Monthly Archives: September 2012
C. Derick Varn: Can you describe your current projects?
Douglas Lain: I have many projects in the works currently, and they are at various stages. For example, my first full length novel is due out from Tor Books in August of 2013. “Reinventing Christopher Robin” is a novel about a fictionalized adult Christopher Robin Milne and his adventures during the French strikes of May, 1968. It’s a kind of mid-life crisis magical realist coming of age story about what I hold as one of the most potentially revolutionary moments of the last half century. I’m working on collecting blurbs on that one. (McKenzie Wark and Jack Womack both had nice things to say about the book.)
A work in progress is a book called the Doom that Came to LOLcats and that one is about a Social Media guru who is kidnapped by terrorists and subjected to a peculiar form of brainwashing. Namely the terrorist try to convince him that the Big Other doesn’t exist, or that God is dead. The terrorists tell him that in today’s cynical era LOLcats represent the innocent eye of naive faith that we have to believe exists in order for society to function. It will appear in July of 2013.
I’ve also recently put together a nonfiction book proposal wherein I hope to put forward my own peculiar Marxist vision by talking about Star Trek. The working title is “Sex, Capitalism and Spock’s Brain”, and like my memoir “Pick Your Battle” this one is part memoir, part philosophy, and part pop culture. I’m hoping it finds a publisher.
Other than that I’ve got plans to write mysteries. I’ve become a fan of the British series Sherlock and I’d like to try developing a series of detective novels with titles like “A Murder in Plato’s Cave.” I think I’ll try writing a couple short stories with a schizophrenic detective to get my feet wet.
CDV: Can you describe the prominent influences on your current work?
D.L.: The big influences on my work are PKD, Vonnegut, John Barth, Kafka, Lorrie Moore. Or, alternatively, the Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson are my big influences. (I listen to them while I write.) Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction quite a lot, but when I do read a novel or a story I like postmodern types like Paul Auster, SF writers like Gibson or James Morrow. I’ve got Gen X hipster white guy taste for the most part. Of course I should say that my biggest influence is Hegel, but that’s not allowed.
CDV: What do you see as the relationship between Pooh and Paris 1968?
D.L.: The nice thing about writing fiction is that I can impose a relationship between disparate things. So, in the case of Mai ’68 and Winnie the Pooh there is the same kind of relationship as the one that exists between a sewing machine and an umbrella, which is to say that both Teddy Bears and mass uprising are products of industrial society. There is also a connection through childhood.
Pooh and ’68 were the playthings of children and as such neither Pooh nor ’68 were entirely possessed by those who were first associated with them.
CDV: Philip K. Dick would probably be the most obvious, but also hardest to clearly understand, is it Dick’s style, his paranoia, or his philosophical/theological content?
D.L.: Philip K. Dick is the biggest science fiction writer of the latter half of the twentieth century and nobody has come close to matching him. There are other writers, other great writers, but in comparison they’re all pedestrian. So, for instance, Harlan Ellison’s works are sentimental visions well within the parameters of the trajectory of liberal society. His story Repent Harlequin Said the Tick Tock man critiques the way modernity regulates human beings without daring to ask what a human being is. Philip K. Dick, on the other hand, sees the Black Iron Prison but is always afraid that he can’t find the person inside it. He was often a reactionary writer and a very American writer, but he was also the most visionary.
He had to flirt with religious visions, had to develop a theology, in order to escape from the assumptions that, because of a fluke of his temperament and where his work led him, never held together for him.
So, yes. Dick’s paranoia and his theological inclinations and his style are all the things that attract me to his work.
S: Why do you think so much of your novella work tends towards the bizarro parable or liberalized metaphor? This seemed to me to be a lot of what was at play in “Wave of Mutilation” and your description of the Doom that Came to Lolcats has a certain parable quality to it as well?
D.L.: Wave of Mutilation was constructed as a critique of what I’ll call pragmatism.. The whole story was my way of taking aim at an attitude or argument that I think is fairly prevalent, often even unconsciously assumed. Pragmatists like Richard Rorty, philosophers like Derrida, and even a 1972 documentary advertisement or promotional film for Eastman Kodak and Polaroid seem to me to push the same idea or agenda:
“Since 1942 Edward Lamb and Polaroid have pursued a single concept, one single thread, the removal of the barrier between the photographer and his subject.”
In my novella Wave of Mutilation I played around with what I thought the consequences are when we act as though the barrier between us and the world has been removed. I tried to work out what I thought of as the consequence of rejecting the representationalist account of reality.
One way to think of that book is as a parable about a world without parables. Another way to view it is as a parable that aimed at describing how our concepts of the world are always already present in the world as it appears.
You asked why I end up writing this way and maybe the answer is simpler than I’ve made it seem so far. That is, just as I try to find clarifying examples to illustrate ideas when I make a podcast about a philosopher I try, in my fiction, to set my ideas onto the page in a visceral way.
CDV: Do you feel you have any aesthetic hangups that can get in the way of working out your philosophical ideas viscerally?
D.L.: I think I have limitations in terms of virtuosity and articulateness that get in the way of achieving what I’d like to achieve, but in terms of aesthetic hang-ups I’m not sure I follow your drift. A hang-up is some sort of psychological block and so it seems to me that your question is suggesting that I might be obsessed on some sort of aesthetic style or object that is blocking me from more direct and visceral renderings of my characters and the events that they create. All I know for certain is that my aesthetic comes out of both the post-realist fiction that Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer anthologized in the 1970 book Innovative Fiction (Kurt Vonnegut Jr,Richard Brautigan, Robert Coover, and John Barth are represented) and from science fiction written during or slightly after that era: (Dick, Ballard, Lem, LeGuin, and Malzberg).
To understand what this means it’s worth perhaps looking at what Klinkowitz wrote as the preface to his anthology:
“The contemporary writer–the writer who is acutely in touch with the life of which he is part–is forced to start from scratch: Reality doesn’t exist, time doesn’t exist, personality doesn’t exist. God was the omniscient author, but he died; now no one knows the plot…”
So in Klinkowitz’s book you get stories like Coover’s The Babysitter and Barthelme’s Views of my Father Weeping, and these are terrific and Innovative stories. However, I have to say that what has allowed me to write well enough to be published has been the way the second tradition, the gutter/hack tradition of Philip K. Dick, made demands upon me.
CDV: So you argue that the pulp writer discipline allows you to say things more clearly?
D.L.: I would argue that it forces me to enact ideas rather than merely to examine them. That is, in a science fiction story I have to ask myself simple dramatic questions about the characters while if I was writing for a more literary audience I might be tempted to drop the narrative thread, but I’m of the opinion that the narrative thread is necessary and that if you don’t choose to pursue one it will develop on its own so to speak.
CDV: What aesthetic traits bother you in the realm of contemporary fiction?
D.L.: This question is a tricky one because I’m not sure that my complaints are primarily aesthetic. In all I find many novels and stories are conformist and aim too low. I know many talented writers who claim to want nothing more than to entertain the reader. This bothers me because I think prose primary strength is its abstract or conceptual nature. If one is choosing to write in this age of streaming video it seems counterproductive to valorize “entertainment” or to aim at gratifying, distracting, or sensuously reaching the reader.
CDV: Without mentioning any names, what conformist tendencies do you see in contemporary fiction?
D.L.: I would say that there are many middlebrow novels being written by writers who were quite innovative or more daring when they were writing for the short story magazines like LCRW or Asimovs or One Story. And it’s a calculated retreat always done in the service of a career that often enough doesn’t fully materialize.
(I say this as someone who wants to write a detective novel because I figure I might be able to make money that way, but I approach even this idea through the ideas that drive me. So, reading Zizek on Columbo and then watching the show has made me interested in the genre in a way that I haven’t been in the past.)
What this amounts to is an attempt to try to deliver to the reader or editor what is taken to be a marketable story, and this marketability is always also predictable and safe.
CDV: Do you think that offence pays off?
D.L.: Writing rarely pays off regardless.
CDV: Which writers excite you at the moment?
D.L.: I’ve been reading GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries lately and a listener to the podcast sent me a collection of John Sladek short stories and I’ve been enjoying those. When I wrote Wave of Mutilation I became interested in John Barth again (he was an influence on me early one), but mostly I’m reading philosophy and political books these days. A little while back I went through a Walker Percy phase and read the Moviegoer and the Thantos Syndrome as well as Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help book.
