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).

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“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.

(un)known(1): A retrospective of Autechre’s inhumanist aesthetics

I’ve produced a one-hour mix of the tracks featured in this essay to accompany it. All tracks by Autechre are published by Warp unless otherwise listed.

Can all art be defined by human enjoyment of it? If it is generally done so, is this a mistake? How can we be certain that art is loyal to us, that it is on our side alone? The problem with defining art subjectively is that, as soon as we choose not to recognise it, it is no longer there. Visual art becomes mere images; language loses all symbolic value; auditory art becomes undesirable noise. Are we content to accept such a selfish, transitory definition of art, or will we be forced to rethink it? Let us for a moment propose that art is a synthesis between affective stimulus and an affected participant who affirms it in the act of recognition. Such an encounter with an art object would necessitate its a priori status as pre-art, with a virtual art status ready to be engaged. Surely then, if there are other forms of intelligence, belonging to biological or artificial beings capable of recognition, the aesthetic capacities of a pre-art can be tapped into in ways other than those known by the human. Let us go a step further, and abandon the concept of human subjectivity as understood in its “rational animal” variants: singular, concrete, constant. Could new ways of aesthetic judgment be developed along this train of thought, new appreciations born out of new methods of perception?

I am not proposing that the music of Autechre allows us to achieve this. At best it is a representation of what music made by or for non-humans might sound to human ears and minds, one based on necessarily limited understandings of the non-human world (as captured and schematized by humans using the sciences of mathematics, biology, geology, etc.). But, given that nonhuman thought by definition encompasses faculties, sensations, and syntheses unknowable to us, the construction of representative maps and diagrams remains for us a vital exercise in understanding thoughts and feelings beyond our limited range of possible experience.

I wish to take a chronological approach to Autechre’s oeuvre. Specifically, I wish to select a few compositions from across their nearly 30-year career which illustrate an increasing unfamiliarity over that time. I want to consider the group’s progression from the warehouse rave scene of the early 1990s, constructing music for a particular place and function, towards more abstract and diverse territories, and posit this trajectory as a consistent attempt to reinvent the listening experience in terms of the new and unexplored. I believe that by circumventing our expectations as listeners, Autechre allows us not only to develop new ways of understanding art, but also opens up the possibility for a more general inhumanist aesthetics for other beings and purposes.

“Flutter” (1994) [Anti EP: 150.0 bpm]

Early Autechre is a period of experimentation with sound and identity. Cavity Job (1991: Hardcore Records), Lego Feet (1991: Skam), Incunabula (1993), Basscad,EP (1994), and Amber (1994) showcase diverse engagements with hardcore, bleep, rave, and hip hop: sometimes aggressive, sometimes languid, always colourful and new. Each of these records is both singular and comparatively safe for what would come next: a response not so much to musical genre, but to British law:

(1) This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose—

(a) such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

(b) “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.

(Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Section 63)

Autechre’s reply:

Warning. Lost and Djarum contain repetitive beats.
We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law.
Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can be played at both forty five and thirty three revolutions under the proposed new law. However we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.

(Autechre 1994: Anti EP)

“Leterel” (1995) [Tri Repetae: 150.0 bpm]
“Hub” (1997) [Chiastic Slide: 83.3 bpm]

Further journeys into the abstract ensue when Autechre dislocate their music from any straightforward sense of time. Genres of electronic music are often differentiated through bpm ranges : 120 bpm (moderato) for house, 160 bpm (allegro) for jungle, etc. Autechre take their pick for each separate composition, and the juxtaposition of tempos on each release add to the sense of nonlinearity. It’s not that the bpms themselves are especially strange, but how they are measured. Another common indicator of timing in dance music is the placement of kick drums. “Leterel” and “Hub” reduce the number of kicks to a minimum, creating a sense of tension and unease over long distances. One effect of this unusual rhythmic pattern is that it pulls the listener’s ear in, and gradually both listener and music fashion together an alienating effect akin to hypnotism.

“Fold4, Wrap5” (1998) [LP5: 78.1 bpm]
“Drane” (1999) [Peel Session: 104.0 bpm]

Rhythmic dislocation continues on these more melodic tracks, but the sense of contrast between the percussive and lead voices is perhaps stranger still. “Drane” in particular, with its four-note mantra, undulating hi-filter slices , and snarling bass note that serves as this track’s marker, make for an unsettling, yet warm and resonant combination. That each of these elements are descending in pitch (although independently of one another) seems to assist in binding them. This has the feel of dance music, but dance music for what?

“Parhelic Triangle” (2001) [Confield: 130.3 bpm]

By contrast, all that marks “Parhelic Triangle” out as dance music is a consistent looped bass (also descending) and snare. It’s a track almost entirely composed of texture: its form feels shifting, unstable, unreliable. It seems to test the mind’s capacity to replicate its image. “Intelligent Dance Music” is often derided as a genre tag, but tracks like this subvert its snobbery into a hyperliteralism. Suppose another form of intelligence were to make sense of this – would its ability to represent this arrangement lead it to places we ourselves are incapable of? For us, in any case, the track’s floating, machinic form marks for us the beginning of a decomposition.

“Gantz Graf” (2002) [Gantz Graf: 123.0 bpm]
“Surripere” (2003) [Draft 7.30: 120.0 bpm]

“Gantz Graf” is truly inhuman music. It can only be followed by human thought after multiple exposures. At first it seems indescribably complex, but perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s merely rambling, schizoid, unrepeating. It even breaks a couple of times, only to re-emerge in new assemblages. “Surripere” has a more readily identifiable cadence, but that itself is swept away by not-quite-onbeat snares, on a detour that jettisons the perceived intended journey. Calling such music “inhuman” is not to say that it does not feel, or that we can identify nothing from within it. Clearly, something is perceived that resembles emotion, or intelligent design (whether in the form of a dancefloor utilitarianism or another, perhaps nonrecreational usage). It does indicate, however, a certain reprogramming of the listening subject. And the rhythmic hypnosis induced by such music constitutes a methodology for this.

“Sublimit” (2005) [Untilted: 83.5 bpm]
“known(1)” (2010) [Oversteps: 84.0 bpm]

One way of recognising the Other is when it strays into the spectrum of the known, where it can be captured by familiar semantics and patterns of identification. The intricate, accelerated drum programming of “Sublimit” differs from the sparse, languid “Leterel” immensely, but is no less disarming and tough to penetrate for the listener. Yet it blooms into something substantial, even majestic, as it pursues its determined route. By a wholly different measure, “known(1)” is entirely nonpercussive, relying on strange interplays between elements both ancient and futuristic. Could “Sublimit” be described as sublime, and “known(1)” considered beautiful? Would this be a disservice to both the categories and the pieces involved? No, there is no need to refer back to such labels. Surely it is more intuitive and informative to allow the music to cut its own trenches, and force us to engage with them as they are in themselves.

“feed1” (2016) [elseq1: 84.0 bpm]

The most recent stages in Autechre’s always-diffractive chronology, albums such as Exai (2013) and elseq1-5 (2016) challenge established musical experiences formally through their extended tracklists across multiple discs (120 minutes across two discs for the former, 247 minutes across 5 discs for the latter). Across such expansive formats appear multiple degrees of experimentation: uncategorizable arrangements of sound that indicate a group of ever-increasing artistic singularity. “feed1” is but one expression of the distance Autechre have travelled from a distinct musical scene towards an absolute creative individualism. It forces one to think: “Is this listenable? What value can I extract from this?” But are habitual markers necessary? Is recognition? Art such as this inverts the relationship between itself and its audience (however flimsy and unhelpful this relationship is formulated): it exists beyond us, has no care for us. It has a stubborn value, which we may in fact recognise should we come to draw something of its uniqueness from it, and embrace its indifferent complexity as widely as possible.

Featured image: The Designers Republic (2016): “elseq1-5”.

Introduction to Inorganic Demonology: Reza Negarestani and The Exorcist

This is an edit of a transcript for a presentation I gave as part of “Remarkable Things: The Agency of Objecthood & the Power of Materiality”, a conference on the power and value of apotropaic art, hosted on 10th March 2018 by the University of Warwick’s Humanities Research Centre. Special thanks to Kathryn Thompson and the organisers of the event.

What I want to talk about today is an idea I’ve encountered that I think bears an interesting relationship with the subject of today’s conference (apotropaic objects), the inorganic demon, which is a term that appears in Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani’s 2008 book Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials. As a text that appropriates elements of fiction in order to synthesize new methods of doing philosophy, Cyclonopedia has been important to my research for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve presented on any part of its much vaster whole. Although not a structurally integral concept to the book – in fact, the elucidation of the inorganic demon appears as an endnote to the main text – a closer examination of the concept will hopefully serve to intrigue and provoke some of the ideas surrounding objecthood as understood vis-a-vis both popular philosophical traditions and apotropaic studies. Regardless, the tone of this presentation is not meant to be philosophical in a classical sense, but more speculative, accessible, and open-ended.

Simply put, Negarestani’s inorganic demon is a relic or artefact of ancient origin, which houses or otherwise allows a demon to interact with the human world. They are most typically found in narratives of the supernatural horror or fantasy genres. However, I don’t wish for us to demote our understanding of the inorganic demon to a comfortable dark mirror image of the wholesome apotropaic object. I want to propose that the relationship between the apotropaic object and the inorganic demon is more intricate and less oppositional, using the example of the Sumero-Assyrian demon Pazuzu as it is presented in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and by Negarestani and others.

As suggested already, Negarestani introduces the term “inorganic demon” in a somewhat obtuse way. He buries it in the notes of Cyclonopedia’s prophet, the renegade archaeologist Dr Hamid Parsani, who functions in the book as a sort of complex mouthpiece for Negarestani and the quasi-real Hyperstition collective’s speculative ideas. The book’s first clearly defined chapter details Parsani’s investigation into an obscure Zoroastrian relic called Khaj-e-Akht or the Cross of Akht, which is described by its researcher as

an inorganic demon, a sentient relic with the ability to numerically grasp all the undercurrents and inconsistent events of the Earth as modes of narration. (Negarestani: 13 – emphasis added)

The term does not recur elsewhere in Cyclonopedia, save for in a lengthy endnote, where it is given a thorough treatment. Before examining that let us first be aware of the qualities of the Cross of Akht just detailed. Of course, the intelligence Negarestani-Parsani takes the cross to be not merely a passive, insensate piece of wood, but “sentient”, active, and possessing some degrees of intelligence and agency. (How we are to define these latter terms is of course a matter of contention, a conversation which cannot take place here if brevity is to be maintained.) From the quoted sentence we are also informed that the Cross of Akht’s affective capacity incorporates the potential to tap into the recessive narratives of the Earth as they flow beneath the topsoil; a mode of narratology Negarestani elsewhere refers to as “petropolitics”. This also qualifies the Cross of Ahkt as a “hyperstition”, or a fictional element with agency, which occupies a host (such as a reader) with the intention of crossing over into reality. In the way we might believe in a superstition after experiencing some coincidental “back luck”, we as readers believe that Hamid Parsani is an actual figure, or the Cross of Akht is an actual object, and they somehow transcend their fictional beginnings. This is an important function of the inorganic demon, so now I will present a sort of edited summary of that endnote I mentioned earlier, as to familiarise us with the basic principles of inorganic demonology.

Inorganic demons,[1] also called a xenolithic artifacts, are usually depicted in horror and science fiction as objects made of inorganic materials such as carved stone, wood, or metal. They exhibit a series of dualisms intended to deceive the humans that encounter and uncover them: they simultaneously exhibit a sensuous tactility (“provocatively exquisite” in form) and an immaterial permanence; they are local, yet elsewhere; they represent the pinnacle of human scientific endeavour, yet are highly impious and mocking to anthropocentric modes of existence – physics, philosophy, religion, and so on.

