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I’ve been casually researching the Qing Dynasty (1635-1911) for the last few years. This research has been inspired but an obscure fascination which tends towards an aesthetic. What follows is a schematic outline of this ongoing experiment.
The context for this experiment is the project of civilizational renewal underway these days in China. I find the Qing period is intriguing because of how it figures as an impasse in that project. The project aims to establish continuity between ancestors and descendants, and appears untenable for various reasons. The idea of Han ethnic identity readily deteriorates into something monstrously counterfeit, as practically all the core institutions of the imperial tradition, such a polygamy and footbinding, would be absurd in the this century. There are problems concerning how this “renewal” is going to proceed, and the Qing aesthetic is in that problematic. It is an edge or limit where the discourses on the symbolic continuity of Chinese civilization give way to abject figures.
In order to introduce this aesthetic, let me first recall some current conditions in China. These days, wealthy families are ambitiously returning to the era of feudalism, through what we might call the manorial-hotelier real estate culture. They are evidently trying to pick up where their ancestors left off roughly a century ago. There is a perception that their national life-world was fractured by foreign intrusion, and these wealthy bosses are recovering that lost symbolic integrity. So the Chinese feel they are in the process of becoming symbolically whole again. And for this reason, there is great tolerance today for nepotism, because the skyscrapers and luxury automobiles have become symbols of Fuqiang（富强）, the wealth-strength of those who are capable of recovering national integrity. This is an atavistic return of a nobility re-emerging primarily through the power of real estate. This class is exceptionally powerful due to the way capitalism and socialism have meshed. When private individuals buy property, they can only hold the deed for seventy years, after which it goes back to a public company. So there is an ongoing cycle of re-appropriation and re-sale which concentrates a horrific degree of real estate power into the hands of the party elite. There is the question of how far atavism will go in the restoration of imperial institutions, although all the Chinese I know are adamant that a return to full imperialism would not be possible.
This restoration process can be considered as something like a working-through in the psychoanalytic sense, in that it’s an attempt to establish the structural coherence of the subject. The process runs into sensitive points, which must be circumvented or masked, because they could destabilize the symbolic representation of the society. There is the question of the “loose-officials”, party members who enrich themselves by dubious means and then escape to foreign countries. This poses a risk of “moral hazard” (to speak like an economist) for the Chinese economy overall, where elites could run up the markets to accumulate wealth quickly and then flee abroad as the system collapses. If authorities are not permanently committed to China, then they may not concern themselves with the risks that their decisions expose it to. This sort of risk can only be mitigated by ensuring the party’s eternal allegiance to the Chinese people. This ideology of allegiance implies several dimensions, drawing on the rhetoric of socialism, along with the older ideologies of Chinese civilization, especially its familial tendencies. The anti-corruption campaign of the last few years unsurprisingly has Confucian aspects. So the idea of Chinese civilizational continuity is becoming critical for social integrity.
Life abroad is considered superior in terms of environment, education, and health, and people are generally moving abroad “for their children”. So there is a strange ethical ambivalence within the family which is torn between nativist ideology and escapist temptations. Nationalist solidarity draws on a frequently aestheticized sentimentality for the ancestral hometown.
There are powerful images of the betrayers of Chinese civilization who forsake the national ideals. This image most famously has to do with the hanjian (汉奸) who cooperated with Japanese puppet governments.
In the mainland today there are various schools proposing strategies for the recovery of civilizational continuity. A certain Confucianist named Jiangqing (not Mao’s wife!) is getting media attention in the west, so he is a reasonable place to begin this discussion. This guy draws his lineage from Xunzi of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), and thus breaks with the Mencian orthodoxy of the last thousand years. This initiative is remarkable for its strategy, in that it dispenses with the need to negotiate with the last thousand years of Confucianism, which he claims is tainted by “Western individualism”. Thus he links the present form of Chinese communism directly to this very ancient realist political philosophy in order to establish the continuity of authentic Chinese thought. He has even gone so far as to redesign the government into a tripartite structure, where the Party is reduced to one branch, and the other branches are for the direct descendants of Confucius on one hand, and those who pass the civil exam on the Confucian classics on the other.
This proposal is interesting in its strategy for recovering civilizational continuity. Qing aesthetics is the inverse of this political fantasy, in that it pursues exactly what Jiangqing is attempting to exclude. The important thing is to deconstruct political temporality and engage Chinese civilization on a morbid spatial level. This orients subjectivity in the position that the patriarchy rejects.
Chinese tend to imagine the Qing as a time of decline when they were ruled by foreign Manchus. Hence the tendency to project further back to more glorious dynasties like the Tang (who were not so Han either…) This rejection of the Qing as non-Chinese has drastic consequences for the project of restoring civilizational continuity. As the last dynasty, there are still people alive even today who were born during the Qing, making it by far the most accessible in every sense. Its institutional records and literature constitute, along with its material artefacts, the greater part of the existing archive of Chinese civilization. Qing customs, languages, and political divisions are the closest approximations of any dynasty to what exists in China today. It was also the most populated, wealthy, and geographical expansive dynasty. Almost any ancient traditions which are still practiced today must have been transmitted through the Qing period. It has been suggested that popular conceptions of ancient China – such as what is shown on TV soap operas – are largely based on the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, as is the style of today’s vernacular mandarin.
This leads to a fact which is interesting for aesthetic reasons – that the continuity of Chinese civilization depends on a period which the Chinese dismiss as one of discontinuity. This reduces the accessibility of the archive of the civilization, and so the Chinese turn instead towards ideologies which are less cultural, and more familial and socio-political.
Qing aesthetic draws queer forces from the rejected and abominable traits associated with that period, such as eunuchs, footbinding, opium, polygamy, and foreign intrusion. This dimension is non-temporal, the unworking of a doomed civilization on the brink of extinction. Patriarchalists are possessed by the fantasy of producing heirs to continue the authentic way of this ancient people, and so they become obsessive neurotics attempting to close this symbolic chain through acts of reproduction. Qing aesthetics installs a subject at the point where that chain does not close. This is a theater of abjection where the archive of Chinese civilization is exposed to oblivion. A theater of the archive’s frayed end. This exposure is an event around which dramatic processes are figured. This is a field of crucifixation, something like the lude figures on Francis Bacon paintings. The Taiping uprising of millennial Christians (1860s) was perceived as an insurgence of demons possessed by the creed of the foreigners. Qing aesthetics considers this insurgence as something of internal Chinese origins.
