On Gazeless Institutions

The left gets paralyzed by an attachment to imaginary liberties or a false sense of autonomy.  This imaginary freedom foregoes the chance for a more realistic awareness of subordination at a personal level. This brings us to a political problem of how to instigate an awakening to certain necessities to which we are subjected.

These fantasies of false freedom depend on the imaginary projection of external obstacles, where false images of autonomy are preserved by shifting blame onto external factors. This leads to the familiar complaints which go “if only it weren’t for those elites, then we could….‘. These outward projections of obstacles conceal the servility of socialization, which isn’t necessarily dependent on external factors, because it can be assumed as a matter of personal responsibility. It seems that the emergence of new institutions could be precipitated by a disclosure of the personal nature of subordination.

Political subjection is largely contingent on how anxiety is experienced. This concerns what psychoanalysts call the gaze, which is the danger of being perceived in the wrong way that produces a signal anxiety that might be called stigmatic. The gaze is a violation of an unspoken contract of socialized perception, or of the figural composition of inter-corporeal relations. There are these regimes of permissible appearances, where the field of perception maintains the consistency of certain patterns.   Anxiety is the deterrence which guards the limits of these regimes of perception. This defense draws upon religious mythologies that represent breakdowns in these institutional perceptual patterns as encounters with the dangerous beyond of the infinite. These are figural mechanisms where the breakdown in representation triggers affective signals associated with the sacred, which is also called the taboo.

The ‘gaze’ is a mythological and religious figure for breakdowns in the composition of social perception. This is a superstitious perceptual belief about what lies beyond the limit where perception disintegrates, where a divine power is projected into the beyond of perception.  If perception starts to disintegrate, then the power invested in that imaginary divinity can be experienced as anxiety. And this divinity has been secularized into the crowds of modern society, and into the value judgment of the market.

It seems that any substantial change in institutional relations would involve a disruption of the gaze. The breaking of this spell would be a desublimation or dissolving of an optical relation. This would imply a materialization of the gaze, that would resituate it onto the level of physiology, which is disclosed as a material vehicle invested with social significance. This is a disbanding of the power of the gaze which is analogous to the Lacanian pass, or the realization of the non-existence of the Other.   

Though this breaking the gaze-spell could precipitate some awkward political circumstances. This political epoch has been defined by contests that turn around the gaze, and this arrangement ultimately invests power into charmed mobs which are prone to demagoguery. If breaking the spell leads to only a new individuality, then that could leave unaligned individuals in a dangerous situation facing masses who remain united under the hypnotic power of the gaze. This is a realistic scenario for the sort of political situation that could arise as we cross the limit of the society of the spectacle, or what is called ‘democracy’. So, it’s essential to conceive the breaking of thi spell as the formation of a new kind of institutional relation.  Exploring the prospects for alternative institutions requires a broad survey of the evolution of political relations.

In this epoch of the democratic spectacle, power is invested in parliaments of elected representatives. The possibilities for alternate political relations can be approached by considering the contingency of this arrangement.  The first point to emphasize here is how parliaments are either sanctioned by monarchies, or else their constitution was written in a monarch’s blood. They live off the monarchical conception of sovereignty and can be considered as democratic outgrowths which supplement the monarchical system.  One might even go so far as to say that the monarchies survived by growing these democratic organs.

It’s from this perspective that we should consider today’s deterioration of parliamentarianism into demagoguery.  Conceiving the deterioration of parliaments from this monarchical perspective allow us to project a longer course of evolution into the future. Where back in the age of revolutions the power shifted from monarchies to parliaments, today the power is perhaps shifting from parliaments into something else which is yet unconceived and unnamed. This is not to suggest that parliaments could ever abolished, or even reformed, but rather that there may be some mysterious outgrowth from parliamentarianism which is the emergence of another set of institutions that will someday supersede parliaments as the seats of sovereignty. So, there is a problem of how to conceptualize these emerging institutions.  

This problem can be modelled as an evolutionary dialectic. Parliaments originally defined themselves as ‘democratic’ because that was the idea that they opposed to the ‘despotism’ of the monarchies.  This opposition between democracy and despotism is still widely taken for granted, even though it was never so coherent. But as we slide into demagoguery, then this founding opposition becomes less tenable, because demagoguery is where democracy itself becomes tyrannical. As parliaments lose their original justification, it becomes ever more likely that they will delegate power into new institutions.  Such delegation has already been proceeding for several decades with what is called neoliberalism, where power is shifted into corporations, and it will likely continue in that manner unless some other sort of institution emerges.

To proceed with this evolutionary dialectic, we need to consider the specific flaw which is making parliamentary sovereignty untenable, and which the new institutions would be defined in opposition to. It is at this point that the society of the spectacle and the problem of the gaze can be asserted as negative emblems of the parliamentary sovereignty which the new institutions would oppose.  

This gives us a rudimentary definition of the new institutions.  The members of these emerging institutions would no longer be under the spell of the gaze.  This could imply an abolition of the gaze, or else perhaps it’s reconfiguration. This gazelessness is a quasi-negativity, something in the manner of Lacan’s sexual non-rapport.  It would imply a more turbulent kind of perception, where representation proceeds according to of more supple patterns of assembly, and where the limits of appearance are no longer guarded by the mythological charms of sanctity. This would imply an epistemological reconfiguration of optics where perception would be recoupled with language. This could imply an altercation in the idea of humanity, or we could assume that the abolition of the gaze is a passage into the post-human.  

At the center of this model for institutional transition is the gaze as a kind of social anxiety. Nietzsche described the overman as free of anxiety, though his thinking about this topic was probably too idealistic. It’s not that anxiety could necessarily be abolished, but rather just that its topological limits could be shifted. This is to say that new institutions would require a shift in how anxiety is produced and configured.  As an alternative to what was once called Enlightenment, I want to outline the model for an awakening that would involve an epistemological reorientation of the gaze.

What I have in mind here is something that we might call a “second order awakening”.  Considered materially, the gaze is a distribution of optical sensitivity which is coupled with affective signals.  Moving to a more scientific level of abstraction, this coupling can be situated within the physiology of circadian cycles, or in the way that neurotransmitters and hormones are released at different levels of optical stimulation.  Awakening to the materiality of the gaze (i.e. to the conditions of optical-affective sensitivity) would then mean awakening to the nature of awakening and going to sleep. Becoming aware of the materiality of the gaze then would involve a broader awakening to the physiology of optics.  The term ‘second order awakening’ refers to the prospect for an awakening to the physiology of awakening and going to sleep.

The society of the spectacle itself could be situated within a circadian arrangement, where different phases of work and leisure are timed optically. The commercial spectacle could be considered as analogous to the way insects are attracted to light sources. If the spectacle is considered as a kind of trance, and awakening is the breaking of that trance, then this would imply a shift in the sensitivity to light. And since the critical issue here is that light would have to lose some affective signaling power, then this might also be considered an awakening to darkness. This is to suggest that darkness could replace light as the vehicle for the representation of affect.   

This event of awakening involves a splitting where affectation is separated from optics, and this runs along a topological distinction between exterior and interior.  The interiority of affect would be uncoupled from the exteriority of light. This way the body might be exposed in broad daylight while the mind is simultaneously obscured in the oblivion of deep space.  This thwarts certain perceptual conventions where bodies are experienced as manifestations of invisible minds. The gaze is a hermeneutic that codes corporeal appearances as expressions of internal truth, such as fortune, virtue, vice or providence. Breaking the spell of the gaze then would mean breaking this expressive relation, so that bodies that manifest nothing.  

This awakening has similarities with Buddhist enlightenment, though it could just as easily be an endarkenment. Darkness does not so much refer to the absence of light, but rather a dimension beyond its epistemology. This awakening is easily distinguished from Buddhism by the singularity of the threshold that is proposed. This involves some disembodiment, in that it dissolves the optical sensitivity around which democratic subjectivity has been composed. Whereas Buddhism proposes a universal idea of enlightenment, we are talking about crossing a specific threshold at the limit of our present political epoch.

Instead of a disembodiment, this is more accurately a subtraction from embodiment.  The gaze is a surplus flux which society somehow invokes within the body, and the problem of awakening hinges on the elimination of that surplus. This could interfere with any politics that celebrates spectacular embodiment, which could be masculinist or feminist, ethnic or localist, or consumerist.  Ideologies of embodiment are usually complicit with the ideality of the gaze that hypersexualizes populations and arouses them to spectacular stimulations.

