Jeff VanderMeer – Annihilation (2014) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #3]

Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation (2014), in Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (London: 4th Estate, 2018), pp. 1-197. 

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (110) 

In addition to a work of speculative fiction (or New Weird), a treatise on imminent (/immanent) ecological horror and post-Anthropocentric survival, and (as the 2018 film adaptation makes painfully clear) an extended allegory for cancerous pathologies and the deindividuated self-destruction of cell programming, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation is also a work of fiction that takes the power of the written word very seriously. The novel’s central objective discovery (absent entirely from the film, which I will now abstain from referring to) is of a passage of writing: a sort of fungal flora growing out of the wall deep inside the subterranean vertical tunnel named by the narrator as “the tower”. The content of this passage is obscure, and ultimately, it is decided by the narrator, unimportant: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner […]”. This text, however, has an agency all of its own: its message is not disseminated through interpretation and relay, but inhalation. “I was unlucky – or was I lucky? Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the W chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out. I pulled back, but I thought I had felt something enter my nose, experienced a pinprick of escalation in the smell of rotting honey.” (27) 

Before noting the effects of this textual contagion, it is worth considering one or two things about the hosts. The “characters” of Annihilation are anything but “rounded”, or psychologically multilayered; instead going by their ascribed job titles – the protagonist is “the biologist”, for example, joined on her expedition by “the surveyor” and “the psychologist”, married to “the husband”, etc. (From page 11: “we were always strongly discouraged from using names […]. Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while we were embedded in Area X.”) These figures assert their processes over their personalities (see also Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and Plateaus 4 and 5 of A Thousand Plateaus). Consequently, they function as bundles of collective affects (or elements of effective culture), ready for any potential becomings. This is seen in the biologist’s modulation into Ghost Bird: a xeroxed tulpa identified by what she calls a “brightness” emanating from within. She even identifies herself as a “demon” during her gunfire exchange with the alienated surveyor. (The significance of the demonolgical to theory-fiction is explored in Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, and several posts on this blog.) 

But while the reader may be inclined to see these effected changes to the narrator’s subjective being (as well as those effected on the topography of the environment which has become known as Area X) as harmful, they are instead described in more ambivalent terms. While the destruction of said subjectivity is acknowledged as a loss of rational certainties and adequate means of expression (something Eugene Thacker calls misanthropic subtraction), the encounter with the script is more positively affirmed as an opportunity for escape from individuation and passage to the becoming-multiple. The meeting with the Crawler, late in the novel – a being which can barely be perceived, let alone apprehended – is the pivot for said deindividuation. While weird fiction is known for having a penchant towards authoritarian scientists becoming subjected to unnameable cosmic horror (a trend perfected by Lovecraft), VanderMeer’s protagonist is willing to embrace the transformative potentials of the loss of certainties gathered from her encounters, in a way that these predecessors found themselves unwilling or incapable of. The author’s intention was to provocatively suggest Area X and its inhabitants as a “best case scenario” of ecological mutation – the cancerous expansion of alien becomings effectively shielding the Earth from the mass extinctions it inevitably faces. As current occupants of the planet (“ghosts roaming a haunted landscape”, as the husband poignantly acknowledges), it might indeed be the case that intense organic modifications may be the only means of preserving life on an uninhabitable Earth. (This, of course, is not a get-out clause for avoiding collective environmental action – it is obviously vital that we do everything in our capacity to save life on Earth while the opportunity for doing so is still open to us.) The ending of the novel – Ghost Bird preparing for a deeper descent into Area X, without any suggestion of ever returning – may constitute the first steps into this experimental new form of becoming; a sort of de-colonialist subversion of Colonel Kurtz. “I’m well beyond you now, and travelling very fast. […] I am not returning home.” (196)

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

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Adam Curtis – The Living Dead (1995) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #2]

Adam Curtis (dir.). The Living Dead (BBC: 1995).

There is no other person using image to disrupt or challenge the dominant historical narratives that make up the present day more successfully, I think, than Adam Curtis; his inclusion in this series was always going to be certain. Curtis’s films and television programmes, for those who are unfamiliar, are largely archival montages: often of news footage (which in his employ in the BBC he has made liberal use of), carefully chosen film clips, and occasional interviews. In regards to the latter, Curtis’s own presence is rarely felt, and he never appears in front of the camera. These films however feel uniquely individualistic, and would still feel individualistic even without his sober narration. (We can observe this in his most recent works: as they have become longer, so have the periods in which the montages on display have been allowed to perform undisturbed in front of our eyes.) Across more than twenty years, inevitably, certain themes have persisted in Curtis’s work: these include the emergence of new, occluded forms of power, as well as the unseen or forgotten individuals who have enabled these forms. But these films and programmes are mostly concerned with the relationship between narratives and the political, as they have (both) been packaged, naturalised and lived by large groups of people in the present day. As such, Curtis’s work performs a double function: it reveals the faultlines stitching together the inchoate, immediatized fabrication we call reality, whilst simultaneously presenting its own patchwork of images, perspectives, and juxtapositions as a work of investigative and illuminating metafiction. The visual and narratological techniques which make up an Adam Curtis documentary may belie a meticulous craft, or a cynical sleight of hand, but these techniques feel eerily appropriate to both the subjects on display and to the experiential world’s own acts of curation and selection.

A particularly revealing example of this double function is the series of three hour-long films broadcast in 1995 under the name The Living Dead: Three films about the power of the past. Each of these films deals with the troubling and deliberately enforced nationalist myths that were revived in Germany, the US, and Britain following the Second World War. In the (re)construction of national identities, Curtis notes, old memories of former greatness were brought back from the past into haunted presents, in order to directly contest the horrors of the twentieth century. Yet the very incompatibility of these anachronistic memories with a rapidly developing postindustrial modernity, and the repression of the least desirable events of the recent past, led to these alternate histories’ slight return.

The archetype of their respective reality managements (and the uneasy equivocations that are later implied, though never stated) was Hermann Göring’s vision for Nazi Germany. The first episode, “On the Desperate Edge of Now”, shows the site of Göring’s former residency, Carin Hall, a monument to the Teutonic glories of old, and of deindividualised nationalist collectivity. This is contrasted with post-war Nuremberg, the site for both Germany’s “Year Zero” and the Allies’ own exorcisms of the past. The obliteration of rational democracy induced through total war (witnessed by those on the front line) required the US to assume leadership in reinstating a new worldview, based on the essentialism of human dignity, and the capacity for individuals to flourish. In the ensuing decades, however, this new narrative begins to fall apart. Forgotten memories rise to the surface in the minds of veterans, whose beliefs in “The Good War” were first shaken in the forests of Europe. The silent shame of the German survivors, now the older generation, incites division with their successors, eventually snowballing into the terroristic acts of the Red Army Faction. Finally, old rivalries in Europe are resurrected in the form of the Bosnian war, and the limits of inhumanity are once again experienced.

The Nuremberg trials become something of a focal point across the three films: it is here that a number of architects for the post-war world converge, two of which are featured prominently in the remaining episodes. “You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough” highlights the psychiatric work of Donald Ewen Cameron, whose later work with the CIA worked specifically on the military applications of enforced memory erasure (the invention of replicants). The Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology was one of many CIA-funded research centres during the Cold War era employed to intercept Soviet infiltration. (The Soviets, it was widely believed, were working on psychically-engineered agents, a fear exacerbated by Lee Harvey Oswald’s connections to the USSR.) Cameron’s “psychic driving” – the use of electroconvulsive shock treatments to erase memories, with the intention of subsequently installing implants – was critical to the replacement of traumatised individuals with “rational human beings”. This “depatterning”, or erasure of the past reinforced a mechanistic conception of the mind, and the project was phased out in favour of artificial intelligence programmes, such as those developed by ARPA.

Also at Nuremberg was the British war veteran and Colditz escapee Airey Neave. Neave later became a Conservative MP, a position which culminated in his management of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership campaign. In the third episode, “The Attic”, Curtis depicts Thatcher’s obsession with Churchill’s wartime narrative of “Great Britain” as the main factor in both her success and eventual failure. This mythological Britain was reinforced in the perceived successes of Thatcher’s premiership (The Falklands war, the recovery of the Mary Rose, the foundation of British Heritage), yet collapsed under the weight of repressed counter-narratives (the assassination of Neave by the Irish National Liberation Army, the Black Friday stock market crash). Thatcher’s subsequent downfall, which culminated in her forced resignation in 1990, is shown to be fully consistent with her entrapment within her romantic dream of a virtual British excellence. What each of these films show is that the ideological force of singular, powerful narratives (which, in their naturalising totalitarianism, function as substitutes to reality, and are understood as such) are fully dependent upon the desires and political authorities of a handful of individuals. These interrelated mythologies constitute an apparent wholeness; yet it takes only the eruption of a few dissenting subplots to collapse this seamless whole.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Mark Fisher – Flatline Constructs (1999) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #1]

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a new series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

 

Mark Fisher. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at  https://web.archive.org/web/20080325013155/http://www.cinestatic.com:80/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm.

How appropriate, that the most important textual resource for examining the genre-concept of theory-fiction – perhaps the only full-length treatise on the subject to date – would relegate its primary definition of the term to a footnote in one of its final chapters? (Doesn’t this always seem to be the way?) “It might be worth a parenthetical note here”, Mark Fisher finally admits, in Chapter 4.4 of Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, “making some attempt to unravel what’s at stake in the emergence of the – new? – mode, theory-fiction”. This unravelling is of a term defined largely by the work of one philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and the many pitfalls and entanglements that have resulted in the variegated readings and misreadings of this work. Taking the most straightforward, “cold” reading of the orders of simulacra which informs Baudrillard’s (often controversial) social analysis – this being theory-fiction as a dialectic of two distinct and straightforward categories, “theory […] on the side of the real and fiction […] on the side of the imaginary” – makes little sense, and is borne out of a presupposition in which “reality” is singular, stable, and objective. Baudrillard’s work, on the other hand, suggests two possible reconfigurations of the conceptual and fictive modes. Fisher:

  1. Fiction as theory. This option further subdivides: (a) Fiction in the form of theory (fiction that uses, or incorporates academic conventions: examples here include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Nabokov’s Pale Fire). (b) Fiction performing as theory. This, potentially, could include any fiction offering theoretical resources of some kind.
  2. Theory as fiction. This is theory presented in the form of fiction. The most well-known exponents of this mode – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard – are hardly new. At its most radical, what is at stake here is more than the disguise of theory as fiction, or fiction as theory, but a dissolution of the opposition itself. Two, related, claims, one descriptive, the other prescriptive emerge from this: (1) all theory is already fiction; and, (2) theory should abandon its assumed position of “objective neutrality”, and embrace its fictionality. But something happens to fiction here; it is no longer, simply, on the side of the imaginary.

Moving beyond both the first-order of simulacra (metaphor, resemblance, parody) and the second (representation, equivalence, pastiche), it is Baudrillard’s third-order simulacra which is most clearly associated with the categorical smearing that defines theory-fiction as a question, or “mode”. The feedback between fiction and reality under the third order, Fisher shows, occurs on the same plane of consistency: no transcendence (or psychological projection), only immanent foldings and unfoldings (implexion). Take cyberspace as an example. Beyond, of course, its globally distributed material infrastructure, where is it? Answer: it is not simply in “this world”, nor does it constitute an entirely delocalised “other” world (where it would be incapable of affecting this “first” world). Rather, cyberspace “constitutes a fold in the world that is nevertheless a real production – an addition – to the world as such.” Cyberspace therefore is not a copy of the real world, but a constituent part: it can never step outside of the world to a vantage to conduct its tracing. This is what theory-fictions are, according to the Baudrillard-Fisher definition: implexed hyperobjects which produce hyperreality. (We must be confident, however, in our understanding of hyperreality not as an explicit “death” of objective, singular reality, but rather of the death of the fictional as a discrete mode of ontologisation: “it is fakery – not reality as such – that is impossible now.”)