There is a scandal where the authentic archive of Chinese civilization may have always been haunted by its repressed real. The empire may have died not from foreign intrusion but from essentially Chinese characteristics.
The Chinese social doxa is a phantasm of reproduction. This is a temporal frame which intertwines familial, civilizational, and socio-political threads. The Qing aesthetic is an eruption of the death drive within that doxa. This opens a threshold of extinction designated by the character 拆, which marks old buildings slated for destruction, like the old Hutong alleyways of Beijing. This is a site within the symbolic structure where time disappears, the futureless dimension where the archive of Chinese civilization opens.
People living in a fantasy sometimes grow desperate for reality. This leads to a fetishism which is afflicting intellectuals, where they latch onto some piece of fantasy as though it were a reality. I propose to describe the American election in a way that avoids this mistake. This means treating fantasy itself as the only reality. And this real fantasy would be the financial perspective, and so what follows shall avoid the assertion of any real authentic politics beyond that frame.
Politics can be considered as a meticulously managed process, which is just a course of business, and especially the entertainment business, or what we call the media. But then there are factions who engage in political struggles as though there were something else at stake besides business as usual, namely the pursuit of justice. The problem of interpreting the election is the conflation of business interests with other supposed political motivations. These other motivations are always suspicious, because they can always be interpreted as masked financial ploys. It is obvious that the media businesses are stirring up activist victim communities and other more violent political fantasies, and that the whole political system can be seen as a network of businesses that use these sensations for promotional purposes. And activism itself has obviously become a profession, and so the supposed justness of any political cause inevitably gets confused with the activist’s own need for financial well-being. And aside from financial incentives, activism also has another tendency towards perversion, because it can be seen as a pretence to existential significance, or a romantic passion acting-out against the emptiness of the void. And so if it is not a business strategy, then activism can appear as recourse against nihilism, and either way it is not an authentic response to an external reality.
From a business perspective, we could say that black lives matter or don’t matter according to institutional norms, which are namely the protocols and doxas of finance. This is what I consider the master fantasy, the fantasy of hegemonic white patriarchs that is imposed as a global reality. When someone attacks this fantasy of white cis-gendered authority, then I wonder what else they have in mind, besides merely a rebellion against said authority. Rebellions of course are always dependant on what they rebel against. It seems that the challengers fail to appreciate how substantial this hegemonic fantasy actually is. White authority is based in thousand-year-old fantasies, and next to these ancient racial codes the opposed fantasies of justice appear supplementary.
If the hegemonic institutions collapsed (banks, parliaments, corporations, universities…) it’s interesting to fathom what conditions might ensue. Always a lover of chaos, I find satisfaction in this dream of a return to something raw and cosmic, and the victim-communalists who aim to bring this about stir my desires. But isn’t it irresponsible to indulge in fantasies of war? This brings us to the ethics of violent fantasy, which is the key for interpreting various electoral phenomena, such as the alt-right movement. These political fantasies are obviously dialectical responses to the soulless ethos of liberal business. The network society has forced people into endless self-promotion and interpersonal commerce, where they relate to each other in vague promiscuous roles of client/agent/boss/employee etc. Everyone is compelled to cooperate flexibly in order to accelerate circulations, and this imperative friendliness generates a by-product of concentrated negativity that is expressed by various counter-liberal political fantasies.
And then there is a tendency among observers to assume that those violent fantasies are dangerous, as though they harboured the potential for some atrocious realization in action. What is overlooked is that this fear of those supposedly dangerous fantasies is itself a fantasy, and such perception of imaginary danger deserves criticism. The hegemonic frame can treat all this as problems for the institutional management of political fantasies. The supposedly authentic non-financial contenders ultimately get captured back under the authority of the financial system, because it is only there that they have consequences.
I believe the ultimate political issue is this institutional management of violent fantasy. There is an initial negativity arises as a real structural given as soon as the post-1989 liberal pantheon (Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela…) takes possession of the world with its vacuous positivity. The broader ethical-political problem of this epoch concerns how that negativity could possibly be expressed. Perhaps violent fantasy is a valuable alternative to more physical forms of violent behaviour. And as I understand them, these are not so much political questions, as rather practicalities of fantasy management, where it may be best to establish a comfortable home for that negativity in the realm of fantasy. The negativity corresponds with a gap in the liberal financial system, and that gap is filled with the violent fantasies of the alt-right, or of tankie socialists. These modes of fantasy are how the financial system is coming to metabolize its own negativity, which it treats as an energetic resource for the purpose of commodification.
This American presidential election is a virtuoso display of simulation management featuring a cast of celebrity actors. It’s classical theater in that it bears the signatures of Aristotle and Dickens, along with more than a tad of noir. The back story is the supposed exhaustion and moral bankruptcy of the institutions of liberal idealism. This exhaustion is a source of drama, and not necessarily a reality in any way. The purpose of this election is to reinvigorate American sovereignty as a romantic adventure, or a stigmatic sensation, and this requires that all the factions of the society find their place in the drama. The institutions recharge themselves through this dramatic interpolation which is an operation of shoring up moral charisma. This election is unique in how it has captured the attention of the excluded, and brought their energy in the wheels of officialdom.
The presidential debates drew on various genres. For example, there was a sitcom-like aspect, as though Archie Bunker were arguing with Rosanne. The point here is the profound affinity between democracy and drama, which goes back to their common Hellenistic origins. The simulation works so well because it has been running for thousands of years, and draws on a deep archive of symbols. The appearance of institutional weakness is only a dramatic ruse, where this pathos is used to provoke concern for the well-being of the Other. In observing this drama, the critical question is how the performers (and spectators) are captured into their roles, or where they are at liberty to step off-stage. Everything hinges on how the actors (which could include anyone) are invested in the reality of the performance.
