Category Archives: Critical theory and philosophy

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

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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)

 

•1.
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…

The Revolutionary Energy of the Outmoded

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN OCTOBER, SPRING 2003.

 

•1.

Fredric Jameson does not like predictions. His is an owlish and retrospective Marxism, one that happily foregoes the crystal ball of some former orthodoxy. There is a Hegelian lesson that Jameson’s writing repeatedly attempts to impart, which is that wisdom only comes in the backwards glance, that we glimpse history only in the moment when our plans fail or dialectically backfire, when our actions bump up against the objective, hurtful (but never foreseeable) limits of the historical situation. You can draw up your revolutionary schemes, paint the future as gaily or grimly as you like, but only upon review will it become plain in just what way you have been Reason’s dupe. If this point is unclear, you might consider Jameson’s response to the World Trade Center attacks, which began with the following extraordinary observation:I have been reluctant to comment on the recent ‘events’ because the event in question, as history, is incomplete and one can even say that it has not yet fully happened. … Historical events…are not punctual, but extend in a before and after of time which only gradually reveal themselves.”[1] I suspect many will find remarkable Jameson’s reluctance here to help shape the public response to September 11th. An event that has not fully happened yet is, after all, an event in which one may yet intercede, an event that one needn’t yet cede to the Right, an event to which one might yet attribute one’s own polemical and political meanings. But Jameson makes a conspicuous display here of spurning what Left criticism generally (and glibly) calls an “intervention”—as though the business of a Marxist criticism were not to intervene, but rather to bide its time, to wait until an event has been thoroughly mediated or disclosed its function, and then to identify, with the serene impotence of hindsight, history’s great game. Any event is, like revolution itself, a leap into the unknown. The owl of Minerva only flies in November.

One might wonder, then, how Jameson feels about his own writing, which has been so accidentally and accurately predictive. How does he feel, for instance, about his landmark postmodernism essay, the one that sometimes goes by the name “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”?[2] That article so neatly anticipated U.S. popular culture in the 1990s that it is hard to shake the feeling that a whole generation of artists—writers, musicians, filmmakers above all—must have mistaken it for a manifesto. (“Pastiche—check. Death of the subject—you bet. Depthlessness and disorientation—where do I sign up?”) As ridiculous as it may sound, the essay, first published in 1983, now reads like an exercise in cultural embryology, discerning the first, fetal traces of an aesthetic mode that would become fully evident only in the years that followed. One wonders, too, if young readers encountering the article for the first time now don’t therefore underestimate its savvy. One wonders if they don’t find it rather trite, since a sharp-eyed exegesis of Body Heat (1981) is really just a workaday description of L.A. Confidential (1997)—a script treatment.

We can be more precise: What has seemed so strangely prophetic about Jameson’s postmodernism argument are, oddly enough, its Benjaminian qualities. Benjamin’s fingerprints seem, in some complicated way, to be all over postmodernism. One might even say that postmodernism in America is a dismal parody of Benjaminian thought. Just cast an eye back over the last ten years, over U.S. pop culture on the cusp of the millennium—postmodernism post-Jameson. Consider, for instance, the apocalypticism that has been among its most persistent trends. The recent fin de siècle has been preoccupied with dire images of a devastated future: we might think here of the full-blown resurgence of millenarian thought and the orchestrated panic surrounding the millennium bug; of X-Files paranoia, which has told us to “fight the future”; of catastrophe movies and the resurgence of film noir and dystopian science fiction. If you were to design a course on popular culture in the 1990s, you would be teaching a survey in doom.

There is much in this culture of disaster that would merit our closest attention—there is, in fact, strangeness aplenty. Consider, for instance, the emergence as a genre of the Christian fundamentalist action thriller, the so-called rapture novel. These novels are basically an exercise in genre splicing; they begin by offering, in what for right-wing Protestantism is a fairly ordinary procedure, prophetic interpretations of world events—the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Intifada—but they then graft onto these biblical scenarios plots borrowed from Tom Clancy techno-thrillers. The first thing that needs to be noted about rapture novels, then, is that they signal, on the part of U.S. fundamentalism, an unprecedented capitulation to pop culture, which the godly Right had until recently held in well-nigh Adornian contempt. Older forms of Christian mass culture have seized readily on new technologies—radio, say, or cable television—but they have tended to recreate within those media a gospel or revival-show aesthetic. In rapture novels, by contrast, as in the rapture movies that have followed in the novels’ wake, we are able to glimpse the first outlines of a fully commercialized, fully mediatized Christian blockbuster culture. Fundamentalist Christianity gives way at last to commodity aesthetics.

This is not yet to say enough, however, because this rapprochement inevitably holds surprises for secular and Christian audiences alike. The best-selling rapture novel to date is Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind, which has served as a kind of template for the entire genre. In the novel’s opening pages, the indisputably authentic Christians are all called up to Christ—they are “raptured.” They literally disappear from earth, leaving their clothes pooled on the ground behind them, pocket change and car keys scattered across the pavement. This scene is the founding convention of the genre, the one event that no rapture novel can do without. And yet this mass vanishing, conventional though it may be, cannot help but have some curious narrative consequences. It means, for a start, that the typical rapture novel is not interested in good Christians. The heroes of these stories, in other words, are not godly people—this is true by definition, because the real Christians have all quit the scene; they have been vacuumed from the novel’s pages. In their absence, the narrative turns its attention to indifferent or not-quite Christians, who can be shown now snapping out of their spiritual ennui, rallying to God, and taking up the fight against the anti-Christ (who in Left Behind, takes the form of an Eastern European humanitarian whose malign plans include scrapping the world’s nuclear arsenals and feeding malnourished children). Left Behind, I would go so far as to suggest, seems to work on the premise that there is something better—something more significantly Christian—about bad Christians than there is about good ones. This notion has something to do with the role of women in the novel. Left Behind, it turns out, has almost no use for women at all. They all either disappear in the novel’s opening pages or get left behind and metamorphose into the whores of anti-Christ. It will surprise no-one to find a Christian fundamentalist novel portraying women as whores, but the former point is worth dwelling on: Left Behind cannot wait to dispense with even its virtuous women. It may hate the harlots, but it has no use for ordinary church-supper Christians either, imagined here as suburban housewives and their well-behaved young children. Anti-Christ has to be defeated at novel’s end, and for this to happen, the good Christians have to be shown the door, for smiling piety can, in the novel’s terms, sustain no narrative interest; it can enter into no conflicts. Left Behind is premised on the notion that devout Christians are cheek-turning wimps and goody-two shoes, mere women, in which case they won’t be much good in the fight against the liberals and the Jews. What this means is that the protagonists who remain in the novel—the Christian fence-sitters—are all men, and not just any men, but rugged men with rugged, porn-star names: Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, Dirk Burton. Left Behind is a novel, in other words, that envisions the remasculinization of Christianity, that calls upon its readers to imagine a Christianity without women, but with muscle and grit instead, a Christianity that can do more than just bake casseroles for people. And such a project, of course, requires bad Christians so that they may become bad-ass Christians. Perhaps it goes without saying: A Christian action thriller is going to be interested first and foremost in action-thriller Christians.

It is with the film version of Left Behind (2001), however, that things really get curious. The film’s final moments nearly make explicit a feature of the narrative that is half-buried in the novel: The film concludes with a brief sequence that we’ve all seen a dozen times, in a dozen different action movies—the sequence, that is, in which the heroic husband returns home from his adventures to be reunited with his wife and child. Typically, this scene is staged at the front door of the suburban house with the child at the wife’s side; you might think, emblematically, of the final shots of John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), which show FBI Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) exchanging glances with his wife (Joan Allen) over the threshold as their teenaged daughter hovers in the background. Left Behind, for its part, reproduces that scene almost exactly, almost shot for shot, except, since the women have all evaporated or gone over to anti-Christ, the film has no choice but to stage this familiar ending in an unfamiliar way—between its male heroes, between Rayford Steele, standing in the doorway with his daughter, and a bedraggled Buck Williams, freshly returned from his battles with the Beast. A remasculinized Christianity, then, cannot help but imagine that the perfect Christian family would be—two men. Such, then, is one upshot of fundamentalism’s new openness to pop culture: Christianity uncloseted.

Of course, the borrowings can go in the other direction as well. Secular apocalypse movies can deck themselves out in religious trappings, but when they do so, they risk an ideological incoherence of their own. Think first about conventional, secular catastrophe movies—Armegeddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Volcano (1997)—so-called apocalypse films that actually make no reference to religion. These tend to be reactionary in rather humdrum and technocratic ways, full of experts and managers deploying the full resources of the nation to fend off a threat defined from the outset as non-ideological. The volcanoes and earthquakes and meteors that loom over such movies are therefore merely more refined versions of the maniacal terrorists and master thieves who normally populate action movies: they are enemies of the state whose challenge to the social order never approaches the level of the political. It is when such secular narratives reintroduce some portion of religious imagery, however, that their political character becomes pronounced. We might think here of The Seventh Sign (1988), which featured Demi Moore, or of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days (1999). Like Left Behind, these last two films work by combining biblical scenarios and disaster-movie conventions, and the results are similarly confusing. To be more precise, they begin by offering luridly Baroque versions of the Christian apocalypse narrative, but then revert back to the secular logic of the disaster movie, as though to say: Catastrophes are destabilizing a merciless world in preparation for Christ’s return—and this must be stopped! In a half-hearted nod to Christian ethics, each of these movies begins by depicting the world of global capitalism as brutal and unjust—the montage of squalor has become something of an apocalypse-movie cliché—before deciding that this world must be preserved at all costs. The characters in these films, in other words, expend their entire allotment of action-movie ingenuity trying to prevent the second coming of Christ, imagined here as the biggest disaster of all.[3]

This is not to say that contemporary American apocalypses dispense with redemptive imagery altogether, at least of some worldly kind. Carceral dystopias, for instance, films that work by trapping their characters in controlled and constricted spaces, tend to posit some utopian outside to their seemingly total systems: the characters in Dark City (1997) dream of Shell Beach, the fictitious seaside resort that supposedly lies just past their nightmarish noir metropolis, the illusory last stop on a bus line that actually runs nowhere; the man-child of Peter Weir’s Truman Show (1998) dreams, in similar ways, of Fiji, which is a rather more conventional vision of oceanic bliss; and the Horatio-Alger hero of the genetics dystopia Gattaca (1997) follows this particular utopian logic to its furthest end by dreaming of the day he will be made an astronaut, the day he will fly to outer space, which of course is no social order at all, let alone a happier one, but merely an anything-but-here, an any-place-but-this-place, the sheerest beyond. As utopias go, then, these three are remarkably impoverished; they cannot help but seem quaint and nostalgic, strangely dated, like the daydreams of some Cold-War eight-year old, all Coney Island and Polynesian hula-girls and John-Glenn, shoot-the-moon fantasies.

But then it is precisely the old-fashioned quality of these utopias that is most instructive; it is precisely their retrograde quality that demands an explanation. For if on the one hand, U.S. pop culture has seemed preoccupied with the apocalypse, on the other hand it has seemed every bit as obsessed with cheery images from a sanitized past. Apocalypse culture has as its companion the many-faceted retro-craze: vintage clothing; Nick at Nite; the ‘70s vogue; the ‘50s vogue; the ‘40s vogue; the ‘30s vogue; the ‘20s vogue (the ‘60s are largely missing from this tally, for reasons too obvious to enumerate; the ‘60s vogue has been stunted, almost nonexistent, at least within a U.S. framework—retro tops out about 1963 and then gets shifted over to Europe and the mods); the return of surf, lounge-music, and Latin jazz; retro-marketing and retro-design, and especially the Volkswagen Beetle and the PT Cruiser.