Their autonomy alone marks their outsideness to the human and its ecology, the planetary biosphere; this is why they are frequently associated with alien life forms and defined by the prefix xeno- (outside). (Negarestani: 223)

The role of the inorganic demon is that of a facilitator of the Outside, a generation of symptoms that fold the interiority of anthropocentrism (the limits both of human knowledge and its fullest capacities) outwards, and allow the Outside in, to take advantage of the human host’s specific capabilities: communication, mobility, influence, and political power.

All inorganic demons (or relics) exist in relation to one another through a common lineage: a complex demonological framework of three distinct classes. First-class relics are whole objects; second-class relics are fragments of a whole relic, sometimes scattered, sometimes requiring a ritual regathering in order for their activation to take place. Finally, third-class relics are contaminated objects, having come into contact with higher-class relics: of less potential, but still containing the possibility of ruination. The demon’s ability to transfer its centre of power is therefore not limited to human hosts; however, we must remember that such a manoeuvre is purely a strategic means of survival, not an ultimate goal.

Fortunately, at this stage Negarestani has provided us with a sort of seven-point plan, almost like a “life cycle” of the inorganic demon as it passes from sentient relic to activated contaminant within a host body and back again into deactivated slumber (although of course, these demons are immortal, and occupy living qualities only by proxy). I’m going to run through these stages quickly before turning to the case example, that of The Exorcist. I should reinforce that these seven points constitute the entirety of Negarestani’s writing on the inorganic demon in Cyclonopedia; this is the extent of the detail available:

a) We are told that the inorganic demon is “parasitic by nature”, and that their systems of possession are activated by a range of human states of fascination with the objectivity of relics: their extension through local physical space, or “realism of objects”. The demon is ignited not only through its untimely awakening, but entices the prospective host through its tactility and unearthly aesthetic qualities. This is of course why a demon would choose a mysterious and beautiful object over an ordinary or uninteresting one as its counterpart on the physical plane: it makes it easier for it to get inside us.

b) The demon exacerbates its victim’s fascination through “xeno-excitations”, synthesizing what we might describe as “wisdom” in the victim. We’ve already seen how the demon’s objective is to funnel the Outside through its host: this includes alternate knowledges and modes of perception, ways of sensing and thinking beyond what is ordinarily knowable. Think of Tolkien’s Ring, how it not only draws in all that it comes into contact with (human, hobbit, elf, etc.), but how when worn grants insight into unseen and unheard forces.

c) This is when symptoms of possession begin to develop and manifest themselves. The victim is overcome with “incurable afflictions” and “progressive maladies”. This is because of either the demon’s preliminary attempts to prepare the host for inhabitation, or the host’s nervous recoil to the accommodation of the foreign body. Both of these triggers ought to be recognised simultaneously. The demon’s approach to transformation of the subject, or “reprogramming the logic of organism”, can be viewed as the very stimulation of the host’s adaptation to Outside logics, logics posed by Negarestani as inherently overwhelming on the level of anthropomorphic subjectivity. The inorganic demon’s infiltration poses such insurmountable challenges to human conceptions of the subject-object duality that breakdown occurs at the very level of the subject.

d) The organic subject and inorganic demon-object are now seen to intertwine in a way considered to be inextricable through conventional methods and treatments. Transference from the inorganic relic to the sentient host has given way to affirmation (unconscious affirmation on the part of the subject). The demon’s intelligence has now irreversibly augmented that of the host, now existing side-by-side in an outwardly schizophrenic configuration. The demonic agent is now secure, and conventional techniques of separation may prove fatal to the subject.

e) Affirmation of the embedded demonic sentience gives way to activation. For this to happen, the demon’s nervous system, or “spiritual matrix”, must “be charged by sufficient external stimuli from the human host.” This takes the form of a feeding upon the human’s extreme affective capacities, when we may consider a human quality to be at its most “pure”: pure joy, fear, pain, piousness, or faithlessness, for example. According to Negarestani, the demon is aided immeasurably in this endeavour by the “absurdity of human openness”, humanity’s spiritual vulnerability to the imperceptible Outside. These comments suggest an image of human bodies rather like a computer connected to a vast, exponential network without antivirus software installed, hopelessly requiring several updates. Negarestani also characterizes this state as a “Call” or an open invitation to the inorganic demon as agent of the Outside.

f) Separation of inorganic demon and host is possible only through the use of another demon, but of course this allows the consequences of awakening another inorganic demon to play out. Through this new influence, the original demon succumbs to what Negarestani calls its “forsaken status”: the spiritual matrix is closed, and the demon returns to hibernation in its inorganic state. Interestingly, Negarestani suggests here that human sovereignty is dependent on the hibernation of inorganic demons, who would otherwise suppress the narrative of human singularity if able to run amok.

g) Finally, the inorganic demon is deactivated only on returning to its original “lair”, the unique location for its eternal rest. The object it embodies is then relegated to a mere treasure, a demotion from the possessing to the slave classes of reliquology.

This imagining of the inorganic demon that I have just detailed suggests many provocative things about the nature of the object as traditionally understood by what I suppose we ought to be calling anthropic materialism. We could summarise the key features of such an a priori understanding as follows: that objects are made up of matter; they exist either merely physically, or else ideally, in the image of the mind; they do not possess an intelligence or a point of view; they exist primarily in relation to what we call “subject”, the invariably more noble study of philosophy. Of course these are only crass generalizations on my part: we could point in several directions for examples wherein objects are approached in more favourable ways, for example in the role of AI or object-oriented philosophy. And as well of course there is the more theoretical work being done on apotropaic artefacts, of which the inorganic demon exists as a cruel counterpoint or sadistic challenge. It would be misleading, however, to label the two classes of enchanted relic as somehow opposing one another in function and intent – an Eros and a Thanatos each vying for our attention. We will see how through its appearances in The Exorcist, as well as in Middle Eastern tradition the demon Pazuzu is able to illustrate the pliable motives and strategies employed via its representation as an inorganic demon, and how we might further consider the supposed objectivity of objects.

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Figure 1: Pazuzu-demon

To note the general characteristics, features, and capabilities of the demon Pazuzu and what they might signify for the film’s narrative, we can turn to Cyclonopedia one last time.[2] The most relevant to this discussion include the association of Pazuzu with the dust of the southwestern wind. As a “dust enforcer”, a scavenging agent from the Outside, Pazuzu’s methodology involves the whipping up of dust clouds and soups, and subsequently the relaying of diseases and plagues. For Negarestani, this dust-harvesting and -disseminating activity signifies the infiltration of the ancient demonical into the global politics spiralling around the perpetual and insoluble conflicts of the Middle East, which are able to draw in the ideologically disparate West through its’ nations’ addiction to oil. This forms part of Pazuzu’s “schizotrategy”, defined as “[s]trategies for being opened (by), not being open (to)”, (242) the methodology of possession. Aiding this mission are the demon’s two pairs of wings and specific configuration of its arms – the right pointing upwards and the left downwards, which “suggests a swash-backwash model of epidemics”.

The following film clip is taken from the opening of the film. To quickly summarise: the film opens on an archaeological site on the remains of the ancient city of Nineveh, in and around modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq, where we see the protagonist Father Merrin uncovering two crucial artefacts which later play important roles in the narrative, which is what I want to concentrate for the remainder of the presentation. This is Merrin’s first real encounter with the power of Pazuzu, a power manifested in above all other things the wind (note west-southwest direction behind the statue), and also the dust being carried by the wind, which we can see in big clouds at the end. Both the novel and the screenplay describe Merrin and Pazuzu here as “ancient enemies squared off in a massive arena”, which is what the last shot is trying to convey, before the narrative relocates to Georgetown, Washington, where the victim Regan MacNeil is staying, and the remainder of the events take place.

This is Merrin’s first real encounter with the power of Pazuzu, which is manifested in above all other things the wind (note west-southwest direction behind the statue), and also the dust being carried by the wind, which we can see in big clouds at the end. Both the novel and the screenplay describe Merrin and Pazuzu here as “ancient enemies squared off in a massive arena”, which is what this last shot is trying to convey, before the narrative relocates to Georgetown, Washington, where the victim Regan MacNeil is staying, and the remainder of the events take place.

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Figure 2: St. Joseph’s medal excavated at Nineveh
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Figure 3: “Amulet” head of Pazuzu statue excavated at Nineveh

I’m now going talk about the relics themselves, which are excavated by Merrin in the scene prior the one shown above (this is all in the first ten minutes of the film), because I want to explore the question of how Pazuzu’s awakening in northern Iraq relates to his presence being felt in a relatively distant and indirect manner elsewhere in the world. The two objects I wish to concentrate on are these: the first is a small medal, which is not actually unearthed by Merrin himself but another archaeologist, and immediately afterwards a stone object discovered by Merrin, which is referred to as an “amulet” in both the novel the film is based on and the screenplay (both written by Blatty), which is in the shape of the head of Pazuzu. Now the biggest mystery of the film is undoubtedly these two objects and how either of them or both of them, possibly working separately or in tandem, are able to unlock, transfer, and subsequently contain Pazuzu, and thereby set in motion the events of the narrative to come. The straightforward answer is that there is no obvious, nonspeculative pathology of these objects, but it appears that their role in driving this narrative is indispensable.

Let us first examine the medal. The first thing about it that we are asked to consider is its position as an anachronism within the site where it is found. Merrin tells us: “This is strange”, to which his colleague replies: “Not of the same period.” (although this is apparently a mistranslation of the conversation conducted in Arabic: according to William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist, From Novel to Film, Merrin is actually saying “What’s this doing here?”, an even more explicit foreshadowing). This medal does not appear in the novel as such, save for in the form of the “Saint Christopher” owned by the other protagonist Father Karras, and therefore was a revision made more significant considering the otherwise relative faithfulness of the adaptation.

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Figure 4: St. Joseph’s medal with inscription visible

The inscription reads “Sancte Joseph ora pro nobis”, or “Saint Joseph pray for us”. The Christian Saint Joseph is a patron of, among other things, people in doubt, children, and dying people, and naturally is a more recent revered figure than those of the ancient Assyrians of Nineveh where the medal is unearthed. Father Karras wears a visually identical medal around his neck, which during a dream sequence is seen falling onto a stone floor, possibly the stone steps outside the house where the MacNeils are staying. Karras’s medal is torn from his neck during his final struggle with Pazuzu. Following this, and Karras’s pleas to “Take me!” and not Regan, the demon transfers its centre of power into him. Now possessed, Karras jumps from the window and falls to the base of the steps, leaving the medal still inside Regan’s bedroom. Following this climax, the MacNeils’ housekeeper Sharon retrieves the medal and gives it to Chris MacNeil (wearing the white gloves: I know you can only see the hands in these shots). Chris then gives the medal to Father Dyer, Karras’s friend at Georgetown University. This is where the original cut of the film ends, but in the Extended Cut, Dyer gives the medal back to Chris and asks her to keep it herself, either as a memento, a confirmation of Chris’s journey from atheism to Christian faith (and we ought to remember that Blatty was a devout Catholic); or as holy protection, the much-lauded apotropaic object.

The second object, the amulet head of Pazuzu, does appear in the novel, although in that version of the narrative it is not unearthed by Merrin personally as is shown in the film. In both versions, however, Merrin’s colleague does utter the line “Evil against evil” upon Merrin’s inspection. But there is something additionally strange to this depiction of Pazuzu, in that it seems incomplete. Being that it is a head only it is missing the key features associated with the demon, such as the four wings and the specific posture of the arms, which we see immediately in the next scene, where Merrin travels to the statue on the site of the palace of Ashurbanipal. Given the importance of these features in Pazuzu’s representation, we can only conclude that a body did or still does exist and has become separated over time.