There are various motivations for assuming political roles. The performers are all playing for money, and so they are like paid actors, but this financial motivation is confused with the need for honour or existential fulfillment, and so there is a deeper instinctual capture into the performance. Financial incentives are always conflated with other social and psychological motivations, and each political faction has different ways of linking them together. For political roles on the right, being financially motivated is part of their identity, so there is no conflict between business and authenticity, whereas roles on the left must disavow their financial incentives, and somehow enact a purification of their politics to get rid of economic impurities.
Environmentalists must appear exceptionally committed to the reality of their political role, and to the scientific fact that a looming catastrophe can be averted through political action. Leaving science aside, catastrophe is a seductive fantasy which charges the life of activism with purpose. An activist can be considered as someone pragmatically responding to real conditions, or else as someone in the grip of a fantasy. The alternative between these two interpretations would be referred to in alt-right circles as a red-pill/blue-pill choice. The passionate face of an activist invites us to make a hermeneutic decision, where that valour, panic, indignation, vigilance… that passion is either a response to some scientific reality, or else it is the index of a fantasy, or else it is good acting for the sake of money (or whatever money might represent…). This is a hermeneutic decision in the philosophical sense, since this cannot be resolved by argument. If immanent catastrophe is indeed a scientific fact, then it is also necessarily a fantasy, and there is no logical basis on which to decide between these interpretive orientations. It’s this undecidability that makes an authentic decision possible. It should be clear which pill I have taken, and so for me the question is how well Amy Goodwin and Jill Stein have been cast for their roles, which is perhaps something of an Antigone, hence the sublime aura.
Some white cis-gendered men are privileged in that the entire simulation is their own indigenous property, in that they can step back to survey the whole thing as a grand dramaturgical production. This capacity is a racial trait that qualifies them for the vocation of theatrical production, or else as detached spectators. Of course anyone could be capable of this epoche, but they would have to learn the tradition of Euripides, St. Paul, Ovid, Cicero… as political activism always takes a role on this Hellenistic stage. This stage is coextensive with politics tout court because it takes protest to its dramaturgical limits in crucifixion, and thereby establishes an unsurpassable absolute in the field of political representation. And as other symbolic traditions are encountered through colonial exploits, they are absorbed by over-coding into the occidental dramatic matrix.
A few years ago, a native girl called me a “colonial settler”, and having lived most of my life in exile, this caused me to laugh. But the more I consider this term, the more I appreciate the designation. My role is that of an “unsettled settler”, one who was maybe driven off the land, or who abandoned the land for political reasons, or for other economic opportunities. I adopt this role of the unsettled settler in the mode of fantasy. Exile is an off-stage role, where one takes obscure, minor positions for the purpose of survival. There are advantages to remaining off-stage, since this is where a broader dramaturgical conception of the performance becomes possible. There is more space for liberty at the margins of the stage. As the financial simulation deepens its control of life, it’s from this liminal condition of exile that we maintain continuity with Hellenistic literature. Exile is a topological position for optimal transmission, like in Midnight’s Children.
Now there is a critical point to make concerning the evaluation of literary work. There should never never arise any question about the value of literature’s contribution to the world, and instead of this doxic judgment we should only consider the structural adequacy of assumed roles as a fantasy. Anyone who still purports to evaluate work has obviously taken the wrong pill. Knowledge of the absolute value of work must be abandoned to the unknown perspective of the infinite Other, so that we finite beings are liberated to indulge our fantasies as the ultimate anti-vocations. Literature cannot be produced otherwise than as an anti-vocation. This overcomes the Hegelian disregard for mortality which usurps the impossible perspective of the divine other. Amor Fati.
Perhaps Hillary and Donald are performing a lover’s spat. Her credibility demads zero susceptibility to his seductive charm as a patriarchal boss. She does want him to grab her pussy, but only because it would increase her victim capital, although it could also dangerously position him as an uncastrated man’s man. Emerging from this bizarre anti-erotic dance, the odds are now in her favour. He can win only if he appears uncastrated, but that has become unlikely because of how he attacked Bill, where Donald himself assumed the role of Bill’s castrator. Hilary tricked him into doing that. So it would seem that castration is trump, and that she should prevail in that suit. Her pussy appears ‘dentata’, and if Donald makes a move on her, then he would lose his most precious possession. Since he cannot complete the sexual act, it would seem we are transitioning to a regime of the empress… and it would seem the money was on her all along.
For several years, this blog has been outlining a conception of bourgeois culture. This researh is anomalous, and might be dismissed as uninteresting, outlandish or just plain dubious. I persist in this anachronistic direction as I beleive it can transform intellectual life. Modern thought has singular and obscure linkages with the concept of the bourgeoisie, and new appreciation of those linkages can transform its disposition. The necessity of this endeavor originates from a commitment to existential authenticity, which is not the authentic mortality discussed by Heidegger, but rather an acceptance of immanent structural conditions in modernity. An inevitable touchstone in discussing this experience is the Marquis de Sade, who demonstrates an early attempt to grapple with the condition of bourgeois culture.
Both bourgeois and radical thinking emerge in response to the negativity of capital, or to the existential opening generated by financial accumulation. This negativity is a clearing that suspends the actual in contingency, indetermination or uncertainty. Capital erases the reality of the actual by conjuring the idea of its undetermined future. Faced with the infinity of an uncertain future, there is a tendency to panic and grasp after attachments in desperate efforts to maintain subjective finitude, or the composition of praxis. I beleive that it is this panic reflex which leads to the typical contradictions of bourgeois corruption. These are odious tendencies which result from the inability to process infinity, an inadequicy of representational resources. There is the often concealed obsession with ensuring the future superiority of one’s class. By clinging to the idea of one’s superior reproductive power, the life of one’s kin-group acquires an aura of invincibility. Uncertainty is dispelled by conceiving the future as a struggle between kinship groups, and if one is convinced of their own reproductive superiority, then that provides the assurance of an immortality. The fantasy of the triumph of the self-same over the others in a reproductive duel becomes a charm with which to dispell indetermination. This subject’s own sexual superiority provides a pragmatic principle which allows them to proceed coherently in the face of otherwise overwhelming uncertainty.
