Ontological vulnerability can be understood as a defining feature of life in capitalism. This is where we are sensitive and shamed by uncertainty. This vulnerability riddles life with tensions and impasses, and it opens the chance for the greatest alternations. This phase is sensitive because it is where we are undecided, as our self-representations fail at this point of uncertainty. It is on that failure that representation alternates. Absolute secularity is a term for this phase of maximum ontological uncertainty, which cannot be grasped but only posited as the dark mediator around which symbolic scripts turn.
Psychoanalysts have described how the course of secularization leaves a remainder of infantile idealism which Englightenment fails to digest. This unsublimated point is a source of pleasure, stupidity and shame. We naturally seek to limit our exposure to this vulnerability, and this is what drives us to historicize, to cover our shame with ancestral codes. The covering and uncovering of this material gap is a kind of game.
Bourgeois history is an affective orientation where linear chronology anchors symbolic time. This anchoring might be the liberal fixation on the joy of some spectacular events, such as the abolition of slavery. Infantile idealism is projected into an undeveloped past – i.e. back in the dark days when they had slaves – while this projection is itself a denial of the projector’s own infantile idealism. The symbolic clothing of liberals is the fantasy that their progressive work is delivering us ever further from the darkness of the past. This is how progressive scholars and activists value their activity. They rely on the historical time of maturation as a fantasy cover, and in this regard their secularity is merely relative. An absolute secularity would dispense with historical fantasy.
When our subjective orientation within bourgeois history is entirely lost, only then do we encounter all the relics of development in their alienated objectivity. This objective perspective is neutral regarding any possible directions of development, so that histories can only be someone else’s. This way of encountering all of history from the outside would be the zenith of the so-called ‘relativity’ which is the bane of conservatives.
Subjectivity doesn’t come to rest within this phase of ontological nudity, because this is only an ungraspable limit, or transition, or turning point around which representation can pivot. This eclipse of history renders possible a change of symbolic coordinates. It’s an off-stage phase, which makes codes variable. Maintaining access to this dimension unfixes our reifications within fetishized work-codes. This is where the theater of history comes apart, revealing its artificial mechanisms, just in the blink of an eye. This is where the lights go off, and there is a change of sets and costumes.
Where the term ‘secular’ has normally referred to non-religious orientations, our proposal is to extend its negativity to imply that an orientation is also non-historical, non-cultural, and non-political. This of course is not a dimension that anyone could ever inhabit, and this space corresponds with what ancient thinkers called the void. Absolute secularity would be a limit, or an outside, which a literature would refer to. Moving in relation to this opening, a cosmopolitan sensibility gets exposed to a material alterity. This concerns the composition of symbolic perception, which gets perforated, or breached with holes that expose it to the void. This breaching or inconsistency is expressed with the aesthetic trope of flickering. Cultural and historical orientations remain indispensable, but they take on the repressibility of artifice. The subject becomes conscious of how it’s self-representation is a shifting fantasy screen produced through technological simulation. Upon this screen is a narcissistic projection of historical, cultural and political scenarios that repeat in variations. To examine how this screening works, let us take up the case of Kunio Yamagita (1875-1962), a Japanese folklorist known for his research on tales of the fabulous mountain Tengu.
Meiji Japan can provide illustrative cases for how subjectivity works, and surveying these cases can help open onto the outside of an absolute secularity. Japanese modernization was concerted and programmatic, because it could adopt models from European experiences which had developed over the previous centuries. It encountered ideological contradictions much like those that arose in Europe, but in Japan these played out with a dramatic conciseness that allows for a visibility escapes the European versions.
Folkloric research was part of the Meiji project to construct a modern nation. This was doubtlessly something which had been adopted from Germany, and Yamagita’s research followed standards established in the previous century by the Grimm’s brothers. Recent psychoanalysts have described how scientific Englightenment gets stuck on these undigestible residues of infantile sexuality. Folklore research is a kind of flashpoint for this problematic, because it is where science attempts to recode these residues of primitive irrationality. The leaders of the empire understood that folklore was an important resource for developing a national spirituality, bud had to be dealt with carefully, because it was part of a past that the Englightnment was set on abolishing. This contradiction was of course explored by Adorno and Horkheimer, but it seems psychoanalysis can deal with it more effectively.
So Yamagita conducted a contradictory line of research into the nuoumenal spirits of his nation. The empire was seeking to bring those spirits under its control, using the methods of science. His early writings focused on a certain legendary monster called the tengu. This is a ghostly creature that lives in the mountains and takes different forms. For instance, a tengu might appear in the guise of a wandering monk, a lone woman, or a fox. Yanagati published stories about tengu possession, and elaborated an abstract logic of this ghost’s transformations. His research discussed the psychoanalytic topic of hysteria, which was associated with actual psychiatric cases of tengu-possession that typically afflicted woman living in remote mountains.
