For several years, this blog has been outlining a conception of bourgeois culture. This researh is anomalous, and might be dismissed as uninteresting, outlandish or just plain dubious. I persist in this anachronistic direction as I beleive it can transform intellectual life. Modern thought has singular and obscure linkages with the concept of the bourgeoisie, and new appreciation of those linkages can transform its disposition. The necessity of this endeavor originates from a commitment to existential authenticity, which is not the authentic mortality discussed by Heidegger, but rather an acceptance of immanent structural conditions in modernity. An inevitable touchstone in discussing this experience is the Marquis de Sade, who demonstrates an early attempt to grapple with the condition of bourgeois culture.
Both bourgeois and radical thinking emerge in response to the negativity of capital, or to the existential opening generated by financial accumulation. This negativity is a clearing that suspends the actual in contingency, indetermination or uncertainty. Capital erases the reality of the actual by conjuring the idea of its undetermined future. Faced with the infinity of an uncertain future, there is a tendency to panic and grasp after attachments in desperate efforts to maintain subjective finitude, or the composition of praxis. I beleive that it is this panic reflex which leads to the typical contradictions of bourgeois corruption. These are odious tendencies which result from the inability to process infinity, an inadequicy of representational resources. There is the often concealed obsession with ensuring the future superiority of one’s class. By clinging to the idea of one’s superior reproductive power, the life of one’s kin-group acquires an aura of invincibility. Uncertainty is dispelled by conceiving the future as a struggle between kinship groups, and if one is convinced of their own reproductive superiority, then that provides the assurance of an immortality. The fantasy of the triumph of the self-same over the others in a reproductive duel becomes a charm with which to dispell indetermination. This subject’s own sexual superiority provides a pragmatic principle which allows them to proceed coherently in the face of otherwise overwhelming uncertainty.
Radical thought can be understood as a reaction to this classical bourgeois subject. It rejects an obsessional identification with a superior class, and that way it reverts to the crises of the overwhelming negativity of capital accumulation. The need for an alternate principle of subjective composition has led radicals to invert bourgeois idealism, so that class inferiority becomes a principle. Over the centuries, radical thought has been through a series of encounters with its bourgeois adversary, but a viable alternative for subjective composition has never arisen. I am proposing that we step decisively beyond this adversarial relation, and move towards an identification and appropriation of the subjective resources of this enemy. This would not be to merely mimic the bourgeois in any of its hitherto incarnations, but to reconstruct its subjectivity in an original manner functionally tailored to immanent intensive conditions.
This opens a (somewhat…perhaps…) original chapter in radical thought where the conceptual terrain shifts drastically. Our problem is no longer to defeat a bourgeois adversary, but to occupy a bourgeois subject position in order to better symbolize the experience of the ontological negativity of capital accumulation. This is a pragmatic decision with potentially far-reaching implications, and with a basis in various traditions of radical thought.
One of the key conceptual resources for this project is the separation of value-spheres that characterizes Weberian modernity. This allows us to distinguish radical from bourgeois thinking. Radicalism has tended to fixate on socio-political values in opposition to the socio-economic attachments of the bourgeois. My proposal is to take a step beyond this opposition, so that both of these obsessional tendencies would be suspended. My idea is to combine these two spheres into what we could call a primary order of sexual values, which would include the sort of vitalist reproductive values criticized by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958). Stepping beyond vitalism, the problem is to construct a secondary level of cultural values that surpasses that phase of political-economy in an original manner. This would mean abandoning the deepest and most sentimental attachments of leftist political morality, along with the opposed attachments to socio-economic status. This also means that radicalism is an essentially perverse activity.
