The ethno-metaphysics of aging is an area of speculation which doesn’t receive much attention. There is a surplus which arises because the old are closer to death and have accumulated more experience. It’s the interpretation this inequality that shall concern us in what follows. The consequences here are especially political and aesthetic. When these facts are taken up in a conservative manner, then we can understand what Marx meant when he said that capital was dead labor. It’s as though the proximity to death gives the elderly the right to control the work of the deceased.
In Chinese societies, money flows to the elders who are living representatives of the ancestors. They are the custodians of vanishing traditions, which include the very practices of ancestor worship. In this way they are also the embodiment of vulnerability of antiquity. So there ensues a family drama about taking care of the old, and the interests of the old, and governments are active in promoting this. Taking care of the old especially means moving them out of the rural village, and into a modern apartment which is paid for using credit. This is how the elderly are saved from getting left behind in their decaying miserable old world. This is a romance where the interests of the old driving the population into the clutches of capital.
A tactical critique of this social arrangement would require a completely different figuration of the elderly. In this conservative bourgeois scenario, the elderly need protection. It is honorable for the young to take care of the old. This is consistent with the sense of a wounded culture that is common among the Chinese. If we simply reversed the roles, and had the old taking care of the young, then that would be shameful.
Other possible figurations of the relation between young and old would include indifference, intimidation, envy, hostility, fascination, admiration, or subservience. All these relations are plausible, and cultural dynamic could draw from across this spectrum. But the direction that is perhaps most interesting here is when the old are the custodians of mysterious knowledge and experience of the ancients. This relates to the psychoanalytic theory of the ‘enigmatic signifier’ developed from Ferenczi to Laplanche. Attitudes towards esoteric knowledge of the ancients would go from indifference, to intimidation, to fascination, and ultimately to an initiation.
There is a Daoist model of the sovereign as someone who secretly governs the world while remaining unrecognized in his role. Daoist traditions are among the most notoriously esoteric, or perhaps we could say enigmatic, of the various strains of Chinese civilization. This incognito sovereign contrasts with the heavily televised production of statesmanship in the current age. Though it is somewhat closer to the ancient Chinese powers hidden away in the Forbidden City.
Generational codes are entwined with the codification of Chinese-Western relations. This complication especially arises because of how “youthful modernity” has been associated with western liberalism.
When Jesuits entered China in the last 1500’s, they drew suspicion for various reasons. The icons of the virgin caused people to believe they worshipped a female deity. But what got them into legal trouble the first time was their technological prowess. When the mission in Zhaoqing was closed down by officials in 1589, the accusation was that they were practicing “the arts of the forge and the fire”. This was a remarkable event in terms of cross-cultural interaction. And in a sense this accusation was true since they were indeed refining silver with mercury.
The patterns of transgression between China and the West can have interesting implications. Among various other charges brought against the Jesuits in the following years, one of the interesting ones was sodomy.
The mission in China spread to nearly a dozen cities and continued for over a century. In the early 1700s the French missionary Joachim Bove was stationed inside the Forbidden City where he had rapport with the emperor Kangxi. When Leibniz was writing his essay “On the Natural Religion of the Chinese” he was enthusiastically corresponding with the missionary. The content of that essay has to do with lines of generational filiation. It was an intervention into an intellectual controversy known as the ‘figurative debates’. As the missionaries were discovering the richness of Chinese civilization, the question arose as to where the Chinese had acquired such sophisticated knowledge. The dominant opinion was that they were descendants of Noah, and so their learning derived from Hebrew scripture, but for some reason those origins had been repressed. The Chinese knowledge was based on the Torah, but this source was not apparent because the scriptural messages had been encoded ‘figuratively’. This provided a key for cultural translation, where they would seek analogues for Chinese terms in Hebrew scripture. This is how 上帝 was initially identified as a name for Yaweh, a translation convention that has persisted through until today. Leibniz rejected this figurative explanation and claimed that the Chinese had independently discovered a ‘natural religion’.
The form of argument that Leibniz produced has resonances with the early modern debates on idolatry and antisemitism. Jews were considered idolatrous because they fetishized the letter of the law. They were a cult that ran according to scripture alone, which left no room for grace, or incarnation, or the spirit. They followed merely the “dead letter” of the law. In this sense, Christianity defined itself relationally as a liberal religion which contrasted with the legalism of the Hebrews. By extending this logic, we could consider that Leibniz was debunking the “Hebraism” (we won’t say the Jewishness) of the figurative history which assumed that any knowledge had to correspond with the scripture. But as Leibniz was bolding pushing the frontiers of liberal modernity, a papal backlash against such cosmopolitanism was already brewing.
Around 1712 the pope turned against the Jesuit missionary practices which were deemed too liberal. The pope issued a decree which specified that idols were not permitted inside the churches of China. Apparently, the parishioners had been bringing Daoist ritual objects into church with them, perhaps using them in ceremonies. When Kangxi caught new of this he banned foreign missionaries, and that ban remained in effect for over a century up until the Opium Wars.
There is strange resonance and mirroring between these lines of narrative. The relation between silver, alchemy, scripture, idolatry, figuration, legality… the permutations shift as each historical anecdote puts another spin on the translations. What we are dealing with here is the aesthetic and conceptual complication which is known as the Baroque, where materiality and spirituality are repeatedly folded together in permutating patterns. The minerology of the crystal provides a figure for this kind of repetition. Then we are comparing patterns in crystal growth, where contours are replicated from one layer to the next.
Perhaps the pope suspected that this maddening crystalline repetition was infecting the Vatican. When Jesuits first entered China they dressed themselves as Buddhist monks. That raises a question about how such a change in the attire might affect their evangelism – how the materiality of their wardrobe is synthesized with the spirituality of their doctrines. The liberties taken by this order reflect the opening of political theology in the early modern era with the discourses Machiavelli, Spinoza and Hobbes.
When Daoists are depicted in iconography they invariably appear old. The most famous Daoist who ever lived was Laozi, whose name translates literally as “the old one”. These old masters are powerful figures and they are even invincible because they have discovered the potions of eternal life. They would never rely on a young person. They might have a young novice who assists them, but the dependence would go the other way. The old Daoist master contrasts with the dependence of the elderly in today’s Chinese society. That dependency is an index of industrial progress, where the old person is out of touch and doesn’t function independently in today’s world. The knowledge of the industrial elderly is out dated, whereas the cosmic knowledge of the Daoist master could never be outdated.
This weakening of the elderly indicates the alienation of Chinese society in the global market system. This provides an ideological function for consumer subjectivity where the weakening of tradition is essential for the changing fashions. The apparent weakness of the elderly stages a drama which distracts from the destruction of the inherited symbolic codes. Taking care of the elderly could bea kind of work that compensates for the destruction of the old world, which is similar to the sticky rice that is thrown into rivers to dignify the corpse of Quyuan. If the traditions are being destroyed, then there must be some work-gesture to mourn that destruction. This romance is the transposition of Chinese populations into the global credit system.
The progress of consumerism must be led by the young who strive forward into a new world where they compete in a kind of work-tournament. They must be malleable and adjust to the demands of the market. The important question that follows from this is whether this youth-drive will reach some limit where the teeter-totter might reverse, and power would be restored to elderly. This threshold provides an abstract marker for a historical limit of capitalist development in a somewhat Marxist sense. This provides a conservative alternative to theories of financial crises and proletarian subjectivity.
There is an interplay between four codes: individual/society, youth/elderly, china/west, materialism/spirituality.
The spread of consumerism always involves the denigration of the knowledge of the old. During the post-ww2 era, the industrial boom in western countries was accompanied by youth rebellion. This development was devastating for the family and led to adolescent individualism. The enrichment of the west and the spread of social security also encouraged economic individuality. The Chinese on the other hand are developing in a way that holds the family more closely together. This creates a contrasting image where the west appears individualistic and China appears family oriented.
The family is figured as a reproductive machine, and the integrity of the family is linked with the power of youth. So, the familialism of China is also it’s fertility and youth. The Chinese identify with this kind of vitalist and socialist materialism. The west is forced into a contrast with this idea, and this places the west into a role that is aging and individualistic, and I want to suggest that this role lends itself to spiritualism. Where the western family has been destroyed, we are forced to spiritualize our concept of reproduction. This would be the force of necessity, as its introduced in Deleuzian philosophy.
Now back to the link in China between family and consumption. The family is this cult of youth, and in china that involves a confluence between 情 and 家. Keith McMahon has recently published a study on how a mystical love cult emerged with the decline of the Qing empire. As the ancient regime deteriorated there was a flux of libidinal energy was released, such as how energy is released from the breaking of chemical bonds. McMahon surveys the sublimation where that flux of surplus libido was captured into a romantic literature. It seems industrial development is driven by a sort of adolescent romantic love-cult. And the Chinese are triumphing today because they have succeeded in familiarizing this romance.
The West then can define its border as the spirituality of reproduction. Western spiritual reproduction is based in aesthetic value. This performance is absolute in that it does not translate into other values. Where the Chinese have these materialist values of virtue, erudition, competency, honor, utility, beauty, goodness… the west has abolished these in favor of a purely spiritual aesthetics.
Next I want to consider some of the pathology that accompanies advanced western liberalism. Elizabeth Roudinesco claims that society itself becomes perverse when the codes banning obscenity are abolished. The unconscious was maintained by the ban on obscenity. The unconscious was an impersonal scene that enabled great liberty in the metabolism of representation.
Some ban on “obscenity” is required for the metabolization of representation. This ban creates another scene (the unconscious) where the obscene acts are committed in a symbolic way. So new figures of obscenity are spontaneously generated. These new figures are more dangerous (terrorist, pedophile), and they are not functional because they are too actual. Obscenity has been too rationalized. What is required are more benign and enigmatic figures of obscenity. The obscenity must be mysterious enough to function as the key to opening another scene. The enigmatic then is the quality of symbolic complexity.
The loss of the unconscious makes sexuality toxic because representation lacks another scene through which to metabolize. There is the compulsive search for someone who can embody the ban. Only the projection of that negative trait can allow for the metabolization of representation.
One hypothesis is that what was called “sexuality” is being abolished by a new fracture or partitioning of scenes. This new partitioning can only be understood in terms of societal and generational codes.
