The following is a re-worked version of my paper Animal Metaphysicum: Prophecy and Abstraction in a Passionless Age, which I recently presented in a panel discussion on “Narrative and Social Movements.” A couple of people asked me to post the updated version on this blog, so here it is– comments and questions are welcomed! Thanks, A
PROPHECY AND ABSTRACTION IN A PASSIONLESS AGE
Abstraction and ambivalence
With another apocalypse scare behind us and one just around the corner, the end of the world is rampant in 21st century dialogue and thought: one can hardly get through a conversation without the subject of rapture being broached or a joke being made about the nothing that became of Harold Camping’s prophecies. Since the turn of the century, such theories in eschatology—the study of the end of the world—have been lumped by increasingly many skeptics into a class with celebrity gossip: the majority’s peculiar fascination with which culminating in a distraction no less annoying than Charlie Sheen. None of this is surprising: it follows, in that the last decade and a half has been, eschatologically speaking, exceptionally dense; and moreover because the primary dates in question (Y2K, 12–21–12) have a basis beyond us: in the abstractly looming realm of world-historical consciousness. Which is to say: our generation is one that just happened to presence at a particularly (pre-)fetishized moment in history.
Add to apocalyptic catastrophization the anticipation of temporal reform pace the World Wide Web, and you’ve got a “culture of suspense” that can compete with any “culture of fear,” as far as foreboding titles are concerned. Our situation is doubly fascinating in that it represents a double-negation: first, a non-consent: we did not do anything to garner this historical uniqueness—all that was the work of our long-deceased ancestors: the Mayans, the first computer programmers, etc.; and all our contributions thereto– the books, conversations, blog posts, atmospheric superstition– represent a something that is, again, illusory—specula. Such is what renders us, if anything does, a “singularity”— the series of non-events into which we as a generation were thrown, and for which we stand. From remote servers we purge our dis-ease—concealed by a vague loneliness which is in turn concealed by the static chatter of one’s social network of choice—in a plethora of reactionary blog comments and status updates, none of which address, but merely vaguely represent, the source of the disconcerting e-motion. The reactionary user, like the reactionary addict, is using her reaction to cathartically vent the emotion or tension from which she habitually dissociates: the primary one being angst (fear of nothingness.)
Primordial angst, metaphysical grievance, our irreconcilable relation to otherness, nothingness, death: just so many names for the impetus preceding every tragically significant and/or superficially comedic human action. That our age is divested of its tragic sense and therefore also unable to recognize the comical is reflected in the fact that we don’t act on either impulse. Most are content to half-seriously will their death-by-worldwide-destruction, by half-believing or entertaining-into-being the thought of the apocalypse. And if not the apocalypse, then an apocalypse of a no-less co(s)mic order: nihilism, postmodernism, the death of god, the death of art. This death wish could not be any less of a joke: lacking any concrete actions to validate or verify its legitimacy, we desire (if desire can be flippant) annihilation–but we cannot actualize this desire, cannot bring it to fruition, in the same way that we can “want to kill Charlie Sheen,” to blow up the media, etc. etc. but cannot motivate more than a snarky Facebook comment for the cause.
Behold the information age: its infinite scope: its unconquerable content: its meager substance: the merciful link finally breaking. Behold tele-lethargy: the fatigue of endless possibility and zero time constraints, courtesy the Real Time of the internet. Nothing is real; everything is permitted. The fatigue of cyber-social obligation. The attention-devastating, significance-leveling onslaught of friend requests, articles, forums. Is waiting for the link to break different than waiting for the world to end? Lord, to whom shall we go?
