Marx’s Philosophical Context

 The short essay that follows is due to appear in the Bloomsbury Companion to Marx in 2018.

            There are four things one needs to know about Marx’s relationship to his immediate philosophical context.

1. In Germany in the 1840s, many people thought of philosophy as an intrinsically revolutionary endeavor. It is, of course, easy to derive revolutionary stances from even the most conventional philosophical starting-points. Philosophy begins by asking the student provisionally to set aside all of her uninspected beliefs, everything she has taken on trust, everything she thinks she knows just because she heard it from her parents or the priest or the neighborhood. The young philosopher who prorogues her views in this fashion may not be promising never to believe anything again, but she is pledging to re-admit only those beliefs she can rigorously justify. And really, how many of her old and merely habitual opinions does she expect will survive such a strictness? Philosophy for her is likely to be a remaking, a putting-out-of-play of all rival sources of belief—religious authority, the creedal bylaws of this or that institution, culture. If generalized across a population, philosophy would amount to the destruction of these latter. This point would hold for most philosophies, but to that classically heterodox profile, philosophers in the two generations before Marx added what we might call the German Idea—the idea, namely, that the mind is active and creative (and not just a screen or empty box). Other positions follow on from there: If the mind is creative and likely to insist on its creativity, it can never stand pat with what it has already created. The mind creates something, fashioning an argument or engineering an object for the building, but immediately turns against these achievements, against its own positions and designs, which it must henceforth regard as obstacles to further creation. The inherently active mind is always moving past what already exists. At any point in time, many people will be beyond, experiencing available social forms mostly as constriction, for which the mind without prompting will begin to devise alternatives, exercising its transformative freedom until such day as the mind’s freedom itself becomes the stuff of social life. The only institutions that the active mind would not feel compelled to move beyond would be ones that themselves affirmed and cultivated the mind’s activity—institutions, that is, that took the creative mind to be their very point. The German Idea thus issues in a distinctive political goal, a demand for institutions that we have made, that we know we have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly. The notion was once widespread that the French Revolution had been a uniquely philosophical event, but that notion is just the start of it. Nor is it enough to remark that Kant, Fichte, and Hegel had all supported the revolution, though this is true. The point is, rather, that by the time Marx started writing in the early 1840s, the younger philosophers most associated with the German Idea, thinkers ten or fifteen years older than him, had fashioned the doctrine of the active and creative mind into an openly anti-clerical and neo-Jacobin position. Philosophy could convincingly pose as the revolution re-done in thought.

2. Marx, who held a PhD in philosophy and who for a time foresaw a career for himself teaching philosophy in Bonn, arrived at many of his core positions by adapting arguments made by older philosophers in the radical cohort. The critique of political economy began as the philosophical critique of religion. Anyone can tell you that their job sucks or that most people are unhappy at work. When Marx first writes about the economy, he immediately makes claims quite a bit more extravagant than these. Chief among them is the idea that in capitalist societies, people relate to capital in the same distorted way that church-goers relate to God. There are three related claims that a radical critic of monotheism might make in this regard:

a) Humans invented God (and HaShem and the Almighty). God has always been a human creation.

b) Having invented God, humans then assigned to Him their own powers of creation. Some devout people act as though they lacked the powers to make and sustain the world, and yet when people worship God, they are actually worshiping their own capacities for thoughtful activity, reverencing the thinking human aggregate—what the Germans call Geist, which translates as both Mind and Spirit (and sometimes as Ghost—Germans talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Geist). There does indeed exist a supremely powerful force in the world, capable of marvels, a force both unseen and in a sense everywhere. It is not wrong to think that there exists an omnipresent spirit. But that force (spirit, Geist, mind) is just thought. Thought spans the world. When Christians go to church, then, they are worshipping thought as though it were something outside of them, a separate entity, and not their own innermost being and accomplishment.

c) Having projected thought onto a non-human and invented entity, humans then subordinate themselves to it. Endowing their own creation with a specious authority, they take themselves to be lesser than it.

Such is the core of the Hegelian account of alienation. What we’ll want to see now is that all three of these points carry over to Marx’s critique of capitalism.

a) People make capital. Everything that counts as capital is a human creation. This is true in at least two different senses. The institutions of capitalism are not inevitable or permanent or a geologically enduring feature of the natural landscape. People have built the institutions of capitalism: stock markets and commodity exchanges, the banking system, the factory system. They’ve invented double-entry bookkeeping. Workers also construct everything that counts as capital in the present. For a start, they make what economists call capital goods—the tangible items that get used in the production of goods and services. They make the machines (that the capitalist owns); they build the buildings (that the capitalist owns); they gather and do the initial processing on the not-really raw materials (that the capitalist buys and temporarily owns). And they obviously make the commodities that the capitalist owns—the finished goods waiting for sale that represent his investment at a certain stage in the economic cycle, although at any given moment not all capital will be invested in capital goods or sitting un-liquidly in a warehouse. One of Marx’s more searching points is that the wealth that is housed in financial assets (stocks, bonds, interest-bearing bank accounts) can also be traced back to work that someone had to do somewhere at some point—mostly someone other than the owner of that asset.

b) Having created capital, people then assign to it the powers of creation. This is true in several senses at once. People think that capital is productive—or that capital sets the entire economy in motion. Or: People think that the machines “are doing the work.” Or: People think that capital is “money making money”—or “putting money to work.” For Marx, these are all mystifications. Capital can’t produce anything. It certainly cannot “make money”—workers somewhere have to be creating something, have to be taking the stuff of the world and making it better, more useful, more conducive to human need and desire. Nor does money work. Only workers work. And yet, from a certain perspective, from a certain position within the social system, it can indeed look like my money is “making money,” magically, without anyone having had to work, though I can think this only because the person working wasn’t me. People in capitalist societies assign to capital the powers of creation that in fact belong to work alone.

c) Once the creative powers of work get misassigned to capital, actual workers are made subordinate to it. A created thing that lacks the powers to create is taken to be the all-creative thing and so allowed to lord it over the real creators.

What stands out from the perspective of 1844 is that this last sentence could serve equally well for the radical critique of God and the Marxist critique of capitalism. At this point, it becomes possible to adapt to the spheres of production and distribution the politics of the German Idea: We demand an economy that we have made, that we know we have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly.

3. Even as Marx adapts the positions of his philosophical friends and mentors, he cautions against the perils of philosophy itself. Philosophy turns out to be one more thing, like capitalism and the state, that the self-organizing working class is going to have to overcome. In the later sections of The Holy Family, when Marx decides to show off his philosophical education, he takes it upon himself to correct the Left Idealist account of eighteenth-century intellectual history, offering to counter the attacks mounted by some radical intellectuals on the “materialism” of the “French Enlightenment.” It is a telling moment. Marx does not call himself a “materialist” nearly as often as the subsequent history of Marxism would lead one to think. The Holy Family thus yields some valuable references for anyone who wants to show not only that Marx was a materialist, but that he regarded himself as such. One of the great surprises of that book, then, is that it is in these very paragraphs that Marx most clearly aligns himself, not with materialism as conventionally understood, but with a classical, anti-philosophical skepticism. This has some far-reaching consequences: He says first that the “materialism” he is promoting is not an ontology in its own right, though he recognizes that there is no single materialism, only miscellaneous and rival ontologies that are made to share that name. Rather than add to the list of contending materialisms, Marx would like to convince his readers to stop caring about ontology, to stop getting bogged down in ontological argument. “Materialism,” he says, is not a system, but a mode of attention, a giving-of-priority to the present and the onrushing future—a theory of practice, one might add on Marx’s behalf, ergo a bracketing of the metaphysics. On the basis of this passage alone, it would be advisable to substitute the word “pragmatism” every time Marx writes the word “materialism,” which silent amendment would head off one persistent misreading of Marx and return our attention to activity, which is where he wants it.  Skepticism or even something rather like Pyrrhonism enters the argument when Marx writes that the person who taught eighteenth-century thinkers how to exit metaphysics was Pierre Bayle, the exiled French Huguenot who, from his perch in Rotterdam in the 1690s, systematically exposed the folly and error of one thinker after another, doggedly taking on the already established mainstays of the late seventeenth-century philosophical scene (Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz), and then roasting, one by one, the European scene’s trending intellectual novelties (Newtonianism, Lockeanism). Marx’s way of praising Ludwig Feuerbach is to say that he is a second Bayle—Bayle, whose “weapon was skepticism.”

Another consequence, then: That Marx enrolls himself among the anti-philosophers is, among other things, a heavy blow to the Red Spinozists. He says more than once in The Holy Family: Not Spinoza! The monist ends up first on a list of thinkers from whom we should disassociate the “materialism” he is sticking up for. And then he says that Bayle “refuted chiefly Spinoza and Leibniz”—the implication being that we should follow Bayle and not these others. Anyone rejecting philosophy in some comprehensive way would, of course, at the same time be rejecting Hegel, who is typically thought of as the other candidate vying for Marx’s metaphysical allegiance. The point, then, would be that the entire Hegel vs. Spinoza debate, so recurrent a feature of Marxist philosophy, is misguided, because Marx openly points to a third contender. This, then, is the Marx who argues that communism is not a philosophy, that it does not trade in “ideas and principles”; that communism will not presume to “shape or mould” the thinking of the working classes; that communists will not be teachers; that philosophers always ask the wrong questions because they have inserted themselves into the world in the wrong way.

4. Marx borrowed the attack on philosophy from other thinkers in the radical philosophical scene, indeed, from the very thinkers against whom he wields his skepticism most bitingly. Skepticism was not only an alternative to Hegelianism, but also one of its more distinctive products. Marx got into a race with other Hegelians to see who could exit philosophy the fastest. There is a small difficulty here. When Marx was in his 20s, Hegelian philosophy produced not one but two competing anti-philosophies—opposing programs for talking people out of making philosophical arguments. The German Idea holds that the mind is active and creative. What’s at issue is whether you think that philosophers, just by virtue of practicing philosophy, are liable to overstate or understate that creativity. We can consider each possibility in turn. In the 1840s, that first position—the one that holds that philosophers are likely to exaggerate the powers of thought—was associated with the name Feuerbach. Hegel had already demanded that we naturalize God—that we recognize all claims about God to be claims about Geist, itself to be understood in naturalized and this-worldly terms (which is one good reason to translate Geist as mind rather than as spirit). Hegel had also emphasized what he called realization: Concepts are only worth positing to the extent that they can also be made real. It is one thing to argue, in the spirit of philosophical anthropology or during the last week of an existentialism seminar, that human beings are necessarily and always free. It is another thing to build the institutions that will house that freedom—actualize it, extend it, make it practicable. Hegel, in other words, had already initiated the critique of mere thought, asking his readers to shift their attention from skull-trapped ideation to thought-in-practice.

Feuerbach contends that Hegel’s emphasis on the Infinite or Unbounded is unlikely to survive this translation. Human beings are the bearers of mind, and to emphasize their mindedness is to call attention to their freedom, the fact that they can, for reasons of their own, fashion the world in an infinitely extendable list of different ways. But human beings are not only mind, and this means that the beings who incarnate unbounded mind are also limited and that our theory of creation-without-limit is going to have to be accompanied by an account of need and dependency. Hegelianism does, in fact, tend to produce theories of the God-man, in which a self-exalting humanity promotes itself to the position of Creator. Feuerbach argues in response that this putatively divine and all-making humanity is in fact rather encumbered—that its members are often hungry or vulnerable or aroused, and that they can only think and create from amidst these constraints. The philosophers’ error is to underscore at every turn the achievements of thought while saying almost nothing about my need to eat every five or six hours. Philosophy, then, is best grasped as the specious transfiguration of thinking activity, as the abstraction of thought from out of its mundane and bodily circumstance. One exercise facing the student of philosophy would be, via acts of speculative reconstruction, to restore to abstract thought its origins in practice, to make any canonical philosophical doctrine legible as a way of being in the world. That done, the next assignment would be to go ahead and dispense with philosophy, to quit asking philosophical questions, to avoid framing the problems that arise in one’s life as philosophical puzzles, and to cultivate instead a militant orientation to the stuff of this world, a non-philosophical will to concretion.

The second skepticism, meanwhile, is a forthright adaptation of the German Idea’s great political demand—the demand, that is, for institutions that we have made, that we know ourselves to have made, and that we are capable of remaking ongoingly. The Hegelian, of course, is determined to utter this formulation not only about institutions in general, but severally about each particular thing. We demand a state / a legal system / a language / an x that we have made, that we know &c. Repetition of that kind comes easy, but the slogan is at its most challenging when it turns reflexive, plugging thought into x’s open slot, and so subjecting Geist itself to the politics of Geist: We demand a philosophy that we have made, that we &c. No sooner is this demand spoken than it will generate a misgiving, since I am likely to regard the concepts at the center of my philosophy as true or right—as discovered and not as made. The ideas that I take to be guiding my political conduct are thus rather like the Christian God and will need to be demystified in turn. We create the idea of equality (or freedom or solidarity or the commonwealth or Geist), treat it as uncreated and not of us, and then subordinate ourselves to it. The doctrine of the active, creative mind, followed consequently to its conclusion, turns on itself as thought’s last uncreated term.

Knowing about these conflicting anti-philosophies should make it possible to specify one of Marx’s more important innovations. His trick is to deploy these two skeptical positions against each other, identifying the moment of dogmatism in each and then countering it with arguments drawn from the other. To the ultra-idealist creed of the mind’s endless invention, he counterposes a doctrine of need and material constraint as chastened as any Catholic conservatism. I do not liberate myself by thinking myself liberated. But to any philosophical account of such constraints he responds by restating the precepts of geistliche creativity: Our dependencies are themselves created, and so, too, is any account of human nature that claims to comprehend human constraint once and for all.  There is no human endowment whose historical variations we can safely ignore or whose persistence we can confidently predict. Marxism comes into being not as a philosophical system and not as a new science, but as an ensemble of coordinated and mutually contemptuous skepticisms—as philosophy abandoned … and then re-abandoned for good measure.


Fulfilling the Fascist Lie

Late Reflections on The Authoritarian Personality


The essay that follows is a response to a seventy-year-old book. If you need a crash course on The Authoritarian Personality, first published by Adorno and a team of University of California psychologists in 1950, you could skim the Wiki entry or, better, have a look at this essay by Robert Gordon, available on the boundary 2 website. 

The essay is scheduled to appear in South Atlantic Quarterly in 2018.


       The Authoritarian Personality—I want to use the following paragraphs to explain why I find this admittedly remarkable book to be unpersuasive, why, in fact, it is a matter of some urgency that we not accept its arguments. I’m not sure how to come at the point directly, so permit me to note, by way of introduction, that anyone who reads widely in the history of fascism is likely to spot, sooner or later, a series of antitheses—oppositions, I mean, that were native to fascism itself and that historians return to again and again. If we want to be able to think clearly about The Authoritarian Personality, it will be enough for us to know about two of them. First, historians have made the point that fascism proceeded through stages, that, in other words, it wasn’t a single static position, that it was a dynamic entity, rather, tending to mutate over time. What, one might ask, were those stages? Broadly, the scholarship calls attention to fascism as an idea and an imagining, as an ideological current, therefore, cultivated by intellectuals—a fascism of the book, in other words—which was then succeeded by fascism as a mass movement. We need to be able to distinguish between those two. But then we also need to be able to distinguish between fascism as a movement and fascism as a regime—which is to say, as a successful movement, one that had achieved power or taken hold of the state—a fascism that governed. The point most commonly made is that fascism in its early stages—a still ideational fascism—was in certain respects more radical than what came later, or that it was more avant gardist, more likely to strike anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois poses. The fascists, this is to say, became more conventionally conservative over time, more recognizably a party of the Right, once they felt compelled to make their case to the non-bohemian many and once forced by their very success to make concessions to existing institutions and coalition partners. The stages thus yield an antithesis—at one pole, fascism-as-dissident-counterculture; at the other, fascism as the mainstream run amok, the establishment’s protracted revenge against its critics and rivals.

This same antithesis now becomes available in a geographical form, via the single, uncomplicated observation that Mussolini’s government, unlike Hitler’s, did not attempt to monopolize the entire sphere of thought and culture. Historians are keen to point out that there was no Italian Gleichschaltung—no effort to bring everyone into line. Within certain parameters, independent intellectuals continued to publish in Italy, which means not that there were still socialists or communists or liberals expressing themselves freely in Florence and Rome—those people really were shut down—but that there remained an outer circle of freelance fascists, the half-fascists or the merely unenrolled, the shirts not of black, but of charcoal and onyx and taupe, who continued to propose hypothetical other fascisms, in a scatterplot around the fascism that was actually being implemented. An aestheticist and nonconformist fascism thus remained more visible in Italy throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, never wholly subsumed into fascism-as-revanchist-orthodoxy. Early vs. late; Italy vs. Germany—two antitheses that are really one, a fascism with anti-bourgeois features vs. its snarlingly bourgeois rival.

This compounded antithesis matters because there are a hundred different claims you might wish to make about fascism that will run aground upon it. Arguments about fascism routinely invert or negate themselves, and the reason for this is surprisingly easy to identify. Histories of fascism often posit an A fascism and a B fascism, and even if you think that “A vs. B” sounds too schematic, as it doubtless does, that second term will suffice to undermine one’s accustomed sense that fascism was a uniform position—or indeed that it was, to a singular degree, a politics of uniformity, a uniform movement in the pursuit of uniformity. The problem for those of us needing to theorize fascism is that a great many things we will want to say about the B fascism will not be true of the A fascism. Worse, if we mean to fashion our historical analysis into a politics, then we run the permanent risk of pegging our anti-fascism to one pole or another of the fascist antithesis, such that by opposing one fascism, we will end up endorsing the other, if only unwittingly, because we have failed to so much as recognize this latter as fascist. Our anti-fascism will be stalked by its fascist twin.

Anyone wanting to come to grips with The Authoritarian Personality, then, will need to understand first how basic these transpositions are to the study of fascism. The movement’s nearest synonym has always been “national socialism,” in a manner that predates the renaming of the German Workers’ Party in 1920. So was national socialism national? Manifestly, you say, nothing is better established than that. Theorists of fascism are fond of the term “ultranationalism”—that’s a nationalism made super- and hyper- and arch-. But then what do we say about the swastika, that most recognizable of fascist emblems, incomparably more iconic than any bundle of wooden rods?—the swastika, this hermetic counter-crucifix, which, as of 1917, was still associated above all with sites in India and Baluchistan and western Turkey. The point that overfamiliarity makes hard to grasp is that every official building in Nazi Germany was adorned with an Orientalist hex sign. German troops marched under an ankh or dream-catcher, an Aryavartic pentacle that derived its talismanic charisma not from its Germanness—not, that is, from its being indigenous to Silesia or Brandenburg, which it wasn’t—but from its near-ubiquity across four continents.

The word “Aryan,” meanwhile, is not and never was an apt equivalent for “Teutonic” or “Nordic.” Even as a white-supremacist term of art, the word has always meant something like “Indo-Germanic.” It’s that hyphen we’ll want to pay attention to, informing us as it does that doctrines of the Aryan were not premised on yet another nineteenth-century sundering of the West from the non-West, but precisely on their fusing. Of all the ways of naming white people, “Aryan” has got to be the most peculiar—though “Caucasian” is plenty strange and “white” itself mere misdescription. Aryan, however, is the only entry on that list that could be suspected of negating whiteness even while exalting it. Aryan—the Eur-asian or Occi-oriental.

National socialism, then, was not straightforwardly nationalist. But was it socialist? The historians have a ready answer for that one, which is that even though some Nazi officials were willing to deploy a modified socialist rhetoric, the Nazi regime was quick to dismantle the institutions of the independent and organized working classes; to round up Leftists; and to close ranks with IG Farben and Siemens and IBM. National socialism was a capitalism dreaming of two continents.

At this point, there is a question that any anti-fascist is going to have to ask: What claims can we make about fascism that will escape transposition of this kind? That challenge gives us a few good reasons for endorsing the approach taken by Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality. The f-scale, in particular, could be grasped as a solution to this problem. But it’s more than that. Anyone still needing to be convinced of the achievements of Freudianism as a mode of political analysis could do worse than read this book, which turns to psychoanalysis in order to overcome the difficulties that have always weakened other theories, and especially to fix what has been least convincing about attempts to explain fascism in intellectual or ideological terms. To turn to psychoanalysis is to insist that there is no philosophical or merely doctrinal path to fascism—that fascism has never been a matter of the substance of one’s beliefs. It is akin to a syndrome, hence a way of inhabiting whatever creed or identification a person might have cathected to. There may not be a Protestant path to fascism, which is simply to say that some Protestants turned fascist and some didn’t, but there is a fascist way of inhabiting your Protestantism. There may not even be a nationalist path to fascism, but there is a fascist way of libidinizing your nationalism. If that point seems plausible, then the next step is simply to extend it to social history, whose results are similarly inconclusive about such matters. There is no particular social path to fascism, no economic or demographic niche that opens chute-like onto the far Right—the National Socialists were a mass party and recruited successfully from across the regions and classes and professions—but there might be a fascist way of being attached to your social position, any social position.

So that’s the achievement of the f-scale, and it’s worth sticking up for. And yet the theory fails to convinces all the same. The f-scale, too, comes apart upon the fascist antitheses. Maybe the problem is already apparent: Adorno and his colleagues have proposed a series of fixed attributes that they think makes up the fascist personality. Here’s Adorno summarizing the book’s findings at a YMCA in 1948: The proto-fascist personality type involves “mechanical acceptance of conventional values, blind submission to authority combined with a violently aggressive attitude towards all those who don’t belong, anti-introspectiveness, rigid stereotypical thinking, a penchant for superstition, a vilification of human nature, and the habit to ascribe to the out-group the wishes and behavior patterns which one has to deny in oneself.” Anyone alerted to the reversals that occur in the passage from fascism to fascism prime has got to suspect that we could just as well flip each of these character traits—name its opposite—and still find ourselves sitting across from a fascist. The f-scale describes the personality of a fascist, but then so does the anti-f scale. Handed an anti-fascist checklist by the Californians, we should be able to go through and negate each of its terms and thereby find not a non-fascism (the low scorers!), but an alternate path to fascism. Shall we just do it?

