Category Archives: Critical theory and philosophy

Literature and Political Theology in the Eighteenth Century

The following is a review of Spencer Jackson’s We Are Kings: Political Ontology and the Making of a Modern Individual (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2020). It will appear in a future issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies

If you want to be able to appreciate what Spencer Jackson is up to in We Are Kings, it will help first to recall what John Milton was up to in Book 3 of Paradise Lost. A lot happens in Milton’s third book: We meet God for the first time, and also the Son, who immediately volunteers for a suicide mission, even as Satan is rocketing through outer space, landing on the sun, and asking anyone he can find whether they know the way to Earth. Book 3 also contains Milton’s compressed account of the End of Days—God’s insurrectionary Five Year Plan, which is to unfold in three stages:

Stage #1: Already here, in humanity’s earliest days, God is losing interest in ruling as a monarch, choosing instead to hand his sovereignty off to Jesus, who is in some respects a lesser being, and who uniquely in his person will end up sharing that power with humanity. So that’s two sharings now: God is going to share power with the one who shares power. In the figure of the Son, God and humanity will in some not fully manifest sense rule together and so un-sovereignly: He “shalt reign both God and man” (3:316-17). What had been God’s power alone will eventually become a condominium of two. (Or is that three? Or is it many?) Power has already started its trajectory out- and downward.

Stage #2: When the millennium comes, this figure of shared power is going to undertake a world revolution, installing himself as “universal king” (3:319) and thereby ridding the planet of its particular kings: its despots, tyrants, and bosses.

Stage #3: The universal monarchy’s last act will be to abolish itself. The Un-lord will become immanent in the world, which will henceforth be self-governing: “God shall be all in all” (3:343).

Our historicist scruples will never be pedantic enough to suppress the observation, as it flits across the mind, that Milton has in the passage of #2 to #3 anticipated the Bolshevik theory of revolution at its most controversial point: centralization as the counterintuitive path to decentralization, the amassing of power by one determined to give it all away. But we don’t have to establish that point here. For now, it will be enough to grasp that Milton’s prophecy also furnishes Spencer Jackson with the template for his argument. You might hear me as saying that Jackson has something new to report about Paradise Lost, but that’s not it. He has surprisingly little to say about Milton, in fact, and nothing at all about the epic’s third book. The point is rather that Jackson has silently and perhaps unwittingly modeled his book on Milton’s apocalypse. What if the millennium—the redeemed world, the all-in-all—had almost come to pass in 1812? Such is Jackson’s question to his readers. And what if its gospel had been eighteenth-century British literature, and not just this or that title from its canon, but all of them taken together, one long Book of Revelation to foretell Babylon’s late Hanoverian downcasting? And what if we had overshot the kingdom of ends, had missed our chance to build the reign of saints on earth, because it hadn’t occurred to us to read Augustan satire and the early novel as sacred texts? And what if we now had another crack at it? What if we could have the millennium after all if we only corrected our readings of Alexander Pope and Samuel Richardson? We Are Kings is by all appearances an academic book, with eleven pages of endnotes and a University of Virginia logo on its back cover. But it is, in fact, something else altogether—a whirlwind scroll of radical Protestant prophecy masquerading, not all that convincingly, as literary history.

Jackson’s Miltonic scheme goes like this: John Dryden spent most of his career writing poetry that transformed the late Stuart kings into godlike figures, or better, into incarnations of the Christian God, humans invested with God’s power, redemptive figures who, committed to saving their people, handed down the law but were not bound by it. And yet not even Dryden remained a monarchist of this kind, and so with the discrediting of absolutism, he and other English writers were forced to wonder whether there were other candidates, besides kings, who could play the part of God-man. Who else could save England by standing outside the law while also enforcing it? Dryden accordingly ended his career by offering the job to an exemplary country gentleman. Pope, however, would soon offer it to the poet, which is to say to himself; Richardson to the Protestant woman with no special credentials; and Maria Edgeworth to colonized peasants and the enslaved. Jackson thinks he can show us that eighteenth-century writers did not, in fact, undertake the secularization of English letters. Whatever we usually think of as literary secularism—plots that rely more on causal explanation than on Providence, fewer collections of innovative devotional poetry, no more masterworks with archangels subbing in as guest narrators—this is not one of literary histories Big Stories. After the demise of divine-right monarchy, English literature, far from eliminating divinity from its pages, simply went looking for alternative people to sanctify. What we won’t want to miss is the stepwise descent traced by Jackson’s sequence, that decurrence of God’s power from king to Englishwoman to slave, ergo his sense that this more-than-literary history—the story, that is, of “the democratization of divine authority” (128)—had both a direction and a terminus. Sovereignty rolls downhill.

Such a book cannot be judged by the usual standards of peer review and the call for papers. As a piece of scholarship, it is the kind of mess that one sometimes calls “unholy.” Jackson describes Maria Edgeworth’s Absentee “domestic” (141) even though its hero is a) noble; b) a man; and c) almost never at home—the novel shows him, in fact, traveling extensively across two countries. He calls that same novel “anticolonial” (141) even though its happy ending shows Ireland’s Anglo-Protestant aristocracy resolving to intensify its government of the island it continues to occupy. He works up a visionary flight about a half page of Edgeworth’s prose by misreporting plot details and suppressing all the counterevidence that her novel supplies just two or three pages later. Indeed, he spends the balance of most chapters tsk-ing older scholars for “failing” to do x and “too quickly saying” y, and then, as the timer is about to buzz, staples a few fervent claims to isolated passages from whichever text he is currently scripturalizing. But listing the argumentative failings of We Are Kings would, in fact, be a cheerless task. One feels a little silly fact-checking John of Patmos.

Some of the conceptual issues that the book raises are nonetheless worth sorting through, if only to flag some of the difficulties that literary scholars are likely to face when they undertake to write political theology. The first problem to note is that Jackson’s sequence—from Dryden to Richardson to Edgeworth; from king and squire to Englishwoman to colonized peasant and slave—is wholly contrived. Jackson gives the impression that English writers dispersed God’s sovereignty through the polity in stages: that they had to beta-test it on country gentlemen first before offering it to women and that it had to work for the Pamelas before it could be extended to subalterns in the colonies. And yet, more extensive reading would surely have shown that each of these positions was available throughout the period and, indeed, before Dryden had written his first couplet. This is one reason that Jackson, despite his audible channeling of Christopher Hill—as when he takes for his theme “a distinct Anglo-American brand of socialism, one grounded in liberation theology” (179-180)—has almost nothing to say about Milton. For serious attention to Milton would explode Jackson’s timeline, bringing into view a Puritan revolutionary intellectual who presents in one swoop (and outside of Jackson’s chosen period) every single type on his list: the sanctified prophet-poet of Paradise Lost; the sanctified Englishwoman of Comus, who was, of course, the original of Richardson’s captive heroines; the sanctified, country-dwelling garden keepers of Milton’s Eden, Adam and Eve, who are also sanctified Native Americans, the naked denizens of “this New World,” “in native honor clad” (2:403, 4:287). The point is not just a literary one, of course. If the sanctified demos did not, after all, stand in line waiting for its number to be called, but rather rushed to convene itself in the 1630s and 1640s, when Scottish Covenanters showed English ones how to organize, then neither, too, did divine-right monarchism simply bow out once Dryden went Jacobite: De Maistre was still writing tracts on royal sovereignty in the generation of the Jacobins, Napoleon, and Maria Edgeworth. The term that begins Jackson’s sequence will still be available, in European letters, once his sequence has ended; and the term that ends his sequence was available before that sequence had even begun. What Jackson presents as the carefully paced rollout of divine authority across the English and Anglo-colonial polity—an apocalypse, yes, but one that proceeds in the orderly phases of a well-executed business plan—is better grasped as the messy contest of rival positions, coexisting in time and vying for supremacy on the same confessional field. It stands out, therefore, that Jackson’s Catholic and evangelical and Anglican writers never fight. Not at all: Each waits his turn to play the role appointed him in a chronology blocked out in advance by a Levelling and General Baptist God. We Are Kings offers up political theology with the politics left out.

The theology doesn’t fare much better. One of the more unusual features of Jackson’s argument is that it discusses divine-right monarchism, sovereignty theory, and antinomianism within the same frame. It might help if I restated each of these as propositions. Jackson considers the ideas, respectively:

  • that kings rule because God wants them to and, indeed, that individual kings have been placed on their thrones by Providence;
  • that there needs to exist, in any political system, a moment of authority that, because beyond legal review, will be capable of terminating debate on ambiguous issues; making necessary decisions in conditions of uncertainty; and acting swiftly during emergencies;
  • that Christian morality is not a matter of laws; that Christians in any situation need to figure out what is right without reference to rules, which are a lure and a constraint upon the spirit; that Christians are called upon to live a life beyond the law and perhaps to build societies that to whatever degree possible lift the yoke of law from their members.

What stands out about We Are Kings is that it tends to treat these three ideas as at heart the same position. Historians of modern political cultures are sometimes interested in how the promises of liberalism have been extended progressively to more and more members of the socius. Liberalism, after all, says that it thinks of everyone as a rights-bearing individual, but has a notably hard time finding room for everyone in that “everyone.” So how and when did women actually attain the status of rights-bearing individuals? How and when did Black and indigenous people attain that status? How about people without property? Jackson’s argument proceeds very much on this model, but in the place of the rights-bearing individual he has placed the improbable figure of the king—how did x-and-such a group attain the status of kings?—which means that he expressly thinks of democracy as a paradoxically universalized monarchism, and of antinomianism as nothing more than sovereignty theory in a different class register, a decisionism for plebes. The claim is not wholly unconvincing. It is easy enough to spot certain affinities among the three positions that anchor Jackson’s argument. Divine-right monarchy and sovereignty theory can swirl together into a generic royalism. Antinomianism and sovereignty theory each posit figures who dwell beyond the law. So maybe the monarch is just the antinomian-in-chief and the ordinary Protestant a Mr. King. And yet the last-named are not for all that the same position, not in the way that a liberalism that includes women can seem like the plain correction of the version that omits them. Even sovereignty and divine-right monarchism are disjunct theories, since it is possible to hold that God has appointed a king to rule over you without automatically concluding that the monarch can therefore do anything he wants. More to the point, the three positions take their cues from different theological and biblical prompts. Divine-right monarchism cites the example of the Israelite kings elevated by God in the Hebrew Bible, while also translating medieval understandings of priestly and papal power in order to conceive of the king as sacerdotal, which is to say as God’s proxy or super-priest. Sovereignty theory, meanwhile, borrows its concepts from thirteenth-century voluntarism—from the idea, that is, that God is not bound by his own rules; that there is no one right way for the cosmos to be, and no best way that God, because supremely rational, has merely deduced; that the cosmos is the particular way that it is merely because God has willed that it be so; and that He could have willed it otherwise. Sovereignty theory merely repeats these claims at the level of the state—that there is no one right or even best way for a state to be &c—and in that sense makes of the sovereign a political God. But the Calvinist path to antinomianism (though there are others) insists on the Christian’s inability to emulate God, beginning rather from the wholly Christocentric idea that Jesus’s judicial murder abolished the law, as also from Geneva’s usual souped-up theory of grace: that Christians do not save themselves by being well-behaved, that they are saved only by God and for reasons known only to Him. The political imaginary that this liberation Puritanism yields is thus quite different from the one that Jackson describes. The English antinomian is not a petty kinglet, but a hypothetically condemned person living (joyously, gratefully) under reprieve.

We should thus be on our guard when, in his discussion of Clarissa, we see Jackson describe antinomian Christians as “the lawless source of all law” (132), since that phrase is the clearest evidence that the scholar has pilfered the language of Bodin and Hobbes in order to put it in the mouths of Dissenters and Nonconformists. “The lawless source of all law” works rather well as a gloss on the sovereign as theorized by the seventeenth century’s state-of-the-art political philosophy, but makes an utter hash of antinomianism, which arrives not to establish the law, but simply to eliminate it. A similar problem arises when Jackson describes as antinomian the Lutheran “idea that all believers could through faith alone (sola fide) assume the shape and sovereignty of God” (131). Luther does, of course, sometimes write as an antinomian: just not here—not when he sola-fideizes. The doctrine of antinomianism says that you can and need do nothing in order to be redeemed by God, whereupon solafiderianism steps forward to scale back mercy’s astounding proffer by insisting that there is this one thing that you have to do after all, which is believe. Sola fide thus marks the survival of the rule-making contractualism that Protestantism had briefly seemed willing to do without. The coexistence of anti-legalist and better-believe-it arguments in Luther’s writing has never demonstrated their equivalence, or even their compatibility, but has merely installed a rift in Protestant theology that has played itself out in the reformed churches’ centuries-long tendency towards schism. What’s more, Jackson’s notion that each Protestant claims his portion of God’s authority misses the actual scandal and preposterous dare of radical Christianity, which is not that we will all be empowered, but rather that our weakness will bind their very strength. Jackson is so busy misassigning to the sects the paradox of sovereignty that he never gets around to discussing antinomianism’s own and better paradox.

Jackson also argues that eighteenth-century evangelicals should be called antinomian for the simple reason that they introduced innovations into Anglican worship, going so far as to set up parallel institutions within the English church, and sometimes in defiance of their bishops. He argues further that Clarissa is British fiction’s paradigmatic evangelical, the one who reveals “the modern British subject’s antinomian heart” (107). By this point in We Are Kings, the problems are piling up, because when a Christian substitutes her private judgment for the judgment of the constituted authorities, that act is not all by itself a form of antinomianism. An orthodox believer might, after all, reject civil law in favor of canon law (or halakha or sharia)—she might knowingly and on principle violate the statutory law of governments—but she has not thereby become antinomian, since she is manifestly substituting one law for another. Even the Kantians—and it is Jackson’s tendency to treat antinomians as Christo-Kantians—even the Kantians who reject both church law and civil law remain nomian to the extent that they proclaim their adherence to the moral law within. There may, indeed, have been antinomian tendencies among the mid-eighteenth-century’s field preachers and proto-Methodists; the problem is simply that Jackson hasn’t cited any.

The same doubts will now churn around Richardson. Is Clarissa speaking as an antinomian when she says “the LAW shall be all my resource: the LAW … The LAW only shall be my refuge!—” (Letter 282)? Is Richardson, who held from the Crown the commission to print British law, writing as an antinomian when he has Clarissa compile her case against her violator, which the two of them together, character and author, will place forensically before the judging reader? Do we expect an antinomian novel to conclude the way this one does, with an authoritative legal document, Clarissa’s will, which Richardson has written out and included in toto, to the tune of fourteen pages? And how are we to respond when Lovelace, the novel’s villainous libertine and Clarissa’s attacker, says “The law was not made for such a man as me” (Letter 174)? Is the rapist the authentic antinomian? Do we know for sure who in Richardson is law-loving and who beyond-the-law?

Jackson, at any rate, persistently misdescribes antinomianism, which asks Christians to make do without the law, as a contradictory conjoining of lawlessness and law. The lawless term somehow produces law, even as the nomos eventually yields its own negation. It is true that radical Protestant writers sometimes dealt in transpositions of this kind. The only reason that Milton could write in the borrowed accents of a Stuart loyalism and so pose as a repentant ex-revolutionary—“Henceforth I learn that to obey is best” (12:561)—is that he knew that militant fidelity to God-our-king would absolve Christians from submitting to any actual kings. Obedience would transmute in one to universal disobedience—the only surprise here is that monarchist readers ever fell for the trick. Jackson’s rendering of antinomianism is thus not simply a mistake—or if it is a mistake, it is an mistake of a rather compelling kind. The most interesting passages in We Are Kings are the ones where Jackson undertakes some Miltonic transpositions of his own—where he offers, indeed, to multiply this authentically antinomian procedure: In Jackson’s pages, the “political theology” of Carl Schmitt and the Catholic Right remakes itself as the “liberation theology” of Luther, Gutierrez, and Howard Thurman; Foucauldian discipline reinvents itself as a viable left-liberalism (while still remaining visible as discipline); the British Empire accidentally produces the democratic multitude; Maria Edgeworth read asquint becomes a second William Blake; and our own neoliberal workhouse of self-management and self-care, by universalizing the arts of government, offers to bring about “a society of the equally sovereign” (182), which would also be “socialism” (1, 174, 179), which would also be apocalypse. And the unspoken claim that seems to underwrite these variously redemptive capsizings is that we should retain the word God to name whatever it is in history capable of effecting such reversals, which to be sure display the chiasmatic structure of good gospel blessings: The x shall be y. The last shall be the opposite of last.

In Areopagitica, Milton spells out what can reasonably be called an antinomian theory of reading. Books, he says, don’t amount to much. Parliament should let censorship lapse—or let it stay lapsed—not because books are so precious, but because they are irrelevant, not even important enough to keep tabs on. A book, after all, can’t make a person do or think anything, since we will each scry in a text only what we were predisposed to see there before we started reading. A good man will find his virtue reflected back at him even from the pages of a base book. A profligate will make pornography of the veriest scripture. It is to that extent unfair to conclude that Jackson is wrong about eighteenth-century literature, when it would be more accurate to say that he is reading with the spirit, running across aristocracy in Dryden and somehow noticing only “democratization” (55); meeting a disenfranchised Catholic man in Alexander Pope and discerning in his features a liberated Protestant woman (69); consulting the pages in The Absentee in which Irish peasants fall to their knees before their ethnically English overlords and perceiving in those figures only anti-colonial rebels rehearsing revolution (165 – 177). Jubilee, finally, is all a good reader can see.

Immanuel Kant’s Manifesto for Dad Rock

•1.

