And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Thursday, March 28, 2019
Auto-Critiqueing my 'Struggle Session'...
Struggle Session: A struggle session was a form of public humiliation and torture that was used by the Communist Party of China in the Mao era, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, to shape public opinion and humiliate, persecute, or execute political rivals and those deemed class enemies.
In general, the victim of a struggle session was forced to admit various crimes before a crowd of people who would verbally and physically abuse the victim until he or she confessed. Struggle sessions were often held at the workplace of the accused, but they were sometimes conducted in sports stadiums where large crowds would gather if the target was well-known
Struggle sessions developed from similar ideas of criticism and self-criticism in the Soviet Union from the 1920s. The term refers to class struggle; the session is held, ostensibly, to benefit the target, by eliminating all traces of counterrevolutionary, reactionary thinking. Chinese communists resisted this at first, because struggle sessions conflicted with the Chinese concept of saving face, but struggle sessions became commonplace at Communist Party meetings during the 1930s due to public popularity.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
-W. B. Yeats
Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.
Come let us mock at the wise;
With all those calendars whereon
They fixed old aching eyes,
They never saw how seasons run,
And now but gape at the sun.
Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked—and where are they?
Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.
Monday, March 25, 2019
Lessons for Our Time...
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Is Post-Modernism "Conservative"?
Friday, March 22, 2019
Zizek @ 70...
Thursday, March 21, 2019
Turkey Carving - American Style
The notion of the ugly as an aesthetic category was first systematically deployed by Karl Rosenkranz—editor and scholar of G. W. F. Hegel, author of his first “official” biography, although himself a reluctant Hegelian—in his Ästhetik des Häßlichen (Aesthetics of the Ugly, 1853).1 Rosenkranz’s starting point is the historical process of the gradual abandonment of the unity of true, good, and beautiful; not only can something ugly be true and good but ugliness can also be an immanent aesthetic notion; in other words, an object can be ugly and an aesthetic object, an object of art. Rosenkranz remains within the long tradition from Homer onwards that associates physical ugliness with moral monstrosity; for him, ugly is das Negativschöne (the negatively beautiful): “The pure image of the beautiful arises all the more shining against the dark background/foil of the ugly.”2 Rosenkranz distinguishes here between a healthy and a pathological mode of enjoying the ugly in a work of art; in order to be aesthetically enjoyable and, as such, edifying and permissible, ugliness has to remain as a foil of the beautiful. Ugliness for the sake of itself is a pathological enjoyment of art.
Ugliness is, as such, immanent to beauty, a moment of the latter’s self-development. Like every concept, beauty contains its opposite within itself, and Rosenkranz provides a systematic Hegelian deployment of all the modalities of the ugly, from formless chaos to the perverted distortions of the beautiful. The basic matrix of his conceptualization of the ugly is the triad of the beautiful, the ugly, and the comical, where the ugly serves as the middle, the intermediate moment, between the beautiful and the comical: “A caricature pushes something particular over its proper measure and creates thereby a disproportion which, insofar as it recalls its ideal counterpart, becomes comical.”3
A whole series of issues arises here. First, can this third term not also be conceived of as the sublime, insofar as the ugly in its chaotic and overwhelming monstrosity that threatens to destroy the subject recalls its opposite, the indestructible fact of reason and of moral law? Which, then, is the triad: the beautiful, the ugly, and the comical (ridiculous)? Or the beautiful, the ugly, and the sublime? It may appear that it depends on what kind of ugliness we are dealing with, the excessive monstrous one or the ridiculous one. However, excess can also be comical, and du sublime au ridicule, il n’y a qu’un pas. The sublime can appear (turn into) the ridiculous, and the ridiculous can appear (turn into) the sublime, as we learned from Charlie Chaplin’s late films.
Second, the notion of the ugly as the foil for the appearance of the beautiful is in its very core profoundly ambiguous. It can be read (as it is by Rosenkranz) in the traditional Hegelian way: the ugly is the subordinated moment in the game the beautiful is playing with itself, its immanent self-negation that lays the (back)ground for its full appearance; or it can be read in a much stronger literal sense, as the very (back)ground of the beautiful that precedes the beautiful and out of which the beautiful arises—the reading proposed by Theodor Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory : “If there is any causal connection at all between the beautiful and the ugly, it is from the ugly as cause to the beautiful as effect, and not the other way around. If one originated in the other, it is beauty that originated in the ugly and not the reverse.”4 (In a homologous way, one should turn around the standard Thomist notion of evil as a privative mode of the good: what if it is the good itself that is a privative mode of evil? What if, in order to arrive at the good, we just have to take away excess from the evil?) Adorno’s point is here double. First, in general terms, concerning the very notion of art, the ugly is the archaic or primitive chaotic (Dionysian) life substance that a work of art gentrifies, elevates into the aesthetic form, but the price for this is the mortification of the life substance; the ugly is the force of life against the death imposed by the aesthetic form. Second, with a specific reference to the modern era in which the ugly became an aesthetic category, Adorno claims that art has to deal with the ugly “in order to denounce, in the Ugly, the world which created it and reproduces it in its image.”5 The underlying premise is that art is a medium of truth, not just an escapist play of beautiful appearances; in a historical situation in which the beautiful is irreparably discredited as kitsch, it is only by presenting the ugly in its ugliness that art can keep open the utopian horizon of beauty.
Third, what if the reversal of the ugly into the comical (or the sublime) does not occur? Herman Parret describes such an option with regard to the Kantian sublime. If the overwhelming pressure of the ugly gets too strong, it becomes monstrous and can no longer be sublated/negated into the sublime. It’s thus a question of an acceptable limit:there is for Kant a progression from the colossal to the monstrous, i.e. towards the total annihilation of our faculty of presentation [vernichtet]. If the colossal can already be considered a sublime correlate, then it remains certainly inside an acceptable limit; with the monstrous, on the other hand, one has passed beyond the acceptable limit, in full terror and total unpleasure. With the monstrous we are in the margin of the acceptable where the imagination is fully blocked to function. It looks as if the monstrous is the Thing, inexpressible and abyssal. The monstrous does violence to subjectivity without submitting it to any legality.6The sublime pleasure is a pleasure in unpleasure, while the monstrous generates only unpleasure, but, as such, it provides enjoyment. In short, what Kant already elaborated in the distinction between pleasure (Lust, regulated by the pleasure principle, which makes us avoid all painful excess, even the excess of pleasure itself) and enjoyment (Genuss, jouissance). Therein resides the link between enjoyment and disgust:The “disgust for the object” arises from a certain “enjoyment” [Genuss] in the “matter of sensation” which distances the subject from its purposiveness. Pleasure [Lust] is opposed to “enjoyment” insofar as “pleasure is culture” [wo die Lust zugleich Kultur ist] . . . . “Enjoyment” in matter, in contrast, provokes disgust. In addition, this enjoyment of losing oneself in the matter of “charms and emotions” has a direct impact on the health of our body: it generates disgust which manifests itself in corporeal reactions like nausea, vomiting and convulsions. Pleasure-unpleasure [Lust/Unlust] in the feeling of the sublime has nothing to do with that “enjoyment” [Genuss] destructive of culture and generative of disgust. [“U”]What, precisely, is the ontological status of this weird Genuss that threatens to drag us into its self-destructive, vicious cycle? It is clearly not culture, but it is also not nature, as it is an “unnatural” excess that totally derails nature. So, should we not posit a link, an identity even, between this Genuss and what Immanuel Kant isolated as the“unnatural” savagery (Wildheit) or passion for freedom specific to human nature: “Savagery [or unruliness, Wildheit] is independence from laws. Through discipline the human being is submitted to the laws of humanity and is first made to feel their constraint. . . . Thus, for example, children are sent to school initially not already with the intention that they should learn something there, but rather that they may grow accustomed to sitting still and observing punctually what they are told, so that in the future they may not put into practice actually and instantly each notion that strikes them. . . . Now by nature the human being has such a powerful propensity towards freedom that when he has grown accustomed to it for a while, he will sacrifice everything for it.” The predominant form of appearance of this weird “savagery” is passion, an attachment to a particular choice so strong that it suspends rational comparison with other possible choices. When in the thrall of a passion, we stick to a certain choice whatever it may cost: “Inclination that prevents reason from comparing it with the sum of all inclinations in respect to a certain choice is passion (passio animi).”
