Colleagues around the office seek pity. They complain about their plight as poor Chinese caught in the fetters of outrageous demographics, and ground by the gears of mindless institutions, and I’m struggling with how to respond to this. In the common liberal ethics that turns around care, pity can be a sort of benevolent compromise, which is a last resort for a humane relation. It arises at a point where there could have been meanness, like disgust or offence or mockery, or else just cold indifference. Someone looking for pity is like a beggar seeking a morsel of dignity. They want a low-grade substitute to compensate for an unsatisfied need for representation.
I think pity is insidious because of how avoids pathos. You might say it robs pathos of its propriety. By the rules of politeness we get caught into an alternative between pity and meanness, and I consider this alternative as a kind of wall against pathos. My problem is how to maintain an authentic access to pathos, and for this it is necessary to avoid both pity and meanness.
What I mean by pathos here is a dimension of sovereign affect. This is life abandoned in the real, where we all exist in this anonymous, a-personhood beyond any possible experience.
Besides abjection, pathos also implies a kind of objectivity. This is a person as they are objectively, as they are subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Charlie Chaplin in Modern Life provides a model for this kind of subjection, as he moves through the levels of failure. At first he desperately tries to succeed as a factory worker, and then when failure becomes certain, he tries to fail by getting himself arrested. And then eventually he fails at failure, and this second order of failure brings us to a dimension of absolute pathos. Where a successful failure would add some bit of dignity, a chance for some representation, this second failure nullifies that possibility. This is how I understand Samuel Beckett when he said “fail better”. So I want to help my colleagues fail better, so they can reach the level of absolute pathos.
Absolute pathos corresponds with the dimension of instinct, where populations are tossed around by raw material forces. In the domain of symbolic representation, these forces are valued as power, which means they are both terrible and majestic. In the doxological sphere of civility this absolute pathos cannot be presented, and so we get caught in this frustrating alternative between pity and meanness.
Our public sphere is somehow grounded in pity. There is an incessant concern with who deserves it, which is not unrelated to who deserves mourning. In its flight from absolute pathos, liberal politics maintains its façade.
So this is a way of interpreting the contemporary aesthetic-political situation, where the public is this dimension of false politics, where everyone succumbs to this timid prissiness. There is the occasional appearance of a monster like Steve Bannon, who is a returning shard of repressed pathos.
If we choose to not participate in this false politics, then we must get ourselves abandoned into the turbulence of sovereignty. One must discover a margin of exile from which society can be transformed once again.
This ethical attitude is summarized in the old expression “resignation ad infernum”. Falling under the spell of an absolute pathos is so contrary to common etiquette because it inverts the vertical values of goodness. Charles Darwin titled his book The Descent of Man, and there is an evolutionary problem about how man can descend into terrible majesty. The problem arises of how to bear the friendship of the abject pitilessly.
I want to break with liberal doxology at decisive points. Jacques Derrida claimed that justice was undeconstructable, and I feel it is necessary to interject on this point. Derrida made the irrepressibility of the demand for justice into a kind of religiosity, and this sort of zealotry leaves liberalism with its heavy emphasis on how sovereignty should be answerable to justice. The neo-religious modality of this “should” tends to possess liberalism in a way that is blinding, and it’s at this blind spot that I think ethics could depart again for something else.
The blind trance of liberal idealism can be interrupted by a realism through the simple logic of the Pindarian maxim “It is good to follow the just, it is necessary to follow the strong.” This “necessary” can be interpreted so that it is not a logical or legal necessity, as in “if you don’t follow the strong, then they will punish you”, but something more profound. Rather, this can be read as a transcendental, apriori necessity, in that forces of the strong were responsible for our own constitution, and these forces condition us with limits which we are constitutively incapable of crossing. So in this way of thinking, strength has a real priority over justice, as our ideal of justice would be a secondary result of how we were constituted by strength, and so the neo-religious idealists are out of touch with the conditions of their existence. From this transcendental realist perspective, this priority of strength is beyond moral or ethical values because it concerns the power that constitutes us. Liberalism becomes hypocritical in a very naïve way when it disregards these forces behind its own subjective constitution.
So the prevailing political doxology in its neo-religious idealism is infected with pity because it refuses to consider real conditions of power.
The dimension of absolute pathos is in constant flux, but let me mention some reference points in the classical texts. It was pointed out recently that Freud’s discussion of the primal horde is profoundly Hobbessian. It is not that there is anything correct about this model, but just that it provides a common way of describing the dimension of sovereign abjection. The humanities discourse of the past few centuries can be read as a liberal disavowal of this realm of the dark precursor, regardless of whether we think Hobbes and Freud got it right.
When Parisian philosophy was introduced into North American universities in the later 20th century, it was marketed as a form of leftist zealotry spiced up with disco lights and celebrity cults. Essential conservative aspects of the avant garde were obscured in order to create an easily digestible version of political history, where progress was conceived as a continuation of leftist resistance against the Nazis. A French poodle was sent strutting down the catwalk as an ideal of righteousness and benevolence. The conservative or aristocratic side of Parisian philosophy was still there, but its sovereign abjection was neutralized into the masochistic sexuality of whips and leather.
It is difficult to speak of the dark precursor, because doxologists are always waiting to exclude anything so intensive from the domain of politeness. The term “fascist” is used for anything remotely dangerous, which means anything remotely consequential in terms political aesthetics.
The humanities were blinded to the aristocratic side of aesthetic philosophy. This is a dimension which offends liberal sensibilities, and yet has nothing whatsoever to do with leftism. This is a non-Jacobin radicalism that runs through the Symbolists, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Blanchot, Klossowski… and links up with Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss. From this angle, I believe we can reinterpret monumental breaches in liberal etiquette, such as the anti-Semiticism of Ezra Pound, the Nazism of Martin Heidegger, and the ideas of the discredited Paul de Mann.
The poet Anne Carson is a more contemporary reference point in this discussion, if we consider how her Homeric tendencies raise the question of violence and literature. Someone said that she “sublimates” the violence of the Homeric poetry, and I want to consider the interpretation of this word “sublimate”. Liberal doxologists want to establish the value of sublimation as a movement that is vertical in a trivial sense, where something old and evil magically becomes something new and good. This is a sloppy hermeneutic that wants to quickly cash in aesthetics for the coin of a universally exchangeable virtue ethics. Instead of this vertical movement, I would emphasize a process of awakening, where a subject is realizing how they are already subjugated by some ancient conditions. So the poetry does not change the ancient violent forces themselves, and all it changes is our awareness of them. A civilized person in this sense is someone who freely experiments with how they are disposed of by violence. Carson’s poetry awakens us to the reality of this violent disposal. But poetry considered as such an awakening force can easily become indistinguishable from violence itself. Here are some violent lines from Carson’s 1996 collection Decreation:
Here we go mother on a shipless ocean.
Pity us. Pity the Ocean. Here we go.
It is well known that all avante gaarde aesthetics can be read as a perverse assault on the maternal body. These are perverts getting away with touching the mother/matter in ways that no one had previously dared. They are “ahead” in their exhilarating transgression of the maternal body. When we read the line “here we go mother”, we need to consider the physics of this movement. What forces are carrying this movement along? Is her mother being coaxed or pulled? Is there perhaps a shade of adolescent vindictiveness here, in that maybe mother is being taken in a direction which she had feared all along. Maybe now she has grown too old and cannot resist any longer. Shipless ocean can be an allegory for sovereign abjection, or the objective dimension of forces that subjectify us, and constitutes us as abandoned subjects. The “here we go…” has a sense of destiny, as if this “going” had been an imminent danger all along. Being pulled under the power of the dark precursor will ruin dignity, representation, reputation… this descent into abjection is allegorized as the psychopompic voyage to Hades. Pity is a last resort for a living relation – the last chance to recognize members of a human community. But then this line “pity the ocean” disfigures the sense of pity. We might say it sacrifices pity. If being pitiable is a failure of humanity, then throwing pity to the ocean is like the failure of failure, and the movement beyond pity into the dimension of absolute pathos.
Pity is in the threshold at the limit of symbolic relations, along with other affects such as shame, disgust and fear. These relations emerge when more virtuous relations are impossible, and whatever lies beyond these might be called anxiety. But the important question is whether there is something else besides anxiety which can exist in the dimension of sovereign abandonment. It seems that overcoming the anxiety of this dimension might require a transposition of liminal symbolic affects, as if pity could somehow be translated beyond the customary thresholds of representation and become something else. If “pity us” is a kind of symbolic failure, then “pity the ocean” could be an aufebung that translates this threshold relation into the abandoned currents of the beyond, as if pity removed its doxological mask to reveal a strange indigenous relation from the zone of absolute pathos.