Radical thought can be understood as a reaction to this classical bourgeois subject. It rejects an obsessional identification with a superior class, and that way it reverts to the crises of the overwhelming negativity of capital accumulation. The need for an alternate principle of subjective composition has led radicals to invert bourgeois idealism, so that class inferiority becomes a principle. Over the centuries, radical thought has been through a series of encounters with its boureois adversary, but a viable alternative for subjective composition has never arisen. I am proposing that we step decisively beyond this adversarial relation, and move towards an identification and appropriation of the subjective resources of this enemy. This would not be to merely mimic the bourgeois in any of its hitherto incarnations, but to reconstruct its subjectivity in an original manner functionally tailored to immanent intensive conditions.
This opens a (somewhat…perhaps…) original chapter in radical thought where the conceptual terrain shifts drastically. Our problem is no longer to defeat a bourgeois adversary, but to occupy a bourgeois subject position in order to better symbolize the experience of the ontological negativity of capital accumulation. This is a pragmatic decision with potentially far-reaching implications, and with a basis in various traditions of radical thought.
One of the key conceptual resources for this project is the separation of value-spheres that characterizes Weberian modernity. This is how we distinguish radical from bourgeois thinking. Radicalism has tended to fixate on socio-political values in opposition to the socio-economic attachments of the bourgeois. My proposal is to take a step beyond this opposition, so that both of these obsessional tendencies would be suspended. My idea is to combine these two spheres into what we could call a primary order of sexual values, which would include the sort of vitalist reproductive values criticized by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958). Stepping beyond vitalism, the problem is to construct a secondary level of cultural values that surpasses that phase of political-economy in an original manner. This would mean abandoning the deepest and most sentimental attachments of leftist political morality, along with the opposed attachments to socio-economic status. This also means that radicalism is an essentially perverse activity.
The idea is to construct another bourgeoisie, that would be an artificial medium for an original encounter with capital – to encounter capital again, but perhaps as it has never been encountered before. The term bourgeois implies much polysemy, and its sense can be remolded to suit immanent conditions. Most important is this new subject’s reflexive ambivalence in its relation with capital, and its ironic distance from social or reproductive roles. The point is to conceive the bourgeoisie in a way that avoids its classical ego-idealism, so it can maintain an authentic encounter with the negativity of capital. Radical subjectivity, and its old class struggle, can be absorbed into the bourgeois position. This way we construct a dialectical bourgeoisie, which has existed at various times in the past, so what we are talking about is not entirely original, and this direction was opened by Lukacs and others.
These reconstructed bourgeoisie are authentic in their consciousness of being adrift on an ocean of imperceptible intensities, and it’s their disposition within those waves that arises as their distinguishing cultural problem – the problem of maintaining their subjective repose amidst the ocean of material flows. Their culture is their matadorean struggle to bring the vertigo of intensities into the determination of coherent subjective forms, and for this purpose they invoke the mystery of the event as an axiological fulcrum. The intensities are brought to heal through orchestrated simulations. It is through their periodic refabulations of the event that this bourgeoisie are able to take possession of themselves subjectively. The event is the ever-changing structural ideology (religious, historical, theatrical) which allows them to coerce the flow of intensity into tasteful distributions of sensation. This bourgeoisie are descendants of the counter-reformation and practitioners of neobaroque sorcery, although they have reasons to obscure the secrets of their ancestry, which they do by professing crude utilitarianism or pragmatism.
This baroque bourgeoisie are a distinctly “cultural people”, in that they reduce the other value spheres – including religion, politics, society, and economics – to instruments for their cultural projects of managing intensities. By artificially restaging the sacred events of religion and politics, they channel intensities into their subjective compositions. They engage in dramaturgical contests over the staging of the event, and over the distribution of roles, which are the channels by which subjects receive their symbolic power.
This is a class of people who conjure the sacred event in order to marshall intensities. This cultural sorcery breaks with the class dialectic of political-economy and its vitalist ideal of reproduction. This culture is both ascetic and iconoclastic, in that it breaks free from a preexisting sexual habitat where its values would remain trapped within the reproductive systems of society, politics and economics. This perverse marshalling of intensities breaks with the instincts of reproduction, and this separation of consciousness from primary sexual instinct alters the nature of emotional experience. These baroque bourgeois are ascetic in that they refuse to feel emotions directly or passively, so that their emotions can be actively chosen as interpretations of intensive conditions according to symbolic roles. They refuse to be affected by any real necessity of reproduction in order to assume emotive roles within the symbolic coordinates of the event. But they must avoid getting too close to the event itself, because they know it is only a mask or screen over a punctuation in the flow of intensities. Such a torsion is ultimately all that is indicated by words like revolution, sovereign act, or crucifixion. This event is what Kant would call a Regulative Ideal, a false pretext which fascilitates the assumption of symbolic roles by symbolizing or sublimating an intensive dynamism. It determines the otherwise uncoded intensities so they can be systematized for subjectification.
The forms of bourgeois subjectivity – its manifestation – arise in relation to an ideal event – a symbol of intensive torsion – which repeats with intricate variations. The event is denied any real determination so that it can become a simulacra which fluctates with the intensities it symbolizes. This bourgeoisie denies itself reality in order to become whatever is required to channel material into tasteful sensations. This is a culture which refuses to take political struggles too seriously, because it struggles instead with intensities. Politics, religion, economics, and society are considered distasteful residues from the inauthentic age of reproductive fetishes. Political or socio-economic opponents are treated as instruments in the dramaturgical struggle to sublimate the intensitive into sensational compositions. So this culture is a perverse ruse that escapes from the struggles over reproductive idealism. It is both ascetic and iconoclastic in how it breaks free from the habitat of sexual doxa. The systems of money and commodity could even be seized as instruments in the project of liberating culture from reproductive codes. This culturalism shares tendencies with dandyism, in how it instrumentalizes the other value spheres for the purpose of sensational compositions.
This baroque bourgeoisie distinguish their cultural asceticism from sexual austerities (physical, economic, social, political..). Cultural asceticism is distinguished by how it liberates subjectivity from the immediacy of cast-roles. This is the capacity of subjects to shift through a neutral inter-phase where they are unaffected by the evental intensities which possess or animate them in their roles. By opening access to this null phase where all events are suspended, subjects can relate to themselves through the neutral boredom and solitude of the void where they become conscious of culture as a disjunction between the simulacral and the molecular. Without the ability to separate from their roles, subjects are immersed in the immediacy of semblance as an inescapable reality. Culture is the mode where semblances are reduced to contingent or variable expressions of imperceptible material forces, and which depends on a perverse non-role phase, which allows for the mobility between roles. To say this bourgeoisie are “cultured” means they are oriented practically towards the perverse manipilation of this split in reality, which amounts to a difference in viscocity, or the degree of plasticity, between simulacra and matter. Their withdrawal into the neutral (their ascesis of affect) affords them mobility between symbolic roles, so they can manipulate how their bodies emit and receive intensities.