Retro, then, deserves careful consideration of its own, as an independent phenomenon alongside the apocalypse. Some careful distinctions will be necessary. Retro takes a hundred different forms; it has the appearance of a single and coherent phenomenon only at a very high level of generality. We could begin, then, by examining the heavily marketed ‘60s and ‘70s retro of mainstream, white youth culture. Here we would want to say, at least on first pass, that the muffled camp of Austin Powers (1997), say—or the mid-‘90s Brady Bunch revival, or Beck’s Midnite Vultures—closely approximates Jameson’s notion of postmodern pastiche: this is retro as blank parody, the affectless recycling of alien styles, worn like so many masks. But that said, we would have to counterpose against these examples the retro-culture of a dozen regional scenes, scattered across the U.S., most of which are retro in orientation, but none of which are exercises in pastiche exactly. Take, for instance, the rockabilly and honky-tonk scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: It is impeccably retro in its musical choices and impeccably retro in its fashions, full of redneck hipsters sporting bowling shirts and landing-pad flattops and smart-alecky tattoos. Theirs is a form of retro whose reference points are emphatically local, and in its regionalism, the Chapel Hill scene aspires to a subculture’s subversiveness, a kind of Southern-fried defiance, which stakes its ground in contradistinction to some perceived American mainstream and then gives its rebellion local color, as though to say: “We don’t work in your airless (Yankee) offices. We don’t speak your pinched (Yankee) speech. We don’t belong to your emasculated (Yankee) culture. We are hillbillies and punks in equal proportion.”  Retro, in short, can be placed in the service of a kind of spitfire regionalism, and there is little to be gained by simply conflating this form of retro with the retro-culture marketed nationwide.

In fact, even mainstream ‘70s retro can take on different valences in different hands. To cite just one further example: hip-hop sampling, which builds new tracks out of the recycled fragments of existing recordings, might seem upon first inspection to be the very paradigm of the retro-aesthetic. And yet hip-hop, which has mined the ‘70s funk back-catalog with special diligence, typically forgoes the irony that otherwise accompanies such postmodern borrowings. Indeed, hip-hop sampling generally involves something utterly unlike irony; it is often positioned as a claim to authenticity, an homage to the old school, so that when OutKast, say, channels some vintage P-Funk, that sample is meant to function as a genetic link, a reoccurring trait or musical cell-form. The sample is meant to serve as a tangible connection back to some originary moment in the history of soul and R&B (or funk and disco).[4]

So differences abound in retro. And yet one is tempted, all the same, to speak of something like an official retro-culture, which takes as its object the 1940s and ‘50s: diners, martinis, “swing” music (which actually refers, not to ‘30s and ‘40s swing, but to post-war jump blues), industrial-age furniture, late-deco appliances, all chrome and geometry. The most important point to be made about this form of retro is that it is an unabashedly nationalist project; it sets out to create a distinctively U.S. idiom, one redolent of Fordist prosperity, an American aesthetic culled from the American century, a version of Yankee high design able to compete, at last, with its vaunted European counterparts. In general, then, we might want to say that retro is the form that national tradition takes in a capitalist culture: Capitalism, having liquidated all customary forms of culture, will sell them back to you at $16 a pop. But then commodification has ever been the fate of national customs, which are all more or less scripted and inauthentic. What is distinctive about retro, then, is the class of objects that it chooses to burnish with the chamois of tradition. There is a remarkable scene near the beginning of Jeunet and Caro’s great retro-film Delicatessen (1991) that is instructive in this regard: Two brothers sit in a basement workshop, handcrafting moo-boxes—those small, drum-shaped toys that, once upended and then set right again, low like sorrowful cows. The brothers grind the ragged edges from the boxes, blow away the shavings as one might dust from a favorite book, rap the work-table with a tuning fork and sing along with the boxes to ensure the perfect pitch of the heifer’s bellow. And in that image of their care, their workman’s pride, lies one of retro-culture’s great fantasies: Retro distinguishes itself from the more or less folkish quality of most national traditions in that it elevates to the status of custom the commodities of early mass production—old Coke bottles, vintage automobiles—and it does so by imbuing them with artisanal qualities, so that, in a strange historical inversion, the first industrial assembly lines come to seem the very emblem of craftsmanship. Retro is the process by which mass-produced trinkets can be reinvented as “heritage.”[5]

The apocalypse and the retro-craze—such, then, are the twin poles of postmodernism, at least on Jameson’s account. We are all so accustomed to this twosome that it has become hard to appreciate what an odd juxtaposition it really is. Disco inferno, indeed. This is a pairing, at any rate, that finds a rather precise corollary in the writings of Walter Benjamin. Each of the moments of our swinging apocalypse can be traced back to Benjaminian impulses, or opens itself, at least, to Benjaminian description. For in what other thinker are we going to find, in a manner that so oddly approximates the culture of American malls and American multiplexes, this combination of millenarian mournfulness and antiquarian devotion? Benjamin’s Collector seems to preside over postmodernism’s thrift-shop aesthetic, just as surely as its apocalyptic imagination is overseen by Benjamin’s Messiah, or at least by his Catastrophic Angel. It would seem, then, that Benjaminians should be right at home in postmodernism, and if this is palpably untrue—if the culture of global capitalism does not after all seem altogether hospitable to communists and the Kabbalah—then this is something we will now have to account for. Why, despite easily demonstrated affinities, does it seem a little silly to describe U.S. postmodernism as Benjaminian?

Jameson’s work is again clarifying. It is not hard to identify the Benjaminian elements in Jameson’s idiom, and especially in his utopian preoccupations, his determination to make of the future an open and exhilarating question. No living critic has done more than Jameson to preserve the will-be’s and the could-be’s in a language that would just as soon dispense altogether with its future tenses and subjunctive moods. And yet a moment’s reflection will show that Jameson is, for all that, the great anti-Benjaminian. It is Jameson who has taught us to experience pop culture’s Benjaminian qualities, not as utopian pledges, but as threats or calamities. Thus Jameson on apocalypse narratives: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations. I have come to think that the word postmodern ought to be reserved for thoughts of this kind.”[6] It is worth calling attention to the obvious point about these sentences—that Jameson here more or less equates postmodernism and apocalypticism—if only because in his earliest work on the subject, it is not the apocalypse but retro-culture that seems to be postmodernism’s distinguishing and debilitating mark. Again Jameson: “there cannot but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project.”[7]  Jameson, in short, is most sour precisely where Benjamin is most expectant. He would have us turn our back on the most conspicuous features of Benjamin’s work; for late capitalism, it would seem, far from keeping faith with Benjamin, actually robs us of our Benjaminian tools, if only by generalizing them, by transforming them into noncommittal habits or static conventions: the Collector, fifty years on, shows himself to be just another fetishist, and even the Angel of History turns out to be a predictable and anti-utopian figure, unable to so much as train its eyes forward, foreclosing, without reprieve, on the time yet to come. U.S. postmodernism may be a culture that loves to “brush history against the grain,” but only in the way that you might brush back your ironic rockabilly pompadour.

 

•2.

But what if we refused to break with Benjamin in this way? Try this, just as an exercise: Ask yourself what these seemingly disparate trends—apocalypticism and the retro-craze—have to do with one another. Consider in particular that remarkable crop of recent films that actually unite these two trends, films that ask us to imagine an unlivable future, but do so in elegant vintage styles. These include: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the grand-daddy of the retro-apocalypses; three oddly upbeat dystopias—Starship Troopers and the aforementioned Gattaca and Dark City—all box-office underachievers from 1997; and, again, the cannibal slapstick Delicatessen. All of these films posit, in their very form, some profound correlation between retro and the apocalypse, but it is hard, on a casual viewing, to see what that correlation could be. Jameson, of course, offers a clear and compelling answer to this question, which is that apocalypticism and the retro-craze are the Janus faces of a culture without history, two eyeless countenances, pressed back to back, facing blankly out over the vistas they cannot survey.[8]

Some of these films, it must be noted, seem to invite a Jamesonian account of themselves. This is true of Blade Runner, for instance, or of The Truman Show—films that offer a vision of retro-as-dystopia, a realm of fabricated memory, in which history gets handed over to corporate administration, in which every madeleine is stamped “Made in Malaysia.” Perhaps it is worth pausing here, however, since we need to be wary of running these two films together. The contrast between them is actually quite revealing. Both Blade Runner and The Truman Show present retro-culture as dystopian, and in order to do this, both rely on some of the basic conventions of science fiction. Think about what makes science fiction distinctive as a mode—think, that is, about what distinguishes it from those genres with which it seems otherwise affiliated, such as the horror movie. Horror movies, especially since the 1970s, have typically worked by introducing some terrifying, unpredictable element into apparently safe and ordinary spaces. Monsters are nearly always intruders—slashers in the suburbs, zombies forcing their way past the barricaded door. But dystopian science fiction is, in this respect, nearly the antithesis of horror. It does not depict a familiar setting into which something frightening then gets inserted. What is frightening in dystopian science fiction is rather the setting itself. Now, this point holds for both Blade Runner and The Truman Show, but it holds in rather different ways. The first observation that needs to be made about The Truman Show is that it is more or less a satire, which is to say that, though it takes retro as its object, it is not itself a retro-film. It portrays a world that has handed itself over entirely to retro, a New Urbanist idyll of gleaming clapboard houses on mixed-use streets; but the film itself is not, by and large, retro in its narrative forms or cinematic techniques. Quite the contrary: the film wants to teach its viewers how to read retro in a new way; it wishes, polemically, to loosen the hold of retro upon them. The Truman Show takes a setting that initially seems like some American Eden, and then through the menacing comedy of its mise-en-scène—the falling lights and incomplete sets, the scenery that Truman stumbles upon or that springs disruptively to life—makes this retro-town come slowly to seem ominous. To give the film the cheap Lacanian description it is just begging for: The Truman Show charts the unraveling of the symbolic order. Every klieg light that comes crashing down from the sky is a warning shot fired from the Real. The simpler point, however, is that The Truman Show rests on a deflationary argument about American mass culture—a media-governed retro-culture depicted here as restrictive, counterfeit, and infantilizing—and its form is accordingly rather conventional. It is essentially a cinematic Bildungsroman, which ends once the protagonist steps forward to take full responsibility for his own life, and this, of course, tends to compromise the film’s own Lacanian premise: It suggests that any of us could simply step out of the symbolic order, step boldly out into the Real, if only we could muster sufficient resolve.[9]

Having a compromised and conventional form, however, is not the same thing as having a retro-form. In Blade Runner, by contrast, the setting—a dismal and degenerate Los Angeles—is self-evidently dystopian, but it is itself retro; it is retro as a matter of style or form. The film’s vision of L.A., as has often been observed, is equal parts Metropolis and ‘40s film noir, and the effect of the film is thus rather different from The Truman Show, though it is equally curious: Blade Runner may recycle earlier styles or narrative forms in a manner typical of retro, but the films that it mimics are themselves all more or less dystopian. If Blade Runner is a pastiche, it is a pastiche of other dystopias, and this has the effect of establishing the correlation between retro and the apocalypse in a distinctive way: Blade Runner posits a historical continuum between a bleak past and an equally bleak future, between the corrupt and stratified modernist city (of German expressionism and hardboiled fiction) and the coming reign of corporate capital (envisioned by so much science fiction), between the bad world we’ve survived and the bad world that awaits.