I quite like Percy.
CDV: Did you notice that two of three writers you just listed are arch-conservatives?
D.L.: Well, I mentioned four writers, but I’ll cop to it anyhow.
Yes, I find certain kinds of conservatives very appealing. They think they have something that we progressives do not think we have, namely a foundation. I both long for such a thing and believe that it is unavoidable. That is, we are always already set on a foundation that we did not choose, but perhaps our task is to realize this and start choosing. So, Percy, for example, is really appealing to me when he answers some questions about his faith in a self-interview:
“A: You want me to explain it? How would I know? The only answer I can give is that I asked for it, in fact demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by any calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense. So I demanded it. No doubt other people feel differently.
Q: But shouldn’t faith bear some relation to the truth, facts?
A: Yes. That’s what attracted me, Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that other religions are more or less false.
Q: You believe that?
A: Of course.
Q: I see. Moving right along now –”
Okay, so it’s a bit of cheat to quote that piece at such length, but you see the ambiguity. Percy is both the one claiming to have a rock solid faith and the one who is embarrassed by his own answer. Maybe I can pull Percy’s own trick and ask myself a follow-up question now.
Q: On what basis do you claim to be a progressive if you are fond of conservative writers who regress into religious faith in order to solve the problem of how to live without God, tradition, etc…
A: On the basis that I respect their willful act of choosing the impossible and simultaneously don’t believe that they’ve really managed to accomplish the job. They are making an honest attempt to resolve the problem, and that’s a lot better than half assed dodges wherein we point to democracy or equality or altruism as our answer to the problem of inauthenticity and meaninglessness. On the other hand, I stand on the progressive side because I believe this meaninglessness is its own solution, ultimately. Radical freedom will end up requiring a bootstrap moment where we take full responsibility for crafting our Gods and with full consciousness aim at designing what Marx and Freud both recognized as an illusory happiness.
CDV: Do you think Zizekian criticism of poets in philosophy/politics applies to speculative fiction writers?
D.L.: I don’t believe so, no. Speculation, if it is to resist the temptation of a conclusion, requires ambiguity and openness, and I believe that Speculative fiction can have a foundation without reaching total closure. Poetry, on the other hand, can run the risk of passing off sensation and sentiment as both a foundation and a conclusion.
CDV: You do not think speculation can do this?
D.L.: I think fantasy stories and wish fulfillment adventures can do this, but not real speculative fiction. Perhaps this is merely a semantic distinction.
CDV: Or it is dangerously close to the “no true scottsman” fallacy. Any advice you’d give to speculative fiction writers?
D.L.: Write short stories and would be my advice. While publishing is dying there are more paying markets for short stories than ever. The money is terrible, but it exists. I hope to get the discipline to write a slew of stories between now and the release of Reinventing Christopher Robin.
We cannot substitute a mere collection of identities for the saturated generic identity of the working class. I think we have to find the political determination that integrates the identities, the principles of which are beyond identity. The great difficulty is to do that without something like the working class. Without something that was a connection between particularity and universality, because that’s what the working class was. The particularity of the working class was its location in a singular place; the working class was generic. The solution of the problem for Marxism was the human group which is not really an identity, which is beyond identity.
We have to do the same thing, but probably without that sort of solution. We cannot say that today this group is the generic group and that the emancipation of this group is also the emancipation of us all. – Alain Badiou, Interview with Diana George
Identities are nothing but ideological coherence maps of resemblances. – C. Derick Varn, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on The Formation of Identity:“
The struggle for freedom and justice in our world is still necessary, despite centuries of modern democracy. Political domination and economic exploitation still hold sway over the vast majority of humanity, with their ecological degradation pushing the entire planet towards catastrophe. In such a situation, the question to be asked is still how can a revolutionary movement be constructed to avert the impending catastrophe? And, moreover, be able to transform the impasse of the present into a fulfillment of the authentic needs and desires of all beings?
Marxism, which Badiou references above, proposed that the industrial proletariat of early industrial capitalism would coalesce over time under revolutionary leadership to finally emancipate humanity. This hopeful vision came to a disastrous impasse in the emergence of Stalinism and the Cold War. Its most visible success, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, is all but buried beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
However, perhaps credit must yet be given to Marx for thinking quite concretely about just how emancipation would progress and which social agents in particular would lead this forward motion of history. His anointing of the “industrial worker” was hardly an obvious choice in his era, but this idea has electrified millions over the past century and a half. There is a compelling logic to this choice, in that the workers still have their hands on the real wealth of the planet in a more direct manner than their capitalist employers. It is still quite conceivable that if only the workers of the world would become conscious of their strategic location within the economic engines of capitalism, and for even just a short time unite wholeheartedly with one another against the rule of capitalism, the shock to the system still seems a glorious possibility.
And yet, today we are easily skeptical of such a revolutionary moment occurring. Every revolution has degenerated back into a new system of domination and exploitation, as the weapons and sanctions of the ruling classes routinely recuperate all resistance. The faith that Marx had in revolutionary leadership now seems quite misplaced and his confidence in working-class militancy a naive wish.
Is there a new emancipatory subject to discovered/constructed, as Badiou proposes? Does his hope of finding the “political determination that integrates the identities” merit anything comparable to the faith of proletarian revolution? The explorations that I’ve been carrying out on my political philosophy blog, “Radical Progress” have addressed this question in an attempt to get past the impasse of the death of Marxism. That said, the main absence I see in the contemporary situation is the lack of unity and intersubjective solidarity within the working-class, or their possible successors to the mantle of revolutionary agency.
Badiou speaks of that which “integrates the identities” and this certainly connects to my conception of how identities work, they are not exhaustive concepts, but rather aspects of a variety of social determinations. Being a worker does not negate whether one is also a woman or a person of African descent, to name two of the most common alternative subject identities in current radical theories. We are all identified with multiple characteristics of the social orders within which we live and move and lose our being. The Marxian hope was never that the workers as workers would revolt against capital, but that they would come to know that they were fraternal humans who could reject the alienated existence in which they lived and, fight for something different.
And yet, today, despite an array of identity politics, most of us don’t seem to have any clue how to come together to fight for emancipation. When we do create an assembly, it dissolves into disorder as we each assert our individuality, perhaps for the first time, to the detriment of finding a way forward to a united goal. This is the tragedy of the Occupy Wall Street general assembly, that even as OWS felt as if it was the dawning of a magnetic and energizing movement, it predictably fell back into the clutches of egoic disconnection that frustrates yet again the possibility of uniting the radicals against the 1%.
It will likely offend many radicals to assert the fact, but the most successful attempt at the sort of intersubjective unification envisioned by Marx in history is religion. The Roman Catholic church alone claims millions of adherents, dwarfing virtually all other identity groups, including Marxism. In fact, to the degree that the historic function of religion was that it sanctioned the social order of its host society, it was perhaps a massive error for the Marxists to believe that they could unite humanity without religion’s practices. Apart from Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad, only Marx himself has ever commanded that sort of mass appeal. The slim chance that Marxism may yet return to its privileged position as the central ideology of the revolutionary left however seems unlikely, the world has truly changed in so many ways that we have to press beyond the conception of a proletarian revolution towards a new integration of identities.
In the face of global warming, ocean acidification, and mass species extinctions, perhaps the most integrative identity we can claim today is that of “earthling.” The late Murray Bookchin proposed that Marxism be replaced by an anarchist and communalist philosophy of “Social Ecology.” The logic behind this seems compelling until we consider the possibility that this identity of ecological beings is barely more tied to a radical vision than is “humanity” in general. A radical agency that emerges from within the struggle for emancipation cannot be identical with an identity that encompasses both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Perhaps we do not need a revolutionary subject as Marx and, apparently, Badiou believe. Perhaps, the revolutionary possibility isn’t predicated on a single antagonism such as economics or politics and the identities that they construct. While I do believe in creating a unified intersubjective organization that will take aim at the death-systems that threaten our very existence, the experience of Occupy Wall Street coming just a year before the 2012 presidential election has elevated my awareness that mass radical mobilizations do not behave in a linear manner. There is no single subject position that is privileged as the revolutionary agent. The complex character of society diffuses and coalesces human actions into unpredictable configurations.