As for the missing body, we may look across to Georgetown after the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, whose fall to the bottom of the steps prefigures Father Karras’s. Here the detective Kinderman discovers what is described in the screenplay as “a fragment of clay from a crudely made sculpture”.

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Figure 5: Lieutenant Kinderman at the stone steps, overlooked by Regan MacNeil’s bedroom
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Figure 6: “Fragment of clay” found at the base of the steps by Kinderman

This is as clear it can be made out, and admittedly it still isn’t very clear. I’ll leave it to personal speculation as to whether this is supposed to be a Pazuzu body or not. Personally, I think this was made by Regan during the early stages of her possession, as she is shown in the film to be a keen sculptor and illustrator. Perhaps this is an attempt at a “regathering” of the fragments of Pazuzu’s inorganic demon, or maybe a new host body for Regan to impart the demon onto, regardless this is an unsuccessful attempt. I also want to return to the Karras dream sequence alluded to previously, where the Saint Joseph’s medal was dropped, and highlight this zone at the base of the steps as a point of convergence for many of the supernatural phenomena of the narrative. This is also where Karras dies while hosting Pazuzu, his being the “body” that replaces this one of the sculpture, this time more successfully, albeit at the cost of a man’s life.

As I’ve already suggested, the question of these objects’ journey across the narrative and the logics of their transportation is perhaps secondary to their seemingly active/ated inhuman sentience and implied causality. Which brings me back to Pazuzu itself and its manifestations around Regan, particularly in her room where she is bedridden for most of the second half of the narrative. I feel it is here where the complex relationship between the condition of the objects as sources of contamination (or inorganic demons) and sources of inoculation or protection (or apotropaic artefacts) can be most visibly examined.

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Figure 7: The ever-open window in Regan’s bedroom

In the room we have features resonant with what we know about Pazuzu: the open window though which an icy wind blows through serves as a portal for the Outside to infiltrate (consider it is Pazuzu itself that keeps opening it – being opened by rather than being open to). There are the physical, and if we choose to be pious, moral signs of deterioration within the victim herself; the sickness of body and mind brought about by the plague of the demon’s inhabitation. And at the centre we have these objects in proximity: the small statue outside the window, which we may assume is either causing or worsening Regan’s condition as a second- or third-class relic; and the St. Joseph’s medal worn by Father Karras during his visitations, which we might believe to be a protective relic for the priest, and instrumental in driving Pazuzu out of Regan. The counterparts of the two objects which were found buried together in Nineveh, and which signify the beginning and ending of the narrative.

Now, if we return to Negarestani’s notes on the inorganic demon with all of this in mind, we can observe the xeno-excitations caused by Merrin’s contact with the amulet, the progressive maladies and otherworldly consequences enacted by the host (Regan) through another fragment of the same amulet (whether original or not is unimportant), the subjective reprogramming and schizophrenic changes, and, finally, the imposition of another spiritual object as a method of exorcism (the medal but also the holy water and other Christian paraphernalia). But if we consider how Pazuzu is defeated, it is not through a deactivation of the inorganic relic but murder (suicide) of the host (Karras) – martyrdom, if we wish to go that far. Regan is healed, as we can see at the end of the narrative, but only through what amounts to a temporary fix, with the potency of the inorganic demon undiminished and therefore free to possess again. And this is where we may see Pazuzu’s host object as not only a source of malevolent power, but also as its own perverse apotropaic object. For if we follow this interpretation to its limit, we find The Exorcist to be not a story of salvation and purification via the magnificent power of Christ, overcoming the hideous polytheisms of an ancient and frightening otherworldly past. What we find instead is an atheistic and amoral overflowing of nonlinear narratives, subverting the dominant Christian one at every turn. We see Pazuzu in its other role, that of a protector of still further unfathomable Outsides, more terrible afflictions tearing at the anthropocentric known universe. We know this Pazuzu was worn as an amulet, as a desire to let the demon inside the host, to ward off Lamashtu, who was said to kidnap and consume children. In conclusion, we ought to read The Exorcist not as a triumph over pre-Christian superstition, but as a hyperstition, an actualization of recessive narratives on both fictional and metafictional levels, driven in this example by the concrete objectivity of autonomous relics.

Notes

[1] The following exegesis (until section break) is of note 4 (223-225) of Cyclonopedia (see Bibliography and Filmography below).

[2] Specifically, the chapter “The Dust Enforcer” (113-121).

Bibliography and Filmography

Blatty, W.P. (1974) William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist from Novel to Film, Toronto/New York, Bantam Books.

Blatty, W.P. (2011) The Exorcist, London, Transworld Publishers.

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

The Exorcist Wiki (no date) “St. Joseph’s medal”, available online at http://exorcist.wikia.com/wiki/St._Joseph_medal.

The Exorcist [film] (1973), dir. Friedkin, W.

Pazuzu image (Figure 1) is a scan of Cyclonopedia (116). Featured image and all other images are screenshots taken from The Exorcist.

Usage of the Term “Schizophrenia” Beyond Medical Discourse: Two Misreadings of Anti-Oedipus

The aim of this essay is to outline two very different political interpretations of the term schizophrenia as it is used in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (orig. published 1972), and ultimately to critique them both. In their book, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari aim to examine the diagnosis of schizophrenia, and the subject who undergoes this diagnosis, and propose that there exists a revolutionary potential within schizophrenia itself. From this, they develop an alternative method of critique to psychoanalysis, which they call schizoanalysis. The problem with psychoanalysis and psychiatry, as they see it, is that instead of allowing the patient’s pathological illnesses to emerge, these disciplines determine the patient’s condition in advance, using outdated theories from Freud that have since been supplanted, such as the Oedipus complex, which reduces all relations to unconscious desires to possess the mother and eliminate the father. Desire in Freudian psychoanalysis emerges through lack and castration, and interaction with the symbolic field. Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis is much simpler: desire operates as a series of flows between machines. The unconscious does not imagine or interpret, it merely produces. Thus, with the elimination of the unconscious’s need to symbolically interpret Oedipus, the question of desiring shifts from one of why (interpretation) to one of how (“desiring-production”).

The archetypal desiring subject for Deleuze and Guattari is what they refer to as the schizo. The opening pages of Anti-Oedipus cites examples from fictional and non-fictional sources: Büchner’s Lenz, Beckett’s protagonists, Nijinsky, and Daniel Paul Schreber. (Deleuze & Guattari 1984: 2) The schizo is contrasted with the schizophrenic, the “oedipalized” clinical patient, whom the writers are less interested in. For Deleuze and Guattari, the schizophrenic is a zero-intensity body without organs (BwO); whereas the schizo’s body is a surface on which to record the flows of desire. Similarly, society has its own BwO, on which the flows of capital are inscribed. (9-16) Schizoanalysis is therefore a methodology designed to liberate the flows within the delibidinalized, oedipalized subject: its revolutionary potential consists in overcoding the desires of the “father” (the psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, or “despot”, whichever the case may be) with those of the emancipated subject.[1]

In Angela Woods’ chapter on “Anti-Oedipus and the politics of the schizophrenic sublime”, in her book The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clinical and Cultural Theory (2011), the writer’s aim is “to demonstrate that in its proximity to clinical accounts of psychosis, Deleuze and Guattari’s model of a revolutionary form of schizophrenia is doubly problematic: first because it cannot be defended against becoming ‘mere’ pathology, and secondly because its political efficacy is dependent on, and I suggest limited by, its association with the sublime.” (Woods: 147) Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenia-as-process manifests itself in three “anoedipal” figures: the schizo, the paranoid, and the schizophrenic (148). Of these, the first is valorised by Deleuze and Guattari as “the realization or embodiment of the process of schizophrenia” (148, emphasis added); the infiltrator and disruptor of psychocapitalism. The schizo is compared favourably with other two schizophrenic subjects, who are not invested with revolutionary potential by Deleuze and Guattari. The paranoid overcodes desire, and reduces the world to the individual ego. The schizophrenic, finally, is a failed schizo; a catatonic, “full” BwO, who can now only remain within the walls of the capitalist-medical institution (149). Woods attempts to equate the three anoedipal figures with the three historical diagnostic categories of the schizophrenic: hebephrenia, paranoia, and catatonia (152). Woods is keen to problematise Deleuze and Guattari’s schizo by associating him with Emil Kraeplin’s outdated definition of the hebephrenic (now more commonly called “disorganised schizophrenia”, and no longer recognised by the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders); and also by suggesting that the three subjects are not easily distinguishable from one another.

Woods objects to what she labels the “depathologisation” of schizophrenia that occurs in Anti-Oedipus, as unlike the divergent fields of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and antipsychiatry, schizoanalysis is singular in arguing that schizophrenia “is the direct or unfettered expression of a naturally rebellious desire”, as opposed to “an aberration, an exception to the norm that is the result of a neurological, psychobiographical, or sociological problem.” (157-58) Schizophrenia becomes displaced by Deleuze and Guattari: no longer pathological, but “a deterritorializing process” which “swiftly dismisses the interdisciplinary debate concerning its aetiology.” (158) The political operation of decoded schizophrenia arises from its unbounded, “sublime” aspects, which leaves the redundant therapeutic/analytic carapace of psychoanalysis behind, so that its operatives – the revolutionary schizos – can freely navigate and disrupt the capitalist machine. Yet, as Woods has already explained, it is unclear from Deleuze and Guattari’s account as to what really distinguishes the schizo from the schizophrenic; what precisely in the capitalist environment interrupts the schizophrenic process which cuts off the schizo’s flows of desire (resulting in the catatonic schizophrenic). (160) This leads Woods to her most damaging criticism of schizoanalysis’s reappropriation of the diagnostic category of schizophrenia. For Deleuze and Guattari,

schizophrenia must in some sense remain resolutely exterior to capitalism; it must exceed the boundaries of social and psychic organization, refuse interpretation and interpretive closure, resist therapeutic intervention and theoretical representation. This is certainly an anti-fascist mode of being, as Foucault famously declared in the preface to Anti-Oedipus, but it is anti almost everything else as well. This model takes the concept of micro-politics to new extremes, radically undermining all forms of collective and individual political action. (Woods: 160)

In other words, Woods is asking, In what sense can the schizo hope to affect political change within the capitalist machine, if, through schizophrenia, he escapes capitalism altogether? Woods’ conclusion is that he cannot: the schizo is not only anti-Oedipus, he is anti-society, anti-politics; perhaps also even anti-anti-capitalist. In debasing the diagnostic category of schizophrenia, so that it no longer retains its meaning from the psychiatric context it originated from, Deleuze and Guattari have failed to reinstate the schizophrenic subject as the true revolutionary they had pinned their hopes on.

My primary criticism of Woods’ reading of Anti-Oedipus is in her usage of the word sublime, which holds vastly different significance than it does to Deleuze. Woods presumes that Anti-Oedipus ought to be read as a continuation of the work of prominent antipsychiatrist R.D. Laing, for whom the sublime holds a very particular meaning. In her attempt to trace a genealogy within and around psychiatry and psychoanalytical thought centred around subliminal interpretations of schizophrenia within cultural theory, Woods takes for granted Deleuze and Guattari’s debt to Laing’s The Politics of Experience and other texts, hastily making the following observations:

Deleuze and Guattari make their model of agency contingent upon schizophrenia’s association with the sublime. Schizophrenia’s political efficacy […] is for Deleuze and Guattari a function of its sublimity […]. (Woods: 147)

In the broadest sense, [Deleuze and Guattari’s] schizo-as-outsider radicalizes R.D. Laing’s model of schizophrenia as an experience of the sublime, a transcendent experience, a voyage into inner space. (Woods: 159, emphasis added)

The latter conclusion provides a straightforward enough summary of Laing’s preoccupations with schizophrenia during the writing of The Politics of Experience. Woods cites Laing’s assertion in the chapter on schizophrenia as being “one of the forms in which […] the light [may begin] to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds”, (Woods: 159; Laing: 107; Deleuze & Guattari: 131-32) suggesting that this retreat into psychic inner space becomes a form of emancipatory potential in the hands of Deleuze and Guattari. However, this genealogy, as suggested, is only ever assumed, and never fully explained by Woods.