Such, then, are the films that seem ready to make Jameson’s argument for him. But there is good reason, I think, to set Jameson temporarily to one side. For present purposes, it would be more revealing to direct our attention back to Delicatessen, which, of all the retro-apocalypses, is perhaps the most winning and Benjaminian. The question that confronts any viewer of Delicatessen is why this film—which, after all, depicts an utterly dismal world in which men and women are literally butchered for meat—should be so delightful to watch, and not just wry or darkly humorous, but giddy and dithyrambic. I would suggest that the pleasure peculiar to Delicatessen has everything to do with the status of objects in the film—that is, with the extravagant and festive care that Jeunet and Caro bring to the filming of objects, which take on the appearance here of so many found and treasured items. One might call to mind the hand-crank coffee grinder, which doubles as a radio transmitter; or the cherry-red bellboy’s outfit; or simply the splendid opening credits—this slow pan over broken records and torn photographs—in which the picture swings open like a case of curiosities. It is as though the film took as its most pressing task the re-enchantment of the object-world, as though it were going to lift objects to the camera one by one and reattach to them their auras—not their fetishes, now, as happens in most commercial films, with their product placements and designer outfits—but their auras, as though the objects at hand had never passed through a marketplace at all. This is tricky: The objects in Delicatessen are recognizably of the same type as American retro-commodities—an antique wind-up toy, an old gramophone, stand-alone black-and-white television sets. At this point, then, the argumentative alternatives become clear: Either we can dismiss Delicatessen as ideologically barren, as just another pretext for retro-consumption, just another flyer for the flea market of postmodernism. Or we can muster a little more patience, tend to the film a little more closely, in which case we might discover in Delicatessen the secret of all retro-culture: its desire, delusional and utopian in equal proportion, for a relationship to objects as something other than commodities.

To follow the latter course is to raise an obvious question: How does the film direct our attention to objects in a new way? How does it reinvigorate our affection for the object world? This is a question, first of all, of the film’s visual style, although it turns out that nothing all that unusual is going on cinematographically: In a manner characteristic of French art-film since the New Wave, Delicatessen keeps the spectator’s eye on its objects simply by cutting to them at every opportunity and thus giving them more screen time than household artifacts typically claim. By the usual standards of analytical editing, in other words—within the familiar breakdown of a scene into detailed views of faces, gestures, and props—the props get a disproportionate number of shots. The objects, like so many Garbos, hog all the close-ups. “By permitting thought to get, as it were, too close to its object,” Adorno once said of Benjamin’s critical method, “the object becomes as foreign as an everyday, familiar thing under a microscope.”[10] Delicatessen works, in these terms, by taking Adorno’s linguistic figure at face value and returning it back to something like its literal meaning, back to the visual. The film permits the camera to get too close to its object. It forces the spectator to scrutinize objects anew simply by bringing them into sustained proximity.

The camerawork, however, is just the start of it, for in addition to the question of cinematic style, there is the related question of form or genre. Delicatessen, it turns out, is playing a crafty game with genre, and it is through this formal frolic that the film most insistently places itself in the service of its objects. For Delicatessen is retro not only in its choice of props—it is, like Blade Runner, formally or generically retro, as well. This point may not be immediately apparent, however, since Delicatessen resurrects a genre largely shunned by recent U.S. film. One occasionally gets the feeling from American cinema that film noir is the only genre ripe for recycling. The 1990s have delivered a whole paddywagon full of old-fashioned crime stories and heist pics, but where are all the other classic Hollywood genres? Where are the retro-Westerns and the retro war movies? Where are the retro-screwballs?[11] Neo-noir, of course, is relatively easy to pull off—dim the lights and fire a gun and some critic or another will call it noir. Delicatessen, for its part, attempts something altogether more difficult or, at least, sets in motion a less reliable set of cinematic conventions: pratfalls, oversized shoes, madcap chase scenes. Early on, in fact, the film has one of its characters say that, in its post-apocalyptic world, people are so hungry they “would eat their shoes”; and with this one line—an unambiguous reference to the celebrated shoe-eating of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush—it becomes permissible to find references to silent comedy at every turn: in the hero’s suspenders, in the film’s several clownish dances, in the near-demolition of the apartment building in which all the action is set, a demolition that, once read as slapstick, will call to mind Buster Keaton’s wrecking-ball comedy, the crashing houses of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), say. Delicatessen, in sum, is retro-slapstick, and noting as much will allow us to ask a number of valuable questions.

The most compelling of these questions will return us to the matter at hand. We are trying to figure out how Delicatessen gets the viewer to pay attention to its objects, and so the question now must be: What does slapstick have to do with the status of objects in the film? It is hardly intuitive, after all, that slapstick should bring about the redemption of objects, should reattach objects to their auras. A cursory survey of classic slapstick, in fact, might suggest just the opposite—a world, not of enchanted objects, but of aggressive and adversarial ones. Banana peels and cream pies spring mischievously to mind. And yet we need to approach these icons with caution, lest we take a conceptual pratfall of our own; for Delicatessen draws on slapstick in at least two different ways, or rather, it draws on two distinct trends in early American slapstick, and each of these trends grants a different status to its objects. Everything rides on this distinction:

1) When we think of slapstick, we think first of all of roughhouse comedy, of the pie in the face and the kick in the pants, the endless assault on ass and head. Classic slapstick of this kind is what we might call the comedy of Newtonian physics. It is a farce of gravity and force, and as such, it is based on the premise that the object world is fundamentally intransigent, hostile to the human body. In this Krazy-Kat or Keystone world, every brick, every mop is a tightly wound spring of kinetic energy, always ready to uncoil, violently and without motivation.[12] It is worth remarking, then, that Delicatessen, contains its share of knockabout: the Rube Goldberg suicide machines, the postman always tumbling down the stairs. In its most familiar moments, Delicatessen, in keeping with its comic predecessors, seems to suggest that the human body is irreparably out of joint with its environment.

A first distinction is necessary here, for though Delicatessen may embrace the sadism of slapstick, it does so with a historical specificity of its own. Classic slapstick typically addresses itself to the place of the body under urban and industrial capitalism; one is pretty much obliged at this point to adduce Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), with its scenes of working-class mayhem and man-eating machines. Delicatessen, by contrast, contains man-eaters of its own, but they are not metaphorical man-eaters, as Chaplin’s machines are—they are cannibals true and proper, and their presence adds a certain complexity to the question of the film’s genre, for there have appeared so many films about cannibalism over the last twenty years that they virtually constitute a minor genre of their own.[13] One way to describe Delicatessen’s achievement, then, is to say that it splices together classic slapstick with the cannibal film. There will be no way to appreciate what this means, however, until we have determined the status of the cannibal in contemporary cinema. Broadly speaking, images of the cannibal tend to participate in one of two discourses: Historically, they have played a rather repugnant role in the racist repertoire of colonial clichés. Cannibalism is one of the more extreme versions of the imperial Other, the savage who does not respect even the most basic of civilization’s taboos. Increasingly, however, in films such as Eat the Rich (1987) or Dawn of the Dead (1978), cannibalism has become a conventional (and more or less satirical) image of Europeans and Americans themselves—an image, that is, of consumerism gone awry, of a consumerism that has liquidated all ethical boundaries, that has sunk into raw appetite, without restraint.[14] For present purposes, this point is nowhere clearer than in Delicatessen’s final chase scene, in which the cannibalistic tenants of the film’s apartment house gather to hunt down the film’s hero. The important point here is that, within the conventions of classic Hollywood comedy, the film makes a conspicuous substitution, for our comic hero is not on the run from some exasperated factory foreman or broad-shouldered cop on the beat, as silent slapstick would have it. He is fleeing, rather, from a consumer mob, E.P. Thompson’s worst nightmare, some degraded, latter-day bread riot. It is important that we appreciate the full ideological force of this switchover: By staffing the old comic scenarios with kannibals instead of kops, the film is able to transform slapstick in concrete and specifiable ways. The cannibals mean that when Delicatessen revives Chaplin-era slapstick, it does so without Chaplin’s factories or Chaplin’s city. This is slapstick for some other, later stage of capitalism—modernist comedy from which modernist industry has disappeared, leaving only consumption in its place.

2) Slapstick, then, announces a pressing political problem, in Delicatessen as in silent comedy. It sounds an alarm on behalf of the besieged human body. Delicatessen’s project, in this sense, is to imagine that problem’s solution, to mount a counterattack, to ward off the principle of slapstick by shielding the human body from its batterings. The deranged, consumption-mad crowd, in this light, is one, decidedly sinister version of the collective, but it finds its counterimage here in a second collective, a radical collective—the vegetarian insurgency that serves as ethico-political anchor to the film. Or to be more precise: The film is a fantasy about the conditions under which an advanced consumer capitalism could be superceded, and in order to do so, it follows two different tracks: One of the film’s subplots follows the efforts of the anti-consumerist underground, the Trogolodytes, while a second subplot stages a fairly ordinary romance between the clown-hero and a butcher’s daughter. Delicatessen thus divides its utopian energies between the revolutionary collective, depicted here as some lunatic version of La Resistance, and the heterosexual couple, imagined in impeccably Adornian fashion as the last, desperate repository of human solidarity, the faint afterimage of a non-instrumental relationship in a world otherwise given over to instrumentality.[15]

But this pairing does not exhaust the film’s political imagination, if only because knockabout does not exhaust the possibilities of slapstick. Delicatessen, in fact, is more revealing when it refuses roughhouse and shifts instead into one of slapstick’s other modes. Consider the key scene, early in the film, when the clown-hero, who has been hired as a handyman in the cannibal house, hauls out a bucket of soapy water to wash down the stairwell. The bucket, of course, is another slapstick icon, and anyone already cued in to the film’s generic codes might be able to predict how the scene will play out. Classic slapstick would dictate that the hero’s foot get wedged inside the bucket, that he skid helplessly across the ensuing puddle, that the mop pivot into the air and crack him in the forehead, that he somersault finally down the stairs. The important point, of course, is that no such thing happens. The clown does not get his pummeling. On the contrary, he uses his cleaning bucket to fill the hallway of this drear and half-inhabited house with giant, wobbling soap-bubbles, with which he then dances a kind of shimmy. It is in this moment, when the film pointedly repudiates the comedy of abuse, that the film modulates into a different tradition of screen comedy, what Mark Winokur has called “transformative“ or “tramp” comedy.