The new crystal begins with a splitting of the simulacra from the molecular. This is a quantitative discontinuity between the visible-ephemeral and the imperceptible-real. This split can get figured around the old discourses on culture. The imperceptible-real is represented by the lonely aristocrat who maintains his vigil around the site of his vanished civilization, whereas the visible-ephemeral is the commodity-image that distracts the crowd.
Sexuality continues where the instinctual energy is captured in the visible-ephemeral. But the sexual crowd requires a ban, which creates another scene for their unconscious fantasies. So, the lonely aristocrat becomes a figure of imaginary illicitness. He is imagined to access something ancient and wicked, and this excludes him from the enjoyment of the commodity (family, nation, sexuality). His exile in celibacy becomes the key which opens the other scene and enables the metabolization of representation.
The enigma is the return of morbidity which industrial society attempts to conceal. These are embarrassing death-sensations which may pertain to the zombification of cultures, communities, societies, economies, or the psychological deadness of individuals. The impropriety of this deadness is an artificiality which is shameful for industry, and yet also systemically inevitable, and so there is a ‘Weekend at Bernies’ scenario where some death must be concealed or politely ignored for industry to continue.
The enigmatic is the mode where this forbidden deadness moves outside the ideological codes that would make it shameful. This is an aesthetic which bypasses biopolitical taboos on morbidity. This circumvention involves great difficulty which becomes the task of arts and literature. Poetry has always enjoyed the privilege of dispensing with biopolitical doxas, whereas prose has only more recently started to consider this capacity.
A vitalist conspiracy to conceal death spreads a popular conviction about the normality and health of society. This sense of normality requires an abolition of the past such that it doesn’t provoke curiosity. The autonomy of the past is nullified, and the past is placed in the service of narrow ideological functions. This creates an absolute autonomy of the present, such that the residues of previous ages are either irrelevant, or else serve some ideological purpose. These residues are used to exalt the contemporary by contrast, to reinforce national identities, and to shore up the value of supposedly timeless ideas. The past also takes on a stereotypical value of truthfulness and authenticity, such as the practicality of old sane times. The enigmatic arises where archive material takes on some unexpected allure which exceeds these ideological functions.
The aesthetics of enigma is inconsistent with common concerns of radical politics. Radicals may challenge the sovereignty of the present and declare that industry is contrary to nature or the old civilization. But enigma cannot be enlisted for this opposition because it is itself the senseless manifestation of something originally dead within industry. The enigma is a natural death working within us, or a decay which industry implies yet cannot tolerate, and this is also a work of chaos. This concerns energies which are insubordinate to the utility of the biopolitical. This would be a disturbance at the threshold where industry and nature touch. It concerns disruptions which could bring about terminations of epochs, relations, business, customs, and knowledge.
Industry and finance align themselves with vitalism, and that alliance can be broken by a hermeneutic of the enigma. This hermeneutic is not a narration or casuistry, but something more abstract which we might call choreography. Industry attempts to interpret itself positively as a project, but this interpretation implies a deadly falsity. There is an undulation that dances between positive-developmental and enigmatic-hazardous interpretations of industry.
The enigmatic aesthetics can’t afford to dispense with the artifice of industrial simulation. The critical question here concerns the simulation’s fidelity to the physiology of forces. The enigma can restore a more comprehensive fidelity which is precluded by the positivity of industry. If industrial artifice is inconsistent with the molecular physics of bodies, then that artifice is susceptible to demolition by the underlying forces of physiology. The enigmatic is a compromise of industrial ideology which allows for the expression of drives. The enigma becomes threatening wherever industrial ideology becomes overly repressive.
Industrial ideology casts its spell by separating life from death. This spell is broken by the hermeneutic of enigma that privileges death as the source of power and originality. This reduces the positivity of life to the clinging of consciousness to empty mirages like in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey.
This is not a proposal to overturn industrial society, which should be considered immutable in some respects. The most common mistake of political radicalism is to overextend capacities and to pursue the abolition of the immutable. Radicals find their sense of community is compromised, and so they entrench their resistance in opposition to what threatens their subjectivity. But they fail to appreciate how industry has already infiltrated their subjectivity, and so they are agents of what they imagine they are opposing.
Avoiding this naïve radicalism requires a discretion towards the limits of the immutable. Industrial finance imposes an elaborate assembly and disassembly of society. These concern ontologies of environment, transportation, consumption, labor, and entertainment. What is called ‘activism’ implies a radical attempt to reject such ontologies which results in hypocrisy and disillusion. Activism fails to gauge its own limited capacities and compare them with the power of industry.
Industry can be resisted at a hermeneutic level where the economy is recoded as enigmatic.
Biopolitics is the ideology which identifies economy with life. This regime treats products as properties which can be possessed or alienated. Identifying economy with death does not negate this ideology but rather bifurcates it by disclosing life as merely one parochial avatar of death. Industrial society conceives life within a fantasy screen whereby populations are enthralled by biopolitics. This is death conceived through an application of metrics which give it positive evaluations. This appropriation of life alienates death from itself.
The hermeneutics of death can shatter industrial ideology into myriad lives like in a cubist painting. The linear fantasy of development is the sense that work is underway which is preparing for a superior enjoyment, or the fantasy that consumption should be more satisfying because it is the result of some extra work. The hermeneutic of death brings polysemy through the bifurcation of the linear sense of economy.
Biopolitical fantasy is ultimately a drama of balance. This is a fantasy of an equilibrium that is struck across desperate ontologies. This is a homeostasis which is established between time, prestige, appearance, skills, expertise, expenses, materials, services… an imaginary weighing where these disparate ontological dimensions are arbitrarily assigned comparable values so they can offset each other. This is the balancing of imaginary entitlements – what does someone deserve to enjoy? How many escorts, jets, meters, glances, photos…?
This metaphysics of equilibrium is a legacy of scholastic theology. The distinctly Christian passion has been economized through various phases going back to the measured torments and lacerations of ancient ascetics. A key turn was taken in the 1600’s with the rivalry between the Jesuits and Calvinists who engaged in a tournament over just deserts, over whose suffering was more pleasing to God. This struggle over the cruel balance of calculations in divine justice marks the beginning of the agony of competition in modern economies. The ethnography of the potlach provides another important piece of this puzzle, where the gift can be considered as a kind of metaphysical honor weapon. The excess of gifts (i.e. the charity of a mission) is an index of excess work and a sign of divinity. The violence of industrial society arises from this imaginary work-competition over divisions in the hierarchy of development.
The fantasy of industrial production composes perception, and this is how economy functions as a phallic object. The economy is a drama of the alienability of property which is a version of the castration complex. This stages the suffering of the deserving, so that the roles of Aesop’s worker-ant and lazy-grasshopper can be assigned. The virtue of the blessed accumulates karmatically through generations of dedicated work and superior education which yields superior intelligence, manners and grooming. The higher ‘buying power’ of the blessed is represented by the positive energy they exude, and which brings them into synergy with other virtuous peoples. Vitalist fantasy can penetrate corporeality so it captures populations by their hormones and physiologies. Ideology in this sense goes beyond values, and beyond aesthetics as well, and concerns the erotics and the imaginary ideals of reproduction and the mysteries of fecundity that resonate down to the cellular and molecular levels.
The enigma is an aesthetic event where this vitalist eroticism is interrupted by the sublimity of death. This death is not the opposite of life, but rather exceeds the sense of its conceptual discourses. This is death as artifice, and as multiplicity of alternatives. The enigma is a dramatic event where life is shattered into obscure perspectives and meanings. This is an event of divergence, where the composition of the imaginary equilibrium disintegrates, and yet that disintegration must remain univocal.
The dramatic mode exists originally within ideology as the seed of death that eventually erupts in the enigmatic. It is the open secret that ideology was only ever a dramatic performance. There is gradual disclosure of how vitalism was only ever a dramatic pretense, and the waxing of this negativity is the transition into the enigmatic. The eruption of the enigmatic must maintain some continuity of figures and lines. This becomes a question of aesthetic taste, such that the event must be univocal as opposed to equivocal.
Death appears in this event as a destiny rather than as something unprecedented and unexpected. The enigma is indicated all along through its exclusion, and thus its place is always well established. The concealment of death and its failure gives rise to the classic genres of theater which are irony, tragedy, comedy and pathos. But at the zenith of the enigma those classic genres are displaced by the partial appearance of what cannot fully appear. The enigma does not fit the scale of appearance, and so it gestures monstrously towards the imperceptible. This explains its consistency with tropes of partial appearance such as the labyrinthine, the anamorphic, the allegorical, and trompe l’oeil.
Public debate is a source of mystification for private thinkers. From whence comes the desire to convince? Intellectual disagreements can appear convoluted, superficial and of questionable stakes. There is usually some accusation of insufficiency, where someone claims that some reasoning is somehow inadequate. Such accusations can lead to misunderstandings because there are different orders of disagreements that might arise depending on assumptions of genre. Worthwhile arguments require explanations about broader topics and contextual conditions. Such background might be assumed within a university discipline, or between acquaintances who’ve developed rapport, but intellectual debates between strangers require explanatory effort. This would be the antithesis of the flippant comment-box duel between strangers who are zealous to prove their intellectual superiority.
As for the question of what is worth debating, the only answer that I’ve ever reached is debate itself. That would seem to be the most plausible topic for a worthwhile debate between strangers. Regarding this issue, sensibilities might diverge between more and less abstract concerns, and towards different value-spheres such as rationality, aesthetics, therapeutics, religion or political-economy. But there are topics which implicate all these values without being partial to any of them.
One topic I would like to nominate – for a debate about debate – is what I call ‘ecstatic discourse’. This is related to sublime language, where the conceptual fabric of discourse is disrupted by the unconceptual. What I am suggesting here is in some ways an ancient concern, since Longinus’s treatise on the sublime has been traditionally considered a work of rhetoric. Cicero was a model of the sublime orator, who “struck his audience like lightning”, as though they were possessed by the sublimity of his words. Though the sublime is a notoriously perilous topic due to the exorbitance of the traditions it could imply. So we can speak instead of ‘ecstatic discourse’ which has more limited connotations, and which can be focused on the disintegration of contemporary discourse, and the following shall especially concern the biopolitical.
