Chinese teachers are known to complain about their students’ passivity (很被动). This rebuke can imply various disparaged tendencies such as inattentiveness, indifference, irresponsibility, and nonchalance. To put this concisely, it is where students do only what they feel is obligatory, and they do it in a mechanical, half-hearted, and often incomplete manner. While this kind of behavior surely isn’t totally unique to Chinese students, the conditions in this region create some singular implications…
This student passivity can be situated in the context of an historical transition where education is coming under technological controls. Schools world-wide are undergoing a transition which is riddled with turbulence and mishaps. Where schools had previously operated according to regional cultural norms, they are now getting managed according to global systemic values of efficiency and performance. These global values can be incompatible with traditional assumptions and habits surrounding education. Students and staff alike are suddenly being evaluated according to heuristics that were developed for industrial machinery, and this situation tends to provoke mechanical passivity among everyone involved. This has been described as a general debacle surrounding the spread of cybernetic controls.
There exists a tenuous coupling between monetary values and student grades, which mirrors the relation between adults and children. Parents and educators are concerned with monetary values, but those speculative values get translated into student grades, and so financial anxieties get displaced onto anxieties about student performance. Students may take the burden of this anxiety about grades onto themselves, and succumb to the facticity that these are indexes of their own future lives as judged by their parents. This corresponds with what psychoanalysts call a castration anxiety.
The students’ grades are determined by standardized evaluations which require rote memorization, and little originality. They are rewarded for reproducing answers which are consistent with those they were given. In their minds, originality would imply frivolous distractions or errors. Under these circumstances, it is inevitable that students would learn passivity. They are repeating, parroting, transferring information from one place to another. The operations they perform are much like those of a computer.
So, in this scenario it is not reasonable to blame the students for their passivity, which is a natural response to the demand for extensive rote memorization. They are trained to recite answers with minimal variation, and this makes it necessary for them to adopt a passive attitude towards their learning. They are given an ideal of minimal difference between input and output. So they are being blamed for becoming the kind of students which the schools have made them into.
This circular problem arises directly from the global implementation of cybernetic controls. And this problem can be analyzed in the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, because it concerns an absence within technical performance calculations. To use an English idiom, we might say that the students are “absent minded“, because their minds are not involved in this institutional arrangement. Speaking in more philosophical terms, the problem concerns the interpretation of some missing student Geist.
Criticisms of the industrialization of education often appeal to familiar liberal doxas, such as the supposed value of critical thinking, or other humanistic concerns such as the importance of creative expression. But these well-trodden lines of critique encounter particular obstacles in a Chinese rhetorical context. These liberal arguments get associated with western individualism, which is contrasted with the collectivist spirit of the indigenous culture. Over the centuries, these debates have gone through cycles, and Chinese nativism frequently appears on the offensive, attempting to refute or even expel “inappropriate foreign ideas”. It is not uncommon for administrators to demand that teachers abstain from introducing “critical thinking”, and this collectivist-nativist rhetoric easily becomes nationalist, socialist, localist or familial. Liberal discourses are often perceived defensively as traumatic breaches in the fabric of traditional Chinese education.
So, regarding the criticism of cybernetic controls in education, the Chinese context implies some unique conditions. Whereas in “western” countries there is a familiar opposition between liberal and technocratic values, that liberal side of the argument is tenuous in the Chinese context, because regional traditions are strong enough to be asserted as a third position in this debate. This forces the argument to move in other directions, so that we are no long simply rehearsing the standard debates which have been repeated since the days of Romanticism.
Distinguishing the local and foreign is a sensitive issue in Chinese schools, and there is a continual need to rearticulate their relationship. To explore this crisis, it’s helpful to consider some concepts developed by philosophers, and here I am particularly interested in the terms neighbor, hospitality and exile. Especially relevant to this discussion is how the anxiety of the over-proximity of the other has been highlighted by Slavoj Zizek in many of his books and lectures.
To avoid getting dragged into a morass of convoluted terminology, I want to maintain a certain minimal degree of ideological positivity. The principle distinction I want to emphasize here is between anxious relations and pleasant relations. Relations are pleasant when foreigners are situated at a suitable distance, and this suitability depends on a fantasy-screen where the other is positioned for the activation of desire. The other only appears in certain aspects and at certain times which fit into the broader composition of affective life. The term “globalization” can refer to a disaster where foreigners appear at the wrong places and times, whether they are too close or too far, too late or too soon, whether they stay too long or not long enough. This is where foreigners are breaking through the fantasy screens. These traumatic relations arise due to technologies of transportation and communication, and the legal renovations associated with the liberalization of commerce, migration, tourism, and media.
Reveries of some supposed pre-technological days of tradition play an important role in the composition of fantasy screens. These nostalgic memories provide models for how foreigners are located at a comfortable distance. This sort of comfort is possible where customary fantasies are developed to situate them in pleasurable positions. Anxieties can be tamed by the belief that technology set populations into free circulation, so the others come crashing through the fantasy screen and arrive where they are not desired. Where the old etiquette guide had recommended tea-time on Sunday afternoon, now uninvited “guests” are poking their heads in the window in the wee hours.
This crisis of globalization has reached an acuteness in Chinese education, where the undecidability of foreign and native becomes nearly omnipresent, and yet the distinction remains an obsession. Terms which are used to identify one side can easily drift across the border. For example, nativist rhetoric often refers to Chinese culture (文化) or civilization (文明), though liberal critics have claimed that these concepts are translations from European languages. When Chineseness is represented within a matrix of modern identities, then it takes on the qualities of that system of representation, and so it becomes only a symbol of Chineseness expressed in non-Chinese terms. This point has been elucidated by Viren Murthy (2011) and others. The crisis of globalization reaches a zenith when the very terms which epitomize nativity are revealed to be contaminated with foreignness.
In their struggles to maintain these demarcations, both nativist and liberal discourses in China continue to deploy the enigmatic trope “Chinese Substance, Western Use”（中体西用）which appeared during the Qing dynasty. This ideological formula can excuse the use of imports – often in a kind of face-saving measure – where the imports are said to be deployed in the service of a deeper Chinese native substance. The instability of this conceptual pair has been analyzed extensively, such as the Habermasian study by Tong Shijun (2000). I want to consider how the convolution of this discourse reaches an equivocity which corresponds with what William Egginton (2009) has called neobaroque discourse.
The pair of terms substance-use comes from distant Chinese antiquity, where its interpretation was already debated. But this coding gets especially convoluted because these terms get confused with the often contested European terms means-ends, and then further confused as the Marxian terms use-exchange are drawn into the discussion. These concepts are substituted and refolded, so that what transpires is less like any identifiable ideology, and rather more like a baroque aesthetic. In a Lacanian interpretation, the ‘Chinese substance’ can operate as a nuomenal Thing, and this could be considered an ethno-capitalist ideology. But there is enigmatic ambivalence where a supposed ethnic nationalism is generated as a lure that captures populations into the machinations of global finance.
Commercialization is doubtlessly at the center of this crises in educational ideology, and the marketplace itself can provide valuable heuristic resources. From the realm of business enterprise has been gleaned the expression “exports turn into imports” (出口转内销), and this paints a circular model of product designs exiting the country, and then later returning from abroad in altered form. This expression can be helpful to consider in the context of education, so that we are not trying to distinguish foreign from native, but to gauge the timing and vectors of circulation. Historical occurrences can serve as time markers in studying these ideological patterns. For example, when John Dewey lectured around China in 1919-22, he claimed that the ancient ideas he was expounding had already passed through the region many centuries before.