The hallway scene, in other words, is Chaplin through and through. It is important, then, to specify the basic structure of the typical Chaplin gag—and to specify, in particular, what distinguishes Chaplin from the generalized brutality and bedlam of the Keystone shorts. Chaplin’s bits are so many visual puns: they work by taking an everyday object and finding a new and exotic use for it, turning a roast chicken into a funnel, or a tuba into an umbrella stand, or dinner rolls into two dancing feet.[16] In Delicatessen, such transformative comedy is apparent in the New Year’s Eve noisemaker that the frog-man uses as a tongue, to catch flies; or in the hero’s musical saw, which, in fact, is the very emblem of the film’s many objects—an implement liberated from its pedestrian uses, a tool that yields melody, a dumb commodity suddenly able to speak again, and not just to shill, but to murmur of new possibilities. It is in transformative comedy, then, in the spectacle of objects whose use has been transposed, that slapstick takes on a utopian function. Slapstick becomes, so to speak, its own solution: Knockabout slapstick, in which objects are perpetually in revolt against the human body, finds its redemption in transformative slapstick, in which the human body discovers a new and unexpected affinity with objects. The pleasure that is distinctive of Delicatessen is thus actually some grand comic version of Kant’s aesthetics, of Kant’s Beauty, premised as it is on the dawning and grateful realization that objects are ultimately and against all reasonable expectation suited to human capacities. Delicatessen reimagines the world as a perpetual pas de deux with the inanimate.[17]

Transformative slapstick, this is all to say, functions in Delicatessen as a kind of antidote to cannibalistic forms of consumption. At its most schematic, the film faces its viewers with a choice between two different ways of relating to objects: a cannibalistic relationship, in which the object will be destroyed by the consumer’s unchecked hunger, or a Chaplinesque relationship, in which the object will be kept alive and continually reinvented. And so at a moment when cinematic realism has fallen into a state of utter disrepair, when realism finds it can do nothing but script elegies for the working class—when even fine films like Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird (1994) and Zonca’s Dream Life of Angels (1998) have opted for the funereal, with so much as the protest drubbed out of them—it falls to Delicatessen’s grotesquerie to fulfill realism’s great utopian function, to keep faith, as Bazin said, with mere things, “to allow them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely, to love them in their singular individuality.”[18]

It is crucial, however, that we not confine this observation to Delicatessen, because in that film’s endeavor lies the buried aspiration of all retro-culture, even (or especially) at its most fetishistic. If you examine the signs that hang next to the objects at Restoration Hardware and other such retro-marts—these small placards that invent elaborate and fictional histories for the objects stacked there for sale—you will discover a culture recoiling from its commodities in the very act of acquiring them, a culture that thinks it can drag objects back into the magic circle if only it can learn to consume them in the right way. Retro-commodities utterly collapse our usual Benjaminian distinctions between the fetish and the aura, and they do so by taking as their fundamental promise what Benjamin calls  “the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded,’” the notion that if you know the history of an item or if you can aestheticize even the most ordinary of objects—a well-wrought dustpan, perhaps, or a chrome toaster—then you are never merely buying an object; you are salvaging it from the sphere of circulation, and perhaps even from the tawdriness of use.[19]

This is not yet to say enough, however, because it is the achievement of Delicatessen to demonstrate that this retro-utopia is unthinkable without the apocalypse. For if the objects in Delicatessen achieve a luminosity that is denied even the most exquisite retro-commodities, then this is only because they occupy a ruined landscape, in which they come to seem singular and irreplaceable. Delicatessen is a film whose characters are forever scavenging for objects, scrapping over parcels that have gone astray, rooting through the trash like so many hobos or German Greens. It is the film’s fundamental premise, then, that in a time of shortage, and in a time of shortage alone, objects will slough off their commodity status. They will crawl out from under the patina of mediocrity that the exchange relationship ordinarily imposes on them. If faced with shortage, each object will come to seem unique again, fully deserving of our attention. There is a startling lesson here for anyone interested in the history of utopian forms: that utopia can require suffering, or at least scarcity, and not abundance; that the classical utopias of plenty—those Big Rock Candy mountains with their lemonade springs and cigarette trees and smoked hams raining from the sky—are, under late capital, little more than hideous afterimages of the marketplace itself, spilling over with redundant and misdistributed goods, stripped of their revolutionary energy; that a society of consumption must, however paradoxically, find utopia in its antithesis, which is dearth.[20] And so we come round, finally, to my original point: that we must have, alongside Jameson, a second way of positing the identity of retro-culture and the apocalypse, one that will take us straight back to Benjamin: Underlying retro-culture is a vision of a world in which commodity production has come to a halt, in which objects have been handed down, not for our consumption, but for our care. The apocalypse is retro-culture’s deepest fantasy, its enabling wish.

 


[1] Jameson’s full comments can be found in the London Review of Books (Volume 23, Number 19, October 4, 2001). See also “Architecture and the Critique of Ideology, in The Ideologies of Theory, Volume 2: The Syntax of History, pp. 35-60, esp. p. 41: “dialectical interpretation is always retrospective, always tells the necessity of an event, why it had to happen the way it did; and to do that, the event must already have happened, the story must already have come to an end.”

[2] This essay is available in multiple versions. The easiest to come by is perhaps “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,”  in The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 1998), pp. 1-20; and the most densely argued “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke, 1991), pp. 1-54.

[3] The Seventh Sign, for what it’s worth, draws on at least four different genres: 1) It is, at the most general level, a Christian apocalypse narrative; its nominal subject is the End Time, the series of catastrophes set in motion by God in preparation for His final judgment. 2) But in doing so, it deploys most of the conventions of the occult horror film. Even though the film expressly states that God is responsible for the disasters depicted, it cannot help but stage those disasters as supernatural and scary, in sequences borrowed more or less wholesale from the exorcism and devil-child movies of the 1970s, which is to say that viewers are expected to experience God’s actions as essentially diabolical. The film may adorn itself with Christian trappings, but in a manner typical of the Gothic, it cannot, finally, represent religion as anything but frightening. 3) This last point is clearest in the film’s depiction of Jesus Christ, who actually appears as a character and is almost always filmed in shots lifted from serial-killer films—Jesus stands alone, isolated in ominous medium long-shots, his face half in shadow, lit starkly from the side. Jesus’ menace is also a plot point: Christ, in the film, rents a room from Demi Moore and, in a manner that recalls Pacific Heights (1990) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), becomes the intruder in the suburban home, the malevolent force that the white professional family has mistakenly welcomed under its roof. 4) In its final logic, then, the film reveals itself to be just a disaster movie in disguise: The Apocalypse must be scuttled. Christ must be sent back to heaven (and thus evicted from the suburban home). Justice must be averted.

[4] I owe this point to a conversation with Roger Beebe. Even here, though, matters are more complicated than they at first seem. Hip-hop, after all, hardly dispenses with irony and pastiche altogether: Jay-Z  has sampled “It’s a Hard-knock Life” (from Annie) and Missy Elliot has sampled Mozart’s Requiem, but no-one is likely to suggest that hip-hop is establishing a genetic link back to the Broadway musical or Viennese classicism.

[5] Of course, as a nationalist project, retro will play out differently in different national contexts. Perhaps a related cinematic example will make this clear. Consider Jeneut’s Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001). At the level of diagesis—as a plain matter of plot and dialogue and character—the film has nothing at all to do with nationalism. On the contrary, it dedicates an entire subplot to undermining the provincialism of one of its characters, Amélie’s father, who resolves at movie’s end to become more cosmopolitan. The entire film is directed towards getting him to leave France. But at the level of form, things look rather different. Formally, the film is retro through and through. It won’t take a cinephile to notice the overt references to Jules et Jim (1962) and Zazie dans le Metro (1960), at which point it becomes clear that Amélie is a pastiche of the French New Wave, which is thereby transformed into a historical artifact of its own. Amélie, then, attempts to recreate the nouvelle vague, not with an eye to making it vital again as an aesthetic and political project, but merely to cycle exhaustively through its techniques, its stylistic tics, as though it were compiling some kind of visual compendium. The nationalism that the film’s narrative explicitly rejects thus reappears as a matter of form. Amélie works to draw our attention to the Frenchness of the New Wave, to codify it as a national style, and the presumed occasion for the film is therefore the ongoing battle, in France, over the Americanization of la patrie. Amélie is a bulldozer looking for its MacDonald’s.

[6] See Jameson’s “The Antinomies of Postmodernism,” in The Cultural Turn, pp. 50-72, quotation p. 50.

[7] See “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke, 1991), pp. 1-54, quotation p. 46.

[8] The second quotation cited here goes on to make this point clear: Retro-culture, Jameson continues, “abandon(s) the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of ‘terrorism’ on the social level to those of cancer on the personal.”

[9] The Truman Show, to be fair, does hedge the matter somewhat. The film’s numerous cutaways to the show’s viewers show a “real world” that is itself populated by TV-thralls, Truman Burbanks of a lower order. So when Truman steps out of his videodrome, we have a choice: We can either conclude, in proper Lacanian fashion, that Truman has simply traded one media-governed pseudo-reality for another. Or we can conclude that the film is asking us to distinguish between those, like Truman, who are able to shrug off their media masters, and those, like his viewers, who aren’t. I take this to be the film’s constitutive hesitation, its undecideable question.

[10] See Adorno’s “Portrait of Walter Benjamin” in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT, 1981, pp. 227-241), here p. 240.

[11] Examples of these last can be found, but it takes some looking: Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is a retro World War II movie, more so than Pearl Harbor (2001) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), which aspire to be historical dramas; and the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is unmistakably a retro-screwball (and such a lovely thing that it’s a wonder others haven’t followed its lead). But they are virtually the lone examples of their kinds, singular members of non-existent sets. Neo-noir, by contrast, has become too extensive a genre to list comprehensively.

[12] Perhaps a rare instance of literary slapstick, manifestly modeled on cinematic examples, will drive this point home. The following is from Martin Amis’s Money (London: Penguin, 198?), p. 289: “What is it with me and the inanimate, the touchable world? Struggling to unscrew the filter, I elbowed the milk carton to the floor. Reaching for the mop, I toppled the trashcan. Swivelling to steady the trashcan, I barked my knee against the open fridge door and copped a pickle-jar on my toe, slid in the milk, and found myself on the deck with the trashcan throwing up in my face … Then I go and good with the grinder. I took the lid off too soon, blinding myself and fine-spraying every kitchen cranny.”

[13] See, for instance, Eating Raoul (1982); Parents (1989); The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989); and, in a different mood, Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001).

[14] On the cultural uses of cannibalism, see Cannibalism and the Colonial World, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1998), especially Crystal Bartolovich’s “Consumerism, or the cultural logical of late cannibalism” (pp. 204-237).

[15] For a discussion of Delicatessen that pays closer attention to the film’s narrowly French contexts—its nostalgia for wartime, its debt to French comedies—see Naomi’s Greene’s Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema (Princeton: Princeton, 1999).

[16] See, respectively, Modern Times; The Pawnshop (1916); The Gold Rush (1925).

[17] There’s a sense in which this operation is at work even in the most vicious knockabout. Even the most paradigmatically abusive comedies—the Keystone shorts, say—are redemptive in that the staging of abuse itself discloses a joyous physical dexterity. The staging of bodies out of synch with the inanimate world relies on bodies that are secretly very much in synch with that world—and this small paradox characterizes the pleasure peculiar to those films.

[18] Bazin, What is Cinema?, translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: UCalifornia, 1967); see also Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford, 1965).

[19] See Benjamin’s “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” translated by Edmund Jephcott in the Selected Writings: Volume 2, 1927-1934, edited by Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Belknap, 1999, pp. 207-221), here p. 210.

[20] Compare Langle and Vanderburch’s utopia of abundance, as noted by Benjamin himself, in the 1935 Arcades-Project Exposé (in The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin—Cambridge: Belknap, 1999, pp. 3-13), here p. 7:

“Yes, when all the world from Paris to China

Pays heed to your doctrine, O divine Saint-Simon,

The glorious Gold Age will be reborn.

Rivers will flow with chocolate and tea,

Sheep roasted whole will frisk on the plain,

And sautéed pike will swim in the Seine.

Fricaseed spinach will grow on the ground,

Garnished with crushed fried croutons;

The trees will bring forth stewed apples,

And farmers will harvest boots and coats.

It will snow wine, it will rain chickens,

And ducks cooked with turnips will fall from the sky.”

(Translation altered)

To the Political Ontologists

The political ontologists have their work cut out for them. Let’s say you believe that the entire world is made out of fire: Your elms and alders are fed by the sky’s titanic cinder; your belly is a metabolic furnace; your lungs draw in the pyric aether; the air that hugs the earth is a slow flame—a blanket of chafing-dish Sterno—shirring exposed bumpers and cast iron fences; water itself is a mingling of fire air with burning air. The cosmos is ablaze. The question is: How are you going to derive a political program from this insight, and in what sense could that program be a politics of fire? How, that is, are you going to get from your ontology to your political proposals? For if fire is not just a political good, but is in fact the very stuff of existence, the world’s primal and universal substance, then it need be neither produced nor safeguarded. No merely human arrangement—no parliament, no international treaty, no tax policy—could dislodge it from its primacy. It will no longer make sense to describe yourself as a partisan of fire, since you cannot be said to defend something that was never in danger, and you cannot be said to promote something that is everywhere already present. Your ontology, in other words, has already precluded the possibility that fire is a choice or that it is available only in certain political frameworks. This is the fate of all political ontologies: The philosophy of all-being ends up canceling the politics to which it is only superficially attached. The –ology swallows its adjective.