Symbolic scripts turn around intensive torsions which are symbolized as sacred events, which commonly concern the Death of the Great Ones. It is through the artifice of sovereign death that culture attains its symbolic autonomy from the reproductive habitat of sexuality. The experience of the bourgiosie over the last centuries has been a long education in this dramaturgy of sovereign death. Through its refinement, this performance moves towards the periphery of the script – away from the center which is the political theater of regicide – where the dramatization can become a more overtly artificial ruse for channelling intensities. When someone is seduced by the sacred act, they can fall under archaic spells of sovereignty, and in this rapture their activity is seized in impossibility. Thus one succumbs to the mania of obsessive neurosis. Superior performance occurs at the periphery of the evental topos, where the spell of intensities is less forceful, and roles do not get seized in the ambivalence of the sacred. The will to direct contact with the sacredness of sovereign death corresponds with mania or obsession. When the sacred event is kept at a distance,then the performance is superior in its subtlety. The refinement of performance involves the peripheralization of roles, because roles which are too close to the event get overwhelmed with intesity. The event is essentially ambivalent, and so any determinations in relation to it are contradictory, and its ambivalence is only manageable at a distance. It would seem that today’s radicalism transforms into a baroque-bourgeois culture as it learns how to maintain its distance from the sacred event.
But then there is also the opposite danger, which is losing any symbolic relation to the event. This reconstructed bourgeois culture would positions itself between the mania of too-much intensity and the depression of too-little intensity, where it manages their occillation. The uncultured person does not appreciate a low intensity peripheral performance, because they fail to sense how the symbolic event transmits subtle intensities at a distance, and so out of dissatisfaction they tend to grope after the center where they succumb to obsessional neurosis. The peripheralization of the sacred tends to produce subtle humor. Humor provides relief from obsessive fixation under the spell of the sacred. Comedic roles are outlandish recastings to the periphery of symbolic, breaking the spell of the sacred. But comedy also risks the depressing dissolution of th event, which leaves the performance unable to channel intensities. So the sense of humor must be limited in its irreverence, in order to maintain the evental power to symbolize intensities.
This is perhaps the decisive virtue of the baroque-bourgeoisie: the capacity to move between humorous and serious roles. A subject who only adopts humorous roles will exhuast the sacred power of the event, whereas one who only plays serious roles will succumb to obsessional neurosis. The problem is to suture serious and humorous roles together, so that humor always maintains something serious, and seriousness always remains slightly humorous. Or we could say this is the suturing of reverence and irreverence for the sacred, which would form a circuit between the centering and decentering of the symbolic. Perhaps such a conjunction is required to manage the ambivalence which is essential to symbolic sovereignty. If a deeper conjunction between reverence and irreverence is maintained, then there seems to emerge a strange singular humor which is the hallmark of good performance, where a humorous periphery is well integrated structurally to a sacred symbolic event.
Recently I’ve been books reading about Cromwellian England. For those unfamiliar with that age, Cromwell was a messianic puritan revolutionary who dissolved the English monarchy in the 1650s. That was a century before the American revolution, but many of the same rhetorical tropes already appear there. So it would seem he was a model for all modern politics, or for what we might call liberalism as an imperial religion. There was a rhetoric about liberating the Irish and Scots from their subjugation to “feudal tyrrany”, and that seems to have been the origin of American exceptionalism. People believed Cromwell was divinely destined to sack all the monarchs of Europe, along with the Vatican, and to establish the New Jerusalem as a global Commonwealth of Free Republics.
What especially interests me in the English civil war are those who they called “turncoats”, mercenary pampleteers who switched back and forth from royalism and catholicism to republicanism and puritanism. These writers didn’t maintain permanent political commitments, because they believed everything was up to providence. There was no issue of conscience for them about their switching allegiances, because God himself might have switching sides, so they just supported whoever was ascendant. Among these writers were major figures of English literature including Andrew Marvell. Those guys were writing under psydonyms, supporting Cromwell and then the king, getting thrown in jail, and in danger of getting executed. And they were paid from both sides.
The turncoats seem to have contributed something essential in the stylistic evolution of literary English, which was a humorously equivocal Faustian disposition. This is a baroque reversability of guises and folds, reflecting thought that runs through Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Hobbes. The baroque Elizabethan style led into the baudy polemics of the civil war. There is a manner that is highly ironic, yet still maintains some religious conviction or reverence. So there was a genre of Puritan messianic writing that was satirical… “Blessed Ollie’ Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonweal, Depos’r of Tyrants, and Ever-Righteous Knight of the Armaggeddon… “. Then this style somehow developed into the irony of the romantic nationalists like Burke, Carlyle and Scott, and then eventually the jocular ambivalence of Joyce and Beckett. The point here is how literature internalized a dialectics of imperialism and anti-imperialism that worked through a witzeig senility or drunkenness.
Considering the humorous reversibility of political ideology in litrrature, it becomes necessary to reconsider the seriousness of all political convictions. It seems that one might maintain conviction to principles, without maintaining permanent political convictions. Or it seems that political convictions may imply some inevitable reversability, because the dialectical turning of historical subjectivity reverses principles.
Liberal imperialism is the idea of an empire based on the principle of liberty. That formula implies an original irony that has been forced upon all of us from birth. We are all subjects of an empire that forces us to pursue our nonsubjugation. We are subjected to the ideal of non-subjugation. It seems we need to evolve to a condition where we no longer conceive ourselves as simply for or against imperialism, but are instead attuned to the timing at which we embrace and reject different forms of imperial subjugation. We need to know how to embrace and resist which imperialisms at what times.