If there is one point that should be reasonably clear to anyone who has read “The Culture Industry,” it is that Adorno and Horkheimer do not reject popular culture. That essay, it’s true, gives us reasons to question any number of things that we typically hold dear: free time (for being unfree time, nearly as programmed as the work from which it nominally releases us), laughter (for being the consolation prize you get for not having a life worth living), style (for funneling all social and historical content into a pre-arranged matrix or inflexible scheme of aesthetic quirks and twitches; for holding out the promise of artistic individualism—the personal signature in literature or music—and then transposing this into its opposite, the iterative, unresponsive art-machine). Most of us remember “The Culture Industry” as anti-pop’s cahier de doléance, its encyclopedia of anathema, the night in which all bêtes sont noires. But alongside the essay’s admittedly austere bill of grievances, it is easy enough to compile a second list, an inventory of things that Adorno and Horkheimer say they like and suggest we might admire: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, the circus, old cartoons, Felix the Cat (maybe), Gertie the Dinosaur (perhaps), Betty Boop (for sure, because they name her). Just to be clear: “The Culture Industry,” Exhibit A in any case against critical theory’s Left elitism, is also the essay in which Adorno attacks Mozart while praising “stunt films,” which we might more idiomatically translate as “Jackie Chan.” One can thus cite authentically Adornian precedence for an attitude that distrusts classical music and celebrates kung fu movies, and this will be hard to believe only if you prefer a critical theory shorn of its dialectics, stripped of the contradictory judgments that thought renders upon contradictory material—only, that is, if you prefer the Adorno of joke Twitter feeds and scowling author photos: bald, moon-faced, a Central European frown emoji inexplicably mad at his own piano. One suspects that readers have generally refused to take seriously the essay’s central category. For the culture industry is neither an epithet nor a gratuitously Marxist synonym for popular culture, but rather a different concept, distorted every time we paraphrase it in that other, more comfortable idiom, as a calumny upon pop culture or pop. There is plenty of evidence, in the essay itself, that Adorno and Horkheimer were drawing distinctions between forms of popular culture, and not just pitting the Glenn Miller Orchestra against Alban Berg.[1]

Such, then, is one way of taking the measure of Nicholas Brown’s Autonomy.[2] This is one of those books that you might have thought no-one could write anymore: four chapters that mean to restate the old, left-wing case for art, unapologetically named as such, as the artwork—and not as text or culture or cultural production—the idea being that art represents the survival of independent human activity under conditions hostile to such a thing. No longer homogenized under those master terms, art can again take as its rival entertainment, a word whose German equivalent derives from the verb unterhalten, which even English speakers can tell means “to hold under,” as though movies and TV shows existed to keep us down, as though R&B were a ducking or a swirlie. That the English word borrows the same roots from the French only confirms the point: entre + tenir, to keep amidst or hold in position. Entertain used to mean “to hire, as a servant.”

Autonomy is also the book in which a next-generation American Marxist out-Mandarins Adorno, who, after all, begins his essay by insisting that the cultural conservatives are wrong. There has been no decline of standards, no cultural anarchy let loose by the weakening of the churches and the vanishing of the old, agrarian societies, hence no permissive culture in which anything goes. Just the contrary: Magazines and radio and Hollywood form a system with its own rigidly enforced standards, a highly regulated domain in which almost nothing goes. Adorno’s way of saying this is that there is no “cultural chaos.”[3] But Nicholas Brown prefers the chaos thesis, endorsing the position that Adorno has preemptively rejected as both reactionary and implausible: “The culture industry,” Brown writes, couching in Frankfurtese his not-at-all Adornian point, is “the confusion in which everything worth saving is lost” (135).

Similarly, readers are usually surprised to find Adorno writing in defense of “mindlessness.” His hunch is that Kantian aesthetics might find its niche among the lowest art forms and not, as we more commonly expect, among the most elevated. Sometimes I encounter an object and find it beautiful, and in that moment of wonderment, my attitude towards the object is adjusted. I stop trying to discern what the thing is for or how to use it. Where a moment ago, I was still scanning its instruction manual, I am now glad for the thing just so. Perhaps I am even moved to disenroll the beautiful thing from the inventory of useful objects, or find myself doting on it even having ascertained that it’s not good for much. But then sometimes this purposiveness without a purpose is going to strike me not as beautiful, but as stupid, and Adorno’s point is that the stupid can do the work of the beautiful, that the beaux arts are If anything outmatched by the imbecile kind. The activities that we do for their own sake, for the idiot joy of our own capacities, are the ones that our pragmatic selves are likely to dismiss as dopey: someone you know can pay two recorders at once with her nose; a guy you once met could burp louder than a riding mower; you’ve heard about people who can vomit at will and recreationally. Kantian Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck enters the vernacular every time we mutter “That was pointless.” It is in this spirit that Adorno sticks up for “entertainment free of all restraint,” “pure entertainment,” “stubbornly purposeless expertise,” and “mindless artistry.” His claim, in fact, is that the culture industry is hostile to such “meaninglessness,” that Hollywood is “making meaninglessness disappear.”[4] It might be enough here to recall the difficulties that the major studios have in making comedies that are funny all the way through, preferring as they do to recruit their clowns from improv clubs and sketch shows, to promote them to the rank of movie star, and then to impound them in the regularities of the well-made plot, complete with third-act twists and character arcs, gracelessly telegraphed in the film’s final twenty-five minutes, to make up for all the time squandered on jokes, and tending to position the buffo’s comic persona as a pathology to be cured, scripting a return to normalcy whose hallmark is a neutralized mirthlessness. Hollywood’s comic plots model the supersession of comedy and not its vindication.

But Nicholas Brown is not on the side of meaninglessness. “In commercial culture,” he writes, “there are no works to critique and no meanings to be found”—and he does not mean this as praise (10). In Autonomy, there is no liberating nonsense, but only the English professor’s compulsion to discern meaning, his impatience with any art for which one could not readily devise an essay prompt. Whatever independence the book’s title is offering us, it is not the freedom to stop making sense. It feels bracing, in fact, to read a book so willing to discard the institutionalized anti-elitism of cultural studies and 200-level seminars offering to “introduce” 20-year-olds to horror movies. When Brown rolls his eyes over Avatar because of some dumb thing its director once said in an interview, or when he calls off a wholly promising reading of True Detective by announcing that it is “nothing more than an entertainment,” we need to see him as turning his back on the aging pseudo-Gramscians of the contemporary academy, all those populists without a movement, the media-studies scholars who imagine themselves as part of a Cultural Front that no-one else can see, a two-term alliance consisting entirely of Beyoncé fans and themselves; the shopping-mall Maoists of the 1990s who couldn’t tell the difference between aller au peuple and aller au cinema (71). Adorno, of course, was concerned that the desires and tastes of ordinary audiences could be manipulated or even in some sense produced. “The Culture Industry” prompts in its readers the still Kantian project to figure out which of the many pleasures they experience are authentically their own. Which are the pleasures that will survive your reflection upon them, and which are the ones that you might reject for having made you more object-like, for having come to you as mere stimulation or conditioning? The autonomy that Adorno is trying to imagine is therefore ours, in opposition to a mass media that muscles in to tell us what we want before we have had a chance to consider what else there is to want or how a person might want differently, to work out not just different objects of desire, but different modes of desiring and of seeking satisfaction. Brown, by contrast, complains repeatedly that artists more than ever have to make things that people like. The autonomy that he is after is thus not our autonomy from an insinuating system but the artist’s autonomy from us. It is no longer surprising for a tenured literature professor to disclose, in writing, that he’s been listening to early Bruno Mars records. The unusual bit comes when Brown says he doesn’t think they’re any good (24).

[PART TWO IS HERE.]

[1] See Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Culture Industry,” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 94 – 136. On free time, p. 104; on laughter, p. 112; on style, pp. 100ff; Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, p. 109; Greta Garbo, p. 106; the circus, p. 114; Betty Boop, p. 106.

[2] Nicholas Brown, Autonomy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); subsequent citations will be given by page number in parentheses.

[3] Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 94.

[4] Ibid., p. 114.

The Old Adam, After All

A review of The Other Adam Smith by Mike Hill and Warren Montag (Stanford University Press 2014)

This review first appeared in Historical Materialism 26. 3 (2018)

 

A book promises The Other Adam Smith, and the title is already something of a puzzle. Scholars writing about much read philosophers have, after all, a few established ways of declaring their revisionism. If the line you are taking is programmatically modernist and decontextualizing and perhaps even contraindicated, you can signal this by saying you have made your philosopher “new”: the new Nietzsche, the new Hume, Montag’s own New Spinoza, published in 1997. If, conversely, you are resolved to scrape away decades worth of interpretive accretions and polemical anachronisms—if you have just about had it, I mean, with the neo-Kantians and not-really-quite Marxists—you can choose from a few different options: X in Context, What X Really Said, The Authentic X, as in The Authentic Adam Smith, published by James Buchan in 2006. By these standards, a book calling itself The Other X can seem hard to parse, lackadaisical and itemizing. The adjective announces a lateral move, a secret life, maybe another person altogether. A Harley Davidson dealer in Texas? A cryptographer at Penn State?  An ecologist with the Missouri Botanical Garden? You know—the other Adam Smith.

So who exactly do Hill and Montag mean to put before us? Have they written a New Perspectives on Adam Smith? An Adam Smith Reloaded? Or have they given us Adam Smith in the Eighteenth Century? Other to what?, in other words. Part of the problem is that it is no longer clear what counts as Smith’s received image. I announce the other Adam Smith, but no-one can be sure with what settled perceptions this double is being asked to share the room. Outside the academy, Smith is still widely regarded as the preeminent theorist of an austere and deregulated capitalism, the house philosopher of the IMF, Ayn Rand’s Scottish uncle. But this is precisely the view that the last forty years of Smith scholarship have been out to defeat. A person gains entry into contemporary Smith studies by offering to identify one more way in which he disagreed with Friedrich Hayek. You can begin by pointing out that Smith propounded a moral psychology of considerable scope and complexity, discerning in social actors a wide variety of motivations, ethically charged feelings, and modes of judgment. Rational utility-maximizers barely feature. You might go on to point out that when Smith defends deregulated markets, he typically does so on the grounds that they will help the poor, generating plenty and higher wages and the equitable allotment of scarce goods. The anti-capitalists might scoff that Smith has been wrong about this, but the modest point remains that his framework of justification for that error is more or less Rawlsian—that Smith is not the Malthusian or social Darwinist we have been led to expect. Next, a person goes on to read The Wealth of Nations and is surprised to discover how hostile it is to merchants and manufacturers; far from modeling the bourgeois takeover of the state, Smith’s most famous work issues an unmistakable call to roll back the power of the commercial classes. That there were identifiable Left Smithians by the time of the philosopher’s death in 1790 is now well established—proven critics of the eighteenth-century state who greeted Smith as a brother radical, an anatomist of corruption and aristocratic privilege and colonial misrule. Nor were these last some negligible eddy in the crosscurrents of Georgian politics. There were Smithians in the French revolutionary assembly for one, deregulators who considered free markets wholly compatible with famine relief and social insurance schemes, best understood in this context as innovative proposals for protecting artisans, farmers, and workers without falling back on late-feudal modes of market manipulation. One occasionally still runs into radical Smithians of this vintage. As recently as 2007, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing was making the case that it was wrong to think of Smith as the theorist of “capitalism,” which a Scot who died before 1800 could not have had access to (either as concept or mature social formation). Nonsense, you think, except if you’re the kind of person who insists that Marx was not a Stalinist, nor even much of a Bolshevik, you might want to grant the point. Reading Smith alongside Marx should teach us, indeed, to tell the difference between “capitalism” and “commercial society,” on the understanding that the latter is not the utopian misdescription of the former, but a historical rival in its own right, no less than the socialism whose vacated place it might now assume. Adam Smith should help us discern the underconsidered possibility of a market society without colonization or rule-by-investment-bankers or the de-skilling and devaluation of labor. Such, at least, was Arrighi’s pitch. Among intellectual historians, regular reminders that Marx had a lot to say in defense of capitalism are now matched by explanations that Smith had a lot to say against it.

It is this Adam Smith that Hill and Montag’s book is out to sideline—the Left-libertarian Smith, the social-democratic Smith, the anti-capitalist Smith. It will be hard for readers to appreciate what the authors are up to, then, unless they are willing to correct what is most misleading in the volume’s prefatory material—that word “other,” for a start, since the book’s chief aim is in fact to vindicate the textbook image of Smith as the ideologue of market society. The Other Adam Smith summons the philosopher back from Beijing and relocates him instead in the accustomed precincts of Vienna and Chicago. This Smith is the pensioned intellectual willing to let the poor starve, a philosopher at one with von Mises, himself discussed at length in Hill and Montag’s Chapter 4 (312 – 41); an ontological individualist who thinks the most pressing purpose of government is to protect the market from the intemperate demands of the starving; the originator, therefore, of a now dominant politics of abandonment. Hill and Montag’s alterna-Smith is the old Adam, after all.

But then the words “Adam Smith” are hardly less misleading than the word “other” and will need correcting in their own right, since Hill and Montag are interested in Smith only intermittently and mostly as the member of a movement or a scene. The authors boast early on that they have consulted all of Smith, and not just the two big books on which his reputation rests, and indeed, one important part of their case is that nothing you can read of Smith will adjust your accustomed sense of him as the arch-bourgeois philosopher: not the lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence, not the early essay on Newtonianism, certainly not The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hill and Montag might return the reader to an orthodox understanding of Smith, but their trick is to reach that point by less familiar routes. There’s no reason to believe them, then, when they promise not to impose an artificial coherence on Smith’s corpus, offering contrariwise to identify those passages where his writing is most multiple and unsettled. They pay tribute, it’s true, to the philosopher’s “complexity and contradiction” (3), and yet their Smith is fully of a piece, as witness this typical sentence: “The virtues of self-command so important in The Theory of Moral Sentiments ground Smith’s condemnation of prodigality in The Wealth of Nations” (235). And that underlying boast (to have read the complete Smith) is in its own way rather timid, since Hill and Montag have read much else besides: Henry Home, David Hume, University of Edinburgh principal William Robertson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding. The book contains extensive commentary on each, its implicit claim being that the continuity that runs across Smith’s un-varied writings extends to these several figures, as well. Smith, Hume, and the others all speak in one voice or are engaged in the same project, albeit a many-sided one—the project of “moderate Enlightenment,” premised on the love of harmony, order, and consensus, backed by repression, discipline, and “liberal indifference,” content to “pacify particularity” and build safeguards against “disruption” (75, 54, 63).

Adam Smith stands accused, in other words, of loving system too much, which is the charge automatically leveled by critical theory against any eighteenth-century philosopher. Such, indeed, might be the small innovation of Hill and Montag’s book—that rather than making Smith the apologist of liberal capitalism, they cast him instead as just another enlightener and thus trade in the perhaps overfamiliar Marxist positions on The Wealth of Nations for the stances of a barely less familiar Enlightenment critique. Sometimes the shift from one theoretical vantage to the other is rhetorical, an ornamental swapping of idioms, as when Hill and Montag propose that Smith’s economic writings, like those of his twentieth-century followers, are haunted by a certain human type, a new, quasi-legal category of person they name le malheureux, and whom they define as “the one, the many, who may, with impunity and without consequences, be exposed to starvation and allowed to die, slowly or quickly, in the name of the rationality and equilibrium of the market” (307). This Unfortunate Man is plainly a cousin to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer and is to that extent the translation of some old Marxist claims into the language of biopolitics. One can credit the elegance of the repackaging and still note that the substance of the underlying argument hasn’t much changed. The point remains that laisser faire mostly means “let ‘em die” and that Smith was the sort of philosopher who dismissed persistent malnutrition as an “inconvenience” to the hungry (302).

And yet Hill and Montag do have a case to make, as their low-key reliance on the dialectic of Enlightenment manages to flush out some under-remarked aspects of Smith’s output. Most readers, for instance, wouldn’t think to consult Smith on the topic of aesthetics, even though he had a lot to say on the subject, or at least on the subject of sublimity, whose escalations and upsurges were central to eighteenth-century conceptions of the field. As surprising as Smith’s aestheticism is, though, even more surprising is its popping up in an essay called the “History of Astronomy.” A philosophy of art intrudes itself upon the domain of science—is that what anyone associates with Adam Smith? But it’s true: When you read his reflections on Newtonianism, you will find that Smith was not interested in physics qua physics. He was interested, rather, in how the mind responds to “surprise” and “wonder”—and, indeed, in the defense mechanisms the mind possesses to cope with these latter, which Smith urges the reader to treat as threats. Smith is emphatic that we confront astonishment as a menace. Granted, this argument won’t make much of sense until one realizes that Smith’s philosophical skepticism goes much deeper than casual readers ever suspect. In the astronomy essay, he says openly that “all philosophical systems” are “mere inventions of the imagination to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature.” It is when philosophy fails us that we briefly encounter the authentically disorganized world. Sometimes we perceive a traumatic gap in the cosmos or are made to contemplate a glitch in our experiential timelines. “Surprise” and “wonder” are the anodyne names we give to these small shocks, and philosophical explanation, some more or less contrived argument to order, is how we cope. Wonder unmitigated, by contrast, can easily kill us or drive us mad. This last is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Smith’s essay—that it is making the case against sublimity. Prolonged exposure to novelty and the unexplained will destroy us, and it is the task of thought—in this case, of astronomy—to “invent connections” where none are evident. Philosophical system is the shock-absorbing fiction of balance and pattern.

