Monday, 22 December 2008

In the Interval

[T]he interval between an event of emancipation and another leaves us fallaciously in thrall to the idea that nothing begins or will ever begin, even if we find ourselves caught in the midst of an infernal and immobile agitation.
Badiou, The Century (p. 140)

I have journeyed among dead forms
David Jones

I hunt among stones
Charles Olson

This is not an original set of observations, but was prompted by a re-reading of Badiou's The Century for both the book and an introductory lecture on modernism.* What struck me with more force was Badiou's conception of agency in terms of passivity:
Passivity is in effect nothing but the dissolution of the 'I', the renunciation of any subjective identity. In the end, in order to cease being a coward one must fully consent to becoming. The crucial idea is this: the reverse of cowardice is not will, but abandonment to what happens.' (125)
Badiou goes on to write of an 'almost ontological passivity' (126) in which the stakes are an 'unconditional abandonment to the event.' (125) What then happens in the time of the interval? Or, more pessimistically, what if another event does not take place? It seems to me that this possibility is perfectly thinkable from within Badiou's set-up, even if would appear to imply the end of his own thinking. Even if we were not to accept this, what if an event were not to take place in our lifetime? (Writing as someone born in 1969)

If we read the reverse of cowardice as courage, and everything in Badiou invites us to do so, then this is elsewhere defined by Badiou as 'endurance in the impossible'. Courage is a 'discipline of time', which takes time as its raw material and is indifferent to the time imposed by the law of the world. The similarity to Benjamin is obvious and striking. In the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin remarks that in the class struggle ‘refined and spiritual things’ makes their presence felt ‘as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude’ which ‘have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.’ Courage appears to apply to the endurance of the event, the necessary abandonment to it (so it is possible to say many events are happening, I simply lack the courage to abandon myself to them). Also, however, I would argue courage figures the endurance of the interval as well.

What concerns me are the limits of this endurance and this courage, and of course its correlation with passivity. Peter Hallward has signalled his disagreement with this in his recent review of Logics of Worlds (pdf). Against Badiou he defines the necessity of a project that 'will also require us to privilege history rather than logic as the most fundamental dimension of a world, and to defend a theory of the subject equipped not only with truth and body but also with determination and political will'. I understand his is developing a new project based around the rehabilitation of the concept of will. From Badiou's perspective we could argue that this involves a return to the passion for the real qua destruction, in terms of the imposition of will. That is to say, the recovery of the twentieth-century conviction of 'historicist voluntarism': that the will can impose the rupture of the sequence of 'continuous, homogeneous time', rather than await (at the risk of attentisme) the coming of the event. Hallward's project implies the re-correlation of courage with will.

Badiou, certainly in The Century, implies that this is impossible (in the negative sense). The sequence is closed and what is required is a new subtractive discipline. This, in what perhaps might be an over-forced reading, is evident in Charles Olson's 'Kingfishers' (1949) (pdf). Here, the subtractive discipline of modernism is correlated to the endurance of an event - the Chinese Revolution (see the excellent reading by Perry Anderson in The Origins of Postmodernity - far more erudite and accurate than mine).** I want to also reconstruct this courage, evident in Olson's poem, as perhaps relevant to the endurance of the interval as well.
'The dawn light is before us, let us rise up and act' Mao

The difficulty that the poem probes is change, with its well-known opening: 'What does not change / is the will to change' (a translation of Heraclitus' Fragment 23). The difficulty is the possibility of this change when the 'pool is slime' (a reference to the Aztec-Mayan 'well of sacrifice', into which victims were thrown bearing messages to the gods and wearing feathered head-dresses).