The disintegration of discourse has rhetorical implications because that might be where an argument comes to an end. This is not necessarily where the argument is won by superior reasoning, but rather where conceptual reasoning is superceded by something non-conceptual. It might be superceded by some higher variety of reasoning such as idea-reasoning or gnosis, or some angelic communication like when Pentecostals “speak in tongues”. This ecstatic termination of debate might correspond with a turn to non-rational concerns which are aesthetic, moral, political, economic, or sexual. And there are non-rational factors which are less ideal or even pathological, such as the affects associated with fear, intimidation, honor, shame, hunger, exhaustion, infatuation or anxiety. Conceptual discourse may be disrupted by any of these non-conceptual factors.
Discourse becomes ecstatic through the participation of what we might call immanent ideas. When we speak of immanent participation, this places the ideal and the conceptual on the same level, so that they interfere with each other. Where traditionally ideas are considered as something static and eternal, which are safely away in some transcendent dimension, here the ideas are brought down to the level of the conceptual. They continue to perform a role which is comparable to that of traditional ideas, in that they are beyond the conceptual at a level of higher energy. Their exceptional power makes them rhetorically consequential. Though they don’t have the static determination of classical ideas like beauty and justice, as such determinate identity is reserved for the conceptual. Classical ideals are never sublime or ecstatic because they are removed from the immanence of the conceptual, and so there isn’t the chance for such disruption.
These terms – ecstatic discourse, immanent ideas – are consequential for debates because they exceed the limits of rationality. Next, I want to focus on where this excess involves affection, embodiment and spirituality. This brings us to our main topic, which is an immanent idea we shall call the ‘enigmatic wound’. This is an idea which has exceptional power in contemporary discourse. The enigmatic wound haunts biopolitical discourse and ravages the narcissistic images which capture populations in industrial society. This is an idea which biopolitics has trouble separating itself from, and which transmits the chaos of the sublime. This is also what we shall call an aesthetic ideal, where the modality of the enigmatic provides an antidote to the narcissism of the biopolitical.
This is not exactly a flesh-wound but rather a fracture in representation, although it lends itself to corporeal figurations. This is an incompleteness of the representation of the body and society, and around it stirs an unstable vortex of excess and deficiency. This imbalance surrounding the incompleteness of the body is perpetuated by fantasies of completion. There is a classical obsession with completing the image of the body, and that further destabilizes representation, causing it to undulate between excess and deficiency. The enigmatic wound is a name for the missing place where the other has vanished into uncertainty. This missing other is essential for reproduction, and so the wound is the site of what is called the symbolic phallus. This absence doesn’t always appear enigmatic, especially when it is narcisstistic or pathological. The enigmatic is its proper aesthetic mode, which it only attains through sufficient work. This requires what Pierre Klossowski called an ‘ascesis of affect’ which eliminates the narcissism of the wound. It’s only through the course of its becoming-enigmatic that the wound can ascend onto the seat of a new ideal, which is a civilizational accomplishment.
In order to become enigmatic, the wound must be rendered into partial image-aspects which don’t assemble into a totality. This is the circuitry of an anamorphic image, where each phase only appears under limited circumstances, like from a certain angle and distance, or under some spectrum of light, or how stigmata might act up as a saint approaches the holy land. These images produce the parallax between the pieces of a puzzle that cannot be assembled. This incompossibility makes the wound bearable, as it relieves pressure by distributing it through multiple phases. These inconspicuous and partial images can pass through sensitive territory without triggering antagonistic responses. This discretion of the incomplete allows for subliminal appropriations of sensitive geohistory. Historical grudges are energetic resources for dramatic productions, but first they must be defanged which means they must be transposed into enigmas stranger than vengeance. The wound of representation must be transposed beyond the limits of passion.
This wound has an attractive and repulsive function on the energetics of drive. But this operation is distinguished from doxas about the conception of affects. Recent research (Shuster 2016) has brought to light a long overlooked quality of the drive, and that is its obstinacy. The wound works as an imaginary object that the drive returns to, and this plays a role in libidinal orientation. Popular culture is grounded in this obstinacy of drive, but the mainstream discourse betrays these archaic attachments by abstracting them as ‘authenticity’. Authenticity is a kind of identarian resistance against the standardization of industrial society, and this term is suited to academic discourses about the contradictory values of modernity. But speaking of the wound displaces authenticity, because the wound assumes primacy the subjects which might bear it. The drives and their stimulation is essential, and the identity of those who bear them is less important. Authenticity is merely a problem of someone’s ability to appropriate the drives – the drives as subjective property – whereas the wound is the object which the drives themselves seek out. The anamorphic images of the wound are like secret harbors that provide hospitality for the phantasmatic drives. They are hidden like Easter eggs throughout the labyrinthine jumble of the world.
Authenticity is something parochial which is akin to honor. Biopolitical discourse deploys these terms for the fortification of narcissistic images. Honor is a concept for relational contests which capture the phantasmatic drive. This discourse is acutely sensitive and embedded within regional customs and identities. This may be ecstatic to intellectual discourse, but it is another kind of discourse with has been conceptualized by anthropologists. Honor and authenticity have political connotations. The trait of honor is shared among the family of barbarians, primitives and naturalists. These are terms for staging the conservative antithesis to liberal idealism. This political theater captures drive into the stereotypical matrix of an antagonistic correlation. As this parochial composition is dissolved into abstraction, only then can the enigmatic wound emerge from its debris.
Industrial society imposes standardized images which limit the expression of drive, and so the inflexibility of drive contradicts the matrices of commercial exchange. Instinctual life is sublime in that it breaks with commercial discourse and this generates the nonsense of the wound in representation. The enigma is the wounding of sense by the paradoxes of instinct. These paradoxes are not logically sophisticated, but rather elementary glitches at the level of everyday propositions. They can be stupid and easily explained, but this stupidity exposes a singular disintegration of discourse. These paradoxes are interesting when they arise from concrete conditions in contemporary life which makes them somewhat immutable.
The interesting paradoxes for biopolitics have to do with probability, movement, and identity. They are signatures which express local contradictions within industrial society. For instance, George Bataille struggled with paradoxes of industrial servility he adopted from the theories of Alexendre Kojeve. He felt imprisoned by the logic of utility or ‘project’, and that all his activity was oriented to future goals, and that escaping from that condition would itself require another project, and thus the condition was logically inescapable. If sensible language is limited to the logic of means and ends, then escape might require a nonsense that breaks the fabric of discourse. Bataille’s writings record a quest for the wound that was the instinctual exit from the discourse-prison in which he was trapped.
Due to the heterogeneity of instinct, the expression of drive requires logically impossible mixtures. This expression is facilitated by art, where the question of taste is a practical matter of instinctual dynamics. Anamorphic images may assume a seductive mobility like the shimmering scales of a reptile and facilitate transitions between incompatible perspectives. These have similarities with the paradoxical Escher drawings with their gestalt-switches, though those remain too ambivalent and disconnected from the contradictions of political-economy. Anamorphic art becomes interesting when it touches on the contradictions of industrial society, which brings us to Benjamin’s dialectical imagery and Deleuze’s stationary voyage.
Critiques of bourgeois society have focused on value contradictions, where higher values imply the lower values they attempt to exclude. These paradoxes are ubiquitous, where wealth is everywhere a sign of poverty. But values have the disadvantage of being ephemeral and arbitrary in their abstraction. Socialist theories have accepted the sensibility of universal values and have thus aligned their cosmopolitanism with global finance. More interesting are paradoxes at the level of drive and movement where values are identified with material configurations on the earth. This materialization of value can be considered a manifestation of instinct, or what Klossowski called ‘voluptuous emotion’.
The luring of the drive depends on the stabilization of conditions. This need for stability is the conservative principle behind canons, empires, territories, hegemonies and ancestry. The drive is expressed through the formation of a circuit where it returns to its place, and so it must have a place to return to. And this ‘place’ is not a location in space, but an abstract form. The autism of the id requires a singular elaboration where there is a painstaking composition of its original signature. Industrial society thwarts this expression by promoting frenetic activity while imposes standardized exchanges which disrupt this singular elaboration.
Punk is a euphemism for glorious obstinacy. Where Alain Badiou speaks of fidelity, this can be taken in other directions once it’s connected with the idea of the enigmatic wound. The obstinacy of the id is dialectical in that it implies both possession and abandonment. The initiative is located on the side of the phantasmatic drive, which shares its unverifiability with Badiou’s event. The phantasm is the invisible instinct which comes to animate the anamorphic image, and which always remains reserved in its sublimity. The anamorphic image is a medium which indicates hospitality for the ancient reptile.
The drive gets harbored in the anamorphic images of enigmatic wounds. In an ontology of the body, we could say that it’s through this wound that the discontinuous gets possessed by the continuous. The wound is a flesh-sign at the intersection of the discourses of law and health, where it acts as a hinge in biopolical ideology. This concept replaces the therapeutic “symptom” of psychoanalysis. The wound implies wider connotations than this clinical term, and next I want to indicate some of its discourse range. where the wound might demand attention, care, retribution, justice, accommodation, or respect. It can be a kind of visible complaint, evidence, threat, payment, or debt. Most often it is concealed or demands to be politely ignored. It performs a semiotic suturing, where the flesh is a manifestation of such matters as experience, suffering, incapacity, death, poverty, vulnerability, destitution, or injustice.
The manifestation of this wound carries an ethical power related to what Mencius called ‘good knowledge’. This was the moral intuition which he famously exemplified as “the emotion felt when a child is seen falling into a well”. Though the wound of course implies no simplistic idealism but something closer to a spirit possession or psychosis. This is the intuitive ethical implication of exposure to what lies beyond the limit of possibility.
Biopolitical ideology treats the wound as a misfortune. This assumes the ideal integrity of the organic body which is fortified against the threat of breach. A deconstruction of this corporeal ideology can proceed through an ontology of the continuous and the discontinuous. The integrity of the body is a fantasy that supports the positive sense of growth, benefit, interest, goals, projects etc. The self-interest of a life is based on the finitude of its borders. Biopolitics negates the wound as an avatar of death. But the wound can also threaten the whole sense of the biopolitical framework because it undermines the fantasy of individuality, as it threatens the unity of the body. It’s only this fantasy of unity that separates life from death, and these terms becomes indiscernible when there is no individual to whom they are applied.