Nationalistic reactions attempt to distinguish the native and the foreign, though of course these distinctions prove difficult to maintain. Where foreign contamination is revealed in ever more strains of tradition, this can lead to a paranoid will-to-expulsion. Some prominent educators have recently lamented the demise of Song-Ming Confucianism, which was the was basis of dynastic education for the last thousand years (Hsu and Hwang 2015). The contemporary Confucianist Jiangqing (not to be confused with Mao’s wife!) claims that the entire Song-Ming tradition cannot be restored because it has been contaminated with western individualism. The individualism here concerns especially how Mencius was interpreted phenomenologically by Republic-era Confucianists, where the substance of his teaching was assimilated to intuitionist strains of German idealism. If the Song-Ming tradition has indeed been abolished, then there would seem to be much uncertainty regarding what sort of traditional education might be restored.
If Mencius is indeed dead, then the obvious Confucian alternative would be the doctrines of his adversary Xunzi and the associated legalism. Nationalist-traditionalists today do show inclinations towards legalism, and this seems to be broadly in accordance with the order of global technology. Contemporary educational practices in China have been interpreted as operating according to techno-legalist ideology, though I have never seen this connection spelled out in detail (Hsu and Hwang 2015). This brings us back to the passivity of students, which might be encouraged by this approach that emphasizes calculable assessments.
In this environment, it is essential that education theory can dissimulate from liberal progressive clichés which trigger defensive reactions against foreign intrusion. So dispensing with activist models of liberal-romantic education, would seem to require models of a more passive student body. So I would like to take up the problem of ‘passivity’, not as an obstacle to be overcome, but rather as an ontological dimension where learning may take place.
Attributing methodological primacy to passivity can forge an alliance between univocal European ontologies and the primordial passivity assumed in traditional Chinese teachings of Daoism and Buddhism. This is the ‘aesthetic apriori’ introduced at the beginning of Kant’s first critique, which was reconceived by Henri Bergson who adopted a Humean conception of habit.
This would be a radical passivity analogous to what physicists call inertia or momentum, and this corresponds with what psychology would call habit. This movement of bodies and mental activity is unreflexive, meaning there is no self-consciousness, and this movement might be further qualified as spontaneous, intuitive, somnambulant or automatic. There is no agency or individual subject which assumes any self-reference, but just a repetition of habitual processes which occur at the bodily level.
Psychologists tend to analyze this habitual dimension into sensory channels, or the distinction between memory and perception. But there is reason for caution towards legacy terms that have been deployed in romantic educational theories. Legacy pedagogies themselves become ingrained into habit, and adopting these terms can get us lost in the problem we are attempting to study. Especially pernicious is the danger of sliding into the clichés of liberal individualism which set off the exclusionary mechanisms of the nativist Chinese censors. Instead of romantic psychology, the following shall attempt to connect student passivity with a dimension of transcendental geohistory.
The legacy of the Enlightenment has left the assumption that passive learners should be awakened. This legacy is integrally connected with the European conception of history, which is configured around awakening-events such as resurrections, renaissances, restorations, and revolutions. This pattern of European history can be interpreted as a fantasy screen which the mind creates to render reality pleasurable. As an alternative to this liberal model, Walter Benjamin conceives of history as an allegorical movement that turns around an encounter between tyrant and martyr. In what follows, I shall attempt to translate this allegory geographically. Through restaging these phantasmatic events on the level of geohistorical fantasy, it is possible to open new dimensions for education.
Liberal-romantic criticism of the “teacher-centered classroom” has proliferated, and has led to an ideal of the student as an “autonomous learner” who actively manages their study. This raises a problem of motivation, since one must explain the cause which makes the student become autonomous. There is a quest for an activating factor, and the teacher is customarily identified as the principle motivating agent. The teacher’s job then is to inspire the student to become autonomous, active learners. This requires that the teacher would be a charismatic individual, so that their enthusiasm provides a burst of energy that goes into the students to make them autonomous.
This ideology of charisma should be called into question, and criticized for its archaism. There is much passivity in how these ideas are so readily accepted and taken for granted. It becomes essential to recognize that uncritical passivity is not simply an affliction of students, but rather is something omnipresent throughout educational institutions. The charismatic teacher is an ancient figure – such as Socrates or Confucius – that can silently slip into the discourse so that no one even notices he’s there. This arcane phallic figure can easily undermine rationality in education. So, there is a problem of reconceptualizing student motivation without insinuating the arcane notion of the teacher’s charisma.
Some pedagogical literature has introduced the idea of ‘motivational currents’ (i.e. Christine Muir), which are energy systems that spread and mobilize entire classes. The class group is of unique importance in Chinese schools, where classmates form closer relationships than in other regions. This term ‘motivation’ might imply the liberal bias which favors activity over passivity, and as an alternative we might consider ‘pacification currents’, which would be like energetic currents that work like pacifiers that sooth infants. The idea of pacification is practical because it accords more closely with managerial strategies.
Transcendental geohistory concerns apriori existential orientations, which are unconscious dispositions of consciousness. Intensive forces are released and bound on that dimension. This way the motivation of students can be conceptualized as a subliminal procedure which operates at the thresholds of consciousness. Students are customarily motivated in their study by the prospect of going abroad, and/or helping to develop their country , and this dual motivation operates on the dimension of transcendental geohistory. Studying abroad and national development are motivational objectives which reflect the poles of commodity fetishism and nationalism respectively. The seduction with foreignness is the inverse of xenophobic nationalism. The problem for a neobaroque education is to help the students reorient themselves in a transcendental geohistory.
Passive motivation can be generated through exercises which proceed like the guided fieldtrips, but are in fact stationary voyages. This kind of educational practice shares some qualities with the shamanic journey, and especially with how shamanism meshed with the passion play in the baroque sacraments of Latin American religion. This opens risky exposure to presubjective immanence. The shaman and priest can be troubling figures, and their danger (or absurdity) relates to how they are implicated with the charisma of traditional authority. This danger can be mitigated through the desublimation of charisma. Motivation can be understood as a more quotidian matter of charging students’ batteries (充电), so that they are brought under the attraction of the pleasure of learning. This battery-charging occurs through the exposure to immanence, where the division of the faculties is loosened into free play. The love of learning is realized in the fantastic possibility that the faculties can be redistributed. In liberal-romantic ideology, this would be called ‘imagination’, but it is preferable to circumvent that conceptual matrix which is flawed due to its emphasis on charisma, as well as its optical bias.
When transcendental geohistory opens as an aesthetic dimension, then the libidinal energy invested in both commodities and nations leaks out from these two poles and is liberated for more contingent patterns. Energy that was trapped in these archaic motivations of globalism and nationalism is released and becomes available for experiments in recreation. This absolving of the customary polarity occurs at a limit of passivity where it translates the allegorical encounter of the tyrant and martyr, which is revealed as a romantic delusion. European history loses its power of transcendence. When Chinese officials ban the teaching of Christianity that may be (unwittingly?) accelerating the destruction of this neocolonial metaphysical artifice.
Slavoj Zizek has dismissed the Marxist term ‘Asiatic despotism’ as unscientific, but he has (to my knowledge) not discussed how this term might work at the level of fantasy. Perhaps he has already considered this direction, but chosen not to lift the veil on the abyss of transcendental geohistory. Going in this direction of fantasy interpretation, the term “Asia” can refer to the baroque staging of history described by Benjamin. This term does not derive from geographical science since it does not designate a continent in a technical sense, which is a body of land surrounded by water. Rather, this is a biblical term which comes from the Book of Revelations ascribed to a John of Patmos. That book was addressed to the “Asian churches” located in present-day Turkey and Syria. Where that John was situated on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, to his west were the tyrants in Rome, whereas the prospective martyrs to whom he was writing were to his east in “Asia”. This way the east-west relation is coupled with the baroque dramaturgical tyrant-martyr relation, though the polarity of this coupling is reversible.