This tension figured in the Kingsfishers' nest, composed of 'excrement and decayed fish' and which 'becomes a dripping, fetid mass' as the young grow. It is the state 'between / birth and the beginning of / another fetid nest', which is change. The discipline or courage of time is subtractively premised on the acceptance of 'rejectamenta'.
To accept change entails the rejection of 'the too strong grasping of it' that 'loses it'. Olson's invocation of feedback loops suggests a conception of agency in terms of 'ontological passivity', for which change 'presents / no more than itself'. Yet, this passivity is also the relation of enthusiasm (pace Kant) to the distant revolution: 'The light is in the east. Yes. And we must rise, act.' In the West we are in an 'apparent darkness', which is really 'the whiteness which covers all' - it seems to me this is the perfect metaphor for the 'empty' time of the interval between events.
What is required is to look into this whiteness, to look with candour into the 'rejectamenta' of the West (Olson has more specifically in mind America, and Mexico / Central America in particular).
'with what violence benevolence is bought
what cost in gesture justice brings
what wrongs domestic rights involve
what stalks
this silence'
This leads to the final question (and answer) provided by the poem:
'shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among stones'
According to Davenport this is a reply to Pound's 'that maggots shd/eat the dead bullock', itself a reference to Mussolini hanging by his heels. The 'taste for stone', he argues, is a widespread theme in modern literature, reflecting on the classical conception of stone as a dead substance.
To force my reading I would suggest the possibility of the refusal of the reversibility of the rejectamenta (maggots = honey). This would be semi-supported by Olson disputing the reversibility of Mussolini as utopian symbol (for Pound, obviously). Then, the 'hunt among the stones' could be read as the discipline of time that can subtractively 'measure' the 'will to change'. This suggests not a pure passivity, but the working over of the subject in an 'activity' that accepts the event, but at the same time occupies the discipline of 'hunt[ing] among stones'. To hunt among stones is to work in this 'whiteness which covers all' and, of course, against it.

* Rather irritatingly we have been 'told' to update all bibliographies with post-2000 works, the endless progress of knowledge you see, and constantly improving research, dictates an ironic ethics of recuperated modernism; 'One must be absolutely modern' (Rimbaud).

** What's depressing, writing on Anglo-American Modernism, is dealing with the fact that virtually all of them decry the Russian revolution / the general strike. Enough allegorical readings about the decline of the West, turns out it's all (largely) anti-Bolshevik polemic.


Guy Davenport, 'Scholia and Conjectures for Olson's "The Kingfishers"', boundary 2 2.1/2 (1973-1974): 250-262.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Merry Christmas

Reuters / John Kolesidis
See this link for the further images

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Notes on 'Capitalism as Religion'

This fragment was written by Benjamin in 1921, and, as usual for Benjamin, I find it both highly suggestive and deeply enigmatic (in fact any offers on interpretations. further analyses, gratefully received). I understand Michael Lowy has a forthcoming article on exactly this topic, which may well certainly provide more detailed contextualisation and analysis than i can offer).

Benjamin argues that capitalism is not so much inspired by a religious spirit, but an actual religion addressed to the same anxieties as actual religions. Capitalism as a religion has four elements:

1. 'capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed'.
Capital is a system of religious beliefs and practices with 'no specific body of dogma, no theology'. We could link this to the arguments of Zizek, Pfaller, and Santner that capitalism qua cult is a materialised set of ideological rituals. As the pure mechanism of accumulation it can have no theology or dogma per se (although it may have temporary forms of such theologies), because these would potentially disrupt a purely cultic veneration of objects - as objects of production / consumption. Capitalism is concrete (captured in Don DeLillo's anecdote, in White Noise, concerning the sense of feeling blessed when one's estimation of the balance of our bank account is revealed as accurate by the ATM.)

If we realise that religion did not originally serves any higher or moral purpose but was 'severely practical', then we can see that 'religion did not achieve any greater clarity then about its "ideal" or "transcendental" nature than modern capitalism does today.'

2. 'the permanence of the cult'
There are no "weekdays." There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper."

Rather than the usual model of capital as abolishing or rationalising the sacred - making everyday a workday - Benjamin reverses this to argue that everyday is the feast day. What capitalism imposes is this unremitting requirement for its own worship without mercy. I'm reminded of Blanchot's quip that we have prisons to try to remind us that we are not all living in a prison (although whether Blanchot spent any time in a US supermax prison I can't say). Capital's lack of particular festivals / churches / places of worship makes everywhere a place and time of worship.

3. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.

Although this appears obvious, here is where things become particularly enigmatic for me. Benjamin argues that this sense of guilt generated by capitalism is caught up in a larger movement that attempts to make guilt universal, 'to hammer it into the conscious mind' and 'to include God in the system of guilt and thereby awaken in Him an interest in the process of atonement.' It would appear that we have here a moment of potential reversibility - in which 'total' guilt could open to 'total' redemption:

[C]apitalism entails endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope.'