Wounds are distinguished from related terms through conceptual analysis. The term ‘hole’ is more abstract and doesn’t carry such strong ideological connotations. Although falling into holes is usually avoided and holes share negativity with the dimension of depth. A wound may be a kind of hole, or a way of interpreting a hole, though it doesn’t always share the visibility which most holes have. There may be some uncertainty about whether a hole in the body is indeed a wound and this is the case where the wound becomes enigmatic. The wound is a kind of ‘breach’, and this implies a negation of the unit. There are also bodily holes without negative connotations, such as pores, cavities, cracks and orifices. These are proper holes, because they adhere to a transcendental model of the body. Then there are piercings, incisions, surgeries, and other breaches of the body made for cosmetic or medical purposes. And aside from all these there are also wounds which are invisible, such the breaching of that invisible psychic barrier called trauma. As the wound migrates into abstraction, these conceptual borders are blurred in the enigmatic.
Salvaging the wound from biopolitics is akin to salvaging the death drive from psychoanalysis. The biopolitical depreciation of the wound is pervasive. This is part of the transcendental immunity of the corporeal and social. Disturbing this ideology can disrupt the hermeneutic of the body. This must tread around sensitive legacy codes from the archive.
The wound is at the intersection of the discourses of health and law, where we might encounter the archaic figure of the shaman-sovereign. This mythic figure is convoluted, in that it combines wounded, offender, healer and protector. The senselessness of the enigma arises from the mixture of these contradictory terms. When these concepts are combined, then the positive biopolitics of health and law is suspended. This suspension makes way for obscure physiological processes akin to the alchemical.
This enigma has a perilous journey where it escapes from the snares of discourse. It gets neutralized as it’s drawn into familiar discourses of the exception and castration, and the dialectics of mythic violence. It can be abject and proletarian or arrested as something criminal. The enigma is sustained at a point where health and law disrupt each other. It lives off these discourses at the point of the breakdown of their positivity. It must be part of an intimate institutional economy, or else it risks being outcast and sliding into dissolution.
The wound is the bane of conservatives who latch onto ‘cultural identities’ and attack the hollowness of liberal idealism. They practice a biopolitics that would further immunize and fortify their social body. These movements are inspired by enigmatic wounds towards which they are ambivalent. The wounds on the social body are felt to be the results of liberalization, the opening of borders to trade and migration, and the planetary circulation of media. Though these wounds are actually as old as time, as demonstrated in Godel’s incompleteness theorem.
Wounds that don’t heal would tend to rot, and the enigmatic wound undergoes an endless decomposition at an abstract level. Though this process is interrupted by pathological enjoyment, such as how an insane person might enjoy their symptom. The process is separated from customary or habitual relations and that sublimity excludes the possibility of enjoyment. This is a psychosis which has been converted into an aesthetic resource. It’s a resource which exceeds any use, like the sun or wind. Dressing the wound can disrupt the dynamics of its power, like how a screen might interfere with the rays of the sun.
The wound is the absence of the other, the way the symbolic doesn’t work out, or the missing guarantee of reproduction. This absence may offend honor, but the enigma refuses that sense in the endless decay of god’s corpse. The enigma is where this decay is finally experienced as the proper nature of what god has always done. One might sometimes imagine that the fracture in totality has healed, only to catch a whiff of fermentation once again. We may pretend that the other is there, only to realize that they are not. The enigmatic aesthetics bleeds through this phantom healing.
This wound is an aesthetic figure for the ontological threshold at the limit of the possible. This is not just the possibility of discourse, but also the possibility of perception, relation and intelligible experience more generally. This wound is the limit where possibility is exhausted and yet something is still unaccounted, and where the fabric of intelligibility is exposed to the threat of the Cantorian continuum. This wound is at the limit of the fantasy of finitude which envelopes intelligibility like a set of Russian dolls. Utilitarianism is the most common bandage discourse. For instance, when economists fabulate such outrageous concepts as “economy at full employment”, they negate the reality of the wound.
Twentieth century thought often subsumed the wound into an agonal contest, and that abolishes its enigmatic quality by the institution of sense. The pathology of the agonal contest is found in Kojeve’s dialectic or Schrumpeter’s economics, and his implies an interest or obsession that excludes it from the aesthetic. The enigmatic quality is lost when the wound is captured in the attractive basin of agonal affection. The spirit of agony is like a germ of sadomasochism such as the Pauline curse of the law. The agonizing wound anchors subjects in ancient virtue ethics that is shared by the avantgardes and liberal economics.
The financial analyst Nassim Taleb is exemplary as a contemporary agonal thinker since he takes free market spirituality back to its origins in Roman cruelty. His slogan ‘skin in the game’ refers to a pound of flesh that has been staked in the game of exchangeable values. This exposes the body to the potential for wounding since this skin is at risk of being lost. This expression has obscure ethnic connotations, as was explored by Eric Santner’s recent essay on Merchant of Venice. For Taleb there is no enigma, and he is adamantly a sensible, down-to-earth, and practical kind of thinker. He is part of the current backlash against liberal idealism, and his name frequently appears on alt-right forums. He promotes a wisdom that celebrates the entrepreneur for investing themselves in their enterprise. He prioritizes the virtue of those who risk ‘life and limb’ for the sake of development. This investment discourse has definite sense that follows a progression where an opportunity is noticed, some risk is taken, and then there are returns or losses. The enigma disrupts this progression is disrupted, and the rationality of investment is rendered opaque through aestheticization that breaks its sadomasochistic spell.
George Bataille relentlessly critiqued utilitarianism, though his work is implicated with the agonal spirituality of his century. For this reason, his style of thinking is ineffective for engaging with someone like Taleb. In the Inner Experience (1948) he says that “the principle of contestation is one of those upon which Maurice Blanchot insists as a foundation”. This principle seems close to what Alain Badiou calls the passion of the real. That ‘passion’ concerns the point where the finite and the infinite are nailed together. Contestation becomes foundational because its where discourse gets its grip, not in a utilitarian way, but as a spirituality such as the ‘animal spirits’ mentioned by JM Keynes. Contestation in this sense relates to the honorific and to what W. Benjamin called ‘mythic violence’. This sense of contestation implies an imbalance which connects with the ascetics of negative theology. The limit of this agonal thinking was reached when Pierre Klossowski suggested an “ascesis of affect”, and that is the point where the aesthetics of the enigmatic wound begins.
The enigma overcomes the spirit of contest in the same way that Benjamin’s divine violence overcomes mythic violence. The contest is a kind of discourse, but this is a discourse which doesn’t depend on concepts because it proceeds at the level of embodied habit. This is the discourse by which biopolitics corrals populations into performances. Though the contest lends itself to a superfluous conceptual overcoding, like what commentators do in sports, politics and finance. This model of the athletic contest has proliferated to the point that politics has been reduced to a matter of a politician’s personal honor.
Contests are excluded from the aesthetic level of drama, and this distinction has to do with sense and ambivalence. The contest has a definite sense, in that the contestants are trying to win, and ambivalence arises when that sense comes unraveled. Whereas the enigma is properly dramatic, which means that it’s beyond both sense and the disintegration of sense into ambivalence.
Consider the ambivalence of the term ‘performance’, which can diminutively suggest what is merely staged and therefore not real, but also what is most decisive and real par excellence. Performance is simultaneously what deceives as well as the efficacy of work whose judgment is the basis for career advancement. The ambivalence of this term is the epitome of biopolitical discourse, with its proliferation of metrics and performance contests. The performance contest is a sensitive site where authenticity is tenuous because biopower is extending its territory for the capture of new populations. This is the spread of the biopolitical germ of contest, which is a fantasy of imaginary antagonism that can be identified with the spectacle itself.
Enigmatic aesthetics provides an antidote to the biopolitical contest. It is where discourse abandons its customary grip on reality which renders ambivalence impossible because it eliminates all possibility whatsoever. Ambivalence is where the grip of sense is slipping. The enigmatic implies a nullification of discourse which must be distinguished from the four traditional modes of symbolic failure, which are irony, tragedy, pathos and comedy. In distinction from these, the enigmatic is closest to the aesthetics of drag since its artificiality is a candid consequence of a strangeness and complexity that simply fails to appear.
The contest reduces the wound to a sense with the possibility for ambivalence. Contestants are trying to heal their imaginary-symbolic wounds by recovering their honor, whereas the enigmatic wound is real so there is no possibility of recovery. Bataille sometimes appears embroiled in the spirit of contest, as if he was competing with fascism and getting drawn to the same level. While he was also praying for a sublime enigmatic wound,
God of despair,
give me that heart,
Bodies are accustomed to contests as a source of esteem and hope, and the loss of this hope on the path to the enigma brings despair. The body is caught in discourse by the lure of success. This Tantalean enthrallment is a flight from the wound, and liberation from biopolitical capture proceeds through a bifurcation in the sense of the wound. The enigma begins with a special kind of despair that is also a kind of relief, not the disappointment or fulfillment of hope, but the inconceivability of what was previously called the future. The enigma abolishes the possibilities according to which the future was conceived, and from then on possibilities are merely simulated in the enigmatic mode.
An enigmatic drama turns around the ‘skin in the game’, that enigmatic flesh with layers of uncertainty and irony. Like a cubist painting, there is segmentation of perception where this vulnerable flesh is affected from different perspectives. Populations are caught in biopolitical performance by the sensation of alienability. They are caught by the sensation of the alienability of property and organs. Whereas the enigma implies an inalienability, which is a univocity, or an identity of substance, and this requires a great cheapening of life. Populations are captured by a perceptual belief in the value of life – an immediate experience of the esteem – and the enigma breaks this spell of value-perception. But this cheapening runs various risks, especially those associated with dissolution and abjection.
Abjection concerns the genital drives and castration complex. A competition performance is an assemblage that engages genital drives in the quest for reproduction, and the failure to do so results in its excess being rendered abject. The competition discourse codes this abjection as a resource which can be used in various ways: as a negative example such as the proletarian, or as something more enigmatic along romantic lines. The biopolitical discourse appreciates the aesthetic value of the enigma, though it remains ambivalent due to the risks that the enigmatic poses for the sense of development.
Discourse threatens to abolish the enigma in ambivalence. So, the enigma must avoid getting coded whether positively or negatively because these reverse. Discourse is like a police drama where the enigma is trying to avoid the attention that might make it suspect or celebrated. It’s flight below the radar charges the scene with dramatic tension. It conceals its sublimity to avoid imaginary capture in the ordeal of the sacred, or the terrifying fantasy of alienability. Biopolitical discourse often reduces the enigma to romance which can be like a family version of sacred terror.
The enigma mustn’t be confused with the passion of crucifixion, and yet it may be dressed as such. To maintain this distinction it’s necessary to deny the existence of ‘heterodox Christianity’, because that term could only refer to the enigma. Christianity is merely one dramatic scenario, whereas the enigma is real.