The task, then, when reading the radical ontologists—the Spinozists, the Left Heideggerians, the speculative realists—is to figure out how they think they can get politics back into their systems; to determine by which particular awkwardness they will make room for politics amidst the spissitudes of being. In its structure, this problem repeats an old theological question, which the political ontologists have merely dressed in lay clothes—the question, that is, of whether we are needed by God or the gods. If you have given in to the pressure to subscribe to an ontology, then this is the first question you should ask: Whatever is at the center of your ontology—does it need you? Does Becoming need you? Is Being incomplete without you? Has the cosmic fire deputized you? And if you decide that, no, the fire does not need you—if, that is, you resist the temptation to appoint yourself that astounding entity upon which even the Absolute depends—then you will have yourself already concluded that there is nothing exactly to be gained from getting your ontology right, and you will be free to think about other and more interesting things.

If, on the other hand, you are determined to ontologize, and determined additionally that your ontology yield a politics, there are, roughly speaking, three ways you can make this happen.

First, you could determine that even though fire is the primal stuff of the universe, it is nonetheless unevenly distributed across it; or that the cosmos’s seemingly discrete objects embody fire to greater and lesser degrees. The heavy-gauge universalism of your ontology will prevent you from saying outright that water isn’t fire, but you might conclude all the same that it isn’t very good fire. This, in turn, would allow you to start drawing up league tables, the way that eighteenth-century vitalists, convinced that the whole world was alive, nonetheless distinguished between vita maxima and vita minima. And if you possess ontological rankings of this kind, you should be able to set some political priorities on their basis, finding ways to reward the objects (and people? and groups?) that carry their fiery qualities close to the surface, corona-like, and, equally, to punish those objects and people who burn but slowly and in secret. You might even decide that it is your vocation to help the world’s minimally fiery things—trout ponds, shale—become more like its maximally fiery things—volcanoes, oil-drum barbecue pits. The pyro-Hegelian takes it upon himself to convert the world to fire one timber-framed building at a time.

Alternately—and herewith a second possibility—you can proclaim that the cosmos is made of fire, but then attribute to humanity an appalling power not to know this. “Power” is the important word here, since the worry would have to be that human ignorance on this point could become so profound that it would damage or dampen the world-flame itself. Perhaps you have concluded that fire is not like an ordinary object. We know in some approximate and unconsidered way what it is; we are around it every day, walking in its noontide light, enlisting it to pop our corn, conjuring it from our very pockets with a roll of the thumb or knuckly pivot. And yet we don’t really understand the blaze; we certainly do not grasp its primacy or fathom the ways we are called upon to be its Tenders. You might even have discovered that we are the only beings, the only guttering flames in a universe of flame, capable of defying the fire, proofing the world against it, rebuilding the burning earth in gypsum and asbestos, perversely retarding what we have been given to accelerate. This argument expresses clear misgivings about humanity; it doesn’t trust us to keep the fire stoked; and to that extent it partakes of the anti-humanism that is all but obligatory among political ontologists. And yet it shares with humanism the latter’s sense that human beings are singular, a species apart, the only beings in existence capable of living at odds with the cosmos, capable, that is, of some fundamental ontological misalignment, and this to a degree that could actually abrogate an ontology’s most basic guarantees. From a rigorously anti-humanist perspective, this position could easily seem like a lapse—the residue of the very anthropocentrism that one is pledged to overcome—but it is in fact the most obvious opening for an anti-humanist politics (as opposed, say, to an anti-humanist credo), since you really only get a politics once the creedal guarantees have been lifted. If human beings are capable of forgetting the fire, someone will have to call to remind them. Someone, indeed, will have to ward off the ontological catastrophe—the impossible-but-somehow-still-really-happening nihilation of the fire—the Dousing.

That said, a non-catastrophic version of this last position is also possible, though its politics will be accordingly duller. Maybe duller is even a good thing. Such, at any rate, is the third pathway to a political ontology: You might consider arguments about being politically germane even if you don’t think that humanity’s metaphysical obtuseness can rend the very tissue of existence. You don’t have to say that we are damaging the cosmic fire; it will be enough to say that we are damaging ourselves, though having said that, you are going to have to stop trying to out-anti-humanize your peers. Your position will now be that not knowing the truth about the fire-world deforms our policies; that if we mistake the cosmos for something other than flame, we are likely to attempt impossible feats—its cooling; its petrification—and will then grow resentful when these inevitably fail. You might, in the same vein, determine that there are entire institutions dedicated to broadcasting the false ontologies that underwrite such doomed projects, doctrines of air and doxologies of stone, and you might think it best if such institutions were dismantled. If it’s politics we’re talking about, you might even have plans for their dismantling. Even so, you will have concluded by this point that the problem is in its essentials one of belief—the problem is simply that some people believe in water—in which case, ontology isn’t actually at issue, since nothing can happen ontologically; the fire will crackle on regardless of what we think of it, indifferent to our denials and our elemental philandering. You have thus gotten the politics you asked for, but only having in a certain sense bracketed the ontology or placed it beyond political review. And your political program will accordingly be rather modest: a new framework of conviction—a clarification—an illumination.

Still, even a modest politics sometimes shows its teeth. William Connolly, in a book published in 2011, says that the world-fire is burning hotter than it has ever burnt; the problem is, though, that some “territories … resist” the flame. What we don’t want to miss is the basically militarized language of that claim: “resisting territories” suggests backwaters full of ontological rednecks; Protestant Austrian provinces; the Pyrenees under Napoleon; Anbar. Connolly’s notion is that these districts will need to be enlightened and perhaps even pacified, whereupon political ontology outs itself as just another program of philosophical modernization, a mopping up operation, the People of the Fire’s concluding offensive against the People of the Ice. Don’t fight it, Connolly, in this way, too, an irenicist, instructs the existentially retrograde. Let it burn.

The all-important point, then, is that there is absolutely no reason to get hung up on the word “fire,” in the sense that there is no more sophisticated concept you can put in its place that will make these problems go away: not Being, not Becoming, not Contingency, not Life, not Matter, not Living Matter. Go ahead: Choose your ontological term or totem and mad-lib it back into the last six paragraphs.  Nothing else about them will change.

• • •

Anyone wanting to read Connolly’s World of Becoming, or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, its companion piece, also from 2011, now has some questions they can ask. The two books share a program:

-to survey theories of chaos, complexity; to repeat the pronouncements of Belgian chemists who declare the end of determinism; and then to resurrect under the cover of this new science a much older intellectual program—a variously Aristotelian, Paracelsian, and hermetic strain in early modern natural philosophy, which once posited and will now posit again a living cosmos a-go-go with active forces, a universe whose intricate assemblages of self-organizing systems will frustrate any attempt to reduce them back to a few teachable formulas;

-or, indeed, to trade in “science” altogether in favor of what used to be called “natural history,” the very name of which strips nature of its pretense to permanence and pattern and nameable laws and finds instead a universe existing wholly in time, as fully exposed to contingency, mutation, and the event as any human invention, with alligators and river valleys and planets now occupying the same ontological horizon as two-field crop rotation and the Lombard Leagues;

-to recklessly anthropomorphize this historical cosmos, to the point where that entirely humanist device, which everywhere it looks sees only persons, tips over into its opposite, as humanity begins divesting itself of its specialness, giving away its privileges and distinguishing features one by one, and so produces a cosmos full of more or less human things, active, volatile, underway—a universe enlivened and maybe even cartoonish, precisely animated, staffed by singing toasters and jitterbugging hedge clippers.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding this last idea rather winning, though one problem should be noted right way, which is that Connolly, in particular, despite getting a lot of credit for bringing the findings of the natural sciences into political theory—and despite repeating in A World of Becoming his earlier admonition to radical philosophers for failing to keep up with neurobiology and chemistry and such—really only quotes science when it repeats the platitudes of the old humanities. The biologist Stuart Kauffman has, Connolly notes, “identified real creativity” in the history of the cosmos or of nature. Other research has identified “degrees of real agency” in a “variety of natural-social processes.” The last generation of neuroscience has helped specify the “complexity of experience,” the lethal and Leavisite vagueness of which phrase should be enough to put us on our guard. It turns out that the people who will save the world are still the old aesthetes; it’s just that their banalities can now borrow the authority of Nobel Laureates (always, in Connolly, named as such). Of one scientific finding Connolly notes: “Mystics have known this for centuries, but the neuroscience evidence is nice to have too.” That will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the role of science in the new vitalism, which is that it gets adduced only to ratify already held positions. This is interdisciplinarity as narcissistic mirror.

But we can grant Connolly his fake science—or rather, his fake deployment of real science. The position he and Bennett share—that the cosmos is full of living matter in a constant state of becoming—isn’t wrong just because it’s warmed over Ovid. What really needs explaining is just which problems the political philosophers think this neuro-metamorphism is going to solve. More to the point, one wonders which problems a vitalist considers still unsolved. If Bennett and Connolly are right, then is there anything left for politics to do? Has Becoming bequeathed us any tasks? Won’t Living Matter get by just fine without us? And if there is no political business yet to be undertaken, then in what conceivable sense is this a political philosophy and not an anti-political one?

The real dilemma is this: There are those three options for getting a politics back into ontology—you can devise an ontological hierarchy; you can combat ontological Vergessenheit; or you can promote ontological enlightenment. Bennett and Connolly don’t like two of these, and the third one—the one they opt for—ends up canceling the ontology they mean to advocate. I’ll explain.

Option #1: Hierarchy could work. Bennett and Connolly could try to distinguish between more and less dynamic patches of the universe—or between more and less animate versions of matter—but they don’t want to do that. The entire point of their philosophical program is a metaphysical leveling; witness that defense of anthropomorphism. Bennett, indeed, uses the word “hierarchical” only as an insult, the way that liberals and anarchists and post-structuralists have long been accustomed to doing. Having only just worked out that all of matter has the characteristics of life, she is not about to proclaim that some life forms are more important than others. Her thinking discloses a problem here, if only because it reminds one of how difficult is has been for the neo-vitalists to figure out when to propose hierarchies and when to level them, since each seems to come with political consequences that most readers will find unpalatable. Bennett herself worries that a philosophy of life might remove certain protections historically afforded humans and thus expose them to “unnecessary suffering.” She positions herself as another trans- or post-humanist, but she doesn’t want to give up on Kant and the never really enforced guarantees of a Kantian humanism; she thinks she can go over to Spinoza and Nietzsche and still arrive at a roughly Left-Kantian endpoint. “Vital materialism would … set up a kind of safety net for those humans who are now … routinely made to suffer.” That idea—which sounds rather like the Heidegger of the “Letter on Humanism”—is, of course, wrong. Bennett is right to fret. A vitalist anti-humanism is indeed rather cavalier about persons, as her immediate predecessors and philosophical mentors make amply clear. The hierarchies it erects are the old ones: Michael Hardt and Toni Negri think it is a good thing that entire populations of peasants and tribals were wiped out because their extermination increased the vital energies of the system as a whole. And if vitalism’s hierarchies produce “unnecessary suffering,” well, then so do its levelings: Deleuze and Guattari think that French-occupied Africa was an “open social field” where black people showed how sexually liberated they were by fantasizing about “being beaten by a white man.”