The difficulty, however, is that capitalism cannot provide tis atonement of reformation, it has not 'stable element' from which to launch this project. Capitalism offers no reform of existence, but its complete destruction. It appears that capitalism itself has its own redemptive, or even messianic project: 'It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.' How this messianic 'promise' crosses over with Benjamin's own thinking of the messianic redemption by the proletariat in the 'Theses' is, to say the least, unclear to me. The Nietzschean ubermensch is the realisation of this transit through despair - the absolute immanence in with God has been incorporated into human existence.

4. 'God must be hidden from it and may be addressed only when guilt is at its zenith.'

Capitalism, as 'pure cult', celebrates an 'unmatured diety', which is the secret of capital.

In a surprising twist Benjamin identifies Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, as all operating within the hegemony of this conception of capital as religion. Again as far as I can grasp it this appears because they all encrypt this conception of perpetual guilt, the ciphering of God as the unmatured diety, and the same measure of transcendence or appearance of God at the moment of absolute guilt / despair:

'[Freud's theory] is capitalist through and through. By virtue of a profound analogy, which has still to be illuminated, what has been repressed, the idea of sin, is capital itself, which pays interest on the hell of the unconscious.'

'The paradigm of capitalist religious thought' ... 'The idea of the superman transposes the apocalyptic "leap" not into conversion, atonement, purification, and penance, but into an apparently steady, though in the final analysis explosive and discontinuous intensification.'

This point seems to critique avant la lettre the kind of post-Nietzschean 'accelerationist' positions found in Lyotard and Klossowski. This 'intensified humanity' has not escaped religion, but merely generalised the sense of guilt; this is the truly capitalist religion of 'pure cult' that escapes transcendence through a cultic operator of practices of intensity. This would seem to imply the crippling of arguments for the intensification of humanity as rupture.

'the capitalism that refuses to change course becomes socialism by means of the simple and compound interest that are functions of Schuld (consider the demonic ambiguity of this word [it means both "debt" and "guilt"]).'
Perhaps I am "forcing" this commentary, but it seems that here Benjamin is implying a critique of accelerationist positions of reversibility in which absolute guilt becomes the 'gate' of redemption. What is implied, and taken-up again in the 'Theses', is the necessity to make capitalism 'change course'. In the 'Theses' Benjamin remarks on the fatal error of German Social Dmocracy that:
The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. (my italics)
To go with the current would be to follow the cultic dimension of capital and its own internal ubermensch.

University Life

Should anyone in academia in the UK not be sufficiently depressed as it is, then the new issue of ephemera might help do the job. I particularly liked the title of the article by Eeva Berglund, "I Wanted to Be an Academic, Not ‘A Creative’: Notes on Universities and the New Capitalism".

Saturday, 13 December 2008


I've been continuing to try and worry at questions of agency in contemporary theory, not least again in a recent paper on Agamben developed out of the notes of the image I posted previously. I'm not demanding a simple-minded solution because these limits seem to be imposed by the structures of capital / contemporary social forms. One theme that has previously interested me is where themes of passivity intersect with questions of theodicy and providence, which is to say how inadvertent forms of agency seems to be relied on to produce some final working out of radical change (rather than God's plan). In the form of theodicy this supposes that all current evil will actually turn out to be for the good. As Chrissus and Odotheus sarcastically remark on Hardt and Negri: 'In fact, it is this being [the multitude] that has power even when everything would seem to bear witness to the contrary. All that domination imposes is really what this being has desired and won.'

In terms of providence it is the undercurrent of determinism in orientations that would, at first sight, to be convinced of radical contingency. I'm not theologian enough to yet analyse the interlocking of theodicy and providence, although I am interested to hear form anyone on this, and will be doing some reading myself. Purely by chance (or providence?) I came across this quote from Gramsci on determinism in Marxism:
[determinism] has been made necessary and justified historically by the “subaltern character” of certain social strata…. When you don’t have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself comes eventually to be identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a tremendous force of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance…. Real will takes on the garments of an act of faith in a certain rationality of history and in a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism which appears in the role of a substitute for the Predestination or Providence of confessional religions. (Gramsci 1971, 336)
The cleverness of Gramsci's argument is propose the historical accounting for historical determinism. Perhaps then the kind of determinism that lurks in Hardt and Negri, for example, expresses this sense of a series of defeats?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Real Abstraction