It is in the hyperreal – the (de)simulation of the world – that enables the memetic (as opposed to mimetic) propagation of the fictional quanta known as hyperstitions (not named as such here). For it is when a particular fiction gains a purchase on the “actual” (but could such a concept be maintained on the plane of immanence?) that it, in the Ccru parlance, makes itself real. There is a parallel here with capitalist realism as neoliberal insurrection: as Fisher later maintained, the genius of such a manoeuvre was to radically invert the collective assertion of reality, such that what was, prior to its realisation, thought to be impossible emerged, a posteriori, as inevitable. Hyperstition assumes both autonomy and agency, but then, so do people assume autonomy and agency in (“undead”) technical machines: “According to Wiener, when confronted with cybernetic machines, human beings found themselves behaving as if the systems possessed agency. Since the systems cybernetics produced behaved at least quasi-autonomously, they naturally gave rise to the belief in non-human (and non-subjective) agencies”. The return of animism and demonism in cybernetic postmodernity is seen by Fisher as an undoing of the psychoanalytic categories of the individual psyche and of an individualistic account of organic life (unsustainable on the single plane of consistency). In their place, Fisher posits Spinozist bodies, defined by their extensions in spacetime and their affects, which fictional quantities are as capable of assuming as “living” organisms.

What, then, is to be made of the twofold definition of theory-fiction outlined above? Clearly, 1a appears ludicrous: “academic conventions” are not what defines theory at all, and a novel is no more philosophical than another simply because it uses footnotes. I would be inclined to support 1b, were it not for the strange emphasis on performance. This is ambiguous, but it seems to indicate a retreat from the third-order back to the first (resemblance). Regardless, the offering of theoretical resources is actually a very helpful descriptor for a broad categorisation of theory-fiction texts that are (ostensibly) conceived in fictive modes. Defined in this way, these kinds of theory-fictions offer more than the concerns of literary theory – themes, perspectives, devices, and the like – and imply a shifting of the contours of the realistic – what the world which “contains” this fiction could possibly be (and indeed, escape from this model of containment in itself).

As for “fiction-theories” (a meaningless inversion of terms, yet equally legitimate to the former alignment), it is again necessary to delegitimise theoretical works using literary conventions as mere resemblances (the Nietzsche-Kierkegaard model indicated above) as sufficient in itself, and to move instead in the direction of the “dissolution of the opposition itself.” It is clear, however, that while for Fisher this move inevitably leads to the “descriptive” claim that theory is already fiction by default, this does not seem to happen in reverse: while hyperreality effaces the grounding for theory to remain objective (therefore always-already inherently fictional), fiction must work hard in order to migrate over to theory. One might argue here that this argument in fact widens the gulf between fiction and theory further, by illustrating that the criteria for each are radically different. There are no ready-to-hand “fictive resources” that theory can simply implement; fiction is instead defined here in terms of subjectivity and the orders of simulation. But perhaps there is a way through this if we consider what is gained as fictions move from one order of simulation to another.

Perhaps there is one more section of Flatline Constructs that could help to clarify the process by which texts become configured as theory-fiction, and this is the difference between metafiction and hyperfiction (in 4.7). For Fisher (via Brian McHale), metafiction operates within the meta-system illustrated by Douglas Hofstadter’s strange loop. This is a superstitional device which embeds or disguises authors within the fictions they have written, giving them the status of characters and helping to bury the origins of the work. In this model, Hofstadter maintains, there is always an “inviolable layer” that prevents the loop from fully closing, and the author of the work from fully disappearing: there remains here, however entangled, a hierarchy. The model Fisher appeals to in the case of the hyperfiction is that of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, the constantly additive structure which repels unity and overcoding, and the ability to leap out of itself. With the rhizome, hierarchy “is radically abolished”, and fictions propagate instead by infection of the collective imaginary – from within. Using this transition from a first or second-order simulation to a third-order – from metafiction to hyperfiction, from mimesis to “memesis” – could we appropriate a set of fictive tools by which to analyse the Real seeping in? Surely, it would seem, this what a speculative fiction-theory would describe, and indeed, possibly enact.

Two Questions Concerning Applied Ballardianism

RM: Immediately in The Drowned World, you have the fictional theory of ‘neuronics’ playing a really important role. You have to buy into that theoretical position to be compelled by the story. This is what theory fiction means to me. It’s not a genre but more a question, or even a problem: in what different ways can the two cross over, and in what ways to they need each other?[1]

Two questions come to mind when discussing the above quote by Robin Mackay, itself a response to Simon Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism (which has dethroned Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia as the archetypal “theory-fiction” text). 1) What is Ballard’s role in the development of this “question” of theory-fiction? And 2) What does theory-fiction mean in relation to this text?

First of all, Ballard is responsible (directly and indirectly) for many of the concepts that were incorporated and built upon in the earliest ruminations on theory-fiction. I am here thinking of Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, which places Ballard in a rhizome connecting him to Baudrillard, McLuhan, Freud, William Gibson, “Deleuze-Guattari” and others. Central to both Fisher and Sellars’s understandings of theory-fiction is Ballard’s characterisation of inner space, as a Spinozistic interpretation of bodies as capable of both affecting and being affected. As sites of pure Event, bodies are inseparable from the landscapes they inhabit, and so Ballard’s “inner” is in fact a folding-out onto “outer” ground; a cybernetics, or, more precisely, a geo-traumatics.  In The Drowned World, we see the submerged landscape producing psychological and physiological symptoms within the bodies it contains; in The Atrocity Exhibition, the same kinds of changes are apparent, though this time, they are brought about via immersion within the “media landscape”. Ballard conceives of mediatization as a  generalisation of trauma, evoked through the repetition of violent and unprecedented images, and for which the body experiences schizophrenic breakdown and overspill of affect. Ballard’s T- character(s) in The Atrocity Exhibition attempt a form of “catastrophe management” through repetition and re-enactment of televised events: the Kennedy assassination, the Monroe car crash, and so on. These rituals are simultaneously themselves responses to the traumas brought on through mediatization, attempts (by Ballard and his characters) to represent these events and their associated affects as the only legitimate and rational response, and a continuation of the logic of breakdown – a positive experiencing of the trauma mode as a deterriorialization, leading to inorganic breakthrough.[2]

These ideas are what make Ballard’s key works (The Drowned WorldThe Atrocity Exhibition, and Crash) theory-fiction: the texts cannot be approached without engaging with them on these terms. Sellars would concur. His explanation for the experimental form adopted by Applied Ballardianism is that it is the result of trying to faithfully capture and respond to a particular Ballard quote: “The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume it is a complete fiction conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.[3] The book – and perhaps by extension, Ballard himself – also interpret theory-fiction in another way. “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind”, says Ballard.[4] Our thoughts and perceptions are always-already pervaded by the fictional “mode”, including any “theory” we might derive from or within it. Given this, the role of effective writing is to invent the reality.”[5] Hence the shift from Ballard’s earliest fictions – the ones that fabulate an extraordinary natural event (The Drowned WorldThe Crystal World, et al) – to the immediate (or im-mediate) traumas of unnatural (sub)urban life (CrashHigh-Rise).

Sellars’s book reads as an account of trying to “invent the reality” of its writer’s psychic life in the most authentic conceivable manner – as a “memoir from a parallel universe”. But it succeeds as theory-fiction in a third sense, not directly related to the two outlined above. The novel’s (?) parallel narrator begins by attempting to render Ballard as a latent philosopher, who uses the shell of fiction in order to disseminate deep-seated “truths” about the real world (Def. 1). Yet – and it’s no spoiler to reveal this, all fiction requires dramatic tension after all – this task does not play out as the narrator expects. The planned exercise quickly becomes a living-out of Ballard’s “extreme metaphors”, an experiencing and intensifying of psychic traumas across the fault lines of the narrator’s entire life. “Why did I always shove aside the positive implications of Ballard’s work, the message of resistance it carried, in favour of the dark desires that had driven his characters to reach that point? I suppose it reflected my own cynical worldview, my own fatal inwardness that ensured I found little joy in anything.”[6] Ballard’s own moralistic framework guaranteed that he himself, when faced with a precarious juncture, would always take the blue pill: “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.” Sellars’s doppelganger, without the framework, the grounding of thought and desire, is free to take the path to psychosis. “Dangerous bends ahead. Speed up.”[7]

It is this exposure of a lack of grounding in the narrator’s interpretation of his deep assignment that,  perversely, re-inverts Applied Ballardianism into a cautionary tale. In every interview, Sellars is adamant: “It’s a mistake to read a political agenda into Ballard – or Applied Ballardianism. I don’t advise it.[8] But the book, and it’s author’s message, Negarestani shows, are hardly apolitical; instead, their engagements with politics demonstrate a

playing precisely [of] the multi-level game with different political resolutions at different levels. […] Depending on the resolution at which the game is played, the book is replete with fundamentally different sociopolitical visions of our world. There is no contradiction here, only competing actual worlds which – and perhaps it is simply a bad habit – we are accustomed to calling the world. It is the conflict between world versions and their respective visions that is, in fact, the very constitutive element of what we name ‘reality’.[9]

Sellars has characterised the book as an exercise in failure, failure of the very idea of applying Ballardianism – at least in the sense his narrator attempts, as an ideal for living. As his life becomes mediatized by the very media warning him against its dangers, the narrator’s journey amounts to an exploration of inner space in the term’s most restricted sense: as a solipsism, or phenomenology. Now the character sees orbs in the sky, ghosts on airfields, Ballardian ley lines, everywhere. Cast adrift from the media Events central to Ballard’s texts, the narrator’s theory-fiction has folded back in on itself, as conspiracy theory. It’s no wonder that he briefly turns to the Mandela Effect as a potential re-grounding agent, for unifying his cognitively dissonant memories.

To recapitulate, we see Applied Ballardianism as theory-fiction in a threefold sense. Firstly, it is a theoretical exploration of the ideas of Ballard’s fiction, conveyed in the “truly authentic” form of (quasi-)Ballardian fiction. Secondly, it is an extension and  critique of these Ballardian concepts (his original theory-fiction): specifically, of the traumas brought about by the ungrounding and deterritorializing effects of immersion within the media landscape. Thirdly, and finally, it is an expression of the traumatic effects of Ballard’s theory-fiction on the individual, and a warning against untethered free-falls through inner space. I believe that Sellars is saying, in effect, that dissociation must bottom out somewhere. The ground awaits any such schizoid free-fall, and this ground may resemble any number of things: conspiracist paranoia, hard concrete, hikikomori, windshield glass… Yet, I don’t see all theory-fiction as bad religion. If we can keep our grounding in sight, we might be able to foresee and avoid what lurks behind the cracks in reality, and at the same time, produce the condition for original thought and expression.

Notes

[1] Simon Sellars & Robin Mackay, “So Many Unrealities”, Urbanomic (10th December 2018), available online at https://www.urbanomic.com/document/so-many-unrealities/.

[2] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018 [1999]), pp. 84-96.

[3] J.G. Ballard, from the 1995 introduction to Crash. Cf. Sellars & Mackay. The quote appears in Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2018), pp. 39-40.

[4] Ballard, introduction to Crash.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Applied Ballardianism, p. 239.

[7] Ibid, p. 223.

[8] Sellars, “Simon Sellars on Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Tadas Vinokur for Aleatory Books (17th December 2018), available online at https://www.aleatorybooks.com/simonsellarsinterview.

[9] Reza Negarestani, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (Reading Applied Ballardianism)”, Toy Philosophy (9th August 2018), available online at https://toyphilosophy.com/2018/08/09/mene-mene-tekel-upharsin-reading-applied-ballardianism/.

Why I am Not Your Friend: orbistertius and the Frontier

I mentioned a while ago that I’d been trawling back through Mark Fisher’s k-punk work, thanks to the excellent new volume recently published by Repeater.[1] While there are many subjects worthy of discussion to be found there, one of the things the volume has brought to light for me is a sense of how intrinsically different Fisher’s style and ambitions as a blogger and writer, as well as the blogging scene itself, were compared to the situation I find myself in here and now. Both Simon Reynolds’s foreword and Darren Ambrose’s editor’s introduction make reference to the impact of k-punk’s emergence in the mid-00s as a simultaneous revival of prior forms of cultural discourse[2] and a spearheading of a network of “fugitive” dissenting voices within the emergent blogger platforms of Web 2.0 that in many ways were a symptom of the neoliberalist cultural erasure Fisher’s writing frequently decried. What I like to think of as the frontier days of online countercultural writing have all but disappeared now (Fisher’s obvious departure is one sign of this; the constant endnote references in the k-punk book to Nina Power’s Infinite Thought blog being “no longer online” is but another), and it’s difficult to imagine an earlier time for which the right brew of dissatisfaction (with the established media channels of television, publishing, and journalism) and newly-arrived technological means (the DIY-democracy of free blogspace) could result in the synthesis of original channels of meaningful discourse. Both elements persist to this day of course: nothing could be more clichéd (or handled with suspicion) right now than claims that “mainstream media” no longer has relevance to people’s lives, or that (vacuous, obviously repackaged) tech options for self-expression (Instagram, Twitter, et al) are now the media forms most representative of public interests. But the relation between the two is now too far out of joint: the novelty of being able to unify others towards fermenting new goals has now worn off, and in its place lie dissension, scepticism, alienation, introspection, myopia, and fear.