It is possible that Woods missed the work undertaken by Deleuze on the Kantian sublime in Kant’s Critical Philosophy (orig. published 1963) and Difference and Repetition (orig. published 1968), both of which predate Anti-Oedipus (which rarely uses established Deleuzian terminology in the first place). Deleuze was no Kantian in any traditional sense: he considered the father of German Idealism an “enemy” to his own philosophical project, (1995: 6) and his monograph on Kant is a radical reinterpretation of the cornerstone texts of contemporary philosophy.

Deleuze is outwardly critical of the “transcendental method” of Kantian ethics and its attempts to mediate the three active faculties of imagination, understanding and reason; scornfully rebranded by Deleuze as a “common sense” which “designates […] an a priori accord of faculties, or more precisely the ‘result’ of such an accord.” (Deleuze 1984: 21) The Critique of Pure Reason is for Deleuze first and foremost a philosophical exercise dominated by the faculty of understanding; the Critique of Practical Reason a similar exercise for which reason is the legislating faculty. Both arrangements are rigid and hierarchical: practical surely, but philosophically uninteresting. For the former, common sense emerges as the negotiation between the three active faculties, allowing for statements of recognition – or, “the harmonious exercise of all the faculties upon a supposed same object” (2014: 176). For the latter, the legislation of reason subsumes the Good to the law: the ethical subject is determined in relation to the categorical imperative (“you must!”); the law is not determined by the ethical subject (1984: x).

Deleuze’s concern is elsewhere. He wishes to liberate thought, particularly the faculty of imagination, from their determinations in Kantian transcendentalism. The question Deleuze posits in chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition, “The Image of Thought” is: How much more can philosophy become?[2] He sees philosophy being governed by the “dogmatic image of thought”, of which Kantian- (and Cartesian-) derived common sense is a postulate. The only Critique relevant to the movement away from the dogmatic image is the third, the Critique of Judgment, and the Kantian notion of the sublime. Deleuze reflects on this sublime’s power to force the imagination (the legislative faculty of judgement) to confront its own limit (phantasteon) (Kant: §26; Deleuze 2014: 188n10), and by doing so, produce an act of “violence” (Deleuze 2014: 188), an original breakthrough for the possibility of thought. Thus, it is when Kant is being perhaps his least “Kantian” that Deleuze finds him most valuable:

If the faculties can […] enter into relationships which are variable, but regulated by one or other of them, it must follow that all together they are capable of relationships which are free and unregulated, where each goes to its own limit and nevertheless shows the possibility of some sort of harmony with the others … Thus we have the Critique of Judgement as foundation of Romanticism. (Deleuze 1984: xi-xii)

It is this permutation of the sublime, one derived from an unorthodox reading of Kant, which Deleuze and Guattari carry into Anti-Oedipus, which takes the faculty of desire as that which it wishes to interpret. Woods, on the other hand, is content to stress the significance of Laing’s own, distinct function of the word sublime without fully acknowledging the chasm of difference between the nature of his body of work and Anti-Oedipus. While Laing’s conception of the sublime as an “inner voyage” is clearly admired and engaged with, Deleuze and Guattari are also critical of antipsychiatry’s “maintained familialism” (Deleuze & Guattari: 95). Despite his status as the most revolutionary of the antispychiatrists, (360) even Laing’s attempt to progress beyond this familialism was not wholly successful.[3]

Perhaps Woods’ strongest claim is that the identities of the revolutionary schizo (undertaking the Laingian subliminal inner voyage) and the catatonic schizophrenic (the full body without organs) are not clearly distinguishable as Deleuze and Guattari have produced them; for her they are “sides of a mobius strip, […] too intimately interlinked to be meaningfully separated.” (Woods: 160) But as we have seen, Deleuze’s prior engagements with the Kantian sublime reveal a very different intention to Laing. Deleuze and Guattari are not interested in ego-loss as a means for “true” ego discovery; rather, the task of schizoanalysis is that of “liberating the prepersonal singularities” enclosed and repressed by the normally constructed ego, “well below conditions of identity” (Deleuze & Guattari: 362). Thus the schizophrenic and the schizo operate on very different levels: the former as captured, oedipalized, incarcerated by the analyst-despot; the latter not a subject as such, rather an oscillation of potentialities, flows, etc. – in sum, a field of desires, active.

***

It is strange that one reading of Anti-Oedipus would interpret its’ political praxis as risking being withdrawn back into the very inertia that that same praxis set out to move away from. But it is perhaps even stranger that the very opposite criticism of the text has also found its way into recent conversations surrounding it: that Anti-Oedipus is too unstable, too nihilistic, when taken to its logical extremes. This is the view shared by critics of the accelerationist movement in political-philosophical thought; more specifically, the arguments made against the British continental philosopher Nick Land.[4] Working from an unmistakably Deleuzo-Guattarian starting point, Land seeks to exacerbate the processes of deterritorialization (dissolution of the ego, liberation of desire, etc.) within the capitalist framework itself, unleashing market forces in order for them to reach an “absolute” limit (Williams: 2). Land echoes particular hypotheticals found within Anti-Oedipus: primarily the following, which poses the idea of a continuing, “deterritorializing” schizophrenization of the processes of capitalism:

But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one? – To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises the Third World countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist “economic solution”? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process,” as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is, we haven’t seen anything yet. (Deleuze & Guattari: 239-40)

In a series of essays published from 1992 onwards, Land sought to affirm and absolutize the “inhuman” processes of economic deterritorialization. Capitalism, as he has interpreted it, remains in a state of infancy, of which schizophrenia is its extrinsic limit and tendency, “beyond sociality” itself, and “whose evacuation from history appears inside history as capitalism.” (Land 2011: 305) Capital itself exists as “underdeveloped schizophrenia,” (313); its true potential is as a means to deterritorialize subjectivity and unleash “machinic desire”, (337-8) which itself “diffuses all law into automatism” and self-erases politics, society, and individual and collective history. (322-3, 338) Socialist/Marxist/communist projects fail, following this erasure of collectivity and historical genesis, (340) and because of their inability to recognise capitalism as pure creativity without external limit. (624-6) The only viable option in the oncoming post-political era is neoconservatism (448): Landian schizoanalysis makes an enemy of the socius, and moves “in the opposite direction to socialistic regulation; pressing towards ever more uninhibited marketization of the processes that are tearing down the social field”. (340-1) In summary, the flows of capital and the flows of machinic desire are as one. Capitalist society, schizophrenic by its very nature, may only emancipate machinic desire by accelerating (schizophrenizing) its own machinery: tending towards ever greater economic liberalism, automation, globalization, commodification; and dismantling of law and (human) subjectivity, which are but obstacles to the limitless potentials of time-cancelling capitalism.

The role of schizophrenia in Land’s project has its origins in Anti-Oedipus, clearly, but its appropriation is uniquely his own. “Far from being a specifiable defect of human central nervous system functioning,” he writes, “schizophrenia is the convergent motor of cyberpositive escalation: an extraterritorial vastness to be discovered.” (Land 2011: 308) It is a universal condition existing beyond the social, as the other (more developed) side to internalised capitalism, wherein it is neuroticized and incarcerated, “pinned down by the rubberized claws of sanity.” (305-6) Despite approaching Anti-Oedipus from entirely separate disciplinary backgrounds and reference frameworks, there are noticeable commonalities between Land’s analysis of the outcome of that text’s treatment of the schizophrenic condition and that of Woods. Both essentially interpret schizophrenia’s objective tendency as that of ego-loss, which can then function as an escape from Oedipus. However, whereas Woods sees Anti-Oedipus as a depathologisation of psychiatric schizophrenia, Landianism operates either from an always-already depathologised origin, or otherwise seeks to extend its original pathology to the entire social body. In addition, Woods predicted the danger of schizoanalysis as a lapse back into catatonic, “full” schizophrenia; yet for Land, collapse of the subjective “patient” (not a word he would use) cannot come quickly enough.

Many commentators of Land’s (post-)political engagements with Deleuze and Guattari have emphasised how dangerous his co-option of their accelerationist tendencies is. I am less interested in these discussions here. I am only looking to provide preliminary answers to a basic question: Is Land’s treatment of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis a legitimate continuation of their proposal in Anti-Oedipus? In summary, I take the same position as Mark Fisher (2014) and Alex Williams (2013): in short, no, because of its indelicate conflation of the two axiomatics – capitalism and schizophrenia.

While Land’s cybergothic remix of Deleuze and Guattari is in so many respects superior to the original, his deviation from their understanding of capitalism is fatal. Land collapses capitalism into what Deleuze and Guattari call schizophrenia, thus losing their most crucial insight into the way that capitalism operates via simultaneous processes of deterritorialization and compensatory reterritorialization. (Fisher 2014: 344-45)

Deleuze and Guattari are very clear on this point: there is no “absolute” deterritorialization. One cannot deterritorialize in isolation; there will always exist a complimentary reterritorialization. This is because capitalism is the relative limit of society, and operates by substituting or pushing back the absolute schizophrenic decoded flows with its own “extremely rigorous axiomatic” (the boundaries of the law, morality, sanity, and so on). Hence, capitalism certainly has an innate schizophrenic tendency, in that it decodes, yet at the same time, it also is constantly inhibiting this decoding (deterritorialization) with the restrictive axiomatic Order (reterritorialization). Therefore, for Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism and schizophrenia are fundamentally different: they may be examinable as operating on one and the same economy, but schizophrenia is not the true identity of an infantile capitalism, rather “its difference, its divergence, and its death.” (Deleuze & Guattari: 245-46) Deleuze and Guattari are emphatic on this point: if capitalism does not replace the schizophrenic decoded flows with a restrictive, reterritorializing or axiomatic measure, it is not capitalism at all. Land chooses to subvert this difference between capitalistic and schizophrenic flows, but by doing so he leaves behind the nuance of Deleuze and Guattari’s argument: that the function of schizophrenic nature of capitalism itself functions differently from that of the schizo’s.

There is also a further problem, identified by Ray Brassier (2010), that I wish to introduce, concerning the way in which Land approaches intensification. As a fundamentally non-representational philosophy, Landianism encounters the problem of accessing the machinic unconscious without recourse to the undoings of representational, “transcendental illusions”. Deleuze overcomes this to an extent, according to Brassier, due to his own transcendental empiricism’s inheritance from Bergsonian vitalism, which suggests a sub-representational level below that of direct experience, accessible through intuition. However, Land attempts to eliminate Bergsonism from his own philosophy, replacing him with a “machinic” materialism: purely productive, and operating on the scale intensificatory/deinensificatory (and preferring the former) rather than the epistemological scale of truth/falsity. The philosophical focus then becomes “a question of how your schizoanalytical practice accentuates or intensifies primary production, or on the contrary, delays and inhibits it”; which in itself is not particularly problematic, but beyond representation intensity cannot be mapped, and there can be no translation of the directly inexperienceable “cosmic” schizophrenia as primary process, or death. The materiality of this acceleration presents further restrictions, creatively redefined by Land:

If you’re accelerating, there are material constraints upon your capacity to accelerate, but there must also be a transcendental speed limit at some point. The ultimate limit is not a limit at all for [Land], it’s death, or cosmic schizophrenia. That’s the ultimate horizon. Land unabashedly endorses this remarkable thesis of Anti-Oedipus, but strips it of all its palliatives, about how this might generate new forms of creative existence, etc. For him it’s just: “at the end of the process is death”. (Brassier: 2010)

Landian acceleration reaches an impasse that Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis doesn’t: at the point of death, accelerationism runs out of fuel.  As Brassier asks rhetorically: “how can you intensify when there is no longer anything left to intensify?” From a practical standpoint, Land’s “machinic metaphysics” becomes useless, and from a theoretical one, self-contradictory.

