Monday, April 29, 2013

Che Vuoi?

A couple of years ago, a charming publicity spot for a beer was shown on the British TV. Its first part staged the well-known fairy-tale anecdote: a girl walks along a stream, sees a frog, takes it gently into her lap, kisses it, and, of course, the ugly frog miraculously turns into a beautiful young man. However, the story wasn't over yet: the young man casts a covetous glance at the girl, draws her towards himself, kisses her - and she turns into a bottle of beer which the man holds triumphantly in his hand. For the woman, the point is that her love and affection (signalled by the kiss) turn a frog into a beautiful man, a full phallic presence; for the man, it is to reduce the woman to a partial object, the cause of his desire (the objet petit a). On account of this asymmetry, there is no sexual relationship: we have either a woman with a frog or a man with a bottle of beer. What we can never obtain is the natural couple of the beautiful woman and man: the fantasmatic support of this ideal couple would have been the figure of a frog embracing a bottle of beer - an inconsistent figure which, instead of guaranteeing the harmony of the sexual relationship, renders palpable its ridiculous discord. This opens up the possibility of undermining the hold a fantasy exerts over us through the very over-identification with it: by way of embracing simultaneously, within the same space, the multitude of inconsistent fantasmatic elements. That is to say, each of the two subjects is involved in his or her own subjective fantasizing - the girl fantasizes about the frog who is really a young man, the man about the girl who is really a bottle of beer. What modern art and writing oppose to this is not objective reality but the "objectively subjective" underlying fantasy which the two subjects are never able to assume, something similar to a Magrittesque painting of a frog embracing a bottle of beer, with a title "A man and a woman" or "The ideal couple". (The association with the famous surrealist "dead donkey on a piano" is here fully justified, since surrealists also practicized such over-identification with inconsistent fantasies.) And is this not the ethical duty of today's artist - to confront us with the frog embracing the bottle of beer when we are daydreaming of embracing our beloved? In other words, to stage fantasies which are radically desubjectivized, which cannot ever be assumed by the subject?

This brings us to a further crucial complication: if what we experience as 'reality' is structured by fantasy, and if fantasy serves as the screen that protects us from being directly overwhelmed by the raw Real, then reality itself can function as an escape from encountering the Real. In the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy is at the side of reality, and it is in dreams that we encounter the traumatic Real - it is not that dreams are for those who cannot endure reality, reality itself is for those who cannot endure (the Real that anounces itself in) their dreams.
- Zizek, "How to Read Lacan"

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Silence!...

... feels Musical!
...Soooo, "it" puts the f'ing lotion in the basket!

Not all cries for attention/ recognition take the form of a "request"

Friday, April 26, 2013

Contemplating the Necessary Implications of Identity and Difference

Coincidentia Oppositorum

"The non-other is none other than the non-other." - Nicholas of Cusa

Cusanus can define anything with reference to its self-identity and its negation of otherness. But the "non-other" itself by its definition admits of no difference, no otherness whatsoever. Its very nature is to be non-other. Thus Cusanus succeeds in formulating G_d as the Non-other, as nothing other than himself and as nothing other than the world.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

“I am a cage, in search of a bird.” - Franz Kafka

Rene Magritte, "La Therapeute" (1941)
Imagination has been called that 'busy faculty' which is always intruding upon us in the search after truth. But imagination is also that higher power by which we rise above ourselves and the commonplaces of thought and life. The philosophical imagination is another name for reason finding an expression of herself in the outward world. To deprive life of ideals is to deprive it of all higher and comprehensive aims and of the power of imparting and communicating them to others. For men are taught, not by those who are on a level with them, but by those who rise above them, who see the distant hills, who soar into the empyrean. Like a bird in a cage, the mind confined to sense is always being brought back from the higher to the lower, from the wider to the narrower view of human knowledge. It seeks to fly but cannot: instead of aspiring towards perfection, 'it hovers about this lower world and the earthly nature.' It loses the religious sense which more than any other seems to take a man out of himself. Weary of asking 'What is truth?' it accepts the 'blind witness of eyes and ears;' it draws around itself the curtain of the physical world and is satisfied. The strength of a sensational philosophy lies in the ready accommodation of it to the minds of men; many who have been metaphysicians in their youth, as they advance in years are prone to acquiesce in things as they are, or rather appear to be. They are spectators, not thinkers, and the best philosophy is that which requires of them the least amount of mental effort.
- Jowett Introduction to Plato's "Theaetetus"
Salvador Dali, "The Enigma of Desire" (1929)
This is how it should be done. Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continua of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bringing forth continuous intensities for a BwO (Body w/o Organs).
- Deleuze and Guattari, "A Thousand Plateaus"