Absolving of the gaze could disrupt customary habits of perception in unpredictable ways.  This could lead to the appearance of strange outsides without insides, such that minds appear to have gone missing, perhaps something like phantom limbs. According to the customs of spectacle-perception, appearances are the expressions of something else, and so the non-relation of the interior might become conspicuousness. We should consider figurations of mindlessness, such as automatons or someone who has been lobotomized.  The conspicuous absence of the mind would be the residue of the gaze, and where the gaze might threaten to return.

The society of the spectacle can be considered as an elaborate artifice that indicates a secret interiority. This is like what is called trompe l’oeil in baroque painting, where the apparent refers to something which is not apparent. But when the spell of the gaze is broken, then this trickery-effect ceases to convince perception, and so there is an experience of a failed trompe l’oeil where the eye is no longer being tricked. There can be an experience of relief in this disclosure of a systemic deception that has been so persistent.  

The gaze is a threatening imaginary flux situated in the perceptual field and which constitutes a vulnerable interiority. The material of this flux is located inside the body, but it’s spell creates this deception that it is located outside the body.  It is an exterior projection which threatens to reveal some secret of the self, which is some sort of transgression that the self then attempts to conceal. The spell casts the self in this role of being essentially transgressive of the order of social appearance, and the gaze is a kind of phobia of the exposure of that transgression. 

Merleau-Ponty was interested in locating the position of the gaze in the field of visibility. But Lacan interpreted this line of research as a symptom which he compared with the myth of the Theban prince Acteon who fatally saw Diana bathing. If the gaze is situated in the field of perception, then it can become a lure, or a paranoiac obsession, or something that eroticizes the spectacle. The power of the gaze is defused by decoupling the affective from the optical aspects. That coupling is what we might call its manifestation, and so what we are proposing here is a demanifestation of the gaze.  

Could gazelessness be a principle for another society?

End Notes – I don’t include academic references in these little jaunts, but in case someone is interested I will provide a bibliography for this one.  Obviously, this is running together some ideas from Jacques Lacan and Guy Debord. This is not just Debord, but rather the way he is interpreted by Jonathan Crary in all his books. This way of conceiving the super ego as surplus flux is from Eric Santner, and he is also influencing the model of evolution proposed here.  Talking about physiology as a ‘vehicle’ for representation is from neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger. This intellectual venture could proceed into the physiology of circadian cycles, though that is not so much my interest these days. Rather, I am concerned more with early modern thinking on political theology and natural law, in order to situate contemporary institutional transitions in an evolutionary perspective with some intellectual depth.  Gazelessness is an aesthetic figure that comes from Maurice Blanchot, and my intention is to connect this with early modern problems, like the darkness of Pascal’s deus absconditas, and especially the way that the Lacanian Miran Bozovic reads early modern philosophy. The dark gaze is being used here to figure uncertainty and chance as early modern epistemological problems. The recent book “Game of Probability” by Rudiger Campe articulates several strains of early modern epistemology that I find interesting, and my overall project these days is to translate that research into an evolutionary background for the emergence of contemporary institutions. Though I should emphasize that my concerns are not at all academic, but rather aesthetic and political.  So, when I say ‘early modernity’ this is not a matter of rigorous engagement with textual arguments, but rather something more like an aesthetic trope, or a kind of afterlife (Nachleben) that returns to inspire contemporary institutions.

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A Case for Discursive Writing

Tonight I have succumb to a temptation to engage in a debate over the value of discursive writing. As a precaution, and a matter of conscience, I want to preface what follows with some remarks on the perils of argumentation. The struggle to convince can be indistinguishable from contests over dominance, or broader needs for affirmation. Fraternal dueling is part of the insiduous gravity of the university and its institutional values. There is a prevalent tendency to overestimate the consequences of disputes, so that intellectual comradery becomes an indulgence in fantasies of civic masonry, such that some great architectural project is imagined, and there is deliberation over the arrangement of beams. Keeping these caveats in mind, let us proceed with the argument.
Discursiveness can be distinguished from formal or structured writing as a matter of intellectual culture. This contrast introduces an ethnographic relativism which situates the debate outside the constraints of any discipline. Maybe a discipline is what exists only after all the serious debates have been settled – it’s the space where everyone can just get to work without questioning the value of the enterprise. Ethnographic relativity provides a neutral medium for dialogue between intellectual universes which would otherwise talk past each other.
The work of formalists can certainly be useful and well respected, though this assimilates it with the technologies of capital and elite property relations. Symbolic canons and specialized notations are like heavy intellectual equipment which can repeat specific operations, and so they are enlisted as resources in the development. Formal writing combines a host of valued qualities – visibility, intelligibility, verifiability, universality, durability, exchangeability, and utility – which are precisely the general values of modernity.
The value of formulaic writing gets problematic when we consider how it becomes available for future enterprises which cannot be anticipated today. To appreciate this risk, consider the history of Marxist activism. International socialism was a universalist project, yet today much of the work it accomplished has been appropriated by financial capitalists. Contemporary formalists might assume that they are engaged in virtuous civic labor, whereas they could just as well be arming the tyrants of the future. The value of universal knowledge is equivocal because it can be deployed in unforeseeable projects.
Discursive writing cannot be ascribed any general values, because that sort of generalization is the business of formal writing. The advantage of discursive writing is that it expresses singularities. And that can only be accomplished through the formlessness of the fragment.
Common arguments for discursive writing are repeated in humanities classrooms. Most important is how this writing accomplishes something at an aesthetic level, such as the figuration of time and space. This writing ruminates over the enigmatic residues of the past. This witnessing of mysterious alterity can be disrespectful to the reader, because it does not relate to anything in the readers frame of reference. This displaces the reader and maybe puts them on the path to becoming another reader. This writing cannot be ascribed values because it is participating in the creation of new values.
Referring to discursive writing as ‘literature’ emphasizes how it slides between genres. This is where expression abandons the commitment to having its own form, so that writing passively adopts whatever form is suitable for the expression of conditions. This gesture of abandonment is a way of yielding so that something else can be expressed, which is the singularity of conditions which have never been expressed before, and for which there are no linguistic conventions available. This writing reconfigures the limit of the expressible, rendering some things unspeakable, and giving voice to the hitherto unspoken. Literature is where the faculties of language are abandoned so the singular might find the chance for expression.
This poststructuralist rhetoric should be distinguished from the actual expression of singularity, which is difficult to accomplish within the coordinates of institutionalized education, and only rarely gets published as doctrine. Critical theory only manages to express a general rhetoric of the singular. Even when academia ventures into apparently more authentic singularity, then there is usually a translation back into familiar concepts. If there is going to be an expression of real singularity, then the entire system of language must shake. Our conventions of expression must come under the foreign power of the singular conditions, because otherwise we are just collecting specimens for our cabinets of curiosity.
This prospect of ‘shaking representation’ gets misinterpreted as a sacred event or an experience of divinity. The principle shortcoming of poststructuralism was its inability to extricate singularity from sacredness. To appreciate this problem, one must consider how secular modernity developed, and especially the way that Hebrew sapient literature exists as a palimpsest beneath the vanguards of secularism such as neo-Kantianism and psychoanalysis. The problem is the way that the sacred survived as this Jewish secret, such that liberal idealism always remained covertly monotheistic and bound up with the superstitions of this ethnic tribe.
Discursive writing has struggled to reemerge from this crisis of Semitic modernity, and this is the context for interpreting the writings of Georgio Agamben. He is a discursive writer who translates history into ethnography, so that crises are resituated within secular contexts, and the sacred loses its affective charge. This transforms the sacred into an epistemological problematic, so that discursive writing reconfigures the expression of the unknown at the limits of knowledge. For example, the enigmatic is a representation of the unknown.
This figuration of negative epistemology is aligned with broader relational transitions. This is the basic ethical orientation of discursive writing. It follows the pulse of institutions without assuming responsibility for the future, and this distinguishes it from political activism. It doesn’t initiate transitions, but merely participates in processes already underway. These processes include metabolizations, mergers, separations, compositions, decompositions, developments, rejuvinations, liberations, submissions and extinctions. There is no ideological privileging of any of these processes, and the only guiding values are those of aesthetic taste.
Transitional processes are oriented corporeally and geographically. For example, discursive writing might participate in some localized optical transition, or it might go to work on the development of some gestural pattern. The question of monetization is always in the background, and this concerns how populations are submitted into the assemblages of industry. There are always new forms of submission getting introduced, and there are always new liberations underway.
Discursive writing takes conceptual bearings in probability. Probability is the common intellectual approach shared across all the defining sectors of modernity such as military, finance, science, management, and aesthetics. The locus of sovereign power can be identified as the communication of this problem. The magnitude of this problem provides the ground against which transitional processes are delimited.
In trying to auscultate an institutional pulse, discursive writing descends into the night of Dionysian instincts. This is the margin or inverse of the spectacle. The diurnal spectacle exists as the pressure to sell oneself to anonymous others, whereas that pressure is relieved in the night, when the roles are reversed so that one becomes an anonymous other. The institutional pulse is the somniloquence of this anonymous other, which can be figured as infant babbling, an endless stream of muttering on, mumbling away… though most significant in symbolic terms is what bureaucrats refer to as ‘muddling through’ and ‘mulling over’.
Muddling through is the informal side of institutional transformation, which is unrelated to what modernizers of previous generations called revolution or reform. This process comes to attention in rare instances, like when Deng Xiaoping called on people to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’.
Rational developments generate instinctual remainders which go unmetabolized, and the danger of this irrationality gets associated with the sacred. Discursive writing is an alternative to the sacred, in that it’s a way of playing with instincts excluded from institutional representation, like how children are delighted when they try on costumes.
Institutions may attempt to expel the nocturnal play of discursive writing since it gets associated with the forces that disrupt the representation of developmental values. Or else they may attempt to absorb it dialectically, so that it can be displayed as something transgressive, which could be seductive or stigmatized. There are attempts to place it into a quarantine which is called the faculty of the imagination, which brings it into association with romantic ideologies of the sacred. Imagination is a genie that investors enslave as the creative charm that humanizes their technology.
Discursive writing is situated cautiously in the field of desire. The bloodlessness of artificial intelligence is suffered as boredom, and this provokes a yearning for an imaginary object which is supposed to make the simulation come alive. In ethnography, the term ‘phallus’ refers to certain dangling appendages attached to the pelvises of ancient Athenian theatrical performers. If this Thing is manifested as flesh then the superego is aroused, which is a return of the sacred, and to avoid this arousal discursive writing displaces it into the inorganic or incorporeal. This reinterprets symbolic castration from an ethnographic angle as an initiation into secular modernity, and as a transaction between populations oriented geographically.
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The Allegorical Spirit of Antiquity