It is this argument that Hill and Smith have seized upon as the key to decoding Smith in toto. Their book’s most ingenious stroke is simply to take Smith’s word on this front and so to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as producing not systems, but fantasy systems—make-believe non-structures whose unreality has been conceded to the attentive reader in advance. Three arguments follow on from here, and together these make for a nifty refinement of Enlightenment critique in its Adornian and Foucauldian modes:

  • If Smith holds that intellectual systems are inventions, then the critique of system widely regarded as the central plank of Counter-Enlightenment thought has to some degree been anticipated by Enlightenment philosophy itself. Smith is no doubt promoting system, and yet he doesn’t in any ordinary sense of the word believe in it. This is bound to be a problem for the skeptics and anti-systematizers, who will never get much leverage over Smith by insisting that system is a permanent intellectual lure, the mind’s built-in tendency towards metaphysical overreach, its preference for order, even when deceptive, over the world’s inevitable mess and shifting difficulty, for the simple reason that the philosopher has already granted the point. More important, the status of system in Smith’s most famous writings will henceforth be in doubt. Do the ethical sensibilities of my fellows and me really merge in equilibrium and consensus, as described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or are these, too, nothing more than fabricated connections? And what of capitalism’s “system of perfect liberty”? That’s Smith’s own lustering gloss on the free market, but by the time he wrote that sentence, he had already committed to the idea that “system” was a (salutary) “invention of the imagination.” So when Smith speaks of the system of perfect liberty, don’t we have to bracket the word “system”? Does Smith himself take deregulated markets to be make-believe?
  • Hill and Montag are also eager to catalogue the many terms that Smith’s commitment to imaginary system compels him to repress. The list is rather extensive: tumult, “corporeal labor,” sedition, writing, “the noise of numbers,” “material infinity,” and the multitude (104, 147, 87). What we won’t want to miss is the binary, zero-and-one character of this operation. The authors argue that there are only two positions in Smith, System and Anti-System, at which point that entire incommensurate list (tumult &c.) gets shunted into the second slot.
  • There is a name from the philosophy of history that gets to stand in for these many anti-systemic others: Spinoza. Hill and Montag’s final complaint against Adam Smith is that he was neither a materialist nor a monist—or worse, that his addiction to fake system could only bury the period’s Spinozist wisdom. One good way to read The Other Adam Smith, then, is as forcing Spinozism into a showdown with some of its eighteenth-century rivals. For us, meanwhile, it presents an opportunity to reckon with Left Spinozism in its early twenty-first century guise, to measure it against its current rivals, and in the process to consider how illuminating it is to project back into the late Enlightenment a neo-vitalist philosopheme like “the multitude.”

Much of Hill and Montag’s accomplishment on this front is appealingly odd. You can figure out whether you should read The Other Adam Smith by asking yourself right now whether you’re willing to entertain a fondly Deleuzian apology for eighteenth-century Jacobitism, the movement, if that’s what it was, to restore the exiled House of Stuart to the throne by overthrowing some sitting George or another. According to Hill and Montag, Jacobitism involved “a complex intra-dependency among multiple political players, … ‘mixed multitudes,’ who [were] not subject to traditional ideological borders” (212). Where a more conventional political historian might labor to work out why some regions went Jacobite and others didn’t, to separate out the multiple constituencies in the loose Jacobite coalition, to identify who had the authority to mobilize others into rebellion even when these latter were not committed anti-Hanoverians, to reconstruct what the Jacobites said they wanted and how they might have remade Britain had they prevailed, Hill and Montag content themselves with the claim that the Stuart party were a rhizome, the Young Pretender a sprouting potato eye.

The Jacobites were a multitudinous and borderless mixture. Even readers able to appreciate the larky quality of that claim are likely to be put off by the Manichean grind of the authors’ broader case. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, they tell us over and over again, were “divided into two opposing camps” (240). In this corner, Spinoza, novels, rioters, and the body’s barely processed stimuli. In that corner, Scotland’s urban gentry, philosophy, stadial history, and doctrines of Providence. The problem is this: Hill and Montag do not hide their distaste when summarizing Adam Smith’s account of concept formation, which holds that the mind has an innate talent for producing genera—a knack, that is, for making categories. No-one particularly needs an education on this front; the mind is the Great Sorter. Hill and Montag’s eye-rolling over this argument is one of the more obvious ways that they perpetuate an older line of Enlightenment critique. Adam Smith, they want us to know, was yet another of schematism’s dupes. But the book they have written is itself one big sorting mechanism. Their writing, it’s true, is aswarm with hard-to-follow detail, and yet all this shimmering data eventually gets subjected to an A-B coding. One balks a bit at being conscripted into this antithesis, and especially at being asked to watch as Spinoza puts a beatdown on Adam Smith. Can Spinozists consistently frame their Spinozism in these terms? Hill and Montag never ask us to think of Spinozism and the Scottish Enlightenment as eighteenth-century assemblages in their own right, complexly living ensembles capable of recombining unpredictably with other such ensembles, including, one presumes, with each other. If Hill and Montag are right, “Spinoza” and “Smith” are names for mere positions, between which the reader is expected to choose. Spinoza was right, Adam Smith rather a dummy. The Spinozism that Hill and Montag endorse as a matter of doctrine is thereby abandoned as a matter of method. Around its Spinozism, The Other Adam Smith generates a series of increasingly expansive abstractions, all of which name the multitude without having to tally its number—“popular contention,” “the mixed and the multiple,” “life”—just so many brisk flattenings of profusion. “Popular contention” is a formal category that asks us to disregard the politics of any particular movement or event, indiscriminately encompassing the Porteous Riots, the Gordon Riots, the Wilkes Riots, the ’45, “the vulgar, Jacobites, Puritans, republicans, savages and barbarians, alike” (155). “Life,” meanwhile, is Spinozism’s only agent, hence the secret subject of Hill and Montag’s every sentence: “That which resists … is perhaps nothing other than life itself” (342). Artisans and factory workers don’t (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances) resist. Peasants don’t resist (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances). Women don’t resist (sometimes, &c). The colonized don’t resist. Only life resists, and these others are at most its avatars and transient objectifications. “Network” is the word favored by those who don’t have patience enough to plot the points.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Buchan, James 2008, The Authentic Adam Smith, New York: Norton.

Montag, Warren and Stolze, Ted (eds.) 1997, The New Spinoza, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rothschild, Emma 2002, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Stedman Jones, Gareth, An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Smith, Adam 1980 [1795], “The History of Astronomy”, in Essays on Philosophical Subjects, edited by W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Against Joy, Part 3

Deleuze Lamennais 4-A
PART ONE IS HERE
PART TWO IS HERE

 

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

 


A FEW NOTES

-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
PART ONE IS HERE

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….

MORE SOON

Cell colony

Against Joy; or, Deleuze’s Empire

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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

 

MORE SOON…

 

A FEW NOTES

-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.

The Sea is Not a Place; or Putting the World Back into World Literature

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THIS ESSAY IS ALSO AVAILABLE IN BOUNDARY 2,  40.2 (2013)

 

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If you want to understand some of the last decade’s renewed interest in the category of “world literature”—if, that is, you want to understand the real achievements of the concept as refurbished by Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and others, and perhaps also to begin repairing its weaknesses—it will help if you first understand the ways in which Samuel Beckett’s Molloy is most like the Charlie’s Angels movies. One way to get at their resemblance would be to list some of the complaints that viewers have leveled against the latter. It has “no plot,” wrote one critic of the first Angels movie, released in 2001, and, indeed, fails to meet the basic demands of continuity; “it’s difficult to tell how one punch leads to another.”  The San Francisco Chronicle warned that Charlie’s Angels lacked not only clear sequencing, but also characters that one might care about or indeed any discernible individuals at all, though, of course, it fully agreed the movie was fragmented, less a coherent story than “bits of scenes … overly stylized and self-conscious.”  The BBC elaborated on the point: The picture “leaps from one small scene to another,” it said, dispensing in the process with “real drama and proper exchanges.”  In literary history, these deficiencies are known, collectively, as “undermining the edifice of realism” and are the sort of thing that novelists get a lot of credit for attempting.  One student of modernism has written that Beckett, no less than Columbia Pictures, devised a “new set of technical tools that made it possible to escape meaning—which is to say narration, representation, succession, description, setting, even character.” Indictment: Charlie’s Angels “exists in a reality unto itself.”  Tribute: Beckett “created the most independent world conceivable.”  The medium changes, and calumny is transposed into praise.

This will seem like a joke, but we might, in fact, want to take seriously a certain plain, verbal fact, which is that people who don’t like big-budget action movies often describe them—spontaneously, unwittingly—as though they were modernist novels. Perhaps a moment’s reflection will make this less surprising. For what Molloy and Charlie’s Angels share is easily named; it is the aesthetics of abstraction, the pressure exerted upon narrative by de-specification. This, too, comes into focus when refracted through the criticism. Here is Perry Anderson on blockbuster cinema: “The basis for the fortune of Hollywood” has been “narrative and visual schemas stripped to their most abstract, recursive common denominators.”  And here is Terry Eagleton on the literature of the mid-century: “Beckett’s works take a few sparse elements and permutate them with Irish-scholastic ingenuity into slightly altered patterns.”  Recursion, permutation, slight alterations … Samuel Beckett and Hollywood film, these exact contemporaries, these children of the year 1906 … Spotting the two of them together, in tandem, now becomes a minor test, an opportunity to demonstrate one’s intellectual steadfastness: Are you willing to approach the culture industry and the art novel with the same aesthetic priorities? Can you hold the one to the same standards that you hold the other? Devotees of Beckett’s fiction might, of course, still conclude that they dislike Charlie’s Angels, but they aren’t going to be able to dislike it for insufficiently reminding them of Middlemarch.

Indeed, watching Charlie’s Angels with Beckett open on your lap is a chance to remind yourself of the rigorous formalism of much Hollywood film, which after all has its own particular way of “refusing to yield to the usual requirements of legibility.”  What we will want to say back to anyone incapable of appreciating such a radiance is that they don’t really like film qua film, that they bring with them into the movie theater the worn-out expectations generated by older narrative modes, to the point where they can no longer tolerate a cinema set free from extra-cinematic demands, liberated, more than any Iranian neorealism or the interminably filmed conversations of the French New Wave, into color and kinetics and pace. What offends is not the brainlessness of Charlie’s Angels, but its aestheticism, for which that other is code. A movie “without … purpose,” objects Roger Ebert, to which the only answer is: Exactly.

Turning to Beckett, we will want to repay the favor by pointing out the plebeian and atavistic quality of late modernist prose, the way in which it liquidates the conventions of novelistic realism in large part by reactivating the cadences of folklore and myth. Beckett’s was not an uncharted path to abstraction, but precisely an antique and subliterary one: Here’s a story about “two men … one small and one tall. They had left the town,” some town, no particular town.  We could say, more precisely, that Beckett’s prose achieves its high degree of abstraction by deploying at once two literary registers that we typically regard as opposed: folklore, which is Beckett’s debt to an Irish Revival that he officially scorned, but also a minutely interiorized and doubting ego borrowed from lyric poetry—a blocky folklorism, then, that has no need for novelistic particularities, plus a dismal lyricism that blurs whatever few specificities remain. Molloy often reads like myth retold by some tormented prose-sonneteer. “He wore a cocked hat” could be the beginning of a song or a children’s rhyme. But Beckett’s narrators will glaze any such bare fact: “It seemed to me he wore a cocked hat.”  We might, in the same spirit, call to mind Adorno’s observation that European modernism was basically just an extension of nineteenth-century horror fiction—or rather, that it was an unlooked-for recombination of neoclassicism and its Gothic opposite; abstraction made eerie; Palladianism with the lights turned out: Conrad’s ghost ships and vampire derelicts, Eliot’s bridge-crossing zombie-shades, not to mention the too easy instances of the Czech were-roach and the twelve-tone music that survives now almost only on the soundtracks of scary movies.  To this list we can add Beckett’s writing of the rotting flesh, whose signature tic is to say “death” wherever ordinary English would say “life,” and whose stories center on old men who beat up their even older mothers; on those who live within earshot of abattoirs; on menacing cops and unexplained kidnappings and rectal births. It has taken a sustained effort, of a more or less ideological kind, to get lots of people to agree that this was ever “high culture.” We can praise the Hollywood blockbuster for its euphoric and unweary modernism; or we can conclude that modernist art is less the negation of pop culture than its distension and making-arduous. Either way, it will be hard to escape the impression that modernism, determined to purify itself of mass culture, keeps rediscovering itself in its hated opposite. Charlie’s Angels only had one sequel; Molloy produced two.

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We can begin now to say why this pairing should matter to anyone wanting to study something called “world literature.” The problem with conventional accounts of modernism and aestheticism is that they tend to mistake abstraction for autonomy; abstract prose gets to count as self-sufficient, a writing apart from the world, answerable to no agencies or institutions, borrowing elements from empirical reality only to transfigure them, no longer constrained to file reports on the really existing, to serve out its time as the gazetteer of circumstance. If an artwork is any object unshackled from the demands of mere use—a jug too lovely or fragile or pointy-handled to pour from—then the virtue of abstraction will be that it unfits language for the purposes of ordinary communication and so shifts it over to the realm of art. This is what makes abstraction easy to mistake for autonomy or why it is easily misperceived as its vehicle. In Beckett’s prose, then, one finds a more or less strenuous refusal of context:

• “And I, what was I doing there, and why come? … these are things we must not take seriously.”

• “Shall I describe the room? No.”

• “For the particulars, if you are interested in particulars….”

What jumps out in these lines, and the many more like them, is that Beckett cannot, in fact,  quietly bypass readerly expectations; the apparatus of realism has to be acknowledged so that it can be tauntingly canceled by professions of ignorance and amnesia. My mother has died. “I don’t know how.” I used to love a woman. “I’ve forgotten” her name.  The most telling variant of this tic, also utterly commonplace in Beckett, is the withdrawn specification. A concrete detail of a realist kind is offered to the reader as bait and respite and then in the same sentence negated, like so:

• “A little dog followed him, a pomeranien I think, but I don’t think so.”

• “It was a chainless bicycle, with a free-wheel, if such a bicycle exists.”

• “The dog was uniformly yellow, a mongrel I suppose, or a pedigree, I can never tell the difference.”

It is rhetorical tether-snippings such as these that lead some readers to deem Beckett’s writing independent and self-directed, unbeholden to the objects it just barely names—or fails to name—or names multiply—“literature rescued from dependence,” as one admirer has it.      A self-sufficient literary language, then—except, of course, it is nothing of the sort. Autonomy, I think, except I don’t think so. When “abstraction” renames itself “autonomy,” the concept gets freighted with political claims that it cannot make good on. A writer’s withdrawal from reference is thought somehow to model or to guarantee or to act as signature for a second withdrawal, a retreat from institutions, as though an art for art’s sake did not in some entirely ordinary way have to be produced and announced to the world and disseminated and exhaustively explained. You can say that all art begins, in a fabulating spirit, by separating itself from reality, and you can praise abstract art for resolutely guarding that partition. Or, if you have come to distrust representations as such because they inevitably convey some ideology or another, you can say that an abstract and experimental writing works to unsettle our relationship to language, making it difficult for us to sink back into our usual lexical stupor, irritating us into inhabiting speech less thoughtlessly. Or you can simply marvel that the abstract artwork is the last thing in the world that isn’t expected to do anything, the only object still exempt from the calculus of efficiency, the only one of us who gets to stay out late because it doesn’t have to work in the morning. Humanity delegates its relinquished autonomy to a special class of objects, so that these can enjoy liberty in its stead. The abstract artwork is, in this sense, a labor-saving device, a metaphysical appliance, freedom’s automatic spray tube dishwasher. But having made any of these arguments, what do you then say when you discover that the US government began buying up modern art in the 1940s, that the State Department helped promote abstraction abroad as something like the official aesthetic of the United States, or indeed that many of the journals in which abstraction was argumentatively furthered received funding from the CIA—that the CIA’s first head of counter-intelligence was famous first for founding a quarterly of modernist poetry and that the CIA regularly recruited agents from the Kenyon Review?  Even abstraction has its political uses, chief among them to mime an independence from such use. Autonomous art was nakedly heteronomous—this may be the only paradox of twentieth-century aesthetics that Adorno missed.

Hence Charlie’s Angels. If it is writers like Beckett that you want to understand, then the virtue of talking about commercial film first is that no-one has ever mistaken Hollywood’s motley geometries and dream states for political autonomy. The freedom from reference, which we might also call an indifference to local content, is itself produced by a system and historical occasion—immigrants, in the Californian instance, learning to tell stories to other immigrants, conglomerating and simplifying their inherited narrative forms, which is what lends Hollywood movies the character of a sailor’s yarn, and then streamlining these further once the industry discovers that such reduced forms export especially well, like fortified wines and salted meats, playing with equal facility in nearly any national market or communal VCR, on the simple theory that a viewer in Chongqing is unlikely to commit to a 60-hour film dramatizing the contradictions of US drug policy on the streets of post-industrial Baltimore. The global dominance of Hollywood cinema cannot be separated from the basically Galilean quality of its cinematic space: bodies in motion against green screens, CGI cannonballs dropped from the world’s interchangeable towers.

