpire following Alice’s epiphanic liberation, the interminable series of injustices engendered by a messianism of the market. Might we conceive Burton’s film as a canny experiment, a political barometer that gauges our ideological temperature by assessing our reactions to its carefully contrived conjurations? This, at any rate, would constitute a Brechtian gesture on Burton’s part- we overlook the historical dimension of Burton’s picture at our peril.
|Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010|
|My Favorite Novels Of All Time, (Semi-Definitive)
1. Samuel Beckett- The Unnamable
2. Miguel Cervantes- Don Quixote
2. Herman Melville- Moby Dick
3. Jonathan Swift- Gulliver's Travels
3. Francois Rabelais- Gargantua and Pantagruel
4. Franz Kafka- Amerika
5. Louis-Ferdinand Celine- Journey to the End of the Night
6. Marcel Proust- Time Regained
7. Virginia Woolf- The Waves
8. James Joyce- Ulysses
9. Italo Calvino- If On A Winter's Night A Traveller...
10. Emily Bronte- Wuthering Heights
11. Clarice Lispector- The Stream Of Life
12. Knut Hamsun- Pan
13. William Faulkner- The Sound and the Fury
14. Laurence Sterne- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
15. Vladimir Nabokov- Lolita
16. Julio Cortazar- Hopscotch
17. Georges Perec- Life: A User's Manual
18. Charles Dickens- Bleak House
19. DH Lawrence- Lady Chatterley's Lover
20. Henry Miller- Sexus
20. Raymond Roussel- Impressions of Africa
21. Louis Aragon- Paris Peasant
22. Georges Bataille- My Mother
23. Leonora Carrington- The Hearing Trumpet
24. Joseph Conrad- The Secret Agent
25. Paul Bowles- The Sheltering Sky
26. Yukio Mishima- Spring Snow
27. JG Ballard- The Drowned World
28. JMG Le Clezio- The Giants
29. Adolfo Bioy Casares- The Invention Of Morel
30. Halldor Laxness- Independent People
31. Rainer Maria Rilke- The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
32. Philip K. Dick- Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
33. Jules Verne- Around The World In 80 Days
34. Thomas Hardy- Tess of the D'Urbervilles
35. Robert Walser- Jakob Von Gunten
36. Andre Gide- The Counterfeiters
37. Denis Diderot- Jacques The Fatalist
38. ETA Hoffmann- The Life And Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
39. Mikhail Bulgakov- Master and Margarita
40. Alfred Doblin- Berlin Alexanderplatz
41. Voltaire- Candide
42. Emile Zola- La Bete Humaine
43. Jose Saramago- The Gospel According To Jesus Christ
44. Nikos Kazantzakis- The Last Temptation Of Christ
45. HG Wells- The Invisible Man
46. Kurt Vonnegut- Breakfast Of Champions
47. Joris-Karl Huysmans- A Rebours
48. Alain Robbe-Grillet- The Voyeur
49. William S. Burroughs- The Place Of Dead Roads
50. Fyodor Dostoevsky- Crime & Punishment
51. Rene Daumal- Mount Analogue
52. Albert Camus- The Stranger
53. Matthew Lewis- The Monk
54. Ann Radcliffe- The Italian
55. William Beckford- Vathek
56. Charles Maturin- Melmoth The Wanderer
57. Andre Breton- Nadja
58. Alfred Jarry- Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll
59. Jean Genet- Querelle
60. Samuel Butler- Erewhon
61. Andre Malraux- Man's Fate
62. Alejo Carpentier- The Kingdom Of This World
63. George Orwell- Coming Up For Air
64. Thomas Mann- Doktor Faustus
65. Gustave Flaubert- Salammbo
66. Nathalie Sarraute- The Golden Fruits
67. Julien Gracq- The Opposing Shore
68. Sarah Orne Jewett- The Country of the Pointed Firs
69. Honore de Balzac- Cousin Bette
70. David Lindsay- Voyage to Arcturus
|Saturday, January 23rd, 2010|
|Jean Baudrillard's 'Forget Foucault'
What's Baudrillard's beef with Foucault? In a sense, Baudrillard's reading of Foucault is analogous to Derrida's in 'Writing and Difference'- Foucault is attempting to have his cake and eat it too, hypothesizing about the other side of reason while remaining behind its frontiers. Simply put, Baudrillard's problem with Foucault is that he makes too much sense in a world that is properly senseless. Just as Nietzsche and Heidegger probed the fractures of discursive speech, denouncing systematic philosophy's (metaphysics) complicity with scientific manipulation and technological domination, Baudrillard sees himself as the harbinger of another annunciation. Friends and countrymen, truth is dead, we have killed it and yet we refuse to bear witness to its passing! If 'Forget Foucault' accomplishes anything, it warns us against the dangers of NOSTALGIA.
As such, Sylvere Lotringer is absolutely correct when he underlines the NECESSITY of this maneuver for Baudrillard himself- this is Baudrillard's farewell note to classical social theory, which has always entertained a 'vampiric' relationship with that which it comments upon. All theory is premised upon the seemingly irrefutable postulate that social reality exists, that theory supplies an arsenal of analytic optics by which we can evaluate this reality. Post-structuralism, in its elegant deconstructions of the ways in which concepts crystallize into 'real abstractions', rendering the division of reality and discourse indiscernible through the production of 'truth effects', is not immune from its own critique- theory cannot help but install regimes of truth, it is ultimately mediatory. As such, when it presumes to comment upon reality, all it does is refer endlessly to its (disavowed) self-referentiality. Reality is really theory's alibi. In this way, we can say that theory subsists upon its host, upon the multifarious 'antagonisms' and 'contradictions' that constitute it. We need not mention that this parasitism directly corresponds to capitalism's extraction of value- Deleuze & Guattari have already reminded us that psychoanalysis thrives on the surplus value of obsession and hysteria. Baudrillard's controversial hypothesis, perhaps the most divisive and polarizing one of the 20th century, is that EVERY canonized philosophical postulate must be made to account for itself, that absolutely nothing should be spared nor conserved. What if, he asks, the atomic presuppositions that compose every theoretical substratum, from repression and the unconscious to class struggle, are ultimately tautological, self-legitimating signs that refer to nothing but themselves? This was the trajectory that Baudrillard had embarked upon in his time with Utopie, the radical architecture group centered around Herbert Tonka.
Taking this logic one step further, Baudrillard asks a rather jarring question. What if Deleuze's 'anti-psychoanalysis', far from abolishing the foundational premises of psychoanalysis, elevates desire to the level of an unassailable invariant of psychic life? Is Foucault's 'molecularization' of power, his revocation of every transcendence, not another chapter in the lineage of 'political philosophy'? In effect, 'Forget Foucault' is a sobering rejoinder to every hagiographic valorization of Foucault's 'revolutionary break'- Foucault may have alerted us to the micrological immanence of 'biopolitical' power, but all this comes down to is a sophisticated re-evaluation of a classical problematic. Note that Baudrillard does not dismiss Foucault for all that- Baudrillard's work up to and including Symbolic Exchange and Death is heavily reliant on Foucauldian schemas. So what changed? For whatever reason, Baudrillard came to feel the inexorable/insupportable weight of a historical exigency, one that led him to question the efficacy and validity of Foucauldian genealogy.
While Baudrillard's critique stands and falls upon your acceptance of his position vis-a-vis reality, it is clear to see that Baudrillard can no longer treat Foucault as a fellow wayfarer- he must leave Foucault behind, as a 'moment' in his intellectual development. His imploration to 'forget Foucault' is not really as radical as one might think- for all of Baudrillard's clownish posturing, he is really reiterating the first rule of dialectical/historical materialism. For Baudrillard, the criterion of a theory's currency is contingent upon its suitability for the time in which it is situated. This makes perfect sense when we frame it in the terms of Baudrillard's Bataillean economy of seduction and challenge. Capitalism issues a challenge to theory, and theory's response must be even more excessive, protean and hyperbolic than its adversary. By failing to do so, theory is locked in the disequilibrium that power enforces upon it- it will forever remain in a position of abjection and subservience, a mere accountant of capitalism's ills that is incapable of becoming its equal. Theory must rise to the occasion and assert itself as an INTERLOCUTOR, advancing a question that capitalism cannot resolve on its own terms. Just as capital, in its mad pursuit of surplus value, is prepared to stake itself on the roll of the dice, theory must be prepared to sacrifice and wager itself when the conditions demand it. Whatever one may think about Baudrillard's contentions, I think that his prodigious, prolific work following Forget Foucault constitutes a protracted combat with intellectual inertia.
For all of its coy feints and metaphorical contortions, the argument in 'Forget Foucault' is embarassingly simple. In effect, Baudrillard poses Bataillean non-knowledge against the Children of May, whom he feels continue to bear the stigma of Cartesian positivism. He wants to out-Nietzsche an entire generation, to interrogate every assumption that history has super-imposed upon the human form. Baudrillard's text hinges upon the central axis of 'reversibility'- theory has heretofore described the 'positive' side of reality (note that Baudrillard's use of the 'symbolic' and the 'real' are directly opposite to that of Lacan; in fact, one might say that we can substitute the one for the other in Baudrillard's work), while ignoring the fact that Man has a profoundly negative dimension, characterised by death, waste and excessive expenditure. For all of their radicalism, the Children of May simply aren't radical ENOUGH- while acknowledging their debts to Nietzsche and Bataille, two thinkers who carved out a space in which philosophy could take leave of itself, post-'68 philosophy merely rehearses the same old gestures of the Enlightenment, recycling anthropological presumptions that, for Baudrillard, amount to an inexcusable CENSORSHIP and MORALIZATION of man. While placing every margin, frontier and limit in question, Foucault and Derrida remain entrenched within the quandary of humanism, espousing a conception of Man as a reasonable, meaningful, PRODUCTIVE creature. Every affirmation of productive difference, liberatory desire and autarkic 'self-authorship' is ensnared within this vicious circularity, orbiting around the identity of the concept- at base they all describes Man's reconciliation with himself through joyous acts of creation.