This geodrama should be related to the splitting fantasies described in the psychoanalysis of Melanie Klein. When Marx described “Asiatic despotism”, he was projecting the trait of tyranny eastwards, and such projection is likely involved in any liberal criticisms of China. The distinction between the dramaturgical and the pathological here becomes quite hypothetical. The arts have always been a means for transforming pathological symptoms. This geohistorical fantasy is related to the motivation of movements such as crusades and missionary ventures, and related patterns of seduction are implicit within commodity circulation. This concerns the veiling and unveiling of the orient.
When Chinese leaders ban liberal humanism from schools they are acting out the tyrant-role in baroque theater. There is perverse pleasure in making these prohibitions, as it stokes a dramatic fantasy, which can ironically drive up the stock of bourgeois idealism. Chinese authorities assume tyrant roles in this theater wherever they oppose foreign liberal ideas, such as freedom of expression or religion, or human rights. For instance, a communist party leader recently claimed that constitutionalism was a European idea which is not suitable for China. In order for students to be truly liberated, it is essential that the superficiality of this entire debate get exposed.
Baroque dramaturgies swept through east Asia in the 19th century, while it’s ancestors had been through much earlier. This fantasy seems to have spread like a contagion which translated older traditions into the spiritual equivocities of liberalism. These fantasies involve distinctive patterns of ethnic splitting, which are always undergoing new permutations. The last imperial dynasty were identified as Manchurians who emerged from a plethora of forgotten kingdoms in the north east. The modern Chinese state is founded on a phantasmagorical paegentry of Han martyrs opposing those “foreign tyrants”, but knowledge of those rather obscure oppressors does not circulate widely today. This is an obscure link between Chinese nationalism and liberal modernity. This ethnic paegent tends to blur the Manchurians with the hated Japanese (I.e. Manchukuo), who are in turn perceived as lackeys of European imperialists.
Debates over education usually assume a constrained historiography where aesthetics is associated with the romantic individuality that has accompanied the recent phases of capitalism. This way the modernist avantgardes get conflated with the individualism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This historiography captures us into the cliches of vulgar liberalism. The way out of this impasse is to invoke an aesthetics that originates in the baroque, and to reinterpret modernism on that basis. This allows for a planetary perspective, which can avoid the cliches of individualism along with the painful splitting of east and west. Xenophobic trauma can be avoided by adjusting the staging of fantasy, and by moving ideology into the dimension of the aesthetic apriori.
Now let me try to outline the broader argument here. Student motivation originates in fantasies of commodity circulation, and the baroque theater of tyrants and martyrs provides the hidden script for that transcendental field. It would seem that the tyrants are denying the students access to the commodities they desire. The motivational drive would correspond with the translation of allegory, which is the development of this fantasy scenario. Commodity circulation is the practico-inert ground in this model, the ultimate base-line reality, and the students must develop fantasies which accommodate them to that circulation. Commodity circulation is the reality they can access beyond the artifice of grades, the more material values beyond their domestic oedipal squabbles. And when fantasies become sufficiently powerful in their composition then they can influence commodity circulation.
Commodities here are not just objects, but more importantly they include the bodies of the students and educators themselves. Everyone is passively trafficked as commodities, and we all struggle to develop fantasies which can make this experience pleasurable. Our bodies and minds are implicated in the planning of interregional development. We are appropriated and disposed as resources of industrial design. We are subjected to this transcendental prostitution, and we hide the shame of our apriori subjugation with splitting defenses. Splitting defenses are attempts to brace ourselves against the forces of circulation, to anchor ourselves in the infantile idealism of the nipple. The Kleinian strategy for education is one of containment, or the resistance against splitting defenses. This begins with a primary submission to the dynamic forces to which we are passively subjugated. This is an existential authenticity towards our positions in the geohistorical circulation of commodities.
Kleinian education exposes us to the chaos that exists before we are subjects, and which is responsible for making us into the subjects which we are. Liberal and radical education theories are zealous to assert individual agency, and so they avoid this primary submission to the dynamic conditions of infancy. The political activism of liberal-romantic educators can be inauthentic because it assumes responsibility and independence where there may be none. It asserts modes of supposed activity and originality which are conformist and passive if considered from broader perspectives.
It is often mentioned how subjugation in economic liberalism involves the pressure to feign autonomy where necessary. When Chinese teachers demand activeness from their students, these demands can usually be satisfied with superficial appearances of originality. The students are just required to make some vital sign. That indication of active engagement is doubtlessly a form of surrender, but there is a question here about the depth of interpolation. Students can demonstrate activity in a way that satisfies their teachers, and yet is noticeably inauthentic, so their submission to authority is only partial.
The problem of the authenticity of surrender was at the center of the film Silence (2016) directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is based on a Japanese novel, and is set in the 1630’s following the expulsion of the Jesuits from Nagasaki. Throughout the film there are scenes of Japanese Christians being executed by authorities. The drama turns on the intrigue of whether characters have authentically renounced their faith, or whether they are still secretly Christian. The final scene shows an apostate Portuguese priest undergoing a Buddhist cremation ceremony, and as the camera zooms into the crevice of his closed hands we see a tiny crucifix hidden away.
Scorsese dedicated this film to the “Christians of Japan”, and that final crucifix can obviously be interpreted as a symbol of the priest’s unbreakable fidelity to his Christian faith. But through some hermeneutic shifts that little object could also be given alternate interpretations. In that first, most obvious interpretation, it would signify how the ex-priest had secretly maintained his covenant with God, despite his outward renunciation of Christianity. But the crucifix could also represent some more abstract fidelity to the passive dimension of infancy – the continuity of his identity going back to his baptism – and this could be considered some unbreakable habitus, and not a religious identity. This way the symbol might not even imply any ethnic connotation. But finally, the crucifix can also represent the passive subjugation of the movie viewers before the spectacle of commodity circulation.
Missionaries in east Asia often complain that their converts are insincere. Chinese are eager to convert to Christianity simply because they associate it with a better quality of life. They are often not interested in the doctrine of the resurrection, or the apostolic life, but just want to feel they accepted when they go shopping at Walmart. Christianity helps them construct a fantasy so they can fit into commodity circuits more comfortably. But then the question arises as to whether the missionaries themselves might not be naively entertaining some related fantasies.
Finally, let me just try to summarize what this all means. A baroque education theory adopts this problem of the construction of fantasy screens that render commodity circulation, which is conceived as an apriori subjugation. This way education becomes a way of helping students access the dynamism which makes them circulate as commodities, so they can shift their orientation within that dynamism. This access is sustained through strategies of containment which situate the class within geohistorical limits. The possibility of education then would be conditional on a process of sublimation where the chaos of infancy is translated into dynamics of commodity circulation.
Spirit possession is when someone losses control of themselves, and their organs and even their thoughts come under the direction of external forces. Anthropologists reserve this term for special cases where the phenomenon is recognized, and wouldn’t themselves insinuate that someone was possessed were it not already acknowledged by others. But this post shall turn in the opposite direction, away from this anthropological doxa, and generalize possession into an everyday phenomenon that typically goes unacknowledged. This break with anthropology becomes possible by considering something like a Freudian super-ego or a Heideggerian Das Man as a medium through which populations are possessed by social spirits. This sort of everyday possession is highlighted by Lacan when he describes how one is always subjugated through the Other.