As such, passion is morally reprehensible: “far worse than all those transitory emotions that at least stir up the resolution to be better; instead, passion is an enchantment that also refuses recuperation. . . . Passions are cancerous sores for pure practical reason, and for the most part they are incurable because the sick person does not want to be cured and flees from the dominion of principles, by which alone a cure could occur. . . . And, as the subdivision “On the inclination to freedom as a passion” tells us, “For the natural human being this is the most violent [heftigste] inclination of all.” Passion is as such purely human; animals have no passions, just instincts. The Kantian savagery is “unnatural” in the precise sense that it seems to break or suspend the causal chain that determines all natural phenomena—it is as if in its terrifying manifestations, noumenal freedom transpires for a moment in our phenomenal universe.7
Do we not get here even an echo of what Julia Kristeva calls the abject? The object of enjoyment is by definition disgusting, and what makes it disgusting is a weird superego injunction that appears to emanate from it, a call to enjoy it even if (and precisely because) we find it ugly and desperately try to resist being dragged into it:Kant insists on the non-representability of ugliness in art: “[in] disgust . . . that strange sensation, which rests on nothing but imagination, the object is presented as if it insisted, as it were, on our enjoying it even though that is just what we are forcefully resisting.” This is a typically Kantian approach: in a single phrase, there is a gleichsam (as it were) and an als ob (as if). The ugly object has no reasonable effect on the Gemüth. Instead, an excited and dangerously disconcerted imagination petrifies the subject in its corporeity. This is the very essence of disgusting ugliness: it threatens the stability of our corporeity, our body ‘forcefully resists’ the incitement to enjoy that ugliness deceitfully imposes on us. [“U”]This, finally, brings us to the very heart of disgust: the object of disgust “threatens the stability of our corporeity”; it destabilizes the line that separates the inside of our body from its outside. Disgust arises when the border that separates the inside of our body from its outside is violated, when the inside penetrates out, as in the case of blood or shit. “It’s similar with the saliva: as we all know, although we can without problem swallow our own saliva, we find it extremely repulsive to swallow again a saliva [which was spit into a glass] out of our body—again a case of violating the inside/ outside frontier.”8 Whatdistinguishes man from animals is that, with humans, the disposal of shit becomes a problem: not because it has a bad smell, but because it issued from our innards. We are ashamed of shit because, in it, we expose/externalize our innermost intimacy. Animals do not have a problem with it because they do not have an “interior,” as humans do. Hence I should refer to Otto Weininger, who called volcanic lava “the shit of the earth.” It comes from inside the body, and this inside is evil, criminal: “The Inner of the body is very criminal.”9One should return here to Sigmund Freud who, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, describes how the living substance:floats about in an outer world which is charged with the most potent energies, and it would be destroyed by the operation of the stimuli proceeding from this world if it were not furnished with a protection against stimulation (Reizschutz). It acquires this through its outermost layer—which gives the structure that belongs to living matter—becoming in a measure inorganic, and this now operates as a special integument or membrane that keeps off the stimuli, i.e. makes it impossible for the energies of the outer world to act with more than a fragment of their intensity on the layers immediately below which have preserved their vitality. These are now able under cover of the protecting layer to devote themselves to the reception of those stimulus masses that have been let through. But the outer layer has by its own death secured all the deeper layers from a like fate—at least so long as no stimuli present themselves of such strength as to break through the protective barrier. For the living organism protection against stimuli is almost a more important task than reception of stimuli; the protective barrier is equipped with its own store of energy and must above all endeavor to protect the special forms of energy-transformations going on within itself from the equalizing and therefore destructive influence of the enormous energies at work in the outer world.10Or, as Ray Brassier put it concisely, “the separation between organic interiority and inorganic exteriority is won at the cost of part of the primitive organism itself, and it is this death that gives rise to the protective shield. . . . Thus, individuated organic life is won at the cost of this aboriginal death whereby the organism first becomes capable of separating itself from the inorganic outside.”11
Disgust arises when the dead barrier is broken and the organic interiority penetrates the surface. One should be clear here and draw all the consequences; the ultimate object of disgust is bare life itself, life deprived of the protective barrier. Life is a disgusting thing, a sleazy object moving out of itself, secreting humid warmth, crawling, stinking, growing. The birth itself of a human being is an Alien-like event: a monstrous event of something erupting out from the inside of a body, a big, stupid, hairy body crawling around. Spirit is above life; it is death in life, an attempt to escape life while alive, like the Freudian death drive that is not life but pure repetitive movement.
How, then, does ugly relate to subjectivity? Is a subject—which is excessive in its very notion—simply ugly, an outgrowth disturbing the harmony
of the world, opening up a gap in its very heart? One has to draw a clear distinction here: ugly is ultimately the inside of a living object (like the depth of Irma’s throat from Freud’s dream about Irma’s injection), while the inside of a subject is creepy. As Adam Kotsko has shown in Creepiness, creepy is today’s name for the Freudian uncanny, for the uncanny core of a neighbor; every neighbor is ultimately creepy, which is why the title of the book’s last subchapter is quite appropriately “The Creepiness of All Flesh.”12 What makes a neighbor creepy is not his weird acts but the impenetrability of the desire that sustains these acts. For example, it is not primarily the content of Marquis de Sade’s writings that is creepy (their content is rather dull and repetitive); it is the question, why is he doing it? Everything in Sade is a sadist perversion, everything except his writing, the act of doing it, which cannot be accounted for as a perversion. So the question is: what does a creepy neighbor want? What does he get out of it? An experience, an encounter, gets creepy when we all of a sudden suspect that he is not doing it for the obvious reason one does what he is doing:In the case of a sleazy guy who insists on propositioning every woman he meets, the element of enigma may seem to be missing insofar as he clearly wants sex. And yet it seems strange that simply wanting sex would be creepy, because a man who politely asks a woman on a date and then accepts the answer is, all things being equal, not being creepy. What makes the sleazy guy creepy, then, is not that he is simply asking too many women out, but that his constant failure seems to indicate that he doesn’t care that his methods are ineffective. It’s as though he’s directly “getting off” on the very act of approaching women, with no regard for the ostensible goal of sleeping with them. When we recognize this, we can’t help but ask, “What is he getting out of this?” Even the most seemingly obvious creepy desire turns out to be enigmatic on closer examination. [C, pp. 11–12]
Here enters the Lacanian distinction between the object of desire and the object cause of desire, that which sustains our desire for the object. The creepy effect arises when we perceive that the subject in front of us is doing what he is doing directly for the object cause of desire, remaining indifferent towards the object of his desire—in short, when there occurs a kind of short circuit between the object and object cause so that the object becomes directly the object cause. For example, what sustains my desire for a woman are the locks of her hair. So, what if I simply directly focus on that, forgetting about full sex and finding satisfaction in just caressing her hair? This short circuit defines perversion.
In the “revolutionary” 1960s, it was fashionable to assert perversion against the compromise of hysteria. A pervert directly violates social norms; he does openly what a hysteric only dreams about or articulates ambiguously in his or her symptoms. In other words, the pervert effectively moves beyond the master and his law, while the hysteric merely provokes her master in an ambiguous way, which can also be read as the demand for a more authentic real master. Against this view, Freud and Jacques Lacan consistently emphasized that perversion, far from being subversive, is the hidden obverse of power; every power needs perversion as its inherent and sustaining transgression. “In the hysterical link,” on the contrary,the $ over a stands for the subject who is divided, traumatized, by what for an object she is for the Other, what role she plays in the Other’s desire: ‘Why am I what you’re saying that I am?,’ or, to quote Shakespeare’s Juliet, ‘Why am I that name?’ . . . What she expects from the Other-master is knowledge about what she is as object. . . . What produces the unbearable castrating effect is not the fact of being deprived of ‘it,’ but, on the contrary, the fact of clearly ‘possessing it’; the hysteric is horrified at being ‘reduced to an object,’ that is to say, at being invested with the agalma that makes him or her the object of other’s desire. . . . In contrast to hysteria, the pervert knows perfectly what he is for the Other: a knowledge supports his position as the object of Other’s (divided subject’s) jouissance.13So far from being a compromiser, the hysterical subject is deeply justified in resisting the temptation of fully throwing herself into pervert transgression; what the hysteric perceives (or, rather, suspects) is precisely the falsity of the pervert’s transgression, the way the pervert’s activity sustains legal power. Kotsko therefore characterizes hysteria as:a way of creeping out the social order itself. And just as in the case of the individual psyche, the social order is only susceptible to being creeped out due to the creepiness it carries within itself. Under normal circumstances, the social order appears to be obsessive in structure, opting for certain acceptable desires while repressing or excluding others. Yet from the hysteric’s perspective, the most salient fact about the social order is the way it is continually setting us up to fail, so that it can even seem that the social order needs transgression and the illicit, creepy enjoyment that it provides. The social order’s wink and nod of unofficial permission toward our creepy indulgences simultaneously makes social constraints more bearable and binds us more closely to the social order insofar as it makes those creepy indulgences possible. In short, the hysteric is uniquely positioned to see that the pervert has a point. [C, pp. 109–10]Hysteria, is as such, always a historical formation; it reacts to the predominant mode of ideological interpellation (identification). This historical approach also allows us to refute the standard argument according to which, in today’s permissive era, we no longer get hysterical patients whose symptoms are caused by oppressed sexuality. What is usually referred to as borderline is precisely hysteria in our time of permissiveness and when the traditional figure of the master is more often replaced by the neutral expert legitimized by his (scientific) knowledge:Thankfully, the social order no longer explicitly backs women so completely into a corner as in the age of the housewife. Yet women still face conflicting pressures, such as those that Carrie feverishly attempts to navigate in her quest to avoid being “that girl” in Sex and the City. Indeed, some of the contradictions have even been intensified and complicated as, for example, women are expected to excel in professional life while still meeting traditional requirements of motherhood. If anything, women suffer from having too many mutually contradictory outlets for their desire. Hence the contemporary manifestation of hysteria is not the psychosomatic intrusion of the body into the social order—in the face of the impossible demand to “have it all,” the hysteric effectively goes on strike, refusing desire altogether. [C, p. 108]The borderline subject is thus a hysteric without a master, a hysteric who is not oppressed by the master but solicited by some expert-advisor figure to realize all his or her potentials and have it all, leading a full life. Such a solicitation, of course, immediately acquires the superego dimension of an inexorable pressure to which the subject can only respond by withdrawing from desire. Is this desire on strike not a perfect formula for the borderline as the contemporary form of hysteria?
For the borderline to be a mode of hysteria, the line that separates inside from outside is still maintained, but what happens when this line itself vacillates? Recall our unease when we stumble upon a decaying human corpse or, in a more ordinary case, upon an open wound, shit, vomit, brutally torn-out nails or eyes, or the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk. What we experience in such situations is not just a disgusting object but something much more radical: the disintegration of the very ontological coordinates that enable me to locate an object into external reality out there. The phenomenological description of such experiences is Kristeva’s starting point in her elaboration of the notion of abject : the reaction of horror, disgust, withdrawal, and ambiguous fascination triggered by objects or occurrences that undermine the clear distinction between subject and object, between myself and reality out there.14 The abject is definitely external to the subject, but it is also more radically external to the very space within which the subject can distinguish itself from reality out there. Maybe we can apply here Lacan’s neologism “extimate”:15 the abject is so thoroughly internal to the subject that this very overintimacy makes it external, uncanny, inadmissible. For this reason, the status of the abject with regard to the pleasure principle is profoundly ambiguous. It is repulsive, provoking horror and disgust, but at the same time it exerts an irresistible fascination and attracts our gaze to its very horror: “One thus understands why so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims— if not its submissive and willing ones” (P, p. 9). Such a mixture of horror and pleasure points towards a domain beyond the pleasure principle, the domain of jouissance: “One does not know it, one does not desire it, one enjoys in it [on en jouit]. Violently and painfully. A passion” (P, p. 9).