The 21st century psyche shrinks away from confrontation, otherness, afraid to appear concretely in the world, where the postmodern climate and atmospheric ambivalence eats like acid at radical subjectivity, the passionate individual. If in a grand entrance of bold colors and sounds it should appear before culture, in gleaming contrast to culture, real passion is shot down like an exotic beast flying over a starving, or in any case colorblind, village. Society will consume it, using its fertile organs to nourish its own famished ones, and so to fuel its prime and sole passion: its disdain for that Other who would actualize sociality’s greatest fear: that of its own negativity. The more vibrant this other’s appearance, the more acutely it contrasts society, the greater the latter’s disdain for him—for the most powerful counterargument is the argument embodied and emboldened: especially for the disembodied ego.
Abstraction and social history (Moscovici and Nietzsche)
Periods in history, and history as a whole, can be thought as an abstract representation of the people and events that have existed, presenced, in time. Social representation, on Moscovici’s account, is the collective elaboration of “a social object by the community for the purpose of behaving and communicating.” (Moscovici, 1961) It is the tacit law or system of laws by which contemporary society is run, here and now, hic et nunc. Social representation is moreover the homogenization and ossification of culture wherein individuals function as a standing reserve—an inexhaustible stock of bodies whose value lies in their capacity to stand in for a given “social object.” Social objects are defined by Moscovici as
….values, ideas and practices with a two-fold function; first, to establish an order which will enable individuals to orientate themselves in their material and social world and to master it; secondly, to enable communication to take place amongst members of a community by providing them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their individual and group history. (Moscovici, 1973)
The social structures and codes that on the one hand enable social practice and communication, on the other result in social heteronomy, e.g., the enforced standardization and conventionalization of individuals. For example, that the poetic does not characterize the “values, ideas and practices” of 21st century America means that to communicate poetically within social structures, such as discourse, is to not be heard. To be heard is to employ, embody, elaborate communicative norms to majority standards, which for the poet in 21st century America means entrance into a heteronomous relationship with society, i.e., self-alienation.
The genius of Nietzsche was that he realized the individual’s fate of being-represented, astoundingly does not defeat the purpose of self-creation or the value of subjectivity; on the contrary, it affirms that purpose and that value. Nietzsche’s philosophy was an affirmation of life and a celebration of subjectivity: even where the latter is bought at the cost of social survival. The most that you can do to secure your representation is to present yourself in the way you hope to be re–presented as consistently as possible—but in so doing compromise your authenticity via a second-rate/reductive presentation of your truth. Thus the quest for social representation is a dead end in the realest sense of the phrase. You kill your truth by bowing to its objective status, to how it is interpreted by a non-existent, all-knowing “They.” The same is true for the generation as is for the individual: a generation that fixates on its posthumous image compromises its existence, literally dying to its own false idol: the illusion of its readability, and/or the illusion of a perfect, all-knowing reader.
According to Niezsche’s doctrine of amor fati (love of fate) the individual should not only accept this social demise as the fate of his individuality, but will it—because it is his reality. But social survival was never Nietzsche’s main concern, social death being for him incommensurable with the suffering of heteronomy. Great health is to look back at one’s past and say: “Thus I willed it.” (Nietzsche, 2006)—to have written one’s life narrative, to have liberated one’s identity, to have created oneself. Moreover, it is to harbor no resentment for the ephemerality of one’s subjective purpose and worth; hence Nietzsche aligns sickness with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view that all exertions of will are ultimately, and thus essentially, futile. Nietzsche would agree that individual actions, and even individual existences, are ultimately futile—if by ultimate futility we mean lack of eternal purpose and value. For Nietzsche, like Schopenhauer, all concrete manifestations of the individual will, along with the purpose and values they represent, will be swallowed up by the waves of social history. But for Nietzsche, to say that such strivings of the individual are essentially is to accept social history as the “absolutely real” where in fact it is an abstract concept.