This aspect of Japanese folk culture that was getting stigmatized and treated as a pathology by modernizers. Gerald Figal (1993) suggests that this phenomena of ‘mountain madness’ was a site for a feminized folk-resistance against the intrusions of the Meiji Enlightenment. Yamagita’s colleagues observed that he was becoming obsessed with this topic, and may have even believed in the existence of these creatures. The scientific community ridiculed him for superstition, and suggested that he was himself succumbing to some effeminate mountain madness. Under pressure from the scientific establishment, he abandoned his tengu-research in the 1920’s. In the later part of his career, he shifted his research onto the ancestral cults of Okinawa, which were core institutions of the emerging Japanese fascism. They were a kind of omnipresent surveillance agency, which perpetually watched over the Japanese people.
This shift from hysterical female tengus to panoptical male ancestors begs for a psychoanalytic interpretation. The object of Yamigati’s research can be considered as a superegoic Thing. This is the thing by which a community is united in their affects. In this outline of Yamagita’s career, there is a switch from female to male enjoyment. In the earlier phase, he pursued a feminine jouissance which follows the logic of the not-all. The remote mountains are an extreme periphery where Japan opened onto the void, and the Tengus were strange spirits arriving from the outside. This radical alterity resisted the symbolic inscription that he was attempting to produce. But then in his later work, this super-ego object was switched to a male jouissance, a logic of the exception of the expendable hero, such as the ancestors who died for the nation. There are obvious connections between male ancestral enjoyment, and the exceptional Kamikaze-logic of the Japanese imperial army. So in the 1920’s, Yamagita was forced by political pressure to switch his object onto a different modality of the Thing.
Female Tengu spirits appear frequently in Chinese literature, such as the Tales of the Taiping Records from the Song Dynasty, or Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from the early Qing period. These days, Chinese leadership is undertaking a highly publicized reconstruction of their “spiritual civilization”, and the topology described here remains relevant for analyzing that initiative. History follows cycles of repetition, and the scripting of modernization undergoes variation from one cycle to the next. As the Chinese reconstruct their spiritual civilization, there are numerous factions following the male logic of the ancestral exception, and it would be easy to list dozens of sacrificed patriarchs whose deaths spiritualize the Han ethnic community. Though there are also some factions following the female logic of the not-all, and there will inevitably arise conflicts between these.
Now let us return to our original topic of absolute secularity, which would be a dimension beyond both these political-cultural decisions regarding the mode of super-egoic enjoyment. This outside would contain no jouissance whatsoever, an absolute ascesis of affect. The difficulty is to keep it free from either of these Thing-logics. Not that a cosmopolitan literature would be deprived of jouissance, but that it would necessarily suppose a dimension where there was none. This literature would be mediated by the void of absolute secularity, and that mediation allows for a liberty in costuming and scripting. Without this mediation, symbolic roles become reified or essentialized. Absolute secularity is the consciousness that culture, history and politics are forms of drama.
‘when I hear the word culture, that’s when I reach for my revolver’ -Hanns Johst
Let‘s begin by recalling an idea from 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 propose the 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 French psychoanalysts called jouissance. and at an aesthetic level this registers as intensities of color, heat, speed, distance, pain, pleasure… it is like a prism from which all possible affects 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.
Recently, I’ve been getting stuck in the office listening to complaining colleagues. They complain of being caught in the tides of outrageous demographics, and ground by the gears of mindless institutions. What they are saying is not surprising. Complaining is respectable as an expression of primary, passive subjection. But faced with this complaining, I am forced into the ethical quandary of sympathy. According to the prevailing ethics of responsibility, pity is often expected as a sort of benevolent compromise, which is a last resort for a humane relation. It’s a way to avoid some rawer sort of negativity, such as indifference, disgust, offence or even mockery. Pity is a morsel of dignity that compensates for unsatisfied representation.
Pity is insidious because of how avoids the rawer negativity of pathos. You might say it robs pathos of its sublimity. The alternative between pity and unsociability forms a kind of wall against objective pathos. What I mean by pathos here is a dimension of sovereign affect where life abandoned in the real. There we all exist equally in this anonymous, a-personhood beyond any representable experience. This is a person subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. By pitying someone, you are removing them from that dimension, and often establishing a false sympathy.