Is then the abject close to what Lacan calls objet petit a, the indivisible remainder of the process of symbolic representation that functions as the always already lost object cause of desire? Objet petit a as the object cause of desire is, in its very excessive nature, an immanent part of the symbolic process, the spectral/eluding embodiment of lack that motivates desire sustained by the (symbolic) law. In contrast to objet a, which functions within the order of meaning as its constitutive blind spot or stain, the abject “is radically excluded [from the space of symbolic community] and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses” (P, p. 2): “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (P, p. 10). The experience of abjection thus comes before the big distinctions between culture and nature, inside and outside, consciousness and the unconscious, repression and the repressed, and others; abjection does not stand for the immersion into nature, the primordial mother, but for the very violent process of differentiation. It is the vanishing mediator between nature and culture, a culture in becoming, which disappears from view once the subject dwells within culture. The abject is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules,” but not in the sense of the flow of nature undermining all cultural distinctions (P, p. 4); it renders palpable the “fragility of the law,” including of the laws of nature, which is why when a culture endeavors to stabilize itself it does so by way of referring to the laws (regular rhythms) of nature (day and night, regular movement of stars and sun, and others) (P, p. 4). The encounter of the abject arouses fear, not so much fear of a particular actual object (snakes, spiders, height), but a much more basic fear of the breakdown of what separates us from external reality; what we fear in an open wound or a dead body is not its ugliness but the blurring of the line between inside and outside.
The underlying conceptual matrix of the notion of the abject is that of a dangerous ground. The abject points towards a domain that is the source of our life-intensity; we draw our energy out of it, but we have to keep it at the right distance. If we exclude it, we lose our vitality, but if we get too close to it, we are swallowed by the self-destructive vortex of madness; this is why abjection does not step out of the symbolic but plays with it from within: “The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them” (P, p. 15). This abjectal excess can also appear in the guise of an indivisible remainder of the Real which resists the process of idealization/symbolization; in this sense, Kristeva mentions the pagan opponents of Western monotheism who praise the notion of remainder as that which prevents the teleological closure of creation, keeping the movement forever open: “the poet of the Atharva Veda extols the defiling and regenerating remainder (uchista) as precondition for all form. ‘Upon remainder the name and the form are founded, upon remainder the world is founded . . . Being and non-being, both are in the remainder, death, vigor’ ”(P, p. 77).16 The remainder here is the support of the cyclic notion of the universe; it enables the rebirth of the universe. (We find the last traces of this logic even in Kabbalah where the evil in our universe is accounted for as the remainder of the previous universes created and then annihilated by God because he was dissatisfied with the result of his creation; remainder thus grounds repeated creation.) Hegel and Christian monotheism are here easy targets; they allegedly tend to abolish the remainder in a complete sublation of the evil in the good, in a fulfilled teleology that redeems all previous lower stages.17
In our daily lives, we deal with what Julia Kristeva calls ‘abject’ in a variety of ways: ignoring it, turning away from it with disgust, fearing it, constructing rituals made to keep it at a distance or constraining it to a secluded place (toilets for defecation, etc.). Disgust, horror, phobia . . . but there is yet another way to deal with abjection which is to enact a split between abjectal objects or acts and the symbolic ritualisation meant to cleanse us from defilement, i.e., to keep the two apart, as if there is no shared space where they may encounter each other since the abject (filth) in its actuality is simply foreclosed from the symbolic. Kristeva evokes the case of castes in India where the strong ritualisation of defilement (numerous rituals, prescribed in painful details, that regulate how one should purify oneself) [“]appears to be accompanied by one’s being totally blind to filth itself, even though it is the object of those rites. It is as if one had maintained, so to speak, only the sacred, prohibited facet of defilement, allowing the anal object that such a sacralization had in view to become lost within the dazzling light of unconsciousness if not of the unconscious. V. S. Naipaul points out that Hindus defecate everywhere without anyone ever mentioning, either in speech or in books, those squatting figures, because, quite simply, no one sees them. It is not a form of censorship due to modesty that would demand the omission in discourse of a function that has, in other respects, been ritualized. It is blunt foreclosure that voids those acts and objects from conscious representation. A split seems to have set in between, on the one hand, the body’s territory where an authority without guilt prevails, a kind of fusion between mother and nature, and on the other hand, a totally different universe of socially signifying performances where embarrassment, shame, guilt, desire, etc. come into play—the order of the phallus. Such a split, which in another cultural universe would produce psychosis, thus finds in this context a perfect socialization. That may be because setting up the rite of defilement takes on the function of the hyphen, the virgule, allowing the two universes of filth and of prohibition to brush lightly against each other without necessarily being identified as such, as object and as law. On account of the flexibility at work in rites of defilement, the subjective economy of the speaking being who is involved abuts on both edges of the unnamable (the non-object, the off-limits) and the absolute (the relentless coherence of Prohibition, sole donor of Meaning [” (P, p. 74)]. Do we not find similar cases also in Christianity as well as in Islam? When, a decade ago, the (then) Iranian president Ahmadinejad visited New York to attend a UN general assembly session, he was invited to attend a live debate at Columbia University. When asked about homosexuality in Iran, his reply was rudely mistranslated into English as if he claimed that in Iran they have no problem with homosexuals since there are none there. An Iranian friend (very critical of Ahmadinejad) who was there told me that Ahmadinejad’s reply was in reality much more nuanced: what he hinted at was that in Iran they don’t talk about homosexuality in public, they condemn it officially and mostly ignore its actual occurrences, thereby ‘allowing the two universes of filth and of prohibition to brush lightly against each other without necessarily being identified as such, as object and as law’. And does the same not hold for paedophilia in the Catholic church? Paedophilia is publicly condemned while (till recently, at least) tolerated by being ignored in practice, as if public Law and material practice of sinful filth belong to different domains. This logic at work in Hinduism, Islam and Catholicism should not be confused with repression: nothing is ‘repressed’ or ‘unconscious’ about filth or homosexuality or paedophilia, the filthy act in question is practiced more or less openly and without any qualms, its practitioners are (mostly) not traumatised by their perverse desires or haunted by any deep guilt feelings, they just simply keep the two dimensions apart. Our problem today is that, within the predominant logic of Political Correctness, such a procedure of keeping the two domains apart no longer functions: the PC stance by definition collapses the two dimensions since it aims precisely at directly controlling and regulating ‘the body’s territory where an authority without guilt prevails, a kind of fusion between mother and nature’. (Kristeva, 1982, p. 74). In other words, there is no domain left unseen, ignored by the PC law—its law tolerates no unwritten rules, there is no space here for a transgressive behaviour that violates explicit rules and is precisely as such not only tolerated but even solicited by the law. . . . Is the mechanism described here not a case of so-called fetishist disavowal? Kristeva locates the most radical fetishism, fetishist disavowal, into language itself: “But is not exactly language our ultimate and inseparable fetish? And language, precisely, is based on fetishist denial (‘I know that, but just the same’, ‘the sign is not the thing, but just the same,’ etc.) and defines us in our essence as speaking beings. Because of its founding status, the fetishism of ‘language’ is perhaps the only one that is unanalyzable.” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 37). Kristeva locates the fetishist dimension of language into the implicit overcoming of the gap that separates words (signs) from things: ‘I know that words are only signs with no immanent relation to things they designate, but I nonetheless . . . (believe in their magic influence on things)’. But where, exactly, is here fetishism? In his classic text, Octave Mannoni (Mannoni, 2003 ) distinguishes three modes of je sais bien, mais quand meme . . . , and reserves the name ‘fetishism’ only for the third one. The first mode is the standard functioning of the symbolic order, namely the relation between the symbolic title of a subject and his/her miserable reality as a person: ‘I know very well that this guy in front of me is a miserable stupid coward, but he wears the insignia of power, which means that it is the Law which speaks through him . . .’ Is it, however, accurate to characterise this basic ‘alienation’ in a symbolic title that changes our perception of an individual as a case of fetishism? Not yet, for Mannoni. Then there is the mode of falling into one’s own trap, like a guy who, in order to calm his small child when a storm is ravaging around their house, draws a circle on the floor with a chalk and assures him that one is safe if one stands inside the circle; when, soon thereafter, a lightning directly strikes the house, he in a moment of panic quickly steps into the circle, as if being there will protect him, ignoring the fact that he himself concocted the story about the magic property of the circle to calm down the child. For Mannoni, this is also not yet fetishism proper which only occurs when we have no need for any belief at all: we know how things really stand, plus we have the object fetish with no magic belief attached to it. A foot fetishist has no illusions about feet, plus he simply has a strong libidinal investment in feet, playing with them generates immense enjoyment. So which among these three versions pertains to language as such? Maybe, all three are activated at different levels. First, there is the disavowal that characterises the symbolic mandate (‘I know very well that you are a miserable individual, but you are a judge and the authority of the law speaks through you’). Then, there is the self-deception of a manipulator who, as it were, falls into his own trap. In his Anthropology, Kant (Kant, 2006 ) explores how the love of the illusion of the good can lead to the love of the good itself: if one loves the illusion of the good and enacts this illusion in social intercourse, one might come to appreciate its worth and to love the good itself for its own sake. Correlatively from the point of view of the spectator, loving the llusion of the good in others may make us be polite in order to become lovable, which, in turn, exercises our self-mastery, leads us to control our passions and, eventually, to love the good for its own sake. In this sense, paradoxically, by deceiving others through politeness and social pretence, we in fact deceive ourselves and transform our pragmatic, polite behaviour into virtuous behaviour. . . . The difference between this and the first mode of disavowal is obvious: in the first mode, we are dealing with the straight confusion between an object/ person and the properties that belong to it only on behalf of its inscription into a symbolic network (to paraphrase Marx, a king is a king only because his subjects treat him as a king, but it appears to them that they treat him as a king because he is in himself a king), while in the second case, the illusion is generated purposefully and consciously (the subject produces an appearance in order to dupe another, and then he ends up falling into his own trap and believing in it himself). One should note how, although the cynical manipulator consciously cheats and is in this sense less nai¨ve than the subject of the first mode of disavowal, he ends up believing in a much more direct and nai¨ve illusion: he fully falls into his own trap, in contrast to the first mode in which the subject retains to the end the distance towards his belief (‘I know very well it’s not true . . .’).18
Until now, we were dealing with the main modes of avoiding the abject. There are, however, two privileged ways of traversing abjection, of going through it and purifying ourselves of it: religion and art (poetic catharsis): “The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion” (P, p. 17). The whole of modern literature and art—from Antonin Artaud to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, from Wassily Kandinsky to Mark Rothko—confronts and tries to sublimate the abject; following Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous formula “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” it weaves a screen that renders the abject not only tolerable but even pleasurable:19On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its socio-historical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject. [P, p. 207]In a detailed analysis, Kristeva presents the work of Céline as a long and tortuous confrontation with the abjectal dimension; this is what Journey to the End of the Night alludes to; the night is the night of the abject that suspends not only reason but the universe of meaning as such, not only at the level of content (describing the extreme states of dissolution) but also at the level of form (fragmented syntax) and others, as if some prelinguistic rhythm—“the ‘entirely other’ of signifiance”—is invading and undermining language:It is as if Céline’s scription could only be justified to the extent that it confronted the “entirely other” of signifiance; as if it could only be by having this “entirely other” exist as such, in order to draw back from it but also in order to go to it as to a fountainhead; as if it could be born only through such a confrontation recalling the religions of defilement, abomination, and sin. [P, p. 149]Céline carefully walks on the edge of this vortex of ecstatic negativity like the hero of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841), flirting with it but avoiding complete immersion into it, which would mean a descent into madness. Here, of course, Kristeva confronts the big problem. One would have expected that such a confrontation with the abject and its libidinal vortex, allowing it to penetrate our universe of meaning, would have a liberating effect, allowing us to break out of the constraints of symbolic rules and to recharge ourselves with a more primordial libidinal energy; however, as is well-known, Céline turned into a fully pledged fascist, supporting Nazis to their very defeat. So what went wrong? At a general level, Kristeva’s reply is to avoid both extremes; not only is the total exclusion of the abject mortifying, cutting us off from the source of our vitality (when the abject is excluded, “the borderline patient, even though he may be a fortified castle, is nevertheless an empty castle” [P, p. 49]), but the opposite also holds. Every attempt to escape the patriarchal/rational symbolic order and enact a return to the prepatriarchal feminine rhythm of drives necessarily ends up in anti-Semitic fascism: “Do not all attempts, in our own cultural sphere at least, at escaping from the Judeo-Christian compound by means of a unilateral call to return to what it has repressed (rhythm, drive, the feminine, etc.), converge on the same Célinian anti- Semitic fantasy?” (P, p. 180).
The reason is, of course, that Judaism enacts in an exemplary way the monotheistic rejection of the maternal natural rhythms. However, Kristeva’s account of Céline’s move to fascism is more complex; the fascist anti- Semitism is not just a regression to the domain of the abject but also a regression controlled/totalized by reason. “The return to what [reason] has repressed (rhythm, drive, the feminine, etc.)” is in itself liberating; it brings about an inconsistent bubble of fresh insights. Problems arise when this anarchic schizo-disorder, its mad dance, is totalized through a paranoiac stance that totalizes/unifies the entire field, generating a spectral object like “the Jew” that allegedly explains all antagonisms and dissatisfactions:One has to admit that out of such logical oscillations there emerge a few striking words of truth. Such words present us with harsh X-rays of given areas of social and political experience; they turn into fantasies or deliriums only from the moment when reason attempts to globalize, unify, or totalize. Then the crushing anarchy or nihilism of discourse topples over and, as if it were the reverse of that negativism, an object appears—an object of hatred and desire, of threat and aggressivity, of envy and abomination. That object, the Jew, gives thought a focus where all contradictions are explained and satisfied. [P, pp. 177–78]The limitation of Kristeva’s theory of the abject resides in the fact that she conceives the symbolic order and abjection as the two extremes between which one has to negotiate a middle way. What she neglects to do is to inquire into what the symbolic order itself is in terms of the abject. The symbolic order is not just always already embedded in the feminine hora (or what Kristeva in her earlier work referred to as the semiotic), penetrated by the materiality of its immanent libidinal rhythms that distort the purity of the symbolic articulations. If it is here, it had to emerge out of hora through a violent act of self-differentiation or splitting. Consequently, insofar as we accept Kristeva’s term abjection for this self-differentiation, then we should distinguish between hora and abjection; abjection points towards the very movement of withdrawal from hora, which is constitutive of subjectivity. This is why we had to further specify Kristeva’s diagnosis: every “unilateral call to return to what [the Judeo-Christian compound] has repressed (rhythm, drive, the feminine, etc.)” generates fascism (as in Céline’s work) not because it regresses from the symbolic but because it obfuscates abjection itself, the primordial repression that gives rise to the symbolic. The dream of such attempts is not to suspend the symbolic but to have the (symbolic) cake and eat it—in other words, to dwell in the symbolic without the price we have to pay for it (primordial repression, the subject’s ontological derailment, antagonism, out-of-joint, the violent gap of differentiation from natural substance), the ancient dream of a masculine universe of meaning, which remains harmonically rooted in the maternal substance of hora. In short, what fascism obfuscates (forecloses even) is not the symbolic as such but the gap that separates the symbolic from the real. This is why a figure like that of the Jew is needed; if the gap between the symbolic and the real is not constitutive of the symbolic, if a symbolic at home in the real is possible, then their antagonism has to be caused by a contingent external intruder—and what better candidate for this role than Judaism, with its violent monotheist assertion of the symbolic law and rejection of the earth-bound paganism?The Jew as the enemy allows the anti-Semitic subject to avoid the choice between working class and capital: by blaming the Jew whose plotting foments class warfare, he can advocate the vision of a harmonious society in which work and capital collaborate. This is also why Julia Kristeva is right in linking the phobic object (the Jew whose plots anti-Semites fear) to the avoidance of a choice: ‘The phobic object is precisely avoidance of choice, it tries as long as possible to maintain the subject far from a decision.’ Does this proposition not hold especially for political phobia? Does the phobic object/abject, on the fear of which the rightist-populist ideology mobilizes its partisans (the Jew, the immigrant, today in Europe the refugee), not embody a refusal to choose? Choose what? A position in class struggle.20This is how anti-Semitism relies on a paranoiac totalization of playing with abjection; the anti-Semitic fetish figure of the Jew is the last thing a subject sees just before he confronts social antagonism as constitutive of the social body.
From here follows another crucial consequence with regard to Kristeva’s theoretical edifice: hora (the semiotic) is not more primordial than the symbolic but strictly a secondary phenomenon, the return of the presymbolic mimicry (echoes, resemblances, imitations) within the field of symbolic differentiality. Roman Jakobson drew attention to the fact that we can discern in our language traces of direct resemblance between signifier and signified (some words signifying vocal phenomena seem to sound like what they signify, sometimes even the external form of a word resembles the form of the signified object, like the word locomotive, which resembles the old-fashioned steam locomotive with the elevated cabin and chimney). This, however, in no way undermines the priority and ontological primacy of the differential character of linguistic signifiers (the identity and meaning of a signifier depends on its difference from other signifiers, not on its resemblance to its signified). What we are dealing with in the case of phenomena like these are the secondary mimetic echoes within a field that is already, in its basic constitution, radically different (contingent,composed of differential relations). And the same holds for hora,for the immanent rhythm of presymbolic materiality that pervades thesymbolic: what happens first is the violent cut of abjection that gives birthto the symbolic, and what Kristeva describes as hora is a strictly secondaryphenomenon of presymbolic mimetic echoes within the symbolic field.