SDV Duras is an engineer and philosopher who after spending the 1970s as a revolutionary, partially retired during the 1980s and underwent a new education and training in phlosophy and media. Beginning to become cautiously active again in the last dozen or so years. The neoliberal counter revolution was well under way, the appropriation of the radical specificity of race, gender, consumerist and other identity based politics was noticeably central to the neoliberal turn. By the late 1980s it was clear that an academic career was not a sensible option, instead he became an engineer (analysis, design and code). He suppose it’s marginally interesting that he is the person that the neoliberal counter-revolution was designed for, which is why the socialism, communism and the philosophy derived in part from the exemplary lines of thought Marx and Deleuze have been essential to constrain and humanize my behaviour throughout the neoliberal period.
C. Derick Varn: Deleuze as well as Deleuze and Guattari have benefited from increased usage in the last two decades; however, it seems like Deleuze may be the one of the philosophers that is often attacked on whatever superficial grounds and even defended and applied on superficial grounds. What are the problems you have seen in the way Deleuze is applied in the academy right now?
SDV Duras: As Deleuze pointed out politics, like life, is an experimental activity. However the loss and absence we can see with Deleuze is that whilst he was alive he never succeeded in breaking out of the confines of the academy. Even now it’s not clear that his texts have escaped from the academy. As such he never succeeded in applying the techniques of his work to life as it is lived. So that Deleuze never managed to work towards criticizing the ordinary objects of life, the literature of his time, cinema, television, the fleeting and imaginary concerns of the public and private spheres. In a sense we know that Deleuze wanted to take sides – and yet there is a sense in which he could not as there is always an ambivalence in the engagement. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, “He who cannot take sides should keep silent.”
By the mid-70s translations of Deleuze and Guattari work began to appear, both from the USA and more local translations. The adoption of Nietzsche as a counter-cultural figure took place during this period, Nietzsche was unconvincingly presented as the founding father of the counter-culture. Shortly after this in 1978 the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus was published, copies arriving in the UK when it was remaindered in 1979. Arguably a more significant moment was the publication of Rhizome and the accompanying academic dossier on their work in I&C no 8 published in 1981. What is important about this dossier is that it marks the moment when the English speaking academy began to take ownership of Deleuze and Guattari. In retrospect the publication appears at the moment when the themes began to be discussed and defined which were to remain central to the way the work was appropriated, even now, thirty years later. With the not insignificant difference that the writers in I&C assumed, as we all did, that the work was on the side of human emancipation. It took only a few years before the readings implicit in the I&C would be presented as the correct and true readings of the texts. To put it in another way the words, the meanings tentatively established in the 1980s and made concrete in the 1990s have been maintained as the orthodox readings ever since. Mistakenly thinking that the work was not appropriable by the right, by those who are necessarily against human emancipation, who are knowingly or unknowingly for hierarchy and control.
The right wing appropriation of the work began to emerge in the 1990s. And yet we can see how this tendency was evident in the earlier Nietzschean counter-cultural appropriation. The possibility certainly existed in the texts but we misunderstood how it might be used and what the right might actually look like. The conservative and liberal meanings of this interpretation of the texts have gradually become more obvious. Careers began to be established, a school of Deleuzeian studies developed and over the last twenty years the Deleuze information industry with its academic support network was introduced. The academy established a way of reading the Deleuze and Guattari texts which directly enabled the right to appropriate and take ownership of the aspects it required to maintain the dominance of their line of thought. The first secondary journals and books dedicated to Deleuze and Guattari begin to appear in the 1980s, which developed into a stream in the 90s and in the 21st Century a flood. During this period the right wing appropriation and the conservative tendencies in the academy were reinforced exactly as the dominant neoliberal ideology required. Even now as new intellectual fashions develop and Neoliberalism has failed this tendency continues.
Negri’s worry about the institutionalization of Deleuzian social and political philosophy is worth remembering here, which is to say that the difficulties of molecular revolutions have with creating links between consequences. Which is to say the difficultly of actually taking power. As Guattari said… “… will these micro-revolutions…be put away to restricted sphere of the social sphere ? Or will they be articulated in new social segmentations that won’t imply the restitution of hierarchy and segregation ? In short will all these new micro-revolutions set up a new revolution ? Will they be capable of assuming not just local problems, but the management of big economic sets?” As we know so far at least there has been no sign of a new revolutions being enabled by this and as these incoherent sentences of Guattari suggest the danger of new-fascisms, new hierarchies and segregations should concern us.
CDV: Many Anti-Oedipus’s notions of territorialisation, deterritorialisation, and reterritorialisation under capitalism have obvious correlates in identity politics. Do you think this is strength in way to understand the way identity functions as a means of territorialisation which corresponds to the strategic essentialism, and then expansion of the notion of the pime identity (deterritorialisation corresponding to de-essentialization) and problematic reterritorialised (separatism, chauvenism, etc)? What would be the function of identity politics in this context?
SDV: The retreat which the specific intellectual and identity politics represents was recognized at the beginning of the neoliberal period with the argument from some feminists that a vote for Thatcher was a vote for women. As the Thatcher case demonstrates questions of identity, territorialization, ecology and the minor always have an explicit danger of a reactionary turn, because there is no central engagement in human emancipation. Whether this is essentialist or anti-essentialist depends entirely on the relationship to the universal of human emancipation and the relationship to power. For such a politics to have any usefulness it must maintain an explicit reference towards the universal of human emancipation and construct a politics that is not ‘afraid of power’. What Thatcher demonstrates is that all such politics can entail a becoming-fascist a becoming-reactionary… Who after all has been concerned by the eco-fascism(s) that we have all come across.
CDV: What do you think of Ian Buchanan’s notion that the form of the Deleuze and Guattari’s thought is a formal dialectic, but one that is divorced from Hegelianism?
SDV: It’s not a particularly interesting and useful rereading, I think that in themselves Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari are anti-dialecticians. Not merely against Hegel but against the dialectic itself. It is rather up to us to reintroduce the important Hegalian-Marxist moment back into what is a Spinozist-Marxist line of thought. Aline of thought wants to be just as much post-Hegelian as they want it to be post-Kantian.
However in doing so whilst Deleuze can address the Althussarian moment in Difference and Repetition he cannot begin to take into account the key radical question that Guy Debord asked in the mid 60s – “All the theoretical strands of the revolutionary workers movement stem from critical confrontation with Hegelian thought” – In the present crisis there is still no evidence that a non-Hegelian revolutionary or radical thought will provide an emancipatory moment for humanity.
To often the careerist secondary readers of Deleuze and Guattari maintain a liberalism, in the European sense of the term, as required by the academy.
CDV: What key concepts in Deleuze do you find useful to lived, embodies, everyday activism?
SDV: This is genuinely difficult question, I think that this rests on the politicisation of everything. Which extends beyond the personal is political, into the everyday and beyond science. So then, not just the politicisation of philosophy but the recognition and acceptance that ‘everything is political’. This concept is founded on the way that Marx directed philosophy and everyday life towards the political. And towards the way that because everything is political there are no apolitical domains and fields. For us it is not just in the everyday but also within philosophy that there is no separation of truth from falsity, but instead there is the necessity to analyse, question and work to change the material conditions, to challenge the everyday order in the attempt to construct a new world. This describes in a few sentences the heart of the left wing version of Deleuze, which is the one Badiou references as Democratic Materialist, rather than the right wing variation that Zizek references, it is this one that exists most obviously in Difference and Repetition and in Nietzsche and Philosophy- these are political texts which show the extent to which Deleuze is beholden to Marx and Marxism. A relationship which is made more explicit in the joint project with Guattari.
To be precise then a more political reading of Deleuze is possible as this suggests, but it requires that we accept and work with the extent to which he is a Marxist. Which requires that we do not merely read the Marx from Deleuze’s public sympathy with the Italian Marx of the Autonomia line of thought, but equally understand the readings possible from the other Marxisms…
CDV: What have you have you seen in Deleuze that is easily appropriated by the right?
