Politics of the Sacred

“…the sacred, or the nostalgia for it that remains, turns out to reside not in sacrifice after all, or in some aesthetic or religious tradition, but in that specifically human, unique, and bitter experience that is the capacity for representation.”

-Julia Kristeva, Capital Vision

In its anthropological usage, the term “sacred” refers to forces that maintain social relations, and there are three aspects of this concept which can be distinguished.  Firstly, the sacred works as a synonym of the taboo, meaning that it refers to prohibitions and associated irrational fears that hold groups together. Secondly, this is an idea of sovereign power, the highest strength of authority, such as God, the State or the People. Thirdly, this concerns tradition, in that it’s presumed to be an atavistic way that relational bonds have been formed since ancient or ancestral times. These aspects fit together logically, such that approaching the traditional authority is taboo, and this appears to constitute a system that evolved to protect and regenerate the power of cultic authorities. What follows here shall involve some deconstruction of this anthropological conception, and an attempt to extricate the sacred from these aspects.  Following Kristeva, the sacred can be resituated in the process of representation.

To start moving against this anthropological conception, we need to make an historical turn, and consider how the sacred has arisen as a problematic difficulty in the process of modernization. This is something sensitive and critical which concerns the maintenance of continuity with the symbolic archives of the past. Modernity is threatened with a danger that the fabric of relations could get destroyed, and the sacred is presumed to imply something that is required for their efficacy. Secularization is often tempted to abolish this kind of traditional power, because it is implicated with painful ordeals of violence and superstition.  But such wholesale abolition raises risks for project of modernization, because society is said to disintegrate if some essential access to the sacred is lost.

Perhaps the ultimate problem for modernization concerns which aspects within the sacred are required for effective social relations. Where the term ‘sacred’ implies an elaborate assortment of mysterious phenomena, we are forced to consider a limited selection that can support some essential continuity with the archive. Something within the sacred must be selected, and the problem is how it can be extricated from troubled anthropological aspects such as taboos, pariahs, contagions, sacrifices, gifts and other forms of arbitrary violence.

This problematic provides a heuristic for interpreting the political as it exists today.  What appear as political groupings can be understood as alternate attachments to the sacred in an anthropological sense. To put this concisely, we might say that Leftism is an attachment to a universal responsibility associated with monotheism, while rightism is attached to a kind of tribalism and the solidarity of the same. These political tendencies are exhibited within processes of group ideation, and they can be understood as limited disclosures of more complex patterns of sacred attachment. These political camps correspond with the fragmentation of the sacred through modernization, and perhaps the next phase might concern the overcoming of these splits.

Such an overcoming might proceed through a derealization of these political subjects which remain implicated with anthropological assumptions. What I propose here is an awakening from the spell of these politicizations of the sacred.  Leftism indulges in fantasies which fixate around obsessions with injustices, the most important of which are wealth redistribution, inclusivity, pacification and environmentalism. These are experienced as sensitive points which demand corrective action, or sites where perceptions can be taken up thematically into dramas of justice. There is an impassioned feeling of emergency, where something needs to be done to set the world right, or to avoid some catastrophe.   Those in the thralls of this sensation are possessed by what phenomenologists call a perceptual belief, and unable to understand that as a fantasy.  The source of this belief is the traumatic absence of social relation – these are frantic efforts to recover access to the sacred. These desperate attempts to recover the social bond proceed by invoking injustices of the sovereign.  This invocation combines the aspects of the sacred listed at the beginning, since it’s a fantasy of how the sovereign has transgressed against some tradition, such as the prohibition against murder.  It is through fantasies of murderous sovereigns that leftist communities are forged.

Rightest fantasies of the sacred are similar, but instead of transgressions against universal law, they invoke a sovereign who transgresses against tribal customs. This political distinction concerns the identity of the sacrificial victim. In its more extreme instances, the rightists are prepared to sacrifice anything for the sake of their tribal spirits, and this especially includes foreigners and the environment, and ultimately even themselves.  Leftists usually struggle to abolish sacrifice, but that abolition is thoroughly Christian in how it turns the violence against themselves and only ends up getting sublated at best. The leftists want to sacrifice the wealth accumulation of the financial class, along with anyone who could be criminalized for committing injustices towards the poor, women, foreigners or the environment. For both the right and left, the sacred involves fantasies of vigilante justice, and the distinction between these two political factions depends on whether the justice is executed in the name of the same or in the name of the other.  This is a distinction between the same sacrificed for the other, or the other sacrificed for the same.

Social relations are forged through these opposed renditions of the sacred, and on both sides there is continual appropriation of tactics from the opposition.  Each side has its unique ways of accessing the sacred, and the opponents are naturally interested in seizing those.  So as time passes, there is a mutual initiation and evolution through the exchange of secrets. This is facilitated by betrayers and turncoats who circulate between the enemy camps.  The rightists learn about the strange powers of alterity, while the leftists learn the satisfactions of identity. This arrangement amounts to an abstract symbolic matrix for encounters, and the separation of the sides is less stable than imagined.

The next question to address here concerns capitalism.  Both these political factions sometimes identify their enemies as either capitalists, or more often, as dupes of capitalists.  From a broader perspective, it’s easy to see how capitalists engage in the manipulation of both sides. Capitalism manipulates politics to assemble what we might call a consumerist sacred, which can be more comprehensive because of how it is free to combine alterity and sameness.  Leftism provides various tropes which are essential for the operation of the financial regime:

1. models of inclusive community which facilitate global commerce,

2. ideals of activism which are essential for maintaining morale,

3. the eroticized femininity which is essential for maintaining consumerist rapture,

4. the humanitarianism which props up the moral authority of western civilization.

Rightism provides other essential tropes which are used in financial control including:

1. the ethnic tribalization of consumer and industrial relations

2. the power of the family which is essential for maintaining disciplinary control,

3. and the images of western hegemony which are essential for maintaining institutional hierarchies globally.

So the financial system is reliant on tropes from both of these political factions.  But of course the internal concerns of capital are radically alien to anything political.  The concerns of capital are financial, whereas the political tropes only come into play in those peripheries of industry and commerce.  This is to say that capital treats politics as a resource for drawing populations into commerce and industry. Politics in this sense is a form of romanticism, which is how the sacred has been packaged and distributed throughout the modern world.  And politics is only one variety of various romantic baits that capital dangles to lead populations through the social maze. Beyond the political, there are endless other aesthetic and erotic lures, which are connected with violence and suffering where sensual control is implicated with sadomasochistic fantasies. The puppetry of social affectations can be fine-tuned for the effective manipulation of sensual appetites.

Financial capital has its own internal society where the sacred is accessed through non-political means. Several aspects of this non-political sacred can be distinguished:

1. The economy itself can be sacred, where there is an alchemical satisfaction in development, consumption or accumulation. This is related to the heroism of exceptional men described by Ann Rand, and such romantic capitalism features prominently throughout American literature.

2. Capitalists can afford aesthetic reveries and refined consumption which is linked with aristocratic fantasies situated above political squabbles.

3. But most important are the Romanesque banquets and consumptive orgies, which are the principle means which the financial class has for satisfying its needs for the sacred.

For the most part, capital treats politics as theatrics for the sake of institutional control, and this instrumentalization requires that the finance remains unsuscepible to sacred politics. Politics can be used as a means only insofar as it is sufficiently profaned or disaffected.

From this perspective, sacred politics could be considered as a desperate attempt for accessing the sacred by those who have no other means of doing so.  These are among the various routes to the sacred which the capitalists hold in reserve and distribute in the manner of bread and circuses. Those gullible souls who have understood politics as a means for changing the world have been misled.  This is not to say that the world cannot be changed, but just that it cannot be changed by engaging in feuding between rightists and leftists. Neither is this to dismiss politics, but rather just to propose that it should be recognized correctly for what it is, which is a path for accessing the sacred. And in this regard, rightism and leftism may have been exhausted, in that they are no longer satisfying, assuming they ever were.

However, when capitalists reduce politics to a charade, it seems they forego some aspects of the sacred, such that their experience of it is limited to aesthetics, erotics, economy and perhaps religion.  Perhaps they are missing something that only politics can fulfill. In authentically sacred politics – as opposed to its mere dramatization – there is the possibility for the expression of deep suffering, and the sort of passionate struggles which are otherwise only found in war. The capitalists attempt to animate market competition with passionate militancy but have not been very successful in doing so. They have yet been unable to conjure an economic contest with the affective reality of the political, and markets are still largely driven by the fear of the stigma of poverty.