A similar limitation characterizes Catherine Malabou’s “ontology of theaccident,” which brings negativity to its extreme in the guise of an externalorganic or physical catastrophe that totally destroys the symbolic textureof the subject’s psychic life, allowing for no interpretation, no symbolic appropriation.21 Malabou’s “ontology of the accident” is thusan ontology finally taking into account, as previous orientations havenot yet done, explosive events of indigestible, meaningless traumas inwhich destructive plasticity goes so far as to destroy plasticity itself, inwhich plasticity is exposed, thanks to itself, to its own disruption. . . .The massive cerebro-lesions of catastrophic neuro-traumas producethe bodies of human organisms living on but not, as it were, livingfor, that is, not Inclining toward future plans, projects. . . . Plasticity(including neuroplasticity) stands permanently under the shadow ofthe virtual danger of its liquidation.22A materialist notion of humanity should effectively take into account theshadow of a permanent threat to our survival at a multitude of levels, fromexternal threats (an asteroid hitting the earth, volcanic eruptions, and others)through individual catastrophes like Alzheimer’s up to the possibilitythat humanity will destroy itself as a nonintended consequence of its scientificand technological progress. Is there, however, a catastrophe that alwaysalready occurred and that is missing from the list of external threats:the catastrophe that is the emergence of subjectivity, of the human mind,out of nature? The exclusion of the real of this catastrophe (what Freudcalled primordial repression) is what introduces the gap that separates thereal from reality—it is on account of this gap that what we experience asexternal reality always has to rely on a fantasy and that when the raw realis forced upon us it causes the experience of the loss of reality. G. K. Chestertonwas on the right track here in his wonderful description of Charles Dickens’s realism:[Dickens] was a dreamy child, thinking mostly of his own drearyprospects. Yet he saw and remembered much of the streets andsquares he passed. Indeed, as a matter of fact, he went the right wayto work unconsciously to do so. He did not go in for ‘observation,’ apriggish habit; he did not look at Charing Cross to improve his mindor count the lamp-posts in Holborn to practice his arithmetic. Butunconsciously he made all these places the scenes of the monstrousdrama in his miserable little soul. He walked in darkness under thelamps of Holborn, and was crucified at Charing Cross. So for himever afterwards these places had the beauty that only belongs to battlefields.For our memory never fixes the facts which we have merelyobserved. The only way to remember a place for ever is to live in theplace for an hour; and the only way to live in the place for an hour isto forget the place for an hour. The undying scenes we can all see if weshut our eyes are not the scenes that we have stared at under the directionof guide-books; the scenes we see are the scenes at which we didnot look at all—the scenes in which we walked when we were thinkingabout something else—about a sin, or a love affair, or some childishsorrow. We can see the background now because we did not see itthen. So Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stampedhis mind on these places. For him ever afterwards these streets weremortally romantic; they were dipped in the purple dyes of youth andits tragedy, and rich with irrevocable sunsets.Strange realism whose exemplary case—“the motto of all effective realism”—is a signifier MOOR EEFFOC, whose lack of meaning (signified) ismore than supplemented by a rich condensation of unconscious obscenelibidinal echoes (fears, horrors, obscene imaginations) so that it effectivelyfunctions as a direct signifier (or, rather, cypher) of jouissance, signaling apoint at which meaning breaks down! So if we are looking for the tracesof das Ding in all this, they are not to be found in external reality the wayit operates independently of our investments into it—say, the way ovalglass plates on the doors of coffee rooms really are—but at those mysteriouspoints within the universe of meaning where meaning breaks downand is overshadowed by a nameless abyss of jouissance. This is why whenhe stumbles upon the meaningless signifier MOOR EEFFOC, “a shockgoes through [his] blood.” It may appear that Chesterton is here simplyasserting the key role of inner psychic traumas, desires, obsessions, andfears: “Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped hismind on these places.” That is, certain places impressed him deeply notbecause of their inherent qualities but because of the intense inner experiences(concerning sin and love) they served as a pretext for and gave birthto. One can easily imagine here a critic of psychoanalysis like Malabousarcastically asking if a devastating catastrophe in external reality like agigantic tsunami or being exposed to brutal torture also acquires weightonly if a previous psychic trauma resonates in it. But are things as simpleas that? What makes inanimate objects alive is the way they are envelopedby dreams; this is not the same as the famous Freudian dream where theburning cloth on the son’s coffin triggers in the sleeping father the terrifyingdream image of his dread son approaching him with “Father, can’tyou see I’m burning!” In Freud’s case, the dreamer (father) escapes fromreality into a dream where he encounters an even more terrifying real. InDickens, there is no escape from ordinary reality; a detail of reality itselfgets spectralized, is experienced as a moment from a nightmarish dream.Something similar takes place continuously in Franz Kafka’s work; Kafkais also a master of “effective realism.” But let us rather take an unexpectedexample from cinema.
Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickenscould always vitalize some dark or dull corner of London. There aredetails in the Dickens descriptions—a window, or a railing, or thekeyhole of a door—which he endows with demoniac life. Things seemmore actual than they really are. Indeed, that degree of realism doesnot exist in reality; it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And thiskind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; itcannot be gained by walking observantly. Dickens himself has given aperfect instance of how these nightmare minutiæ grew upon him inhis trance of abstraction. He mentions among the coffee-shops intowhich he crept in those wretched days one in St. Martin’s Lane, ‘ofwhich I only recollect it stood near the church, and that in the doorthere was an oval glass plate with “COFFEE ROOM” painted on it,addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very differentkind of coffee-room now, but where there is an inscription on glass,and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I oftenused to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood.’That wild word, ‘Moor Eeffoc’, is the motto of all effective realism; itis the masterpiece of the good realistic principle—the principle thatthe most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvishkind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive withinanimate objects.23
an unidentified old couple lying embraced in their bed while the ship is already sinking, so their cabin is half-flooded and a stream of water is running all around the bed. This shot, although meant as a realistic shot, creates the impression of a dream scene—a bed with the tightly embraced couple in the midst of strong flow of water, touchingly rendering the stability of love in the midst of a disaster. This detail in an otherwise average commercial movie bears witness to an authentic cinematic touch, that of making reality appear as a dream scene. A variation of the same motif are those magic moments in some films when it seems as if an entity that belongs to fantasy space intervenes in ordinary reality so that the frontier that separates the fantasy space from ordinary reality is momentarily suspended.Suffice it to recall a scene from Possessed, Clarence Brown’s melodrama from 1931 with Joan Crawford. Crawford, playing a poor smalltown girl, stares amazed at the luxurious private train that slowly passes in front of her at the local railway station; through the windows of the carriages she sees the rich life going on in the illuminated inside—dancing couples, cooks preparing dinner, and so on. The crucial feature of the scene is that we, the spectators, together with Crawford, perceive the train as a magic, immaterial apparition from another world. When the last carriage passes by, the train comes to a halt and we see on the observation desk a good-natured drunkard with a glass of champagne in his hand, which stretches over the railing towards Crawford—as if, for a brief moment, the fantasy-space intervened in reality.24It is along these lines that we should understand also what Chesterton says about Dickens’s “eerie realism” in which “the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact”: “a shock goes through my blood” when I stumble upon a small material detail that stirs up something in my “inner life”—not some “deeper meaning” but something traumatic, nonsymbolizable, extimate (external in the very heart of my being). One should emphasize the hyperrealism of such moments; the spectralization of material reality overlaps with full focus on material objects. How is this paradox possible? There is only one solution: external reality itself is not simply out there, it is already transcendentally constituted so that it is experienced as such—as “normal” reality out there—only if it fits these transcendental coordinates.
Let’s take a traumatic event like the 9/11 World Trade Center (WTC) destruction. One “should therefore invert the standard reading according to which the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere; quite the reverse—it was before the WTC collapse that we lived in our reality, perceiving Third World horrors as something which was not actually part of our social reality, as something which existed (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen—and what happened on September 11 was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality.”25 “In short, one should discern which part of reality is ‘transfunctionalized’ through fantasy, so that, although it is part of reality, it is perceived in a fictional mode”— exactly as our examples from Titanic and Possessed show in which part of reality is spectralized, acquires dreamlike quality. “Much more difficult than to denounce/unmask (what appears as) reality as fiction is to recognize in ‘real’ reality the part of fiction.”26 This, then, is what the Malabou-like critique misses when it accuses psychoanalysis of ignoring the bodily weight of traumatic events, thereby reducing their impact to their stirring up some previous dormant psychic trauma. Let us imagine witnessing or being submitted to extremely brutal torture. Precisely because the impact of the scene is so shattering—as it would undermine the basic coordinates of what we perceive as “solid external reality”—the scene would not be experienced as part of ordinary reality but as an unreal, nightmarish fiction. The sense of ordinary external reality and extreme trauma are mutually exclusive. This is the ultimate reason why, as Chesterton saw it clearly, dream and “effective realism” go together.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Living Life in the Desert of the "Real"
In the struggle against ‘sexism’ (some) women demanded that we end the fetishization of their breasts and accept them as just another part of a woman’s body. One of the results of this struggle for ‘free nipples’ was that, in some big cities, groups of women organized protest walks where they were naked above the belt – the point was precisely to de-eroticize breasts. We are now entering the next logical step in this direction – the goal is now to ‘demystify’ the ultimate sexual object. After publishing a book of portraits of breasts and then penises, photographer Laura Dodsworth has now taken portraits of 100 vulvas – here is a report on the last volume in this trilogy:‘It’s this shame that photographer Laura Dodsworth is aiming to overcome with her latest project, Womanhood. In a book and accompanying film for Channel 4, she tells the stories of 100 women and gender non-conforming people through portraits of their vulvas. It’s the third installment in a series: in Bare Reality and Manhood, Dodsworth photographed and talked to people about their breasts and their penises, respectively.We read in the same report how Dodsworth’s book and film ‘arrive at a time when the vulva appears to be having a cultural moment; in the near future, Lynn Enright’s book Vagina: A Re-education will appear; Liv Strömquist’s bestselling Fruit of Knowledge is dedicated to vulva and menstruation; there is a new British musical Vulvarine; live events that aim to reclaim the body are increasingly popular – from body-positive life-drawing classes to ‘pussy-gazing workshops’.
“The vulva is often seen just as a site of sexual activity. But we talked about so many areas that aren’t ‘sexy’ – periods, menopause, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, pregnancy, birth, cancer.”’
Further steps in this process are on the horizon – new campaigns target periods, ‘encouraging young people to shake off any shame about menstruation.’ So why not go to the end and ‘demystify’ and de-fetishize excrement – let’s organize some shit-gazing workshops! Some of us remember the scene from Bunuel’s Phantom of Freedom in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper ‘Where is that place, you know?’ So why not try this in real life (better to prohibit eating from public space since our excessive food production is one of the main reasons of our ecological crisis)?