Something on Separation and Alienation...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ever Seeking Redemption

"It is the lack of the Name-of-the-Father in that place which, by the hole that it opens up in the signified, sets off the cascade of reshapings of the signifier from the increasing disaster of the imaginary proceeds, to the point at which the level is reached at which the signifier and signified are stabilized in the delusional metaphor."
-Lacan, "Écrits: a selection", trans. Alan Sheridan, Routledge

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Fellow Patriot's Prayer on the Eve of Imminent Revolution

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”
-John 20:17

Que Dios te bendiga, Venezuela!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"It is My Duty to Kill You" - A Look Inside the Terrorist Mind

When confronted with the task of liquidating the Jews of Europe, Heinrich Himmler, the chief of SS, adopted the heroic attitude of 'Somebody has to do the dirty job, so let's do it!': it is easy to do a noble thing for one's country, up to sacrificing one's life for it - it is much more difficult to commit a crime for one's country. In her Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt provided a precise description of this twist the Nazi executioners accomplished in order to be able to endure the horrible acts they performed. Most of them were not simply evil, they were well aware that they are doing things which bring humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, "instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was the very temptation to succumb to the elementary pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, and their "ethical" effort was directed towards the task of resisting this temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate. My violation of spontaneous ethical instincts of pity and compassion is turned into the proof of my ethical grandeur: to do my duty, I am ready to assume the heavy burden of inflicting pain on others.

The same perverse logic operates in today's religious fundamentalism. When, on November 2 2004, the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamist extremist (Mohammad Bouyeri), a letter was found stuck into a knife hole in his belly, addressed to his friend Hirshi Ali, a female Somalian member of the Dutch parliament known as a bitter fighter for the rights of Muslim women. If there ever was a "fundamentalist" document, this is one. It begins with the standard rhetorical strategy of imputing terror to the opponent:
Since your appearance in the Dutch political arena you have been constantly busy criticizing Muslims and terrorizing Islam with your statements.
In Bouyeri's view, Hirshi Ali - not himself - is the "unbelieving fundamentalist," and in fighting her, one fights fundamentalist terror. This letter demonstrates how the sadistic stance, generating suffering and terror in its addressee, is only possible after the sadist subject makes himself the instrument-object of another's will. Let us look in more detail at the key passage of the letter which focuses on death as the culmination of human life:
There is but one certainty in our entire existence, and that is that everything comes to an end. A child who comes into this world and fills the universe with his first cries of life, will finally leave this world with a death rattle. A blade of grass which can stick out of the dark earth and is touched by the sunlight and fed by falling rain, will finally rot into dust and disappear. Death, Mrs. Hirshi Ali, is a shared theme of everything in creation. You, I, and the rest of creation cannot get loose from this truth.