***

What I hope to have shown is that, despite the obvious disparity between the background and the nature of the interpretations of Deleuze and Guattari’s adoption of schizophrenia in their critical discourse in Anti-Oedipus, each of the readings centered around the two readings I have chosen to examine identify features that are inherently similar, and therefore common to their very different conclusions. For Woods, schizophrenia is decontextualized or depathologised when transposed from psychiatric into schizoanalytic vernacular. Deleuze and Guattari have not clearly differentiated the processes of oedipalization which interrupt the schizo’s inner voyage to maximal intensity and form the zero-intensity schizophrenic subject. Furthermore, from an outsider’s perspective, a schizophrenic inner voyage and catatonic inertia are indiscernibly similar, and neither, from this perspective, are by themselves revolutionary. Meanwhile, for Land, Deleuze and Guattari are too reserved, too timid, to follow through with their schizophrenic machinic desire. They are content to differentiate the flows and schizophrenic nature of capitalism from those of schizophrenia itself, rather than correctly identify the former as a primitive and undeveloped expression of the latter. The danger of Land’s understanding of the relationship between capitalism and schizophrenia for his critics is not that they implode into indiscernible confusion, but that they explode into fatalistic, directionless intensity – unsustainable nihilism. Whether these common features are structural weaknesses in the manner of the usage of schizophrenia by Deleuze and Guattari in their formulation of schizoanalysis, or whether these features arise from separate but related misunderstandings of the analyses and intentions of Anti-Oedipus remains to be comprehensively answered; thus, to conclude, I intend to begin to do so.

In one sense, Woods is right to labour the point that Deleuze and Guattari do not approach the term schizophrenia with enough care taken to acknowledge its various usages and the formulation and specification of meaning it has historically undergone. Given Woods’ background in the medical humanities, she is entirely right to emphasise the unsatisfying, and to an extent dated appropriation of this word, which even during the time of Anti-Oedipus’ composition was beginning to take on new meanings, which undoubtedly were known to at least Guattari. (Woods: 151-52) Regardless, her conclusions – that schizoanalysis is an extension of antipsychiatry, which cannot capitalise on its parent’s revolutionary potential – are hastily drawn, as they are overly presumptive of the necessity of certain antipsychiatric ideas such as Laing’s conception of the sublime for schizoanalysis. This, I have explained, is not the case: Deleuze and Guattari work to distance themselves from antipsychiatry, which they are arguably more critical of than sympathetic to, and Anti-Oedipus can as easily be read as a continuation of both writers’ research projects (especially Deleuze’s) into the production of revolutionary “lines of escape” across different strata of philosophy, political and psychoanalytical thought.

Land’s critics, many of which have engaged with his work for several years, have already helped to delegitimise his adoption of Deleuzo-Guattarian schizophrenia, and it is difficult to find serious gaps or faults in their analyses. Schizophrenia and capitalism, as those terms are characterised in Anti-Oedipus, are not equivocal, and it is not possible according to Deleuze and Guattari to absolutise the deterritorialization processes, as capitalism always recodes with one hand as what it has decoded with the other. It is also not possible for schizophrenic machinic desire to overcode representation, because without the vitalist epistemology of the original Deleuzo-Guattarian schizoanalysis, Landianism is left to aimlessly attempt to intensify the processes of a capitalism robust enough to reterritorialize these attempts of neoconservative/neoliberal sabotage.

If there is a problem with Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis, therefore, it does not appear, from these conclusions, to manifest itself at the level of appropriation of the term schizophrenia. While their schizophrenia clearly differs from the psychiatric term schizophrenia, challenges to its usage by Woods are not successful, as on a functional level (and Deleuze and Guattari are all about functionality rather than interpretation) no serious conflict arises to derail its particular employment in Anti-Oedipus. Deleuze and Guattari actually utilise the word skilfully and delicately, regardless of its authenticity or accuracy to its genesis in psychiatric terminology, to the point where when this precise reappropriation (reterritorialization) in Anti-Oedipus is (deliberately) missed by Land, the force of schizoanalytics easily falls apart. This is not to say that there is no room for improvement to the model of schizoanalytic process in the future – which has been attempted not least by Deleuze and Guattari themselves, in their development of rhizomatics in volume two of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, A Thousand Plateaus (1980) – simply that it has not yet been proven, by these examples, that any significant failure is to be found on the level of Deleuze and Guattari’s adoption of the vocabulary of the medical sciences.

Notes

[1] Schizophrenia was one of Guattari’s concerns as a practicing psychiatrist, but it is also brought up in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. In Anti-Oedipus, however, both writers sought to maximise on the possibility for political revolution through schizophrenic tactics. While it is a text that goes to some length critiquing the basis of psychoanalytic theory and contemporary psychiatric practice, these narratives, which take up the first half of the book, can easily be interpreted as a necessary stepping-stone for the critique of capitalistic society (chapter 3) and the “first tasks” of schizoanalysis, their newly-developed critical methodology through which capitalistic and psychoanalytic repression can be simultaneously reinterpreted (chapter 4).

[2] I am indebted to Miguel de Beistegui for this expression.

[3] Although, confusingly, Deleuze and Guattari claim the opposite earlier in the text: “In the whole of psychiatry only Jaspers, then Laing have grasped what process signified, and its fulfilment – and so escaped the familialism that is the ordinary bread and board of psychoanalysis and psychiatry.” (131)

[4] Defenders of accelerationism, including self-appointed accelerationists such as Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, would attempt to extricate an alternative “political” accelerationism from its apolitical (or at the very least, politically misguided) Landian origins. Williams and Srnicek define their vision for an accelerationist politics within the contours of Marxism-socialism; and oppose “Landian neoliberalism”, in which “[w]e experience only the increasing speed of a local horizon,” to “an accelerationism that is also navigational, an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility.” See Williams & Srnicek (2.2).

Bibliography

Brassier, R. (2010) “Accelerationism: Ray Brassier”, moskvax, available online at https://moskvax.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/accelerationism-ray-brassier/.

Deleuze, G. (1984) Kant’s Critical Philosophy [La Philosophie Critique de Kant], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., London, The Athlone Press.

— (1995) “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, in Negotiations, 1972-1990, trans. Joughin, M., New York, Columbia University Press, 3-12.

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

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénie], trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. & Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd.

Fisher, M. (2014) “Terminator vs Avatar”, in Mackay, R. & Avenessian, A. (eds.) #ACCELERATE: The Accelerationist Reader, Falmouth/Berlin, Urbanomic/Merve, 335-46.

Kant, I. (1987) Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], trans. Pluhar, W.S., Indianapolis/Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company.

Laing, R. D. (1967) The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books Ltd.

Land, N. (2011) Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, eds. Mackay, R. & Brassier, R., Falmouth/New York, Urbanomic/Sequence Press.

Williams, A. (2013) “Escape Velocities”, in e-flux #46, available online at http://www.e-flux.com/issues/46-june-2013/.

Williams, A. & Srnicek (2014) “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, in Mackay, R. & Avenessian, A. (eds.) #ACCELERATE: The Accelerationist Reader, Falmouth/Berlin, Urbanomic/Merve, 347-62.

Woods, A. (2011) “Anti-Oedipus and the politics of the schizophrenic sublime”, in The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clinical and Cultural Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 145-61.

Featured image credits: J.M.W. Turner (c.1840) Sun Setting over a Lake, oil on canvas, 911 x 1226 mm, London, Tate.

The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 2

This is the second of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

“Defamiliarizing the work ethic”: Weeks and Postwork Imaginaries

As stated in Part 1 of this essay, the purpose of Kathi Weeks’s study of Max Weber is to examine the historical development of the work ethic’s rationalising spread, with the intention of gesturing towards a reconfiguration of the status of work beyond the deep-rooted ethical validation presently firmly entrenched in mainstream societal views. Weeks concludes the first chapter of The Problem With Work – her identification of the five antimonies previously discussed – by highlighting the fractured and inconsistent qualities of the rationale behind work, claiming that it can and should be contested (77).[1] In the course of making such a statement, she draws on several other writers and thinkers who can be broadly grasped under the consciously-adopted label of postwork scholarship. Specifically, Weeks quotes from the work of Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, two of the authors of “The Post-Work Manifesto” (with Dawn Esposito and Margaret Yard, orig. 1998), one of the earliest adopters of this label (76-77).[2] This manifesto, first published in Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler’s Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation (1998), proposes an “alternative direction” to the culture of downsizing and jobless futures of contemporary postindustrial modernity, with a new shared ambition of shorter working hours, higher wages, and additional free time (Aronowitz, et. al., 31-80; esp. 31-33). The “Post-Work Manifesto” helped to formalise a series of radical ideas concerning the end of a work-based economy, many of which found their way into Weeks’s book. For this section of the essay, we will examine some of the central themes of what Weeks names postwork imaginaries, and further assess the reception of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in relation to the emerging postwork school of sociological thought.

The first common feature of a postwork imaginary is a demand for fewer working hours, or, in the most radical of cases, a reconfiguration of the capitalist economy that would reduce the position of work in people’s lives to a minimum. Social action that rallies around the objective of a reduction of work is not a new phenomenon, however, it has been notably absent for quite a long time. For example, in Volume 1 of Capital Marx documents the struggle in England for a reduction of the working day for factory workers between the years 1833 and 1864 (Marx: 389-411). Partially as a result of protest and strike action, the legal working day was reduced from 15 to 12 hours for women and “young persons” (13 to 18 years), and a series of industry-specific legislation was brought in during this time which reduced (and in some cases eliminated) night-work for children and women (ibid.). The passing of the Factory Act of 1850 and subsequent legislation had a global influence; following the American Civil War, the General Congress of Labour in the US convened in Baltimore in 1866 to support the “eight hours’ agitation”, in an attempt to reduce the “normal working day” to eight hours for all workers (ibid.: 414). It was assumed by figures as significant as John Maynard Keynes that as society became more affluent, there would be an even greater desire to reduce working hours further. In 1931, he predicted that one hundred years hence the ideal amount of time spent working would be three hours a day, or fifteen hours a week.[3] That the critical space for resisting current working hours today appears so closed-off is for Weeks a sign of the continuing grip of the work ethic’s reification of the current standard of time allotted to work: we work for eight hours a day because we must, regardless of our economic standing (3). Only through resisting the work ethic, then, can a general reduction of working hours be achieved, and must be achieved as a response to the ongoing precarity and scarcity of sufficiently-paid and meaningful work.

The other key demand of postwork advocates is that of an increase in the general share of wealth; more specifically, a re-evaluation of the demand for wages in sectors of work that traditionally have not been waged, especially domestic labour. However, there is some reluctance from postwork thinkers, Weeks included, about returning to the approaches of 1970s feminism, and attempts to wage housework (113-118). “One would be hard-pressed to find a political vision within feminism that has less credibility today than wages for housework”, says Weeks, yet, with a number of caveats it is a subject (rather than a project) worth revisiting for the purposes of formulating new responses to the current inequalities of work (114). Weeks rejects these movements’ central demand, because, as demonstrated above in the discussion over the ethic’s simultaneous capacity to include and exclude new demographics into its fold, the approach of waging housework “threatened to resolidify this labor as women’s work performed in the family” (114, 148-149). It is not only the ethics of work, but waged work itself that, in its current incarnation, is a source of division and alienation (137). However, the advantage of such an approach to overcoming labour struggles was the public and political attention given to the movement as a whole, and texts such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (orig. 1973) in particular (148, 119).

