Some colleagues around the office tend to seek my pity. They complain about their bitter plight as poor Chinese caught in the fetters of outrageous demographics, and ground by the gears of mindless institutions, and I’ve been 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 concerning how man descends into terrible majesty. The problem arises of how to bear the friendship of the abject pitilessly.
I want to break with liberal doxology at certain 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 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 so much a logical or legal necessity, as in “if you don’t follow the strong, then they will punish you”, but something more profoundly existential. 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 an ontological primacy over justice, as our ideals 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-existential 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 has some reference points in the classical texts. It was pointed out recently by Roberto Esposito that Freud’s discussion of the primal horde is profoundly Hobbessian. It is not that there is anything correct about this particular model, but just that it provides a common description of the dimension of sovereign abjection. Much of the humanities discourse starting with Rousseau 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. 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 Hugo, the French Realists and Symbolists, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Blanchot, Klossowski… and links up with the discussions of German conservatives like 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 point is not to embrace right-wing ideas, but just to reinterpret them from a less moralistic perspective.
The poet Anne Carson is a more contemporary reference point for this discussion, if we consider how her Homeric interests raise the question of violence and literature. It has been suggested 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 heuristic that wants to quickly cash in an aesthetics of violence for the coin of a universally exchangeable virtue ethics. Instead of this vertical movement, I would emphasize a more horizontal process of awakening, where a subject is coming into existence through the realization that they are already subjugated by some obscure 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 is learning to experiment 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 has been suggested that all avante gaarde aesthetics can be read as a perverse assault on the maternal body. These are perverts getting away with touching their 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 our exposure to 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. Realizing 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 where there is no one left to pity.
Pity is in the threshold at the limit of symbolic relations, along with other affects such as hame, 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… crowned anarchy?