Allegory is a struggle of antiquity to express herself under contemporary conditions, and that is why it always appears as an enigma. The enigma can never be totally absolved, because there is always something of the past which can never be expressed in the present. To view an object allegorically is to consider it as a gateway into something antique and unknown, and following this path and putting allegory into operation requires the logistical planning of an aesthetic and conceptual itinerary. This journey passes through an historical circuitry which must be arranged in close correspondence with contemporary conditions. Only certain routes are available at any time, depending on fluctuations in the distribution of immanence.

Antiquity stalks the present through history like a heartbeat, and to discover the paths she traverses it is necessary to auscultate where the pulse is strongest today. The cannon of classical auscultators includes writers like Jakob Burkhardt, Aby Warburg and Walter Benjamin, and this path would never have opened without the guidance of these forbearers. And yet their concerns might be only academic distractions which lead us to dead ends. The past must be rendered traversable for contemporaries, and this requires that the terrain be punctuated in original ways. This especially involves abbreviation and paraphrase to circumvent old routes which have become inaccessible over time.

It is usually accepted that allegory congeals in the neoclassicism of the early modern period, where the renaissance underwent a theatrical inflection during the counter-reformation. Where renaissance art had been innocently religious, the iconoclasm and debates of the 1500s gave the liturgy the falseness of a masquerade, releasing negativity into the image. This broke the spell of ecclesiastic sanctity and put the iconology of the church out of joint with the scripture. The Baroque is where that renaissance art bifurcates as its religious sense becomes unstable. Set adrift from the orbit of the church cosmology, the image was breached by the materiality of the abyss and set into wild variations.

The term allegory should recall the ornaments of neoclassical architecture, especially mythological figures holding specific objects. To penetrate these ornaments, it is necessary to assume their enigmatic quality. This is to say that they must not be trivialized by assuming, for example, that they are intended to evoke a narrative, or that they have some didactic purpose, or that they are for decoration. While all these assumptions may be correct, one must assume that there is something essentially unknowable about these figures, something which cannot be accounted for because we do not have the intellectual resources for doing so. There is something about them that people such as ourselves are not able penetrate.

Andre Gide says “the first condition for understanding Greek myth is to believe in it”, and this point also applies to allegory which requires a certain faith, although perhaps it is even more essential to ensure that one has no preconception about what antiquity is. The essence of antiquity lies in its being unknown more than its being past, and pastness should be treated as a figure for something that is obscure in the contemporary. The curation of museums provides a model for this ethos, but allegory goes further in its ambition to facilitate the expression of antiquity.

Antiquity’s survival is conspicuous in republican France with the recurrence of Roman motifs, such as the famous persona of Mariana in the painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’. Combining features of classical deities such as Minerva and Aphrodite, she figures antiquity contorted and locked in contradictions with modernity struggling across the battlefield. Allegory is inaccessible to the conceptual precision of academic writing because it expresses a living spirit unbeholden to any professional conventions. Academia tends to dismember this spirit by analyzing it into classicism, primitivism, naturalism, rationalism… between which are staged tedious debates, whereas allegory demands that this fragmentation be vigilantly resisted. It is necessary each time to subsume all of antiquity under the unity of a single emblem which expresses one punctuation along a series of dialectical torsions. In this way, the torment and decay of Paris can be figured as one continuous chemical reaction where ideologies are distorted and decomposed into abstraction.

Antiquity can be expressed only once the past has become sufficiently unfamiliar, and so allegory follows a course of decay, such as the process that goes from Zola’s naturalism to his disciple Huysseman’s decadence. We become more decadent than our predecessors in order that antiquity can be expressed through us. The familiarity of the past is an ideological prison of the spirit, and allegory erodes the borders that distinguish the contemporary.

This appropriation of French Romanism is far from benign, as this discussion of decay is part of the very process it describes, where the life of the example is abolished in the process of exemplification. Abstracting the concept of allegory implies the neutralization Parisian culture into the frozen dimension of the museum, which also prepares for its resurrection elsewhere. This fossilization proceeds through abbreviations or monograms, which is the breakdown of decay, where there is a selection of emblems to mark the contours of immanence. The plotting of an allegorical journey depends on meticulous scholarship, and yet this enterprise is far removed from what is usually done at the university.

Allegory denies the enclosure of the contemporary by erasing the border that distinguishes currency from a netherworld of obsolesce. The gating-off of currency today which encloses the spectacle-subject as a privileged elite is erected as a reaction against the egalitarian potential of digital media. So, it is only when the spirit of antiquity aligns with digital media by discovering there the means for its expression, only then could that egalitarian potential be realized. The topology of the allegorical journey perforates the border of currency by knitting a Mobius reversal of inside and outside so that the contemporary languishes in oblivion and the obsolete reigns spectacular.

In response to the violent repression of the Paris Commune, Huysemans published a novel on the fall of Rome: “the horde of Huns swept over Europe… civilization disappeared in the dust of their horses hooves, in the smoke of the fires they kindled… ruined cities burned like blazing hay-ricks..” This anarchist Roman fantasy expresses ‘giving up the ghost’, where the soul is released from its exile in the objective. This moment is repeated through the allegorical journey, where the exhaustion of the past gives the present subjectivity. But what dies more precisely is the ‘known past’, which is the ideological past, so that the allegory can be invoked by an hysteria before an unknown past.

In the 1920’s, the surrealist Michel Leiris joined an anthropological expedition to retrieve primitive art from the Dogon tribe in Eretria, and he was dismayed at how his fellow Parisians pillaged the ritual objects of the tribe. The term ‘fetish’ was used since the 1400’s to mark the limits European culture where the Portuguese and Dutch were searching for gold in West Africa. The fetish was essentially a negative image of gold, designating whatever despicable thing it was that the Africans valued. It signified the immaturity or irrationality of people who were not European social climbers in that they were not accumulating gold but valued something else. The scene of pillaging in Eretria shows an event of value-reversal where gold was suddenly switched with that other thing from which it had been distinguished. Since the ritual objects were not economized by the Dogon, the anthropologists seized them the way they would have seized gold. This figures the death-throes of modernity.

Allegory reorients subjectivity by divesting the object of libido. The fantasy frame shifts as it passes across a sublimation point where the objective gives up the ghost. The allegory twists and breaks the ideological objectivity in which the spirit of antiquity has been trapped. The problem is how this break can be enacted under contemporary conditions. Today this calls for hermeneutic innovation in our perceptions of violent conservatism, so that it can be recognized as a tormented afterlife of antiquity. The event in this sense would involve identification with what is considered morally reprehensible. This reorients the concept of Satanism.