1. Conventionalism: Fascists, Adorno tells us, are deeply conformist, the prim creatures of conventional morality, quick to punish anyone who offends against a stupid decency—Victorians in leather trenchcoats. This observation might be right as far as it goes, but what it omits is that the Babbit-Nazis of Adorno’s description shared the movement with fascist revolutionaries and world remakers and proclaimers of a New Europe, with those who wanted to de-Christianize Germany, to revive a pre-Frankish religion of runes and Wotan or to forge a grossdeutscher Buddhism. Here’s Robert Brasillach, writing near the end of the war, not long before he was executed for being one of the most outspoken French Nazis: “Fascism was a spirit. For us it was not a political doctrine, nor was it an economic doctrine…. It was first of all an anticonformist, antibourgeois spirit, in which disrespect played its part.”

2. Authoritarian submission: The notion that fascists are typically submissive and obedient, meanwhile, is difficult to square with the movement’s reliance on mass mobilization—its determination to agitate and unleash the public rather than pacify it. This is often taken to be the characteristic that most obviously distinguishes fascism from a generic authoritarianism. Energy and the deed counter docility and ductility. Enthusiasm counts for as much as compliance.

3. Authoritarian aggression: The troubling sentence is this one: In fascist societies, “hostility that was originally aroused by and directed toward ingroup authorities is displaced onto outgroups.” The claim that fascists are aggressive or violence-prone is as close to a consensus position as one is likely to find. And yet to say additionally that fascists are the ones who channel their aggression towards an outgroup is drastically to understate the vehemence of their attack on existing institutions (and to skip over the very minor role that anti-Semitism played in fascist Italy for most of its duration). The problem is best grasped as a conceptual one: The fascists came to power only by declaring illegitimate the up-and-sort-of-running institutions of government and by anathematizing entire sectors of German and Italian society hitherto regarded as normal. They were wholly capable of waging war on the ingroup—or of reclassifying in- as out-. To say that aggression targets the outgroup is to skip all the urgent questions about how the social field gets cleaved and re-cleaved. Here’s another French fascist, Drieu la Rochelle, writing in 1934: “We are against everyone. We fight against everyone. That is what fascism is.”

4. Superstition and stereotypy: Superstition and stereotyping have been paired by the Berkeley authors because they both point to the inability of proto-fascists to think clearly about what is happening in the world at large and why it is happening. People susceptible to fascism are alienated in some properly Left Hegelian sense of the term—unsure of how events and institutions are produced, mired in the opacity of the social, cognitively thwarted by the complexity of networked causes. But then we have names for people who have been trained, contrariwise, to think carefully about such causes. Some of them we call “historians”; others we call “scientists.” To say that fascism thrives where causal understanding collapses is to suggest that there was no proto-fascist history-writing, in the manner, for instance, of Ernst Kantorowicz’s biography of Frederick the Second, and no fascist science either. But then, of course, we now have decades of scholarship, much of it Adornian in spirit, documenting the scientific orientation of National Socialism. That fascism requires superstition as its provender can only be maintained by someone who has never heard the term “biopolitics.”

5. Anti-intraception: The Berkeley authors make it hard to so much as register the existence of a fascist science—and then they do the same thing for fascist poetry. Proto-fascists, we are told, are uncomfortable with inwardness. They would gladly put a taboo on reflection or on the display of inner life or on psychoanalysis itself. But then are we to say nothing about Stefan George and Ezra Pound and D’Annunzio and Yeats? Was there no such thing as a fascist lyric, hence a fascist inwardness? Were the fascist and near-fascist poets not fascist when they wrote poetry? Did they only become fascist again upon putting down their pens? Are lyric poems written by fascists less lyric than ones written by liberals or socialists? Less inward? Not at all inward? But then what makes them lyric? Did Yeats not write lyric?

6 & 7. Power and “Toughness” + Sex: Then of course there’s the idea that proto-fascists are tough guys with hang-ups about sex. That idea can be dismissed by pointing to a particular person. One of Stefan George’s closest associates for a time was Alfred Schuler, a freak classicist of sub-Nietzschean caliber, who wanted nothing more than to resurrect a pagan antiquity and who thought he could do this mostly by throwing toga parties. Schuler wrote almost nothing; he was more of a counter-culture guru than an intellectual; but his central idea seems to have been that European culture was all-but permanently rent by a conflict between the male principle and the female principle, to be understood, presumably, along orthodox lines as rationality vs. irrationality, logos vs desire, activity vs. passivity, &c. Schuler thought that Europe might yet be redeemed if Westerners could agree collectively to abandon settled gender roles and embrace instead a universal androgyny. The Greeks and Romans would point the way in this regard, because they had practiced boy-love; they had been wise enough to worship the she-male. Schuler thought, in other words, that pederasty, by offering a fragile synthesis of male and female or mind and body, might just keep Europe’s primal gender conflict in check. This idea had as its extension the idea that everyday life in Europe had been thrown permanently off kilter when Roman culture went into eclipse; the Roman world had promoted androgyny; the early medieval world had reestablished rigid gender roles. And the culprits behind this almost millennial crime were, of course, the Jews, since they were one of the very few eastern Mediterranean cultures to prohibit male love, which makes of any Christianity that will not spill its seed nothing but a generalized and evangelical Judaism. Christianity, in other words, had merely propagated and enforced the homophobia of the ancient Jews. When love between men thus became taboo, so this line of reasoning ran, the Jewish spirit and its gender orthodoxies went into the ascendancy, and it was this world-historical shift that a sibylline and modernist poetry might yet undo. It matters, then, that Schuler is known to historians mostly as the person who re-introduced into modern European culture the swastika, which was to be the emblem of the Future and Genderless Age. Indeed, Schuler for a time wanted to change his name to the Hakenkreuz, a symbol with no spoken equivalent. His reasoning here was roughly like Prince’s: The dingbat under which ‘90s-era Prince released his CDs combined the classic, bathroom-door sign for Mars—hard-on north-north-east—with the classic, incongruously dangling sign for Venus, which makes his just one of several recent transgender riffs on those old gender symbols. The revived swastika, in this sense, was one of the earliest instances of the typesetter’s hermaphroditic astrology.

This leaves (8) projectivity, as the one item from the f-scale we still need to consider. I would offer that its status is special for us. It will require extra attention. The claim that Adorno and colleagues make is fairly straightforward: that anyone “ready to think about and to believe in the existence of such phenomena as wild erotic excesses, plots and conspiracies, and danger from natural catastrophes” must have a rowdy Id—they have to believe such things are likely, they must themselves feel the pull of sex and destruction. Proto-fascists are the ones ready to see in the world their own most malign impulses. The theory of projection has always been of particular interest because it is psychoanalysis’s most obviously dialectical figure, this parody of Hegelian reconciliation, in which the subject rediscovers himself in some other and then, offered the chance for self-communion, declares war on this Other-Self instead, trading in the bei sich for a fatuous gegen sich. Projection matters to us because it is via its mechanisms that fascism and anti-fascism are most directly conjoined. The American anti-democrat is alarmed by how anti-democratic everything has become. The Tea Partier circa 2011 attacks Obama by drawing a Hitler mustache on his portrait. It is at this moment, upon discovering that the people we were pretty sure were proto-fascists have adopted an anti-fascist accent, that caution recommends itself. We will want to pause, to at least wonder about the possibility of projection in our own anti-fascism, and not just in theirs. Are we sure that projection isn’t involved in our willingness to believe that other people are fascists, our finding that plausible? Is there projection in the f-scale itself? Couldn’t our diagnosis that other people are given to projection itself involve projection? And if not, why not? Under what conditions can anti-fascism itself carry a fascism?

It’s at this moment that we’ll need to look up from The Authoritarian Personality and go back to The Dialectic of Enlightenment. It used to be taken as given that fascism was a movement of the counter-enlightenment; no book has done more to alter that perception than Adorno and Horkheimer’s. It can come as a surprise, then, to realize that Adorno and Horkheimer weren’t actually disagreeing with that earlier claim. New readers are going to understand The Dialectic of Enlightenment better if they can see that it takes that other, prior point as read. The word that we usually omit when summarizing the book is “also.” Adorno and Horkheimer thought they could show that fascism was also an Enlightenment project, that fascism had a disastrous way of getting the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment to coincide—or that any organized enlightenment eventually reached a point where it could no longer be distinguished from counter-enlightenment. That’s the dialectic in the title—without the word also there is no dialectic. The title always has to be heard as The Dialectic of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, which they mostly call myth.

The problem, then, is that the book almost only gets read as “Enlightenment critique”—indeed, it is often held out as the twentieth century’s single greatest entry in that genre. But maybe it’s time to admit that “Enlightenment critique” is an intemperate simplification and pretty much a mistake, in which most of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument gets shorn away. Enlightenment critique is The Dialectic of Enlightenment de-dialecticized. One forgets the starting point, which was that fascism had presented itself above all as counter-enlightenment. Not in the Dialectic of Enlightenment itself, but among its readers, and on the syllabi in which it is excerpted, the counter-enlightenment that is the closest thing that fascism had to an official ideology gets held out as the authentically anti-fascist option. In this form, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, far from being the centerpiece of anti-fascist philosophy that we need it to be, becomes the vehicle by which a certain proto-fascist sensibility has been kept alive in the extended postwar era, in which one important version of the fascist temptation survives because disguised as its opposite.

Recognizing as much should help us see at last why it is important that we not accept the framework offered by the Berkeley team in The Authoritarian Personality—because it is in the pages on the f-scale that Adorno signs his name to the non-dialectical version of his own dialectical argument. It is in this volume that dialectic gets truncated back to diagnosis. It is finally hard to agree with the West Coast Adorno if we accept that the f-scale was meant to identify proto-fascists and not just company men. The mind pauses and reflects. Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes. Two American thinkers share credit for coining the term alternative right: 1) the elderly intellectual historian who gave a speech in 2008 commending a movement less egalitarian than Fox News, the Republican Party, and the Heritage Foundation, welcoming a conservatism willing once again to embrace scientific racism and to stop pretending it admires Martin Luther King; and 2) the young intellectual historian who edited that speech for publication online. In the 1980s, the older man wrote a book cataloging all the philosophical prizes that Hegelian-Marxist apostates bring with them when they convert to anti-communism. Twenty years later, his fond reminiscences of taking a class with Herbert Marcuse in the early 1960s are matched by the tributes he writes to Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance. First one reads this: “There were … Frankfurt School texts that I found instructive, particularly Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics.” And then one reads this: “Which American party stands for the white counterinsurgency? … Significantly, the white solidarity that Jared advocates has never really developed in Western history outside of colonial settlements and in the American South.” At least one early member of the Frankfurt School spent his later career refunctioning a concept of Marx’s, the Asiatic mode of production, into a bludgeon with which to thump the Reds. Frankfurt School accounts of the administered society are joined by neo-Confederates who define the enemy as “the managerial society” or borderline fascists who can tell you all about the “therapeutic managerial state.” The day you first read Guy Debord was the day you should have realized not only that you could practice détournement, but also that it could be practiced upon you, that the cultures susceptible to jamming include your anti-fascist own. In November 2016, that younger intellectual historian addressed a room full of white nationalists. “Hail our people!” he said. “Hail victory!” He wrote his master’s thesis on Adorno.


A few notes:


•The book that argues most openly for fascism-as-process-and-sequence (idea, movement, regime) is Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism. The French fascists are quoted in Zeev Sternhell’s Birth of Fascist Ideology. Jack Jacobs quotes Adorno speaking at the YMCA in his Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Anti-Semitism. The material on Schuler I owe to Robert Norton’s Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle.

•I talked this argument through with friends and co-thinkers at a roundtable at Hunter College in November 2016. Special thanks are due Robyn Marasco for organizing “The Authoritarian Personality, Revisited.” Thanks, too, to Eric Kurlander.

A South Wind Blowing from the East

An essay from boundary 2 online

What comes to mind when a writer says that he means to comment upon “the South”? Anyone sitting in North America is likely to hear that term, if not further specified, as referring to the southern United States, what we might for now call “Alabama etcetera,” though this is hardly the phrase’s only possible designatum. The other region now routinely denominated “the South”—the other region, I mean, that routinely earns that otherwise ungrammatical capital S—isn’t actually a region at all, but a name for what used to be called “the Third World” or “the developing countries” or “the colonies”: the Global South. The American South, the Global South—as soon as one sees those two terms in the same paragraph, questions start humming. Why does the former Third World bear the same name as Georgia and the Carolinas? Do these have anything to do with one another, conceptually or concretely? Do our perceptions of one bleed into our perceptions of the other? In what sense are they all southern? What are we attributing to a region when we call it southern? Is there such a thing as southness?

With these questions in front of us, I’d like to state a few propositions forthrightly—propositions, in the first instance, about the US South, which might or might not open up to include the global South, too. There are two propositions that I suspect I can get a person to agree with directly, without coaxing, and then a third that will in all likelihood require further elaboration and reflection. I’m going to share a few observations about “the South,” but with the proviso that I mean the phrase and not the place. What I’m wondering is what it means to call some expanse of territory “the South.”

What I need us to see first is that the word “South” is, in the US context and probably most others besides, entirely optional. You might imagine yourself reading these words in Tennessee somewhere, west of the Appalachians. We often refer to that patch of the planet as “the South,” but we could and do call it other things. A person might for instance, feel a certain attachment to the region marked out in burnt orange here…

The full essay is here.

We Thinkers from the Gilt-Edged Margins

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A critical theory that has gotten serious about politics has only one question left to answer. Having convinced another semester’s worth of young philosophers to grant a conceptual priority to non-identity or Becoming, how are these now to become real in the world? What kind of institutions are needed to safeguard non-identity, and not just in thought? Does Becoming recommend some practices over others? Who are that concept’s proper bearers? Critical theory in the US has largely been a fight over this last—over who gets to count as devenir’s chosen agents and avatars—over which identity position can most convincingly pose as its antithesis, as non-identitarian. Queer people? Black people? Diaspora Jews? All migrants? And yet the candidates proposed by radical philosophy’s master thinkers have generally been rather different from these. Their stated preferences have been not for this or that group, but for certain institutions—for free markets or for empire and often for both; the empire of Becoming will help install the non-identity market. The pied noir philosopher sends an old classmate a nineteen-page letter defending French colonial society in Algeria and then publishes a landmark attack on anti-imperial anthropology—an attack which counts among its core claims the notion that indigenous people are fully as violent as the Europeans who have subjugated them. That book’s most famous accomplishment is to declare a certain civilizational technology, unevenly distributed across the planet, a universal term and thereby to render strictly unnameable non-civilizational and decolonized alternatives to it. The theorists of the rootstock, meanwhile, write a jubilant prose in praise of, first, those English nomads who know how to inhabit the whole world by “pitching their tents over the sea”; second, any social formation able to “expand, conquer, capture”; third, Africans who fantasize about being beaten by French settlers. Hardt and Negri, for their part, have simply ejected peasants and the indigenous from the ranks of the multitude; the universal, in their hands, becomes the universal-minus-two. Derrida says that people attached to their localities are conceptually “primitive” and asks on these grounds that we not criticize the mass media, since with any luck the phantasmatic abstraction that these generate will produce “dislocation” in people too attached to place. Hollywood and television will displace the natives. A question thus becomes poseable: Should you still speak of “Western metaphysics” if those you consider most duped by it live outside the West? In “White Mythology,” Derrida says that language has as its corollary or nearest equivalent the (market) economy. Nothing escapes the market; nothing ever has; nothing ever will. Everything is subject to “the general law of value”; such was the great insight of Saussure, as presumably of Jevons before him. We have to think of words as a kind of currency, then, always in motion, always fluctuating, constantly assigned new meanings or values. Attempts to think positions outside of the marketplace are doomed either because markets are entire and comprehensive or because the principles of the market are embedded in language itself, even in those regions that lack commodity exchange. Look backwards: Near the beginning of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida objects to the king who thinks he can set prices, offering in his place a writing that cannot help but circulate freely, beyond all possibility of regulation. Look forward: Derrida finishes Given Time by arguing against the Aristotelians who think that economies should be ordered according to some non-economic conception of the good. We should pledge ourselves instead to the not-really “bad infinity” of “chrematistics”—the ungoverned accumulation of wealth—because commerce, like writing, is what “opens” the household; it is the “threshold” that teaches us to look beyond the family. International trade is therefore just another version of the gift or “hospitality,” of welcoming into the home something that wasn’t originally there: a high-tea cake stand handmade in India; a fringed shoulder bag whose kaleidoscope-and-bearded-iris print was woven by widows in Guatemala; a batik wall hanging. This Levinasian neoliberalism finds its counterpart in the Harvard professor who, having helped introduce Totality and Infinity to the study of Latin American literature, recommends to the keepers of alterity that they “consider medieval England, where Normans were wise enough to know that they ruled a nation of foreigners”; or to consider the “Moslem empires,” who have “traditionally been hosts to the cultural differences that Christendom does not abide.” Critical theory names itself here as the expertise of invaders, a program for the wise rule of foreigners—not as the fresh round of decolonization you were taught to expect, but as an alternate imperialism. But then who didn’t know this already? Critical theory has long been characterized by a vocabulary of openness, plurality, globalizing flows, and flexible networks that we would have easily recognized as neoliberal and Americanizing in any context other than our own. Anyone surprised to find Foucault arguing that no-one has a right to health care simply wasn’t paying attention. The other name for neoclassical economics is “marginalism.”


The ideological valences of critical theory are routinely inverted. This is often to be welcomed. There is nothing discreditable about those old Marxist glosses on Roland Barthes or anti-colonial deployments of Derrida, as oblivious to their source texts as such rejiggings inevitably are. It is a kind of hygiene to be able to read Nietzsche and not see a single-minded neo-aristocrat or to read Heidegger and think only that you should switch to free-range eggs. Rare is the philosophy that cannot be improved by inattention. But why would we believe that arguments only get flipped in one direction, further on down the road towards emancipation and equity? It is fairly easy, after all, to show how specific theoretical schools become what they claim to negate. Any new concept that allows people to speak hitherto unspoken claims—to write fresh sentences and form fresh sets—will become available, automatically, for purposes other than the ones to which it was first put. Manifestos against consumer capitalism furnish pretexts for less consumerist modes of capitalism or, more often, for un-massified modes of consumption. Queer theory mutates into sex discourse the same day we teach it—back in the dorm, that very afternoon. Postcolonial theorists can only convince themselves that they are carrying on the work of Fanon and Cabral as long as they don’t read their counterparts in history, whose most successful tactic these last twenty years now has been to recycle the arguments of Bhabha, Chakrabarty, and others as liberal justifications for European expansion. Postcolonial theory has summoned as its twin an apologetics in which every incursion is an “encounter,” every confiscation a “new opportunity,” every colony a distended “border”—a zone of “cultural contact,” all membrane, no cell. One historian refers to invasion as “armed immigration.” An introductory course on postcolonial writing begins in an anti-political mode, by recommending that its students set aside “the blunt tools of violence and political rabble rousing” in favor of the “complex identities” on display in literature. But not just in literature: A historian at Vassar, two-time winner of the Bancroft Prize, sets out to overturn the anti-imperial history-writing of the 1960s and ‘70s by showing how “polyphonic” the North American colonies were and offers a few complex identities as evidence: the British baronet who directed the Irish overseer to dress his African chattel in Iroquois drag. A Cambridge anthropologist, meanwhile, director of that university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, wants you to know that Pacific islanders have always been “cosmopolitan” and offers as his second example of their sophistication three men who were kidnapped by the Spanish near Papua New Guinea in the early 1500s—three non-Europeans, that is, who became world-travelers only because they were abducted. The just society is a multiethnic slave plantation. Worldliness is a good even at swordpoint. Any institutional description of critical theory in the academy would have to flag the predictability with which such transpositions occur. It is no use, at this moment, thinking back to your mentor and knowing her to be righteous. The vocabulary we devise to describe the redeemed society will furnish others with the language they need to justify afresh the protocols of the administered world. This is the service critical theory provides. Every Foucault gets his Ewald.


It has become common for intellectual historians to point out that Marxists give a distorted picture of the long seventeenth century. Almost no-one in that period, they say, was sticking up for commerce or what we would call capitalism. Inherited political discourses simply provided no language with which to justify commercial life, which means that there was no “bourgeois ideology” in early modern England, and the Marxists are wrong to see it there, hiding under every republican rock. There may have been capitalism, but there was no system of capitalist belief. That point seems right as far as it goes, but is misleading all the same, because it badly misunderstands how ideology usually works. Ideology typically has the structure of a disowning, and not just in the seventeenth century. Capitalism-without-strong-capitalist-beliefs names the ordinary condition of modern societies. Only in exceptional cases has ideology ever offered a full-throated defense of the marketplace. Indeed, most of what we think of as “bourgeois culture” names the middle class’s distinctive ways of protecting itself from capitalism—its commitment to family and home; a certain way of enjoying the arts—which quickly leads one to the conclusion that not even the historical bourgeoisie has embraced capitalism or thought of the market as a place one could happily live. It does not much matter, then, that commodity exchange is Derrida’s uncamouflaged druthers or that A Thousand Plateaus reads like it was co-authored by Kipling. Nor does it matter that critical theory is full of conceptual displacements and dignifying proxies, verbal sublimations that, when parsed back to their real-world and institutional coordinates, mostly end up meaning “expanding markets” all over again, though if you already know that “freedom” and “democracy” and “human rights” are neoliberalism-by-another-name, then you are well placed to see that “dissemination” and “deterritorialization” and “the rhizome” are, too. Critical theory’s most significant ideological work has not been to enforce a set of basically metropolitan commitments, entrepreneurial and buccaneering, but to license a set of false disidentifications from same. The problem is not that we read Derrida and thereby become neoliberals, but that we take our reading of Derrida—or Rancière or José Muñoz—as sufficient evidence that we aren’t. One of the forms that power takes in a mature capitalist society is the professional class’s ability to build bulwarks against capital itself: respites and pseudo-negations. A history of bourgeois disavowal is underway; the challenge is to name its changing forms, from domesticity to aestheticism to … critique.