Assuming the rarity of possession preserves dignity, whereas turning this around, and treating possession as something common, might provoke anxiety. To realize that possession is normal might cause shame and pathos. For someone invested in their self-importance, and who esteems the gravitas of responsibility, this possibility that one has never been in control can provoke various troubling affects such as horror, vertigo and nausea. One scrambles to cover the shame of possession, the shame of lacking self-control. This encounter with these limits to the ascription of selfhood is what I refer to as the trauma of possession.
So, there is a distinction where possession can be considered either common or rare, and this switch can trigger various affects. To this first code we can add a second distinction, which concerns the value ascribed to possession. There is a common opinion that spirit possession is something most people would rather avoid. There is a Cartesian and Kantian preference for self-possession, and that legacy is at the heart of the Enlightenment and the ethics of responsibility. But it is easy to find ambivalences in this legacy where this evaluation could be reversed. It is often remarked that Enlightenment is riddled with contradictions. The attempt to maintain upright adulthood leaves residues of infantile sexuality which inevitably return. The issue of possession in modernity is exemplary in how it demonstrates the contradictions of Enlightenment, where the exclusion of possessive spirits by science somehow leads to their reinvocations. The return of spirit possession features heavily in romanticism, where the poets invoke their ancient muses, and attempt to produce works of ‘genius’. There is the martyrologic spiritualization of the dead which mobilizes national communities. And there are broader currents of endarkenment spiritualism surrounding commodity fetishism and celebrity cults where populations are commonly enthralled by superego forces. This also relates to the issue of charismatic leadership. These currents of endarkenment are popular reactions to the rationalism which is established as an institutional norm.
Modernization involves the awakening of a materialist consciousness which breaks the spell of the Other, and this disenchantment provokes spiritualist reactions. The naïve subject of science is derided as a culprit for the destruction of the old communities. He appears cursed by detachment, disaffection, and speaks words that lack that authentic Klang of old times. In his pursuit of objective knowledge, the man of science is said to lose access to the myths which are the blood of community. The counter-forces of endarkenment seek the return of the Other, and to swoon back under the ancient spell of possession.
In its naïve variants, the Enlightenment is a struggle for the autonomy or self-possession of the individual through the “overcoming of self-imposed maturity”. But this insistence on the independence of reason has strategic disadvantages. The error of the Enlightenment was to treat alterity as its enemy, which it did by opposing the uncertainties of the past to the certainties of the present. It could be possible to rectify this error by reconceiving possession, and thereby reconfiguring this conflict at the heart of modernization.
The mistake of the Enlightenment was to champion self-possession against other-possession. This was a mistake, because we have learned that power is ultimately on the side of the Other. One can be powerful only insofar as the Other possesses them. So, to rectify this situation, it is necessary to redraw the conflict as a duel between alternate other-possessions. The self’s role gets diminished to an object which various spiritual forces are struggling to take possession of. Freedom or autonomy remains possible insofar as these forces remain separated, and none achieves a complete victory.
Let’s consider a duel between two personifications of virtue, which we shall name Wisdom and the Commodity. This creates a contrast where wisdom is ancient and good, and the Commodity is modern and evil. These spiritual automata struggle for possession of populations. Sometimes these two adversaries mimic each other and become indistinguishable.
The Commodity is a hedonistic virtue that features as a spirit of technological capitalism. This is quite different than considering the commodity merely as a value, as it concerns the vicarious occasioning of the sensus communus. The spirituality of economic relations does not concern any actual commodities, but rather the mobilization of myriad participants. This talk of participation implies that commodity is a neo-platonic spirituality. In philosophy, this is the pragmatics of the Last Man in his quest for comfortable and luxurious normalcy. This living-praxis is constituted ethnically and immunologically, and its dominant logic is that of the phallic exception.
Wisdom, on the other hand, is a Hellenistic goddess like Sophia or Athena. Hers is the spirit of paradoxical cosmologies and mathematical infinities. What possesses here is the maternal relation with the cosmic non-all, the univocal sense of material contingency. The maternal relation is co-existence without conceptual segregations, which is exposure and female jouissance. Sapient possession is the contemplation of our mutual contamination. And like Zarathustra, she struggles to maintain good sense through an intuitive translation of ancient precepts.
These two personas – Commodity and Wisdom – are coiled together in conflicted communication. They are sources of comfort, but this comfort turns to trauma when their alterity is revealed. The way that commodities are alienating is often described, how one’s tastes are ascribed through market conditions, through violent restrictions on the permissibility of enjoyment. This traumatic realization that my desire is not my own, this loss of self-possession, leads one to seek the recovery of self-possession elsewhere. Hence the turn to ancient wisdom, the comforting sound of a reliable voice that provides guidance.
But then there is the subsequent trauma that this wisdom also isn’t one’s own, but rather an ancient machine of infinite contemplation that grinds on through oblivion. It is always the wisdom of an unknown other, which is revealed as so many clichés designed to facilitate the fantasy of self-possession. The promise of self-possession is the lure which captures populations into other-possession.
Selfhood becomes a game of tennis where one possession is adopted as a self-identity in opposition to the other spirit. The self identifies as ancient wisdom in opposing the commodity, and then it identifies with the commodity in opposing ancient wisdom. This circuit of dispossessions relates to Bataille’s point that we are not ourselves while performing the sexual act. Seduction is only ever the seduction of others. We are inevitably dispossessed of what is most essential for our selfhood. The core of the self is ultimately unrepresented, and this drives the need for a series of makeshift representations which can only be sustained temporarily.
It is significant that the term ‘possession’ arrives through anthropology, and this indicates how ethnicity is the medium of possession. This alternation between identification with different spirits should be circumscribed within the ethnic field. Qualifying this trauma of possession as ‘ethnic’, restricts it within a zone which is pre-symbolically efficacious for interpolations. We are possessed by imaginary others fabulated in the ethnic field. This is not about encounters between cultures, but rather breaches in the fabric of ethnic delusion – the traumatic disintegration of the ethnicity.
The alternation of spirit possessors composes a kind of ethnic mirror. One’s own group is ascribed some distinguishing virtue-traits, while the other group is ascribed the other traits. If the other group is modernized, then my group is wise, and vice versa. There is a sort of totemic contest between competing virtues, where the symbolic permutations multiply quickly through disagreements about the authenticity of a possession.
Moral-ethical representations are fantasy screens that situate populations in the comfort of their ethnic self-possession. This is the fantasy of their providence, independence, or responsibility. It is the sense that they are living according to their tastes, and according to the dictates of some ancient wisdom. It is the faith that they are reproducing themselves as the same. The ethnic composure of perception and memory is maintained so long as the alien indifference of the possessing spiritualities remains concealed. The screen of morality must conceal the way that one’s offspring are being produced for the purposes of an unknown providence. This is the faith that one’s spirituality is a property of one’s own people. This faith is the fantasy-screen against the traumatic realization that one’s spirituality is a ruse orchestrated through some unknown other.
The trauma of possession is a sublime event where we are exposed in the opening of ontology through the breakdown of ethnic fantasy. We are exposed to the infinite beyond of the spirits that have possessed us all along. This opening is reflected in the baroque aesthetics that arose in the early modern period, and that rupture coincides with the original experience of globalization. Baroque aesthetics discloses the spiritual mechanisms through which ethnicity is produced. The visual field becomes like a set of Russian dolls, where populations are captured inside under the maximum spell of their ethnicity (creed, tribe, clan, class, race, nationality etc.). Through the technique of trompe l’oeil, the image refers out to exterior zones which are progressively darker. Visibility is the principle of interiority, and it decreases as we depart from the simulation. This escaping-pressure is what Lacan referred to as the gaze, which deteriorates the composition of vision through the imperceptible forces of the infinite.