Twisting and serpentine figures recur in European art going back to medieval paintings where scrolls launch out from the mouths of Madonnas. Perverse allegory reaches an apotheosis in the work of Pierre Klossowski, who figured the afterlife of Roman and Medieval culture in European conservatism. In the 1950’s he wrote a series of novels about a fascist medievalist in Paris who has a perverse wish to catch his wife with another man, and so he arranges role plays to enact this fantasy. This character elaborates a rationale for this performance in the terms of scholastic theology, where the exercise is supposedly arranged as a proof of God’s existence. Those novels disclose the torment of classicism in a surprising way, so that it appears as an enigmatic sickness. The problem is to witness this violence in a non-antagonistic mode, which means it must be felt as something not threatening, not unjust, and not mockable, but rather as purely pathetic. There is an aesthetic problem of getting beyond having any antagonistic relationship with conservative violence.

Klossowski’s most conspicuously allegorical book is called ‘Diana at her Bath’, which is a series of meditations on the Ovid’s myth of the Achteon, where the Theban prince spies the goddess naked and then suffers the consequences. Klossowski’s formula is to take Augustine’s descriptions of ‘pagan simulacra’, and then depict those so to exasperate their most heretical possibilities, which is precisely that they were merely simulacra as described by Plato. This way of reading Rome through the fascinated yet condemning gaze of the Patricians, and homing in specifically on what disturbed yet seduced them about idolatry, stages a heresiological return of the empire. This was an elaborate way of ending Christiandom, by going to its origin and reviving precisely what it had defined itself against.

To put these comments on Klossowski into relief, consider this passage from Fredrich Engles: “it is now, almost to the year, sixteen centuries since a dangerous party of overthrow was likewise active in the Roman Empire. It undermined religion, and all the foundations of the state; it flatly denied Caesar’s law was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, it was international; it spread over all countries of the empire, from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on seditious activities in secret, underground; for a considerable time, however, it had felt itself strong enough to come out into the open. This party of overthrow was known by the name of Christians.” The sense of contradiction here is heightened when we consider that Engles was an atheist while Klossowski was a Catholic.

Criticisms of decadence are pertinent for allegory. For example, Paul Bourget wrote that “a style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place of independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word.” Bourget’s point is well taken, because allegory tends to abbreviate, which could be mistaken for fragmentation. Abbreviations are arranged in a series, which are like steps with continuity between them. Those with a taste for allegory are always on the look-out for the next abbreviation. Whereas a fragment could be just a piece of random debris, or else it might be pawned-off as a fake abbreviation. Most important is to say that fragments becomes allegorical through sufficient refinement, which includes processes such as selection, sorting, polishing, arrangement, configuration, and rewriting.

Allegory destroys objects by converting them to subjectivity. They lose their objectivity because they are arranged in a configuration which triggers some narcissistic fantasy, which would traditionally be something celestial. This raises ethical and political questions, starting with the problem of evil, since the abolition of objectivity for the sake of subjectivity is vampire-like. Modern art offers the most common way of approaching this ethical problem. This aesthetic solution was elaborated by Klossowski when he developed his thinking around the question of Sadism, which he associates with the medieval sin of morose delectation, ‘the habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts’. This aesthetic Schadenfreude links with the theory of the sublime, which Kant figures the as the emotion felt when ‘viewing a sea storm from safety’. This trope has sometimes passed as benign, but only until we appreciate that it refers to Lucretius’s ‘suave mare magno’, the pleasure of observing a shipwreck.

The standard Christian solution to this problem would restrict art to the beautiful, exempting holy sublimity such as the crucifixion and miracles, whereas the modern aesthetic solution is to differentiate and distribute the affects which death generates so that it’s energy drives a chromatic variation and a pluralization of subjectivity through time and space. Allegory should not be confused with either of these solutions, and yet neither does it exclude them. It is essentially monochrome yet may reach some transcendental iridescence. Allegorical death is a shift which releases a flux of energy by changing the balance between objectivity and subjectivity, and the emotional response depends on which direction the balance shifts. If life is experienced as an exile in the objective, then death can be satisfying and enriching, because the spirit escapes from objectivity. But if life is lived subjectively, or as Marx might say, if the species-being is not alienated, then death is experienced as an impoverishing change of subjectivity into a corpse.

Allegory intersects with the spheres of modern discourse such as politics, religion, aesthetics and love, but what I am trying to suggest here is that these are only tangential, and that allegory follows its own distinct logic which persists despite it’s not fitting into any of these value-spheres. Scientific knowledge is its greatest adversary, because of how it is behind the whole process of development which determines it negatively. William Blake’s painting ‘Newton’s Sleep’ figures an ironic encounter which took place during the romantic phase. Naïve interpreters assumed that the painting simply derides scientific modernity for reducing reality to mere figures, and yet this is also precisely the transgression of art, to reduce reality to mere figures which are pleasing for the subject. Vulgar romanticism is where art tries to play innocent until its complicity is revealed whether ironically, tragically, or pathetically.

Allegory has peculiar implications with technocracy or the politics of scientific knowledge. Where modern attitudes towards antiquity are riddled with ambivalences, among these there is a specific scientific ambivalence towards the esoteric aspects of Platonism. Allegory implies the seduction of secrecy which is expressed in the use of Greek and Arabic figures for mathematical notations. There is the conspicuous fact that young students are forced to learn the name of Pythagoras but not that of Plato, which suggests they are being tantalized with the prospect of initiation into Pre-Socratic mysteries. So, it seems that the initiation into technocracy has been figured as an orientalist allegory, where a certain fossilization of antiquity reserves the powers of technical expression in a way that has distinctive geopolitical implications. Allegory provides a clandestine conduit for aristocratic spirits so they can survive the advent of modern liberalism.

Considering their conjunction from an evolutionary vantage, it seems that technology attempts to reproduce allegory as a computational trope for the phantasm of humanity. But since figuration essentially resists digital replication, it accumulates as a residue of the unaccommodated remainder of this process. Allegory is the pile of stones which the builders refuse, but then when the construction proves unsatisfying those rejected stones are demanded for a new construction only to have something within them refused again. This way allegory gets refined and enriched, and yet never incorporated into the products of industry, so that antiquity is purified as a residual product. This would model the attractor-basin of industrial representation as a figuration of the “human”, which is the phantasmatic return of whatever development has sacrificed in its pursuit of utopia.

Antiquity’s heartbeat is correlated with the swell of markets, and she recomposes herself in recessionary lulls. Consumerism chases after her technological reproduction, and she is always in a problematic relationship with that double. This scenario calls for a distinct politics which remains progressive as opposed to luddite. This is like a kind of Marxism that would dispense with socialism and communism, and instead views the spirit of antiquity as a kind of ideal, something like what he called species-being. This is distinguished from classicism, primitivism, naturalism, materialism, and even from antiquarianism, in that this imaginary other is perfectly contemporary because she is defined through her ambivalent relationship with technological representation. To heed her voice would mean taking the risk of listening to what emanates today from the material depths of nature.

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Wild Ideas

I’ve been exploring how Gilles Deleuze’s Neoplatonism can be a vehicle for social critique. Neoplatonism of course concerns the veneration of ideas, whereas for Deleuze these ideas were not so ideal, but rather ‘problematic’. This way they lose the permanence and perfection of heavenly union, and become a horde of unstable and singular phantasms that resist identification. In my approach to this, I want to insist that these are still the traditional ideas of philosophy – justice, truth, beauty – but they have been disfigured through a Dionysian crucifixion where they lose their conceptual identities.

For us to interact with these ideas, it is necessary to adopt some mediums, because they are situated on a spiritual dimension which cannot be represented. Here my preference is to adopt anthropology as a medium, and particularly terms like the sacred fetish and the gift. The ideas may possess us to varying degrees, and this possession is simultaneously sensual and intellectual. They can be invoked, divined, exorcized, or appeased. Anthropology provides tropes through which the ideas can be configured, though they are not represented directly.

The dimension of Deleuzian ideas is situated by a specific mythico-historical orientation. They are referred to an origin, which is expressed allegorically as regicide, and which is also the myth of crucifixion. They are the spiritual substance of God which is set adrift after his body is dismembered, which is to say that they are the excarnated spirit of sovereignty and religion. This allegory is an oedipal fantasy, but where the pathology is de-subjectified and suspended onto a dimension of the aesthetic sublime. This is Oedipus delivered to the Kantian holiday from subjective finitude, which is also called anti-Oedipus.