There will come a Day when one soul will not be able to help another soul. A Day of horrible tortures and painful tribulations which will go together with the terrible cries being pressed out of the lungs of the unjust. Cries. Mrs. Hirshi Ali, which will cause chills to run up someone's spine, and cause the hair on their head to stand straight up. People will appear to be drunk with fear even though they aren't drunk. On that Great Day the atmosphere will be filled with fear.
The passage from the first to the second part is crucial here, of course; from the general platitude on how everything passes and disintegrates, how all living ends in death, to the much more constrained, properly apocalyptic, notion of this moment of death as the moment of truth, the moment at which every creature confronts its truth and is isolated from all its links, deprived of all solidary support, absolutely alone facing the merciless judgement of its Creator - this is why the letter goes on quoting the description of the Judgment Day from the Quran: "On that day man will flee from his brother. And the mother from the father. And the woman from her children. And everyone of them on that Day shall have an occupation which is enough for them. Faces (of the unbelievers) will be covered with dust on that Day. And they will be ringed in darkness. These are the sinful unbelievers."(Quran 80:34-42) Then comes the key passage, the staging of the central confrontation:
Of course you as an unbelieving extremist don't believe in the scene which is described above. For you this is just a fictitious dramatic piece out of a Book like many. And yet, Mrs. Hirshi Ali, I would bet on my life that you will break into a sweat of fear when you read this.

You, as unbelieving fundamentalist, of course don't believe that there is a Higher Power who runs the universe. You don't believe in your heart, with which you repudiate the truth, that you must knock and ask this Higher Power for permission. You don't believe that your tongue with which you repudiate the Direction of this Higher Power is subservient to His laws. You don't believe that this Higher Power grants life and Death.

If you really believed in all of this, then you will not find the following challenge a problem. I challenge you with this letter to prove that you are right. You don't have to do much for that, Mrs. Hirshi Ali: wish death if you are really convinced that you are right. If you do not accept this challenge, you will know that my Master, the Most high, has exposed you as a bearer of lies. 'If you wish death, then you are being truthful.' But the wicked ones 'never wish to die, because of what their hands (and sins) have brought forth. And Allah is the all-knowing over the purveyors of lies.' (2:94-95). To prevent myself of having the same wish coming to me as I wish for you, I shall wish this wish for you: Master give us death to give us happiness with martyrdom.
Each of these three paragraphs is a rhetorical pearl. In the first one, it is the direct jump from the fear we humans will experience when, at the moment of death, we will face God's final judgment, to the fear the addressee of this very letter (Hirshi Ali) will experience while reading it. This short-circuit between the fear instigated by the direct confrontation with god in the moment of truth, and the fear engendered here and now by reading this letter, is a trademark of perversion: Hirshi Ali's concrete fear of being killed, aroused by Bouyeri's letter, is elevated into an embodiment of the fear a mortal human being is expected to feel when confronted with the divine gaze. The pearl in the second paragraph is the precise example used to evoke the omnipotence of god: it is not only that Hirshi Ali doesn't believe in god - what she should believe is that even her very slander of god (the tongue with which she is doing it) is also determined by god's will. The true pearl is hidden in the last paragraph, in how the challenge addressed at Hirshi Ali is formulated: in its brutal imposition of (not only the readiness to die, but) the wish to die as the proof of one's truthfulness. We get here an almost imperceptible shift which signals the presence of the perverse logic: from Bouyeri's readiness to die for the truth to his readiness to die as direct proof of his truthfulness. This is why he not only does not fear death, but actively wishes to die: from "If you are truthful, you should not fear death," a pervert passes to "if you wish death, you are truthful." This section ends in an unbelievable taking-over of another's wish: "I shall wish this wish for you." Bouyeri's underlying reasoning is complex and yet very precise: he will do what he has to do 'to prevent myself of having the same wish coming to me as I wish for you' - what can this mean? Is it not that, by wishing death, he is doing precisely what he wanted to prevent? Doesn't he accept the same wish (that of death) that he wishes for her (he wishes her dead)?