There is a further problem with the current situation. Not to make him sound old (at least not for its own sake), but Fisher’s accounts of the changes to institutions like the BBC[3] mark him out as belonging to a mindset different the one I am forced to confront (as a man who would now be in his fifties, compared to my twenties). As part of a generation who bore witness to the restructuring of economic, political, and cultural power (and perhaps also the underlying tractability of it all), Fisher saw an intrinsic value to such institutions that was worth preserving or reinstating. More importantly, he had the belief that political and cultural reform was possible, given the cultivation of the right modes of collectivity and solidarity. Behind his railings against the undesiring visitors of his blog, and their facile contributions via the comments section,[4] is a reinforcement of the Kollective. “Only comments deemed to be positive by the Kollective will be left up. The purpose of the site is to build the Kollective, so comments by those intrinsically hostile to the notion of collectivity or those hostile to the k-punk project per se will be deleted as soon as possible, so as not to waste the energy of the collective on distracting, egocratic nonsense.”[5]

I don’t necessarily disagree with Fisher’s collectivist ideals here; my gut feeling is that he is probably right. I only wish to note that I am part of a generation for which politics and culture exist as, and have always appeared to be, pre-fucked. There can be no recollection of a “time before”; or, at least, a time before that isn’t mediated through a neutralised, elongated, and corporatised present. On the surface, it seems all but hopeless to propose that things could ever improve. Now, I don’t really believe in appearances, and can’t speak for how conditions may change in the future that could result in fresh political or cultural alliances and perspectives. If we are to fight for such changes, we ought to consider our (ongoing) present as a time of reckoning, for which action has to be immediate (and this is true in all sorts of other ways, as we are well aware – if the economy doesn’t eventually swallow us, it will only mean that the planet has gotten there first). “There is no more urgent task on this hell planet than the production of rational collectivities.”[6] Yes, this is true, but we first need to decide what forms these collectivities might take, and the roles each component within them.

I bring all of this up because I have never really stated here before the reasons why I started orbistertius – not my first blog, but certainly the most important one to me at present. For something that I place such value in, my relationship to the format could be described as ambivalent at best. I am not an avid reader of blogs; I rarely leave comments on other people’s work or check in on their latest posts. Furthermore (and I’ve mentioned this before) I have a fairly low online presence: no Twitter, no Reddit account, only a largely dawdling Facebook page I’ve had for years and only really keep out of habit. Yes, I feel that this has held back the possibilities for engagement and growth for the site and my work more generally, and often I am made aware of interesting discussions long after they have played out. Why is this? I have maintained orbis for three years now (although nearly one of those was a hiatus), and while I get the occasional boost in traffic it’s nothing like I imagine it could have the potential to be. Partly, personal reasons play a factor. I’m reluctant to self-promote, to become a “brand”, perhaps even to shoulder the burden of success (when I get ahead of myself, of course). But I think it runs deeper than psychology or principles.

Like (I expect) many of my readers, I have had experience of being an academic as well as a more “popular” kind of writer. Clearly many of my posts have carried the stench of the rarefied stylistic conventions peculiar to academia (I’ve studied literature as well as philosophy), and in the year since graduating have continued to write papers for conferences and articles for journals. For Fisher, k-punk served as a clean break from academic expectations and haughtiness, but in my case I have never tried to specifically extricate the two, nor develop an “appropriate” register for blogging. Such changes are happening now, that much is obvious to me, and partly this is because I do not desire to return to being a student anytime soon (the traumas of a PhD would seem to outweigh the benefits). These changes have been mostly unintentional. However, a little like Fisher (though perhaps not in this respect), and as boorish and irrelevant academic culture reveals itself to be at times, I maintain that there are certain advantages to keeping up the likes of clear citations and endnotes. I do not wish to distance myself from the (paid for) privileges granted to me by university education, but rather use them to progress to something else, something unavailable from either paradigm on its own. For this I conclude I need the academy as much as I need critical distance from it, and I will probably continue to retune my stance in relation to my work with conferences, journals, and affiliates.

What alternatives do I propose, beyond the academy and the frontier? What forms of collectivity do I practice? So far, I have felt more comfortable with extended, essayistic posts on a semi-regular basis. I like to choose my subjects carefully, and resist commenting on every political turn, book or film currently doing the rounds at that time. With the blogosphere more fragmented and phantasmatic than ever, communal focus on an idea or artefact can be unifying, but it can also produce a lot of noise and heat, and I’m not certain adding my opinion to the mix is the most valuable use of my time and space. I mostly work alone, but have sometimes sought out specific individuals for collaboration and feedback, such as Nomad Colossus and Gregory Marks. Collectivity is nothing if not a binding of individualisms, and the success of collectives is dependent upon the appeals being made to disparate peoples and their circumstances (or else you are left with the worst traits of populism).

Starting this year, I intend to reinvent orbis somewhat. For one thing, I have in mind a series of blog posts, “Origins of Theory-Fiction”, which will be reflections on texts mostly from the 80s and 90s that have directly influenced the development and understanding of this becoming-popular idea. In addition, there will be all sorts of detours into other areas not directly related to theory-fiction, but will take as their starting points things that I’ve read, seen, heard, played, or talked about with other people. Posts will be shorter and more frequent (I hope – this is still the most challenging task for me), but will stop short of regressing into unsubstantiated comment or reaction. Interesting things are worth handling with rigour and discipline, and addressing to a high standard. I hope to generate new readers, and give the ones I have reasons to want to keep coming back, even if ideas of governing a Kollective seem grandiose. I feel that developing consistent themes through series would go some way towards achieving this.

But make no mistake, I’m not doing this for the sake of popularity, or to gain friends, or to write confessional. Comments are open, but I do not wish to get to know you (unless you come equipped with a serious offer for collaboration, which I am very happy to consider). The moment in which orbis becomes about me or you becomes the point in which it becomes emptied of value, and no longer worth doing. In this sense, the blog is no different from what I had originally intended: an ongoing negotiation of the nature of collectivity, for which orbis is a nodal point, one proposition among many for negating the present and inventing the future…

Your friendship is not required for this. “But I do like you – to put an end to the gossip.”[7]

Notes

[1] Mark Fisher, k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018). All references henceforth will be in relation to material found within this text, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

[2] Represented notably by “the old UK weekly music press” of NME and Melody Maker, which Fisher and Reynolds both grew up on and later contributed towards, and even featured in.

[3] Fisher stood fast for a kind of “dogmatism” or “paternalism” to mainstream British culture that had been all but erased by the new century, as what he saw as a deliberate restructuring of the ideology within broadcasting. This involved a favouring of attacks against “cultural elitism” and iterations of “giving people what they want” (i.e. reality TV and its methods of “identifying with” “ordinary” subjects), which in itself distracted from the consolidation of a new economic elite. From “Precarity and Paternalism”, pp. 199-203: “It’s worth reminding ourselves of the peculiar logic that neoliberalism has successfully imposed. Treating people as if they were intelligent is, we have been led to believe, “elitist”, whereas treating them as if they are stupid is “democratic”. It should go without saying that the assault on cultural elitism has gone alongside the aggressive restoration of a material elite.” (p. 200) In response, Fisher looked back to the most visionary programming of the “long Seventies” (beginning at some point in the Sixties and ending “circa 1982”), such as early Dr Who, Quatermass, and the works of Dennis Potter as televisual works that were not afraid to be inscrutable, that actively challenged viewers to re-evaluate their critical positions because (in the words of Adam Curtis, paraphrasing the sentiments of the broadsheet media of the time) “it was good for them”.

[4] From “They Can Be Different in the Future Too: Interviewed by Rowan Wilson for Ready Steady Book (2010)”, pp. 627-36: “One of the most significant new developments [to blogging] was the introduction of comments; a largely unfortunate change in my view. In the early days of blogs, if you wanted to respond to a post, you had to reply on your own blog, and if you didn’t have a blog, you had to create one. Comments tend to reduce things to banal sociality, with all its many drawbacks.” (p. 628)

[5] “New Comments Policy”, pp. 701-2 (p. 701).

[6] “Comments Policy (Latest)”, pp. 703-4 (p. 703).

[7] Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, in Negotiations [Pourparlers], trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995 [Paris: Les Éditions de Miniut, 1990]), pp. 3-12 (p. 12). This response to “the twenty-four-year old gay activist Michel Cressole” remains one of my favourite unguarded works by Deleuze, and the quoted comment caps off a particularly scabrous put-down. I could have ended this post with a remarkably similar line from the Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make?”: “But I’m still fond of you.” The song begins with an even more unguarded “All men have secrets and here is mine/So let it be known.” I hope this post has not come across as quite so confessional!

Featured image credits: screenshot from the television series The Inbetweeners, created by Damon Beesley & Iain Morris (Bwark Productions/Young Films, 2008-10).

Corridors of Time: Templexity and Entity

In Chrono Trigger, Square’s classic time travel role-playing game from 1995, a band of time-displaced adventurers team up to prevent an apocalypse, by changing the course of events leading up to its happening. As part of an optional subplot, during a respite from the exhaustion of incessant time leaps and bounds, the adventurers rest near a campfire and reflect on the course of evets that has lifted each of them from their respective time locales and brought them together across epochs. In a moment of unprompted philosophical interrogation, the characters contemplate the idea that their reality has been shifted by some unbounded agent, and is dependent on the desires and piecemeal memories of this “Entity”:

Robo: I have come to think that someone, or something wanted us to see all this.
The different events over time, that we have witnessed.
It is almost as if some entity wanted to relive its past.

[…]

Magus: …so who is this Entity?

Robo: It is unknown, whose memories these are. It may be something beyond our comprehension.

The game’s time bandits are gathered, and are able to navigate their linear time line, as a result of the sudden appearance of portals, or “Gates”, into their world. Gates are fixed phenomena which link specific spatio-temporal singularities to one another. If a Gate becomes overloaded with travellers during a single attempted leap, they are pushed to “the space-time coordinates of least resistance” – a sort of Art Deco-inspired liminal zone known as The End of Time. Gates therefore, Robo hypothesises, could be deliberate ruptures in the fabric of space-time, caused by a higher-dimensional being unable to transport itself back through time. The characters’ union, in this case, would serve to recreate key historical events as the “memories” of this Entity, or even to replace them with alternatives. These interventions, therefore, would constitute an aesthetic exercise for the Entity, a method of rendering its world legible and scalable through the act of transforming its surroundings into the sensations and materials of art.

I can’t help but think that the narrative component of Chrono Trigger would greatly amuse Nick Land, whose e-book/extended essay Templexity investigates the logical inconsistencies of the time-travel narrative while at the same time detailing a new methodology for critically understanding the ways in which time (as granularised fictional order) has folded our social and cultural histories. From H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, right up to Land’s primary case study, the 2012 science fiction blockbuster Looper, time-travel narratives have been unanimously concerned with the transportation of bodies (or characters) from a present moment to either a (pre-)historical past or imagined future, often at the expense of a study into the mechanics of temporal disorder itself. It is though narratives presented in this way, inflexibly, that we have come to understand “time-travel” as “the dramatization of something else”,[1] and to which the reader is posited as outside spectator. Such conceptions are riddled with paradoxes, however; some of which even have names: the Grandfather Paradox, the Bootstrap Paradox, and so on. Put simply, to transport a body through time would require the body to have always appeared at every point of temporal insertion, which would result in the displacement of genesis, endless duplication, the feeding of time machines and portals into themselves, and all sorts of unimagined bizarre inconsistencies often left unaccounted for in time-travel fiction.

