‘when I hear the word culture, that’s when I reach for my revolver’ -Hanns Johst
Let‘s begin by recalling an idea from early psychoanalysis, that infant sexuality is at stake in culture. This concerns the source of the libido in the rawest germs of life, the ‘polymorphous perversity’ which is not submitted to social norms. Enculturation would be the process where this elementary fountain is quarantined, repressed and yoked into the service of society. This is how Freud understood the Oedipus complex, a process of maturation whereby a person assumes a social position. To put this very simply, the identification with the adult male makes the early relation with the mother illicit. This incest ban provides a pretext for the rejection of all infant sexuality. Adult sex then operates according to a code of exogamy – that way sexuality is sublimated into an other scene safely removed from the domestic – but there is always some residue of infant sexuality left over after the process of enculturation.
The key to the criticism of culture seems to lie in considering what happens to infant sexuality in this process. Where does infant sex end up in the age of adulthood? I want to consider the (perhaps unoriginal) hypothesis that it gets deposited in transcendent symbols. Society bans the disinhibition of this vital germ, and culture is the name for this sublimation where adult sexuality is separated from this germ, so that it can take on stable identities. In order for social representation to take place, the germ has to be trapped in symbolic transcendence. Adulthood is only possible once it is relieved from the dynamic force of this germ， which is then identified with higher powers to which the adult submits. These higher powers can be symbolized as good (divinity, benign sovereignty), evil (oppressive leaders), or neutral (laws of nature). Adult neurotics distance themselves from infant sex through the creation of symbolic superegos. And where the germ leaks out from the confines of exalted genius, then it becomes the most threatening and terrible monstrocity.
This is how culture anchors subjectivity in transcendent others. Elaborate processes of enculturation are devised for this purpose, and the Oedipus complex is just one example. But the revolutionary processes of modernity tends to disrupt these cultural arrangements. This occurs through the spread of liberal politics and the associated technologies, which break up the traditional configurations of authority. This releases the infant sex which was deposited in those symbols. Adults lose their neurotic identities, their relations with these transcendent others, and the raw forces of infant sex get released which can throw representation into turmoil.
Following from this, one might consider modernization an anti-cultural process, but it remains caught up with the cultural tendencies that it opposes. Modernization remains cultural in that it still requires transcendent alterity in which to deposit the vital germ. It may change the symbols into more universal and seemingly rational ideals, but they are still symbols of a transcendent other. Liberal institutions remain neoplatonic in their ideals of mature sexuality. This is how we can interpret the phenomena of troubled youth, as a situation where infant sex has leaked from its sublimation under traditional authority – due to the erosion of disciplinary institutions – and yet it is excluded from the new ideals of liberal adulthood. Modernization is ambivalent or hypocritical in that it opposes culture and yet it remains cultural. It still remains a program whereby neurotic adults preserve their identities through the ban on infant sex, although the rising forces of chaos make those identities ever more precarious. This creates a widespread generational dysphoria.
This is where we raise the question of what develops beyond modernity, such as what used to be called postmodernity. The unavoidable problem here concerns how infant sex can be normalized at the level of immanence. Whereas in the age of culture the problem is about how this vital germ can be sublimated into symbols of transcendence, the next problem concerns how this same vital germ can be metabolized onto a plane of immanence. This problem concerns the possibility of an immanent sublime.
Metabolizing infant sex within immanence requires that it doesn’t jump back into transcendence. The vital germ can be uncanny and monstrous, a material force that does not submit to linguistic representation. Retaining these forces within immanence requires strategies which go beyond language. One of the keys to this metabolism is the experience of mystery, which concerns a disruption of the phenomenal by the non-phenomenal.
Because it provokes anxiety, or maybe we could even say it is anxiety, there is temptation to deposit infant sex back in transcendent symbols. This reaction involves a cutting sensation, and this is a sense of the term ‘sacred’, where something is separated off onto another realm, where the germ escapes back into a superegoic beyond. This way the burden is relieved at the cost of a new cultural subjugation. However, through the course of modernity this transcendence becomes precarious and less plausible. Traditional sublimation becomes tenuous as the arrangements and mechanisms that support this process deteriorate. This would mean that we are drifting in a threshold where some kind of ‘postmodernity’ is increasingly being forced upon us as a necessity. Is it possible to get distance from this germ without restoring transcendence?
The burden of the immanence of infant sex is what Lacan called jouissance, and at an aesthetic level this registers as intensities of color, heat, speed, distance, pain, pleasure… anxiety is like a prism from which all possible affects and sensations are distilled. The issue that will concern us going forward is how this substance can be separated and combined on different ontological registers.