What if we started from the simple fact that critical theory is now a predictable part of a college education for twenty-year-olds who aspire to be professionals, that the works of Agamben and Badiou are mostly housed in (protected and subsidized by) institutions of the state and of status? The first thing a sociologist will tell you about the professions is that they are much larger than they were a century ago. There are more professions—more ways to be a professional, more lines that count as professional—and there are many more people in them, even in relative numbers, more people, that is, whose station involves being highly educated, whose work requires them to showcase that education, and who have at best limited patience with bosses. Even in the administered society, one mode of unadministered labor has continued to grow, and Adornian attacks on administration, mostly silent on the professions anyway, are perhaps best understood as the spontaneous ideology of self-directed work, a further blessing bestowed upon the favored and the exempt—on the understanding, however, that “the exempt” make up an expanding class fraction, and not, as the ideology itself requires, a declining one. The proponents of a creative capitalism, meanwhile—those professors of management who advise rust-belt cities to use gay people as economic bait—write a prose that is sometimes hard to distinguish from Adorno’s own. If you want to understand the current state of critical theory, you could do worse than ask which of the following sentences I’ve taken from Minima Moralia and which from management consulting: “Capitalism has also expanded its reach to capture the talents of heretofore excluded groups of eccentrics and nonconformists. … The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He … is the new mainstream.” “New structures for systematically eliciting and applying creativity … have become ingrained features of our economic life.” “We insist that all our workers contribute their minds.” You can object that the work of Richard Florida and others is ideology—that it is out to instrumentalize fugitive thought—and you’d be right. But it is this objection that is the more thoroughly ideological position, refusing as it does to face the existence of a post-managerial capitalism as a social fact in its own right, as all the evidence one needs, in fact, that fugitive thought is instrumentalizable. Florida is right in a way that most of his critics are not—the ones who think that the alternative and interdisciplinary humanities exist at Princeton but outside of exchange society, the ones who think that because they are not interested in capital, capital is not interested in them.

But then are the anti-capitalists really not interested in capital? The most consequential mistake that casual readers of Bourdieu ever made was to consider him a theorist of high culture in some settled sense of that term, mandarin and European, a theorist, that is, of the concert hall and the sculpture garden, of the art novel and the opera cape. But Bourdieu’s argument, however keyed to the empirie of France in the 1960s, holds only that culture tends to stratify, that social actors will usually elevate some cultural modes (and forms of intellection) at the expense of others. It does not say that the elevated term has to be Chopin. Indeed, there is zero reason to think that eliminating mazurkas (or piano lessons or Henry James or even literature as a category) would overturn cultural capital, any more than eliminating the franc has overturned money. One might, it’s true, wonder how cultural capital has survived the last half century’s apotheosis of pop, the rollback of the old patrician-bourgeois culture of the West, postmodernism’s putative muddling of low and high. But the sociologists have gone and checked, and the answers are not hard to find: Fancy people are now more likely to consume culture indiscriminately, that is, to congratulate themselves on the expansiveness of their tastes; indistinction has become distinction. They are more likely to prefer foreign culture to their own, at least in some who-wants-takeout? kind of way. And they are more likely to enjoy culture analytically and ironically, belligerently positing a naïve consumer whose imagined immersion in the object will set off everything in their own approach that is suavely arms-length and slaunchwise. Such, point for point, is the ethos of the new-model English department: of cultural studies, new media, the expanded canon, of theory-courses-without-objects. To bring new types of artifacts into literature departments is not to destroy cultural capital. It is merely to allow new things to start functioning as wealth. Even here, the claim to novelty can be overstated, since it is enough to read Bourdieu to know that the claim to interpret and demystify has always been an especially heady form of symbolic power. The ingenious reading confers distinction, as do sundry bids to fix the meanings of the social. Critical theory is cultural capital. Citing Judith Butler is one of the ways in which professional people outside the academy understand and justify their own elevation. Bickering recreationally about the politics of zombie movies is just what lawyers and engineers now do.


Scholarship is possible only because learned people need not fight the fights that criss-cross whatever patch of the world they study and because they are not in competition for that field’s distinctive goods. The biggest advantage they possess is that they can come and go as they please. The ecologist will leave the cloud forest before the semester starts. The anthropologist was in Brazil for rather less long than you had imagined. The sociologist won’t even spend the night in Cabrini Green. Likewise, the ethnographer determined to figure out how a particular cluster of villages distributes its yams needn’t amass any, any more than the botanist counting tamarisks is tempted to divert their CO2 for her own personal use. One wonders whether critical theory—this committed thinking, this liberation philosophy—is any different on this score. Is there, in addition to the scholastic point of view, a critical one? Critical theory is perfectly capable, of course, of neutralizing situations in conventionally scholastic ways. Derrida’s differance and deferral, Deleuze’s virtual, Agamben’s potentiality—these all demand that I withdraw from context and conjuncture, that I cognitively bracket any entanglement I might have with this actuality or with this organization of the social, in a manner that presumes leisure and distance—ie, that I can afford so to withdraw. The same could be said of the utopian, the messianic, the open horizon of the future, or the not-yet—and that list could doubtless be extended. Any critical theorist who offers to liberate you via play is confident that you don’t have more pressing business.

Non-involvement, however, is what critical theory most shares with ordinary scholarship. What makes critical theory distinctive is its determination to pantomime the involvement that its scholasticism has already precluded. The critical point of view is the scholastic view that doesn’t take itself to be scholastic, that strikes a set of anti-academic poses while preserving all the core features of academic vision. If the scholar is the one who renders a field legible by suspending its interests and stakes, the critical theorist is the one who pretends that all stakes enter his thinking intact. The critical point of view is what induces us to habitually misdescribe a given colleague’s attitudes and expressed judgments as her “politics” or to write about Spinoza and think that we are thereby writing about matter. The critical theorist, indeed, renovates all the old idealist arguments by translating them into a speciously materialist idiom—materiality, yes, but “of language”; politics, yes, but “of representation”; violence, yes, but “of the concept.” We know now to write the word “bodies” where twenty years ago we would have written “subjects”—and then we go ahead and make all the old arguments about subjects anyway. The wholly accurate insight into the interestedness of philosophy—that all philosophy has a politics—reverses itself into the sluggish conviction that writing philosophy is all the politics one needs. Some scholars, the critical ones, make a claim and think it’s a gesture. They retire to their writing carrels and call it an intervention. It is one kind of prerogative to be able to write about a discourse or culture or social scene and not be bound by its rules, not to have to get something done in it—to not be in the game. It is a second prerogative, derived from this first, to be able electively to treat that deactivated field as though it were still running on live current.


The answer to a theory this uncritical would be an un-critical theory.

A Very German Story



A few thoughts about Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800-2000, edited by Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)


Here is as straightforward an argument as Adorno ever made: If you wish to find an art that is adequate to mass death—an art, that is, that can do right by the Apache in the 1880s and the Armenians in the 1910s and the Palestinians now—you have a few different options. You might consider a documentary and testimonial art, one that gets the word out, peeling back blankets of denial and obfuscation and palm-bearing oblivion—a “photograph of the disaster” was Adorno’s name for such a thing. That might do, but better would be an art capable of giving voice to anguish and not just of tabulating it—an art that rather than producing a set of paraphrasable propositions about suffering actually made its audience ache, a sorrowing art, then, literature as paid mourner. Better still would be an art of “incomprehensible horror”—this is still Adorno—and on the simple grounds that a tale of terror is more likely to rattle you than an exposé or maudlin vignette. Nothing will go as far to dent our perception of Adorno as fussy Brahmin than his embrace of Gothic literature, this one precious genre that puts violence on display and allows it to be horrible. The enormities of empire and a capitalism-without-pretenses do not in fact require that we abandon all of our storytelling conventions, that we start art over again from gory scratch, since we already have at our disposal a narrative form that forces us to say who is dying and how and at whose hands: scary movies and the weird menace of the pulps. Such is the art due Guatemala in the 1980s or the biped chattel of a former Alabama. They keep telling you that you can’t write poetry after Auschwitz, but no-one ever said you couldn’t re-make Blood Feast.

But then perhaps Adorno’s argument is after all not so very straightforward. It has always been possible to think of horror stories as an exercise in truth-telling and consciousness-raising, with fear functioning as the bearer of moral judgments, usurping the role that sentimental fiction more typically reserves for tears. Sometimes you cry in the face of something you know to be wrong, something whose wrongness does not need to be argumentatively demonstrated to you. And sometimes, equally, you blench or panic, and you do so, when watching a film, not because you fear for yourself, but because you fear for another; at such moments, yours is an ethical fear, not panic, but companic. Slasher movies simply make more sense if you approach them as stunned enquiries into male violence, rather than as grisly cheerings of same. And yet the horror art that Adorno is proposing as commensurate with fascism and occupation and your administered life does not, in fact, work that way; it is no longer on the continuum with activist journalism or moral sense theory. The “radically darkened art” that Adorno is proposing must do something more “than merely protest”; we need an art, rather, that “has taken the disaster into itself” and that “identifies with it,” an art, indeed, that “has defected to the enemy”—not horror, but gonzo horror. If we follow this line, we will actually have to relinquish most ghost stories and vampire movies for being plain-vanilla Gothic. Horror fiction, which respectable readers usually think of as out-there and round-the-bend, now stands accused of having never gone far enough. The Gothic is itself scared of something, permanently recoiling from its own dismal consequence.

A counter-intuitive argument, no doubt. So why might a person come to this conclusion about the Gothic? In what aberrant circumstances does horror fiction itself seem squeamish? Such is the utility of one collection of recent scholarly articles about weird fiction in Germany; the dozen contributors to Popular Revenants make clear just how much timorous philosophizing the rubric of the Gothic makes possible. This dispersed volume’s uniting arguments are threefold: that horror fiction is cosmopolitan; that it broadcasts enlightenment (and not the demonic counter-enlightenment you might have expected); and that it does so in perpetuity, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and so not just in the decades of a flourishing and self-conscious Romanticism). Let’s take each of these claims in turn.

The Gothic is cosmopolitan. The volume is subtitled “The German Gothic and its International Reception,” and its biggest innovation is right there after the colon. It has to be said: “The German Gothic” is a puzzling term, though not much more so than the designator “Gothic” by itself, since this last was originally an ethnic and geographical term (a name for the Germanic tribes of central and eastern Europe in the period of the Roman Empire), which then mutated into a periodizing term naming not peoples but centuries (a name for the Middle Ages almost anywhere in Europe), before mutating again to describe a group of eerie, late eighteenth-century novels whose most famous examples are set in neither the Middle Ages nor Germany. The problem in the present case is that “Gothic” is a word that some English readers once used to describe fictions that struck them as in some ill-defined sense “Germanic,” but then this last word is one that no German writer (or literary historian) can meaningfully self-apply, since one rather expects German writing to come across as Germanic. All German literature is Gothic, and the term “German Gothic” thus becomes a redundancy, akin to calling a novel “Teutono-Allemanic.” But then German literary history has for that very reason never really taken to the term, preferring to speak of Schauerliteratur or Räuberromane or more recently of Horrorliteratur. There is no gotische Literatur, or if there is, it involves twig-writing on amulets and might have been invented by Odin. And yet from out of this muddle, the editors of Popular Revenants have managed to extract an argument or affirmative program. They know that the term “German Gothic” is largely their own creation, and they know, too, what a casual reader is likely to miss—that the term “Gothic” makes this literature in some sense less German and not more so, flagging the affiliations between uncanny writing in German and such writing in other languages, especially English. E. T. A. Hoffmann becomes in the uptake more of a French writer than a German one. In 1786, a German novelist translates from the English an extravagantly plotted historical romance and goes on to write a few novels of her own in that acquired vein. In the 1790s, these are translated into English in turn, by which point they get to count as echt deutsch. Popular Revenants is never more convincing than when establishing the Gothic as a pan-European mode and when establishing the brief centrality of Germany to a literature that you might have remembered as being set mostly in Spain and Italy. For a few decades in the early nineteenth century, when readers were eagerly buying “tales of the northern nations,” it was not uncommon for an English novelist to claim that a novel was hers when it was actually translated from the German or to claim that it was a translation from the German when it was actually hers: “A Very German Story.” The term “Gothic” might be ethnic-tribal, but a nationalist account of Gothic literature will not do. Victor Frankenstein travels to Bavaria and Scotland and the Arctic; the Transylvanian noble stows away on a ship bound for the Yorkshire coast; nineteenth-century Gothic novels were themselves on the move, widely translated and written in many languages anyway. The most famous thing the ancient Goths ever did was cross the Danube.

The Gothic is enlightened. This claim is also true and might even be truer than you think. Nearly the first lesson that any student of the Gothic learns is that the genre comes in two forms: the supernatural kind, in which the bogeys and demons are real, and the demystifying kind, in which the goblins all turn out to be Jesuits. We know to call that second kind of Gothic enlightened, but the first is hardly less so, and both wobble with paradox. The villains of the demystifying Gothic are those who use terror to shore up their authority—priests, political operatives, gaslighting Machiavels—but then the ranks of such fear-preachers would have to include Gothic novelists themselves, who find themselves saying both that there is nothing to be scared of and that one should stand aghast at anyone who tells you different. That you should fear those who try to instill fear into you is a sentiment that will always indict its speaker. The supernatural Gothic, meanwhile, might seem irrational or anti-scientific, in that it asks its readers to credit a still occult world, and yet the heroes of such fictions are typically out to defeat everything magical, to reduce the paranormal back to the normal, and whenever they succeed the enchanted Gothic outs itself as disenchantment by other means. Protestants and liberals and London lawyers learn just enough Church Latin to make the vampire go away. Even counter-enlightenment is made to serve the purposes of the enlighteners.

For current purposes, the important point is that this last sentence could serve equally well as a summary of Popular Revenants, whose authors tell us more than once that Schauerromane were products of “the late Enlightenment” or that the Gothic was “firmly rooted in a dominant strand of [the] late Enlightenment.” It’s just that the wisdom that the literary critics have extrapolated from these strange fictions still sounds a lot like counter-Enlightenment: that the “supposedly solid enlightened subject” is easily “deranged”; that humans have difficulties “thinking of themselves as coherent subjects”; that the Enlightenment itself needs “testing out.” One of the volume’s major aims is thus to undo the distinction between Enlightenment and Enlightenment critique, simply by reassigning to the former the insights of the latter. Adorno and Horkheimer took something rather like this to be one of enlightenment’s most alarming features—that rational argument would be impossible to outrun, that even opposition to enlightenment would be obliged henceforth to offer itself as enlightenment. Popular Revenants takes this obligation to be a virtue, and the Gothic of its making comes to us as a basically Kantian exercise—that’s the “late” in “late Enlightenment”—an enlightened culture’s candid reflection on its own limits and failures. Kafka and Poe cordially request that you not overdo it with the Diderot.

The Gothic is not a period in literary history, but an enduring strand that runs throughout modern storytelling. Nearly half the volume’s contributions have been arranged in service of this point, demonstrating the persistence of the macabre in the German realism of Wilhelm Raabe or Theodor Fontane; in the German modernism of early twentieth-century Prague or Weimar cinema; in postmodern novels of German reunification (by Christa Wolf and Irina Liebmann). It is perhaps confounding that the editors would think it needful to relitigate a case already made by sundry historians of supernatural fiction. Indeed, an English-speaking reader is more likely to have been told at some point that it was realism, and not the Gothic, that has been strangely absent from German literary history—that what the German nineteenth century lacked was an Austen or a Dickens or a Balzac or a Zola, some realist so formidable that I can count on your knowing their name. Anyone reading in translation might even get the impression that German literature has only ever been fantastic, an unbroken sequence of plays about the devil, stories about robot women, and novellas about bug-men, with the not-quite-literary, but wholly Gothic, figures of Wagner and Nietzsche occupying the late nineteenth-century slots where one might have expected to find Flaubert and Tolstoy.

So why tell us all over again that the Gothic has never gone away? The collection’s three main claims have to be considered together: The German Gothic has been cosmopolitan, enlightened, and perpetual. Taken singly, none of these observations is wrong, but conjoined they present an image of the Gothic as accommodating and ecumenical, at home in every literary style and period, mediating an accord between enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, itinerant across Europe to ensure the peace of nations. What the editors have done, then, is crafted a Gothic wholly without conflict or adversary, a horror fiction that wants to be everybody’s friend. And then that, tailored to our prejudices, is the squeamish Gothic that Adorno was trying to identify and surpass. It is also a Gothic remodeled on the example of critical theory itself, an international conversation about the impasses and injuries of the rationalized world—international, but with Germans taking the lead. It’s just that this confluence both confirms many of Adorno’s core arguments and oddly robs them of their force. In Popular Revenants, we read that the Gothic is amenable to “transfer,” like money into a bank account or executives reposted to Singapore. We are told that other Europeans have always undertaken a “commerce with German letters.” A Gothic commodity of this kind has precisely not gone over to the enemy, but is obligingly doing the work of the neo-Kantian angels. German monsters cross borders, but only in the manner of Berlin philosophers guest-lecturing at American universities. A horror fiction this worldly and liberal-minded betrays its own anxieties and above all its fear of the provincial: the dialect tale, the hatchet-waving redneck, the untranslated book. Here, then, is my proposal, a general one, a learnable method, not confined to Popular Revenants: Whenever someone offers you a definition of the Gothic, invert it—say clearly what this version of the Gothic is not, what it is rejecting or cannot accommodate. Strip the Gothic of what a given critic thinks makes it respectable and in that negation you will find a second Gothic, a horror prime secreted in its spooky base. If someone tells you that the Gothic is cosmopolitan and enlightened, it’s not so hard to figure out that they are scared of something, which is that it is neither. But then of course the idea of a multinational and semi-illuminated Gothic is not simply an error. Sometimes the cosmopolitans who wear their enlightenment lightly really are the scary ones. In British West Africa, colonial administrators thought it was their job to protect indigenous societies from precipitate modernization and ruled them tenaciously to that end. The team-leaders of a bohemianized capitalism don’t like the old corporate managers any more than Adorno himself did; they will speak to you of “flexibility” and “creativity,” and what they will mean is that you are going to have to be accommodating, adaptable; that you can never say no; that you will never stop working. If you make horror fiction sound like a measured version of critical theory, as this book does, then it is only a matter of time before readers will think to ask where critical theory has been most horrifying. Somebody, somewhere feels stalked by ghastly Habermasians.

Against Joy, Part 3

Deleuze Lamennais 4-A


But as ever in such matters, a philosophy, once disavowed, leaves only its worst features behind, its intellectual sludge. Let us take the tally of two important passages from Empire, just to see what they yield. First, there is a passage early in Empire where Hardt and Negri take up a salutary distance from Marx and an old-fashioned Marxist stagism. In particular, they want to do away with any Marxist defense of imperialism, as in: It’s a good thing after all that the British are colonizing India, because colonialism, brutal though it may be, is rooting out Oriental despotism and thus establishing the preconditions for communism. Second, there is the following oddly discursive exclamation: “How hollow the rhetoric of the [early U.S.] Federalists would have been and how inadequate their own ‘new political science’ had they not presupposed [the] vast and mobile threshold of the frontier!” Hardt and Negri, it is important to understand, are sticking up for the idea of the frontier. This sentence comes as part of a long description of the first phase of American constitutionalism, from the Revolution to the Civil War, the Jeffersonian moment, the collective self-making of a frontier society, and the thread that runs through these pages is that whatever has been best about the American experiment depends on the frontier. It is what lends early American politics credibility. Hardt and Negri celebrate the young United States because it was “constantly open to new lines of flight.”

It is necessary, I think, to read these two passages together because in concert they will seem strange and symptomatic where individually each might get overlooked. Hardt and Negri accuse Marx of a certain Eurocentrism and then go off and emulate the master on just this unfortunate point, in precisely the same form. What does it mean to celebrate the frontier? Hardt and Negri make much of the unbounded and open territory of North America:

From the perspective of the new United States, the obstacles to human development are posed by nature, not history—and nature does not present insuperable antagonisms or fixed social relationships. It is a terrain to transform and traverse.

Here, then, is the Marxist defense of colonization, preemptively recanted but unscathed for all that. Need it even be pointed out any longer that the notion of the American continent as “nature,” a wilderness without history, is little more than a murderous cliché, a mental smallpox? Hardt and Negri are claiming that it was the business of colonialism to bring the multitude to the Americas, to unleash its creative potentials in a way that housebound Europeans—but also Indians—could not; “to transform and traverse” nature, where tribal society had merely made an accommodation with it. There’s more in this vein:

The frontier is a frontier of liberty. … Across the great open spaces the constituent tendency wins out over the constitutional decree, the tendency of the immanence of the principle over regulative reflection, and the initiative of the multitude over the centralization of power.

It is the notion of “great open spaces” that is hard to read past. Hardt and Negri turn on its head one of the commonplaces of Marxist history-writing by preferring the American Revolution to the French, holding it out as the Left’s proper spur and model. The problem is that their entire account of the United States depends on this notion of open space, which they sometimes hedge—“empty (or emptied)”—but which they usually just repeat. It has to be said: The notion of “open space” is simply a lie, and I’m not sure what we gain from treating it any differently. Or rather, I think I know what we gain, but the gain itself is disheartening. What we gain is the Deleuzian world of the multitude, the smooth, open world of flows and unconstricted movement. But then what Hardt and Negri are secretly conceding in those parentheses is that the world is never smooth; it must be made smooth. The world is not open, it must be opened, which is to say evacuated. This is where their covert Hegelianism does its scariest work. What Deleuze tends to describe as though it were an ontological guarantee is actually the outcome of contingent and lethal historical processes—or maybe Hardt and Negri would say that they are not contingent, but then they really have written a Philosophy of History. The multitude—and not just empire (or Empire)—has mass death as its historical precondition. In order for Hardt and Negri’s philosophical argument to be true—in order for it to come true in the really-existing world—Indian removal has to happen first.

One might say in Hardt and Negri’s defense that they don’t shrug off mass death; they point right to it. The indigenous, they note, “existed outside the Constitution as its negative foundation”; republicanism in practice was actually pretty bruising. But then, of course, Marx makes the same concession for India. The problem is that they don’t let this admission exert any pressure on the lines of their argument. They include a few sentences on the American holocaust as though merely mentioning demonstrated due historical diligence and then go on to write sentences that seem predicated on its not having happened after all. If you want to face up to the history of colonization, however, you have at least two options: You might say, as Hardt and Negri’s scheme seems to require, that the Indians were the necessary victims of a Hegelian world history of the multitude, which began its highest stage in the Americas, where the (European) multitude-in-itself became the multitude-for-itself, the self-producing subject/object of history. Even Lukács would blush.