For “time anomaly” to exist, therefore, it must have always been present, or not at all (§5.4). For Land, his resident city of Shanghai represents, indeed functions as a certain kind of time machine, one that operates through the cultural erasure and nonspecificity of Art Deco. Both “excess code” and “the sign of a vivid yet unspoken modernity” (§5.2), Art Deco architecture and visual motifs impose a stringent narratology on Shanghai’s storied and variegated cultural legacy, connecting it to both everywhere (heterotopia) and nowhere (utopia). A narrative line of linear progression (modernism) decodes what is otherwise a progressive urban development, layered by means of spiral temporal geometry (#7.8).[2]

Could an “Entity” exist inside such temporal spiromorphism, or does templexity’s positive cybernetics necessarily absorb this alien matter back into its own feedback cycles? Does the Entity survive templex entropy? It’s not immediately apparent if Robo’s AI ESP merely reveals the fourth wall of Chrono Trigger’s gamescape or is suggestive of a potential Paradox within Land’s thesis. Taking Templexity’s temporal cybernetics to their logical extension, there could be no demonology, no divinity, within the templex spiral, without acceding that any physical or metaphysical phenomena between dimensions would also be subject to time’s disordered loops; therefore one would also have to acknowledge time anomaly as a genuine entropy.[3] There would also, in effect, be nothing for the Entity to do in a self-regulating system, besides inhabiting the role of audience member.

Perhaps somewhere in Land’s critique of the misconceptions of “time travel” in fiction lies some of the answers as to why Chrono Trigger – for all its technical innovations, exemplary gameplay and soundtrack – always seemed underwhelming as a game organised around the conceit of time travel mechanics. One would begin the game for the first time expecting a break from the linear progression that forms one of the most common criticisms against the role-playing genre, only to discover a frustratingly similar experience.[4] The purity of its main plot is unaffected by the player’s strategic interceptions across its timeline (except for those officially sanctioned by the developers) – there is no possible temporal terrorism that has not already been scripted in advance, and time locales feature as navigable settings rather than opportunities for narrative splintering and splicing.

If, as Land suggests, time travel is the dramatization of something else, Chrono Trigger displays its narratological order through the displacement of characters across a series of causal events, providing the player with an interactive story that is not so much created as revealed. Real templexity, on the other hand, is always a production. Linear causality is self-reinforcing, as the chain of events do not allow for straightforward reversions (§8.4). Could the game’s events be a dramatization by and for an atemporal Entity, that itself still resides within the confines of the narrative it has caused and directed? Such a being would be incapable of transporting bodies through time, and so it rightly comes as no surprise that the Entity dreamed by Robo at the campsite never emerges beyond its unsubstantiated idea.

Notes

[1] Nick Land, Templexity – Disordered Loops Through Shanghai Time (e-book: Time Spiral Press, 2014), §1.6. All bracketed sections henceforth refer to this text.

[2] “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” – Mark Twain (misattributed).

[3] This entropy, by which feedback loops appear self-producing, is what connects templexity to Capital: “As it mechanizes, capital approximates ever more closely to an auto-productive circuit in which it appears – on the screen – as something like the ‘father’ of itself (M → C → M’)” (§9.4). Capital, as represented by Looper’s silver and gold bars, can only survive a (linear) time travel narrative (the hyperinflation that accompanies the printing of precious metals) through the elimination of time paradoxes, as achieved through “reintegrat[ing] a singular timeline” (§3.0-§3.4), and imposition of the “cinematic order” (§2.4).

[4] One of the game’s selling points is the option to view multiple endings, a novelty at the time of its original release. However, the vast majority of these endings are essentially out of bounds to the player until their characters have gained enough experience points, by which time the game’s linear main plot is likely to be close to its denouement in any case.

Featured image credits: screenshot from the game Chrono Trigger (Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Square: 1995).

“An unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life”: Acid Communism

k-punk, the new collection of the late Mark Fisher’s blog posts, interviews, and unpublished writings, arrived at my doorstep last Thursday. It’s a big beast, at over 700 pages, and I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with many of these brilliant insights (and catching up with those I previously missed) over the coming weeks. Seeing his work collected in this way brings a stark and much-needed reminder of Fisher’s singularity and diversity, the force of his personality and acerbic wit (an overused phrase, I know), and his unwillingness to conform to academic expectations, or just about any mode of theoretical or cultural critique besides his own.

But for many, the publication of k-punk last week was most anticipated for being the first opportunity we would have to read the unfinished introduction to Acid Communism.[1] This book was to be, it was suggested, the basis for a political project that would reignite the countercultural revolutionary potential of the Sixties’ psychedelic cultures within today’s jaded and disenfranchised left; a sort of constructive counterpart to the wildly dystopian (and wildly successful) Capitalist Realism. The 2009 book suggested a lot of things, among them the idea that capitalist hegemony, as a political expansion of postmodernity’s usurpation of grand narratives, presents cultural history as an array of aesthetic developments, with no real potential for social change, to be viewed at through the cynical lens of irony and never at face value.[2] Modernism, as the belief in the unyielding progress of the highest elements of Western culture, and that which was at one time rejected by the polydirectional differentiations of postmodernism, returns under capitalist realism as “a frozen aesthetic style”: defanged and subsumed to the relativism of culture’s market economy, where it can function as a puppet for “the formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes” of consumers. Instead of mutually exclusive methodologies for interpreting and subverting the dominant culture, words such as “modernism”, “postmodernism”, “alternative”, and “independent” are recapitulated under capitalism as things to wear, or to decorate the house with. Fisher’s famous evocation of Kurt Cobain is the example most cited in relation to this aspect of capitalist realism: “Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.”[3]

In response, Fisher tells us at the end of the book, we must reclaim the territory which has been overrun by neoliberalist depressive realism: that of the imagination, and of desire. This involves the creation of genuine alternative perspectives to the dominant beliefs (that Capital is ubiquitous and unassailable; that any challenge to this reality is dangerous dreaming). One suggestion touted is to revisit the point at which neoliberalism took hold of desire, to enable a remobilisation of this desire towards more universal, democratic-socialist means:

If neoliberalism triumphed by incorporating the desires of the post 68 working class, a new left could begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy.[4]

In this sense, Acid Communism seems to continue where Capitalist Realism left off. If the Sixties, with all its revolutionary countercultures and utopian political ambitions, has become merely a “frozen aesthetic style”, why does it feel so alive next to the brutalist Thatcherite greyness we seem stuck in to this day?

In recent years, the Sixties have come to seem at once like a deep past so exotic and distant that we cannot imagine living in it, and a moment more vivid than now – a time when people really lived, when things really happened. Yet the decade haunts not because of some unrecoverable and unrepeatable confluence of factors, but because the potentials it materialised and begun to democratise – the prospect of a life freed from drudgery – has to be continually suppressed.[5]

The episodic past, Fisher says in the new book, is not presupposed by any objective reality, but instead “has to be continually narrated,” as much to keep the more subversive narratives out of the cultural possibility and memory as to reaffirm the singular viability of the capitalist one. The project of acid communism therefore proposes a return to the site of the established narrative of the Sixties in order to reactivate those suppressed potentialities: the confluences of working-class consciousness, post-work ideologies, and the perception-altering capabilities of psychedelia which, we are reminded, were universally expected to shape the political landscape to come during the height of the counterculture.[6]

Fisher refers to acid communism’s time-travelling project as “an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life.”[7] The sense of time impressed onto us under neoliberalism is that of the work schedule, which pervades into every aspect of our public and private lives. But the emergent culture of the Sixties presented alternative conceptions of time, which by the end of the decade were finding their way into the mainstream through groundbreaking film, poetry, theatre, and music (facilitated by the availability of democratic new technologies: radio and television). We hear, for example, in the languid sprawls and deep pools of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon”, the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”, and the Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday”,

worlds beyond work, where drudgery’s dreary repetitiveness gave way to drifting explorations of strange terrains. Listened to now, these tracks describe the very conditions necessary for their own production, which is to say, access to a certain mode of time, time which allows a deep absorption.[8]

Fisher roots the “dropping out” encouraged by bohemia firmly in terms of class struggle and visibility; specifically, the refusal of work suggested by “I’m Only Sleeping” et al, as a simultaneous “refusal to submit to a bourgeois gaze which measured life in terms of success in business.”[9] Here was a working class attuned to the instability of the world to come, who were more likely to look to “heroes” such as the Beatles than accept the mediocrity of a life of drudgery or the assertations of a crumbling bourgeoisie. “Everybody seems to think I’m lazy./I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy./Running everywhere at such a speed,/til they find, there’s no need.” Psychedelic culture enabled a stretching-out of time, and with it, an opening-out of space. Both movements are necessary for the mobilisation of a working-class counter-hegemony; the one to come would have been “unimaginably stranger than anything Marxist-Leninism had projected.”[10] The resultant hallucino-political space-time might have resembled the “Psychedelic Shack” sung about by the Temptations in December 1969 (a poignantly symbolic moment). Far from a hazy, impossible dream, the psychedelic shack

feels like an actual social space, one you can imagine really existing. You are as likely to come upon a crank or a huckster as a poet or musician here, and who knows if today’s crank might turn out to be tomorrow’s genius? It is also an egalitarian and democratic space, and a certain affect presides over everything. There is multiplicity, but little sign of resentment or malice. It is a space for fellowship, for meeting and talking as much for having your mind blown. If “there’s no such thing as time” – because the lighting suspends the distinction between day and night; because drugs affect time-perception – then you are not prey to the urgencies which make so much of workaday life a drudge. There is no limit to how long conversations can last, and no telling where encounters might lead. You are free to leave your street identity behind, you can transform yourself according to your desires, according to desires which you didn’t know you had.[11]

It would be naïve to think that a turn to aesthetics would be sufficient in constituting a new political project, much less in unseating an already firmly-entrenched one. But Fisher’s analysis of our current situation is most successful as an emphasis on the ideological struggles faced by the left: its aimlessness, its infighting, its lack of ambition. Besides the neoliberalist agenda itself, he identifies two archetypes from the traditional left which in the Sixties and Seventies managed to finally cause the counterculture’s dream to end: the moderate, “complacent” social democrat, and what he calls the Harsh Leninist Superego – a sort of militant extremist who demanded nothing less than total commitment from their comrades.[12] The combined effect of these figures was a complete dismantling of the aesthetic dimension of the political left, which in turn meant there was no ideological response to the dizzying promises of free market economics (besides, of course, the affectless cool and terminal suspicion of postmodernism). And so, the reason why the Sixties stands out as the last age of revolutionary ferment is because the counterculture’s promotion of “active dreaming”, and rejection of established social orders, constitute the last attempt of the revolting working-classes to gain any mainstream traction and measure of success.

Although we may never know the full scope of what Acid Communism was to be, it is clear from the unfinished introduction that Fisher wished to reintegrate the aesthetic into contemporary leftist politics. This project would have called for new modes of time, and the construction of intellectual public spaces, as the figurative They Live glasses for seeing through and beyond the illusory totalism of capitalist realism. Most likely, also, we would have seen how later cultural developments might be evoked as a continuation of some of the revolutionary themes of Sixties counterculture. Fisher draws parallels between the sonic experiments of Temptations’ producer Norman Whitfield and those of Jamaican dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and later figures such as Larry Levan, in their mutual unfolding of a temporal “deep immersion” (a combined effort which resulted in the birth of “the [later] psychedelic genres such as house, techno and jungle”).[13] In all of these musical genres, their BPMs, their clubs and communities, we can find optimistic tendencies which often surpass the apathetic imaginings of the political left. It is possible that, were these worlds able to find ways of reinforcing one another, they may together communicate a widening of our cultural and political horizons. From this, the left might be able to reconfigure desire according to a revitalised aesthetic imaginary, and we may begin to see what a future beyond the ruins of capitalist realism could resemble in actuality.

 

Notes

[1] Mark Fisher, “Acid Communism (Unfinished Introduction)”, in k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018), pp. 753-70.

[2] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK/Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2009), pp. 4-5, 8-9.

[3] Ibid., pp. 9-10 (p. 9).

[4] Ibid, pp. 77-81 (p. 79).

[5] “Acid Communism”, pp. 755-6.

[6] Ibid., pp. 756-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 758.

[8] Ibid., pp. 759-60 (p. 760: emphasis added).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 762-3 (p. 763).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 762.

[13] Ibid., p. 767.

Response to Gregory Marks’s “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”

I don’t use Twitter, and so I sometimes miss out on conversations about subjects that interest me. It was only recently, when I was reading Simon Sellars’s interview with Robert Barry for The Quietus,[1] that I came across a reference to a list of notable works and influences of theory-fiction that “attracted a lot of attention” over the summer. Its author, the PhD student Gregory Marks, compiled suggestions from theory-fiction enthusiasts into a four-page bibliography that begins with Lucretius’s De rerum natura and ends with Sellars’s new book Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. That version of the list can be read in full here.[2]

Marks later in the thread gives his definition of theory-fiction broadly as

a theoretical text which blurs the lines between theory and fiction by drawing attention to its artifice. I’ve played loose with the definition to include auto-theory and works of experimental or philosophical fiction important to the development of the genre.