Religion is the most conventional path to the sacred, and all access may imply some religious mediation. When the capitalist experiences economic development as sacred ecstasy, that is like what religious discourse would call providence.  And much of politics is only thinly disguised variations on religious piety, so many group ideations through virtue signaling. This creates an advantage for the right, because of how they can identify openly as religious, while ignoring the contradictions of religious ideology.  Of course, the left tries to claim religion as well, but they do this in a way that is naïve, and which is the inverse of rightest claim to religion. The leftist atheist makes the mistake of taking religion too seriously, in that he internalizes the ethical core too directly and ends up incapacitated by an over-charged superego.  Whereas the rightest approaches religion as a means of social positioning, such that it’s primarily just an outward identity, and thus avoids the anorexic terrors of desert asceticism.  But this still leaves open the question of who can achieve better access to the sacred.  The rightest eagerly accepts institutional subordination within familial and professional relations which can leave them barrenly profane, and so they seek the sacred through even more desperate means such as addictions and other consumptive pathologies.

Leftism remains potentially interesting, because it has preserved authentic connections with religious traditions.  Today’s leftism has origins in the late-medieval heresies that the church attempted to absorb through the sanctioning of the Franciscans. The sacred fire of the ancient world truly burns in that threshold where religion and atheism become indistinct. Though these traditions have terrifying psychological dimensions, such as the hysterical and depressive tendencies associated with beguines. The question concerns whether leftism can overcome its ascetic superego and the associated sadomasochisms. And if the left were ever to dispense with its naïve religiosity, then perhaps it would no longer be identifiable.

A departure from leftism could discover original routes to the sacred.  The term ‘departure’ here is to suggest a kenosis or emptying that would subtract a political orientation. Since the left today has such minimal practical consequence, this proposal seems realistic, and something like what psychoanalysts calls the traversal.  This is where we step through an illusion of efficacy into the void of the real.  If it were denied any existence for itself, then the left would continue to exist in two ways: on one hand as the enemy in the mind of the right, and on the other hand as a mask that capital uses to legitimize itself to naïve children. From this perspective, the right would believe itself to be fighting the left, while it would actually be fighting capital who is wearing a leftist costume.

But if the left vacates its own symbolic position in history, then where would its spirit go? Let me conclude by offering an answer for this question. The deceased spirit of the left would merge with some of the more authentically conservative aspects of the right, and then it would move towards capital. This is not an effort to seek accumulation, nor to push for the socialist redistribution of wealth, but rather to petition for adjustments in the accessibility of the sacred. This politicizes the metaphysics of ecstasy and the figuration of humans.

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Futureless Education

The essential perversity of technocratic schooling makes it susceptible to aesthetic appropriation. This can proceed through the interruption of what psychoanalysis calls the ‘university discourse’, or the supposed exchange of knowledge with some external utility beyond education. This arrangement often serves as an ideological pretense which is essentially perverse, such that the university discourse is only a decoy. It requires supplementation with some other discourse, and a serious pedagogical question concerns what supplements that university discourse. The eclipse of this normal presupposed arrangement can easily lead to hysterical relations, where symbolic determinations are opened in disturbing ways. Or this supplementation could imply something more dictatorial or sadomasochistic along the lines of the master discourse. But perhaps most interesting is where the university discourse gives way to immediate aesthetic satisfaction, though without disrupting the institutional procedures. This can involve a reversal of knowledge into a negative epistemology , a negativity which can produce sublimity, beauty, and comedy, and which involves uncertainty, improbability, nonsense, insignificance, falseness, or irrelevance.

According to its official accounting, technocratic education aims to achieve what are called ‘learning outcomes’. This could simply mean employability, or some skill or useful knowledge. These are supposed to be the transcendent carrots that lure the participants through the mazes of lessons and tests. The students supposedly pay for these future goods, which make them into the industrious workers who develop the economy. But this official logic of the university discourse is not practical because it leads to dead automatism and insufficient morale. A respectable quality of education requires another supplementary motivation, and here the aesthetic emerges in contrast against the background official the official utilitarian logic of educational institutions.

In its official utilitarian ideology, technocracy subordinates education to goals which are posited on a transcendent level of content. These goals can only be reached outside of the educational process in the so-called real world. This reference to an exterior “content” follows an industrial chain of transmission that links together lessons, grades, outcomes, skills, salaries, profits, and development. What happens during study is situated on the immanent plane of expression, which is subordinated to the transcendent objectives on the level of content.

The perversion of this system begins when we recognize that those transcendent objectives do not provide sufficient motivation to drive this development. The true source of motivation is situated in yet further goals, which could be interpreted as erotic and aesthetic values such as love, lifestyle, and happiness. The system operates on the premise that these are future objectives which are only available through The course of technological development. The learning outcomes are a line of stepping stones towards these further-off sensual treasures without which the whole project of development would lose its allure. These aesthetic end-values are the seductive bait which provide the ultimate anchoring of subjectivity in education. They are affected ideals that ground the transcendence of the academic exchange as an open erotic secret. This ideal of success is postponed into the distance as the familial Thing which is only afforded with sufficient money. It’s for the satisfaction of sensual thing that money is accumulated, and education is a preliminary step that must be completed in order that financial accumulation can begin. Financial accumulation then can continue until it reaches the threshold of eligibility for the satisfying familial sensation.

This rat-maze subordination to the libidinal transcendence of the future family is always getting perverted, because such deferred satisfaction does not provide sufficient motivation. And there might even be doubts about whether the familial Thing could even be that satisfying. So perversions arise which cause this ideal Thing to migrate from the plane of content onto the plane of expression, or from transcendence to immanence. In some sense, this amounts to either an eroticization or aestheticization of study, where the distinction between these concerns the quality of sublimation. To say that there is inadequate sublation could mean that students are simply seeking sex, or else some trivial ludic entertainment such as cheap jokes, whereas with a better quality of sublation then education becomes satisfying as an aesthetic experience. It’s crucial here to distinguish the aesthetic from the erotic and the obscene.

Where technocracy postpones that Thing as future content, the perversion of this system brings that the Thing into play on the level of expression. This immanence can be surprising or comic, though it must be limited so it doesn’t become orgiastic or pathological in some way that disrupts the institution. This is perhaps to say that the Thing cannot be rendered entirely immanent, and that some aspects of it must remain transcendent. This partiality of immanence keeps the perversion inconspicuous, such that it may only involve subtle shifts in attention and attitude.

This perversion can be induced through metaphysical displacements where expression gets contaminated with matter, something like the manifestation of flesh in Christian metaphysics. In technocracy, educational expression is formalized according to schedules, attendance, syllabus, power points, and evaluations. This way expression is yoked into a net of ideal figures, and attention is anchored around institutional formalities which get affectively charged. For instance, an interpolated student might be concerned about whether they will lose their participation mark due to an absence. In this technocratic arrangement, the materiality of the system is reduced to background noise, while the symbolic skeleton is held in focus as the foregrounded figure. The students are libidinally sensitizes to the institution itself. Dissatisfaction with this kind of formality, where the material disappears in favor of accounting symbols, sends obsessional tendencies throughout industrial society. Materiality is displaced into the background, and it is displaced into the future as the teleological lure of consumption, which is ultimately the proprietary consummation of marriage or death.

The perversion of technocratic education manipulates a gestalt-switch where attention shifts from ideal symbols onto material in the environment such as landscape, architecture, equipment, clothing, bodies, and media material. This shift requires a stimulation of the imperceptible materiality of co-presence, such that the displacement does not proceed from within the optical field but disrupts it from outside. The spell of symbolic co-presence can be bifurcated at the material level, and this causes a divergence in the participants’ impressions of what is happening. Some students may appear to function in a technocratic manner, worrying about their grades and trying to acquire knowledge for the sake of familial reproduction, while the exact same behavior might be interpreted as a dramatic semblance. Perversion in this sense concerns a perception of inauthenticity in the university discourse, and that inauthenticity is aesthetic. This sublates technocracy, so that it’s no long dependent on its affective anchor in the reality of a future goal. This fading of utilitarian subordination releases affective energy for other passions. For those who are initiated into the secret perversion, education becomes a ritual drama which can be aesthetically satisfying, while for the uninitiated it appears as business as usual.

This sort of perversion is already wide-spread, and could be at work in education universally, though it’s inconspicuous because it’s a subtle matter of perception. Consider how this works in the case of Chinese calligraphy. The benefits of writing characters with a brush are often discussed as long-term goals in health and mental development, though the immediate aesthetic satisfaction of this activity usually goes unmentioned. Practicing calligraphy is often assumed to be a means of social climbing, where one pursues some achievement for the sake of honor. Practice is reduced to the logic of meritocracy, where honor and health are achieved as the rewards of virtue. The virtuous are honored and paid when they display their nice writing. But if there were immediate aesthetic satisfaction in calligraphy, then that would eclipse the affective value of those future awards. This aesthetic negation of meritocracy leads into broader debates concerning the question of decadence, though I won’t be going into that here.