Alternately, you can get used to the idea that the material history of the extermination unmasks American republicanism as self-deceiving. Hardt and Negri’s embrace of the Machiavellian or Jeffersonian republican is their philosophy’s weakest strut, depending as it does on an utterly untenable antithesis between republicanism and sovereignty. Hardt and Negri have a lot riding on classical republicanism, the republicanism of Florence and the revolutionary Atlantic; it is supposed to provide autonomia with the dignity of historical precedence, which is also to say that it is supposed to wean today’s social-democratic Left of its fatal attachment to the state.  But this republicanism was itself never anything less than imperialist, a republicanism of dispossession and the plantation. Early English republicanism was a species of political economy. Its most distinctive feature was a theory of agrarian virtue, which argued that a flourishing polity would draw on the capacities of all its citizens. In order for those capacities to remain intact, however, citizens would have to cling to their autonomy, to steer clear of the corrupting ties of commercial and political dependence. And if citizens were to remain autonomous, each would need a plot of land to cultivate; crops and livestock would be the guarantee of economic and thus political independence. This means that republicanism thought of itself from the very beginning as expansive, as requiring ever more land to produce ever greater numbers of virtuous citizens, and when we consult the history books on this score, we find many different versions of the republican land-grab: we find England’s seventeenth-century radicals taking refuge from Cromwell in Ireland, where they dreamt of expropriating the natives; we find England’s revolutionary government engineering a dreadful new organization of labor around the entire Atlantic basin; we find both Machiavelli and Harrington calling for free and democratic republics to conquer other nations. Nothing is easier to undo than the distinction between republic and empire. It is a gross simplification to chalk the entire history of political crime up to Hobbes.

So what does gay science want from you? Among other things, it wants you not to be an Indian. It wants you, in fact, to stop talking about Indians. We can turn, at this point, to a defense of Nietzsche that Michael Hardt wrote some years before Empire. The continuing importance of Nietzsche, he offers, is that he is not Hegel. Nietzsche points the way out of the dialectic, to a non-dialectical form of negation, “an absolutely destructive negation that spares nothing from its force and recuperates nothing from its enemy; it must be an absolute aggression that offers no pardons, takes no prisoners, pillages no goods; it must mark the death of the enemy, with no resurrection.” It is hard to know how to respond to the exterminationist fantasy set loose in these lines, except to point out that this, too, is gay science: Nietzsche is to be preferred to Hegel because he is Hiroshima. The only passage in the pages of Deleuzian Marxism more dumbfounding than this is Eugene Holland’s defense of the enclosure movement—the centuries-long expropriation and immiseration of Europe’s peasantry—as deterritorialization, as the peasantry’s liberation, in other words, a kind of historical free jazz improvised on the bodies of the poor. Hardt and Negri, in turn, offer a defense of the poor that is at once Deleuzian and Franciscan, and it is one of their loveliest passages: “The poor itself is power. There is World Poverty, but there is above all World Possibility, and only the poor are capable of this. … The dominant stream of the Marxist tradition, however, has always hated the poor, precisely for their being ‘free as birds’”—in context, this key Marxist epithet takes on overtones of Francesco preaching to the sparrows. But even this splendid argument has as it grim corollary the insinuated case that only the destitute can be properly militant, that anyone with any patch of land, no matter how meager, is to be written off as a kulak, still waiting for the deterritorialization that will set him free. In Multitude, their follow-up to Empire, Hardt and Negri spell it out: “The figure of the peasant may pose the greatest challenge for the concept of the multitude.” The dissolution of peasant societies, the converging of all life on advanced capitalist forms of production, “is one condition that makes possible the existence of the multitude.” Peasants die so that the multitude may live.

There are weighty philosophical matters at issue here. One of the stock charges filed against Hegel is that he functionalizes negation; that is, he sees all negativity as having functions—philosophically, for a start, but also historically—in a manner that justifies all mass-killing as progress, redescribes every invasion as an encounter and every conquest as a fusion. Negation becomes the path through history. The alternative to such high-minded apologetics might seem to be a Deleuzian or Nietzschean philosophy without negativity. But it turns out to be remarkably hard, at this level, to tell the difference between the Hegelian approach and the Nietzschean. Consider Book IV of the Gay Science, which contains some of the most Deleuzian, yea-saying passages that Nietzsche ever wrote. It is in these pages that Nietzsche raises the bar on the notion of a philosophy without negativity. I will have to learn, Nietzsche writes, to make do without critique of any kind. I do not want to accuse; I will not even accuse the accusers; I will so distance myself from ressentiment that not even ressentiment will vex me. Then, scattered about the next two books, we find a whole series of passages in which Nietzsche goes out of his way to praise all those things we normally think of him as seething against: Religion is a dynamic force in history; it serves life. Morality is a dynamic and creative force in history; it, too, serves life. These passages are all offered as lessons in what it means not to accuse the accusers. And then at 307, Nietzsche makes a crucial argument: Negativity itself is not negative; it is creative and life-serving. Nietzsche has lain bare the very mechanism by which negativity gets functionalized. Anti-Hegelianism, as the negation of the negation, becomes indistinguishable from its antithesis, just as Hegelianism is easily understood as a Deleuzian philosophy without negativity, if Hegel’s point is that negation (contradiction or the limit) always yields some new, positive term. Everything is positive: Massacres are positive, subjugation is positive. “We do not intend here to weep over the destruction and expropriation that capitalism continually operates across the world…”

It is, finally, one of the strangest features of Hardt and Negri’s writing that an argument whose historical horizon is largely medieval should at the same time be so progressivist, calling for “new barbarians” on one page and glossing over the near-extermination of Native America on the next. Hardt and Negri may be the new Goths, but they are also the new Whigs—odd, no doubt, but there is all manner of precedent for this unlikely combination. In its earliest seventeenth- and eighteenth-century formulations, radical Whig ideology was medievalizing through and through. The notion here was that the ancient Saxons had practiced a rough and spontaneous republicanism, which had been terminated only by the Norman Conquest and the imposition of French tyrannies—monarchy, aristocracy, sovereignty. The original program of Whig radicalism, then, was directed at the progressive recovery of the primal liberties of Mercia and Wessex. England was to be at last decolonized, made Gothic again—you might think of this as an English-republican version of primitive (African or Latin American) communism and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Hardt and Negri’s medievalist fantasies are actually of a piece with their conspicuous attachment to early modern political theory, which entertained medievalist fantasies of its own. This attachment is so pronounced, in fact, that Hardt and Negri sometimes seem to think of the present as part of some very long seventeenth century: In order to make sense of the present, they instruct us in Multitude, we will need to understand Hobbes, the English Interregnum, the enclosure movement, the battle between absolutism and aristocracy, the Baroque, and curiosity cabinets. But then what is the upshot of this seventeenth-century short course? For this we can look to Negri, who is fond of a formulation that he has borrowed from the following century’s Edmund Burke. Again and again, Negri praises the early North American colonists as “English Tartars,” praises their “Tartar sense of freedom.” The still Deleuzian claim here is that it is the English colonists who were the continent’s real nomads, its real tribesmen or better Indians, its glorious, rampaging savages. One is permitted to wonder whether any of this is much of an advance for a communism—to unseat Lenin only to put Leatherstocking in his place.

One important question remains: Does a Deleuzian politics bear some exceptional animus towards peasants and indigenous peoples? Does the multitude become universal only when these two classes are no longer around to exclude? Or is there some broader process by which the multitude can expel various groups, and not just Burundian subsistence farmers and the Hopi, from its not-so-general assembly? It’s hard to say. The important thing to know about Commonwealth, the third volume in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy, is that it is largely an exercise in auto-critique, full of qualifications and concessions and takebacks—full of claims, I mean, that we don’t much associate with Hardt and Negri: that the Left needs to stop talking so much about sovereignty and to start thinking about capitalism again; that vitalism is a politically ambiguous ontology booby-trapped with openings to authoritarianism; that often it will not be enough to flee the scene of one’s oppression, that sometimes one will have to fight. It is in this spirit of revision that Hardt and Negri undertake in Commonwealth to clear some space in the multitude for native people after all, sticking up, via Mariátegui, for the indigenous commons and the figure of the emancipated Indian, provided, however, that an Andean communism is not understood as authentically precolonial but appears instead as resistance to colonization, hence as an act of self-modernization. They even call out “liberal oligarchies throughout Latin America” for “mobilizing a … ‘race-blind’ ideology, attempting to Hispanicize the indigenous population with the goal of eradicating the ‘Indian’—through education, intermarriage, and migration.” The problem even here, though, is that Hardt and Negri have already in the same volume said that they also favor indigenous people when they have been in large part de-indigenized, and this predilection will now squat incoherently alongside their attack on neoliberalism. The Oneida and the Spokane are always going to have a hard time joining the multitude, for the simple reason that I can name them as such; those names—rival identifications, really, and imperfectly transferable to regions outside the eastern Great Lakes or inland Washington—will retard the entry of the indigenous into the universal non-class. Preferable, then, are “mestizas/mestizos, Black Indians, ‘half-breeds,’ Indians excluded from their tribes and other hybrid figures, constantly moving across borders through the desert.” The issue isn’t just that this list is the American Southwest transparently re-described as Glissant’s Caribbean. The issue is that even on the evidence of Hardt and Negri’s own rhetoric the program of the multitude coincides with the neoliberalism that it claims to oppose: Neoliberals should be chided for encouraging Indians to intermarry, but the multitude deserves praise for preferring breeds to bloods. Latin American elites harry indigenous populations by forcing them to migrate, but an ontology of becoming requires its Indians to be in perpetual motion anyway. What on one page Hardt and Negri call “becoming-multitude” they before long rename “eradication.”

So a Deleuzian Marxism has special problems comprehending native people. Even its most direct overtures to the indigenous end up misdelivered. But then it’s not clear whether any of us, native or otherwise, were ever going to make it into the multitude anyway, whatever its putative universalism. This is the issue that anyone who refuses to talk about Deleuze’s Hegelianism will be unable to face squarely. But then Deleuze’s debt to Hegel is so naked that it should be difficult not to talk about: Nothing is more central to Deleuze’s thinking than the idea that philosophy is a project of de-reification. To the philosopher’s gaze, “the actual object dissolves.” Metaphysics should help us discern the processes that “reconvert object into subject,” and it is important not to read this last word—“subject”—as meaning “the human,” since any such dereifying process “has only the virtual as its subject.” Ontology, then, will direct our attention towards the virtual as cosmic Master Subject; I might recommend that we go ahead and call this cosmic subject Geist, but then it turns out Deleuze already has, in the second Cinema book: “Subjectivity is never ours, it is time’s, that is, soul, spirit, the virtual.” If we follow the route of philosophy and learn to think from the position of this more-than-human spirit-subject—from what Deleuze calls the position of the “the virtual Whole”—then we will undergo the “becoming-God of the human, a becoming infinite of the finite.” This particular becoming is what Deleuze and Guattari call their “eschatology,” “the apocalypse,” la fin. To help history achieve its proper endpoint, one will have to assist in the world’s derealization; philosophically educated people, in other words, will have to become “the manservants of the abstract”—will have to develop a “passion for abstraction.” That so many readers have nonetheless declared Deleuze and Guattari  materialists goes back, I think, to a nifty rhetorical trick, whereby they seem again and again to affirm the materiality of the worldly terms that they actually mean to liquidate, simply be retaining the corporeal names for such terms even in their liquidated form, such that the negated body becomes “the body without organs,” negated space becomes “perfectly smooth space,” and so on. Of course, Deleuze and Guattari don’t think of such liquidated terms as in any sense outside of the world, but what we’ll want to note all the same is that once translated back into a materialist frame—once declared immanent—such abstractions, which Deluze sometimes calls “the Idea,” are to be preferred to any of their more determinate rivals. The becoming world aspires to the condition of the sloshing sea, or of desert light, or indeed of thought itself, which is after all of non-things the most glabrous. “When people are asked to apprehend some concept, they often complain that they do not know what they have to think. … The mind, denied the use of its familiar ideas, feels the ground where it once stood firm and at home taken away from beneath it, and, when transported into the region of pure thought, cannot tell where in the world it is.” Philosophy as liberating groundlessness, disorientation, abduction—that’s paragraph 3 in Hegel’s shorter Logic.

It is in this context that we must evaluate the key role that Hardt and Negri assign to “the immaterial.” That word gets us, indeed, to one of their most oft-repeated claims: that “immaterial labor” and the making of intangible goods are the present’s big opening onto communism, which will accordingly be an immaterial communism, an ethereal politics for a derealized socius. It might be hard, at first, to know what Hardt and Negri mean by this work-without-matter, but all you have to do to grasp their meaning is gather together the near-synonyms that typically, in Empire and its sequels, appear alongside the word “immaterial”: “linguistic,” “communicational,” “intellectual,” “cognitive,” “affective.” At its baldest, Hardt and Negri’s account of “immaterial labor” amounts to the claim that we are all culture workers now—that we are all producers of text and image and saleable experience—and that all work on the planet has come to resemble, more or less, a media job. From this claim follows two others: that intellectual labor has a special knack for eluding the old modes of industrial labor discipline (which is good news, since all labor now tends towards the condition of intellectual labor); and that immaterial goods make communism possible because they can easily become common—because, that is, ideas, images, and the like are directly shareable and so exempt from logics of scarcity. The argument, we’ll want to note, is implausible at every point: No-one with knowledge of Korean animation factories—or of Barry Gordon’s Motown, for that matter—could claim that culture-work has ever been impervious to Taylorization. Nor are those who drive UPS trucks likely to agree that all work in the present involves novel degrees of thought and art. More important, it is difficult to see how Hardt and Negri’s claims about immaterial production could ever be generalized. When they claim that communism is at hand because mp3’s and jpeg’s can by copied without limit, one wishes naturally to ask whether they also have plans for the sharing out of things that are not in the same sense copyable: rain boots, ethambutol, rice. And when they have repeated the bit about the mp3’s for the sixth or seventh time, one simply concludes that they have no idea what to do about the rice—that communism, in other words, will be immaterial or it will be nothing. A communism thus de-realized loses its will to propagate material things, and the multitude that is this communism’s group-subject has no need of the people still fated to make and service such things. Go back to those adjectives: Your place in the multitude depends to some large degree on your being able to describe your job as “intellectual,” communicative,” or “cognitive”—to your producing “images, codes, knowledges, affects.” A communism for the creative classes wriggles free of its dependence on the old European proletariat; such is doubtless a large part of its appeal. It also does without Chinese garment workers, Amazon warehouse wallahs, and Turkish strawberry pickers.

At this point, it becomes important to hold apart two distinct arguments we might make about transversal philosophy and schizo-Marxism. We can hail Deleuzian thought, in eulogy, as one of the great emancipatory projects of its generation and still want to explain our disappointment with its course. We know that Anti-Oedipus took 1968 as its prompt, because its authors tell as much; and we know that the most important sections of A Thousand Plateaus were first published in the lead-up to the Italian Movement of 1977 and the Bologna uprising, which huzzah’d Guattari as one of its teachers and heroes. We will need the intellectual historians and sociologists of knowledge to explain to us, then, how such books have ended up in the appreciative hands of the Israeli Defense Forces and the dot-com philosophers of the utopian-but-profitable Internet. It will not be enough to say that the Israeli military is “abusing” Deleuze by “taking his ideas out of context”—or that the paid poets of web and wire are “appropriating” schizoanalysis by putting it to non-Deleuzian ends. A theory that expects thought to be divvied up, composted, and recycled—a theory that, indeed, prefers thought when it is mobile, beyond itself, and out of context—confers no authority on those who would object to its repurposing. Anyone who says that Deleuze and Guattari need to be “reclaimed”—that they need to be retrieved and led back to their proper place—is defending his masters in terms they would not recognize. So we might instead frame our disappointment with Deleuze as a simple matter of theory and practice, and this in some classical sense: Deleuze and Guattari recommended rhizomes to us; we have tried them out at some length, typically in the form of “networks”; and we can say now upon reflection that they just aren’t working out, that they have never been as smooth as promised, never as horizontal in their growth. Networks continue to generate winners and losers. Our yams all have lumps. We might not have known in 1980 that a world of maximally deregulated flows—the Deleuzian pure economy uncontaminated by power—wasn’t much more than the left-wing path to neoliberalism, but there is no excuse for not knowing that now.

So that’s one way to refresh your thinking about Deleuze: You can chart who has been reading him in the generation since his death, and this ecumenically, taking care to expand the list beyond the people you went to graduate school with; you can note who sounds most like Deleuze even when they don’t cite him; and you can identify their institutional affiliations and the audiences they seem to be addressing. At that point, you will likely be forced to conclude that the ostensibly dissident Deleuze bubble inside the academy has coincided with a not-at-all dissident network bubble outside of it—with, I mean, the inflation of the word “network” to one of our generation’s master terms. What I would like to suggest now, though, is that we could also just go back and read Deleuze and Guattari again, paying careful attention to their political rhetoric, bringing forward their many historical claims, taking seriously their notion that some polities—some types of polity and not others—have been the proper vehicle of the élan vital. And if we do that, then we will see that we needn’t have been all that surprised by the emergence of what some future intellectual historian is bound to call Right Deleuzianism. It would have been enough to read the books, since the core Deleuzians all verbally champion versions of the administered society; they have been imaginatively invested in such systems, persistently and throughout their writings. Saying as much also means that we will have to get the periodization right, and here, too, the task is to avoid a certain belatedness. For we didn’t have to wait for an advanced post-Fordism to discover that Deleuze had been hijacked (because every Stanford grad now thinks he’s a silicon nomad, &c). It wasn’t a hijacking. All the Deleuzian theorists ask, if sometimes only in passing, which forms of government—or perhaps non-government—are in keeping with the rhizome or horizontal network of becoming. It is wholly misleading, in this context, to talk about Deleuzian “anarchism,” as most readers casually do, since the polity that Deleuze and Guattari themselves most often advert to is not autonomia, but its opposite, which is empire.

We need to proceed slowly here. Hardt and Negri are nakedly urban and indeed “metropolitan” in their political preferences: “The metropolis might be considered … the skeleton and spinal cord of the multitude. … The metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class.” Not the reservation, village, or town; not even the regional city or small-nation capital; the metropolis. There are few passages in which the Empire trilogy so gracelessly abrogates its own universalism. To be part of the multitude you actually have to live in a particular kind of place. There will be no communism on the periphery, or at best a weedier version of it. But Deleuze and Guattari argue nothing of the sort. Indeed, this is where Hardt and Negri might seem to be least like their forebears, whose geographical imaginations tend rather towards the pastoral and the outlying—towards Berbers and deserts and the steppe. If we’re tracking intellectual debts, we can say that Deleuze and Guattari often draw on political anthropology and especially on those anarchist anthropologists who have helped us all understand how it is that societies can thrive even in the absence of formalized government. Some tribal societies, we read in A Thousand Plateaus, have been wholly knowing about their headlessness, embarked on a political project to resist the state—not just pre-state, by the ticking of some some civilizational and evolutionary timeline, and so fated to pass from big man to chief to king, but actively anti-state. They also repeat the claims of sexual anthropology in the mode of Malinowski, Mead, and Reich, to the effect that tribal people have been spared repression, sexual constriction, and neurosis: “in the primitive socius desire is not yet trapped.” Mostly, though, their non-metropolitan bent appears not as a set of borrowed ethnographic claims, which one might ask an anthropologist colleague to confirm or disconfirm, but as a pervasive idiom or ethnically ecstatic prose style. If you feel that Hardt and Negri’s position smacks too much of Paris-London-Berlin, you might find that you prefer Deleuze and Negri’s version of what are after all mostly the same arguments, though this will depend largely on your tolerance for Euro-primitivism and philo-Orientalism. Here are some claims from Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

-“There is much of the East in Kleist.”

-All things open to the world, capable of self-organization and self-transformation, are “like Arabs or Indians.”

-“The Orient” is a name for any smooth space. So is “the Sahara.”

-Central African “medicine men” already perform schizoanalysis on village neurotics.

-This Id is “peopled” with “races and tribes,” “swarming, teeming, ferment, intensities.” This makes black people and Kalmyks akin to what “passes through the veins of a drug addict.”

-“I am a beast, a nigger”—that’s Rimbaud, quoted to vigorous nodding.

-Asia is to be preferred to Europe because “the East” has no trees. Or perhaps there are some trees in Asia, but Asians themselves act as if there weren’t, shunning trunk and branch, unseduced by arborescence. And the people of the East neither cultivate stemmy plants (no upward-growing crops for the Khmer!), nor keep livestock in their villages.

-“I return from my tribes. As of today, I am the adoptive son of fifteen tribes, no more, no less. And they in turn are my adopted tribes, for I love each of them more than if I had been born into it.”

Perhaps you’ve already decided that this list isn’t all that interesting, that it’s all just so much standard-issue négritude blanche. You’d have a point, but even so you might want to linger over that last entry long enough to register, first, that those sentences make most sense if spoken by a metropolitan and non-native: I return from Indian country (and to France or Britain or Boston); and second, that its attitude is oddly possessive: MY tribes—the stance, then, of an adventurer and collector and ethno-tourist. And once you’ve spotted this, it becomes harder to say that Negri is metropolitan and Deleuze isn’t. Indeed, what is distinctive about schizoanalysis or rhizomatic thought—what distinguishes these latter from a generic French Third Worldism—is that Deleuze so often lets his enthusiasm for tribes and nomads slide into an enthusiasm for empire itself. By some transitive property, the colonizers take on the virtues of the colonized; the French and British empires take on the virtues of stateless societies. I’ll let Deleuze and Guattari tell it:

-“The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.”

-“In one way or the other, the animal is more a fleer than a fighter, but its flights are also conquests, creations.”

-Europeans must learn to adopt “the American meaning of frontiers: something to go beyond, limits to cross over, flows to set in motion, noncoded spaces to enter.”

-“Kipling understood the call of the wolves, their libidinal meaning, better than Freud.”

-“England … is Germany’s obsession, for the English are precisely those nomads who treat the plane of immanence as a movable and moving ground, a field of radical experience, an archipelagian world where they are happy to pitch their tents from island to island and over the sea. The English nomadize over the old Greek earth, broken up, fractalized, and extended to the universe. … The English inhabit. For them a tent is all that is needed.”