Option #2: They could follow the Heideggerian path, which would require them to show that humanity is a species with weird powers—that humans (and humans alone) can fundamentally distort the universe’s most basic feature or hypokeinomon. That would certainly do the political trick. Vitalism would doubtless take on an urgency if it could make the case that human beings were capable of dematerializing vibrant matter—or of making it less vibrant—or of pouring sugar into the gas tank of Becoming. But Bennett and Connolly are not going to follow this path either, for the simple reason that they don’t believe anything of the sort. Their books are designed in large part to attest the opposite—that humanity has no superpowers, no special role to play nor even to refuse to play. Early on, Bennett praises Spinoza for “rejecting the idea that man ‘disturbs rather than follows Nature’s order.’” We’ll want to note that Spinoza’s claim has no normative force; it’s a statement of fact. We don’t need to be talked out of disturbing nature’s order, because we already don’t. The same grammatical mood obtains when Bennett quotes a modern student of Spinoza: “human beings do not form a separate imperium unto themselves.” We “do not”—the claim in its ontological form means could not—stand apart and so await no homecoming or reunion.

Those sentences sound entirely settled, but there are other passages in Vibrant Matter when you can watch in real time as such claims visibly neutralize the political programs they are being called upon to motivate. Here’s Bennett: “My hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.” On a quick read you might think that this is nothing more than a little junk Heideggerianism—that techno-thinking turns the world into a lumberyard, &c. But on closer inspection, the sentence sounds nothing like Heidegger and is, indeed, entirely puzzling. For if it is “hubris” to think that human beings could “conquer and consume” the world—not hubris to do it, but hubris only to think it, hubris only in the form of “fantasy”—then in what danger is the earth of actually being destroyed? How could mere imagination have world-negating effects and still remain imagination? Bennett’s position seems to be that I have to recognize that consuming the world is impossible, because if I don’t, I might end up consuming the world. Her argument only gains political traction by crediting the fantasy that she is putatively out to dispel. Or there’s this: Bennett doesn’t like it when a philosopher, in this instance Hannah Arendt, “positions human intentionality as the most important of all agential factors, the bearer on an exceptional kind of power.” Her book’s great unanswered question, in this light, is whether she can account for ecological calamity, which is perhaps her central preoccupation, without some notion of human agency as potent and malign, if only in the sense that human beings have the capacity to destroy entire ecosystems and striped bass don’t. The incoherence that underlies the new vitalism can thus be telegraphed in two complementary questions: If human beings don’t actually possess exceptional power, then why is it important to convince them to adopt a language that attributes to them less of it? But if they do possess such power, then on what grounds do I tell them that their language is wrong?

Option #3: Enlightenment it is, then. What remains, I mean, for both Connolly and Bennett, is the simple idea that most people subscribe to a false ontology and are accordingly in need of re-education. Connolly describes himself and his fellow vitalists as “seers”—he also calls them “those exquisitely sensitive to the world”—and he more then once quotes Nietzsche referring to everyone else, the non-seers, the foggy-eyed, as “apes.” I don’t much like being called an orangutan and know others who will like it even less, but at least this rendering of Bennett/Connolly has the possible merit of making the object-world genuinely autonomous and so getting the cosmos out from under the coercions of thought. Our thinking might affect us, but it cannot affect the universe. But there is a difficulty even here—the most injurious of political ontology’s several problems, I think—which is that via this observation philosophy returns magnetically to its proper object—or non-object—which is thought, and we realize with a start that the only thing that is actually up for grabs in these new realist philosophies of the object is in fact our thinking personhood. This is really quite remarkable. Bennett says that the task facing contemporary philosophy is to “shift from epistemology to ontology,” but she herself undertakes the dead opposite. She has precisely misnamed her procedure: “We are vital materiality,” she writes, “and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.” There is nothing about her ontology that Bennett feels she needs to work out; it is entirely given. The philosopher’s commission is instead to devise the  moralized epistemology that will vindicate this ontology, and which will, in its students, produce “dispositions” or “moods” or, as Connolly has it, a “working upon the self” or the “cultivation of a capacity” or a “sensibility” or maybe even just another intellectual “stance.” Connolly and Bennett have lots of language for describing mindsets and almost no language for describing objects. Their arguments take shape almost entirely on the terrain of Geist. They really just want to get the subjectivity right.

There are various ways one might bring this betrayal of the object into view, in addition to quoting Bennett and Connolly’s plain statements on the matter. Among the great self-defeating deficiencies of these books are the fully pragmatist argumentative procedures adopted by their authors, who adduce no arguments in favor of their  chosen ontology. Bennett points out that her position is really just an “experiment” with different ways of “narrating”; an “experiment with an idea”; a “thought experiment,” Connolly says. “What would happen to our thinking about nature if…” The post-structuralism that both philosophers think they’ve put behind them thus survives intact. But such play with discourse is, of course, entirely inconsistent with a robust philosophy of objects, premised as it is on the idea that the object exerts no pressure on the language we use to describe it, which indeed we elect at will. The mind, as convinced of its freedom as it ever was, chooses a philosophical idiom just to see what it can do.

This problem—the problem, I mean of an object-philosophy that can’t stop talking about the subject—then redoubles itself in two ways:

– The problem is redoubled, first, in the blank epiphanies of Bennett’s prose style, and especially when she makes like Novalis on the streets of Baltimore, putting in front of readers an assemblage of objects the author encountered beneath a highway underpass so that we can imagine ourselves beside her watching them pulsate. The problem is that she literally tells us nothing about these items except that she heard them chime. One begins to say that she chose four particular objects—a glove, pollen, a dead rat, and a bottle cap—except that formulation is already misleading, since lacking further description, these four objects really aren’t particular at all. They are sham specificities, for which any other four objects could have served just as well. She could have changed any or all of them—could have improvised any Borgesian quartet—and she would have written that page in exactly the same manner. You can suggest your own, like this:

-a sock, some leaves, a lame squirrel, and a soda can

-a castoff T-shirt, a fallen tree limb, a hungry kitten, and an empty Cheetos bag

a bowler hat, a beehive, a grimy parasol, and Idi Amin

These aren’t objects; these are slots; and Bennett’s procedure is to that extent entirely abstract. This is what it means to say that materialism, too, is just another philosophy of the subject. It does no more or less than any other intellectual system, maintaining the word “object” only as a vacancy onto which to project its good intentions.

-The problem is redoubled, second, in the nakedly religious idiom in which these two books solemnize their arguments. That idiom, indeed, is really just pragmatism in cassock and cope. The final page of Bennett’s book prints a “Nicene Creed for would-be vital materialists.” Connolly’s book begins by offering its readers “glad tidings.” Nor does the latter build arguments or gather evidence; he “confesses” a “philosophy/faith,” which is also a “faith/conviction,” which is also a “philosophy/creed.” Bennett and Connolly hold vespers for the teeming world. Eager young materialists, turning to these books to help round out their still developing views, must be at least somewhat alarmed to discover that our relationship to matter is actually one of “faith” or “conviction.” A philosophical account of the object is replaced by a pledge—a deferral—a promise, by definition tentative, offered in a mood of expectancy, to take the object on trust. Nor is this in any way a gotcha point. Connolly is completely open about his (Deleuzian) aim “to restore belief in the world.” It’s just that no sooner is this aim uttered than the world undergoes the fate of anything in which we believe, since if you name your belief as belief, then you are conceding that your position is optional and to some considerable degree unfounded and that you do not, in that sense, believe it at all.

It’s not difficult, at any rate, to show that Connolly for one does not believe in his own book. The stated purpose of A World of Becoming is to show us how to “affirm” that condition. That’s really all that’s left for us to do, once one has determined that Becoming will go on becoming even without our help and even if we work against it. Connolly’s writing, it should be said, is generally short on case studies or named examples of emergent conjunctures, leaving readers to guess what exactly they are being asked to affirm. For many chapters on end, one gets the impression that the only important way in which the world is currently becoming is that more people from Somalia are moving to the Netherlands, and that the phrase “people who resist Becoming” is really just Connolly’s idiosyncratically metaphysical synonym for “racists.” But near the end of the book, three concrete examples do appear, all at once—three Acts of Becoming—two completed, one still in train: the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the 2008 financial collapse; and global warming. All three, if regarded from the middle distance, seem to confirm the vitalist position in that they have been transformative and destabilizing and will for the foreseeable future produce unpredictable and ramifying consequences. What is surprising—but then really, no, finally not the least bit surprising—is that Connolly uses a word in regard to these three cases that a Nietzschean committed to boundless affirmation shouldn’t be able to so much as write: “warning.” Melting icecaps are not to be affirmed—that’s Connolly’s own view of the matter. Mass foreclosure is not to be affirmed. Quite the contrary: If you know that the cosmos is capable of shifting suddenly, then you might be able to get the word out. The responsibility borne by philosophers shifts from affirmation to its opposite: Vitalists must caution others about what rushes on. The philosopher of Becoming thus asks us to celebrate transformation only until he runs up against the first change he doesn’t like.

This is tough to take in. Lots of things are missing from political ontology: politics, objects, an intelligible metaphilosophy. But surely one had the right to expect from a theorist of systemic and irreversible change, one with politics on his mind, some reminder of the possibility of revolution, some evocation, since evocations remain needful, of the joy of that mutation, the elation reserved for those moments when Event overtakes Circumstance. But in Connolly, where one might have glimpsed the grinning disbelief of experience unaccounted for, one finds only the bombed out cafés of Diyala, hence fear, hence the old determination to fight the future. The philosopher of fire grabs the extinguisher. The philosopher of water walks in with a mop.

Thanks to Jason Josephson and everyone in the critical theory group at Williams College.

Outward Bound: On Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude

 

 

Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. If post-structuralism has had a motto—a proverb and quotable provocation—then surely it is this, from Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Text has no outside. There is nothing outside the text. It is tempting to put a conventionally Kantian construction on these words—to see them, I mean, as bumping up against an old epistemological barrier: Our thinking is intrinsically verbal—in that sense, textual—and it is therefore impossible for our minds to get past themselves, to leave themselves behind, to shed words and in that shedding to encounter objects as they really are, in their own skins, even when we’re not thinking them, plastering them with language, generating little mind-texts about them. But this is not, in fact, what the sentence says. Derrida’s claim would seem to be rather stronger than that: not There are unknowable objects outside of text, but There are outside of text no objects for us to know. So we reach for another gloss—There is only textain’t nothing but text—except the sentence isn’t really saying that either, since to say that there is nothing outside text points to the possibility that there is, in a manner yet to be explained, something inside text, and this something would not itself have to be text, any more than caramels in a carrying bag have to be made out of cellophane.

So we look for another way into the sentence. An alternate angle of approach would be to consider the claim’s implications in institutional or disciplinary terms. The text has no outside is the sentence via which English professors get to tell everyone else in the university how righteously important they are. No academic discipline can just dispense with language. Sooner or later, archives and labs and deserts will all have to be exited. The historians will have to write up their findings; so will the anthropologists; so will the biochemists. And if that’s true, then it will be in everyone’s interest to have around colleagues who are capable of reflecting on writing—literary critics, philosophers of language, the people we used to call rhetoricians—not just to proofread the manuscripts of their fellows and supply these with their missing commas, but to think hard about whether the language typically adopted by a given discipline can actually do what the discipline needs it to do. If the text has no outside, then literature professors will always have jobs; the idea is itself a kind of tenure, since it means that writerly types can never safely be removed from the interdisciplinary mix. The idea might even establish—or seek to establish—the institutional primacy of literature programs. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. There is nothing outside the English department, since every other department is itself engaged in a more or less literary endeavor, just one more attempt to make the world intelligible in language.