The idea is to construct another bourgeoisie, who would undertake a more authentic encounter with capital – to encounter capital again, but perhaps as it has never been encountered before. The term bourgeois implies much polysemy, and its sense can be remolded to suit immanent conditions. Most important is this new subject’s reflexive ambivalence in its relation with capital, and its ironic distance from social or reproductive roles. The point is to conceive the bourgeoisie in a way that avoids its classical ego-idealism, so it can maintain an authentic encounter with the negativity of capital. Radical subjectivity, and its old class struggle, can be absorbed into the bourgeois position. This way we construct a dialectical bourgeoisie, which has existed at various times in the past, so what we are talking about is not entirely original, and this direction was opened by Lukacs and others.
These reconstructed bourgeoisie are authentic in their consciousness of being adrift on an ocean of imperceptible intensities, and it’s their disposition within those waves that arises as their distinguishing cultural problem – the problem of maintaining their subjective repose amidst the ocean of material flows. Their culture is their matadorean struggle to bring the vertigo of intensities into the determination of coherent subjective forms, and for this purpose they invoke the mystery of the event as an axiological fulcrum. The intensities are brought to heal through orchestrated simulations. It is through their periodic refabulations of the event that this bourgeoisie are able to take possession of themselves subjectively. The event is the ever-changing structural ideology (religious, historical, theatrical) which allows them to coerce the flow of intensity into tasteful distributions of sensation. This bourgeoisie has negativity, and these are descendants of the counter-reformation and practitioners of neobaroque sorcery, although they have reasons to obscure the secrets of their ancestry, which they do by professing crude utilitarianism or pragmatism.
This bourgeoisie are a distinctly “cultural people”, in that they reduce the other value spheres – including religion, politics, society, and economics – to instruments for their cultural projects of managing intensities. By artificially restaging the sacred events of religion and politics, they channel intensities into their subjective compositions. They engage in dramaturgical contests over the staging of the event, and over the distribution of roles, which are the channels by which subjects receive their symbolic power.
This is a class of people who conjure the sacred event in order to marshall intensities. This cultural sorcery breaks with the class dialectic of political-economy and its vitalist ideal of reproduction. This culture is both ascetic and iconoclastic, in that it breaks free from a preexisting sexual habitat where its values would remain trapped within the reproductive systems of society, politics and economics. This perverse marshalling of intensities breaks with the instincts of reproduction, and this separation of consciousness from primary sexual instinct alters the nature of emotional experience. These baroque bourgeois are ascetic in that they refuse to feel emotions directly or passively, so that their emotions can be actively chosen as interpretations of intensive conditions according to symbolic roles. They refuse to be affected by any real necessity of reproduction in order to assume emotive roles within the symbolic coordinates of the event. But they must avoid getting too close to the event itself, because they know it is only a mask or screen over a punctuation in the flow of intensities. Such a torsion is ultimately all that is indicated by words like revolution, sovereign act, or crucifixion. This event is what Kant would call a Regulative Ideal, a false pretext which fascilitates the assumption of symbolic roles by symbolizing or sublimating an intensive dynamism. It determines the otherwise uncoded intensities so they can be systematized for subjectification.
The forms of bourgeois subjectivity – its manifestation – arise in relation to an ideal event – a symbol of intensive torsion – which repeats with intricate variations. The event is denied any real determination so that it can become a simulacra which fluctates with the intensities it symbolizes. This bourgeoisie denies itself reality in order to become whatever is required to channel material into tasteful sensations. This is a culture which refuses to take political struggles too seriously, because it struggles instead with intensities. Politics, religion, economics, and society are considered distasteful residues from the inauthentic age of reproductive fetishes. Political or socio-economic opponents are treated as instruments in the dramaturgical struggle to sublimate the intensitive into sensational compositions. So this culture is a perverse ruse that escapes from the struggles over reproductive idealism. It is both ascetic and iconoclastic in how it breaks free from the habitat of sexual doxa. The systems of money and commodity could even be seized as instruments in the project of liberating culture from reproductive codes. This culturalism shares tendencies with dandyism, in how it instrumentalizes the other value spheres for the purpose of sensational compositions.