In reading this text, we should recover its effaced SUBtext: Forget Foucault, Remember Bataille. Remember that which escapes all recuperation by the dialectic, which eludes all representation and shatters every frame of reference. The truly troubling thing about Baudrillard's text is his tacit assertion that Capitalism ALREADY KNOWS THIS, that the operations of capitalism enact, in a way that theory is thoroughly incapable of grasping, Bataille's exaltation of meaninglessness, the splitting of the pure signifier from any corresponding referent.
This is why Baudrillard's retrieval of Bataille is so unabashedly 'naive' in comparison to the borrowings of Deleuze (who castigated Bataille for being 'too French'), Foucault and Derrida (who appropriated the form and movement of Bataille's critical method while eschewing its ethnological 'content'). By contrast to this, Baudrillard's corpus strikes us as a tremendous atavism- his 'theoretical' production from this point onward probes the subcutaneous, abyssal depths beneath the Enlightenment project, excavating all that is irrational, asocial, ahistorical and atemporal about human experience. The post-structuralist objection to Bataille's metaphysics, its hankering for some originary, 'lost' Real that escapes all socio-historical mediation, is thus misplaced- deconstruction, in its insistence on the irreducibly material 'traces' that are effaced and repressed by every 'metaphysics of presence', fails to see that materiality itself has evaporated in the fiery crucible of capital. This is why every insistence upon the primacy of matter, on the classical schemas of Marxist analysis, fails to grasp the disappearance of matter, time and meaning in our spectacularly ephemeral world of speculative finance and virtual reality. More troubling than this is the suggestion that meaninglessness is our DEEPEST DESIRE, that the supposed 'vacuity' of commodity fetish, far from inhibiting us from returning to the fullness of our true destination, is the inalienable destiny of mankind, its consummate expression.
This is why Baudrillard and post-structuralism are intrinsically inimical to one another- Baudrillard's work is impossible without the 'metaphysical' claim that an ineffable negativity persists beneath being, a bottomless chasm that collapses every truth claim that suspends itself above it. In short, every theoretical edifice is PRECARIOUS, and this is directly correlative to the utter precariousness of capital itself. Much like Zizek, Baudrillard indexes the success of capitalism to its unconscious understanding of this invariable dimension of human subjectivity, its calculated manipulation of desire and drive. Baudrillard's claim can be stated thus: the Enlightenment is dead, and capitalism has given up the ghost a long time ago. Are we capable of doing the same? This is his first attempt to supply an answer, and whether one agrees with him or not- I myself read Baudrillard with a mixture of ambivalence and horror- his conclusions are both chilling and unsettling.
|Tuesday, January 19th, 2010|
|The Youth Problem
The ‘Youth Problem’
I would like to talk about my generation, a generation whose aspirations and discontents have been subject to a good deal of media (mis)representation in recent weeks. We have been told, by political scientists and sociologists alike, that we are symptomatic of a ‘youth problem’. This is a perspective that is shared by those who are sympathetic toward our cause, as well as those who are virulently opposed to us. My generation refuses to accept this consensus- it is a smokescreen that obscures and limits the range of our ambitions. We should remember Plato’s lesson- majority opinion is, more often than not, untruth.
We are all familiar with the situation. Following the unwelcome irruption of illness, the state’s resident physicians have issued a simple prescription. The ailment is not one that afflicts society at large, it can be located in a precise point of the social body. Here is the diagnosis, then: the name of the cancerous tumor is the ‘youth problem’; our resentment is a swollen sore that must be punctured by swift administrative action. Whatever the remedy is, whether it assumes the form of the ‘reality principle’ (the pressing demands imposed upon us as a ‘world city’ by ‘development’) or the benevolent pastorate (misguided lambs must be led back to the fold of society by caring elders), it is clear that this prescription is simultaneously a proscription. The assignation of a name is never innocent. Naming the problem is the first step in vaccinating it- the name is a formal frame which determines, beforehand, the limits of a problem. The name is a method of control and containment.
This is no surprise- Hong Kong functions through the management of flows that do not converge upon, much less communicate with one another. Those of us who did our ‘bitter walk’ around the Chanel and Max Mara boutiques adjacent to Legco are surely familiar with this- while we were prostrate upon the floor, the circuits of high fashion continued to operate above us; shoppers merely stepped over us as though we were negligible obstacles. This symbolic, revelatory image is directly illustrative of our social condition- though we occupy the same physical space, we inhabit different universes, universes that neither intersect nor interact. Marx, of course, had a name for these microcosms- class. It is in the interests of ‘social order’ that these universes are kept apart.
It is characteristic of the state to introduce distinctions and differences, to localize social malaises in a specific segment of society. This is the first axiom of political philosophy, a truth that spans the spectrum from Left to Right, espoused as it is by Plato, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Rousseau and Burke alike- sovereign power must divide the multitude from within, the rule of law institutes territories and demarcations. The indifferent chaos of the ‘mass’ is only governable when it is partitioned and stratified- ‘society’ is nothing other than an aggregate of particular, namable identities, each of which can be subject to objective analysis. In this way, social science, in cooperation with the media, becomes an analytical instrument in service of the state. Having identified its object of study- the youth- the state’s resident experts mobilize a gamut of statistics and images to convince us that we have nothing to fear, that the ardors and passions exhibited throughout the protests are readily explicable. Genealogy and historiography situate the Post-‘80s group in the context of local activism at large, showing us that today’s youth are a mere facsimile, a repetition of prior struggles. Sociologists and journalists love to tell stories; nothing pleases them more than the unbroken continuity of historical narrative. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. What does all this signify?
A brief review of the media’s tactics thus far are in order here- the ubiquity of Christina Chan in the local press, a visibility that has transformed her into a sex symbol of sorts, would have us believe that the ‘youth problem’ is synonymous with boredom and libertinism. Explosive desires are explained away through classical sociological categories- the youth are acutely afflicted with anomie and alienation. We are supposed to be a generation that believes in nothing, that valorizes revolt and destruction for its own sake. It is suggested that we our idealism is coextensive with our dislocation, that the events of last weekend were a mere rehearsal of a classical scenario- the age-old ‘generation gap’. This gulf between the young (whose hormonal imbalances impel them to insurrection) and the old (placated by the passage of time) is a constant of the human condition, a customary rite of passage in world history. This is an ancient problem, with an ancient solution- this eternal conflict must be resolved at a higher level, through the objectivity of the State. Parliament is the name of objectivity and reconciliation, the ageless, sexless judge that legislates over the familial strife of father and son, mother and daughter. In short, the State surveys us with the beneficent, trans-human eye of God.
Yet to resign ourselves to this is to consign the events of last weekend to the realm of myth. I insist that our struggles constitute an event, the singularity of which cannot be collapsed into sociological or psychoanalytic categories. To be succinct, we refuse to be Oedipalized, to acknowledge the futility of our frustrated desire, the reality principle of Mama, Papa and their statist surrogates. We are assuredly not hippies, and we are neither interested in ‘repression’ nor ‘liberation’. It is evident that the press wants to sexualize us, to brand us with the hallmarks of scandal and rebellion- the eroticization of Christina Chan’s image and the media’s preoccupation with her supposed ‘hedonism’ are efforts to reduce our desires to so many expressions of an unruly libido. Yes, yes, it’s the same old story- steeped in the ennui of decadence and conspicuous consumption, the youth of today are eager for new pleasures, sensational upheavals and conflagrations that will reduce civilization to ashes. In accepting the Oedipus complex, we sanction a biological explanation for youthful iconoclasm- boys and girls will revolt against their seniors; that’s a fact of life. If this enmity is genetically encoded, then the paternal institution of the State must attempt to transcend its own patriarchal tendencies in an attempt to address its children on their terms- thus Donald Tsang’s suggestion that the government should engage with its youth on cyberspace. As a pastoral agency, the ministry of youth ushers its errant lambs through the tempests of infancy, leading them to the placid fields of castration.
All of this is not true. Things are not at all like that. We should be bold enough to see that the mask of Oedipus is a smokescreen that must be shattered, if we are to recognize the profound implications that our struggles have for Hong Kong at large. Politics requires us to take our leave from the theatre of tragedy, the endless re-enactment of the familial scene. We would like to be clear. When we skirmished with policemen on the 16th of January, we certainly did not do so as angry young boys and girls. When we demanded an audience with state servants, we were not sublimating our hatred for our parents. We may be Promethean, but we are certainly not Oedipal. This is because there is something that is even older than the myth of Oedipus- the primordial equality of all. Every inequality is secondary, structural and contingent, subsisting upon a foundation of equality- the Master can never be secure from his fear that the Slave is always capable of unsettling and reversing the precarious bond of hierarchy. When every inequality dissolves, we stand face to face as fellow citizens.
So, it is imperative that we explain who we are, lest we submit to state censorship and media ventriloquization. We are not the ‘young’, we are not psychosomatic symptoms, we are not figures of myth, abstract emblems of social contradiction. If we pledge allegiance to a certain heritage, it is not that of Freud, but that of the French Revolution- we are citizens. The inalienable right that we invoke is that of the people, a common and universal right that cuts beneath every objective classification. Solidarity has no regard for identity; egalitarianism effaces every margin that divides us from one another. This is precisely why our revolt is formally addressed to everyone without restriction, why our appeal is an invitation to every citizen insofar as they recognize themselves in it. The policemen are not our immediate adversaries, because our demand goes beneath and beyond them, it lays claim to a commonality that we share between us. This was our implacable cry when we sat behind the barricades: citizens are welcome; take off your uniforms and join us, policemen!