SDV: Examples are easy with this question – though see below for some enhancements to this response
To begin with see the work of Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, who in his use of Deleuze ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’. This is not the first use of Deleuze and Guattari in military work – for that see Manual DeLanda ‘War in the age of Intelligent Machines’ a book I once discussed with an American Colonel whilst flying into Washington in the 90s. Equally critically see the pro-capitalist aspect of Deleuze and Guatari developed by Bard and Soderqvist in Netocracy the quintessential appropriation for a form of network capitalism that creates a horrifying class antagonism between netocrats and consumers. In all these cases the uses made are possible because their work can be considered as being the ideology of a newly emerging ruling class, or to put it another way we have to prevent the appropriation of the work by the emergent class by imposing a universal of human emancipation on the work. It does not exist in the work itself….
CDV: What do you make the figure of Nietzsche in Deleuze’s work? Is Nietzsche’s presence there a problematic point or a liberating poiny or something else entirely?
SDV: This inevitably leads towards an understanding of Deleuze’s work which asks whether a Marxism founded on Spinoza and Nietzsche and written against the dialectic is feasible. To understand Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche it is crucial to recognize the status and use made of Marx, especially in the Nietzsche book and in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze’s strong readings of Spinoza and Nietzsche are founded on a Marxist reinterpretation. A central aspect of Deleuze’s practice is to establish and renew a critical position by respecifying what the philosopher is, through making the philosophers problem explicit and then reproducing the system the philosopher maintains. The critical thing is to recognize that Deleuze’s philosophical practice always works with strong readings of other figures, texts really, Nietzsche, Kant, Leibnitz, Spinoza and so on. The misreading of Nietzsche is particularly influential but in fact Nietzsche remains the same dubious reactionary figure that he always has been. The reactionary heart of Nietzsche is eradicated by the use of Marx. To the extent that we might argue that a new problem emerges at this point, one founded not on a phantasy of a Nietzschean and Spinozist form of Marxism but rather on what the precise relations are with the other forms of Marxist and non-Marxist radical thought.. And then to consider what happens when people move from Deleuze back to Nietzsche ?
CDV: Working in the sciences, do you think motivates the rejection of Deleuze’s work in the sciences?
SDV: There is no acceptable philosophy of science or engineering in Deleuze’s work. He co-opts and produces a series of strong readings but as with the appropriation of Nietzsche we are dealing with readings which cannot be utilized without a recognition of the specificity of the reading. The false difference between Minor Science and Royal Science is the classic representation of the core of the problem science represents and explains why a philosophy of science founded on the work hasn’t developed. Minor science is science as employed by artisans, engineers and is operated by problematics, (ambulant, itinerant, nomad science) which is posed as oppositional, different from Royal science, state science. They argue that minor science works by pushing systems into intensive states in order to follow traits in material to reveal their virtual structures or multiplicities. The examples supplied in ATP are hydrodynamics, metallurgy, masonry. Minor science works by focusing on on material and forces rather than matter form structures of hylomorphism. Royal and State science, also referenced as major science is founded on a critique of the positivist interpretation of classical mechanics. It functions by extracting constants from variables of extensive properties, and the establishment of laws, standard laws and phenomenological ones. Except scientists and engineers are not positivists and haven’t been for many decades, probably they never were…In a sense then the minor and major science difference here avoids the actual issue of state science which is touched on in ATP… A moment that has passed… Which is to say that where they imply an understanding of Georges Dumezil and his definitive analysis of Indo-European mythology, specifically of political sovereignty which has two poles, the king and the jurist. For whilst I accept the Deleuzian proposition that says that science, state and in fact minor science has supplanted religion as the juridicial pole, as the pole of legitimation, and whilst the king even in our liberal parliamentary democracies has remained fundamentally unchanged as the despotic pole, as power. Except that whilst clearly the structure has remained unchanged that the media, the spectacle itself has supplanted both science and religion to become the jurist-media, the acknowledged legislator, the creator of pacts which the ‘king’ is beholden to… the jurist-media, the jurist-spectacle… So that where science as they imply as the juridicial pole was never simply state science, figures such as Newton, Galileo and Einstein obviously but really minor science as well….
In other words the model is explicitly flawed… and the flaw needs naming.
CDV: Do you think Debord complements Deleuze in your understanding of the spectacle?
SDV: Yes, nothing in Deleuze’s work has the clarity of insight that is available as a consequence of the work of Guy Debord and his successors. To briefly consider two lines of thought of current concern; what Hegelian-Marxists like Guy Debord force us to do is address the long term nature of the ongoing crises of capitalism, the almost 100 year old solution to an earlier crisis of capitalism that is the spectacle, that is mass-consumption. Perhaps given out concerns here though equally critical is the insistence that ‘representation’ is important.
What is offered is a focus on everyday life, on life as it is actually lived which the more traditionally focused philosophical work of Deleuze cannot address. The hidden question which Debord raises, which has not yet been properly addressed by Deleuzian thought is whether a radical left politics, can ever be constructed without addressing and accepting some aspects of our Hegelian-Marxist past. For what if Debord is correct when he says that the ‘…revolutionary workers movement stems from a critical confrontation with Hegelian thought…’ This question asked in the mid 1960s was never addressed…
CDV: Do you find accelerationists readings of Deleuze to be dangerous to radical political praxis?
SDV: Do I need to say that accelerationism has the strong smell of Italian Futurism about it ? A futurism which was really addressing and resurrecting a nasty imperial past.
Accelerationist readings are particularly dangerous because they always produce a potentially reactionary appropriation of the work. Not so much as a turn towards a worshipped future singularity, but rather because they constitute a medieval turn towards a seemingly endless aristocratic past and future. Founded not on the analysis and anticipation of progress but rather of a series of masked gestures towards the past. Accelerating ever faster towards the medieval eventually with a new Tudor future, with new unbermensch’s reminiscent of King Henry composing music and art…. There is nothing in an accelerationist co-option of Deleuze that does not end up in a glorious monarchy and perhaps worse in a love of a future Oriental Despotism.
CDV: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
SDV: In the current political and economic crisis it seems vaguely foolish to assume that a specific philosophical and political position is strategically correct. Rather we should accept that in world where everything is political notions of philosophical correctness have less meaning than they used to. Instead we live with the necessity of accepting that everyday life and the political are experimental activities with a requirement that strategy and tactics are lived with, along with the need for a modicum of solidarity. All of which is impossible given the naive tendency towards believing philosophical discourse is related to truth, which as everything is political cannot be considered correct. Curiously Henri Lefebvre argued once that everyday life is non-philosophical and that Marxism (as a philosophy and science(smiles)) should construct a philosophy/science of everyday life, of lived experience and yet the limit of this is that what he is referencing is life after 1929 and the growing dominance of mass-consumption, an affluent society which today is in the process of changing quite dramatically. Yet surely this philosophy/science could perhaps protect us from the study of proletarianized academics working for the furtherance of the control society… because …
…Lived experience has always contained a distanciation, has always been emptied by representation(s). I think it was Benjamin who first noticed people standing with cameras in front of paintings trying to preserve an experience they cannot imagine or have. What this means is that in the integrated spectacle we live within, both representation in general and in the specific forms already referred to, are pure forms of separation. The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes image (Debord) “…when the real world has been transformed into an image and images become real, the practical power of humans is separated from itself and presented as a world unto itself…” It is this which has become the end goal, the meaning of our network society, the manipulation and control of perception, memory and consequently action in our disparate communities. Humanity separated from their commons, their language, their data, their thinking itself. This is the final expropriation, which empties the world of meaning, tradition, beliefs, contents, from the commons in their entirety. In it’s latest neoliberal incarnation it is the negative side of the post-modern understanding that culture is a resource rather than something which owns and creates the human subject. What happens to this now that the neoliberal phase is over is the source and cause of these words.
The responses to these developments have been particularly interesting. We live in a world cursed by the growth in hideous absolutisms. All of which generate rational and even sometimes sensibly angry responses, the violence of geopolitics; the life-destroying dogmatism of Islam, reactionary Christianity and religions in general; the destroyed financial markets with the most extraordinary levels of incompetence and what appear to be naive manipulations which have undermined the social and political economy and condemned material producers to starvation, ever growing slum cities and political administrations that are not capable of engaging in democratic debate and instead impose decisions along the lines defined by the network society, capitalism.