-The French colonies in Africa were an “open social field” in which black people demonstrated how sexually liberated they were by dreaming about “being beaten by a white man.”

-Anti-imperialism was a neurotic condition. Left to their own devices, that is, tribal people were not neurotic. Under colonial conditions, however, some of them became neurotic: “the elders who curse the White man, the young people who enter into a political struggle.”

To this list I need to add two observations that cannot be discretely quoted:

-The third chapter of A Thousand Plateaus is presented as a lecture by a fictional character, whom the authors present as their great Edwardian predecessor, the one who “invented a discipline he referred to by various names: rhizomatics, stratoanalysis, schizoanalysis, nomadology, micropolitics, pragmatics, the science of multiplicities.” But this character, Professor Challenger, is not Deleuze and Guattari’s invention; he’s been borrowed rather from Arthur Conan Doyle, whose most famous Challenger story recounts how the professor defeated a horde of “ape-men” with the help of a “devoted negro.” Forget Spinoza, in other words: Deleuze and Guattari appoint as their own tutor and co-author one of the heroes of imperial adventure fiction.

-Deleuze dedicated an entire, standalone essay to a British-imperial war planner, a spy in lands that the British would later colonize and re-settle, a colonel in the British Army and advisor to Winston Churchill in that country’s Colonial Office. This figure is held out to the reader as a model to be emulated, one of history’s great schizos, “making Spinoza’s formula his own,” an avatar of creative becoming, a creature of “pure intensity” with “a dissolved ego” and a “gift for making entities live passionately in the desert, alongside people and things, in the jerking rhythm of a camel’s gait.” T. E. Lawrence possessed a “disposition” towards non-identity “which led him far from his own country.”

What we’ll have to say at this point is that colonialism was always Deleuze’s preferred rhizome. This could, I realize, seem perplexing. His followers certainly write in denial and disbelief. “He made only occasional passing remarks about colonization,” observes one of his translators—of a philosopher who seems in fact to have written about little else. But let’s grant the Deleuzians their turmoil. From some angles, the coincidence of anarchy and colonization will be the biggest puzzle in all of rhizomatic thought. But that coincidence is, in fact, anchored in arguments that Deleuze and Guattari make and is thus not just a fluke of their rhetoric. The treatise on nomadology begins by arguing, on the authority of Pierre Clastres, that war is radically opposed to the state: War and the state are opposed principles or antitheses. You probably consider war to be one of those few activities that governments strictly reserve for themselves, but you’d be wrong. War is, properly considered, outside of the state. At first you might think that this claim, on the face of it absurd, is just one more instance of Deleuzian pataphysics, something on the order of in-Asia-there-are-no-trees. But there is actually a case to be made here, a case in some respects quite astute. The point is most clearly grasped in terms of political philosophy, for what Deleuze and Guattari have done is identify a weakness in Hobbesean accounts of sovereignty, one of whose more widely accepted claims is that states should (and do) establish a monopoly on force. But what does one ever mean by “monopoly on force”? What could one ever mean? What we usually mean is that the only members of a society who are licensed to use violence against others have been authorized to do so by government, that they tackle and clobber only in the state’s name. But as soon as we say this, we have already made a big concession, which is that the sovereign does not, in fact, possess a monopoly on force—the king or president does not sit in chamber holstering the nation’s only gun—but requires miscellaneous armed proxies and deputies: cops, sheriffs, marshals, soldiers. The monopoly on force inevitably involves the extensive sharing-out of force and is thus never a monopoly. To this argument, Deleuze and Guattari append an observation borrowed from historical sociology, to the effect that in tribal societies, war is what puts adult men in motion, preventing them from sinking back into stasis and statehood and bourgeois inertia; that’s an argument whose medievalizing versions get attached to names like Lancelot and Sir Gawain. It is during war that a nation’s citizens, armed and abroad, are least under sovereign review. This reasoning, at any rate, is what produces the distinctively Deleuzian defense of empire, since if you hold that warfare is antithetical to government, then you might be justified in arguing that colonization was not the extension of the European states; it was their antithesis and negation—in some literal and liberated sense outside of them. Anarchism is one name for a politics against the state, and it is mentioned in Capitalism and Schizophrenia basically not at all. Its other, less familiar name is empire, and it, unlike Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, appears on nearly every page.

But then what of the home front? Does the Deleuzian account of Europe and North America seem any more credible than the Deleuzian account of Senegal or Lebanon? Not really. Ultimately, the various versions of gay science all go back to a puzzling misdiagnosis of capitalism—our capitalism, Northern and consumer capitalism—as ascetic. It is only in the face of renunciation that joy seems like a political program in its own right. But the Weberian account of an austere and Puritanical capitalism was always a partial observation and has long since been rendered historically obsolete. The better life will require of us more than that we moon Benjamin Franklin. Of course, there is a special sense in which even consumer capitalism really is ascetic. The pleasures that it offers are secretly a form of work, just so much recapitulated labor, an administered leisure characterized by routine and command—“must-see TV,” they call it. But then this is a trick that consumer capitalism actually shares with Deleuzian thought and especially with Deleuze and Guattari’s own prose—this ecstasy that is really effort. Anti-Oedipal prose wants to register as delirious, but most casual readers find the style exhausting, a buffeting, disoriented prose of parataxis and unelucidated concepts. Deleuze’s defenders call it a writing experiment and ask that we acclimate to it in small doses. But the prose signals, I think, a properly political dilemma. Deleuzian politics is an endless orgasm of irrepressible creativity and productivity and wandering; it grants no calm or sanctuary, and the prose merely rehearses in advance this particular punishment, which does not know how to distinguish between the nomad and the refugee, between a line of flight and a death march. The reader tossing aside A Thousand Plateaus in frustration is already rejecting the Deleuzian dystopia, this coerced restlessness, this constant coupling of organs, this jumble of part-objects in indiscriminate connection, this drubbing that calls itself joy.

Boy scouts



-Deleuze and Guattari’s biographer quotes the former, speaking in 1988: “We, Félix and I, always fancied a universal history, which he [Foucault] hated.”

-If you have any doubts about what it took for North America to appear as “empty,” have a look at David Stannard’s American Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

-To get a handle on the colonial dimensions of English republicanism, you might begin with Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (London: Verso 2003); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon, 2000).

-On the trajectory of Deleuzian thought since the philosopher’s death, see Alex Galloway’s “Forget Deleuze.”

-All my Hegel-talk risks being a bit misleading. The differences between Hegel and Deleuze would in most contexts be more important than their similarities, since Hegel points our attention towards achieved complexity and does not use “abstract” as a term of praise. A kind of hyperdetermination,  the coexistence in a single order of all the determinations and potentialities-now-made-real, is to be preferred to the lack of determination. When all is said and done, the Deleuzian eschatology owes more to Schlegel or the 1790s Fichte; what is rhetorically curious is that Deleuze, in order to communicate Schlegelian positions, compulsively poaches so many motifs from a textbook French Hegel that he claims to have surpassed.

-Eugene Holland says that the expropriation of the English peasants was their deterritorialization. In this, he has merely found a historically more proximate instance of a claim that Deleuze and Guattari make about the Roman Empire in Anti-Oedipus, that it “decoded the producers through expropriation.”

-On Whig medievalism, see Christopher Hill’s “The Norman Yoke,” in Puritanism and Revolution (pp. 50-122); Samuel Kliger, The Goths in England (New York: Octagon, 1972); J.G.A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, rev. ed.); R.J. Smith, The Gothic Bequest: Medieval Institutions in British Thought, 1688-1863 (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1987).

-Anarchists have long been prone to imagine themselves as white Indians, Indian fighters, and Davy Crocketts. In the late 1970s, some Italian autonomists took to calling themselves the Indiani Metropolitani. And ere’s Bakunin writing to the Russian tsar: “In my nature … there has always been a basic flaw…. Most men seek tranquility; in me, however, it produces only despair. My spirit is in constant turmoil, demanding action, movement, and life. I should have been born somewhere in the American forests, among the settlers of the West, where civilization has hardly begun to blossom and where life is an endless struggle against untamed people, against untamed nature—and not in an organized civic society.” (qtd in Gornick’s Goldman bio, p. 44)

-One might “conclude that the ostensibly dissident Deleuze bubble inside the academy has coincided with a not-at-all dissident network bubble outside of it—with, I mean, the inflation of the word ‘network’ to one of our generation’s master terms.” The person I have hear say this most clearly is Alexander Galloway. Ask to see his unpublished “Forget Deleuze.”

Against Joy, Part 2

X privatization

This is the moment to return to Empire and “the joy of being communist.” Nietzsche, as the sole author of The Gay Science, is something of an anomaly. All great comic acts work in pairs: Deleuze and Guattarí, Hardt and Negri—these are our Gay Scientists, the zanies of this generation’s theoretical vaudeville. If you want to figure out what gay science wants for you, you will have to reckon with Deleuze and company, because it is in their writing that gay science gets round to advancing an actual political program, though that last phrase may, in fact, be off the mark. Deleuzian thought, and especially the Deleuzian brand of Marxism, is perhaps the grandest utopian philosophy of its time, and this makes its political status unusually hard to parse. Deleuzian thought works by taking the preoccupations of the twentieth century’s great critical theories—the Frankfurt School or deconstruction—and shifting them into an improbably affirmative mode. Everything that Adorno most wanted and thought he could not have—everything that he mourned for as historically foreclosed and philosophically pie-in-the-sky—Deleuze declares to be already at hand. Deleuze will teach us to think multiplicity, will show us that thought is after all fully adequate to the singular and the heterogeneous and the non-identical, that reification was never the problem we took it to be. He will teach us to think the union of subject and object—will teach us, in fact, that they were never really apart. And he will teach us to think the union of desire and labor; what capitalism has put asunder, ontology will reunite. This utopianism, moreover, is frankly avowed. Deleuzian philosophy offers itself in the service of “a new earth and a people that does not yet exist”—that’s Deleuze writing alongside Guattari. And Negri continues in the same vein: In any proper understanding of politics is “implicit the idea that the past no longer explains the present, and that only the future will be able to do so.” Any philosophy of the State—and most philosophy, from this perspective, turns out to be philosophy of the State—“is a juridical doctrine that knows only the past: it is continually referring to time past, to consolidated strengths and to their inertia, to the tamed spirit.” Radical thinking, by contrast, “always refers to the future.” To these remarks we might finally add the familiar observation that Hardt and Negri’s Empire refuses Left nostalgia in all its forms, all that downcast social-democratic hankering for the nation-state or the trade union or other institutions of a not-yet globalized world. It beckons to us from the communist yet-to-come.

The great surprise of Deleuzian thought, then, is that it is completely fixated on the past. This is perhaps clearest in Deleuze’s efforts to build a philosophical counter-canon: Spinoza, Hume, Sade, Nietzsche, Bergson; Negri has added Machiavelli and Marx to the list. When all is said and done, Deleuzians are unusually concerned with pedigree; they want us to know that their metaphysics comes with papers. But this historical fixation takes other, more complex forms, as well, and in order to make this point clear, it would help here to work out the modes of historicity that operate in Empire, still the central and indispensable text of Deleuzian Marxism. I say “modes,” in the plural, because Hardt and Negri’s arguments unfold in several different historical registers at once, and there is no obvious way to bring these registers together.

We can begin with the notion of historical repetition or the cycle. This is tricky: Marxist history-writing usually has more cycles than a washing machine, but Hardt and Negri’s Deleuzian framework officially prohibits any such perceptions, the reason being that Deleuzian history is supposed to be an aleatory affair, mutation-prone, directionless, rambunctious. In his book Insurgencies, then, Negri makes a point of washing his hands of historical recurrence: “the times of history are not those of a sentence, of an empty, suicidal repetition”; and Empire, likewise, devotes an entire sub-chapter to the polemic against cycles. It’s just that Hardt and Negri’s declared commitments on this score are mostly at odds with the substance of their historical account. This is already apparent in the book’s title, Empire, which is pregnant with the weight of historical repetition, the sinking realization that our postcolonial world has defaulted on its prefix, that the imperial dead are walking again. And yet whatever cycles make themselves felt in Empire, they aren’t, finally, the familiar Marxist ones; there are no waves of boom-and-bust here, no rounds of uneven development, no long centuries. What Hardt and Negri have done, in effect, is borrowed a notion of history from Nietzsche and Heidegger: The past, on this scheme, is a matter of some single event—some single catastrophe—happening over and over again, but amplified each time, ramified through repetition. For Heidegger, history’s key events have been the rise of Platonic philosophy, the rise of Latin Rome, the rise of Christianity, and the rise of industrial technology—except these aren’t really different events, but versions of the same event, the forgetting of Being. Nietzsche’s roster reads much like Heidegger’s—history turns on the rise of philosophy, the rise of Christianity, the rise of the court nobility, the rise of the bourgeoisie—and the one event or historical type that these all reduce back to is what we might call the negation of life.

At this point it becomes necessary to have a look at “the multitude,” which is Hardt and Negri’s central concept. Roughly, “the multitude” is Hardt and Negri’s version of “the proletariat” or simply “the people”; it is the keyword for a democratic and communist politics. As such, it would seem yawningly remote from Nietzsche’s writing or from Heidegger’s. But “the multitude” actually marks a novel attempt to combine Marx and Nietzsche. The most familiar attempts to absorb Nietzschean and Heideggerian arguments into Marxism—I’m thinking again of Adorno—generally begin by jettisoning the proletariat as the subject of history; such is their overture to Nietzsche, their sacrifice. They work, if you like, by giving Marxist answers to Nietzschean and Heideggerian questions. (Who killed the free and creative individual? Capitalism did. What makes it impossible for us to care for, rather than to dominate, objects in the world? Capitalism does.) Hardt and Negri, in these terms, find an unlooked-for way of bringing the proletariat back into Marxist theory: They resurrect the working class via Nietzsche (and others), by making the proletariat the avatar of a vitalist ontology—“the plural multitude of productive, creative subjectivities,” Hardt and Negri call them, “the real productive force of our social world,” united only its “desire for creativity and freedom,” “the real ontological referent of philosophy” even. In this Spinozist and Nietzschean guise, the proletariat can now resume its once hallowed position as the universal class—not in the old Marxist sense in which the proletariat represented, or perhaps even messianically incarnated, the collective interests of humanity—but in some new sense, for the simple reason that the multitude really is universal, as a matter of stipulation: Nobody is excluded from it. “The multitude,” as a term, accomplishes conceptually what the classical proletariat was supposed to accomplish historically: It expands to swallow up all the other classes, leaving it a class without antitheses or others, without lumpens and peasants and bourgeoisies high and petty. The multitude is the human aggregate, but seen from a certain perspective, as dynamically producing the entirety of the social world, as the power that continually brings the world into being. Empire, in this light, often reads like history-from-below raised to the level of metaphysics. It does not claim, in the manner of English Marxism, that if you look at the historical record, you will happen to notice that workers and women and the poor have helped make history. It gives an ontological version of that argument—that the only way of properly understanding the world is to conceive of it as made and continually re-made by the combined efforts of its myriad inhabitants. And so anything that oppresses the multitude, anything that restricts its vitality or stifles its endless resourcefulness, is a negation of life, even a form of Seinsvergessenheit. Exploitation and oppression are reclassified as ontological (and not just economic or political) transgressions. And that thing—that agent of ontological oblivion—is, as Hardt and Negri have it, identifiable: It is sovereignty, the founding of state institutions at the expense of the multitude. Sovereignty, understood now as the multitude’s betrayal, is history’s single event, its recurring disaster. Sovereignty came to pass when the absolutist state triumphed over Machiavellian humanism and has taken root again in each of the various great revolutions, in their failures as in their miscarried successes, and is taking form still at the World Bank and IMF. History is one long Thermidor, ever and again.

Such, then, is one version of historical repetition as it shows up in Empire, but there is another, this one connected to the half-familiar figure of Polybius, the ancient Greek historian of Rome. Hardt and Negri draw heavily on Polybius; he gets five indexed entries, several more unindexed references, a chapter heading and then again a sub-chapter heading—all to himself. Polybius’ signature argument was a theory of the mixed constitution, the notion that the best government would be one that combined all three of the classical constitutional forms—government by the One, by the Few, and by the Many—and it is for this idea that Hardt and Negri turn to him. But the theory of the mixed constitution strongly presupposes a theory of historical cycles, as well. Polybius held that any unmixed polity was fated to pass through a rondel of constitutional forms in both their benign and wicked versions: from the One to the Few to the Many, from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to anarchy, and then again, please, one more time from the top. The mixed constitution, in these terms, was meant to mobilize the political energies of all its members and thus to counter the entropy inherent in each unadulterated constitutional form. It offered itself as a path out of history, or at least a path out of the constitutional cycle, the one way of bringing stability to polities whose organic impulse was towards degeneration. The crucial point for our purposes is that nearly all of the canonical writing on empire—I mean Gibbon and such, but now also Niall Ferguson and Hardt and Negri themselves—is at least tacitly Polybian, activating a set of historical analogies or allusions or full-scale allegories, in which one empire, usually Rome, is meant to stand in for another, Britain or the U.S. or the global non-state that Hardt and Negri describe. Like Rome, Hardt and Negri write, the “Empire we find ourselves faced with today is also—mutatis mutandis—constituted by a functional equilibrium among…three forms of power.” What matters here is not the substance of the claim; I’m really only interested in the word “also,” which indicates the form of the argument, its historical parallelism. In a sentence whose terms are entirely Polybian (the “three forms of power”), that “also” cannot help but trigger a perception of historical cycles, whose business it is to generate resemblances. “We are once again in a genetic phase of power and its accumulation….”

At this point, a question poses itself. Hardt and Negri summon us against or beyond Empire. They want us to imagine Empire’s end. So if empire, with or without its capital letter, is subject to historical repetition, then is the resistance to empire similarly cycle-bound? Are there historical models that anti-imperialists and communists can look to? Does communism have its own also’s and once-again’s? Hardt and Negri’s answer is dictated by their Polybian frame. If Empire is Rome redux, then life after Empire will be a new Middle Age: “a new nomad horde, a new race of barbarians, will arise to invade or evacuate Empire.” Here, then, is a discovery: Hardt and Negri’s writing is medievalist, no less than Nietzsche’s, though theirs is a medievalism with the Christianity put back in: Empire’s very last paragraph holds out Francis of Assisi as the model of the communist militant. Nowhere is the connection between gay science and medievalism more striking than in this passage. What does gay science want from you? The “joy of being communist”—that phrase occurs in the last paragraph alongside Francis—wants you to be a thirteenth-century monk. And these analogies are anything but slapdash or opportunistic; they have an elaborate conceptual underpinning. Reduced to its essentials, Hardt and Negri’s writing is medievalist because of its hostility to sovereignty, to the state and state-like institutions. They are envisioning a society thoroughly decentralized, a sovereignty so scattered as no longer to deserve the name, and for European writers, the chief historical image of this society without sovereignty, whether avowed or not, is feudalism, though Empire’s most distinctive formulations, as above, push back beyond feudalism, looking for some zero degree of statelessness, a Europe of pre-feudal tribes. Hardt and Negri are the new Goths.

There are other places we could look in the Deleuzian corpus for evidence of this medievalism—to Deleuze’s predilection for scholastic philosophy, for instance, which was made clear to you the day you had to look up the word “haecceity”; or to Eugene Holland’s description of shizoanalysis as “a return to alliance-based rather than filiation-based social relations”; or to Hardt and Negri’s general emphasis on exodus or escape—what they call “savage mobility”—which is redolent of medieval city air, the kind that sets peasants free. This last might seem like Deleuzian boilerplate, but is actual quite remarkable. Again and again throughout their trilogy, Hardt and Negri take their cues from E.P. Thompson and the early subaltern studies historians. That is, they seem to embrace a certain politicist version of Marxism for which all history turns on the balance of class forces (rather than on the magisterial unfolding of some ineluctable structural logic). But unlike these historians, Hardt and Negri mostly lack a concept of class struggle or conflict or contradiction. This is one of the most distinctive features of their philosophy, the way they revise those thinkers to whom they claim a debt. The multitude does not fight. It flees. The multitude remains the agent of history, to be sure, but only in its capacity for flight. Smack at the heart of Hardt and Negri’s autonomia is the notion that the struggle for communism cannot be a fight against capitalism; it must be rather a simple getting-on with the business of living a different life—though sooner or later someone is going to have to work out how Hardt and Negri’s politics of escape is to be reconciled with their insistent claim that capitalism has completed its conquest of the globe, that “there is no more outside,” since the possibility of mass exodus would seem to depend on the notion of inside-outside in a way that class struggle does not. Is desertion really desertion if, like the hapless cartoon convict who misdigs his tunnel, you merely end up in the next cell block over, one more version of the same place, just another of capitalism’s antechambers?

So much, at any rate, on the subject of historical cycles. What we must see now is that there is a second mode of historicity at work in Empire, a progressive and even Hegelian theory of history, which is even more surprising than the cycles, since Deleuzian thought is, on the main, almost hysterically anti-Hegelian. The Deleuzian caricature of Hegel is quickly sketched: The Hegelian dialectic is incapable of accommodating genuine multiplicity; it is engineered, in fact, to reduce the manifold to sameness, which makes Hegel the homogenizing, speciously unifying philosopher of the state. More: Hegel is the philosopher of contradiction and negation, and gay science demands that we adopt instead a programmatically positive philosophy. And yet Empire is Hegelian not despite Deleuze but because of him. Hardt and Negri’s philosophy of history is not some deplorable lapse from Deleuze’s anti-dialectical ontology, but that ontology’s necessary outcome. Under the cover of a frantic anti-Hegelianism, the gay scientists smuggle back in everything that the critique of Hegel nominally seeks to abolish.