The residual mess which remains after the crucifixion cannot be divided internally, and so it must be separated from representation, which includes distinct discourses on religion, politics, health or economy. The confusion of disfigured ideas threatens to contaminate representation with chaos. This danger is registered in the anthropological-aesthetic terms of the sacred or taboo. This kind of anxiety is a universal feature of the human species, which in the rationalist modern age becomes the dangerous contamination of the problematic. Ideas are problematic because there is a confusion between concepts, and between the sensual and the intellectual.

Representation expresses the economic ordering of modern society which includes the division of labor, and the segmentation of consumer markets. The modern taboo is the set of restrictions on work and enjoyment, which prevent these economic processes from getting lost in the confusion of the ideas.

In Deleuze’s philosophy, the problem of value is reduced to ‘taste’, which concerns the way that the problematic ideas distort representation. The problem of taste is about how to allow for the expression of ideas without setting off the trigger of sacred anxiety. The taboo is a defensive function which is internal to the system of representation. Posing this question in these aesthetic-anthropological terms has advantages over psychoanalytic theories of the super-ego, because it opens onto the broader field of ethnographic differences, whereas psychoanalysis tends to close onto therapeutic concerns of modern western societies. Psychoanalysis is susceptible to getting trapped into alignment with representation, where it is forced to pursue the narrowly prescribed values of the market.

Deleuze’s primary critique of psychoanalysis concerns the concept of the phallus. Psychoanalysts understand that representation is generated through a phallic function, though there is disagreement over what this implies. There is a common structuralist fallacy which attributes an excess of integrity of representation, and this error leads an unfortunate exasperation of taboos. It is crucial to avoid any utopian assumptions about the structural nature of representation. So Deleuze suggests an alternative interpretation of the phallus, where it becomes a kind of pact to uphold the illusion that representation has structural integrity and that its order is somehow founded in the ideas. This simple conception of the phallus involves some inevitable irony.

In order to make this more sophisticated, we can use some anthropological mediators to bring the phallus into communication with the ideas. The term ‘phallus’ can be referred to the ethnography of the Dionysian theater, and particularly to the Satyr plays, and so we might say that phallic representation is satirical. If this satirical nature is overlooked, then there is a danger that the phallus may be taken too seriously, and this may lead to the splitting or dismemberment associated with Dionysian orgies.

The orgy is the dangerous situation which arises when the spirituality of ideas turns furiously against representation. This results from a failure in the mediation between ideas and representation. The best antidote for mitigating this risk is to insist on the cold calculation of value in terms of taste, so that the power of ideas should not imply destructive fury. The key to this was Deleuze’s turn to the inorganic, the step beyond dialectics.

This aesthetic criticism provides a vehicle for surveying some of the moods which are prevalent these days. The first order of business here is the proliferation of irony, which is a mood related to the power of eroticism, and especially it’s relation with authority. Irony may be unavoidable because of how it is constantly regenerated by contemporary conditions. This is due to mechanical and cybernetic reproduction of certain psychic dynamisms. Especially at issue here is the Kleinian pathological dynamics (projection, disavowal, introjection, incorporation, identification) which are reproduced through cybernetic feedback loops.

Irony is a persistent feature of current conditions of psycho-spiritual automation. Populations are routinely appropriated and animated as puppets of technological infrastructure, where they are implicated in an often obscure cacophony of promotional initiatives. People are forced to play along with institutional arrangements they may not understand, and where the pretense of what is happening might be extraordinarily thin. When a charade gets muddled, then people can lose the sense of the roles they are playing, and irony is an inevitable feedback effect under these conditions.

Institutional charades must appear as non-charades, and irony is the effect that occurs when this deceit is exposed. In this sense, irony is the failure of a semblance of authenticity, which is an indication of institutional dissolution. The basic paradigm here is the manager who says, “this is not a charade!” and then looks around to see if anyone is smirking.

Under these conditions, Deleuze’s conception of the phallus becomes relevant. Institutional survival may require the banning of irony which leads to a conspiracy of feigned seriousness. As E.J. Mone said, “who has not seen children laugh where adults are shocked? There is something devilish at work here”. The neutralization of irony can become a key consideration for maintaining institutional semblances.

Though despite neutralization, irony remains, regardless of whether it is acknowledged. This is where taste becomes acute ethical problem, which concerns the negotiation of double binds. If irony becomes over-whelming, then remaining non-ironic poses the danger of stupidity. In this situation, the neutralization of irony becomes a matter of taste. If irony is not suitably sublated, then the result is often a witless boredom which tends to erupt into tasteless irony, or obscenity, or cruelty. This fraying of institutional subjectivity was performed in the TV show the Office. One may be faced with the lose-lose choice between an irresponsible irony or naïve victimhood, which is the dissolute condition of ‘mock or be mocked’.

The solution to this situation involves play, or what Deleuze calls ‘humor’, which dances between the alternate hermeneutic possibilities. The danger with irony is how it can be sustained over a duration, which shows that it is related to the tediousness of obsessional or retentive symptoms. It can be understood as a doubling of the sovereign’s obsessional neurosis.

This crises of ‘boring irony’ arises due to an overinvestment in representation, which is a mistaken belief in the reality to the phallic function. The imaginary phallus has been treated as something more than a functional pretense, or like what Kant called a regulative ideal, which leads to leads to a sadistic accounting.

This crises arises because of how the ontology of production becomes inescapable, where an obsessional boredom arises as a kind of panic reaction to the intuition that there is no ontology beyond representation. Industrial production is experienced as an existential trap. This way we can interpret boredom as a variety of obsessional neurosis which is symptomatic of the ontology of labor.

Deleuze’s thinking allows us to approach this problem in terms of aesthetic taste, so that the problem becomes how being can tastefully disrupt the regime of production. This term ‘being’ here includes the chaos of the ideas that we started describing above. But this also includes the kind of corporeal synchrony associated with the sensuality of feminist poetics, or the aesthetic experience of bodily cycles. This is the unity of digestion, sleep, growth, respiration, circulation, exfoliation, speech… but in Deleuze’s Neoplatonism it is important to understand that this bodily unity is impossibly disfigured. Any term might be adopted as an allegory of the whole body (for example, eroticism would be an obvious choice), but its iteration generates a polysemy which abolishes that whole.

Laborers suffer a kind of thymotic binding which holds them in pseudo-religious exile from the sensual. Their investments in codes of honor hold them in allegiance to the order of representation, which is thus protected by a eucharistic superstition. This way free sensuality is associated with taboo enjoyment, which is enjoyment that might provoke envy, or otherwise awaken the anxiety of the gaze. The ideas are figured negatively from within representation, with is the envious gaze, or the various modalities of the sacred such as the messianic or the cursed.

This line of social criticism demonstrates some similarities with feminism. Feminism of every variety would seem to be concerned with restoring access to embodied sensuality, though Deleuze’s thinking is distinguished on this point. An idealized body tends to become a fetish which is analogous to the phallus of psychoanalysis, and is also susceptible to the lures of consumerist representation. The ideal body becomes an anti-phallus or maternal-phallus which gets wielded as a diabolic weapon of the elite female consumer. Taking the reality of embodiment seriously poses the same danger as the phallus.

Feminist poetics tends to indulge in ecstasies which transgress the restrictions on consumer enjoyment. The question I want to raise concerns how these ecstasies provoke envious gazes and get packaged as luxury experiences. Luxury markets often feed off feminist spirituality, and so this is like a remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where Helene Cixous is replaced by an evil femme-bot. Anne Dufourmantelle’s last book was called ‘The Power of Gentleness’, though it doesn’t quite reach a discussion of gentrification. It seems obvious that the female body is adopted as a model for the commodity fetish, but there seems to be little appreciation of how somatic rhetoric of feminism might be complicit in that modeling.

Restating this alternately, we could say that feminism aligns with consumerism in its ontological reductions. This is where being is reduced to sensuality, and sensuality is reduced to embodiment. This prepares for the representation of being as enjoyment which is restricted as a commodity. This explains why homosexuality is associated with luxury consumption and is suggestive of the role which humanities education plays in the system of commodity fetishism.