This aesthetic perversion reverses ends and means, such that the direct satisfaction of exercise eclipses the allure of future proprietary affects. Exercise itself becomes a direct source of satisfaction, replacing the transcendend ends of honorable outcomes. The problem then becomes a matter of cultivating the taste for satisfying exercise.

But this is not to suggest the complete abolition of transcendent end-satisfactions. Those transcendent goals can still be retained to provide an affective direction or orientation for study. A perverse sublation of technocracy would reduce dependency on those transcendent goals. But those goals can still provide distant landmarks that can orient education, and prevent it from sliding into dissolution. So, we reach an ambivalence between transcendence and immanence, such that they share the real, which gets distributed between them. It would be reckless to render the real immanent without remainder and so it must be left in partial transcendence.

So this perversion of education ultimately concerns a metaphysical partitioning of the real. The real in this sense is the affective sensitivity of the navel, where the interior of the body is exposed to the outside. This ecstasy is the singular sensation of the incompleteness of the body experienced as aleatory partiality. The form of the body is one possible dice-roll in a billion. The sensation is produced where the void cuts at the place of the missing phallus, at the point of vulnerable exposure to the non-existence of the other. The narcissistic wound. To keep this scandalous partiality somewhat transcendent means entertaining a fantasy of ideal wholeness. While this vanity may be indispensable, its unchecked seductive powers lead to absolute technocracy. So, what is essential is to maintain a perverse ambivalence, such that the spell of the total phallus is simultaneously effective and abolished. This partial illusion of totaloty is experienced in a modality like that of lucid dreaming. An amphibious disjunction between an immanent real and a transcendent real allows for aesthetic satisfactions that eclipse the allure of proprietary bourgeois marriage.

Another dimension to this problem concerns how education functions to distribute populations according to social hierarchies. Capital allocation and academic credentials can be consistent or inconsistent depending on perspectives, which can open a parallax. But a consideration of how pedagogical perversity could effect social distribution more broadly will have to wait for a future post.

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Nascent Satisfactions

The sort of politics which is visible today is unpromising because of how it over-invests the power of elected officials. This is hopelessly unrealistic, because elected officials have such little capacity to transform institutions. They are beholden to the financial system once they are in office, and for that reason they may have even less power than regular citizens. The office is the target of financial controls, so that the official becomes merely a puppet holding a rubber stamp.

This is nothing like a conspiracy theory, but just an observation about how the system operates. Any changes that an elected politician makes are usually just cosmetic, symbolic gestures to confirm the imaginary identity of their constituents, and even those changes can be reversed once they are out of office. So, elections can be viewed as merely a changing of the guard, which might have the benefit of lessening corruption. They were never arranged as a mechanism for transforming the structure of the system. Yet the prevailing conception of politics seems to assume otherwise, and investing the electoral process with some illusory consequence, it provides an elaborate distraction from the financial control of the institutions.

And yet, a truly radical politics may still be possible on the level of the aesthetic economy. This concerns fluctuations in how populations are sensitized to the circulation of commodities – that is where we can situate the horizon of today’s realpolitik. On this dimension we can discover the ongoing transformation of affective relations, those sensitivities which include grudges, grievances, wounds, wars, manias, nostalgias, envies, gifts, honors, glories, fetishes, regrets, sadomasochisms… obscure cyclical transactions where inter-regional relations are continually transformed through their agonal tensions. These transactions proceed within the material of physiological processes, and so they are imperceptible and needn’t imply anything phenomenal or representable which could be expressed on the level of appearance. These transformations concern hidden traumas which consumerism struggles to conceal, and so they are never addressed in democratic forums which are captured into the norms of consumerism. This sensitivity concerns the monetization of sexuality, or the way that raw libido is metabolized on the market. Consumerism flees these sensitive points, and this puts democratic politics essentially out of touch with what is most critical in society. Elections can even be understood as competitions over the capacity to deny this cruel theater, such that exposure to the real of the sexual economy could be a punishment for those who are defeated in elections, markets or wars.

Consumerist representation has a unique structure which is maintained through its imaginary coupling with industry and finance. The abstract commodity is captured between these two imaginary dimensions, such that consumer is attracted by the enjoyment of an imaginary substance of accumulated work. This triangulation between the three sectors maintains an semantic and imagistic binding of a Tantalean subjectivity, which is positioned as a nihilistic groping after a fetish-product of work-power represented financially. The luxury-object alternates with a fantasy of conjugal wholeness, or else with the sublime of sadomasochistic terror. The political problem that arises here is to reach a sublime that is less terrifying.

Wealth redistribution is a flawed political strategy, because it remains complicit with this consumerist arrangement. Redistribution may ease some tensions, but it reinforces the spell of consumerism. It leaves consumptive satisfaction reduced to this enjoyment of transcendent accumulation projected into the future, because it is anchored in the envy of some others who have more satisfying consumption. But if we step beyond the praxis of redistribution, then the political problem becomes the systemic transformation of the mechanism of satisfaction, which requires a structural shift in how commerce is coupled with industry and finance. The sublime becomes a transitionality in the imaginary relations between the sectors of society.

The conditions of political economy can be situated in a longue duree model of world systems. Considered through this broad civilizational perspective, consumerism can be interpreted as a residue of paganism. This is to highlight how market competition is afflicted with the unfortunate Latinate qualities of being too concrete, too finite, too organic, and too sensual. It was this zero-sum game that Walter Benjamin was referring to when he suggested that the violence of capitalism was ‘mythical’, meaning that it was an idealized expression of passion locked into oppositional finitudes. But fortunately, it seems that this civilizational system can naturally oscillate away from Paganism and back towards a Semitic pole, which corresponds with what Deleuze called the inorganic. This oscillation between paganism and monotheism characterizes the dynamic of modern civilization. The term ‘weak messianism’ refers to a speculative future pole in this material dynamic where there is a newly secularized monotheism.

The residual ‘paganism’ consists in the imaginary finitude, where the commodity is captured between industry and finance. The zenith of this barbarism is an orgy of tasteless construction and land grabs, where the value of property gets exalted. Property development becomes a battery into which the power of consumption is horded. On the horizon of politics, there would be a messianic event where this hording reaches an apex, and the commercial object starts drifting away from this domain of imaginary finite calculability. The messianic event initiates a sublimation of this pagan thymotic tournament into an inorganic dimension where these physiological conflicts can be worked through on a more abstract level. Benjamin referred to this abstract agony as ‘divine violence’.

According to this model, paganism has been undergoing a long Semitic conversion over thousands of years, where the source of satisfaction has been gradually migrating into more radical dimensions of ontological alterity. But presently there is underway a resurgence of thymodic Romanesque organicism, such as what is seen in the opening passages of the Iliad where Agamemnon fumes because Achilles is sneaking his booty. Those bits of accursed flux can’t be metabolized in the humanist logic of work and can only be released through a sublime transaction with the infinite where commerce is released from its bondage.

As our politics moves beyond the logic of leftism, we enter this politics of commercial satisfactions and the virtual accounting of the affected economic imaginary. This dimension is getting hidden behind the leftist issues of poverty, race, gender and environment, as well as the rightist issues of nationality, family and tradition. These thymodic disfunctions arise due to the imaginary subordination of consumerism to work and accumulation. Consumers are dissatisfied with the commodities which are available, and so they start wars, ruin the environment, and tyrannize their neighbors. This condition can be overcome on the level of aesthetics – it’s a problem of discovering commodities which provide other satisfactions, so that consumers aren’t driven to violent behavior.

This crisis cannot be solved through socialist redistribution, which is merely another phase of archaic struggle over the division of shares. Another form of commerce must be discovered, and this doesn’t require work or accumulation. Rather it requires lifting the veil of finite anthropology to discover the satisfaction of abjection. As George Bataille understood, the only true sovereignty which is possible today lies in vagrancy. This abjection is the transitional medium for reimagining the relations between the sectors of society and the corpo-metaphysics of the commodity.

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On Gazeless Institutions

The left gets paralyzed by an attachment to imaginary liberties or a false sense of autonomy. This imaginary freedom foregoes the chance for a more realistic awareness of subordination at a personal level. This brings us to a political problem of how to instigate an awakening to certain necessities to which we are subjected.