This is going to take some explaining. Deleuzian philosophy involves a basic confusion of ontology and politics. It claims that all its arguments derive from an ontology of non-identity—that multiplicity, in other words, is the basic stuff of world, that the way of the world is to be no particular way. We needn’t get hung up on the details here; given enough time in the library, you can scissor-and-paste yourself any ontology you like. It is enough for us to know that the ontology of non-identity is supposed to yield an ethics or a politics; the notion here is that to hand yourself over to multiplicity is the only way to be in tune with the world’s deepest ground, to vibrate with the sources of existence. This may seem straightforward enough, but only because I have been phrasing the matter casually. A moment’s reflection uncovers only wreckage. Here’s the sticking point: How exactly does Deleuzian thought pass from ontology to politics? How does it get from one to the other? If multiplicity and change are the most basic features of existence itself, then how are sameness and inertia even possible? And if sameness and inertia are not just undesirable but ontologically excluded, will it ever make sense to describe multiplicity as a political imperative or ethical norm? You cannot be said to defend something that was never in danger. Once you opt for an ontology of multiplicity, you give up the possibility of a politics of multiplicity. Multiplicity stops being something longed for but denied and becomes instead a simple existential datum, which need merely be harvested. An ontology of multiplicity betrays the principle of non-identity that it claims to promote, rendering the world identical with the philosopher’s best description of it.

An example will help. Consider again that slogan “There Is No More Outside,” which turns out, in Empire, to have a sub-chapter of its own. The argument here is one with which their project has become much associated: The opponents of capitalism must stop trying to imagine someplace outside of capitalism to which they can return. Capitalism has completed its conquest of the globe. There are no more backwaters or pre-capitalist Brigadoons. There may be something beyond capitalism—past it, out the other side—but there is no longer and never again will be anything untransformed by it. The philosophical reference points are familiar here: Spinoza, mostly—a theory of pure ontological immanence, to the effect that it has always been a philosophical mistake to think of the world as having an outside. The main business of these pages, in other words, is to extend Hardt and Negri’s attack on sovereignty to an attack on the very concept of the outside, since sovereignty’s evils all go back to that basic couplet of inside and outside, such that any talk of “outsides” merely replicates everything that is worst about the state, its establishment of institutions that transcend (or claim to transcend) the productive life of the multitude. But then, in these same pages, Hardt and Negri cite Fredric Jameson to the effect that postmodernity is the new condition of not having an outside. But how can you have Spinoza and Jameson side by side? It doesn’t work, because one of them is making an ontological claim and the other is making a historical claim, and clearly we have to choose between the two. Something that is ontologically in the bag—multiplicity, immanence—cannot also be the product of history.

Or perhaps it can—but then that’s where Hegel comes in. Deleuzian thought requires a marvelously old-fashioned theory of alienation; it depends on the notion that it is possible to be estranged from ontology, that what is most fundamental to the world can still be haphazardly at work within it. Hence Eugene Holland: “Difference and multiplicity are what is given ontologically; they then get betrayed and distorted by operations…that result in identity.” Or Hardt and Negri: The society of control inflicts “alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity”; it terminates in “the privation of being and production.” We don’t normally think of the Left Spinozists as having much patience for the young Marx, but on this point Hardt and Negri are content to defy Althusser: “We find ourselves being pulled back from exploitation to alienation, reversing the trajectory of Marx’s thought.” There is not much to take issue with here; it is pleasing, in fact, to see the ban lifted on a still useful concept, though the theory of alienation does call sharp attention to everything that is strangest about the Deleuzian account of the state, this singular, occult institution that is able to disrupt ontology itself, to deprive us of being or rend the very fabric of time.

But Hardt and Negri’s real path out of the Deleuzian conflation of ontology and politics is a Hegelian philosophy of history, in which what has latently been true of the world all along has nonetheless to become true in history, has to achieve its truth. The big surprise awaiting readers of Empire’s first sequel is Hardt and Negri’s announcement that the multitude doesn’t exist yet, that “the multitude needs a political project to bring it into existence,” that we have to “investigate what kind of political project can bring the multitude into being.” One might have misheard them as saying that the multitude simply is or that it is the proper way of understanding all human aggregates. But the multitude is, in fact, only “implicit, … existing as a real potential.” When his political program begins to collapse, the Spinozist helps himself to Aristotle after all. “The multitude … has a strange, double temporality: always-already and not-yet.” Other instances of Deleuzian progressivism are easy enough to spot: in Hardt and Negri’s notion of history as a one-way street—a “march of freedom and equality,” no less—in which the multitude, whose desire for liberation has already brought Empire into being, “must [now] push through Empire to come out the other side”; in their Smithian celebration of capitalism as an enrichment of human capacities; or in Deleuze and Guattarí’s own periodizing scheme, which divides historical societies up into “savagery,” “despotism,” “capitalism”—and which would have seemed cutting-edge in Edinburgh in 1780. But the Hegelian philosophy of history, for which no single passage from Empire can be adduced, is the book’s secret and most powerful frame. Hegelian history cannot stand accused of being insufficiently Deleuzian. It is the culmination of Deleuzian thought—or at least its rescue.

But as ever in such matters, a philosophy, once disavowed, leaves only its worst features behind, its intellectual sludge….


Cell colony

Against Joy; or, Deleuze’s Empire



Exclamation points have played a distinguished role in the history of Marxism. It helps if every other one is upside down. The exclamation point is the mark of solidarity, of commitment, the manifesto in a single keystroke. We don’t, it is true, often see them in Marxist theory, as opposed to, say, Marxist graffiti. But Hardt and Negri’s great communist trilogy is crammed with exclamation points: “One big union!” “Papier pour tous!” They even quote the spray paint from a Paris wall: “Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the French!” There are pages where Hardt and Negri’s prose fairly bursts and pops with exclamation points, as though they were writing Xhosa. Exclamations, not all of them marked, are this writing’s stamp, its most conspicuous stylistic feature, and as such demand to be accounted for. What are they doing there? What is their effect? What’s the difference between a book with lots of exclamation points and one without?

This clearly has something to do with what Hardt and Negri call “the joy of being communist” and what their intellectual forebears call “gay science”—the sense, that is, that a radical politics cannot take root in the thin soils of melancholy and umbrage, but must nourish itself instead on the sheer exhilaration of collectivity and creativity and free innovation. The exclamation point is a streak of that delight, the mark of its strong feeling and guileless spontaneity. It is a smudge of affirmation, of really, really meaning it. More: The exclamation point is meant, like a rocketship with its falling booster, to propel readers back out of the text, to shunt them back into a world of real objects or at least to smash them against the bedrock of the writers’ sincerity. It is through punctuation marks that even ordinary writing overcomes its own ingrained positivism, its tendency to reduce the world to rubble, static things and discrete events. Commas introduce relation to the simplest sentences, as periods do disjunction. Dashes and semicolons establish relation and disjunction at once; they sunder even as they join, which makes them the typographical face of dialectical thought. Question marks summon an Other into being and then send that Other out to scrutinize the world with fresh eyes. Exclamation points do the same in the form of a command. They indicate the end of the text as text, placing some demand on us as readers that we cannot fulfill as long as we continue in that contemplative state, as long, that is, as we do nothing but read. This accomplishment, however, is also the exclamation’s failure, for the exclamation point, as the signpost to something outside the text, reveals itself to be external, imposed from without, and thus a positivity in its own right. Whatever cannot be done within the sentence has to be done to it. The exclamation mark is the sentence’s fate, its doom, a grenade lobbed by an unseen hand.

The exclamation point’s natural habitat is now the children’s book and the supermarket tabloid, the comic balloon and the screaming headline, and this is its finest boast. Hardt and Negri’s exclamation points borrow their energies from these forms, from the young and the poor; they mean to put such energies in the service of thought. The exclamation point is similarly at home in advertising, but from this sphere exclamatory thought borrows only its fiercest contradiction, its con, its intertwining of joy and command. The exclamation point is the billy club of Konsumterror. It is, after all, children and the poor who get ordered around with impunity, and the shouts in storybooks or supermarket papers find their echo in a parent’s rebuke or barking foreman’s order. There is a poem by Robert Herrick, first published in the 1640s, called “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” It is one of the period’s most winning pastoral lyrics, some seventy lines on England’s customary spring celebrations, full of kissing games and cream-cakes and country cottages hung with blossoms. The first thing that strikes one about the poem, however, is that its title is a misnomer: The poem is addressed to Corinna, the poet’s lover, who refuses to get out of bed and is thus in danger of sleeping through the May games. Corinna precisely isn’t going a-Maying; such is the entire occasion for the poem. The poem’s heading, in other words, is oddly reversed, and anyone noticing as much has a chance of also spotting the poem’s key lines, which casual readers inevitably skim past. About halfway through the poem, the poet describes the flowers on the houses and the crowds in the fields and then asks: “Can such delights be in the street / And open fields, and we not see’t? / Come, we’ll abroad; and let’s obey / The proclamation made for May.”

It’s that last line that should give us pause. Rural games were, improbably, one of the great political flashpoints of the early seventeenth century. The games were ordinarily played on Sunday afternoons and on the old medieval feast days; reform-minded Protestants accordingly saw them as Catholic, crypto-pagan holdovers and wanted them abolished. But the Stuart kings, cloaking themselves in a kind of agrarian populism, the way a U.S. president might chow barbecue or sport a cowboy hat, promoted the games in official legislation, not mandating them exactly, but encouraging them and forbidding the Puritan opposition from trying to spoil the fun. The Crown’s stated rationale for sponsoring the maypoles and morris-dances was blandly functional: The games would bind the peasantry to the state and the state church; they would prime the bodies of the poor for war; and they would keep the poor from organizing in opposition to the state (in the taverns or conventicles in which they would otherwise while away the week’s few spare hours). This, then, is the proclamation in question: “Let’s obey / The proclamation made for May.” The merriment that the poet has been advocating turns out to be obligatory. Delight modulates into obedience and thus into un-delight. A poem that had seemed to hum and croon of rural amusements mutates into a poem about law and its enforcement; it seems a shame that Herrick never wrote a Corinna-cycle—“Corinna’s A-Paying Her Taxes” and so on. If, upon running smack up against the state, you go back now and begin reading the poem again from the start, you will surely notice that it is, in fact, made up of nothing but commands. Its pitch is that of a parent hectoring a teenage layabout: “Get up! get up for shame!”—modern editions are quick to supply those exclamation points. The poem’s title is not a statement of fact, for Corinna, to her credit, never budges; she persists in her springtime, sitdown strike, a kind of consumer boycott on the wildflower. Her genuine idleness—and not Puritan asceticism—is the liberating alternative to this royalist poem’s regime of compulsory pleasure. The title, by contrast, is the king’s wish, the law’s resolve. One must imagine it spoken through clenched teeth: Corinna is going a-Maying.
If there is a politics of the exclamation point, it is here. The exclamation point is the mark of forced Maying. It always bears a trace of the imperative, of coercion and prohibition, even when it seems only to revel. So this is what we need to look for any time we are enjoined to be jubilate, the moment of conscription that attends joy’s grin and flush. Hardt and Negri want us to go a-Maying, though they have a different May Day in mind. They summon us to gay science. They want us to Do the Dew. “Big government is over!” So let’s ask: What is gay science’s command? What does it want from you?

• • •

What does gay science want from you? We can start with the term itself, or rather with its provenance: Where does the phrase come from? What is the history it carries with it? The term comes, first of all, from Nietzsche, for whom it means something like the free and creative vocation of thought. This notion is trickier than it may at first seem. We normally think of knowledge as coming under headings of truth and falsehood, accuracy and error. Knowledge is supposed to be knowledge of something—of songbirds or Balzac or Kondratieff waves. It is thought that corresponds to really existing conditions in the world; it is the means by which the mind assimilates that world. To speak of “the free and creative vocation of thought,” then, is to call our attention to all those modes of thinking that do not function like knowledge, that do not report and describe and depict, that mean instead to bring new things into the world. But to call this creative vocation of thought “gay science”—gaia scienza, joyful knowledge—is to bring knowledge itself back under the rubric of productive thought, to strip it of its character as knowledge. If we follow Nietzsche, we must stop judging knowledge by the exactness of its representations. Rather, we must judge even knowledge by its non-epistemological qualities, its capacity to engender new forms of life, so that an innovative blunder or lie is always to be preferred to a conformist truth. That is what gay science wants from you, and the term will name the utter elation of this antifoundationalism, the thrill of a world without ground, without factual or ethical constraint.

But the phrase is not, in fact, Nietzsche’s coinage, so the question simply re-poses itself: Where does the term come from? Where did he find it? It turns out that the phrase—not gaia scienza, as Nietzsche has it, but gay saber—refers to the Provençal troubadours of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and means the art of composing love poetry. This piece of information immediately suggests two further points: First, it clarifies Nietzsche’s argument. Gay saber is the science that is not science, knowledge understood as art. Nietzsche has selected from the history of European culture the phrase in which epistemology most obviously gives way to aesthetics. The only science that mattered would be indistinguishable from poetry. This, in fact, is a commonplace of Nietzsche commentary. The second point, then, is more curious because less commonly made: Nietzsche doesn’t borrow his term from just anywhere; he borrows it from medieval court culture. And taking this point seriously will bring into view Nietzsche’s pervasive medievalism, his thoroughgoing preoccupation with feudalism and the warrior nobility. Thus, even if we confine ourselves to the pages of The Gay Science itself, we will find, not only a collection of original songs, appended to the main text and designed to give the book the appearance of a medieval chansonnier, but endless talk of “the noble person,” men working “by force of arms,” “conquerors,” “descendants of old, proud families,” full of “reputation and honor,” the “knightly caste” who “treat each other with exquisite courtesy,” “aristocratic taste,” “a warlike soul,” “cultures with a military basis,” “refinement of noble breeding,” “men of leisure who spend their lives hunting, traveling, in love affairs, or on adventures,” “men of violence,” “bold and autocratic human beings,” “human beings who give themselves law.” So what does gay science want from you? It wants you to be a nobleman, to commit yourself to the refeudalization of Europe. The fit Nietzschean reader must function “as the dutiful heir to all nobility of past spirit, as the most aristocratic of old nobles and at the same time the first of a new nobility.” Nietzsche wants to dub you.

Gay science, in other words, is a machine for generating Quixotes, untimely aristocrats or noblemen without portfolio, ecstatically living out their creative delirium and made incomprehensible to others by their outlandish passions. It is fundamentally atavistic, designed to foster a “recrudescence of old instincts,” to “restore honor to bravery,” to conjure the “late ghosts of past cultures and their powers,” who will appear now as “rare human beings.” Nietzsche is philosophy’s own Lord Baltimore, who, in the 1630s, tried to revive feudalism on the eastern shore of North America: He obtained a land grant from the English crown on the model of an eleventh-century palatinate; named the territory Maryland; and then carved the region up into estates, complete with serfs and seigniorial rights and the rituals of sworn fealty. Maryland was meant to be feudalism’s Massachusetts, the experimental ground of an aristocratic utopia. The gay science, in these terms, offers itself as a Chesapeake of the mind. It is, in Nietzsche’s own words, “a strain from the old older of things European…a seduction and return to it.”

The notion of history that underlies this project is worth elaborating. Nietzsche’s writings, whatever their fragmentary character, produce a comprehensive account of European development, and the pivot point in that history is the rise of the absolutist state and the court nobility. The noblesse de robe stand at the beginning of Nietzsche’s modernity narrative, as Descartes does for Heidegger and primitive accumulation does for Marx. What’s at issue here? The problem, as Nietzsche sees it, is that the court nobility—all those chancellors and councilors and Keepers of the King’s Chamberpot—arose at the expense of an older, knightly caste, who were not bound to the monarch or were bound only by ties easily cut. At court, then, the feudal warlords allowed themselves to be turned into Jews, relinquishing their autonomy in exchange for the dubious honor of serving the king, lord of lords, as his Chosen People, the sticking point here being, of course, that a Chosen People always lets someone else do the choosing, so that its very claim to privilege secretly admits defeat and dependence. The nobility became just another people of the law. This transformation, usually dated in Western Europe to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, actually functions as the culmination of a much longer history, which can be recounted in a few different ways: As the great social historians tell it, this is a story, above all, of institutional changes: In the ninth century, there arose for the first time a special class of noble administrators, “dukes” and “earls” as names for bureaucratic offices; around the thirteen century, this nobility was converted into a distinct legal class; in roughly the same period, there sprang up a caste of stewards and other petty administrators; and over the following centuries, the state would gradually crystallize, centralizing its powers, establishing its monopoly over violence and taxes. The key point about monopoly, from the perspective of gay science, is that it tends to subsume the monopolist himself, who never possesses sole power, but requires ever larger staffs to superintend his realm. The structure tends to become autonomous, to sideline even the sovereign, until there emerges a system without a proper ruler, a system whose head is merely its highest servant. It is at this point, then, that the institutional history tips over into a history of the new subjectivities that these institutions generate, or an ideological history, if you prefer: a history of chivalry, first of all, which is the code by which the old armigerous nobility allowed itself to be christianized; of the pious peace brotherhoods that sprang up during the feudal centuries—sacred vigilantes, ready, in the name of Christ’s concord, to put and end to all that knightly hack-and-slash; of courtesy and everything summed up in the notion of the “civilizing process,” the protocols of conduct—the handkerchiefs and steak knives—that increasingly came to regulate elite bodies. Each of these histories tells a tale of the nobility’s gradual castration, its embourgeoisement or caging. And what we call modernity or bourgeois society is merely the conclusion of this long process, a strange mutation in human affairs by which the upper classes, of all people, came to constrain themselves, to give up the ordinary prerogatives of their power, the joy of rule. Bourgeois society is a place of pervasive unfreedom, the one perverse social order where not even the rulers are free, a society of boundless restriction and self-restraint, the compulsory shame of mutual interdependence.

The word that best encapsulates this historical sea-change is “gentle.” How is it, Nietzsche asks, that the old fighting classes, the pugnatores, metamorphosed into “gentlemen”? How did the nobility, the genteel, come to take as their closest cognates the gentle and the gentile, the tenderhearted and the Christian (with Christians understood here as little more than Hebrew wannabes). Nietzsche’s project, then, is to cut the European nobility free from this crippling constellation—not the really existing nobility, perhaps, but some hypothetical nobility yet to come—to imagine the nobility de-Hebraized, de-Christianized, de-feminized, de-gentrified. And his basic strategy is to reach back behind the long history of the civilizing process—back behind the histories of the state and chivalry and etiquette—so that he can find in early medieval Europe the image of a gloriously raw nobility, a warrior Europe of Ostrogoths and Visigoths, of Franks and marauding Vikings. One hesitates, finally, to call this a medievalism, because that term generally connotes a certain Victorian piety, a cowled churchliness, and Nietzsche’s is a medievalism that fully avows its own most wickedly Gothic qualities, its high terror, its gory sublimity. This point is worth dwelling on, because Nietzsche is typically taken to be a special kind of classicist, the mutant philologist who wants to refashion Europe on the model of pre-Socratic Greece. But Nietzsche’s notion of the pre-Socratic can only be understood as ancient Greece re-described to resemble the early medieval West—a tribal Hellenism of tragic ritual and Homeric warfare. Nietzsche’s historical master trope, the one into which all his other historical mythemes get sutured, is the barbarian; he cycles through the set periods of European history and singles out the barbarian qualities of each—the barbarian Greece of Dionysus, the barbarian Rome of imperialists and slaveholders, the barbarian Renaissance of the Borgias, and so on. One effect of this is to undo the usual distinction between the classical and the Gothic, producing the image of a savage antiquity that largely assimilates the former to the latter. Nietzsche’s philosophy is not a break with nineteenth-century thought but merely a recombination of its most familiar components.

But this recombination does not emerge by sheer will or chance. What makes the perception of savage antiquity possible, at the level of material relations themselves, is the modern reconfiguration of Europe around its horizontal axis, separating the metropolitan North from the now semi-peripheral South. Southern European underdevelopment—the long process by which Italy and the Levant, once the center of the Mediterranean world-system, were relegated to the hinterlands of the Atlantic economy—yields at length new images of the classical world: not a refined and civilized South, but a rude and wild South, a South that will henceforth seem archaic, at least by the standards of Berlin or Liverpool. It is this world-historical shift in capitalism’s geography that allows Nietzsche to run together barbarism, antiquity, and medievalism; and out of this conflation Nietzsche will invent an unusually stark modernity narrative, premised on a divide between our cowering modernity and an undifferentiated pre-modernity, in which there was no antiquity as such. The past, it turns out, has always been creative, innovative, given over to rupture and barbarian transformation. Modernity, then, is the first truly classical age—static, weighed down by restraint and proportion and equipoise—which is to say that it is not modern at all, if by modernity we mean all-that-is-solid-melts-to-air. That modernity, the era of dynamism and splendid transience, belongs to the long-ago. And so the Gothic, when set against an inert, geometrical classicism, will suggest not only the outmoded, not only ruined abbeys and moldering fortresses. It will, in those very glimpses of decay, as also in the busy finials and exalted spires of Gothic Revival architecture, suggest historical vitality—not stagnation or arrest, but historicity itself. The Gay Science is the philosophical high-water mark of this Gothic modernism, the equivalent in thought of a Victorian railway station built to look like a castle or a factory disguised as a basilica.

If you want to figure out what gay science wants from you, then, you have two choices: You can treat gay science as a philosophical argument—the creative vocation of free thought; or you can treat it as a historical allusion—the Gothic art of knightly poets. The vital point, however, is that these accounts correlate, which means that there is really no choosing between those options. It is through philosophical argument that Nietzsche means to effect his medievalist historical revival. If we sign on to the philosophical project—if, that is, we learn to treat knowledge as something other than knowledge, learn to see all thought as creative—then we will help end the tyranny of truth and science and bring into being a “genuinely savage” future. Nietzsche calls upon us to de-epistemologize our modernity, to initiate an un-civilizing process that will destroy science as a separate sphere, with its own practices and institutions: telephone surveys, public schools, government accounting offices. And medieval Europe serves Nietzsche as the model of this non-epistemological society, in which there will be no more knowledge for its own sake. It is impossible to embrace gay science in purely philosophical form; the phrase itself is a permanent memento of the medievalism that underpins its seeming abstraction. If the American Revolution, like the French Revolution after it, was classicism’s uprising, all columned buildings and proud republicans and paintings of Washington-in-toga, then Nietzsche aims to give medieval Europe an insurgency of its own, a Gothic 1776, and The Gay Science will be its Common Sense.

4492985114_0fdde1dfdfSt. Pancras railway station, London





-For more on commas and semi-colons, see Adorno’s “Punctuation Marks” in the first volume of his Notes to Literature.

-Herrick’s poetry begins to make sense once you’ve read Christopher Hill’s Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England and Leah Marcus’s Politics of Mirth.