This list of absolutes is no surprise in a sense its inevitable and could be extended quite easily. Will these absolutisms begin to end as the crisis of neoliberalism begins to resolved itself ? What will post-neoliberalism look like ? What is the relationship between them and the integrated spectacle ? What is the relationship between these despotisms and the control society ? Sadly I don’t think we can avoid post-neoliberalism, the left has been so weakened by the neoliberal period that it needs this crisis to merely reestablish itself in some form or another.
For the spectacle has generated these absolutisms especially those that believe they are rejecting it…. In our world the necessity of addressing the integrated spectacle is crucial if we are to make any social and political progress in the next few decades. In a world where all information is virtually image, the information and its still expanding and translucent nature necessitates a belief in a total consciousness. This totality is supported by the technological developments that enable the integrated spectacle to exist, that have supported the globalisation of capitalism, so that the false imaginative consciousness, for that’s what it is, can no longer recognize what is possible, let alone impossible or even nothingness. The integrated spectacle reified and objectified (‘objects all the way down’) can only work towards its extension, the commodification of everything. In this sense then the integrated spectacle and the control society are one and the same thing. Two concepts which are differently named because they emerge from an unnecessary and irrelevant difference. But the control society evades the necessity to address the spectacle, always addressing its organic constituency rather than the world we actually exist in.
A Series of explorations in the Indian Aesthetic Universe
The aesthetic object, in Indian consciousness, is mediated by a syncretism which owes its rubric to the friction between ancient religious philosophy, colonialism, nationalist revivalism and post-globalised cultural invasion. To talk of indigenous artistic vision is to invoke a large tradition of self-assertions that hark back to the constructed unity of fragmentary social strata, it is to evoke the mythic idea of a unified Bharatavarsha, in so far as personal identities find their definition in relation to the traditionally delineated mythic structures of cultural memory. In short, the unity of non-dualist religion is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic, which seeks to combine sensate and supra-sensory experience in the aesthetic event. It is more a product of a burgeoning nationalist revivalism in the event of the Hindu encounter with religious Others.
Beauty, a western concept, is a transition of Western historical self-narratives corresponding to sates of social evolution in the reflected light of Occidental cultural vestiges (Eco, 2004; Eco, 2007). An analogue to this Western concept for India’s aesthetic domain is to be found in the notion of saundarya. This theoretical distinction attains laudable weight when it is used to cleave at the excessive nature of constructed formalisation of aesthetic attitudes in Indian society which is not to be subsumed by the theistic schema of Advaita Hinduism in isolation. One may contend that the non-duality of Advaita Hinduism, which enjoys numerical predominance, is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic vision, where artifice must produce affect to insinuate beauty is more in line with the materialistic naturalism of post-colonial India.
Saundarya means the whole gamut of aesthetic experiences, as enunciated by Indian aesthetic traditions, and is, therefore, the formal localisation of beauty. Saundarya is the product of that which arouses rasa. Rasas are, as concepts quite selcouth and polyvalent, determinate states of affect engendered as sensuous experience through the instrumental provenance of artifice. Artifice, in its turn, is defined by Jagannatha as the collocation of circumstances of cause, effect and comprehension that produce a sensation that bespeaks an affect which belongs to the “…super-mundane [lokottara] (Prasad, G., 1994, p. 132)”. The beauty of painting is said to emerge from harnessing the representative faculty of mimetic gestures, which draw on the skill of “…abhinaya [acting], an integral part of dancing” as a repertoire of stylistic gestures and postures that elicit, or produce, “…rasa and saundarya” (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.55).
Bharatas’ Natyashastra enunciates the inherent aesthetic values of dance while evading their qualia, and instead alluding to the means of their genesis (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.54). Traditional exegesis of aesthetic characteristics of dance has often involved the study of analogical hierarchies, such as the one found in Vishnudharmottara-Purana (Ibid 2003). The analogy offered here is revelatory in relation to the experiential provenance of aesthetic creation and criticism: a gradation from sculpture to music is implicit in traditional accounts- since, according to the allegory offered here, sculpture captures an image which is vital to the art of painting, but painting needs dance since it implicates the conscious interpellation of images and mental states that “…imitate the world”, and mastering dance demands an understanding of music and musical instruments (Ibid 2003, p.54-55). The implicit definition of beauty is, thereby, “…imitation”, which is the forte of dance (Ibid 2003, p. 55).
Traditionally, the inadequacy of painting in relation to dance consisted in its failure to represent, through mimicry, the flux of objects at home in the world of experience (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003). Thus, the operational distinctions between the arts were always taken to impute a hierarchy of the faculty of reproducing material reminders of the mythic cultural homology of the Hindu universe. Housden, pithily, illuminates the uniquely Indian production of a notional monad from the dualistic stuff of cultural memory and communal memory: “The sacrality of the land of India, not any political vision, is what, still today, gives a sense of unity to this country of so many religions, cultures, races and factions” (Paranjape, M., R., 2012, p.97). This reassessment of ancient thought in aesthetics represents the reassessment of cultural memory in relation to historical experience.
Since the body is the frontier where dance must invoke its mimetic lines of production it is apposite to define the codifications of body language as they have come to be embodied in filmic representations as a product of colonial influence. The side effect of Western education which led to self-consciousness of victim-hood among Indians under British rule was a simultaneous revulsion towards the dislodging of the Indian subject from local culture into foreign mores, and thereby a reinvigoration of the same by reclaiming the cultural narratives which defined contemporaneous disillusionment (Clark-Deces, 2011, Ch. 6). The most popular form of dance in India today is Bollywood film music oriented, and despite film music’s syncretic character, by its nature of inclusion in films, is in keeping with the spontaneous trappings of the of the nautanki tradition (Richmond, Swann & Zarrilli, 1993, p. 272; Stange, Oyster & Sloan, 2011, p. 175).
This blog-post will be continued as a series of posts about Indian Aesthetics at later dates catagorised under Art.
Clark-Deces, Isabelle (2011) A Companion to the Anthropology of India. USA: John Wiley & Sons.
Dehejia, Harsha, V. & Paranjape, Makarand (2003) Saundarya: The Perception and Practice of Beauty in India. India: Samvad India Foundation.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2004) History of Beauty. Italy: Rizzoli.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2007) On Ugliness. Italy: Rizzoli.
Paranjape, Makarand, A. (2012) Acts of Faith: Journeys to Sacred India. India: Hay House.
Prasad, Gupteshwar (1994) I.A. Richards and Indian Theory of Rasa. India: Sarup & Sons.
Richmond, Farley, P.; Swann, Darius, L. & Zarrilli, Phillip, B. (1993) Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Stange, Mary, Z.; Oyster, Carol, K. & Sloane, Jane, E. (2011) Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, Volume 1. USA: Sage Publications.
From the Iron Age to the Age of Irony
SIC “The forest ministry [in India] had for long classified bamboo as a tree despite its scientific description as a grass. The classification ensured that under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, fallen bamboo got classified as timber and remained under the firm control of the forest bureaucracy which harvested and sold it to the industry. The tribals got a pittance on some occasions even as the industry got bamboo at low rates over long lease periods” (Sethi, 2012). The striking, enigmatical nature of the above developments is not the impression that accompanies a novel experience but the rude epiphany that an old delusion’s recognition in its present guise occasions.
The Iron Age
The Mauryan period in its social composition embodies the form of a crude analogy to present Indian civilization. The prism which illuminated old atrocities continues to be held in place by the armature and buttress of caste baiting and routine mystification of class struggle. The simultaneous unease towards, and exploitation of, ethnic minorities on one hand and the flux of socioeconomic realities that necessitated their unresisting presence as subjects of the Mauryan empire on the other bespeak an anachronism that is at once more than infelicitous and yet less than surprising in its contemporary Indian instantiation. It is infelicitous in that it’s in lewd symmetry with the bigotries of the past, and not surprising in that, in several ways, the past has never really ceased to exist.
But this is not to mitigate the case against a retreat into Iron Age expansionism, and in fact is an impassioned indictment of the present, which further heightens the impropriety of legally enforced tribal privation. The Mauryans to their credit, at least, had a well disclosed and uniformly instated religio-mythological cosmogony that equated forest dwelling tribals to mixed breeds, inherently inferior to contemporary civilization and thereby subject to them (Kapur, 2011). India today, however, would insist on the irrelevance of the mythological striations that cut loose the literal marginalia of the past in their bid to bolster erstwhile rhetorical inclusionism, while their actions fall short of even the pretensions of hypocrisy.