Perhaps the greatest problem we face concerns the excessive power of this germ. How can such power be reserved at the level of immanence? The only adequate approaches to this would seem to involve dividing it from itself, or separating it into various component aspects. The danger arises where it contracts together into an aggregate of affect that jumps to higher valences of intensity, and where we react to this overwhelming intensity by disavowing or repressing it back into the realm of the transcendent other. This would be a sublimation that doesn’t remove it to some other world of socio-political preeminence, but maintains it in this world by dividing its dimensions.
It seems that it is only by keeping infant sex adequately partitioned that it can be retained at the level of immanence. But here we encounter some inevitable ambivalence. It would seem that plane of immanence itself cannot be partitioned, and that the vital germ can only exist immanently where it is free of representation. The germ does not submit to representation, and cannot itself be partitioned, and yet we must still devise partitions so that consciousness can relate to it without getting drawn into the totality of all affect. This means that consciousness can only relate to the free univocity of the germ negatively, through detached abstraction and conceptual artifice. Partitioning is an artifice that allows consciousness to protect itself from an affected relation with the real univocity of infant sex. This way consciousness is affected by the germ only through the screening of the partitions. Consciousness can resist the seduction of the totality of the infinite through partitioning.
This partitioning is spatial and temporal. Each phase or aspect has a distinct mediation where the power of the germ disturbs words and images with distinct shudders of solecism. Circuits are formed through a series of partitions, so that consciousness shifts around in its relation with the germ so that a population can metabolize it through a multiplicity phases. This network of dispositions or screenings corresponds with what chemists would call a reaction mechanism. In each phase is afflicted in a particular manner, and that is the solecism where it bears the labor of negativity.
This is an art of resistance that moves in four directions: 1. resistance to the urge to invest infant sex in the symbols of a transcendent other 2. resistance to the seduction of the totality of infant sex 3. resistance to evacuating infant sex through representation 4. Resistance to the urge to metabolize the entirety of infant sex as an individual.
The sense of mystery is decisive in this art of resistance. This mystery allows for a multiplicity of partial experiences of the vital germ. The finitude of each phase is the partiality or incompleteness of our experience of that germ rents perception, memory and reason. It’s through the violent decomposition of sense that its power is dissipated. This requires a semiotics of how the germ gets manifest, conceptualized and indicated at different phases.
This immanent mystery of the material sublime is distinguished from the cultural mystery of the transcendent other. Most of the art and literature from the past is caught up in cultural dialectics of transcendence. The problem is to absolve these cultural mysteries onto planes of immanence. As we shall see, the distinction between culture and the simulacra of culture becomes critical.
What can be said about the mysteries of immanence? These mysteries concern the limits of perception, cognition, utterability, awareness, attention… these faculties register their own limits through what artists refer to as trompe l’oeil, where what is available refers to what is unavailable. Mystery is produced where the available refers to the unavailable. These limits are actively sought out and gaurded: they are limits to what we are inclined to explore presently. We are inhibited from crossing them, for reasons of a vitalist ethics. They represent the limits of an individual’s time and energy. More precisely, they reflect the conditions of composition within a certain phase-partition. Each phase has its own limitations on availability, where infant sex is experienced only in some particular ontological negativity.
The composition of a phase depends on knowing what not to know, perceive, say, and remember. This knowing what to leave for othersm or for no one. These limits of availability, or conditions of secrecy, are tested through hospitality relations with friends and strangers. An ethics of the uncultured is tested in the encounter with the cultured person. A cultured person relates to infinity as a transcendent other, and the prospect of the immanence of infinity disturbs them. They seek a mirror symmetry where their interlocutors also appear cultured: they want their acquaintance to adhere to the custom of depositing infinity in symbols of transcendence. If they feel their interlocutor is contaminated with an immanent infinity, then they may identify them as damned or holy. This identification is dangerous, because it posits infant sex as a totality, and shifts it back into transcendence. This way those who resist culture risk falling into the trap of culture, where they are hurled into the overwhelming power of a totalized transcendence.
By assuming the transcendence of infant sex, culture configures the noetic faculty, with its processes of sense-making, directing, and evaluation. Maintaining this transcendence allows for stable identities, rankings and comparisons. The game of culture involves a dramatic psychology of progress and regress. This sort of drama becomes more important in competitive and meritocratic societies, where the sense of competition is maintained through transcendent ideals. Those who don’t pay homage to these ideals threaten to confuse the market. Markets are cultural institutions structured by transcendent ideals, and immanence is like a crime of treason against this order of the market.
This leads to the necessity of cultural simulacra, where one feigns veneration for transcendent symbols. In this way immanence becomes a secret crime committed against modernity, culture and markets, which are complicit in their laws of transcendence. These systems are immunized against the immanence of infant sex. In order to resist them, it is necessary to trick their immunity by feigning simulacra of cultural transcendence. This would explain the more daring varieties of Hegelianism from Pierre Klossowski to Slavoj Zizek, the thinkers who have understood that truly subverting transcendence requires dancing with the devil.