In his text on Kafka's Odradek Slavoj Žižek states that: ‘Reading Kafka demands a great effort of abstraction – an effort, not of learning more (the proper interpretive horizon to understand his works), but of unlearning the stand interpretive references, so that one becomes able to open up to the raw force of Kafka’s writing.’ (136)

What interests me is that it requires a greater effort of abstraction to unlearn the abstract framings that already surround and penetrate Kafka's text, so that one can then approach that text as concrete. It strikes me that this is one way in which to understand a procedure for grasping the 'real abstractions' of capitalism: the abstraction of labour under real subsumption and the abstracting effects of the commodity-form (of course these can be linked together under the aegis of the commodity-form, as labour itself is the commodity). Rather than a humanist or anthropological short-cut to the concrete (something like the risk partially run in The German Ideology), we have the passage through abstraction as a procedure.

In a rather unlikely pairing we can link this to Badiou's operations of subtraction (although it is striking that Badiou nowhere substantially thinks the commodity-form) and the Hegelian procedure as parsed by Fredric Jameson: ‘stupid stereotype, or the “appearance”; ingenious correction, the underlying reality or “essence”; finally, after all, the return to the reality of the appearance, so that it was the appearance that was “true” after all.’
Perhaps we could minimally justify this pairing by noting that the capitalist real abstraction takes the form of the Hegelian subject - positing its presuppositions. In this way Badiou's anti-Hegelian procedure of subtraction would gain purchase, although when applied to these real abstractions. In a more tricksy fashion perhaps Hegel's own procedure offers a pharmakon, a passage back through the process of real abstraction that can impose further abstraction upon it. The irony of real abstraction is, of course, that it is 'lived' as 'concrete' - if in the mode of a spiritualisation of everyday life. To gain purchase on this requires a 'greater effort of abstraction'.

Jameson, Fredric, ‘First Impressions’, London Review of Books 28.17 (7 September 2006)
Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Odradek as a Political Category’, Lacanian Ink 24/25 (2005): 136-155

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Excremental Extinctionism

Thanks again to the Institute for sight of an excellent paper by Lorenzo Chiesa on Carmelo Bene without Deleuze, which will be forthcoming in the collection Deleuze and Performance. In light of Reza's project for a cultural speculative realism, Bene would appear to be an ideal addition for a new section on theatre.
To give a sample:

‘Life ends there where it begins. Everything is already written in the fetid state, not the foetal one. What remains is only flesh that is going off’

porn is ‘what cadaverises itself, what makes itself available as mere object. In porn [there] are only two objects that annihilate themselves reciprocally. Can you imagine two stones copulating? It gives you an idea’

‘we are shit, no metaphor intended. The important thing is to know it. Taking cognisance of this [prendere atto] and flush the toilet, that is, transforming into act [trasformare in atto]’

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

How to write like Agamben

1. Take a suitably lengthy, informative, and arcane wikipedia entry - my suggestion is this on Noah's Ark.

2. Use as many of the original language reference and most arcane features in said entry to trace a genealogy of said "symbol" (remember to introduce the most esoteric or unusual by beginning with "As everyone knows")

i.e "As everyone knows Muhammad ibn al-Tabari's 915 work تاريخ الرسل والملوك suggests the donkey was the last animal on the ark, and the means by which Satan entered".

3. Make analogy between said entry and a feature of the current geo-political situation (i.e. Noah's ark as symbol of vanguard exodus), i.e.
"the donkey, as the entrance of the Satanic principle into exodus, is the prophetic sign of its fatal contamination in modernity by the biopolitical reduction of the subject to bare life."

4. Remember to make every such sign or symbol reversible: so "the donkey is at the same time the messianic sign of bare life transfigured: "And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written" (John 12:14)".

5. Add in some contemporary reference, perferably to pornography / contemporary media events / some index of the present
(ok, so the donkey conceit will now end...)

6. And loop around again

Flippant, but prompted by a recent reading session on Agamben (who I have written on, and quite like) and a conversation with the Institute on the way in which Wikipedia can make us all Agambenian.