Once one grants this last point—that abstraction itself has a material underpinning and that it emerges more easily in some historical locations than in others—then the task is simply to extend this insight back to Beckett (and Gombrowicz and Borges and Kobo Abe). This is where Pascale Casanova comes in. Modernism has had its own distinctive patronage institutions, whose needs it roughly serves, and it is the great virtue of Casanova’s World Republic of Letters to help us spot one, alongside the university and the American state, that we might otherwise have missed.  The easiest way to come to grips with her argument is to resolve it back into its component parts—to realize, that is, how programmatically Casanova has grafted Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory onto Pierre Bourdieu’s account of distinction or cultural capital. First Bourdieu: In order for a literary scene to exist, a national language needs to possess nothing so interesting as a rarefied temperament—neither a linguistic cache of ensorceling Indo-European roots nor a secret, primeval resemblance to ancient Greek—but an entirely mundane, nuts-and-bolts literary infrastructure: a leisured elite, schools willing to teach its patricians the skills of higher literacy, a caste of professional writers, bookstores, libraries, publishing houses, state patronage for the arts, and a functioning feuilleton. Any nation with these many latter will be able to convince itself that it also has the former. Then Wallerstein: Not all nation-states possess these resources to the same degree, and the ones that possess them in superabundance—France, Britain, more recently the US—get to tell the rest of the world what counts as literature. It’s worse than that: The literary salarymen of the great European metropolises—editors, critics, translators—have always played a unique mediating role in the global literary system, claiming for themselves the authority to choose which of the world’s aspiring novelists will get access to the large and university-educated readerships over which they stand guard, and the first issue to be decided by young writers on the literary periphery—in the Sudan, say, or in Gujarat—is thus whether or not they are going to write in ways designed to appeal to such people. What Casanova has persuasively established is that there are world cities of literature, places, above all Paris, where authors—and not just French ones—are certified as literary. The best thing about her book, in this sense, is that its title is simply wrong, utterly contravened by her own argument, which describes nothing like a “world republic of letters,” with whatever faded egalitarian associations that term still has, but rather a literary world system, neo-colonial in effect if rarely in intention: stratified, full of power imbalances, “a world of rivalry, struggle, and inequality.”

The point that we do not want to overlook is that a certain orthodox conception of High Literature—the aestheticist account of autonomous writing—is made possible only by this empire-not-republic of letters. That point comes in a weak form and a strong, which depends on the weak. The weak version says that all novels, even realist ones, will seem more abstract or aestheticized when lifted out of their various national contexts and read by foreigners who won’t understand their more sectional references—German readers, say, for whom the names of São Paulo neighborhoods are just sounds, so many swayings of the verbal hips. Against the old prejudice that condemns all translations for being dull photostats of their originals, this idea holds that translation is in many cases just the reverse—the key, indeed, to making a work literary, and that a certain loss, a smudging of the detail or declaring-irrelevant of the particularities, is intrinsic to this process. Literary aestheticism is in large part the effect of being republished elsewhere; we call autonomous those works whose dependencies we are unable to spot. To this idea—that a novel is more likely to get treated as literature once it travels—the strong version of the argument adds that the literary world system is designed to reward writers who have, as it were, preemptively de-nationalized, whose writing comes pre-abstracted, obligingly stripped of geographical and historical markers, proper-name-avoidant. Tolstoy positions a character in Смоле́нск, and a Russian reader in the 1870s recognizes a western border town, a fortress defending the route to Moscow, a crossroads-which-is-to-say-battlefield, a place where Napoleon once attacked. Tolstoy’s translator positions that same character in “Smolensk,” and a reader in Minnesota in 1930 thinks … nothing much, probably … that he wishes the book came with a map … that he likes a good Jewish joke. Smolensk has become a city I just about recognize as Russian, barely more than a spot-marking X. And then Beckett writes, in Molloy: “I beg your pardon, Sir, this is X, is it not?, X being the name of my town.”  Modernism ratifies the condition of literature in translation, neither presuming local knowledge nor offering to produce it. And “world literature” is the name for a certain tendency towards abstraction within the global literary system, the propensity of works aiming for an international readership to make themselves frictionless. There is to that extent a social history to literary autonomy, a social history, in other words, behind the kinds of writing that feel licensed to dispense with social history.

Such, in a nutshell, is Casanova’s splendid revision of the concept of Weltliteratur, which here stops functioning as the name for an (especially tedious) canon and instead makes its rightful contribution to a materialist history of letters. One marvels, indeed, while reading her book, at the determination-unto-mania with which Casanova transposes into the sphere of literature arguments borrowed from Braudel and dependency theory and the like, casting about for belletristic semi-peripheries, programs of poetic import-substitution, &c., and almost always identifying plausible candidates. It makes a person wonder into how many other non-economic domains world-systems theory could be usefully extended: Is there a cinematic world system? Probably. A musical one? A culinary one? And yet Casanova’s argument is, for all that, rather broken-backed; there is a fracture running through her very great book. Here’s the tricky thing: Casanova helps us see that the world’s publishing centers have had the power to declare writing literary, to consecrate a foreign production as Literature, and she argues that the abstraction characteristic of such writing is produced by the unevenness of the global literary system. Abstract writing—or concrete writing read as abstract—involves a false universalization imposed by the biblio-metropolis. She herself speaks in this regard of the “structural ethnocentrism of the literary world.”

And yet—and here’s the puzzle—Casanova aggressively prefers such abstract and falsely universal writing, routinely declaring international modernism superior to rival literary modes, and expressing a certain pity for the African and Asian writers who don’t get to enjoy its bogus autonomy—“nationalist” writers, these would be, and literary realists: “conservative, traditional—in a word … ignorant.”  She begins her book by explaining how a certain illusion of autonomy is produced and concludes it by patly reinstating that illusion. The matter comes to a head when she explains what distinguishes the semi-periphery in her ingenious model. One of Casanova’s advances over postcolonial studies as practiced in the English-speaking countries is that she has salvaged from Wallerstein this exceedingly generative concept, which adds a complexifying third term to the seesawing dichotomies of center/periphery and metropolis/colony. In Casanova, the semiperiphery—that which is neither metropolis nor colony proper—is the domain of the “small languages”—Bulgarian, Romanian, Swedish, and so on—languages, that is, with established print traditions, working presses, national or regional canons, &c, but whose literatures arouse little interest outside their borders and whose native readerships are by global standards so small as to support little professional literary activity. Writers on the semi-periphery thus face a choice, whether as burden or luxury, that genuinely colonized writers do not; the bifurcations in the literary world system crystallize in front of them: Is one to become a national writer or an international one? That choice isn’t fully available on the periphery, at least in the sense that Ngugi was doing something quite drastic in opting for Kikuyu, language without novels, whereas Josep Pla, in opting for an already belletrified Catalan, was merely clambering on board a regional donnée.

The point that we won’t want to miss is that this geopolitical distinction—national v. international—is, on Casanova’s understanding, pegged to a second, properly stylistic distinction: realist v. modernist. Writers who do not care if foreigners read them write stories about their home countries in an accessibly middling prose. Realist fiction thus becomes the symptom-in-literature of a region’s more general backwardness; it is intrinsically parochial, requiring the specifications that anchor prose to a particular pace; and writers who have the option of writing like Beckett and don’t take it stand accused of pursuing a retrograde policy. This is a point Casanova makes repeatedly and in the tones of a Viennese economist instructing protectionist Argentines to stop subsidizing wheat farmers. Such is the uneasy surprise of her book: Its entire conceptual framework is borrowed from the great anti-colonial sociologists, and a reader goes in thinking that she is trying to figure out what literature can contribute towards the liberation of colonized peoples. But it turns out that all she really cares about is the liberation of literature, and that she likes African and Latino writers most when they can serve that other end. It’s like getting to the last page of Wallerstein and finding out that he’d been promoting free markets all along. Casanova thus reliably inverts the anti-colonial position, championing Caribbean and Arab and Asian writers when they take up European intellectual tools against their own peers, as when she praises the Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra for “employing the weapons of writers in the center in order to subvert social and religious proprieties [in North Africa].”  What in the first twenty-five pages she exposes, with great agility, as the “naïve” idea of a “pure, dehistoricized, denationalized, and depoliticized conception of literature,”  she reinstates gullibly in her final paragraphs as a “truly autonomous literary revolution,” commending modernist fiction for generating a second “independent world” to shadow the one we actually live in, which I think anyone would have to admit is a rather peculiar definition of “world literature”: a literature as little as possible about the world.

There is more to be said about this cinching together of nationalism and realism, as about its setting over and against a modernism that gets to count as international, since it turns out that very little about this scheme will survive closer inspection. Casanova’s account starts unraveling, as so often, around the antithesis to which it is tacked: nationalist realism vs. internationalist modernism. We can start shouting out the names of argumentative threads as they come unfastened. There are, by my count, three important points to be made against Casanova:

Realism is every bit as international as modernism, at least in the sense that Casanova means it: a widely diffused set of narrative techniques or formal structures, written on every continent, referring back to the same few models—Scott, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy—and less attentive to local content than you might think. Another way to make this point would be to say, as Franco Moretti has, that the realist novel was a basically imperial northwest-European literature, or that realism was once the name for the encroaching standardization of world fiction, an innovative form, to be sure, but also an inertia, a stable “Anglo-French paradigm … third-person historical novels, and not much else”: Benito Perez Galdós, Park Kyung-ni, Fenimore Cooper.  The insidiously realist novel proved so compelling a form that it convinced writers in southern Europe, Asia and elsewhere to find the most British possible stories to tell about those places or convinced them to trick out French plots with characters bearing assonantly local names. This is the occasion to recall Roberto Schwarz’s great argument that the European novel was not, in its very form, suited to the colonies, but that early Brazilian novelists did not know this.  Once a literary critic has separated realist fiction back into its distinct conventions—free-indirect discourse, marriage plots and multi-plots, character sketches, &c.—there is no reason to think of these as any less abstract than the studied imprecisions of late modernism: easy to carry, iterable, geographically indifferent.

Modernism is every bit as national as realism. There is, indeed, an unmistakable nationalism hitching a ride on Casanova’s argument, offering as it does a Third World anti-nationalism which tends nonetheless to endlessly reconfirm the preeminence of the French. This is no mere prejudice on her part: Casanova does provide some rather good reasons for thinking of Paris as the imperial arbiter of the Modern or for thinking that to become a modernist in Scandinavia or Ireland was in some more or less self-conscious way to Gallicize, and her account accordingly assigns a special, diagnostic role to those foreign writers who were upfront about apprenticing to los franceses: Rubèn Dario, Georg Brandes, August Strindberg, Beckett himself.  It is just that having made this point, she can no longer claim that modernism is, unlike realism, the authentically international position, since its transcontinental abstractions have always carried some secretly national commitments. That of course the same point can be made about an international-but-really-Anglo-French realism only tightens the screw: In addition to there being two international modes of prose fiction, there is also none.

The nation repeats at the level of content. Casanova makes the case for scores and scores of writers that they can’t be read in a narrowly national frame. She asks us to see any national literature as just one more place where international literary rivalries get played out, a perpetual, fraught recombination of foreign elements in which the indigenous contribution often recedes away to nothing: Canadian literature pits Anglophile novelists against Americanized ones. Modern Irish literature, which, from the vantage of 1870, one might have expected to be a running contest between the Anglicizers and the Gaelic nativists, decides instead to remodel itself on French, Russian, and Italian precedents. Casanova has a good time detailing such geo-literary twist and turns and has written perhaps the only literary history that sometimes reminds one of spy fiction: Ibsen “affirmed his determination to introduce realism into the theater and henceforth to use French literary tools for the purpose of devising a distinctively Norwegian style freed from German constraints and control.”  And yet this analytical sophistication comes at a certain cost, allowing one to forget that at the straightforward level of setting and character, the modernist novels that Casanova champions are no less nation-bound than the realist ones she finds contemptible. Faulkner, after all, is a regionalist, the cornerstone of Southern literature seminars, a modernist-of-one-county. Even Beckett’s Molloy grudgingly admits its Irish setting, and not only because the novel shares its name with a Victorian poet who wrote songs with titles like “The Kerry Dance” and “Thady O’Flynn.” If you read carefully, you’ll work out that Beckett has set his story on an island and that there is a sea, tellingly, to the east; you’ll spot the odd local custom or identifying mark: “And da, in my part of the world, means father.”  We could grant for the sake of argument that modernism is in literary history the properly international term, and we would still have to conclude that its internationalism is available in its pages only as form, in which case, Casanova, having laid out the distinction between an international modernism and a nationally minded realism, is not actually choosing one side of that antithesis, but rather a particular way of breaching it: the internationalized narrating of the nation. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist ends when Stephen Daedalus resolves to leave Ireland, which is another way of saying that the novel itself never gets to leave, that it does not follow Stephen, that it is forever stuck in Dublin; it fails to complete the character’s cosmopolitan turn. Casanova’s point would be that Stephen’s cosmopolitanism has actually been present in Portrait all along at the level of technique, the tangible, typographic sign of which are the dashes that Joyce uses instead of quotation marks, which are, of course, not really an innovation, but simply how many continental European writers handle dialogue: Russian, French, Spanish. Cosmopolitanism is available to Joyce as an ethos, as a principle that characters can discourse about; and it is also available to him as a punctuation mark; but it remains oddly absent at the level of content. That is the condition of modernism.

Here, then, is a proposal, and it is the suggestion that actually concerns me here: In a tinkering spirit, one has to wonder about the unnamed counterpoint to Casanova’s chosen aesthetic—not a single-nation modernism, which is what she prefers, but a realism of many nations—Joyce’s Portrait, flipped. Ask yourself: If it is literary cosmopolitanism that we are after, why are we settling for Joyce’s Europeanized quotation marks? Why are stuck extrapolating the politics from a typographic convention? More broadly: Why is the argument about world literature proceeding entirely at the level of form and technique? Don’t you want to read novels whose narrators themselves travel from continent to continent—and not just from the provinces to Paris, or from Sussex to London, or between neighboring countries—but properly global novels? But then where are those titles? How many can you name? One begins to wonder whether the novel, as a form, in any of its modes, can absorb properly global or transcontinental content, since even on Casanova’s own account, this possibility seems entirely foreclosed. It’s the option that doesn’t even come up. Her formalism is to that extent a grave limitation, and one begins to suspect that an internationalism of content would be the utopian term that eludes her rickety conceptual scheme—utopian, that is, simply by virtue of being missing. We are accustomed to thinking of form as sedimented content—the formulation is Adorno’s—and we want to say in this spirit that certain literary techniques carry the globe with them. But then where are the naively planetary novels of which these techniques are the vaporings? Do we have in front of us the strange case of a sediment that precedes the object of which it is the residue? How could a novel make good on Joyce’s Hibernio-Slavic quotation dashes? Is it possible to reconstitute the body from that trace? Could a world literature actually tell stories about the world?

All one needs to know about Franco Moretti, meanwhile, is that he has written a book, The Modern Epic, which is perhaps the most bizarre contribution to literary history in the last generation, a book about “world texts”—“supranational works” of vast “geographical ambition”; of, indeed, “global ambition”—in which he for all intents and purposes identifies no such works.  The real head-scratcher in The Modern Epic comes in the closing pages when Moretti confesses that he had meant to write a study of novels that conceptualize time into very long periods—super-historical novels, you might call them—but that he had realized as he wrote that he was interested in geographical expanse instead: spatial immensities rather than chronological ones. And yet none of the works he writes about are geographically expanded, which leaves the reader in the odd position of having a deflationary counter-epiphany. Moretti is surprised to have written the book he did, and the reader is surprised that he didn’t actually write that book. His key titles are two national allegories (One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children); a city novel (Ulysses); Wagner’s Ring cycle, which Moretti himself calls “spatially concentrated,” “a grand world, but one made up of few places”; and Goethe’s Faust, which so defies Moretti’s attempts to classify it as a “world text” that he finally breaks down and concedes that it is “a kind of national saga” after all.  Instead of the modern epics that his title promises, Moretti has spread out before us a set of more or less unconvincing proxies: Maybe literary crowds and choruses can produce the effect of the world, by reproducing in prose what the planet feels like. Or maybe multiethnic nations can stand in for the world. Maybe department stores can. Or people walking shop-lined streets. Maybe we can say that an epochal and multi-generational narrative is about the world, provided we agree to read time as though it were space. But then why would we do that? Any solution this labored obviously discloses the actual problem, which is that extended space does not seem to be directly representable, and Moretti has not paused long enough to ask why. Why should we have to go through the detour of time? Why this nervous list of approximations? What becomes clear is that the one thing that Moretti most wants—the thing, too, that he has confoundingly convinced himself he has identified—is actually missing. So why do the theorists of world literature routinely make a hash of “the international” and “the national”? And do we have any counterproposals to make back to Moretti in a cooperative spirit? Where, finally, are the books he thought he was writing about?

MORE SOON….

Confused

 

Zizek’s Stalling

Pentecostals

THREE ESSAYS ON Žižek

•3. Žižek’s STALLING

ESSAY 1 IS HERE.

ESSAY 2 IS HERE

 

We would do well to remind ourselves of how the Greimas square works, because knowing the square is going to make it easier to pick out what is least settled in Žižek’s thinking: his uncertainties, his panic. Before you click away to some corner of the Internet that doesn’t involve Lithuanian semiotics, let me observe that there is nothing metaphysical about the Greimas square. It’s just a device for beginning to say in which specific ways a given opposition is likely to turn unstable—which particular terms, in other words, an antithesis will generate but no longer be able fully to encompass. It provides a rough guide to the instability of any conceptual pair you find yourself needing to think about. Perhaps you’re trying to make sense of a story (or a philosophical system or the everyday idiom of a school or social scene), and you’ve noticed that it is fixated upon some opposition. If you now tabulate a Greimas square around the opposition’s two terms, you will have a much clearer idea of how X vs. Y can become unstuck, at which point you can turn back to the narrative (or whatever) and start scanning it for its pressure points. You will have a better chance of naming the passages (or episodes or characters or arguments) that most threaten the narrative’s governing antithesis. The Greimas square will flush out the material that the story has to work hardest to contain.