Such, then, is the interest of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, first published in French in 2006. It is the book that, more than any other of its generation, means to tell the literature professors that their jobs are not, in fact, safe. Against Derrida it banners a counter-slogan of its own: ““it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside.” It is Meillassoux’s task to restore to us what he is careful not to call nature, to lead post-structuralists out into the open country, to make sure that we are all getting enough fresh air. Meillassoux means, in other words, to wean us from text, and for anyone beginning to experience a certain eye-strain, a certain cramp of the thigh from not having moved all day from out his favorite chair, this is bound to be an appealing prospect, though if you end up unconvinced by its arguments—and there are good reasons for doubt, as the book amounts to a tissue of misunderstanding and turns, finally, on one genuinely arbitrary prohibition—then it’s all going to end up sounding like a bullying father enrolling his pansy son in the Boy Scouts against his will: Get your head out of that book! Why don’t you go in the yard and play?!

• • •

Of course, Meillassoux’s way of getting the post-structuralists to go hiking with him is by telling them which books to read first. If you start scanning After Finitude’s bibliography, what will immediately stand out is its programmatic borrowing from seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century philosophers. Meillassoux regularly cites Descartes and poses anew the question that once led to the cogito, but will here lead someplace else: What is the one thing I as a thinking person cannot disbelieve even from the stance of radical doubt? He christens one chapter after Hume and proposes, as a knowing radicalization of the latter’s arguments, that we think of the cosmos as “acausal.” In the final pages, Galileo steps forward as modern philosophy’s forgotten hero. His followers are given to saying that Meillassoux’s thinking marks out a totally new direction in the history of philosophy, but I don’t think anyone gets to make that kind of claim until they have first drawn up an exhaustive inventory of debts. At one point, he praises a philosopher publishing in the 1980s for having “written with a concision worthy of the philosophers of the seventeenth century.” That’s one way to get a bead on this book—that it resurrects the Grand Siècle as a term of praise. The movement now coalescing around Meillassoux—the one calling itself speculative realism—is a bid to get past post-structuralism by resurrecting an ante-Kantian, more or less baroque ontology, on the understanding that nearly all of European philosophy since the first Critique can be denounced as one long prelude to Derrida. There never was a “structuralism,” but only “pre-post-structuralism.”

Meillassoux, in sum, is trying to recover the Scientific Revolution and early Enlightenment, which wouldn’t be all that unusual, except he is trying to do this on radical philosophy’s behalf—trying, that is, to get intellectuals of the Left to make their peace with science again, as the better path to some of post-structuralism’s signature positions. His argument’s reliance on early science is to that extent instructive. One of the most appealing features of Meillassoux’s writing is that it restages something of the madness of natural philosophy before the age of positivism and the research grant; it retrieves, paragraph-wise, the sublimity and wonder of an immoderate knowledge. In 1712, Richard Blackmore published an epic called Creation, which you’ve almost certainly never heard of but which remained popular in Britain for several decades. That poem tells the story of the world’s awful making, before humanity’s arrival, and if you read even just its opening lines, you’ll see that this conception is premised on a rather pungent refusal of Virgil and hence on a wholesale refurbishing of the epic as genre: “No more of arms I sing.” Blackmore reclassifies what poets had only just recently been calling “heroic verse” as “vulgar”; the epic, it would seem, has degenerated into bellowing stage plays and popular romances and will have to learn from the astrophysicists if it is to regain its loft and dignity. Poets will have to accompany the natural philosophers as they set out “to see the full extent of nature” and to tally “unnumbered worlds.” The point is that there was lots of writing like this in the eighteenth century, and that it was aligned for the most part with the period’s republicans and pseudo-republicans and whatever else England had in those years instead of a Left. This means that the cosmic epic was to some extent a mutation of an early Puritan culture, a way of carrying into the eighteenth earlier trends in radical Protestant writing, and especially the latter’s Judaizing or philo-Semitic strains. The idea here was that Hebrew poetry provided an alternative model to Greek and Roman poetry: a sublime, direct poetry of high emotion, of inspiration, ecstasy, and astonishment. The Creation is one of the things you could read if you wanted to figure out how ordinary people ever came to care about science—how science was made into something that could turn a person on—and what you’ll find in its pages is a then new aesthetic that is equal parts Longinus and Milton, or rather Longinus plus Moses plus Milton plus Newton, and not a Weberian or Purito-rationalist Newton, but a Newton supernal and thunder-charged, in which the Principia is made to yield science fiction. It is, finally, this writing that Meillassoux is channeling when he asks us—routinely—to contemplate the planet’s earliest, not-yet-human eons; when, like a boy-intellectual collecting philosophical trilobites, he demands that our minds be arrested by the fossil record or that all of modern European philosophy reconfigure itself to accommodate the dinosaurs. And it is the eighteenth-century epic’s penchant for firebolt apocalyptic that echoes in his descriptions of a cosmos beyond law:

Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws; and this not by virtue of some superior law whereby everything is destined to perish, but by virtue of the absence of any superior law capable of preserve anything, no matter what, from perishing.

Meillassoux’s followers call this an idea that no-one has ever had before. The epic poets once called it Strife.

That so many readers have discovered new political energies in Meillassoux’s argument is perhaps hard to see, since the book contains absolutely nothing that would count, in any of the ordinary senses, as political thought. There are, it’s true, a few passages in which Meillassoux lets you know he thinks of himself as a committed intellectual: a (badly underdeveloped) account of ideology critique; the faint chiming, in one sentence, of The Communist Manifesto; a few pages in tribute to Badiou. With a little effort, though, the political openings can be teased out, and they are basically twofold: 1) Meillassoux says that thought’s most pressing task is to do justice to the possibility—or, indeed, to the archaic historical reality—of a planet stripped of its humans. On at least one occasion, he even uses, in English translation, the phrase “world without us.” For anyone looking to devise a deep ecology by non-Heideggerian means—and there are permanent incentives to reach positions with as little Heidegger as possible—Meillassoux’s thinking is bound to be attractive. The book is an entry, among many other such, in the competition to design the most attractive anti-humanism. 2) The antinomian language in the sentence last quoted—laws could collapse; there is no superior law­—or, indeed, the very notion of a cosmos structured only by unnecessary laws—is no doubt what has drawn to this book those who would otherwise be reading Deleuze, since Meillassoux, like this other, has designed an ontology to anarchist specifications, though he has done so, rather surprisingly, without Spinoza. Another world is possible wasn’t Marx’s slogan—it was Leibniz’s—except at this level, it has to be said, the book’s politics remain for all intents and purposes allegorical. Meillassoux’s argument operates at most as a peculiar, quasi-theological reassurance that if we set out to change the political and legal order of our nation-states, the universe will like it.

Maybe this is already enough information for us to see that After Finitude’s relationship to post-structuralism is actually quite complicated. Any brief description of the book is going to have to say that it is out to demolish German Idealism and post-structuralism and any other philosophy of discourse or mind. But if we take a second pass over After Finitude, we will have to conclude that far from flattening these latter, its chosen task is precisely to shore them up, to move anti-foundationalism itself onto sturdy ontological foundations. Meillassoux’s niftiest trick, the one that having mastered he compulsively performs, is the translating of post-structuralism’s over-familiar epistemological claims into fresh-sounding ontological ones. What readers of Foucault and Lyotard took to be claims about knowledge turn out to have been claims about Being all along, and it is through this device that Meillassoux will preserve what he finds most valuable in the radical philosophy of his parents’ generation: its anti-Hegelianism, its hard-Left anti-totalitarianism, its attack on doctrines of necessity, its counter-doctrine of contingency, its capacity for ideology critique.

Adorno was arguing as early as the mid-‘60s that thought needed to figure out some impossible way to think its other, which is the unthought, “objects open and naked,” the world out of our clutches. “The concept takes as it most pressing business everything it cannot reach.” Is it possible to devise “cognition on behalf of the non-conceptual”? This is the sense in which Meillassoux, far from breaking with post-structuralism and its cousins, is simply answering one of its central questions. It’s just that he does so in a way that any convinced Adornian or Left Heideggerian is going to find baffling. Cognition on behalf of the non-conceptual turns out to have been right in front of us all along—it is called science and math. Celestial mechanics has always been the better anti-humanism. A philosophical anarchism that has thrown its lot in with the geologists and not with the Situationists—that is the possibility for thought that After Finitude opens up.  The book, indeed, sometimes seems to be borrowing some of Heidegger’s idiom of cosmic awe, but it separates this from the latter’s critique of science—such that biology and chemistry and physics can henceforth function as vehicles of ontological wonder, astonishment at the world made manifest. And with that idea there comes to an end almost a century’s worth of radical struggle against domination-through-knowledge, against bureaucracy, rule by experts, the New Class, technocracy, instrumental reason, and epistemological regimes. On the back cover of After Finitude, Bruno Latour says that Meillassoux promises to “liberate us from discourse,” but that’s not exactly right and may be exactly wrong. He wants rather to free us from having to think of discourse as a problem—precisely not to rally us against it, in the manner of Adorno and Foucault—but to license us to make our peace with, and so sink back into, it.

• • •

Lots of people will find good reasons to take this book seriously. It is, nonetheless, unconvincing on five or six fronts at once.

It is philosophically conniving. There are almost no empirical constraints placed on the argumentative enterprise of ontology. Nothing in everyday experience is ever going to suggest that one generalized account of all Being is right and another wrong, and this situation will inevitably grant the philosopher latitude. Ontologies will always be tailored to extra-philosophical considerations, any one of them elected only because a given thinker wants something to be true about the cosmos. Explanations of existence are all speculative and in that sense opportunistic. It is this opportunism we sense when we discover Meillassoux baldly massaging his sources. Here he is on p. 38: “Kant maintains that we can only describe the a priori forms of knowledge…, whereas Hegel insists that it is possible to deduce them.” Kant, we are being told, doesn’t think the categories are deducible. And then here’s Meillassoux on pp. 88 and 89: “the third type of response to Hume’s problem is Kant’s … objective deduction of the categories as elaborated in the Critique of Pure Reason.”

The leap from epistemology to ontology sometimes falls short. At one point, Meillassoux thinks he can get the better of post-structuralists like so: Imagine, he says, that an anti-foundationalist is talking to a Christian (about the afterlife, say). The Christian says: “After we die, the righteous among us will sit at the right hand of the Lord.” And the anti-foundationalist responds the way anti-foundationalists always respond: “Well, you could be right, but it could also be different.” For Meillassoux, that last clause is the ontologist’s opening. His task is now to convince the skeptic that “it could also be different” is not just a skeptical claim about what we can’t know—it is not an ignorance, but rather already an ontological position in its own right. What we know about the real cosmos, existing apart from thought, is that everything in it could also be different. And now suppose that the anti-foundationalist responds to the ontologist by just repeating the same sentence—again, because it’s really all the skeptic knows how to say: “Well, you could be right, but it could also be different.” Meillassoux at this point begins his end-zone dance. He has just claimed that Everything could be different, and the skeptic obviously can’t disagree with this by objecting that Everything could be different. The skeptic has been maneuvered round to agreeing with the ontologist’s position. But Meillassoux doesn’t yet have good reasons to triumph, because, quite simply, he is using “could be different” in two contrary senses, and he rather bafflingly thinks that their shared phrasing is enough to render them identical. He has simply routed his argument through a rigged formulation, one in which ontological claims and epistemological claims seem briefly to coincide. The skeptical, epistemological version of that sentence says: “Everything could be different from how I am thinking it.” And the ontological version says: “Everything could be different from how it really is now.” There may, in fact, occur real-word instances in which skeptics string words into ambiguous sentences that could mean either, and yet this will never indicate that they unwittingly or via logical compulsion mean the latter.