There are questions about where this dark gaze – this opening to the outside – might be situated within the visual field. The inside of the simulation is maintained through a separation of spirits, it is a space-time that opens through their contrast, and the possibility of their dialogue, or rhythmic exchange. The outside opens at the point where the contrast between the spirits is lost, where the spirits are united, such as where ancient wisdom is embodied in the commodity. The simulation is disturbed, blackened, erased, by a unified wisdom-commodity, this dark gaze which is the intrusion of the outside on the optical field.
This dark gaze is not visible within the field of pictorial figuration, but it may be posited as a vanishing mediator or regulative anchor-point of perspectival. Among the conspicuous figures in this regard is Liberty Leading the People, where the body of the ancient wisdom goddess gets coupled together with the desire of commodities. She can represent a dangerous invisible lure for the gaze, a spirituality of higher men who seek the outside.
Commodity fetishism implies some often-noted reversals. A consumer may possess a commodity, while they are also themselves (often witlessly) possessed by a commodity circuit. This possession confers them with a certain enjoyment. We might say that they possess the commodity, while they are possessed by the enjoyment.
The mystery of the gaze implies a related reversal. The higher men – those who venture outside the commodity trap – are seduced into the gaze and suffer the destruction of the optical field. This suffering corresponds with Hegel’s spurious infinity, where the eye gets sucked out into a cosmic void in an obsessional orgy. The higher men have mistakenly allowed the optical channel to get sucked into the vacuum of the void. They succumb to a stigmatic eye of an impossible divine optics.
To step beyond this higher man condition, it is necessary to reverse perspectives, so that oneself becomes rather an object of this infinite gaze. This reversal is like the expulsive projections recommended by Wilfred Bion. The gaze is an infinity that the self cannot bear, and so it must be projected as the gaze of an Other. One remains within the field of the gaze, but without appropriating the gaze to one’s own optical channel. In Kleinian terms, the gaze is not incorporated, though it might be somewhat introjected or at least registered. The point here is to avoid a conflation of gaze and vision, to keep the gaze excluded from the field of visibility.
This alienation of the gaze is less like occult operations such as invocation or exorcism, and more akin to orthodox religious practices of veneration. The Other serves as a receptacle for what the self cannot bear, and the Gaze is a case of an unbearable objects which should be ascribed to the Other. These are properly alien objects whose spurious infinity would ravage the constitution of selfhood.
Where the Other provides an artificial vessel for the projection of spurious infinity, the Commodity and Wisdom are personas that represent the dangerous Other in the symbolic field. One’s relation with these spirits is critically ambivalent, in that the polarity of identification undergoes periodic alternations. The spurious infinity gazes and speaks differently through these alternate personas.
Our freedom depends on divisions. The spurious infinity must be expelled from our body and appropriated to an alien Other. And that Other must be divided against itself into these alternate personas. This performance is a play of turncoats who shift their alliances back and forth between the two. If these separations between self, persona and Other are lost, the spurious infinity enters our body where it terrorizes us as the direct authority of a superego.
The transactions of capitalism continue beyond the limits of knowledge into the uncertainty of the future and the opacity of distance. Our exposure to opaque markets – where our fate is subjected to the whims of unknown transactions – increases our essentially unknowable to ourselves. This alienation is a modal augmentation of what Lacan called extimacy, or what Heidegger called ecstasis.
As cognition struggles to metabolize its own opacity in knowledge, this uncertain about one’s present and future market position undergoes a doubling or splitting between a realist rationality and an anti-realist irrationality. This reflects what Frued discovered about the tension between life-preservation and drive satisfaction. This is a tension between logical speculations on uncertain actualities and the material pressures of our bodies that indulge in the fancies of the virtual. These two dimensions dovetail and intersect at many points, where they can be anchored together. Rationality pursues probabilistic speculations that explore contingencies for what transactions might transpire, while non-rationality is liberated from actuality so that it can respond virtually to the forces of corporeal contingency. This split has homologies in various strains of early modern thinking, but the idea here at supposingnone is to unhinge the movement so that it is not indexed to any schools of philosophy.
Descartes considered that he might be under the spell of a genie, and for us today this danger concerns the vulnerability of our bodies to the hypnotic traps of the commodity spectacle. Our bodies are susceptible to this capture due to our needs for instinct satisfaction. Capitalism arranges pedagogical morality dramas, where subjects are rewarded for their ‘virtues’. These programs are supported by the error of early modern philosophy, where it assumes the symbolic representation of virtue making it available as a stereotype-lure in the construction of elaborate traps. Institutional education is where the priests of industry go fishing, promising ideal luxury-life to the virtuous. To avoid these traps, it is necessary to liberate the idea virtue, to remove it from the domain of actual symbolic identification, and into the nameless contingencies of the bodily drives. For this reason, the idea of virtue should be feminized, so that the fountain of infant sexuality can partake of the jouissance of the Other.
Theology plays an essential role in this endeavor, where the place evacuated by the old paternalistic God can be usurped as an address for feminine jouissance. The old God was situated as a crack in the symbolic, beyond the edge where representation becomes impossible. That site of impossibility provides the new home for the practical nonreason of the virtual. Only theology can enable an alterity of sufficient magnitude to accommodate a rapport between feminine jouissance and the domain of symbolic representation. Without this distancing of a supreme alterity, the material pressure of the drives becomes overwhelming. One is not capable of identifying with their own drives, and so the drives must be sublimated, which means our relation to the drives must become sublime.
There is always a great danger that the drives might be channeled into the faculties of reason. This leads obsessional epistemophilia, which is an insomnia afflicting many sincere intellectuals. Sublimating the drives into the unknown beyond, the Other relieves this pressure from the intellectual faculties, and liberates the passions into a field of alterity. But alterity can never be absolute, and it is only effective if it is circumscribed symbolically, hence the need for theology.
Praise her Lordship for saving knowledge from the drives! Let her grace us with finitude! This moves us into a neolacanian and sufiish libertarianism, where the reservation of our finitude becomes a condition for the Her infinite glory. A perverse gesture where the genie is elected in order to releive us of the sublime drives.
The direction of Chinese script gradually Latinized, until now it marches rightwards to Rome. Though when given the chance, it still reverts to the old ways, descending vertically on wall-scrolls, and sneaking leftwards over tea houses and temples. In these logistical contests, motorists may ignore the lights when enough vehicles are banded in their campaign. Even lone drivers break across oncoming traffic given reliable support. And from his lowly scooter-view, the everyman venerates Teutonic archons such as the Mercedes and the Porsche. This is why literary vanguards are like driving schools for democratic spirits conditioned by technological momentum.
Capital sucks humanity into the void left by the flight of the gods, and the ensuing dissatisfaction compels the endless pursuit of fashion. This eternal quest for models is the circular Hadean life of Tantalus and Sisyphus.
Market values are representations of low-entropy, or proximity to the origin-point of an economic relationship. Economies arise in response to environmental forces, and are most alive at the time of their emergence. A structure originates instinctively from certain conditions, and becomes less effective over time as the conditions change. This reinterprets the hype about “emerging economies” in a way that would appeal to Nietzsche, who revered the ecstasy of the origin.