Belgian waffles are popular in China, but here in Jiangxi they are usually made with rice flour. So these waffles are only “Belgian” in their shape and appearance, but not in their substance, texture or taste. This disjunction is an allegory of modern times, when appearances are spilling and getting displaced from their original substances. For instance, consider how China itself is a supposedly 5000-year-old country which was created in 1911. Layers of material get decoupled and spill out of joint, so there is a series of cascading displacements which reaches ever greater magnitudes. Leftism is a kind of Sunday School that emphasizes the deadly sins of greed and vanity, and since its currency is morality it ignores the deeper process. The sensational drama of sin identifies capitalism with exploitation, and the question of whether there is something more essential never arises. It seems only secularism can abolish this moral drama. As our initiation into material modernity advances, then we discover a physics of displacement which constitutes the underlying process. One has to be dumbfounded by the immutability of this process, as well as its ambivalence, in that it is both deadly and miraculous. The poverty of the homeless may be terrible, but it is also undeniably a nest of majesty, and modernity is an initiation into the practice of stepping from the abject to the majestic. Empty blocks of luxury apartments may once have riled our Celtic blood, but then eventually the plastic rubble of antiquity becomes an anointing grove-balm. This terrible movement of creation is one of excarnation or excription, where the interior self-reference is endlessly driven outside of itself. Here in China, the practitioners of advanced modernity are tracking the leaking of this empire, as it proceeds under the pressures of ancestral modernity. This tracking practice links to various global topics such as real estate, currencies, credit instruments, education, entertainment, transportation, and tourism. This process of excription, where China is continually driven outside, tends to be a sneaky process, because it threatens to ruin the domestic markets. The entire domestic market could be considered a huge bait-and-switch trap, in that it’s a distraction arranged to facilitate the escape of the elites. Most notorious here are the “loose officials” who gradually excribe themselves by taking on foreign media, spouses, education… and drifting towards a final move abroad, which is a sort of mirage of ultimate ethnic betrayal that hovers eternally on the horizon. They arrange a domestic market of Belgian waffles made with rice flour, in order that they may eat waffles in Belgium. The leftist inclination is to construe this as a moral story about outrageous injustice which must be stopped. But this moralizing gets tiring, and seems rather futile. The drama that we call capitalism is only a superficial reflection of a deeper material process of displacement, where populations are subjected to an exogenous pressure for escape. The critical sensations are not deadly sins, but rather an anonymous suffocation, or strangulation, or a double-bind that forces the violation of an incest taboo, so that something foreign is desperately needed. So the term “capitalism” refers to something much stranger than the Sunday school drama of leftism wants to consider, and perhaps this is what Rilke complained about when he wrote obscurely in the Notebooks of Malte Brigge: “…now it was growing from within me like a tumor, like a second head… and it was part of me, though it surely could not be mine because it was so big… the blood was loth to pass it… its margin cast a shadow on my remaining eye.” This is an ancestral pressure which drives the Chinese into a pageantry of alter-Sinification, and the most notoriously leaky areas in this respect are along the Southern Coastlines of Guangdong and Fujian. This trans-ethnic intercourse is performed spectacularly by Cantonese stars like Jackie Chan. His latest film is set in India and Dubai, and he plays an antiques expert investigating jewelry theft. This is monstrous allegory, where the action hero is an intellectual who investigates jewelry theft. Open Sesame? Hong Kong jewelers are a conspicuously salient aspect of the Chinese city. There is an unusual practice of selling diamonds especially for Thanksgiving (sic), as though that were a normal practice abroad, which is a form of theft faster than Jackie Chan. But “theft” is one of those humanistic moral terms that we use in the Sunday school dramas of heroism, with their tests of sin and suffering. But in an adult sermon it is important to discuss realistic topics, like how the ancestors secretly threaten to force the blood from our veins if we don’t change our place.
What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire (2014) by Noam Yuran is an intriguing work on the philosophy of economics. What follows is one of my typically adventurous book reviews. This will attempt to situate the theory within a broader discursive problematic, and consider how such a philosophy might support the development of a future economics.
This is a mysterious book, and perhaps it is even mystical. The development of something quite original is underway here. A new conception of economy is emerging. Distinct patterns are appearing, though there is much uncertainty concerning how this might proceed. So readers of such a book are implicated in a sort of midwifery, and this calls for hermeneutic reflection on the process that is underway.
Orthodox economics assumes a common sense rationality of the everyman. By assuming people are rational in some obvious way, it aligns itself with modernization ideologies related to liberal democracies and evolutionary biology. Economic behavior is assumed to be rational, whether as a result of education or evolution. And this is a certain form of rationality, so that subjects behave like English shopkeepers, as Marx once quipped. This rationality can be a dignifying quality that separates civilized men from the savages.
But we know there is something awry with this model of Homo Economicus, and a future economics would have to conceive economic behavior otherwise. It would have to introduce some dimension of subjectivity that goes beyond this rational actor. Yuran’s book addresses this problem of how economic behavior might be understood otherwise. It proposes some conceptual shifts in how we understand market behavior in relation with money. These shifts could have profound consequences. Economic rationality is not just a concern for economists, because these models are at the core of social relations, where they affect how people communicate and interpret behavior.
This book introduces a concept of the sublime into economic theory. The sublime is normally considered an aesthetic dimension, and there is a problematic about the relationship between economics and aesthetics. This area of theory is something of a polemical minefield. There is a legacy of animosity between bourgeois positivism and romantic aestheticism, and the move of introducing an economic sublime could easily be interpreted as another episode in the age-old logos-mythos debate.
For negotiating through this terrain, it seems important to hold close to the problem of a future economics. Any viable economics ultimately can only succeed as a boring, mundane activity, and there is a danger that literary aesthetics could distract from that quotidian concerns. This is not to detract from Yuran’s lucid discussion of Dickens, but only to suggest perhaps a Platonistic distinction between a mathematical sublime and an aesthetic sublime.
The sublime dimension that Yuran proposes is analogous to Lacanian extimacy, and Heideggerian ecstasis. But this is a philosophy of the economic, so we are not talking about Dasein, or an a clinical analysand, but rather the prospect of a new form of economic behavior. The book often uses the terms “subject” and “object”, though it seems we should be very careful with these terms. These terms can have a wide range of connotations, and they are only going to be useful if their sense is very precise.
In this book, a “subject” or a “persona” is identified by certain gestures, or traits. This book is about a subject that it empties itself, that is its primary trait or gesture. And the operative question that guides most of the discussion is why this subject empties itself. I would suggest that in reading we consider this “why” as a primary question, and that further questions – such as what is it emptying itself of, how does it empty itself, where are its contents emptied too, who does it become once it is emptied – can follow later.
This emptying is presented as an ancient habit. The term “personae” is the Latin word for mask, and we can imagine that a certain form of emptying is a mask that covers earlier forms of emptying. Though the book does not include much discussion on the longer history of this trait. To access some primordial sense of emptying, one section discusses a theory of excretion and anal behavior proposed by the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi. This reference seems to have been carefully chosen from possible psychoanalytic material that could have been discussed. Topics like anorexia or depression, or perhaps masochism, might be suitable here. And in terms of ancient civilization, this trait of emptying is associated with religious asceticism. So there is a background on this emptying gesture, where there might be some link between religious asceticism and certain forms of psychopathology.
This subject empties itself for the sake of objective processes, so this could be described as a gesture of self-sacrifice. We might think of Abraham falling on his face and uttering “Before you I am dust.” This irrational gesture is a point from which we can start to conceive the sublime as a dimension of subjectivity which an economics of the future would have to take for granted. This all comes from an elegant point: how can economics account for capitalism? How can we interpret how the capitalist gives up everything for the sake of money? The capitalist is presented as one who negates themself for the sake of financial accumulation.
One of the remarkable features of this book is its rigorous textual methodology. It focuses on an intersection between three theorists: Karl Marx, Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen. George Simmel is in the back ground. Slavoj Zizek is mediating the discussion. In what follows here, I am not going to retrace this textual conversation. Though I should emphasize that the method is quite effective. He manages to express some of Zizek’s ideas more effectively and efficiently than Zizek has ever done. I think this is partly because Zizek himself gets distracted with convoluted legacy concerns (he is an “old-style Marxist”, whatever that means), whereas Yuran moves deftly after an economics of the future.
This book is marvelously uncluttered with superfluous academic background. It makes its argument efficiently, limiting itself to a few famous textual points, and illustrates them with colorful reference to advertisements. The name George Bataille does not appear once, although Bataille’s heterodox economics prefigured much of the theoretical discussion. I mention Bataille here not for purposes of scholarly genealogy, but to suggest some connections with specific points in French literature which can mediate the development of this strain of economic heterodoxy. I am not interested in resurrecting any tired old discussions, but just to retrieve a few select puzzle pieces and set them at a distance as guide posts. This book covers ground that has been attempted in the past, and it could be worthwhile to connect it with previous work.
Near the beginning of this book, there appears the expression “veil of neutrality”. This term struck me as something mystical, and it piqued my curiosity about its origin. I was impressed to discover that the expression actually comes from…. neoclassical economics! As Keith Hart underlines in his preface, Yuran is not just importing theory from elsewhere to criticize economic orthodoxy. Instead he finds the terms for his criticism within the orthodox economic texts themselves. So this book is, among other things, a work of deconstruction.