The aesthetic dimension of the enigmatic wound is defined by the absence of affect. This means that it is not fascination, despair, beauty, pathos, tedium, humor or even suffering. It is a seduction with a relentless flux too obscure for names. The enigma is the sobriety of the sublime, where the wound of absence has given up the ghost of sensation. Only when it’s sober can the sublime become an aesthetic resource independent from the spell of biopolitical discourse.
The enigma adopts various costumes according to dramatic genres. It gets dressed up and put on the cross, on the market, and in the election. The sobriety of the enigma is its inalienability, such that substance and subject are securely the same, which means the terror of castration has ended. The enigma is the abstraction of the wound where it becomes the impossible touching of the finite and the infinite. The identity of subject with enigma is a fatal singularity, and as Bataille says, “my books are like holes that readers fall into and never get out of.”
The topic of abjection was first opened by Julia Kristeva who treated it as more of a female problem. This topic is close to the metaphysics of the wound, which concerns holes through which the body bleeds. More recent literature has approached abjection from a masculine perspective, where it runs into the logic of castration. Contemporary novels like those of Michel Houellebecq explore how phallic abjection relates to perverse tendencies of financial administration.
The spectacle is energized by genital drives, and so it codes bodies as phallic or non-phallic. Abjection concerns the non-phallic bodies, where there is an excess of genital energy that is desexualized. This relates with theoretical problems in poststructuralism such as inoperativity and the ‘narcissistic wound’ in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. Here I want to conduct an original treatment of these problems and suggest a contemporary version of the castration complex which results from geohistorical conditions.
As a young adult, I was struck by how east Asians had adopted “our” North American lifestyle. Where something different was expected, it was surprising to see the same. The same clothing, appliances, laws… it was slightly uncanny. But today I believe that this experience wasn’t uncanny enough, that it should have been more so. And perhaps the true uncanniness of this similarity hasn’t yet been experienced, and that a greater enigma awaits in the future.
Where there should have been enigma, there was ambivalence. There was the disappointment of exotic fantasies, where the Chinese were not Chinese enough. The kids everywhere were listening to hip hop, riding skateboards, and playing basketball. This disappointment oscillated with a pride that we North Americans were being imitated, that the world was copying our lifestyle, and this explained why we received such hospitality. We were the authentic originals and they were the copies, and so they wanted us to authenticate their lifestyle. They wanted us to show them how to put mustard on a hot dog. They wanted an initiation. This pride gave way to disgust at how north americans were perceived and at anyone who would want to imitate such an abominable lifestyle.
This adolescent complex collapsed when it became apparent that we are all fakes. Canadian society is just a higher fidelity simulation of American society, which is something originally fraudulent. This brings us to a schematic discussed in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, where he distinguishes originals from both copies and simulacra. This is the Platonic drama where a judgment distinguishes copies from mere simulacra. The copies are captured under the spell of the transcendent models, whereas the simulacra are just pretending to be under the spell but are not really captured. According to Deleuze, there is a point in Platonism where the simulacra ascend and overturn the whole order and there commences an age of simulacra. This advent of the simulacra would be like the zenith of the enigmatic. There seems to be an historical trend which is like a providence that is delivering us in that direction. This way history is drifting towards a revelation where the American ideals are manifested as nothing more than mere Filipino simulations of the American ideals. The wound in this sense is the impossibility of realizing the ideal – its essential incompleteness, hollowness, vanity – and the simulacra implies the disclosure of the inevitability of this wound. This is an ontology where the symbolic is essentially fractured and there is no imaginary hope that this fracture might be healed in the future.
Poverty is another kind of nonsense that buzzes in the wound, though this has little to do with misfortune. This kind of poverty glorifies the impossibility of ideals, which means they are essentially muddled, half-realized, half-junked. A dream of idyllic destitution partly realized every minute. These are not projects, but capricious aesthetic decisions. The zenith of the enigmatic wound implies the destitution of discourse in nonsense. The nonsense wound heals by opening and opens by healing. This is a spiritual wound in the fabric of community, and so there is uncertainty regarding its location. Bataille sometimes insisted that some individual had to bear it for the sake of the community.
The enigma implies nonsense-reversals of rich and poor. Financial richness is achieved by surrendering the genital drive to assimilation within the spectacle. The energy is redeployed for generating the fantasy of the ideal, the fantasy that the community is not fractured. Male bodies are coded as potential sources of this genital energy, though its transmission must proceed according to signature rhythms and frequencies. This is the critical issue of attitude and humor. Abjection arises where this energy is improperly transmitted through the community.
The source of genital energy is in that imaginary wand called the phallus. This object may be identified with the penis in its copulative and/or reproductive function. The transmission of genital drive proceeds through a series of phallic identifications. The segmentation of Cubist painting is again a model here, which relates to the anamorphic arts. Any object can be identified as phallic by some and not by others. And phallic may imply anything such as organic fetishes. The open wound is like a solvent where these operations are dissolved, and this becomes like the maternal phallus, the mysterious absence that generates the phantasm.
Now the wound may become a dangerous black hole, like the narcissistic ‘will to become everything’. Bataille distinguishes two ways to resist this temptation. One is the path of the ascetic, who responds with a ‘will to become nothing’. Whereas Bataille takes the other path, which is to destroy the idea of ‘everything’ by exceeding it. To make this ‘everything’ impossible by going beyond it, and making it explode in a psychotic frenzy.
Only once the old platonic ideals have been abolished, only then might the enigma ascend to become a new ideal and commence an epoch of the simulacra. This simulacral ideal implies a migration that would pass through a circuit of roles, which are the various metonyms of the wound, and which are given in the various aspects of its anamorphic image. In religious drama, the wound is dressed up as stigmata which are suffered by the righteous. This martyrdom becomes political where subversive liberalism takes on a messianic mode. Then in more economic dramas, there is the destruction involved with development, the wounding of the proletarian, the incessant violence of experiments, and the scrapping of prototypes. These are the wounds suffered by the victims of science and technology, the lab rats and mass extinctions which afford the luxuries of consumers.
But for the wound to succeed as a simulacral ideal, it must migrate beyond these victim roles and move cathartically to the side of the sovereign. The wound must become reversable with the weapon that inflicts it. It is the actor that must play all the roles in the drama, so that they are completely reversable. This means reversibility between bourgeois and proletarian, sick and healer, victim and offender. The enigmatic wound must achieve indifference between these roles. It must have the sort of stoic inviolability expressed in the Han Dynasty maxim,
The ideality of the simulacra is only verified by this reversibility of roles. This evidences that the wound is an opening onto the void, though an opening which is localized within certain conditions. This is a reverse Platonism where the ideal is a site for the participation of the neutrality of the void. Only from the void can all the symbolic roles in the situation be assembled. And only a wound that opens onto the void can be indifferent to these roles. This wound is not a genital or phallic object and is not sensitive to these terms. Yet to succeed as a simulacral ideal it must perform in these roles. In other words, it can’t be affected by phallic enjoyment or suffering. This is to say that the enigmatic is beyond the psychology of the castration complex.
The term fetish was used by European traders in East Africa in the early modern period. They were interested in gold, which was a serious concern of normal mature people such as themselves. Gold was a phallic object in that it was reproductive – it could afford estates where they could have wives and children. Some of the Africans had gold, but they did not appreciate its value. Each village might value something else, like feathers, shells, or bones. Those ridiculous not-gold items which the Africans valued were called ‘fetishes’. Europeans might obtain some of these strange items to trade them for gold. The Africans appeared parochial in that they didn’t appreciate the cosmopolitan values of world trade. While the Europeans did not recognize that gold might be considered a fetish from some other perspective. This kind of value parallax can be portrayed by the anamorphic arts. The fetish is an imaginary object which covers the wound of the void, and the exposure of that wound requires movement between regional frames. In our age, currency is the band-aid that conceals the enigmatic wound, covering it with the possibilities for future consumption. Biopolitical societies are organized around the circulation of these band-aids that dispel the enigma of the void and convert its energy into representations of future property and consumption.
The neutrality of the enigma is reached through the course of age and experience. The idea must be aged in an ontological sense, which neutralizes the parochial enclosure within an epoch of current fashions. The opening of an old wound wrecks the spell of currency. Currency is a presence-fetish of being with-it and up-to-date with the here-and-now. As the old wound opens, currency is disclosed as mere dramatic semblance. The power of that disclosure might be worth debating.
Transcendental nomadism remains embryonic and still grapples with elementary pedagogy. Due to the novelty of this lifestyle, tradition provides only vague guidance for its development. Improvisation is never a preference, but rather a necessity for such an orphan culture. Of course, nomadism is not completely unprecedented. Anthropologists study the pastoralists of the steppes who continue their itinerancy to this day. But transcendental nomadism is not an outward lifestyle, and it’s rather an ontological disposition for which the precedents are obscure. The nascency of this culture only appears at singular junctures when it manifests in the cracks between the great civilizations. A contemporary passage beyond sedentary life is responding to a Christendom which has become mercantile to the point of financial oligarchy. Christianity has always tended towards the hypocrisy of an anti-Christ, where populations are subjected to the perverse law of sinful flesh. Under these conditions, a transcendental nomadism harks back to the antinomic Pauline teachings on the Inner Kingdom. Though there is nothing Christian about this development, which just adapts ideas that work.
A static or inwardly nomadic life is distinguished from anything defined in anthropological terms. What enters migration are the “affect tips”, which are the limit-sensations where the organic drives contact with others. It’s in that threshold that transcendental nomadism could come into existence, where those drive-tips slide into abstraction and begin an ontological migration. The last generations of artists and poets, the romantics and the modernists, were still sedentary relative to what is required today. Joyce wrote Dublin, and Olsen wrote Gloucester. Nomadism is defined in contrast to the terrestrial orientation of that romantic legacy. If contemporary aesthetics hasn’t attained respectable achievements, that is because art remains inadequate to today’s dynamic environment. We haven’t enough experience with this frantic world to develop an aesthetic ethos.