What does this universality mean? Statesmen, entrapped within the confines of parliamentary logic, have mistaken the problem entirely. Instead of confronting the limits of this logic, they insist that it is the only means by which antagonistic interests can be arbitrated upon. They say that we want representation in the cabinet; that we wish to install an emissary in the government who will embody our interests. Another professional spokesperson, a participant in the interminable debates and discussions that comprise parliamentary deliberation. No, the problem does not lie in representation. It should be obvious that there is no deficit in representation, there is a surplus of it. We are overexposed as young men and women; everybody wants to offer a consolatory word, to lend a nurturing hand, to calm the clamor of adolescence. This is all very kind, but pardon us if we decline. The fists that toppled the frontiers erected by the state, the hands that tore through the barriers enforced by its functionaries were not the hands of impetuous delinquents, they were bodies consecrated to an idea of justice. This justice cannot be obscured and dismissed by reference to a classical schema, by assigning it a limit. We constitute the threshold beyond which sociology cannot go, a zone in which a primary truth is revealed- the inchoate indifferentiation of the mass, the failure of every classificatory distinction. Yet, as we have shown, the mass is not a headless monstrosity stumbling haplessly through an impenetrable ignorance. The mass can make decisions, the mass can act in concert without the direction of a transcendent authority. In situations of risk, it consults nothing but its own initiative. In a certain regard, we are in absolute agreement with the state and its functionaries. This is certainly a matter of ‘us versus them’. It is also on this point that we differ- every delimitation of this ‘us’, an ‘us’ which denotes nothing other than a continuous process of constitution, amounts to nothing less than an ideological mystification.
To close, let us probe the contours of a remarkable paradox: our generation claims a large share of the responsibility for the anti-railway protests, but we are not a youth movement. If our voices and our bodies symbolize anything, it is not the tumultuous drama of pubescence, but a collective aspiration for a new world. You are certainly right to suggest that you have a problem, but the vocabulary that you have developed to evaluate it is woefully inadequate. There is no ‘youth problem’. Ignore this at your own peril.
|Wednesday, January 6th, 2010|
|Know Your Role!
Know Your Role!
I refer to the statement, which I shall neither dignify nor distort by the designation ‘manifesto’ (such a name being associated with a passion of partisanship that this group is eager to declaim), of the so-called ‘Post-50 Group’. The rhetorical strategies employed by this text are so familiar that we can barely stifle a yawn- these gestures have been rehearsed innumerable times since Kant.
It comes as no surprise that the Post-50 Group feel compelled to preface their proclamations with a resume that articulates three interwoven implorations. This imperious triad lends the whole statement an air of (self-assumed) authority:
1. ‘We know how you feel, we’ve been there too.’ The authors flaunt the stripes that they have earned in their student days, when their hearts beat in time with a common rhythm, a rhythm throbbing with emancipatory desire. Yes, they too have burned with the impetuous ardor of youth; they too have savored the incomparable sweetness of a shared dream. Now calmed by the placidity of time, they can survey this clamor from the pacific plateau of age. The years pile on top of one another, forming a tower that lifts one above the inchoate chaos of youth. The lineaments of this figure are unmistakably Confucian - listen to your elders.
2. ‘We know what we’re doing, we’re professionals.’ Here we encounter a paradox, one that, if I may be so bold as to posit a totalizing abstraction, characterizes the problem of democracy today. In one ingenious stroke, the authors of the statement espouse their unflinching solidarity with ‘the people’ before revoking it, asserting their transcendence above/their inalienable superiority to the mass. They are specialists who deploy their expertise in a dizzyingly diverse range of fields. It just so happens, coincidence of coincidences, that these fields are crucial to the engineering of the national infrastructure. This move introduces a distinct separation between two levels, splitting the ignorant masses (the site of demagoguery/the juvenile intoxication of ‘radicalism’) from the sobriety of the State and its technicians. The clandestinity of the Post-50 Group is more telling than they think: bureaucracy is always impersonal, ubiquitous and invisible, free from the conspicuousness of the name.
3. ‘Be reasonable!’ To emphasize that they speak for Mankind- the sovereignty of Man inhering in his capacity to Reason- the group addresses itself to our faculties of cognition. Us ‘radicals’ are in agreement- rationality deserves our unconditional esteem. But we must also be clear on where we part ways. In contrast to the Post-50 Group, we do not believe that we can de-politicize Reason. Reason does not exist in some neutral space where every ascription of value is held in abeyance. Every use of Reason is political. Our confrontation with a State that is prepared to commit public funds to an unconscionable project, uprooting local communities and ecological milieus in the process, is a conflict between two antagonistic rationalities. To dismiss this conflict by appealing to a Universal Reason is to obscure the dimension of choice, the discrimination between two irreconcilable rationalities: democracy or the State. We have chosen a side, we will not capitulate. We only wish that you had the honesty to admit to your choice, a choice which, in whatever lofty vocabulary you wish to couch it in, *divides* you from us.
I refer to Roland Guettier’s ‘Democracy Has Had Its Day’. What subsists beneath this exemplar of positivistic rationality- supported by an infallible logic and the ‘facts’ that incarnate its construction- is a tedious banality. Since Guettier is so fond of citing the Greeks, I would like to invoke a Platonic figure that will lead us out of the confusion into which Guettier plunges us. This obscurity, which Plato termed ‘sophistry’, assumes its modern form in what we shall call ‘cynical conservatism’. Now, we know that Plato shared Guettier’s aristocratic dismissal of democracy, but this hardly matters- I would like to recover a thought that will never surrender its sublimity as long as we are capable of thinking it.
This is the thought of Truth and the Idea, a figure of the eternal that subtracts itself from every contingent fact. The name ‘democracy’ does not merely denote a state of affairs, a mode of political administration that has assumed different forms throughout history- in which case we can legislate upon its empirical success or failure- it also connotes a dream, the truth of which retains its inexorable incandescence in the hearts of men and women. This is why the texts of Marx and Robespierre, Paine and Jefferson, even (why not?) the incendiary tracts of Mao retain their comprehensibility in spite of the innumerable compromises and betrayals that blemish their implementation. Lenin’s cleavage between ‘formal’ and ‘real’ democracy remains crucial to those of us who believe in the creative power of people who act in concert. I would like to be clear- every historical manifestation of democracy does not terminate the process of liberation, nor does it diminish the imperative of struggle that democracy imposes upon us. Democracy, like the Love that saturates it, is not a ‘thing’, an object in the world that we can subject to critical evaluation, it is a relation forged between men and women who construct and enact it, it is something we do. Whatever our verdict is on the demands of the anti-Railway groups, one thing is certain- they manifest an implacable spirit that courses through the social body, despite the government’s attempts to occlude it. We are ready for self-determination, whether the State is willing to sanction it or not.
Guettier’s argument stands and falls upon its response to a simple Socratic question: WHICH democracy are we speaking about? Democracy as a mere parliamentary form, or a real, already-existing content that is animated and elaborated upon by the shared desires of struggling people? I must concede that this letter does not share the lofty ambitions of Guettier and the Post-50 Group- I do not presume to speak in the name of universal ‘reason’ nor do I wish to invoke the demiurge of ‘History’ to substantiate my claims. I cast my lot exclusively with those who hope and fight, because I know that, beneath the tumult of time and the failures that comprise it, a dream is immune to the ravages of death.
|Monday, October 19th, 2009|
|Hatred Of Democracy
Jacques Ranciere- Hatred of Democracy
This book, I think, might very well be the most succinct formulation of Ranciere’s foundational philosophical axiom, that of absolute equality. Ranciere’s treatment of democracy is at once startling and revelatory. These, I think, are its principal tenets:
1. Democracy is not a form of state or a configuration of power. Every ‘really-existing state’, as everyone from Aristotle to Pareto has made clear, is invariably an oligarchy. Political philosophy, then, is obligated to subtract democracy from the State- democracy is irreducible to parliamentarism, but parliamentarism is absolutely contingent upon democratic consent. Ranciere’s most astonishing thesis is that equality is prior to, and constitutive of, the Master-Slave dialectic: the Master has no natural, a priori right to rule, he must compel the Slave to accept his right and enforce it. Equality, as such, is the limit of power, its precondition as well as its insurpassable frontier: “Equality is not a fiction. All superiors experience this as the most commonplace of realities. There is no master who does not sit back and risk letting his slave run away, no man who is not capable of killing another, no force that is imposed without having to justify itself, and hence without having to recognize the irreducibility of equality needed for inequality to function. From the moment obedience has to refer to a principle of legitimacy, from the moment it is necessary for there to be laws that are enforced qua laws and institutions embodying the common of the community, commanding must presuppose the equality of the one who commands and the one who is commanded.” (Ranciere, 48)
2. This is why the power of the people is, in the last instance, beneath (every State formation is ultimately arbitrary, erected upon a primordial state of equality) and beyond (this power is ultimately beyond capture) the State. In a remarkable reading of Plato, Ranciere identifies a fear that resonates throughout Western culture, from Nietzsche (the blurring of the ‘order of rank’) to Burke to Yeats (‘things fall apart…the center cannot hold…the worst are full of passionate intensity’). Plato’s great fear, of course, is that all of the hierarchical gradations that structure society can, in one stroke, collapse into a morass of indifferentiation. All of the relations of non-reciprocity and transcendence that hold a moral order together (say, between a child and his parent, between a pupil and his student) are endangered by the ominous specter of democracy, which obliterates both culture and civilization. Yet, Ranciere asks, if all of these micrological differential relations (teacher/student, rich/poor, child/elder, wise/ignorant) are subject to this indifferentiation, does it not show that they are all, at base, essentially the same? That is to say, is it not obvious that every inequality, every difference of status sustained and enforced by power rests upon a primordial equality? Difference is that which dissimulates indifference, the plurality of inequalities obfuscates the primacy of equality.