He then lists his general criteria for inclusion as the following:

  1. Communicates theory through fictive devices — not philosophical fiction, but fictive philosophy.
  2. Practices theory outside the confines of the “high” academic style.
  3. Occupies the growing intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy.
  4. I want to read it.

Now, with my understanding of theory-fiction, as built up through multiple engagements with the term, I find both the above criteria and many of the inclusions on the list difficult to fully support. This is a thorny subject, and due to my time being preoccupied with other factors in my life lately, I haven’t managed to respond before now. But a few days ago, Marks posted a slightly revised version of the list on his blog The Wasted World.[3] A key development with this new list is the introduction of sub-categories, making it much easier to navigate, but more importantly, to critique and engage with. I’m therefore going to spell out my concerns, firstly with the above criteria, and secondly with each of the sub-categories, with a view to clarifying my position on what does and doesn’t constitute theory-fiction. Clearly the list is more suggestive than exhaustive, and I’m therefore aware that this may amount to an exercise in extreme pedantry on my part. But it’s never been a consideration of mine that theory-fiction ever needed a canon, and the prospect that this list may be misconstrued as authoritative has prompted me to fashion an (admittedly subjective and equally illegitimate) appendix to the exercise. This is not designed to be an attack on Marks or the list itself, but a rejoinder or alternative perspective to a subject I feel strongly about and wish to engage with on slightly different terms. I’m also not planning on fully redefining theory-fiction here and now, but instead indicate a more nuanced position over a series of blog posts currently in the pipeline.

***

Firstly, let’s return to the criteria above. #4 can be dismissed entirely, as one person’s interest in a particular text clearly does not a theory-fiction make. I also wish to eliminate #2. Theory-fiction may be seen, and I’m disinclined to contend, as a stylistic engagement, and many certified examples of theory-fiction texts do indeed deliberately eschew “academic” formalisms in favour of more poststructuralist or sf-inspired attempts at original expression,[4] but theory-fiction does not appear to be bound to this implied basic opposition between “high” and “low” stylistics. The fact that many of the entries precede the establishment of what is now considered the academic style somewhat discredits this criterion, as does a closer look at some of the more recent examples. “Barker Speaks: The Ccru Interview with Professor D C Barker”,[5] for instance, employs academic style to full effect (an interview for an ostensibly academic journal, complete with a list of publications that lead to a dead end when Googled), and yet is for me perhaps the paradigm for all published theory-fiction of the last twenty years (perhaps though this is a topic of discussion for one of those upcoming blog posts). It’s not its opposition to academic style that makes “Barker Speaks” theory-fiction, but its decidedly extra-academic content and lines of inquiry.

That leaves us with #1 and #3. Let’s start with #3. Although broadly agreeable and somewhat difficult to counter, there nevertheless seems to be something a little nonspecific about “the intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy” that could probably benefit from a fleshing out. Is fake news theory-fiction? What about Socratic dialogues? It’s clear that Marks is trying to lower the price of admission into the canon, but it remains confusing as to how far exactly to take the murky zones between fiction and reality, theory and fantasy as sufficient qualifiers. Yet this is not itself an issue when paired with #1, the communication of “theory through fictive devices”. All in all the strongest qualifier, this criterion does well to prioritise “fictive philosophy” over “philosophical fiction”. It explains why, for example (and despite my personal reservations), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon makes the list, but, say, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea does not. The latter has a philosophical content, of course, but it does not do philosophy; its content does not constitute a theoretical exercise in itself. There is therefore a connection in theory-fiction between form and content: form must be contingent with the theoretical task undertaken by its writers, and not chosen purely for aesthetic reasons.

***

From this general conclusion, we can begin to scrutinise some of the sub-categories which Marks has divided his theory-fiction canon into. Please note that within each of these there are exceptional and ambiguous inclusions that are difficult to disassociate from the category headings (not all of them are listed below). This may perhaps lead one to suggest that it is the categories themselves, and not the individual books that are questionable (as ever, it is both that must bear scrutiny). In addition, naturally, I am not familiar with every text listed, and therefore my ignorance is bound to play a part in shaping my critique and any counter-critique that might be conceived (which I welcome). The list has at least provided me with a plenitude of good suggestions for future reading material, and so has succeeded in that respect.

First off, we can discredit “sci-phi” as little more than a list of influential sf, the form of which does not itself produce new theoretical orientations (discuss). The tripartite “theoretical fiction” categories, which identify in turn “fiction”, self-writing (this is where Applied Ballardianism has been placed), and poetry/drama as theory, also fall at this hurdle. We do not see in Beckett’s The Unnamable, for example, the novel as a theory, as much as a vessel for ideas surrounding the nature of the novel itself. If we are being generous, we might suggest The Unnamable as a case of form identifying new possibilities for itself, but in this case is this not what art does, not theory? As I understand it, theory denotes rendering aspects of the world legible and sensible (order out of chaos) – even if, through theory-fiction, they take a somewhat mystified and convoluted route – and it is not immediately apparent that these texts do that.[6]

Returning to the basic question, Is this text in itself theory, or is theory merely something it provides?, it becomes doubtful whether to admit poetic theory, or “theory which foregrounds its artifice”: although (as gestured already) not inaccurate to describe theory-fiction as stylistic invention, there is in actuality a greater emphasis on what that style does to advance its theory. There are again, however, some ambiguous inclusions: Baudrillard’s The Ecstasy of Communication is placed here, which, according to Jason de Boer’s reasoning, must qualify as one of the first attempts towards the development of theory-fiction.[7] I would also asterisk Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster, Derrida’s The Post Card, Flusser and Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for further consideration,[8] whilst recovering certain valuable sections of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Poetic theory’s prose counterpart, narrative theory, is similar. This time it is the likes of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Michel Serres’s Biogea, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World that perhaps make it out the least unharmed. Identifying two of those three as being published in the last decade shows an emerging pattern.

The only remaining category to explore is “cybernetic theory fiction”, or “theory as cultural hype”. In their entirety, these texts undoubtedly make up the core of theory-fiction discussions we are now beginning to see. Many of them are even self-defined as such. The back cover of Arthur Kroker’s Spasm contains the earliest mention of the term I have so far found.[9] Mark Fisher’s influential dissertation Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction was completed in 1999 and remains online to this day (thanks Exmilitary).[10] The extent to which theory-fiction may function as marketing hype is another interesting facet of the whole concept we must return to another time…

Notes

[1] Simon Sellars, “One Small Node of Reality: Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Robert Barry for The Quietus (15th September 2018), available online at http://thequietus.com/articles/25293-applied-ballardianism-simon-sellars-interview.

[2] Gregory Marks, et al., “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, Twitter (12th July 2018), available online at https://twitter.com/thewastedworld/status/1017427669338607616.

[3] Gregory Marks, “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, The Wasted World (3rd November 2018), available online at https://thewastedworld.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/a-theory-fiction-reading-list/.

[4] Applied Ballardianism may be the newest archetype of this idea of theory-fiction as xeno-academic theoretical exercise. Sellars developed the book out of a PhD thesis, eventually junking its original form because of a growing dissatisfaction with academia more generally. The finished form of the text is that of a fictionalised memoir of an “insane alterative version” of the writer living in a universe parallel to this one. See “One Small Node of Reality” (note 1 above).

[5] In both CCRU, Writings 1997-2003 (e-book: Time Spiral Press, 2015) and Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, eds. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (Falmouth/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2011), pp. 493-505. Both are listed by Marks under “Cybernetic Theory-Fiction”. For reasons repeated throughout this essay, neither collection can be considered in their entirety as theory-fiction, but the CCRU’s/Land’s total output most definitely qualify as influential to its development and reception.

[6] Aside from the aforementioned Applied Ballardianism, there are two more inclusions in the otherwise discreditable “self-writing as theory” category that can probably, in my opinion, be salvaged. Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory and Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie both caused me to reconsider what I thought it was that theory-fiction could be said to be or do, being that (as far as I am able to verify) they are both very directly truthful accounts that nonetheless seem to simultaneously provide new theoretical scope for their respective subject matters (and the self-writing form seems to aid in this) and somehow bend the limits of the (pre-established, obviously inadequate notions of the) possible around the narratives they present. Theory-fiction? Probably yes. Possibly something else altogether.

[7] Jason DeBoer, “Fierce Language: The Fatal “Theory-Fiction” of Jean Baudrillard”, in The Absinthe Literary Journal (Spring 2000, available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20110707075611/http://www.absintheliteraryreview.com/archives/fierce4.htm). DeBoer writes of Baudrillard:

Theory, as a series of signs of equal value, is rendered impotent to affect or interact with the real. It is always productive and never destructive, although what it is capable of producing is merely more signs. Baudrillard realizes this, and this futility, once realized, he cannot ignore. Theory must return to the critical, productive enterprise, where it resumes its reproduction, or it must take its own futility as its object and become “fatal”. By abandoning meaning and becoming fascinated with itself, fatal theory must ultimately cease to be theory as such, eventually turning to more literary or fictive strategies. […] A theory self-aware of its own impossibility to transcend signs must forget the real and try to disappear into its own empty form.

In fact, a more interesting reading of poetic theory would be as the foregrounding of the implied artifice of theory itself, and perhaps de Boer’s reading works in this context.

[8] With the former two texts, it’s difficult to ascertain whether their theoretical content really benefits from their forms; whereas with the latter two, one might question to what extent these are “theoretical” texts at all.

[9] Arthur Kroker, Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music and Electric Flesh (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). The back cover promises “[a] theory-fiction about the crash world of virtual reality[…]”. Kroker is probably best known as the co-editor of the online journal Ctheory.

[10] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/2008032501_3155/http://www.cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm. Republished in 2018 by Exmilitary Press.

Thanks to Gregory Marks for consultation and clarification on an earlier draft of this post.

What Is Affect? (or, Gestures Towards an Outline for an Ethics of the Encounter)

I wrote this essay a year ago for a writing competition. I present it here in unedited form.

I

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is not an object of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. (Deleuze 2014: 183)

Something throws itself together in a moment as an event and a sensation; a something both animated and inhabitable. (Stewart: 1)

Something forces us to think. It’s as though, through a crack of circumscribed reality, the Outside seizes upon us, shattering everything we thought it meant to know, to feel, to be. At the centre of every significant (political, cultural, personal) event lies a breakthrough, which is itself the desired object of an encounter. The encounter feeds on us, it eats us, disinterestedly, without ceremony; sometimes immediately; sometimes it merely infects us, grows slowly in the lower intestine, gradually working on us from inside. We know of the encounter, because it affects us. It produces affect.

Affect is the desired harvest of art, of literature, of thought. It is the digestive acid of the encounter. We feel it wash over us. It continues to dissolve us, it tingles, it “shimmers” (Barthes: 101).[1] However we see fit to define our lives, however it is we choose to spend our time (when that choice is indeed available to us), when we are asked a variation on the question “Why is it you do what you do?”, the unnameable answer is “to experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”

In H.G. Wells’s short story “The Door in the Wall” (1911), the protagonist Lionel Wallace recounts his first (and only) true affective encounter, experienced when he was too young to comprehend its enchanted strangeness, its weirdness, and the significant impact it was to have on the remainder of his life. A small boy, four years old, brought up “so sane and “old-fashioned,” as people say,” finding himself alone in the streets of West Kensington, cutting a wretched figure (Wells: 146-147). “[H]e recalls a number of mean, dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator, with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead ball taps, pattern books of wall paper, and tins of enamel” (ibid.). A moment of unprecedented emotional distress. The green door forces itself into this most mundane and hostile of moments. Something about this door, in this wall, is electromagnetically charged with affect.

There’s no reason why it should be.

“Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion” (ibid.). The young Wallace opens the door, as the reader expected him to do. He enters a world of elongated elfin figures and placid wild panthers, children playing delightful games, and books, the pages of which “were not pictures, […] but realities” (ibid.: 148-150). A world that ought not to be, in which “as one played one loved…” (ibid.). In less than an hour, Wallace has been transformed irrecoverably.[2]

 

II

Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. (Deleuze & Guattari: 164).