Now let us recap what has been said here. The ideas are ripped apart in the dismemberment of the sovereign’ s body, and we relate to them through the medium of ethnographic analysis. Their chaotic energy threatens the order of representation. Following the dismemberment of the sovereign’s body, the psychoanalysts proceed like the Egyptian goddess Isis to recover his phallus, which they believe will allow for some expressive powers of subjective representation which have some therapeutic implications. We can imagine a Rene Marguerite painting that says, ‘this is not a penis’, which would satirize this endeavor to recover this imaginary object. Meanwhile, feminists are trying to recover a utopic experience of sensual embodiment, trying to reassemble the whole body of the queen. This is a fantasy of luxury consumption where sacred ecstasy provokes the envious gazes of the masses who are trapped in the ontology of production. Feminism is a source of tantalizing fantasies of the sensual, which can be associated with all sorts of romances, which are packaged as enjoyable experiences befitting the higher classes.

The intention here is to affirm psychoanalysis and feminism as extraordinary adventures. They are important allies in the task of tastefully disrupting representation. It’s just that Deleuze prefers his allies joyously dismemberment, because that is when they give up the ghost of their ideas. Hence Deleuzians tend to have few friends, though the are ready to affirm anyone to death.

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The Means of Literature

The concept of literature received attention in the decades following Maurice Blanchot’s books of the mid-20th century. Those books induced a suspension of generic segregations, which bifurcated the forms of linguistic communication and initiated adventures into unprecedented literacies. Such experimentation might seem passé these days, when criticism tends to focus on specific works that are already identifiable as “fiction”, without open speculations about what literature might become. But I’ve been contemplating how the refrains from those wild days of literary criticism might have aged.

Blanchot experimented with treating absence as literature’s own proper modality. This situates writing beyond the binary distinction between existence and non-existence, in the zone of the inexistent. This is the mode of ontological thirdness which has returned at various points in philosophy ever since it was highlighted in Heidegger’s Kantbuch of 1928, which disclosed a way of circumventing Hegelianism which has been well-trodden ever since. This meant treating the third not as a synthesis that resolves a contradiction, but by adopting the contradiction itself as a vehicle for the speculative transformation of conditions. This approach to literature still seems implicit in much current philosophy.

The intentional force of questioning incessantly into the unknown, without any hope of conclusion, is irresponsible in some sense. In literary speculations of the broader Blanchovian strain, obscure liberties were taken for apparently excessive reiterations, and restrictions on the dimensions of thought-play were dispensed. If today there is any continued controversy surrounding these enigmatic experiments, then perhaps it might take up this issue of reiterative play-time, and on how to delimit dimensions of the openings where original developments in literacy could take place. Although it may have drifted from attention, it seems this issue about the scheduling of creative literacy has never left us.

Deconstruction was conspicuous for it’s relentless reiterations. This implied a manner of dispensing with conventional ends, and with some assumptions about how time should be spent. Those digressions into aporiac polysemy struck many as a shameless skirting of intellectual responsibility. But there were also some who argued the opposite, such as Georgio Agamben’s suggestion that deconstruction didn’t go far enough in the abandonment of ends.

Yet these two opposed criticisms are not necessarily incompatible, if we say that deconstruction didn’t take us far enough towards the end of abandoning ends. Isn’t it perhaps the case that when Derrida pronounced the ideas of democracy and justice ‘undeconstructable’, that he may have left intact a certain unaccounted liberal ideology? It seems that perhaps he left his readers subjugated by certain habits and techniques associated with a legacy of European political language.

This issue relates to Derrida’s inadequate theorization of numbers, and to the way critical consciousness has been compromised by technocracy. He did not foresee how those allegedly undeconstructable ideas would be quantified within a system of numerical improvements, and how this would reduce politics to a matter of measurable accomplishments. A litany of performance variables originates in economic evaluation and extends into education, health, environment, justice, culture, nature… where each territory is institutionally subjected to economic measurement. This has reached the absurd point where today there are managers who worry about how many visitors a museum receives.

This ideology can be described as a specific form of value-perception. This is a system that is always expanding and reconsolidating, annexing new territories and inventing new codes, capturing populations ever more deeply into the webs of accumulation, where values are ceaselessly added and multiplied. This system is highly insidious, meaning that it insinuates itself where it is least expected.

Avoiding this web of accumulation requires that observation and thought are extricated from action. Subjective action reduces the scale of observation to the frames of instumental intentionality, and so even the most obscure of active intentions can trigger the codes of value-perception. What must be appreciated about this system are it’s tremendous magnitudes – it’s range, density, depth, momentum – along with the singular ways our observations are already implicated within its net. There is tremendous opacity in its operation, and in the power of its gaze, and so one mustn’t proceed on the naïve assumption that there is anything obvious or even regrettable about this machine. Any assumed value judgments are insiduous. Thoughtless grievances used as pretenses for solidarity are often the Achilles heal of criticism: the comproming attachment to the residues of old antagonisms. One’s position with regard to the system is in constant motion, and so it always must be continually rethought from scratch assuming nothing.

The system’s core principle is the universal exchangeability of values, which it maintains through the most elaborate subterfuges. This is the point where literature must maintain its maximum vigilance. If writing naively pursues any readily exchangeable ideological values (happiness, health, justice, wealth, beauty, intelligence, truth…) then it is easily assimilated into the system. Only by keeping this vigil against the ideology of exchange might one even cultivate the capacity to distinguish between the assimilable and the unassimilable.

Through the purification of means, a corner of literature might be separated from the assimilable. This does not dispense entirely with ends, but rather transposes them onto a mode of uncertainty beyond the range of stochastic calculation. Rendering ideas essentially undetermined saves them from getting captured in the net of utilitarian values and associated verisimilitudes.

One literary means is to prod the sensitive zones and the liminal corners which conceal the naval-scars of original composition. In its ideological simulacrum, a social body is conceived as a utopia, which means that it exhibits the value-qualities of totality, integrity, symmetry and consistency. By nudging along the obscure seams where this utopic simulacral fabric is held together, it is possible to induce fluxes of traumatic energy. This creates the kind of disequilibrium which Marcel Mauss associated with the gift, or like what Nietzsche says about revenge, and which the ancient Greeks called thymos. As this uncouth energy is released from conceptual identity, it becomes a protean power beneath representation. This power might be expressed as romantic idealism (Hyperion), or as offended honor (Agamemnon), but these canonical masks conceal something stranger and more uncertain.

When the navel of utopic representation is disturbed, then people may start acting strangely. This obscure sort of accident typically goes unrecognized. Some excuse may be offered for the unusual behavior, such as the boredom that follows the collapse of ideals. There might be ugliness or even cruelty. This affective disturbance can set into motion another kind of exchange which breaks with the logic of value-perception.

This induction of trauma has unpredictable consequences, the most notable of which being love and war. War is a constant throughout human history which always turns up on every single dice roll. There is no avoiding the inevitability of war, and literature dirties its hands in this horrifying ordeal. This incurs the burden of ethical conundrums concerning eroticization, the sublimation of violence, the mutual contamination between the political and the aesthetic, and the problem of action and its thymotic coloration.

This cycle of deterritorialization and reterritorialization is always underway at different scales, regardless of whether literature intervenes. Capitalism inevitably gets boring and people get offended, and so the icons of value-perception inevitably get smashed, and the energy they contain gets released and recaptured otherwise. Literature has the capacity to release and recapture energy, but nothing guarantees the efficacy of these interventions, and it’s impossible to predict how fluxes of surplus might get recoded.

This deconstructive ethics of navel-prodding demands consistency with the stitching of representation. The traumatic flux shouldn’t simply break with value-perception, but rather slip out through its singular weaving, carrying with it the sense of destiny. This dialectical contact is gently regicidal.

In order to recode this free flux, it can be distributed between three political subjugations: class-politics, identity-politics and ethno-politics. These are simulacral masks which convert the phantasm of free-flux into renegade subjectivity, that is, which attacks representation from different angles. From a literary perspective, these masks can be easily switched around and are always getting confused, so that a masquerade ensues in the wake of traumatic decoding. For example, an identity-politics of the excluded other easily harbors a racist ethno-politics, just as the class-politics of the economically excluded may provide a cover for elitism.

Leftist psychoanalysts have associated political subjects with clinical symptoms. For example, the sort of affluent liberals who endorse the status quo are said to be obsessional neurotics who repress whatever might disrupt the order of value perception. They would not be considered political (in this literary sense we are introducing here) because they repress the bumps and glitches associated with classes, identities or ethnicities. Clinicians analyze these other more properly political orientations according to other symptoms such as perversion or hysteria.