Weeks’s real interest, however, is “in remaking wages for housework”, rather than in reviving failed approaches to applying the current wage system to the household (118, emphasis added). Recent interest in the proposal for a universal basic income (UBI or simply “basic income”) have inspired Weeks and other postwork advocates with alternative economic paradigms to those currently normalised by the dominant ethics of work. Weeks proposes that a UBI could offer a more pragmatic solution to the problem of socioeconomic inequality that is a consequence of the work ethic’s undervaluation of “feminised” forms of labour (147, 150). UBI would provide not only a better perspective on the crisis within work than the wages for housework demand, by offering “tangible benefits to a broader constituency”, but would also avoid further entrenching division across lines of gender (ibid.). This is because UBI, in the form Weeks advocates, would not function as a reward for distinct categories of workers, but would be granted to all citizens universally and unconditionally, “regardless of their family or household relationships, regardless of other incomes, and regardless of their past, present, or future employment status” (138). The purpose of UBI would be to provide a “floor” to individuals, a regular amount of money that would ensure a minimum standard of living without a dependence on waged work.[4] It is important to Weeks’s proposal, however, that the terms on which UBI is negotiated ensure that the current rights of individuals be protected: in order for it to pose a sufficient challenge to the problems of waged work, UBI would have to serve as a standalone income and not a means-tested welfare payment or a supplement to existing incomes (138-139). Presented in this way, “basic income not only recognizes but offers a response to the inability of both the wage system and the institution of the family to serve as reliable mechanisms of income distribution” (147).

For postwork writers such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the shift towards an economy predicated on UBI is an increasing necessary solution to problems surrounding the increasing automation of jobs and the shrinking job market, as well as the reduction of workers’ rights and the commodification of labour (Srnicek & Williams: 85-127). In their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015),[5] they make the link between the importance of UBI and the work ethic as a cultural obstacle to its achievability, in a pair of chapters indebted to Weeks’s The Problem With Work (ibid.). As Srnicek and Williams understand it, the work ethic has become ingrained into “our very self-conception”, to the extent that many cannot appreciate a meaningful life outside of work (Srnicek & Williams: 124). Much work is also seen by them to be disempowering, and harmful on both physical and psychological levels (Srnicek & Williams: 121, 124). It is imperative therefore that the concept of work-in-itself as an “ultimate good” be re-evaluated (Srnicek & Williams: 122). The advantage of UBI is that it would have the potential to destabilise the current ethos of work: given a basic income, much “hazardous, boring and unattractive” work would fall out of favour, meaning that the wages for work of this nature would have to increase (ibid.). This would lead to a gradual change from a profitability-based system of value for work to a meritocracy based on the nature of the work itself, loosening the hold of the dominant work ethic through economic necessity (ibid.). Yet it must work both ways: in order for UBI to gain acceptance to a general public,[6] the values surrounding work also need to change (Srnicek & Williams: 125-126). Srnicek and Williams illustrate their hypothesis of a mutual relationship between UBI and the perceived values of work using the image of the positive feedback loop, borrowed from cybernetics, but they admit that in order for this loop to open, the change in work values would need to have happened first (Srnicek & Williams: 122, 125). They suggest that there already exists in the “real desires of people” a dissatisfaction for work that could be tapped into given a “counter-hegemonic” push against the conditions of work, and a widening of the “Overton Window”: the “bandwidth” of cultural acceptability of “realistic” ideas in mainstream public discourse (Srnicek & Williams: 126, 131, 134).

The combative strategies Weeks employs against the ethics of work differs somewhat from those proposed by Srnicek and Williams, in that hers are centred around actions of the refusal of work, rather than primarily on wider cultural reconfiguration (13-14). Refusal as a strategy against the inadequacies of work derives from the tradition of 1970s autonomist Marxism: some of the texts already cited contribute to this body of work, namely those of Baudrillard and Dalla Costa and James.[7] According to the autonomist tradition, it is the actions and insubordinations of collective workers, and not capital or labour power, that have served as the driving force of class history: it is the collective working-class that serves as the “locus of political agency” (93-94). Refusal thus serves the collectives as a vital tactic of regaining and exerting power over the conditions of their work, including the number of hours spent doing labour (96-101). Weeks believes that refusing work provides workers with an opportunity not only to regain control over their lives, but the means of overcoming the work ethic itself. At its core, this can be

a refusal of the ideology of work as highest calling and moral duty, a refusal of work as the necessary center of social life and means of access to the rights and claims of citizenship, and a refusal of the necessity of capitalist control of production. It is a refusal, finally, of the asceticism of those – even those on the Left – who privilege work over all other pursuits, including “carefree consumption.” Its immediate goals are presented as a reduction of work, in terms of both hours and social importance, and a replacement of capitalist forms of organization by new forms of cooperation. It is not only a matter of refusing exploited and alienated labor, but of refusing “work itself as the principle of reality and rationality”.[8]

Although not himself explicitly a postwork thinker, many of the foundational ideas surrounding Weeks’ and the other postwork theorists’ understanding of the necessary stages towards thinking beyond the work ethic align with Weber’s much earlier proposals in the Protestant Ethic. In particular, Weber’s suggestion that the ethic is irrational – “so little a matter of course” – and therefore unnecessary for the worker to try to follow or emulate, leads directly to Weeks’s proposal to defamiliarize the ethic, to “render strange” (Weber: 54; Weeks: 43). Yet there is an important distinction to be made here. Weber was a rationalist: although he appears to denounce the Puritan rationalization project of which the Protestant ethic is an element, he does not seek to supplant the idea of a rational society. Instead, Weber attempts to preserve rational thinking from what he considers to be the irrational ethos of work, by demonstrating the multiple nature of rationality; how it is possible to “rationalize life from fundamentally different basic points of view and in very different directions” (Weber: 78). From the very beginning of the Protestant Ethic, Weeks observes, Weber addresses the readers as “denizens of the rationalized world” (45). Yet, as we have seen, Weeks is interested instead in shoring up the antimonic nature of the work ethic – its complementary rationalist and irrationalist tendencies – stepping back from the necessity of a rationalized society, and providing a more nuanced response to the problem of the perception of work. To be precise, unlike Weber, Weeks does not feel the need to put rationality first in her critique of the work ethic. Her approach to defamiliarization is not to show how historical and current ideas surrounding work are irrational, but to move from a rationalist to a utopian discourse: a mode of discourse enabling “a relativizing of the present, to mark it as a contingent product of human history and, thereby, to open the possibility of a different future” (205).

Conclusion

Weber’s Protestant Ethic has been influential on the formulation of an identifiable concept of a work ethic by contemporary studies of the nature and value of employment. In the book, Weber demonstrates how a Protestant Ethic developed along lines of religious development in the seventeenth century, and the transformative impact this had not only on how work was organised and extracted by employers, but also how work was perceived across the whole of Puritan society. By focusing on the calling as the incentive by which worldly activity came to be arranged, Weber succeeds in his attempt to illustrate the irrational fervour by which work was, and still is, undertaken, accepted as part of the natural order, and allowed to develop under industrial capitalism after the system of belief which had borne it no longer dominated. Weber illustrates that the totalising effect of work on an individual’s life, or a belief in the inherent value of work, were not always common features of the attitudes towards work, and that these ideas emerged from a specific point in history and as the result of a specific religious doctrine that promoted individualism and proposed intangible rewards for those showing themselves to be the worthiest in the eyes of God. Later theorists on the sociological and cultural roles of work have been able to utilise the Protestant Ethic as a starting point for thinking about the new challenges posed by work, and how the (very) old spectres of the Protestant ethic have continued to haunt the current values of work. The ethic today, now a secularised but still religion-derived work ethic, often acts as a blockade to the new problems of work and the means of taking them on. Of the five antimonies Weeks uses to define the “new” work ethic, three are derived from the Protestant Ethic directly, and the other two (subordination and insubordination, exclusion and inclusion) can be found to some (albeit limited) extent in Weber’s later comments in that book about the persistence of asceticism in the industrial and modern work ethics.

Weeks’s responses to the current problems of work – normalisation of inequality, underemployment, the unsustainable necessity of wages for all – are organised around the idea of the refusal of work, as predicated by the autonomous Marxists of the 1970s. The current perceptions of work, which are often taken for granted as natural, need to be denaturalised, to be rendered strange, in order for their inconsistencies and undesirability to be exposed and ultimately rejected. UBI and the need for fewer working hours are some of the main innovations being put forward by Weeks, and postwork academics as a whole; their adoption would, Srnicek and Williams believe, help to invent new ways of perceiving the relationship between workers and employment at the same time as cultural shifts around attitudes to work would help to reconfigure these policies as desirable to the many. Radical changes to the work-based economy, such as full unemployment, do not serve necessarily as goals, but as provocations, part of a utopian way of thinking around which new movements rejecting the dominant conditions of employment can be contested. Weeks is one particular thinker who has analysed the negative formulations of the work ethic as illustrated by Weber, and identified the utopian possibilities for social change dormant within the Protestant Ethic’s historicist thesis.

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography).

[2] Aronowitz and DiFazio wrote in 1994: “the quality and the quantity of paid labor no longer justify – if they ever did – the underlying claim derived from religious sources that has become the basis of contemporary social theory and social policy: the view that paid work should be the core of personal identity”.

[3] In “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (Keynes 1931: 358-374).

[4] Weeks’s model for UBI is based on Phillipe van Parijs’s definition put forward in “Competing Justifications of Basic Income”. See van Parijs (1992: 3-43).

[5] See also my own “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams” (2016).

[6] Srnicek and Williams point to a number of early proposals and trials of various forms of basic income in the recent past, including in the US under Presidents Nixon and Carter, but chalk their failures up to perceived problems in funding by both opposing politicians and the general public (Srnicek & Williams: 118, 123). Regardless, the authors insist that “most research in fact suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programmes, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion” (Srnicek & Williams: 123). More recently, a vote in June 2016 on implementing basic income in Switzerland suggested that only 23% of the public actively supported the proposal (BBC News, “Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan”).

[7] Baudrillard: 141. “It is no longer then a question of an internal, dialectical negativity in the mode of production, but a refusal, pure and simple, of production as the general axiomatic of social relations.” (Emphasis added.) Dalla Costa & James: 10. “If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.”

[8] Weeks: 99 (some emphasis added). The quotation in the last sentence is taken from Baudrillard: 141 (emphasis added).

Bibliography

Aronowitz, S. & Cutler, J. (eds.) (1998) Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, New York/London, Routledge.

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

BBC News (2016) “Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan”, available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36454060.

Dalla Costa, M. & James, S. (1975) The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, third edition, Bristol, Falling Wall Press Ltd.

Keynes, J.M. (1931) Essays in Persuasion, London, Macmillan and Co., Limited.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London/New York, Verso.

Van Parijs, P. (ed.) (1992) Arguing for Basic Income: Ethical Foundations for a Radical Reform, London, Verso.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.

The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 1

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part 2 can be found here.