Absolute pathos corresponds with the dimension of instinct, where populations are adrift upon raw material forces. In the domain of symbolic representation, these forces are valued as power, which means they are both terrible and majestic. But common civility prohibits this pathos, and so we get caught in this alternative between pity and incivility.
Only by breaking the spell of this civics can we get abandoned in the turbulence of sovereign matter. One must discover a margin of exile from which society can be transformed once again.
This 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.
Derrida made the demand for justice into a religiosity, and this liberal zealotry has left us with an ideal of sovereignty that is always answerable to justice. It seems we are reaching a point where this kind of ethics of responsibility is stifling.
The liberal responsibility can be interrupted by the Pindarian maxim “It is good to follow the just, it is necessary to follow the strong.” This “necessary” is not 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 instead as a transcendental, apriori necessity. This is to accept that forces of the strong were responsible for our own constitution, although this denial of one’s self-constitution may provoke shame and pathos. The forces of the strong impose limits which we are constitutively incapable of crossing due to our relative weakness. So, in this way of thinking, strength has an ontological and existential primacy over justice, and our ideals would be a result of how we were constituted by strength.
Assuming responsibility for the other can be a source of dignity for the gentile. But this secular neo-religion puts us out of touch with the conditions of existence. Liberalism becomes hypocritical when it disregards the forces behind its own subjective constitution. From our realist perspective, the priority of strength is beyond moral or ethical values because it concerns the power that constitutes us.
Next I would like to make a little historiographical detour to describe how we got into this situation. When Parisian philosophy was introduced into North American universities in the later 20th century, it was marketed as a kind of altruistic leftism to conform with prevailing humanism. Conservative aspects of the European avantgarde were obscured to create an easily digestible version of political history, where ongoing 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 sides of Parisian philosophy were still there, but its sovereign abjection was neutralized.
It becomes impossible to speak of dark precursors, because liberal 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 poet Anne Carson provides a reference point for this discussion, especially if we consider how her Homeric tendencies raise problems 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 value sublimation as a movement that is vertical in a trivial sense, where something old and evil magically becomes something new and good. This heuristic wants to quickly cash in an aesthetics of violence for the coin of a universally exchangeable virtue ethics. Instead of this idealistic movement, I suggest a horizontal process of awakening, where a subject is realizing how they are already subjugated by some obscure conditions. Her poetry does not change the ancient violent forces themselves, and all it changes is our awareness of them. There is an awakening to how we are already disposed of by violence. But poetry considered as such an awakening force can easily become indistinguishable from violence itself. Consider these lines from Carson’s 1996 collection Decreation:
Here we go mother on a shipless ocean.
Pity us. Pity the Ocean. Here we go.
Is 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 sounds is 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 that we are succumbing to. Resignation ad Infernum. Being resolved to the power of the dark precursor will ruin dignity, representation, reputation… this descent into abjection is allegorized as the psychopompic voyage to Hades, like the forces that Circe conjured to set Odysseus on his voyage.
Pity is a last resort for a symbolic relation – the last chance to recognize members of a human community. But then this line “pity the ocean” is a way of sacrificing humanistic 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 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… enjoyment of the Other?
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 visible appearance, but not in their substance or taste. This disjunction is an allegory of modern times, when appearances are spilling and getting displaced from their 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. This is the infinite riddle of symbolic excess, that golden apple that Eris hurled up onto Mt. Olympus. When history is seen like this, then leftism appears as a kind of Sunday School that emphasizes the deadly sins of greed and vanity, and since its currency is morality it ignores the deeper processes of destabilization. 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. By our initiation into material modernity advances beyond good and evil, then we discover a physics of displacement which constitutes the underlying process. One can only 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, to sacrifice their ethnicity for success, and the most notoriously leaky areas in this respect are along the southern coast of Guangdong and Fujian. A trans-ethnic intercourse is performed spectacularly by Cantonese stars like Jackie Chan. His latest film Kung-Fu Yoga is set in India and Dubai, and he plays a history professor 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 conspicuous aspect of the Chinese city. There is an unusual practice of selling diamonds 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. An adult sermon should discuss realistic problems, like how the ancestors secretly threaten to force the blood from our veins if we don’t continually change places.
‘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.
A book titled “The Trouble with Pleasure” (2016) is receiving some attention in philosophy circles. What follows are… creative interpretations of some the book’s more suggestive passages. This may amount to a violent appropriation of this work 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 problematic, 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). Catherine Malabou addresses this topic at length in Ontology of the Accident (2012). I want to address what is exceptional in Schuster’s book, and explain how it could open the chance for something of an event, in that it may provide coordinates for a symbolic reorientation of subjectivity.