These fantasies of false freedom depend on the imaginary projection of external obstacles, where false images of autonomy are preserved by shifting blame onto external factors. This leads to the familiar complaints which go “if only it weren’t for those elites, then we could….‘. These outward projections of obstacles conceal the servility of socialization, which isn’t necessarily dependent on external factors, because it can be assumed as a matter of personal responsibility. It seems that the emergence of new institutions could be precipitated by a disclosure of the personal nature of subordination.

Political subjection is largely contingent on how anxiety is experienced. This concerns what psychoanalysts call the gaze, which is the danger of being perceived in the wrong way that produces a signal anxiety that might be called stigmatic. The gaze is a violation of an unspoken contract of socialized perception, or of the figural composition of inter-corporeal relations. There are these regimes of permissible appearances, where the field of perception maintains the consistency of certain patterns. Anxiety is the deterrence which guards the limits of these regimes of perception. This defense draws upon religious mythologies that represent breakdowns in these institutional perceptual patterns as encounters with the dangerous beyond of the infinite. These are figural mechanisms where the breakdown in representation triggers affective signals associated with the sacred, which is also called the taboo.

The ‘gaze’ is a mythological and religious figure for breakdowns in the composition of social perception. This is a superstitious perceptual belief about what lies beyond the limit where perception disintegrates, where a divine power is projected into the beyond of perception. If perception starts to disintegrate, then the power invested in that imaginary divinity can be experienced as anxiety. And this divinity has been secularized into the crowds of modern society, and into the value judgment of the market.

It seems that any substantial change in institutional relations would involve a disruption of the gaze. The breaking of this spell would be a desublimation or dissolving of an optical relation. This would imply a materialization of the gaze, that would resituate it onto the level of physiology, which is disclosed as a material vehicle invested with social significance. This is a disbanding of the power of the gaze which is analogous to the Lacanian pass, or the realization of the non-existence of the Other.

Though this breaking the gaze-spell could precipitate some awkward political circumstances. This political epoch has been defined by contests that turn around the gaze, and this arrangement ultimately invests power into charmed mobs which are prone to demagoguery. If breaking the spell leads to only a new individuality, then that could leave unaligned individuals in a dangerous situation facing masses who remain united under the hypnotic power of the gaze. This is a realistic scenario for the sort of political situation that could arise as we cross the limit of the society of the spectacle, or what is called ‘democracy’. So, it’s essential to conceive the breaking of thi spell as the formation of a new kind of institutional relation. Exploring the prospects for alternative institutions requires a broad survey of the evolution of political relations.

In this epoch of the democratic spectacle, power is invested in parliaments of elected representatives. The possibilities for alternate political relations can be approached by considering the contingency of this arrangement. The first point to emphasize here is how parliaments are either sanctioned by monarchies, or else their constitution was written in a monarch’s blood. They live off the monarchical conception of sovereignty and can be considered as democratic outgrowths which supplement the monarchical system. One might even go so far as to say that the monarchies survived by growing these democratic organs.

It’s from this perspective that we should consider today’s deterioration of parliamentarianism into demagoguery. Conceiving the deterioration of parliaments from this monarchical perspective allow us to project a longer course of evolution into the future. Where back in the age of revolutions the power shifted from monarchies to parliaments, today the power is perhaps shifting from parliaments into something else which is yet unconceived and unnamed. This is not to suggest that parliaments could ever abolished, or even reformed, but rather that there may be some mysterious outgrowth from parliamentarianism which is the emergence of another set of institutions that will someday supersede parliaments as the seats of sovereignty. So, there is a problem of how to conceptualize these emerging institutions.

This problem can be modelled as an evolutionary dialectic. Parliaments originally defined themselves as ‘democratic’ because that was the idea that they opposed to the ‘despotism’ of the monarchies. This opposition between democracy and despotism is still widely taken for granted, even though it was never so coherent. But as we slide into demagoguery, then this founding opposition becomes less tenable, because demagoguery is where democracy itself becomes tyrannical. As parliaments lose their original justification, it becomes ever more likely that they will delegate power into new institutions. Such delegation has already been proceeding for several decades with what is called neoliberalism, where power is shifted into corporations, and it will likely continue in that manner unless some other sort of institution emerges.

To proceed with this evolutionary dialectic, we need to consider the specific flaw which is making parliamentary sovereignty untenable, and which the new institutions would be defined in opposition to. It is at this point that the society of the spectacle and the problem of the gaze can be asserted as negative emblems of the parliamentary sovereignty which the new institutions would oppose.

This gives us a rudimentary definition of the new institutions. The members of these emerging institutions would no longer be under the spell of the gaze. This could imply an abolition of the gaze, or else perhaps it’s reconfiguration. This gazelessness is a quasi-negativity, something in the manner of Lacan’s sexual non-rapport. It would imply a more turbulent kind of perception, where representation proceeds according to of more supple patterns of assembly, and where the limits of appearance are no longer guarded by the mythological charms of sanctity. This would imply an epistemological reconfiguration of optics where perception would be recoupled with language. This could imply an altercation in the idea of humanity, or we could assume that the abolition of the gaze is a passage into the post-human.

At the center of this model for institutional transition is the gaze as a kind of social anxiety. Nietzsche described the overman as free of anxiety, though his thinking about this topic was probably too idealistic. It’s not that anxiety could necessarily be abolished, but rather just that its topological limits could be shifted. This is to say that new institutions would require a shift in how anxiety is produced and configured. As an alternative to what was once called Enlightenment, I want to outline the model for an awakening that would involve an epistemological reorientation of the gaze.

What I have in mind here is something that we might call a “second order awakening”. Considered materially, the gaze is a distribution of optical sensitivity which is coupled with affective signals. Moving to a more scientific level of abstraction, this coupling can be situated within the physiology of circadian cycles, or in the way that neurotransmitters and hormones are released at different levels of optical stimulation. Awakening to the materiality of the gaze (i.e. to the conditions of optical-affective sensitivity) would then mean awakening to the nature of awakening and going to sleep. Becoming aware of the materiality of the gaze then would involve a broader awakening to the physiology of optics. The term ‘second order awakening’ refers to the prospect for an awakening to the physiology of awakening and going to sleep.

The society of the spectacle itself could be situated within a circadian arrangement, where different phases of work and leisure are timed optically. The commercial spectacle could be considered as analogous to the way insects are attracted to light sources. If the spectacle is considered as a kind of trance, and awakening is the breaking of that trance, then this would imply a shift in the sensitivity to light. And since the critical issue here is that light would have to lose some affective signaling power, then this might also be considered an awakening to darkness. This is to suggest that darkness could replace light as the vehicle for the representation of affect.

This event of awakening involves a splitting where affectation is separated from optics, and this runs along a topological distinction between exterior and interior. The interiority of affect would be uncoupled from the exteriority of light. This way the body might be exposed in broad daylight while the mind is simultaneously obscured in the oblivion of deep space. This thwarts certain perceptual conventions where bodies are experienced as manifestations of invisible minds. The gaze is a hermeneutic that codes corporeal appearances as expressions of internal truth, such as fortune, virtue, vice or providence. Breaking the spell of the gaze then would mean breaking this expressive relation, so that bodies that manifest nothing.

This awakening has similarities with Buddhist enlightenment, though it could just as easily be an endarkenment. Darkness does not so much refer to the absence of light, but rather a dimension beyond its epistemology. This awakening is easily distinguished from Buddhism by the singularity of the threshold that is proposed. This involves some disembodiment, in that it dissolves the optical sensitivity around which democratic subjectivity has been composed. Whereas Buddhism proposes a universal idea of enlightenment, we are talking about crossing a specific threshold at the limit of our present political epoch.

Instead of a disembodiment, this is more accurately a subtraction from embodiment. The gaze is a surplus flux which society somehow invokes within the body, and the problem of awakening hinges on the elimination of that surplus. This could interfere with any politics that celebrates spectacular embodiment, which could be masculinist or feminist, ethnic or localist, or consumerist. Ideologies of embodiment are usually complicit with the ideality of the gaze that hypersexualizes populations and arouses them to spectacular stimulations.

Absolving of the gaze could disrupt customary habits of perception in unpredictable ways. This could lead to the appearance of strange outsides without insides, such that minds appear to have gone missing, perhaps something like phantom limbs. According to the customs of spectacle-perception, appearances are the expressions of something else, and so the non-relation of the interior might become conspicuousness. We should consider figurations of mindlessness, such as automatons or someone who has been lobotomized. The conspicuous absence of the mind would be the residue of the gaze, and where the gaze might threaten to return.