-Hardt and Negri’s tag lines all go back to a passage early in Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus: “write with slogans: Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point!”

-The bit about the Jews comes straight from Nietzsche—see The Gay Science, #136:  “the Jews take a pleasure in their divine monarch and the holy which is similar to that which the French nobility took in Louis XIV. This nobility had surrendered all its power and sovereignty and become contemptible.”

-For more on the European nobility, see the classic works of medieval social history: Bloch’s Feudal Society; Duby’s Early Growth of the European Economy; and especially Elias’s Civilizing Process.

-The photograph at the top is Vincent Diamante’s.

Six Theses On How Stories End, Part Two

Thesis 1, Part TwoScreen Shot 2014-04-01 at 1.05.06 AM

Here, at last, is an argument about—and, indeed, against—endings: Nineteenth-century novels were written for the professional and bureaucratic classes, for the kinds of people, in other words, who keep reports on the rest of us; good twentieth-century novels were not; and it is endings that most distinguish the one from the other. Readers of Juan Rulfo and Nathalie Sarraute have to make their peace with enduring uncertainty, relinquishing the expectation that a fiction’s final pages will notarize and tidily file away all that’s come before. In the classical text, by contrast—so Barthes—truth arrives “at the end”; “truth is what completes, what closes”; “the profound is what is discovered at the end,” “closing off the infinite repetition of dialogue,” “bringing the interplay of languages to an end.”  And here’s where things get tricky for the literary historian trying to make sense of S/Z. Anyone reading Barthes on “the classical text” is bound to feel, at some point or another, that they have just read some of the most penetrating pages ever written on prose fiction. I’m thinking especially of mini-essay #60, in which is explained the dilemma of any literature trying to establish its place in the epistemological society. In any “civilization of enigma, truth and decipherment,” realist novels have no choice but to pursue a certain ruse, producing artificial opacities which they will later offer to illuminate: Who is Pip’s benefactor? Who started the fire at Thornfield Hall? For if they were genuinely committed to truth, there would be no suspense—no tenterhooks, perhaps no story—since they could just authoritatively answer any riddle as soon as it arose: Look, the convict he once helped is sending him money from Australia. Watch out, he keeps his first wife in the attic. Hey, you know that singer? She’s a dude. Most narrators and all novelists are in a position, more than any overly detailed trailer or whispering aisle-mate, to ruin the coming plot-twist. They can always solve the mystery before the detective. The trick of realist fiction in a culture dominated by knowledge is to withhold the truth while seeming to be honest and truth-driven.

So again, “classical texts” do this. “Modern” ones don’t. It’s a brilliant argument whose only drawback is that it can’t possibly be right, at least not as a general proposition about narrative as such. One can hardly doubt that the description serves for some mid-shelf fiction, but do we really think it will hold for every story published before 1922? Where exactly are to we look to find these canons of uniformly closed storytelling? Are we to look to the ancient epic, to “the classical text” in its accustomed meaning? That won’t help. The Iliad ends so abruptly—with the burial of a single Trojan warrior in the middle of an ongoing war—that first-time readers typically feel cheated. Anyone finishing book twenty-four of Homer knows that there is more story left to tell, and woe to the great-books lecturer who has to break it to his students that there will be no wooden horse. For the fall of Troy, a reader will have to wait for the Aeneid, which itself terminates so suddenly, well before the conquest of Italy and founding of Rome, that scholars have generally concluded that Virgil died before finishing the thing.

So do we look instead to French neoclassicism? That might be one of the configurations Barthes had in mind when he grabbed the word “classical.” The problem here is that prose fiction, unlike eighteenth-century history paintings and seventeenth-century neo-Pindarics, is almost never described as “neoclassical,” since prose-writers were much less likely than tragedians or epic poets to invoke whatever few ancient models they had. The most obvious exception to this observation—that would be d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607-1627), a pastoral love story, with bonus side adventures, set in the fifth century—clocks in at some 5,400 pages, which means that it can hardly be accused of possessing a precipitate drive to closure. That prose fiction forgoes the claim to classicism can be glimpsed in the form’s accepted names; the European languages furnish two, and they both mark long prose fiction as innovative. This, I’ll grant, might at first be hard to see, since the most common term for “novel” outside of English is a word that also means “a citizen of antiquity’s great Mediterranean empire.” It is a trick of etymology, then, that a roman is precisely not Roman, but rather a story-no-longer-in-Latin, a vernacular tale, recounted in some post-imperial creole or another. “Novels,” meanwhile, are new stories about new things.

So maybe “the classical text” is actually just Barthes’s idiosyncratic gloss on “the realist novel” after all. Maybe this is what makes realist novels distinctive—and distinctively odious—that they go in for strong closure when so many forms do not, that they are the blind alleys on literature’s otherwise open map. But then how could anyone wishing to make that argument choose as his paradigm Balzac, the steamboat captain of the roman-fleuve, of the riverine novel-that-never-ends, the great novel-flux? The shady southern law student you read about in one novel reappears five years later, as a secondary character in another book, except now he’s under-secretary of state. The property speculator at the center of Zola’s Curée, from 1871-72, is still kicking around eighteen novels later. Any novel that appears in a cycle—any Leatherstocking tale, any Barchester chronicle, any episodio nacional—is liable to have its ending amended by some later entry in the series. The biggest shock is to realize that Roland Barthes is mistaken even about his proof text—not just about Balzac broadly, but about “Sarrasine” in particular. Let me read back into the record my summary of Balzac’s novella:

In southern Italy in the 1770s, a French sculptor falls in love with a pretty soprano without knowing that she is actually a cross-dressing and castrated man; that mistake ends up getting the sculptor killed. In Paris, a half century later, the now elderly castrato unnerves the Bourbon Restoration’s smart set, crashing their balls, sidling wordlessly up to their women.

What you’ll want to bear in mind at this point is that S/Z is often read, with some justice, as an early exercise in queer literary criticism. The Anglo-Foucauldian vocabulary of “the queer” may not have been available to Barthes in ’68 and ’69, but he is plainly interested in how “the classical text” deals with characters who fall outside of its governing schemes of sexual classification, and in pursuing that matter he ends up furnishing a later queer criticism with one of its signature arguments. The painter is killed; the queer love story is terminated; it leaves behind only images of itself—a statue of the singer, and then paintings made of the statue: “something dangerous,” writes Barthes, “has been contained, exorcised, pacified.” Queer desire has been foreclosed; Western discourse has opted to liquidate, as unreadable, the emasculated man, &c. But even my rushed précis should be enough to show you that Barthes has got this wrong, since “Sarrasine” is not one story but two, a narrative and a frame narrative—that structure is common enough—and what is pacified in the one lives on in the other. Sarrasine dies; the singer lives.

Nor is this a subtle point, the literature professor’s usual exercise in competitive exegesis. Barthes bizarrely implies that attenuated images of the castrato are all that remain of him: “the sinister story of La Zambinella grows distant, no longer exists save as a vague, moon-struck enigma, mysterious without being offensive.” (208) But Balzac’s non-realist idiom makes the queer soprano’s uncanny survival hard to overlook. The castrato doesn’t, in fact, just intrude upon the parties of the rich; he haunts them, deaf, desiccated, in outdated ruffles and hose, a queer “phantom,” a zombie of the ancien régime—a “vampire,” perhaps, a “walking corpse,” the story says. So yes, queer illegibility is in a sense killing, at least to a normal; the encounter with the queer term can be lethal. But Barthes has botched the bit about closure: The story does not know how to wish the queer away. The exorcism does not take. The Gothic language—realist? classical?—guarantees repetition.

So what’s going on here? How has the greatest work of post-structuralist literary criticism made such a hash of its central claims? Fortunately, Barthes himself has engineered all the tools one needs to work out an answer. Semiotics, after all, instructs us not to treat any writing as a simple report on the world; every account, every argument, every description involves a more or less arbitrary coding of the data, and our task now is simply to extend that insight to semiotics itself, to stop reverencing S/Z as a special vehicle of glossematic wisdom and to see it instead as cutting capriciously into the literary field. I can be more specific than that: Barthes, unlike many of his predecessors, insists that the codes in any text will always be multiple. That is, he forgivingly calls off the search for the master code to which all others reduce. At the same time, though, he argues that any given story will be organized around a central antithesis, a patterning of its information into some specially charged dichotomy (in whose circumference other codes might nonetheless float free). Indeed, it was in S/Z that Barthes furnished post-structuralism with one of its canonical attacks on binary thought, on any Manichean and stalled antithesis that carves the cosmos into ontologically polarized densities, “two plenitudes set ritually face to face like two fully armed warriors … the given opposition, eternal, eternally recurrent.” The “symbolic” universe posited by nearly all writing can understand the breached antithesis or union of opposites only via the conceptually impoverished category of “paradox,” to be strictly distinguished from the dialectical antithesis-in-motion, though Barthes also suggests that for a story to begin, for it to be experienced as necessary, there has to exist some such absurdity, something excessive, something that upsets the stagnant balance of the binary, an unresolved third term that will eventually and in unprecedented fashion mediate between A and B … or will be eliminated as a menace … or will survive its attempted purge and so open-endedly stalk the binary as free radical and unpaired abortion. The fate of third terms simply is the stuff of narrative; it is the only story anyone has to tell.

Examples of stalled antitheses are easy enough to find. Cowboy v. Indian, the grazia and ingegno of Renaissance culture v. the gross rusticity of medieval art, prudish mortal v. sabertoothed, libertine superman. Here are a few more—or rather one more variously named: the classical text v. the modern one; the readable text v. the writerly; closed texts v. open ones. These all come from Barthes, and their proliferation and near-redundancy suggest how central this opposition is to his system. Modern equals writerly equals open, though there is one term, common enough in Barthes’s writing, that we will want to keep out of this series, and that’s “plural,” since the semiotician himself remarks that all texts are plural by necessity, while only some of them are open. “Plural,” in other words, does not mean “open.” Cellblocks are variously populated but no less locked for that. Polyphonic but nonetheless closed—that idea is, in fact, Barthes’s great contribution to the fight over the novel, his signal innovation over Bakhtin. The realist novel might be a compendium of many voices, but if Barthes is right, they are all muttering slogans you’ve already heard. Choruses, we know, sing from off the same score. The Bakhtinians, then, are the ones who cannot distinguish between polyphonies, disregarding all the devices deployed by texts to weight and rank their voices, like sound engineers at a mixing board, amplifying this channel, fading out that, always ready, should a performer prove uncooperative, to cut the mic. Any time a critic uses the word “heteroglossia,” you can be pretty sure he can’t tell the difference between lead vocal and background sha-na-na.

If, therefore, I am reading S/Z as a semiotician, and not as a Bakhtinian, then I should be able to note that Barthes’s writing is plural—varied in its literary-critical methods, tessellated into numbered pseudo-fragments—and still not feel that this plurality counts for much, because he himself has told us that it doesn’t (or that it needn’t). S/Z, despite having a lot to say about literary plurality, is nonetheless anchored in precisely the kind of antithesis that stabilizes and organizes multiplicity: classical and not modern; readable and not writerly. To ply the distinction between texts open and closed is one good way to stopple your own argument. S/Z is less an open text than a closed one in service of the open. Old-fashioned stories, Barthes tells us, can’t accommodate freaks or “monsters”—his word—characters who fall outside the narrative’s coding of the universe into zero and one, those who are “outside any classification,” “outside the code,” “outside the norms.” Terminator 3, Silence of the Lambs, Thor, others I have yet to name: Any movie that both ends and doesn’t is the monster that S/Z doesn’t want to face, open and closed at once, the prodigal term that a bisected semiotics cannot accommodate.

There’s actually a pattern here. More than once, Barthes identifies one of the pitfalls of the “classical text” and then heedlessly falls straight into it, replicating in his strenuously modernist pamphlet the putatively outmoded iniquities of the old bourgeois literature and so undoing the reassurance he wishes to provide that the rhetorical failings of this latter can be identified and historically quarantined. So antithesis was one such pitfall; here’s another. If there is anything Barthes likes less than binary thinking, it is the related problem of common sense or ideology. No surprise there, though his account of how ideology gets produced is fairly distinctive. What needs tracking, he says, is the routine processing of new scholarly claims into anonymous and uncredentialed wisdom. Literature and journalism are the key devices in this transformation—the transmutation of expertise into street epistemology—seizing hold of what had briefly been specialized arguments, repeating them without attribution, and so lending them the insidious authority of the commonplace. A novel, by opening itself to other registers and discourses, doesn’t make itself more plural; it merely absorbs whatever in the dominant intellectual scene was already least thinking, its triteness and decay.  Or worse, literature and journalism are the making-platitudinous of once contested positions. A claim, once reproduced in a “classical text,” is no longer an argument that one might disagree with or feel challenged by; it is merely a topos and will pass back into general circulation in this imbecile form. Such, then, is the business of yet another of the coding mechanisms that Barthes theorizes in S/Z, “the cultural codes,” he calls them; you might think of them as the venders of chestnuts and sedative bromides. Among the fundamental elements in any piece of writing are the things that other people have told its author are true, unchallenged beliefs that are present in its paragraphs only as paraphrase and copied language.

The point we won’t want to miss is that the book in which Barthes describes the cultural codes is itself shot through with such codesthat Barthes’s writing, I mean, is an unweeded bed of borrowed wisdom and pilfered idioms. A few of these are especially salient. Indeed, if you follow these you’ll be able to spot for yourself the rhetorical mechanisms by which Barthes codes some endings as open and assigns to their openness an unchanging set of connotations. The ideology of the open text announces itself here:

(1)           The goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.  ★ This sentence says little more than that we should prefer modernist novels to nineteenth-century ones because William Burroughs demands engaged and active readers and Victor Hugo didn’t. This idea is, I think, best understood as encouraging readers to refashion a text or to adapt it to their circumstances, to not be bound by what the author had in mind or indeed by a concern with what a given collection of words “really means.” For our purposes, the important point is that this notion could be phrased in two very different ways: as permission to “play with the text” or as permission to “work with the text.” I’m guessing you would say “play,” which is why you should notice that Barthes does not. Literature is labor; the reader fabricates or manufactures. Barthes has opted for the toilsome version of the active reader, and this in some maximally Marxist way—production!—even though once stripped of these rhetorical choices, his underlying argument is merely professorial and stick-to-it-ive: not that listening to the Mekons will make you want to go out there and start a band, but that reading Robbe-Grillet kind of feels like a job. The Barthes who talks about work is, at any rate, the Barthes we think we know, the Barthes of western Marxism, the Barthes who politicized semiotics, the Barthes who transformed structuralist linguistics into a stick with which to beat the bourgeoisie, the Barthes who thinks a difficult novel enrolls its cultivated readership into the ranks of the proletariat. There is more in this vein: Modernist novels are “production without product,” a utopian factory that need assemble no roadworthy Buicks. Realist novels, by contrast, are literature’s consumer goods, ready-mades arranged behind interchangeably orange spines. If this is the case, then the task of a materialist criticism is to steal from such “products” their finished face, to defetishize old novels the way one would any deceptively settled object, to insist that fiction is something made and that it might yet be re-made by any reader-producer “working back along the threads of meanings,” “observing the reversibility of the structures from which the text is woven.” The trick now for us—as readers not of Balzac but of Barthes—is to hear these sentences as language and solely as language, to register only their memes, and so not to start parsing them as stance or admiring them as argument, because if we are reading S/Z semiotically, then we are prohibited from saying that Marxism is authentically available in its pages as a method. Just tell yourself: Any point that Barthes couches in Marxist terms he could just as well have couched otherwise, without the workerism that makes of the novelist a weaver and of the novel a bolt of frayed organdy. In any particular paragraph, historical materialism announces itself not as an intellectual-political project, but only as a sociolect, the ornaments and epithets of the independent Left, a communism amputated back to its figures of speech, a trophy Marxism (REF. the Marxist code).


(2)     How can one code be superior to another without abusively closing off the plurality of codes? Only writing, by assuming the largest possible plural in its own task, can oppose without appeal to force the imperialism of each language. ★ These two sentences are a rumpus of political commonplace. If you’re still thinking that Barthes is a Marxist, then the term that just jumped out at you was probably the last, imperialism, around which the literature professor conscripts modernist fiction into the anti-colonial struggle (REF. the code of the Bandung Conference). That gloss is mostly spurious, though, because the passage’s several other ideologemes form around this scrap of liberationist rhetoric a rather different political constellation. Plural …  not closed … without force—at a half century’s remove it is easier than ever to see that this is the patois of Cold War liberalism and thus the verbal housing of a US-led and Wilsonian anti-colonialism rather than a Third-Worldist one (REF. the code of the UN Charter). This would be the moment to go back and renew our attention to the word closed, whose essentially Popperite register now looms into view. It is a tag Barthes uses often—realist novels are “closed,” bad readings are “closed,” antitheses are “closed,” actions assigned overfamiliar verbs are “closed,” dictionaries are “closed”—though the opposite of “closed,” in S/Z, is the Schlegelian “infinite” and not the expected “open,” such that one might mnemonically rename the book The Infinite Text and Its Enemies. The word “plural” occurs more frequently still, many dozens of times in the space of some 200 pages, though it, too, acquires an unanticipated antonym: neither “monolithic” nor “homogeneous” nor “uniform,” but “incompletely plural” (REF. the code of the separation of powers and the mixed constitution, of religious tolerationism, of institutionalist social theory, and of Americanism in Europe). Semiotically, then, the distinctive quality of Barthes’s writing lies neither in his extensive recitations from the anti-totalitarian liturgy, nor in his much scarcer deployments of red catchwords, but in his free-form recombination of the two, by dint of which the vocabulary of historical materialism is absorbed into and made to do the work of the open society. Marxist intellectual procedures—the critique of fetishism, the redescription of art and culture as “production”—get pressed into the service of liberal political arguments, the pursuit of the “integrally plural,” “the largest possible plural,” the diversissimo. That’s S/Z.

(3)     The difference between feudal society and bourgeois society, index and sign, is this: the index has an origin, the sign does not: to shift from index to sign is to abolish the last (or first) limit, the origin, the basis, the prop, to enter into the limitless process of equivalences, representations that nothing will ever stop, orient, fix, sanction. ★ Another argument about endings: Barthes asks us to dislike old-fashioned narrative—novels, but in this case, one suspects, plays, too—for preferring some denouements to others, for needing to end some particular way, and so for tamping down on our sense of the future as a field unenclosed, changing possibility into plot and routing the morrow through story’s variously convention-bound bottle-necks and border crossings. A novel can reach its foreordained conclusion without even having to deliberate over alternatives, just by relying on a given genre’s sense that this is how such characters are meant to wind up. Sense and Sensibility, after all, might be a more interesting book if one could at least conceive of Elinor Dashwood marrying Willoughby (or Lucy Steele) and not always awkward and dependable Edward Ferrars. Or: It doesn’t matter how many times you re-read Waverley, the Highlanders aren’t going to win this time. Barthes is never more anti-Aristotelian than when he objects that plot structures create, through repetition, an artificial sense of fate or destiny or historical necessity. The word he attaches to this argument is “reversible”: The “classical text” generates a sense of “irreversible order”; it installs an “incompletely reversible system.” But once that word is in play, the argument becomes easy to discard. That we should reject all claims to irreversibility is prima facie unconvincing. Are we really sure that everything is reversible? Every broken jug glueable? Every monarchy restorable? Are you confident that vanished glaciers can be re-frigerated? Have you ever known a Yemeni wedding party to be reanimated or retroactively un-mis-assassinated? Do you have a proposal for getting white people to leave North America? No action is irreversible is the sentiment of a man who has never oversalted his soup. Nor is it really clear that “the classical text” is as rigidly end-directed as all that. I can write that it is tough to imagine a Hamlet in which a briefly resolute prince successfully avenges his father, but as soon as that sentence is typed, one goes ahead and imagines it anyway: Claudius cut down at prayer, Ophelia no longer nunneried, the prince raised to the throne and dithering still.

More to the point: Does Roland Barthes actually believe that all sequences are reversible? Or rather, does he write as though he did? Go back and look again at the sentence quoted here:

The difference between feudal society and bourgeois society, index and sign, is this: the index has an origin, the sign does not: to shift from index to sign is to abolish the last (or first) limit, the origin, the basis, the prop, to enter into the limitless process of equivalences, representations that nothing will ever stop, orient, fix, sanction.

From feudalism, indices, and a world of ordered sequence; to capitalism, signs, and a world without such sequence. We’ll want to note right away that this sentence can’t possibly be saying what it seems to be saying—that Capetian France and the Holy Roman Empire lacked language or that in such societies words really did function like footprints or photographs, as the physical evidence left behind by their referents. Barthes has to be saying that pre-modern people typically thought of words as securely attached to their objects and that moderns to their credit know better, that they know language to be free-floating. So not: from index to sign, but: from sign-mistaken-for-index to sign-recognized-for-what-it-is. But now we have to bracket that clarification, setting aside the substance of Barthes’s historical claim in order to register the simpler, semiotic point that this sentence has borrowed the language of historical periodization (REF. the code of the philosophy of history). In the process of expounding the doctrine of reversibility, Barthes proves perfectly capable of proposing an irreversible series of his own. This isn’t just a gotcha point—the problem is more interesting than that, an incoherence and not just an inconsistency. In S/Z, the society-without-sequence appears as an item within a sequence, and the problem is that if Barthes can identify the shift from one to another, then the shift itself doesn’t exist. Or the same point in reverse: If it’s true that we live in a society-in-which-one-no-longer-thinks-in-terms-of-sequence, then Barthes shouldn’t be able to name the historical stages by which such a society came to be. All you have to do to make this paradox go away is concede that Barthes has written a literary manifesto and not the statement of fact that S/Z sometimes pretends to be. Modernity, Barthes writes at one point, is the time of “confusion,” of “the unbridled (pandemic) circulation of signs, of sexes, of fortunes.” Capitalism, queerness, and modernist literature—we don’t really need to know why he thinks these three belong together; it is enough to know that he codes them all as “modern” (or “bourgeois”) and not as “classical” (or “feudal”). Modernity is the period of generalized circulation, of wealth-, desire-, and language-without-ground. Barthes’s point was not that twentieth-century novelists couldn’t (or uniformly didn’t) attempt sequence or strong endings, but simply that such novelists were out of keeping with a consumer society that in 1970 was the true empire of signs. Realism is to be rejected not for being too bourgeois, but for being insufficiently so. S/Z is a petition to bring European fiction more fully into the market, to subject it irrevocably to the “limitless process of equivalences.” “Limitless process”: The first word in that phrase is going to require special comment, of course. Commercial and semiotic societies are “limitless,” governed, he says on the same page, by an “endless process.” Just follow the bleeping code: Capitalism and language are “limitless” and “endless.” The modern text replicates this condition in literature, “denying [the] final word (denying the end as a word).” Capitalism, language, and modernist literature thus make up a set. All three belong to a semiological modernity that, Barthes tell us, “nothing will ever stop,” an endlessness, then, that far from restoring to us the open future ensures only that it will never come.