The Mauryans were an expansionist empire that appropriated whichever territory complemented its particular shortcomings in its plenitude. Romila Thapar argues that their expansionism and the displacement and subjugation of tribals which went with it were their defining hallmarks (Kapur, 2011, p.3-4). The subjection of tribals was par course, from a religious perspective, since the distinction between those from civilised centres and those who were forest-dwellers was one of purity; those from forests were ritually described as barbarians (Kapur, p.4-8). The strategic governance extended to them in the Mauryan empire took the form of a gradualist policy of “…disintegration…”and reassimilation into a “…class society based on individual private property” (Kapur, p.9).
The, thus far, unimpeachable lacuna between legislative provisions for the enfranchisement of Indian tribals and their actual experience at the hand of the executive and judiciary[i] only indicates a deep rooted, meta-structural fissure in the egalitarian edifice of unified India. For one, the Mauryan period marked the prominent secession of Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism (Lockard, 2010, p. 116), and their literature before this juncture abounds in the description of forest-dwellers as “…unlearned, barbaric…half-civilized, unconverted people…who rose and ate at improper times” (Kapur, 2011, p.6). By the time of the ascent of Aśoka the traditional attitude towards tribals was undergoing a pseudomorphosis, they were being differentiated by various technical names as well as being painted into a corner by “…ideological dominance” (Kapur, 2011, p.6).
The post-Aśokan phase of the Mauryan empire saw the fall of Jainism, and the rise of Hinduism fueled by the re-emergence of interest in Śaṅkarācārya’s and Rāmānuja’s philosophies (Bentley, 1993, p. 46). It is interesting to note the oppositional tendencies between their respective philosophies are emblematic of the paradigmatic shift in the consciousness of Hindu thought, which maintained its hegemonic hold on an administrative level. The main contention between Rāmānuja and Śaṅkarācārya schools is about the nature of reality, which for the former is a dualistic metaphysics sustained in an immanent god while for the latter all nature is one and so all knowledge is illusory (Dasgupta, 2007, p. 165-86).
To extrapolate the inimical worldviews as constitutive of the empire’s attitude towards administration is a legitimate intervention, given the central expansionist agenda of the Mauryan dynasty was keeping in line with the Hindu capacity for assimilation by containment. The material dispossession of forest tribals was seen not as an inimical intrusion but an economically expedient procedure for dynastic interests, and with its share of exceptions. There was no uniform system of administration, even since Aśoka (Kapur, 2011, p. 12). May one not contend that the lack of uniformity in administrative action in relation to tribals represented the fragmented core of Hindu consciousness, with its coextensive metaphysical chasms as epitomised by the coexisting relevance of Rāmānuja and Śaṅkarācārya?
Age of Ironic Amnesia
The ambiguity of contemporary governance with regards to tribal populations harks back to an ancient rift in the cultural logic of Hindu India. As if in obeisance to Śaṅkarācārya’s notion of avidya [non-knowledge], on one hand, the law continued to misrecognise the true genus of bamboo as a grass, and, on the other hand, taxed the tribals on the same premise which was leveled as justification for Mauryan impunity in acquiring tribal resources.
Implicit in this violence is the underlying assumption of the economic irrelevance of the tribals, whose land and stead could be put to better use in strengthening the nation. Strengthening the nation that is, in constitutional terms, egalitarian and secular, and which in practice behaves as though the old traditional markers of ethnic barbarity in their transformation into economic jargon are neutralised, or somehow shown to be nominal, by regressing to old preconscious habits. Indeed, the inertia of the past is still visible in the controversial and, no doubt, complicated issue of Christian ministries’ involvement with Indian tribals- which deserves another essay for itself.
On one hand the ministries have been victimised by nationalist brigands on the bases of Hindu narratives of tolerance, freedom and equality, which it is alleged are violated by Christian missions[ii]. On the other hand, there is the glaring fact that none of these self-appointed keepers of traditional cultural memory came forward to alleviate the tribals from their national irrelevance and sheer distance from the state mechanisms that represented their access to the tolerant, free and egalitarian ethos now retrospectively suggested as worthy of their people (Ilaiah, 2010, p. 37). Convent schools set up by these missionaries have been used by the children of the vanguards of Hindu nationalism, while the tribals for whose alleviation the missions had arrived are strategically severed from their beneficence (Ilaiah, 2010).
The same pernicious self-contradictory timbre is to be heard in the application of the egalitarian rhetoric of inclusionism by the government in the same breath as industrial expansionism. The issue of the oustees of the Narmada dam project continues to play itself out amidst governmental mystifications that predict eventual uplift of local tribals as an event that will follow the submersion of their villages (Gadgil, 1995, p. 61-2). It has been contended that the eventual benefits of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project will outweigh the immediate displacement of tribals (Cullet, 2007, p. 60), but it remains tentative and unspecific about the issue of their reassimilation into the better accommodation promised.
In the issues that generate a contest between the immediate lives of tribals and the putative allures of industrial expansionism for the beneficiaries of erstwhile civilization what subtle balance implicates the chain of action? The recognition that bamboo was grass and thus legally salable by tribals took several decades to come through (Sethi, 2012), because the merely material nominalism of knowledge [aka Śaṅkarācārya’s shadow] refused to reify itself in the dualistic split between the us versus them narrative of an ever urgent administration, reflecting the merit of lives vis-à-vis other lives in the comfort of its reactive, if sometimes tacit, Hindu nationalism. The ironic descent into solipsism on part of Indian governance comes to its nauseating fore in the open contradictions between the espoused constitutional jargon of equality and the facts of the subject matter of exploitation as they emerge in the public space. The public space, where history is a constant improvisational gig, a cultural confabulation, which regulates the dreams of our future in the waking nightmares of those caught in the thrall of mystified, disavowed, systemic violence.
Atal, Y. Ed. (2009). Sociology and Anthropology in India. India: Pearson Education.
Bentley, J. (1993). Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. USA: Oxford University Press.
Cullet, P. (2007). The Sardar Sarovar Dam Project: Selected Documents. USA: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Dasgupta, S. A. (2007). History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Ilaiah, K. (2010). The Weapon of the Other: Dalitbahujan Writings and the Remaking of Indian Nationalist Thought. India: Pearson Education.
Kapur, N., S. Ed. (2011). Environmental History of Early India: A Reader. India: Oxford University Press.
Khongsai, C. “Manipur Tribals and Issues of Social Inclusion and Exclusion”. Journal of North East India Studies. Website. Updated July 17, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2012 <http://www.jneis.com/?p=264>.
Lockard, C., A. (2010). Societies, Networks and Transitions: A Global History, Volume I: To 1500. USA: Cengage Learning.
Sethi, N. “Bamboo Trade May Open up For Tribals”. Times of India. Website. Updated September 3, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2012. <http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes .com/2012-09-03/india/33562268_1_bamboo-trade-tribal-affairs-ministry-minor-forest>.
Today, I sat in front a small gaggle of Korean students, each more studious than the ones I remember from my earlier days as teacher in Georgia, and watched them try to decode “Politics and the English Language” by Orwell. The essay seems archaic now, although the Marxiod cant I speak about has been in my life recently, but the other “degenerations” of which Orwell speaks seem so common place now that the human is almost lost on us, and definitely lost on those whose knowledge of English is, at best, fluent in only daily speech.
What struck me was that Orwell seemed only too correct about the direction of political jargon: the meaningless phrases, the bizarre and clumsy grasping for the Latinate to substitute for an air of the scientific, the softening of the euhemerism, and the braying dishonesty of it all. Yet something else struck me: an anthropologist, whose name has left me, said “language was designed to hide communication.”
Indeed, my students know my body language, without special attention, will betray my truths: be those students from Georgia, South Korea, or Germany. The fundamental facet of most languages is that they enable dishonesty in and of themselves. The reflection of the sign and of the signified—the various systemic syntaxes and semiotic games—they miss the fundamental beauty of the language game; it has nothing to do with truth, but perhaps cohesion.
This doesn’t take away the danger of jargon mongering. The words which Orwell already saw so emptied of meaning that they could only be used dishonestly: freedom, equity, the various ramble of class classifications, progress, degeneration, and so on. These prime virtues, without the rooting in a concrete context, are not even lies.