The issue of neutrality could be a flash-point in discussions of economic philosophy. A few years ago, a renegade options trader named Ellie Ayache published a book titled The Blank Swan, and it shares some overlapping concerns with Economy of Desire, such as mediation, contingency and singularity. On this issue, the author deftly refers to Marshall McLuhan, in his discussion of how economists treat money as a “mere medium”, where in media studies the medium is anything but mere. In overlooking money, the economists have ignored the contingency of the medium. Then there are problems of how the contingency of a medium can be presented or represented within the medium.
The literary critic Maurice Blanchot distinguished the neuter and the neutral. This has to do with the legacy of Platonism in France, and the controversy surrounding the question of univocity. It’s said that Cartesian dualism emerged from a truncated univocity that was invented by Francisco Suarez. So there is this criticism that distinguishes true univocity from the false univocities that disintegrate into dualism. This area of onto-metaphysics and aesthetics could be critical background for a philosophy of economics. A future economics may end up oriented between ontologies of univocity, equivocity, and duality.
Much of the philosophical difficulty concerning the development of a future economics will probably relate to the problem of immanence. Immanence is exposed to chaos, and so any immanent development always implies risks. In speculating on the development of a future economics, perhaps we should consider what sorts of disagreements are likely to arise.
While reading this book, it crossed my mind several times that the author is apparently an Israeli. This occurred when he cited another Israeli named Eva Illouz, and so I considered the possibility of an emerging Israeli school of economics. Another time the author’s ethnicity crossed my mind was when he cited an apparently anti-semitic statement by john Maynard Keynes.
To orient the discussion at an immanent level, it may be important to reflect on a writer’s symbolic identity. Terms such as “Protestant” or “Chinese” can have an ethnographic sense, but these terms can also be ascribed to participants in a discussion. This way these symbols can be embodied or manifest immanently within a discussion, and the discussion may involve antagonism over the inscription of values and commodity relations. The future of economics might hinge on how this sort of singular manifestation becomes reflexive, and how it gets expressed in writing. Where orthodoxies have assumed the cloak of fake universality, heterodoxy would overcome this through the expression of authentic singularity.
Radical immanence exposes theory to the risk of getting drawn into obscure conflicts. By hiding behind a veil of false neutrality, orthodoxy has been able to maintain a position of aloof hegemony. But when a heterodoxy starts to expose the contingent, then the theory is likely to be imperiled by the conflicted complexities of the real.
Having said this, the theory articulated in Economy of Desire seems robust, and may withstand tests of the real, though it would emerge transformed in some ways. It has integrity in that it adheres to its own conditions. Or we could say that its expression does not contradict its content. Considering the book itself as a commodity, it would seem to be the sort of commodity that its own theory might recommend. One does not detect much irony in these pages. But going forward, the question of where irony arises may become important, because irony can provide an index of false neutrality. There needs to be a sensitivity to subtle ironies which are sure to arise.
For an example of what I am talking about here, consider Pierre Klossowsski’s last published work, a bizarre treatise titled Living Money (1972), which is an ironic tract of heterodox neo-Thomastic economics. It shares its core problem with Yuran’s book, in trying to conceive the essence of money, though the works share no textual references. I think this new book succeeds where Klossowski fails in taking a non-ironic step into heterodox monetary theory. The problem is to discover a path for economics that leads beyond the exhaustion of the Last Man, or beyond the fraying of ontology into the equivocal.
Willam Stanely Jevons was a Victorian economist whose theory figures prominently in the book, though his name isn’t mentioned. Jevons is credited with inventing the marginal utility models that characterize neoclassical economics. That was the theory which mathematicized economics in the way that it is today. The sort of artificial rationality that this discipline propounds is incessantly ironic, in that it is a supposed rationality that is in fact a madness. It is a hyper-rationalism that ends up being completely irrational, staging these drama’s of choice between… say manicures and chocolates.
One of the advantages of Economy if Desire is its narrow focus. It accomplishes a precise mission, and doesn’t get distracted. But for an erudite reader, the pages refer us to other unwritten pages. Economics was involved in a mimicry where Victorian disciplines attempted to imitate the respectability of Newtonian physics. Yuran doesn’t mention scientificism, but one can see how the apple that hit Newton on the head was a scientific incarnation of a sublime object. The scientist empties themself in a manner which is akin to the capitalist and the religious ascetic. And Newton himself was involved with gold minting, and so we can see that scientificism is implicated in the sublime object of money.
So the issue of economics’s own scientificity is related to this gesture of emptying before an objective process. Jevons emptied himself to create an automatic model of economic behavior. If we consider how the so-called “invisible hand” has been used as a rhetorical trope, then we can see how a larger problematic fits together. The invisible hand is the pseudo-religious idea that economies run automatically, or we could say objectively. It is the secular economists way of saying “leave it to God”. The book takes very particular paths, but there are many other ways to reach similar conclusions. Yuran has definitely shown us something important, but next it seems that what he has said can be worked back across a broader, and more liberal, more discursive terrain.
From a broader perspective, there seems to be a link between irony and automatism. There is a condition where society has been reduced to these automated roles, yet everyone must create the illusion that this is not the case. Zizek talks about how waiters in France behave like robots, in order to differentiate themselves from their roles, while waiters in America behave in a way that is unnaturally human, to somehow accomplish the same differentiation. So it is not simply that we must play these roles, but that we must also pretend that we are not playing these roles. Objectivity in this sense appears as something excruciating painful, and a heterodox economics could adopt the mission of bringing this kind of objectivity to an end.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze took an interest in Jevons, commenting that his marginal utility theory was awful for an economics, but could be interesting for metaphysics. Deleuze was interested in thresholds, the point where an arrangement or exchange terminates, and some other arrangement replaces it, and perhaps he was electing Jevons as a theorist of the end of the Last Man. This would be a definitive irony at the end of neoclassical economics. This would be a point where the rational actor itself is replaced with some other role.
The Last Man is a theme in philosophy that often involves irony and humor. Consider this joke from: Child: “I hope Donald Trump blows up the world.” Old man: “it wouldn’t matter, because life would just evolve back again. It always does.” Beyond the humor of last man, it seems heterodox economics should posit the question of a new seriousness. So I am suggesting an ethics of non-irony in economics. The old economic orthodoxy has tried to remain serious about some things, even when colored with cynicism. It tries to be serious about its liberal political ideas like democracy and human rights. At the center of its doctrines, there are serious concerns with growth, inflation and sometimes employment.
So what might a heterodox economics take seriously? Which concerns might it inherit from orthodoxy? This is a question about what an economist of the future might do.
Yuran engages in historical speculation about the relation between economics and religion, taking up this topic from Max Weber. For initiating this line of economic thought, it was certainly a good idea to focus on the most well-known texts of classical sociology. But on this topic, another relevant but unmentioned philosopher is Georgio Agamben. Some of his writing, particularly Power and the Glory (2011), provides an extensive archive of rich material on the historical contingencies of religious-economic institutions, which makes some of Yuran’s discussion seem somewhat naive. For instance, Agamben’s discussion of salvation and the aesthetics of blessedness fits closely into Yuran’s discussion of monetary desire.
Economy of Desire emphasizes historical ontology, and there are some criticisms I would like to make on this point. The concern with history strikes me as a peculiar 19th century German preoccupation. Yuran places an historical absence at the heart of desire, but history should be seen as only one possible modality of absence. When he talks about the persistence of institutions, that persistence does not seem necessarily historical. Or we could say the term “history” limits the discussion in a way that might be unfortunate. Historicization is suspicious because it could be a reaction to the anti-historical attitude of liberalism. So the invocation of history might be repeating some cold war antagonism. Of course this also has to do with Yuran’s way of reading Weber (not so much his reading of Marx). History seems like precisely the sort of baggage which is most difficult to carry. My point is that our conception of the absence of desire should be opened to include other ways of relating to the past and memory, like in the ontology of Bergsonian Platonism.
The absence of desire in a future economics would likely imply geographical absence, which concerns distance rather than the past. Yuran’s discussion about institutional persistence is interesting, but the point would be that institutions are situated geographically. David Harvey has said interesting things about the space-time dialectics of capital. This is the point where we should discuss the concept of Parallax, the Zizekian concept which Yuran has adopted as a methodology. Zizek took this (originally Kantian) expression from the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani, who is interested in geographical relations. This problem of history and memory versus geography and distance is going to be critical for the development of future economics, and it seems that a heterodox economics could greatly benefit from the ability to think about desire geographically.
There is a point I want to mention about the contingency of desire, namely that it might be considered a uniquely French institution. In 1948, George Bataille published an article on the origins of chivalry. According to him, chivalry emerged from the encounter of Roman Catholic imperialism with the tribes of northern Europe. He characterizes the tribes as having a “shamanic” culture, and says their relation to the sublime was one of immanence. The sublime for them was not something otherworldly, but something they encountered directly, whether as threatening or invigorating. But as they came under the power of the church, they were brought under the influence of a transcendent, sacerdotal relation with the sublime. They were supposedly distanced from their shamanic sublime. So desire is this institution where Teutonic spirituality is distanced from itself. Lacan emphasized the troubadour ethic, and Deleuze was interested in Gothic architecture.