Most of leftist politics implodes into irrelevance as it naively clings to anti-imperialism for the sake of liberty. The insistance on the facile opposition between empire and liberty is impracticable. This leftist fundementalism does not appreciate that power is actually powerful, and so they end up insisting on a christ-like comittment to a sentimental ontic sense of justice at all costs. They fetishize sentimental justice in an infantile manner, and thereby forego their own existence as a relavant political factor in the equivocity of the world.
The absolute refusal to recognize American exceptionalism can have catastrophic concequences, because the US army might be the only military force that even claims any concern for liberty. If the war is between liberalism and non-liberalism, and the left opts for not-liberalism, then it self-destructs. Because they take their political committments too seriously, they end up supporting the abolishion of all liberal principles.
This can be reffered to GW Bush’s “with us or with terrorists”. Many of us scoffed at that statement, but perhaps we did not understand what was at stake. If someone is challenging the sovereign right of the empire, then there is a war between them and the empire. If the empire bases its right on principles of liberty, then the anti-empire bases itself on the negation of those principles. I am not sure whether an authentic neutrality was conceivable in that situation, and it would seem that some basic symbolic integrity could depend on the exclusion of that middle. So there is a Lacanian argument for the Bush doctrine.
But of course I am not simply endorsing the Bush doctrine. I think the left needs to support American imperialism, but only to wait for the moment when there is a principled opposition, and then switch to the other side and overturn the imperial hypocrisy. So the left should endorse ironic imperialism, and be ready to betray it when a principled alternative emerges. One should not commit long-term to either a politics of imperialism or anti-imperialism – the question is about when to turn back and forth between them.
“Turncoat” is typically a derogatory term, but I think it can be something principled if we grasp it through Spinozist dualism. Switching sides is liberating, because it obliterates the transcendent power of linguistic ideology. Politics then is a game of masks, and we have to free ourselves from roles in order to play out the dialectic of history.
Being a professional traitor can be dangerous. But I have the sense that this is where language and politics take us. It’s in the dangerous reversability of political commitments that there is work to do, and money to be made. Of course we will get called sellouts, traitors, turncoats etc. That is where we have to bite the bullet.
One writes better if they are not overly invested in any role. This was lacans point, that we should conceive our subjectivity as doubled between statement and enunciation, and not overidentify with the subject of the address. Enunciation would be the virtual principle of liberty, whereas the statement is the shifting symbolic masks of the political theater.
The left can only exist as a political factor if it can distinguish these two levels of subjectivity. The main obstacle to this distinction seems to be sentimentality, particularly the hatred of American imperialism and Zionism. This sentimentality often is the currency of sincerity or integrity in leftist circles. But just because one instinctively detests the injustice of these forces does not mean that there are other just forces in existence which can oppose them. There is a widespread tendency to oppose them from impracticable positions such as Palestinian nationalism. The left is unable to choose practicality at the level of the statement, and so it makes unfortunate associations and languishes in irrelevance, or worse assists in the destruction of civilization.
Continuing this critique farther, I begin to wonder if the left is anything but a sentimental identity, and whether it has any authentic principles at all. In order to have principles, it seems the left would have to be reversable into the right. Insofar as it commits to remaining the left, it seems it is forced to abandon its principles for the sake of its sentimental attachments. There is a choice between a serious ontic politics and a humorous ontological politics, and I propose an experimental course that would choose the latter and forego any permanent commitment to solidarity with the left.
The ongoing marketization or corporatization of the university has been criticized in recent years. Some issues that have received special attention include the influence of corporations on campuses, the expansion of administrative payrolls, the defunding of humanities programs, and the shifting of work onto untenured faculty. These tangible concerns are easily identified and raised as focal points for public contention. With so many people negatively affected by these trends they naturally become controversial flashpoints. Focusing on these issues can readily rouse oppositional crowds for protests. However, I would like to suggest that these are only superficial effects of more fundamental structural transformations which have been overlooked. Today it seems necessary to conceive a more comprehensive politics which connects these partial issues together. What follows is an attempt to articulate a deeper political horizon through a discourse on the future of intellectual work.
The larger problem at the university today is that conformity ensures poor intellectual performance. Scholars are unable to work effectively because they are constrained by the narrow conditions in their interpersonal relationships. Their ability to think is reduced by norms which are disciplinary, collegial, fraternal, familial and sexual. They are unable to abandon themselves to their work with the sort of feverish intensity that great scholarship demands. Superior scholarly output requires behavior that would break with the social conditions of their institutional roles. It is this social conditioning that results in the overall ineffectiveness of the humanities, and that intellectual mediocrity results in various other inadequacies. Governments are forced to defund departments because their work has low market value. This decision reflects the utilitarian basis on which governments everywhere are structured to operate, where there is no rationale for funding inconsequential research and study.
This argument is going to be controversial, and perhaps some will claim they already are working effectively. There is the question of whether greatness is a legitimate standard of judgment, and how it could be conceived. What I am referring to is work that would effectively respond to the challenges of the world as it is today. It seems that such work is unheard of. Nothing that is being done in the humanities would seem to bear even the slightest consequence for anyone outside of the small fraction of people working directly in those fields. There is much retracing of unfertile ground that was exhausted long ago. There is much extreme specialization not oriented within any broader context. Some academics have moved into the role of entertainers, which is consistent with the order of communicative capitalism. But nowhere is there any compelling perspective on what sort of lives should be lived in the twenty-first century.
Humanities scholars are performing a role that is analogous to what is called customer relations. They are engaged in the emotional labor of maintaining the relational fabric of institutions. In this context, intensive intellectual work is prohibited. Anyone working at higher capacity will receive complaints that they are not performing their role properly. They are branded as disruptive, anti-social trouble makers who pose a hazard to their institutions. Students won’t show up for class because the professor gives off strange vibes, and forces them to think about things they would rather not. Superior intellectual work ultimately results in loss of employment, because it is incompatible with the complex emotional labor of maintaining this relational fabric. Setting up alternative online universities will not alter this situation, because the same conditions will prevail unless there is a sustained and concerted effort to move beyond this contradiction.