Luxury is an ideal of instinct satisfaction, which is advertised as a minimum of anxiety. This is a life where instincts are supposedly satisfied according to the norms of “the business and leisure community”. The community of the Last Men. This ideology associates low anxiety with higher vitality, as if a person who feels less anxiety is more alive. But this relationship can be reversed, so that instinct satisfaction or minimal-anxiety would correspond with death. Perhaps the new born child is the most anxious being alive, and the process of aging is a departure from the trauma of birth. Hence the anxiety cult of the First Men.
Capitalism is blind to an essential aspect of its own operations, and this blindness is an Achilles heel where the system is vulnerable to revolutionary transformation. It fails to adequately register its own objective, namely the accumulation of money, which becomes a shameful secret. The capitalist wants to treat money as a neutral accounting technique, but this rationalism obscures some private and affected relations with accumulation. The dimension of the monetary sublime is akin to a Lacanian extimacy or a Heideggerian ecstasis. It is a sacred object for which the capitalist is prepared to sacrifice anything and everything, including his own life.
Over the last few centuries, economists have neutralized the concept of money, making it an abstraction without material qualities. By rejecting gold bullionism, and then paper currency, they have purified finance of any material body. This purification is associated with the rationalization of economics into a numerical discipline. Where the old mercantilists believed in the magic of gold, modern economists consider money as just a technique of accounting. But this supposed blankness covers over lingering aesthetic qualities. These qualities could be expressed through a clinical phenomenology of perversion and fetishism. This would include Scrooge, but also more bizarre pleasures. The perverse capitalist experiences pleasures surrounding the process of accumulation, and engages in a libertinage where everything becomes an instrument of that pleasure. And of course, this pleasure is closely connected with the perception of the female body, which enters an allegorical play with money.
This subject which disposes everything for the sake of a sublime object is a variation on religious asceticism. The process of accumulation has replaced the God for the sake of which everything else can be sacrificed. This proximity of religion and economics is often associated with the theories of Max Weber, but that reference is hackneyed. The capitalist is a dramatis personae, and his perversion is disclosed within nuanced circumstances, and these days Calvinism is only one among several interesting guises. We are interested in more complex and variable figures that emerge from the early modern period, and with conflicted mythical qualities which might be Protean, Promethean, Narcissistic or Dedalian.
Supplementing economics with an aesthetic dimension transgresses the prevailing doxas, and it is critical that we can avoid the logic of exception. This is a lesson we take from Lacan. Male sexuality is oriented around an optics of the female body which is certainly one of the avatars of money. The man is fragmented by how his pleasure is linked to an alternative castrated/non-castrated. To be castrated in this sense is to submit oneself beneath the exalted object, whereas to be non-castrated is to be absorbed into the ecstasy of the object. The good capitalist is one who self-castrates, subjecting themselves before the objective ideal.
There is a secrecy, or iconoclasm, or unavowability among the fraternity of capitalists, where they do not speak of the perversity of money. This is how they keep a proper distance from it, which is part of their gentlemanly etiquette. So if a theater were to stage the secret perversion of money, then the danger arises that this performance would be coded as uncastrated, since it breaks an unsaid injunction to maintain the withdrawal of the sublime object. This sort of desecration can easily draw retribution, as the stage is contaminated with the accursed share.
So, this drama has to avoid the optical traps of male sexuality which coincide with the logic of exception, and the exaltation and denigration of the part-object. The sexual vision of female part-objects is implicated with this logic. At this point we refer to Lacan’s most daring wager, that there is another kind of enjoyment, which he calls the enjoyment of the Other, or feminine jouissance. This other logic concerns the totalities that hysterics never abandon, such as whole bodies in the whole world. Where male jouissance concerns the exceptionality of the signifier, this other dimension concerns the fluid material of an asignifying language, such as text or the letter.
The sublime object of capitalism is concealed as a mystery, and so it could be either a male part-object or a mysterious female totality. This problem drives a vast dramaturgical system, which is a contest between these two possibilities whose aspects are muddled together. The mystery concerns what the capitalist secretly venerates. He secretly empties himself for the sake of some objective process, and the mystery concerns the nature or providence of this process. When Abraham falls on his face and utters “Before you I am ashes!”, is he speaking to his investors, or to some female deity?
In his book What Money Wants, Noam Ouran uses the conspicuous expression “veil of neutrality”. Perhaps this term arrives from some antique mystical literature, but the immediate source appears to lie within the much-despised field of neoclassical economics. Neutrality is a flash-point which is implicated with various contested issues surrounding economics, such as objectivity, science, universality, and transparency. When Marshall McLuhan drew attention to the unacknowledged qualities of media, we might say that he was lifting a veil of neutrality. The appearance of neutrality is a spell by which capitalism captures populations into the domain of its hegemony. Where the contingencies of liberal capitalist media are cloaked in neutrality, a neo-Brechtian drama would aim to dispel this illusion and to render hidden contingencies visible.
A typical dramatic scenario occurs where the capitalist – and not just him of course, but also anyone complicit with his agenda – keeps his program cloaked in a veil of neutrality. The operation usually involves the (however indirect) trafficking of women and children done with the appearance of normality, rationality, and even necessity. This operation depends on a host of contingencies – the ways that things are selected, arranged and managed. This includes all the functional differentiations whereby roles are assumed for different groups, such as races, professions, or genders. Such contingency is required for the capitalist operation to continue, and yet it must be screened out, or at least go unacknowledged, unquestioned. For the operation to continue, it is essential that contingency must appear as normality. If contingency is exposed for itself, then it is disavowed by the logic of exception. Treating contingency as exception contaminates it with the accursed share. This is how phallic sexuality maintains the appearance of normality.
A network of hidden contingencies surrounds the capitalist’s perversion, and the dramatic problem is to bring these into the field of perception. Exposing these contingencies can break the spell of phallic optics along with the related fraternal codes of exceptionality and the accursed share. The contingent conditions of male jouissance can be asserted like a hammer that breaks through the veil of neutrality. This would not abolish the capitalist, but rather makes him into a hysteric subjugated by the jouissance of a mysterious female deity, bringing him under the spell of another providence. The decisive issue concerns what causes the capitalist’s enjoyment. This is not a struggle to abolish capitalism, but to alter the causation of its desire.
Maurice Blanchot considered ‘literature’ as generic writing, meaning that it’s uncontained within genres. Any writing might be literature, so long as reading becomes an unanchored, drifting experience of the sui generis where the faculties of sense are abandoned to their free play. This is an experience where writing and reading converge and lose their distinction in the process of composition. This can mirror what anthropologists called the sacred. Where transcendent forms are normally imposed on the world from beyond, in literature those forms are exposed immanently in their contingent becoming. This is where the symbolic ordering of the world becomes vulnerable to altercation.
This vulnerability could never be popular, and literature always remains an exclusive experience appreciated by only a few. There is a question of why anyone would seek this experience of vulnerability, though this is not such a difficult question to answer. The appeal concerns the self-creation of the world, where there is joy in experiencing the emergence of an epoch. This also implies an ethical sense of responsibility, where the reader/writer of literature becomes a custodian for a process that we could call sublimation. But what do we mean by sublimation?
The long history of this term ‘sublimation’ leaves it with a multiplicity of senses. When considered as an aesthetic process, the term has polysemy due to its equivocal position between dialectics, psychoanalysis, chemistry, alchemy and rhetoric. This uncertainty of what we mean by ‘sublimation’ de-operatizes the concept into a suspended cloud of multivalent potentials. This concept is essentially bifurcated.