The Culture of Work and Its Problems

A work-based economy presents several problems to individuals and collectives, and whilst there is a strong historical precedence for challenges made against the conditions of work, rarely is the notion of work in its entirety contested. For those willing to confront it, such as Kathi Weeks, the problem of work exists on the cultural level, in the social mentality. The dominant ideals of work, put crudely, are as follows: work is an inherent good, regardless of what is being produced; work is a valuable, even honourable way of spending time; work is an economic necessity for all, regardless of personal wealth, whether a minimum-wage employee or investment banker; all should aspire to full-time employment whenever possible; work allows us to be creative and expressive, and is perhaps the primary means of defining ourselves. Yet the realities of work are often very different, often limiting or curtailing worker autonomy and imagination, often highly demanding to the body and mind, often precarious, and a means of disempowerment of the many and empowerment of the few. Many people derive no satisfaction from working; some work only because they feel they have no other choice, and accept the drudgery and suffering as the price for relative stability and security.

The leading beliefs about work, which are perhaps best examined in the United States and Western Europe, culminate in a work ethic, with historical and religious precedence. Max Weber, in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (orig. 1905) set out to identify the conditions under which the prevailing ideals of work were first established, locating a larval forbearer arising from the many Puritan sects of the seventeenth century, and establishing itself most firmly in the United States shortly thereafter through the likes of Benjamin Franklin. This Protestant ethic shares much with the work ethic of today: a focus on individual accumulation over collective responsibility, an inner righteousness to working activity (what Weber calls a “worldly asceticism”), and an implicit mistrust in (sometimes moral condemnation of) the lazy or workshy, to name a few examples. Weber’s task is to demonstrate the irrationality of the current work ethic, stripped of its spiritual qualifications, unable to justify its senseless espousals.

Weeks’s objective is more radical. As a prominent academic in the emergent discussions on postwork politics, her own investment is in the contestation of the value of work in all of its current forms. In her book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011), she uses Weber’s analysis to springboard into late twentieth and twenty-first century issues relating to the conceptions about work; her goal being ultimately to expose the work ethic’s inconsistencies and demonstrate measures designed to reject them. In what follows, I will examine Weber’s groundwork on the Protestant Ethic and worldly asceticism, before turning to Weeks’s characterization of it, and its influence on her understanding of the contemporary work ethic. The essay will end with a look at the expanding field of postwork criticism and Weeks’s position in it: how the goals and strategies of postwork sociology contribute towards a defamiliarization and dissolution of the demanding conceptions of work.

Weber, the Protestant Ethic, and “Worldly Asceticism”

Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been firmly established as the primary source for tracing a genealogy of the work ethic, as well as of strong relevance for any study of labour more broadly. Central to its critique of the transformation of the nature of industrialised labour and its domineering position in workers’ lives is Weber’s characterisation and analysis of the ethical relationship between work and the worker; how work began to be valued differently in the United States and Europe following the Reformation, and how the varying influences of the major forms of Protestantism culminated in both a worldly asceticism and a Protestant ethic which continue to haunt us to this day. “Weber’s brilliant study”, Weeks remarks, “introduces the essential components, fundamental dynamics, and key purposes of the new ethic of work that developed in conjunction with capitalism in Western Europe and North America” (Weeks 2011: 39).

Before we investigate the heritage of the work ethic as identified by Weber in Protestant developments following the Reformation, let us briefly identify the ambit of the book; more specifically, the notion of a spirit of capitalism, and its role in generating and maintaining the Protestant ethic. “The most fateful force in our modern life,” capitalism is for Weber “identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.” (17).[1] A capitalistic economic action, therefore, is “one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit” (ibid.). With capitalism defined thus, it is the book’s central conceit “to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that [capitalistic] spirit over the world.” (91). However, Weber is persistent with his refutations that the capitalist spirit emerged directly and necessarily out of a Protestant ethos. Firstly, the “impulse to acquisition”, which does not form part of Weber’s definition of capitalism, clearly predates the Reformation; perhaps, Weber suggests, “it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth” (17). Conversely, the thought that “it is possible to deduce the Reformation, as a historically necessary result, from certain economic changes” must also be resisted (90-91). This is because “certain important forms of capitalistic business organization” can be traced throughout all cultures and all times (ibid.). However, Weber’s intention is to show that the global industrialised capitalism of the early twentieth century did in fact emerge out of a series of doctrinal and profit-driven changes within a developing American society.

Weber identifies Benjamin Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” (orig. 1748) as containing the beginnings of the age of the capitalist spirit “in almost classical purity”, and is also the starting point for his chapter in the Protestant Ethic intended to derive this spirit (48). Franklin’s advice is this: “Remember, that time is money”; “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse”; “The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded”; “Be aware of thinking all your own that you possess, and of living accordingly”; “For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds”.[2] The tone of these words suggest to Weber not merely an imparting of valuable knowledge, but an ethos, in which “[t]he infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty” (51). Here Weber has identified the Protestant ethic, in which the activities of work are to be undertaken for a higher moral purpose than individual or familial subsistence: the acquisition of capital becomes the end in itself to which the worker ought to submit (53-4).

Weber’s concern is with the “irrational element” of an ethos in which the injunction to work is identified as a calling; as “an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers, or only of his material possessions (as capital)” (78; 54). There is nothing natural about the worker’s submission to the work ethic, or to the belief in work as an act of moral fortitude, nor is there anything necessary about such beliefs to all denominations of Christianity. Yet they are essential to the productivist demands of the capitalist society, which must overcome the traditionalism of the life lived under religion (63). Furthermore they seem obviously unnecessary to the secular individual, once exposed to Weber’s historicist logic. The dominant position Weber offers is that a worker “does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose” (60). There was, he concludes, a conceited effort to motivate the working class into producing more capital than was necessary for the means to their individual consumption.

The spirit of capitalism, Weber shows, had a number of “traditionalist” obstacles which it had to overcome. Perhaps the most significant of these was the incentivization of the worker to produce more than was in their immediate interests. As an increase in wages would only result in a reduction of hours invested by the individual worker, the replacement of piece-rates by time-rates was a necessary development for capitalism, as identified by Marx (Weber: 59-60, Marx: 686). In addition, a powerful new incentive needed to emerge, one that would resonate on both personal and spiritual levels. The formulation of new Puritan forms of Christianity, and a new country, the United States of America, provided this incentive with a fertile opportunity. Weber argues this incentive takes the form of the calling, which arose out of the development of Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist sects (54, 95). Their common achievement was the foundation of a worldly asceticism which became the character of the set of morals that industrial labour functioned within, eventually outliving their religious origins.

Weber goes on to detail the changes to the dominant moral worldview brought about by Calvinism in particular. The most influential Calvinistic import brought to the developing ethics of work was in the form of the doctrine of predestination, which also continued to be the case to varying extents for the later Puritanical religious sects immediately following it (98). The belief that an indistinguishable few were for eternity already elected by God for eternal grace may be considered Calvin’s defining innovation to the Christian religion (ibid., 102-103). Weber untangles a series of consequences which the normalisation of predestination had on both religious belief and the world of work. Firstly, the doctrine of predestination was intended to minimalize the influence of the Church on the individual worshipper’s bond with the means of his (possible) salvation; it was not possible for the Church to in any way influence or mediate this divine relationship (104-106). As a result, a worshipper’s only confidant was God: the confession booth was stripped out of the churches, denying the congregation “[t]he means to a periodical discharge of the emotional sense of sin” (106). Secondly, the lifting of the emphasis on the burden of sin reduced the significance of inward reflection in the religious life. What was deemed necessary for God was “social achievement of the Christian”, the building of society on the foundations of Christian law (108). “The source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics” lies in the nature of a work directed “in the interest of the rational organization of our social environment”; consequently, this work takes on “a peculiarly objective and impersonal character”, which colours the nature both of fraternal relations and the relations between labour and labourer (108-109).

As a result, Calvinism was able to transform the Christian faith from an emotional commitment to an “intense worldly activity”, in which true belief was shown through righteousness of duty rather than dubious sentiment (112, 114). And this new worldly activity was the concern of all, despite the belief that only the actions of the elect were significant when it came to salvation. Since the predestined are indistinguishable from the rest of humanity and known only to God, it was necessary for society to become a “unified system” of rationalizing activity (117). The religious individual had to believe in their membership of the elect, for “implicit trust in Christ” – a trust which must be shown outwardly – was the only means to certainty of grace (110). The Calvinist therefore aspired to the saintly life. Religious activity evolved under Calvinism from a sole element, represented by the individual good deed, into the entire mode of a worshipper’s life, determined by a distinct ethical conduct rooted in a lifetime of good works (124-5).

The final chapter of the Protestant Ethic is given to the naturalization of the accumulation of wealth within the Puritan purview. Here too it is possible to gain insight into Weber’s genealogy of a Protestant ethics of work adapting into a worldly, modern capitalist sensibility. Using Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory – “the most complete compendium of Puritan ethics” – as a primary source of evidence, Weber charts the changing opinions concerning the moral value of wealth, and the shifting permissibility of spending and accumulation (155-157). This is done by marking a crucial distinction between the dangers of wealth in itself as a source of temptation away from the path towards God’s grace and the acquisition of wealth through the toil of “God’s work”, which was not only seen as acceptable, but morally righteous (156-157, 163, 172). The needless or frivolous spending of money on the distractions given by culture, the arts, sports, or any other “indulgent” recreational pursuits were strongly discouraged by Puritan codes of conduct, as man was believed to be “only a trustee of the goods which have come to him through God’s grace” (167-168, 170). There was a tendency therefore under Puritanism for “accumulation of capital through [the] ascetic compulsion to save” (172). This, combined with the “psychological effect of freeing the acquisition of goods” brought about by both the Calvinist reduction of sin and the prominence of bookkeeping as a measurement of the bounty of God’s grace (as a result of labouring in His calling), had a dramatic and profound effect on the transition of the status of wealth from being the property of State and Church to an aspirational object of an individualistic moral pursuit (170-172).

Thus, the Puritan ideal became that of a kind of wealthy middle-class, for whom the fruits of their labour were able to be seen without ostentation or frivolity, but with a “sober simplicity” which allowed the “thankfulness for one’s own perfection by the grace of God” to shine through (171, 166). The emphasis Weber places on performance is significant, for reasons already apparent from the Calvinist influence on the elimination of Catholic redemption and confession. Yet in the context the ascetic movement which Baxter belonged to, the signs of spiritual righteousness became calcified into both an accumulation of wealth and, more importantly, “the development of a rational bourgeois economic life” (174). This, for Weber, is the modern work ethic’s primary mode and inheritance from worldly asceticism. For it was only as the centrality of religion began to release its grip over Western civilization that the accumulation of wealth increased its prominence over daily life (176). “Then the intensity for the search for the Kingdom of God commenced gradually to pass over into sober economic virtue; the religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness” (ibid., emphasis added). The ideal Puritan was now a worldly figure, rooted in his belief of a good conscience; however this conscience “simply became one of the means of enjoying a comfortable bourgeois life” (ibid.). With the blessing of God behind his back, he was able to “follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so”, especially when, beneath him, he could be confident of the presence of a force of “sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God” (177, emphasis added).

The aim of the Protestant Ethic is to provide a study of the development of a certain mode of thinking about the relation between the individual Christian during the flourishing of the manifold Protestant sects, and their submission to work, and the influence on this mode of thinking on later secularised workers of the modern era. Beginning with an unfolding of the spirit of capitalism, identified in Franklin’s sagely “Advice to a Young Tradesman” as “time is money”, Weber gradually pieces together over the course of the book the precise developments brought on by Calvinism and the later Puritan sects which established a worldly asceticism; in which the compulsion to work, and to exploit the working activity of others, gained a powerful new theological justification (178). Finally, with the transformation in the way in which the acquisition of wealth was perceived, from an unintentional side effect of the moral limitations of spending to an accounting of God’s bounty entrusted to his predestined people, the ethics of industrial labour which have endured to the modern era were set in motion. With the approaching of the secular age, the modern economic order emerged out of a shrinking ascetic one; its sense of mission, of utilitarian rationalisation outliving its distinctly Christian carapace. “Victorious capitalism”, says Weber “rests on mechanical foundations”, the foundations of an objective, emotionless work ethic towards an abstract and indefinable goal; it needs the support of religious asceticism no longer (181-182).