3. A word on Ranciere’s conception of nature. It can be said that Ranciere ‘naturalizes’ democracy, positing it as an inexorable constant that runs underneath every institutionalized arrangement of power. In this regard, he is at one with Spinoza and Rousseau. In this way, democracy, as the only truly natural condition of political life, gives the lie to every representation of ‘natural right’, de-legitimizing the sovereignty of every transcendent entity that stands above this immanent primordiality: “Universal suffrage is not at all a natural consequence of democracy. Democracy has no natural consequences precisely because it is the division of ‘nature,’ the BREAKING OF THE LINK between natural properties and forms of government.” (Ranciere, 54)
4. It is important to note, however, that while Ranciere ‘naturalizes’ democracy, he does not resort to any speculative anthropology- democracy is an omnipresent, invariant truth of political life, but that does not mean that its exercise is guaranteed, nor that people are naturally compelled to defend it. This is what distinguishes him from his opponents, the ‘haters of democracy’, who reduce modern man to a homo democritus, a blithering ape steeped in the mindnumbing vacuities of multiculturalism and mass consumerism: “To paint a robotic portrait of democratic man, the best thing to do is to combine these characteristics: the young, idiotic consumer of popcorn, reality TV, safe sex, social security, the right to difference, and anticapitalist or ‘alterglobalist’ illusions. Thanks to him, the denouncers have what they need: the absolute culprit of an irremediable evil.” (Ranciere, 89)
5. Every irruption of democracy in the political field is a ‘return of the repressed’, reminding power of the an-archic condition that founds and underlies it. Democracy is, then, that which splits the State body in two, maintaining the irreconcilable breach between the imposition of the Arche and the excessive An-archic body that it can never contain. As such, hatred of democracy is symptomatic of a deep ressentiment on the part of the ruling classes, who must accept that their rule lacks any transcendental guarantee. In other words, democracy is the name of power’s intrinsic Lack: “the primary indistinction between governors and governed, one which becomes evident when the obviousness of the natural power of the best or of the highborn is stripped of its prestige- the absence of a specific title to govern politically over those assembled other than the absence of title. Democracy is first this paradoxical condition of politics, the point where every legitimization is confronted with its ultimate lack of legitimacy, confronted with the egalitarian contingency that underpins the inegalitarian contingency itself.” (Ranciere, 94)
6. Alain Badiou has said that the State is that which counts its people as one, assigning determinate places in the social strata, facilitating the servicing of goods and harmonizing a multiplicity of interests into a unified whole. This assignation of place, which fixes, classifies and accounts for the multifarious elements that compose State space, is what Jacques Ranciere has called the ‘police’ function of the State. In distinction to this, politics is that which is disinterested, a movement in which political subjects reject/revoke the places and names that are imposed upon them. This is a profoundly Lacanian thesis- every symbolic configuration is forgetful of its own contingency; it must forestall the void of the Real that prevents it from closing in on itself. Democracy happens ‘on the edge of the void’, in moments of profound inconsistency. If it is inimical to a system of representation, this is because parliamentarism cannot accommodate it- democracy is that which places the parameters that it sets in jeopardy. Democracy blurs the line between citizen (particular) and individual (singular/universal), shattering the coordinates that guarantee national identity. In this regard, we can say that democracy is essentially illegal, a collective show of force that violates and exceeds the existing state of things: “This is what the democratic process implies: the action of subjects who, by working the interval between identities, reconfigure the distributions of the public and the private, the universal and the particular. Democracy can never be identified with the simple domination of the universal over the particular. For the universal is incessantly privatized by police logic, incessantly reduced to a power-share between birth, wealth and ‘competence’, which is at work in the State as well as in society….The democratic process must therefore constantly bring the universal into play in a polemical form. The democratic process is the process of a perpetual bringing into play, of invention of forms of subjectivation, and of cases of verification that counteract the perpetual privatization of public life.” (Ranciere, 61)
7. So whence this hatred of democracy? In an astutely Foucauldian reading of today’s political climate, Ranciere notes the emergence of a disquieting consensus. Ranciere is at his best when he charts the discursive shifts that have taken place over the last few decades, the surfacing/concomitant disappearance of terms and tropes in the popular vocabulary. Recent years have seen the proliferation of various meta-narratives, all of which construct an extraordinarily reductive image of Western civilization. It is said that the Stalinist gulags and the Holocaust are epiphenomena of a deeper ontological predicament, a radical evil that is rooted in modern man. The disappearance of politics into apocalyptic theology has obscured and displaced antagonism onto religious ground, transforming politics into a confrontation between virtue and terror. In this millenarian vision, the State is our guardian angel, saving us both from our own excesses and the envious eye of our Neighbours. As such, we have witnessed a widespread recrudescence of chauvinism, ‘family values’ and parochialism, desperate attempts to restitute an order of rank/ kinship that will smother and incapacitate the incipient desires of the masses. The politics of fear endeavors to foreclose the agonistic sphere of democracy, to heal the schism between Arche and An-arche.
8. This is where we communists find ourselves today. Our actions are no longer sanctified by any dialectical Law. Stripped of its halo and divested of grace, communism must accept its radical secularization: “Rediscovering the singularity of democracy means also being aware of its solitude. Demands for democracy were for a long time carried or concealed by the idea of a new society, the elements of which were allegedly being formed in the very heart of contemporary society….Understanding what democracy means is to renounce this faith.” (Ranciere, 96) The great cathedrals of yesteryear, the parties and the cells of our fathers, have lost their sacred glow. Has this consigned us to isolation, we who are no longer galvanized by a mission ordained by History? Communists, of course, are never alone. Each of us is united by our indignation, our inability to accept the world as it is. The legacy of egalitarianism is OURS to defend, we cannot shift this struggle upon anyone else, neither History, the People, the mythical Proletariat nor God.
……….And certainly not the State!
|Tuesday, October 13th, 2009|
|Thought As A Practice Of Freedom: a scrapped abstract
In Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s magisterial study, The New Spirit Of Capitalism, three correlative claims are made:
1. Capitalism is, in Nietzschean terms, ‘moraline free’. This is a classic Marxist position- ‘capitalism’ designates nothing more than an impersonal, insatiable demand, a demand that gives shape to social reality like a divine sentence. Capitalism demands nothing other than its own valorization and proliferation. It has no regard for its effective agents or its victims, each of which is but a relay in its interminable circuit. In this way, it is ‘beyond good and evil’, a neutral drive unfettered by prohibitions. It is interesting to note Boltanski and Chiapello’s position regarding Althusser’s infamous conception of capitalism as a ‘process without subject’. In contrast to Althusser’s thoroughgoing theoretical anti-humanism, Boltanski and Chiapello allow for some degree of human agency in their analyses. This leads to the next two points.
2. If capitalism has no moral code of its own, morality must be grafted on to it through a process of supplementation. In effect, every ‘capitalist morality’ is a foreign implant, a hybrid alloy that remains irreducible to its host. When we examine the ideological constellation that is ‘neo-liberalism’, we find that far from being a homogeneous, organic whole, ideology is always a precarious weave of heterogeneous elements. In this regard, Althusser is right in suggesting that ideology is never an inert ‘given’, but a continuous construction of hegemony, an ongoing material ‘practice’ that adapts itself to prevalent historical currents. Chantal Mouffe has made this point repeatedly in The Return of the Political and The Democratic Paradox- there is no intrinsic concordance between liberalism, democracy and capitalism. In fact, it is their radical incompatibility (a point first made in the analyses of Carl Schmitt) that opens a space for the political as agonistic confrontation: “…it is vital for democratic politics to understand that liberal democracy results from the articulation of two logics which are incompatible in the last instance and that there is no way in which they could be perfectly reconciled.” (Mouffe, 5) This is the precise meaning of ‘ideology’ in Boltanski and Chiapello’s text- ideology is an artificial prosthesis, a ‘human face’ affixed to a decidedly inhuman drive. Without a justificatory discourse, capitalism is insupportable. It must address itself to the needs of working men and women, the inalienable need for career stability being primary. It must also dissimulate its foundational premises by affirming its commitment to social justice, assuring its agents that they are participating in Man’s asymptotic approach towards liberty and fulfillment.
3. Ideology is not a mandate imposed from above, a despotic command. It requires the active endorsement of working men and women to operate effectively. When this endorsement is withdrawn, capitalism finds itself in crisis. The New Spirit Of Capitalism is effectively a re-evaluation of these epochal shifts, evental conjunctures that demanded a thorough re-assessment/re-alignment of capitalist organization. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have remarked that late capitalism is a skeletal, axiomatic structure that can be implemented in a near-limitless range of contexts. The history of the 20th century is, by and large, the history of capitalism’s miraculous recoveries and renewals. Such renewals, initiated in response to the implacable demands of disenchanted workers, require a comprehensive transformation of the ideological base. At such moments, capitalism is forced to interrupt itself and take the claims of its opponents seriously, in order to develop a model which can neutralize and appropriate the subversive force of critique. Boltanski and Chiapello exhort us to remember that critique and capitalism are imbricated in a perilous dialectic- critique ceaselessly presents capitalism with material for consideration, material that more often than not is ‘sublated’ and incorporated into its own dynamic. This, as we know, can lead to the fatalistic, Bataillean jaundice of Jean Baudrillard, who relinquishes all belief in critique in lieu of a poetic mysticism.
A cursory examination of today’s management literature gives us a very vivid picture of today’s ideological landscape. Dynamism, creativity, autonomy, mobility, spontaneity, improvisation- these are the principal coordinates of a global economy, a deterritorialized space that refuses every sort of narrow provincialism. This ‘morality of mobility’ is ontogenetic in the Foucauldian sense, creating as a consequence a new order of cosmopolitan mandarins. Today’s jet-setting executive is obliged to free himself from his socio-cultural moorings, to craft strategies commensurate to the demands of diverse situations (penetrating disparate markets, overcoming ethnic barriers and resistances).
For all of its purported permissiveness and radicalism, the ideology of globalization is moral in a very real sense. The strength of Boltanski and Chiapello’s analysis lies in its incisive identification of the imperatives and proscriptions that structure globalization’s triumphalist affirmations of creativity and universality. It is, in fact, quite simple to refute the endless line of theorists who proclaim the disappearance of ideology in our ‘transparent’ times. All this requires is a little Socratic/Nietzschean skepticism. Why should we assume that mobility is better than inertia? That speed should be privileged above slowness? That liberal-democratic universality is invariably superior to any other form of government? Our unconditional acceptance of creativity, movement and spontaneous activity can barely obscure the feeling that these presuppositions are ultimately tautological, that this tyranny of opinion cannot render itself immune to deconstruction. What is philosophy, if not the continuous desire to deliver thought from the abstractions that confine and circumscribe it? Philosophy is nothing less than the endlessly-renewed effort to pose thought against the bureaucratic administration of non-thought.