Authentic intellectual work coincides with the creative process of evolution, whereas financial control aims to prevent that evolution from occurring, and to channel energy instead into prescribed plans of development. This dams-up creative energy leading to dangerous backlogs, whereby intellect becomes a threatening intrusion that management must defend the institutional order against. This is the anti-thought structure that German idealists referred to as a Dunkverbot. In this scenario finance replicates the role of ancient despotism, where fear-affects become the basis for a fabulous authority that prevents creativity. Throughout history, fear-based authority has always been founded on the idea of ethnicity, although today this idea is concealed behind the facade of political correctness. Ethnicity is the relational condition that ultimately constrains intellect within institutional limits. A person’s ethnicity is their symbolic position within their network of social reproduction. Creativity is renounced out of the fear of losing that position, and this way genuine intellect is converted into the yoke of capital as the anxiety-signal of transgression.
This situation is not unique to neoliberalism, as originality is typically constrained in all patriarchal empires. Appreciating the particulars of today’s political conjuncture requires some anthropological analysis of the locus of power in modernity. Modernity is distinguished from traditional institutions by how it dispenses with the monopoly of despotic power. That traditional monopoly is what anthropologists have conceptualized as the sacred, the form of power that traditional sovereignty reserves to itself. Traditional states are structured to concentrate power in the hands of dominant classes, such as the priests of ancient times, and the sacred is the ethnographic concept of that reserved power. In ancient despotism, the powers of the sacred were concentrated in imperial courts. That was where all the magnitudes reached their limits, which included the limits of consumption, edifice, honor, weaponry, strength, enchantment and fortune. It was through these magnitudes that the sovereign embodied the attributes of the divine. These magnitudes represented his power to create laws, give orders, make judgments, wage wars, and kill at a whim. The magnitude of his life was perceived to exceed the world of the living, which placed him in the eternal ancestral realm of the dead. This way the creative forces of evolution were invested in the body of the sovereign.
The process of modernization can be understood as the separation of sovereign power into the autonomous value spheres analyzed by Max Weber. This division of values absolves the traditional concentration of power in the sacred. In this sense, financialization is the exact inverse of modernization, since it reunites the sacred by combining the exceptional forces of creative evolution into the body of a homogenous elite. The confabulation of financial power today can be understood as a restoration of the sacred power of classical despotism. This sovereignty is based on the magnitude of salary, which yields the magnitudes of family, residences, vehicles, sexuality, renown, accolades, vacations, performances and banquets. The criticism of these assemblages should not be conducted in the offhanded manner of naive leftists. These financial confabulations are inferior to proper modern institutions only because they lack functional differentiation. The concentrated conflation of too many values together causes the short-circuiting of infantile dysfunction. This leads to pathologies such as mania and paranoia. That is the principle disadvantage of the neoliberal sacred, and not its much-criticized unfairness. Properly modern subjectivity is superior because it is functionally differentiated and not concentrated into dysfunctional infantile fantasies of omnipotence.
Capitalism has perverted the project of modernity by exempting sovereignty from functional differentiation, and thereby restoring the despotic powers of the sacred exception. Modernization is reduced to market liberalization, and that reduction accelerates the evolution of technology. Neoliberalism is partial modernity which augments the powers of the elite by equipping them with new instruments for controlling populations through image reproduction and surveillance. It is necessary suspend the common leftist criticisms of this process in order to appreciate the historical dialectic at work. The present technologies could never have evolved without the restoration of classical sovereignty. The powers of the sacred had to be recomposed in order to form a perspective from which such technology could be operated. The equipment could only come into existence with the presumption of the subject of an elite operator. It would even seem that no technology whatsoever could evolve amidst the interference of the autonomous value spheres of authentic modernity. This way it is possible to reevaluate the neoliberal developmental program from the perspective of dialectical history. Although such reevaluation would hinge entirely on subsequent turns of the dialectic. Neoliberalism is a phase where sovereignty reserves itself as an exception to modernity, and the evaluation of this phase depends on the determination of the point where that reservation is absolved in favor a more complete modernity.
A subsequent turn of this dialectical history would have to absolve the neoliberal sacred through its differentiation back into autonomous value spheres. Those spheres would have to drift apart, so that a diagram of the overall process may be impossible, because it would appear differently depending on which sphere it were considered from. Breaking the spell of the despotic sacred implies bifurcation in the fabric of perception, and complications in the sense of relation. This would rediscover the “facticity” that post-structuralism began describing in the 1960’s, with its much-discussed experience of “decentering”. The absolving of the neoliberal sacred is a process that corresponds with a de-idealization of the social body. Where post-structuralism tended to exalt the virtues of austere materialism, it would seem advisable instead to seek forms of de-sanctified ideality that can support alternate symbolic relations.
Initiating a new phase of modernization, raises the question of the identity of the value spheres that would differentiate. In this regard, it would seem that the intellect could define such an autonomous value sphere. This would mean that it would have to separate its own values from those of other spheres. So there is also the question of how it would relate structurally to other spheres. This future intellect would have to be distinguished from how the intellect is conceived today. Contemporary figures like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg represent the intellect as a purely technological function. This is the creativity of the developmental program of capital. Professional scholars in the humanities are subordinated into conformity with this program, where they play a complex role in the operation of “soft” imperialism. They conduct social initiations which include the training of communicative faculties, refinements of taste in accordance with prevailing ideals, and the instilling of polite sensitivity to ethical problems facing industrial development. Their job is to reinvigorate the human faculties which are obliterated in the course of technologically-driven evolution. The liberation of intellect as an autonomous value sphere would have to base itself in that legacy of the academic humanities, while recognizing how that legacy is structurally subordinate within the neoliberal phase of technology-based development.
What we call “the humanities” today is a field which could only exist in subordination to neoliberalism, and so there is no possibility that they could ever be liberated. It is essential that a future intellect would operate independently from any externally defined ends, and for this reason its liberation would imply an exile of uncertain duration. Thought must be free for its own caprice, without the responsibilities of an institutional office, and not entranced by the hypnotic values of finance. That autonomy may have to involve another level of subordination within a broader process of creative evolution where intellect would be responsive to other autonomous value spheres. The critical question that arises here is whether this broader process of creative evolution would imply another concentration of power into the sacred. That would depend on the relative autonomy of the separate value spheres, where the sacred would be their gathering into the concept of a supreme power. It would seem that such value spheres could emerge only through the experience of exile, because that is the only condition on which values autonomous from capital could come into existence today. It would seem any activity that breaks with the values of capital is necessarily an experience of exile.