Meillassoux’s theory of language is lunatic. Another way of getting a bead on After Finitude would be to say that it is trying to shut down science studies; it wants to stop literary (and anthropological) types from reading the complicated utterances produced by science as writing (or discourse or culture). Meillassoux is bugged by anyone who reads scientific papers and gets interested in what is least scientific in them—anyone, that is, who attributes to astronomy or kinetics a political unconscious, as when one examines the great new systems devised during the seventeenth century and realizes that they all turned on new ways of understanding “laws” and “forces” and “powers.” Meillassoux’s own philosophy requires, as he puts it, “the belief that the realist meaning of [any utterance about the early history of the planet] is its ultimate meaning—that there is no other regime of meaning capable of deepening our understanding of it.” The problem is, of course, that it’s really easy to show that science writing does, in fact, contain an ideological-conceptual surcharge; that, like any other verbally intricate undertaking, it can’t help but borrow from several linguistic registers at once; and that there is always going to be some other “order of meaning” at play in statements about strontium or the Mesozoic. Science studies, after all, possesses lots of evidence of a more or less empirical kind, and Meillassoux’s response is to object that this evidence concerns nothing “ultimate.” But then what would it mean for a sentence to have an “ultimate meaning” anyway? A meaning that outlasts its rivals? Or that defeats them in televised battle? What, then, is the time that governs meanings, such that some count as final even while the others are still around? And at what point do secondary meanings just disappear? What are the periods of a meaning’s rise and fall? Meillassoux doesn’t possess the resources to answer any of those questions; nor, as best as I can tell, does he mean to try. The phrase “ultimate meaning” is not philosophically serious. It does little more than commit us to a blatant reductionism, commanding us to disregard any complexities and ambiguities that a linguistically attentive person would, upon reading Galileo, discover. We can even watch Meillassoux’s own language drift, such that “ultimate meaning” becomes, over the course of three pages, exclusive meaning. “Either [a scientific] statement has a realist sense, and only a realist sense, or it has no sense at all.” It exasperates Meillassoux that an unscientific language would so regularly worm its way into science writing; and it exasperates him, further, that English professors would take the trouble to point this language out. His response is to install a prohibition, the wholly unscientific injunction to treat scientific language as simpler than it is even when the data show otherwise. It is perhaps a special problem for Meillassoux that the ideological character of science writing is especially pronounced in the very period to which he is looking for intellectual salvation—the generations on either side of Newton, which were crammed with ontologies explicitly modeled on the political theology of the late Middle Ages—new scientific cosmologies, I mean, whose political dimensions were quite overt. And it is definitely a problem for Meillassoux that he has himself written a political ontology of roughly this kind—a cosmology made-to-order for the punks and the Bakuninites—since one of his opening moves is to disallow the very idea of such ontologies. After Finitude only has the implications its anarchist readership takes it to have if its language means more than it literally says, and Meillassoux himself insists that it can have no such meaning.

He poses as secular but is actually a kind of theologian. It is not just that Meillassoux is secular. He is pugnaciously secular or, if you prefer, actively anti-religious. He casually links Levinas with fanaticism and Muslim terror. He sticks up for what Adorno once called the totalitarianism of enlightenment, marveling at philosophy’s now vanished willingness to tell religious people that they’re stupid or at its determination to make even non-philosophers fight on its terms. And against our accustomed sense that liberalism is the spontaneous ideology of secular modernity, Meillassoux sees freedom of opinion instead as an outgrowth of the Counter-Reformation and Counter-Enlightenment. Liberalism, in other words, is how religion gets readmitted to the public sphere even once everyone involved has been forced to concede that it’s bunk. And yet for all that, Meillassoux has entirely underestimated how hard it is going to be to craft a consequent anti-humanism without taking recourse to religious language. At the heart of After Finitude is a simple restatement of the religious mystic’s ecstatic demand that we “get out of ourselves” and thereby learn to “grasp the in-itself”; the book aches for an “outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being entirely elsewhere.” In the place of God, Meillassoux has installed a principle he calls “hyper-Chaos,” to which, however, he then attaches all manner of conventional theological language, right down to the capital-C-of-adoration. Hyper-Chaos is an entity…

…for which nothing is or would seem to be impossible … capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recess, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells.

No-one reading that passage—even casually, even for the first time—is going to miss the predictable omnipotence language with which it begins: Chaos is the God of Might. Meillassoux himself acknowledges as much. What may be less apparent, though, is that this entire line of argument simply extends into the present the late medieval debate over whether God was constrained to create this particular universe, or whether he could have, at will, created another, and Meillassoux’s position in this sense resembles nothing so much as the orthodox Christian defense of miracles, theorizing a power that can, in defiance of its own quotidian regularities, “bring forth absurdities, engender transformations, cast bright spells.” There have been many different theories of contingency over the last generation, especially among philosophers of history. As a philosopheme, it has, in fact, become rather commonplace. Meillassoux is unusual in this regard only in that he has elevated contingency to the position of demiurge and so returned a full portion of metaphysics to a position that had until now been trying to get by without it. Such is the penalty after all for going back behind Kant, that you’ll have to stop your ears again against the singing of angels. Two generations before the three Critiques there stood Christian Wolff, whom Meillassoux does not name, but on whose system his metaphysics is modeled and who wrote, in the 1720s and ‘30s, that philosophy was “the study of the possible as possible.” Philosophy, in other words, is the one all-important branch of knowledge that does not study actuality. Each more circumscribed intellectual endeavor—biology, history, philology—studies what-now-is, but philosophy studies events and objects in our world only as a subset of the much vaster category of what-could-be. It tries, like some kind of interplanetary structuralism, to work out the entire system of possibilities—every hypothetical aggregate of objects or particles or substances that could combine without contradiction—and thereby reclassifies the universe we currently inhabit as just one unfolding outcome among many unseen others. Meillassoux, in this same spirit, asks us to imagine a cosmos of “open possibility, wherein no eventuality has any more reason to be realized than any other.” And this way of approaching actuality is what Wolff calls theology, which in this instance means not knowledge of God but God’s knowledge. Philosophy, for Wolff—as, by extension, for Meillassoux—is a way of transcending human knowledge in the direction of divine knowledge, when the latter is the science not just of our world but of all things that could ever be, what Hegel called “the thoughts had by God before the Creation”—sheer could-ness, vast and indistinct.

He misdescribes recent European philosophy and is thus unclear about his own place in it. Maybe this point is better made with reference to his supporters than to Meillassoux himself. Here’s how one of his closest allies explains his contribution:

With his term ‘correlationism,’ Meillassoux has already made a permanent contribution to the philosophical lexicon. The rapid adoption of this word, to the point that an intellectual movement has already assembled to combat the menace it describes suggests that ‘correlationism’ describes a pre-existent reality that was badly in need of a name. Whenever disputes arise in philosophy concerning realism and idealism, we immediately note the appearance of a third personage who dismisses both of these alternatives as solutions to a pseudo-problem. This figure is the correlationist, who holds that we can never think of the world without humans nor of humans without the world, but only of a primal correlation or rapport between the two.

As intellectual history, this is almost illiterate. We weren’t in need of a name, because the people who argue in terms of the-rapport-between-humans-and-world or subject-and-object were already called “Hegelians,” and the movement opposing them hasn’t just “sprung up,” because philosophers have been battling the Hegelians as long as there have been Hegelians to fight. Worse still is the notion, projected by Meillassoux himself, that all of European philosophy since Kant must be opposed for leading inexorably, shunt-like, to post-structuralism. This is just the melodrama to which radical philosophy is congenitally prone; the entire history of Western thought has to become a single, uninterrupted exercise in the one perhaps quite local error you would like to correct, the cost of which, in this instance, is that Meillassoux and Company have to turn every major European thinker into a second-rate idealist or vulgar Derridean and so end up glossing Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Sartre and various Marxists in ways that are tendentious to the point of unrecognizability. There are central components of Meillassoux’s project that philosophers have been attempting since the 1790s, and he occasionally gives the impression of not knowing that European philosophy has been trying for generations to get past dialectics or humanism or the philosophy of the subject or whatever else it is for which “correlationism” is simply a new term. Perhaps Meillassoux thinks that his contribution has been to show that Wittgenstein and Heidegger were more Hegelian than they themselves realized. But then this, too, seems more like a repetition than a new direction, since European philosophy has always had a propensity for auto-critique of precisely this kind. Auto-critique is in lots of ways its most fundamental move: One anti-humanist philosopher accuses another of having snuck in some humanist premise or another. One philosopher-against-the-subject accuses another of being secretly attached to theories of subjectivity. And so on. For Meillassoux to come around now and say that there are residues of Kant and Hegel all over the place in contemporary thought—well, sure: That’s just the sort of thing that European philosophers are always saying.

He is wrong about German idealism. Kant, Meillassoux says, is the one who deprived us all of the Great Outdoors, which accusation seems plausible … until you remember that bit about “the starry sky above me.” This is one more indication that Meillassoux is punching air, though the point matters more with reference to Hegel than to Kant. Hegel’s philosophy, after all, turns on a particular way of relating the history of the world: At first, human beings were just pinpricks of consciousness in a world not of their own making, mobile smudges of mind on an alien planet. But human activity gradually remade the world—it refashioned every glade and river valley—worked all the materials—to the point where there now remains nothing in the world that hasn’t to some degree been made subject to human desire and planning. The world has, in this sense, been all but comprehensively humanized; it is saturated with mind. What are we to say, then, when Meillassoux claims that no modern philosopher since Kant can even begin to deal with the existence of the world before humans; that they can’t even take up the question; that they have to duck it; that it is what will blow holes in their systems? Hegel not only has no trouble speaking of the pre-human planet; his historical philosophy downright presupposes it. The world didn’t used to be human; it is now thorough-goingly so; the task of philosophy is to account for that change. And it is the great failing of Meillassoux’s book that, having elevated paleontology to the paradigmatic science, he can’t even begin to explain the transformation. You might ask yourself again whether Meillassoux’s account of science is more plausible than a Hegelian one. What, after all, happened when Europeans began devising modern science? What did science actually start doing? Was it or wasn’t it a rather important part of the ongoing process by which human beings subjected the non-human world to mind? Meillassoux urges us to think of science as the philosophy of the non-human, positing as it does a world separable from thought, a planet independent of humanity, laws that don’t require our enforcing. But does science, in fact, bring that world about? Meillassoux hasn’t even begun to respond to those philosophers, like Adorno and Heidegger, who wanted to pry philosophy away from science, not because they were complacently encased in the thought-bubbles of discourse and subjectivity, but more nearly the opposite—because they thought science was the philosophy of the subject, or one important version of it, the very techno-thinking by which human being secures its final dominion over the non-human. Meillassoux, in this sense, is trying to theorize, not the science that actually entered into the world in the seventeenth century, but something else, an alternate modernity, one in which aletheia and science went hand in hand, a fully non-human science or science that humans didn’t control: gelassene Wissenschaft. But the genuinely materialist position is always going to be the one that takes seriously the effects of thought and discourse upon the world; the one that knows science itself to be a practice; the one that faces up to the realization that the concept of  “the non-human” can only ever be a device by which human beings do things to themselves and their surroundings. There is nothing real about a realism that offers itself only as a utopian counter-science, a communication from the pluriverse, a knowledge that presumes our non-existence and so requires, as bearer, some alternate cosmic intelligence that it would be simplest to call divinity.

(Thanks to Jason Adams, Chris Pye, and Anita Sokolsky. My understanding of Christian Wolff I take from Werner Schneiders’s “Deus est philosophus absolute summus: Über Christian Wolffs Philosophie und Philosophiebegriff.” The ally of Meillassoux’s that I quote is Graham Harman.)