The transition in question here is a sort of technological adaptation which systems theory would define as “functional differentiation”. The organic drives are undergoing a series of differentiations where the interface through technology is adjusted. Psychoanalytic notions of ‘symbolic castration’ are suited to understanding this evolutionary juncture, though that is a crude and arcane term which is open to a variety of connotations. The drives are getting unanchored from local environments so they can migrate through aesthetic abstractions. Several concepts are available which define various aspects of this localization which must be dissolved. The points where the drive obstinately relies on the reality of the other correspond with what Husserl called ‘perceptual belief’ and what Lukacs called ‘reification’. And this is ‘the gaze’ which Lacan defined as the point of affective anchoring in the optical field. Combining these concepts allows us to define the affective “tips” where the organic drive crosses into the sensation of contact with the other. It is these tips which must be ‘castrated’, which means that they must be set into migration, so that this libido attains higher mobility or abstraction. Castration in this sense converts aesthetic customs oriented in local environments so they become migratory. This can imply setting the environmental relation into migration.
The question arises as to why these local anchors should be cut. There is little to be gained from politicizing this gesture, especially if that means some zealous appeal to justice, or universal solidarity with the precarious populations of the planet. Rather the basic rational for this gesture should be defined modestly as a response to tight constraints. This is a way to escape from legalistic capture within a regime of social technology. A nomadic lifestyle is not proposed as an ideal, and it is superior neither ethically nor aesthetically, but is merely a desperate recourse for liberty which might be a destiny for some. A relevant scriptural reference here is “if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” That arcane term ‘castration’ helps to acknowledge the suffering which is implicit in this process. This isn’t the suffering of an exchange, where a pound of flesh is ceded to meet the letter of the law, but rather an organic transformation. Nomadism is a difficult path as the consequences can be drastic and unpredictable, and the transition is especially uncomfortable for pioneers. The only available course is to experiment with bodily modification, and some unfortunate results inevitably ensue.
This umbilical severance involves inevitable ennui, though this torment can be ameliorated through figural or cosmetic adjustments. If the sedentary environment is figured as the domus of an egg, then the horrible figure of castration can be replaced with the perhaps less painful model of hatching. Much aesthetic work is required on the figuration of tribulation, to lessen the trauma without disavowing the essentially traumatic experience. This work has been underway since the middle ages, and the tribulation recurs through romantic and modernist literature, though those works remain relatively sedentary. Today the traumatic breaks are more intimate, so they run more directly through the subject or the ego, so that we undergo the experience of the ‘cracked-I’. This returns today’s problem closer to some concerns of the reformation and the middle ages. let’s consider some lines of modernist poetry from Charle’s Olsen’s long free verse work, ‘I Maximus’:
o kill kill kill kill kill
who advertise you
in! in! the bow-sprit, bird, the beak
in, the bend is, in, goes in, the form
that which you make, what holds, which is
the law of object, strut after strut, what you are, what you must be, what
the force can throw up, can, right now hereinafter erect
the mast, the mast, the tender
The “law of object” cuts internally, so the objective passes through the heart of the subject. The nest figures this object that is more subjective than any subject. And then it becomes the phallic ship mast. The question here concerns where this topology of the organism, which isn’t so much inscribed, but becomes a matter of hermeneutics. Olsen’s Magnum Opus presents itself as a literary fortification of his fishing village against commercial development.
oh tansy city, root city
let them not make you
as the nation is
What interests us here is the ontological question of whether this poetry refers to an actual village with a fixed location in space and time, or whether this is generating a simulacra with the potential for nomadic migration as a kind of abstract anyvillage. This difficult question can send us deep into Olsen’s aesthetics, and its in this problem that we can situate the painful tribulation of the transition to nomadism. This issue of identity through time and space has been discussed around the poetry of Wallace Stevens, such as “the snowman” or “an ordinary evening in new haven”. And this ontological approach to modernist poetry has been adopted at specific points by deconstruction, especially where it has considered fetishes and signatures, as well the theme of “inevitably failed mourning”. These lines of Olsen demonstrate a signature doubling,
for those of us who do live our life quite properly in print
as properly, say, as Gloucester people live in Gloucester
Throughout the opening pages of this work, there is invoked a community identified with the ‘polis’. Perhaps his use of this archaic term was influenced by the publication of Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition in 1957. That book was a rational, modernist defense of a certain Aristotelian classicism. It analyzes the value of work, and how a polis depends on the toil of the lower classes. It would seem that this sort of classicism may have had some currency among the literary modernists of the English speaking world. Joyce and Pound both professed an Aristotelianism which had territorial and identarian implications. Against this tendency, a transition to nomadism would imply more Platonic sentiments. This would be a shift towards a more cosmic and less terrestrial ontology, such that the pure idea takes on a power that supercedes local contingencies.
There is a conflict between nomadism and modernism which reaches a decisive juncture in the dialectics where aesthetic singularity is absorbed into a monetary economy. The modernists sought to fortify their communities in particular localities of terrestrial life, which were considered resistant to the danger of being reduced to commercial clichés. The important question here concerns how this strategy has aged, and in what sense it should be deemed obsolete. Nomadism is admittedly eager to chart some relation with these prominent predecessors, though this is an especially fraught line of inheritance. We shall proceed by raising a question of a community in a very particular way, where there are conflicting models of relations. The substance of literary modernism was a community that was avowedly linguistic and fraternal, such that these qualities were prominently exhibited throughout its literature. Various other relational models have conflicted with this controversial tradition, but in what follows let us consider the apophatic community of the Acephale group in Paris during the 1930’s. The conflict between these two models of community would seem to be decisive for the transition to nomadism. This is because nomadism emerged among this group of Parisian Platonists, but the Aristotelian aesthetics of Poundian literary humanism has dominated the English language in which these words are written. A rivalry between these models of community has been underway for several decades. It was once called the postmodernist controversy, and it has returned in several variations. This conflict is difficult to understand because the French side rejects communitarian identity and vanishes into the enigmas of Jewish mysticism.
just because weather
is very precise to
the quarter it comes from (as writing is
Olsen was famously concerned with the particularity of his writing, which was like his poetic principle. His style is recognizable in distinct signatures. His verses are nearly prose, but the breaking of sentence expresses a chaos of singular orality. This is poetry at the threshold where grammar and logic are sacrificed for particularity. The question we need to raises here concerns what we might call the politics of particularity. And by this I do not mean to question the justice of Olsen’s or Pound’s writing, but rather the political efficacy. When the composition of particularity is anchored in proper names and places, those are rendered susceptible to appropriation and merchandising. The modernist aesthetics was expressed through a voice that was immediately recognizable, and which was shared through a network of associates. It never effectively resisted capitalism because it substantialized itself as celebrity branding at the limits of ladhood. This was an aesthetic that ceded everything it had to the market up front. It’s resistance to capitalism was perhaps sincere, but this brings us to a criticism of Pound’s social credit politics and how that was rooted in anti-semitic ethnic identity. (On a side note, let us just mention that today social credit is a prominent fad in Chinese technocracy.) The issue here is the legacy of Aristotelian chrematistics and the associated ideologies of work.
This organic solidarity of the maritime community is reminiscent of socialist class alliances, and perhaps not totally unrelated to the Fordist division of labor. Industrial development was disrupting subjective ideology, and poetry was searching for allies that could anchor it in the material. The organic is a trope that gives materiality to the divisions of the worker-army that is being enlisted.
have the polis in their eye
The brilliant Portuguese owners,
they do. They pour the money back
into engines, into their ships,
whole families do, put it back
in. They are but extensions of their own careers
This brings us to entrepreneurialism and the market spirit. The ship has always been a common trope for the firm, where to engage in business is setting sail on a risky venture. There is a nautical aesthetic that features throughout modernist poetry, going back to Pound’s first published work which was a translation of an old English poem called the Seafarer. As his poetry enlists itself for the work of constructing an aesthetic polis, it is no surprise that Olsen invokes Hyperion, that Quixotic champion of the Greeks against the Ottomans.
The polis requires a differentiation of labor, and Arendt’s book provided an economic analysis of different kinds of work, such as the writing of literature, and the cleaning of toilets, which a good city requires. Her philosophical classicism tends to overlook some of the more feminine aspects of labor which get evoked in Olsen’s aesthetic survey,
the attention, and
however much each of us
chooses our own
The transition to nomadism concerns the ontological modality of what I call “affective possession”. And I want to suggest that this problem should be troubling and depressing. There is no question that the sedentary aesthetic of modernism is exquisite and comfortable, though its limited political efficacy is now exhausted. Sedentary aesthetics is susceptible to capture within simulation, which is a concrete anchoring of subjectivity within stereotyped conditions which are mistaken for originality. This affective anchoring is hypnotically positioned within sociotechnical regimes. This is an automatism which can appear well-adjusted and vigorous, and the fact that its an automatism can be well concealed. The decisive issue here is how it reifies the reality of the other: its affective tips have anchored it into an identity position. Its symbolic constitution is dependent on the reality of others. But when those perceptual beliefs are castrated, then there is transpires the ontological originality of the nomadic affects. Then there is lucidity regarding the originality of time.
Affective tips are the proprioceptions where the organic drives enter the threshold of contact. These are trigger-points of disinhibition where organisms are anchored in the perceptual field. Orgasmic tips. Nomadism is where these tips enter a transient relation with the perceptual field or actuality. More specifically, we are interested in another threshold where the tip-perception relation switches from fixed to transient. The configuration of this threshold borrows from what Freud called a ‘sublimation’, as a point of abstraction where symbolic relations become possible. Sedentary life in this sense is a concrete literalism.
The epistles of St. Paul provide a scriptural background for discussing the break with commercial simulation. The way subjectivity is captured in the simulation is insidious like the collusion of law and sin described by Paul, where these are indistinguishable in some economy of the damned flesh. He proposed a paradoxical liberation where one breaks free from the law while remaining within it, because simply fleeing would only tighten its binds. The law loses its grip on affect as it is converted into an aesthetic simulation which is registered lucidly. This paradoxical conversion corresponds with the gestures of conceptualism and minimalism. Bringing a commercial product into a gallery does not change anything about the object, but just how its situated with institutional coordinates. This is what has to be done with the entirety of the law, which has to be replaced with a simulation, or we could say counter-actualized as an aesthetic object.
JL Nancy conceives contact as the essence of the world, so that the world is the limit where people and things touch. Derrida developed ideas about how other-touching alternates with self-touching through a dialectic of mutual exposure. When Nancy deconstructs the concept of compassion, he defamiliarizes the sense of this word. This disrupts a reified psychological and political valorization of this concept where it bestows dignity on the humanism championed by progressive liberals. Political communities are formed through the recognition of compassion, as communities of the compassionate which shun the apathy and coldness of the outsiders who must be held beyond the borders. Compassion is a trait that identifies members, whether a limited compassion between members of a community, or an unlimited cosmopolitan hospitality towards strangers.