Individuals are “ultimately” re-presented by the period and society in which they live(ed), an abstraction that cannot retain their subjective presence. This fate is unavoidable. For as long as society exists, there will be history; and as long as there is history, individuals and concrete actions will be washed out or bleed together in the spin cycle of historicism. But representation itself occurs both within and outside the social-historical: I represent myself to others subjectively through my writing, my contemporaries represent me anew to others through their commentary and critique; and I represent myself to myself through projection when I decipher in their words and actions how others perceive me. As I do this, my being manifests as both presence and absence in concrete reality, both within and outside the social-historical: I am, in the words of Derrida, a sign that will never be read, and that will at some point be never again seen. Hence I write for the finite not infinite, particular not universal, imperfect other. I write in the present-imperfect.
The leveling force of the virtual (Kierkegaard)
The social object of 20th century America was undoubtedly technology. The social object of the 21st century remains technology, but our focus is transfixed by one particular aspect of technology: the virtual. Virtuality proper is a property of things not actualized; traditionally conceived, where reality is that which is, virtuality is that which seems to be. Under Deleuze’s conception, 21st Century America’s social object would be “novelty”—the not-yet/could-be of the real-becoming. (Deleuze, 1966) But the social object can never become properly “real” because society is itself an abstraction. And part of what constitutes the social object of the virtual is, as insinuated at the beginning of this essay, the series of non-events (prophecies) into which we as a generation were thrown, and for which we stand. What renders us distinguishable is the abstract nature of subjectivity therein: the way in which individuals today choose to represent themselves againt the abstract backdrop of social history.
Kierkegaard distinguishes between two historically fundamental trends in self-representation of individuals in his work The Present Age. The climate of an era is determined, for Kierkegaard, by the attitude and behavior that predominates among individuals. That climate will be one of passion, seriousness, or something in between:
A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down…Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose…. Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation. (Kierkegaard, 1962)
To the passionate age Kierkegaard attributes originality, individuality, as one wherein individuals supersede the collective both in their subjective relation to it and in terms of the events that define the age. In an age of reflection, passion and originality sink with the individual into the mire of the “social-real”—which is to say, into the norms, conventions, and ideology that comprise the “social object.” Where the social object supersedes the individual, the “cultural climate” is lacking in the passion that manifests through original acts of will. The supersession of the public over the individual, a process which Kierkegaard terms “leveling,” occurs simultaneously with an atmospheric shift from concrete sensuality to conceptuality: “The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or to his science, he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected by reflection…the work of reflection in the hands of an abstract power.” (Kierkegaard, 1962)
Our age, I’ll suggest, is marked simultaneously by the leveling of individuals under the abstractions of society and the virtual, and by a reflective climate that manifests not in introspection but in a passive speculation that reaches maximal absurdity in the End Of The World Mentality (EOW) discussed above. On Kierkegaard’s account, the EOW phenomenon would be the upshot of a contemplative culture that has bored itself into a lethargic state of trance, and must compulsively purge its pent up tensions through periodic cathartic explosion—the aftermath of which gets leveled almost instantaneously: as in the case of Y2K. Our age is one that rides the anticipatory waves of speculation, and does so half-heartedly—not so much believing in as hoping for a legitimate miracle or disaster to either kill us or startle us from sleep.
Disimpassioned man’s metaphysical need (Schopenhauer)
Passion—whether moral, artistic, romantic or spiritual—is specifically a manifestation metaphysical need in psche, prior to that sense’s conceptualization. As the immediate experience or preconceptual awareness of one’s mortality, hence of profound pleasure and suffering, passion is lost on the intellect and even impeded by it: the intellect impedes one’s primordial metaphysical awareness. This awareness is always present, but when estranged by the dissociative psyche (ego), it too dissociates and conforms to the social-historical communicative mode: disimpassioned speculation, indifference, abstract reasoning. The body politic, the collective consciousness, begins consuming its selves for nourishment—starting with its excess and moving onto the most vital of organs. First we devour materiality, information, ceremony, art—until we’ve exhausted these resources (or exhausted our attention spans and memory stores) and then move on to the Other, our most sacred because most essentially irreducible counterpart: for sexual pleasure or emotional/intellectual stimulation, until these transactions too become passionless, the other becomes object, and psyche disassociates to an even more violent extreme.