Is radical philosophy still possible today, when every messianic promise has been invalidated and class divisions are becoming increasingly indiscernible, submerged beneath identitarian particularities (concerns with gender, the environment, culture occluding the disappearance of the ‘worker’ )? Can it keep apace with the continuous transformations of its object? Globalization is, to borrow Trotsky’s famous formulation, a ‘permanent revolution’- the intensity of capitalist competition today requires perpetual innovation and metamorphosis. As a consequence, creativity and mobility are no longer individual merits that confer distinction upon individual executives, but injunctions to be obeyed by all. This catalyzes a shift from ethics in the Spinozist sense (‘movement is good, movement creates affects of joy’) to Kantian morality, a universal imperative that addresses itself to all regardless of individual situation (‘thou shalt move, or else!’). Employment places an inexorable duress upon today’s workforce, forcing working men and women to develop a plethora of skills that were largely irrelevant in previous epochs. Little wonder, then, that post-modernity has been diagnosed as being ‘schizophrenic’, a perpetually unfolding now that uproots itself from the continuum of history. Giorgio Agamben’s examinations of contemporary biopolitics are especially instructive in this regard- we inhabit a world characterized by an interminable state of emergency, where each of us is forced to confront the radical contingency of bare life.
Alain Badiou, in his polemical tract Philosophy And Desire, has offered us a programmatic prolegomena to a future philosophy. If philosophy is to contest the hegemony of market morality, the principal tenets of which have been supplied by philosophy, it must be prepared to subject itself to a rigorous re-evaluation. It must assess its degree of complicity with the reigning order and attempt to open a breach, a critical distance from which it can elaborate an alternative logic, an alternative mode of thought. Francis Bacon’s description of this exodus remains salient- philosophy begins in silence, having shut its ears to the clamorous hubbub of the intellectual marketplace. The act of thought is performed in solitude and exile, having extracted itself from every existing community. By distinguishing itself from the celebratory chorus of our impoverished pantomime, thought becomes a truly creative gesture.
These are the principal coordinates of my theoretical desire, bearings that will guide my reading of this issue’s texts. The rhetorical strategy employed throughout is an admittedly polemical one, deriving as it does from an unfashionable commitment to the Marxist legacy. Althusser’s theory of the problematic, which distinguishes ideology from philosophy, remains cardinal if we are to assess the value of theory for contemporary struggles. This is an inescapable operation, for, as Antonio Negri has stated repeatedly, ‘there is no outside’; there is no retreat, no sanctuary from the political. Again, I must invoke the thought of Chantal Mouffe, which introduces an absolute cleavage between ‘politics’ (as the administration of governmentality by the State and its parties) and the ‘political’ (as the agonistic confrontation between irreducible adversaries). In her Democratic Paradox, Mouffe indicts neo-liberalism, Habermasian ‘communication’ and the Giddensian conception of the Third Way as efforts to close and suture this gap, to foreclose the political altogether by conflating it with political administration. If the rift between Left and Right is constitutive of the political as such, critique cannot abstain from choosing sides, in declaring its partisanship. Thus, I would like to submit my identity papers for public inspection. I am a communist, and I believe in the insurrectionary power of philosophy.
|Poetry & The Philosophy Of Love- an edited epistle
Yesterday, in spite of myself, I engaged in a violent skirmish with my father. The subject of debate was the status of love letters and love poetry.
My father's position is one that I have wrestled with throughout the course of my creative life. In short, he dissociates love (as primordial feeling, ineffable sensation) from its expression in words and signs. Whence this cleavage between life and art, if not in the separation between wordless content (feeling) and symbolic form (words that always fall short of the mark?)
Life is, therefore, mute, and poetry is the vainglorious, Promethean attempt to ventriloquize it. This ventriloquism is always aritificial- life has no voice of its own, it must be animated from without, vocalization is always a violation of its sacred silence.
I must admit that I have always been tempted by this hypothesis. It is the mystical temptation, that part of me that falls in and out of love with God, He-Who-Is-Forever-Nameless, YHWH. As you know I am very given to this sort of holy hyperbole. It is a bit silly.
You know, one of the crucial passages of Plato's 'Republic', a move that has had profound repercussions for the history of Western thought, involves his banishment of the poets. Why does he do this? I think there are two reasons, one that is necessary from the perspective of Plato's foundational doctrine, the second being critical for the practice of philosophy at large. Without the banishmentof poetry, without the consummate divorce of philosophy from poetry, philosophy is simply inconceivable. Thus, poetry is dangerous, contaminative, an infectious virus that must be isolated and quarantined so that philosophy can come into its own. The fact that this banishment happens in the Republic is significant- Plato is attempting to think of the ideal social order, a configuration that would guarantee the legitimacy of society. If we think of power as that which NAMES (you are Chinese, you are middle-class, you hold these rights as a consequence) and ASSIGNS places through classification (the frontier between citizen, immigrant, illegal alien, who belongs to the 'people' of the Republic, who the enemy is), then it is easy to see why poetry is so fatal or the social bond. Is poetry not the dissolution of every place, does it not happen in the collapse of every name, the revocation of every consitutive nomination, ,so that it may name/baptize things anew, as though for the very first time? If philosophy and power function through the operation of invariant logic (assimilation of singularities to categories and concepts), then poetry is ultimately a-logical: it exploits the tears in the fabric of meaning, it makes small incisions in the tissue of totality. Every poem is withdrawal, subtraction, seizing its object from every sort of generality, shielding it in the hermetic shelter of its utterance. Poetry manages to think singularity, it makes no reference to rule or law, it prescribes nothing.
So much for that. The other side of this banishment concerns Plato's metaphysics. The cornerstone of Plato's theory, as we know, is that appearance is contingent, chaotic, a totally senseless flux of change and decay. What preserves some kind of sameness/consistency in this inane process of continuous metamorphosis? For every empirical object, there is an immaterial, divine Idea that guarantees its Identity. So we can set fire to every existent tree in a grand conflagration, but the eternal Idea of the Tree subsists in some cosmic realm of the Intelligence.
If every empirical tree is, in actuality, a mere fascimile of the original Idea, then every artistic/poetic representation of this copy is really a copy of a copy, doubly estranged from reality. The procedure of Platonic philosophy is always analogous, symmetrical to this banishment. In the Symposium, where Plato talks about love, he attempts to subtract love from every empirical object, in order to uncover the essential Idea of love. You can guess what the process is. I say that I love YOU as an irreplaceable, singular woman, that I love idiosyncratic traits that only YOU possess, but that isn't really (philosophically) true. In order to extract philosophical truth from this love, which is a pre-philosophical, blind sort of desire, I must remove love from every contingent, material object and realize that LOVE is really a desire for immortality. Where can immortality be found? In the intellectual Idea, in philosophical wisdom. Hence the concept of 'Platonic love', where one subdues the lusts of the flesh and devotes oneself to a mutual pursuit of truth thorugh friendship (Socrates and Alcibiades). By subtracting love from its material support (the Other person as cause, origin and impetus for love), Plato dematerializes it and transforms it into some sort of metaphysical drive inherent in the human creature (notice the Freudian twist to this- the object cause of my love's 'desire' is that imperceptible thing in the woman that reminds me of my mother and my unfulfillable yearning for wholeness with the Mother...distinct from the desire are the inhuman, immortal drives of eros and thanatos...), a longing for one's spiritual home. Loving is not a departure from the known, an embarkation into the night, but a homecoming.
I think this is really at the heart of every denunciation of poetry as the perversion of 'truth'. There is the assumptin that Love is an invariant thing, that there is a concept of 'Love' that persists in its sameness through all of its contingent manifestations. This is the pitfall of language- it attempts to bind all of the multifarious oscillations of the heart in one word, 'Love', a word that is supposed to encapsulate them all. What is the danger in this? One supposes that 'Love' is something we do not need to speak about, because we intuitively know what it is. If Love is a property common to humankind as such, if all of us have access to it, then it seems proper to say that it should be accorded the same dignity as any other primal function, say eating, sleeping, drinking. We can learn nothing from love poetry, which merely supplements and embellishes something we have always known. Hence the moment of recognition whenever one encounters a great poet- one feels as though one were destined for this encounter, as though the poet were a cipher for our secret thoughts. This is the Platonic figure of anamnesis.
Yet isn't this all rather vulgar? I think we're all familiar with the logic behind this sort of sophistry, which manifests itself throughout the art of the modern era (the painting of Gauguin, Delacroix, Dubuffet...)- Western Civilization has always been captivated by the image of the noble savage living in the heart of reality, attuned to the vibrations of the invisible. This hypothetical tribe is granted access to untrammelled spontaneity, immediacy of feeling without the intercession of language. The curse of civilization, we are told,. is to have been branded by language, which institutes an insurpassable gap between itself and a lost innocence, a savage and unlimited enjoyment. Language is like an opaque screen that coats the eyes, refracting and distorting every act of perception. This is the Kantian gap between phenomena and 'things-in-themselves'....
I don't know about you, but I write in opposition ot this. I am resolutely against this concepton of language as a necessary evil, an obstacle to some 'pre-linguistic', primitive 'life'. I believe that language is co-extensive, not separate from, life, that there is a certain use of language that enhances and augments life, that allows it to proliferate. I don't believe that life 'precedes' poetry, which is a mere attempt to approximate and describe the fullness of a feeling. Poetry is not imitative description, the miming of something external to it (the verisimilitude or accuracy of which would be its criterion of success or failure). It is not a recreation of something that is lost, the trace of a tragic absence. Love poetry proceeds only from an overflowing fullness, an illimitable abundance.
It is precisely this abundance that prevents 'love' from ever coinciding with itself. The word 'love' designates nothing other than a perpetual disequilibrium, one's exposure to an unsettling imbalance. How could we possibly conflate it with the placidity of a divine Concept? Love could never be One, whole. If we can say that love is meaningless, it is not because, in its absurd excess, we can say nothing about it, but because, in its very SURPLUS of meaning, we can never say ENOUGH about it. This is why poetry is the abolition of the place, the destitution of the bond, the dissolution of the name- it revokes every form of fixity and MULTIPLIES MEANING TO THE MAXIMUM. Poetry is not the negation of meaning, but its infinite affirmation, its infinite dissemination. It engenders a series of equivalent meanings, none of which excludes the other, none of which desires to institute itself as the supreme, transcendent instance, the 'truth' of the others. One could say that it poetry works laterally, stringing a plurality of meanings together in a non-hierarchical, endlessly-expansive chain. In this way, poetry is always iconoclastic.