There is reason to hesitate before this sort of clinical analysis, which poses the danger of a conceptual reduction to a verisimilitude that washes over singularity. Such abstract typologies inevitably obscure more concrete regional topologies, and distract from the more essential problem of code-flux pairings and the gauging of their viscosity. And there is reason to suspect that politicized psychoanalysis may harbor Apollonian biases against a Dionysian ethno-politics which it may dismiss as unfathomably pathological.

Here we must initiate a critique of Slavoj Zizek by focusing on how his ethnic orientation comes in and out of play in his political analysis. This is not to assume that he harbors a repressed ethno-politics (who knows?), but more to consider how his ethnicity works at a performative level, along the lines of what Deleuze called conceptual personae. The case of psychoanalysis overall becomes an investigation into the ethnic variability of phallic metaphors. This line of criticism renders Zizek even more conspicuously European, and attempts to disclose western philosophy as a hodge-podge of quirky ethnic traditions, relieving it of universalist pretensions.

Where the left is split between radical class-politics and liberal identity-politics, literature should pursue their vanishing third, which is their ethno-political abgrund. There will obviously be suspicions regarding the apparent irrationality of stirrings in this dimension, which has a bad reputation because it is associated with reactionary violence, or else with the tedium and apparent banalities of multiculturalism. Literature has to deliver the ethnopolitical beyond this scylla and charybdis, to discover a neutral receptacle of antiquated habits, atavisms, recapitulations, the arcane. As the reader may have already anticipated at this point, in order to account rationally for this ethnopolitical line of criticism, let’s reconsider some of Walter Benjamin’s suggestions concerning messianism, translation and especially the aesthetic implications of Nachleben.

The literary rationale that shall be suggested here might be called an ‘antique non-rapport’. This recasts Lacan’s sexual non-rapport in a broader and more chaotic situation, which is planetary or inter-regional, and which has been obscurely underway for eons. When a certain ethnic identity is attributed to someone, where it is said that they are Polish or Patagonian, the unconscious significance of that statement would depend on the topological conditions of this non-rapport. The conscious signifier is emptied of all significance. We can catch glimpses of this strange unconscious dimension by studying the odd distinctions between old derogatory ethnic terms like barbarian, savage, tartar, primitive, Semite etc. Old Chinese dictionaries contain opaque characters with animal radicals which seem to be associated more with traits than with groups of actual people. These symbols of non-rapport have equivocal connotations, and literature pursues these equivocities beyond the deconstruction of binaries and the dialectics of civility, and into strange aesthetic encounters.

Commodification of course also follows these vectors of alterity. This is the quest for novelty, adventure, exoticism, and authenticity. Here literature competes with the commodity over access to the real, and provides satisfactions which aren’t available on the market.

The aesthetic is separated from other dimensions through the process of de-sanctification or profanation. The ethno-political disseminates a poisonous aura of the sacred, with its terrifying taboos, parochial superstitions and thymotic conservatism. The ideologies of identity and class secretly draw their energy from this transcendent source, which literature attempts to render immanent. It approaches the ethno-political as a kind of readymade, which it defamiliarizes to convert its energy to the aesthetic. As an example, consider how Gerhard Richter painted his uncle Rudy in Nazi uniform, converting the energy that was trapped in ethno-political antagonisms into art, and thereby smashing the iconology of value-perception.

By prodding the unconscious non-rapport of the ethnopolitical, literature disturbs the sacred constitution of classes and identities. This induces the sensation of Nachleben, the afterlife where objects return from older layers of memory. These objects touch sensitive points, because they interfere with the composition of identity or class. By the power of their authenticity, these objects displace the framing of sanctification. It is not that these are exactly totemic or ancestral objects, but rather objects which displace them. So they are like anti-totemic objects of an ethno-real dimension. They evidence a previous situation or event which value-perception presupposes yet excludes from consciousness. This wrecks the grid of representation, leaving only the disaster of the aesthetic.

This prodding also provokes the sensation of the Unheimlichkeit, which tends to merge with the sensation of deja vu. Identity and class involve splits where parts of the self are alienated in others, but with the return of the energy of the ethno-political there is a surprise where the other turns out to have been the self all along. This kind of awakening is also associated with the infamous ‘weak messianism’, where the revelation of an original non-rapport exempts the other from ideological interpolation by breaking the spell of the gaze.

So, literature has the means to assume something of an ethical end, which is Kanto-Lacanian in an anarchistic or autonomist way. This end relates to Benjamin’s theory of messianic translation, where each language is like a piece of a puzzle, and they fit together by filling in each other’s negative gaps. So, writing sensitizes to the negative gaps in language which must be punctuated as empty seats awaiting unknown others. Each strain of writing expresses only itself and the adjacent emptiness, witnessing it’s own unique ordeals at its limits, while other languages merge with that testimony. In this way, Benjamin elaborated for us a cosmopolitan theory of providence in rational materialist terms.

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The Neutral Spirit

Tonight’s experiment is a venture into operatic philosophy. On the stage appears a protagonist we shall call the Neutral Spirit. His sidekick is the Fetishist. His adversary is the Subject, who is supported by the Psychoanalyst and the Ethnographer. The Neutral Spirit disdains this Subject as a usurper of his neutrality. He resents how the odious Subject passes off parochial narcissism as the universal virtue of liberalism. The fetish is a conjunctive operation and a medium between these two conflicting personas. This is a drama of reification and anti-reification.

The burden of subjectivity has been increasing for centuries, and the populations of the earth are groaning under its yoke. Max Weber highlighted Calvinism as a watershed event in its ascendance, and the Subject’s further development has been reinforced by enlightenment, industrialism, and revolution. Cartesian doubt was the key that opened its mysterious vacuity, which led to the generation of imaginary Kantian schemas, and the romantic allure of historical uncertainty. Enchanted populations are burdened with the weight of personal responsibility and existential uncertainty, and ultimately delivered to the Tantalean consumerism of perpetually dissatisfied ambition.

In his remote lair, the Neutral Spirit devises a tactical plan to capture the Subject and convert it to the Way of the Void. The adversary is Mercurial, disappearing into the holes in interpolation, and slipping from discipline to discipline. Several armies of intellectual subjectivism must be defeated, until none are left to provide technical and logistical support for the Subject. This campaigns demands perseverance and Haephestian cunning.

Our Hero surveys the ranks of his adversary’s troups. First, there are the legions of vulgar psychoanalysis. Our Hero shakes his head at this insidious subjective ideology, hearing only a thinly disguised religious myth about the need for paternity as a sort of mantra to dispel medusa. In that clinical theory, the gaze is conceived as an interruption of the subject’s smooth operation, which can even trigger psychosis in extreme conditions. This is allegedly because the gaze destroys an imaginary support which had substituted for some inadequate representational functions. Our Hero knows that the supposed gaze, their bete noir, is only a threat to the parochial religiosity of the Subject. The gaze is a dynamo that upsets the feeble architecture of provincial symbols. The problem is the Subject’s daintiness, which is called its sexuality or its sanctity. The Neutral Spirit needn’t entertain these superstitions about signifiers, because he is fortified with the power of the Fetish.

Besides the formidable psychoanalytic garrison, there are also the Ethnographic missions who propagate the subjective creed to all corners of the Earth. These are itinerant bureaucrats who traffic in the documents of subjection. Their analytical mobility requires that they ‘travel light’ as Bruno Latour says, only carrying minimal conceptual equipment, unlike the heavy artillery available to the sedentary clinicians. Ethnographic concepts are cloaked in the verisimilitude of the quotidian. They must appear unexceptional and ‘on par’ with those that appear ‘in the field’. Translation becomes a sort of ethics, which discloses the apparently equal contingency of the terms. But the Neutral Spirit rolls his eyes at this false neutrality, seeing through the disguises these missionaries have donned to infiltrate their parishes more effectively. This assumption that ‘we are all subjects alike’ is the insiduous metaphysical veil of liberal hypocrisy. The neojesuites have gone incognito as laymen.

The wily Ethnographer takes pains to keep subjectivity conspicuous, as a magician rolls up his sleeves. He gently mirrors the tribesman in a transferential pair. This imaginary kinship allows for a sympathetic penetration into the empirical field. The tribesman might speak passionately about their supposed vanishing traditions just because they assume that is what an anthropologist would want to hear. Perhaps they only become a tribesman when the Subject is invoked by the Ethnographer. Anthropology is a roving bastion of subjective spirit, collecting testimony of community, culture, religion, politics, sexuality, law, economics… the domains of interpolation.

