‘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.
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?