In American politics, the distinction between liberal and conservative should never be equated with a simply between the compassionate the uncompassionate, although some zealous liberals might like to portray it that way. Rather it concerns qualitatively different models of compassion which are alternate topologies of affect. Liberalism can be identified with the promiscuity of affect, and conservatism with the discrimination of affect, though these are often superficial masks concealing their opposites. And these parties might prefer more ‘flattering’ terms like generosity and patriotism, though it is precisely this sort of preference which is the most insidious aspect of sedentary aesthetics. As we shall see below, it’s the narcissistic insistence on how affects are named and conceptualized which makes them exchangeable, and which brings them under the seductive power of the law. And its this reliance on legalistic conceptualism that damns any economics of the polis.
JL Nancy’s touch-world deconceptualizes compassion and deprives the term of any positive ideological connotation. This approaches the way affects are treated in Buddhist meditation. Compassion in this sense is simply the fact that people affect each other, whether by their presence or their absence, or by how these aren’t even distinguished. Someone might be affected by a ghostly pseudo-presence or a lingering odor, such that the neighbor simply affects us in a way that is left without any further conceptual determination. This leaves the affect uninterpreted and gives it hermeneutic space so that concepts can be played with. This creates uncertainty about passivity and activity – was it they who affected me, or did I affect myself? – so the affect is expressed in the neutral voice, where the distribution of responsibility is postponed. This affect has refused any names, whether offense, gift, honor, shame, humor… judgment is suspended, so there is no value of good or bad, and yet it remains registered as a fact.
Where the affect is suspended on this fence between self and other, then it is in danger of falling into a gift/debt cycle. The suspension of the accounting machine can make it more dangerous. To further neutralize the legal sense of affects, they should be hermeneutically repositioned as effects of customary media which is sociotechnical and physiology. Affects are then a product of arbitrary and opaque customs. This interpretation further neutralizes the legal conceptuality so that affects cannot be attributed subjectively, or “taken personally”. The affects produced by say, someone making racial slurs, can be defamiliarized, or alienated, or depersonalized, as they are attributed to customary media.
Nancy understands com-passion etymologically as passions felt together. This can begin to deconstruct an archive of passion-concepts: hatred, envy, lust, love, honor, fear, respect… these are all terms of legalistic accounting in that they represent affects within cycles of debt/gift. In other words, its these concepts which anchor affects within the domain of law as described by St. Paul, or what Walter Benjamin referred to as ‘mythical violence’. Hatred is reduced to a narrowly legalistic interpretation of some otherwise nameless affect. The net of the law then is woven from these concepts, and populations are under its spell insofar as their affects are coded legally.
Following St. Paul, the problem is not to dissolve this legalistic net of concepts, but rather to avoid identifying with it. The problem is not about inscription – it’s not that the law could be written out of existence – but rather a problem of hermeneutics or interpolation. The concepts require deconstruction to break the spell of affect-possession, and this is something like an exorcism. Then the affects don’t belong to anyone personally, rather they belong to the roles in which people have been cast in the simulation. Or more interesting, perhaps they belong to roles which haven’t yet been fashioned. Then the affect becomes like an enigmatic stage direction, suggesting the sort of roles that populations might be moving into.
At this point transcendental nomadism may enter a visionary phase. Society can be figured as a swarming of migratory tips that massage populations from all directions. Society is not the sum of the people, but the sum of the tips where they are affected. This vision is an extreme limit of commercial-aesthetic development, where society is completely transformed into a market simulation, and where that simulation can be experienced lucidly.
Where modernists inherited the Aristotelian distinction of the polis, what we are prosing here is something more Platonic along the lines of a monad. This is something like the Fichtean interpretation of Descartes which Edmund Husserl found so compelling, though we are taking this theory in a radically aesthetic direction. The decisive scission for nomadism falls between the intimate and the social, particularly as this was articulated by Deleuze and Guatarri. This is not merely a conceptual distinction, but more importantly this is something dramatic and charged with affect. There is a struggle over the deployment of organic drives, where the society is attempting to capture the libido in the spell of legalism. The modernist evocation of the polis should be dismissed as obsolete, because the ‘public’ in that civil-political sense has been abolished, and any remaining semblance of that tradition is just a simulacrum of the market. The public has been annexed by the social, and so the Aristotelian modernists have been defeated. And so the struggle must be redefined. Where the polis no longer exists, here we speak of ‘intimacy’ (or desiring-production in Deleuzo-Guatarrian terms), and this intimacy can create ‘minority communities’ where they are still possible outside of the social-market relations. Where before there was a public, now we have intimate exposure of the organic drives. This is a dramatic scenario where the market system attempts to sap the organic drives for its purposes, and so community is only possible where libido has been reserved from the market.
Three elementary variations on this scenario can be distinguished. First, intimacy may be totally abolished in favor of social puppetry, meaning that all the organic drive has been absorbed into the automation. In this scenario there is no possibility for intimacy or minority communities. Second, intimacy may survive in a way that subordinated to society, where it is something abject or excluded which galvanizes social relations. Here, the market society preserves the intimacy of the others for the sake of its own morale, i.e. the pride of the fortunate. Third, some share of organic drive is reserved for intimacies which are hidden behind social roles. This is the scenario where nomadism becomes possible. Reaching this blessed condition requires negotiating between the Scylla of total automation (the first scenario) and the Charybdis of abjection (the second scenario). This may require a painful scission where intimacy is appropriated from the social, as this painful surplus is always in danger of abjection.
The problem concerns the way that social libido is cathected. The danger is that society absorbs all the affective energy whether positively or negatively. This danger can be aestheticized into a source of drama, in the same way that modernists dramatized their struggles with the market. There are reflections in the movements of intimacy and society, which are like the dramas of hunter and prey, or police and criminals. The intimates are constantly faced with the challenge of converting their private libido into more exchangeable currencies, like when they need to pass a toll booth or bribe an official. There are continual crises of authenticity, where social costumes are suspiciously cheap, and even detained for abjection. In order to pass muster, the intimate libido may be converted to shore up social appearances but this risks having it depleted and annexed by society.
There is an old maxim that says the best mask that can be worn in disguise is one’s own face. It inevitably happens that fake duplicate of the intimate self are used as social costumes. Then if the costume ever starts to disintegrate, then one may just revert to their intimate self, and the transition might go unnoticed. This painful scission of the organic drive can be covered with drama and humor. This is a kind of economic drama where there is a continual contest over the distribution of organic drive. The distinction must be constructed though it doesn’t register empirically because it’s rather something transcendental or ontological.
On an empirical level, total automation appears as perfect adjustment within the socio-technical regime, because here there is complete sublimation of the drive with no remainder of Thanatos (intimacy) to trip up the simulation. With the perfection of android technology, the automatism is concealed, while the tact of nomadic perception is to render it salient and perhaps even abject. This is dueling over the conception of abjection, where the social wants to define it as intimacy, where as intimacy wants to define it as automatism. The sleek and glorious automation is a hypnotic trap that threatens to lure intimacy into a world whose borders are defined by the exclusion of abject intimacy. The developmental simulation is defined in its contrast with the abjection of intimacy, whereas nomadism is always trying to blur this contrast. The borders of development are abolished by identifying the abject with the automatic. Or we could say that the minority community by a dialectical maneuver that identifies the developed (automation) with the undeveloped (abjection) and thereby breaking the hallucinatory spell of the market simulation. Though this won’t abolish the simulation, it just breaks its affective grip on the organic drives, so they can migrate between roles.
Someone once said that the art of narrative lies in not telling a story. If writing reaches to grab a whole object, or tell a whole story, then there is nothing left for reading. Language is exhausted by saying everything, and this can happen in an instant. What is real lies in the unsaid, but that isn’t necessarily unknown. Here writing and knowledge are separated by how expression must be restrained from the limit of knowledge. This reserve is the power of the secret which is often feigned. There is a difference between real secrets and bluffing.
This reserve of knowledge is a condition of symbolic or phallic efficacy. There is an important distinction between the unsaid and the unsayable, where the unsaid is like a safety buffer against the dangers of the unsayable. If the unsaid gets exhausted, then speech gets shipwrecked on the unsayable. Knowledge is a resource which is consumed by speech, where it gets debased into that cheap knock-off which is called mere representation. The power of knowledge is reserved in the unsaid, and its expression in language is its fall into alienation. But this fall into alienation is of course an essential phase, though a painful castration. Through exhausting itself in language, knowledge discovers its limits, like someone falling off an embankment as they learn to comfortably navigate the terrain.
The issue of phallic efficacy in language is getting foregrounded today in discussions of economic fiction and realist literature. This genre deals with extreme alienation that verges on particular psychoses that emerge from financial simulation. This kind of writing is susceptible to a mania of saying everything. The concept of realism has a crucial split, where on one hand there is a conventional realism which is limited to description or portrayal, but then there is a more radical realism which participates in the construction of reality. This extreme realism is where the romantic imagination identifies as the source where phallic representation is produced. This is the “man-made world” of Vico that was cited enthusiastically by utopians like Karl Marx. With the conception of economic fiction, the romantic absolute of literature is undergoing augmentation. This relates with Michel Callon’s conception of performative economics, where markets are constructed by the actions of participants. Though in Callon’s thinking, an actor’s performance could be effective if they hold symbolic positions, such as the words of an influential analyst or fund manager, there is a further level of questions concerning how fiction might participate in the construction of markets.
It would seem there are no logical limits to the power which literature could exercise over the economic. Literature could invent new products, or define new markets, or conduct appraisals which effect values, or it could construct new models for transactions, or it could redefine regions. It could script codes of behavior, such as how auctions are conducted, or how advertising is circulated. This is to suggest the radical possibility that markets in their entirety might be indistinguishable from literary simulacra. Economics and literature can swallow each other, and it might be impossible to distinguish them at any point. Here I want to take up Percey Shelley’s famous adage that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, in order to suggest an oscillation between the genres and disciplines where this “legislation” takes place. This would be a longue durée that is ontological in the way described by Henri Lefebvre. There have been phases of aestheticization where poetry has taken the lead in defining disciplines within modernity, but then the roles reverse and poetry takes on a servile function in the pursuit of economic objectives. There is an alternation between the quantative ideals of economics and the aesthetic ideals of literature and arts. There is perversity and deception in this contest, as well as temporal disjunction, and so it’s an agonal contest that might not be decidable.