Here’s the easiest possible example. We compulsively code people and animals according to their genitalia, to the point where some people think that the doors of restaurant bathrooms are the very model and derivation of all two-term thinking. So the Greimas square begins with what first strikes the mind as a fixed opposition:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.02.17 AM

Next comes the bit that has the character of an instruction. For each term x, you think up some adjectives that describe the un-x and then record them in a short list beneath x’s opposite number, like so:

Screen Shot 2013-07-13 at 11.28.46 AM

 

All of the action happens now, once you have these four corners in place, as you begin to sum each of the vectors in the square, vertically, horizontally, and diagonally: Man plus woman, man plus mannish, man plus effeminate, and so on. If we accelerate to the completed square, it will look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.04.54 AM

We’ll want to note at least three things about this and any other such quadrangle. 1) Its line of central terms, from “hermaphrodite” down through “tomboy,” all name intermediate or mongrel concepts: mules, tangelos, the usual stuff of the dialectic. The Greimas square is an especially efficient way of generating, from out of a system in seeming repose, its agitation—its misfits and unassimilated conceptual grit—though it will at the same time disclose the categories by which the system will move in to denominate its own anomalies. 2) When you sum each side of the square vertically (man + mannish, for instance), the adjectives that reside on the bottom tier will serve as intensifiers, producing purified or pumped-up versions of each of the antithesis’s central poles. Implicit in the Greimas square is thus the neglected insight that positive terms—terms that seem to exist outside of relationship—are as disruptive to a binary order as intermediate ones. 3) Aficionados of Greimas often call the hermaphrodite—the both-and construction that perches on the top of the completed square—the perfected or utopian term. It’s not clear whether we should call this synthesis queer (because its archetype is the androgyne) or un-queer (because its original is marriage). Either way, it is in this utopian term that the system’s initial opposition is overcome, its stalled conflicts and predictable oscillations set to one side, and the gratifying possibility of new historical and narrative material at last glimpsed. The x-plus-y term is usually thought of as the way out of a given semiotic square and into some other parallelogram or lozenge.

Knowing even this much about Greimas should allow us to say what makes Žižek’s project in many respects rather unusual. His thinking is manifestly organized around an opposition—the antithesis of law and transgression. That couplet will reappear in scores of his more local arguments. But what he calls upon us to repudiate, after those many arguments have crystallized out into their overriding political claim and program, is the merger of law and transgression in post-Oedipal capitalism’s culture of compulsory mischief, that historically novel system in which authority accrues to the rule-breaker rather than to the bailiff and in which it has become possible—check your own head—to feel guilty about doing what you’re told or to find the superego calling you to account for being insufficiently insubordinate. We can simplify that last sentence: Žižek repudiates the merger, and this is peculiar because it means that on the schedule of concepts generated squarewise by the antithesis law vs. transgression, it is the perfected term—the fusing of obedience and rebellion—that Left Lacanianism recommends we back away from. Žižek is widely regarded as a dialectical thinker, but it has to be said: He takes the synthesis to be the problem, and that isn’t how the dialectic typically works. Žižek means to identify an already existing fusion and then in some not entirely perspicuous sense resolve it back into its component parts, to throw the dialectic in reverse or desublate an established Aufhebung. Anyone running a Greimas square on The Plague of Fantasies or The Ticklish Subject is going to stop short upon finding the utopian term preemptively blocked, displaced by market society’s malign parody of reconciliation. We’ll still want to work up the square, though, because doing so will at least generate the other options, the terms that might be asked to serve as utopia now that synthesis has forfeited the role. Some other location on the square is going to have to provide the chute that leads out of its geometry, and we’ll want to know which it is.

So here is what Žižek’s square would look like if we left all its terms in the abstract:

 

Screen Shot 2013-07-13 at 11.37.41 AM

 

At this point, our task is to work out what more specific terms Žižek has inserted into each of these conceptually dictated slots. We need, that is, to determine what kinds of historical substance can be attributed to the square’s otherwise intangible positions. We already know that the perfected term has been captured by the new spirit of capitalism and its “world of ordained transgression.” Change fast … match your brand’s look and feel … constantly innovating … 5 billion emails every month … monitor activity … celebrate creativity and chaos. And any disaffection we feel towards this term can effortlessly be extended to the two just below it, those other, equally inauspicious mediations: lawlike transgressions, the Lacanian name for which is hysteria, and transgressive knuckling to the law, known locally as perversion.

So with the central spindle removed from consideration, a Lacanian politics is going to have to travel the Greimas square’s outer perimeter. Three possibilities end up suggesting themselves:

 

Three o’clock

-Perhaps what we’re looking for is a politics that, in Žižek’s words, “suspends the dimension of the Law” or that affords us “jouissance outside the Law”—a transgressive transgression, then, a mode of waywardness that makes no reference back to the decrees of God or government and so can no longer be called “transgression” or “misconduct” nor even properly “lawlessness.” Žižek’s name for such devilry is “Christianity,” which is going to seem less confusing if we quickly note four things:

1) The philosopher from Catholic Europe doesn’t seem to realize it, but he isn’t talking about Christianity in general so much as about its hyper-Pauline strains—about radical Protestantism, in other words, and especially about the sects that came to the fore around the English Revolution: the Independents, the early Baptists, the Muggletonians. Something about Žižek’s confessional turn would have been more comprehensible if he had subtitled his books “Why the Quaker Legacy Is Worth Fighting For” and “The Perverse Core of Quakerdom.” If his persistent Jesus talk has struck many readers as confusing, this is at least in part because the Christians he is talking about are either dead or living in Pennsylvania college towns. Chances are you haven’t met them.

2) These Christians really did declare an end to the law. Here’s John Milton in Paradise Lost: “And to the cross he”—Jesus—“nails thy enemies: the law that is against thee and the sins of all mankind.” Knowing the historical case is your best chance at guessing the kind of politics that Žižek is trying to resuscitate when he says, in Miltonic accents, that Christ “signals the Law’s demise.” In the seventeenth century, some radical Protestants began selecting their own ministers from out of the nation’s pool of university graduates. They wouldn’t accept appointments from a superimposed hierarchy, but expected, rather, to exercise oversight over their own guardians. Others began raising ministers from out of their own plebian ranks—lay preachers, then, who kept their day jobs and were granted no special authority over their parishioners. In Bristol, England, there were mixed-raced Baptist congregations presided over by women as early as 1650. And then others still took the next consequent step and abolished the position of minister altogether, a feat that once perfected within the church could next be repeated extra-ecclesiastically. Milton held high office for its duration in the revolutionary government that beheaded the English king in 1649, which act is what the poet had in mind when he imagined the law being executed in Jesus’ stead, with Christ back on the ground and hammering, a centurion turned against the empire, the crucifix mutating before the reader into Judea’s guillotine.

3) This Christianity depends on a simple shift in grammatical mood. Where most churchgoers will tell you that Christians should love other people, the believers-beyond-the-law will say instead that Christians do love other people. If you are the sort of person who takes care of others without asking for their papers or checking first to see if they are worth your attention, then you are a Christian; and if not, then not. If, that is, you have to think about any of this, if you have to deliberate your way to that position, then you are only revealing your distance from God. There is thus an anti-ethical moment within Christianity itself, for which solidarity is not an obligation, but a kind of moral fact—the most important thing, in one sense, but also just something that people do. Keeping the law would, from this perspective, be a problem, since once you tell yourself that you should be more loving, you have made it clear that you would actually rather be some other way—you would prefer to be unreceptive or perfunctory or bilious—at which point agape can become just another target for your resentment, one more stricture that your authenticity requires you to defy.

4) In Book 8 of Paradise Lost, after the archangel Raphael has finished telling Adam the story of the Creation and the war in heaven and the ostracism of the rebel angels, he pauses to ask if the first man has any questions. And Adam has only a single question—just one thing he wants to ask: Do angels have sex? Raphael replies that they do, except that spirits have no flesh, such that they are constantly passing in and out of each other organisms, “obstacle finding none of membrane,” wafted into penetration by each puffing breeze. What Milton brings into view, then, is the possibility of a sex uncarcassed, whole-bodied and resolutely non-genital, still the literary canon’s most compelling image of polymorphous desire, a libido without need of fruitfulness or groin-anchoring. We will read elsewhere in the poem that the angels are “without feminine”—they are all “masculine”—and this will only confirm the point: that the radical Protestant heaven is a place of unrestrained sex between men, or if not men than males, gay sex, you might want to say, except that this sex accords no priority to “joint or limb”—some other gay sex, therefore, the hypothetically unphallic version, gay male sex refashioned on the example of its lesbian feminist antithesis. This is Christianity’s own vision of liberated enjoyment or good obscenity—of pleasure beyond the law—all of it palpable still, if you seek out the right Sunday service, in the quaking and the shaking and the shout music. The overall point is simple: Žižek sometimes seems to think that Jesus is how you become a Lacanian without going into therapy, and he thinks this because there really have existed Christians who believed that the law had been abolished and that moral life was a matter of enjoyment rather than obligation.

 

Six o’clock

-But then you might decide that pursuing an ethical enjoyment doesn’t make any sense. Let’s first put the best face on that position: The doctrine of good obscenity holds that political goods are not sustainable if they are rooted in repression. If, for instance, my fellows and I achieve our solidarity only by discretion and euphemism, then our camaraderie can at any point be blown apart by an eruption of the Real. The alternative would be to absorb trauma and the drive into our position and so to seek gonzo versions of what we’ll have to stop calling values: not freedom, but nasty freedom; not equality, but nasty equality; not justice, but nasty justice. Liberté, égalité, obscénité. But this proposal is hard to carry through consequently. Part of the problem is as it were philological. Another of Lacanianism’s core arguments is that the father is always a sham. That’s the starting point, in fact, from which psychoanalysis leads most directly to an emancipatory politics; it thinks it can show you that paternal authority doesn’t really exist. You probably formed your conception of authority at age two or three, attributing to your father powers that he plainly did not possess. To a toddler, the father is, ludicrously, the Person Who Can Do Anything He Wants—the one who can run faster than you and jump higher and always reach the ice cream, the one who can pull your nose from your face and reattach it at will, the one who can send you to your room and somehow make you stay there. Žižek’s claim is that your relationship to authority has never stopped being childish in this fashion, that even once you grew taller than your dad and began to outrun him and realized that the nose in the old man’s fist was just his own poorly disguised thumb, you transferred your belief in his omnipotence to the father’s sundry proxies: cops, bosses, priests, &c. What remains as one of childhood’s more damaging legacies is your conviction that there exists somewhere someone who gets to do all the things that you are prevented from doing, someone who possesses the jam that you lack. The grown-up alternative to this view would be, rather than struggling against such people, to stop believing in them, to stop conferring on them a supremacy that they would not have absent your belief. So authority in some sense doesn’t exist but is merely an attribution; all pretended powers are to that extent spurious; and the word “obscene,” in Žižek’s writing, usually refers to the way in which your desire is entwined with such fantasized and illegitimate hierarchy. But when Žižek writes, as he often does, that what we require is, say, an “obscene solidarity,” he can’t mean the word in that sense. He can’t mean a solidarity supercharged by some delusion we hold about our fathers, since the paternal presence, even if a phantom, would so obviously compromise the solidarity it is being asked to underwrite. Worse: We require an obscene politics on simple Enlightenment grounds, so that our practices will not depend on repression and its fragile lies, but then obscenity threatens to reintroduce into those practices distortion and misapprehension at another level. We watch Pentecostals chicken-walk down a church aisle, and we can just about imagine an obscene justice, except that obscenity in the sense that Žižek usually means it would transplant injustice back into the realm of the fair and the due. How, we will need to know, could obscenity serve justice and still be experienced as obscene? Wouldn’t obscenity by definition bring with it excess, inhumanity, compulsion, &c?

Nor is the problem merely lexical. That Žižek continues to use the word “obscene” in these contexts should rankle; it is a persistent if accidental reminder that transgression carries law with it and that devising genuinely liberated versions of the Left’s core positions is going to take more than an act of will. So the next part of the problem is epistemological: Let’s suppose I’m white and I’m close to some guys who aren’t, and I say that, no, really, I can joke with them about how enormous their penises are, because I am thereby acknowledging the history of racist cliché, the sexual panic that was woven into every looped rope, &c. This will be the crucible of our confrerie; my tastelessness will retrieve entire registers of historical experience that tact would just as soon place beyond discussion. And yet it is reasonable to ask: How will my buddies know what construction to put on my jokes? Psychoanalysis hardly suggests that we are transparent to one another, so I shouldn’t, if I’m following Žižek, be able to take my intelligibility as given. How, in other words, would anyone who is not himself a trained Lacanian analyst be able to tell that my joke isn’t a way of pulling racial rank on them? And wouldn’t even my analyst require long acquaintance with me in order to make that determination? So why would any comrade of mine put up with those big-black-dick jokes for the time it took to figure this out? Or maybe I think that my crew should be able to know my mind immediately and on the spot. Maybe there are simple verbal indices that will tell a person what is liberated enjoyment and what is mere hysteria. But then what would those be? Psychoanalysis doesn’t give us any reason to hope that this would be the case, and Žižek never instructs us on how to make the call, and besides, if there were such rhetorical cues—features of syntax or word-choice or inflection—then these would be mimickable by any racist and they would thereby stop functioning as cues. So let’s agree that my friends can’t tell my mind. But then I have to wonder, too, whether I can really know that my wisecracks are emancipated and anti-racist rather than obscene. Can I be sure that I understand my speech any better than others do? When did Freudians start believing that people are in control of their own utterances? At this point the epistemological problem reveals itself to have been a properly analytic one all along. For even if I speak my jokes in the spirit of uninhibited fellowship, can I be sure that I’m not also deriving pleasure, repetitively and compulsively, from them? It is a rare joke that tells itself only once.

One way to terminate this train of misgiving would be to give up on the idea of a good obscenity or enjoyment outside the law. Perhaps rather than trying to wrest pleasure free from regulation, we could cancel the law and enjoyment in one, swinging from the Greimas square’s scatty right flank down to its neutered fundament. The neither-nor would replace the both-and as the dialectic’s utopian term, producing not a synthesis but merely an uncharged field, atheticized and disannulled—an antinomianism still, but one that gains the unlawed person no treats or hedonic bonuses, an antinomianism chaste and meager. Perhaps, Žižek writes, we should worry less about “suspending the explicit laws” and worry more about suspending “their implicit spectral obscene supplement.” A good politics wouldn’t produce a different obscenity; it would “simply have none.” The complication that emerges at this point is that Žižek’s name for this position, as rival to an ecstatic Christianity, is also Christianity, which is thereby made to occupy two competing slots on the Greimas square. Maybe Christianity is the religion of love-not-law, featuring a god who pals around with whores and compulsively turns all nonalcoholic liquids into wine. But then maybe radical Protestantism’s love-beyond-the-law will itself no longer feel much like love. The Quakers, after all, haven’t quaked for centuries. They sit in silence in spare rooms and address each other as “friends”—Lenten intimates and un-obscene compeers, forming a horizon of flat amity from which no-one rises to the level of lover.

 

Nine o’clock

-But then if the idea is now to cancel the obscene supplement, it is enough to consult the Greimas square to know that one further option remains conceptually available. This would be the square’s left extremity: the law that is fully law, law in its positivity, with no furtive link back to disobedience—a position that, though thinkable, is psychoanalytically disallowed, which makes it all the more surprising that Žižek has been willing both to entertain the option as a political goal and to propose a candidate as historical bearer of the project. Here’s the project: “The problem (today, even) is not how we are to supplement Law with true love (the authentic social link), but, on the contrary, how we are to accomplish the Law by getting rid of the pathological stain of love.” “Kant sans Sade,” he sometimes calls this idea, a figure we normally know as “Kant.” And here’s the bearer: “Jews assert the Law without superego.” The origins of Judaism lay in a “liberation from the obscene superego.” Israelite hyper-legalism—the stance of a cartoon Judaism that sticks myopically to the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit—brings into view the law in its pure form, without “the repressed desire to sin.” And with that we have the answer to the acrostic’s last unsolved clue. Once we speak the word “Judaism,” we can re-do Žižek’s square with all its proper names and historical specifications:

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This schema allows us to see, among other things, that Žižek’s turn to political theology hasn’t, in fact, been all that pious. He has been interested in Christianity and Judaism only because their various sects really have had rather different things to say about a person’s proper relationship to the law and so can, at the price of a certain brusqueness, be asked to stand in for the combinatory’s several positions. But anyone put off by his readings in the history of religion can at any point return to the square in its conceptual purity and ahistorical abstraction; there’s no reason you can’t put forward your own secular version of the square, provided you are willing to propose alternate, irreligious candidates to take the place of Žižek’s godly ones. One word of caution: The most difficult moment in that undertaking is always going to involve the slot that Žižek calls “Jewish,” which has to be occupied by a magical people without drive or libido, utopian Pharisees and virtuosi of repression, the ones who can ignore their desires and never pay the price.