To avoid a misunderstanding, the point that these phenomena are making is obvious and well-taken: to get rid of the male fetishization of vagina as the ultimate mysterious object of (masculine) desire, and to reclaim vulva for women in all complex reality outside sexist myths. So what is wrong with it? Let’s return to Bunuel. To quote from one of my own books, there is a series of Bunuel’s films which are built around the same central motif of the – to use Bunuel’s own words – ‘non-explainable impossibility of the fulfillment of a simple desire’. In L’Age d’or, the couple want to consummate their love but they are again and again prevented by some stupid accident; in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, the hero wants to accomplish a simple murder, but all his attempts fail; in The Exterminating Angel, after a party, a group of rich people cannot cross the threshold and leave the house; in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, two couples want to dine together, but unexpected complications always prevent the accomplishment of this simple wish; and finally, in That Obscure Object of Desire, we have the paradox of a woman who, through a series of tricks, postpones again and again the final moment of reunion with her old lover. What is the common feature of these films? An ordinary, everyday act becomes impossible to accomplish as soon as it finds itself occupying the impossible place of das Ding – ‘the thing’ – and begins to embody the sublime object of desire.
This object or act may be in itself extremely banal (a common dinner, passing the threshold after a party). It has only to occupy the sacred/forbidden, empty place in the Other, and a whole series of impassable obstacles will build up around it; the object or act, in its very vulgarity, cannot be reached or accomplished.
We should recall here Jacques Lacan’s definition of the sublime: ‘an object elevated to the level of the Thing,’ an ordinary thing or act through which, in a fragile short-circuit, the impossible Real Thing transpires. That’s why, in an intense erotic interplay, one wrong word, one vulgar gesture suffices, and a violent de-sublimation occurs, we fall out of erotic tension into vulgar copulation. Imagine that, in the thrall of erotic passion, one takes a close look at the vagina of the beloved woman, trembling with the promise of anticipated pleasures, but then something happens, one as it were ‘loses contact,’ falls out of the erotic thrall, and the flesh in front of one’s eyes appears in all its vulgar reality, with the stench of urine and sweat, etc. (And it is easy to imagine the same experience with a penis.) What happens here? For Lacan, it is the exact opposite that takes place in the described scene: the vagina ceases to be ‘an object elevated to the dignity of a Thing’ and becomes part of ordinary reality. In this precise sense, sublimation is not the opposite of sexualization but its equivalent.
And that’s why, in eroticism also, there is only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous. The sexual act and the comical: it seems that these two notions exclude themselves radically — does not the sexual act stand for the moment of the utmost intimate engagement, for the point towards which the participating subject can never assume the attitude of an ironic external observer? For that very reason, however, the sexual act cannot but appear at least minimally ridiculous to those who are not directly engaged in it – the comical effect arises out of the very discord between the intensity of the act and the indifferent calm of everyday life.
This brings us back to the ongoing attempts to ‘demystify’ the vulva. To use an old (and otherwise very problematic) proverb, it seems that, in trying to get rid of the dirty water, they court the danger of throwing out the baby as well. Their attack on the idea of vagina as the fetishized object of male desire also threatens to undermine the basic structure of sublimation without which there is no eroticism – what remains is a flat world of ordinary reality in which people all erotic tension is lost. They display their ‘defetishized’ organs which are just that – ordinary organs.
The moment we take into account the arbitrary nature of sublimation (any ordinary object can be elevated to the level of the impossible Thing), it becomes clear that sexual sublimation can be easily freed from patriarchal mystification. What we are getting instead of this new space of eroticism is a version of something that, long ago, Adorno and Horkheimer, the two masters of the Frankfurt School of Marxism, baptized ‘repressive desublimation’: our sex organs are desublimated, and the result is not new freedom but a grey reality in which sex is totally repressed.
Monday, March 18, 2019
A Terrible Beauty is Born
I-William Butler Yeats, "Easter 1916"
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
On the Hubris of Post-Modern Elites
Laputa was located above the realm of Balnibarbi, which was ruled by its king from the flying island. Gulliver states the island flew by the “magnetic virtue” of certain minerals in the grounds of Balnibarbi which did not extended to more than four miles above, and six leagues beyond the extent of the kingdom, showing the limit of its range. The position of the island, and the realm below, is some five days' journey south-south-east of Gulliver's last known position, 46N, 183E[a] (i.e. east of Japan, south of the Aleutian Islands) down a chain of small rocky islands.
The island of Laputa is described as being exactly circular and 4.5 miles (7.2 km) in diameter, giving an area of 10,000 acres (4,000 ha). The island was 300 yards (270 m) thick, and comprised a bottom plate of adamant 200 yards thick, above which lay "the several minerals in their usual order", topped with "a coat of rich mould 10 or 12 ft deep".
In shape the upper surface sloped down from circumference to centre, causing all rain to form rivulets into the centre where four large basins half a mile in circuit lie 200 yards from the absolute centre. In the centre of the island itself was a chasm 50 yards in diameter continuing down into a dome extending 100 yards into the adamantine surface. This dome served as an astronomical observatory, and also contained the lodestone which enabled the island to fly and move above the realm. .
Laputa's population consists mainly of educated people, who are fond of mathematics, astronomy, music and technology, but fail to make practical use of their knowledge. Servants make up the rest of the population.
The Laputans have mastered magnetic levitation. They also are very fond of astronomy, and discovered two moons of Mars. (This is 151 years earlier than the recognized discovery of the two moons of Mars by Asaph Hall in 1877.) However, they are unable to construct well-designed clothing or buildings, because they take measurements with instruments such as quadrants and a compass rather than with tape measures.
Laputa is a male-dominated society. Wives often request to leave the island to visit the land below; however, these requests are almost never granted because the women who leave Laputa never want to return.
The clothes of Laputans, which do not fit, are decorated with astrological symbols and musical figures. They spend their time listening to the music of the spheres. They believe in astrology and worry constantly that the sun will go out. The Laputan houses, he notices, are badly built, without accurate right angles.
Due to their fervent intellectual pursuits, Laputans are also depicted as becoming so lost in thought that they cannot function in everyday life unless constantly struck by a bladder full of pebbles or dry peas, for which every one of them is escorted by one or two servants, so called "clappers". Many of their heads have become stuck reclined to one side, and they often suffer from strabismus: one eye turns inward and the other looks up "to the zenith." The Laputans' oddly-focused eyes are Swift's parodies of the microscope and telescope. So intent are the Laputans in their scientific studies that they cannot function in the everyday world, or even perceive it, and without their clappers, are in constant danger of running into a tree or a ditch when walking.
The Laputan women are highly sexed and adulterous, and, whenever possible, take on lovers out of visitors from the lands below. The Laputan husbands, who are so abstracted in mathematical and musical calculations, might assume their wives are adulterous, but so long as they have no clapper around, they won't notice the adultery even should it occur right before their eyes.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Saturday, March 9, 2019
Thursday, March 7, 2019
The word “democracy” is today the main organizer of consensus. What the word is assumed to embrace is the downfall of Eastern Socialists States, the supposed well being of our countries as well as Western humanitarian crusades.
Actually the word “democracy” is inferred from what I term “authoritarian opinion.” It is somehow prohibited not to be a democrat. Accordingly, it furthers that the human kind longs for democracy, and all subjectivity suspected of not being democratic is deemed pathological. At its best it infers a forbearing reeducation, at its worst the right of meddling democratic marines and paratroopers.
Democracy thus inscribing itself in polls and consensus necessarily arouses the philosopher’s critical suspicions. For philosophy, since Plato, means breaking with opinion polls. Philosophy is supposed to scrutinize everything that is spontaneously considered as “normal.” If democracy designates a normal state of collective organization, or political will, then the philosopher will ask for the norm of this normality to be examined. He will not allow for the word to function within the frame of an authoritarian opinion. For the philosopher everything consensual becomes suspicious.
To confront the visibility of the democratic idea with the singularity of a particular politics, especially revolutionary politics, is an old practice. It was already employed against Bolsheviks well before the October Revolution. In fact, the critique addressed to Lenin – his political postulate viewed as nondemocratic – is original. However it’s still interesting today to peruse his riposte.
Lenin’s counter-argument is twofold. On the one hand he distinguishes, according to the logic of class analysis, between two types of democracy: proletarian democracy and bourgeois democracy. He then asserts the supremacy, in extension and intensity, of the former over the latter.
Yet his second structure of response seems to me more appropriate to the present state of affairs. Lenin insists in this that with “democracy,” verily, you should always read “a form of State.” Form means a particular configuration of the separate character of the State and the formal exercise of sovereignty. Positing democracy as a form of State, Lenin subscribes to the classical political thinking filiation, including Greek philosophy, which contends that “democracy” must ultimately be conceived as a sovereignty or power trope. Power of the “demos” or people, the capability of “demos” to exert coercion by itself.
If democracy is a form of State, what preordained philosophical use proper can this category have? With Lenin the aim – or idea – of politics is the withering of any form of State, democracy included. And this could be termed generic Communism as basically expressed by Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Generic Communism designates a free associative egalitarian society where the activity of polymorph workers is not governed by regulations and technical or social articulations but is managed by the collective power of needs. In such a society, the State is dissolved as a separate instance from public coercion. Politics – much as it voices the interests of social groups and covets at the conquest of power – is de facto dissolved.
Thus, the purpose of Communist politics aims at its own disappearance in the modality of the end of the form separated from the State in general, even if it concerns a State that declares itself democratic.
If philosophy is predicated as what identifies, legitimizes or categorizes politics’ ultimate goals, much as the regulating ideas acting as its representation, and if this aim is acknowledged as the withering of the State – which is Lenin’s proposition – and what can be termed pure presentation, free association; or again if politics’ final goal is posited as authority in-separated from infinity or the advent of the collective as such, then, with regard to this supposed end, which is the end assigned to generic Communism, democracy is not, cannot be a category as regards philosophy. Why? Because democracy is a form of the State; let philosophy assess politics’ final goals; and let this end be as well the end of the State, thus the end of all relevance to the word “democracy.”