So I stared at my students awhile and thought about the ways I had tortured language. I am a poet: I torture language knowingly, breaking it into more rhythmic form, adding the necessary metaphors and overlays, and reassembling the day. Plato kicked us out of the Republic, but mostly out of jealousy. So the bewitchment of the language games we play, the reification games which make our thoughts both thinkable and empty, are my stock and trade.
But even the good “honest” plain English which Orwell lamented the slow decline of was rooted in the fundamental shielding of language. Big Brother or no big brother, the game is not about truth.
I am unsure if the river cranes lie, although, even if they could, they do not do so with the symbolic toolbox with which we have developed.
Yet another thought comes to mind, as I type this in the common room of a faculty apartment drinking a cheap German important beer—South Koreans sadly seemed to learn to make beer from Americans and thus have the thin-water “pilsner”, made with mostly with rice grain that one can find in most American mass market swills. I am listening to some music from a decade ago, and I am reminded of how un-semiotic music can be. It is representative but in a way which is not entirely tied to any sign, and, as I listen, I remember a car fire.
The summer after 9-11, M. and I were driving to see his family in Atlanta. The 1992 Mercury he was in started a plume of gray-black smoke from the undercarriage, and in a traffic re-direction on the interstate, passer-bys started honking at us in the consistent and annoying hum that only almost made cars seem smug. The radiator was noticeably overheating, but being an hour from any city or a pay phone, we kept on.
As the smoke whipped the sides of the Mercury, we noticed he was wearing a “Burning Airliners” t-shirt: a band almost forgotten now which had the unfortunate name after 9-11. I had been inspired by the band name to write a poem, somewhat problematically entitled “Burning Airliners Remind Me of Patriotism,” which became unintentionally a painfully obvious joke. We started laughing about this when we realized the car was on fire and our smoke had its heat.
We coasted the car into a parking lot and waited for M.’s family to pick up us from a pizza parlor in the strip-mall which I doubt survived the last American economic downturn. The music brought it back to me, but it also brought back this conversation from the same trip:
“You knew something like that was going to happen?” M. stared into the road waiting for traffic to pick up.
“I suppose I guessed.” I stared off.
“That night, you watched two girls make out on your couch watching a movie about DeSade as you waited to hear from your girlfriend.” M. slightly sucked spit out of his mouth as some math rock band came on the c.d. player.
“Yeah. You did too.”
“Did it surprise you?”
“No. I figured some dumb fuck flew into a building by mistake. Then I just shrugged. Thought maybe some militia man like in Atlanta a few years ago. Things are going to change. We’re heard that shit for a long time.”
“Yeah. I was afraid. I figured a pretentious movie, maybe some sex, and beer would take the edge off. It felt like the end of something.”
“I suppose it did. I was scared shitless for S.” I said¸ letting my guard down. She was in Eerie, PA, but Johnstown was her home and a plane had gone down near it. When I married S., we would visit it as a defining moment: trinkets and memorial plagues lining a gate in an empty field surrounded by the white bars of birch trees.
“So why’d you watch them?”
“Because they were both crying earlier that day, I guess. C.’s father is in Mexico and stuck outside of the border. L. is just numb. Tension, I guess.”
Then there was no words between us, a crescendo of Miles Davis on the mixed c.d. came across the car. Soon the radiator would be on fire, and we would have other things to talk about. Burning Airlines and all.
I was no stranger to tragedy or stress, but the collective mourning inspired hedonism as a way of coping with tears. Words failed me. Watching two friends kiss each other to avoid being afraid and being invited to watch as a voyeuristic distraction was as close to mourning as I could get. The word games couldn’t hide that about me or about the anxieties of the five students we were rid that day. My future ex-wife being away across the country, and I had a fictionalized account of DeSade keeping me company.
As I write this, there are no birds outside the window here in Jeonju. I am over a decade and an ocean away from those events. I may be in the world of Orwell’s double speak, and I learned more about double speak in the years since those days. But what about false insistences of action? What about double-praxis?
I still can’t tell if this bird flies.
I periodically disabuse myself of a kind of writing that is more interesting to me, and generally hid it in poetry on the left hand and dense, grammatically botched philosophical reflections on the right. Being an intensely personal and guarded man about a few things, and yet quite open about things which most people would hide in shame. Perhaps I have a certain disconnection—a hint of the autistic glare, the mad boundaries of the diasporado, which I am increasingly.
In short, for most things, I find myself—despite or even perhaps because of my own self-absorption—a bad subject.
So if you’ll forgive the indulgence, the past two years have been a world wind to ride me across the ocean, watching the shards of economies and opinions which, frankly, left me with the notion that I am not alone in being a bad subject. Since the 1970s, there has been the never-ending boomer and Gen-X prattle about the fragmentation of the society and subjects. In a way, this may be an illusion of communication: we record so much of our thoughts that there is no revision to make unity or coherence.
What the old American fascist, Ezra Pound, called a will to order is perhaps a will to value itself, and the flood of expression, in its twitter debris and Facebook flotsam, makes necessary revision towards cohesion impossible, or at the very least, impractical without the artifice showing like poorly formed rafters. In this sense, the narratives of our life, produced in milliseconds after experience itself but even in the instance is still almost immediately reflection, is also the jumbled half-created flotsam that gives birth to man and woman it’s very duck-faced iphone image is the same just the jumbled Demiurgic urge that has always been at the root of the way we construct and see ourselves, despite the imperatives of biologic and cultural being.
But where is the concrete here? The order of abstraction is just superimposition (Superstition), the order of the rock, the demarcated concrete abstraction, may be superimposed upon, but if I throw it at your face you’ll know it, and I’ll probably need to clean the blood from the floor.
I was walking down the Osan River outside of Yongin-shi, I noticed what looked to be kingfisher on the water and a few cranes. The air smelled of spring and raw sewage, although it was likely just plants down the way from the mountains. Living outside Seoul in a time of “river renewal” led to a lot of sporadic and unfortunate wafting off the thinning fresh water outlets. Recently divorced and expatriated, chewed up and spit out from three years of the working in as a non-union teacher in an area filled with the normal racial tensions, good ol’ boys, obesity, and diabetes I came to expect from living in the exurban South Eastern US, I couldn’t take my mind off of the bird. In the strange high-rises which perforate the even the outskirts of farmland in Korea, I had noticed the birds through the yellow dusted air.
“Every thought derives from a thwarted sensation” says another philosopher of near fascist pedigree, E. M. Cioran. In the wing of bird, I thought back to Marx’s writing on species-being, on the animal without alienated impulses, and for a moment I allowed myself that romantic notion. Only for a moment though. A second thought came to my mind, a paraphrase of Nietzsche on mercy: “if you cannot help a bird fly, help it fall faster.” Then I thought of my ex-wife.
I suppose it is clear why I wasn’t married anymore.
The thwarted sensation at hand was recognition of something like freedom. I had broken with my past, broken with the onus of trying to save poor Southern kids from Walmart hotdogs and poverty from day labor, broken from a woman who should have just been amongst my bestfriends, and broken with the conventions of America.
Notice, however, the thwarted sensation led to a thought that was thwarted. I could have as easily watched kingfishers in Georgia. My cell phone, a colleague was asking me to join him for lunch, and perhaps mid-afternoon rice wine. One of the advantages of no longer driving a car was that after wine became a much common occurrence in life.
“What we want is not freedom but its appearance. It is for these simulacra that man has always striven. And since freedom, as has bene said, is not more than a sensation, what difference is there between being free and believing ourselves free?” says Coiran.
The naïve realization from birds: I wanted the romantic narrative, and I knew it’s a lie. To help a bird fly or fall, one must know what the bird truly is and what direction the wind is blowing.
So we begin.
What Salman Khan can teach you about Indian Masculinity
What does our preferred entertainment say about us? In the lowest estimation, it, still, enumerates for us the preoccupations that mediate, influence and abet our sense of well-being. To be sure, the movies we watch offer us the spectacles which we’d rather normalise in our native utopian fantasies. They offer us not a literal language, with morphemes of filmic elements that correspond to our material conditions by their representative value, but a subliminal idiom which structures our imaginal worlds. By that token to treat of our entertainment lightly is to treat of our aspirational worlds lightly. To dismiss our cherished fantasies is to refuse to acknowledge our putative better selves.