An opportunity now arises: With the completed square in front of us, we can say at last where Žižek’s thinking is most stuck. The square’s simplicity strips away the endless ingenuity of Žižek’s page-long riffs and discloses instead the unsteadiness of his Lacanian structure—the problems it cannot solve and questions it cannot answer. What almost no-one has noticed, for one, is that Žižek has been distancing himself from Christianity over the past decade and shifting over instead to the positions that he calls Jewish. Granted: They’re probably only Jewish within his Lutheran and sock-puppety scheme. The way he uses “Judaism” as a shorthand for various law-loving positions might, indeed, irritate you, but before your annoyance propels you to stop reading, you might want to at least register that this Judaism, if a scarecrow, is a scarecrow that Žižek has begun to identify with. Here, reduced to their tags, are some of the positions he has been arguing of late: that we have to “assert the priority of the Jewish principle of just revenge/punishment”; that we must mount a defense of “rigorous Jewish justice”; that we must retrieve “the most precious and revolutionary aspect of the Jewish legacy”; that we must forgo the banalities of human rights talk for the non-negotiable severities of the Decalogue; and, again and again, that “we are all potentially homo sacer,” which, traced back to its source in Agamben, means “We are all potentially victims of the camps” and is thus an erudite, Romanizing update of an old radical street chant: “Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands.” You might remember reading in the Book of Acts that the early Christians were communists—“all things were common property to them”; “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own”—and guessed on those grounds that Žižek’s drift to Leninist militancy was the simple extension of the month he spent reading Paul in the late ‘90s. Rhetorically, though, Žižek’s neo-Bolshevism is better understood as a break with his Protestantism, which turns out to have been cranky and fleeting, like those three Dylan albums that no-one ever listens to, though Zizek has never really announced his conversion, and it will take some cross-referencing to establish the point: In one book we read that ancient Judaism was “revolutionary” because it was willing to treat the law as a “pronouncement,” “something externally and violently imposed.” In another we read that the Left must “assume the task of a new ‘ordering’ against the global capitalist disorder”; capitalism is a non-regime of “permanent self-revolutionizing” and pointless innovation, against which we must “shamelessly enforce” a new law. Our communism will, in this sense, come from Sinai and not Galilee. Under the sign of Moses, revolution and counter-revolution become impossible to tell apart.

This particular argument of Žižek’s might, at first, seem a little startling, if only because it has rarely been appreciated how much of his corpus amounts to an ongoing Réflexion sur la question juive. But what is truly confounding is not this or that particular proposal of Žižek’s—not this or any other recommendation as to how we might best tackle the problem of enjoyment—but the sheer number of such recommendations. Žižek has lots of ideas about how we might get enjoyment right, and the effect of this fertile, brainstorming array of possibilities is to rob each individual suggestion of its plausibility and so to make the problem seem insoluble after all. False motion is the sign of the system’s stalling, its unremitting reasking of a question the possible answers to which never seem to stick. Žižek is hardly immune from the kettle logic he is quick to spot in others: —I didn’t break your law. –The law was broken when you gave it to me. –Law? What law? God doesn’t make laws. Pauline Christianity is likely to believe that Jesus “paid the price” or “fulfilled the law,” that he enabled God to show us mercy by suffering in our place, &c. It is in this sense entirely nomian and law-loving, suggesting as it does that it was beyond God’s power simply to repeal the law or to declare it void. Even a radical Protestantism thus preserves something of the law’s structure secreted inside itself, on the theory that Christ’s death keeps in permanent balance the scales of divine justice. Against this a more thorough-going antinomianism can argue that Jesus’ death was so brutal that there is nothing you and your piety can do to make it right again. You cannot say: Oh, I get itthis man was tortured and hung up to die, and I therefore promise not to have sex until I get married. That idea is, in fact, a little nutty, as though your prolonged virginity were in some sense equivalent to torture, as though the one could compensate for another. The best thing about Christianity is that it has at its center an act that was entirely cruel, because cruelty breaks the logic of the quid pro quo, which is the logic of the law or the contract or the bargain. But this notion of grace—which is the doctrine of the law’s gratuitousness and self-indicting excess—imposes the burden of endless thanksgiving, the acknowledgment day after day of an unpaid debt, which is to say a peonage: “Then for thy passion—I will do for that—Alas, my God, I know not what.” Calvinism, meanwhile, manages to suspend the law only by positing a sovereign god, a lord and father, whose authority cannot be checked even by his own commands; there is no law, it’s true, but only because God doesn’t have to honor any of the agreements you think you’ve made with Him. A Christian antinomianism, judged within a Lacanian frame, keeps cycling back to law and superego and Big Daddy. Žižek’s point all along has been that the concept of law doesn’t exhaust how the social order keeps a hold on us—that there is always something beyond law—and that this other thing, Enjoyment, necessarily approaches us as non-juridical beings, hence in the mode of bare life. Antinomianism might be the path to emancipation, but it is also the condition of both the sovereign and the homo sacer, those persons outside the law. So Žižek has gotten more hostile to Enjoyment over time. His asceticism has taken over. He has come to think of Judaism as a spiritual practice that can teach us how to follow the law without getting sucked into the obscene supplement. And he thinks the same thing about Kant—that Kant teaches us how to work upon ourselves, in a Lacanian spirit, so that we can identify moral law without Enjoyment getting in the way. And he thinks that Leninism was a Judeo-Kantian politics, before Stalinism took over and brought obscene enjoyment back into Communism. But there is still a very big problem. When he is attacking the theory of radical democracy put forth by some rival Lacanians, Žižek says that these others just don’t get it—that the negativity at the heart of democracy generates its own obscene supplement. Democracy prides itself on being ideologically thin, which means conceptually and libidinally thin, minimally mystified. A proper democracy will be entirely procedural or formal; it won’t tell anybody what to think or feel or want. But this means that democracy cedes enjoyment, the libido, &c to the Right, to which it is then attached in a historically determinate structure: an erotically thin democracy will always go hand in hand with erotically charged challenges from the Right. You can say in advance that they have to go together; you can’t have the first without the second. That’s what he means when he says that the last generation’s new nationalisms and new fundamentalisms have been part and parcel of democracy and the center-Left: Obscene enjoyment “is the obverse, the fantasmatic supplement, of democracy itself.”  It is on this point that Zizek is, in fact, closest to Wilhelm Reich. But then one has to wonder: How is his notion of a Judaic communism of the Law exempt from this same critique? What happens to Enjoyment under Judaism or Kantianism or Leninism? We’re really back to basics. Psychoanalysis tells us that the libido never just goes away; you can’t tell it to leave and you can’t tell it to heel. So why would Jews and Communists be exempt from this? Why would they and they alone have beaten Donkey Kong? If consumer capitalism is the Regime of Obscene Enjoyment that a justice-loving Communism is offering to repress, then won’t capitalism just take on the status of the Real or the drive, especially for the many of us who will possess pre-revolutionary memories of such a thing—won’t a successfully suppressed capitalism just become the market unconscious, the consumer underground, the shop-till-you-drop-and-all-you-can-eat-and-our-doors-never-close? So here are my two questions for Žižek, which I’m hoping someone will put to him the next time he is near a mike: First, are we meant to pursue a politics beyond obscenity or is the idea to make obscenity itself do the work of justice, and if the latter, in what sense would this obscenity still be obscene? Second, and perhaps more pressingly: How do Jews get their kicks? I know, I know: That question lies at the center of Žižek’s entire conked-out system, and it still sounds like a joke.

(My thanks to Jason Josephson, Anita Sokolsky, Ali Mctar, and my fellow readers of Zizek in ENGL 456.)

 

Zizek’s method

Triptych

THREE SHORT ESSAYS ON Žižek

•2. Žižek’s Method

FIRST ESSAY IS HERE…

Žižek is above all a Gothic writer, and the admirers who approach him as though he were Louis CK or Reggie Watts are thus falling into a kind of category error. They’ve got the genre wrong, like the people who go to slasher movies and chortle every time the knife comes out. A Gothic writer: It’s not just that Žižek publishes on the kind of accelerated schedule that we more typically associate with pulp fiction or even comic books, though some still unfriendly readers could probably reconcile themselves to his industrial tempo if they began thinking of The Monstrosity of Christ and First as Tragedy not as free-standing volumes, nor even properly as books, but simply as the latest issues in a long-running title—a single year’s worth of Slavoj Žižek’s Adventures into Weird Worlds. The first-order evidence for Žižek’s Gothicism—the cues and triggers that invite us to read his writing as a kind of Gruselphilosophie—are not hard to find: the frequent encomia to Stephen King, to whom even his beloved Hitchcock is finally assimilated; a tendency to explicate Lacan by summarizing the plots of scary movies; a persistent concern with trauma, cataclysm, and grief. Psychoanalysis’s most fundamental insight, he writes, is that “at any moment, the most common everyday conversation, the most ordinary event can take a dangerous turn, damage can be caused that cannot be undone.” So, yes, Žižek is a magnetic and slobber-voiced goof; he is also the theorist of your life where it is going to be worst, the implacable prognosticator of your distress.

But even once we’ve spotted the jack-o-lantern that Žižek never takes off his porch, it is going to be hard to know what to do with it or how to reckon its consequences. What, after all, does it mean to say that a given philosopher is a kind of horror writer? You might be wondering, for instance, if there is a philosophical argument attached to all of Žižek’s horror-talk. It would be possible at this point to survey the philosophy canon and compile a list of concepts or excerptable positions establishing European thought’s many different accounts of terror, trepidation, and unease. Indeed, for the philosophy graduate student, the language’s fine discriminations between panic’s various grades and modes come as it were with the names of Great Thinkers already attached: Hobbesean fear, Kierkegaardian dread, Freudian Unheimlichkeit, the angst, anxiety, or anguish of your preferred existentialist. And there is nothing stopping you from reading Žižek in this manner and so walking away with yet another philosopheme, in which case you might decide that Žižek is a fairly conventional theorist of the spooky-sublime, like so: All language involves a doubling; whenever we name something, we fashion a doppelganger for it. I open my mouth, and where before there was one thing, the object, there are now two, the object and its name, and if I’m thinking clearly I need to be able to distinguish rigorously between the word “table” and the touchable, breakable, enduring-decaying, eighteenth-century Connecticut batten door upon which I am now typing. Žižek takes the position that language thus severed from its referents is always on the side of fiction, fantasy, and ideology. You can only be sure that you are in the presence of something real if this kind of doubling hasn’t taken place, if, in other words, the object hasn’t been surrounded by verbal shadows of itself. If you can talk about something, then it is by definition untrue; it has already been translated into a kind of derealized chatter. And if it’s true, or if it’s Real—because that’s the philosopheme you are about to pocket: the Real—then you can’t talk about it or can’t talk about it lucidly and coherently. But in that case, the only things that get to count as Real are the things that resist being named—those enormities that daunt our congenital glibness—which is to say the worst things: the torsions, the tearings, the ugliest breaks. Nearly everything can get sucked into the order of language, but some few things can’t. What remains is what’s real: the unspeakable.

But perhaps this too-fluid summary is beside the point. For to call Žižek a Gothic writer is finally to say less about the substance of his arguments than about his way of making those arguments—his philosophical style or Darstellung. It is one thing, I mean, to point out that Žižek gives an account of fear, which we could reflect on and debate at the seminar table and then agree with or not. It is another, rather more interesting thing to observe that Žižek is trying to scare you—not just to explain the uncanny to you, but to raise its pimples in your armflesh: “What unites us is that, in contrast to the classic image of proletariat who have ‘nothing to lose but their chains,’ we are in danger of losing everything.” Critical theory, of course, has always been readable as a mode of Gothic writing, just another subgenre of the dark-fantastic, with Freudianism and Foucauldianism assuming their place on the bookshelf alongside vampire novels and chronicles of crewless ghost ships and other such stories of the damned. Marx describes the commodity as “phantom-like” and calls capital a bloodsucker and attributes to it a “werewolf-hot-hunger.” Freud makes of psychoanalysis a sort of ghost story and instructs his followers to conduct therapy as though it were a séance or an exorcism—a making-the-spirits-walk. In German, the other name for the unconscious is not reassuringly distanced and Latinate, but bluntly, forbiddingly vernacular. The Ego, this is to say, does not share our person with the Id—that’s not how Freud puts it. Das Ich is chained to das Es,the Me” to “the It,” or, if you like, to It. Walter Benjamin, meanwhile, asks us to declare our solidarity with the dead. Adorno requires that you take a shard in the eye. Foucault recasts Left Weberianism as a paranoid thriller, a story about imprisonment and surveillance and the impossibility of outrunning power. Critical theory, this is all to say, needs to be read not only as a teaching or a storehouse of oppositional arguments, but also as a historically inventive crossbreeding of philosophy and genre fiction. The Frankfurt School Reader is, in that sense, one of the twentieth century’s great horror anthologies. If we now insert Žižek into this philosophical-literary timeline, we should feel less awkward naming some of his writing’s schlockier conventions: his direct emotional appeals to the reader; his sudden juxtapositions of opposed argumentative positions, which recall less the patient extrapolations of the dialectic than they do the jump cuts of summer-camp massacre movies; his pervasive intermingling of high and low, which marks Žižek’s arguments as postmodern productions in their own right, against which the genre experiments of Freud or Benjamin will seem, in retrospect, downright Jamesian and understated and belletristic. Das Ding an sich is just about hearable as the name of a B-movie: The Thing In Itself!

But this isn’t yet to say enough. I want you to agree that the Gothic in Žižek is something more than a reasoned-through philosophical position, offered to the reader to adopt as creed or mantra. But it is also something more than a sinister rhetoric or set of literary conventions—more than a palette of gruesome flourishes borrowed from the horror classics. In Žižek’s writing, the Gothic attains the status of a method. This will need to be explained, but it’s worth it: It is a tenet of Lacanianism that things in the world have trouble cohering or maintaining their integrity; this is true of persons, but it is every bit as true of institutions or, indeed, of entire social fields. One of the great Lacanian pastimes is thus to scan a person or a piece of writing or a historical-political scene for evidence of its (her, his) fragmentation or disintegration. To the bit of Sartrean wisdom that says that all identity is performance, the Lacanians add a qualifier: All identity is failed performance, in which case it is our task to stay on the lookout for a person’s protrusions and tells and prostheses, the incongruous features that seemingly put-together persons have not been able to absorb into their specious unity. In what specifiable ways are you least like you claim to be? Where is your Adam’s apple, because it’s probably not on your neck? Now once you get good at asking such questions of people, the challenge will be to figure out how to ask them again of the systems in which people reside. The Real—whatever lies menacingly outside of discourse—can take several different forms: Most obviously, it can name external trauma: assaults upon your person, the bullet in your belly, your harrowing. But it might also name your own disgusting desires, the ones you are least willing to own. Or it might name the totality (of empire, say, or global capitalism). Any concept that we form of the totality is going to be a reification, of course, something theorized, which is to say linguistically devised or even in some sense made up. But the totality-as-such, as distinct from this or that concept of totality, will persist as an unknowable limit to our efforts. It will be, to revise an old phrase, a structure palpable only in its effects, with the key proviso now being that the only effects that matter are the unpleasant ones: a structure palpable only in its humiliations. The world system is the shark in the water. Again, the Real might name a given social order’s fundamental antagonisms—the conflicts that are so basic to a set of institutions that no-one participating in those institutions can stand outside them. Or the Real might name the ungroundedness of those institutions and of our personae, their tenuous anchoring in free choices and changeable practices. So if you want to write political commentary in the style of Žižek, you really only need to do two things: 1) You scan the social scene that interests you in order to identify some absurd element within it, something that by official lights should not be in the room. Political Lacanianism in practice tends to be one big game of “Which one doesn’t belong?” or “One of these things is not like the others.” And 2) You figure out how this incongruity is an index of the Real in any of those varied senses: trauma, the drive, the totality, antagonism, or the void. You describe, in other words, how the Unspeakable is introducing anomalies and distortions into a sphere otherwise governed by speech.

So that’s one version of Žižek’s Gothic method. There are thus three distinct claims we’ll need to be able to tell apart. We can say, first, that Žižek likes to read Gothic fiction and also the eerier reaches of science fiction—and that’s true, though he precisely does not read them the way a literary critic would. It has always been one of the more idiosyncratic features of Žižek’s thought that he is willing to proclaim Pet Sematary a vehicle of genuine analytic insight or to see in horror stories more broadly a spontaneous and vernacular Lacanianism, in much the same way that old-fashioned moral philosophers used to think of Christianity as Kantianism for people without PhDs. To this observation we can easily add a second: that Žižek himself often reads as though he were writing speculative fiction, as in: You are not an upstanding member of society who dreams on occasion that he is a murderer, you are a murderer who dreams every night that he is an upstanding member of society—though keep reading in Žižek and you’ll also find: torture chambers, rape, “strange vibrating noises.” And yet if we’re taking Žižek at his word, then the point is not just to read Gothic novels, nor yet to write them. We must cultivate in ourselves, rather, a determination to read pretty much everything as Gothic. Once we’ve concluded that horror fiction offers a more accurate way of describing the world than do realist novels—that it is the better realism, a literature of the Real—then the only way to defend this insight will be to read the very world as horror show. It will no longer be enough to read Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson. The Gothic hops the border and becomes a hermeneutics rather than a genre. Anything—any poem, painting, person, or polity—will, if snuck up upon from the right angle, disclose to you its bony grimace.

This approach should help us further specify Žižek’s place on the philosophical scene. It is often complained that Hegelian thinkers—Adorno, Wallerstein, Jameson—subdue their interlocutors not by proving their arguments false but precisely by agreeing with them. Going up against a Hegelian, you find yourself less refuted than outflanked—absorbed, reduced, assigned some cramped nook in the dialectical apparatus. That’s a point we can now extend to Žižek, in whose writing the Gothic gets weaponized in precisely this Hegelian way. Horror becomes a device, a move, a way of transforming other people’s arguments. When Žižek engages in polemic with some peer, his usual tack is not to controvert his adversary’s arguments, but rather to improvise an eerie riff upon them, to re-state his opponent’s claims in their most unsettling register. You can call this the dialectic, but you might also call it pestilence. Žižek infects his rivals with Lacan and forces them to speak macabre versions of their core positions: undead Heidegger, undead Badiou, undead Judith Butler.