For Yuran’s discussion of the institutionalization of desire, it is interesting to consider the legacy of Roman Catholic imperialism and its ethnic connotations. The association of luxury brands with “French Romance” indicates the sort of geo-economic contingencies associated with the institution of money. Europe is of course by far the most popular tourist destination in the world, and it might be interesting to consider the sort of monetary desire which drives that industry.
I want to conclude this review with a reference to the biblical tale of the prodigal son, a story which could be of critical importance for the development of a future economics. The story is noteworthy for how it figures the ethics of excess and lack, exaltation and abjection, and situates it institutionally deep in the Christian symbolic. There are more than a few famous versions of the prodigal son, and I would like to end recount the narrative as it was staged by Heinrich von Kleist in his play Prince of Homberg (1817).
The play is set during the Thirty Years War, and the Prince is leading a battalion against the Swedes. He doesn’t pay attention to his orders, because he is distracted by random ladies, and falls into romantic reveries where he dreams of valor. On the battle field he doesn’t follow the plan, and his dreaming messes up his army’s operation. In the confusion of battle, he sees his own sovereign, the Elector, struck down by the enemy. Upon witnessing the fall of his sovereign, the Prince is overcome with Teutonic Berzerker-rage, and spontaneously leads a drive which pushes the enemy back to Sweden. After the battle, it turns out that the Elector has survived, and he summons the Prince to a court hearing, where the prince will be sentenced to death for his insubordination. As news of this spreads, a popular uprising begins, because the people desire their prince, and the common folk help him escape and harbor him so he can avoid execution. While he is in hiding, the Prince comes across a copy of the legal code, which he studies. From studying the document, the prince discovers that the rightful punishment for his behavior is indeed execution, and upon this realization he falls into another reverie, and marches off heroically to his execution.
It seems this story could provide a point of mediation for the development of a future economics. If we were going to stage this play today, then it seems we might want to cast the economist William Stanley Jevons in the lead role. In the final scene, the embattled economist would sit down to conduct some marginal utility calculations, and then reach the conclusion that he should give up on said calculations. After defending the theory for so long, it is the theory itself which prescribes its own termination, as if the invisible hand were going to gesture itself out of existence.
‘from the perspective of difference, your liver and your gall bladder are like Chu (a country to the north) and Yue (a country to the south), but from the perspective of sameness, the ten thousand things are like one.’ Zhuangzi, Daoist Sage
I’ve been thinking about how to resist multiculturalism as a system of doxology or clichés. For this, I want to propose a new conception of ‘culture’ that can parasite off this doxology. A return of culture could perhaps relieve the tired concerns of political-economy, whether liberal or radical.
Let’s begin from how culture is truncated under regimes of identity. Nationalism assigns populations simplistic identities, so that a nationality can imply a race, ancestry, language, religion, history, tastes, family-structures, arts, world-views, politics and beliefs. I propose another conception of culture that could engages vigorously with this kind of hegemonic national identity. These hegemonic identities often serve as loci for information processing, for instance in how events are reported by news services, and so this proposed break could drastically alter representation.
Of course this break with nationality would not be advisable for everyone. People are habituated to their positions in multiculturalism, especially as they are coded into markets, and the danger of losing those positions might be frightening. Breaking the spell of cultural identity opens margins of uncertainty and complexity which are likely to provoke anxiety. So the movement I am suggesting here is something definitely minoritarian, and would have to include recodifications or renormalizations. And again, the key is to remain closely engaged with the majoritarian clichés.
Multiculturalism can be considered a form of consciousness and perception. More specifically, it is a way of distinguishing the habitual from the non-habitual or the native from the foreign. It expresses identities in order to segregate the same from the other. And it usually seeks the most convenient ways to posit these identities, which often means basing them on the perception of skin complexion, dress, or manner of speech. This way identities are decided on the basis of appearance.
The idea of culture gets abused when deployed for this purpose of distinguishing nationalities. This denigrates culture by trapping it in the field of perception. And this tendency can be insidious, as identification impulses often get denied and buried, as there is awareness that they are in poor taste, especially in liberal circles. National identities persist as an economic imperative. Exchanges are programmed to take place on the basis of these identities, and so they get reasserted against better judgement. As I shall suggest, this problematic ultimately comes down to the symbolic matrix of exchange – that is what must be altered necessarily.
The break I propose would reorient culture away from perception and into the realm of memory. Where multiculturalism identifies objects of perception according to their familiarity and foreignness, I suggest that culture should be reconceived more abstractly as impersonal memory processes. These would be the processes where presence arrives from and disappears into the past and the distance. Thus there is no need to challenge multicultural identities, because it would is effective to subvert the entire identity-based conception of culture.
National identities are transmitted through ancestry, and this model of transmission must be broken. We need to reconceive culture as something transmitted through education alone. So education works as the dialectical opposite of ancestry, which it must obliterate. Education in this sense would be an alternate way of orienting populations in space-time, or in dynamic relation to the past and the distant. Where multicultural ancestry captures populations within a spectacle of presence, barring them from realms of absence, education would experiment with transitions between absence and presence, or between language and intimacy. This is the logistical programs that alternate between symbolic idealizations and concrete intimacies.
An educator would have to position themselves at a juncture within the matrix of multicultural exchange. Education in this sense has to be a localized process, and this whole proposed re-conception of culture can only be discussed if we are ready to translate between local conditions. So it is relevant to mention that I am teaching in a foreign languages department at a small university in Jiangxi Province, People’s Republic of China.
There is a commercial maxim in Chinese, 出口转内销, which means something like ‘exports turn into imports’. Things that were sent out to be sold in other countries return repackaged in altered forms and get sold on the domestic market. I want to suggest a kind of cultural education that would be a matter of orienting populations within this kind of circulation. Cultural would be conceived as a hypothetical noumenal substance that circulates at varying speeds, and education would be a technique for modelling those circulations. Through this sort of education, populations are alienated from their identities in a way that sets symbolic generation into motion. Culture would be a moving relational form which energizes populations in an alienating way, and this alienation sets symbolic relations off-kilter for the sake of expression.
There is an activity I have my students perform, where they must group the seven billion people in this world into identities. They attempt to use concepts of nationality, race, gender, language, profession and region. In the course of this activity they run into messy set paradoxes, where each identity they propose runs into various problems. This on-going muddle reminds me of Plato’s Parmenides where they get all confused in a messy dialectic of the one and the many which Hegel found so disagreeable. What most interests me is how the students feel comfortable with some identities, and not with others. They are usually comfortable identifying themselves as Chinese, Asians, men or women, students, or youth. But interestingly, they are not so comfortable identifying themselves as ‘east Asian’.
This I find is remarkable, because ‘east Asian’ is a relatively coherent and functional cultural identity. It denotes a group of roughly 1.6 billion people who share a definable region, and a set of practices: they are chopstick-using, rice-eating, celebrate their new years on the second new moon after the solstice etc. But this identity of ‘east Asian’ makes my students uncomfortable because it conflicts with their nationality, because it lumps them together with Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, groups who they consider as foreign nationalities. So their ancestral nationalism is incongruent with the cultural archives associated with their everyday behavior. Their Han ancestry is represented these days through cartoonish images (such as the ‘Chinese Dream’ sequence) which are divorced from the historical circulation and development of culture in east Asia.
My next point concerns how this cartoonish stereotype of nationality relates to what we might call culture markets. It is well known that the archives of Chinese civilization include vast bounties of literature, painting, theatre, music and dance. But the problem is that nationalism limits the accessibility of this archive. The noumenal substance of culture passes between dynasties and languages, and much of it becomes illegible due to the insistence on a fixed identity of the Han people. For instance, even the fabled Tang dynasty, the centrepiece of Chinese civilization, are not identifiable as ethnically Han.
So the economic point here is that nationalism takes the resources of civilization off the market. So this re-conception of culture could be considered from an economic advantages, in that it could overcome the scarcity of culture created by nationalist ideology.
This tombstone was discovered in Fujian province on the east coast of China. The inscription is in Syraic, and a date is given according to an Alexandrian calendar which corresponds to the early 12th century AD. This image can help us to pose a broad question concerning the circulation of Hellenistic culture in East Asia. There is reason to suspect that Chinese Buddhism may have been Hellenized in India before it circulated into China, and that this left it with features bearing a family resemblance with Christianity. This systemic connection has broad ramifications for the interpretation of Chinese modernity. Some archaeologists have gone so far as to argue that the iconic terracotta warriors in the tomb of the First Emperor (236 BC) were constructed with ‘Greek’ technology. Such facts are open to debate, but there remains the possibility of a broad Sino-Hellenistic historiography that would allow for compelling reinterpretations of Chinese modernity. The possibility is open that a layer of Alexandrian codes were introduced in ancient China, which has provided a cultural foundation for modern Chinese liberalism. The consequences of this reinterpretation would be far reaching, and could facilitate a revitalization of global civilization.