The book includes a survey of how the term “pleasure” operates in western ideology. Through its several senses and connotations, he suggests that pleasure has a way of marking the limits of the subject, determining the subject’s ends in various forms, whether Aristotelian or Platonic. And as the sense of this word unravelled in circa-WW1 psychoanalysis, it seems that theorizing passed outside canonical forms of subjectivity, where it discovered an uncoded life no longer hemmed in by the limits of classical idealism.
This infinite 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. Theory becomes an experience of a stage-managed life, and this experience corresponds with the pathology of perversion. It would seem that perverts may engage in this sort of theory to experiment with and augment their own fantasies.
Perverse theory tends towards autism, 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. This is a way to account for Deleuze’s attitude towards Lacan, and how he invokes material forces to break symbolic institutions. Yet perhaps the ultimate problem for the pervert remains the communication or sharing of fantasies, so that the pervert ultimately aims to mingle and exchange in the fantasies of others. Then these would be different strategies of sublimation or communication, the neurotic being direct and the pervert indirect.
These different paths of sublimation seem to reflect different conceptions of society. The neurotic assumes that social conditions are a sovereign 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 aesthetic conspiracies which orchestrate the enactments of shared fantasies. This communication of fantasy hinges on alternations in the 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 a chemistry of inter-fantasy communication. The perverse strategy aims at assembling a sort of social metabolism so that drives can be expressed. 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 conceptions of pleasure, which are the symbolic determinations of subjective form.
In this regard, it is possible to perversely reconsider the politics 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 by positing fantasy alone as the sovereign core of well-being. Malnutrition and homelessness then are only unfortunate if they weaken fantasy, and otherwise might just as well be beneficial.
Shuster’s book opens with some discussion of complaint. 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 of someone overcome indicate something which social subjectivity cannot represent. Perhaps this tactic was shared by a tradition of complainers, with Virilio’s its too fast for me, Derrida’s its too present for me… perhaps their generation performed the succumbing of Kantian humanism to the agony of exhaustion, with their tortuous prose style as a histrionic display of intellectual incapacity. This would be a sublime complaint that 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 just beyond the limit of symbolic representation.
I beleive that this sort of Deleuzo-Lacanian theory still has much work to do on the question of symbolic expression. The Deleuzian theory of expression, at work in the discussion of facial expression in What is Philosophy?, has an obscure relation with Lacanian theories of symbolic subjectivity. This area seems to demand a reframing or revision, or perhaps I am just insufficiently informed. The ultimate question here seems to concern what sort of communication praxis is attributed to the Deleuzian subject, which has been so notorious for its incommunicative tendencies.
Complaining could become like a form of pseudo-kantian maxim, where we are left to search for our own maximal complaints, which are adequite to our circumstances. This sort of complaining implies historicity, which is not just to say that its object is singular, but that it implies a highly 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 into speech. The model of id, ego, superego can be located at the center of what has been called the disciplinary society, which is a conceptual legacy that holds the political imagination in its spell. There 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 model of the psyche, where the social superego excites and destabilizes 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 radical form of complaint, to give the complaint a new hyperbolic form, based on the Zizekian interpretation of the superego which issues an injunction to enjoy. A hyperbolic complaint for today might have a form something like “Having been dead for roughly a century, our corpses are now used as puppets for financial rituals we don’t understand. And in this role they are failing miserably.” This would be the complaint of a dead body which is failing to be exploited.
Conservative politics usually assumes a temporal orientation 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 throw that time frame out of joint, so the drives of the id exist in an earlier age where they could become unresponsive to the injunctions of the superego. The id would be pronounced deceased according to the values of the contemporary world, and this detaches the energetic ground of subjectivity from action in present and future conditions. This complaint would deny the drives any presently existing objects.
This would take 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 inherent to philosophy. 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 entirely 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 propose to call a “death certificate”, in a somewhat Derridean fashion. This would be 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 can be a 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 fantasy 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 would be a radical hermeneutic decision. This implies a decision on 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 may emerge 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, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno along with another novel from those years. (was it something by Stefan Zweig?)
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. But 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 forced 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 disciplinary 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 restrictions on his forms of pleasure, he instead opts for more simulated social relations. Playing dead is an extreme perverse strategy to break with the superegoic conditioning of pleasure. The death certificate would be a permit for bohemianism. What else could be expected from the dead?
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.
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Tagged baroque, capitalism, culture, Georg Hegel, Georg Lukacs, Gilles Deleuze, Hannah Arendt, Immanuel Kant, Marquis de Sade, Max Weber, Niklas Luhmann, Pierre Klossowski, simulation