The society of the spectacle can be considered as an elaborate artifice that indicates a secret interiority. This is like what is called trompe l’oeil in baroque painting, where the apparent refers to something which is not apparent. But when the spell of the gaze is broken, then this trickery-effect ceases to convince perception, and so there is an experience of a failed trompe l’oeil where the eye is no longer being tricked. There can be an experience of relief in this disclosure of a systemic deception that has been so persistent.

The gaze is a threatening imaginary flux situated in the perceptual field and which constitutes a vulnerable interiority. The material of this flux is located inside the body, but it’s spell creates this deception that it is located outside the body. It is an exterior projection which threatens to reveal some secret of the self, which is some sort of transgression that the self then attempts to conceal. The spell casts the self in this role of being essentially transgressive of the order of social appearance, and the gaze is a kind of phobia of the exposure of that transgression.

Merleau-Ponty was interested in locating the position of the gaze in the field of visibility. But Lacan interpreted this line of research as a symptom which he compared with the myth of the Theban prince Acteon who fatally saw Diana bathing. If the gaze is situated in the field of perception, then it can become a lure, or a paranoiac obsession, or something that eroticizes the spectacle. The power of the gaze is defused by decoupling the affective from the optical aspects. That coupling is what we might call its manifestation, and so what we are proposing here is a demanifestation of the gaze.

Could gazelessness be a principle for another society?

End Notes – I don’t include academic references in these little jaunts, but in case someone is interested I will provide a bibliography for this one. Obviously, this is running together some ideas from Jacques Lacan and Guy Debord. This is not just Debord, but rather the way he is interpreted by Jonathan Crary in all his books. This way of conceiving the super ego as surplus flux is from Eric Santner, and he is also influencing the model of evolution proposed here. Talking about physiology as a ‘vehicle’ for representation is from neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger. This intellectual venture could proceed into the physiology of circadian cycles, though that is not so much my interest these days. Rather, I am concerned more with early modern thinking on political theology and natural law, in order to situate contemporary institutional transitions in an evolutionary perspective with some intellectual depth. Gazelessness is an aesthetic figure that comes from Maurice Blanchot, and my intention is to connect this with early modern problems, like the darkness of Pascal’s deus absconditas, and especially the way that the Lacanian Miran Bozovic reads early modern philosophy. The dark gaze is being used here to figure uncertainty and chance as early modern epistemological problems. The recent book “Game of Probability” by Rudiger Campe articulates several strains of early modern epistemology that I find interesting, and my overall project these days is to translate that research into an evolutionary background for the emergence of contemporary institutions. Though I should emphasize that my concerns are not at all academic, but rather aesthetic and political. So, when I say ‘early modernity’ this is not a matter of rigorous engagement with textual arguments, but rather something more like an aesthetic trope, or a kind of afterlife (Nachleben) that returns to inspire contemporary institutions.

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Discursive Writing

Tonight I have succumb to a temptation to engage in a debate over the value of discursive or figurative writing. As a precaution, and a matter of conscience, I want to preface what follows with some remarks on the perils of argumentation. The struggle to convince can be indistinguishable from contests over dominance, or broader needs for affirmation. Fraternal dueling is part of the insiduous gravity of the university and its institutional values. There is a prevalent tendency to overestimate the consequences of disputes, so that intellectual comradery becomes an indulgence in fantasies of civic masonry, such that some great architectural project is imagined, and there is deliberation over the arrangement of beams. Keeping these caveats in mind, let us proceed with the argument.

Discursiveness can be distinguished from formal or structured writing as a matter of intellectual culture. This contrast introduces an ethnographic relativism which situates the debate outside the constraints of any discipline. Maybe a discipline is what exists only after all the serious debates have been settled – it’s the space where everyone can just get to work without questioning the value of the enterprise. Ethnographic relativity provides a neutral medium for dialogue between intellectual universes which would otherwise talk past each other.
The work of formalists can certainly be useful and well respected, though this assimilates it with the technologies of capital and elite property relations. Symbolic canons and specialized notations are like heavy intellectual equipment which can repeat specific operations, and so they are enlisted as resources in development. Formal writing combines a host of valued qualities – visibility, intelligibility, verifiability, universality, durability, exchangeability, and utility – which are precisely the general values of modernity.
The value of formulaic writing gets problematic when we consider how it becomes available for future enterprises which cannot be anticipated today. To appreciate this risk, consider the history of Marxist activism. International socialism was a universalist project, yet today much of the work it accomplished has been appropriated by financial capitalists. Contemporary formalists might assume that they are engaged in virtuous civic labor, whereas they could just as well be arming the tyrants of the future. The value of universal knowledge is equivocal because it can be deployed in unforeseeable projects.
Discursive writing cannot be ascribed any general values, because that sort of generalization is the business of formal writing. The advantage of discursive writing is that it expresses singularities. And that can only be accomplished through the formlessness of the fragment.
Common arguments for discursive writing are repeated in humanities classrooms. Most important is how this writing accomplishes something at an aesthetic level, such as the figuration of time and space. This writing ruminates over the enigmatic residues of the past. This witnessing of mysterious alterity can be disrespectful to the reader, because it does not relate to anything in the readers frame of reference. This displaces the reader and maybe puts them on the path to becoming another reader. This writing cannot be ascribed values because it is participating in the creation of new values.
Referring to discursive writing as ‘literature’ emphasizes how it slides between genres. This is where expression abandons the commitment to having its own form, so that writing passively adopts whatever form is suitable for the expression of conditions. This gesture of abandonment is a way of yielding so that something else can be expressed, which is the singularity of conditions which have never been expressed before, and for which there are no linguistic conventions available. This writing reconfigures the limit of the expressible, rendering some things unspeakable, and giving voice to the hitherto unspoken. Literature is where the faculties of language are abandoned so the singular might find the chance for expression.
This poststructuralist rhetoric should be distinguished from the actual expression of singularity, which is difficult to accomplish within the coordinates of institutionalized education, and only rarely gets published as doctrine. Critical theory only manages to express a general rhetoric of the singular. Even when academia ventures into apparently more authentic singularity, then there is usually a translation back into familiar concepts. If there is going to be an expression of real singularity, then the entire system of language must shake. Our conventions of expression must come under the foreign power of the singular conditions, because otherwise we are just collecting specimens for our cabinets of curiosity.
This prospect of ‘shaking representation’ gets misinterpreted as a sacred event or an experience of divinity. The principle shortcoming of poststructuralism was its inability to extricate singularity from sacredness. To appreciate this problem, one must consider how secular modernity developed, and especially the way that Hebrew sapient literature exists as a palimpsest beneath the vanguards of secularism such as neo-Kantianism and psychoanalysis. The problem is the way that the sacred survived as this Jewish secret, such that liberal idealism always remained covertly monotheistic and bound up with the superstitions of this ethnic tribe.
Discursive writing has struggled to reemerge from this crisis of Semitic modernity, and this is the context for interpreting the writings of Georgio Agamben. He is a discursive writer who translates history into ethnography, so that crises are resituated within secular contexts, and the sacred loses its affective charge. This transforms the sacred into an epistemological problematic, so that discursive writing reconfigures the expression of the unknown at the limits of knowledge. For example, the enigmatic is a representation of the unknown.
This figuration of negative epistemology is aligned with broader relational transitions. This is the basic ethical orientation of discursive writing. It follows the pulse of institutions without assuming responsibility for the future, and this distinguishes it from political activism. It doesn’t initiate transitions, but merely participates in processes already underway. These processes include metabolizations, mergers, separations, compositions, decompositions, developments, rejuvinations, liberations, submissions and extinctions. There is no ideological privileging of any of these processes, and the only guiding values are those of aesthetic taste.
Transitional processes are oriented corporeally and geographically. For example, discursive writing might participate in some localized optical transition, or it might go to work on the development of some gestural pattern. The question of monetization is always in the background, and this concerns how populations are submitted into the assemblages of industry. There are always new forms of submission getting introduced, and there are always new liberations underway.
Discursive writing takes conceptual bearings in probability. Probability is the common intellectual approach shared across all the defining sectors of modernity such as military, finance, science, management, and aesthetics. The locus of sovereign power can be identified as the communication of this problem. The magnitude of this problem provides the ground against which transitional processes are delimited.
In trying to auscultate an institutional pulse, discursive writing descends into the night of Dionysian instincts. This is the margin or inverse of the spectacle. The diurnal spectacle exists as the pressure to sell oneself to anonymous others, whereas that pressure is relieved in the night, when the roles are reversed so that one becomes an anonymous other. The institutional pulse is the somniloquence of this anonymous other, which can be figured as infant babbling, an endless stream of muttering on, mumbling away… though most significant in symbolic terms is what bureaucrats refer to as ‘muddling through’ and ‘mulling over’.
Muddling through is the informal side of institutional transformation, which is unrelated to what modernizers of previous generations called revolution or reform. This process comes to attention in rare instances, like when Deng Xiaoping called on people to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’.
Rational developments generate instinctual remainders which go unmetabolized, and the danger of this irrationality gets associated with the sacred. Discursive writing is an alternative to the sacred, in that it’s a way of playing with instincts excluded from institutional representation, like how children are delighted when they try on costumes.
Institutions may attempt to expel the nocturnal play of discursive writing since it gets associated with the forces that disrupt the representation of developmental values. Or else they may attempt to absorb it dialectically, so that it can be displayed as something transgressive, which could be seductive or stigmatized. There are attempts to place it into a quarantine which is called the faculty of the imagination, which brings it into association with romantic ideologies of the sacred. Imagination is a genie that investors enslave as the creative charm that humanizes their technology.
Discursive writing is situated cautiously in the field of desire. The bloodlessness of artificial intelligence is suffered as boredom, and this provokes a yearning for an imaginary object which is supposed to make the simulation come alive. In ethnography, the term ‘phallus’ refers to certain dangling appendages attached to the pelvises of ancient Athenian theatrical performers. If this Thing is manifested as flesh then the superego is aroused, which is a return of the sacred, and to avoid this arousal discursive writing displaces it into the inorganic or incorporeal. This reinterprets symbolic castration from an ethnographic angle as an initiation into secular modernity, and as a transaction between populations oriented geographically.
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The Allegorical Spirit of Antiquity