A series of related inquires arise from this hypothesis. Allow me to make a few broad strokes here, just to illustrate the magnitude of this discovery. There are, for instance, the striking homologies between the literature of Han dynasty statesmanship and the contemporaneous Roman Stoicism. There is the question of how the Qing dynasty relates to the Counter-Reformation, and how the struggle that ended the Ming was coupled with the contemporaneous Thirty Years War. It seems that colonization models have obscured inter-regional correlations. There is the problematic of how revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen and Mao Tse-tung fit into broader patterns that would include revolutionaries like Ming Hong-Wu, St. Francis of Assisi, Jean Calvin, Oliver Cromwell, and all the way down to Donald Trump. These are obviously huge problematics, but the point here is that they suffice just as problematics. They do not demand solutions, but rather they are the keys which can function to open the circuitry of world cultural exchange.
Liberal capitalism did not arrive abruptly in China as is often assumed, but was planted here in ancient times, where it grew up just as it did elsewhere. The challenge is to recognize Chinese modernity as something indigenous which has communicated with global modernity all along. This sort of orientation would render the archive of Chinese civilization more accessible, putting it on the market as it were. It could also bring a definitive end to the period of European colonization. It seems the theory of colonization should be renovated into something more abstract and singular.
In some ways, this brings us back to postmodernity, although significant innovations have taken place in the discussion. It should be possible to deal with this condition more tactfully than it was last time around. For one thing, we have learned that marketing must be taken as the ultimate objective, since that is the arena where any movement succeeds or fails. Commercial exchange becomes an ideal form of alienation, so that the raw impersonal circulation of culture through the archive must accede to commercialization.
The cultural markets must be hacked in order to overcome the limitations imposed by nationalism. An Ariadne’s thread of ancient civilization must be fed into the market, so that the spice route is remobilized, and the whole global exchange system reboots itself on the basis of its elements in ancient religion. The markets must get hooked on a singular dynamic of cultural circulation, aka world systems, in order to initiate another Great Return. This is the step that so-called postmodernity has been unable to achieve, but which still may be possible.
From the perspective of difference, one chopstick is from Chu and the other from Yue, but from the perspective of sameness, Mao and Trump could be identical twins.
The point here again is not to overturn multiculturalism, but to pervert it so to insert (插) the flows of cultural memory. Nationalism is often stricken with weakness and poverty. The key is to exploit its points of exhaustion, and to insert archival programming there at the sites of its greatest weakness or abjection.
There is a further theoretical problematic this creates, which concerns the subjective orientation of the archive, or we could say the archive’s own pleasure principle. Much energy will have to be devoted to this problem of the subjective (in)finitude of memory, or what might be called archive fever. There must be vigilance regarding the fragile edges of the subject’s composition, which must be maintained through ruses. Let me next begin to outline some borromean strategy for maintaining subjective composition where postmodernity has so far failed.
When John Dewey arrived in China for his 1919-22 lecture tour, he understood that he was bringing with him ancient cultural codes which had passed through China before. He knew that his doctrines of Wilsonian democracy were not completely foreign to the Middle Kingdom. He tried to speak from a position that was oriented within this infinite circulation. Dewey must be considered as a precursor in this project, but one who failed miserably. And his failure corresponds with the failure of secularism and liberal modernity.
Religion provides essential resources for the codification of infinity. The subject of the archive has proper names, such as Confucius, Buddha, Christ, Mohammad, along with their disciples, and the gods and spirits they worshiped. Religion provides these masks or personas which equip us to speak from the position of infinity. As we break with the cliché’s of nationalism, these masks recodify us onto something familiar, which we could call the pleasure principles of the ancient world.
The clichés of multiculturalism themselves must be used tactfully. They are like stepping stones that can prevent us from getting washed away – swooning – into infinity. When we are in danger of getting lost, we play a multicultural cliché, however ironically.
These are three different levels of resources that we cobble together to maintain subjective composure. First, we must register the very particular local contingencies under which we are coding. Secondly, we dabble in mythology and god masks, wherever they become functional to express the voice of the archive. Thirdly, we resort to multi-cultural clichés, which function as points of desublimation. These are of course the negative positions in the market-matrix which we are attempting to overcome, but wherever we can’t succeed in overcoming them, then they can be adopted ironically.
The problem is to put the archive into market-motion. To work on the matrix of exchange surrounding the multicultural clichés, and manipulate that matrix in order to bring threads of archival material into play. One must discover a dynamic or rhythm whereby this substitution can take place: a substitution of cliché for memory. The problem is to smuggle the archival material into the market under the guises of multiculturalism and ancient religion.
Working at a particular juncture in the system of world exchange, one hacks the prevailing pleasure principles so that archival flows can be substituted into exchange systems.
I’m reading a book called Civilization and Monsters (1999) by Gerald Figal, which is an ethnography of modernization in Meiji Japan (1860s-1930s). It focuses on the rhetoric of fantasy. There were intriguing debates in those days between folklorists and naturalists, which can provide fodder for metaphysical speculations, and insight into current political conditions. The project of cultivating a national spirituality led the Japanese folklorists to produce a sort of patriotic fantasy literature, but that genre ran into conflict with scientific positivism. This sort of dialectic is a variation on the common mythos-logos tension that often runs through modernization discourses. But there was something distinctive about how these debates unfolded in Japan, and this area of discourse is especially relevant for understanding what is happening in east Asia today.
To outline an original path through this impasse between science and spirituality, I will suggest how the (rationalist) psychoanalytic cure can be allegorized with (spiritualist) religious conversion to conceive a hybrid event which is neither psychoanalytic nor religious, but something entirely anomalous. This event involves an original externalization of the superego. This is a theory of the event that can move beyond the mythos-logos impasse. This could have interesting political consequences.
Let’s begin with a simple model of psychopathology. A pathological subject is one who perceives different objects, experiences, loves… but these all share a common essence which is the fundemental fantasy. Thus we can define pathology simply as obstinacy. The fantasy is like a fence that encloses the range of possible experiences, and the problem of psychoanalysis is to help the subject move that fence. This allows for a richer psychic life, because it opens a wider range of possible relationships. I want to consider this fence-moving as an allegory for religious conversion.
The psychoanalytic cure implies a new relation with the instinctual drive, where the drive itself remains the same, but the disposition of subjectivity in relation to it changes. There is some change in how the energy of the drive is represented symbolically. This is a new partitioning of the drive-energy between self and other, and this redistribution is what I conceive as a conversion-cure event. This is where subjectivity is restructured so the drive possesses it otherwise. This event is where the attribution of the drive shifts onto the other, so it becomes the other’s drive.
The event of religious conversion can provide a sense of relief, because the burden of the drive is shifted to the Other. Previously, the drive affected the subject more directly, disrupting their temperment, and binding them to a limited horizon if relationships. But with conversion the drive is attributed to the deity. This way, religious conversion can be understood as an event which establishes a margin of disassociation from the drive-energy. The drive is resymbolized, so that it is attributed to the alterity if the other.
In psychoanalysis, the drive which irritates the subject has been channelled through the super-ego, the hypothetical faculty which deploys the drive as social pressure. This way the force of the drive becomes a pressure rivetted onto the subject. The event of cure provides relief from this rivetting, by externalizing this faculty, so the subject gets some distance from it. The subject finds some new liberty in how they relate to the drive.
In religion, the super-ego gets externalized when it is replaced by God, while in psychoanalysis the externalization takes place through the analyst. What interests me here is whether this externalization might be conceived in a way that is non-clinical, and yet rigorously materialist. I want to conceptualize a conversion-cure that would proceed without analyst and without God. This event would reposition subjectivity within the system of affects. The superego operates affect-identity traps which capture subjects in particular relations with the drive.
Fascism and consumerism offer seductive affects linked with identities. The conversion-cure would contrast with these temptations, as an alternative system of identity and affect. But the concept of this event would remain closely connected to models of how the superego functions in consumerism and fascism.
In this regard, I want to consider the case of the Japanese folklorist Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962). He studied the invisible spirits of the Japanese people and transcribed folktales in a manner reminiscent to how the Grimms brothers had treated the Germanic spirit a few decades earlier. This sort of spirit quest provides a form of enjoyment, where the Thing is this living essence of the nation. There was an event that occured in the middle of Yanagita’s career which provides a model for an event of conversion-cure.
Yanagita’s early writings focused on a certain legendary monster, the tengu. This is a ghostly thing that lives in the mountains and takes different forms. For instance, a tengu can appear in the guise of a wandering monk. Yanagati published volumes of ghost stories about people getting possessed by tengus. He effectively approached this monster as the core of Japanese spirituality. He elaborated the abstract logic if its transformations in legends, and proposed that this was the hidden nuomena of his nation. As this work continued, he gradually became obsessed with these creatures, and apparently even beleived in their actual existence. In this early phase he was also interested in female shamans, who went into the mountains where they conversed with divine beings and underwent initiations. This brought him to the topic of hysteria, which was assiciated with tengu-possession and mountain madness. This aspect of Japanese folk culture that was getting stigmatized and pathologized through modernization, and mountain madness was a fleeting site of resustance against the Meiji enlightenment. Eventually the scientific community ridiculed Yanagita for being superstitious, as if he were succumbing to some effeminizing mountain madness himself.