“But how does one encounter, or live in pursuit of affect? How may we recognise an encounter?” For Gilles Deleuze, an encounter happens as an elevation of each of the faculties to the limit of their “transcendent exercise” (Deleuze 2014: 187-188). “Each faculty must be borne to the extreme point of its dissolution, at which it falls prey to triple violence: the violence of that which forces it to be exercised, of that which it is forced to grasp and which it alone is able to grasp, yet also that of the ungraspable (from the point of view of its empirical exercise)” (ibid.).

It is for this reason that an affective encounter cannot be recognised, only sensed; it prefigures the exercise of the faculties in a “common sense”, one common to us (ibid. 183-184). Hence it appears to us as a Something: we cannot be sure of what. But we can feel its effects upon us. Because affect is intensity (Massumi: 15-16, 27). It exists in-between states of action and being acted upon (Siegworth & Gregg: 1), between movement and rest: it “moves as it feels” (Massumi: 1, 15). The encounter is an event through which nothing is prefigured and, in Gilbert Simondon’s terminology, the encounter is itself preindividual – a continuous field of potential functions “out of phase with formed entities” (ibid.: 27, 34).[3]

Thinking in terms of affect presents us with an opportunity to reconceive the structuration of subjectivity as “an assemblage of body memories and preindividual affective capacities […] a new ontology of bodily matter, beyond the autopoiesis of the human organism” (Clough: 9). There is a missing half-second between receptivity of electrical impulses through the skin and the brain: sensation occurs recursively, the body’s capacity to feel prefigures recognisable traces of thought (Massumi: 28-29). Or rather, conscious thought reduces universal affect in the individual act of recognition, as (posthumous) emotion or cognition, “smooth[ing] over retrospectively to fit conscious requirements of continuity and linear causality” (ibid.: 29-30).

Something evidently happens beyond our capacity to understand it when we are affected by external stimuli. How might we characterise this unknowable Something, when there is “no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect” (ibid.: 27)? We can try grasping at words, concepts, transitory expressions: “an intelligence beyond rational calculation”, an excess, “a faceless love” (Berlant: 2, Siegworth & Gregg: 13, Negarestani: 207). Misanthropic subtraction, the Lovecraftian descriptive technique: the unnameable void around which a thousand apophatic names circulate (Thacker: 177-178). The Outside, its teeming affects, and what it brings to the definition of the body. “Affect marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters”, but also, at the same time, its “non-belonging” (Siegworth & Gregg: 2).

Because affective experience is not really “for us”, but rather absolutely impassive, emotionless, neutral. It does not “arise in order to be deciphered” (ibid.: 21). It happens in spite of us. Sometimes the door just appears. It does not care for our convenience. We are optimistic; it is cruel. Cruel optimism: “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (Berlant: 24). Our subjectivity is shaken in its presence. But we need affect: it enhances us, extends us spatio-temporally, the “us” that we recognise. Affect “is integral to a body’s perpetual becoming […], pulled beyond its seeming surface-boundedness by way of its relation to, indeed its composition through, the forces of encounter. With affect, a body is as much outside itself as in itself – webbed in its relations – until ultimately such firm distinctions cease to matter” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3) Body becomes assemblage:

a multiplicity […] made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Deleuze & Parnet: 69)

Affect could also be named “the virtual”: a singular mass of infinite tendencies, a multiplicity of potentialities. Subjectivity and duration are understood as parallel to their actualized, differentiated outcome, or their capture in a present that marks our understanding of being, our self-awareness (Deleuze 1988a: 42-43). The encounter occupies an “impasse” (though not an exclusively temporal one), within which one may “sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic,” and perceive “those processes that have not yet found their genre of event” (Berlant: 4). The emergence of affect is therefore a “two-sided coin”, the transversal[4] cross-communication of the virtual and the actual, “as seen from the side of the actual thing”, at the virtual’s “edge” (Massumi: 35, 31)[5]. The actual thing, the individual body’s access to the virtual (the affective) is possible because of the existence of the past as an “ontological present” (Clough: 13). The future, on the other hand, is never foreseen, and is a limitless source of creativity (Siegworth & Gregg: 21).

The presence of affect reaches the presently-existing individual as a hyperstition: a narrative that makes itself “real” to the subject through travelling from the “future” to recursively re-engineer the conditions of its existence (Ccru: 74), like the Terminator. We are affected through narrative disruption, whether as violent shock, or as an imperceptible “background” effect, the kind of which happens continuously without our conscious awareness: a “perception of [a] self-perception” of an imperceptible happening, a perception of one’s own vitality, which “cannot but be perceived” (Massumi: 36). In order to re-engineer ourselves in terms of affect, we ought to develop and utilise new “experimental writing” techniques, that strive to “capture a shift in thought happening to the writer and which the writer is inviting”; to open ourselves up to new affective futurities (Clough: 14).

 

III

No one has yet determined what the Body can do. (Spinoza: III, 2, def.)

Philosophers might think to go to the premier on thinking affects, Baruch Spinoza, in search of a point of origin for an ethics of the encounter. This is a good intuition, but Spinoza’s elaboration on the affections [affectio, affectus] must be grasped precisely. Deleuze proposes three perspectives: 1) affections as the modes of substance in themselves, as “God’s attributes”; 2) affections as images, or that which happens to the mode; 3) affections as durations between the affective images, and inseparable to their existence (Deleuze 1988b: 48-49). Affectio refers to the state of the body affected upon; affectus is the transversal passage from one state to another – the former as “ideas”, the latter as “feeling affects” (ibid.). “By affect I understand affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (Spinoza: III, D3).[6] Both “affections” suppose a certain interaction between a thinking mind and an acting body, but it is only really with affectus that this interaction is complexified (more faithfully represented), and a “correspondence” – between mind and body, internal causes (actions) and external stimuli (passions), the affective body and its potential to be affected – can be understood to be taking place (Hardt: ix-x). And the body’s capacity is unknowable: it requires continuous immersion/feedback from “the field or context of its force-relations”: the unknowable attributes of God, a perpetual “not-yet” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3). God is understood as Nature, “encompassing the human, the artificial, and the invented”, pulling the strings of both the body and the mind (Massumi: 36, Hardt: ix-x).

The “not-yet-ness” of the affective body, or the assemblage of affective becomings, can be interpreted as a provocation (Siegworth & Gregg: 9), or a “cluster of promises” to be made possible – or sometimes, humiliatingly, not (Berlant: 23-24). The Spinozian body is defined in terms of “relations of movement and rest”, or rather, a capacity to enter into states of these relations (Massumi: 15). These are the movements of a becoming, an actualization taking place not in us, but in the mind of “God” (ibid.: 36). We cannot “think” our way into affective encounters. Affect cannot be contained in the image (of thought), being of a “purely transitive” nature; but we must let the movements of becoming come to us (Deleuze 1988b: 49). As individuals, or “singular essences”, we are defined by our capacity for being affected, beyond which we cease (ibid.: 27). We owe it to ourselves, then, to attempt a fashioning of affections beneficial to ourselves; a transition from (internally-caused) actions to (externally-caused) passions (Hardt: x). From the confused, fluctuating Inside to the necessarily passionate joys of the Outside (ibid., Deleuze 1988b: 51).

 

IV

The code said: GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU. NOW EAT YOUR MIND. (Acker: 38)

An ethics of the encounter, then, would be a gay science, in which the body is reconfigured as an open assemblage of states allowing for a maximum enabling of interference from the Outside, a relinquishing of (conceived) bodily autonomy, a reimagination of the relationship between the individual and the world, and an assertion of one’s vitality: “circuits and flows […] the form of a life” (Stewart: 2). Thinking affectively, we can no longer interpret the body as a “closed system drawing energy from the outside, thus drawing the body back into homeostasis and equilibrium”; in a way that would lead “inevitably to entropic heat death” (Clough: 16). We reside with the Something, the unactualized, that which allows one to live “in and through that which escapes them” (Massumi: 35). An outwards unfolding, an opening of the self, an invitation to the Outside, “becoming an ever more sensitive worldly interface” (Siegworth & Gregg: 12).

However, to attempt a singular, universalizing ethics of affective encounters is impossible, as no comprehensive definition of the preindividual affect can be established. There are factors to be considered, such as how affect approaches the bodily assemblage. Much is to do with the angle of its arrival: for the assemblage during the encounter, “affect is the whole world [the Outside]: from the precise angle of its differential emergence” (Massumi: 43). In other words, the Outside, what we feel, is “already angled” upon its approaching us (Ahmed: 37): we encounter only actualised or selected “eidetic variations”, to borrow a term from phenomenology. Thinking of the angled dynamic thresholds between the interfaces of bodily assemblages and worlds helps us to recognise affect as “an aesthetic or art of dosages” (Siegworth & Gregg: 16). One ethical response to affect may be to appreciate the ordinary: the continual, minimally disruptive affective activities that “pick up density and texture” as they surge through our quotidian lives (Stewart: 3). Or we may choose to be bold and open ourselves up further to the Outside, making of ourselves “a good meal”, offering ourselves to the Sorceress Druj, the Mother of Abominations, as did Dr Hamid Parsani.[7] Of course, we need to be aware of the limitations of all approaches. Like Lionel Wallace, we cannot truly prepare for the door, or the effects of an immersion into the other side. In outlining an ethics of the encounter we are but grasping into the darkness, experiencing the undifferentiated with our ignorance. An affective ethics could also get us in trouble (“I’m sorry, officer, I couldn’t help it, I was motivated by forces beyond my comprehension.”) But, to remain faithful to our vitality, we ought not to be timid.

One common experience of “ordinary affects” is in the aesthetic experience, for example that offered to us through literature. This is common to many readers: whether from the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, six volumes of Akira, an aphorism, a proposition, whatever it may be. Readers occasionally are transformed by books: sentences, passages, chapters leap out; they redefine literature for us, they teach us how to read, and how to conceive and experience life anew. Again, approach to the text is significant, and it benefits us to be open when cultivating affect. It is not the text itself that produces affect for us, just as it is not the body in isolation that is affected, but the text’s immersion into a field of forces and relations, and its position as a gateway for us to encounter them, that briefly exposes us to such affirmative joys. The book is an open system; we ought to read it as a resonating chamber of the Outside.

This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a meeting of other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything … is reading with love. (Deleuze 1995: 8-9)

As though the right book possesses the right combination of figures, words, and sentences to open oneself out into infinity, like a Borgesian library, but only when approached in the right way, under fortunate circumstances. It is important to acknowledge that we do not know what to expect from art: what is likely to affect us, and how. Nothing is prefigured, therefore we are in no position to make demands from books, genres, writers, etc. Crime and Punishment may do nothing for us, even if we want it to, and Watership Down might reduce us to tears. Of course, there is a certain predictability, an emergence of self-knowledge as we experiment with styles and genres, and we learn to recognise the subtractions of affect we most frequently enable, through its capture as emotion. But preconceptions do not get readers far. Immersion in worldly knowledge, abolition of images and blocks, dissolution of the threshold of the Self and the Other.

As alluded to above, the affective forms a field of forces and relations around the differentiated subject, the dynamic bodily assemblage. Reading and writing are forms of wrestling with these forces of our perpetual becoming, our self-flourishing. Reading can be considered a form of experimental writing: an autoethnography, a self-flourishing. Through reading, we may grasp “the materialities and temporalities of bodies” and reassemble them, extend them outwards, and resonate with affirmative vitality (Clough: 4). Return to the preindividual, the pre-emotive, the unformed, the unthought. Our enablers: texts, bodies, images, sounds, languages: extended infinitely, the Library of Babel. Literature as lines of flight, hyperstitions, orientations of the future. Affect enables us to rethink thought, from cogito to immanence. A rewriting of the self, and of the potentialities of future becomings.

 

“Why is it you do what you do?”

“To experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”

 

Notes

[1] See also Siegworth & Gregg.: 10-17.

[2] See also Fisher: 26-31.

[3] Some punctuation from the original has been removed.

[4] “Transversality is a dimension that tries to overcome both the impasse of pure verticality and that of mere horizontality: it tends to be achieved when there is maximum communication among different levels and, above all, in different meanings” (emphasis added). Guattari: 113. From Félix Guattari’s concept of “transversality”, Brian Massumi defines “transduction” as “the transmission of an impulse of virtuality from one actualization to another and across them all” (emphasis added). Massumi: 42.

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] Emphasis added

[7] See Negarestani.

 

Bibliography

Acker, K. (1988) Empire of the Senseless, New York, Grove Press.

Ahmed, S. (2010) “Happy Objects”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 29-51.