Allegory is a struggle of antiquity to express herself under contemporary conditions, and that is why it always appears as an enigma. The enigma can never be totally absolved, because there is always something of the past which can never be expressed in the present. To view an object allegorically is to consider it as a gateway into something antique and unknown, and following this path and putting allegory into operation requires the logistical planning of an aesthetic and conceptual itinerary. This journey passes through an historical circuitry which must be arranged in close correspondence with contemporary conditions. Only certain routes are available at any time, depending on fluctuations in the distribution of immanence.

Antiquity stalks the present through history like a heartbeat, and to discover the paths she traverses it is necessary to auscultate where the pulse is strongest today. The cannon of classical auscultators includes writers like Jakob Burkhardt, Aby Warburg and Walter Benjamin, and this path would never have opened without the guidance of these forbearers. And yet their concerns might be only academic distractions which lead us to dead ends. The past must be rendered traversable for contemporaries, and this requires that the terrain be punctuated in original ways. This especially involves abbreviation and paraphrase to circumvent old routes which have become inaccessible over time.

It is usually accepted that allegory congeals in the neoclassicism of the early modern period, where the renaissance underwent a theatrical inflection during the counter-reformation. Where renaissance art had been innocently religious, the iconoclasm and debates of the 1500s gave the liturgy the falseness of a masquerade, releasing negativity into the image. This broke the spell of ecclesiastic sanctity and put the iconology of the church out of joint with the scripture. The Baroque is where that renaissance art bifurcates as its religious sense becomes unstable. Set adrift from the orbit of the church cosmology, the image was breached by the materiality of the abyss and set into wild variations.

The term allegory should recall the ornaments of neoclassical architecture, especially mythological figures holding specific objects. To penetrate these ornaments, it is necessary to assume their enigmatic quality. This is to say that they must not be trivialized by assuming, for example, that they are intended to evoke a narrative, or that they have some didactic purpose, or that they are for decoration. While all these assumptions may be correct, one must assume that there is something essentially unknowable about these figures, something which cannot be accounted for because we do not have the intellectual resources for doing so. There is something about them that people such as ourselves are not able penetrate.

Andre Gide says “the first condition for understanding Greek myth is to believe in it”, and this point also applies to allegory which requires a certain faith, although perhaps it is even more essential to ensure that one has no preconception about what antiquity is. The essence of antiquity lies in its being unknown more than its being past, and pastness should be treated as a figure for something that is obscure in the contemporary. The curation of museums provides a model for this ethos, but allegory goes further in its ambition to facilitate the expression of antiquity.

Antiquity’s survival is conspicuous in republican France with the recurrence of Roman motifs, such as the famous persona of Mariana in the painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’. Combining features of classical deities such as Minerva and Aphrodite, she figures antiquity contorted and locked in contradictions with modernity struggling across the battlefield. Allegory is inaccessible to the conceptual precision of academic writing because it expresses a living spirit unbeholden to any professional conventions. Academia tends to dismember this spirit by analyzing it into classicism, primitivism, naturalism, rationalism… between which are staged tedious debates, whereas allegory demands that this fragmentation be vigilantly resisted. It is necessary each time to subsume all of antiquity under the unity of a single emblem which expresses one punctuation along a series of dialectical torsions. In this way, the torment and decay of Paris can be figured as one continuous chemical reaction where ideologies are distorted and decomposed into abstraction.

Antiquity can be expressed only once the past has become sufficiently unfamiliar, and so allegory follows a course of decay, such as the process that goes from Zola’s naturalism to his disciple Huysseman’s decadence. We become more decadent than our predecessors in order that antiquity can be expressed through us. The familiarity of the past is an ideological prison of the spirit, and allegory erodes the borders that distinguish the contemporary.

This appropriation of French Romanism is far from benign, as this discussion of decay is part of the very process it describes, where the life of the example is abolished in the process of exemplification. Abstracting the concept of allegory implies the neutralization Parisian culture into the frozen dimension of the museum, which also prepares for its resurrection elsewhere. This fossilization proceeds through abbreviations or monograms, which is the breakdown of decay, where there is a selection of emblems to mark the contours of immanence. The plotting of an allegorical journey depends on meticulous scholarship, and yet this enterprise is far removed from what is usually done at the university.

Allegory denies the enclosure of the contemporary by erasing the border that distinguishes currency from a netherworld of obsolesce. The gating-off of currency today which encloses the spectacle-subject as a privileged elite is erected as a reaction against the egalitarian potential of digital media. So, it is only when the spirit of antiquity aligns with digital media by discovering there the means for its expression, only then could that egalitarian potential be realized. The topology of the allegorical journey perforates the border of currency by knitting a Mobius reversal of inside and outside so that the contemporary languishes in oblivion and the obsolete reigns spectacular.

In response to the violent repression of the Paris Commune, Huysemans published a novel on the fall of Rome: “the horde of Huns swept over Europe… civilization disappeared in the dust of their horses hooves, in the smoke of the fires they kindled… ruined cities burned like blazing hay-ricks..” This anarchist Roman fantasy expresses ‘giving up the ghost’, where the soul is released from its exile in the objective. This moment is repeated through the allegorical journey, where the exhaustion of the past gives the present subjectivity. But what dies more precisely is the ‘known past’, which is the ideological past, so that the allegory can be invoked by an hysteria before an unknown past.

In the 1920’s, the surrealist Michel Leiris joined an anthropological expedition to retrieve primitive art from the Dogon tribe in Eretria, and he was dismayed at how his fellow Parisians pillaged the ritual objects of the tribe. The term ‘fetish’ was used since the 1400’s to mark the limits European culture where the Portuguese and Dutch were searching for gold in West Africa. The fetish was essentially a negative image of gold, designating whatever despicable thing it was that the Africans valued. It signified the immaturity or irrationality of people who were not European social climbers in that they were not accumulating gold but valued something else. The scene of pillaging in Eretria shows an event of value-reversal where gold was suddenly switched with that other thing from which it had been distinguished. Since the ritual objects were not economized by the Dogon, the anthropologists seized them the way they would have seized gold. This figures the death-throes of modernity.

Allegory reorients subjectivity by divesting the object of libido. The fantasy frame shifts as it passes across a sublimation point where the objective gives up the ghost. The allegory twists and breaks the ideological objectivity in which the spirit of antiquity has been trapped. The problem is how this break can be enacted under contemporary conditions. Today this calls for hermeneutic innovation in our perceptions of violent conservatism, so that it can be recognized as a tormented afterlife of antiquity. The event in this sense would involve identification with what is considered morally reprehensible. This reorients the concept of Satanism.

Twisting and serpentine figures recur in European art going back to medieval paintings where scrolls launch out from the mouths of Madonnas. Perverse allegory reaches an apotheosis in the work of Pierre Klossowski, who figured the afterlife of Roman and Medieval culture in European conservatism. In the 1950’s he wrote a series of novels about a fascist medievalist in Paris who has a perverse wish to catch his wife with another man, and so he arranges role plays to enact this fantasy. This character elaborates a rationale for this performance in the terms of scholastic theology, where the exercise is supposedly arranged as a proof of God’s existence. Those novels disclose the torment of classicism in a surprising way, so that it appears as an enigmatic sickness. The problem is to witness this violence in a non-antagonistic mode, which means it must be felt as something not threatening, not unjust, and not mockable, but rather as purely pathetic. There is an aesthetic problem of getting beyond having any antagonistic relationship with conservative violence.