So, when we write a love poem, we are performing a very precise operation, the sobriety of which is masked by its lexical delirium. This is the point at which philosophy and poetry bifurcate. If the Socratic (Platonic) question is "WHAT is love?" the accent being placed on 'What' as an identifiable, singular essence (THIS *is* love in its precise sense, THIS *is* how we avoid confusing love with every other essence), then the poet's response to Socrates is totally anti-philosophical, inimical to the very grammar and rubric of philosophical procedure. The poet manages to say, with earnest seriousness: "Very well, I shall tell you exactly what love is. It is a pack of ravenous hyenas, it is a draught of ambrosia, it is a hurricane, it is a skybound harpoon, and...and...and..." (the marvel of this is that the poet is being AS PRECISE as the philosopher, it's just that their conceptions of precision DIFFER....)
The philosopher, naturally, is infuriated by this interminable litany, he plugs his ears and begs his interlocutor to stop. Lost in a bout of effusion, the poet sings until the evening....
PHILOSOPHER: Yes, yes, but WHICH is IT?! Which ONE is LOVE?!
This problem of the One is really what underlies the condemnation of poetry, the conflation of poetry with untruth. Truth is One, pure, unblemished, separate from the multiple confusions and obfuscations of language. But since we are obliged to make use of language in community with one another, language approaches truth only if it purges itself of all of its mystifications and ruses. Language cannot aim straight at the truth, it is always askew, tangential, but i should nevertheless maintain straightness as an impossible ideal. To shoot straight, that is the dream of language. hence the proliferation of abbreviations and acronyms today, the equation of language with the transparency of information. If truth is One and language is the One vehicle by which we travel (asymptotically, tangentially) towards it, then poetry is the renunciation of every forward movement. It spins around like a whirling top, circumambulating endlessly about its own axis. Poetry, in the eye of the pragmatist, is the celebration of language's intrinsic impotency, freeing language from the relentless impulsions of truth. Of course, this is a totally impoverished conception of truth. It fails to see that the truth of poetry is not one of accuracy or correctness (which is why any attempt to chastise its failure to 'simulate', in a sufficiently credible fashion, the feeling of love or passion, is necessarily bankrupt, relying as it does on a conception of literature as scientific realism or naturalism). The truth of poetry is not separate from its act of enunciation, it is not 'outside' speech, it is WITHIN the saying itself. And this truth is always singular, unrepeatable, EVEN when it is a repetition.
What do I mean? Take, for example, the articulation of 'I love you'. These words have been repeated an infinite number of times by an infinite series of lovers, but it retains all of its poetic, performative force regardless of its banality, it is because it CREATES A TRUTH, a new situation each time it is repeated. "I love you" is not a mere citation, it does not operate on the same plane as mundane speech. Is it not amazing that these three words, which we have heard from the lips of innumerable films stars and musicians, continue to exert their dangerous fascination on the popular imagination? To say that you love someone is to thrust them into a catastrophe, to expose them to something incomprehensible. They are words without meaning, but words that, in an act of force, forges a singular relationship between two people, binding them to an incalculable power.
So much hinges on the decision to pronounce one's love. Herein lies the power of the poetic gesture, an act that forces the windows of reality open and implores (tremblingly) the lover to leap through them. This act of opening REQUIRES the poem. Contrary to what many think, we are not open all the time. Poetry does not reside in a pre-existing open, it CREATES AN OPENING through its utterance, its performance. This struggle to escape closure, maybe this is what the life of the artist, the poet, the free man is.
|Tuesday, August 4th, 2009|
I feel that life is very difficult. To live, to truly live, if only for an infinitesimal instant, is much more than I can bear. Reality cleaves through my flesh like a glowing knife, thought splinters into shards of white light. Nothing persists besides a cruel laughter, a wicked joy that surges through the cosmos and bears everything away. I am nothing other than this primal shriek, this silent howl that reverberates in the air, this implacable call. Who am I? This throbbing pulse, these bristling hairs, this clenched fist, these white knuckles, these heaving lungs, this breathless affirmation. Yes.
This is the paradox at the heart of Deleuzian philosophy- life, at its highest intensity, is precisely that which is unlivable, impossible in the Bataillean sense. This body, this fleshly vessel which I inhabit, was made to be shattered- the senses are so many points of contact, cathodes plugged directly into the circuits of the earth; the skin is studded with slits and orifices, invaginations and points of entry; the cogito is besieged by a hostile menagerie of monstrosities. Thought, at its limit, is indiscernible from madness. Joy, at its vertiginous height, is saturated with an unspeakable pain. As Francis Bacon has shown us, it is a marvel that the human body, the locus of innumerable divergent forces, is able to remain upright. Bacon’s paintings astonish us because they reveal, in one moment, the precariousness as well as the fortitude of the human figure. A form at the point of disintegration, vaingloriously resisting its own (invariable) implosion. An ephemeral flash in the midst of chaos, “a face drawn in the sand between two tides”.
Is this not the subject of all horror fiction? Horror is an experience of the limit, poised at the precarious threshold between sense and insanity. Can we say that horror is an endlessly renewed discourse about the fragility of this frontier? In Poe, meaning collapses beneath the inexorable pressure of fear, words are splattered against an impermeable wall (a set of teeth, a lock of hair). In Lovecraft, language exhausts itself in communicating the incommunicable- the fabric of sense frays at the seams, and between the stitches we glimpse the vortical warp of delirium. Great literature is exactly this- the unraveling of language, the involution of speech. The book as compactor, the page as a vice pressing words into an oleaginous pulp. It is wrong to assume that a poet writes to communicate- he is in search of the boiling point of language, the critical temperature of a word, the moment when expression bursts through the membrane of meaning and streaks into the open air.
|Friday, May 22nd, 2009|
|The Mechanics Of Jacques Tati
The Mechanics Of Jacques Tati
"I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, I am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see"- Dziga Vertov
Guy Debord’s ventures into a self-negating cinema revealed an uncomfortable truth that cinema has yet to accept- in a society of spectacle, every image is a crime; every shot is an emblem of complicity. Cinema, as a populist medium, merely reproduces the abstractions that petrify class relations, reifying the symbolic associations that reinforce our habits of perception. Entrenched in a network of power, cinema transmits and disseminates signals that encode and overwrite perception. In this sense, popular cinema is intrinsically demagogical. Radical cinema, following the early example of the Surrealists, operates as an intervention, destabilizing and re-arranging the significative webs that structure reality. A political cinema is possible when the act of perception itself is called into question, when the eye is revealed to be a relay in an ideological circuit.
How does one begin to extract oneself from a system of signs, to file one’s way through the prison bars of meaning? The social realist solution, exemplified in the films of Eisenstein, the early Dziga Vertov and the Italian neo-realists, is to create a parallel structure of signs, one which inverts capitalist relations. Film, in this instance, mirrors a reductively Manichean weltanschauung. The fetishized object here is reality, and the right to represent it. Cinema is reduced to a struggle between competing claims on truth, each declaiming the other as a falsehood. There is also the danger that the formal specificity of cinema will be subordinated to ideology, the cinematic image reduced to a mirror of the party line. This vulgar approach to art treats all aesthetic media as subsidiary organs of the party, adjuncts of a political mythology. This is to risk the conflation of cinema and propaganda, as though film were the visual supplement of the pamphlet.
The Situationist and Deconstructive (Godard’s Le Gai Savoir) solution is, in this regard, more sensitive to the aesthetic possibilities and the irreducible singularity of cinema. It conceives of cinema as a critical enterprise where reality itself is placed on trial. The film-maker is no longer interested in representing an objective fact, but in removing an object from the field of meaning, creating holes and ruptures in the fabric of sense. Ossified conjunctions between images and sounds are dissolved; signs are freed from their accepted referents. It is a relentlessly negative maneuver, one that attempts to reconfigure the primary coordinates of perception by attacking the very foundations of signification. Effective as such tactics have been in demystifying the cinematic image, they offer little in the way of an affirmative praxis. ‘Anti-cinema’ is not a cinema, it is merely a running critique on it, a visual polemic. There is also the issue of its worrying insularity- in making films about the impossible fallacy of film-making, the anti-auteur retreats into a purely semiotic space, where images and signs are the sole subjects of interest.
It is my belief that cinema is worthless if it does not prescribe a new angle of vision. Cinema is a vast experiment on the sensory system, a means to re-calibrate the affective mechanism. Both the social realist solution and its negation are, in this regard, politically limited- the former for its willful naïvete and the latter for its failure to propose a viable alternative. Political cinema, as Debord proposes, is a psychogeographical intervention- it must concern itself with the most immediate exigencies of corporeal existence, the dynamic interaction between a body and the space in which it is situated. When Godard famously asserted that a tracking shot is an ethical act, he affirmed its ability to re-orient the viewer’s relationship to space, to engineer a new awareness. The film camera captures complexity and depth; it can render the totality of a situation palpable and display a multiplicity of relations simultaneously. In this regard, cinema is perhaps the foremost geopolitical weapon.
Jacques Tati, to my mind, did more than any other director to formulate a template for a new political cinema. Beyond this, he knew that laughter remains the most subversive, iconoclastic force at our disposal. His innovation lies in synthesizing the picaresque tradition, one which begins with Cervantes and stretches through to Kafka and Beckett, with a spectrum of cinematic techniques that reveal the organizational logics of postmodern space. Technology, of course, is at the center of Tati’s most remarkable films, but it is crucial to note that Tati’s interest lies not so much in the ‘hardware’ of technology, but in the technological rationality that sustains all of modern life. For Tati, as for Heidegger and Foucault, technology is a mode of thought, a technique applied to resistant material in order to extract something of benefit. Technology begins with the sketching of a grid, a diagram- the precise demarcation of frontiers, the distribution of bodies in codified zones. It is a matter of micro-management, of coordinating flows of bodies, circumscribing movement and confining it within a prescribed range. Every space, Foucault tells us, requires a corresponding technology, one that programs its spatio-temporal coordinates and regulates the behavior of its occupants.