The letter does not challenge Hirshi Ali on her false beliefs; the accusation is rather that she does not really believe what she claims to believe (her secular slanders), that she doesn't have what is called "the courage of her own convictions": "If you really believe what you claim to believe, then accept my challenge, wish to die!" This brings us to Lacan's depiction of the pervert: the pervert displaces division onto the Other. Hirshi Ali is a divided subject, inconsistent with herself, lacking the courage of her own beliefs. To avoid getting caught in such a division, the letter's author will embrace the death wish, taking upon himself what she should have believed. The letter's final proclamation should then not surprise us:
This struggle which has burst forth is different then those of the past. The unbelieving fundamentalists have started it and the true believers will end it. There will be no mercy shown to the purveyors of injustice, only the sword will be lifted against them. No discussions, no demonstrations, no petitions: only DEATH will separate the Truth from the Lies.
There is no space left for symbolic mediation, for argumentation, reasoning, proclamations, preaching even - the only thing that separates Truth from Lie is death, the truthful subject's readiness and wish to die. No wonder Michel Foucault was fascinated by the Islamic political martyrdom. In it, he discerned the contours of a "regime of truth" different from the West's, a regime in which the ultimate indicators of truth are not factual adequacy, the consistency of reasoning, or the sincerity of one's confessions, but the readiness to die. The late Pope John Paul II propagated the Catholic "culture of Life" as our only hope against today's nihilist "culture of death," whose manifestations are unbridled hedonism, abortions, drug addiction and blind reliance on scientific and technological development. Religious fundamentalism (not only Muslim, but also Christian) confronts us with another morbid "culture of death" which is much closer to the very heart of the religious experience than believers are ready to admit.
Slavoj Zizek, "How to Read Lacan" (The Perverse Subject of Politics: Lacan as a Reader of Mohammad Bouyeri)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sailing to Byzantium

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

- William Butler Yeats (1928)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who's Been Drinking the Poison (of Ideology) Lately?


Atala au Tombeau, Girodet de Roussy (1801)
In The Burial of Atala, Girodet paints a scene from François- René de Chateaubriand’s tragic love story, Atala, or the Loves of Two Savages in the Desert. This novel exemplifies the melancholic, exotic description of nature and evocative language that became trademarks of Romantic fiction, and it was immensely popular when it was published in 1801. It tells the story of the Christian maiden Atala, who frees the Indian brave Chactas from his enemies and finds refuge with him in the cave of the religious hermit Father Aubry. Having consecrated herself to God and a life of chastity, Atala takes poison when she fears she is falling in love with Chactas. After her death, Chactas vows to become a Christian himself. Commissioned by the director of a newspaper that opposed the Empire, Girodet’s painting elevates a subject from contemporary literature to the status of a major religious work. The monumental arrangement of the figures, the grotto setting, and the cross isolated against the distant sky recall The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fusion Fail

Too Many Disparate Elements

Even a paranoiac-critical geek like me can make heads or tails of it. ;)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Cigarette?

Hephaestus,
now it is your duty to carry out
those orders you received from Father Zeus—
to nail this troublemaker firmly down
against these high, steep cliffs, shackling him
in adamantine chains that will not break.*
For he in secret stole your pride and joy
and handed it to men—the sacred fire
which fosters all the arts. For such a crime,
he must pay retribution to the gods,
so he will learn to bear the rule of Zeus
and end that love he has for humankind.
- Aeschylus, "Prometheus Bound"

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ferrara

The speaker (presumably the Duke of Ferrara) in the poem below is giving the emissary of his prospective new wife (presumably a third or fourth since he Browning could have easily written 'second' but did not do so) a tour of the artworks in his home. He draws a curtain to reveal a painting of a woman, explaining that it is a portrait of his late wife; he invites his guest to sit and look at the painting. As they look at the portrait of the late Duchess, the Duke describes her happy, cheerful and flirtatious nature, which had displeased him. He says, "She had a heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad..." He goes on to say that his complaint of her was that "'twas not her husband's presence only" that made her happy. Eventually, "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." He now keeps her painting hidden behind a curtain that only he is allowed to draw back, meaning that now she only smiles for him. The Duke then resumes an earlier conversation regarding wedding arrangements, and in passing points out another work of art, a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse.
My Last Duchess

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
- Robert Browning (1842)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Wisdom(s) for April

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”
- Bertrand Russell