Klossowski’s most conspicuously allegorical book is called ‘Diana at her Bath’, which is a series of meditations on the Ovid’s myth of the Achteon, where the Theban prince spies the goddess naked and then suffers the consequences. Klossowski’s formula is to take Augustine’s descriptions of ‘pagan simulacra’, and then depict those so to exasperate their most heretical possibilities, which is precisely that they were merely simulacra as described by Plato. This way of reading Rome through the fascinated yet condemning gaze of the Patricians, and homing in specifically on what disturbed yet seduced them about idolatry, stages a heresiological return of the empire. This was an elaborate way of ending Christiandom, by going to its origin and reviving precisely what it had defined itself against.

To put these comments on Klossowski into relief, consider this passage from Fredrich Engles: “it is now, almost to the year, sixteen centuries since a dangerous party of overthrow was likewise active in the Roman Empire. It undermined religion, and all the foundations of the state; it flatly denied Caesar’s law was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, it was international; it spread over all countries of the empire, from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on seditious activities in secret, underground; for a considerable time, however, it had felt itself strong enough to come out into the open. This party of overthrow was known by the name of Christians.” The sense of contradiction here is heightened when we consider that Engles was an atheist while Klossowski was a Catholic.

Criticisms of decadence are pertinent for allegory. For example, Paul Bourget wrote that “a style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place of independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word.” Bourget’s point is well taken, because allegory tends to abbreviate, which could be mistaken for fragmentation. Abbreviations are arranged in a series, which are like steps with continuity between them. Those with a taste for allegory are always on the look-out for the next abbreviation. Whereas a fragment could be just a piece of random debris, or else it might be pawned-off as a fake abbreviation. Most important is to say that fragments becomes allegorical through sufficient refinement, which includes processes such as selection, sorting, polishing, arrangement, configuration, and rewriting.

Allegory destroys objects by converting them to subjectivity. They lose their objectivity because they are arranged in a configuration which triggers some narcissistic fantasy, which would traditionally be something celestial. This raises ethical and political questions, starting with the problem of evil, since the abolition of objectivity for the sake of subjectivity is vampire-like. Modern art offers the most common way of approaching this ethical problem. This aesthetic solution was elaborated by Klossowski when he developed his thinking around the question of Sadism, which he associates with the medieval sin of morose delectation, ‘the habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts’. This aesthetic Schadenfreude links with the theory of the sublime, which Kant figures the as the emotion felt when ‘viewing a sea storm from safety’. This trope has sometimes passed as benign, but only until we appreciate that it refers to Lucretius’s ‘suave mare magno’, the pleasure of observing a shipwreck.

The standard Christian solution to this problem would restrict art to the beautiful, exempting holy sublimity such as the crucifixion and miracles, whereas the modern aesthetic solution is to differentiate and distribute the affects which death generates so that it’s energy drives a chromatic variation and a pluralization of subjectivity through time and space. Allegory should not be confused with either of these solutions, and yet neither does it exclude them. It is essentially monochrome yet may reach some transcendental iridescence. Allegorical death is a shift which releases a flux of energy by changing the balance between objectivity and subjectivity, and the emotional response depends on which direction the balance shifts. If life is experienced as an exile in the objective, then death can be satisfying and enriching, because the spirit escapes from objectivity. But if life is lived subjectively, or as Marx might say, if the species-being is not alienated, then death is experienced as an impoverishing change of subjectivity into a corpse.

Allegory intersects with the spheres of modern discourse such as politics, religion, aesthetics and love, but what I am trying to suggest here is that these are only tangential, and that allegory follows its own distinct logic which persists despite it’s not fitting into any of these value-spheres. Scientific knowledge is its greatest adversary, because of how it is behind the whole process of development which determines it negatively. William Blake’s painting ‘Newton’s Sleep’ figures an ironic encounter which took place during the romantic phase. Naïve interpreters assumed that the painting simply derides scientific modernity for reducing reality to mere figures, and yet this is also precisely the transgression of art, to reduce reality to mere figures which are pleasing for the subject. Vulgar romanticism is where art tries to play innocent until its complicity is revealed whether ironically, tragically, or pathetically.

Allegory has peculiar implications with technocracy or the politics of scientific knowledge. Where modern attitudes towards antiquity are riddled with ambivalences, among these there is a specific scientific ambivalence towards the esoteric aspects of Platonism. Allegory implies the seduction of secrecy which is expressed in the use of Greek and Arabic figures for mathematical notations. There is the conspicuous fact that young students are forced to learn the name of Pythagoras but not that of Plato, which suggests they are being tantalized with the prospect of initiation into Pre-Socratic mysteries. So, it seems that the initiation into technocracy has been figured as an orientalist allegory, where a certain fossilization of antiquity reserves the powers of technical expression in a way that has distinctive geopolitical implications. Allegory provides a clandestine conduit for aristocratic spirits so they can survive the advent of modern liberalism.

Considering their conjunction from an evolutionary vantage, it seems that technology attempts to reproduce allegory as a computational trope for the phantasm of humanity. But since figuration essentially resists digital replication, it accumulates as a residue of the unaccommodated remainder of this process. Allegory is the pile of stones which the builders refuse, but then when the construction proves unsatisfying those rejected stones are demanded for a new construction only to have something within them refused again. This way allegory gets refined and enriched, and yet never incorporated into the products of industry, so that antiquity is purified as a residual product. This would model the attractor-basin of industrial representation as a figuration of the “human”, which is the phantasmatic return of whatever development has sacrificed in its pursuit of utopia.

Antiquity’s heartbeat is correlated with the swell of markets, and she recomposes herself in recessionary lulls. Consumerism chases after her technological reproduction, and she is always in a problematic relationship with that double. This scenario calls for a distinct politics which remains progressive as opposed to luddite. This is like a kind of Marxism that would dispense with socialism and communism, and instead views the spirit of antiquity as a kind of ideal, something like what he called species-being. This is distinguished from classicism, primitivism, naturalism, materialism, and even from antiquarianism, in that this imaginary other is perfectly contemporary because she is defined through her ambivalent relationship with technological representation. To heed her voice would mean taking the risk of listening to what emanates today from the material depths of nature.

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Wild Ideas

I’ve been exploring how Gilles Deleuze’s Neoplatonism can be a vehicle for social critique. Neoplatonism of course concerns the veneration of ideas, whereas for Deleuze these ideas were not so ideal, but rather ‘problematic’. This way they lose the permanence and perfection of heavenly union, and become a horde of unstable and singular phantasms that resist identification. In my approach to this, I want to insist that these are still the traditional ideas of philosophy – justice, truth, beauty – but they have been disfigured through a Dionysian crucifixion where they lose their conceptual identities.

For us to interact with these ideas, it is necessary to adopt some mediums, because they are situated on a spiritual dimension which cannot be represented. Here my preference is to adopt anthropology as a medium, and particularly terms like the sacred fetish and the gift. The ideas may possess us to varying degrees, and this possession is simultaneously sensual and intellectual. They can be invoked, divined, exorcized, or appeased. Anthropology provides tropes through which the ideas can be configured, though they are not represented directly.

The dimension of Deleuzian ideas is situated by a specific mythico-historical orientation. They are referred to an origin, which is expressed allegorically as regicide, and which is also the myth of crucifixion. They are the spiritual substance of God which is set adrift after his body is dismembered, which is to say that they are the excarnated spirit of sovereignty and religion. This allegory is an oedipal fantasy, but where the pathology is de-subjectified and suspended onto a dimension of the aesthetic sublime. This is Oedipus delivered to the Kantian holiday from subjective finitude, which is also called anti-Oedipus.

The residual mess which remains after the crucifixion cannot be divided internally, and so it must be separated from representation, which includes distinct discourses on religion, politics, health or economy. The confusion of disfigured ideas threatens to contaminate representation with chaos. This danger is registered in the anthropological-aesthetic terms of the sacred or taboo. This kind of anxiety is a universal feature of the human species, which in the rationalist modern age becomes the dangerous contamination of the problematic. Ideas are problematic because there is a confusion between concepts, and between the sensual and the intellectual.

Representation expresses the economic ordering of modern society which includes the division of labor, and the segmentation of consumer markets. The modern taboo is the set of restrictions on work and enjoyment, which prevent these economic processes from getting lost in the confusion of the ideas.