Barthes, R. (2005) The Neutral [Neutre], trans. Krauss, R.E. & Hollier, D., New York, Columbia University Press.

Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel Optimism, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Borges, J.L. (2000) “The Library of Babel” [“La biblioteca de Babel”], in Fictions [Ficciones], trans. Hurley, A., London, Penguin Books: 65-74.

Ccru (1999) “Ccru Glossary”, in Abstract Culture: Digital Hyperstition, London, Ccru, 69-79.

Clough, P.T. (2007) “Introduction”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-33.

Deleuze, G. (1988a) Bergsonism [Le Bergsonisme], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., New York, Zone Books.

— (1988b) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy [Spinoza: Philosophie pratique], trans. Hurley, R., San Francisco, City Lights Books.

— (1995) Negotiations, 1972-1990 [Pourparlers, 1972-1990], trans. Joughin, M., New York, Columbia University Press.

— (2014) Difference and Repetition [Différence et Répétition], trans. Patton, P., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 164.

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (2007) Dialogues II [Dialogues], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., revised edition, New York, Columbia University Press.

Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie, London, Repeater Books.

Guattari, F. (2015) “Transversality”, trans. Sheed, R., in Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955-1971 [Psychanalyse et transversalité], trans. Sheed, R. & Hodges, A., Los Angeles, Semiotext(e): 102-120.

Hardt, M. (2007) “Foreword: What Affects Are Good For”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: ix-xiii

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re.press.

Siegworth, G. & Gregg, M. (2010) “An Inventory of Shimmers”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-25.

Spinoza, B. (1985) Ethics, in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume I, ed./trans. Curley, E., Princeton, Princeton University Press: 408-617.

Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Thacker, E. (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E., Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: 173-180.

Wells, H.G. (1974) “The Door in the Wall”, in The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells, Twenty-second Impression, London, Ernest Benn Limited; New York, St Martin’s Press, Inc.

Featured image credits: Pixabay.

Common sense as philosophical “misadventure” in Deleuze and Flaubert

I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the Warwick Continental Philosophy Conference (WCPC) 2018, which ran with the theme “Identity and Community: Metaphysics, Politics and Aesthetics”. Thanks to the organisers, other speakers, and attendees, especially those who gave me feedback on that earlier version.

What I propose to investigate is the usage of a quotation in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (orig. published 1968), which is taken from Flaubert’s final novel, unfinished and thus unpublished during his lifetime, Bouvard and Pécuchet (orig. published 1881). The quotation in question is this: “Then a lamentable faculty developed in their minds, that of noticing stupidity and finding it intolerable.”[1] In a biography of Flaubert, Michael Winock has the following to say on the development of the novel’s two central characters:

Now proverbial, these two names are among the most illustrious figures of stupidity in French literary history. […] But though they acquire an awareness of generalized stupidity, up to the end of the existing manuscript they themselves display a naïveté, gullibility, and lack of common sense that relegates them to the world of stupidity. (Winock: 415)

By the end of this paper, I wish to show that what Bouvard and Pécuchet display is not a lack of common sense as such, but that their stupidities point instead to an awareness and possession of a great deal of common sense, provided that we approach the text with the Deleuzian definition of this concept. Deleuze’s account of common sense emerges from his engagement with and criticism of what he calls in Difference and Repetition the image of thought, in a chapter of the same name, and concerns a specific function of the faculties of thinking as distributed evenly and uncritically. It is for the most part unrelated to other uses of the term, which crop us variously throughout philosophy and elsewhere; however, it is an adequate means to subvert what is being considered as stupidity, or what is specifically called bêtise or the stupidity of the bourgeoisie, in regards to Flaubert’s work.

To understand what is being meant by “common sense” here, we may begin by relating it to another term, what Deleuze variously calls “opinion” and doxa. What philosophical opinion proposes, say Deleuze and Guattari in a later text What is Philosophy?, “is a particular relationship between an external perception as state of a subject and an internal affection supposedly common to several subjects who experience it and who, along with us, grasp that quality.” (144)[2] When something is perceived (Deleuze and Guattari offer the example of a piece of cheese which is brought before us), it is simultaneously recognised by one or more of its external qualities (which of these qualities is chosen may be arbitrary – let us say, in the case of the piece of cheese, its smell), and reflected upon, or evaluated based on what its perceiver feels about the quality extracted (for example, we may dislike the smell, and by extension not only this piece of cheese but our idea of cheese in its entirety). This is a simple model for how opinion is formed. Opinions such as these become doxa – i.e. philosophical – when they are related to other, similarly held beliefs, those of the group or society, and are found to be agreeable and uncontentious (thus establishing an orthodoxy). Thus, statements of opinion can assume the form of statements of truth. Deleuze illustrates this with the phrase “everybody knows.” “Everybody knows, in a pre-philosophical and pre-conceptual manner …”: pre-philosophical, because the formation of opinion is not itself good philosophical practice, but at the same time, deemed necessary in order for philosophy to assume a beginning. Philosophy must be founded on a kind of thought that is not its own, because it exists in the face of and as a differential to the unknown and unknowability – i.e. chaos. To give thought the “consistency”, or grounding it requires not to collapse back into indetermination (Deleuze & Guattari: 42), it must strike out with a concept, which is in turn built around an “implicit presupposition”. In a pure sense, philosophy does not have a beginning without a priori presuppositions, as the opening sentence of the chapter “The Image of Thought” claims: in fact, that all philosophy must enact on presuppositions which threaten to unground it is one of the discipline’s most forthright problematics. The question for us then becomes: How can philosophy account for or combat doxa without collapsing back in on itself, back into undifferentiated thought and unknowability? Or, put another way, where (and indeed how) does philosophical opinion end and philosophical certainty begin?

This problematic of implicit presuppositions is compounded when left unchallenged, and becomes the basis for a dogmatic image of thought by which all future philosophy is modelled after and aspires to imitate. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze identifies the image of thought of modern European philosophy (that which begins with Descartes, but which has earlier precedents in Plato and so on) by eight postulates, the first two of which we have just now begun to encounter in the nascent form of the phrase “everybody knows…”. Let us differentiate them more closely.

The first postulate relates to the virtuous and admirable qualities of thought belonging to good thinkers. Good sense presupposes that recognition is a universal, identical faculty, its operation having no need for philosophy, and that good thought has an undeniable “double aspect of a good will on the part of the thinker and an upright nature on the part of thought.” (173) Deleuze follows Nietzsche’s critique in regarding with scepticism the claim to universal good will or cogitatio natura universalis implied by the postulate of good sense, which imply an affiliation between thought and the will to truth, between a thinking subject and a desire for knowledge of a “moral” fashion (Nietzsche: §1, §6, §34), because, says Deleuze, it is implied that “only the good can ground the supposed affinity” between them (174). Good sense is will to truth, and truth is by extension virtuous. The thinker of truth is therefore predisposed to exercise an essential goodness expressed by thought’s upright character; a thought which, in itself, “knows what it means to think” (177).

The second postulate describes not the innate character of thought but its distribution. Common sense is the means by which good sense applies universally, to all thinking subjects. We are led to believe by the image of thought that two or more thinkers, provided their capacities for thinking are able enough, will always arrive at the same solutions to philosophical problems, regardless of any differences between their approaches and circumstances. Again, “everybody knows”, because to know is to recognise not only one’s own sense of what is correct, but the general distribution of the correctness of a given thought: it is shared by all good thinkers, hence it is truth. This recognition of universally held ideas is the basis for philosophy conceived under the dogmatic image of thought.

Recognition of good sense, common sense, and opinion functions thusly. In a general sense, firstly, to recognise is for all the faculties to converge upon a “supposed same object” in a “harmonious exercise”, as a process of identification (176). To recognise good sense, therefore, is to identify the noble qualities of truth intrinsic to good thought itself, and by extension, its thinkers: the convergence of the faculties enable the similarities between the perceived qualities of thought and the abstract goodness of truth to be determined. Recognition of common sense requires identifying good will as common to all thinkers: what is identified with the faculties here are the similarities between the good sense of an individual (the self) and its perceived consistency among thinking subjects. Lastly, recognition provides the model of doxa its consistency via the faculties’ convergence upon “an extension and criteria that are naturally those of an “orthodoxy”” (Deleuze & Guattari: 145-6): opinionated truth is established based on the group’s reproduction of the Same. To found truth on the model of recognition, therefore, is to relegate truth to consensus: what is “good”, “right”, and agreeable according to the criteria of what “everybody knows”.

It is a good idea at this point to understand the exact nature of Deleuze’s criticism against the image of thought and its resultant philosophy, the philosophy of good sense, common sense, and opinion. The first consideration is that of the relationship between image and representation. For any definition of common sense, a generality of accepted meaning is required. As Deleuze says, it only takes a “surly interlocutor” to express the opinion that their thoughts are not represented by the consensus to call that consensus into question (173). The treatment of thought as a natural faculty belies what is seen by Deleuze as “a depotentialisation and normalisation of thought”, in the words of Alberto Toscano, and, to continue, “Deleuze promotes the suspicion that such presupposition (or perhaps we should say such imputation) of thought hides an ‘interest’ […] in speaking for others by speaking universally”. (Toscano: 5) Thus, such philosophy is distracted from its purposes of understanding thought, being, and so on, and reduced to a competition for the establishment of the most general or authentic representation. Thought becomes analogical, and not critical: this is problematic, for the myriad components of representation bear upon each of the faculties differently: “identity with regard to concepts, opposition with regard to the determination of concepts, analogy with regard to judgement, resemblance with regard to objects” (181). A distribution of the “unspecified concept” of common sense across multiple faculties opposes this specificity of function.

Another element of Deleuze’s critique of common sense relates to the way in which the image of thought handles necessity. We will recall the problems brought to bear on thinking by the expressions “everybody knows”, and “no one can deny”. François Zourabichvili has reconfigured the central concern of Deleuze’s chapter – the difficulty of establishing a beginning in philosophy – as the problem of necessity, “how to arrive at a necessary thought” (Zourabichvili: 44). Deleuze’s critique then, for Zourabichvili, is that of the position of truth as being necessary under the image of thought. Necessary thought – what is recognised as truth – must be verified not by itself but beyond, by an “exterior”. However, the image of thought suggests that this judgment of truth has been “interiorized”, not as an outward process, or engagement with an outside, but as an innate content, a reproduction of “what must be said or thought” according to naturally endowed pre-philosophical notions. An internalization of the means to recognising truth also provokes the question of the validity of this philosophy’s claim to grounding. The function of a grounding is to differentiate in kind between received opinion and the basis for what is known: it is to objectify knowledge, to make it determinable and workable. This is of course undermined by a doxastic version of ground, which is itself no more than opinion on a more numerous scale (many subjectivities of the same idea). Deleuze’s critique, therefore, questions the necessity of a truth established without external verification, and how thought derived in this would be able to affirm an outside it ignores (ibid: 44-51).

The final aspect of Deleuze’s critique of the image of thought is that it is simply too limited, and produces philosophy that is too unambitious for the tasks of approaching varieties of thought that are beyond itself. To some extent, this ties back to the problem of necessity: what need do philosophers have of a kind of thought that is capable only of recognising itself, especially, as he says, when common sense itself “shows every day – unfortunately – that it is capable of producing philosophy in its own way” (178)? But this problem also concerns the image of thought’s inability to challenge its own grounding or resulting methodology, or even to recognise its embedded dogmatism – what Deleuze calls the image’s “disturbing complacency”, its somewhat terrifying struggle for the “trophy” of the cogitatio natura universalis (179-180). Later in What is Philosophy?, he and Guattari will go on to warn of the “fate of philosophy” being under threat from such a “philosophy of communication” (Deleuze & Guattari: 146), but the sentiment of the earlier work is the same. The concept of recognition is a hammer, and with it, all philosophies are variations on the same nail: “form will never inspire anything but conformities.” (178)

What is needed for philosophy is not a convergence of the faculties but a splitting open of their established formation under the image of thought; an assertion of difference and an “original violence” wherein each separate faculty is brought to the limits of their respective powers. This is what is prevented by common sense, which seeks to stymie original thought by maintaining a baleful harmony of consensus, and a false idea of its own necessity as thought’s primary ground; a necessity relative to its own conditions, as opposed to an absolute necessity of thought asserted through a “fundamental encounter” with the outside (183-186). As Zourabichvili has shown, Deleuze manages to maintain that there is no contradiction between the act of beginning in philosophy and philosophy lacking a primary foundation. What Deleuze calls for is not grounding but an act of universal ungrounding which rejects the model of recognition and affirms the outside from within, as immanence (Zourabichvili: 51-52).