During the previous century, there were debates over the high-culture which would be more sublimated versus the low-culture which would be less sublimated. These debates often naïvely assumed that the sense of this term sublimation was already given. But by suspending the sense or direction of this concept, we allow it to withdraw into polysemy, which leaves it free to take on a singular sense at some instance (augenblickt) where it could become operatized and then de-operatized. This instability of sense corresponds with the vital oscillation of the aesthetic.
A sublimation then is something that happens in a flash, and it is not conceivable outside of the instant where it occurs. There is no general schematic of what takes place. This is an esoteric event, and so we are not obliged to explain what happens there. But if this event is truly effective, then it means that something did occur which is in some sense irreversible.
This term expresses a physical metaphor which allows some limited conceivability for processes which might otherwise be entirely inconceivable. Perhaps some neuroscientists would attempt to describe these processes in non-metaphorical terms, but to speak of sublimation is to continue using a traditional metaphor which allows us to glimpse some assumedly intangible processes of the noumenal. In scientific terms, this physical model can be described as a change in viscosity – a movement between fluid and solid states. This event could include evaporation, freezing, condensation, melting… a shift that affects a systemic economy of physical codes.
This metaphor expresses a dynamic change in the system of memory, perception, expression and action. These levels are all effected because they are structurally interdependent, so there is simultaneously a change in what can be remembered, perceived, expressed and done. This kind of change is periodically necessary, whether in response to external changes in the environment, or just to revitalize an internal system that would otherwise succumb to entropy.
This event of sublimation alters space-time relations. This includes expectations of timing, such as the habitual sense of what comes before and after, as well as spatial orientations, such as directions and sense of distance. This is a shift in the aesthetic apriori, which is the passivity of habit. This is the unattended ground of assumptions on the basis of which one might remember, think, speak or act.
So sublimation is this mandate of literature to alter passivity. These are altercations of a dimension which can never become an object of attention, because attention is only possible on the basis of that dimension. Literature is able to alter passivity by causing disruptive interference between genres. Passivity assumes the separation of genres as clichés, and literature disrupts their distribution through translation. The event of sublimation takes place where one genre comes into an unnatural communication with another. Sublimation is this contamination which moves symbolic borders.
The mandate of literature in this regard is similar to psychoanalysis. The Kleinian therapist Jessica Benjamin (2015) recently defined psychopathology as the failure to contain sexuality. She describes a condition where sexuality is an overwhelming source of anxiety, as an external pressure that destabilizes the patient, and makes it impossible for them to love and work. The course of therapy then is the process whereby this alien flux is somehow brought into containment, and the important question seems to concern how there is containment between symbolic coordinates and more corporeal aspects.
The Kleinian clinic is conceived as a dyadic dynamism between analyst and analysand, where this uncontained sexuality passes back and forth between them. This dynamism is analyzed in terms of partiality and wholeness, and along vectors like introjection, incorporation, projection, expulsion, and disavowal. Through a rhythmic repetition of experiences in transference and counter-transference, sexuality gradually receives new determination, it becomes contained in a new way. What was uncontainable becomes more containable, and the individual becomes able to love and work.
There is a question about how such spillage of sexuality arises in the first place. This is a familiar question: is sexuality originally uncontained, or is this pathology an historical condition? This question has been taken up many times over the past century. It has been suggested that sexuality should be considered somehow uncontainable in essence – it has always been an alien spirit that possesses the body and eclipses any representation of subjectivity. A person who is aroused or sexualized is not symbolically themselves. This was Bataille’s point. Sexual relations exclude symbolization, and so sexuality implies the abandonment of the symbolic.
It seems that pathology could be defined as a condition where sexuality fails because symbolic identities are insufficiently abandoned. Sexuality produces anxiety where it disrupts a symbolic identity which it should instead temporarily abolish. The pathological individual is one whose symbolic identity has been only partly abolished by sexuality, so they are caught in an intermediary condition between the sexual and the symbolic.
If sexuality only thrives as a non-symbolic alterity, then pathology might be considered an historical condition of overly tenacious symbolization. So, what historical condition might give rise to such a pathology which is treated in the psychoanalytic clinic? The answer to this question would concern the way that sexuality is symbolized through the institutions of the expanding market economy. In its proper unsymbolic position, sex can only be represented as a sublime act. The sublime is the proper way of representing the unrepresentable.
Market institutions pathologize because they deprive sexuality of its sublime independence from the social-symbolic. The sexual act gets inscribed at the kernel of the market institution, where it forms the speculative identity of the two sides of the economy, as an ideal event that unites consumption and labor in the mystery of reproduction. Symbolic relations within market economies operate according to this Neoplatonic idealization of the sexual act.
So we could hypothesize that clinical pathology occurs because sexuality gets disrupted by the encroachment of the symbols of market exchange. Markets expand through competition. Companies struggle to attract workers and consumers into their commodity circuits, and for this they construct webs of symbolic association – spider webs – which are assembled around ideals of sexuality. Pathology arises because companies are competing to symbolize sexuality, robbing it of its sublime alterity, and creating a morass of debased pseudo-sexual symbols and images. By incessantly attempting to capture sexuality in symbolic representation through pornography, there results a pathological condition where sexuality bleeds into the symbolic, and identities erode into obsessional erotomanias. The clinic then is where individuals learn again to relate to sexuality as a sublime other.
Conceiving the clinic in this way allows us to appreciate why Lacan invoked the tradition of troubadour courtly love. But this also highlights congruencies with broader religious tendencies like asceticism and iconoclasm. An ascetic or celibate is commonly considered as one who does not engage in sexual relations. But if we are to radicalize the sublimity of sexuality, then the celibate might conversely be the only one who engages in sexual “relations”, in that one only relates to the sexual by not relating to it symbolically. This of course could lead into the mute mysticism of Witgenstein’s ‘remain silent’, but that of course is not where we are going.
The symbols of language have largely been reduced to marketing clichés, and we reach impasses where our words are powerless to refer to the sublimely Other. This is where Jean Laplanche’s ‘enigmatic signifier’ becomes indispensable, along with Walter Benjamin’s ‘auras’. These signs refer to sexuality as machinery which is independent of the market, which stirs within the archive, and also in the geographical distance. Where the financial markets have trapped populations in narcissistic ethnic spectacles, free sexuality is expressed in the enigmatic symbols of a planetary literature.
This literature of sublime sexuality maintains a mediation with the psychoanalytic clinic. The clinical discourse on the tenuous sexual relation can serve as an intuitive thread. World literature provides a choreography of the geo-historical pulsation of sexuality, and this dance is tenuous in a sense like the maternal relation which the Kleinian analyst seeks to maintain. The clinical sublimation proceeds by holding split apart pieces together, and enduring their painful unification though different phases and perspectives. In a similar way, capitalism splits the earth into phallic ethno-nationalist part-objects, while world literature is the painful work of establishing planetary continuities.
The sublime sexual symbols are of a radically different order to the monetary symbols of ethno-nationalism. They do not adhere to the monetary logic, and are likely to remain obscure within the optics of the monetary regime. But there emerges interference between these two orders wherein we locate a rhythm. There is a rhythm of love and money which is a contest between alternate orders of existence, and there is a struggle over which side is autonomous. This way sublime sexuality alters the symbolic form of the commodity.
Sexuality may accept being trafficked as a whore, but there is the question of whether this acceptance is active or passive, and whether the trafficker comes under her spell. The question is whether sexuality remains a power reserved from the market – a suspended power of non-action which reserves itself in potential. Where the Kleinian clinic treated containment as a maternal relation, containment can also be considered as this potential for sexuality not to act sexually. This reservation can deliver sexuality back into the infinite of the dimension of the sublime. This way desire is liberated for the infinity of a planetary alterity – behind the mountains, across the sea, when the spring returns.