In Deleuze’s philosophy, the problem of value is reduced to ‘taste’, which concerns the way that the problematic ideas distort representation. The problem of taste is about how to allow for the expression of ideas without setting off the trigger of sacred anxiety. The taboo is a defensive function which is internal to the system of representation. Posing this question in these aesthetic-anthropological terms has advantages over psychoanalytic theories of the super-ego, because it opens onto the broader field of ethnographic differences, whereas psychoanalysis tends to close onto therapeutic concerns of modern western societies. Psychoanalysis is susceptible to getting trapped into alignment with representation, where it is forced to pursue the narrowly prescribed values of the market.

Deleuze’s primary critique of psychoanalysis concerns the concept of the phallus. Psychoanalysts understand that representation is generated through a phallic function, though there is disagreement over what this implies. There is a common structuralist fallacy which attributes an excess of integrity of representation, and this error leads an unfortunate exasperation of taboos. It is crucial to avoid any utopian assumptions about the structural nature of representation. So Deleuze suggests an alternative interpretation of the phallus, where it becomes a kind of pact to uphold the illusion that representation has structural integrity and that its order is somehow founded in the ideas. This simple conception of the phallus involves some inevitable irony.

In order to make this more sophisticated, we can use some anthropological mediators to bring the phallus into communication with the ideas. The term ‘phallus’ can be referred to the ethnography of the Dionysian theater, and particularly to the Satyr plays, and so we might say that phallic representation is satirical. If this satirical nature is overlooked, then there is a danger that the phallus may be taken too seriously, and this may lead to the splitting or dismemberment associated with Dionysian orgies.

The orgy is the dangerous situation which arises when the spirituality of ideas turns furiously against representation. This results from a failure in the mediation between ideas and representation. The best antidote for mitigating this risk is to insist on the cold calculation of value in terms of taste, so that the power of ideas should not imply destructive fury. The key to this was Deleuze’s turn to the inorganic, the step beyond dialectics.

This aesthetic criticism provides a vehicle for surveying some of the moods which are prevalent these days. The first order of business here is the proliferation of irony, which is a mood related to the power of eroticism, and especially it’s relation with authority. Irony may be unavoidable because of how it is constantly regenerated by contemporary conditions. This is due to mechanical and cybernetic reproduction of certain psychic dynamisms. Especially at issue here is the Kleinian pathological dynamics (projection, disavowal, introjection, incorporation, identification) which are reproduced through cybernetic feedback loops.

Irony is a persistent feature of current conditions of psycho-spiritual automation. Populations are routinely appropriated and animated as puppets of technological infrastructure, where they are implicated in an often obscure cacophony of promotional initiatives. People are forced to play along with institutional arrangements they may not understand, and where the pretense of what is happening might be extraordinarily thin. When a charade gets muddled, then people can lose the sense of the roles they are playing, and irony is an inevitable feedback effect under these conditions.

Institutional charades must appear as non-charades, and irony is the effect that occurs when this deceit is exposed. In this sense, irony is the failure of a semblance of authenticity, which is an indication of institutional dissolution. The basic paradigm here is the manager who says, “this is not a charade!” and then looks around to see if anyone is smirking.

Under these conditions, Deleuze’s conception of the phallus becomes relevant. Institutional survival may require the banning of irony which leads to a conspiracy of feigned seriousness. As E.J. Mone said, “who has not seen children laugh where adults are shocked? There is something devilish at work here”. The neutralization of irony can become a key consideration for maintaining institutional semblances.

Though despite neutralization, irony remains, regardless of whether it is acknowledged. This is where taste becomes acute ethical problem, which concerns the negotiation of double binds. If irony becomes over-whelming, then remaining non-ironic poses the danger of stupidity. In this situation, the neutralization of irony becomes a matter of taste. If irony is not suitably sublated, then the result is often a witless boredom which tends to erupt into tasteless irony, or obscenity, or cruelty. This fraying of institutional subjectivity was performed in the TV show the Office. One may be faced with the lose-lose choice between an irresponsible irony or naïve victimhood, which is the dissolute condition of ‘mock or be mocked’.

The solution to this situation involves play, or what Deleuze calls ‘humor’, which dances between the alternate hermeneutic possibilities. The danger with irony is how it can be sustained over a duration, which shows that it is related to the tediousness of obsessional or retentive symptoms. It can be understood as a doubling of the sovereign’s obsessional neurosis.

This crises of ‘boring irony’ arises due to an overinvestment in representation, which is a mistaken belief in the reality to the phallic function. The imaginary phallus has been treated as something more than a functional pretense, or like what Kant called a regulative ideal, which leads to leads to a sadistic accounting.

This crises arises because of how the ontology of production becomes inescapable, where an obsessional boredom arises as a kind of panic reaction to the intuition that there is no ontology beyond representation. Industrial production is experienced as an existential trap. This way we can interpret boredom as a variety of obsessional neurosis which is symptomatic of the ontology of labor.

Deleuze’s thinking allows us to approach this problem in terms of aesthetic taste, so that the problem becomes how being can tastefully disrupt the regime of production. This term ‘being’ here includes the chaos of the ideas that we started describing above. But this also includes the kind of corporeal synchrony associated with the sensuality of feminist poetics, or the aesthetic experience of bodily cycles. This is the unity of digestion, sleep, growth, respiration, circulation, exfoliation, speech… but in Deleuze’s Neoplatonism it is important to understand that this bodily unity is impossibly disfigured. Any term might be adopted as an allegory of the whole body (for example, eroticism would be an obvious choice), but its iteration generates a polysemy which abolishes that whole.

Laborers suffer a kind of thymotic binding which holds them in pseudo-religious exile from the sensual. Their investments in codes of honor hold them in allegiance to the order of representation, which is thus protected by a eucharistic superstition. This way free sensuality is associated with taboo enjoyment, which is enjoyment that might provoke envy, or otherwise awaken the anxiety of the gaze. The ideas are figured negatively from within representation, with is the envious gaze, or the various modalities of the sacred such as the messianic or the cursed.

This line of social criticism demonstrates some similarities with feminism. Feminism of every variety would seem to be concerned with restoring access to embodied sensuality, though Deleuze’s thinking is distinguished on this point. An idealized body tends to become a fetish which is analogous to the phallus of psychoanalysis, and is also susceptible to the lures of consumerist representation. The ideal body becomes an anti-phallus or maternal-phallus which gets wielded as a diabolic weapon of the elite female consumer. Taking the reality of embodiment seriously poses the same danger as the phallus.

Feminist poetics tends to indulge in ecstasies which transgress the restrictions on consumer enjoyment. The question I want to raise concerns how these ecstasies provoke envious gazes and get packaged as luxury experiences. Luxury markets often feed off feminist spirituality, and so this is like a remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where Helene Cixous is replaced by an evil femme-bot. Anne Dufourmantelle’s last book was called ‘The Power of Gentleness’, though it doesn’t quite reach a discussion of gentrification. It seems obvious that the female body is adopted as a model for the commodity fetish, but there seems to be little appreciation of how somatic rhetoric of feminism might be complicit in that modeling.

Restating this alternately, we could say that feminism aligns with consumerism in its ontological reductions. This is where being is reduced to sensuality, and sensuality is reduced to embodiment. This prepares for the representation of being as enjoyment which is restricted as a commodity. This explains why homosexuality is associated with luxury consumption and is suggestive of the role which humanities education plays in the system of commodity fetishism.

Now let us recap what has been said here. The ideas are ripped apart in the dismemberment of the sovereign’ s body, and we relate to them through the medium of ethnographic analysis. Their chaotic energy threatens the order of representation. Following the dismemberment of the sovereign’s body, the psychoanalysts proceed like the Egyptian goddess Isis to recover his phallus, which they believe will allow for some expressive powers of subjective representation which have some therapeutic implications. We can imagine a Rene Marguerite painting that says, ‘this is not a penis’, which would satirize this endeavor to recover this imaginary object. Meanwhile, feminists are trying to recover a utopic experience of sensual embodiment, trying to reassemble the whole body of the queen. This is a fantasy of luxury consumption where sacred ecstasy provokes the envious gazes of the masses who are trapped in the ontology of production. Feminism is a source of tantalizing fantasies of the sensual, which can be associated with all sorts of romances, which are packaged as enjoyable experiences befitting the higher classes.

The intention here is to affirm psychoanalysis and feminism as extraordinary adventures. They are important allies in the task of tastefully disrupting representation. It’s just that Deleuze prefers his allies joyously dismemberment, because that is when they give up the ghost of their ideas. Hence Deleuzians tend to have few friends, though the are ready to affirm anyone to death.

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