Egoism thus replaces “reflection” in Kierkegaard’s sense, and the repressed subjectivity seeks expression in the most intellectually unpalatable modes to date: a serious to the point of comedic nihilism, the disimpassioned death wish, an ambiguous fascination that conflates the disfigurement of a celebrity’s image with the apocalypse, the cyber date or break up, the end of the world mentality. Thus absurdity pervades today as the upshot of our having exhausted, of our believing ourselves to have exhausted, the forms and frameworks for metaphysical expression and inquiry, e.g., philosophy, spirituality, art.
Schopenhauer notes how the metaphysical/philosophical/spiritual intensity of an age is reflected in the concrete gusto of its history-making: “That whole period of a thousand years is indeed one of constant massacre and murder, now on the battlefield, now on the scaffold, now in the streets—all over metaphysical questions!” (Schopenhauer, 1886) The other various modes and degrees of metaphysical expression, to which we could add Kierkegaard’s dispassionate reflection, he enumerates in his essay On Man’s Need for Metaphysics:
Temples and churches, pagodas and mosques, in all countries and ages, in their splendor and spaciousness, testify to man’s need for metaphysics, a need strong and ineradicable, which follows close on the physical. The man of a satirical frame of mind could of course add that this need for metaphysics a modest fellow could content with meager fare. Sometimes it lets itself be satisfied with clumsy fables and absurd fairy-tales….Yet it will appear that, in the early ages of the present surface of the earth, things were different, and those who stood considerably nearer to the beginning of the human race and to the original source of organic nature than do we, also possessed both greater energy of the intuitive faculty of knowledge, and a more direct comprehension of the inner essence of nature, and were thus in a position to satisfy the need for metaphysics in a more estimable manner…. (Schopenhauer, 1886)
Today, satiated neither by philosophical drudge work nor pop culture, neither religious dogmatism nor the postmodern bubble-gum poem, we’ve resorted to what Schopenhauer would call the lowest of the low as far as metaphysical expression is concerned. An age remains caught in its disimpassioned reflectivity to the extent that its individuals remain psychically dissociative and disembodied; and our psyches dissociate to the extent that we cauterize the sensuous subjectivity that is passion’s vessel. The prime example of this cauterization occurs in intellectual discourse, i.e., the ivory tower, an arena whose “saving power” so far remains a “virtual capacity” as conceived by Delueze: a latent potentiality, that which is not, but could be. That saving power is precisely radical subjectivity. In the words of Schopenhauer: “…the investigator must turn his glance inwards….Man carries the ultimate fundamental secrets within himself, and this fact is accessible to him in the most immediate way.” (Schopenhauer, 1886)
Long lost levels of awareness (Aaron Asphar)
Aaron Asphar, a contemporary philosopher and cultural critic from the UK, makes a convincing argument for the incommensurable significance of subjective experience to understanding, which is to say, to the process whereby we attach meaning and value to information or experience. He begins his essay on The Poetic/philosophic in Western Language from the Standpoint of Contemporary Neuropsychology with a discussion of psychologist Vygotsky’s concept of “concrete thinking” and moves on to a philosophical adaptation of Vygotsky in his own account of emotional-sensuous thought:
We start with a sensuous complex and shed the moments, and the meaning of the language is not to be found in the delimitations of the moment but the sensuous-emotional unity that they evoke….for example the Marxian notion of capital would not be an isolated abstract capital but that sense of a fluid, self-augmenting ‘blob’ – something sensuously imagined, and this is fundamentally other to the concept. It is conceptuality embodied by the body – emotionalised, invested, cathected. I identify the notion of capital as money that is used to invest: I understand it as a dynamic, fluid and radical concept and the latter is the poetically or philosophically enriched concept. This side of language slips profoundly through our conceptual nets but it is the only kind of language that we work with: even the most reified conceptuality has emotionality: every number has an emotional as well as social history for a psyche.