In the mid-1920s he abandoned this concern with the mountain-tengus which had been at the center of his early work. The focus of his later research shifted onto ancestral cults of Okinawa, and in those patriarchal cults he relocated the spiritual heart of Japan in his later writings. These ancestors were a kind of omnipresent surveillance agency, which perpetually watched over the Japanese people. These ancestral cults were the core institutions of the emerging Japanese fascism. After being ridiculed for his beleif in ghosts, he shifted his work into the service of nationalism.
This shift from tengus to ancestors illustrates how the superego can be refigured. My concern here is that the superego itself could have an underlying invariable existence – a nuomenal Thing – which can be figured according to these different avatars. The ancestors replaced the tengus as a superegoic figure. These figures externalize a communal super-ego, so that a community is possessed by this external agency.
But how could materialists pursue analagous refigurations of the superego? How to conceptualuze the possibilities for how the nuomena could repossess us otherwise?
Let us hypothesize that the superego itself may have an actual material existence however unlocalized. This would be a social physiology that would regulate the circulation of affects, a chemical system of communication within the nervous system. This system continually models our position within society, and modulates the electrochemistry of our drives according to its symbolization of our social behavior. The superego would thus exist concretely, and would perform a symbolic modelling independantly of the psyche. This system would regulate the ammount of drive-energy available for the psyche, along with its emotional disposition.
This way of conceiving the superego is foreign to psychoanalysis, which considers symbols as part of the psyche. So I’m interested in a non-psychic symbolic, a kind of karmatic physiology, that would replace the narrowly psychological conception of the symbolic Other. So this event would break with therapeutic theory or clinical psychology. There is an implicit psychologicism in all clinical theory, which is perhaps part of a Cartesian legacy which translates symbols back into subjective relations.
The event I propose would occur at a point where the subject separates its own identity from this automated karmatic system. This would be a realization that this system is something appart from the psyche, something that perceives and codifies the body from the outside. This Thing would exist seperately as an automatic network for the social regulation of affects. This external faculty would survey the subject’s actions, model their behavior karmatically, and generate the physiological responses which cause their affective dispositions. This material bureaucracy of affects is independant of the psyche.
This way the subject’s affects would no longer be experienced as immediately theirs, but would come to them indirectly, according to how this social system codifies their behavior. And they can only attain limited understanding of this mdchanism. This way they would not actively take their enjoyments, but rather receive them as retribution from this Thing.
The Japanese ancestors provide a model for this Thing, which could be figured according to different avatars. It could be figured as ancestors, gods, heroes, lovers, leaders, parents, children, neighbors, animals or enemies. Beneath all these avatars is the physiological Thing which generates affective disposition towards karmatic others.This Thing can be allegorized with any social relation, yet its actual embodyment is physiological. It’s a kind of blank superego that is open to any figurations. This way the subjects are not affected directly by any real social relations, but only through their physiological codification. This is a biological theory of karma as a neurochemical modelling of social relations.
This materialist subject would be liberated to pass through various avatars of the Thing, which each possess the community differently in turn. This sort of mediated socialization is more satisfying than limited approaches which fix the Thing as an identity relation. Materialism allows for a wider range of affective dispositions, because the Thing can always be refigured otherwise.
However, this infinite range of affective variation can also be a liability. The functioning of this material superego would require a degree of figural composition. The model of society and our orientation in it must be coherently figured. Without figural coherence the materialists risk catatonia. Avoiding catatonia requires an adequite repetoire of symbols and figures that code globally.
Much of this problem concerns the selection of personas, which are figurations of subjectivity disposed under singular conditions. They provide subjective skins or costumes. These could be races, or cults, or just vague sets of traits. A persona can be positioned on the side of the other or on the side of self, which means as either surveyer or surveyed, codifier or codified. The Other is the watcher whose symbolic perception grants the self its share of drive-energy, just as did the ancestors of the japanese.
Fascism and consumerism capture subjectivity into fixed relations with the nuomenal. They fixate the nuomenal as an identity. The materialist event would be a revelation that the superegoic Thing is without figure. This Thing is rather a karmatic function, that can be refigured according to whatever contingencies arrise. It may be hard to predict how it will operate. This way there is a solidarity between logos and mythos, such that our materialist rationality promotes the infinite expression of spirituality.
This implies a dualism between the material base of physiology and the identities of spirituality. Here we are approaching the sort of Platonism that was circulating in Paris during the mid-20th century. This is comparable to the theory Deleuze outlined in Logic of Sense (1969). My proposed event takes a step beyond Deleuze’s “world without others” by positing the Other as a material actuality. This is not a world without others, but one where alterity has been radicalized. I’m interested in an Other that is actual, but which exists on a dimension completely foreign to that of the psyche.
This event would open a critical distance between affects and identities. The superegoic Thing produces affects through the physiology, and we know little about this procezs. Affects just befall us without cause. But perhaps we are free in how we figure them for identity. And this figuration may transform how they are felt.
This theory is geared towards the current conditions in the Chinese world. Development in the People’s Republic has been following Japanese models on many points, and the dialectic of modernization and spirituality has entered a phase where the metaphysics of ancestry is becoming decisive. Xi Jinping speaks of ancestral fabulations like the Spiritual Civilization and the Chinese Dream, while the new Confucianists have proposed a reformed government based on ancestral castes. In this environment, I beleive the superego should be annexed by a conceptual materialism. The point is to ensure that figurations of the nuomenal remain variable. This might be accomplished by separating the origins of affect from the realm of psychological identity.
A book titled “The Trouble with Pleasure” (2016) is receiving attention in philosophy circles. What follows are… imaginitive interpretations of some the book’s more suggestive passages. This may amount to a violent appropriation of this book by a foreign intellectual agenda, or perhaps these interpretations are in fidelity with the its deeper concerns.
The book explores conceptions of the death drive in Gilles Deleuze’s writings circa-1970. Many other books have been published on this topic, and these constitute a bit of a genre in their style as well as their guiding concerns. Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death (1956) would be an early precursor, along with Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1916). I want to suggest that Schuster’s book is exceptional, and that it may open the chance for something of an event, in that it may provide coordinates for a symbolic orientation of subjectivity.
The book includes a broad survey of how the term “pleasure” operates in western ideology. Through its several senses and connotations, pleasure is a way of marking limits of the subject, determining the subject’s ends in various forms. And as the sense of this term unravelled in circa-WW1 psychoanalysis, it seems that theorizing passed outside the canonical forms of subjectivity, where it discovers an uncoded life no longer hemmed in by the conceptual limits of classical idealism.
This zone beyond the bounds of classical subjectivity might be conceived as one of “reflexive fantasy”. I propose this term to designate a particular mode of theorizing. In the terms of the Matrix films, this is like the path of the red pill, where the subject becomes aware of the simulated artifice of everyday reality. This is a theatrical experience of a stage-managed life which corresponds with the pathology of perversion. It would seem that perverts may engage in this sort of theory to experiment with the management of their own fantasies.
Perverse theory tends towards autism or solipsism, which contrasts with the way neurotic theory is oriented towards the other. The rhetoric of neurosis asserts the primacy of the other, whereas the pervert attempts to escape from this relational capture through artificial ruses. Yet the ultimate problem remains the communication or sharing of fantasies, so that the pervert ultimately aims to mingle and exchange in the fantasies of others. These are two different strategies of sublimation, the neurotic being direct and the pervert indirect.
These different paths of sublimation reflect different conceptions of society. The neurotic assumes that social conditions are a concrete given that must be accepted, hence the need to repress unsociable drives. While the pervert understands society as a game of superficial appearances, where sublimation is acheived by arranging masquerades to stage subjectivity in ways which are adequite to the expression of their drives. In one case the drives are manipulated to fit irrepressible society, and in the other society is manipulated to fit the irrepressible drives. This is why the pervert naturally resorts to isolation, in order to better control their social relations. For them, society is a tenuously negotiated set of conspiracies which orchestrate the enactments of shared fantasies. These fantasies hinge on alternate forms of pleasure. Even in the perverse realm beyond the pleasure principle, the issue of pleasure remains critical, because it codifies the symbolic images required for sublimation. It seems the concept of pleasure will always determine the limits of subjectivity, however artificial those limits might become.
From a perverse perspective, a community would exist by virtue of an inter-fantasy chemistry. The perverse strategy aims at effecting specific qualities of this social metabolism. More robust relational structures would arrise where these fantasies regulate, orient and regenerate each other, whereas incompatible fantasies will interrupt and terminate each other. There is the agony and torment of those perverts whose fantasies have gotten lost under the pressure of the fantasies of others. Perverts engage in these micro-political negotiations and struggles over the models of pleasure, which are the symbolic determinations of subjective form.