Chaplin had begun to think of this in Modern Times, probing as he did the relationship between regimes of disciplinarity and the working body, but Chaplin’s vision remains arrested by his philosophical humanism. In Chaplin’s films, the question of agency is never raised; the Tramp is, in spite of all, the architect of his own fate, an inexorable force of resistance. The Tramp is the engine of every Chaplin film, the immovable center of gravity around which a constellation of events revolves. We never question the necessity of the Tramp, his presence justifies the existence of the film. Hulot, by contrast, is a purely contingent being, a man without qualities. Nominally, he is the subject of his films, but this does little to disguise his arbitrariness - he stumbles into frames, drifts out of them for prolonged periods of time, occupies the fringes of others.
Like Kafka’s K., Hulot is often employed as a moving marker, a pretext to shift the camera through Tati’s nightmarish vision. Tati, in his emphasis on the mechanical, is resolutely Kafkaesque- he wants to know how the world works. It is wrong to conceive of Kafka’s texts as being ‘existentialist’ in the Cartesian or Kierkegaardian sense, as though they are inward meditations on the solitary soul, gloomy exercises in subjective psychology. Nothing could be further from the case- Kafka’s texts have been purged of sturm und drang, being far closer to the Alice books and Gulliver’s Travels than Dostoevsky and Sartre. K., like Hulot, is an integer, one among many, one term in a complex set. Think of the scene in Hulot’s apartments, where Hulot’s window is directly connected to the singing of a bird. The causal sequence here is extraordinary: the window, which reflects a shaft of light that hits an adjacent wall, must be opened at a precise angle so that the light shines on the bird cage. Even the slightest deviation from this angle would result in the bird’s silence. Tati’s films are structured around concrete mechanical conjunctions like this: Hulot+ window+ sunlight+ bird=birdsong. Here, each element of the equation is as necessary as the next, the absence of one would invalidate the formula altogether.
Indeed, in Tati’s films, everything counts, even a shaft of light. Save for certain segments in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the most orthodox of the Hulot films, Hulot is never a pivot for the action of the film, nor is he the motor that advances it. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, we are already made acutely aware that Hulot intrudes upon a reality in which he is superfluous, even unwelcome; a fully-operative whole that functions immaculately without his interference. The film, in a sense, pre-exists Hulot, who is inserted into it. This is a particularly Tati-esque motif, prominently exhibited throughout Playtime- the space precedes its inhabitants, man’s contrivances assume a life of their own. The grid is there before us, beneath us- Hulot discovers this when he unwittingly springs a leak in his sister’s garden, uncovering a sprawling, subterranean network that underlies all of modern life.
This is a recurring scenario in Tati, one where Hulot is forced to act with scarcely any comprehension of his circumstantial conditions. Indeed, time in the Hulot films is fragmentary, unfolding in a perpetual now that has little reference to its antecedent or subsequent moments- Hulot is always too early or too late to enact his good intentions, he cannot synchronize himself with the rhythm of a given happening. Rhythm, of course, is crucial to Tati’s productions, all of which are orchestrated like vast symphonies. Hence the volume and precision of his soundtracks: “Everything was music, the lifting and setting down of their feet, certain turns of the head, their running and their standing still, the positions they took up in relation to one another…” (Kafka, Investigations Of A Dog)
In any given scene, we find the concurrence of heterogeneous velocities, the overlapping of different vectors- running bodies, strolling bodies, inert bodies, bicycles, sports cars, buses, trolleys, revolving doors, swinging doors, escalators. This rhythm provides the pulse of every frame, the time signature around which Tati choreographs the action. It is also entirely determinative of how a situation functions: consider the scene in Mon Oncle where Hulot is attempting to cut a series of stalks while avoiding the gaze of his brother-in-law, whose view is partly obscured by the edge of a wall. The brother-in-law is sitting on a rocking chair, and he would only be able to see Hulot at the very bottom of the chair’s axis. Working within this conjuncture, Hulot has to syncopate his cutting with the rocking of the chair, while angling the scissors out of his brother-in-law’s range of vision. The Hulot films are an endless series of such impromptu performances, each of which is executed in unique conditions.
All improvisation, of course, requires a time signature, a beat, and the humor often rests on whether the players are able to catch it. In the Hulot films, Tati reveals the complexity of modern life, where even the most banal, habitual functions are extraordinarily complicated- crossing the road, climbing the stairs, moving towards a destination- each journey is fraught with unforeseeable perils. In order to navigate through the labyrinth, one must have internalized, in advance, the map of the territory, its variegated tempos, its conditions of conduct. Upon these premises, a performative style can be improvised- a characteristic gait, a personalized stride.
The Tramp’s waddle and Groucho’s swagger are two instances of this style, diacritical marks that individuate their bearers. Hulot, by contrast, lacks a signature. It is unclear whether we can even conceive of Hulot as an individual- his name merely designates a set of conflicting reflexes and motor impulses that cannot be coordinated into a coherent unity. Hulot, in Kafka terms, can never quite ‘pull himself together’- his body is the locus for a multiplicity of divergent forces, he can never commit himself to a singular direction, let alone direct himself towards a concrete goal. He is thrust into the center of a mad waltz, the steps of which elude him entirely: “I howled as if some pain were being inflicted upon me, my mind could attend to nothing but this blast of music which seemed to come from all sides, from the heights, from the deeps, from everywhere, seizing the listener by the middle, overwhelming him, crushing him, and over his swooning body still blowing fanfares so near that they seemed far away and almost inaudible.” (Kafka, Investigations of a Dog, emphasis mine) What is the point in all of this? Personality, Hulot reminds us, is never an a priori; the project of personhood is a dynamic process of adaptation, one which requires a continual acquisition of skills, a consummate mastery of one’s body. Hulot cannot be incorporated into this technological universe because, ontogenetically speaking, he remains at an arrested stage of development; he is not properly a person. Walking, he learns, is an acrobatic feat; preserving one’s balance on the treadmill of modernity is an art requiring the utmost finesse.
If the comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Tati teaches us anything, it is that politics, in the first and last instance, is always a question of bodies- the training of docile bodies for work, the disciplining of bodies in school, the subjugation of intransigent bodies by punishment. Mon Oncle is, in one sense, the story of Hulot’s vagrant body and his middle-class sister’s futile attempts to domesticate it, to confine it in a domicile and bind it to a routine. Corporeality is the central axis of this comedy, which is why it requires very little dialogue- the body, that vulgar, ungainly, abject thing, remains essentially foreign to the dictates of language and the strictures of logic. Clumsiness, in this regard, is the principal subject of subversive humor- every uncoordinated body makes a mockery of control. This is why a system of power can never achieve its own closure, or reach a state of equilibrium- the body always juts out, a stray finger, a mis-timed step can often have catastrophic consequences. Power, in the Foucauldian sense, is precisely the concerted attempt to truss the flesh in the fetters of discourse, to overwrite the body with the language of command. The law inscribes itself upon the skin, branding it like the crown-shaped chairs in Tati’s Royal Garden. Hence the insurrectionary power of the factory sequence in Modern Times- the will may comply, but the body cannot be subordinated. The Tramp’s body spontaneously irrupts into a nervous fit, inciting mutiny against its enslavers. This conceit is repeated numerous times throughout Modern Times- it is the body that pulls the levers of the machine, but it is also the body that jams the gears of the machine.
Chaplin’s problem, of course, is that he locates the machinery of modern society in the workplace, in the regimes and routines that coordinate proletarian labor. His understanding of the machine is a limited one- man, condemned to endless drudgery at the assembly line, becomes an automaton. This diminution of human potential remains Chaplin’s fundamental concern, and his ardent humanism circumscribes the range of his critique. In focusing entirely on the human concern (alienation and dis-alienation), he fails to see, as Tati does, that reality itself is structured like a machine, that we must begin to understand the unique terms of our imprisonment before we begin to issue utopian manifestoes on liberty and emancipation. In an analogous sense, the transition from Chaplin to Tati is akin to the epistemological shift that occurs between Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Das Kapital. It is also the leap from existentialism to a philosophy of structure. The camera zooms out from the individual concern to take in a totality of relations and exchanges, an infrastructure that provides the skeletal scaffolding of everyday life. This is the movement that emerges from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday through to Playtime, a film that features no close-ups whatsoever, and where the interest in man is always secondary to the patterns that he traces through space.
What does it mean to say that ‘reality is structured like a machine’? Simply that Tati, in conceiving his films, does not begin with the human but with the diagram, the architectural blueprint. In Playtime, we witness the disappearance of Hulot in a sprawling metropolis, and by extension, the disappearance of the human itself. All of Tati’s frames in Playtime resemble the lens of a microscope- men and women move across a bounded space like particles set in motion, and it is their interactions that are of primary experimental interest. In a paranoiac surveillance society, this is precisely the angle that the shot should assume, that of the security camera. He teaches us that the time of narrative has passed, that the camera must make a concerted attempt to monitor the present, to gauge the implications of a mechanized reality.
|Monday, May 11th, 2009|
|Reading Beckett's "Mercier & Camier" and the Three Novels
Despite its brevity, I can't help but feel that "Mercier & Camier" is still rather awkward in parts. Madden's soliloquy on the train feels particularly jarring, reading like an abandoned fragment from Beckett's notebooks. The joke, of course may be on me: the novel's ungainliness, after all, is central to its vision. Beckett's great contribution to the novel, I feel, is his neo-Humean conception of time, causality and subjectivity, one that he inherits from Sterne, Proust, Woolf and Kafka.
This, I think, explains the summaries that intersect the narrative proper, where Beckett slyly reveals a great deal about his creative process:
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
This taxonomy, I think, is a characteristically generous gesture on Beckett's part, and remains one of his most explicit statements on literary method. All of his novels are conceived in blocs, heterogeneous segments that have no intrinsic relation to one another, rather than as linear, unilateral sequences composed of interlocking scenes. The human subject, for Beckett as for Proust, is precisely this endless succession of blocks. As we know, Proust's great novel is an admittedly futile attempt to integrate these blocks into a chronological series, to arrange the unwieldy raw material of life into a STORY. The act of auto-biography is also one of transubstantiation- when impressions are arranged in a causally coherent sequence, writing transfigures the suffering flesh, transforming the mortal scribe into a mythic persona. Storytelling and mythmaking, an inexorable human impulse, originates from a primordial existential anxiety. It is, as Mallarme so well knew, an intrinsically EVASIVE practice, an attempt to forestall and foreclose an engagement with life’s ineffable contingency. Every novel and every poem is a victory wrested from chance, but it is a disingenuous triumph, a momentary refuge from the ravages of change and the traumatic prospect of mortality: “Decidedly, it will never be given me to finish anything, except breathing…I wonder what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, in thin air.” Unable to cheat Death, the writer will, at the very least, attempt to contrive his own epitaph, to chisel his likeness into the tablets of history.