Asphar draws implications from Vygotsky’s theory of concrete thinking for philosophy, emphasizing the tradition’s rigid fixation on the conceptual to the detriment of the emotion and sensuous—two registers that, beyond governing and enabling the production of artworks, are responsible for so much more than we give them credit for: without sensual/emotional input, there would not only be no art, there would be no reciprocity between philosophy and lived experience, idea and world. Asphar is advancing a model for reform in the philosophical tradition, which challenges the latter’s privileging of the conceptual register, and its disregard for the emotional and sensuous:
There is no choice; the bridge between levels of awareness can only be worked through these levels of awareness, not all of which are conceptual. Philosophy must always let go of the conceptual railings at times, and it is interesting to see what consequences follow this kind of conceptual bravery…. If we are discussing the sudden shifts and inexplicable turns in aesthetics, style and sensibilities, we can gain no more intimate an account then from our own emotional reality. We might sense that our style is dissociative; driven in the day by social anxiety, at home by a desire for comfort, on nights out by sexual need. We might connect these aspects up with our social empathetic insights and see patterns and dynamics. Are these ‘grasped’? I would say so, and they are grasped as a total phenomenon – a fluid dynamic, not conceptualized, identitary fragments. (Asphar, 2010)
Schopenhauer intuited the limits of “the concept” for philosophy as well as for experience: “I have already declared myself opposed to the assumption, repeated even by Kant, that it must lie in mere concepts. In no knowledge can concepts be the first thing, for they are always draw from some perception.” (Schopenhauer, 1886) Likewise, Asphar: “Although we might talk of another form of relativism, the apparent ‘timelessness’ of the philosophical insight or poetic metaphor indicates to me a relative stability of the existential as against the conceptual insight, and the health of our interpretation to my mind is the extent to which it makes existential sense to the reader, not loyalty to the concept.” (Asphar, 2010) The existential as paradoxically “stable” in all reality, or when held against the conceptual/representational slippage of social history: subjectivity/relativity endures.
Ours is an age without passion, and an age whose “reflection” is deprived of inward content, if not utterly content–less. Our social object is a false idol: false not because morally reproachable, but because not-real. What pulls us from our anticipatory rut, the blank stare of an unpunctuated death sentence, is the passion of “metaphysical need” – the locus of the artist’s euphoria, the philosopher’s leap, the moment of poetic sublimation. On the other hand, for the disembodied or dissociative psyche, metaphysical need can manifest in all varieties of social heteronomy and self-destruction: religious fanaticism, dogmatism, addiction, codependency, and on and on. But perhaps what causes psyche to dissociate is the same philosophical reserve that steered Schopenhauer away from intuition, superstitious of the “clairvoyance or ecstasy” of the radically subjective understanding. Perhaps it is just this quarantining of “art” from “knowledge” and “concepts” from “experience”—that is depriving our age of its capacity to reflect and act.
Asphar, A. The Poetic/philosophic in Western Language from the Standpoint of Neuropsychology. www.aaronasphar.wordpress.com. December, 2010.
Deleuze, G. (1988). Le Bergsonisme tr. as Bergsonism. Tomlinson, H & Habberjam, B, Ed. New York: Zone Books.
Kierkegaard, S. (1962). The Present Age. Ed. Dru, Alexander. USA: Harper and Row.
Moscovici, S. (1961). La psychanalyse, son image et son public. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Moscovici, S. (1973). Foreword. In C. Herzlich, Health and illness: a social psychological analysis. London: Academic Press
Nietzsche, F. (2006). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “On Reflection.” Del Caro, A & Pippin, R, Tr. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Schopenhauer, A (1886). The World as Will and Idea, Volume II. Haldane, R.B & Kemp, J, Tr. London: Trubner and Co.