Thus, the story the Protestant Ethic tells is in one sense that of how under Protestantism, working people came to be trapped within these mechanised cycles of labour by their own incentives to work, and how their descendants in the modern era continued to maintain this ethic, despite its contradictions. For the Puritan of the seventeenth century, work was absolutely necessary not only as a means of economic survival, but as a guarantor of Divine blessing and prosperous afterlife; for the modern worker, such prevailing confidence in the Almighty is no longer present. Weber’s book, therefore, is a useful starting point for understanding the paradox of the work ethic in modern capitalist society; however, to be able to account for its peculiar developments since, newer sources need to be introduced.

Weeks Reads Weber: The Antimonies of the Work Ethic

In The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Weeks identifies a conundrum central to the social conventions surrounding work. The very worst qualities of a work-based economy include issues surrounding unemployment and precarity, and, to varying extents across sectors, the physical and psychological tolls that come with the monopoly work has and is expected to have on the lives of individuals (1).[3] Why, then, is there not more active resistance to work; why is it rare that the notion of work itself, and not only the conditions of work, is a site of contention? (ibid.). Weeks’s immediate answer relates to the interrelationship of work (waged work in particular) and the individual identities of workers, or what she calls “work’s privatization” (3). The workplace has been reconfigured as a private space, a place where workers often spend a significant portion of their time, and where they “often experience the most immediate, unambiguous, and tangible relations of power that most of [them] will encounter on a daily basis” (2-3). As the relations between workers and their employers has begun to be acknowledged as contractual, so has the “tethering of work to the figure of the individual” become normalized (4). Today, work is often considered a necessity by individual workers to personal economic stability, to the extent that this idea of a necessity of waged labour prevents any suggestion of an alternative to a wage-based economy from taking hold (3-7, 36). Weeks’s ambition with The Problem with Work is to rehabilitate “certain strands of 1970s feminism” and Marxism, and by doing so gesture towards “developing a feminist political theory of work that could pose work itself […] as a political problem of freedom” (21, 23). Beyond even this challenge is lies the horizon of “postwork imaginaries”: novel ideas of trajectories positing future societal possibilities that not only eliminate the current moral dimension of labour, but even more radical suggestions of an economy that does not depend on waged labour as an ideal for all persons (30, 36).

The first stage of the project underlying Weeks’s The Problem with Work is the requirement to identify the emergence and construction of the (perceived) ethics of work. For this endeavour, Weeks enlists the help of Weber’s critique in the Protestant Ethic. The aim of the analysis in Chapter 1 of her book is to show the gradual transformation of the Protestant ethic, as already identified by Weber, into an industrial and postindustrial one, and attempt “to account not only for the ethic’s longevity and power, but also its points of instability and vulnerability” (31). From here, the future of the work ethic can be posited and contested (ibid.). Weeks intends to do this by reviving the notion of the refusal of work from the tradition of autonomous Marxism, rallying behind two demands which would lead in the direction towards postwork: those of a basic income and fewer working hours (13, 32-33). What Weeks explains as her interest in these two demands is in “their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance” (33). Starting with a rereading of Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic, therefore, Weeks intends to repossess the imaginative space surrounding the ethics of work with a postwork politics, allowing the current domination of the belief in an economy of necessary waged labour for all to subside (227-8).

Weeks identifies in Weber’s original analysis a set of five antimonies derivative of the work ethic, which continue to persist across its many incarnations (42). Three of these stem from the ethic’s own prescriptions (ibid.). In the first case, the ethic motivates both rational and irrational behaviours, as Weber repeatedly alludes to (ibid.). “[T]he work ethic is irrational at its origins and to its core,” Weeks says, “and yet it is prescriptive of what is taken to be the most rational forms of practical economic conduct” (ibid.). This is seen in Weber’s invitation to think of the Protestant ethic as a carrier for the belief in work as a response to the calling; it is here for Weber that an “unlikely confluence of the rational and irrational can be found” (ibid.). However, for Weeks, the very irrationality of work-as-calling is clearly “abstract” and an idea that Weber “may have struggled […] to bring into focus” (43). To understand it, the very idea of the rationalization of working values “must first be rendered strange”, or defamiliarized (ibid.). Weber has a twofold approach to defamiliarizing the work ethic: by shoring up its irrational character from both the (historical) traditionalist perspective which predated it, and the (modern) secularist perspective which can no longer qualify it (ibid.). Regarding the latter, in moving the analysis ahead to the industrialist and postindustrialist periods of production, Weeks notes the shift in focus for the work ethic from “the question of mobility in the afterlife”, towards “its achievement in this life” (46; see also Weber: 176). A further development in the twentieth century came in the repurposing of work in the creative imagination, as a means to self-expression and self-satisfaction, as also suggested by Michael Rose (ibid.; Rose: 77-92). Rose draws on a number of studies, including one from the Aspen Institute conducted in 1983 which suggested that approximately one in seven workers listed “expressive work values” as being part of the “core motives” for working; and furthermore, that there is a positive correlation between workers motivated by the expressive potentialities of work and a “strong work ethic” (Rose: 90-91).

The second antimonic pair Weeks derives from Weber’s analysis is the simultaneous productivist and consumerist values promoted by the dominant varieties of the work ethic (42, 47-51). In the Protestant Ethic, this opposition is enunciated in the idea of the worldly asceticism, itself for Weeks a somewhat contrarian phrase that combines the worthiness of methodological production over the gratification of consumption found in the ascetic mentality on the one hand, with the status of individual goods as “rewards” for a lifetime of dedication to labour for the grace of God on the other (47-49). In all iterations of the work ethic, in fact, the phrase “functions not despite, but because of, the pairing of terms” (49). As the notion of a work ethic develops further in a direction away from its Puritan roots, furthermore, the awkward relationship between productivism and consumerism is shown to weaken more still. The Fordist model of mass production brought with it a perceived equivalence between productive work and “leisure time”; workers now “were expected to do double duty as ascetically indulgent consumers” (ibid.). Finally, in post-Fordist production, a mode which places greater emphasis on “immaterial” labour, such as in the services sector, the relationship between employment and income (what is “produced” and its implicit monetary value) becomes more difficult to determine, therefore likely more precarious (50-51). As a result of these developments, the Protestant ethic of Weber’s analysis is reconfigured under the Fordist and post-Fordist models; the “mandate for savings” gives way to “the prescription for the rationalization of mass consumption” (50).

Thirdly, Weeks identifies in Weber the antimony of a drive within the work ethos as a means towards individualistic independence, at odds with an implicit social dependence at the heart of capitalistic work relations (42, 51-55). An analysis of wage relations demonstrates this dichotomy between a subordination of the worker to the source of income, and the status of the accumulation of money as “the sine qua non of self-reliance” – a view developed during the industrial period, once the Puritan stigma surrounding public displays of individual wealth had been shed (51-52). The work ethic provides an “individualizing discourse”: as the Protestant sects reduced the sense of communal responsibility through the doctrine of predestination, individual moral responsibility became rationalized (52). The social permissibility of judging one’s neighbour, and the false equivalence of the impoverished with immorality are therefore borne out of a worldly reconfiguration of moral goodness on the actions and intentions of the individual (rather than the community) (53). Beyond even this, the individualistic paradigm exemplified by the ethos of Fordist labour serves as “a disciplinary mechanism that constructs subjects as productive individuals” (53-54). This is because the effects of a perceived individual autonomy are only internal to the worker: the work ethic constructs “docile subjects” from within, by promoting “the individual’s constitution in relation to and identification with productivist norms” (ibid.). The worker, therefore, finds themselves striving towards individualistic and personal goals available through waged labour, yet must submit to a hierarchical chain of command and give up a degree of autonomy in order to attain this wage (55-57).

Weeks supplants the three antimonies drawn out of Weber’s Protestant Ethic with a further two, that can be evidenced by the work ethic’s historical development and application beyond the period that concerns Weber’s study; in particular, with reference to “the dynamics of class struggle, antiracism, and feminism” that gained momentum in the industrial era onwards (42, 57). This section of Weeks’s study also marks a transition from a Weberian to a Marxist focus, from a religious and doctrinal mediation to one centred around the historical role of state violence (57). Weeks finds Weber lacking a certain recognition: that while the Protestant Ethic frequently demonstrates the work ethic’s deployment as a means of workers’ subordination, it does not examine this movement’s antimony, that workers have also been able to exploit the capacity for insubordination offered by the concreteness of normalising employment legislation (57-61). The unwitting effect of the work ethic’s disciplinary force is that the goals of higher wages and greater social mobility can “serve as ideals around which workers can struggle for reforms”, in the form of union action and demands, for example (59). Weeks posits an “alternative work ethic from below” emerging, based on similar principles to that derived from institutionalized Protestantism, however taking the “idle rich”, and not the “shiftless poor”, as its object of scorn (59). Weeks cites Jean Baudrillard, whose book The Mirror of Production (orig. 1973) demonstrates the emergence of a “working class” as a direct result of insubordination to the dominant work ethic and “appealing as a collective identity” (ibid.).[4]

One last antimonic pair Weeks identifies in her definition of the work ethic concerns its dualistic tendencies towards systematic inclusion and exclusion, as has been charted by the multiple drives towards gender and racial equality within the employment sector (42, 61-69). Weber’s Protestant Ethic has no such focus; however Weeks believes that a careful study of each of these liberatory movements, and the successful changes that have been implemented as a result of their influence, can provide strong models for postwork imaginaries (68). Of particular importance to Weeks is how the work ethic extended its reach towards women and people of colour, and at the same time denied them identification with the bourgeois class for whom the ethic was primarily (in both senses) intended (61). She notes how in the early industrial period, some white men in the United States could identify their status as waged industrial workers with qualities of personal freedom, wielding an influence partially through “the energies of racism, ethnicity, and nationalism” (61-62). Thus, “the norm’s exclusions based on race, nation, and ethnicity fueled its inclusiveness in terms of class” (62). The moral righteousness of work continues to haunt the industrialist and postindustrialist eras, and the lingering questionability of the working commitments and habits of non-US nationalists served as an opportunity to “legitimate one’s economic privilege” over these groups (ibid.). A similar effect can be seen through the treatment of women based on the wagelessness of domestic labor being “reconceived as nonproductive women’s work” (63). As illustrative as attempts to gain recognition for female and non-white workers can be in imagining a postwork future, these struggles have also demonstrated a strange counter-effect; in that they have unintentionally provided the work ethic the opportunity to further mutate and spread its influence onto these additional demographics, to access “new forms of labor, and to reaffirm its power” (68).

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weber (see Bibliography). This rule applies to the current section of the essay only.

[2] Franklin (48-50). The last of these quotations is taken from “Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich” (orig. 1736). Some italics from the original have been removed.

[3] All bracketed numbers in this and the immediately following sections of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography). This rule applies to these sections of the essay only.

[4] Baudrillard 1975: 155. “The ethic of rational labor, which is of bourgeois origin and which served historically to define the bourgeoisie as a class, is found renewed with fantastic amplitude at the level of the working class, also contributing to define it as a class, that is to circumscribe it in a status of historical representability.”

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

Rose, M. (1985) Re-working the Work Ethic, London, Batsford Academic and Educational.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.