Three of these fiends we will want to single out:

Žižek summons zombie Deleuze. It is often remarked that critical theory in the new century has taken a vitalist turn. The trials-by-epistemology that were the day-to-day business of the long post-structuralist generation have given way to the endless policing of ontologies. Graduate students accuse each other of possessing the wrong cosmology or of performing their obeisance to the object with insufficient fervor. Deleuze and Guattarí can be corrected only by those proposing counter-ontologies. Claims get to be right because Bergson made them. You are scared to admit that you wrote your whole first book without having read Spinoza. Nietzsche is still quotable, but only where he is most ebullient and alpine. You ask which description of the stars, if recited consequently to its last rhyme, will reform the banking system and unmelt the ice caps. Klassenkampf seems less interesting than theomachia. What is less often remarked is that vitalism has only returned to the fore by consenting to a major modification—a fundamental change in its program and priorities—only, that is, by agreeing not to grant precedence to those things we used to call “living.” The achievement of the various neo-vitalisms has been to extend the idiom of the old Lebensphilosophie—its egalitarian cosmos of widely shared powers, its emphasis on mutation and metamorphosis—to entire categories of object that vitalists used to think of themselves as opposing: the inanimate, the inorganic, and the dead. It is in this sense misleading to call Deleuze a Spinozist without immediately noting that his Spinoza has been routed through La Mettrie and the various Industrial Revolutions and the Futurists, which makes of schizoanalysis less a vitalism than a profound updating of the same, such that it no longer has to exclude the machine—a techno-vitalism, then, for which engines are the better organisms, and which takes as its unnamed material prompts epochal innovations in the history of capitalism itself: the emergence of the late twentieth century’s animate industrialisms, flexible manufacturing and biotech, production producing and production produced.

So that’s one vitalism of the unliving, but there are others. Jane Bennett claims for her ontology the authority of her great lebensphilosophische forebears—Spinoza, Bergson, Hans Driesch, Bakhtin—and yet calls matter “vibrant” rather than “vital,” because she wants her list of things living and lifelike to include national electricity grids and the litter thrown from the windows of passing cars. Bennett is trying to imagine a United States that has become in a few key respects more like Japan—an America in which Midwesterners, possessed by an “irrational love of matter,” hold funeral services for their broken DVD players and pay priests to bounce adzuki beans from off the hoods of newly purchased trucks. The phrase “vibrant matter” might hearken back to William Blake’s infinite-in-everything, but Bennett uses it mostly to refer to the consumables and disposables of advanced capitalist societies: to enchanted rubbish dumps and copper tubing and other such late-industrial yōkai. The task, again, is to figure out how to be a vitalist on a planet without nature—a pantheist of the anaerobic or Spinoza for the Anthropocene. Bennett herself says that what interests her is above all the “variability” and “creativity” of “inorganic matter.”  In that context, the achievement of the adjective “vibrant” is to recall the word “vital” without entailing it: not alive, merely pulsating; not vitalist, but vitalish.

What we can now say about Žižek is that he offers his own, rather different way of dialectically revising the older vitalisms. His point is that most people already happen upon the cosmic life force—in their everyday lives and without special philosophical tutoring—and that such encounters are, on balance, terrifying. The élan vital is not your iPod’s morning workout mix; nor is it some metaphysical energy drink. It is the demiurge that makes of you “a link in the chain you serve against your will”—the formulation is Freud’s—“a mere appendage of your germ-plasm,” not life’s theorist and apostle, but its stooge and discardable instrument. Psychoanalysis is the school that takes as its starting point the repugnance that we properly feel towards life—a vitalism still, but one with all the judgments reversed, a necrovitalism, in which bios takes on the attributes that common sense more typically associates with death, its nullity, above all, and its blind stupidity. One of Žižek’s favorite ways of making this point is by reminding you of how you felt when you first saw Ridley Scott’s Alien—movie of cave-wombs and booby-trapped eggs, of male pregnancies and forced blow jobs, which ends when the undressed woman finally lures from his hidey-hole the giant penis monster, the adult alien with the taut, glossy head of an erection. But we might also think of the matter this way: In the early 1950s, Wilhelm Reich—the magus of western Maine, Paracelsus in a lab coat, the ex-Freudian who thought he could capture the cosmic life force in shoeboxes and telephone booths—organized something he called the Oranur Experiment. Reich had by that point begun styling himself the counter-Einstein, foil and counterweight to the Nobel Laureate of Dead Cities, dedicated to building the nuclear age’s new and sorely needed weapons of life. He had to this end procured a single needle of radium; the idea was that he would introduce this shaving of Nagasaki into a room supercharged with élan vital so that he could observe the cosmic forces of death and the cosmic forces of life fighting it out under laboratory conditions. It did not go as he’d planned. Reich panicked when he discovered, not just that the radium was in some sense stronger, but that the radioactivity had contaminated and rendered malevolent the compound’s orgone. The cosmic life force hadn’t been obliterated; it had been turned, made sinister, recruited over to do the work of death. Žižek, we might say, is the theorist of this toxic vitality; the one who thinks that orgone was bad to begin with; the philosopher of rampant and metastatic life.

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Žižek summons zombie Levinas. It might be more precise to say that Žižek summons the zombie Other or the Neighbor-Wight. Either way, poring over Žižek’s response to Levinas is your best chance at learning how to replicate his achievement—how, that is, to turn philosophers you dislike into your reanimated thralls. Derrida delivers the funeral oration; Žižek returns with a shovel later that night. The spell you will read from the Lacanian grimoire has three parts:

-First, you seek out the moment in your rival’s system where his thinking is already at its creepiest. Chapbook summaries of Levinas often make him sound like a fairly conventional European moral philosopher, as though he hadn’t done anything more than cut a new path, dottering and roundabout, back to the old Kantian positions about the dignity and autonomy of other people. It is easy, I mean, to make Levinas sound inoffensive and dutiful. The wise man’s hand silently cups the chin of a stranger. It will be important to insist, then, that ethics-as-first-philosophy harbors its proper share of sublimity or even of something akin to dread. We know that Levinas’s first step was to adjust Husserl’s doctrine of intentionality: So consciousness is always consciousness of something—sure enough. And all thinking is directed outward; it cannot not refer—granted. But intention, even as it fans away from me in a wide, curving band, will meet obstacles or opacities, and it is by fixing our attention on these stains in the phenomenological field that Levinas develops what he himself calls “a philosophy of the enigma”—a kind of anti-phenomenology in which thinking begins anew by giving priority to what does not appear and in which it falls to me to sustain and shepherd this strangeness I have just discovered in the Not-I. This is a program whose uncanny and un-Kantian qualities we could restore only if we agreed to set aside Levinas’s own undarnably worn-out language—alterity, the Other, otherness—and to put “the Alien” in its stead: an ethics of the Alien would ask us to look upon the face of the Alien so that we can better understand the tasks of being-for-the-Alien. For current purposes, what we’ll want to keep in mind is that Žižek has no beef with this Levinas. He agrees after a fashion with the doctrines of alterity and can easily translate their claims about the obscurity of other people into Lacanian observations about the modes of appearance of the Real. But again, it’s not the argument that matters; it’s the method: Žižek has to find at least one point of agreement with Levinas, because that’s how the zombie hex gains access to its mark.

-So that’s the first step. You make a point of agreeing with your rival by finding that one argument of his that is already pretty occult. The next step, then, is to show how he nonetheless runs away from the creepiness he has conjured. Žižek’s complaint against Levinas is easily summarized. He thinks that the ethics of alterity, far from demanding difficult encounters with other people, encourages me to keep my relationship to others within strict bounds—to delimit, attenuate, and finally dull such encounters. Totality and Infinity is the handbook for stage-managing a counterfeit otherness, as a moment’s reflection on two of the words we most associate with Levinas should suffice to show. Who, after all, are the people who routinely allow themselves to be “caressed”? A Levinasian ethics takes as its paradigmatic others people with cheeks at the ready: lovers and children and hospice patients. The attitude it means to cultivate in us is accordingly amorous or avuncular or perhaps candy-striping. The moral person is the one in a position to dandle and cosset. The language of “the Neighbor,” meanwhile, forfeits even the slight provocations of the word “Other,” making strangers proximate again, returning outlanders to their position of adjacency. Neighbors aren’t the ones who draw out of you your hitherto unsuspected capacities for righteousness. They are the ones-to-whom-you-loan-cordless-drills, the ones-who-could-afford-to-buy-on-your-block. Psychoanalysis, then, is where Žižek would have us look for a philosophical program that does not housebreak the Other in this way, though the phenomenologists, if they are to follow him there, will have to agree to reinstate the entire, outmoded metaphysics of appearance v. essence, since those who go into analysis are consenting to set aside public facades and facile self-perceptions and are learning instead to speak the secret language of hidden things. The more-than-Levinasian task, at any rate, would be to find a way to live alongside that person, the person whose unspoken desires you would doubtless find ugly. Other people would terrify you if you knew them well—that is the most remorseless, Freudian plain speech—and it is in the dying light of that claim that Levinas’s thinking looks suspiciously like an excuse not to know them. A psychoanalytically robust account of Otherness would therefore have to reintroduce you to the people next door, that “inhuman” family with whom you now share a hedge, where by inhuman Žižek means “irrational, radically evil, capricious, revolting, disgusting.” Can you hew to the ethics of neighborliness even when a vampire buys the bungalow across the street? Are you willing to caress not just an unfamiliar face but a moldering one? Methodologically, the point we will not want to miss is that Levinas now stands accused on his own terms of having replaced the Alien with the Other, of having persuaded you to stuff your ears against your neighbors’ shenanigans, of having evinced once again what he himself once called the “horror of the Other which remains Other.” We put up with other people as long as they put up a face. And here, finally, is the portable technique, which you can bring to bear against any theorist and not just against the radical ethicists: When you read a rival philosopher, you will want to take whatever creepy argument he already proposes and find a way to make it a whole lot creepier. That will be your chance to conduct a kind of body swap, to replace the philosopher with a more consequently unpleasant version of himself.

-So that’s the second step. Step three is: You welcome your rival into the army of the dead, making sure that he realizes that he is just one monster among many such. Here’s where the hoodoo gets tricky. A Levinasian ethics presents itself to us as intimate, a thought nestled between two terms, Me and the Other, where the latter means “the neighbor and his mug at strokable distance.” And yet the term “Other” is incapable of this kind of grazing approach; it is barred in its very constitution from ever rubbing noses with us. For the word indicates no particular second person but only the anonymous and shrouded Autrui. If I speak only of “the Other,” with no further specification, I could be referring to anyone but me. The concept produces no further criterion and calls no-one by name. Behind its sham-individuation there thus lurks the mathematical sublimity of the crowd, impersonal and planet-filling. At this point you have two options: You can decide that the ethics of alterity is ineffectual because self-consuming in this fashion, claiming to preserve the irreducible strangeness of the other while in fact washing such peculiarities away in a bath of equal and undifferentiated otherness. The philosophical system’s organizing term is, as ever, what betrays it. Alternately, you can decide that a Levinasian ethics can survive only by generalizing itself, by accepting its own faceless abstraction as a prompt and so by agreeing to become categorical. If we follow this second route, we will have to say without blushing that Levinas’s thought as it has come down to us was already characterized by a pressure, irregularly heeded, to all-but-universalize. The term Other directs my moral concern recklessly in all directions, sponsoring a universalism to which I am the only exception—a humanism minus one.

But then it should be easy to add the subtracted one back in. It should be easy, I mean, to get the Me to takes its place among those many indistinct others and thereby to make Levinas’s universalism complete. It will be enough, in fact, to call to mind the basic dialectical idea that we do not cognize objects singly, but only relationally or in constellations. This means, among many other things, that the Me and the Other strictly imply one another. If my action in the world didn’t reach a certain limit, if I didn’t routinely knock into other objects and persons, if these latter didn’t reliably humble me, then I wouldn’t even have a sense of myself as a Me, which is to say as something that does not, in fact, coincide with the world. But then the Other and the Me are not fixed positions; they are conceptually unstable and even in some sense interchangeable. I can obviously switch places with the other; I am other to the Other, who, in turn, is a Me in her own right. As soon as I concede this, I have discovered my own alien-ness. Second, and as an intensification of these Hegelian reciprocity games, we can collapse the two terms into a single formation: not the Me and the Other, but the Other-Me or the self as foreign element. This can be managed a few different ways. My experience of becoming—of my own changeability—renders me other to myself, reconstructing the ego as watercourse or Heraclitean series. I do not shake the Other’s hand as though I didn’t know what it was like to be a stranger. But we can also travel a more direct psychoanalytic path to the same insight, simply by noting that I am not transparent to myself, not in charge of my own person, that my own desires and motives are basically incomprehensible to me—that, indeed, I am just another dimness or demonic riddle.

And with that, the terms generated by Levinas’s philosophy mutate beyond recognition. This, in case you missed it, is the culminating step in Žižek’s method: If when reading philosopher X, you hold fast to what is most Gothic in X’s thinking—if you generalize its monstrosities and don’t exempt yourself from them, if you promote Unwesen to the position of Wesen—then other core features of X’s system will break and buckle and shift, until it no longer really looks any more like X’s thinking. To stay with Levinas: The ethics of alterity rotates around a single inviolable prohibition—that I not conclude that all egos are more or less the same; that I not propose a theory of subjectivity that would hold equally for all people; that I not stipulate as the precondition of my welcoming another person that he or she be like me. But if the terms “self” and “other” cannot be maintained in their separateness—and they can’t—then this injunction will be lifted, and Žižek can improvise in its stead a paradoxical argument in which alterity becomes the vehicle of our similarity, in which I realize I am like others in their very otherness, in which the Hegelian homecoming comes to pass after all, but on the terrain of alienation and not of the self, in which what establishes our identity is not some human substance, but our inevitable distance from such substance—which distance, we, however, share. There thus arises the possibility that I will identify with the Alien, not in his humanity, but in his very monstrosity, as long as I have come to the conclusion first that the world’s most obviously damaged people only make public the inhumanity that is our common portion and my own clandestine ferment. And out of such acts of identification—and not of pity or tolerance or aid—Žižek would build, in the place of Levinas’s philosophy à deux, a global alien host or legion of the damned. Radicalize what is creepiest in your rival, in other words, and then make it universal. This brings us to Episode Number Three, in media res, as they say: already in progress…

Levinas zombie

Žižek summons the zombie multitude. I want to point out two more instances of this horror-movie universalism—two more cases, that is, in which Žižek takes one of radical thought’s settled positions and contagiously expands its orbit. What you’ll want to pay attention to is how each position leads to the same conceptual destination, which is the undead horde—Levinas has just led to the horde; and now Rancière will lead to the horde, and then Agamben will, too, like characters in a Lucio Fulci movie getting picked off at twenty-minute intervals. The horde: We’ll want to consider the possibility now that the cadaver-thronged parking lot is a post-political society’s last remaining image of the unmediated collectivity, the term that, having driven from consciousness the gatherings and aggregates posited by classical political philosophy—the assembly, the demos, the populo, the revolutionary crowd—must now be asked to absorb into itself the indispensable political energies we used to expect from these latter. Can we get the walking dead to mill about the barricades?—that is another of Žižek’s driving questions. Will they know to throw rocks?

One path to the horde begins with Rancière’s idea that politics proper belongs to “the part that has no part”—which is the philosopher’s oxymoronic term for the disenfranchised, those who are important to the system’s functioning but who don’t in the usual sense count, who don’t get to take part and who have no party. Rancière’s claim—and sometimes Žižek’s, too—is that only the agitations of such people (refugees, guest workers, the undocumented) so much as deserve to be called “politics,” because it is only at a system’s roiled margins that basic questions about a polity can be raised, questions, that is, about its scope and constitution. Anything that happens in the ordinary course of government takes the state’s functioning for granted and so isn’t really about the polis—is not, in that sense, “political.” On the face of it, this is a terrible idea. Rancière’s position is anti-constitutional and anti-utopian and indeed committed to failure. My actions only get to count as political provided the state does not recognize me, and as soon as I succeed in convincing someone in power to look me in the eye or indeed to act on my behalf, I cede my claim to be a political actor and become just another pawn of policy makers and the police. There is, in this sense, no such thing as getting the state right; every political breakthrough is actually a setback. To frame your program in terms of “the part that has no part” is to show contempt for those parts-with-parts, absolutely any parts, even though some of these portions will be quite meager. This has made Rancière ill-equipped to talk about what we might call the part that has little part: the native-born working classes, the rural poor, the jobless, the ineffectually enfranchised.

So can Rancière’s thinking be Gothically universalized? It is one of the more attractive features of Žižek’s thinking that he corrects Rancière at just this point and in just this fashion, insisting on the instability of the conceptual pair around which the politics of parts usually turns, inclusion-exclusion, as in: Politics is only ever out there; here there is only administration. That last sentence turns out to be untenable, for even the part that has no-part is not simply excluded. It is one of radical thought’s lazier habits to treat the word “margins” as though it meant the outside when it fact it means the space just inside the door, the page’s extremity and not the empty air that surrounds the lifted book. More: Even the word “exclusion” never refers to simple separation or distance. You have to have had some contact with a system for me to be able to say that you are excluded from it; the very concept depends on some thread or temporary node of connection. The gauchos of the Uruguayan plains may not be represented in the Danish Folketing, but they aren’t excluded from it either. “Exclusion” contains the idea of “inclusion” within itself and is not the latter’s simple opposite. Genuine apartness would require a different concept. This observation will allow Žižek to fold the old proletariat back into the category of the part that has no part. Working people and refugees are actually in similar positions of inclusion/exclusion: the grinding, mutilating condition of being swept up in a system whose inner workings nonetheless seem closed off and impossible to fathom.