In this regard, we can perversely reinterrpret the meaning of misfortune. The poor are commonly considered to be those without work, food, clothes, or housing, which is a kind of doxa that identifies misery with certain material deprivations. There is a perverse way of rejecting this materialist doxa, and shifting perspective and positing fantasy alone as the core of well-being. Malnutrition and homelessness then are only unfortunate if they weaken fantasy, and otherwise might be beneficial.
If the pervert treats their fantasy as the vital core of their life, then complaint could index the interruption of fantasy. When Deleuze says “c’est trop fort pour moi”, this may refer to a fantasy which is too intense. These words that expresses how one is overcome attempt to indicate something which social subjectivity cannot represent. Perhaps this tactic was shared by a tradition of complainers, with Virilio “its too fast for me”, Derrida “its too present for me”… their generation performed the Kantian humanist’s succumbing to the agony of exhaustion, with their tortuous prose style as a histrionic display of intellectual incapacity. The sublime complaint has a troempe l’oile effect in that it indicates something unseen. This relates to what Avital Ronel called the testamentary whimper, as an expression of exasperation, although the question of symbolic representation is decisive.
It seems that Deleuzo-Lacanian theory still has a lot of ground to cover, especially concerning the various models of symbolic expression. For instance, the Deleuzian theory of expression, at work in the elaborate discussion of facial expression in What is Philosophy? still has to be connected with Lacanian theories of symbolic subjectivity.
It seems we are left to search for our own complaints, which are adequite to our circumstances. The sublime complaint implies historicity, and this is not just to say that its object is singular, but also that if implies a contingent structure in its relation to subjectivity. I read Schuster’s Zizekian renovation of Freud’s late topology of the psyche as an eruption of such historicity. The model of id, ego, superego is at the center of what has been called the disciplinary society, which is a conceptual legacy that holds the political imagination in its spell. This is the assumption that the raw drives of the id are unruly natural forces which get domesticated into polite society by the superego. Progressives and conservatives alike tend to share this assumption about how society is organized, it’s just that progressives favor the liberation of the id, and conservatives favor its constraint by social norms. But Schuster suggests another interpretation of this model, which would reverse the relationship, so that the unruliness is caused by the social superego, and the drives themselves in their origin are lethargic. This version of the psyche, where the social superego is trying to excite the lazy drives of the id, provides an opportunity to reconsider the sense of complaining, or to reconceive the kind of scenerio that complaints refer to.
The late Leonard Cohen had a maxim, “never lament carelessly”. What I suggest here is a radicalized form of complaint, to give the complaint a new hyperbolic form, which is based on the Zizekian interpretation of the superego which issues an injunction to enjoy. This hyperbolic complaint could have a form something like “Having been dead for roughly a century, our corpses are now used as puppets for some financial rituals we don’t understand. And in this role they are failing miserably.” This is the complaint of a dead body which is failing to be exploited.
All politics seems to assume a temporal frame, where ideals come from the past, and they are to be realized in the future through actions. The hyperbolic complaint would be an attempt to destroy that time frame, introducing a disjunction, so the drives of the id are considered to exist in an an earlier age, and so are impervious to the injunctions of the superego. The id is pronounced deceased according to the contemporary world, and this detaches the energetic ground of subjectivity from action in present and future conditions. The complaint would deny the drives any presently existing objects.
This takes perverse dramaturgy to a new level. The pervert is able to complain that he did not choose perversity, and that in fact it is the superego of capitalist society which is perverse. He says he is only perverse because he is being forced to be so. He can claim that he is dead and would rather just remain still, but his dead body is being forced to participate in this masquerade of the living.
Shuster suggests that the withdrawal of subjectivity into drive is at the core of philosophy as a vocation. This withdrawal would seem to correspond with what psychoanalysis calls the fundemental fantasy, where the drive itself is encountered as something internally problematic. This occurs at the end of a clinical analysis, where the subject assumes responsibilty for managing the drive’s own internal malfunction. What I am calling “playing dead” would be a tactic for a perverse theory to traverse its own fundemental fantasy – which is perhaps the fantasy of being alive – and establish a more direct connection with the id. This way the pervert could releive himself of responsibility for his own perversion by identifying with the drives. He distances himself from his perversity by identifying it with the capitalist superego. So I’m interested in how complaint could effectuate, or even institutionalize, this sort of break between id and superego.
Playing dead can acheive a kind of symbolic relation which I shall call a “tombstone”. This is a symbol that confirms that the id is deceased. Where the superego tries to capture the drive in its frenzied spectacle (more on this contradictory “arresting dynamism” below), this is a document that would nullify that possibility. It’s as if the superego had an arrest warrent or labor contract which allowed it to mobilize the energy of the id in the gaze of the spectacle. It is by some symbolic right that the id is obligated to work, reproduce, and generally to care about how bodies appears within the spectacle frame and how they are coded under the symbolic gaze of the Other. The tombstome would by a hypothetical death certificate that voids this obligation, so there is no living body left symbolically available for the possibility of capture in the spectacle. This nullifies the possibility of habeus corpus in its unarticulated pressuppositions, in that it renders the body symbolically unavailable.
Pleasure is that dangling peice of meat that holds Tantalus in thrall. Perhaps what he needs to escape this trap is a symbolic artifice that would prove he is already dead. He needs a symbol that gives him the right not to take pleasure in that peice of meat.
This death symbol would have to be adequite to the singularity of the drive, and our language would have to learn to express this. The preliminary difficulty here concerns how the drive’s form is shared across a population. The problem of sublimation opens the problem of community, and here this is a community of the dead. So my interpretation of Schuster’s book would run into the question of community, as elaborated in the books of George Bataille and company, and particularly in Jean-luc Nancy’s proposal for a literary communism. I don’t have time to elaborate on this here, but will just mention that this work is in dialogue with Lacanian theory, for example Nancy uses the term abandonment to translate feminine jousance.
So I am interested in the problem of how to attain a symbolic representation of a common id’s negative vital status. It is not just the individual’s drive which is pronounced dead, but rather the drive of a community. But individuals may have to share this symbolic death according to their own drive-forms. This concerns the sublimation of the tombstone, which is a matter of negotiated singularity, so that the members of a community feel the deadness of their drives is represented in the symbol.
A complaint is an index of suffering. It’s a symbolic performance of a subject’s singular suffering of this world. This performance needn’t refer to any actual suffering. All that matters is if it is adequite for dislodging the superego’s grip on the id. One must develop the fantasy of suffering, where a subject is struck by tsunamis and lightning bolts, pummelled by hail and ravaged by earthquakes, drown in their own singular whirlpools and cry out in their own singular voice as they are scalded by lava. A fanasy of personal suffering and wounds. This fantasy of cosmic suffering forms a background for posing the decisive question, how did this industrial disaster befall you? In which industrial accidents were you killed?
To consider the present life one lives as already postmordem is a hermeneutic decision. This relates to the problem of the origins of psycho-pathology. The point is not to decide whether the problem is in nature, or in humanity, or in civilization. The image of a past healthier life only needs to function as an artificial foil. The problem is to construct symbolic fantasies that cover the singular form of one’s wounds.
A tombstone is emerging from around the event called World War 1, a hopelessly Eurocentic term. This symbol would represent the exhaustion of an imperial symbolic order at the begining of the 20th century. The lost empire can represent the id’s lost form of symbolic life. Now this is admittedly an alt-rightish turn in perverse theory that may raise objections. What I suggest here is not a restoration of this semi-fictional empire, but rather a fantasy of a time before the id was ravaged by modernization. This provides a symbolic function in the structure of complaint, which is nothing like an ideal to be realized in the future.
The question of when the id died can have an answer: the id died at the beginning of the last century. So we posit a fantasy of the id-life of the empires that covered much of the earth, the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, Qing… these states provided a principality of pleasure that contained the id in a subjective life-form. There is an archive of testamony on this cultural death event. I am thinking of the section on refugees in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Walter Benjamin’s essay on the Russian storyteller, Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities, and the peculiar vision of Fernando Pessoa. Eric Santner outlined this area of the archive in his Royal Remains (2011), and maybe it’s not a coincidence that Santner and Schuster are apparently both at University of Chicago. Schuster discusses Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, along with a few other novels from those years.
The problem is to relate to modernism as an industrial accident that killed us. The idea of what exactly was alive before that event can remain obscure. There is no need to elucidate that life because this idea of the former life provides only an orientation function, like what Kant called a regulative ideal. It is a fiction that allows us to compose our complaint against modernity on an adequite scale of magnitude. The question is whether this complaint can break the spell of the futurist libidinal orientation.
Portrayals of Confucianism in the early 20th century show it as an obsolete anachrony, with its old scrolls and stained robes… the lethargic aristocracy of the death drive with its distinct obstinacy. At that time Confucianism was associated with other embarrassing institutions like footbinding, eunuchs, and opium addiction. The lines of thought I’ve been trying to develop here come into sharp releif if we juxtapose the tired old Confucianist with today’s frantic Chinese consumerism, where the name of Confucious’s little kingdom of Lu is used as an insult meaning “dull”.