Before we lose sight of this paper’s focus, I will finish this section by applying Deleuze’s critique of common sense and recognition to the philosopher he associates most strongly with those concepts’ expressions, and who I have been ignoring up until this point: Descartes. For it is Descartes who opens his Discourse on the Method by saying “Good sense is the best distributed thing in the world” (Descartes 1985a: 111); who elucidates recognition using the piece of wax in the “Second Meditation”, and who introduces philosophy to the cogito, perhaps the real starting point for the modern image of thought. This last point is especially relevant to the formation of a “philosophy of common sense” for Deleuze. The cogito establishes in philosophy the thinking subject, which binds all the faculties together, and “thereby expresses the possibility that all the faculties will relate to a form of object which reflects the subjective identity” (176). The necessity of the thinking subject is little more than a supposition: Descartes establishes it in relation to outward perception, declaring questionable conclusions such as “if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed” in the “Second Meditation”, and justifying them by supposing that whether these perceptions are authentic or illusory is irrelevant, because his indisputable good sense tells him that they do not seem to be false (Descartes 1985b: 17-19). Hence Deleuze’s objection to the cogito as a “false beginning”, and one of the most prominent illustrations of doxastic thought, as well as the pervasiveness of common sense thinking.[3]

***

Now in this second half, I will mount the challenge of common sense to Flaubert’s final novel, and that often-quoted sentence, to argue an alternative reading to that of the critique of stupidity. The theme of stupidity is encountered consistently throughout Flaubert’s works, and has unsurprisingly led to a number of interpretations as to its significance. It is important, therefore, to take this theme seriously, and to better acknowledge its presence within the novel. In his essay “Fantasia of the Library”, Foucault pairs the idea of stupidity in Flaubert’s novels with that of sainthood, arguing that Bouvard and Pécuchet represent but a more comedic expression of sentiments found in earlier characters, such as Charles Bovary and Saint Anthony. Here we have two copyists who, coming into a large inheritance and wanting to escape the tedium of city life, decide to move to the countryside, where they will spend their autumn years undertaking any discipline of the sciences and arts they decide upon. Bouvard and Pécuchet consult books before applying themselves to agriculture, chemistry, archaeology, history, politics, religion, physics, metaphysics, and everything in-between; each time ending with failure or disaster, and each subsequent pursuit beginning with renewed zeal. When, by the end of the published work (which was to compose but the first of two sections) they finally resign themselves to defeat, they agree to take up copying once more: the subject of their copying being the many bodies of knowledge they have accumulated during their renaissance. It is not their faith in learning they have renounced at this moment, argues Foucault, “but the possibility of applying their beliefs. They detach themselves from works to maintain the dazzling reality of their faith in faith.” (Foucault: 107) The “lamentable faculty” sentence occurs right before this moment, between the loss of intellectual territory for their passions to roam free, and their reaffirmation in the activity they have always known and practiced, repetition.

The stupidity of these two characters arises from their attitudes towards forms of knowledge they do not possess, and are likely beyond their understanding, and how these attitudes relate to their views and treatments of the characters which surround them. Bouvard and Pécuchet may be characters of limited intelligence and success, but this is not what makes them stupid. It is instead their reasoning behind their desire to learn, the methodologies they consider appropriate for doing so, and their expectations that an acquisition of specialist knowledge will elevate their stature in their community, even when they themselves have treated this community with scepticism, which defines the bêtise Flaubert attempts to elucidate, and that was the object of the writer’s personal scorn. We see early in the novel, for example, that the two men wish to try their hands at their manor’s garden, so as to become what they consider to be “country gentlemen”. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, A. J. Krailsheimer describes their reasoning in the following way:

they are ignorant; the way to dispel ignorance is by acquiring knowledge from authorities; experts who write books must be more authoritative than peasants who merely do what their fathers had done before them. Book in hand (or at least in head) they plant trees, stack hay, treat animals and so on with sovereign disregard for the experience of those around them, whose whole lives have been spent more or less successfully exercising skills quite unsupported by theory. (Krailsheimer, in Flaubert: 9)

This observation demonstrates the somewhat contradictory relationship the characters, and Flaubert himself, have with received ideas. It was Flaubert’s intention to include within the second half of the novel a Dictionary of Received Ideas, a sottisier comprised of the popular yet unsupported and inaccurate remarks shared amongst the middle classes. Entries for this dictionary would be fashionable topics of conversation that were worthy of ridicule because their dislocation from reality would compound the more they resonated among people who considered themselves superior for fashioning their perspectives on the world on more refined sources. The stupidity for such entries is realised, says Jonathan Culler,

not because the facts on which they rely are false but because the particular meanings offered do not exhaust an object or concept and because they place it in a self-enclosed system of social discourse which comes to serve as a reality for those who allow themselves to be caught up in it. (Culler: 160)

We can see something similar with Bouvard and Pécuchet’s gardening: the appeal to elite opinions, which stand in for the entirety of their thinking on the subject. The two protagonists’ journey from one subject matter to another, moreover, and as Krailsheimer notes, follows a logic of “first principles”: they associate their failures with an unfamiliarity of a more fundamental body of knowledge – in the case of their experiments into agriculture, which end with an explosion, this is decided to be chemistry – and send for new books which will grant them the perspective they currently lack (Krailsheimer: 10). Yet we may observe that they are also trying to avoid another variety of received idea, those that they have identified among the peasantry, and are equally as unchallenged.

It is perhaps testament to their stupidity, therefore, that Bouvard and Pécuchet are capable of avoiding uncritical opinions they witness in various practitioners (farmers, doctors, priests), yet are swayed by alternatives that cater more to their imaginations, which we are probably supposed to accept are written by less experienced authorities. These pretentions, which arise out of stupidity, seem to feature across the spectrum of the society the novel depicts: high and low culture, bourgeoisie and proletariat, each incapable of escaping their own brands of received ideas. Flaubert once said that bêtise was “formidable and universal” (in Culler: 158), and though perhaps most readily espoused by the leisurely middle classes, remained an inescapable feature of the human condition. No doubt there is a wider historical-political dimension to Flaubert’s preoccupation with the emergent forays into knowledgeability attempted clumsily by the middle classes. Hugh Kenner has placed the novel’s beginning at more-or-less precisely fifty years after the Revolution: this being a similar age as Bouvard and Pécuchet, they are therefore “untainted by the least memory of a time when knowledge, which is power, was the preserve of the few”, and the ideal heroes for this uninhibited new world (Kenner: 9). Yet of course, these heroes are not immune to the lamentable faculty they perceive all around them by the novel’s denouement. “The only way to transcend a commonplace is to make it serve your own purposes, to make it an instrument, a means of thought”: these are the words of Sartre, speaking on Flaubert’s life and ambitions (Sartre: 619), and although the philosopher considers the novelist a failure in this regard, we may identify this as the position of his characters when they commission their large double writing-desk and set to work on the task of copying once again.

Stupidity, as encountered in Flaubert’s novel, is an opportunity for hastily and badly drawn conclusions to enjoy similar rights to established facts and certainties; to quote Jonathan Culler once more, it “negates ordinary meaning to replace it with an open and exploratory reverie.” (Culler: 185). Deleuze’s account of stupidity in “The Image of Thought” is not like this. He quotes from the novel in order to illustrate the misattribution of error as the sole negative of thought. Recognition, with its endless procession of the Same, he argues, reduces philosophy to the construction of problems, each with its own pre-packaged solution which can be worked towards using good thinking. In this case stupidity is subsumed by error, which exists externally to the mind endowed with good sense, and stands in for everything philosophy is supposed to overcome:

According to the hypothesis of the Cogitatio natura universalis, error is the “negative” which develops naturally. Nevertheless, the dogmatic image does not ignore the fact that thought has other misadventures besides error: humiliations more difficult to overcome, negatives much more difficult to unravel. It does not overlook the fact that the terrible Trinity of madness, stupidity and malevolence can no more be reduced to error than they can be reduced to any form of the same. Once again, however, these are no more than facts for the dogmatic image. Stupidity, malevolence and madness are regarded as facts occasioned by external causes, which bring into play external forces capable of subverting the honest character of thought from without – all this to the extent that we are not only thinkers. The sole effect of these forces in thought is then assimilated precisely to error, which is supposed in principle to include all the effects of factual external causes. (195-6)

Deleuze wishes here to reinstate what he calls thought’s “misadventures” – of which stupidity is one – as “structures of thought as such.” (198) If a false solution is derived from a philosophical problem, it is not predetermined that an error has arisen out of confused or badly applied thinking. The mistake instead lies in the problem’s relation to sense, and in “making stupidity a transcendental problem” (197). It is instead for Deleuze a problem of individuation, of which the cogito has played its part. Stupidity occurs when individuation “brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form” – in other words, when an answer is provided that bears little or no relation to the question being asked, questions that are derived from undifferentiated contents which resist the form being imposed on them (199). Bouvard and Pécuchet represent for Deleuze the “fractured I” of individuation, their stupidities a ground that exists between them, composed of the unthought itself (ibid.).

Conversely, perhaps we ought to consider Bouvard and Pécuchet’s simultaneous critique and appropriation of received ideas not as examples of bourgeois stupidities in a straightforward sense, but consider the relation between received ideas and common sense. Both are concerned with what is popularly believed to be true, and both derive this truth paradoxically from this very popularity of the sentiment being expressed, allowing the most vocal and forceful opinions to triumph. The problem with aligning received ideas with stupidity is that doing so masks stupidity’s true relation to original thought. A stupid thought is usually a novelty or aberration in relation to the problem it sets out to solve: if examined closely, it displays a process of original thinking gone astray. A received idea, on the other hand, is derived from a source its thinker believes to be reputable: it does not require original thought but borrowed solutions. Therefore, I conclude that an idea derived from common sense is a kind of received idea. Whereas Flaubert’s received ideas have as their source the echo chamber of bourgeois society, Deleuze’s common sense takes the image of thought’s erroneous suggestions of universal distribution of good sense (specifically Descartes’s) as its occasion to turn away from original thought. To rewrite the object sentence of this paper, would be to claim that the lamentable faculty Bouvard and Pécuchet find intolerable is an awareness of received ideas, distributed everywhere, unavoidable, unoriginal, and tending towards the universal.

Notes

[1] Flaubert (1976: 217). Difference and Repetition translator Paul Patton uses a slightly different translation of the quote: “A pitiful faculty then emerges in their minds, that of being able to see stupidity and no longer tolerate it…” (199). I judge the two variations to be of similar meaning in relation to the contexts I apply to them here, and have therefore chosen to maintain A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation throughout this essay for the sake of consistency.

[2] Unlabelled bracketed numbers refer to pages in Difference and Repetition (see Bibliography below).

[3] See also Nietzsche: §16; Toscano.

Bibliography

Culler, J. (1974) Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, London, Elek Books Ltd.

Deleuze, G. (2014) Difference and Repetition [Différence et Répétition], trans. Patton, P., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso.

Descartes, R. (1985a) Discourse and Essays, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D., Cambridge/New York/Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 109-176.

— (1985b) Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, 1-62.

Flaubert, G. (1976) Bouvard and Pécuchet [Bouvard et Pécuchet], trans. Krailsheimer, A.J., Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1977) “Fantasia of the Library”, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Bouchard, D.F., trans. Bouchard, D.F. and Simon, S., Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 87-109.

Kenner, H. (1989) “Gustave Flaubert: Comedian of the Enlightenment”, in Bloom, H. (ed.) Modern Critical Views: Gustave Flaubert, New York/Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 5-22.

Nietzsche, F. (1989) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future [Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft], trans. Kaufmann, W., New York, Vintage Books.

Sartre, J.-P. (1981) The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857 [L’Idiot de la famille de 1821 à 1857], trans. Cosman, C., Volume I, Chicago/London, University of Chicago Press.

Toscano, A. (2007) “Everybody Knows: Deleuze’s Descartes”, available online at http://www.academia.edu/709449/Everybody_Knows_Deleuzes_Descartes.

Winock, M. (2016) Flaubert, trans. Elliott, N., Cambridge, MA/London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Zourabichvili, F. (2012) Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event, together with The Vocabulary of Deleuze, trans. Aarons, K., Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Featured image credits: Wikimedia Commons.