Is there a reason Bollywood movies seem ludicrous to the point of being unwatchable to a Western audience? Does Bollywood film fandom speak about the rationality of Indians per se? The answer to these questions is two fold: the ideological prism which illuminates judgement is different for the Oriental and Occidental worlds; rationality is a structure that demands a premium from the realm of sense, which is determined by its own nuanced inertia in each culture.
The highest box office grossing Bollywood film of 2012, and one which shattered old benchmarks, is Ek Tha Tiger [translated: There was once a Tiger]. It is, by its sheer economic brisance, an icon of India’s imaginal world, its projected self-image under the ideal ligature of imagined identity. The movie, as other successful movies, capitulates the essential dimension of shared cultural impression, the communal dream logic of the Indian people. (Kakar 2011, p.101) “The context of [a] dream exemplifies not only that certain dreams are associated with known intersubjective interpretation, but that their emergence is tied to something more complex than cultural interpretative habits”.
The casting of the movie, appropriately enough, establishes the symbolic horizon of each role. Salman Khan, known for his chiselled masculinity and overt aggression both on and off screen[i], plays a Research & Analysis Wing officer. He embodies the embattled hyper-masculine hero who struggles to temper his toughness with empathic vitality. One must not fail to understand the mythic resonance of such a character in Indian consciousness. Talking in psychoanalytic terms, the type of hero that is fully self-realised and is yet seeking integration with others, viz. Salman’s role, falls into thematic unity with the archetypal story of Skanda.
The gritty and fast paced action sequences do nothing to mitigate the tender, romantic longing that Salman feels for his filmic paramour[ii]. To quote a review that captures the sentiments that are elicited by the film: SIC:“There’s a reason why people queue up as early as 9am to watch a Salman outing wherein the basic purpose is whistling till one’s mouth hurts. As it happens, a deafening amount takes over the hall’s space when Salman’s Tiger makes a thundering entry into the frame that juggles an imagery of a swaggering silhouette standing at a vantage point of a remote corner in the Middle East, a vigorous kick landing straight into a trembling jaw, a slowmo drizzle of cigarettes and ashes and a Super Salman baritone shooting his first fine words, ‘Kutton ki tarah haanf raha hai. Kitni cigarette peeta hai?’” [translated: Panting like a dog. Why do you smoke so much?]
What we have, here is a tableau that places beside each other the diametrically opposed vestiges of metal-fisted masculinity and saccharine sentimentality, poppycock slapstick sensibilities and cutting edge action. The unity between emotional pliability, that develops as the romance between Salman and his heroine progresses, and the ruthlessness of legally sanctioned violence suggests a psychic currency that any homebred Indian would readily [or, clandestinely] buy. This kind of absurd combination would not work in a Hollywood production, and even if it did it would not nearly make as much money or hoopla about itself. This is because the resonance of this seemingly odd combination between extreme opposites is a mythologically informed and culturally accepted mode of being masculine in India. Indian men, ideally, must not only be burly, independent and invincible, but also have the humility to respect their mother’s advice on things personal and sundry, even conjugal advice. Arranged marriage anyone?
The upshot is that Indian masculinity indubitably involves the conflict between the cultural collective, crystallised in the advice of parents and significant others, and the burgeoning independence of bicep driven, hormonal maturity. The need for coming-of-age assertion through violence, not being looked at as acceptable in the forms of adolescent rebellion that characterise youth in the Western world, can be symbolically sated by accepting other licenses to violence, which are culturally legitimated. This is how a tacit culture of honour legitimates the killing of young girls who step out of line by dating, or women who transgress ethnic judicatures[iii].
Skanda, in Hindu mythology, was the son of Shiva, and is a valorous warrior, in one incident defeating a demon to protect the realm of deities. On achieving this feat he was offered any reward he pleased, but abusing the thankful gesture of the deities Skanda cuckolded each one of them. The husbands complained to his mother, the wife of Shiva, Parvati, about her sons’ excesses. Parvati’s stratagem was to present her form in whichever woman Skanda sought to possess, thereby deflating his errant libido. This symbolic castration rendered Skanda celibate.
The motif that underlies this mythological story is that of the individuating hero: struggling with the “…powerful push for independence and autonomous functioning, and an equally strong pull toward surrender and reimmersion in the enveloping maternal fusion from which he has just emerged” (Kakar, 1996, p.117). What it undergirds is the inversion of the standard Oedipal model of the individual. Someone who must assert his selfhood in dire opposition to the parental figures of the psyche, and come to dominate the Occident as the predominant mode of individuational rationality.
Rather than an abrogation of pre-personal interventions of cultural morality, distilled and imparted by parental figures, the Indian individual in his coming of age is called to integrate himself into the whorl of the primordial collective. Individualism which is often touted to be the chief achievement of Western civilization is not the summum bonum of human existence in the Indian mythic space, and, in that measure, Indian consciousness. In this scheme of things, the tittering hero, who dances about merrily with his paramour after a fierce conflict between his call to duty and romantic aspirations is no more ludicrous than the hyper-acquisitive, philandering James Bond.
Thus the ludicrousness of Indian cinema is moot when perorated by Western critics. The implicit dimension of sense that allows an edifice of rationality to be constructed as a bulwark for indigenous communities invariably differs in each cultural sangfroid. Barring an understanding of these extra-rational bases of cultural logics any pronouncement of artistic or intellectual value judgements are at least offensively vain and at the most frightfully irrelevant. Individualism, with all its vaunted universal baggage and wherewithal, is ultimately an insular value. It demands cultural currency that can liquidate the deficit of shared fantasies, its myriad repressions.
Kakar, Sudhir. (1996). Indian Identity. India: Penguin. P. 117.
Kakar, Sudhir. Ed. Deslauriers, Daniel. (2011). “Dreams at the Boundary of the Self and Others: Intersubjective Fields, Emotions and Culture”. On Dreams and Dreaming: Boundaries of Consciousness. India: Penguin. P.88-108.
[ii] “In a nicely done opening, with enough slo-mo shots for the fans to whistle at, we’re introduced to RAW agent Tiger (Salman Khan), who, in a gritty Jason Bourne-ish action sequence, swiftly dispenses with a turncoat agent, then dodges armed assassins through the cobbled streets and dingy alleyways of a busy town in Iraq. Back home unscathed, Tiger, who we discover is just as comfortable with a ladle as he is with a gun, bribes his boss with homemade daal before begging for a new assignment…The romantic portions in ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ are warm and fuzzy, the humor thankfully clean and light-hearted, but as a thriller set in the world of espionage, it’s ironic that the people least intelligent here are the intelligence officers themselves”(Masand 2012). IBN Live Website. Movies. Updated on August 16, 2012. Accessed on September 2, 2012. <http://ibnlive.in.com/news/masand-ek-tha-tiger-is-far-from-unwatchable/282601-47-84.html>.
So let’s begin: This has been my personal blog off and on for almost five years, although there is an almost three year hiatus. About a week ago, I decided that it was time to kill off the Loyal Opposition to Modernity. There was a little backlash on my personal facebook page, the sporadic nature of the posts with my new job and my own feeling that this was eating into my artistic output. So we have decided to change the nature of the blog into something closer akin to a magazine, while my commentary, interviews, and aesthetic thought will still be published here, but I have added new writers to the blog.
I have also re-named the blog to Disloyal opposition as I think a critical theorist should let no one represent them, loyalty to any ideological idea BEFORE it is fully articulated is a hope for a representation.
While I will let the new writers largely introduce themselves: I have friends and fellow writers from India, the US, and Australia as well as expats living in other parts of Asia. I hope to be adding more writers over time, and perhaps one day to pay them for their time. We will be writing on the problematic intersection of culture and economics, race and ethnicity, occidental-ism and orientalism from a standpoint of critique. Topics will be criticism of modernity from a variety of angles, including that of science fiction as well as poetry as much as philosophy and politics directly.
Also, I wish to quit hiding behind an empty name: I will be writing more personally and more openly, and so “Skepoet is dead, long live Derick.”
I write under my own name.
C. Derick Varn
[For my readers on wordpress, we are still debating the move from wordpress to blogger, so for the immediate future we will be writing posts at both to see which one we want to use.]