The aestheticization of the economic is a broad topic with uncharted dimensions. Any work of literature can be approached economically, and this could mean considering how its writing and publication were financed, and how has circulated, but also how it participates in the codification of markets through depictions and portrayals. And then going the other way, the writings of the economic and financial professions can also be aestheticized and considered as literature, as was done in Mary Poovey’s tome on financial paper in the early modern age. This creates a cataclysm of genres where the ground is newly flattened, and against this oceanic tide writing clings to a particular modality of the real. This is not the reality of a described object, but rather a creative speculation at the threshold of emerging markets. This writing that participates in the incubation of form that proceeds on abstract aesthetic dimensions. Economics appears to have the upper hand in this contest, but poetry could turn the tables at some point. This tarries with the risk of psychosis, as the suggestion here is a realism which partially denies the external reality of its object, which is the recipe for madness. The problem is no longer to depict the economy, but rather to participate in its emergence.
Though this writing no longer describes reality, it can still participate within reality. Another kind of reality principle comes into effect, which implies a different modality than description. Writing can be realistic in a way that is not descriptive, but rather realistic in it’s economic participation. And this is not to say that writing would exchange monetarily in the normal way, but that it would reverse the economic. Where economics is positive in the work of bringing subjects to the market, this poetry would be negative in the unworking which exempts objects from the market. Where economics focuses attention on valuations and transactions, this poetry shifts that attention and refocuses on devaluations and the unexchangeable. This is to extricate the substance of the organic drives from the paradigm of exchange. Such extraction is the mode of poetry’s economic participation.
This reversal is based in the hallowed traditions of literature. The rise of economics is the fall of the spirit into the object-sin of the commodity. This is an original sin, as well as an incarnation in worldly material. Aestheticization is a vehicle which reverses this and transports the spirit into blessedness, and that reversal is at the center of the genre of apocalyptic. This genre can be treated as pure fiction, which distinguishes it from the historical. Apocalypse in this sense is a completely non-Christian aesthetic which is an unhistorical static given. Keeping the apocalyptic atemporal avoids the narrative intrigues of the end times, along with any residual religiosity, and it allows for greater liberty in selecting figures from the archive. But more importantly, this liberates historiography so that a more original and interesting cycle of history might be initiated.
This allows a temporally disjointed history to be initiated from a Chinese perspective. An aesthetic is emerging from the historicity of late-Qing literature, especially the red light novels, along with modernization discourses from the early republican period, especially Zhang Taiyan. This late-antique historicity expresses codes for an emerging anti-economy. This is the returning historicity of the abolition of Chinese antiquity by modern development. The traumatic ending of the traditional Chinese lifeworld and the associated nostalgic suffering is being converted into an aesthetic power that overturns the paradigm of economic exchange.
William Blake equated Christianity with Art, and that assimilation has retained efficacy through until today. Christianity gives aesthetics a sense of direction, where a descent is followed by salvation, though these coordinates only take on sense once they are anchored in historiography. Where traditional orthodoxies figured this descent as the original sin and the incarnation, aesthetic thinking moves towards what we might call an “excarnation”, or a displacement of organic drives. The development of financial society lures populations into sociotechnical utopias which exclude their customary organic drives. This is an alienation where commodity idealism abjects the Freudian id, and the organic drive gets projected outside the body as a monster that raises the threat of psychosis. But this descent into excarnation reaches a critical point of reversal. This possibility which gives aesthetics a claim on tradition and allows it to escape the charge of nihilism. The salvific reversal can proceed by incorporating the abject material through a new prosthesis. This requires shifts in corporeal orientation, where the bordering and figuration of bodies is transformed. The abjection or turbulence of this excarnated material can only be incorporated through a disfiguration of the corporeal form.
Fashion provides a model for this art of incorporating the abject, and in this would be a Christological enterprise. This isn’t limited to clothing but is rather a general prosthetics to fabulate a new embodiment or constitution of the flesh. As sociotechnical development displaces the drives in ever new ways, this requires the fashioning of ever new incorporations. This sort of fashion would be a profoundly equivocal art that shares a dangerous ambivalence with dialectical thinking. Integral bodies are determined through their contrast with the abject, and corporeal borders are maintained for the sake of excluding the organic drives. These borders cannot be moved to incorporate this abject matter, because the intensity of this matter resists incorporation. The abject isn’t simply situated inside or outside the body, and its disturbing force is such that it inevitably disfigures the border.
The fashioning of a new incorporation requires concealments and diversions that allow this excluded material an illicit communication with the inside of the body. But this prosthetics of concealment will lead to misunderstandings because its function is never decidable. This concealment is ambivalent because the purpose is not to conceal but rather to galvanize the new incorporation. Energy is drawn from concealment, and this includes the energy which is drawn from the trauma of abjection. The abjection of the drive remains secret because it’s inconsistent with corporeal composition, but the power of this secret energizes a new composition.
The abject is a failure of symbolic composure, and this failure involves the collusion of opposites. Symbolic composure requires the partiality of certain limited positions within the matrix of representation. The sociotechnical regime enforces these arbitrary conditions, such as those associated with ethnicity or class. The problem of fashion is to devise prothesis that can make the abject accessible despite these conditions and so they might be transformed. For this the borders of incorporation must be compromised in subtle and covert ways.
Christological fashion erases borders and extends a hospitality which spreads the secret abjection of the drives through bodies. Bodily borders are marked with traits, contagions, affections, sensations, affinities, similarities or relations. They are allegorized and emblematized. They are modeled topologically. There are incremental layers of abjection and secrecy. The deeper secrets of abjection concern the shame of dispossession, or what is called automatism, non-animacy, non-sentience. This is the ultimate secret that gestures might express nothing but affected attempts at the semblance of normalcy. This secret struggle to appear as normal and well-adjusted participants within the circuitry of transactions, this is a struggle to disidentify with the horror of abjection. The organic drives undergo a satanic alienation as they are banished from expression within the sociotechnical simulation. But this leaves the utopia in a condition of spiritual deadness because it loses access to the organic drives and so it sponsors the fashion industry to entice the return of the prodigal son. This idea that the sociotechnical regime would refashion itself to accommodate Satan is deeply suspicious to both religious and secular orthodoxies. The utopia tries to animate itself with the turbulence of the drives, and so fashion is sanctioned as an engineering of counter-culture. But this accommodation always implies defanging, and so there is a kind of faux-wilderness like going camping in a park. Something of the satanic always gets excluded as fashion evolves to incorporate the drive back into the limits within sociotechnical conditioning.
At the limits of incorporation is a sacrificial economy which is like Aesop’s fable of the wolf and the dog, where the temptation of domesticity threatens the wild with extinction. Chaos can only survive as chaos by withdrawing into obscurity and remaining unexchangeable on the markets, or else it must give up its nature as chaos to transact on the circuits of the sociotechnical order. This struggle of id versus superego is distinguished from classical Freudian scenarios because here the drive is essentially a death drive. This id is not transgressive but rather maintains a conservative vigil despite abjection. If they had an ideological sense, then these drives could be on the side of nature, tradition or autonomy, but this id is under a demonic possession which makes it impervious to ideological codes. These days the id is identified with its obstinacy because that is how it appears in contrast to the spectacle. The energy of this id is withdrawn into a larval phase, and so there is no outward display, and no sense of transgression. The superego attempts to draw the energy out to galvanize the markets, and transgression works as a enjoyment-lure, such as the Pauline doctrine which identifies sin with the law. Whereas the id remains imperviously turned towards its inner kingdom.
The ongoing spread of automation further sharpens the contrast between the dynamism of the technological superego and the obstinacy of the drives. Traditional institutions had integrated the organic energy of the drives into social exchanges, but the spread of global technology junks those old systems and the drives lose their symbolic infrastructure.
Fashion maintains an ambivalent alignment between the organic id and the technosocial superego. There is pressure to conceal the abject source of the drives, which is unsightly like a corpse on the sidewalk in a gentrified neighborhood. But this concealment cannot be too effective, or else the source of the drives will be lost. The corpse cannot be completely vanquished and forgotten, or else the utopia will become deadened. The concealment must remain limited so the abject remains alluring behind the screen of some lingerie. And sociotechnics takes advantage of this situation by resorting to fake concealment, which suggests there is organic drive where there is none. Where Freud distinguished between conscious and unconscious, these days awareness becomes a matter of degrees, of the more and the less. There is uncertainty and deception surrounding concealment, and there are degrees of awareness, acknowledgement, and suspicion about the secrecy of the organic drives. Along the borders of incorporation can be woven the sorts of intersubjective knots that R.D. Liang expressed, “She attempted to reveal her noticing of my concealment of her concealment…”, though fashion implies an aesthetic bifurcation that supersedes this sort of subjective-linguistic psychology.
Fashion is an art which responds to what we might call the riddle of the phallus. The phallus is the missing piece of representation, the holy grail that would allow representation to succeed in some ideal sense. This ideal would be a symbol that verifies to the reality of eternal life, or a sign that guarantees that reproduction will continue eternally. The phallus is like the missing notarization of our vital status, and the utopianism of the commodity demands the forgery of this document. The reproductive drives which are physiologically in the genitals, and so there is a substitution where the flesh of the instinct gets replaced with phallic symbols. And through this substitution the organic drives are excarnated, which is to say projected into some diffuse abject matter outside the borders of the body. The strange satanic power of the instincts then poses a psychotic threat to the artificial integrity of the body.
The role of fashion could be highly equivocal in this situation, where it alternates as a double agent between the concerns of the id and the superego. When it takes the side of the instincts, then fashion may adopt the ideology of naturalism, conservatism, liberalism or revolution. Though when fashion adopts these ideologies, then there is suspicion that it may be secretly on the side of the socio-technical regime, where it reinforces the alienation of the drives, or castrates them into the services of the commodity. Fashion can play more complex roles, like an immunization or mimicry, so that the regime adopts something from the drives, which is a typical outcome of the rivalry with the abject id. I want to suggest a kind of fashion that moves beyond these oppositions, towards the more Christological problem of recovering the prodigal son and returning that Satan to the fold where he would transform the sociotechnical regime. Fashion in this sense would be a transformative prosthesis that would be hospitable towards the abject drives of the id.