The Neutral Spirit studies the Subject’s singular gestures and deceits. Subjectivity can be feigned or concealed, and it is usually repressed. It’s a relational form that depends on complimentary symbolic differences, and so it only exists in the way that structures are animated. It implies an inter-facial symmetry. It is a way of taking up relative positions, which are roles for possible interpolations. Whether someone is a scientist depends not just on who they are talking to, but how they are interpolated, which isn’t ultimately a positive fact. This uncertainty is part of the Subject’s insidiousness, which is the bane of the Neutral Spirit.

The Neutral Spirit believes that subjectivity is nearing an apotheosis which could become it’s final destiny. He wonders if perhaps a chrysalis might be hatching into a butterfly, and strives to provoke this event. The onslaught of social media accelerates the apotheosis of the subject, the point where this usurper can ascend no further. Such an apex would accord with the natural order of homeostatic fluctuations, and the dialectical reversal of negativity into positivity. There are two factors making subjectivity tenuous:

  1. 1. The increasing chaos of media disrupts interpolation, and so there is a greater difficulty in discerning a suitable signal. This is like narcissus desperately looking for his reflection in an unstable surface.

  2. 2. There is a sharpening contradiction between representation and representability (i.e. uniqueness). This is the obligation to stand out, where everyone must be ‘not just a machine’, a demand for original sentience. This way consumerism reproduces the religious ban on fetishism.

The Subject is the enthrallement by a tantalizing fantasy of freedom on the verge of dissipation. The unbearable lightness of a swooning liberal utopianism. This is a naive fancy of youth, but more specifically a naivety of religion, enlightenment, revolution and industry. Romantic, classical or modern according to convenience. In a Fichtean sense, the Subject is a non-object, which means a non-thing, non-machine, non-animal, not-infant… this negativity is the refusal of the fetish (the idol, the icon). The Neutral Spirit is intrigued by consumerist iterations of this traditional refusal, which sound like chickens coming home to roost.

The Fetishist (wearing a grass skirt) approaches the Subject who is predictably offended, as it is obliged to maintain a semblance of responsibility. This is the ethics of subjective verisimilitude. The ideal of responsible maturity implies the acceptance of some loss, and this acceptance requires the rejection of the fetish. So the Subject must distinguish itself from the Fetishist who denies the loss. It negates the fetish as something incompatible with adulthood, which depends on some absence. This absence is required for the appearance of virtue. The fetish must be rejected because it would blemish the proper vacancy of adulthood.

The Subject distinguishes himself from the Fetishist who they suppose is mistakenly trying to possess the unpossessable. The Psychoanalyst aligns with this rhetoric of subjectivity, treating the fetish as a substitute for a missing symbol that would complete some symbolic order. This casts the Fetishist as a delusional idealist or perfectionist. It’s as if they were seeking a refutation of Godel’s proof, so they could complete the Russelian bureaucracy of symbols.

The Neutral Spirit intervenes to attack the Psychoanalyst on two points. The first point of attack here is the use of metaphors from the sciences and mathematics to insist on the necessity of symbolic representation. Economists similarly use scientific metaphors in their rhetoric of institutional necessity. This emphasis on technical symbols reveals the Subject as an automaton. The second point of attack is on the pretext of universal humanism, or the denial of ethnic variability in the metaphores of ideation.

Against the rhetoric of subjectivity, the Neutral Spirit treats the fetish as a quotidian catalyst that facilitates exchanges and mobilizes circuits of substitution. These are not manic attempts to complete some perfect order, but just haphazard patches that resolve the everyday seizure of relations. They are ways of getting things in motion. This is not so much a structural condition, but just a recourse for maintaining a semblance of operativity.

Subjectivity is inhibited by its limited recourse to fetishes, which are often incompatible with its ideals of responsibility. The Subject may have to use them ironically, or according to some fashion. Or else they engage in the cumbersome rationalization of their use. They are a source of embarrassment because they are breaches in responsibility. To uphold an essential semblance of respectability, it is necessary to eliminate the inconsistencies which are too salient for the subject’s narcissism. And since the recourse to fetishes is inevitable, their repression makes the Subject neurotic.

The tension between subjectivity and fetishism corresponds with the Freudian tension between neurosis and perversion. This distinction provides the key for a social hermeneutic. The neurotic Subject distinguishes its modernity in the manner of rational humanists, liberal cosmopolitans, educated technocrats. It identifies with the status quo of the establishment, and attempts to fortify institutions against the risks posed by perversion.

Subject and Fetishist are distinguished by their attitudes towards continuity. The Subject insists on maintaining symbolic continuity, and this leads to the revenge of disjunctions. The fetishist, on the other hand, assumes disjunction as primary, and builds secondary continuities around disjunctive fetishes which operate allegorically to keep exchanges in motion. This would seem to suggest the evolutionary triumph of fetishism.

To stage this encounter, the Neutral Spirit constructs a theater at the limits of subjectivity. This act must take place at the edge of interpolation, where content and expression separate. Where the Subject bears the severe moods of mortal finitude, this weight is lifted at this threshold and gives way to comic pathos.

The most resilient aspect of subjectivity is the super-egoic imperative to enjoy, which is a residue of archaic dignitas. The conquest of subjectivity would seem to hinge on the breaking of this spell. This does not concern enjoyment which is experienced, but rather enjoyment which is perceived through the gaze. Inadequate enjoyment causes anxiety, and the aggravation of the Subject. The sleeping Frankenstein is awakened by dissatisfaction. So, the Neutral Spirit constructs the theater around this homeostatic regime of transcendental consumption.

There is a comic tennis match where the Subject projects the fetish, while the Fetishist projects enjoyment. The Subject’s projection is a disidentification, whereas the Fetishist’s projection is an identification, a delegation of enjoyment. The Fetishist refuses to enjoy directly, and prefers to enjoy through the Subject. In each case, the one projects what the other wants. This is a fractal recapitulation where the Fetishist repeats the gestures of subjectivity in reverse. This stages the distance between the two personas, and breaks their mirror symmetry.

To abolish the law of the superego, this theater stages acts of ideal consumption. This is where mere consumerism gives way to aesthetic satisfaction. Mere consumerism is limited to the conceptual matrix of representation, so that instances of consumption are modelled as political, sexual, cinematic, culinary etc. But beyond these representable experiences of enjoyment, there is also the possibility for aesthetic satisfactions which disrupt this matrix. The neutral gaze is not satisfied with mere representation.

Aesthetic satisfaction here is not merely a transgression of the law, nor a sacrifice of representation, though both may be implied. Rather, this is an accession to an essential destiny of the Subject which can be realized only in radical singularity. This is the revelation that the various representational domains such as religion, economy and politics are so many homological masks worn by the same strange monster. Consumerism brings these various domains together into an interference which is the swan song where the Subject is lured towards its fatal encounter with this indifferent god. Meanwhile, the Neutral Spirit goes to buy more popcorn.

The Neutral Spirit throws off the guise of the Fetishist, and approaches the Subject directly. Since the Subject is an automaton and the Neutral Spirit is a monster of real, they have a certain attraction. But once the automation is overly exposed to the real, then it starts to disintegrate, and then the Subject usually flees in panic, when they realize the Neutral Spirit doesn’t have a face. As the Subject loses its automated symbolic infrastructure, then it is shocked by the abyss of its own real.

The Neutral Spirit plays with the Subject ambivalently, again becoming the Fetishist to appear comforting. The Subject is easily fascinated with the real, but this fascination must be administered in careful playful doses. The Subject must be able to assert its own vulgar sense of neutrality, which is always parochial, a barrier against a full encounter with the Neutral Spirit. It’s this parochial naivety which allows the Subject to circulate in society – it’s their subjection to a social pact of timid finitude. In this limitation is inscribe the symbolic lack of the other. This subjective lack seduces the Neutral Spirit, and his existence is threatened by this ambivalence. If he interpolates the lack, then he falls in love and becomes a Subject, giving up his neutrality. This dangerous melange-a-trois is played at the edge of interpolation, while the Psychoanalyst and Ethnographer cringe in the background.

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Ethnolit Bulleted

1. Ethnolit is an anti-commodity with the form of this world’s own absence of literature.

2. Where commodities tantalize with impossible intimacy, this fetish-writing is the non-rapport of a finite absolute.

3. As the quest for contingency lures psychoanalysis into the ethnic unconscious, it discovers literature as an ancient perversion of accumulation.

4.Cultural destitution is the engine of ethnolit, i.e. the slur as a complaint about non-relation.

5. Slavoj Zizek testifies for a disappearing epoch by disturbing inter-regional fantasies with his xenoflesh.

6. Ethnolit sublimates the obsessional gridlock of imaginary antagonisms.

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