The “philosophical” word suitable to evaluate politics could be, in this hypothetical frame, the word “equality,” or the word “Communism,” but not the word “democracy.” For this word is traditionally attached to the State, to the form of the State.
From this results the idea that “democracy” can only be considered a concept of philosophy if one of these three following hypotheses is to be rejected. All three are intertwined and somehow uphold the Leninist view on democracy. They are:
Hypothesis 1: The ultimate goal in politics is generic Communism, thus the pure presentation of the collective’s truth, or the withering of the State.
Hypothesis 2: The relation between philosophy and politics entails the evaluation of a certain politics’ final goal, its general or generic meaning.
Hypothesis 3: Democracy is a form of the State.Under these three hypotheses “democracy” is not a necessary concept of philosophy. It can only become such provided one of these three hypotheses is dropped.
Three abstract possibilities follow:1. Let generic Communism not be the ultimate goal in politics.
2. Let the relation between philosophy and politics not be one of scrutiny, enlightenment or legitimization of the final aims.
3. Let “democracy” imply something else than a form of the State.
Under any of these three possibilities the structure according to which “democracy” is not a concept of philosophy is put into question. I would like to analyze one by one these three provisions which allow for the consideration or reconsideration of “democracy” as a category of philosophy proper.
Let’s assume that the ultimate goal of politics is not the pure assertion of collective presentation, is not the free association of men, disengaged from the State’s principle of sovereignty. Let’s assume that generic Communism, even as an idea, is not the ultimate goal of politics. What can then be the goal of politics, its practice’s finality, much as this practice involves, or questions, or challenges, philosophy?
I think two main hypotheses can be construed in light of what is viewed as the history of this question. According to the first hypothesis, politics’ aim would be the configuration, or the advent, of what can be termed “the good State.” Philosophy would be brought forward as an examination of the legitimacy of the State’s various possible forms. It would seek to name the preferable character of state configuration. Such would be the final stake of the debate on politics’ goals. This is indeed related to the great classical tradition in political philosophy, from the Greeks onwards, devoted to the question of sovereignty’s legitimacy. Now, of course, a norm appears on the scene. Whatever the regime or the status of the norm, an axiological preference for a distinct type of state configuration relates the State to a normative principle as, for instance, the superiority of a democratic regime over a monarchic or an aristocratic one, for any particular reason. That is, the convening of a general system of norms sanctions this preference.
As a passing remark let’s say this situation does not apply to the hypothesis in which the ultimate goal in politics is the withering of the State, since you are not dealing with “the good State.” For the case you are dealing with the political process as self-cancellation, that is as engaged in the cessation of the principle of sovereignty. It does not concern a norm associated with the state configuration. It rather concerns the idea of a process that would bring about the withering of the entire state configuration. The singularity of withering does not belong to the normative question as it can be exerted upon the persistence of the State. On the other hand, if politics’ ultimate goal is “the good State” or the preferable State, then the emergence of a norm seems ineluctable.
Now, this poses a difficult question in that the norm is inevitably external or transcendent. The State, in itself, is objectivity without norm. It is the principle of sovereignty, or of coercion, endowed with a separate functioning necessary to the collective as such. It will obtain its determination in a set of regulations stemming from subjective topics. These are precisely the norms that will introduce the subject of “the good State” or the preferable State. In our present situation, that is, the circumstance in our parliamentary States, the subjective relation to the issue of the State is regulated according to three norms: the economy, the national question and, precisely, democracy.
Let’s consider the economy first. The State is accountable for assuring a minimal functioning of the circulation and distribution of goods; it falls into disrepute as such if it proves exaggeratedly incapable of complying with this norm. In the sphere of the economy broadly, whatever its organic relation to the State, the latter is subjectively accountable for the functioning of the economy.
The second norm is the national question. The State is under a set of regulations such as the nation, the representation on the world scene, national independence, etc. It is accountable for the very existence of the national principle at home and abroad.
Thirdly, today democracy is itself a norm as it’s considered within the subjective relation to the State. The State is accountable for knowing wether it is democratic or despotic, for its relation towards instances such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of action.
The opposition between dictatorship and democracy is something that functions as a subjective norm in the evaluation of the State.
Thus the actual situation of the question subordinates the State to the threesome normative of economic functioning, national evaluation and democracy. Here “democracy” acts as a normative characterization of the State, precisely as what can be termed the category of “a politics,” not of politics in general. “A politics” is what regulates a subjective relation to the State. Let’s say that the state configuration regulating its subjective relation to the State under the three aforementioned norms – economy, national question, democracy – may be dubbed parliamentarism, though I prefer to call it parliamentary-capitalism. However, since “democracy” is here summoned as the category of a particular politics – a particular politics whose universality is quite problematic – we should refrain from defining it as being in itself a philosophical category. At this level of analysis then “democracy” unfolds as a category characterizing – by means of the formulation of a subjective norm in relation to the State – a particular politics, which I deem to call “parliamentarism.”
So much for the case with regard to the hypothesis that politics’ ultimate goal is in determining “the good State.” What you get at most is that “democracy” turns out to be the category of a particular politics, parliamentarism. This is not a definite reason to posit “democracy” as a philosophical concept.
What we are examining here is the ultimate goal of politics when this goal is not generic Communism. Our first consideration was that politics aimed at establishing the best possible State. It follows from there that “democracy” is not necessarily a concept within philosophy.
The second possible reasoning leads you to the notion that the ultimate goal of politics is none other than itself. In this case politics would not address the issue of “the good State” but would be its own goal for itself. Conversely to what has been reflected previously, politics would then become a movement of thought and action that freely eludes the dominant state subjectivity and propounds, convenes, organizes projects ill-suited for consideration and representation within the norms under which the State functions. In this case politics is presented as a singular collective practice estranged from the State. Again that kind of politics, in its essence, is not the carrier of a State agenda or a state norm but instead the development of what can be termed as the dimension of collective freedom, precisely in that it avoids the normative consensus represented by the State – provided the State is assessed by this organized freedom.
“Democracy,” is it thus relevant? Yes, “democracy” is relevant “if democracy is to be understood in a sense other than a form of the State.” If politics is thus to itself its own goal insofar as it is able to withdraw from state consensus, it could eventually be termed democratic. Yet in this case the category will not function in a Leninist sense, as a State form. And this brings you back to the third negative condition with regard to the three Leninist hypotheses.
Here concludes the first part of our discussion, that is: what if the goal of politics is not generic Communism?
The second part of the discussion concerns philosophy itself. Let’s assume that philosophy is not related to politics as much as it is the representation or the seizure of politics’ ultimate ends, that philosophy has another rapport to politics and that it is not intended to evaluate – the appearance before a court – or legitimate politics’ ultimate ends. How does then philosophy relate to politics? What is the name of that relation? How are we to prescribe it?
There is a first hypothesis, namely that the task of philosophy would be what I call the formal description of politics, its typology. Philosophy would set up a space where politics are discussed in accordance with their sort. All in all, philosophy would be a formal apprehension of States and politics as it pre-elaborates or exposes the said typology to possible norms. Yet, when this is the case – indubitably this is part of the work of thinkers such as Aristotle or Montesquieu – it becomes apparent that “democracy” acts upon philosophy as the description of a form of the State. There is no doubt about it. Accordingly, the categorization starts from state configurations, and “democracy” becomes, from the viewpoint of philosophy, the description of a form of the State, as opposed to other forms such as tyranny, aristocracy and so on.
But if “democracy” designates a form of the State, the premise would then be asserted, regarding this form, about “the goals of politics.” Is it a matter of “willing” this form? If so, we are inside the logic of “the good State,” which is what was previously analyzed. Or is it a matter of going beyond this form, dissolving sovereignty, even democratic sovereignty? In this case we relapse inside the Leninist frame, the withering hypothesis. In any event, this option brings you back to the first part of the discussion.
The second possibility implies philosophy’s attempt to apprehend politics as a singular activity of thinking, of politics itself as providing for the historical collective a modality of thinking which philosophy must take in as such. Here philosophy should be understood – consensual definition – as the cogitative apprehension of thinking operational conditions in their different registers. If politics is deemed as an operative thinking, in a register of its own (Lazarus’ central thesis), then philosophy’s task is the grasping of thinking operational conditions in this particular register named politics. It follows that if politics is an operative thinking, it cannot be subservient to the State, it cannot be reduced to or reflected on its state dimension. Let’s venture a rather spurious proposition: “the State does not think.”
As a passing remark, the fact that the State does not think is the source of all sorts of difficulties for philosophical thinking as far as politics is concerned. All “political philosophies” adduce evidence that the State does not think. And when these political philosophies posit the State as leading the research on politics as thought, difficulties increase. The fact that the State does not think leads Plato, at the end of book IX in Republic, to declare that as a last resort you can pursue politics everywhere except in your own fatherland. And the same eventuality brings Aristotle to the distressing conclusion that once the ideal types of politics have been isolated, only pathological types are left in the real. For instance, for Aristotle monarchy implies a kind of State that does think and is reputed to be thinkable. Yet, in the real there are only tyrannies, which do not think, which are unthinkable. The normative type is never achieved. This also leads Rousseau to ascertain that in history all that exists are dissolved States, and no legitimate State. Finally, these postulates, which are extracted from within utterly heterogeneous political conceptions, agree on one point: namely, it is not possible to envision the State as the doorway to politics’ research. Perforce one comes up against the State as a non-thinking entity. The problem should be pursued from another angle.