The old empire of the id is presented with images of obstinate feudalism ridiculed, pushed aside, and obliterated by the forward momentum of modernization. A perverse theory keeps vigil around the site of the disapearance of the maligned old community. It will be pointed out that this vigil will go nowhere. But in perverse theory there is always another failure in the works. At some point, this vigil inevitably “sells out”, and gets seduced by the futurism of the superego. There is ultimately a futile attempt to commercialize this fantasy. And so the fantasy moves between playing dead and dubious commercialism. One just fails back and forth, rhythmically, getting rejected by the spectacle, then trying to have fidelity to an extinct ancient life, and then getting seduced back into the spectacle, only to get rejected again.
Perverse theory is caught in this struggle between a lazy id and a dynamic superego with their respective unfortunate qualities. They alternately possess us, with their respective attitudes of mourning and social ambition. They regenerate each other as negative foils, oscillating in a vicious circle from one failure to the next.
This superego is contradictory, in that it stimulates, dynamizes, energizes, mobilizes… while it is still a machine of capture and arrest. This contraciction between fixity and mobility points to a profound dialectics that goes beyond this discussion, pointing towards Benjamin’s dialectical images and Deleuze’s stationary voyage. There are economic trade-offs where some mobility is afforded at the costs of some other fixity. It seems the superego maintains its domain by enforcing certain stereotyped images of these alternatives. Certain forms of stasis and mobility are prescribed as decent or indecent for certain kinds of subjects. The spectacle favors subjects who are excited in certain ways, about certain things, at certain times, and so this combines diciplinary and post-disciplinary techniques of social control.
The pervert insists on living their drive-fantasy, and in order to acheive this they are ready to artificialize their social sublimation. The pervert is a kind of war machine that turns against the stereotyped images of the superego. He refuses to rely on the superego for his social sublimation which he chooses to simulate instead. Rejecting any social restrictions on his forms of pleasure, he instead opts for more artificial social relations. Playing dead would represent a limit in perverse strategies to break with the superegoic conditioning of pleasure forms. The tombstone would sanctify the right to laziness. What else could be expected from the dead?
I’ve been casually researching the Qing Dynasty (1635-1911) for the last few years. This research has been inspired but an obscure fascination which tends towards an aesthetic. What follows is a schematic outline of this ongoing experiment.
The context for this experiment is the project of civilizational renewal underway these days in China. I find the Qing period is intriguing because of how it figures as an impasse in that project. The project aims to establish continuity between ancestors and descendants, and appears untenable for various reasons. The idea of Han ethnic identity readily deteriorates into something monstrously counterfeit, as practically all the core institutions of the imperial tradition, such a polygamy and footbinding, would be absurd in the this century. There are problems concerning how this “renewal” is going to proceed, and the Qing aesthetic is in that problematic. It is an edge or limit where the discourses on the symbolic continuity of Chinese civilization give way to abject figures.
In order to introduce this aesthetic, let me first recall some current conditions in China. These days, wealthy families are ambitiously returning to the era of feudalism, through what we might call the manorial-hotelier real estate culture. They are evidently trying to pick up where their ancestors left off roughly a century ago. There is a perception that their national life-world was fractured by foreign intrusion, and these wealthy bosses are recovering that lost symbolic integrity. So the Chinese feel they are in the process of becoming symbolically whole again. And for this reason, there is great tolerance today for nepotism, because the skyscrapers and luxury automobiles have become symbols of Fuqiang（富强）, the wealth-strength of those who are capable of recovering national integrity. This is an atavistic return of a nobility re-emerging primarily through the power of real estate. This class is exceptionally powerful due to the way capitalism and socialism have meshed. When private individuals buy property, they can only hold the deed for seventy years, after which it goes back to a public company. So there is an ongoing cycle of re-appropriation and re-sale which concentrates a horrific degree of real estate power into the hands of the party elite. There is the question of how far atavism will go in the restoration of imperial institutions, although all the Chinese I know are adamant that a return to full imperialism would not be possible.
This restoration process can be considered as something like a working-through in the psychoanalytic sense, in that it’s an attempt to establish the structural coherence of the subject. The process runs into sensitive points, which must be circumvented or masked, because they could destabilize the symbolic representation of the society. There is the question of the “loose-officials”, party members who enrich themselves by dubious means and then escape to foreign countries. This poses a risk of “moral hazard” (to speak like an economist) for the Chinese economy overall, where elites could run up the markets to accumulate wealth quickly and then flee abroad as the system collapses. If authorities are not permanently committed to China, then they may not concern themselves with the risks that their decisions expose it to. This sort of risk can only be mitigated by ensuring the party’s eternal allegiance to the Chinese people. This ideology of allegiance implies several dimensions, drawing on the rhetoric of socialism, along with the older ideologies of Chinese civilization, especially its familial tendencies. The anti-corruption campaign of the last few years unsurprisingly has Confucian aspects. So the idea of Chinese civilizational continuity is becoming critical for social integrity.
Life abroad is considered superior in terms of environment, education, and health, and people are generally moving abroad “for their children”. So there is a strange ethical ambivalence within the family which is torn between nativist ideology and escapist temptations. Nationalist solidarity draws on a frequently aestheticized sentimentality for the ancestral hometown.
There are powerful images of the betrayers of Chinese civilization who forsake the national ideals. This image most famously has to do with the hanjian (汉奸) who cooperated with Japanese puppet governments.
In the mainland today there are various schools proposing strategies for the recovery of civilizational continuity. A certain Confucianist named Jiangqing (not Mao’s wife!) is getting media attention in the west, so he is a reasonable place to begin this discussion. This guy draws his lineage from Xunzi of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), and thus breaks with the Mencian orthodoxy of the last thousand years. This initiative is remarkable for its strategy, in that it dispenses with the need to negotiate with the last thousand years of Confucianism, which he claims is tainted by “Western individualism”. Thus he links the present form of Chinese communism directly to this very ancient realist political philosophy in order to establish the continuity of authentic Chinese thought. He has even gone so far as to redesign the government into a tripartite structure, where the Party is reduced to one branch, and the other branches are for the direct descendants of Confucius on one hand, and those who pass the civil exam on the Confucian classics on the other.
This proposal is interesting in its strategy for recovering civilizational continuity. Qing aesthetics is the inverse of this political fantasy, in that it pursues exactly what Jiangqing is attempting to exclude. The important thing is to deconstruct political temporality and engage Chinese civilization on a morbid spatial level. This orients subjectivity in the position that the patriarchy rejects.
Chinese tend to imagine the Qing as a time of decline when they were ruled by foreign Manchus. Hence the tendency to project further back to more glorious dynasties like the Tang (who were not so Han either…) This rejection of the Qing as non-Chinese has drastic consequences for the project of restoring civilizational continuity. As the last dynasty, there are still people alive even today who were born during the Qing, making it by far the most accessible in every sense. Its institutional records and literature constitute, along with its material artefacts, the greater part of the existing archive of Chinese civilization. Qing customs, languages, and political divisions are the closest approximations of any dynasty to what exists in China today. It was also the most populated, wealthy, and geographical expansive dynasty. Almost any ancient traditions which are still practiced today must have been transmitted through the Qing period. It has been suggested that popular conceptions of ancient China – such as what is shown on TV soap operas – are largely based on the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, as is the style of today’s vernacular mandarin.
This leads to a fact which is interesting for aesthetic reasons – that the continuity of Chinese civilization depends on a period which the Chinese dismiss as one of discontinuity. This reduces the accessibility of the archive of the civilization, and so the Chinese turn instead towards ideologies which are less cultural, and more familial and socio-political.
Qing aesthetic draws queer forces from the rejected and abominable traits associated with that period, such as eunuchs, footbinding, opium, polygamy, and foreign intrusion. This dimension is non-temporal, the unworking of a doomed civilization on the brink of extinction. Patriarchalists are possessed by the fantasy of producing heirs to continue the authentic way of this ancient people, and so they become obsessive neurotics attempting to close this symbolic chain through acts of reproduction. Qing aesthetics installs a subject at the point where that chain does not close. This is a theater of abjection where the archive of Chinese civilization is exposed to oblivion. A theater of the archive’s frayed end. This exposure is an event around which dramatic processes are figured. This is a field of crucifixation, something like the lude figures on Francis Bacon paintings. The Taiping uprising of millennial Christians (1860s) was perceived as an insurgence of demons possessed by the creed of the foreigners. Qing aesthetics considers this insurgence as something of internal Chinese origins.
There is a scandal where the authentic archive of Chinese civilization may have always been haunted by its repressed real. The empire may have died not from foreign intrusion but from essentially Chinese characteristics.
The Chinese social doxa is a phantasm of reproduction. This is a temporal frame which intertwines familial, civilizational, and socio-political threads. The Qing aesthetic is an eruption of the death drive within that doxa. This opens a threshold of extinction designated by the character 拆, which marks old buildings slated for destruction, like the old Hutong alleyways of Beijing. This is a site within the symbolic structure where time disappears, the futureless dimension where the archive of Chinese civilization opens.