So Barthes wants fiction writers to forego the temptations of the tidy ending, to commit to the infinite text as project and program. The only point that still needs making is that he needn’t have bothered, that this recommendation is, in fact, entirely redundant. His point about capitalism is accurate enough, after a fashion. I say again that Hollywood blockbusters go in for unresolved and ambiguous endings, and you reply, perhaps, that that you have a ready explanation for this. Open endings set up sequels, you say; they are just so many dropped cans of Barbasol. This is no doubt true, but if we pause now to mull this observation, the puzzle will merely change shape before us. So let’s say that the open ending is how franchises are built, hence the mark of commerce impinging on narrative form, and that in some unusually forthright way—the necessary re-organization that fiction undergoes if it is to be industrialized: mass-produced and sold in installments. As soon as we say that, we have to give up once and for all on the common belief that popular narrative requires strong closure: wedding bells sounding, bombs defused, families reunited, victory laps haughtily jogged. For popular narrative has for several generations now been produced in two antithetical modes: 1) the old, completed forms of romance (the good guys win!) and comedy (everybody wins!) coexisting with 2) oddly ongoing and undecided versions of same: novels sold chapterwise, novels serialized in magazines, novels serialized in newspapers, comic strips, movie serials, television. English fairy tales end with happily ever after, but German tales go out on and if they have not died, then they are still alive. And if pulp comes with endings both closed and unclosed, then we can no longer treat the open ending as one of modernism’s more sophisticated achievements—the art novel’s defining challenge to its downmarket competitors, the carrier of its abstrusely anti-teleological and anti-totalizing doctrines. Commercial imperatives and experimental writing attack traditional narrative in the same way and to similar effect, and the “modern text” mutates into a universal term without meaningful rivals.





Six Theses About How Stories End


A beginning

You may not be all that surprised to hear that Hollywood blockbusters have trouble finishing. You’ve seen enough of them; you’ve sat through some gangly third acts; you know to wait for the teasers and the stingers and the Easter eggs. All the same, I hope you’re at least a little bit surprised, since you probably also think that open and ambiguous endings are the hallmark of serious fiction and auteurist film. That is, you probably think that ordinary people, the ones who didn’t go to liberal arts colleges, demand, alongside singable choruses and lifelike paintings of trout fishermen, stories with unambiguous endings—triumphal marches, high fives, freeze-framed exultation. And if you think this, then you shouldn’t just shrug at the simple fact that a great many blockbuster endings aren’t all that emphatic; that often enough, epilogue follows upon coda follows upon now buried peroration; that Hollywood, which hasn’t gone in for actual cliffhangers since the 1940s, nonetheless prefers that its biggest movies stumble in their final moments or that their endings arrive breached and unsettled. Terminator 3 is, at heart, the story of a good killer robot from the future battling a bad killer robot from the future, and if you were talking casually to a friend, you would say that the movie ends when good robot eliminates bad. But that’s not quite right, since the movie actually ends when the US military’s in-house computer network becomes self-aware and launches nuclear strikes on all the world’s major cities. Humanity’s near annihilation is reported, but accorded the status of a subplot or loose end, such that one could plausibly leave it out in the re-telling: Oh yeah, I almost forgot—we all die. Hollywood endings, it turns out, are compulsively multiple: A defeated Loki decides to end his own life and leaps contritely into the Empyrean; the same Loki re-appears, unrepentant and un-seppuku’d, not six minutes later. Silence of the Lambs ends with one serial killer dead on the floor and a second serial killer on the move in Bimini. The most important book on narrative published in the 1980s explains in its opening pages that plots “demarcate, enclose, establish limits”; they involve “boundedness, demarcation, the drawing of lines to mark off and order.” But boundedness is not, in fact, the condition of many of our most widely shared stories. Some plots branch and end partially. Or they end and then promptly, uncannily, withdraw those endings and so end up only weakly demarcated, enclosed on three sides, half-limited and semi-ordered. Allow yourself to be puzzled. Wasn’t dominant supposed to return to tonic?

…which is all to say: You may not care that The Avengers trails off with five superheroes eating schawarma in silence, but if you begin thinking hard about such scenes—about finales false, weak, and plural, as about post- and mid-credit sequences and their now wholly conventionalized rescissions, their ticcish abrogation of ending—then it will turn out that nearly everything we think we know about how stories end is wrong. On the matter of closure, literary criticism has inherited from twentieth-century narratology a set of fixed positions that actual movies and novels do not reliably bear out.

I would like to propose some corrections.

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Thesis #1: Modernist and experimental fiction possesses no monopoly on the open ending.

When revolution was attempted in France in May 1968—eleven million workers on the streets, French students in revolt against their home departments, speaking bitterness at their lecturers and mentors—Roland Barthes was leading a seminar on a single novella of Balzac’s. In January 1969, after a hiatus forced by the rebellion, Barthes resumed his course, moved to North Africa for a year, wrote up his findings, and then published them back in Paris in 1970 under the title S/Z. That’s a book we’re going to want to know about, because it offers what has been for many decades now literary criticism’s canonical defense of the open ending, though it does this mostly in the negative, by anatomizing a story whose ending it takes to be disingenuously closed. That story, Balzac’s “Sarrasine,” from 1830, is lurid enough to hold a person’s interest: In southern Italy in the 1770s, a French sculptor falls in love with a pretty soprano without knowing that she is actually a cross-dressing and castrated man; that mistake ends up getting the sculptor killed. In Paris, a half century later, the now elderly castrato crashes the soirées of the Bourbon Restoration, unnerving its smart set, sidling wordlessly up to its women, exerting a power few can fathom. But you don’t have to be interested in nineteenth-century French fiction to appreciate what Barthes is up to in S/Z. In most respects, the Balzac story is just a case study, an exemplum upon which to showcase a new method, which you are meant to deploy against whichever middlebrow novel you next read, though it has to be said that Barthes’s performance in this little book is so consummate—so expert and so businesslike in its expertise—that almost no-one in these last forty-five years has ventured to emulate it. For what most jumps out at a first-time reader of S/Z is its pretense to exhaustiveness, its determination to comment on the entire novella, which Barthes reproduces in toto, word for word and front to back, in a display of exegetical thoroughness more typically associated with constitutional law textbooks and rabbinic Judaism, as though the realist novel were getting its own Midrash. Barthes, this is to say, has broken down “Sarrasine,” only 34 pages in its modern edition, into 560 units, with the aim of identifying, by function, every one of these separate pieces, like a tinkerer disassembling a ham radio and carefully labeling each of its parts. Barthes’s book is in one sense just an annotated inventory of those units, though from out of these scholia, a theory emerges, as Barthes pauses every six or seven items to insert a short essay on How Narratives Work.

The theory goes something like this: When I read a novel, it is easy for me to feel that I am, as it were, listening to a single voice, that I am in the care of a single great storyteller. In many cases, I will take this voice to be the author’s; in some instances, I will know it to be a narrator’s. Either way, I reach for a novel because I enjoy being immersed in its sonority. Barthes’s guiding argument is that this view is wrong and the pleasure associated with it illusory, that prose fiction is always a welter of discourses, artfully rearranged; a composite of many voices; a chatter; a radio dial rapidly turned, fortuitously yielding sense. Thus Barthes, briskly stated.

Immediately, though, difficulties present themselves. For in this summary version, accurate enough as far as it goes, Barthes’s theory is hard to tell apart from rival accounts, and most notably from Mikhail Bakhtin’s, which holds that the novel is a plural genre, the literary form native to bourgeois-democratic societies, a play of competing and counterpointed voices, with no controlling perspective. That Barthes is arguing more nearly the opposite won’t be clear until you understand the claims he is making about literary history, which poses a problem, since on the face of it he seems to be making no such claims. Barthes, after all, doesn’t want to be telling a story; why we shouldn’t trust stories is finally what S/Z is about. The semiotician comes into being in the mid-twentieth century as the literary historian’s rival and replacement, as will be evident to anyone reading Barthes for the first time, wondering what to take away from the book’s spasmodicness, confounded by its collection of stop-and-go marginalia, its footnotes without body text.

But Barthes is telling a story all the same, giving a not unfamiliar account of the way literature used to be and the way it is now (or was in the now of 1968); and one of our tasks as readers of S/Z is to assemble its scattered historical claims and with them to reassemble the saga that semiotics claims not to be singing. Barthes’s position is most easily grasped, I think, as a claim about the rhetorical tradition, though this isn’t, in fact, how he frames it. Or rather, this is how he frames it, but in hard-to-perceive ways, by routinely calling Balzac’s fiction “classical”—that is, by making “Sarrasine” his signal instance of the “classical text”—and also by insisting that we prefer to any such paleolith a set of more recent novels that he calls “the modern text” or “modern writing,” which latter term sometimes mislays its adjective and so becomes just “writing.” For to call Balzac “classical” is to strip the realist novel of its usual claim to modernity and to associate it instead with the ancient literary education, the rhetorical education typical of Roman senators and Renaissance humanists. The important point, for any reader of S/Z, is that declamatory Latin trained its students to write in exceedingly conventionalized ways and this for a few different reasons. First, convention entered the prose of students when they were forced to mimic the good style of acknowledged masters: Cicero, Seneca, Tacitus. Second, any young  grammarian needing to stake out a position in some upcoming disputation was invited to scan a list of established argumentative moves, many of which recommended invoking the testimony of others: the argument to authority, the argument to law, the argument to rumor, the argument to common wisdom, and so on. Third, young orators were counseled to agree with their auditors whenever possible.  The classical idea is that when you step in front of an audience, your first task will be to reassure the crowd that you share with them an underlying set of premises and priorities—to show that you are one of them, a fellow Roman, a loyal Florentine, and that you understand the culture’s core convictions. You discern your audience’s chauvinism, and then you offer to reinforce it. The art of a shrewd speaker is thus to convince his listeners that some inventive and potentially troubling position flows seamlessly from views they already hold. In a literary culture of this kind, the best writers will be careful to submerge their voices beneath maxims and inherited elegance and the unchallenged assumptions of their own readers; indeed, it might not even make sense to talk about such writers as having had voices to begin with.

We’ll want to note that this position can be made to yield a full-blown theory of literary history, as when some medievalists argue that there was no specifically medieval literature, that anyone studying, say, twelfth-century writing is merely dipping at random into the essential continuity of Western civilization. Before the rise of the novel, and perhaps even before Romanticism, European art and letters were uniformly lateRoman, just so many riffs on the fourth century, discrete entries in the unbroken history of Christianized antiquity. If you find that claim convincing, then the task of the cultural historian will be to trace the continuities and small mutations in the European West’s common store of images and poetic formulas. You will want to study conventions and not authors or artists, on the notion that innovation or individual creativity didn’t count for much in Europe until Byron fled England in 1816. And with this frame in place, Barthes’s “classical text” can be heard for the periodizing term that it is. Indeed, something of this argument can be sensed simply by contemplating the many neologisms that Barthes proposes in S/Z, almost all of them derived from the Greek (semes, proairetisms, hermeneutisms), and which when added to the many Hellenistic terms he borrows unmodified (catachresis, asyndeton, cacography, endoxa) offer to transform structuralism into a twentieth-century ars rhetorica. Barthes steps forward as the counter-Curtius, writing temporarily from independent Morocco to lament realism’s fundamental allegiance to what he calls “Western discourse” and “Western thinking” and “the Occident.”  And with that, it becomes possible to say why Barthes’s position is, in fact, unlike Bakhtin’s, whose basic move, after all, had been to separate epics and novels, with the latter stepping forward as the great open and post-classical genre, willing to forego the oracular, soliloquizing authority claimed by the Homeric tyrant-bard. Barthes is making the case that even in the nineteenth century, innovation and individual creativity didn’t count for much, that writers like Balzac were still rhetorical—jugglers of commonplace, topos recyclers, weavers of purchased thread.

So why would he think this? There are a few different reasons; the pervasive conventionality of realist fiction can be spotted from a few different angles. Its heroes, for a start, get assembled out of routine verbal tags, which means, among other things, that you are going to have to stop treating your favorite characters as people. They don’t preexist the descriptions that conjure them into being, and those descriptions aren’t nearly as particularizing as we fondly take them to be. Even the most iridescent characters have been bundled together out of already existing memes. Julien Sorel and Maggie Tulliver are scarecrows improvised out of semiotic burlap.

Much the same point can be made about action. An attentive observer could, at will, describe any action in ever more minute and corporeal terms, off towards some vanishing point of micro-physiology, right down to the cosine of your briefly crooked elbow. A woman across the room has dropped her hands to her sides; she’s fingering her skirt on either side, as though preparing to check with both hands the thread count of hotel linen; now she’s looking at the floor—maybe something has shaken loose from her lap, just now, when she tightened the skirt’s fabric across her thighs—a contact lens? a bit of dinner roll?; and at the same time, her right foot has swung back behind her left, toes planted on the floor, heel cocked into the air, and her knees are angling outwards, left and right, yawing her legs into the exaggerated bow of a cartoon gunslinger, dragging her still unbent torso some eighteen inches closer to the floor. There is a serious question, of course, about whether we want to call such a description unmediated—presumably not, though it would be possible to rewrite those sentences with more math and less Yosemite Sam. Does more math mean less mediated? Again, probably not, but such a description would be estranging all the same and at least mildly autistic, the beginnings of a motion study in prose, withholding the summary terms that we habitually attach to such sequences: She curtsied. It is only if we keep in mind that fiction writers could if they wished commit to an off-putting literary Newtonianism, describing only bodies in motion, itemizing the hypothetical nano-gestures of made-up limbs, that we can begin to appreciate how important it is that they almost never do—almost never, but sometimes: Foster Wallace plays tennis!—preferring to burden their readers with the poverty of overfamiliar verbs, bringing actions before our minds already abridged, socialized, encased in their conventional meanings: He fell in love. The deed thoughtlessly named is the very stuff of old-fashioned novels, their cell form, as potted actions get organized into longer sequences that are themselves entirely routine: the tribulation, the quest, the courtship.

Barthes’s overriding point, then, is that Balzac’s novels are as conventionalized as any thirteenth-century allegory. Saying as much will now force us to reckon with those infrequent passages in S/Z where Barthes seems to be arguing the opposite point, distinguishing nineteenth-century fiction from what came before, as when he draws a line between “societies that are aware … of the linguistic nature of the world” (medieval Europe, apparently) and societies that aren’t (nineteenth-century France).  It’s hard to say whether this is, in its generality, an accurate account of the Middle Ages—one doubts that Angevin peasants were organic structuralists in quite this fashion, Saussureans of forest and field—but it is telling that Barthes thinks they were, since this bit of idealist cod sociology concedes to Balzac a certain deluded modernity after all. The old humanist and oratorical writing will have to mutate in any society as linguistically un-self-conscious as Restoration France putatively was—a society organized around science and expertise and institutionalized rationality, a society convinced that it is “truth” and not “force” that “brings an end to the confrontation of languages.” Literature itself will remain wholly conventionalized, while at the same time developing a most un-literary orientation towards knowledge or fact. Balzac’s fiction is in this sense at odds with itself, a rhetorical text become un-rhetorical, because not in touch with its own rhetoricity. The realist novel, in sum, is the classical text that does not know itself to be classical, whose suppressed classicism must be reconstructed and aggressively adverted to, which means, of course, that in a few important respects it is no longer classical at all.

At this point, it becomes possible to scan S/Z for claims about the realist novel’s innovations, and they are basically threefold:

1) Realist novels depend, no less than Anglo-Norman fabliaux or neoclassical threnodies, on stock formulas, but what had changed by the nineteenth century were the sources of fiction’s borrowed language, as journalism and the academic disciplines took over the role once played by mythology and holy writ. The point would be that Balzac and his fellows deploy medical knowledge—and history-writing and the psychology of the passions—in precisely the same manner that avowedly neoclassical poets deploy Trojan lore and minor episodes from the Second Book of Kings: citationally and at third hand. The paleontology on the first page of Bleak House is what Dickens has instead of a water nymph; the Megalosaurus is a second Cleodora.

2) But it is not just that the realist novel borrows this or that convention from fresh sources. Realism’s global innovation has been to disavow the conventionality of even its most etched-in patterns, to make them hard to see as conventions. Anyone reading a sonnet can judge for herself whether the poet has managed the 8/6 turn proficiently or not, and in much the same way that one might judge a gymnast’s well- or ill-stuck landing, which is to say: technically. The realist novel, however, does not invite us to scrutinize its technique; its objectionable virtuosity is to move imperceptibly across its borrowed idioms, to make quilt look like unstitched sheet. This is the moment to note that Barthes’s method fully carries his argument: The blocks into which Barthes has disassembled “Sarrasine,” sixteen of them to a page, are like shots in a movie—in fact, if you’re still trying to get the hang of what Barthes has accomplished in S/Z, it would be easiest to imagine a film critic who has taken it upon himself to comment upon every single shot in The Godfather, every close-up, every long take, every cross-cut assassination—except shots are ready-made and identifiable units and Barthes’s lexias are not. It’s hard enough for a film critic to get an audience to start paying attention to where the cuts in a sequence fall, but Barthes’s more audacious task is to insert those very cuts, such that one might begin to see the realist novel as a kind of montage. This idea might, indeed, force us to reevaluate Barthes’s use of the word “code”—realist fiction, we are meant to see, is an intertwining of multiple “codes”—which word choice has often been seen as furthering the case that structuralism and post-structuralism were, in their overlapping heydays, a kind of generalized cybernetics, an investigation into the world’s universal coding. There has got to be something to that line, yet one suspects all the same that S/Z’s profounder allegiance is to an earlier stage in the history of twentieth-century media, not to the computer but to the moving picture, in which case one might track in Barthes’s arguments the belated maturity of film criticism, able now to infiltrate the procedures of its literary elders, to suspend their accustomed prerogatives, and to insist that all pre-cinematic narrative be reclassified as proto-film. Upon finishing S/Z, we will have to struggle to read novels the way we already know to read movies—to read, Barthes says, “in the cinematographic sense.” But then perhaps this point is best made in broader terms. Barthes is not just commenting upon “Sarrasine”; he is reediting it, transforming Balzac’s decommissioned aesthetic into an experimental and twentieth-century one. S/Z is out to enforce a program, and its approach here is rather unusual, not just to hiss at “those who like a good story” or to attack realist prose for being “burnished” and “smoothed” and so insufficiently modernist, but to roughen and tarnish the Balzacian paragraph until it sheds its realist qualities and becomes appreciable as pastiche or nouveau roman, a miscellany of undirected text.

3) The other point to make about the word “code” is that it is in at least one respect pretty sneaky. Barthes says on the very first page of S/Z that he is no longer a narratologist in the usual sense—not for him the reduction of the world’s sundry stories to a single obligatory master plot, not any more. Such is the importance of Barthes’s ditching the old arguments about “structure” in favor of one about “codes.” Structuralism would instruct you to extract from “Sarrasine” its narrative skeleton and mappable grammar, on the expectation that the novella, at that level of abstraction, would be indistinguishable from any other story you’ve ever read. Semiotics, though, will make multiple what structuralism has just flattened, by spot-checking passage after passage, half-paragraphwise, and demonstrating that more than one code is chirruping in every one. I read out loud a single sentence in Balzac and hear him at once mobilizing a dumb commonplace from art history (what we think we know about Italian painting), organizing the novella’s action into a nameable sequence (going-to-the-theater), and inserting enough equivocation or engineered ambiguity that a reader seeking clarity will have to keep reading. This last operation Barthes calls “the formulation of the enigma,” and it’s the sneaky bit, because every time the theorist identifies a passage as contributing to the enigma, he is pointing to the incremental formation of a certain kind of plot—except no, not a “kind of plot,” because there is for Barthes only one plot after all, the mystery-suspense plot that he thinks the classical text strictly requires. The old narratological argument, disavowed on page one, thus reappears intact, and Barthes turns out to be a structuralist still. It’s just that “structure” has now been absorbed into the language of “codes” as one of its members.

The classical text requires a suspense plot, I’ve just written, though one suspects that this is the last and perhaps most important way in which realist fiction is unlike its medieval and ancient forebears. For the plot that Barthes claims to have discovered in all classical fiction is most evident in the fully modern genre of the mystery novel—“Narratively, an enigma leads from a question to an answer, through a certain number of delays”; that’s S/Z’s general description of all readerly novels—in which case the book’s unspoken claim seems to be that all literary realists are to a greater or lesser degree writing detective stories. That claim can be dilated in turn, simply by noting that the nineteenth-century detective novel itself partook of trends broader than itself, in which case we might conclude that in the protracted age of enlightenment, all fiction has shared its structure with science and philosophical system, posing questions and promising answers and stopping only when there is nothing important left to learn. At the end of a classic novel, you know who the main characters are; they have disclosed the important truths about themselves and so become fixed. At the end of the sensation novel, everyone knows who is and isn’t the woman in white; identities briefly up for grabs have been clarified and settled. At the end of the Bildungsroman, we know just what kind of adult this teenager is likely to be. Lizzie Bennett has to revise her judgment of Mr. Darcy once, but only once; their marriage renders Darcy legible and the revision permanent. Characters in novels will never elude their conditions. The waiter in the café will be a waiter still, David Copperfield a David-thing.



 A few notes:

-I found the opening image — “There Is No Ending” — here:

-The volume I refer to as “the most important book on narrative published in the 1980s” is Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot (1984).

-All quotations from Barthes come from Richard Miller’s 1974 translation of S/Z, except that I have rendered as “classical” the adjective that Miller sometimes (but inconsistently) translates as “classic.”

-The backstory to S/Z is detailed in Louis-Jean Calvet’s Roland Barthes: A Biography.