Therefore, if “democracy” is a category of politics-as-thought, that is if philosophy needs to use “democracy” as a category to get hold of the political process as such, then this political process eludes the pervasive injunction of the State, since the State does not think. It follows that “democracy” is not here understood as a form of the State but differently, otherwise, or in another sense. And this is how you are brought back to the proposition positing “democracy” as something other than a form of the State.
Let’s then advance a provisional conclusion: “democracy” is a category of philosophy only when it indicates something other than a form of the State. Yet what is “something other”?
There lies the core of the question. It is a problem with conjunction. To what, other than the State, is “democracy” to be conjoined in order to become a real approach to politics-as-thought? There is a large political tradition pertinent to this, and I won’t go further into it. Let’s suffice to mention just two examples concerning the attempt to conjoin “democracy” to something other than the State thus allowing the meta-political (philosophical) re-examination of politics-as-thought.
The first instance concerns the direct conjoining of “democracy” to the masses political activity – not to the state configuration but to its immediate antagonism. For usually the masses’ political activity, its spontaneous mobilization, comes about under an anti-state drive. This produces the syntagm of mass democracy, which I’ll style romantic, and the opposition between mass democracy and democracy as state configuration, or formal democracy.
Whoever happens to have experienced mass democracy – historical events such as collective general assembling, crowded gatherings, riots, and so on – manifestly notices an immediate point of reversibility between mass democracy and mass dictatorship. Inevitably the essence of mass democracy is translated into a mass sovereignty, and this mass sovereignty becomes in turn a sovereignty of immediacy, of assembling itself. The sovereignty of assembling exerts – pattern formations Sartre termed “group-in-fusion” – a fellowship of terror. Here Sartrian phenomenology persists indisputably. There is an organic correlation between the practice of mass democracy as internal principle of the group-in-fusion and a point of reversibility with the immediate authoritarian or dictatorial element at work in the fellowship of terror. Looking into the issue of mass democracy itself notice that it is not possible to legitimate the principle after the sole appellative of democracy, since this romantic democracy immediately includes, in theory as well as in practice, its reversibility into dictatorship. You are dealing thus with a pair democracy/dictatorship that avoids an elementary designation, or eludes a philosophical apprehension, under the concept of democracy. And what does this entail? It entails that whoever assigns legitimacy to mass democracy, at least today, does so on the basis, or rather from the viewpoint of the non-state perspective of pure presentation. The appraisal, even under the appellation of democracy, of mass democracy as such, is inseparable from the subjectivity of generic Communism. The legitimization of this couple of immediacy – democracy/dictatorship – is only conceivable if the pair is thought, and valorized, from the generic point of the withering of the State, or from the perspective of a radical anti-state attitude. Actually, the opposite pole to State consistency, which precisely shows up in the immediacy of mass democracy, is a provisional representative to generic Communism. We are now brought back to our first major hypothesis: if “democracy” is conjoined to “mass,” the goal of politics is actually generic Communism, whence “democracy” is not a category of philosophy. This conclusion is empirically and conceptually established by the fact that from the perspective of mass democracy it is impossible to differentiate democracy from dictatorship. It is what has obviously enabled Marxists to employ the expression “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It should be our understanding that the subjective valorization of the word “dictatorship” thus rested on the presence of such reversibility between democracy and dictatorship as it historically appears in the figure of mass democracy, or revolutionary democracy, or romantic democracy.
We are left with another hypothesis, a quite different one: “democracy” should be conjoined with the political regulation itself. “Democracy” would not be related to the figure of State or to the figure in political mass activity, but would rather relate organically to political regulation, provided that political regulation is not subservient to the State, to “the good State,” when it is not systematized. “Democracy” would be organically tied to the universality of political regulation, to its capability of universality, and thus the word “democracy” and politics as such would be bound. Again, politics in the sense that it is something other than a State program. There would be an intrinsically democratic characterization of politics, insofar as its self-determination is posited as a space of emancipation removed from State consensual figures.
There is some evidence of this in Rousseau’s Social Contract. In chapter 16, book III, Rousseau discusses the issue of the establishment of the State – apparently the opposite topic we are discussing here – the issue of the institution of the State. He comes up against a well-known difficulty, namely that the causative instrument of government cannot be a contract, cannot proceed from the dimension of a social contract in the sense that this contract acts as founder of the nation as such. The institution of the State concerns specific individuals, and this cannot be carried out by means of a law. For Rousseau a law necessarily implies a global association relating the people to the people and thereby cannot involve specific individuals.
The institution of the State cannot be a law. And this suggests that it also cannot be the practice of sovereignty. For sovereignty is precisely the generic form of the social contract and it always connotes a relation of totality to totality – of the people to the people. Apparently, we face an impasse here. A decision is needed, a decision that should be at the same time special (since it establishes the government) and general (since it’s taken by the “totality” of the people and not by the government, which does not yet exist and will eventually be established). However, it is impossible, for Rousseau, that this decision result from the general will, since every decision of this kind should be manifested in the shape of a law or a deed of sovereignty. And this can only be the contract agreed upon by all the people and all the people, a contract that bears no particular character. You can also posit the question this way: the citizen votes the laws, the governmental magistrate takes the concrete measures. How are particular magistrates to be appointed when there aren’t yet any magistrates, but only citizens? Rousseau pulls himself out of this difficulty by stating that “the institution of government is accomplished by the sudden conversion of sovereignty into democracy so that without sensible change, and merely by virtue of a new relation of all to all, the citizens become magistrates, and pass from general to particular acts, from legislation to the execution of the law.” For many this was a singular conjuring trick. What does this sudden conversion without any modification of the organic relationship between totality to totality mean? How does a mere displacement of this relation, which is the social contract as instituting the general will, allow for the proceeding to the possibility of initiating particular political acts? Basically this means – leaving aside the formal argumentation – that democracy is originally referred “to the particular character of the interests at stake in political regulation.” Political regulation with its particular interests at stake – in the last resort it only has particular stakes – is confined to democracy. Rousseau’s case for the establishment of government is but one symbolic example. Generally speaking, the universality of political regulation – much as it evades the singular holding of the State – can be deployed as such only when particular interests are at stake and is constrained, when deployed under particular stakes, if only to invest the democratic form in order to remain political. Here a primary conjunction between democracy and politics effectively takes place.
Democracy can then be defined as what authorizes an individual investment under the law of the universality of political will. “Democracy,” in a way, names the political figures of the conjunction between particular situations and politics. In this case, and in this case only, “democracy” can be recaptured as a philosophical category. Hereafter democracy will designate what can be termed as the effectiveness in politics. Meaning politics when it conjoins with particular interests. Thus understood politics becomes free from its accountability to the State.
In order to pursue this contention you would expound on how “democracy,” in this conjunction to political regulation as such, refers in philosophy to the taking in of a specific kind of politics whose regulation is universal. Still this specific kind of politics may conjoin to the particular in a figure wherein situations transform so as to render impossible any other inequitable enunciation.
The reasoning of this position is rather complex and I present a brief outline. Let’s say that “democracy” posits the fact that politics – with regard to a politics of emancipation – is sooner or later related to the special nature of people’s lives, not to the State, but to people as they come forth in the public space. Again, politics cannot be itself, which is being democratic, in its dealing with this particularity in people’s lives, unless it dismisses all inequitable sense in the very dealing. For, if politics allows for an inequitable acceptation in its dealing, then it introduces a nondemocratic norm – in the original sense I am addressing here – and the conjunction is cancelled. This means politics is no longer competent to deal with the particular from the perspective of the universal regulation. Politics will deal with the particular differently; it will deal with it from the perspective of the particular regulation. Thus, the case would be that every particular regulation redirects politics towards the State where it is subjected to the constraint of state jurisdiction. Consequently, the word “democracy,” in its philosophical significance, presupposes a kind of politics insofar as the effectiveness of its emancipatory process works at the impossibility proper of all inequitable enunciation in concern with this situation. For the aim of this kind of politics to be real proceeds from the fact that these enunciations are, by means of such politics, not forbidden but impossible. Interdiction is always a rule of the State; impossibility is a regulation of the real.
Also democracy as a philosophical category is what “brings forward equality.” Or, what excludes from circulating as political nominations – or as political categories – any sort of predicate formally in contradiction with the egalitarian idea.
In my view, this very fact drastically restricts the possibility of using in politics, under the philosophical sign of democracy, any type of “communal” designations. For the communal designation or the identity assignation to the subsets as such cannot be dealt with after the idea of the impossibility of an inequitable enunciation. Consequently, ‘democracy” is that which regulates politics in relation to communal predicates, to subset predicates. Democracy is that which anchors politics to the element of universality proper to its destination. It will also expose articulations of race as well as sexual or social or hierarchic articulations, or an enunciation such as: “there is a problem with immigrants,” will undo the conjunction between politics and democracy. “Democracy” means that “immigrant,” “French,” “Arab,” “Jew” are words that inevitably bring calamity to politics. For these words, and many others, necessarily refer politics to the State, and the lowest and most essential function of the State is the inequitable breaking of mankind.
Ultimately, the task of the philosopher consists of exposing a certain politics to its evaluation. Neither in the sense of “the good State,” nor in the sense of generic Communism, but intrinsically, that is to say for itself. Politics sequentially defined as that which attempts to create the impossibility of the inequitable enunciation, might, by the slant of the word “democracy,” be exposed through philosophy to what I’ll call a certain eternity. Let’s say that by means of the word “democracy” thus conceived, by means of philosophy and philosophy alone, politics can be evaluated after the rule of the eternal return. Then philosophy takes hold of politics, not just as the particular or pragmatic avatar of human history, but as connected to a standard of evaluation, which upholds without ridicule, or without crime, that the return be foreseen.
In the end a very old word, a word very much worn, philosophically nominates those politics that overcome this ordeal: it’s the word “justice.”*From Abrégé de métapolitique, Seuil: Paris, 1998.
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