Proust’s great achievement was to inaugurate, alongside Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Melville’s Moby Dick, the literature of failure, the novel that accepts the futility of its pretensions and the fundamentally inenarrable nature of life. Man’s vainglorious feud with Time can only be won by surrender and affirmation. This, in effect, makes the act of writing a perpetual one. The sign in Proust is radically unstable, its meaning constituted and reconstituted through time, as well as space- an object assumes different significations as Marcel moves through different social milieus. A signifier gains and loses in currency as the novel progresses, enigmatic utterances that resemble “difficult music heard for the first time” (Beckett’s Murphy) resurface in Marcel’s consciousness, exerting a retroactive force on events. How does one begin to constitute a LIFE from these fissiparous parts? "...seconds of time, there are some people add them together to make a life, I can't, each one is the first, no, the second, or the third..." This interminable process of deferral, where meaning is always provisional and incomplete, radically undermines the enterprise of novel-writing and its principles of continuity and closure.
In this regard, Beckett is not so much a novelist as he is a bricoleur, a rag and bone man. He is difficult to read precisely because he does not plot a novel on a single trajectory, there is no central axis upon which the action is oriented. For Joyce, the Hegelian novelist par excellence, the end is in the beginning, a departure always presupposes a homecoming- Ulysses invariably returns to Penelope, the wayfarer’s odyssey ultimately comes full circle. In Beckett, we find endless bifurcations and points of embarkation- quests are begun, interrupted, abandoned, resumed, forgotten:" What do we find at the the hub of Beckett’s novels? Chance and haphazardness, the invisible puppeteers of an inscrutable pantomime. The fabric of Beckett’s tales does not unfold according to a familiar teleological schema. Indeed, each book is an exercise in patchwork, full of frayed stitches and stray threads.
Instead of sketching a linear arc, Beckett plots a series of disconnected points and fragmentary ellipses. Beckett conceives of the page as a bounded field of force, a bulging pocket of molecules in perpetual motion. These particles collide, coalesce, separate, but they never remain stationary long enough to assume a discernible shape. His characters make tentative steps in a certain direction, only to realise that this direction is just as arbitrary as any other. A decision presupposes a limitless array of possibilities, each of which generates another series of decisions and negotiations, an interminable rigmarole: "...trying to cease and never ceasing, finding the cause, losing it again, finding it again, not finding it again, seeking no longer, seeking again, finding again, losing again, finding nothing, finding at last, losing again, talking without ceasing, thirstier than ever, seeking as usual, losing as usual, blathering away, wondering what it's all about..."
While most novelists are unitary, subordinating the particular to the general, Beckett is, like Proust and Kafka, a novelist of units- in refusing to privilege the novel over the sentence and the system over its parts, he, in effect, transforms the novel into a multiplicity, an endless addition of individual sentences. Beckett's artistic architecture is, by necessity, perpetually incomplete, continually in process: "It's a great grey barracks of a building, unfinished, unfinishable, with two doors, for those who enter and for those who leave, and at the windows faces peering out. The more fool you to have asked." This is the place of all Beckett's fiction, the lodging-house which we are all inmates of.
After Beckett, one simply *cannot* regard the novel in quite the same way again- Beckett removes the foundation, the walls as well as the ceiling of the literary edifice. His constructions are strictly agglomerative, haphazard arrangements of blocks and clusters with no pre-determined design. The lack of an overarching blueprint gives his writing an unprecedented spontaneity, the lack of a foundational structure gives it a remarkable fragility and precariousness.
Each of his characters is in search of a ground, an epistemological premise upon which axioms and propositions can be made. This is why they press their bellies against the earth, this is why they plumb the cesspool of experience, willing their own progressive degradation, hoping, at last, to reach the nadir, the absolute rock bottom of subjectivity.
This spiritual defeat is, simultaneously, a philosophical victory, a defiantly Promethean one. His characters, convinced that shit is the originary principle of the universe, plunge headfirst into the sewer of life: “The idea of punishment came to his mind, addicted it is true to that chimera and probably impressed by the posture of the body and the fingers clenched as though in torment. And without knowing exactly what his sin was he felt full that living was not a sufficient atonement for it or that this atonement was in itself a sin, calling for more atonement, and so on, as if there could be anything but life, for the living.” Herein lies the masochistic perversity of Beckett's misanthropes. They are all ascetics of a sort, willing their own suffering and abjection as a rite of passage. There is something gnostic about all this, though it is not salvation that they seek, but an absolute truth, an explanatory principle that will demystify their pain, failure and destitution: “For there is no point, no point in not knowing this or that, either you know all or know nothing.”
This is the story of metaphysics, Western *and* Eastern. If one KNOWS, clearly and distinctly (and I use Cartesian language quite deliberately here), that one is damned, then it is reasonable to execrate the divine intelligence that condemns us. Writing becomes a matter of REVENGE, a Luciferian revolt against cosmic injustice.
I have never quite understood why people regard Beckett as a mystic or a Buddhist- I read his texts as damning indictments of such practices, founded as they are upon false starts and fallacious conclusions. Beckett's work is a relentless critique of all systems of knowledge, tautological abstractions that reduce the complexities of human experience to a set of doxologial truisms. "Murphy" is the novel that makes this clear, as Beckett offers a stinging rejoinder to Surrealist aesthetics- there is no arche-reality, no Sur-reality that precedes and supercedes empirical consciousness, no plateau of beatitude upon which the mind can rest. One does not solve the problem by dismissing it through solipsistic retreat (the Buddhist solution) or by fantasizing about its dissolution (the Surrealist solution).
As for the question of Joyce, which seems to surface whenever we assess the value of Beckett's achievement. For all of Joyce's syntactic innovations and ludic etymological games, he was still operating within the parameters of the classical novel. Ulysses, beneath its arcane references and erudite puns, is, by and large, a fairly conventional narrative. Finnegan's Wake, on the other hand, is an elaborate jigsaw puzzle- the precise sense of each piece is obscure, perhaps, but the puzzle is made to be solved. I've always felt that Joyce is important in the sense that Shakespeare is important- he, more than any other 20th century novelist, revealed the expansive breadth of the English language; Ulysses is like a sprawling survey of the language's subterranean possibilities. As such, it is a work of retrieval and recovery, an archaelogical excavation that sounds the Atlantean depths of our native tongue. Joyce remains the foremost antiquarian of the English language, a procurer of relics and curiosities.
If we think of Beckett as a post-Joycean novelist, it is precisely because he realized that Joyce had performed a labor that could not, and NEED not be repeated. The event of Joyce was necessary, but it had also created a deadlock. How could one continue to write after Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, two consummately exhaustive exercises in style? The kaleidoscopic range of these two novels remains unsurpassed. One could, of course, craft works in a sub-Joycean vein- and I've always thought of certain Nabokov works as being in this tradition- works of virtuosity that exploit the intrinsic polysemy of words and allusions to create multiple layers of meaning. The limitations of this, I think, are evident- such a language is inevitably referential; each reference points towards a discernible source, and meaning is contingent upon erudition. Interpretation and exegesis are facilitated with an encyclopaedia. This is my objection with TS Eliot's poetry, which reads like a pompous catalogue of metonymic symbols and citations. It is a purely cerebral poetry, a coldly pedantic poetry.
In contrast, one can opt for the reverse, or what Deleuze calls a “willed poverty”. Beckett's revolution in form is an awesome one. Granted, vestiges of Joyce remain in the early novels, smatterings of latin, Dante and obscure occasionalist philosophy, but Beckett's intentions, I think, are already discernible in "Murphy" and "More Pricks Than Kicks". Beckett’s writing, I believe, is the first concerted attempt at dismantling the symbolic resources of literature and abandoning them altogether:"Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept." What results is a language of startling immediacy and intensity, a truly savage, irreverent tongue: "Not to be able to open my mouth without proclaiming them, and our fellowship, that's what they imagine they'll have reduced me to. It's a poor trick that consists of ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can't bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I'll fix their giberish for them. I never understood a word of it in any case..."
|Wednesday, May 6th, 2009|
|Antonin Artaud- Open Letter To The Reverend Father Laval
All that is fine and that you recognize my right to totally and integrally
express my individuality.
However singular it may be
heterogenous it may appear.
But there is one thing you do not say
and which constitutes a fundamental reservation about this right of
it is that you yourself were
BOUND by 2
that is, when you uttered those words,
you were in reality
BOUND by 2 rites
with your own consent
The fact is that like every priest
and are BOUND
by the 2 rites
of the consecration
of the Mass.
The fact is that like every Catholic priest
you had said your Mass that very morning.
And the celebration of the ceremony
includes in the foreground
those 2 rites of BINDING
which for me
are tantamount to a downright spell
of a special
which, if I may say so, capitalizes
which drains all the spiritual forces in such a direction that all that is
body is reduced to nothingness
and nothing else remains except a certain
but so free
that all the phantasms
of the spirit
of pure spirit
can be given free rein there
and there occurs
the sinister and torrential expansion of the diluvian and antediluvian
of obsessional beasts
and it is precisely against all this
that we are struggling
because flagitious sexual life is behind the free expansions of the spirit
of the Mass
without saying it
There is a nauseating flocculation of the infectious life of being
which the PURE BODY
the PURE SPIRIT
and which the Mass
through its rites bring about.
And it is this flocculation
which maintains the present
life of this world
in the spiritual lower depths
into which it is forever plunging.
But this is what popular consciousness will never understand,
that a macerated and trampled body,
crushed and compiled
by the suffering and pains of being nailed to the cross
like the ever living body of Golgotha
will be superior to a spirit handed over to all the phantasms of the inte-
which is merely the leaven
and the seed
for all the stinking phantasmagorical bestializations.
- translated by Clayton Eshleman