The intellect is an oral and textual power of expression. It is an orientating force of circumspection which symbolically correlates processes through the articulation of discourse. It could play a role in the conceptualization of other faculties, and the articulation of their original values. But such a vanguard role raises the danger of subordinating those other faculties, and causing the collapse of values back into a concentration of the sacred. This is how the intellect operates in the classical Platonic figure of the philosopher king, and perhaps also in the enlightened monarchs of the early modern period who Hegel adopted as a paradigm of the political. In order to avoid this danger, the intellect is forced into deeper conditions of exile, where it operates only the weakest mediation of a voice calling in the wilderness. This way it limits itself to addressing other unknown faculties with the prospect of forming responsive structures for institutions of the future.
Our age drifts towards a politics of pure ontological intensities visible only at the level of style. This is a return to the content of being, and an escape from the axiomatic of expression. The public sphere has become a restrictive expressive medium, where goodness is given through an inventory of unquestionably good ends like fresh air, high salary, happy children, world peace etc. These ends remain in place as stable objectives, while discussion is limited to a debate over the most effective means for attaining them. The public sphere fixates on the optimization of these fragmented imaginary part-objects that contradict each other, and this obsession is widely reflected in the discourses of science and academia. Opposed to these hackneyed sensational values is the structural value of style, the anti-thesis to all those sensational political ends. Style erupts at the thresholds where the expression of content overturns the expression of capitalist values.
Politics today gets trapped in an Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi scenerio, where some heroic activists beleive they are faced with the challenge of saving humanity through scientific means. Authenticity is neutralized under the spell of technical clarity, where movements are launched around promising new concepts, like geothermal heating. Conceptual clarity works as a lure for optimistic populism by esteeming the subject as the one who has seen the signs and knows what must be done. This is a phase where some concept is promoted and gathers popular support so that it might get implemented by the force of democracy. Participants in these movements may feel united politically, while it often turns out that they are only weakly aligned socially. This superficiality reflects group formations facilitated by fetishistic part-objects, like clean air. There are frustrated social agendas that seek some rationalized political action as a consolation for poverty. These fragmentary political movements split further, and run into conflict with each other, and so the administrators need not get too involved with managing them.
So I would like to initiate another epoche which rejects all ontic objectives, and reorients the political towards abstract structural relations. An ideal structure is visible only as an expressive style, which implies a comprehensive mapping of the world down to infinitesimal complexity. This concerns the compilation of maps floating in memory, such as maps of what a person is, how economic transactions are conducted, the logic of education, the alternate models of the decline of Rome etc. Maps populate the uncertainty of the void with more structured forms of uncertainty, and they are synthesized into bunches which constitute expressive stylistic forces or ideas. A substantial style emerges from the structuring of uncertainty. This process of ideation is the composition of subjectivity in the world. Politics in this sense begins at the threshold of expressive style, which is the emancipation of material subjectivity. This politics of structure is without any moral justification, because the concept of morality has been sublimated into the idea of morale, the expressive force of style.
Politics becomes a conspiracy of desire to ontologize the world. Desire develops from abstract structures or separations, and its existence is conditional on forms of exile furnished by religion, art, and history. The theory of exile emerged around Max Weber and his students Carl Schmitt, Georg Lukacs, and Niklas Luhman. This group rediscovered politics as a value sphere that emerges through a Hegelian logic of the sublimation of war, where the hostility of belligerent enemies is overcome through the institution of a symbolic separation between the government and the opposition, the palimentary relation. The radical left often dismisses this separation as a bourgeois perversion (as did Schmitt), but if considered abstractly there is much at stake in this relation. If the parliamentary system has been discredited, then that does not dispense with the role of the political opposition. The recent mass protests could be considered as the emergence of a new oppositional position, although it remains to be seen how that might transpire. Governments would have to recognize the protestors as the new loyal opposition because doing so would sublimate violence. The position of the loyal opposition is a representation of non-violence, and we need to consider the genesis of that position.
Protest is likely just one small aspect of what is involved in the emergence of structural subjectivity, which may require painstaking midwifery. A substantial structure exists in elementary links between numbers and qualifying concepts. In order to be expressed stylistically, one could say that numerical relations have to be “ethnicized”, meaning that they must have some determinate orientation upon flesh and the earth. The Hellenistic conception of the sacred provides a broad paradigm which links ethnicities together across a large geography. As did others before him, Leo Strauss approached western civilization as a dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, and I would like to put an original spin on that model. Let me suggest that the Greek sacred has to sides two, which are related according to the directions on the compass. To the south-west were the sacerdotal mysteries of the Egyptians, and to the north-east were the shamanic mysteries of the steppes nomads. The shaman is a figure of the immanent one, and his experience is a journey where the thresholds between the dimensions are negotiated in a fluid experience of feminine becoming. This journey was assisted by the Scytho-Thracian psychopomps like Dionysus and Orpheus. The journey is an experience where the shaman dies and is reborn with newly negotiated thresholds of mortality. On the other hand, the Egyptian-Semitic priest is a subject of the two, because he maintains the thresholds through ceremonies and remains at a distance from the world of the dead. The priest institutes the separation between signifier and signified, whereas the shaman falls into the madness of univocity.
Let us recodify this geography of the hellenistic sacred according to an image-text relation. Let us locate the power of speech on the north-eastern side shamanic journey, and reduce the sacerdotal ritual to mute perception. The priest’s rituals express nothing because there is no experience, it was repetition of the dead letter as Paul claimed. The Greek sacred can be reconstructed as an economy between these two ethnic practices, and this treats Christianity as a system where the sacerdotal was synthesized with the shamanic. This interprets western civilization as a machine that operases on geographical relations. Such a machines can go dormant and then reappear centuries later in different configurations. The two strains cross paths, so that shamanism is sublimated into an oral-textual experience, where priesthood is sublimated into a visual-aesthetic experience. The shamanic test-sites migrate from wounds of the body into the voice, and that way violence is spoken. This escapes the dead letters of the priest through the mouth, while the priest becomes optics, and over these centuries they are learning to dance. The shaman’s muttering makes room for the eyes of the mute priest by echoing across the land and over the sea to summon forth the composition of places where something may appear.