This baroque bourgeoisie distinguish their cultural asceticism from sexual austerities (physical, economic, social, political..). Cultural asceticism is distinguished by how it liberates subjectivity from the immediacy of cast-roles. This is the capacity of subjects to shift through a neutral inter-phase where they are unaffected by the evental intensities which possess or animate them in their roles. By opening access to this null phase where all events are suspended, subjects can relate to themselves through the neutral boredom and solitude of the void where they become conscious of culture as a disjunction between the simulacral and the molecular. Without the ability to separate from their roles, subjects are immersed in the immediacy of semblance as an inescapable reality. Culture is the mode where semblances are reduced to contingent or variable expressions of imperceptible material forces, and which depends on a perverse non-role phase, which allows for the mobility between roles. To say this bourgeoisie are “cultured” means they are oriented practically towards the perverse manipilation of this split in reality, which amounts to a difference in viscocity, or the degree of plasticity, between simulacra and matter. Their withdrawal into the neutral (their ascesis of affect) affords them mobility between symbolic roles, so they can manipulate how their bodies emit and receive intensities.
Symbolic scripts turn around intensive torsions which are symbolized as sacred events, which commonly concern the Death of the Great Ones. It is through the artifice of sovereign death that culture attains its symbolic autonomy from the reproductive habitat of sexuality. The experience of the bourgiosie over the last centuries has been a long education in this dramaturgy of sovereign death. Through its refinement, this performance moves towards the periphery of the script – away from the center which is the political theater of regicide – where the dramatization can become a more overtly artificial ruse for channelling intensities. When someone is seduced by the sacred act, they can fall under archaic spells of sovereignty, and in this rapture their activity is seized in impossibility. Thus one succumbs to the mania of obsessive neurosis. Superior performance occurs at the periphery of the evental topos, where the spell of intensities is less forceful, and roles do not get seized in the ambivalence of the sacred. The will to direct contact with the sacredness of sovereign death corresponds with mania or obsession. When the sacred event is kept at a distance,then the performance is superior in its subtlety. The refinement of performance involves the peripheralization of roles, because roles which are too close to the event get overwhelmed with intesity. The event is essentially ambivalent, and so any determinations in relation to it are contradictory, and its ambivalence is only manageable at a distance. It would seem that today’s radicalism transforms into a baroque-bourgeois culture as it learns how to maintain its distance from the sacred event.
But then there is also the opposite danger, which is losing any symbolic relation to the event. This reconstructed bourgeois culture would positions itself between the mania of too-much intensity and the depression of too-little intensity, where it manages their occillation. The uncultured person does not appreciate a low intensity peripheral performance, because they fail to sense how the symbolic event transmits subtle intensities at a distance, and so out of dissatisfaction they tend to grope after the center where they succumb to obsessional neurosis. The peripheralization of the sacred tends to produce subtle humor. Humor provides relief from obsessive fixation under the spell of the sacred. Comedic roles are outlandish recastings to the periphery of symbolic, breaking the spell of the sacred. But comedy also risks the depressing dissolution of th event, which leaves the performance unable to channel intensities. So the sense of humor must be limited in its irreverence, in order to maintain the evental power to symbolize intensities.
This is perhaps the decisive virtue of the baroque-bourgeoisie: the capacity to move between humorous and serious roles. A subject who only adopts humorous roles will exhuast the sacred power of the event, whereas one who only plays serious roles will succumb to obsessional neurosis. The problem is to suture serious and humorous roles together, so that humor always maintains something serious, and seriousness always remains slightly humorous. Or we could say this is the suturing of reverence and irreverence for the sacred, which would form a circuit between the centering and decentering of the symbolic. Perhaps such a conjunction is required to manage the ambivalence which is essential to symbolic sovereignty. If a deeper conjunction between reverence and irreverence is maintained, then there seems to emerge a strange singular humor which is the hallmark of good performance, where a humorous periphery is well integrated structurally to a sacred symbolic event.