I’m often pestered by students asking questions about my ‘free time’… they want to become involved in my life, so I can be their foreign friend. This fantasy is suggestive of how free time is coded economically. Obviously, leisure and entertainment are purportedly non-economic zones which are colonized for economic purposes. And those purposes obviously involve commerce and consumption and consumerism, and community, but I’m especially interested in that old term ‘recreation’. This is what I am attempting to offer my customers, whether they want it or not. It’s such a beautiful term from the old industrial societies that we don’t hear very often anymore.
Many Chinese are desperate for another interpolation. Where workers become desperate, they get worn out, or become obsolete, or can’t find vocations, then they may need to take a sabbatical where they get… recreated. They need to become someone else. Interpolated otherwise. It hasn’t been well appreciated that something so radical as becoming could be a function of industrial society.
Sometimes they go rummaging at night around bookstores and drinking coffees, and they say they are “recharging their batteries” (充电). But in my private China, that innocent industrial metaphor is only a disguise, and if they were honest they would admit that they were 消遣, which would be a free-play of the faculties in aesthetic reverie. But, of course they can’t admit that, because 消遣 is denounced as a sin in the official propaganda, the wrong kind of leisure, like billiards and karaoke, or getting tattoos, and so people are unlikely to use that term.
This zone of leisurely self-education is ideologically critical for the course of industrial development. The workers need to have their batteries recharged, they need to update their knowledge, and this inevitably involves some independent muddling-through. The official ideology assumes that there are good and bad forms of leisure, where this distinction is made according to systemic biosocial criteria. Recreation gets circumscribed as the reproduction of an old vitality. But the issue concerns how that old vitality is determined. If leisure is instrumentalized according to some pre-given plan for development, then there is no becoming. Becoming begins where development is set adrift.
This recreational becoming is a line of business that must be pursued with a certain discretion. The social ideology has elaborate means for arresting becoming. One must appreciate how this unhinged recreation gets represented and recaptured into ideology. This absolute drift falls into danger where it appears exceptional, or as what psychoanalysts call non-castrated. This is because non-castrated positions are so hotly contested in society. The ambitious wage these aggressive rivalries over the coveted non-castrated status. Executive managers take their exclusive company retreats, which are insinuated to be aesthetic events where the subjects undergo symbolic transformations. But if someone truly ‘goes out of their comfort zone’ as they say, would they ever return to work?
This means that the bourgeoisie have learned to begin reading Kant from the Critique of Judgement. This is how capitalism swallows Holderlin, and develops a taste for exceptional Theban blood. Diurnal office work is then a tedious dialectic of pure verses practical reason, the official business of reconciling freedom and necessity for purposes of maintaining a semblance of sanity. While in the nocturnal desouvrement of the sabbatical, the subject is recommissioned otherwise. There the battery – the drive – wouldn’t get replaced but rather displaced onto new symbolic coordinates in the office matrix. Maybe someone returns from the break with a new hairstyle or maybe they got a tan, and maybe this is supposed to suggest that the topology of the object shifted. Or maybe someone got a new tattoo to compensate for how the topology didn’t shift.
So, the social simulacra gets assembled and disassembled around the representation of castration and non-castration. Castrated workers are resigned to the impossibility of becoming, and accept that they are anchored into the symbolic matrix in a certain way. Of course, they are encouraged to progress and develop their technical skills, but only according to the terms of the pre-given program of a five-year plan. But then the executive, non-castrated subjects are supposed to possess this genius of original creativity that can re-write the rules of the program. The ideology of capital would capture populations as it brings them under the spell of the necessity of castration, subjecting them to the genius of the executives and creative designers.
It is important to understand that this description of a romantic capitalism is produced from a distinctly Chinese milieu. And in order that I might continue telling this tale, it is critical to regard the integrity of this condition. For in these days of frantic exchange, situated geographical composition is a tenuous factor. So, at pain of being dismissed as an obsessive Sinophile, I feel it necessary to entrench myself in some arguments for why capitalism should be narrated from this ‘foreigner in China’ perspective.
For several decades, there have been discussions about ‘alternate modernities’, though that topic has never seemed particularly interesting. There is some hypocrisy if we discuss supposed singularities, or regional differences, only to translate them back into universal terms so they can be exchanged as exotic experiences or studied at universities. This is a naïve celebration of differences that ends up back in multiculturalism. Please understand that the story I am telling can be easily distinguished from any of that.
The conditions in China offer unique portals to the future. The historical experience here has exposed the workings of modern ideology in ways that can shift the symbolic matrix of commodity exchange. So, we are embarking on a sinofuturist expedition, not on the premise that the future will be Chinese (who knows?), but rather with the understanding that this archive offers a portal through which other futures are available.
The present situation in China is only of limited interest on this expedition, where the main concern is the historical cycle that begins with the first Opium war in 1836 and ends with the outbreak of the civil war in 1928. That archive is the blood of Chinese literature, and the present conditions are only interesting where it recirculates.
Admittedly, the archive in question has parallels elsewhere, and so this Chinese experience is not totally unique. But this case is singular because of how China is presently the vanguard of global capitalism, which is perhaps not such a coincidence, but more like a destiny, since this country has had the greatest economy for most of history. So, in other words, China is interesting for basically the same reason that Marx was interested in England, that it was this singular limit where a new situation was emerging. But since time is so disjointed, this new situation only becomes visible if projected through this particular historical background.
This story would probably begin in the brothels of Shanghai at the end of the Qing Dynasty. A certain form of recreation takes place there, and it is like an opiate which the Chinese today are hoping to score from us foreigners. The mark of exceptionality or non-castration in traditional Chinese society was always polygamy, and the end of their distinct way of life coincides precisely with the termination of that institution. Only a small fraction of the elite men could ever support multiple wives, and as the empire declined it became harder for the literati aristocrats to do so. Not just because their material resources were getting exhausted, but more importantly because liberalism was eroding the ethos of that institution. So, the brothel became a refuge where the vulnerable polygamist could bask in the magic of the waning civilization. They were exchanging poetry, showing off their calligraphy, and the girls would play the guxian.
The Shanghai brothel of the late Qing is a magical portal through which we can exit from the present phase of capitalism. It exemplifies a zeitgeist that was not limited to China. That was of course a time of several waning empires, and for which reason it is sometimes known as the fin-de-siècle. As those great institutional orders – Austro-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman, and let’s not forget the Moghuls – were coming to an end, there was this time of reverie that took flight from modernity into intimate recreation. As the capitalist nations invaded, the cultured souls of the closing age retreated into enclaves, which were not so much tombs, as rather cocoons, where some larva passively incubated. The subsequent development of capitalism can be interpreted as a quest for those larvae of antique culture, which modern societies have pursued as their sacred commodity. And the end of capitalism – which I believe can now be narrated – is where those larvae finally hatch.
Now, if someone says that I have been reading too many fairy tales, then they would not be mistaken. But they should understand that the modernization of the tale as a genre is closely connected with Chinese literature, and also, more specifically, with Shanghai brothels. This is not to say that Kafka and Borges were ‘Chinese’, but rather that Taoist phantasmagoria has been a line of flight for European literature since the Baroque. And there is a brewing debate over the politics of this genre, which offers an alternative to the tragic Stimmung which had such prestige in Romanticism. During the second world war, the realist philosopher Georg Lukacs – the founder of ‘cultural Marxism’ – had a break with his close correspondent, the Jewish-German-Hungarian writer of Chinese fairy tales named Bela Belazs. That split provides a topos for the departure of a revolutionary sinofuturism from western politics.