One way to think about what Žižek is doing here would be to say that he is trying, within the terms dictated by contemporary European philosophy, to get us to shake off our gauchiste habit, picked up over the social democrat decades, of seeing European workers as basically First World and coddled and deleteriously white. He wants to help us retrieve “a more radical notion of the proletarian”—where more radical means not “more militant,” at least not in the first instance, but merely “more abject.” If I say now that the doctrine of we-all-are-refugees might hold the key to the emergence of a new proletariat, you might object, mildly, that this new proletariat sounds a lot like the old one—the really old one, the one that didn’t yet drive oversized Buicks, the working class stump-armed and black-lunged and blind. There is something new, however, about Žižek’s version of the wretched ones, which is that he’s pretty sure that they include us, the people who actually read his books, the people who know who Žižek is: the second-year university students, the middle-aged art historians, the underemployed web designers, the gap-year backpackers. “Today, we are all potentially homo sacer”—and then that’s a second, unusually clear instance of his Gothic universalism right there, now keyed to Agamben, who, once whammied, will produce an image of the concentration camp victim as Everyman or bare life as Ordinary Joe. To be a new-model proletarian is simply to know that your life, if not yet ghastly, is nonetheless exposed and insecure—wholly vincible. In place of Hardt and Negri’s squatters and street-partiers and Glo-Stick communards, Žižek means to fill the streets with a multitude less than human. It might take a minute for this idea to sink in. The new proletariat will be built out of homines sacri.  Žižek’s thrilling and preposterous idea is that having failed to organize fast-food chains or big-box retail, we might yet organize ourselves on the basis of la vita nuda—that the Musselmänner might form a union and yet remain Musselmänner, that those who have lost even the instincts of self-preservation, who have stopped swatting the flies that lay eggs in their open sores, might be made to see the point of collective bargaining.

It has become almost obligatory over the past decade to argue that fear lives on the Right, that terror is a means of social control, that one could defeat Al Qaeda and the Patriot Act at once if only one would resolve to be unafraid, if only we could make ourselves okay with not being safe. It is against the Left machismo of those arguments, so many rehashings of the old Spinozist idea that “fear makes us womanish,” that Žižek’s accomplishment over the last decade can be measured, as he has set about to reclaim terror as one possible platform for emancipation and revolutionary equality, to help us imagine a communism for the screamers and the tearful and the scared. Not that Žižek is offering to make you any less frightened. He will not give you refuge or grab your hand or quietly sing nonsense lyrics into your ear. A politics of militant fear does not begin by offering solace. Quite the contrary: Our task will be to communicate fear and to amplify it. You have a few different options as to how you might go about this. You can issue reasoned admonitions, explain to us soberly about the threats and the thresholds and the no-going-back: two degrees Celsius, go ahead tell us again. Or you can make us feel your own foreboding, as also the grief that is fear’s come-true aftermath: Show us the photographs of Katrina graffiti—“Destroy this memory,” one picture records, in white paint on a flooded brick house, in good, teacherly cursive, no less. But it has been left to Žižek to propose a radically darkened politics, a politics that, no longer content to protest the ongoing catastrophe, has taken the disaster into itself and begun to root for ruin. We are the ones they were supposed to be afraid of. In George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the zombies are for once oddly purposeful, these animate corpses with faces torn into tragic masks, whose first, returning memories are of what it was like once to work and when not working march. You are probably already hurting. A just politics is going to hurt a whole lot worse.

Land of the Dead

MORE SOON…

Three Essays on Zizek

Zizek Marat Joseph

•1. Žižek’s Argument

I’d like to put two questions to Slavoj Žižek, though the second question might turn out to be the first one wearing different-colored leotards. It would help, I think, if I explained first what I take to be Žižek’s core argument—the problem and puzzle driving his theoretical overproduction—both so that he can tell me if I’m wrong and because readers of Žižek are sorely in need of a map. It’s not that he never says what he is after; the problem is, rather, that the centrality of this one issue tends in his writing to get lost amidst the riffs and the endlessly re-explained Lacanianisms and the compulsive recording of everything he’s watched this year on hotel room televisions. It is possible to read an awful lot of Žižek and still not realize that he has a point. Indeed, one sometimes gets the feeling that the only people who understand him less well than his opponents are his enthusiasts.

So here, for easy reference, is his animating claim: that every political formation, in addition to generating the law, generates a particular more or less expected way of violating the law. Any set of prohibitions comes with its own accustomed transgressions, a particular way in which Law-in-the-abstract allows itself to be broken. Different laws produce different lawbreakers or different modes of rebellion. And what keeps us attached to a given political order—what makes us loyal to it—is not the law, but the transgression. We like living in a particular society because of the illicit pleasures that it affords us—because, that is, it grants us a particular set of turn-ons, and it does so not by openly trading in these latter, but precisely by seeming to disallow them. Following the law is one path to subservience; breaking it is a second. Transgression, in fact, produces in us the more powerful political obligation; it is the device by which a governing order takes hold of us for good. And Žižek, by making this argument, is merely tracking back to Freudian ground zero, to the idea that all of our relationships carry a libidinal charge or that desire and satisfaction are permanent features of our psychic lives—ineliminable, not to be overcome. The idea, further, is that law by itself couldn’t possibly work; the law alone can never be lawlike in its effects, for if some authority genuinely denied us all pleasure, we would take measures to abolish it. But authority doesn’t deny us pleasures; it creates new ones and can become, indeed, just another target for our ardor.

Enjoyment, to bottom-line it, is not the heroic alternative to discipline and convention. It is discipline’s sidekick and in some sense the authentically nomian term—the secret bearer of law’s regularities and compulsions. The libido is the vehicle of our subjection and thus the answer to why most of us, even those of us in the habit of striking defiant poses, don’t seek fundamental political changes or seek them only half-heartedly: Change would disrupt whatever erotic bargain we’ve quietly worked out with the prevailing order. Žižek’s way of putting all this is to say that every political system—every code of law or tablet of rules—comes with an “obscene supplement”; he also calls it “the inherent transgression.” And his single greatest talent as an intellectual is to survey some corner of the social scene and find the smudge of obscenity that holds it together, to smoke out its anchoring enjoyment, to help you see how people are getting off on things that they don’t seem to be getting off on.

That’s a pretty Calvinist skill as skills go. And, indeed, it is the asceticism of Žižek’s position, so unlike the prevailing tenor of radical philosophy, that we will want to underscore. In 1934, Wilhelm Reich, having recently fled to Denmark from Berlin, wrote an essay trying to make sense of the epochal victory in Germany of the leather-jacket Right. Why had the German Left failed to stand up to the fascists? How had they ceded so much ground? Reich began that essay by saying that Marxists were going to have to spend less time thinking about structure and system and historical process and more time thinking about “the subjective factor in history”—less time improvising mini-lectures on monopoly capitalism and the pseudo-democratic ruses of the bourgeois state and more time talking to ordinary people about how they feel and what they might do to feel better. The most remarkable section of the essay comes when Reich begins quoting Joseph Goebbels, not in order to document yet another National Socialist inanity, but in order to make clear that the fascists were onto something. Their success meant, by definition, that they had understood something that the Left had failed to grasp.National Socialism, [Goebbels] said, was not a puritan movement; the people should not be robbed of their joie de vivre; the aim was to achieve more life affirmation and less hypocrisy, more morality and fewer moralistic attitudes.” This is what socialists should have been saying, but perversely weren’t. Shame sits ever on our lips. Reich perceived a basic contradiction in the political constellation of the early 1930s: The fascists successfully appealed to people at the level of pleasure and desire, even while implementing punishment. The socialists, meanwhile, had big plans for emancipating their fellows in several different senses at once, and yet comported themselves according to the petty morality of the well-cushioned parlor. Fascism, in short, broke through in Germany because it was a lot more fun—it seemed to run on expanded erotic energies—whereas the Left, as ever, preferred to educate its potential comrades in the gross national product of India while asking them pointedly whether they fully understood that children made their shoes. Marxists, Reich concluded, needed to buy some guitars; they would have to write some better tunes.

It is this Reichian program, moreover, this determination to out-merry-make the Right, that Fredric Jameson has been trying to keep alive when arguing that Marxism must continue to strut down “the path of the subject,” that it must learn better ways to stimulate the “desire called Marx” or the “desire called utopia.” “If ideology … is a vision of the future that grips the masses, we have to admit that … no Marxist or Socialist Party anywhere has the slightest conception of what socialism or communism as a social system ought to be or can be expected to look like.” It’s just that Jameson, who was born eight months before Elvis Presley, came of age alongside the rock’n’roll Left that Reich seemed in many respects to have blueprinted, which means that his repeating of Reich’s complaint in the 1970s and ‘80s has to be read as an implicit reckoning with the counterculture’s limitations, an admission that even the newly larkish Left—the Left naked and capering—had been no match for General Electric and the Nixon administration. It’s not that Reich was wrong, and yet the socialist libido was still going to need something more than a Bo Diddley beat — that’s one version of Jameson.

And of course it’s not just Jameson who has been making this case. This is one of the things that makes Žižek so important—that he hasn’t been copycatting the inherited Reichian line, and so offers an alternative to Jameson and Deleuze and the many barrelsworth of Reich and Marcuse that really existing queer theory has smuggled past its Foucauldian sentries, an alternative, that is, to the no-longer-new Left’s program for the endless expansion and intensification of sexual life. Žižek is a Freudian, to be sure, and a man of the Left, but he is not a Left Freudian, if we take that term still to refer to one who mistakes his testicles for the working class and who regards the Id as a buddy and a pet and the smothered wellspring of his creativity. So Žižek is not like Jameson and Deleuze, but this observation is itself easily misunderstood. For his version of psychoanalysis does not want you to give up on your unorthodox desires—or at least not on all of them. Quite the contrary. Žižek’s sense is that we almost all engage in unusual behavior—sexual or at least eroticized behavior—to some degree. The problem is that nearly all of that behavior takes place with reference back to authority or to the law. We develop most of our sexual quirks as a way of taking a position with regard to the Master; we carry some notion of authority around in our heads, and the ways in which we like to get off are almost always predicated on what we believe to be true about the people in charge. So Žižek does indeed reject as facile the usual anti-authoritarian thrust of radical psychoanalysis, convinced as it is that we can forthrightly strip down and hump our way to emancipation, but it does so only to reinstate that anti-authoritarianism in another, more difficult place. Psychoanalysis in this mode doesn’t care what you get up to—it really doesn’t care how you take your pleasures—provided that these make no reference to the Master, provided, that is, that they aren’t even a rebellion against him. And to that extent there is one sense in which Žižek’s Lacanian-Hegelian system, otherwise committed to the ideas of negation and the lack, is fully invested in establishing a positivity or simple fact. Your task is to figure out the peculiar way you happen to desire when authority is entirely removed from the picture, when, that is, you no longer take the Master to be peeping from behind the curtains.

This, then, is the reason to go into analysis: The analyst has to be on the lookout for the one thing you desire—or the one way you desire, the one way you organize your satisfaction—that is not relational, not a position over and against bosses and fathers. Such is the knack that any good analyst has to develop: the ability to discriminate between Master-directed kink and kink that is truly your own. The bargain that analysis will make with you is that any enjoyment that survives the sundering of your psyche from authority is yours to keep. It’s just that most of your libidinal habits are not going to survive that sundering—or will be transformed by it into new ones. Žižek, following Lacan, calls any enjoyment thus liberated a sinthome, which, in the original French, isn’t anything more than an arch misspelling of and murky pun upon the word symptom. The Lacanian point is that the enjoyment that you take home with you at the end of a successful course of psychoanalysis is likely to look like and sound like a symptom—fevered, morbid, a “deviation from normal functioning,” the clinicians like to say. But it won’t actually be a symptom, or it will be a symptom with a difference, a symptom that is not a symptom. Analysis, in other words, aims not to cure you or return you to normal functioning, but to help you find your way to a happier disorder. Žižek’s hunch is that most people will leave analysis freakier than when they went into it.

So can we tell the difference between the raunch that unshackles us and the  raunch that fixes us in place? This is one of the more pungent questions that a political psychoanalysis prompts us to ask. For Wilhelm Reich was, of course, in one sense absolutely correct. It is not hard to agree that fascism succeeded in large part by devising new gratifications for its adherents. And perhaps it was only predictable that the Western Left would decide to take Reich’s advice and compete on that ground and help build consumer society’s all-singing-all-dancing-24-hour gaudy show. But psychoanalysis allows us to take stock of where we rock’n’rollers remain least at ease—or, indeed, to describe with some precision the new forms of anxiety that have come to the fore in an age of sex-without-taboos. Žižek’s argument is, in this respect, best understood as proposing a new way to periodize recent history—a new way, that is, of identifying the novelty of the present. It bears repeating: If Žižek is right, then in the political organization of enjoyment, obscenity has always played some kind of role. Even public life organized around strong authority figures used to summon the obscene supplement in its support. But we’ll want to at least consider the possibility that in our version of consumer capitalism, the obscene supplement has become primary and so largely supplanted what it had once been asked merely to buoy. The transgression has moved into the position of the master and so instituted a kind of authoritative obscenity. This marks a comprehensive change in what we might call the regime of enjoyment. Again: What keeps you attached to a society is the forms of deviant pleasure that it winks at. In nearly every social order that has ever existed, there has been law: state law or generally recognized prohibitions, and some people get off on breaking the law, while other people get off on the law itself, get off on enforcing it, get off on playing the cop or exasperated schoolmarm. What sets the present apart is that the prohibitions have to some considerable extent faded, which has produced a system of transgression without law or perhaps even transgression as law—what Žižek calls “the world of ordained transgression”—a society of compulsory pleasure in which you are perpetually enjoined to blow your load. You can think of this, if you like, as the flip side to another of Reich’s signature arguments. Sex-pol claimed that if you raised children in a sexually liberated way, refusing to drum inhibition into them, then they would not be willing later in life to go along with authority, because they would not be in the habit of giving up what was important to their happiness. They would be able to resist the call to renunciation, and if authority threatened their enjoyment directly, they would mutiny. Libidinally unpoliced children would become anti-authoritarian adults. The simple corollary of this argument is a catastrophe that Reich never even paused to consider—the plausibility of which advanced capitalism endlessly demonstrates—which is that if authority doesn’t threaten such people’s enjoyment, they will never rebel. If the social order gives people abundant opportunities to get off, it can abuse and exploit them in every other way.

Anyone trying to make sense of Žižek, then, will want to start tracking the ways in which ascetic and anti-ascetic arguments are knotted together in his work. He routinely speaks of “obscene enjoyment” or sometimes just of “obscenity,” and this in tones that we typically associate with anti-pornography campaigners. It’s just that what this version of psychoanalysis considers obscene is not sex, but the conjunction of sex and authority. An obscene pleasure is not one in which I gnash a ball gag or show too much areola, but one in which I imagine, however inarticulately, that I am serving the Master or emulating him or, indeed, defying him. To practice an anti-obscenity would therefore mean to devise a sexuality rigorously beyond the law. Whether or not it might also mean to devise a law beyond sexuality—a law unstained by pleasure—is one of the great open questions in Žižek work. You can, at any rate, accentuate this argument’s anti-asceticism, if you care to, since one of the conundrums most driving Žižek’s work is whether or not the sinthome can be turned into a politics. There is no question that Lacanianism can underwrite political positions or attitudes; it can underwrite a disconcertingly wide variety of them, in fact. The question is, rather, whether it can also produce a genuinely political practice. Could ordinary people learn en masse how to sever their desire from authority? Could we agree collectively not to fuck the police?—because if we can’t, then Lacanianism would seem condemned to remain a therapy and not a politics, to be undertaken in near isolation by the unhappy and the kithless, and producing little more than a libidinal aristocracy, the few upon whom liberated enjoyment has been bestowed, the jedi of the sinthome, an order increasingly restricted to France and Argentina and the university neighborhoods of Buffalo, NY. Can the sinthome be mass-produced?—that’s the properly hedonist version of Žižek’s project.

But then you can also, if you wish, lift out of Žižek’s arguments their fully anti-hedonist strains. Because when he tries to imagine this Lacanian politics, the models he turns to are notably austere: Kantianism, Christianity, Leninism. He says admiringly that poor teenagers with almost nothing to their name can still have discipline, an almost literal self-possession, a martial bearing and a karate chop. That most of us have met no such teenagers—that fifteen-year-olds tend, indeed, to be bywords not for discipline but for its opposite—suggests only how committed Žižek is to a certain fantasy of restraint and composure and self-command. One easy way to summarize Žižek, then, is to note that he tends to make abstemious proposals to libertine prompts. Liberated desire mutates inchwise into liberation from desire. It is easy for readers to find themselves wrong-footed by this. Chances are that you were first drawn to Žižek for one of two reasons: Maybe he was exactly what you always dreamed an Eastern European intellectual would be—manic, vulgar, flocculent; like a drunken peasant who just happened to be a great philosopher; not merely a Lacanian, but a gypsy-punk Lacanian. Or maybe it was enough that you found him funny, the one critical theorist whose mode of argumentation reliably recalls stand-up comedy, a programmatic tastelessness best watched on YouTube in six-minute bursts. Žižek, of course, doesn’t just retell a lot of inherited anekodty; his most famous observations themselves have the structure of bits: Have you ever noticed that different countries have different toilets? But then there is much in his thinking that Slavophiles and comedy nerds are required to overlook: that, for instance, he regularly attacks Eastern European intellectuals and artists for playing up the hard-living, balalaika schtick or for cultivating the impression that they write their books in slivovitz instead of ink. This, he says, is precisely the indecency on which nationalism thrives, and not only in the Balkans. Fans also fail to notice that Žižek’s first book in English already contained an attack on laughter (and the ideology of a liberated laughter)—an attack that he has never backed away from or even, to my knowledge, qualified. Obscenity might be the enemy, but comedy is its sniggering minion. Adorno used to say that anyone committed to the future would have to learn first to be unhappy in the present—that before we would so much as know to be fed up with our own exploitation, we would have to be “sated with false pleasures.” There is nothing that Žižek distrusts more than a dirty joke, which means you probably like him for the wrong reasons.

THE SECOND ESSAY IS HERE…